Confession time: I love partying while I'm on the road. It's usually a lot cheaper and I don't have to worry about work. Why wouldn't I go a little wild on beer or even buckets of unknown alcohol? I'm sure most of us indulge when we're on vacation or backpacking, which in entirely fine. However, the problem begins when we treat a place like it is nothing more than a garbage dump.
Travellers often believe that there is a certain sense of ownership that they have over a country when they go, particularly in South East Asia where many are living in poverty. However, they would be wrong to do so and I wish they would stop. So here is my plea to travellers all around South East Asia or if you're planning on making a trip I ask just a few things.
Respect Religious and Cultural Differences
While I understand that in forty degree weather it isn't idyllic to clothe oneself head to toe or even just covering what could be a great tan, it is important for you to understand that whatever you do back home may not be appropriate in your new location. Particularly in small towns and villages where they don't see a lot of tourism and may have more traditional values then those living in cities do. Men and women alike, I recommend you dress what you believe to be conservatively in your home nation when walking about or not hanging out by the pool so as not to offend the people living in the country you are a visitor in and have no claim to in anyway. This way if you find your way to a Wat you can go in without having to dress up in whatever they have handy.
It may be obvious to some but I have seen most fail at this time and time again but many places you might not expect to be could be more culturally or historically significant than you believe. Save the awkward conversation where someone is asking you to cover yourself by doing so ahead of time.
Would You Do This At Home?
A big question we have to ask ourselves is whether or not we would do something in our home country or town. If you wouldn't litter on a beach, park or religious site then it's best you don't do that abroad either. Especially in places like Asia where there is so much unfettered beauty. This isn't to say that locals don't litter but we have to try to minimize this. If not for the environment then certainly for your Instagram photos. There is nothing qute like a pile of garbage to ruin a cute beach selfie.
This Country is Not Made for Your Comfort
Each country is different, even if there are similarities in some. A place is designed with the comfort of the locals in mind. A big thing for this is bathrooms in South East Asia. While in Eastern countries we are used to washrooms that you're able to use toilet paper the irrigation systems aren't designed for this in Asia hence the infamous Bum Gun. I'm not going to lie and say that it wasn't completely daunting when I first used it because... well it's odd. However I'm from a country where it's abnormal to use such a thing, mostly because Canada is such a young country as far as infrastructure goes. This is not the case for most countries outside of North America and certainly not for South East Asia unless they have gone through significant upgrades which costs taxpayers heaps of money.
In addition to the unspeakables of bathroom habits, this also has to do with food too. Some countries it is common place to eat animals that we might consider horrifying. For instance, dog meat is consumed pretty regularly in Cambodia because of a high amount of wild dogs and the ability to produce cheap meat for a country where many people have very little money thanks to unstable economies. There is no need to pass judgement on those who eat things when thereis really no difference between cows or dogs or pigs as they all emote, think and can be domesticated. I'm not suggesting you eat them too but I'm suggesting you have a little bit of sympathy and common sense with this because to many people it can seem strange to eat cows or pigs. These things are strictly culturally based so travelling requires you to have an open mind when encountering things like this. If you wish to change the state of the treatment animals at home or abroad there are many things you can do, like helping the Soi Dog foundation or donating money to veternary offices abroad to fund for de-sexing animals. This is just the tip of the iceburg though.
Western Values Aren't Superior Values
I can feel the anger in people just reading this section's title but please hear me out first. We have very different ideals - not even country to country but state to state or province to province. This is most seen when you go abroad - particularly from a Western country to an Eastern one. In part this is due to the industrial revolution then later the technological advancements that have been made. Many move at a faster pace, live differently and are less in touch with their physical surroundings. Being a blogger, I can hardly say that I don't have that issue. My phone is attatched to me as if I need it to breath. In North America we also seperate ourselves from our families very young whereas many other cultures are shocked by such a thing. I've personally experienced people in a few small villages being slightly horrified that my parents would not live or travel with me. The independence we have from our parents that is so ingrained into us is looked at as being selfish in some cases. For this reason, you shouldn't look down on others because they don't live the way you do as they would similarly not understand the way so many of us live.
Respecting different cultures is the most important part about travel especially when considering the history of Imperialism, war and poverty felt around the world which is largely from Euro-centrism. If you are lucky you will meet people who will further explain things to you when you are abroad, you just have to be willing to meet them halfway first.
Essentially this is important for every place you go to but as someone who meets long-term travellers regularly and is one herself I have seen this sort of attitude from people in Asia. There are beautiful places with equally as amazing people there but how easily we travel to a country is dictated by how we treat that country while we are there.
Whenever people ask about my most memorable part of Thailand there is such a clear place in my mind because of the natural beauty and the quality of people I met while there. It's unassuming and about off the beaten path that you can stumble on so close to two major tourist cities in Thailand.
