Starting Off A Warm Summer

Phrao, Chiang Mai, Thailand 

On Tuesday, James and I arrived back into Thailand for our long-anticipated volunteer work with Warm Heart, a non-profit organization whose mission is to enable and build sustainable futures with rural villagers of Thailand. This time we weren’t heading into the craziness of Bangkok or into the paradise of the southern islands, but into Northern Thailand, where temples, mountains and rural villages define the region.

Our bus from Laos dropped us off in Chiang Mai, Thailand’s second-largest city and about an hour and a half from where we are living. There we were greeted by Carol, a cheerful, kind, older American woman, who works for WH. She welcomed us to Northern Thailand and organized transportation for us to our living and working quarters in the more rural area of Phrao valley. Carol was accompanied by one of the older, intelligent girls from the Children’s Home at WH by the name of Nit. I was so impressed by Nit’s English and her ability to not only confidently show us around and give us direction but also her quick wit and relatable sense of humor. She is now a college student in Bangkok so we laughed together about the hectic city and shared some “going out” stories. After a quick trip to McDonald’s and the grocery store that Carol thoughtfully suggested we visit before heading out to the middle of nowhere Thailand, we got on a van with Nit to the beautiful but extremely warm region of Phrao.

In Phrao, we met PJ, who is a chairman at WH and a veteran of the U.S. Air Force. Although a Thailand native and originally from the Phrao area, he had quite the interesting story and seems to have travelled to more U.S. cities than I have, having lived there for 35 years. As you can imagine, he speaks fluent and articulate English, almost sounding as if he has a southern accent he picked up from somewhere along the way. We asked him how he ended up working for WH and he told us when Evelind and her husband, the founders, met him they pretty much gave him no choice but to work with them on the non-profit since he spoke such great English and was from the region- an obvious blessing for them to have discovered. PJ drove us to the volunteer house in the village of “Sii Pradu,” about a 10 min. motorbike ride away from the WH headquarters, and then back to WH where we experienced our first lunch at the dining hall, sorted out paperwork and rented the motorbike we will be using for the next couple of months. Both James and I have been looking forward to having our own motorbike to ride around on and explore with so we didn’t hang around too long before taking it for a spin and then back to the Pradu house to get organized.

My first few days in Phrao were full of mixed emotions. I was slightly culture shocked, wondering how I would spend a whole two and half months in a bug-infested, sweltering hot house in such a rural area. But at other times, I was overwhelmed with excitement when getting to know other volunteers, hearing about all the amazing things to do around the area during free time, and brainstorming on all the possibilities to help WH grow during my time here.

My living situation is no luxury apartment, with bees and mosquitoes being a constant threat and rat poop-covered floors and counters being the norm, but it is nothing less than what I expected coming to work at a non-profit in a rural area. While even though we have not yet met the founders because they have been away, so far the Thai and American mixed staff at WH have been extremely welcoming and helpful. They have made me feel comfortable at all times and I have no doubt they would go out of their way to assist me if necessary. I have not gotten to know the kids at the Children’s Home yet but enjoyed watching them run around and chat with other volunteers who have been here awhile. I look forward to forming bonds with them and hopefully sharing experiences together that will impact us both forever.

As for the other volunteers, they are wonderful. There are three living with us at the house and two living at the headquarters who we have gotten to know best but there are three more as well who are leaving soon and keep to themselves a bit more. The ones we have gotten to know are all around our age, either in college or in their middle 20’s, and all American. I have not been around so many Americans at once since I left the U.S. almost a year ago and although I always prefer diversity, it is kind of fun to have that common nationality factor again. We have all bonded fairly fast considering there isn’t much else to do during our free time other than hang out together.

This past weekend we all traveled to Chiang Mai and booked a guesthouse for a couple nights. We had an awesome time exploring temples, sharing knowledge, eating at markets and having drinks at a few different bars and clubs. One of the highlights of the weekend for me was the jazz club we went to called North Gate Jazz Co-Op. The Thai musicians were incredibly talented and I was so fascinated by their ability to play a style of music so distant from their country and culture. Apparently Chiang Mai is considered the “creative city” of Thailand, and for good reason. There is no shortage of street art, decorative temples, music variety and uniqueness. From their own style of food and art to the calmer, laid-back vibes, Chiang Mai is definitely a proud, plentiful city. Progression is thriving but it also remains deeply attached to its tradition and culture which makes it so special. On nearly every street there is a temple that is distinctly different from the rest. It is not only easy on the eyes but also a very calming touch to such a large, busy city. While I want to spend many of my weekends here getting to know Phrao valley and exploring other surrounding cities and national parks, I am happy to have Chiang Mai in close proximity and look forward to at least a couple more great weekends there.

