Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Check it out

Hello, world!

I've started a new project. This blog has been a wonderful way to share personal stories and experiences with friends, family or travelers that might find themselves in similar situations that I have been in. However, I wanted to start a new blog that is more advice oriented and not so focused on myself. I will feature guest writers and suggestions about destinations around the world. Want to find out more? Click to see what Rise and Roam is all about!

Thanks for following along,


Monday, November 21, 2011

But before I go...

I know I said I was signing off this blog for the time being, which I still am, but I realized I didn't provide any tips or advice for future travelers and backpackers. What was I thinking?

Here's some overall advice from my experience backpacking.

1) Bring as little as possible
  • My entire wardrobe changed during the course of this trip. I bought the majority of my clothes that I wore as I traveled to new destinations. You see the trends, pick up on fashions and (best of all) it's really affordable. I returned to America with maybe two shirts that I started the trip with. If you're not entirely sure you'll need it, don't pack it!
2) Back up your photos whenever you can
  • As I mentioned earlier, my bag was snatched while traveling in Cambodia. Luckily, only my cameras and photos were lost. While I wasn't completely inconvenienced, I did lose very precious memories that I'll never be able to get back. There are hundreds of cafes and shops in SE Asia that will back up your photos online or on a disc. Take advantage!
3) Be aware of your belongings at all times
  • In reference to my last point, you must always be aware of your belongings. It was around 4 pm, I was completely sober and in a crowded area when I was robbed. Just because I didn't have the strap around my neck, my bag was gone. Don't ever set your bag down, leave it unattended or assume it will be okay where you leave it. Leave your passport and credit cards in a safe box and only bring out enough money as you need!
4) Set a budget and stick to it
  • You can get by with a little when backpacking SE Asia. Set a budget and don't go over it. Only bring out the equivalent of $20 a day, you can't spend money if you don't have it!
5) Always have water with you
  • Pretty basic advice, but important when traveling in such destinations.
There are also some items that I'm thrilled I brought along. They made the trip more comfortable, enjoyable and convenient.

1) Pillow and blanket
  • I found an inflatable pillow/fold up blanket combination that was my saving grace throughout the trip. It helped tremendously during our long plane, bus, and train rides. Even when blankets and pillows were offered, sometimes it's nice to use your own. Check it out!
2) Umbrella
  • I was the only one who carried an umbrella with me and I was the only one who didn't complain during the sudden, outrageous downpours that SE Asia is famous for. I carried it with me everywhere. But if you're down with a poncho, you can buy them anywhere for cheap.
3) Cardigan and scarf
  • When going into temples, it's important to make sure you're covered. I always had a scarf in my purse, even if we didn't plan on going to a temple that day. I could put it around my head if I was hot, cover my face if it was windy, or just wear it to look cute. A cardigan was nice to have when visiting temples, as well as during overnight rides when it tended to get chilly.
And of course, I have advice about specific destinations, in case you find yourself in one of these places during the near future.


You have several different options when visiting Thailand. Want to go trekking, hang out with local villagers and ride elephants? Head up to Chiang Mai. Want to explore an awesome, international city with tons to offer? Stay in Bangkok. Lounge on a beach? Definitely go south.
  • If you go from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, I suggest taking a bus. We found the overnight buses were generally more comfortable, convenient and affordable. We took this journey early in our trip and decided to book an overnight train. This was a terrible decision. The train broke down and was delayed several hours, we had no air conditioner and our bed was littered with bugs. If you do take the train, please pay the few extra dollars and upgrade to VIP. It's well worth it!
  • Bangkok is one of my favorite cities in the entire world. If you're looking for an awesome, vibrant environment, stay on the famous Khaosan Road. You'll meet tons of other travelers and backpackers that will offer valuable travel advice and provide priceless memories that will leave you smiling.
  • I've heard wonderful things about all the islands in southern Thailand. Phuket is probably the most famous of the islands, but still enjoyable, though perhaps a bit more commercialized. Koh Samui is good for diving and snorkeling, while Koh Phangan provides great parties almost every night of the year, the most famous being the full moon party. Do some research, decide what you want to do, then pick an island and do it!
  • As with every country we visited, travel is incredibly convenient and cheap. There are tons of travel agents on every corner that will sell you tickets to any destination and your hostel will more than likely offer the same deal. But beware of tours and packages. We got wrapped up in a few and ended up losing a good deal of money. Sometimes it's just easier to do the work yourself.

Though we didn't spend much time in Laos, it still proved to be a remarkable country with amazingly kind people. It offers a huge variety of things to do, whether you're looking to get a little crazy or just soak up the culture.
  • Getting to Laos can be a bit exhausting. Your best bet is to take the slow boat that leaves from Thailand every day. I don't know the schedule, but you can find it with a simple google search. We took the boat from Chiang Rai (near Chiang Mai) and it took a total of two days, with a stop in the dainty little town of Pek Bang, where you're better off to just get dinner and go to bed. You can also take a speed boat, but don't risk it in order to save a few hours.
  • Luang Prabang was my favorite city that we visited in Laos. The entire city (I believe) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It's clean, well-developed and pretty safe. There are people waiting for you as soon as you get off the boat, offering hotels and good deals at restaurants and bars. We walked for a while then finally gave in and let someone pestering us take us to a hostel, though it ended up working just fine. While here, you can rent a bike to explore the city, visit the numerous temples and markets, or (my favorite) do an Alm's Giving. Wake up early, buy some rice or candy and offer it to Buddhist monks. When else can you have this experience?
  • After we left Luang Prabang, we headed to the infamous Veng Vienne. I was underwhelmed, to say the least. If you want to party and get a little wild, this is the destination for you. VV is famous for tubing where you can float all day, drink, make various stops along the river to drink more, play games, and drink some more. We chose to opt out due to rumors of strong currents and recent injuries, but you'll be fine as long as you stay smart and in control.
  • We were only in Vientienne, the capitol of Laos, for a flight. It was nice, but I don't have much advice to offer!

