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Rishikesh – A Himalayan Yogi Oasis

Rishikesh is a little yogi paradise about 5 hours north of New Delhi at the base of the Himalayas.  It’s my personal favorite city in India (not that I’ve seen too many), and also the yoga capital of the world.  Yoga was invented here.  The entire city, located inside of a national park, is centered on the ice blue Ganga, and has almost a mountain-safari vibe to it with massive white old-school jeeps full of people going trekking or wherever rolling through the streets.  I wish I had gotten a picture of one because they’re really quite a sight, and they barely fit through the little India roads.

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To be fair Rishikesh is much more westernized than any other city I visited in India.  It’s chock full of trendy health-food stores, juice bars, and vegan bakeries.  Many other backpackers I met had been there for months.  The consensus amongst Indians and westerners alike(that I spoke to) said Rishikesh is their favorite place in India.

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Even the monkeys like to “chill” in Rishikesh.  (hehe, get it?) 

Rishikesh is a nice place to just park it and chill.  Many foreigners spend a lot of time here for yoga teacher training, or to cleanse themselves and get lost in yoga at an ashram for a few weeks.  The Beatles actually came here and wrote their white album at the Ashram of Maharishi Mahesh, which is now abandoned.

Bonus – in May, when hot season in full swing, Rishikesh is just a little bit cooler than the rest of the country.  Plus, it offers the options of jumping in the ice cold Ganga or frolicking in waterfalls.  Apparently, hot season is when backpackers stick to the northern parts of India and stay cool up in the Himalayas.  They visit the Dalai Llama in Dharamshala, chill in Manali, and party in Kasol.  But I didn’t get that memo before the trip and was already dead set on seeing Rajasthan and Varanasi.  Next time.

Things to Do in Rishikesh

1) Yoga

Free yoga, hot yoga, Vinyasa yoga, hardcore yoga; there’s every different kind of yoga you could think of here.  And it’s WAY cheaper than anywhere else I’ve seen in Asia.  Most hostels offer free yoga, which was prime as hell for myself as I was poor by the end of my trip.  Free sunrise yoga?  Count me in.

2) Shop

I saw a tonnnnn of cheap silver jewelry in Rishikesh.  I’m talking 6 bucks for silver earrings.  Although I have no idea how to tell if jewelry is real or fake, and it is still India, so I would read up on how to tell if silver is legit before buying any.

They also have super cool antiques, for example vintage compasses left from when the British occupied the area.  They have a ton of cool wrought iron silver.  A bunch of the stores carry these really pretty locks made in the shape of fish or decorated with Shiva or Ganesha.

3) Raft

Rishikesh is also known for rafting on the Ganga.  Although I would be careful, there are a ton of riptide pockets in that part of the river and it actually can be pretty dangerous.  I met someone whose uncle died on the river.  It’s super cheap though, around 9 bucks a person.

4) Swim in the Ganga

Submerging in the Ganga cleanses your karma!  I did this at the convincing of some British dude who was half crazy.  Of course only AFTER I got in did he say that he may have a parasite that possibly came from the river.  Girls, I’d recommend just getting in fully clothed (I did) if you’re as creeped out by gawking Indian men as I am.  Crazy British dude said he had been in the river with some girl in a bikini & a guy rafting by literally fell out of his boat from staring.

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Crazy British dude who may or may not have a parasite.

 

5) Do ayurvedic-ish

Ayurvedic medicine originated in India.  It’s supposed to help with your circulation and general health.  You can get super cheap ayurvedic massages in Rishikesh, and many of the western/veggie/vegan restaurants even have an ayurvedic menu.  Don’t ask me how that works.  I wonder how long the ayurvedic food trend is going to take to hit the US.

6) Visit waterfalls

There are a ton of pretty waterfalls in Rishikesh!  My friends & I hiked to Garud Chatti, the easiest one to access by foot from the Laxman Jhula area.  You can also hire a jeep to take you if you’re not ballin’ on a budget.

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Downside to waterfalls in Rishikesh – you can swim in them if you want, but it’s the same deal as swimming in the Ganga.  There are usually a bunch of Indian men, and they all stare at you.  For that reason my friend & I didn’t get in, but of course some pain-in-the-ass still spent about 15 minutes trying to convince us.  I also saw a bunch of Indian women at the waterfall, but of course none were swimming.

7) See the evening aarti or pooja ceremonies on the Ganga

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Same as Varanasi, every evening there are ceremonies along the Ganga honoring the river, called aarti.  There are also usually groups of yogis doing a pooja ceremony where a bunch of westerners play dress up in sarees and release a little boat with a candle and an orange pooja flower into the river.

8) Chill with the babas

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Again, just like Varanasi, there are a ton of babas in Rishikesh.  Babas are hindu holy men.  As someone who likes to take pictures, the babas in Rishikesh are WAY more chill than the ones in Varanasi.  As in they don’t all ask for money if you want a picture.

Fun fact –

I was informed that a ton of the babas in Rishikesh are fake babas.  Fugitives who have committed really severe crimes (think rape, murder) apparently dress up like holy men and grow beards to hide from the police.  This is especially prominent in Rishikesh because everyone in Rishikesh can get fed for free at one ashram or another.  Even the stray dogs in Rishikesh are well fed.

