A lot of backpackers didn’t have great things to say about Malaysia before I came here. So, I didn’t have very high expectations, but honestly, I loved it! The food, the culture, the accommodations = 10/10. Plus, I had the interesting experience of being there on Chinese New Year AND it was the first Muslim country I’ve ever been in.
Back in the US, the Trump administration banned immigration from 7 predominately muslim countries. While I was there, I felt 100% safe and all the people I’ve met approached me (as an American) with more curiosity than hate. Of course, Malaysia was not one of the countries banned.
In a week, I was able to do Langkawi, Penang, and Kuala Lumpur. Here’s what I recommend.
1.) Watch the sunset from Cenang Beach in Langkawi.
2) Eat all the street food, preferably at places far far far away from the touristy areas. It’ll be cheaper and more authentic. Order anything that begins with Roti, meaning Bread in english, and don’t be afraid to ditch the knife and fork and just dig in there with your hands.
3) Buy all the fine chocolate. It is so cheap there.
4) Go see the street art in Penang. It’s easy to spend 1/2 a day just walking around, eating and looking at all the art.
5) Visit Kek Lo Si temple in Penang. If you’re lucky enough to be there on Chinease New Year in Jan/Feb, then DEFINITELY go. The whole place is lit up. It looks like christmas, only you’re in Asia, it’s 80 degrees and there’s giant Buddha’s everywhere.
6) Check out the Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur, especially at night. For around $30/night, I was able to book a room with a pool at the top floor overlooking the entire skyline.
7) Interact with the wildlife in Langkawi. I didn’t have enough time to book a wildlife tour in the UNESCO protected park, but met some locals who had sugar gliders as pets and were just hanging out with them on the beach. It’s also pretty easy to spot monkeys, birds and the like just from walking around.
I’ve put off writing this blog post for a while, because words really can’t describe the amount of fun that was a 14 day all-inclusive cruise from Panama to Portugal compromised of 1/3 backpackers, 1/3 old people and 1/3 large Venezuelan families.
If you’ve traveled with me or know me as a friend, you know the story of the cruise and how I can’t really finish a sentence about it without laughing. But for those of you who I haven’t gone on about this cruise to, basically Pullmantur cruise lines is an actual legitimate cruise ship line that runs really cheap trans-atlantic cruises twice a year. The reasoning for this is because they need to bring one of their ships across the Atlantic during hurricane season, so the cruise is only one-way and it’s really long with no stops. They are called repositioning cruises. In backpacker terms, it works out to something like 28$/day before tipping the staff. In some cases, this is cheaper then actually flying to Europe.
It’s really hard to write about this cruise in a public blog post, because most of what made it so fun was the people. There was the amazing group of people that I ate dinner with every night and then there were also the hundreds of other passengers on board whose stories and personalities played out in front of us over time because, unlike a hostel, you kept seeing the same people over and over… everyday.. for 14 days. Things got very weird.
The truth is, words will never do justice to the ridiculousness that was this cruise, but I will try with a few stories.
I think we’d been at sea for a long time when this happened, but basically my friend Alex came to me and said “I saw flying fish.” and I said, “No you did not,” because we’d been at sea for a while and it just seemed absurd to me. Then I told everyone else, “Alex thinks that he saw flying fish.” and for an hour everyone was like “Alex, you didn’t see flying fish.” Whelp, finally we all went to the side of the boat to see the flying fish and what do you know…. there are fish coming out of the water, gliding in the air, and then going back in the sea. Alex was right and we all saw flying fish. Sorry Alex.
That Time they Played “I’m On a Boat”
Again, I am challenged in my writing skills to fully describe the madness that was the night life of this cruise. First of all, it’s all backpackers who really just don’t care. Why should they? Backpacking is such a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that you really don’t want to sit on the sidelines. Then, you have large Venezuelan families who equally just don’t care. Combine these two groups at the Cyan Disco, where the dance floor is literally rocking back and forth with the motion of the waves and the alcohol is, as was always the case, free and flowing.
