Tuesday, October 11, 2011

1 year later: Looking back from Canada

So one year later, we are all back in Toronto. It's unbelievable to think that just one year ago, we were just beginning an island hopping adventure in the Philippines, meeting members of my family, partying on the beach, diving/snorkeling, writing, making friends that we continue to keep in touch with today. Especially on days like today, where I'm wearing a scarf, toque (that's a winter hat for the non-Canadians), mittens and jacket, Asia seems a world away. Which, I suppose, it is. 

If you asked us a year ago where we would all be, Canada wouldn't have been any of our first guesses. But here we are! T bought a condo that we live in together. She's working for Easter Seals Canada as their Bilingual Administrative Assistant, administering the Access 2 card. I lucked out and got a job coordinating and producing digital media campaigns. Bit of a sell-out but it's temporary! Ania is slogging away at Osgoode Law School at York University. I'll be the first to venture out again, already sending out an application to work in Africa, but we are all certainly lifelong travelers. 

Thanks to everyone who has followed us, consistently or sporadically, through our adventures in Asia. Loved ones, acquaintances and strangers, it has been a pleasure! 

The Philippines held most of our favourite, most memorable moments. All of us together in a beautiful, musical country with super friendly people --how could it not?

Spontaneous singing (read about both of these in our entry “Living Up to the Hype”)
T: We were walking through an alleyway in Puerto Galera with a dozen masseuse promoting their spa services when one lady said out loud 'beautiful girls' and the entire group picked up and began singing 'all over the world, i could be chasing but my time would be wasted...' (B.o.B. & Bruna Mars's song 'Nothin on You') in perfect unison. That moment pretty much summed up the Philippines for me.

me: While waiting to pay for my delicious siopao at a 7-Eleven in Quezon City, Beyonce's "Halo" came on the radio. Five complete strangers broke into three part harmony. No one else batted an eye. It was so Philippines. 

Dancing up a storm
T: In Borocay, Philippines - we met a bunch of British guys celebrating a birthday, so we decided to join the celebration at a beachfront club. We danced all night and had so much fun. But the best part of the night was deciding to run into the ocean when it got too hot in the club. Perfect as we could continue dancing to the music just steps away but in the cool surroundings of the ocean.
New Years in the streets of Siem Reap with the PEPY crew! (photo: Conor Hallisy)
me: New Year's Eve in Siem Reap, Cambodia was the best December 31st I have ever celebrated in my life, hands down. After a fantastic day that included cycling, running around town in a scavenger hunt, going to a temple to listen to local music while the sun set and enjoying a large PEPY family dinner, we hit the streets, dancing with thousands of people crammed together. I got to spend it with one of my best friends, my mama and some great new friends from the ride. I was out til past 4 am and slept through the sunrise wake up...oops!

T: Chiang Mai, Thailand- Two days before Halloween, we had no costume ideas, and could certainly not forgo celebrating the best day of the year! Our attempt to find ready-made clothing which we could work with failed. You mean people here don't dress up like Sailor Moon characters? So we had to get resourceful: buying fabric and thread to hand-stitch 3 sailor moon costumes in 2 days. In the end, we succeeded, with a lot of on-the-body sewing and duct taping, we looked awesome and everyone wanted to be our friends. (Vote for us in this Value Village contest for best Hallowe'en costume!)

Honourable mention: My cousin Shawna came to Hong Kong to hang out for a couple of weeks. That was a blast, but the best part was her boyfriend’s reaction when he realized that his friend, who he didn’t expect us to see, was in the background of her vacation photos!


Under the sea
Taken by Ania on Apo Island, Philippines
A:  I love scuba diving. Dove some pretty sweet wrecks in the Philippines and had a great week-long live-aboard dive trip in Thailand. Sadly, the coveted whale shark continues to elude me.

Cambodia –period. (I wrote about my first bike tour in Cambodia with Ania in my blog.)
Ania's first day of biking in Cambodia!
A:  I love Cambodia. I am very grateful for the experience I had there and the people I met. It’s rare to meet such a group of people that consistently bring out the best in everyone they encounter, and make them believe they can actually affect change in the world. PEPY people are these kinds of people. Realizing how rare it is to just come by, I’ve been so much more motivated to seek out such people here since I’ve been home to create a similar community around me. I’m more involved in my school and wider community than I have ever been. Also, one of the best Christmases I’ve ever had and definitely the best New Years of my life. It’s nice to find a family away from home. (me: ditto)

T: Cambodia- This was my favourite country, and everything I did here was amazing. 
Wet and cold on Rinjani (Photo: Dave Brown)
me: Climbing Mount Rinjani with T was one of our favourite experiences in Asia. T was soaking wet and cold; wasn’t able to sleep; was pushed to her physical endurance limit; got altitude, car and sea sick; didn’t do the summit; and had to put up with me happily bounding up the mountain, singing and smiling through the sweat. And she still listed it as one of her favourite activities. So imagine how much I loved it with endorphins like crazy from speeding up the whole way, including being first to the summit!

