Heidelberg Summer Camp Days!

BJJ Globetrotters Summer Camp 2019 was the 4th BJJ Globetrotters camp I’d attended, and as I’ve come to expect was a truly exceptional and amazing experience! The week flew by in a whirlwind of rolls, classes, great conversations, laughter, catching up with old friends and meeting some new ones!

As usually ends up happening for me at these camps, I spent most of my time at the gym and didn’t actually get the chance to see much of the city beyond what was along my daily commuting route. It would have been smart to book an extra 2-3 nights before or after the camp to be a proper tourist… but, I guess I didn’t think of that in advance when I booked transportation and accommodations months earlier.

Summer Camp 2019 in Heidelberg


Heidelberg is a medium sized beautiful old university town. It includes a handful of castles and churches, a river called the Neckar running through the middle, and is surrounded by lush green hills in the distance in every direction. The city was far prettier than I remembered from the time I previously attended Fall camp in 2017. Perhaps it’s because the seasons are different – summer now instead of autumn. Or, perhaps having spent the last 6 months in South East Asia, I was now able to see and appreciate Europe with fresh eyes in a way I couldn’t before.

Summer Camp 2019 in Heidelberg: Bridger over the NeckarSummer Camp 2019 in Heidelberg: Small castle ruins


Being a full-time traveler, I had with me only 2 gis and 3.5 nogi outfits. I worried this wouldn’t be enough for the all-day week long camp training, but it ended up working out pretty well. I used 1 gi and 1 nogi outfit per day and did laundry at my AirBnB in the evenings every two days. Since it was summer and both of my gis are the superlight Globetrotters travel version, they dried quickly enough overnight.

Summer Camp 2019 in Heidelberg: Laundry drying over railing


Public transportation in Heidelberg is extremely good. It consists of trams and buses, with the main train station close to center. Tram tickets can be purchased from machines at the train stops. The machines I used accepted coins only, but someone told me that other machines accept bills and cards too. You can also buy packs of tickets or a week long pass (which begins on Monday only) at the main station. You can pay for the bus in cash to the driver when you board.

Heidelberg is also an excellent city for commuting by bicycle, with many well developed bike paths throughout most of the city. Fellow globetrotter Rich, a local of Heidelberg who I’d met online some weeks before, was wonderful enough to lend me a bike to use for the duration of the camp! This greatly facilitated my week in Heidelberg, my AirBnB room was a bit far away from the gym and city center. Giant thanks Rich, much appreciated!

Heidelberg also has an app-based bike rental service called VRNnextbike which allows you to rent bikes throughout the city. I used it a couple years ago the previous camp, was quite happy with it. You can rent bikes for hours, weeks, or an entire month, picking them up and returning them to any of the many stations throughout the city. These bikes are simple single speed only, but great for commuting around the city.

Summer Camp 2019 in Heidelberg: Bikes near city center

Summer Camp Days!

One of the things I love most about BJJ Globetrotter camps is the HUGE variety of activities that take place throughout the day. BJJ Globetrotters camps are very much a “choose your own adventure” format. The schedule is packed full of classes, open mats, presentations/workshops, yoga, group dinners at local restaurants, tourist outings, pub crawls, and dungeons and dragons games – just to name a few of the possibilities! Everyone has the freedom to attend as much or as little as they like. Below are a few of the activities I attended (besides lots of classes and open mats).

Summer Camp 2019 in Heidelberg: Class in the Training Hall

Conference Presentations

In addition to BJJ training in the main hall, this camp included presentations/workshops on a variety of subjects loosely related to BJJ, fitness/health, and travel. I attended the following three. There were a handful of others I was very interested in attending as well, but unfortunately wasn’t very good at tracking time and somehow managed to miss all/part of those.

Create Something workshop by Christian Graugart
This was an inspiring presentation/slideshow about Christian’s methodology for generating ideas and creating things.

Break dancing lesson by Charles Harriott
This was a friendly introduction to the art of break-dancing, with music and practice of the fundamental basics to get started. It was a very beginner-friendly class easy to follow even for people who have no rhythm or dance background like me!

Physical Therapy talk by Mike Velotta
This was an informative overview of neuromuscular therapy, body maintenance, and how structural imbalances in the body can lead to all sorts of pain and problems.

Summer Camp 2019 in Heidelberg: Mike Velotta's Physical Therapy talk


Summer Camp 2019 in Heidelberg: Duneontrotters patchesPossibly not something you’d expect to find at a BJJ camp but there’s actually a pretty big group of people who play Dungeons and Dragons at BJJ Globetrotters camps! Some are more experienced veteran players while others are total newbies playing for the first time. Can Sonmez (of Artemis BJJ in Bristol) is the unofficial organizer of these. I’d met Can at my first Globetrotters Camp in Leuven two years prior, never having played D&D before myself but interested to learn, and have been participating in the games a couple evenings every camp ever since! There are even two special patches available for players who participate in an in-person game at camps – one for regular players, and one for dungeon masters (the person in charge of the story and running the game)! For more info, check out the BJJDungeonTrotters Facebook group online.

This camp’s campaign was led by dungeon master Eva Gratze, a masterful storyteller who always takes things up a notch with beautiful costumes for extra game ambiance. We played on two different evenings with an pretty large group (7 players, whereas I’m used to 3-5). I unfortunately accidentally killed my character by the end of the second night (a first for me!), but as always had a wonderful time and lots of laughs!

Summer Camp 2019 in Heidelberg: Dungeons and Dragons game!

Evening with the BJJ Globetrotters Ladies

One evening of camp, some of the ladies got together for an evening of snacks, face masks, and nail polish to get to know one another. As a minority in the sport, it’s always a pleasure to meet and chat with other women who train!

Local Restaurant

Summer Camp 2019 in Heidelberg: Lucky bridge monkeyI attended one of the organized Globetrotters local restaurant dinners at a brewery near the city center called Vetter’s Alt. The food and beer there were great and I had a fun time meeting and chatting with some people I’d not previously met, or had not seen much of during the earlier part of the camp. I would definitely have wanted to attend more of these dinners, but waited too long to RSVP and spots filled up quickly! 

Black Belt Rolls Mini Quest!

Summer Camp 2019 in Heidelberg: Training with Liz OlbertOn the second day of camp, I decided to go on a small quest to roll with as many black belts as possible for the remainder of the camp! I wasn’t sure how many there actually were in attendance. 23 were listed on the camp roster as instructors, but I’d also met a few additional black belts as guests, so there had to be at least 25 present. So, I attended as many of the open mats as I could and began actively seeking out black belts! This ended up being a little more challenging than I expected, since all black belts weren’t present at every open mat, were sometimes incognito in unranked rash guards, or were already busy rolling with others.

In the end, I managed to roll with 17 black belts! I learned something valuable from each and every one and actually feel like I improved my skills more on this mini quest than I normally would in 4 months of training. In the past, I was a little shy about asking higher belts to roll but see now there’s really no need for that, especially not at BJJ Globetrotters camp which specifically fosters an ambiance of inclusiveness and community. Everyone I asked responded quite positively and was very willing to roll. In the future, every chance I get, I won’t hesitate to ask the higher belts (including the black belts) for rolls!

Summer Camp 2019 in Heidelberg: Black belt rolls!Summer Camp 2019 in Heidelberg: Black belt rolls!

Irish Collar and Elbow Competition!

Ruadhán MacFadden had spent the previous year studying modern and ancient styles of grappling from around the world and compiling some really incredible map and documentation of these (check out The Hero with a Thousand Holds). On the last day of camp, he gave a class called “Magnificent Scuffling” about an extinct Irish grappling style which he’d reconstructed using ancient texts and images. Winning a round consisted of starting a match gripping collar and elbow, not releasing the grip until an opponent was on the ground, then pinning 4 points (shoulders and hips) to the ground for 3 seconds. Following the class was a series of 6 “superfights” following that ruleset, complete with medals for winners and participants! The last recorded round of this sport was the Collar and Elbow championship in Chicago (USA), so these were the first official matches since 1877!

Summer Camp 2019 in Heidelberg: Elbow and Collar competition

Crossface – First Ever BJJ Band!

The final day of camp at the gym ended with a giant 3 hour open mat and live band called “Crossface” made up of Globetrotter camp participants, with Christian himself on the drums! They’d been getting together to practice in the evenings a couple times during the previous week, and sounded amazing! Which was really quite impressive given how little time they’d actually had to practice together. The open mat was paused for one of songs so all the participants could take part in a mosh pit. Great fun!

