Have you heard? There’s a rumor in the travel world…

THIS is all you need to travel...well this, a passport, and a fearless attitude!

THIS is all you need to travel…well this, a passport, and a fearless attitude!

Half-stuck in dreamworld, I hazily lifted my limbs from their nightly repose, figuring I might already be running late. Before leaving the house I checked my phone to make sure I had all the necessary papers for the Russian visa in my backpack. I remembered to cut the photos into their proper 2×2 squares, and even ordered the documents according to the list the website advertised. I made two peanut butter-jelly-honey-cinnamon sandwiches and grabbed two of all the other snacks I required. Said refreshments perfectly placed in my knapsack, I finally left the house.

Once I arrived in New York, I made my way to the Consulate Services Agency at 1:00 pm, only to be told they were away on a technical break, which was technically lunch. I returned an hour later and sat on one of their black cubicle chairs to wait my turn. Again, I checked my phone’s screen and compared it to my documents. It told me that everything was still in order. When I heard the gentleman before me say “Spasibo”, I got up and walked to the smiling lady sitting across from me. “I’m here to get a tourist visa”, I offered politely, “I hope I have everything”. The pleasant woman took my papers, glancing at the first two for a few seconds. In this space of time, I felt the need to explain, “It was kind of hard getting everything together. I hope I did it right!” The clerk barely looked up from my papers and laughed. “An American tourist visa eez the eeziest to get. So few papers!” I hope I smiled at that.

It seemed everything was in order (as if I weren’t prepared!) so I paid the cashier, was told my passport would be mailed to me in ten days, and left. It was 2:20; in twenty minutes, my passport had been quickly gleaned for information, along with my Invitation Letter and Visa Application, scanned, and a self-taken passport photo glued to my Application, with a glue stick no less. Hours of worrying, images of myself being refused because I had cut my passport photo at an 89° angle instead of a 90° one had plagued me in the week leading up to my actual visa appointment. Comparing my expectations with reality, I chuckled to myself. The Russians didn’t care nearly as much as I had thought they would about letting me in their country. I began to think that US citizens might have exaggerated the difficulty of getting a Russian visa. And once I thought that, the whole thorny world of precautionary travel tales faded away.

On the bus back to Boston, I thought about my day’s experience. The accumula of years and years of travel advice now seemed better suited to people who had never set foot outside their neighborhood. As a somewhat more seasoned traveler, I figured I could start to ignore some of that guidance. And though you are often better safe than sorry, travel is all about turning the unforeseen into a good bar story. So I’ve decided to dismantle the hallowed halls of Trusted Travel Tales that torture your thoughts and twist your perceptions. Throw out the guidebook, forget what your aunt told you, and definitely don’t listen to those who heard from a friend whose mother told them….Just do it. Explore. Get lost, maybe hurt, probably sunburnt, sick, and scared, but most importantly, get out there. You know I am 😉

Traveling Solo: The World’s Longest Slumber Party

Everyone: “Don’t you get lonely traveling by yourself?”
Me: “HAIL NO!”

I recently returned from a long-term trip (journey? junket? vacation? trek? odyssey? 😉 ) only to purchase a cheap one-way ticket OUT a few months later. But while I’m here, stuck in trip limbo, everyone asks me the same questions. One of the most recurring aims to discover if I become lonely or tired of traveling by myself when abroad. In fact, I find the reverse to be true.

I don’t stay in hotels when I travel. I rarely have the money. Hotels happen when either a) I splurge for a holiday or b) I miss my train and am haplessly wandering, wondering where I will lay my head next (or possibly c) someone else is paying….but let’s be real). Instead, I stay in hostels, I couchsurf, I WWOOF, I (will) housesit, and, ever so fitfully, I sleep in airports. I lay my head next to other people’s. Because for me, traveling is one long slumber party.

CHEESE PARIS FROMAGE O LA LA!

You shouldn’t have to ask why this picture is here. Cheese is always relevant.

