The Wizardess of Oz

An American's Adventures in Australia and Beyond

Tag: Mountains

The Mountains of Vietnam

I had gotten dropped off at the locals’ train station.

I didn’t even realize it until I was left at the glittery, neon-signed tourist train station when I came back hours later to catch my train in Hanoi. After trudging around the block to the dingy, quiet train station where I had bought my ticket, I realized that this was actually a win.

I had only paid $24 for a trip to SaPa – everywhere else online had told me it’d be $40. I worried about the quality of my bunk, but figured there was nothing to be done.

My room for the night

My room for the night

I was one of the first people on my train car, and I nearly jumped up and down clapping at the sight of the spacious 4-bed bunks. I settled myself in, claimed the charger space, and immediately made myself cozy. Fortunately, my only bunkmate was an elderly Vietnamese man with zero English. Unfortunately for me, he was a smoker in a country with zero smoking regulations.

I finally dropped off into a deep sleep a couple of hours after midnight, about halfway through the train journey. When I fell asleep, we were whizzing through the dark. And now all around us unfolded a misty mountain wonderland. Was I still in the same hot, humid country I’d left the night before?

I was glued to the windows as we passed through rice paddies with farmers already hard at work, their pointed hats bent over their labor, backs hunched. Mountains rose up behind them, the peaks shrouded in mist. Everything was green, bathed in that early morning glow that lights everything up from within.

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As we changed from the train to a van, we wound our way up the terraced mountainsides, pine trees reaching for the sky. Soon, women in rich colors and patterns shuffled along the roadsides, dogs at their heels and children on their backs. They were shorter, their faces rounder, their eyes narrower.  The Hmong tribespeople were a class of Vietnamese all their own, their very garments a celebration of a culture they refused to abandon.

SaPa was a breath of fresh air all it’s own – after weeks of heavy humidity, it was a blessing to breathe in cool mountain air. The Fan Xi Pan Mountains jutted majestically above everything, knifing the sky with it’s harsh crags. Waterfalls fell from the peaks, and trails beckoned. The town was curious mix of Vietnamese exotic and a typical mountain village — perhaps some things are universal, like the towering pines in the village center, or the log-cabin construction.

Perhaps if anything is universal, it’s the mountains and the feeling that they give us. Their forests wrap you in a hug, their peaks remind you of how small you are, and their valley vistas are the closest a human being can get to flying with both feet on the ground.

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I hired a motorbike driver and we took off onto the winding mountain roads, stopping off to explore waterfalls, to gape at the mountain peaks, and to admire the geometric terracing that raced up mountainsides and across valley floors. All around, daily life for the mountain villagers carried on: women trimmed bamboo, a man herded water buffalo down the road, stall owners chatted with each other on the roadside.

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As I descended the mountains a few days later, I knew I would miss the feeling of being wrapped so entirely in nature’s beauty. Little did I know that I was bound for a place where the mountains met the sea.

Battambang

I didn’t arrive in Battambang in the best of spirits.

I was on Day 2 of the worst attack of bedbugs I’d ever had, thanks to the hostel I had stayed in my first couple of nights in Siem Reap. The weather was suffocatingly hot and humid, which is the worst weather to be in when you’re covered in painfully itchy bug bites. I had to sort out getting all of my clothing and bags professionally cleaned and treated, in case I had picked up any hitchhiking bugs that wanted to plague the rest of my travels. And I was tired from sleeping poorly and being run ragged during the days by the adorable but energy-filled young children I was volunteering to help.

Which was why I spent my first night locked in my private room at the Here Be Dragons hostel, sobbing at my fiance on the phone.

Putting on a Brave Face with My Travel Companions

Putting on a Brave Face with My Travel Companions

But by the next morning, I had chinned up, dropped all of my belongings at the laundry, and was jumping on a tuk tuk with the rest of the group to spend the entire day seeing the sites that this central Cambodian city had to offer. Our driver, CJ, promised us the best of the area all in one day.

We kicked it off with the Bamboo Train, which is essentially a flat bed on railway wheels. Bamboo mats were put down, and we climbed aboard. Next thing we knew, we were flying through the Cambodian countryside, desperately trying to find something to hold onto as the wind whipped our hair around our faces, and trying to dodge any overgrowth from the side of the railway tracks.

All Aboard the Bamboo Train!

All Aboard the Bamboo Train!

From there we toured a few villages, where they showed us how to make rice paper rolls and rice wine – a concoction that tasted and smelled a lot more like whiskey than like any wine I’d ever had.

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We stopped off at an ancient temple, which happened to be the site of a wedding photo shoot!

Wedded Bliss @ Banan Temple

Wedded Bliss @ Banan Temple

After a break for lunch and a rest during the heat of the day, we went to Sampeou Mountain. Here, we were able to take in views for miles from a pagoda at the top. We then proceeded to a temple, which had been a prison during the reign of the Khmer Rouge.

We descended into a nearby cave, shivering as the temperature dropped nearly twenty degrees. Our guide explained that this had been a Killing Cave, a place where the Khmer Rouge cast anyone they considered a dissident of the fascist rule. In the beginning, they would shoot their victims and throw them 100 feet below. But as money became scarce, ammunition was considered too valuable to use on those who would soon be dead, so they were simply thrown in. Some would take days to die.

Khmer tradition requires that the remains of the dead stay where they died, so two glass shrines held the bones and skulls that had been found at the site as it was excavated for tourism. I looked at the tiny skulls of the children who had been thrown down, trying to fight the lump in my throat. Surrounded by the ghosts of the oppressed, my petty concerns from the night before didn’t seem to be such problems anymore.

The Site of Many Deaths @ the Hands of the Khmer Rouge

The Site of Many Deaths @ the Hands of the Khmer Rouge

In an attempt to lighten the mood, CJ then took us to the bat cave, where we watched a beautiful Cambodian sunset behind the mountains that border Thailand. Watching tens of thousands of bats streaming into the forests as the sun set wasn’t exactly the mood lifter our guide had hoped, but it did get us squealing and mugging for the cameras as we modeled our face masks, handy for blocking out the overwhelming smell of bat poop.

Thug Life

Thug Life

Sunset from the Bat Cave

Sunset from the Bat Cave

By the time it was time to leave, I returned to Siem Reap in much better spirits than I had arrived. Maybe there’s something to that mountain air in northern Cambodia…

The Start of the Solo Travels in Pai, Thailand

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I bid my sister adieu in Chiang Mai with a little trepidation – we’d been on the road for the better part of three months together, and now the next five months yawned ahead of me, only a rough sketch of plans in place, and no one to ask, “Is this a good idea?”

I’d already been in Chiang Mai for a few days longer than I felt I needed to be, so I packed up, headed to the bus station, and jumped on the next minivan for a small town called Pai. The ride to town was a nausea-inducing three hours hurtling through forests and winding mountain roads, upon which we were unceremoniously dumped in the town center.

My arrival in a new place was enough to keep me busy for the first few hours – find a place to stay, get myself situated, peruse the Lonely Planet and a few blogs for things to do here, and check out the map to situate myself. And then it was time to go out on my own.

There are a lot of blogs that extol the virtues of solo travel, and all the things they post are true. But maybe a lot of them don’t remember that traveling solo for the first time requires a little warming up. I felt weird wandering around a town with no real destination and no one to mark my observations to. I felt like people were staring at me  wandering the streets alone (they weren’t, I’m just paranoid and always think people are staring at me), I wasn’t sure what to do with my hands while I wandered the roads with no real destination, I felt like I should be making friends but it would have been so weird to just walk up to someone and introduce myself. So I parked in a little hippy cafe, ordered a stunningly delicious chai tea latte, and caught up on my travel journal like a recluse. Some things take easing into.

I did sign up for a trip to Pai Canyon to watch the sunset, and was able to chat with a group of girls from the UK on the way up and the way back, so my social interaction wasn’t exactly zero for Day 1 solo on the roads.

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Since my time in Pai was limited to a couple of days, I signed up for a ‘Pai Sights’ Tour, one of these package deals where they pack you into a van and take you around the various sights for a fee. It was about $18, and I figured it was better than trying to figure out how to get everywhere on my own. And then my decision to do this crazy traveling thing alone was fully validated by discovering that every person on the tour was a solo female traveler! There were five of us in total, we all came from different places, were different ages, and we all got along great.  All my doubts from the day before were put to rest.

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Swinging at the Treehouse in Pai

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Pai Natural Hot Springs… No Egg Boiling Allowed

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Natural Hot Springs That Actually Felt Natural!

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A Casual Barefoot Hike, As You Do

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I LOVE Pai!

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No Visit Is Complete Without Buddha

Pai is a place that seems to encourage becoming one with the earth. There are plenty of dreadlocks, Bob Marley decor, incense and other hippy-esque details about the place that give it this vibe. So naturally part of the day included taking a dip in the natural hot springs and choosing to climb the sandstone rocks of Pai Canyon barefoot, just to get into the spirit of the place.

Pai is what the rest of Thailand probably was 15 years ago: still a little undeveloped, a little off the radar, but beautiful in it’s own rough, earthy, unapologetic way. What a fabulous place to start traveling alone.

Til next time, xoxoxo!

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