One night in particular, the incredible DJs of Pullmantur decided to play “I’m on a Boat” and everyone lost it. All the guys took off their shirts. People were jumping and screaming. The poor staff was forced to tell everyone to put back on their shirts or they would stop the music.
Another fun one was “Young, Wild and Free” by Snoop Dogg and Wix Khalifa. So dumb, yes, but there’s nothing like dancing when everyone is actually into it and the enthusiasm was ssstttrrooonnggg with this crowd.
Pulling into Lisbon
The last night on the ship, we went up to the top deck to watch the sunset. Since we’d already all gone out the night before on an all bar bar crawl (we went to every place that served alcohol on the ship in one night), we decided to all get some sleep so we could wake up at 4 AM to see the boat finally pull into Lisbon, Portugal.
Sure enough, as we made it to the top deck at 4 AM, it was a mix of people who were still drunk and looked like The Walking Dead and people who were sober and in need of coffee. We’d all been at sea 14 days and it felt like a lot had happened in that short period of time, but the People of Pullmantur weren’t ready to stop being ridiculous just yet.
As Lisbon got closer and closer and the sun began to rise, it became clear we were going to have to go under a bridge to get to port. Now, the bridge wasn’t small. It was a big bridge. It was clear this would not be an issue. The cruise ship would go under it no problem. Regardless, when we finally made it underneath the bridge everyone watching from the deck exploded with cheers. Some people behind us started chanting “Brazil!, Brazil!, Brazil!” very loudly. Hell, I was even clapping and cheering. It was awesome. Our journey on the boat was ending and here we all were, at the top deck in the middle of the ocean watching Europe come into view. My friend Edward had brought champagne for all of us and we all said cheers. We’d made it to land and wifi.
My experience on backpacking the Gringo Trail in Central America can’t really be described in a couple of words. I was a first time solo traveler and had no idea what I was doing. Which, in hind sight, was probably the best way to go into it.
Central America constitutes more than just the countries listed below – Belize, Honduras and Mexico are left out because I didn’t visit them.
My first stop in Central America was Guatemala. I landed in Guatemala City, a city with a lot of crime and not many options for tourists.
After the scariest bus ride of my life, I arrived in Lake Atitlan. Situated around the lake are several little villages, each with their own vibe. Boats run across the lake daily and you can grab one for few dollars to visit each of the towns, since there is no road connecting all of them. I stayed here for a month working on a farm in San Marcos La Laguna, the hippy-est of them all, attracting a ton of new-agers.
Highlights of Lake Atilian were going to the Butterfly Sanctuary in Panajachel, the Women’s Weaving Cooperative in San Juan La Laguna and camping at Indians Nose overnight to see the sunrise in the morning.
Next stop was Antigua and OMG DID I LOVE ME SOME ANTIGUA. I don’t know if it was because I stayed in sleepy San Marcos for a month or what, but everything about this place just felt right. Here I stayed at a home stay with some other backpackers who were also learning spanish. Well, they were learning Spanish. I was trying to and failing.
Highlights of Antigua include a night out of care free dancing, a ten-hour round-trip overnight hike up Acatenango Volcano to see the sunrise and El Fuego booming and a local soccer game featuring a very animated hype squad / drum line.
Initially, I did not plan on going to El Salvador at all. It’s pretty dangerous and over run by gangs. The kind of gangs that have such control of the country that buses stop running after sun down. But, plans change, especially when traveling and, in this case, I’m so glad it did.
Highlights include Edward (the one-winged Pelican of La Tortuga Verde), the locals in Juyaya who told us that if we go to the store and buy a frog they’ll cook it for us, getting stuck in Rivas overnight because there were no more buses running.
I guess some of these memories don’t really sound pleasant from an outsider’s perspective, but El Salvador ended up being one of my favorite parts of the trip.
By this point in the trip I had been going for about two months and had met enough people to start a small village. I had already booked the Pullmantur Cruise and knew I was going to Europe after, so I was a little tired and not wanting to spend a ton of money. Hence, I mostly remember Nica as a place where I relaxed, swam, and read.
