We’re back, once again, in the place where it feels like it all began: Bangkok. I’ve lost track of how many times we’ve come through Thailand’s capital in the past couple years, and returning to the city always brings a feeling of coming home. This trip is just a short, four-day stopover to run a few errands and indulge in cheap pad thai before we fly to Cambodia.
A year(ish) ago, we published a recap of our first year of traveling and freelancing – and that means it’s time for the second edition! We’ve officially been on the road, between the U.S. and Southeast Asia, for two full years now, and it’s been even longer since we left our office jobs in Boston.
This year has had lots of ups, downs, worries, and uncertainties, but we’ve generally felt more settled into this lifestyle. We feel more like we know how things work and what to expect – both with avoiding travel disasters and starting to understand Southeast Asian cultures, as well as with improving our writing, finding new clients, and (in my case) getting more comfortable as a yoga teacher.
Which isn’t to say that things that confuse or frustrate us don’t happen on a regular basis (because they do!). Still, this life of movement and uncertainty has become our new normal.
So, where has the past year taken us?
7 countries: Cambodia, Vietnam, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, Laos, U.S.
7 states: Massachusetts, Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado
This time last year, we’d just wrapped up a month-long stay in Vang Vieng, Laos, where I taught yoga and Ryan worked in marketing and photography. Well, we enjoyed our time there so much that we ended up returning in November for a second stint and stayed for three months.
In between, we traveled some more around Southeast Asia and then spent about four months back in the U.S., visiting our old homes of Boston and Montana and road tripping around the West. But let’s look at our biggest highs and lows from the past year.
- The Highlights
- The Lowlights
- The Next Year
Now that I’ve actually thought about the highlights of the year, it seems like they mostly fall into three categories: yoga, nature, and relationships. Which isn’t too surprising, really.
If you look carefully, you might notice that this yoga and meditation retreat in Cambodia appeared in last year’s recap, too. Well, it was such an incredible experience that I went back – and this time, Ryan came too! In case a yoga retreat sounds like it must be a pricey indulgence, Hariharalaya’s retreats start at $300 per person, including everything for five nights.
During the retreat, we had daily yoga and meditation classes, game and movie nights, communal meals, and plenty of free time to relax, connect with new friends, and make use of all the center’s amenities (and lounge in the thousand or so hammocks).
The retreat has a strict digital detox policy, meaning no Internet and no devices, which creates a real sense of presence. The mindful, relaxed vibe there is something that’s hard to find in a busy world where everyone’s overworked, forced to multi-task, and on alert for notifications. Suffice it to say, Hariharalaya is a magical place.
I’ve known for a long time that I was interested in teaching yoga, but I had no idea if I’d ever get to. Even during my initial teacher training three (!) years ago, I often felt like I wasn’t good enough and wondered if other students (or worse, the teachers) thought I shouldn’t be there. But still, I loved the training and knew it was something I wanted more of.
During our first year of travel, I ended up teaching at two different places, finally getting some initial experience under my belt. Now, I’ve doubled my teaching hours, and our return to Vang Vieng gave me the chance to explore so many new things. Different class styles, more creative sequencing, better cues, teachings from yogic philosophy, accommodating different limitations, and I even taught my first workshop.
I definitely feel more comfortable in front of the room and more confident in what I have to offer than I did a year ago, and I’ve loved all the experience that’s gotten me to this point.
This yoga and music festival in Bali is one of the coolest events I’ve ever been to (and I already have plans to go back!). It’s a weeklong festival with workshops all day long (yoga, meditation, breathwork, sound healing, dance, and so much more) and concerts all evening.
Admission isn’t cheap, but it’s comparable to other festivals – tickets are around $600 for the week (there are also day passes available), and it gives you access to a lot. But I attended as a volunteer, working for part of the time and attending for free when I wasn’t on shift. Being part of the volunteer team and working behind the scenes added so much to the experience, and it was a great way to meet other people there.