I'll admit, I'm a little disappointed in how our Vietnam experience turned out. I talked to so many people who had such wonderful things to say about the country, but we just didn't come away feeling like that. We attributed this to the weather, which was terrible and unfortunate. We heard the rain was being wacky this year and we just couldn't seem to outrun it, no matter where we went.
  • When you arrive in Vietnam, I suggest getting a hop-on, hop-off bus pass that will take you up and down the country for a small fee. Pay the price and you get a set number of rides to various destinations; it is well worth it.
  • We spent our first few days in Ha Noi and I really enjoyed this city at first. However, I think we overstayed our welcome, and by the time we finally left, we didn't dare look back. Ha Noi is chaotic so you have to always be aware of your surroundings. Seriously, you'll get hit by a motorbike if you look the wrong way!
  • Halong Bay is a must see for anyone visiting Vietnam. Our experience there was absolutely incredible and we got to witness some of nature's most extravagant artwork. You can find a junket that best suits you and your budget at any travel agency. Go for one night or two, but whatever you do, go!
  • We stopped in Hue next and truth be told, there's not a lot to say about it. The weather ruined most of our plans, so we really only got to explore the citadel in the middle of the city. While still interesting to see, I'm not sure it was worth the stop.
  • Our next destination was Hoi An and I think this is where the rain proved to be most troublesome. We got clothes made, as most people do, but be careful when choosing what you have made. Most shops specialize in tailored clothing, so consider getting a nice suit, jacket or winter jacket made. This city also has an incredible waterfront, and due to the rain, we were only able to explore it on our last day. Rent a bike or walk there and hang out, it's really quite beautiful to see.
  • The next stop was Nah Trang where we finally got some sunny skies! You'll find a nice beach here and tons of places to hang out with fellow travelers. We even got some decent Mexican food. We rented bikes and rode them to a temple, which proved to be a great way to discover any city.
  • Our last destination was Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon. One word: ridiculous.

I divide the time I spent in Cambodia into two categories: before I was robbed and after I was robbed.
  • Before I was robbed: We made our first stop in Siem Reap. This is a little backwards, as Phnom Penh is much closer to Thailand if you enter by land, however we had friends we had to meet and a few more hours on a bus was nothing by this point. Siem Reap is home to Angkor Wat, and really I don't need to say much to convince you to go here. Be warned, the tickets are a little pricey at $40 for a 3 day pass, but so worth it. Make friends with a tuk-tuk driver that can pick you up from your hostel and take you to the temples every day. Take time exploring the temples and try not to get too overwhelmed, it's absolutely intoxicating. After a mind-blowing day, you can hang out on Pub Street. Trust me, once you walk down, you'll see how much fun you'll have.
  • After I was robbed: We made our way back to Phnom Penh in order to learn more about the genocide that took place recently. It's so important to educate ourselves about the horrors that took place, as horrific as they may be. You can easily visit the killing fields and museum with the help of a tuk-tuk driver, but make sure you reserve enough time to walk around. If you're feeling a little overwhelmed or lost, we found it helped to hire a tour guide at the museum. She spoke wonderful English, explained everything in detail, and even shared her heroic story about her experience during the genocide. However, once I was robbed and my camera rode off on that motorbike, I was ready to get out.

I don't know if I'll provide much insight about this destination, but I did spend a generous amount of time there, so I'll share what I know.
  • I stayed in Kuala Lumpar, though I could have easily visited nearby islands or Singapore. Time and a lack of money prevented me from doing so, but if you find yourself in KL, this is always an option. There's a good amount to do in this city and the skyline is breathtaking. You'll find a never ending amount of delicious Indian food and the markets are top-notch. I enjoyed my time here, but should have done more research to truly make the most of it.
But the best advice I can offer, no matter the destination, is to enjoy your time away, remember you might not ever be there again, and do it for no one but yourself.

Friday, November 18, 2011

I need a nap

What an incredible fifteen months it's been. A friend of mine pointed out that I flew, literally, around the world and asked why I insisted on going the "long way home." Meh, why not?

Now I'm home and putting into perspective where I went and what I saw. It's a little difficult to imagine it all now and sometimes I wonder if it really happened. Being back home, Asia seems a world away, and in many ways, so unattainable. I hope I'll return someday.

For the mean time, my travels are on hold. Certainly not done forever, just for the mean time. I've been away from my friends and family for an awfully long time and I'm just going to soak up all the love I can.

I'm not going to keep this blog updated unless I'm traveling. I'm sure no one cares about my daily escapades in small town Illinois. I'll be looking for jobs, looking for apartments, and hopefully on my own two feet again before long.

Thank you for following along on my adventures thus far, it means the world to me. If, and when, I set out again, I will let everyone know.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Rome & Florence

I didn't think it would be possible to adore the Italian culture and people more than I already do, but I guess I was mistaken.

It was so amazing to arrive in Rome and meet my mom. I had so many familiar feelings being in Italy again and being able to see her for the first time in over a year. It was wonderful.

We spent our first two nights in Rome doing as most tourists do there. We saw the Colosseum, Trevi Fountain, Spanish steps, St. Peter's and the Vatican. It was so breathtaking to see everything again and even more amazing being able to share the experience with my mom. I think she enjoyed it immensely, as well.

