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.

Ways to use a lovely bunch of coconuts

A huge pile of coconuts in Marinduque, Philippines.

I was impressed with the number of ways people in the Philippines, Cambodia and Thailand used coconuts. I didn’t know that you could use the whole coconut in a variety of ways from the outer skin to the meat. Here are a few ways you can put coconuts to good use aside from drinking the juice:

Our Filipina granny showing us that coconuts can be used as hats, bras and knee pads.

A yummy coconut jelly drink made with the coconut meat in Marinduque, Philippines.

Coconuts can be burned and covered overnight to make charcoal. The family we stayed with in Marinduque used the charcoal every day to cook.

Coconuts can be shaved on the outside and be used as coconut bowls. Our wonderful friends in the Philippines were so nice and used their machetes to cut a bunch of bowls for our friend. 

Coconuts are great for machete practice. Though the local Filipina women were laughing at my horrendous ability to cut coconuts with a machete. It took me 10 minutes to cut one successfully. I would be so fired if I ever tried to sell coconuts.

Coconut meat shavings can be used to make a variety of desserts.

Coconut shavings can be used as kindling to start fires.

These coconut meat shavings were used in a salad at Mindful Farm in northern Thailand. The travelers who were staying on the farm cook every night together.

At Tacomepai farm in northern Thailand, the rougher parts of a coconut was smartly used as a sponge to clean dishes. On this farm, plastic is forbidden and residents and guests reuse as much material as they can.

 

 

 

Thailand cost summary

The coast of Koh Chang island in the south of Thailand. We were living in a treehouse for a few days built by our awesome Thai friend.

 

In January 2014, my friend and I spent a month in Thailand. We were in Bangkok for a few days, in Ko Chang island for a week, and two weeks in Chiang Mai. We stayed at friends’ places, a few guesthouses, in a tent, and on farm stays.

At the time we were in Thailand, $1.00 US =30 Thai Baht. All of these costs are in US dollars.

BANGKOK

Accommodation

  • Free: 7 nights accommodation with two friends who lived close to the BTS (Bangkok Train Station) station.
  • $20.00 per person (split 3 ways): 3 nights at Nasa Vegas hotel. You have to pay extra for internet. But there is an internet cafe across the street and you can get unlimited internet for a day for about $5.

Transportation 

  • $0.50 to $1.50: Each BTS train station trip in Bangkok.
  • $1.50: Train from the airport to the BTS .
  • $0.30: Each trip on the public busses.

KO CHANG ISLAND

Accommodation

  • $60.00: Total price for two people at Garden Lodge for 4 nights. The price included Wi-Fi, free water from a filter and a full kitchen to use. The price includes $0.30 per cup of coffee and tea.
  • $3.30 per person for one night on the beach in the tent.
  • $2.50 per person per night for three nights at a treehouse on the beach. The owner was so nice and made a full BBQ for us with delicious fresh fish for free.

Food

  • $1.00 to $5 per meal.

Transportation

  • $70.00 for having a scooter for 6 days in Ko Chang. My friend and I split this in half so it costed me $35 for the 6 days.

CHIANG MAI

Accommodation

  • $4.00: per person per night for three nights with VR guesthouse. 
  • Free: One night free with a friend.
  • $3.30: shuttle ride from Chiang Mai to Mindful Farm, a vegetarian farm that integrates.
  • Free: scooters for two days from a friend.

Mindful farm

  • $7.00 per day for accommodation and meals for three meals a day for three days.

Mae Hong Son mountain loop

Aside from meals and accommodation, my friend and I divided everything in two.

  • $73.00 (split 2 ways): 200 cc Honda Phantom rental for four days.
  • $8.00 (well worth it): Mae Hong Son Map.
  • $6.00 (split 2 ways): Entry fee for waterfalls and geysers.
  • $10.00 per person: Tacomepai farm homestay for accommodation and three meals a day ($3.33 per person per night for accommodation and $1.67 per day for three meals a day)
  • $20.00: 91 grade gas to travel 600 km (split 2 ways)
  • $5.00: One night stay in a village guesthouse including water
  • $1.00 to $5.00 per meal for three days.

Total cost per person in Mae Hong Son: $96 for four days

Total cost for one month in Thailand: $463 

Ko Chang jungle trek

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I was ready to do something active in Ko Chang so I decided to join the Kongoi Jungle Trekking. The tour leader (sorry I forgot his name) is associated with most of the tour agencies around the island. I booked a full day tour and it was a decent price (about 1000 baht) for the day including lunch, water and snacks.

I was impressed by our solo leader, who clearly grew up in the jungle and answered most people’s questions. Anyone who would attempt any routes alone would easily get lost since most of the trails look very similar. This guy manages everything on his own from the transportation, bookings, getting all the supplies ready and planning the route. He changes the route regularly.

One participant holding our new tarantula friend.

While we were in the forest, he knew where to spot a tarantula’s home in a hole in the ground. He had to lure it out, make sure it was calm so it doesn’t bite anyone and asked people who wanted to hold it. A few people held it and one guy even put it on his face! Oh my. The rest of the walk he stopped to let people climb parts of some unique-looking trees, enjoy a swim by the waterfall and walked at a nice pace.

