The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21 Prison) in Cambodia

3 Mar

I had originally planned to solely visit Siem Reap during my time in Cambodia. As an archaeology major, Angkor Wat appealed to me in every way possible and, although it didn’t disappoint, once I arrived in Siem Reap, I knew I needed to see more of this amazing country.

Before coming to Cambodia, I can say that I was ignorant of the events surrounding the Khmer Rouge communist regime  that caused devastation from 1975 to 1979 and continues to haunt the people it affected. Even now, I’m not sure that I can fully grasp what occurred during these horrible years in Cambodia’s history.

I headed to Phnom Penh with some new friends. They all wanted to visit a place known as “The Killing Fields.” I had gotten some advice from a girl in Siem Reap and I will further share that advice. If you are planning on seeing the Killing Fields in Phnom Penh, you must start your day at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (more commonly referred to as the S-21 Prison) and then go to the Killing Fields afterwards. She couldn’t  have been more right. Since I didn’t know anything about the Killing Fields, it really helped to visit the prison before going to the fields.

The prison kept thousands captive and thousands were tortured there before being taken to the Killing Fields to be eventually be bludgeoned to death (as bullets were too valuable to be “wasted”).

The buildings that imprisoned the captives were also enclosed with barbed wire so that prisoners on upper floor couldn’t commit suicide.

When you walk into the premises of S-21 (after paying a small fee) it is hard to miss the manifesto that was made to keep prisoners in control. It was incredibly disturbing. Number 6 reads: “While getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all.”

You can walk around the floors of many different buildings, each with their own purpose. Many of the rooms there have the torture equipment that was used in those specific rooms and even pictures on the walls that actually shows victims that were tortured to death in the prison.

On the top floor of most buildings the rooms contained pictures of victims and information of what happened in the prison. It was sad to see how many children were held there. There was also information about the leaders of this regime, specifically Pol Pot, the leader of Democratic Kampuchea. Under his leadership, millions of Cambodians died due to forced labor, malnutrition, and executions. Millions.

I think what made S-21 so horrible for me as well was thinking about how recently these events occurred! It’s scary really. This massive genocide in Cambodia occurred less than forty years ago and Cambodia continues to recover from the loss of so many of their people. There are people who probably still have nightmares about those days. Even after the Vietnamese liberated Phnom Penh in 1979, there was famine and a civil war sweeping through Cambodia until the 90s! The Khmer people have suffered a great deal in Cambodia’s recent history, and they continue to suffer today. They are still trying to rebuild. The horrific events taking place in the S-21 Prison don’t even begin to cover what exactly happened. However, if you’re ever in Cambodia, make sure you go to the Killing Fields, but not before you go to S-21 first!

The Dreaded 30-Hour Bus From Laos to Vietnam

4 Feb

For most twenty-somethings backpacking around Southeast Asia, it almost seems as if the bus ride from Laos to Hanoi, Vietnam (or the reverse trip) is something of an initiation as it basically becomes an inevitable journey for the budget traveler.

I had heard so much about this dreaded bus trip before heading to Laos and, although I really didn’t want to do it, I knew that I had to.

I’ve heard so many horror stories and I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t a little intimidated by this gruelling, 30-ish hour bus trip.

Anyway, after an awesome few days in Vang Vieng, it was time to head to Hanoi. We had previously secured our visas in Luang Prabang and were ready to finally head over to Vietnam. I can’t stress this enough — make sure that all the information on your visa is accurate (i.e. the dates of validity and your passport number. This visa didn’t have my name on it like Laos and Cambodia did). Border control going into Vietnam from Laos is very, very strict. To give you a sense of what I’m talking about, read Adventure Kate’s post about how she almost got banned from Vietnam at the border.

Anyway, when we bought our bus tickets in Vang Vieng, the lady we bought them from said that it would be a 21-hour journey. I knew that this probably wasn’t going to be accurate and I actually prepared myself to expect at least 30 hours of traveling.

The bunks

We got picked up by a mini-bus at around noon which took us to Vientiane, Laos’ capital city. Once we got there we were ushered onto a random bus with bunk bed style lounge seats. It’s weird, if you go to Southeast Asia you’ll notice how much of an organized mess everything is. Here’s what I mean. When we got off our mini-bus in Vientiane there were a ton of big buses and our mini-bus driver kind of just took off. We confusedly stood around for about a minute before someone just came up to us and brought us to where we needed to go. Even though there was absolutely no verbal communication between us because he didn’t speak English, everything just kind of fell into place. It seems so chaotic, but don’t worry, it actually all works out (usually) in the end. At least, it did for me and, believe me, I took SO many buses around Southeast Asia and came to know what to expect. I eventually got used to the chaotic set-up of transportation around Southeast Asia.

Here’s a tip for you: Bring as much food on the bus as you possibly can because I swear all the bus drivers bring you to their friends ‘shops’ and get you to buy whatever they are selling. In our case, it was a plate full of disgusting mystery meat and overcooked rice. We were so hungry though so, along with everyone else, we were pretty much forced to eat this pile of who-knows-what.

