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17 countries. 259 days. Thousands of miles. 67 blog posts. 56 books. 1 stolen wallet. A million new friends. And I’m finally home.

 

I’m writing this from my place in Toronto with only a vague shimmer of a realization of what has happened to me over the past nine months. I have sat down to write this final entry so many times and yet… nothing. Even now I’m fighting the urge to put down the pen and turn on the TV or pour another cup of tea. It’s funny how quickly you settle back down into “life.”

 

The future is uncertain. Maybe that’s the reason I’m so against closing up this past. And although once again I’m going to find myself on the move – to the UK in the fall – there’s no ticket showing me where I’m going to end up and that’s disconcerting. But I am the eternal optimist.

 

I think no matter how much they try to deny it, all travellers are optimists. Only an optimist could stand on the side of the road and know that the next bus, bike, pick-up truck or car will take them to their next destination. Only optimists go alone to the middle of nowhere knowing they are sure to meet a kindred spirit in a bar to stave off the loneliness of “far from home.” Only an optimist can be sure that the very last dollar in their bank account is worth spending on yet another bus ride to yet another place. You have to know it will all work out alright, or else you wouldn’t have left in the first place.

 

Looking back over Sarah and my travel blogs is hilarious – it’s amazing what has changed and what has stayed the same. Team J-A-S broke up early on.  At least half of my original packing list got trashed in Africa and had to be replaced in Australia. We not only made it to the Aussie Open but scored incredible seats. My first reference to Lofty is as “a friend from Stray bus.”  The most useful item I brought with me turned out to be my sarong.

 

One thing I did get right is that this trip changed my life. One thing I got wrong is that this was a “once in a lifetime.” I’ll be the first to admit, I’ve caught the bug! Travel will always be high on my priority list. South America calls, as does China, Japan, the Middle East and most accessibly, Europe. Is that the whole world yet?

 

My favourite country was New Zealand, followed closely by Zimbabwe (just don’t get me started on Mugabe). My favourite city was Cape Town, then Melbourne. The best island was Zanzibar. The best beach Matai Bay in northern NZ. The best dive in Fiji. The most relaxing moment? A tie between gliding through the Okavango Delta in a makoro and having a Thai massage on Chaweng beach. Finally, the scariest moments: standing on the edge of Bloukrans Bridge, rolling a car outside Brisbane and approaching the bone-filled stupa at the Cheung-Ek Killing Fields.

 

I learned so much – how to scuba dive, how to survive in the desert, how to surf, how to sky dive, how to make a killer tom yum gai soup, what to do if a lion/rhino/elephant starts to charge you. The Oasis tour in Africa was fantastic and I made so many friends for life. I would recommend it to anyone. For that matter, I would recommend travelling to everyone.

 

Compared to the hundreds of travellers I met on my trip, it’s not as if I had a more exciting itinerary than anyone; tried harder to get off the beaten track; visited more remote islands and exotic places; felt more alive or been closer to death. Most of them are still going and I am back home. But that’s the beauty of it. I know how accessible the world is, now. It can happen for anyone. It could happen for you, if it’s what you truly want to do.

 

Final words of travel wisdom? Trek towels stink. Exchange books at secondhand stores. Never refuse an invitation. Remember that – just as rules are made to be broken – plans are made to be changed.

 

Always use the hostel kitchen. You never know who you might meet.

My last proper day away was spent in Phnom Penh, capital city of Cambodia. Off the bus with a few other tourists, I was immediately surrounded by hundreds of taxi and tuk-tuk drivers. I was so glad that I booked accommodation before arriving! Because of the pre-planning, a driver was there with a sign and my name on it… a welcome face in an overwhelming crowd. I hopped on the back of his motorbike (my huge green backpack between his legs, I’m not kidding) and we zipped through the streets of Phnom Penh to my hostel on the river.

 

The atmosphere in the hostel was even more laidback than in Thailand. It was a strange mixture of middle aged male life drop-outs, young travellers and cambodian locals. I arranged a tour of P-P with my driver and then dropped into one of the chairs for some r&r. There’s a noticeable difference between P-P and Siem Reap. Siem Reap is a purely tourist-driven town, while the centre of Phnom Penh is almost completely void of white faces.

