During one of my first ever yoga practices, I remember hearing the instructor say that down dog posture would get easier with practice and that it would eventually become a resting pose. At the time, I couldn’t imagine the pose feeling in any way restful.
As I grew in my practice and eventually began to teach yoga, I had to remind myself of the opposite. Down dog became a position I found with such ease that I forgot what it was like to struggle in that pose.
The same is true with any growth practice. Coming back to the mind of the beginner is essential and often humbling.
Travel is a special practice in that we are challenged to return to a beginner’s mind with each new place we visit – which is precisely what makes travel so exciting, and for some, so addicting.
I acknowledge that travel is different for everyone. Just as yoga practice will be different for every unique yogi, your travel practice will be very different from mine. You will have different preferences and varying reactions to new cultures. You might be working within a different budget, or with a companion rather than solo, and you will meet people along your journey who will impact your path.
After receiving a request from a teacher friend in Thailand, I’d like to offer some general highlights and tips that stand out in my memories of traveling throughout Thailand and neighboring countries. Please accept this humble guide to the practice of traveling throughout Southeast Asia.
Slow Travel in Southeast Asia
You may have heard the term “slow travel” before – the method of traveling without extensive planning. While you might find it helpful to research the possibilities of a destination before arriving, you don’t commit to a strict itinerary in advance. In this way, you are able to take each day at a time and fully immerse yourself in the places you enjoy before moving on to the next.
The simple willingness to improvise is more vital, in the long run, than research.― Rolf Potts, Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel
We are often conditioned to think of travel in terms of a luxurious holiday – one that has each moment planned and set excursions arranged. This manner of travel, however, allows for little freedom to explore your journey.
We commonly use the words “holiday” (or if you’re in the US, “vacation”) and “travel” interchangeably, but this is a dangerous misunderstanding. Taking a holiday implies rest and rejuvenation. While travel can sometimes bring these opportunities, travel is more of an exploration than a rest.
When you place yourself in an entirely new environment, most everything takes a conscious effort to understand. You are presented with challenges that you don’t typically have to encounter while following a routine schedule. You are drawn to see the world in ways you didn’t imagine.
Slow travel allows you to lead your journey without expectations and with more openness to the people and the recommendations you come across. And in my opinion, the ability to take rest days is one of the most important advantages of traveling without a jam-packed itinerary.
Southeast Asia is one of the best places to try slow travel for the first time. Most bookings can be made the day prior or on the day of, so there’s rarely a reason to stress about making plans in advance. And since traveling through Southeast Asia is very affordable, there’s not as much pressure to follow a strictly planned budget.
The practice of slow travel is a very personal pursuit, yet there is no shortage of people online who are willing to tell you where to go, what to see and what to do. It’s amazing to me that entire articles are written instructing travellers on finding the “best” Instagram photo spots.
It’s important to keep in mind that you should never go vagabonding out of a vague sense of fashion or obligation. Vagabonding is not a social gesture, nor is it a moral high ground. It’s not a seamless twelve-step program of travel correctness or a political statement that demands the reinvention of society.
Rather, it’s a personal act that demands only the realignment of self. If this personal realignment is not something you’re willing to confront (or, of course, if world travel isn’t your idea of a good time), you have the perfect right to leave vagabonding to those who feel the calling.― Rolf Potts, Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel
It’s for these reasons that I was hesitant to write this blog in the first place. Although I could try to tell you the top destinations in the countries I’ve visited, we are all very different people. What is best for me is likely not the best for you.
With this in mind, I’ve decided to explain the general process I use to travel in hopes that it may help you to pursue your own journey. Next, I’ve written transportation advice for Thailand and Vietnam – as I spent more time in these two countries than in others – and descriptions of my top highlights. I’ve also included a list of resources and essentials for packing.
The main concerns I worry about before leaving for a new country are 1. weather in the destination for packing guidance and 2. documentation requirements. Make sure to triple check the requirements for obtaining tourist visa entry in the destination country – particularly if you are traveling by airplane, as you may be required to show proof of purchase for tickets both into the country and out of it. Right now, you are likely concerned about Coronavirus. Check CDC Travel advice here: https://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/
Beyond transportation and the first two nights’ accommodation, I plan ahead only at a baseline level. I draw a map of the destination country and spend an hour skimming articles titled, “Traveler destinations in ________”. I note the main destinations on my map for a general idea of the direction in which I’d like to head.
