Sunday, November 28, 2010

Change: The Groundwork for Opportunity

As a part of my effort to re-build momentum, there are a few blogs that I read regularly. Typically they are written by people that share my perspective on a meaningful, fulfilled life and in sharing their point-of-view they inspire and encourage me to continue pursuing the kind of life I want to live.

Katy, of The Single Supplement wrote a post about being "an agent for change" and the term really resinated with me. Katy and her sister Rachel, of The Minimalist Mom, are advocates in the world of minimalism and recently she wrote a post about presenting minimalism to the masses by "living a better life through small change". She wrote about how extreme changes can be overwhelming or to intimidating for most and instead called for action of small changes to the everyday. She called the effort "..change people can get behind".

I'm not quite on board with the whole minimalist movement, but the approach did get me thinking about my perspective on "change that people can get behind". I am a huge fan of change. We've become great friends over the years and I strongly believe that, while change can be the unapproachable, confrontational and awkward one in a room full of comfortable habits, routine and predictability, you really ought to give change a chance.

First of all, I understand that change is not easy. It makes us step outside our comfort zone and makes us uncomfortable for a while. It calls for an adaptation of our routine and a reshuffling of the things we're used to. When we change, it sometimes also creates the need for the people around us to change and, well, no one wants to create confusion or inconvenience for anyone else.

But like it or not, change is necessary. Earlier this week while driving around running errands a thought about change and it's relationship with opportunity came to me. This happens a lot while I drive, and I end up having to take voice notes so I don't lose my train of thought. Anyhow, here is the transcript of the message I left for myself:

"We must embrace change. We know that doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result is the very definition of insanity. Our environment, our social circles, what we do for entertainment, our habits and routine. Doing the same thing day in and day out and expecting that something extraordinary will happen to us is insane.  We have to accept change in our life and get used to adapting to it. I'm talking about little changes. Start with where you get your morning coffee, the route or the method you take to get to work, once a week change up your working environment. Take your night out with friends to a place/restaurant/bar you've never been to. Make an effort to meet new friends or maybe re-connect with some old ones you haven't seen or spoke to in a while. I am not implying that these small changes will change your life or cause extraordinary things to happen to you, but it starts to break the mould of ordinary. Here's the thing, when opportunity comes knocking, it will ask you to change. It will ask you to make a decision that will likely create some kind of change in your life. If we are hesitant or resistant to change, opportunity will move on."

Back to minimalism for a moment. My favourite theme in the sphere of minimalism is the movement behind de-cluttering. This is a hot topic for me right now as I am still unpacking boxes from my move in August as me and my redhead attempt to merge our lives together. This has me constantly asking myself "where did I get all this stuff?!" and even more puzzling, "why do I still have it?!" It's incredible the things I've kept over the years and even more amazing that I've moved it from apartment to apartment (not to mention across the country). So it's time to de-clutter. I'm keeping only what I need and what I use, otherwise, EVERYTHING GOES. Well, this is the rule 90% of the time. I still make exceptions, but I'm trying hard to stick with the rule "if I haven't used it, worn it or needed it in the last year - gone-zo".

This is a great exercise to go through because de-cluttering is not about just getting rid of your things. It's about taking control of what you have in your life. It's living with less and making room for the things in your life that matter. Starting with the old t-shirts and college hoodies in your closet and moving to the CD's you haven't listened to since high school and the books that you never read (and likely never will). Eventually it'll be your budget you re-organize and attack your consumer debt. Then it's the wasted energy on other things that just take up space in your life, but really don't matter.

There are endless reasons why de-cluttering is a healthy exercise and just as many resources to guide you, but I won't get into it now. However, if you're like me and want to profit from lessening your life's load, sell your crap on ebay, list it on craigslist or send it to a consignment shop. You'd be surprised at the cash your crap will bring in. Seriously.

Anyhow, the point of all this was that welcoming change into our lives, even the small changes, helps us to become agile in a world where we can get used to the ordinary. We can get so stuck in our routines that change becomes so unattractive and uncomfortable that we avoid it at any cost. Author and poet Francis Bacon once said "a wise man will make more opportunities than he finds." I say, start by creating some change, see what kinds of opportunities come next.

I realize that I just wrote a post about routine and my need to involve that in my life as well, but there is room for both. You can welcome change in your life without completing disrupting your routine. Again, this is about small change. Change that everyone can get behind. Change even you can find room for.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Building a Customary or Regular Course of Procedure

rou·tine: A regular, unvarying, habitual, unimaginative and constantly repeated formula resulting in a convenient or predictable response.

Even though the very definition of routine makes my skin crawl, I know the benefits that come with this "unimaginative" and "habitual" daily act. I mentioned in my last post that having a reliable routine (including work and training schedule) left room for inspiration to find it's way into my mind and make itself welcome. When I don't have to think about what will fill my days I free up some bandwidth in my brain making room for inspiration and motivation to do their thing.

Now don't get me wrong, thinking about doing an hour of yoga, maybe going for a hike, reading recent posts on the various blogs I follow or catching up with friends doesn't exactly push me to my creative limits or anything. But I refuse to sit on the couch and watch TV all day and there is simply nothing worse than coming to the end of the day and realizing you actually and literally did nothing. I just don't let that happen. So, even though it's not life changing productivity I'm filling my days with, it still takes some planning and I have to put effort into what I want to do every day.

Actually... re-read that last sentence. "it's not life changing productivity I'm filling my days with" On the contrary!!!!!

I could fill my days with job hunting. I could send out 10 resumes a day looking for a job that provides a steady pay cheque, good benefits and an RSP matching program. If I put my mind to it, I could have a job in no time and my "day filling" problem would just go away.

Instead, what I'm doing is searching for passion, questioning what makes me happy, looking for new personal challenges and ways to realize my dreams. In doing so, I'm dedicating myself to finding meaningful work at something I will enjoy, bring a sense of fulfilment to my life and that I will ultimately be successful at. So... sorry.. I lost track of why filling my days was a problem......

Right! As a part of my search for meaningful work and unconventional success, I will add routine back in my life so that inspiration has room to get warm and cozy in my once again busy brain.

Back to basics.

Exercise: I have to include exercise in everyday. That sounds so slight coming from an Ironman triathlete who used to have a "training regime". No training here. Just exercise. Yoga in my living room (budget conscious alternative to classes), short runs or evening swims will do. As of late, I just pack up my computer and walk the 25min to the furthest Starbucks where I spend a few hours (as opposed to spending it in my home office).

Schedule: Putting things in my calendar help create routine. I'm riding on Tuesday's and Friday's plus one other flexible day of the week. I'd like to swim on Tuesday's and Thursday's so that in a few weeks (of getting my water wings back) I can start to swim with my local Masters swim club (who practice on the same nights). I enjoy Yoga and start my day with it twice a week.

I also would like to write on my blog three times a week, so I will dedicate some time to that in a schedule. There's also time to commit to career search and research on the same topic. Similarly, there are business ideas that require massaging and nurturing in order to develop.

Finally, being unemployed provides great opportunity to do things that you normally don't get to do, like play tourist in your own city. I'm also adding to my schedule "something new" which will encourage me to look for something new to do each week. "Broaden my horizons" if you will.

Well, that didn't take long. Now my schedule is full and by the end of the day, I will have earned the right to relax. This is an interesting time in my life and I intend to take full advantage of it. This is the time to create opportunity and make change.

Now that I've outlined specifically what my new routine will include, I wonder where I will find the time! It also helped me realize that my time is valuable and what I do with it really matters. This is my life I'm talking about, I will only get out what I put in.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

You look different... did you cut your hair?

Eat. Sleep. Swim. Bike. Run has had a facelift! Welcome to A Work In Progress.

After years of documenting my journey to Ironman (and my six weeks of celebratory travel that followed), I've been pondering on what to do with my blog. I really enjoy blogging so I didn't want to give it up. I find it therapeutic to write my thoughts and it also keeps me motivated when I feel accountable for what I say I am going to do.

It's been an interesting few weeks since I've returned home from Asia. I've found myself in a situation that I haven't been in for sometime now. I've got no training schedule, no work projects, no work, no upcoming races and generally, nothing to focus on. Some tell me that this could be a good thing - time to just be and not be focused on something, but I have a problem with that. For the first time in a long time, I feel directionless. I have spent years building momentum (which is beautifully explained in an article on How to Harness the Power of Momentum) and I fear that somehow by not being busy, I am losing that momentum which I have worked so hard to maintain.

