Posts Tagged With: Vietnam

Some Reflections on SE Asia

When I arrived in Chiang Mai back in January, I had never set foot onto Asian soil.  This city was my first exposure to Asian life and culture.  I’ll never forget my first experience riding down Huay Kaew road on the back of Dave’s motorcycle: I thought I was going to die.  Everything seemed so frenzied, with cars, tuk tuks, motorbikes and pedestrians darting everywhere.  The sights, sounds and smells of the city were a full on assault on my senses.  Despite the initial chaos, I quickly adjusted to this foreign place and Chiang Mai became a kind of home, my baseline Asian city.


Home sweet home! And our new ATMA SEVA office!

It wasn’t until I left the familiar comforts of my apartment in Chiang Mai to venture south to Bangkok that I realized just how good I have it here.  From the moment I arrived in the Bangkok train station to the great pleasure of the dozens of taxi and tuk tuk drivers vying for my baht, I realized that I wasn’t in Kansas anymore, as the saying goes.  From there things only got more aggressive, heading into Cambodia where the poverty is much more prevalent and in your face.  Walking around Angkor Wat, you can’t go twenty feet without ten cries of “Lady! Fresh pineapple for you! Very cheap!” or a dozen little girls following you along the road trying to sell you postcards and other small trinkets.  At first it’s easy enough to smile and say no politely.  At 2pm when you’ve been climbing around temples since 5am in 100 degree plus heat and approximately 147% humidity, it’s much harder to put on your happy face to turn down vendor #493.  I can sympathize with their position, but at some point, it’s just exhausting to constantly have to say “no” ten times before someone hears it.


The streets of Saigon. One of the many vendors who will approach you on the street, peddling his wares. As he repeatedly told us, he didn’t JUST sell sunglasses, but he had an impressive collection of lighters too! Unfortunately, we were not in the market for either.

It’s the same with tuk tuk and pedicab drivers.  The only time you’re safe is when you are physically in another tuk tuk.  Until then, you are fair game and you will be hassled.  I remember one afternoon we were in Hue, Vietnam trying to walk around the old Imperial Citadel.  This is a large complex of restored buildings, old gates, crumbling walls, and other sites.  After spending 75% of the previous day in a car, we were ready to explore on foot.  A helpful pedicab driver pointed us in the right direction to the Citadel.  Starting to understand how the game works, I knew we hadn’t seen the last of him.  After waving and thanking him, he continued to follow us all the way to the Citadel, repeatedly offering us a ride in his pedicab for lower and lower prices.  I tried to explain to him that it wasn’t the price- we just didn’t want a pedicab ride- to which he replied, “you never try, you never know!” Clever, sir.  Unfortunately all we wanted to do was walk around and he did not seem to be getting the message.  It took us a solid ten minutes to lose him, at which point I’m pretty sure Anna, my traveling companion, was on the verge of snapping his head off.

Similar scenarios occurred in every city we visited in Cambodia and Vietnam, although this particular experience in Hue was the worst.  It really opened my eyes to comfortable my life in Chiang Mai is.  Everyone always says that Thai people are extremely friendly and welcoming and I can personally attest this to be true.  In Chiang Mai, when somebody says hello to you on the street, 99% of the time they are just being friendly and have no agenda.  When a tuk tuk driver pulls over to offer you a ride, if you say no, they nod and drive off.  I was absolutely astounded by how different the culture in Chiang Mai is to the rest of the parts of SE Asia that I visited.  Granted, I went to mostly tourist hot spots and didn’t even make it to Laos, but overall, I was amazed at how artificial the friendliness felt everywhere we went.  Sure, that lady with the basket of donuts is all smiles and cheer until you say “no, I don’t want donuts” for the fifth time, at which point her face drops and she stomps off to her next target.


Classic Hanoi. You can find everything on the sidewalk except for pedestrians!

There are plenty of things that I loved about Cambodia and Vietnam, which I’ll be writing about soon, but this feeling of fake friendliness is one of the biggest things that stuck out to me throughout our trip.  Had I started in Hanoi, I would have had a very different understanding of SE Asia.  It just goes to show how relative our impressions are.  Also, although the cultures do share a lot of similarities, this trip highlighted how different these three countries and the cities within them are. It makes me very grateful to have found such a warm, welcoming temporary home in Chiang Mai!

Cheers, J

p.s. For more thoughts, check out my latest blog entry for the ATMA SEVA organization blog, Southeast Asia on a Shoestring Schedule. Another entry with pictures coming soon!

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I’m Alive!

Well hello again! Things have been quiet here for the past two and half weeks while I’ve been traveling through Cambodia and Vietnam with a good friend from college.  I barely have time to breathe back here in Chiang Mai before taking off tomorrow morning for another trip to the Lawa Village where I previously lived for three weeks back in February.  I’m eager to get back and see all the kids, including possibly my favorite baby in the world (she was just on the verge of being able to walk when I left.. I’m hoping she may be walking this time!)  

