Daytrippin': Cazorla

Back when the weather was still warm, a group of friends and I decided to take a day trip to a nearby Cazorla. It took about an hour on the bus through the olive groves and hills to reach this beautiful little city nestled into the foothills of beautiful mountains. Cazorla is an entry point to the national park, Sierras de Cazorla, but being without a coche, we were bound to explore the town proper and the castle perched above.
First, we visited the Castillo de la Yedra (Castle of the Ivy), which is a fortress that was built perched on the side of the mountain, overlooking the white town below.
We explored the castle, and were scolded at by one of the tour guides for venturing outside of the organized group (one of the fun aspects of a language barrier: getting in trouble for rules you didn’t know existed). We brought sandwiches and ate on the side of a dirt road looking up at the mountains and all the tree species we haven’t seen for months (there are only olive trees surrounding Ubeda!). We wondered how long it would take to walk up the mountain road to reach the national park, and for a moment wished we had a car, or a friend with one to see it. We agreed we would be back in the spring time, Cazorla was too beautiful to only be experienced once.
We strolled back down to the town center and enjoyed some cervezas in the plaza before getting back on the bus.

Daytrippin': Baeza

A few weeks back, I joined a coworker and his friends on a day trip to nearby city, Baeza (pronounced “Bye-ay-tha” with a strong Spanish lisp). Together with Úbeda, the two cities are on the UNESCO World Heritage list for their well-preserved Italian Renaissance architecture. The streets in the city center are narrow and ancient; it feels like the Lannisters are going to come around the next corner.
We started off by visiting the Cathedral, learning about the history and then climbing the bell tower to see 360 views of Jaen.
After exploring the cathedral, we walked the tiny streets for a bit before settling down at a tapas bar, enjoying the free tapas that only exists in a few parts of Spain (luckily, Jaen is one of them). After downing a few glasses of wine, and waking ourselves back up with coffee, we strolled the city a little more before heading back to Úbeda.

Día de Acción de Gracias (aka Spainsgiving!)

After spending last Thanksgiving in a pizzeria in Bangkok, I wasn’t allowing this year to not be celebrated without the utmost ridiculous amount of home-cooked goodness. Being the only American in my apartment, I organized a Thanksgiving feast for the day after the holiday, on Friday November 28th. Probably the most exciting aspect, besides the idea of pie and stuffing, was that it would be the first Thanksgiving for many of my new friends here. One of my roommates was aghast at the list of food being prepared or brought by guests. I told her, this is a serious holiday. Seriously gluttonous.

It was my first Thanksgiving away from home where I would be cooking most of the food myself. I never realized how much work is put into this day until I was the one orchestrating it all. I think I spent around 15 hours baking and cooking in total by the end of it. Regardless, I really enjoyed it. I loved looking up the recipes and searching the supermercados for ingredients. I planned on cooking my Dad’s stuffed artichokes, vegetarian stuffing, mashed sweet potatoes, apple pie, and somehow making cranberry sauce in a cranberry-less land. All in all, I was shocked how GOOD everything turned out. There were zero injuries (although I almost stabbed myself with a dull knife), mishaps, and no broken dishes (a perfection I’m sure I’ll never be able to recreate).


I’d like to say that we spent the entire night eating, but that was just not the case. We ate as much as we could, and hardly made a dent in the amount of food. I was pleased just knowing how many leftovers we would have in our apartment. After digesting a bit, we had a midnight coffee session, and went out to the bar. I’ll leave the rest to your imagination. Let’s just say that I found myself re-familiarizing myself with some of food around 5 am that morning.


This year I’m very thankful to be sharing one of my traditions with new friends that I’ve made in Spain. And for my family Skyping me from New Jersey and LA. And I’m thankful for apple pie, but that’s a given.

Our Spainsgiving menu del dia:
2 roast chickens and gravy (all thank you to our meat guru, Kristina)
green bean casserole
stuffed sweet potatoes
garlic oven roasted potatoes
stuffed Italian artichokes
cranberry sauce (which I completely forgot to even serve)
Irish Shepard’s pie
Spinach dip
Mac and Cheeeeeese
Salad (had to get something healthy in there)
cookies de Jasmine
Apple Pie

Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving!

