Without a doubt, Koh Tao is one of my favorite places in Southeast Asia.
Last fall I spent three weeks there and this spring I returned for two and a half. On both visits I only intended to stay a week, but well, Koh Tao is tough to quit.
Koh Tao is heaven for young people. A palm tree-fringed paradise where hour-long massages cost $6, where you can scuba-dive and fight muay thai and motorbike at your leisure, where partying is practically an art-form.
My memories of Koh Tao are equally distant and fond, so hazy it’s as if they belong to someone else.
Even though I was there only six months ago, I was a different girl. Back then I flitted around the world, unsure of myself or what I wanted to do. I was rootless. I vacillated between seeking adventure and food and travel and craving community and career growth and lasting friendship.
Similar to an addiction, travel evolved from a love to an escape to an obsession to a lifestyle. After nine years of obsessive travel, I traveled because it was all I knew how to do. I was equally scared for the future and determined to savor the present. When the dreaded question “What will I do when I get home?” arose, I cast it from my mind.
I lived simply and cheaply, my only shoes a pair of black flip flops, my hair usually wet and plaited to the side. I was a girl who felt wildly indulgent paying $40 a night for an air-conditioned bungalow, who considered staying out until two an early night. I worried a lot. I partied a lot. I had metric tons of free time but carried a deep guilt for not feeling constantly happy. After all, who was I to feel lonely in paradise? How dare I?
I was a girl I recognize but can’t remember being.
But I do remember some things about my time on Koh Tao. I remember the bathwater sea, the banana pancake truck parked in front of Ban’s, the bright long tail boats bobbing in the surf. I remember drinking frothy pineapple juice as the tourmaline sea glittered. I remember swaying in a hammock listening to Manu Chao, sniffling and feverish from too many nights out.
And needless to say, I miss that lifestyle at times. I miss blissing out under Tiger Balm massages while listening to the soft pulsing of the sea. I miss sipping lukewarm Changs on the beach at night, watching the fire dancers spin, the flames bright as stars.
But mostly, I feel time has given me clarity. I forgive the girl I was back then for being anxious and guilty once in a while, because of course I had rough days on the road. Of course I felt insecure about my future and longed for deeper friendships. One can only live untethered for so long without yearning for security.
In retrospect I see that I was far too hard on myself.
I doubt I will ever go back to Koh Tao- actually, I don’t want to. For me, it’s so intertwined with youth, both the uncertainty and the frivolity of it. I want the island to remain fixed in my mind just as it was when I was 23. Because I will never again be the girl I was on Koh Tao, for better or worse.
Koh Tao- what a special little piece of paradise.
Yes, you read that correctly. Coup. On May 22, 2014, the Thai military took control of the government and enforced curfew and martial law, banned political gatherings, censored the media and detained and arrested politicians.
As fate would have it, I had a flight to Bangkok booked for May 23.
So on my last night in Delhi, I weighed my options:
Cons- Coup. Potential imprisonment. Border crossings could be tricky.
Pros- Thailand. Already spent $200 on ticket. Nowhere else to go. THAILAND.
And as I half-joked to my parents, I’d rather be a political prisoner than spend one more day in India.
So off I flew to the Thai capital. And I’m glad I did. While I felt lukewarm about Bangkok the first time around, on my second visit I came to adore it.
And really, the coup didn’t change much. Yes, there was that pesky 10 p.m. curfew and the local TV channels were completely blocked. But mostly, it was Bangkok as usual: temples and Thai food, shopping malls and duck soup.
(I have to admit, I did break the curfew as one night my travel buddy and I sneaked out at 11 p.m. for a massage. Gasp!)
After six weeks in rural India, Bangkok might as well have been Boston. It was so modern.
I spent my entire first day lapping up modernity at Siam Paragon, Bangkok’s swankiest shopping mall. I nearly died of bliss as I sipped a vanilla latte, scrolled through my phone and savored the long-forgotten feel of air-conditioning on my face.
I also stopped at H&M and the beauty country to stock up on Southeast Asia essentials: MAC Studio Fix and Bobbi Brown bronzer. And in the spirit of the girliest, most self-induldgent day ever, then I got a mani pedi. And they had OPI which never happens.
So after I got that out of my system, I went hunting for two of my favorite things in Southeast Asia: food and wet markets.
Khlong Lat Mayom Floating Market
Khlong Lat Mayom is a floating market on the outskirts of Bangkok, with colorful wooden boats, delicious food and bright umbrellas. And it was a locals-only affair- my travel buddy Joe and I were the only tourists there!
Another perk? The vendors gave out free samples. Don’t mind if I do.
Joe and I noticed all the locals were eating fried carp- or rather, some sort of crispy bottom feeder. So we hurried over to get ours too.
Well, it wasn’t very good so we tried again. Our second lunch (ahem), was a spicy seafood salad. Delicious.
By the end of the morning I decided that out of all the markets I’ve visited in Bangkok, Khlong Lat Mayom is by far my favorite.
Chatuchak Weekend Market
On Sunday we headed to the Chatuchak Weekend Market, or JJ’s, to score a few bargains and see what all the fuss was about. Chatuchak is enormous; I found the sprawl a bit overwhelming but most enjoyed stalls 2-4, where trendy Thai designers hawk their wares (Thanks Alex in Wanderland for pointing me in the right direction!)
While I came armed with plenty of baht and the intent to more or less buy a new wardrobe, I only walked away with a pair of feather earrings. In the end it was too sticky to try on clothes, and at nearly 5′ 8” tall, I’m not exactly Thai-sized anyway.
I really wish I had bought one of these.