A: Northern Vietnam - Motor biking is pretty awesome, especially when it’s through Vietnam’s highest mountain pass. This was the second most amazing experience I had this past year (after Cambodia!). I miss my Honda so... I wish Toronto weather wasn’t so vacillating. Ange is a tropical girl. Tiana is made for the Canadian cold. I love the mountains!
Honourable mention: We graduated...in Hong Kong!

Honourable mention 2: Hanging out with various people from our programs doing their placements and friends of friends who had done placements in Asia. Brian, Brandon, Mirabel, Min, Josh, Ying, Alam...plus friends Val, Will and Tristan who happened to be in Asia at the same time. Thanks for being such awesome hosts/company for us!
Consensus from us: She is amazing with maps, even when they aren’t in English and include typos. We never would have made it through Northern Vietnam on motorbike without her.

Opinion of herself: I don’t like being rushed. I’m kind of boring in a lot of senses, and I’m ok with it. I don’t like noisy places, I love to sleep in, sleep on beaches, sleep on hammocks, feel rested in general. I love laying back and reading a crappy fiction which I never get the opportunity to do at home. I love scuba diving, ice cream and staying in with a good meal watching a movie. I like nerdy touristy activities. I like history.

Surprise for T: I love Ania and we are great friends, but I discovered that our minds could not function more differently. I'm sure we both got annoyed with each other at various times, but that's all part of travels, and it was never enough to break up our friendship.

Surprise for Ange: She was a pretty good sport for trying new foods. She is super picky but even on the plane ride over from Buffalo, she ate a "seafood surprise" salad that I couldn't even attempt. 
Cramming into local taxis was a theme throughout
Consensus from all 3 of us in Ania’s words: “I was surprised with how she sometimes sought out the most dirty, gritty, uncomfortable situations for herself, seemingly voluntarily…”

Surprise for A: …And seemed to enjoy it too...(most of the time!).

Surprise for T: We are the A-team when it comes to travelling. After our trek down Mt. Rinjani, I had already suffered altitude sickness and car sickness before arriving to our already departed boat to an island where we'd recover over the next few days. I was in no mood to be angry or to argue with a boat captain or with a hotel manager to try to negotiate a good deal. This 10 second conversation became the epitome of our great friendship: Ange "how much are you willing to pay for a hotel?" Tiana "$5" Ange "I don’t think we can get hot water for $5, are you ok with $10?" Tiana "Yes" Ange "Ok".

T:   Also, that she is a robot. I mean, who can trek 8-10 hour days up some steep volcanic peak and be singing songs...out of enjoyment...while not out of breath. She can't be human.


Consensus from Ania and I: She can party! She got almost no sleep and would still have energy to dance the night away and drink out of plastic buckets.

T: I discovered that my breathing is not as normal as I thought. Trekking Mt. Rinjani (hunched over trying to catch my breath) to Ange "you know when you can't catch that 5th breath?" Ange "No" Tiana "You know, that 5th breath that allows you to take in all that extra air you're lacking" Ange "People don't breathe like that, Tiana" Tiana "Really? That explains a lot".

At Circa, a club in Quezon City, on our first night out of the trip!
T: It was the day after I joined Ange in the Philippines and Ange's aunt took us on a day trip to a waterfall. Ange and I, although exhausted and recovering from sickness, were inspired by the top 40s playing on the radio and opted that it was our first night back together, not to mention a Saturday night, and that we'd have to go out. So we went out clubbing in the apartment complex we were staying at. We got the full VIP treatment, being the only foreigners there, we were introduced to the owner, manager, DJ, booze rep and who knows who else. After a long, great night out, complete with a few complimentary beverages, we headed back to our apartment. Angela told me to keep it cool as we walked in, so in my mind I was contemplating what I could say to the lobby man. It was about 3 am and, for some reason, the only thing that came out of my mouth was “Good Afternoon, sir”. Good morning, Good night, Good evening would have all been fine! My bad.

me: Sleeping outside (twice) and cliff-diving in Laos. Will probably never do either again but no regrets! The things I do when I'm by myself...

A: Of the long list of things I liked about Cambodia, two of them were learning the language spoken there, Khmer, and their iced coffee. This isn't just any iced coffee....what they do is pour the coffee over about half a cup of condensed milk. Over the month that I spent there, I developed quite an unhealthy addiction to condensed milk (I'd eat it with a spoon). However, given that we were burning over 2000 calories a day cycling in the hot sun, I felt no guilt indulging in this delicious treat. During our bike rides I made an effort to ride along with one of our guides, usually Rithy or Joe, and annoyingly pester them to teach me Khmer phrases. Given my love for the iced coffee, I thought one morning it would be useful to learn how to order it on my own at our lunch stop. After a few hours of repeating the phrase with Joe until he seemed satisfied, we arrived at the restaurant. The waiter came to take my order, which I proudly pronounced, loudly for everyone to hear.
After a successful order (Photo: Melanie Robinson)

Instead of the waiter being delighted with my display of new found language skills and my efforts to communicate, my order was met with a puzzled look. I asked again. The waiter seemed even more perplexed. I looked at Rithy and repeated the phrase, only to be met with a raised eye-brow raised look. (me: And several people at neighbouring tables were staring.) Frustrated, I asked Rithy what was happening. When he realized what I was actually trying to say, he burst out laughing. See, the translation for iced coffee (with the condensed milk) in Khmer is quite literal. You ask for "coffee with water from the breast of a cow with frozen water." I innocently missed some key words, and seemed to have been proclaiming "breast cow ice" quite loudly for the whole restaurant to hear. How embarrassing! (me: And this became a bit of a mantra over our bike trip. Need a bit of extra energy? We would chant, in English, “Breast, cow, ice! Breast, cow, ice!”)


