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5th Xmas backpacking

14th book excerpt from 'Backpacker to Nomad'

Traveling life turns into ghetto snobbing

It had been like looking in the mirror. Every action, reaction, behavior, and mood was virtually identical. Step by step, from landing into the chaos to the tension visibly lifting, aided by a tranquil tropical island. Just as I had felt when arriving in Bangkok to feeling the soft sand of Ko Phi Phi Don, Tom and Vicky had felt the same from arriving into the chaos of Bali, Indonesia, to sitting on beanbags on the tropical Island of Gili Air.
It was the quietest of the three Gili Islands. These smaller islands lay just off the coast of the bigger island of Lombok, which was largely untouched by tourism, unlike its much more famous neighbor, Bali.

The ironic thing was, Bali was known to be a tranquil island, full of spiritualists, yoga lovers, and peace. In recent years, though, it was the latest Southeast Asian island to feel a surge of tourism, partly due to the famous book and movie, Eat Pray Love, and various digital nomads and ex-pats settling there. The influx of travelers and Western ex-pats to the southern part of the island had turned it into a mini Bangkok. The southern popular tourist spots of Legian, Seminyak, and especially Kuta were a barrage of traffic, mopeds, taxis, hawkers, and scammers, and had become non-stop chaos.

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Embraced the fear

The little, long wooden fishing boat rocked from side to side as Locks, the local we had got to know over the past few days, stopped the motor. He stood at the front, both bare feet on either side of the boat and thick locks flowing behind like a cape. His name wasn't actually Locks, we just called him that because of his thick dreadlocks. The three of us sat in the middle under a makeshift wooden roof.
"This is a great spot - we will see lots of them here. Away from the tourist boats. Out here nobody comes," announced Locks while studying the ocean.

We couldn't even see land anymore, none of the three Gili Islands, the larger island of Lombok, or Bali. We were just floating somewhere in the Bali sea with just a few gulls flying around and the giant ball of fire blazing down as it did every day. From the day Tom and Vicky had arrived, this was the number-one activity they wanted to do - so did I up until about an hour before I was sitting on the wooden slats of this boat.
Since Thailand, I had been pushing myself and learning to stop fearing the ocean. I'd been in the sea more than I ever had in Australia or New Zealand. But that was getting in neck-deep, with the safety of the ocean bed at my feet and the shoreline in sight. This was like the Great Barrier Reef all over again. Out in the middle of the ocean and the seabed wasn't there as an immediate safety net.

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Seeing is believing

Tom and Vicky had already wet their gear and put their flippers on, ready and eager. Tom laughed his head off at my expense, remembering how I struggled and was nearly dragged under the boat in the Great Barrier Reef. As I reached for my gear, fighting through the thoughts, one of my inner voices popped up. Fear and anxiety started to build.

Nah, fuck this, I don't wanna do it. Just say the seafood last night was dodgy and you can't do it.
No, we're doing this. We have been doing great, this is just the next step. Think about how incredible it's going to be seeing them.
Both started going back and forth as my feet pushed into the flippers and I grabbed and wet my snorkeling gear. We were not just snorkeling in the shallow waters or on the surface… we were going under.

The wall of fear needed to be bulldozed down, it was not going to win today. Southeast Asia had all been about facing, embracing, and dealing with demons, fears, and insecurities. If that didn't work, it resorted to sticking a middle finger up and just doing it without overthinking. This latest one wasn't going to be any different.

"You're actually going to do it? You know you've already made me lose a bet." Tom smirked, looking back.

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Ancient Cambodia mysteries

latest book excerpt from 'Backpacker to Nomad' travel memoir

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The unveiling

Darkness masked the most famous main central structure and walking along the wide graveled flat bridge felt like walking into history. Southeast Asia was full of temples, and although the architecture was incredible and intricate, after a while, they all looked the same. The novelty had well and truly worn off. However, this felt different. It was almost as if the breeze floating through was actually ghosts whispering stories of its history.

Goosebumps started to pop all over the closer the structure became, although it remained hidden in the darkness. Voices and excited accents from all over the world became louder. Most people chose to get as close as possible, but Alex noticed an open spot — one perfect to capture the sunrise, but far enough away from the crowd. We both perched on to the steps along with a handful of others on this small open concrete bricked structure.

