Sunday, March 31, 2013

Teaching English (again)

Once I had finished my volunteer stint teaching English in Cambodia way back in December, I could not wait to get traveling and start moving around from place to place. Since arriving in Laos, however, I've been craving a little break from my nomadic life. 

Spending five days doing practically nada in the capital city of Vientiane definitely gave me a boost but I still don't feel like my batteries are fully charged, which is why I've decided to spend about a week in my current destination of Luang Prabang. It's a charming city with endless amounts of boutique hotels and trendy restaurants that cater to the hoards of tourists who visit. It reminds me a lot of Siem Reap actually: at first glance it might seem like an upscale and almost artificial place for foreigners to eat and shop 'til they drop, but my experience teaching English in Siem Reap made me realize it's so much more than that, and I have a feeling Luang Prabang will be as well. I plan on finding out by teaching English here too!

There are several opportunities in Luang Prabang for people wanting to teach English, even if it's only for a day. The Luang Prabang Library holds daily informal conversation sessions, attended primarily by monks from the pagoda across the street. I showed up today hoping to help out but it turns out I'm not the only tourist in town wanting to volunteer! Seeing as they already had enough volunteers, I wandered over to The Children's Cultural Center (The 'CCC'), a building attached to the Library that seems to host a sort of drop-in program for kids of all ages. 

When I arrived the kids were in a circle listening to a man (who I assume to be the Center's program leader) playing the guitar. One girl greeted me by shouting 'hello!' and then shyly hiding behind her friends. I went over to the group and started chatting with them, only to discover that many of them had a pretty high level of English. I asked them if they wanted to play some games, and after getting an OK from one of the staff I taught them how to play duck duck goose and go go stop, and they loved it.

After playing for a bit a few of the older kids asked me if I would do an English lesson with them, and I said I would. They were a group of about 10 teenagers in total, all very bright and happy to be there.  For an impromptu class it went extremely well, and when I asked the kids if they would like to do another class they said they would. I gave them some homework and will be seeing them again on Tuesday for our next class.

This evening I'm going to teach another English class at Big Brother Mouse, a more established organization that promotes literacy in Laos through book distribution. I had a look at the organization's center earlier and it looks great, so I'm excited to see what the class will be like.

I think spending some time teaching English here in Luang Prabang will be a perfect way to get geared up to start traveling again, and hopefully help some kids improve their language skills along the way!

I don't have any pictures of the kids (didn't seem appropriate) but I may have some by the end of the week!

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Traveller's Tune

Anyone planning on keeping their sanity during bus journeys in Southeast Asia (where songs that all sound exactly the same usually play over and over again at maximum volume) needs to have a lot of patience and a fully charged iPod. Although I've complained about some of the bus trips I've taken while traveling, I really don't mind them most of the time. It can be a nice chance to sit back, relax, reflect on everything you've been doing or are about to do and listen to some music, especially feel good, travel-y type songs.

These are some of my favourite tunes to listen to on the road:

Mountain Sound - Of Monsters and Men

Down in the Valley - The Head and the Heart

Chicago - Sufjan Stevens

Ends in the Ocean - Avalanche City

In moments of fatigue or frustration, it can be easy to lose sight of why we travel but listening to these songs never fails to remind me that traveling is so worth it.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Antithesis of Travel

I left home to go traveling nearly six months ago now, which to me is a pretty significant amount of time. Although there have been a few low-key days thrown in there where I didn't do much, for the most part I've kept quite busy and have usually felt optimistic and upbeat since being on the road.

As my jam-packed month in Vietnam slowly came to an end, I started to hit a wall. On the miserable night bus from Phonsavanh to Vientiane, which was on the windiest road known to man that had half the passengers puking, I pretty much crashed right into it (in a figurative sense of course, although the bus ride had me wondering if I'd literally be crashing into something as well). I just felt tired in every sense of the word. Tired of long, uncomfortable bus rides, tired of sightseeing, tired of unpacking and repacking my bag, tired of meeting new people every other day, tired of being tired. In addition to sheer exhaustion, I felt guilty for not fully appreciating where I was and what I was doing because I know there are heaps of people who would love to be traveling right now. Suffice to say it was the lowest I'd felt since this trip began.

To remedy the situation, I decided the best course of action was to stop traveling. By that I don't mean booking a ticket home (sorry Mom!) I just wanted to stop acting like a traveler for a bit. Since arriving in Vientiane, the sleepy capital city of Laos, I haven't gone sightseeing, haven't stepped foot in any of the city's temples or made any sort of effort to find out what there is to do here. Instead, I've spent the last couple of days doing the exact same thing: wake up, eat breakfast (toast and peanut butter with banana), go to the gym, lay by the pool (oh yes, the gym has a pool), spend the afternoon in a cafe, eat dinner. Boring as it may sound, I think it's exactly what I've been craving. Less moving around, more routine and stability... essentially, the antithesis of travel.

