Gifts from the heart

As I grew up in Canada, I became used to people giving me generic birthday cards, good luck money or easy-to-give gifts. At home I keep two piles of cards: one pile of generic cards and another pile for people who wrote me cards with personalized messages.

It’s not that I’m not grateful for what I have received in the past. It’s just a totally different feeling when people give you gifts from their hearts and when they consider what you like. I have received the most genuine gifts from all of the countries I have traveled in and I have carried those gifs with me everywhere. I have dumped clothes and things I didn’t need to lighten my load as I moved from place to place, but I kept every item people gave me to remind me of the wonderful memories we had.

In Western countries, we’ve been mistakenly trained to show how much we care about people through gifts, often mindless gifts. The best gifts don’t necessarily have to be something someone bought. They can be something that is handmade or an act.

Here are just some of the gifts people have given to me as I traveled Southeast Asia that I will keep with me for the rest of my life.

I met my friend Kathy randomly at my friend’s small Cambodian restaurant in Siem Reap in 2013. Because she was alone, I offered to take her around for two nights during her stay. Before we split up, she invited me to visit her in Bali, Indonesia.

I took her up on her invite and flew to Bali to meet her. By the time I landed, I had only known her for three days. We had a very memorable two weeks together and among all of the things we did, part of our bucket list was her making me this beautiful anklet with the shells she picked up in Bali beaches.

After spending just under three weeks of time together in person, she is one of the handful of people of all the people I know who regularly keeps in touch with me.

One of my best friends made me this going away package before I left for Cambodia. It included these pictures, a letter of support and a USB stick with other pictures of our great memories. What a fantastic friend.

We met some wonderful families in Marinduque, Philippines who became our adopted family while we were there. Two of the moms kindly picked up these shells from the beach and gave it to my friend and I as a souvenir.

This was my going away souvenir from the NGO, PEPY, I volunteered for during my nine months in Cambodia. Everyone wrote wonderful notes. This banner will go up in my room.

One of my closest friends in Cambodia was very busy planning for her wedding so I thought it was very touching that she still had time to think of my going away gift. She even asked her very talented and crafty brother to make an envelope for me to put her gift in.

My friend Phai owns a small restaurant in Cambodia and they made the best stir fried yellow noodle I ever had. I always ate at their place and they were so kind to invite me to their home town south of Cambodia. While we were at the home, he gave me his shirt as a souvenir.

When I went to my friend’s Cambodian engagement party in Phnom Penh, I brought some pens and paper for the kids to entertain themselves. I was really amazed at their ability to draw these wonderful images and kept them as a reminder of their playful presence and my time with them.

My friend’s adorable Cambodian niece wrote me this in Phnom Penh.

A wonderful farewell note from one of my closest friends in Cambodia before I left.

A note that brought me to tears before we left Marinduque. “Dearest Melissa and Zu,

It’s so hard to say goodbye, feels like I’m crying, tears on my eyes keep falling while writing this letter. I’m sure I will miss your company. Take good care of yourself, the two of you, stay safe.

I felt so said right now cuz you are leaving but happy inside that I meet friends like you, we maybe belong to different country and have different culture, but we have the same heart that love to have a friend and meet someone like you two.

I hope that you’ll not forget that you have family in Philippines I’ll be your nanay (mom) always. Take care and I hope you will be back to see us again. Thank you very much for friendship. Hope to hear from you when we are far apart.

Stay sweet Melissa and Zu, I love you.”

My friend and I met an incredible young 16-year-old boy who works so hard every day on the farm in Marinduque, Philippines. Even though we didn’t share a language, we laughed, danced and watched movies together. He has many skills, including origami apparently and made me this boat.

This is my friend’s Cambodian wedding invitation. In Cambodia, you actually don’t given an invitation to your close friends, just the ones who aren’t as close. I wanted one as a souvenir so she kept one for me.

This card was made by one of my closest friends in Cambodia and filled with messages of thanks and good luck after I finished my volunteer term. I rarely get handmade cards and among my friends’ very busy schedules, I appreciate this a lot.

More cards from the people I worked with at the NGO in Cambodia.

