The Himalayas. Nothing could have prepared me for the grandness of its scope. As I flew into Leh, mountains towered above ground, shockingly close to the airplane windows. Surely this couldn't be real? I was about to find out how real it was.
I checked into my hostel. A period of mild altitude sickness followed, as my body acclimatized to 3500 meters of elevation. For those unaware, the symptoms of acute mountain sickness (AMS) range from headaches, nausea, and insomnia, to difficulty breathing. Generally, the higher in altitude you are, the greater the risk of experiencing this illness. Most cases are treatable with hydration, rest, or a decrease in altitude. However, AMS can progress to more serious forms, which are life-threatening.
Thankfully, my symptoms in Leh were very mild. A day or two of relaxation and bed rest was all I needed to adapt to the high altitude. Some fellow hostellers were planning on doing the Markha Valley Trek, a five day expedition in the Ladakh region of India. I decided to join them; little did I know what was to come.
I was expecting a beautiful yet challenging hike through some gorgeous terrain. What ensued was bar none, the most physically taxing experience of my life, and one of the most emotionally draining, too.
We took a shared taxi to Chilling, the village where most trekkers begin the hike. So it began.
The first three days were challenging but fairly straightforward. Each morning, we would begin a 5-8 hour hike. The terrain encompassed staggering mountains, rivers, and miles upon miles of rocky ground. Starting at an altitude of roughly 3500 meters, we climbed no more than 400 each day. The trail passed through small villages, where we spent the nights.
The village home-stays all had the same general layout. For 1200 rupees (roughly $17) you were given a place to sleep, a hot home-cooked dinner, breakfast in the morning, and a packed lunch to bring with you for the afternoon. The meals were simple. Dinner usually consisted of dal (lentils) with rice and veggies, and the occasional steamed momos (Tibetan dumplings). Breakfast was bread with honey, jam, and peanut butter. The packed lunch was rather meager: a small potato, boiled egg, fried bread, and an (artificial tasting) juice box. However, the odd tea stall served omelets and snacks, allowing us to replenish certain missed nutrients.
On day four of the trek, things started getting intense.
Most trekking guidelines suggest increasing your sleeping altitude by no more than 300-500 meters per day. This allows one to slowly acclimatize, without putting undue strain upon the body.
Do you know how far we ascended on our fourth day? Nearly 1000 meters. That's right, our altitude increased by nearly a kilometer in several hours.
The altitude increase was our first mistake (though pretty much every other trekker we ran into was attempting the same feat). Our second mistake was: getting lost for a couple of hours. Although we were not far from our base camp destination, we accidentally wandered in the wrong direction. Darkness was just hours away, and I was starting to get a mild headache. I took the emergency Diamox on hand (note: please don't use this blog article as a how-to guide to taking Diamox: I most certainly used it incorrectly), and figured it wouldn't be long until we reached our camp. As soon as we ran into another group of trekkers, however, the headache got worse. We had found our way, but now I had full blown altitude sickness.
Although logic dictates lowering one's altitude in case of AMS, it was becoming too late to turn back. The closest village was two or three hours away, while our destination was less than one. Additionally, there was unlikely to be medical assistance down below, while the base camp was populated by more than 30 trekkers and locals.
The pain was starting to be unbearable. My head felt like it was going to explode. Breathing had become quite difficult, and a wave of nausea washed over me. My heart was pounding full force, and my energy levels were at zero. I sat on the ground, head in my hands, unable to push on. Fellow trekkers nervously stood by me, offering food, water, and moral support. I thought I was going to die.
"I need to turn back," I said. People anxiously reminded me how risky of a decision that would be. Why oh why had I gone on this trek? I had bitten off more than I could chew, and now I had to die because of it?
Suddenly, seemingly miraculously, the Diamox must have kicked in. It was like a switch had been flipped in my respiratory system. I felt a tingling sensation in my fingertips and feet, and I gasped. Air came rushing into my lungs. A headache still persisted, but my temples no longer felt like they were going to burst. "Let's do this," I said. No sooner did the words come out of my mouth, than a local guide offered to carry my backpack for me. We were on our way.
The experience of reaching base camp was overwhelming. A cabin full of dozens of trekkers greeted us with open arms, hot tea, and headache remedies. Everyone shared stories of their past week on the trail, including a few who had also dealt with mountain sickness. Seems I was not alone. After a delicious dinner, we stayed in tents, preparing for the upcoming (and most physically challenging) day. The altitude was 4800 meters, and it snowed that night. I slept very little.
