Elephant pant rant

I know I’m the last person to have any credibility to comment on fashion, but after 11 months of being in Asia, I feel I can safely say that just because every other tourist wears elephant pants, doesn’t mean it looks good!

If this is people’s idea of cultural integration, then they need to be a bit more creative. Have you seen any local person wearing elephant pants?

Why not just buy a shirt that says, “Look at me I’m a tourist!”?

Wearing elephant pants as a couple still doesn’t make it cute. Sorry.

No comment.

 

Meditating, cooking, and connecting at Mindful Farm in northern Thailand

While my friend and I were staying at V.R. guesthouse, I tried to look for places we could couch surf so we could ideally stay with local people. Then I came across a profile from Mindful Farm, located 75 km from Chiang Mai in the mountains.

The farm is centered around a simple way of life, organic farming, mud-brick construction, vegetarian cooking, meditation and Buddhism. It is run by Pi Nan, a former monk of 20 years, and his partner Noriko. They have a beautiful two-year old daughter. Noriko told me they met when they were going on a meditation retreat together.

According to them, “Mindfulness is a word used in connection with Buddhism and meditation. It means to be in the present moment. It is being really aware of what we are doing while we are doing it. As a method for cultivating mindfulness – meditation is a vital part of the daily life at Mindful Farm.”

The beautiful Mindful Farm. Photo credit: Zuzana Kotorova.

Pi Nan has come from several generations of farmers and was raised in a village just a 15-minute walk from the farm. He began the farm just two years ago so he always welcomes volunteers who want to learn and contribute to a long-term project.

For 200 baht a day (about $7 US), we could participate in meditation, work on the farm, provided three meals a day and a place to sleep. Because we had a deadline to be out of Thailand as a result of our visa, we could only stay for three days and wanted to give some time to do the Mae Hong Son loop by motorcycle.

At first I was a bit suspicious of this farm and didn’t want to commit for a very long time in case it wasn’t a good experience. But the days on this farm ended up being some of the most memorable days of my month in Thailand. I highly recommend people stay at least five days if you want to connect with and be inspired by incredible people.

The funny ride up

Our shuttle taxi from Warorot Market in Chiang Mai that brought us to Mindful Farm. We made stops every five to ten minutes.

There is a yellow shuttle bus, which costs 100 baht per person, that leaves once a day at 11:15-ish (big emphasis on the ISH) in the morning to get from Warorot market in Chiang Mai to get to the farm. The website warned us that the ride would take 3-4 hours because the bus makes stops to pick up and drop off things at the villages along the way. Fair enough.

We met a lovely couple on the bus who, like me, quit their jobs so they could travel for a long time. It’s nice to meet people who have also taken a break from working to explore the world because we understand each other and don’t have to justify why we made that decision. They had just come back from India after being there for three months and they thought Bangkok of all places was quiet. They also got engaged in Nepal, which is amazing.  Not everyone has to get engaged in France or Italy.

So after waiting 45 minutes, the bus finally left at 12:00 p.m. and we were on our way. The 75 km ride could theoretically be done in an hour and a half. But it was funny that the bus kept stopping every 5 to 15 minutes.

Our driver who made several beer stops after collecting our money.

What was even funnier is when the driver asked us for our 100 baht for the trip about half way in, which was a bit unusual because most of the time you pay for services at the end around Thailand. After he took our cash, he walked away somewhere and then a local person told us, “His back is hurting so he is going for a massage.” We just hoped it wasn’t going to be an hour-long massage.

Half an hour later, we were on our way again driving along the windy mountain roads amongst the beautiful green landscape and fields. Then we passed a clearly foreign visitor and I said, “We must be close.” The driver told us we arrived and thankfully the visitor we passed was also staying at Mindful Farm so she showed us the way, otherwise it would have taken us a lot longer to find it.

I was amazed how big the farm was and how peaceful it was to be in the mountains.

First activities

Our fantastic first meal at Mindful Farm. We ate falafels, sticky rice, lettuce and cabbage.

We were waiting for Pi Nan in a small sheltered space, which we would later learn was going to be where my friend and I slept for the few nights we were there. There were about 30 people on the farm and all of the bungalows were taken. In the shelter I noticed a sign that said, “Walk Like a Buddha” and I thought, “I’m going to like this place.”