9) See sunrise over the Himalayas at Kunjapuri Devi temple

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You have to jeep up through the mountains to get to this temple viewpoint and also leave at an ungodly hour, but it’s worth it.

10) Treat yoself with western food and cute cafes

There are a million vegan-friendly and vegetarian friendly restaurants in Rishikesh, serving everything from yogi food to vegan baked goods.

11) Visit Maharishi Mahesh yogi ashram, the abandoned ashram where the Beatles recorded their White album

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The Beatles infamously spent some time at an ashram in Rishikesh with the Maharishi Mahesh, studying transcendental meditation and recording music.  The ashram is abandoned, however for a small 600-rupee fee you can visit and see some of the graffiti that’s been painted on the ashram over the years.

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PS I’m being sarcastic about the damn fee because paying $9US to see something that’s completely abandoned and not kept up at all is absurd and irritating.  And is also classic India.

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Warning – it’s also huge, and while there are many well-known murals throughout the ruins that artists were commissioned to paint, there is no map as to where they are.  So if you want to find them expect to spend a bit of time there, it’s quite a large complex.

Double warning – the ashram is also smack-dab in the middle of an active tiger reserve.  And it’s India, so none of the tigers are tagged or tracked.  Enter at your own risk.

Although it is quite rare to see a tiger, maulings do happen in and around Rishikesh from time to time.  The last one I heard of was in February.

WTF India moment

– on my last day in Rishikesh, some poor Indian woman washed up near the shore after she had drowned.  It had been a day or two that she had been in the water, so it wasn’t exactly a very nice sight to see.  And of course, it’s India, so whoever found her left her uncovered and tied to a rock until the police arrived.  Which took 5 hours.

So there you have it.  Rishikesh really has it all – good western food, a shrine to the Beatles, fugitives on the run, waterfalls, and tigers.

 

10 Fun(Morbid) Facts About Varanasi, India

Varanasi.  Maybe this name rings a distant bell in your brain, as it’s the reigning dual title-holder of both the Oldest City in the World and the Holiest City in the World.  I have no idea by what metrics either of those are measured but that’s what I’ve been told.

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Varanasi is a city in India that’s built on the River Ganga.  The Ganga is one of 3 tributaries of the holy Ganges River, and the holiest of the tributaries.  It’s said that the Ganga flows from Shiva himself.  The city is a Hindu pilgrimage site, but not for the living.  Hindus come from all over to get cremated, or have their ashes thrown in the river.

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Not only do dead bodies go in the river, but live ones do too.  The entire riverbank is made up of “ghats” or holy baths that are used for different purposes.  Some are used to cure leprosy, and some are for bodies.  And they’re all part of one giant river of water; there isn’t any form of separation between them, not that it would help.  So you can see happy Indians splish-splashing around less than 100 feet from where bodies have been tossed in for thousands of years.  Even the Indian government has issued health warnings telling people to stop getting in.

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Why Not?

*****My friend & I go to pet stray puppies, Indian guy & his clique who are attempting to get selfies with us look at us like we’re nuts*****

Us: You won’t pet the puppies?

Homeboy: (Hindi accent)Not sanitary!

Us: So do you get in the water?

Homeboy: Of course.  Why not?

Pour one out for the lack of education on communicative diseases.

I heard tales of 3 other foreigners who actually got in the water.  Two got Typhoid and one got Hepatitis E.  I didn’t even know Hepatitis had spread that far down the alphabet.

Note – submerging in the Ganga is supposed to cleanse you of all your karma.  But this can be done very far upstream at a much cleaner part of the Ganga in Rishikesh.

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Fun (Morbid) Facts About the Craziest City in Existence

1) Not only do people come here to have their remains disposed of in the river, but also to die

Mother Theresa’s is a Catholic charity in Varanasi (with branches in other cities) where people come to die with dignity.  That means anyone too poor to afford hospital service or to get buried who doesn’t want to die in the street.  They also take care of cremations, however with ovens, not wood.  You can volunteer here and help people in their final hours.  I met one guy who did it, and he said after 1 day he had seen enough death and mentally needed a break.

2) Majority of the Babas/Sadus(holymen) tourists see here are FAKE

This one isn’t really a surprise.  Especially closer to the ghats there are sadus, or holy men, dressed in orange or covered in ash waiting for tourists to come and take their picture.  And then after people take their picture, they ask for money.

I found this particularly depressing because so many street photographers I follow have amazing pictures from Varanasi.  It’s sad to find out they’ve had to pay for taking them.  I was told that a baba who asks you for money isn’t a real baba, as supposedly they’ve given up material things and such.  Therefore, there’s a lot of cool pictures of fake babas rolling around.  I only found 2 babas that didn’t want money for their picture the entire time I was in Varanasi.  It was like finding out there’s no Santa Clause all over again.

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3) The fire that lights the main burning ghat has supposedly been burning for thousands of years

There’s some Hindu legend behind this, I forget.

