In Bagan, Dhammayangyi Temple is the largest of the remaining four. However, I never even made it inside because this is what's at the entrance:
Puppets. Hundreds and hundreds of puppets hanging from a tree. We arrived right at sunset, and I was so enamored with the dangling puppets and the the amazing light and the cool shadows that I never even made it inside Bagan's largest and most famous temple.
In Bagan, everybody seems to be trying to get the view from above. If they're not climbing to the tops of the pagodas and temples, they're taking a hot air balloon ride at dawn to look down at them. Even though rides here typically book up months out, we got lucky and scored a a last-minute spot with Oriental Ballooning, one of only two companies to offer ballooning in the area. It was not cheap: we paid $400 per person. However, from start to finish the experience was perfectly executed. They picked us up on time, we enjoyed coffee and pastries while the team readied the balloons, and our pilot was professional and experienced. They even gave us a champagne toast after landing — pretty swanky!
Nyang U Market was one of our first stops in Bagan, and one of my favorite places to photograph. The colors, the food, the produce, the people — there are an endless interesting faces and things to capture.
Next stop, the no less colorful Shwezigon Pagoda. Sadly, the top of the gilded gold-leaf stupa seemed to have been under renovation.
We ended the day scooting around Bagan on our e-bikes, hopping from one temple to the next. The Bagan Archaeological Zone has about 2,000 remaining temples and pagodas (down from 10,000 from its height in the 13th century), and it's easy to explore them on your own. Don't get me started on the light in Bagan — dusk here is truly magical and the best place to take it all in is on the top of a temple.
That's what I'm thinking, tail tucked between my legs, as I scamper out of Thailand. Back in October, I spent the month on Koh Phangan, an island best known for its wild Full Moon parties and cult-like yoga retreats. It was supposed to be a month of relaxation, of days spent writing in my hammock, drinking beers around bonfires on the beach, and scooting around the island in search of coconut ice cream.
Koh Phangan had other plans for me. It started out innocently enough. First came the geckos. Not the tiny ones that flit around your baseboards, conveniently sucking up spiders and mosquitos. I'm talking about Tokay Geckos, a lizard so loud you can hear it through your earplugs, and so large that its poop rivals my dog's in size. I draw the line at reptiles longer than my forearm — if it's large enough to eat a rat, I'm not cohabiting with it.
Then came the scooter accident. Luckily it left me only slightly banged up and the rental store only charged me about $30 in damages, but the memory of flying through the air, across a busy highway no less, left me petrified. I spent the rest of the month clumsily manually walking my scooter through any tight space to avoid accidentally gunning it into anything or anyone.
Then there was that rogue wave that leapt up out of the ocean and sprinkled my MacBook Air with just enough saltwater that it immediately conked out. And then, because I'm an idiot, I further ruined any chance of salvaging my livelihood by turning it on. Twice. Luckily, this sort of thing happens quite a bit on the island, so finding a expat repairman who can fix it cheaply is pretty easy. For future reference, if your repair guy has a long ponytail, works out of a dusty garage or storage unit full of dated appliance parts, trust. He's your man.
Then came the boat breakdown. Motion sickness has been a growing problem for me over the past few years, and recently it's become more of an urgent ok-I-need-to-fix-this issue with the more buses, boats, and hammocks I find myself in (yes, I get queasy in a hammock). This time, I showed up prepared. I had the Transderm patch behind my ear, I had eaten a small carb-y breakfast, and I had also taken the awesome Thai version of Dramamine that worked miracles on a recent bus ride from the Perhentians to Penang. I was ready to dive!
That is, until we started actually moving. 30 minutes into the boat ride to Sail Rock and I could barely look down without wanting to hurl. Instead of calming down, I full-on freaked out — ugly cried, refused to get in the water, the whole bit. My poor dive instructor didn't know what to do with me, and I couldn't really explain what I was feeling either — except that it probably meant I should hold on off completing my dive certification (I was just one dive away!) The most disappointing part is that I had waited a year to dive at Sail Rock, and if I had gone through with it, I would have spent the next few days diving with whale sharks.
