Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Fan Of Hoi An

I spent a wonderful day meandering throughout the delightful city of Hoi An. It's yet another place that doesn't seem to have much to offer in terms of things to 'do' yet I found myself captivated by its narrow streets, charming colonial architecture, numerous rainbow-coloured lanterns, delicious food, bustling riverfront and beautiful beaches. Despite mass amounts of tourists and determined Vietnamese salespeople pushing clothing, shoes and other goods every chance they get, Hoi An manages to retain a certain composure that leaves you practically unaware of all the fuss going on around you. Suffice to say I'm a pretty big fan.

Taking a snooze

Great colonial-style architecture


Window shutters... love

'Cao Lau', a traditional dish from Hoi An

Can't get enough of these hats

Trying (and failing) to row

Our boat 'captain' sailing away

Simply stunning

Need I say more?

Hoi An proved to be an extremely pleasant city to explore; I'm definitely looking forward to day two!

Saturday, February 23, 2013

It's All About Attitude

I'll admit, I wasn't too sure I would like Vietnam. The vast majority of travelers I've met have had nothing but negative things to say about it: That the people are rude, you'll get ripped off... some even went so far as to tell me I shouldn't bother going at all! Of course I had to see what it was like for myself. I am happy to report that my first day in Vietnam was nothing short of stellar, but it took me a minute to realize why.

As I reviewed the photos I took today in Ho Chi Minh City I saw that I barely took any. How did I have such a good day then, I wondered, if I have hardly any pictures to show for it?  But when I thought about it a little more I realized it had nothing to do with the city itself; I really didn't see or do anything out of the ordinary (although HCMC was quite pleasant as far as big cities go!). The pictures I took were almost all of people I had met throughout the day. Incredibly nice and friendly people, which upon further reflection I realized literally every single person I spoke with today was: Some guys in the park let me watch (and take pictures of) their nunchuck lesson, a man I bought a sandwich from gave me a free water (or at least didn't tell me if it was included in the price!) and a woman who owned the restaurant I ate at gave me her contact information and said to call her if I ran into any problems.

Maybe everybody here was just in a really good mood today, or maybe I just got lucky. But I think it's because despite what I'd been told I didn't assume people would be rude to me; I came here with a positive attitude, a smile and knew how to say thank you in Vietnamese. I'm not saying that people (no matter what country you're in) won't still be rude even if you're friendly but I think travelers often don't realize that showing interest in the locals, learning even a couple words of the language and simply being kind will go a long way.

I could not have asked for a better start to my month in Vietnam and I owe it all to the lovely people in Ho Chi Minh - gaam ern!

The food was amazing too, this was delicious and cost $1!

Some art students I met in the park

Just your average nunchuk lesson

Ridiculously cute

The game all Vietnamese men seem to play

The craziest traffic I've ever seen!

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Beaches and Goodbyes

I’m currently sprawled on my king sized bed on a massive open air patio-turned-dorm room drinking a fresh banana shake and enjoying a panoramic view of a pristine beach with aqua blue water as far as the eye can see, while listening to the soothing sounds of gently crashing waves and ‘Hotel California’ playing in the background. I don’t think I could ask for a better way to spend my last few days in the Kingdom of Cambodia.

My beach time in Thailand got cut short due to my run-in with Dengue Fever so I’m glad to have a second chance here in the paradise that is Cambodia’s Southern coast. The mainland beaches in Sihanoukville were beautiful but they just can’t compare to the island of Koh Rong Saloem, which is where I am now. It’s been an incredibly indulgent last few days filled with swimming and lying on the beach in a setting that almost has to be seen to be believed; my words and photos won’t do it justice! 

My time at the beach has been a perfect ending to my second trip in Cambodia. Although there is a still lot of the country I have yet to discover I think my time here has been pretty well-rounded: Temples and history in Siem Reap, nature and wildlife in Mondulkiri and beaches and relaxation in Sihanoukville. Cambodia has been without a doubt my favourite country to date and while I’m gutted to be leaving for a second time, I’m eager to see what my next destination has in store for me. Bring it on Vietnam!

Traveler's Responsibility?

