To Bocas or not to Bocas

The last morning on Chichime was moody like the first – grey skies and slight rain. We gathered around for one last United Nations egg and cheese-something breakfast and again boarded the ‘launcher’, this time the seas seemingly even rougher and the boat going slowly along with the current. I didn’t love this boat trip either (maybe I’d feel like less of a paranoid white girl if I didn’t have an obsessive fear of losing my phone or passport) but at least this time we weren’t imitating a rocket ship, making air with every large wave. I sat next to the Dutch girl, Hilda, and we shrugged as the rain came sideways at us. “What are you gonna do?”



Back on the grid in Panama City I was still reeling from my incredible time on Chichime, but the day was young and I needed to begin a motion for where I was headed next. Plans are funny, because people always ask me about them, but the more I’ve traveled the less and less I make them in advance. Reflecting on the first long trip I ever took overseas where I booked everything prior to departure, I’ve turned into more of a laid back traveler (all the “box-ticking” through the city on day one was really not my style) and with no sense of urgency and a sort of blase attitude towards being busy on this trip, decisions aren’t always (or ever) quick to be made. Originally I planned, albeit loosely, to get to Bocas Del Toro on the western Caribbean part of the country, yet opening the iPhone weather app to see only 70F and rain for days wasn’t exactly pushing me to now make the move. Bocas is a bit of a ride from Panama City – 10 hours by overnight bus – which I didn’t really mind, but catching that bus would mean one more full day in Panama City waiting around, and a day of that was already looking a carbon copy of what I was doing today. I looked at other beach options on the Pacific side – SUNNY FORECAST! 80 DEGREES! but reasonable accom booked up. And if I’d want to go anywhere else, I’d have to take a cab to the Panama City bus station and attempt to navigate buying a ticket without being properly prepared with Spanish (I’ve never had a single lesson, and we already know how well my Spanish performed on San Blas.) Although I’d done these difficult bus/train/transit purchases a dozen times in Southeast Asia, this was suddenly all feeling so complicated for a 9 day trip. Am I lazy? Old? Or just holidaying hard? I couldn’t be bothered. The weather app is probably lying anyway – I went on AirPanama.com and booked a flight. Bocas tomorrow. 45 minute trip. Landing by 12pm. Done.

By now it was about dinnertime, a traveler’s witching hour of sorts, where everyone is finally “home” from their respective day activities, hanging about in common areas, cracking open $1 beers, exchanging so-where-are-you-froms, making connex, making plans, making moves. I was probably with my nose in my phone looking less than social, but Ivar talked to me anyway, a young Norwegian ostensibly from Babetown (can I say that on here?) passing through Panama City on his way to surf. We skipped the basic backpacker interview (how long have you been traveling, where did you come from, where are you going, zzzz, boring) and got right to ideas and dreams and what it would be like to set up a business based on a surfers getaway trip in the fjords of Norway. We rallied his travelmate, another youngin named Oliver, and Hannah, a girl they’d met from the UK, and grabbed a cab to Casco Viejo. This area is known to be the cultural center of Panama City, the old town, the history, the Spanish influence! Oliver wanted a pizza.

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We found a spot and were seated outside at a pair of cafe tables, drinking those kind of beers that just never seem to give so much as a buzz, the Norwegians repeatedly urging me to try this weird Nordic minty dipping snus they had brought from home. Not at all a fan of tobacco my initial reaction was “no effing thanks” but the longer the idea brewed the more intrigued I became. The boys gave me simple instructions: dry out a part under your lip and stick in one of the snus packets. I followed their directions and there I sat, with a derpy look on my face, some tingly crap in a packet pressed up against my gums, like a sitting duck just waiting for whatever was supposed to happen next. The convo carried on, but it was only a matter of minutes before I looked across the table at Oliver and the two weaksauce beers I drank started to feel like ten. “NOPE!” I said – and out was spit the snus.


In the morning I bid farewell to the Norwegians, Hannah would be joining me in Bocas the following day. I’ll save the cliffhanger: the weather ended up being fine.

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Desert Islanding on Koh Tao

After two weeks of hustle bustle sight-seeing and travel, I could’ve cried over how excited I was to be in Koh Tao. When I finally arrived I kept looking at the GPS map on my phone and zooming out to see this little dot in the ocean. I’m on this tiny island. I’m so far away from everything.

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The previous two weeks were exhausting. In addition to getting used to a 12 hour time zone change, I had been sweating through religious temples, historically significant mountains and assorted ancient ruins, and now I was in Koh Tao, where there was absolutely nothing I was supposed to do. And since I didn’t plan on diving like 90% of the visitors, this was undoubtedly my time to do just that: nothing. I already had arranged to meet up with one friend on the island, an Israeli named Tal that I’d met in Phnom Penh (hi Tal!) so I wasn’t worried about having a bunk experience here like I had in Chiang Mai. People can change any destination from ‘blah’ to ‘boom!’ and the islands were definitely the latter. Well, mostly.

