Barefoot in Burma Part II

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The divers loaded onto the dinghy at dusk, a gray sky masking the setting sun. They joked with one another to distort the clear sense of uneasiness in the air.  The sign at the border promised, “we warmly and kindly welcome tourists”, but the gruff looks on the faces of the guards said otherwise.

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My grim imagining from the dock in Ranong was swiftly becoming reality; our journey ashore bared a frightening resemblance to being kidnapped by the Burmese government!  We filed into the customs office and watched our passports be casually slung aside while we stood to get photographed.  No one spoke or smiled; the tension was palpable.

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When it seemed we were free to go, we swiftly returned to the dinghy.  As we started the motor, a few guards came shouting after us, one of whom jumped into the boat:  this was Nyein, our Burmese guide, who would accompany us on our trip.  I could tell by the look on Dani’s face that this was not a protocol he had ever seen before.  Nyein was there to act as our guide and translator, as proof of our allowance into the country’s waters, both for our protection and their own.  Captain Wat was commanded to remove his Thai flag and put up a Burmese one, which he was visibly disgruntled about.

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Despite the drama of the day, we finally sailed off into open waters.  Nyein, who turned out to be a very nice man, drank Singha beer with us as we relaxed into our new home with this motley crew.  Captain Wat didn’t talk much.  Our exchanges consisted  mostly of Sa-wat-dii kha and khop khun kha (Thai for hello and thank you) when purchasing beer from his special refrigerator.

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The ship’s fabulous cook, Swing, served us the best Thai food I ate in Thailand (next to Mrs. Jip’s papaya spicy salad).  Our dinner that first night consisted of prawn fried rice and Swing’s speciality: coconut milk soup with whole straw mushrooms, scallions, and an assortment of julienne vegetables. Another standout included soft tofu curry over rice with cabbage, aubergine, straw mushrooms, and whole quail eggs.  With our evening beers, Swing made us a special bar snack that Steffi and Boris, the German couple aboard, had eaten in Chumphon a few years prior: roasted cashews sprinkled, while hot, with salt, lime juice, chopped red chilies, sliced red onion, and chopped scallions.

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We sailed on like this, eating amazing Thai food, drinking Captain Wat’s beers, and, most importantly, diving four times a day for a week.  Each morning we awoke to the breathtaking sunrise over open water, and each evening we finished our last dive to the brilliance of the sunset.

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Throughout this time, the only other boats we spotted were local fishing boats, the fisherman sometimes waving to us as we passed by.  The diving was not easy, and we often dove with much current, needing to drift dive sites. By the end, I had 28 new dives under my belt and saw my first turtle (which Steffi said was requisite for any dive trip). The reef was brilliant, full of gorgeous sea fans, with none of the evident damage I later witnessed in The Philippines.

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The boat usually carries 12 divers, so with only the four of us we had reign of the ship.  The main deck consisted of a large dining table (three times the size of Swing’s kitchen), a center console with stereo, books in German, hot/cold water and snacks, and a main room with window seats and a big lounge area.

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The best place to sleep, though, was on the sun deck, because from there you can see the stars.  More than I’ve seen in so long, even though the moon was only a few days old and a small sliver in the sky.  On The Flying Carpet, for the first time in my life, I truly slept under the stars, not just in a tent.  I awoke every few hours to look up at the luminous sky of bright stars; they seemed near enough to touch, and I felt safe and close to home on the roof of a ship in the middle of the Andaman Sea.

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Barefoot in Burma Part I

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I hurried into the waves with CoCo, the golden retriever, splashing at my heels.  The rest of the Hornbill Bungalows crew joined me, helping to lift my luggage onto the return boat to Ranong.  Parting with the paradise of Koh Chang Noi, its golden sands, and the new family I found there distracted me; it wasn’t until halfway to Ranong that I realized I’d jumped on the boat without my shoes.  In my ephemeral time on this tiny Thai island, footwear became utterly irrelevant.

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From Ranong, I was to board The Flying Carpet, on which I’d spend seven days diving in Burmese waters.  The dive boat owner, Mr. Frank, was a Koh Chang resident and one of many friends to my Hornbill Bungalows host, Mr. Ao.  A German, Mr. Frank retired from his career as a businessman to run a dive shop on the island.  Applying for a visa to Myanmar is still a difficult process, but, through some unspecified connections, Mr. Frank is granted 7 day dive visas for patrons of his boat.  With The Flying Carpet, I was given the opportunity to witness reef and sea life that has been primarily unseen by foreign divers for decades.  Not only was I new to diving, but I had also never lived on a boat before; once again, an irresistible adventure presented itself!