“Have you thought more? Before, at the cart, you were deep in thought… was it about your decision?” she asked as she sat a step lower but turned back towards me.

“I’ve not given it much thought at all to be honest — just thinking about what this place is going to be like… you know, the conspiracy theories.”

“OK, well, you know what I think. But it will come to you, the right thing as always. Just do not force it, let it happen naturally and the right decision will come.”

“Yeah, I know, I will do, but not today.”

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Natural masterpiece

Alex untwisted, staring back out at the darkness as light excited voices lifted from the huge gathering crowd in front and the handful behind on the steps. Angkor Wat was one of the most famous ancient temple complexes in the world. It was up there with the pyramids of Egypt, and the Aztec and Mayan temples of Central America. But through ignorance, I had no knowledge of its significance or history other than knowing it was used in movies like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation. That was the main reason I wanted to visit it — to feel like Indiana Jones.

However, I learned it was the largest temple complex in the world, measuring 162 hectares, and was the capital of the Khmer Empire. It was originally built as a Hindu temple but was later converted into a Buddhist temple. All of this was learned through research over the past few nights. But more than its place in religion, which I had no interest in, it was its mythology that fascinated me. More so the number of conspiracy theories surrounding Cambodia’s most famous ancient complex.

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Time to become Indiana jones in Ancient Cambodia

Most conspiracy theories revolved around aliens, one even suggesting the whole complex was built in one day by a divine entity. I don’t know if I believe in that, but from the pictures and videos — and even sitting here not being able to see it yet — there was a mystical feel to it.

A collective gasp replaced all the light chatter in the air. A violet beam shot and grew from the horizon, the tiniest glimmer of light peeked through in the far distance. It wasn’t aliens coming to marvel at their own work, but the morning was breaking.

The violet beam grew bigger before turning into a lavender sheen, lifting like a curtain against the pitch-black sky. The defeated army of darkness started to retreat. Silhouettes of the surrounding jungle trees started to appear first before three large cones from the central structure made their presence known. Its appearance turned the gasps into cheers for the grandest of unveilings. The lavender sheen had taken over the immediate sky, but darkness lingered above in the distance.

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Can Tho Flaoting market

12th Sneak peek book excerpt from the travel memoir 'Backpacker to Nomad'

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Stupid o’clock Backpacking Vietnam adventure

It was still pitch black; my eyes were barely open whilst hiding under my hoodie as the wooden boat that resembled an oversized canoe rocked to the motion of the calm water. Alex, on the other hand, was full of beans as usual. It didn’t matter how long we travelled for, I still hated that disgusting floaty morning spring in her step. There was just no need for it.

“Oh, come on, Amit, look at all this. We are in Can Tho and on the Mekong River with a local and going shopping with her.”

Her words prompted a little snarl for getting me out of bed to go shopping. I didn’t care where we were, at the end of the day, it was buying fruit and veg on a boat — it was nothing to get excited about.

“If this was Laos then you don’t care about waking up early, you will be so excited, but because this is Vietnam and you don’t like it, you be a big baby,” she sniggered.

She had a point… if this was the wonderful, mystical Laos that I missed so much, I would probably be in better spirits, but Vietnam hadn’t done it for me. I felt nothing towards it. I don’t know what it was, but Alex loved it here and everybody we had met loved Vietnam, I just had no feelings toward it. In fact, I was the only person I knew who didn’t like Vietnam — I missed Laos too much.

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Just want to leave can tho

Finally, my head lifted and my eyes opened, but I could barely make anything out along the river. The banks were hidden from sight, but there were noises, rustling like people were moving around. However, without visuals, I couldn’t confirm what the noises were, which put me on edge a little.

What are those noises and how is this old woman even steering without any light?

Forget that, how did Alex manage to get us on a boat with this local?

There were two reasons we’d come to Can Tho from Ho Chi Minh City — firstly, to get to Cambodia, and secondly, for Alex to experience a river market on the Mekong Delta.

I was only interested in leaving Vietnam. What we didn’t realize was just how many tour companies advertised an ‘authentic river market experience’, which instantly put us off. We had learned — especially with our experience of the world wonder, Ha Long Bay — how anything that had grown popular became a hugely disappointing and overpriced tourist trap. Incidentally, that was the last organized tour we had done.

