The Hidden Beaches of Bali

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I left Singapore just after six and I didn’t arrive in Bali until it was dark. From the airplane window the island looked large, and far more inhabited than I had anticipated. Lights lined highways that stretched like tree limbs, all the way up north towards Mt. Batur. The outline of several other volcanoes were just evident in the last purple haze of the failing daylight. After clearing customs, me and two other girls were mobbed by a group of taxi drivers. They circled around us like a pack of hyenas snarling over a fresh kill. We spoke shotgun English to one another, too fast for them to understand, and lamented their predatory tactics.

Extracting myself from the circle, I found the cheapest taxi driver and followed him to his car. I got exactly what I paid for. My driver texted the entire half hour ride, and nearly made paraplegics of several scooter riders who got to close. He was disappointed when we reached the hostel and I didn’t give him a tip. I was thrilled when we reached the hostel without having to call an ambulance to pull someone’s arm out his grill.

Having only a few days in Bali I wanted to make the most of it. Just as my driver was turning the wrong direction down a one way street, I had seen a motorcycle rental shop. I already knew the company from their website, and I knew they had dirt bikes. That night I found it difficult to fall asleep in my pod at New Seminyak, preoccupied with the excitement of getting to ride the next day.

The Foreigner Fee

The next morning I skipped breakfast and walked directly to the rental agency. I was their first customer, and they were still moving the bikes out of the claustrophobic showroom, into the parking lot outside. Walking inside, I immediately saw the bike that I wanted. A Kawasaki KLX 150. I’m familiar with the brand. My motorcycle in New York is a Kawasaki, and the godlike Ninja 650 that I rode on Koh Samui was also made by Kawasaki.

The woman running the agency spoke refreshingly good English, and she helped me to fill out the rental forms. One of the “options” was a rental motorcycle license. For just $20 you could become fully qualified to drive something that could maim you with a single mistake. Thinking about the hilarity of laws in Asia, I thought back to a sign that I saw posted in the common room of my hostel.

Reasons you’ll get pulled over:

1. Not putting on your turn signals
2. Driving over the speed limit
3. Being a foreigner

I decided to risk it. The same sign also said that the maximum bribe I’d be expected to pay is $10. I could get pulled over twice and it would still cost the same as “renting” a license. I payed then headed downstairs to pick out a cool helmet. The bike was outside, filled with petrol and ready to ride. Starting it up, the aftermarket exhaust ripped through the peace every time I twisted the throttle. I drove the two-hundred feet back to my hostel in second gear. Parked out front, I left the helmet on the mirror and walked up to my room to change into my swim trunks.

Forty-Two Flights of Stairs to the Bottom

Even though I put jeans over my swim trunks and had a decent helmet, the conditions I drove under would still be appalling to any serious motorcyclist. Moving down from the helmet I had a t-shirt on. I rode without gloves, and shoes instead of boots. When riding in America, I weigh five pounds more just from the protective gear. Unfortunately, unless you want to carry around a leather jacket in countries where it regularly hits 95 degrees, riding in Asia necessarily entails taking certain risks.

The traffic was intense, but riding in Cambodia had prepared me for the worst. The day I encounter a worse driving situation than what I found in Phnom Penh, is the day I renounce my faith, and start believing in god.

Back in Bali, I drove too fast and did things that would be unfathomably illegal in America, and I was still one of the tamer drivers on the road. On the highway I maneuvered between cars and took off from stoplights with as much gusto as my dirt bike could muster. My destination was on the very southern tip of the island, a beach that I had read about that was supposed to be gorgeous and deserted. Two adjectives that I wish I could apply to all swimming holes.

As I get closer to the southern end of Bali the traffic died away and I found myself on well paved roads without another car in sight. The dirt bike sounded like a chainsaw ripping through the dense jungle foliage on either side of the road. After just thirty minutes I already loathed the custom exhaust system, and I quickly rethought all of my ideas about bike customization in the future.

Arriving at the road that would bring me to the beach, I was immediately rewarded with my choice to rent a dirt bike. Most of the road was mud, and the rest was patches of rough rock. I labored through it in first gear, loving every second. The ultimate feeling of machine conquering unruly territory. Horribly wrong as a principle, but immensely satisfying in the moment, especially when done with a purpose. Ten minutes later I reached the edge of the cliff.

I parked my bike next to half a dozen scooters, marveled that those pipsqueak machines made it through the muck, and walked over to the edge. Stretched out in front of me, several hundred feet below, was Nyang Nyang beach. I stood awed, and then took several pictures to commemorate the moment. Not one to appreciate beauty from afar, I slipped down onto the rocky staircase that was carved into the rocks. Consciously I pushed out thoughts of the sweat drenching experience that would be walking back up those five hundred steps.

Nyang Nyang beach overview

Drifting Off

The difficulty in reaching it is one of the main reasons that Nyang Nyang beach is devoid of human life. First, the ride far outside of town, to the tip of the island. Then the dirt trail, followed by a walk down 500 stairs. Finally, you walk across a large pasture, past a couple of cows, hop a fence, and your feet land in sand. Still wearing jeans and sneakers, I stood in the sand for a moment and listened to the waves tumble to shore. A few surfers stood off to my right, and they seemed as eager to ignore me as I was to ignore them. The water at Nyang Nyang beach

The water had a deep blue luster that I’ve only ever seen in Florida, miles offshore, at the point where land vanishes and only ocean remains. The sand gently slipped into the ocean, becoming paper smooth where the waves washed over it. Several hundred yards out a few more surfers paddled. Throwing themselves into the waves with a level of skill that I envied.

Taking off everything but my swim trunks, I threw my things carelessly onto the sand and waded into the crescendoing surf. The strong current immediately took hold and pulled me offshore. Within minutes I was several hundred feet out, lying on my back and floating along. The whole time aware of the difficult swim that would be required to reach shore. Just a little longer, just a little longer, I kept telling myself. Land continued drawing away from me, as if the earth was moving under me and I was frozen in place. Everything green and binding towards shore. In the opposite direction: blue, welcoming, and free.

The Life of a Billionaire

That afternoon, exhausted, sunburnt and happy, I went to another beach called Green Bowl. Beautiful in its own right, it was terribly disappointing by comparison. Too many people, not enough sand, nothing to blow the hair back. An Indonesian lady walked around offering massages, and a man with a cap sat texting on the stairs.Texting Chap I felt like I was in a different world than the one that exists on the sandy shore of Nyang Nyang beach.

The sprint back to shore hadn’t been easy. I had fought the current, unruly waves, and it took me ten times longer to get in than it took to get out. Tired, I walked down the beach, following a slight bend in the shoreline. Just like that I had the beach to myself. Half a mile of pale sand and tumbling water. A billion dollars couldn’t have bought me a more unique experience, and it’s moments like these that encourage you to reflect on what matters. In such a perfect setting, you’ll either be happy or you won’t. Money has nothing to do with it anymore, you’ve arrived..

I sat cross legged under a lean too made out of bamboo fronds and meditated. The heat, the waves, the saltwater tang in the air, I was present in my conception of paradise and it felt fantastic. I made the vow that I would come back to Bali one day in order to learn how to surf. I would return to Nyang Nyang beach and conquer the current not by fighting against it, but by effortlessly paddling over it. That promise still stands. Money is the means to the end, a way to get there, but the beach, that’s the real reward.

The Time I Ran out of Money in Bangkok

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Pattaya was the worst city we ever visited. The town consisted of two things. A crummy beach that was bordered by the main road, and lots of old white men with young Thai girls. Me and Joanna had a room in a building that often felt more like a brothel than a motel. This was our next stop after Koh Rong, and we stayed for two weeks because I had to work. SnookerWe drank Chang, made fun of the fat white guys in their fifties, watched snooker on TV, and Joanna played her Ukulele at Joe’s, the local coffee shop.

Two weeks was fourteen days too many in Pattaya, and on a typically sunny Thai day we got into the back of a taxi and left to catch a bus. In Asia, minibuses are a way of life and we paid $5 each for our ticket. With half an hour to spare, we sat on the beach and looked at the water. Tourists were zooming around on rented jetskis, and a portly woman was parasailing. The driver of the boat was a tease. He let her come down till her toes were dragging in the water, then he would take off, her round figure jumping back into the sky.

An hour later and we made it onto the highway. In Thailand cars drive on the left hand side of the road. It felt disconcerting to go 100kmh down the left side of the highway, with all opposing traffic driving past on the right side. Though these thoughts were quickly washed away, as I thought about what was to come. Even though we had only been on the highway for five minutes, there were already signs telling us our final destination. Bold white letters half a foot high, framed against an army green backdrop, boldly proclaimed our final stop: Bangkok.

