After 3.5 years in Asia, I finally returned to the US for an overdue visit home. Visiting friends around the country, family gatherings, and lunch dates controlled my schedule on top of rather boring work I had to do, but now things are sort of settling in. Time to update this ole’ thing!
Many of these photos are credited to Adam. He captured some moments much better than I could have!
Six months of travel overview
A handful of months of constantly being on the go has been an adventure and full of lessons and stories. Every moment, every day, every month was remarkable. Even “dull” moments, such as waiting at the bus terminal, can be interesting. Our philosophy is “everything is new to us”. With this mindset, we were like babies observing everything around us and taking in new stimuli.
I started to get burnt out, however, by the five-month mark. Certain things that used to excite me didn’t anymore. Walking around looking for a place to eat became burdensome when foreign, hungry, and vegetarian several times a day. I missed cooking, but the food really was fantastic. I just don’t crave a spicy curry and rice early in the morning everyday.
I don’t want to ever be jaded by travel, so visiting home at the six-month mark was the perfect time to do so. Being home has finally been a vacation, a time to relax and get away from ‘normal’ life. My normal life is a nomadic and busy one, so being home and staying put for more than a week really is a vacation!
Here’s a video capturing one second every day from August 2015-March 2016 including a few days of saying goodbye in Korea and coming home to the USA.
September: South India
It started with a month of being on the go nonstop in India. We covered a lot of ground in thirty days–the time our visa allowed–but only experienced a tiny fraction of what the country has to offer. India is a challenging place to travel and I never felt totally relaxed, but it was still rewarding to discover. This unique chunk of earth that can be its own universe. Out of all of my travels, it felt like the most foreign place. The noises, smells, sights, customs, crowds, and foods were like nothing I’ve experienced before. My senses were always stimulated and there were so many moments of shock. Wait… what just happened?
People were incredibly kind, specifically our CouchSurfing hosts. Sure, people are kind everywhere, but people were especially curious and wanted to learn about us because foreigners are few and far between. Most stereotypes I’ve had about India were diminished. Contrary to the warnings I received, I felt safe and generally trusting of the people. And no, I didn’t get Delhi Belly. In fact, I’m certain my stomach can handle any kind of food now. I look forward to traveling in the north one day, but I’d have to rebuild my energy before doing so; it’s an exhausting place to be.
October: Northern Thailand
Next, we flew to Thailand for thirty days for my second visit and Adam’s first. Bangkok actually felt quiet compared to Mumbai because people weren’t heavy with the honking. The peacefulness was greatly appreciated and welcomed. We indulged in all kinds of street food, got our hands dirty while volunteering on an organic farm, walked lots of dogs, went on motorbike adventures, met some great people, and played in waterfalls in Pai. Thailand is easy and simply beautiful.
Most of November was spent in Laos, which is the most laid back country yet. The sunsets and natural beauty created wonderful memories. We had plenty of downtime to create art and play cards with our British friends. Some of the most beautiful waterfalls dot the country, Kuangsi being the most memorable. Motorbiking through the countryside and watching kids play soccer in the pouring rain while we dodged it under a random awning were especially memorable.
I learned the horrific truth that the US left millions of unexploded bombs in Laos during the Vietnam War and how affected the people still are today. Laotian people seem to remain calm and forgiving, wanting to move on from the past, while I felt angry with my country. Traveling through Buddhist countries taught me more about mindfulness and equanimity. However, I tried to keep in mind that citizens do not represent the actions of the government, especially since I was not even born yet. Still, I couldn’t help but feel some responsibility.
Our last night was spent having an insightful chat with a Canadian physician on a rooftop who informed us about Laos’ current medical system (antiquated, but improving). He’s been volunteering for the past 15 summers to develop a medical school on his own dime. It was inspiring to meet someone so passionate and selfless.
Tourists tend to flock to Thailand or Cambodia before considering Laos, but I would recommend fitting this special country in your itinerary.
November & December: Vietnam
We were welcomed into Vietnam with a 12-hour bus ride equipped with disco lights and loud club music videos. Welcome to Vietnam! It’s busy, it’s loud, it’s my favorite. With the exception of Hoi An, tourism isn’t as developed as in Thailand. Because of this, I found travel to be authentic and adventurous.