We were introduced to Pi Nan, the owner of the farm, and he signed us in. He exuded s a very gentle energy and always speaks at a moderate pace.  After only a few minutes of our introduction, he asked us, “Do you want to do yoga?” This was kind of an unexpected first task after a four-hour bus ride, but why not?

Pi Nan helping make a fire.

We joined the end of the yoga session that was being taught by one of the volunteers. When the class finished, people were very nice and introduced themselves to us. After spending a week at Koh Chang Island and other popular traveler spots, we found the people, mostly tourists, on that island quite closed and unfriendly. They would look at you when you pass and not say anything. So it was nice to meet a group of Westerners who were open.

That night, we all helped cook dinner. Pi Nan asked me to pick some lettuce. As a city girl who did not grow up with garden hands, I hoped that I wouldn’t destroy or wreck other plans while I was doing this seemingly simple request.

It was really nice to work together to prepare the meal that would be eaten by the nightly fire. After eating out so much in Asia, I really miss cooking, especially cooking with people. Everything we ate was grown on the farm and always delicious!

Our first meal there we had sticky rice, egg and cabbage, lettuce, falafels. I couldn’t believe how tasty the lettuce was raw. Usually everyone eats in the meditation area but because there were so many people, six of us ate together by the fire.

Dr. Phat

The funny and hospitable Dr. Phat.

During our first meal, we were introduced to Dr. Phat, Pi Nan’s cousin. For two days I thought he was a medical doctor. He is a 58-year-old man who is always laughing, singing and builds the fires. He and his wife has a son in the village close by but he spends most of his nights by the farm, doesn’t eat that much food and drinks rice whiskey on a daily basis.

I asked Pi Nan how he got the name Dr. Phat and he told us people in the village joke and assign people academic degrees based on how much they drink. As Pi Nan said, “Because he is hungover every day, we call him doctor.” Needless to say, he is not the person to go to for medical attention.

We were staying in the shelter next to his room and on the first night, in the middle of the night, I could hear him and his friend chatting and building a fire. I thought maybe it was dawn already but it was probably 3:00 a.m.

He’s a funny character.

An incredible mix of global explorers

Volunteers eating lunch together in the meditation room. We eat all of our meals here. Photo credit: Zuzana Kotorova.

Our first night was also the last night of a Swiss family who was traveling with their son and daughter, who are about 9 and 12 years old, for one year. The mother is homeschooling them while they travel. What better education could a child have than experiencing the world?

The family lived on the farm for three weeks and their daughter formed a close bond with Pi Nan’s two-year old daughter who must have been so sad to see her new Swiss friend leave the farm. She is such a zen baby; she is so quiet and clearly the daughter of a former monk.

Another traveler I met was a Vietnamese girl who lived in Norway and spoke four languages. She did a six-month internship in Chile and was traveling Asia for a long time as well.

Another volunteer wanted to learn about gardening and organic farming so she spent some time in Tacomepai in Pai, another farm in the Mae Hong Son province. Because the owner Sandot was away for two weeks, she came to Mindful Farm to continue learning about farming and plants.

We were comparing our squatting abilities while were preparing dinner.

Based on her recommendation, we would later go to Tacomepai for an unforgettable few days in the mountains. She drew us a map of how to get to the farm, which was very helpful for us while we were going around the 600 km Mae Hong Song loop the following week.

Of all the Western people I’ve met since I left Cambodia, this has been the most open and amazing group of travelers I met. I learned so much about their cultures and was inspired by their unique journeys.

Walking meditation

Photo credit: Zuzana Kotorova

When people started gathering around the fire, Pi Nan said anyone could join for the walking meditation, meaning people walk in silence around the farm and walk consciously, paying attention to our every movement.

As we were walking through the valley under the beautiful full moon, I felt for a few moments that I was living in a dream. In the morning we were in the city in Chiang Mai with traffic, food and a buzzing atmosphere. Then by the afternoon we walking in the middle of a mountain on a silent mediation on a beautiful night.

Photo credit: Zuzana Kotorova.

