Sometimes, in order for me to see the truth, I have to live from a different perspective.
After schlepping my bags upstairs to my room at my parents’ home, I went on an expedition for my coziest sweatpants. I found them eventually after searching through two suitcases and another two duffel bags. As I moved aside other workout clothes and t-shirts I left behind, I asked myself: how the hell do I have so much crap???
It’s interesting to realize what I thought I “needed” to have here in the states and then being able to get by perfectly fine on so, so much less. [After this realization, I went on a huge cleaning spree and ended up with a pile of clothes to donate that literally went to the ceiling of my room.]
When I arrived back in New York, I stayed with my friend from graduate school, which also meant I was staying in the same building many other grad students I knew. I ran into them on the elevators, in the subways, and, on occasion – more intentionally for a meal or a drink.
A student I ran into on the subway asked if I would be staying around New York for a while. I told him I’ll be moving west by the end of this year. “Wow, so by the end of the year, you would have lived in three different cities.”
From where I stand, it’s hard for me to envision the other side: living in the same place for more than five years.
Overall, it’s comforting in some ways to be back in the US. Returning first to New York City was like getting reacquainted with an old lover: it’s at once easy and familiar and — sooner rather than later — I’m reminded of all the reasons why it would have never worked between the two of us. But tacos and falafel are just as delicious as when I left, and my friends are still some of the most excellent and compassionate of humans.
When I look back on this past year, my head explodes a bit thinking on all the things that have happened, between switching to writing full time and moving to a foreign country sight unseen. I notice more inflection points this year than ever before – moments where I knew something was about to change, or when I took myself out of my comfort zone. This year has taught me two important things: I am much more capable than I think I am, and how to move from one thing to the next fearlessly and gracefully. A close friend told me recently that she thinks I’ve become a lot more forgiving of myself. I think that’s a good thing.
Another huge realization from Vipassana is that everything, everything, everything, has the quality of impermanence. And knowing that, how do I react to what’s going on around me? I get overwhelmed when I think about the coming year and the things I want to accomplish, but that emotional, like all else, will pass. Everything that I am experiencing now and all that is to happen will come and go as they please: that includes my time here in New York, in the states, and being abroad.
I spent the better part of today going through photos – with Semisonic playing on repeat – from the last four months I’ve spent here. It didn’t take long, but after the final few shots of snorkeling in the Andaman Sea and lounging on a beach off of Phuket on Thanksgiving Day, I thought, how did all that happen in such a short period of time??
I was reminded of the exhilaration I felt on my flight over, the adrenaline and urgency on the evening of the Bangkok bombing, and how disoriented I felt the first time reporting alone for what felt much longer than just four days. While I was reporting at the Thai-Burma border, I snapped a shot of a child carrying his brother at a refugee health clinic, and was reminded of the compassion I felt in a town largely populated by undocumented Burmese refugees. I am already filled with nostalgia and wanderlust when I look back on my time in Myanmar, Siem Reap, and rural northern Vietnam. The world is a wild and beautiful place, and one of the foremost things I’ve learned from traveling is to be alive and appreciative of what’s in your immediate environment, because those moments are precious and impermanent. I’ve learned that being present and open to what the world has to offer allows for fortuitous meetings and occurrences.
When I arrived in Bangkok, I wasn’t sure how long I’d stay. I thought about staying through the holidays but a month or so later, I booked a ticket back state-side before the holidays. But sometimes you just have to adapt accordingly to the changing winds, so I changed my flight to an earlier date.
Recently, I keep coming back to one quote by Anais Nin: “Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.”
Despite the discomforts I’ve felt living in southeast Asia, I’ve found my time here an incredible, worthwhile challenge. Perhaps it doesn’t seem this way to others, but I am often scared of taking the next big step forward. Other times, I’m great at scrambling to the next thing, to see what’s next. Sometimes in those situations, I realize I have to get myself out of what I had gotten myself into. I’m afraid of launching myself into freefall: I hesitate and think about the what-ifs and what-if-nots. I’m afraid that the next big move hurts.
I also know when the next move is inevitable, and I just need to take a deep breath and trust myself.
When I arrived in Bangkok, I also had no idea how living abroad would change me. I just knew that change is inevitable, so I should just go with it all and see what happens.
But it’s been here in Southeast Asia — not New York, San Francisco, or the places in between — where I learned I can break my own heart or I can opt not to, deepened my compassion, patience and forgiveness towards myself and others, and learned to observe the reality of things as they are, and not as I would like them to be.
I’ve also been reminded of how small I am (and, how small we all are) in this big, big world, and that each and every one of us has a story worth sharing.
Did I get everything I needed? I think so. For now, at least.
I recognize how much more work I want to do here, and I hope to come back soon. But recently, I’ve found myself missing life in America and the simple things I used to take for granted: tap water, using data on my phone instead of hunting for wifi, grabbing drinks with friends, being able to walk places without the fear of being run over by a rampant stream of motorbikes, and not worrying about how my digestive tract will respond to what I had for lunch. The BTS (Airtrain) here in Bangkok makes the NYC subway at peak hour seem tame.
But what I’ve really been missing is a good breakfast burrito and some tacos.
Cheryl Strayed frequently imparts wisdom from her mother on Dear Sugar: “There’s a sunrise and sunset every day. You can choose to be there for it. You can put yourself in the way of beauty.”
Choose. What a powerful word. It means that we have the agency to pick one thing over an alternative. It implies some degree of deliberateness to the decisions we make. What an empowering idea it is, to be able to control some things for ourselves, to allow ourselves to be shaped by the choices we make.
November is high season in Southeast Asia. Rainy season is (mostly) over, which means more tourists flock to find warmth (I’ve almost forgotten that it’s basically winter in some places) in these neck of woods. The BTS has been more crowded than usual even though I live pretty far from the backpacker-y scene here in Bangkok.
But this month, I’ve joined the masses of travelers, which explains nearly all of my radio silence. In the last 30 days or so, I zipped from Bangkok to Siem Reap to Phnom Penh to Chiang Mai back to Bangkok en route to Hanoi, around northern Vietnam, then was laid over for a short two days in Bangkok before heading down south along the Andaman Sea to Krabi and Phuket.
I give those who backpack around Southeast Asia for months a lot of credit. Frankly, I don’t have the endurance to bop around for so long.
