Men and Cockroaches

I’ve had my fair share of cockroach incidents. Some I’ve written about (The Cucaracha Wars), some I’ve videoed (that time in Mexico when one flew in through my window, made it’s home behind my bed and I freaked out. I moved the headboard and it dashed across my bed to the other side of the room while I was squealing). Some I’ve shared with friends (the time in the Philippines where Robin and I had to deal with six or so. She told me if I would take em’ alive, she’d take care of em’ when they are dead) and all are forever stuck in my memory.

Today’s story is a little different than the others. Despite being in what I would consider a 2 star hotel with great potential for cockroaches, we’ve been here for five nights and not seen any. That is, until today.

Note: Graphic content regarding the killing of a cockroach

After a lovely day spent swimming and working from Long Beach on Koh Phi Phi Island in Thailand, Robin and I returned to our air conditioned little room for a break from the heat. Robin was sitting on her bed and I hear her say ‘Ah, Is that inside or outside?’ I immediately flipped over and looked at her. Seeing the look of disappointment on her face, I immediately freaked out a bit asking ‘What, what, what is it?’ By the look on her face I thought it might actually be a snake or something as she wasn’t moving. She finally told me there was a cockroach on the window, but she wasn’t sure if it was inside or outside.

Together, we took a closer (but still distant) look and determined that the bugger was between the screen & window. Robin was hoping to close the curtain and forget she saw it, but I decided it had to die before it found a way in. After a couple of minutes staring at it and hitting the screen with my flip flop to try and make it run away, I wasn’t having any luck. I gingerly moved the screen window that it was on hoping that it wouldn’t run into the room. I wiggled the screen door enough to get my hands on the sliding window and jostled it open. (Nothing here works smoothly. Lucky it works at all) I was hoping that it would simply run to the opening, but who are we kidding, cockroaches aren’t the smartest insects on earth! They are about the same as June bugs. We decided to dump water on it, hoping it would make it go the direction of the opening. No luck. Now, on the window tread instead of the screen, It decided to wiggle through the water, inward rather than toward the opening. In the end, when he crawled on the end of the window frame (still outside), I closed the window & it ended up smooshing him between two window frames. I could still see him wiggling but I couldn’t reach him to put him out of his misery. Besides, everyone must know by now how much I hate cockroaches! I wasn’t about to try very hard. Horribly, I watched him struggle for a few minutes. Not because I wanted to see him struggle, but because I wanted to be sure that he was actually caught and couldn’t move to get in our room. So, I left him to die. Yes, maybe I am a horrible person but cockroaches have traumatized me more than once.

A few minutes later Robin noticed a surgance of ants in the same area where the cockroach had been. Hundreds of fairly large red ants had covered the area and the bits of the cockroach that had been visible were no more. Apparently when cockroaches are left to die, red ants quickly find them and devour them! Who knew!

But, the story doesn’t end there. A few hours later, the guys staying in the hotel room beside us came home (not so quietly). They turned their music on and joked around loudly. This is what I pictured (and dreaded) that Koh Phi Phi might be like. Young people here on vacation with the sole purpose of partying (all night long). They had woken us up with their drunken boisterous voices at 3:30 am this morning, so I would expect nothing less than some loud music through the evening tonight.

Shortly after they arrived home, the door opened quickly and I hear a one side of a conversation through the extremely thin walls in our dingy hotel, between two English men. I can hear the guy standing in the hallway in his deep English accent like he’s standing beside me.

“Pauly, just take care of it I don’t want anything to do with it.
Ewww. It’s huge.
What the fuck.
Hurry up and get rid of it. Just smack it. I’m not coming back in until you’ve flushed it down the toilet.
They are so dirty.
This isn’t funny. Just deal with it.”

(faintly heard from inside, presumably Pauly’s voice with a slight chuckle) – “It’s just a cockroach man!”