Advice from Pavel Tsatouline

Use kettlebells, they’re amazing. In order to build strength perform fewer reps, don’t go to exhaustion. Getting exhausted at the gym doesn’t mean that you’ve had the best workout. Such is the advice of Pavel Tsatouline, an ex-Belarusian strength coach who has worked with movies stars and the Navy SEALS. His words, through the medium of a podcast with Tim Ferriss, were the backdrop for the drive out of Pattaya. I was packed in next to Joanna on the cramped minibus, and her music was being pumped into her ears at such a volume that I could hear it through my headphones.

Pavel’s two hour interview came to a close and I put on one of my favorite Russian pop music mixes. Taking stock of the situation, the first hints of anxiety began to creep into my consciousness. For the first time in more than a month me and Joanna were splitting up. She was going to an upscale hostel to meet her Danish friend Asger. I was going to a different hostel, bordering Chinatown, to fend for myself.

There were several things that made me anxious. Having to split up with Joanna played a role. As did the thought of going to Bangkok alone. It was the first massive metropolis that I was visiting in a long time. There aren’t that many cities that I’ve been to that can claim an urban population in excess of fifteen million. Moscow is one, and Bangkok is the other. Strictly by contrast, New York City looks small with a mere eight million. I love big cities, but they can also feel like bewildering, you’re on your own type places. I felt this acutely because on that day, there was one thing that kept causing my anxiousness to grow as we got nearer to the city: I had virtually no money.

In cash, I thought that there was a 50% chance that I had enough to pay for a taxi and my hostel. On my debit card I didn’t have enough to even cover the $5 foreign withdrawal fee. I had no credit cards. I had no ideas about how I would buy food. More importantly, in a polluted city where you can’t drink from the taps, I didn’t know how I’d be able to buy bottled water. All of this contributed to my anxiety, which grew noticeably worse every mile we drove.

Welcome to Bangkok

Bangkok starts off gradually. It’s like wading into warm water, you start with your toes, and before you know it you’re up to your belly and you don’t even realize how you got that deep. As we approached the limits of the city, the houses began to get closer together. Then they got taller. The sky assumed it’s perpetual polluted, always overcast appearance. When we got out of the bus for a refueling the air was ripe with the smell of tailpipes.

Back on the highway, off to the right I saw the first skyscrapers since Saigon. Glancing left, I was impressed by a Lamborghini dealership. In Dubai I saw several luxury car sellers. In Moscow there is a well known Ferrari dealership, but this was the first time I’d seen Lamborghini represented. I felt like a boy on his first day of school. 10% excited and 90% too scared to even take a deep breathe.

The traffic grew denser, the pollution more evident, and my anxiety worse. Twenty minutes after the dealership and the bus pulled over. In typically Asian fashion we hadn’t arrived at a bus stop, but instead a bazaar. A meter from the door of the bus a group of Thai men we’re eating noodle soup for lunch. People we’re selling cheap t-shirts and magnets. Controlled chaos reigned all around us.

By now my thoughts were moving so fast that it was impossible to stop them. It would be like trying to dam the Niagara river with a piece of plywood. You’re fucked. This sucks, how did this happen? What if you don’t have enough money for the hostel? You shouldn’t have bought that smoothie this morning, you’re going to need that extra dollar. Joanna wouldn’t even want to be with you if she saw what a wreck you are right now. So this is what people in poverty feel like.

Bubbly and excited, Joana walked six steps ahead of me. I followed her, and we reached the taxis seconds later. Joanna gave me a quick kiss, said goodbye, and her taxi was pulling out into traffic before I even had time to understand it. Standing there alone in that massive city, it was the most lost I’d ever felt in my life. After several minutes I hailed a taxi. Functioning at the level of a boiled lobster, I conveyed the directions to the driver. Forty-five minutes later we arrived at the hostel, and I paid him our agreed upon amount. After that ride, and paying for two nights at the hostel, I was left with less than $1. My expectations were so low at this point that even if I couldn’t afford dinner, I was happy to just have a place to stay. Numbly I stowed my bags, then dragged my laptop downstairs to start writing a paper.

Fasting in the 21st Century

In the next thirty-six hours I had one beer, two coffees, and a bottle of water. I was so anxious that I lost my appetite, which was the only good thing to come of my addled mental state. I knew that Joanna would have lent me money for food, but even though my anxiety was so acute, I wanted this experience. Poor financial decisions had left me in this place, and I wanted to vividly experience the consequences. The more emotional a lesson, the more it’s a catalyst for change. I went into this self-imposed fast with the idea of using it for motivation to never end up in a similar situation again.

I succeeded. Six months later, on the other side of the world, I can clearly recall my time spent being broke in Bangkok. It was stressful and very difficult, but it lasted for less than two days. On the evening of the second day I got $90 into my account and I went out to eat. Thai noodle soup, mystery meat, mystery pastry, a cup of ice cream. I ate until my belly was ready to burst. By the time I met up with Asger and Joanna two days later, all was forgotten. We spent a night at their hostel, and then took a thirteen hour train ride to Pai.

Learning my lesson the hard way stamped it into my memory for life. Take finances seriously and think ahead. Never go to Bangkok without any money in your pocket. That’s one lesson that I’ll never have to learn again.

I Drove a Crotch Rocket Way too Fast in Thailand

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We drank Chang and played pool in Bangkok the night before we went to Koh Samui. At five the next morning we boarded a bus, switched from that to a ferry, and fourteen hours later, just as the sun was setting, we arrived in Koh Samui, Thailand. The seas were choppy, dozens of people had thrown up, and the inside of the ferry smelled like a theme park. 

 Phalarn Inn Koh SamuiDespite inaccurate directions from Google Maps, we managed to find our hostel and toss off our heavy bags. Phalarn Inn was a great place to stay, one of my favorite hostels in Southeast Asia. There was a large pool, an outdoor restaurant, and the whole place was tucked into the jungle. Every morning we woke up to the sound of hundreds of birds demanding attention.

Even though the hostel turned out to be unexpectedly amazing, there was something else that held my interest hostage. In the course of my research I discovered that you could rent a motorcycle on Koh Samui for nearly half of the price of other areas in Thailand. By this point I had rented several dirt bikes and a small, 250cc motorcycle, but I had never gotten the chance to take out a bike with a proper engine. This time, Thai Moto was going to be my accomplice in crime. The bikes were affordable, I was dying to drive something fast, and we had a reason to rent one. Driving around the island was the perfect excuse to justify the rental.

Fuckups and Misdemeanors

SongthaewAll over Thailand there are unique taxis that I’ve not seen anywhere else. They;re pickup trucks (usually red) with elevated roofs covering the beds. Not quite high enough to stand up comfortably, you have to crouch to reach your seat. There is no gate on the back of the truck, and you simply hop on after flagging him down. The Songthaew (as they’re called) follows a fixed route and is usually about a quarter of the price of a regular taxi.

Several days after arriving in Koh Samui, after I had drank too much gin and made an ass of myself in front of the other guests, we flagged down a Songthaew and rode into town. I held onto the bars on the back, perilously close to the road. In Southeast Asia there may be safety regulations in law somewhere, but the day they’re actually enforced will be the day that wealthy musicians stop doing Bolivian cocaine.

Downtown, we pounded on the roof, paid 100 Baht, and started walking towards the rental place. In this moment, I can pinpoint the precise second where I fucked up with Joanna. There were about a dozen such fuckups in the course of our five month relationship, and this was one of them.

After getting off the taxi, I hadn’t checked how long it would take to walk to the rental place. Even at 9:30 in the morning it was already approaching 90 degrees, and we were walking on the side of the road. No sidewalk, no shade.

“How much further is it?” Joanna asked me.

Zooming in and out on Google maps, taking a terrible guess, I told her twenty minutes. The problem was that I had been so caught up in my own selfish thinking, I had failed to think about what Joanna might be feeling. I have no aversion to so called death marches in the heat. Hot and sweaty, being uncomfortable, nearly getting run over by traffic multiple times, these things don’t bother me. But more sane people (like Joanna) don’t have the same reaction.

With all traces of a smile gone, she flagged down a real taxi and he drove us to the rental place. A walk which wouldn’t have taken 20 minutes, but closer to 45. We arrived, and I said thank you to the taxi driver.

“Thank you Joanna” she said to me, as she paid for the taxi. It was one of the very few times that I ever felt Joanna was truly angry with me. Like any relationship there were times we’d get upset with each other, or have disagreements, but I felt ice in her voice. If I was a hermit crab I would have retreated into my shell. To make things worse, the fucking rental place was closed. I felt like Steve Jobs when he was fired from Apple, the company that he founded. Ashamed, embarrassed, and distraught. At this point, I would have welcomed getting run over by an insane Thai driver.

Instead of being crushed, I ended up standing there lamely, like a kid who’s too scared to ask out a girl to the prom.

“I’m getting a drink” Joanna said, and went into the cafe across the street.

Before I had a chance to make a wild dash into traffic, I was surprised to see our taxi driver standing in front of the rental place and waving to me. I walked across the street to him.

“Open soon, you see. 10 they open, I know this place. You see.”

“Alright fine” I said, stress creeping into my voice, avoiding eye contact with him.