Despite my exhaustion, the sights have been incredible. In Cambodia, we explored the ruins of Angkor Wat, took an excursion away from dusty Siem Reap to a mountaintop monastery where we swam with monks under a ginormous waterfall, tried our darnedest to explore Phnom Penh by foot (despite the haphazard stream of tuk tuks and motorbikes that were always revving their engines towards us), and sipped on 50 cent beers while overlooking where the Tonle and Mekong Rivers joined. Phnom Penh tested my patience, and, on my last day there, I found myself itching to leave for the mountains and cleaner air in Chiang Mai.
In Chiang Mai, we hung out with friends, went glamping in the hills north of the old city, swam in rock quarries, played games in a cafe-treehouse, and ate khao soy whenever possible. Northern Thailand is truly something. One day, I shall return.
Vietnam — outside of Hanoi — was beautiful, but my experience in the country overall left a sour taste in my mouth, especially between the cab drivers from Hanoi airport who try and steal from you, and the vendors at tourist attractions who clearly just wanted your money. At the end of the day, a few dollars isn’t anything to be peeved about, but I do wish the locals were a bit more welcoming to tourists.
On a whim, we took a car out to this place that’s pretty off the trodden path called Bac Son, a small town about 2-3 hours northwest of Hanoi, where rivers and rice paddy fields lie in a valley shielded by limestone karsts. We had read about a hike there, and managed to find it. Hint: look for a telephone tower at the top of one of the mountains. It’s a worthwhile upward scramble and took us about an hour and a half round trip.
After returning to Hanoi, we headed down to Ninh Binh, a rather industrial town two hours south of the capitol by train. Ninh Binh looks like Ha Long Bay on land. We took a boat tour, and then rambled up some of the karsts in the afternoon to get some pretty great 360 views of the valley.
I spent the last week or so in south Thailand: first, Railay, and then Phuket. We aspired to climb in Railay, but the tail end of rainy season didn’t quite allow us to do that. Instead, we went deep water soloing (a mix of bouldering on wet rocks and cliff jumping), snorkeling, and kayaking around the islands.
We managed to avoid the more touristy parts of Phuket by staying away from the main beach (Patong). On Thanksgiving, we took a day trip out to a nearby island for some beach time and snorkeling (as one does on Thanksgiving, right?). For such a tourist destination, Phuket has a horrendous system of taxis and song-thaews. Metered taxis were few and far between, and song-thaew drivers mainly orbited the circuit for the island’s main attractions.
We got out of Phuket the second day we were there, too, to scope out Phang-Nga National Park, which actually turned out to be a tour of James Bond Island. We intended to go to the marine park, but it was neat to take a boat out and see so much original mangrove forest in the region – made a mangrove nerd like me a pretty happy camper.
My time here in SE Asia is soon coming to a close, but more on that later.
This year, I’m particularly thankful for having an incredible support network dispersed all around the world, being healthy, and having the opportunity to explore the endlessly wild and beautiful world we live in.
Anyone who knows me knows that I’m awful at sitting still. My inherent restlessness seems to contradict my intellectual attraction towards meditation. My meditation practice is pretty inconsistent, undisciplined, haphazard, so… admittedly, pretty shitty. And when I actually do sit down to meditate, I just meditate to a point where I feel like I’ve closed my eyes for long enough.
But, to me, meditation is an extension of yoga, something I’ve been practicing for the past five years with varying degrees of dedication: ranging from an ‘accidental’ 100-day yoga challenge to practicing whenever I can get to my studio of choice now. I figured a more immersive experience in meditation would come, all in due time.
My first introduction to meditation was the summer after I graduated college in 2011. I lingered in Providence for another month or so to wrap up some research. One evening, I met some friends for dinner and forgot my keys. I called my roommate [and excellent friend], Eric, to let me back in the apartment.
“How long were you gone for?” he asked.
“Hm, maybe around 3 hours?”
“Okay. Well, since you’ve been gone, I’ve been sitting on my bed…. meditating… and staring at THAT DOORKNOB” — pointing at it as we walked towards our adjacent rooms — “for the past three hours. It got pretty trippy.”
Meditation…. trippy? I was intrigued.
The next month, I moved to Houston for work. I discovered weekly led meditation classes through the yoga studio I had been going to at the tail end of my stay in Texas. Michael, my teacher, patiently explained to us the basics of awareness-based meditation. One thing I remember Michael impressing upon us was the importance of good posture; keeping your spine straight is essential for meditation. That meant we could sit on a cushion or we could meditate lying down. Since my knees bear the damage of sprinting on linoleum floors (thanks to all my indoor high school winter track practices), maintaining a proper seated meditation position was often difficult for me. But lying down? Yes, please.
I quickly learned that napping is totally not the same as meditating.
I can’t quite remember how long I went to these weekly classes, but at the very least, it was for a good two months. And by the time I left Houston, I had a grand total of zero hallucinatory experiences.
Michael was immensely encouraging of me to continue practicing: right before I left Houston, he gifted me a nice zafu (meditation cushion).
After I left Houston and began grad school in New York, my friend from college, Rachel, had just completed a 3-month trip to India and raved about a 10-day silent meditation retreat she did, called Vipassana. It sounded like something I could be into and the idea of signing up for one of these retreats lingered in mind for a long time after she had first mentioned it to me. But, finding ten days away from grad school was hard, and the closest Vipassana center to New York City was in northwestern-ish Massachusetts, and rather difficult to get to especially if you’re traveling there alone.
When I was rambling about in Sukhothai at the end of August, I started challenging the idea if I was actually good at being alone by myself and my thoughts. I enjoy traveling by myself and other solitary activities (such as yoga) and I also lived alone for an entire year after college, so the idea that I am “good at being alone” has always stuck with me. Except now, I questioned it. After doing some research, I signed up for a Vipassana Course located in Kanchanaburi, a province west of Bangkok. It still had open slots for women, and the course ran through a time period I knew I could manage.
I arrived to the center on its coach bus almost two weeks ago, on Wednesday, August 14. Women and men were segregated immediately after we got our belongings and moved through registration. We locked away all cell phones and electronic devices since we weren’t allowed to communicate with anyone. We also were not allowed to read or write, exercise, or listen to music. My single room was in a small cabin. I set up my room, and decided to chat some more with a few awesome ladies I met on the bus ride up. After all, I thought it best to make good use of the time I still had to talk! Following dinner and orientation that evening, Noble Silence — which also included no eye contact or body language — immediately went into effect, and we had our first meditation session.
