Travel notes – Laos

Wow… how hard it is to write about the country that stole my heart…

It was easier to write a Love Letter to Laos than to write about the places I visited during almost 3 months there. The moment I started listing places I’ve been to, people I’ve met, things I’ve done, food I’ve eaten, saudade hit me, and hit me hard. And for more than a month I procrastinated and postponed this post – the first part of my travel notes on Laos.

Hard to explain how and why, but I’ll never forget Delilah’s key lime pie and sunset in Nong Khiaw; the winding roads leading to Xamtai and the amazing weaving work I saw there; the caves in Viangxay; my first sunset on the ❤ Mekong ❤ in Thakhek; Bang Fei Cave in the company of the French who meditate; a bungalow, a hammock, and the best hashbrown ever in Don Det, at Mama Mon’s Guesthouse; the ❤ Mekong ❤ and my “secret” beach in Don Khone; waterfalls in the Bolaven Plateau; Captain Hook and all-you-can-know about coffee; visa runs to Thailand (and not from Thailand, as it usually goes); hangover after meeting the South Africans in Vientiane; duck love 60km North of Vang Vieng; Secret Pizza in Luang Prabang; and the slow goodbye going up the Mekong towards Thailand.

There are so many things to write about Laos. So many things other than simple travel notes. Feelings, flavors, colors, faces, roads, valleys, mountains, rivers. But for now: travel notes.

My itinerary was as shown below.

Vietnam >> Muang Khua > Muang Ngoi > Nong Khiaw > Xamneua (via Viengthong) > Viengxay > Xamtai > Viengxay/Xamneua > Phonsavanh > Thakhek > Thakhek loop > [visa run 1] > Pakse > Don Det/Don Khone > Pakse/Champasak/Don Ko > Thakhek > [visa run 2] > Vientiane > Vang Vieng > Ban Chieng (Tao Guesthouse) > Luang Prabang > Huay Xay >> Thailand [In bold the places I’m going to cover for now].

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Exploring and falling in love with Laos

Laos – Part I

I entered Laos from Vietnam. Took a bus in Lao Cai to Dien Bien Phu and from there a minibus to Muang Khua. The border crossing was ok. The visa for Brazilians cost US$30 plus small fees at the border that add to about US$6. Everyone needs a photography. Visa is valid for 28 days. To get a new visa all you need to do is to cross the border (in my case to Thailand) or ask for an extension at the police department (not everywhere, but for sure in Pakse, Luang Prabang, Vientiane); extension costs US$2/day plus admin fees. If the plan is to stay another month in Laos, the best option is a visa run. Or two. Or three 😉

I) Muang Khua – Muang Ngoi –  Nong Khiaw

 >>> Muang Khua is a small village and most people stop there on the way from/to Northern Vietnam. I didn’t do anything special there but heard there are nice walks and hikes to hill tribes. In Muang Khua my love for sticky rice started…
>>> Muang Ngoi is a small village at the riverbank of the Nam Ou (Ou River). From Muang Khua we took a boat (120k kip each) and the journey took approximately 3 hours. The boat leaves when it’s full or you have to pay for chartering it, which can be quite expensive if traveling on a budget. Tip: if you’re the first one on the pier, you’re probably getting a higher price for the ticket. Get there and wait for other people before inquiring about the price.
Muang Ngoi is lovely. Great place to stay for a few days and just relax. There are hikes to local villages where there are homestays as cheap as 10k kip/person. Guesthouses around the village vary from 50-80k kip/person or room. Negotiate and you’ll get a good deal.
The Chinese are building a dam upstream and the project includes a road that will connect Muang Ngoi to other towns in the area. I believe it will impact the peaceful and car-less atmosphere.
>>> The boat from Muang Ngoi to Nong Khiaw leaves around 8:30am and takes 1.5 hour.
In Nong Khiaw Laos started to steal my heart… I didn’t know it yet.

My favorite place to stay is also where I had the best key lime pie in SE Asia: Delilah’s Cafe. Karen and I offered to help with designing a new menu and were honored by having a pictured of us hanging on the wall 🙂 Let me know if you find it!