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I docked, barefoot, in Ranong with the dive master and three divers I would be sharing the week with.  All were German apart from my Belgian dive buddy, Ruel.  Our gang of Europeans spent the sweltering day waiting for this infamous, illusive Mr. Frank.  He finally showed up, hours late, looking like a pirate in cargo shorts, a faded T-shirt and a gold hoop earring visible through his long, scraggly hair.  This was not the way I imagined a German financier to dress for a meeting with Thai government officials, and I began to wonder what kind of rag-tag crew I had thrown my lot in with.

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We finally arrived at the pier in the late afternoon, abandoned apart from The Flying Carpet. Our captain, the austere Captain Wat, docked the boat at an impossible angle, so that boarding became impossible.  He told Mr. Frank that he would build steps for us while our group waited to be released by Thai officials, who were to meet us at the pier with our stamped passports.  Walking the long, deserted dock made me imagine I was a Burmese prisoner of scuba, crossing the border back into Thailand, while officers stood with guns at my back.

Eventually, the four customs officers appeared in a silver SUV, opening and closing each of the doors in unison.  Without much ceremony, and certainly without use of firearms, we were free to go.  The “steps” Captain Wat promised in fact consisted of a wooden plank, leaned at a precarious angle, a 50 meter drop from the dock to the ship’s sun deck.  At this moment, I knew exactly what kind of rag-tag crew I was dealing with, but my excitement mounted.  We all crossed safely into the arms of our crew: pirate-fashioned Thai men who were to help us with our dive gear and catch fish for the captain in their downtime.  The Flying Carpet itself is a very charming boat, with blue and yellow painted panels and a flower offering to Buddha at the captain’s bow.  I felt at home the moment I stepped on board.  Even our tiny cabins, which consisted of small, stacked cubbies that only fit a full mattress, charmed me.

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Before we could sail off into the Burmese sunset, however, we still had to make it through customs at the Myanmar border.  As we entered Burmese waters, I watched a group of four men approach us in their dinghy.  Why so many customs officers always seemed necessary in these situations was beyond me, but I presume it was for intimidation factor.  We waited on the sun deck while Dani, our dive master and guide, spoke with the officials at our communal table.  After a few minutes, Dani came to speak to us, informing that we’d all have to go ashore.  The Burmese government was already keeping our passports, would they be keeping us as well?

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To read about part two of the dive trip, keep following Chomp Around the World!

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Two Chomps in Thailand

Here is the next chapter in my Southeast Asian adventure, as published in the Gold Coast Gazette !

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I awoke at sunrise and walked out of my bungalow directly on to the golden sands of the Hornbill Bungalows’ private beach. CoCo, the family’s golden retriever, was the only other creature stirring; we sat in the sand together, my feet buried in the gold and his paws on my legs.  Looking out across the pristine Andaman Sea, I found the Thailand I was searching for: a deserted, unspoiled island without Wi-Fi, modern plumbing, air conditioning and, most importantly, tourists.  Electricity is only run on generators for a few hours each night.  For me, this is paradise.

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 I was spoiled by Vietnam and Laos, both of which I visited during the low season for tourism.  The Thai islands have long been vacation destinations for an array of travelers, especially popular among Europeans, Russians, and Chinese tourists.  It only takes one step on those white sand beaches to understand what has made Thailand so loved by visitors, but many of the country’s more beautiful islands have turned into overcrowded tourist traps or been spoiled by an excess of partying Farang (Thai slang for western tourists).

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Despite my initially vitriolic attitude, I came to find that a more authentic trip to Thailand is still attainable.  There is no need to waste your precious vacation time following the crowd, and who better to advise on the unblemished islands left to explore than the locals. I took advice from two expat restaurateurs in Bangkok who have lived in Thailand for over ten years. The owner of the café Chomp – the name catching my attention for obvious reasons – drew me a map of the best islands from her twelve years of experience in the country.

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 This map led me on an overnight barge journey, on which I slept in a cargo hold full of bunk beds and had my most comfortable sleep in weeks.  After traveling across the peninsula, I took a small commuter boat which dropped me directly on to the golden sands of Koh Chang Noi (little Chang island) and the Hornbill Bungalows.  Not to be confused with the larger Koh Chang on the Gulf, this infinitesimal, elephant-shaped island is home to a tiny population of Thai locals and resident expats.

