The Joys and Pains of Traveling Cheap

“Travel is the only thing you buy that will make you richer.” (Quote courtesy of Chlohemian :))

I am a penny pincher. For the past few months, I’ve been obsessing over how to keep the cost of my upcoming (tomorrow!) trip to Europe as low as possible, since I am technically unemployed. Nothing says bohemian like backpacking on a dime, right?

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Europe trip #1. I had one 6kg backpack, one purse, one pashmina scarf and one pair of sandals. I’ve never traveled lighter, but my toes were definitely cold 🙂

Except that I’m noticing that my desire to cut corners is running into conflict with my desire for little comforts, like beds. For example, on my first trip to Europe, I spent the night before my flight in the Prague airport so as to avoid paying another night in a hostel. It was fine, except that I was cold and uncomfortable and of course didn’t really sleep. I’m not sure I would do that again now.

That being said, the age of convenient, budget travel is upon us. More and more budget airlines are popping up, as are wonderful Airbnbs and hostels offering very affordable rates for accommodation. I spend a lot of time researching budget airlines and ways to “hack” my way into more affordable travel (to the point of obsession. I’m learning there is a limit.  ). Having friends or looking on travel forums for people who know the areas I’ll be travelling to helps a lot, too.

Even though there might be catches or hidden fees here and there, I’m grateful for the flexibility and possibility the age of budget travel has brought me and lots of travelers like me. Here are my favorite travel “hacks” for keeping costs low while being mobile.

1. Budget airlines. OK, OK, I know, you have to pay to choose a seat and you don’t get free food. While I admittedly love airplane food (all the palak paneer I can eat on Air India and free yain adom (red wine) on El Al? Yes, please), you know the cost of food is built into a higher priced ticket. For my trip from Boston to Berlin, I booked through http://www.kiwi.com and found a very cheap one-way ticket. However, food is not free, and it’s a seven hour flight. So I’ll be bringing tea bags and protein bars and hopefully sleeping through most of it, anyway. Also, on most budget airlines, you also have to pay to check a bag, which brings me to to hack #2…

2. Never check a bag. I know it’s hard. I’m going to be stuffing my backpack down to fit the 55 × 40 × 23 cm | 10 kg carry-on dimensions (roughly 22 by 16 by 9 inches and 22 pounds), but I am determined. It helps to wear your heaviest items on the flight and find clothing and toiletries that can pull double, triple, or quadruple duty (I like a pashmina for a scarf, a folded-up pillow, a blanket, a wrap skirt, a shawl, a head-covering, a sarong for the beach, and a towel in a pinch. I also love coconut oil for virtually every hygiene need.) I learned all my packing light tips from the genius behind http://www.onebag.com. I even down-sized my host gifts to fit into 100 ml containers:

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A little taste of home that I’m bringing as a meager thank you to my friends and hosts overseas.

There’s a great adage that goes like this:

“When you’re planning a trip, lay all your clothes and all your money out in front of you. Then take half the clothes and twice the money.”

I’d add that you should bring a rubber sink stopper and some packets of laundry detergent 😉

3. Accommodation. I’m sure this one is really controversial, because everyone has different needs and levels of comfortability. I definitely think that the older I get, the more I gravitate towards private rooms where possible. But my first trip through Europe consisted entirely of budget, dorm-style hostels, and nine times out of ten they were lovely. Occasionally you get roomed with a severe snorer or a smelly alcoholic, but those are rare. You also tend to meet exciting people who are as eager to explore a new city as you and can serve as lovely travel companions. My best tips for surviving dorm-hopping: bring a sleep mask and good ear plugs. Trust me on this. People come in an out at all hours of the night, and while most people are quite polite, you just never know…

By the way, http://www.hostelworld.com is typically my go-to sight for booking. Though recently I booked a private room through hotels.com for a stay in Berlin, and it was cheaper than the listing on hostelworld. I suppose it’s always a good idea to check both places. I also just booked my first room through AirBnB for a one-night layover in Beauvais, France. It seems to be a more controllable, paid version of couchsurfing, which can be hit or miss. My host seems lovely and (bonus) I get to practice my French! More on that later.

4. I’m really going to challenge myself to eat simply. I know this is another area where costs can add up, and I tend to think that because I’m on “vacation” I should get the fancy wine or dessert or nice entree. But, nah. I was speaking with a friend recently about her time in Ireland, and she said this:

“I ate a full Irish breakfast every morning, which was included with my Bed and Breakfast. I’d take brown bread and butter from the spread with me for the afternoon. In the evening I’d have a bowl of fresh fish chowder and a Guinness, and I’d be full.”