4) The caste system is alive and well in Varanasi, and is reflected in the cremations

The main burning ghat is divided into 4 parts, one for each caste.

The only people who are allowed to actually burn bodies are Doms, a special sub-caste of untouchables

These men are all driven to alcoholism to cope with the smell of burning bodies.  People won’t let them into their homes or even look at them, but they’ll pay them to burn their relatives.

5) It takes 150 kilos of wood for 1 cremation

That’s around 300 pounds-ish.  The business of death is on & poppin in Varanasi.  If people can’t afford all the wood for a cremation, they’ll burn the body until they run out and then throw the remains in the water.  Which brings me to my next fact…

6) Dogs and other animals are known to be especially mangy here because they chew on pieces of bodies that wash up on the shores of the River Ganga

7) There are real-live cannibals that hang out here & no one bats an eye

No, you’re not in danger of getting eaten.  But there is a group of holy men in the Hindu religion that are known for being cannibals.   However, they don’t just eat anyone; they only eat bodies that are donated to them by families of the deceased.  They usually can be seen around dusk, because that is the time of day that the world of the living and the dead are most in balance, or something like that.  They’re recognizable by the ash on their face and their all-black getups.  The weird part – they’re highly respected, which is probably why people let the cannibalism get by.

8) This is where you will see the most weddings in India

Maybe because it’s a holy city?  I don’t know.  But I saw more newlyweds within my first half hour of getting to Varanasi than I did in all of my time in Asia combined.  An Indian dude who worked at my hostel in Jodhpur told me that I had my best chance of crashing a wedding in Varanasi, so I’m not making this up either.  (I actually ended up crashing a wedding in Pushkar, but more on that another day)

9) There’s a lassi shop where you can watch bodies go by on their way to the pyre

DSC_1077.jpgLassi(n). – dank Indian yogurt drink thing with a layer of milk froth on top that’s heaven in a terracotta cup.  Instead of plastic cups they’re traditionally served in terracotta cups, which you just toss away when you’re finished.  Much more eco-friendly than plastic.

The shop is called Blue Lassi.  It’s one of the number one tourist shops in the city, thank you Lonely Planet.  You pay double to triple what you’d pay at other lassi shops, which is still less than $2, so it’s worth it.  Plus the lassis are really good and the owner is nice.

Bodies go by carried on stretchers on their way to the main burning ghat (Manakarnika Ghat).  They’re covered in orange fabric, but it’s tied so you can still tell where the head & limbs are.  It’s pretty creepy, the bodies jiggle when they’re rushed down the alleyways.  If you’re walking in an alley and hear bells GTFO to the side, that means a body is coming through.

Interesting article on the burning ghats, complete with pictures.

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Saffron lassi, 85 rupees ($1.25)

Here’s a siq music video that was filmed in Varanasi along with other cities in the Rajasthani region where you can see footage of a body going by at 3:45.  You can see the actual main burning ghat at 3:56.

10) There’s more public cow sh*t per capita than there is public trash cans

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Hahahahahaaaaaaa I mean at least I think I’m funny.  Not proven but probably true.  One night I was walking through the winding alleyways when the lights went out (a normal occurrence in India).  I wasn’t concerned about getting pickpocketed, I was concerned about stepping in cow crap.

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There ya have it.  Scam artists, the caste system, and thousands of dead people.  Have I sold you on it yet?

SIDE NOTE sick music vid some French guy shot on his iPhone in India.  The beginning and the end are in Varanasi.

1 Year Roundup – Back from 11 Months in Asia

Hello!  Happy June.  Officially back in the USA after 11 and a half months of traveling; including a final 2.5 months of backpacking.  When you really put backpacking in perspective, it bears a lot of similarities with being homeless.  You have no home, you carry everything you need to live on yourself, you’re unshowered most of the time, borderline broke, and always looking for free handouts.  But it’s fun.

It always makes me laugh while backpacking when touts approach me for things like spas and expensive hotels/private cars.  Too expensive, yo.  Even though their version of expensive is the same as the US version of standard.

Sorry for the hiatus, between being in India with HORRIBLE wifi and assimilating back into normality here in the US, I’ve been bad about blogging.

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Spice Market, Chadni Chowk, Old Delhi.  Note the excessive trash & building decay.

I plan on sending out a bunch of posts about India, my final stop, soon.  But in the meantime, here’s a little round up of my final year abroad.

Countries/Cities Visited:

  • Indonesia – Bali(Kuta, Ubud, Canggu), Java
  • Malaysia – Kuala Lumpur, Taman Negara(Cameron Highlands), Georgetown(Penang)
  • Singapore
  • Cambodia – Siem Reap, Battambang
  • Myanmar – Yangon, Bagan, Kalaw, Inle Lake, Mandalay
  • Vietnam – Hanoi, Halong Bay, Sapa, Hoi An, Saigon, Anh Binh(Mekong Delta), Da Lat, Nha Trang
  • India – New Delhi, Agra, Jaipur, Jodhpur, Pushkar, Varanasi, Rishikesh
  • Thailand – Dan Chang(home!), Bangkok, Ayutthaya, Pattaya, Pai, Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Khon Kaen, Khao Kho, Khao Sok National Park, Suphanburi, U-Thong, Phuket, Ko Chang, Ko Samet, Koh Phagnan, Koh Phi Phi, Ko Lanta, Ton Sai Bay, Krabi

The Southeast Asia Awards

Favorite county:

India.  Or Bali(Indonesia).