 

So it makes sense that I’m never lonely while on the road. Sleeping in communal spaces forces you to be sociable, whether you are naturally or not. This I quickly discovered on my trip, when, early one morning (or late one night?…) my bunkmate arrived, proclaiming “I think I’m underneath you”, much to my dismay. Whether you like it or not, and chances are it will be a mixed bag, sleeping communally is not a lonely enterprise.

Though I may have highlighted some of the awkwarder circumstances of life in hostels etc., I wouldn’t travel any other way. How else would I have met an Indian with whom I could discuss the idiosyncratic intimacies of our intricate lives, or the Germans that kept me dancing all night, or the Ozzies with whom I had SO many inspired conversations (and beers)?

You simply don’t meet the people I met at hotels. Those empty simulacra of lived travel consist merely of cubes with beds; they are devoid of the excitement, energy, and purpose bubbling up in the hostels of the world. There’s a reason the song’s not called Heartbreak Hostel. You fall in, not out, of love at hostels.

Paris Amour

The City of Love….and Lights

 

There were even times when I spent a day entirely to myself, to recharge my battery, and avoid burning out on too much talk. Those days, I appreciated my return to the hostel (or courchsurf, etc.) even more, as I knew I was coming back to a community with a similar agenda. I’m not saying people at hostels are all the same. Far from it! But there is an ethos of solidarity at the most timid of hostels. I’ve even heard of hostel owners forbidding guitars because of too much good spirit (though that may have been the result of one too many Jack Johnson songs).

So, no, I am most definitely not lonely when I travel. I’ve got a whole world to explore, with others on their own odyssey to share it with.

Why I Never Pack a Guidebook When I Travel

I was writing in my journal when two German girls walked into the dormitory where I was staying in Bangkok. They were speaking in German, naturally, as one girl flipped through a Rough Guides: Thailand tome, most likely reading aloud things to do the next day. Two days later, I found myself climbing temples and taking selfies with them in Ayutthaya, an island-city a couple hours north of Bangkok. But my first thought when I saw her guidebook was, “Why did she bring that with her on a journey round-the-world when she only has so much precious weight and space in her backpack?” I have always been skeptical of the guidebook.

I should mention that I have never read an entire guidebook, so perhaps you shouldn’t completely trust my advice. But I have read many articles within, and I prefer Wikipedia. I concede: Wikipedia is probably not better than a guidebook for discovering the best street food in town, or what hostels have pee-stained beds, but I can find out that information from other sources. If I packed guidebooks, I would only use them to research the basic history of a country/culture, and other relevant information about places I wanted to see. Wikipedia and Google thoroughly and interestingly accomplish that task for me, and all from a lightweight smartphone and/or tablet.

Now I can hear people interjecting, “But what about when the internet isn’t accessible?” Good question. But more often than not, I can save a page for reading offline, and copy necessary details into my pocket-size travel journal. I want to stress that I’m not the techiest of travelers. The only electronics I travel with include a smartphone, iPod, and tablet laptop, and I don’t even use them every day. I like reading books where turning the page involves grabbing grubby paper, sliding a finger beneath, and flipping it over, especially while traveling (I use hostel book exchanges). I have, to my endless frustration, even attempted to travel with a fountain pen.* But for me, the romance of non-tech travel ends with the guidebook.

Finnish Bar

Such good drinking advice for Helsinki…have YOU ever been to a bar with a swing?

As much as I grow nostalgic for a dusty room overflowing with books (and one of those cool library ladders that glide along the shelves), I won’t be packing a guidebook anytime soon. In fact, my favorite way to glean information about a travel destination is by talking to other travelers and locals. For instance, over some beers at my hostel in Bangkok, I mentioned I would be in Helsinki for one night, and wondered what to do. A Finnish guy gave me a whole list of bars to go to and shots to try (I didn’t get to them all…). I never would have known about Bar Llamas, a bar with a swing (!), if he hadn’t told me. And I can’t say how many times hostel workers or Couchsurfing hosts have told me places to go, or stories about their city that blew my mind. No Lonely Planet or Rough Guide has the space for all these personal stories, and that is why, ultimately, a person outstrips a guidebook.

