Get Up and GO

So, Pokemon Go. Now that the moment has essentially passed, what the heck was that all about? After an initial record-shattering surge of downloads, Pokemon Go has essentially faded away. As with any fad of this scale, there are certainly important lessons to be learned from the sudden rise and exponential decay of the popular gaming app. Here are my thoughts:

The single most important thing that Pokemon Go proved is that Pokemon is very alive, with a wider fanbase than I think anyone realized. When I told my parents about the game and attempted to explain its appeal, each of their immediate, knee-jerk reactions were, “I thought Pokemon ended ten years ago.” As it turns out, that is very much not the case. Because the franchise aggressively markets itself to older children and pre-teens, it makes sense for those forty or fifty years and older to think about the franchise as an artifact of a bygone era, one that existed exactly when their children or grandchildren were at the targeted age, and died out swiftly thereafter. My parents stopped hearing about Pokemon when my brother and I stopped talking about it constantly, and so they forgot about it. With that mindset, the revival of the franchise in such a public way must seem very odd.

The issue is, not only did Pokemon not die (and as such it continued to indoctrinate new generations of players throughout its two decades), the past players… never really stopped playing. Yes, I stopped watching the cringe-worthy TV show, but I kept playing the games until very recently. Even friends of mine who didn’t keep playing the games remember their time as a Pokemon trainer fondly. When Pokemon Go was initially announced a long time ago (I think around a year ago but I can’t find a source for that), we were all suddenly brought back to that time, and given a chance to relive it.

Little by little, the hype built. News and details slowly trickled out, along with an eventual release date: July 2016. We got a commercial introducing the game, which led to hype. We got a super bowl commercial for Pokemon, which led to even more hype. Finally, the game launched, and we got scenes like these:

One particular corner of Central Park in New York. Quite literally everyone in this picture is playing Pokemon Go. This picture was taken in August, which means that the scene in July must have been twice as crowded.

People went absolutely nuts. All of the people who devoured Pokemon Red and Blue after their release in 1996 were oh-so-ready to jump back into the world of pocket monsters, now accessible through the device you already carry with you everywhere you go. Nintendo’s stocks skyrocketed after the initial launch (though, as the article details, quickly fell after the reality of Pokemon Go’s shared ownership among Niantic and Google surfaced).

After that absurd launch, however, players started leaving. What the hell happened?

Pokemon Go is only the second “augmented reality” game that I’ve played. Before Pokemon Go was ever announced, I was a Geocacher. In a nutshell, Geocaching is a worldwide, everyday treasure hunt. There are nearly 3 million players and nearly as many caches to find. Everywhere I go I spend at least a few hours hiking around, trying to find these little boxes hidden throughout the world.

Essentially, here’s how it works. Using your phone or computer, you locate a geocache near you on a map, like this:

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Here are all of the caches near me, right now. There are probably just as many near you, right now. What are you waiting for?

Then, using a geocaching app (on your phone) or a GPS, you navigate to the location of the cache listed online. This may be as simple as walking down the street, or as difficult as hiking to the top of a mountain in the middle of nowhere. Once there, the real fun begins. Unlike in Pokemon Go, there is a physical prize, the cache, to be found. It can be as big as a large toolbox or as small as a fingernail, and it’s up to you and your puzzle-solving skills to find it.

Just today I spent a few hours walking around downtown Mountain View, grabbing a few caches (note the smiley faces on the map above). Some were easy, quick grabs I managed in under a minute. Others took between five and ten minutes, as I walked back and forth around the listed area scratching my head and contorting myself into strange positions to look under rocks and around poles. Two I couldn’t even find.

One cache, the second-to-last that I found today, took around half an hour and is easily my favorite cache to date. Never before have I felt so much on a treasure hunt as I did while finding the aptly-named Treasures Abound.  The listed location of the cache took me to a lovely park just behind the Mountain View Public Library. Amid the rolling green and lazily meandering paths, I set in to solve the puzzle.

Upon arrival, I immediately noticed a nearby sculpture, depicting a couple literary characters that some of you may recognize.

Two animal gentlemen talk near a home in a tree.. I knew I had seen them somewhere.

Noticing the sign on the right that says “Toad’s Book Club,” I googled around and realized that the shorter chap on the right is none other than Mr. Toad, a character in The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame. The solution to the puzzle must be obvious now, yes?