But no matter, I still enjoyed spending an afternoon at Chatuchak, and relished the opportunity to have some bánh cuốn. Hey, I love Thai food, but sometimes I just need me some Vietnamese.
Taking the Ferry to the Lots of Temples
As I learned on my last visit in Thailand, the Chao Phraya River Express Ferry is the best way to squeeze in lots of sites while enjoying a breeze.
Our first stop was Wat Pho, the beautiful, gold-coated reclining Buddha…
then the surrounding temples, which were also stunning…
and to finish, the stately Grand Palace.
(Note- make sure you dress respectfully for all these temples! Ladies, think shawls and long skirts.)
But soon we were sweltering in the Bangkok sun so we retreated back to the hostel.
A huge reason I liked Bangkok more the second time was due to the upgrade in accommodation. While last time I bunked up in a cockroach-infested hostel on Khao San Road, this time I stayed at Lub d.
Lub d has two locations: Siam Square and Silom. We chose Silom, a ritzy district where the sois are filled with cheap and tasty eats.
My friend had never stayed in a hostel so I figured Lub d was a gentle segue into the backpacker scene. And Lub d was everything I had bargained for; clean, beautifully designed and staffed with incredibly sweet and helpful employees.
And across the street from Lub d Silom is a stall serving one of the meals of my life. There’s only one menu item- duck soup- and it will blow your mind. Have you ever see anything so beautiful?
Coup or no coup, I loved Bangkok. And I honestly think I’d fly back just for that soup- though I’ll pass on the government overthrow next time.
Would you have flown to Thailand in the middle of a military coup? Am I crazy?
Lub d generously hosted our stay for two nights. As always, all opinions are completely my own.
(Note- buy MAC makeup before you get to Bangkok because it was crazy marked up.)
. . . . . . . . . . .
If you enjoyed this post please consider sharing it! Also, I’d love to keep you updated on my adventures in Denver and everywhere else, so feel free to subscribe to Ashley Abroad on Bloglovin or by email in the sidebar.
India was, for lack of a better word, the most hard-core trip of my life. At various points in my six weeks I was struggling to breathe from the stench of cow shit, vomiting from (many) bouts of food poisoning, violently shivering in a wind-whipped tent, nearly passing out from sunstroke in the Himalayas and doing vinyasa in 110-degree heat.
Travel writers wax poetic on how India is a Technicolor, multi-sensory travel experience- and yes, it is that. But for me, India was much a spiritual overhaul as it was a descent into chaos.
For better or worse, shit went down.
A human-powered ferris wheel. No biggie.
Here are the craziest things that happened to me in India:
I left my wallet on the plane in Delhi.
This one is kind of embarrassing. I’ve only been to, oh, 38 countries, and boarded countless international flights. But after passing customs in Delhi, I realized I was sans wallet.
After two hours of frantic waiting, an airport employee returned the wallet to me with all the credit cards intact, my confirmation number written in blue pen on the leather (a funny story to tell when I pull it out nowadays).
I will forever be grateful to the kind employees of Indira Gandhi International Airport.
I was attacked by monkeys on an early morning run.
Per our Indian wellness pledge, McCall and I woke up at 6 a.m. every day to run. One morning, we passed a trash heap and a pack of macaques leapt out and corralled McCall. Hissing and baring their teeth, McCall kicked at them and yelled, “HEY!”
Seconds later, she shouted “RUN!” and we started sprinting back towards the yoga school.
Later, when I regaled the tale to my uncle, instead of being shocked that I was attacked by monkeys, he said, “Wait. You went running at 6 a.m.?” Ha.
And just in case you’re ever attacked; leading primatologists suggest you “Form an “O” with your mouth, lean toward them with your body and head, and raise your eyebrows.
Also, apparently monkeys are more afraid of men than women. That’s not even fair.
I saw a corpse floating in the Ganges
We were standing at the edge of the Ganges in Rishikesh when I saw a white shape floating quickly down the river. As it came closer, I saw it was a blue-tinged, water-logged corpse.
While my yoga school classmates claimed it was a cow, sorry guys, it wasn’t- it was a human corpse with a head full of black hair.
A week after the corpse incident, my classmates wanted to take a dip in the Ganges, which up until that point I was all for. But considering the corpse we had just seen, I opted out. Everyone called me a square.
I went white-water rafting with an infant.
Every day at yoga school, I would watch as white-water rafters drifted down the Ganges in bright blue rafts. “I want to do that,” I sighed.
So one day, to my delight, we headed down to the Ganges to white-water raft.
Soon into our rafting trip two Indian families boarded the raft, the men in blue jeans and loafers, the women in saris. And to our dismay, one woman was holding her ten-month old daughter.
The child was terrified, sobbing hysterically as huge waves rained down upon us. “Pani, pani!” said the mom, pointing to the water.
Also, as an aside, most Indians can’t swim.
Anyway, maybe it’s a cultural thing, but I don’t understand the logic in bringing a baby white-water rafting.
I nearly died in the Himalayas.
Okay, okay. Maybe I’m being dramatic. But I could’ve at least broken a leg.
One morning we were hiking down a snowy hill, and I fell and slipped. After sliding down about 15 feet, heading for the edge of the mountain, I managed to grab hold of a rhododendron bush.
And thank god, as there wasn’t much past it.
I was circled by men at night in Delhi.
In India men have a curious habit of forming a circle around you, as if they were corralling you. It’s rather terrifying.
After dinner in Delhi, my friends (one girl, one guy) and I stopped at the India Gate. We were just walking around the park and stopped to do a few yoga poses. Within seconds, a group of about 15-20 men formed a circle around us. My guy friend grabbed us both by the arms and pushed his way out of the crowd.