Of course, everyone has different eating habits, and I’m not suggesting you go without. But personally I would rather fill up on the views and the scenery than the food. We’ll see how this goes!

Picture Highlights So Far, Again!!
Czech goulash with horseradish and potato dumplings. Another great tip is to eat and drink the local fares, which tend to be more affordable. Though this was before I swore off meat and became allergic to bread!

5. Read, and take advice. This is probably the most obvious “hack,” but it’s more so just common sense. Do your research and ask people who have been there, or who are still there. Personally, I find this kind of research so much more enjoyable than airfare hunting; it’s like my reward after all the other booking stuff is done. I just cracked open an old Fodor’s guide and became immersed in the excitement of my first visit to Paris. Paris! Take notes. Allow yourself to be excited. Then go, be flexible, and drink it all in.

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My favorite part of the planning process: getting pro-tips from seasoned travelers. And yes, I know this book is six years old. Hey, I’m on a budget, remember?

 

At the end of the day, I think the most important tip is to relax and go with it. I woke up this morning remembering, “Whoah! I’m going to Europe tomorrow.” And suddenly, everything else seems like gravy.

Happy planning! What are some of your best tips?

M

What I missed: Travelling and Mental Illness

I cried all the way down the Grand Canyon.

Perhaps you could say I was overwhelmed by natural majesty. But what was probably closer to the truth was this: I had recently quit my job teaching English in Southeast Asia, ended a trans-continental relationship and moved back home, only to realize that everyone I knew had moved away in the five years that I had been gone. So I felt utterly alone as I traipsed down the narrow, winding pathways of the Grand Canyon’s South Rim Kaibab Trail. The tears fell in droves. I wiped snot away with my teeshirt sleeve. I had to stop at every corner and take a breath so that I could continue down alive. This wasn’t the Western adventure I had had in mind.

We were halfway into our week-long road trip west. Me, my older sister Emily and my dad Bill packed up Emily’s Honda civic to move her to her new tech job in San Francisco. None of us had been to the Grand Canyon before and I convinced the team to stop en route. I had visions of donkeys dancing in my head and was eager to spend the day sweating and struggling over cliffs and mountain peaks. When we got there, however, we spent a long time deciding on a plan of action, and I got frustrated. Emily’s dog was with us, and dogs are not allowed inside the Canyon (they’re allowed on the scenic trail up top but cannot go down into the crater). Poor guy. But I wasn’t about to let him ruin my Grand Canyon adventure.

In the midst of our planning and discussing, I took off, almost at a run, feeling like I would burst if I sat still a moment longer. I climbed down part of the outer rim and peered over the edge: fur trees, alabaster stone and birds flying high encompassed me. I breathed it all in. In my mind I went back in time to when I hiked Sde Boker by myself, in a similar situation, feeling so frustrated with life that I couldn’t sit still. I wanted to climb higher and higher until the world ended and I fell off the edge. Evidently, that feeling hasn’t gone away.

I’ve had depression all my life and I know how oppressive it feels. I know it gets worse in times of high stress or drastic change. Turns out, moving overseas and teaching ESL is both.

Have you ever met a lactose intolerant person who loves ice cream? That’s how I feel about travelling. It makes me nauseous, but I love it anyway. Yes, planning a trip can be stressful. Your plans don’t always work out as you’d hoped. It might rain. Your hotel might be completely booked, or worse, non-existent (shout out, Vietnam). Or you might end up shouting at your wonderful family because you had unrealistic expectations of how much hiking you could accomplish in half a day with a tiny dog and an aging father (sorry, Papa).

I lost it at the Grand Canyon because I hadn’t seen anything so beautiful since Myanmar–and I missed that time in my life. Suddenly I wanted freedom, to roam, unattached, transient and visible only to those whom I chose to allow in. I’ve been struggling with accepting the modicum of stability I have now at “home” in the United States.

Upon deciding to move home, I remember thinking that this would be a good idea because it would “stabilize” and “normalize” me. But I think I didn’t give myself enough credit. There is nothing abnormal about working overseas. It all depends on who you ask. As I get older, I realize: people are going to think what they’re going to think. Don’t live your life based on other people’s comments, and don’t apologize for being who you are. Travelling is not infantile, criminal or glamorous. It’s just living, a different way.