Nestled comfortably between Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, where the infamous White Temple was made, is Tha Ton, in fact you can catch a boat ride from the small town to Chiang Rai from June until December. The little fishing village has been caught between the boarder wars historically between Myanmar and Thailand changing the national identity of the village multiple times. There is even a large group of Chinese refugees from Burma. While Tha Ton is now a sleepy, sweet village and completely unassuming the history is important in understand the architectural design and even the people there.
The best time of year to visit Tha Ton is actually the least popular time to visit! In Chiang Mai, a bigger city about three hours away, there is a festival every year which attracts thousands tourists of all kinds to the city. During this festival, Loi Krathong and Yi Peng, not only are people celebrating in Chiang Mai but all over Thailand. However, a lot of these events have been diluted or Westernized to attract tourists but if you want as authentic of an experience as a foreigner can get, I recommend visiting small villages during this time. Especially Tha Ton because it's not completely out of reach from nearby cities, either.
During these festivities, aside from enjoying the waterside and the great cafe where you can look over everything, there are krathongs to be made, bought and sold - shops to look through, a bouncy castle I still wish I had bounced in because I'm an adult-sized child. There is even music and dancing by the beach as well as a procession with the beauty queen giving smiles and warm wishes to those she passes by on her elaborately decorated float. The first part of the festival culminates in sending your krathong down the river.
Separate from the festivals, Tha Ton has a hilltop wat which is completely worth visiting. Whether you walk or take a motorcycle up, the trip is beautiful as you get closer to the golden Buddha which can been seen from the centre of Tha Ton and even further. Afterwards, however, the best thing to do in the little village is eat until you simply cannot eat anymore. Then eat some more to wash down your food. If there is one thing that Tha Ton does right, it's food. There are many food stands strewn about, even on back roads. While I didn't know exactly what I was eating most of the time, it was all delicious. A particular favourite was a stand which had bar stools and served cold beers while you waited for your order. It made it that much more social. Second fiddle to the food would be the kindness of everyone there, despite the language barrier.
During Yi Peng I could see this kindness clearly. When most people were working on their own lanterns, two little boys were struggling with theirs and so two strangers helped them with it. Monks were lighting the sky just as everyone else was and while some of the older residents were nervous for the fireworks there was just a complete sense of togetherness even though I was a foreigner. I was invited to take part in the process and really be a part of the community there, even if it was only for a few days. It made Tha Ton, one of the best places I've travelled to so far.
As I may have said in blog posts previous, I left Europe for Asia because of how quickly my Euros were becoming fewer and fewer. This meant I left in a bit of a rush and had no clue what I was really doing when I landed in Bangkok, even less so when my money was all but gone in Bangkok. I knew that I very much wanted to see animals. Who doesn’t want to see an Elephant in as close to it’s natural habitat you’re going to get without working for National Geographic? My search lead me to Elephant Nature Park. Elephant tourism in Thailand, alongside any other sort animal tourism, is very popular. This is for a very good reason, of course. They're adorable, they're gentle and they are there! However, it's not that simple. Nothing ever is.
While I could highlight why you shouldn’t go to various other sanctuaries because of their unethical treatment of animals which can include starvation, emotional abuse, physical torture, riding, and over breading just to name a few tragic points there are really more reasons than this to go to Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai. I’m sure if you looked you could find hundreds of blog posts all about the bad parts of animal tourism from other sanctuaries as well but hey, let’s stay on here instead!
There are many different options you could take when deciding to volunteer or visit Elephant Nature Park but I took the two week volunteer opportunity with the elephants because it’s been a dream of mine since I was ten to see them and when I was seventeen I even got a tattoo of an elephant. I felt incredibly lucky not only to take part in it but also because originally they didn’t have a spot open for me until I was due to be in a different country but someone had cancelled so I jumped at the chance, quickly getting to the other side of Thailand as fast as I could, a pretty difficult feat at the time because the trains were all not working and a flight would’ve cost far to much. With a boat, a bus and a little bit of hitchhiking I made it to Chiang Mai and stayed for a few days before until I was picked up outside of my hostel and driven, alongside other volunteers, first to the headquarters where we got t-shirts and information packets. From there we were driven the the sanctuary.
During the drive up, we saw elephants that were owned by a different park and saw them being ridden while the riders wielded bull hooks. The staff taking us to Elephant Nature Park pointed out as well that they were underfed, a gross truth about most of elephant tourism which was plain to see when we entered the gates to the park and saw the first elephant. It looked much more robust and even happier with her herd. From there we were given our rooms and when we had all dropped our bags off, the fun began with the a meal for the elephants. We gave them fruits and veg - they were eating healthier than I had in the several months of travel - into their trunks except for the babies, which were still incapable of using them entirely. Try as the little guys did to be like their matriarchs so the softer fruits we gave them, as well as the senior elephants, were put onto the ground or carefully into their mouths. It was great fun to watch them all eat and see how different they each were, in looks and personality.