A guidebook is so heavily impractical, quickly irrelevant, and contains both too little and too much information. For these reasons, and because I don’t completely trust the opinions of those who write for guidebooks (though they usually do a decent job on this account), I never pack a guidebook when I travel. There is, however, an exception, and a genius one if I do say so myself (which I do, again). Many public libraries offer e-guidebooks with your free membership, which are easy to download and bring with you on your computer or smartphone. And you can pull them up offline for easy access! You might think I’m cheating, but I think it’s practically genius. 🙂

So the next time you sit down to plan your trip pack list, consider ditching the guidebook. It’s just too heavy, and you can find the information you’re seeking from better, cheaper sources (i.e. real people and online). If you’re worried about being unprepared, do some research before you leave, and copy pages of the guidebook that you find particularly useful. You might even be able to have the actual guidebook on your computer or phone on location. As you blaze down the Chao Phraya, wind whisking your hair into a frenzy, you’ll gaze up at the temples, never once thinking, “I wish I had my guidebook…”.

Ayutthaya Figurines

Gotta love figurines!

*Has anyone traveled with a fountain pen? Do disposable ink cartridges leak while traveling? And can you find the correct size cartridges for your pen in every country?

By the Numbers

You cannot summarize a journey in lists and numbers, but I tried to anyway.

Items I Lost or Threw Away

  • Pair of wooly black socks (one was lost in the laundry, so I gave up the other in defeat)
  • Sunglass case (thrown away in frustration of uselessness…to be continued)
  • Eyelash curler (replaced by a far superior one)
  • Scissors (taken by security)
  • Used pens
  • Glasses (failed to retrieve them from the hostel where I KNOW they are)
  • Umbrella (you shouldn’t put anything you like on the outside of your backpack)
  • Light (it broke)

Items My Backpack Broke

  • My umbrella flashlight (I later lost this umbrella…guess that makes sense)
  • My light (which is why I threw it away…seriously, where can I find a light that won’t lose its battery on a trip because of a button that turned on inside my backpack??)
  • Clarisonic (buttons are dumb)
  • Sunglasses (bent because I threw away my sunglasses case…I’m sensing a pattern here)
  • Watch necklace (is now a pocket watch because the chain broke)

Transportation by Type

Vespa Toledo

I haven’t used this mode of transport…YET!

  • Train Trips: 12
  • Bus Trips: 11
  • Car sharing Trips: 3
  • Flights: 14
  • Taxis: very few, which is more than I should have…except in SE Asia
  • Local Metro/Bus/Boat/Tram/Whatever: many, and I’m not done
  • Tuk-Tuk Trips: not enough, never enough
  • Elephant: 1, I sat on its head, not on a platform
  • Zip-line: 1 course
  • Stranger’s Car: 1, but more to come

Books I Read

  • All’s Well That Ends Well
  • Troilus and Cressida
  • The Master and Margarita
  • Anna Karenina (finished after trip ended)

Journals Used: 2 ½

Countries Visited: 11, 7 for the first time

To be continued in 2015…

An Ode to Pooping in Public

Baby Hippo Toilet Fail

Baby Hippo Toilet Fail, at the Reclining Buddha, Bangkok

When people tell me they don’t poop in public, I never really believe them. I mean, if you don’t poop in public, where do you poop? Do you really want to be that disciplined? It seems a big sacrifice for a little privacy. There are no ifs, ands, or butts about it, I squat firmly in the poop-in-public camp.*

Because I poop in public:

  1. I can eat whatever I want, wherever I want, whenever I want, with whomever I want.
  2. I can get messy. Life is messy.
  3. I can travel and not worry about being somewhere private by the time my bowels get kickin’.
  4. I can LIVE in a world where I’m never poop-shy.
Happy Room

A room with a toilet is always a happy room…in the end 😀

Living in a poop-anywhere world is my only option. I travel often, eat questionable food with unmatched zeal, and experience spontaneous pleasures that the poop-shy only dream about. It’s true, this line of thinking leads to both good and crappy times.** But I’m not complaining. It might be your oyster, but the world is my bathroom stall.

