Robbed in Cambodia: My Story

Adventure Travel, Cambodia

The story you are about to read recounts one of the worst experiences I’ve had in all my years of living abroad: in August of 2016, I was robbed in Cambodia on the streets of Phnom Penh.

It left me feeling vulnerable and violated. But this story is about so much more than that. What I really learned that hideous August morning two years ago was a lesson about the kindness of strangers and the interconnectedness of all humans. I only survived this episode because of the kindness of the Cambodians in my life.

At the end of the post, I’ll include some lists of what I learned from this experience, including what to do if you lose your passport abroad, how to get a new visa to Cambodia after you get robbed, and how to stay safe when traveling.

But for now, here is the story of the time I ended up stranded in Phnom Penh with nothing more than the clothes on my back, and how I survived.

The Story

At the time this happened, I’d been living in Cambodia for about six months. My friend and co-worker, Kimleng, a young Khmer (Cambodian) woman, was spending the summer near Phnom Penh organizing a summer camp for the NGO we worked for. I decided to visit her.

Because I only had a weekend for the trip, I made the rather unwise decision to take the night bus. Several people told me not to take the bus, that it was dangerous. But I wanted to have as much time as possible with Kimleng, so night bus it was. I popped a couple sleeping pills to help me get through the 6 or 7-hour bus ride from Battambang to Phnom Penh.

When we arrived my mind was wrapped in a sleeping pill-induced fog. It was the hour just before dawn, the sky a deep royal blue, the horizon only just hinting at the hot day to come.

I hopped into a tuk-tuk to go to my hotel. As we puttered down the main boulevards of the city, I leaned out of the tuk-tuk, gazing around at the magnificent embassies and luxury hotels. This city was so wildly different from Battambang, the contrast stunned me. My small pack, the only bag I packed, sat forgotten on the seat next to me.

As I’m looking around, I hear a motorcycle approaching from behind. Two men are seated on it. I turn to watch them pass and I see the one sitting on the back reach into my tuk-tuk, grab my bag, and swipe it off the seat. They drove around the corner and my bag was gone.

I stared at the empty space where my bag had just been. My mind faltered, unable to comprehend what had just happened. For a few seconds, I sat in shock, unresponsive. Then the truth hit me and I did the only thing I could do:

I screamed.

What Did They Steal

That backpack they stole had been the only bag I had carried with me for the weekend, and unfortunately, I had packed most of my expensive possessions. Here is what they stole:
My MacBook Pro
My phone
My wallet with $800 cash, my debit card, and my driver’s license
My clothes
My passport

The loss of the passport hurt the most. For the obvious reason: it was my only form of valid identification and documented my legal status in Cambodia. But also, that passport that had traveled all over the world with me. From my first day moving abroad to Korea, to my first trip to Japan, my six-month backpacking trip around 12 countries, Australia, my year in Peru, and now my life in Cambodia, this passport recorded it all. It was my most treasured possession. And it was gone.

You may also be wondering why I was traveling with the hard copy of my passport and $800 in cash. The explanation is simple: I was working for an NGO in Cambodia who paid me in checks. I wanted to open a bank account in Cambodia so that I wouldn’t constantly be cashing checks and keeping hundred dollar bills in an envelope in my bedside table. It wasn’t a good look.

I cashed the check in Battambang but didn’t have time to open the bank account. I told myself I would do it in Phnom Penh, with Kimleng there to help translate. But to open a bank account, I needed to have the cash and my passport. So I got on a bus with the hard copy of my passport and $800 in cash.

So this was what was all running through my head as I sat screaming in a tuk-tuk, in the middle of Phnom Penh, at five in the morning.

What Happened After I Was Robbed

My screams alerted the tuk-tuk driver to the fact that something was not ok. His first concern, once he understood my situation, was how I was going to pay him. I feared, at that moment, that he would leave me right there on the sidewalk, alone and abandoned, with nothing but the clothes on my back and the plastic water bottle I was holding.

The depths of my desperation and sense of vulnerability are not something I wish to relive, ever.

After a long period of confusion and negotiation, and many, many, many tears on my part, the tuk-tuk driver took me to a hostel and explained what had happened to the kid at the front desk. The kid gave me his phone and I used it to reach out to Kimleng, my Cambodian friend. She immediately hopped into a tuk-tuk and drove for an hour to come to get me.

Meanwhile, I walked to the U.S. Embassy and demanded to speak to the on-duty officer. It was a Saturday so most of the embassy was closed. The Cambodian guards there tried to send me away, but I insisted, strongly, and through tears, that I speak to an American. It took some convincing, but they finally put me on the phone with whoever was on duty that Saturday morning and she calmed me down, helped me make an appointment to get a new passport, and told me everything that I needed to do.

Walked back to the hostel where Kimleng found me. She took me to the police station to file a report, calmed me down when I cried, steadfastly listened to me rant about how much I hated Cambodians in that minute and gave me enough money for a bus ticket back to Battambang the next day. Kimleng saved me that day.

Once back to Battambang, I had access to my credit card, which I had left in my apartment building, a photocopy of my passport taken at work, and some cash I’d stashed in my apartment. Slowly, over a period of months, not days, I recovered emotionally from the theft and moved on with my life.

So now, let’s get into the hard stuff, the lessons I learned from this experience, what to do if this has happened to you, and what you can do to make sure this does NOT happen to you.

What to Do When Someone Steals Your Passport Abroad (For U.S. Citizens)

  1. Stay calm and know that everything will be ok.
  2. Go to the police and file a police report. The U.S. embassy will need this.
  3. Go to the U.S. Embassy. If it is a weekday, you may be able to speak with a representative almost immediately. If it is a weekend, ask the guards to put you on the phone with an American citizen. They can make an appointment for you to come back later and get a new passport or discuss your options if you need to travel across international lines immediately.
  4. You will need a copy of your stolen passport, a copy of the police report, and the fee in USD. If you do not have a copy of your stolen passport, don’t panic. They will find a way to verify your identity and get you a new passport.
  5. It may take up to a week for your new passport to arrive. You will need to return to the embassy or consulate to retrieve it. Emergency same or next day papers can be arranged.

Once you have your new passport, you’ll need to get a new Cambodian visa. Sit tight, because this is a complicated process.

How to Renew Your Cambodia Visa After Your Passport Is Stolen

  1. You need to get an exit visa. There is only one place in all of Cambodia to get an exit visa and it is not convenient. Go to the immigration office across the street from Phnom Penh Airport. The exit visa costs $30 and they usually do not ask for a bribe. It takes 3 working days for them to process this visa. You need to return after 3 days to retrieve your passport.
  2. From the day they issue the exit visa, which may not be the day you pick it up, you have 7 days to leave Cambodia. Be sure to check the date on your exit visa. If you try to leave Cambodia with an expired exit visa they may send you back to get yet another one.
  3. You must leave Cambodia within 7 days of receiving your exit visa. The easiest and cheapest way to do this is to go to Thailand.
  4. Once you leave Cambodia, you are now able to re-enter. You will have to purchase a new tourist visa and, if you’re entering at a land crossing, pay the associated bribes.

The whole process will cost you over $100 if you choose to re-enter. It will be less expensive if you simply continue your trip and do not return to Cambodia.

Tips to Stay Safe in Cambodia

  • Avoid taking night buses whenever possible.
  • Always hold onto your bags firmly when riding on motos or in tuk-tuks, especially in Phnom Penh.
  • Keep valuables out of sight.
  • Always have more than one way to access your money. Whether that means a credit card and debit card, traveler’s checks, or other option, make sure if one card is stolen, you can still access money another way.
  • Don’t keep all your money in one place. If your debit card is on your person, keep your credit card stowed somewhere else.
  • Bring a lock and store your belongings in a secured locker in your hotel or hostel while you are out on day trips.
  • Always have a photocopy of your passport. Keep a PDF version in your email.
  • Don’t carry your passport unless you absolutely need to. It is safer locked up securely at your hotel.

What if my passport and money are stolen far from a main city or embassy?

  1. Don’t panic.
  2. Trust in the kindness of others. The majority of the human race is inherently kind. People will help you.
  3. Ask for help. Talk to other travelers at your hotel or hostel. Talk to the staff. Find someone who is willing to help you.
  4. Call the US Embassy and report the theft from there. Ask for assistance.
  5. Find a friendly local with decent English, have them come with you to the police to file a report.
  6. Travel to the capital city and get to the embassy as soon as possible. The staff there will help you.

Overcoming the Emotional Trauma of Being Robbed in Cambodia

Long after I had recovered financially from the theft, I was still recovering from the emotional trauma.

People generally respond in one of two ways when they find out you’ve been robbed. They either pity you and say things like “oh, so terrible! I’m so sorry that happened to you.” Or they say, “Oh, well you should really be more careful.” (or they say both).

If you are like me, this second response will wear you down. It implies that it is your fault for not being careful enough. It is your fault that you were robbed.

Now, sure, every traveler needs to take steps to secure their own safety while traveling. But it is not your fault that thieves are selfish, cruel, or motivated by whatever greed or hardship causes them to steal.

It is not your fault you are a victim.

