Death of My Youth

Or, Tops (and a few Flops) of 16 Weeks of Travel

I’ve been asked what my favourite place was from my trip, and it’s a hard question to answer because there are so many! So when I started giving this question some more thought, I started to ugly cry a bit over it, because the realization that the trip was over also led to a more disturbing thought – my youth was also over!

But then I remembered that I look like I’m about 10 years younger than I actually am, so I still have my fake-youth to hang on to and exploit. And hopefully I’ll travel again someday (soon) and continue to put off the responsibilities that society (and by that, I mean women’s magazines which are clearly authoritative on the subject) tells me that I should be hankering for. Suck it, society, I’m not ready to fully abandon my youth just yet!

So yes, back to that question – I can’t pinpoint one specific place as my favourite. I pretty openly bashed Australia but the truth is, I had some great experiences. And while I was horribly ill in Laos, I still loved the country. So every place holds special memories for me that are somewhat hard to explain, but they were all pieces in my mad-dash puzzle that spread across three continents in four months.

And so, in no particular order, here are some of those pieces:

Continue reading “Death of My Youth”

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Hits and Misses – South-East Asia Edition

My adventure is now more than half-complete – South-East Asia is in the can! I’m not so sharp at times and only came to the realization that I could in fact also shoot video about a week ago – so below I’ve included some (poorly edited) highlights. Tomorrow I begin my 17 hours worth of flights and layovers to head to London, so I’m going to be offline for a few days getting settled, getting over jet lag, and seeing family and friends! So until then…

THE HITS

Best Country – It’s hard to play favourites, as each country offered a completely different experience. However, for overall charm, ambience and fond memories (even with the great malaria medication-induced stomach meltdown of 2011 AND my debit card not working), it has to be Laos. Lovely Laos, I already miss you and your warm sunshine.

Best Accommodations – Prum Bayon Hotel, Siem Reap, Cambodia. We were spoiled rotten at this hotel. Gorgeous pool and lounge area, huge rooms (all to myself, sans Joanne), French toast for breakfast…great way to end the trip.

Best Eats – Tough call. For all the fried rice and bland tofu I consumed, occasionally there were gems scattered in there. The home-cooked meal we had in Luang Prabang, Laos was delicious. But at Chamkar Vegetarian Restaurant in Siem Reap I had fresh spring rolls and a pumpkin curry that I’m still daydreaming about. And my last accommodation, the Secret Garden Resort in Chiang Mai, had amazing dinners – spicy coconut soups and curries that helped clear my sinuses in seconds flat.

Best Almost-Freebies – Bike rentals. For the equivalent of $1 or $2 a day, renting a bike was a fantastic way to see the towns and surrounding countryside in a whole new way. Pay the extra dollar for a bike with suspension (and gears, if available) – trust me on this one.

Best Experience for the Money – Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Expensive, but for a great cause and something I will never forget – especially getting a smooch from a cheeky young elephant!

Most Pleasant Surprise – Traffic in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. For a city that size, with five million motorbikes, it was surprisingly organized and (relatively) easy to get around. Relative in comparison to Hanoi.

Favourite Local Snack – Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk!

Favourite City – Luang Prabang for its night market, variety of sights to check out, and that home-cooked meal. Siem Reap for Angkor Wat, tug-of-war contests in the streets, and locals who envied my pale complexion. Words that will never be uttered to me again.

THE MISSES

Worst Accommodations – Chiang Khong, Thailand. I don’t even know what the name of this place was, but it was straight out of a horror flick giving the Bates Motel a run for its money in terms of creepiness. Throw in a dark, freezing cold nighttime arrival, a pretty convincing “ladyboy” host, squat toilets and bad karaoke that went late into the night (plus Joanne snoring and hogging the blankets of the bed we essentially shared) and you have one night I hope to one day forget.

Worst Eats – Vietnam. While I did have two good meals, for me to call food bland…it must be bland. And just fried rice in general everywhere. It was a struggle being vegetarian and staying that way in each country, which really surprised me as I thought there’d be more meat-free options. Good luck to you if you’re vegan – short of hopping back into the kitchen, I don’t see how one could sustain that lifestyle without bringing their own eats.

Worst Experience for the Money – The unexpected tipping for EVERYTHING on my group tour. I understand local guides but tipping for a bus driver who drove us from town A to town B got a little excessive (and expensive) after four weeks. Should I start tipping pilots when I fly?

Worst Experience in General – Feeling like a jerk in Cambodia when confronted by beggers every five seconds. Go to the bathroom, have eight children following you begging you to help send them to school by buying bananas. Try to walk into your hotel, have six men ask if you need a tuk-tuk. Attempt to eat dinner in a restaurant, have several families wander in individually to stare at you with big eyes as you eat, while they tell you that they’re hungry.

Worst Surprise – A tie between my debit card not working at any ATMs in Laos, despite being assured it would. Thankfully, I carried emergency cash (always, always have back-up cash), had friends willing to lend me cash and was sick as a dog and therefore didn’t spend much money. And rooming with a 75-year-old woman who was NOT hip and cool like Betty White.

Something I Wish I’d Done Differently – My tailoring fiasco in Hoi An, Vietnam. I should have brought photos, I should NOT have had boots made which I’m now lugging around with me, and I probably shouldn’t have gotten a silk leopard print potato sack!

And now for the highlights!