My guy friend was genuinely shocked. “Is this what you girls go through all the time?”
(Note- my female friend I had would never have gone to a park at night alone, and only went because we had a guy with us. Unfortunately, we still live in world where two women alone in a park at night in India is a very bad idea.)
I had a guru.
How could I talk about India without mentioning my guru and meditation teacher, Swami Ji?
Swami Ji, who referred to me as “sluggish baby”, is one of the funniest and good-hearted people I’ve ever met in my life.
A lover of selfies, Swami Ji would have us pose as a class while he took a selfie with his 13.1 megapixel smartphone.
He liked to meditate anywhere and everywhere. I can still picture his voice perfectly; whenever we asked a question, he would reply, “Yessssssss… baby…”
He introduced us to many forms of meditation, including moon meditation, in which we laid on our backs, stared at the moon and then closed our eyes and tried to remember the moon. And laughing meditation, in which we laughed hysterically for an hour straight.
Thank you, India. It was real. And crazy.
So what about you? What’s the “craziest” country you’ve ever been to?
As a note, this post is just a summary of my anecdotal experiences. It in no way speaks for all of India, just what happened to me.
Hey guys! So as you may have seen on Instagram, I am now officially a Denver resident and a full-time employee with benefits and a desk. I know, I can’t believe it either.
So as promised, I’m starting a new series: The Things That Scare Me. Here are several of my more recent challenges:
Running a 5K
Ever since returning to the states, I’ve been running a ton. (Well for me. And by a ton I mean 20-30 minutes a day, ha.)
So in September I ran a 5K with my dad. Honestly, I wasn’t really a fan- for me running is all about solitude, and the race felt crowded. But I definitely still want to do a Tough Mudder and Color Run.
Um, so this one’s a doozy. I dropped a guy while rock-climbing on a second-date.
I’m not even kidding,
When he called down that he was descending I grabbed the wrong end of the rope and he plummeted twenty feet to the ground like a log. In shock, all I could do was stare at my bloody, chafed hands.
Worst. Second. Date. Ever.
(And he was just fine, in case you were wondering.)
Visiting an (Extremely Frightening) Haunted House
When people say I’m brave I laugh a bit because really I’m a scaredy cat. Case in point? Haunted houses terrify me. Last month I went to one of the scariest haunted houses in the United States: Erebus. It was awful- four stories of heart-pumping, grab-your-nearest-friend terror.
I have now vowed I’m never visiting a haunted attraction ever again.
Cutting my Hair Really Short
After decades of long locks, I finally have a short haircut! It’s nice because it dries quickly but not so nice because I actually have to style it. (The closest thing I came to styling my hair used to be braiding it before bed.)
And of course… Moving to a New City!
Per my birthday goals, I’ve FINALLY settled down. And it’s nice. But you know you’re a true nomad when sleeping in the same bed every night seems radical and crazy.
. . . . . . . . . . .
Onto this month’s (amazing) sponsors! Pop over and say hello to them!
Shing from the Culture Map
Best of the Blog: Łódź: The Black Sheep of Poland. Or so it seems…. // 14 Most Colorful Towns and Cities in Europe // What Can You Expect to See on Iceland’s Golden Circle Tour?
Introduce yourself! Facebook // Instagram // Twitter
Have you read my interview with Shing yet? It’s a goodie.
Michelle from Near Native
Julie from The Red Headed Traveler
The company where I’m working, sovrn, is awesome so far- we have ping pong, beer on Fridays and a young, fun 80-person staff. I’m learning a ton about digital advertising and the mountain views from the office make me smile every time I walk to work. All in all, good stuff.
Also shameless plug- if any of you bloggers need advertising let me know and I can be your account manager!
And Denver? I’m in love. It’s young, hipster and full of trendy coffee shops and bars, with world-class sunrises and sunsets. I’m counting down the days to ski season.
One downside is that I live in Denver but work in Boulder, and the commute is atrocious- 75 minutes each way of gridlock traffic. Also I’m a terrible driver and after six years of not having a car I can barely park.
And about the blog: although I’ve been posting less, I’ve been really happy with my content. My recent posts were highly personal and hard to write; I was especially proud What I Learned from Giving up Meat, Alcohol and Complaining in India and my Himalayan trek posts, Part 1 and Part 2.
Up next I’ll be covering my six weeks in Southeast Asia: Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam. I’m excited.
But I’m curious: what kind of posts would you guys be interested in seeing now that I’m not traveling? Life out west? Skiing? Travel recaps? Let me know in the comments!
It’s no secret that I had a spectacular time trekking the Indian Himalaya. (Read Part I and Part II of my experience here.)
But often when travelers decide to hike the Himalayas, they head to Nepal. I get it- Nepal is home to the tallest mountains in the world: Everest, K2, Annapurna. But most of us aren’t looking for a one-in-three chance of death (Annapurna) or a ten-week trek (Everest); we just want to enjoy nature and see big mountains.
Which is why I whole-heartedly recommend the Indian Himalaya; it’s uncrowded, cheap and absolutely beautiful. And why hike in Nepal, which is becoming increasingly touristy, crowded and expensive, when you can have the Indian Himalaya all to yourself?
And I mean all to yourself. We came across eight other hikers in our entire eight-day trek.
We chose to hike the absolutely beautiful Kuari Pass Trek in the Garhwal Mountains. Our trek started and ended in Rishikesh, and lasted 10 days total: two days in transit, and eight days of hiking.
Things to consider when planning your Indian Himalaya trek:
What do you want to see?
Hankering for ancient monasteries? Head to Ladakh, a Tibetan Buddhist region. Verdant forests? Think Sikkim. Stunning mountain vistas? The Garhwal Mountains, especially around Nanda Devi. (This was my trek!)