Unfortunately, I still had no idea what to do. I walked around the whole park looking for another clue, but found nothing. In re-reading the description of the cache, however, I noticed that it includes the following restriction:

Note that the cache is only available:
Mon.–Thurs. 10 a.m.–9 p.m.
Fri.–Sat. 10 a.m.–6 p.m.
Sun. 1 p.m.–5 p.m.
These hours could change, and there is no access on major public holidays (and some days preceding or following the holidays).

If the cache were outside, there would be no such restriction. If it were inside, however, it could explain the warning. Sure enough, I went to the nearest door into the library and found that the hours synced perfectly.

As a geocacher, I have to be prepared to go anywhere, including…. into a public library

I was on the right track. Surely, now, the solution is apparent to everyone with a brain?

Apparently, I don’t have a brain. I spent a few minutes walking aimlessly walking around the library, wondering what I was supposed to be looking for and how it would lead me to the cache. Finally, a spark of inspiration – I should look up the book that features Mr. Toad! If I find the book, surely I’ll find the cache. I was pointed towards the children’s portion of the library and walked over.  I found the book and combed through the couple copies the library had in stock and found… nothing. Confused, I stood up and looked around. Suddenly, there it was.


Looking around to make sure no one was looking, I reached to the top of the shelf and pulled down the box. I sat on the floor, and, hoping no one would want to walk into the aisle, opened up the cache.

The cache! Full of trinkets of every shape and size.

The caches always contain a log on which to write your name and the date of your find. Many, like the one above, also contain a host of tchotchkes, knick-knacks, and the like. You never know quite what you’ll find when you open one up, which is part of the fun. The bigger draw though, to me at least, is the challenge of the game. It’s fairly easy to get to the location listed online, but going from a pin on screen to a cache in hand takes intelligence, skill, and patience. Each and every new cache you attempt to find will challenge you; I’ve been geocaching for years and still have to work to find them. Sometimes, you’ll have to go home without finding a single one, but that only makes the successful finds all the sweeter.

Challenge, in my mind, is what keeps Geocaching fun for cache after cache. In contrast, Pokemon Go didn’t die for no reason, it died because it lacked challenge and as such got boring. In the end of the day, it just isn’t difficult to walk to a spot, flick my finger on the screen a couple times, and move on. Every catching attempt, regardless of the Pokemon I found, was exactly the same. Even the illusion of challenge (in the form of higher CP) is just that: an illusion. Your success has more to do with the internal probabilities determined by the game than your skill at playing it.

Geocaching couldn’t be more different. Each puzzle has a set level of difficulty based on where and how it is hidden. You (not the game) determine if you are able to find it. Each successful find adds to your ability to play. Rather than aimlessly looking around the listed location, you begin to learn where caches are likely to be. Is the cache listed as very small? It’s probably magnetic, check everything metal. Are there a bunch of fist-sized rocks near the listed location? Roll them all over to check if any are actually plastic. In an urban setting? Check the free local newspaper dispensers, no one ever opens those. The list goes on and on, and only grows as you continue to play.

Moreover, Geocaching as a game has a host of positive qualities that Pokemon Go attempted to exemplify. It actually requires you to interact with the world around you (as opposed to simply going somewhere and then spending the whole time looking at your phone). You can actually work with other players to solve a puzzle, rather than just play along side them. Best of all, Geocaching is essentially FREE. You can pay to be a premium member, but so far I have found my basic member experience completely sufficient. There are official apps for both iOS and Android, though for Android I use and greatly prefer c:geo (as usual, Apple restricts what can be created for iOS through the App Store, so I am unaware of a free unofficial app for iOS). The only reason I never spent any money on Pokemon Go is that I was never so invested in the game as to actually be willing to pay for more resources, which are sold in the form of micro-transactions.

Geocaching is one of my favorite outdoor activities. Everyone I’ve shown it to has loved it, and has requested to accompany me on future caching trips around the area. It’s challenging, it’s truly outdoors, and making an account couldn’t be easier.

So what are you waiting for? Get up and GO!


My Favorite Sandbox

Suddenly beset by an unusual amount of free time, I had an urge to recapture a little magical chunk of my youth during the remaining months of my pre-career life. Using only $5.99 on Good Old and a nifty application called Winebottler, I made my past dreams a present reality – I’m able to play Roller Coaster Tycoon again.

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Just beat Leaf Lake with this fabulous park, holding a company value of $175,000

Whenever I’m asked to choose my favorite game of all time, I usually end up picking RCT. Whenever I’m asked to pick a single game to play for the rest of my life, I always pick RCT. I could write and talk forever about why RCT is absolutely amazing in essentially every regard. If you haven’t noticed, it’s the banner at the top of my blog, and will always remain there. I could even make an argument for why it’s one of the best games of all time. That discussion, however, is inherently extremely subjective and I would be heavily biased in promoting RCT. I just have too long of a history playing the game. Instead of doing that, I’m going to focus on one particular genre: I believe Roller Coaster Tycoon is the best sandbox game of all time.