Tomorrow the real work begins in Phrao as the founders are back and will be throwing lots of information and expectations our way I am sure. Last week I brainstormed a fundraising program that I want to work on implementing into Warm Heart’s operations and also decided to temporarily take over the social media accounts for the organization. I look forward to finalizing my projects and hopefully making  some progress this week, not only in my work but also in my relationships with everyone at Warm Heart. It seems to be a wonderful organization backed by an extremely dedicated staff and a network of people who genuinely want to make a difference for the hill tribe villagers around the Phrao valley region. Time to bring the heat!

-Annaleigh

Note: Help me fundraise for Warm Heart by visiting my page here!

A Little Piece of Laos 

Vientiane, Laos to Vang Vieng, Laos

As an incredible two-week journey north through the beautiful country of Vietnam ended, a new journey through Laos began. We headed into Laos with a mission to get our Thai volunteer visa sorted out at the embassy in Vientiane but also managed to get in some adventure while there.

To start with the worst part, the bus ride from Hanoi to Vientiane was pretty unpleasant from the get-go. There was a huge lack of organization (more than normal for SE Asia), and it was just ridiculously long and uncomfortable sitting in the very back where we were told to go. Not to mention, going through the border to Laos was a really weird experience. After going through the Vietnam departure point, we had to walk about 1km to the Laos border, passing several old, unused official buildings on the way. It felt like a scene from The Hunger Games.

In Vientiane things were better. We did, however, spend most of our time at the Royal Thai Embassy, filling out our visa application one day and waiting hours to pick it up the next. James wasn’t feeling well so we didn’t too anything too crazy but did make it out for a night walk to grab dinner and see the night markets. I went on a couple other walks just around the area we were staying, near the Mekong River, getting the best feel for the small, Laos city that I could. I wouldn’t call it a pretty city and won’t necessarily recommend people to go there unless necessary, but it was very friendly and laid-back which I really enjoyed.

Now Vang Vieng is where the real fun happened. Just about 4 hours north of Vientiane, this town has a reputation for being the “backpacker party town.” In recent years, however, it has cleaned up so we were able to enjoy the incredible landscape around it without too much hoopla going on. We rented a motorbike one day and rode to Elephant Adventure Village, which has multiple caves and gorgeous scenery for visitors to enjoy. The motorbike ride itself was great because of the amazing landscape surrounding Vang Vieng. Everywhere we looked there were striking mountains and lush, green land with the river or a stream nearby. It made for a very peaceful setting and some remarkable views.

Despite the entry fee for every attraction at Elephant Adventure Village, we found it to be an awesome experience as well. We got to check out a couple caves and the “Blue Lagoon” there. At the first cave we visited, the “Water Cave,” we got to use a tube to float through its long, narrow passage. Because it was pitch black, we were given lights to wear on our foreheads. It was a tad scary floating through water when it’s that dark and everything echoes, but also really cool to be able to explore a cave like that.
At the Blue Lagoon, James and I were the only visitors. The family who worked there stared and laughed at us as we used the rope swings wrong and I splashed straight into the water trying to use them. They must’ve liked us though as they gave us a free Beerlao to split and showed us some YouTube videos they were watching. We exchanged names at the end of our drinking session together and then went back to our very different lives.

On the ride home, we stopped on the side of the road where we saw a pretty large party going on, with a band playing and all. At only 5pm everyone there was definitely intoxicated, jamming to some loud, Laotian, rock-n-roll type music. A girl on the dance floor gave us some of her beer and then we “escaped” to where the men were launching miny rockets they had built. These things were so loud and went so high. It was hilarious seeing the Lao men shoot them one after the other and obviously in some kind of competitive spirit. Before we left, I made sure to snag a beer and head back to the dance floor to dance with some crazy Laotians while James watched rocket after rocket. That party was hands down the highlight of Laos- what fun people.


As I write, we are headed over the “Friendship Bridge” from Laos back into Thailand. It has been just over five weeks since we began our backpacking trip in Bangkok. My heart is full thinking back on all the places we’ve been and people we’ve met in between. Coming back into Thailand, I already feel like a different person with so much more cultural knowledge and experience behind me. I can only imagine how I’ll feel when I leave SE Asia.