We took the train to Florence and spent three nights there, doing again what most people do while visiting. We saw the Duomo, the David, the Ponte Veccio, piazzas and markets. It was so fun being able to show my mom where I went to school and where I lived, though I was still unable to find any friends that we met two summers ago. Not even at the Dublin Pub...

Since we celebrated my mother's birthday while in Florence, we had to make it special. We visited the beautiful Boboli gardens that stretch for what seems forever. The day was so clear and the temperature was perfect. Italy in the fall is more than I could ask for. We also attended a wine tasting that night, held by a native Florentine in his beautiful home on the Arno river. He taught us about five different Chiantis and we sampled each with different assortments of bread and cheese while talking about our guide, Vittorio's, Italian way of life. After dinner, we made our way to Acgua al 2 for the somewhat infamous blueberry steak and it was, in so many words, one of the best meals I've ever eaten.

We have arrived at our last day in this incredible country. We are taking the train back to Rome today and will spend the day wandering the city, trying to make the most of what time we have left.

This vacation has been absolutely wonderful! In between seeing all the attractions, we've been eating pastas, pizzas and gelato or drinking cappuccinos as well as shopping in high end boutiques or bargaining at markets. I couldn't have asked for a better experience and I think my mom would agree.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

See you later, Asia

I cannot believe the time to leave Asia has already arrived. This continent has been my home for the last 14 months, and leaving is an unfamiliar feeling. I have no idea what awaits me on the other side of the ocean (well, I kind of do) but I'm very excited for whatever's next.

But it's not quite time to go home, yet; I board my flight to Rome in less than an hour!

Kuala Lumpur was lovely. I met some new people, explored a new city and learned a lot of new things. However, I did catch a ridiculous case of food poisoning that I'm still recovering from. As long as it doesn't interfere with my pizza consumption, it'll be okay.

I didn't do much research on the city, so I didn't have much planned, especially since I wasn't supposed to spend more than eight hours there for a layover. I did get to go to Batu Caves, explore the Golden Triangle and the famous Petronas Towers and wander the many, many markets the city has to offer. I enjoyed my time there, but I wouldn't say it's one of my favorite cities I've ever visited.

And here I find myself in the airport, waiting to board the plane and make my way to another country that I've missed dearly. I have a 14 hour flight to Rome, but after the train and bus rides we've endured on this trip, I think this will be a piece of cake. I get in before my mother and will wait for her arrival, then we're going to explore Italy together! I am so, so excited to see her again and to show her the place that truly ignited my passion for travel.

After a few days in Rome, we'll take the train to Florence for a few days where we'll get to celebrate her birthday! I think I know exactly where I want to take her for dinner...

The months have become weeks and now days before I'm home. I can't believe I'm already making plans for America. I'm so grateful for all I've experienced, but ready to be home to see family and friends that I have missed dearly!

Saturday, October 29, 2011

My formal apology

Travel is so paradoxical at times. I've been out of America for well over a year now. Although it's gone by in the blink of an eye, I feel as if I've been gone for a lifetime. I'm two weeks away from my own bed and time seems to be moving at a glacial speed.

Then I start to think of everything I've missed while I've been away... Concerts, baseball games, celebrations, mournings, engagements, weddings, births, deaths, funerals, reunions, holidays. And truth be told, I feel incredibly selfish for leaving everyone at home.

After I said goodbye to Liana today, I was so sad. Then I went online and saw the Cardinals won the World Series and I felt alone for the first time in a long time. As pathetic as it sounds, I sat and cried in the middle of the airport as a rush of emotions went through me.

But then I started to think of what I experienced over the past 14 months. The people I met, the things I saw and the memories I made. I wouldn't trade it for anything.

I'm so incredibly grateful for everything I've seen, but I also realize I have so much to look forward to when I get home; it's a bit overwhelming. I'm so fortunate for all the experiences I've had abroad, but perhaps I've even more fortunate to return home to such amazing people.

So this is my formal apology. As goofy as it sounds, and though it's doesn't make any difference, an apology to the Cardinals for missing such a remarkable season. My heart absolutely burst when I read that they won the series, but I felt such a disconnect from the team (and home) because that's all I could do... read the results. To my friends and family, anyone and everyone that I've been away from and missed the chance to say these things to in person.

I've been on an incredible path of self-discovery and finally the date to come home is within reach. Although I still have some discovering to do, both within myself and around the world, I don't think I'll be gone for such an extended period of time ever again. I can't make up for my absence, but I can promise that I will do my best to never miss these opportunities again.

Go Cardinals!

Friday, October 28, 2011

Just one more stop

What an exciting few weeks it's been! Liana and I had such an awesome time on Koh Phangan. I highly recommend the island to anyone visiting the south. We didn't do much other than eat, relax, read and lay by the beach- but I think that's exactly how it was supposed to be. We ditched our bikes a few days early after we realized a good portion of the island is quite hilly, but we had a lot of fun when we didn't have to push them up steep mini mountains.

We had some change in plans, so instead of visiting Koh Samui we came back to Bangkok. I didn't mind though, I think I belong in big cities.

In an effort to avoid the flooding around Bangkok and possible flight cancellations, we rearranged schedules. Liana, sadly, will be flying back to New York tomorrow and I'll miss my travel companion dearly (though I already promised a visit sometime around Christmas). Although we haven't seen dramatic floods here in Bangkok and this area hasn't been affected like other parts of the country, we heard the worst is yet to come and the city may be hit hard. Instead of staying in Thailand until I leave for Rome, I decided to fly to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia! This way, I avoid a long layover, fees for extending my visa here in Thailand and possibly being stranded.