After we stopped for this mystery meal, we continued for a few more hours before we got to the border. It’s funny that they tell you it’s going to be a 21-hour trip because there is absolutely NO way that this could ever be true because the border will be closed when you get there. AND they will turn the air-con off while you sit in your own sweat overnight waiting for the border to open at, I believe, 5 a.m.

Ashley!

The awesome friend who I was traveling with, Ashley, as well as many others, actually needed to get off the bus because it was too hot for them to sleep. So bring a book (or two) and fully charge your iPod! Mine died halfway there and it was torturous.

Now, as for the border crossing…

This was probably the most unpleasant border crossing I have encountered throughout my travels, other than my experience going into Bolivia. There are a few things I think I need to point out. For one, on top of the fee you needed to pay for your visa, you will need to pay an ‘extra’ fee when you’re getting your passport stamped. This is totally a tourist rip-off. You can try to fight it (as some did), but I suggest just paying the few dollars to get through hassle-free. Also, depending on your nationality, they might give you an even harder time forcing you to actually have to bribe them to get across the border. This happened with one girl on our bus who was from Morocco. She had no idea why they were giving her a hard time and, after much debate, they accepted a bribe from her. So, I would suggest bringing some extra American dollars with you in case you find yourself in a sticky situation like this.

You also need to put your bag on this conveyor belt that goes through this machine that’s probably an x-ray and I found that the men working around there were extremely aggressive, especially with young, Caucasian women like myself and my friend. They really, really gave us a hard time. I mean, they were grabbing ours arms and saying inappropriate things to us. It was really unpleasant and we got out of their as quickly as possible and chucked our bag back on the bus.

You then have to walk to the actual border crossing. It was actually quite a distance. I’m not good with accurately measuring distances, but it was probably somewhere from 1/2 km to 1 km. It took about 20 minutes. Here’s a picture (of course it was raining!).

Walking to Vietnam!

Make sure that you try and do all these steps (departure stamp/’extra’ fee and putting your bag on the conveyor belt and back onto your bus) as quickly as possible because your bus is only going to wait for so long before they leave. Believe me, they will leave without you.

Anyway, we got into Hanoi after another day of driving. Once we got into Hanoi, we all piled into another mini-van which took us to their “choice of hostel”, a.k.a. their friend’s hostel. We quickly grabbed our bags and headed into the streets of Hanoi at night. Finding Hanoi Backpackers on Ma May street was easy and stress-free as it seems like everyone on our bus had the same idea of heading there. So, if you’re planning on heading to Hanoi Backpackers, there will more than likely be someone on your bus going there as well, so just ask around like we did.

I know I’m making it seem like the 30-hour bus was awful, but it really wasn’t awful at all. Unless you’re extremely high maintenance, then this journey will probably not be so bad for you. I’m not going to lie, it was uncomfortable, but I think any bus trip that’s longer than 15 hours would be uncomfortable. For being on a bus for 30 hours, it wasn’t bad at all. You’re also going to be around several other people who are in the exact same situation and who are probably just as nervous as you are.

I made some great friends and it was definitely an experience in and of itself. More importantly, the beauty that awaited us was well worth the dreaded 30-hour bus ride. This is what greeted us on our way into Hanoi:

Arriving into Hanoi, Vietnam

The Halong Bay Booze Cruise!

28 Jan

When I was planning my trip to Southeast Asia, I knew that I would only have about a week’s time in Vietnam. So, I decided I would make my way over to Hanoi, Vietnam from Vang Vieng, Laos until I needed to fly back to Thailand for the Full Moon Party. There were two things that I knew I had to do: Visit a snake restaurant and cruise on a junk boat through the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Halong Bay.

I heard from many people about the infamous “Rock Hard, Rock Long Halong Bay Tour” offered at the ever-so-popular Hanoi Backpackers hostel. It would be expensive, but literally everyone recommended it so I knew that I had to do it.

Anyway, there were a few different options for the Halong Bay Booze Cruise. I chose the 2 day tour which cost 79.50 USD. It was significantly more expensive than tours offered in town and through other hostels, but I knew I was signing up for a guaranteed good time. From what I heard from all the friends I met and from all their pictures I have seen, my advice would be to splurge on the 3 day tour instead of 2 day as you get to spend the 2nd night on Castaway Island. Regardless, the 2 day tour was unreal! SO much ridiculous-ness and SO much fun.

It started with a 4 hour drive to Halong City where we would eventually take a small boat to our junk boat, the Jolly Roger, in Halong Bay!