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Koh Tao I quickly pronounced “the laziest fucking place I’ve ever been”. I stayed in a backpacker’s building that wasn’t strictly associated with any particular diving school, so the majority of people I encountered there weren’t far off from me – people who ended up here one way or another and didn’t really have any set plans.

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I arrived assuming that if nothing else, I could explore the island alone. What I had pictured Koh Tao’s landscape to be was something of a flat island, or at least flat around the edges with one ring road connecting the areas, making accessibility to several beaches easy, thus exploring the island solo an optimal idea. Koh Tao, while beautiful, is nothing like that. It’s not even remotely flat and not only is there no ring road, but the roads that do exist beyond the main beach are not in great condition. Hiring a motorbike is not advised, and bicycles? Ha. They don’t exist. I would tell you all about this island I spent 5 days of my life on, but I can’t. Sairee Beach, what’s up.

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Koh Tao is its own kind of experience though – the power goes out everywhere sporadically throughout the day, and internet access is broken more often than not. Who cares about WiFi on a tropical island? People who aren’t diving on a diver’s island. My whole hostel. The laziest people you’ve ever met.

I kid. It’s not fair to really say “lazy” about people on holiday.

First there was Taka, a Japanese guy who seemed to be comatose for days on end. No one really knew what was wrong with him, and his English was “nah so gud” so for all intents and purposes, Taka was dying. I didn’t know any differently. I just hoped whatever was killing him, he didn’t give to me.

Also in my dorm were these four English chicks. I never got around to remembering their names, but they were young and fairly friendly, so I didn’t mind having them around for this total lazy fest. If I had to choose one word to describe them, it would be “Wooooo!” because that’s what it seemed like they were in Thailand for – screaming “Wooooo!” at beach parties with their hands in the hair, probably a bucket of booze or wine cooler in at least one, if not both of them. I’m not even judging. I’m just sure everyone has a better mental picture of them now, right?

Then there was Sal. A buff 30 year old from Leeds, the first time I met him it was the middle of the day and I was confident that he was drunk. I later told him that was my first impression of him and he asked why that was. At the time I couldn’t put my finger on it, but in retrospect it’s because Sal doesn’t really have an indoor voice. Here Taka the Japanese guy is visibly dying in the room and Sal was talking to me at about an eleven and sitting on the edge of Taka’s bed while he was in it. My eyes bulged out of my head a little at the time but truly it’s not all Sal’s fault that I thought he was drunk – he wasn’t diving here either, and with little else to do on Koh Tao during the day I just assumed the bar is where he’d been instead. Turns out, Sal is pretty freaking deaf. Not like, sign language deaf, but definitely repeat-everything-you-say-twice deaf. And don’t ever mumble. Sorry, Sal. I “get” you now.

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Sal and I forged a unique friendship over the next few days, one where we would wake up late to get breakfast, drop off laundry that we couldn’t be bothered to do ourselves, and ask each other favors like “Can you go outside, take a picture of the weather, and then text it to me?” Sal and I stuck together like two peas in a pod. Or rather, two non-divers on Koh Tao.

The final addition to what would become our supergroup was Julia, a lovely young lady from Germany. Like Taka, she arrived dead, and I had no idea what she even looked like for the two days she spent in our room with her face in a pillow. With Sal pulling all kinds of mortifying drunk antics like hopping in her bed with a wet swimsuit on at 4 in the morning, it’s any wonder she talked to us at all, but once she was feeling better Sal somehow charmed her enough that she joined us for drinks and dancing on the beach and accompanied us to lazy late breakfasts as well.

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An eclectic mix of personalities, from several corners of the earth. This certainly wasn’t going to be so ‘blah‘ after all.IMG_8167

Leaving Las Mainland

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Right around the time I wanted to get from Chiang Mai to the islands is pretty much when I realized I should never listen to anyone. Chiang Mai – while still an incredible experience – wasn’t this mecca of Thai culture like it was talked up to be, and worse, the regional flights from the area to the beaches were outrageously priced – where are all these “cheap” regional flights everyone is talking about? I wasn’t particularly in a rush to arrive anywhere, so a long journey I took via train… back to Bangkok. Oye.

I’m not good at math but I’m pretty sure no matter how I add it up, the length of the journey from Chiang Mai to Koh Tao is still a complete joke. I stayed in one country the whole time and it still took longer than my flight from New York to Singapore. Something like 40 hours? Seriously. Now I know why people will pay so much for the flight.

