Writer’s Retreat on Lion’s Head Mountain

Quan Hua Temple on Lion’s Head Mountain in Miaoli is the perfect place for a solo writer’s retreat–but you won’t find peace and quiet there over a busy holiday weekend 

On Google Maps

Red temples ornate with aggressively colorful dragons, phoenixes, and other members of Chinese pantheon are as ubiquitous in Taiwan as convenience stores, but Quan Hua Temple on Lion’s Head Mountain in Miaoli County still manages to awe. It’s not just that it’s one of the biggest temples I’ve ever seen. The way that it’s nestled against the mountain’s dense green growth, a sacred human space in a natural sanctuary, makes for a breathtaking impression. The temple is not competing for attention against neon signs or tall buildings. The red roof and the rainbow parade of mythical creatures and gods dominates your visual field as well as your imagination.

 Photo by CEphoto, Uwe Aranas
Photo by CEphoto, Uwe Aranas

There’s a hotel here, a place for hikers to rest before or after a long day of hiking the local trails. It’s my favorite space, one of my favorite places in the world. The rooms are simple and comfortable, with ceramic-tiled floors, wood-paneled walls, and a balcony looking out over the forest. If you ignore the parking lot to the left, or focus on the mountains looming in shades of gray beyond it, the view is spectacular. It’s just the view to distract and inspire a writer.

I stayed at the temple hotel for the first time in 2009, during the long Dragon Boat Festival weekend in June. I spent four days reading, writing, and hiking the way I imagined a real writer would. The isolation made for quiet and early nights, and early mornings. I took it as an affirmation of my calling that I enjoyed myself so completely with only books and notebooks for company.

I finally made it back over the 2017 Tomb-Sweeping Day weekend. It’s only two hours away by scooter from where I live in Taoyuan City, via the Provincial Highway Number 1 or the Number 3. The drive itself was therapeutic, particularly the part where I missed a turn and the GPS directed me along windy country roads past the Yongheshan Reservoir and up and down the nearby mountains. There’s nothing like swooping through the forest on these roads on a scooter, your whole mind trained on taking the curves. I wish getting in the zone came that automatically to me any other time.

When I checked in this time, the manager showed me to a room that had a double bed, but was against the back wall of the hotel, the side that literally faces the foundation of the temple itself. (Because all of this is built into the side of a mountain, the top floor of the hotel extends below the first floor of the temple.) I asked to switch to a room with the beautiful view that I remembered, but was told they were all booked. It was too late to do anything about it then, so I resolved to make the best of it. A real writer doesn’t need a view!

I fell asleep early—there are no restaurants or bars here, nothing to distract you from feeling tired. But I was awakened—everybody for a mile was awakened—at five a.m. by a ten-minute long round of bell ringing. I concentrated on taking deep breaths and listening to how the reverberations of the bell differed slightly after each clang, but in other little crevices of my brain, I was wondering why we humans can’t just appreciate the sounds of birds in the morning, or the wind in the trees. After a few minutes, I felt like I was seeing sound waves. When the bell ringing stopped, my blood pressure finally dropped. Then the drums started up. By now, of course, everyone in the hotel was awake, so the hallways were alive with the sounds of stomping and screeching didis and meimeis, and parents trying to get them ready for a day of hiking or travelling after what could not have felt like enough sleep.

I couldn’t get back to sleep. At seven, the hills were alive with the sounds of angry car horns and the frantic whistles of someone trying very hard to herd traffic. I definitely picked the wrong weekend to reject civilization and look for solitude in the mountains. Children raced back and forth over a metal grate above my window, bridging the gap between the wall of the hotel and the foundation of the temple. There I was, fuming like a bridge troll.

I tried to write when I got out of bed at 9 a.m., but I was using all my energy telling myself that I should be able to concentrate anywhere. Finally, I just found the manager and asked her if I couldn’t change rooms for the next two nights. It was no problem. I got my view and a balcony. However, the new room had two twin beds instead of a double, and no bathtub–but I am willing to make sacrifices for my art.

I switched rooms just in time to hear the chanting start at the pagoda across the way. The sound traveled through the hotel, the temple and the trails throughout the mountains. It went on for about two hours while I tried to write, tried to convince myself there must be some spiritual benefit in it. The benefit only came when it stopped and I felt incredibly relieved.

Chanting in the mountains.

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Then it was time for lunch and hunger compelled me to face other humans. Goals aside, we were all united in trying to get that free lunch. I came out a winner: Unlike all the families, I had no trouble finding a place to sit at a thin table up smooshed against the wall. It was ideal for eating but not having to hazard any questions about why my husband wasn’t with me. The meal was surprisingly tasty. Of course, it was all vegetarian, which is fine by me, but if you struggle to enjoy seaweed, fried gluten, or meat-shaped chunks of vegetarian edibles, you might want to stick with the instant noodles and cereals available at the little shop on the temple grounds.

After lunch, more chanting. On a loop, I told myself it was good for me, wished it would stop soon, and berated myself for coming on a religious holiday weekend. But by the time it stopped at four o’clock, I had finished a first draft of one story. I spent the rest of the day reading and watching the parking lot clear out, drivers honking and car alarms sounding off until sunset.