One of the best parts of our tour was our tour leader, Luke. He was AWESOME. He had actually ran out of money and returned home to work for a bit, so this was his FIRST night back as a tour leader AND it was his birthday! By the end of the tour, he said our group was the craziest he has ever guided and that it was one hell of a birthday. So, if you get Luke, you’re in for one hell of a good time. That’s what I love about Southeast Asia: it’s so unconventional in so many ways. A tour guide in Canada or the U.S. wouldn’t be caught dead drinking with his group or he’d be fired, but in Southeast Asia, it’s not only okay, but it’s encouraged! Unfortunately, you’re not allowed to bring your own alcohol aboard, although I’m sure you can get away with sneaking some on like we did. Drinks are a little more expensive on the Jolly Roger than they are in Hanoi, but there’s nothing like an ice-cold 333 on a hot, sunny day, so it’s worth it.

Halong Bay was exactly as I imagined it would be. It was a sunny day when we got there and it was absolutely stunningly beautiful. Even with the sun, the thousands of limestone islands covering Halong Bay gave it a mystical feel making it seem like a lost place.

We cruised along Halong Bay for a few hours before the junk anchored itself in a clear spot where we could jump off the boat!

Myself and Gemma jumping into our salty fate

Jumping into this salt water abyss was incredibly exhilarating. It was a perfect day for swimming too since it was SO hot out. It was probable one of the hottest days on my trip. Soon enough, our entire group had jumped in except for one girl who was terrified because she just recently learned how to swim. Our group was awesome though and we eventually convinced her to jump and she was so glad she did as it was such a huge fear she wanted to overcome.

Now, one thing I noticed on my trip, and it has something to do with the fact that it is really expensive to fly from Canada to Southeast Asia, was that I rarely encountered other Canadians! By some crazy coincidence though, not only were there about 6 other Canadians on the boat, but most of them went to the university that I currently go to in London, Ontario. Mind-blowing.

Anyway, after swimming we all partnered up and took kayaks to this cool cave. It was fun because so many of us were terrible kayakers. But, for me, the cave wasn’t the cool part. Rather, it was seeing the floating stores where Vietnamese people made their living selling snack, drinks, etc. There are ton of them on Halong Bay, but beware of getting ripped off like so many tourists do.

As we headed back to the boat, the sun started to set. Little did we know, we were in for one crazy night.

The party started with a massive game of King’s Cup for us North Americans, or Ring of Fire to the rest of the world. Basically, it’s a game where everyone sits around a table lined with a circle of cards that are faced down. Everyone takes turns flipping the cards over and for each card there’s a specific rule. I swear, every time I play this game, the rules are slightly different. The rules that our leader gave us were the best and most inventive I have ever played with.

Since there were so many people on board we split up into two tables and kind of played against each other for certain rules, which totally added to the fun.

Here’s how it went…

If we turned over an ace, it was A & B. Basically the person who picked up the card got someone else to cover their eyes while they point to 2 different people and, before uncovering their eyes, they think of an action for them to do. For example, A motorboats B, A gives a lap dance to B, etc.

What about a 2 or a 3? Well, a 2 required our table to yell “F*CK YOU” as loudly as possible to the other table and that table would then have to drink. We had to scream “F*CK ME” if someone picked up a 3 and, in turn, we would have to drink.

If someone picked up a 5 they would have to scream “SHARK ATTACK!” and jump on their chair. Last person to jump on their chair had to drink.

7 was one of my favourites — the Troll card. If someone picked up a 7 they would have to go under the table (like a troll) and they had to stay there until someone else picked up a 7. People also got to “feed the troll” alcohol. It was hilarious.

Poor Steph was troll for the majority of the game

Card number 9 was definitely one of the most surprisingly funniest. It was the Confession card and the person who picked it up had to stand on their chair and confess something. Naturally, most of these were funny (hence, sexual), but some of the ones were just MAD. Like absolutely crazy things that I could never mention here. Let’s just say is has something to do with the Pattaya red light district, hookers, and lady boys. Leader Luke even said that he had never heard such ridiculous stories in his entire Halong Bay career.

After the crazy Pattaya story was told...

The Queen card was my favourite because it was just so stupid and funny — the Transvestite card. If someone pulled a Queen, they had to swap clothes with the person of the opposite sex to their left. By the end of the game, my tank top and jean shorts were half way across the room on some random guy.

Yeah, those are MY clothes! No, I don't know his name!

Steph, Gemma and I in our boy clothes

And the rest of the night was history! Just a massive, drunken dance party on the top deck. Drinking games and a lot of ‘getting-to-know-each-other.’ It was definitely one for the books.

We headed back to Hanoi early the next day. And, it rained. AND, it was still beautiful in the rain. Magical, even.

The Halong Bay Booze Cruise tour was awesome! I definitely recommend going through Hanoi Backpackers because they were really keen on making sure we had a great time. Also, going through Hanoi Backpackers (or any hostel, I would imagine) ensures that you’re with other people your age. Otherwise, you might end up with a group of old people (no offence) who might be annoyed with your drunken antics.

The tour of Halong Bay was one of the highlights of my trip, as it was for many others. If you’re ever in Hanoi, do not pass up this crazy, fun opportunity.