Independent hiking or with a trekking company?
Personally, I didn’t even consider independent trekking as I’m not an experienced enough hiker. But on my trek we met four hikers who were hiking independently so it can be done.
Picking a trekking company:
When in doubt, check TripAdvisor. Our trekking company, Red Chilli Adventure, came highly recommended on TripAdvisor, ranked #1 in Rishikesh and with a Certificate of Excellence.
I absolutely adored Red Chilli- there wasn’t a kink in the whole operation. We had charming guides, delicious food and smooth logistics. Really I couldn’t recommend them highly enough. Plus, the value for your money is incredible.
One thing to note is some trekking operators prefer to take on a certain number of clients; for example, Red Chilli has a minimum of four hikers and a maximum of ten. If you have a smaller or larger group, you will pay an additional fee.
How much will your trek will cost?
We had a group of four, and each of us paid $440 USD. Costs became incrementally cheaper with more trekkers:
Group of 2 pax INR 34000 per person
Group of 3 pax INR 28500 per person
Group of 4-5 pax INR 25000 per person
Group of 6-7 pax INR 22500 per person
Group of 8-10pax INR 20000 per person
Note: we paid 50% of the total in advance as a deposit, and there was a 3.09% government service tax.
And don’t forget to factor in tips for your guides and porters! We tipped our guides $75 each, and our porters $40 each.
What does the trek include?
Our trek included transportation to and from Rishikesh, one night in a hotel, tents, three meals a day and all permits and entrance fees. This also included a staff of two guides, five porters, one cook and a team of mules.
Our trek didn’t include sleeping bags, but they could be rented for 100 rupees ($1.50 USD) a day. (Pro tip- bring a silk liner if you’re planning on renting!)
Difficulty of the trek:
If you’re an avid and experienced hiker, then a difficult hike may be right up your alley. Our trek was moderate which was the perfect difficulty level for me; challenging but bearable.
Time of year:
As a rule, the best times to hike the Himalayas are spring (March-May) and fall (September to November). The summer months are monsoon season and the winter months are quite cold, so spring and fall are optimal.
We did our trek in May and the weather was sunny most days.
How long your trek will last:
If you’re short on time, a five-day trek might be perfect. Our trek lasted ten days total: two days of transit, eight days of trekking. For me this was the perfect length; any longer and I think I would’ve lost it.
What to pack for a Himalayan trek:
Day-pack- I absolutely adore this backpack, and it was essential for carting around my snacks, Camelbak and extra layers on the trail.
Sleeping bag- I love, love, love my Marmot Angel Fire and am so glad I brought it. (I also slept in it for the entire month of Yoga Teacher Training!) But if you’re renting a sleeping bag from the trekking company, pack a silk sleeping bag liner- they’re also great for grimy hostels.
Power bars – While Red Chilli supplied us with snacks on the trail, sometimes I was glad to have a Luna Bar or two.
Camelbak – for quick hydration. This went straight in the daypack and was an absolute lifesaver.
iPhone and headphones – great for taking photos and listening to music. To save battery life, I turned off a bunch of my phone’s functions with this list.
Solar charger – Not essential, but great if you’re on a longer trek and need to charge your phone. Note- pre-charge it in an outlet before the trek- the solar function didn’t seem to work very well.
Face wipes – to clear away sweat and grime after a long day.
Headlamp – Essential for midnight or pre-dawn bathroom runs.
Pain killers - I packed Advil for headaches and back pain.
Sunscreen with SPF 50 – Essential when you’re hiking at high-altitude. And don’t forget your your ears and the tops of your hands- that’s where we got burnt the worst! Consider bringing aloe vera too if you burn easily.
Small scissors, Neosporin, band-aids – a godsend to those of us who blister!
Kindle - great for lazy post-trekking afternoons. Bonus points if the light is built-in.
Plastic bags – for dirty or wet clothes.
Note- pack warm, with lots of layers. Ski socks are especially great for cold nights!
My usual outfit: a tank top or t-shirt and Hot Chillys thermal top, with a fleece and rain coat in my bag. For bottoms I wore either athletic shorts or Hot Chillys thermal leggings layered with Zella leggings on top. For my shoes I wore hiking boots and socks, with a dorky wool hat and sunglasses to finish off the look.
Hiking boots and socks
Ski socks for sleep
Flip flops – to change into post trekking. SO nice!
Sunglasses with UV protection
Hot Chillys thermal top and bottom - I’m a lifelong fan of Hot Chillys, so silky and warm or cool depending on what you need!
Leggings and/or hiking pants
Tons of tank tops or undershirts
Pijamas – in my case, a big t-shirt and athletic shorts
Rain cover for both day-pack and backpack
Would you ever trek the Indian Himalaya?
Red Chilli Adventure did not pay or perk me in any way for this mention- I really just loved them this much! And the Amazon links in this post grant me a small commission at no extra cost to you- thanks for helping keep Ashley Abroad afloat.
Hey guys! So I’m really excited to share with you my first blogger interview with none other than Shing from The Culture Map! I’ve been following along with Shing’s travels for years and she’s awesome because a. she’s super fashionable and has great taste in everything and b. she’s a specialist in arctic adventures: think Scandinavia and Svalbard.
In this interview I quiz Shing on everything about her I’m dying to know: her life in London, childhood in Yorkshire and her love for street art and Scandinavian design. Without further ado!
Name: Shing Lin Yoong
Occupation: Product developer for a specialist tour company
Hometown: Cleckheaton, West Yorkshire
Country count: 32
Favorite city: London or Berlin
Favorite museum: The Tate Modern.