The ultimate goal of Vipassana meditation is to purify the mind. According to the teacher, S.N. Goenka, Vipassana would allow us to be liberated from former ‘mental defilements’ that generate negative emotions in us. The meditation technique helps us reach that very appealing goal of purifying the mind by using respiration to develop awareness and equanimity within ourselves. Goenka, who passed away two years ago at 89 years old, instructed us by voice recordings during the group meditations.
To start things off on our first evening, Goenka asked us each to observe the sensation of respiration, specifically in the small area between the tip of our nose and our upper lip.
No problem! I thought to myself, as I straightened up on my meditation mat. Sounds like yoga. Got it.
Simple instructions. Simple in theory. Difficult to implement. Even more difficult to practice every 10 hours we meditated for the next 10 days.
Day 1 The course *officially* began the next day. That first night was just a small primer. For the next ten days, we meditated for 10 hours, every day (with breaks): from 4:30-6:30, 8:00-11:00, 13:00-17:00, 18:00-19:00, and from 20:30 to 21:00.
Since I didn’t a time-telling device of any sort (I typically go by the time on my phone, which I couldn’t use), my life was dictated by the center’s bells. There was always a 10 minute bell before the group meditations, and another, more urgent, GET-YOUR-ASS-TO-THE-MEDITATION-HALL-5-minute bell. Impressively, nobody was ever late!
On Day 1, our instructions remained the same as the previous evening. Goenka’s creaky yet wholehearted voice greeted us at the start of the sessions: “Start again,” he’d say. “Start again.”
I started again so many times that first day and found myself resenting his voice telling me exactly what was so difficult to do time after time. But I also started looking forward to it towards the middle and end of the hour sittings, since his chanting signified the end of a sitting. At the end of our first day, we saw Goenka’s face during the video discourse. Turns out he’s a totally jolly guy, and I felt bad for hating him earlier on.
Goenka explained that observing respiration is not the same as pranayama (manipulating our breath) which was a helpful clarifying point for me since pranayama is what I’m used to practicing in yoga. “Observe sensations as they actually are, not what you would like them to be,” he said. My actual breath was shallow and rhythmic. I often got bored after 15 minutes of observing my breath. I found the afternoon meditation block to be hardest, especially with the heat. I felt like most of my attention was spent earlier in the morning. Frustrated with my inability to concentrate, I eventually forgave my mind for being a turbulent, fluctuating beast. I took a deep breath.
Days 2 – 3 The second day was better. Sitting still with a straight spine remained challenging, but I played Tetris with some of the cushions and eventually found an elevated cross-legged position that worked well for me. Still, we were instructed to focus on respiration in the small triangular area between the tip of our nose and our upper lip.
When my mind wandered, I thought about everything and anything. I realized that only a few deep breaths were sufficient to bring my attention back to respiration if my mind were to wander… so I let my mind go when it did.
I went through what seemed like an entire encyclopedia of ways others had hurt or disappointed me, and also ways that I wasn’t able to fulfill their needs. I tried to remember in great detail what my childhood was like (I succeeded). I desperately missed Brian. It didn’t help that he would arrive in Bangkok shortly after the retreat was over.
We still hadn’t started practicing Vipassana yet and I started anticipating it any second. My mind was so eager for any additional instructions for meditation on these two days. They didn’t come. Still, we were told to observe the breath in the triangular region blah blah blah.
Lesson here: don’t anticipate; accept the present moment. But during the discourse on Day 3, Goenka gave me something to look forward to: he told us that we would have our first Vipassana meditation the next day.
Day 4 Vipassana meditation involves observing sensations from the very top of your head all the way down to the tips of your fingers and toes. Sensations could be a subtle, pleasant sensation, or a heavy, unpleasant one. “Observe each sensation with an equanimous mind,” Goenka said. The unpleasant sensations, Goenka explained, are manifestations of previous sankaras, negative experiences that have left an impression on the subtle, energetic body. No matter what we felt, Goenka encouraged us to maintain an equanimous, detached state to our sensations. After all, both types of sensations – the pleasant and the unpleasant – are similar in that they are impermanent.
“Start at the top of your head. The very top of your head,” Goenka said, during the first Vipassana teaching.
I closed my eyes, took a deep breath. I imagined a small, microscopic wizard version of me at the very top of my head, flicking her wand and muttering ‘Lumos!’ We stayed there, at the top of the head, for a minute or two.
“Now, start moving your attention through your scalp.”
When I moved my attention in this manner, I thought someone had given me an electric shock at the top of my head and I was so surprised by how it reverberated through my entire body. I thought I positively jumped off my cushion for a moment. We continued moving throughout the body, per Goenka’s instructions. My body reacted violently at some locations, but not all. I left the meditation hall after two hours shaking in tears, wondering what on earth had just happened.
Days 5-6 I was determined to not let Vipassana send my body in crazy convulsions for the next two days. Wizard-me continued to travel through the caverns of my body to shine light on all the parts that I typically ignore in my day to day. After wizard-Wu traveled to the tips of my fingers, she apparated to the top of my other shoulder, and began going down the other arm, before apparating to the top of my neck, and moving down my spine. And once I reached my left tippy toes, I started again from the top.
Day 7 In our discourses, Goenka said that most people want to quit on Day 2 or Day 6. For me, Day 7 was the real damn kicker. For whatever reason, I didn’t really want to meditate for another 3 days, and found myself impatient to practice what we had been learning in the real world.
A few days into Vipassana, I noticed a rash on the side of my neck, and a visually imperceptible one on my forehead that I only felt when I washed my face. During afternoon meditation, I somehow convinced myself that I had dengue (I saw myself getting bitten by a blood-suckling mosquito when I was reporting in the Ayeryarwaddy about 10 days ago). I knew it took about a week to see symptoms after getting bitten. I also knew from reporting a feature on dengue that most first dengue infections are pretty mild and don’t require hospitalization. After showering before the evening meditation session, I took my temperature. The reading on the thermometer confirmed I was running a low fever.