Once traveling within the country, I try not to research specifics for the next destination of my journey until I am ready to leave the current location. I’ll spend about an hour or two searching online, sometimes narrowing my search according to what I’m interested in – “Best vegan food in ________” or “Nature lover’s guide to ________”. Then, I make a list of the destinations that speak to me most.
Depending on what I encounter upon arrival, I may end up entirely ignoring that list. Sometimes, I meet people in a hostel who recommend the exact opposite from what I read online, or who recommend that I join them on an alternative outing instead. Other times, particularly in more remote areas, I start with pursuing the list I read online and then I try to meet people along the way.
The internet is so saturated with travel advice, it’s incredibly easy to find and plan destinations. Because of this, you can technically conduct all of your research and planning from behind a screen without ever having to speak to a human being. Believe me, I don’t like to be social unless I have to be, but I can not emphasize enough the importance of avoiding this impulse.
Here’s the biggest piece of advice I can offer: Be open to talking to everyone you meet along the way. Never underestimate the power of asking questions and don’t be ashamed to ask for help.
That goes to say, never assume that you know enough about a place based on the thin veil of information provided by a travel blog you found online (like this one).
Bussing through Thailand is the most affordable and convenient option for long-distance journeys. Bus station destinations are always posted in both the Thai and English alphabet, so you only need to find the right booth. In the cities, most ticket sellers will be able to understand English mispronunciations of the destination name, but it will be far easier if you research the correct pronunciation ahead of time. The Google Translate app is great for this – type in the English spelling of the destination, translate to Thai language and then listen to the audio of the translation.
If you’re worried about your pronunciation, or if you are in a smaller town with less foreign presence, I suggest writing down the destination name in Thai alphabet or showing the name in Thai alphabet on your phone. Remember to use the 24-hour clock when requesting a bus time. This may also be easier to communicate if written down.
Typically, buses can be booked the day before or on the day of departure. However, pay attention to national holidays when traveling by bus as this can lead to buses being sold out in advance. An important upcoming holiday in Thailand is Songkran festival, the Thai New Year’s National holiday that is commonly referred to as the water festival. For three days mid-April, prepare to be drenched in water in every way imaginable: water balloons, guns, hoses and buckets. You might also be lucky enough to have talcum powder paste smeared on your face, a long-time symbol of blessing in the Thai New Year celebration.
Of course, traveling within the city is different for each city. Chiang Mai is very walkable, but it’s also easy to hail a song taew. These red pick-up trucks have been converted into buses and are generally less expensive than a tuk-tuk because they can take more people on board at once. Make sure to confirm a price with the driver before hopping on board.
The song taews in Bangkok operate more like traditional bus lines, so if you’re requesting a specific destination, tuk tuks are your best bet. Bangkok is much less walkable and much more dangerous for driving a motorbike.
I considered myself very lucky to have lived in a remote area while learning how to drive a motorbike. Gaining a lot of practice in my small town made a big difference in my confidence by the time I was renting bikes in Chiang Mai, Pai, Chiang Rai and more.
When renting a bike in Thailand, take pictures of the bike before you leave the shop. Most shops request to hold on to your passport until you return the bike, which is generally safe. However, some shops might challenge you on the condition of the bike when you return it, threatening not to return your passport until you pay for the damage. Make sure you have photos to back yourself up.
Always wear the helmet provided, and if you’re not given one, make a fuss until you are. Road traffic accidents are one of the leading causes of death in Thailand, and many victims are foreigners without driving experience. Most motorbike rental shops will rent you the bike without any proof of driving experience – this is great for convenience, but also scary. Only drive a motorbike if you feel absolutely comfortable.
If you are absolutely comfortable, reaching destinations that are a short trip out of the city is not only the most affordable on a motorbike, but always the most fun.
Across the board, the best way to explore the lesser-known areas is by making friends. Some of the best places I’ve visited have been entirely thanks to locals I met along the way, making journeys possible that would have been inaccessible without private transportation.