After the walk, Pi Nan found a spot for all of us to sit silently facing the moon for some time. I thought, “I can’t believe I was supposed to be at the Full Moon Party right now and now I’m looking at the full moon on an organic, vegetarian farm with a former monk and environmentally-conscious travelers.”

The friend I’m traveling with was very surprised that the young Swiss children sat quietly without complaining during the silent meditation, especially compared to the overly stimulated children in North America who can’t sit still. I wasn’t surprised because they’re not the first children I’ve seen raised by parents who practice meditation regularly. When kids are treated like mature beings in a calm environment that focuses on connection with people and nature, they can adapt to those environments.

Our daily schedule

The “bell,” or end of a shovel, that was rung whenever the meal was ready.

  • 6:30 – Watering plants/walking meditation/yoga
  • 8:00 – Breakfast
  • 9:00 – Morning volunteer work
  • 12:00 – Lunch and Rest
  • 15:30 – Afternoon volunteer work
  • 18:00 – Dinner
  • 19:30 – Meditation

In the morning, we always ate breakfast in silence facing the farm so we can focus on eating consciously. It was a great way to start the morning and has motivated me to have more silent and slow breakfasts in the morning. We did speak with each other during lunch and dinner, so it was a great balance throughout the day.

On the second day, Pi Nan needed help with some gardening. I’m ashamed how little I know about the basics of gardening and that I have no experience growing food. I couldn’t even tell which plants were weeds. He patiently said, “I will teach you.” So I spent most of the morning weeding and putting dry compost between the plants as he instructed me. Then it was already time for lunch then in the afternoon, people could either take a break or continue with their work.

Our nightly fire that is put on by Dr. Phat. We always have great fireside chats and deep conversations with people.

Dr. Phat hosts guests for tea by the fire every night and I often end up having deep conversations with at least one person that really affects my outlook on life. The people here remind me so much of the Intention community in Vancouver, a group that also focuses on building community, meditation, healing, love, and spiritual music.

I talked to one girl who had a friend who committed suicide at the age of 21. She asked a very legitimate question and said,  “Why not celebrate their life rather than focus on death? It’s like 95% of their existence doesn’t even matter.  I told my friends and family if anything ever happens to me, have a party or say nice things about me.”

Dinner time. My body felt so healthy and fresh during my days at Mindful Farm.

I told her about how different cultures around Asia celebrate life rather than the ceremony being a sad event.

She said she knew a couch surfing host who stopped celebrating Christmas because it was the anniversary of his mother’s death. But when he hosted someone who told him that it’s important to celebrate his mother’s life as well. Since then he has began celebrating Christmas again.

Communal cooking

Making a loving meal together with the wonderful outdoor kitchen.

I love outdoor kitchens! Having an outdoor kitchen of my own is now one of my life goals. It’s been so wonderful cooking with people again and eating the freshest food you could have, especially after eating so much street food the past few months.

I felt so much healthier after eating on the farm and I wasn’t having an excess amount of sugar as I usually do in the city because I love milk teas. I need to re-adapt my body to get used to not having as much sugar and artificial foods like instant noodles.

Meditation 101

This sign is in the shelter and is one of the first things I saw when Pi Nan greeted us for the first time.

Meditation is essentially about being mindful or conscious about everything you do and to keep your mind focused on the present moment. So often we easily dwell and drift in our past and the future.

So many people have their eyes glued to their phones, are consumed by so many responsibilities and pulled in many different directions. When I watch Pi Nan and his family live a simple life, there is a big appeal to it. It’s not boring as many people may imagine it to be. It is peaceful and fulfilling.

The core practice of meditation is focusing on our breath. There is much scientific evidence of the positive long-term impacts of deep and focused breath. Taking deep breaths regularly reduces anxiety, decreases blood pressure, and relaxes the muscles, among other benefits.

“When people rush with their coffee to get to meditation, this is not the right way to meditate.” Of course this is easier said than done. Instead of doing one focused hour a day or a week, it’s good for people to practice integrating conscious breathing and mindfulness in daily life.

Pi Nan read us an article called driving meditation. He talked about how in this changing world monks sometimes need to drive and adapt to changes in society. But they still integrate their meditation practice into daily life.

