Christmas in Cambodia by Maya Yette

Holiday drinks at the Raffles Hotel in Phnom Penh. 

Holiday drinks at the Raffles Hotel in Phnom Penh. 

I was excited to head back to Cambodia after almost five years since my first visit to the country. After my bar trip, in particular one amazing day in the countryside, Cambodia was one of my favorite places on the planet. Sadly, I didn’t feel that same connection this time around, perhaps because the city I’d truly loved, Siem Reap, was not on my itinerary, or because my tastes have changed as I’ve grown and traveled more. Either way, I still had a good time in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital city, our home base for the month.

Wat Phnom Temple.

Wat Phnom Temple.

It was an interesting month for us on Remote Year because it was the first time that two programs were ever in the same city. It was nice to meet people who were having the same experience as we were and compare stories from our year on the road (we were in Month 11 and they were in Month 7). Group dynamics and experiences were both similar and entirely different based upon the unique personalities in each group.

Outside of certain neighborhoods, Phnom Penh is a really difficult city to get around by walking. There are few sidewalks and those that do exist are home to numerous motorbikes and street stalls selling various foods and other wares. We took the ubiquitous tuk-tuks almost everywhere, which cost about $2 - $3 a ride, but add up if you’re taking multiple a day.

Although I felt pretty safe walking around, there were a number of petty thefts by motorbike -- people got necklaces and purses snatched from their bodies by guys driving by -- so I was careful not to have my phone or camera out too much on the street (one reason for the relative lack of pictures this month, sorry!).

The second reason is that I was only in Cambodia for half the month because I spent the first two weeks in Kenya on a team retreat for work. Given my limited time, I didn’t revisit any of the tourist sites that I saw on my first trip. However, if it is your first time in the country, visits to the “Killing Fields” and “S-21”, the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide to learn about the country’s dark past under the Khmer Rouge are a must, in addition to a visit to Angkor Wat. This time around, however, I chose to relax and check out the surprisingly good café scene in Phnom Penh (Backyard, Enso, ARTillery and Mere were favorites). As far as restaurants go, Malis is delicious Cambodian food served on a beautiful outdoor patio; Romdeng (where I tried a traditional Khmer delicacy: tarantula!) and Khmer Surin are more mid-priced Khmer restaurants and Il Forno is decent Italian.

During my last week in Cambodia, we celebrated Christmas, my first away from home since I studied abroad in college, which felt a bit surreal. We took a boat ride to a resort up the Mekong River and spent the afternoon lounging by the pool drinking and exchanging Secret Santa gifts.

The highlight of the day was a walk around the neighborhood to a silk farm where we met a Cambodian family who weave scarves and other textiles using techniques passed down from their ancestors. They were absolutely beautiful and I treated myself to a little Christmas present. I also enjoyed the brief glimpse into life outside the hustle and bustle of Phnom Penh.

A few days after Christmas, it was time to head to Vietnam for our last stop of the year!

Traversing Thailand by Maya Yette

In Thailand for my birthday month last year, on my third visit to the country, I was based on the beautiful island of Koh Pha Ngan in the southeast region of the country. To get to Koh Pha Ngan requires a flight to the neighboring island of Koh Samui or Surat Thani on the mainland, and from either of those places, a ferry to the island.

Koh Pha Ngan is deceptively small. Life is laid back and it’s home to the most amazing coconuts and some of the best Thai food I’ve ever had (shout out to Bee’s Kitchen and Mama Pooh’s Kitchen!). But, to get around to the various areas of the island requires a lot of patience waiting for the communal taxis, which are pick up trucks with benches (sans seatbelts) in the back, or the courage to rent a scooter, which I didn’t have. Thankfully, our hotel was right on the beach and within a fairly easy walk to our workspace, so for the week and a half that I was actually on Koh Pha Ngan I was able to relax and explore in equal measure. Thong Nai Pan Beach was one of my favorites and watching sunset at Amsterdam Bar is a must (I hear 360 Bar also offered beautiful sunset views, but I didn’t make it there).

The island is most well known for the infamous Full Moon Party that takes place each month on Haad Rin Beach. There is plenty of debauchery that (don’t worry, mom) we witnessed and didn’t partake in, but it was definitely an experience to see the party in full swing. Personally, I preferred the more laid back Jungle Party that takes place the night before every full moon. The night after the Full Moon Party, we were up and at ‘em to catch a 7 am ferry to Koh Samui for our flight to Chiang Mai.