Summer Camp 2019 in Heidelberg: Crossface, first ever BJJ band!

50th Camp Party!

This being the 50th Camp, the end-of-camp party was a little extra special this year, located at event venue Altes Hallenbad downtown with guests in mostly formal attire. There was stand up comedy, a breakdancing competition, and a bodybuilding competition, done by Globetrotter participants! There was also a professional photographer taking pictures all night. And of course, lots of dancing!

Summer Camp 2019 in Heidelberg: Final camp party!

Blue Belt Promotion!

Summer Camp 2019 in Heidelberg: Blue belt promotion!At the final camp party, the Council of Traveling Blackbelts gave me the immense honor of being presented with blue belt! It was the most perfect ending to an incredible week of training with very many extremely talented people from around the world. Needless to say, it was a very proud moment with a huge sense of accomplished after so many hours of training, rolls, taps, and repetitions over the last couple years. Receiving a blue belt also feels like just beginning, an acknowledgement that I’m committed to the sport and now have some basic understanding of the fundamental concepts. It feels like the tip of the iceberg, a framework onto which layers of detail, precision and refinement can start to be added. Now the real training begins!

Looking back at the last two years, I’d just like to take a moment to give a giant thanks everyone who’s welcomed me to train at their groups (53 gyms in 14 countries!), and to all my instructors and training partners who have shared their insight and knowledge with me along the way these last years. I didn’t imagine a sport would have such a big impact on my life, and am so grateful for the doors it’s opened and for all the amazing people I’ve met in connection to it. It’s been an incredible last couple years!


As always after a camp and participating in such an immersive experience, it’s a little hard to get back to normal life and I can’t help feeling a little sad that it’s over. The “post camp blues” are a very real thing! Fortunately, Arizona camp was coming up in just a couple months more. In the meantime, I was on my way to Belgium to visit my extended family who I hadn’t seen in over a year, then off to Spain for 6 weeks. So, the journey continues, with no end to fun things to look forward to!


Beach Town DaNang

Reasons to go: VERY affordable, great infrastructure for tourists, small-town charm, amazing food, numerous cute cafes, extremely safe for solo female travelers, great “beginner” Asian city destination, beautiful temples, limestone caves, soft sand beaches with kilometers of coastline, bicycle and pedestrian friendly.

DaNang, Vietnam

DaNang was a wonderful city – peaceful and calm, a beautiful little laid back beach-town with temples, lush hills in the distance, and amazing food. And, it’s really quite magical at night walking along the beach with the tall buildings brightly lit up in the distance. DaNang combined very local vibe with excellent tourist infrastructure – I spent an exceptionally comfortable and relaxed month here!

This city would be an excellent choice of intro or beginner destination to SE Asia. Here, you’ll see very modern massive hotels and apartment complexes next to much smaller local homes and family owned restaurants. It has enough typical Vietnamese elements with local people going about their everyday business to make it feel like an authentic location, but enough tourism to make it convenient and easy to navigate.

People and Language

People in DaNang were friendly and welcoming – quick to smile despite language barriers, and generally happy to have the business of tourists. As in Hanoi, the level of English spoken was generally lower than in Thailand with many of the older generations speaking little/no English. But, with the help of Google Translate when needed, it’s really no problem at all.

Clean Air

Unlike the previous 3 cities I’d stayed in – DaNang had wonderfully clean air! No air masks or daily pollution checks needed this month! People did commonly wear air masks while riding scooters, but that was more to avoid directly breathing exhaust from the vehicles than because the overall air was bad.

Tourism in DaNang

Throughout DaNang you’ll see many new buildings under construction, many of them massive apartment complexes and hotels. It’s as if the DaNang just started realizing how extremely profitable and beneficial tourism can be to their economy, and is now in a rush to develop as much as possible to support it. Oddly, most of the restaurants and cafes in even the most touristic parts of town aren’t anywhere close to full capacity most of the time, which was actually really nice. DaNang seems like it could easily accommodate 20x more tourist that are currently present! While it’s not uncommon to see tourists (we’re pretty conspicuous) out and about, most of the people in the neighborhoods (even in the more touristic parts of town) are still local residents. This might be because I was visiting towards the end of the tourist season, when the summer heat was just starting to become extreme. Or, perhaps the rest of the world just simply hasn’t realized what an amazing little vacation spot this town is yet!

DaNang, Vietnam: Building under construction

SIM Cards and Phone Service

DaNang, Vietnam: Mobifone Next app, Mobifone ratesI purchased a local SIM card upon arrival for about $8 at the airport. It included 15GB of high speed data plus a local phone number (not something I needed, but included in the package anyhow) for 25 days. I needed a couple extra days of phone service beyond that so, here’s what I learned about topping up cards.

I was using Mobifone, one of the larger companies in Vietnam. To get more service on your phone after the initial plan expires (this system applies to all the companies), you need to first add money to your account, then purchase a new data plan. You can add money to your account using a handful of online websites and apps, but most of these require a Vietnamese bank account. Fortunately, you can also add money to your Mobifone account at many of the small grocery stores throughout the city (such a Viet Mart). To do this, simply tell the cashier how much money you’d like to add and which service provider you’re using, they’ll ring it up and help you add it to your plan using a code on the receipt and the keypad on your phone. 

Once you have money in your account, simply purchase a new data plan through the main provider website or through an app. I used the Mobifone NEXT app, which was in English and very easy to naviage. Mobile service in Vietnam is EXTREMELY affordable – offering such excellent rates as 8.8GB of high speed data for 30 days for $5.15, with no contracts! I still don’t understand why phone service costs so much in the US when the rest of the world can offer its citizens such cheap, no contract service.


My apartment in DaNang was the nicest and best-value accommodations I’ve had on the trip so far! It was a 1 bedroom apartment which I’d found through AirBnb, costing $385 (including tax and fees) for the month. The location was excellent – just a 10 minute walk from the beach, surrounded by tons of great restaurants and a handful of grocery stores, on the outskirts of the tourist area. The building was practically new, having opened just a few short months before. It included about 20 other units, most of which were rented to longer-term expat tenants.

Besides all the normal furnishing you’d expect in an apartment, it included fast wifi, free aircon, free laundry machines (with soap provided), free toiletries (normal sized bottles of shampoo, body wash, and soap), house cleaning 2x/week (and on demand), free towels (washed and replaced by cleaning staff regularly), and 24 hour security guard in the lobby downstairs. Which apparently is a pretty normal package for rentals here.

The security guard was completely unnecessary – DaNang is extremely safe. Security guards are just an added feature which most shops and apartment/hotel buildings like to include to make their establishment look fancier. The security guards here were young adults who spend most of their time on their phones and occasionally sleeping on the couch. One guard even had a fluffy pink pillow with bright cartoons for his naps, which I found absolutely adorable!

This apartment could easily have rented for $1500/month in US for location, quality and features.

DaNang, Vietnam: View from the roof of my building while hanging some laundry to dry.

Transportation and Scooter Taxis

Grab (Asian Uber) is extremely popular here. You can get rides to almost anywhere in the city for under $2.50 on a scooter taxi, and roughly 3x more with a car taxi instead (if you’re not comfortable being a passenger on a scooter). There are regular (non-Grab) taxis as well, easily found throughout all the more touristic areas, some of which are metered. There is no tram/metro. There does appear to be some kind of bus system throughout at least part of the city, and a shuttle system that goes to Hoi An (small port city to the South), though I didn’t end up trying to use either of those.

Whereas in Hanoi I avoided scooter taxis unless absolutely necessary (traffic was terrifying there!), here in DaNang they were actually quite fun and my first choice for going anywhere not easily accessible by walking or bicycle. The Grab scooter taxis in Vietnam provide their passengers with a helmet, sometimes (but rarely) a paper dust mask, are generally a little faster than cars, and cost only ⅓ the fare of a car taxi!

Coming from a motorcyclist background and being a strong proponent of protective gear, it still felt quite odd to be riding on a scooter in flip-flops, without any protective gear besides a helmet. But, I was a little reassured by the fact that in all the countries with scooters I’d stayed in during the last 4 months, I’d not seen a single road accident, which is a considerably better traffic record than your average week in Phoenix.

As in Hanoi, you’ll see as many or more scooters on the roads than cars, and all the same road rules apply… it seems fine for vehicles to go the wrong way down a road or drive on the sidewalks for short distances as shortcuts, there’s constant honking as a “heads up” to other drivers, and crossing a street involves boldly walking into oncoming traffic. Fortunately, the traffic here is much less dense than in Hanoi and streets have more crosswalks, so overall the roads are much easier to deal with in DaNang than in Hanoi.