Working My Way Through the Bucket List

Ah, Laos. I’ll forgive you eventually for making me so ill (which I am still – just won’t quit). For how could I stay angry with a place that allowed me to check two items off my bucket list? I sat and did a whole lotta nothing for two days on the boat (yes I’d wanted to do three, but realistically there is no way I could sit and do nothing for three days, as all of you who know me could attest). And then, after climbing Mount Phousi (part of “let’s go bananas with exercise and forget about the heat” day – aka the day where my stomach died), I sat and watched the most spectacular sunset over the Mekong River.

Laos has been a lot of fun. So laid back and charming, with small villages, locals that greet you with a smile, friendly and ADORABLE animals and beautiful scenery. Sadly I had to skip out on tubing due to my wonky stomach, and I wasn’t able to access my bank account until the day before leaving (always bring more money than you think you’ll need, and CHECK with your bank that your card is valid in the country you’re visiting, which “grandma” didn’t), I was never really stressed about it, and I think this was due to the calm attitudes of the locals. And the deep pockets of my trip buddies!

We wrapped up our last night in the country tonight with a few rounds of bowling in Vientiane. A great deal at 10,000 kip per game (which works out to roughly $1.20 Canadian including shoes), you’ll all be pleased to know that my bowling skills have not improved whatsoever during my time away. In fact, they may have worsened. At one point I nearly flew down the alley with the ball after stumbling over the slippery floor. Which really should come as no surprise.

Thanks Laos for the great hospitality! If you’re ever in this neck of the woods or are looking for a snapshot of what Asia used to be like, check it out.

Shower Wars

So I flooded my hotel bathroom today. Granted, there’s only a teeny, tiny drain for the shower, and like many Asian showers it’s all one room – toilet, sink, shower all together. There was a curtain but really I think that was more for show than any useful purpose. But at any rate, without glasses, and without paying much attention, I failed to notice the water FLYING EVERYWHERE until I realized that I could go all Gene Kelly in there and by that point, it was too late.

I haven’t had too much trouble getting used to Asian toilets – the bucket thing makes sense, although the squat toilets do leave me initially puzzled if it’s early in the morning. But these showers! Man oh man. I’ve flooded at least three bathrooms now. The others dried out faster. But as this one looks again like it could be from The Shining, it took an appropriately long time to dry out.

Eventually I’ll get the hang of showering with what is essentially a hose, and I’ll figure out the writing on the dials (hot and cold seem to be interchangeable/non-existent in some places). Of course by that point I’ll probably be heading somewhere else!

On the Mend!

Hi all,

Just a quick note since I’ve been radio silent for a few days – I’m on the mend! I think I’m at about 90% today, in fact. Cutting back on my nothing-but-RItz-crackers-and-water-diet and eating proper meals, slowly but surely. Granted, I ate an entire pizza last night – but I was famooshed!

We’re heading to our final stop in Laos today – the capital, Vientienne. I still haven’t successfully been able to use an ATM, so fingers crossed I can get a bit of money out for one last day. Or, nuts to that and I’ll just wait for Vietnam tomorrow.

I promise a better, highly entertaining update about the NUTTINESS involved with rooming with an almost 80 year old. Let’s just say that we’re all being called the wrong name (and the same name – Pam), and I hear every morning (bright and early) about how the material of her clothes is too heavy, and she needs “two shirts, two skirts, and she’ll be set”.

EVERY DAY.

Stay tuned.

Staying Vegetarian in Asia

I’m becoming convinced that it’s next to impossible, unless you eat at westernized joints. One of the lovely Brits on the tour is also a vegetarian, and she and I have been eating plate after plate of veggie fried rice, cashew tofu rice, veggies and rice, etc. I’ve been trying to turn a blind eye to the fact that there is likely something meaty in it because a gal needs to eat! Some days have been okay – we had a great home-cooked meal at a local Laotian family’s place the other night and the food was amazing, and clearly vegetarian.

Last night, however, I think we blatantly ate beef, despite being repeatedly told it was meat-free. No veggie broth looks like that one did. I don’t know whether it was due to the hot, hot heat yesterday, the ridiculous amount of exercise we did (aforementioned scary bike ride, walking everywhere, hiking up a mountain to see the sunset – more on that later), or the beefy dinner, but my stomach finally put its hands up and said “whoa, whoa, enough y’all” and revolted. Now it’s split down the middle in protest – one side wants to eat, the other wants to be a punching bag for the invisible goat kicking me in the side. It’s an interesting combo.

We leave Luang Prabang this morning and have an eight hour drive through the mountains to get to our next destination. In addition to finding a bank machine that will accept my card, I also hope to have a working, happy stomach and some meal options that don’t kill me!

Luang Prabang

Roommate quirks aside (a post for another day), things are going pretty swell in Luang Prabang, Laos.

This morning we went on a bike ride (SCARY at times, “wheeee!” at others times) to explore the countryside outside the village, saw “ABT” (“another bloody temple” – again, my tour leader’s phrase, not mine), huffed and puffed back into town, and ended up at Utopia (literally, the name of the bar, but also a pretty apt description of the place) for drinks. Overlooking the river, loafing around, life is good in Laos.

Except I still have no money. If you’re ever travelling in Laos and use the “Plus” system for Interac, carry larger quantities of cash than you think you’ll need…’cause ATMs won’t accept your card in Luang Prabang. True story. Funny thing is, it doesn’t bother me much. Laos has the ability to push aside your worries. It’s a neat place.