Chiang Mai is my favorite city in Thailand. Although it’s the second largest city in Thailand after Bangkok, it is much less hectic, the food is delicious and there are a lot of modern comforts mixed in with traditional Thai culture. It’s also easy to get around with Uber and the local taxis  -- red pick up trucks that you hail on the side of the road and hop in the back. Not to mention, Chiang Mai is close enough to more rural areas of Thailand so we were able to spend an afternoon riding ATVs through rice paddies and across beautiful vistas, which was a welcome escape from the city.

In recent years, Chiang Mai has become known as a great place for “digital nomads” because it has a ton of cute cafes and restaurants; there is also plenty of cheap street food. We stayed in the Nimman Road area, which is pretty trendy and home to my namesake mall! In July 2016, the MAIIAM Contemporary Art Museum opened about half an hour outside of Chiang Mai, and it is totally worth the trek. The museum houses the private collection of its founders, the Bunnag family, and is easy to get through in an afternoon. There is some really interesting work by modern Thai artists, but one of my favorite rooms featured works of art honoring the late Thai President, Bhumibol Adulyadej AKA Rama IX, who was widely revered in the country and had recently passed in October 2016.

Like much of the rest of the country, Chiang Mai is home to a number of Buddhist temples. Four of the more well known are Wat Chiang Man (the oldest), Wat Phra Singh (adorned in gold), Wat Chedi Luang (which gives off major Angkor Wat vibes) and Doi Suthep (the most sacred temple in Chiang Mai, which overlooks the city). Wat Chedi Luang also hosts a program where younger monks talk to the public and you can just grab a seat and start chatting with them about their lives, which is pretty cool, and I’ve done it both times I’ve visited Chiang Mai.

My final stop in Thailand was Bangkok, where we spent my birthday. It was my third time visiting the city, and if I’m being honest, I’ll be ok if I don’t get to return for a fourth visit. The traffic is horrific and it’s way too difficult to get around, especially because the city is so big. There are, of course, plenty of good restaurants and bars, among them the Banyan Tree hotel’s rooftop Moon Bar and Gaggan and Nahm, two of the 50 best restaurants in the world. My favorite part of visiting Bangkok this go round was getting out of the city and visiting Ayyuthaya, the old capital of Siam. Many of the temples there, which are all ruins now, were built in Khmer style so resemble Angkor Wat and are incredibly beautiful. 

If you haven’t been to Bangkok before, some obligatory temple visits are Wat Pho (Temple of the Reclining Buddha), the Grand Palace, which is home to Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha) and some of the most ornate and intricate designs of all the temples, and Wat Arun (Temple of the Dawn). I didn’t make it to the weekend market, but I hear that’s well worth a visit if you have time as well! 

Laid back Laos by Maya Yette

I arrived in Luang Prabang, Laos on Election Day 2016, so I don’t need to tell you what kind of mood I was in. My sister, Laila, and I met in Bangkok and we flew to Laos together; it was the first time in my life I truly understood the meaning of “bittersweet”– I was so happy and excited to see Laila for the first time in five months, but also depressed and anxious about the future of our country. Despite that, and the fact that the gray and rainy weather seemed to match our mood, Luang Prabang is truly a gem along the Mekong.

Visiting Laos had been on my list of places to visit (what country isn’t, really?) since I first traveled to Southeast Asia in 2012, but I didn’t have time to squeeze it into my itinerary then. Luang Prabang is a UNESCO World Heritage City, and deservedly so. It is quiet and moves at a relaxing, slow pace. The old town is pretty small and it’s easy to walk its entirety in a day or bike through its charming streets a few times. Over the course of a few days, we walked around, stopping to visit many of the temples (aka wats) and shops in town.

The detail on the temples is incredible, with intricate gold paintings, beautiful wooden doors, sculptures and numerous Buddha statues.

We weren’t in a rush to see anything and because part of Luang Prabang’s charm is just to enjoy the slower pace, we relaxed at the hippy Oasis Restaurant right on the Mekong River and watched the fishermen floating by below.

Eating well and trying local dishes, particularly in Southeast Asia, was one of the predominant themes of my year traveling, so naturally, much of our visit to Luang Prabang centered on food. My favorite restaurants were Tamarind followed by 3 Nagas and L’Elephant. After dinner, it gets dark pretty early and most places are shut down by 11 pm, so Luang Prabang is a perfect place to recharge and get some rest.

