Getting Out of Bali

Bali. The word alone conjures images of palm-fringed tropical beaches, poolside lazing, and dense jungles permeated with the sound of “Om.” It’s the Caribbean/Mexican getaway equivalent for Australians, a cheap short flight to cheap tropical bliss. *For the unaware, Bali is an island in the Indonesian archipelago, not it’s own country. On Instagram, it’s the vacation spot you’ve always dreamed of: 5-star luxury at 2-star prices. And for Justin and I, it was the focal point of our SE Asia trip, because it was here we were meeting up with our friend Katherine (Spee) from Seattle. For almost a year, “BALI!” had been the rallying cry when the 3 of us were struggling to get through a late night at the pub. We’d dreamed a lot, planned little, and were excited to explore a new place together.

We knew that there were a lot of hustlers and touts in Kuta, the town you fly into, and that the overdeveloped strip running from Kuta to Seminyak was the equivalent of Myrtle Beach, SC. So we planned to stay here for just one night before heading north to Ubud, a land of lush rice paddies and yoga retreats (we’d heard). To be fair, the tone for the start of our visit was set by our journey from the airport to our homestay.  Spee had arranged for the driver she used the day before for a tour to pick us up at the airport. We said SURE! When we arrived, we had a text that quoted $10, which we knew was too much, especially when we looked up the location of our homestay and it was less than a mile from the airport. But by the time we saw his price, he had already been at the airport waiting for us for an hour. So we went with it. It took 20 minutes to get out of the parking garage (at this point we would have already walked to our homestay), and then he proceeded to drive the wrong direction while telling us about how much people usually tipped him and tried to get us to commit to a ride later in the evening to go eat chicken or something silly like that. To finish the ride, when Justin accidentally gave him 220,000 instead of 130,000 (the 10,000 and 100,000 is easy to confuse), he didn’t comment or offer change, just took the money and ran. Needless to say, we didn’t use his services the next day.

But we were at a homestay which was beyond peaceful and beautiful, a traditional family compound with a few luxury hotel rooms built inside, complete with a swimming pool, temples, and a delicious breakfast. We relaxed a little. There was air conditioning, a good shower, and a comfortable bed.

After a joyous reunion with our beloved Spee, we went for a walk to find some lunch. Without a map to guide us, we wandered where we knew, the overcrowded strip the driver had mistakenly gone down earlier in the day. It was impossible to go more than 20 feet without being a) honked at by a taxi, b) grabbed at for a massage, or c) having to dodge a large sweaty sunburnt Australian. Nevertheless, we found a nice meal at a fancier coffeeshop and then retreated to the peace of our homestay pool.

The next day we headed to Ubud, and despite an easier transport situation, we were less than impressed with the deluxe family bungalow we’d rented for the 3 of us. It lacked air conditioning, and they were building a new unit right next to the pool, so the soundtrack of peaceful frogs and birds was interrupted most of the day by hammers and powertools. There were monkeys though- an endless source of amusement and mild danger- they would snatch any food you brought outside of the eating area, no negotiations allowed.

This was how all of the Bali we saw was: mostly a sensory overload, with some really wonderful moments sprinkled throughout. I recognize how ridiculous it is to complain about the tourism industry as a tourist. But it was hard to feel relaxed at any time, as you were constantly hassled with offers for transport and massage. The few moments of peace to be found, I feel guilty to report, were mostly in decidedly upscale Western places, like the yoga studio with $10 classes (they were really good!), or the restaurants charging $8+ for a main (also, really really good!). And the process of getting somewhere calming (walking down crowded roads, negotiating taxi fares, etc) was so stress-inducing that it almost made it not worth the effort.

We spent most of our time on Bali proper in Ubud. I’m not sure how I feel about Ubud- it was a paradise on the one hand, but one that imported so much of what made it great that it felt completely inauthentic. There were plenty of artisans around the area, and some genuine and beautiful artwork. But the combination of tourist shit and yoga retreats and upscale art shops resulted in an overall feeling (and a look) that this was a place where white girls go to “find themselves” by doing exactly what they do at home: go to yoga, drink overpriced cocktails and espresso, do macro/vegan/raw diets, and shop. The place was flooded with hundreds of girls that looked just like me, people trying to sell you stuff, and rich older white folks. It was, to say the least, not what we came to Indonesia for.