We met another incredible and passionate friend in Manila, Philippines who volunteers a lot of her time for children and older people. She also runs a business selling Hello Kitty merchandise. She was really sweet and before we left she said, “I don’t know how to describe my feeling. I’m very sad that you’re leaving. Next time you can meet the older people they will be very happy to see you.” In addition to making us some wonderful meals, she gave us this pen and valentine gift before we left.

One of my great friends in Vancouver was so sweet to make me a CD of great house music to take with me before I left for Cambodia last year. She was my regular club buddy and we would dance hard at the club.

One of my Cambodian friends has a very unique talent for making crafts and was so nice to make this for me as a souvenir before I left Cambodia.

My cousin’s 6-year-old daughter really impressed me with her level of consideration. Whenever I leave, she said she will miss me. She asked her mom if she could give two of her jewelry pieces and when she gave them to me, she said in French, “This is so you will remember me.”

The birthday card my cousin’s 6-year-old drew for me.

My 9-year-old niece Wendy made this bracelet for me.

My friend Katherine came to visit me in Mauritius and was so kind to give me this necklace from South Africa.

I celebrated my first birthday overseas in Cambodia and I didn’t have a lot of friends yet at the time. I asked staff at a hotel called Golden Temple if I could have my birthday lunch at the restaurant. By that time the staff only knew me for a week.

Within two hours of me calling them before lunch, they quickly rushed out to buy me a gift and wrote me birthday wishes. I couldn’t believe they went out on their work shift to do such a kind gesture after knowing me for such a short time.




Birthday bracelets from some of the staff from Golden Temple Villa.


Another birthday gift in Cambodia.

Another birthday gift in Cambodia.

I had a wonderful time in Laos and one of my local friends there so generously gave me one of her necklaces. It was too big a gift for me but she insisted and said, “Please take it, it looks nice on you.”

My friend Sopheak in Cambodia kindly gave me this necklace as a going away gift.

My Cambodian friend gave me this necklace before I left.

A going away gift from a Cambodian friend who always helped me with technical problems and was a great guy.

This is from the most well-behaved four-year-old I have ever met in Mauritius. When she came to stay with me by the beach, she kindly drew this for me. She said in French, “Before I go to sleep many nights, I think of you.”

I’m very lucky to have moms around the world and that includes my home country Mauritius. When I stayed with my friend who was visiting at my cousin’s place, she always bought food for us and left us these notes to eat up.

Koko’s recommended stay in Palawan: JLC Guesthouse

JLC Guesthouse is very clean and well-managed.

We booked two nights at JLC Guesthouse and it was so refreshing to meet the wonderful family who runs the place, particularly after a bad guesthouse experience in Manila.

The owners Jeanette and her mom were the first people who kindly greeted us, showed us a clean room, and we quickly became friends with them. We laughed at how different Palawan feels compared to Manila. There was Wi-Fi in the lobby and I spent a lot of time chatting with Jeanette and passing time.

Saying goodbye to our new friend Jeanette who manages the JLC Guesthouse.

JLC is walking distance from the main road and has a better price that many of the guesthouses in the area. It’s also close to Mugnet Cafe, a fantastic place to get great quality drinks, use Wi-Fi and see our couch surfing friend Jonathan play at night.

We introduced one of our friends that we met on the beach to JLC and she immediately liked it and switched guesthouses to stay there instead. They provided free coffee and tea as well.

I highly recommend JLC if anyone is looking for a comfortable place run by honest people, a good location, a good price and Wi-Fi.

They didn’t take it personally when we told them we are staying at a couch surfer’s place the rest of our time in Palawan but we kept going back to JLC just to visit them and say hi. The day before we left they said they’ll miss us and that we were always welcome.



Our awesome couch surfing host in Palawan

My friend and I were very fortunate to stay with Jonathan, one of our incredible couch surfing (CS) hosts in Palawan, Philippines. Almost every time I make a request to couch surf wherever I am, I usually message women first if I’m looking for a place to crash. But Jon had almost 300 positive references from other couch surfers, so figured this was safe since no women were able to accommodate my friend and I.

I love this bamboo colour.

