Bucket List: The Temples of Angkor Wat

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I feel as though everyone must have grown up seeing otherworldly photos of Angkor Wat in magazines like National Geographic. For me, the images of the strange pointed towers, large faces stacked on top of one another, and trees growing out of stone prompted me to invent some much cooler, more worldly version of myself to step inside this mysterious place and discover all its secrets. At the time I had no idea I would be partially right. It was just one out of a million dreams I created, and I never expected it to come true.

Since this week marks 2 years since I was in Siem Reap Cambodia, it seems only fitting that I cover the Temples of Angkor Wat in a bucket list post to commemorate all the years it was nothing more than a childhood dream and an item on a list. Unlike most childhood dreams, my visit to the Angkor Wat temple complex was better than I imagined thanks to a hang over and Ana and Jo, the two wonderful friends I spend the day with, and feel privileged to have met in the first place. While it may not sound so great to be hung over in the sweltering heat of Cambodia while walking endless sections of a rather large complex, the comedic memory of the three of us shuffling our feet and cracking jokes about the “possibility of visit” sign are far better than I could ever have dreamed up at 10.

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The first temple we came to was Angkor Wat, which was partially covered in a teal tarp and scaffolding that detracted from the intricate towers and iconic view we were all probably expecting. Honestly, I think it was a good thing we were all too hung over to really care. I can say with confidence that for my part I was more concerned with the sweltering heat and the glaring sun, and that I spent the entire walk up this pathway staring at the large stone tiles underfoot.

The inside of the temple was surprisingly bare, with the occasional statue standing alone in an empty passageway, and beautiful railings and carvings dotting the most random places that seemed to hit you as you turned a corner. Its unlit hallways and rooms lent a coolness to the day that I was more than happy to absorb for as long as possible, and seemed to give the building a sad feeling. The weathered walls and broken columns made me wonder about all the years and people and events that had passed by before. Cool to the touch, the stone that stood all around me still feels a little bit unreal in my memory, despite the two visits I experienced in almost as many days.

Next we got into our tuk tuk and were driven over to the temples of Bayon and Angkor Thom which are, for all intents and purposes, next door to one another. The three of us were instantly in awe of what stood before us, finally having that moment you expect when visiting the temple complex. Bayon was more unreal in person than any photograph had ever even suggested. The weathered, pieced together look of the faces stacked tall into the sky, the passages with an endless amount of carvings to examine and gape at, and stairways that seemed to climb forever and go nowhere in particular as if they knew some secret you were in on. It was almost too overwhelming to be real.

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We walked next door past playing monkeys and random sections of stone, and were met with the broken windows and doorways that lead into Angkor Thom (or Angry Tom as we like to call it), which although is not as impressive as Bayon, it’s a marvel in its own right when you happen to find yourself standing at the bottom of the excessively tall staircases. Admittedly this section is a bit of a haze in my memory, and while I don’t remember anything about the inside of the temple, I do remember a lot of Angry Tom jokes that started the moment Jo thought I was mispronouncing the name of the temple, and didn’t end until we found something else to snicker about.

Finding something else to laugh about didn’t take very long. While I can say I have walked across both the Terrace of the Elephants and the Terrace of the Leper King (which btw is the worst title ever), all I remember is a long discussion about the “possibility of visit sign” and stumbling along while staring at the beautiful ring around the sun. I’d love to tell you this was due to my hangover and/or the fact that I had only had water and a coke to drink the entire day, but the truth is that I would have done both sober and that the conversation was more interesting than the terraces we were walking on.

Last but not least is the temple of Ta Prohm, which I saw both in middle of the afternoon on my first trip with Ana and Jo, and just before the complex closed for the day (which is the best time to visit) the second time around. I think maybe what I like most about this temple is not the trees swallowing the structure, or even the chaotic, broken impression it leaves on you, but rather the entrance that doesn’t even hint at what lies ahead of you. Since this is without a doubt the most popular temple, you’re going to be waiting for other people a lot, which was actually sort of perfect because it gave us the chance to sit down and take everything in for the first time that day.

