Thursday, September 1, 2011

Looking on the bright side starts with questions.

I'm pretty sure that if I sat down next to Forrest Gump right now and told him about my traveling woes, he'd be telling me how it's like a box of chocolates. And he'd be completely correct.

On the one side, traveling makes you a more worldly person. You see things that bend and completely break your perception of the way things work, and you can find understanding and compassion for others in a way that the Discovery Channel just cannot relate. You can feel. You can think. You can see the world in a way that makes you want to, if you are so inclined, do something to make it better. And if you're not in to all that, you are at least assured the ability to impress others. Yes, you can tell your friends and family about all the wonders they have and haven't ever heard of, and cook them a more accurate, local dessert in a flash if they are craving some Thai and have some coconut milk laying around. And if you're not so cool, you can even gloat and make others wish they too had the balls to travel down dark alleyways in foreign countries.

But there is a trade-off, and at the risk of sounding like a complainer I need to get this out into the world. I could try to sound more diplomatic about the issue, but the main point will come to this:

traveling as a girl kinda sucks.

It will always suck. It doesn't matter if you speak a common language, know self-defense, or spit and grunt like a grandpa. It doesn't matter if you avoid eye contact with everyone you meet and wear sunglasses past dusk. It doesn't nor will it ever matter if you dress completely conservatively, or if you wear shorts and a scandalous-shoulder-bearing tank top when walking down the street. You can be alone, you can be in pairs or groups of women. It doesn't matter. You will be pegged, and you better be ready to get the raw end of the deal while your male counterparts or GTWB (Girls Traveling With Boys) walk past you on the same street with blissful grins like they are actually, really, on vacation.

I know I'm generalizing here, and for that matter, I know I'm being hypocritical, too. I mean, traveling is my personal choice. I was not forced to venture off, and at the end of the day it is my time off to explore and I wouldn't trade it for anything. I also have had plenty of positive experiences around Asia and do not think that all people are out to assault/yell at/grope/mug/steal from/bother/harass/generally creep me out on a daily basis. I also understand that all travelers must be aware of their surroundings and use street smarts in order to have a safe, pleasant-as-possible trip.

But why is it that, being a girl, I am a definite target to local men, no matter the country I visit or the clothes I wear?

Why is it that, being a girl, if I do have a negative experience with a local, the first question asked is, "What were you wearing?"

Why is it that, being a girl, I have to say no a million more times than guys of my age who travel the world?

Why is it that the same men can go out and drink late into the night, and even have the 'power' to engage in illegal prostitution, while in some countries I don't feel comfortable staying out after dark?

I'm smart and I'm responsible. Why is it that others, who may or may not even have the same amount of maturity or commitment to sustainable traveling as I and other women travelers, have the privilege to travel more freely, while we have to fight upstream just to avoid a negative experience?

And more importantly, if these are the people who are able to travel freely, how can we find a way to help others in our global community without getting stuck in viscous cycles that every society faces? And, personally: how will I ever feel comfortable traveling in the places that really need help?

And lastly: will anyone ever take me seriously, or am I doomed to walk foreign (and maybe my local) streets as someone who is easy to take advantage of, when I have so much bigger plans for myself and those I want to impact?

Maybe I'm complaining. Maybe these questions will never have answers in my lifetime. But if we don't ask, and just accept, then how can we get anyone to take notice?
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Saturday, August 27, 2011

C is for Cambodia

Sure, let's state the obvious. But the experienced traveler will also know that when in this Jungle Book-inspired Kingdom, C is not just for Cambodia, but also for


and of course, crickets, which are eaten fried on a stick.