*I know…I couldn’t help it.
**Yeah, you really should have expected that.

Don't Flush

What NOT to Flush

Everything Falls Apart

After returning from a long trip (journey sounds a bit much, doesn’t it?), you realize that everything you brought has been in some way affected. More specifically, everything I brought with buttons no longer works. And so much more than that broke. My portable light? Gives light no more. My sunglasses? Askew. My favorite watch which hung on a necklace? Now a pocket watch. And the flashlight at the end of my umbrella? Not a flashlight anymore. Well, actually, I later lost that umbrella because I decided to put it on the outside of my backpack….so I guess the flashlight bit is irrelevant.

Necklace Pocket Watch

The necklace broke…but now it’s a pocket watch!

You get the point. Things, as in material objects, fall apart when we push them to their limits. As I reflect two weeks after returning, I really shouldn’t have expected what I brought to come back the same. And now’s the part where you expect me to launch into some metaphor about how I’ve changed. But I won’t. I’m not sure it would be fair, much less accurate, to wax poetic about my newfound whatever. Instead, I want to think about the way that I acted, spoke, was, while traveling, and how that can be found in non-travel life.

  1. The People

I consider myself very friendly. I crack jokes in lines to lighten the mood, and always enjoy meeting new people. On my recent trip, however, I was stranger-friendly. For example, when I would sit down after filling my cereal bowl at a hostel, I chose to sit near people I didn’t know to strike up a conversation. And then I would actively join or start a conversation with them. In other words, I didn’t worry about the fact that people might not want to talk to me. I just went up to others and assumed that we would want to get to know each other. That’s not the attitude I have in quotidian life. But I imagine I would meet some pretty awesome people if I did.

  1. Embracing the New

When I travel to a new place, I am undaunted by its newness precisely because I expect it. Any odd thing I encounter, then, seems appropriate because I assume it fits into this unknown context. So when I went to the bathroom in Thailand and saw no flusher, but only a bucket of water, I wasn’t shocked. I just filled the bucket with water and dumped it into the toilet (after doing my thing).* Easy, peasy, lemon squeezy. If I usually took this approach, I would not assume that something was out of place, but rather that I didn’t yet know its place.

  1. Don’t Sweat it

Too many annoying things happen when you travel to get upset. I fell asleep on a train in France, found out I was on the wrong train, and then got off at the first stop because I figured that was the best idea. But I walked a few meters from the station, and low and behold, I found a cheap hotel! I had a comfortable rest, woke up, and made it to my destination. I got there a little later than planned, and consequently only spent a few hours in Luxembourg City, but really, that was enough. The advantages of not getting angry in difficult situations are obvious. I’ve always thought I had this talent, but I know there’s room to improve. When the Wi-Fi stops working at my new sublet, it makes no sense to get mad. I knew that the Wi-Fi would either a) work or b) not work, so it seems silly to let its non-functioning ruin my day.

If life is travel, just go with it. Because the other option is that you miss meeting someone who also loves Hemingway, that you don’t find out how much like the ocean fresh oysters taste. And you certainly don’t use the time when your plane is delayed to journal about how much all of this has most certainly impacted you. So yeah, all my buttons broke. But this journey (see, now it’s appropriate) adds up to much more than the sum of its broken buttons.

Ayutthaya Monks

These boys were so sweet! We took pictures of each other, and they waved to us as we motored off ❤

* OK, I have to admit someone did warn me about this…but it had been months before and I temporarily forgot!

I’ll Have What She’s Having

The best ribs in the world are in Brussels.

I figured it might be better to just say that at the beginning in case no one reads anything after the first sentence. At least now you know what city to go to if you like ribs. For the restaurant’s name, however, you’ll have to read a bit more 🙂

Like everything hipster, being a foodie has become cool, and so everyone claims to be a foodie without having any idea what that means. Google seems to think it’s “a person with a particular interest in food”, which is silly, because anyone who wants to stay alive has a particular interest in food. Foodie or not, I enjoy eating products that taste like they were grown in soil, then prepared by a human. Fortunately, traveling provides many opportunities to try food that fits my rigorous requirements. I have tasted some truly decadent meals, and while I won’t be giving out superlatives, I will share with you my magical secrets.