Not only are the trees much larger and more entwined in the temple than I was aware of, but the structure itself is also more beautiful than you expect. Apart from the dilapidated appearance of broken walls, piles of rubble, and sectioned off areas, the temple walls have beautiful carvings hidden behind the massive roots and trees that have over run them, and doorways of pale blue stone in sections away from the crowded mess of temple walls and trees fighting for space. It was the perfect way to end my visit, and I’m so happy to have been able to cross it off my bucket list.

Bucket List: The New 7 Wonders of the World

bucketlist7wondersOut of all the places I want to visit, none are as commonly found on bucket lists or more photographed than the new 7 wonders of the world. When the new list was announced on 07-07-07 in Lisbon Portugal, it replaced the original list – often referred to as the seven ancient wonders of the world – which had stood for nearly 2,000 years. Since only the pyramids of Egypt were still standing, the New7Wonders Foundation started a campaign in 2000 to allow the world the opportunity to come together and vote for a new list. After seven years and over 100 million votes, the following seven places were announced in random order to convey their equal footing, and are listed here in alphabetical order by country.

Christ the Redeemer – Brazil

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Flickr Photo: © Vincentraal

Located in Rio de Janeiro at the summit of Mount Corcovado, the Christ the Redeemer statue is easily the most iconic image of Brazil. Built between 1922 and 1931, Christ the Redeemer is the brainchild of engineer Heitor da Silva Costa and artist Carlos Oswald. Standing at roughly 124 feet tall, da Silva Costa designed the structure to be large enough for it to be seen from the city center a few miles away. While the original plans called for the statue to be constructed purely out of reinforced concrete, the design was changed after da Silva Costa saw a mosaic tiled fountain during a trip to Paris. The beautiful tile-work had inspired him, and soon the statue would find its finish in an intricate triangular design of tiny soapstone tiles that were to be adhered to the unseemly concrete. Today the statue has become a popular tourist destination and takes selfie with thousands of visitors every day.

The Great Wall – China

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Flickr Photo: © Marianna – The Great Wall of China

Built between the 3rd century BC and the 17th century AD on the country’s northern border, the Great Wall of China stretches across the country at the length of roughly 13,170 feet. Easily the greatest construction project in human history, the building of the Great Wall of China spanned multiple dynasties with each successive ruler adding to the wall for the same purpose – protection. With three borders safely guarded by natural barriers, the wall with its watch towers, horse tracks, supply stations, and shelters was built to protect the country from nomadic warriors. Constructed out of various materials over the span of the project including soil, leaves, hay and mud, the Chinese quickly settled on a much sturdier coating of bricks, granite and stone which has helped to preserve the wall for centuries and gives it the iconic appearance of an unmovable and imposing line stretched out across the land as far as the eye can see.

The Taj Mahal – India

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Flickr Photo: © Michael Foley – The Taj Mahal seen from across the Yumana river

This stunning white marble mausoleum was built for the favorite wife of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan between 1631 and 1648 in Agra. Hailed as both the jewel of India and Muslim art, the Taj Mahal is considered by many to be one of the greatest architectural achievements of mankind. A symbol of romance in all rights, the mausoleum itself was constructed out of white marble and precious and semi-precious stones from around the world, with exquisite ornamentation and Arabic inscriptions. Symmetrically planned from conception, the building is surrounded by arcade galleries, walkways and gardens, and is centered between a mosque and guess house built to be identical out of red sandstone in order to contrast the beautiful white marble of the mausoleum in the center. As one of the most universally admired masterpieces in the world, it’s no surprise that the Taj Mahal made the list as one of worlds wonders.

The Roman Colosseum – Italy

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Flickr Photo: © Joostv – Colosseum

As the most famous monument left from the Roman empire, the Colosseum is still as imposing today as when it was opened for the entertainment of the masses in 80 AD with 100 days of games. After it was built, the Colosseum was used consistently for close to 400 years, during which time audiences watched everything from gladiatorial combats and wild animal fights, to hunts and mock naval battles which called for for arena to be flooded with water. When the empire became clouded in trouble and audiences craved something new, the Colosseum was closed and fell into disrepair and neglect. During this time, the amphitheater was often used as a source of building materials for many of the other iconic places in Rome, and was stripped to the bones. Today only about 1/3 of the original structure remains, but its allure and history continue to draw large crowds of people daily.