Snake Blood and Bones in Hanoi, Vietnam

21 Jan

Anyone who has seen The Beach with Leonardo DiCaprio will remember the scene where he takes a shot of snake blood in Bangkok. However, I don’t remember seeing any offers to try snake blood in Bangkok. Rather, I was generally pointed in the direction of Vietnam where you could easily find snake restaurants.

Particularly, I had heard about the Snake Village tour held by Hanoi Backpackers in Hanoi, Vietnam.

For a bit less than $20, Hanoi Backpackers drives a group of people to Snake Village, which is a restaurant where, you guessed it, they offer the Vietnamese delicacy of snake (bones and all!). Our tour guide was hilarious and awesome.

That's him in the middle!

There’s more to it though and, little did I know, this night would end up being one of the funnest and craziest of my entire trip.

When you first arrive, you get a chance to hold some snakes if you’re brave enough.

Afterward, everyone in your tour group (there were about 10 people in mine) sits down on mats on the floor.

Believe me, if you’re not friends with the people around you at the beginning of the night, you will be by the end!

Everyone was given a bottle of beer for the purpose of chasing down the disgusting shots of whiskey we’d be having between each course.

Excuse the blurriness!

Within each tour group, 2 people who are brave enough get to eat a snake’s beating heart right out of its body! I am far from being a vegetarian and I try not to think about the slaughter of animals when I’m eating them so I volunteered. In fact, after I was the first to do it, almost everyone else wanted to do it. Only two people get to do it for free so everyone pitched in to pay for some more snakes to kill. If you are brave enough, it is SO worth the extra money. It was one of the coolest things I’ve ever done.

This next picture is not for the faint at heart!

One thing I didn’t expect though was that I was meant to KILL the snake myself!

My blood was pumping with adrenaline as I got ready to do it. The workers instructed me where to cut the snake with my dagger and I did. Then they showed me where the heart was and I actually had to BITE through the muscle or tendons or whatever was holding the heart in the body to get the heart out. As I swallowed the heart, I could feel it STILL BEATING all the way down my throat. It was CRAZY. Seriously. Such and adrenaline rush. I was shaking afterward.

Click HERE for a video of me participating in this crazy activity.

After everyone killed their snakes and ate their hearts, we all sat down to take shots of snake blood and bile, both of which were mixed with potent rice wine. I found this MUCH more disgusting than the heart.

From what I can remember, there were seven courses.

There was rice cooked in snake fat (YUM!).

There were snake ribs (My personal favourite).

Snake skin (Yuck!), snake steak (Chewy, but good), and snake bones (surprisingly delish!).

Snake skin in the front, steak in the back, and bones on the plate in right with the big spoon on it.

Snake meatballs (So good!).

Snake spring rolls (So delicious!).

If I had to describe what snake meat tasted like, I would probably say that it was most comparable to chicken.

One thing we learned whilst there was that it was customary to do a communal shot of whiskey before each course since snake was something of a delicacy in Vietnam. We also did a ‘cheers’ before each shot in as many languages as we could think of. Not only was the whiskey so incredibly gross, but it was so strong and cheap (resulting in us buying a few more bottles of it). By the end of the night everyone was completely wasted. One girl was passed out before we even left the restaurant! It was hilarious.

Who knows where the night might take you, but if it turns out to be anything like ours, it will be the funnest night ever!

First it took us to the streets where we possibly sang “I’m A Little Teapot”, but who knows?

Posing as a teapot. Do you see it?

Then we drunkenly hit up a random Vietnamese club where we were the only Westerners present! It was SO ridiculous and awesome.

We made a lot of Vietnamese friends.

Then, for some strange reason, we went to a nice sit-down restaurant! This part of the night I have no recollection of. No idea why that was necessary, but it’s hilarious when I think of it now.

Then, we headed back to Hanoi Backpackers where I drunkenly Skype’d with my DAD! Seriously, WHYYY?!

Oh, and did I mention that we had a 9 am flight the next morning?!

So, if you’re ever in Hanoi and are brave enough to try snake, prepare yourself for a potentially drunken, crazy, and unforgettable night!

I think this picture pretty much sums it up!

Traveling With Someone Who Is Sick

16 Jan

There are many pros and cons to think about before deciding whether or not you’d prefer traveling solo or with others. I decided to go solo on my trip to Peru last summer. My decision was partially influenced by the fact that I would be spending four weeks with a group of people on an archaeological dig so I knew I wouldn’t be alone for my whole trip and partially based off of the fact that there was no one else to go with.

During the four week dig I made some really great friends. I talked openly about my plans that would commence after the dig and one friend, in particular, asked if she could join me in my travels to Cuzco and Machu Picchu. Her and I had become very good friends so I welcomed the idea instantly.

The weekend before we left for Cuzco she had started to feel sick, but I didn’t think much of it. Once we arrived in Cuzco we spent all day exploring the city before we were off to Machu Picchu the next day. While we were walking about the ruins she said that she felt sick and needed to leave. We had a train to catch from Aguas Calientes to Ollantaytambo anyway so it didn’t inconvenience me very much.