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Galta Ji Temple, Jaipur.  AKA “Monkey Temple” number 6928397 in Asia.  There’s always a Reggae bar ,there’s always an Irish pub, there’s always a monkey temple.
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Goa Gaja in Ubud, Bali, Indonesia.

I don’t know; you can never really pick a country because they’re all so different.  Maybe I’m just still glowing about India because it was the last country I visited, but India was way different than anywhere else.  The cool place to go backpacking now is Myanmar, because it’s “the most untouched and uninfluenced by Western culture” since it only reopened its doors to tourists in 2011.  But India has been influenced by western culture, and still just doesn’t give a f*ck.  They still listen to their own Hindi music, wear their own style of clothes, eat their own style of food, and haven’t changed too much to mimic western culture.

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Bali, Indonesia, somewhere close to Ubud.
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Chadni Chowk, Old Delhi, India.

Least favorite country:

Malaysia?  Or Singapore?

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I hate when people ask me this question because there isn’t anywhere that I regret going.  I only say Malaysia because it’s the one country that I never was really like “Wow, I can’t wait to come back here!”  Malaysia felt really bland to me for some reason.  Everything I liked about it was borrowed from another country, ex. their great selection of Indian and Muslim food.  Same with Singapore; except I think a reason that I didn’t love Singapore was because I was balling on a budget, and compared to rest of Southeast Asia, Singapore is pretty expensive.  I also was only there for about 12 hours for a layover.

Best food:

Thailand.  Or India.  Depending if you’re in the mood for light food or not; India is REALLY good but tends to be on the heavier side.  You can literally order a cube of butter to throw in your food, if that gives you any idea.  You also can order your naan bread or chapatti (Indian tortilla) that you eat with every meal slathered in butter.  And they don’t skimp.

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Palak Paneer Thali, Pushkar, India
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Pad Kra Pow Gai Kai Dow, Dan Chang, Suphan Buri, Thailand

Best surprisingly good food:

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It tastes bette than it looks I swear.  That huge square thing is tempeh.  Kuta, Bali, Indonesia

INDONESIA.  Indonesia is a mostly Muslim country, and Bali is the last remaining majorly Hindu island.  So they have DANK vegetarian food – they invented tempeh, a substance similar to tofu that uses whole beans instead of grinding them up.  If there are any food people reading this who have a more accurate description of what tempeh is please help me out.

Worst food:

Vietnam.  I still thought the food was good, it was just very bland compared to other countries.  It’s not super spicy on its own, so I had to bathe everything I ate in chilis.  Not to say anything bad about Pho/Banh Mi.

Weirdest food I ate:

Grilled rat on the side of the road in Cambodia.  I’m telling you, it’s the same as dark meat chicken.  It even came with a sauce, fancy.

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Nicest people:

Thailand!  Thai people are the kind of people who will give you everything, even though they don’t have much to give.  I’m also biased of course.  Myanmar actually may tie for the nicest people.

Least friendly people:

Vietnam.  I was shooed away from a couple food stalls for being foreign.  My friends & I also got robbed in Hoi An, which probably makes me a little biased.  In defense of the Vietnamese people I thought people outside of touristy areas were very friendly(ex. in the Mekong Delta), almost as friendly as Thai people.

Cheapest country:

India!  Everything is priced about the same as Thailand, except it’s in rupees which is worth almost half of a Thai baht.  So I was spending about $4-$6 a night on decent hostels and $1-$2 on restaurant food.

Most expensive country:

Singapore.  I spent $100 on about 12 hours of being there, and I was being cheap.  That would last me at least 3 days in Thailand if I wasn’t being cheap, but also not splurging.

Best shopping:

Thailand!  For trendy western things, and other Thai products like essential oils and anything that can be made from a coconut shell.  India for authentic leather goods and other stuff specific to India.  I bought my mom this dope vintage dress, hand-embroidered and imported from Pakistan.

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Vintage dress from Pakistan.

Most backpacker-friendly:

Vietnam.  Maybe it’s the 5,000 dong beer you can get on beer street in Hanoi(less than a quarter), but the vibe in Vietnam is super backpackery.  I met the most people in Vietnam, hailing from everywhere from the Netherlands to Syria.  It’s also cheap and easy to get transportation.  Also, due to the fact that everyone does a similar route, either north to south or south to north, you tend to run into the same people along the way.

Least backpacker-friendly:

Bali, surprisingly.  It felt more like a vacation destination than a backpacker destination.  It was still cheap compared to the west, but a little more expensive than Thailand.  The kicker for me was transportation costs.  Whereas in most countries I would take busses and other public transportation to get around, in Bali my friends & I always had to hire private cars.  It was fine as we were traveling with 10 people, but if I was solo it definitely would’ve hit my bank a little hard.