Favorite blog (s): The Skint Foodie and That Emily Chappell. Neither of them are prolific bloggers but what they lack in frequency they make up for in detail. Both have exceptional stories and distinct voices.
Favorite hostel: Gosh, telling you the ones to avoid would be easier!
Favorite hotel: The Igloo Hotel!
Favorite piece street art:
There’s a city in Poland called Łódź that’s totally redesigning the way it looks through street art. Lifeless communist blocks have been brought to life by huge wall murals. They are bigger than huge, they are massive. It’s an awesome initiative. The one below is by Polish street artist, Sainer, who is also one half of Etam Cru.
So I read you grew up in Yorkshire. How does Yorkshire compare to London?
They are chronically different. The people, mentality, economy, landscape, culture – the similarities are few and far between. For example, Yorkshire people are much friendlier, it’s normal for strangers to smile and greet each other, but do that in London and you’ve just committed a deadly sin. It’s very funny. Yorkshire has an abundance of nature too, incredible landscapes that inspired some of England’s most well-loved writers. The Brontë sisters were born in Yorkshire and Sylvia Plath was put to rest there. Of course London has a huge literary legacy too but there is something romantic and Gothic about the Yorkshire Moors that London can’t touch.
However, London has many things that Yorkshire could only dream of having. The options are endless here. If you want to see live music from the world’s best musicians then you can any day of the week, and all the major museums have free entry. But whilst you can discover many free and interesting things to do and see, the cost of living is exceptionally higher. To rent out a one bedroom flat you could rent a 4-bedroomed house in Yorkshire with a large garden for cheaper!
What is your favorite café/park/neighborhood in London?
There’s a superb tapas in Soho called Barrafina, it’s small and doesn’t take reservations so there’s often a queue but worth it. Their motto is ‘great ingredients cooked simply’ and that’s exactly what they give you. When I need a fix of fresh air I go to Greenwich Park, as well as the nature it easily offers one of the best views of London’s skyline. When I have guests I always take them to Hackney, which stretches from East to North-East of the city and comprises of Shoreditch, Hoxton, Dalston and Islington. [Ashley here- I loved Hackney! :)] It feels and looks more creative and diverse than anywhere else in London. There’s also a lot of street art, and pocket-friendly eateries offering scrumptious food. I recommend trying one of the Middle Eastern or Vietnamese joints.
You recently traveled to Russia. What led you there and what was your overall impression?
The history, mystique, architecture and all those grumpy Russian writers were begging me to visit. I very much felt like I needed to more than I wanted to.
However, it’s not an easy country to travel to, especially not in light of recent conflicts with Ukraine so my impressions are limited to areas in and around St. Petersburg and Moscow.
Quite a few people said I shouldn’t go, not just based on the aforementioned but other humanitarian issues too. I’ve got quite a few friends and family who are gay and believe, as well as other hetrosexual friends, that I should boycott a country that is openly homophobic. And whilst I do support this view, I also believe travelling and interacting with different countries is probably the best thing we can do to shrink social differences and bridge necessary gaps. Saying this, if I were gay, lesbian or transgender then I doubt I would want to go to Russia. I want to feel safe and I want to be able to express myself wherever I go. That’s not asking for much.
Then there is the matter of racism that I had read about. However, neither I nor my travel buddy who is Indian felt on any occasion unwelcomed, on the contrary, one of the biggest surprises we experienced was how helpful and kind the people are. To look at, Russians can appear rather stoic and severe but that changes when you interact with them.
My overall impressions of Russia were far more positive than we expect going by media portrayals. It’s a shame, Russia has such a vast and incredible history, culture and beauty, but the restrictive and narrow-minded ideology of its government casts a shadow over the positive reasons for going.
Tell us a little bit more about your love for Scandinavia.
It’s a love that keeps growing! There’s a significant stress on equality in terms of gender, distributed wealth and race. Norway is ranked number 1 on the Human Development Index report which measures worldwide life expectancy, literacy, education, standards of living, and quality of life. And Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Iceland are all ranked within the top 25. Although Iceland isn’t technically Scandinavia it’s commonly associated as being part of Scandinavia because it was under Norwegian and later Danish rule until becoming independent in 1944, so it still shares many of the same intellectual qualities.
Importantly, all these countries are very forward thinking when it comes to sustaining the planet. They are pioneers of eco-living. Most eateries take pride in using local and seasonal food, reward systems are put in place to encourage recycling, Copenhagen is continually named the greenest city in the world (as well as the happiness), and Iceland is the only country in the world that can claim to obtain nearly 100% of its electricity and heat from renewable sources. If that’s not something to aspire towards in a time where the planet is being brutalized by man then I don’t know what is! Because of all this you won’t find cleaner air anywhere else in the world. It’s the small things like drinking the purest water and breathing in the crispiest, freshest air that add to the overall enjoyment of being in this part of the world.
And then finally… the nature and wildlife. The whole of Scandinavia is a melting pot of natural beauty but it’s the Arctic that really makes me feel what it’s like to be in awe of the universe. Being up there does something to you. The higher you go the starker and more powerful the landscape becomes, but at the same time it’s also incredibly fragile and hostile. The days can be extremely dark when the sun doesn’t go past the horizon. But every cloud has a silver lining if you get to see the Northern Lights during a really strong display, not just a few wishy-washy lines of white and pale green…
There are fewer animals, fewer plants, and fewer people. Go further up to Svalbard, the last stop before the North Pole, and you might see Polar bears, walruses, Arctic foxes, and ringed seals. Going to the Arctic and Scandinavia made me care much more about the planet. So in a way, this part of the world changed me for the better and I’m very thankful for that.