I also have a busy mind. That, coupled with my aforementioned momentum makes creating new ideas and finding the motivation to make them happen come easily to me. I am also a creature of habit and because I have always had a very reliable routine (Eat. Sleep. Swim. Bike. Run), it left a lot of room for inspiration to come into my mind and make itself welcome.

These days, I'm finding it hard to find inspiration. I have been keeping myself busy hoping that all that steam that kept me moving from one project to another pre-travel will catch up with me and move me forward to my "next big thing", but just "filling my days" has left me bored and looking for more (duh...)

I revert back to basics.

Passion: Ironman / triathlon was a passion that consumed me for years. Loving the sport, loving the challenge, loving what it gave back to my life was what kept me going. Now, while I still appreciate the sport, I've decided to put it on the back burner while I try new things. Ironman is a tough act to follow so finding new a passion hasn't been easy.

Throughout my process of finding ways to return passion to my life, I was reminded how many experts will suggests that you think back to what you did for fun as a kid and that may help determine where your true passions lie.

When I was a kid (maybe age 9+) I started riding horses. Horses became my life and something I feel influenced strongly who I became as an adult. I still have trunks full of old riding gear and equipment that I couldn't get rid of for both sentimental reasons, and because I secretly hope that some day I'll win the lottery and can afford to own a horse of my own again. Of course, owning your own horse isn't the only way to have them in your life. In the past, I've looked for work at a stable as a groom or a rider, used my contacts to find some free lance riding, or just hooked up with friends that have horses and may take you up on your offer to ride their horse when they're out of town. None of these options where proving to lead anywhere this time around, so I went the ultimately obvious although somewhat of a hit to the ego route - riding lessons.

As someone who spent (at one point) most of her life on a horse and working professionally with members of the Canadian Equestrian Team, going back to taking lessons on a school horse is a tough pill to swallow. Fortunately I have a bigger picture in mind and I'm more reasonable with myself now-a-days. The one hour a week of pressure free, no responsibility, commitment free riding at a cost my unemployed budget could handle was looking pretty attractive. So that's what I did.

As the universe would have it, before the end of my first lesson, my new instructior asked me if I was interested in doing some riding for her. She has a horse that she half-leases out to a young girl who is advancing quickly and her horse could use a little tuning so that he aid's in her progression and not hindering it. Now I'm riding three times a week and still have my one hour lesson.

I hope you like my new blog. I aim to make it enjoyable and inspirational for anyone that stumbles upon it. Take it or leave it, it's just how I see it :)

Monday, November 15, 2010

Koh Phangan - Oct 25-27

I left Koh Samui in search of a few days of luxury retreat before heading home on Saturday. While I was no longer interested in "exploring" or adventuring, there were enough notable recommendations about Koh Phangan, the middle child of the three famous Gulf Islands, that made it worth the trip.

On the ferry over I met a few people with roughly the same plan as me. They were looking for a semi-luxury place to spend a few days, but had no idea where they would find it. We were all hooked by a guy on the boat pushing a resort on the west side. It was a free taxi out there so we all decided to take a look. When we got there, three of the 6 of us were sold on it, but the other couple and I were unsure. It was fine, but we wanted more than just fine. Plus flushing toilets, we wanted flushing toilets.

They said they would likely head back to a place they had just spent two weeks. They ventured off the island for a week or so, but decided to come back to their favorite spot (even though temporarily distracted by giving this new place a chance). The place they described sounded fantastic, but it was on the east coast and secluded requiring a water taxi to get there. Up for the trek if it meant getting a toilet I understood, I decided to go along.

We shared a taxi around to the east side and got off at Haad Rin. This little row of shacks on a beach is famous for the full moon parties which I had apparently just missed a few days earlier. Shux. The town didn't look like much during the day, but I was told not to let its sleepy appearance mislead me, I had to keep in mind it was before noon still and no one here has had breakfast before noon in some time.

With not much to see here, we jumped in a water taxi and uttered the words Barcelona, which thankfully the kid driving the boat understood because I still had no idea where we were headed.

It was just 10 minutes out into the sea and around a point into a hidden cove and paradise unveiled itself to me. Just like a postcard, wood bungalows lined the white sandy beach. The water was acqua green and the tranquility vibrated out onto the water to us. With a smirk and a giggle I laughed at the discovery. Places like this do exist.

I walked up to the bar (read: shack on beach with blender on the counter) and asked if they had a bungalow. He said he only had the expensive ones, but tomorrow night a big group was leaving and a cheaper one would be available. Figures. So I asked how much the expensive one was and decided I might take a hit one night seeing as I've come all this way. "$500 baht" he says. That's approximately $16 a night. "Sold" I told him.

He gave me the rusty key to the padlock which secured my bungalow and I took myself into my new accommodations. Well, some things are true no matter where you go and this much I know: you get what you pay for (and $16 doesn't get you very much).

It was basic. A roof over my head, running water (but not hot water mind you) and a flushing toilet. Apparently you don't really come here for the luxury, the beauty is on the beach. So that's where I went.

The secluded beach was home to four different "hotels" but everyone mingled and socialized like one big community. The last place on the end was a bit bigger and had a much nicer bar/restaurant and played movies every night. Just about everyone on the beach came to watch. A neat experience.

I stayed a few nights here and even moved into a cheaper cottage which didn't have much less other than having to walk further up some steps to get to it, and it even had a hammock on the front porch. Being higher gave it an incredible view and it poured rain most of the day my second day here so I spent the majority of it making use of that hammock.

After the initial shock of the beauty wore off, I was back in the same place I had been for the past few days. Tired of traveling, missing the comforts of home and missing Anthony. I had some incredible experiences and great opportunity to create even more had I been up for it, but I was just feeling lonely without him. Nothing was as fun, even if it was fun I wished too much that he was there with me and I just wanted to leave so that we could come back and experience it together.

It was an interesting few days and I had met some interesting people. Many of them had been on that beach for months. One guy for 6 years! Most of them had the same story. They needed to get away. They quit their jobs, rented out or sold their homes so they could afford to get away for a while. A long while. While I listened to some of them, I couldn't judge them in one way or another. I heard myself in their stories, wanting to travel but never knowing how to do it. Wanting desperately to escape the mundane and routine of work, home, work, home. The pressures of societies norms and expectations... Rah rah rah. I had heard it all before, unfortunately it was out of my own mouth! I couldn't agree or disagree with any of them. We were just in different places in our lives and for them, right now being on a secluded beach with absolutely nothing to do everyday was what they were searching for. It was what they needed.

This beach also brought me some clarity. I on the other hand figured out that this was exactly where I did not want to be. 2010 has been a major year for me with some significant milestones, closing of chapters, achievements and devastation. And to get through most of it I had to commit. I had to commit to those things I knew wanted for myself and trust that if I stayed focused on what I wanted to achieve, I could only move forward and my life would continue to unveil the great things I know are in store.

One of my life's "to do" list items includes "see the world". While I haven't quite seen all of it, I feel I saw a good chunk in the last 45 days and a certain curiosity has been satisfied. There is still lots to see and I have still some traveling to do, but unlike my comrades on the beach, I can't help but be excited about what's waiting for me at home.

This year started pretty badly, but being sad everyday will not change what's happened. And just because I'm not sad everyday doesn't mean I do not hurt. But I have so many things to celebrate in my life that overlooking them would be an injustice to the things she taught me.

Life is so wonderful. Swinging in my hammock, I began thinking of all the things I've experienced this year.

- I had an experience of a lifetime with the Olympic Games.

- I completed an Ironman after 5 years of dreaming.

- I celebrated the first anniversary of finding a man who loves me unconditionally and has been my rock through it all and even agreed to come on this wild adventure with me.

- I satisfied a dream of traveling. Starting to see the world.

And now, I have more dreams. I have a new chapter to start and I can hardly wait to get the hell off this beautiful beach and go home to start making them happen.

Life is so good to me. I'm so excited to move on.

More photos of Thailand here:

Koh Samui - Oct 23-24

I flew direct to Koh Samui from Chiang Mai. At $225 it was by far the most expensive purchase I've made. I knew my time in Thailand is limited now and I didn't want to spend any of it on buses or overnight trains. The flight was quick and easy and I arrived in sunny tropical Koh Samui in just an hour and a half.

I had selected a hotel at Big Buddha beach before leaving Chiang Mai but when I arrived, there wasn't any access to the beach which apparently across the street. I hadn't paid for a reservation, so I just moved on. Someone suggested a place called Fishermans Village which was about 10min up the road so I figured I would start heading that way. After a few minutes of walking and no taxi's I was worried 10mins might not really mean 10mins and in the heat of the afternoon sun, I was thankful for the girl on a scooter who pulled over and offered me a ride into the town. Seeing how far my walk would have been, I was very appreciative of her offer.

