When strangers become instant friends

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Last night I was very happy to reunite with my Thai friend Sudjai Sudjai in Siem Reap. I first met Sudjai back in January this year when my friend and I took the wrong bus and went 8 hours in the wrong direction. We meant to go to Koh Surin island south of Thailand but who knew that there was also a Surin City going up north. Read that full story here.

We arrived at Surin at 5:00 a.m. and had to wait 14 hours for the next bus. Thankfully the was a coffee shop by the station with Wi-Fi so we hung out there for most of the day.

We started chatting with Sudjai, her husband and their friends and we found out she spoke fluent Khmer (Cambodian) and they were so kind to spend probably 8 hours with us at the coffee shop! They even drove us to the night market, gave us a tour and helped us order our dinner food. They kindly stayed with us right until we got on the night bus and said next time we come to Surin, we can stay with them.

Last night in Siem Reap, we went out for Khmer food, walked around the night market, saw a traditional dance show and got a massage while we watched the ladyboy show. As I walked Sudjai and her friend back to her guesthouse, she kindly said, “Next time you are in Surin you can stay with us. We have an extra room.”

Tonight is our last night together and we’re going to the weekly jazz show at Heritage Hotel.

 

 

Post-traveler’s depression

Peaceful breakfast in the Mae Hong Song mountain in northern Thailand during our 600 km motto journey.

After meeting many travelers last year around Asia and speaking with my closest friends, every single one of them have a hard time transitioning back to their home countries. I’m talking about the people who have been exploring parts of the world for more than a few months, not two-week holidays.

Being able to travel is a huge privilege and it is most definitely not to be taken for granted, especially when most people you meet can barely afford to leave their own cities. So I realize me even talking about this is a problem of a minority of us.

My friend Sopheak generously invited me to her home town to stay with her family in Banteay Meanchey in northern Cambodia. Travel rule: when people invite you to their homes from their hearts, go. It will be among the most meaningful experiences of your journey.

I’m not trying to be condescending with people who don’t do long term travel or a experience a huge life transformation. All I’m saying is it’s hard to connect with people the same way. It’s like people who have a passion for World Cup can’t connect with me the same way because I’m not that interested in soccer as much as many other people. So for them to talk to me about it, I couldn’t contribute much to the conversation and share the same excitement.

After you have these incredible experiences, what often makes the transition back to our home countries is not being able to express your experiences with similar types of travelers and most things seem the same after you’ve gone through so many meaningful experiences. When we meet similar types of travelers, we understand each other and listen to their stories all day.

I met Cheap in Koh Chang island in south Thailand. For just under $2 US a night, you can stay in his self-built bamboo house by the beach, join him anytime for a jam session and cook with him. One night he just made a huge BBQ for everyone who was passing by his place.

When we were on Mindful Farm, a meditation farm in northern Thailand, I met the most amazing and open group of travelers from around the world. We would share stories about some of our experiences throughout the day and soaked in their unique experiences. You will begin traveling with other people you met after a day or a few and meet up somewhere else in the world the same year, which I’ve done twice.

On the farm, I met a Jewish couple planning to live in a collective community in Isreal who also happen to happen to know two gay couples in California who are both raising a beautiful daughter together. I also met a traveling family from Switzerland. The parents took their kids out of school for a year so they could travel the world together while the mom home schools them. Their 9-year-old daughter formed a strong bond with the farmer’s 2-year-old daughter and they were inseparable for the three weeks they were on the farm. Where else could you have these experiences if you don’t leave the walls of your home?

I met my two adopted families in Marinduque island in the Philippines. They were extremely hospitable with us, showed us around the island and told us to let them know next time we come by so they can prepare properly for our visit and stay at their home.

I met a woman from the UK on a two-day elephant tour in Laos and she lived in Bangkok for a few years. She wasn’t looking forward going back to the UK at all and we both got annoyed when people asked us, “How was your trip?” after having a year or more of having diverse experiences. She said, “After going through so much, to say ‘amazing’ just doesn’t do the experience justice.”

One of my friends has been able to build her life so she can work while she travels. She is from the U.S. originally but spends more of the year working on projects in Laos and Cambodia. She said, “Every time I go back to New York, it’s the same thing. No one wants to hear your stories. They’ll give you ten minutes and then tune out. Then they’ll go back to complaining about their mortgage and problems with the neighbours.”

This is the best bathroom I’ve seen in my life. This club bathroom in Bangkok had a live jazz band for people who wanted to enjoy some music after doing their business. There were very comfortable couches and they played great music! And no it didn’t smell.

When you’re in another country and open to new cultures and experiences, the spontaneity of connections and all the different types of people you meet gives you a high. When we explore, every day is a new adventure and change becomes the new normal. When you have grown so much and share some of the experience with people who think the entire world is dangerous and judge you with their eyes for not working full-time instead, it’s very disheartening.

Another annoying thing with speaking with some narrow-minded non-travelers is  is when they think they know how a place or how a certain group of people are when they have never left their home town. They believe most people in the world want to steal from you or will attack you, particularly poor countries. Most people who haven’t traveled outside of their hotels are surprised when I tell them I felt much safer in most parts of Asia than parts of Vancouver or that I felt very comfortable stay in the poorest villages in Cambodia because people take care of you when you are friends with them. You never know what a place is like until you step foot in it and see for yourself.

