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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
America wasn’t high on my list of places to see. In actual fact, I’m not sure it was really even on my list. I’m generally a lot more interested in places that have e very different culture than I am used to. Funnily enough though, after Alexa returned home to California, America very quickly shot to the top of my travel list.
Apart from my 3 week excursion to the East Coast, most of my time in the United States was spent in California. From the moment I landed, I was actually confronted with how different America is from New Zealand. You might even say I was experiencing culture shock to a certain extent. To start with I would have to say that, like New York, LA is just like you see on TV. Wide streets, low sunsets, expensive cars, and valet parking. I however did not catch any celebrities on the street. The plus-tax-plus-tip culture is strange and annoying, and you have to do your own table service in cafes (remind me why I’m tipping?). I was also surprised by how often Americans were not able to understand words that I would say, or be confused by words I was using; words like “serviette” and “take-away” (“napkin” and “to-go”).
I’ll be honest, after my first visit to LA I left feeling pretty lousy about the place. I think a lot of it was my mindset going in. I was expecting not to like it. Everybody (inside and outside of America) bags it, and I think I had already resigned myself to the fact that I was going to this place I automatically didn’t like. I visited Hollywood Boulevard (people actually like this stuff?) and went to Tommy Burger (again, really?), and was annoyed by the fact that you have to drive (don’t even attempt public transport) for 40 minutes to get basically anywhere.
Fast forward through Thanksgiving – yum! Jump over the East Coast and I’m back again before and after Christmas. This time around, I cleared the slate, giving LA a fresh chance to capture my eye. And capture it I think it did. I got used to driving around, to standing outside restaurants for an hour, to free right turns on red lights. Here are a few things that I now really appreciate about LA, and am keen to go back and enjoy.
All you can eat BBQ for $15-$30 (depending on how many options you want). If you go with a few people you can get through a lot, and it’s all delicious. You sit at a table with a communal grill, cooking and eating.
Boba (Bubble Tea)
Not normally my thing, but I’m super into it. It’s sweet green tea, with ice and milk, and tapioca pearls (sort of a chewy gelatinous thing) and the bottom. Apparently a lot of people don’t like it because they are weirded out by having lollies in their drink. Thanks for the new found sugar addiction, America.
This isn’t LA specific, but deserves a mention. Alexa once told me that the things she missed most from America were Amazon Prime and Trader Joe’s, and I get it now (on both parts). It’s hard to explain why a grocery store (supermarket) can be so good, so I won’t try.
Everyone in America uses Yelp, an app for your phone which allows people to review restaurants and cafes (imagine TripAdvisor on steroids). As such, when picking a place to eat or hang out, Yelp takes us to all different parts of the city. A lot of the neighborhoods are very different, which makes visiting different ones quite fun. It reminds me a bit of Melbourne in this manor. (I wonder if anyone will yell at me for comparing LA to Melbourne.)
We spent Christmas in San Jose (an hour from San Francisco). I had PRK eye surgery (I dare you to youtube it) and subsequently slept through Christmas. I could actually hardly open my eyes for about 4 days. Big shout out to Alexa’s mom Tina for all the amazing Japanese foods that she cooked for us while we were there. Those of you who get my Snapchats must have been proper jealous.
After Christmas we spent a few days in San Francisco (apparently it’s bad form to say ‘San Fran’), where we walked the streets (read: hiked the hills) and loitered in hipster cafes serving flat whites. We also went to Cirque du Soleil. It was my first time and even though my eyes weren’t the best, it was such an amazing show. Definitely a must-see. I thought San Francisco was a super cool city, with a really nice feel to it. It also has one of the best Chinatowns I’ve been to.
Driving back down to LA was also wonderful. We took the Pacific Coast Highway, stopping in Santa Cruz, Monterey and Santa Barbara. The Pacific Coast Highway is a stretch of road on the edge of cliffs, with many spots to pull over and take in the wonderful views. We were lucky enough to have perfect weather the entire trip down. We drank the best milkshake I’ve ever had (chocolate, peanut butter, and banana) at a vegan-hipster diner in Santa Cruz, and ate Acai (ah-sah-ee) bowls in Santa Barbara.