You always look gorgeous in your photos. What is your beauty routine on the road?
Likewise Ashley! I don’t think I have one, but I do like to keep things simple and natural. So plenty of water and fresh fruit and veg! Less is usually more in all facets, especially when it comes to packing. I’d rather re-wear my clothes than pack an unnecessary amount. I’m definitely not a glam traveler, or at least that’s not my aim! For example, I usually wear dresses, not because I’m trying to be fashionable but because I can’t be bothered thinking about what top I need to team up with what pair of jeans!
How do you afford your travels?
If I’m not travelling for work then I’m budget travelling. I save a lot of money on accommodation by selecting hostels and reasonably priced AirBnB apartments and I nearly always try and eat locally, use public transport and research free things to do in a place beforehand.
What do you splurge on when you’re traveling?
Food. Food. And Food.
What is one thing you won’t do when traveling?
It’s really important for us to be mindful of where our money is going when we travel, before purchasing something I try and ask ‘who is profiting from this?’ So one thing I avoid is McDonalds and other global, fast-food chains. Keeping it local is key.
How long have you been blogging? Advice for travel bloggers?
I set up The Culture Map just over two years ago now. However, I did set up another travel blog in 2009 but only updated it once every 4 or 5 months so needless to say it never left the ground. Quite the opposite, the poor thing is dead and buried now. Consistency is therefore my advice to travel bloggers. This is still something I have to remind myself all the time. Also, travelling to offbeat destinations and finding a niche will help make your blog become more identifiable and memorable.
And just for fun- which country has the best-looking men?
Oh that’s easy. Denmark. Oh, wait… then there’s Sweden too… ;-)
Thanks so much Shing for your thoughtful answers! And if you guys want to connect with Shing (or ask her any more questions!) here’s where to find her:
Want to be featured in my monthly blogger spotlight? Get in touch and we’ll talk!
Before leaving India I knew I’d have to make one last stop- the Taj Majal.
The Taj Majal is located in Agra, a few hours south of New Delhi. Built in memory of the Emperor’s third and favorite wife Mumtāz Mahal, the Taj Majal is one of the world’s most beautiful examples of Mughal architecture in the world. But you already knew that, right?
Honestly, I didn’t really want to see the Taj Majal. I kind of resent “the things you have to see while traveling” because the list is just so damn long.
So we awoke before dawn to see the Taj Majal in all its splendor. Impressions? It was smaller than I thought but the early morning light turned the marble a pretty shade of pink-orange conch shell. And dawn turned out to be an excellent time to visit, as the temperature is cool and the crowds are minimal.
Of course, we took the super touristy optical illusion and Princess-Di-on-a-bench shots. Obviously.
And okay no, the Taj Majal isn’t my favorite tourist attraction in Asia. (I’m looking at you, Angkor Wat.) But I’m still glad to have laid eyes on it, and am especially grateful we went at dawn.
Mini Taj Majal Travel Guide:
Where we stayed: the ITC Mughal. It’s a steal with SPG points!
Where we ate: Peshawri. Amazing!
How we got there: We hired a private car from Le Meridién and it was a huge rip-off- something like $80 a person! Unfortunately all the trains were booked weeks in advance so we couldn’t take a train. The highways were an absolute joy though- a world away from the dirt roads on the way to Rishikesh!
Is the Taj Majal on your bucket list?
After a month of Yoga Teacher Training and 10 days hiking the Himalayas, we were back to civilization in New Delhi.
In the past five weeks, I had eaten meat once (goat stew), drunk one beer (Kingfisher- blergh), completed 100+ hours of yoga in 110-degree heat and lost countless pounds due to extreme physical exercise and a diet of lentils.
It was time for some fun. And some air-conditioning.
So after dropping off Alice at the airport, Joe, McCall and I headed straight to Le Méridien, courtesy of McCall’s SPG points.
I was thrilled not only to stay in a luxury hotel, but to feel air-conditioning on my skin and to have power that didn’t go out 15 times a day.
And then in one of those ironic, are-you-flipping-kidding-me-India moments, the power went out in the entire hotel while I was in the elevator. India, you got me good.
On our first night back in civilization, we gussied ourselves up and headed to Le Méridien’s cocktail lounge for some complimentary snacks and champagne. Upon the first sip of bubbly, I was reminded why I will never give up alcohol for a prolonged period of time ever again.
That night we headed to Varq, a swanky restaurant where Joe sweetly bought us dinner along with many bottles of wine. I have generally good feelings about the night but don’t remember precise details- apparently champagne and I had too intense a reunion.
The next day we headed to Agra to see the Taj Majal, an adventure that deserves its own post.
When we returned to Delhi, we stayed at Leela Palace, one of the most luxurious hotels in India.
And how did we come to stay in such a nice hotel, you may be wondering? Well hours before the Himalayan trek I realized I had forgotten to book a hotel for our return so I shot my dad a quick email- I needed a cheap hotel in Delhi, please put it on my credit card.
But instead of booking a crappy hotel on my card, he booked a really nice hotel on his.
When we waltzed in, a string quartet and a lobby full of lilies greeted us. My singular thought was, OH MY GOD THANK YOU SO MUCH DAD.
Sidenote- my dad is ridiculously thoughtful and knew I would be craving luxury after not showering for 10 days. When I asked why he chose Leela Palace he said, “It seemed like the kind of hotel where I would stay.” The man has good taste.
Also what’s great about India is that this five-star hotel cost only $200 a night- a bargain.
Apologies for the poor iPhone photos, but Leela Palace was amazing. The bed was made of angel’s wings and the bathtub had a TV and was about four feet deep. As we settled into our room, a waiter brought us homemade lemon iced tea on a silver tray.
