I can’t believe 2016 is over, and how all over the place it was. I spent time in Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Canada, Mexico, and rediscovered my love for California and the United States. I survived missed flights and parking tickets, and put out some work I’m proud of. Here’s a look at some of my favorite stories from the year:
[Los Angeles Magazine] How to Drink Scotch Like Anthony Bourdain – The most terrifying interview I’ve ever conducted. I was in a sheer panic the week leading up to meeting and interviewing my idol. I ended up only using 9 of the 15 minutes I was allotted with him. Not my best interview, not even close, but a priceless learning experience.
[Food Network] The Best Things to Eat In California – It was fun driving up and down California in my Jeep to research this story for FoodNetwork.com. After spending time in Asia, I loved taking time to explore my home state and its culinary treasures.
[VICE Munchies] Singapore’s Cocktail Scene is on Fire – I only had a handful of days to spend in Singapore staying with a friend’s parents, so researching this story was frenzied. Running around town finding speakeasies and meeting the city’s most influential bar industry players was a great way to take in the Singapore sights without feeling like a tourist.
[VICE Munchies] Why Chef José Andrés Wants You to Eat Old Meat – It was surreal to be in Vegas sandwiched in a booth with José Andrés for nearly two hours of wine drinking, meat tasting, and industry talking for this story on eating mature livestock.
tl;dr – My mom came to Asia and we went to Vietnam. Now I’m alone in Korea.
Last week in Hoi An, a 52-year-old woman named Tina playfully slapped my cheeks and called me a baby.
She had wrangled my mom and I into her shop to remove our unwanted peach fuzz (lady facial hair), and now she was using the threading technique to rip the fine follicles out of my jowls. I was wincing and maybe almost crying. It hurt, a lot.
When she finished torturing me, she slathered on some face cream said to make the hair “never come back again.”
She had quoted us 100,000 Vietnamese Dong (the currency in Vietnam, about $4.50 US) for the painful service, and in the end demanded 800,000 for me, 600,000 for my mom. The only thing I hate more than peach fuzz is getting hustled.
I saw it coming but didn’t think we’d get charged 8x more (I didn’t think I had so much facial hair either). It wasn’t the first time I’ve been hustled, and it sure as hell won’t be the last! We paid Tina and took our waxy, smooth faces back into the insane Hoi An heat.
The face cream she applied ended up giving a bad red, raised, rash that lasted nearly a week. Also, the hair is coming back already.
Scams aside, my mom and I had a great trip in Vietnam for about a week and a half, splitting our time between Hanoi, Ha Long Bay, and Hoi An. The country is rich with history, good food, addictive coffee.
My mom fought jet lag well and was always more energetic than me to go out and see the sights, even though it was almost 100 degrees every day with 80% humidity.
We were up every morning to go jog around Hoàn Kiếm Lake, out and about every afternoon trying not to get hit by scooters in the crazy traffic.
One of the best parts of the trip was our overnight boat excursion to Ha Long Bay. It’s just as beautiful as the Google Images make it out to be.
We swam, hiked, sweat, and took 40,000 pictures over the two-day experience. The views were alone were worth the 8 hours (round trip) in a bus to get there.
I also got very lucky in Vietnam, not once, but three times. On our first night there, we’re sitting in a randomly chosen restaurant when who walks in the door? OH I DON’T KNOW, JUST RATATAT!!!!
If you read the last blog post, you may remember that I lost my voice for four days screaming at their show in Bangkok recently. And here are Mike Stroud and Evan Mast in the same restaurant in Hanoi. Stars, they’re just like us!
I had a fangirl panic moment and couldn’t decide whether or not to play it cool, or ask for a photo, or get up and run into their arms. I ended up blurting out some words to them as they walked by our table, saying that I had seen them in Bangkok and now here we all are, or something mediocre.
The real MPV of the conversation was my mom, who made them laugh. They walked upstairs and ate dinner and I was in shock for another few hours.
Lucky situation number two. Still in shock after the whole Ratatat thing, I tell my mom that Bourdain is also in Hanoi that night (so is President Obama, nbd), so we go to his hotel to do some light stalking at the bar. While getting out of the taxi, I thought I slipped my phone into my purse, but it fell instead to the floor, under the seat.
I realized this later, of course. Once we get to the Hotel Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi, I go to pull out my phone a few minutes after we’ve been dropped off and realize it is missing. The panic! I run outside of the hotel to see if the taxi driver is still there, maybe waiting for another customer, but he’s gone.
The hotel staff see how distressed I am and ask what’s wrong. I tell them I left my phone in the taxi, and three of them take off running in different directions. I’ve accepted the fact that it’s gone at this point, because Hanoi traffic is insane and there’s no way they’re going to find him.