This trip to Pa Pae will be a welcome vacation from my vacation, which was amazing but quite the whirlwind and rather exhausting.  Trying to get through Cambodia and Vietnam in just two weeks is hard.  Most people take 3-4 weeks in each country, fully maximizing the 30 day visas.  We spent 4 days in Cambodia and 10 in Vietnam (and 1 in Bangkok where we met up.)  Amazingly, everything went pretty smoothly!  Details and pictures will be posted next week when I return from Pa Pae, but I’ll leave you with one as a teaser…


Relaxing on an overnight cruise through Halong Bay. And yes, I’m rocking quite the flip flop tan.

Highlights included Angkor Wat (NOT overrated), Starbucks in Saigon, touring the DMZ with a former ARVN officer, Halong Bay, successfully crossing roads in Vietnam, and lots of pho and rice paper spring rolls.  As much fun as it was, I’m happy to be back in Thailand with my pad thai and only slightly frenzied traffic.  Man did this trip open my eyes to how much I love Chiang Mai and how (relatively) quiet it is. Anyways, I’m getting ahead of myself. I am alive and well and will share more soon once I’ve had time to process it all (and sort through the 700 photos I took!) 🙂

❤ J

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Humming along to the pace of city life

Today I looked at a calendar and realized that it’s been six weeks since I left the US of A.  Six weeks?!?  It’s funny how time has a way of passing both quickly but also leaving you with a feeling of timelessness, like I’ve been here forever.  Especially now that I’m settled back in Chiang Mai with an apartment, I actually feel like I live here in Thailand.  As I was walking home tonight, the question of the last time I operated a motor vehicle popped into my head.  Six weeks ago.  It’s also been six weeks since I’ve slept on a mattress that can be described as anything other than “extremely firm” or eaten a bowl of cold cereal.  I’m not complaining, just thinking out loud.

So now that I’m all settled, I leave in less than a week for my big trip to Cambodia and Vietnam with my good friend Anna!  We haven’t seen each other since college graduation almost two years ago, so I’m thrilled that we’re finally reuniting and in such an epic manner.  I’m taking the train down from Chiang Mai to Bangkok as she flies from Erbil, Iraq to Bangkok as well.  From there, it’s a two week whirlwind through Cambodia, across the border to Vietnam and up the coast to Hanoi!  As annoying as crowds of tourists and being on the same route as thousands of other backpackers can be, I’m looking forward to being part of that pack for a short time.  Living in Chiang Mai is great, but there’s nothing quite like the energy of being on the go and meeting other travelers along the way.  Single-serving friends met in hostel lounges can be the best.

I’m most looking forward to Angkor Wat, the views along the coast of Vietnam, and Halong Bay in the north of Vietnam.  There are sooo many places I wish we could visit, but with only two weeks we need to do some major prioritization.  And as I’m often reminded, I’ve gotta save some stops for my next trip! 🙂 It doesn’t look like I’ll be making it to Laos this time around, so someday I definitely want to come back to see Vietnam in more detail and explore Laos’ natural beauty.

In other news, it looks like I won’t be attending grad school this fall, so I’m back in the oh-so-fun (crowded) boat of twenty-something year olds who have no idea what to do with their lives.  Yay!  Maybe that Laos trip will happen sooner than I think…  Honestly, I’m bummed but not heart broken.  I’ve always had a million interests and I know that I’ll find another direction that suits me just fine.  It just 1) sucks to be rejected and 2) is frustrating to, once again, have no idea what to do next.  I’m keeping my eyes and ears open to all kinds of possibilities- maybe NGO work in another part of the world?  Revive my Espanol and head to South America?  It’s both exciting and overwhelming to have endless options yet again.  Oh well- I’ll figure it out and all will be well, I’m not panicking 🙂

Anyways, I’m not even halfway through my time here in Thailand, so I’ve got time.  I’m also trying really hard to get better at living in the moment, something that’s always been a struggle for me.  I should probably sign up for one of the many “mindfulness retreats” while I’m over here.  Speaking of which, there are so many things I want to do while I’m here!  I need to make a list and make sure I actually get to them (Chiang Rai, Mae Hon Song loop, etc.)  It’s too easy to get caught up in the day to day life of living abroad and forget to take advantage of the amazing sights outside of your “home” town.  Can’t let that happen!  (Side note: I’m open to any and all suggestions of other weekend trips from Chiang Mai from fellow travelers!)

I guess that’s about all for now.  My next full post may not be until I’m back from Vietnam on the 26th, but I’ll try to at least get some pictures up between now and then.  In the meantime,  check out the latest post on the ATMA SEVA blog that features some sweet pictures from a trip Alexis (another intern) took down to Koh Chang recently.  Some insane sunset shots!

Until next time,


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