Our awesome couch surfing host in Palawan

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

I love this bamboo colour.

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

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

Why he wanted to host

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

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

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

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

A diverse background

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

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

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

Jamming and dancing

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

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

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

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

 

 

Advertisements

6 days couch surfing in Palawan

 

18 lia and earl

Our incredible couch surfing hosts Earl (the only dude in the picture) and Lia (middle).

I am now a huge advocate for couch surfing (CS) and definitely plan to be a host to travelers whenever I get my own place. My experiences surfing in Indonesia, Thailand and Philippines have been nothing less than incredible. Couch surfing is the best way to connect with local people if you’re in a city for a short period of time.

While my friend and I were in Manila, we were messaging a bunch of CS hosts to see if we could stay with someone and also hang out with people. To my surprise, a young girl named Lia who lives in Palawan messaged me first when she saw a post that we were couch surfing in her city. She said she didn’t have a place to host us but she could give us a tour around the city. This was impressive considering 9.8 times out of 10, I’m the one who messages people first.

Pristine beach. It’s not as nice as Nagtabon beach.

What impressed me even more was the day before we arrived in Palawan, she called me to ask if we wanted her to make a reservation for us for an underground river tour, which was said to be one of the must-see sights on the island. So we were told anyway.

Meeting Lia

Lia painted this in high school. Wow.

Before we actually met Lia, who quickly became our wonderful friend, she was so considerate to call and ask us if it was ok if two other couch surfers joined the city tour she was going go give us. To do an actual paid tour of the places we went would have been 600 pesos (about $13 US).

We first met her at a coffee shop and got to know each other. I could tell right away she was very friendly and wanted to make sure we had a good time. We had no idea how long she would have stayed with us for the day, but our day was open and we appreciated any time she gave to show us around.

A beautiful sunset at Nagtabon beach.

The more I got to know her the more I was fascinated with her many skills and interests. She is a petroleum engineering student and also runs her own business, R&L Customized Shop, selling custom-made products and crafts.

I asked her how many girls there are in her engineering field and she said, “One out of every 10 students are girls. But I’m close to my friends and they don’t treat me any different. I don’t get any special treatment because I’m a girl.”

We were only the second group of people she was providing full day city tour for by herself and I couldn’t believe she was giving four full day tours in one week with other travelers! She is an incredibly generous, intelligent and very mature person. On top of all of these great qualities, she is a wicked pool player.

Lia’s City Tour

I clearly took too long to get ready.

Lia spent 10 hours with us the first day, I was surprised. She took us to the a vegetarian restaurant, Cathedral, war memorial, Baker’s Hill, a viewpoint, bay walk and finally a restaurant until 10 p.m. I couldn’t believe she was going to give this tour to a few more groups in a week spending the whole day with people. She has her own business so her time was flexible. But to give so much of her time and energy is so generous. We felt so lucky to be on her city tour with Lia on a sunny day. One of our friends went on the paid city tour and it was quite boring and they were sitting in a van on a rainy day.

We found our Shrek family.

I wanted to eat vat a vegetarian restaurant so she took us to one place and met Danius and Roman, two CS guys from Lithuania. After we ate, Lia took us to a few places around the city and stayed with us right until dinner. During dinner Lia was adorable and told us that she was a bit nervous meeting us for the first time because we have a different culture. I told her it’s admirable that she pushed herself to give a city tour to travelers on her own. She told us, “If I had time, I would have picked you up at the airport.” She went to pick up another couch surfer another day. Top notch hospitality. 

Needless to say, we bought some baked goodies.

Non-stop fun

Venga Boys ladyboy show. Great value: buy a drink and enjoy the entire show.

Since we met Lia, we met other fantastic couch surfers. Every day was an unplanned adventure. We cooked together, went to a few beaches, saw a ladyboy show, went out dancing at a local club and went for local karaoke together. This was such an easy group to hang out with and we also hung out with two guys who were staying at another Couchsurfing host’s home.

Earl, Lia’s Filipino friend, was also very kind to spend time with us every day since we met. He helped us whenever we had questions and is a very good help and cook in the kitchen. Compared to many 23-year-olds in Canada, he is extremely mature, considerate and articulate.

Beautiful burning sky.

On one of the nights, Lia and Earl took us to a local karaoke place and we pretty much had the place to ourselves. I have never been to a karaoke place with only one microphone and you have to sing in front of everyone. Thankfully it was mostly our friends and just four other Filipina girls. But of course, after you listen to an incredible Filipina girl singing, you pretty much don’t want to follow that up!