The best meal I ate in Prague came from Lokál, a cafeteria/restaurant with Czech specialties and endless beer. I drank a beer, then ate goulash with bread dumplings (and beer), and because it was so good, I ordered a lentil soup (with more beer). Somehow, I was still hungry after that, so I went to Aldolce to eat what was easily the best dessert I have had in years. I ordered a lemon ginger mousse with grapefruit juice. I then became so happy with myself and life in general, that I proceeded to enter La Perla and try on 250 euro bras. I almost bought one*, but then realized I didn’t actually have 250 euros in my bra budget. Ahhh, well, next time!

In Bangkok, I happened to be staying right near what locals deem the area’s best Pad Thai, served at a restaurant named Tip Samai. If you don’t believe me, google “best Pad Thai in Bangkok”, and see what the first few entries are. I ate it five times in five days.

In Reykjavik, I ate at Sushi Samba, which offers Japanese-meets-South American cuisine. I ordered sushi and a “Pornstar Mojito”. The passion fruit, lime, mint, and rum mixed together so beautifully that I think no drink will ever perform as well as the “Pornstar”.

Sushi Samba

Sushi Samba, home of the Pornstar Mojito. A pornstar never tasted so good 😀

And now, for the ribs. One night while I was walking around Brussels with a friend, we saw a queue of people waiting outside a restaurant with a full size taxidermy cow. Obviously, we ate there. Practically everyone ordered the same thing: ribs à volonté. All. You. Can. Eat. Amadeo’s ribs are marinated in a tangy-sweet barbecue sauce that ended up in my stomach and all over my face. The ribs were ridiculously delicious, and if you go to Brussels (and eat meat), you must go there.

Amadeo

The ribs. ORDER THE RIBS!

I have eaten so many good meals while traveling in Europe and Asia, but this is just the beginning. Next stop? Fermented yak milk in Mongolia!

*La Perla may be expensive, but their bras make you look and feel like a goddess.

It’s my Birthday, I can Wine if I Want to

Rather than talk about all the fabulous wine I tried in La Rioja and Médoc, which would most likely bore you, I will instead describe the idiosyncrasies of being a wine traveler.

wine barrels

Wine Barrels in Médoc, France

In Haro, La Rioja, the mountains watched (and didn’t judge) as I sipped the tempranillos and viuras that flourish in this lovely Spanish microclimate. The first winery I visited, Bodegas Roda, provided some of the best olive oil I’ve ever had (Dauro). I ate at least twenty small croutons smothered in that delicious elixir. After the next tasting, at Bodegas López de Heredia Viña Tondonia, the charming gentleman at the counter only charged me for one glass, because, apparently, he had “invited” me to the second. I didn’t argue. At Bodegas y Viñedos Gómez Cruzado, I went on my last tour before lunch with a father and son from the area. I was even able to communicate with them by the end of the tasting! The entire conversation consisted of me pointing at the bottles and saying “grape” in Spanish with a questioning tone, to which they kindly responded. Then I ate lunch, which I think was good, but as I don’t remember what I ate, I can’t attest. The tasting I went on that afternoon, at Bodegas Cune, was also delicious. I know I enjoyed it, because I sent some lovely e-mails with interesting typos. I apologize to those of you who had to suffer my orthographic inadequacy!

In Médoc, I had an altogether different experience, most likely the result of having to drive to get there. I arrived at the first winery, Château Hennebelle, just before 11 a.m. I went inside and asked if I could have a tour and tasting. The proprietor, who turned out to be one of the five generations that produce the wine, looked at me like I had asked what the capital of France was. So I tried their wine, which was fabulous of course, and bought a bottle while getting to know Pierre. His name was even on the bottle!

Then I attempted to find the restaurant I had chosen for lunch, Café Lavinal, without navigation of the electric or paper kind. This turned into a game that I eventually won, but not without circumnavigating the tiny town in which I dined at least three times. The lunch, I must say, was inimitable. More so because Café Lavinal had a wine vending machine (which I didn’t use- I drive responsibly 🙂 ). And an exquisite chocolate mousse. AND they were adorably polite. I’m pretty sure they thought I was rich, which was a nice thing for them to assume, incorrectly.