When we arrived back in Ollantaytambo (the stop before Cuzco), she felt as if she were going to throw up and didn’t want to do so in a taxi. She wanted to stay the night. For me, I was on a much stricter budget than she was and I couldn’t really afford to stay the night in Ollantaytambo, especially since I left my backpack at the hostel in Cuzco where I had already paid for that upcoming night. I felt bad thinking about leaving her there, but when I explained it to her she decided that she would try to taxi back to Cuzco with me and I was grateful for that. One two-hour taxi ride later and we had made it to Cuzco. She immediately went to bed.

Now, I’m not trying to say that her being sick was a burden to me, but it definitely put a damper on our time in Cuzco. We had all these plans that we were looking forward to together and we couldn’t do any of them because she was sick.

In the middle of the night, she woke me up saying that there was something really wrong with her. She felt absolutely dreadful and ended up going to a small hospital. I was leaving the next night at around 10 p.m. for La Paz, Bolvia and I didn’t know what to do. I kept getting phone calls to the hostel from her boyfriend and family wanting to know how she was, but I had no idea.

Early the next day, I got an email from her. She said that she had a parasite but that she was doing better. She told me that she would be staying in the hospital for another day or two and wished me a good time in Bolivia. She apologized for being sick.

That’s when I realized I had to go see her. So I took a taxi to this clinic that was pretty far from Cuzco’s centre. She had no idea that I was coming and we both started tearing up when we saw each other.

As much as her being sick was a setback, she was now my friend. I didn’t even know her for a month at the time, but we could no longer consider each other travel buddies. We were friends. If I were sick, she would’ve been there for me.

So, how did I spend my last night in Cuzco? In a hospital. I’m glad I did because I would’ve regretted not going. Of course I would have loved to go out dancing with friends, but sometimes you need to think about what’s more important.

Yeah, sure, I was pretty bummed that most of our Cuzco plans fell through, but I can always go back.

Cuzco will always be waiting for me.

I think the point I’m trying to make is that your plans aren’t going to turn out exactly as you want them to when you’re traveling with another person; however, the friendships that you can possibly make in such a short time can outweigh those negative factors.

And they did.

I made some really great friends during my trip to Peru and Bolivia. Some I would even consider to be lifelong friends.

Sometimes you just need to make sacrifices and learn to deal with the less ideal things that come with traveling. And, I wouldn’t change a thing.

The Alms Giving Ceremony in Luang Prabang, Laos

12 Jan

To be honest, I didn’t know much about Laos before I went backpacking around Southeast Asia. To be even more honest, I didn’t really know where Laos even was, let alone that it was a country. I knew nothing about the culture or the people.

Regardless of my lack of knowledge, I ended up LOVING Laos.

Before I went, I had done a little research and knew I needed to do at least two things while I was in Laos — participate in an alms offering ceremony in Luang Prabang and go tubing in Vang Vieng.

The anthropologist in me was really itching to participate in this traditional Lao ceremony.

This is how it works…

When: It occurs every morning at around sunrise. My friend and I got up a lot earlier than sunrise and we found ourselves waiting around for quite some time. So, just make sure you give yourself a little bit of time to buy your offerings before it begins. No need to get there an hour early.

Where: The procession starts on the main street in Luang Prabang. It’s not hard to find since LP is a small little town. There are a ton of little side streets in LP and one big street where all the restaurants and tourist offices are — that’s the street where the procession take place.

Who: The LP monks and novices!

What: Basically, it’s an alms offering. Locals and tourists line the street where they kneel on woven mats and hand offerings of food to the monks. The offerings mostly consist of sticky rice, bananas, and little square candies.

We chose to cover up our skin as a sign of respect.

There are also small children kneeling on the mats with their own baskets hoping to receive some of the offerings back to share with their family. The monks can choose to give their offerings to these children.

How much and what’s included: I believe I spent around $5 in Lao Kip on food offerings. I actually did not buy it on the main street. What I didn’t know was that the price included the offerings AND the spot that had the mat where you would be kneeling. So, when we got to the main street we had to buy more offerings to be allowed to sit on a lady’s mat. Watch out for that! The locals are begging you to choose them to buy offerings from, so don’t just buy from the first person you see (like we did) and wait until you get to the main street. Also, don’t try to negotiate the price. This is an offering that will help a lot of people who might need the food. Every lady we talked to was selling her offerings for the same price anyway so don’t expect to bargain.

Also, keep in mind that the procession is fairly long in duration. We actually didn’t stay for the whole thing because we gave all of our offerings away within the first few minutes. Don’t rush! Spread the love!

