Meditation, like exercise, is one of those things that I’ve always meant to do but constantly put off.
Given my psychological profile – anxious, labile, growth-oriented – meditation has frequently been suggested as way to keep my mental shit in order. I first heard about Vipassana, a ten day silent meditation retreat, from fellow travelers when backpacking through Southeast Asia. People raved about it (“difficult but worth it”), plus it was donation only.
When my friend Rachel suggested island hopping in Thailand, I figured I’d combine it with a Vipassana afterwards. I have never meditated before. I would try, get distracted, and give up. So I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into.
But I’ve learned that’s ok. That’s how we all start. Naked and naive.
I picked a center in Kacanaburi, Thailand since it still had slots for women open. I arrived on a coach bus with dozens of other meditators. I sat next to a tall American guy who felt regret about never fulfilling his artistic ambitions. He was turning 40 during the retreat. His friend, Paul, had done a 20 day retreat. Apparently there were also 20, 45, and 60 day retreats. 10 days is just the introductory mini course.
(Everytime I do something perceived as “hardcore”, I mostly realize how there are so many more levels of hardcore that I haven’t yet reached. Run a marathon? There are ultra marathons. Ultramarathons in the desert. You haven’t even done an Ironman. Backpack for 4 months? Pshaw, that kiwi chick has been traveling for 5 years in politically unstable regions. This French dude has hitchhiked through Tasmania and couch surfed for 3 years straight. He asked random people in the train station to house him. There’s always someone more hardcore than you.)
We surrendered cellphones, computers, books, and any valuables on the first day. We weren’t allowed to talk, make gestures or eye contact, exercise, read, write, or listen to music. Men and women were separated. No touching – even non-sexual – between people of any gender was allowed. We each slept in (surprisingly nice) private rooms.
For 10 hours a day, we meditated. From 4:30, to 6:30am. From 8 to 11am. From 1 to 5pm. From 6 to 7pm. From 8:30 until 9pm. And then we slept.
Meditating 10 hours a day still left 4.5 hours of free time to fill. With no talking, reading, writing, or exercising, that left only cleaning my room, grooming, or walking within the course boundaries. After lunch, I’d walk in slow circles around the garden and pause to watch the traffic of harvest ants on electrical wires. I exfoliated my face until it shined. I took newfound pleasure in mundane tasks like washing my underwear and making the bed.
My mind desperately wanted to plan. I found it comforting to make decisions about changes to make back in Boston. Sublet out my apartment. Start X or Y project. Revamp my business. Email my friend Spencer. Change my flights and get home earlier.
The last one filled my mind for hours of meditation practice. I really missed my boyfriend, and a Vipassana gives you no outlet or distraction. Being inside my mind for all my waking hours, without outlet or distraction, felt like living inside an echo chamber.
Goenka, the teacher whose voice we listened to on recordings, explained Vipassana as a scientific inquiry into the changing nature of our mind and body. The ultimate goal was be free of “mental defilements” – things like anger and jealousy that keep us from being happy. Rather than trying to suppress or distract oneself, you observe sensations in the body. Emotions, then, are reactions to pleasant and unpleasant bodily sensations. If we learn to be equanimous with those sensations, we can learn to recognize and observe the emotion (“Oh look! My heart is beating faster and my face feels warm.”) rather than letting it control us.
During Vipassana style meditation, you observe sensations from the top of your head to the tip of your toes, then in reverse. Whether pleasant or unpleasant, you maintain a detached, peaceful state, observing and remembering the transient nature of those sensations.
I meditated wrong for 6 days. You’re not supposed to visualize anything, but I kept imagining a particularly intense itch on my upper lip as Sebastien from The Little Mermaid doing a jig. It kept me amused through very long hours.
I had the most vivid dreams.
In one dream, I was having lunch with a client. He was eating french onion soup.
Try a bite, he said. The continuity slipped, and I swallowed a spoonful of seafood.