I found gem in the midst of the overpriced luxury boutique hotels and stayed in a fantastic guesthouse run by a German who lived on the second floor. The rooms were like apartments with big clean bathrooms, a/c, tv, full kitchen and private balcony. It was right on the main street and over looked the "action". I use that term loosely since its a pretty sleepy town despite the lounges, restaurants and all the shops. This perfect find came at a lofty 800 baht a night (about $26).

The next morning, I rented a motorbike for the day and went out to explore the other beaches and towns. I made it to Chewng, a party center and tourist magnet. Full of shops, cafes, market style vendors, bars, lounges and energy, this was the perfect contrast to where I was staying.

I took advantage of the beautiful beach and found myself a beach bar and lounger to set up camp for a few hours. I drank smoothies and dipped in the ocean all day. Fantastic. When it came time to move on and see more than just the beach, I strolled up and down the street (there's just one main street) but being completely shopped out, I wasn't finding anything that caught my interest. Changing my intention to finding food, all I found was Irish Pubs and American bars that served hamburgers and pizza. There was usually some Thai food on the menu, but it was 3x the price it should be.

I decided I would find somewhere else. Back on my scooter it wasn't 2min before I found a group of real Thai food shops which are nothing more than street stalls and plastic chairs. These are perfectly acceptable (ie; clean) places as they are very busy serving locals. I stopped in and had a drink, an appy, a main and a side of rice for 130 baht (less than $5). Best of all, they were super friendly and loved to have me. Not something you get in a Thai impression of an American bar.

I went back to my end of the island but not without using up every ounce of gasoline I put into my scooter. Riding around was so fun, I drove up island until I thought I was out of gas than turned around and made it back to my guesthouse putt-putt-puttering my way in and turning over the keys.

I had seen enough of Samui in the day and a half I was there and decided to leave in the morning for Koh Phangan in search of somewhere to hang my hat for the remainder of the trip. I am all traveled out now. I no longer have an interest in planning day trips to explore, being adventurous or searching for excitement. I'm homesick, miss my red head and just want to sit on a beach somewhere until its time to catch my flight home on Saturday. Tomorrow I'll catch a ferry and hopefully stay put for a few days.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Chiang Mai - Oct 18-22

Chiang Mai is a charming little place. The city buzzes with energy and a pulse, but its size keeps it welcoming and warm. The most touristy spots are contained in the "Old City" which is a section defined by a river that makes a complete square in the heart of Chiang Mai. Its not all that big, but either is Chiang Mai.

Following my own advice, I set out first thing in the morning on a bicycle which I've already said is the best way to see the most of your new city, get your barrings and get a little bit of exercise. I rode around for a few hours stopping at a couple different tour booking places to check out some options for the next few days. With enough info gathered to make a decision, I stopped for lunch and made a plan.

First up - Baan Chen Elephant Park. What a great day this was. The park is run by a man who loves his elephants (he has 12) and wanted a place to teach people about them, give them an incredible experience by being able to interact with them and do it all without exploiting the animals or using them for "entertainment".

Throughout the day we fed them, learned what it meant to be a "mahout" and develop a relationship with them, what it takes to take care of them and a few basic elephant commands. We did get to ride them, but it was bareback without a nasty iron seat most commonly used for tourist elephant rides. The owner of the park who was with us most of the day explained the riding was short and just long enough to give them some decent exercise. We rode about 25 mins up to a clearing in the jungle were we got off and talked more about elephants with our guide while the big guys rested and the babies rolled around in the dirt. It was really fun to watch and see so close up. When we were ready to go back, we jumped back on their necks and backs and rode back to camp and directly into the watering hole where we were required to scrub down our new friends as a way to say "thank you" for their work with us.

I was reluctant at first to jump into the pond. It wasn't being with the elephants that caused concern, it was the dung and elephant piss I wasn't interested in swimming with. However, I wasn't given much of a choice and in I went.

This probably ranked up there as one of the most memorable parts of my traveling. Swimming around, up, over and on top of a giant elephant, scrubbing them down and seeing how they enjoyed it as much as we did was pretty cool. The baby elephants swam over and played with us. They sprayed us with water from their trunks and jumped over mum, head butting and pawing at her as we all played together. Pretty amazing, even with the dung.

One of the other most memorable experiences was a visit to see the Karen tribe or "long necks". Unfortunately this was memorable for all the wrong reasons.

Having done some hill tribe treks and visiting villages in Sapa I made the assumption that this was going to be similar. I booked it through my hotel and as it was explained, we would be visiting a large village which was home to 5 different tribes including the "long necks". This was actually the only village where you could see the long necks unless you went way far north to the boarder of Burma where their main village is. So this sounds perfect to me, a trek, 5 villages/tribes, the long necks. Perfect.

Well, when we arrived to this village there was no need to trek anywhere. This village of 5 tribes was more like a zoo. It was a make shift village built for the purpose of tourism. Ethnic tribes (or members of) come from their homelands to live in this living museum to sit on display for tourist. They have homes here, but many of them probably drive in everyday from the looks of all the pick up trucks in the parking lot. They make a living off what we purchase of their crafts and possibly a small salary from the larger operation.

Feeling pretty cheated by my hotel on this crap tour, things went from bad to worse.

We approached a gated village (as opposed to the wide open ones we just walked through) and read the sign at the entrance. This was the long neck village. The sign explained that the occupants of this village were granted a "work" visa by Thai immigration, but are not granted citizenship and are considered aliens by the Thai government. 16 woman and their husbands (and some have had children here) were allowed entry to the country for the purpose of working in this village but were not allowed to leave unless applying for, and being granted permission by immigration officials.

Basically, these people were brought here to this make shift village to sit on their door steps and have tourist take photos of them. The village is about 50 meters long and as wide as a one car width road with huts lining each side. They will be arrested and deported back to Burma if they leave this area.

Burma is a horrible place and many of the Karen tribe escape Burma and take refuge in a camp on the Thai side of the boarder (which explains the "main village near the boarder" explained to me earlier). In short, we were walking around a concentration camp for women seeking escape from either a corrupt and violent Burma, or refugee camp alternative.

The feeling of being cheated on a crap tour quickly turned to a dirty greasy, guilty feeling of being a part of this. The feeling was mutual throughout the 5 of us in the group and we silently hung our heads while we walked away. We felt like like terrible tourist. We made some purchases of their crafts hoping that the money would eventually help them out of this situation, but I could only take a few photos before it just wasn't right and I couldn't take anymore. Not knowing what to do or say, we just left.

That pretty much put a damper on the rest of the day and it never really got much better.

Besides the strange long neck experience, Chiang Mai has been amazing. I did a Thai cooking class, went to the night bazaar, had a facial, foot massages, Thai massage and endless great Pad Tai. I know that sounds like a lot of massages, but at $6 an hour, it would be a crime not to. Last night, although I think she made a mistake, I had a 1 hour foot massage followed by a 1 hour Thai massage for a total of 170 baht. That's just about $6.

Speaking of which, last night walking home from my massage, it was about 10pm, and although much of the shops and things had closed up for the night, there was still action in the streets. I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me and I cursed myself swearing I would never leave the house without my glasses ever again, but they weren't playing tricks, there actually was an elephant walking down the sidewalk towards me. He was following a boy. Of course. I seemed to be the only one who cared or even looked up.

Today I leave for Koh Samui and in one week I head home. I'm ready for home now. I miss Anthony and think I would just have more fun if he was here with me. We'll have to come back again next year. Two weeks isn't long enough anyhow.

More photos of Chiang Mai here:

Friday, November 12, 2010

Cambodia/Thailand - Oct 17

The bus trip from Siem Reap was an interesting one. When I purchased my $11 ticket for the 8 hour journey I was diligent in my question asking because as I've discovered, and as I continuously read about, bus trips are easy scams for agencies. Foreigners buying one way tickets who are usually on a schedule to catch a connection or move onto another country are very unlikely to come back and complain. Plus, you don't have to impress them for repeat business. And at $11, you get what you pay for.

Anyhow, I asked a bunch of questions and made sure I knew the kind of bus I would be getting on was one of the cleaner, newer, less likely to breakdown on the road in rural Cambodia types. I was assured it was just like the one in the shiny new red one in the photo and went ahead with my booking. Sure enough when the tuk tuk dropped me off, there was a group of foreigners looking just as unimpressed with the heap of junk parked in front of the pick up spot with a Cambodia/Thailand boarder sign in its window as I was. Oh well, at least this time there are people that speak English with me on the bus. I'm just hoping it has air con.