These are my awesome friends I became close to while I was in Siem Reap. This is our Cambodian wedding photo shoot. You can go to a studio and they dress you up Cambodian-style.

Every time I have gone to a new place I’ve been forced to never assume anything about a place or its people and every place has its on complex history and situation. To oversimplify a country  or its people to say, “It’s dangerous there” or “People will attack you.” is offensive and is an unrealistic perspective of the world.

This wonderful homestay guesthouse is in Huay Xai in northern Laos. The American couple who founded this guesthouse works with women to empower them by teaching them life skills and family planning. The women and their kids live at the guesthouse and travelers support the project just by staying at this guesthouse. For a few US dollars, you can have as much as you want to eat of the meals they cook the nights you stay.

A few days ago I went to a wonderful beach wedding in Mauritius, Africa. It’s been 4 months since I’ve stopped traveling around on my own and have been living with family. By chance, I met a woman at my table who has been to many country and travels the same way I do, which is often going to non-touristy areas and connecting with locals.  She was on a work assignment in the third poorest country in the world and told me about the wedding she went to that was organized where people pull out chairs, no one dresses up and just dance and celebrate together. She felt very safe where she was and connected with families there. We spent most of our dinner swapping travel stories and my brain felt alive again.

After seeing many places, you start to compare things to your home country from the weather to the friendliness of the people around you. And traveler’s often find their new homes and discover that home is not necessarily the place you grew up the longest but where your heart is most content.

No matter where we are in the world, if we are unsatisfied, it is no one else’s responsibility but ours to make the changes in our life that will make you happy. Now that we’ve have discovered what makes us happy, it’s up to us to not get trapped in an unfulfilling routine and live to other people’s version of a “proper” life. We are the drivers of our own life and if you need to make your life work so you can be in another country for awhile, then do it.

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.

 

 

17 most memorable times of 2013

On March 3, 2013, I left my friends, family and jobs to satisfy my curiosity and parts of Asia I’ve never set foot in. I’ve lived in Vancouver, Canada for the 26 of the 28 years I’ve been alive and I felt change was years overdue.

While most people fear change, I have a much bigger fear of not having new experiences after awhile and feeling stagnate. I wanted to take a longer time to travel so my days wouldn’t be rushed and I could have more flexibility have more time to build relationships than simply passing through areas. While I’m very lucky and grateful to have had many unique adventures around North America with fantastic friends, I’ve had the best year of my life in Asia.

I’ve been curious why my friends in Cambodia, Laos and Indonesia have all told me, “Don’t forget us.” I always respond by saying, “How could I ever forget you?!” I wonder if they’ve had people passing through in their lives that they lose touch with their traveling friends.

I initially started this blog to share my experiences with friends and family, but it has evolved to be a living diary of memorable conversations and times I’ve had with the many wonderful people I’ve met. That’s why some of my posts are so long and probably have too much detail that won’t be interesting for some of you to read. My head and heart are often filled with new experiences in a short period of time and it is easy to bury the subtle moments and conversations I’ve had with people. So I write to so that I won’t forget.

These are the most memorable days I’ve had in 2013:

1. Last days with friends, family and colleagues

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My great food-loving and outdoorsy friends in Vancouver, Canada.

I was not expecting the number of going away meals that I had with friends, the university students I worked with, former colleagues and my family. I felt so loved and supported in my journey.

2. Bike ride in Phnom Penh, Harlem Shake and pizza

With Rithy at SmallWorld

I last saw my friend Rithy Thul in 2010 when he led a cross-Cambodia fundraising bike ride. He is an entrepreneur, community-builder and cycling lover.

I went to Phnom Penh the first week I landed in Cambodia to see my friend Rithy Thul, whom I met doing a cross-country cycling fundraiser for the educational NGO PEPY in 2010. I stayed at his enterprise space Small World and in one weekend I:

  • Made pizza with some fantastic university students who had nothing but two gas burners
  • Was part of our version of the Harlem Shake YouTube video
  • Met a couple from Hungary who is cycling around the world (literally!) for their honeymoon
  • Went for a bike ride on the countryside and through train tracks where kids run up to us to say hello
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Learning how to make pizza from scratch. The pizza this student made was better than most pizzas I’ve had in restaurants in Cambodia.

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Sign at Small World

 3. Khmer New Year celebrations

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Enjoying dinner in our friend Tin Tin’s hometown.

Cambodians celebrated Khmer (Cambodian) New Year from April 13-16. I was lucky to spend those days with my friends from Canada, Japan, and America along with Khmer people. One of my closest friends was so generous and flew from Vancouver, Canada to see me for 10 days in Cambodia and we were lucky she just happen to be here during this most festive time in the country.

My friend and I also went to our Khmer friend Tin Tin’s family’s house for dinner about an hour away from Siem Reap. We ate a lovely meal and stayed to dance with his family and the kids in the community.

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Dancing in Tin Tin’s home town.

Of all the festivities, one of the most beautiful memories was when my other friend and I took a tuk tuk late at night to see the Bayon Temple light up at 2:12 a.m. as part of the opening ceremony for Khmer New Year. There were no more than a few hundred Khmer people and we felt like we had the temple all to ourselves as we walked through.

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My friend and I at Bayon temple at 2:30 a.m.