Back in LA I tried my hand at Crossfit (I placed second overall in the session, so I’m basically a monster), drank fancy coffee (what we would call regular coffee in New Zealand) and stocked up on dates with Alexa before the next round of LDR. I ate a lot of food in America, and basically everything has sugar in it. One of the things I really liked was the sheer variety of options. Wherever we were, there always seemed to be any type of food that we wanted to eat. I managed to gain a few pounds, and definitely left with a sugar addiction. Despite it being winter, the coldest it ever got was about 10 degrees; most of the time the temperature was between 15 and 20 degrees, with only one day of rain while I was there. Some winter, huh.
I’m writing this from a cute little cafe in The Khaosan, Bangkok, waiting to take a train up to Chiang Mai. My life is pretty spectacular. I think I’d be jealous if I read my blog.
Welcome to 2015. I’d like to kick the year off by sharing a story, a Lollipop moment of mine. A Lollipop moment is a moment where someone said something, or did something, that fundamentally made your life better. If this is the first you’re hearing of this, I would encourage you to watch the 6 minute TEDx video below.
It feels like a long time ago since my last trip to Southeast Asia, I guess a lot has happened in the year gone by. I remember strolling through the ruins of Angkor Wat; trekking the rice paddy ridden plains of Sapa, and sailing the beautiful vistas of Halong Bay, pondering what to do with my life. At the time I was thinking about smaller, more trivial things, like whether or not to sell my house or switch jobs. It wasn’t until an unlikely day in Malaysia that I started to think beyond the mundane.
On a one-day stopover in Kuala Lumpur on the tail end of my SE Asia trip I found myself at KL Sentral, waiting on the platform for the train to take me to Batu caves. It’s quite easy to spot other travellers in an Asian-dominated city, and as such I found myself chatting to a friendly American by the name of Jared. We boarded the train and quickly realised that we were headed to the same place, so I was introduced to the 5 other friends he had made in his dorm room that morning. So there we were: three Americans, a Chinese girl, an Irishman, an Aussie and a Kiwi; instant travel buddies, exchanging stories and ideas about life. We had a fun day touring the caves and lunching in Chinatown, floating around the plentiful KL malls, with equally plentiful Air Conditioning. We were all quite keen to see the Petronas towers at night, so we headed to KLCC via the underground mall complexes.
It was on one of the lower levels of a mall, waiting for the girls to finish their toilet stop that a life-changing conversation was struck. Astounded at the idea that these people were travelling for months and years on end, and confronted with the harsh reality that I was mere days away from being back in my comfortable office job in Wellington, I remarked at how jealous I was that I couldn’t do the same. Jared didn’t blink, and responded.
My job, my house, my cat, my life. Duh, Jared, come on. How can I leave all of that? At the time this genuinely was how I felt, for some reason I didn’t see my life as something fluid, that I could change and mould. Perhaps in a way I even saw it as giving up on all the things that I’d worked hard to achieve.
Jared continued, “You’re still young, and if you want them later, they will all be there when you’re done living your life.” It was as if someone had just lifted the shades off my eyes, and I could see everything clearly. Those things I’d worked so hard to acquire, the things in my life that I considered high value, they didn’t make me happy at all.
There’s something about travelling that makes you more honest. Perhaps it’s the lack of familiar surroundings, or the extension of comfort zone, or being on a break from normal life, I’m not exactly sure. But I noticed it, a lot, and not just with myself. Everyone I met would tell me their entire life stories, and share their deepest hopes and dreams with me. I feel like I formed stronger relationships than I have back home with people I spent a day with, people I’m still in touch with and will continue to be into the future. I was more honest with myself and with others than I have been in the last 10 years of my life.