Give yourself time to feel. You will feel vulnerable, violated, and angry. You will go into denial, you will wish it had never happened, and you will struggle to cope. You may become angry and mistrustful of the people around you. Let yourself feel these things. It is ok.

But be open to the love and kindness that you will experience as well. In the minutes, days, and weeks after you are robbed, people will come forward to help you. Their kindness and selflessness will blow you away. Ultimately, you will recover and return to the joys of traveling and it will be due, in part, to the kindness of strangers.


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Robbed in Cambodia: My story of surviving a massive theft in Phnom Penh. Learn what to do when your passport is stolen abroad and how to stay safe in Cambodia.

Disaster Abroad: Traveling Solo to South Korea

Adventure Travel, Korea, Travel

The bus came to a halt. The driver turned and looked back at me, a mixture of frustration and confusion crossing his face. I stood, looking around in confusion. Grabbing my bus ticket from my shaking hand, the driver shouted in my face “you missed your stop.”

It was my first night in Seoul to teach English in Korea. What on earth was I doing here?

Let’s back up.

Six months prior, I’m sitting in my apartment in Los Angeles staring despondently at indeed.com. It’s February 2012 and I’m 23 years old. I’ve got a newly minted Bachelor’s Degree and it’s feeling pretty useless in the spare job market of the early 2010s.

As I scroll through each entry-level job available in Los Angeles, I feel my will to live slipping away from me. With each click on yet another mundane job description (“Must be flexible, self-motivated, and willing to cope with just a touch of sexual harassment”), my desire to get a job in America withers.

Street Market in Seoul

Street Market in Seoul

What was I going to do? I had no money, no skills, and I doubted I could convince anyone that I was a driven and organized person with great communication skills using only a cover letter and my rather empty resume.

I was never going to get a job. Never.

Then I saw the ad. It was one of those paid-for things that pop up on the side of a search result. The sort of thing your eyes pass over, reading the information without storing it in your brain.

Only, this one stuck out to me.

“Want to try something new? Apply to teach English Abroad! Positions available in Japan, South Korea, and China!”

Well, I thought to myself, why not?

I sent over a copy of my resume, cover letter and a photo of myself. In less than a week I had a reply asking me if I was available for a phone interview. I agreed quickly, afraid that if I hesitated they might realize they’d made a mistake.

Over the course of the next four weeks, I had two phone interviews and was asked to send a few writing samples. Shortly afterward, an email arrived in my inbox offering me a position teaching English in Seoul, South Korea.

A sense of relief washed over me so intense I nearly sank to my knees like an actor in an old Hollywood film. Someone actually wanted to pay me for my time. My job search was over.

Needless to say, I accepted immediately.

The fact that this job was on the other side of the Pacific Ocean in a country I’d never seen where they spoke a language I had never heard was something I didn’t want to contemplate. I shoved the facts of the job deep down, hiding them from myself as best I could.

Had I ever contemplated living in Asia before? No, absolutely not. Had I ever lived abroad before? No, don’t be ridiculous. I hadn’t even traveled by myself before.

It’d be fine. I’d moved from Boston to Los Angeles for college and that was pretty tough. How much harder could South Korea be, really?

Time passed by in a flash and before I knew it, I was back in Boston, picking up my visa from the Korean Embassy and making last minute trips to Target to buy shampoo and conditioner because who knows if they even sell that in Seoul. (Spoiler Alert: they sell shampoo in Korea).

Bukchon Hanok Village Seoul

Traditional Village in Seoul

The night before I left, my parents took me out for a final dinner. We ordered a bottle of wine and to be perfectly honest I was so nervous about moving to Korea I barely remember the dinner at all. I know they asked me lots of questions and we laughed a lot, but mostly I was focused on not feeling anything, not thinking too much about anything. There was a flood of emotion waiting somewhere in the depths of my soul and it took everything I had to keep it at bay.

Having drunk probably a bit more wine than I should’ve, I got home that night, threw my clothes into the washing machine, and promptly fell deeply asleep. I woke up at 5am when my dad knocked on my door, “You all ready to go?”

No, I wasn’t ready to go. My clothes were wet and in the washing machine. My bags were not even a little bit packed. Those shampoo bottles and razors I’d purchased at Target were still strewn about my bedroom in white plastic bags.

It was 5am, and my flight took off in 3 hours.

That’s when the adrenaline kicked in. I grabbed my wet clothes and stuffed them into my bag, hoping they wouldn’t grow too much mold on the flights from Boston to Seoul. I shoved the target bags on top and sat on the suitcases, yanking the zippers closed.

Packing light was still an undiscovered art form at this point in my life. I had my two suitcases and two carry on bags filled to the absolute brim. That’s four fully-packed bags.

As the adrenaline receded and my hangover came to the fore, I stumbled downstairs and into my dad’s car. We were off.

Arriving at the airport, I pulled my bags out of the car and arranged them so I could handle all four at once. Then I looked up to say goodbye.

Tears were streaming down my mothers face. My heart came to a shuddering halt.

What the hell was I about to do?

My mom reached out and pulled me into her arms. We aren’t the most emotional family in the world, so this was one of less than five times in my life I’ve seen my mother cry. As I started to sob into her shoulder, she pulled back, reassuring me that, “it’s going to be great.”

I gave my dad a hug, squeezed my mom into an embrace one more time, then laboriously maneuvered my four bags into the airport.

Royal Palace Seoul South Korea

Royal Palace in Seoul

The first flight went from Boston to San Francisco. As the plane landed at SFO, I looked out the window longingly at the California hills rolling into the distance.

“You don’t have to do this,” I told myself in a moment of weakness. “You can get off the plane here. You could make it work in San Francisco. You could stay in California.”

I almost did it.

What gave me the bravery to continue onward into the unknown, I have no idea. Perhaps stubbornness, a sense of adventure, or just a fear of letting other people down. Whatever caused it, I got onto my plane bound for Seoul, South Korea.

“Boarding my flight to Seoul. Adios America.” I cavalierly posted to my Facebook wall, hiding the fact that I was being slowly overwhelmed by a cascade of fear that I’d been keeping at bay for months now.

That flight from SFO to Seoul, I barely remember. I know they gave us some meals. I don’t think I watched any movies. I’m not even sure if I slept. I was so highly strung you could’ve played me like a guitar. Time simultaneously flew by at light speed yet crawled like a tortoise. It was the longest and shortest 14-hour flight of my life.

Off the plane, through security, got my bags, and bought a bus ticket for Seoul National University of Education. Because that’s what the email from my new employer said, “Buy a bus ticket to Seoul National University of Education from the Airport Bus counter. We will meet you there.”

Street Market in Korea

Street Market in Seoul

It was all incredibly organized and easy. In no time I was on the bus and getting my first view of Korea. I gazed out the window hungrily, determined to soak in as much as I could of my new home. I knew that the airport in Incheon was an hour away from Seoul so I was prepared for a long bus ride, but I hoped to get a sense of this foreign land from the bus window.

After about five minutes, I fell asleep.

An hour later, I woke with a start as the bus announced our arrival to the city. I hadn’t missed any stops. I was fine.

Each stop we passed through, the bus announced the name in Korean and English. Excellent. There was no way I could mess this up.

Please keep in mind, I had never traveled by myself before. Ever in my life.

We passed stop after stop. At each one, I looked down and double checked my ticket. I listened studiously but didn’t hear anyone say “Seoul National University of Education”. So, I stayed on the bus.

And then the bus came to a stop. We were at the end of the line and I was still on the bus. This situation was not ideal.

The bus driver ferociously informed me that I had missed my stop. He didn’t speak English but just kept pointing behind us. I tried to ask him what I should do but he just shook his head and got back on his bus. The whole ten-second interaction was a real crash course in intercultural communication.

It was about this time that the flood of emotions I’d been keeping at bay was unleashed. Triggered by this one missed bus stop, months worth of tension, worry, stress, and fear came gushing out of me. Standing on the side of the road, in the middle of the night, in the center of Seoul, South Korea, I cried my heart out. I felt as if I were facing the greatest challenge of my entire life. College? Fine. Get a job? Fine. Get off a bus at the wrong stop in Korea and get back to where you need to go? Forget about it.

Teaching English in South Korea

What was I doing in this country? Why had I thought that this was a good idea? I should’ve stayed in LA, I should’ve tried harder to get a personal assistant job. I should not have gotten on a plane, completely alone, and flown to this strange country with a writing system I can’t read and a language I can’t speak. What was I thinking?

Just as I was caving into despair, I heard a young Korean woman’s voice behind me say, “where do you need to go?”

Wiping my eyes and trying to stem the flow of salty tears, I turned and showed my ticket to the young Korean woman.

“Oh,” she replied, looking at it, “Gyo Dae. That’s just a few stops back.”

Gyo Dae is the Korean name for Seoul National University of Education. The bus had announced the stop for Gyo Dae. I remember hearing it. Relief and horror poured through me in equal measure. I knew why I’d made the mistake now, but still didn’t know how to fix it.

“I’ll help you get a cab.”

The young woman stuck her hand out and pretty soon a sleek silver car had pulled up next to the curb. She leaned in the window and said a few phrases in Korean to the driver then turned back to me. “You’re all set, he’ll take you to Gyo Dae. Have a good year!”