4. Full weekend in Phnom Penh

Taking a swim at Romdeng social enterprise restaurant. We're swimming Khmer style with our clothes on.

Taking a swim at Romdeng social enterprise restaurant. We’re swimming Khmer style with our clothes on.

I went to the city with the perfect girls who were also working in Siem Reap. In one weekend, we:

  • Had breakfast by the riverside
  • Spent the afternoon with our two funny and kind Khmer friends
  • Saw a Khmer play put on by the Cambodia Living Arts, an organization dedicated to reviving and preserving the arts culture after the brutal Khmer Rouge regime killed artists along with other intellectuals
  • Ate at two social enterprises, Romdeng and Daughters of Cambodia and had a beautiful night swim in our clothes at the restaurant
  • Checked out three bars
  • Ended the night dancing

We enjoyed a delicious meal at the Daughters of Cambodia social enterprise cafe.

 5. Days at Golden Temple Villa

My friends at Golden Temple Villa who rushed to get me some lovely gifts when they found out it was my birthday. They gave me a beautiful coffee mug, a bear and beautiful bracelets.

My friend visiting from Canada and I lived at this lovely guesthouse for a week and we quickly became friends with the staff. After only knowing them for a week, I decided to have a birthday lunch at their restaurant and gave them just two hours notice. In those two hours, they rushed to get me small gifts with personalized notes. One of them even apologized for not having time to get me a small gift on time!

In the months I was in Siem Reap, the staff has always been so generous to let me use their Wi-Fi anytime and offered free tea, coffee and snacks. When I thanked my friend who is the manager there and works so hard all the time, she said, “My whole team must take care of you while you are away from your mummy.”

6. Second birthday abroad

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This is only the second time I’ve celebrated my birthday outside of Canada since I was two years old. My biggest fear was being alone on my birthday and I was just happy to be with one or a few people over dinner. I didn’t tell anyone it was my birthday until someone found out because I didn’t want anyone to feel obligated to do something for me. But when people found out they showed up at the social enterprise Soria Moria to celebrate with me and it was a lovely evening. I appreciated new friends making time to be with me.

7. Week with three Cambodian families for the Pchum Ben festival

Picture of San’s family in the Kampong Cham province.

I had a fantastic time spending Pchum Ben, a two-week religious Cambodian festival honouring ancestors, with three Cambodian families over five days. I first went to the Kampong Cham province to visit one friend’s family during flooding season. We took a five-hour bus ride, an hour and a half boat ride on the Mekong River, and a boat taxi in the flooded villages to get to my friend’s home.

I participated in one pagoda ceremony with them, ate with them and laughed with the family. I love being the only foreigner when I visit places because I know it’s away from the places short-term tourists go.

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The wonderful girls who laughed at my pictures with me at the pagoda.

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Taking the boat taxi to get to San’s home in the flooded village.

I spent two days in Banteay Meanchey and my friends showed me around nice parts of their district, offered to pay for my meals and their family was happy to see me for a second time. My friend’s mom was so busy preparing for the celebration and helping with the daughter’s newborn son. But when they found out I was visiting, she spent a lot of time making my favourite dish Amok fish, which was incredibly sweet.

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My friend’s adorable and smart 6-year-old niece. She is at the top of her class in school and speaks quite a few words in English in the Banteay Meanchey province.

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The wonderful girls who took me around Banteay Meanchey.

8. Meeting students in Sronal Commune, Siem Reap

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These are the high school students who come to practice their English in my friend Seng’s village. He volunteers to teach them English every week.

I was very happy to visit my friend Seng and his students in Sronal District, Siem Reap. He volunteers to teach high school students English several times a week and he said I could visit as a guest because they had never had a foreign visitor before. The students were shy at first but when they warmed up to me, some asked me a lot of questions and laughed at my bad Khmer. One student said, “I am very happy you came to my village. You can see my home next time.” I’m looking forward to seeing them again in March 2014.

9. Spending time with my adopted Khmer family

My Khmer family at Pchum Ben, a religious festival honouring their ancestors. How beautiful is this picture?

My Khmer family at Pchum Ben, a religious festival honouring their ancestors. How beautiful is this picture?

I’ve spent a few months living at my friend’s apartment and have fully integrated with their family, whom I call my own now in Cambodia. My favourite times with them is when we eat together, catch up on the day and just laugh. I was a bad influence and introduced Dexter to my friend who would watch with me when she had time. They often tell me, “We really want you to live in Cambodia, think of how you can start a business. You are never alone, you always have family in Cambodia.” **Tear** I’ve been to Cambodia for two rounds now and it’s hardest to leave them every time.

10. Weekend in Bangkok

Friend that I met semi-randomly who ended up hosting me so generously the whole weekend in Bangkok.

Ploy (right), is the friend that I met semi-randomly who ended up hosting me so generously the whole weekend in Bangkok.

Bangkok is one of those places where you can either have a really crappy time or an amazing time depending where you are and who you’re with. My only plan was to just pass through the city and I was getting so fed up with several things. But within the same day, I ended up meeting a new Thai friend named Ploy and friends from Siem Reap who just happened to in Bangkok for the same weekend. My completely unplanned weekend ended up being filled with a bike ride around the quieter part of Bangkok, the largest market I’ve ever been to, dancing and enjoying the unforgettable view at Banyan Tree Hotel, the second highest skybar in the world.