What a hard task to put together a new menu with pictures of the delicious dishes prepared by Miss Lie! We had to order the ones we didn’t have a picture yet… and eat! Oh, oh… there goes my healthy diet based on Vietnamese Pho… The highlight of the menu? KEY-LIME PIE! The.Best.Pie in SE Asia! I mean it. Really mean it.

Harps, who manages Delilah’s, also runs Tiger Trails and is a live information desk – he hates it, but it’s true. He knows everything about bus schedules, things to do and see, etc. Tiger Trails organizes tours to the main attractions in the area, including the 100 waterfall. Stop by and spare a few minutes chatting with this unique New Zealander. At first he might seem a bit crazy… but hey! who isn’t?! You can trust his recommendations 100%.

I didn’t do any of the tours despite staying in Nong Khiaw for 6 days – original plan: 2-3 – but I did check out the viewpoint across the bridge to watch the sunset. The view is beautiful! The hike is steep and took me a bit more than 1 hour. If going for the sunset don’t forget to bring a headlamp with you. The trail is pretty closed by vegetation and can be dark even if the sun is not 100% gone. I saw people taking sleeping bags and planning to stay at the viewpoint overnight so they could watch the sunrise. It’s an option – not sure if an officially allowed one – for those who want to get sunset and sunrise but don’t want to hike up twice.

Other places to eat and stay in Nong Khiaw: crossing the bridge there are two Indian restaurants that serve cheap and very good food (Deen and Chennai). No need to feel bad for choosing one over the other; it turns out it’s all in the same family. I preferred the food at Chennai and loved the mint-lime shake at Deen. If in doubt, try both. For accommodation, there are plenty of bungalows with hammock and river view.

I had no idea where to go after Nong Khiaw. First I thought of going northwest to Luang Namtha, near the border with Myanmar, cause the original plan was to cross to Thailand in Thakhek – so it made sense to explore the North before heading South. Karen wanted to go to Luang Prabang, but I didn’t feel like going to a “big” city just yet. What to do? Where to go next? Maybe stay longer in Nong Khiaw? I could definitely do that until I met Remigio, a Mexican visiting Laos to learn more about the country’s silk and weaving. Oh… did I say weaving? Yes… and Remigio pointed me to the Northeastern part of Laos, to Xamtai to be more exact, saying the village was known for having the best silk and weaving in the whole country.

That was it! So we headed East!

[NOTE] >>>> You can also go to Phonsaly, going north on Nam Ou (Ou River). I didn’t go but heard it has some interesting hikes and hill tribes to visit,

II) Viengthong – Xamneua – Viengxay – Xamtai >> from Nong Khiaw you can take a bus on a loooong journey to Viengthong where there’s a national park where you can see – if really, really lucky – tigers. I only spent the night in Viengthong (at a guesthouse at the bus station) to break the journey to Xamneua in 2. The ride was very bumpy, winding and I dont know how people can do it in just 1 day! If you get carsick, make sure you have plenty of Dramin pills with you. Also, be aware that the locals get really – really – carsick, so be prepared to having people throwing up in plastic bags next to you. (sorry… was this comment gross? well, if you plan to travel by bus/mini-bus/van in Vietnam and Laos, you’d better get used to it – also to peeing wherever the driver stops as bathroom breaks don’t usually include bathrooms)

Most people go to Viengthong and continue to Phonsavanh instead of  Xamneua.

>>> Xamneua is just a stop for people traveling to/from Vietnam (there’s another border crossing near, could be another option for you). It’s still interesting, but I wouldn’t spend too much time there. NOTE*** if you plan to head to Viengxay, you should take a tuktuk as soon as you get to Xamneua bus station to the other station (it’s far to walk!). Last bus to Viengxay leaves around noon if I remember correctly. You can also take a taxi, but it will be more expensive (150k kip).

Because I was hungry when we arrived in Xamneua, I couldn’t think clearly and was very irritated by the tuk tuk drivers who approached us. I wanted food. That’s all I could think of. Only after finding some sticky rice, we realized the bus to Viengxay left from another station. And we walked, and walked, and walked.

