adventure, backpacker, backpacking, Southeast Asia, Thailand, travel, travel memoir, Uncategorized

Chasing the Sun in Phu Chi Fa

2014-11-1405.37.15

There is a quaint, quiet corner of northeast Thailand where the mountains rejoice at the awakening of the sun. They stretch with glistening green peaks past a creamy sea of clouds in sleepy greeting each and every morning.

My boyfriend, Joram, and I decided to rent motorbikes and head to Phu Chi Fa mountain and forest park located at the east edge of the Thoeng District, Chiang Rai Province, just bordering Laos. We embarked on the trip for one sole purpose: to witness Phu Chi Fa’s famed sunrise.

My phone blinks 5am and the clammy cold stings my skin, goosebumps prickling along the nape of my neck. It is still dark as we shiver together under a thick blanket and wait. When you are on top of the world, plans no longer matter, time stands still and you are simply humble. Engulfed in the freshest air of the land, where the poisonous creeping fingers of pollution fail to reach, and where giant black masses rise silently on all sides and the city lights of Laos are faint specks of stardust sucked into the loins of the earth below, you realize something. You realize just how small we as humans are on this fantastic planet, and that to think we have control of everything is pointless and unnecessary.

Despite the early morning chill, I suck in as much of the pure oxygen as I can muster. Up here, my allergies from the burning haze of Thailand have vanished. I feel cleansed as the sun begins its ascent, cutting gold and pink straits across the eastern heavens. I let the breath out steadily, and I am a child dancing in a candyland of strawberry milk streams, golden caramel coins and overflowing puffs and curls of lavender cotton candy.

2014-11-14 06.15.36

Witnessing the Phu Chi Fa sunrise is a travel delight that is out of the way for most backpackers, and it is a treat that is earned. She makes you work for it, but it is well worth the effort. By motorbike, the roads are for the most part smooth and free of potholes, until you start the final steep ascent to the actual park. If you are a lover of curves and flying down hillsides, then this ride is a dream come true. Let go of your inhibitions and soar as the crisp mountain air awakens and exhilarates your senses. Extraordinary views await you at every beck and bend.

It is all coffee plantations and rice terraces, green corn and cabbage fields and small mountain villages that will take you away from crowded, dirty cities. The people here live the simple life of a Thailand stuck in a past time. Naked children splash in giant buckets of cool water. Lazy mountain dogs with gleaming coats wallow in the road, lying just out of reach of dangerous wheels. The stares are shy and curious. The toothless smiles are friendly and genuine. For me, this is what Thailand is all about.

IMG_3060

Getting started

The best time to visit is during the high season starting around November. One-way, the trip takes about 3-4 hours depending on speed and rest stops. Joram and I rented manual bikes in Chiang Rai. Prices range from 100- 200 baht per day, and I wouldn’t pay anymore than that. Once you start on the highway from Chiang Rai, the route is easy and enjoyable, taking you out of the congestion and into the pristine countryside. From the highway, you begin to climb into the mountains, steadily pushing up and then rolling down the never ending hills. What I liked most about the drive was the lack of traffic. There are no tourist buses careening around curves like madmen. It allows you to soak up everything the drive has to offer without being on edge or getting punched in the face by nasty plumes of exhaust smoke.

Gasoline

Fill up before you go, of course. Once in the mountains, there are no gas stations, but you can find old fashioned petrol pumps at random general stores in the villages. If you run into bike trouble, there are a couple of shops to be found. Joram experienced a flat tire at one point, but luckily the misfortune struck just a few meters from a lonely shack laden with rusted half-built motorbikes, old tires and mysterious scrap parts. The old Thai farmer fixed up the flat in a jiffy while we played with the the farm puppies and waited.

IMG_3092

What to bring

It gets chilly in Phu Chi Fa. Bring a jacket, socks, pants and sturdy shoes for climbing.

Take it easy

If you are expecting reggae bars and late night backpacker parties, then you will be disappointed. It’s peaceful up here, in fact, we only saw one other small group of foreigners. The majority of visitors are Thai. The small stretch of shops next to the park consist of a handful of guesthouses, camping spots, a couple of restaurants, general stores and souvenir shops.