11. Family reunion in Ratanakiri, Cambodia

A Cambodian family feast.

I was very happy to be invited by a friend to see her family in Ratanakiri, east of Cambodia for a few days. We saw my friend’s family farm that grew longbean, pumpkin and other foods, a beautiful lake, two waterfalls, drank Cambodian rice wine, went for karaoke and danced at a club. And we were the only 6 out of 10 people in the club.

12. Meeting local people in Lombok, Indonesia

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The beautiful kids who hung out with us when we took a break from riding our mottos.

This is one of many recurring times that remind me that the best things happen when they are unplanned. My friend was great at not being so concerned about needing a map to get around and we should just drive around the island and stop whenever we felt like it. We met some of the friendliest people wherever we went, particularly the kids who came up to us to sit, talk and laugh with us in the middle of the farm fields.

12. Being pulled into a traditional wedding in Lombok

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A traditional wedding ceremony was hosted at our guesthouse. Hundreds of people accompanied the young couple from one part of the village and ended at our guesthouse.

We stayed at Diyah Homestay guesthouse for a few nights and they apologized to all of their guests in advance for all the music and sounds because there was a wedding that was going to happen the next day. They were so kind and shared meals with all of us, invited us to the ceremony and also dressed us up in traditional clothing to be part of the celebration. We stood in line with many other people with a bowl of fruit baskets to offer the bride and groom.

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The awesome mobile wedding band.

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Thanks to our hosts, I was now properly dressed in traditional clothes and makeup for the ceremony.

13. Fun-filled days in Bali

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We visited the Tirta Empul Temple in central Bali. The spring feeds purification baths, pools and fish ponds that flow to the Tukad Pakerisan River. Various sites throughout the region and many other archaeological relics relate to local myths and legends.

I met up with a friend who was living in Bali for a few months and we just met for two days in Siem Reap around August. I took her up on her invite to visit Bali and thanks to her, we saw an endless stream of beautiful landscape, rice patties, temples, traditional dance performances, jungles and night life.

On day 2 in Bali, we went river rafting in the jungle that included a lunch buffet ($25 US for everything), had dinner at a very local restaurant, went to a surfing fundraiser for an NGO, went to a place with beautiful Latin dancers that involved basic lessons, a gay club with awesome ladyboys and one more club before having dinner number 2 at 7-11, which was instant noodles. And yes, this was all in one day.

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One of the seven traditional dance performances we saw in Ubud, Bali. Indonesia’s varied dance styles are made up of beautiful colours, stories and complex rhythms. I’ve never seen a dance like the ones we saw in Ubud.

Rice terraces in Jatiluwih, Bali

14. My unforgettable couch surfing experience in Yogyakarta

Attempting to make curry at Lalha’s home where I stayed for one night.

I met some fantastic university students through couchsurfing.org and were incredible hosts for the few days I was in Yogyakarta. The first night a group of us hung out, I jokingly requested that Ayumita, a wonderful 19-year-old student who sings at hotels weekly, sing a song just for us. So without hesitation, she went up to the live band and sang Rolling in the Deep for us by Adele.

We spent our last hours together at the town square to make our wishes and rode an LED-covered bicycle playing club music.

The next day, I took a motorcycle ride with one of the friends to the famous Borobudur Temples, we cooked curry together at Lalha’s house, went to a local coffee place with great live music, went to the wishing tree at a local park and took a bicycle for a few laps that was lit up and played club music. I regret not staying longer in Yogyakarta with these wonderful new friends, and it’s my lesson that I should just chance it at the airport and not buy a ticket out of the country.

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Why take a two hour bus with a bunch of tourists when you can catch a ride on one of these with a local person who knows where they’re going?

Why go to a club when you can listen to club music while taking a bike ride with friends in these creative works of art?

15. Reuniting with a close friend in Taiwan

I stayed with one of my closest friends Susan for a week in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. The last time we saw each other was when she came to visit me in Cambodia in April. It was my turn to visit and we were very happy to reconnect.

The only reason I came to Taiwan was to see one of my closest friends from Vancouver, who also came to visit me in Cambodia. I spent a week with Susan, which wasn’t long enough, but we saw some beautiful national parks and neighbouring island, drank the best milk tea I’ve ever had, and spent Christmas day with her classmates and mom eating take out food from a restaurant called Yaletown Bistro (a restaurant in Vancouver).

15. My first Cambodian engagement party

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My friend Lida in her beautiful traditional Khmer dress for the first part of the ceremony.

When I came back to Cambodia for a few weeks after Laos, my friend gave me one day notice to come to her engagement party. The next day I went with her by bus and motto to her family’s home for the weekend. I was happy to stay with her family and see everything that was involved with the preparations, including decorating their house, all the food that was cooked, the many colourful fruit baskets for offering and huge sound speakers for the day’s music.

I enjoyed playing games and dancing with the kids in the village the most that weekend. Even when some of the kids didn’t speak English and my Khmer was very limited, they tried to converse and connect and I’m looking forward to seeing them again for the wedding in March 2014.

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My dancing buddies at the wedding. They totally made my weekend.

16. Hiking, pizza hopping, dancing and lantern wishes in Laos

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Our picnic spot by the Mekong River in Luang Prabang.