 

My Phnom-Penh tour was organised back-to-front. We started at the end; viewing an orphanage which was a direct result of the khmer rouge violence and ensuing poverty. It was a privately run orphanage, meaning that it relied on private donations for their upkeep. I brought along a 50kilo sack of rice which could feed all the children for only one day. But I spoke for a while with the local French teacher, who said that because it was low season, any donation, no matter how small, was appreciated. It was amazing to spend some time with the local children, who spoke to me in both French and English and were delighted by the little Canadian flag pins I handed out (thanks Mum!).

 

After the orphanage, I went to the Cheung-Ek Killing Fields. Although I had heard stories from other travellers, I wasn’t really sure what to expect. Certainly not a beautiful stupa and miles of beautiful green fields and trees. For some reason, the name “the Killing Fields of Cheung-Ek” had brought to mind a scene much more desolate.

 

There were people stationed at the entrance to the stupa selling flowers and sticks of incense, but my eye caught sight of what was beyond and I was both entranced and appalled. Skulls. Hundreds of them. Thousands of them. Piled on top of each other in the centre of the stupa, categorized by age and gender but otherwise jutted and propped against each other in disarray. I circled the gruesome monument, came back to my senses and bought both flowers and incense – the money goes to support the families affected by this atrocity. I lit the incense and prayed. How did something so tragic and enormous happen within my lifetime and I be so completely ignorant of it?

 

The rest of Cheung-Ek is equally chilling. The bones in the stupa represent only a few of the mass graves that have been uncovered. You can walk through, over and around the other graves, the ones they have yet to unearth.

 

I completed my terrifying journey into Cambodian history by visiting Tuol Sleng prison or Sector 21. The fact that it was a former high school made the place all the more chilling. Just imagine… monkey bars from the playground gym being used as hanging posts. Classrooms installed with iron bars on the ground to chain the prisoners to the floor. Or being divided into cells barely big enough for me to turn around in. Curiously, the Khmer Rouge were pros at keeping records. They photographed every single inmate and their pictures now fill the rooms at the Tuol Sleng Museum.

If you can believe it, I went straight from my visit at the prison to the airport. You might wonder how I could possibly spend the last real day of my trip exploring such horrors. But Cambodia is such an amazing and resilient country, and I wouldn’t have been able to understand that without visiting their history. And it is so recent. It is so relevant. And yet, there are few signs of despair. Everyone is smiling, optimistic, entrepreneurial and excited about the future. The perfect place for me to end an incredible adventure and show that no adversity – even the very worst kind – is impossible to overcome.

First impressions of Angkor Wat are overwhelming: a crush of people selling and buying; tuk-tuks, motos, tour buses; cries of ‘one dollar, one dollar.’ Separated from the masses by a wide moat is the structure itself – towering, wide and massive. Except, once you cross the bridge and pass through the building’s threshold you realize that the towering building isn’t the actual temple. It’s just a gateway. Then you truly understand why this is the world’s largest religious monument. Nothing compares.

In total, I visited 14 different temples. I hardly know where to begin writing about them. Each was different and the whole complex entralled me for three days. To write about only a few seems to stip the other temples of their beauty and worth – just trust me that each was magnificent, and unique.

But back to Angkor Wat. The Grand Master. Built in dedication to the Hindu god Vishnu and the centre of what was once a massive and thriving city. The walls are covered with bas-relief depictions of Hindu legend and three-dimensional carved asparas (like dancing nymphs). It is complex and awesome – in the true meaning of the word. I was lost in there for hours.

Ta Prohm was the most unique temple, strangled by the thick roots of silk-cotton trees. It is romantic and otherworldly; it seems to belong to nature as much as nature has taken over it. The Bayon was the creepiest, with literally hundreds of carved faces looking down at you from every angle. The most beautiful was Banteay Srei, with its minature sandstone carvings and layers of intricate detail.

Although most of the time it didn’t feel like it, I was visiting the temples in the low season. That meant heavy rain showers in the afternoon and also that I sometimes found myself completely alone in the temple grounds. This wasn’t really an issue – in fact, it added to the feeling of sanctity of the place – that is, until the grounds of Pre Rup. It was while walking around this temple – quite alone – that I encountered a snake. Or rather, it encountered me as I must have shocked it; it darted across my feet and disappeared under a rock. I didn’t scream but I was frozen in shock. All I could think of was all the poisonous snakes that must be lurking in Cambodia. I recovered my composure and found the snake so I could take its picture. I was thoroughly spooked though. And I wasn’t really keen on spending any more time alone. But, strangely enough, after the snake incident, I met people in every other temple I visited, evn though I had been temple-gazing for hours before without speaking to anyone. Someone out there is listening to me, I can tell you that!