I couldn’t help myself, I peaked out the peephole in the door to see the guy standing there.  I’d guess about 25 years old, tall, shirtless and super fit. That’s about all I could tell through a peephole. I didn’t think he’d like it much if I opened the door fully and asked him if he was scared of a wee cockroach.

“Hurry up and deal with that monstrosity.
Is it gone yet? Did you flush it? Is it gone?”

Door slams and rattles the walls. Presumably the big strong man went back into the room after his friend had flushed the ‘monstrosity’ down the toilet.

Happy to say that this little cockroach incident made my day. I struggle with cockroaches all the time and for once it’s nice to know that a ‘big strong man’ freaks out over them as much as I do.

Myanmar Highlights

Fishing on Inle Lake, Myanmar

In 2013 I visited South East Asia for the first time. I remember people asking what were my Myanmar highlights and it was impossible to narrow it down to one specific thing! The best answer I could come up with was ‘All of Myanmar’. It amazes me to realize that I have visited this beautiful, largely undiscovered country before the rest of the world got to it. The experiences and wonderment still feel fresh in my mind.

Take for example the morning that a small group of us did a little photo tour to an area just outside the downtown area of Yangon. We walked for about 15 minutes and were outside of the business district, watching the city wake up and begin bustling with locals preparing a small market. We were there before sunrise and saw the monks lining up for their morning rounds and collection. I’m really not sure who was more curious, them or us. It is so incredibly interesting to go to an area where tourists are so rare that they actually become an attraction in the place they’ve gone to visit. I’ll admit, I was a bit shy, not knowing how to approach or talk to the monks, but soon enough I came to understand that they were happy to see us and happy to practice their English skills.

I wandered around taking a few photographs and then one of the locals invited us in to the monastery to enjoy a local breakfast. A few minutes later the group of us were taking off our socks and shoes and following the kind man into a large dining area filled with locals. Barely with our bums in the seats, local men and women were coming out of the kitchen area with various dishes in hand and filling the table with typical breakfast consisting of rice, noodles, fish soup and then sweet sticky rice came along a little later. They filled our bowls and when we were done, they immediately appeared to fill them up again. They certainly didn’t want us to leave hungry. These were the community members who came together to cook food for the monks at this monastery, but the monks were all out on collection at the time. After we finished our meal, we were surprised as the locals gathered around and wanted their photos taken with us. It was only my second day in Myanmar and I was already learning that tourists were as much of an attraction as the attractions were to the tourists.

Yangon, Myanmar
Yangon, Myanmar

With an open mind, even the simplest of pleasures can turn out to be a highlight of the trip. I expected extreme poverty. After all it is one of the poorest countries in Asia. To my surprise, our overnight bus from Yangon to Mandalay was beautiful, high end and even had a hostess on board. It was comfortable, with reclining seats to a much better decline than standard buses. Each of us was given a thick warm, fuzzy blanket and a hostess was available for questions and assistance throughout the night. On top of that, the recently built divided highway was mostly smooth sailing and despite the rain, I didn’t feel fearful or uncomfortable at all throughout the night. I just laid back and slept.

Most of the tours that are offered to Burma / Myanmar, range from 12 – 17 days. Sadly, I was on a shortened version and had to pack as much as possible into only 10 spectacular days. Because of the shortened itinerary, we had only one full day to explore that wonders of beautiful Mandalay. Although the core of the city itself isn’t really a highlight, there are lots of beauties to enjoy on the outskirts. A few hours to half a day can be spent enjoying the beauty, history and culture of the ancient U Bein bridge in Amarapura. Just simply watching the way of life, traveling by boat across the lake and then returning by walking across the 1.2 km ancient teak wood bridge. Along the way you can stop and taste local delicacies, take in the spectacular views and meet a few new local friends selling souvenirs.

