Outro: The Happiness of Pursuit

Well, what can I say? It has been three months since returning to Canada. I wasn’t quite prepared for the reverse culture shock when I returned. I was overly aware of the wide streets, cleanliness and sense of order. But I did miss a bit of the chaos…

It was hard adjusting, as well, to the social aspects. Being out in groups of people could be overwhelming and I often just wanted to hide away. But over time, that has faded and it feels pretty close to normal again. Jasper and I are starting our new lives. We were lucky to both find new jobs in our field and began work today. We will be moving into a new apartment in the next week. I was also surprised by a very romantic proposal when we returned, so that is something to look forward to in the next chapter.

The truth is, I have been putting off this final post for a long time, because it makes it all seem so final, and it is sad for me to think of our amazing adventure as a thing of the past. But, there will be many more adventures ahead. More obstacles, more triumphs and, most definitely, more travel.

And so, I would like to end with a quote that has inspired my journey, which is something I like to reflect from time to time, when wondering if I am taking the right path. I will leave you with this quote. Thank you for following along on my wonderful adventures ❤

We should concern ourselves, not so much with the pursuit of happiness, but [instead] with the happiness of pursuit.” – Hector and the Search for Happiness

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Chapter Forty-One: Indonesia pt. 2 (Bali, Lombok & The Gilis)

We spent a few blissful days in Ubud, the cultural capital of Bali. We visited the sweeping rice terraces, the monkey forest (where the cheeky little guys tried to open my bag and rob me) and a sacred temple where you dunk yourself under multiple water taps to bring yourself good luck (I think… I just kind of copied what everyone else was doing). We also went to a coffee plantation and tried the infamous Kopi Luwak (also known as Cat-poo-chino as the beans must first pass through the digestive track of an Asian palm civet, which resembles a mongoose. It tastes like regular drip). We stayed in an idyllic little resort where we largely had the pool and small restaurant to ourselves. It was perfectly relaxing after the early mornings and hikes in java.

We also did a cooking course, which I couldn’t recommend more highly. It was called Balinese Farm Cooking School. We rode motorbikes out to the farm, where it takes place. You then pick several of the herbs and vegetables you will be using yourself and start a guided, 6-course meal. The meals were delicious, fresh and had a ton of variety. There were flavours I had never had together before and our instructor was a sweet, patient young Balinese man who we chatted with throughout. I have already tried several of the recipes at home (with some substitutions).

From Bali, we took the slow boat to Lombok, the island to the right. We had read that this was like the Bali of 20 years ago, largely untouched by tourists and equally beautiful beaches. Granted, we only went up the west coast, but I am inclined to disagree. Notwithstanding the fact that I spent an overnight doubled over in pain from a stomach bug, the island didn’t have the same crisp white beaches and walkable streets that we found in Bali.

But, no matter, as it was only a hop, skip and a jump away from the tiny, carless Gili islands, to the northwest. We took a speedboat out and spent about 5-6 days on these miniature islands, walking the circumferences in about an hour and lounging and reading on the beach, drinking too many banana smoothies and Bintang beers. Time was a bit of a blur on these islands, as the days all blended into each other but we made a conscious effort to just slow down and take it easy, as we were rounding out the final weeks of our ‘round-the-world tour. We ate at some nice restaurants and had plenty of fresh seafood. I did a yoga and aqua-yoga class. We snorkeled, we island-hopped. We slept and swam. And it was perfect.

From the Gilis, we made our way back to Bali, this time to the southern peninsula. We parked for two days on the east coast of Sanur, a sleepy town affectionately referred to by locals as ‘snore.’ Then we made our way across to the east side, where the action was. We spent another two days in the Australian-packed neighbouring towns of Kuta and Seminyak. It was fun to see so many pizza joints and burger shops again after being away for so long but 2 days was more than enough. It was a very party-fueled area and hectic. We couldn’t walk more than 10 meters on the beach without being offered a surf lesson.

We decided to spend our last 5 days at Jimbaran beach. We took motorbikes out to the Uluwatu temple, which was beautiful, perched high up on a cliff over the ocean. Less beautiful was the shake down from the police that we got on the way back to our resort. Bali is beautiful, but the police are very corrupt.