Since Vietnamese letters are basically Roman letters, dining was made much easier. Pure vegetarian restaurants can be found in every city. Vietnamese cuisine ranks high on my list; food is light and fresh with garnished herbs in most of the soups. The French did leave the legacy of perfected baguettes. Crispy on the outside but somehow chewy on the inside.
CouchSurfing hosts were easy to secure in Vietnam. We had a great time with our hosts and their families. Cooking traditional Vietnamese food with Huynh’s mother, street food sampling with Thao and Denny, doing workout videos and teaching English with Phuoc, and riding a boat through the floating market with Vin and Jack were some highlights.
Again, I learned more about the other side of the story re: the Vietnam, or the American, War. The young generation, at least the people we met in the south, is also forgiving and wants actually still views America as desirable. The north may be a different story, but we didn’t go there. Yet. I am already planning on returning to Vietnam one day!
December & January: Cambodia
Crossing into Cambodia was like going back in time again. While Vietnam is fast paced, Cambodia is still laid back like its northern neighbor, Laos. The recent history of the Khmer Rouge left a scar in my heart, but I’m glad to see people continuing to move forward as cities develop and grassroots organizations blossom everywhere.
Like the pace of life, we began to slow down in Cambodia. We ended up staying about one week in each town, Kampot for ten. Even though there isn’t much to “do” in Kampot, we loved the little town. We found our favorite restaurants: Epic Arts Cafe and a family-run noodle stand. Something as little as going to a place and the owners recognizing you and knowing your regular order is comforting, like it was our home. We also got to know a few expats and locals.
Inspiration sparked and we began working more on AdamandLianne.com. We welcomed the new year with our Couchsurfing hosts, two artists who are expats from Malaysia and Korea. Before the fireworks, we randomly met three North Koreans who lived Cambodia for work. They were happy-go-lucky and said they liked life in Pyongyang, but they didn’t seem to want to talk too much about their country. Still, I never met someone from North Korea before so I was intrigued and wished I could converse more without prying.
Of course, Angkor Wat temple complex was brilliant and haunted my brain to try to understand how these marvelous structures were built hundreds of years ago. I feel okay with not going to the Taj Mahal when in India, but I would strongly advise against not visiting Angkor Wat while in Cambodia!
January: Bangkok & Southern Thailand
After our Cambodia visas expired, we crossed the border back to Thailand. A motorbike taxi squeezed both of us and all of our bags on his 100cc scooter to a songtaew over to Chanthaburi. There, we volunteered for a week at an eco resort and attached organic farm.
Kevin then hosted us via CouchSurfing in Bangkok for a few days. The young doctor, who practices anesthetics, cooked us a fabulous meal with his mother, took us to his friend’s artsy cafe, and played a mean game of chess!
We were in Thailand for weeks before we finally went to the (in)famous southern beaches. An overnight train and two minivans later, we made it to Clayzy House in Koh Lanta Island to volunteer in exchange for accommodation. The week was a blur and we got a taste of drama that happens while working in hospitality. Let’s just say it really was a “clayzy” house. But we did befriend some characters and got to sleep in a treehouse, even if we had to endure blaring house music from next door. Koh Lanta is a gorgeous island with nearly perfect beaches, so of course it attracts loads of tourists. It was worth a stay, but a week was maybe too long for me. There is something to be learned from every experience.
February: Malaysia, Singapore, and Vipassana Meditation Course
I didn’t anticipate to have loved Penang, Malaysia as much as I did; we stayed for ten days on the cultural mecca of an island. I never got bored with sampling all of the foods from the streets, relaxing in the park, and observing the architecture. Chinese New Year fell during that week, so lanterns lit the streets as well as fireworks and festivals.
We took a “super VIP” bus to the capital of Kuala Lumpur where we met our CouchSurfing host. A former pilot and current brain surgeon, our host had a calm aura and plenty of travel and life experiences. We enjoyed eating Indian food and having good conversations.
Malaysia is interesting for the mesh of Malaya, Indian, and Chinese culture and cuisine. Unfortnately, we didn’t have time to see some of the natural wonders, like the Cameron Highlands and islands, but it’s just another reason to go back one day.
Singapore is a unique chunk of land bursting with culture. I’d say it is a mix between Malaysia (with its similar cultural diversity) and Japan (ultra modern and clean). Our days were spent walking around amongst the towering buildings, parks and gardens. We also CouchSurfed with a young humourous businessman in his hostel. We ate at the Buddhist Lounge twice for the vegetarian buffet and learn more about meditation and mindfulness in the library upstairs. Singapore is a quite fancy for my liking, but the four days we spent there were well worth it. There are plenty of things to do and see on a budget.