He was right though. A few minutes later a man pulled in on a bike and began to unlock the doors. Without glancing at us, he began to move the dirt bikes out in front of the building. Ignoring me, it turned out that our taxi driver was just as interested to look at the bikes as I was.

If the Bike Fits, Rent It

Ninja 650I already had a good idea of which bike I wanted. Unlike other rental agencies, Thai Moto actually had a comprehensive website which I had already spent nearly an hour browsing. I immediately gravitated towards the far corner of the shop, and there she was. A Ninja 650, black on black. 649ccs of race tuned power. Zero to sixty in under three seconds. Top speed: faster than 95% of the other shit on the road. I gingerly sat down on it, balancing it with my legs, kicking up the stand and getting a feel for the weight.

Glancing to the left I saw another bike, just as sexy, just as black. I was a kid in the candy store. The problem is that as a kid, you can pick out a couple of your favorite candies. As a semi-responsible, sort of adult, with a beautiful girlfriend who’s going to be riding on back, you only get the chance to pick out a single bike.

Finally making contact with the owner of the shop, I asked him how much the Ninja was.

“1,000 Baht” he said with a Russian accent.

“Ты говоришь по-русски? You speak Russian?” I asked him.

“Да, конечно. Я из России. Yeah, of course. I’m from Russia.”

“Круто! Я преподавал английский язык в москве восемь месяцев. Cool! I taught English in Moscow for eight months.”

A transformation came over his face. When I had first entered the shop he looked like his wife had left him. Now he was smiling and ignoring the taxi driver, who was asking stupid questions about motorcycle tires. Sensing that most two year old’s with down’s syndrome speak better Russian than me, he switched to English and showed me around.

“So you like the Ninja. It’s a good bike. This one is nice too” he says, starting up the other sexy monster that was parked on the opposite side of the shop. “It’s got a custom exhaust kit on it and when you rev it up..” He pulled the throttle back and I thought it sounded like god speaking the ten commandments to Moses. I was tempted, but not persuaded. I had an aversion to loud motorcycles, and me and Joanna had made fun of dozens of them so far in our trip.

“It sounds great!” I said to him after he shut it off. “I like it, but I don’t think my girlfriend will. She doesn’t like loud motorcycles.”

“So you want the Ninja then?” He asks.

I look at it the way parents look at a newborn baby, and say: “Yeah, I want the Ninja.” I handed over my passport as collateral (illegal, but common practice in all of Southeast Asia), give him a thousand Baht, and carefully selected the least smelly helmet from the large rack of loaners. Mr. Russian parked the bike on the street, turned the keys over to me, and it was time to go to the cafe and make it up with Joanna.

Two and a Half Times the Fun

“Sam I’m going to kill you!” Joanna screamed into my ear, as we squeezed through a three foot gap, between a pair of dump trucks, going 85 mph. I understood how she felt. Riding on the back of a motorcycle is one of the most powerless feelings in the world. You sit back there, your entire existence at the mercy of the driver. In a car there are seat belts and airbags to cushion the crash. If there’s an accident on a motorcycle, the first thing you run into is a dense piece of asphalt which is going to rip the side of your face off.

There’s a great paradox here though. The driver of a motorcycle feels just as confident in his or her abilities, as the passenger feels powerless. Tearing a narrow gap between forty thousand pounds of metal going close to 90 felt as safe as taking a sip of room temperature coffee to me. No matter that I would have been just as dead as Joanna should something have gone wrong, my experience of that second in time was totally different than hers.

The Ninja ended up being the fastest thing that I’ve ever driven in my life, and that record may stand unbroken for a long, long time. Perhaps you’re familiar with the feeling of driving an average car. You jam your foot onto the gas pedal, what happens? It feels like pressing into a wet sponge. Even though you may have the pedal fully depressed, there seems to be a lag. It takes a moment for the engine to catch up and give you the speed that you’re looking for. Unless you drive a M4, that’s the type of throttle response most people are used to.

Now imagine this. As you push down on the pedal, the engine matches your wish. If you push hard, you take off. Push it all the way down, and you’re going 100 mph before your brain can process what’s happening. That’s what it was like to drive the Ninja. Turn the throttle and you explode forward like a bottle rocket. If you keep the throttle held down, the next thing you know you’re doing 110 and you become very aware of how mortal you are. I never took it that fast, but it would have gladly performed should I have asked.

All Good Things Come to an End

We circled the island twice and Joanna said she was going to kill me exactly three times. That’s once every two hours. Not bad considering I was having more fun than a kid in high school getting laid for the first time.

The second time around Koh Samui we stopped at one of the more pristine beaches that I’ve found in Thailand. Palm trees, tropical breeze, and a white sandbar stretching well out into the ocean. I parked the bike in the shade. We stripped down, waded out into the ocean, and lay in two inch water, with barely perceptible waves lapping up against us. Joanna’s head was resting on my stomach, and we listened as Russian tourists walked by.

Sunrise at Grandfather rock at Koh SamuiThen it was time to go. We dressed, donned our helmets, and got back onto the rocket ship. Two hours later we were back at the hostel, the bike safely parked for the night. The next morning we would drive across the island to see the sunrise at Grandfather Rock, and then I would return it to the Russian.

Faster than Superman on meth, that bike was the most exciting thing I’ve ever driven in my life. I’m a die hard motorcycle addict, and feeling the power of that engine did nothing to cure my sickness. For me, driving a motorcycle is one of the most exhilarating feelings in the world. Combine that with a stunning tropical island, an awesome girlfriend to keep me in check, and we had a hell of time. Back in the states I’ll drive my own significantly slower bike and enjoy every second of it. But as I feel the sponge throttle, there will always be the memory of letting the Ninja loose. Tearing between the dump trucks, and my amazing motorcycle candy Joanna threatening to kill me, if I didn’t do it first.

Dinner With Friends in Pai

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To reach Pai from Bangkok you have to take a thirteen hour train ride through the oscillating countryside of Thailand. You disembark in Chiang Mai, take a taxi to the bus station, and then take a four hour bus ride up through the mountains.A bus ride to Pai Thailand If you’re lucky your driver won’t be a homicidal maniac. However, most people are unlucky, and they spend most of their ride clutching the seat in front of them, as the bus barrels through hair pins turns at 40 miles an hour.

Despite the hardships, the journey is worth it. Pai is a small town tucked up in the mountains of north Thailand. It’s easy to imagine it twenty years ago as an underdeveloped village with cows and people riding bicycles. Tourism has changed that. The main road that runs through the center of Pai is a quagmire of inexperienced tourists driving scooters, and people selling fruit smoothies along the side of the road.

In our five months of travelling together, this small village held me and Joanna’s attention longer than anywhere else. We had planned to spend a week there, and wee ended up staying for three times as long. In one sense, it’s funny that we would choose to spend so long in a small mountain village, while actively hating the bustling Bangkok. The pieces fall together once you know Pai, and it’s easy to understand how you can become trapped.

Switching Hostels

Darling Hostel in Pai ThailandWe started our journey in Pai three strong. Me, Joanna, and her friend Asger from Denmark. For a week we stayed at Darling Hostel, where we had an incredible balcony that gave us a beautiful view of the entire town. Every night the expansive deck became a bar, and after five days we had filled a thirty gallon wicker basket with empty bottles of Chang.

Apart from drinking a liver busting amount of beer, the most fun we had was our two days playing with the bikes. In Thailand it’s easy to rent a dirt bike or motorcycle. This was especially true in Pai, as multiple shops had shiny new bikes sitting in front. Asger had driven a bike twice in his life before, and he was confident he could do it again. So I rented my first crotch rocket, albeit a small one, and Asger opted for the dirt bike. We drove them for hours through the mountains surrounding Pai. A better time was never had.

Asger riding a dirt bike in Pai ThailandUnfortunately, unlike me and Joanna, Asger had limited vacation time. After just five short days he flew back to Denmark, leaving me and Joanna to continue the adventure in the tiny town. While staying at Darling, we had been hearing music waft over from another hostel about a quarter mile away. One day a particularly loud drum caught Joanna’s attention and she went to check it out. She came back two hours later.

“Guess what?” She said to me with a grin.

“What’s up?”

“I booked us a room at Circus.”

“Damn, so it’s cool huh. When are we going over there?”

“Tomorrow. Do you remember Eddy from Koh Rong? He’s over there right now. We can go over later and jam with them. I don’t want to spoil it for you, but it’s really freaking cool!”

So it went. That afternoon we went over to Circus and we met Eddy, who we had seen for the first time in Koh Rong, 1,400 km away. Even though the odds of this happening seem low, it’s simply not so. There are only so many popular tourist destinations in Asia, and when you potentially meet dozens of people at every hostel, you’re bound to run into some of them again.

Living at the Circus

At Circus, the bungalows are made out of bamboo with no insulation. High up in the mountains, we nearly froze to death our first night. Three blankets did little to dissuade the frigid air. I remember being close to Joanna under the blankets, hugging her like I would drift out into space if I let go. Poor sleep became a theme at Circus. Loud music, an uncomfortable bed, too little beer. None of it helped. None of it mattered. Circus was a great experiment in happiness.