When we finally pulled away at 8:25 for our 8:00 departure, with no apparent reason for the delay, we spent the next 45 minutes driving around Siem Reap picking up and dropping off people that were probably someones friend or cousin that just needed a ride to work, then we stopped roadside for a good 10 minutes waiting for someone who later turned out to have just needed a lift to the next town, we were on our way. After 35 minutes of finally being on the road, we stopped at our first pit stop to use the toilet and get a snack. This was a shack on the road and obviously run by friends of the driver. All of us on the bus just rolled our eyes, no one really got off the bus and 10 minutes later we were FINALLY on the road to the boarder.

The scenery though rural Cambodia is breathtaking. The rice paddies were as far as the eye can see and the population exists in small shacks on stilts with only dirt as a front yard. I've learned that to grow rice the terrace needs to be flooded (although the frequency or level of flooding I never sorted out) so it was normal to see water levels in the fields reaching up to and sometimes over the roadway. People working in the fields were often wading through at waist height and I'm certain many of them spent the majority of their day like this.

What I couldn't figure out was if the flooding around their homes was intentional because of the surrounding rice terraces, or if living in devastation like conditions was in part contributed by the wet season. Homes were flooded to the door fronts and beyond. Children stood barefoot in front of homes looking around with no where dry to walk. Those that had homes on stilts often hung hammocks below the house and an entire family would swing there keeping dry. After hours of the same thing, it was difficult to keep looking out the window.

When we finally arrived at the boarder after two additional unnecessary pit stops, we were told that we'd be changing buses on the other side (small detail skipped by my tour agent, and an overlooked question on my part). We were all given small pieces of tape - either red or yellow - to stick to our shirts, some had initials on them, others were blank, but none of us new what any of it meant. We unloaded, grabbed our bags and headed to the line up of people leaving Cambodia.

Not knowing what to expect, just the surroundings of the boarder gave me the willy's. With no questions asked, actually not even a glance up at me, he stamped by passport and waived me through. After a long walk through no mans land I stood in line at the Thai immigration office with my fingers crossed they would not ask anything about me leaving Thailand. Technically, Canadians do not require a Visa to enter Thailand, they only need proof of onward travel. I got caught in Miami with this, they wouldn't issue us a boarding pass until we showed proof of leaving Thailand. Thankfully I had a printed itinerary of our flight to Vietnam on me, otherwise it would have been a much bigger hassle. It seems though that the lady at the US Airways information counter was more concerned with following the Thai customs regulations than the Thai officials were. There were no questions asked, not even a glance up at me. This was what I was told was going to happen (when I asked around before planning my trip), but I was just hoping that I wasn't standing in the line of the officer going for the "Customs Agent of the year award" and would throw the book at me. Phew. I kept $50 US on me just in case...

On the other side, a guy making sense of all our red, yellow and encrypted stickers was corralling us into groups. I was hoping it wasn't the "looks vulnerable", "looks rich" and "looks gullible" groups and more the "Bangkok", "Pattaya" and "Surat Thani" groups. Thankfully it was the later.

We followed our new "guide" to our next mode of transport which ended up being a mini-bus. We jammed our bags in this thing to the gills and crammed our bodies in the 12 pax van. I made the unfortunate mistake of getting in first and put myself in a window seat near the back. Being claustrophobic, this was a worse idea than "chancing it" at the Thai/Cambodia boarder without meeting entry requirements. As soon as the doors closed I had uncontrollable flashes of vomiting, being trapped, crawling viciously over the unsuspecting and innocent people in front of me and all of a sudden I couldn't breath and I was shaking. I yelled "stop! I have to get out!" Followed by "OUT OUT OUT OUT" repeatedly until the confused guy at the door opened it and I leaped out (I'm sure) kicking people along the way. Apologizing profusely, the kind soul sitting in the front changed seats with me. He was probably 6 foot 4 and sat like a pretzel while I stretched out in the front with a nice view and the A/C directly on me. I did feel bad, but like I explained later at a pit stop, he would have probably chosen sitting like a pretzel over the smell of sweat and vomit for the 3:30 hour trip. He agreed.

We finally arrived in Bangkok without further incident and I killed time on Kao Sun road before getting to the airport to catch my flight to Chiang Mai. That trip was uneventful and I arrived at my Guesthouse ready for a nights rest.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Siem Reap - Oct 13-17

I loved this place and I'm sad to see it go, but its time to move on. When I arrived here the mini-bus dropped me off at a small travel outlet where the hotel sent a tuk-tuk to get me. My first impression of the city was not a good one. Even more poor than Phnom Phen, but not nearly as busy, the streets are less packed with stalls and more bare and spread out. I wasn't sure about it all until I arrived at my hotel which could be considered luxury at this point. Brand new, high ceilings in its beautiful lobby, swimming pool and clean spacious rooms. What does luxury cost you in this town? A whopping $15 a night. Nice.

My tuk-tuk driver also turned out to be my driver for the next few days touring the temples. Right away he took me out to buy my 3 day pass and into the temples to watch the sunset (this wasn't a romantic trip... He stayed with the tuk-tuk and I joined the 100 or so other tourist:). Once you buy your pass, its free to enter after 5pm. The sunset wasn't great because of the clouds, but the view of the rain storm heading our way was fantastic.

The next day Nit my driver took me around from temple to temple. He's not a "tour guide", but at least he knew what temples were what so I could read about them in my book. I was ready to head back to the hotel after 6 hours of exploring. The next day we did the outter loop, less temples, but further away and it took the same time. I wasn't yet "templed out" as they say, but they were all starting to look the same. For my third and final visit, I saved the best for last. I rented a bicycle (despite the morning rain and threats of a storm) and rode into Ankor Wat. This is by far the largest temple and holds the greatest religious significance. I've never really been interested in the whole mythology and religious history, but its sheer size and beauty was impressive enough. I sort of regretting not hiring a guide for a few hours which probably would have been really interesting, but instead, I just wandered around marveling at the beauty. On my way out, I stopped in one of the library buildings situated on either side of the long pathway to the temple. The view was great, it was quiet and provided relief from the sun. Not long after sitting down in an empty window sill, it started to rain. While I watched the others flea, I decided to open my book and wait it out. So there I sat, with a great book, in a quiet Ankorian library with an unobstructed view of Ankor Wat. Pretty cool.

Back in town, Siem Reap has so much to offer. The "Old Market" area is bustling with foreigners and caters to them with chic restaurants, lively pubs and spa services galore. I tried the fish massage by sticking my finger in, but there's no way I could bring myself to do the full foot massage/pedicure. They do seem to be popular though.

I could have stayed in Siem Reap longer. Right up until the last night I was discovering new cool parts of the market and loved killing time on many one of the many patios during the day. I stumbled upon the night market which after the first wonder around didn't seem any different than any other market until I just about tripped over someone getting a foot massage practically in the middle of the laneway. When I looked up, I saw the sign reading "Seeing Hands massage by the blind", then the best part - 30 min for $2! Without skipping a beat I was reclined in a chair enjoying the best foot massage ever. Seriously. This massage out classed any massage I've ever had. It was so good that I asked if she could another 30 min on my back and shoulders. Right there in the market! Such a cool experience.

Siem Reap created some pretty cool memories. I met great people and had a wonderful few days. Sunday morning I was off on the bus to Bangkok where I would catch my flight to Chiang Mai.

Lots of pictures of Ankor here:

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Phnom Phen cont'- Oct 12

My second day in Phnom Phen was less eventful. I started the day up at Wat Phnom, a temple in the center of town with an interesting story. Its atop a hill (a small one) and houses 4 Buddha statutes that a woman named Phen found floating in the Mekong. The word "Phenom" translates to hill, so this city was literally named after "Phen's Hill". The story was more interesting than the temple, but a visit here is supposed to bring good luck.

I moved on to see the Central Market which was supposed to be spectacular, and even though I was not interested in shopping, especially at another market, Phenom Phen was running out of attractions for me. I was able to walk there and was glad that I did. The walk killed some time as the market wasn't nearly as busy as others I've been to, a fraction actually. Still fresh with consumer senses overload from Vietnam, I didn't stay here long. The product was of really poor quality anyhow.