Before coming to Cambodia I didn’t know much about its history. Although I’m still no expert I’ve certainly learned a lot since I’ve been here, and most of it has been anything but pleasant. 

Cambodia has a horrific past with the climax being the takeover of the country by the Khmer Rouge, an authoritarian regime who took extreme measures to instate a completely rural, agrarian-based and Communist society. More than 2 million Cambodians were displaced, tortured and killed in the process, mostly those who held were educated, religious or from minority groups. 

One of the first things I did after arriving in Cambodia to educate myself on this terrible and yet important part of its history was visit the Killing Fields and the Tuol Sleng Prison, two main sites linked to the dark era of the Khmer Rouge. It was certainly a sad and somber day but visiting these historically significant places and learning more about the horrendous events that took place there seemed like the least I could do to pay a small homage to the victims and their surviving relatives, not to mention to get a better understanding of the challenges Cambodia continues to face today. 

While I felt it absolutely essential to see these places, I’ve met a number of people traveling in Cambodia who’ve either said they feel no need go there or simply do not want to because it would be ‘eerie’ or ‘depressing’. I’m not saying it’s easy to see these places; it’s not. Hearing about innocent people including women, children and even babies being murdered and tortured... it’s horrendous to even think about it. But I think we need to remember that while we may find it difficult to hear about, people actually went through it, or at least know someone (more likely multiple people) who did. Most of us lucky enough to traveling probably neither have nor will ever have to experience anything remotely close to what most Cambodians have had to face. It seems to me that if we’re going to come here and enjoy all of the positives the country has to offer, the least we can do is spend a few hours informing ourselves about such a major event of its past that has affected almost every single Cambodian in one way or another.

While I believe that people should travel how they want to travel and see what they want to see, do we not owe it to the countries we visit to learn something about their history and visit their historically significant places? Do travelers have a responsibility to inform themselves and learn about the country they are in and if so, to what extent?

Saturday, February 16, 2013

What's The Hurry About?

After wrapping up my volunteer stint at the Elephant Valley Project (more about that later!) I wanted to head down to Sihanoukville, which is on the southern coast of Cambodia. While nothing terrible happened on the trip there it took a lot longer than it should have. It had me pretty annoyed, until I got reminded of something along the way.

After a relatively late Friday night of pizza and wine with fellow elephant volunteers, another couple and myself were up before sunrise to get the early bus to Phnom Penh. It was a relatively painless journey that took about 5 hours; highlights included buying Fisherman's Friends for a feverish Khmer lady and holding a Korean baby that looked exactly like Psy.

We arrived in Phnom Penh just after 12 and quickly made our way to the bus station to buy tickets for Sihanoukville, which was supposed to be another 4 or 5 hours. There was a bus leaving in just 15 minutes - perfect! We got tickets, snacks and waited for our bus to arrive. It did... over an hour late. Although it didn't leave on time, we were comforted by the fact that we were now on our way and would arrive before dark so we could find a decent place to stay. As it turned out, not so much.

For whatever reason, our bus driver felt the need to drive incredibly slowly and stop for something or other about every 10 minutes. We quickly realized there was no way we'd get to Sihanoukville before dark. By a few hours into the journey I was getting pretty frustrated. My legs and butt were sore from sitting all day and I just wanted to get there. I could feel myself getting more and more annoyed when 'Vienna' by Billy Joel came on my iPod. There's a line in that song that goes

'Where's the fire, what's the hurry about? You'd better cool it off before you burn it out'

Hearing that made me immediately re-evaluate how I was acting. I reminded myself that I'm fortunate enough to be traveling for an extended period of time and I'm really in no great rush. Sure it's a bit irritating when things take longer than they should but there's no sense getting worked up over something that you have no control over and is pretty unimportant in the grand scheme of things. This can be difficult to remember in the heat of the moment but if I ever need a reminder, I'll just put on some Billy Joel.

(P.S. I spent duration of the bus ride making friends with the kids around me. We listened to my music, they played games on my iPhone and then I gave them a mini English lesson. The bus ride quickly went from exasperating to highly enjoyable, which again just shows you have absolutely nothing to gain from getting aggravated!)