In our five months of travel we had few lasting rituals, as we changed cities to quickly to allow for them. However, at Circus, we developed the great habit of a nightly dinner. Circus is located fifteen minutes outside of Pai and we rented a scooter to get around. $2.50 a day gets you a ride that turns on and violently protests if you try to go over 20 mph.

Sunset at Pai ThailandEvery night around sunset I would take our wheezing scooter into town for dinner. As the sun disappeared behind the mountains, food stalls began to populate the streets. Pad Thai, meat on a stick, sushi, and various other dishes were available. With just $5 it was possible to get a belly busting amount of food, and my favorite part of the night was picking it out. Parking the scooter, I would walk up and down the street, passing dozens of stalls, filling my bag with food. Once it reached breaking point I would coax the scooter to life, ease it through the crowd of people, and zoom back up to Circus.

Spreading a towel on our bed, me and Joanna would dig into the food. She preferred sushi, and my main dish was usually something Asian with a list of unidentifiable ingredients. After the main course, we would both finish dinner with meat on a stick. If you’ve ever been to Southeast Asia, or presumably other places, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Business card sized pieces of meat, skewered on a piece of bamboo, doused in sauce and grilled to perfection.

I enjoyed our nightly ritual and I believe Joanna did as well. Every night dinner was different, and it was always exciting to unpack the bag and see the pile of food laid out. Inevitably after dinner we would go out for a beer and a game of pool. The days and nights passed quickly, and before we knew it we had been at Circus for two weeks.

Back to Bangkok, the Saga Continues

After nearly three and a half weeks in Pai we were ready to call it quits. It’s a testament to beauty of that place that a town as small as Pai was able to hold us for so long. In the coming weeks and months I would talk to other people who had been there, and the conversations usually went like this.

Me. “You were in Thailand, did you go to Pai?”

Random person at the hostel “Oh yeah we went there. We we’re going to stay for four days, but then we ended up staying for two weeks. It’s so crazy, we loved it!”

“Yeah the same thing happened to us. Did you stay at Circus?”

“No we didn’t but our friend did. We went there for a day though it seemed so cool.”

The Mountains in Pai ThailandThis conversation repeated itself as we made our way through southern Thailand, and across borders. The above conversation (word for word) happened in Singapore, 2,636 km away from that legendary town up in the mountains.

I’m not sure if I’ll ever go back to Pai. The memories I have of the town are so closely tied to Joanna that it may be more painful for me than enjoyable. Walking through the town, going rafting on the river, drinking beer and playing pool, eating lunch at the same place every day. Dinners on the bed, in a bungalow that was hot in the day and cold at night. Even though Pai may be off my radar for the rest of my life, I look forward to finding other places like it, and creating new lasting memories. When in doubt, take the road less traveled.

The 7 Best Cities to Visit in Southeast Asia

Backpacking Southeast Asia was one of the most transformative experiences of my life. I started in Hanoi, worked my way through half a dozen countries, and got to experience more cultural quirks than I’d ever conceived of.

This article isn’t about me though, it’s about you. It’s a chance for me to take my experience and share it with you. That way, when you’re trying to decide whether to travel to to south Thailand, or visit the stunning beaches of Bali, you’ll know what the best fit is. At just five months in six countries I’m not an expert. However, even in such a short amount of time you can find out all sort of interesting facts.

Food prices, food quality, scooter rental, hostel prices, gas prices, corruption levels, quality of beaches, attitude of the people, and so much more. Even though Bali was the last country on my Asian tour, I’ll make it the first one to receive some love

1. Bali, Indonesia

A Dirt Bike at Mt. Batur BaliFirst off, this island is huge! I thought Koh Samui was big, but me and my girlfriend drove through around it in only three hours. Bali is more like a 12 hour trip. The advantage of the size is the sheer diversity of the place. In the course of three days I got to visit the base of a large volcano (Mt. Batur), a tourist beach with a life changing sunrise, and a stunning beach, more than a mile long, with only six people on it. I couldn’t have been living better if I had $10,000,000 (the above picture is from the beach I’m speaking of).

Now for the bad. The traffic on Bali is worse than those people who dose themselves with Axe spray in the locker room. If you’re on a scooter (and brave) you can jump around the traffic. If you’re in a taxi, get ready to wait. That being said, all of the roads I encountered were in great condition and you can easily take a scooter almost anywhere. I rented a dirt bike from Bali Bike Rental (they have scooters too) and I highly recommend them.

I stayed at a hostel in Seminyak called Capsule Hostel. Loved it. The location isn’t fantastic, but with comfortable beds and air conditioning, sleeping is a breeze.

Cost of living in Bali: 6/10

2. Hanoi, Vietnam

I didn’t appreciate Hanoi as I should have because it was the first place I went in SEA. Now, after twenty or thirty other cities, I have a totally renewed appreciation for Hanoi. You can get a cheap hostel downtown, everything is walking distance, the people are nice, the beer is cheap, as is the food. You can get a scooter taxi to almost anywhere in the city for $3.

Downside, people consistently hawk you for stuff. Restaurants, stalls, tourist crap. It really starts to get old to have everybody yelling at you as you walk past. The solution is to wear headphones. Of all cities in the SEA, this would be one of my favorites to visit again.

Cost of living in Hanoi 4 /10

3. Pai, Thailand

The Bus ride to PaiNestled up in the mountains, three hours from Chiang Mai, is Pai. This place is paradise! What sets it apart from other cities is that it’s been developed naturally. No ostentatious high rises or condos, none of that shit. Just lots of bungalows, cute restaurants, and mountain views everywhere. You’ll probably want to rent a scooter to get around, but at $2.50 a day you can’t go wrong. Hostel recommendations include Darling, Circus, and The Purple Monkey.

Trying to think about the bad is difficult. I suppose the terrible crowded downtown main street is definitely a minus. Also, it can get chilly at night. So if you’re only packed for tropical weather, you might want to buy a hoodie and some jeans. Another downside is the bus ride to Pai. You’ll take a about a three hour bus around hairpin turns where the driver’s sworn duty is to kill you. Someone people rent scooters and drive from Chiang Mai to Pai. Even as an experienced driver, I would never do this.

Price 3/10

4. Koh Rong, Cambodia

If I had more blog readers I wouldn’t even bring up Koh Rong. This is a small island just off the mainland of Cambodia. It’s heaven. Perks includes no police, no roads, no cars, no scooters, crystal clear beaches, cheap hostels, cheap food, and loads of other crazy cunts who like to drink and play beach volleyball just as much as you do.

Downside, internet can be spotty. All of the affordable hostels don’t have AC, and a mosquito net is a must. That being said, you can read about my experiences drinking Jameson on Koh Rong, and I would instantly trade all inconveniences to go back. If I ever decide that the world is too much, and I want to cop out by drinking myself to death Hunter Thompson style, Koh Rong is where I’ll do it.

Cost of Living 4/10

5. Koh Lanta, Thailand

Sunset at Koh LantaLoved this place. Some of the best beaches and atmosphere. Also, it’s really easy to explore the island on scooter. The roads are all well paved and you can go to the end of the island in less than two hours. Keeping in mind that there are two sides of the island, and you’ll have to decide which side to go up (I vote west side, it’s like driving through a paved jungle. Pro tip here, stay at Sanctuary hostel. It’s right on the beach, the bungalows are great, you have a beautiful private bathroom. The food they cook may be overpriced for Thailand, but it’s delicious. Also, three minutes from a  7/11. Convenience is a law of life.

If you’re into drinking, you’re in luck. There are more bars on the beach than there are cartons of Ben and Jerry’s in a fat ladies freezer. If you want to get to a club farther down the island , Tuk Tuks rarely charge more than $5.

Cost of Living 6/10

6. Singapore, Singapore

The Banana Building in Singapore

I know, a city with the same name as the country. What kind of anarchy is this? A well maintained anarchy. Singapore is a first world country and may pale to London and New York, but it’s still an important financial powerhouse. Everything is modern, with chewing gum being illegal the sidewalks are so clean.

Rumors abound that Singapore is too expensive to have a good time. Yes and no. Look, you can find an awesome hostel like the one I stayed at (Happy Snail Hostel) for about $12 night. From there, a subway ticket is just $1.50 or so one way. Sure, some food costs more than the GDP of Nigeria, but you can also go get chicken and rice for $3. I honestly believe that Singapore is as cheap or as expensive as you make it.

Cost of Living 8/10

7. Mui Ne, Vietnam

Fishing boats in the Bay at Mui NeIf you’re going to explore southeast Asia, you have to hit Mui Ne. In particular, stay at Mui Ne Hills Budget Hostel (which I assure you is anything but a budget place.) They’ve got a great pool, then another. Then there happens to be another one, and if you get curious, you’ll find the fourth one. Three of the four pools have a fantastic view straight to the ocean. You can order two beers and a delicious dinner for less than $5. You can drink in the pool. Everyday there is a volleyball tournament at four.