A few moments later, one of the hotel employees is walking down the street toward me, and he’s not alone. He’s with the taxi driver! He said that he had remembered the license plate number from when we were dropped off, “it’s my job.” The cab driver had gone around the corner where taxis wait for customers.
I was totally stunned for the second time in one night. Also so happy that I could have kissed the guy. I said thank you about 80 times and then 30 more times.
Lucky moment number three: We flew from Danang to Hanoi and then took a cab into the city (it’s a 45 minute ride.) Once we’re checking into the Hotel de L’Opera Hanoi, I realize that I left a small bag that I keep in my larger bag on the plane. Inside that small bag? My wallet with my credit cards, cash, debit card, driver’s license, etc.
I wanted to die. HOW AM I ALLOWED TO BE AN ADULT.
I told the concierge at our hotel and asked if he could call the airlines, the numbers I had tried weren’t working and most of the information was in Vietnamese. He took over for me, and after about 7 calls he told me that they had FOUND THE BAG!!!
The hotel arranged a taxi driver to take us back to the airport and call the right people once we arrived. He did, and we got the bag back fully intact. I gave the concierge a gift and a letter thanking him in addition to the barrage of verbal thank yous.
The moral of the story: everyone in Vietnam is my hero and I (per usual) need to be more mindful.
My mom and I left Vietnam on the same day, but many hours apart. Her flight took off at 11, and mine at 1:45 AM (technically the next day, but you get it).
I said goodbye to her (knowing that I’ll see her again in about a month, which is nice) and spent the day doing some work, killing time at the hotel until it was time to head to the airport.
I left Vietnam humbled, tired, and bloated (there had been a LOT of eating in the past week). Once my flight landed at Incheon International Airport, I didn’t have the energy to take the train into the city. Instead, I paid $12 to use the airport’s Korean spa.
Best spent $12 of my life! I soaked in hot tubs, cold pools, sweat out the exhaustion in the sauna and steam room, then slept for 4 hours on a thin cushion in the napping room.
I finally left the airport and made it to the heart of Seoul. I put my stuff down at the traditional Korean guesthouse I’m staying at, and started walking around the city. I have been here once before, but only for a 10 hour layover.
This place is nuts and reminds me a lot of Tokyo. I think I’m going to like it here, despite feeling very lost already.
TL;DR – After hopping around, I’m back in Bangkok and running out of money.
Well my hair seems to be falling out. Maybe it’s because I spent the past few days in Laos washing my hair with bar soap (thanks, shampoo-less guesthouse!) or maybe it’s because I’m stressing out about my financial situation. The money’s low, my dudes!
No shock there, although it’s still somehow a shock. In my last post, I talked about hemorrhaging money. Instead of turning that around, I decided to not do that and keep on balling out of control. Going to Malaysia and Singapore did not help, and it didn’t help to go on a spontaneous trip to Laos either. Still happy to have those experiences, I guess?
Allegedly I get paid on the 20th, so all should be well (for a while).
So a recap of what’s happened in this past month here in Southeast Asia:
Seeing Tame Impala in Kuala Lumpur was AMAZING. I’ve never been to a concert where so many people were diehard fans before. Everyone was screaming all of the lyrics, jumping and dancing like maniacs. Unreal. After a week in KL, I took the train to Penang where the joys of street food eating were only slightly lessened by the painful, painful heat.
Singapore was a completely different ballgame. I loved how clean and modern it was, but it was way too expensive for a person of my means. Fortunately, a friend’s family opened up their home to me, even going so far as to cook me delicious Indian meals daily. I will be forever grateful for their kindness! I worked on some stories for Munchies and got the F out of the city as fast as possible.
I moved into a little apartment in Bangkok for the month of May and love it. I seem to be an oddity in my new neighborhood. Not many foreigners, in these parts, so when I walk down the road, I’ll hear people say “Farang! Farang!”(foreigner) then turn to stare at me. At first it was a little off-putting, but now we have a neighborhood camaraderie going on. Everyone says hello, people ask me where I’m going, try to speak Thai with me. I wish I was staying here longer, it’s a fun community.
I got back from Singapore just in time for RATATAT TO PLAY IN BANGKOK. Even though Ratatat is one of my favorite bands, I didn’t realize how excited I was for the show until we arrived at RCA Live.
We waltzed up to the front row, no one put up a fight. In fact, there was a huge space in the front, so huge that we wondered if people were allowed to stand there. It turns out, we WERE allowed to stand there, and we did! Ratatat warmed up in front of us, and I started losing my mind. RATATAT IS STANDING RIGHT IN FRONT OF ME, WARMING UP FOR A SHOW.
