Tag Archives: sunsets

Christmas in Cambodia & A Thai New Year

Angkor Wat at sunrise
Angkor Wat 
Growing up as a Korean American who spent most of my childhood and teenage years moving from city to city and constantly changing schools, I became accustomed to that feeling of being different and not looking like most of the kids in my class/school/town. Even as an adult with the exception of family weddings and funerals, it’s rare to be in a room with people who look like me. I recall fantasizing about the idea of traveling back to Korea and having that experience of being the “norm” rather than the exception and there have been moments in LA or San Francisco when I’ve had glimpses into that reality. I was excited about spending time in Asia for many reasons and this childhood fantasy was just one of them. Despite what we all see and hear in movies, TV and outdated jokes, not all Asians look alike and are interchangeable and spending time in these southeast Asian countries gives me an appreciation of our cultural, historical and even physical differences as well as gaining an understanding of what we all have in common.

I started in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, a country I knew very little about aside from a brief lesson in high school history class and movies about the horrors of the Khmer Rouge and the maniacal leader Pol Pot. I had a really sweet and friendly driver named Thon who waited in the morning to drive me around the city in his tuk-tuk and we communicated to our best ability with our limited language commonality.

Cruising through Phnom Phen with Thon
Cruising through Phnom Phen with Thon

Cambodia has so many adorable kids.
Cambodia has so many adorable kids.
The most memorable and certainly most haunting experience in Phnom was visiting Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, one of the most famous sites known as the “Killing Fields” where the Khmer Rouge massacred well over 1 million of its own people from 1975-1979. The site is now a memorial where over nine thousand bodies have been discovered on the grounds with unmarked graves and a massive Buddhist temple that houses many of the bones of the deceased. The museum does a remarkable job with an audio tour that takes you along the grounds through the history of the rise of Pol Pot and this authoritarian government and each stop feels more terrifying and tragic than the previous one as they explain how men, women, and children were taken prisoner, forced into labor and cruelly tortured and massacred. As I wandered silently through this serene and even beautiful place where some of man’s worst atrocities took place, I began to sob hysterically mourning the senseless loss and injustice particularly when I reached the tree known as the Killing Tree where the soldiers literally executed babies and children bashing their innocent heads into the tree. I know it’s mind blowing and horrific to describe at this level of detail, but it’s an image that I don’t think I will ever get out of my mind and none of us should as it is a reminder as all of the horrors of history are warnings about what can happen when people allow governments to rule without mercy and without any kind of checks and balances. I learned that Pol Pot like many dictators, rose to power using charisma and appealing to those who felt “left out”. He was a teacher who became a ruthless dictator and once in power, he and his regime started to roll out his plan to eliminate the “elite” which consisted of anyone in the country who was educated (doctors, lawyers, his fellow teachers), artists and creative people, the media and more and more people were targeted as undesirables.

The memorial at Cheong Ek the Killing Fields
The memorial at Cheong Ek the Killing Fields

Unmarked graves
Unmarked graves
I couldn’t believe that with this recent history of unimaginable horror, that the Cambodian people are some of the gentlest, warmest and most welcoming that I have met. They are not cynical, angry or resentful. And even when the government leaders were finally put on trial for their crimes against humanity, the people did not demand equal and cruel retribution but rather imprisonment. I find their ability to survive, forgive and be gracious incredibly humbling.

Kissing Buddha for good luck
Kissing Buddha for good luck

One of the many beautiful temples in Siem Reap.
One of the many beautiful temples in Siem Reap.
The rest of my time in Cambodia I was in Siem Reap where the temples of Angkor Wat and the many other ancient, famous temples of Cambodia are located. I stayed in a great boutique hotel called Green Leafe run by a Canadian who started the hotel as a non-profit business that helps train and employ locals as well as supporting a community orphanage. Siem Reap is a great town, you can walk around the city and peek inside the many tourist and local shops, stroll along the river, or enjoy the many food options that include western tourist friendly options like Mexican (totes had a margarita and nachos), Italian and much more. 