This will be my first solo adventure! I've always had a friend, and often times multiple friends, when I explore new cities. But I admit, I'm a little excited to experience it for the first time.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Southern Thailand

Out of all the places I've traveled, Thailand is one of my favorites, right up there with Hong Kong and Italy. There's just something so irresistible about Bangkok. The atmospheres of Khaosan and Rambutri roads are intoxicating. Southern Thailand has some of the most beautiful scenery I've ever laid eyes upon; literally a postcard at every turn. Northern Thailand provided me with a once in a lifetime opportunity to explore the jungle, dine with natives and trek with elephants. I love it here, plain and simple.

Liana and I arrived in Kho Phangan yesterday to what we thought would be yet another rainy day. But the rain dried up and we've had two days of remarkably sunny skies.

The two of us also went a bit rogue on this leg of the trip. We both purchased backpacks about a third the size of the ones we've been carrying. We took half our belongings with us and kept the rest in a locker in Bangkok. Then as soon as we arrived on the island we rented bicycles that we'll use as our main form of transportation for the next 10 days (this has proved to be just a bit troublesome since you drive on the left side here, but we manage). I absolutely love it, biking to and from our resort, marts, restaurants. I could live this lifestyle forever, I think (but don't worry mom I won't).

We will also be attending the half moon festival tonight. This island has a fairly famous full moon party once a month, but since I'll be in Italy this time around, we figure the half moon party should suffice.

After we spend 10 days biking around this gorgeous island, we're taking a ferry to Koh Samui to meet with Melissa again and celebrate Halloween. Any suggestions for costumes are welcome!

Monday, October 17, 2011

Muggings, oh my!

Hello, all! As the title of this post indicates, Liana and I ran into a bit of trouble in Cambodia. (Which, by the way, several travelers we encountered on this trip seemed to have. If traveling there in the future, just be aware of your belongings at all times!)

On our second day in Phnom Penh, Liana and I volunteered at an orphanage. We brought them rice and spent an afternoon getting to know the children, playing games with them and drawing "tattoos" on each other. They were all wonderful.

After leaving, we thought it would be nice to explore to city so we stopped at the Royal Palace. Upon arriving, our exit was blocked by several people trying to sell us water, books, and other trinkets (something else that is common throughout all of Southeast Asia). Instead of getting out of the tuk tuk to pay the driver, we paid while sitting down. After taking out my wallet to pay, I zipped up my bag and set it on my lap. Within what felt like a nanosecond, my bag was gone. A scooter had driven up alongside our tuk tuk and literally grabbed it from my lap. I immediately got out and let the dozens of people standing outside, including several policeman, know what had happened, but they just gave lackadaisical stares as if I was asking them to send me to the moon, not chase after the thieves. Needless to say, my bag was gone forever.

Fortunately (very fortunately,) my wallet was in my hand and not in my bag. I still have my credit cards, passport and iPod. All that was lost was my camera and photos. It could have been worse, certainly could have been better. But my lesson is learned.

So now we are in Bangkok again! And what a welcome feeling it is to be here again. I am absolutely in love with this city. If you ever consider a trip to Asia, come to Thailand.

Liana and I are headed south tomorrow. Instead of trying to see several islands in the remaining two weeks, we decided to visit and explore one or two. Tomorrow we will be on our way to Koh Phangan, and to say I'm excited is an understatement.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Phnom Penh

After visiting the "killing fields" today, I'm not sure I'll ever have reason to complain again. Though I inevitably will, I think remembering this experience will put things into a very real perspective.

Liana and I started the day with a tuk tuk ride to the so-called killing fields. I chatted with our driver, Chuk, and he told me about his life. That his grandfather and father were safe from the genocide because they were farmers deep in the countryside, but I think they were few of the very fortunate.

I'm not a history buff, so I apologize if I get any information wrong. It might even be useful to google the Cambodian genocide if you're looking for specifics. I can just give a cliff notes run down of what I learned about today.

The entire genocide was due in large part to one man, Pol Pot. I had heard the name before, but after today he will always be synonymous with evil.

Pol Pot was an educated man who studied in France and became a teacher in Cambodia. When he came into power, his reign of terror began. As I understood it, he believed those who worked in the fields, or the "old people" as they were referred, should thrive and lead. While city dwellers and educated people, also known as the "new people," were selfish and corrupt. After some time, the new people were driven out of the cities and killed.

From 1975 to 1979 (just about 3 years and 8 months), 3 million Cambodians were killed. 3 million out of a population of 8 million. That is the equivalent of 1 out of every 4 people being murdered. Think about the size of your family and put that into perspective.

Pol Pot became so paranoid and scared during the genocide that he began to kill everyone, including those who lived in the country. He kept murdering the educated and found reason to kill those who even "looked" smart, including people who wore glasses, spoke a second language or had soft hands.

It was so surreal to walk around the killing fields, surrounded by mass graves. Every once in a while you would look down and see a tooth or fragment of bone or even clothes that had come up from the rain. It was truly heartbreaking and horrifying.

While walking around the fields, you listened to an audio player that told back stories of prisoners and guards, as well as the tragic history of the field itself. For instance, there were a few mass graves marked where 450 victims had been found, another where 166 headless victims were found, one just for women and children.

The most disturbing part (though it was all horrific) in my opinion was the "killing tree." Here, soldiers would grab children and babies from off the ground and literally beat them against the tree and toss them into the grave alongside it. Sometimes the mother would witness the entire event, then she was murdered and put into the grave alongside her child.