DaNang, Vietnam: Scooter parking at the beach!

Biking in DaNang

DaNang, Vietnam: Traffic lane signI rented a bike on my first day in DaNang, which cost about $30 for the month. It didn’t have gears or a basket, but was in good condition and did include a small locking cable. I couldn’t find a bicycle rental shop close to my area but many of the scooter rental shops do have some bikes to rent as well, so if you check a couple of those (there are many), you’ll probably eventually find a bicycle to rent without too much trouble. People say it’s safe enough to leave your bike unlocked anywhere, but coming from Phoenix where if you leave your bike unattended for 5 minutes it will probably get stolen – I was pretty diligent about using the lock.

Biking in the city took a little time to get accustomed to initially. When riding a bike in DaNang, as daunting as it might initially sound, the best thing to do is just ride with the other vehicles (cars and scooters) on the roads. Many of the larger streets have intersections that are basically giant round-a-points, some with up to 5-6 lanes in each direction, some with traffic lights controlling which sides of the round-a-point are permitted to enter. The trick to crossing round-a-points is to position yourself in the correct lane before you enter the intersection. So, if you’re going straight through the round-a-point, you want to be in one of the middle lanes.

As a general rule, the left couple lanes are for larger vehicles such as cars and buses while the right couple lanes are for bikes. Except for when making a turn. Scooters are everywhere, with the faster vehicles weaving through traffic to get around the slower ones. Lane divisions are a loose suggestion though – drivers cross them frequently without warning. So, just be aware of your surroundings, use common sense, expect anything and you’ll be fine!

Uniforms of Security

You’ll see security in Vietnam wearing uniforms of many different colors, indicating their role. The three most common are tan, blue and green. Tan is for the traffic police, blue is for building security, and green is the general police.

Heat and Sun

I arrived at the beginning of summer, with highs easily reaching 40°C (105°F) and harsh sunny blue skies most days. It was a little unbearable to be outside from 11am until the sun went down, but so perfect at night once the worst of the daytime heat diminished!

Most local people (especially when riding scooters) very smartly cover up from head to toe in light long sleeve shirts and pants, sometimes with their faces wrapped in scarves. Women also have wide pieces of cloth which they’ll wrap around their legs like skirts when riding a scooter. One of the big ways you can easily distinguish the tourists apart from the locals is by the amount of skin we leave exposed to the sun while outside. It seemed very out of place at first to see so many people wearing what looks like light autumn jackets when it’s so hot out but is actually quite practical to avoid sunburn living in a place like this.

DaNang, Vietnam: Sunny days, scorching sun!


I found a much broader range of food here than in the previous couple cities, including bread (mostly light French rolls) as a regular part of some of the local cuisine – a leftover influence of European occupation. There were also a handful of more western food restaurants in the tourist areas that served things such as pizza, burgers, spaghetti, German and Indian food (none of which I tried, because I wanted to take advantage of being here to eat as much Asian food as possible!). I was also able to find cheese, oatmeal, and Kellogg muesli cereal in the small grocery store down the street. Restaurant dining here is extremely affordable, ranging for $1.25 for a simple (but tasty!) bowl of noodle soup, to $5.50 for higher end restaurant meals. Food was generally made fresh, served quickly, and had a very attentive staff in all the places I visited.

I had no digestive issues with anything I ate from either street vendors or restaurants. One of my expat friends did have some food poisoning problems (and missed a handful of days of training on account of it) from eating a specialty called “balut”, which is basically a partially developed duck embryo served inside the shell of the boiled egg. But, I think we can all agree that’s a fairly questionable food choice to begin with. I realize that trying all the food specialties is part of the cultural experience of visiting a new country, but that one was just way beyond the scope of the new things I was willing to try!

DaNang, Vietnam: Food!

River and Bridges

Through the center of DaNang runs a river, crossed by a handful of bridges, illuminated at night. The most unique and memorable is of course the golden dragon bridge, though there’s a very nice cable bridge to the south as well. The ends of both bridges connect to a large sidewalk that runs along the river in either direction, with tons of vendors and restaurants in the area. A smaller pedestrian-only bridge runs parallel to the southern cable bridge entirely crossing the river, offering a nice view of the cityscape with the dragon bridge in the distance. All the bridges are illuminated with lights of changing colors at night, which is really quite beautiful, and the area just east of the dragon bridge actually becomes a giant night market in the evenings. 

Supposedly, the dragon blows fire and water for about 15 minutes starting at 9pm punctually every Saturday and Sunday. Toward the end of my stay, I biked down there to try to see it in person. That Saturday night, it was exceptionally packed with people, making for a very lively (if slightly chaotic) atmosphere. Turns out, instead of the usual dragon fire water show, there was a fireworks over the river that evening! Which was still pretty spectacular, though I didn’t get to see the dragon blowing fire.

DaNang, Vietnam: One of the cable bridges and the dragon bridge

DaNang, Vietnam: The dragon bridge illuminated at night

The Beach!

My studio was located just a 10 minute walk to the beach, which was the first time I’d ever lived close to the ocean! I spent many nice evenings walking barefoot along the waterline at sunset. The entire eastern side of DaNang is made up of kilometer after kilometer of beautiful sandy coastline. Certain areas are more specifically designated for swimming, with lifeguards keeping an eye on things. These areas get a little busy on weekends. Other areas have “no swimming” signs. I’m not sure why, as the beach there seems as good a place to swim as any other, except for perhaps the lack of lifeguard supervision. The ocean is bathwater warm, with very soft fine sand and the occasional shell or tiny transparent white crab.

One thing to note – Vietnamese swimwear for women is much more modest than the European/American version, and usually consists of tank top or t-shirt over shorts. I did see a handful of women wearing single and two piece swimsuits (usually obviously tourists) so I don’t think anyone would specifically care or be offended you went ahead and wore those on the beach – you might just stand out a bit more. Following my general “do as the locals” policy and disliking extra attention, I went ahead and wore shorts and t-shirt myself.

DaNang, Vietnam: People practicing Falun Gong at the beach

DaNang, Vietnam: Sunset beach

DaNang, Vietnam: Evening beach

Fishing on the Beach

One evening, while walking along the beach, I came across a group of 8 people on the shore pulling in a giant fishing net shaped like a “U”, with the ends on the beach and the middle far out in the ocean. The people wore thick belts, similar to what weightlifters sometimes wear not to strain their lower backs, which they’d hook into the thick rope of the net. Every time a person got far up enough on the beach, they’d unhook their belt, wade out into the water at the front of the line, hook onto the net rope again and keep pulling. This went on for about ½ hour, with more and more random people jumping in to help pull, until there was a big crowd helping the original 8 people! The center of the net was filled with fish. 

DaNang, Vietnam: Fishing on the beach

Chùa Linh Ứng – Pagoda and Lady Buddha on the Hill

DaNang, Vietnam: Giant lady Buddha!This area, located on a hill to the North of the city, consists of a GIANT lady Buddha statue, a very tall pagoda, and a handful of Buddhist temples surrounded by open spaces for walking filled with tiny trees in pots and sculptures, with really nice views of the ocean and the city in the distance. 

Getting here takes about 15 minutes from the city center. It’s in the hills away from the main city. I took a Grab scooter taxi here, which cost about $2.00. The road is wide and in great condition – it would be an easy drive up for anyone with a scooter, even with very little riding experience. One word of warning if you take a Grab taxis here – depending on how long you plan to stay, you might consider paying for the driver’s time to wait while you visit then take you back down to the city. I didn’t do this, and wasn’t able to call a Grab taxi for the return trip since there simply weren’t any drivers in the nearby vicinity. Fortunately, there are plenty of (non Grab) car taxis for the return trip, those just cost a bit more than scooter taxis (though are still very cheap).

Being the middle of the summer and the middle of the day, it was extremely hot and sunny out, which I’d smartly planned for with plenty of sunscreen and bottled water. There’s a handful of vendors at the top selling water, coconuts and snacks as well, in case you run out.

To my great surprise and delight, while wandering through one of the more empty paths in the area, I had the opportunity to see a handful of monkeys! There were about 5 sitting about and climbing statues and trees for about 10 minutes before casually strolling off into the jungle on the other side of the path.