I immediately wondered if the center had a nurse. (We could ask the people running the retreat questions, thankfully.) If they didn’t, I wondered if any of the meditators had a medical-ish background and could make sure I was okay. I wondered how much I could get a car to take me back to Bangkok for. I knew I was looking for a way out because I also knew I was perfectly capable of sitting and meditating for another three days, EVEN WITH “MILD DENGUE.”
Evening meditation was a complete wash. Unless you count thinking that I had dengue as meditating, of course. I meditated on that for an entire, never-ending hour.
By 9pm, I told myself that if I didn’t need medical care so far, I would just wait until how I felt when I got back to Bangkok. Also, I forgave myself for being totally irrational and wasting five hours of meditating on a ridiculous anxiety. Tomorrow would be a new day.
Days 8-10 Once I stopped resisting the idea that I would be meditating for another two and a half more days, I got into a flow. Bells rang. and I sat, ate, and sat again accordingly. Lather, rinse, repeat, breathe.
On Day 8, I spent an afternoon in my room with a subtle buzz for an entire hour, an incredible contrast to the sensations I was feeling previously.
The course to came to what felt like a screeching halt on Day 10. I was sad it was over, but I also was eager to get back to my work. After Noble Silence was lifted, I sat outside with some of the other English-speaking meditators and we talked about our experience.
In retrospect, 10 days passed by quickly. But in the moment? God, those were some long days spent meditating.
I came out of most of my meditation sittings in a daze. After we learned the Vipassana technique, our thrice-daily group meditation sittings in the hall turned into what were called “a sitting of strong determination,” or Aditthãna – we were encouraged to keep our eyes closed, and hands and feet the way they were for an entire hour. When I opened my eyes again at the end of these meditations, everything around seemed brighter. The flavors of the curries and textures of vegetables lingered longer during lunch. I noticed all the bugs camouflaging on leaves and other greenery in the garden. I was finally seeing how meditation could be similar to tripping.
I was shocked at how easy it was for my mind to remain detached when unpleasant sensations arose. Sittings flew by when my body was in pain because I was so focused on sending breath to those spots. Time seemed to go by slower when sankaras weren’t showing up everywhere on my body. I noticed that there were some sensations I felt only when I sat down to meditate. I had never really believed the mind-body connection until I had experienced it.
I found small ways to keep myself entertained during my practice. For instance, I thought anicca – the quality of impermanence that Goenka talked about time after time – would make for a nice name.
“Hey, I met your friend, Anicca, last week at a party. She seemed cool, but I haven’t seen her since.”
“Yeah, I mean, that’s just her nature. She might come back around.”
I wondered if what they served us during meals was to teach us something about impermanence. They had a jar of peanut butter the first two days. That was the only jar they had, and it went by quickly. I was impressed they had Nutella, too, but that was gone around Day 6. I liked one of the crackers they had as a post-meal snack, but those eventually cycled out, as well.
I dreamed of eating bananas the evening of Day 2. The next morning, they had bananas. Towards the end of the course, I found myself craving papaya salad and coconut ice cream. Both made an appearance at lunch on the tenth day, after Noble Silence was lifted. I wondered if I thought enough about some things, that they’d actually happen.
The only other dream I had was realizing on the last day that I ignored sensations on my teeth until the very last day during morning Aditthãna. How could I have missed that?!
I moved my attention to my teeth, only to sense that I had lost two of my adult teeth. I immediately texted my mom: “Lost two of my teeth. Now need fakes. Please send help. Does this happen to people this young??????”
My phone buzzed with her response. But I never saw what she said.
I couldn’t actually use my phone, remember?
We had an incredible amount of free time. I spent my morning break walking around the garden and occasionally doing lunges up the hill close to my cabin before having to sit cross-legged for an entire hour. I spent nearly 40 minutes sitting in the dining hall during my lunch break to draw out time, and then would hand wash any clothes from the previous day. Even though we weren’t allowed to write, I knew I would want to blog about my experience. Around Day 3, I found a pen in my bag, and started writing on broken down cardboard boxes and — admittedly, toilet paper — so I wouldn’t forget what happened every day when I looked back on it all. I showered during the hour break we had before evening meditation.
I was so determined to master those sittings of strong determination. For the first one, I noted I moved thrice. For the next six sittings, I didn’t shift my position at all. Afterwards, I became more forgiving of my tendencies to shift around a bit. Why was I so entrenched with this idea of perfection? I spent many, many moments forgiving myself in those ten days. I spent a lot of time forgiving others, too.
I realized I missed life back in the states during Day 6. I found myself looking forward to what my life would look like once I move back state-side in mid-December and start setting up shop early next year. I realized that my time here in southeast Asia has been so, so, wonderful, and there’s still some left to cherish. Yet, this, too, will pass.
On Day 9, I had a few questions and went to see the teacher during my lunch break. She smiled at me slightly as I walked up to her, bowing my head. The first thing she said to me was, “How are you?” In her presence, I felt engulfed by compassion.
I asked her how to discern real sensations from those that are psychosomatic. I’m pretty sensitive to sensations, and sometimes I feel things that aren’t actually there.
“Whenever you have to ask if a sensation is real or not, you can just tell it to stop. If it stops, it’s not real. If it doesn’t stop, it’s real.”
I could tell myself to stop feeling things? What?
I tried this later on, but it didn’t quite work. Mind probably needs more training.
I dreaded getting my phone back on the last day and checking all my unread emails. I rather enjoyed being away from the rest of the world for twelve days.
Vipassana reminded me of my diligence and my sensitivity. It also reminded me to surrender to the present moment. It heightened my awareness, and made me realize that I do approach most things in a rather balanced way. It inspired me to act more compassionately. Not only towards others, but also (perhaps more importantly) towards myself. Vipassana allowed myself the time and space to understand myself better, in the sense that I now understand why I am attracted by certain things and avoid others. I realized that after catapulting myself over to Thailand that I hadn’t taken much time for myself: I was always moving from one thing to the next. I can move mindfully, but, constant movement doesn’t create much space for actual reflection.
To sit still in silence and examine yourself for ten days was incredibly difficult, but I found it a completely worthwhile experience. Bangkok has felt more… calm since I’ve returned yesterday. The motorbikes are still out to kill me by not following pedestrian traffic signs, but I’m not cursing at them every moment under my breath, anymore. I immediately got a haircut yesterday after getting back. The hairdressers at the salon I went to (that had an English name) didn’t understand English that well. They put me on the phone with two of their managers. I explained to them, slowly, using simple language, what I wanted so they could help translate to the stylists. I couldn’t even be mad that they were trying so hard to follow what I wanted. A grand total of four people worked on my hair in the hour I was there. Two people blow-dried my hair. Those scalp sensations were pretty damn intense. I threw in a huge tip for all the trouble they went through and for accommodating me without an appointment.