When people drive, they see the red light as an obstacle to their destination. But instead, people can see it as a remind to stop, take a breath and be in the present moment.

One-day silent meditation

This is the view from my friend’s “paradise” during her silent meditation day. Photo credit: Zuzana Kotorova.

One volunteer told me, “I learned this from other volunteers but everyone is supposed to do a full day of silent meditation in the forest on your first full day at the farm.”

I asked Pi Nan about this and I told him because we were only there for a short time, I could continue the work if he wanted and skip the meditation. He said, “You should do the meditation.” So he walked my friend and I to a part of the jungle and we each had our own spot. He said:

You can build your paradise here. You can clear the leaves and make it comfortable for yourself. Over here you can do a walking meditation and walk back and forth slowly. Empty your mind and be happy. Breathe in and out and just be aware of your body.

Some people try very hard to meditate and think they will be enlightened, but this wrong. Meditation is about being happy and at peace. Some people are very serious when they meditate but you can smile and just be happy.

You must be silent for the full day, but you can smile at each other and smile at other people. If you are feeling sick or if you have a thought, you are allowed to talk to me. When you hear the bell, you can get your food and return to your spot.  You are not allowed to write or read because your mind will wander.

It is 7:30 a.m. now, you will end at 7:30 p.m.

While we ate during our meditation, we are much more aware of our food and its layers of flavour. I haven’t eaten so consciously in a long time and it’s a good practice to get back to.

So there I was, in my own little paradise just starting to breathe deeply and consciously. I keep trying to do 10 deep conscious breaths but I could barely get through two before my mind began drifting off into another world.

But when I’ve gone to festivals and events focused on mindfulness, music and healing, it usually takes me three days to clear my head and then really get into being in a present headspace. How is it different when you’re mindful?

For me when I’m very present, I feel like my intuition and awareness is sharp, time feels slower and I just do what my body or intuition guides me to do instead of mindlessly following a time schedule. I feel much more attentive when people are talking to me and they can feel a different energy from me as well.

I had one super zen month in 2011 and it was the most calm and present I’ve ever been in my life. I knew I would lose it after I got back into city life but at least I knew I could do it. It’s an ongoing challenge to find ways to integrate mindfulness in my daily life.

When I was allowed to talk again, one of the other guests said, “There you are!” And gave me a big hug with a smile. Another friend was asking where I was earlier in the day not knowing it was my day to be in the forest. It was nice of her to be thinking about me and we continued chatting by the fire later in the night. She was so kind to say in French, “If you are ever in France, you can visit me.” I find the people I’ve met the past year who do these kinds of invites are very genuine.

I shared my experience with Pi Nan and told him someone was dominating my thoughts in a negative way. When this happens I asked him if the best way is to just focus on breathing. He said, “Keep going back to your breath. When we have thoughts of the past, it brings emotions of sadness and happiness. But when you keep breathing, you will be present and take away the power of your thoughts.”

Our last day

Ida, in the middle, was so sweet to give us a heart bookmark that she made herself as a souvenir before she left. We couldn’t communicate much because I didn’t speak much Spanish and she didn’t speak much English. But we smiled at each other and she had a warm touch whenever we interacted the few days we were together.

I was sad to have stayed at Mindful Farm for such a short time and I know for next time I would stay at a farm for at least two weeks. There was one woman, Ida, who only spoke Spanish but she was so nice to give me a hand-made bookmark in the shape of a heart before she left. With a group of open people like this, language is never a barrier. You can show kindness and connection through our actions and touch.

One of our new friends wrote me a nice note and shared her favourite quotes in my notebook. Part of her message said, “Despite the fact that we’ve known each other for two days I see you as a good friend. It seems like we’ve known each other in another life . . . I wish you all the best life can offer: happiness, love and more luuuuuv.”

We savoured every minute of our last fire with people, including the kind co-host Dr. Phat.

Our days at Mindful Farm was one of my favourite times in our month in Thailand and I would go back and stay longer the next chance I get.

The bookmarks Ida made to share with people. Photo credit: Zuzana Kotorova.

 

 

 

When life steers you in a different direction

Surin

The wonderful people who kept us company for the whole day in Surin.