We hung out here after a full day tour with Lia before we went to dinner.

One of the days we went out, we checked out a ladyboy show and it was the very firs time the Lithuanian guys had seen a show like this. And just their luck, of the 150 people in the room, the ladyboys chose to pick on them. In front of everyone, the ladyboy said, “You are so cute like a lollipop. Do you like boys or girls?” Our friend was so caught off guard he didn’t even answer and was laughing uncomfortably.

Our awesome couch surfing group.

After the ladyboy show, we all went to the local dance place that Yunis and I checked out earlier. It looked kind of shady from the outside but Yunis and I wanted to see what it was like. There weren’t many people but we enjoyed the music enough to have fun on our own.

The highlight of the night though was when we met this very flamboyant 20-year-old gay boy on the dance floor. He was absolutely fun and hilarious. He kept saying to us, “I am miss Philippines 2014” and kept looking at our friends and said, “dannnnnnce!”  with a strong Filipino accent. When my friend told him, “You must do yoga you are so flexible,” he replied, “No, it’s all natural.”

Our energetic and hilarious Filipino gay friend we met on the dance floor. Totally highlight of our night.

Trying duck embryo for the first time

Yes, that’s right, duck embryo is a very popular food in the Philippines as well as Cambodia. It’s called, “balut” in Tagalog. Because Lia was kind to us, we couldn’t’ say no to her when she insisted that we try balut. She purposely waited until it was night so we wouldn’t have to look at what we were eating, and that was definitely for the best.

Pristine Beach

The kids who were so friendly to chat and play with my friend and I. They live close to the beach and returned back to their families after spending some time with us.

One day we were at the beach for the day and there were a few young kids between 9 and 12 began talking to my friend and I. They asked what our names were, laughed and played with us for some time until they had to go back home.

Our Couchsurfing friend Roman started chatting with a 20-year-old boy who was an elementary school teacher. He said very wisely, “Anyone can be a teacher by profession but not by heart.” He because a teacher at first because his mom wanted him to follow that profession then he grew to love it. 21 teacher meesa

While we were in the shade, we met a fun Finnish girl named Ira who was very adventurous. She traveled to India alone and was going around Asia for a few months. She said many Finnish people are shy at first and aren’t so adventurous. She is not a typical Finnish person. She came back to town for lunch with us and hung out with us every day until she had to leave. We would later discover what an amazing singer she is.

Nagtabon beach

Nagtabon beach is considered the best beach in Palawan by the locals.

We were told Nagtabon is one of the nicest beaches in Palawan so we decided to spend our day there. We had a hard time finding enough scooters for everyone to get to Nagtabon, about an hour away, so Earl and Lia arranged to share a van to take 11 of us to the beach. She got a discount price for us. Locals are always have the best hookups.

Oliver is building a small resort and uses solar power.

Nagtabon was nice and quiet and we shared food for lunch. It was a perfect way to spend the day with the group. Earl had a friend who was building a resort on the beach that was five stories high. The top of the building had a beautiful view of the beach and surrounding areas. His friend was nice to offer us as many shots as we wanted when we were visiting his place. He also gave two of us a short boat ride. You could rarely have an experience like this if you come on your own with a group of backpackers.

Calm waters.

While most of us were in our happy place, we ended our time at the beach by watching Ira, riding the resort owner’s white horse on the beach during sunset. What an incredible way to ride a horse for the very first time!

Ira’s new horse friend.

Cooking at Lia’s

Eggplant, spaghetti, fish, mashed potatoes and other yummies.

Lia was nice to open up her home to us so we could cook a meal for her and Earl who have been doing so much for us. Earl helped Zu, my friend, and I shop at the local market. Zu noticed that the vendors were staring at Earl and Lia because they were hanging out with us Westerners. I guess not many foreign people spend much time shopping at the local markets.

Zu noticed that vendors were quite confused trying to figure me out because I looked like a local Filipina girl but was wearing Western backpacker clothes like the white people they are used to seeing.

Earl: wannabe musician, cook, weightlifter and couch surfing assistant host.

We just needed Lia and Earl to help us shop for the ingredients and just wanted them to relax once we got home. But because they have high standards of hosting in their blood, they helped us with most of the cooking and also contributed a soup dish and grilled eggplant.

