You’d probably think living overseas in Ethiopia for 2 years would have taught me a lot about travel, but honestly, I moved there with two 50 lb suitcases and two very large carry-ons. I pretty much tossed in everything I thought I could possibly need and then relied on friends and family to send me care packages every 2-3 months.
It wasn’t until my partner (now husband! What? But that’s for another post) and I spent 3 months traveling around SE Asia with just a medium-sized North Face duffel on each of our backs that I really learned something about packing and traveling in general.
Tip #1: Bring a boatload of spare passport photos with you
I didn’t bring any extra to Ethiopia (because buying them in the United States is SO expensive!). It wasn’t a big deal, I had them printed in Ethiopia for super cheap, but I knew the language and had friends to refer me to a place. And while I got all the photos I needed for SE Asia (think visa forms, drivers permits, and lost passports), they all had this silly photo-touched glow to them that left me feeling embarrassed and hoping like hell they’d be accepted! This time around we printed them ourselves using a handy tool from the Department of State, a color printer, and some semi-gloss paper.
Tip #2: Don’t buy adventure clothes
Things I bought from REI that I could not have lived without: My quick-dry towel, light-weight sleeping bag (only for my time staying with a host family – I never used it when traveling), Swiss Army Camper Knife, Nalgene water bottle (this time I’ve upgraded to a Hydro Flask), and headlamp (because you never know when the electricity’s going to go out). Things I could not wait to get rid of: expensive hiking shoes, linen pants, and rain jacket. If you don’t wear it at home, you won’t want to wear it while traveling! This time around I’m packing plenty of jeans, summer dresses, and an umbrella.
We arrived in Saigon Wednesday morning with plans to see the city for a few days before heading to Phnom Penh (Cambodia) on Saturday. We did a walking tour of the city, ate some great food, and, let’s be honest, did a lot of resting. We have, after all, been on the road seven weeks now.
We even went so far as to purchase our bus tickets through Mekong Express. We were leaving at 7 am on Saturday morning. It was going to take us six to seven hours to get into the capital of Cambodia.
And then, Friday afternoon, Louis, our hotel concierge, invited us for coffee. We ordered, sat down, and had a fairly interesting chat – mostly concerning weddings? Louis has a five-year plan, which culminates with a beautiful wife and a wildly expensive wedding – complete with an American honeymoon.
We discussed the best tricks for learning English, the differences between northern Vietnam and southern Vietnam’s coffee culture, and the fact that Louis is an avid karaoke-er. An hour later, we were back in our rooms. That’s when the trouble began…
At first, it was just mild stomach discomfort, but it quickly escalated into the certain knowledge that we were dying. And the culprit was easily named – unfiltered ice in the coffee. We thought, maybe it’ll pass if we take a cipro fast enough – wrong. The cipro only made it bearable (though thank you Peace Corps for teaching me when I can simply self medicate haha). Our plans of waking up at 6 am the following morning quickly flew out the window.
Because my boyfriend and I don’t know how not to plan…and because I knew everyone who reads my blog was dying to know…here’s our SE Asia itinerary. The real itinerary took months to plan…I’ll give you the highlights : )
Doha – Al-Corniche, Souq Waqif, and the Museum of Islamic Art
Bangkok – Banglamphu neighborhood, Siam Ocean World (I’m dating a guy obsessed with aquariums – who knew?), and SHOPPING…hey, I’ve spent the last two years in Ethiopia
Koh Tao – Scuba certification and beaches!
Phetchaburi – Tham Khao Luang Cave and Tham Khao Bandai-It Monastery aka bats, bats, and more bats
Kanchanburi – Death Railway Bridge aka Bridge Over the River Kwai (which we all pronounce incorrectly, thanks to Hollywood)
Bangkok (again) – Ko Ratanakosin and Thonburi neighborhoods for the Grand Palace, National Museum, the Amulet Market, and countless stunning wats (temples)
Hanoi – Water puppets (can’t wait to find out what exactly this is), Women’s Museum, Hoan Kiem Lake & Temple, Temple of Literature (because how could two people as nerdy as me and Chandler not go?), Old Quarter, and the Perfume Pagoda
Halong Bay – Kayaking, rock climbing, and island exploration, especially Hang Trong (aka Drum Grotto) and Dao Titop
Phong Nha-ke Bang National Park – Paradise Cave, Phong Nha Cave, and the Nuoc Mooc Eco Trail (wanted to see Hang Son Doong, the world’s biggest cave, but it costs about $3,000 and only 200 people can enter each year)
Hue – Imperial Enclosure and the Royal Tombs
Hoi An – Historical Old Town
Nha Trang – Louisiane Brewhouse and the Oceanographic Museum. Can you tell which of us chose this town? : )
Mui Ne – This stop was all me though, motorbiking through sand dunes
HCMC – Jade Emperor Pagoda, Fine Arts Museum, and the Tao Dan Park
I’ve done a fair amount of research for my SE Asia trip. I’ve read the Lonely Planet Guidebook for each of the countries I’m traveling to, my boyfriend did the same and then we compared notes, we looked up activity prices, travel routes, hotels, and restaurant options. And all I could think was: Damn, everything looks so nice!
I was shocked, really. The hotels we looked up were all listed as budget options; they were cheaper than the place we stay when we come in to Addis. But they’re so much nicer! I focused on cheap and mid-range food – and there’s so much more variety! Shocked might actually be an understatement to my real reaction.
During my online research, I stumbled upon this blog – “It’s a Real City!”: Hanoi Through Cambodia Goggles – and I couldn’t stop laughing. The blogger was living in Phnom Penh, Cambodia and moved to Hanoi, Vietnam and couldn’t get over how developed it was. People would tell her everything that was still wrong with Hanoi and the only thought that came to her mind was “If you think this is underdeveloped, you should check out Cambodia!”
As for me, I’ve seen photo upon photo of Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, and all I could think was: Damn, everything looks so nice! Clearly, after two years in Ethiopia, I’ve developed Ethiopia goggles. I’m viewing the world through a developing nation in East Africa. I’ve spent the last two years pretending a hole in the floor is a bathroom, thinking a cold shower is normal, living in an uninsulated/unheated/uncooled home, and eating the same food week after week – often with bugs in it. And you know what, I’ve gotten used to it.