Several dreams were seemed to be about travel logistics anxiety. I was trying to book flights on AirAsia to imaginary airports in China, or reading imaginary subway maps of imaginary cities. I kept backtracking or missing my stop.
One dream inexplicably combined interior decoration with killing off a horde of zombies. In that surreal dreamverse, I was floating 5 feet above a stream, pouring a jug of kerosene on a floating barge of the undead. I had just picked out an upholstered chair with my zombie-killing compatriot.
I have no idea what that one was about.
On day 6 of the silent meditation retreat, the shower in my cottage emitted nothing but a hissing gurgle. At lunch, there was a polite, handwritten sign on the table that read, “Due to severe water crisis, please shower 1 time a day.”
I had been showering 3 times a day. I brushed my teeth 4 times a day. There was nothing else to do.
My immediate instinct was to fill up my water bottle in the dining hall.
“No water?” I asked one the Dhamma volunteers. (You are allowed functional speaking with the workers, and to ask the teacher questions twice a day.)
She laughed and said, no water. But they had 20 bottles of drinking in the back.
No, small bottles. For 70 of us.
We’re going to die! I joked. It was the first time I’d made a joke or laughed out loud, however quietly, in a week. She assured me that someone would go to town and buying drinking water if we ran out.
When I tried to brush my teeth after lunch, only air came out of my tap. I could hear my neighbor make out with some wheezier gurgles. That night, I gave myself a sponge bath with a wadded-up t-shirt, bucket of cold water, and a water bottle.
Finally, on the afternoon of Day 9, a rumble of thunder broke through. By break time, a few drops of rain started to fall. I hurried back to the meditation hall with an umbrella. Then the sky broke open. Fruit was flung from the trees. The shutters screeched and a glass window shingle shattered. We all stared with silent wonder outside, sitting on our meditation mats. I imagined all the windows blowing out and spewing broken glass inwards.
Some students went to close the windows. The teacher, a monk, sat cross-legged and serene as ever.
Then Goenka’s voice began chanting on the sound system. “Start again,” he intoned, drawing out the “again” with dramatic flair. “Start again.”
With my eyes closed, I heard the brush clink of glass swept and screws sorted. The rain had stopped. I began sweeping my body for sensations. Remember the law of nature – anicca, Goenka was saying. Impermanence.
This too shall pass.
Day 2, 4, and 6 were hell. I entertained the idea of leaving. The days felt sweaty, claustrophobic, interminable. I was sitting in rooms without air conditioning, in the middle of Thailand’s hot season, while trying to focus exclusively on nostril sensations for 10 hours a day. Scintillating.
I spent meditation time guessing how much it would cost to change my return flight. I imagined different surprise-arrival-in-Boston scenarios, which felt a lot more pleasant than trying not to scratch the itch on my foot while observing the subtle, prickly sensations on my upper arms. Meditation seemed so pointless, and some of Goenka’s videotaped talks seemed more like trite secondhand testimonials than actual advice.
Something changed on day 7. The videotaped talk that night was about mastering the mind. This spoke me a lot more than his talks about morality, about how Vipassana wasn’t a religion, or assorted Buddha parables. This was why I was here: to be master of my own mind.
There were only two more days left until I got my phone back, and I suddenly felt urgency to make the most of my time left.
I noticed myself making progress: I no longer beat myself up about not being the perfect meditator. When I noticed my attention wandering, I gently redirected it back to my bodily sensations without name calling or disappointment. Sometimes, if meditation felt impossible, I gave myself tiny goals to accomplish: just two passthroughs of the body. Ok, now five. Good job!
I began to come out of hour-long meditation sessions feeling incredibly… good. Very calm. Appreciative of little things around me. I spent a half-hour of one break time staring at a leaf, admiring how beautiful it was. It wasn’t like there was anything else to do, anyway.
I even let myself feel good about overcoming the negative self-talk hurdle.