Aside from that, we spent our last days lounging by the pool, walking along the beach, eating fresh seafood and enjoying our cozy room. On our last night, we watched the sun set over the ocean and had a bittersweet last dinner on the beach, soaking up the sound of the waves, before beginning our long journey home. ❤

 

Chapter Forty: Indonesia pt. 1 (Java)

Jakarta: hot, hectic and overwhelming. We spent 4 days in this city and it felt like three too many. There are some redeeming points: a small but pleasant old square with a Dutch colonial feel, a nice museum, and dirt-cheap Nasi Goreng (fried rice) on every street corner. But Jakarta is not a city built for tourists, which is likely why we didn’t see any there. In our four days, we saw 4 other visible foreigners, 2 of whom we saw twice. Which made us quite a focal point. Everywhere we went, people would take our photos. Some would ask, others not. People, mostly men, would yell things at us on the streets. Some things pleasant, others not. We often felt lucky that we didn’t understand what was being said as the sheer volume of noise as chaos was a massive sensory overload. Many of the streets had no sidewalks, which meant we had to walk along the side of the road, breathing in the heavy exhaust fumes and dodging traffic. By our last afternoon, I needed to recharge. I had spotted a Pizza Hut and we ordered take out and stayed in our room all night. The infrastructure in Jakarta is decent and you could no doubt make a life for yourself there. But it was not very tourist-friendly. Even the one backpacker street seemed bleak and empty.

From Jakarta, we took a (surprisingly nice) train to the hippy town of Yogyakarta (Yogya for short), approx. 7 hours away. Here, we decided to give Indonesia a second chance. Far less overwhelming, we could walk the streets at ease, chat to the friendly locals and enjoy the culture. We spent an afternoon at the Kraton palace grounds and water castle and an evening in the central square, where food vendors hawk cheap plates of everything imaginable (we had chocolate parmesan toast and fried noodles), and pedicab-style suped-up Volkswagen beetles, adorned in flashy neon lights and blasting top 40 tunes, circle the square non-stop. You can rent these out for a drive but we preferred to sit in the field in the middle of the action and take it all in.

We took a day trip from Yogya to the beautiful and massive Buddhist Borobudur temple and the equally impressive Hindu temple complex, Prambanan. Both built in the 9th century, these two sites are among the architectural highlights of the year for me. Taking them both in within a matter of hours likely ruined me for all future temple experiences. I can’t describe them in due justice, so I will just let the photos do the talking. (Note the massive volcano in the background of Borobudur.) We shared this trip with a lovely German/Spanish couple who we also met up with later on for dinner.

From Yogya, we booked a two-night overland trip to the east coast of Java, before boating over to the island of Bali. The trip included two amazing stops, that, although being long stretches on the road and incredibly early wake up times (or should I say no-sleep-at-all-times… 1:00 a.m.?!), were highly rewarding. We first took in the massive Mt. Bromo volcano, watching the sun rise over it from the distance while fog settled around the base. We then took jeeps into that fog, where we began our hike up to the crater. The hike itself was other-worldly in atmosphere and could have been the movie set for either a western or moon-landing, depending which way you looked. At the crater, you could see way down into the base of the volcano, which you could feel as much as you could hear, with the massive amount of steam bursting and bubbling out. 

The next day we had a call time of 12:30 a.m. to begin our drive and then two-hour hike to the base of the Ijen Crater, a sulphuric volcano with a blue flame and yellow smoke erupting constantly. The flame can only be seen in the darkest hours, so we arrived at the top between 3:30 – 4:00 a.m. Jasper and I then spent three of the coldest hours of our lives shivering and huddling together, hiding behind a rock shelf to block ourselves from the wind, while we awaited sunrise, which was, due to the heavy fog, anticlimactic. But when the sun was overhead, the azure crater lake sparkled below and all was worthwhile. We made our way slowly down the mountain (which was exponentially more beautiful in the morning sun) and slowly thawed out, before heading on to Bali. ❤

Chapter Thirty-Nine: Laos

Laos is a slow-paced, laid back country which you must allow to operate on its own time. The nature is vast and beautiful, the villages are simple yet serene and the people are kind and usually smiling.

