Having now spent a considerable amount of time in Singapore (almost three weeks total!), I’ve developed quite a soft spot for Singapore as one of my favourite places to eat. As a tourist Singapore is a great city to hang out in. It’s modern, but still boasts a lot of culture with places like Chinatown, Little India and Joo Chiat; it’s clean, but still has old-style eateries (Hawker centres); and it’s hot so girls don’t wear too many clothes (personal preference).
The sheer number of options when you find yourself standing in the middle of a busy Hawker Centre can be a little intimidating, so with all the foods I’ve eaten here it seemed only logical that I put together some sort of basic what’s what and where to give you a head start on your next one day stopover in the garden state. Because I’m a cheapskate, I almost exclusively eat in Hawker Centers. I’m sure Singapore has a bustling restaurant scene, I just know nothing about it.
After chaotic India, I was thinking about doing something a bit more calming during my time in Burma. As the birth place of meditation, it seemed that this was an obvious choice of relaxing activities. By chance, I had met a guy in Cambodia who told me about a Buddhist centre he stayed at just outside of Yangon. It was a bit more alternative, and I liked the unlikeliness in which I had met him, so decided to pay the place a visit.
My guesthouse owner wrote for me in Burmese the name of the area I was trying to get to, and I boarded a local bus. On the bus ride I met a software student from the local university. She said her dream was to be a DJ in a club, and she was just getting a degree to make her parents happy. She was very curious as to where I was going, and why I wanted to learn about meditation.
India blew me away, and exceeded my expectations. People I meet often tell me that India is both the best and worst experience of their life. In the media and via word of mouth India is perceived as a dangerous country; somewhere you will be robbed, stabbed or raped. A place where everyone is out to get you. But personally, I felt more unsafe at 7pm on the streets of Manhattan than I did at 1am on the streets of Delhi. In this post I will attempt to provide you with a different perspective. I hope to capture the wonder and delights, the quirks and idiosyncrasies; a small part of the essence that makes India so special, so India.
I spent a week in Delhi, much longer than I intended, while waiting to get a visa for Myanmar. Other than the spice market, and the nice Couchsurfer I met up with to eat the best Thali ever, Delhi was a bit lackluster.
After a some quick talking around the fact that I didn’t have an exit flight from India, I finally cleared customs in Chennai. I stepped out of the shabby airport and into a humid 35 degrees. I had organised to stay with a Couchsurfing host, but I needed a phone to contact him. The airport had no facilities, so I decided to head out. It was 2pm and I had no phone, no wifi, and no idea where I was going. I entered the throng of rickshaw drivers and earnestly proclaimed, “Take me to the internet!”
After some discussion on where the heck I wanted to go, I was dropped a couple of kilometers away in a nearby suburb. The driver pointed to sign that read that read ‘internet’ on the second floor across the street. As I climbed the dark stairwell, and made my way along the drab corridor with the peeling paint, I wondered if I were about the be robbed, or stabbed. Is this one of those situations people tell you to watch out for? I entered the internet shop and the woman pointed to two computers that looked like they would struggle to boot Windows 95, and asked me for my passport. Not convinced that I was going to be able to do anything with my whatsapp messages in this place, I left and devised a new plan: obtain a sim card.
On the way from Japan to India, I decided to stop by Hong Kong for a couple of days. I had no expectations for Hong Kong, and I left very impressed. A few days before leaving Japan I managed to organise some couch surfing for 3 nights in Hong Kong. Calvin, my host, kindly gave up his bed in his apartment in Kowloon whilst I was staying. He also took two days off from work to show me around. It soon became clear that I was in for a two-day whirlwind tour of Hong Kong.
I celebrated my birthday by waking up early and taking a 7am bus from Osaka to Hiroshima. Some might think it sad to spend 6 hours of their birthday on a bus, but I had a great time. Like everything else in japan, the buses are marvelous – comfortable seating and smooth, straight roads. I listened to podcasts, and every hour or so the bus stopped and I hopped out to eat some Takoyaki, it was a pretty relaxing day.