The hard part of Vipassana isn’t the silence part. Silence makes perfect sense. It is trying to focus your attention for 10 hours a day. It is the loneliness of your mind, and dealing with all the neuroses and shit that float to the surface when you are isolated from civilization for two weeks.
For me, I kept thinking about random ways that I had let people down. It didn’t how tiny and insignificant the incident was, or if it had happened 5 years ago with a person who probably didn’t remember my name. I’d be meditating, and the thought would pop up, uninvited. It felt like psychological whack-a-mole.
I finally went in to see the teacher on day 7. He spoke through an interpreter.
When I meditate, anxieties and mistakes I’ve made keep coming up. Should I ignore them, or try to reason them out? I asked.
Just focus on your sensation. This is happening for everybody, he said.
After this course, when these thoughts come up, should I still only focus on the sensation? There are some that I can’t do anything about, and some that I can – like if I’ve forgotten something.
The monk smiled. I can’t tell you what to do. Only you know what to do. You can’t plan for the future. Just focus on the present and doing your Vipassana. Focus on your sensations.
You know, I liked that answer. It appealed to my autonomy.
I have terrible eczema. It’s a chronic skin condition that results in dry, itchy patches. During the retreat, it shrank into nothingness. I marveled at how smooth my arms and legs looked.
Within literally hours of leaving the retreat, I noticed itchy areas reappearing on my arms. I’d never seen clearer evidence that it was psychosomatic.
For 10 days, I counted down the hours to getting my phone back. On day 9, I thought, wow, I really needed these entire 10 days. Every single day.
We got our belongings back on the morning of day 10. By that time, I dreaded it.
Within the hour, I was a mess. I realized I had forgotten to file my taxes for the year. I was over my international data plan limit. The United Airlines website wasn’t letting me change my flight. I lay on my bed, fumbling with my phone and sweating in the heat. I waited for the “I missed you, too.” When I finally got it, I cried a few tears of relief, mingled with disappointment for wanting it.
I felt very, very far away from Nirvana.
I switched on the fan and lay down, hearing the chatter of voices outside. I heard Goenka’s voice in my mind: focus on respiration… focus on sensation…
And so I did.
A week and a half later, I’m writing from Chiang Mai, a city in northern Thailand popular with expats.
Turned out, changing my 3-leg journey home would have cost nearly $900, so I ended up staying. My time in Chiang Mai has been mixed. The city itself is lovely, but the people I was visiting seemed less than thrilled that I was in town. While rationally, I know they’re inconsequential, that snubbing unearthed an old wound.
My old mental habit would be to yell at myself for feeling upset at all. “This is dumb! You shouldn’t feel upset! You’re too good for this! Go hang out with those other cool people!”
Trouble is, that thinking didn’t get me anywhere. It just makes me meta-upset that I’m still upset. Instead, in the spirit of Vipassana, I’ve been trying to confront my disappointment and observe it, rather than suppressing it. It’s natural to feel a bit upset. It’s ok. This too shall pass.
One of the hardest things to learn is empathy for yourself. It’s something I do for others all the time, but rarely do I turn it inwards.
So I’ll add my testimonial: difficult, but worth it. Really difficult, but definitely worth it. It’s hard to perceive your mental patterns. It’s harder to change them. This is one way.
To learn more, go to http://dhamma.org.
I went to a fortune teller last month. I was out for dinner with a friend, and we thought it’d be a hilarious exercise.
I paid $25 to have my palm read. She started telling me about myself – how I’d had my heart broken before, how I’d get what I wanted.
But I knew she wasn’t actually psychic when she said the past year had been difficult and painful for me. When she said there were too many jealous and negative people in my life.
She got some of the specifics correct – who hasn’t had their heart broken? – but really, the past year has been more incredible than I could have ever asked for or imagined, thanks to supportive friends, family, and clients. Here’s a few highlights from the 2012:
My birthday (December 23rd), Christmas, and New Year’s were spent in Koh Phangan, Thailand at Full Moon Party. This involved 20-30,000 tourists on a beach, wearing day glo and drinking red bull and vodka out of buckets. I was with a group of people I’d met through Couchsurfing: a German tourist who’d just spent 10 days eating vegetarian food and meditating in total silence, a Malaysian girl who’d organized the whole thing, and Jared, a thoughtful Kiwi who I ended up traveling with for another few weeks afterwards.