Joram and I arrived in the evening time and secured a camping spot nestled amongst coffee bushes brimming with pale red berries on a hillside terrace overlooking the mountains and valleys. It is easy to find camping spots since the village is so small. All equipment, bedding and individual fire pits are offered for 500 baht a night. There are showers and toilets available to campers as well. Eat cheap Thai food in town and warm up with some hot Jasmine tea, then sit by the fire and become hypnotized by millions of shimmering stars. It’s so dark and clear on top of Phu Chi Fa, that you can glimpse the wondrous Milky Way spilling over the edges of an indigo sky. To not speak, to not think and to instead just watch; you become part of the mountain and helpless to her wild whims. All of a sudden, a white fire comet streaks across a soundless horizon, illuminating the sky for a brief second, then leaving you to stare in awe while massive rust brown Hercules moths flit on paper wings, playing in their star-dappled darkness.

IMG_3200

The sunrise

Set your alarm for 5:00 am the next morning for sunrise. When the time comes, hop on your bike and head up the park entrance road. It is steep and dark, so use every precaution. Don’t fret about navigation, you will see the signs and parking lot to leave your bike. Then, it’s another steep trek by foot up to the tippy top of Phu Chi Fa mountain. Grab a spot and wait for the sunrise to transform the land and your life.

The best way to begin your day….

2014-11-14 06.17.16

Uncategorized

How I Backpacked the Maldives on a Budget

(null)

The small motorboat rocked gently on the morning waves. No time for breakfast or coffee, my 19-year-old Maldivian guide had ushered me out of bed, to the boat, where his teenage companion was waiting. He saw us, and immediately began to coax the salty engine to life.

“We must beat the tourist dive boats,” my guide explained. All I had was my mask and GoPro camera. All he had was a never-ending cigarette, hash oil eyes and an impressive pinky fingernail.

“Why is your pinky nail so long?”

I had been staring, wondering, and had finally worked up the courage to ask.

“My buddy and I are in a contest. Whoever cuts it first, loses. Then, they must get the other a treat.”

“How long has this contest been going on for?” I asked.

“Since 10-years-old.”

IMG_1852

It was my second day on Maafushi Island in the Maldives and the three of us were off on an oceanic adventure to free dive the surrounding coral reefs. Since I was way far off from being able to afford the luxurious dive trips most other Maldives visitors book, I had discovered a much cheaper and one-of-a-kind option: hanging with the young locals.

Maafushi slowly disappeared and we became engulfed by turquoise and sapphire. Now, I’ve grown up on the Atlantic Ocean, lived on a beach my entire life- but there’s something different about the Indian Ocean. Something wild and savage, yet too beautiful to be frightened of it. A true siren luring salt lovers into the abyss.

And then, I spotted them- there had to be around a hundred. Wild dolphins splicing through the gentle chop, one twisting gracefully in the morning air, another spluttering a stream of foamy liquid from its blowhole. I had seen wild dolphins before, but never like this. Never this many.

The boat engine died and we came to an abrupt stop. Waves pulled and pushed the briny hull in a hypnotizing tug-of-war. And the pod surrounded us, passing us, fins rising and falling smoothly with the moving currents.

Before I knew what I was doing, my mask was on and I felt my body slipping into the open sea. I held my breath and dove and the Indian Ocean swallowed me whole.

The world underneath the waves was intoxicating, a subliminal trip. Plummeting depths with no sand in sight, I floated deep, suspended in hazy green and blue. Streams of sunlight shot here and there, illuminating plankton, and the underwater world was filled with the loud clicks and clacks of dolphin echolocation. For a brief moment, I became a part of the pod.The dolphins swam about me, at a distance, flipping easily onto their sides for a curious glance of this alien creature. They were cautious, but not afraid, toothy, playful grins as they took me in, laughed at me, then continued on their journey.

10343535_10101068934723292_4407509440654961286_n-1

Welcome to the Maldives

A magical, mystical tropical paradise exists. It is called: The Maldives.

This clustered island nation dotting the Indian Ocean like a string of jewels are a well known honeymoon destination, sprinkled with a myriad of luxury resorts. It most certainly doesn’t hold the budget backpacker reputation, but that is beginning to change.

