Sunday, March 20, 2016

Notes From The Road: The In Between Places

'Franz Kafka, the story goes, encountered a little girl in the park where he went walking daily. She was crying. She had lost her doll and was desolate.

Kafka offered to help her look for the doll and arranged to meet her the next day at the same spot. Unable to find the doll he composed a letter from the doll and read it to her when they met.

"Please do not mourn me, I have gone on a trip to see the world. I will write you of my adventures." This was the beginning of many letters. When he and the little girl met he read her from these carefully composed letters the imagined adventures of the beloved doll. The little girl was comforted.

When the meetings came to an end Kafka presented her with a doll. She obviously looked different from the original doll. An attached letter explained: "my travels have changed me... "

Many years later, the now grown girl found a letter stuffed into an unnoticed crevice in the cherished replacement doll. In summary it said: "every thing that you love, you will eventually lose, but in the end, love will return in a different form."' -a sweet story from a HuffPo blog

Halo from Bali, babes. This week I had the pleasure of driving to the Bali north shore through the lush jungle
mountains, past emerald rice terraces and hoards of monkeys. I will never get over what a joy it is to see wild creatures in the wild. Cages and leashes are the worst.

Once again I was reminded how much I enjoy the journey between destinations. Sometimes it's long, stressful and uncomfortable, but often the scenery is gorgeous and it's exciting to see the space that connects one place to another. I love flying but I will always prefer to be on the ground watching the world go by slower and in detail.

As my travels are beginning to wrap, I find myself in another in between, the place of ending and new beginning. We're always cycling through this moment. It's often challenging and frightening because of the element of the Unknown. My fear of the Unknown crops up massively with the arrival of each new beginning and over the years I've learned that what I'm most afraid of is how the new will change me. Only the most stubborn, hardened people can avoid being reshaped by the events of life. For most of us, and for better or worse, we can't help but change as we dance/stumble/crawl through our existence. I'm always afraid that I will become so different that I will be a stranger among those I love.

Will you still love me when all this is over?

As feared and as always, my travels have changed me. The incredible outcome this time, though, is that I am no longer afraid of the Unknown. I stared into the Unknown over and over through my time here and every time the outcome was amazing. I had anxiety about going to Cambodia, exhausted before arrival by the mere idea of having to be on guard against scams and persistent tuk tuk drivers. While there were absolutely scam attempts and a thousand offers for rides, I also met the most incredible people and became flexible in the face of changing plans. I had been warned not to over plan, that I would fall in love with places and people and want to linger, that my minibus would be late or breakdown, that so many unforeseen things would arise and there would be nothing I could do about it.

Cambodia broke my control mechanism. There is order in the apparent chaos that I couldn't understand or control but I didn't have to because I was always taken care of. Our reality is that we're constantly swimming in the Unknown. Variations from regular routine are an oft upsetting reminder that we're actually not in control of anything besides how we react to the stimuli of life and how we treat others.

The Unknown is always shifting and never graspable. We can only ever master the Unknown moment by moment. How do we master a moment? By recognizing that each one offers us the ability to choose our response, and that our response can bring more peace and calm. So when the subway stops underground for awhile and you're tired or late, you can choose to recognize that this variation is a natural part of living in the Unknown and greet it with grace and equanimity. The Unknown isn't a dark room filled with monsters. The Unknown is *for* us. It is a friend who comes bearing gifts supporting our growth and elevation.

Change can feel like death or ruination- sometimes it is- but its true nature is Transformation. One thing is turning into another. It is the butterfly pushing its way from the cocoon. It is the river meeting the ocean and becoming something so much grander and more free than imagined possible. We have to be willing to merge. Surrender. Let Go.

After some struggle against the tide, I was finally able to let go into the world. The extraordinary became ordinary and the new became electrifying. I expected my wanderlust to be satiated by so much time away but it's just so much worse now. When you travel for a long time in a place like Southeast Asia, you meet a lot of well traveled people and they tell you stories about magical places and things and your imagination explodes and your heart skips a beat and Holy God, someone please pay me to travel. I am now wrecked for regular life. There is so much to see and too much to miss. I don't want to stop until I've been to every country and photographed every stray cat and cooed over every baby and eaten every unidentifiable street food. I love this planet and its people so fiercely.

In this moment of endings and new beginnings, on the eve of my departure from my north Bali jungle retreat, I sit staring once again into the Unknown. My trust in it is new and I am a bit tentative. What will my life be when I return? I have no permanent home in New York and no regular job. I feel ready for a change of activity, a rebirth of my life's work. I am coming back to a blank slate.

In a sense, though, isn't every moment unformed and ready for molding? Is anything ever as rigid as we think?

Only our unwillingness to evolve or let go stands firm.

The nature of existence is change. I am simply living in a moment which highlights that in a very clear way, but my reality now is my reality all the time. Every day is a blank slate whether we recognize it or not. We encounter distinct endings to chapters but they can come at any moment. Don't be fooled by the look of things. Life is terribly, extraordinarily ephemeral. We are never far away from a reminder that the Unknown is our home and that we are not in control.

How will you choose to receive the Unknown? Will you imagine the Transformation it offers as death? Or will you see that in ending certain things, that it is healing you? That it is setting you free? Will you meet the Unknown halfway by taking a bold, brave step into the darkness?