Snacks along the U Bein teak wood bridge
Snacks along the U Bein teak wood bridge

Don’t be put off though, despite the fact that they are there to make a living and sell their wares, I found the local kids particularly respectful, friendly and interesting. We only had about an hour to spend, which was far too rushed for this beautiful spot, but in that hour I managed to take a boat ride to the middle of the lake and then return on foot across the bridge. I met a young girl who walked back to the main land with me. We chatted about her family, her schooling and life on the lake. Her English was excellent, she was friendly and she didn’t ask me to buy anything until we were nearly back to the main land. It was at this time that I bargained with her a little and purchased two necklaces … one with jade elephants and the other with amber.

We spent the remainder of our day in Mandalay crossing the Irrawaddy river to Mingun, a small community with some big claims to fame. The tiny community hosts the world’s largest bell (over two tonnes of iron), the unfinished, Pahtodawgyi pagoda and the beautiful Hsinbyume pagoda. We spent a couple of hours wandering around, visiting the sites and dodging rain, which came and went in fits and spurts. Although the rain slowed us down a little as we waited for it to stop under the cover of a big leafy tree, it certainly didn’t ruin the experience and I wouldn’t change it for a second and replace it with a mass of tourists. I’d much rather travel in green season dodging a bit of rain than dodging hundreds of tourists. Having said that, it’ll be quite some time before Mingun sees hundreds of tourists at one time.

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IMG_1147_ShariTucker

Possibly the largest and best known attraction in Burma is the community of Bagan where they boast over 2100 pagodas, temples and structures in 42 square kilometers. The desert landscape dotted with structures of all shapes and sizes is absolutely spectacular. Take the time to see it at sunrise and sunset; it is truly spectacular. You can spend hours biking amongst the structures on dirt roads winding through ancient old Bagan. But, beware of the heat. Make sure you have sunscreen, lots of water and a hat to keep the sun off your face. Although the land is nearly flat, the heat adds it’s own challenges to your physical abilities. Stop often and discover as many of the structures as you can. Each one is unique and the art and architecture will amaze you time and time again.

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After enjoying the beauty of Bagan for a couple of days, we were off for a short visit to the Mt. Popa area. Mt. Popa is a volcano and an area that you can hike, but we simply passed over and twisted around the big mountain with a stop in the community to hear about the spiritual nats that are worshiped at the pagoda atop a mountain. Oh yes, and to meet the cheeky little Macque monkeys that scatter the town. If you have time, you can climb the 777 steps to the beautiful monastery at the top of the mountain, but beware as the monkeys live and play along the way, so I hear it is dirty and smelly.

Our next stop was a lovely lunch and visit to an elephant conservation camp. Hearing the story of how the organization started and how they have retired five or six elephants from the lumber industry to live peacefully and well taken care of until the end of their lives was inspirational. This organization has purchased these elephants, each of their handlers (Mahoot) and the Mahoot’s family. Not only have they given the elephants a respectful home, but also have created a community and schooling for the Mahoots and their families. We had the amazing opportunity to feed the elephants banana snacks and then help bathe them in the river. They are so large, yet so quiet and gentle. I stood mere inches from their mouths, which were big enough to swallow me whole, and I grinned ear to ear with excitement the entire time.

Last, but not least, we visited beautiful Inle Lake, which had different, yet incredible feel. As you can imagine, life on a lake is quite different from life on land. From the local market that we visited to the leg-rowing fisherman balancing on one leg on their flat boats, to the craft industry workshops – seeing the local way of life was eye-opening and incredible. And I bought two of the most beautiful hand-made fine silk scarves! We were a bit rushed as our trip was a condensed version, but we managed to see the highlights and even take in the largely undiscovered and quiet Indein where there was not another tourist to be seen amongst the many hundreds of stupas and structures. Magical is not a word strong enough to describe the experience.

Fishing on Inle Lake, Myanmar

At the end of the trip we asked if it was possible to visit an orphanage or monastery and arrangements were made for our last evening in Yangon. We made a donation to the orphanage and had a tour of where schooling takes place, where the children sleep and the communal areas. Then we had the amazing opportunity to dish out food as the young monks gathered for supper. Young boys as little as four years old walked up to the serving area perfectly mannered. If we gave them too much of something, they politely put a portion back. It was a great lesson in humility and understanding to only take what you need and leave the rest for someone else. Of course, the monks were allowed to come back for seconds, so no need to waste food! Take only what is needed and if they are still hungry come back for more.