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Backpacking Vietnam local experience

It seemed the ‘river market experience’ had gone the same way. Alex didn’t give up though and somehow found a local to take us on a trip — she didn’t say, but I’m sure some money must have been exchanged. Alex had met this lady a couple of nights before and befriended her, even though she didn’t speak a word of English, so I’m not sure how that worked.

As we floated down the river in the darkness, a cold breeze snapped, biting at my cheeks every time I tried to look up to make out what the noises were. I could just see the local lady standing at the end of our boat as she lifted the giant wooden paddles she used to steer it.

She hadn’t said a word yet, just smiled in my direction as the boat gently floated down the river. She lifted one paddle out, rotated the other underwater, and alternated between the two. We had just set off, but it looked like tiring work. She lifted both paddles out of the water, letting the boat drift as another boat came into view — his lantern the brightest light on the river. Our boat pressed up against his, which had used tires on the sides for a soft collision.

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Laos Love: Mystical Vang Vieng

the 11th travel story book excerpt from 'Backpacker to Nomad'

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Vang Vieng as sleepy as the Mekong river itself

Anthony Bourdain once described Laos as a country that was "as sleepy as the Mekong River itself". If memory serves right, he called it "a land that time forgot, full of mystique hidden from the evolving world we live in". Bourdain was my traveling hero, hours upon hours were spent watching his documentaries pre-traveling life, and that description was all I needed to know I had to experience it myself one day. Back then, it seemed like another unrealistic pipe dream. But here I was, not just experiencing it but feeling it, breathing it in.

I felt it course through my veins while the soft current of this part of the Mekong River carried my weightless body downstream. My arms and legs reached as far as they could, the waves barely put in any effort, lapping up against millennia-old boulders. Birds sang just as softly high up in the vegetation that enveloped the ancient domineering limestone mountains - it felt like a Jurassic world. My eyes snapped open. I was on the bank, my body wasn't floating down the river, it just felt like it was.

What is this feeling? I love it, can I bottle it up and sip from it every time something pisses me off like Thailand did?

Fuck Thailand, it's over, stop thinking and dwelling on it, live in the now, this is all that matters.

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Backpacking Laos was bliss

Laos had the complete opposite effect on me to Thailand, both physically and mentally. Laos didn't cater to tourists, it wasn't the backpacker superhighway, it was raw, basic, and nothing but soothing. It was as if it opened its arms up with a hug and provided comfort rather than punching me, having seen the shit show that Thailand was.

Dry gavel rolled between my fingers and even that felt soothing as my eyes kept on climbing up the limestone mountains on the other side of the wide riverbank. The thick green vegetation covered the perfectly carved limescale, which added to the prehistoric feel of the place. I half expected a dinosaur to roam through or a Teradactyl to fly over. In fact, if one had, it wouldn't have been a surprise.

It was exactly the environment that was needed - the perfect setting to let my thoughts roam free. It was nice to have space for my brain to breathe. In Thailand, apart from the islands, it was all consuming, on the go all the time, and having to be on guard 24/7. Alex kept going on about how we'd had a spiritual connection with Laos. That notion was shot down by me, but there was something, the strongest feeling I'd felt, more than Australia and New Zealand that was for sure.

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Floating in Vang Vieng

It was becoming a common theme, although I didn't believe in having a spiritual connection with places, there were stronger feelings, vibes, or some sort of a connection with certain places than others. I didn't understand or grasp why it happened, but it did. Maybe one day I'll have the understanding or the answer to why. Right now, I was just enjoying this feeling of calmness and hearing nature in its rawest form.
Hours had passed by sitting on the bank, letting my thoughts drift down the calm river, and not even the humidity was a bother for once. The only thing that did concern me was the slight tingle on the sole of my right foot - months removed from the night of the injury and it still hadn't fully recovered. As each day passed, there was more regret at not having it stitched up properly. Once it healed, the scar would be a permanent reminder of another mishap and bad decision.

Nothing I can do about it now, let's go explore somewhere.

Pebbles dug into my palms as I finally got to my feet, breathing in the salty river air and letting it reach the depth of my lungs before exhaling slowly.