Petra – Jordan

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Flickr Photo: © Sylvain L. – “Khazneh” Petra by night, Jordan

Half built, half carved into the sandstone hillside, the ancient city of Petra is situated on the edge of the mountainous desert of Wadi Araba and is surrounded by gorges and passages. Comprised of an extensive list of archaeological remains containing elaborate tombs, tunnels, cisterns and reservoirs, the city also includes temples, churches and other public building along with the imposing beautiful facade we all known at first glance. Once a thriving trading post for the Nabataean empire, the city was lost to the world for centuries, during which time it sat desolate and near ruin. Since its rediscovery in the early 1800’s by a Swiss explorer, the ancient city has been drawing visitors from around the world, and is hailed as one of the places everyone should see in their lifetime.

Chichen Itza – Mexico

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Flickr Photo: © Alistair Edmondson – El Castillo’s 91 Steps

Established sometime between 415-455 AD, Chichen Itza is not only one of the greatest cities left from the Mayan civilization, it’s also one of the greatest cities left from the Toltec civilization as well. The main difference of the civilizations can be seen in the two settlements that make up this ancient city. The first was build during the Mayan reign, and contains many monuments built in typical Mayan fashion including a church and nunnery, as well as the Temple of the Panels and the Temple of the Deer. The second settlement was built after the Toltecs invaded Chichen Itza and imposed the practice of human sacrifice upon the local population. The monuments found within this section include the Great Ball Court, the observatory named El Caracol, and the Temple of the Warriors which are made up of a unique blend of styles that ultimately created the most important archaeological site in the Yucatan.

Machu Picchu – Peru

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Flickr Photo: © Ken Bosma – Machu Picchu, Peru

This great city of the Inca empire is perched high in the Peruvian mountains and seems to have been effortlessly carved into the land surrounding it. Built in the 15th century, Machu Picchu contains about 200 structures within its upper and lower sections that are divided into areas designated for residential living and farming. While little is known about the role Machu Picchu played in the Inca empire, the extensive road and trail systems, subsidiary centers, irrigation canals and agricultural terraces lead historians to believe that it played host to inhabitants for a long period of time. When the Inca empire was conquered by the Spaniards in the 16th century, the city was abandoned and remained unknown to the outside world until the early 1900’s.

Eventually Everything Must Come to an End

It’s a fact I’ve been avoiding for over a month now. All good things do come to an end, and my trip was no exception to this rule. I’m already back on U.S. soil, hoping to find some luck in Texas after a few weeks spent at home with friends and family. I would love to tell you that my trip went out in a blaze of glory, but the truth is anything but that. It ended the way a lot of my trips end… with a streak of bad luck.

My parents always joke that I’m the most doomed traveler alive, and I guess they’re probably right, but that almost makes me love travel even more. It might sound strange, but I like that it always challenges me and teaches me something new about both life and myself, even if I didn’t want to learn these things in the first place. I face it all with a pretty good sense of humor, and while I’m not always satisfied with the end, like in the story I’m going to be telling you in a moment, I like to believe that everything happens for a reason. I know it sounds cliché, but what other reasoning can we give to those events and moment that end something in a way very different from the way we imagined? And thus I bring you to the end of my adventure in SE Asia.

It all began with a flight. I found myself taking a quick journey to Malaysia and saying goodbye to Vietnam for the foreseeable future. I wasn’t thrilled to be leaving, as I really did love Vietnam, but my visa was expiring and my trip needed to keep propelling me forward. Since flights can never be simple or cheap, I found myself with a few day layover in Kuala Lumpur while I waited for my flight to Indonesia to materialize out of thin air. So what does a person do in Kuala Lumpur for 3 days? They eat a cheeseburger without mayonnaise at McDonald’s (Judge if you must but I needed a burger), devour copious amounts of Indian food, and see a few sights while not sleeping off the remnants of that cold they’ve been rocking for a good week… or at least that’s what I did.

