backpacking

[1Month2Wander] Stop 1: A London Homecoming by Amanda Liew

Note: All photos in this post were taken on an iPhone, not a DSLR. 

Oh how quickly things can change! In just a few short weeks, I went from job searching to sitting in my friend Stephen's flat in London, enjoying a beautiful Thanksgiving dinner. In an exciting turn of events, my social impact job search has come to a close, and I am ridiculously thrilled to start a new position in January 2016. Fortunately, this meant that for the rest of 2015, I could take advantage of my true time off by backpacking through Europe! Since I unabashedly love unnecessary hashtags, I'm calling this one #1Month2Wander because that's truly what it is. After embarking on my incredible Jordan Solo Trip, I realized I was completely capable of setting off across the world by myself, albeit with a travel group. With the encouragement of my friend Megan, blogger over at Drifting Not Aimless, I decided I was in fact going to backpack without a firm plan! Not going to lie, it has only been a few days in, and I've bounced back and forth between having mini freakouts and total zen. On one hand, I wanted to kick myself this morning when I realized that a Eurorail pass probably would have made more sense for me given the unpredictability of my travels, but it requires enough planning to anticipate the 3-4 days of shipping. Not to mention, nearly everything is just so much more expensive at the last minute! On the other hand, it's pretty awesome having total freedom over my schedule - my weeks have been in flux nonstop & I like that I'm not particularly tied down to anything at the moment. 

One thing I did know, though, was that my trip had to begin in London. Just a month ago, I was lamenting that I couldn't come back to London for Thanksgiving this year, only to discover last minute that in fact it was possible. My incredible friends Stephen & Beccy threw open their arms and welcomed me to London with literally only a week and a half's worth of notice.

Honestly, I'm so happy I decided to start my trip here! Ever since my ABCD Trip this fall (yes, yes, I'm rather behind on blogging about that...), I've been more aware of the way a trip's "flow" impacts my experience. It's been wonderful starting off a really big trip on a little bit more stable ground; a homecoming of sorts. I've already seen most of the big sights, so there's no franticness to the pace of my day. I'm here to have good conversations, get my bearings on the world, spend the day cooking American dishes for a medley of British & Canadian friends, and explore new parts of London that the tourists don't get to see. There's also the relief in being able to easily navigate the tube system myself & knowing I should stop at Boots to pick up a toothbrush or Oxford street to replace my broken boots. I love that I don't have to get fish & chips this time around (although I might), and instead Beccy and I can stop by her local Malaysian-Thai restaurant for some good curry laksa. I love that I don't need to see Big Ben for the thousandth time, and instead can spend a solid hour with Stephen at the temporary pop up British Museum of Food sampling chocolate in sound booths, sitting in massage chairs to feel what it's like to get digested, and jot down our recommendations of what a hopefully full-time exhibit should include. There's just such a feeling of comfort and familiarity that has made this such a great time already.

For that reason, all of these photos are just iPhone snapshots rather than DSLR quality photos. Bringing it back to my traveling roots and original style of blogging, really! Most of the snapshots below are of the British Museum of Food's butterfly effect room highlighting the importance of butterflies in the ecosystem for pollination. We were so impressed that they were able to build a complete rainforest atmosphere and that we could even watch a few butterflies coming out of their cocoons! The pink lighting is due to the type of lamps they had to create the environment. We literally stumbled across the exhibit, and couldn't be more thankful for it - it was only 5GBP, so I highly recommend it.

Happy Thanksgiving all!

Up next? Copenhagen with Patrick! I'm going to do my best to semi-live blog my travels if I can! 

[Stop #4, 5, 6]: Cambodia | Siem Reap, Sihanoukville, Phnom Penh by Amanda Liew

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Even though our G Adventures tour was meeting in Bangkok, the majority of our 10 day guided trip was to go through Cambodia. Our first stop was Siem Reap to see the absolutely phenomenal Angkor Wat and various other ancient temples. There were many aspects of G Adventures that we absolutely loved - it was the first "semi-guided" tour that I had been on, and I loved the freedom to eat where we wanted to eat/shop where we wanted to shop, but still be able to have some semblance of organization (ie, hit up all the major sights & not have to worry about booking hotels or crossing the border - we actually crossed the Thai/Cambodian border by foot!). The people on the trip were absolutely amazing. We were the only Americans, but there was a good mixture of travelers from Germany, the UK, Canada, and more. I was absolutely amazed at how many of our group members were actually solo travelers! We realized that the traveling culture in other countries is vastly different to the US - it's not uncommon to go by yourself on a 6 month backpacking tour throughout the world. On top of that, G Adventures would often have a relationship with local community groups or families who would serve us the most amazing home cooked meals and the profits made would go to a school or program. It gave us the opportunity to meet some of the people in the area, and of course, the unbelievably cute little kids (she's holding a puppy! How can you resist?!)_DSC0581