I couldn't believe it, but when I awoke, my headache was gone! Was I really going to attempt a 5150-meter mountain pass, shortly after getting ill? The answer was, yes.
The climb to Kongmaru La Pass was rough. It was the steepest incline yet of the trek; the cold and snow slowed everything to a crawl. All I could do was put one foot in front of the other. The closer we got to our destination, the farther away it seemed. Inches felt like miles. Eventually, I stopped looking up, for fear of the distance we had remaining. Right foot, left foot. My legs were screaming. My feet were screaming. There was no choice but to go on, lest we were done for.
The feeling when I reached that pass was multifaceted. A mixture of accomplishment, relief, exhaustion, and dread ht me like a ton of bricks. The day wasn't even half over. We still had to descend more than a thousand meters, a feat which would take more than four hours.
The rest of the trek went without a hitch. I returned to Leh, tired and sore, and crashed at my hostel.
It's still too early to tell, but I believe the trek changed me as a person. It made me realize both what I was and wasn't physically capable of. The moment I was rendered helpless by the altitude, my self-reliance hit zero. All I could do was trust the goodness of others, and their senses of judgment. I discovered how important it is to have capable and reliable allies near you, especially when attempting something extreme.
The experience also made me rethink physical fitness. Back in the USA, one of my jobs was being a personal trainer. Though I work hard to keep in shape and make exercise a regular part of my life, treks like the Markha Valley require a different kind of strength. Besides the fact that one needs to walk nearly eight hours per day (often steeply uphill) while carrying a heavy backpack, trekking take an inner kind of strength. At certain points, it really does become mind over matter. I felt like my ultimate completion of the hike came down more to a sense of mental fortitude than it did anything else.
I plan on spending the next several weeks in the Himalayas, possibly doing some more trekking. Markha took a lot out of me, but what it took, it replaced with something stronger. When all is said and done, traveling has the potential to challenge one in every way imaginable. 16,000 feet certainly did for me.
In the past eighteen-and-a-half weeks, I’ve traveled through five Southeast Asian countries: Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, and Singapore. However, there are still six more countries in the region that I have yet to visit: Myanmar, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, the Philippines, and East Timor. I recently flew to India, to begin tackling the large subcontinent. However, I will certainly return to Southeast Asia someday to explore new territory, and perhaps revisit some old stomping grounds.
Although the places I visited had a few similarities to each other, I find them to be mostly diverse. It’s amazing just how much of a difference a thousand kilometers can make. Each country has a unique cuisine, vibe, and terrain.
The first four countries I went to are particularly convenient travel destinations, because they are connected by land. You can navigate these areas completely by bus; no need for expensive flights!
Thailand, with its spicy food and developed infrastructure, is the perfect gateway into Southeast Asia. It’s different enough (from the Western world) to warrant a culture shock, but not different enough to scare you. It’s a very easy country to travel in, and is practically made for tourists.
Cambodia can be a bit of a shock to the system, because it is a rather poor, undeveloped country. You get the sense that its citizens are still recovering from the horrific genocide, carried out by the Khmer Rouge regime back in the 1970’s. However, it is still a must-see country, if only for Angkor Wat: its beautiful, ancient temple complex.
Laos seems to get skipped by a lot of travelers, but they don’t know what they’re missing out on! Although its infrastructure is less developed than say, Thailand’s, it is a gorgeous country. It has several must-see cities, delicious food, and a chilled out vibe.
Vietnam has a feel unlike any other. It is crowded, bustling, and full of noise. Like Thailand, it is a very easy country to navigate, and has plenty to offer its tourists. The food, while not particularly spicy, is cheap and tasty.
Before heading to India, I decided to travel to the smallest country in Southeast Asia:
Singapore is one of the most culturally diverse places I have been to. It is a business capital of Asia, and is as affluent and modern as the United States (if not more so). While its highly organized structure may bore some, it does have a fantastic cuisine, with a little something from every country.
Even though I am far from done with Southeast Asia, I feel like I’ve explored a significant chunk it. However, these four months have seriously enlightened me to how big the world is. Even Southeast Asia (a fairly small region of the planet) takes a lot of time to explore. Hell, I haven’t even been to half of its countries!
I seriously think that I’m all the better from having traveled. I begin tackling India with some traveling experience under my belt, and that’s a great thing.
If you’d like to read more in-depth about my thoughts on these various places, check out the Country Guide page.
Belarus has been added to the "Nationalities I've Met" page, bringing the total to 46!