And when we got there, there were no more buses. Luckily we were able to get a ride with a Chinese who’s working in Laos. It was probable the most comfortable road trip we had during all our time in the country. The car was clean, silent, the ac worked, the driver was not “crazy”.

>>> Viengxay is known by the caves where the Lao government hid and operated from 1964-1973, when the country was heavily bombed by the US. Yes… Laos suffered intense bombing during the Vietnam war, even though it was never on war against the US. Still today there are thousands of UXOs (unexploded ordnances) in Lao lands, which prevent the land to be worked and still cause many fatalities.
When in Viengxay, you should visit the caves and learn more about the history behind the bombings. In order to do that, you’ll need a guide (they keep the keys to the caves, so you can’t visit them by yourself). Book your tour at the tourist center. It’s worth visiting, and the visit takes around 2-3 hours.

For food, there’s also a good Indian restaurant in town, called Sabaidee Odisha. Try the Uttapam!

>>> Xamtai is the weaving village Remigio told me about. It was quite an adventure to get there. It’s far. It’s cold. Nobody speaks English. Nobody really understands why two farang want to get there. But the weaving… ah… it’s just AMAZING! I felt the language barrier while visiting Xamtai. I wanted to ask so many questions about the silk farming, the weaving techniques, the history and tradition behind the patterns… But I couldn’t find an English speaker (only weeks after I left, I learned there’s one person at the Culture/Tourism center who speaks English and is keen in showing around).

I left Xamtai with plans to go back. Maybe to stay longer, maybe learn from the weavers. That’s for sure a place I’ll go back to.

III) After Xamtai, we finally started to make our way South, through Phonsavanh, the place where the Plain of Jars are located – archeological sites with huge jars that nobody really knows how/why they got there. If you’re into archeology, you should check it out. Another must see while in town in the MAG UXO visitor center, with videos and photos about the period when Laos was bombarded by the US, and the challenges the country still faces due to existing UXOs.

In Phonsavanh we stayed at Janeeda Guesthouse, and were stuck there one day more than planned because buses to Thakhek only run every other day. And once on our way to Thakhek I opened another chapter of my love for Laos. Soon I would meet, for the first time, the ❤ Mekong ❤

[more about Southern Laos and then my way North again pretty soon!]

Travel notes – Cambodia

I made my way to Cambodia from Bangkok, where I met a friend who came to SE Asia to spend her vacation with me. We took a flight in BKK and landed in Siem Reap 50 minutes later (Nok Air, USD55). It’s possible to do it by bus or train, you just need to be aware of the visa and border-crossing scams at the border. More about Poipet famous’ scams here. Because we spent more time in Bangkok than previously planned[i], the flight seemed a better option for us.

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Siem Reap is a lively city with its economy based on the tourism around Angkor Wat. It’s quite busy, but nothing compared to Bangkok. Despite being pretty touristy, it’s the #1 “must visit” place in Cambodia, and I’d add, in SE Asia. Lonely Planet features Angkor Wat as #1 travel destination, and most people go to Cambodia only because of the temples. That (temples, not LP) was also the main reason we wanted to visit Cambodia.

We spent 4 days there. First day was a rest day – to recover from all the walking around Bangkok and to plan our visit to the temples. The ticket is not cheap and there’s talk around town that it will increase significantly in 2017. In December 2016 it cost USD20/1day and USD40/3days. I don’t think 1 day is enough to see everything.

We visited most of the temples in Angkor complex + three others located 30-40km away from the city. We were speechless most of the time. Personally, I’m not sure if I found Bagan more impactful. The style is very different and I keep thinking whether it would change my impression if I had visited Angkor Wat first. I really don’t know. Still, there were moments where my jaw would literally drop.

Ta Phrom, for example, is magical. All those trees hugging the ruins in such a delicate way, as if they were put there at the same time. The silence… well, silence until the arrival of hordes of Chinese – IMPORTANT: get there as early as possible! And don’t stress too much about the Chinese. They do outnumber everyone else and stressing about their loudness, selfie-sticks, and lack of “simancol” won’t change the way they behave and will just ruin your day.