I met Joanna here, which turned out to be a defining experience in my travels through Southeast Asia. I simply cannot recommend this hostel enough. Or the whole town for that matter. There are dozens of bars directly located on the ocean. You can sit in a chair, sip your Tiger, and hawk a loogie into the South China Sea. In America this privilege would cost $20 a beer. In Vietnam, about $1.50.

Price 4 /10

The Sun, the Sea, The Cheap Beer

After backpacking Asia for five months, I have so much more to say than what I just mentioned. Chiang Mai, Bangkok, Phnom Penh, Phuket, Koh Samui, Kuala Lumpur, Melaka, Nha Trang, Dalat, Saigon, and so on. I just mentioned the places that I enjoyed the most. If you’d like to learn about more SEA, leave me a comment or hit me with a short message.

The Jameson Diaries of Koh Rong

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Joanna was the first person to tell me about Koh Rong. We were sitting together on my bed in Dalat, and she was pointing out the best places to visit in Cambodia.

“Siem Reap is ok” she told me “but I didn’t really like Angkor Wat. Everything was old and falling apart, and it was all the same color. I liked Phnom Penh, but the best place in Cambodia is definitely Koh Rong.”

“What’s that?” I asked, curious what the attractive, blonde Dutch girl sitting next to me would say.

“It’s an island just down here. You see it?” Pointing to a small speck on Google Maps, she tried to zoom in on it, giving up several seconds later. “Your laptop sucks” she said without laughing. 

“No, it’s the best laptop in the entire universe, you just don’t know how to use it” I said, defending my $200 investment from an entirely justified comment.

“Here’s Koh Rong, you have to go there. There aren’t any cars, no scooters, nothing. There isn’t even a road.”

Sold, I asked her how to get there.

“You take a ferry from Sihanoukville. You don’t have to book a hostel in advance, you can just show up and find something. When I went there I met a girl on the ferry and she told me about Ty Ty’s hostel. You should go there it’s awesome!”

After knowing Joanna for just an hour or two, I couldn’t have known that three weeks later we would go to Koh Rong together. We began travelling together in Saigon, and it wasn’t long after that we ended up in Sihanoukville. We bought our tickets in the evening, and the next day we boarded the ferry an hour before noon. Beers in hand, ready to leave the mainland behind. Before the breakfast beer dulled the attic, I counted my blessings that I was going to a tropical paradise with a girl who I was wildly attracted to. Sometimes things work out like that, and it’s beautiful when they do.

Stepping Onto the Beach

The beach is the road at Koh Rong. It emerges from the ocean and goes directly up to the steps of every hostel, bungalow, restaurant, and bar on the island. In some places the front door of a building is a mere ten to fifteen feet from the ocean. In other places it’s sixty feet. Nowhere is it farther than Tom Brady can toss a football.

We got off the ferry and stepped onto the dock, ignoring a man loudly bellowing advice about how to survive on the island.

“We don’t need him” Joanna said to me, briskly stepping past the shirtless alcoholic. “I’ve been here before, I know where to go.” So I followed Joanna. I’ve never met anyone in my life who walks as fast as her, and I may not ever meet someone again who does. She turned a three minute walk into a ninety second one, and we quickly arrived at Ty Ty’s. They had a room and we booked it for a week. After dropping our stuff off and stepping back out into the tropical heat, I looked around and shrugged.

“Well, let’s get a beer.”

Joanna smiled “let’s do it” she said.

With that the tempo was set. When in the tropics, drink like a fish. Given the Scrooge pleasing prices of alcohol in Cambodia, this was easy to accomplish. We grabbed a few cans and sat up on the balcony of Ty Ty’s, looking out at the ocean and watching drunk tourists walk below us on the beach. Despite having been in Asia for more than a month, this was only the second time that I felt like I was somewhere truly special. An island with no roads and no police. Cheap alcohol, sand whiter than a Swede at Christmas, the ocean clear as the screen on a brand new phone, and the company of a girl who I loved.

Embracing the Lifestyle

Everything that I learned in college had prepared me for Koh Rong. I knew how to drink, how to make friends, and how to blow off all responsibilities. Most days began with breakfast prepared by the wonderful staff at Ty Ty’s. After that we would lounge around till ten or eleven. By then the boredom would set in and we would start drinking. Sometimes at the hostel, most of the time on the beach.

I had left my laptop charger in the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, and I had no way to get any work done. All I had was my cellphone and a weak internet connection. That was enough to send out messages to my clients though, most of which went something like this.

“Sorry, I can’t do any work for the next week or two. I’m in a tropical island in Cambodia and I can’t charge my laptop. As soon as I get back I’ll be available again!”

Luckily they were just as agreeable to this arrangement as I was, and I didn’t lose any work during my tropical vacation from reality.

A picture of three people playing guitar on Koh RongWhat’s interesting about Koh Rong is the effect that it has on people. The locals who live there year round only make up a small percentage of the total population. The rest of the people on the island are tourists. There for a week, two if they’re lucky, and then back to the grind. Even though me and Joanna were by definition tourists, after a few days we had thrown off this label and we began to see ourselves as locals. We made jokes about the obnoxious, drunken behavior of the twenty-something travelers, even though we regularly made fools of ourselves.

Koh Rong has the potential to convince you that you’re special, a world apart from the other riff raff. It’s a unique feeling that I never fully experienced again. I don’t know if it was because I was with Joanna who already knew the island well, or if it was because of our hostel, which blended into the island like a chameleon. Whatever the reason, we carried ourselves with a certain amount of pride, even as we accomplished nothing.

Elevating Our Game

Five days into our tropical escape I made an exciting discovery. Not only is beer cheap, but you could get a liter of Jameson (my favorite liver-buster) for just $18. After convincing myself that this wasn’t some form of fraud, much the way you can buy a Rolex for $50 from the night market, I paid for a bottle in cash and walked out onto the beach.

Jameson Sam

Posting this picture on the internet will probably haunt me one day, but fuck it. It’s so blurry I can at least deny this is me at 10:30 in the morning

The best way to imagine my situation is to picture Jack Sparrow, marooned on that stunning tropical island with the beautiful Elizabeth Swann. Nothing in his hand but a bottle of rum. I walked up and down the beach with my Jameson, the way more sensible people were carrying bottles of water. I’m not particularly proud of the person that I became with that Irish whiskey, but nor would it be right to hide it. I took the bottle with me everywhere, from the beach, into the sparkling ocean, and back to the beach.

The culmination of all my efforts came to me shortly after noon one day. I had been drawing on the Jameson for the better part of two hours, while we sat with a few other guys. One of whom we would meet a month later, 1,400 km away in Pai. Joanna was playing her ukulele, and Eddy was on the guitar. Baked from the sun, I pushed myself to standing position to go for a swim with the Jameson. Standing shakily, I found myself completely unable to walk forward. Instead I ended up staggering ten feet to the left, before collapsing in the sand. Jameson in hand, sand on my cheeks, dignity lost.

After that day I didn’t buy any more liquor. Me and Joanna worked on the beer and enjoyed the water. Right up to the end Koh Rong maintained its magic. I would have been happy there for a month, but my liver and wallet couldn’t stand it any longer. We bought our ferry tickets, paid the last tab at the hostel, and departed the next day. I left with mixed feelings. It saddened me to leave behind an island where I had so much fun, and made such an ass of myself without consequence.

On the other hand, I was ready to see what was next. When you travel a lot you begin to develop an inquisitive spirit. Even though the conditions you’re in may be ideal, you still think about why the next place is going to be awesome. The ferry ride out of Koh Rong was sad, but then again, we had our travel beers to lighten the mood.

Joining the Real World

Back in Sihanoukville me and Joanna visited half a dozen computer shops looking for a charger so that I could restore life to my dead laptop. At the time I had no idea that a hostel in Phnom Penh was holding onto it for me, and I thought my only salvation lay in buying a new one.Joanna on a dirt bike in Cambodia For better or worse, that never came to pass.

All we managed to find was a dirt bike, which brought me just as much joy as any charger could. We rode through the Cambodian countryside, discovering the most pristine beach I’ve ever seen in my life. We stripped down to our underwear and dove into the exotic blue water. All thoughts of Koh Rong and Jameson were washed away, to be tucked away into my long term memory until next time. Someday I hope to go back to that hedonistic island, and resume the suspension of reality.

My First time in Hanoi Was a Revelation

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I touched down in Hanoi sometime around 11, and it took half an hour to clear customs. After being waved through the gate I found a taxi waiting for me, and I took the half hour ride to downtown Hanoi. I was surprised to arrive at the hostel because the area seemed so quiet. The hostel description said I would be staying downtown in the heat of it all, but the roads were empty.