A: One thing I wish I had done: somehow I didn’t manage to find the time to trek... well until I got to Poland, which made for an amazing birthday in the snow-covered Tatry mountains! 

T:  Of course I wish I had more time to see more things, but when I really think about it, I would change nothing about this trip. The perfect company with the perfect setting. I enjoyed the fast pace travel and randomness of our day-to-day exhibitions and adventures.
T surfing in Bali
me: No regrets. I definitely will make sure surfing, more trekking, Malaysia and more of Indonesia are on travel itineraries in my future, though!


A: I highly do not recommend studying for your LSAT and writing it in a foreign country, while on vacation.

T: Do it! Best trip ever! Take a break after school or in between jobs. And don't let age stop you. We met people who had quit their job and sold all of their possessions (including houses) to travel in their 30s (or older). Why not? You only live once, and there is so much out there to explore and discover. 

me: Take time for yourself if you're traveling in a group! And try to learn as much of the local languages and cultures as you can. You'll get much more out of your trip by interacting with local people, especially out of the city centres. Seat61.com is amazing if you plan to travel by train, especially in China. Thorntree, the Lonely Planet's online forum, is a great resource, as well!

Finally, DO NOT USE ROUGH GUIDES SOUTHEAST ASIA. I can forgive price discrepancies since things change a lot very quickly within a year or two, but the fact that Ania’s 10 year old Lonely Planet had much more accurate maps is saying something. I am not a fan of guidebooks in general but if you’re going to have one, maps are definitely the most important feature!

Together again! 

Friday, April 29, 2011

Long Time Coming - Laos Wrap Up

I have to admit, I have been back in Canada for three months at this point. I think the reason I have avoided posting about Laos (besides the copious number of coffee, wine and chili dates that I have been partaking in with friends and crazy temporary jobs all over the place) is the realization that this is IT. After this entry, the only country that we visited on the real No Plan Plans tour was Cambodia, featured on my blog. After this entry, there is only reflection to be done. Which means that this experience of a lifetime is really and truly over. So, saving the best for last, without further ado, may I present, Laos!

Arbitrary Favourite

When pressed to pick a ‘favourite country’, I’ve chosen Laos. This is an arbitrary answer since every country had its highs and lows and we only got quick glimpses of each. 

Laos had it pretty easy in terms of its ability to compete: it’s small, so I could see a lot of the country in two weeks; I was finishing off the backpacking part of my tour so I was used to the lifestyle; my route there was through China, the hardest country to navigate and the one where I had the worst luck; my last chunk of time was spent in Hong Kong where the prices approach Canadian levels; and given the right outfit and accessories, I blend in with few difficulties. Not having a laptop and staying on the east side of Don Det, far from the [slow and expensive] internet caf├ęs was freeing. I did the most reading, journal writing and walking in Laos.  

My love for Laos comes from two major categories: the tourism experience itself and the culture. Describing ‘culture’ is tricky and by default controversial, but I don’t think I can profess my love for Laos without talking about the social norms, food and clothing.

Tourist Crowd

Laos is a communist country. In recent years it has liberalized its economy and put ons emphasis on [eco-]tourism. About 1 in every 11 jobs in Laos comes from tourism! There is still a 10:30 pm country-wide curfew, with the exception of Vang Vieng. I give this emphasis on ‘ethical’ eco-tourism and strict curfew credit for the caliber of tourist I met in Laos.

Most of the people I met were interested in trekking, meeting local people, learning the language and shopping at local markets. The curfew really kept the party crowd down. I stayed in a dorm room with 16 men and 1 woman (solidarity, Christabel!) in the capital. Basically anywhere else we stayed, the high number of people in the room would have meant that people would be crawling in completely hammered, the bathrooms would have people passed out on the floor and people would be planning their next fraternity-style adventure. As long as you don’t mind people constantly smoking weed on the balcony, everyone was relaxed (possibly owing to the fumes, admittedly…) and most people shared advice on checking out dolphins, waterfalls and great hikes. 
Nina with her new headband at the market in Luang Nam Tha after intense bargaining!
Also appealing about Laos is that it is a narrow country wedged between Thailand and Vietnam, with Cambodia to the south and China to the north. Most backpackers either travel from the south to north or north to south in about 2-3 weeks. So you end up with the same crowd basically the whole way. I was lucky enough to meet some awesome people on my trek through Luang Nam Tha, where I started after taking the train through China from Hong Kong and continued to meet up with Aamon, Steph and Nina along the way through the country! Alessandro and Michelle kept popping up after Vang Vieng. I even saw Aamon again randomly on New Year’s in Siem Reap, Cambodia. T and Nikhil travelled from south to north and we met up halfway through the country in Vang Vieng. Either direction is great fun!