When I wasn’t sleeping or eating, I took the time to take the 4 photographs above, among other less impressive photos I’ve erased from my memory, and did a fair bit of walking thanks to the lazy cab drivers who refused to drive me to the other side of town. When the day came for me to leave, I was both relieved and excited to be heading to Indonesia.

I had finally arrived in Jakarta, and took the lengthy cab ride into the backpacking section to search for a hostel to call home for the next week. I had big plans for Indonesia, but since it was already afternoon, my first order of business was to find someplace to eat. I spent a rather tame night in, thanks to the lack of people in my hostel, so I finally found the time to pull out my guide-book and began planning the Indonesian adventure that was upon me. I probably should have done this already, but the truth is I wasn’t sure my budget would hold out long enough for me to make it here.

By the time I went to bed I had a loose plan in the works and was looking forward to a little time in Jakarta before slowly making my way to Bali. Since I had been up late planning, I woke up equally late to the sound of the afternoon prayer call at the Mosque a few blocks over. There was a speaker down the street and as the eerie yet beautiful sound made its way to my room, I couldn’t wait to get out and do a little exploring. After some lunch, I mostly wandered in random directions within a 6 block radius of the hostel and got a good feel for the surrounding area.

The next morning I woke up and went off in search of one of the 3 Dunkin Donuts within walking distance. I know it’s not very touristy, but I was craving a hazelnut coffee so badly I could hardly stand it. This is probably the moment everything began to go wrong. I stopped at an atm, ordered my coffee, and made my way back towards the hostel to grab my camera and pay for my room before heading out again. About the time I opened my wallet to pay, I noticed that my credit card was missing. I checked everywhere in vain to find it, but it was gone. Since I had stopped at a random atm nowhere near the Dunkin Donuts, I knew it was pointless to go back and search for it, since I wasn’t even sure where it was in the first place.

The hostel owner tried in vain to calm me down as I essentially had a panic attack along with the realization that the only money I had was in my wallet, and it was barely enough to feed me for a few days. He offered to lend me his phone, but since Indonesia has banned international calling from landlines (was there ever a worse idea?), he sent me down the road to an internet cafe where I was supposed to be able to call. I couldn’t. Luckily the lady working the front desk was willing to lend me her cell phone as long as I paid to add the minutes I needed onto it.

After finding no other alternative, I agreed and paid what is probably the equivalent to 1 US dollar to insure I could call my credit card company and shut the card off. Next I had to call my debit card company and beg them to allow me to use the card to take money out of an atm nearby. The lady I talked to was so unwilling to help me out, because it was against company policy, but the moment I started crying and thanking her for stranding me in a foreign country with no way to pay for food or accommodation, she miraculously changed her mind.

So now I had money, but I was facing another problem. I needed to bump up the date of my flight, and would have to convince my non-international credit card company to allow me to use it to do so. It took me 3 days to accomplish all of this, and I have to say that it’s a miracle what tears can get done from you. I had to make a payment in order to accomplish my goal, which I did… but then it took 2 days for it to be processed, leaving me eating chips and ramen noodles like a broke college kid sitting in a college dorm room. By the time the payment finally went through I had talked to everyone from the customer care representative who answered the phone to the manager on duty before the answer once again miraculously changed from our hands are tied to I’ve authorized your account and you’re free to add more charges.

It was noon and I had just over 2 hours to make the payment, pack my bag, and make the 1 hour and 20 minute drive out-of-town to the airport. Somehow I made it, and the hostel owner waived my daily fee out of a gesture of kindness. I found myself back in Bangkok with a few days to spare before my flight home, with very little money in my pocket and a desperate need to find a place to stay. There was a long line at the taxi counter and with outrageous prices, not to mention crooked drivers, I was soon sharing a cab with a couple taking a weekend trip to Thailand from Singapore or Kuala Lumpur… I can’t remember. I shared my story with them on the ride, and when we arrived at Khao San Road, they wouldn’t let me pay for my part. I thanked them wholeheartedly and found a place to stay. Since I was broke, I spent a lot of time in my room not spending money.