The temples in Siem Reap are unreal — and seeing sunrise and sunset at Angkor Wat is one of those experiences that lives up to the super-hype. Climbing up, down and around these ancient temples in the unrelenting heat and sun makes you feel a bit like Indiana Jones or Lara Croft (and yes Angelina filmed Tomb Raider at one of these temples).

You don't want to be out of shape when you're climbing these temples
You don’t want to be out of shape when you’re climbing these temples

Christmas wish comes true -- surrounded by handsomeness!
Christmas wish comes true — surrounded by handsomeness!
I was also excited to meet up with my friends Rob and Andrew who were traveling through Asia for their honeymoon/anniversary and were kind enough to let me intrude on their romantic time for a night out. Rob and Andrew are great friends to meet up with on a trip because they’ve already scouted out the best food/drink options and you can just ride on their fabulous coat tails. Rob arranged a 5 stop food tour where we feasted on a course of Cambodian cuisine chased with a cocktail. Everything about the night was delicious, particularly the company. And they were meeting up with new friends they met out the night before, a ridiculously fun couple from Sydney, James and Jonathan who later invited me to join them for Christmas Eve dinner at their fancy hotel. For two unforgettable nights, I ate, drank and danced with gorgeous, smart, fun gay men and felt like I transported myself back to my old life in Chelsea (NYC). It was the best Christmas gift EVER.


After an amazing time in Cambodia, I went to Bangkok a city I visited years before when my best friend Tiffany was doing her own solo travel adventure. It was a very different trip this time as I wasn’t with friends and the city was busier and more crowded than ever. It was also around this time that I caught a terrible cold/flu that knocked me down with a fever, chills and an inability to eat anything without fear of dire consequences. Oh and it was also my least favorite holiday, New Years Eve. So as I laid in bed shaking with fever, alone in Bangkok on New Years Eve, I also started to reflect on those people I lost in 2016 including my stepdad Richard, my grandmother, and two of my aunts. I was fully miserable physically and emotionally and felt truly alone for the first time in six months. It was in this weakened state that I thought for the first time since leaving the U.S. “am I done with this? Do I want to go home? Where is home?” So I took a random assortment of mysterious cold meds from the Bangkok pharmacy, slept for two days and when I awoke, felt a bit better and less sad. I also Facetimed with my family and friends, which did a lot to rejuvenate my spirits. And I gave myself permission to not be a tourist in Bangkok and I went to see 3 movies in the theater, including the new Star Wars (LOVED IT BUT DAMN IT WAS SAD). It felt so nice to just sit in a movie theater, eat popcorn and zone out for a few hours.

Bangkok has so many fancy shopping malls.
Bangkok has so many fancy shopping malls.
I also did a lot of wandering around the city, walking everywhere and getting some good people watching in. The sky train is a great way to get around the congestion of Bangkok and gives you a great, clean and air conditioned experience to boot. I have to be honest, BKK isn’t my favorite city and I know that many of my well traveled friends love it and I totally get it. I’m sure part of my impression is due to my own physical and emotional breakdown while there, but there’s also a seediness to the city, a darkness that I felt was palpable and kind of disturbing. You get the feeling many people around you have secret and probably sketchy sex lives and Thailand much like other southeast Asian countries has a major problem with sex trafficking women and children so that probably adds to my negative lens about some of the tourists and expats. But there are also great attributes to the city, the food, the energy and for many the shopping is some of the best anywhere.