It was great hanging out with people who live in Luang Prabang and other foreign visitors. We went on small walks, had a picnic by the Mekong River, danced at a club with a dance floor filled with beer kegs used as tables, and went night bowling at the only place in town that opens past midnight.

My Laos friend Tou was very sweet to bring me an extra lantern she had so I could send a wish to the sky and she also gave me a beautiful silver necklace. I told her that was too big a gift to give me and that wasn’t necessary. She said, “No it looks nice on you, please take it. I have many necklaces.”

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The extra lantern Tou brought for me so I could make a wish and send it to the sky.

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17. Country bike rides in Cambodia

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I always loved going with friends to bike around the villages and rice fields around Cambodia. I mostly did this in Siem Reap and the last ride I did in 2013 was with my great friend Cho who spent the day leading us around the Angkor Wat area. We stopped by for lunch at his cousin’s wedding in his village.

I know 2014 will be filled with more new connections, unexpected events and more adventures. When we try to swim against the currents, we can only go so far until we realize that there is a path that’s already set out out for us. So it’s best to let go, ride the wave see where we end up.

Where did all the smiles go?

MRT

On the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) train, it’s very quiet and people often look serious. The people on public transit reminds me of the atmosphere in Vancouver, Canada. It’s considered rude to speak loud and often the transit signs tell you to put your cell phone on vibrate.

In the nine months I’ve spent in Cambodia and Indonesia, I’ve gotten so used to seeing people with the most genuine smiles wherever I went, whether they were just say hello in passing or if I was visiting a friend.

When I lived at my Khmer (Cambodian) friend’s house, I would feel very rude if I didn’t look people in the eye and smile as I passed them. In Vancouver, Canada where I’m from, people generally look straight ahead and mind their own business. If you try and talk to someone you don’t know on the street, they’ll often think you want something from them or give you a weird look.

In Lombok, Bali and Yogyjakarta in Indonesia, as soon as you sit down at a very local market or hangout and someone notices you’re a foreign visitor, she or he will immediately ask where you’re from and have a conversation with you. It’s friendly and fun. Even if the police tries to find an excuse to fine a foreign visitor, my friend said, “If you don’t smile and talk with them, they are more likely to give you a fine. If you are friendly back, they will often let you go.”

The friendly kids in Lombok island in Indonesia who ran and biked towards us to talk and laugh with us.

The minute I’ve landed in Taipei, I feel the efficiency and speed of the city. There’s a sense of rush with the passengers and people generally don’t smile at each other, say “please” and “thank you.” The staff are quick to process people’s passports and unlike Cambodia and Indonesia, I feel like if I ask simple questions, I’m wasting their time. I do, however, appreciate the efficiency and speed of the service.

Welcome to Taipei.

It’s a different culture and it’s interesting for me to experience these contrasting behaviours in short periods of time. I’m not saying that not greeting each other is necessarily bad, it’s just different, but not my preferred way of interacting with people. Though my friend said the way people drive in parts of the city, they’d rather risk hitting a pedestrian than risk being late for their next destination. But this is the city and like many countries around the world, big cities have a different culture on their own compared to more rural parts or smaller cities.

My friend Sopheak’s wonderful family who welcomed be in their home in Banteay Meanchey, Siem Reap. They, like many Cambodians I know, love laughing and joking around.

I’m seeing my best friend in Kaohsiung and she said her Taiwanese friends have been so sweet to offer to lend her their pillows, their bigger rooms and other items when they found out I was visiting. They’ve asked her, “Do you need an extra pillow? Do you want to switch rooms because I have a double bed?” I’m looking forward to experiencing the atmosphere in Kaohsiung soon and how it may differ from Taipei.

So far in all the places I’ve been, I would prefer to be long term in a place where people smile at each other when they pass and say hello.

 

Is it safe to travel as a woman in Southeast Asia?

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Fantastic friends at Golden Temple Villa who always welcome me in their space and make sure I’m comfortable. They were so sweet to give me small birthday gifts after only knowing me for one week. One of the managers said, “My whole team must take care you while you are away from your mommy.”

In the last 9.5 months, I’ve stayed at village homes in the most unvisited parts of Cambodia, shared guesthouses with people I’ve just met after one to three days, shared hostel rooms with unlocked lockers, stayed at a traveler’s home after meeting in another country for two days and the only time I have ever had anything stolen from me and my friend is in my hometown in Vancouver, Canada. Twice. So is it safe to travel as a woman in Southeast Asia? I say yes. East Vancouver . . . depends on the time of day, haha.

Of course my family and friends are always concerned about my safety and I appreciate that. Sometimes, however, other people who have not traveled much fuel the irrational fears of our loved ones. I myself find when I don’t know anything about a place, I default to being a bit afraid and asking the same questions people ask me, “Is this area safe?”

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I met Poly in Bangkok at a bar and she offered to take me around the city the next day. After two days of spending time together, we’ve become good friends and my friend and I will be staying with her when we’re in Bangkok again.

In North America, we’re taught, “Don’t talk to strangers.” While this is good advice for children, there has to be a mentality shift as we get older and have better judgment. When you’re on a global exploration, it is much safer to talk to people, both local people and travelers, than keeping to yourself all the time. Most people are very open and the more connections you make, the more information you are armed with, the better and safer your experience will be.

