It just so happened that I flew to London on my mum’s 70th birthday. Originally from England, she hasn’t been back since she left in 1966, at 17 years old. Like my brother did at my age, I decided to take the trip down to the town where my mum spent her childhood. I wanted to walk the streets and get a feel for the place, it seemed fitting that if I couldn’t be in New Zealand to celebrate my mum’s 70th, I could at least go and visit the place she grew up.
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.
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.
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.
I do love Southeast Asia. Something about the organised chaos and beautiful food keeps drawing me back. This is my third time visiting, but for some reason I’m seeing things very differently than I have on previous trips. I’ve been here for three weeks, and traveled from Bangkok to Vientiane, via Luang Prabang and some smaller cities along the way. It’s really stuck out to me just how many tourists there are here. Perhaps it’s been to do with the places that I’m staying, or perhaps my perception has changed in some way; I’m more comfortable in my surroundings and I’m past all of the culture shock so perhaps I approach things with different eyes. Basically what I’m trying to say is that you go to a new city, you stay in a particular area and you just get trapped inside of this little tourist bubble. I feel like I walk for miles to find local food (I’m sick of eating pancakes for breakfast), and any attraction I go to is just thronged with tourists. Where did the real Asia go?
Everything you need for a good night?
Vang Vieng is a prime example of what I’m trying to describe in words. It’s probably one of the most picturesque places that I’ve been. Its a tiny wee town surround by mountains with a river that winds through. It’s breathtakingly gorgeous. The primary tourist attraction there consists of hiring a tube and floating down the river, stopping at numerous bars along the way, taking drugs and partying all night. It’s quite sad to think that this tiny towns economic existence is based on the want of backpackers to party with other backpackers for days on end. I realize that everybody has different ideas of fun, but I just don’t understand this kind of tourism. This obviously isn’t the only type of tourism around, there are plenty activities, ranging from kayaking to caving to cooking classes to temple visits.
Vang Vieng, Laos
Backpackers watch Friends and Family Guy all day to recover from tubing
By staying in these areas and simply by being here I am contributing to these cultural adaptations, and the growth of these areas. There are quite a few places run by expats, and the locals are providing services that must be their interpretation of what tourists want; perhaps they are spot on, because a lot of these places are packed with people. I am internally conflicted because just because I don’t like to do something, doesn’t mean that it’s stupid or a waste of time for somebody that enjoys it. We’re all different after all. Tourism of any form also contributes a lot to the local economy here. I find it funny that I find this environment offensive, when it’s essentially the same as Chinatown in a western city, which I think is super cool. It’s definitely all about perspective.
I suppose I should admit here to being a sucker for western style coffee shops. I like to take my laptop/journal/book and just chill, so I suppose you could say that these places really do cater for what I want.
At least the food is good. Tom Yam for breakfast.
Tofu Massaman with Pumpkin
So what have I been up to? On a few recommendations I stayed near Khaosan Road in Bangkok. Oh my god, please don’t ever go here. It’s a few streets designated to partying and drinking. It boasts 90% western restaurants and fake ID shops, absolutely all prices everywhere are inflated. I found this funny website about The Khaosan, it actually sums it up perfectly. I did however find The Khaosan is a different world at 7am. I spoke to lovely Monks walking the streets collecting their daily Alms, and was treated to a street breakfast by a local couple on their way to work.
Stock up on fake ID’s? PhD, perhaps?
I overnight trained to Chiang Mai, a small city in Northern Thailand. It’s such a nice place that a lot of tourists stay for months on end, doing 10 hour visa runs to the border every 60 days. It’s a bit of a backpacker hub, which makes it quite comfortable. Most people have a small grasp of English and you can find anything you want. It’s still super cheap. 100 Baht per night for a nice enough dorm bed ($3-4) and meals are about $2. The place I stayed (Big & O’s house) was run by some really cool Thai guys, and I met some nice people here. Harry, a chef from Ireland eating his way through Asia (sounds familiar), directed me to a fantastic local restaurant tucked away inside a drug store, and told me what I needed to order in Thai. Best Thai food I’ve ever had. I genuinely believe 80% of the food we see as ‘Thai food’ is generally not what local people eat in Thailand.
Gang Om. Lightly spiced curry with beautifully tender meat. Served with sticky rice.
Lap. Meat voraciously chopped with two large knives, until it becomes close to minced texture. Normally served raw.
Armed with a couple of new travel buddies, I made my way to Luang Prabang via slow boat, overnighting in Huay Xai and Pak Beng (both in Laos). Huay Xai was a sleepy little border town, which I really liked. Pak Being was hilarious. It serves purely as an overnight accommodation town for slow boat travelers and consists of a single street lined with guest houses and restaurants. Despite being a town for the slow boats, there is no dock and you jump off the boat and climb up a hill of sand with your bag. 3 minutes after getting off the boat I was offered ’smoking’ (read: opium), then not long afterward a very excitable guest house owner wanted us to come to his bar for Happy Shakes (read: mushrooms). He described his bar’s happy hour as, “Happy happy, too much, many hour!” With, “Whiskey more and more and more.” Which I think means free refills.
Mekong sunset at Huay Xai
Slow boats at Pak Beng
Like Hoi An in Vietnam, Luang Prabang has a lot of pretty French Colonial architecture, and is nice to walk or cycle around. As such it is a tourist haven with almost no indication that you are in Laos. Harry and I took the local ferry across the river and walked out to a village a few kilometers away. As soon as you cross the river there is a drastic change in scenery. Gone are the paved roads and buildings, and in are the dusty streets with wild dogs, lined with wooden shacks. We walked in on a family having their lunch in the village, we weren’t sure if it was a shop or not, but we asked the lady for some soup anyway. She cooked us a delicious noodle soup with what looked like the leftovers of her family lunch. We learnt some Lao, “Pep, pep!” As we high-fived with the kids.
The BBQ in the centre of town was amazing
Much pork belly was consumed
I continued on alone to Vang Vieng, where I cycled around the town a little, but mostly spent some time resting my leg. Vang Vieng is the tubing town I described earlier, surrounded by beautiful mountains. The day I left I went on a sunrise hot air balloon ride, which was spectacular. It was my first time ballooning, and to be honest, it isn’t really a safe feeling. It’s also not as peaceful as I imagined, as the burners are super loud and are going 90% of the time. Even so, I really enjoyed it.
Vientiane I found interesting. It’s the capital city, and feels similar to Saigon, except much less hectic. I felt like I could blend in with local life a little more here. The food was interesting too, a mish-mash of Southern Chinese, Vietnamese, and Thai food. I went to the COPE Center, which is where they make prosthetics for Laotians. Obviously I found this ridiculously interesting, especially seeing all the hand made legs that people wore for years and years, I cannot even imagine. I was also lucky enough to pick up food poisoning in Vientiane, so stayed for a few days before heading to Phnom Penh via plane. I wouldn’t really recommend food poisoning, but to only get food poisoning one time given the amount of things I’ve eaten, I’m definitely still ahead. I’m staying at a friend’s apartment in Phonm Penh for a few more days while I finish my TEFL certification and find somewhere to volunteer.