We had a slow start to our Lao chapter, arriving in Huay Xai from Thailand, which is really more of a tourist catch-all for various activity start points than an actual village. We spent three nights in this town, never consecutive, as we, too, needed it as a base to visit some other attractions. As a town, it was a bit over-priced and underwhelming, with very few things to see or even decent restaurants to relax at. We went, first, to the far-north villages of Luang Namtha and, by motorbike on a winding road that wrapped around the mountains, to Muang Sing, just 13 km from China and 32 km from Myanmar. The very few restaurant-type operations that we did find were mostly all closed. Eventually, a woman approached us and brought us to her “coffee shop” (read: home) and made us fried rice with egg. Something we are, by now, very well acquainted with on this trip. But the north is less about the towns and more about the lush green countryside and catching the occasional glimpse of the local indigenous tribeswomen selling jewelry or opium. Jasper was feeling ill, so we kept it low-key, found a nice bakery in Luang Namtha and drank tea/coffee and read our books during a rainy afternoon.

After another overnight in Huay Xai, we headed out for the highlight of our Lao experience and one of my highlights of the full year: the Gibbon Experience. I remember, back in university, someone telling me about this tree-top ziplining course out in the jungle and I was absolutely in awe, so it was a bit of a dream to actually do this. You are taken out into remote parts of the jungle to take a series of ziplines from high up on the mountains to eventually land in an actual, full-size tree house, fit to feed and sleep 15 people. The zips were very high and it was a bit frightening at first and definitely a huge adrenaline rush but also one of the most spectacular views I’ve had. And the feeling of soaring alog, high above the trees is unparalleled. The treehouse, alone, was a highlight; just being out in nature, high above the ground, with beautiful views, sipping on a coffee. I can’t really describe it with due justice; if you ever have this opportunity, take it, take it, take it! We stayed one night and I hated to leave but we had a nice zip course and hike back to civilization (somewhat), ending in a very small village where there was a lake to swim in while the local women prepared a lunch for us.

Our next journey was also a destination in itself. We took a two-day slow boat down the murky brown Mekong river. We spent about 8 hours each day in the boat as it rocked us slowly all the way down to our final stop in the Mekong region: Luang Prabang. We stopped overnight at the small town of Pekbang and enjoyed the forced relaxation and scenic views of the mountains and riverside towns.

Our final three days in Luang Prabang were a nice wrap up to this chapter. The self-proclaimed jewel of Southeast Asia, it truly is a beautiful and tranquil town. Built up alongside the Mekong, you can spend your days strolling along the riverside and stopping at the quaint little cafes and restaurants. There are some nice temples and a hilltop shrine with large Buddha statues and a vantage point to see the whole town. Nearby are the Kuang Si waterfalls, which drop from a cliff and then stream down into cascading azure pools that you can swim and splash around in. With the heat and humidity, it is bliss and was, for us, the perfect ending to exploring this beautiful country.

As for what we ate, it was a lot of the same dishes that we had seen in Thailand and even Vietnam, though a bit pricier. I continued to love the fresh fruit and juices, the sticky rice that is unique in Laos, small coconut pancakes and our final dinner, a BBQ buffet. I’m getting hungry again just thinking about it… ❤

Chapter Thirty-Eight: Thailand

I have been looking forward to visiting Thailand ever since I last left it, eight years ago. The country is so rich in culture, ancient ruins, beautiful beaches and delicious food. We began our trip on the sandy shores of White Sand Beach on the island of Koh Chang. I had been here on vacation when I was teaching overseas and was anxious to show Jasper the beautiful shores, turquoise waters and eclectic collection of colourful ramshackle beach huts. On first impression, I noticed that many of these huts had given way to modern, up-scale resorts. I was worried that my special little paradise was lost to gentrification, but, after a day or so of exploring, we found that many of the old beach huts did still remain on the north end of the beach, including the very one in which I had stayed with friends on my last visit. We were certainly there on the tail end of the tourist season, so there was not much partying or nightlife, but for the two of us on our world trip, it was the perfect laid-back, low key stop to spend four days resting, swimming, snorkeling, eating on the beach and getting massages.