On the train span headed towards Bangkok I met an ageless woman named Renee. I say ageless because she was cool as hell, but actually probably in her early 50’s. Renee was a hippie older sister type, had a zillion stories to tell about Thailand in the 80’s, life raising kids in Africa, and pretty much anything you could imagine to make you feel like you hadn’t lived yet. Where she was leaving and where she was headed hardly mattered. We both were looking to kill a few hours in Bangkok (it was 8am my next train wasn’t until 6 at night) so she took me to the famous Sunday market, a market so big they hand out maps at every entrance. As the market became too hot to bear we bought some coconuts and a mat and sipped the water from under the palm trees by a pond in the park. The things that happen when you travel alone are weird. I don’t even know this woman, and we just created a postcard moment together. Why would anyone bother with that budget airplane after all?
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My second sleeper train arrived in Chumphon at 5am, followed by the most immaculate sunrise ferry ride to Koh Tao. At this point, who knows what day it is? Who cares how long it’s taken? Who cares that I paid like, 70 baht to shower in a train station bathroom yesterday? The other passengers and I sprawled out across the deck of the boat on our backs, heads on our luggage, closed our eyes, and soaked all of the rising sun in. Koh Tao, we’re finally almost here.

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“Lost” in Chiang Mai

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Chiang Mai looked lovely from the minute I stepped foot there. I was thrilled to be in this mountainous country gem after Bangkok, but my pace didn’t seem to be on par with other backpackers this time.

Chiang Mai was lonely.
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Northern Thailand is an excellent place to do hired tours – trekking for days, all kinds of elephant nonsense, hill tribe experiences, you name it – all expensive things that I had no intention of doing. These hired tours are an issue when you aren’t going on them – every tour group is it’s own clique, and if you’re just biding time in the same hostel not doing one, you’re invisible. Aside from talking to my bunkmates and a friendly Brit I kept bumping into on the street, I met no one in Chiang Mai. Snore.
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I was especially determined to make the most of my time in the area despite my shoestring budget, but it wasn’t coming as easily as I’d hoped. Even to hire a short ride to some areas outside of the city limits had a high price tag which made me sad. I missed Cambodia and my cheapo tuk tuk drivers. I don’t even know where to begin here.

I won’t bother boring myself by telling anyone how far out of the way I walked trying to get to Doi Suthep (the nearby mountain with a buddhist temple and panoramic views of Chiang Mai) but it was awful. I wasted an entire morning, then eventually arrived there on the back of a songthaew for a bogus 500 baht. The hassle was worth it fortunately – even the ride up the mountain gave me chills. Perhaps here it was a better place to be alone.
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Later in the evening I walked to the Tham Boon Khan Dok festival at Wat Chedi Luang. If this was the only thing I got out of Chiang Mai, it was still worth it. The festival is uniquely Chiang Mai as it’s a blessing for the city pillar. As I approached the area, the hum of the monks praying was loud, there were stalls everywhere for locals to buy flowers as their offering. The entire experience was very surreal and I walked the whole area feeling completely unnoticed, like a fly on the wall peering into a day in the life of these Thai people. The 14th-century temple was the center of the festival and thr most impressive I’d seen, with its illuminated animal statues surrounding the complete perimeter.
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Chiang Mai seemed to have many hidden wonders but I wasn’t too sure where to find them. After two days I couldn’t put any more time into this city and I really wanted to get to the islands. Thailand has felt so touristy that I didn’t mind continuing the trend but instead on the relaxing tip. Time to even out this tourist tan with some real beach rays. 20130630-173817.jpg

…but different

To Chiang Mai from Bangkok I took an overnight bus. It’s not the greatest option at a 9 hour ride, but also not the worst. The train system in Thailand is nice but it has a few downfalls: one being that tickets must be bought at the train station, another that tickets often should be bought far in advance. I couldn’t be bothered to navigate myself to the station in Bangkok and my hostel sold bus tickets at the front desk, so whatever they sold me is what I took.

A 9 hour ride sounds long but before I knew it there I was at half five in the morning, completely disoriented, in Chiang Mai and not totally convinced of it.

I noticed a lot of backpackers in SE Asia just rock up in a city with no arranged accommodation and find something when they arrive. That’s completely bold – the last thing I want to do in 90F 90% humidity is wander with a 40 pound sack on my back looking for a cheap room. I applaud those more adventurous than I. That method is not for me. It’s enough that I’m standing here in Chiang Mai with no clue where the bus has dropped me and all the other passengers scattered like ants. I asked a few local people if they could show me where we were on a map I had, but the English this morning was non-existant, so like a bumbling idiot I stood instead until a tuk tuk driver appeared to take me to my destination. For the entire trip I had been seeing tourist shirts with the text “same same” written on them, but it had been completely lost on me until this moment:

“How much for a ride to Deejai’s Hostel?”
“100 baht.”
“Can you do it for less?”
Same same. But lucky morning. 80 baht.”