We chose to do the long circuit first (on our 2nd day) and leave the short circuit, which include Angkor Wat, for the following day. On the 3rd day we visit the Lady Temple, a tiny but extremely impressive building with incredible details everywhere you look. So delicate and so powerful at the same time.

Siem Reap is definitely more expensive than other places in the country. If you get there from outside the country, you might have an impression that things are pretty cheap. Hold your consuming impulses though and buy your scarfs in Battambang or Phnom Penh instead.

You can visit the temples by bycicle, motorbike, tuk tuk, car/van/bus, but we didn’t even consider the latter. It’s a great feeling to feel the wind in your face while moving from one temple to another – and it’s also a nice way to recharge and get ready for more walking around ruins.

We found a nice tuk tuk driver and decided to stick with him during our stay. It was great. He had a really good vibe. He was so nice that – our mistake – we didn’t realize he was adding things to what was agreed and would charge for it later. So, as a piece of advice, you don’t need to change drivers if you like the first one, but don’t forget to agree on the price before you leave for the day and ask him over and over again if what he’s suggesting is included in the previous agreement. I know, I know, very basic thing, won’t happen again (so I hope).

Food: we rediscovered the meaning of “fresh fruit juice” with creamy and incredibly tasty smoothies for USD1. *** avocado + passionfruit is an awesome combination! I also loved Nom Krok, a rice-coconut pancake (gluten-free!) that you find everywhere.

Before heading to Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital, we decided to visit Battambang. Capitol Tours sells tickets for USD4.5 if you buy at their office (~1km from the old market). Hotels sell it for USD6-8. Important: call to confirm pick up from your hotel if you buy the ticket directly with the company. They “forgot” us and we heard it was not the first time it happened. Luckily our host called them and thanks to the delayed departure we were still able to catch it.

Battambang is the 2nd largest city in Cambodia but it feels like a small town in the countryside. It was founded in the 11th century by the Khmer empire.

It was a nice surprise after busy Siem Reap and before even busier Phnom Penh. In Battambang we rented a bike and rode along the river. Every kid in town would wave to us and say hello. When passing in front of a school where kids were going home we almost caused an accident because they’d look at us instead of at the traffic!

“Hello, bye-bye” was our motto in Battambamg.

Food: Domlong An or Noum Domlong Barang. Delicious sweet potato cakes for only 500 riel (USD 0.12)

From Battambang we took a bus (USD5) to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, situated on the Mekong River bank.

It was the first time we were shocked with the traffic and amount of motorcycles (it was certainly an anticipation to Ho Chi Minh/Saigon in Vietnam, but that’s another post…). It was also the first time we hated the place where we stayed and maybe it influenced the way we visited the city. Yes, there were better options but they were also more expensive; we just stayed out for as long as we could so we’d fall sleep as soon as possible.

The Royal Palace (USD6.50 > price will increase to USD10 in January 2017) deserves a visit according to Livia. I didn’t go inside but she loved – and I trust her, so you should go 🙂

On our last day in Phnom Penh we rented a bike and drove to Choeung Ek (USD6), a killing field during the Khmer Rouge regime, in the 1970s. It’s a very disturbing place. I felt a peaceful atmosphere in the area but then, listening to the stories of atrocities that happened there… it’s so sad to realize what the human being is capable of. It was the first place in Cambodia where I witnessed total silence among visitors (including the Chinese!).

From Phnom Penh we bought a bus ticket with Mekong Express to Ho Chi Minh, in Vietnam, for USD12. The trip took us about 7 hours.

It was a short visit to Cambodia and I’m sure there are many other interesting things to do there. What we could notice is that people are extremely friendly, food is similar to Thai food in many ways, and the Khmer culture is present everywhere we visited. For next time we’d love to visit the mountains and the coast. One more thing for next time… I guess I’m never leaving SE Asia 😉

 

PS-You can pay pretty much everything in American Dollars throughout Cambodia.