It’s simple, every single activity, every single day was a highlight. There was something new, exciting and simply beautiful around every corner and I just couldn’t get enough. 10 days was a great overview and a taste for the amazing destination, but easily I could spend a month exploring just the nooks and crannies of the ‘tourist’ areas, not to mention the lesser visited areas. And, as tourism begins to grow, more and more areas will be open for exploration by foreigners. In my opinion, Myanmar is a destination to be visited now, before it explodes in popularity, and then visited again and again as the economy gets stronger and new areas open up. There’s nothing quite like seeing a destination that isn’t used to tourists and getting an authentic feel for the people, the culture, the food and the beauty without the corruption of the tourist traps. Go see this destination soon to get an authentic feeling for the country. Then, explore it again later as more destinations open up. You won’t be disappointed.

If you are interested in visiting Myanmar, please get in touch. I would love to help you plan your next adventure.

South East Asia – Chapter 19 – Lady I don't want your money.

*** I’m catching up on blogging & posting stories. They are a bit out of order and I’m not currently in Asia. This particular post was written while I was there though.

Today we arrived in Siem Reap at around 3pm. After a dip in the hotel pool, I headed out to explore a bit of the city. I followed the map to the market area, stopped for a cold smoothie at Blue Pumpkin and then wandered around a bit more. People were out and about doing chores, selling fruit or street food and massages were being offered everywhere. Not to mention the plethora of drivers trying to get you to take their tuk tuks.

After a wandering around for about an hour, I headed back on a slightly different route through the side streets.

A little girl, who was about eight years old, walked up to me and touched me on the arm.
“Lady, I don’t want your money” she said in a soft voice. I looked down at her and she was carrying her little sister who seemed to be about a year old.
“I just want some milk for my sista. Can you buy some milk?”

I never give children on the streets money and I rarely buy anything from them unless I really want it. I know it is a different way of life in other countries, but I don’t like that kids learn to beg for money from tourists because they assume we are rich and that their parents force them to do this. I am, however, more than happy to give a child or family food instead of money.

I agreed to buy the little girl milk.

She quickly took me by my hand and led me in the direction of the nearest grocery / convenience store which was about ½ a block away. Along the way she held my hand tight and helped me safely cross the street, assuming that because I was a tourist I wasn’t familiar with the crazy traffic and lack of driving laws. It was really cute that she was insistent that I not cross before her and that we do so safely.

As we got closer to the store, the girl explained that she wanted powdered milk … Similac, as it would last for a long time for her and her two sisters. Her English was really good for a child of her age. She obviously must be attending school for her English to be so good.

We walked into the store and she took me directly to the powdered milk section, pointing out the exact kind of Similac that her sisters needed (for 6 – 24 months). I asked her how much they cost and she didn’t know, so I took one to the counter and asked the staff. The can that she had pointed out was $23 US.

I turned to the little girl and sadly explained that it was too much and that I didn’t have that much money. (I only had a $20 bill on me) I asked if there were smaller cans, but there were not.

The little girl pleaded with me as I put it back, saying that it would feed them for three months and that it was not too expensive. I tried to explain to her that I didn’t have the money, but she did not seem to accept this answer.

“How much you have?” she asked.

I wasn’t going to play that game with her. They are taught well to try and get every penny from you. Nor was I going to take my wallet out and show her.

“I’m really sorry, but I don’t have enough. If they had a smaller can I would buy it for you, but they don’t.”

The little girl continued to argue and plead with me, so I began to leave the store. She grabbed my hand and forcefully pulled it, begging once again for me to buy it for her. When I firmly said no, that I could not, as I did not have enough money, we continued out of the store with her saying “Give me $5 then and I can find money from someone else to buy it.” (Not a bad suggestion from an eight year old, but I only had a $20 bill)

As I headed to cross the street, the girl grabbed on to my hand with all her strength, it actually hurt a little bit! She continued to plead with me. I continued to say no.