Then the show started, and I lost whatever part of my mind was left.
I’ve never had such a weird reaction to a concert. Because Ratatat doesn’t have any lyrics to their songs, and because I was SO SO SO SO SO SO EXCITED, I just started screaming. Lunatic fan screaming. “What is wrong with this person?” screaming. The rest of the crowd seemed to be pretty calm, perhaps wondering what the actual F was happening to the farang in the front row.
After the show, as though it was the most normal thing in the world, I MET RATATAT AND DIED. Just had a normal conversation like no big deal. I don’t even remember most of what we talked about because of the adrenaline. I do remember Evan Mast mentioning going to a friend’s wedding in Sicily.
I lost my voice from all of the wild screaming and could barely speak for the next four days.
In between story writing and Ratatat fawning, I’ve been loving my newly-minted GuavaPass subscription. It’s like ClassPass in the US, but for Asia and Dubai. It’s allowed me to get into Muay Thai, get back into yoga, kill myself at kettle bell classes. The app is a life saver. There’s no way I’m working out outside in this heat, and I rarely walk anywhere. Without GuavaPass, I’d be a sweaty, sedentary blob.
I’m still not sure if Laos was real. What I saw in Luang Prabang was unbelievable. It’s an hour flight from Bangkok, but you feel like you’re stepping back decades. No skyscrapers, just lush scenery and a slower pace of life. The Kuang Si Falls are stunning. No complaints when it came to Laotian food either.
I would have loved to stay in Luang Prabang for weeks (despite the struggling WiFi situation). But Bangkok was calling, and, as mentioned before, the money was/is running low. I needed to get back to a more productive routine.
Back in Bangkok
Only one week left here in Bangkok. I happen to be leaving the week that the “hot season” is finally breaking. The heat wave is over, and rainy season is kicking off. It’s been HISTORICALLY SCORCHING since I got here, every day in April hit at least 100 degrees. But I lived to tell the tale!
Anyway, now it’s time (but really…) to be productive and get some more invoices going. Freelance writing is like a marathon, and I keep taking excessive water breaks.
On Monday, I’ll be meeting my traveler extraordinaire mother in Vietnam for a week of fun in the sun (protected by layers and layers of sunscreen). Once we part ways, I’ll be headed to Korea and Taiwan.
I booked a flight back to the United States, and I booked it on the Fourth of July. If that isn’t patriotism, I don’t know what is.
TL;DR – I’m in Malaysia feeling productive and sometimes lost.
Moving slowly on this first morning in Malaysia after a night of tossing and turning. Poor sleeping aside, it’s fun and challenging to be in a new city again.
I flew from Bangkok to Kuala Lumpur yesterday to come see Tame Impala play on Saturday. Walked around KL’s Chinatown and found a popular street food spot for dinner. Ate durian ice cream. All very standard tourist stuff for day one, nothing groundbreaking. Just trying to figure out what KL is all about.
I’ve been back in Asia for a little more than two weeks, but it feels like WAY LONGER. My time spent in Bangkok was pretty productive for arriving right before the Songkran holiday (four days of nonstop water fighting to celebrate the Thai new year). Happy to be churning out more stories lately.
Writing a second blog post has been a challenge. I’ve started different drafts with wildly different tones depending on the day. I’m striking while the iron is hot – or rather, while I’m feeling more positive about the whole situation. My last draft was filled with a lot of WHAT AM I DOING HERE in both the immediate and the broad sense.
Well, what am I doing here? The plan had been to come over here, write, travel around, see old friends, etc. Then TAXES HAPPENED. This was my first year paying my taxes as a freelancer and the amount I owed was way higher than I imagined it would be. A chunk of my savings has now vanished, so instead of floating around Asia as I had hoped, I’m going to spend more time lying low in Bangkok.
I need to stop hemorrhaging money on things like massages, too.
OK, the cry baby is going to stop crying (and apparently start writing in the third person??) and go back out into the Kuala Lumpur torrential downpour and eat some roti.
TL;DR – After 6 months in the USA, I’m back in Asia (Not for very long)
Yesterday I stood in line at the skytrain station and tried to tell myself to calm down. I wasn’t going to die from being this hot, but HOLY F IT WAS SO HOT. The combination of oppressive heat, dense humidity, and the slight burn of bug spray on my neck was coming together in a near panic-inducing way.
I stared at the cashier’s computer as she processed my ticket, occasionally pulling out a spare sock I brought along to wipe the sweat out of my eyes. By the time she handed me my new pass, sweat was rolling down my legs too and I just wanted to get the F on the train.