That claim is easier to defend than “best overall game”, but there is nonetheless one looming opponent to defeat. Namely, this one:

Less of a sandbox, more of a desert

Hold on, you have no idea what that is. Let’s zoom in a bit.

Lifelike graphics are so yesterday

Minecraft! The gargantuan behemoth of a game that has sold well over 100 million copies worldwide and has over 40 million monthly players. It has education applications that span grade levels and has inspired educators on the national level. It has been under continual revision since its inception in 2009 and reached massive new mobile audiences after Microsoft purchased the game for $2.5B in 2014. It is the epitome of a sandbox game, allowing complete freeform manipulation of the truly unreasonably large map.

And somehow I’m going to argue that Roller Coaster Tycoon is a better sandbox game.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Minecraft. I joined moderately late in the game during my junior year of high school and basically spent the second semester of my senior year constantly playing. I’ve fought zombies and skeletons, built four-story victorian mansions, and farmed wheat and sugarcane from sunup to sundown and back again. Yet whenever I’ve tried to get back into the game after years of not playing, I can’t get hooked again.

During my early days of Minecraft, there was magical wonder-dust sprinkled throughout the whole game. I climbed every mountain and spelunked every cave with the burning desire to know what was around the corner. Would I look down upon gently sloping plains or a massive verdant rainforest? Would the next corner reveal diamonds? A bottomless pit? A zombie right in my face? Everything was new and shiny and surprising and wonderful. On the sandbox side, there is an endless ladder of construction rungs to climb. You want diamonds? First you have to chop down a tree to make a pickaxe to mine some stone to make a better pickaxe to mine some coal to make some torches to go deeper down the caves to find iron to make an even better pickaxe… You get the idea. Just about every block of the world is usable and even necessary for some pursuit.

There comes that moment in playing Minecraft, however, when you suddenly look up bleary-eyed at the clock that now reads 4:31AM and wonder why you just spent eight hours moving virtual blocks around. With all the freedom granted by Minecraft comes a disconcerting openness: challenge and goals and achievement within the game are almost entirely self-determined and self-enforced. Yes, there are achievements granted for picking up new resources. Yes, there is now a “final boss” to defeat to “win the game” that was not present in the early versions of the game. Both of these elements are so secondary to the main mission of the game – do whatever you the heck want – that they feel irrelevant and almost artificially attached.

The “challenge” of Minecraft is not game-like at all. Rather, it is much more similar to gaming’s distant cousins, art and design. The game is effectively a blank canvas. It’s up to you determine what you’re trying to accomplish and to find some meaning in self-defined achievement. Many players have created scale replicas of famous locations and structures both real and fictional, while others create mine track rides or functioning computers out of redstone, the game’s electricity equivalent. The options are, quite literally, endless.

There’s nothing wrong with this, but it’s worth noting that it makes Minecraft fairly unorthodox when compared to most games, so much so that it’s actually hard to justify calling Minecraft a game. There’s no score, no adversity beyond a few monsters aimlessly walking around, and no meaningful goal. Sandbox? Sure, so much so that at this point Minecraft is the textbook definition of the gaming category. Sandbox Game? That’s harder to claim.

For comparison, I present Roller Coaster Tycoon.

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Your mission, should you choose to accept it – build a bomb-ass amusement park

There’s something very special about the way RCT displays a fresh map. As shown above, you are greeted by a short description of the park and given your objective. That objective is front-and-center, yet easily dismissable and forgettable. If you are the true sandbox sort, just close the goal window and play your own way. The game doesn’t even notify you when you’ve lost; the specified goal time comes and goes without any popup or other announcement. You are 100% free to play at your own pace with personally-defined goals.

If, however, you’re anything like me, it’s hard to turn down a decorated finish line far off in the distance. It’s like running a 5K for charity, but being told that everyone who gets under a certain time wins a prize. If you know you have a shot at winning, why not try your best and see if you can win? To make another comparison, a true sandbox is cooking for yourself. You decide what you want to make and upon completion decide if you did a good job. A sandbox game is cooking for a friend or customer who says “surprise me.” You can still cook anything you want, but now there’s a clear metric of success. You’re welcome to ignore that metric; it’s your right as a chef to disregard the customer’s opinion as uncultured, unrepresentative of diners as a whole, or plain wrong. The very presence of that metric, however, will motivate you to perform to the best of your ability.