Spain: Auxiliar de Conversación Program

For the next eight months, I will be teaching English while living in Andalucia, Southern Spain. I know everyone thinks Southern Spain is all palm trees and sangria and topless beaches, and in a way, it is. But this is not my reality, unfortunately. I’m living in the province of Jaen, which has one main purpose of existence; it’s OLIVE COUNTRY.

To put it simply, Spain is the world’s top producer of olive oil, and this hilly region that I call home is the epicenter of it all. There are mountains and hills and little towns spotted along the horizon, all bobbing amongst a sea of olive trees. Virtually all of the countryside in Jaen is owned and cultivated for olives and their oil. Aside from the olivos, the land is arid and dusty. You can see large mountains in the distance, and having never lived anywhere with mountains in sight, I’m fascinated by their towering existence.


I came to Spain to work as an English assistant, specifically anAuxiliar de Conversación. This program places native English speakers in public primary and high schools for a duration of 8-9 months. It’s offered by the Spanish Ministry of Education, and you receive a 700 euro per month stipend in exchange for working 12 hours per week (Those in Madrid receive 100 euros and work 16 hours per week). LINK. Unlike my previous experience in Thailand, this job is only as an assistant, I’m not expected to lead my own classes and make my own lesson plans. In Thailand, CIEE basically gave us everything on a platter (a job and a contract, housing, medical insurance, work permit, and a lengthy orientation), which made assimilating simple and stress-free. Here in Spain, things are very different. The Ministry provides you with the job and accompanying medical insurance, but everything is up to you. All they care is that you show up to your assigned school come October 1 and every subsequent day after.

I am working at two schools in the town of Jodar (pronounced Ho-dah) a small pueblo about 20 minutes from where I’m living. I work six hours in a primary school, and six in a high school. Most classes I assist the teacher with pronunciation and questions about language and culture. The classes in the high school are bilingual, which means the students are taught in mostly English and expected to speak it through the class, and all their texts and worksheets are in English as well.
For additional income, I’ve picked up evening classes at an English Academy one night a week. These classes I teach alone, and at first it was terrifying, but I’ve gotten used to how it works by now. I have a teacher’s manual and every student has their own book, so the lessons are basically pre-planned for me. I also have begun tutoring one evening per week for one hour. I teach five young kids at a time, in a family’s apartment close to where I live. It’s easy money and fun, we can play games and I can actually share my own culture with them being that it’s a small group.

Somehow, I made it through the first month (virtually) scratch free and settled into Spanish life here in Ubeda, Jaen. When I first arrived in Spain I was homeless and clueless, but a little over a month later, I have multiple jobs, a really nice apartment, WIFI, a Spanish cell phone, a bank account, and my residency all sorted out. I won’t lie and say any of that was easy (unlike what you may think, not many people speak English where I live), but we managed with the help and kindness of multiple Spanish speakers, and Google translate. The assimilation was more difficult than I’d hoped, but it’s all done now and I can appreciate that I’ve successfully moved to two foreign non-English speaking countries and survived! The wine is pretty amazing here in Spain, so that always helps.

Inked Abroad: Getting A Sak Yant Tattoo from a Monk

For years I’ve wanted to get another tattoo, but I never committed to it, always unsure of what I wanted. When I got to Thailand, I knew that this experience would be life changing for me. It’s a country overflowing with mysticism and culture; it would be difficult not to be changed by it. Learning about Thai culture, I heard about the ancient practice of “sak yant”; a deeply meaningful blessing tattoo performed only by Buddhist monks. They either use a traditional bamboo stick or a long metal stick attached to a needle. No machines, no stencils. Living here has been all about saying “yes” to things I normally wouldn’t, and having a monk tattoo me fit that bill perfectly.

On January 16th, we had a random day off school; the perfect opportunity to go on an adventure. I decided the night before that I wanted to make this tattoo a reality. A few blogs provided some helpful information on the location of the tattoo temple and the process, but all I really knew was that the temple opens around 8 am, and to arrive early to get in line and wait your turn. My friend who I teach with agreed to come with me, and just to be safe we set off for a taxi at 5 am. The ride took about an hour. It was pitch black outside but my mind was already racing with scenarios of what was lying ahead.