The Unknown is God. And God loves you with the same ferocity that I do...but even better. Their heart is for you and your freedom and upliftment. God is Love and God is the Unknown, so the Unknown is Love.

Don't be afraid. We are all walking into unfamiliar territory together in every moment. You are never alone. You are loved. And you are changing.

But no matter how much your travels change you, yes. You will still be loved when all this is over.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Whore. Slut. Hoe.

The Internet comments section should almost always be avoided. With few exceptions, these forums are filled with virulent nastiness, and horrendous grammar and spelling. Despite knowing this, I allowed myself to be engaged in conversation (if you can even call it that) on a recent post by Texts From Last Night. For those unfamiliar, TFLN receives submissions of text messages and posts them on social media. The texts almost always cheekily detail drunken misadventures and sexual exploits.

In the text in question, the author writes about coordinating their various dates- one for a spanking and one for sex. Despite the text being wholly gender neutral, the comments section exploded with a long stream of slurs accusing this *obviously* woman of being a slut, among other things. It could just as easily have been a man, but aside from a few reasonable people, everyone immediately decided that this 1) was a woman and that 2) her sexual choices should be judged with incredible harshness.

There were some concern trolls, people without actual medical or epidemiological training, who felt the need to assert that this person was obviously a petri dish of disease, although in the text they mention that they've directed their sexual partner to pick up condoms. Sure, condoms don't protect you 100% but using them makes you considerably safer than not. As one commenter also pointed out, people who are in to kink as a lifestyle are also usually very aware of their sexual health. They are far more likely to be tested regularly and to know their status at all times.

The rest of the group chose to glom on to judging this "woman's" value and morality based on her desire to have multiple sexual partners. Vilifying women for enjoying sex is a nauseatingly tired double standard that I'm done with. I don't have a single bit of patience left for that bullshit. The world is ready for women to finally have full agency over their whole beings, including their sex. It's time and it's happening, and some individuals, both men and (sadly) women, are mad as hell about it. And I don't understand why.

Men who have sex with women, don't you like having sex with women? Isn't that something you want to do? Isn't it something you think about regularly and are usually hustling to obtain? Then WHY IN THE FUCK WOULD YOU SHAME WOMEN AROUND SEX? Don't you see how counterproductive that is? Some of you go out to bars or clubs on the weekend hoping to get laid, and if you do manage to have sex with a woman, do you automatically refuse to respect her because she slept with you? I've seen so many men in these threads comment that they could never respect a woman who slept with them right away, or respect a woman who gave them a blow job. Blow jobs are "demeaning." Women who sleep with men right away are "easy" or "desperate." But you *want* to have sex with them, you *like* getting blow jobs, and if they give you what you want then you will not respect them. Because they've done something demeaning and desperate. WHAT THE ACTUAL FUCK IS WRONG WITH YOU? Mixed messages much?

Then of course if you turn a guy down for sex, or aren't a blow job kind of girl, you are also in the wrong. We know we're being judged for our sexual choices. How could women miss that when even other women will call you a slut? So there is an understandable hesitancy to appear easy. No one wants to be judged. It feels bad. And then so called Nice Guys complain bitterly to women about how we're grouping them in with the rest. #NOTALLMEN they cry! "Some of us are Nice Guys!! Don't lump us in with the others! What a bigoted slut you are!!"

This is not an exaggeration. Nice Guys say shit like this everyday on the accounts of many of the feminist bloggers I follow. They are worse offenders than men who just straight up honestly hate women.

On one hand, I can't blame them. I know that the patriarchy teaches men that a huge portion of their value and identity as a man lies in their ability to get and please women. A woman with full agency over her person can say Yes but she can just as easily say No, and that's a huge risk for masculine identity. The story goes that if you, as a hetero man, can't obtain sex from women it makes you less of a man. Rejection of all kinds hurts, but this cuts deep into gender identity and that's a particularly vulnerable, sensitive area to have challenged. Of course men might be inclined to react poorly to women not affirming their masculinity by having sex with them. There's a lot at stake when your sex is saddled with that much emotional baggage.

On the other hand, I'm tired of women's bodies being battlegrounds upon which the war of masculinity is fought. We don't exist to affirm your identity! We're not here to please you! As adults, it's on each of us to spend time exploring who we are beyond the identities imposed upon us by gender, family, culture, ethnicity, nationality, etc. Being a man means so much more than fucking bitches and getting money...right? Doesn't it? Wouldn't that be so depressing if that's all there was?

And of course there is more. If nothing else, homosexuality informs us that masculinity is not defined by men having sex with women. Homosexual men don't generally have sex with women and they're still men. Being a man is so much more than what you do with your penis, fellas. It's up to you to discover what that is without leaning on others to define you.

Experience has taught that of course it's #notallmen. I'm not a rigid, extremist idiot, and I have so many lovely men in my life who do well by women. What sets these men apart is that they don't operate in the world with a sense of entitlement to women's time and attention. They have made the effort to get to know themselves, and their identities don't depend on how others respond to them. They have work they enjoy, friends, faith, passions and hobbies. Basically, they're well rounded individuals. Men and women alike are tasked with doing this work to know ourselves well, growing the beauty and working out what isn't working.