Last, but definitely not least, my trip to Amsterdam Bar (read into that what you will). While walking down the "stairs" — really just random uneven rocks set into a very steep hill — my right ankle rolled and down I went. I heard a very loud crack and I knew as soon it happened that it was bad, bad, bad. After flying to Bangkok so I could see an orthopedic doctor, I earned my final Koh Phangan badge of honor: a severe ankle sprain and six weeks of wearing an air cast, just in time for my trip to Angkor Wat in Siem Reap followed by a week-long trip around Myanmar.
The funny part is, I'm not the only one who got their ass kicked on Koh Phangan. Five of us got bit by dogs. Probably a dozen crashed their scooters. Two were hospitalized for Dengue. I'm pretty sure nearly everyone in my 75-person Remote Year crew had some sort of come-to-Jesus moment that challenged them on a mental or physical level. And all of this came with a moody backdrop of country-wide mourning, as King Bhumibol Adulyadej died in mid October.
But none of it should have come as a surprise. It's said the island, known as the crystal island to some, has an energy that tends "to bring things up," as one local spiritual healer told us. So chances are whatever's stuck, on Koh Phangan it'll become unstuck pretty fast.
Another day, another beach. Today it was Ao Hin Kong, a very shallow bay on Koh Phangan's northwestern coast.
It's pretty sleepy save for one dive bar, Freeway Bar, which doubles as a tattoo parlor. The ginger mojitos are perfection.
The sunsets here aren't bad either.
I'm starting a series guys! Every month, I'm going to tell you about my favorite places from every city I visit. I'm going to skip over the obvious tourist-y stops — for example, Kuala Lumpur's Petronas Towers and Batu Caves — and focus on under-the-radar places I've found and loved. In no particular order, here are some of my favorites from my month living in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
The infinity pool at The FACE Suites On the 51st-floor Sky Deck of The FACE Suites, the pool stretches more than 124 feet with amazing panoramic views of the Petronas Towers, the KL Tower, and the rest of KL. The pool deck, surprisingly, wasn't crowded both times I visited in September, and the staff is pretty chill if you BYOB. Sadly, they were not as chill about our giant unicorn pool float.
Hammam spa I love a good massage. I also love a good scrub. I got the best of both at Hammam, a Moroccan-style spa in Bangsar Village. The lovely ladies here will scrub every last inch of you (just get naked and embrace it. Trust.) using an extremely effective volcanic scrub and exfoliating mitt. After they slough off several layers of your skin, they spend about about 15 minutes dumping buckets of water over you and oiling you down until you're awkwardly slipping and sliding all over the gorgeous mosaic tile. But don't worry, the awkward feeling goes away when you walk out and realize you're as smooth as a dolphin.
The world's tiniest rainforest Bukit Nanas Forest Reserve takes about five minutes to walk through and its free! It's also around the corner from the KL Tower, so when you need an escape from KL's traffic hell you can just slip in and zone out for a few minutes.
Lot 10 Hutong In the basement of one of Bukit Bintang's many, many malls, Lot 10 Hutong is home to more than two dozen of the Malaysia's best hawker stalls, all rounded up in one convenient, always-open, air-conditioned location. And lucky for me, my co-working space was a two-minute walk away, so I had the chance to sample most of the stalls. My favorites: Char Kway Teow with duck egg at Penang Famous Fried Koay Teow and the minced pork (topped with pork liver sausage) and noodles from Imbi Road (pictured above).
Boxes Cafe We stumbled on Boxes by accident and I'm so glad we did. It's a coffee shop housed in shipping containers and it's adorable. And there are swings! Downers: The Wi-Fi wasn't great and it's kind of expensive. But swings! So cute.
Heli Lounge Bar Heli Lounge Bar is a helicopter pad-turned-bar with ridiculously overpriced drinks and a strict dress code. Still, the amazing 360-degree views (and breezes!) are well worth the hassle. Tip: on weekends the line gets crazy, but when I stopped by around 6 p.m. on a weekday it was almost empty.
Templer Park Rainforest Retreat Only a 30-minute drive outside of KL, this three-acre jungle retreat seems worlds away from the chaos of KL. Our Remote Year team booked it for our farewell party, but if I had known about this place earlier I would've tried to spend the entire month holed up here. Besides the beautiful infinity pool, the property has multiple villas and a large house with a gorgeous open-air kitchen.