The next winery on the agenda was closed, but I decided to visit one at random before checking in at my hotel. This was exceptionally easy, because as I drove through Médoc, I saw that wineries surrounded the countryside, rather than the other way around. The one I visited, Vieux Château Landon, had been bought by a Chinese company, which, my guide told me, was quite common. The wine there was alright, but I wasn’t really feeling it. Moreover, I was so excited to get to my hotel, where I would do a tasting and celebrate my birthday. I said almost as much to my guide, who invited me to fête my birthday with him and a friend. I told him I would get back to him.

vineyard in Médoc

Vineyard in Médoc

I finally arrived at my hotel, Rollan de By, near the Gironde Estuary and fairly close to the Atlantic Ocean. The proprietors there, Déborah and Benjamin, could not have been more kind or welcoming. They gave me a bottle of wine to enjoy with my dinner later, and also informed me of fun things to do in the area. So I went to Château La Tour de By, where I purchased tubes of wine. Yes, tubes of wine. They were made to be transported in carry-ons, and come in little vials that would be more appropriate for science experiments, or perhaps blood. I’m surprised I didn’t think of it years ago!

At my hotel’s winery, I went on the most in-depth wine tour I have ever been on. With no hint of sarcasm, this is the highest compliment I can give to a tour guide! At this point I was getting hungry, so luckily, my médocain platter was ready when I returned to the hotel. Benjamin also informed me that the guide from Vieux Château Landon had called the hotel to ask if I still wanted to go out for my birthday, and if so, to give him a call. I really wanted to text this young man that I had decided to stay in, but unfortunately I had purchased the crappiest cell phone credit that exists, and so no longer had any credit. Oops!

With my bottle of wine and médocain platter (which consisted of pâtés, boudin, ham, cherry tomatoes, bread, and desert), I feasted! I tried to find some Frenchy film on the TV to set the mood, but none were on. Instead I watched Les Simpsons. Très chic!

BIRTHDAY PLATTER

A médocain platter at my hotel, Rollan de By

After sipping from the wellsprings of two very different wine regions, what have I to say? Firstly, à chacun son goût. I may love a young Cru Bourgeois from Médoc, while someone else prefers to drink it years later. Secondly, it depends, always. For me, my mood, what I am eating or not eating, the weather, and the company I keep all contribute to a ‘good’ wine selection. And I rarely regret the wine I select. Lastly, have fun! Wine is not meant to be drunk only by the fancy-shmancy pants of the world. It’s a democratic, often inexpensive, beautifully crafted beverage for all those of legal age. Go on, have a glass…Cheers!

*For extra credit, share your favorite wine(s) below!

Do You Believe in Magic?

Black Sand Beaches, Iceland

Black Sand Beaches, Iceland

It’s said that some percentage of Iceland greater than zero believes in elves. Despite my skepticism, at some point, we all have to believe in something. Why not elves?

After traveling for a few weeks alone, I was thrilled to join several close friends in Iceland for Thanksgiving. I bought my allotted amount of alcohol (18 beers, 4 bottles of wine) and, escaping duty free, the gates to Iceland parted as my Icelandic friend warmly greeted me. Thus began my journey in a land of Skittle juice and whale penises.

The view from our cabin was more stunning than the most ersatz Thomas Kinkade painting. Snow covered the ground and mountains beyond as the gray sky melted into the snowy vista before us. Only one thing would improve this scenery: exploring it on foot!

Making our way to Bruarfoss, an azure waterfall bounding down pitch-black rocks, we began throwing snowballs at each other. Laughing and chatting back to the cabin, we peeled off our layers and roasted pleasantly in the hot tub.