Haad Rin, Koh Phangan’s beach party headquarters, was a charmingly charmless island enclave of drunken tourists. Christmas morning, I woke up at 8am and headed out to the water. The tide was so high that it had partially submerged a picnic table – where a group of girls were still dancing to house music as the sun rose.
The parties themselves involved a lot of fire. There were slides with fiery arches to bellyflop through, ropes soaked in gasoline and lit on fire to jump rope with, chains with lit torches to spin, giant signs written in fire. The crowd ranged from happy to obnoxious. On New Year’s Eve, I walked around with a pair of light up Minnie Mouse ears and eventually took them off because guys kept grabbing them.
What I learned: In Thailand, you are responsible for your own safety.
I was supposed to visit my friend Lena Chen in Singapore, but heavy rains flooded the Thailand/Malaysia border crossing. With no buses running through Haat Yai, I looked up flights – both expensive and sold out until the next week. That left so little time that I opted to nix the idea.
Jared was heading north to Cambodia, so I decided to tag along. We headed back to Bangkok, caught a scammy bus to the border, obtained our visas to the Kingdom of Cambodia, and found ourselves in Siem Reap.
Angkor Wat was wild and beautiful. We went to Battambung and Sihanoukville after that, then Kampot, a sleepy countryside town. One of my favorite days of the trip was buying picnic ingredients, renting a motorbike, and eating overlooking the misty vista from Bokor Mountain. After Kampot, Jared was headed home, and I continued on alone.
My first night in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital, I met up with Couchsurfing folks and talked to a Chinese-Dutch expat who mentioned he was going to Burma next week.
“You can fly direct from Phnom Penh now,” he said.
“Yeah, but I don’t want to bother with going back to Bangkok and getting a visa.”
“Actually, if you fly on the government airline from here, you can get visa on arrival!”
This little bureaucratic detail seized my imagination. I had already purchased a Vietnam visa while I was in Cambodia, anticipating heading east for my next big move. Right then, I decided to launch into a surreal 3 week solo adventure.
I spent the next few days squaring away travel plans: withdrawing money from the bank and exchanging it for perfect, crisp $100 USD bills (the only legal tender in Burma), buying plane tickets, and having my online assistant make reservations.
My last few days in Phnom Penh were made memorable by Simone, a gregarious Italian expat who showed me around and ate deep-fried tarantulas with me.
What I learned: Num Pang is Cambodia’s version of Banh Mi, and it is delicious. Many Cambodians make as little as 30 dollars a month, which depressed me and made me more aware of the ridiculousness of my job.
Burma was absolutely nuts. Looking through my photos, I’m filled with nostalgia and wanderlust.
My itinerary was Yangon, Mandalay, Hsipaw, Monywa, Kalaw, Bagan, Inle Lake, then Tuangoo. Since I spent the entire 3 weeks alone, I interacted with more locals (the perk of solo travel) and fell down more rabbit holes.
I’m not sure how to even recap that time. I guess there’s always photos…
It was all capped off by meeting a local on a 10 hour bus ride back to Yangon. Turned out he spoke Mandarin Chinese, and we ended up trading stories about our respective home countries. He invited me to visit his chicken farm, so I rented a taxi for the day and met his family and chickens. I hope he’s doing well.
I arrive back home! My skin is sun damaged and eczema-ravaged. I promptly get sick from eating yogurt in my parents’ fridge that’s been expired for year. And they say street food is dangerous.
I start working more. I visit my friend Nick in Buffalo, crash on Bostonians’ couches, and eventually decide to get a sublet in Boston for the summer.