This inner examination and awareness can be difficult, though. It requires quite a bit of vulnerability to face yourself honestly and learn who you really are beyond constructs and expectations. So angry men and women, mired in their own patriarchal oppression, opt to say awful things about strangers on the Internet to make themselves feel better...I suppose. Is that the purpose? I wonder if that works for any length of time. Has tearing someone else down ever built anyone up? Does anyone benefit from this?


So stop. Stop being awful to each other, in general, but please stop raging against the free expression of female sexuality. What are you hoping to accomplish by putting women down for enjoying sex? You do realize that this hurts you, too, men who want to have sex with women? People don't like doing things they feel shame around. If you shame female sexuality, women aren't going to feel good about having sex with you and you will be having less sex. This is a terrible game plan. You're doing it wrong.

Your task, should you choose to accept it, is to think deeply about how you view sex in general, female sexuality specifically, and how all this plays in to your masculine identity. For women, you have homework, too! I challenge you to think deeply about how you view sex in general, female sexuality specifically, and how all this plays into your feminine identity.

How you view others and how you choose to treat them as a result says everything about you and nothing about them. Calling someone a whore doesn't do a damn bit of good for this world. Knock it off. Do better.

Men, if you want to help, please start calling out other men for their disrespectful behavior towards women. We need your voices and support. The bigoted men whom we women try to dialogue with are stubbornly hateful. They will not listen to us. But, perhaps, they'll listen to you.

If you happen to be a really good man who was raised or has learned how to nurture, please find a way to teach other men. If you're a man who wants to learn this, find a mentor- a well respected man who loves well.

We can build a better world for us all, but it'll only be done with love. It starts today, with you.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Hellooo Laydee!: Navigating the Cambodian Wild

Between Laos and Cambodia I had a day to reset in Bangkok: reup on antibiotics, swap out currency and research my next border crossing. The internet is full of insight into traveling the Kingdom of Wonder and I read a lot of lists of the top ___ things I should know about Cambodia. The first and most important thing is that while riel is still used in the country, Cambodians deal in US dollars with riel only being given for small change in transactions. Some ATMs in Cambodia give you the option to take out riel, but almost all give you dollars and while merchants will take riel, things are usually listed in dollars. Riel is actually a closed currency and unavailable outside the country for exchange.

What does this mean? If you live in a country with a poor exchange rate to the USD, sorry! Cambodia is going to be expensive for you. Cambodia is actually kind of expensive for everyone. It's possible to spend less money there, but it's also very easy to spend a normal-ish amount of money. Cambodia actually bled my travel budget a bit dry, but that's not entirely Cambodia's fault. I have a fondness for fancy food and places like Siem Reap are foodie heaven. But I digress...

As a resident of New York City, you think you understand a good hustle. I've worked a whole lot of jobs in order to pay for a windowless shoebox and a metro pass. My skills as a hustler don't even begin to compare to entrepreneurial Cambodians, though. The hustle begins before you even cross the border. I had read about tricky border crossing agents charging illegal extra Visa on Arrival fees, so I opted to get the e-visa ahead of time. This only works for the airports and a handful of land crossings, so if you are, say, entering from the south of Laos or are not sure where or when you will come to Cambodia, getting your Visa on Arrival is a better option.

Due to my love of train travel and cheapness, I opted to take the very reasonably priced 48 baht train from Bangkok to Aranyaprathet to cross overland into the Cambodian border town of Poipet and on to Siem Reap. It was a particularly hot, dusty day so the six hour, third class journey was a bit miserable but it's safer than taking a recklessly driven minibus, so take your pick. When you arrive at the train station, you still must catch a ride to the border. I linked up with a group of Germans and gave the tuk tuk driver explicit instructions to take us directly to the border, not to a fake visa office nearby where fake visa officials will charge you $30 to complete your visa paperwork for you. The tuk tuk driver ignored me and I had the displeasure of scolding both he and the fake visa officials for trying to con people out of their money. Don't fall for this scam! You are still in Thailand. These people are not Cambodian visa officials. You will find them once you've crossed through Thai customs and into Cambodia, but not a moment before.

After breezing through Thai customs, then came the strangest border crossing walk I've taken yet. Between Thai and Cambodian customs is a 700 meter or so limbo zone lined with casinos and no signage. If you still need to get your Visa on Arrival, you stop at a brown building on the right where there will hopefully be an official to wave you in. If you got the e-visa, you can proceed straight to passport control, which is a small building a very long block down on the right. Fill out the entry card, hand it over with one copy of your e-visa and voila! You're in Cambodia.

If you haven't booked a through bus to Siem Reap or wherever you're going, a man will offer you a free shuttle ride to the bus station in a big old green bus. This is totally legit. If you want to split a taxi, those are available at the border, otherwise get on the shuttle and pick up a bus at the station. I paid $10 for a minibus ride to Siem Reap. As in other places in Southeast Asia, minibuses depart when the bus is full, which can leave you waiting around for a while. Take this time to cultivate a deep well of patience. You'll need it later.

When you arrive in any city in Cambodia, the moto and remorque (tuk tuk) drivers will be waiting for you. They will swarm your bus, knocking on the windows attempting to make eye contact with you, opening the door before the bus has fully stopped to help unload luggage and swoop you up as a passenger. They have no chill. Get used to it. There are more drivers than tourists to drive, and people have mouths to feed. This is a good opportunity to get comfortable with boundaries. Practice saying, "No thank you!" as politely as possible. It's good for you.