Sunset ride

A fun ride on this 125 cc Kawasaki

After being in Cambodia for so long and being friends with mostly local people, I was really missing hanging out with local people in the other countries I visited. I was one of the last people the leader dropped off and he told me he had to move his stuff to his new house tonight. I asked if he needed help and he said yes and would get me a drink in return. He even let me ride his 125 cc bike to his place. I love how people around Asia are so easygoing when it comes to letting people rides their bikes or drive their cars.

I helped him pack his truck and followed him on the bike. He had a great custom house that he just built and it had a great sunset view too. It was awesome just chilling with him and my friend for a bit then we had to get back.

Another wonderful and hospital Thai friend.

Sunset view by the house.

Climbing during a break.

 

 

Living in a driftwood house in Ko Chang


My friend and I spent a week in Ko Chang, Thailand. We casually rode around the island our scooter, often the best way to explore islands. We rode to the south of the island and soon after we passed Bang Bao area and about 10 minutes pass the Hippy Hut, we arrived at a chill, hippy-like area with two small restaurants and a sign inviting people for a weekly jam session every Friday, which I was keen to do.

We were originally going to rent a tent for four days at 100 baht each per night (about $3.25 US). But just 30 meters past the tent area, we checked out a unique-looking driftwood house that was next to a small bar where weekly jam sessions happened that was organized by the owner Cheap. Anyone could join and play drums and other instruments that were around.

This part of the house costs 150 baht a night shared between my friend and I. For 75 baht each (just under $2), we had more space compared to the tent, a mosquito net, a roof over our head, all you can play instruments around us and be close to a wonderful owner. This has by far been the best value for accommodation the past year.

He didn’t have money to buy land so he built his house and bungalows all by himself, including the electricity and water pumps. He learned how to do everything on his own.

His place could even pick up Wi-Fi from the restaurant nearby. I was laughing because I met someone on a jungle trekking tour who paid 2000 baht a night and didn’t even have Wi-Fi that worked.

One night when we came back from the day, my friend and I were planning on eating somewhere in town for dinner. But when we got back to the house, Cheap invited everyone around for a BBQ. I wasn’t sure if we would have to pay but it was wonderful food and a chance to cook with him.

We helped him make pad thai and he was grilling fish, meat, mango salad and it was all delicious. He invited everyone who was passing by his area to join us for the meal. He was very welcoming. In he end, he didn’t charge anyone for the feast of food.

By contrast, I found many of the foreign people who were staying at his place quiet and exclusive. People weren’t so friendly or just kept to themselves, which is the opposite of most of the local people I spend time with in Asia.

We sadly left his wonderful house and left to catch our ferry. The only difference between this place and a more pricey resort is that a resort has nicer walls and more unfriendly people. Other than that, the beautiful views, food quality and Wi-Fi access are the same.

On our last night, I wanted to take time to jam with Cheap. I felt bad for not spending more time with him during the days we were there. He looked sad that we were leaving and when we were talking about the people who come, he said, “But they all leave.” I hope to see him again one day and stay longer for another jam session with our dear friend.

Koko’s recommended stay in Chiang Mai: V.R. Guesthouse

Our energetic and wonderful friend Potae, owner of VR Guesthouse

My friend and I booked VR Guesthouse in Chiang Mai, Thailand because it was a good price, had good reviews and was right in the centre of the city. We booked a shared room with four beds for 125 baht per person per night (about $3.75 US) and the price included free coffee, water, great Wi-Fi, clean beds and a hot shower.

We’re so happy we ended up here because we instantly liked the very hospitable young owner Potae. When we first met her she said, “My name is Potae. Like potato but without the “to.” She made us laugh all the time.

Potae is the most accommodating guesthouse owner I’ve met in the year I’ve been in Asia. She conveniently arranged a scooter for us when we needed and answered any questions we had. She told us, “I like to make people feel at home and I love running the guesthouse. I want people to give honest reviews on TripAdvisor about their experience. I don’t ask people to say good things.”

But not only did she provide exceptional service, she went way beyond the usual duties of a guesthouse owner. One day when we had to pick up our big bags from a friend’s house about a 20-minute drive away and we were planning on taking it on a motorcycle. Instead, she kindly offered to close the guesthouse and use her car to pick up our bags at the risk of losing new customers.

And on our last day, I needed to pick up a card around 8:00 a.m. before our bus came and I asked if I could use her scooter. Instead she offered to drive me right in the morning even while she was busy helping other guests with their motto rentals.

We were lucky to spend time with her outside of the guesthouse and she took dancing close and helped us get around town. She is always funny and energetic and it was great to spend time with her.

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On our last night there she helped us get a taxi to our bus station and she said, “I’ll miss you. If you have any questions while you’re in Bangkok, you can call me.” And we did. When we arrived back in Bangkok around 9:30 p.m., we had trouble communicating with our taxi driver. So we called Potae and translated for us. Before we said our last goodbye, she said, “If you have any other questions, call me.”

At any given moment, she’s busy taking the sheets to the laundry, booking tours for people, arranging scooters and prepping the rooms for upcoming guests. Despite having very busy moments with a million things to look after, she said, “I love my job.”

If you’re in Chiang Mai, please visit Potae for us and tell her Meesa and Zu say hello.