I spent 2 weeks in Italy, where I eat my weight in gelato and buffalo mozzarella. I buy my first designer handbag at the Prada outlet in Tuscany, meet up with a college friend in Lake Como (where I also hitchhike for the first time), and finish it off in Bologna. In Bologna, I serendipitously meet a friendly Canadian girl and I watch the Eurocup soccer match at her boyfriend’s bar. More gelato.
My entire time in Italy, I keep thinking – what am I doing here? Sick of always moving around, I decide to rent an apartment in Boston.
A hundred person trip in Provincetown! I go for the second time with my good friend Evan, and cap it off with another amazing meal at the Beachcomber in Wellfeet.
I sign the lease for a 400 square foot studio in Boston’s Back Bay. I have ambitions of making a coffee table. (That never happened.)
My second Burning Man! I attend a Reddit meet up, hand out chapsticks, wear many wigs, and get very, very lost in the dust.
One of my fondest memories from this year is talking about design, technology, and emotions with Evan on burn night. I realize that my empathic, emotional nature is what makes me a good friend and designer. I learn to appreciate my positive qualities and focus on cultivating those. (Versus trying to always fix what’s “wrong”.) I leave Burning Man with lots of fuzzy, warm feelings and more aware of the positive effect I can have on others.
I move into my very first solo apartment! I promptly spend 3 weeks and waste countless hours agonizing over furniture decisions.
Chicago trip! I visit my high school friend Rachel, currently a math PhD at UChicago, along with college friend Spencer. It’s a restorative and really fun weekend.
After an unbroken string of good months in my freelance business, realize that maybe I should focus on higher-level goals. A work project – designing an iPad app for Puma – gets installed in New York and Japan. So weird to see something I designed out in the wild!
Puerto Vallarta, Mexico with Rachel. My first vacation where I really let myself take a vacation. We sun ourselves, drink dirty monkeys (some magical blend of banana, Kahlua, and coconut), and take a taxi into town in the evenings. Things go so well that we decide to go on another trip together to Thailand in a few months.
My friend Mark hosts a lovely New Years party in his investor’s apartment. I spend the preceding days with my foodie friend Sam, eating NYC classics like Russ and Daughters gravlax. I take the bus back to Boston New Year’s Day, with promising developments for the new year.
Since I graduated from college, I’ve experienced a few things. (“Learn” is the wrong word – I already knew these before, I just didn’t really believe them deep down.)
– Making more money doesn’t make you more happy. It switches around your priorities (namely, time becomes more valuable) and makes some things easier, but introduces a different set of anxieties that are no less real. I also traveled more last year on a much, much smaller income.
– The only way to get have the job/life/love of your dreams is to 1) define what that is and 2) say no to everything that doesn’t fit your criteria. You must believe that there will be another opportunity down the road that you can’t see just yet – and there will be.
– Take lots of photos. Memories fade. Sometimes I feel dumb taking tons of photos in the moment (when I should be “experiencing” instead of recording), but I’m always glad I do. And when I don’t, I’m much more likely to forget.
After last year’s Burning Man, Vegas felt like a strange, corporate Disneyland: a city imagined from a small-town conception of glamor. It’s also not small. I brought extra walking shoes (which I lost a club, sadly) so here are a few options for making your way around, should you decide to take the plunge:
Easy peasy, and not so cheap. Also, be careful – one of our drivers decided to take the long way around because of “traffic” (it was a decidedly non-trafficky time of day). Another lamented being fired from his job after 40 years of dedicated service. But that’s another story. But the fact remains: after checking out nightlife in Las Vegas, you’ll generally find a cab the best option for getting back to your hotel room safely.
Las Vegas Transit System
Yes, there are buses too! I didn’t actually use this. Buses scare me. I never know what stop to get off at and I turn into an anxious ARE WE THERE YET mess.
No price quite as good as free. Some casinos (and other venues of entertainment) offer shuttles for getting around Vegas depending on your destination. Some will only take you to specific casinos that they are affiliated with and others will take you to a set number of locations. Your casino host will be able to tell you about what shuttle service they provide. If you are going somewhere near a casino serviced by a shuttle, this could be a quick and free mode of transportation.