We arrived as the sun rose over Wat Bang Phra, turning the sky orange. We had a lot of time to kill, so I indulged in a 7-11 breakfast of ramen while we waited to go inside. Around 7:30, we bought an offering of cigarettes and flowers to donate to the temple for 75 baht and entered a small building. There were only a few others waiting before us, mostly Thais. We waited anxiously for the monk to emerge, unsure of what was going to happen.

When the monk emerged from his quarters and took a seat at the front of the room, everyone gathered near him, bowing low to the floor. He was Luang Pi Nunn, who I would find out later to be the most famous tattoo master in all of Thailand. He mumbled a quick prayer and immediately one of the waiting men peeled off his shirt to be tattooed. The tattoos began in rapid succession, no one speaking a word the entire time. The young Thai men had done this before, judging by their tattoo covered backs. The monk added a line or two here and there, tap tap tapping his long inked needle into the skin of whomever was seated before him while two other men held the skin taut on either side.

Pretty soon the line dwindled down and it was my turn to go. I scrambled over to sit in front of the monk, leaned over a pillow and braced myself for the pain. Two patient men assisted the monk in pulling my shirt down to reveal my shoulder blade (monks aren’t allowed to touch women), and he went to work. It was surprisingly not that painful, and my anxiety soon subsided. As quickly as it had started, it was over. Luang Pi Nunn whispered a prayer over the completed sak yant and breathed it to life by blowing on it. His tattoos are believed to hold magical powers, which he fills with holy energy. I bowed before the monk once more and placed 100 baht into a jar beside him as my donation to the temple (about $5 in total).

I snuck off to the bathroom to take a peek at my shoulder, still not knowing what has been tattooed on my body.

On my left shoulder blade he had given me 5 sacred lines called Ha Taew. This is the most popular sak yant among females, but each one is unique. The best description of what Ha taew means is this:

1. First row prevents unjust punishment and leans in your favor when the area is gray, cleans out unwanted spirits and protects the place you live in.

2. Second row reverses and protects against bad horoscope constellations and bad luck.

3. Third row protects you from the use of black magic and anyone who tries to put a curse on you.

4. Fourth row energizes your good luck, success and fortune in your future ambitions and life style.

5. Fifth row is to gain charisma and attraction to the opposite sex. It is also is a boost to the fourth row.

In order for the Ha taew to be effective, the receiver must follow a set of rules similar to the 10 precepts of Buddhism. They are basic life rules such as; do not steal, do not kill, do not lie, do not partake in evil deeds, and so on. I think I can manage to follow these guidelines!

This experience was easily one of the most magical moments here in Thailand. It was pure cultural bliss, something that is unique to Thailand, and now I’ll carry the memory for the rest of my life. I’m so happy I chose to do it; it’s more than just a tattoo, it’s encapsulates my year in Thailand. I’m grateful that I now have a little protection constantly watching my back, literally.

Sak Yant FAQs

Where is Wat Bang Phra located and how do you get there?

Wat Bang Phra is located in Nakhon Pathom province, about 31 miles (50 km) west of Bangkok. You can find the exact address here: . There are actually two Wat Bang Phras on the same road, about 5 minutes from each other. The tattoo temple is the one located just next to the river (closer to the east). When you arrive, you will see various statues of animals, Buddhas, etc. all clumped together near the parking area. The entrance to the tattoo building is behind that, you can ask anyone where to go by simply saying “sak” (tattoo); they will know what you are looking for.

There are minivans that leave from Victory Monument in Bangkok that will bring you to Nakhon Pathom province, although where they drop you off is unknown to me. We took a taxi from where we live, I copied the temple name and address (in Thai) from the article I posted above and showed it to the driver. Make sure they use the meter, so you won’t get ripped off. It took about 45 minutes to get there, without traffic. It will cost a few hundred baht, but it’s the most convenient way to get directly to the temple.

What time should you arrive?

The tattooing begins around 8 am, when the monks emerge and begin their work. I would recommend arriving between 7:00 and 7:30 am, so you can find a spot in line on the temple floor and wait. I have a friend who said she waited all day, because they arrived around 9 am and had many people in front of them, but we arrived around 7:00 and were done by 9:30 am!

How much does it cost?