Vipassana wasn’t a serene experience by any means. I’m positive I cried nearly every single day, for a variety of reasons. Rachel perhaps put it most aptly: “It’s like putting your mind through a washing machine.”
Goenka says to get the most benefit from Vipassana is to continue practicing it daily – one hour in the morning, another in the evening. There are many ways to cultivate awareness and equanimity, and practicing Vipassana is one method to do so of them. It’s totally a lifestyle —perhaps not one I can adhere to in the way it’s meant to be practiced and integrated — but I think it’s certainly one worth giving a fair trial.
I arrived back in Bangkok today after a 10-day stint in Myanmar. It was… really incredible. Leading up to the trip, I was both nervous and excited about it, but it turned out to be such a great time. We’ll see if a photo essay of sorts here can suffice to show what Myanmar is like.
I arrived in Yangon, intrigued by the handful of golden stupas I saw as the plane touched down at the airport. I only had a few hours to spare on my first day since I had to catch an overnight bus to Bagan, so I took a cab to Shwedagon Pagoda, arguably one of the most sacred Buddhist pagodas in the entire country. In Myanmar, you settle the cab fare with the driver before he takes off: [most] taxis don’t use a meter. Some of this took some getting used to, but I also read a few travel blogs beforehand to know what was standard so I wouldn’t get ripped off. I sat patiently in traffic for an entire hour (It’s only about a 10 mile drive between the airport and Shwedagon, but traffic in Yangon is notoriously awful). When I arrived at Shwedagon, I took off my shoes, strapped them onto my hulking backpack, and wandered around. During mid-day, the floor was super hot; my feet felt like they could be melted off any second so I wandered around and found a spot in the shade to nap for a while.
After Shwedagon, I caught a night bus to Bagan (it was surprisingly cosy: the road between Yangon and Bagan is real smooth. For anyone looking to make this trip, I recommend booking a seat abroad the JJ Express). There isn’t any awful Burmese music, and they don’t pick along additional passengers on the way. They do make a ton of bathroom stops, and they serve you water and a snack. Essential things. I just ended up popping in my headphones and napping most of the way.
The next morning, I arrived in Bagan to cab drivers screaming and shouting for all the passengers’ attention, waiting to take us to our guesthouses, or drive us to the temples for sunrise. My room wasn’t ready when I arrived, so I left my bags behind the counter and hopped on a rental bike, ready for a day of getting lost in the ruins. TL;DR: it was so much fun.
I spent my second day in Bagan exploring some of the less popular temples. I got really lost and incredibly muddy (since it rained the evening before), and found more temples that I could scramble up and enjoy a view rather than those that had tons of buddhas (I didn’t feel templed out on my second day, but very Buddha’d out). Some of the temples in the northern part of Old Bagan (closer to Nyaung – Oo are climb-able. Although the folks at these temples tried to sell me their sand paintings and whatnot, they weren’t that insistent.)
I took a night bus that night to Nyaung Shwe Inle Lake. The bus to Inle was supposed to arrive at 3:30 in the morning, so I originally anticipated sleeping immediately once I got on the bus. But, the girl sitting next to me actually grew up in Westchester so we were yapping away at each other for a long while. The ride was pretty brutal: lots of winding, bumpy, hilly roads = not conductive for sleeptown.
I thought I could catch sunrise on Inle my first day there, but I ended up trying to sleep. I met a girl in Bagan who said she was headed for Inle next, as well, so we swapped numbers and ended up taking a boat tour together. It was perfect: being shuttled around for an entire day was just what I needed after a brutal night bus. Inle Lake is really beautiful, but I noticed the water turning from brown to blue as we headed from Nyaung Shwe into the lake. It’s a serious bummer that there’s so much pollution closer to the town that most tourists stay in. We told our boat guide to skip all the shops, so instead we wandered to the very south of the lake for the rotating market and temples, saw a monastery and school, and a village that specializes in making pottery.
During my second day in Nyaung Shwe, I decided to bike to these nearby limestone caves that are also a site for worship. I only had a GPS trace from a search I did, but they looked neat, and it didn’t seem so far away, so I decided to see what was up.
After my second day in Nyaung Shwe, I took yet ANOTHER overnight bus to Yangon. Never ever again will I take so many overnight buses in the span of five days. If the roads aren’t great — which they weren’t from Nyaung Shwe to Yangon — then maybe don’t expect to sleep too much.
Yangon makes me feel claustrophobic. I think the only aspect of Yangon I like better than Bangkok is that there are no motorbikes. But the cars are particularly aggressive and I wouldn’t consider Yangon to be a pedestrian-friendly city.
The next day, I woke up early to head down to the Ayeryarwaddy Delta to do some reporting. This was absolutely the most fun I’ve ever had reporting. I don’t want to say too much about it here, but I am working on a story pertaining to mangroves, which are being deforested at pretty high rates in the agriculturally-rich delta regions. At first things weren’t going exactly to plan, but we went hunting for some mangroves our second day there. About two decades ago, there were more than 2800 acres of mangroves in this town called Dedaye. Today, there are only 80 acres left.
We arrived at the Gulf of Matarban to see the remaining mangroves in Dedaye. Can you spy the sinking pagoda in the picture below?
Twelve years ago, this pagoda was in the middle of a mangrove forest. But, the mangrove trees had since been cut down, which led salt water to intrude, and, over time, covered much of the pagoda. Pretty nuts. I hadn’t ever witnessed such drastic environmental change before, and it was neat (and sad) hearing about it from villagers who had seen it progress through the years.
After two days in the Delta, I arrived back in Yangon, and had another two days to spend there.