Despite the illusion that traveling to this tropical playground is only for the flashy,  it is possible to travel on a budget. Yes, you heard correctly- IT IS POSSIBLE.  Read my tips on backpacking the Maldives on a budget, and get ready to book your ticket and dive right into a melting pot of culture, untouched salty bliss and unique island living that you won’t find anywhere else in the world.

Deciding where to go

The Maldives isn’t as budget friendly as other countries in Southeast Asia, but if you have the chance to go- take it. Cut down on costs by limiting your time here, and brainstorm what exactly you would like to do. The Maldives offer excellent diving and snorkel opportunities. If you just want to veg out on a peaceful,  powder white beach, you can find it anywhere. Research the islands, as each is unique in its own way, some more deserted than others. Also, get a geographic idea of how far each island is from the capital, Male. This is important because the main ferry port is located here- the heart of your Maldives transportation.

My recommendation….

For location and money, I would recommend checking out Maafushi as a strategic home base. It is the second largest island in the Maldives, has more guesthouse options than the other islands and is a short ferry ride from Male. Maafushi is an easy island to get lost on, and when you stay in a guesthouse, you get to experience the day to day life of the Maldivian people, an experience that gets shut out by staying at a resort.

From Maafushi, it’s easy to book dive trips to nearby coral reefs or hang out at the pristine beaches. Though Maafushi is the second largest island, there are no paved roads or cars here, just pure white sand, palm trees and warm crystal water.

Maafushi Tip:

Because the Maldives are strictly Muslim, be considerate about bathing in the sea. On Maafushi, there are two beaches: a local beach and a foreigner beach. It is expected that ladies do not romp around the island or hang at the local beach in a bikini. At the foreigner beach, this is ok.

IMG_1851

Ditch Resort Life

Hidden in the shadows of those wealthy beach resorts are guesthouses that are much cheaper and offer a one-on-one cultural experience. As budget travelers take the leap and head to the Maldives, more and more guesthouses are springing up out of the sand like coconut palms. Check out Airbnb for various guesthouses in the Maldives, and you will be pleasantly surprised by the numerous options- way cheaper than those pocket draining resorts.

My recommendation:

I stayed at the Silver Sea Inn on Maafushi in Nov. 2014, with low rates starting around $20. Prices can vary depending on when/where you go. It was quiet, clean and the staff were incredibly hospitable. The owner invited me to enjoy a traditional Maldivian dinner of savory fish stew and rice with him and his wife on my final night. It was the perfect end to my Maldivian journey, plopping chunks of thick fish caught just offshore into my mouth using my hands.

Transportation

To keep spending to a minimum, embrace the public ferry and walking about the islands. Male, though busy and filled with cabs, is small enough to navigate by foot, and you get to experience much more of the bustling city life. If you plan on staying in the capital for a day or two, it’s easy to find cheap lodging- but don’t expect 5 Star accommodations or beach paradise.

All travelers are brought to Male from the airport, because that is where the main ferry port is located. The ferry is the cheapest mode of transport to the islands. You travel with the local people, so the experience is not one to be missed. Speed boats are also available, but are expensive- easily over $100 for a ride. If you have a group, then the price can be split and you can maximize your time with a quick trip, but you won’t get the same cultural experience as riding the ferry.

Island transport is by foot or bike. Once the ferry unloads, you will be surprised to look clear across to the other side of the island, no paved roads to be seen. Get lost and explore on your own two feet! This is the best way to observe the unique Islamic island life mixed with cultures from the Middle East, India and Sri Lanka.

Tip:

Check out the ferry schedule to get an idea of routes and prices. Keep in mind that the ferry does not operate on Friday for prayers.

Uncategorized

An Ode to the Bum Gun

photo1

I would like to take a brief moment to pay homage to one of mankind’s most extraordinary inventions: the butt blaster, the bum gun, the incredible bidet.

We westerners sit daintily upon our porcelain thrones amidst the spicy aroma of potpourri bowls and lavish lemony sprays, quietly going about our most intricate business of the day. Each and every trip to the loo ends the same way- reaching for that thick, fluffy roll of toilet paper, swiping and wiping to no avail, and hopefully doing so from front to back.