There are two ways to get a tattoo here. You can be tattooed on the first floor by a monk who will choose your tattoo for you, which is the route I took. You must buy a temple offering, which are laid out on a table outside. It cost 75 baht (less than $3 USD) for one offering of flowers and cigarettes (Monks smoke too!) After your tattoo is complete, you can donate additional money to the temple in a jar beside the monk. I placed in 100 baht ($3.00).

If you don’t want to leave your tattoo fate up to a monk, you can head upstairs for one of your own choosing. They have a book to choose from and it will cost 3000 baht ($100) and up, depending on the size.

What should you wear?

Since you are visiting a temple, you should dress “temple appropriately”, meaning ladies should have their legs covered to the knees and shoulders covered. I wore a loose fitting top that covered my shoulders and was easy to pull down in the back and reveal my shoulder for the tattoo.

Did it hurt? How long did it take?

Yes, being poked with a needle over and over again hurts! I personally didn’t think it was that bad, but everyone is different with their pain tolerance. It was completely tolerable; I thought it would hurt much more! My tattoo only took about ten minutes, so it was all over pretty fast. The healing process was incredibly fast, as I don’t think the ink goes as deep as a machine tattoo. Mine was peeling by day four and after just one week it was smooth and beautiful!


Chiang Mai: The Anti-Bangkok

After celebrating Christmas Day at school with my students and fellow teachers, I packed up my backpack once again and headed out bai tiao (to go travel). I planted myself in a seat on an overnight bus, something that I've come to know too well in Southeast Asia, and headed north. 9 hours in and out of sleep later, and I had arrived in Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand's most popular city. Riding on a bus all night isn't ideal, but it's cheap and easy and saves you on accommodation for the night.

The first thing I encountered stepping off the bus was the weather. It was COLD! Okay, it was cold-er than Phrapradaeng. It was only about 50F/10C, but this was the coldest air I've felt for more than 8 months! I immediately put on another layer of pants and a scarf and shivered dramatically. The second thing that struck me about Chiang Mai was how small it was. Growing up close to NYC and now living near Bangkok, for me, cities mean skyscrapers and masses of people. Chiang Mai was nothing of that. There were no tall buildings and definitely no mobs of people like I've often encountered in Bangkok. The buildings didn't raise more than ten stories here and there, this was a city that moved at a slower pace… and I was liking it.

Chiang Mai's style and atmosphere has been heavily influenced by the slower way of life in Northern Thailand, where village life still exists. Street markets sell goods in the style of villagers, very similar to what I saw in the northern villages of Vietnam. Gone is the mass produced trendy Western clothing that's for sale everywhere around Bangkok. I found Chiang Mai to be everything that the capital is not; clean, relaxed, walkable, friendly, cheap, and charming.

Over the next two days, I met up with some fellow teachers and spent most of my time wandering the streets and indulging in the Northern way of life. I was introduced to Khao Soi, a northern Thai curry dish that's main ingredient is curried perfection.
Photo by  Andrew Ho

Photo by Andrew Ho

Khao Soi consists of a coconut based curry served with egg noodles and topped with crunchy noodles, red onion, pickled cabbage, chilies and lime. I can confidently say that it is one of the best dishes I have eaten in Thailand. I'm a condiment queen and the toppings were a perfection addition to this warm and comforting curry. I'm used to eating hot curry in hot weather, and having a bowl of Khao Soi on a chilly Chiang Mai night with a Singha beer to wash it down was perfection. I feel quite cheated that I cannot have it every day in Phrapradaeng!

Chiang Mai is home to over 300 temples, which means you can probably never be done exploring them, if that's your thing. Besides indulging in new cuisine, I took an afternoon to explore Wat Phra Singh, a temple dating back to. 1345 and home to the city's most admired image of Buddha. The grounds consist of three temples, a large chedi, a reclining Buddha, gardens, and a temple library. The grounds were lavishly decorated for the New Year including a bustling market filled with tourists, both Thai and foreign.

After visiting each temple and seeing the creepy lifelike replicas of dead monks, I took refuge in the shady gardens that surround the wat. Temple grounds are the ideal place for monk spottings, always and exciting and unnerving experience as I try to steer clear of them so I won't accidentally touch them (Thai cultures forbids monks to touch women and vice verse, and it's respectful to move off a path to let them pass in front of you). I always have visions of my klutzy self tripping and falling on top of a monk to the horror of everyone watching, and then it ending up on random Thai Facebook pages…

Above: Lifelike replicas of monks. Below: real living monks.