Surprised, I thought about asking her, “how can you tell I’m here to teach English for a year? Then I realized, Koreans probably see this sort of emotional circus show all the time.

I hopped into the cab and within a few minutes, was standing on the sidewalk at Gyo-Dae, shaking hands with Adam, a representative from my new job. He grabbed my bags and led me into my new life.

I had made it. I survived the journey to South Korea.

The real adventure was about to begin.


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The tale of the time I decided to teach English in South Korea and the travel disaster that followed.

5 Lessons Learned from 5 Years Abroad

Adventure Travel, Travel

As of July 28, 2017, I’ve been living abroad; working and traveling; for five years. It’s been five years of struggles, triumphs, tribulations, and ultimately, strength. I’ve lived and worked in three countries, I’ve traveled through 15, I’ve hiked in the Himalayas and the Andes. I’ve cycled around Cambodia. And I’ve come through it all a more complete version of myself.

To mark this milestone in my life, I decided to compile a list of five hard-earned lessons I’ve learned in five years of living abroad.

Chinatown Incheon

Visiting Incheon’s Chinatown in South Korea 2012

1. Live Your Life By Your Own Rules

Don’t live your life according to other people’s rules. Don’t listen to the guilty voice in your head telling you what you “should” be doing. Don’t worry about what other people are thinking. Instead, do the things that give you purpose.

When I first moved to Korea I had all these ideas about what it meant to be an expat. I wanted to be a “real expat” and not a “fake expat”, whatever that meant. I ate only Korean food, I didn’t own a fork, I slept on a pallet bed, I tried (poorly) to learn the language. I rarely ate western food and tried to only go out places where Koreans were going out.

I looked down on people who spent all their time in the foreigner neighborhoods and scorned those who felt the need to eat bread instead of rice. And what did I get for all this superiority? Crushing culture shock and mental stress. It took me a little over six months to realize how much happier I was overall if I let myself enjoy some time in the foreigner neighborhood.

So, if I want to go spend money on a fancy American style meal, I’ll do it. If I want to go to the expat bar on Friday nights and hang out with other foreigners who speak English fluently, I’ll do it. Then I’ll go back to living my life abroad, immersed in a foreign land.

The same thing applies to travel. I used to feel guilty if I spent a whole day doing nothing, lying about in hammocks. Or guilty that I went to Indonesia and spent the whole time climbing volcanoes instead of surfing or diving.

But this is my life and my trip. I get to do what I want to do with my time. I’m not beholden to other people’s bucket lists or preconceived notions about what “Travel” involves.

This lesson applies to so many things in life, how your spend your free time, what career you pursue, whether or not you attend university, who you spend your time with. In the end, we only live once, so it’s best to remember:

Your life is yours and yours alone, you don’t have to follow anyone else’s rules.

Buying a Donkey in Peru

Meeting my donkey, Chana, for the first time, 2015

2. There is Happiness in Solitude

I’ve always been an introvert. But when I was younger I didn’t appreciate that side of myself. Not valuing my desire to spend time alone in bed with a good book, I thought this inclination toward nights in made me anti-social.

Life abroad has shown me the strength that comes from introversion. Because of this side of my personality, I’m comfortable doing things on my own. I’ll go to restaurants by myself, go to bars by myself, even go on 7-week long bike rides by myself.

Sometimes I wish I made more of an effort to find a partner in crime for all my adventuring. But that person will come along eventually. Or maybe they won’t. For now, I’m perfectly happy exploring the world solo.

If you are unafraid to experience life as a solo traveler, you’ll find so many more adventures are waiting for you.

Annapurna Circuit Manaslau Pass

Crossing the Highest Point of the Annapurna Circuit, Nepal, 2014

3. When Facing Disaster: Stay Calm

I have a confession to make: I’m a panicker. Sometimes that panic comes in the form of sleepless nights spent agonizing over something left undone. Other times, it’s the kind of frenzied panic that takes over in the face of a disaster.

Travel, especially solo travel, has taught me the futility of panic. It seems like life is teaching me this lesson over and over again. Like on my first night in Korea, when I accidentally took a bus to the end of the line and had no idea where I was.

Or when I was walking across Peru with a donkey and I walked myself all the way to exhaustion. Facing a full day of climbing, I collapsed on the hillside in tears.

Or when I was cycling around Cambodia and got lost for the 3rd time that day, I burst into tears and shouted “I can’t do this!” at the sky.

But over the years, these stressful experiences have taught me something: crying doesn’t get you anywhere. Panic is pretty useless. And 9 times out of 10, everything works out in the end. Take a few deep breaths, sit down, and look at the situation calmly. You’ll find a solution soon enough.

Touring in Kyoto Japan

First visit to Japan, 2013

4. Be Patient – Things Worth Having Take Time

This was probably the most difficult one for me to learn. I am not a patient person by nature. I like instant gratification and getting free stuff. But life doesn’t work like that and we don’t all get to live in fairy tales.

This lesson came to me recently, during my seven-week bike ride around Cambodia. I bought a bicycle in March 2017 and intended to get in shape then begin my epic bike tour in April. That plan was dashed when I ripped a tendon in my foot at the end of March. No more cycling. No activity at all. I spent all of April resting in my apartment.

Then May 1st came and I couldn’t wait anymore. I hopped on my bike and started pedaling. I was completely out of shape. I hadn’t ridden a single kilometer in over a month! On my first day, a 77km ride over some hills almost killed me.

But over the next 7 weeks of cycling, my body slowly started to change. 70km went from nearly impossible to easy. I was shocked, two weeks in, to find that a 93km passed by in a flash. By the end of the ride, I was tackling 140km days.

This strength didn’t happen overnight. It happened because I worked at it slowly and consistently.

This applies to just about everything in life. You want to travel for 6 months? Start saving now, little by little.

You want to work for the UN? Start working with smaller NGOs now. Build up your experiences and resume little by little.

Whatever your goals are, break them down into little bits to get there. Don’t give up when it doesn’t work out. There were days I thought I’d never be able to cycle around Cambodia. And yet by the end, I felt I could’ve done the whole thing again.

You’d be surprised what you can achieve with a little persistence.

Hiking the Alpamayo Circuit Solo

Hiking in the Alpamayo Circuit, Peru, 2015

5. If You Have A Passion: Chase It

Whatever makes your heart beat faster and your imagination soar, chase it. Not everyone is lucky enough to know what their passion is. Most of us have no idea. But if you do figure it out, get after it. Start now. Today.

Start small, what first baby step can you take to get there? Make a plan for yourself, and be willing to let that plan change.

For me, the dream has always been writing. I’ve known since the first time I read C.S. Lewis’ masterpiece The Narnia Chronicles that I wanted to be a writer. There were months, even years when I thought this would never be possible. I was a talentless fraud. Writing wasn’t really what I wanted. Writing is not a real career choice.

It took me a few years to get over all that negative self-talk and begin actively pursuing that dream. I’m not publishing novels yet, but I am working full time as a freelance writer and content creator. I’m on my way, and it feels right.

Five years ago, as I set off to teach English in South Korea, I thought I had no dreams. Being a writer seemed like a childish passion. But here I am, five years later, a professional content creator. People are paying me to write.

Three months ago I launched this blog, Into Foreign Lands. It’s not one of the top travel blogs on the web by any means but it’s mine, I’m dedicated to it, and I love every second that I get to work on it.

I’ve got further to go and more baby steps to take but this process of living abroad has shown me that I have the strength to get there.

My point is this: whatever your dream is, chase it. Even if it feels so far away you may never get there, start now. Start today. One year ago I was working a 40 hour/week job in Cambodia and coming home each night to work on writing and freelance assignments. It sucked and I was always tired but it means that now I can work freelance and make my own schedule. I have time for my creative pursuits.

If you feel that you have no dream, have no passions, if you’re feeling lost and listless, don’t worry. You’re not alone. I felt that way before I left for Korea. I’ve felt it since then in moments of self-doubt.

But think of it like this: because you don’t know where you want to go, you can go anywhere! Start trying different things, anything that you get the opportunity to try. Start running, take boxing classes, sign up for a book club, apply for a job that sounds interesting but you’re not qualified for. (Worst thing they can do is say no!). Start traveling. You never know what will trigger your imagination and set your heart soaring.


Before I sign off sounding like I’ve got everything figured out, let me just add as a caveat: I’m often re-learning each of these lessons. As soon as I think I’ve learned “don’t panic” for the final time, I end up in some bad situation, bursting into tears and trying not to panic.

BIke Tour Through the Cambodian rice fields

Cycling through the rice fields outside Battambang, Cambodia, 2017

Travel isn’t necessary to experience this kind of self-growth. It just happened to be what triggered it for me. This is what travel has taught me and I’m so thankful to be on the path that I’m walking. If you’re not on the right path for your life, I can’t encourage you enough to start making small changes today. Even if that means adding a second job. Even if it means taking a massive risk.

Your life is your own, and you only get one.