Grabbing my three day old backpack, I headed inside. The cramped common room was stuffed with scooters and boxes, and I felt like I had made a mistake in coming. I did my best to reserve judgments, handing over my passport in exchange for a room key. Unlike the paltry common area, my room turned out to be large, and decorated with an inviting purple color scheme. I had a king sized bed, air conditioning, a bathroom, and a flat screen TV that mostly showed fuzzy Vietnamese soap operas.

The whole process, from airport to hostel, turned out to be less eventful than I had expected. Dubai, with it’s 90 degree heat, had prepared me for the weather. Coming off the flight and finding a taxi waiting for me had made the journey to a brand new city easier, and the deserted streets had lowered my expectations.

The City Explodes to Life

Riding a Scooter Like a BossThe next morning I woke up to the sounds of horns. I didn’t know what to make of it, last I knew I was in the suburbs where city noises didn’t exist. Nothing could have been farther from the truth, as I discovered when I pulled open the frosted glass pane covering my only window. Outside I saw a stream of scooters flowing past, going around the distant roundabout, the way water goes around a bend in the river.

I quickly dressed, stuffed my wallet into the back pocket of my shorts, and came down the steep narrow staircase. Giving a brief nod to the woman sitting behind the counter, I went onto the street and stood transfixed. I had never seen anything in my life that could prepare me for this. Dozens of rainbow colored scooters driving past every minute. Loud ones, quiet ones, new ones, ancient ones. Some scooters drove past with a single driver, some had four people on them.

It took me a minute to overcome the initial culture shock, and it took me longer than a minute to walk to the end of the block and wait for the crosswalk indicator to turn green. On my first day in Hanoi I still had a lot to learn about crossing the road in Asia. Walking down a street vertical to the one I had just crossed, I soon found out the real meaning of traffic. Where on the other street there had been dozens of scooters zipping past every minute, here there were hundreds. Nor were there any breaks in traffic. I saw the popular Hanoi lake across this seemingly insurmountable street, and I knew that I needed to get across.

How though?

Scooter Traffic on the Streets of HanoiThere were no crosswalks, nor any breaks in the traffic. The scooters came in merciless onslaughts, leaving no room for pedestrians to run across even if they wanted to. I leaned against a tree, equal parts frustrated and amazed, before I began to sense the solution. I started seeing local people wade fearlessly into the river of scooters without batting an eye. When they did this, instead of getting gored by plastic fenders and brake levers, the scooters moved around them the way water in a fast river moves around a large rock.

I needed to see a few people try this before I worked up the courage to do it myself. I’ve been conditioned my whole life to wait for a break in traffic before I ran across the street, and it was terribly difficult to overcome a lifetime of training.

After making a series of half-assed attempts, I decided to take Tyler Durden’s advice, gave up on everything, and pushed my way out into the fray. The scooters parted ways, and with an exhilarating feeling I made it across the street. The experience was burned into my memory, and it’s something that I think I’ll tell my kids about one day. Later on I recorded a video of me crossing that same street at night, and you can watch it here.

Although I now had the skills I needed to cross the street, I was still alone in a foreign country, and I didn’t know anyone on the entire continent. At first this was exciting, and I reveled in the new experience of being completely alone. After a few days I had had enough of the slow days and boring nights, and I knew it was time to make a change.

What’s the Right Decision?

I had been walking around in the crowded nightlife of Hanoi for nearly and hour, and there was only one place left in the city that I still wanted to visit. It was a modern looking club with loud house music leaking onto the street, and I had just walked thirty feet past it.581869_10151545596094131_2135034605_n The rest of the night had held little excitement. After the initial wonder of the crowded streets and jammed bars wore off, I’d decided that tonight wasn’t meant to be and I’d started walking home. The problem I now faced was an intense inner battle between the side of me that loves adventure and new things, and my lethargic brain that wants to sit in an air conditioned room and watch Netflix.

Standing thirty feet past the club I felt lost in turmoil. I knew that if I went back to my room I would regret it almost instantly, but in the moment my feet felt rooted to the ground and I wasn’t prepared to turn around and dive back into the lights and crescendoing music. I took out my phone and looked at it lamely, then put it back into my pocket when it didn’t provide any relief. If something is scary, is that a reason not to do it? I pondered this a moment, thought about the words of Tyler, and then decided that I had little choice. Back to the music, back to the lights, walk back towards the laughter and the singing. If you feel self conscious, that’s nothing a beer can’t take care of.

Going to the Club

The first thing I did was order a beer. A Tiger, the national beer of Vietnam for all I’m concerned. I drank a third of it down before I looked around. The club was conspicuously trendy. It had recently been renovated, and there was a live DJ who looked like he was young enough to still grounded. The lights were flashing the types of colors you tend to see on acid. Walking the length of the bar, selling liquor, were the two most beautiful Vietnamese girls I’ve ever seen. Dragging my eyes off of them, I turned to my left and introduced myself to the only other non-Vietnamese person in the bar. That’s how I met Joe.

He was several inches shorter than my six feet, and had the first traces of wrinkles on his forehead, and around his mouth. On top was a forest of dirty blonde hair that went well with his Aussie accent. Joe gave me a firm handshake and I liked him immediately.

“So what are you doing in Vietnam?” I asked.

“I work in a bank in Saigon and I’m in Hanoi for a week to chill out. Sort of a vacation.”

“That’s cool. How do you know about this club, is it your first time here?”

Joe took a pull of his Marlboro Light before answering with a smile. “Nah it’s not my first time here, I know about this place because I own it.”

“No shit.” I said with a grin. “Cheers!”

Thanks to Joe’s easy generosity, my first drink was the last night drink that I paid for. The night progressed, the rum and cokes went down easy, and my tongue got looser. An hour later if you had stumbled into this bar you would have seen me and Joe, smoking hookah at a table with the two gorgeous girls, surrounded by a sea of young Vietnamese party goers. At the height of relaxation and enjoyment I could do little but thank myself for making the right decision, turning around, and going back into the trenches.

It wasn’t an easy decision in the moment, but it turned out to be the one that set the tune for the entire five month trip to come. When in doubt, don’t let the fear take over. Go back and do what’s right. I thought about this as I schmoozed out of the club, lazily walking the two blocks back to my hostel.

Paying for My Sins

The next two days I spent in bed, my health shattered like a wine glass on tile. The night before was the first time I had drank in two and a half months. My body quickly rebelled, and I had plenty of time to think about Joe’s bar as I lay in my air conditioned room. I certainly didn’t regret the evening, but I did learn that if I’m going to go sober for a while, I should ease back into the hedonism.

A Beautiful Shot of the Ho Chi Minh Temple in VietnamAfter three days I was better, and I felt good enough to get out of the hostel and explore Hanoi. I saw Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum, the oldest Buddhist temple in Vietnam, and the Vietnam War museum, decorated with all sorts of relics left behind by my countryman.

Hanoi turned out to be a beautiful city and I enjoyed my two weeks there. Later on it would be my tendency to embrace the unknown, and fight against my natural inclination to stay in that would give me some of my best memories from my months in Asia.

Playing Hide and Seek in Da Lat

I was the worst tourist ever in Da Lat. There’s loads of different cool activities like canyoning and hiking, and I did none of them. However, I still managed to have a blast. I stayed at Mr. Peace’s hostel which turned out to be great! Mr. Peace is an eccentric Vietnamese guy who loves to swear in heavily accented English. I’ve never heard someone say motherfucking bitch as much as this cool character.

When I did get out of the hostel, it was usually only for one reason: to go to 100 Roofs Cafe. This is by far the trippiest, craziest, most insane cafe I’ve ever been too. I say cafe but what I really mean is bar. Nobody was drinking coffee when I was there.

Asked to describe to the uninitiated, I would say that it’s like Hogwarts. Which is really pretty close to the truth. 100 Roofs Cafe is at least five stories and it’s more of a maze than anything else. The front of the cafe is fairly straightforward, but as you go back into it everything starts to get complicated. There are tunnels, small corridors, tucked away hiding places, and so on. The pictures don’t do it justice, but they’ll give you some idea at least.

Playing Hide and Seek

A picture from 100 roofs cafe in Da Lat vietnamIf you’re going to travel to Da Lat, Vietnam, and you go to 100 Roofs Cafe (Which I strongly recommend) then the best way to spend your time here is to play hide and seek. It works best with large groups, which is one reason staying at a hostel and going out with everyone is so fantastic.

Once you and your group pull up, one person is the seeker and everyone else hides. The seeker has a bottle of liquor, and when he or she finds you, it’s time to take a chug. Then you join forces and seek out other people. Finding them is surprisingly more difficult then you might imagine. 100 Roofs Cafe is so convoluted inside that you can find an almost unlimited number of places to hide. I hid with Joanna from Holland, and we were too good. Nobody could find us! Eventually we had to give up and join the group or else we would have sat alone for the whole night.