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 The sand truly is gold – not the yellow beaches of the Hamptons or the white sands of Mexico and most of Thailand’s tainted islands. On the private beach of the Hornbill Bungalows, I paid ten dollars a night for golden sand and crisp blue water the temperature of a warm bath.  After one afternoon, I understood why the lovely owners, Mr. Ao and Mrs. Jib, said they never wanted to return to Bangkok.

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 Prior to my stint in utopia, I spent a week on Koh Tao, the diving capital of the world.  I was warned by my Chomp counterpart that, while it is teeming with Farang, the island is still worth a visit for the price and ease of getting certified; with more dive shops than any other island, it only takes one week to achieve an advanced 30m (98ft) diving certification.  Apart from the lure of diving, the small island still maintains its beauty and laid-back atmosphere despite its touristic charm.  It is a running joke/truth in the expat community that the island is impossible to leave, and I certainly began to feel that way in my final days there.  Those who do stay are some of the craziest, funniest people I’ve ever met, truly a welcoming and kind family of stowaways.

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A week after pulling myself away from Koh Tao, lazily sitting by the sea on Koh Chang Noi, I watched a dive boat glide off the water and onto the shore.  Mr. Ao acted as my tour guide for the day and drove me around the tiny island where we swam in the reservoir and shared a beer with the general store owners.  As we sat on Ao Yai, the main beach, and watched the ship anchor, I sensed my ephemeral trip to paradise was coming to an end.  Mr. Ao called out in greeting to the men disembarking the boat, who had just returned from a dive trip to the Similan Islands.  My recently developed interest in diving sparked up a conversation; the next morning, I was picked up by the same boat, now headed for the near shores of Myanmar and a seven day dive trip to the country’s beautifully preserved reef.  I waved at my Hornbill hosts until the last glimpse of gold was out of sight, then looked out at the horizon of the Andaman; from this moment onward, I realized, diving was about to become a focal point of my trip to the east.

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More to come on my dive trip in Burma at Chomp Around the World

On the Road: Part I

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On the outskirts of the Laos capital city of Vientiane, riding a bus to Xieng Khuan Buddha Park, I turned to Julia and said “I wish we could rent a car and drive down the south of Laos.” It was a thought I had many times on the endless and unpredictable bus rides of our journey. Though we had intended to head toward Cambodia in two days time, we had both fallen in love with Laos and were reluctant to leave before seeing the most uncharted and beautiful part of the country. Once my simple wishful thought was vocalized, there was no turning back. We hatched a plan that fell into place a little too easily, including the impossible feat of completely refunding our plane tickets to Cambodia and a rush decision for Thai visas. We returned to Vientiane, booked an SUV, packed some baguettes, fruit and pastries from our favorite shop, and headed on our way down south.

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We left early morning in our white Ford, a road map and ipod jack in tow. As we came to find, the only consistently reliable road in southern Laos is Route 13, which, though only paved in part, is at least always open to vehicles. Many of the roads detailed on our map were either not yet completed or impassible during the monsoon season. Of course, half of the adventure was veering off the path and seeing where these muddy, dirt roads would take us. A wrong turn is sometimes difficult to avoid, anyway, as there are few or no road signs in many parts.

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Southern Laos is filled with natural beauty and ever changing landscape, including uninhabited mountains and valleys, small muddy villages and an abundance of waterfalls. Our first day’s drive took us through winding mountain passes with breathtaking views of the vast valleys below. Throughout our journey, we were alone with nature or locals; many exclaimed, “ooo Falang!”, the Lao word for westerners, as we drove past.

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The road conditions landed us at our first destination, Kong Lor Cave, as it was closing. We drove through the small village and waived to the children on their mass exodus from school; the surprised and excited looks on their faces reminded me of how far from home we’d come and put a smile on my face. Kong Lor itself was completely deserted and we were at first turned away. Seeing our disappointment, the Phu Hin Bun National Park caretaker started yelling down the empty river. Our confusion abated when, a few minutes later, two men appeared in a small, motorized long boat.

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We approached the cave in their canoe at dusk, looking back as the last glimpses of daylight. It felt like we were entering the river Styx on our way to the underworld, and if I hadn’t come to know the unmatchable kindness of the Lao so well, the eeriness may have overcome me.