Building an amusement park in Roller Coaster Tycoon is a lot like cooking a meal for this metaphorical friend. Essentially every park requires you to build a “good” park according to one of a few metrics, usually attendance or company value. What’s in a good park, though? Probably a few awesome roller coasters, that’s for sure. Gotta have smaller rides throughout as well. And people need to eat, so we need some food and drink shops. Oh and don’t forget staff or every bench will be smashed and every ride will break down. We need more money? Take out a loan or two and buy some advertising to draw in more customers, and raise park entrance fees but lower ride fees to make sure people keep riding. Good, that worked and our coffers are full; let’s build another roller coaster!

In short, building a “good” park takes a little bit of everything. There are many right ways and many, many wrong ways. That decorated finish line is way, way off in the distance. How you choose to get there is entirely up to you. From that standpoint, RCT is undeniably a sandbox game, containing essentially unlimited choice.

Each different map proposes a different twist on the same essential challenge of building and running a park. Some give you a blank slate, while others have some rides already built, while still others have partially built rides that you have to finish in order to win. Underneath it all is a fairly complex AI governing the action of your guests, from what ride they want to head to next to how likely they are to smash the trash cans and storm out of the park. Building a good rollercoaster requires balancing physics constraints like velocity, vertical Gs and lateral Gs, with economics constraints such as available money and building space. Each component of the game, from finances to scenery to ride construction and placement, is an intricate system that can only be understood via repeated use and study. You need to understand all of them to succeed, and consecutive victory is both thrilling and addictive. Finally, the pride of the sandbox achievement is no less strong. It’s really cool to look at a screen full of intertwining roller coasters and buzzing with people, knowing that it used to be a deserted area full of nothing that you molded into a winning park.

Let’s go back over the checklist. Daunting but simple and technically optional goal set way off in the future? Check. Infinitely complex (essentially unsolvable) underlying subsystems that require trial-and-error to overcome? Check. Full control over park progress, leading to infinite possible avenues of moving forward? Check. Huge collection of maps, each with their own unique spin on the core challenge of the game? Check. Written 99% in machine code????? Check. (Aside – HOLY SHIT. The best comparison I can draw is that Chris Sawyer managed to build a functioning, real-person house out of linkin logs, duct tape, and drink coasters.) Massive replay value? Check. Completing the deluxe version of the game, which has 81 scenarios and a couple extra bonus maps, would take hundreds of hours.

All that for a game from 1999 that you can now get for $5.99. It’s truly miraculous.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go back to playing in my favorite sandbox.

Forging a Path – How to Capture Replayability

As luck would have it, the steam summer sale fell in the middle of my awesome vacation. I, therefore, had no time to play any games. Luckily though I managed enough of an internet connection to buy a few and have them waiting for when I got back to America.

One of the games included in my haul this summer was Valdis Story: Abyssal City. The game is listed under the tags Metroidvania, Action, RPG, Platformer, and Indie, so the chance that I wouldn’t at least semi-like it was already slim.

The art throughout is bright and bold, similar to Dust

In short, I really loved the game. The single best thing I can say is that the game has extreme replayability. As soon as I finished the game the first time (in around 6 hours), I immediately started up another file on a harder difficulty. There are a bunch of reasons for this, all of which symbiotically reinforce the others. First, there are four difficulty levels: normal, hard, veteran, and god slayer. When I first started the game I opted for hard, but found it too challenging and moved to normal. Now I am replaying it on hard and having no difficulty. That leads into the second quality that assists replayability – the game is heavily skill based. Initially I could not even progress through the game on hard, and now on this second try I am flying through it. Third, the RPG element of the game is no pushover. The skill, spell, stat, and alignment systems ensure that you get fairly comprehensive control over your character and reward different play styles. The system, on the whole, is complex enough that you can make mistakes, again ensuring that more experienced players who make smart choices early on have a better chance as the game progresses in difficulty. Finally, if all that wasn’t enough, there are four playable characters, each of which is drastically different – entirely different skills and spells, as well as weapon choices and attack patterns. Just because you’ve mastered one character doesn’t mean you’ve figured out the game.

Each character does have loosely defined attack, defense, and magic skill trees, but even within them the differences start to appear. Because of the system of prerequisites for skills (denoted by connecting lines downwards) it is important to pick skills not only for what they do but for what later skills they help unlock.

