The incredibly polite and considerate kids in Cambodia

meesa

Since I’ve been in Cambodia for a year and a half, one of the biggest differences I notice between Cambodian youth and those in Western countries is the level of consideration they have for other people and responsibility in the home.

I usually take a nap at my Cambodian colleagues’ house. When I arrived at her house two days ago, her energetic and playful seven-year-old sister who was the only person at home. She was eating on a bench and I just started to lie down on the best beside her. I heard her immediately go into her house, get me a pillow and ran to get another chair for herself so I could sleep on the whole bench. I was very impressed.

Today I also went to an NGO school located 12 km outside of the Siem Reap city-centre. I was prepared to sit on the floor with my computer and as soon as I walked in the room, a 12-year-old girl ran out to get me not one, but two chairs. She said, “One for you and one for your computer.”

I run into a lot of Western expats, whether I want to or not, in town and many would barely have the consideration to get up to get you a chair or do something to help a new visitor or a guest. I was very impressed with my friend’s sister who is much more polite than most Western adults I’ve come across in Asia.

When tourists or expats visit people in rural villages, they’re often surprised how well-behaved many of the children are. Many don’t have a chance to live out a full childhood because they have to help their parents clean the house, pick up their siblings from school, cook around their school schedule, if they even go to school at all.

I keep learning to shut up when I complain about working long hours at times because some Cambodian friends tell me that they wake up at 6:00 a.m. to drop their sister to school before starting their 8-hour work day then going to university for three hours where their teacher may or may not show up because they drank too much the night before. They don’t tell me this to make me feel bad; my friends are just open about their lives. I’ve heard too many “poor” me stories from expats who didn’t get the perfect massage or not having air conditioning.

When I visit my friends’ hometowns in the villages, I’ve seen 11-year-olds who know how to cut and clean fish, young kids helping set up the tables before a meal and kids sweeping and watering plants happily at their schools. They are extremely modest and rarely ask for much from their family, mostly because they can’t. But they know how to use their imaginations and play well with each other.

 

Advertisements

Warm and cold cultures

This is our friend in Ko Chang island in Thailand who built his bamboo house on the beach. His name is pronounced “Cheyap” and in the few days my friend and I stayed with him for $1.75 US a night, he so generously made BBQ for anyone who passed by, hosted jam sessions, and welcomed people to come and hang out. He is so hospitable and open and when he told us how sad he gets when people constantly come and go, I almost shed a year.

I’m back in Vancouver, Canada for one more week before I start my new role as a Marketing Executive for a travel company in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

In the year and a half I’ve traveled in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Philippines, Singapore, Indonesia and Mauritius (Africa), I’ve experienced the most open people and the coldest people. It’s amazing how you can really feel the openness and warmness of different people no matter where in the world you are by their body language and energy.

The funny and generous woman in the middle is Potae, as she said, “Like potato but without the ‘toe.'” She manages V.R. Guesthouse in Chiang Mai. She manages the guesthouse completely on her own so imagine our surprise when she was busy with other clients, she closed her guesthouse at the risk of missing new guests just so she could drive us 15 minutes out of own to pick up our big backpacks instead of us using our motto. Talk about exceptional service!

In the time I spent in Asia, I learned that I connect much better with the local people than I do with many expats, people from other countries who are temporarily or permanently living in a different country than where they were brought up. I found the local people I met so much more welcoming, helpful and open than many expats I encountered. Don’t get me wrong, I have some very close expat friends in Siem Reap, but they probably make up 5% of the people I hang out regularly with in town.

I was surprised to learn that I actually feel a lot more comfortable sitting around a table with local people while they are speaking their own language that I don’t understand than with a group of cliquey expats who speak English. The energy of many local people is so welcoming that it’s easy to talk to anybody. Expats tend to be more selective about who they hang out with and it often feels like you have to say something to impress them or make yourself worth to be part of their group.

A good example of the contrast between warm and cold culture behaviours was when I went to a Cambodian birthday party and then a Canada Day party the day after in July 2013. I had only been in Cambodia for a few months and when one of my Cambodian friends invited me to her birthday, I brought a cake and was expecting to see maybe 20 people or so. Then when I arrived at her house, there were probably 50 people hanging around inside her house and on the front yard with food and beer. I would have been surprised if they even had time to cut my small cake at any point in the night.