Most authentic country:

By authentic I meant felt the least touristy.  Tie – India and Myanmar.  India is definitely tourist-friendly, but more geared towards Indian tourists than foreigners.  Which is understandable, the country is so overpopulated and crowded that even when I was in popular backpacking areas foreigners were an anomaly.  I think I had more people take selfies with me in India in a week than my entire time in Thailand combined, which is saying something.

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Best English:

India – it’s their second language!  However there’s still a problem communicating sometimes.

Worst English:

Myanmar.  But the people are super nice so it makes up for it.

Cleanest country:

Singapore.

Dirtiest country:

India – there’s animal poop EVERYWHERE.  Cows are holy so they serve no purpose, therefore there’s cows wandering around the streets.  Leading to a lot of cow poop.  There’s also trash EVERYWHERE.

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Welcome to Varanasi, where people swim less than 100 yards downriver from where dead bodies have been getting dumped in the water for thousands of years.

Highs

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Kawa Ijen crater, Banjawungyi, East Java, Indonesia
  • Doing a 1AM volcano hike at a volcano in Java, Indonesia next to an acid lake and seeing blue flames coming off the sulfur deposits
  • Seeing my first world wonder! The Taj Mahal in Agra, India looks even better in person.
  • Trekking through rice paddies and villages from Kalaw to Inle Lake in Myanmar
  • Canyoning through waterfalls in Da Lat, Vietnam
  • Teaching – corny but I had to add it.
  • Celebrating Songkran(Buddhist, New Year) in Bangkok in April

Lows

  • Getting robbed in Vietnam
  • Getting into a motorbike accident in Dan Chang. Everyone was fine; no worries.
  • Losing my phone and 2 cards all on separate occasions. All in the same week as getting robbed.  Disclaimer:  All were my fault.

What I missed most about the USA:

  • COFFEE that a) Isn’t NesCafé instant coffee and b) Comes in a cup the size of my face
  • Being able to buy groceries without stares
  • Actually knowing what’s going on, not having to deal with the language barrier
  • Customer service; I was so thrown off my second day back when the cashier at Panera Bread verbally applauded my choice of salad
  • Being able to get ANYTHING at all times; cheese from France, tea from India, and produce from Mexico all in the SAME STORE
  • How freaking CLEAN IT IS

What I’ll miss most about Thailand:

  • Dank STREET FOOD
  • Spicy food
  • THAI FOOD IN GENERAL
  • My motorbike (love/hate relationship)
  • The people; including Thai people, my friends, my boss/Thai mom, my students
  • Cheap wonderful shopping, especially Chatuchak market in Bangkok
  • Being able to club hop around Bangkok without spending more than $20 in an evening

There ya go, a year in Asia(or 11.5 months) in about 1500 words.

Also, any ideas for a new name for this blog?  I need to do some re-branding now that I’m not living in Thailand anymore.

People of Delhi

Super busy lately, in India!  Haven’t had the time to write any long posts, so in the meantime here are some pictures the people of New Delhi.

PS India is dope.

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Haircut on the street (normal)
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Holy men at a Sikh temple
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Vendors selling samosas, chai, and other things
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Holy man at a sikh temple

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Tuk-tuk driver
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Nice man who wanted his picture taken

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Spice market, Old Delhi

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Spice market, Old Delhi
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Same man from earlier offering chai after taking his picture

More to come soon!

Mission Impossible: Getting to the Mosaic Temple in Phetchabun(Wat Phra Sorn Kaew)

Wat Pha Sorn Kaew in Phetchabun(the is in my opinion the most beautiful temple in all of Thailand, rivaled only maybe by the White Temple in Chiang Rai.  There are a MILLION and a half temples in Thailand, so whenever you find one that stands out it’s pretty exciting.  Wat Pha Sorn Kaew is one of the few temples in Thailand that were created as an art form and not just a religious structure, similar to the White Temple.

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As soon as I came to Thailand and saw my friend’s pictures of it, this temple made it towards the top of my Thailand bucket list.  It’s pretty off-the-beaten path for anyone backpacking Thailand.  It’s really difficult to get to, and I don’t think I could’ve done it my first few months in Thailand.  Most foreign tourists who get to this temple do so by organized tour, at least from what I read online.  The only other foreigners I saw at the temple was a small Russian family, so I’m not sure how popular these tours are.

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Phetchabun is a semi-northern province kind of towards the middle of Thailand.  After spending 8-ish days in Pai, I decided to stop in and see this temple on my way back to Bangkok to meet my friends for a music festival.

The Mosaic Temple is located in the mountains of Phetchabun in a town called Khao Kho.  Khao Kho is Thai vacation paradise; there are tons of pretty views and a bunch of resorts.  I made a reservation at a cheap hotel in Khao Kho on Booking.com, but didn’t make it there because I got to neighboring Lom Sak too late.

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Travel hack – always try to book on Booking.com if you’re not sure if you’re going to make it somewhere.  Often you can make reservations with 0 deposit and no credit card information, so you avoid getting charged if you don’t make it somewhere.