Renting a Car
… Or you could rent a car. With all its attendant upsides and downsides. This makes more sense if you have a group, are staying for awhile, and need the flexibility. Try shopping around online, and don’t forget to take advantage of daytrips and other excursions if you have a car. For example, there’s a machine gun shooting range… a junkyard of vintage signs… all kinds of interesting stuff off the strip that I regret never seeing. So go see it!
I arrive in Kalaw, the same as I arrive in every new city. Dusty. Head pounding. Disoriented.
My guesthouse in Kalaw is styled like a ski lodge. There’s wood and woven bamboo paneling, pen sketches of hill tribe people, and a local parasol adorning the walls. Throw in a private bath for 8 bucks, and i am one happy, if still slightly sick, camper. I’m here to do a 2-3 day trek to Inle Lake, passing through the hill tribe villages along the way.
An employee directs me to the viewpoint. I start climbing the hill, spooked by the barking of dogs after a conversation with my bus buddy on the way here about rabies. I clutch stones in my fists, feeling vulnerable.
I reach the top of the dirt road, passing woman carrying bushels of ferns. From the top, Kalaw is a charming slate-and-blue patchwork of corrugated tin rooftops lit by a cold, white sun. I walk into the temple grounds.
There is a golden stupa, guarded by an aggressive dog. He runs out and keeps barking at me. I freeze, clutching the stones and thinking, somewhat obsessively, getting to Bangkok for rabies shots would really suck.
After awhile, I starting inching away. I hear the jingle of the dog’s collar following me.
Then I see the monk, sitting in a tiny white house to the right of the stupa. I wave, and he walks out to greet me. The dog turns away, panting and satisfied.
“Mingalaba!” I say.
He smiles. He is missing many of his yellowed teeth, and a bit of saliva collects at the corner of his mouth as he talks. He looks frail, swaddled in ochre robes and wearing glasses with the faded price sticker still affixed to the lens.
We exchange the usual pleasantries. His English is hard to understand, so I just end up trying to process his stream of Buddha thoughts. He reads the words painted on his door and walls: “the art of dying” “I am alone but I am not lonely” “Open mind means entirely empty mind” “this too, will pass.”
“You just one?” he asks, holding up a forlorn finger.
“Dae yao,” I say, which is Myanmar for alone. Coincidentally, it sounds similar to the word for China – “Dai yao.”
He laughs with delight. It is always worth learning a few words of the local language to experience this. “You strong!”
I flex my biceps. Based on my Lonely Planet, I was expecting pity. I always read their “woman travellers” section with particular care. I’ve realized that this section is often written by men. It amazes me how much of my expectations of travel have been based on white, male accounts. The China I experience – the Thailand I experience – the Myanmar I experience – never feel the same.
I am less bothered – especially now, in (what feels like) the absurdly safe holds of Myanmar – about how my travel experience differs from a man’s.
Sometimes, I try to explain to my male travel partners What It’s Like To Be A Woman. I say things like, “Sometimes you wonder if he’s being creepy or if it’s a cultural difference. The fact you’re wondering means he’s being creepy. Full stop.” I try to explain what it means to always be aware of being female. Why catcalling isn’t just flattering background noise. I’m not sure if they understand, but it’s helpful to clarify for myself.
The monk offers me coffee.
Why not? He pours hot water from a carafe into a dirty plastic cup and pours in a 3-in-1 coffee mix. I pray fervently that this doesn’t upset my recovering stomach. I drink some coffee, take pictures of his abode, and we say goodbye.
I wonder if he is lonely. He had told me I was beautiful, several times. Then I remember that English phrase, painted on the wall at the foot of his bed: I am alone but I am not lonely.
Time for some Question and Answer action!
I hope you’re doing grand (and I’m a bit sad that my google reader hasn’t updated anything from your blog in awhile!) and that you find yourself in Brazil on your South America trip.
