Escape of the Week: Chiang Mai, Thailand

Chiang Mai was my first experience in Southeast Asia, and one I will always remember for countless reasons.

It’s the city where Katie surprised me with an early visit, forcing me to power through my jet lag.

The city which was my home base after a week with the elephants at Elephant Nature Park.

And, the city I tried to fall in love with.

Somewhere, deep down, I knew Chiang Mai very well could end up being my home.

So, I did what anyone would do who is scouting their potential future city. I took photos. Lots and lots of them.

A barber shop in Chiang Mai. There are no doors or outside wall, just open air to the street.

I loved wandering around and just taking in the beauty of life on the side streets.

A tuk tuk driver awaits his next fare.

Some street cats explore a motorbike.

For me, even with the mountains in the distance, with the humid weather and the tropical flowers, it was hard not to think I was living in a beach town.

New to me were the little “restaurants” on the side of the road, in places you wouldn’t imagine. Throw out some plastic chairs, a little table and assemble a mini-kitchen on the sidewalk, and you’ve got a bonafide place to enjoy some seriously good homemade Thai food.

A quaint and colorful street restaurant.

Ingredients to prepare some fresh and amazing Pad Thai.

A more formal restaurant.

And then, there’s life around the old city walls and moat. There were plenty of times I’d be walking near Thapae Gate and see random trucks decked out with colorful decorations.

The ancient wall around the city.

Taking in the few minutes of no rain during the country's rainy season.

I loved the way the city looks entirely different at night. Even the side streets seem to have a different atmosphere, with paper lanterns lit.

And, of course, no visit to Chiang Mai (or Thailand) is complete without visiting the numerous wats. Within the old city walls, there are plenty of them.

The gold of the temple glows against the rain clouds.

A temple dog hangs out on the table.

Tip: When visiting Chiang Mai, be sure to head to the Mae Ping River for some riverside exploration and dining.

Where to stay: While I was there, I stayed in a dorm room at A Little Bird Guesthouse (four-room, mixed dorm, around $2.50 a night), and later, at Chiang Mai Thai House. Little Bird is in the old city; the guest house is just outside of ThaePae Gate. Bonus? It’s got a pool!

A private at the Chiang Mai Thai House? Oh, a cool $13.

 

The good news? By the time I was ready to leave and put aside my excuses, I was smitten with this tropical mountain town.

Asia Blog Destinations Thailand

Escape of the Week: The Colors of Portugal

I spent time in Portugal, but not quality time. Mostly because I was sick. And, then I was drunk , and then I was hungover.

Fortunately, there was at least one good day in the middle of my 10 or so days in the country when I was moderately healthy and totally sober.

I met a few girls in Lisboa and convinced them (thanks to the fantastic advice from Abby) to head to Sintra for a day-trip. The city did not disappoint. Curling up a hill, the city offers so many gorgeous colors, textures, and of course, a view of the ocean from many vantage points.

I love taking photos of buildings … especially in the coastal cities of Portugal, where the salty air mixes with the once-vibrant colors.

This is one of my favorites:

 

Destinations Portugal

Guest Post: Being a hero in Brazil

This is a guest post by Jason Bastanky. Have a story you’d like to share? E-mail me, dtravelsround [at] gmail [dot]com.

If traveling has taught me anything, it’s that heroes are made, not born. No one can know just what kind of person they are, just how much they are committed to their morals, beliefs, and fellow man, until they see another person in trouble and either feel compelled to help or compelled to ignore the need of another human and tend to self-preservation. A couple years ago, I found out what I was made of. I saved a man’s lip from a subway door in Brazil. At the time I was on my way to a huge block party in one of Rio’s infamous favelas.

I’m still glowing.

I’m also thinking of trying to get a house out of Extreme makeover home edition. I don’t have a house and I am a hero. Those are all the qualifications you need. And I’ll cry and scream in excitement when they pull back the truck, I swear I will.

I didn’t know that destiny was going to call on me that day. I suppose no one ever does. I was in Rio, in the subway station with two Canadians, a Frenchman, and a Brazilian. Notice who springs into action as the story progresses (hint: only me. U-S-A! U-S-A!). We were running to catch the train, which we did, just in time.

As we were running down the platform I noticed that our party had grown by one. Although I do sometimes get excited by seeing people run, and join in out of a sense that I might miss something fun, or that they are aware of some impending natural disaster or alien invasion I don’t yet know about, this man running with us was, like us, only trying to catch the train.