This grave site was only one of thousands in Cambodia. I believe there were hundreds of execution camps, such as the one I visited, and thousands of mass graves. Some have been lost, some are too far in the jungle to find, some are surrounded by land mines. It's absolutely remarkable to see the collection of bones and cloth that were found from just one grave site. Think of all that has been left undiscovered. All those nameless victims that will never be unearthed.

After the killing fields, we visited a high school turned prison that now acts as a museum. We hired a tour guide to accompany us, a friendly woman who had been affected by the genocide. She walked us through the classrooms turned prison cells and told us her story. She had lost her husband but was reunited with her sister after many years. I admired her resiliency and amazingly unaffected view on life.

While in the museum, we saw torture rooms and prison cells virtually unchanged from when they were in use. Of the 30,000 or so people who went through, only 7 survived, one of which died only two weeks ago.

If you're wondering what happened to Pol Pot, he fled and lived out his life (I believe) in Thailand. He died in 1997 while under house arrest at the the age of 82, having seen his children and grandchildren grow up. Many other high ranking officials are still alive and awaiting trial.

To say this was a life changing experience is an understatement. I don't think I'll go on to change other people's lives, but my perspectives and priorities have certainly been set straight; I'm astonished how simple and easy my life has been. I feel so humbled and eternally grateful.

It was a bit strange to walk through the killing fields and realize how incredibly calm and peaceful it is. There is a lake that's actually quite beautiful near the graves. The birds were singing and there were so many butterflies in the high grass emerging from the place were so many were buried alive. I guess it's a small analogy of the rebuilding process Cambodia and its people are forced to go through. I admire them so much. To think, everyone has a mother, father, brother, sister, friend, friend of a friend, that has been affected by the genocide. Learning about something so tragic made life seem so fragile. I cherish it a bit more after today.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011


I have arrived and quickly fallen in love with Cambodia, which seems to happen in every country.

We took an outrageously long bus ride from Ho Chi Minh City (also known as Saigon) to Siem Reap where we have been staying for the last few nights. There's so much to say about Cambodia, I don't really know where to begin.

Well, the main currency used here is US dollars which has been nice. It's hard to always convert the money in your head and it's easy to get ripped off when you can't do the conversion. It's been a welcome and familiar feeling to have those one dollar bills in my hand again. Although when you get change back it comes in Cambodian Riel which can get a bit confusing.

We came to Siem Reap first to meet up with Melissa again who had left Vietnam a little early. We've spent the last few days exploring Angkor Wat and... wow. I really can't describe the feeling of seeing it for the first time or the intricacy of every inch of carved stone or the sheer mass of it all. But I can say it's one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen and I'm eternally grateful for that experience. We explored the main temple and a few others, including one with hundreds of faces carved into the stones and the fairly famous "tree" temple, where I think (maybe) Tomb Raider was filmed.

Cambodia is full of breathtaking sights but it also has a pretty dark (and recent) past. I don't know much about the history yet, but there was a genocide that took place within the last 40 or so years. Liana and I are going back to Phnom Penh to learn about the country's troubled past. While there, we plan to visit the "killing fields" where thousands of executions took place as well as a high school turned prison (turned museum?) so we can fully educate ourselves on the topic. I'm ignorant of it all at this point, but I'm sure I will leave this country with a new appreciation for its people and all they had to endure. Liana and I also hope to volunteer at an orphanage before we leave, another humbling experience I'm sure.

Other than the paradox between beautiful world heritage sites and terrible execution camps, Cambodia is amazing. The people are incredibly kind and accommodating. It's a little strange and a bit inspiring to realize most (if not every) Cambodian you see has been affected by the genocide. Someone pointed out the fact that there are few older people here, simply for the fact that they were all killed. I think almost 50% of the population is under the age of 30. It really is remarkable.

I'm excited to spend a few more days in Cambodia before flying back into Bangkok and making our way down south for two weeks of beaches and... beaches.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Vietnam so far, Part II

Hello again from (the now sunny) Vietnam!

Out of the 15 or so days we have spent in this country, perhaps 12 or so were filled with nonstop rain. It seems that we have outrun the rain for now and we even spent the day at the beach yesterday, a welcome change from carrying our umbrellas.

Hoi An was such a great city, I'm a little disappointed the aforementioned weather put a damper on it. It rained for our first few days in the city, so we did what most people do and got clothes made. Any advice for travelers doing this in the future: take advantage of the opportunity, but consider carefully what you get made. Liana and I both thought we could get casual clothes made, but I think the specialty is tailored clothing. My stuff turned out nice, but it was more expensive than what I would usually spend on clothes and truthfully, I could have gotten it at any store for less. I think it would have been better to get a nice suit jacket or winter coat. Lesson learned!

Other than tailors, Hoi An is a delightful city. I loved riding a bike around the waterfront and exploring it all once the rain stopped. We even managed a bit of beach time there, too.

So we are in Nah Trang now and it's delightful, as well. The beach is nice and the city has a good amount to offer. Though we heard horror stories of muggings and such, so we've been extra careful.

I believe we're taking yet another overnight bus to Ho Chi Minh City (which I'm told is te craziest of all) tonight. Melissa was there before us and mentioned eating at a Subway, something Liana and I have promised to do. We will spend a few days there and we're off to Cambodia! And what we hope will be sun filled days.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Vietnam so far

We've been in Vietnam for over a week now and I can't believe how fast time has gone. I enjoyed Ha Noi but I was definitely ready to see a new city. It was chaotic which I expected, but not an organized chaos like most cities I've been to. It was hard to even walk down the street for fear of being hit by a scooter.