Early to bed, early to rise is certainly true, as many people are up before sunrise to take part in the traditional alms giving ceremony that Luang Prabang has become known for. Every morning, hundreds of Buddhist monks clad in their saffron robes file silently out of the many temples throughout town and walk the quiet streets with their “begging bowls” collecting alms. Locals (and more recently, tourists) provide alms, or gifts, in the form of food, mainly sticky rice, which will be the monk’s food for the day.

We got up on our last day to observe the alms giving ceremony, which was a beautiful ritual that dates back to the 14th Century; in Buddhist culture, those who give alms to the monks believe that these good deeds will help them come back in their next life as a higher life form and also help them on their path to enlightenment. After watching the alms giving ceremony, we climbed a few hundred steps up Mount Phousi to reflect and catch one last view of the town and the muddy Mekong River spread out below as the sun began to burn off the morning fog. 

Singapore Slingin' by Maya Yette

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Depending on how much sightseeing you want to do, a long weekend in Singapore is plenty of time for a solid introduction to this city-state in Southeast Asia (not least of all because it’s relatively small, only about 3.5 times the size of Washington, D.C.). This is exactly what I did when I spent a long weekend in Singapore, which is a quick one-hour flight from Kuala Lumpur, my home for that month of Remote Year.

On our first night in town, we splurged for a room at the Marina Bay Sands Hotel purely so we could get into what is one of the most famous pools in the world. It was teeming with people trying to get selfies with the city’s recognizable skyline as a backdrop and the weather wasn’t on our side that afternoon, but still worth it.

From Marina Bay Sands we could walk to Gardens by the Bay, an amazing park across from Marina Bay Sands that’s full of colorful, filled with different forms of greenery and plant installations. We visited the Cloud Forest and saw the light show from the Skyway above the Super Tree Grove. We didn’t have enough time to check out all of the attractions within the Gardens, which I’d definitely do upon a second visit.

The food in Singapore is delicious and a weekend is definitely not enough time to try it all. Highlights were the black pepper and chili crabs at Long Beach Seafood and dinner at Neon Pigeon.  Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice & Noodles, the first hawker stall in the world to receive a Michelin star, serves chicken & rice (a popular dish in Southeast Asia). It was good, but not wait in line for 2.5 hours good, and the pork ribs were, in my opinion, the better dish.

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Singapore itself is a very interesting place. It has a reputation for being “sterile”, especially compared to other nearby cities like Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia or Jakarta, Indonesia, that are more colorful, crowded and where the cacophony of scooter horns, hawkers in the street and the buzz of everyday life can overwhelm the senses. In comparison, Singapore is orderly and clean; the city-state famously banned the sale of chewing gum back in the 1990s. Formerly a British colony, Singapore was a part of the Malaysian Federation from 1963 to 1965 and then gained independence in 1965. Roughly 75% of Singaporeans are ethnically Chinese, so cultural and ethnic differences were at play in the split from Malaysia (ethnic Malaysians make up another 12% of the population). It’s also very expensive because the government adds taxes to many things that it wants to discourage, such as smoking, drinking and driving cars.

I was lucky enough to visit Singapore with a Remote Year friend who has friends living there. They showed us the more local side of life in the city-state, like where the start-up scene is concentrated, where to get the best noodle dish at 3 am after leaving the club, and where young Singaporean couples go to hang out in “private” since many of them live at home until they get married (hint: the local beach).

Singapore didn’t work its way into my heart like some other places in Southeast Asia have (more on those in the coming weeks), but it’s definitely a place I would return to next time I’m in the region and am looking for a change of pace. 

Meanderings in Malaysia by Maya Yette

All of the Remote Year cities on the Southeast Asia leg of my itinerary were repeats of cities I had previously visited on my post-Bar trip a few years ago when I graduated law school. I was excited to return to many of them and see what changed and see how I might appreciate them more with the benefit of thirty, rather than three, days in a place.

Our first stop was Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. There wasn’t much sightseeing I wanted to do in KL, but there was a lot of food to eat (Jalan Alor for street food, Oribe for sushi and Din Tai Fung for dim sum were a few of my favorites). The speakeasy scene in KL was unexpected but pretty good – check out PS150, Omakase & Appreciate and 61 Monarchy if you find yourself in Malaysia’s capital city.