If you do accept a ride, your driver will take that opportunity to negotiate a deal to drive you around Angkor Wat the next day...or whatever tourist site there is in whatever city you landed in. Unless you're on an especially tight budget and/or really want to bicycle around the temples, take it. You're employing a local person, it won't cost you a lot, and you'll be grateful for the ride when it gets to be a billion degrees by the afternoon (seriously, Siem Reap is insanely hot. Stay somewhere with a pool.) I split an air conditioned taxi with a girl I met in my hostel and it cost us $15 each for a 10 hour day with a good driver who took us to every major site and some of the smaller ones. After one day I felt very temple complete and spent the rest of my time in Siem Reap by the hostel pool and exploring all the incredible food choices- bye money!

Because Cambodia is not known for bus safety, I opted to travel between Siem Reap/Phnom Penh and Phnom Penh/Sihanoukville with Giant Ibis. Their record is good, their buses are nice (wifi! outlets!), they give you water and on longer hauls, a delicious pastry snack. It's also nice to be able to book tickets online. I passed through Phnom Penh briefly just to see the Killing Fields and S21 (awful but valuable and important!), moving along quickly to the coast and on to the island of Koh Rong. The fast boat was rough for a sea leg-less lady such as myself, but the ride was over in less than an hour. I had the pleasure of kicking my shoes off for a few days at the ultra welcoming Monkey Island and wish I could've stayed longer. I was told and I tell you: Don't over plan! You'll fall in love with places and people and want to linger with them. Leave flexibility to do that.

All the same, leaving earlier gave me time to spend in Battambang, confusingly Cambodia's second largest city despite feeling like a small town. Because my Monkey Island friends and the internet told me not to, I opted not to take the night bus. I stayed overnight in Sihanoukville and left in the morning, riding back to Phnom Penh and onto Battambang from there with Golden Bayon Express. It was about an 11 hour travel day, but seeing the condition of the unsealed portions of National Highway 5 leaving Phnom Penh, I was glad to be doing the drive during the day.

Battambang is a worthwhile stop for the slower pace, easy access to the countryside and fun activities. I also had the good fortune of meeting a big, fun, friendly group of travelers who had linked up and adopted me. We took a leisurely ride through a village and into the rice patties on bicycles and finished the day at an incredible performance of Phare Ponleu Selpak, the youth circus school. The next day we visited the sobering Killing Caves and gorgeous mountainside temples. Battambang is the home of so much history that the entire area is slated to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I was mostly thrilled to have made a dozen new friends in the process.

Once again, crossing the border proved to be the most exciting part of the journey- or rather, this time it was getting to the border. It is actually fairly common to have your minibus break down on the side of the Cambodian National Highway, and that day it was my turn. Taking the bus to the border, crossing then taking the train was looking to be at least a 12 hour day, so I opted to treat myself the extra $4 to take a bus all the way back into Bangkok. I booked the $15 journey through my hostel. Between the bus breakdown, a fairly slow border day (Sunday midday) and traffic getting back into Bangkok, I only ended up saving myself an hour and the minibus on the Thailand side drove as they usually do- using the shoulder both to pass other cars recklessly and as a lane. But we all arrived alive and the minibus at least had A/C so...okay.

The biggest challenge of Cambodia were the scams and corruption. For instance, there are women in Siem Reap, in particular, who borrow each other's babies and beg you to buy them milk. They direct you to the most expensive kind, you buy it then they return it to the store and split the profit. Sometimes little kids will ask you to buy them milk for their sibling- same scam. Tuk tuk drivers are also known to deal tourists drugs then turn them over to the police who arrest them and extort thousands of dollars of "fines" out of them to avoid jail time- in the two weeks I was in Cambodia, I heard four different stories of this recently happening. Phnom Penh has a pretty serious problem with purse and phone theft. I've read and heard several reports of people's bags being broken into or stolen altogether in the underside of big buses. Knowing the history of the country and how extreme the poverty can be, I couldn't be angry at any of this, but it did make it hard to relax knowing that I was always a target for theft and scams.

In stark contrast to this were the most strong, warm, friendly people I've ever met. There is this fierce, defiant determination to heal and rise up despite their history. People want opportunity and given it they will work very hard. I was so moved and humbled by how welcomed I felt in the presence of so many people- making a point to make eye contact and smile, to stop and talk. Everyone is so keen to practice their English that I barely learned any Khmer.

Cambodia is high risk high reward. It is not the west. The safety standards are different. One of my friends had a monkey rip the water bottle from her hands, sit down, unscrew the cap and chug it. Monkeys are cute, but they're also aggressive, smart and have big teeth. They run free in lots of places with no keeper. They will fuck you up. Your bus might also crash or breakdown. In their desperation, people may try to shake you down for money in creative ways. You may bear witness to the virulent sex slave trade that is barely underground all over the country. You will hear the offer "Tuk tuk?" a thousand times. You will hopefully opt to tour Khmer Rouge sites because it's essential to understanding this place and it will break your heart and make you sick.