The next chapter begins tomorrow as we head to Phrao, a village near Chiang Mai, Thailand, to do volunteer work with a non-profit organization called Warm Heart. The plan is to live and work in Phrao for two and a half months before heading home. As always, I am so incredibly excited for the adventures and challenges ahead. For it is in these experiences I gain the confidence to be myself and the power to achieve my truest dreams.

– Annaleigh

A Simple Yet Plentiful Land 

Sapa, Vietnam 

Sapa is easily one of the most beautiful and especially unique regions I have ever visited. It’s hard to put a finger on exactly what makes it so special but I think a large part is due to its raw and simple beauty. While it is most widely known from photographs of its abundant green rice terrace fields, which first enticed me to visit, I found after exploring the region I gained an appreciation that goes way beyond the famous rice terraces and more toward the heart of its people.

As soon as James and I stepped off the bus in the main town at arrival, we were greeted by a cluster of Sapa women of all ages offering tours and showing us their handmade clothes and accessories in hopes we would buy. Although we had no interest, we smiled and cheerfully answered their questions because we were so happy to see their energetic smiles and decorative clothes greet us straight away. From that first experience, I immediately felt the charm of the region and was interested to know more about its people.

We had booked a homestay called “Miku’s Chill House” with a local woman named Miku and her family near the popular Ta Van Village, only 8km from town but a 30 min. taxi ride down a rocky road along the edge of the mountains. It ended up being a perfect location considering it was away from the more commercialized homestays and restaurants in the center of Ta Van Village but still accessible to some of the most spectacular tracks in Muong Hoa Valley. Nestled up in the mountains next to a rice terrace field, we enjoyed a breathtaking view and were happy hanging around the porch taking photos, writing and chatting with other guests when we weren’t trekking. In the evening, all the guests would gather at the main table on the porch and Miku and her family would serve us their “family meal” to share. There was tons of steamed rice and plates of mixed vegetables and meats to mix together in a bowl to eat. Although not free, it was delicious and a fun experience to enjoy with other travelers.

There were always dogs and kids running around barking and laughing, giving life and authenticity to the place. I loved watching the kids and giving my best attempt at interacting with them, although it wasn’t always so good considering I don’t speak Vietnamese.

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The best interaction happened soon after we arrived and set out for our first trek to explore our surroundings. What we thought would be a stroll ended up being a two-hour trek led by an 11-year-old girl named Ban and the two nine-year-old boys, Lou and Gang (names are probably inaccurate but that’s how I understood them). It wasn’t until the three kids ran after us down the mountain from the house that we realized we were being accompanied on the journey. Good thing we were though because they led us down a track we never would’ve found- winding us through loads of crop fields, across the river, to the top of a waterfall, through the jungle and then through some more crop fields and a village before returning. Along the way we passed chickens, dogs, pigs, kids in trees, toddlers playing at the mountain edge and even a baby holding a sharp knife. It seemed the further we went, the weirder it got. I was shocked at the number of children I saw free to roam around without supervision. Of course I was most concerned for the baby holding the knife and wondered how the parents could be so absent but at the same time realized how much more independent and mature the kids seemed to be because of that freedom. All these new discoveries easily made this trek my favorite. It was not only an eye-opening and awesome experience to trek with the local kids but also a great opportunity to learn so much about the region and lifestyle of the Sapa people.

In as little as two days and two nights, I fell in love with the simplicity of the villagers and connectedness to the land that defines their lifestyle. Aside from homestays, cafes and restaurants that seemed to be mainly built for tourists, there is hardly any commercial buildings. Especially away from town and toward the villages, nearly every man-made structure is a modest wooden or brick house, or a crop field of some sort. Of course the fields take up the majority of the land though so while you may be looking up at the mountains, a lot of what you see is farmed rice terraces or vegetables gardens.
What was so magnificent about this farmed land though is that it blended in so well with its natural landscape. It was almost as if you could tell the land was being used the way it’s supposed to- not for huge resorts, skyscrapers, and cars but for plentiful crops, animals and hard-working people.

– Annaleigh


The Journey North 

Dalat, Vietnam to Hoi An, Vietnam

Situated in the central highlands of South Vietnam is the city known as “Vietnam’s alter-ego,” Dalat. It is unique from other Vietnamese cities because of its year-long cool climate, abundance of vegetable and flower farms, and European city vibe derived from its French colonization days.

Dalat’s cool weather was a pleasant surprise when we first arrived to the city and immediately became giddy about the new place- so much so we booked an extra night as soon as we got to our friendly and super comfortable hostel called King Kong or “Kim Cuong.”