I know it’s a scary concept to trust when traveling, but some level of trust is necessary to enhance your experience. And your intuition gets better the more you explore. I can usually tell in the first few minutes of meeting someone whom I can spend time with and who I’d prefer to avoid and say, “See ya!”

As much as I love adventure and new experience, I rarely take unmanageable risks like exploring new places alone at night or saying yes to go somewhere with someone where my intuition tells me not to. When I come to a new place, I take time to talk to people and scope out the area first.

I met Lalha through Couch Surfing and she has been an incredible host who introduced me to other great friends in Yoyjakarta, Indonesia.

While I was living in Siem Reap, I would return home no earlier than 10 p.m. almost every night and lived close to the city centre. Still, I take my basic precautions and don’t carry more money than I need for the night, my phone and my keys so I often don’t need to carry a small bag (which a thief can easily grab or pull people off their bicycles if it’s visible).

What is more dangerous than the constant fear that you will be harmed is the belief that most people in the world are bad and everyone is out to get you. It’s fascinating how much people shape their understanding of groups of people or entire countries with such small amounts of information. It’s like they are standing so close to a painting and only see the tiniest fraction of the whole  picture. If they take the time to step back, go explore a bit farther, they will see the beauty and complexity of the bigger picture.

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My wonderful adopted Cambodian family who is always taking care of me and looking out for me while I’m in Cambodia. Buntha, the husband, said, “You are never alone when you are in Cambodia, you always have family here.”

I’ve met many more honest people than dishonest people in the countries I’ve visited, particularly Cambodia. I have accidentally dropped some money in a very economically destitute villages and was surrounded by kids who played with us, and one of the kids picked up the money and gave it to my friend. I wouldn’t have even noticed if they took it and ran away.

One of my friends is a tour guide and he often helps tourists file reports and other administrative work if they lose their passport of encounter other problems. He is not a rich man by any means but he said, “I don’t like to accept tips if something bad already happened to the tourists. If they choose to give me a tip after a tour, that is ok.” I was really impressed. I told him, “It’s ok, if they offer it to you, it’s their way of showing appreciation and they can afford it.” And he replied, “I don’t feel comfortable accepting if something bad already happens to them.”

Between traveling in 10 countries in Europe, Cambodia, Laos,Thailand Indonesia and Taiwan, and the hundreds of interactions with people, the biggest problem I’ve had are annoying tourists. And to be honest, if someone does steal something from me, I understand the conditions in many places I’m visiting that would drive people to steal.

I met Kerry (right) at our shared hostel room in Edu Hostel (highly recommended!) in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. We were lucky to have this wonderful young university student accompany us around the city for the day to make sure we are safe.

In the end, as much as it’s crappy to have something stolen from me, I can easily replace the stolen items, I have my health, my friends, job opportunities and family to go back to. Many of the places I’m visiting lack the most basic health care and live on salaries barely enough to survive. So if someone steals something from me once, well, then it’s just a small dot in the big picture.

From my experience so far, most people I’ve met around the world are incredibly generous with the highest levels of hospitality that I’ve ever experienced, and often much more open overall than many people in the West. 99.5% of the time, my experiences have been safe, memorable and eye-opening.

If you don’t believe me, go farther and see the big picture for yourself.

The joys of couch surfing in Yogyakarta, Indonesia

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A beautiful piece on batik, a cloth that is traditionally made using a manual wax-resistant dyeing technique. When artists do their designs, they can only do one colour a day.

My friend in Bali recommended that I visit Yogyakarta in Java, which she described as “A very cool university town.” I had never heard of the city, often referred to as Jogja, and she said going to different islands around Indonesia is like visiting a different country; every island has its own distinct culture, language and history. I was surprised that there are 20 universities in this small city.

Part of me was hesitant to go to a different city alone because I was having such a great time with her and other friends. Every time I go to a new city, sometimes I feel like I have to “restart” and find people to hang out with and so on. But I will only be in the city for a few days then will be meeting up with friends in Taiwan so I won’t be alone for very long.

I had never tried couch surfing before, but I’ve heard nothing but great things about it from friends who have either surfed to find places to stay while they were traveling or being hosts themselves.

If you’re not familiar, couchsurfing.org is website where people can post a profile to offer their homes for travelers and where travelers can “surf” for places to stay. Travelers will message or put in requests to hosts of their destination city. What’s also great about the site is even if you don’t want to stay at someone’s place, I recommend people using it to meet up with local people. They, of course, have the best knowledge of their city.

My fantastic Couch Surfing host and new friend.

Couch surfing seems so much like online dating because you put time to write tailored messages to people you want to host hoping that they will reply you for a first meeting, you need to make a profile that gives you a positive appearance and the people you don’t want send you messages.

I probably messaged at least 15 people and none of them were able to host me because they were either out of town or they already had guests. But one person I messaged named Lalha was great at keeping in touch by text and we met just three days ago to hang out and we became instant friends. Lalha and the wonderful people we met through her are all university students between 18 and 22 years old studying broadcasting and in international relations.

What was really adorable was the first night we were trying to meet up, she didn’t have time to see me so she sent her friend Martin to meet me instead. So we met for a bit and we planned for him to meet me and two of my hostel friends Kerry and Lilliane the next day to see one of the temples.

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Martin and his friend kindly guiding Kerry and I on our bicycles as if they were our personal bodyguards.