I’m writing because I want your input and advice. I’m quitting my job at the end of May, subletting my place, and basically just kicking it til med school starts in August. I have between 6-8 weeks of uninterrupted time to travel, by myself, something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time, to Southeast Asia and see glorious beaches in Thailand, or the coves of Halong Bay, or try hokkien mee on the street, and just see a different part of the world.
Seeing as you’ve went, and this would be one of my first solo experiences for fun (and where i don’t speak local languages other than some French), do you have any advice? Recommendations? Even proposed itineraries? Anything would be helpful.
Dear Traveling Penguin,
First of all, congratulations on med school and deciding to do some solo travel! Solo travel is awesome, and you are in for a treat.
With 6-8 weeks, you have a decent chunk of time, but not not enough to traverse the continent without running yourself ragged. I would recommend picking 2-4 countries. 2, for a more immersive experience, and 4, if you’re going to do more of a “greatest hits” tour.
Southeast Asia is extraordinarily easy to get around, overland travel can be booked on the fly and is dirt cheap, and your plans will inevitably change (embrace this change!). Logistics that seem daunting when you’re stateside are effortless once you’re there. So most of all, don’t worry, just trust you’ll figure it out as you go along.
Most importantly, figure out a start and an end point. Stare at a map really, really hard, pick out some “must visits,” then figure out a general order (are you going from north to south, or south to north), and figure out where to go in between once you’re there.
Most people start in either Bangkok or Singapore, since international flights will be cheapest there. If you start in Bangkok, you could decide to head north to Chiang Mai, or cross into Cambodia’s Siem Reap by train and see the temples of Angkor Wat, diddle around for awhile, then cross by bus/ferry into southern Vietnam. Or maybe you’ll hit up northern Laos first, then take bus or flight over to northern Vietnam (make sure you get a visa in Bangkok first).
Make sure to get visas for Vietnam and Myanmar in Bangkok, if you plan on visiting those countries. I highly recommend Myanmar, despite the logistical challenges. I had an incredible time there – some magical experiences and the nicest locals ever. As a side note, food is not the greatest there.
In the other direction, you could fly down to Indonesia from Bangkok and work your way back up north to Bangkok via Singapore (most recommend 3-4 days there), Malaysia, and the Thailand islands.
Whatever you do, make sure you check weather patterns for your time there – it may be monsoon season in many places.
Bangkok is a nice place to start. You’ll probably end up staying on Khao San Road, which is the backpacker mecca of the world. It’s a bit sleazy and grimy, but that is ok for now. Plenty of traveler amenities here and a chance to get your bearings.
If you’re looking to hop around Thailand, here is the quickest rundown of some (rather touristy) spots. I think it’s not a bad idea to start your trip off with some touristy places, just to get a handle on traveling.
Pattaya (not an island): mostly for sex tourists. Avoid if you’re not a sex tourist.
Phuket: one of the most developed islands – mostly big resorts and a lot of sex tourists.
On the east side:
Koh Samui: Another large, well-developed island.
Koh Phangan: Home to the infamous Full Moon Party. Worth a look if you find a group you like to party with (meet up with some people at a Samui hostel), but I wouldn’t go alone, particularly as a female. It’s a bit douchey, but fun if you like huge beach parties.
Koh Tao: Cheapest place to get scuba certified.
On the west side:
You’ll probably take a bus to Krabi Town or Ao Nang, then take a longboat to the islands from there.
Rai Lay Beach: Must see! Laid back, incredibly beautiful, blue waters and soaring limestone cliffs, mixed crowd. Stay on Tonsai for the backpackery/climber crowd.
Koh Phi Phi: For 20-somethings that love to party. Stay away if you don’t like these kinds of tourists. If you go here, make sure to hike to the viewpoint.
Koh Lanta: Super chilled out, one of my personal favorites. Good for relaxing, good food, good place to rent a motorbike and explore.