We hoped Nusa Lembongan would be better. The island lies 15 km or so off the coast of Bali and has a reputation as the new tourism hot spot. We booked a nice place (way above our budget), mostly because I felt guilty about the place we stayed in Ubud. Our plan was to have beach time, sun time, and relax without the pressure of taxis or tours or massages. Our resort was one of those perfect places that really lives up to the photos. We were pleased, and soaked ourselves in the luxury. We’d eat a nice breakfast looking at the water, then ride scooters around the backroads and beaches before returning in the afternoon to sunbathe and read and get ready for dinner. There wasn’t much to do on the island except swim and read and eat (although I was able to get in some good runs!) so after a few days and the necessary snorkeling trip, we were done there as well. Also, we’d pretty much spent through our splurge money and were ready to get back to the cheaper way we’d been traveling all along.

We literally had to look back on Bali, from the shoreline of Nusa Penida, to see what we  missed about the island. While all we saw when we were there was endless towns and scooters and traffic, when we looked from afar there were huge peaks and jagged coastlines, all cloaked with green jungle. We knew there were trekking opportunities, but Spee and Justin were both keen for beach time, and we were all so tired of being hassled to take tours that organizing a trekking tour (the only way to do it) seemed like a terrible idea. This was almost definitely a mistake, we realized while staring at the towering summit of Mt Agung from the shores of Lembongan. We were too caught up in how much we didn’t like the typical Bali tourist trail to seek out the places that might appeal more to our tastes. We aren’t tourist trail people, and our big mistake in our Bali trip was trying to pretend like we were. Fortunately for us, with roundtrip flights only $400, we’ll have plenty of opportunities to come back and find something to love.

 

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Nusa Penida, or Home

When traveling, especially for long periods of time, I think the goal, even if it goes unspoken, is to find a place that makes you feel more like yourself. A place that allows you to drop the habits and expectations of your everyday life and blossom into a version of yourself that feels complete and natural. A “home away from home” as these places are often called, speaks to your values and strips away the unnecessary to give you opportunities to seek happiness/fulfillment/relaxation/whatever you need.

Fortunately for those of us who value and seek calmness, there’s not a recipe for a dream spot that will appeal to everyone. While I’d heard wonderful things about Ubud, and found it to be charming in some ways, it was a place I’d like to visit again for a few weeks, not uproot and move to. Similarly, Singapore was amazing and rich and so darn comfortable, and I could even see us happily living there for a year, but I wouldn’t call it a place that feels like me. Too much city, too little nature.

Before coming to Nusa Penida, we’d heard that it was a place where you’d probably get lost (guidebook) and a place that was mostly uninhabited (Balinese). There were approximately 3 paragraphs in our guidebook about the entire island, and 17 accommodation options listed on Booking.com. While I was immediately enticed, I also worried that the lack of facilities meant we’d be struggling to find the basics for survival. Looking back, it almost seems silly. We took a small fishing boat over from the busy but small island of Nusa Lembongan, where we’d been blowing our hard earned money on a fancy micro-resort (max capacity of 8 people) with a clifftop infinity pool in which to watch the ocean all day long. A quick ride later, we were on the shore at Toyapakeh, one of 2 towns on the island. As we drove to our bungalows, the driver pointed out some decent restaurants and gave us a bit more background on the island. Apparently, barely populated means 35,000 people. The beach is lined with shanties, shacks, and detritus from decades of seaweed farming along the coast. There are cows and pigs everywhere, tied with thin blue lines to palm trees, happily munching away on the nearby vegetation. Chickens run everywhere, as do dogs, cats, and the occasional goat and duck.

Spee holding onto the seaweed collecting baskets on our boat ride

We checked into our bungalow ($28/night for 3 with AC), rented scooters, snorkel gear, and set off to explore. We ate at the warung (cafe) across the street, where the owner’s little boy dumped out his whole bucket of toys on our table, then proceeded to “cook” us a really nice plate of mie goreng, before we got the real stuff from his dad. We bought fuel from the same family, then headed for the often-Instagrammed Angel’s Billabong (sad to report it is mainly just a large but glorified rock pool- the adjacent Broken Beach was WAY cooler). We knew the road was rough, but we had no idea what was in store. Had we checked the maps before leaving, we would have known to counter-intuitively head inland first, but we naively decided to stick to the coast and after a few kms of fresh pavement, ended up on a “road” that’s really a 4WD track. It reminded us of the drive out to Mattole Beach on the California coast- constant ups, downs, and hairpins, all at angles that seem illogical. It took over an hour to go about 20 km.