Stories from the Chamber

Glowing face at 100 Roofs cafeUnfortunately, the madness inside the cafe is enough to inspire irrational behavior. At breakfast on Monday morning we heard the story of two German guys who got naked in the chamber. One of them was a great storyteller so this was hilarious. He described the shock on people’s faces when they would turn a corner and see two grown men with their dick’s hanging out. Which is all in good fun, this is Asia. I don’t approve of them peeing on the tables though. That seems to be taking it too far. That’s what 100 Roofs does to people. It feels like being in a movie and people act like it too. Getting naked and peeing on a table isn’t the type of thing one does at a regular cafe. At 100 Roofs, it makes sense in a twisted kind of way.

Travelling in Vietnam

The great thing about Vietnam travel is that this is all so affordable! In America, drinking at a place like 100 Roofs Cafe would be nearly impossible. Beers would be $6 and a rum milkshake (highly recommended by friends) would cost $10. That’s not the case in Da Lat, Vietnam. A beer is $1.25 and a rum milkshake is $2.50. You can play hide and seek all night long without breaking the bank.

Being down to $272 I’m happy about this! I know that in America I would be nearly broke, but here it’s enough to live for a while. Travelling in Vietnam is cheap, and you can always make it cheaper if you have to. Drink less, spend more time at the beach. All things being equal, if you go to Da Lat you have to visit 100 Roofs Cafe! It’s an incredible place that will blow your mind. Try to make your way to the top, and if you get there you’ll be rewarded with a sweeping view of Da Lat. It might not be New York City, but it’s still awfully cool.

Travelling in Nha Trang, Vietnam With Friends

So far, Nha Trang has been my favorite city to travel to in Vietnam! I’ve met some really awesome people, had so much fun at the beach, and gotten to practice my Russian daily. Кстати, если ты говоришь по-русски, вам нужно сюда ехать! Можете говорить по-русски везде. Also, I’ve gotten to stay at an amazing hostel, which has been one of the coolest experiences of my life (even if the internet does suck). More than anything though, it’s been the new friends that I’ve made here that have made Nha Trang so special.

Making New Friends

The Big Buddha in Nha TrangI think that I got awfully lucky to get to travel to Vietnam, and to have met my new Vietnamese friends. I was sitting on a bench, dusting the sand off my feet. I was seconds from leaving when Tran and Thao came up to me and introduced themselves. They told me that they needed to interview foreigners as part of a university project, and they asked me to talk about life in New York.

I told them that it’s true, Americans love pizza and hamburgers, and that I was having a really good time travelling in Vietnam. What was supposed to be just a simple interview though ended up being so much more. After talking to them for fifteen minutes they invited me to go with them for food. We exchanged contact information (Facebook since I haven’t bought a Vietnamese SIM card) and that was that.

I think we ended up hanging out three times in all, and each time was a blast. I got to discover some awesome new things to do in Nha Trang that I never would have known about otherwise. I also got to learn a lot about Vietnamese culture, as I grilled my friends about it just as much as they grilled me about American culture.

Vietnamese Culture

So while I feel lucky to have gotten to meet this awesome group of people, I don’t think it’s totally an accident. After a lot of Vietnam travel, I’ve discovered that Vietnamese people are very open and welcoming. Earlier, I recorded a video where I talked about the Ukrainian culture, and how every single house has a gate on it and nobody talks to their neighbors. Vietnam is 180 degrees opposite. Entire families have dinner on the sidewalk and people are comfortable being close to one another.

Picture of us standing in front of the stone church in Nha TrangEating street food is a great testament to that. We have nothing like it in America. Imagine a small restaurant, set up directly on the sidewalk, with one person cooking food on a portable burner. The table is small and the stools are the size of a squared football (soccer ball). I suppose I haven’t taken any pictures yet because it’s such a ubiquitous part of the landscape here that it would seem like taking a picture of McDonald’s in America.

While Vietnamese people are open, they don’t like to dance. My friends have all told me this, and I’ve experienced it directly. One of my fresher memories is going to a club with a girl from my hostel. She had to physically drag the locals to the dance floor to join us. Thankfully she was great at it and in fifteen minutes she had a whole group of people having fun and forgetting about feeling silly for dancing. If you’re going to Vietnam to travel though, don’t expect lot’s of dancing, expect delicious street food instead.

Hanging out in Nha Trang

So far Nha Trang has been my favorite city in Vietnam. Since I’ve already visited Hanoi and Da Nang, that means it has beat out two other places for the honor. It’s not that there are loads of things to do in Nha Trang, but what there is to do is awesome for me. I love the beach! I go swimming every morning and I’ve picked up a nice tan in the process.

Also, while the massive Russian influx here might bother other people, I love it! It’s really great to be able to practice my second language at any bar or club. I wonder if people who study English as a second language ever take it for granted that they can practice it anywhere? Well if you study Russian, it’s really freaking exciting when you find a town in Vietnam where any random person at the bar has a 50% chance of being Russian.

The Sleeping Buddha in Nha TrangAs for attractions, my favorite so far has been the sleeping Buddha. This large statue is impressive to look at, and if you rub the Buddha’s elbow then rub your hand on your head, it brings you good luck. Of course I did it, but I don’t know how much luckier I could get. I get to travel in Vietnam, meet awesome people, swim in the ocean, get tan, practice my Russian, and get paid to write! That’s a pretty good deal in my book.

If you want to learn more about how I make money online and how I’m supporting myself on this crazy Asian journey, definitely check out a useful guide I wrote about making money online. Or if you want to see even more pictures from Vietnam, you can check out my photo gallery. I love everything I’ve experienced travelling in Vietnam so far, and I really hope that you make the choice to come here too.

Teaching ESL In a Russian Public School (Photos)

I realize that I already wrote about this subject in an earlier post: What the Hell is a Russian State School? However, the thing is that I wrote about it, I didn’t show it. So in this post I’d like to include some images from my time teaching ESL in the Russian public school system. If you want to hear a bit of background about Russian public schools, read one. If you just want to check out the photos, scroll on down.

Where else could I possibly start, except to stay that Russian public schools are crazy! Kids run wildly in the halls, they slam doors, they yell and scream. There is very little, if any, order. As an American this was surprising. When we were kids, if we ran in the hall we got yelled at. I think we even had to walk in lines sometimes. Order was the name of the game.

Who is to Blame?

Man, when I was teaching English in Moscow class would end, and those kids would bolt out of there faster then if I was chasing them with a machete. Not that this bolting behavior was restricted to the end of class either. I had a couple of particularly difficult classes where the kids would run out during the middle of class. When that happened I would have to chase them down. Or just ignore it and let them come back. Sometimes I locked the door to keep them in, sometimes I didn’t care. Their parents were paying a lot of money (by Russian standards) for lessons from a native speaking American. If the kids didn’t have the discipline to stay in the classroom, I felt that the parents shared at least half the blame.

Moving on to the classrooms themselves. That’s a tricky question. I taught in two different schools (#11 and #8). The former looked like it had been around since Stalin, and the latter looked like it had been finished about six months before I arrived in Russia. However, that’s not to say it’s destined to stay that way. Even at the brand new school, chairs were beginning to fall apart, and trim was coming off the doors. The window blinds were a mess and there was never enough chalk. That’s just a Russian school for you. It’s the facade of something brand new, but when you look underneath the surface you see that it’s actually quite poorly done.

The Experience of Teaching ESL in Russia

My experience teaching was perplexing till the last. I never knew whether I was a terrible ESL teacher, or whether I literally scored the worst possible teaching situations known to man, and I should have received the medal of honor for my efforts. Perhaps a bit of both. That’s enough of that though.

Despite the conditions, I still made the best of it. I got to meet some cool students, study the language, learn about a new culture, and find a bit more of my missing personality. Also, teaching in Russia was my jumping off point for travelling the world. I’ve traveled to more than half a dozen countries since then, and I wouldn’t change anything for the world. If you’d like to do the same, you can check out my book, Try the Borsch, where I go deep into how to find the best possible ESL job in Russia. Ok, to the pictures!

 

I loathed this piano. Keeping the kids from playing it was half my job at school #11.

Seating at the Older Russian Public School

This was my “office” along with two other teachers. The seat of the chair came off and sometimes my kids stole my water. 

My office at a Russian public school

An empty hall (a rare site) at school #11. My room was just down the hall and on the right. 

A hall at a Russian public state school

The real question you should ask yourself is: where the hell is the toilet paper?

A picture of the bathrooms in a Russian public school

 

Everything was nicer at school #8, but appearances can be deceiving.

Desks at a new Russian Public School

This was my “office” at school #8. Everyday, pack up the CD player and bring it back home.

My desk where I worked at a Russian public school

It’s not that I hate chalk (I do) it’s that we always ran out of the stuff! Also the erasers sucked. 

A blackboard at a Russian public school

Even though I loathe chalk, it was still better than this tiny little whiteboard in school #11.