Night market in Chiang Mai
Night market in Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai temples
Chiang Mai temples

I was excited to explore Chiang Mai after Bangkok as I have heard such great things about the city and I was ready to leave behind the hustle of the big city. I often get this feeling immediately when I get to a new place, even as soon as I land and that initial buzz often turns out to be pretty accurate. And my initial feeling was really positive and it turns out that I really loved Chiang Mai. The city is small, walkable and just much more relaxed. It’s set near the mountains so you have a beautiful view of the mountains from the city and there are temples on just about every block. The food is incredible and the shops adorable. I went to yoga several times while I was there and really felt like I was putting myself back into a more positive plane. I met up with my friend Vicky whom I met during Vipassana meditation prison and the two of us shared beers, good food, tales from our travels and even took a fun cooking class together. I’ll be ready to make you some killer green curry when I’m back in the US.


Tiff also insisted that I sign up to go to the Elephant Nature Park, which is a sanctuary where rescued elephants live freely and are rehabilitated and well cared for by the workers and volunteers. The park is in this vast and gorgeous open area in the mountains and they keep about 60 elephants that they’ve rescued from circuses, trekking, logging, and street begging. They educate the visitors with one of those rip-your-heart-out videos and give you information about how harmful these tourism and other businesses are to these magnificent creatures. We are taught how the brutal trainings, tricks, and riding these animals can cause long term and terrible harm to them physically and emotionally. We got to feed, touch and even “bathe” (really throwing water from buckets) on some of them. It’s a truly special place and I have had a bit of a love affair with elephants since I saw them on safari. The more you know about these special animals, their intelligence, their emotional connections to each other, the way they grieve loss, etc., it’s unfathomable that anyone would want to harm or hunt (WTF) them. They are truly special living beings and we have so much to learn from them.


I am so grateful that I got to spend time in Chiang Mai and put myself into a place where I could start to recover physically and emotionally. And in some ways it was normal and healthy for me to check in with myself about this trip even if I wasn’t at my optimum strength and clarity of mind. I know that getting to spend six months traveling is more than I could have ever imagined, but the truth is that I want to keep going. There are still so many places that I still want to see and I am fortunate enough to be able to move on to the next destination.

Sri Lanka: Soul, Surf and Snakes on a Tuk Tuk 

Perfect sunsets over the Indian Ocean

Going to Sri Lanka was a surprise to me since I hadn’t really planned or considered going there until I was forced to book a ticket at Dubai airport trying to get to India, but it was one of the best unplanned decisions I’ve made on this five month journey. And the next two weeks in Sri Lanka were full of surprises and the country is now among my list of favorites.

I spent a few days in Colombo, the capital city. You don’t find many positive travel reviews of Colombo as many sites warn you that it’s hectic, crowded and most people land there and head straight for the mountains of Kandy or the beaches in the south. I enjoyed my time in Colombo and after a month in India, I didn’t find it too crowded or hectic. Everything really is relative.

I was going to head south to a yoga and surf retreat about 30 minutes from Galle and needed a few things for the trip so it was nice to be in a city where I could run some errands. I searched for a new swimsuit as mine, along with most of my clothes at this point, was starting to look ragged. Turns out that looking for a bathing suit in a country that’s predominantly Buddhist and Muslim is challenging unless I want to wear a dress in the sea, which didn’t seem very practical for surf lessons. Once I abandoned my swimsuit search, I spent the rest of my time doing a bit of sightseeing and visited a famous Buddhist temple where I attempted to practice Vipassana meditation (made it 45 minutes of the hour but then I HAD to get up to check out a Buddhist drum performance), practiced yoga at a gorgeous studio near my B&B and checked out a very cool art exhibit which led to an unexpected and thought provoking conversation with one of the artists.

Offerings at Buddhist temple


I’m a little obsessed with monks

While at the Colombo Biennale Art Exhibition featuring international artists, I was asked by a young woman if I would attend a “performance”. I agreed and when asked to leave my purse with her, I took a leap of faith and left it with her and entered through black curtains into a dark room. I couldn’t see anything, but as soon as I entered, someone took a photo of me and the flash was blinding, there was this rhythmic, hypnotic foreign music playing and a woman’s voice called out to me as she took me by the hand and began to dance with me. While we swayed to this music, her hands landed on my hips and then she gently twirled me around, and began asking in a calm and seductive voice, a series of questions such as:

“Are you a terrorist?”