All in all, it was so incredible to be in Myanmar a month away from the country’s first democratic election. Myanmar had been under military rule up until 2011, when it transitioned to a nominally civilian government. I’ve never seen such outright support for one party in any country, and there seems to be lots of people who are psyched for the National League of Democracy to be elected in office. There have been so many changes in Myanmar since the country lifted its sanctions to the west three years ago: i read a few travel blogs that talked about Myanmar in 2012 or early 2013, and the writers mentioned that they weren’t any Western brands. Now, walking down the streets, you can see signs for Coca-Cola or Pepsi, Nivea and Dove. It’s changed quite a bit. The cost of a SIM card went down by a few magnitudes, too: it was shockingly cheap to make calls and send messages on a prepaid cell phone plan when I was there.
For now, I am back in Bangkok. First line of business:
Rainy season in Thailand lasts every year from around July to October. When I first arrived in mid-August, it was sweltering hot, Bangkok had hardly received any rain at all, and Thailand was reported to be in a drought. Yet, for the past two weeks or so, it had been raining nearly every single day, particularly at night, causing flooding in some parts of the country. There were probably a handful of days in those two weeks in Bangkok where the skies were persistently grey which — as someone who enjoys sunshine — grated on me.
I apparently get antsy if I stay in Bangkok for more than two weeks at a time and don’t have a change of scenery. At the end of the day, I don’t think I’m meant to live in a crowded city and be surrounded by tall buildings when I step outside. I also don’t love beaches, and contemplated heading into Kanchanaburi, but I mostly didn’t want to experience rain for a few days so… beach it was.
So, I monitored the weather in Koh Chang, an island along the eastern seaboard of Thailand, for about a week, and decided on Friday to head out of town for a laptop-less three day weekend since weather reports said it would be sunny for all of Saturday and Sunday. Koh Chang is huge (second largest island to Phuket in Thailand); despite that people mostly come here for the beaches, it has a mountainous exterior, with opportunities to go trekking, climbing, or chasing waterfalls.
I boarded a bus early Saturday morning, and five hours later, we were dropped off at a pier in Trat Province for a ferry that would bring us to Koh Chang. [[Bus round trip from Ekkamai bus terminal to the ferry = 464 baht; ferry costs 80 baht one way]]
TL;DR: It was glorious. Rainy season is also low season on the beaches, so hotel prices were slightly cheaper than they would be during high season and the beaches were also less crowded. In some ways, it felt like a ghost town. In other ways, it felt so incredibly nice, almost like sharing a secret with everyone else who visited when I did. And it was the best decision in the world to not bring my laptop: I spent a lot of time lying out on the beach, exploring around the backroads and water falls, reading Middlemarch, listening to the noise in my own mind, and the sound of the waves crashing against the soft sandy shores… I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.
On my second day, I had a few ideas of what I wanted to do. There are some mangroves (my favorite ecosystem) along the eastern side of the island, but would be a pain to get to. All the beaches in Koh Chang are along the western side, and so, that’s where the taxi system will bring you. I learned that it would cost more than 1,000 THB to hire a driver for a day to bring me to the mangroves on the eastern side, so I nixed that plan. The other option would have been to rent a motorbike for the day, except I had never ridden a motorbike in my life and thought it best — for the sake my own safety — to not do so on an island that’s super hilly with winding roads. Instead, I hopped on a cab down south to the next beach, got off at the main road, and walked to a nearby waterfall named Klong Plu.
Just as I got off the main road en route to Klong Plu, I spied an elephant.
Apparently there are a handful of elephant camps on the island (Koh Chang means “elephant island”). Didn’t realize how large these babies are until I walked past them. I didn’t stop to feed the elephants or ride them, mostly because I hadn’t done my research on which camps treat their elephants well or poorly and didn’t want to support any sort of animal care that I would disagree with afterwards.
Twenty minutes later, I reached the waterfall entrance. You pay 200 baht to enter, and a short 600m walk brings you to the falls. On my way there, I found myself mesmerized by the color of leaves and stones along the path, and the entangled and exposed tree roots.
Shortly thereafter, I arrived. Behold, Klong Plu:
I met a new friend at the waterfall: her name is Rachel and she is also based in Bangkok for a few months. We chatted for a bit at the waterfall, grabbed lunch, she passed along a print version of the New Yorker that she had finished reading, exchanged numbers to hang out soon, then we parted ways. Afterwards, I walked for… quite a while before I hit Kai Bae beach for some new views.
Rounded out my second day reading the New Yorker, having papaya salad, and watching the sunset at my hotel.
And on my last morning, I lather-rinsed-repeated the sitting somewhere, listening to the waves, and reading Middlemarch.
The second I arrived back in Bangkok, I noticed my heart rate jump up the same way it always did when I returned back to New York City after being away. It’s good to be back to have a few days to get my ducks in a row for the next trek out, but I also don’t appreciate the noticeable effect that cities have on my stress levels. But, after three perfectly sunny days, plenty of swims in aquamarine oceans and swimming holes, all the fruit smoothies you could imagine, I felt quite recharged.
Verdict on Koh Chang: Go visit, and spend a few days there. Some quick tips —
Choose your beach wisely. It costs about 50 baht to hop between beaches, which adds up if you’re intending on going beach hopping and then returning back to your hotel / bungalow / etc at the end of the day. I stayed on White Sand Beach, which is the first beach you hit after getting off the pier on the shared taxi. The water doesn’t get too deep too quickly, so I was able to swim out quite far before deciding to turn back to land. Hat Kai Bae (further south) was nice, but also pretty rocky and not much space for me to lounge directly on the beach. Fewer people. Most backpackers like to go to Lonely Beach, but I wanted a weekend of peace and quiet. Here’s a good guide to all the different beach personalities.
Learn to ride a motorcycle or scooter outside of Koh Chang, and then rent said vehicles in Koh Chang. I desperately wish I knew how to ride on two motorized wheels because I wanted to see the mangroves on the eastern side. That being said, KC is NOT a place to learn how to drive a bike because the hills are pretty steep. This is the most cost effective way, though, to explore the island yourself. It costs somewhere between 150 and 250 baht to rent a bike for a day.
If you can, go during low season. Especially if you like the tranquility and the sense that you can have a beach all to yourself.
I’m not sure where all the time in the world has gone as I’ve been in Bangkok/Thailand for an entire month already. It’s been fun – and a lot of hard work – to put together my own schedule so far, and to plan for the coming months ahead. Here are some noteworthy things I’ve realized so far in my time here:
Your dollar goes a long, long, long, long, LONG way. It will be a jarring transiti on when I have to pay more than $2 for a smoothie.