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5 Lessons Learned from a Life spent living abroad, working abroad, and traveling across 15 countries

Bike Tour Cambodia: The Final Days

Adventure Travel, Bike Touring, Cambodia, Travel

After almost seven weeks of spending every day inside my own head, struggling over mountains, riding across rice fields, and facing down creepy men… would I even be able to readapt to society?

Preoccupied with thoughts of my uncertain future, I headed into the final days and the road back to Battambang. But before my glorious return, I still had one more exciting secret Cambodian tourist spot to visit, and just a few more rural towns to navigate.

Really, anything could happen.

Samroang: Capital of Oddar Meanchey

Leaving Preah Vihear, stoked after my visit to that incredible temple, I cycled out towards Samroang. It was a mere 80km from Sra’em to Samroang, the capital of Oddar Meanchey, one of the least visited and least populous provinces in Cambodia.

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Honestly, by this point in the ride I was getting downright arrogant. 80km was nothing, I’d bang it out in a few hours with plenty of time to spare for exploring Samroang.

But just when you think your bike tour has nothing left to teach you, the bike schools you once again. I found myself cycling into a steady headwind for 80km, a totally challenge to my mindset that forced me to reevaluate my presumed strength. Determined to enjoy the final days of my ride, I had to mindfully try not to feel negative. Yes, the headwind was frustrating but really, how lucky was I?

The road from Sra’em to Samroang is technically a highway, but it is little used. Aside from a few trucks, cars, and entire families on motos, I pretty much had the road to myself.

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Even with the headwind, I made it to Samroang around lunchtime and found an overpriced room in a underwhelming guesthouse. Samroang itself was a very strange town. The provincial capital, it has the grid of roads laid out for a town, with plenty of government buildings… but no town. The streets are there, but the people are not. They all live in villages nearby, but not in the town itself. Its as if the government wanted to build a town there, but the people didn’t feeling like settling.

If you build it… they’ll tell you to get lost.

It was pretty weird.

Cycling from Samroang to Banteay Chhmar

From Samroang, it was a simple 50km out to Banteay Chhmar. I’ll be honest, it wasn’t the most inspiring or beautiful section of the trip.

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The road was mostly flat, I think, not super memorable, except for one section that wound through some lotus flower fields. Those are always a treat.

Arrived at Banteay Chhmar, site of an ancient Angkor Era temple in a state of disarray. This temple is equal in size and beauty to many of the temples outside of Siem Reap, but far less visited by tourists.

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The village surrounding the temple runs a CBT, or “community based tourism” initiative. What this basically means is that the money from the temples, one restaurant, and the homestays in the village are all pooled and go directly back to the locals. The result is that the tourism around Banteay Chhmar actually benefits the people who live there. Weird, right?

I arrived in town with the idea of spending a night in one of the homestays in the village. However, I failed to call ahead and when I popped into the CBT office, it was empty. It was 11am though, so I went to visit the temples, have lunch, and then made up my mind to continue riding all the way to Sereysophorn, another 60km. No homestay for me.

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Can I tell you a secret?

I hate homestays. I’m not opposed to them from an ethical standpoint, I’m sure they can be great for responsible tourism. But just from a personal standpoint, I hate them. I feel so awkward and intrusive. Skipping the homestay in Banteay Chhmar was an easy call. I much prefer a simple guesthouse.

The ride from Banteay Chhmar to Sereysophorn absolutely flew by. I had just a hint of a tail wind, my legs felt strong, and I was in a euphoric state of mind. This was my last section of never-before-seen road on my bike ride around Cambodia. It was characterized by wide open rice fields. The storm clouds looming overhead only encouraged me to ride harder.

It was one of the best afternoons of riding in my trip. Just plain fun.

I arrived in Sereysophorn in the late afternoon, got some deep fried bananas, and took a room in a guesthouse. Tomorrow would be the final day of my trip. Just a quick 70km down Road 5. A route I’d ridden before, two months ago when I was training for this ride.

It was certainly a bittersweet feeling.

Cycling from Sereysophorn, Banteay Meanchey to Battambang

This was it. The final day. A day which, if I’m being totally honest, I’d been imagining since before I even began the ride. Is that strange? I don’t think so. Sometimes I imagined myself rolling into Battambang completely exhausted, worn out, and just falling off my bike in the street.

Other times, I imagined cheering crowds. Women fainting. People running up to congratulate me.

Okay, those are my Tour de France fantasies. Whatever.

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The final day of the ride was great. I mean, road 5 is a crowded highway, so that wasn’t exactly enjoyable. I was really struck by the extreme contrast between Oddar Meanchey, Banteay Meanchey, and now Battambang Province. Just yesterday I’d been riding through underdeveloped land and open rice fields, hardly a town to be seen. Now the road was crowded with trucks, buses, vans, and cars, and the sides of the road were lined with houses, shops, and larger businesses. Night and day.

But it was familiar, it really felt like “this is the end”. But in a good way. It was nice to return to Battambang and have it feel like home.

I even passed another bike tourist. We waved at each other, no words were exchanged.

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I rolled into town before 11am. The cheering crowds didn’t materialize. It was no different than the end of any other day. No one batted an eye, except for the one or two creepy guys who chose to leer at me.

Final Thoughts from a Bicycle Tour Around Cambodia

In the moment of my arrival in Battambang, I realized that the deeply personal life journey I had just been on would remain just that: deeply personal. In truth, even as I write this blog post, two weeks after the end of the ride, I’m still digesting everything that the ride meant to me. It was such an incredible and life changing experience. I feel something has shifted, down at the very core of my being.

It was a realigning. A readjustment. A reset.

Even as I arrived back in Battambang on that last day, I felt it. I was a happier, more lighthearted person now than when I had left.

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When my friend who runs the “Cafe Eden” in town came out onto the street and said “You’re Back!” and I laughingly replied “Yes, literally just right now.” I felt that I was a changed person. Even if no one else could see it, I knew at the core of my being that something had been deeply altered.

The Megan who had ridden out of Battambang on May 1 was weighed down by expectations, self loathing, and hateful criticism.

The Megan who returned was different. Happier, lighter, more forgiving of herself, content with herself, confident. Overjoyed.

I had just ridden 2,145km around Cambodia. And I felt fucking amazing.


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The final days of a bike tour around Cambodia, through Oddar Meanchey, Banteay Chhmar, and back to Battambang

Bike Tour Cambodia’s Death Road from Mondulkiri to Ratanakiri

Adventure Travel, Bike Touring, Cambodia, Travel

The only known route between two of Cambodia’s most remote eastern provinces, Mondolkiri and Ratanakiri, has long been known and feared as the “Death Road.” But the most recent accounts I could find were from 2011. Photos showed a red and dusty path through the jungle, accounts described a road almost impassable in the rainy season.

But in June of 2017, deep in the rainy season and many years after these photos were taken, what would I find?

Cycling from Mondolkiri to Ratanakiri: My Plan of Attack

Now more than a month into my cycling journey around Cambodia, I was not intimidated by the length of the road, nor the uninhabited jungle I would pass through. Instead, I felt curious. What would I find in this vast unknown?

The death road runs 184km from Sen Monorom, in Mondulkiri province, to Banlung, in Ratanakiri. There are a few small towns along the way, including Koah Neak, 95km in, and Lumphat, 150km in. It is the only route between these two towns.

Since I lacked the appropriate camping gear to stand up against the torrential rains of Cambodia’s monsoon season, I hoped that at least one of these towns would feature a guesthouse, or at the very least, a kind and welcoming family.

If things got really desperate, I figured I could physically ride the 184km in one day, though it would be difficult. Midway towns notwithstanding, I planned an early start. If I could get to Kaoh Neak by midday, I should be alright to either take a guesthouse there, ride on to Lumphat, or, worst case scenario, push all the way to Banlung.

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I really hoped I didn’t have to ride all the way to Banlung. My longest day up to that point had been 120km and it had almost killed me. 184km could quite possibly put me in the intensive care unit.

Though I had no idea what kind of road conditions I was facing, I at least had the power of technology to give me an idea. I plotted the route into google earth and pulled up the elevation. It looked like a massive drop of coming out of Sen Monorom, a long valley, and then a steep climb back up to Banlung. Totally doable.

After two days of touristing it up in Sen Monorom, I was ready to take on the death road.

Cycling the Death Road Day 1: Sen Monorom to Kaoh Neak

I suppose, once upon a time, the death road was a truly dangerous and rarely used path. Unfortunately for us adventurous souls, those days are long gone. I’m both happy and sad to report that the death road is now a well paved, though still relatively less used, pathway through mostly deforested jungle.

I’m happy about it because it means safer roads for the local population. On the flip side, I love a good adventure but paved roads don’t really lend themselves to being lost in foreign lands. Also, the paved road means easier access to this once remote area. Easy access means migration, population increase, and an increase in deforestation and wildlife damage.

A perfect example of this is the wildlife refuge I rode through on my second day. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Day one on the death road began bright and early. Up by 5:30am, I was out the door by 6 and finished with my traditional rice and pork breakfast by 6:30am. Unsure what I faced and whether or not there would be villages, I stocked up on 3 liters of water and a bag of banana chips.