While we only got one night in the lap of luxury, it sure was blissful.
Have I ever mentioned how much I adore room service?
One night we went to Bukhara, a fancy restaurant where the Clintons have dined. Okay yeah, Bukhara is touristy and wildly overpriced for India. But the food was insane- I don’t think I’ll ever stop dreaming of the ridiculously tender lamb skewers.
Cooking class Delhi
We also did some cultural stuff, okay?
I love home-cooking classes, so on our last night in India we signed up for Farheen Cooking Class. Farheen, our chatty, pink-cheeked instructor, taught us how to make lots of our Indian favorites: chapati, parantha, chai, paneer butter masala and lentils.
I learned a ton. Who knew chapati and roti are the same thing, just called by different names?
Also Farheen told us that North Indian cuisine is spicier and uses mustard seed oil and wheat flour, while South Indian relies on coconut oil and rice or white chickpea flour. Someday I’d love to travel to South India to taste the difference firsthand.
When we asked if her husband helped in the kitchen, Farheen laughed. “Men in India don’t cook!”
She also taught us tikka means cooked in a tandoor. I probably should’ve known that.
The spices used to make chai…
Homemade chai, which is crazy delicious…
Making paneer butter masala, my favorite…
So yeah, we had a great time in Delhi. We both ate and slept in style, capping off our trip with a bit of luxury.
And then- Joe and I were off to Thailand. With only one problem- we were flying into Bangkok during a military coup. So stay tuned for that adventure!
Mini Luxury Delhi Guide
Where to stay: Le Méridien, Leela Palace
Where to eat: Varq, Bukhara
What to do: The Red Fort, home-cooking class
Have you ever visited Delhi? Did you live it up like we did or travel more moderately?
You can read about part one of my Himalayan trek here.
After three days of trekking I finally started to get the hang of hiking. Okay, fine- both sleeping in a sleeping bag and uphill hiking were still miserable, but I was acclimating. And as we ascended higher and higher into the Himalaya, it was so beautiful I could almost forget my badly blistered feet.
At higher altitudes, we saw less villages and more nature: magenta rhododendron, thick groves of oak and deodar, hawks circling in the crisp blue sky.
On day five we passed a flock of long-haired goats. The goatherd told us that one of his goats had broken a leg and he had to slaughter it. Would we like to buy a leg?
Why, yes. We would. And I will never forget watching our mule walk by with a freshly skinned goat leg in the saddlebag, hoof up. Hygiene, schmygiene.
That night we sat down for goat stew, and I can’t remember anything so satisfying. Ever. The goat was surprisingly tender and blanketed in a rich gravy. And after five meat-free weeks, the goat stew might as well have been a medium-rare ribeye with béarnaise sauce.
We awoke early on day six to hike to the top of the Kuari Pass. I knew the hike would be trying, so I used precious iPhone battery reserves to listen to music.
The ninety minutes to the summit were a battle. I paused to catch my breath frequently, and tried to bar negative thoughts which were invading my mind at an alarming rate.
Ultimately I felt ashamed for being the slowest hiker, and I couldn’t decide if it was my body or my mind that was the problem. In retrospect I know I was being too hard on myself; I was hiking the freaking Himalayas, jeez! But at the time I was beating myself up every step of the way.
The only consolation prize was seeing a Himalayan mouse on the trail. It was round and furry like a chinchilla, but brown in color. As far as rodents go, quite cute.
Once we crested the Kuari Pass, we were rewarded with the Himalayas in all their snowy glory.
Fun fact- did you know Himalaya means “House of Snow” in Sanskrit?
The rest of the day was blissful. We trekked across snow and golden grass on relatively flat terrain. The views were straight out of Middle Earth, which prompted Alice and I to quote Lord of the Rings at
possibly excessive length.
Maybe it was the 14,000 foot altitude, but Alice’s impression of Gollum in her Essex accent just about killed me. “Why do you cry, Sméagol?”
Gotta love hypoxia.
This was also the day when I realized my hands were absurdly swollen. Twice their normal size, lobster red, skin as tight as a drum. Seriously, they were Frankenstein-esque.
That night I had a decision to make. Would I wake up at 4 a.m. to hike to the top of the pass, or would I sleep in? While I’d liked to say I was racked with guilt over the decision, in reality it was easy: sleep in, duh.
I’m not sure if it was the high-altitude sunburn, the blisters or the exhaustion, but I had no desire to squeeze in an extra five-hour hike. But I was a bit jealous when the others came back with photos of holding yoga poses high above the clouds.
The rest of the afternoon was the perfect rainy day. The four of us spent the day just relaxing: listening to Joe read Scott Foster Wallace, debating American/English pronunciations in the tent and taking dramatic mountain portraits.
That night the chef prepared us an adorable cake in honor of our last night- how do you even make a cake camping?
After dinner and cake the four of us huddled up in the meal tent and played Egyptian Ratscrew, Asshole and Oh Hell while sipping ginger tea out of Little House on the Prayer tin cups. It was freezing; we were blowing on our fingers all evening just to play cards.
Despite the cold, we headed out for one last bonfire with the crew. They sang songs in Hindi and Garhwali, passing around a strange local herb. The stars above us were dazzlingly bright, but unfortunately my attempt at astrophotography failed.
The last day of hiking was so beautiful I’ll let the photos speak for themselves:
And then the second we descended from the mountain I saw an errant brown cow with a tie around its neck, and a group of Indian men who asked me for a picture. I couldn’t help but chuckle to myself; Yep, I was back to reality.