Walking around I saw another girl on her own who seemed to be doing the same thing as me. We crossed paths a few times and eventually we ended up chatting. We stopped for lunch at a restaurant called "Friends". Its a training facility for disadvantaged youth and helps keep them off the street. It teaches them service skills, hygiene, food prep and cooking. Once completing the program at Friends, many go on getting jobs at hotels or upscale restaurants. The whole place is run by the kids and their teachers. Pretty cool.

I had the whole afternoon still and on advice of my lunch date, I decided to check out the Russian market. I didn't really want to do yet another market, but as she confirmed (what I was thinking), there really isn't much else to do here.

The market was another bust. Dark, dirty and garage sale quality goods.

Phenom Phen was an interesting place to visit. Its extremely poor and still recovering from an inconceivable past, but a place I'm glad I had the chance to see. Despite an uncomfortable feeling right from the boarder, no one actually did anything that gave me reason to feel unsafe. It was the images, the poverty, the living conditions that you see these people in that you associate with crime and danger. In fact, the people here have been friendly and helpful. I wouldn't call this a "warm" place, I was still on edge and had my wits about me at all times, but I think it was more a matter of me feeling out of my element and in an uncomfortable environment more than there was a issue of concern for my safety.

Nonetheless, two full days was enough and I booked my mini-bus ticket to move on to Siem Reap and Ankor. This is something I have really been looking forward to.

Phnom Phen - Oct 10

I finally arrived in Phnom Phen after my 6 hour bus ride lasted just over 12 hours. Turns out it was a National holiday and as my barely english speaking seat mate put it - an "unlucky" day to travel. We sat pretty much at a stand still for over 5 hours waiting for a ferry that I didn't know we were waiting for. Apparently you have to take a boat over the river to get into Phnom Phen. You can imagine my surprise in the dark of night when I asked the guy next to me - "are we on a boat?!". It gave him a good chuckle but as the only foreigner on the bus and even the host only speaking broken English, it made for an uneasy journey.

Arriving at night meant that the bus stopped right on the river in hotel/guesthouse central rather than a little more into town at the market. This was good news for me as it was now 9pm, dark and pouring rain and now I didn't have far to trek to find a hotel. In fact I found the one I was hoping for (as recommended by my Frommers guide) just a block or two from where I got off the bus.

This morning I got up and made my way to breakfast in the pouring rain and tonight, I made my way to dinner in the same condition. The weather broke briefly during the day, but not for long. To keep occupied and dry, I checked out the National museum first. I tried making it there by foot since I knew it wasn't far, but since the rain was so thick I could barely see down the road, I opted for a $2 tuk-tuk instead of wandering lost and getting soaked. The museum wasn't great, but for the $2 admittance it was the perfect dry attraction.

After a quick wander around the streets during the first brief period of dry, I caught some lunch and ended up meeting a couple from Edmonton. They were headed to Vietnam doing the south to north route with a few of the same stops we did. I offered some advice, raised caution about shoe makers in Hoi An and we said goodbye.

I did a visit to the Royal Palace as well since it was across the street and the rain was still on hold. It wasn't worth the $6 entrance fee, plus, I think I got hit on by a monk.

With still a few daylight hours left, I decided that I would check out the Tuol Sleng Genocide museum and former prison. This was something I had previously decided to avoid completely given the reading I've been doing about the Khmer Rouge. This is something I've just learned of recently and is likely responsible for my uneasy feeling in Cambodia. I've been reminding myself that the people have moved forward and the Pol Pot reign is now a part of their history. However, this gruesome past being only 31 years ago gave me no comfort. Looking around, I was always trying to estimate the ages of the local faces and realized soberly that if they were between the ages of 31-36, they were likely born in a concentration camp. If they looked 36 or older, it's very possibly may have lived through the nightmare of what was called the Cambodian holocaust. It was very rare to see old people. They simply did not survive the genocide of 1/4 of Cambodia's population from 1975 - 1979.

I thought that visiting this old high school converted into a detention facility used for interrogation and brutal torture before prisoners where shipped out to the killing fields would be similar to most museums. I assumed it would hold some original artifacts, provide information but mostly be a preservation of the past for the purposes for learning for the future, but more so a tourist trap. I was quickly corrected.

The actual sight came on me quickly since it originally was a middle school. Its in the middle of a busy neighborhood with not much foreground like you might expect a national exhibit to have. The excess in barbed wire over the enclosing walls garnered my attention and a double take, but it was pissing rain so hard that I practically ran through the gates, grabbed my ticket and straight into the first building on the left side of the "U" shaped compound.

Looking up for the first time, I was inside a barren classroom that had been used for torture. It had only a bed frame with rusted shackles on it. There was no electricity in this particular building and the dark rain clouds made it even harder to see. I could tell however that there was a large picture on the wall but needed to take a picture of it (with flash) to make out what it was. Only after viewing the playback on my camera could I see it was a very clear, very graphic and very real picture of a recently brutally tortured dead body, likely from in that very room. Immediately I was second guessing my decision to visit this place.

The entire first floor of this building was the same. Room after room of torture facility each displaying large graphic and (again) very real photos of what took place. Glad to have made it through those halls and eager to move onto the next building (which I could see had electricity) I darted out and moved on. The next set of rooms displayed what was described as the "nazi-like" documentation of prisoners. Every prisoner that was brought here was photographed upon arrival. Every one of the photos (originals) where displayed in the next few rooms. Starting in 1975, the photos looked like most mugs shots do. Deadpan expression, passport quality smile. As the years progressed, and the devastation of Pol Pots reign plagued the country, people knew more and more about S-21 (its official name) and what went on there. The photos slowly turned from deadpan to unimaginable fear. It was difficult to even look at some.

From what I understand, Khmer people (Cambodians) think its important to preserve the S-21 Tuol Sleng Genocide museum as a reminder of a life/country they will never return to. They think that by showing, in grave detail, the horrific nightmare that once was, people will never allow that sort of revolution again and that people will learn never to be that brutal and inhumane.

After passing through the final room, which housed floor to ceiling glass casings full of human skulls, I'm not sure how I feel. I'm certain that the images I saw today were things I wish I didn't. But at the same time, I'm not sure my generation, and especially those from the western world, could ever understand, comprehend or even take seriously something like this. I say "take seriously" because to us (well, speaking for myself), war is something found in textbooks or on TV on the other side of the world. Our parents may have (or may not have) had a related experience with, but mostly, nightmares are things found in good Hollywood films. We have nothing that makes this sort of thing a reality for us. Genocide, torture, random arrests and daily killings, evacuations and complete fear. We just can't relate.

Despite the nightmares I'm sure to have tonight, I'm glad to have seen and felt a part of history. I gained a little perspective today, a little appreciation and a lot of gratitude for the world in which I live. Wow, that doesn't seem to scratch the surface of it.

More pictures of Phnom Phen and the genocide museum here:

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Ho Chi Minh City - Oct 9

There are a few reasons I like flying in between destinations. The obvious is the speed and convenience of it all and here its also the affordability. The flight from Nha Trang to HCMC (Saigon) cost us $38 each. But the real reason I like fly is the reliability of airport coffee. I've really enjoyed Vietnamese coffee but its just not the same as my trusty latte with sweetner. Goodluck finding that anywhere. But airports always have coffee. All kinds of fantastic coffee. I swear its a subconscious reason I chose to fly.

Anyhow, after enjoying our airport latte, we were off to Ho Chi Minh City where Anthony would be flying home from later that night and I would be catching a bus in the morning to move on to Cambodia.

We had been warned a few times about the chaos of HCMC. Its bigger, noisier and more crowded than Bangkok and Hanoi. Having been completely overwhelmed in those cities, we knew one afternoon would be plenty of time to spend here.

I was presently surprised to discover it wasn't all that bad. It certainly was busy and crowded that's for sure, but it was no different than any other major city. In fact, I found it to be much more comfortable than the two previous cities. HCMC was a commerce center, had schools, shopping, cinemas, restaurants (not just for travelers) and all the other "normalcies" of a regular city. This was a place that I could make sense off. Hanoi and Bangkok (especially Hanoi) was a complete gong show of cars, motorbikes, vendor stalls, narrow streets and shoulder to shoulder people non stop. It was loud and fast and chaos. HCMC, while very busy, was civilized, organized and modern. It was a Vietnamese New York City.

We found a perfectly located hotel for the night right inside backpacker central. Everything we needed was within a few blocks - cheap food, shops for last minute souvenirs, travel agents galore and cheap cold beer. After booking my bus ticket for the morning, we were quick to enjoy the later.