Back to Lom Sak.  At the bus station in Chiang Mai I bought a bus ticket to Lom Sak, the biggest city outside Khao Kho, for about 380 baht.  You can also stay in Phetchabun city, which is what some of my friends have done in the past, but that’s an hour away from the temple, as opposed to 30 mintues from Lom Sak.  Also if you’re coming from the North you have to go through Lom Sak to get to Phetchabun city anyways.

Bus Breakdown

I’ve taken a million overnight busses in Thailand and never had an issue.  I’ve never had my stuff stolen, I’ve always felt safe, they’re comfortable and often come with food and an attendance, and they help you save on a night’s accommodation.

However, of course, this time when I’m already headed somewhere I’m completely unfamiliar with AND I’m alone, my bus decides to break down.

NO ONE on the bus spoke English.  So I had to figure out what was going on based on context clues.  After waiting outside the bus for an hour, everyone from our bus AND our stuff crowded onto a passing tour bus from the same company.  With people on it, which means we did it Thai-style – there’s always room for everyone!  I was squeezed into the front of the bus with a bunch of Thai girls about my age, 6 of us to 4 seats.  There were also people in the aisles.

Then we stopped in the middle of nowhere AGAIN and everyone who didn’t have a real seat(me) had to get off.  No one actually told me to get off – I had to guess by everyone staring at me and by copying the Thai girls’ every move.  I probably could’ve snagged a seat but I waited to get on because I was making sure my bag made it on to the bus with me.

Then we waited in the middle of nowheere(at night, mind you) before getting onto yet ANOTHER bus that brought us to a bus station.  Where we had to wait another hour for a bus to come get us at 12:30AM.

I finally got to Lom Sak at around 2:30.  Lom Sak is a small Thai town; very similar to Dan Chang from what I saw.  Therefore no one spoke Enlgish.  There was 1 tuk-tuk driver by the bus station who helped me out.  I mimed “HOTEL! Mai Paeng(not expensive!” and he whisked me off to some random hotel for 400 baht/night.

It was actually a pretty nice hotel, and it was nice having my own room after sleeping on a bamboo cot in a staff dorm at a hostel in Pai for a week.

Mission Impossible

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Then in the morning came actually getting to the temple.  No one at the hotel spoke English, so I went up to the desk to ask for a taxi and showed them a picture of the name of the temple in Thai.  They called a taxi for me, which cost a whopping 800 baht($24).  But I mean it was a private ride to a temple half an hour away and back, so it’s really not bad, I’m just salty because I’m on a budget.

If you go to this temple, definitely bring a friend for a) peace of mind and b) to share costs.

I was even saltier when my “taxi” showed up and it was a freaking songtaew complete with a rooster in the back.

Songtaew – Thai method of transportation consisting of a pick-up truck with benches in the back that’s covered on top.  AKA no air-conditioning.

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The temple was absolutely beautiful, located in the misty mountains of Phetchabun.  My driver even took me to this fancy coffee place with really nice views called Pino’s coffee.  He was really nice, which made me feel bad for yelling at him about showing up with a songtaew.

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Then he brought me to the bus station, and hopped on the bus to Bangkok.  No matter where you are in Thailand, you can ALWAYS find a bus back to Bangkok.

In the end, the whole fiasco was totally worth it, and if you have time to blow in Thailand it’s worth the trek.

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My Week as a Pai-rate: Working at a Hostel With Workaway.com & How You Can Travel For Free

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It seems that people who haven’t traveled much always have this idea in their heads that traveling is expensive.  If you do it like a backpacker and you’re smart about it, it’s really not.  There are also a MILLION ways that you can travel for free, or at least get free accommodation.

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Pai, where I  decided to work for a week.

I’m a big proponent of working and living abroad.  I studied in Italy, I taught in Thailand, and one thing I can say is that living in a foreign country is a COMPLETELY different experience from just traveling there.  The expat world and backpacking world could not be more different.  As an expat you learn a lot more about the country, you get to see things you never would otherwise, and it provides a good home base for visiting other neighboring countries.  As much as I love backpacking, living out of a 14 kilo bag and sleeping in dorms gets exhausting after a while.

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Studying abroad was funnnn.

Ways you can work abroad:

  • Workaway.com – this is a website where people post volunteering opportunities where you work in exchange for accommodation, and sometimes meals/yoga classes/other things as well. The subscription costs $30 for a year.  Most of the opportunities I’ve seen are either agriculture, language tutoring, or hostel work-based.  Con – many of the opportunities are long-term.  I was offered a position working at an elephant rescue center in Chiang Mai as a tour guide, but I would’ve had to give up an entire 3 weeks of travel.
  • Trustedhousesitter.com – there are many similar websites to this, this is just the one that I’m familiar with. If you pay the $30 yearly subscription fee, you can house-sit other peoples’ houses for free, in exchange for staying there.  You also could try house-sitting via Craigslist, but it’s no as guaranteed.
  • Showing up at a hostel – a LOT of hostels offer work in exchange for free accommodation, and sometimes compensation. The downside – you often have to spend a little time at the hostel first before you get the job; it’s hard to find guaranteed jobs online beforehand.  And sometimes you have to commit to a large amount of time, usually around a month.  But it’s an easy way to meet people.  For example I know Slumber Party hostel in Krabi hires all the time, but you have to commit for at least 3 months.  I also saw many hostels in Pai that advertised work for accommodation.
  • Teaching – obvious and self-explanatory. You can get TEFL or CELTA certified on your own and find your own job, or you can go through a program like I did.  You also can find agencies in cities like Bangkok that will help you find a job for a small cut.  Program pros – they take care of your visa and all the confusing paperwork for you, program cons- they’re expensive.
  • Working as a flight attendant – even if you just do it for a year, some programs offer free housing in addition to a salary, and you get to see the world.
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Teaching is a good time
  • VIPKid and other online tutoring websites – it really pays to be a native English speaker in 2017, as English is quickly becoming the number 1 language worldwide, and people will pay money to try and pick up a good accent. So if you are a native English-speaker, there are many websites(most of my friends use VIPKid) where you can sign up to tutor virtually using a Skype-like program.  This pays very well; my friends earn around $19/hour.  And you can pick your own schedule; good for traveling.
  • Upwork.com – and other freelancing websites. These are websites that let you freelance write, graphic design, etc.; all from the comfort of your own laptop.
  • Au pairing – I’ve never really looked into doing this because I’d make a terrible housekeeper, but this is a popular option in France/Spain.
  • Teaching diving – this is a popular option in Thailand on popular diving islands like Ko Tao, where people show up to get PADI certified one week and are teaching the next.  They generally don’t pay well, if they pay at all, but hey, you get to live on an island for at least accommodation usually.
  • Working as a tour guide – there are companies in Europe, specifically Florence where I studied, that do organized tours aimed at students.  I actually applied, interviewed, and was accepted to work for Bus2Alps, but teaching seemed like a more stable source of income, and I had never been to Thailand.  My only complaint about these student tour guide groups is that they’re heavily based on compensation, and most tour guides are required to go out to bars several nights a week to party with prospects to try and sell tours.  I know, I partied with many a tour guide during my time in Florence.  Partying in the week and leading travel groups Thurdsay night-Sunday can be exhausting.  Some companies that do the same thing: FlorenceForFun, SmartTrips, and Euroadventures.
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One of the many lovely cafes in Pai

I gave teaching abroad in Thailand a go, and had a wonderful experience.  That’s never guaranteed of course, a lot of the time people’s experience depends on their placement, boss, etc.  I know several people who couldn’t handle teaching in the same program I was in that bailed.

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Teaching

IMG_4680.jpgI gave my second working-abroad attempt a go in the beginning of March.  I paid $30 for a 1-year subscription on Workaway.com, and started messaging hostels in the Thai islands and Pai, a hippie town 2 hours from Chiang Mai, as those are both places I’ve wanted to visit in Thailand but hadn’t had a chance to yet.

Right before I left Myanmar and was planning on heading to the south of Thailand, I received an e-mail inviting me to work at a backpacker hostel in Pai.  I went to Mochit station, hopped on an overnight bus to Chaing Mai (you have to go to Chiang Mai first to get to Pai), and off I went.

When applying, I only applied to hostels that seemed social, as I was going to be solo traveling extensively for the first time ever and I wanted to meet people.  I got lucky, the hostel I worked at was very social and a little bit of a party hostel, but it was still pretty small and had a nice family-vibe to it.

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Pretty Pai

Overall, I had a great experience during my 1 week working at this hostel.  I worked the front desk, helping check in customers etc., helped out at the bar a couple nights, and spent 1 unfortunate day doing housekeeping.  I saw unfortunate because it was unfortunate for the hostel owner; I’m not very good at cleaning and she wasn’t very shy about letting me know it.  I’ve never had someone rip my cleaning skills so hard in front of my peers.  With my stay came free water, a free bed, drinks at wholesale price(which saved me a lot of baht), and 1 free meal a day.

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Disclaimer: not a free meal, just good coconut milk outmeal I had at a vegetarian restaurant in Pai(Om Garden café)

The owner of the hostel wasn’t the friendliest person, my bed was literally a bamboo cot, and I’m pretty sure one of the nightstands in the staff dorm had termites in it, but I met a lot of awesome people that week and saved a bit of money.  Overall I’d recommend trying workaway.  If you have the guts, however, I’d say showing up somewhere you want to be and trying to find a hostel hiring may be better.  Saving money on a bed doesn’t save you too much in Southeast Asia, but in other places like Europe it really does.  I plan on giving workaway another go in September while I’m apartment hunting in Madrid to save on staying at a hostel, so we’ll see how it goes.

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Biking in Pai

Trekking With Hill Tribes from Kalaw to Inle Lake – Myanmar

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Steve, our Burmese guide Mai, and a farmer from one of the tribes.

One of the more popular activities to do along the Myanmar backpacking trail is trekking from Inle Lake to Kalaw and vice versa.  My friends & I decided to trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake after leaving Bagan, as we figured that ending our trek at the lake would be a nice reward for walking, walking, and walking even more.  So we started out in Kalaw, a tiny little mountain town that doesn’t really have much to it besides trekking companies, and headed off to Inle Lake.