A piano in a Russian public school classroom

 

Living on $500 a month, How to Plan Your Vietnam Travel Budget

Vietnam is a really great place to travel if you’re on a budget. It allows you live like a king, while not having to worry about your expenses. In general, you can confidently walk into any bar or restaurant and know that you’ll be able to afford a great dinner. Fresh fruit smoothie or sandwich from a street vendor, that’ll set you back about $1.50. All of this is why Vietnam is one of the coolest places to travel in Asia, and one of the cheapest too. Let’s take a look at what you can do on a Vietnam travel budget of $500 a month.

Eating Out at Restaurants

Restaurants are everywhere in Vietnam. At my hostel in Hanoi, for example, there were 20 some restaurants within a five minute walk. Vietnamese food is awesome, and you’ll be able to eat a great dinner at most places for less than $5. In fact, if you want to keep it really simple, you can get a filling dinner for about $2. It’s going to be fresh and delicious as well!

Street food is also very popular in Vietnam. We don’t have this in America, and it took some getting used to, seeing these mini “restaurants” on the sidewalk. But I’ve come to find out that they’re really an awesome way to eat cheap. For example, today with my Vietnamese friends, four of us ate till we were full and I don’t think that we paid more than $10. Obviously Vietnam is a cheap travel destination, especially since food can be big a expense in other places.

Going out to the Bar

Drinking in Vietnam is easy. That is, if you like beer. There are a couple of major beer labels, including Tiger beer and Saigon beer. If you buy it from the store, it’s about .$75 for a bottle, and the price usually only goes up to about $1 if you buy it at the bar. In fact, the other night I was aghast when I ordered a beer from the Sailing Club in Nha Trang and they charged me $4! I’ve clearly been spoiled by just how cheap it is to drink in Asia.

I can’t say much about other drink prices, as I rarely stray far from the beer. I’m sure that the prices are all comparable though. In fact, the hostel that I’m staying at right now even has a happy hour. As much free beer as you can drink in an hour. Needless to say, while this has been great, it’s also proven to be the downfall of more than one hostel-goer.

Living in Hostels

If you’re going to travel to Vietnam you can expect to pay somewhere from $5 to $7 a night for a hostel. Typically the dorms are mixed, so if you’re a girl and don’t like the idea of living with guys, you’ll usually need to pay more to get a single room. When you’re planning your travel budget, there’s really no reason to allot more than about $200 a month. The hostel I’m at now (which is probably the coolest hostel I’ve ever stayed at in my life) only charges $6 or so a night.

Getting Around

If you’ve never been to Asia before than you probably aren’t familiar with the motorbikes. These wonderful little things are the chief means of transportation in Vietnam. One of the things that makes Vietnam one of the cheapest travel destinations is that you can take one of these motorbikes almost anywhere in the city for about $2.50. Well, at least that’s what I paid in Hanoi. It didn’t usually seem to matter how far I went, the price remained the same.

Of course, if you plan to travel Asia cheap, and you are really feeling adventurous, you can also buy your own motorbike. This will only set you back about $250, and if you plan to stay in Vietnam for a while, it might be a good investment. Odds are you’ll be able to drive it around and then sell it for the same price that you bought it for.

You’re putting your life into your hands if you do this though. The traffic in Vietnam is nothing short of jaw dropping, and the driving style is unlike anything you’ll find anywhere in America. It makes New York City drivers look like a bunch of grandmothers off to church.

When you need to go between cities it’s also easy to travel cheap in Vietnam because the train is inexpensive. You can go from Hanoi, all the way to Saigon (a 1,700 km journey) and I don’t think you’ll end up paying more than $80. You have to be careful about where you buy your tickets though. I’ve found the best website to be Baolau.com Alternatively, you can also just go to the train station and buy your tickets in person.

Your Travel Budget for Vietnam

The cheap food, inexpensive drinks, low cost hostels, and easy on the wallet train tickets all mean that you can plan on spending little in Asia. I think with $500 you can easily live a great life here. That’s about what I spend and I think that my own travels have been stellar so far. So if you want to travel Asia cheap, I think that Vietnam is a great country to visit. Of course, I also think that Vietnam is a wonderful country, and the cheap prices are a just a cherry on top. As I continue down into Cambodia and Vietnam, I’ll report further on what I find, and on what kind of travel budget you’ll need.

5 Awesome Things to do in Kiev

I think that everyone should visit Kiev! It’s a beautiful city with a great history, and if you have Euros or Dollars, it’s all very affordable. One of the nicest perks of Kiev is that it’s a fairly centralized city. All of the things I’m about to list are within walking distance. Or if you prefer to hitch a ride, a taxi should never cost more than a couple of bucks. Finally, I love travelling in Ukraine, and I have lots of cool Kiev photos (Odessa and Lviv too) that I definitely think you’ll like. Alright though, let’s get to it!

1. Rodina Mat

Rodina Mat in KievIf you’re going to travel to Ukraine, this massive statue is a must see! At 102 meters, Rodina Mat is truly impressive, especially as she holds up her sword and shield to the river. In Russian, Родина Мать, is bit awkward to translate, but it comes out as something like “Mother of the Country” or “Mother of the Homeland”.

Under the base of the statue is a comprehensive World War II museum that’s filled with interesting relics from the war. You’ll also find some items from the significantly more modern struggle in Donbass. On top of helmets and pictures, there’s also a captured Russian tank. It’s parked out right out front and has been painted in Ukraine’s national colors (blue and yellow).

It’s also worth noting that if you take the metro to Rodina Mat, you’ll get off at Arsenalna Station, which is the deepest metro station in the world. Getting from the Metro car, up to the entrance of the station, takes more time then trying to pick a movie to watch on Netflix! If you visit Kiev, you can’t pass up this opportunity.

2. Maidan

Maidan in KievIf there was an award for most transformed public space, Maidan would surely take first place. This telling photograph illustrates how bad things got, and how nice it looks now. Maidan is one of Kiev’s main attractions, and the whole area is a wonderful place to hang out. The protesters are long gone, order has been returned, and there’s only hints of what took place there in 2013.

One of my favorite things to do in Kiev is take the metro to Maidan, then “гулять”. This is a Russian verb which doesn’t have a definite English translation. Strolling comes close, but it sounds a little bit too whimsical.

Regardless, at Maidan you can “stroll” around and discover a large, underground shopping mall or one of the many restaurants nearby. If you’re not sure where to go, I suggest Park Shevchenko, which is a 15 minute walk away, and directly next to Kiev’s elite National University (which happens to be painted bright red).

3. St. Andrew’s Church

St. Andre's Church in KievWhen it comes to Kiev sightseeing, you have to check out St. Andrew’s Church! I say that for two reasons. First, the church itself is beautiful. A magnificent work of art. The blue spires give way to gold, which is all complimented by the beautiful white body of the church. You can stand next to it and see far off into the distance (Kiev is a very hilly city).

The second reason that you’ll want to check out St. Andrew’s is the area. All around it is a large park which will offer you various opportunities to find some tranquility, or get your picture taken with a great background of the city. Those will be some some Kiev photos that you’re happy to have later on.

4. Kiev Opera

Another one of the Kiev’s attractions is the opera house. Situated less than ten minutes from Maidan, it’s right downtown. The building is old and it has a visually imposing appearance. It sits in a large, open square which defies the traffic and buildings all around it. The opera in Kiev is also nice because it’s affordable. Tickets can run somewhere around $15, although you will need to buy them in advance (and in person, I’ve heard their online system is nearly useless).

5. Petra Sahaidachnoho St.

Chilling at the Fiji LoungeThankfully, you don’t have to be able to pronounce the name of this street to find it. You can do a quick Google Maps search and find out right where it is. This street makes the list of top 5 awesome things to do in Kiev because it’s jammed with some of the best bars and restaurants in Kiev. There’s the Fiji Lounge Bar, which may be my favorite place in all of Kiev to hang out with friends. They have great food, cheap drinks, hookah, and there is a hidden club in the basement that can get crazy on Friday and Saturday nights.

Another good spot to check out is the Shooters in Kiev. They’re located a minute or two from the Fiji Lounge Bar, and it’s a popular place for tourists to visit. Good drink specials and lots of local party goers means that everyone ends up having fun. Regardless of your tastes, you’ll definitely find something interesting on Petra Sahaidachnoho St.

Where to Stay in Kiev

If you’re going to travel in Ukraine, you’ll want to find a good place to stay. As far as I can tell, there are four major hostels in Kiev, and I’ve stayed at three of them. The hostel that I always recommend to friends is The DREAM House hostel. This place is freaking sweet! It’s only a year or two old, they have a cafe / bar directly built in, the beds are super comfortable, there’s a big common area, the staff are nice, it’s only two minutes from Petra Sahaidachnoho St.

Some people prefer Kiev Central Station though. This hostel has a totally different feel. Staying here, I frequently felt like I was living in a college apartment. It’s laid back, it’s on a quite street, and there is a fridge full of beer in the common room. Whichever hostel you choose though, you’ll still only end up paying about $8 a night. Kiev is a very affordable destination, and one that I recommend everyone check out. To learn more about Ukraine, and see video reviews of the two hostels that I mentioned, be sure check out my YouTube page.