On my last day I went out to find something to eat and ran into a wonderful girl named Neviin who asked me directions to something nearby. We spent the afternoon browsing in the streets nearby and picked up a guy named Andrew while chatting with a group of people over beers. We spent a while drinking, before grabbing some dinner and continuing our shopping spree. Khao San Road was coming alive and I was packed and waiting for my taxi to rush me towards the flight that would take me home.

DSCN3172My last act as a backpacker was to try a scorpion on a stick. The next 36 hours would involve multiples planes, airports, and an endless array of movies keeping my occupied from my fixed position in a tiny seat. Luckily the audio on my theater system worked this time around. I was on my way home, and I wasn’t sure I was happy about it.

Disappointment in Halong Bay

Fresh off the train from Sa Pa, a few hours later I would find myself on a bus headed towards Halong Bay. By this point, not only was I still nursing that cold I picked up at the beginning of my back-to-back sightseeing tour, but I was also exhausted from a rough night on the train. These are the unglamorous days of  travel you sometimes hear rumors about. It wasn’t an ideal way to see both places (and I don’t advise trying it), but I was strapped for time and had a plane to catch. Before the bus even left Hanoi, I found myself hogging two seats in the hopes that no one would decide to join me and I could get some sleep. My plan worked, and by the time we made it to the docks in Halong city, I was feeling a little less sleepy and excited to experience my last Vietnamese adventure.

As everyone from the bus waited for the boat to arrive, I just happened to see Tessa, Yannick, Oliver and Melanie from my group in Sa Pa. I knew there was a chance I’d see them, since we had all discussed our next travel plans, so I went over and said a quick hello before we were scattered once again in our respective groups. When my boat finally arrived and we got on board for lunch and check in, I was once again on my own with a new group of people I would be literally stuck with for the next day.

DSCN3102After a quick lunch, we were all given keys to our rooms, and being the only single girl there, I was blessed with a double all to myself. While it was nice not to have to deal with someone I didn’t know tramping in and out, another empty room on a tour of empty rooms was really beginning to get old. While I’m all for traveling alone, (everyone should do it once) sometimes I found myself wishing I had someone to share my trip with. Since this was my last adventure in Vietnam, and I had already made so many wonderful new friends, something about being alone out in Halong Bay made this trip feel like the end.

Now that I’m done with the depressing section of the post, let’s get back to the real reason I’m typing this: Halong Bay. Included in my boat tour was a trip to a famous cave nearby where I ran into Melanie and Yannick, and a depressing kayak adventure that found me sharing a two person kayak with our tour guide, who conveniently picked the smallest paddle imaginable and took the backseat, leaving me to do all the work… this whole single person thing sucked out on the water.

While we were out kayaking, we also went for a swim on a small beach, and I have to tell you all something incredibly disappointing… Halong Bay is filthy… and I’m not talking small lake filthy, but rather so full of trash that the whole beautiful scenery thing was kind of squashed by how horrible we sometimes treat the wonderful places this planet has to offer. When we got back to the boat, I took a good long shower to rinse the filth off of my body before dinner. We all had romantic notions about being able to swim in the bay whenever we wanted during this trip, but all of us agreed over dinner that we were disappointed that not only was jumping off the boat to go for a swim not an option, but that we wouldn’t want to swim in the water anyway.

After dinner we had very few options for entertainment, one of which was squid fishing. For some reason we all found ourselves huddled at the back of the boat with three rods dangling over the edge. We desperately wanted to catch a squid. “Wouldn’t it be cool to tell everyone at home I had caught a squid?” we told ourselves as we tried in vain to get one to attach itself to the hook. Soon the group began to dissipate as the reality of squid fishing sunk in and everyone became bored. It was now time for the only other option a boat brings after the sun has gone down. Drinking.

We all sat together on the top deck and shared stories over beer, being that it was the cheapest alcohol available, and marveled at all the other boats in the bay. It was barely 10 pm at this point, as soon we would all give in and head to bed earlier than we had imagined.