I was looking forward to the Full Moon Party in Koh Pagnan island in Thailand for two months and it was the only fixed plan I had in January. Everything else was up in the air. 10,000 to 30,000 people go the party every month to dance the night away and enjoy themselves however they please. I was more attracted to the event for the electronic music and dancing on the beach, which is hard to do in countries with many regulations like Canada.

Because I just got my open water diving license in Bali, I wanted to go to one of the best diving sites in the world, which is Surin Island south of Thailand. So I thought I could go there for a few days to dive then head to Koh Pagnan afterward.

I booked my accommodation for three nights on Koh Pagnan ahead of time because it was going to be busy and I looked online on how to Surin Island and tried to find the bus and ferry ticket, which was not as easy as it seemed.

Navigating through organized chaos

Rush hour on the BTS skytrain in Bangkok

After the first two hours of being on public transit, I finally got to the bus terminal to try and get the ticket because you can’t book it online. But at the first bus station when I asked for Surin, he told me I had to go to Mo Chit bus station an hour and a half away to get to the island, which wasn’t on the website. But the site information could have been outdated for all I knew.

Five hours after navigating through the organized chaos city that is Bangkok, I finally get to Mo Chit. I asked the info booth how to get to Surin, got our tickets and waited for the overnight bus to take us to our first stop. The website I read said from the first island, you can take a 7:00 a.m. ferry to get to another island first before getting to Surin Island.

We left at 8:00 p.m. and arrived at 5:00 a.m. to Surin. So when I asked someone where the ferry was they gestured that there was no ferry in the area. When my friend pulled out the map to indicate where we wanted to go, we found out we went eight hours in the wrong direction! We headed north to the city of Surin, which is different than the island of Surin. Who knew there would be two things named Surin? Someone told me next time I should ask for “Koh Surin,” which means Surin Island. Mental note.

We could have gone back to the south or just head up to Chiang Mai, which we were planning to do after the Full Moon Party. I said, “Well we’re already this far, let’s take the bus to Chiang Mai.” Unlucky for us, the earlier buses were full so we had to wait 14 hours for the next bus, which was another 14-hour ride to Chiang Mai.

New friends in Surin

We looked for a coffee shop with Wi-Fi to stay at the whole day. Thankfully the first cafe’s internet didn’t work otherwise we wouldn’t have met the wonderful people who spent time with us at another coffee shop.

I found out that the 21-year old woman staff member was originally from Cambodia, which instantly made me homesick from my Asian home Siem Reap. I spoke a bit of Khmer (Cambodian language) with her, and she was so surprised. She came to Thailand to work, which is what many Cambodians do, and works seven days a week at the shop. She had the most adorable laugh and she so reminded me of the wonderful smile and friendliness of many Cambodians I met while I was in the country for eight months.

We saw a mix of older Western men and local Thai women, whom we said hello to and we started chatting casually here and there. I learned from them that most people in Surin speak Khmer partly because they are so close to the country.

I was surprised how long they hung around the coffee shop, but one of the women, Sudjai, was friends with the owner. They told us a bit about their family, their work and many other random things.

Our highlight of the day was when they offered to drive us to the night market so we left our stuff at the coffee shop. It was nice to have a mini tour of the city. I asked myself, “When in Vancouver and other cities could you feel comfortable leaving your bags at a coffee shop and have people offer you a ride for dinner after meeting them after just a few hours?”

We all grabbed some food and brought it back to the coffee shop to eat together. They stayed with us from the morning until our bus came at 8:00 p.m. Before we left, Sudjai said, “Next time you’re in Surin, you can visit our family.” I am chatting on Facebook with Sudjai now and she said again, “So when you visit Thailand next time you can stay with us for free.” I told her next time we visit Thailand and have time, we will go to Surin on purpose and include a visit to them as part of our trip.

It’s so beautiful that around many parts of Asia that I’ve been to, I can easily talk to people and find people to connect with wherever I go.

We then continued on our journey to Chiang Mai and the northern mountains, which led to my most memorable days in Thailand. I will tell you in my next post how I ended up watching the full moon during a silent sitting meditation with a group of world travelers and Thai owner of an organic vegetarian farm instead of the originally planned Full Moon Party.