The sightseeing that I did do consisted of visits to Kuala Lumpur Tower for one view of the city and the Petronas Twin Towers for another. I also made stops at Central Market, Merdeka Square and the Islamic Arts Museum.

The Batu Caves are one of Malaysia’s holiest Hindu shrines and are located a little outside of the city, but worth the Uber ride to see the large golden statue of a Hindu god and the impressive limestone caves (just beware of all the monkeys).

The highlight of my time in Kuala Lumpur was definitely stumbling into an underground dance party when trying to find one of the aforementioned speakeasies. We walked into an office building and down a stairway filled with graffiti into what turned out to be a club called U9. For most of the night my friend and I seemed to be the only non-locals in the place and it was incredible to watch what seemed like a break dancing scene from “The Get Down” – not to mention everyone had on Kangol hats and Adidas track suits!

My only trip outside of Kuala Lumpur was to Penang Island, right off the coast of Malaysia. On my previous visit to the island’s main city, George Town, I had what was the best samosa of my life and fell in love with the region. This trip was different not just because of who I was traveling with, but because we tried different food (this time I had the best char kway teow of my life) and explored a little further from downtown, but George Town is still as charming as I remember.

We visited Penang Hill at dusk, strolled the streets of George Town, had drinks at sunset overlooking the water, visited the Green Mansion and Kek Lok Si Temple, the largest Buddhist Temple in Southeast Asia, and walked through the Chinese Clan Jetties. It was a quick trip to Penang, but a great visit; ditto for my entire month in Malaysia!

A Short stint in Split by Maya Yette

I was only in Split, Croatia for about a week and a half before heading to Bali for a work trip last year. I had been to Croatia before – Dubrovnik and Zagreb, to be specific – but not to Split. All I really knew about the city before my visit is that it is the jumping off point for the original “Yacht Week” and serves as a set location for some episodes of “Game of Thrones”. While both of those things are true, the city, the second largest in Croatia after the capital, Zagreb, is also a perfect blend of modern and historic. It is full of both natural beauty due to its position right on the Adriatic Sea and historic, manmade beauty because of all the ancient Roman architecture.

My first full day in Split, I oriented myself with a walking tour of the Old Town and Diocletian’s Palace, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The main areas of the “palace” (which is actually a town inside of what was originally built as a fortress and residence by the Roman Emperor Diocletian), were built in 305 AD and much of it is still original, which was mind blowing. Diocletian built the Palace using imported marble from Italy and Greece and columns and sphinxes from Egypt. Walking on the smooth stones and viewing the sphinxes up close was pretty cool.

On one of my last mornings in Split I got up early and was the first person to climb the bell tower at the Cathedral of St. Domnius, inside Diocletian's Palace, which offered beautiful views of the city waking below me. 

The Old Town is fairly compact and easy to wander around in a day, getting lost in its labyrinth. The farther away you get from the main square, the more authentic it feels and the more removed you’ll feel from the hordes of tourists that visit Split from their cruise ships each day.  

I spent a few mornings wandering around getting lost and stumbling upon cute shops and restaurants. I didn’t get to explore too much of Split’s food scene, but did have some good meals at Restaurant Dvor, Uje Olive Bar and Bokeria.

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Remote Year opened its first workspace in Split, WIP, which was one of my favorites of the year. I could go to the workspace in the morning, walk across the street to the beach at lunch, and then return to work for a few hours in the afternoon. Because I was only in Split for a week, I tried to do some exploring most mornings, whether it was a run to one of Split’s beaches or a visit to an art gallery. Galerija Meštrović is a bit outside of the city center but worth the trek for the art (Ivan Meštrović is Croatia’s most famous sculptor) and the views overlooking the city. The Gallery of Fine Arts is also worth a visit and right outside of the gates to Old Town.

The highlight of my time in Croatia was a Labor Day boat ride to Hvar and overnight on the island.  We watched a beautiful sunset at Hula Hula and then after dinner did what everyone does when they go to Hvar: party.  On the way to Hvar, we stopped for lunch on another small island, Vis, that I really wish we had more time to explore. Ditto for the rest of Croatia! 

An Interlude by Maya Yette

Remote Year's Lisbon workspace, "WIP" (aka Work In Progress), which applies to this blog as well.

Remote Year's Lisbon workspace, "WIP" (aka Work In Progress), which applies to this blog as well.