Dealing with the heat in Southeast Asia is a Catch-22. Power walk to get to the intensely air-conditioned train, and you’re going to warm your body up. Walk slowly to the train and you’ll endure the wrath of the tropical climate longer. You can’t win.
So I’m back in Bangkok.
After floating around in a lazy limbo for the past six months in America, I wanted to come back to Asia and do some freelance writing and exploring again. Because this trip will only last a few months, coming here hasn’t felt as momentous as it did when I left for Thailand in 2014. This isn’t a move, this is a trip.
Maybe that’s the reason my emotions feel stunted on this return, or maybe it’s jet lag. I got to the Bangkok airport and thought “yep, this is it.” I barely looked out the window during my taxi ride into the city. I’d like to let go of the stresses of the motherland (i.e. what the f am I going to do with the rest of my life?) and focus on enjoying every moment of being over here. I think some Thai street food will help with that.
After hopping between Thailand, Malaysia, and some other nearby countries, my ultimate plan is to go back to California by July and post up permanently (or semi-permanently) in Los Angeles. I loved being so close to my sister and new brother-in-law (who just married each other last month, mazel tov!) and I miss having roots somewhere. It was fun being an expat once upon a time, but I’d rather be a regular pat right now.
Before that new chapter of full-time LA life begins, I’ll revel in this Asia Rumspringa and file as many stories as possible—and by file as many stories as possible, I mean spend 97% of the time looking for air-conditioning.
Some people have asked me how I have been able to do this, just pick up and travel. It seems so glamorous! But I’d like to throw out a disclaimer: I am in no way a financially stable adult. I do not have any money saved for retirement, I do not have a steady income (freelancing pays poorly and slowly). I’m still on my parents’ insurance! (#ThanksObama)
I was lucky enough to live rent-free with family in America, and saved some money with freelance jobs. I’m not over here balling out of control; that’s not possible on the ~3k that I have to my name. I stay in a mixture of hostels and hotels (only if I find epic deals), I fly on suspiciously low-budget airlines, and I only own like four outfits. It’s not glamorous, it’s a little risky, but it works for now.
These next few months will be a challenge to work as hard as I can, build up an arsenal of invoices that can help me get an apartment once I’m back in LA, and experience this beautiful part of the world. Will this be possible? Maybe not. I’m happy to find out.
TL;DR – Bali is still dreamy. My mom came to visit. We went to Lombok.
After nearly a month in India, returning to Bali felt like being enveloped in a tropical, familiar hug. Everything was sunny and bright. A familiar – or rather familial – face came to join me in Indonesia, my mom, for her fourth time visiting me in Asia this year! I can’t think of many people who would fly almost 70,000 miles in a single year to see me (or maybe it’s just for the cheap massages).
We spent the first few days relaxing in Seminyak, adjusting to the time zone and working on our licenses to chill. We hired a car to check out a few of South Bali’s best beaches: Green Bowl and Dreamland. Green Bowl was an undeveloped pocket of clear water and white sand, whereas Dreamland was more tourist-friendly with sunny orange beach umbrellas, great surfing, and a restaurant or two.
After frolicking around Seminyak for a while, we hopped on a plane and headed to the Indonesian island of Lombok, Bali’s less developed neighbor. The short flight and drive to Kuta Lombok seemed to transport us back in time. Horse drawn carriages were more plentiful than taxis, there were no street lights.
In Bali, foreigners are no big deal; you can get lost in a sea of white people sporting flip-flops and sunburns. In Lombok, there are markedly less foreigners, and the locals got a kick out of us – particularly when my mom and I went on our morning jogs. On our daily run, we were met with cheers, laughs, waves, and scowls from the locals. The people of Lombok were not exactly outwardly friendly, but after dropping a few Bahasa Indonesia phrases, they instantly broke into smiles.
Lombok is a magnet for surfers, and most of the limited number of tourists were hella gnarly bros. While far from gnarly, I still took the opportunity to surf there as well. Instead of paddling out from the beach, you have to hire a boat to take you out to sea to get to the waves. The session was well worth the effort, it was fun taking the boat ride alone.
After our Lombok days were up, we set off back to Bali. Since Mount Raung wouldn’t stop spewing volcanic ash, my mom and I had to take a ferry. We were told the trip would take four hours, but it ended up being an all-day affair.
The hassle began when our “fast boat” was late in a very ambiguous way. After a two-hour car ride to the port, no one could tell us when the boat would arrive. We were ushered from one spot on the jetty to another to wait. It felt pretty stupid to complain about our inconvenience when we were surrounded by twinkling water and a coastline of palm trees. But complain we did, all dozen foreigners stranded on the sun-drenched dock.
