Side Tripped Out

Really the only kind of problem I’ve ever had is a first world problem. Maybe the one that sounds the most ridiculous is that I’m exhausted from side tripping. But looking back, it’s been an amazing two weeks.

Joey visited (!!!), we went to Phuket & Phi Phi, and it was an absolute dream to travel together and explore these beautiful places. Ok, in reality Phuket City was nasty, but the beaches weren’t — and all that meant was we had to rent a motorbike to find more secluded spots and/or walk a little further to find empty stretches of sand. And, surprise! He and I travel really well together, so it didn’t matter where we were or what we were doing.

We took a speedboat for a day around Phi Phi, and it was one of the most pristine and dreamlike places we had ever seen. Other highlights of our trip included a monkey jumping onto our boat from a cliff, snorkeling with a barracuda (imagine me slowly drifting backwards and then sprint freestyling to the boat when the coast was clear), attacking and cleaning out a $9 entire fried sea bass covered in Thai chili sauce, garlic and cilantro, and getting $7 hour massages and $1 fresh fruit smoothies every day.

Earlier in Joey’s visit, we had a full day at an elephant sanctuary outside Chiang Mai where we fed them, played with them and got completely covered in mud (and who knows what else). This was one of my favorite days ever! We also went to a night market/cooking class combo where we had our pick of three different dishes, and our guide was an enthusiastic and engaging “Peanut.” She loved rolling her Rs and asking us, “Are you rrrready?!” Another really special thing was finding a small, secluded, dirt floor Khao Soi place that Joey saw on TV. A big delicious bowl was $1 — we just had to turn a blind eye to the chickens running around and the beef delivery just as we left.

We both loved Chiang Mai: the charm of my neighborhood plus the authenticity of Old Town, often being the only Americans in the vicinity, and getting our one temple in at the end. All in all, an incredible trip for us both!

Shortly after, I headed to meet some friends in Siem Reap, Cambodia. I had no expectations, and starting with the drive from the airport, my eyes opened wide and basically stayed that way for 4 days.

On our first full day, my two friends and I joined a bigger RY group that had been there for some time already, and we headed into the mountains to a few different places. First was the Thousand Lingas at the Kbal Spean River — essentially depictions of Hindu gods carved into the riverbed itself. Sadly, there were thunderstorms the night before, and very little was actually visible. Mother Nature don’t care! We also went to Phnom Kulen National Park and saw a giant reclining Buddha and raging waterfalls we were going to swim in (again, affected by the storm). The poverty this country experiences was very clear, even at this spot designed for tourists.

The tourist thing is a theme in this city — as the next day we visited Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm, and Bayon. We left the hotel at 4:40 a.m. to buy our temple pass and watch the sunrise at Angkor Wat. Three out of four of us were suffering from a combination of headaches, unpleasant GI issues, and utter exhaustion — and the sunrise was CLOUDY. Cloudy. No colors. No sun. Our poor guide was so passionate and full of energy from the moment we got in the van, and thankfully our mood improved with some coffee and putting our big girl pants on about halfway through the morning. Thank goodness for my beautiful French friend and former roomie Helene who offered plenty of smiles and questions for us all!

Angkor Wat is in fact the largest religious monument in the world — built in the 12th century, starting as a Hindu temple and transitioning to a Buddhist one. Ta Prohm is characterized by huge, gorgeous, fairytale-like trees that grow around the structure (it’s where Tomb Raider was filmed), and Bayon has 216 huge stone faces situated throughout. If I’m being honest, I drifted through this day, but it was a bucket list item for sure. At the very least, we got some good stories and some wheezy, teary belly laughs.

The most “real” moment was an impromptu one when our guide described his experience fleeing his hometown and living in a temple so he wasn’t forced to fight. He would have become a monk, but was able to become a tour guide, and told us about his wife and three kids. I learned about the Khmer Rouge during my time in Cambodia — a genocide carried out by the Communist regime that killed 3 million people, or 25% of the country’s entire population, as a measure of social purification. The murders were especially brutal and public from what I understand, and these events ended in 1979 — less than 40 years ago.

Perhaps the most valuable thing I gathered from this trip was perspective. I don’t think every side trip should be glamorous, and I think it’s okay if I don’t feel completely safe or comfortable everywhere I go. Once again, gratitude has been the clear common denominator I get from traveling, no matter what. 🙏🏼

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