Our first night in Siem Reap we got a chance to explore the night markets. Interestingly enough, it was actually extremely similar to the night market on Khao San Road in Bangkok -  throughout our trip we would actually notice the exact same souvenirs but with different countries on them hahah. One thing that was really unique, though, was the Mr. Fish foot massage parlours! You  literally sit with your feet in a tub filled with tiny fish, and they nibble the dead skin off! I couldn't decide if it was hilarious, gross, unique, or bizarre. As we finished up at the market, we headed over to some of the bars and found the cleverly titled "Angkor What?" bar. Dancing on elevated surfaces may or may not have happened. And of course, as the only sober person in the group, I somehow managed to DGAP in every single photo we took. No shame, no shame.  _DSC0597 _DSC0613 The next morning, we woke up before sunrise at 4AM in order to catch the sunrise at Angkor Wat and see the reflecting pool. To say that the sight was incredible would be an understatement. The details in the architecture were mind blowing, and the reflection in the water just added to it all the more. The photographs speak for themselves:_DSC0641 _DSC0650 _DSC0682 _DSC0700 Believe it or not we actually ran into almost the entire graduating lass of PiKapp while we were there - turns out we really weren't kidding about the whole everybody-in-our-graduating-class-is-going-to-south-east-asia thing. With the sun risen, we went back to our hotel to try and nap before getting up again to actually visit Angkor Wat (the stones are too slippery that early in the morning). _DSC0717 _DSC0721 _DSC0738 _DSC0779 _DSC0787

After that, it was temples, temples, and more temples! One of my favorites was the "Tomb Raider Temple" thanks to the movie being filmed there. Our tour guide told us that the French helped restore a lot of the temples but kept this one overrun by plants & vegetation to show the extent that the jungle had taken over. The result is an unbelievable mixture of nature, history, and architecture. _DSC0840 _DSC0849

Done with all of the amazing sites in Siem Reap, we headed on down to the Phnom Penh, the capital! We were welcomed with yet another glorious home cooked meal eaten on the ground, Cambodian style. My new favorite? Taro egg rolls. _DSC0872 The majority of our trip to Phnom Penh was actually very sad and a dose of reality. We don't learn much about it in school in America, but the Khmer Rouge's rule of Cambodia absolutely devastated the entire nation. Despite having a population at the time of only ~8million, in just four years, over 2-3 million people were slaughtered for the smallest of reasons. Any signs of education or rebellion could lead to jail time, torture, death, and targeting your family. Even owning a pair of glasses was enough of a justification. We went to S-21, a prison infamous for its activity, and The Killing Fields. Even though they have uncovered over 20,000 mass graves, still now, when the rain comes and washes away the dirt, fragments of bones still come up. I almost didn't believe the tour guide until I saw "white rocks" on the ground beneath me. Learning about the genocide in Cambodia was heartbreaking - there are barely any families in Cambodia who haven't lost a direct relative to the regime. What's even more mind blowing is how recently all of this took place: 1975-1979. I didn't take many photos during my time in Phnom Penh - at times it felt almost disrespectful to do so. But with this tree I was moved - both by the atrocities that we don't even think can happen, and by the respects paid from visitors around the world:_DSC0876Our last stop in Cambodia: The beach community of Sihanoukville! As a Californian - scratch that, as a La Jollan, I have prettyyy high standards for my beaches. But wow, Cambodia, you just blew me away. I had no idea these colors and that warmth could exist in the water! It was the epitome of #vacationproblems when the water at the beach was actually a little too warm for our liking and we needed to get out to cool down. Tough life. Unfortunately I only have photos on my iPhone since I didn't want to ruin my DSLR with the water and sand. Nevertheless, the trusty Camera+ app was able to take some gorgeous views! photo (2) photo (1)

Next up? Vietnam!

[Stop #3]: Bangkok, Thailand by Amanda Liew

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_DSC0524 After weeks of insane and fun-filled weeks traveling through various cities, I'm finally able to blog a little bit! Things have been supremely delayed since I haven't had my computer up until recently, and I just started work as a real person this month. Looking back at all these photos, I honestly cannot believe how blessed and fortunate I am to be able to visit so many phenomenal places.So, rewind back to the month of May, and we start with Thailand, the first leg of our South East Asia excursions!

Originally we had booked a 10-day tour through G Adventures, but we wanted a few days to ourselves in Bangkok to explore and get over our jet lag. Thanks to our friend, Trisha's, recommendations, we stayed at D&D Inn in the heart of Khao San Road, the main backpacking area with food stalls, bars, clothing that looked like it was from Urban Outfitters but cost a fraction of the price, and so much more. It was insane to see how the street itself transformed from day to night: storefronts would turn into bars trying to out-blast their neighbors with Top 40 hits.

Unfortunately, our first day was off to a little bit of a rough start. We fell into multiple scams pretty early on. Long story short, there is a massive scamming network in Bangkok - so large that it's possible for them to have hundreds of people on the streets telling foreigners the exact same lies ("Why are you going to that temple? It doesn't open until 3pm!") and able to coordinate the scam with others without even talking about it! However, even though we definitely overpaid for many many things, we were able to go on a river boat tour and see a lot of the temples from the water. It was amazing to also see so many houses built on stilts - it was definitely a stark contrast from certain wealthier areas in the city.

_DSC0086_DSC0118_DSC0083One of the things on my "list" was to try as much food as possible. Our boat tour dropped us off at a local open market with endless amounts of fresh fruit like rambutan (the spiky red fruit) and my new favorite fruit, mangosteen (the purple plum like fruit):

_DSC0139 The best, though, was the sticky mango rice. The woman cut the mango fresh for us and poured sweet coconut sauce on top. It was heaven._DSC0154

Finally, we were able to go to Wat Pho, a large temple complex and home to the enormous Reclining Buddha. Believe it or not, we ran into 3 of our freshman hallmates: Eric, Sam, and Bobby! Turns out everybody from our graduating class had the same idea as us and decided to travel South East Asia after gradution too hahah. We all joked that this was the new "backpacking through Europe." What amazed me was how one temple complex could still have so many different designs and styles. All of the following photos are from one place!_DSC0161

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When we were originally planning our trip, we wanted to be on the same tour group with Jeremy, Katie, and Sophie, but there wasn't enough room. They picked a trip that was two days earlier than ours, but since we were starting and ending in the same locations, we had some overlap! Jeremy took on the ultimate role of "Travel Dad" and guided us from place to place with map & tour book in hand hahah:

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Our third day, we decided to go with Bangkok Day Tours' Extraordinary Elephant Day Trip, and it was honestly one of the best decisions we made the entire trip. Even though the elephants were about 4 hours away, our personal tour made stops along the way which was a great way to break it up. We first went to the Damnoen Saduak Floating Market - it was clearly set up for tourists hahah, but it was still a great experience and really cool visually! _DSC0286 _DSC0291 Then we stopped for an amazing brunch of authentic Thai food right next to The Bridge on the River Kwai. I seriously ate unlimited amounts of mangosteen - I just couldn't stop! The insides are kind of fleshy like a tangerine, but it's tart, tangy, and sweet all at the same time. Seriously delicious!

_DSC0327After that, it was off to the elephants! Not only did we have a chance to ride them on land, but after a guided ride, we each got our own elephant to ride bareback into the river! The elephants were seriously fiesty and loved to play. They bucked us off multiple times, and the trainers would have us climb on their trunks or stand on their heads. At first I was terrified of hurting them, until I realized they actually couldn't feel me at all and I'm probably 1/20th of their weight!_DSC0336 _DSC0409_DSC0500_DSC0437And then? We got to have an actual waterfight. Using elephant trunks. It was amazing. _DSC0490_DSC0509

It was seriously one of the most amazing experiences of my life - I don't think I'll ever forget it. On our last and final day in Bangkok, we visited the Grand Palace on what was probably the hottest day of our lives. On top of that, there's a dress code at many of the temples & government sites - that meant putting on long sleeves and long dresses! _DSC0516 _DSC0521 _DSC0526

Last but not least, we got to see Wat Arun! We decided not to climb it since we had to go meet our tour group that night, but it was still such an impressive construction feat. I seriously can't believe the architecture on these buildings. _DSC0555That's it for now on Thailand! Next up (whenever I get around to it): Cambodia!