Daauw homestay guesthouse in Huay Xai, Laos

This is where people can relax, buy the women’s handmade crafts and enjoy a wonderful meal.

Now I’m backtracking to October 2013 when I was in Laos. I stayed alone in Huay Xai to do a three-day ziplining tour. I stayed at a random guesthouse the first night I was there. As I walked up to the temple, I saw a sign that pointed to a homestay, which always appeals to me.

When I went, I met the family who runs it. The family is originally from America and they run this wonderful guesthouse in collaboration with other Laos families. They teach the women life skills, women’s rights and sell the women’s handmade products at their Women Empowerment Shop. It’s a beautiful environment they’ve created and all of the revenue from the guesthouse is invested in empowering the families.

These are the daughters of some of the women who participate in the workshops.

In Laos, many women, especially in rural areas, don’t have many rights or a space to express their opinions in their lifetime. They are second class citizens and very submissive to men. The legal marrying age for girls in Laos is 15 years old and they often stop school as soon as they become a wife.

Given the challenges girls and women face in Laos, I was impressed that Daauw Homestay was running these programs for women because these kinds of projects can be controversial among the local people or condemned.

I enjoyed dinner with the founders and other guests.

The couple has an adorable story themselves. The guy was traveling for years and when he only went to the U.S. for a few weeks, that’s where he met his wife and she continued on the journey with him. Now they have three beautiful children who attend a local school and learning Laos.

Because they’re just across the border to Thailand, they have been renewing their visa for years by taking the boat ride across the water every month.

A family’s kids who were playing with Laos kids.

Around dinnertime, I walked back to Daauw Homestay to have dinner with the family. For about $4 US, you could eat as much as you wanted of whatever they were serving that night, which included rice and several stir fried veggies.

I spoke with the family and a few of the other guests who were at the home. While we ate, their children were playing with the children of the Laos women who lived and worked at the guesthouse. It was a beautiful and open environment.

These are some of the beautiful crafts made by the Laos women.

After my 3-day ziplining tour was over, I stayed one night at the guesthouse with a woman who was on my tour. She was from France and was traveling around Asia long term.

We got along well during the tour, she was very easygoing. During our dinner with the family and guests, I chatted with another retired French couple who was traveling in Asia. They were going to make their way down to Siem Reap so I told them a bunch of advice on places to go.

These are some young girls taking one of the classes.

The room was very comfortable and it was about $8 US for the entire room. There was a fan and clean bathroom. It is probably the nicest place to stay in the Huay Xai, which is a very small city, not only because of the cleanliness but the people there who create a welcoming and warm environment.

I love places like Daauw that create an open environment and attract a certain type of guest and it’s an easy place to come alone. I encourage any person to say here if they want a comfortable place to stay, meet wonderful people and also support the women who are gaining valuable life skills.
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DSC_0472 He is one of the founders of Daauw Homestay.

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.

Don’t let fears shield kindness

People bartering on the streets of Port Louis, the capital of Delicious Mauritius.

Right now I’m in my birth country Mauritius, a small island-country, off the south-east coast of Africa.

I’m sure most of you know people who are so paranoid about the world that they over shelter their children and tell them all the scary stories about how they will be killed, attacked or rape if they mingle with the wrong people. No exaggeration.

Even though for the next few months I’m living in the same country as some people here, we live in completely different worlds. In their world, people constantly at risk of getting mugged, attacked and people outside their circles cannot be trusted. I feel guilty that I let some people’s irrational fears led me to create an unnecessary guard during my first two weeks here. What I’ve experienced so far in Mauritius on the street, public transit and financially destitute communities is nothing but genuine kindness and people who are helpful.

The most vibrant and funniest women I’ve met in Mauritius. They love to joke, dance and have big hearts. They were teaching me how to dance saga, a catchy traditional dance style in Mauritius.

My grandma lives just 15 minutes from the city centre so I just walk around only in the daytime. It’s true that in Mauritius, it’s not generally safe to walk around or go around at night unless you have a car and with a group of people. But in the daytime, common sense will protect you.

In my first two weeks trying to navigate Port Louis, when I got lost, I asked a man for directions and he kindly offered to walk me part way to my direction. I made sure I held my valuables tight and prepare for the worst and even thought, “I shouldn’t let him walk me all the way, then he’ll know where I’m going and what if he and other people try to steal something later on. I don’t know what it’s like here.” As soon as I knew where I was, I thanked him for his help and continued on.