John, the guy at the bottom with the dog, is a master scuba diver, amazing musician, in the navy, has been to Haiti on a U.N. mission and a couch surfing host for the past two years in Palawan, Philippines. He has had over 300 travelers stay at his beautiful bamboo house. My friend and I stayed for a few days and when we asked if we could stay two more nights, he simply texted us back and said, “Sure, stay as long as you want.”

She kindly brought me a plate of food and everyone, 98% Cambodian, was very open and easy to talk to. What I love about the people in the country is even if we don’t speak a common verbal language, they still make an effort to try and speak to people.

When you become friends with local people in Asia, even after knowing you for less than a day, they don’t go the extra mile for you, they will do everything in their ability to make sure you are happy or get what you need. In North American culture, we often feel like we are, “bothering people” or other people make us feel that way. I thought I was a good host but now I’ve learned how much more I can do to help people out or make them feel even more welcome.

The next day, I went a Canada Day “party” at a hotel and it was so North American in the sense that everyone was in their own separate groups and not really interacting with each other. I’m pretty sure there were more people at my friend’s birthday party at her house, which is a much smaller space than the hotel.

Case and point.

Warm-cultured travelers

I was very happy to meet Lalha (right) on couch surfing in Jogyjakarta, Indonesia. She kindly hosted a few of us couch surfers, gave us rides, and spent time with us every night during the few days we were in town. When she couldn’t meet me the first day, she sent her friend to be her representative to hang out with me and offer me a place to stay.

I’m making a distinction between expats and travelers by the way. I’ve made amazing connections with open travelers around Asia and when you move where the winds take you on these adventures, you find people who share your values and curiosity of the world.

When I was in Vancouver, I loved having people at our place every week in our tiny kitchen making food together, meeting new friends and enjoying each other’s company. I told people they didn’t have to arrange a meeting time with me, they could just call me if they were around my area to simply say hi, have tea, shower or if they needed a place to crash. When I hosted people, it didn’t feel like work at all but people kept telling me I was really good at bringing people together and creating community, which I never thought of as being a talent.

When I couch surfed in the Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia, I found people who were exactly like me and were even more open with their homes to new people than I was. One couch surfing host in Palawan, Philippines where we stayed had 300 people stay at his place in the last two years alone! In Tacomepai farm and Mindful Farm, I met the most open group of travelers than any other group I interacted with during the year and a half. My friend and I were only staying for a few days, but people spoke with us immediately, shared travel stories, expressed their deep philosophies around the camp fire and making meals together in the mountains.

This is my friend’s Sopheak’s mom in Banteay Meanchey in north Cambodia. I stayed at their house for a few days and even when her mom was extremely busy preparing for a pagoda ceremony and cooking for her newborn grandson, I was so touched when my friend told me that her mom took hours to prepare my favourite fish amok when she found out I was coming. That is hospitality at a whole new level.

Warm and cold cultures in Vancouver

I am extremely fortunate to have grown up in multicultural cities since I was a baby. I was literally colour-blind by people’s ethnicities because people mixing was the norm. When I was in high school and only hung out with one ethnicity on the rare occasion, I felt something was missing and I asked, “Where’s everyone else?”

I have learned a lot about various cultural practices and history just from conversations with my friends and it was such a rich experience to continue to work with different cultures in my professional life as well. I’ve experienced the vibrancy, expressiveness and passion when I interacted with former colleagues from the Philippines, Mexico, Singapore, Ethiopia and other backgrounds. When I spend time with them, I feel much more openness than from many other people who have grown up in Canada.

People outside of Vancouver city, however, are generally friendlier and more open. I don’t know what it is about the city effect that makes people much more cold.

I met a wonderful married couple a few days ago who came from Iran and they have been living, studying and working in Vancouver for the last 10 years. I have only met them three times in the past few years, but I can tell immediately by their energy that they are extremely modest, hardworking and kind.

The husband told me how it is still challenging to connect with people in Canada, he said, “In Iran people speak respectfully with each other and say hi and bye in the morning. When I say hi and bye to my boss and the people I work with, they don’t even answer.” That made me very angry and this breed of people exemplifies the coldest cultures that exist in Vancouver, and it’s often created and sustained by some company cultures, particularly if you work in law or some accounting departments. Would it really be so detrimental to at least have some courtesy to greet your colleagues in the morning?

I was even more angry to learn that his wife, who is an extremely genuine and kind person, encountered repeated bullying at her work. Her husband told me, “She is such a sweet person and we are very warm people I don’t know why this happened.” I told them if the problem can’t be resolved, they have every right to look for another job and not all companies are like this. There are places with more open people and every place has its own culture.