From the moment I landed in Haneda airport, I was stunned by how amazing Japan seemed. I arrived after the last train into the city, and hadn’t booked anywhere to stay, so I decided to sleep at the airport. I had my first bowl of Soba (even Japanese airport food is spectacular), and walked around looking for a suitable spot. I found a few Japanese salarymen sleeping on some hardwood benches, so I took up a bench for myself. I’m not used to sleeping on solid wood – or in an open airport – and I didn’t sleep all that well, but I did save a lot of money on the after hours bus to town and the last minute hotel I would have had to pay for. As I woke at 6am to strangers walking around me, leg off and sprawled out on the bench, I thought to myself that I must be a real backpacker now.
I haven’t done all that much since I last posted, but what I have done has been really enjoyable. After I left Chiro Village I spent a couple of days recouping and eating Western food in Phnom Penh before heading out to see some more of Cambodia. My intended plan was to head south to Kampot for a few days, and then go west to Battambang and back to Phnom Penh. Almost as soon as I landed in Kampot, those plans began to unravel.
Coffee and pinwheel
Kampot is a sleepy riverside town only 3-4 hours south of Phnom Penh, and on entry I was struck by one of the coolest roundabouts that I’ve seen. I negotiated a fair price to a hostel with a friendly tuk-tuk driver and settled into my hostel. I left the hostel as the sun was beginning to set, and walked alongside the river into town. Though the riverside town is cute and comfortable, it’s certainly a backpacker hangout, not a local thing. I’m usually adverse to this, but this place had a quaint charm to it. I walked past a movie theatre slash dumpling shop, a restaurant ‘voted best ribs – Phnom Penh Post’, and a lot of cool looking bars and cafes.
Kampot’s Durian roundabout, with Lychees
Sunset over ther river, Kampot
I met up with a friend I’d made in Chiang Mai, and joined him and some others for a moto ride up Bokor Mountain, which turned out to be super cool. It was a cool one hour ride to the top of the mountain, and scattered along the way were various buildings left abandoned by the French colonialists, who had a town at the top of the mountain. We stopped to explore the abandoned structures, which consisted of houses, a church, and a 75% complete casino. Yes, that’s right; an abandoned casino at the top of a mountain. Super cool. What wasn’t so cool was the gigantic casino, hotel, city complex that the Chinese are constructing at the top of the mountain. Based on the number of people up there, and the deserted car park, I would guess it’s running at about 2% capacity. Unfortunately it was very cloudy that day, so I didn’t get to view what I imagine is a breathtaking view.
Fertility Shrine (?), Bokor Hill Station
Abandoned house, Bokor Hill Station
The eerie church, Bokor Hill Station
The abandoned casino, Bokor Hill Station
There is also a waterfall up the mountain, which at this time of the year is dry. I’ve never seen such a big waterfall completely dry, and found it humbling, at the top of a mountain, to sit on rocks where waters normally flow forcefully. I felt small and insignificant sitting next to mother nature and world.
Waterfall, Bokor Hill Station
At this point I was loving Kampot, and planned to stay for several more days and explore other exciting areas of the region. But then I was told of a small island in the south with only 3 guesthouses, one which will let you rent a hammock. The island is quiet and deserted, and you can have your own private beach. This sounded too good to be true, so 20 minutes later I found myself in a van headed to Sihanoukville, to see for myself. Sihanoukville has a reputation for being a party town, so I skipped it completely, grabbing a tuk-tuk to Otres Beach. Otres Beach was nice, if a little seedy. The beach is lined with guesthouses, ranging from nice bungalows to crappy guesthouses, to restaurants. All open out to the golden beach, with a constant perfect breeze blowing in off the water. I managed to find a private room for $6 (so cheap for this area), albeit a major crap hole. My room was on the second level of a rickety bamboo structure, loosely connected by a pathway of planks of wood. The whole second level shook whenever anybody walked around, I did wonder if a strong wind could bring it down.