Tourism Activities

In Laos, the emphasis of tourism is ethics. Local people don’t try to rip you off (at least relatively compared to other countries) and the standards for getting the ‘local experience’ seem much higher than in Thailand. Rather than human zoos, tour companies promote local experiences where you get to really interact with people and the villages aren’t inundated with tourists that they try to appeal to.
chillin in the village
My trek in Luang Nam Tha was led by Alam, a local guide, and porters who lived in the area. We went through some villages briefly on our hike, camping out overnight on first night after sampling water buffalo skin (an acquired taste, to say the least) and lao lao whiskey (ditto). On our second night, we stayed overnight in a small village that had been visited less than a dozen times ever by foreigners. Rather than “observe locals in their natural habitat”, we ended up being the primary attraction in town! Homes were scattered on top of a hill in this Lahu village that seems to be in the middle of nowhere, full of dogs, pigs and children. We stayed in a bamboo hut that had an area in the corner to make a fire for meals and a long platform that the nine of us (including our guide) could just barely squeeze onto, sleeping like mice.
In our little hut doing language lessons, drawing and playing with camera!
During the day, we played with children, both in the hut taking photos and giving them our cameras to pose for them and outside, playing. Only some of the men in the community spoke Laos from their experiences in the city and working the rice fields. Most only speak Lahu and a few of us spent most of the day in the hut learning words, numbers and phrases. At the end of my first week in Laos, I knew more Lahu than Laos!
Other activities: museums and dance shows in Luang Prabang and Vientiane, cave exploring, kayaking, cliff jumping, temple visiting, viewing waterfalls, checking out dolphins and lying on hammocks. Between T and I, we did it all. I even went bowling with new friends in the capital! We also went to a local club where we were the only foreigners and were serenaded in English by a large group of young men at a birthday party –singing Justin Bieber’s “Baby”, of course.

Another particularly special experience is watching the monks in Luang Prabang walk through town every morning collecting alms. Tourists get a bit obnoxious with their cameras, getting in the faces of the monks. Obviously tons of people have taken pictures already, so I opted to not harass them at 6 in the morning.
This photo is from an amazing gallery by Khampha Bouaphanh. His photos of Laos are incredible! 

Food and Eating

Blending in was definitely a bonus. I got hassled less, stared at less and lower prices on occasion. However, I learned that if I didn’t speak English and wore my local sarong, my food would be much spicier than if people could tell I was a foreigner. Dangerous stuff!    
our first meal on the trek! The black leaves contain the sticky rice
Germophobes might want to skip this paragraph. Communal eating is the norm in Laos. Various dishes are spread out over a table –vegetables, meats, fish—and pots of sticky rice are scattered on the table. With your fingers, you grab a clump of rice no bigger than a golf ball and roll it into a compact ball with that same hand. Then, you reach out to whatever meat/veggie concoction you would like and use the ball of rice as a base to scoop out a bit. Shove in your mouth. So delicious. So unhygienic.

My sister is a germophobe and my best “Bex would die if she were here right now” moment of my entire backpacking trip came on my first night out in Luang Nam Tha. I went to the night market, which is essentially a big square bordered by different food stalls. Locals and tourists alike buy their dinners, which are being cooked on mini-gas stoves in most cases, and sit on large picnic-style tables in the middle of the square drinking beer.

One woman was frying up bamboo shoots and some other veggies in a wok on the edge of the square. I watched her use long chopsticks to stir her meal around. While I was standing in front of her, she lifted some of the mixture and held it out for me to try –off the chopsticks she had been using to mix the whole thing. I declined to try it off the chopsticks but bought a portion of it anyway. She then ate some of the mixture from those same chopsticks, right out of the wok. Another customer tried some off the same chopsticks. All the while, stirring this big pot of food to be sold to diners at the night market.
The Shade!
The food is incredible. In the luckiest moments, we go to have brown rice, which is actually purple in colour! It’s nuttier and more flavourful. And goes amazingly with various bamboo-heavy dishes. And in the capital, T and Nikhil would never forgive me for not mentioning their favourites: The Shade Restaurant has the best garlic sauce we've ever had in our lives and Hungry Burger makes a mean burger (although not as good as the ones at the Backpacker's Hostel in Ha Noi!).

T and Nikhil even got decent pizza in Vang Vieng
Lao-lao is the bootleg rice whisky that can be found all over the country. Very industrial tasting, it is sometimes clear and sometimes a fluorescent green. While trekking, we shared shots of it (some more than others…). After my first shot, I thought I was going to throw up. Just the smell of it made me nauseous so I declined future offers. Then, while in Vang Vieng, I had a few sips out of a bucket containing lao-lao and Sprite. Still sober, I ended up vomiting throughout the night (sorry Nikhil and T!) and continued to throw up for the next 3 days any time I ate a full meal. Clearly I am not allergic to rice but something about that nasty tasting stuff was not agreeing with me! 

This was all fine in the end, of course, as Beer Laos is arguably the best beer in Southeast Asia. 