I've been in Cambodia for about 5 days now and can safely day I've experienced a very wide range of emotions here. Sometimes, I'm in awe of history and natural beauty, while other times I am annoyed or distressed at the social issues here and the way I am treated as a foreigner girl from the States. But all that aside, there have been some pretty miraculous things here we've seen and done. Some highlights:

Angkor Wat

We saw Angkor Wat the first full day we were in Cambodia and I consider it a must-do if you are going to be brave enough to travel out here. You can rent a driver for the day (or make plans for up to 3 days, if you want to see every crack and crevice of each temple) for about $10-$20. Our driver took us around and made sure we saw everything we wanted to on our short timeline. Personally, a day was more than enough for me. After 8 hours of ancient-ruin-seeing, they do start to blend a little bit. A couple logistics for those who might travel there:

Angkor Wat is, itself, a temple in the whole slew of temples of that region. There are many more beautiful temples than Angkor Wat, so it'd be good to do a little research if you want to pick and choose which ones to see. Also, if you do decide to visit Angkor Wat (which is the most famous of the temples so I'm guessing you'll end up there), remember that there is a strict dress code if you'd like to go to the top. For men and women, shoulders cannot be exposed and you should wear pants or a skirt/dress that falls below the knees. They really enforce this and you will be denied access to the top if you aren't appropriately dressed. However, on a hot day, if you'd like to wear lighter clothes to the other temples, it's okay. Just bring a sweater or scarf to cover up later.

Take a night bus

Let me start off by saying: do not take the night bus if you expect to wake up feeling refreshed. If you don't like adventure, do not take the night bus. If you get carsick easily, do not take the night bus any bus in Asia. If you like to arrive at your accommodation when they are open and have a room ready for you, then do NOT get on that night bus. But-- if you like to travel cheaply; if you like to try new things; if you like to ride fast down dark, bumpy roads and hear all kinds of sounds from outside your bus; if you can sleep when you feel like you're inside both a space capsule and a very loud, angry uterus; if you can handle the 'bus hangover' you will surely feel as a result of just a few hours' sleep... then, by all means, take the night bus.

Personally, I liked it. But the next day was reserved for recovery, spent mostly on the couch of our hostel's lobby playing cards.

The two cities we've been in so far are Siem Reap and Sihanoukville. Here's a very short summary of my (and by 'my' I mean someone who did not do much research on anything about Cambodia before traveling there) thoughts on each:

Siem Reap

Siem Reap is really cheap and has hoards of hostels for backpackers (we stayed at 'Happy House Guest Hostel' and it seems to be everything the name implies). Siem Reap has many dirt roads with bright orange sand all over, and is divided by a pretty large river full of Asia-esque brown water. There is trash everywhere and you should mind your things because street children are all over asking for food and money and trying to sell you postcards. As poor as it is, there is a lot to see and do, including visits to Angkor Wat and seeing the local markets (which we never made it to due to some illnesses and I'm still regretting). Overall, it was a pretty pleasant experience and we should've stayed longer.


Sihanoukville is touted as a foreigner hub and sounded like a great place to go to the beach. Although the rains are heavy here and makes beach-going impossible, it's not so much the weather that's got me down as the rest of the locals, who kind of make me feel as though I shouldn't be out past dark. Our hostel is located a minute's walk from Serendipity Beach, which is supposedly the most touristed spot in Sihanoukville. Usually I avoid highly-touristy locations; however, I do feel some comfort in knowing we're near other backpackers and don't really feel like venturing any further off this particular path right now. Some advice for people wanting a positive beach experience in Cambodia:
- Paying a little more than the minimum for accommodations goes a long way.
- Do not go to the beach alone.
- Do not buy from the children or give them gifts, as it keeps them out of school. Plus, if other children see you buy from one, you will get swarmed and maybe even physically attacked.
- If you like to party, stay at Serendipity Beach. If you want something mainstream but with better views, try Victory Beach, just north.
- Lastly, if you want to ensure good weather, try to plan your trip outside the July-October rainy season.

That's a wrap for now. Tomorrow we're headed to the Vietnam Embassy (conveniently in Sihanoukville) to get visas for the following week. Just a week left of this crazy adventure!
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Tuesday, August 23, 2011

SE Asia's currencies: ROLE CALL

One of the interesting things about traveling around multiple countries that I've never dealt with before is currency. In SE Asia, with distinct cultures and histories, everyone's got their own currency (with its very distinct conversion to USD!). Fortunately(ish), we are able to use USD here and there throughout our whole trip. However, it's always good to try to support the strength of local currency as well as preparing yourself for smaller vendors not wanting to see good ol' Lincoln in their pockets. Here's what we'll have handled by the end of our trip:

South Korean Won: Used on the Korean peninsula exclusively.
Approximate conversion to 1USD: 1,000-1,200KRW
USD accepted in South Korea? No.