Secondly, the game gets a solid B+ for story and an A-/A for visuals and sound. You very quickly begin fighting against both demons and angels, so rest assured that it’s not a standard you’re good/you’re bad go fight the other people kind of thing. The story also manages to create a fairly fleshed out and engaging world to explore, which is always a really nice thing to have in any metroidvania (which by definition require some amount of exploration). I can’t give top marks for the story only because it is a little short, and that the dialogue is a little shallow and cookie cutter.

Visually the game is beautiful. Areas are bright and diverse, colors are bold and the fast paced action is accented by quick flashy animation. The overall feel of the game is helped by the epic soundtrack which wonderfully captures the difference between demonic and angelic settings. I particularly loved the boss battle (of which there are many) music, which contributes to both the epicness and the time sensitivity of the fight.

The first of many, many boss battles. You are graded on your performance on each one, which is yet another reason to replay the game over and over again.

Where the game starts to stumble, ironically, is in being a metroidvania. Some features that should really be considered standard are simply missing. For example, one big one is the ability to access the world map. As it stands you can only access the map for the area you are in, so it’s up to you to remember how that area connects to the other areas you’ve explored and what path to take to a specific one. On a related note, there is no hint feature telling you roughly where to go. It was really nice when the game would at least point you in the right direction after you’d wandered for half an hour or more not sure how to progress, a feature that became fairly standard starting with Metroid Prime. Without such a system, you’re stuck re-checking every reachable room to see if there’s something to do there with a new ability you didn’t have the last time you were present. This isn’t all that bad here, as the whole map in Valdis Story is pretty small, but I did have to look up a guide once just to save myself an hour or more of useless wandering trying to find where to use a newly found key.

Secondly, the game expects you to make certain logical leaps without giving literally any suggestion towards them. This is more of an RPG problem, and is an area of challenge that isn’t fun. Rather than understanding the puzzle and upon completion think, “YES! I am the best”, you are forced to try every possibility, eventually get lucky, and then think, “How was I supposed to know that was the answer??” After getting a new set of spells, it’s fairly standard throughout the game for you to have to use one of them to escape the newly sealed room, but (even after realizing that you now can’t leave) you have to go into the menu and read through all of the descriptions to figure out which new spell can get you out of this mess. It would have been really nice for an unobtrusive line of text to appear a few seconds after gaining the new spells, hinting you towards what new ability to use. Furthermore, the game would vastly benefit from a built-in glossary of game terms. It uses arbitrary fantasy words like affliction and reckoning, which clearly have in-game significance, without ever defining them. Even simple words like stealth don’t have a clear definition listed anywhere. I’m all for not throwing walls of text at the player, breaking immersion and slowing the game down, but that information really should be available somewhere in case I want to look it up.

Do you know what stealth means by default? I don’t.

On the whole, though, the game is incredible. Even as a metroidvania I loved it. It struck the right balance of exploration and fun “ooo I remember an area where I can now use this new ability” backtracking. The combat is intense and extremely skill based (as opposed to button mashing), and even the platforming was challenging and kept stages fresh.

More than anything else, Valdis Story: Abyssal City truly shines in its replayability. Capturing replayability in single player campaign-based games is a challenge that designers are constantly trying to defeat. Unlike sandbox games, multiplayer games, or single-player match-based strategy games, single player campaign games usually struggle to present any value after completion. In this regard, they are closer to books and movies than their other game companions. Once you’ve experienced the story and seen what’s behind each hidden turn, that’s kind of all it has to offer. You might re-read your favorite book or series a few, maybe even ten or more times, but that’s nothing compared the thousands, even tens of thousands of matches enjoyed by the standard LoL or Smash player. Stories are, inherently, finite. So long as it is pre-programmed or pre-written, it has to come to a hopefully satisfying conclusion at some point. Yet, single player campaign games are nonetheless judged by the same expectations of playable hours as other games, and thus are constantly looking for ways to give the player more to do.

One avenue of doing this is to create more and more subquests, small but branching storylines allow (but don’t force) the player to explore the world while simultaneously continuing to experience story content. This isn’t a bad option, but for better or worse it always seems to detract from the main story. One example that comes to mind is Skyrim. Yes, there is a central story in Skyrim, but most people don’t seem to care. All Skyrim discussion that I’ve seen bleed onto the other parts of the Internet (i.e. Imgur, Facebook) usually refers to weird physics quirks and funny NPC interactions, as opposed to interesting plot points and underlying themes. Despite Skyrim’s certainly epic story, it is discussed more like Minecraft than like Harry Potter. Again, there’s nothing wrong with that, but the last thing you want to do when crafting an epic story is to add content that detracts from it.