Social Norms

Despite bordering Thailand (‘land of smiles’) and Cambodia (where people smile at you, touch you, wave and yell hello at every opportunity), Laos is a very subdued culture. I think the major reason why many people prefer Cambodia is the shy nature of Laos people. People do not touch in public. There are signs at the border and posted all over the country to explain this. Hugging and kissing in public are huge no-nos. Dress is very conservative. My knees and shoulders were covered at all times –even when we went tubing. People don’t smile openly in general until you start a conversation and even when they do, their cover their mouths with their hands.
They were both friendly and asked me to take this photo. As soon as the camera came out, totally serious.
I want to emphasize that this doesn’t make them an unfriendly culture. Especially because people were curious about my ethnic background, I was able to have great conversations (verbal or non-verbal) with locals who were kind, generous, expressive, funny and patient.
View from Don Det
Laos will always be a special place for me. I met wonderful people, foreigners and locals alike, ate delicious food, fully relaxed, spent a lot of time by myself and finished off the real backpacking part of our trip. It is with much sadness that I finish off this entry but it’s been a long time coming…

My friend Bianca (of Mount Rinjani summit fame!) has some fantastic shots that she took recently! Check 'em out. And check out her blog because her Asia trip is way more thorough and awesome than ours!

Coming up: the final wrap up reflections of our trip. What we learned, loved and would do differently.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Lao's Blemish: Vang Vieng

Overall, Laos was a beautiful experience. I have never been so relaxed in my entire life and I made some fantastic friends along the way. But that’s all for another entry. I didn’t want to take away from this incredible country by including Vang Vieng in my Laos entry, so this town gets an entry of its own. This also gives me an opportunity to vent about tourists in general and the downsides of tourist towns. Two birds, one blog entry.

Vang Vieng comes up fairly frequently in backpacking circles and in travel guides when considering Laos. It has become a hotbed of tourism, specifically, the frat-style crowd. The main attraction in town is lazy river tubing. When I heard about this, I was excited to suit up in some life jackets, hit a few rapids and cruise down a river for an afternoon. A drunk bar-goer in LKF, Hong Kong informed me that no, in fact, the tubing is bar hopping but on the water. I thought T was the naive, innocent one on our trip, but apparently I was the last to know about this.
free French Fries!
Basically the entire town is packed, year-round, with Western tourists who want to get on an inner tube and float from bar to bar to bar, drinking buckets of whiskey, Red Bull and Coke, and snacking on baguettes and french fries along the way. During the day, it is a ghost town with almost everyone out on the tubes. All tubes must be returned by 5pm if you want your deposit back, so the town fills up again between 4:30 and 5:15 pm. Again, things get very quiet until about 10 pm or later, as people wake up from their drunk naps/unconsciousness and head out to the bars.

I am not one to put down a little bit of drinking and bar hopping. Gili T was a bit of the same idea: tourism is the only industry and we Westerners hung out in the water by day and the bars by night. But the behaviour of the tourists while they’re in Vang Vieng and the hazards of tubing make it a particularly disgusting destination that I will never willingly revisit.

Tourists Suck

The main strip has been nicknamed “The New Khao San Road”, the backpacker alley in Bangkok that is packed with drunk white people morning and night, buying cheap t-shirts and eating street food. The parallels end there.

Khao San Road is already a pathetic display but the main road in Vang Vieng manages to be worse.

Despite notes in the Lonely Planet about how one should dress conservatively in Laos and both signs and a contract at the tube rental place stipulating that one must dress appropriately, bikinis abound. Women literally traipse through town in bikinis or practically bikinis. Cleavage, both of the breasts and bottom, is on full display at any time of the day at any location in town.

Restaurants and stores along the main street do nothing to hide their mandates: tourists are the targets. Conveniently, menus are always offered in English, not uncommon across tourists destinations in Southeast Asia. Less common? Many bars and restaurants play Friends or Family Guy, all day every day. So when you do go out during the day or before the clubs and bars are in full force, there are rows of white people sitting on pillows around tables, facing television screens, staring like zombies at episodes of American shows from over a decade ago.

And of course, people are drunk and embarrassing at any time of the day. Nikhil, T and I, deciding to take Vang Vieng for what it is, sat at a restaurant near the tube rental place at 4:30 to watch people returning from their day on the water. We saw an extremely drunk North American woman run down the street, wearing nearly nothing, with a local’s dinner on a china plate! Being polite, I think, so that the girl would save face, the Laos women chasing after her were forcing laughter and had smiles plastered on their faces. When they returned with the plate, it was empty.

It’s because of this that one can’t be entirely surprised that the service at some of the restaurants in town is abysmal. Many the people who have been to Vang Vieng will recall the restaurant on the corner before the tubing place. Getting served is quite the ordeal as often no one is around to take orders or if they are, they are blatantly, visibly ignoring the clientele as much as possible. We left once after sitting there for about an hour, asking for menus (which we eventually just took from another vacant table) and then being ignored when we asked to order. When they do interact with you, the staff (who you usually have to approach) scowl and roll their eyes, when ordering in English or Laos! I honestly don’t blame them, though. I have worked at places in Canada that have much less abuse or ridiculous clients (welfare, anyone?) where staff treat people like crap after becoming jaded and worn down.