To get onto the “death road” from Sen Monorom, follow the main road out of town until you reach the roundabout. Make a right. Continue to follow this strip of pavement past the Bousra Falls turn and onwards to Banlung. Yep, it’s that easy.

As the road left Sen Monorom it continued across the hills that had so tormented and delighted me only a few days before. I devoured the uphills and coasted down the short downhills.

After about 20km of this, I crested to the top of a particularly steep climb only to be greeted by one of the most satisfying views that can greet a cyclist: the road dropped away steeply and a massive valley opened up in front of me.

It was a loooooong downhill.

As I do on long downhills, I started belting out whatever song was stuck in my head. I think it was a Taylor Swift song on this particular morning. Again, don’t ask me why. I get the weirdest mixture of songs stuck in my head while riding.

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The downhills went on forever. It was a drop of nearly 2000ft, spread out across about 15km. The first slope took several minutes. From the bottom there were a few more inclines, but again down, and down, and down.

It was awesome.

Even in the Cardamoms I didn’t get downhills as satisfying as these. It was like the past weeks of cycling had all built up to this one euphoric moment.

The adrenaline and joy built inside of me during these speedy declines and stayed with me as the road leveled out. To be perfectly honest, the rest of the morning is a bit of a blur. My legs felt incredibly strong and I powered along the road, making it to Kaoh Neak by 11:30am. There, I was pleased to find not one but three different guesthouses! Choice! That’s not something I get every day.

Picked a likely looking spot, had a shower, had some lunch, and spent the rest of the day working. That digital nomad life does require sacrificing afternoons of exploration at times, I’m afraid.

Cost of a room in Koah Near: $6.25/night. Dinner: $1.75

Cycling the Death Road Day 2: Kaoh Neak to Banlung

From Kaoh Neak to Banlung was 90km along the rest of the now paved death road. I was unafraid and excited. I’d been dreaming of visiting Ratanakiri since I first came to Cambodia in 2014. Back then, I didn’t make it to this outpost. Now, I finally would.

The first half of the day was pretty flat and uneventful. The road takes a hard left in the middle of Kaoh Neak then becomes pretty deserted, just sparse jungle and a few shacks here and there.

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Men rode by me fairly frequently on their motorbikes, leaning over dangerously to stare over their shoulders and watch me ride, ignoring the road in front of them.

After 50km or so, I passed a sign saying “Lumphat Wildlife Sanctuary”. Up until this sign, I’d been riding through jungle. Yet pretty much from the moment I passed this sign, the jungle vanished. It was cut back acres and acres from the road. I could barely see the trees in the distance. It wasn’t being used for agriculture but it was inexplicably empty.

At first in my gullible optimism I thought it was a natural occurrence. How cool! In the middle of all this jungle to find such a large clearing. I wonder what caused this? Perhaps a chance in the chemistry of the soil…

A few minutes later and I was relieved of this ridiculous optimism. This wasn’t a natural occurrence, oh no.

The jungle had been cut away by that plague that covers almost all of this earth: humans. And what replaced this gorgeous, thriving jungle? Palm oil trees.

They had stripped the jungle to plant palm oil trees.

I was livid but since there didn’t seem to be a representative of the palm oil company waiting by the side of the road to take my complaints, I continued cycling.

The small town of Lumphat sits in the middle of the valley, just before the hills begin to rise up again on the way to Banlung. I stopped here for a quick coffee and checked the map on my phone. As I was perusing the road up to Banlung, I saw a little marker for a waterfall. A quick calculation showed I could easily detour, adding only 2km to my day.

Obviously, it was time to head to the waterfall.

20km later and I reached the turn for the falls. This falls, called O’Katieng Falls, are one of the tourist attractions of Banlung. As such, tourists usually approach them from the other direction. Coming from Sen Monorom, as I was, the road was unmarked. I took the turn onto the dirt road and soon found myself riding through a small village. As with other rural villages in the past, the locals seemed uncertain about my presence there. I’m sure they were wondering why on earth a foreigner was riding a mud covered bike through their village.

After a few missed turns, a bit of getting lost, and a little navigation of some mud and water filled roadways, I found the road that heads up to the waterfalls.

Up is the operative word. From riding along the flat valley floor, I was suddenly faced with a road so steep it seemed to jump perpendicularly up into the air.

Not one to shy away from a challenge, I built up some momentum, dropped into a low gear, and charged up the hill.

Now is probably a good time to mention that this road was not paved. Not paved, not even really ridable, it was mostly an eroded, rocky scramble up a mountainside. I reached the top, gratefully gained a small plateau, and was immediately faced with another slippery wall of dirt heading up the hillside.

This continued for about two kilometers. At times it was so steep I was forced to dismount and push my bike up the hill.

It was the most fun I’d had in ages.

After awhile I reached the falls. Finding myself alone, I took some time to walk down into the hollow and enjoy the peaceful sense of wonder that comes with waterfalls.

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Snacked on a few mangos, and headed on towards Banlung.

The rest of the way was really quite scenic. No more steep walls of dirt to scale, the road leveled out and became slightly more reasonable. Pretty soon I was riding along rolling hills through rubber plantations, with the temples and rooftops of Banlung visible in the distance.

By 3pm I was settled into my hostel and ready to explore.

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As you can see, the Death Road is really no longer a death road at all. If anything, the only danger to cyclists is the vans, busses, and cars that go flying along the road at breakneck speeds. If you hear a car coming behind you, hug that shoulder for dear life because they are probably driving at 160kmph. But other than that it’s an incredibly safe, ridable, and easy road to finish in one or two days.

Also, sorry about the garbage photos with this post. My camera died and I was forced to use my totally crap phone. The good pictures will come back, I promise.

What do you think? Would you cycling the death road?

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My Unforgettable Yoga Teacher Training in Thailand

Adventure Travel, Thailand, Travel

Making the decision to enroll in a Yoga Teacher Training really surprised me. I always thought only those incredibly fit and impossibly bendy girls who do yoga on Instagram could go to YTTs.

I couldn’t put my thighs behind my shoulders, so I obviously wasn’t “yoga” enough. And yet, sometime in late 2013, I signed up for a 200 hour yoga teacher training with Wise Living Yoga Academy in Chiang Mai Thailand.

My Yoga Journey, In Short, From the Beginning

I tried yoga for the first time with my mom in 2006. It was my senior year in high school and I liked it, but I didn’t really get it. It just didn’t click with me at the time, but it stayed in the back of my mind. Lurking in the shadows.

I didn’t take another yoga class until 2012. I always thought about taking yoga classes. I talked about taking yoga classes. But I never actually took any yoga classes. I was too busy studying skipping class.

But in 2012 I moved to South Korea. One morning, desperate to meet people and find something to do that wasn’t teaching, I googled “English Language Yoga Classes, Seoul” and a place called “Celebrity Yoga” came up.

It was a Bikram Yoga studio in Gangnam. After one class, I was addicted.

Unfortunately, this coincided with a very dark time in my life. I’ve written about that many times. Now is not the time nor the place.

The good thing that came out of my Bikram obsession was my dedication to yoga and my desire to learn more. As I planned a six month backpacking trip for 2013-2014, a friend in California encouraged me to take a yoga teacher training.

“But, I’m not good enough,” I thought. “I’ll just look like a fool.”

Yet I signed up. I was curious and what the hell, it’s another thing to add to the resume, right?

A Yoga Teacher Training at Wise Living Yoga Academy

Zoom ahead to February 2014 and I walked through the front gate of the Wise Living Yoga Academy in Chiang Mai. It is a peaceful ashram run by a truly lovely couple, Jeenal and Daniel. They had both studied for many years at the Yoga Institute of Mumbai in India, and had recently moved to Chiang Mai to spread the knowledge of classical yoga.

Classical Yoga? At that time, I had no idea what that was.

This was a completely immersive 200 hour YTT. The program lasted for one month, and we studied full-time Monday through Friday, with a half day on Saturday. It was intense, but also life altering.

Everything about our days at the ashram was structured to teach us the Classical Yoga lifestyle. It was a complete immersion. Day by day, we learned bits and pieces of this lifestyle, little realizing we were already living it in the daily pattern of our lives at the ashram.

We covered yogic philosophy. We meditated. We ate vegan food. We enjoyed silent meals. We practiced gentle asana, and stronger asana. We slowly, peacefully, effortlessly adopted the classical yoga lifestyle.

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View from my bedroom at the Ashram

I guess to best explain what a “classical yoga” lifestyle is, if you’ve never really heard of that before, I’ll outline a typical day at WYLA.