Enjoying the ride

Monday, February 11, 2013

In The Jungle, The Mighty Jungle

After a long but shockingly punctual bus ride (possibly the first bus to ever arrive on time in Cambodia?!) I've arrived in Sen Monorom, the capital of Mondulkiri province. My accommodation (which I am sharing with a German girl I just met) consists of a bungalow with wooden walls, a bamboo floor and a thatched roof, situated right at the edge of a massive forest with trees as far as the eye can see. Apart from the eight-legged visitor we had in our room last night (see the above photo) the atmosphere here is heavenly.

Tomorrow I'm off to the Elephant Valley Project, about 11km outside of town, where I'll be volunteering for a few days. From what I've read online it sounds like an ethical and worthwhile project but the Khmer owner of my guesthouse says otherwise, so I'm looking forward to seeing what it's like for myself!

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Short But Sweet

I spent a busy but wonderful week here in Siem Reap seeing old (and making new) friends, teaching English and hanging around the guesthouse. While the idea of staying here and applying for a job is extremely tempting (I've seen several 'Help Wanted' signs around town!) there are still way too many other things I want to see and do.

That's why bright and early tomorrow morning I'm off to Mondulkiri province, situated about 12 hours southeast of Siem Reap. Known for its lush forests, waterfalls and lack of crowds (population density of just a few people per square kilometer!) Mondulkiri sounds like it will be worlds apart from the Cambodia I've gotten to know, and I can't wait to experience it.

Later days Siem Reap!

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

5 Cheap/Free Things To Do In Tokyo

As per my previous post I found that while it was by no means cheap, Japan didn't live up to its reputation as a ridiculously expensive country. In fact, I found five awesome activities in Tokyo that were either free or inexpensive.

1. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building Observatory
Enjoy a breathtaking 360 degree view of Tokyo (including Mt. Fuji!) from the 45th floor.

Cost: Free

The Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden

Once part of the Imperial Palace grounds, this stunning and tranquil garden will make you forget you're in a city of 13 million people.

Cost: 200 Yen (a little over $2)

3. The Tsukiji Fish Market
Get a taste (no pun intended) of one of Japan's biggest industries and find out where all of that delicious sushi comes from. Wander the market's seemingly endless rows and see every kind of seafood imaginable, some of which still might be moving - just mind the puddles of fish guts!
Cost: Free

4. People watching at Shibuya Crossing
Made famous after being featured in the movie 'Lost in Translation' and crossed by millions of people each day, Shibuya is said to be the busiest intersection in the world. There happens to be a Starbucks overlooking it so grab a coffee, take a seat and watch the chaos unfold.
Cost: The price of a Starbucks

5. The Meiji Shrine
Situated in a beautiful park, a visit here should allow you to see many Japanese (particularly businessmen) who come to pray for good fortune, particularly at the start of each new year.
Cost: Free

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Home (well, kind of) Sweet Home

I'm right back where I started from: the humid, dusty and completely charming city of Siem Reap. I spent the day showing a new volunteer teacher around town and while it didn't give me the same rush that exploring the streets of a foreign city does, it felt great to be able to introduce someone to a place that I know and love, a place that feels almost like home.

All smiles in Siem Reap

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Familiar Faces

As much as I enjoyed volunteering in Cambodia, after two months there I was more than ready to move on and start traveling. I spent most of December and January making my way through Thailand, Malaysia and Japan, meeting lots of fantastic people from all around the world along the way, as people traveling on their own often do.

New friends in Penang, Malaysia

While it felt good to be in full travel mode, six weeks of making new friends every few days started to get a bit tiring. That's why I was looking forward to getting to Hakuba, Japan, to visit a friend of mine who's working there. Spending time with someone I already knew and didn't have to spend time getting to know first was a welcome change of pace.

Hakuba, Japan

I wanted to see some more familiar faces post-Japan, which is why I've decided to head back to
Siem Reap for a bit. There are still plenty of new places I'm looking forward to traveling to but I'm also happy to be spending some time in a city/with people that I know. The best part? I'm actually going to get picked up at the airport, a relatively rare occurrence for a solo traveler!

My 'little sisters' in Cambodia

Sayonara Japan, suseday Cambodia!