She yanked on my hand and I stopped in my tracks as it honestly hurt and surprised me.
“I come with you to get more money.” She suggested.
I said “No, I’m sorry. I can’t. Will you be here tonight? Still on the street?”
“No. no. no. I won’t be here lata. Everyone says they will come back lata and no one ever does.”

Her English really was quite amazing for a young girl and she certainly knew how to shame you into helping her.

Still tightly gripping my hand, she again insisted on helping me cross the street. As I continued to walk away, she continued pleading with me, repeating everything that she had already said. Her new tactic though was to also pinch me to try and get my attention. She had let go of my hand after crossing the street but had begun pinching my arm and begging. In fact, she began to get very angry with me.

Getting increasingly annoyed at being pinched by a little girl and not wanting to cause a scene, I stopped and looked at her.

“Why won’t you help me? You said you would buy me milk.” She whined
“It is too expensive. I do not have enough money for it.”

She pinched my arm again to which I said “You were being nice and now you are not. I’m sorry, but I do not have the money and pinching isn’t helping.”

Finally, the little girl stopped pinching me. She didn’t stop whining and she let me go on my way.

I felt absolutely horrible about walking away. I truly had wanted to help the girl and her sisters. I had no idea how many tourists she convinced to do this on a regular basis, but buying them milk was so much better than giving them money.

So many tourists give into the pleading eyes of these children. I’m not at all saying it is wrong to help, but just how much money are you willing to give away and not know what it is being spent on or who the money is going to. These children learn their way around the streets and make a living for themselves and their families by begging on the streets from ‘rich’ people like you and I. What kind of life is this for a child?

I want to help them. Their pleading eyes cut through me too, but I try to see the bigger picture. Instead, I try to give them food or water. I try to support fair trade organizations or not for profits who teach or employ children and youth. There are so many ways to give back without giving money directly to a child.

In Cambodia alone, I’ve already eaten meals at two restaurants that support youth. Veyio Tonle and Friends, both in Phnom Penh. I also have purchased souvenirs and gifts from a couple of not for profit organizations, including Friends who have a great store with many recycled items, hand made by the children and youth that they support. You can also have a $3 – $5 manicure or pedicure at the Friends store and spa where youth are learning skills that can help them earn money.

The next time you travel, source out some reputable organizations to support, be strong and don’t give in to the children begging on the street. Rather, give back to an organization that teaches skills so that the children can earn a living and hopefully make a change to end the vicious poverty cycle that they currently live in.

Giving money to one or two children in the street may feed them for a day. Supporting a not for profit organization or charity may not help that same child, but it will help many children have a better life by gaining skills so that they do not have to live and beg on the streets.

South East Asia – Chapter 12 – The Streets of Yangon – Part 2

On August 17 our group met as a whole for the first time. Travel agents from Australia, New Zealand, England and Canada along with our tour leader from Norway and our local Myanmar guide.

We set out for a walking tour of the city of Yangon. For the next four hours we wandered around the outside of many historic buildings in the city.

We got to visit the beautiful old rail station, a couple of churches, markets and beautiful, old abandoned buildings that were scheduled to be renovated into five star hotels.

We also got our first glimpse at the process of making the ‘Myanmar-style’ of chewing tobacco (bitter leaves) at a street vendor. They are also known to turn your teeth red. Mainly men chew the leaves of different strengths and then spit the red saliva on the ground or in garbage cans at restaurants.

Sounds gross, right?
It is.

Spitting everywhere is definitely something that I will never get used to in any city. Regularly I found myself avoiding red spots on the ground where men had spit, but after awhile, the spots became impossible to dodge.

Bitter leaves
Bitter leaves

We also stopped at a local tea-shop for snacks and drinks. I was incredibly surprised at the prevailance of Coke throughout the country, but many in our group drank the local Myanmar beer and a few gave the tea a go.