This is the good road!
Just two explorers, watching the manta rays swim below

At one point we got stuck on a steep hill that was an obnoxious mix of loose gravel and big chunks of pavement laid down probably 20 years ago. We had just passed some children walking home from school, who ran up behind us and eagerly pushed us up the hill as they showed off all the English they knew (Hello! How are you? What is your name?) before waving us goodbye. A few minutes later, we stopped to check the status of our tires, and a father and son from a nearby home came out to help us, adjusting a few things here and there before sending us safely on our way. On the way back, the same family insisted that we come take shelter from a monsoon shower in their garage. Everyone we passed smiled and waved, yelled “Hello!!” or was otherwise extremely warm and friendly. We finally reached the beach, and it was all crystal blue water, stunning limestone cliffs, and rolling farmland- so similar to the coasts near Kiama and in California that it almost felt like home.

Driving back, we were caught in a heavy monsoon shower, but the elation from our adventure kept us from getting too down about it. Plus, the laughs of all the locals as our parade of soaking wet foreigners passed by helped to lift our moods and let us laugh at ourselves a little bit as well. After stopping by for a snack at the same little hut we’d had lunch at, we unpacked and did some research on the island. Later on, we found dinner at a beachfront warung, where we played with a kitten, joked with the owner, and then headed home for a few rounds of cards and a beer on the front porch of our bungalows.  Apart from the noise of the geckos (no, really, they are LOUD) and the ubiquitous roosters, we slept soundly and woke up to a charmingly sunny morning. There’s a little English/Indonesian coffee shop and gallery situated right in front of our bungalows and we headed there for a decidedly Western breakfast and a big cup of Bali coffee.

I could continue on with the various adventures to be had: snorkeling off the beach, scrambling down cliffsides to fresh springs along the ocean, exploring cave temples, driving the stunning coastal roads, eating at all the local warungs and restaurants, chatting with the multitude of friendly school kids, but I think I’ve given enough examples to make a point. After one month of traveling (exactly one month, as if it was scripted for a movie), we’ve found a place that feels genuinely warm, offers ample adventures, and happens to be affordable as well. So we’re staying. Not forever, just a week, but long enough to absorb a little more of this place, see the hills and hidden beaches, read some books, learn some Bahasa Indonesian, and focus on what makes us feel complete: the right balance between adventure and relaxation, good food and good conversations, meeting and learning from new people.

Malaysia : Balance and Contrast

The advantage (and disadvantage) of stepping out of familiarity into an adventure is the almost certain exposure to the extremes. You will experience physical and emotional discomfort, but also absolute bliss. Physical sensations are heightened, meaning you notice more and feel more whether you want to or not. In Malaysia, we found that the richness of the place was in the contrast between pleasure and suffering, and more so the balance between the two. There were some things we disliked about the country, but the things we loved were amplified as a result.

We arrived in Penang, Malaysia after a flight from Krabi. Its also completely possible to connect over land, but it entails 12ish hours of buses and taxis and for about $20/pp more you can take a one hour flight. Being averse to wasting time, and having some surplus in our budget, we went with the flight. We picked up a car in Penang for the week- we knew there were a lot of things we wanted to see that required driving, and we didn’t want to rely on taxis or organized tour groups.

In the end, I’d second guess renting a car again, especially for our itinerary. While it was helpful in seeing a few sights, especially in Penang and Ipoh, there was also the added stress of driving in a country with road conduct vastly different from the western world. People passed on blind corners of curvy mountain roads, tour buses crammed their way down narrow 2-way streets, and pedestrians, lacking sidewalks, took to the edges of the lanes. Justin drove the whole time, and while I knew I couldn’t have done nearly as well as he did, my anxiety as a passenger turned me into the backseat-driver-from-hell. That being said, having autonomy over plans, and avoiding crowded transport and taxi scams for a week was pretty nice.

Back to Penang. We stayed in a hostel, which after several days of luxury lodging on the beach was a bit of a shock, but gave us an opportunity to be a bit more social. And the location, right at the junction of Little India and Chinatown, in the heart of the historic district (and backpacker ghetto) meant plenty of opportunities for sightseeing and cheap food within walking distance. I’ll write an entire post about the food in Malaysia, but for now, I’ll just say that it’s mindblowing good.