Cambodia is as laden with baggage as it is raucously beautiful. It's a complicated sort of beauty that requires a lot of patience. It is worth it. You will meet the most incredible hearts, local and foreign. You will have the last bit of resistance to going with the flow wrung from you. You're on Cambodia time now. Frustration will get you nowhere. You're entitled to nothing. Take a breath. Humble yourself before the wildness. It'll show you who you are then make you better.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Notes From The Road: Decompressing Laos at Home in BKK

This is a first for me.
The heat tonight in Bangkok is a languid, wet blanket. I love not being cold so I receive this sweaty, sweet, liquidair hug with gratitude. Rachel and I are back in Thailand and survived Laos despite getting very sick in the capital, Vientiane, at the end of an otherwise incredible time in a highly underrated country.

Laos is wildly beautiful and I'm grateful to have jumped into the journey there although I didn't know anything about it beforehand...for instance, Laos is a communist country and has a national curfew of midnight. The United States bombed the shit out of Laos during the Secret War, and children and farmers continue to find active, unexploded bombs in the earth to tragic ends. The Lao people refer to their country as Laos, and themselves and their food/culture as Lao
Bucolic af.
not "Laotian." (We asked around.) The boundary between public and private life in Laos is even blurrier than it is in Thailand. We ate a lot of delicious home cooked meals in restaurants that can hardly be called that because the "restaurant" is an extension of where the cook lives. So much of what we consumed was made by hand, from scratch in someone's home. Lao people are warm and also just as big proponents of being barefoot as I am. Take your shoes off at the border, y'all. Friendliness, bare feet and DIY sensibilities. They're my kind of people and Laos has too rich an offering to overlook. I'll be back for seconds.

Being back in Bangkok means another moment of transition. Rachel's month with me is up and I have to release her back into the hip Vancouver wild. We're both usually solo travelers, and in our decompression tonight we agreed that it's a testament to the specialness of our connection that we like each other even more now than ever. Nothing will clarify the strength and lifespan potential of a relationship quite like crossing international borders on little sleep and no food. Public praise: Rachel is an inspiring, intrepid traveler who's helped me become far more flexible and adventurous. She taught me how to be brave in brand new ways. Choose your adventure partners wisely! I'm grateful to have one who drew out the best in me...and made me eat so many mystery foods.

Rachel and I with our new friends, Flo and Meagan.
After a month of near constant companionship, I'll be solo once again...sort of. You make friends, you see, and I have travel friends out there who I'll likely connect with in Siem Reap, which is next up. But first I'm taking myself to dance class and a movie, hanging around Bangkok like I live here. Do you know what I felt when we boarded a flight back to BKK? Relief to be coming home to a place whose pulse I've already felt, to an area I've already walked, to a restaurant where I've already eaten, to a little slice of familiar. When everything is foreign all the time it begins to wear. Learning new polite greetings and getting new currency and sleeping in new beds of various hardness and showering in showers of various first these things are so exciting! And novel! A month in, you're saying thank you in Lao to your Thai waitress and you have four currencies in your wallet and you haven't slept well since the overnight train to Chiang Mai three weeks ago and you're tired. I am now, in fact, too tired to go to Cambodia.

Not really, of course. I can't wait to get on the train on Monday and cross another border and get another passport stamp and feel the pulse of another place. Even more than being still somewhere, I love the boats and planes and buses and trains in between. I get an electric, heady rush every time I set out for somewhere new, and, all gripes aside, it is a tremendous privilege to get to do life this way for a while. Not everyone has the resources to get this kind of education. I'm booking hostels based on bed comfort reviews from here on out (seriously, sleep is important, you guys) but am also okay with being a little tired. I'm now a daily coffee drinker. Oh well! It's delicious.

Hot, sweaty love from Bangkok! Use your time!


From the inspiring quote collection at Icon Klub in Luang Prabang.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Chiang Rai to Luang Prabang, Slowly

Rachel and I have now made it over the border and into the chilled out jungle town of Luang Prabang, Laos. Like all cute places, I'm already in love and considering staying forever. The journey to get here was long and stressful, though, due largely to the fact that we didn't plan ahead very well, and information on how to do it isn't very good. Things do change rapidly here, and information isn't disseminated very well, so its understandable. However, I'm going to map out our research and how we did it so you don't also end up nearly getting stuck in the sticks on a Laos roadside like we did.

The first thing you should know is that there are two bus stations that service Chiang Rai. There is the old station (Station 1) in the city center which is currently under construction and kind of a cluster. There is a new station (Station 2) outside of the center which you pass on the way in from Chiang Mai. Not all buses got to both stations, so be aware of which station you are choosing when you book a bus to get across the border.

Rachel and I booked a last minute slow boat ride with a private company, Shompoo, because we had heard so many mixed reviews about the public slow boats. Shompoo's guide meets you outside of Lao immigration and takes you to the pier for the boat, but pickup is by 9:45am at the very latest (they prefer you to be there by 9:15am). Had we know this ahead of time, we would have made it to Chiang Khong the night before to expedite border crossing in the morning. Since we booked the day before the cruise, we weren't able to make it to Chiang Khong the day before, thus leaving us scrambling to get to the border crossing very early in the morning. There is a local red bus which leaves from Station 1, but the first bus isn't until 6:00am and takes two hours, which didn't seem to leave us enough time to get through Thai immigration, across the Friendship Bridge, and through Lao immigration.