 

 

 

 

 

[i] Because I had to get my visa to Vietnam and thought that it would be easier at the Vietnamese Embassy in BKK – oh, make laugh! First I tried in Yangon, Myanmar, and they wanted to charge USD70 for the visa. I knew it should be cheaper so I tried BKK… but no. They wanted to charge me USD61. I ended up getting my visa in Siem Reap, Cambodia, through an agency recommended by the guesthouse where we stayed. I paid USD41 and got the visa on the same day. I had no problems getting into Vietnam with it.

The uncertainties of the world

[leia em Português]

Mawlamyine, Myanmar – November 26, 2016

Or should it be a world of uncertainties?

Two months ago I was boarding a plane in Boston to SE Asia not knowing what my itinerary was going to be.

Twenty days ago I arrived in Myanmar anxious to travel around this unknown and fascinating country.

Two days later it was election day in the USA.

The day after, my excitement gave way to disbelief. I remained speechless as I followed the results minute-by-minute from one of the few places where you can find good internet connection in Yangon.

I’m sorry for bringing this up but I need to make a parenthesis before continuing on my adventures.

I’m sure you are upset and tired of reading about Trump. I understand. It doesn’t look good and it isn’t getting any better as days go by. But I can’t help myself. It was too much of a shock to see one more of The Simpsons’ prophecies coming to life.

I’m no political analyst and have no intention whatsoever in becoming one. What I really enjoy are anthropological studies – a fancy way I call “people watching” – and I apologize in advance to my American friends for my honesty – maybe bluntness – here. But I must say I find it an intriguing phenomena that the next US president is a showman.

For me it is quite a natural process for a country where you have TVs everywhere. TVs and hundreds of TV channels – who really watches all those channels? For me it’s an expected election result for a country that judges electoral debates based on the way candidates interact with the cameras, how they articulate words more than ideas and policies, on the color of their ties or blazers. A country where reality shows cover pretty much every topic you can imagine, and where the Kardashians are the example of success to be followed.

I’m sorry my dear American friends… But I can only say I saw it coming that a reality show host becomes your president.

And I really feel for you; I feel for your country I learned to love; I feel for Jack and Sophie, for Yara’s nephews and nieces, for all the kids that have to live not only through a Trump presidency, but who will have to fix what he’s going to leave behind after four – hopefully only four – years in the Oval Office.

I truly hope that after this shocking result people realize that reality shows actually have scripts, that there’s some kind of control behind the scenes – even if it’s only to decide what scenes are going to be aired.

Trump on the presidency, on the other hand, is a free rider. The future of the USA and the world is completely uncertain right now. The direction it’s pointing doesn’t look good from where I’m standing.

*

Enough about the uncertainties of a superpower and the world it influences. Let’s talk about Myanmar and the beauties and challenges of a country in transition, where the future is as uncertain as the USA.

Myanmar is a country at a crossroad. I looked for a better description, but couldn’t find one. It is a country with full potential to develop economically, socially, and politically in a positive way, but struggling to deal with what was left from decades of military dictatorship and young and fragile democracy.[i]

In twenty days I visited the lively cities of Yangon and Mandalay; Kachin’ state capital Myitkyina; hills and villages between Kalaw and Inle Lake; breathtaking Bagan; and George Orwell’s Mawlamyine.

I didn’t follow a logical itinerary; instead I planned according to friends’ schedules. After all, how cool is it to visit a region with your local friend? Or attend a traditional Burmese wedding of another friend’s colleague? This time I preferred to go where friends were, even if it meant a lot of long-distance and time consuming traveling from one place to another, as well as shorter periods of time in each place.

It also means I have quite an extensive list of places to go for my next time in Myanmar: Putao on the very north of Kachin, looking at the Eastern Himalayas; Sittwe and other parts of Rakhine state, region struggling with ethnic and religious conflict; Naypidaw, the ghost-town capital and surroundings; Dawei, the southern coastline and border with Thailand. So many places to be seen that I’ll have to come back soon 😉

Myanmar is definitely a place to visit. It’s changing and it’s changing fast. I wish it changes for the better, although some people I’ve talked to are not as optimistic as they were right after the election last year.