 

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The Wonder of Angkor

Today I am disappearing into pictures from Cambodia. It’s cold today, and Memphis finally got some snow (very dusty, powdery stuff). As I reminisce, I realize that I never wrote a post about the Angkor Temples. For something so wondrous, and vast, and well-known, it surprises me that I didn’t blog about this part of my trip. I want to improve my reporting skills, going back in time to report events that already occurred, instead of only writing things down as they happen. I have a lot to learn and improve upon. In Cambodia, and in my processing of experience in Cambodia, I caught myself up in the recent history, the tragedy of genocide, the hatred and the bloodshed. 

Journalist Joel Brinkley attributed a lot of Cambodia’s current, utterly corrupt state of affairs to part of an ancient culture of tribute made to kings, lords, rulers and so on down the line of power. Those in the king’s favor won land, titles and wealth, mostly in the form of commodities like grain, which was always in high demand. Mr. Brinkley argues that this was how Pol Pot (the genocidal leader of the Khmer Rouge party) and his cronies, and how the current leadership “gangs” still function today. He makes a very convincing argument.  But there’s more to ancient Khmer culture than just warlords and cronies. There is magic that exists today, still painstakingly preserved, in northern Cambodia.

 Something major is missing from the current political structure, aside from humane treatment of constituents and fair voting processes. Little regard is left for ancient cultural and religious traditions–at least in the government halls–that helped to grow the Khmer empire into the most expansive kingdom in southeast Asia long ago. The beauty is lost, but thanks to extensive restoration and preservation efforts by the colonial French, the Angkor Temples tower over the Cambodian countryside today, testifying to the sacred wonder of a glorious bygone era.

 Angkor Wat

View of the main temple complex from the lily-padded lake.

























Angkor Wat is the most famous of all the Angkor Temples. Its renown and majesty is comparable to El Castillo, the famous Mayan pyramid, if you’re familiar with Mexican heritage. But Angkor Wat was built to honor a Hindu god. When the empire later converted to Buddhism, new statues were built to honor these gods. If you ever go to Angkor, get a guide for Angkor Wat. The other temple structures are less detailed and far more open, leaving you free to wander at your own leisure. But the stories that are packed into every stone of Angkor Wat demand that you understand them to appreciate the temple’s full worth. There are usually English-speaking guides standing outside the main entrance to the temple, and they wear beige shirts and carry books of photographs. (And if my memory serves me correctly, my guide wore a name badge around his neck as well.) These men are well trained and extremely knowledgeable. You can negotiate a price, but I believe I paid mine $10. He will also take you all the way up to the top of the temple, which allows you to see for miles around and stories below, a breathtaking sight. 

Bayon Temple
Do you see what I see? These sweetly serene faces are carved into the peaks at Bayon temple.




Bayon temple, a little ways away from Angkor Wat, is much 
more open and ruinous. In fact, I think we just wandered in to this one. Bayon has not been as neatly preserved, but that makes for much of the fun. You cN wander in between the half-open hallways and climb up and up until you come to the rooftop. These smiling faces greet you, but don’t let the photo fool you; each one stands several hundred feet high. 

Bayon is part of a long strip of open, ruinous temples where you can wander. Many are just as grand in structure and purpose as Angkor Wat, but not nearly as protected. 

When you hire a tuk-tuk driver, as you must (because the temples are located some 20 km outside of town), ask him to take you to Bayon temple and to wait for you. Take your time, and don’t allow yourself to feel rushed. As a thank you, you can buy him lunch at one of the conveniently located tourist restaurants erected in the fields across the way 🙂
Ta Prohm, aka “The Tomb Raider Temple”




This was my personal favorite. I felt like I was in an Indiana Jones movie (so did everyone else, probably). Ta Prohm temple’s level of preservation falls below Angkor and Bayon, and for good reason. No where else in the world have I seen nature attack man-made structures so violently and remain such a powerful presence. The root structures of Siemp Riep’s trees have split the bricks of temples during centuries of abandonment, creating a space so magical and other-worldly, you can’t believe your own feelings. Just take a look at some of the effects of mother nature having her way:







Exploring these magnanimous temples, I felt eight years old again, as if I were wandering through the woods behind my house, feet muddy, streams trickling behind me, everything quiet save the crunch of twigs beneath my shoes. Nothing compares to that feeling. If I could, I would spend a week just sitting in these temples, breathing in the ancient mystery, pretending I’m on a quest for a hidden treasure. Who knows, there very well could still be some buried underneath these giant trees, waiting to be unearthed 🙂

References and Further Reading:
https://sacredsites.com/asia/cambodia/angkor_wat.html
http://www.amazon.com/Cambodias-Curse-Modern-History-Troubled/dp/1610391837

Christmas In Vietnam

Typical motorbike traffic in Ho Chi Minh City.
Photo credit:Noemi Agagianian

I’m really sucking at Christmas this year.