As the five of us from the hostel all leaped aboard and quickly filled a bank of seats, the man behind us was chosen by misfortune to be a victim of her malicious machinations. I’m not sure how it happened, I didn’t see it, I knew we had just made it on the train, and I’m not sure how the man, dressed in a soccer jersey and jeans, turned around to face the door as it closed. It made no sense, but when does tragedy ever make sense? The gods are a capricious bunch.

At first I didn’t even know what the emergency was. I just felt the sudden onset of tension followed immediately by yelling and looking. A few seconds before I had just heard a woman ask a man to watch her bags, and, having grown up in the post 9/11 world, I thought maybe the woman, a cunning terrorist in disguise, had jumped off the train to safety as the doors closed and the packages turned out to be some sort of bomb. I saw the woman return to her bags, and then turn her head at the door I was sitting next to. I scanned the scene and as we sat next to the door I looked to my right and saw a wide eyed, frantic look on the man’s face who had run with us. He was standing an inch from the subway doors, looking out onto the platform, and his lower lip, bunched and stretched, was stuck in the subway door.

People yelled at the conductor to stop. But we were in one of the back cars, there was no way he was stopping. One of the Canadians breathed a “what the hell?” as the train began to move. That’s when the spirit moved me, and I came to the man’s rescue along with a pair of jacked Cariocas. Carioca means someone dwelling from Rio de Janeiro. Fun fact.

I stood up and reached below his lip and tried to pull the doors apart. The other men tried too. No luck, subway doors are automatic, and they don’t open if the train is moving. I stumbled a step to my left as the train lurched forward. The three of us  grabbed the man, who was now yelling, but between the Portuguese and the (hopefully) temporary speech impediment caused by the paralysis of his lower lip, I couldn’t understand a word he was saying.

“One, two, three? Ready? One, two, three?” I said in butchered Portuguese.

He made a noise I took to be in the affirmative. We grabbed him around the waist and on the count of three we all yanked. I was amazed how secure his lip was in between the doors. I even thought this was maybe some sort of bizarre street performance. But no, it was just a very unlucky man who happened to get on a train with a hero.

——-

Jason Batansky is a location independent 23 year old traveling throughout the world, working 20-odd hours a week running 3 web-based businesses. He writes about his travels at Locationless Living and Flash Packer Guy. You can find him on Twitter @LocationlessFacebook , and subscribe to hisRSS feed.

 

Guest Posts Travel

Love, life and loss … while on the road

On September 13, 2010 at 6:15 a.m. EST the world lost an amazing woman, my grandmother. She died in her sleep and in no pain, surrounded by her husband, her son and his wife, and her daughter, my mom.

And I was thousands and thousands of miles away.

I knew it would happen. The possibility of her passing while I was traveling was very real and I was encouraged to still make plans, to take that flight from Dulles to Heathrow on March 7.

Grandma was my biggest supporter.

“Are you sure it is OK for me to go and do this?” I had asked my mom repeatedly.

“Yes,” she would answer calmly. “Grandma wants you to go. She doesn’t want you to miss this opportunity and wait for something to happen here.”

So, I boarded the flight and headed out on my adventure.

At first, everything was wonderful back in Pennsylvania where she and my grandfather had moved only months earlier.

ALS, what she had, is a cruel, cruel disease. It atrophies your muscles, and often times one of the first signs is limping. She had a limp, but we hadn’t noticed anything was wrong at first, nothing that would scream “fatal disease.”

When I moved to Atlanta, I was thrilled to be closer to home and closer to Florida, where my grandparents were living. I went to visit them a handful of times in the year I lived in the South.

And each visit, she got worse. At first she was just slurring her speech (a mini-stroke Mom had suggested), and then it got difficult for her to swallow. And then she started using a cane, and then a walker. By the time Thanksgiving rolled around last year, she had a hard time even with that.

The first e-mails I got hinting that all was not well was in May, when I was in Madrid.

“Grandma has told us she doesn’t want a feeding tube,” Mom had written. The doctors had suggested it as a means to slow down the progression of ALS.

Immediately, I burst into tears, Anthony at my side.

I called my mom and she reasoned with me. This was Grandma’s fight. If she didn’t want to prolong it, she didn’t have to. We had to support it.

I called her a few days later when I was in Merida to wish her a happy Mother’s Day. She talked to me, but ALS had taken away her ability to form words so all I heard was noises.

A few months later, when I was in Bulgaria, Mom e-mailed me to tell me she had stopped eating.

I knew she was in Penn. with her parents, so I hopped on Abby’s Skype and called them.

Through stifled cries, I told her I loved her and she made noises back. I know she was telling me the same.

Then, a few weeks later, I got word she wanted to be transferred to a nursing home.

I knew it wouldn’t be much longer.