I think I can say with confidence that this is the most important thing to come out of Skyrim. This meme.

Valdis Story, for all of its missing help features, does something so right that the story is both important and central, and yet I want to play again. The answer, I believe, is the right combination of challenge and choice. Give me enough challenge that I am basically unable to complete the game on the hardest difficulty on my first playthrough, and am instead forced to use an easier one instead. It is thus clear that I have not bested the game; there remains a further challenge to conquer. Give me enough choice that I am aware that I may be making mistakes on my first play through, ones that I could make better if I knew what I was doing. It is thus clear that the path I took through the game was not the only one, nor likely the best one.

If the game doesn’t have additional levels of challenge, no amount of choice will get me to play again. If I’ve already gotten the gold medal, so to speak, using set of choices A, there’s no point in doing it again with set of choices B. I’ve already won, no need to do it again. If there’s not enough room for choice, on the other hand, additional levels of challenge will feel redundant. I did the best I could with the options available and was able to attain a high enough proficiency at the game to beat it. Allowing me the ability to try again at a harder challenge, but not make significant alterations to my play style, means that the only way I’ll beat the harder level is to, as they say in the biz, “get gud”. I, the player outside of the screen, have gained knowledge by my first play through the game. Let me use that knowledge!

Crucially, none of this detracts from the story. I approached and beat the epic final boss of the game for the first time with the guilty knowledge that my victory would be a bit hollow. I knew that I was playing on the easiest of the available difficulties. In the real story the final boss would be impossibly difficult to defeat. I’m still invested in the story because it was made clear that a full and fulfilling conclusion was still just outside of my grasp, and that I would have to play both smarter and better in order to achieve it.

Overall, I give Valdis Story a 9/10. Would I play it again? I already am.

AES’EA – Ever After We Lived, The End

It’s really good to be home. I woke up very tired and mildly hungover, which makes a lot of sense giving how much I must have drunk the prior night. Moreover, there’s a non-zero percent chance that there was something extra in the last couple drinks I had. So, all in all a great start to a full few days of traveling.

Regardless, the show must go on (or rather, the show must end), so I pulled myself together and we headed out to the Chiang Mai airport. We left ourselves plenty of time because our first flight technically marked the beginning of an international trip, but had no problem getting through security and departing immigration in under an hour. I lounged around the airport for a few hours, spending the few remaining baht I found in my wallet and binging Steven Universe, my new guilty TV obsession. When did Cartoon Network get so trippy and randomly super deep? It’s nothing like the Cartoon Network I remember from my childhood, and yet oddly reminiscent of what it was, somehow.

Regardless, we eventually got on the first plane and began the journey home. All told, my trip home included:

  • Four flights – CNX -> BNK (Bangkok) ->AUH (Abu Dhabi) -> JFK -> IAD (Dulles)
  • Going through security four times
  • Going through some form of international customs twice
  • A two hour uber ride from Dulles airport to home in Charlottesville

Summed up, the trip took a grand total of 41.5 hours. I arrived at the Chiang Mai airport at noon on Saturday the 2nd, and got home at 6:30pm on Sunday the 3rd. Additionally, Thailand is eleven hours ahead of the eastern United States (and thus there are eleven hours of travel not accounted for by the time differences between arrival and departure). Thus 12:00-6:30 + a day lost + 11 hours of time change = 41.5 hours. The trip wasn’t so much bad as just unbelievably long. By the end I was falling asleep on my feet, but somehow managed to make it home.

The vacation on the whole was amazing. I would wholeheartedly recommend anyone considering a longer, less traditional vacation to jump at the chance. If you have the ability to take the adventure of a lifetime, don’t pass that chance up. In that direction, here are some tips should you decide to take a trip that is in any way similar to mine.

Pack smarter, not more. One big thing I didn’t realize is that the standard bag weight of 50lbs is only an American thing. Many of our flights throughout the trip had a 15kg bag weight limit, which converts to just over 33lbs. Thus if you truly do pack a 50lb bag, you’ll either have to throw out a third of it, or pay an extra $100 for each 15kg-weight limited flight you take. I was lucky enough to have only packed around 38lbs, but I did have to carry a very heavy carry-on through a bunch of airports, which is never fun. Also, on a larger scale, vacationing on the go means physically moving your own luggage a lot more often than a single destination vacation. Every pound of luggage you leave at home is a pound you aren’t carrying from location to location. Make sure to bring what you need, but try to avoid the “I’m not sure when I’ll use this but it can’t hurt to pack it” mindset.