I still don't feel as enthusiastic towards traveling as I would like but I'm hoping that will have changed by the end of the week. I'll be here in Vientiane until Friday, waiting for my Burmese visa to get processed. (It normally only takes two business days but there's a Burmese holiday this week, meaning their Embassy is closed for two days and my visa won't be ready until Friday. If that's not a sign from the travel Gods that I'm supposed to stay in one place for a while than I don't know what is!) I plan to spend the rest of the week doing the same old thing. I can't wait for travel and I to be on better terms again but until then, I'm pretty excited about my week of not traveling.

Chilling by the pool post-workout, reading up on Myanmar

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Learning In Laos

I really didn't know what to expect before coming to Laos. Out of all the countries I've visited on this trip, it's probably the one I knew the least about beforehand. Thanks to an informative tour I took here in the town of Phonsavanh, located in central Laos, I've already learned a lot about the country's history and it's been fascinating and disturbing at the same time.

The first stop on our tour was the Plain of Jars. I'll admit it: when I first heard the words "Plain of Jars" I pictured a field filled with loads of little glass jars, the kind my grandma used to use to preserve fruit in. Turns out the image I'd formed in my head wasn't totally accurate...

The Plain of Jars

The jars are actually not glass at all but have been carved from large pieces of rock, taken from a mountain about 10 kilometers away. Although there is still much uncertainty regarding the story behind the jars, most archeologists believe that they were originally used as urns due to the human remnants discovered inside of them years ago. Locals disagree; they believe they were used to store lao-lao (Laotian rice whiskey). Regardless, considering the Plain of Jars dates back some 2500 years the effort it must have taken to create these 300+ jars is mind blowing - and this was just one of three jar sites!

A detailed carving found on one of the jars

There are over 300 jars at this particular site

The atmosphere at Plain of Jars could not have been more calm or peaceful, but we learned that it had not always been that way. Our guide told us that during the Vietnam War, Laos got bombed relentlessly by the Americans and many of those bombs landed on the Plain of Jars, causing irreparable damage to this archeological site. And the bombing didn't end there.

Trenches found all over the Plain of Jars

A swimming-pool sized bomb crater (jars in the background)

Now I knew Laos had been bombed during the Vietnam War but I didn't know to what extent. I've since learned that from 1963 to 1974, the US illegally dropped over 2 million metric tonnes of ordnance over Laos, giving it the unfortunate title of the most bombed country in the world. This action (known as the "Secret War") was illegal because Laos had officially been designated a neutral country during the war.

What's more, approximately 30% of these bombs did not explode on impact and since the end of the war, unexploded ordnance (known more commonly as UXO) has severely injured or killed an estimated 50,000 people in the country. The worst part? A mere 1% of UXO has been cleared to date, meaning that these bombs are sure to claim more limbs and lives of Laotians in years to come.

One significant site we visited on our tour related to the US bomb campaign was the Tham Piu Cave, where no less than 374 civilians had taken refuge during the war. In November 1969, a rocket hit the cave, killing every single man, woman and child who had been hiding there. I hate to say it but I had never felt less proud to be an American citizen than at that moment.

Uncovered belongings of the victims

A very moving statue near the cave

The cave where almost 400 people had been living

While the majority of the tour was incredibly grim (and rightly so) we also got the chance to visit a few traditional villages. What struck me most was the way so many people had built and decorated their houses.

Notice anything?

Many people had either built their houses or decorated their gardens with old bomb shells. I couldn't believe it; surely people wouldn't want any reminders of their country's tragic past right in their front yards? But the fact that they are able to take these terrible relics and turn them into something beautiful to me shows a possession of spirit and resourcefulness that I find astounding.

Bomb shells holding up a house

A bomb shell turned plant holder!

Like their neighbors in Cambodia and Vietnam, Laotians have gone through their share of trauma. It was difficult to hear about it and did not make me proud of the nation in which I was born, but it gave me such an appreciation for the people in this country. Amidst all of their struggles, not only do the people here seem willing and determined to overcome the hand they've been dealt, they'll do it with a smile on their face.

A shy girl I met, playing a game with some beans

Adorable boy named Toc with his little sister

Lovely young fellow who wanted a picture with me

To learn more about UXO in Laos visit or

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Life Happens In Hanoi

I spent a couple of days in Hanoi before going to Sapa and while I thought it was alright, I didn't think it was anything that special. After walking around the city for most of today, however, my opinion has completely changed. It's certainly chaotic and hectic, which can also make it overwhelming and frustrating at times. But the fact that there's so much going on is exactly why it appeals to me. 