As I was getting into bed around nine o’clock, I resolved to get myself upstairs when I heard the bell tolling to see if I could get any photos of the sunrise. Instead I woke up at 5:30 to the pleasant sound of chirping birds. Without the bell, getting out of bed seemed less urgent. I didn’t get upstairs until 6:15 and then I headed off to stretch my legs along the Lion’s Head Mountain Historic Trail. Before I got very far, an elderly monk wiping down a giant urn stopped me to find out where I was from. I must have been just the audience he was waiting for, because he launched into a long, fluid speech about all the foreign friends from different countries who come to visit little Taiwan, which is in fact a very wonderful place, and it’s very important for everyone in the whole world to get along. I only understood about half of what he was saying, but as long as I stood there smiling and nodding, the old monk kept talking. So I smiled and nodded and reflected on what kind of stereotype it was, talking to a monk in a temple on a mountain in Taiwan, the kind of experience that friends back home might imagine is available to me all the time. Then the monk’s phone rang very loudly, breaking the mythical spell. He pulled a slick red flip phone out of the pocket of his orange robe and I escaped up the trail.

There are loads of temples within walking distance from Quan Hua, and loads of mountain trails in this area, but I’m not an adventurer on my own. I worry too much about getting lost, getting bitten by snakes or dogs, getting assaulted, or some horrible combination of the three. So I stuck to the trails and the roads, and had a lovely walk through the still-quiet forest. I even saw four incredible Formosan blue magpies and a large hawk, none of whom would cooperate for a photo. When I got back to my room, it was just past eight o’clock. I had my coffee and a shower, and went over the draft of my story from the day before. The bells rang, briefly, and farther away, and I could hear the cars navigating the three-story parking lot, but overall, the second full day was much quieter. There was still a lot of chanting at lengthy intervals, but it stopped again after lunch and I took a nap with the door open and the room full of fresh air. The rest of the day I spent reading and writing, more motivated knowing I would leave the next day.

Even with the curtains open, I didn’t wake up until 6:30 the next morning. It was blissfully quiet outside except for bird songs. The light came in soft and quiet through the beveled glass. Taking another walk would have been healthy, but I had to check out at 11 and didn’t want to give up the last few hours of writing time. Of course, the writing was going very well, and I wanted to stay another day, but it only comes so easily when there’s a deadline coming at you with a gun to your head.

I confirmed with the woman at the front desk that it’s much quieter when it’s not a holiday weekend. I’ll come back again when everyone else is too busy, and I’ll leave my phone at home. The only thing to distract me will be the view of the trees that extend the mountains and the mountains that extend to the sky, as far as you can imagine.


Tips: If you plan on spending a chunk of time in your room, don’t bother coming unless you get one of the rooms with the balconies. The rooms on the other side of the hotel are fine and clean, but about as cheery as prison cells—not exactly an environment conducive to creativity.

If you don’t plan on eating the free vegetarian meal (served at 6:30 a.m., 12:00p.m., and 5:30 p.m.) and you don’t want to lose writing time driving around, bring your own (non-perishable) snacks and drinks. There is a small shop on the temple grounds, but the selection is very limited.

The cost of a room is NT$1000 for 1-2 people. Ask about charges for additional guests.

There is an air conditioner and a TV in each room, but you won’t need the TV because you’ll be writing.

There is a desk-like vanity in each room, with a stool, and also 1-2 beds, a nightstand, a small coffee table, and two wooden chairs. I pulled one of the chairs in front of the vanity to write, and when I got tired of sitting, I put the coffee table on the bed and wrote standing up. There is plenty of room for pacing and the balcony is an excellent place to stand and stare at the skyline.

Vietnam Trip, Day 2: Exploring Phu Quoc

In the morning, we rented a scooter and at the hotel staff’s suggestion, headed north along the scenic road that followed the coast. If it had been up to me, we would have spent the day like a couple of crabs on the beach nearest out resort, but J’s first task is always to orient himself. So I sat on the back of the scooter, and even had to give him my sunglasses because he was driving and didn’t have his on, and he drove us up the wicked dirt “road” that was all poitholes and mud. It wasn’t at all comfortable and barely safe, but I enjoyed it more than driving fast along the main road with the other scooters and heavy construction vehicles roaring past.

At one point, the road was cordoned off with a rope and some white plastic tassles: just past that, it had been washed away and there was a span of perhaps 60 feet between us and the rest of the road. But there were motorcycle tracks down to the beach and we followed them to a silly little bridge made of sticks spanning a stream of water flowing down to the ocean. We supposed that a local man on a scooter could have ridden across, but even I alone am bigger than a local man, so the best thing to do was for J to walk it across. He swore; the effort was all on him, but I took picture that will grow funnier in time.

the gap in the road
the gap in the road
it was a pretty big gap
it was a pretty big gap
we didn't think the bridge would hold our weight, so J walked the scooter across
we didn’t think the bridge would hold our weight, so J walked the scooter across

After a few hours on that road, we were worn out, J from dealing not only with potholes but the prolonged uncertainty about if we’d find a way back to the main road, or would we have to drive back along the same road that was only taking us further away from the hotel; and me from the stress of being the powerless partner on the back seat. We eventually found the main road, which went through construction sites of new resorts and even an amusement park. We hadn’t eaten at all that day, having started off assuming we’d “find something”, so we had some Vietnamese food at a nice restaurant overlooking the ocean. But we got turned around in the town and couldn’t find the beach the blogs promised would be there, so we just went back to our own neighborhood.