But he is not the first person to be so kind to me and I realized that I got sucked into other people’s unjustified fears. I’ve been traveling on my own for a year and a half, and like anywhere else, I use street smarts and my intuition to judge who I can and cannot interact with.

Packed van coming back from an all-night beach jam West of Mauritius under star-covered sky. While most people don’t go out past 6 p.m. in Mauritius, if you find the right crowd, it’s safe and fun.

Another time I went the wrong direction and I asked a woman in her 50s where to go. She said, “I saw you walking up the street and the other woman sent you the wrong way. If I didn’t have to be at a meeting I would drive you myself.” Then she took time to draw me a map of where to go. She was really sweet.

There are so many busses around Mauritius and it’s not always clear where to go, so I always ask. I asked an old man about the bus before everyone got on. Before he said down, he asked if he could sit beside me and I said yes. He told me a bit about his life, and where he grew up. He got off a few stops before mine and he told me to enjoy the rest of my trip.

I’m not naive of the dangers that exist in every country, but there is a difference between being cautiously prudent and being unjustifiably paranoid. Irrational fears create an unnecessary barrier to experiencing the kindness of people who live next to you.

Our lovely couch surfing friends we miss so much that we met in the Philippines. We became instant friends after meeting in the travel community. Good energy attracts good energy.

 

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.

Riding without a destination in Lombok

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Beautiful ride at 6:00 a.m. from the ferry to Kuta, south of Lombok island.

Riding a motto around Indonesia (where possible) is one of the best ways to explore the islands. Lombok island, which is east of Bali, has been such a nice place to take it easy and explore for a few days.

Driving from the ferry to Kuta, Lombok

Ferry from Bali to Lombok island

Inside the ferry from Bali to Lombok island with TVs to entertain their guess from 1:00 a.m. to 5:30 a.m.

There is a ferry at Padang Bai in the East of Bali that leaves every hour all day and all night to Lombok. Three of us took the 1:00 a.m. ferry to save on accommodation and paid 112,000 rupiahs (about $12 US) with our mottos.

We drove about an hour and a half from the ferry to south of the island in an area called Kuta, which was the most beautiful drive I have done by motto in Asia so far.

Compared to the traffic and countless tourists in Bali, Lombok has much less tourists unless you’re in an area called Senggigi and it is very quiet. The roads are nice and smooth, even in the small villages surprisingly and people aren’t driving at 90 km an hour passing each other.

Riding without a plan

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The wonderful kids who kept us company around their home.

While I was in Cambodia for eight months, I was constantly reminded that the best things happen when my days were unplanned. But sometimes my old habits kick in and I have this recurring urge to make sure I am going the right direction and make as few mistakes as possible. So thankfully for me, I’m constantly with locals, travelers or expats (people from other countries who live in Asia) who are pretty easygoing and remind me to just go with the flow and getting lost is not a bad thing.

In Vancouver, getting lost is often a frustrating experience, but often “getting lost” or not knowing exactly where you are often leads to the most unforgettable experience. In Lombok it’s really hard to actually lose your way completely on this small island. Before we started riding, I asked my friend Natalie if we should get a map but she said “Nah, it’s ok, I usually like to go places without a map and just asking people.”

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These are the first people we met when we stopped for a drink. The man on the left taught us a few words in Bahasa Susak, one of the several languages spoken in Lombok.

We originally planned to just spend the day on one of the other small islands and just make stops as we pleased along the way. We first stopped by a local market and I just drank something just to be around local people. As soon as we sat down, people around us start talking to us, even with the language barrier. Thankfully Natalie can speak some Bahasa.

The usual questions both in Bali and Lombok are, “Where you from? Are you married? Where you go? How long you in Indonesia?” Talking with them was a great way to start the day and we learned a few words in Bahasa Sasak, the indigenous language of the people in Lombok.

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The wonderful people who stopped to ask if we needed directions.

Even on this small island, there are several variations of the language across the island. Most people will at least understand, if not speak, Bahasa Indonesia, which is the common language across the country. When I said, “Bremebe kabar” which means “how are you?” in Bahasa Sasak to people just a few km outside of Kuta, many of them gave me blank stares. I’m pretty sure my pronunciation wasn’t that far off. But when I say the same thing in Kuta, everyone understands me.