“Are you married? Do you have a boyfriend?”

“How much money do you have in your bank account?”

“Have you ever stolen anything?”

“Are you telling the truth?”

The questions and frankly, the entire experience was unsettling. I was surprised at myself as I answered the questions but I was so uncomfortable and increasingly agitated, but at the same time the music, dancing and this mysterious stranger’s voice had the opposite effect. After the “performance” was over, I had a chance to speak with the artist Venuri Perera and she was much younger and her face was sweeter than I expected. Her piece titled “Entry/No Entry” was about the immigration/passport control experience and as someone who has spent the past five months going through this process, her piece really reflected the awkward and uncomfortable dance quite perfectly. She shared her perspective as a person who holds a Sri Lankan passport, which I learned was one of the “bottom 10” passports in the world, prohibiting her from being able to enter many countries when she has been invited to study or exhibit her work. It was a humbling reminder of the privilege of being an American and having most international doors opened to me. It also added to my growing concern that we maintain positive international relations so that this continues, but understanding that the doors must open both ways. I worry about America abandoning our founding principle of being a country of immigrants and welcoming those who are escaping tyranny or just looking for a better life.

The talented artist Venuri Perera

After booking my Sri Lanka flight, I knew that I would be spending my birthday in the country and asked myself what I would want to be doing on my 43rd birthday on my own. I’ve been practicing yoga for over 20 years, sometimes religiously and sometimes not at all, but I always feel so much better when I am doing it with some regularity. So I looked up yoga retreats and found one called Soul & Surf, which combines yoga with surf lessons. I recalled a hilarious and memorable trip to Costa Rica to go to surf camp with two of my closest friends Andy and CaroLu back in 2008 and thought “perfect”. I loved surfing and always wanted to keep doing it, I’m sure I’ll still love it! So I headed to the southern coast to a beach town called Ahangama for what I was certain would be 7 days of a perfect balance of relaxation and physical challenge.
Ummm… turns out Soul & Surf was less Soul and definitely more Surf and I was once again going to experience early morning wake ups and physical exhaustion that, while different from meditation prison there were also some uncanny similarities. And it turns out that muscle memory doesn’t last for 8 years without practice and I am a disastrous surfer. The first day or two, most of the first timers (the majority of the group) were struggling, but as more and more people started to progress and I felt like I was regressing, I started to beat myself up harder than the waves. I kept thinking to myself “how did I get up the first time in Costa Rica? Maybe I’m too old to do this?” It was a mind-fuck and for the first time since I started this adventure, I felt defeated and inadequate. Thankfully, there were some really fun, hilarious and amazing people in this group and they kept me laughing and from taking all of this “fun” too seriously. I also realized that this was the first time in my trip that I came into a situation with specific goals and expectations, which is probably why I was feeling like a failure. Being a goal oriented person my entire life and then changing the script the past five months, it’s easy to go back to your old habits and I think that’s ultimately what kept me made from standing on the board. I managed to get both feet on the board several times, but those moments were so brief that I never caught that surfer’s high that I remembered from Costa Rica.

My two fav instructors Gus (middle) and Jelly (yeah female surfer!)

Once I reminded myself that I was actually here to have fun and that I am not here to become a pro surfer, I had a great time. Well, except for the time that my friend Jen and I were pummeled by wave after wave until a baby tsunami hit us and took us down during a surf relay challenge (yeah, Soul & Surf = intense). And then a couple of days later, my board flew into the air and landed on my head giving me a bump and pretty sure a minor concussion and that’s when I retired my board and just hung out with some of my favorite girls for beers on the beach aka my professional sport. It turns out I wasn’t the only one struggling with surfing and also wanting to take the intensity down a level. My new friends Michaela and Rachel and I all enjoyed relaxing with cold beers, talking about life, love and travel. I began referring to us as the Bad Girls of Surf Camp and by the end of the week, pretty much the entire group was ready to drink with us and mend their bruises, rashes, sore muscles and clogged ears. And despite my lack of prowess on the board, I loved the daily yoga and time spent with this group of gorgeous and interesting international friends. Shout out to my Villa 2 girls: Kinda, Alice, Maddy and Jen!