In all, we ate spaghetti, mashed potatoes, grilled eggplant and soup. It was a fantastic meal. In all it cost about $4 US for a few of us to make all of that food. After that massive meal, Lia let me take a hot shower and sleep on her bed to take a rest during the afternoon.

Last day

We were so comfortable in Palawan that we lost track of what day we were leaving and we realized the day before our flight that we only had one more full day when we told our friends we had a few more days on the island. So we invited people at our Couchsurfing host Jon’s place to cook together one last time.

Jon was so nice to open up his home for us. I really appreciate our friends making time to cook and eat with us one last time before we left. I always believe that the best gift you can give to someone is your timeAnd the friends we have made in the Philippines spend time with us from their hearts.

We had an amazing last night with our wonderful friends at Jonathan’s bamboo house.

Me and two other friends split the cost of cooking for 10 people, including our friends where we were staying. Earl and Lia helped us shop at the market one more time and we all went to Jon’s house together. As usual, Lia and Earl helped us with most of the cooking and we shared a delicious meal.

After dinner, we had a memorable jam session and Jon and Ira also sang a beautiful duet. It couldn’t have been a more perfect way to end our night there.

Flexing with Earl at Nagtabon beach.

It was still early in the night so a few of uswent to the café to check the internet for a bit. We told Earl and Lia they didn’t have to stay, especially if they had school or work the next day. But they said, “No it’s ok. It’s your last night.”

So while we were checking our email at Magnut café, we had one more karaoke session and Lia and Ira shared their beautiful voices one more time. Lia was so sweet and gave each of us a customized gift from her company. On our last nightI texted her, “I wasn’t sure if we should come to the Philippines because I was tired of moving around. But you’ve mad our trip very worthwhile I will keep your gift forever.”

Our last sunset in Palawan.

           

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

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

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

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

The beautiful Mindful Farm. Photo credit: Zuzana Kotorova.

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

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

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

The funny ride up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First activities

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

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

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

Pi Nan helping make a fire.

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

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

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

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

Dr. Phat

The funny and hospitable Dr. Phat.

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

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

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

He’s a funny character.

An incredible mix of global explorers

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

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

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

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

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

We were comparing our squatting abilities while were preparing dinner.

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

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

Walking meditation

Photo credit: Zuzana Kotorova

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

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

Photo credit: Zuzana Kotorova.

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

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

Our daily schedule

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Communal cooking

Making a loving meal together with the wonderful outdoor kitchen.

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

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

Meditation 101

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One-day silent meditation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our last day

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

going away

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
IMG_1938

Learning how to make pizza from scratch. The pizza this student made was better than most pizzas I’ve had in restaurants in Cambodia.

IMG_1898

Sign at Small World

 3. Khmer New Year celebrations

IMG_2642

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.

IMG_2654

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.

Bayon temple

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

IMG_2941

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.

IMG_5593

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

IMG_5531

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.

IMG_5704

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.

IMG_5730

The wonderful girls who took me around Banteay Meanchey.

8. Meeting students in Sronal Commune, Siem Reap

IMG_5767

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

DSC_0960

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

DSC_0909

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.

DSC_0902

The awesome mobile wedding band.

DSC_0932

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

13. Fun-filled days in Bali

DSC_0828

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.

DSC01216

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.

DSC_0955

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

DSC_0610

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.

DSC_0650

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

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

IMG_5907

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.”

IMG_6105

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

IMG_6116

17. Country bike rides in Cambodia

DSC_0711

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.

Cost of living in Siem Reap, Cambodia

Siem Reap has a full range of prices of food, accommodation and services. People, whether they are Khmer (Cambodian) or an expat (foreigners who live in Cambodia), can live comfortably for $300.00 US to $500.00 a month. Unfortunately, most Khmer people’s salaries are nowhere near that.

Some of my friends work nine hours a day, six days a week to earn $60.00 to $90.00 a month. Some of their jobs include working guest relations at a hotel or a cleaner will earn just $40.00 to $60.00 a month. The lowest price for a room to a rent I have come across is $25.00 per month, so of course that doesn’t leave people much to save.

While it’s nice to have a treat to eat out once in awhile, I’ve enjoying buying at the market with my Cambodian friends and cooking at their house. Just last night we went to a friend’s place and it cost $1.50 to buy enough veggies, eggs and noodles to feed four of us. It is still often cheaper to cook than eat a $1.00 meal every time.