Natalie and I guessed that some people speak one version of Sasak and others speak Bahasa in other parts of Lombok. It’s very interesting languages can differ so much just 10 km or less between different areas.
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After 30 minutes, we continued riding around and it was so relaxing and beautiful to just ride through the small roads and a variety of landscape. As we drive, we’re very obvious foreign visitors, people smile and say hello. This genuine and warming greeting reminds me a lot of the people, especially children, in Cambodian villages.

We took a break and sat on what we thought was an empty field with no one in sight. Before we know it, a few kids stared at us and started talking to us. Then just a few minutes later, there were 23 kids who surrounded us, laughed and spoke with us. Natalie spoke with many of them in Bahasa. This was definitely the highlight of my day.The kids were so friendly and funny. Unlike Kuta, the rest of the places we went to don’t have many tourists so people were very curious about us.

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We offered some of our snacks to them and I was surprised that all of them refused. Natalie told me in parts of the islands, when one person says “yes” or “no”, the group usually follows together.

We said goodbye the kids and continued driving around. People both in Lombok and Bali always come up to us as soon as we stop somewhere to ask us where we are going and if we need help. It’s so nice of them. On our way to one of the hills, we asked for directions to a few people and they all crowded around to talk to us because we were in a rural area that few travelers would go to. I could have easily spent the rest of the afternoon with them, they had lovely smiles like most people around the island.

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Another new friend we met.

While the local people in Kuta are very kind, particularly our guesthouse family at Dyah Homestay, they seem to be a bit less sociable than the people who are on the other parts of the island where there are less tourists. People in Kuta aren’t unfriendly at all, they don’t engage as much in conversation with us. Maybe because they are so used to having tourists around, and they may be even sick of them. I don’t think many of the tourists who would come to Lombok care to have a good conversation with the local people. Many just surf, smoke, eat, drink and keep to themselves.

When we were almost done riding after a few hours, Natalie asked me, “Do you still want a map?” And I said, “Hell no! We’ve met the most amazing people just riding around.”

Explore without a destination, you never know who you will meet and the surprising things the world will give you.

When tourists get priority over mothers and babies

It was on my adventure bucket list to do zip-lining and I heard decent things about The Gibbon Experience in Huay Xai in northern Laos. So I went up to do the three-day trip that combines trekking, zip-lining and sleeping in the jungle treehouse. Yes, every child’s dream right?

I have A LOT of recommendations that I will send to the company on how to improve the tour and make it more worthwhile for what people pay. But what upset me more was on our truck ride to the jungle, I didn’t notice right away that a mother was sitting with her few-month old baby and young son were sitting outside the truck with strong winds and rain coming soon while three of us foreigners were in the sheltered part of the truck.

While the driver was getting gas, my friend and I asked him to ask the mother if she and her kids wanted to sit inside the truck in Laos. He just said, “No, it may rain, they are ok.” I didn’t believe him, so I turned to the mother and child and gestured, “Do you want to sit inside the truck?” And she immediately nodded her head and went to the back.

The driver looked displeased and said, “It may rain,” and I said, “I’ve been in Siem Reap with flooding, I can handle a little wind and rain. She has a baby who could get sick with this weather.”

What irritated me even more is on the two-hour drive to the jungle, the driver stopped by his village and we learned he himself has a wife with two kids and felt no sympathy for the mother and child in his car or to bother to ask if we can all squeeze in so they wouldn’t be exposed to the cold and rain. My friend also told me while he was seeing his family that the little boy in the car was smiling and playful until the driver yelled at them after the baby took a pee. To me, that’s just karma at it’s best.

When I went to say hi to the mom and the boy, they looked so sad and the boy didn’t want to engage anymore. They looked traumatized from the way the driver spoke to them.

Do tourists usually get priority over locals or was this another example of an aspect of Laos culture where women and their children are not as highly valued?

Unfortunately, I’ve learned in many parts of Laos, in the name of tradition and culture, Laos women do not have as much power in decision-making, especially once they are married. Often once women marry, they stop their education. I was very sad to hear it is still common for children as young as 13 years old to get married.

On an upside though, I have met a few strong women during my two weeks in Luang Prabang and Huay Xai who will be great role models for women of this generation. Change in cultural attitudes will come from within the communities as these women raise their children with the same openness and assertiveness they possess.

A week with three Khmer families during Pchum Ben

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At the local pagoda in the Kampong Cham province. The ceremony lasted three hours.