The next morning I found the right spot on the beach to catch the boat to Koh Ta Kiev. There’s no dock, so I waded out to the boat with my bag, climbing on board for the 40 minute ride to the island. Once I arrived, I grabbed a hammock and set out along the beach to find myself a secluded spot. I walked up and down the beach until I found a nice spot right on the beach with two overhanging tree branches to tie up my hammock. I set up, went for a swim, and then kicked back in afternoon sun. Pure magic. This is essentially how I spent the next 5 days on the island, walking back to the bar to eat food (I didn’t have to catch and cook my own food). There were probably about 15 people staying while I was there, I met some nice people and we ate some great food. One night we took a boat ride out to watch the sunset, and swim in the dark with bioluminescent plankton, which was a pretty surreal experience. No photos, unfortunately.
My home for the last week, Koh Ta Kiev
Raft, check. Wilson?
My setup for rain. Yes, I built that table
My private beach, Koh Ta Kiev
Another hammock setup
Now I’m back in Phnom Penh for the last time, waiting to catch my flight to Tokyo tomorrow. I managed to forget to renew my Cambodian Visa, and am going to have to pay $110 in overstay fees when I leave the country, whoops. Cambodia has been great, once again. It was nice to spend so much time here, I no longer feel like I have unfinished business. All in all, the people here are beautiful, kind, and welcoming. If you took Cambodia’s people and gave them Vietnam’s food, I’d be very sad to leave. A lightbulb that I had at some point during my time in Cambodia was realising what my reasons for travelling are: 50% food, 30% culture, 20% sights. Since that realisation, I’ve enjoyed my travel far more, opting to do things that make me tick, rather than whatever everybody else (or tripadvisor) thinks is good.
I’m so freaking excited for Japan. First I’ll get to see Alexa, and then I’ll get to eat all the delicious Japanese food that my stomach can take. Standby for food porn.
It’s been a while between posts, so this one will be a bit longer. I’m still in Cambodia, and have spent the last month in a rural Cambodian village, 6km outside of the city of Kampong Cham. I’ve been working as a volunteer English teacher at OBT, a locally owned and operated NGO which provides free English, Maths and music classes to local children. I found OBT on workaway, while I was in Phnom Penh. I teach 4-5 classes a day, and help with general things like answering emails and updating the website. I stay with a local family in a bamboo house who feed me two meals a day, and much to my own surprise, I am finally sick of eating like a local.
Most mornings I begin to stir at 6am, noise hitting me from all sides. Trucks, tractors, and ox carts drive by; birds chirp, and voices chatter. Smoke from the fires of people cooking their breakfasts seeps through the bamboo slats, pulling me from my sleep. At 6:30 I get up and cross the road to eat breakfast. I’m not really hungry yet, but they stop serving breakfast at 7am. As per usual the white man with one leg and a ginger beard gets a lot of attention from the locals. I take a seat at the breakfast shop and they ask me what I want, I think; they speak in Khmer. I point at another bowl, then rub my stomach. They repeat a word, like a question, “Bo bo?” “Baaaht, aw kun.” I reply. Yes, thank you. They serve me up some fishy rice porridge and add the condiments. I eat in silence as the kids stand and look curiously at my leg, most too shy to touch it. I finish eating and hand over what I’m expecting the meal to cost. They give me change and I calculate the cost of the meal. 25 cents.