We stopped for another Vietnamese coffee at a little cafe near our resort. We were quickly developing a taste for it: black and thick as oil, but incredibly smooth and chocolatey and not at all bitter. Of course, we still preferred it with a bit of the condensed milk to make it extra sweet and creamy. From our bench on the patio, we could watch the children at the local school enjoying their recess, and noted the wild mess of cables handing from the telephone pole across the way, in front of the produce stall. Ong Lang, that little neighborhood in Phu Quoc, brought back a wave of memories of the year my family and I lived in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire, when I was 13. The bad roads, the loose chickens, the  baguettes, the fried spring rolls, the shacks nestled in among the hotels and resorts, the kids balancing on too-big bicycles being passed by Lexus SUVs…

The cafe owner told us that this time of year, the beach at Ong Lang was the cleanest and most beautiful on the island. And when there are no clouds, the sunset is the most vibrant. There were clouds that evening, but it was still very lovely, and I was hugely grateful to finally get into the ocean after such a long day. The water was so clear and calm that I waded into until I was up to my shoulders, and I could still see my feet. Unfortunately, it was clear enough to see that there were not really any fish or anything worth gearing up for a snorkel for.

a very polite dog looking for scraps at the barbecue restaurant
a very polite dog looking for scraps at the barbecue restaurant

We ate at a barbecue restaurant that night. The prices were good enough that lots of Vietnamese tourists and other folks who I took to be locals were also there, but also many Europeans and north Americans. We had grilled pork belly, shrimp, squid, a whole red snapper, beef rolled up in betel leaves, mojitos, and beer. It was a gorgeous spread. When we finished, we went back to the cafe from the afternoon and drank US$3 mojitos and US$1 pints until we were drowsy and full, then it was time for bed.

My husband and I both have ADD: Here are our tips for traveling better together

Sometimes we can be overwhelmed by the options when traveling. (Photo credit J Gunden)
Sometimes we can be overwhelmed by the options when traveling. (Photo credit J Gunden)

J and I both have ADD, which always makes things interesting, but can especially challenging in a new place. Not having a routine can be difficult for us: we lose time trying to figure out what to do, and being in an unfamiliar environment can make us uneasy. My goal is to outline and develop habits that will make sure we make the most of our traveling time.

This was my first trip with my bullet journal, and I used that resource to write down some ideas for best practices for the future trips we will certainly be taking.

  1. Splurge on tours or classes. 
    There’s lots to be said for going on your own and getting off the beaten path, but sometimes J and I get so overwhelmed by the options that we spend more time before and during the trip thinking about what we could do than doing anything. But taking a street food tour in Saigon or a cruise in Krabi gave us the opportunity to explore without the additional worry of trying to plot our own course. Paying someone else to worry about the details lets us hyperfocus on having fun.
  2. Follow in the footsteps of the ones who’ve gone before you.
    This is the free version of hiring a tour guide. J was chasing his tail coming up with the best possible itinerary for seeing the sites in Saigon. I suggested we just follow somebody else’s walking-tour itinerary. We hit most of the stops, saw a lot of the city, and it only took about ten minutes of research. One word of caution, though: make sure you pay attention to the details about what to visit when
  3. Prepare and maintain a master packing list. 
    I started writing down what I needed to remember a few weeks before we left on our last vacation, and while on vacation, I made note of anything I wished I had brought or could have left behind. This list is in my bullet journal, too. If you’d like some ideas to get started, there’s a printable master packing list at ADDitude Mag.
  4. Plan some time alone each day. 
    In our daily lives at home, J and I do a lot on our own, but on vacation, we shadow each other 24 hours a day. J gets hyperstimulated and wants to talk about his impressions of everything; I get drained and overwhelmed by the newness of everything and being around him all the time. Planning solo coffee breaks or even splitting up for the morning gives us the little mental break we need to refresh and look forward to sharing our experience.
  5. Make sure you both have money in your wallet.
    This might be the most personal tip on the list, depending on how you and your partner run your finances. J and I usually mingle our money, but when we’re out or traveling, he carries the cash in his wallet. I don’t like having to always ask for money; he doesn’t always want to buy souvenirs or gifts. Making sure I have money in my wallet every morning will reduce some of the potential friction between us.
  6. Decide on how much money, if any, you’re willing to give to beggars or touts.
    This is another question without a clear answer. It’s hard to know what’s right or helpful to do to help other people, but I can’t stand sitting there drinking my fancy margarita and ignoring the people trying to sell me a bookmark for a buck. Having to ask J to open up the wallet every time can complicate matters, so if we agree that I can spend US$5-10 a day on souvenirs from little old ladies, then it’s one less thing that needs to be discussed at length.
  7. Don’t count on having time to do something later.
    There’s been a number of times where we’ve procrastinated on doing something or buying something and in the end, left without doing it. Procrastination is a really big problem for anyone with ADD, so it’s hard to to just say “don’t procrastinate while traveling.” I hope that if we have it written down as one of our best practices, we can keep it mind.