Thai Baht: Used in Thailand and in neighboring regions of Myanmar (Burma), Laos and Cambodia.
Approximate conversion to 1USD: 30-33THB
USD accepted in Thailand? No.

Cambodian Khmer: Used in Cambodia. Also called 'Cambodian Riels'.
Approximate conversion to 1USD: 4,000- 4,100KHR
USD accepted in Cambodia? Yes.

From Lonely Planet, I've heard it's good to have about $10USD worth of riels around when traveling through Cambodia, though ATMS will dispose USD when withdrawing cash.

Vietnamese Dong: Used in Vietnam.
Approximate conversion to 1USD: 20,000d
USD accepted in Vietnam? Yes.

In Vietnam, however, ATMs will dispose dong as oppose to USD.

And finally--

United States Dollar: Used in so many countries it makes my head spin. For this trip, we will use USD in Cambodia, Vietnam, and Malaysia (during a layover).

Basically, it never hurts to have some USD around, but make sure to have local currency on you too. AND, as always, wear a money belt or keep your money hidden tight!

I'm just about done with half of my currencies, narrowing it down to the final 3 before heading home. Hopefully the conversions will come easy; if not, I'll be adding a calculator to my packing list for future ventures.
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Monday, August 22, 2011

Chiang Mai me.

My return to the "New City" has been more than enlightening.

The last time I visited Thailand, it was with an ISV (International Student Volunteers) tour group. ISV is a great program and I probably wouldn't have gotten the guts to travel to SE Asia at all if not for this program. However, there is a huge difference between traveling with a group and backpacking on your own itinerary (or lack thereof). Fortunately, many countries in SE Asia, especially Thailand, will bend over backwards for foreigners because their economy is so tourism-based. We have had many positive encounters with people here who honestly want to help us get from place to place, which counters my original Western perspective that everyone in developing countries is out to rip you off. However, there are always safety measures to take. Some major pointers for a first-timer:
  • Never let go of your bags or their openings.
  • If you ride on a bus or train, try to keep your luggage with you as opposed to letting staff put it in under carriage storage. Many times, people (planned or unplanned) will raid through your things.
  • If you are alone or in a crowded area, it's a smart idea to wear a money belt. If you don't want to get caught wearing the brighter-than-neon tourist symbol around your hips, then cargo pockets are another solid option for you to store your cash, as they are less easy to pick pocket.
  • Always travel with a lock and key. Many hostels will provide lockers but rarely have locks.
  • If you take transportation (cab, bus, ferry) without a ticket price, confirm the cost of the ride before you take off.

When all else fails, use common sense, ask another foreigner, or follow your gut and you should be fine.

My stay in Chiang Mai has had me utilizing all my knowledge of safety I could draw on, but I also got to let my guard down and join in on the culture more than I have before on a typical vacation abroad. Chiang Mai is a beautiful city with lots of color, life and culture. Home to the cheapest massages around and with breakfast venues on every corner, this place is a paradise to foreigners and Thai people alike for its services as well as its industry.  Chiang Mai also has a plethora of Buddhist temples all around the city, which makes it kind of a love child between a beachy-style, San Fran wannabe and a Thai cultural hotspot.

Basically, I'm in love.

One note-able remark for staying in any city in Thailand (especially the big ones like Bangkok and Chiang Mai), would be to avoid elephant street begging. When you see these guys walking around the street asking for food and money, it is safe to assume they are unhealthy, stressed out and scared. Please do NOT support their business. If you really want to support the tourism industry here by seeing elephants, visit the Elephant Nature Park just outside Chiang Mai. They are a non-profit which supports elephants living free of abuse, and you can have the rare opportunity to see them in a large habitat, feed them, and bathe them in the river. By the end, you will probably even be besties. That's a MUCH more realistic and sustainable way to help our big friends and the Thai community, don'tchathink?