We spent most of our 3 days in Penang exploring Georgetown and seeking out new foods to eat. We loved the city for its size and the diverse mix of cultures. A little history lesson: Penang was one of the British Straits settlements and this early trading establishment brought along many Chinese and South Indian workers and merchants, along with a lot of money. So there are grand colonial buildings mixed with gardens and Chinese shop houses. But more impressive than the architectural mix of cultures is the religious harmony that results from a long history of sharing the same small island. A block away from where we stayed, there was a mosque, a Hindu temple, several Buddhist temples, and a Methodist church, all lying over a short stretch of the same street. The tourist billboards termed it something hokey like Axis of Harmony, but the sense of tolerance and peaceful coexistence was legitimate, and refreshing amidst all of the hateful discourse we’re hearing from the Australian and US political fringes. It wasn’t just buildings sitting peaceful next to one another; shopping malls and hawker centers alike were packed with people of varied races and religions, going about their daily lives in, for lack of a better word, harmony.

We met a pair of guys from Penang and KL out at a bar one night, and asked if the vibrant multiculturalism we saw in Penang actually worked as well as it seemed. They said, well, it depends on where you are. In the cities, it works, and the constant influx of Western tourism and businesses helps keep it that way. In the rest of the country, Malay cultures and Islam are dominant and there’s more racism (against South Indians in particular.) We didn’t notice the racism when we traveled into Ipoh and the Cameron Highlands (although we’re white, so why would we?), but there was certainly a larger Muslim influence, and I felt more comfortable adhering to the conservative customs of the area and wearing pants and sleeves around town.

After a few days in Penang, we drove away from the coast for the first time and headed to the Inland city of Ipoh. The attraction was rumors of cooler weather and jungle scenery, plus a less – traveled city and more amazing food. Some of these things were true- we visited some amazing cave temples set into vast limestone cliffs, and the more open landscape led to some cooler breezes. But the city itself was unremarkable – the food and architecture paled in comparison to the same attractions in Penang. The brand new apartment we were so keen for turned out to be basically a Bluth  home (for non-AD fans- absolute lowest end cheap) without very basic things found in a cheap hotel, like a kettle or cups or shades on some windows. We got out as soon as possible (which was 2 nights of awful sleep with alarms, power outages, and loud neighbors), and didn’t even get back our deposit as the manager was nowhere to be found at checkout.

We headed further inland, to the Cameron Highlands, where, we had been assured by Lonely Planet and Trip Advisor and various travel bloggers, gorgeous mountains, cool nights, hiking, and small towns awaited us. I’ve been trying to come up with a good analogy for what our arrival was like. For you Seattle folks… imagine you’re told you’re going to visit Mt. Rainier, and you actually  end up in  Rainier Beach.  For Australians, imagine you think you’re going to the Blue Mountains, and you actually end up in the busiest strip mall in the Western suburbs. We counted 57 giant tour buses lining the tiny road one morning. There was decent food, but nothing like the culinary paradise of Penang. The hostel we stayed at was fine, but full of younger people seeking mostly to get drunk and do guided walks along the local trails.

Speaking of the trails, they were the whole reason we came to the Highlands. I was craving a trail run desperately. Upon arriving, we found out that some were closed due to armed muggings, others were mostly overgrown, and all were not recommended to do solo. Now, I’m usually pretty brave, but the thought of bashing down an overgrown root – strewn trail with a potential to get mugged, in the rain no less, was, to put it lightly, not appealing. Nevertheless, I headed out to the most used trail, which was supposed to be a nice riverside jaunt. I missed it the first time, but circled back and found a small muddy footpath lined with litter, running alongside a polluted waterway along the back of some apartment buildings. I’m sure you’re all hoping that I stuck it out 200 meters and it became a wild jungle wonderland. It didn’t. I turned around and kept on the only sidewalk in town. I found another trail, tucked across the street from more apartments, but when I followed it, I ended up winding through some very poor and remote  farms and abandoned that trail too. The disappointment was intensified by how strongly I disliked the town- the whole reason I’d come was for good trails, and that was turning out to be a myth. Trying to find the good, we hit another trail in the morning, but trail is a misnomer – it was like a muddy obstacle course, and due to the clouds, there was no summit view to speak of, just moss and telecommunications towers. I tried to keep a good attitude, and a huge group of middle school aged students and their teachers coming up after us helped, but it was still hard to enjoy because it was so different from what we expected.