Of course, making local friends is much easier said than done, particularly when you are only visiting an area for a short time. When you are passing through, talk to as many locals as you can – the reception at a hostel or the owner of an Airbnb are great starting points.
I’ve also received great recommendations by taking rides with Grab drivers – the Uber of Southeast Asia. From time to time, I experienced a ride with a Grab driver who was eager to practice English. Typically, I would take advantage of this conversation and ask any questions I had about local adventures.
Into the Wild
Of all the elephant camps in Chiang Mai, I am completely and unashamedly biased toward Into the Wild. I volunteered at this camp for one year, taking the nine hour bus from Lom Kao to Chiang Mai every chance I had. With only five rescued elephants and a warm, family-owned environment, this camp offers you a fully-immersive experience.
Get to know each of the elephants personally – their names, personality and background story – and learn more about the ethics of elephant care in Thailand. Gain an understanding of the significance of elephants in Thai history and culture, and meet the mahouts who dedicate their lives to elephant care.
Into the Wild became much more than an elephant sanctuary for me. Above everything I learned and experienced with this camp, I was welcomed as part of the family. I think about and miss this family every day and I cannot wait to return.
I wrote about my first extended volunteering experience here.
Wat Pa Tam Wua
This donation-based forest monastery lies between Pai and Mae Hong Son and is open to anyone willing to learn and practice Vipassana meditation. The monastery allows a lot of flexibility for your retreat. You can choose to experience the monastery as a silent retreat (wearing a badge to inform others) or you might prefer to socialize during designated free time. You may even discuss Vipassana and Buddhism with some of the practicing monks. Technology is not forbidden, so it’s on you to choose how much of a retreat you really want.
As Buddhist monks in Thailand typically follow a strict vegan diet, all food provided at this monastery is vegan. With peaceful surroundings and basic amenities, a consistent meditation schedule and fasting every evening, this monastery will provide an authentic window into monkhood.
I recommend pursuing any type of meditative retreat solo as this is generally a very personal and emotionally-challenging endeavor. Take the bus from Pai to Mae Hong Son and inform the driver that you would like to get off at Wat Pa Tam Wua.
Wat Chaloem Phra Kiat
This hidden gem outside of Lampang is not easy to reach without private transportation, but is incredibly worth the effort. Renting a motorbike for the day is your most practical option as it will be difficult to convince a song taew to take you this far out of the city. From the base of the mountain, hop into one of the temple’s song taews for a white-knuckled ascent. The last part of the journey is an 800m climb. Without question, the view is worth all the effort.
The so-called floating pagodas take center stage with a backdrop of luscious green forest as far as the eye can see. Led by a local monk, a team of 50 Buddhist worshippers built this unique temple over a span of two years. When you see the result in person, this accomplishment is astonishing.
I wrote about my visit to this temple and to Lampang here.
I spent almost three weeks bussing through Vietnam and into Cambodia – all the way from Hanoi to Siem Reap. Within Vietnam, taking sleeper buses is a great way to save time and money as your accommodation and travel expenses are merged into one affordable bus ticket.
While night busing is also available in Thailand, the journey would be the same as a daytime bus in a seat that reclines the typical amount. In Vietnam, the buses are designed for sleeping with the seats permanently reclined in rows, with one level stacked on top of another.
Whereas relaxed Thai time is a very real thing, Vietnamese culture is very determined, efficient and fast-paced. Vietnam does things on time every time. I was late for buses often in Thailand and it was rarely a problem; In Vietnam, if I wasn’t at the right place two minutes ahead of schedule, I’d miss the bus.
I traveled through Vietnam with my friend Jenn. Traveling with a companion allows you to get a lot more for your money – the individual cost for us to split an Airbnb was usually the same as we would spend at a hostel. We learned the hard way always to book stays with designated Super hosts and good reviews.
Once, we found a great deal for a stay in Ninh Binh. It was a bit out of the city, but was listed at a phenomenal price and advertised the use of motorbikes for no extra charge. We paid extra for transportation to the Airbnb only to find an old, vacant home awaiting us without a soul in sight. We stared at a sign that matched the Airbnb’s listing while our phone calls to the listing’s number rang unanswered. Jenn and I sat on the curb to find another option, this time filtering our search by Super hosts.