Dangers of Drunk Tubing

People die every year in tubing accidents in Vang Vieng. Despite this, there are basically no safety precautions. If you cannot swim, they tell you to rent a life jacket. And then you’re on your own to consume free whiskey shots (no catch!) and consume buckets that include a full mickey of liquor.

Lined with rocks and with docks at every bar for people to dismount their tubes, many an inebriated tuber cannot resist diving, jumping or doing flips into the water. We witnessed a few people doing drunk backflips into the very low water.

My friend Aamon (who went tubing the day after us) had barely begun his day of tubing when someone jumped into the water from a zipline, instantly breaking his leg on a rock. He ended up having to jump in and help pull the guy to safety. Yes, ‘EMS’ in Vang Vieng consists of drunk people helping other drunk people to get into a tuk-tuk to the clinic in town.

The most recent death was from someone going down a slide face first and breaking their neck on a rock.

Despite these injuries and fatalities, there are no medical personnel and few sober people period in the vicinity. Slides, ziplines and swings over the water remain open year-round even though, if you happen to let go at the wrong moment or just have the misfortune of physics putting you in the wrong spot at the wrong time, you risk extreme injury.

Not All Bad

Vang Vieng does have its charms. T and Nikhil went rock climbing. The three of us rented bicycles and met Alessandro (who I ended up bumping into again in Vientiane a few days later, hanging out with some of my friends!) for a cave adventure. I kayaked from Vang Vieng to Vientiane, cliff-jumping at our lunch break –which doesn’t really count as Vang Vieng either, but I’m trying to throw it some love where I can.

T would also like me to add that tourism hasn't totally corrupted the Laos people, though. Unlike other major tourist destinations in other countries, the prices were pretty fair: you could get hotels for a decent price (even in the high season) and the food wasn't out of this world expensive.

on our way to the Blue Lagoon Cave

But overall, the town is full of drunk and offensive Westerners covered with bandages and bandaids. I cannot imagine what a child growing up in that town thinks of foreigners...

Friday, January 28, 2011

Chinese Train Travels

Being the cheap/poor/doing things the local way show-off that I am, I decided to take trains from Vietnam to Hong Kong and then Hong Kong to Laos. I didn’t have a camera until I was in Hong Kong so I was left to try to describe the experience of a hard sleeper train trip (Hanoi to Nanning, Nanning to Guangzhou Main, Guangzhou East to Hong Kong) verbally to my friends in Hong Kong. This was definitely insufficient, so for my train ride from Hong Kong to Guangzhou East and then Guangzhou Main to Kunming (where I caught a bus to Mengla and then Mengla to Luang Namtha, Laos), I chronicled my adventures in video form.

I didn’t spend much time in China, but despite all of the bad luck I had there and the difficult nature of travel there (i.e. 0 English, even at train stations and tourist areas), I would definitely return to the Yunnan. I enjoyed Kunming, where I spent two days, very much. It seemed like a similar density to Toronto and the university student population adds something special to the flavour of downtown. 

Notable Heard on the Radio: Out of Bieber-less Vietnam for only about half an hour on the train, a middle aged man’s cellphone rang with a “Baby, Baby, Baby” ringtone. Less than an hour later, a different man’s cellphone had the same ringer! Bieber Fever has hit China, as well, my friends!

I felt too awkward to film the actual ticket taking areas, which I now regret. Basically, they are massive rooms with very high ceilings (like most train stations around the world, I expect) with dozens of line ups. Above each line up is a digital sign that says something in Mandarin characters. The queues could be hundreds of people long, especially in Guangzhou. I would have no idea what line to be in, as my literacy in Mandarin is at 0. My strategy was to get into the shortest line, say the name of the place I’m trying to get to (thank you brain for thinking to Google pronunciations in advance!) and then receive a piece of paper with the number of the line written on it or ask the person to repeat in English about 5 times before I understood. It was never fast but always an adventure! 

At the Guangzhou Main station on my journey towards Laos, I had over 6 hours to kill. Most of them I spent sitting outside of the station, writing in my journal. For about two hours, I played with an adorable 2.5 year old, showing him art in my agenda and guide for the Heritage Museum in Hong Kong, while his father tried to teach me a song about Mao and communicate about other things using gestures and repeating the same words in Mandarin that I didn't understand over and over again. I thought at one point that he asked if I had children. His friend, who was better with the gesturing and knew a tiny bit of English, explained as the play date was winding down that, in fact, the man was asking if I would like to purchase his son or older 5 year old child. For 21 yuan, or the equivalent of about $3. The friend also explained to me that I have bad skin and should do something about it, repeatedly. Lovely.

Then, in the train station while I was boarding, I met a lovely couple about my age. They wanted to practice their English. This eventually evolved to the young woman asking me "what it is about you that makes you single? What qualities?" Nice.

The child sale was disturbing. The awkward questioning of my personality was amusing, if a little offensive by Canadian standards. Little did I know that the fun was just beginning.