Anthony and I said goodbye at 9pm so he could get back to the airport in time. He would be stopping in Tokyo for about 6 hours and I hope he ventures out on his own to explore. Depends on how much I've rubbed off on him I guess.

Right now, I'm catching up on my postings as I ride the bus into Cambodia and so far traveling solo has had some unexpected emotions.

I consider myself an adventurous and independent woman, I never hesitated at the idea of traveling on my own for a few reasons. First, being on my own was never a good enough reason to stop me from doing anything. Secondly, I've actually always preferred to be on my own, I enjoy it and quite often find myself in search of solitude. The last year I've spent with Anthony seems to have had an influence on that however. As I progress thru my years, I've come to know myself pretty well and understand that I just am someone that always needs "me" time. Even from my best of friends, I always need a little break for some time to be alone. This trip has revealed a little something about myself that's really surprised me. I much prefer being with Anthony, anytime.

Everything is more fun when he's there, I am happier with him than alone, he makes me feel safe and I never need a break from his company. Saying goodbye last night, for the first time in a very long time I felt nervous being alone. I didn't like it and even today, my nerves are not settled. I know I will be fine, I will travel smart and safe and I'm sure it won't be long before I met some other travelers to keep me company.

For now, I miss my redhead and am just pouting because I want him to be here with me and not back in the real world (of work and responsibility).

So, from a bus stop somewhere on the Cambodian boarder, I'm searching for my "temporarily misplaced" sense of adventure and independence to make the most of the incredible experiences that lie ahead.

Nha Trang - Oct 7-8

The sleeper bus to Nha Trang wasn't bad. We weren't expecting luxury for the 11 hour trip and we didn't get it, but aside from a super sketchy pit stop at midnight and a pretty bumpy ride, it was a good experience and a cheap convenient way to travel.

We almost skipped Nha Trang on our itinerary because its simply known for being a beach town. Water sports, resorts, surfing etc. Its not exactly the prime season for that right now and all of my guide books said if we're traveling in the off season, its best to skip Nha Trang altogether. Maybe we just lucked out, but we were super happy we went despite the suggestion not too. When we arrived it was a beautiful morning and we rolled into town at sunrise with the streets full of joggers, walkers, people doing tai-chi (or something) on the beaches and generally just out getting some exercise.

We had no problem finding a "nice" hotel. In fact, that's the name of the hotel - Nice Hotel :) Our standards are pretty basic at this point. It has to be clean, friendly, have air con and not smell (seriously). This place measured up and came with the price tag of $15USD a night. We'll take it! We did have a run in with a cockroach the size of a mouse one night, but we just named him, posed for photos with him then showed him the door (and the descending view from the balcony).

We figured out in Hoi An that the best way to get around town was by bicycle so after breakfast on the beach at the sailing club we trolled around town on a few beat up bikes. You really do get to see a lot this way and its at your leisure and its cheap! $1 for the whole day. We went from one end of town to the other stopping to visit a temple but mostly just cruise.

It was a beautiful day, the first blue sky day we have seen actually. It was nice, but it was hot. Really hot. We found a group of cabanas on the beach and it ended up being the Louiseanne. A resort I had read about where for using the bar and cabana services you were welcome to the pool, restaurant etc. So we decided to make the day a beach day. We drank cocktails, swam in the ocean, laid out in the sun, enjoyed a nap in the shade of the cabana, used the pool and just enjoyed the relaxation of it all. Towards the end of the day I was getting a little nervous with the tab we were running. My experience with beach resorts is that the cost of the cabana, towels, drinks, lunch etc can add up pretty quickly. However, I was pleasantly surprised when the bill came and the damage was in the proportion of $32 (for two of us combined). Nice.

We inquired about an island not far from the beach which we could see had a gondola cable car running over the ocean to get to it. It was called Vinpearl and apparently was an amusement park of sorts. So we decided that's what we would do the next day.

We rode our bikes the 30min trip and parked them for the day. Renting the bikes for another whole day even though we were just parking them was cheaper then taking a taxi to and from. The gondola ride across was pretty cool. Just like going up Whistler mountain except going straight across ocean. The view was amazing. Vinperal land was just like any other amusement park except for one small detail. All the rides, games, water park and the aquarium was all included in the $19 ticket price that got you over there. Since it was a weekday and off season, it was like having our own personal amusement park! Water slides, wave pool, lazy river, the coolest aquarium I've ever been to (with a tunnel going through the main tank so that the fish/sharks etc swim all around you), rollercoasters, carousel, and all the games in the two story arcade were all free. We spent all day there like kids and again, the price tag was a staggering $19 plus the $2 we spent on lunch.

We weren't surprised when the rain started, like I said before, we've come to expect it now. However, this time it came just as we were wanting to leave. Getting a little wet wasn't the problem, it was the combination of torrential downpour and the bicycles on the other end that we needed to ride back to the hotel.

We tried waiting it out at the gondola station, but an hour later the sheets of rain hadn't slowed and the water level in the streets was steadily climbing. Having a good laugh about it, we found a couple of garbage bags and thanks to Anthonys cadets training fashioned ponchos with fitted hoods and all. All wrapped in plastic we were ready for the storm. We rode our rusty old broken bikes through the heaviest rain I have ever seen, through streets flooded to our knees, we kicked fish off our feet and laughed and giggled the whole way. While some locals were laughing it up with us, others seemed appropriately annoyed but the inconvenience and others obviously worried about the damage being done to homes and businesses. We had to keep our fun to a minimum in some areas and keep things in perspective.

Back at the hotel, the neighboring locals we rented the bikes from had a good laugh at us and our garbage bag rain protection but their mocking quickly turned to intrigued when we took them off and they saw we were bone dry. Was quite funny actually.

We were amazed at the level of water in the streets. It was easy for us to have so much fun knowing all our belongings were sitting safely on the 6th floor, but it was clear that for some, this was going to be devastating. We wanted to get a few good photos to share the experience, especially of people catching fish in the streets, but by the time we had a shower and headed out again, the street drains that we had previously seen as overzealous and ridiculously large, now made perfect sense. The water drained out like the streets where a bath tub and someone had pulled the plug. Within 30min of arriving back to the hotel, the abandoned cars that were up to the doors (and further) were on solid ground and had been moved, we could cross the street on pavement and even the hawkers selling us sunglasses and deep fried dumplings were back in business. We were speechless. In our room just moments ago we were comprising "plan b" if we couldn't get to the airport in the morning or if we were flooded in for a few days, and here we are back in the streets as if nothing but a little shower had past. Amazing.

Knowing that we wanted to get up with the sun for breakfast on the beach before catching our flight to Ho Chi Minh City we called it an early night. Anthony would be flying home in 24hours and I would be carrying on solo.

More pictures of Nha Trang here:

Monday, November 8, 2010

Hoi An - Oct 3-6

We flew into Danang which is only about 35 min north of Hoi An. When we arrived it was pouring rain (in sheets) and around 11pm. While buses are readily available and cost around $5 for the quick trip into Hoi An, we shared a private taxi for $20 with a Welsh friend we met on the plane.

Our trusty Frommers guide came through for us again finding us a beautiful hotel right close to the Old Town for $20 a night. The rooms were large, clean, air conditioned, had TV, a balcony and the rate included free internet in the lobby and even breakfast in the morning. I love banana pancakes. I've had them everyday.

Hoi An was the perfect change in pace we were looking for. After a week of shuffling from one spot to another never staying more than just one night anywhere we went, and for the most part spending more time than we wanted to in busy, noisy, crowded, exhausting Hanoi, Hoi An was the quiet retreat we needed.

The first day we got swept up in the shopping. Hoi An is one shop of tailor made clothing after another. Custom suits, dress shirts, lovely jackets in corduroy or tweed, everything lined in silk. There were linen pants, silk dresses and summer skirts and of course its all made to measure and fits you just right. We spent almost the entire day wandering from one shop to another looking and doing some buying, but mostly looking. By early afternoon we wondered why we were so worn out and we chalked it up to consumer senses overload. We needed to get away from the shopping.

We did end up buying a few custom pieces. A couple of pari of shoes, a pair of linen trousers for me and some leather sandals for Anthony. We went back to the hotel to take some bikes out on town until the pieces were ready for their fitting. It ended up pouring rain so we "rain checked" the bike riding for the next day.