Bruarfoss

Bruarfoss, Iceland

The next few days, we hiked up a mountain blanketed with snow to a naturally hot river, ate a Thanksgiving feast in the Icelandic countryside, and squeezed through a fissure in a rock face, hopping from stone to stone to reach a waterfall well worth the effort (Gljúfurárfoss, below). Though we discovered many beautiful Icelandic sights, one eclipsed all others.

Gljúfurárfoss 1

Gljúfurárfoss, Iceland

There is a saying: “Make new friends, but keep the old. One is silver, but the other gold.” It is cheesy, even to me, but also true. I often can’t remember how I met those closest to me. One of my best friends, for example, I don’t remember meeting, because it seems we’ve always been singing Ella & Louis, and shouting at innocent bystanders in a butchered Cockney accent. It’s easy to forget how good things began, and how silver friends became gold.

I grew closer to each of the people I traveled with in Iceland, in the way you can only when you travel. By experiencing newness together, whether in uncomfortable moments of cultural ambiguity, or in awe of Mother Nature (who is surely Icelandic), we formed a visceral bond different from those made in coffee shops and group projects.

There were times when I wanted to be alone during our week in Iceland, but the moments together will be those I remember most fondly. The connections you make with the people you meet make life worth living. That is a magic more powerful than that of elves or witches. It’s at least as strange, and much more available. After all, I might not believe in elves, but if I’ve got to believe in something, why not the magic of human relationships?

Harpa, Reykjavik

Harpa, Reykjavik, Iceland

If You Can, Climb It

Travel and tourism are two sides of the same cookie. One just tastes a little less processed.

A few days ago, I was walking through the ruins of Angkor Wat. I was sweating, and stickier than a popsicle. I saw hordes of tourists snapping pictures while also taking in the sites, as a thought occurred to me: “Is Angkor Wat really so different from Disney World?”

Sadly, there are no roller coasters at Angkor Wat. And definitely no air conditioning. But while dripping my way through the masses, I saw an opening and turned. I entered a chamber the size of a childhood bedroom, with few wall carvings. More remarkably, I was the only person there. I stayed in that room, enjoying the chill of being alone amongst many, thinking what the thousands who had existed in that room before me had done, and how they had lived.

I left the room, turned another corner, and saw again the tourists. My thoughts turned as well, to my comparison of Angkor Wat and Disney World. Perhaps the difference lie not in the places as much as in the way they were experienced.

hand climbing thailand

Indiana Jones would be proud

To fully enjoy the temples at Angkor Wat, then, I needed to do a little climbing. Some of you will know that I have a unique desire to climb and explore things that really shouldn’t be. If anyone shares this propensity, I have a bit of advice: go to the temples of Thailand and Cambodia. The guides there actually told me to climb on fallen pieces of the temple as I was looking for a more legitimate exit. And few things have made me happier than channeling my inner Indy to squeeze through broken windows and climb on thousand-year-old temples.

At the end of this long day exploring the temples near Siam Reap, my guide suggested I watch the sunset from the top of a temple on top of a hill. Part way up the hill, an official asked me to cover my shoulders. I didn’t have a scarf, so I had to put on a sweater I had in my backpack. I walked quickly up the hill, sweating more than I thought possible, until I reached the top. Once I did, I had to pee. Doing the pee dance while searching for a restroom, I realized nature’s toilet would have to do. I should note that I was wearing harem pants, those diaper pants that MC Hammer made famous in “Can’t Touch This”. As I attempted to gracefully relieve my bladder, I may have misaimed and ‘spilled’ a bit on these ridiculous pants.

SO, sweaty, pee-stained, and pissy as a teenager, I climbed to the top of the temple, and sat to watch the view. A Chinese man next to me motioned for me to scoot closer. It became apparent that he wanted to take a picture with me. I obliged. After, he looked at me and exclaimed, “Beautiful!” In case you were wondering, I felt- and was -the farthest from beautiful that I could possibly be. But that didn’t stop me from smiling. Quietly cracking up at the hilarity of the situation, I watched the sun set over the temple. From sweaty and grumpy, to cooler and calmer, I reflected on my mercurial moods. All it took was a little climbing to find my peace. That beats a roller coaster any day!

sunset temple

Sunset at Phnom Bakheng