On my way from Guangzhou to Kunming, I got a little too trusting and used my laptop to work on our video for Thailand. Later that day, I suspect, as I was getting hot water for my oatmeal (each car on Chinese trains has a hot water machine that people use for Ramen noodles), someone reached into my backpack and snatched it. They didn’t even take the power cable, they were so quick. Upsetting but not life ending, when I realized it was missing, 20 minutes before we reached Kunming, I informed one of the stewardesses that “rob” (pointed at in my book) *mime typing*.

She gathered the other stewards on the train and when we arrived at Kunming, police entered the car. They checked everyone’s ID, which had already been checked to enter the train station, probably randomly in the train station (ID is checked a lot at random, especially for men, in Vietnam and China), and again on the train at least once. They tore through my things, spreading the contents of my bags on the floor of the train. They seemed surprised that my gigantic brick of a laptop was not underneath my underwear wedged in the corner of my backpack. Once we arrived at the station, they let everyone go. 

A young man stayed behind, loitering. I couldn’t figure out why he was sticking around on the platform at 1am until he offered help doing a bit of translating for us. He is a saint! His English was very basic but enough that the non-English speaking police could ask me for my passport (which they looked at upside down until one pointed out that my picture was upside down), my name, my country (which they assumed was the US…possibly why they were not trying too hard to find my computer) and whether the laptop was important. Because that makes a difference in whether you’ll find it or not? At this point, I knew the computer was gone and was just waiting for the okay to leave. Finally, after I stood in silence in front of the officers who were talking amongst themselves, they told me (more or less) through the translating dude, “We haven’t found it but if we do, we’ll call you”. So Canada, if you get a call for Angela regarding her laptop, that’s me!

When I finally got out of the train station, thanks to a guidebook from Mike, I was able to get a taxi to my hostel. But my bad luck did not end there. About two blocks away from the train station, he got a flat tire. He helped me get another cab and I was off to the fantastic Cloudland Youth Hostel! Where they told me the wrong room and I interrupted a couple having sex in a private room instead of entering my 6 women dorm room. Fantastic. (Otherwise, that hostel is really great and I highly recommend it! It has a great vibe, super comfortable pillows and gigantic comforters, clean washrooms, a good restaurant, computers, assistance with public transit, maps, table tennis and probably more stuff that I missed out on because I was only there for a day.)

My luck changed the next day when I stumbled upon the wonderful tourist attraction that is Green Lake Park, as endorsed as the #2 thing to do in Kunming by Lonely Planet. Check out the video to see for yourself… 

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Hong Kong and the Kelvin Chan Experience

As a disclaimer, I am the only one of the three of us (four, including Shawna) who really hated Hong Kong. Also, once T and I are finally reunited in Toronto, there will be video posts again.

In between cheesy tourist attractions and stalking Shawna’s boyfriend’s friend, we managed to graduate. I could explain, but I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.

In front of a cardboard cut-out of Convocation Hall and the CN tower as Chinese parents shook their heads in shame.

Instead of leaving T's parts til the end, I'll use them to introduce HK.

T's bits

Overhead on the radio: Bieber, of course, and Lady Gaga. Now, this is Ange talking again, Lady Gaga should be the official mascot/queen of Hong Kong. Completely schizophrenic, colourful and over the top? This is HK!

T's food picks: Dim sum, of course, and roast duck. Ange here, again. What is not on this list? Black coffee. Shawna and I have decided that we will start a company in HK that only serves black coffee. Nothing more. Getting a coffee without milk in it was an adventure every single day. There is a hugely untapped expat market that we're pretty sure has been suffering in silence (okay, probably drinking Starbucks happily at one of its million locations in the city), trying desperately to get a solid coffee without cows milk.


Hong Kong was my least favourite city (after Sanur, Indonesia). I’m a big city girl. I expected to be in my element in a city with a fantastic transit system, cheap heels galore, a bar district and Wi-Fi everywhere. Not so much. My main beef with HK? Everyone walks so slowly! One of the perks of big city living is that I can be with my fellow jay walkers and fast walkers. Not so in HK. Even my non-jay walking, non-crazy fast walking cousin, Shawna, who came in from Vancouver for graduation celebrations and our first time traveling together, was taking people out on the sidewalks.

Crashing the Gold bar opening with Mike and Shawna. It's not every day you stumble off an elevator to be greated by women in gold bikinis bearing champagne and mini-hamburgers.
Due to the population density of HK, everything is very vertical. Which means a lot of malls and not a lot of people outside. This can produce some fun evenings, such as finding ourselves at a bar opening, complete with free food and booze, by getting off on the wrong floor. But most of the time, it’s just a weird unnatural vibe. The tourist attractions were similarly commercialized.

Waiting 3 hours to get on a cable car to Lantau Island with my coworker Will!
On Lantau Island, there was a multimedia presentation about the life of Buddha. Interesting, right? At the end, dozens of corporate logos come down from the ceiling to create a model of the HK skyline, as the narrator reminds us that we can achieve nirvana, even today. I am not joking. Then you can insert a paper leaf into a giant plastic Buddha and make a wish. The monastery on the island had about half a dozen gift shops. The worst violation? We waited over 3 hours just to get on the cable car to get to the island! Do people have nothing better to do?!