A fixed destination can distract you from the path you were meant to take.

Life after surviving the tsunami

I had a wonderful holiday dinner on December 25, 2013 with my best friend in Taiwan and her classmates in Kiaohsiung city. There were about 25 people in the apartment and we all enjoyed a delicious meal together.

There was a couple sitting beside us a bit away from the group, so I went to introduce myself. The man I spoke with was from Toronto, Canada originally and he had been living in the city for a long time and returns regularly for work. It’s amazing how many people have had incredible experiences that we often will never know unless we have a conversation with them.

We shared some short travel stories but his story of surviving the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that killed over 230,000 people in 14 countries was unforgettable. We didn’t talk for so long but he told me when the tsunami came to his area, people started running out of the building he was in. If he had gotten out just 10 minutes later than he did, he wouldn’t be alive.

When I asked him how it changed his perspective on life he said, “I just don’t sweat the small stuff anymore. Before I used to travel but just for small trips, but now I work really hard for one year to save up money and travel every other year. I have enough to take me around Europe next year so we’re going on a trip. We should do it while we can and see as much as we can.”

A farewell letter after a filed divorce from Fido

I’m finally free from my long three-year contract with my ex-phone carrier in Vancouver, Canada. Unfortunately there are few companies that we can choose from and having a phone in the province of British Columbia can be quite expensive if you don’t talk to the right people or know how to work the customer service system. I’m talking about this now because I’ve been paying $51 CDN a month for my phone bill for 7 months to honour the rest of my contract with the phone company Fido while I’ve been out of the country.

Now with more companies popping up with more flexible options that actually serve the customers, month-to-month plans are looking more appealing to me by the time I get back to Vancouver. Even though the catch is paying a few hundred Canadian dollars to buy their phone, in the long run, you still save a lot more money than buying into a long contract with a higher bill and a free phone. I’ve heard mixed reviews about the phone reception though.

This is one of many reasons why I filed for divorce from Fido.

Dear Fido,

We’ve been through a lot in the three years that we’ve been together.

You got me at hello when you tempted me with a free phone if I signed a three-year contract, which was very attractive to me at the time.

It was a great first year honeymoon period where everything seemed perfect and you were so considerate. You sent me messages when my minutes almost reached its limit so I wouldn’t have to pay more. You were always there for me whenever I needed support and met all my needs.

But one day, you changed. All of a sudden you were absent when I needed you most. When a thief took my phone on the street and ran away into an alley, I called you for support to cut off my phone but your “policy” said for some reason it could not be done.

Because I no longer had a smart phone and did not want to pay so much money for another phone, I didn’t want to break up with you, but just change the conditions of our relationship by changing plans. While your friend was very sympathetic to my situation and offered me a free activation for the cheap phone that was not Wi-Fi friendly, you were heartless. You wanted to charge me $100 after my phone was stolen. Because you had the power to make the decision to help me, you are worse than the thief who stole the phone. It’s one thing if I voluntarily chose to change the plan, but my phone was taken from me at night and I had been with you for two years by this point already. You couldn’t have given something back to me?

Now I am fulfilling my passions for traveling and even though I had another 8 months left in our relationship, I made the monthly payments to uphold my end of the bargain. And now my contract is up and I want to close my account, and you tell me there is a 30-day notice policy and have one last charge?

I should have paid the $400 cancellation fee to leave you sooner and now I will never come back to you no matter how much you try to tempt me with good plans, free phones and other services. Begging me for mercy?

It’s too late. You should have been good to me in the first place, not just when you need something from me. I respect myself, and leaving you for good for something better.

I will make sure to warn my friends about how you really are, not what you market yourself to be. It’s all fake.

Goodbye forever.

Learning to accept what people give

My friend Tourn invited my friend and I to hang out at Baray, a relaxing place with hammocks by the water. She cooked enough food for 10 people to eat for lunch and the boys supplied beers for everyone.

People in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Indonesia and Taiwan have been so generous with me to an extent that I would feel incredibly guilty if I didn’t offer something back to them. Because food, activities and products are much more expensive in Vancouver, Canada, our friends are so used to splitting the cost of everything and this has became an unconscious habit. With our close friends, we take turns treating each other for a drink or a meal every now and then.