Koh Lipe: Most beautiful water/beach I’ve seen so far, but pretty dull otherwise. Mostly for families/couples.
There’s a lot of other places in Thailand other than islands/beaches! Consult your Lonely Planet for advice. If you’re looking to get away from tourists, head away from the water.
I will refrain from writing rundowns of everywhere, but here are a few of my fondest memories:
Penang, Malaysia: Fantastic street food.
Kampot, Cambodia: A golden, sleepy town in southern Cambodia surrounded by picturesque countryside (great for motorbiking), soaring mountains, and one of my favorite islands. Nearby Kep is full of abandoned colonial houses and great fresh seafood. Take a boat out to Rabbit Island for an overnight trip, you won’t regret it. A great place to chill out for a week or two in between hardcore travel.
Monywa, Myanmar: Off the beaten track. One of my favorite days of my trip: met an incredible motortaxi driver named Saw on the street, great street food, friendly people.
One of the most beautiful, picturesque places of my entire trip. Mountain ranges surrounding waterways and fishing villages. Make sure you bike out to the jetty and eat at a little restaurant which has stunning panoramic views for all of a dollar. Be sure to stay at Aquarius Inn: http://www.tripadvisor.com/Hotel_Review-g303662-d1536830-Reviews-Aquarius_Inn-Nyaungshwe.html
Malacca, Malaysia: Another great place to chill out in between big destinations. Great food, and I loved the guesthouse I stayed at: http://www.hostelbookers.com/hostels/malaysia/malacca/48178/
But honestly, I had amazing times in not-so-choice destinations just because of the people I met. (Phnom Penh is totally skippable, but I had a great week there, anyway. Hi Simone!) It’s not so much about where you go, but what you make out of it.
Make sure to use Couchsurfing.com both to experience local hospitality and for meetups if you’re in an area that organizes them. I met some fantastic friends and travel partners this way.
– Heard amazing things about East Timor. I’d love to get more “off-the-beaten-track.” (You will hear this phrase a lot.)
– Indonesia, somewhere.
– Palawan, Philippines and Boracay. Stunning island scenery and cheap beer.
You can do very reasonably on about $30/day in most places. Since you’re going during low season, you’ll probably be ok just showing up, but it’s always useful knowing where you’re going once you arrive somewhere. You can make hostel/guesthouse bookings online at places like HostelBookers.com and Agoda.com (which has a $2 booking fee). Never forget you can bargain for you room, and indeed, ANYTHING, especially if you’re staying more than 1 night.
You can also get free food/stays in return for working at a hostel – just inquire.
Get comfortable with bargaining!
… is pretty easy, but remember that AirAsia is great for cheap airfare. HOWEVER, you may have issues with your US credit card (I did), so be sure to buy well in advance, and possibly have someone back home buy your ticket for you if you’re having issues.
Bring diarrhea meeds and rehydrating salts. You will probably have digestive issues. It’s ok, happens to everyone.
Make sure to treat every single cut/scratch/whatever with extreme seriousness. I never bother bandaging or disinfecting minor cuts in the US, but everything gets infected in the tropics. So be super diligent!
Drink bottled water, wear a helmet, buy travel insurance, use protection, bring a universal travel adaptor, etc.
Bring as little as possible. As. Little. As. Possible.
My biggest piece of advice is: accept every single moment. I had a lot of times when I was pissed off at where I was, who I was with, etc. instead of just accepting it and enjoying it. Every person and experience brings something valuable to your travels. As long as you keep a positive attitude and an open mind, you’ll have a great time no matter where you go.
Also, don’t be afraid to chill out. Everyone has a different physical tolerance, so if you’re tired, rest. Take care of your body. I’d take “a week off” every 3 weeks and just do some work.
And learn more than “hello” and “thank you” everywhere you go. I loved the instant gratification of learning languages while you’re abroad – and the smiles you receive in return are incredible.
Bon voyage! You’re going to experience the beautiful, the ridiculous, the sublime. It’s going to be great.