The rest of the time, I got to explore all kinds of movement, mindfulness, and music, alongside thousands of other people committed to spiritual growth and personal development. The whole venue radiated with a conscious, electric energy like I’ve never felt anywhere else.
Becoming an “Advanced” Diver
While I was at the festival, Ryan was scuba diving in Tulamben in the northeast of Bali, which was one of his own highlights from the year.
It was back in 2012 that Jen and I got our Open Water certifications, so I figured it was high time that I worked towards the next level of diving. Since there’s a World War II-era ship sunk just off the north coast, Bali was the perfect place to get my Advanced Open Water Certification, which is required for diving around wrecks.
The two-day course in Tulamben gave me the opportunity to dive the wreck, but also explore it at night, go twice as deep as any of my previous dives, and work on my underwater photography skills. I even got up close and personal with a Mola mola (aka sunfish), a 500-pound beast of a creature that’s normally not seen in the waters around Bali in March (or ever). If you’re an avid diver, you’ll understand why that was easily one of my top highlights of the year!
Halong Bay Cruise
I shouldn’t even call this a Halong Bay cruise because it was actually in nearby Bai Tu Long Bay, Vietnam – and that’s exactly what made it a highlight of the year instead of a bucket list disappointment.
Halong Bay is by far the most popular attraction in Vietnam and one of the top destinations in Southeast Asia. The scenery it’s famous for is truly stunning, but hosting over five million visitors a year has made it crowded and polluted. We felt like we couldn’t skip Halong Bay, but the more we read about it, the less sure we felt about going.
In researching responsible travel options there, we stumbled upon something better: Dragon Legend, one of the only companies that runs trips in Bai Tu Long Bay, which has been protected from the overtourism plaguing Halong. With a two-night trip totaling about $400 per person, it’s a splurge that we were lucky to receive as a Christmas gift from my parents.
For two days, we cruised among the limestone karst mountains that stick up out of the sea, sleeping in a beautifully-appointed room onboard, jumping in the water to swim and kayak, and spending lots of time taking in the other-worldly views. Unlike in Halong Bay, we rarely saw other boats, and the water clean and free of garbage. Being out on the ship felt like something from a fairy tale.
Having Friends Visit
Not once but twice in the past year, we’ve had friends come to visit and travel with us in Southeast Asia! One of my Peace Corps friends came to Laos over New Years, and three long-time friends from our hometown came to Thailand last summer. It was so special to have people from other parts of our lives come visit, and to get to show them our favorite places and experience things through their eyes.
Having visitors also pushed us to do things we’d never gotten around to – like cycling amid the ancient temples in Ayutthaya, seeing the Royal Palace in Bangkok, and renting a dune buggy to visit Vang Vieng’s blue lagoons. We also took the opportunity to dance all night on the beach in Thailand, relax at a rural eco-resort in Laos, and eat all the best food everywhere we went.
But the most important part was just spending time with good friends. Living a lifestyle of constant movement and remote work can be lonely. We spend a lot of time alone at our laptops, we’re always saying good-bye to people we’ve met, and it can be hard to make friends when you’re working on the road.
It’s also easy to feel disconnected from the important people in our lives back at home, and there’s something special about being with friends who’ve known you for years. (To all our friends reading: You’re invited! To wherever we’re at!)
At pretty much the moment we arrived at our first-ever sit, caring for two senior Chihuahuas at a studio apartment in Bangkok, housesitting became one of our favorite ways to travel. In most cases, it’s really pet-sitting, since it’s usually much more about caring for people’s animals than guarding their houses.
We housesat six times in the U.S. last year, with gigs from Boston to Phoenix, and every sit was a highlight in itself. We got to take care of a range of furry friends, including a cat who had a makeshift electric blanket in her bed, a puppy who howled anytime Ryan wasn’t there, two certified therapy dogs, and a 15-year-old pup who’s still going strong.