One thing that I had heard from many people was that this alms ceremony was completely a tourist trap. While I think that is definitely a part of it, I do think that we should respect this tradition for the locals in LP who actually find this ceremony sacred. I was extremely bothered by all the tourists who were going right up to the processing monks and snapping pictures right in their faces. I took a lot of pictures, but I did it with a little more discretion. There’s no need to get up in their faces. Believe me, I am that tourist who needs to take pictures of everything, but there are times when you just need to step back and stop pursuing that perfect shot.

The alms offering ceremony in Luang Prabang was a really cool cultural experience. Although I really do believe that it has become something that is invented more for the tourists, I really don’t see the harm in that. I mean, if everyone’s benefitting from it, why should it be a problem? We are giving the monks offerings that they can give back to people who really need food and they are giving us a little taste of what Lao tradition might really be like.

I definitely recommend participating in this ceremony if you are ever in Luang Prabang.

Tattoos in Thailand

8 Jan

I am a HUGE fan of tattoos. They are a great way to express something about yourself. They are very, very addictive and, of course, permanent. Not that the latter bothers me.

Naturally, I wanted to get a tattoo as soon as I got to Thailand. In fact, I ended up getting two.

The first tattoo I got was in Chiang Mai. I had obviously done my research on tattoo shops in foreign countries and I therefore made sure I felt completely comfortable with the place that I chose. For me, it wasn’t about the cheapness of tattoos that you can easily find on Khao San Road in little side shops that might not be reputable. Rather, it was about the tattoo and the experience itself and I knew that Dejavu Tattoo in Chiang Mai was right for me. For anyone who has been to Chiang Mai, you probably know where the Roots Rock Reggae Bar is located in Chiang Mai. Well, Dejavu is in that little square, as well as in a few other locations around Chiang Mai. I had a choice between a regular machine-applied tattoo or traditional bamboo tattooing. I chose the latter because I thought that it would be a cultural experience in and of itself. They charged per hour and bamboo cost a little bit more than machine: 3000 baht/hour, which is about 95 USD. So it was basically the same price that it would have been if I got the tattoo in Canada, but I like to think I paid more for the security and comfort of a safe, clean parlour. You only need to book like a day or two in advance, but it’s a pretty busy tattoo business so don’t expect to get a walk-in appointment like I attempted to do. Anyway, I decided to get the tattoo on my foot. I got my last name translated in Thai (and I know it was accurate!). I got it written in Thai because I love how Thai script looks. It’s so beautiful. The artist also added a traditional Thai flower. Out of all 5 tattoos that I have, this turned out to be my favourite. It also turned out to be the most painful tattoo I ever got done! It was absolutely brutal. It literally felt like someone was scraping at my foot with a blade. But, I’ve heard that foot tattoos are quite painful so I guess I should’ve expected that.

The second tattoo I got was on a complete whim. I met this guy in Cambodia who had this Buddhist, Thai tattoo between his shoulder blades and I instantly fell in love with it. It was so intricate and beautifully symmetrical. It reminded of another tattoo actually. I’m sure most know about the infamous Buddhist monk tattoo that Angelina Jolie has. Well, after doing a little research I actually found that her tattoo and my friend’s tattoo are two of many variations of Sak Yant tattooing practiced in Southeast Asian countries. Angelina Jolie has the popular Hah Taew (The 5 Sacred Lines) tattoo which is intended to help the bearer in different aspects of his or her life. The one I got is also very common and it is known as Gao Yord (9 spires) which symbolizes Buddha and intends to bless the bearer with protection and good luck. Now, I actually did get this tattoo on Khao San Road in Bangkok. Again, I did some research to make sure I was choosing a reputable tattoo shop. I ended up heading to YMK Tattoo, a small but professional studio on Khao San Road (it’s kind of hidden in one of the little alleyways, fyi). This tattoo was cheaper than the one in Chiang Mai simply because there is room for bargaining. The tattoo artist doesn’t speak English, but the receptionist speaks great English and was very helpful. I loved this tattoo because it was hand drawn by the artist and the imperfections were kind of what I was looking for.

Getting tattoos in Thailand was a great cultural experience because of the bamboo technique that was used. The artists literally use a thin stick of bamboo that has a point at the end which they dip in ink. Then they (very precisely) stab your skin over and over. It is surprisingly less painful than machine tattoos AND bamboo tattoos heal almost immediately. Mine didn’t scab at all. It was bizarre.

Talk about a souvenir that will have an everlasting impression on you. These are definitely two of my favourite souvenirs from travelling! I’m hoping to add to the collection as my travels take me to different countries around the world!

 

My Favourite Places in Southeast Asia

4 Jan

Here is a list I compiled of my favourite places in Southeast Asia. It was a trip of a lifetime and although I had amazing experiences in each place that I visited, these five places stand out to me the most.

In no particular order…

 1) Chiang Mai, Thailand

Chiang Mai was the city I visited where I could most see myself living in. It was vibrant and bustling. It had a good nightlife. It felt safe enough for me to navigate the streets by myself on cheaply-rented motorbikes. It was easy to quickly feel like a local and I loved that. There’s a university. There’s a zoo in the mountains. There’s temples and tigers. Elephants and expats. Boxing and night bazaars. Bad karaoke. Cheap beer. Cheap food. I quickly fell into a pattern in Chiang Mai and, soon enough, I had stayed there longer than I had originally planned.

2) Vang Vieng, Laos

Vang Vieng just gets me. One thing I definitely regret was not staying longer. One obvious reason is tubing. The first day I went tubing was quite possible the funnest day I have had in my life. Free Lao Lao whiskey shots (albeit watered-down). Cheap buckets. Beer pong on the river bars. Loud music that makes you want to dance. Exhilaratingly dangerous water slides. New friends that you won’t remember tomorrow. Cuts and bruises that you can’t explain. It is truly a shitshow. A twenty-something party haven. I also loved Vang Vieng because of the chilled-out atmosphere in the town. Literally every restaurant played Friends and Family Guy reruns and the decor consisted of these lounge-like wooden couch/table combos with ugly cushions — the perfect way to nurse a hangover (which actually started to become nonexistent with all the drinking). I accidentally badly electrocuted myself and I even broke my beloved camera in Vang Vieng, but it didn’t take anything away from my love for this wonderful backpacker town.

3) Koh Phangan, Thailand

My time on the island of Koh Phangan was a huge blur. I think that directly correlates with the amount of fun I had there. Before my trip, I had read a lot of negative blog posts and reviews on Koh Phangan saying that it was a beautiful island ruined by tourists. I had so much fun there though. Koh Phangan really does cater to tourists because of the infamous Full Moon Party held on Haad Rin (beach) every month on, you guessed it, the full moon; however, I loved that it was made for tourists because it literally brought thousands of different people and cultures together for one night. While the night of the full moon was one to remember, every night in Koh Phangan was a constant party. In fact, the lead up nights to the Full Moon Party were actually better than Full Moon itself. Friends reruns and movies like The Notebook dominate the TV screens in the restaurants. It was entirely possible to easily find chicken schnitzel at 7 in the morning after staying up all night. I fell in love with sunrises. I became somewhat of an artist, painting everyone in my hostel with neon colours for Full Moon. My week in Koh Phangan was the best in my entire 7 week trip.

 4) Siem Reap, Cambodia

I liked Siem Reap significantly more than Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh. Cambodia was so incredibly poor and Siem Reap was no exception. Siem Reap was such a small city and so I quickly got used to where everything was. Tourists are drawn to Siem Reap because of the wonderful temples of Angkor Wat but, while not exploring the temples, I found myself drawn to the popular Pub Street in town. I found myself there every single night and, like in Chiang Mai, I ended up staying a lot longer than I had originally planned to. I took cooking classes on Pub Street where I made the best meal I have ever had, pumpkin soup. I ate crocodile, frog, and other mystery meats that I got to cook at my table in a restaurant. I became pretty much known by name at Angkor What?! Bar. I made some really great friends. I danced on tables. I helped cute Cambodian kids practice their English. I got ripped off by locals on several occasions. I experienced extreme poverty up close. Cambodia was definitely a huge eye-opener, but I easily found a kind of comfort in Siem Reap.

5) Bangkok, Thailand

Bangkok currently holds the spot as my favourite city in the world. I love, love, love Bangkok. There’s just something about it. The hustle and bustle. The cheap street food. Huge bottles of Chang beer for 150 baht. Hostels across from Khao San Road for 150 baht a night. Bucket bars on Khao San Road. Cheap knock offs. $5 massages. Khao San Road in general. Tuk tuks (which I hated at first). The huge shopping mall, MBK. Watching the traffic. The Saturday Market. There are so many things about Bangkok that I love. It felt like home to me, not because I think I could live there, but because of the way I felt every time I returned there (4 times in one trip). I left Cambodia 3 days earlier than I planned just so I could spend my last few days in this wonderful city. There really is something for everyone in Bangkok and I think that it can easily become whatever you want it to be.

I would return to these five places in a heartbeat. I would also recommend these places to anyone in a heartbeat. But, I do see one common theme here. These are places where I had really great experiences because of really great people that I met and shared them with. So, it makes me wonder, would I love these places as much as I do if I experienced them with different people? I like to think that I would. And, maybe, one day I will return and find out for sure!

Chilling With Elephants in Chiang Mai

1 Jan

One of the activities I was most looking forward to during my time Southeast Asia was the chance to hang out with elephants in Thailand!

Chiang Mai seemed like the perfect place to do this.

After looking into my options, I decided to visit the Elephant Nature Park. If I had to do it again, I would’ve chosen a different company, but I want to emphasize that Elephant Nature Park is a really great organization. It is an elephant rescue and rehabilitation centre in northern Thailand where the workers and volunteers provide a natural environment for the elephants as well as for some other rescued animals.