Those words, “Do they make you happy?” Continued to stick with me after I got home from my trip. A few weeks back into real life I decided that enough was enough. I made a pact with myself to finish doing up my house, and to sell it. To walk away from my wonderful job and to leave Wellington, at least for a while. The world was calling to me, and I had to respond. I set myself a goal of September, 2014. I achieved this on November 21, as I said my goodbyes and boarded a plane bound for LAX with nothing but a suitcase to my name. On Monday I’m heading to Thailand, and beyond the first couple of hostel nights I’ve booked – who knows. I wonder if I will ever be as free as I am in this period of my life. I have no responsibilities, and although I don’t have fleshed-out plan for the future, I feel very much in control of my life.
Jared has spent a lot of time travelling the world, and recently spent 2 months in India, one of which was spent training as a Yoga instructor before heading home to California. It wasn’t until two weeks after he got back to California that he was in a bad traffic accident, and unable to walk for 8 weeks. My brother Rick has a fitting saying for this type of thing, “If you’re born to be shot, you won’t drown.” It really makes me appreciate how short our lives can be, never fully in control of what happens next. So living for the now is something that I need to do, at least for a while. I told Jared how much what he said had impacted on my decision to leave New Zealand. Just like Drew Dudley, he had almost no recollection of the conversation, and encouraged me to document it for him. I hope to one day inspire somebody else to do something that makes them so happy.
Growing up in the 90s, my image of New York was based on Home Alone, TMNT and the odd episode of Sex in the City (you know, when it was on in the background). Numbered streets and Avenues; bagels, donuts and pizza; Central Park and the Empire State building. Having spent a week in NYC I can successfully confirm that it is exactly like the TV shows and movies. From the gorgeously quaint Upper East Side, to the madness of Times Square, to the beautiful tranquility of Central Park, to the food. New York really doesn’t disappoint.
Let me start off by saying that I could have easily spent more time. A week was a great amount of time, but there are basically unlimited amounts of things to do in the city. And that’s just the city, I didn’t even make it out to Jersey or Long Island. Roll the highlight reel.
By far my favourite place in NYC. Central Park is gigantic, spanning over 50 streets and 3 avenues. I didn’t even have time to explore more than half of the Park. Walking around was beautiful, there are so many trees and ponds, with squirrels running all around. People walk their dogs or run around, escaping the hustle bustle of the big city. One of the hostels that I stayed in was only a block away, so I ate breakfast in the park each day I was there.
As some of you will know, I’m a massive fan of Donuts. I used to be a big fan of Dunkin’ Donuts. But no more. I’ve tasted the real thing, and I might not be able to go back. I spent some time compiling a list of about 10 different donut stores around Manhattan and Brooklyn that I wanted to visit while I was there. I even took a one hour train ride out to deep Brooklyn to try Shaikh’s Donuts on a recommendation. Oh, boy, was that a worthwhile trip. Not only were the Donuts amazing, but they were dirt cheap too. I picked up 2 donuts and a coffee for only $2.40, what a steal. I estimate that I’ve eaten 10+ donuts in the last week.
No NYC list would be complete without a mention of Pizza. Sold by the slice, you can’t walk a block without seeing someone chowing down on one, folded in half because they are so big. I’m not normally a big Pizza fan, but I ate a lot of different pizzas. A lot of the places were super cheap, some selling slices at 99c. Some of the better ones ranged from $3-6 per slice. The base is slim, but not thin, crunchy but still floppy, and it’s heated just enough for the cheese to be melted.
Riding the NYC subway was such a novelty for me. I’ve seen it on TV so much, and heard so many things, so it almost felt nostalgic to be a part of it. I can confirm that you see some pretty weird things on the subway. Every now and again, if you are lucky, you will get a busker on your train. That’s right – the busker is inside of your carriage! My first experience of this was a lady with a guitar and a baby strapped to her back, rocking out Mumford & Sons in between stops. I also saw barbershop quartets, homeless people telling elaborate stories, and heard about a group of acrobatic kids who do flips and tricks on the hand rails in between longer stops.