Still, I had a lot of fun. Highlights include the Tortuga Boolada Hostel in Leon. That place was so relaxed and everyone was really friendly over breakfast. Surfing at Playa Popopyo, where they held the World Surf Championships a few years back, was a lot of fun. I nearly died, but still, good times. I’ll also never forget exploring Ometepe and the clean waters of Ojo de Agua.
Since it’s the most expensive country in Central America, I barely spent any time in Costa Rica. The time that I did spend here, two weeks, was spent teaching Yoga at Tico Lingo, a Spanish School in Heredia. It was a chill two weeks spent doing a whole lot of nothing with the other volunteers and teaching small classes to the owner of the school and some of the students. I found this program through Workaway.info.
Oh Panama, the last stop on my trip before taking a 14 day cruise to Portugal. I think I only spent a day or two here and it rained a lot, but it was a fun couple days as I stayed in this beautiful colonial mansion-turned-hostel called Luna’s Castle in Panama City. There I had the pleasure of meeting a fun group of people traveling together and we all went out and danced to Rihanna’s “Work” for what was probably the 1231st time that month.
It’s been exactly one month since moving to Ho Chi Minh City. Adjusting to a huge change, although worth it, has it’s pros and cons.
So, before waxing poetic about Saigon’s more attractive features, let me tell you what has been the most difficult to adjust to.
The Traffic. Most Westerners, myself included, maintain the notion that walking into oncoming traffic is not safe. In Vietnam that is not the case. If you want to cross the road, you better get comfortable walking into a mass of trucks, motorbikes, pushbikes and cars that somehow organizes itself.
The roads are both impressive and dizzying, showcasing the ways in which Asia’s collective society is different then an individualist one. In the US, at least in New York, this would never fly. Someone in a rush to get to work would do something dumb and kill everyone. But in Asia, admittedly, it works. Still terrifying though.
The heat. It’s hot and humid. Sometimes we’re given a break with a little rain, but otherwise, I’ve found myself retreating to that air con, which, thankfully, is very common here.
The air quality. Vietnam’s air pollution is among the worst in the world. At times it can feel like you’ve got chlorine in your eyes. Another reason to retreat to air con.
The people They smile. They’re friendly. They’re into public napping and setting up hammocks literally anywhere. In other words, despite the chaos of the city, Vietnamese people are a relatively chill bunch.
Also, plus side as a women, cat calling and general annoying male aggression isn’t much of a thing here.
The food Oh, the food. If I could eat anything for the rest of my life I think it actually might be Vietnamese food. It’s pretty healthy, incorporating lots of vegetables, seafood and leafy greens WHILE STILL TASTING GOOD. And, since it’s a tropical climate, fresh fruits galore. All at extremely cheap prices (around 3-4 USD for a meal).
The English Vietnamese people want to learn English and they don’t give you flak if you don’t speak Vietnamese. It’s a sad fact for non-English speaking cultures that it’s basically essential to speak English in order to participate in the world’s economy, but Vietnam, the developing country that it is, seems to be embracing that fact well. There’s still some language barrier, but not as bad as other places I’ve been to, at least in Ho Chi Minh.
The cafe scene Coffee to-go isn’t really a thing here. In Vietnam, the thing to do is to hang out for hours in cafes, which are everywhere and all have different themes/vibes, ranging from the posh to the obscure.
Cost of living Ubers costs anywhere from 50 cents to 2 dollars. Hostels are $6-13/night. My private room in a hotel right now is costing me $15/night. Monthly rent can be anywhere from $150-450 depending on your standards.
Great place to teach English Unfortunately, I am still not Paris Hilton and need to actually work to extend my travels. A sad fact of life, but I’ll do it. Armed with a TEFL and/or a Bachelor’s degree it’s really easy to get a job teaching here. My first week here I got four interviews just from an hour or two of applying.
Great place to volunteer TBD, as I’m working on getting set up with an organization, but from what I’ve heard, you can definitely volunteer here and have a meaningful experience.