We were glad to have the downtime before moving on to fast-paced Bangkok, where we spent three days, which was plenty. We hit up the major attractions: the presidential palace (which, though overpriced, was a spectacular blur of sparkling tiles and gold tipped roofs), the giant reclining Buddha – among many others- at Wat Pho, some of the smaller temples, the chaos of restaurants, bars, shops and debauchery that is Khao San Road and we caught a performance of the tradition theatre called Khon, which is somewhat like an opera, but more ‘musically spoken’ than outright sung. It was a good experience and the costumes were beautiful, but it was a bit slow moving and likely only something you need to do once. We went out one night on Khao San for some obligatory bucket drinks and dancing and then we were more or less ready to move on.

We took a long bus up north to the city of Sukhothai, which was the capital empire of the Mekong region immediately after Angkor Wat. It was a mighty hot day (38 degrees, sunny and humid), but we rented bikes and drove the 45 or so kilometres to and around the old ruins, temples and Buddhas and it was one of the most beautiful bike rides you could do (or so I, as an inexperienced biker, would imagine). We nearly dropped from the heat at the end so we stopped in an air conditioned café for iced coffees and to wait for the room to stop spinning before heading back to our hotels. We also visited a night market for dinner, where there was live music and a lively atmosphere and, graciously, virtually no other tourists. We were very happy to make a stop that felt a little less on the beaten path and experience authentic Thai culture a little better.

We arrived in the northern city of Chiang Mai just in time for Songkran (Thai New Year). Basically, during this week, and especially on the 13th of April, the whole city shuts down and becomes a massive water-gun fight. Kids and adults alike line up along the old town river and fish up bucket after bucket of water to throw on passersby. Trucks drive around all day with people in the back tossing out water at others on the sidewalks and it is virtually impossible not to be completely saturated after about ten minutes. We bought guns and buckets and spent the day playing along and dancing in the streets to live music. It was a definitely highlight to be able to participate in such a fun and energetic holiday. We need to bring this back home to Canada!

Other than Songkran activities, Chiang Mai has a beautiful old town that is chock-filled with temples on virtually every street. We spent the better part of a day exploring them and probably didn’t even make it to half. New and old, wood, stone and synthetic, there is a temple for everyone in this city. We had also planned on spending a day tubing down a river outside of town, but, sadly, the company that had been offering this had closed down two months prior to our arrival. Instead, we went to the ‘Grand Canyon,’ which is a former mining dredge that has been filled with water and made into a bit of a fun park for cliff-jumping, swimming and lounging around. In this extreme heat, it was a bit of a godsend. We booked a room with a fan rather than AC and all I can say is – NEVER AGAIN. I probably lost five pounds in sweat alone.  🙂

Luckily, the temperature dropped to a merciful 30 degrees when we went to Chiang Rai, which is further north still and in the golden triangle (bordering Laos and Myanmar, a former gateway for the opium trade). We arrived on a cloudy afternoon and went to the one restaurant that was open as most things were still closed for Songkran during the day. The family of the restaurant owners were out front throwing water buckets at passing cars (who were also armed) and invited us to join along. They were incredibly friendly, offering us snacks and drinks, and we spent some time playing and trying to communicate with them.

The next day, we rented a motorbike and took off to explore all of the attractions lying around the city including the modern and elaborately designed White Temple, with mirrors lining all of the curves making it really sparkle. It was a bit morbid as well, with grotesque porcelain heads hanging from trees and gnarled hands reaching out of a pond. Though from a distance, it shines like a diamond. We visited, next, it’s macabre counterpart, the Black House, which is multi-building project by a local artist and every building brings its own brand of dark and sinister décor, including animal hides, bones and skulls. We shivered our way out of there and stopped at two more beautiful temple complexes. One was entirely blue, and one had small temples with blue, deep red and gold embellishments. Both had massive Buddhas inside and, for the new year, large piles of sand out front decorated in tree branches and streamers. Our final stop was the giant, 7-foot-tall, Goddess statue and adjacent temple and pagoda. I joined others in pouring water into the hands of monks to wish them a new year before riding back to back. We visited the Saturday night walking street for a final Thai dinner of pad thai (what else) and then walked back in the rain for our final sleep before heading to Laos.