Street food is the best food… Street food stalls stud the soi I live on and the collective, tantalizing aroma of barbecued pork, fried chicken, noodles, is such a tease when I’m walking to the gym but is such a great treat when I’m en route home. Here’s my favorite stall for papaya salad (pro tip: if you’re looking for papaya salad along the streets of Thailand, look for vendors with a huge mortar and pestle).
… Unless it’s Monday, because then it’s street cleaning day. In which case, I forage for food on Sunday night:
I’m on a quest to find the best khao soi in Thailand.
Khao soi was love at first slurp and therefore the most amazing dish in the world. It’s egg noodles with chicken simmered in a coconut-milk curry broth and topped with fried noodles. I’ve tried it at a few different locations around Thailand so far (3 in BKK, one in Sukhothai). Very looking forward to going north towards Chiang Mai and seeing how it compares there.
Beer brewed with rice isn’t the worst beer in the world. Thailand has three lagers that basically taste the same: Singha, Chang’s, and Leo. There’s also Phuket which is usually a bit more expensive but also, doesn’t taste much different. However, my very refined palate has singled out Leo, even despite that Leo is brewed with rice (why someone decided it would be ok to brew beer this way is beyond me, besides the fact that it probably doesn’t cost very much) and then brewers toss in malt flavoring. I have found American and European beers here, although, of course, you’d pay a premium for beer that has actual flavor.
The most difficult question I get asked regularly is, “where are you from?” I start with “America,” but some Thais don’t believe me. They make a sound that signifies confusion, and then point to their skin color. As in, no, my skin color is not ‘American,’ or white. Culturally, I have very western mannerisms, and I think it’s the easiest explanation for my accent-less English. But that’s not the answer people are looking for. I’ve noticed that the Chinese will speak to me in Mandarin, Westerners will yap at me in English, and the Thai speak to me in Thai until I respond in English.
THE THAI LANGUAGE IS DIFFICULT. It’s a very soft language where one word bleeds into another and the inflections are important. Can’t recognize any characters, except perhaps for the ones for ‘baht’ on food stalls / restaurants, but I can get away with perhaps just 3 key phrases (hello – sa wat dee ka/krap (m/f), thank you – khop khun ka/krap, and sorry – kho toht). I hope to learn a few others while I’m here.
I still cross streets fearful of being run over. Drivers drive on the right side of the car, and on the left side of the road, so getting used to looking right before looking left while crossing a street took some getting used to. Some street intersections have pedestrian signs, but not all. Even if pedestrians have the right of way, motorcyclists won’t heed them and will just weave mercilessly around cars. The New Yorker in me still gets very fidgety when a motorbike gets a little too close to me.
Living abroad has not been as lonely as I thought. I suppose technology (iMessage/WhatsApp/Facetime) help in this regard, but I’ve also had the chance to meet and reconnect with some really interesting people in my stay here so far. SE Asia attracts a diverse group of expats, that’s for sure.
Being a journalist has been a great lens for me to understand the world we live in. I’ve had the chance to learn about ASEAN, the Asian energy section, healthcare in non-Western countries, supply chain economics, sexuality in SE Asian countries, and so many other aspects of the world we live in that would be more difficult to learn about (and have access to the people who I could speak about with) if I were living in America. This past week, I spent 10 minutes telling my cab driver in Kuala Lumpur how healthcare worked in the states; he was appalled by the concept of people paying exorbitant prices out of pocket for medical care and couldn’t wrap his mind around why a ‘deductible’ would even exist.
I had reservations when I first arrived in Mae Sot at dusk on Sunday evening, and, contrary to Bangkok or Sukhothai, there weren’t cabs or tuk-tuks eager to bring the arrivals to our destinations. I felt rather disoriented after getting off the minivan, pulled up my preloaded Google Maps and walked in the general direction of my hotel, past all the dogs on the street, across the “highway” that cuts east to west through town, down a gravel road where cows were being herded further along… I wasn’t quite sure where I was, or how I got myself there in the first place.
Seeing the town the next day in broad daylight was more helpful. The hotel I stayed at has bikes that their visitors can use, which has been super convenient for getting around. Remember when I said I couldn’t get used to cars driving on the left hand side of the road? Well, I got used to that super fast. That, and biking on the shoulder (and sometime the roads) of the highway (The most direct way for me to get from my hotel to the clinic).
The community here in Mae Sot is quite diverse; street signs are written both in Thai and Burmese. Walking around ‘downtown’ you can find expats along the main road of town where all the hostels are, Burmese faces smeared with different patterns of thanaka – a yellow powder that can double as sunscreen, and some occasional Thais. There’s quite the garment and gem industry here, as well: textile shops line the streets, and gem stores line the streets that aren’t full of fabrics.
Took a stroll through the Municipal Market that’s open all day in town after my first day of reporting. Some sights from that:
I need to mention that I found the BEST cafe in the world: Borderline. it has delicious coffee, amazing (the best I’ve ever had) Burmese food, floor seating, wifi. I went there last night for dinner and I went back there for lunch today. In addition to their cafe, Borderline also has a fair-trade store with tons of beautiful handmade goods, and Burmese cooking classes. I will happily give them all my dollars. All of them.
To balance out all of that, I purchased dinner entirely from 7-11, which consisted of two yogurts, sliced mango, and a bag of wasabi peas. I heard that purchasing dinner from 7-11 was a farang rite of passage, so I figured I should do it sooner than later.
I’ve learned in the past few days that Mae Sot is a complicated place. On my first night in town, I met an expat at dinner who teaches English here in Mae Sot. I told him I was a journalist, and he guessed what I came here to work on. “Let’s see… people living in dumpsters? The textile labor industry? Something pertaining to healthcare?”
And in spite of all its complications, I’ve met some incredible people: in particular, the staff and patients at the clinics and hospitals I’ve been spending most of my time in, and some new expat friends I met last night. (Yes friends! Despite solo traveling for the past few days, I was reminded of how fun it is to meet new people)
Mae Sot has reminded me that when I open my heart up to new people, experiences, and knowledge that others want to do the same.
Writing this post almost 500km away from Bangkok in a tiny town 7km east of Burma called Mae Sot. I’m here on reporting duties (Not saying that to be secretive, but as a way to say: more on that later).