My third month was spent in two countries: Cambodia and Laos. The Lao currency is called "Kip," and the rate is about 8,000 kip per dollar. This was by FAR my cheapest month yet. This is due to the relatively cheap costs of traveling in Cambodia, as well as the fact that I'm getting better at budgeting as time goes on. This breakdown spans the dates 07/21/14 thru 08/19/14.
Here we go! Month the third:
Accommodation - $70.36. Average of $2.35 per day. Ok, this number is skewed, as I haven't yet paid for my current stay in Vientiane. However, Cambodia and Laos have been ridiculously cheap "accommodation-wise." In most places, I was able to find dorms for $2 per night.
Food - $173.82. Average of $5.79 per day, or $1.93 per meal. Cambodia was cheapest; in Siem Reap I could easily eat a meal for $1. Laos is a bit more expensive, with meals ranging between $2-4 each.
Alcohol - $37.72. Average of $1.26 per day. Thanks to 50 cent beers in Cambodia, I spent about half of what I did last month!
Transport - $106.70. Transport in Cambodia and Laos isn't as cheap as I expected it to be. However, it's an essential cost that cannot be avoided.
Water - $27.80. Average of 93 cents per day. For some reason, bottled water has been slightly more expensive here than it was it Thailand. Probably has to do with the fact that there are no 7-Elevens.
Toiletries - $3.71. A nominal fee.
Miscellaneous - $111.47. Includes things such as the $40 entry to Angkor Wat, kayaking, bowling, laundry, ATM fees, etc.
Total amount spent - $531.57. Average of $17.72 per day. Even including expenses such as entry to Angkor Wat, I spent over $100 less than I did last month! Cambodia and Laos have been cheaper than Thailand, and I was therefore able to reduce my daily average by over $4 per day!
Thank you once more to the creators of Trail Wallet. A true convenience for a budgeting backpacker!
Next month I'll be using the Vietnamese Dong. Get excited!
Laos (obviously!) has been added to the "Nationalities I've Met" page, bringing the total to 42!
First, a friendly little reminder that my Kickstarter is currently 146% funded. As it stands, this website will be getting a domain name of its own (without the .weebly), and I will upgrade the hosting service (making the site more professional). There are still 20 more days left to donate, so I urge you to check out the link. Every extra dollar will be spent on making the site better, be it the layout (i.e. a custom website theme) or content (i.e. allowing me to travel to more places, so more blog posts). Thank you!Instead of spending an entire month in Cambodia (as planned), I decided to cut my trip short. Cambodia is a very small country, and I felt like my time could be better spent elsewhere. Sure, the country has its charms; Siem Reap was absolutely fantastic, and I’d gladly go back some day. However, I was getting rather bored, making it ripe time for a change. Where, might you ask, did I head to? The answer is: Laos, a small country that borders Cambodia. I caught a bumpy minivan, bus, and boat to 4,000 Islands in Laos (Si Phan Don), bidding the Khmer goodbye.
The best way I can sum up the journey is “The bus ride from Hell.” I was picked up from my guesthouse in Kratie, Cambodia at 7:30 AM. After three hours in an extremely crowded minivan, we were dropped off at a restaurant, awaiting our connecting bus. First red flag: we were told to wait three and a half hours for the bus. We lazed around for that amount of time, and…nothing. The bus finally came at 4:00 PM, but we were not allowed to board until 5:00. When the bus finally arrived to the border, we were charged $50 for the Laos visa. The price was supposed to be $35. Enraged at this scam, I confronted the bus driver, who threatened to leave us behind if we did not pay. Begrudgingly, (and much to my dismay) everyone else decided to pay the extra $15. Well, I did not want to be left alone in a strange land, so I had no choice but to give in to the highway robbery.
With tensions running high, we arrived at the boat dock for Don Det island. Although my bus ticket included boat fare, the driver required me to buy a ticket at the dock. He threatened to leave me stuck at the border crossing if I did not pay, so I conceded. With bared teeth, I paid the $5. At this point, the entire group was fed up with this scam artist; we just wanted to find guesthouses (it was already 10:30). Finally, we crossed over the river, and found accommodation for the night. It was the worst experience I have ever had with a travel bus, but I made it through alive.
So, how is Laos?
It’s awesome. In fact, Don Det is probably my favorite place I have been this entire trip! It’s just about the most relaxing, chilled out island I’ve visited. There are no tuk-tuks, motorbikes, or cars. It is extremely undeveloped, so there are cows, chickens, pigs, and bison walking all around. Yesterday, we walked through some rice fields. I found cheap accommodation ($1.87 per night) at the “Happy Bungalow.” The caretaker then took a group of us on a boat to a nearby island, where we drank Beer Laos and sat in the shade.