The next day we decided to avoid the Old Town and market altogether and take the bikes we rented (2 for $1 for the day) out to the beach which was a lovely 4km ride away. It was quiet, limited traffic and because its off season, very few tourist. The beach itself was impressive, but the weather was cloudy and it took away from the experience. Nonetheless, it was easy to see what a huge attraction it would be during the high season. We had past a very cute restaurant on the river on our way out and decided to stop there for lunch on our way back into town. You could see the modern design influence with the white furniture and decorative pillows. That plus the tapas style lunch made for a very fashionable meal. This was by far the best food we had so far. Fresh spring rolls and lotus salad was an amazing Vietnamese treat. It wasn't just the food that made this spot memorable. The restaurant was literally on the river, hoisted 6ft above the river on stilts. The water was brown, but it didn't take away from the view. Shortly after stopping here the rain came. Its wet season in Vietnam so we have come to expect it now. When the rain comes, it comes in droves. We considered ourselves lucky to have stopped for a bite in good time and just sat back and enjoyed the downpour from our comfortable bench table while snacking and sampling some of their specialty fruit smoothies. Somehow we've managed to make good with the weather gods because when we were done eating the clouds dried up and we peddled our way back to the hotel with nothing more than wet feet (in flipflops).

We were having such a great time here we planned to stay a day longer than planned. We still wanted to rent motorbikes and drive out to My Son (mee-sun) to see what was supposed to be a must-see. So that's what we did the next day. In the end, it wasn't the temples that made this trip memorable. It was the hour and a half both ways on a motorbike through small towns, countryside and smaller villages that made the trip worth while. So much fun.

We had to catch our overnight bus to Nha Trang that night so we only spent a half day touring on the bikes. When we got back to the hotel, a shower and freshening up, then out for a late lunch and a final fitting for some clothes before we said goodbye to Hoi An. With the exception of an unfortunate incident with a fraud shoe maker, our experience here matched all of what we've come to know of Vietnam. The people were friendly, we felt welcomed to explore their cities and towns, they were happy to share their culture and eager to make your experience a wonderful one. Two thumbs up for Hoi An.

More pictures of Hoi An here:

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Halong Bay - Oct 2-3

We booked another tour for Halong Bay. We knew that doing it ourselves would be completely possible, but for the convenience of the travel logistics, junk boat, all meals and admittance to the site, the price was right.

Timing worked out well too. Our overnight train back from Sapa arrived back at 830am and the mini bus would be leaving for Halong at 1030am. Just enough time to get back to our home base hotel Fortune have a shower and freshen up for the 4 hour leg.

The bus (big mini van) wasn't so bad. Anytime your driving with a local its edge of your seat entertainment and the further out of town we got, the more "exciting" the drive. I mentioned before, there are no road rules here. So even with a mini-bus full of tourist you can drive on the "wrong" side of the road, pass on the shoulder, make a two lane highway three lanes just by driving on the yellow line and staying there and of course, do this all at speeds you would consider appropriate for the 401 (for my Toronto peeps). Scary as hell, but somehow these guys make it all work and its simply entertaining.

Booking a tour did end up being a good move again (for the most part). When we arrived, the junk was ready and we got through the chaos of booking tickets on the docks. We also think that our boat was far nicer than some of the off-the-rack junks you would get if you just bought your ticket there. The only downside this time was that we were stuck on a tour grouped with a big family vacationing for a long weekend from Hong Kong. They were very friendly and the kids were great fun, but for the most part, we felt like we were on their holiday and not our own.

Halong Bay was beautiful and well worth the trip. The junk we stayed on was probably the nicest accommodation we've had so far and the people, as we've seen with Vietnamese people in general, were super friendly, warm and welcoming. We did stop at one attraction. A huge cave (and I mean enormous) on a single island. It was pretty incredible but unfortunately, due to the size of the crowds and popularity of this sight on the tourist circuit, we felt a little like herded cattle.

All in all, Halong Bay was fantastic. I would go back on my next trip to Vietnam and stay more than the one night / two days. I'd still book it all through a tour because for the convenience, it was great.

Back to Hanoi for a few hours before we catch a flight to Hoi An for a few days of quiet and retreat from the hustle of the city and the shuffling around of our first week in Vietnam.

More pictures of Halong Bay here:

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Sapa - Sept 30-Oct 2

The overnight train was interesting. We didn't know what to expect since neither of us had ever taken a sleeper train before, and in hindsight, it wasn't so bad. Its not luxury travel or anything, but its practical, affordable and does the job. We left at 9pm and after the long day wandering Hanoi we were ready for some shut eye. The train wasn't quiet or smooth and at one point I actually thought it was going to make me sick, but it didn't take long to adjust and we both made it through the night.

We booked this trip through a tour organizer since we didn't know what the logistics would be like between the train, the bus, accommodation in Sapa or how rural and complex the trekking would be considering all the villages we wanted to see. Getting off the train all groggy from the night of unrest, we were happy to see someone with a Mr. Anthony sign amongst the chaos of taxis and buses. The mini-bus took us and a few other travelers up into the mountains for the 2 hour trip to Sapa. It dropped us right at our hotel where they were expecting us. We checked in, had breakfast and were ready for a day of trekking by 9am.

Sapa is a hub for the minorities that live in the surrounding villages. They come here to sell their crafts in the markets, trade goods and hit up the tourists for overpriced handmade bracelets, purses and other jewelry. They are dressed in traditional tribal clothing complete with head dress and baskets on their backs. They spoke surprising good English and are incredibly persistent. We made a few friends in a group of them right away and they walked and talked with us as we wandered the town. We traded Canada pins for friendship bracelets and we became "sisters". Zoe was her name, she had two children and lived with her husband in the village. Most days she came 15km into Sapa to trade goods and sell things to tourists before returning in the afternoon to work in the rice fields. She couldn't tell me how old she was because her mother never remembered her birthday. She was happy to explain that because she had children, that made her older than me. My guess is that she was 21.

The group of girls were of the Black H'Moung minority and when they learned we were trekking out to their village they invited themselves along on our trek. No problem with us, we had great conversations with them, laughed and learned about each other. They taught me how to make a horse from a blade of grass and a heart shaped love fern from some leafy plant to give to Anthony.

Their village was pretty amazing. The rice terraces, the houses, the limited resources. What an eye opener. If the surrounding scenery hadn't been so beautiful, it would have been a much harder place to visit. It was the most difficult to see the children. By age 7 or so, they are tasked with taking care of their younger siblings (mostly the girls) and with the infants strapped to their backs, they followed us around asking "buy from me?" And holding out their crafts. Heartbreaking but a good sales tactic.

The youngest kids between 2 and 6 were not yet old enough to sell things or work so they were the only ones walking free around the village. Walking free - literally. No shoes, dirty head to toe and under no supervision. We asked our guide about it and he simply told us there was no one to watch them. Everyone was working. They knew where to get food when they were hungry and generally never left their hut or shack. They (2-6 year olds) would just hang out and occupy themselves until someone came back. Unreal.

Overall it was pretty heartbreaking to see. To call them poor would mean they had little, these people have nothing. However, although they frozen in time by tradition and culture and completely poverty stricken, they are not without common sense. Every village we went through had at least one gift shop and souvenir station. They know where the money comes from and they modernized accordingly.

After two days of trekking and wondering the markets we were beat. As we waited out the last few hours before heading back on the bus to catch our night train back to Hanoi, we took advantage of the many massage parlors and had a hour long head, shoulder, hands and foot massage. Anthony was in heaven but pretty disappointed when I told him that the same service in Vancouver might cost more than the $5 we paid here.

Back on the night train we met a great french couple that was finishing their two week journey through Vietnam by doing the south to north version of what we were doing north to south. They had great advice and tips as they had just been to the places we will visit in the next week.

In the morning, once we arrive in Hanoi, we only have a couple of hours until we leave for Halong Bay for two days. We'll go back to the hotel we stayed at and booked the tour from. They've been happy to let us use them as a home base for the few hours of layover we've had.

More pictures of Sapa here:

Friday, November 5, 2010

Hanoi Sept 28-29

We finally arrived in Bangkok and spent the day doing the tourist stuff like visiting the Emerald Buddha, Reclining Buddha etc. We also hung out on Khao San Road and checked out the Patpong night market. More or less it was just another big city, but the culture was altogether a bit shocking. We only had one night before making our way to Hanoi to start the Vietnam adventure. We flew direct to Hanoi and over the next two weeks would work our way south down the coast.