One of my favorite attributes of temple interiors are the elaborate painted doors and walls that fill the space with life and color. I think literally every surface of a temple is decorated in some fashion, the bolder the better. The exteriors are just as beautiful and unique. Many temples are decorated with mosaic that is made from broken porcelain cups and teapots (china, as we Americans would call it). And the gold, there's always so much gold!

Wat Phra Singh consumed me for a few hours, as I snapped photo after photo trying to capture its beauty before leaving in search of my next coconut shake. That night in Chiang Mai led my friends and I to a popular backpacker bar area, Zoe, filled with travelers indulging in shisha and cheap drinks. My favorite part of that experience was discovering the 40 Baht Mexican food cart serving up black bean burritos well into the early morning. It was tasty and cheap, sometime Bangkok sorely lacks.

Somewhere along my city strolling I passed by an adorable Anuban school that made me stop and peer through the gate into a parallel Northern universe. Chiang Mai is a city that's cheap, relaxed, surrounded by mountains, and offered delicious food and a break from the sweat fest down South. It's basically Bangkok's polar opposite; I will definitely be returning.


A Merry Thai Christmas

Christmas at home!

Christmas at home!

As the holidays approached this year, I started getting pretty down in the dumps about being so far from home. Thanksgiving passed and I was feeling crappy, I wanted to be home with my family and friends gorging on food and wine like every other American. I felt the negativity increasing as Christmas approached, what is life like in a land where Christmas doesn’t exist? It wasn’t just the holiday I was missing, but the joy you feel buying that perfect gift for someone and singing like a fool to Christmas carols. Although the weather was cooling here in Thailand, it was still hot and felt nothing like December… I was starting to understand where the Grinch was coming from.
grinchI asked myself, what would I be doing if I were home right now? I’d be listening to Christmas music until it I couldn’t stand it anymore, watching classic holiday movies and wrapping presents for my family and friends. Why should it be any different over here? So, that’s exactly what I did. I downloaded the classics; Home Alone, Elf, Love Actually, Christmas Vacation, and stocked my iTunes with an array of annoyingly good holiday tunes. I handed out paper to my students and prompted them to draw their own Christmas trees and handed out Santa hats for everyone to wear while we colored and listened to Glee’s Christmas songs (they’re surprisingly good!), and we all made reindeer antler hats this week. I visited a nearby market and filled my arms with Thai gifts to send home for the big day.

Strangely enough, it worked. (Krista 1, Grinchiness, 0) I had pulled myself out of that red and green tinted puddle of pout. I watched Elf and laughed like I’ve never seen it before. It ignited the downloading of other movies set in my beloved New York City (Eddie Murphy in Coming to America, anyone?) and brought a smile to my face. I started playing Christmas music in class and found my students loved it too and even knew the chorus to “Jingle Bells”. I even taught them a Christmas song that spells out Santa to the tune of B-I-N-G-O.

Then, last week, I received boxes of gifts from my amazing family. They were filled with thoughtful gifts, and a LOT of candy. My stocking was even inside one box, filled with treats and tiny gifts just like it would be hanging from the fireplace on Christmas morning. I even got some candy canes and travel books from both sides of my family. Knowing my family supports and encourages my nomadic lifestyle is the best gift of all.

As it turns out, Thais love Christmas too.


so excited about making reindeer hats, success!

so excited about making reindeer hats, success!

I didn’t expect much regard of a Christian holiday in a Buddhist country, but I was wrong, very wrong. While they won’t wake up on December 25th to find that Santa had visited overnight, they embrace and celebrate most of the secular traditions of Christmas. New Years is a very big holiday here and people are giving gifts to one another…not that much different than home. Every classroom at school is decorated and our courtyard boasts not one, but two trees decorated to the nines (there’s even a set of flying reindeer above).
Check out those reindeer!

Check out those reindeer!