Our hostel in Chiang Mai has also been note-able. A Little Bird Guesthouse is amazing for its location and price (about $3 a night!), but aside from things being at the bare bare essentials (which is manageable), we had a rude awakening this morning when a new guest moved rooms at 7:30am because the one she was settled into wasn't satisfactory. Thus, I feel it beneficial to anyone reading this post to check out some tips on hostel guest etiquette:

  • Do NOT wake the travelers. If it is 7:30am. If it is 2pm. If they are hungover. If they are jet-lagged. Do NOT wake them. Guests are paying to, above all else, sleep.
  • Do not leave the doors of your hostel room open of there are guests inside who are sleeping/changing/picking their nose. Guests are, secondly, paying for some sense of privacy.
  • Only take up the amount of space you are paying for. Got a private room? Throw your clothes and have a dance party. But if you paid for one bed, don't spread your things out with hopes nobody will show up. Odds are they will and then you'll have to go through the Shameful Bed Clearing ritual many backpackers are familiar with.
Those are just some basics. Like with safety, if you use common sense you're sure to be fine.

That's all for now. Tomorrow we are planning on heading out into the mountains for some more temple-seeing. then to Cambodia the next day!

Take care, wherever you may be!
Laura and Cheengu
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Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Getting to Thailand: planes, trains and automobiles.

Minus trains, I am pretty sure Christy and I used almost every form of transportation we possibly could've to get to Koh Samui, and passed through neighboring cities and countries along the way. Oh, and we learned some amazing lessons too.

From Seoul, the trip started early in the morning as we took a flight with the cheapest airline possible (AirAsia-- not the nicest, but definitely the cheapest) through Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and then onto Phuket. Aside from the extremely cold conditions of the airplane (causing us both to go into tourist hypothermia and hide under our blankets like fuzzy scared blobs), we also had the joy of experiencing some amazing turbulence that caused our plane full of Korean passengers to go into a screaming fit. At first, we thought this was due to the same panic we were feeling but later overheard the Korean expression for "How fun!". Some even went so far as to pretend they were on a roller coaster. In the middle of the sky. During dangerous turbulence.

Annnnnd this is why I'm going on vacation.

Once arriving in Phuket, we swam through the sea of tour agencies and cabbies to find a good deal on transportation to our hostel. A tip about transportation in Thailand: barter. Barter til you're blue in the face. Set your maximum price and stick with it, and you will find a good deal. Our hostel owner (Ananas Phuket Hostel) even bartered lower upon arrival at the hostel because she thought we were paying our young, fairly inexperienced driver too much.

The next day, we were off again on a 6-hour bus ride that finally let out on the other side of the southern arm of Phuket, namely Sura Thani. Our hostel also helped us set this up so that the bus ride was not only safe and reliable, but transferred directly to the ferry dock. From there, it was a 2-hour ferry ride to Koh Samui. Now, this is the low season for tourism because of tropical storms. We had our first encounter with a storm that night with rain so hard it forced itself through our cabbie's driver-side door. Fortunately, our next hostel is also extremely well-kept and we won't be worrying about any rain leaks while staying on the island.

The island of Koh Samui is pretty large, but the beach we are staying at, Chaweng, is made basically for tourists and will only hold our attention (and budget) for a couple days. All in all though, this place is heaven and we are thoroughly enjoying the fresh fruit, sudden rains, coconut juice, morning beaches and-- of course-- the cheaper-than-dirt shopping.

I'll keep you all updated at we continue along. Next stop-- Chiang Mai, Thailand's 2nd largest city.

-Laura and Cheengu
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Thursday, August 11, 2011

annnnnd 365 days later, another take-off.

So, in the spirit of offering travel tips and information, I thought I'd post my pre-traveled thoughts on what the tentative itinerary for SE Asia is. My travel partner-in-crime and I made this a pretty quick trip (20 days) through Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam because

1) we've been out of our homeland for over a year and want to go home sooner than later,

and 2) have commitments at home that made for a time restraint.

If you wanted, you could spend several months traveling through this region of Asia, simply because it's seriously beautiful, cheap, AND transportation can take up quite a chunk of time!

However, if you are looking to visit Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam in 3 weeks or less, feel free to keep checking this blog for more travel tips on what to do and not to do.