Dalat brought us the first of our personal experiences with the locals. It started with a “family dinner” we had with the hostel owner and his Mom, who cooked a feast full of authentic Vietnamese food for us to try. Dinner consisted of loads of steamed rice, pork and eggs cooked in a dark broth, salad topped with mayonnaise, and some soup. Just when we thought we couldn’t eat anymore, our bowls would be topped off again by our generous cook.

The next cultural experience came from the motorbike “Easy Rider” day tour we did with Mr. Viet. Mr. Viet seemed to be a friend of the hostel owner and always hung around the hostel chatting and laughing with people while convincing them to join his tour for the next day. He had us sold on our first night and we ended up following him around the Dalat countryside for a day. In between his stories and rants about American politics and his ambition to leave Vietnam, he showed us many of the area’s most unique features. We climbed up and down the muddy rock stairs to see various viewpoints at Elephant Falls, explored a Chinese pagoda, and stopped at many farms of which cover much of the Central Highlands landscape. We saw flower farms, coffee farms, a silk farm and a minority ethnic village situated in the mountains. Despite Mr. Viet’s broken English, it was fascinating learning about the processes each farm-grown product takes to get to the selling point we know it as. For example, how silk starts off as a worm’s cocoon and ends up as thick strands of smooth string before it’s turned into clothes and accessories. Who knew?

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Dalat’s Countryside

We said goodbye to Dalat the next afternoon after some tea and a walk around the city when we caught a bus headed north for Hoi An, a quaint town on the coast. The bus ride itself was an experience since the majority of the ride was spent winding through the Central Highlands mountains. It was raining for most of the ride as well which gave us views of hundreds of tiny waterfalls as rain fell down the mountain. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen or could capture on camera.

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Dalat City

Several hours on a bus later, we reached the beautiful town of Hoi An. Although it actually is quite large in size, there are no tall buildings and the majority of attractions are close together making it feel much smaller. Hoi An’s most notable feature is its ancient town called “Old Town,” which consists of many streets and alleys lined with 15th century old buildings and architecture that have been preserved because of its trade port replacement and neighbor, Da Nang. Once Da Nang became the prominent trade port in central Vietnam, Hoi An was left alone for a couple centuries, leaving it with is original structure and charm.

Wandering the streets of old town was entertainment enough as there was always something to look at- whether it be the vibrant flowers growing on the buildings, an old, ancient structure, or the pleasant view of the river situated in the middle of a decorative bridge and the charming yellow buildings Hoi An gets its essence from.

That night we explored the famous night market in Old Town and because it happened to be Buddha’s birthday celebration and full moon, we got to experience some of Vietnam’s finest festivities. There was parade, hundreds of people floating candles in the river (including me), and groups of people huddled together singing songs or playing drinking games. The town was incredibly beautiful lit up with decorative lanterns and candles everywhere you looked- definitely the kind of sight you dream of when thinking of an Asian holiday.

Our short but sweet Hoi An adventure ended with our own motorbike exploration to Hoi An’s pristine beaches, Cua Dia and Ao Bang, and then to the vegetable village called Tra Que. Tra Que ended up being a highlight of the day with its endless rows of vegetable garden and its firsthand look at Vietnamese women and men working hard in the fields, rice hats on and all. It was so picturesque and offered a genuine feel of the real Vietnam.
More knowledge and insight later, the journey north by bus continues as we leave these two amazing cities, and look forward to the new perspectives that lie ahead.

-Annaleigh

Saigon’s Brutal History

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh City, previously known as Saigon and once the capitol of South Vietnam, is a cultural and historical hub for Vietnam today. Being the most developed and prosperous city we’ve been to so far in Asia, we enjoyed seeing a variety of architecture and learning about its deep and intense history at a couple of the several museums.

The most impacting experience we had in Ho Chi Minh was the War Remnants Museum. This museum has a series of photographs and war materials on display that recount the story of the ‘American War’ (Vietnam War), as the locals call it. It was devastating reading about the torture and intense struggles the Vietnamese went through fighting off their government in the South and the U.S. while trying to earn independence as a country. While there is more than one side to the story, the museum basically demonstrated the war as an aggressive attack on North Vietnam, and the Liberation movement, by the Americans.

Regardless of what the whole story may be, there is no doubt there was an unnecessary amount of damage and action taken in aggression toward the Vietnamese people. The most upsetting part of the museum to me was learning about the use of the Agent Orange chemical used to slow down the evolution and drastically weaken the Liberation movement of the North Vietnamese. The chemical was so harmful that it destroyed much of Vietnam’s naturally beautiful landscape and poisoned many of the people, impacting multiple generations with abnormalities and severe health issues. The land and people are still dealing with the affects of Agent Orange, and will continue to do so for generations to come. In my opinion, it’s one sin to negatively impact the present people, but to also create a way to try and stop its evolution and make the cruel impact last indefinitely is on the border line of evil.