In Sarajevo, once I had my iTouch and had installed Skype, I called my mom and for the first time in a long time, we talked. And cried.

I don’t want to be here when this happens.

When we spoke, she told me she had showed Grandma my blog about going topless. Before she had stopped using the Internet, Grandma read my blog regularly and would write to me, telling me in each e-mail how proud she was of me.

This time, Grandma had requested a print out of my blog so she could read it.

Two days later, when I was in Mostar, I got word she had moved to the home and had told everyone via written word she was “ready.”

I did what I had to do — I wrote her an e-mail telling her how much I loved her, how I remembered crying each time her and Papa would leave our house after their annual summer visits, how I loved going to Disney World with them, and above all, how much I loved the support she had given me through my life, and told her in a million ways how much I loved her, and that, if she was ready, I understood.

Two weeks later, on a sunny Monday afternoon when I was in Croatia, her body was finally ready. Her mind had been for a long time.

The day before I had spoken to Mom and she told me things didn’t look well, that she had packed her clothes and was staying until …

I hadn’t known how to react. As she talked, I slid down the old stone wall of the hostel, burying my head in my hands and talking in hushed tones through tears.

“I am so close to being home,” I had sobbed. I changed my flight the week before with the hopes I could make it home to hold her hand and tell her I loved her one last time.

I never got to do that in person.

The night before she left this world, Mom put the phone up to her ear and I told her I loved her.

I HATE ALS. That this disease leaves the mind to KNOW the body is shutting down and there is nothing that can be done about it.

Mom and I had an agreement — no e-mails about anything. If there was news to be delivered, it had to be via the phone.

Sunday night I didn’t sleep. I wasn’t interested. I closed my eyes, but nothing happened.

Monday, I woke up, called my Dad who reported he had heard nothing overnight. I went to the beach. I tried to enjoy it, but nothing felt right.

Today is the day.

I tried to take my mind off of what was going on at home and focus on being in the moment since I only had a few days of being in the moment left.

I boarded the water taxi and headed back to Hostel Trogir and loaded my e-mail.

“Give me a call, Love Dad,” was written in the subject line.

Instantly, I knew. And instantly I began to cry. Painful tears of heartbreak and alone.

“Dad,” I said into my headset, barely audible through my sobs, expecting what he was going to say.

“I’m sorry, D,” he said somberly.

“I was so close …”

“I know.”

He told me what had happened. He reminded me she wanted me there and that I needed to be OK with that since that was what she had wanted.

Then, I called Mom.

“I’m so sorry you are so far away,” she said softly as I sobbed on the other end of the phone. I could barely talk. “D, she was so, so proud of you. This morning, one of the nurses came up to me and asked if I had just gotten back from Europe. She told everyone about what you were doing.”

More tears.

We said our “goodbyes,” our “I love you’s,” and I sat on my bunk bed, tears rolling down my face with reckless abandon.

The hostel owner had given me the dorm to myself, thank goodness, so I could wail softly and not worry about others asking me what was wrong.

Then, I went numb. I started looking for hotels in Zadar for my last night in Croatia. I called Old Town Hostel, where I had stayed a few days prior when my hotel options had failed.

“I just need a bed, I have a flight from Zadar Wednesday morning,” I had explained.

“All we have is a private.”

Perfect. I could grieve and mourn without being around anyone.

Then, I walked into the city.

Expressionless. Like a zombie. I wandered the marble streets while blaring on repeat Citizen Cope’s “Sideways.” I probably listened to it 100 times in the two days this was going on.

I got some blood orange gelatto and smiled politely when the shop owner asked for my number. I sat at a restaurant on the water and ordered garlic bread, tuna salad and a glass of red wine. I picked the corn, tomato and egg out of the salad and struggled to get it down. I ate the garlic bites of the bread. I drank the wine.

I walked back to my hostel and took out my flat iron and straightened my hair, all the while trapped in my thoughts, running like wildfire through my mind. So close. ALS. Pain. Heartache. ALS. Love. Life. Loss. Far from home.

What do you do when you are alone and grieving? When you know no one?

Normal conventions don’t apply. No amount of virtual hugs replaces the real thing. No amount of phone conversations replaces face-to-face contact.

I was alone.

And then, I sat down outside in the late summer night and pulled out my laptop and wrote this story.

Grandma, you will never be forgotten. Your love and support meant and will always mean the world to me. While we may not have you here, I know you are now a star in the sky, looking down on me for the world to see. Mom said you agreed to be my guardian angel. Thank you. My book is for you. You will read it over my shoulders. I love you forever and always.

To learn more about ALS, click here.