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The only light available in the 7km underground river came from our guides’ headlamps and my small flashlight. We blinked against the utter darkness, straining to make out the different masses beyond the artificial light. The shadows moved, a reminder that the cave was alive – inhabited by bats and great spiders. The water level was equal to the top of the canoe, the rapids spilling sizable amounts onto our feet and legs. After an hour and a half of exploring the cave, including leaving the boat to trek on foot, we arrived in the valley of the second entrance. The men cut the motor, and we sat among the silence in complete awe.

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When we returned to the park and to Ginger, we were speechless at the beauty of the day, and drove on to Thakhek in silence.

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Laos: Land of the Wholehearted People

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This slogan for the country’s beverage of choice, “Beer Laos: Beer of the wholehearted people”, says it all. Laos, a gem of a country, tucked away into the center of Southeast Asia, offers the best beer and most wonderful people in Asia. Before beginning my journey, the little I knew about Laos consisted of whispers of bowling parties and real pizza in the northern city of Luang Prabang. We expected to spend two weeks in the country, and ended up spending nearly that in Luang Prabang alone.

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The word “city” is used loosely in Laos. The country’s major city, Vientiane, is easily seeable in one day and is almost laughably small for a capital. It’s size is not to the city’s discredit though; Vientiane is a fun and welcoming place, though most tourists seem to overlook it in favor of the obviously charming Luang Prabang. Especially during non-tourist season and after a month of trekking through Vietnam, Luang Prabang’s laid back atmosphere did become very hard to leave. This isn’t to say the only thing to do there is to lay on lounge chairs overlooking the MeKong and drink Beer Laos (though I did spend many an afternoon doing just this). The wilderness surrounding Luang Prabang offers a wide variety of activities for nature enthusiasts; I climbed (and fell down) a waterfall, rode elephants and went on a two hour kayaking trip through rapids.

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Vientiane has its own sites to offer, most notably the Xieng Khuan (Buddha Park), a sculpture garden of ancient looking Buddhist Figures. Julia and I explored the grounds primarily alone, arriving with locals by tuk-tuk. The large mouth (pictured below) at the front of the park symbolizes the devil, and visitors are meant to ascend from the bottom of the sculpture, hell, to the top, heaven. Unaware, I quickly made my way to the top, and then descended the center spiral staircase to the dark caverns below. Even before knowing the symbolism, I understood the intended effect by the eeriness of my descent.

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Also worth a visit is the Ang Nam Reservoir, 1.5 hours north of Vientiane. The water was very clean and warm, and the entire reservoir is circled by large limestone masses similar to Ha Long Bay, Vietnam. In this case, we had an oasis to ourselves, and our weekend was spent swimming, hanging out with some French students, eating at floating restaurants and just relaxing. It was extremely beautiful and secluded, and we had a view of the sunrise from our room’s balcony.

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The Laos pizza rumor turned out to be true – not just in Luang Prabang but in Vientiane as well. The first real pizza we had in a month was from a French Canadian with a nameless restaurant, currently ranked #1 in the city. The backyard, wood oven spot is outdoor seating only and is not viewable from the street. To find it, follow the white “PIZZA” sign hanging in the driveway. Certainly not New York style pizza, but the speciality pies, especially the bacon and onion, finally quelled my craving. In Vientiane, Le Provencal, a quaint French restaurant on the far side of the fountain, gave us our second taste of home. Though I would normally attest to the fact that only Italians and New Yorkers know anything about pizza, I must say, in Laos at least, the French are doing something right.

The French influence from the colonial period lent to the delicious western food we were able to find in Laos, but luckily the French, in this case, let the Laos keep their own culture as well. Laos food is both unique in Asia and also incredible. Julia and I took a cooking class with Tamarind Restaurant, and had the privilege of learning to create this delicious food ourselves. My favorite, Koy/Laap, consists of medium rare or rare ground meat (pork, beef, fish, bison), and a wide variety of herbs and spices, including Lao garlic, spring onion (scallions), lemongrass, mint, and three kinds of basil, which you mash together with fish sauce and lime/lemon juice. The Lao typically make their Laap, like most of their food, extremely spicy with fresh chillies, the way I always prefer my food. Laap is to be eaten with sticky rice, Lao style, which is to ball the rice up into bite size pieces and dip it into the sauce. Sticky rice is a staple on all Laotian tables, and accompanies almost ever dish.