In the morning we were given a small amount of time to wake up and get everything out of our rooms. It was early and nothing was planned for our day. We ate breakfast and went to the top deck to waste some time with photographing the scenery and napping in the cloudy daylight. It was hard not to be bored, and despite being stuck on a boat together, most of us were over talking and ready to be on land where life came with options and fun things to do.

By the time lunch came around, we had been doing this stupid seat shuffle at every meal. If our tour guide noticed that couples weren’t seated together, he made either me, or the other person on the boat without a friend, move to accommodate them. At breakfast he made me move to accommodate a couple who didn’t mind eating apart, and after they tried to explain this to our guide to no avail, we all gave in and moved to make him go away. This time I had had enough, and I snapped. I didn’t understand why I had to move from the chair I had been in for the last 30 minutes when we could just pull up another chair for the girl who wasn’t by her boyfriends side. This couldn’t be done, of course, because there wouldn’t be enough food.

I was really getting tired of this guy and for being singled out for being single, and while I’m not proud of myself for what I did, I refused to move and got my way. The girlfriend in this scenario didn’t even end up eating lunch because she wasn’t feeling well, but this fact still didn’t make me feel any better about myself. I wasn’t going to admit I was wrong to anyone on the boat (I’m stubborn that way), and I couldn’t wait to get back to Hanoi to get my embarrassment over with.

So there I found myself, at the end of a trip to one of the places I was most looking forward to visiting, feeling guilty and disappointed. I was tired from being woken up so early in the morning, and still sick given that my cold or upper respiratory thing had only begun a few days earlier, feeling like a trip to Halong Bay was by far the worst way to end my time in Vietnam. I’m not advocating for anyone to miss visiting Halong Bay, but for me the hype wasn’t worth it. If I could go back in time, I’d make Sa Pa the end of my trip, and only spend 1 day out on the water in Halong Bay.

The Breathtaking Beauty of Sa Pa

Since I had decided to cut Da Lat out of the first half of my trip through Vietnam, I thought it was only fitting that I fill the free days this decision created with a whirlwind trip to Sa Pa. For any of you planning on visiting Vietnam – GO TO SA PA! I can’t stress enough what an absolutely beautiful place this is. While I’m a little sad I did miss Da Lat, going to Sa Pa more than made up for it. I had booked back to back Sa Pa and Halong Bay tours (More on the latter in my next post) for a ridiculously good deal, so I wasn’t sure what to expect by the time I made it to the train station with a girl I had met at the hostel. Her name was Kelsie, and she would end up being a part of my tour group full of pretty awesome people. We were there 2 hours early so we found a place to eat and grabbed a bite while we waited. It would be a long over night ride, and by the time I woke up the next morning, I was sick.

We were driven to a hotel in the town of Sa Pa, where we could change and eat breakfast before our trek began. It was here in the hotel that Kelsie and I would meet the rest of our group consisting of Tessa, Yannick, Melanie, and Oliver. All of us were roughly the same age, and from the beginning it was evident that the 6 of us and our tour guide Mai were going to get along.

As we walked along a busy road, almost immediately, a group of women from one of the local tribes attached themselves to us. We had all be told about this happening, so we weren’t surprised when one or more of the women began talking to us, and claiming us for the remainder of the hike that day. Soon we turned off the main road and found ourselves walking on dirt and gravel paths on our way down to the bottom of the valley. The scenery almost instantly became breathtakingly beautiful. All around us there was green in the form of grass, rice fields, corn fields, trees, and many other fields of vegetables. We walked along small paths for most of the morning, and at one point were given the option of walking down a steep rocky hill to save time, or to follow a winding path and make it to our lunch stop a little later. We chose the steep path.

On the way down, I’m fairly certain I pulled something in my knee, which only proved that I was in way worse shape than I thought. Despite walking multiple miles every day, I hadn’t been working out, so I wasn’t surprised to find myself injured on my first real hike in a while, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t suck any less. It took me much longer than everyone else to make it to the bottom, but I did it… much to my surprise and excitement.