Hanoi surprised us. Bangkok was big and noisy but Hanoi was chaos. There are far less cars but there are triple the motorbikes and scooters. Three and a half million scooters actually (to their six and a half million people). There are no streetlights, no stop signs and even which side of the street you drive on is more just a suggestion. Everything literally never stops moving. At first it was downright scary. We were on the edge of our seats in the taxi cringing and squinting sure that we were about to witness something horrific. Two, three and some times more on a scooter. Babies, children, no helmets, no road rules. Bicycles, pedestrians, fruit carts and other, everything on the road going every which way. The first time we had to cross the road we were pretty nervous. I'm not kidding when I tell you there are no lights, stop signs or pedestrian crossings. The only way this works is because no one ever stops moving. Traffic is constantly in motion. Everyone moves slow enough to maneuver around everyone else and some how it all works. To cross the street, you simply just go. Don't bother looking or waiting for a break in traffic, it won't happen. Just start walking and what ever you do - don't stop. Keep a steady pace and they will go around you.

A little wandering around and we were primed for a nap. A quick little lay down went a bit long and we woke up starving. Out we went in search of food and a little more exploring of Hanoi. I really wanted to find something local, I didn't want to come all this way to eat my meals in the Americanized restaurants. I would be perfectly happy with a noodle soup or some fried rice. Since it was a little late now, everything began to close, but we kept walking around beautiful Hoan Kiem Lake and the city kept buzzing even as the hours past. We learned that the people were preparing for a three day celebration of Hanoi being 1000 years old. The Vietnamese take great pride in their culture so this was a pretty big deal. The lake was surrounded by lights and music playing, it was pretty cool.

We did eventually find food. It was noodle soup served straight out of the pot street side. We pulled up a seat basically in an ally and joined a handful of others for a midnight snack. Doesn't get more local than that.

The next day we were also spending in Hanoi, but this time we were more so killing time until we caught our overnight sleeper train to Sapa.

In the morning we found a great bakery for breakfast, fresh banana bread, croissants and all things yummy. Of course, this is simply a counter roadside and there is no place to stop to eat. You practically get run over while bagging your goods. Nonetheless, you can't beat fresh baked pastry for breakfast. We ate while we walked to this enormous three story market that is described as a tourist sight on its own. And it was. This place was huge and sold everything you could imagine. Consumer sensory overload. We didn't stay long.

We left one market for another and went to check out the "shoe market". It was probably six blocks long of one shoe "store" after another. Nothing of great quality, but kept us looking for a few hours actually.

After that we wandered around in search of lunch and a nap in the park. We found lunch, but when I laid down in the park it didn't take long for the police to come over blowing his whistle and yelling at me. Apparently parks are for "looking" and "sitting", there is no napping allowed, not even lying down. So much for that.

We left the park and went to see the old POW prison now dubbed the "Hanoi Hilton". Pretty creepy stuff. After that we took a cyclo (little cart on the front of a bicycle that you sit in and a driver pushes you around in) to the water puppet theatre. This was highly recommend in my guide book but turned out not to live up to its reputation. At least I got that nap I was looking for.

Back to the hotel for a shower and a change then our taxi was to pick us up and take us to the night train. When we woke up we'd be in Lao Chai which is a 2 hour bus ride to Sapa where we'd be doing some incredible trekking.

More pictures of Hanoi here:

Thursday, November 4, 2010

British Virgin Islands - Sept 20-25

After a quick trip to Toronto to visit family and to attend the Comrie wedding we were off to spend 5 amazing days in the British Virgin Islands. Originally this was a trip planned to spend time with my Dad down there, but unfortunately he wasn't able to travel due to a nasty broken ankle. Thanks to the inflated airline tickets, and the equally inflated penalties for changing/cancelling flights, we were locked into the trip - Dad or no Dad.

Even without him there, Dad turned out to be a great tour guide. He told us all the places to visit with details like best restaurants, best views and little known, out of the way beaches that would be great for swimming/snorkelling or just hanging out.

I kept a daily journal with the details of the trip and kept them on my blackberry for uploading to my blog when I got home. Unfortunately I found out the hard way that my blackberry only stores items for 30 days before deleting them. Even drafts. So all my entries up until arriving in Vietnam will have to be summarized by my best memory. Probably best anyhow.

We arrived in Tortola without any trouble and got checked into the resort we'd be calling home for the next few days. We even got upgraded to an ocean suite because is was low season. We were happy to take it, but didn't realize until dinner time exactly what "low" season meant.

In the islands there are three seasons - high season, low season and no season. The islands are 100% dependant on tourism and even local holidays function around it. During high and low season, all operations run at either full or half speed respectively making the most out the tourist that are still visiting come July and August. But come September, the locals take the only time during the year that they have to take a holiday themselves, get off the island or close down shop completely for renovations, repairs etc. All of this in preparation for the season that will start up again come mid October. This short period in between seasons is called "no season" and we arrived right in the middle of it.

We were grateful for the upgrade but soon realized that is wasn't luck or just good karma we had. In fact all of the 6 guests (us included) were given rooms close together and ocean side. The resort was huge, probably 2-300 rooms, and there were no more than 6 of us there. Sounds ok right? No rush for poolside seats, no waiting for a table at dinner, taxi's at our beck and call for where ever we wanted to go? Not quite.

The restaurants operated at minimum capacity - limited menu, limited hours. The poolside bar was open only for a few hours during the day and we had to make a point to tell the front desk that we would be up there. And with no one else at the resort, there wasn't much in the way of night-life to entertain us after 8pm. It wasn't just our resort that was operating this way, the entire island (and as we discovered as the days past) and all the other islands, were all in the same position. Restaurants, if they were open at all, served only a limited menu and usually opened the kitchen just for us. Ferry's from island to island operated as they wished which made day trips a little sketchy because we were never sure that a boat would still be running later in the day to take us home, plus, everywhere we went we were (practically) the only ones there.

To add insult to injury, none of the cost of things deflate with the season. Everything here is very expensive and it being "no season" made no difference. The taxi's all run on a per person flat rate meaning that the 5 min ride from the ferry dock to our resort was $15. PER PERSON. One day we ventured over to another beach on the other side of the island - a 15 minute ride that cost us $20 EACH. Thankfully we caught a ride home with a guy that lived close to our resort and recognized us.

The costs of things were a bit of a downer, but it wasn't all bad. We spent some good time at a beautiful beach called Smugglers Cove where the sea was calm, the water turquoise and a local opportunist named Steve set up camp using a few plastic chairs, coolers and ran his blender off his car battery. Steve made a mean rum punch and we kept him company as long as the ice was cold.

We weren't the only ones that discovered Steve. There were two other couples that arrived sometime in the afternoon. We befriended them as it turned out they were also Canadians and were from the Kingston Ontario area. Funnily enough, one our new friends was actually a member of our beloved Tragically Hip. Small world. :)

Besides our sharing cocktails with Canadian Rock Royalty, the trip was pretty uneventful. We did venture out to the Bomba Shack which is the proud host of the islands infamous Full Moon parties. In regular season thousands would flock to this collection of floorboards for the cheap drinks and mushroom tea, unfortunately this time it was us and the other 6 tourist from our resort plus the 5 or 6 locals it takes to run the show. We had one drink and took our second to go.

At the end of 4 days, we decided to take a ferry to St Thomas a day early so that we wouldn't miss our morning flight. We were worried we might get stuck on Tortola because the captain of the ferry would haphazardly cancel the sailing or just sleep in not expecting anyone to catch the early morning ferry during "no season" (actually happened to us while trying to visit one of the other islands earlier in the week).

So while we were sad to see the Caribbean islands go, we were happy to say goodbye to the $40 ferry trips, the $20 five minute taxi's and $25 cheeseburgers. We were on our way to Vietnam where the real adventure would begin.


In transit: 40 hours to Bangkok

The trip was a long one. We left St. Thomas at 8:15 on Saturday morning and connected in Miami where we had a six hour layover. We then flew to Los Angeles were we spent a few hours in the airport before one last connection through Hong Kong before arriving in Bangkok. By the time we got there, we had no idea what day it was, what time it was or if we wanted to eat breakfast, dinner or lie down for a good nights sleep.

The lay over in Miami was actually planned. I've been to South Beach a few times now and it's a great place to spend a few hours. We checked our bags right through to Bangkok so we headed into South Beach for a few hours of sun and checking out the beach.

When we got there, it took only a few minutes before I knew exactly how we'd be killing time. Segways. That's right - cruising around Dr. Evil style (or mall cop, but I prefer to think of them as Dr. Evils transportation of choice).

These things were so much fun. We got to see way more of South Beach than had we been stuck walking around. Plus we got to have Segway races on the boardwalk. I highly recommend this if you get the chance. So. Much. Fun.

All the photos of the BVI's and Miami can be viewed here: