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”

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!

Spending the Day at Elephant Nature Park

Back in the early stages of planning my adventure (for it’s not just a trip), I knew that at some point I had to go to an elephant sanctuary in Thailand. This was due to hearing all about it from my good pal Brock of Backpack with Brock fame, but also due to various PBS specials and a love of elephants for as long as I can remember. They’re gentle, they’re vegetarian, and they love snacking – really, my kind of animal.

So I booked myself a visit to the Elephant Nature Park in northern Thailand (near Chiang Mai) as a way of finishing my trip to Asia on a high note, and I was not disappointed. I spent an entire day at the park learning about the various elephants in their care, and had the chance to take part in their daily activities.

It was an absolute highlight of my trip, perhaps my favourite thing I’ve done here. The sanctuary has been around for almost a decade and provides a safe and permanent home in the wild for over 30 elephants ranging in age from calves to grandmothers over 80! These elephants, with the exception of the two calves who were born at the park, have all been rescued from lives of abuse and neglect as working elephants throughout the region. Their stories are heartbreaking – working on city streets for tourist dollars, landmine victims, tourist trekking, gruelling work as loggers…the list goes on. But now they’re free, able to roam the park, choose their own family and herd to pal around with, eat lots (up to 250 kg a day!), and leave their past behind.

We started the day with “appetizers”:

Followed by a trip to “the spa”:

A good afternoon scratch (mosquito bites don’t just bother humans, you know):

Some quality time with the baby elephants:

And another round of feeding. We also watched an excellent documentary on the plight of elephants in Thailand, and the work that’s being done to help give them legal protection and better care by their owners.

In addition to the elephants, the park is also home to rescued dogs, cats and cows, and is a pretty magical place to spend a day. It’s dirty (I did slip in elephant poop) but extremely informative and fun all at once, and a much better way to get an elephant experience in Thailand, versus doing a trekking tour or seeing elephants do tricks. You can also do overnight or week-long volunteer placements, but I unfortunately didn’t have the time to do this. Unrelated – the food at lunch was also amazing, since you’re all probably surprised I’ve gone this long in a post and not mentioned something I’ve eaten. Delicious Thai vegetarian buffet, overlooking the jungle and mountains. What a way to wrap up Asia.

Thai-ing on Thailand – First Few Days

Sawat dee ka! I made it to Thailand! In one exhausted, sweaty piece. My so-called “sleeping” pills are doing the total opposite, and have resulted in two red-eye flights now that have been sleepless. One the plus side, I got ice cream for breakfast on my flight! On the downside, I haven’t slept in three days and am starting to go a bit nutso.

After arriving in Bangkok, retrieving my bag (which I swear is putting on holiday weight), and navigating the visa and immigration system, I then had to navigate the subway. Luckily it was pretty idiot-proof, and a bargain to get into the city. And air conditioned. Full points, Bangkok. From there, I found a German guy wandering around with a large bag and confused expression and declared “you must be on my tour!”. And he was, sort of – a different Gap tour departing from the same hotel. So I had a lunch buddy, along with several other travellers from that tour.

Bangkok was stinkin’ hot – 100% humidity, and smog so thick that I thought it was rain clouds when descending on the plane. When stepping out of anywhere you’re immediately hit with a huge wall of heat, followed closely by a million mystery smells (some good, some not so good) and the noise of millions of people honking, yelling, and running about. It is just as crazy as you’d imagine.

Continue reading “Thai-ing on Thailand – First Few Days”