The local breakfast spot
Inspecting the pot of Bo bo
My first class of the day is 8-9am, with early teens ranging from 11-13 years old. After class I’m free until 2pm, so I plan lessons, read, sleep, or ride a bicycle around the village. We eat lunch sometime between 10:30am and midday. My classes from 2-5pm are a mix of ages from 7 to 12. All of my classes in the afternoon have a local assistant to help me with any translations that are required, which is sometimes a pain because they translate too much, and the kids don’t need to try to understand what I’m saying. In the evening I generally have either conversation class, or 2-3 times a week I teach Business English to the District Governors outside of the city. (Apparently I’m a Business English teacher now, too.) On the weekends we all pile into a van and go to the city where the kids play music and dance on a tourist boat. One of my other roles as a volunteer is to mingle with the tourists and give a speech to everyone about OBT. Apparently donations go up by about 60% when a volunteer does the speech. I have some very fond memories of those loud, hot, bumpy van rides – yelling and singing a lot of the way.
Into the van!
Girls singing traditional Khmer songs
Who can’t swing a wooden drum around with his teeth?
Learning to teach was an interesting experience. I had completed an online TEFL course, which was essentially useless – I would have been better off keeping the money. My first class I was handed a piece of paper with vocabulary on it, and said to go, so I went with it; jumping like a frog and roaring like a lion. With my more advanced morning class I graduated to teaching things like comparative adjectives and some basic grammar. All in all, I’m pleased with the progress that I’ve made and what I was able to do. I do feel that it would have been of great benefit to have some actual training, as I’m sure I could be doing a lot better. Things were made more difficult by the classes often containing students of varying levels of proficiency, meaning I had to choose between teaching toward either 70% or 30% of the class. The classes in the afternoon are very hot. The afternoons can get up to 37 degrees, and I’m usually dripping sweat.
Finishing up with some Hangman
Village life is interesting. I shower from a bucket of cold water from the Mekong, which I also use to wash my clothes. There are always things happening, motorbikes zooming past, cars honking their horns as they drive through the village. Kids run around, some clothed, others not; people cook, people shower outside, underneath their houses. Most of the villagers are farmers, and can often be seen peeling corn husks or carrying baskets of vegetables from the fields. About 200 families live in the village, and about 10,000 in the general commune. There are a lot of people around, but everyone knows each other. The area that I’m in is all populated by members of the same family. 10 houses or more on each side of the street. I find it fun to think about who looks more like who as they walk by. It’s also very isolated, as a bike ride into town takes about 40 minutes. It’s not too far, it’s just so hot, and the bikes are so clunky, that you really need a good reason to go. I’ve only been about 3 times. As such, I am limited to what I can eat based on what is sold in the village. There are a couple of shops which sell some little snacks, generally Vietnamese crisps and nuts or fruit, but there are no restaurants. The people here don’t go to restaurants, so they simply don’t exist.
Being so isolated has made me miss some things. I haven’t felt homesick exactly, but it’s the closest that I’ve come so far. While life isn’t uncomfortable here, I do miss the general comforts of Western culture. I miss coffee (that’s right, no coffee this month), and I miss variety. I miss being able to choose what I eat, and at what time.
Taking a break at the beach
Enjoying some Lemon Tea in the heat
Now, the food situation. When I first got here there were four other volunteers, and we ate some really nice food. They left after a week, and I was by myself for the rest of the time. The food by myself was quite different. The family was serving me what they would normally eat, rather that what they cook for volunteers. Being all about authentic cultural experiences, I was right into it. We had small fried river fish, chopped tomatoes and chili. We ate soups, grilled eggplant, and baby sweet corn. It was always served with rice and it was all reasonably tasty, but there was one problem. Prahok. Prahok is essentially a fish paste which is fermented. It’s made by chopping up Mudfish and then putting it in a jar for 2-3 days. After the fish swells you drain the liquid and wash the fish, then return to the jar, this time with salt, for 6 months or more. The jars sit in the kitchen, and the kitchen stinks. What is left over is an extremely strong, fishy paste. It turns out Prahok is the corner stone of the village Khmer’s dinner table, the eleventh herb and spice. The first time I tasted it, I liked it. It was mixed with pork mince, ginger, chili and lime. Apparently this is still not authentic, and they normally just eat it as it comes. It also seems to make it’s way into every soup or curry. I’m normally a seafood fanatic, but this is too strong even for my tastes. I’m a little embarrassed to say that I’m looking forward to chowing down on some Western food back in Phnom Penh. Maybe a burger, or a cheese steak.