A Day in the Life of a 200 Hour YTT

  • 5:30am My alarm rings. I sit up in bed and silently drink some water.
  • 5:50am I make my way through the fragrant gardens to the meditation hall. Silently, along with my classmates, we enter the hall and take our seats on cushions on the floor.
  • 6:00am Guided meditation begins. Daniel’s soft voice leads me into my inner tranquility. I close my eyes. Focus on my breath. Let my mind relax.
  • 6:30 – 7:00am We finish our meditation and quietly head back to our room to retrieve our mats.
  • 7:00am Morning asana practice, lead by Daniel or Jeenal. We practice sometimes gentle, sometimes quite challenging Asana practice for an hour and a half.
  • 8:30am Breakfast. A gorgeous buffet of vegan porridge, fruits, and other delights.
  • 10am to 12:30 Philosophy. The morning is spent with Daniel, discussing philosophy of ancient India. We discuss texts such as Hatha Pradipka Yoga and the Bhagavad Gita
  • 12:30 – 2pm Lunch, Another stunning vegan buffet of bright vegetables, salads, curries, and rice. Rest time.
  • 2:00-2:30pm Yogic Relaxation. We practice and try not to fall asleep. We’re also learning how to teach this practice.
  • 2:30pm – 5:00pm A variety of classes with Jeenal. Some days we study pranayamas. Other days we study the Yoga Sutras of Pantanjali. Still other days we study yogic cleansing techniques.
  • 5:00-6:30pm Asana Practice. With Daniel or Jeenal we learn how to teach different asanas.
  • 6:30 – 9:00pm Dinner. Another stunning vegan buffet. After dinner we have personal study time until we sleep.

If it sounds intense, it was. I’ve never learned so much in such a short time. The experience was one I will never forget.

What I loved about my Yoga Teacher Training

The flow of knowledge was measured out so well. I think it is safe to say that most of my classmates were as clueless as I was in the beginning. We thought that yoga was mostly just a style of exercise that was loosely connected to mindfulness.

Jeenal and Daniel were able to gently lead us into the knowledge that Yoga is a holistic philosophy of how to live ones life. Meditation is an integral part of yoga. Food is part of yoga. Exercise is part of Yoga. Everything is part of yoga.

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Graduation day

Yoga is a way of life. Yoga is a goal. Yoga is in everything you do, from the moment you wake, to the food you eat, to the things you say.

In the immersive setting of the ashram, we were able to truly experience the yogic lifestyle. Living in peaceful tranquillity, surrounded by floral gardens, trickling streams, and chirping tropical birds, we were able to experience a quiet sense of contentment.

I was also able to learn, for the first time, that I didn’t need to punish my body with exercise. I learned to appreciate my body for what it could do, and to stop hating all my imperfections.

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By the mountains near the Ashram

I saw first hand the myriad benefits that come from a steady practice of meditation. The benefit of speaking less and listening more. And the serenity that comes from stillness.

Were there things I would have changed about the course? Perhaps a few. I wish we had read the texts beforehand, so that we could have discussed their ideas in greater depth with Daniel. I wish just a touch more emphasis was placed on having time to practice actually teaching asanas, guided meditation, and pranayamas.

But on the whole, taking a yoga teacher training in Thailand was one of the best choices I’ve ever made. WYLA truly became my home for that month. A home I would love to return to someday.

My Takeaway: Even If You Think You Aren’t Ready, You Are

If you’ve been thinking of taking a yoga teacher training but have been holding yourself back, stop. I’m here to tell you: you are ready. 200 Hour courses are less about learning to teach and more about deepening your own relationship with yoga. After all, how can you teach someone the path if you don’t walk it yourself?

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Group at graduation

Namaste

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Gunung Ranaka: Unrequited Love on a Volcano

Adventure Travel, Indonesia, Travel

Falling in love. It’s the fairytale ending to your travel story. You imagine yourself being swept off your feet in the middle of lush green rice fields. Falling in love with a beautiful stranger as the sun sets over a tropical white sand beach.

Or sometimes, love insists on butting into an otherwise perfectly civil adventure day. This is a story of what happens when you’re just trying to have a good time, and love keeps getting in the way.

Beginning in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysian Borneo

The story starts back in November 2013, on the very first night of my very first backpacking trip. I’m sitting in a hostel in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysian Borneo. I’ve just arrived one hour before and I have no idea where I am. I am the freshest of fresh-faced backpackers.

As I start chatting with the other guests at the hostel, I meet a dutch couple on their last night of their trip. Ignoring all my questions about Borneo, they are ecstatically talking about one place: Flores, Indonesia.

I’ve never heard of Flores before but in that one conversation it moves to the top of my travel bucket list. I don’t even really know where it is, or why I want to go there, but I know I’m going to Flores.

Meanwhile on Flores

Fast forward four months, and I’m finally in Indonesia. I am, in my own mind at least, a hardened backpacker at this point. I know what a tuk-tuk is, I’ve had food poisoning twice, and I’m not afraid of rocking up to new towns with no reservations. I got this.

Since I’m not a scuba diver, Indonesia meant one thing to me: volcanoes. I was in Indonesia for one month and I was going to climb as many damn volcanoes as I could. No matter how many stunning beaches and cute boys I had to ignore along the way.

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Komodo Dragon

Flores was no exception. I spent a few days in Labuan Bajo (LBJ), took the tour of Rinca and Komodo to see the Komodo dragons, and spent a day lazing around town drinking Bintang. But after a few days in the oceanside town I knew I was wasting time. There were volcanoes to climb.

Laying around the hostel one morning, I started chatting with the owner about my goal to climb volcanoes, and he told me to head over to his hometown, Ruteng.

“No tourists go there. They will be so excited to see you! You must go! It’s a great mountain, very tall!”

The volcano he mentioned, Ranaka, is, in fact, not very tall, but let’s not get picky. At the time, I was super excited. Nothing gets a backpacker juiced like hearing “no tourists go there.” It’s like our cocaine. We love that shit.

Quick sidenote before we really get into the meat of this story: I just want to say, in advance, that most of the humor in this story is at the expense of another person. And I feel kinda bad about that. As in, I realize I should treat all humans with dignity and respect. So I feel bad for writing this. But not bad enough not to post it.

Okay, glad I got that off my chest. Moving on.

The Journey to Ruteng

Next morning I was on a bus, headed off into the mists, determined to climb that volcano.

By the time I arrived in Ruteng in the mid-afternoon, it was already pouring rain. I checked into one of the only guesthouses in town and sort of mulled around a bit, waiting for the rain to pass. I planned to do the hike the next day. I knew the name of the volcano, Ranaka, and I knew it was a bit outside of town but I had no idea how to get to it. I figured I’d just, maybe, hitchhike? Who knows.

Finally the rains passed and I went out to get some dinner. As I walk along the streets, looking for a masakan padang (traditional Indonesia restaurant) a young guy comes up to me and starts having a chat. He asked me where I’m going and I say I’m looking for some dinner.

Travel Pro Tip: Never turn down a local who offers to help you find food. Unless they are creepy AF.

He takes me to a nearby spot, we get some food. This guy, I honestly can’t remember his name so let’s just call him Andy, he starts telling me about himself. He’s an English teacher and a journalist. Not originally from Flores but he lives here now to report on the corruption in the local government. I’m intrigued. He strikes me as a cool dude.

Andy then asks me what I want to do tomorrow. I tell him I’m going to climb Ranaka, but I’ve got no idea where it is, or how to get there.

“Well, why don’t I go with you?”

Free guide? I am thrilled. This dude seems non-threatening, non-creepy, and I apparently have no self-preservation instinct. I say yes. We agree to meet tomorrow morning at 7am.

7am rolls around, and Andrew shows up at my hotel wearing jeans and dress shoes. Not a great omen but I willfully ignore it. We find some guys on motorcycles to drive us out to the base of the mountain.

Climbing Gunung Ranaka

Once we get there, it becomes clear that the “trail” to the top of the mountain is actually a paved road. So I definitely did not need the guide. But having a knowledgeable local is always a good thing, right?

“So, how many times have you climbed this mountain?” I ask.

“Never. This is my first time. It’s my first time on a volcano!”

Fucking great.

Let’s be clear about the status of my hike at this point: I’ve got a useless guide, in dress shoes, who has never climbed the mountain before. Or any mountain, for that matter. But I’m optimistic. It could still be a good day.

The first part of the morning is great. We talk about random topics: travel, corruption, the differences between America and Indonesia. I ask a lot of questions about Indonesian culture and he patiently answers.

At some point we walk through a village and we inherit a cadre of children. They babble along, following us, and Andy tells me that “the kids are excited, they’ve never seen a white girl before, they’re all talking about you. They want to know if you are a girl, or a boy.”

Haha, very funny.

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Kids following me up the mountain

The kids follow us for a few kilometers, but at some point they disappear into the surrounding jungle to go cut down bamboo or harvest fruits. The Indonesian version of running errands for mom and dad.

We continue. The hike itself isn’t very long, 9km up to the top, 9km back down. It’s an out and back, not a loop, so there isn’t much chance of getting lost.

The Moment of Truth

Around kilometer 5 or 6, the conversation starts to get a bit strange.

“Is your country a Christian country?” Andy asks.

“Some people, not everyone.”

“Flores is a Christian Island.” Andy informs me, helpfully, before launching into his follow up question.

“Do people get divorced in your country?”

Me: “Yes, all the time.”

Andy: “Here people do not get divorced. Once we get married, we stay married.”

Me: “hmm, okay” I do not like the direction this conversation is taking.

Andy: “Can I tell you something?”

Me: No. “Yes…”

Andy: “I am in love with you. I think we should get married.”

Me: Nervous laughter.