People here look beautiful in their longyis. I love, LOVE men in longyis! How charming they look! The women are super elegant, always matching the colors of their long tube skirts with their tops. I can’t recall seeing obese people even though food is pretty oily. I was told oil is a sign of wealth in Burmese culture. My tummy complained, still no obesity.

The landscape reminds me a lot of Brazil. All the way from Mandalay to Bagan, and from Bagan to Yangon, I was transported to the Cerrado and its veredas. Cities like Yangon, Mandalay, and in a smaller scale Myiktyina reminded me of Northern Brazil and places like Manaus, Belém and Fortaleza. Street dogs, just like in Thailand, the lack of sidewalks, and drivers that speed instead of stopping when they see you trying to cross a busy road also brought me memories of my home country.

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Sun rising in Bagan

Nevertheless, people here are as welcoming as Brazilians, if not more. When not too shy they’d greet me with beautiful smiles, return my “mingalabar” – hello in Burmese – and even start a conversation, sometimes followed by a request to take a picture with me. Often they offered to help when I looked lost – and I had to face my own prejudice and fear of being swindled. Brief notes on the places I visited here.

What I’ve seen and heard so far corroborate my idea that this is, indeed, a fascinating country. There are many areas where a foreigner cannot go due to conflicts between the Burmese Army and local armed or minorities groups – the most pressing currently being the one in Rakhine state involving the Muslim minority (for more on Rakhine’s recent conflict development check this and this).

Together with my “wow” lenses, of curiosity and excitement for the simple fact that I’m finally here, I always carry my geographer view and intuition. And I can’t help but think that this is a country embedded in a lot of tension.

The most obvious refers to an uncertain future: how will the government deal with the ongoing conflicts? Why Aung Sang Suu Kyi, a Peace Nobel laureate, does not address them?

Not so obvious, are the right policies being implemented to contribute to an effective development and inclusive society?

Even less obvious is the way the government and the Army[ii] take over the territory and express their power over it.

In Kachin state, for example, there is a campground where families from the south of the country are living. They were brought by the government to work on the installation and maintenance of power lines. My first question was “why bring people from the South? Why not hire locals?” Well, “very good question” replied my local translator. For him there’s an unofficial strategy to colonize regions like Kachin – where 98% of the population is Christian – with Buddhist Burmans.

On another occasion, my guide made a comment about “the need for Christian buildings on top of hills, because the Buddhists are taking over and building Pagodas everywhere.” For a geographer like me this is more than fascinating. This is the pure expression of how power expresses itself on a territory. I’m fully aware I have a very partial picture of the complexity involving religion and ethnic minorities here, thus I must confess that after his comment I viewed the Buddhist presence in the country in a different way, with more skepticism than I’d even like to.

This uneasiness and discomfort only make me want to learn more and more about Myanmar. And to follow closer how the current uncertainties will unfold and impact the social, economic, and political development of the country.

 

[i] Last presidential election happened in November 2015 and new government took over on April 2016.

[ii] That is independent from the Executive.

 

Breathing and living Thailand

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Yangon, Myanmar – November 07, 2016

It’s November and a dream comes true: I made it to Myanmar! This post, however, is not about this country that I’ve been fascinated by, but the past few weeks I spent in Thailand. Hopefully on the next one I’ll be able to share some of my impressions on this intriguing place.

As mentioned previously, I was fortunate to spend my first two weeks with a Thai family, getting acclimatized to Thailand and learning the basics about Thai culture and food (so good!).

Since I left my adopted family in Phuket, I have visited a few places – but still far from seeing most of the country. When you travel for the sake of traveling, and don’t necessarily have to be in a specific location by a certain date, you allow yourself to spend longer periods of time here and there. You allow yourself to experience the local pace, its culture and atmosphere. That’s exactly what I’ve been trying to do, but I have to recognize it’s still not enough time to assimilate the local way of life – and I’m an obvious foreigner – farang – here.