In America, toilet paper is life. There is no other way to clean one’s tootie, and if there is another way….just, no.

Meanwhile, in Asia and Europe, the bum blaster stands tall and confident over its WC kingdom…a rather simple tool that reigns with an iron grasp and deftly conquers any booty no matter how big or how small. You find these nozzled hoses faithfully  positioned and ready for battle beside almost every squat and sitting toilet throughout Asia; a lethal cobra ready to nip at the dingiest behind with a most powerful and unrelenting water pressure.

You never forget your first time

My first experience with one of these mysterious contraptions was a mental challenge peppered with nerves and buts and what ifs. I eyed the leery pistol. It sat there, a beckoning metal mouth filled with multitudes of minuscule anticipating holes. I gulped. Coming from a country where toilet paper is seemingly the only way to deal with dirty matters down there, I was perplexed, my mind boggled.

“Nope, ain’t using it.” I thought, and reached instead, for toilet paper. Only problem is, 90% of the time you aren’t gonna find that powdery soft goodness at any restroom in Thailand. And when you have food poisoning from feasting on that suspicious street meat on a stick, things can get, well…shitty.

I eyed the butt blaster nervously. It looked like it would wrap it’s cold, plastic coils  around my neck and strangle me at any moment. This sitting squat position was starting to kill my legs. I needed to make a decision immediately.

Quickly, I glanced around, first right, then left, as if onlookers were hiding, watching, waiting for me to grab hold of the hose so they could jump out, point and laugh at me in my vulnerable state. This isn’t the norm, I don’t do this back home…no one does wtf.

But alas, I had no choice. After successfully avoiding every bum gun in the beginning of my travels through Asia, we finally met for the first time. Gingerly, I extended my hand in greeting, and took hold.

It was like two pimple-faced 16-year-olds sharing a first kiss on a first date. I pushed down on the nozzle and instantly lost control as an overwhelming jet of cool water coated the bathroom walls, my legs, and fuck…my pants.

“Easy girl…easssy,” I coaxed the bucking bronco, a single bead of sweat trickling down the side of my face. Now what. Do I stand? Do I lift one leg? If I do it this way, I soak my pants. If I do it that way…I soak my pants.

I won’t go into the nitty gritty details, but damn, was it awkward. After what seemed like ages, I flung open the tattered stall door in victory, gasping for breath. I had survived! I had succeeded in using the bum gun! The old Thai woman collecting baht at the restroom entrance just stared at me indifferently with pursed lips. Somehow, I had managed to soak my entire outfit.

But, it didn’t matter. I was reborn- a changed woman. A luminous beam of light descended down from the heavens upon my weary derriere and I threw up my hands in infinite glory. Like a caterpillar, I had shed the soft toilet paper skin I knew and loved to rise from the messy tissue scraps  a clean- a squeaky clean butterfly.

Where it all began…

The bum gun had revolutionized my life, changed my toilet escapades forever. Why the fuck don’t we have these in America? It’s a question I ask myself every time I experience the joyful cleansing of a butt blaster.

The original bidet was invented by the French in the 1700s. By the early 1900s, it had evolved from a crude hand pump and chamber pot to a tidy ceramic bowl with knobs and hoses. One simply straddled the thing like riding a pony, and washed away all of the day’s worries.

The Japanese further enhanced the bidet after WWII when they began importing sitting toilets from America. Modern plumbing brought the party into the bathroom, a hose attached to a nozzle.

Today, the modern bum gun is used throughout Asia and Europe, but hasn’t yet become a thing in the good ol US of A. Many Americans have never even seen one. The thought of a bum gun brings smirks and giggles- an alien idea. But, this is ignorance, because that damn water hose is a gift of the gods.

Besides the obvious sanitation benefits, the bum gun reduces the use of paper waste, saving money and the environment in the long run. It’s also handy for those with less mobility, such as senior individuals and young children.

It may take some getting used to, but once you embrace this foreign phenomenon you’ll never go back to toilet paper ever again. There’s nothing more exhilarating than walking out of the restroom with a bottom as fresh as spring daisies.