The local red bus is a very reasonable 65 baht, but we were concerned about time, so we went to a travel agency in Chiang Rai, Kochaporn Travel & Service, who booked us on a private bus to the border for 750 baht. We explained our time constraints and were guaranteed to leave by 6:30am at the latest- an hour and a half ride, still cutting it close but doable. Long story short, the driver was very late and we didn't leave Chiang Rai until 7:30am. They took a very beautiful, creative shortcut through misty rice patties which was enjoyable, but we didn't arrive to the Thai border until 8:45am.

Crossing through Thai immigration was a quick breeze (keep your departure card and have it filled out ahead of time!! But if you happen to have lost it, they do have replacements). The bus over the Friendship Bridge had been taken care of by the travel agency, but it is 20 baht with an extra 5 baht fee if you're riding on an off time or the weekend. The bus won't leave until its full and the ride across the bridge is incredibly brief (about three minutes). On the other side you then begin the process of getting your Visa on Arrival into Laos. It was now 9:15am.

There was already a sizable queue waiting for visa processing. We scrambled to fill in our paperwork and join the throng of people who turned out to be waiting for only two Lao officials. There was quite a bit of pushing at the front of the line. Once we made it to the front, which took about an hour, we handed our passports, completed paperwork and one passport photo to the official. They take all this and your visa application is then processed while you wait.

Approved applications and passports are then brought in the order received to the payment window. They flash your passport information page and you approach the window to pay the fee- $35 USD, more or less depending on your country. Be aware that, again, during off times and weekends, you'll be charged an extra dollar "overtime fee". Off times are early morning, the lunch hour midday and later in the evening...basically all day. Just have an extra dollar on you. I handed out a few spare dollars to people who had brought exact change. You can pay in baht, but you'll be charged more. Try to have as close to exact change as you can. They'll make change for you, but they don't like it.

The processing took another hour, which meant we had, as they say, missed the boat. This was a weekend and later morning, so it is likely faster other times, but from border to border, this whole process took two and a half hours. Be prepared for that. I was in touch with Shompoo's rep, Alex, who informed me that we could make it to the evening stop in Pakbeng on another boat and meet up with the Shompoo cruise the next morning. Through this whole ordeal, Alex was incredibly helpful and supportive. The local Lao reps for the Chiang Rai travel agency were also very helpful and sympathetic to our situation. They were very apologetic for the lateness of their driver and understanding that it was the company's fault for our missing our boat. I asked that the company pay for Rachel and I's slow boat tickets to Pakbeng (110,000 kip each) but the company's owner refused my request and to take responsibility for her driver's lateness, instead blaming our missed boat on Lao immigration. As it were, had we arrived on time, the queue would've been shorter and we would've made it through to meet our local Shompoo guide.

The local Lao rep, Lan, took incredible care of Rachel and I, though. We didn't have enough kip to pay for the public slow boat, so he took us in his car to an ATM, then drove us to the slow boat pier and helped us get our tickets. He is a wonderful man! If you're so inclined, please say a little blessing for Lan and his family. We also met a group of fun travelers on our (late) bus ride who we rode the slow boat with, spent a very fun evening with in Pakbeng and continue to see around Luang Prabang.

The public slow boat was an experience. Like many boats we had read about, the owner crams as many people in as possible. We had about 160 on our boat that day. It got quite hot and there was very little room to stretch and move about. The motor was very loud and where we were in the back of the boat would occasionally and inexplicably get splashes of mysterious water from overhead. The ride is so incredibly gorgeous, though. I'm officially obsessed with the Mekong.

Our overnight in Pakbeng was really fun, and I wish we could've spent a bit longer. Rachel and I split a pre-booked $28 USD room at Monesavanh Guest House, which was really lovely and highly recommended. It's run by a sweet family that also has a restaurant and bakery, and our morning cashew banana muffins and croissants were pretty spectacular. On the way to dinner in the evening we ran into friends from the boat and ended up in a colorful and wild restaurant whose proprietor lured us in dancing outside yelling, "BANANA WHISKEY!" We had a delicious first Lao dinner and a whole lot of laughs before enjoying hot showers and an early bedtime. Also, due to the remoteness of tiny Pakbeng, there is almost no light pollution and the most visibly starry sky I've ever seen.

In stark contrast to the public slow boat, the Shompoo cruise is deliriously, deliciously luxurious. It is $150 USD, which is about five times the cost of the public slow boat, but if you're going to splurge on any part of an otherwise budget conscious trip, do it here. We were among 19 people on the boat, we had tables with cushioned seats, lounge chairs and enough room in the back for me to roll out my mat and do yoga. There was also a deck at the front for sunning, reading or just taking in the breathtaking views. It was foggy chilly in the morning and they had blankets for as and all the coffee or tea you like. At lunchtime we were served an incredible traditional Lao meal, and made interesting stops at Pak Ou Caves and a Lao "whiskey village" where some impressive weaving was also taking place. It was an incredibly comfortable and relaxing day. When we arrived in Luang Prabang, porters brought our bags up the steep hillside stairs from the river and we were driven in a van to the door of our hostel. You get what you pay for, and this is a lovely experience worth every penny.

