How I Became My Own Worst Travel Nightmare In Southeast Asia
Check out this video diary I made of my trip. It's best viewed in HD.
TL;DR, This trip was filled with 80% being ill and in pain, and only 20% getting to experience new and beautiful things, so it wasn't exactly the dream I was expecting when venturing to a new part of the world. But, this is the real deal and I didn't want to sugarcoat it when writing about it, so here's what really happened, even if social media made it look like it was fabulous. Also, since you probably don't want to read a bunch of complaining, I've bolded the parts that are actually positive, so you can skip around to catch the highlights if you wish.
Years ago I suffered through a trip with someone that made things quite unbearable. From a sucky attitude to a huge difference in what we each thought was fun to do, I promised myself that I would never travel with someone again who made the journey something I didn't come to remember fondly. If I chose to travel with a partner, I wanted someone who was ready to embrace the adventures and make the trip extraordinary. However, this lead to not many people fitting this criterion, so I made most of my trips solo since then. The only person I let into my travel plans is my boyfriend because I truly want to see the world with him, and he makes a great partner for the road.
I was so excited when planning our trip to Southeast Asia. I made sure to research as much as possible and make this a trip of a lifetime. I had originally wanted to go during the more mild season, but my partner had commitments in NYC that made it so the earliest time we could go was April. I looked up the weather for this month and of course was told it was one of the hottest months in the region. Cue my biggest fear. I cannot handle heat well. My body gets really weak, dehydrated and depressed. But I hoped maybe that wouldn't ruin everything and brought a mini fan with me to circulate air. I also read that bringing bug repellant with you was a good idea, so I bought some in lotion form on Amazon that seemed to have fairly good reviews.
The first few days of the trip seemed to go alright...ish. The 24 hours worth of flights wasn't as terrible as I had anticipated and we arrived in Vietnam around midnight. I hadn't booked us a hotel for that first night because I didn't know how delayed flights might be or how long it would take to get through immigration and didn't want to waste money on a room we might not make it to. It turned out to be okay though because there was a nice area of the airport that had lots of comfy chairs and loveseats for us to sleep on as we killed some time. My boyfriend is one who gets restless easily from being cooped up for too long and around 4am was ready to go. I was not too eager to go out into an unknown city at 4 in the morning and begged him to let us wait until at least 6am when things are starting to probably open. This was the first instance that I felt myself becoming a killjoy.
Ho Chi Minh City was lovely. We were terribly jetlagged though, so we'd fall asleep at 2pm and then wake up at 2am and then just be up all night in our hotel room with nothing to do. And we were trapped in the building as well since they locked up the gate at night. We ended up watching The People vs OJ Simpson as a result. I hated that we were sitting in a room watching TV, but I wasn't sure what else to do. And realistically, Ho Chi Minh City (formally known as Saigon), didn't exactly have tons of things to do. There was the Ben Thanh Market, where you can buy food and souvenirs, but after walking through there 5 times, it's not like there's that much new to see. The weather also started to show its true colors and was getting very hot during the day, and I ended up needed to stop into air-conditioned cafes much more often than my BF wanted to. Oh, and I got the first of many bug bites to come.
We left HCMC and set off to our next location, which was Siem Reap. I had dreamed of seeing Angkor Wat in person for so long and I was psyched to get there. We landed at the golden hour and got our Cambodia visas upon arrival and met our tuk-tuk driver in the terminal. I had really high hopes for this part of the trip. We puttered along as the sun set over the city and we arrived at our hotel. The kind desk attendants told us we could book a sunrise tour of Angkor Wat for the next morning, and since we were still jetlagged, getting up for a 4:30am call was not going to be an issue. It was really dark and I wasn't sure what we should do, so we just bought some water and snacks from the convenience store next door and fell instantly asleep.
The next morning, we woke up early and met our driver (the same one who picked us up the evening before) and we set off to Angkor Wat. On the drive, we hit a bump and my camera lens cap fell out of my hands and off into the distance. I should've taken this as the first sign of things to come, but I was still in too good of a mood to notice. We got our tickets and went to the Angkor Archeological Park to nab some spots for what was promised to be the best view of the ruins. Cue the clouds covering the sky and no sunrise to be seen. I began to wonder how worth it was to have been up that early. Since we hadn't eaten anything yet, we grabbed food from a stall and as we sat and ate our really not great food, this annoying child sat with us and tried to sell us souvenir magnets that we did NOT want, but he would not leave no matter how much we said no. I think he tried to get us to buy them for over 20 minutes. It was quite frustrating.