Our trip to Halong Bay was definitely a success. Liana celebrated her birthday in one of the most beautiful places on earth, singing karaoke with new friends from numerous countries and continents. We got to kayak, explore caves, enjoy the beach and (my favorite) watch the incredible scenery from the front of our boat.

Unfortunately, I seemed to have caught some sort of infection during my time in Halong. Upon returning to Ha Noi, I was able to visit a reputable hospital with help from Melissa and was put on antibiotics. I'm back to feeling great again after just a few days.

We are now in the city of Hue. It's much smaller but still quite nice. The people are friendlier I think, although I still think Thai people are the nicest so far.

We spent the day riding bikes around the city and exploring a citadel which we've been referring to it as the fortress of solitude. I'm actually proud the three of us made it through the entire day without getting thrown off a bike or running into a taxi.

We're taking an early bus to Hoi An tomorrow where I'm told it's easy and cheap to get clothes made. I'll look forward to having a new wardrobe for the second half of this trip.

Although I love traveling, it's sad to be out of the country this postseason. So Go Cards!!! Email me with all game and player updates, please.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Ha Noi

We've been in Ha Noi for a few days now so I feel like I can finally write down observations made thus far.

I really like Vietnam, though I say that about every country I visit. I can't figure out what other city Ha Noi reminds me of. It's cleaner than Bangkok but maybe not as international, though it's still very modern and convenient. It has a bit of a European feel, yet still historic and unique. So I can't say for certain, but I can say that I have enjoyed my stay so far.

We're staying at the Ha Noi backpackers hostel and it's a great place to meet new people. It's a bit more expensive than the previous cities we've been in but still much cheaper compared to home. We've spent the last few days walking around and exploring the city. We booked a boat tour of Halong Bay that leaves tomorrow which we're all really excited about. It's supposed to be absolutely breathtaking and I believe it was named a new seventh wonder of the natural world, though I may be making it up. We'll also celebrate Liana's birthday on the boat, something we're also looking forward to.

After our tour we're returning to Ha Noi for a few days, then Kavita will leave us to return to Korea and Melissa, Liana and I will make our way down the coast. Looking forward to all that Vietnam has to offer!

Friday, September 23, 2011

Good morning, Vietnam

Well, we'll be saying that tomorrow at least.

It's our last full day in Laos and I've loved spending time in this country. We are currently in Vientienne, the capital, though we only have a short time before we fly to Ha Noi tomorrow.

We had a great time in Luang Prabang, and other than Bangkok it's been my favorite city so far. The entire city is a UNESCO World Heritage site- it really was beautiful. On our last day, we woke up around 4:45 for an Alm's Giving, which is a food offering to several Buddhist monks. Truthfully, I don't know much about it, but I'll do research when I have the time. We woke up early to go to the street they walked down and bought rice to offer them, although you could also give bananas or cookies. The entire street is lined with people offering food as well, and when the monks walk past you give each a small offering of rice. I'm not sure if the monks eat the food or they offer it to the poor, but I did notice quite a few of them giving food to two small boys asking for some sitting next to us. But like I said, I don't know much about it.

After that, we made our way to the bus station for a "VIP" bus ride to Veng Vienne. Although the bus wasn't bad, we thought it would be fun to sit in the very front. We could certainly see everything from the driver's point of view, but it was also frightening since it looked like we would dive off the cliffs at every turn. There has also been a huge amount of rain, much more than usual, which also means an increased number of mudslides. Because of this, our ride took about 3 hours longer than expected, but better safe than sorry. We were fortunate it didn't rain during our bus ride, but it was a little surreal to see all the slides and the bulldozers clearing them.

Once we arrived in Veng Vienne, we knew we were in for a completely different experience.It certainly wasn't as clean or developed, but still very accommodating to foreigners. VV is famous for its tubing- where you basically sit in a tube all day, float down a river and drink along the way. We heard some unsettling things about tubing, including people getting hurt and the river having really strong currents, so we decided not to take our chances. Instead, we visited a lagoon to swim in fresh water and a swimming pool, which was without a doubt more relaxing and infinitely safer than tubing. Although I'm sure we would have been fine to go, we really didn't want to risk it.

We woke up this morning and took a mini van to the capital. It was way more comfortable and way less scary for about the same price.

My general overall advice for Laos: Definitely visit, but know what you want to do before you come. If you'd like a laidback vacation, stay in Luang Prabang. If you want a little more excitement and partying, stay in Veng Vienne. I haven't been in Vientienne long enough to recommend anything, but I like what I've seen so far.

Overall, I enjoyed Laos. There was a moment driving on the bus from Luang Prabang when a group of small boys playing in the river were dashing in front of the bus and running away... it really made me fall in love with this country and its people. Life is just so simple here. It makes me kind of sad to see how Westernized it has become, because in some ways these cities have no culture of their own (although this was only really evident in Veng Vienne). It would be interesting to see how these cities looked and felt 20 or 30 years ago. I didn't really get a true sense of Laos, but I appreciate the time I spent here and everyone's hospitality.

I'm looking forward to spending time in Vietnam! We don't have any concrete plans, but we're going to spend about 3 weeks traveling up and down the country before going to Cambodia.

Sunday, September 18, 2011


We have arrived in Laos! I apologize for all spelling errors in advance. Writing this from an iPod is more difficult than I thought.

After a long two days on a slow boat from Thailand, we finally made it to Luang Prabang. The boat actually wasn't that bad... We had about 6 or 7 hours each day, and although it wasn't always comfortable, it was the safer option compared to the dangerous speed boats.