I went with the full day tour for 2500 baht, which is about 80 USD. It included the pick-up from my hostel, a huge buffet lunch, time to feed the elephants and time to ‘bathe’ with the elephants. They don’t offer riding the elephants as it is an elephant rescue organization and that seems unfair to the big, beautiful animals. We also got to watch a video about how the organization got started, how it operates, and what it hopes to accomplish.

While this day trip would be ideal for many people, it wasn’t ideal for me because it wasn’t what I hoped for when I envisioned trekking with elephants. There were a lot of families there with young children and I think Elephant Nature Park is perfect for a family vacation.

For me, it was a little underwhelming for the price I was paying. I know 2500 baht doesn’t seem too pricey for a full day trip, but compared to some of the other options I had, it just didn’t quite measure up. My favourite part of the day was definitely feeding the elephants, but that didn’t really last long and you never really had much one-on-one interaction with the elephants as your tour group was quite large. The biggest disappointment, though, was bathing the elephants. I wanted to actually swim with and bathe the elephants, but it was pretty much just fifty or so people filling small buckets with water and splashing them on the elephants, which lasted only about 20 minutes.

I love what the organization is doing. I really do. It just wasn’t what I hoped for.

This taught me one big lesson: stop planning so much.

I booked this tour before I even arrived in Chiang Mai based on Tripadvisor reviews. Then, I met a group of awesome people on the bus to Chiang Mai who all ended up going on an overnight elephant trek through the jungle. That would have been my ideal encounter with elephants. And, I would’ve spent it with some really great people.

On the bright side, I got some really great pictures and I met some truly amazing animals.

Elephant Nature Park wasn’t what I anticipated it would be, but it could be perfect for you. I guess it just depends on what kind of experience you’re looking for. I was looking for an adventure. But, in 20 years when if I have a family, this would likely be the perfect tour for me. It definitely was interesting experience and, besides teaching me a lot about the unfair treatment of elephants (and the insane amount of water they drink a day), this day also taught me that making concrete plans in advance really isn’t for me.

I saw a ton of elephant crap. I held an elephant tooth that was the size of my head. I spent time with a beautiful elephant who had an excruciatingly painful, broken hip. I watched baby elephants getting a ton of love from their proud mamas. It wasn’t the perfect day, but it was a good experience.

A Trip to the Hospital in Bangkok

30 Oct

I survived the crazy streets of Chiang Mai without crashing my motorbike.

I survived tubing in Vang Vieng, Laos with only a few scrapes and bruises.

I survived Khao San Road in Bangkok.

I survived the crazy Halong Bay booze cruise in Vietnam.

And then there was Koh Phangan, Thailand.

Right after I broke it

Now, I know what you’re thinking: Full Moon Party got the best of her.

But it was really Koh Phangan that got the best of me.

The night after the Full Moon Party in August, my 4th night in Koh Phangan, I broke a bone in my left foot.

Where the fateful spill took place

Let’s just say a combination of buckets and concrete did me in.

I spent a week limping through Koh Phi Phi before I decided to call my insurance.

They were great. They did everything for me. They made my appointment and told me how to get to the hospital. The insurance covered everything which was great because I wasn’t ready to call my parents asking for money because I broke a bone. They were worried enough about me traveling in general.

I went to Bumrungrad Hospital in Bangkok. It was the nicest hospital I’ve ever been in. Seriously. It was about a half hour away from Khao San Road and as soon as I pulled up in a taxi I was greeted by staff and brought into the beautifully decorated and insanely clean hospital. Bumrungrad is a great hospital for tourists. They have English-speaking doctors and a lot of the other staff spoke english as well.

After filling out some forms and getting a hospital ID card (with my picture on it! Such a cool souvenir) I was sent to another floor where I didn’t wait long before talking to a doctor. He was totally cool. He spoke english and was actually very personable. He sent me to get an x-ray and then I waited a short time before being called back into the doctor’s office.

He told me I had broken a metatarsal (the long bones that are attached to our toes) and that I would need a cast and crutches. The problem with a cast and crutches was that I still had another 2 weeks of travelling (and I would be exploring Angkor Wat in that time). So, he suggested a splint-cast which was removable and I wouldn’t need crutches because it was a walking cast.

A few nurses quickly measured my foot and put on a very fashionable, black cast. I waited for about 20 minutes for my painkillers and muscle relaxants. They offered to burn me a CD with the x-ray on it to show my doctor once I got back to Canada.

And that was it. Simple, easy, and not stressful in the slightest.

So, my hospital experience in Bangkok wasn’t so bad.

I learned that travel insurance is a very, very, very important thing to have because anything can happen.

I learned that buckets can be very dangerous, especially on Koh Phangan, and I need to be more careful when drinking in a foreign country because next time healthcare might not be easily accessible.

I learned that broken bones in feet are absolutely terrible because they take forever to heal. It is now almost 3 months since I broke it and I’m still wearing the cast (which is such a pain in the ass).

Exploring Angkor Wat on a broken foot

Most importantly, though, I was able to move past this speed bump so that I could enjoy the rest of my trip.

I learned to adapt.