Summary of Lessons Learned:
-DO NOT BOOK ANYTHING WITH KOCHAPORN TRAVEL IN CHIANG RAI. They do very bad business. Take the local red bus. Don't pay over ten times as much for lateness and poor service.
-Either stay overnight in Chiang Khong to expedite the morning border crossing or go all the way into Huay Xai, the Lao border town, and stay at a hostel near the pier. The distance between Lao immigration and the pier is quite far and requires a tuk tuk ride. We didn't pay for that part, so I don't know how much it usually costs, but link up with other travelers to get a better deal.
-Get kip before you arrive at the pier. There isn't an ATM there and it's cash only. You can change out your currency at a window as you leave Thai immigration or get kip from an ATM at Lao immigration.
-If you do happen to try to make it from Chiang Rai in the morning, plan for the border crossing to take at least two hours.
-Have exact change for your Lao Visa on Arrival, and bring an extra dollar overtime fee for yourself or a friend if you happen to arrive during off hours or a weekend day.
-We read that the public slow boat leaves at 11:00am, but the boat we were on left at 12:30pm. I don't know if that was just a lucky happenstance but it seems that perhaps there's a later boat if you do get caught up at immigration.
-When you arrive in Pakbeng, there will be hostel owners hawking rooms at their places. We had heard that there aren't many options and to book in advance, which we did. If you don't, you'll have choices but if you like to be picky, screen and book ahead of time.
-Shompoo was a wonderful experience for quality but the local slow boat was, generally speaking, more fun for company. We did meet some well traveled folks with good advice on the Shompoo cruise, but the budget traveler crowd are the friends we continue to hang out with around Luang Prabang. I'm glad we got to experience both, but I'm also sad to have missed out on Day 1 with Shompoo. I would cruise all the bodies of water with them. If you need a gentle, calm travel experience, that's the way to go.
-It's also possible to take an overnight bus from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang. That's 12-14 hours on rough roads in an area not know for bus safety. Just take the slow boat. The Mekong, man. It's wildly beautiful.

Joyous times to you, intrepid Southeast Asia travelers! I hope this helps you understand how to get from Thailand to Laos over "Friendship Bridge No. 4."


Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Notes From The Road: BKK and CNX

Holy holy holy
Sa wat dee kha from Thailand, where, in a hilarious turn of events, we are having a nasty, wet cold snap. No part of the Asian continent has been spared; it's so cold in Shanghai that the water pipes have frozen. So much for skipping winter! Luckily my friend and travel partner, Rachel, had previously visited Thailand and warned me that it might be cooler in the north, where we now find ourselves shivering in the outdoor restaurants in which we were sweating a couple days ago. Still, I'm layered up and having the time of my life!

Thailand is beautiful and wild, rich with daily devotion in the form of big, ornate temples and tiny ancestral shrines which dot the streets outside businesses and sometimes stand alone, seemingly random yet well maintained. We began our journey in Bangkok, which possesses the manic magic of New York City but with far more interesting street life. Because Bangkok is so consistently warm, so much life is lived outside. We stayed in Chinatown, which is enormous and incredibly dense. Every alleyway leads into a winding vortex of things to buy; from
Street cat
unidentifiable, delicious foods, to innumerable plastic trinkets, to produce markets, to clothing stalls, you can find pretty much anything tucked away in a Chinatown back alley. The city is adorably overrun by stray cats, many of whom are so tiny and all of whom I want to bring home. We came across so many strange treasures, like the huge monitor lizards which live in the lake of a public park. They're so intimidatingly big and dinosaur-like, I can't comprehend how they're allowed to run free.

As much delight as I found in BKK, after a week it electrified my being to the point of short circuit. When we boarded the night train north to Chiang Mai, it was with relief for a drastic change of pace. The
Little dinosaur
night train was such a sweet, special experience all on its own. We opted for a 2nd class AC sleeper car, affording each of us our own shockingly comfortable bunk. Our tin can chariot lumbered and swayed through the cities growing smaller and into the lush green of the Thai countryside. Jungle opened into neatly domesticated farm land. Ban Pin. Mae Mo. Khun Tan. Occasionally we would groan to a creeping halt to pick up or drop off a lone traveler at a brightly decorated train station which seemed to have sprung directly from the earth amidst dense vegetation. I have a crush on you, Thailand.

We're now passing pleasurable time in calmer, more comfortable Chiang Mai. The turn of weather led to some much needed rest after dozens of miles of walking over a week and a half of travel. I feel a terrible sense of guilt staying in and taking naps when there is so much splendor left unseen. Yet there is no way to sustain the level of activity we've been averaging over the course of this lengthy journey. After the ecstasy, the laundry...which am close to needing to do. Life still requires maintenance. Ordinary things still need to happen, even in extraordinary places. In the flow of the strange and the new, the mundane can feel delicious, though.
Wild and untamed

And once again we're reminded that it's all a gift. Savor every flavor of experience.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Spiritual Fitness: NYC Edition

Exhibit A
People who are interested in beginning a practice in yoga often ask me for advice- how to get started, where to go? Yoga has been a part of my life for 17 years and the amount of yoga selfies I shamelessly take in all manner of places make it obvious that I'm a little bit smitten. I will certainly grow old with yoga and it will stand as the longest intimate relationship of my life. (The traditional 17th anniversary gift is furniture. Yoga and I are registered at Pottery Barn.)