At first I was a little confused, you have to be on the right side of the track, depending on whether you are going to Uptown or Downtown, I had no idea what this meant when I got off the plane, but my guess was correct. I also find the subways mixed with the numbered streets very disorientating. It’s tricky to figure out which way to go when you pop up on the street, so I generally find myself walking a full block to discover I’ve gone the wrong way. Perhaps I’m just no good at navigating. It’s quite funny listening to different people give subway directions. Everyone has a different idea of how to get somewhere, as there are a whole lot of different options that criss-cross each other.
The city doesn’t sleep. Basically ever.
No matter what time of night there is always something open, always something going on. In Manhattan, most places are open seemingly 24 hours. I went to a restaurant at 1am on a Thursday morning, and the place was packed, showing no signs that they would be closing soon. I’m not really into nightlife, but I hear it’s unlimited. I did find an amazing Jazz bar though, the best bar I’ve ever been to. They always have a Jazz band playing, couches, tables with chess, checkers, cards and scrabble, pool tables, shuffle board tables, and then the outside was lined with ping pong tables. I went there twice on non-weekend nights, and it was packed all night. I think what I liked about it so much was that it wasn’t just a big room for people to get drunk in (like basically every bar in NZ), it was just a great place for people to come and hang out and have fun.
Wherever you are, especially in Manhattan, you can just walk around staring at the buildings. They are really something else, with a lot of variation. Beautiful stone churches pop up throughout the city, as well as the rows and rows of apartment buildings with the intricate criss cross of bars on the doors and windows. Even the project brick housing looks nice, certainly a step up from Newtown Flats!
Generic Tourist Trail
There are a few things that when you are in NYC, you just kind of have to do. Like walking across the Brooklyn Bridge and seeing the City Scape. I went up the Rockefeller Centre rather than the Empire State building, as I heard that there were no queues. Even on a cloudy day, it was a pretty impressive view. Oh, and Times Square, of course. Times Square is hilarious. You can go there at 2am and you would think that it’s the middle of the day, the lights are that bright.
Grand Central Station was also very nice, although 90% of the people there were tourists.
The hustle bustle of the big city was starting to annoy me. When you’re walking down the street and the 5th person in the last minute bumps into you, despite their apologies, you just start to get really sick of it. I feel like people in the big city have no spatial awareness, slash, they only really care about themselves and what they’re doing. This is obviously a generalisation, but, it’ll be nice to go somewhere where I don’t have to dodge the umbrellas for fear of losing an eye.
I found a great coffee shop. Owned by Kiwis, all of the baristas were trained in the art of the Flat White and Long Black. I stayed a few hours here and had my first good coffee in a wee while. I also got to exclaim the classic line of, “Hey! I’m walkin’ here!” When a car tried to cut me off as I was crossing the street.
Oh yeah, it was also super cold. Some days it got down to -3 degrees! Unlike Sapa in Vietnam, I was prepared this time and had plenty of warm gear. As I sit here writing this post on the train to Philadelphia, it’s just beginning to snow. It feels a little magical, like New York is saying goodbye. It’s been a great stay, and I hope I’ll be back one day. Next up, Philadelphia and Washington, DC.
Mention Halong Bay or Banh Mi to anybody who’s been to Vietnam and watch their eyes glaze over for a few seconds. It’s a magical country, filled with great food, wonderful people and beautiful landscapes; enough to leave anyone who has been with a warm heart and fond memories. I had the pleasure of gracing its shores through Christmas and January this year, and this post is a small summary of the things I came to appreciate about Vietnam. I’ve tried to keep this short, just be glad you didn’t have to sit through the 1,500 photo marathon that some of my family was put through.
Street food is a cornerstone of Vietnamese culture, there’s something very humbling about sitting on the side of the road on kindergarten sized plastic chairs eating amongst the locals. Vendors magically come and go depending on the time of day, so the same spot two hours apart will often sell a different delight. Oh yeah, and it’s cheap. So cheap. I mean seriously, you’re only going to charge me a dollar for this freshly baked baguette filled with meat and chilli, and fifty cents for a coffee?