We had until 9am before our driver was going to pick us up, so we walked around the ruins and I do have to say, it was fantastic. Not all of this post is negative, I swear. I felt like Indiana Jones running around the ancient buildings and admiring the architecture. It was very surreal to see it all up close and just see how large the site was. How did people create this? I was having a lot of fun and trying to capture as much footage and photos as possible. But as the sun started to get higher in the sky, it was getting hot, and I was sweating like a hot mess and it was not exactly the best feeling. After making the rounds, we walked to a small cafe on the site and waited there until 9.
We met our driver and he took us to the next temple, Angkor Thom. This was just as cool as the first one and my inner archeologist was overjoyed. However, I was starting to get super dehydrated and my body was not happy with that. I tried to endure as much as I could, but eventually, I just had to give up. I had no idea how HUGE the entire park is, so we walked back to our driver and told him we might want to skip the last few spots on the tour. I grabbed a bottle of water out of the cooler in the tuk-tuk and while it had plastic over the cap, the seal was broken. Normally I'd be a bit more suspicious of this, but I was legitimately dying from lack of water in my body and went ahead and drank the bottle. The next few stops we went to, the temples all looked the same so Levi and agreed that we could probably head back early and not feel like we missed too much.
We got back to the hotel and the first sign of nausea set in. As we sat at the restaurant, no food sounded good to me, and my stomach was starting to get a bit gurgly. We got back to the room and as I undressed, all the bug bites I hadn't noticed before started to appear. They were ALL over my body. Apparently, the bug repellent didn't work at all and somehow bugs got up inside my pants and shirt to give me the most disease-ridden looking body ever known to man. Alongside the welts were my favorite kind of bite as well; the lovely kind that turns into a gross bubble that you have pop to make go away. The itching started and the multiple trips to the bathroom as well. I was in hell. My body had officially betrayed me and I was in misery.
What followed next was me falling asleep and then waking up multiple times that night to haul my butt to the bathroom. The next morning, I woke up still not feeling great and in such pain from my bites. But I didn't want to ruin the trip with my issues so the boy and I went out into the town to see what there was to get up to. I hate to admit it, but at that point, I really needed something savory to eat, so we went to the Hard Rock Cafe and got lunch. It was way overpriced, but I needed a burger in my stomach. We then walked around for a bit and I found a fish massage place, which I've always wanted to try. I stuck my feet in the water and for the 15 minutes I sat there, my pain went away as I laughed and giggled at the fish chomping away at my feet (later I would read that they starve the fish to make them want to nibble on you, and felt really bad that I contributed to animal cruelty). But my body was not feeling much better, so we went back to the hotel where I came down with a bad fever and needed to wrap myself up in a blanket and try to sleep away this illness.
The next morning, we had an early tuk-tuk ride to the airport, and thankfully my stomach had chilled enough for me not to need to be near a bathroom constantly, but I still did not feel like a normal human. We flew to Phuket and took a taxi to the ferry terminal. We boarded the boat to Koh Phi Phi and I hoped that my sickness would subside enough for me to actually get a chance to enjoy the tropical paradise we were heading to. As we arrived at the island, I was so happy to see that it was just as gorgeous as I had hoped. The sun was shining and my body was seemingly starting to feel like it was on its way back to normal. I changed into a summery dress and hoped the vibe of the island would get me back to 100%.
Little did I know that the moment we stepped off the boat that the clouds would roll in and cover the sun. We checked into our hotel room and then went for a walk around the tiny island. Since it's incredibly small, we could make a loop in less than an hour. I was still a bit nauseous, but we got some food and it suddenly occurred to me that I have an aversion to Thai food that I subconsciously had been holding onto for the past two years. When I first moved to New York City, I got the flu for the first time in my life, and after eating some Pad Thai, spent the evening with my face in the toilet. I haven't had Thai food since... until this day, and that's probably why my mind was not okay with me eating anything noodly. I was bummed. First, my body betrays me, and now my mind? What next? I was still tired and not feeling well, so we went back to the room and I crashed.
The next day, I wanted to try and get out and go swimming, so we went to the beach that was literally right out the front door of the hotel, and I tried to enjoy the water. But I don't think I was really made for chillaxin on the beach. I was only in the water for a short bit and while it felt nice, it wasn't really my thing. Again, I returned to the hotel room and just wanted to recover from the nightmare that was my body revolting against me. I felt so bad being that person who just sits in their hotel room all day while on a trip, and I didn't want to disappoint my boyfriend by being a sick monster who couldn't leave the room for more than a couple hours at a time, but that was the reality of the situation.