Reading about the struggles during the war, and the cruel and inhumane practices that took place was eye-opening. Although I had learned a decent deal about the horror of the Vietnam War from my parents and history classes, I never truly understood it or felt impacted by its cruelty until that museum. Seeing the war from the Vietnamese perspective was not only fascinating but I think very important.

Before judging an event or situation by one perspective of facts and stories, we can’t forget to take a look at the view from the other side. The feelings you develop and lessons you learn by looking at it from the other perspective will bring you that much closer to the whole truth.

Aside from the Remnants Museum, we also explored the Reunification Palace, which was home to the South Vietnamese president during the Vietnam War. It was here that many meetings with U.S. officials took place in a mission to destroy the liberation movement of North Vietnam. The architecture of the building itself was remarkable as it was an array of empty, open halls and a modern yet Eastern influenced design. The rooms were simple in design yet intricate in decoration, with wall pieces and furniture pieces representing the colors and intricacies of the eastern style. It was interesting to read about each room and the important war-related events during the 60s and 70s that went down in them.

When we weren’t learning about the past, we were wandering around modern Ho Chi Minh city. To keep it concise, our experience can be characterized by endless small alleyways of spas and restaurants, cheap “Saigon” beer, lots of Pho and an off-the-path local DJ club that gave us a whole night of hip hop music and breakdancers. Definitely a diverse city and incredibly unique experience I’m so thankful to have had.

-Annaleigh

Cambodia’s Primitive Paradise

Koh Rong, Cambodia 

Head south as far as you can go, then hop on a ferry, and you will arrive at Cambodia’s newly treasured island called Koh Rong. It isn’t much yet but that’s what makes it special.

Just a few years ago, Koh Rong was still undeveloped for the most part, with a few beach huts and and a small village at the main pier, but mostly just wild jungle. Today that village, called Koh Tuch, is crowded with backpackers, restaurants and bars, but there is still a lot left of the island that is hardly touched. There are still no roads- only walking / motorbike trails and taxi boats to get you around. This alone makes it a much more primitive island experience than most can find these days.

James and I stayed on a beach away from the main village called Nature Beach. With only one bungalow and camping style resort,  it was quiet and definitely more secluded, except when they turned the party music and rave lights on at dark. We enjoyed the quiet of it but also would’ve liked to be closer to the action going on at Koh Tuch.

Most of our time was spent swimming, relaxing and exploring near Nature Beach. However, the highlight of our Koh Rong adventure was the $10 boat trip we managed to find that included snorkeling, fishing, free beer & whiskey, BBQ at sunset and swimming with the phosphorescent plankton. Sounds too good to be true, I know, but it was even better than expected. The staff was extremely generous with food and drinks, and all the activities were a blast. Swimming with the plankton was a new experience for me and it was brilliant. Basically, these tiny plankton glow in the water when you move around. I’m not sure why they do it but it is so cool to see the water glowing as you move your hand across the water.

On the boat we also met a fun group of Vietnamese girls who taught James and I one of their drinking games, which involved putting charcoal all over each other’s faces. Then, after the drinks, we proceeded to learn a bunch of dances to their favorite songs. We had a lot of laughs trying to communicate with each other and sharing dance moves. There’s something so exciting about partying with people you can’t even talk to properly- gives you a new perspective I guess.

The downside to Koh Rong was that evening after the boat trip. It started with James and I walking all the way back to Nature Beach from Koh Tuch, about an hour long walk, in the pitch dark and rain. Probably not the smartest idea but a taxi boat is extremely expensive at night so we decided to go for it. I definitely wouldn’t recommend, however. After we got past the main village and resorts, I was terrified. Every noise made me shutter and every dark object on the ground freaked me out. We eventually made it back safe and sound but it wasn’t without some tears if I’m being completely honest. Of course the fun could not stop there though. About an hour after getting back, I got sick and remained that way throughout the night and the next morning. Cambodia, you got me. Fingers crossed I’m one and done now though.

As Koh Rong is not the easiest place to get to, with a couple long bus rides and ferry to and from, it requires a journey but is a unique experience if you get the chance. I was happy I got to see the island side of the country since the cities are of course chaotic, dirty and sometimes pretty sketchy. Koh Rong was our last and overall very pleasant Cambodian adventure before we meet the beautiful country of Vietnam.

-Annaleigh