Prahok, small fried fish, and corn
Curried egg and pig bood soup
This month seemed to be wedding season. I have lost count of the number of weddings that have happened while I was here, but I attended two, and was invited to one more. It’s the kind of thing you always hope for when you are traveling, a local inviting you to something that is just super local. The weddings were fun. I put on a pair of pants (the first pair in a long time) and a long sleeve shirt, and we head off down the road in a tuk tuk. We were handed lollipops upon entry, and I gave a $10 gift and walked past the blaring speakers with tables in front of them. We were given a bag of ice for the table, and a few cans of beer. I call them the never-ending cans of beer, because once we started pouring, there were endless amounts of people coming over to toast with us.”Chul muoy, chul muoy!” We yell as we bang our glasses together. A local kid sits behind us cutting up a slab of ice with a machete (there is no refrigeration, so the beers are warm).The food fare was grand, stacks of lovely meat and seafood, a whole cooked chicken in beautiful sauce, stir fried noodles with more meat, pork (or dog?) and rice. Lots of rice. We eat for what feels like a long time before joining the dance floor. One of the weddings was right underneath my floor. The mega loud speakers were shaking the house for two days straight.
Long line for the fruit offering
The tents have taken over my front dust patch
We dance the Romvong around a table in front of a stage. On the stage there is a young group hired to sing and dance. They dance modern style, with sensuality. On the side, a crowd of people gather on the side of the road and watch us dancing under the tent, they all have straight faces. It’s all an odd mix of contrasts, but a lot of fun.
Here’s a short video of the Romvong, email readers please click here to watch the video.
My homestay mum, Sokah, is a Math teacher at the local Khmer school, so often doesn’t have time to cook. If she’s not around, one of her 8 children will do the cooking instead, while her husband smokes cigarettes and watches TV. One time when I tried to take my plates to the kitchen, I was told not to do it – because I was a boy. The family and community dynamic here is so interesting. Once children are of a certain age, maybe 7, they basically are expected to take care of themselves. They make sure they eat enough, from whichever house, they bathe themselves outside in the well water, and they get themselves to sleep and school. The sleeping arrangements are interesting, children don’t necessarily sleep in their own houses. It’s very acceptable to just sleep wherever. One of the boys here, Rosa, sleeps on the bamboo floor because he says he doesn’t like the bed. Often there are children that are not Sokah’s eating and sleeping here, and likewise her children are not always here. It’s feels like a big community where everyone takes care of each other. Children don’t seem to have a lot of rules, but likewise are not lacking in respect for their elders.
Burning money in the lounge on Chinese New Year
Here’s a video of some of my kids goofing around with my GoPro after class. Email readers click here.
All in all it’s been a fantastic experience coming here. When you’re traveling around, never spending more than 4-5 days in one place, it feels like a long time to sit down for a month. But even giving a month feels like almost nothing when I compare it to how many more months of education these children need. Places like this need people to come for longer. I’ve read a fair bit about the psychological effects of short terms volunteering on children, and tried to be mindful, trying to maintain emotional distance. I feel like it is hard at times, when they’re as wonderful as they are. More than a cultural experience, it was also an experience in people. People can be really something, and I’ve been truly humbled by some of the people I’ve met. Living this life, even for a short period makes me very aware of how fantastic life in a Western country really is. There are so many things that we could do without, and I hope that this will drive me to make some basic changes to my own life and habits. I’m not exactly sad to be leaving, as I’m ready to move on. But a part of me feels like I could, or should do more.
I’m spending 10 more days in Cambodia before I fly to Tokyo to meet Alexa. Many fun times still ahead.