I visited on a Thursday. While there were other tourists around, the space was big enough with few enough visitors that it wasn’t uncomfortably packed. A couple hours would be plenty of time to see this area, more or less depending on your speed and how frequently you like stop to take photos or just sit and enjoy the view. Do keep in mind that the temples are a holy site, so remember to dress appropriately (pants/skirts extending past knees, no bare shoulders).

DaNang, Vietnam: Statues around Chùa Linh Ứng

DaNang, Vietnam: Base of the giant lady Buddha statue

DaNang, Vietnam: Gate near Chùa Linh Ứng area

Marble Mountains

DaNang, Vietnam: Statues at Marble MountainsThis area consists of a series of limestone hills with little maze-like paths meandering throughout and leading to shallow caves filled with statues, and surrounded by temples, pagodas, and more sculptures. It’s all quite beautiful! One word of caution – there’s a lot of steps and many of them are slippery from stones made smooth from wear, so flip-flops (which I wore) might not be the best choice of footwear. There is an elevator from the base to the top for a fee, for accessibility or just for anyone who doesn’t feel like taking the stairs.  

There is an entrance fee of 40,000 VND (about $1.70) to enter the main area, with an additional fee of 30,000 VND to see Am Phu (Heaven and Hell) cave. You can also purchase a map (which includes a handful of postcards!) for an additional 15,000 VND. I did get the map, though the area isn’t all that big and there’s large signs with maps everywhere, so you really don’t need one. Marble Mountains is an easy half day trip. It’s actually located within the city, about 15 minutes away from the city center by scooter.

The area at the base is surrounded by many vendors selling larger sculptures as well as little carved stone figures and animals made of various types of rocks in shapes of Buddhas, elephants, pigs, lotus flowers, and other creatures, if you’re looking for a souvenir. Bargaining seems expected, so feel free to try to negotiate price. There are tons of food vendors around too, if you need a drink or snack. There are also vendors selling traditional Vietnamese conical hats, which I absolutely love – they’re comfortable, lightweight, and cast a very large shadow covering neck, ears and face, offering significantly more sun protection than a baseball cap. Which is very important in this sunny city for people who are sensitive to sunburns. Further away from the base of the mountains are many shops that make/sell larger white marble sculptures. These are presumably for use in other temples as they’re much too big for anyone to bring home as souvenirs.

DaNang, Vietnam: Marble Mountains caves

DaNang, Vietnam: Marble Mountains

DaNang, Vietnam: Dragons, dragons, dragons, dragons!

DaNang, Vietnam: Great views from the higher points of Marble Mountains

Marble Mountains: Am Phu (Heaven and Hell) Cave

Hanoi, Vietnam: Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva in Am Phu cave, Marble MountainsAm Phu is one of the largest of the Marble Mountains’ caves and, as its name implies, symbolizes Buddhist heaven and hell. To enter, you first cross a little bridge with water on both sides containing some sculptures of hands reaching up out of the water like those of drowning people. Inside the cave are a handful of really impressive high-ceiling limestone chambers. It’s dimly lit, filled with intricate sculptures illuminated with colorful light, with the scent of sweet incense in the air and some low Vietnamese music in the background.

From the main chamber there are two possible paths to take – one a steep stairway that eventually leads to a little outdoor balcony, symbolizing the challenging climb to heaven. The other leading down to more caverns symbolizing hell, with statue of Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva (often associated with Buddhist hell) at the center. According to the internet, there’s supposed to be a bunch of creepy/disturbing statues of figures being tortured but I didn’t actually see any of these around so, it’s possible they were removed on account of being too disturbing for the tourists. There were a couple demon sculptures, and a scale (to metaphorically weight the good and bad actions of your life) though.

Hoi An

On one of the last days of my stay, I took a half day trip down to Hoi An, a small ancient harbor town to the South of DaNang about 30 minutes away by taxi. I took a Grab scooter taxi here, which cost about 95,000 VND (about $4) one way. I was also told that there is some kind of bus/shuttle that runs between the two regularly that’s a good cheap way to get between the cities, but I didn’t look into this myself.

Upon arrival, I first took a detour to eat at Rosie’s Cafe, recommended by a friend. It was located a bit North of the ancient city so in a less touristy part of town. Rosie’s Cafe was a pleasant little restaurant that could easily have been found anywhere in downtown Phoenix for the menu and granola-chill ambiance. I had the avocado toast which was delicious and came in a very generous portion for a very reasonable price. After having eating primarily Asian food for the previous couple months, it was refreshing to eat something so typically found back home. The menu is vegetarian/vegan friendly, and also environmentally conscious with things like reusable bamboo straws instead of disposable plastic ones.

I then headed towards the “Japanese covered bridge” and wandered around the old city center for awhile, which was EXTREMELY crowded with tourists. There were vendors selling food, clothes, souvenirs and tours everywhere. There seemed to be an entrance fee to go inside the Japanese bridge, but it was so packed full with people that I decided against it. It would be hypocritical to complain, being a tourist myself, but Hoi An (at least the city center) certainly lacks the peace, calm, and authenticity of DaNang. Hordes of tourists make walking around some areas (like crossing the bridges) difficult due to the sheer number of people walking across or simply stopped in the middle of the bridge taking photos. That being said, the old city center was quite beautiful, with strings of colorful lanterns hanging over tiny, pedestrian-only streets lined with pastel colored buildings of a more European style. I couldn’t really tell which of the buildings are genuinely old, and which are just crafted to look like ancient buildings.

Hoi An does have a really great selection of restaurants and street vendor selling foods/snacks, and many cute cafes. Many of the restaurants offer cooking classes teaching tourists how to prepare traditional meals which I didn’t participate in due to time, but which sounded like a fun idea.

Hoi An is also known for its silk trade and tailors. There are multiple shops selling clothes pre-made, ranging in style from baggy elephant print pants and light sundresses to business suits and more formal attire. If you have the time and money (I have no idea what something like that would cost or how long it might take to make), you can also have your measurements taken at a shop so that they can make a piece of clothing exact to your specifications and style requirements!

Hoi An, Vietnam: Streets lined with shops near old town

Hoi An, Vietnam: Rivers, boats and bridges

Hoi An, Vietnam: Street full of lanterns in the old town tourist area.

More Veggies Now

One word of warning if wandering off the tourist path, which I suppose holds true in any country… you might see some things which are somewhat disturbing to American sensibilities, or animal-compassionate people. While walking through a market away from the tourist area one day, I came across a vendor selling (living) white duck. There were about 12 of the animals not in cages, but rather with their legs and wings bound tightly behind them with ropes so they weren’t able to move, many of them quacking in obvious pain and distress.

Without going into the vegetarian/vegan diet debate, I’ll just say that this sight actually renewed my commitment to a vegetarian diet, which I’d gotten fairly lazy about lately in the excitement of trying new foods in foreign countries. But, I cannot in good conscience continue to consume a food whose production so clearly causes pain and distress to another living creature. I certainly don’t believe Vietnam in any worse in this regard than any other country – it’s simply that here you’re occasionally confronted with the reality of meat production in plain sight, rather than having it hidden away where you can more easily and conveniently ignore it. I debated whether or not to even write about this, but feel it’s important to present a realistic and complete picture of a place as I experience it, rather than glossing over the more unpleasant aspects.

Fortunately, it’s extremely easy to eat vegetarian/vegan in DaNang – a quick Google search revealed 6 specifically vegetarian/vegan restaurants within a 20 minute walk from my studio. One of which I’d already been visiting regularly in the previous month, simply because they had great food. These do tend to be higher end restaurants, meaning you can expect to pay $3-5 instead of $1-3 for a meal.

DaNang, Vietnam: Delicious little veggie meals!


My home gym for the month was MMA Fighter Club, located on the 3rd floor of a building near the dragon bridge. Training regularly was a little more difficult this month as this was the only gym that offers BJJ classes in DaNang and it turned out to be much further away from my apartment than I realized, eating up a significant amount of bicycle commuting time getting there and back. 

BJJ classes are held a couple times a day all days except Sunday, both gi and nogi. The class sizes were relatively small, ranging from just a couple students to maybe 10-12, with a larger percentage of lower belts, and travelers passing through DaNang dropping in periodically. Evening and morning classes are taught by black belt Reynold Garcia, and mid-day nogi classes are taught by blue belt Jeff Corra. It was Jeff’s mid-day nogi classes which I attended 3x per week.

Jeff and the other students were easy going and welcoming – I felt instantly at home training with this group. Jeff is an expat himself but had already been living in DaNang for a couple years, so was a great source of information for any questions I had about DaNang. Classes were straightforward and clear, with technique building off of previous techniques learned, branching off to show related variations, counters and defenses in a logical progression.