By this point we had reached out lunch stop, and were swarmed by the group of ladies who had been accompanying us the entire morning. We all had to buy something to get them to leave us alone, and somehow two women had chosen me, which resulted in me having to buy two bracelets, one from each. Once the sale was over, one of the women came over to give me a free cloth bracelet to remember them by. It was a sweet gesture, and the next 10 minutes or so was the longest stretch of time we had without a group of local women hovering around us hoping to sell some good or another. As sweet as they were, this is one of the worst things about travel.

Soon lunch was over, and we were off conquering the last part of our trek to the home-stay. This section was a lot easier, but still didn’t stop my knee from hurting. I was happy when we had arrived, because it meant I got to rest a little while before having to walk on my knee again. After a little relaxation, we all decided to go for a swim in the river nearby.

It seemed like getting there was going to be an easy task, but somehow we managed to make it a difficult experience. Along the way me and one of the other girls both fell into a rice field, where I lost my shoe and had to dig it out, but in the end the water was cool and the journey was well worth the hilarious and sometimes difficult trip we took. We laughed together, created inside jokes, and became the envy of all the other groups trekking the same trail as us. Not only were we one of the smallest groups we encountered, but we were also one of the only groups who seemed to have become a group of friends instead of individuals.

When we got back to the home-stay, we all took turns showering before dinner and met the other group of people also staying at the home-stay for the night. There was a family of 4 and 2 other women who seemed to be out-of-place in their group. As dish after dish was brought out onto the table, we viciously attacked everything on our side of the table and joked around with Mai and the other groups guide, a challenge was placed on the table that we wouldn’t be able to drink 1.5 liters of rice wine. We accepted, and a little after dinner began we started our challenge. At first the other group was at the table with us, but after a few shots it was down to the 6 of us and Mai, who we kept convincing to drink with us.

Shot after shot was poured, and to be completely honest I’m not sure how I held my own (though a few times I did refuse to drink) but eventually we did it. 1.5 liters and a good 20+ shots later and the task was complete. The ladies even brought out more rice wine after we had finished, and I’m pretty sure we drank a little of that too. It didn’t matter to us, we were already drunk, and having a great time doing so. There was an impromptu yoga class, the catching of a lightning bug by myself to show the Europeans in the group, and a lot more laughter and inside jokes. I really couldn’t have asked for a better group to be a part of.

After a loud and hilarious night, that continued on even after we attempted to go to bed, we somehow woke up the next morning without hangovers. Rice wine is a beautiful thing. After some breakfast, we were off again. This day would end up being a lot shorter, but no less challenging. The scenery was still beautiful, but the landscape had become steeper and was still soaked from the rainfall early that morning. Needless to say, it was muddy, and there’s nothing worse than trekking a small path in the mud. Somehow we all made it through alive and were blessed with a beautiful with incredible views as a resting place.

We were about halfway through our afternoon, and between the trekking and the humidity, I’m pretty sure I sweated any of the rice wine that was left out of my system. It was nice to be able to dip my feet in one of the small pools around the waterfall, but it was equally nice to be back on the trail again and a few steps closer to the end of our trip. Part of me wished the end wouldn’t come because despite my cold and  injured knee, I was having a great time, but the thing about great times is they can’t last forever, so I was ready for it to end so nothing bad could ruin the experience.

After one final hill, which killed my knee, we had finally made it to the end of our trek and were taken back to the hotel to freshen up. Since we had a little time to spare, we decided to head out and do a little shopping and sigh seeing in the town of  Sa Pa. We were in search of one of the traditional tribal coats for Kelsie, and once it was known she was looking for one, it seemed like the entire community knew who she was and what she wanted. We couldn’t walk into a shop or past someone who didn’t immediately offer her one or know the woman she had promised to purchase one from. When she found a coat at a cheaper price the main joke became that she wouldn’t make it out of the city with her finger attached (this was what the lady told her), so we found ourselves wandering through a market in search of a back exit. I wish we would have had more time to explore Sa Pa, but ultimately this was a nice way to end the trip.

We all said a sad goodbye to one another at the train station a few hours later, and the entire group would never be back together again. While I really was sad to end such an amazing few days, I will be forever grateful to have gotten to spend time with the 5 of them. Not only did I walk away with 5 new friends, I also walked away with the breathtaking beauty of Sa Pa forever engrained in my memory.