Any folks out there with ADD have more travel tips to share? I’m certainly looking to for ways to keep improving our experiences. I’d love to hear from you in the comments!

Vietnam Trip, Day 1: First Impressions of Ho Chi Minh City and Phu Quoc Island

We arrived in Ho Chi Minh City too late to do–or eat–anything interesting. It was a Saturday night, so we thought we might go to a bar, but by the time we got our bearings, it was midnight, and the bars were closing. I was glad for it, because I was wearing my comfortable clothes from the plane, and the women leaving the bar were dressed in little black and red dresses. J was disappointed, but we went to the Circle K and it had WiFi. We ate instant noodles and shrimp chips and looked up articles on the best beer to drink in Vietnam. We liked the Saigon Special better than the 333.

A photo posted by Keili Rae Gunden (@amateur_vagrant) on

Our hotel room at the Iris was small, but fine for the night. We only needed it to be near the airport. There were plenty of pho places around, but we didn’t know how to order and I was worried about getting food poisoning before our flight to Phu Quoc, after what happened in Cambodia. (I got food poisoning and was wretchedly sick for 24 hours.)

The next morning, the cafes were open all over the neighborhood. We asked for a suggestion from the front desk and she said the place across the street was excellent, and offered the security guard’s services to help us cross. There were no traffic lights and not a little traffic, but J managed to get us across just fine. I had a baguette with fried eggs and J had the beef and green peppers with French fries. We each had coffee and it was excellent Then we crossed back again and walked down the street to another cafe where Jeremy ordered an iced coffee while I finished my cigarette. When I got inside, I realized we were in the same franchise we’d just left, just a shop on the other side of the road. The coffee was really that good.

After Vietnamese coffee, I was most looking forward to a real banh mi sandwich. The were available the Circle K between six a.m. and ten p.m., but I didn’t think that a convenience-store banh mi ranked as an authentic on, even in Vietnam. When we landed in Phu Quoc, we had another coffee at the airport cafe, and ordered a banh mi sandwich to go with it. It was made with lettuce and mayonnaise, and they microwaved it, and it was horrible and I was mad that we’d spent any money on it at all.

A photo posted by Keili Rae Gunden (@amateur_vagrant) on

J had booked us a room in a beautiful little resort that had a number of little bungalows around a pool. It being the end of the off-season, he got the room for very cheap. I message them ahead of time to let them know it was J’s 40th birthday, and when arrived, they had prepared a mango panna cotta and written “Happy birthday, Jeremy” very inexpertly. Because you can’t stick candles in panna cotta, they were stuck to the table with a bit of melted wax in a ring around the dish. It was all very cute and the extra effort was much appreciated.

That night, we ate dinner in the resort restaurant. Afterwards, we drank the mini bar beers and beers from room service. Everything was so cheap that it felt like we were rich and famous.

Zip lining with Jungle Flight in Chiang Mai

amateur vagrant chiang mai thailand vacation zip lining me zipping

We did a lot of things on our recent Thailand vacation. We did so many things that I definitely consider this the best vacation of my life.

We went ziplining with Jungle Flight one day.

This was my first time ziplining, and it was super fun! However, we chose this course because the travel agent said my 70 year-old mother-in-law could join us, and well, she could, so it wasn’t exactly an extreme sport.

The first couple lines were exhilarating because I was scared. And then at some point it started to feel like more of the same. And then on like the penultimate line, something in my gear made a clicking sound and I thought I was going to die and then it was really exciting again.

The guides really made this, though. They were so enthusiastic and their energy was contagious. They were doing tricks for laughs: hanging upside down from the lines, sending each other back to where they came from when they reached the far platform, etc.

One of the guides--a very cool guy!
One of the guides–a very cool guy!

They guaged everyone’s comfort levels and abilities really well, and seamlessly transitioned from comforting a terrified 9-year-old to flirting with the flirty single women.

We paid extra for the photos. Actually, it was like more than a thousand baht for the photos, but in the end that was two-hundred baht each. We didn’t really have any other way of taking photos, and they had a big ol’ digital SLR and gave us the photos on a CD shortly after we got back. I think spending extra money for the photos was worth it.

We had a nice yellow curry with lots of potatoes for lunch, too, all included in the price. Not bad!

amateur vagrant chiang mai thailand vacation jungle flight zip lining group photo

I look like I am falling into broccoli
I look like I am falling into broccoli

One night in Bangkok

We’re going to Thailand and Cambodia soon which requires a lot of discussion with our friends here who all travel around Asia whenever possible. Everyone has pretty strong ideas about where we should go and where we should avoid going. Most everyone is pretty cynical about Bangkok. I am not sure why it’s “cool” for foreigners here to dump on such a cosmopolitan city, but it happens.

I’ve been to Bangkok a bunch of times because my parents lived there while I was in college. J’s never been, and he’s almost convinced that it’s not worth going, but I think that you should at least check it out before you form an opinion.