Yoga serves different purposes in my life. It's a spiritual practice, for sure, but the classes I've been taking lately barely have so much as an OM. They are slower and full of rich, technical instruction. As I grow up in my practice, I'm far more interested in the Why behind the poses. I've become a big fan of good alignment and intelligent sequencing. Since my constitution also demands that I move vigorously, I take powerful, fast paced flow classes. The commonality in all my movement is that I pour my full attention into each breath with total devotion. This linking of breath to movement has been proven to very effectively combat PTSD, as well as anxiety and depression. For me, it has the added benefit of doing what yoga is designed by name to do: to yoke. It gives me a personal,
Exhibit B
visceral experience of my innate and unbreakable connection to The Divine. As I practice, I feel God operating in me and myself operating in God. Overtime, I have learned to take this off the mat and into my daily householder life.

The rise of corporate yoga has proven that God doesn't have to be anywhere near yoga; the practice space can be safe for those who don't desire to sing out to any gods or to the ones they don't recognize. From my perspective, chanting a mantra doesn't make you or yoga spiritual, though. It's the attitude and intent you bring to your practice. We don't have to be in a house of worship to worship. My body is the sacred space. In my practice, whether slow or fast, I honor the Breath behind my breath as I lovingly, mindfully move. 

If you're in New York City and wondering how to begin, or bring more depth and richness to, a spirit-filled life, I offer you a list of my favorite places to move, breathe and be.

Devotional Movement

Yoga to the People: Their foundational flow is basic and the classes are often too crowded to get attention, but it's good yoga and donation based- a good place to start that is also very affordable! I wouldn't recommend their hot yoga, as I'm no longer a hot yoga advocate, but I love their class offerings at YTTP2. If you're up for a challenge, Doorways to a Deeper Practice is dynamite.

Annie Piper is the boss
The Shala Yoga House: Shala is a teeny tiny Ashtanga-based studio in the basement of a Fort Greene apartment building. As unassuming as it appears, it offers up the most consistently good practice I’ve found in New York. Annie Piper’s classes in particular are not to be missed! Annie teaches a deeply grounded, slow, mindful class that is readily accessible to anyone and very healing. She is now offering a monthly, donation based meditation event called Breathe-In NYC (see the flyer on the left!). If you can't make an Annie class, everyone else at Shala is awesome! 

Abhaya Yoga: Another Brooklyn gem! I've enjoyed all the classes I've taken at Abhaya, but particularly appreciate Tara Glazier, the owner and founder. Bhava Friday is my favorite way to close a week. And if you're a yoga teacher or enthusiastic student, Tara's Wednesday afternoon Advanced Practice is amazing! Tara is very anatomy smart and I learn so much from her.

Sacred Sounds Yoga: At Sacred Sounds, it's all about Liz Mandarano. She teaches an open level class on Monday mornings, but her Tuesday 2/3 class gives me so much life...while also very quietly kicking my yoga butt. Liz is incredibly smart and talented, offering a class made challenging by how slow and mindful it is. "How am I sweating and shaking so much when we've barely done anything??" I find myself thinking every time.

Yoga Vida NYC: Saturday afternoon Deep Flow with Dominic Savino is my favorite weekend highlight. His playlists are always killer and his flow is indeed deep, but also fun, intelligent and sweaty. It's my favorite yoga party in town!

Yoga Shanti: Urban Zen is a really beautiful restorative class that helps me unwind so deeply that I have to sit for awhile before heading back out onto the street. If you're in the mood to move, I can't recommend Ally Bogard highly enough. Like the lady teachers above, Ally teaches a smart, mindful class that feels great. She also teaches at Twisted Trunk Yoga. Yoga stalk her! She's so good!!

**All these studios are on Classpass, with the exception of Yoga to the People.

Meditation and Contemplation

Dharma Punx NYC: You'll find the Dharma Punx meeting all over New York (and across the US), but the richest offering for me is on Monday nights at Maha Rose in Greenpoint with Josh Korda. The class begins with 30 minutes of seated, silent meditation, followed by a themed lecture that seamlessly blends Buddhist wisdom and neuroscience. Josh is a brilliant neuroscience researcher as well as a Buddhist teacher, and his bringing the two together grounds what might otherwise be considered hippie woowoo in scientific reality. Meditation changes your brain. Here's how! Dharma Punx is a non-judgmental, diverse, compassionate community and the classes give practical solutions for dealing with all manner of suffering. It's one of the most valuable things I do in New York and enriches my life immensely. It's also donation based, so accessible and affordable!

Spiritual Home and Community

Liberty Church NYC: Speaking of spiritual enrichment! Liberty is full of recovering Catholics like myself; people who love and believe in a New Testament God who is about compassion, not fire and brimstone. I'm not much of a church person, but Liberty is the real deal. The founders, Paul and Andi, are fully committed to bringing everyone who walks in the door not just to Jesus but into a loving community who will do life with them. Every Sunday is a vibrant, joyous Jesus party. I never knew worship in church to be such a lighthearted celebration. Aside from weekly services, there are seasonal small groups where you can explore your faith, or just be social, with kind, supportive hearts. I'm so grateful to have found Liberty and to do life with this beautiful family.

Have a very happy, spiritually fit 2016, ladies and gents!