We also got to try local sweet and savory pastries of various kinds. I was the brave one to try small bites of many of them first. I’m actually not normally that brave with new foods, but pastries … well, how could you not like a pastry?

Tea Shop pastries
Tea Shop pastries

I’ll tell you how … if it is made from Durian fruit.

Having never travelled to Asia before, this was a new smell and flavor for me, but most of the others were familiar with it. It is known for it’s particularly pungent odor that quite reminds me of a public bathroom.

The other travelers encouraged me to try it, but no one else would. They told me that it is known to smell horrible but taste wonderful. I compared it to Buckley’s cough syrup. “Tastes awful, but works great!”

I took a whiff …

*scrunched up face*

Then I took a little nibble.

Unfortunately, it tasted just like it smelled. A little like the smell of a public bathroom.

And, that was the end of that! No more Durian fruit for me.

We sat for another 10 minutes or so nibbling on the other pastries and treats, but there was no mistaking that I had cut into the durian pastry. For the next 10 minutes, the undeniable smell wafted over everyone, until we were ready to move along.

We wandered through several street markets filled with food, fresh produce and local treats.

As we headed back toward our hotel, and approached the historic Catholic Church, the rain started and we understood the meaning of monsoon season!

After a couple of hours of walking in the streets in the rain, we were off to the Strand Hotel for our welcome drinks.

Overall, a great afternoon of learning about Yangon’s beautiful buildings, architectural history, and trying new foods.

South East Asia – Chapter 11 – Monsoon Season

Ever since I booked the trip to Asia back in April, I’ve known that I would be traveling in monsoon season. I tried not to research too many things before I came so I could experience things through my own eyes, but I did do a little research on the weather so I would know how to pack.

Throughout the southern part of Myanmar, Vietnam and Cambodia, there would be heavy rains most days for short periods of time and drizzle throughout the day. In the more northern parts of the countries, it would be just showers, not really heavy rainfall.

Just to be safe I packed two plastic ponchos, my good quality rain jacket that I never travel without and a small umbrella. To be honest, I’m glad I packed them all!

In Yangon, while out on our city walking tour we got caught in an afternoon downpour. Now, when I say downpour, it is actually quite unlike anything that we usually get in Canada. Although I suppose the freak rains / floods in Calgary and Toronto this summer likely compare. The rain comes on so fast and furious that you are nearly drenched before you can even open your umbrella. The rain comes down sideways and with a little wind, the umbrella isn’t really helping you stay very dry at all. If you are lucky you can find a building to duck into, but who knows if the rains will last for minutes or hours.

In our case, on this particular day we took short cover in the Catholic Church while we were admiring the beauty. When it was time to go, we all gritted our teeth, put up our umbrellas and went along for the adventure!

None of us were dressed particularly appropriate for what we were about to encounter.
Long skirts, see-through shirts, sneakers … you name it and someone was wearing something inappropriate for the rain. Some of us had umbrellas, others were without.

We were soaked by the time we got to the street corner, regardless of umbrella size. Just around the street corner the rain had started to gather and it was impossible for it to drain away as quickly as it was falling. Soon enough, cars driving by were spraying us with water. There was no hiding and most drivers aren’t considerate enough to slow down.

What seemed like an hour later (but likely only five minutes), we were crossing the already dangerous and busy streets on Yangon through rivers of rain flowing so heavy that they actually had current. Did I mention those rivers were knee-high in some areas? Most people (local and foreigners) were wearing flip flops (or thongs as the Aussies call them). So, on top of being in water up to our knees, the uneven ground was slippery and flip flops easily got lost in the water.

One of the travelers had been wearing sneakers and decided to go bare-foot, like many of the locals. Our local tour leader’s flip flop broke and we had to stop at a store for her to buy a new pair. Luckily, I was wearing my favorite Merrill sports sandals, the type with straps so they don’t fall off.

The day prior I had been wandering around Yangon on my own in my flip flops and in my short one hour stroll I managed to get two huge horrible blisters under the toe beside my big toe. Not only did they blister, but the skin tore off and they were left open and raw.