Like many mishaps during my travels, I’m convinced that this mix-up happened so that I could find myself in the second situation instead. The second Airbnb was an incredible property with a traditional herbal bath spa. The accommodation was simple but lovely and enormously rejuvenating. Our host even brought us food to our room. I dream of returning to this place.
In addition to the affordable price, staying with Airbnb Super hosts can be a huge help when booking transportation. While in Vietnam, almost all my transportation was arranged with the help of an Airbnb host. My host would simply tell me where to be at which time – I never had to worry about finding the bus station, being misunderstood, or being sold tickets at a marked up price from a travel agency. Most hostels also provide assistance in this way.
Twice, I experienced being let off (kicked out) of a sleeper bus in early hours of the morning on the street in Vietnam without much explanation or care for what I would do next. In Mui Ne, Jenn and I were able to make the most of this situation by finding on Google Maps that we were only a ten minute walk from a local beach. We spent the next several hours watching locals practice Qi Gong with a sunrise backdrop.
Ha Giang Loop
In March 2019, Jenn, her friend Brian and I went on a three-day, 400km-long motorbike journey along the Ha Giang trail in northern Vietnam. We rented semiautomatic motorbikes from QT Motorbikes and Tours and elected to travel the route on our own rather than following or riding with guides. We rode from morning to sunset each day, reaching the next hostel pit stop just before dark. This was an experience through real, authentic Vietnam with some of the most incredible sights I’ve seen.
Coming close to the border with China, the mountains are remarkable. At times, this route became scary and challenging. If you are less experienced with a motorbike, I highly recommend that you spend the extra cost to be driven by a guide.
This cozy town is known as the Ha Long Bay on Land. There’s a lot to see without the hustle and bustle of Hanoi. The view from the 450-step hike at Hang Múa, or Lying Dragon Mountain, is one you won’t soon forget.
For the leisure seekers, relax in a paddle boat through scenic rock formations in nearby Tràng An. You can even tour a temple that is only accessible by boat.
Laos – Highlights
Nam Xay Viewpoint
In Vang Vieng, rent a motorbike for a breezy drive through cow pastures and rolling hills. A moderately difficult climb to a phenomenal viewpoint awaits you. Over celebratory beers at a local bar following this hike, my friend Jamie and I were told the story of the motorcycle that sits chained to the rocks at the top of the mountain: a monsoon swept the motorcycle away from its owner only for him to find it at the top of this mountain 12 years later.
We began the hike in the late afternoon and stayed at the top to watch a captivating sunset. If you choose to do this, make sure you have good trekking shoes and a flashlight for descenting in the dark.
UXO Lao Visitor Center
Visit this donation-based museum in Vang Vieng to learn more about the devastating impact of UXO on Lao communities.
Kuang Si Falls
In Luang Prabang, the Kuang Si Falls flow from a limestone-rich jungle to form three cascading tiers of aquamarine pools. This stunning work of nature is deservedly known as Luang Prabang’s main tourist attraction.
You’ll also have the opportunity to enjoy a hike while at Kuang Si Falls. With multiple levels, the difficulty level is up to your preference. After a leisurely first few levels, you might choose to return to the breath-taking bridge view seen in the first photo. Or, you might choose to pursue the summit, side tracking from the path to find private, gorgeous moments like the one pictured below. Proceed with caution 😉
Cambodia – Highlights
I hope to one day return to Cambodia with more time to explore rural and natural spaces. With only five days in Cambodia spread between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, I proritized learning the country’s history in the cities’ museums. Read more here for what I learned about the lasting impacts of genocide and war through Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.
Of course, I also explored the impressive Angkor Wat and surrounding temples. With my mom and friends Joan and Jenn, I was very fortunate to tour these wonders with an intelligent and warm guide named Sal. Sal works full time as a teacher in the outskirts of Siem Reap. On the weekends, he gives tours and educates tourists about Cambodian history, beyond the famous temple architecture.