Shortly thereafter it was our own dinner and the food we were given was nothing short of spectacular. It was an all vegan diet, grown locally and all absolutely delicious. I’m not a vegan nor a vegetarian (sorry!) but I actually had to ask if certain dishes contained meat because I simply could not tell. It got dark quickly and on our first night as volunteers we were invited to a ceremony where a local shaman would bless us and give us protection. If anything can be taken away from that it was how touching it all was.
Afterwards we went to bed and rose early for breakfast, equally as good as dinner was, and then went on to our tasks. We had a lot of work to be done to help the elephants. Some was less than spectacular: shovelling poo. While others were more fun: preparing meals for the food but whatever the task was it was all done. We cut old banana trees down, we built scratching posts, collected hay and grass. Everything we did was to help the elephants and the huge collection of rescued animals they have too. We all spoke as we work, getting to know each other and why we wanted to be here and took breaks whenever an elephant and their mahout came by to learn about the individual elephant and the hardship that had befallen it before they'd ended up at Elephant Nature Park. We even got to take photos with them without taking an "Elphie" (Just so you know, that's a part of cruelty. How many animals do you know interact with cell phones normally?). We disturbed them as little as possible and the elephants whose backs hadn't been broken by over-breading or heavy labour we were able to take them into the surrounding mountains so they could be as close to natural life as they should be. The views were beautiful too and you really got to see how much elephant and mahout bonded. During our breaks we helped bath and feed them but we also got to see the kittens that were rescued, the oxen and the dogs too. The dogs are mostly all adoptable too as they were rescued after a terrible wet season which destroyed too many homes in Thailand. All of this is just the most peaceful place on Earth as far as I can tell.
The two weeks ended faster than I ever would have liked, with some people even getting tattoos during that time, but after seeing how sustainable it was and helping fund local communities and rescued animals we all left happy and wanting to go back to Elephant Nature Park. You should see it for yourself too!
During a very short trip through Chiang Rai in Northern Thailand I found myself utterly stunned. With the time I was due to be there, there was only enough time to pick one of two places that were meant to be utterly beautiful and intricate in every way. I picked The White Temple over The Black House. After going to many temples I knew that it was likely going to be something lavish and boy was I not at all disappointed. Only, The White Temple was extravagant in ways I hadn't expected.
While Wat Po, in Bangkok, is prodigal in all things (as seen by The Reclining Buddha) The White Temple is a little more understated from just looking at it. The closer you get, the more you are able to see just how much effort had been put into it and why the trip is worth every last bhat paid to get to the Wat. Like all other temples, you do have to be modestly dressed, but a few moments of warmth is worth it. The artist, Chalermchai Kositpipat, who rebuilt the temple into a modern exhibit used pieces of current culture in the interior that juxtaposes not only the small area where The White Temple rests but also the exterior itself.
Going up to the temple there are white figures, lined with mirrors. There are dragons, buddhas and the souls of the damned and this is all just from the outside. It has such a strange aesthetic to match with an interior that features Harry Potter. That's right, the Thai neo-Buddhist While Temple has paintings of Harry Potter flying about on his iconic broomstick. Of course there is also Hitler and Captain Jack Sparrow. A medley that ties together oddly but if you get a tour guide to explain, it's meant to represent our false idols and the overwhelming evils we have keeping us from the state of Nirvana. Not the band. Sorry, Kurt Cobain! There are people depicted who manage to avoid the distractions and seem very blissful so the motif of The White Temple is clear. The execution is more interesting than beautiful and too literal for my taste but a definite must-see of Thailand. If not for this than for the nearby golden bathrooms.
Cost: Donation not exceeding 10,000 Bhat.
Notes: Photos are not to be taken inside.
If you’re reading this you’re probably a lot cleverer than I am because I went to Cambodia just because my visa in Thailand was expiring and because I knew that Angkor Wat was meant to be something so painfully beautiful. At least this was what people at my hostels had told me. Aside from this I knew nothing of the history although I wish I did and had bitten the bullet and gotten a Lonley Planet guide where I could begin to understand the pain Cambodians have experienced in the not-too-distant past.
My first experience with Cambodia, felt like a scam, which I’ll write about later but it got better. I found my hostel through my tuktuk driver’s guidance and plans were made for the following morning. I was meant to wake early to go to Angkor Wat but I slept through my alarm, which I thought was fair enough as I’d just been through over 24 hours of travel. If I return to Cambodia I’ll be sure to have enough sleep to see the sunrise over Angkor Wat.