In addition to BJJ classes, the gym offered MMA classes throughout the day. The gym includes a good set of weightlifting equipment and with a boxing ring with punching bags along two of the walls.  

DaNang, Vietnam: MMA Fighter Club gym spaceDaNang, Vietnam: Group photo of nogi bjj training with Jeff at MMA Fighter Club

Weightlifting at Bina Gym

Training BJJ only 3x a week instead of the usual 5-6, I needed to find another physical activity to fill some days, and ended up weight lifting at Bina gym near my studio some days. It didn’t have AC but did include a nice set of basic equipment and weights, so that was great. It also only cost 30,000 VND ($1.25) for a single time drop in! One interesting thing about weightlifting gyms here – they’re carpeted, and all the local people work out barefoot. You could easily tell who the tourists and expats are were just by looking at their feet! I wore shoes and socks the couple times, before just going barefoot myself as well.


Temple City Chiang Mai

Reasons to go: Very affordable, great food, beautiful ornate temples literally everywhere, extremely safe for solo female travelers, relaxed atmosphere, modern city convenience, great “beginner” Asian city destination

Chiang Mai, Thailand

Chiang Mai is a medium sized city in the Northern part of Thailand, and was an excellent place to set up my home base for a month. It was, in all ways, an extremely affordable and very convenient city, with everything I needed (food, fast wifi, laundry, bjj training) within close, easy access. In addition, it had a wonderfully relaxed and peaceful ambiance, with a lot of lush vegetation – a much needed break after the two bigger, more hectic cities I’d previously stayed.

I quickly fell into a comfortable, pleasant daily routine here which I followed most of the month… wake up around 8-8:30ish without an alarm, have breakfast at one of the nearby restaurants, work most of the morning/afternoon with frequent breaks for iced coffee and Thai iced milk teas (so tasty!!) at the nearby cafes, have afternoon meal, bike to evening BJJ training, then have papaya salad and fruit or fresh coconut from one of the street vendors for dinner. This was broken up by laundry and the occasional day off to explore the city and do something touristic. My month in Chiang Mai flew by much too fast – if it weren’t for visa restrictions and the next part of the trip all planned out already, I could have happily stayed here much, much longer!

Chiang Mai would be an excellent “beginner” destination for anyone who hasn’t yet been to an Asian city. It’s safe, has many many grand temples to visit, isn’t overwhelmingly big, and has enough elements of normal everyday Thai life to make it an authentic experience while still having great tourism infrastructure making it easy to communicate and navigate the city.

Chiang Mai, Thailand

Chiang Mai, Thailand: so green and lush in some areas!

No Grab Taxis

Having become extremely accustomed to using Grab (Asian Uber) in Hanoi, first thing I did when I was ready to leave the Chiang Mai airport was to call a Grab taxi. Little did I know, Grab taxis are illegal here. The moment my driver arrived, four police men surrounded his car after some discussion in Thai which I didn’t understand, took him inside. When I asked the police what was happening, they thoroughly apologized for the delay and told me not to worry, that I should just to go wait in the car (which had been left running with the air conditioning on while they took the driver inside).

My poor driver returned about 15 minutes later looking a little shaken, and explained the situation. Turns out, all ride-share services (like Grab and Uber) are actually illegal here, on account of being an unregulated business taking work away from the official taxi drivers. The first offense is a 500 baht ticket (about $16), second offense is 2000 baht (about $63) and it escalates from there. This was fortunately my driver’s first offense. Someone later told me that Grab often actually pays the fines for their drivers in situations like this, as it still ends up profitable for them to pay the driver’s fines and keep operating in Thailand.

Ancient Walled City

At the center of Chiang Mai is the ancient walled city. It’s shaped like a square and is surrounded by a small moat, with many bridges for roads crossing over it. The water in the moat is covered with patches of lily pads with beautiful giant white and neon pink flowers blooming! There used to be walls surrounding the city as well, but only little pieces of those now remain. It takes about half an hour to walk from one of the corners of the walled city to the other.

Chiang Mai, Thailand: Old city walls. It's difficult to see from this angle, but that wall is a good couple meters thick!

Temple City

Chiang Mai, Thailand: No bare shoulders or short skirts allowed in the temples!I don’t think I’ve ever been to a city with this many temples (almost all Buddhist) in such a small space! You literally can’t walk more than 5 minutes in any direction near the old city without running into another beautiful temple, and it’s not uncommon to see orange robed monks out and about. Just a reminder – it’s important to dress appropriately when visiting Buddhist temples. This means no tank tops or mini skirts, making sure to cover the shoulders, and wearing shirt/shorts that extend past the knees. Also, keep an eye out for signs about removing your shoes before entering, or just look for many shoes out front as an indication of when to remove yours. Also (very important), if you’re a woman – do not touch the monks.

Chiang Mai, Thailand: Temples everywhere! 

Tourist City

Chiang Mai (at least near the old city center) is very much a tourist city. It has great infrastructure for it, with tons of hotels, restaurants, coffee shops, and gift shops in old quarter. You’ll see plenty of other tourists (from all over the world) while out and about, and the local residents are very used to seeing and interacting with the tourists. Even people who don’t really speak English usually know a handful of words phrases to answer common questions, and the food menus often include English translations. There’s even a special “Tourist Police” to help out with any issues when involving a tourist! Chiang Mai has a large expat population as well, most of which work teaching English (employment for a Thai organization being one way to get an extended Thai visa).

Chiang Mai, Thailand: pretty little streets inside the old city area

Elephant Pants

Chiang Mai, Thailand: Elephant pants - SO tourist, but SO comfortable!Many tourist clothing shops in Thailand (both Chiang Mai and Bangkok) sells a certain kind of loose, baggy, very light pants (or sometimes shorts and skirts of the same general style) with brightly patterned elephant print, which tourists seem to love and locals never wear. Nothing screams “I’m a tourist” like wearing a pair of elephant pants!

Knowing this… I’d refrained from purchasing these my entire first month in Bangkok, but needed new pants so finally caved and got a pair. And, let me just say, I can totally understand why people love wearing these! The super light, loose material is great in the heat, offers protection from the harsh sun and protection from mosquitoes, and they’re as comfortable as wearing pajamas! Zero regrets on this purchase!

One word of warning… I washed these pants (and a similar pair with a neon orange plant print) with some other items, and they turned everything in that load of laundry orange! So, if you get a pair, you might consider washing them separately or with similar colors the first couple times.

Burn Season and Pollution

Throughout most of the year the air in Chiang Mai is fine, but from December through April is burn season. This is the time when farmers clear their fields with fire during the driest part of the year in preparation for planting fields the following year. There’s a number of wildfire that occur this time of year too, due to the drier climate and lack of rain. This results in atrociously bad air, beyond just “unhealthy” into “hazardous” levels. People who can afford to often leave and go elsewhere for some/all of these months to avoid the worst of it.

I unfortunately didn’t know any of this when booked my trip to Chiang Mai and had scheduled to arrive a couple days after the official last day of burn season. Having seen a couple rather alarming articles and photos about how bad the pollution was, and having already developed a perpetual cough from the “unhealthy” air days in Hanoi and Bangkok, I was a little concerned about the impact this would have on my health. It was my hope that the air would improve once the official burn season had ended, but didn’t know how long that would actually take. I briefly even debated rescheduling the trip. But, having already booked (non-refundable) flights and accommodations – I ultimately decided to just go for it anyways. Thinking ahead, I did purchase a much more robust air mask before leaving Bangkok. Of course, it’s not possible to wear an air mask ALL the time (the inside gets damp with condensation after just a couple hours).

Fortunately, the pollution had cleared up considerably by the time I arrived. There were still a few days where the air reached “unhealthy” levels, and many more days where the air was “unhealthy for sensitive groups”, but nothing in the “hazardous” range, which was what I was really worried about.

I didn’t actually end up using my more robust air mask at all, and only wore the cloth mask on a handful of days. Oddly, even on the days where my phone’s app reported higher levels of pollution, it didn’t seem as visible in the air or seem to affect me as strongly as it had for the same levels in Hanoi. Perhaps I’d grown accustomed to it, or perhaps it was just a different kind of pollution (fires instead of vehicle exhaust) which I was less sensitive to.