People are often pretty reluctant when it comes to street food in Asia. It’s dirty, it’s unhygienic and the meat has been sitting in the sun all day. Yeah, I was a bit wary at first too. I went in with the mindset of, “Yes, this might give me food poisoning, but hopefully it will be worth it.” I ate off the street every day, and guess what? I didn’t get food poisoning even once. There are a couple of pretty basic rules that you can follow.
- The dirtier the better. This one sounds counter-intuitive but, quite simply, the dirtier a food stall is, the longer it has been in business.
- If you’re genuinely worried, go for food that has to be cooked in front of you. Like BBQ.
- Make sure the soup pot is boiling.
My favourite place for food by far was Ho Chi Minh City, still known as Saigon to many locals. The southern style food is really all on display here, simple but strong flavours, huge variety, and everything super fresh. I spent a lot of my time here just walking around eating, Snail Street was a highlight.
Approach to life
I felt like the Vietnamese approach to life was very much a ‘get it done’ and ‘what doesn’t kill you’ sort of mentality. It was very refreshing to see the lack of over the top boundaries that are imposed by Western Civilisation, whether it be through law or through social norms and expectations.
- There didn’t appear to be any sort of hygiene standards at the places I was eating, yet I wasn’t getting sick.
- I saw a man on a moped stick out his leg to push a trailer, because who really needs a car?
- On a tour through the Mekong Delta, one of my guides grabbed a sack from behind a house and pulled out a large snake, he draped it over someones neck and then disappeared for 15 minutes while a group of us just passed it around.
From what I could tell, life in Vietnam is pretty hard. Most people work 7 days a week, and often go for months at a time before having any days off. Many of the locals I met were working two jobs. Although they don’t have a lot of money, they genuinely seem to be happy in their lives. Most people were very friendly toward me, striking up conversations in the street, offering me directions or advice on where to eat; sometimes even ‘treating’ me to a meal themselves. My friend Marcus calls this the “white man superstar” effect. I can see where he’s coming from; I am white, with a ginger beard and a metal leg, walking through their local eateries and markets. I guess it must be kind of exciting.
Drifting through the mangroves of the Mekong Delta felt like being in a dream. There were no sounds but the birds chirping in stereo, and the slow paddle grazing the water every few seconds. Nobody spoke, and nobody breathed, it was a completely surreal experience; it was the kind of experience that makes you contemplate life. Sapa was similar: quiet, pondering and back to basics. I wasn’t visiting at quite the right time of year, but still found it stunning all the same. I could write an entire post on Sapa alone.
Halong Bay is a big ticket item, being a UNESCO heritage site. It is home to around 1,600 islands made of limestone, which you can spend a number of days sailing around. My experience of this was pretty touristy, on an overnight cruise boat with 20 other people, but still wonderful none the less. The fog cleared during the evening and there were some stunning views to be had.
Coffee easily gets a mention here. Strong drip coffee, iced or hot. I definitely came back addicted to condensed milk. You can also find it everywhere, there are cafes all over the place. In the south, people drink coffee like water. I was lucky enough to chance upon egg coffee in Hanoi, egg whites are mixed into the condensed milk, giving a taste somewhat like tiramisu.
Wet markets are like farmer markets on steroids. Early each morning the freshest produce is trucked in from the nearby farms. Hundreds of different types of fruits and vegetables are on display, as well as meat being freshly cut to order. Fish, snails, and frogs (mostly live) are also kept in buckets around the place. At first it’s a bit of a shock, a strong stench of rotten food greets your nostrils as you enter, and it’s just such a different experience to anything you might see back home. Locals ride around on mopeds and stop at their desired stall to haggle pricing, they never even get off the moped.
If you’ve read this far, just know that it took my entire quota of will power for today not to add 300 extra photos and write a novel. To date, Vietnam is the most interesting place I’ve visited and this post gives only a taste of what it has to offer. I’m really looking forward to going back one day.