Today, we took an amazing kayaking tour down the Mekong River. It was breathtaking, and was a tremendously satisfying workout. During our lunch break, we sat on a dock and watched dolphins. I doubt my memories of this day will fade any time soon!
I don't think Don Det is indicative of Laos as a whole. However, I feel like this place was built for me. There are no scams like in Thailand, or even Cambodia. Since it is rainy season, the island is fairly empty; this allows for quiet exploration, and peaceful relaxation. The guesthouse I picked is perfect, both in price and in hospitality. Instead of spending a few days here, I plan on staying for at least a week. I cannot recommend the island of Don Det enough!
Overall, a really lousy journey lead to my favorite country (so far)! I hope to explore much more of Laos during my month or so here. For now, however, I feel relaxed as can be.
On a side note, I’d like to share a picture I found of myself – proof that passions really do start at childhood! I think it was my 9th birthday?
The food that convinced me to take a cooking class was "LokLak," a French inspired Khmer dish. This recipe comes straight from the cookbook I was given by Coconut restaurant. There are quite a few ingredients; however, when done right, it is a phenomenal dish! I've had both beef and chicken LokLak, and I slightly prefer the chicken variation. However, this is all subjective, so use whatever kind of meat you prefer. Makes six servings.
Beef Tenderloin or Chicken (1000 grams)
Cooking Oil (6 Tbs)
Soy Sauce (4 Tbs)
Oyster Sauce (6 Tbs)
Salt (1-1/3 Tbs)
Chicken Powder (2 Tbs)
Sugar (6 Tbs)
Ketchup (6 Tbs)
Pepper Powder (1-1/3 Tbs)
Chili Sauce (6 Tbs)
Lime Juice (3 Tbs)
1 Egg (optional)
1) First, prepare the beef/chicken and sauce. Clean the beef/chicken and cut into cubes. Then add soy sauce, oyster sauce, ketchup, chili sauce, 1/3 of a tablespoon of salt (not all of it!), 1 tablespoon of chicken powder (not all of it!), 3 tablespoons of sugar (not all of it!), and 1/3 of a tablespoon of pepper powder (not all of it!). Mix it all together with the beef/chicken, and stir for 5 minutes.
2) Fry it with the oil and chopped garlic in a pan.
3) Make the LolLak sauce. Mix the lime juice, and remaining salt, pepper powder, sugar, and chicken powder together.
4) Prepare vegetables and steamed rice (read step #5).
5) Serve it like in the picture above: Beef/chicken and sauce on one plate, garnished with vegetables. Steamed rice on another. LokLak sauce in a small, separate dish. I'd highly recommend frying an egg and putting it on top. It's aesthetically pleasing, and tastes delicious!
So there you have it, a great recipe for LokLak! Enjoy.
India has been added to the "Nationalities I've Met" page, bringing the total to 41!
I recently had a really wonderful meal at a restaurant in Battambang, by the name of "Coconut." So wonderful, in fact, that I decided to pay for a cooking class.
For those of you who don't know, many restaurants throughout Southeast Asia offer cooking classes, in addition to food. I had turned down several offers for cooking classes in Thailand. After all, why should I pay for something I can learn for free on on the Internet? The food was so good at this Cambodian restaurant, however, that my curiosity got the best of me. I promptly signed up for the 3:30 PM class.
When I arrived for my lesson, the chef informed me that he had just opened the restaurant ten days ago, and that I was his first student! We walked (in the pouring rain) to the local market, where he gave me a rundown on all the different kinds of fruits and vegetables. The list was mountainous; I'd never seen so much produce in my life!
After a few choice purchases, we headed back to the restaurant to commence the class. He showed me how to cook a full three-course meal: two main dishes, a side, and dessert. For the next two hours, we chopped, diced, crushed, and blended dozens of ingredients. Having never been much of a cook myself, it was a fun, informative session.
Finally, it was time to eat the fruits of my labor. Sprawled before me on the table was Fish Amok, Beef LokLak, Fried Spring Rolls, and Coconut LyLy. It was one of the best meals I have ever had. Finally, the owner handed me a cookbook, and I was on my merry way. The price for a three-hour lesson, gigantic dinner, and cookbook? $10.
I hope to share a recipe or two with you someday. These are authentic, delicious Khmer dishes. Never underestimate whims; they lead to the most interesting days!
I don't think I'll be able to find a developing lab anytime soon, so for now I will be using pictures shot on my Ipod.