Siem Reap

Siem Reap is a remarkable city and incredibly tourist-friendly. It is difficult to see the “Cambodia in Crisis” while walking the streets lined with 5* hotel, cafes and fashion stores. But I got a small glimpse after attending a showing of “Dr. Beat and the passive genocide of children,” a documentary on the state of health care in Cambodia. Dr. Beat (pronounced bee-at) is famous in Cambodia and in his home country of Switzerland for operating six privately-funded hospitals for children in Cambodia. He is very anti-WHO – whose quest for sustainable development often leaves behind sick children in need of real cures – and his message was a strong reminder of the struggle beneath the calm surface.

Coming to Cambodia after the relatively care-free Thailand is a shock to the system, especially my traveller’s conscience. What am I doing here? What am I contributing other than a very un-green amount of greenhouse gases as I jetset in planes around the globe? Cambodia pulls on the heartstrings. The children – it sounds so cliche but its true – are so special. They are constantly hawking their goods but not without sharing their school knowledge. They find out I am from Canada and immediately launch into their spiel: “Canada, capital Ottawa, it has two official languages French and English, bonjour, comment ca va, comment appellez-vous?” It’s adorable and impossible to ignore or push aside.

If only I knew how much worse it was going to get in Phnom Penh!

The bus picked me up from Bangkok in the early hours of the morning. Almost immediately I got chatting to a girl who was just on her way to Poipet (the Thai-Cambodian border) to do a visa run. Her name was Sarah – from Sarah to Sarah, quite ironic! She told me all about her last visit to Siem Reap and was especially detailed when it came to the border crossing. It’s going to be crazy, she said. Be prepared to get ripped off. I knew the price of the visa: $20USD. I wasn’t going to pay any more and I definitely wasn’t going to pay in Thai baht.

The closer we got the border, the more the bus driver and guides tried to get us to buy the visa in advance. They used all the most persuasive arguments: they only accept 1200thai baht, you’ll have to wait hours at the border to pay in USDs, the bus will leave you behind. They promised us that they were telling the truth (ha!). And, by the end of the five hour trip to the border, every single person except me had bought their visa in advance. The bus driver advanced on me. I had to pay him or else get left behind. Other passengers looked at me with pity in their eyes, one of them even had the nerve to pat me on the back and say “good luck” in a patronizing, you-should-have-just-gotten-ripped-off-like-the-rest-of-us kind of way. It just strengthened my resolve. I walked toward the border counter (no line up, by the way!). I was stopped by some men in intimidating police uniform. They asked for my passport. But no! I knew this was one of the tricks that they used to get me to pay baht, so said my trusty informant Sarah (you can always trust a Sarah!). They demanded 1200baht. I actually didn’t have that much thai baht, which helped my cause a little.  They ended up taking my passport, which I eventually got back and went to the counter and got my 20USD visa as if it was the easiest thing in the world.

I got back to the bus with the rest of the group – they didn’t leave without me! – and immediately we faced with awful roads. They were so awful that within the first minute, a truck in front of us blew out one of its tires with a huge bang and puff of smoke. It was quite theatric – and we all thought that we had struck a landmine (it being Cambodia and all). Quite the scare for everybody. But the rest of the eight hour journey was uneventful.

 

 

 

Sarah’s last few days in Bangkok were active and jam-packed. Luckily, a lot of the major sights are close to Khao San Road, where we were staying (Star Dome Inn, soi Rambuttri). As a result, we could easily walk to the Grand Palace and Wat Pho. Both structures were incredibly beautiful – but especially impressive was the reclining Buddha in Wat Pho – it’s absolutely massive!! We ate lunch across the river from Wat Amon and were treated to some great views of the city.

The heat in Bangkok is oppressive and we decided to head to mega-mall MBK for a break. It was like going from one form of oppression to another – the mall was packed to the brim with bag laden Thai teenagers and dazed looking tourists. Sarah and I joined the confused masses as we tried (in vain) to navigate the hundreds of stalls (rather than proper shops) inside the shopping centre. Eventually we gave in to fatigue and overwhelmed senses; Sarah went home and I sat in a hair salon for a while taking advantage of a very cheap priced haircut/colour.  My stylist at home will be disappointed with me (sorry Chris!) but they did a really good job.

Kanchanaburi

Our day tour to Kanchanaburi turned out to be one of the best days of my entire trip. We left Bangkok early in the morning for the floating markets. This wasn’t a traditional floating market – it was clearly designed for tourists – but it certainly gave a glimpse into life in the “Venice of the East.” The sun blazed down on our little long-tail boat as we floated past stalls filled with all kinds of exotic fruit, tourist souvenirs and funny woven hats. At one point we got stuck in a traffic jam and were at a standstill for a good five minutes… I can only imagine what it must be like during “busy” periods in the early morning! Our boat was poled along by a woman who looked almost 80… but navigated those narrow canals like only a pro could.

Our next stop was the bridge over the river Kwae. Now that was something else. There was a small museum dedicated to the Death Railway and we walked across the fated bridge… it was quite emotional and a learning opportunity for all of us. It’s always humbling to find yourself standing in the midst of history – one that I should know more about, but I don’t, at least not from the point of view of this side of the world.

The most anticipated stop on our tour came next…. the Tiger Temple! The abbot of Tiger Temple found himself caring for tigers quite by accident. But through word of mouth, it gradually spread that this abbot had a gift for taking care of injured or orphaned tigers and now he has become a major tourist attraction! It really is a unique experience to get so close to these massive and dangerous animals. They hardly seem dangerous though, while they are sleeping in the heat of the afternoon and tourists are approaching them left, right and centre for photographs. The process is all very carefully organized, however. You are led around by a guide who takes you forcefully by the arm to make sure you don’t accidentally walk into a tiger’s gaping jaws. But they then sit you down and drop a tiger’s head in your lap, so they obviously aren’t too concerned about them waking up! I could go on and on about how much this experience meant to me – tigers are by far and away my favourite creature on the planet and my Chinese horoscope animal. But the pictures truly say it all.

Sarah’s Last Day

Sarah’s final day out was dampened by the fact that she fell into a category along with about 30-50% of other travellers… she got the Bangkok belly. That’s no fun for anyone. It meant that she couldn’t come out to the famous Chatuchak market with me – but trust me, that is one place you do not want to be with a dodgy tummy. The moment I arrived I was… even overwhelmed doesn’t describe it properly. I was consumed. There was so much pure stuff everywhere. Beautiful, trendy designer clothes fit for tiny Thai people and sold for dirt cheap prices hung off the stalls. Jewelry, jeans, leather belts, knives, guns, dogs, cats, fish, orchids, kitchen applicances… there was absolutely everything for sale. And it was hot. Oh boy, was it hot and I quickly got discouraged by all the haggling and the clothes that definitely did not fit, no matter how cheap they were, it was not worth the hassle! I remember trying on jeans and the sweat literally pouring off my face as I was trying to pull the heavy denim on. I don’t think I’ve ever sweated that much in my life! Nice image, I know, but it was nuts. I made the decision to quit and get out of there as soon as I could. When I finally found the exit I looked at my watch and discovered I had been walking up and down the aisles for over four hours. And I still had only seen a very small part of it!

Saying goodbye to Sarah was so tough… but it’s hard to dwell on it now, I just gotta keep on moving for one more week. It’s so strange to think that the next time I see her is in the UK!

Chiang Mai is in northern Thailand and from the moment we touched down after a day in Bangkok, it felt somehow more authentic. The people are much more friendly and, unlike in the islands and in Bangkok where you feel the locals are somehow touristed-out, Thailand’s catchphrase “land of smiles” becomes much more self evident. We checked into “Julie’s Guesthouse,” a beautiful, social – and uber cheap – hostel in the middle of the walled city centre. Everything is cheaper in Northern Thailand too. 15Baht (about 50cents)/hour for internet, 90B (about $3) for a room and 150B (about $5) for a one-hour Thai massage! Can’t get much better than that.

Markets Galore

Now that we are on the last leg of our journey we can finally justify shopping! Walking markets are ubiquitous in Chiang Mai. Saturday markets, Sunday markets, the famous Night Bazaar – we hit them all! We have become master hagglers too, and for handicrafts and textiles, Chiang Mai is noticeably cheaper than Bangkok (or at least the Kao San road as we haven’t made it to the huge weekend market in Bangkok yet).