On the map his place looked quite close to our guesthouse but we didn’t realize the last part was on a bumpy road, which is quite hard for our motto taxi to drive through. It was getting dark and we were unsure of the area and I thought, “I hope this is a real place.” Jon lives next to the navy base and only he and other employees are allowed to drive on a specific road.

When we finally arrived at his place the first night, we walked into his beautiful bamboo house. He gave us an orientation of the house and we found out there were a few other couch surfers at his place. He was very easygoing, has a calm energy and gives people the freedom to go in and out as they pleased. He has had over 300 people stay at his place in the past two years!

Why he wanted to host

Jonathan performs weekly at Mugnet Cafe and has an incredible voice among many other talents.

When I asked him why he wanted to be a CS host he said, “I was talking to a French girl at a vegetarian restaurant and she told me about it. So I started a profile. But it was very basic, I didn’t have a picture. Then people started responding and I said, ‘oh it’s serious.’”

He has new people almost every day and I asked him if it was tiring and he said, “Not yet, I have time.” I told him it was a nice set up because people can come in and out he said, “I like meeting new people. I want people to have their liberties when they are here and feel like home. If we have a curfew, then it’s not fun. If I had to do that, then I wouldn’t be a couch surfing host.”

When we needed to extend our stay by a few days, he kindly said, “Of course, stay as long as you want.”

A diverse background

This is Jon’s outdoor kitchen and where we cooked our last meal with our other couch surfing friends.

He was such a unique character with a diverse background. He used to be a monk, works for the navy, was employed by the UN in Haiti for a year, has a background in electrical engineering, a singer, Master scuba diver and a vegetarian (which is very rare in the Philippines). While we were staying with him, he actually had a year off from his work so he was working on building his own dive shop.

While Jon was working for the navy, he was deployed to serve in UN doing logistics for 21 contingents, which could have as many as 155 people. He said every year two people go for peacekeeping missions. He applied and he was one of four candidates left and he was the most junior. Often senior people get the positions but the position was in his field. He was also in charge of welfare and when UN diplomats came, he would be the one to pick them up.

Jamming and dancing

Jon is our couch surfing host with the dog. The rest of these lovely folks are our couch surfing friends who hung out with us the week we were in Palawan.

The first night we stayed, Jon was kind enough to invite my friend and I to see him perform at the cafe and ended up dancing at another place. Jon had an amazing voice and was a wicked dancer. He has been performing weekly at the cafe since 2007.

On our last night in Palawan, Jon was so nice to open up his home and let us bring a few of our couch surfer friends to cook at his place. After two hours of cooking, we all jammed together and Jon and our friend Ira sang a beautiful duet. It was a perfect way to end the night at his place.

Our wonderful couch surfing friends and chefs Earl and Lia. They are amazing young adults who were so considerate, mature and great cooks.



Laos cost summary


Laos was the first country I visited after living nine months in Cambodia, so I was starting fresh again in a new country. I had to learn some basics of the language, how to get around, minimize being a scam victim and connect with local people.

I spent the first two weeks in Luang Prabang then went up to Huay Xai in Norhern Laos for an overpriced ziplining tour, which pushed up my overall cost. I was lucky to be introduced to local people in Luang Prabang to explore the city, dance and enjoy food together.

All of these costs are in US dollars.

Accommodation in Luang Prabang 

  • 7 days accommodation at a more expensive guesthouse in Luang Prabang: $15.00
  • Hostels in Luang Prabang close to the river: $7.00 per night
  • Two nights in Daauw Home in Huay Xai (recommended): $7.00 a night


  • Bike rentals per day: $2.00
  • Small boat rides across the Mekong River:  $0.50.
  • Overpriced rides across the Mekong River: $2.50


  • Street sandwhiches and BBQ fish: $1.00 to $2.00
  • Delicious restaurant food including fish and pizza baguettes: $3.00 to 7.00


  • Two nights at Elephant Village camp (I don’t recommend doing this): $120.00
  • Three-day ziplining tour with The Gibbon Experience (I don’t recommend this either): $300

Total cost for 2.5 weeks in Laos: $771.00