Our trekking company, Red Chilli Adventure in no way paid or perked me for this mention. Overall we were blown away by Red Chilli’s food, service and professionalism- I couldn’t recommend them highly enough!
Let’s just get the tough stuff out of the way: my ten-day Himalayan trek in Northern India was hard. While I didn’t get altitude sickness, I did suffer from blood blisters and sunstroke. And obviously, there was the whole not showering for 10 days thing and hiking EIGHT HOURS UPHILL under the blazing sun.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not that outdoorsy. My cardiovascular health leaves something to be desired and as a Michigander I’m naturally adverse to hills.
So yeah. The trek was character-building. But it also got me in the shape of my life and was full of some of the most beautiful moments (and views) of my travels.
Plus, how often do you get to spend 10 technology-free days with good friends in the Himalayas?
And thankfully this was no bare-bones camping trip. This was glamping. We had two guides, a cook, five porters and a team of mules to carry our bags. Not only did we enjoy multi-course meals each night, the crew set up our tents before we got to the campsite.
We even had a TOILET TENT. Who knew those existed?
Also, because this was India, our ten-day trek cost us $440 each- an absolute steal.
I set off from Rishikesh with my three trekking buddies (McCall, Alice, an English girl from Yoga Teacher Training and Joe, McCall’s friend) to reach the starting point of the trek. Meaning we endured the dreaded Party All Night song for ten hours in a minibus on tiny mountain roads. Also Alice puked about 10 minutes into the trip so not only did we have to listen to moronic Hindi music on repeat, the bus smelled strongly of vomit.
The first night, and I kid you not, we camped in a field of marijuana. And we took selfies with a few ornery water buffalo.
After our first night camping, the real work began: hiking. And despite a rigorous month of Yoga Teacher Training, hiking uphill made my heart beat faster than a chipmunk’s.
The highlight of the day? (Besides the rest stops?) Passing through a lovely little mountain village.
The village was quaint in a ramshackle Himalayan way: awash in turquoise and blue and smelling of sun-warmed cilantro. As we passed the villagers said, “Namaste” and tipped their heads to bow. The streets were strewn with red rose petals, and golden wheat and fields of potatoes grew outside the slate walls.
And being India, there were lots of cows.
We stopped at a middle school for a lunch of yak-cheese sandwiches and hard-boiled eggs. The kids seemed excited to see foreigners, smiling and waving. They lined up in uniform to greet us, the girls with floppy white bows in their hair. I noticed their features were almost Nepalese and many of them had beautiful yellow-green eyes.
When we finally trudged into camp that afternoon the tents were already up, and water buffalos, donkeys and cows grazing.
As I gazed out of the tent I had a “I’m-so-lucky-what-on-earth-did-I-do-in-a-past-life” kind of moment. It was surreal. I felt so much joy and gratitude to be in the mountains.
Soon after we settled in dozens of kids approached, and we ended up spending the rest of the afternoon entertaining them. I felt like I was babysitting again as McCall, Alice and I played jacks with the girls, while Joe played cricket with the boys.
At one point we sat in a circle with the kids and sang Sanskrit hymns. Oh yoga school, what have you done to me?
At four we convened in the tent for a chai break. Over the course of the trek I grew to love tea time, as we sipped our chai over cards, cookies and jokes. There’s no quality time quite like camping.
That night we fell asleep among craggy rocks and little white flowers, listening to the jingling of the cow bells and the snort of water buffalo.
Okay fine, that made sleeping in the tent sound way more idyllic than it actually was. More like I slept fitfully during a violent, tent-shaking rain storm. Also I decided that I hate sleeping bags as they make me feel like I’m going simultaneously sweat and freeze to death.
The second day of hiking was a bit less blissful, as blood blisters began forming on my feet. Also McCall got severe food poisoning and we had to wait out a storm in a shepherd’s hut. A.k.a. we spent two hours wet, freezing and crouching in animal excrement.
But our campsite that night made up for any of the day’s woes. We slept in a fairy glen full of enormous white flowers and tiny streams.
(Confession- when I was drying my boots by the fire I partially melted off the back of them. I would.)
And if I didn’t think sleeping in a sleeping bag could get any worse, I was wrong. Because that night I tried sleeping naked as I heard it would help me stay warmer. Uh, no. During the night I periodically awoke shaking from cold and slick with sweat, my nose transformed into an actual icicle.
The third day was the hardest of the entire trek. Despite my SPF 50, I developed a high-altitude sunburn on my hairline and nose. During our eight-hour, mostly uphill hike, motivational mantras buzzed through my head, “Hike at your own pace”, “clear the chittah”, “stronger and stronger.” None of them worked very well.
And finally, out of desperation, I prayed to God to carry me the rest of the way because I was so blistered, sunburnt and exhausted I wasn’t sure if I would make it. I blame sunstroke.
Moments later three children spotted us, shouted for “candy” and followed us all the way up the mountain. As they got closer they started singing songs like “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”, which in their adorable accent sounded like “Tinkle Tinkle Little Staa”.
I joined them in song, racking my brain for childhood ditties like “Baa Baa Black Sheep” as well as the Gayatri mantra, Wakatrunda and Om Asato Ma Sadgamaya.
So what I’m trying to say here is that God sent three adorable Himalayan children to help me get up the mountain. Or something like that.
As I crawled to camp, I knew I had just begun my Himalayan journey. But already I was proud of myself for pushing myself further than I ever thought I could go.
Have you ever done a trek in a foreign country? What was your experience like?
Our trekking company, Red Chilli Adventure in no way paid or perked me for this mention. Overall we were blown away by Red Chilli’s food, service and professionalism- I couldn’t recommend them highly enough!