Second, hostels are awesome. There are of course the simple arguments for such: hostels are usually cheaper and usually more centrally located than their hotel competitors. If both (or even only one) are significantly true, picking a hostel is an easy decision. Even if the hostel you are evaluating is equivalently priced and located to a hotel, I would even still push for the hostel. Whereas hotels are focused on an individualized vacationing experience, hostels naturally push the current occupants together towards a more group oriented experience. When your goal is to get out and experience the area, there’s little better than having a group of similarly-minded new friends who will both nag you away from spending the night doing nothing on your computer and also accompany you on your adventures. Each new person you add to your traveling group reduces the likelihood that you waste a day or night, and because you aren’t even technically traveling together you can break away from them at any point if you discover you have different vacationing goals.

Finally, ahead of the vacation, think about how full your want your vacation to be. In an average day, how many activities are you going to try to do, how many activities would you be satisfied doing? Just one? Two or three? For whole day activities, how long can they be? Are you ok with twelve hour activities? Sixteen? Are you ok with having a day to sit by the pool, read and drink something cold? Or is the very suggestion offensive? Different people vacation in different ways, and thus have different expectations of what a vacation should be. Personally, I need a chiller vacation. I’m perfectly happy doing one main activity each day and filling the remaining time with aimlessly walking around the area and relaxing. Moreover, I tend to need a lot of sleep, so after a few early mornings and heavily physical activities, I need a lazy day. I am able to persist, but it stops being fun and stops being interesting once I’m tired the moment I wake up. You, of course, will have your own travel-related quirks. Remember that the point of vacationing is, ultimately, to have fun and at least mentally (if not physically) relax. If you ever catch yourself thinking, “I need a vacation after this vacation”, you probably packed it too full. It’s your vacation! There’s nothing stopping you from just doing fewer things per day. Alternatively, if you’re just not enjoying doing nothing as much as you imagined you would when you were overworked and planning the vacation, get off your ass and do something else!

So, that’s it. Thanks to all who kept up with my travels along the way! This marks both the end of the vacation, and the end of semi-daily posts. For next time, back to the regularly scheduled programming.

AES’EA – Ethics

By this point, we were on a roll with cramming in touristy things at the last minute. Given that we finally made it to the city, we decided to spend our last morning taking a six hour biking tour. The tour (through the company Grasshopper) was a bit light on biking but immensely enjoyable. I felt like we actually saw the city as our tour guides weaved us through back alleys and through crowded marketplaces.

Fresh squeezed, 100% fruit juice. Delicious, nutritious, less than $1
The three kings who built a large chunk of Chiang Mai, if memory serves. The one on the right seems displeased by something, but the one on the left is like “bro chill it’s k”
The pyramids here seem to be much more similar to those found in Central America. This particular one was damaged in an earthquake not too long ago.

The tour even included lunch, eaten in traditional style for Chiang Mai. The dishes are served in small bowls in the center of the table. Each person gets a personal basket of sticky rice, with which they make balls and eat the dishes from the center using the rice as a spoon. It was quite fun, and as is seemingly the case with all non-American eating traditions, it forces you to slow down.

All of the dishes were made white-person spicy, which was a thoughtful touch if a bit sad in its necessity. Really really tasty though!

We passed a few hours lounging at the hotel, and then our final night of our trip was upon us. For dinner we found a.. wait for it.. all you can eat sushi + Korean BBQ style place for 399 baht a person, about $13. We definitely got our money’s worth there.

You know what’s even better than unlimited amounts of food? Unlimited amounts of food that is endlessly paraded past your seat. By the time I was done I had a stack of plates a foot tall. 

Now we get to the part of the trip that got a bit dicey. Do know in advance that it all ended well and it’s in the past, so no need to worry; I’m fine. We went out to a bar throwing a superhero-themed party, and over the course of the night I was very nearly sucked into a scam of some kind. I’m not sure what the scam was for, or how much I stood to lose, but suffice to say that I caught on to what was happening just in the nick of time and got out entirely unscathed. The only money I lost was an extra few dollars on a tuk tuk that I didn’t properly negotiate.

Looking back on the night and trying to figure out where the scam began, I’m both angry and sad. There was a long string of social interactions, each (in retrospect) designed to push me towards the next. Was every single person I talked to that night part of the same scam, each promised a cut of whatever they could extract from my wallet? Was not a single interaction I had genuine? I’m honestly not sure. The most telling factor was when people were fully avoiding questions. I really dislike the “if it feels off there’s something wrong” rule of thumb, because sometimes people are just awkward and I (as one of those people) feel bad for thinking less of people because of it. Still, it seems that sometimes being willing to go with the flow comes back to bite you.