Vipassana Meditation Course
The highly anticipated 10-day meditation course. Challenging. Insightful. Full of ups and downs, doubts and worries, emotions and lack thereof. Overall, I gained bodily awareness, calmness, compassion. About two months later, I still feel the effects of the course even though I am not keeping up with meditating as much as I should. I would like to do the course again and would recommend it to others. Expect a more detailed about my experience in the near future.
After the course, Adam and I had to adjust back into the city life of Kuala Lumpur. We only had a few days together before we parted ways: him to San Diego and me to Bangkok. We’ll continue our adventures together again in July.
For about a week, I volunteered at my now favorite hostel, Kamin Bird Hostel. The rooms were immaculate, dorm beds comfortable and private (your own curtains, light, and outlet!), safe, and convenient. The neighborhood is far away from the disaster of Khao San Road and is in a nice area a few minutes from the MRT.
After doing light housekeeping, gardening, and chatting with the wonderful owners, I went off to explore Bangkok, met with some friends who happened to be there, and filled my belly with papaya salad. Since it was the end of this trip, I finally let myself go shopping! Carrying a heavy load is a big no-no when it comes to traveling light (duh!), so I mostly window shopped for six months. In Bangkok, I donated some of my salvageable clothes (the hostel owner was collecting) and got a few pieces for work since they’re cheaper and fit me better than in the states. Would recommend the Pratunam Market, train night market, and huge weekend market, Chatuchak. I was saddened when I had to say goodbye to Thailand and launch back to America. I thought I would be ready to go, but I wasn’t.
I’ll write a separate post about being home because it’s more of a personal post. Am thoroughly enjoying the family time, cooking, and finally being comfortable and alone to reflect.
India: Fort Kochi, Munnar*, Alleppey*, Kumily, Sulthan Bathery, Mysore*, Hampi*, Gokarna, Goa, Aurangabad, Mumbai*
Laos: Huay Xai, Luang Prabang*, Vang Vieng*, Vientiane, Pakse, Tadlow, Don Det*
Vietnam: Hue, Hoi An, Quy Nhon, Nha Trang, Dalat*, Ho Chi Minh city, Can Tho, Chau Doc, Ha Tien
Cambodia: Kep, Kampot*, Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, Battambang
Malaysia: Penang*, Kuala Lumpur, Malacca, Mersing, Kauntan
*Stars means some of my favorite destinations!
Overall favorite country: Vietnam. People often ask me this and there really isn’t one answer, but if I had to choose, Vietnam it is.
Best foodie destination: Penang, Malaysia
Runner-ups: Kerala, India. Pai, Thailand. Hoi An, Vietnam
Favorite foods: Bahn mi chay (Vietnam), papaya salad (Thailand), Kerala parotta with chana masala (India), pohpia (Malaysia)
Best coffee: Vietnam
Most beautiful landscapes: Vang Vieng
Runner-ups: Dalat, Munnar, Hampi
Best waterfall: Kuangsi, Laos
Runner-ups: Chiang Rai
Most beautiful beach: Long Beach, Koh Lanta
Most impressive site: Angkor Wat complex
Runner-ups: Ellora Caves
Best sunsets: Laos (specifically Don Det and Vang Vieng)
Best Market: Kampot
Best night market: Luang Prabang (for art), Pai (for food), Train night market (for entertainment & clothes)
Most expensive: Singapore
Most inexpensive: India and Vietnam
Best beer: Beerlao in Laos
Least favorite place: Sihanoukville, Cambodia
Thankful for our Couchsurfing hosts Panduranga and Dhanya, Joseph, Abhijit, Saurabh, Songkiet, Phuoc, Thao, Huynh, Adam, and Muhammad
I’m moving to Japan! I secured two jobs: one teaching at a university for a semester and another at an American school in Tokyo for the summer session. It’s perfect timing. Adam will be doing a NOLS sea kayaking and glacial mountaineering course in British Columbia. When he’s finished with that, he’ll come to Japan. I miss being in the classroom and having a somewhat stable schedule, so I’m looking forward to the new challenge of teaching higher level English. It also affords me the opportunity to live in Japan for a short time, a unique country I’ve been longing to return to since visiting in 2014.