I mean, seriously buddy? We’re halfway up a fucking mountain right now. We’ve gotta stick it out with each other for AT LEAST four more hours and this is your moment? Pretty fucking risky, if you ask me.

I try to give him a way out, because I’m a chivalrous young woman. I go for the laughing “no, you don’t mean that.” Blind to my attempts to dodge his marriage bullet, he persists,

“No, seriously, I love you. How does that make you feel?”

I give him one last chance to back the fuck up.

“You actually want to know what I think?”

“yes.”

And what comes next is, in my own humble opinion, one of my proudest moments in navigating the maddening world of unwanted male attention.

“I think I’m one of the first foreign white women you have spent time with. I think you find me beautiful because I look so different, so you’ve decided you are in love with me. But you are not in love with me. You don’t know me. You don’t know who I am or how I act, so you cannot possibly be in love with me.”

Yep. Nailed it.

Andy, poor guy, actually let out a sad little, “No, I’m really in love with you.”

And I had to shut this shit down, “Well, I am not in love with you. I just want to hike up this volcano.”

Needless to say, the rest of the way was pretty fucking awkward. And to put some icing on this shitstorm of a cake, a few minutes after this conversation it started to rain. Just a sprinkling at first but it was a steady sprinkling that persisted for at least the next hour.

Turns out Andy is pretty out of shape and spent the next 4 or 5 kilometers trying to convince me to turn around. It was cold. It was wet. He wanted to eat lunch (it was 10am).

I just wanted to climb a volcano in peace.

I tried to tell him he could just head back down, I’d see him at the bottom. He was having none of it.

To give the guy credit, he stuck it out with me all the way to the top, even managed to keep something of a conversation going. There isn’t really a view from the top of Ranaka, and anyway at that point we were surrounded by clouds.

Instead of views, the top of the mountain is lined with shrines to various saints, and a weird utilitarian building. We cowered inside this weird building for a few minutes, eating our Gado Gado for lunch.

Even up at the top, the poor guy was still trying to put his arm around me and give me some loving. I just wanted to bask in the silence that only comes at the tops of mountains. I did agree to take a picture with him.

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Sitting on top of Gunung Ranaka

Turns out the best views from Gunung Ranaka were at kilometer 6 or 7, but we were already fogged in by the rain and discussing my unwillingness to get married at that point.

After 20 minutes of reluctant snuggling, we headed back down the mountain. The rain seemed to be clearing up and I was looking forward to a swift jog back down the paved road to the bottom.

JUST KIDDING! 10 minutes into the walk down, it started pouring rain. I mean sheets of water were coming down. My shoes were soaked, my whole body was soaked. Mother nature laughed hysterically at my tiny north face rain jacket.

You can imagine how much my boy Andy loved this. 

Only when we reached the bottom did I then realize we had no ride back into town. My local guide finally came through and he managed to hail a passing minivan. They let us hop in and gave us a ride back into town.

We parted ways in Ruteng, and I moved on to my next volcano the following day. We never spoke again. I may not have fallen in love with him, but at least I got a good story out of it.

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This is why Indonesias always asked me “Are you a girl or a boy?”

Oh well, that’s unrequited love for you.

Gunung Ranaka is good for a short day hike though, if you’re into climbing volcanos or following random pilgrimage trails. 5/10. Don’t really recommend unless you’re bored.

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Mud & Water: The Kindness of Strangers in Rural Cambodia

Adventure Travel, Cambodia, Travel, Uncategorized

The one true constant that I have found as I move around the world is the kindness of strangers. Of course, people have also been terrible. In every country I have met selfish people, hateful people, violent people, I’ve had things stolen, I’ve been followed home, and I’ve been harassed.

But these things don’t stick with me. I don’t remember the bad moments from Korea, Nepal, or any other country. What I do remember is the kind words and kind actions from strangers. The little moments when a stranger reached out to me, across cultural misunderstandings and language barriers, and offered me help or support.

20160914_180505But What About Battambang?

My weekends in Battambang are remarkable in their dullness. Please don’t think I am complaining. I work hard all week, slaving away at an underpaid NGO job, spending my lunch breaks and evenings creating content for my freelance writing clients to make ends meet. By Friday afternoon, all I can think about is the two days ahead of me filled with absolutely nothing.

Or actually filled with five to ten hours of writing, or seeking new freelance writing gigs… but also nothing.

This is a stark contrast from my life in Korea and Peru. In South Korea my weekends were full of partying, drinking, and weekend long excursions across the tiny country. In Peru, living in the Andes, my weekends were usually filled with hiking and backpacking adventures.

Here in Battambang things are different. It’s so goddamned hot every day, I can’t be fucked to leave my apartment. If I go out in the sun I’m immediately blinded and can feel the cancer cells erupting from my skin. Cambodia makes me feel that I am part Vampire, craving the darkness. Or maybe that’s the buffy I’ve been binging on…

Yet Sometimes I am Adventurous

One weekend, I made a conscious effort to get out of my house. A girl named Valerie recently moved into the apartment next to mine, and we hit it off right away. And even though I had been dealing with a persistent ear infection, and I knew I had other shit to do, I asked her in passing… want to go for a drive?

I wanted to check out a temple I had spotted on google earth. I got the sense it wasn’t a temple frequented by westerners, because I couldn’t find any mention of it in any blog, anywhere. Of course this only made me want to visit it more.

Now might be a good time to mention I haven’t really visited any of the tourist attractions in Battambang, except for the one I work for.

The Eventful Trip to O Krasang

20160918_124131So we hopped on my decrepit Honda Daelim 150cc motorbike and set off for O Krasang and the Angkor Era temple. What I hadn’t anticipated was that the road there would be a dirt road.

Or, in the dry season it is a dirt road. But now, three months into the rainy season, it was a muddy death trek of doom. When dry, the road would be wide enough for one car to drive safely, but two cars would have difficulty passing each other. In the wet there was one track, exactly the width of a motorbike tire and no wider, on which it was safe to drive. Everywhere else was either puddles or slippery muck.

As I set off onto this road, my whole body was tense. I wasn’t worried about myself or my bike. If I fell and muddied up the bike, whatever, it was just part of the story. But I was also responsible for Valerie’s well-being.

So this is what I am thinking as I start winding my bike along this twisting 5 inch wide strip of rideable road, desperately trying to maintain enough momentum not to get stuck, keep my eyes on the path in front of me, and not kill Valerie.

The tension was quickly broken by the source of my worry, Valerie. Instead of acting scared or stressed out, I heard her shouting behind me “Yeah, Megan, you got this!” “This is so cool!” and “There are so many cows!”

Pretty soon we are both laughing, and I was really enjoying the challenge of motoring along the muddy death trap. The road probably took 20 minutes to traverse, and I’m proud to say I didn’t fuck up once.

After the 20 minute joyous ride of doom, we turned onto a paved road and the rest of the trip was smooth and comfortable. 10 minutes later we pulled into this small temple in the middle of a Cambodian village. I probably don’t have to tell you that we were the only foreigners there. They didn’t even charge us an entrance fee. In Southeast Asia if they don’t charge you an entrance fee, it means you are the first foreigner ever to set foot there.

We explore the temple, wander around the footpaths into the jungle a bit, find ourselves in someone’s backyard, work our way back to the temple, and eat a picnic lunch. Eventually it’s time to go home.20160918_121306

On The Way Back, Things Get Interesting

As we are hopping back onto my trusty steed ancient scooter, I mention to Valerie that I had seen a different way home on the map. It would take longer, but be much prettier, following a stream as it wound through the jungle and farmland. Was she game to try? Valerie, the embodiment of adventure, consents. We decide to try out this wilder route home.

Of course, it isn’t a paved road. We find ourselves facing another muddy dirt path, winding along a murky river swollen from the recent rains. Overconfident from our recent success on the 20 minute ride of doom, I turn onto the street and rev the engine.

We hadn’t even gone a quarter of a mile before we’re faced with a muddy patch that outdoes everything we saw on the way to the temple. It makes my earlier “ride of doom” feel like a cake walk. Instinctively I know, 5 seconds too late, I can’t do this.

But of course, my hands don’t follow my brain. My brain says NO! Stop! Turn around! My hands drive the bike into the muck. I hit mud, I slide, step my foot to the side to catch myself, my foot hits the mud and slides uncontrollably backwards, my bike slides to the left and I fall into the mud. I feel Valerie fall behind me. I push my hands into the muck and they sink a good 6 inches. I try to push myself up and that’s when I realize… I’m stuck.

When my foot hit the muck, it slid backwards and Valerie fell on top of my leg, trapping me in the mud. I try to twist my face over to look at Valerie and ask her to get up. That’s when I realize she can’t. She is trapped under the motorbike.

Okay, I think, you’ve crashed your motorbike on top of your new friend. Time to pick it up so she doesn’t get hurt and hate you forever. I grab the handlebars and try to pick up the bike. But every time I try to move it, I just slide deeper into the mud. I can’t get purchase to leverage up the bike. I can’t move it.

Shit. I’m trapped under Valerie, who is trapped under the bike that I can’t move because I’m trapped under Valerie. Things were not looking so good.