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The night markets in both Luang Prabang and Vientiane are the best I’ve seen, especially for food. The grilled whole fish stuffed with lemongrass and topped with fresh lime/lemon juice became our cheapest and favorite dinner. Of course, no meal is complete without a big Beer Laos for sharing. Our most adventurous eating experience at the markets was to eat chicken hearts; served at almost every stall in Vientiane and grilled to perfection, these little muscles just taste, as should be expected, like chicken. Julia and I both enjoyed our first heart, and went back for seconds.

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Being in Laos also rekindled, probably for the worse, my love of dessert. In Luang Prabang, the most incredible thing we ate at the night market are coconut custards- piping hot, with a crusted outside and gooey inside. In Vientiane, the pancake stands sent Julia and I on nightly hunts – they are similar to crepes but made from balls of dough and flattened out even thinner. The cart owner then slathers both sides with butter, fills the center with either banana or an egg, folds it up, adds more butter, then takes it off the grill and tops it with sweetened condensed milk and sugar. This is how I left Vientiane 5 lbs heavier than when I arrived from Vang Vieng, where all bad food goes to die.

My greatest advice on Laos, however, is not on the food or the sites, but simply this: get here before the magic of the country is gone! Unfortunately, Laos is being turned in to a Chinese tourist destination with a new railroad being built all the way through the country. In the next year, Laos will likely be overrun with foreigners. The Lao locals I spoke to were not thrilled, to say the least, and I cannot say I am either.

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Though our plan following a stint in Vientiane was to head to Cambodia, we decided, an hour before our flight, that the extreme flooding experienced there made a visit unwise at best. So, we got a refund on our ticket (thanks to a little help from a miracle worker) and spent the afternoon remapping our plan. We had flights booked all throughout November, and had to be to Langkawi by Nov 19th to meet my cousin Fiona. Myanmar, which only recently reopened to public tourism, was our first thought, but there are no ATMs throughout the country and getting a visa is more involved than we are capable of from Laos. The only bills you can even possibly trade for are crisp USD from 2006 or after, which we did not come prepared with. I’ve come to find in general that having US dollars in this part of the world is like carrying gold. You often cannot get through borders without it, but the banks here only buy, they do not sell. When we need bills for the border, we have to go to the black market – oddly a common practice here.

My number one choice was something I had mentioned as wishful thinking a few days before – to rent a car and take a road trip down the south of Laos. I had heard from many locals that it is the most fascinating and remote part of country. It holds one of Southeast Asia’s largest caves, some very small and authentic villages and Si Phan Don, the “four thousand islands” – a group of very beautiful islands that are closed off by mountainous surroundings. The water is meant to be very clear and we plan to go fishing and climbing with some locals. By now, my love of Laos has run so deep that I wanted any excuse to stay. So, let the road trip commence – it will be our greatest adventure yet!

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Descending Dragon

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A trip to Ha Long Bay seemed to be a quintessential part of a journey in Vietnam. On hearsay alone we were also duped into an overpriced, touristy trip to this UNESCO protected group of islands. The area is protected for good reason; the limestone formations are truly spectacular, but the beauty loses it’s place with the hoards of tourists herding around the bay. It is packed with identical tour boats, each as rickety as the next, revealing the obvious sameness to all of the companies that promise a unique experience.

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Luckily, there is another option to seeing this old world site: Bäi Tú Long Bay, the larger surrounding area, contains the same karsts and isles but is overwhelmingly overlooked by most tourists. This means the water is still clean, swimmable and sparkling. Visiting Bäi Tú Long Bay is the last way to truly see this world wonder without all of the overpriced traps. Apart from the requisite kayaking, swimming, and village visits, experienced with more locals than tourists, the bay is home to the National Park, which contains five ecosystems and hundreds of different animal species. Sure, the meaning of Bäi Tú Long Bay , “dragon parts the offspring”, is not as sentimental as “descending dragon”, but words are certainly more deceiving than looks in this case.

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These Boots Were Made For…..

These Boots Were Made For.....

In less than a week, I will head to Vietnam and begin a four month long journey through Southeast Asia. Accompanied by my childhood friend, Julia, and these Lara Croft boots, I will hike through the region’s amazing sites and devour its incredible, exotic food, reporting here to share my growing knowledge and recommendations for a trip to the East. I know getting acquainted with this new culture will at least require me to cover my knees, shoulders, and aggressive attitude. One other thing I know for certain: I’ll be barbecuing in these Asos backpackers the entire Labor Day weekend to break them in for the ever-changing road ahead!