Almost everything I have eaten here has been delicious and I only regret that I could not eat more things (or more of the same things). My favourites were the curries – green, yellow, red, padang, pad thai, cashew nut chicken, mango sticky rice (mango anything, really!), fresh fruit smoothies, basil pork, tom yum soup, spicy pork noodle soup with wontons and Kao Soi, a local Chiang Mai dish, made with noodles in a thick curry gravy, crunchy noodles, chicken and pickled veggies. I will miss each and every one of these things and am grateful that Toronto has so much Thai food to ease my return. ❤

Chapter Thirty-Seven: Cambodia

 

We got to Phnom Penh in the early evening, which is the perfect time to arrive. If you walk to the waterfront, the city comes alive. Mini lights are strung up all around, children are outside playing and the sun is setting over the top of the palace. We strolled along, with no real plans, getting a drink and some street food to eat while sitting in the grass. Phnom Penh is impressive and, coming from Vietnam, what is really striking are the colours. The building are white and orange, with gold embelishments and fine, ornate detailing. In the heart of the city, you would not be aware that is among the poorest countries in the region nor of its tragic recent past.

We spent the better part of the next day digging into this past. In 1979, Pol Pot and his communist army, the Khmer Rouge, overthrew the government and created an intense agrarian society which forced all citizens to live in countryside farming plots that essentially became labour camps. It was declared Year Zero. People starved to death. Anyone with any education, money or ties to the former government were killed, often bludgeoned to death with farm tools. By the end of the four-year rule, over a quarter of the country had been killed off. It is impossible to visit Cambodia and not hear of this. One of the nearby killing fields and a genocide museum serve as top tourist attractions in Phnom Penh, to pay tribute to those lost but also as a reminder that these acts of atrocity are never far away and we must be vigilant in how we manage power. Both the fields and museum were very sad but well-organized and highly insightful.

We also visited the presidential palace which is immense and attractive, decorated in the white, orange and gold scheme. We nearly got scammed as a tuk tuk driver approached us and told us that the palace was closed due to a local holiday and offered to take us to some other attractions a bit further away. We considered it but decided not to, only to find that the palace was, in fact, open, and that this is a common ploy to dupe tourists.

From Phnom Penh, we headed on to the city of Siem Reap, the overly-touristic jumping off point to visit the temples of Angkor. While the city did not feel very authenticly Cambodian, the temples were absolutely spectacular. Build in the early twelfth century, it is the largest temple complex in the world and Angkor Wat is the largest religious building of any denomination. It was miraculously spared by the Khmer Rouge and a symbol of fierce national pride for Cambodians. We rented bikes on our first day and toured around the largest sub-complex, that of Angkor Thom as well as some of the smaller ruins in the area. On our second day, we hired a tuk tuk and got to Angkor Wat at 5:45 a.m. so that we could watch the sun rise over the buildings before going in to explore. We also went to a small but beautiful pink temple, about 20 km onwards from the rest. This was thought to be built by women as the designs are so intricate that it would impossible for men to create. It was very beautiful and worth the detour. One of our favourite stops that day was Tah Prohm, which has been less excavated that the others, allowing trees and brush to overgrow on the site. It is really a struggle of man vs nature, and, as Jasper says, makes you feel like Indiana Jones. (We took too many photos to count. Below are just a few.)

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After Angkor Wat, we wanted to see something of Cambodia that was not strictly touristic, so we spent two nights in the smaller city of Battambang. While not being touristic means that there are not so many attractions to see, I am glad that we made this stop. Aside from just allowing some down time, we got to explore some smaller, active temples and get a better feel for daily life. We had what was surely the most painful massage of my life. Word to the wise – do not do a khmer massage. I felt like I was being punished for something. But the concept was interesting – the massages are given by blind people who would otherwise have difficulty getting work. And they certainly thought it was funny when I was howling in pain. The highlight of Battambang was a ‘circus’ performed by local artists, who were taken off the streets as children or teens and trained in the arts so that they can have a lucrative future. It was a mix of theatre, performance art and gymnastics and done with incredible talent. It was like a low-budget Cirque de Soleil – though equally impressive. ❤

 

Chapter Thirty-Six: Vietnam pt. 3 – Hoi An, Hanoi & the Mekong Delta

I want to start out by saying thank you to the many friends who have offered us suggestions and tips on places to see and things to do during this part of the trip. And also, to follow that up with an apology that we were not able to do all of them. There is so much to do here that we would need far more than our three months in Southeast Asia to see it all, but we did try to hit all of the highlights.