The next day, we had signed up for a half-day excursion to the islands nearby, and I was just at the point where I felt like I could be slightly back to normal, so I went out on the longtail boat with high hopes for the day. Our tour guide wasn't a local, but instead this blonde, Australian chick with dreadlocks, so I was kind of like, "Really?" but accepted it. She seemed like the type who would try to touch my hair, and guess what? She did. While helping me get on my snorkeling mask, she grabbed a chunk of my hair and told me she loved my hair texture. For those who don't know, YOU NEVER TOUCH A BLACK GIRL'S HAIR! Moving on... The boat took us to a place where monkeys hang out, which I'm always down to see some monkeys. We snorkeled a bit with some gorgeous tropical fish. We then went to Maya Bay, which was made famous by the movie "The Beach." We went in the back way to get there, which meant walking over painful coral. My flip flops broke so I had to scar my feet with pokey rocks and was not amused. It was overcast, so the bay didn't have the magical charm it would if it had been nice out. On the way back to the main island, we stopped to see the glow-in-the-dark bioluminescent creatures, but my stomach was starting to act up again, so I stayed on the boat.
On the last morning in Ko Phi Phi, I woke up with a bug bite on my eyelid which made me look like Forest Whitaker and was trying to understand the "WHY ME?" factor that this whole trip had given me so far. To make matters worst, a giant cockroach appeared by my bedside that morning too, so I was ready to get the hell out of there at that point. We checked out of the hotel and grabbed our boat back to Phuket so we could catch our flight to Bangkok. We arrived into the capital and I was hoping the modernity of the city would be enough to nurse me back to health. As we drove up towards our hotel, people were throwing water at the taxi and I was reminded that it was Thai New Year (aka Songkran) and that we needed to be careful with our belongings as locals will throw buckets of water at innocent tourists.
We got to our "hotel" and found out that it was actually a hostel (which is not what it was advertised to be, but I was so "whatever" at this point). Our room was right next to the bathrooms, so people kept thinking our door was a toilet and would try to open it and I got quite the shock each time. We walked out into the night to try and find Khao San Road, which we were about 10 minutes from, and it's the main nightlife street of Bangkok. We hadn't anticipated that Songkran would take over the entire area because as we walked, we got hit with water from squirt guns and found that we couldn't even walk onto Khao San Road as there were barriers up because of too many people on the street. We got some food on the walk back and went to sleep early.
We decided to go temple hopping the next day, and I had not prepared for how hot it was. It was overcast, but the heat was still out in full force, so my face was dripping. The temples were very beautiful and it was lovely to walk around the grounds. We went to the Grand Palace and Wat Pho and they were filled with not only tourists but lots of Thai people in all black. I wasn't sure if they were there to mourn the passing of the king or it had something to do with the New Year. After the temples, we took a very, very overpriced tuk-tuk to CentralWorld, which is a huge shopping center. The outside was filled with people squirting each other with water, so we sought refuge inside. It was a pretty epic mall. If I had more patience and the need for a shopping spree, I could have spent hours inside there, just going crazy, but my energy levels were still low, so we did a once over, got some food and then headed back to our hostel area.
Since we had been getting sprayed everywhere anyways, we changed into different clothing, borrowed some squirt guns from the hostel and headed back out to Khao San Road to get our Songkran on. This was definitely the highlight of the trip and the one moment where all my troubles melted away and I was just having fun. Thai people passed us and patted a clay mixture on my face as we walked down the street getting soaked. Buckets of water got dropped on my head and streams of water hit me straight in the face. It was a very epic moment. After we'd had enough, we ate some street food, which I was nervous about doing, but there were a bunch of locals eating there, so I hoped it was okay.
The next day, we went to Jim Thompson House, a former home of an American who revived the silk making trade in Thailand. His house was quite lovely and I wish I could've enjoyed it more, but the weird fever I had before started to come back and my body was started to get really weak and I had no appetite. I couldn't believe this was happening to me again but suspected it had to do with the street food from the night before. I really didn't want to ruin my boyfriend's day so early into it, but I really had to go back to the hostel and just lay horizontal. We went back and I bundled up and rested while he went to get a Thai massage. I wish I could've been there to witness it, but I instead had to indulge myself by watching RuPaul's Drag Race and trying to nap away the pain. Thankfully after some rest, I felt a lot better and could finally go eat something.