People around Cambodia celebrated Pchum Ben, a 15-day Buddhist festival to honour their ancestors. Pchum means, “meeting or gathering” and Ben means, “a ball of something”, usually for rice or meat. For two weeks until October 5, 2013, Cambodians visit the pagoda, usually before sunrise to make food and drink offerings for the monks and to feed hungry ghosts who could be their late ancestors, relatives or friends.

I spent five days of the festival with three Khmer families because I only had a few more weeks left in Cambodia and I wanted to spend as much quality time with them as I could. At first I thought, “What did I sign up for? I committed to going 6.5 hours to Kampong Cham for two days, then coming back north to Siem Reap for one night, and then taking a 2-hour taxi to Banteay Meanchey to stay for two days then returning back to Siem Reap.” I wasn’t sure if I had the physical and emotional energy to do this packed trip.

But it turned out this seemingly tiring itinerary ended being just the relaxation my body and mind needed. I’ve spent five days filling the slow hours by talking with my friends, laughing with the families, feeling the peaceful energy at the pagoda, appreciating the generosity of new friends and sleeping a lot. Anytime someone invited me to their home, I’ve accepted.

Two days in a village in the Kampong Cham province (central Cambodia)

My first trip was with my friends Phai and San, a wonderful young married couple who run a small restaurant in Siem Reap City. We were going to visit San’s family in Kampong Cham.

When I first arrived in Cambodia, I didn’t expect to be using as much French as I did and I had no idea France had such an influence on Cambodia. San learned French in Phnom Penh so I mainly communicated in French with her while I spoke English with Phai.

I was a bit worried at first because they told me that there was flooding the month before and the water was almost at their waist. They asked me if that was ok and we would just take a boat to get to their house. Hearing this, I imagined us staying at a flooded house and wondered where we would sleep. But this wasn’t the case at all.

On the boat sailing along the Mekong River with Phai (left) and San (middle)

To get to San’s village, we took a 4.5-hour bus ride from Siem Reap to Kampong Cham, a 5-minute motto ride to get to the ferry, a 1 hour ride on a big boat and finally a 20-minute boat taxi, which is a very small row boat that would take us to her home.

When we were waiting at the ferry, San was talking to a group of people. I asked Phai if she knew them and he said, “No they are just waiting at the ferry.” This is one of many examples of how opposite Cambodia’s social culture is from some Western countries. I love how people easily talk to each other so openly no matter what part of Cambodia you’re in. I’d be lucky to find someone who would have more than a superficial conversation with me at a ferry terminal in Vancouver, Canada.

The first boat sailed along the beautiful Mekong River. The weather was great for most of the ride with the wind blowing and cracks of sun that lit up the clouds. When were about to transfer to the small boat taxi, the rain started pouring.

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The small boat taxi

While we were waiting for the first boat transfer, other people on the boat asked San in Khmer, “Why is a foreigner coming all the way here? It’s so hard to get to.” The first thing that came to mind was, “Why not? I love boat rides too.” I love it when I’m the only foreign person in parts of Cambodia and I love venturing to places that would never be on a tourists’ radar.

The first group of people who got to the boat taxi had to walk in knee-high water. I feel horrible for thousands of people around Cambodia who have had their houses destroyed from the floods and many people in the community who got sick.

Flooded village

We took our little boat taxi through the forest trees to get directly to San’s house. It was a peaceful ride passing all the houses on stilts and just listening to the light raindrops hitting the water.

I offered San some money for my part of the transport costs but she wouldn’t take it. She said it’s ok and I am always touched when that happens with my Khmer friends, especially because many of their salaries are not high. And often whatever leftover money they have they give to their families. Nevertheless, they treat me as their guest and don’t worry about the cost. Though I always offer something in return whether it is food for the family or anything else they would like.

San’s village.

When we arrived at the house, we were greeted by San’s parents, her one-year-old sister, and the neighbour’s daughter. The area was part of a group of eight villages of about 1,000 people.

We arrived early afternoon and spent most of the time resting before dinner. My interactions with Khmer parents takes a similar pattern when I attempt to say something with my limited Khmer, they laugh and try to say more Khmer words to me, and finally I end the conversation with “Sorry I don’t understand. Speak little Khmer.”

San’s sister (left) and neighbour (right). Beautiful kids.