Years ago, I went there with my ex for his first time, too. He was the kind of guy who definitely would have gone to see a ping-pong show with his boys if they were with him. Since it was just me, I figured the best-girlfriend practice was to take him myself.

I managed to go to Bangkok half a dozen times without seeing a woman shoot a dart or various other projectiles out of her vagina, but I went to this show for love.

Now, in my experience, some people have natural street smarts, which are just instincts about self-preservation. I wouldn’t think of myself as someone who really knows how to fend for herself, but then I have seen people in Bangkok a couple of times make really poor choices and I realize that maybe I’m not as useless as I think I am.

My ex’s first bad idea was to allow himself to be led up to a second-floor bar on the infamous Patpong Road. Everything in me thought this was a bad idea because if it’s on the second floor, it’s harder to run if we need to run and these bars are notorious for scamming tourists.

Or were. This story is like eight years old now, and Patpong might be a playground for children now for all I know.

Anyway, I slipped 500baht (like US$15) in my back pocket so that I wouldn’t even have to open up my purse in this place.

It’s big and dark up there. There are only a few other people besides the performers. We were promised one free beer each and a waiter brought them to us right away. As soon as we sat down, a couple of women in the tiniest of outfits started fawning over me and my ex, explaining to him that they were so thirsty, they wanted drinks. He says sure, he’ll buy them drinks like he’s an NBA star in the club or something. I tell him not to do that because the drinks these chicks are ordering are probably gonna show up on our tab at like 500baht each or something.

I felt like he should have realized that, but he didn’t. I think he was a little overwhelmed by the attention.

These women sit with us, both of us, just leaning on us, touching us, whatever. They want to feel my boobs cause I have big boobs, and I let them, cause, whatever, in certain contexts, I don’t mind. It wasn’t particularly sexual, just kind of silly.

Anyway, the performers start performing and they are shooting ping pongs and darts out of their vaginas. At one point I had to hold a balloon and this woman shot a dart at it to pop it…it was actually scary and also man these women are sex workers and I can’t help but wonder what their lives are like, if they’re happy, etc.

I am not fun at parties.

The show is going one when some foreigners at a table across from us stand up. One of them shouts, “Get out of here, it’s a scam!”

Of course it was a scam. I just wasn’t sure how much of a scam it was going to be and yes we were on holiday in Thailand but we were always running on limited funds. I tell them I want the bill and they give it to us…

…and I really don’t remember exactly how much it was. I remember that it was more than the 500baht I had in my pocket, though maybe it wasn’t like mortgage-your-future expensive. I know they wanted to charge us for the beers they said were free and they wanted us to pay for the girls’ drinks and they wanted tips and all. I would have liked to set up college funds for these women and their kids, but all the money we had was the money in my purse and in the big picture, that wasn’t much.

We headed toward the door and the big, fat owner lady tried to get in front of us. I took into account that there were no dudes in this place except my boyfriend so I didn’t expect us to lose any limbs. I threw down the 500baht and when the owner lady dove for it, we booked it down the stairs.

I was pretty shaken up by all of that and I wanted to get a taxi back to the hotel. Only I wanted to have small bills to pay for the taxi so we wouldn’t get scammed by a driver saying he didn’t have any change. (Honestly, Bangkok is a cool city, but there I feel like I always need to travel with a man and I always need be hyperaware of what could happen.) We were headed to a convenience store to break a 1000baht note when these guys started grabbing at me and showing me brochures for their clubs.

I thought it was weird that they were grabbing me and not the guy I was with. But then I saw the flier was full of handsome men. Ooooh. But still, I tried to get away from those guys. I was really hyped up after having to run out of that last place and I told them I wasn’t in the mood for getting tricked. I was fairly belligerent.

They promised us there were absolutely no tricks. And for some reason, I felt like I could believe them. We went into this place just as a sex show with an all-male cast was starting. I was expecting something like a male stripper show, like the Chippendales. Actually, this was a show for a gay audience. There were lots of foreign men in there. And this show was just guys having sex in all sorts of gymnastic and acrobatic ways. Part of me felt like it was good for my ex to have to watch this show just like I had to watch the women sex show. Part of me was just fascinated by the performance. And again, there was a part of me that felt terrible, wondering if these guys were happy doing what they were doing, if their bosses treated them kindly, etc.

I mean, probably not. The world is a terrible place.

At one point, two guys waddleed up and down the rows of seats, one fucking the other. The one getting fucked was holding a basket and collecting donations. It made me think of the collection basket from church.  They leaned across my lap and I laughed awkwardly. I put in a 100baht and they smiled at me, big smiles, and said thank you in Thai.

Then the show was over and we left.

I wouldn’t patronize that kind of show again. I don’t have a problem with sex shows or sex workers, but I hate the idea of someone performing in a sex show unless they are enthusiastic about it. Maybe I am projecting, and that’s patronizing (in the other sense of the word), but how can I know who’s consenting and who’s being exploited?

Anyway, that was basically my wildest night in Bangkok. Possibly my most weirdest night ever. I guess it’s comparatively tame, but I don’t do drugs or have sex with sex workers, so, my story is from the cheap seats.