After a full two days of temple hopping, Sal offered to take us on a tour of one of Siem Reap’s floating villages on Lake Tonle Sap. Our group felt uncomfortable at the thought of poverty tourism, and yet Sal insisted that this was something we should be aware of and experience. He guided us free of charge and spoke about the many complex ethical layers within the entire operation.
The villagers originally came to Cambodia to work during the French Protectorate. After the Khmer Rouge took power, many were killed or deported back to Vietnam. Without the certification that proves their Cambodian identity, they are considered stateless migrants and so they can’t buy land.Asia Highlights – Floating Villages in Cambodia
Our entry fees benefited the private boat company and the Cambodian government, which regulates most tourism operations within the country. Very little of the tourism proceeds actually benefit the villagers, those whose lives are being invaded in the process.
Villagers use the lake for washing, bathing, cooking and defecating. The health and pollution issues are overwhelming and are not contained to Tonle Sap villages, as illegal fishing and pollution damage the lake’s ecosystem, one on which many Cambodians depend.
I’ve read about initiatives to mitigate these problems, but Cambodia, still recovering from the genocidal reign of the Khmer Rouge and struggling with widespread poverty and corruption has its hands full.Writes of Passage, The Fascinating and Troubled Floating Village of Kompong Luong, Cambodia
Many times while traveling through Cambodia, I felt like I was punched in the stomach. I felt this way at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields in Phnom Penh, but also in my interactions with locals. Children approach you on the streets, in restaurants and at popular tourist spots begging for money or for you to buy one of their trinkets for sale. Despite how impressive it is that they’ve sometimes learned the basics of more than twenty languages for this very act, despite their desperate, pleading eyes and their solid grip on your wrist, you must tell them no. Otherwise, it is unlikely that the children will pursue an education in a country struggling to rebuild.
My experience touring the floating village was no different. Awareness of my own privilege punched me in the stomach on more than one occasion. The moral definitions of right and wrong constructed by a traditional, everyday narrative become blurred. This is how travel changes you.
Philippines – Highlights
While in Thailand, the only beach town I visited was Ao Nang, Krabi. After growing up in Florida, the mountains and jungles of northern Thailand were far more intriguing. Having only my experience of Krabi to compare with, the crystal clear seas of the Philippines absolutely blew me away.
In the archipelagic province of Palawan, I visited the towns of Coron and El Nido. If you are a diver, exploring these waters is a must. Free diving with a snorkel also provides unforgettable sights, particularly Coron’s coral reef gardens. The giant clams, coral and fish are decorated in such vibrant, electric colors that you will feel like you are swimming through a painting.
Swimming with Whale Sharks, Oslob
Before swimming next to the largest fish in the sea, I had a lot to consider. Whale shark tourism raises necessary concerns in sustainability, conservation, and animal welfare. The situation is Oslob is complex: where one red flag is raised, a different perspective presents an upside.
My feelings on my descision to swim with the whale sharks are equally complex. I make the conscious decision each day to practice veganism with animal welfare and environmental sustainability in mind, and yet I willingly participated in this unnatural, exploitative industry. Sure, the whale shark tourism industry will continue whether or not I had purchased a ticket, but the same can be said of animal agriculture.
I recommend always doing your research before participating in so-called eco-tourism. Understand the implications of your presence and engagement as a tourist. Read more about whale shark tourism here.
As impressive as the tropical wonders of the Philippines are, the place that really stole my heart was the northernmost archipelago of the country, an island chain called the Batanes.
The islands of Batan and Sabtang form a miniature New Zealand with jaw-dropping scenery and a rich cultural and archeological history of the Ivatan people. I explored the entire island of Batan alone by motorbike and hardly stopped smiling. Wearing traditional dress and exploring the stone houses of Sabtang Island with my Ivatan friend Mark was the highlight of my trip.
In Canberra Centre, a large Kathmandu ad features a hiker traversing the jagged rocks of Lying Dragon Mountain in Ninh Binh, Vietnam. Every time I walk past, I think, Wow. I’ve been there. I’ve done that.
I genuinely hope that my words and advice help at least one other person to feel that magical sense of accomplishment travel can bring.