I was in search of blue. But not just any blue; the kind of shape-shifting blue that reinvents itself with any deviation in depth or light. Aquamarine in direct sunlight, cerulean in the shade, transparent seafoam green in the shallows. While white-knuckling the edges of my bench on a boat crammed with approximately seven too many people, I could see it — that elusive, ever-changing deep blue sea.
We were just off the northeast coast of Malaysia, heading towards Perhentian Kecil. From Kuala Lumpur it takes an hour flight, a 40-minute taxi ride, and a 40-minute speedboat ride to get here, so it's just exotic enough to draw everyone from backpackers to families to honeymooners.
After washing up on touristy Long Beach (literally, you disembark in the water, so opt for a backpack), we almost immediately hopped back on a water taxi in search of sparser pastures. We didn't have to go far. Coral Bay, Long Beach's sleepier sister beach, lies almost directly on the opposite side of the island. The beach forms an arc that hugs the South China Sea, and from your seat in the sand the only irregularities interrupting your view of the horizon are a duo of verdant dome-shaped islands in the distance. On the north end is a proper dock for disembarking, on the south, a smattering of wooden chalets built into the rocky coastline. It was here we found Senja Bay Resort; really less of a resort and more just rustic cabins equipped with the basics (including air conditioning). But when this is outside your door, what else do you need?
Your day on Perhentian Kecil will go something like this: wake up, walk about 10 feet, plop down onto sand, read, nap, swim, rinse, repeat.
On our third day we took a break from this demanding schedule for a snorkeling trip around the island (booked directly through Senja Bay, although you can find a dozen or so other outfitters on Coral Bay alone). This trip was hugely disappointing. All six snorkeling sites we visited (coral point, turtle point, shark point, the lighthouse, and Romantic Beach) were packed with more than two dozen boats overloaded with passengers, so it shouldn't have come as a surprise that the coral reefs there were ravaged and bleached. Even more infuriating, I saw many snorkelers deliberately walking on and touching the coral.
Recent studies are calling for more regulation and limits to diving and other tourism activities around the Perhentians. It's particularly sad when you consider that Malaysia is part of the Coral Triangle, home to 76 percent of the world's coral species. Its important to note here that tourism is integral to the local economy, but at what cost? Pretty soon, there will be nothing left to see. From what I saw, the marine life was already almost nonexistent. Why hasn't the government enacted regulation to limit boat traffic and the number of divers/snorkelers visiting these sites? The Perhentians might seem like paradise at first glance, but if this continues, it won't be for long.
When I started planning my trip to Ubud, Bali, I got the feeling that my best bet would be making no plans at all. I was right. My best days there were spent visiting one or two places and leaving the hours in between open for wandering.
My afternoon walking the Campuhan Ridge was one such perfect lazily planned day. The trek begins at a blink-and-you'll-miss-it entrance next to Hotel Ibah near central Ubud. Keep walking, following the signs to Karsa Kafe, and eventually the view gives way to this:
Keep going and the hills turn into rice paddies and a smattering of tiny villages with roadside art galleries and warungs. After about an hour or so, you'll reach Karsa Kafe. The open-air, two-story space neighbors Karsa Spa, one of the most popular in Ubud, and offers a menu of healthy and organic dishes — think juices, fruit salads, satay, etc. .
Karsa Spa is popular for a reason. Its stunning setting made it one of my favorite Ubud experiences. From inside my treatment room (more like a treatment villa, actually, it was so huge) I could hear the trickling of the nearby lotus pond, and my traditional Balinese massage hit that elusive combination of effective yet relaxing (why does it always seem to be just one or the other?). Heavenly.
Our hike at Mount Rainier National Park didn't start off so promising. For the first 45 minutes or so, it looked liked this:
Stunning! But onward, upward. After huffing and puffing up the steepest part of the trail, the fog started to clear a bit and we finally got a glimpse of Mt. Rainier's snow-tinged peaks.
I love how dramatically the landscape of this trail changes — sheets of snow and glacier ice quickly turn into swaths of brush and rock, verdant firs give way to colorful fields of wildflowers. Around Glacier Vista, it all begins to feel very otherworldly, like you're hiking across Mars.
The trail is renowned for its diversity of flora and fauna and it's definitely worth stopping along the way to get a closer look.