We bolted to Kuala Lumpur, which entailed 3 hours of nerve-wracking driving (very narrow curvy roads, no lines, no shoulder, and traffic all over the place), and a long stint in gridlocked traffic. Did I mention we had a handy GPS unit from 2001? It was good at giving us a big map we couldn’t zoom in on, announcing turns and exits approximately 3 meters before they came up, and insisted on taking us the wrong way down one-way streets.

Why does one day or place or experience impact more than another similar one? We will definitely come back to Malaysia, particularly Penang and KL, as we appreciated the deep mingling of cultures that characterized both of those cities. I’ve come to think it’s the contrast and balance between the good and the bad that makes things vibrant. Following our hellish descent from the Highlands, we found KL to be equally overwhelming, but with a dose of comfort and a cleanliness that balanced out the noise and crowds. We watched as thousands of people strolled the shopping mall and parks at night, enjoying the cooler air and light show in the shadow of the glamorous Petronas towers. It was ironic that this scene was more peaceful and calming than anything we saw in the Cameron Highlands, but you don’t always get what you expect while traveling, and I guess that uncertainty is part of the appeal as well.

georgetown-2

(All photos by Justin Richards)

Slowing Down (whether I like it or not)

It’s 1:30 pm in Railay Beach, Krabi Province, Thailand. True to historical weather patterns that we hoped wouldn’t play out, it is dumping rain for the 3rd time since we woke up. I’m wrapped in a plush cotton robe, sitting on the front porch of a large 4-star bungalow in the shadow of towering limestone cliffs, overlooking a lush garden, and I would be perfectly content except for one thing. There’s nowhere to run.

Railay Beach lies along a narrow isthmus surrounded by aforementioned giant cliffs. There is a “hike” that goes to a lagoon, but it’s about 900 m round trip and is so steep that most of it is rope-assisted. There’s presumably a beach, but at high tide, there’s none to be found. I think to myself, I could have (should have) run this morning before leaving Ao Nang with its miles of flat road, but know full well I woke up and decided not to for a few marginally legitimate reasons (pouring rain, no sidewalk or shoulder, trash smell, comfort of bed). Too late now; we’re here for 4 days.

I’ve been planning since the start of the year to take it easy with the running on this Southeast Asia journey. I figured after two basically back-to-back seasons of 100-miler training and racing, my body could do with some rest. While there’s a few trails here and there that look exciting, truthfully, our trip is mostly inconducive to running much beyond an hour. I’ve managed to get in about 20-25 miles a week, all mostly easy and slow because it’s too hot and steep to push the pace without overheating. Also, since there’s nothing I’m training for, why would I run in a hot, trash-filled mud pit dodging diesel trucks and scooters?  I’ll happily just stay right here in this hammock and eat another banana.

Except that no matter how many articles and expert opinions I read that tell me taking an extended break is a good thing, the pictures and posts from friends tackling great adventures back home gnaw at me in the special FOMO way that only social media can. I should be absolutely thrilled at my current situation, but part of me (the driven, competitive, primal and, I guess, normal part) feels that I am being lessened with each day that I don’t put in a solid grind on the trails. In the panicked way that our brains work when they don’t have enough to do, I envision this period of less miles per week turns into no miles per week, followed by loss of all aerobic capacity, strength, musculature, a 40-lb weight gain, and a life spent reading crappy novels next to the pool (hey, the selection here is mostly in German, so I took what I could find). I know it’s illogical, but anyone who’s endured a break from training, forced or not, will know exactly what I’m talking about.

Maybe a break would be easier if I were more satisfied with my performance at Cascade Crest (which I’ve already analyzed as had-it-coming, and have accepted on a rational level but not an emotional one). In addition, it took me almost 3 weeks before I had a run that felt good after CC100, and it was barely 4 miles. It’s hard to not feel that I should have recovered faster and felt fresher after a race that was slower than I wanted, even when the data points suggesting the need for extensive rest stared me right in the face (lingering aches, need for lots of sleep, elevated heart rate, irritability). But there’s a gap that still exists between the runner I want to be and the runner that I feel like I am, and it’s hard not to be working my butt off RIGHT NOW to close that gap. Truthfully, what I probably need more than a physical break is a break from that mentality, and thus we are on a trip without trails.