This really says it all about my surfing. Me and Jen post tsunami.
Last night at surf camp!


One of the craziest and most hilarious surprises of the trip was when Jen, my British surf camp wife and I were in our tuk tuk heading to Galle for our field trip, our one “free” day. Just a few minutes after we got in the tuk tuk, our driver, a sweet-faced and constantly smiling man named Annura pulled over to the side of the road, got out, came back to us and calmly beckoned for us to get out. Jen and I looked at each other with confusion and hesitated uncertain as to why we would need to get out in the middle of the street when Annura politely motioned us out. We complied and then noticed that he had a small broom in his hand and proceeded to move the broom close to the steering wheel where there was a SNAKE!! After he got the snake out on the road he told us to go ahead and get back in. Jen and I sat back in with trepidation and after she peered over her side of the tuk tuk, she yelped, “OH MY GOD! It’s coming back in! It’s under the wheel!” And we both leapt out. The next few minutes were spent watching Annura and other locals try and find the snake inside the engine, all of us laughing nervously and then they managed to get it out by squirting a bit of petrol on the engine, which drove it FLYING away from the vehicle. Don’t worry animal lovers, no snakes were harmed in the making of this comedy.

While the guys search for a snake, Jen and I take a minute for a photo.
Where’s Samuel L. Jackson when you need him?!
Gorgeous Galle Fort

Another wonderful surprise in Sri Lanka was that my niece Jinna was there at the same time, surfing the island with her boyfriend Tom. Jinna’s in her twenties and after suffering the tragic loss of her dad a few years ago decided to quit corporate America and take her talent in photography and social media to see the world. You should check out her beautiful videos and posts at projectinspo.com, but be warned these gorgeous images and people may cause you to want to quit your job and pick up a surf board. Unlike me, Jinna has completely taken to surfing and surf life and by looking at her radiant face, toned physique and fierce tan, I see that surf life has taken to her. When I think back to some of our times together in NYC where both Jinna and I lived before our nomadic chapters, I recall seeing the sadness of loss and grief on her face, it’s so gratifying to see the light shining so brightly within her now.

Jinna in full surf and happiness mode.

I spent my last few days in Sri Lanka staying in Galle Fort, a small and gorgeous little town not far from Soul & Surf High School. I spent one really fun night hanging out with the founding members of the Bad Girls of Surf Club, Rachel and Michaela (and Dani, Michaela’s friend). The last day/night I spent alone having a chance to reflect on all that has happened from India to Sri Lanka and to watch one of the most memorable sunsets I’ve ever seen. As I took in my last sunset, I had my final Sri Lankan surprise, which was a conversation with a local guy for about 10 minutes which resulted in about 25 text messages, phone calls and declarations of LOVE. We literally talked for 10 minutes about Sri Lanka, my surf camp experience and the U.S. and then he proceeded to try to convince me to have tea, take a drive, etc. and wanted to walk me back to my hotel, all of which I politely declined. He wasn’t a creep and didn’t say or do anything inappropriate except for calling/texting and declaring his love, but it was a good lesson for me that it’s not culturally insensitive to say no to giving out my phone number.

One last beer for the Bad Girls of Surf Camp

I cannot say enough positive things about Sri Lanka. The people are warm and kind, the island is beautiful, the food is spicy and delicious and there are surprises from start to finish. I look forward to seeing what lies ahead on the rest of my adventures in the east.  

Sunsets are good for the Soul