Least costly food (US dollars)

  • Street sandwhich with a fresh baguette: $0.30 without meat, $0.50 with meat
  • A meal of fried noodles off the street: $0.50 to $0.75
  • A full meal of fried rice or fried noodles at a small restuarant: $1.00 to $1.50
  • 1 kg of tomatoes: $1.25
  • A bunch of green beans that can feed 4 people: $0.25
  • A dozen eggs: $1.50
  • A big pack of sliced bread: $1.25
  • Fresh curry spices: $0.25

Eating and drinking out 

  • You can a range of sandwhiches, a curry dish that is good for a meal, tacos on deal nights: $1.50 to $3.00: 
  • Eating a lot of soup and noodles you cook yourself with three other friends: $2.00 per person
  • All you can eat BBQ: $4.00
  • There are places like Soria Moria and Ivy guesthouse that have $1.00 tapas and drinks every week
  • Pizza is a little more expensive, ranging from $5.00 to $13.00

Accommodation and property

  • Rent for a very small room (5 ft x 8 ft): $25.00 a month
  • Rent for a basic bachelor suite just outside the city centre: $40.00 per month ($20.00 if you share with someone)
  • Rent for a bigger suite or one-bedroom apartment: $100.00 to $300.00 per month for a bigger suite. It’s on the higher end if you’re closer to town
  • Rent for a three story house: $600.00 to $800.00 depending house close you are from the centre. But you have a motto or bicycle, three-story houses that are just a 5-minute motto ride from the centre of town are about $400.00 per month. They have a lot of space

I’m very grateful to have the ability to try a full range of food and services. But what I’ve enjoyed the most in Siem Reap is spending time with my Khmer friends in their homes, local hangout places and meeting their families in their home town. That’s when I feel like I’m experiencing the “real Cambodia.”

 

Food: the universal language

Delicious home-cooked lunch

I was fortunate share a home-cooked Cambodian meal with friends this past weekend, probably the most memorable meal I’ve had so far. One of our friends invited us for lunch in the morning and of course we all wanted to bring something, but the couple kept insisting that we don’t bring anything.

This is my first time being at a Cambodian person’s house so it was a great experience. They offered us a drink as soon as we arrived in the scorching hot weather and they provided us with more than enough food for lunch as well as a Cambodian dessert, which looked like green noodles (see pic below).

What also makes this experience so memorable is that we can’t communicate in depth in English or Khmer (Cambodian language), but just spending time with people over food is something that overcomes all language barriers. We can still joke and laugh together.

Even though all of the food and drinks were out on the table, we all waited until everyone was sitting at the table before we ate. I will make sure to do this more often when I get back to Vancouver.
While I am a pescotarian (eat fish, but no beef or chicken) 95% of the time, I did eat meat for this meal so I wouldn’t be rude since they were in all of the dishes. It was delicious and my tummy hasn’t been angry at some of the meat I’ve had so far.

One of the guests was telling me that he is studying information technology but the education quality in Cambodia is not good. He looked frustrated. He said, “In Phnom Penh, there are many more choices, but not in Siem Reap.” As I meet more people, I’m hearing more and more stories like this. I have read several statistics about the poor quality of education in Cambodia. You feel a whole other level of frustration when you hear the impacts directly from Cambodians of all ages.

I did want to try the meat since I am traveling just to at least taste it and I think the meat is likely fresher than the factory farmed meat in Canada, which is a big reason why I usually don’t eat meat. I’m more likely to try locally raised meat and I have in Vancouver.

Generous food customs

Generously hosted by our friend as his house

I’ve noticed the following food customs both from Cambodian people and people who come from other countries around the world since I’ve been here that I really appreciate:

  • Everyone waits until all the food is cooked before eating a meal. One time, one of my friends was really hungry and the food was still an hour away from being ready. I told her she could eat one of the dishes as an appetizer because for most of us, if we’re hungry, we’ll eat something small. But she said, “No it’s ok, I will wait.”
  • If someone didn’t cook, they will take it upon themselves to clean everyone’s dishes. While I find many people in North American often have to be asked or “trained”, the people I live and dine with do this automatically.
  • If people are in the same room, rarely do they make something just for themselves. Most of the time they don’t ask and make either a dish or drink for everyone. If someone is making a fruit shake, they will count the number of people in a room and make it for everyone. My first week here, I bought ingredients for myself but quickly found myself using them to contribute a dish since we were eating and cooking together most of the time. Every day is a foodie day!

IMG_2323

IMG_2322