What do you get up to when you travel?

 

Angkor Wat

Dudes. I don’t even know where to begin to write a post about Angkor Wat. My intention is to be brief and to share a couple of photos. I’d also like to give a shout out to the folks whose services we used while we were there, because people in Cambodia are on the grind and they need all the help and support they can get.

(For example, I just read that book of Cambodian short stories, and the two young women authors featured there were aspiring to be part-time writers in the future. None of this “give up everything to pursue your passion” bullshit. They are trying to work and make money and have time to write because there is nothing romantic about starving.)

We stayed at the Okay 1 Villa in Siem Reap. It was a short ride from the Pub Street/Night Market area. The drivers out front will take you there for $2 in a tuktuk/remorque, but you could walk. (But why not share your $2 with somebody who is trying to work for it?)

The first day we went to visit Angkor Wat, we went with a guide, Mr. Sokkung of Cambodia Trail. He was our driver when we arranged for a taxi from the airport to the hotel, so we sorted things out with him just the day before. For five of us in a van, we paid US$60. I thought that was fair: it was $12 a person and Mr. Sokkung knew EVERYTHING about the temples.

That first day, we only went to Ta Prohm and Angkor Wat. Then it started raining buckets for like ninety minutes. Mr. Sokkung took us to a restaurant just near Angkor Wat. Soaked through, we had a very nice lunch, but then we all just wanted to go home and get into some dry clothes.

The next day, we just arranged to have the hotel drivers take us to the temples in tuktuks. I really would have preferred to continue with Mr. Sokkung because the man is a living encyclopedia of knowledge about the temples, but the rest of the group preferred a budget arrangement and running around taking pictures like they had a deadline with National Geographic.

I’m not bitter, but the tuktuk drivers weren’t guides.

Driver: This temple is very old. Old than Ta Prohm.
Me: Is it the oldest temple?
Driver: Yes, oldest than Ta Prohm.

I missed you that day, Mr. Sokkung.

Anyway, the drivers were very lovely and we had a nice day. And one tuktuk only cost US$18 a day, but for J and I that still turned out to be US$9 a day, so for $3 extra, we could have had an expert to answer questions…

Just think about it, that’s all.

(Also we tipped the drivers and gave them cold Fantas. I am pointing that because we didn’t all agree about the importance of tipping. I think that if you got it, give it away. Also karma is a bitch with a long memory who won’t forget when you were stingy with people in service and hospitality.)

We went the last week of June, which is the off-season. As I mentioned, we ran into a rain shower that first day, but it was after lunch and we’d already been up for a few hours and explored Ta Prohm and Angkor Wat pretty thoroughly before it started to rain. The other days, it didn’t rain.

Also, the second day, we opted for a tour of some the less-famous temples, and we had these magical moments, individually or as a group, where there were no other people in sight and it was actually silent. I imagine that with a place as special and famous as Angkor Wat, it must be very difficult to have that kind of experience where you can be totally focused on the awesome scale and beauty of these ancient places without having to watch other people take selfies.

The third day, J went to see the sunrise over Angkor Wat without me because I got a nasty, nasty sickness. I guess it was probably bad food or something dirty I ate: I was over it in about 24 hours. But I haven’t been so violently ill in a good long time. Bummer to lose time over the holidays. Silver lining: tonic water made me stop feeling nauseous like immediately, so I’ll know that for next time.

Here are some photos, but nothing that does it justice, I’m afraid. I really liked the apsaras. (Mr. Sokkung said they were like angels.)

angor wat apsara amateur vagrant

angkor wat block apsara amateur vagrant june 2016

amateur vagrant angkor wat apsara wall

angkor wat beautiful apsara

angkor wat buddha heads bridge amateur vagrant

angkor wat monkey

There were not loads of monkeys like you might imagine, but on the way to Ta Prohm the first day, we did see a woman selling sugar cane to give to the monkey family that was hanging out around her.

Elephant Jungle Sanctuary in Chiang Mai, Thailand

A few weeks before we left for our vacation to Thailand and Cambodia, we heard about an elderly Cambodian elephant that died after giving tourists rides all day in the 40°C heat. That sad story just reaffirmed our decision to not ride elephants on holiday.

(Which has got to be one of the privileged sentences in the world: “We should opt not to elephants while on vacation in Thailand.”)

Instead, we found a whole list of “sanctuaries” in Chiang Mai where the elephants are mostly allowed to rest and play and humans can just interact with them as they go about their day.

If you ask me, this is still kind of a shitty deal for the elephants! I would not want truckloads of strangers showing up at my house every morning to shower me and taunt me with my breakfast bite by bite.

But I anthropomorphize…

We settled on the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary for no particular reason. It had good ratings on Trip Advisor and it fit our schedule. We opted for the morning half-day session only. If it were up to me, I would have done a shorter cooking class and a longer day with the elephants, but it was not up to me.

We got picked up in a truck and drove for at least an hour to get to the sanctuary.

thailand chiang mai elephant jungle sanctuary group initiation

First they had everyone change into some woven shirts styled like traditional Karen clothing. Then after a brief talk about the sanctuary’s work and an outline of what to expect, a bunch of elephants came running down the little hill.