San asked me, “You want to go with me and my parents to pagoda? It’s up to you. I go with my mother and father to Buddha for good luck. But for you if you don’t want to, it’s ok.” Of course I said I would like to participate as much as I can if it was ok with them. What I really appreciate with my Khmer (Cambodian) friends is they know I’m not Buddhist but they keep assuring that it’s up to me whether or not I want to participate or just observe. Nothing is imposed, which would be ideal with every faith.

Before I took a shower, I asked if they had shampoo and they didn’t. So the mom immediately gave Lisa, the neighbour’s daughter, money to get some for me. Again this surprised me but I kept insisting to Lisa to take my money instead to buy the shampoo.

Pagoda cat
Pagoda cat

San’s father is quiet and didn’t talk that much but he was very kind to make sure I had a fan on me when I was just reading or sitting in the house. And San kept asking to make sure I was comfortable in her Khmer house and I told her several times that I’ve been to Khmer homes and villages around Cambodia. But of course I was grateful for her concern, in typical Khmer hospitality.

The next morning, the family got up at 5 a.m. to start preparing food to make offerings at the pagoda, which they often do before sunrise. The offering included bobo (rice soup), drinks, fruits and some desserts.

Children at the pagoda

Children at the pagoda enjoying the camera

Before going to the pagoda, San, Phai and I made an offering to the father. We all had to touch the plate of money and food that was offered to him before he did a blessing. It was nice to participate in this rather than just observed.

I asked my friend if it was ok to film and take pictures during the ceremony and he said it was fine. The kids at the pagoda loved looking at my camera and they laughed when I tried to speak Khmer. Kids in Cambodia laugh so easily and they are so friendly.

At the pagoda, I imitated what the others did. I definitely felt like an outside observer sometimes, especially when I was taking pictures and filming because it was a completely different ritual that I am not familiar with and not an essential part of my life. I thought it was funny to see a monk taking pictures with his iPhone during the ceremony. I’m glad I wasn’t the only one taking pictures. But no one paid much attention to me and I was driven by my compulsion to share my experience, without disrupting the ceremony of course.

Family photo

Being the obvious foreigner newbie to the pagoda, my friends didn’t tell me I had to wear a white shirt for the ceremony. I was wearing a bright red top because it was more decent than my other casual clothes. But no one else seemed to mind but at least I know for next time. “Barang lop lop,” crazy foreigner. When we were all eating lunch together, one of the elders kept gesturing that I join them for a meal, they were really sweet to make sure I was included.

Lita and Lisa are sisters and they come to San’s family’s house all the time to stay over and play. Lisa is 13 years old and she reminds me a lot of my adopted Khmer sister Kaka (pronounced “Gaga”). She is quiet, smiles a lot, very well mannered and helps in the kitchen. She knows how to cut the small fish and helps set up before dinner.

Kitchen of San's home

Kitchen of San’s home

San was so caring, I walked to the bathroom with the flashlight in the dark and San would look out the window to make sure I was okay. She was constantly asking to make sure I was comfortable.

San’s cousin came to visit and he translated some conversations I had with San’s mom. One uncomfortable and funny thing he had to translate was, “If you are back in Cambodia, she said me and you can work together,” meaning he could be my boyfriend. Of course I’m so “old” by Khmer standards because I’m 28 and unmarried, three years past the ideal marrying age.

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On the Mekong River

I was so sad to find out after we got back to Siem Reap that parents of the young girls we met actually separated five years ago and just left the girls. So San’s family took one of them in to raise her and a family nearby took the other. I said, “Wow that is so generous of your family.” I felt horrible because they are such good girls who are so helpful around the house. My Khmer friend said, “This kind of story is very common around Cambodia. The parents don’t do family planning and they don’t want the kids so they just leave them.”

During our last meal with the family, one of the highlights was making the family laugh with the little Khmer I knew. I felt even more like a Westerner with my camera, blue waterproof bag and backpack. San’s mom asked about my waterproof bag and I said, “This is from Canada,” in Khmer. You know you’re a Westerner in Cambodia when . . .

After two days, we headed back to Siem Reap and the weather was as beautiful and peaceful going back as the days we came.

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Trip #2: Back to Siem Reap

I spent most of the night with my adopted Khmer family. It always melts my heart when they’re excited to see me after being away for a few days on a trip. It was really sweet when my friend Konnitha told me that her younger sister Kaka (pronounced “Gaga”) asked if I was going with them to the pagoda. I said I’ll be away in another province and she looked disappointed. I felt guilty because even though I spent a lot of time with them, they really appreciate if I can participate in family events with them. I promised if I am back during Khmer New Year in April, I will go to the pagoda with them first before anyone else.

