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A Collection of Stories from Thailand and Vietnam

Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

In the beginning of Fall 2017, after four semesters of brutal tests and long nights of burying my head in textbooks that I could barely comprehend, I decided to spend the next winter break relaxing. After another stressful semester at UC Berkeley, I embarked on a month long journey to Thailand and Vietnam with five buddies, equipped with nothing but a backpack and an appetite for adventure. I won’t say that it was “an adventure of a lifetime” or that I’m a changed person, but my experiences took me outside the Berkeley bubble of packed libraries and high strung college students. Here are some things that happened:

In Chiang Mai, Thailand, we got lucky and what should’ve been a full group of thirty ended up as a private wildlife excursion just for the six of us. We spent most of the day in the jungle with five elephants that were rescued from inhumane tour companies. After feeding them pineapple and sugarcane which they eagerly snatched out of our hands with their trunks, we hiked through the hills and down to the river where I got into freezing water. The sheer cold of the water coupled with constantly bumping into the bigger elephants and almost stumbling over the baby elephants who could barely stay afloat was raw and awakening.

somewhere in the jungle in Chiang Mai, Thailand

I met Mr. Dang at his outdoor Muay Thai gym in the outskirts of Chiang Mai. He immediately greeted me and started asking me where I was from and why I wanted to train. My version of “wax on wax off” and “paint

Lanna Muay Thai, Chiang Mai, Thailand

the fence” started immediately when the warm up was sand-filled jump rope with heavy wooden handles for thirty minutes straight. I thought I came to punch some shit, but here I was, hopping in place while staring at the clock’s seconds hand go in circles and circles. By the time the actual session started I was gassed, but watching the local Thai boys on either side of me attack the bags gave me a second wind. I still suck at Muay Thai.

One of the downsides of traveling for as cheap as possible is sometimes settling for the unpleasant. We spent a night in Bangkok’s noisy airport sitting upright on not very comfortable airport seats. After arriving in Phuket, we set out to find something to do while running on little to no sleep. Being the dumb young men that we are, we blindly rented a pair of mopeds from a lady running a fruit stand without ever having ridden before. After partially figuring out how to accelerate and break, we set south in search of white sand beaches and magnificent viewpoints.

Promthep Cape, Phuket

At some point I lost sight of David and Jon and after waiting for five minutes I became slightly worried and decided to turn back in search. The longer I kept driving and not spotting them the more worried I became. Eventually, I found their moped on its side off the road and they were both dazed. This happened around 2:00 PM and for the next twelve hours we conservatively estimate that we heard “Hey guys did you know it’s Christmas?! Have I already said that? Have I already said ‘Have I already said that?’” over 100 times. David had completely lost his short term memory and didn’t even know where we were or what classes he took last semester. The rest of the afternoon and night was spent in the local hospital and negotiating with the fruit stand lady to give me back at least part of the 6,000 baht deposit for the damages to the moped (after 30 minutes of negotiatingI still think I got overcharged). David and Nikhil took the next flight out of Phuket to Seoul to meet up with our buddy Wookie who took them to a better hospital because David was released with barely any care given. By the way, everyone is back home now safe and sound :)

Cát Bà Island, Vietnam

At our Ha Long Bay hostel in Vietnam, a friendly guy from LA recommended we check out “The Ladder”. Jon and I rented two really worn down mopeds (yeah, after the accident. yeah, we’re dumb.) and armed with a map that had only three lines on it, we set out in the general direction. After weaving through the foggy coast for an hour, I spotted a telecommunications pole sticking up out of a mountain in the distant. We spent a quick minute checking that the ladder wouldn’t collapse on us and then climbed up to take in the view when we also realized that the surroundings were prime for echos. Then we spent the next couple minutes yelling really loudly. As it got darker we realized (probably too late) that we should head back. On the way to the ladder I didn’t notice that many forks in the road, but on the way back there suddenly seemed to be a split every couple minutes. It quickly became pitch black with the exception of the occasional light coming from a house and the front light on our mopeds. We ended up making a huge loop around the island and we only realized that we were going in circles after a kind taxi driver pointed out we were back at square one. To make things even worse, Jon’s acceleration was busted from the beginning and he was almost out of gas. There was only one gas station on the island and it was closed by the time we got there. The whole time on our second try going back to our hostel we were worried that we’d have to push Jon’s bike up the mountainous hills. Luckily Jon’s bike was terrible in multiple ways and the gas meter was also broken. I appreciate street lights and Google Maps a lot more now.