One of them came straight at me.

I froze. I was scared, but my brain was also telling me, “C’mon, these elephants interact with people every day. I’m sure it’s fine.” Which is how people get eaten by lions and shit. I feel like “MOVE” would have been better advice.

Thankfully, the elephants have seen this all before. She saw that I had no bananas and trotted from me just as quick as she’d come. She wanted bananas, not me.

Elephants are surprisingly light and quick on their feet.

thailand chiang mai elephant jungle sanctuary feeding elephants

Then we were given bunches of small bananas and handfuls of cucumbers. Then the elephants paid attention to us. Kind of.

It was kind of like some dogs I’ve met who aren’t unfriendly, just disinterested in humans who aren’t their humans. The elephants were like, “My self-esteem is not so low that I need to follow around a 30-something white woman and establish an emotional bond to get through my morning.”

So if you had bananas, you had an elephant’s attention. But they realized immediately when you were out of bananas, and then they would walk away from you to chew the giant mouthful of bananas you’d just fed them one by one.

They were very tolerant of us all milling about, wandering around and rubbing them and scratching them and feeling their hides. But if they started walking, we moved out of the way and that was that.

There was a little baby elephant, about three months old. She ran around scratching her butt on everything, which was pretty great.

thailand chiang mai elephant jungle sanctuary petting the baby elephant

 

She wasn’t trying to wait for anybody to have an epiphany about the oneness of life, either. She had places to go.

We handed out produce for half an hour or so, and then we all changed into swimsuits or clothes we were willing to get very, very dirty and walked down to the mud hole. The elephants were obviously very enthusiastic about getting into the mud. They ran down the hill, one of them trumpeting the whole time, and just fell onto their sides in the mud with their faces half-buried. The sanctuary employees’ warned us  not to get close to their legs, because they flail all of a sudden, roll onto their stomachs, and stand up. It was so cool.

thailand chiang mai elephant jungle sanctuary rubbing mud on elephants

I am the one dressed in black shorts and a black tanktop. I’m not sure I would have really wanted to be in a bikini for this, anyway.

thailand chiang mai elephant jungle sanctuary mud hole group photo

We rubbed mud on the elephants and each other for a while, then we all walked down to the clear stream to rinse off and have a little water fight.

thailand chiang mai elephant jungle sanctuary in the stream

thailand chiang mai elephant jungle sanctuary washing off

The guide told us that elephants could stay under water for twenty minutes. Another woman and I asked, “But how do they breathe?” And we totally earned the patronizing look we got in response.

(With their trunks, of course.)

With the elephants laying on their sides, this kind of reminds of those terrible photos of big-game hunters next to the animals they just killed. THIS IS SO MUCH BETTER.

After we got out of the water, we rinsed off and had a nice lunch of fried noodles. Then the trucks took us back to the hotel.

So long as the elephants weren’t stressed out by our attention, I’d say it was a great way to spend the day.

My mom is crazy about elephants: maybe one day I could take her there and do the overnight trip.

Eat That Frog

I ate some bugs and a frog in Thailand.

We bought them from this vendor in Chiang Mai:

amateur_vagrant_chiang_mai_market_edible_bugs

amateur vagrant bug vendor chiang mai thailand

 

amateur vagrant medley of fried bugs

J ate some mealworms, a grub, a grasshopper, and a cricket with me, but he would not eat that frog.

I think it’s a good time to point out that some people in Thailand eat bugs, not all Thai people.

Just like in Taiwan, some people are down with snake soup, but not anyone I know. I have students who won’t even eat century eggs, even though I personally like them in my congee. 

So just keep in mind when you see people eating “weird foods” in other countries, not even all the people in that country are down. Not all Americans eat runny eggs or rare steak.

When I was eating this frog, the Thai women in the back, young and old, were cracking jokes and laughing, but they wouldn’t even try it with us! They were yelling, “It tastes like chicken!”

It did not.

I really believe that we are all going to end up eating more bugs if not needing to rely on bugs for protein in the future. Factory farms produce so much carbon emissions and we’re already screwed because of global warming… I feel like I might as well get used to crunchy mealworms and creamy grubs.

amateur vagrant eating a grasshopper

Thai Farm Cooking School in Chiang Mai

Friday is food day here at Amateur Vagrant (or it is when I am on the ball, anyway), so I thought I’d use this chance to tell you about our family trip to Thai Farm Cooking School in Chiang Mai while we were recently on holiday in Thailand.

There are so many cooking schools in Chiang Mai to choose from that it was hard to make a decision, but what sold our family group on Thai Farm Cooking School was that it was rated number one on Trip Advisor, it included a visit to the wet market before we started cooking, and it was all day.

That’s the thing with Trip Advisor, though, isn’t it? Once something becomes number one, then it becomes every traveler’s first choice. But how many people are actually able to go to multiple cooking schools and do a thoughtful comparison? Most of us don’t have that kind of time or money budget.

We had a good experience, as a family, at Thai Farm Cooking School, but nothing that made me think it would be categorically better than the other schools that offered shorter sessions and/or lower prices.