An hour and a half past our boat’s departure time and we learned that our ferry had yet to leave its dock on another island. We continued to freckle, burn, and rot on the jetty, clamoring together in limited slivers of shade. As other boats came and went, we all kept squinting into the brilliant blue horizon, straining to see a boat that wasn’t on its way.
At this point, Bali seemed to exist only in our minds like some unobtainable oasis, so close and yet so far. After two hours of sweaty frustration, my mom and I bought new tickets for the next boat we saw. The ferry took us to a town three hours from where we were staying in Bali, but we were just happy to get the F out of Lombok.
At dusk we arrived in the rice field-ed beach town of Canggu, Bali and checked in to The Kirana Bali hotel. This place had the most comfortable bed I’d slept on in weeks and it was just a 10 minute walk to Batu Bolong Beach. We were in close proximity to top-notch eateries like Betelnut Cafe, Le Petit Prince, and Deus Cafe.
So things were good back in Bali. My mom and I spent the rest of her time in town at the beach, massage spots, and bangin’ restaurants. It was fun having a travel buddy for two weeks, and it was sad to say goodbye to my mom when her trip was over.
I’m now entering my third month of the whole e-hobo thing, still adjusting to being semi-nomadic. One outcome of the lifestyle change is that I’m outside much more, which is great for my disposition but maybe not so great for my skin. I know one day a dermatologist will grimace at my weathered face and curse this time in the sun. Wrinkles be damned, I’m having a hell of a time!
Next up, I’ll spend a few days in Jakarta followed by a week in Bangkok before heading to Tokyo. Getting ready for Japan, I’m anxious as F about how expensive it’s going to be. I have been able to manage supporting myself in Southeast Asia, but Japan is a whole different ball game. The cheapest accommodations aren’t even cheap, and allegedly food is also pricey. The trip may be good for my waistline (still bloated from the parantha-filled India adventure), as I may have to starve to make it through the experience (jk that’s unlikely).
Getting sidelined with a cold pulled me out of my dreamy Bali tunnel vision. For the past two plus weeks, I’ve done almost the same thing every day and it’s been a great fortnight – possibly the best I’ve ever had. It doesn’t feel like real life at this point. My Groundhog Day existence looks like this (but subsitute a frustrated Bill Murray for a happy Bill Murray):
Early Morning – Wake up with the sunrise, go jogging (or change my mind and sleep in), eat breakfast at my hostel, slather my body with multiple coats of 110 SPF sunscreen
Morning – Walk down to the beach, go surfing (see also: attempt to surf), hang out, drink coffee, go surfing again (continue wiping out), drink a fresh coconut
Late Afternoon – Head home, shower, maybe nap, go to a cafe/restaurant to eat and write
Evening – Go out for drinks or go to bed early – like 9 pm early – maybe eat yogurt and granola on my bed
Then I got sick, and suddenly I couldn’t do the things I’ve been doing for like 16 days straight. Stopping the routine made me realize that holy f, almost three weeks has passed and I have done WAY LESS than I planned on doing. I feel like I just got here. How did time fly by that fast? What happened!? I wanted to file way more stories, see way more places, try way more restaurants.
Even though my days aren’t filled with the sort of variety I predicted, one perk is that they have been filled with damn good meals. Indonesian food is a dream; it’s so good that I haven’t missed Thai food yet. One of the dishes I’ve eaten is so incredible, I wrote about it for Vice.
Ok, so more reflecting on life after leaving Bangkok.
It has been interesting adjusting to backpack life. I thought that by packing 95% black clothing, it would be easier to wear the same thing all the time. Instead, I feel more like a gothic outfit repeater in a sea of Bali’s well-dressed beach goddesses.
All I want to do is surf or sit on the beach (go figure), so it’s harder than predicted to be proactive with my freelance work. By the time I do get to a cafe to write I’m exhausted from an active day in the sun.
Once I got sick, I had the chance to take a step back and reexamine my productivity game plan (aaaand see that something needs to change). As I recover from the cold, I’m trying out new routines to coax myself into working more while still soaking up ample beach time. (Insert quote here about life lessons or progress or something, idk)
So what next? I have about two weeks left in Bali until I fly to India where I’ll spend nearly three weeks stuffing my face with naan while simultaneously trying to avoid Delhi belly. Once I’m healthy, I imagine I’ll fall back into the surf-eat-surf-repeat routine until I wake up one morning and have to catch my flight. I booked a ticket back to Bali after India so I can come back and do more of the same, this time with my mom who will be visiting me again.