I’ve counseled a handful of westerners on my travels that confided their anxiety when it came to butt blasters, and I continue to offer advice to anyone that seeks it. Here are some of my personal tips for using the legendary bum gun. photo2

How to Become a Bum Gun Wizard

  1. If you’re sitting on a toilet seat, spread your legs. If you are using a squat toilet….hold that squat a while longer and work them glutes.
  2. Grab hold of the bum gun, right hand or left, depending on what feels most comfortable.
  3. Take a deep breath and get over the fact that you are spraying down your privates. There’s no need to be bashful.
  4. Hold the nozzle downwards from the front and position accordingly.
  5. Squeeze that nozzle like your life depends on it.
  6. Spray thoroughly. Get every nook and cranny. Take your time, pace yourself…slow and steady wins the race.
  7. Finished? Breathe easy, my friend. The hard part is over.
  8. Actually, now you have a new dilemma. I like to call this: Wet Butt Syndrome.
  9. Don’t fret! If you are one of those individuals that is prepared for any situation in life, you probably have some tissues handy. If you don’t give a fuck, you might use your socks. Or, you can just give your bottom a swift little shake to rid yourself of excess water droplets. Everyone has their own unique drying method- get creative and have fun with it.
  10. Rejoice! Your tush is sparkling like a fresh martini after a hard day’s work. Say goodbye to toilet paper fragments, and, well, pesky poop particles.

Now, you’re ready to conquer the world, one well-directed blast at a time!

Uncategorized

Bangkok in a Nutshell

FullSizeRender 2

Need some super lightning fast budget travel-knowledge on Bangkok?

Overview

1) It’s expensive

2) Traffic is the pits- Plan accordingly (I always estimate at least one hour to get from point A to point B and I plan around rush hour)

3) It’s fucking hot (Tip: 711 convenience stores are everywhere. It’s the cheapest place I’ve found big water bottles for 13 baht; also good to stop in for an air con shower)

4) Bangkok is HUGE

Transportation

5) Never take a taxi without a meter. If the driver claims it’s broken or they don’t use one, get out immediately and flag down another one.

6) Travel along the Chao Phraya River by ferry- it’s a cheap and fast way to get around Bangkok, especially for sightseeing

7) The BTS SkyTrain> It shows up on Google Maps and is extremely helpful for locating checkpoints; this is also a cost effective way to travel

Where to Stay- Khao San Road

8) I’m a big fan of Khao San Road. I know travelers gripe about how seedy it is, but it has everything you need right there without having to spend money traveling around the city. If you need to book buses, flights or the ferry- there are travel agents everywhere. Most of the time the buses will pick you up from your guesthouse without you having to take a taxi to the bus station. Pharmacies and convenience stores are also everywhere.

10) I like to stay at Green House BKK. It offers affordable rooms starting at around 300 baht, with fan and air con options. The rooms are basic and clean with the option of private bathrooms or shared. They give you towels, soap and there is a restaurant and bar.

Where to eat- Khao San Road

11) There is a small Khao man gai stand at the beginning of Rambuttri street where you can get a yummy meal of savory chicken and rice for around 40 baht.

12) Any of the food stalls are cheap and filling

Airports

13) Cheap Air-Asia flights can be booked out of Don Muang Airport. There is an airport express van from Khao San Road that costs around 180 baht. Taxis will try to charge 400 baht to take you to the airport.

14) If you land in Suvarnabhumi Airport and have a connecting flight in Don Muang, there is a free bus shuttle between the two airports. Just make sure you have your ticket handy to get the free ride.

My favorite places

15) The Ghost Tower: A giant skyscraper that was abandoned years ago. It’s shrouded in mystery and ghost stories, but the climb to the top reveals some pretty epic panoramic views of Bangkok. Check out my post on Travelog to learn more.

16) The Grand Palace and Wat Prakaew for some dazzling Thai architecture

17) Damnoen Saduak floating market for an authentic experience: think boats filled with fruits, vegetables and flowers along Bangkok’s infamous canals

18) Soi Cowboy: The red light district named after the cowboy hat-wearin’ expat that opened the first bar here in the 1970s

19) Forensic Museum: Delve into the weird, and by weird I mean corpses of mass murderers, deformed fetus’ in jars and other preserved body parts.

20) Chinatown: Go at night time on an empty stomach for a smorgasbord of tasty street vendor treats