I’ve cherished all of the people who have spent time with me, helped me and given me gifts from their hearts in Vancouver and around the world. We are all responsible for creating community wherever we are and I want to spread the characteristics of warm and open cultures that I’ve been fortunate to experience wherever I go.

 

Meet Lia, our lovely Couch Surfing host in Palawan

Lia showed us this beautiful painting she did while she was in high school during our city tour.

My friend and I had an unforgettable time in the popular island Palawan, Philippines, largely thanks to our wonderful couch surfing (CS) host Lia. This young woman is nothing short of incredible and gave a lot of her time to show travelers around her home island.

We spent six days couch surfing in Palawan and we were fortunate to see her almost every day. I admire Lia for pushing herself beyond her comfort zone to meet people from different cultures, which, as she explained, made her quite nervous at first.

Among her many other talents, Lia has her own business called Clia Fix and Wear Variety Shoppe, selling custom made products. She has also spent a lot of her time volunteering for environmental conservation projects and also founded the organization Aklat Para Sa Kabataan, which means books for youth in English. At the organization, her team taught children in remote and coastal areas on topics that included health and environment.

Oh yes, and she is also a university graduate who studied petroleum engineering.

I chatted with Lia about her experience as a couch surfing host.

We ran into the Shrek family during Lia’s now famous city tour around Puerto Princesa.

Why did you want to be a CS host?

Four years ago, my friend was a couch surfing host for locals and international travelers and he often invited me to dinners with his couch surfing friends. I found it interesting when they shared their stories, culture and different traveling experiences. But because I didn’t like speaking in English, I just usually stared and listened to their conversation. Despite of my interest, I didn’t continue to be involved couch surfing.

But after a year, I decided to make an account after my amazing trip in Cebu and Bohol (island provinces in the PHilippines). We met some local couch surfers and it was really fun, especially since I didn’t have to worry about my grammar or having to think about English words. The Cebu locals showed us around and ate with us. But even though I had a great time with them, I still didn’t want to be a CS host.

Then last December, my friend who introduced me to CS spoke about his job interview in one of the prominent companies in the oil and gas industry. I asked him how was his job interview went and he said his interview was not stressful. He said being a couch surfing host really helped him a lot and he became more comfortable speaking to foreign people.

At that moment I realized that I had to try to be a host to improve my English and to gain confidence in speaking with other people from other countries. I also love learning about world history and other people’s social life and culture.

This past year, my mission in couch surfing was to answer everyone’s questions about Puerto Princesa (city in Palawan island) and show them the beauty of my place and the people.

Our entire couch surfing family spending an incredible day together at Nagtabon beach, the nicest beach in Palawan.

Have you had any challenges while being a couch surfing host?

Every traveller I’ve met has their own unique story and left me with a unique experience. I guess the challenging experience I had was meeting people who forgot the real meaning or essence of couch surfing and used couch surfing as a dating site.

But of all the people I’ve met, there has only one really challenging couch surfer I hosted and it was my first time hosting. I thought I should not give up and believed not all couch surfers are like the challenging person.

It got easier because I’m much more open and much more confident to talk to people. I realized because there is no difference between Filipino people and people from other countries. Sometimes I felt nervous because I thought some people would feel superior since we are from the developing world.

I believe you should respect others and they will respect you.

Our couch surfing posse ended another fantastic day by watching the Venga Boys ladyboy show in town. Not a bad show for the price of a drink.

You’ve hosted six couch surfers for full days this past week. Where do you get all of your energy from?

I guess my past work helps me as I used to work in research where I had to gather data and talk to people late at night for a week straight. When I was 17 I worked in Dunken Donuts and sometimes had double shifts from 2:00 p.m. to 8:00 a.m.

My colleagues asked me, “You are so energetic, how can you still smile? How can you still walk?” I just answered “I just make myself happy and enjoy what I’m doing.”

What inspired your business?

Maybe it’s in my blood because my family has been running a small business since I was young. We selI daily commodities like vinegar, soy sauce, oil and sugar in small stores in town. I usually do the delivery and customer orders.

When I was in college my brother gave me some money to finance my first business. I choose a lending business but stopped it after two years when I realized that this kind of business is not for me.