I got “Same Same-d” at 5 in the fucking morning. I almost fell over before climbing in the back of his tuk tuk. It’s all same same, but different. Lucky morning indeed.

One [too many] night[s] in Bangkok

I really didn’t want to go to Bangkok at all. Big foreign cities annoy me unless I plan to immerse myself in them for a number of days to really figure things out, but Bangkok didn’t have enough to offer to make me want to do that. Nevertheless, it was my gateway to Thailand and the ghettobus there from Siem Reap was only $10, so to Bangkok I had to go.
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As with other places I’ve traveled to in SE Asia I had no idea where I was when I arrived off the bus, so haggling with a taxi driver to get me to my hostel was partially useless. I had a slight idea of prices to know that the 1,000 baht ($30) he asked for was outrageous, but I was pushing for 300 baht and couldn’t get him below 350. After the journey from Cambodia I had little patience for the chaos and couldn’t find another driver to even give me a price so I got stuck with the first guy, and in addition to feeling a little ripped off to the tune of only a few dollars, the driver didn’t even drop me off in front of my hostel and I couldn’t find it. I showed some Thais the address and eventually one was polite enough to walk me in the right direction – that’s all she could do since I can’t understand the language and the correct building was actually several blocks away. Not the best intro to Bangkok, guys.

I received the hostel recommendation from a girl who had been in my room in both Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, and upon arriving there it was positively the cleanest place I’d ever stayed in. Although it really didn’t change my mind about Bangkok, I decided to add a second night there so I wasn’t racing to my next destination without ever unpacking, and I desperately wanted to use the opportunity to organize the next few days and get laundry done. Other than that, it was hot and incredibly humid. I did not want to be in Bangkok.

The first night I met two English girls on their way home after a year doing working holiday in Australia. They asked if I’d like to go to Khoasan Road (the Westernized backpacker district) with them, and since my plans looked more like going to sleep at 9 (god, I’m boring) I accepted – but sadly it’s really nothing worth seeing. Top 40 music blares in the streets, flimsy print t-shirts are for sale, and creepy old men advertise a “ping pong show” (that whole concept had to be explained to me later. Ew.)

The following day felt more promising: I met two lovely ladies named Robia and Rebecca who were from North America but studying abroad in Hong Kong. I asked them what there was to do in Bangkok anyway, “Shopping!” they replied, and shopping with them I went.
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Although we wandered through a few ritzy malls, they were looking for the bargains and we headed to a multilevel center called Platinum. The prices were clearance and clothes decent, but the stores don’t offer changing rooms so everything is a bit of guesswork and then praying it looks flattering when you arrive home. I already know I’m not the size of an Asian, but it was fun to look.

In the late afternoon during shopping I began to feel increasingly off. My muscles ached and my eyes felt like they were staring through things. I had absolutely no appetite and the curry I ate for a late lunch felt like dead weight in my stomach. I did get some mosquito bites a few days ago, Oh my lanta, do I have dengue? Convinced I was dying in the truest form, I ran home from the malls alone in all the rush hour congestion and holed up in my bed for the night, feeling horribly feverish and bracing myself for the onset of something bad that was about to come. I looked up hospital addresses in case anything really started to go wrong. I hate you, Bangkok. I don’t even want to be here.
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I tossed and turned most of the night, but in the morning nothing had progressed into anything worse, so I dragged myself out of bed to get out and see some things with Robia and Rebecca. The ferry ride we took made me super queasy, but at least I made it out of bed, at least I don’t have dengue fever after all. Later that night I caught the bus to Chiang Mai, laundry clean and completely relieved… Finally out of Bangkok. boatbangkok

A wrap on Cambodia

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My last day in Siem Reap I spent being sufficiently lazy – a good thing since reception messed up my reservation and I spent several hours fighting with them about it in the middle of the day. All I really wanted was to walk to the night market and have Cambodian curry, which I eventually did and it was by far the best meal of the whole trip. By the time I returned back to the hostel it was witching hour at the sandy upstairs bar, so despite my plan to have one beer I got dragged out to Pub Street with these young guys anyway – Phil I had already met in Phnom Penh, along with two Danish travelers and a muscly English guy.

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Here’s a clip of a pack of Cambodian kids attacking the guys on a walk to Pub Street. Kids can’t take us down, just take our wallets.