So of course when I am coming as a visitor in countries where salaries are very low for most people, I don’t expect anyone to pay for my food or eat somewhere where I won’t at least supply groceries for both of us if they offer to cook for me. At the local grocery store in Cambodia, it costs no more than $2 US to pay for a meal for two people or a few dollars for a family. I always want to contribute my share as I’m used to doing in Canada.

Cambodian customs

Our friend Tin Tin so generously hosted us at his family’s home an hour outside of Siem Reap City to celebrate Khmer New Year. We kept asking him what we could bring and contribute but he wouldn’t let us pay for anything simply because we were guests.

In Cambodia, no matter what your background or income is, it’s simply in their culture to make sure you are taken care of as a guest or make you feel like you are family. Even when my Khmer (Cambodian) friends know I can afford something for myself or treat people because I want to, it doesn’t matter. One of my friends simply said, “In Cambodia, we like to make people happy. We know are traveling many places so we planned our trip so you don’t have to spend a lot. I don’t expect anything back from you.”

One of my friends offered to cook dinner for me a few times and she bought all the ingredients. When I asked what I owe her, she kept saying, “Nevermind.” When I asked again saying I can at least pay my share since she’s cooking she said, “Do you want me to be angry with you, I said I’ll cook for you.” But we’re close enough that we can talk that directly with each other.”

In Cambodian culture, if you are a guest, they will cook for you without expecting anything back in return. Over time I’ve realized by always offering to pay someone back, particularly in the form of a material gift or with money, I’m kind of corrupting their gesture that comes purely from their heart. It’s hard knowing that some of my friends make $50 US a month and it costs at least $200 a month to live comfortably in Siem Reap and they still offer to treat you a meal. It’s very challenging not to simply accept their gesture and I’m still working on it after being in Asia for almost 11 months.

My adopted Cambodian family has been so generous for most of the months I was in Cambodia and has taken me in as an added family member.

Whenever I have the ability, I treat friends and family every now and then to meals or drinks without expectation of them paying me back. And if I do it for friends in Canada, why wouldn’t I do it for friends in other countries?

I can think of several occasions where my Cambodian friends will tell me how hard it is to earn a good living and how life is in general and when the bill comes, they treat me a meal, which boggles my mind. Even when I insist they don’t have to cover their meal, they still offer. One of my friends told me that in Cambodia, if someone makes a new friend and they ask them to hang out for a meal, it’s custom to pay for that person for the first time.

In my first few months in Cambodia, I asked my friend directly, “Why are Cambodians so generous?” and they said, “It’s in our culture, we like to share.”

Conflicting customs

I’ve taken two trips to my friend Sopheak’s family’s hometown in an area called Banteay Meanchey. They’ve been so kind to let me stay and their house and share their meals with me.

I’ve been brought up with Chinese customs that I’ve practiced for most of my life, particularly when I’ve gone to family dinners. One of the customs is when you come to someone’s house, you can’t come empty handed so you have to bring something like some food or drinks to share, even when they tell you it’s not necessary.

So of course when my adopted Khmer family allows me to stay with them for free without expectation of anything in return, this is where our cultural customs come a bit in conflict but we’ve found a happy medium. Even though they never ask me for anything, I have made a daily habit of getting them breakfast in the morning, helping them set up for lunch and offering to at least cook one dish to share with the family. I’m glad they now don’t see me as a guest but a member of the house who can contribute and now one of them asks me to help out with some chores, which makes me happy.

It’s really touching when I stay with my friend and she says, “I don’t want to you to spend so much money.” And I told her, “By letting me stay at your place, you’re saving me at least $200 for this trip so that’s why I’m happy to spend a few dollars to share food with your family. In other countries, I have to spend $5 to $10 a night on a guesthouse.” And she said, “Exactly, we know you have to spend much money in other countries so you don’t have to spend a lot with us. When we have food you don’t have to buy. You are family.”

Many people I’ve met in Cambodia have not left their village, let alone the country. It’s hard for many of them to save up enough to travel outside. Me and other travelers are extremely fortunate to have the ability to travel so for my Cambodian friends who have every right not to be concerned about our budget to care about me not spending too much money shows a level of consideration I have never experienced.