On Christmas Day we will be having a big party and handing out treats to students while I don a female version of a Santa suit. I was more excited to wear a beard and belly, but I guess the skirt will do. As I am writing this, I’m being asked to sing “Jingle Bells” to practice for tomorrow, when I’m apparently singing in front of a large group of people…
I was happily wrong in the idea that this year would be skipping the most wonderful time of year. While I won’t be drinking wine and playing inappropriate card games with my family, it’s sure to be entertaining in its own right. On Christmas night I will be in my way to Chiang Mai, a city in Northern Thailand, for the first time and spending New Years there. And it’s actually going to be cold there. I’m talking a frostbite inducing 45F/7C at night!! (I’m sure you’re all giving my the middle finger at the moment) New experiences is what this adventure is all about. Sometimes they’re scary and uncomfortable, but always worthwhile. Happy Holidays to everyone near and far, I hope you all are surrounded by things and people that make you happy! I’ll be snacking on Sour Patch Kids while traveling to new places, two things that make me very happy.
Merry Christmas and Happy New year from Thailand!

Merry Christmas and Happy New year from Thailand!

Cruising Vietnam’s Central Highlands: Part Two

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Day 2:
We started our ride early the next morning, the air still chilly from the night. Our first stop was a minority village near the lake, a small community that resides in wooden stilt houses with their livestock living underneath.
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As we left the Lak Lake area, we drove through a large valley that was bordered on the east by Chu Yanh Sinh National Park. With the mountains disappearing into the mist on my right, we drove past workers farming the rice fields. I exchanged waves with the workers and many children who were riding in the back of trucks and tractors. Everyone we passed greeted me with a smile as we cruised by neon green rice paddies.

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That afternoon, Lok took me off the main road and drove into the thick forest to visit a few waterfalls. The areas at the bottom of the waterfalls are usually great for swimming. Unfortunately because of recent rainfall, it was too dangerous to swim in, but that also meant that the waterfalls were at their most powerful. ez rider Oct 2013-275
Actually, I had more fun on the tree lined paths near the waterfalls, admiring the Fern Gully-like forest.
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When we stopped for lunch, Lok turned to me asking, “You like big snakes?” Replying “yes”, (maybe a little too quickly), we walked around the corner of the restaurant to a large cage. Before I knew it, this man was taking a six foot long python out of its cage and draping it over my shoulders. It was strange and bit unnerving, but nonetheless a hilarious lunch time activity.

I think my face says it all

I think my face says it all

That evening we drove into the small city of Buôn Ma Thuột, the capital of the central highlands and notably the mecca for delicious Vietnamese coffee. Lok and I ate dinner at a street stall, and after I walked the area around my hotel. Buon Ma Thout is not on the tourist trail just yet, but a ridiculous amount of identical mini hotels have been constructed, seemingly waiting for the tourists to rush in one day. I bought some pineapple cake at a local bakery and a can of 333 beer and spent the rest of the evening on my hotel room balcony enjoying the quiet night.
Day 3: The concluding day of our trip was met again with a clear sky. I was shocked we had evaded rain for the entire trip; something I figured was bound to happen at least once. We headed out of Buôn Ma Thuột but not without trying some local coffee first, of course. In Vietnam, the coffee is served alongside hot green tea, in a small glass with sweetened condensed milk at the bottom which is then mixed into the black coffee. This is called “café sua”, coffee with milk, or white coffee on most menus. The sweet creamy milk balances out the robust coffee perfectly. I pretty much fell in love with Vietnamese coffee as soon as I stepped into the country.
We drove east towards the coast and my final destination, Nha Trang. We spent most of the day on major roads and highways which didn’t have the same scenic splendor of the past two days.
The last stretch of our ride took us east until we hit the coastal road and drove south into the resort town of Nha Trang. It was the first time in three days I saw foreigners, and I soon came to realize that Nha Trang was overloaded with them. Lok dropped me at my hostel and we said a quick goodbye.
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I was sad to see our time come to an end, after three days we had spent many silent hours together while Lok showed me his country with pride. I was introduced to a side of Vietnam I would have never seen otherwise, and to a man who I was humbled to spend time with.
Lok and I come from very different worlds, and very different times. Barely scraping 4″10, he would light up a cigarette and recount the battles he fought nearby. He was modest, never acknowledging his bravery. “In Vietnam, we have no choice. We have to join army,” he would tell me. Lok was only 17 when he was drafted to the Vietnamese army. He fought with the South, against the Communist North. 7 years of his life were spent in the dense jungle with American GIs, helping them survive in the harsh environment. He told me stories of the war and would conclude with chuckle and one of his favorite English lines, “Oh, so crazy!” (in an accent reminiscent of Cheech Marin).
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Those three days I cruised through Central Vietnam with Lok were definitely a highlight of my trip. Because of Saigon and Hanoi being located in the far south and north of the country, the Central Highlands is often overlooked by tourists. I would encourage anyone visiting Vietnam to visit Da Lat, or at least a part of the Central Highlands. It’s a journey that I won’t soon forget, and I’m thankful I had the chance to get to know not only Vietnam, but one of its greatest people.
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Cruising Vietnam’s Central Highlands: Part One