Great guides
Martin and his friend were very patient and nice to meet up with us and kept us company for the day. They were very considerate gentlemen the whole time they were with us, which is very impressive, especially compared to many North American students their age who often are not that considerate.

When we wanted to rent bicycles, they told us to wait while Martin used his motto to find out where we could get them. They took us to the bike shop and when one of our friends chose to walk, he automatically thought of her and rented a helmet for her to use for the motto so she wouldn’t have a bike when we returned to our hostel.

Enjoying dinner and live music. Ayumita went up to the band and sang Adelle’s “Rolling in the Deep” beautifully just for us!

As we started to bicycle, Kerry and I felt like a celebrity because Martin and his friend were always protecting us on the roads with their mottos like bodyguards by having one person in the front and one at the back. They drove at our pace and we didn’t feel pressure to go fast. In typical Javanese style, Martin often says, “Take it easy, just relax.”

I thought, like Cambodia, citizens can go to the temples for free anytime. But in Jogja, they pay a small fee, of course much lower than foreigners. I think it should be free for local people. Kerry and I offered to pay their fee for Taman Sari, a site of a former royal garden of the Sultanate of Yogyakarta. The site was used for several purposes, including a resting area, a workshop, a meditation area, a defense area, and a hiding place. It was irritating to see that so many tourists have written on the walls and stupid message like “Greg was here” or [X name] loves [partner of the other ignorant tourist].

My ride to Borobudur, much better than a two hour bus ride to the temple.

When it started raining for almost two hours, all of us hung out in a small restaurant by the palace and it was a great chance to get to know the guys more. Martin told us of his dreams of going to Italy and his love of music.

When the rain stopped, the guys followed us back to our guesthouse. Lilliane and I had to pick up our laundry on the bicycles so we did that first while Kerry went back. We decided to rest for a few hours and I told the guys I will meet them later at night to walk around town. Kerry mentioned that she told the boys that she can walk back to the guesthouse by herself and it was just a five minutes to walk, but they kept insisting that they take her back and wait with her until we got back to the lobby. This kind of chivalry is exactly the opposite of the behaviour of many of the men I met in Laos.

New friends

Our last dinner together at Lalha and Langgen’s house :(.

Lalha was so sweet to pick me up on her motto close to my guesthouse and this is the very first time I’ve met her. She came with her friend Ayumita and we went to pick up two couch surfers from Singapore and we all went to a place called Easy Goin’, where they had an awesome live Indonesian band playing acoustic versions of Western songs.

Martin joined us later and it was so easy to be and talk with everyone at dinner. Everyone was really impressed with Ayumita, who sings at one of the hotels in town once a week. I was jokingly asking her to sing us a song and then Lalha told me to request that she sings Adelle. So when I requested it, she just went up to the band without hesitation and she sang Rolling in the Deep very beautifully. As she was singing, I couldn’t help but thinking, “How do these kinds of moments happen so often when I travel and by doing something so simple like messaging a few people on couch surfing.”

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Some of the most adorable girls you will ever meet.

In Vancouver, it’s like pulling teeth to have new people actually follow through to meet up with you and develop a friendship. In places around Asia, you really have to make an effort to not meet people and make friends because so many people are so open and want to get to know you.

After a fabulous performance by Ayumita, we planned for the next full day. Martin was going to give me a ride to the famous Borobudur temples and back (saving me 90,000 Rupiah), we would cook together for dinner, see the wishing trees and town square and have a charcoal coffee. Ambitious.

This was Martin’s first time at the famous Borobudur temple.

An unforgettable last day in Yogyakarta
I’m sure I’ll be offending people by saying this but Borobudur was a bit underwhelming. I admit, I didn’t really understand the significance simply because I still have to read the full story of the temple and went because everyone said it’s the thing to see. But everything we did after the temple are the kinds of moments that I travel for and that are most meaningful to me.

I’m not saying I would skip all temples, but everyone talks about the famous sites and that was the thing that was least memorable of my time in this artsy city. It’s the wonderful young students I spent time with, the incredible level of courtesy they’ve shown to us visitors, and their act of opening their homes openly to someone they just met that I will remember the most.

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Bringing Meesa style curry to Asia.

After Borobudur, Lalha let me rest in her room even when she wasn’t home from school yet, which was very nice of her. Before I rested, I first spoke with her friend and housemate Langgen for a bit. As soon as I walked outside, she said, “Have a seat” and her, Martin and I chatted for a bit. She was very embarrassed when I told her she had a beautiful face and she called me a liar.

After I rested, Lalha and Langgen came into the room and Lalha was getting ready to pray. I was just getting used to being in Muslim communities around Lombok and Java. For 8 months I was so used to seeing and being in pagodas, hearing monks chanting and now I am getting accustomed to passing masjids (mosques for Muslims) and hearing prayer chants. Practicing Muslims pray five times a day from early morning until the evening and I’ve seen prayer rooms on ferries, malls and the airports.

Just trying.

The three of us girls had a conversation that went something like this:

Langgen: Do you have a religion? (In a very curious tone)

Me: No. I consider myself spiritual but I don’t identify with a specific religion. I have friends of all faiths.

Lalha: So you believe in God.

Me: I believe in some kind of higher power, if you want to call it God.

Lalha: Yes that is okay, we all have personal belief. We don’t judge.