Now, it’s not all gloom and doom, although it would be, were my obsessive need for accomplishment not redirected into more appropriate channels (such as daily core workouts). Beer also helps.  When there is a place to run that looks nice, or a particularly strong urge to move, I make it happen. I’m aiming for an hour a day of exercise of any sort, whether it’s yoga or paddle boarding or swimming or hiking or climbing or kayaking or whatever else looks fun and doesn’t cost $100. I’m also writing more, reading more, and just watching people more. My slower metabolism means I don’t feel hungry 24/7 like I do when training, so therefore I spend less money feeding myself, and have more money for kayaks and beer. It may take daily positive self-talk to get through, but I might manage to make it until December without a single run over 10 miles. And by then, we may have a date for Justin’s citizenship interview, and I can start planning a race calendar, and build back up my mileage, and become obsessive about running all over again.

If you’ve ever taken an extended break from training, what strategies did you use to cope? How did the break help or hurt you after you went back to racing again? 

4 Little Reminders on Living a Good Life, Courtesy of Thailand

We’re back traveling again! After a few weeks of catching up with family and friends in Australia, we packed most of our things into the garage in Jamberoo and loaded up our backpacks with the bare minimum clothing and supplies for 7 weeks in Southeast Asia. Rather than do a day-by-day recap as we did with the summer leg of our trip, this time I’m going to go with general themes as they come to me, and weave in the highlights along the way. To start with, four life lessons (and one awesome life hack) that have cropped up in the 6 days we’ve been in Thailand.

(If you’re just here for photos, scroll straight to the bottom!)

Lesson 1: Prepare for the worst, but assume the best.

We needed this one before we even got to the airport- there were warnings about customs shutdowns due to a labor strike, so even though our first leg was domestic, we arrived two and a bit hours early. We packed LOTS of healthy snacks (including Alison/Eve’s delicious muffins!), as airport food in Australia basically works out to $140 for a burger. We were also flying Jetstar (aka Southwest Airlines Down Under), so we steeled ourselves for delays or other problems, but didn’t go into the experience expecting a horrible day. And that’s how it worked out – we were way under our baggage allowance, no aircraft issues, and even very little turbulence. This was not the case with our Bangkok flight, where we experienced the scariest drop I’ve ever had on a flight and everyone screamed and panicked for about 4 seconds, and we were hungry most of the time because we had not preordered food and the only vegetarian options were an egg sandwich and Pringles for $15.

This lesson cropped up again in our Bangkok journeys: we planned to get hassled, and we did, but we assumed that everyone was just working hard to try and make a living, so learned to politely say “No Thank You” in Thai and they smiled and left us alone. We packed lots of Immodium, but still ate whatever looked tasty whether it was cooked or raw or not (still not sick!). And we figured our $8 shoes from the market might give us blisters, and they did, but we had the band-aids already in our bag!

And yesterday on my run exploring some back “roads” (they’re mostly undriveable except with a dirt bike), I passed by a man with a machete on the edge of the forest. I was a little worried to run back that way, because remote+man+weapon is the plot of every Lifetime murder movie, but I picked up a big heavy rock and practiced pretending like I was answering a phone call. I came around the corner where he’d been and saw him and his wife sitting and enjoying a picnic break while bundling up the firewood he’d been cutting probably all afternoon. I smiled at them, and he said to me “good exercise running” and we laughed and I bounded down the hill.

So be smart, but expect the good in situations and in people. It’s hard to remember in our culture of sensationalism that things do usually work out for the better.

Life Lesson 2: A little kindness goes a long way

Within 3 hours of being in Thailand, we had our first Really Nice Encounter. Arriving at our guesthouse around 9 pm, in the pouring rain, we looked for the closest place to eat, and ended up having some pretty darn tasty basic noodles. We didn’t yet know restaurant ettiquette, so we just smiled a lot and said thank you over and over again. Upon leaving the shop owner noticed we had no umbrella and ran over to grab his from his laundromat next door. We tried to pay but he smiled and gestured to bring it back and put it in front of his door tomorrow.  Sure, it was just an umbrella, but in a place where you expect to pay a little extra for everything, this simple gesture was felt deeply, and set the tone for the rest our Bangkok adventures.  Also, I have to give a shoutout to the housekeeper at Once In Bangkok guesthouse where we stayed, who was the kindest and most welcoming host I’ve ever met. She insisted we have tea and cookies when we arrived, and when we left, told us to stop by for a cool shower before boarding our overnight train, even though we’d already checked out of the room.