As soon as I got to Vietnam I was already looking forward to something different from the typical bus tours and day trips. Saigon was fun but it was lacking something. I wanted to get out of the city as soon as possible. After two days, I got on a bus and headed north to Da Lat, a tiny city in the Central Highlands. I found Da Lat to be quiet and kind of quirky in a European sense, it didn’t seem very Vietnamese at all.
I liked walking the windy roads and getting lost, and I soon found myself chatting with a motorcycle guide about doing a tour. Da Lat is well known as a base for doing an Easy Rider tour because of its close proximity to the mountains of central Vietnam. You can take a tour for just one day or as long as ten and travel to multiple places throughout Vietnam. I knew that the next stop for me was going to be the beach town a few hours away and I didn’t want to miss out on the scenery while sitting inside a bus.

The guide who I chatted with was an older gentleman donning a bright blue members only type jacket with “Dalat Easy Riders Club” emblazoned on the back. He was the real deal. He showed me book after book of handwritten testimony from past customers who raved about him and their tour. It was going to be pricey but it was going to be unforgettable (I hoped). I excitedly signed up for a 3 day 2 night tour and early the next morning my guide, Lok, arrived to pick me up for our adventure.

Day 1: Da Lat to Lak Lake
I was apprehensive about being on the back of a motorcycle, they scare me and driving on cliff-side roads gives me anxiety. But Lok was a pro, he had been doing this for over 20 years I would find out later, and he made me feel safe almost immediately. We drove out of Da La city and into the countryside, where the hill and mountainsides are covered in crops more common to Europe than Southeast Asia.
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Thanks to the cooler climate and the French colonization, the Da Lat area grows vastly different crops than the rest of Vietnam. Pine trees grow alongside palms and coffee plantations neighbor strawberry farms. The cool air and the smell of pines reminded me of Fall in New Jersey and immediately turned me into one of the Highland biggest fans.
Da Lat' mountainous farmland

We zig-zagged over mountains and across small towns. Every so often, Lok would pull over saying “okay, you get off here”, and show me various crops and farms and teach me about the Vietnamese farming culture. We saw farms of curry, black pepper, coffee, indigo, and rubber trees. We walked the property of a family owned farm to see the coffee, rice, and pigs that they depended on for income.

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Every single household in this region had turned their front lawn into a micro farm of some sort. The boxy cement houses were surrounded by stalks of corn or pepper, coffee trees, and other plants. If they didn’t grow their own crops, the house paired to another type of industry, whether it was brick making or making rice noodles and drying them in the sun. I was not surprised to read that the ancient Vietnamese were some of the earliest farmers. Although the French brought various crops and modern advancements, the people have always worked and lived off their land.
rice noodles drying in the sun
The weather was my definition of perfection: clear blue skies, and cool enough that I was comfortable in long sleeves on the motorcycle. I was thankful not to be under the hot roasting sun that I’ve come to know in this part of the world. The end of the first day brought us to a small lakeside town named “Lak Lake”. We arrived at the guesthouse just in time to walk down the road to the lake and catch the sunset. Local kids were hanging out by the lake; this was Friday night, after all. I watched the sun go down over the quiet lake, with the Annamite Mountains in the distance.
A group of teenage girls came walking down the road, and one of them asked if she can talk with me and practice her English. I invited them to join me and learned the girl’s name was Vy. She was 17 years old, a high school student and volleyball player in Lak Lake. I chatted with her for a while, and Vy old me how she loved the quietness of the lakeside town she calls home. We said our goodbyes eventually and I made my way back to the guesthouse, ready to start another day exploring the magnificent countryside.
Vy and her friends