With the exception of Ko Phi Phi – that I left after 2 nights – I felt like I could stay longer and longer on every other location I visited. Somehow, all the places exposed me to things that are important in my life, and that I’d like to do more often. Rationally I know it’s not a matter of place/location, I should be able to climb wherever I go, or meditate, or practice yoga, or avoid meat and alcohol; still it feels like certain places are more favorable than others to do so, and that’s something I’ve been trying to change during this journey.

The first place where I felt it in a powerful way was Tonsai, Railay, a climbing paradise where I reconnected with rock climbing and realized, once again, how climbing feeds my soul and energizes me. Even though I’m out of shape and my arms and legs can’t hold for long, even though I left with bruises all over my body, I felt complete, happy and fulfilled in a way climbing allows me to feel – and I had forgotten.

I also left this climbing paradise a bit in love. In love with the geology and rock formation. In love with the peaceful and calm vibe of the low and high tides. In love with the beautiful souls – some more than others 😉 – that I met there. If it wasn’t for one of the few ‘time and date’ plans I have during this trip – a meditation retreat in Ko Samui – I think I would still be in Tonsai. I could certainly go back. I’m probably going back.

The meditation retreat in Ko Samui started on the 20th. It consisted of almost 7 full days of silence, a 4:30am-9pm schedule, only 2 daily meals and tea, and sitting and walking meditation. As hard as it was to leave Tonsai I knew something pretty exciting was waiting for me. And I was right.

At the stage I am in the meditation world, it still involves a lot of uncertainty. I have no idea what kind of tricks my body and mind will play with me, where my mind will wander to, how to maintain the focus on my breath once it starts wandering. The experience of a week breathing, dreaming, walking, eating meditation was, to say the least, positively surprising. While trying to tame my thoughts and concentrate on the air coming in and out of my nose, my mind wandered to imaginable and unimaginable places. I had visions, I fell asleep during the sessions, I was bored, I was frustrated, I made lists of things to do, emails to write and people to call. I even wrote emails and postcards in my head.

But to my surprise the hardest part was not the silence or the mindful breathing. I pretty much enjoyed the challenge. The most difficult part was coming back to this loud and “real” world. It took me a few days to acclimatize again to people talking to me, to cars and motorbikes on the streets,  to so many food options. So the idea to head to Ko Phangan after the retreat was just perfect. A bungalow on the beach, an awesome Thai restaurant 5 minutes away, free yoga sessions every morning. Again I felt like I could stay there – in Haad Chao Pao – for a long, long time. But the other thing I had planned was a trip to Myanmar and it  was time to move and get closer to Bangkok, from where my flight to Yangon departed.

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Sunset in Ko Phangan

On my way to Tonsai I met a Brazilian girl who was also running away from Phi Phi. She joined me in the retreat and there we met a Russian guy – the yoga teacher – who followed us to Ko Phangan. The three of us ended up going to Ko Tao together, a small island known by the infinite offers of affordable diving courses – apparently it is one of the world’s cheapest places to learn how to dive.

Diving is still not my thing. Somehow I feel claustrophobic when wearing a mask and snorkel under water, I can’t even imagine a full scuba diving outfit. Maybe I’ll try it one day, but not yet. So when my travel buddies enrolled on a diving course I  decided to make my way to Bangkok and spend time with Namsai, do my laundry – yay! clean and dry clothes again! – and organize my things to finally enter the fascinating world of Myanmar.

***

Dealing with uncertainty as I go – Not only my itinerary is uncertain, unexpected things also happen as I go and I have to find ways to deal with them without getting (too) upset. So far – knock knock on wood – the main thing that happened, forcing me to re-plan and rethink my already tight travel budget, had to do with technology and connectivity.

The last thing you want when traveling on a budget is your computer AND your phone to die. Well, that was exactly my case. First the computer in Phuket. Puff! One day it did not turn on anymore. Diagnosis: mother board. Dead. Thankfully there’s Dropbox! 🙏🏼

Then my phone died after we were caught on a heavy rain in Ko Phangan, on our way to Bottle Beach – northern part of the island. No, it did not fall in the sea, or in the toilet, or in the pool – so I told the technician who stared at me skeptically. It was rain. And it was gone. Forever.