My lovely Khmer friends who I often cook and laugh with. I’ve asked a million questions to them during my time in Siem Reap and they’ve always helped me so willingly.

When I went to visit my friend’s village about 45 minutes from Siem Reap City, the taxi ride costs $2.50 each way. It was very nice of them to invite me to speak and meet with his students who learn English with him since he volunteers his own time. I had a fantastic afternoon with them and getting to know some people in the community. Before I got in the taxi on the way back, he asked, “Can I pay for your taxi?” And I said, “No problem at all.” I couldn’t believe he offered.

I have come across plenty of people who have much higher salaries, particularly Westerners, who have no problems to spending on themselves but rarely offer to treat someone both in Canada and the countries I’ve visited. I know it’s their money and they can do what they want, it’s just a pattern I’ve observed both in Canada and the countries I’ve visited that people who generally have less give more.

Showing appreciation with your time

Spending time at Tonle Sap with friends and their family. They treated me to lunch during my last week in Cambodia.

I really love visiting my friend’s mom who has a small shop by the Bayon Temple in the Angkor Wat area. We go there for a drink or a meal and she always greets us with a warm smile and a hug. After my first visit with her, she said, “Come by and visit anytime” in Khmer, Cambodia’s language. I replied by saying I’ll make sure to buy something each time I pass and she replied, “Or just come and say hello.”

This made me realize how much we tend to show appreciation to people we love through gifts or money in Western culture. But I believe one of the most generous ways to show our appreciation is with our time and spending quality time with people we care about. Being in Cambodia has pushed me to think of ways I can show my appreciation other than spending money.

I asked another friend months ago, why Cambodians are so generous, and she said, “It’s in our culture, we give from our hearts.” This has motivated me to make a habit give more without expectation of anything in return and not to pay people back, but pay it forward.

My friend’s adorable mom who runs a small shop by the Bayon Temple in Siem Reap.

Blogging on bathrooms and transport in a land of regulations

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I’m catching up on blog posts I should have posted months ago from different countries over the next few months. I hope you don’t mind.

In Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia and Thailand, I could get a local phone number for a few dollars and be done. The any rules of the road are governed by the people who are on the road and the speed limits are whatever people feel comfortable with, even if it’s 90 km/hour on a scooter (more commonly referred to as mottos in Asia). So I was a bit culture shocked coming to Taiwan in December, a country with enforced regulations that people actually follow.

After being in Taiwan for a few days, my reaction to enforced rules was:

“What?! You have to show two pieces of ID just to get a phone number?”

“What?! There are traffic lights here and people actually follow the road rules? It takes forever to cross the street.”

But it is refreshing and good to know there are some places with some sense of order.

Well-organized transport

Piano player at one of the train stations. I would love to see more public art and hired musicians in Vancouver, Canada at our bus and skytrain station to complement the wonderful buskers.

Taiwan has one of the cleanest and easiest transportation systems I have ever seen. The train lines, high speed rail and slow trains that connect to different parts of the country make it very easy to travel. This is the first country I’ve seen between Cambodia, Laos and Thailand that really accommodates pregnant women, people with disabilities and the elderly very well.

There is also great public art and unique designs at the train stations that make the place more vibrant.

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Sign at the High Speed Rail station.

Clean and functionally designed bathrooms

I really appreciate places with smart and functional design and the public bathrooms in Taiwan are among the cleanest and smartly designed. I know it seems weird for someone to write about bathrooms but after doing my business in every type of bathroom you can imagine, you appreciate common comforts like toilet paper.

Just when I thought they couldn’t make the bathrooms any more convenient, anther train station bathroom surprises me because it has real-time bathroom stall updates so you know which ones are free and which ones are occupied. Wow.

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Real-time bathroom stall updates.

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Bathroom at the train station.

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This is the first “help” button I’ve seen in a public bathroom stall. Very considerate. Though aside from an elderly person falling, I’m wondering what other situations would require people to use this convenient feature. Hmmmmmm.

The best automatic dryer I’ve ever used. Your hands are dry within seconds.