Our last day in Bangkok, we checked out of the hostel and headed out to find some stuff to do. We made our way to Chinatown, which was basically like any other Chinatown you'd go to in any country or city. There was a stand with bugs and Levi wanted to try some, but for some reason, the woman behind it was straight up ignoring him, even though he was trying to ask how much it was. He asked her like five times and then gave up. I figure it was probably because she didn't believe he actually wanted to do it. I'm sure tourists give her a hard time a lot. We found our way to the river and got on a boat we thought would take us down the river. It turned out the boat just made trips across, and we were so confused what was happening. We ended up taking it back to the other side and then found the actual boat we wanted and got on. It was packed so we ended up getting off after only a few stops.
We were in a random part of the city, and I was feeling weak again, so we stopped into a shopping center that had a McDonald's. I needed something to drink and a place to relax for a moment but ended up setting up shop there for a few hours. We needed to kill time before heading to the airport that night, but I was still so exhausted and dehydrated, and carrying around a huge backpack which wasn't helping that problem. Levi left a few times to wander around the area and got some street food (which I warned him against eating) as I sat and tried to not feel like a monster for being in a McDonald's in Bangkok when I should be out and doing things. Around 6pm, I finally felt a little okay to maybe go check out the area, and we left, but it was getting dark and we were in a part of the city that didn't really have tourist activities and at that point, I was just ready to head to the airport, even if we would be there 12 hours early for our flight. Defeated, I convinced Levi that it was time to go, and we took a taxi to the airport. The weird fever thing starting in on me again around 10pm, but thankfully we found some comfy chairs in a corner of the airport and I tried to get some rest.
Around 1am we found two couches that were free and I was elated to actually get to lie down horizontally and get some sleep. We awoke at 5am and walked over to our gate and got ready to catch our flight to Tokyo. This is around when Levi started to feel crappy and I suspected it was the street food he ate earlier. And now we had a 24-hour journey ahead of us and I was starting to feel a bit better and now he was the one in pain during flights that you can't escape from. Thankfully I was sat next to a really nice girl so we talked the entire 6-hour flight, which made it go by fast. As we landed in Tokyo, my stomach started to act up a bit, so both Levi and I were a hot mess as we waited to board the next flight. I was not prepared for a 14-hour flight home and it was pretty torturous compared to the one on the way over. I had an aisle seat this time, but that didn't help because I was so uncomfortable. Thankfully the woman next to us moved to a different seat so we got an extra seat between us to spread out a little more, but I was still a wreck anyways.
Since we've gotten back, it feels like this trip has still haunted me. Other than the obvious jetlag, I ended up getting a bad cold that has left me still stuffed up and ill over a week later. On the night we got back, I woke up at 4am to my ear itching, and when I got up to check it out, a BED BUG was crawling on my shoulder, so I grabbed it with tissue paper and tried to smash it, but it was still alive no matter how many times I hit it with my shoe. And it had apparently bit me all over my ear and neck, the side of my face swelled up for 3 days and there was a big bite on my arm too. I escaped bugs in Asia just to come home to them. And then a few days later, my leg was cramped, but for longer than usual, so I looked up the symptoms and apparently I probably have a blood clot in my calf from sitting too long on the flight, so I'm about to head to the doctor to try and get that problem solved. So, it's been hard to tell people that the trip was great when literally almost every moment has been THE WORST.
The moral of this story is that travel isn't always glamorous or great. The few hours I could get out each day led to the pretty Instagram pictures that people liked, but in reality, most of my time was spend very sick and in bed or the bathroom. I wanted so badly to enjoy the trip, but it was hard to love when it seemed like the universe was against me. I still love to travel and this hasn't deterred me from that, and I really do hope to get back to Southeast Asia someday and give it another go. I'm not going to blame my mishaps on a place that is so beautiful and lovely, just because it wasn't the best time for me. And I hope in the future, I'll be a better travel partner for my boyfriend who definitely didn't deserve a sick, complaining girl by his side. I never wanted to be the person who makes a trip negative, but unfortunately, it happened and I know I don't want it happen again. I'm usually the person who loves to be out all day, exploring and getting to know a new place, but this was an outlier for me. I even cried a few times at the end of the trip because I worried I had ruined it for Levi, but he assured me that I shouldn't worry so much.
I love traveling, and it's my favorite thing in the world, and I'm so happy I got to see a new part of the world and check three new countries and a continent off my bucket list. Someday I'd like to revisit during more mild weather months and hopefully, go in more prepared to possibly avoid sickness or bug bites. I've never returned from a trip with such negative stories as I have with this one, so the goal is to learn from this experience and hope that I can overcome anything else that shows up in my travels in the future. I want to be a good travel partner and not like the ones I've disliked in the past. I vow to never again become my own worst travel nightmare.