Cambodia is a very sobering place to visit, especially when going there straight from Thailand. It is still recovering from a horrific genocide at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. Between 1975-1979 the Communist Khmer Rouge regime killed off a quarter of the country's population. If you opposed them in any way, were an intellectual (wearing glasses automatically made you one), or were educated in any field, you were killed. So it's not surprising that this had a profound effect on Cambodia's development. Unlike Thailand, it is a very poor country, where roughly 53% of the population lives on less than $2 per day.
Arriving via plane was an almost mystical experience. As we touched down, I could see beautiful foliage that stretched for miles. I saw no metropolitan skyscrapers or the like. The first thing I noticed outside the airport, was how quiet everything was - almost eerily quiet. It felt like a land from the old times, before globalization reached out its hand.
In fact, if Siem Reap has any fast food joints, I have been kept blissfully unaware of them. Unlike Thailand, full of its McDonalds and 7-Eleven chains, Cambodia seems quite untouched. I have only been in one city so far, but I love it! The street food, while not as good as Thailand's, is cheap and decent.
Yesterday, I went to Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world. It is housed in a giant complex, which is also home to several other temples. It was incredible; pictures cannot do it justice! As I walked toward the building, I imagined Angkor as it was, hundreds of years ago - multitudes of Hindus and Buddhists walking about. While I usually don't care about monuments and structures, I would HIGHLY recommend everyone visit it sometime, especially if already traveling in Southeast Asia.
Malaysia, The Philippines, and Ukraine have all been added to the "Nationalities I've Met" page, bringing the total to 40!
One thing I bet you didn't know about Cambodia, is that they primarily use U.S. dollars. Their official currency, Riel, is usually only given as change. Shortly after my arrival yesterday, I bought $1.35 worth of items at a shop - the change for my two dollars? 2,600 Riel. The dollar is king here (well, they do actually have a king, but you get the gist). Therefore, month three will be very easy to track financially, as most transactions will be made with my home currency.
Anyhow, I could go on for hours about Cambodia, and I will (in future blog posts). For now, however, I want to do a financial breakdown of my second month. It was spent primarily in Thailand, and spans the dates 06/21/14 thru 07/20/14. Once again, there will be exceptions. I bought a Northern Thai instrument (Seung - which I had to leave behind at a guesthouse in Bangkok), which will not be factored in. Additionally, costs related to my film photography are very specific, and I don't foresee most people needing to factor such prices in.
Here we go! Month the second:
Accommodation - $127.64. Average of $4.25 per day. I more than halved my accommodation costs from last month ($282.93). There are several reasons for this, primarily the fact that I was traveling with a friend. We were able to split double rooms, paying half the price. Even when I was alone, I opted to stay in mixed dorm rooms, whereas last month I stayed in a (far more expensive) single room. Thought I thought dorms would suck, they actually turned out to be a great way to meet new people. They also saved me a lot of money!
Food - $180.39. Average of $6 per day, or $2 per meal. Roughly the same as I spent last month, just a few dollars more. I didn't make much of an effort to stay away from restaurants. Additionally, food in the South was slightly more expensive (as was everything else). I would never have dreamed this would be my biggest expense - even more than accommodation!
Alcohol - $65.33. Average of $2.18 per day. Same as food: roughly the same as last month, but with a few extra dollars due to inflated costs.
Transport - $164.29. Other than food, this was my biggest expense during the month (up from $35.37 last month). The reason is that Lisa's method of traveling involved seeing as many places as possible. Sometimes this resulted in very expensive bus rides, some of which did save us money on accommodation (overnight buses). I don't regret a single penny that I spent; however, future months will certainly not be this costly for me.
Water - $17.46. Average of 58 cents per day. Roughly the same as last month.
Toiletries - $6.42. Much lower than last month ($18.61). This is because I had already purchased most of my toiletries last month (toothbrush, toothpaste, shampoo, etc).
Miscellaneous - $77.37. Includes ATM fees ($21.24), unintentional motorbike damage ($15.40), a haircut ($9.24), laundry ($4.56), and other items/admission costs, etc ($26.93).
Total amount spent - $638.90. Average of $21.30 per day. Slightly less than last month, but much more than necessary (especially with such low accommodation fees). Transport and miscellaneous things (such as costs associated with the Full Moon Party) really added up, inflating my budget. Though I am once more by myself in Cambodia, I hope this month will cost less!
Thank you once more to the creators of Trail Wallet. This app has been essential for me.
Stay tuned, readers!
My name is Yonah Paley. I quit my job in the United States to travel. I also write movies and do photography. As I backpack across the world, I share stories, philosophy, and travel tips.