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That’s when I heard him. A man ran over saying something in Khmer. He grabbed the back of the bike, I grabbed the handles, and we lifted the bike up a few inches, enough for Valerie to get out and me to stand up.

He took the bike and walked it out of the muck, setting it on its kickstand on the side of the road. I realized we had crashed right in front of a house with a family sitting outside. A woman came over to us. She grabbed Valerie and motioned to me. She led us into their compound and beneath the house.

Traditional Cambodian homes are raised up on stilts. Beneath the house, the family will set out tables, hammocks, and a few large jar shaped cisterns to store water. The woman led us to one of these cisterns to wash ourselves off. By now her husband had joined us again.

I thought they might give us a bucket to wash off the mud, but no. The husband walked over with a small plastic bucket and started to wash Valerie himself. She is laughing and saying thank you “akun, akun, thank you so much” over and over again. He turned her around, washing her legs, her arms, his wife standing behind him, pointing and fretting. They clean her cuts, her feet, he even tries to clean her face.

The wife steps up and tries to help me clean myself as well, but being the rather shy person I am, I gently shake her away and set about cleaning my feet. She settles for cleaning my shoes.

Once we’re all tidied up, we turn to the family and try to say thank you, over and over, in both Khmer and English. They shake off our thanks, smiling shyly. There is probably some huge gap of cultural understanding behind our desire to say thank you, and their unwillingness to accept our thanks.

Taking us in and helping us get clean would have filled my daily quota of unsolicited kindness, but of course, there was more. The family walked us back to the bike and watched to make sure we could get it going again. When I was too flustered to start the bike, the husband came over to start it for me.

We made the intelligent decision to take the paved road home, and the rest of the trip was uneventful. Except for the very strange looks we got from strangers as we drove down National Highway 5 on a motorbike completely covered in muck.

All in all, a good day made excellent by the kindness of strangers.

Pay it forward.

Rescued in Nepal

Adventure Travel, Nepal, Travel, Uncategorized

This story is a piece of a larger narrative about a time I trekked for 24 days through the Annapurna Circuit deep within Nepal’s Himalayan wilderness. But for now, this story is a standalone tale of the unforgettable kindness bestowed upon me by the Nepali people.

For most people who set out to tackle the Annapurna Circuit these days, the trail ends in a town called Jomsom, two days walk down from the highest point of the trek, the wind blown, barren landscape known as Thorong-La Pass at 5416m (17769ft).

Most of the blogs that I read beforehand said that you couldn’t walk on past Jomsom because the path had been replaced by a Jeep road. Once I got to Kathmandu I found out that there was path from Jomsom, it was on the other side of the river from the Jeep road.

I had a map, and I had the not-so-trusty, never there when you need them red and white painted trail markers to guide my way. I left from Jomsom at 7am, bright and early to beat the afternoon winds that come sweeping up the riverbed. From looking at my map, I planned to walk along the riverbed until I came to a small village, cross one of two bridges which would take me over to the larger town, Tukuche, where I could get some lunch, cross back over to my private side, and continue on to my ultimate destination of the day, Kalbeni.

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Apple trees growing in a wheat field

And so we find our heroine leaving from Jomsom on a bright, sunny, absolutely perfect Himalayan morning. The path took me through riverside villages, farm fields of wheat, apple orchards, and an enchanting pine forest accompanied by the distant sound of a rushing Himalayan river. I visited a village with a Tibetan refugee center, and climbed up a narrow staircase cut into a rock wall to visit a farming village sitting atop a promontory overlooking the river with snow capped Himalayan peaks rising in the distance. If heaven is a real place, this walk is part of it.

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Pine forest and the trail marker.

But eventually it came to be noon, and then one o’clock. And though these villages were picturesque, they lacked the ubiquitous teahouses that characterized every village on the other side of the Annapurna Circuit. What this meant for me was nowhere that served lunch. With no food in my pack, I had to get to Tukuche.

And then I saw a posted map. It showed the village I had just passed through, and it showed the river with two bridges crossing it. But the bridges were crossed off.

No, I thought to myself, this can’t be. Surely someone in Jomsom would have mentioned that these bridges were gone!

But I hadn’t told anyone in Jomsom my plans. All my trekking friends were either ahead of me, or had gotten a Jeep out of Annapurna. I was alone. I had no food in my backpack, and the bridge that I needed to get the only town where there would be food was washed away.

Still, I held onto the hope that the sign was wrong and the bridges had been rebuilt. Until I rounded a corner five minutes later and the riverbed opened up in front of me. There were the supports for two bridges, but there was a distinct lack of bridge on top of them.

So just so we are clear. I had eaten a bowl of oatmeal that morning at 6:30am and had now been walking for about 5 or 6 hours. I’m starving. And there is a rushing Himalayan river of questionable depth between me and the only meal within a 10 mile radius.

What else could I do? I had to cross the river.

I took off my shoes, rolled up my pants, and stepped into the ice cold flow.

After only a few steps I could feel the current pulling at my legs. My feet were slipping all over the stones in the river bed. By the time I was up to my knees I was losing my balance and afraid that the heavy pack on my back would cause me to fall in and drown. I gave up and headed back to shore.

‘This is ridiculous,’ I told myself, ‘quit being a baby. You’re tough as nails and you are going to walk your ass across this river because it just can’t be that deep!’

I took of my shoes and my pants all the way off and stepped into the flow. I made it all the way out until I was up to my hips, not even a quarter of the way across the river, before I gave up and struggled back to the shore.

There was nothing for it, I realized. I was half crazed from hunger and going to have to walk all day without lunch. Hopefully find a house on this side of the river where I could get some food and a bed, but I wasn’t optimistic. Things were not looking good.

I had just finished putting my pants and shoes back on when I heard a shout. I looked up to see a small Nepali man walking out of the woods onto the riverbed, motioning for me to come meet him by the river.

I was a little nervous about approaching a strange man in the isolated Himalayan wilderness, but what other choice did I have, really? I desperately needed to cross this river and its not like I could pretend he was shouting and waving to someone else.

“Tukuche?” He asked me abruptly, motioning towards the distance village across the river.

Yes, Tukuche.

“Alone? Friends?” He asked, looking around.

“Alone.” I replied. He threw his hands in the air and rolled his eyes at me. What was a young woman like me doing out here, alone, on this side of the river.

Then he motioned for me to take off my bag. I tried to protest but he grabbed it, held it aloft over his head, and marched right into the river and crossed over to the other side like it was nothing. Depositing my bag on the distant rocks, he turned around, crossed again and held out his hand for me.

“Don’t look down. Look up! Look up!” he said, pointing to a distance mountain peak. And so I did. I looked up, and with a vice-like grip on my arm this tiny Nepali man half pulled, half carried me across a raging Himalayan river.

Successfully reunited with my bag and safely standing on the correct side of the river, I turned to say thank you and goodbye to my savior.

“You like Dal Bhat?” He asked. Dal Bhat is the national dish of Nepal and pretty closely resembles a typical Indian meal.

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Dal Bhat with chapati and in the background, Dal Bhat with rice

I confirmed my love of Dal Bhat and he invited me to his house for lunch.

He strode, I struggled across the rocky dry riverbed, through apple orchards, and into Tukuche. Up until this point I had walked through villages, but only stayed in the teahouses, which are set up like basic hotels. Now, for the first time, I got to see the inside of a traditional Nepali house.

There was a large wooden gate in a stucco wall that faced the street. Behind the gate was a courtyard onto which all the doors of the house opened. When we entered, his wife and two daughters came out of one of the doors, saying something in Nepali before stopped dead in their tracks when they caught sight of me.

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The man who rescued me, took me in, and fed me.

My host, whose name, and please forgive my spelling, sounded like Uhmlahl, quickly detailed the story to his family, who immediately started laughing. His wife motioned for me to pass through a door in the back.

Taking off my wet shoes and socks, I entered their family room/dining room/kitchen. The walls, floor, and ceiling were all made of thick beautiful dark wood. We sat at benches around a long wooden table and his wife went behind a divider to cook.

Uhmlahl and I were soon served milky Tibetan tea and the most delicious Dal Bhat meal I have ever eaten. Lentils, rice, vegetables, I even got a fried egg. I did my best to eat it slowly and respectfully, but luckily in Asian cultures wolfing down your food shows your host that you appreciate their cooking.

Then two of Uhmlahl’s four daughters came out to sit with me. The youngest, Asha, was working on her English homework for school. She was too shy to actually talk to me, but she understood what I said and did look up and giggle a few times. The elder, 16, could speak English rather well and was happy to tell me about herself and her family. Turns out they had had two American college students come and stay a few years ago to learn about Nepali culture.

After lunch and conversation, I eventually had to say my goodbyes and continue on down the road.

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English School in the Tibetan refugee camp

What could have been the worst, most disastrous day of my entire Annapurna trek turned into one of the most beautiful experiences I had during my six months backpacking around Asia. I will never forget the kindness bestowed upon me by Uhmlahl that day, and I will try to pay it forward if I ever meet a Nepali man stuck on the wrong side of the river in America.

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A river stretches away into the Annapurna Wilderness

Pay it forward, guys. Beauty is everywhere. Adventure is calling.

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Annapurna Circuit Solo Trek