I spent yesterday, however, in a town called Sukhothai, about 180km east of Mae Sot. Sukhothai (literally translated to “Dawn of Happiness) is thought to be the first national capital of Thailand (although this has been debated), and the ruins there have been compared to Cambodia’s Angkor Wat. Since Mae Sot and Sukhothai are fairly close, I decided to make a day trip out of seeing the ruins of Sukhothai. Some glimpses of yesterday, in photos:
I took a 7 hour bus ride from Bangkok to Sukhothai. It was beautiful driving through the Thai countryside, a great contrast to seeing tall buildings all around me in the capitol.
Then, this morning I set an alarm for 5:30 to arrive at Old Sukhothai at around 6:30 am. I was hoping to catch the sunrise, but missed it a bit. A 20 min tuk-tuk ride brought me from my AirBNB in New Sukhothai over. I rented a bike for 30 baht, acquired my park ticket, and started zoomin’ around.
First up was Wat Mahathat, the first huge attraction you hit when you get into the central region of the park.
My brain had a bit of trouble acclimating to how early it was so… I got a little lost. Great thing about getting lost on a bike – and realizing it – is how easy it is to turn around and retrace my steps. I was hoping to find some of the main attractions in the central region, like Wat Sa Si. (Eventually, I found it, of course)
Old Sukhothai is divided into five portions: central, north, south, east, and west. Most of the sights are in the central, north, and west portions. There are a few in the south and east, but I didn’t think I would have enough time (just a half day) to explore them all. After finishing my rounds in Central Sukhothai, I biked off in search of the north portion.
I unexpectedly came across this little guy en route:
As I biked towards the northern section, I came across my favorite wat of the day, Wat Sorasek:
When I passed the city gate and into the northern section, I saw that the eastern ticket booth was closed. The central and north sections of the park require their own tickets. Confused as to why the booth was closed, I biked around the periphery, thinking that maybe there would be another entrance. Lo and behold, there was!
The main attraction in the northern section of the park is Wat Phra Phai Luang, and, as I learned, it’s far less restored than any of the Wats in the central section. But I found the lack of restoration rather charming.
After all this, decided to loop back to the central portion for an early morning snack. Passed by Wat Mahathat again, just to admire it one last time for good measure.
Took a coffee break when I arrived back at my AirBNB (It was around 10:30). As I apparently proved, it’s totally possible to see most of the central and northern portions of Sukhothai by bike in around 3.5ish hours. By this point, I was ravenous, so I checked out, and went on a search for lunch.
The thing is, I already knew what I was going to have for lunch. And, once I’m on a mission to find a particular type of food: a) I will find it and b) no other delicious foods will detract me from my ultimate goal. Today’s lunch goal was to find a dish called khao soi: it’s a noodles served with curry broth influenced by Burmese-cooking and common in Northern Thailand cuisine.
It was my first time having it and the first bite sent my taste buds haywire – in the best way possible: I was greeted with a mild coconut flavor, soon overtaken by curry flavoring, and a smooth aftertaste. I frankly don’t know how to describe it, so I’m leaving directions to this incredible hole-in-the-wall place so y’all can find this amazing dish and experience it yourself.
After lunch, grabbed my things from the hotel and made for the bus station. I had quite a few hours to wait, so I popped a book open and read for a while.
A week or so ago, I followed a tip from a friend of mine and bought a fake wedding band for $3 USD at MBK (a huge shopping mall in Bangkok with probably tons of fake goods). Like Lingbo, I didn’t know how useful (or not) it would be, but I didn’t want people creeping on me while I was traveling. Since my hands usually make an appearance when I’m talking with others, I figure it’s a good deterrent. Maybe it has been!
Except for this one Thai dude who was leering over me as I read today at the bus terminal. Maybe he was fascinated with the fact I was not reading Thai words. Either way, it would have probably been rude if I flashed my hand to him, so I didn’t. Alas.
After three hours on a minivan and the tumultuous drive through the mountains of Tak, I’ve landed in Mae Sot. I felt carsick as the minivan plowed through the winding mountain roads, and felt relief as we started moving downhill, and I saw the blue GPS dot on my Google Maps indicate we were closer to our destination. In the distance, I saw the mountains of Karen State in Burma: they looked both mysterious and welcoming, perhaps a harbinger of what’s to come this week and in the coming months.
As for now, the abundance of unsupervised dogs on the streets makes me nervous about rabies and the masses of mosquitos makes me anxious about all my favorite vector-borne diseases.
I’ve been here for two whole weeks and it feels longer than that.
My life in America feels so far away, and going back to America feels like it will happen much sooner than later. (What do people like to say about time flying?) The latter feeling has been the fire under my belly in the past week: knowing that my time here is limited and I need to get moving. I’m itching to get moving on the things I came out here to do.
It’s strange planning everything by myself even though I love having autonomy over my days: Which days will I write? Which days will I pitch? (answer: almost all the days). When should I go to the gym? (Midday) Where do I want to travel? How do I want to get there? How many days do I want to spend in one place? The questions are endless. The only way to answer these questions has been to constantly tap in with myself.
I’ve learned two weeks is enough time for me to feel at home somewhere new. I’ve gotten used to looking right then left before crossing the street, taking off my shoes before entering public spaces without fear they’d be stolen, and wandering places with a general sense of direction but not specific ones.
I’ve learned three key Thai phrases: sa wat dee ka/kap (hello f/m); kor toht (sorry, excuse me); korp kun (thank you). My friend’s brother (a Thailand native) said, “very good! Now that you know those three phrases, you can stay in this country for a long, long time. For everything else, you can just use body language.” But I still have to override my impulses to say “thank you,” “sorry,” etc.
I’ve over-ridden my fear of going up to street food booths with signs exclusively in Thai and summoning to the vendor, “I’ll have what that guy before me had.” For instance, I had no idea what dinner would be tonight:
I’ve ridden a motorbike and I liked it. I’ve learned how to jump on and jump off a water taxi with relative ease and grace (i.e.: I haven’t fallen into the water yet). I can now give a cab driver my address instead of pointing to a screenshot of Google Maps.
I still have trouble knowing what time it is in time zones and cities outside of EST and PST. I ultimately decided to obtain a fake wedding ring for less than $3 USD just for good measure.
I learned that I hesitate a lot when I’m about to push my comfort zone. This means I just take longer to make some decisions instead of acting more impulsively.
I’ve seen a lot, and I’m itching to see more. All in due time.