Blog Croatia Travel

Touring the Mostar region

“Hi D!” Katie typed into Facebook chat as I sat at Madja’s Friday night. “I’m coming to Mostar tomorrow!”

Sweet!

“Cool, I will be on the tour all day — its 14 hours — so I won’t be back until late, but I will see you Sunday,” I responded.

We chatted a little longer and reviewed our upcoming travel plans.

“Do you want to go to Brela with me?” She asked, sending me a link to information on the Croatian beach town.

Long stretches of beaches. Gorgeous views of the islands across the clear water. Forests lining the coast. Ahhhh.

It looked lush.

“YES!!”

She immediately booked us in for two nights.

Later in the evening, David and I were talking and I told him about my plans with Katie.

“That sounds awesome,” he said.

“Do you want to come with us?”

“If that’s alright!”

Of course it was. I adored David from the start. He was a bright, charming 22-year-old who I got on very well with. His company would be a great addition to Katie and me.

Saturday morning, Madja woke up David and I so we would be ontime for the tour.

“Get up,” she said, then offered us some delicious breakfast before we headed down to meet her brother and the group coming from her other hostel.

David and I, along with four others from our hostel, stood outside, waiting for our ride.

Boom. Boom. Boom. Bass thumped.

A white van pimped its way down the street, every few feet lurching on the breaks so the vehicle would dart forward and then rest.

What is this?

It pulled into the driveway where we were standing.

Our ride?

Madja looked at us, smiling. “This is my brother,” she said, gesturing to the driver of the van. “He’s your tour guide.”

Her brother was a whirlwind of energy and emotion.

“OK, OK, OK, everybody out,” he said as the van unloaded.

Ten people somehow emerged from the vehicle.

“Welcome, this is my tour,” he began and then launched into a talk about the tour, what we were doing, where we were going, how the hostels he and his sister owned came to be and more and more and more.

“See, this van fits eight. But, today, it fits 16,” he said, opening the back doors of the van for us to glimpse little cushioned seats, a huge sub-woofer and a disco ball hanging from the ceiling. “Get in, get in.”

My group, along with an Irish guy, piled into the back seat of the van. The NON air-conditioned van. On possibly the hottest day in Mostar that summer.

For an hour, we would stop and start and stop and start as he pointed out items of significance in the city and again outside of the city.

Each time we stopped I thought I would pass out. Sweat poured out of all of us as heat stroke loomed precariously above.

Finally, we arrived to the waterfalls. A gorgeous pouring of water from the hills above Mostar. Within minutes, our entire group was in the cool clear water.

It felt incredible.

For 45 minutes we swam and sat in the refreshing runoff from the falls, relishing every moment and dreading getting back into the van.

After swimming, we walked for a bit around the falls, and then took a hike to a rope swing and a cliff to jump from.

Naturally, given my history with cliffs and jumping, I declined the invitation to plunge to the water below.

The tour continued with a trip to an ancient walled town that now had 12 people living in it. We walked along and then stopped for traditional Bosnian snacks at a woman’s home there, where she served up figs, grapes and watermelon from her garden, along with delicious syrup drinks (sage, pomegranate, mint and more).

After  nightfall, we headed to another small city that houses an old “monestary,” where Whirling Dervishes are held.

By 10 p.m. our group had begun to tire and by midnight when we finally arrived back to the hostel, I could hardly keep my eyes open.

I walked in to Madja’s, absolutely beat, to find Katie sitting on the couch, bottle of wine by her side.

“Hiya!” she said, smiling.

Instantly, I perked up.

We quickly made plans for the following day — we HAD to see someone jump from the Mostar Bridge — and then I retreated to my bed to pass out.

Blog Bosnia/Hercegovina Reviews

The longest day

In theory, I should have arrived to Bar, Montenegro from Belgrade, Serbia around 8:30 p.m. Which, in theory, would have given me plenty of time to catch the bus from Bar to Budva and check-in to Hippo Hostel.

In theory …

Unfortunately, that was not the case.

As I sat in the train at the Belgrade station I was reminded of what my friend, Frances, had said to me when she booked me in to Hippo, the hostel she worked at.

“It’s the Balkans, the trains are always at least two hours late.”

Not mine, I thought.

But, as the clock ticked, her words began to sink it.

Shit.

We were only 20 minutes late leaving the station, but during the course of the next five hours, we stopped and started and crawled along at a snails speed in the hot summer sun, making us really late when my couchette got its first guests, a French couple.

“How late are we?” I asked.

“Two hours,” the guy replied.

Well, we’re on track.

Then, the train stopped. And, then it went. And, then it stopped again. Each time the wind would begin to cool the cars, the train would stop. People would get off, buy ice creams, and then get back on 30 minutes later.