Fruit sold from bikes

The 'restaurant' where I had lunch

My meal... mmmm

Birdcages everywhere

Friendly game of chess

Flower markets on wheels

Snoozing road-side Barber

Amazing old colonial buildings

Meet Bull, the cutest lab in Hanoi

Embracing the madness

People watching+juice = perfect end to the day

While at first glance Hanoi seemed no different to me than any other big city, upon closer inspection I realized that everywhere I turned, people's everyday lives were unfolding right before my eyes. Kids chasing each other, colleagues grabbing noodle bowls for lunch, old ladies chatting in hushed tones, babies learning to walk, friends enjoying a game of cards or chess, men getting a cut and a shave...  things that would in most cities happen behind closed doors, happen right out on the street. I can't think of a better way to get a real feel for a city than to observe its people going about their day, and Hanoi allows you to do just that.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Các Bạn

After two weeks of traveling together (which feels like years when you're in travel-mode) it was time to say goodbye to my four wonderful travel mates.

I think that traveling alone is one of the best things you can do but spending longer periods of time with other travelers you meet can be a welcome change of pace. It means having inside jokes, bus and boat journeys become hilarious rather than tedious, getting lost doesn't seem as scary, there is someone to watch your bags when you have to pee in a train station, you might get the courage to try something you wouldn't have on your own... the list goes on and on.

While there are many positives to traveling with others, for me there is still something extremely rewarding about traveling all by yourself. Whether I'm navigating my way through a new city, going through a particularly difficult border crossing or trying to explain myself in a foreign language, I get satisfaction out of knowing I was able to do it without anyone else's help. I don't know if that makes me more stubborn or independent but I like proving to myself that I can do it on my own, whatever "it" may be.

I know I would have had a good time in Vietnam no matter what but meeting these four definitely made it unforgettable.


I'm beyond bummed to have said goodbye to my new các bạn (friends) but I'm also looking forward to the challenge of being on my own again!

Friday, March 15, 2013

Like Grains Of Sand

The main reason travelers come to Sapa is to trek, and we were no exception. As soon as we arrived we booked a two day, one night trek to see the rice terraces and minority villages Sapa is known for. It didn't turn out to be quite the experience I was hoping for but I still enjoyed many aspects of the trek. 

Traditional clothing

My four travel mates and I arrived at the travel agency in the morning to meet our guide, a shy but pleasant 17 year old Hmong girl named So dressed head to toe in traditional attire. We set off to begin our trek... along with 20 or so other people. Not ideal, but I figured we'd all take slightly different paths and end up making our own ways to the village where we would be staying. Unfortunately we were in a massive group the entire time and stayed almost entirely on main roads with trucks honking and passing us every so often. Sticking to main roads made it feel more like a long walk than a proper trek and gave me pretty bad shin splints from walking down steep roads all day! Still, the scenery could not have been better. The valley we were in was covered in rice terraces of all different sizes and had a clear blue river running right through the middle of it. It was also a warm, sunny day (somewhat of a rarity in Sapa) which made everything all the more beautiful. I also ended up bumping into an old friend from high school on the trek, which was a pleasant surprise!

Rice terraces

Mid-afternoon we arrived at our home stay in one of the minority villages. Now I didn't expect the village to be completely authentic; I figured it would be touristy but I hadn't realized just how touristy. The village was lined with 'home stays', which were more like guesthouses than actual homes. They were all clearly built to accommodate many guests and I never actually saw the family that apparently lived in ours. In addition to the numerous home stays the village was equipped with wifi, a bar and even a spa! 

Houses in the village

It was a bit disappointing to have access to so many amenities when I thought we'd be getting away from it all but we had a good time all the same. We spent the afternoon splashing around in the river and afterward headed back to our home stay for a delicious dinner cooked by some local girls. After we ate it was on to "chopsticks", a card-turned-drinking game that most people know as spoons. The loser of each round had to do shot of "Happy Water" (AKA rice wine). There wasn't anything happy about the taste of it if you ask me but luckily I only lost one round!

Playing chopsticks with my old friend from highschool!

The second day was much better than the first. After a breakfast of pancakes we were off, this time without the throngs of other trekkers. We were actually on our own for most of the trek and we went on more interesting and challenging trails. So gave us some information about the rice terraces and we began to understand just how vital rice harvesting is for many people in the area. She also told us more about life in her Hmong village. Not only is she married at 17, she's got a baby on the way! While us non-married 20somethings couldn't believe our ears (or eyes - she's already showing!) she explained that her situation was very common and that many girls marry even younger. In addition to learning lots we lucked out again with the weather and were able to enjoy more beautiful sights the valley had to offer. By early afternoon we were back in Sapa town and promptly headed back to our hotel for a nap.

So, our guide

Although I was slightly underwhelmed by some aspects of the trek it was still well worth it. The scenery certainly exceeded my expectations: I've seen plenty of flat rice fields before but had never seen anything quite like the layers and layers of terraces that make Sapa so famous. They reminded me of grains of sand on a beach - you really can't wrap your head around just how many of them there are. In addition to the unbelievable landscapes I enjoyed the sunny weather, scrumptious food and hanging out with my four lovely travel mates.

My travel crew for the last two weeks
My time in Vietnam is quickly coming to an end but I've still got another three days in Sapa, and I intend to make them count!