I think you could find anything you want for cheap-cheap in these markets. I’ve seen Prada fakes, real Mac make-up, pashminas, bags, Tiffany brand jewelry, I-pod Touch, every CD and DVD ever made and photocopied Lonely Planets. Sarah and I met up with Sarah’s friend from home, Charlotte and her travel partner Jenn. We went into a store which was wall-to-wall jewelry – literally every surface was covered in some kind of necklace or bracelet or semi-precious stone. I wasn’t sure if we were going to be able to tear the girls away from there! But even I had to admit, it was pretty fabulous.

Mountain Sightseeing

We met up with a couple from our hostel in order to share the price of a song thaew (a red, open-air taxi) up the mountain to Doi Suthep and the Winter Palace: two of Chiang Mai’s most famous attractions. The Winter Palace was first and we spent a while exploring the grounds. Unfortunately, the weather was abysmal. The whole place was shrouded in cloud and so the normal splendor of the gardens and fountains was a bit lost on us. We hoped it would be better at Doi Suthep.

In fact, the weather didn’t improve but it did lend an air of mystery to the temple that it wouldn’t have had otherwise. We couldn’t see the (apparently) fabulous views of Chiang Mai but we did have fun exploring the temple and walking the steps.

Village Walks

The last thing we did in Chiang Mai was visit some of the villages in the surrounding area. It was a very mixed bag kind of tour, which we thought was going to be exclusively about the villages but ended up also including a tour of an elephant dung paper factory, an orchid and butterfly farm and the caves at Chiang Dao. Quite random.

The villages, however, were eye-opening. Or rather, the village was. All the tribes we thought we were going to see were in fact located in one, highly touristy village. In the one complex were members of the long neck Karen tribe, the big ear hill tribe, the lisu tribe, amongst others. Most of the tribe members are refugees from Myanmar. We were allowed to take our photos with them and to buy their goods but most of them didn’t speak much English – or were reluctant too – and we were soon ushered back into the car to the next stop. We did in fact go and visit some other villages, but again it was to be bombarded by children selling friendship bracelets. Cries of “10Baht… 10Baht” became a kind of mantra to the group. I swear I hear it in my dreams now!

For the most part I’ve been blogging in chronological order, but I’m going to have to take a more themed approach for this entry and write about my favourite Thai subject: food!

Most of the streets in Bangkok and Chiang Mai are packed with food stalls. You can walk from one part of the city to the another and pick up some pad thai for breakfast, fried chicken (way better than KFC) for lunch, chicken satay for dinner and some fresh Alphonso mangos for dessert. Can’t really imagine anything better… and for under a dollar each meal!

That’s what inspired me most to go out in Chiang Mai and do a cooking course. Mine was with Pad Thai Cooking course and I would definitely recommend them! We made six dishes each: breakfast, appetizer, soup/salad, curry, stir-fry and a dessert. Each category had six different options to choose from so there was a lot of choice in what you could make. I ended up choosing pad thai, spring rolls, tom yum soup, panang curry, chicken stirfry with cashew nuts and fried bananas.

First of all we did a market tour. We were taught all about the spices used to make curry paste and the different “Thai” versions of fruit and vegetables. We tried different types of fruit including mangosteen and rambutan – both delicious, white-flesh fruits, similar to lychee.

The cooking school itself was about half an hour outside of Chiang Mai in the countryside. The kitchen was open-air, with enough cooking stations for everyone. We jumped straight into making “breakfast” (although by now it was almost 11) and for me, that meant pad thai! This was definitely one I had been looking forward too, having devoured so many delicious pad thais off of street stalls. Everyone had their own tray of fresh ingredients, pre-measured for the perfect single portion size (although the cooking was easy, this is going to be the most difficult step to get right at home – portion sizes, and all the preparation). A little wok technique here, a little pinch of sugar and a douse of crushed peanuts there and voila! The perfect pad thai! And it was delicious, if I do say so myself…

The rest of the day passed in much the same way. The chefs were hilarious and spoke amazing English; they made everyone feel right at home in the kitchen. But the highlight of the day was by far the “cooking with big flame.” This was the ‘stir-fry’ category, and a definite don’t-try-this-at-home moment. Holding a wok on very high heat in one hand and a bowl full of chopped onions and a tablespoon of water in the other I waited for the 3…2…1…. countdown and then threw the onions into the wok — instant giant flame!

By the end of cooking school, we were all stuffed to the brim with thai food, a little sleepy and full of inspiration to try cooking at home. We were each given a recipe book, but I just don’t know if I’ll ever be able to replicate the tastes without access to the fresh ingredients… I’ll just have to try and see!