Hello from Lisbon, Portugal! I’m writing this from Remote Year’s new workspace in Lisbon, Portugal, which seems appropriate considering I want to (finally) finish sharing all the experiences and places I visited during my Remote Year.

Remote Year officially ended at the end of January. Since then, I went to Bali for a second time to close out my time in Southeast Asia, moved back home and caught up with friends and family in the DMV, New York, North Carolina and California (one of my resolutions for 2017 is to spend more time traveling domestically after a year abroad) and spent a long weekend in Barbados celebrating a friend’s 30th birthday. Which brings me to Lisbon. From here I’ll be visiting a few more places in Portugal, spending another friend’s 30th birthday in Cuba and then heading back to Spain to explore a few cities I haven’t yet visited.

In the meantime, let’s pick up where we left off…

Hangin' in Hungary by Maya Yette

Budapest, Hungary is an uncomfortable and sketchy 9-hour overnight train ride from Belgrade. I left the train station in Serbia late one Thursday night with three of my friends from Remote Year to visit Budapest for the weekend. We didn't splurge on the 4-person cabin, so it was a roll of the dice who our other two cabin mates would be. We got lucky with a nice Irish couple who spent the evening playing cards and sharing their wine with us. The cabin was tiny and barely fit the six of us, let alone our bags. I hadn’t thought to bring my sleep sack (which I hadn’t needed since nights spent sleeping in South American hostels), so spent the night curled up under my scarf on the middle bunk, trying not to freeze or touch anything, especially the blanket provided on the train. Every few hours our sleep was interrupted by the border police coming through, banging on the cabin doors (which, thankfully locked from the inside) to check our passports and tickets. 

We finally rolled into the Budapest train station, bleary eyed and hungry, around 6 am on Friday. At the train station, we left our bags in lockers for the day since we couldn’t check into our Airbnb yet and set out to find a café that was open early. Friday afternoon we settled into our Airbnb and finished up the day’s work before heading out to dinner. We ate al fresco at a restaurant in the square surrounding St. Stephen’s Basilica and then spent the evening checking out the “Ruin Bars” that abound in Budapest. These bars are abandoned buildings that have been converted into local watering holes, each with its own unique vibe. I hadn’t heard of this phenomenon before arriving in the city, but similar to Prague and Belgrade, Budapest is a city that wears its history on its sleeve.

On Saturday, we explored the city, or cities, rather; the Danube River divides Budapest into Buda on the west bank and Pest on the east bank. We stayed in Pest, where the ruin bars and many of the restaurants and cafes are. We began our morning with coffee at a cute café and then walked across the Chain Bridge from Pest into Buda and up the aptly named Castle Hill. There, we wandered around the Buda Castle complex, home to the Royal Palace, Matthias Church, and Fisherman’s Bastion, which offers great views of Pest across the river below.

Since it was summertime in Europe, the weather was extremely hot and after our morning walk we were ready for some air conditioning. After lunch, we stopped to visit the Museum of Applied Arts, which ended up being one of my favorite stops in Budapest. The building was built in the art nouveau style between 1893 and 1896 and is beautiful both inside and out. We had some fun playing on the bikes on display at the temporary “Bikeology” exhibit and then explored the permanent collections upstairs. Another temporary exhibit, “In the Mood for Colours”, arranged all of the objects according to their dominant color and was really cool to see. We capped off our day of exploring with a fireworks show in front of the Parliament building to celebrate St. Stephen's Day, which happens every year to mark the day of Hungary's foundation under the reign of St. Stephen, the nation's first king.

Even on the road, Sundays are best spent resting and relaxing. Before we had to endure the horrors of the night train again, we treated ourselves to a day at the Gellért Baths. Bathhouses are a major attraction in Budapest because the city sits atop a number of natural thermal baths. We chose the Gellért Baths because they’re a little less crowded than the popular Széchenyi Baths and with their art noveau style are supposed to have the most beautiful indoor swimming pools in the city. The baths are a weird experience – sitting in hot water with a bunch of strangers and not actually swimming around isn't my idea of fun – and probably something that I won’t do again, but I’m glad to have experienced it. We also got a nice massage while we were there and finished the evening with dinner at The Four Seasons Hotel before heading to the train.

This time, we weren’t so lucky with our cabin mates: one surly looking backpacker of undetermined nationality who barely said a word and an awkward Danish girl who kept staring at me while I tried to sleep. Budapest was totally worth it, and I enjoyed the city more than Belgrade, but next time I think I’ll fly!