Apparently not. Hong Kong is full of people who are looking for something to do and they are given entertainment in the cheesiest, most corporate forms you can imagine. There is the 10 minute “Symphony of Lights”, brought to you by Samsung. And Victoria Peak, the main attraction in Hong Kong where you can see out over the whole city, is basically a giant hill with, by my count, 3 malls at the top. Someone must be buying the Swarovski crystals and Crocs. But who? And why? I just don't get Hong Kong!!
Hanging out in Soho after graduation with T's friend from UofT, Hong Kong resident and storer-of-our-crap-til-T's-flight, Tristan!
Don’t get me wrong, some of my best memories are from HK and I will never forget my time there. I got to spend time with Will, a coworker from Employment and Social Services who happened to have vacation booked in that time (who was our best source for good restaurants and Cantonese communication!); Mike, who we befriended in Vietnam; Tristan, a friend of T’s from UofT; and the famous Kelvin Chan. You haven’t heard of him? Let Shawna tell you a little about the Kelvin Chan Experience in Hong Kong…

The Kelvin Chan Experience by Shawna

As excited as I was to meet up with my cousin in Angela in Hong Kong, I have to admit there was someone else there I was excited to meet too. This person’s name is “The Kelvin Chan”: a nickname assigned to him by the dozen close friends he left behind in Richmond, British Columbia when he moved to Hong Kong two years ago. One of those dozen happens to be my boyfriend, Jericho. As such, I’ve been told more stories about Kelvin and the other guys than I think any of them will ever admit to each other. I had never met Kelvin.

Actually, Jericho convinced me at one point I had met him. One week later the truth came out which led to constant remarks like “Oh you remember Kelvin right? How could you not? He’s the Kelvin Chan”. I guess it wasn’t hard to trick me - I’d met everyone else and I knew about high schools pranks, trips to Taiwan, clubbing trips to Whistler, UBC Pit Nights - I knew the stories, but not the person.

When I told Jericho about my Hong Kong trip it only got worse: “Maybe you’ll run into The Kelvin Chan while you’re there, and tell him about that time you met him.” “You should call The Kelin Chan and go party” “You and The Kelvin Chan in the same city, yeah!!”

As soon as I arrived in Hong Kong I knew two things: I had to meet him and I had to keep it a secret from Jericho. Of course, me being shy and antisocial it took a week of indecision and panic (and prodding from Ange) before I sent Kelvin a message asking to meet up. I believe I also resorted to asking strangers in the street about Kelvin Chan. (Ange disclaimer: this may or may not have been after crashing the bar opening...) Sadly, none of them knew The Kelvin Chan. Happily, once I did email him, Kelvin responded quickly and we met up the day the girls had their convocation for some food and a little conspiracy.

I told Kelvin I needed his help picking a souvenir for Jericho and when I met him I confessed, “The souvenir is actually a picture of you and me, he doesn’t know I contacted you. It’s payback really, you know what he’s like, you see he actually let me believe I’d already met you. Also, who’s Randy? Or are they pulling that joke on you too?”

Kelvin suggested a better approach, “Why don’t we take pictures where I’m in the background and you can pretend you didn’t know I was there?” Brilliant. Although, when you meet someone in an art installation of giant fake spray-paint cans and fake toys and toy packaging labelled “Crazy Xmas!” I think that you already know it’s going to be a brilliant day.

For reference:
The Kelvin Chan

When I arrived home I mixed up the photos with pictures from other days to throw Jericho off even more. Then I sat with him as he browsed the photos:

Jericho: "Look! It's Kelvin Chan!"

Yes he really said that and he really did think he was funny. Also, this was the first picture I showed him. I flinched a little but he couldn’t really tell since I was standing behind him.

After few more pictures of street signs, Hello Kitty and Buddha the first trick photo came up:

J: Hey, that's Kelvin, that's actually Kelvin!

Me: Yeah right you said that about the last one too

J: Haven't you seen pictures of him? That's totally Kelvin! I need to email this to my friends right now!

Me: Ok stop it let's finish the pictures

J: No seriously I have to send it to them!! He's right there! Don't you know what he looks like?! Aaron... I have to tell Aaron!

At this point, the laughter was hard to contain. I was grinning but still hiding behind him. I convinced him to finish the photos first before emailing them and pretended I thought he was still making fun of me.

I continued with the photos, more random candids, and then:

J: There he is again!!!

Me: What? Really? Ok maybe you do have to email them but let's just finish these first... be patient! (laughing hysterically) just finish the pictures stop stalling you can email your friends after!

J: Ok ok.


J: Wait... did you meet Kelvin?

I thought for sure I was caught but he still seemed confused. The next couple photos he couldn’t pick him out and since there were other photos too he seemed to let go of his suspicions.

The ones Jericho failed at didn’t catch:

It was time for the big reveal:
Jericho: Oh my god! You did meet Kel!!!

I’d transcribe the rest but it consisted mostly of pointing, laughing, doubling over laughing and head shaking.

So thank you Kelvin for being such a good sport. And thank you Jericho for completely and totally falling for it ;)

And that everyone is The Kelvin Chan Experience.

Signing off,