Speaking of highlights, our time in Hoi An was definitely one of them. Despite being an anagram for Hanoi, it could hardly be more different. Hoi An is a small town catering to tourists from all over, with an old city centre lining the Song Thu Bon river and a very laid-back vibe. It is bright and cheery and delicate, in contrast to the chaos of Hanoi. Yes, it is largely a tourist trap, but a very historic, scenic and inexpensive one. Here, the idea is that you buy a multi-visit pass to see your pick of the downtown relics. We visited some pagodas, assembly houses, an ancient house of a wealthy family and saw a traditional song and dance performance. We also hired locals to take us out of the city on motorbikes and show us the countryside. They mostly took us to other tourist spots, but it was far better than doing so on a crowded bus full of white people. We tried our hand at pottery in the nearby pottery village and we rode wicker basket boats through a maze of water coconut islands. We ended with lunch at a “highly recommended” spot, that belonged to the brother of one of our drivers. But lunch was great – this is where we first tried cau lau, and we had some nice conversation with them in broken English.

My favourite thing about Hoi An, however, is that every evening, when it gets dark, all of the thousands of paper lanterns and animal lanterns lining the river light up and it feels truly magical. You are supposed to let out a paper lantern with a small candle in the river, and make a wish upon it. We did this, of course, but, sadly, our ‘wish’ tipped over after just a few seconds on the water. I guess it will be a while before we travel again… We had a wonderful massage and riverside dinner on our last night and were lucky enough to see our German friends again for one last cau lau lunch the next day before heading on.

We boarded our second overnight bus in Vietnam, with a 24 hour trip ahead to Ho Chi Minh City (which everyone here still affectionately calls Saigon). The trip was long, but they were bed-style seats and, thankfully, no one had food poisoning this time.

From the get-go Saigon was not our favourite city. We arrived at our hotel in the evening and were just off the main strip, which was jam packed with bars, pizza places, burger joints, nighclubs with bored-looking escorts outside meant to lure men inside. There was even a burger king (way to go, communism). The prices were double what they were in the rest of the country, and that is only if we were lucky enough to find any Vietnamese food.  It was clearly meant for young travelers that wanted to party with all the comforts of home. We, however, were looking for more culture. We spent the next day visiting the monuments and presidential palace (which we could only see from the outside as it was closed), as well as the war museum. Laden with VC propaganda, it was still very impressive and sad, at times even very unsettling, and I would certainly recommend it as a stop, especially to those, like myself, who are used to seeing the war as a heroic liberation effort by the Americans and would like to experience the other side. We walked around the city and down the central promenade a bit before returning for a low-key night by our hotel.

The next two days, we visited the Mekong Delta. We had planned to do this on our own, but the prospect of an organized tour appealed to our lazier side so we booked through an agency instead. I would recommend doing it on your own as we felt a bit hoarded along the attractions with throngs of other tourists and it seemed a tad voyeuristic. There were certainly worthwhile attractions – boating through the canals, visiting the floating markets, seeing a rice noodle factory, but it all seemed a bit rushed. It became worthwhile, however, for us as we opted to do a homestay for our overnight, rather than a hotel, which everyone save two others chose. For this, we met our host on the roadside, and he boated us along a canal to his rural house, where his wife had prepared a beautiful dinner of fresh fish and do-it-yourself rice paper rolls. Our host, Tchan, spent the evening with us, sharing rice liquor and playing cards. When there are cards involved, we discovered, language is not so important. We slept in a bamboo hut that night and felt very grateful that we did not chose the hotel.

We also stopped at a really impressive temple complex with massive Buddha statues, en route.

We arrived back in Saigon the second evening and booked our bus out Vietnam to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, the next morning. Sad to leave, but exciting to ramble on. ❤

(And, just because, here is some more food)