Me: Just so you know, if I ask you questions about Islam, it’s just because I’m curious to understand the practice, I’m not judging. I like learning like when my friends invite me to their Buddhist ceremonies, I participate if I’m invited. Do girls in Yogyakarta choose to wear the hijab (veil that Muslim women wear to cover their head) when they are adults or do the parents expect them to wear it?

Langgen: No, women can choose whether they want to wear it or not when they are adults. It is their choice.

Me: It looks really beautiful on the women.

Lalha: Do you want to try it? Just for fun, not for faith.

Me: Sure! If that is okay.

The hijab is meant to be a symbol of modesty and privacy in Islam and there are standards of modesty for men as well. Islam, like any other religion, is practiced by so many people at varying degrees and every religion is practiced by people who are repressively conservative to very liberal. I do know Muslim women Canada who do fully choose to dress modestly when no one is forcing them to and many Westerners are quick to equate the hijab as a sign of repression in every circumstance. Instead of making my own assumptions of this practice, I’d rather ask people from different communities in Vancouver and in Asia.

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A nice hug with Langgen.

On a side note, I don’t know why many Western people associate wearing revealing clothes is necessarily a symbol of a free woman. A Muslim student wrote a great article in our university newspaper a few years ago and made a good point that the pressure for girls to dress and be sexy is a form of repression and not necessarily a symbol of free women. She talked about what the hijab means for her and how she practices her faith. It’s important to listen and understand before we judge.

When I spoke with these girls, they were very open minded and don’t treat me differently because I’m agnostic. It’s so interesting seeing the blank looks on their faces when I tell them I am 28 and single and I’m not sure if I want kids or not. They are socialized to think that being a mother and married is a must. I understand this mentality and I’ve been increasingly fascinated with how differently people interact in their relationships than we do in the West. It seems if they are dating someone, they don’t have to be the ideal person, but someone who has good qualities and they can grow in love, very much like marriage practices in Cambodia.

Final night together

In Vancouver, our friends would cram in a kitchen and cook together almost every week. This is one of my favourite things to do and I love being able to cook with people as I go to different countries. We all made the dishes together and it was wonderful, though I was still nervous that I wouldn’t taste good since I was taking the lead on making curry, omelette and stir fried veggies. But luckily, like in Bali, it turned out to be delicious and I’m glad they all liked it.

After enjoying a meal together, we headed to a very local hangout called Kopi Joss. Kopi Joss is a drink prepared with finely ground coffee, heaping spoonfuls of sugar, and a burning piece of charcoal from the cooking fire. There is ginger and dark coffee flavour, which were both delicious and costs 5,000 rupiahs ($0.50 US) for one coffee.

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Sebastian and Ayumita on their way to town square to make our wishes between the Banyan trees.

It was a great place to hangout and there were so many talented singers and musicians performing on the street, which is normal for the area. I really wish we had more of this kind of vibe in Vancouver, Canada, which has so much potential for a great community environment. The performers were amazing and my friends were nice to give some money to the man who sang to us. I thought, “Only local people would likely know about this place.”

Our friends asked if we wanted to go to Alun-Alun, the town square, another popular hangout for young people where they can enjoy local food, street music and lit up bike-peddled vehicles at night. But our main purpose for going was to make our wish at the trees. People said if you can walk with your eyes closed between the two Banyan trees then your wish will come true.

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Beautiful Lalha waiting for her coffee.

It’s a lot harder to walk in a straight line with your eyes closed than you think. And there is the added challenge of many people who are also blindfolded  trying to walk through the trees at the same time! In my first attempt, I totally thought I was walking straight but I ended up all the way to the right of one of the trees. Then our friend Sebastian suggested three of us hold hands and walked together and we made it.

Afterwards, we cycled a few laps in these bike-peddled contraptions that were covered with lights and played club music, which was quite quirky. It was a really fun city with great people and an awesome way to end the night. We said goodbye to the boys first at their guesthouse and then I drove back with Lalha.

I can’t believe how much we did in just two days and I really wish I stayed in the city longer to hang out with our new friends more. They make us already feel like we are part of their group. Lalha said, “I’m very happy to make new friends, thank you for coming.”

After a good sleep, I finished packing and thankfully had a chance to just chat more with Langgen in the morning. Then when it was time to go, Lalha looked a bit teary and like my Cambodians she said, “Don’t forget me.” And I said, “I could never forget everything you’ve done for me, this has been one of my best weeks in my nine months of being in Asia because of all of you. Thank you very much.”

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Private live music session at Kopi Jos.

Being the ignorant new visitor, I thought I did a decent deal paying 50,000 rupiah ($4.00 US) for the 20-minute taxi ride from the airport into the city. And then I found out I could have just taken the local bus for $0.25 US. The girls were so nice to take me to the bus station and made sure I had the right ticket to get to the airport before we said goodbye.

Everywhere I’ve been in Asia, the times that are most meaningful to me are not the hours that I spend at world-famous temples or even the beautiful landscapes. It is the times that I laugh with my friends, talk with the people who approach us, and the most genuine acts of kindness I see people doing for each other. I would have much more regret if I missed the chance to share a meal with good friends than missing a world famous site.

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Glow bicycles in town square.

 

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Our last moments together peddling around town square while dancing to clubbing music that was installed with the bike.