But the time we arrived in Podgorica, we were five hours late. And, I had missed the last bus to Budva from Bar.

Of course, we were stopped here, too.

I got off the train and started talking to someone who spoke English.

“There’s a protest on the tracks down a bit, 500 people,” he explained.

“Oh my god,” I sighed. “Any idea how late we be?”

“Nope, but if you can get the bus, I would.”

He pointed to the bus station, a quick two-minute walk from where we were standing outside out idle train.

Right.

I grabbed my belongings off the train and booked it to the bus.

I ended up on the midnight bus to Budva.

After 12 hours on the hot train, the bus was a welcome relief. Air-con.

Comfortable seats. Darkness.

I didn’t want to fall asleep. I knew if I did, there would be a chance I would miss my stop since the night before my sleep was negligible.

So, I kept my eyes open as we drove towards the Adriatic.

I looked up and the view was incredible. Breathtaking. Stars twinkling in nearly every inch of the sky.

Then, one streaked across.

Shooting star!

I wanted to tell someone, but there was no one to tell, so I smiled to myself, happy with my decision to head to Budva instead of sit on the train.

Then, another! And another! And one more!

I knew there had been a meteor shower a few nights earlier, but this was my own special show, my reward for enduring the hell train journey for the past two days.

As the bus wound down the mountain, I could make out the sea below, black and blending in with the sky, but I knew as soon as I would wake up the next day, my favorite sea in the world would be staring back at me, welcoming me to where I had been less than a year before.

I didn’t get in to Hippo until 2 a.m. and when I did, crawling into that dorm bed was pure bliss. The pillow was soft. The bed was perfect.

I still felt like I was in transit, but as soon as I closed my eyes, I was out.

Blog Montenegro

The Jersey – Sunny Beach – Shore

Bulgaria.

In my mind, I pictured a quaint Eastern European country thriving with culture and history.

Then, Abby and I went to Sunny Beach.

On the bus from Istanbul to Bulgaria,where they served ice cream(!),  I conjured up images of the country in my head … cobblestone streets, little villages tucked into mountains, historical cities boasting pre- and post-Communist architecture, little bars with terraces covered in branded umbrellas.

It seemed as if we were going to get just that.

Then, we arrived to Sunny Beach.

The anti-Bulgaria.

It took a while for us to notice, but as soon as Abby and I ventured from 415 Hostel (a great find, by the way, complete with pool), we were smacked in the face with it.

At first, I was struck by its small-town beach vibe.

Little restaurants lining the main road. Men, burnt by the Black Sea sun, with opened shirts, women gallivanting around in little bikini tops and short shorts.

Beachy.

Then, we got to the main pedestrian drag.

It was Ocean City, Maryland on crack. Actually, it reminded us more of MTVs “The Jersey Shore.”

The carnival-like atmospheere permeated the air. Hot, young thangs passing flyers to laser parties, foam parties, parties, parties, parties.
Chinese Food. Pizza. McDonalds.

Rides.

Girls clad in too-tight dresses with five-inch heels (how the stumbled around after being drunk, I don’t know. I would have bit it, easy). Men, in muscle-bearing T-shirts, cuffed jeans, spiky hair, on the prowl for their night’s conquest.

We heard Bulgarian, but more often, we heard Russian, Swedish, Danish.
We walked down the street, eyes-wide, smiles on our faces.

What the hell did we stumble into?

Then, there was the beach.

Lounge chairs and umbrellas lined the sand as far as the eye could see, giving way to the bluish waters of the Black Sea a few meters from the restaurants.

When we arrived in Sunny Beach, I had been traveling for nearly five months and was getting burnt out. But Abby … she had just arrived and had lived in a small town of 3,000. She instantly loved Sunny Beach and the very alive scene.

Each night, a group from the hostel would go out. I went out twice. Both times calling it a night before the alcohol could even produce a buzz in my bloodstream.

I would retreat to our private room, write, read and enjoy a little solitude and knowing the only person who would walk through the door and wake me up would be my friend, versus a stranger.

My time there was relaxing. While Abby went out, I stayed in. Thinking. Sometimes too much. By day, we would hit the beach or the pool, armed with books, and soak up the sun.

In total, Abby and I stayed four nights in Sunny Beach. By the fourth night, we were both beat, opting for a delicious dinner at an Indian restaurant, and then a night of reading, internet-ing and sleep.

The next day, we boarded another bus and headed to Varna, another beach city.

As we got on the bus, I said a silent prayer, hoping that Varna would be a little less Jersey Shore, and a little more Bethany Beach.

Blog Bulgaria Travel