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A locals life in Vang Vieng

A few locals were scattered along the bank, getting on with their lives, not too concerned with this imposter almost floating along the riverbank. One took my attention - an older frail lady, with wrinkled skin drooping off her bones. In recent months, the more we've been around locals, the more I've realized how we' travellers' go off the beaten track to get a glimpse of local life but never really consider we're strangers intruding on their everyday lives. We are fascinated to understand and see 'local life' because it's the other end of the scale from most people's everyday rigorous boxed-up, all-consuming life.

Like this old lady, here I was just watching her do her laundry. There's nothing special about that, we all do laundry. It's because, by sight, a feather would have been too strong for her, but the way she beat the clothes with a long wooden paddle against the rocks, it seemed she had the strength of a bear.

This was normal life for her, but for a Westerner like me who would throw clothes in a machine or hand them into a laundrette, to see this traditional way was fascinating. It wasn't just the laundry, it was other things, farming, construction, and maintenance, everything was done using the elements they had at their disposal and making the most of it.

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Paradise hurts in tropical Thailand

Book excerpt no9 from the Travel memoir 'Backpacker to Nomad'

In the Jungle, the Chang Mai Jungle!

Book excerpt no10 from 'Backpacker to Nomad' Travel Memoir

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What's lurking in the Chang Mai jungle?

There was no denying that while riding the elephant, my inner child had burst through the adult suit and I enjoyed every second while peering through the foliage on the lookout for Bagheera, Shere Khan Baloo, and Kaa. It was only once the ride was over that regret set in.

I started to think about whether the sanctuary was ethical or not, it had been advertised to be, but then again, so had the tiger sanctuary. That place left me feeling sick seeing all the drugged-up tigers. The tiger tattoo covering my right calf showed my affinity to the majestic of all animals in my view, but I only had regret about that visit too.

The tiger was my favorite animal, sharing personality traits like being misunderstood, it was a protective animal with a reputation for lashing out. Although many tiger attacks are made out to be unprovoked, that was not true. They only attack if they feel threatened or are provoked too much and then they will rip heads off - a bit like me.

But there was no point dwelling on it, what was done was done and it's all about learning from mistakes. The painkillers had started to kick in, a cigarette rested between my lips and I lit it before detaching from the dead fallen tree trunk. All eyes were instantly on the hunt for things moving around in the dense green foliage and trees above, especially monkeys. Since the biting incident, I hadn't had the same enthusiasm toward them.

A familiar & welcome sound

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Dry rusty dirt kicked up from the ground. My limp had got worse and my injured foot dragged like a broken part hanging off the bottom of a car. Mobility had become an issue, the girls had floated away in front without much concern, however, Alex kept swiveling her head back just to make sure I was still in view.

Every movement from either side of the foliage prompted my eyes to turn into sniper scopes, looking through the dense covering of palms and vines, but there was nothing was in sight, jungle animals were the masters of disguise.

The rusty dirt ground disappeared and turned into flattened overgrowth - I was certain the jungle's inhabitants probably had eyes on me. However, away from the buzzes, zips, crickets, and croaks, another sound started to demand my attention. It was hidden from view, but everybody knew what it was. The girls let their ears lead the way as I trudged behind almost managing a smile. My inner child wanted to burst through the adult suit but was physically incapable at this point.

"Can you hear that, Amit? We go check it out, yes?" beamed Alex

Right here in the jungle!

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That was not a surprise, the three of them disregarded any concerns or fears about anything living in the jungle and were on the hunt. The canopy had closed overhead, but beams of sunlight shot through like lasers; all the foliage reflected different shades of green, but as the girls disappeared, I stopped for a second to take it all in, to feel it all.

I'm alone in a Thai jungle, this is as close to The Jungle Book as I'm ever going to get. Fuck my life, this is incredible, but it hurts so much!
Why does life like to hug and punch me at the same time so much? asked the other inner voice.

Laughter, screams, and giggles broke my thoughts and my ears perked up. For a moment, I had forgotten about the injury and rushed in their direction, pushing loose vines and giant leaves out of the way but coming to a stop before hitting my stride. The gushing became louder as I hobbled closer, adrenaline started to pump in anticipation. My inner child was desperate to burst out, but just couldn't.

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