Housesitting has only intensified our love for animals, and all the homeowners we’ve sat for have been kind, interesting people who we loved meeting. It’s also taken us to towns and neighborhoods we’d never have visited otherwise and given us some amazing accommodations – we may even have stayed at a house nicknamed the Taj Mahal.
An exchange where what we get is a great place to stay and what we provide is playing with sweet animals? Yeah, housesitting is a dream. It also prompted us to start a separate Instagram account of dogs and other animals we see around the world, which has been a source of joy in itself.
Lots of Camping
Despite being self-professed outdoors lovers, neither Ryan nor I really have all that much experience camping. Fortunately, we remedied that during our road trip around the Western U.S. last year! We camped around all three national parks in Montana and Wyoming (as well as several others), plus in some state parks, RV parks, random free and paid campgrounds, and on the side of the road on National Forest land.
There’s so much we love about camping, namely that it gets rid of the barriers we put up between ourselves and nature in regular life. The lack of electricity pretty much prevents the use of devices; the often limited cell service means a blissful disconnection from the world; and, not having much to do means quality time with your campmates and a chance to relax and reflect. Plus, you can actually see the stars at night, and nothing’s more effective at putting things in perspective.
Seeing Friends and Family in the U.S.
While we were in the U.S., Ryan went to a bachelor party weekend, and we were part of two weddings, attended a reunion of my Peace Corps group, and got to be there when my extended family came to Montana to celebrate my grandfather’s 99th(!) birthday.
If we were still living in Boston and working at our old jobs, we would never have had enough time off to attend all those events and would probably have had to skip half of them. Having the flexibility to plan around things that are important to us is one of the biggest perks of this lifestyle.
So while on one hand, our travels have taken us far away from a lot of the people we care about, our trip to the U.S. was an incredible reminder of how much this lifestyle actually lets us prioritize our relationships.
In looking back on our lowlights from last year, there are a few things that haven’t changed much. We’re still struggling to find balance between our work and the rest of our lives, which is especially difficult when you work for yourself and the work is never really “done.” Most of our travels, especially in Southeast Asia, have also remained largely on the beaten path, although there’ve been a few exceptions. And we’ve had plenty of other challenges and frustrations.
Like last year, dealing with health issues was one of the biggest challenges we faced this year, and the past twelve months brought quite a few difficult and unexpected problems. When our friends visited us in Thailand last summer, I somehow got sick on their first and last nights. Whatever I contracted on that last night turned into one of the worst illnesses I’ve ever had, hitting me just in time for our 30-hour trip back to the U.S.
My whole body ached excruciatingly, I was so weak I could barely sit up, and I had to go through the airports in a wheelchair. It lasted for days and just kept getting worse, and we had no idea what was wrong. I finally went to an urgent care clinic in Boston, where I’m pretty sure the doctor Googled something like “Where is Thailand?” before prescribing me some generic and very strong antibiotics (which ultimately seemed to work, so I can’t complain).
A couple months later, I twisted my ankle (again) while we were hiking in Arches National Park, which put a damper on the next several days. Ryan chastised me for not regularly doing the ankle exercises I was supposed to, which I deserved (and which reminds me, I should probably go do them…). Throughout most of the time we were in the U.S., I was also chronically dizzy, and my hair inexplicably fell out by the handful until it was noticeably thinner. Many, many tests later, I still have no idea why. And I equally have no idea why it mostly subsided.
Then one morning in Laos, I bent down to pet one of the hotel dogs at the place we were working. When I stood up, it felt like something in my low back had shifted out of the place, and I could barely move. I didn’t get out of bed for the next three days. I eventually concluded it was a slipped disc, which fortunately seems to have healed on its own. But it felt completely random and unpredictable, and it’s left me in a constant state of fear that it could happen again at any moment.
Oh, and in all the time I was going through these various things, Ryan had, like, a sniffle or two. Not that I’m bitter or anything.