And if you already know how to cook, if you already know how to prepare some basic Thai dishes, and you already know your way around an Asian grocery store, I am not sure you need to go to any Thai cooking school at all.

Let me get real: I gave Thai Farm Cooking School five stars on Trip Advisor cause it was a nice day and my family liked it.

But…

There are shorter classes, cheaper classes, and classes in town.

And if you really know how to cook, this won’t add much to your repertoire.

But if you want to have a nice day with friends or family, go ahead! I’ll vouch for this place. We had fun.

So the trip to the market was cool. I wish I knew what market we went to because it wasn’t too far from where we stayed at Galare Guest House near the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar. We had croissant sandwiches for breakfast that day and I regretted it as soon as we got to the market because there was so much good local food being prepared and I wasn’t even hungry and I was getting ready to go cook like five dishes, too, so there was no sense in buying anything extra.

We did buy some fried bugs for a little experiment of our own, though.

The bugs at the wet market we visited before class
The bug vendor at the wet market we visited before class

At the market, our teacher introduced us to a few of the ingredients we’d be using and then left us on our own for forty minutes. I don’t feel like I got much from that hour at the market. But if you’ve never been to a wet market before or never used Thai ingredients, you will find it very interesting.

Anyway, I’d like to find out what market that was and go back because it was nice and neat and full of good food.

Then we drove about 45 minutes out to the “farm”. We did not see an actual “farm”, but we got a nice tour of a garden where we smelled lots of fresh herbs and were introduced to some other ingredients, like the bitter mini eggplants that are in red and green curry and the small, round Thai eggplants. I had never heard of or used Thai parsley before, so I was glad for the introduction to that very fragrant herb.

There were a lot of bugs in the garden.
There were a lot of bugs in the garden.

We made two dishes right away–I chose coconut soup and pad thai. Everything was pretty much already prepped in trays for us, and we measured the soy sauce and oil, etc, into a small bowl with either a teaspoon or a tablespoon. It was basically foolproof. Again, if you’ve never cooked Thai food before, I think it would be very interesting. But I have my favorite pad thai recipe already, and it’s a real Thai recipe and I’ve been using it for years, so I didn’t feel like I learned a lot at this point.

Putting some condiments on the pad Thai I made
Putting some condiments on the pad Thai I made

I don’t want to sound like I am claiming I know all about Thai food, but I want to say that even though this class was taught by a Thai chef, it was a class for noobs.

I know what a tablespoon is!

I have a gas stove!

 

Anyway, we made those two dishes pretty quick and then we were given about an hour to eat. Maybe by then it was already noon or close to it. We walked around the “farm” a bit, but really, there wasn’t much to explore.

amateur vagrant thai farm cooking school waiting for instructions in the kitchen
Getting ready to cook in the classroom.

After lunch,  we all made our own curry paste with a mortar and pestle. That was cool! I’ve never made my own curry paste with fresh ingredients before. I made a yellow curry paste so I could make that heavenly yellow curry with potatoes.

amateur vagrant thai farm cooking school curry paste mortar pestle

Sweet baby Jesus, there is maybe nothing better to eat than Asian food with potatoes. That includes Indian dishes made with potatoes, Thai yellow curry, and mouth-watering “big plate chicken” (da pan ji) from Western China/Uzbekistan. Even French fries with Thai chili paste are awesome.

I love potatoes. So much.

Pro-tip: Some garnishes and a little coconut milk will make your curry look less like poop when you photograph it.
Pro-tip: Some garnishes and a little coconut milk will make your curry look less like poop when you photograph it.

Anyway, we made curry and I made chicken with basil but I was getting so full now that I couldn’t finish what I made. In fact, everyone was passing their leftovers to J, but not even he could finish it all. Our teacher demonstrated how to make green papaya salad with a mortar and pestle while we were eating, and we all sampled that as well.

amateur vagrant thai farm cooking school chicken and basil dish
Chicken with basil

We had about an hour to eat, and mostly we just sat and tried to get it in us. Then it was time to make dessert. By then, I was prepared to be kinda bored making “bananas in coconut milk”, but the teacher introduced us to pandan, another ingredient I’d never used before. She said it was also called “Thai vanilla” in English, and that I could use vanilla as a substitute.

Yay! New info!

Anyway, the bananas in coconut milk was simple, but it tasted like the most wonderful banana pudding you’ve ever had. I thought I was full, but I ate/drank the whole bowl.

J's sticky rice with mango. They added some butterfly pea for flavor and that pretty purple color.
J’s sticky rice with mango. They added some butterfly pea for flavor and that pretty purple color.

Then we all got some nice little cookbooks including recipes we hadn’t even made. We were wrapped up by about 3:00. All in all, I’d say we spent about two hours cooking: the rest of it included the trip to the market, travel time, the introduction to the garden, and the extra time we were given to eat and occupy ourselves. It was very laid-back, which was fine, but if you don’t want to give up a whole morning and afternoon to a cooking class, I think you could certainly try a different cooking school. There were cheaper options, too. But this school was well-run, clean, the equipment all worked, the instructor was very knowledgeable and professional, and the food we made was delicious, so I still think we had a great experience.

Frying up some tofu for pad Thai
Frying up some tofu for pad Thai