I had to decide if I’d buy a new computer + a new phone – which I ended up doing – and how I’d recover this money so I can keep my previous travel plans. I still don’t have an answer to the latter, but as life already showed me many times before, I’m sure things will work out. (by the way, if I can do any freelance to anyone out there, let me know!)

 

Every journey starts with an ending

Beijing Int’l Airport – September 28, 2016

Every journey starts with an ending.  In this case, the beginning of my journey to Asia marks the ending of three years living in the USA, more particularly in the Boston area, a place I’ll dearly miss.

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Goodbye Boston!

I find it symbolic that in order to fly to Asia I had to cross North America from coast to coast, as if I could only say goodbye after appreciating its fascinating geography from my window seat. Even more symbolic to say hi and goodbye to the Pacific Ocean from the American side, and have a chance to watch a last sunset before heading back to LAX airport. For me sunsets are the perfect expression of impermanence. The sun is always the same, but every single sunset is difference. I’m happy to say my last sunset in the USA – for now –  will remain as one of my favorites until I have a chance to come back to the country that surprisingly grew on me, where I felt home for the past three years, and where I learned so much about myself.

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Santa Monica, LA, CA.

When plans fall apart and life doesn’t go as planned people react in very different ways. The way I react might seem chaotic to all of those whose are not inside my head (another way of saying everyone else), but I like to think that it’s not chaotic, it is chaordic (chaos+order). When things don’t go as planned first I panic, then I activate my “MRB’s psychological survival kit” and start brainstorming hundreds of possibilities, draw multiple scenarios, explore various options, and I always, always, have a plan B (most of the times I do that out loud. So I do understand why some people think I’m chaotic. I apologize for that). When I decided to embrace uncertainty and to be open to the unexpecte, a plan B was being shaped and I was studying it carefully. Now plan B is plan A: let’s explore Southeast Asia!

Why SE Asia?

Mainly because I did not know how much money I would be able to save during one year. My other option would be to go back to my home country but my heart and intuition kept pushing me away from it – and the political and economic crisis did not help either. After doing some research it was not hard to conclude that SE Asia would be one of the cheapest destinations, and this was the number one reason for that.

The second reason is not hard to guess. I’m lucky enough to have amazing friends spread all over the world, some of which are in Thailand, Myanmar, India, and Bangladesh. The initial search for flights considered the first three destinations. The price to get to Thailand flying from California was unbeatable (USD 520).

Lastly, I’m fascinated about the world and all the differences one can find from one region to another. Most of my worldly knowledge and experience is related to the Americas and Europe. The languages I speak are pretty much classic western languages. And although very different in terms of culture, I want to see with my own eyes if there are similarities between SE Asia (probably other places in Asia too) and Latin America.

I am super excited about the journey that starts now. An adventure that could never be possible if it weren’t for plans falling apart, for embracing uncertainty, and for allowing myself to live through all the experiences I’ve lived during the journey that ended with that sunset in California on September 26 2016.

Where is it going to take me? Let’s find out!

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Where did September 27 go?

Last things I remember about September 27:

  • I’m sitting outside a gate at LAX airport
  • I’m trying really hard to stay awake. I woke up at 5am in Boston. Now it’s 1am in LA, meaning 4am in Boston. I’ve been awake for 23 hours.
  • Don’t sleep! Boarding is almost starting.
  • Onboard Air China flight to Beijing.
  • Chinese are loud. Comparing to Americans, with whom I spent most of the past 3 years. I guess Brazilians are loud too. I forgot about that.
  • It’s around 2:30am, and I’m probably still flying over the US.
  • My eyes close. They are heavy. Tired.
  • The plane suddenly smells like Chinese food. Should I open my eyes and eat? It’s a 12 hours flight… No. Eyes closed again.

All of a sudden it’s September 28.

I’m in China.

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