Chiang Mai, Thailand: Shared taxiOptions for transportation in Chiang Mai are walking or renting a bicycle (great options near the old city center if not going far), renting a scooter, shared taxis, regular taxis, tuktuks (three wheeled taxis), app based bike rental, or the bus. There is no metro or tram system in Chiang Mai.

You’ll see red shared taxis vans throughout most of Chiang Mai, they’re extremely common and easy to find. The back of the vans is opened, lined with two rows of benches facing each other to accommodate about 10 people. The fare is based on the number of people in the vehicle, the number of people in your group, and how far you’re going. In the busier areas, the taxi has predefined stops and will wait until the vehicle is full before leaving, meaning you might have to wait 5-15 minutes before they depart. When leaving from one of the more touristic areas when the taxi is full, the rates are very cheap. If you’re the only person in the taxi, the driver will take you exactly where you want to go (as opposed to a predefined stop), but you’ll end up paying a lot more.

As mentioned above, ride-share services such as Grab are illegal, though there are still quite a few drivers operating throughout the city. The few times I considered using Grab, a quick comparison of rates at that time of day showed that they weren’t actually significantly cheaper than using the shared taxis though, so I ended up using the official shared taxis instead.

Besides that, it is possible to get regular taxis as well. I used one to get to the airport on my last day since I was leaving at 5am (with a suitcase) and didn’t have great confidence there would be shared taxis operating and easy to find at that time of day.

Chiang Mai has two app based options for transportation: Mobike (for bicycles) and Neuron (for little electric scooters). There are bikes/scooters scattered throughout the city, an app on your phone lets you unlock a vehicle, you pay for the short time you’re using it, and you’re not obligated to return it to a specific point. Mobikes sounded like a really great idea and I initially did want to go that route instead of renting a bike for the month, but a glitch in the app didn’t allow it to function properly on my phone. I contacted the company about this via email, but they never replied.

There is a bus system in Chiang Mai as well, though I didn’t actually try using it. You’ll need to use the app ViaBus to get information on routes, since Google Maps doesn’t provide bus information, and searching for it online isn’t helpful (unless maybe you’re fluent in Thai).

One word of warning for those renting scooters/motorbikes: I very frequently saw scooter check points on the roads along the old city wall, where police would restrict the road and everyone on a scooter (tourist and local alike) had to pull over and present some documents. I’m not sure what those documents entailed since didn’t rent a scooter myself, but whatever they are – do make sure to carry them with you while driving to avoid fines or tickets!

Biking in Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai, Thailand: My bike hanging out in the scooter parking lotSometime in the first couple days of my stay in Chiang Mai, I went ahead and rented a bicycle for the month, which turned out to be a really brilliant idea! Not only was it fun to ride, it was awesome to have my own transportation instead of relying on taxis. The rates for bicycle rentals at a couple different shops ranged from 900baht to 1500baht ($28-$48) per month for a basic street bike. I went with the cheaper bike, which was a somewhat older/simple model but worked (mostly) fine. It came with a basket on the front, a bell, a friction powered front light, and a lock and chain large enough to lock the back wheel to the frame. It didn’t include a helmet, which isn’t required here. The gears on my bike didn’t really work but were stuck in one of the higher gears, which was fine for getting around town on flat streets.

Riding a bike on the larger streets made me a little nervous at first, mostly because I’m not accustomed to riding bicycles on the street at all, and there’s no dedicated bike lanes here. But, after a couple days of getting accustomed to my bike and the roads, it was really no problem at all! Bikes here ride mostly on the far left (all traffic in Thailand drives on the left), and share that lane with scooters, parked scooters, moving cars, and parked cars. I learned that it’s best to just ride at as steady, even pace and not make any sudden stops, speed changes, or sharp turns – the faster cars and scooters will adjust their path accordingly when needed. I had the general impression that drivers were much more aware of bikes here than in US. This is probably due to the huge amount of scooters, bikes and pedestrians using the roads, which makes drivers much more accustomed to looking out for these smaller vehicles.


One odd thing to be aware of – intersections work a little differently here than in US and Europe. In those countries when the intersection is a square (two roads crossing), opposing lanes are given green lights and permitted to go at the same time. Here in Chiang Mai, each side of the square at the intersection takes a turn going when their light is green, during which the other three sides have red lights and must wait. Another important thing to keep in mind is that people drive on the left here.

Summertime Days

Summer starts around April in Chiang Mai, so it was extremely hot 40°C (100°F) most days with little/no rain while I was here. Throughout most of the day, but especially between 11am – 4pm, the city was a ghost town. It was just so unbearably hot that people didn’t want to spend any more time than absolutely necessary outside!

Fortunately, many indoor places in Chiang Mai do have air conditioning. Many restaurants are covered with an open-air wall and fans but no air conditioning, however. So, for someone unaccustomed to the heat, summer might not be the best time to visit this city. If you do visit in summer – make sure to have plenty of sunscreen and water when you go outside for longer periods of time, as well as mosquito repellent (especially if going into the woods or on the outskirts of the city).

The evenings in Chiang Mai were wonderful though, once the day time heat was reduced to just pleasantly warm, without the bright harshness of the sun. In the evening, the town became much more lively with people of all ages (families, couples, groups of friends, tourists) walking around, hanging out in front of their homes or at tables out front of cafes, and street vendors open selling various snacks.

Chiang Mai, Thailand: Open-air restaurant

Delicious Thai Food

Chiang Mai, Thailand: Wooden bowl and pestle used by street vendors to make fresh papaya saladsThai food here continued to be amazing, including various combinations of rice, noodles, light soups, veggies, meat, dumplings and sauce. The food here seemed overall sweeter and less spicy than in Bangkok. I could be less cautious about making certain not to order spicy meals and there was more on the menus that wasn’t spicy to choose from.

Throughout the city, there were many street vendors which specialized in selling specific items such as smoothies, papaya salads (made fresh in a giant wooden bowl and pestle!), meat on a stick (freshly fried in oil), ice cream with toppings of choice, and fresh fruits. The papaya salads and watermelon smoothies were my favorite – the perfect refreshing meal and drink on a hot evening!

Chiang Mai, Thailand: Delicious Thai food!


Coffee was VERY affordable here, about $1.00 for a large iced mocha with whipped cream which would have easily cost 4x that at Starbucks in the US! The coffees here use condensed milk instead of regular milk, and the whipped cream is much lighter with less of a dairy base than in the US, which I actually prefer. There’s also a huge assortment of smoothies and milk iced teas for similar pricing, all of which are pretty delicious. Gotta try them all!


Before going to Thailand, I’d heard plenty of warnings about the importance of being careful with the water, making sure to consume only water and ice from bottled sources due to high levels of bacteria etc. in the local water that would make me sick. Well, I DID drink water and I DID have ice cubes whenever offered in restaurants without confirming the source was bottled… and had zero digestive issues the entire time I was here. Most restaurants do additionally have bottled water available though, for anyone uncomfortable with drinking their normal water. Only the newer tourists actually purchase those though.

The host of my AirBnB accommodations offered free bottled water from a water delivery service for all the guests (so I didn’t drink water directly from the tap there). This probably saved me at least $100 with how much water I was drinking, given how hot it was!

Buddhist Temple Wat Pha Lat

One of my tourist days off was spent walking the “Monk’s Trail” up to Wat Pha Lat (one of the temples on top of a hill). The starting point of the trail was roughly 15 min away from my studio by taxi. I had briefly considered riding my bike there, but wasn’t sure if there would be a good place to leave the bike, or if I’d be returning to the same point afterwards. In hindsight, I’m very glad I decided to take the taxi! The trail head was further away than I imagined when looking at a map, and the last part of the road included a handful of very steep inclines, which would not have been fun riding on a very hot and cloudless day.

From the trail head, the hike up to Wat Pha Lat meandered through the forest (which got progressively denser the further up you went), going steadily upwards the entire time. Along the way you can see knots of orange cloth (like the monk’s robes) tied to trees marking the path, many of which are now pretty faded with time. Even without these markers, the path is very clearly visible. I tried to imagine what it must have been like to be a monk walking this path to get to the temple in sandals every day. The trail wasn’t too long or too difficult, taking about 45 minutes to get to Wat Pha Lat. I’d say it’s pretty accessible to anyone, even kids or people without any athletic abilities.

One word of warming – ants were everywhere in the forest. There were lots of mosquitoes too, which largely completely ignored the copious amounts of mosquito repellent I’d applied and went ahead and bit me anyways.