I made it home safely and collapsed into bed. Tomorrow, back home.

AES’EA – Sunk Costs

The best thing about vacationing at my age and in a very small group is the flexibility it allows. After two days at the Panviman resort, Ethan and I decided we’d rather just book another hotel down in the city itself. We managed to find somewhere quite cheap ($35/night) and, being smart and rational people, weren’t bothered by the sunk cost of leaving our existing reservation. For those of you who haven’t taken or don’t remember introductory micro economics, it’s quite worthwhile to do a bit of research on what sunk costs are and how to think about them. Having correct mental accounting will prevent you from making many bad decisions that resulted from wanting “to get your money’s worth”.

But now, back to the trip! On our second to last day we followed through on our hotel transfer. Thus, we spent the morning packing up and checking out. For the early afternoon we decided to check one big Thai box – we had to see some elephants!

We paid ~$1 for the privilege of feeding them bananas and sugar cane logs. It was pretty clear that the elephants knew exactly what was up, as they all started vying for attention as soon as we walked close enough to feed them.
Yes the elephant is being guided by a trainer, but the whole painting thing is still really impressive. I’d also love to show one of these to an art critic and have them tell me what the artist must have been thinking while painting.

I’ve always felt a little uneasy at zoos, and this experience was no exception. For most zoo animals, elephants included, you can very easily tell that they aren’t really suited to the zoo life and are heavily influenced by their surroundings. We tried our best to pick an ethically upstanding elephant viewing location, but honestly every location claims to be perfect and there didn’t seem to be any official seal or other telling mark that we could use to break the tie. If the ethical treatment of animals is extra important to you, and you plan on seeing any in Thailand, I would recommend that you do your research ahead of time and have locations already picked out; once there, it’s impossible to tell.

We were satisfied after seeing the show, and so returned to our resort, grabbed our luggage, and headed down into town. After fighting with the desk attendants about the type of room we had, we decided to walk around town for the rest of the afternoon and evening. For dinner, I was (and have been for a while) really craving wings. As luck would have it, we passed an American-style BBQ place called Big Daddy’s relatively quickly after leaving the hotel.

Any place that randomly adds a few onion rings to your order is A-OK with me

All of the travel was finally catching up with us, so we returned home to our new, non-resort but much more conveniently located hotel.

AES’EA – Tapping Out

Ahh, another lazy morning. I love summer vacation. We both naturally woke up early, but spent a few hours just watching TV/browsing the internet. Finally, our hunger outweighed our laziness, so we got dressed and walked down to the lobby for a buffet breakfast. In particular, I’ve found that everything passionfruit flavored is simply the best. Tangy, sweet, and with small black seeds that burst with tartness when crushed. It’s like nature’s candy.

This isn’t even my final course!

We unfortunately just missed the early van down to town, so we spent a few more hours exploring the resort. It had a number of interesting and fun facilities to enjoy, such as a outdoor fitness center, a putting green, and a boxing bag. Unfortunately, most of them were in some state of minor disrepair, rendering using them difficult or impossible.

I hereby claim this area in the pursuit of time wasting.
Ethan is “bad” at darts. And yes this is an archery target.

Finally the second van came, we hopped in, and rode down to town in blessed silence. We found ourselves hungry once we arrived, so we found a nice place for dinner. Both Ethan and I asked for our dishes to be made spicy, and for once truly regretted our decision. Ethan limped over the finish line, whereas I was unable to keep eating and had to give up.

So delicious, but so unbelievably spicy. I wanted to love it, but I just couldn’t

From there we went to meet up with some friends we made in Bangkok. They showed us around to a couple of local bars, all of which were pretty cool and nice, but seemed to be underpopulated as it was still early in the evening. At our final stop before we went back for the night we went to a nice hotel bar where the bartender (a friend of our friends) made us each a tom yum flavored cocktail. We were all very dubious about basing a alcoholic drink off of the spicy and citrusy thai soup, but were all very pleasantly surprised to find it both delicious and an accurate homage to the dish.

Garnished with mint, chili pepper, and galangal. I doubt I’ll ever have another drink like it again.

At this point it was getting very near 10pm, the departure time for the last van back up to our resort. Ethan and I said quick goodbyes and jogged off to towards the pickup location, making it there with a few minutes to spare.