1. Angkor Wat.
The most beautiful Wat in Cambodia and arguably in South East Asia is popular to be seen over the sunrise where you’ll find hoards of backpackers and shutterbugs trying to push through to get that beautiful snap. Or you can go during the day, listn to some music and have a conversation with Cambodia’s ghosts. You can see Desi deities throughout the temple as it was built and then forgotten when Cambodia was India and subsequently after. It’s beautiful and should not be missed. Just be sure to bring water, sunscreen and money for food. Sadly Gwen Stefani’s help won’t be needed here because that shit isn't B-A-N-A-N-A-S as Cambodians believe that banana trees allow ghosts to come into their homes. Maybe when you’re talking to the ghosts ask why bananas, I never got to.
2. The Killing Fields.
Speaking of ghosts, Cambodia has a very tragic history that should never be ignored. In fact, Cambodians have made their very recent horrific experiences into a tourist destination. Not to take selfies at like some tourists might but so we can all acknowledge what true suffering people went through and so that it may never happen again. If you ignore a problem or don't face it head on it is the same as acting as if it never happened so Cambodians offer this somber but important place as a tourist destination. Don't miss it. Be respectful and go.
3. Play with local children
Cambodian children seem to be different from Thai kids because they come with a little edge but the same goofiness and playful nature that all kids do. It’s worth your while and theirs to play a game. Maybe one of theirs or teach them one you knew. Sometimes it’s just nice to play with the happiest of humans when you’re feel bogged down by the weight of history and the pain of a country. Just be sure that their parents are alright with it first.
4. Beach party.
I’m not much of a beach person - I burn too fast to stay long but everyone can enjoy a party on the beach, I’ve figured. Surprising, eh? Ok maybe not but I’ve never been to a beach party before and had a great time. After your classic backpacker party where people I had met along the way had too much 'happy' food I crashed a five year old's birthday party. His parents taught me a Cambodian dance and we laughed about my lack of rhythm and our language barrier which was an experience that you could only have in Cambodia and totally worth it! While Otres 1 is the more populace beach, I stayed on Otres 2 near Sihanoukville, which by the way could not have a more complicated name to pronounce. No one is sure how to say it. I called it 'see-anne-ou-k-ville' but I'm also sure that's wrong. I guess it's party of the fun of this beautiful country.
5. Island Hop
My favourite time in Cambodia was when I left main land and went to Koh Rong Island where I stayed at Bunna's Place Hostel which was easily the most fun experience I'd had in this country due to the owners party life personality. Don't go if you want your liver to relax, basically. With jaegerbombs and shot guns replacing your meals and fruit shakes in between it makes to be a fun experience especially when you hike from one side to another but don't wear flip flops like I did. I seriously regretted that choice. My feet were aching! Still a few travel scars never does a person much harm because it's proof of a story. It's the O.G. 'pics or it didn't happen'. We all like some good O.G.s too so it might as well be travel related.
Bangkok can be a little scary to even an experienced traveller on the best of circumstances - but on the worst... Well, you'll see.
After a truly awful flight from Istanbul to Bangkok I took the train to the station nearest my Guesthouse completely enjoying the air-conditioning as anyone would. I dropped my bags off and got the gross 'plane' feeling off with a nice shower, a necessary step before I, along with a few other people from the hostel I'd just met, decided to get food. So I grabbed my essentials and on the way I went to withdraw money from the bank, easy enough to do. Only it was all in Thai so after I got the equivalent of $30CAD out I didn't know what it had said and was distracted by all the sights and sounds, leading me to forget my bank card in the ATM outside of a 7/11.
Truth told, I didn't realize until I had gotten back to the hostel and was looking through my wallet. I panicked because I thought perhaps it had dropped in a sewer grate or maybe at a food stand but then after some very stressful moments I realized I never had taken it out. There was a whole lot more panicking - maybe a little bit of stress crying as I went through the worst possible scenarios in my head because I'm a worrier. After all of that WesternUnion told me it would be only two days until they could see if my card was in the machine and usable.
I explained this to my gracious host and she told me that I could pay for my nights once everything was settled - a kindness I'll never forget. Then came the issue of food and water. I had a bottle left over but would be sure to need another before the day's end. My expectation was that I would have to stay in my room and stay cool while I waited for two days to pass but once again I was surprised. While travelling in Europe I knew that this would what I would be stuck doing but the SEA backpacker is of an entirely different breed of people. It's like the surroundings make them nicer or maybe more generous people backpack South East Asia. It's hard to say. All I knew was that the people I had met at the hostel were just that when they got food, water and even brought me along to the temples with them. We walked through monk housing as we took everything in and I had the closest thing I'd ever had to a religious experience there and then when I realized how the world was never as scary as anyone ever claimed and that you can live off of the giving spirits of other people if you are one yourself.
This made 42 hours in Bangkok without money the best time spent I'd had since I began travelling so many months earlier.