Chiang Mai, Thailand: Monk's Trail up to Wat Pha Lat

Chiang Mai, Thailand: Orange cloth tied to trees marking the path of Monk's Trail up to Wat Pha Lat

Chiang Mai, Thailand: Bamboo bridge at the end of Monk's Trail up to Wat Pha Lat

Chiang Mai, Thailand: A little piece of nature reclaiming the walls of Wat Pha LatWat Pha Lat at the top was very lovely – very well taken care of, with many beautiful and ornate stone sculptures and a few plants creeping in as if nature had started reclaiming the buildings. It had a very peaceful and calm atmosphere, and while there were a handful of other visitors, it was not overwhelmingly full of tourists. Heading further up the road you can find two smaller (also very pretty) temple buildings, with statues of Buddha inside.

Chiang Mai, Thailand: Buddhas in one of the buildings of Wat Pha Lat

Chiang Mai, Thailand: Wat Pha Lat

Chiang Mai, Thailand: Wat Pha Lat

Chiang Mai, Thailand: One of the smaller temples near the main road at Wat Pha Lat

Chiang Mai, Thailand: wild lilies in bloom along the Nature TrailFrom Wat Pha Lat, you can actually keep hiking to Doi Suthep (another larger but far more busy and touristic temple) by taking the Nature Trail. This trail was also well maintained and clear to follow, but is a bit more strenuous – it goes basically uphill at the steepness of a staircase the entire way. Directions to the Nature Trail are as follows… to find the trail head, leave Wat Pha Lat following the street uphill until you get to the main road. Cross the main street, and follow it uphill (towards the left) for about 5 minutes. The Nature Trail is the first path going off into the forest that you’ll encounter on your right, where the power lines cross. The trail continues to follow the power lines up the entire way – this is an easy indication that you’re on the right trail. Eventually (after maybe 45 minutes), the Nature Trail will come to the main road, which you can follow uphill for about 5 more minutes more to get to the Doi Suthep area. This area is super touristic, including a little market with lots of food stalls, gift and clothing shops.

BJJ Competition

There was by chance a small local BJJ competition in Chiang Mai happening one of the Saturdays I was there. I briefly thought about signing up last-minute but couldn’t find any info online, so decided just to spectate instead. The competition was located on 5th floor of a mostly unused section of a huge mall and was initially a little hard to find. I asked a few people in the mall where it was, but either they didn’t understand me (I don’t speak Thai, most didn’t speak much English) or they didn’t know anything about it. Also, the mall was a bit of a maze and I wouldn’t have guessed a competition to be located in one of the more unused areas. After some unsuccessful wandering around for awhile, I texted one of my gym mates who met me downstairs to show me the way.

The competition took place in a single large room which was also having a taekwondo competition that day as well, so was pretty lively and full. The BJJ area consisted of one mat, with a very big group of kids competing. Spectators were allowed to sit right up close to the edges of the mat, which was cool. Most of the competitors were local, though one group of participants had driven up from Chiang Rai (3 hours away). I ran into a friend from Bangkok there as well, who happened to be in Chiang Mai for work. Two of my Pure Grappling gym mates competed and did well – lost some rounds, won some rounds. All in all, a pretty fun day!

Chiang Mai, Thailand: Unused section of the mall on the way to the competition

Chiang Mai, Thailand: Local BJJ competition

Training at Pure Grappling

Pure Grappling (BJJ Globetrotters affiliated!) became my home gym while in Chiang Mai, where I trained 6x/week in the evenings. It’s actually run by a group based out of Singapore with no permanent full-time instructor at the location in Chiang Mai. Instructors from the group in Singapore take turns living and working here, for something like 4-5 months at a time. The instructor while I was here was Charlie (Carlos Alcayaga), a brown belt from Argentina.

I had a wonderful time training at Pure Grappling! Class was given in English, with students being a mix of expats and local residents. This gym frequently received single-time drop in tourist visitors too. Because a big majority of the class was lower-belts, a lot of the material we covered was the important fundamentals, which I feel like I can always use more of. Charlie’s classes were very clear and well-organized. There was strong emphasis on detail and strong continuity from one class to the other, with technique building upon what was previously learned in the days and weeks before. We spent a lot of time drilling and fine-tuning the same movements, which resulted in those becoming much more smooth and intuitive toward the end of the month.

The gym was small but was very clean, including two rooms with nice mats and padded walls, a changing room, two bathrooms and a shower. Only the smaller downstairs room included air conditioning, which we used when the class size wasn’t too big. The gym also included quality air filters, making it possible to train even on high pollution days in Chiang Mai.

Chiang Mai, Thailand: Pure Grappling BJJ upstairs room

Chiang Mai, Thailand: Part of the Pure Grappling BJJ group

Training at Chiang Mai BJJ

The other gym I had the opportunity to visit (for a single time drop-in) was Chiang Mai BJJ. The students and instructor were very welcoming, technique very clear and detail-oriented, and I had some nice rolls there!

Winter in Budapest, Hungary

Reasons to go: Affordable, great food, many historical sites, buildings/sculptures/monuments of breathtaking grandeur, ruins pubs, thermal baths, caves, markets, great public transport, pedestrian friendly city center, safe for solo female travelers, many BJJ gyms

Budapest Parliament building

Budapest is SO grand! Everything about it is on a scale just a little larger than a normal life. The streets are spacious, city center is huge. Concrete buildings span block after block many stories high. The facades of even ordinary buildings are beautifully ornate with carved stone textures and romantic figures. It really seems like you can’t walk 5 minutes in any direction without running into another beautiful monument, statue or city view!

Budapest statues

Budapest was originally 2 separate cities (Buda and Pest) which were combined in the 19th century and now function smoothly as one. The Buda side (which has nothing to do with the Buddhist religion/philosophy) is on the left, the Pest side on the right. The Danube river run between the two sides of the city and is crossed by 8 bridges – massive things spanning many lanes of traffic, with spacious sidewalks on both sides and tram lanes down in the middle. You can feel the vibrations of the trams in the soles of your feet as they pass while you’re walking across. Each bridge is built in a different style and has a unique history about how it was built.

Budapest bridges

The Pest side is mostly flat. Standing on the summit of one of the low hills on the Buda side looking across the river, you see a grid of tall buildings stretching to the horizon in every direction, broken up periodically by the rounded domes churches and pointy castle towers. 

Standing on the banks of the Pest side near city center and looking towards the Buda side, you see low hills covered with building. Depending on where you are, you might be able see Buda castle on a summit overlooking the city, or the tree-covered Gellert Hill with giant statue of lady holding a palm leaf above her head (the Liberty Statue) on the summit.

Budapest (at least near city center, which is huge) is very much a tourist city. Art, history, castles, cathedrals, monuments, museums, markets, city parks, caves, dining, spas, nightlife – this city has it all, and could easily entertain a visitor for days. It’s also a very accessible city due to great public transportation. Wide boulevards crisscross the city in a fairly regular grid pattern making it easy to find your way around.


I was in Budapest twice for this portion of trip: for 2 weeks in October on the way to Serbia, and for a bit less than a week returning from Serbia, heading to Belgium. The reason was this was partly logistics – it’s an easy connection from Budapest to anywhere using budget airlines. But it was also due to my desire to see Budapest (again). Despite three visits, still I feel like I’ve only just grazed the surface of what the city has to offer. It’s grandeur beautiful and breathtaking. It never seems to get any less impressive and there’s always new things to discover.



Transportation consists of buses and trams above ground, an underground metro, and boat (which I didn’t try). The airport is quite far from city center, but very accessible due to buses/metro that run there and back frequently.

Public transportation passes can be purchased from a ticket counter at the airport or from ticket machines at almost any tram/metro stops. The passes are simple small paper receipts, so make sure not to throw them away on accident! Multi-day (unlimited ride) passes work on an honor-system basis – passengers are responsible for having a valid unexpired ticket but don’t swipe or show it to anyone upon entering the tram/bus. You can purchase an unlimited rides pass for 1, 3, 7 days, or a full month which is valid for all means of transportation. There’s also an option single ticket 10-packs of tickets.

Budapest tram and ticket

Alphabet and Language

The main language spoken in Budapest is Hungarian though many people speak English as well. The Hungarian alphabet is Latinic, so most of the letters look similar to the American/European alphabet, though it does include some additional accented letters, trigraphs (chunk of three letters together with specific significance) and digraphs (two letters together with specific significance). Also, Q, W, X, Y weren’t part of the original alphabet in the past but are now often included to spell foreign words.

Tourist Time!


