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!