Trip #3: Banteay Meanchey province

This was my second time going to my friend Sopheak’s hometown, which is 120 km from Siem Reap city and this time I stayed overnight. Her family is full of wonderful and also very strong women. The way they spoke was very assertive more than most girls and women I have met in Cambodia, who often speak softly and are more submissive.

I arrived at 8:30 a.m. and because I thought we were going to the pagoda, I brought a white shirt this time. But my friend had already gone early in the morning with her family.

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Sopheak (left) has taken me to see her family twice in Banteay Meanchey. I met Sereyroth (middle) on my second trip there.

Sopheak made me feel so good she said her sisters and mom say I am very nice and beautiful. And when I smile, my face lights up. One thing I will definitely miss about Cambodia is being called beautiful by people you know and don’t know. She also said her friend Sereyroth wanted to meet me because I am nice.

I was really touched because Sopheak’s sister just had a baby on September 24 and the family was also busy getting ready for Pchum Ben. But when they found out I was coming to visit again, her mom said she was going to make make fish amok for me, which is one of my favourite Cambodian dishes. I really appreciated that because that dish takes a long time to cook and her dish was one of the best amok I’ve had in Cambodia. She was simmering the food for hours.

Sopheak was very considerate and asked if what they were eating was ok because I wasn’t used to Khmer food. But as always, I will eat whatever the family eats when I’m a guest and rarely, if ever, make a special request for food.

Sopheak’s sister (left), niece (middle) and brother-in-law (right)

I met two of Sopheak’s wonderful friends Sereyroth and Sorphea. Sereyroth has one of the must unique jobs of anyone I’ve met in Cambodia. When you ask many girls what they are studying or want to me, many of them say accounting or finance. But her friend Sereyroth has done a variety of jobs, including research on fish, interviewing people for field research and doing training for people for NGOs and other types of organizations. She was a human encyclopedia, she knew a lot about many things and it was fascinating listening to her.

Sereyroth and Sopheak were so kind, I don’t expect anyone to pay for any of my costs whether they are Khmer or not but they kept insisting on paying for my breakfast and snacks. When I asked why Sereyroth paid for our breakfast, she said, “You are a special guest.” Of course I at least wanted to treat them for coffee, which I did and fought Sopheak for the bill.

It was a nice break being spending two days with them away from Siem Reap city. Everything we did was nicely paced and not rushed. We took mottos to several rivers, the market, got coffee and the beautiful Lover’s Garden.

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Lover’s Garden

Lover’s Garden is this beautiful and hilarious place with hammocks, food, a fountain and random Disney and cartoon character statues around the garden. Some of those statues look so out of place, but that’s what makes the place fun.

One difference between Cambodian and Western culture is in Cambodia, people often sit at the same table as people they don’t know as long as there is room. When there were tables that were free for just the four of us, I pointed us to sit there but one of the friends said, “It’s ok we can sit here,” which was at a table where a mother and her young daughter were sitting. We spoke a bit with them and made the daughter laugh. I wonder if these kinds of interactions would happen more if people sat together more in Western culture.

Yep, this is in Lover's Garden.

Yep, this is in Lover’s Garden.

When we left, Sopheak told me that the owner said she was looking at me for a long time because I’m so beautiful and she thought I was Khmer. I’ll admit, I really am going to miss Cambodia for the sincere compliments I got from random people, particularly women. This would rarely happen in Vancouver unless it was a dude trying to hit on you.

It was amazing to watch and talk with Sopheak’s adorable six-year-old niece. She spoke quite a few English words and sentences, more than most kids I have met in Cambodian villages. She is at the top of her class and her teacher said she is an outstanding student.

Sopheak’s intelligent and adorable six-year-old niece.

The day that I left, Sereyroth told me “Even though we meet for only short time, I’m happy to meet you. It’s important in my life to talk with you and learn from you.” That was very sweet and responded to her by saying, “I’m pretty sure this weekend I learned a lot more from you than you did from me. You know so much!”

This was another unforgettable week with three wonderful and generous families and I will never for get them. I was really glad Sopheak and Sereyroth were able to join me for a dinner I organized the next day and be my guests this time.

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Family picture