Funny enough, the medical bills plaguing us are totally unrelated to everything mentioned above. Instead, I’m still embroiled in conflict with my old insurance company and the hospital I had surgery at almost two and a half years ago.
It’s one of the most frustrating things I’ve ever had to deal with, made worse by the fact that I paid more than $1,500 dollars to keep that insurance plan over the time I had the surgery. Somehow, there’s still no resolution in sight, so you might be reading about this again in next year’s post.
If you travel long enough, it’s almost inevitable that you’ll end up having something get stolen. And it finally happened to us: we lost a pretty hefty sum of cash, presumably out of our hotel room. What we didn’t expect was to have it happen at a place where we felt like we knew and trusted the staff, which made it even harder to stomach. Moral of the story: never keep too much cash around (which, yes, we very much knew we shouldn’t have been doing…).
Digital Nomad-ing in Canggu
We visited Bali having heard all about the new digital nomad hotspot (and surfing mecca) of Canggu: hip co-working spaces, to-die-for cafes, sandy beaches, and a huge community of entrepreneurs and creatives who’ve made it their home. It sounded like the perfect place to settle down for a while and focus on work. When we found a room in an adorable house that even had a dog and two cats, we signed on for a month.
And there’s a lot to like about this town. So, why did Canggu fall flat for us, when we’re told all the other digital nomads adore it?
For starters, we didn’t really jibe with the party-all-night, sleep-until-noon lifestyle that seemed to be the norm for a lot of foreigners there. We were also bummed that our co-working space wasn’t very social, so it didn’t offer a way to meet people like we were hoping. Canggu’s layout and transportation situation also made getting around an unbelievable pain, probably more so than anywhere I’ve ever been.
The other thing is that this town feels more like it’s in California than in Asia; we literally saw more foreigners there than Indonesians. In comparison to other parts of Bali and Southeast Asia, Canggu’s also surprisingly expensive. I can’t deny, though, that we do love any beach that’s lined with beanbag chairs (who wouldn’t?).
Stranded in Pleiku (Where?)
We knew we’d be arriving in Vietnam around Tet, the biggest holiday of the year. We dutifully checked the calendar, saw that our arrival would be a full week after the holiday, and went ahead. We crossed by land from Cambodia, where we could only buy bus tickets to the town on the other side of the border – Pleiku – and not straight through to Hoi An.
When we arrived in Pleiku and started asking around at the bus station (where we were the only foreigners and nobody spoke a word of English), they kept saying no. No bus, no tickets, no Hoi An. We finally gave up and checked into a hotel by the bus station.
After using Google Translate to ask more people about the bus, we were eventually able to buy tickets – for a bus four days later. As it turned out, everyone in Vietnam was returning home after the holiday, and all the buses had long been booked.
And so we spent four days in this town that nobody we’ve talked to has ever heard of. We didn’t encounter anyone who spoke any English, we saw just two other Westerners (who were attempting to hitchhike from Singapore to Hanoi), and we basically just walked around, sat at local cafes, and visited the same tofu bahn mi stand. But though this whole debacle was annoying, it also gave us an interesting look at a very typical Vietnamese town and a place that’s untouched by tourism.
The Next Year
We don’t usually make plans too far in advance, but we’ve got a few things on the horizon at the moment. Until the middle of next month, we’ll be in Kampot, Cambodia, where I’m teaching yoga again. After that, we’re heading to Indonesia, where I’ll be volunteering at the Bali Spirit Festival for the second time, and then we have a six-week housesit lined up in Thailand.
Our tentative plan for the rest of the year includes traveling to India and Nepal and hopefully studying lots of yoga, taking lots of hikes, and doing some marketing work for local businesses. The idea of going back to the U.S. over the holidays is a tempting one, but that’s a ways off, and we’re far from ready to make that commitment.
Have any questions about this lifestyle? Drop them in the comments!