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Isle Lake, made famous by a recent article in National Geographic.

We used a company called Eversmile that I found on one of my favorite travel blogs, TheHungryPartier.com.  I’d highly recommend it; our guide was awesome, it was easy to set up, and it was SUPER cheap.  A guide, accommodation in a village, and a ton of food was included for only $12US a day.  We opted for the 2-day 1-night option, but 3-day 2-night options are popular as well.

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Early morning in the Eversmile trekking office

Confession – I didn’t really know what a “trek” was until I actually did one.  It’s exactly what it sounds like; walking, walking, walking, and more walking.  With some uphill walking in between.  So basically it’s the entire second installation of Lord of the Rings.

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We got off our overnight bus from Bagan to Kalaw bright & early.  I don’t remember the exact price but I want to say that it cost us around $10, everything in Myanmar is pretty cheap.  The occasional downfall of an overnight bus – we awkwardly reached Kalaw around 2 AM, and banged on the door of the first hotel we could find so that we could sleep for a couple hours.  And we paid for a gross room where I could hear termites running around in the wooden post next to my head all night.  Beggars can’t be choosers.

Myanmar Travel Tip – ALWAYS get to the bus station super early.  The bus stations in Myanmar are absolutely freaking MASSIVE, and are completely unorganized.  The busses aren’t numbered, they’re parked by their company, so we spent a lot of time wandering around these huge night markets/bus stations trying to find out bus.

There’s not much to do in Kalaw, it’s just a pretty little mountain town that serves as a base for trekking.

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Pre-trek breakfast in Kalaw

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We walked through hills and rice paddies where tribes were farming.  It was really cool to see; they still use old-school farming methods, as in they use buffalos instead of tractors.  We also walked through several villages and got to see locals up close and personal.  We saw several village people doing local things like weaving bamboo baskets and harvesting sun-baked rice crackers from the fields.

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This dude has baskets full of massive rice crackers.
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Smiling for the camera – maybe not my camera, but still smiling for the camera.

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A heads up if you decide to trek – don’t feed the local kids.  A lot of blogs I read before trekking advise bringing gifts for children, like candy and school scupplies.  Our guide told us not to give the children anything, because a) sugary things like candy ruin their teeth and b) it teaches the children to beg instead of study and grow up to actually work.

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The trek was gorgeous, however unfortunately it’s dry harvest season in Myanmar, so it was very brown.  I’m sure the trek is much more beautiful when it’s green, perhaps after Myanmar’s rainy season.

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The coolest part of our trek (probably because it didn’t involve a ton of walking) was staying in a village.  And by village I mean VILLAGE.  As in it was in the middle of nowhere; you can’t access it by public transportation whatsoever, and they’ve only had electricity since 2011.  I saw several children walking their buffalo and many girls fetching water from the river with baskets.

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We stayed in a homestay, which basically means we slept in a village-person’s home.  They cooked us AMAZING Burmese food; which consisted of a bunch of different sautéed veggies and rice with peanuts.  The trek was surprisingly FREEZING at night, and scorching during the day, probably because we were in the hills.

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Our guide for the trek was named Mai, and he was AWESOME.  He was from a different tribe in a different part of Myanmar.  He said his village takes 4 hours to walk to because you can’t access it via public transportation, and it’s actually too dangerous to visit right now because his tribe is at war with another tribe.

While Myanmar now is officially open to tourists, majority of the country is still inaccessible to tourists.  There is a government-backed genocide happening in the Northwest region, and there is civil war going on between different tribes.  I actually met another traveler who experience civil war first-hand on his trek in Myanmar.  He said that his group heard something explode; and that his guide said it was a mine.  Then his group heard non-stop gunfire from then until the next morning.  They weren’t trekking through the affected area; but they were close to the border.  I’m not sure how much of this story is true, but it is kind of a hard story to make up.

Mai was funny.  He spoke decent English, and said that he was the only person in his village to graduate from University.  He told us about his first time seeing a real city at 7 years old, his amazement when he first aw cars, and about life in his village.

My favorite story from Mai – so Mai is considered high-society in his village, as he’s the only one to graduate from University and he has a good job.  He explained that his people are very simple, and just want to live a simple, happy life.  So when little Mai trekked back to his village, carrying his basket full of a ton of random stuff and wearing brightly-colored clothes, his father said to him “Are you going to a festival?”

I died when he said that because that’s something MY FATHER WOULD SAY if he was a member of the pa-oh tribe.  “TINA we’re going to church, not a fashion show!”

Our trek ended at Inle Lake, where we were given a boat tour around the lake and transportation to our accommodation.  Inle Lake is known for the way its fisherman fish.  It’s very old-school; they use their feet to row while they catch fish with their hands.  It’s really something to watch.  Other than that we were dragged to a few craftsman/workshop/crap type things, and then it was all over.

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Mai and some village people.

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Seeing rural Myanmar on the trek was really something, and I’d definitely do it again.  It also is super rewarding when you get to Inle Lake and realize that you were able to walk 40 km uphill for 2 days.  10/10 would recommend trying.

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