That first morning, when you are in your country of choice, away from all of the conventions of a typical, everyday lifestyle, looking around at your totally new surroundings, hearing strange languages, smelling strange, new smells, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. You’ll feel like the luckiest person in the world.Rolf Potts, Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel
And now, after a five-month journey, I’m finding a different kind of beginner’s mind. I’m sorting out how to stay in one place for a little while – and how to be fulfilled with it.
I suppose that in the time of COVID-19, with calls for social distancing looming, I’ve picked a good time to stay in one place.
I’m grateful to have family supporting me and hosting me where I’m currently rooted. I’m also fortunate to be employed and saving for my next adventure. The next time you hear from me will hopefully be from a camper van somewhere along the east coast of Australia.
Read below for some great resources and packing essentials. G’day, mate 😉
- Google Translate – The essential app. Download languages ahead of time to translate in areas with no service. Try using the conversation tool – not only does it make translating much less impersonal, but it’s also a great tool if you want to familiarize yourself with pronunciation of a new language. Another important note – in rural areas where local dialects are spoken, some people may not be able to read the national language. In these instances, the conversation tool is extremely helpful as it provides audible translation.
- Solo Female Travel Tips: Why, Where, How and Safety – Traveling solo can be daunting, especially as a female. Ease your worries by reading solo travel inspiration and essential safety tips. Generally, the precautions women follow while traveling solo are similar to precautions we might take if we were out on our own in our home town. However, not every destination’s culture will have embraced female empowerment. As keen as I am on body positivity and sexual expression, dressing conservatively while traveling adds another layer of safety.
- WieBetaaltWat – a popular Dutch bill-splitting app that makes the “Who pays what?” part of having a travel companion truly effortless. Log each purchase, designating if one or both parties contribute, and refer to your total at the end of the trip.
- Maps.me – Navigation app that allows you to download maps while on WiFi. Some rural travel will have you without service. This app also has a great Discover Nearby tool that shows local destinations.
- Grab – a Singapore-based app that offers ride-hailing transport services and food delivery. It’s the Uber of Southeast Asia. Sit on the back of a motorbike for an even cheaper option.
- Currency – Conversion app. Add the countries you are traveling to in advance for easy currency comparisons. (Also helpful when budgeting in advance)
- Google Keep – If you’re a fan of making lists – whether it be to do, to go and see, or to pack – this app is for you. Create a checklist, add collaborators (as long as they have a Google account), and pin important info to the top of your page.
- AirVisual – Keep track of air quality with this app. While I was traveling in Thailand, there were a few times that Bangkok found itself with heavy smog. Knowing when a face mask is recommended was helpful.
Transportation and Flights:
- Google Flights
- Jet Radar
- Sky Scanner
- Cheap Tickets
For staying in a hostel:
- Sleep mask
- Shower shoes
- Quick-dry travel towel
For long journeys:
- Power bank
- Trtl travel pillow or neck pillow – Overnight bussing is a great way to save time and money on a tight itinerary. I love my Trtl pillow for the more ergonomic way it supports my neck and for its light attachment to my bag, but any preferred travel pillow will serve you well.
- Face masks – Ditch the western stigma that you look weird wearing a face mask. Your immune system can be worn down while traveling and crowded buses don’t help. Even if you are not sick, preventing the spread of germs will help vulnerable populations during this COVID-19 pandemic. Plus… if you tend to be someone who falls asleep with their mouth open, wear a face mask for shameless snoozing!
3 thoughts on “Beginner’s Mind: Thoughts on Travel in Southeast Asia”
You thrive on these experiences. Don’t ever stop. As long as you have the means and the energy, go on and live life. So happy for you, so proud of you, and so grateful you share in this format. Your writing brings everything to life again. You’ve grown to become my favorite author. That will never change.
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Incredible photos and wonderfully written Sam! Really enjoyed reading your post and it allowed me to take a trip down memory lane 🙂 Hope peace, love and laughter continue following you wherever you go x
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OMG … what can I say. Beautifully written and the photos are incredible. You bring everything to life to those sitting back here in York. You’re definitely my favorite author. This was a great blog to read, particularly as we are ‘sheltering’ in view of the virus situation. Thank you for adding additional beauty to this day. Love you, Gram
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