Then I started my online and garments business when someone asked for a customized shirts supplier. I tried to be the middle person during that time and organized the orders and it was successful. So I continued to cater a variety of costumized products such as IDs, button, pins, bracelets, lanyards, organizationl shirts, and uniforms and this because my full-time business.

What is your goal for 2014?

I was planning to build an eco travel lodge for travelers in my lot. I want to showcase the real life and culture of indigenous people in Palawan. I want travelers to experience a memorable vacation with the locals at the same time. It will be one of the greatest fulfillment of my life.

We enjoyed the beautiful sunset at Nagtabon beach.

You may also enjoy reading:

 

Delicious Mauritius 101 from slavery to independence

mts

One of the many beautiful beaches in Delicious Mauritius.

I’m just going to do a blanket apology for all future delays in posts because it happens every now and then when I’m caught up catching up with friends and family wherever I am. Sorry. The last two weeks I’ve been posting from my birth country Mauritius, a small island-country 2000 km off the southeast coast of Africa. No, I’m not in Malaysia, Mauritiana or Madagascar. Memory trick: Delicious Mauritius.

Most North Americans have never heard of the country because it literally is a dot on the map, but many Europeans are familiar with Mauritius because it is often a resort heaven and getaway for tourists. But there is so much more richness and diversity than its beaches.

The island is fortunate to be sheltered from the open sea by the world’s third largest coral reef. The island has 330 km of coastline and you can drive across the island within an hour. Not so big.  I was born in the capital Port Louis in 1985 and after a short two years, I moved with my parents to Vancouver, Canada in 1987. I’ve come back to see hundreds of relatives a few times since I moved to Canada and it’s always fun house hopping.

Language and mixed people

My cousin playing with his band at a live show in Quatre Bornes, Mauritius.

English is the official language, but Creole and French are spoken more often every day. Creole is a French-based language, but I compare it to being like French slang. There is no grammatical structure and people write the way they talk. Delicious Mauritius is known for its diversity of people and religions. Hindus, Muslims, Creoles, Chinese and Tamils live side by side relatively peacefully. The diversity is definitely reflected in the variety of food that is sold on the streets and cooked in homes. You can eat food with Creole, European, Chinese, Indian and Muslim influences.

Tourist books will talk about the diversity of Mauritius but of course they won’t tell you about tensions or divisions among different ethnicities. Creole people have been historically marginalized and there are generations of poverty among the creole population that still exist today. I went out with a friend who has grown up in Mauritius and he told me there are even hierarchies among Creole people. I will learn more about the day-to-day dynamics as I spend more time here.

Sometimes I feel a bit disconnected from the past of our ancestors the more I travel because after seeing cultures with strong traditions and maintaining their language, the more obvious it is I am a product of past colonialism. I’m mixed Chinese and Creole (and probably another ethnicity I don’t know about), but I’ve grown up speaking English and French. It’s not that I don’t appreciate those languages, but it’s a reminder of some lost languages as the generations have passed. I really appreciated going to places like Indonesia where there are literally hundreds of languages spoken in the country.

Colonial past

Delicious Mauritius is a very young country that gained independence in 1968. I just learned the country was discovered by  Portuguese navigator Don Pedro Mascarenhas in 1505, but Portuguese people did not settle on the island. The Dutch colonized Mauritius from 1638 to 1710 and left Mauritius after to a neighbouring island called Reunion.

In 1715 the French renamed Mauritius Ile de France (French Island) in that period. Like in Reunion and the West Indes, French created a plantation economy in Mauritius built on slave labour. By 1777, 85% of the population were slaves from West and East Africa, Madagascar and India.

In 1810 the British took over the island and by the 1830s, slavery was abolished and plantation owners began bringing Indian labourers to replace them and they would soon become the majority on the island. Because they were isolated from the British and French-speaking elite, they took up creole as their day to day language.

Making more friends

Wonderful girls I’ve recently met who are very fun to hang out with and know all the great beaches and local spots.

The last few times I’ve been to Mauritius, I’ve always just stayed with my relatives, whom I love seeing and are extremely hospitable. For this trip I want to also expand my circles and meet more people from other cultures here and spend more time learning about their lives the way I did with people in Asia. It’s really fascinating to watch Indians, Chinese, mixed and black people all speak Creole around the island, it’s quite a fun language. I mostly speak French but I’m trying my best to learn Creole while I’m here.

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.

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.

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

IMG_2928

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

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

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

IMG_6313

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_4052

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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