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!

Goooodbye, Vietnam!

Short and sweet for now – apologies for the delay, but I’ve been melting in the heat, lacking reliable internet access, and picked up a weird cold/flu hybrid to boot. After weeks of wondering why it was so damn cold in this neck of the woods, the heat and humidity finally caught up with us full-time. So glad I had leather boots and a wool coat made in Hoi An.

For our final day in Vietnam, we went to the Mekong Delta and cruised in a riverboat. We stopped along the way to take a lazy side trip through some of the canals before stopping for lunch at a riverside restaurant. Spending several hours slowly making our way across the water, savouring the peace and tranquility, was the perfect anecdote to the hectic pace of Vietnam. The breeze was lovely, as were the giant coconuts we sipped on during the ride.

After returning to Ho Chi Minh City, we finally got pho (at a joint that looked a bit nondescript from the outside, but it had photos of Bill Clinton with the staff on the walls so I figured if it’s good enough for Bubba, it’s good enough for me. And it was. Perfect way to end Vietnam. Well, getting a street beer would have finished it off, but there was a thunderstorm outside that made that a tad difficult.

The next morning we packed onto a public bus and headed to the border for our fourth country – Cambodia. It was a long drive, and much of it was spent watching bad American movies (Rush Hour 3, The Happening). There was something rather…strange…about watching flicks in English, surrounded by Vietnamese and Cambodians who likely didn’t understand half of it (although let’s be honest, does anyone understand M. Night Shyamalan movies?). After a confusing border crossing (they check your temperature with a radar gun, who knew) and an even more confusing lunch stop (more fried rice, hurray), we began the drive to Phnom Penh…before the AC broke down and we sat baking on the side of the road in 40 degree heat.

Welcome to Cambodia.

Stuffing Tourists Into the Cu-Chi Tunnels

Ever have those moments where you laugh at something (internally, of course), and then think “Well crap, I’m going to hell for that”?

I did that yesterday.

Our group is currently in Ho Chi Minh City. When not sweating off pounds (hopefully) from the high humidity, or marvelling at the millions of scooters crammed in the streets, we’ve been fitting in some site-seeing. Yesterday we had a very educational (nerdy, hurrah!) day learning more about the Vietnam (or “American”) War. We spent the morning exploring the Cu-Chi Tunnels, a massive network of tunnels used extensively by the Viet Cong during the war. I had heard a bit about the tunnels in history class, and found it fascinating to see the many uses that these had and how well-planned they were.

As part of the tour, we were able to explore the tunnels, which have been widened for tourists, quite considerably in some spots (such as the one I’m squatting in). Despite the widening I found it EXTREMELY claustrophobic – I only went about 25 metres before bailing at the first exit (and we were also creating a bit of a hilarious traffic jam down there as it was pitch black and we kept slamming into each other’s behinds). To get through the tunnels you essentially walk in a crouching position – imagine living down there while hearing all the chaos of war above you. Just incredible.

In addition to wandering the tunnels and seeing how the typical way of life would have been at the time, you could also try to squeeze into one of the original entrances, sneakily hidden on the forest floor. A few group members took the plunge and sunk down into the hole. Then one of the Americans piped up that she wanted to try. 

Bless her. She’s a sweet lady, but a bit on the heftier side. I looked at the tiny rectangular opening and debated whether my shoulders and hips would fit. This woman is…quite a bit larger than me. So when she excitedly hopped over to the hole, I looked at her, looked at the hole in the ground, looked back at her, and imagined a life-sized version of that game we all played in our early days of school with the square holes and the round pegs. And I thought to myself, “this…may not work out so well.”

Continue reading “Stuffing Tourists Into the Cu-Chi Tunnels”

Tailor-Made in Hoi An

I’ve gone a bit nuts in Hoi An – a place known for their tailoring. I’m currently waiting for a fall three-quarter length coat, a leopard print silk dress, and some leather boots, and picked up a pair of linen pants this afternoon. While a stressful experience, it’s also a lot of fun, and a great travel souvenir to take home with you. Plus you can’t beat the prices, and the goods are custom-made for you!

So, if you ever find yourself in a foreign country with a wide selection of tailors (or perhaps in Hoi An, which has many other lovely things to do besides emptying your wallet), here’s five tips on how to ensure the process goes smoothly:

  1. Think About What You Want in Advance. I had a rough idea but didn’t put enough thought into exactly what I wanted up front. It’s a good idea to bring magazine clippings or photos that you like, as this will make the process a lot faster. I spent about half an hour flipping through books before finding things I liked, and then I had to go through the ordeal of picking fabrics. Planning ahead of time will save your sanity.
  2. Leave Lots of Wiggle Room. While many tailors can turn clothes out in a day, ensure you have enough time for fittings and adjustments -around two to three days.
  3. Negotiate the Price. Don’t wait until the stuff’s made to start haggling. Once you’ve named your price, that be it. In places where there are multiple options (in Hoi An it feels like there are more tailor shops than people living here) shop around – price varies depending on quality and types of fashions that can be made. My items are being made in three different shops and in addition to price variations, there have been huge differences in the attitudes of the staff too. So be prepared for that as well.
  4. Try to Relax and Enjoy the Experience. I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t experienced stress over this. My pants and boots were relatively easy (especially the pants, I can’t get over how quick those suckers were made!). My dress, however, has been quite difficult, and I’ve butted heads a bit with the tailor over the fit. Keep firm with what you want – I don’t want a leopard print silk potato sack – but try to stay positive. And if the price is too high, don’t feel bad about walking away before striking a deal (obviously don’t bail on one already made). You’ll find something that suits you elsewhere.
  5. Bring US Currency. While you’ll generally get the same price in the local currency vs. US dollars, it’s just easier to wrap your head around the cost and saves you the trouble of carrying millions of Dong in your wallet, for example. Or bumming money off your friends when you can’t pay the million Dong deposit. Thanks guys!

Happy Moments When Travelling

In addition to getting clothes tailor-made (more on that later), I also…

…got my laundry done!

There’s something slightly seedy, slightly hilarious about meeting a woman on a random corner, handing over all of your laundry and watching her pile it into a bike basket and ride off into the unknown. Being without any of my clothes for 24 hours was rather nerve-wracking as I didn’t even know where this woman came from or her name, but our group leader seemed to be okay with the whole thing so I went along with it. And lo and behold, there she was right on time, waiting with my 5 kg of clothes all neatly pressed and sorted by colour. Bless you, mystery woman, for using some sort of fabric softener too.