A couple notes:

We are leaving from South Korea, which gives us a little extra time and also will not account for jet lag that those from the Western world might feel upon arrival. If you will be on a serious international flight (which I consider to be 9 or more hours), give yourself 1 day to rest when you arrive to your final destination, especially if you are a first-time traveler. This does not mean to sleep that entire day. You should try to adjust to your new time zone as best as possible. However, take it easy. Don't sign up for a rock-climbing excursion on Day 1 or anything.

Some of our stops along the way are simply to save money in terms of flying. SE Asia can be incredibly cheap to get around if you have the time to do so. Especially in SE Asia, there is no high-speed train (unlike South Korea, China, and Japan), so if you want to avoid flying, just be aware that this will take a lot more time, but is by far the more cost-effective option. You can check travel forums to ask about specific bus rides and fares to see approximate times and prices, but just know you will have to have an overall more flexible schedule.

If you do want to fly, make sure to price check, and often! is a great source for cheap airline tickets, as is In our case, we booked a few flights to save time, and although we had to get a little creative (by arriving in nearby cities and then bussing to our final destination) we came out with some really good deals while still saving time. It's all a balancing act.

The rough itinerary of our 20 days is as follows:

Day 1: Fly Seoul to Phuket
Day 2: Bus Phuket to Sura Thani, boat Sura Thani to Koh Samui
Day 3/4: Koh Samui, overnight boat back to Sura Thani
Day 5: Sura Thani to Chiang Mai
Day 5-10: Chiang Mai (including a tour to the Elephant Nature Park for a little volunteering and elephant-playing)

Day 11: Fly Chiang Mai to Siem Reap
Day 12/13: Siem Reap and Ankor Wat

After this, we kind of left things unplanned. The overall idea is to bus down to the west coast of Cambodia (Sihanoukville), eventually get visas into Vietnam and then bus and boat into Vietnam (in that order). We will fly out of Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) and back to Seattle as an end to this crazy journey.

I'll be posting as often as possible during this trip to keep friends and family updated, but if you're reading just for fun don't worry-- lots of anecdotes and travel advice surely await.
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Friday, August 5, 2011


I couldn't think of a better word for my life right now. I'm going out there, but really everything's got kind of a "we'll be right back to your regularly scheduled programming" kind of feeling about it.

It's probably because I have 8 days til I leave Ulsan, the city I now know better than Seattle, and less than 10 days til I take-off for my trip through SE Asia. So aside from teaching for 3 hours daily and cleaning every conceivable corner of my apartment, there's not much to focus on besides getting-the-heck-out-of-here.

AND.... packing. Which, as any of my blog followers already know, I completely adore.

Packing for SE Asia in August is relatively easy because it's so hot... no winter coats or snowshoes in this bag. However, with this being my 2nd trip to that region, here are a couple of items I thoroughly recommend:

1. Plastic ponchos or a light (and I mean, light) jacket with a hood. Just because it's the rainy season doesn't mean it's cold. Truthfully, the only function of this albeit very important piece is to waterproof yourself or the important things you might be carrying.

2. Motion-sickness tablets. I know there are probably a lot of other important medical concerns people have when they think of Southeast Asia (like malaria or typhoid fever), but honestly unless you are going to be in extremely rural areas, not wearing any bug repellant and rolling around in the dirt while drinking unfiltered water, you will probably be fine. However, this doesn't mean to skip a visit to the travel doctor before you go abroad! It's better to be safe, just not paranoid.

Although I'm not prone to motion sickness, transportation in SE Asia can be kind of rough on a person: long bus rides on continuously winding, undeveloped roads... boat rides for hours... it's just the kind of thing you would rather be prepared for than not.

3. Passport-size photos. Apparently they are a requirement for entering Cambodia and Vietnam, along with copies of the front page of your passport. And some money. They wouldn't want me if I didn't have some of that.

Well, that's it. That's all you need.

No, just kidding. But those are definitely an overlooked top 3. If you'd like to know more about packing for an adventure, check out my Travel Kit 101 page and with that and some common sense you should be all set.
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