I have wonderful impressions of Laos and its people so far. As with Thailand, everyone is so nice. The atmosphere is very laid back, different than what I expected, but I absolutely love it.

We spent our first full day in LP walking around. We found a delicious cafe we'll return to several times during our stay. We also rented some bikes and rode them all around the city, ending at a beautiful temple overlooking it all. We had some trouble when returning our bikes since it started to downpour half way through our ride. Two things I have learned about southeast Asia so far: it doesn't rain all the time, but when it does it's sudden and it's a lot. We didn't mind though. We also ate Laos barbecue for dinner and made friends with some new people, coming from all parts of the world. We really are so lucky to speak English, as it's used so commonly in travel. You can have a conversation with someone from Japan or Belgium or Brazil because of it. It's really kind of amazing.

We're hoping to explore some waterfalls here, maybe check out the night market as well. Hopefully the weather will cooperate with us. After a few days we will go to Vang Vienne then we fly to Vietnam.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Thailand so far

It's a rainy day in Chaing Mai so what better time to update everyone at home about what's been going on here in Thailand.

I can't say enough good things about the people, the food and the overall atmosphere of this country. We spent a few days in Bangkok and had a wonderful time then took an overnight train to where we are currently staying, in Chaing Mai. It was supposed to be about a 14 hour ride, but we got delayed and ended up being on the train for 16+ hours. It sounds terrible, which it kind of was, but overall not bad.

We were taken to our hostel and met up with our group that we would be trekking with. And I'll start off by saying that I had no idea I would be so brave in the jungle.

We started the day off by hiking and hiking and hiking some more. We stopped to cool off in a waterfall then hiked some more to the village we would be staying at. No electricity, no running water, nothing. But it really was nice to disconnect from all the modern conveniences we have which, in some ways make life easier, but in some ways make them more complicated. We were with about 8 other people so we talked together, ate together and drank together. The food on this trip has been wonderful thus far, but the food we ate that night was the best by far.

We woke up the next morning from the sound of a rooster and washed in the river. Then we set out to hike some more, this time wa a bit more challenging than the last. After a while, we finally found the village where we would bamboo raft and ride elephants. I honestly never thought I would be doing either of those things, but I'm so happy to be able to say I did.

Now we're back in our hostel and wishing the rain would stop. We spent the day walking around the city and exploring a bit. We signed up for a cooking class tomorrow and we're hoping to do a few more things before we go to our next destination, Chaing Rai, and then ultimately Laos.

I thought this vacation would be comparable to last summer's tour of Europe. We had to get up and pack every few days to leave for a new city, lots of travel time between destinations, etc. But it's a far cry from (what now seems a luxurious) getaway. But I like it. It's nice to travel and live like this for a short time. Where I'm thankful to get a hot shower and I don't even care when a spider crosses my path. They may be small things, but I appreciate them a lot more.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011


We have safely arrived in Bangkok! And it's been an interesting 24 hours in the city.

Melissa and I got to the airport early for our flight and made it to Shanghai with no problem, only to find out our flight was delayed two hours (on top of our 3+ hour layover). We got some free cookies and water, wandered around Pu Dong and napped. But we finally arrived in Bangkok around 5 am. After a ridiculously frightening cab ride, we found our hostel and fell asleep. We found Liana and Kavita and we've been exploring all day.

We took our first tuk-tuk ride and browsed through some markets. We also went to the tourist center to make plans for the next few days. We're visiting a beautiful water market tomorrow that's outside the city. Then we have a few days time to explore Bangkok and all it has to offer. We're taking a night train to Chaing Mai and will wake up in another beautiful destination. We'll be taking a trek to a small village with no electricity or modern conveniences. We'll ride elephants and shower in waterfalls. Amazing.

I'm already so excited for the next two months, I can't really put it into words. Thank you all for following along on this incredible adventure!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Where am I going?

Hello and goodbye, I suppose, to everyone reading.

I have less than two weeks left as a temporary Korean citizen and it's an overwhelming mix of emotion. I've started to check items off my list and I have very little to do before I leave. I can't begin to describe how great the last year was so I don't even think I'll attempt.

Flights and hostels are now booked. As of now, I have 6 flights that I will be taking to and from various locations... cities, countries, continents. I can't believe I'm really doing this.

If you'd like to follow along on my journey, I will do my absolute best to keep this blog updated. If you want direct communication, you can always e-mail me at jenasprau@gmail.com

If you don't want to do either of those things but would like to know where I'm going, here's a very rough, in no way absolute, timeline of our trip.

Melissa and I fly from Busan to Bangkok during the first week of September. We arrive early in the morning and will do our best to find our hostel in the midst of what I'm sure will be a chaotic city. Once we settle in, we'll meet our other travel companions, Liana and Kavita.

We're going to parade around northern Thailand for about two weeks and then make our way into Laos. We'll be in Laos for approximately a week before we fly into Vietnam. We're spending a good amount of time in Vietnam, though I don't know exactly how long. At some point, we're making our way into Cambodia before we ultimately travel back to Southern Thailand.

Kavita is leaving us after the first three or four weeks to return to Busan. I'm leaving Liana and Melissa the first week of November to meet my mother for the vacation of a lifetime in Italy! As I'm sure many would guess, we'll take the train to Florence for a few days before coming back to Rome to fly home.

As always, I send my love and thanks to everyone who sent me the same in return.

Sunday, August 7, 2011


What an incredible, whirlwind vacation Alix and I had in Tokyo. I don't even know where to begin, but I'll do my best...