Although the Thai people are incredibly warm and friendly, we haven’t encountered that many with a good mastery of English. Justin’s old Jamberoo buddy Sheridan (who lives in Bangkok and was an amazing tour guide and question answerer) let us know that since speaking English is a sign of wealth and success, many shopkeepers and everday folk are embarrassed if you try to speak to them and they can’t say anything back. So we spent a few hours learning the most basic of Thai phrases (and how to say them politely), and coupled with a smile, we’ve gotten a long way.

Life Lesson 3: Keep an open heart and an open mind

I can’t take any credit for this one- but I can give credit to Jeff Dow, an old climbing friend and serious world traveler/good-doer/world-changer, who gave me this exact advice before I took off to Europe, where I met Justin, so clearly it’s worked for me so far in life. Keeping yourself open to things means allowing yourself the freedom to change plans, and trying to tackle each new experience as a learning opportunity free from judgement. So far on this trip, the mantra has also been open mouth. We’re trying to eat as closely as we can to the local food (while still avoiding meat) and it’s mostly worked out well (except when Justin thought he was ordering vegetables on his papaya salad and ended up with a dark brown salty fermented fish version instead). On our second day, we grabbed noodles on the street for breakfast and the guys waiting for their food insisted we put the dried shrimp on top. Admittedly, I was grossed out, but I smiled, sprinkled a few on, and it was super tasty!

Coming to Koh Phangan, we were put off by the pushy taxi drivers lining the pier, so we decided to grab some snacks and sort out the transportation situation after we ate. We figured it would work out one way or another. So we walked a little ways down the road and came across a German couple with a young baby trying to go the same beach as us (far on the other side of the island) but having difficulty because there weren’t enough people to justify the driver going over that way. After some necessary haggling, we ended up sharing the ride with them, and having a great chat about traveling and Thailand and the great cities of the world.

Lesson 4: Money is just money.

We did not budget well for Thailand. Operating under the assumption that everything was cheap (it is, but it isn’t free), we assumed $50/day would be plenty enough, without making any actual calculations. When we got here, we blew through $280 in 3 days (admittedly, with some shopping and a big splurge on a nice dinner), and started to panic. We figured it’d be cheaper on the islands, but we realized that because we’d booked nice accommodation at $25/night, we had only $25 to work with as spending money for 3 meals and water and fun. Now, a cheap breakfast runs about 120 baht for 2 ($4), lunches are similar (120-150 baht- $5) and dinner for 2 is minimum 300 baht ($10)  if you want to eat at a nicer place.  So on meals alone, you’re looking at $20, and that’s not including alcohol (big beer- 100 baht, $3, cocktails 100-150 baht, $3-5), or water ($0.50 for 1.5 L). And then there’s transportation and fun things, like scooters ($7 a day, not including petrol) and paddle boards ($3 for an hour) and snacks!

At first we let this stress us out. Then we realized, at worst, we were spending $10 more a day than we planned. Even if we did this every day for the next 40 days, we’d spend $400 above budget. That’s a couple of good shifts at the pub. So we’re letting it go a little bit, having fun, and spending our money on what matters to us:
– A/C – because sleeping at night is crucial to maximizing the day
– Active activities, like paddle boarding and scooters to go check out far peaks
– Bucket list things like chartering a boat for deep water soloing & cooking classes
– Good food, but not for every meal– we buy fresh fruit and pastries from the market for breakfast, add instant coffee to cold water for iced coffee,  and pick up snacks (nuts, chips, red bean buns, mmmm) and most of our beer at the market. This saves about $5 a day, and we feel a little better about getting that third entree at dinner.

The entire reason we put in all the time and effort before taking this trip was to have a great time on it. I don’t think we’ll ever look back and say, man I’m glad I didn’t spend $5 on that awesome activity, or boy, that $1 coconut-pineapple-mango smoothie was definitely NOT worth it.

And the BONUS Life Hack:

You can turn your shirt into a bag. Take off the shirt. Tie the bottom of it into a knot. Now, put whatever you would rather not hold in your hand (like a 2 L bottle of water) in through the neck of the shirt, and use the arm holes as handles. Voila! A shirt-bag. You’re welcome world.

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