Hungarian food is SO good, and comes in really generous portions! The meals I tried consisted of hearty stews, pasta/veggie/meat combos covered in thick sauce and served with pasta or rice, and street food of veggies and sausage or other meats served on pita-like breads. Hungarians love paprika, make it well, and use it in just about everything.

Budapest christmas market food

Food near the city center is, of course, much more expensive due to tourism. And, have been told everything on the Buda side is about 10% more expensive then on the Pest side, but by chance I didn’t happen to dine there so can’t confirm from personal experience. 

For those who like alcohol, two noteworthy drinks are unicum and tokaji. Unicum made of a mixture of herbs and taste bitter, a little like Jagermeister. Tokaji is a special wine from the Tokay region, which is supposedly very sweet (I didn’t get the chance to try it). There’s also mulled wine (hot red wine with spices) in the Christmas markets (which I personally LOVE), but most European countries have some variation of this so I don’t think it’s an especially Hungarian treat.

And then, there’s chimney cake! It’s a doughy holiday pastry with a slightly crispy exterior, coated with topping of your choice, cooked over coals and served hot. I tried the cinnamon sugar variety, which tasted a little like a cinnamon roll. Very delicious! One cake is probably meant to be shared between a group of people (they’re pretty huge), but I ended up eating the entire thing myself. No regrets! 

Budapest chimney cake

Central Market

Here you’ll find fresh veggies, cheese, meats, drinks, pastries, spices, textiles (lace and pretty embroidered cloths), cookies, many handcrafted goods, and a wide assortment of souvenir items. It’s quite a big space with many rows of shops and two floors, with most of the non-food items upstairs. The atmosphere is colorful, lively, busy yet casual. The customers are a mix of local people purchasing weekly groceries and tourists checking out the ambiance and souvenir items.

Budapest central market interior

Christmas Markets

Christmas markets in Budapest used to be smaller events for primarily local people, but have recently become a huge tourist attraction. It’s a cheerful and lively atmosphere, with many enticing smells of cooking food and pastries as you walk through, holiday lights and music in the evening. Here you can find great street food (warm meals, chimney cake, mulled wine and unicum), an assortment of handcrafted goods, spices, winter clothes (like cozy wool socks), and various holiday stuff (such as small ornaments).

Fisherman’s Bastion

This area consists of Matthias Church, a statue of King Saint Stephen on a horse, and seven towers representing the seven original Hungarian (Magyar) tribes. It’s situated on a hill with one side offering an amazing panoramic view of the city and Danube river below. All the buildings and walls are made of pale tan/grey stone, with brightly colored geometric patterns on pointed church roof – very beautiful.

Be warned, it’s not that big of an area and is a HUGE tourist attraction.  Expect the area to be filled with hordes of people taking selfies and guides leading large groups around – you won’t find much peace and quiet here.

Budapest Fisherman’s Bastion

Shoes on the Riverbank

Along the banks of the Danube near the Parliament on the Pest side you’ll find a memorial that consists of 60 normal-size shoes made of irons in styles that men, women and children. These are a tribute to the nearly 20,000 Hungarian Jewish people that died during World War 2. Here, Jewish people were lined up along the banks and shot so their bodies fell into the river. Before being killed, however, they were forced to remove their shoes, which the soldiers later resold for profit. People today leave small offerings of flowers, candies and money in the shoes.

Budapest monument of shoes, tribute to Hungarian Jews

Pálvölgyi Cave

Budapest has an extensive system of caves formed over millions of years by hydrothermal water. I took an “adventure cave tour” and thoroughly enjoyed the experienced, which consisted of wearing caving suits and helmets then crawling, squeezing and climbing through a network of tunnels in total darkness (except for the headlamps) for a couple hours. The group was quite small (just two others besides myself and the guide). The guide was a passionate caver herself, and knew much about the history of caves in Budapest. At different points throughout the tour, she gave us a couple different options of which paths to take depending on whether we wanted more climbing, crawling, or squeezing through tiny spaces. Good times, well worth the money!

Budapest Pálvölgyi Cave

Thermal Baths

Mineral rich thermal springs underneath Budapest supplies naturally hot water to many baths throughout town. These were first created by Romans (who believed they had miraculous healing properties), further developed by the Turkish and Austrian people who later inhabited the city, and are still quite popular today. Those on the Buda side are Turkish in origin, which doesn’t mean anything significant as far as what you’ll experience there – it just refers to the time period from which they originate.

Things to know: In some smaller, less touristy places, certain sections of the pools or certain days are restricted to either men or women only. Also, the water is often a little murky. This is because of the high mineral content, not because it’s dirty. You should plan to bring your own swimsuit, towel, and sandals (though you can pay to rent one if not). 

Széchenyi Baths (on the Pest side) is the biggest and grandest of them all, featuring 15 indoor thermal pools, 3 outdoor pools, and a spa/massage place upstairs. It’s a very impressive space in size, architecture and decorations. One word of warning though – it’s a very popular tourist hotspot and can be quite busy/crowded.

On my most recent trip, I tried a much smaller bath called Veli Bej (on the Buda side), off the tourist path, to see what a more local, authentic experience was like…. and also because my hostel gave me a coupon for 20% off, making it less than half the price of any of the others. Cheers to the budget life! I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it turned out to be a real hidden gem. 

Veli Bej bath house consisted of one large hot central pool, 4 smaller cold water pools (which I didn’t touch because I hate the cold), and a handful of very small (3-4 people) sauna rooms. The decor was simple but elegant – rough stone walls and a glass ceiling showing the night sky in the exterior hallway, large arched doorways encircling the central main pool, and dome ceiling high above punctuated with a geometric pattern of holes. Small lights at regular interval give the space a cozy, dimmed atmosphere. It was moderately busy, but not to the point that it was obnoxiously crowded, with a very local vibe. 

I think the Romans’ belief that the water has mythical healing properties might actually be true. One of my fingers has the cuticle all roughed up and damaged from training, which had been painful and irritated for the last two weeks. But actually looked and felt MUCH better after my evening in the thermal water!

Around Hero’s Square

This area (on the Pest side) consists of a very large park crisscrossed with walking paths, a small lake, Vajdahunyad castle (small but very pretty, with a handful of nice sculptures), and Hero’s Square. It’s a nice area to go for a walk/jog.

At the center of Hero’s square is a huge pillar with sculpture of archangel Gabriel on top, ringed by the seven chiefs of Magyar on horses at the base, looking SO majestic and fierce! Behind them are a series of columns with more statues of important historical figures, all beautifully rendered with great detail.

Budapest, Hero's Square

Gellert Hill and Liberty Statue

Gellert Hill (located on the Pest side) consists of a large tree covered hill with meandering paths and many splendid lookout points providing great city views (especially at sunset). The summit features the Liberty Statue, a larger-than-life statue of a lady holding a palm leaf symbolizing freedom, liberation and prosperity dedicated to the soldiers who gave their lives in World War 2. Besides it are two smaller (but still huge) statues of figures holding flames in dramatic poses. It’s a really nice place to go for a walk/jog, though be warned – the summit is another huge tourist attraction and often very crowded.

Budapest Gellert Hill


Partly due to the large number of gyms throughout the city and partly to the shorter periods of time I was here, I didn’t have a “home gym” in Budapest but took the opportunity to visit many different locations instead.

Carlson Gracie is the biggest team in Budapest, with an incredible 14 locations throughout the city! Oddly, most of these don’t show up on Google Maps when you search for BJJ, but you can see a nice map of their locations throughout the city here:

CG Titan Team
One of the smaller locations a bit further away from city center, but super welcoming and friendly atmosphere! The gym had just moved to a new location so the facilities were very modern and bright. Besides BJJ, the gym offers personal training and fitness classes. Instructor Körmendi Dezső was one of the first people I talked to about training in Budapest. He and introduced me to the instructors of a couple of the different locations around town, I had the opportunity to join him for the advanced class at the Headquarters location as well. Giant thanks!

CG Headquarters
This location was the largest in terms of facilities and number of students, and had the greatest number of higher belts. Upon invite I joined for their advanced class expecting some very challenging, tough and technical rolls – and they certainly did deliver on that!

CG Warrior Team
The location of this gym actually doubles up as an archery gym and shop by day! When it’s time for class, the students roll up the floor in the archery shooting range to reveal mats underneath, which I thought was pretty unique.

CG Blackout Team

CG Casca Grossa

In addition to the Carlso Gracie gyms, I had the opportunity to train at the following two ZR gyms.

Pit Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu ZR Team

ZR Team Hungary