Luckily, we once again had an easy trip to and from Japan. We had no trouble with our layovers or getting to Tokyo, but once we arrived it was a different story. I will say that coming off the plane and trying to navigate our way around the subway (which wasn't entirely English friendly) was extremely intimidating. A nice man helped us buy our ticket and we had a short ride to our hostel, The Samurai, which was amazing. It's located in Asakusa near an incredible shrine and market. A few different subway lines are easily accessible and the staff was so friendly and helpful. I would definitely recommend it to anyone staying in Tokyo. Plus, we got to see the "Golden Turd" every time we came off the subway. Can't beat it.

We spent the first night strolling around our neighborhood, people watching and taking in the sights. We also stumbled upon a Denny's which was hilarious and completely unexpected.

Since we had a long vacation, we had a lot of time to play with and didn't try to do too much on any given day. We were able to take our time which was nice and made the rushed atmosphere of Tokyo seem somewhat less chaotic. It was also supposed to rain every day, but we got lucky once again and only experienced a few spurts of rain on our last day (though we were awaken by a 6.4 earthquake on our first night).

We wanted to check out Harajuku on Sunday to see all the elaborate costumes and makeup, but unfortunately the overcast skies didn't attract many girls. Instead, we went to Shibuya to see the famous intersection. We sat and watched people cross a few times then went to Starbucks for a free view of it all. I can't believe that many people crossed every time the light changed. I couldn't imagine having to deal with that everyday.

We also went to Yoyogi Park (near Harajuku) to see the Elvis impersonators (who, I believe, only show up on Sundays). Though I can't really call them that because they weren't singing Elvis songs, but numerous 50's rock songs (in Japanese, of course). There were greasers and squares, all dressed up and dancing. I don't think they asked for money, they were there because they genuinely enjoyed doing it. I could have sat and watched them for hours. It looked like they were having so much fun.

There's a fish market, Tsukiji, that is a popular tourist destination. It's free to check out, but best to go really early so you can see everyone and everything in action, including the buying and selling of the fish. I'm not much of an early bird so I would be hard pressed to get up at 4 am to make my way there, but we did visit later in the day. It wasn't nearly as exciting as the morning, I'm sure, and everyone seemed like they were on the way home. But still nice to see. We went to Ginza afterward and paid a visit to the Sony Showroom to check out all the latest gadgets, which was also free for everyone. After playing with 3D computers, we went on a hunt for the Godzilla statue and found it after a surprisingly short search.

We made our way to Roppongi Hills that same day to find Tokyo Tower (which has to be an homage to Paris. Right?)

We decided to go up Mori Tower for a view of the skyline. This was a little pricey (about $25) and I was reluctant to shell out that much cash, but was happy I did. We saw the skyline during the day transition to the bustling Tokyo nightlife; something I'll never forget. It was incredible to see the change and the view was breathtaking. Well worth the money spent, in my opinion.

The next day, we went to a conveyor-style sushi restaurant near our hostel. The prices range from about $4-10 dollars a plate. I ordered some California rolls (yes, in Japan) and it was delicious.

We wanted to go inside the Imperial Palace, but unfortunately it isn't open to tourists, so we only got a view from the outside. A few weeks before coming to Tokyo, Alix and I made a request for a free tour guide from Tokyo Free Guide, but got no response. For anyone going in the future, I would recommend this service, but just make sure you book very well in advance.

Instead, we strolled around a neighborhood (the name of which I've forgotten) and got lost for a while. We wanted to visit a maid cafe, which is exactly what it sounds like. Girls dressed as maids serve you drinks. Weird, yes, but it would have been interesting to see. I think we found one but I also think we were a little sketched to go inside.

On our last full day, we made our way to the Telecom Center (located on a new subway line which was expensive compared to the rest). We visited a science museum (the name of which I have also forgotten) to play with robots. We missed a robot demonstration by 10 minutes, but it was still fun to walk around and play with all the trinkets.

I'm fairly certain the museum is located on one of the artificial, manmade islands. We were definitely in a newer part of Tokyo; everything looked modern. We stumbled upon a building that I know I've seen before (from an article on cracked.com, I believe). I don't remember exactly what it is or what function it has. So if you know, fill me in.

We finally made our way to Shinjuku, another well-known area of the city. We walked around some gardens, went up the government building (free!) and found the red light district. I believe Shinjuku station is the busiest train station in the world. Alix and I did our best to avoid the subway during rush hour, but we did walk around the station when everyone was getting off work. I've never seen so many white collared shirts and black pants.

Tokyo was awesome. There was so much to do and so much to see. I wasn't bored once in this city, and that's a bold statement coming from me. But all the rumors are true: it's terribly expensive. Alix and I saved money by sharing meals, avoiding cabs and doing things that are free (which, surprisingly, almost every attraction we visited was free of cost). The subway system was a nightmare at first, but after a while it was manageable. Certainly not the easiest system to navigate, but the subway is quick, efficient and will take you to any given point in Tokyo. It's just a little confusing since some of the lines are private owned, some are owned by the government, some cost you a fortune while others don't. I had a copy of the subway map on my iPod which helped tremendously, but if you're feeling overwhelmed, ask for help! Almost everyone working speaks English (nearly everyone in the entire city speaks it) and people are always willing to lend a hand.

I'm so happy I chose to go to Tokyo; I would have regretted my decision if I hadn't. I had an incredible time seeing the city and watching the people. Though I couldn't imagine living there (based on the cost of living alone) I would certainly recommend visiting the city (or country) to anyone who is interested.