Jon with his moped dubbed “Sexy Mama”

Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai is a popular temple up in the mountain that has magnificent gold structures and flowers everywhere. It’s also packed to the brim with tourists. After exploring the temple our group decided to walk to the nearby waterfall and on the way we ended up bumping into a sociology PhD student from Stanford who decided to dip out of the Bay Area and finish his thesis in while in Thailand. He said he was headed to a different temple and said his local friends recommended to check it out. With a flight to Phuket only a couple hours away and us an hour away from the airport, we did some quick maths and realized if we hiked the 45 minutes to the temple and back then we wouldn’t make our flight. The only solution was to hire a taxi to take us up there, but the issue was that none of the taxi drivers wanted to go out of their way to take us to this remote temple. After approaching at least ten different taxi drivers and using a combination of hand signals and semi-understandable English we were beginning to lose time and faith. Right when we were about to call it quits we bumped into the same taxi driver who had driven us to the Sticky Waterfalls the previous day. During that trip, Kevin bought him a beer on our way back and I’m fairly sure that simple act of kindness was what resulted in him convincing one of his buddies to drive us to the temple.

above Chiang Mai

In contrast to Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep, this temple had none of the fancy gold ornaments or tourists. Situated next to a waterfall overlooking the city of Chiang Mai, the only other people we saw were the monks. I felt like I was both intruding and being welcomed into someone’s home as I tiptoed around the several temples. We stayed for the sunset and ended our stay in Chiang Mai on a quite literal high note.

Legend has it that Wat Tham Suea (Tiger Cave Temple) was named after a monk went to meditate up in the mountains and he saw tigers roaming around freely in the caves. Nowadays it’s really unlikely to spot a tiger near the temple, but you certainly won’t make the ascent up without dodging several sneaky monkeys jumping on your backpack and attempting to unzip pockets and snatch whatever they can get away with. Kevin got his water bottle taken right out of his hands. For some reason the monkeys at the top of the mountain were much more friendly.

One of the by products of traveling in a country where the U.S. dollar goes a long way is that activities are so affordable that you’re able to do four times the amount of stuff you would in a normal day. On Railay Beach in Krabi, Jon and I rented a kayak for two hours for five bucks and the guy even let me borrow his dry bag. We set originally set out into the water while staying relatively close to the island that we departed from, but soon after we paddled away to check out nearby rock formations. I spotted a cliff that would’ve been great to jump into the deep water from so we paddled into this deserted beach and pulled our kayak ashore. I swam to this cliff and and after several attempts realized that my bare hands and feet would not be able to even get onto the cliff’s base with its sharp jagged edges. At some point my knee hit one of the pointy parts of the rock, but I didn’t realize it until I swam back to the kayak and we figured it was time to head back. Seeing the blood flow down my calf gave us an extra boost of urgency as we gathered our stuff and loaded up the kayak. It was at this point we realized that leaving was a lot harder than coming onto the beach. The combination of the waves coming in and our inexperience made it take five tries of jumping in and pushing off until we actually got around the corner and back on the way. My knee stopped bleeding after elevating it on the kayak and we even caught the sunset on the way back.

somewhere in the Andaman Sea

Along the way, we got to know a great deal of locals, but we also met fellow travelers who all had interesting backgrounds. In Phuket, we met Conner #1, who had recently graduated from CU Boulder and was taking a gap year to work at a resort as a marketer before heading back to start his new job. We also met Conner #2, a golf instructor from Michigan who had been living in Bangkok for the last two years. On Cát Bà island in Ha Long Bay, we met Grace from Atlanta who was planning on moving to New Zealand in a couple weeks to work and explore for a year. On Koh Phi Phi, we met Roman, our roommate in our dorm room who was also the hostel’s bartender. He’s a French tattoo artist who travels to various tattoo conventions around the world every year and bounces around from place to place whenever he feels like it. In Da Nang, we met James, an investment banker who had been working at a very famous bank in London for over ten years straight. He was taking a long sabbatical at the time, but he told us he plans on quitting his job and possibly setting up shop somewhere in Southeast Asia. At the time, he hadn’t even told his company that he was going to quit. Out of all the people we met, James stuck out to me because when he admitted that he was staying at the Hilton at his next destination he added a caveat that his friend told him that he had to stay there to celebrate their reunion. It was surprising to see such a successful person remain so humble and choose to live in hostels when he could’ve easily stayed at the most upscale hotels in the city.

Da Nang, Vietnam

This four week trip wouldn’t have been possible if we didn’t opt for the cheapest option at every airport and accommodation. This resulted in multiple nights spent in airports, multiple hostels with no running water, and in general learning to be comfortable in uncomfortable situations.

Mark Twain said “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” and that’s just a fancy way of saying experiencing different things can change your view :)

What am I up to now? I took spring 2018 off from classes when the opportunity to do a product manager internship came up. Although I’m not taking any classes this semester, Mark Twain also said, “Never let your boy’s schooling interfere with his education.”

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