Most people in my neighborhood have already finished their Christmas shopping, sent cards and letters, hosted parties, strung lights and cozied up by the fire place at least thrice. I, on the other hand, bought a handful a presents last week that I forgot to wrap, haven’t written a single Christmas card and have forgotten that Christmas lights are a “thing.” But it’s not my fault, I swear.

Last year, I spent Christmas in Vietnam.

While most folks at home were baking pies and watching Christmas specials, I was buying plane tickets and booking hostels, reading up on sites to see and haggling for discounted bus tickets. 

View from the former South Vietnam’s HQ.

After a twelve hour overnight bus from Siem Riep to Bangkok , I flew again from Bangkok to Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon. And yes, I refrained from singing “One Night in Bangkok” the whole time!) on December 22, 2014. We arrived late at night and took a taxi-van to our hostel. I had already noted the few Catholic churches in my guidebook, because I like to go to Church on Christmas eve. We passed a few on our way downtown, brightly decorated with blue Christmas lights and little nativity scenes. Maybe Ho Chi Minh city would be a nice place to spend Christmas, after all, I thought!

We spent the next two days touring the city, visiting the War Museum (formerly, and aptly, called the “Museum of American War Crimes”), the former president of South Vietnam’s headquarters, a densely packed textile market, the Cu Chi war tunnels, a few islands in the Mekong Delta, and quite a few coffee shops. Ho Chi Minh city is bustling and couture mix of French architecture, sundry shops, restaurants, opera houses, and markets, all sandwiched in between thousands of motor bikes whizzing around pedestrians and traffic stops.

Typical traffic outside the Cathedral
Photo credit: Noemi Agagianian

On Christmas Eve day, we wandered around the city, drank coffee and took lots of pictures. Like most cities I’ve visited, we ended up walking in circles for several hours until it finally got dark and we got hungry. I was craving Western food, perhaps because of a timely longing for home, so we found a cute little “Italian” shop (though it was Vietnamese owned) that sold everything from curry to pizza to gelato. I ordered a caprese salad, which turned out to be cheddar cheese, basil, sliced tomato and olives, and a pasta dish. My friends ordered curry and a burger. Ho Chi Minh is cosmopolitan that way!

With my capricious caprese salad (forgive the pun..)

After eating our fill, we headed down to the Church for the Christmas Eve service. But we didn’t get far before we started pressing ourselves against the crowds of local residents gathered in the Church courtyard. They weren’t really concerned that a service was happening inside; a sea of red and white Santa costumes in sweaty bodies swam and danced around. Young people laughed, took selfies, and sprayed each other with snow-in-a-can. Snow-in-a-can. It was a big shock. Yet as shocking as all the Santa costumes and snow-in-a-can were to me, I still imagine the sight of three tall American girls was even more shocking to everyone else. People screamed, laughed, took pictures, and sprayed us with lots of fake snow.

One of many little boys out for Christmas Eve
Photo credit: Noemi Agagianian

I was surprised at how many families were out so late at night. In my mind, Christmas means spending time with family in the home, cozied up on the couch, braving the winter weather. Obviously, you don’t need to brave winter weather in a tropical country. Babies, little boys and girls, moms and dads all posed for “groupies” by their motorbikes, laughed, chatted, celebrated.

That Christmas Eve was certainly memorable. I lost my friends, found the Chapel, and got covered in lots of wet foam. But I learned something important: Christmas, and every other American holiday, is not the same anywhere else. In my home in Memphis, Christmas is a big deal. In my family, Christmas has religious significance; it celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ. But somehow, that message has gotten lost in translation. The message of Christmas that managed to make it to Vietnam was not so much the birth of Jesus Christ or the quiet peace of “Silent Night,” but the red and white costumes, the snow, the jingle bells, and Santa Claus. It was difficult for me to spend my Christmas in a part of that whirlwind; those things were never part of my Christmas. 

Looking back, I see now that spending Christmas in Vietnam taught me to cherish what I hold to be true about Christmas: Christ was born to save the world. Family matters. Peace on Earth cannot be lip service. I understand not everyone feels that way, and that’s fine with me, because as Ani DiFranco said, “I know there is strength in the differences between us.” There is strength in difference, and there is value in celebrations. We become stronger when we can celebrate our own holidays differently. It means we accept that there is more to a day then the presents, or the food, or the way we hold our services.


Merry Christmas, everyone, and Happy Holidays. May you and yours be blessed and joyful, wherever you are in the world and however you decide to celebrate.