So, here I was on my second day in Yangon walking around in the dirty streets, with water to my knees. My feet were sore and all I could think about was that they were likely getting infected. Afterall, I would worry about that in Canada. Now, here in Asia, with the extra garbage and feces in the street, I was sure my feet would be black with infection the next day. Sounds gross, I know!

At the end of our walking tour, we finished at the beautiful Strand Hotel for a welcome drink. All of us sopping wet and embarrassed to even be entering such a beautiful hotel. None-the-less, we were welcomed with open arms, appetizers and a gin and tonic.

Despite being cold, wet and dirty, honestly, had we come in monsoon season and not experienced the torrential downpours, I think I might have been a little disappointed. I want to be able to tell people what to expect and that is all part of the experience.

Throughout the remainder of the tour we ran into a lot of showers, but rarely a downpour and after the first couple of days in Yangon, we were all prepared with rain gear and umbrellas no matter what the weather at the beginning of the day.

Although my raw, open blisters were incredibly sore for the next week, I washed them well that night, put some antibiotic cream and band aids on them and limped on my way.

After reading all of this, I’m sure many of you think this would be an absolutely dreadful vacation. In fact, it was not and it wouldn’t stop me from doing it again in the ‘off season’.

I’ve traveled to Peru and Ecuador in rainy season, Dominican Republic and Bermuda during hurricane season and now, South East Asia during monsoon season.

In my mind, the benefits of the beautiful lush greenery, the fewer tourists, lower prices, fresh fruit, produce and afternoon refreshing rains, outweigh the negatives of being drenched one or two days, with showers the other days. Monsoon or rainy season really means fast heavy rains, but they rarely last for a long time. There is often cloud cover or sunshine for the majority of the day, with only a few hours of rain.

Oh yes, and a word of the wise … don’t try to dry your wet clothes in an air-conditioned room. You’ll only end up with wet, cold clothes. Close your bathroom door and hang them to dry with the fan on. Like magic, they are bone dry the next morning.

Next time you consider traveling, think about ‘monsoon’ or ‘rainy’ season as being more relaxed, less busy and beautiful lush vegetation. It’s all about the journey and your outlook on the situation dictates the outcome.

South East Asia – Chapter 6 – DMK Airport

10:30am local time in Bangkok on August 16.
Sitting on the floor in the airport … questionable? Yes, it is.

Blah. That’s what I have to say about the Don Meuang Airport in Bangkok. Just Blah.

The free shuttle bus took about an hour between the two airports. We went from four lane highways to four lanes that the locals had made into five and six lanes. Sometimes we were trucking along at 80kms an hour, other times at a snails pace weaving in between cars.

The shuttle bus is old and tattered, but generally decently clean and they seemed to keep us safe throughout the traffic, which was my main concern.

I could see city centre in the distance with all of its high rises, but unfortunately the windows were screened with advertising so I couldn’t capture any even half-ass photos.

On arrival at DMK airport, I went to the hotel reservations desk with the idea that if I could rent a room at an airport hotel for ½ a day, at least I could shower, get cleaned up and not have to cart my luggage around.

There was no one at the Hotel desk.

I went to the information desk instead. They told me that the hotel is 15-20 minutes cab ride away. I decided I didn’t want to bother. I checked at a local tour desk but no one had any interest in taking me for a tour for just 2-3 hours. Here their price was $100 US. Um, no. I don’t want to spent $100 US on a tour for 2 hours when I’m sure I could get it much cheaper (if I could be bothered to try and negotiate with a taxi driver). However, after 24 hours in transit, I cannot be bothered.

So … off I went following the departures signs. At the top of the escalator (where I’m now carrying three backpacks), the sign says straight. Well, straight takes you into a wall, so I took a slight left and then a right down a long hallway. I knew I was going the wrong direction, but hadn’t seen any other option. At the end of the long hall, I found a lady who pointed me to the next floor up for departures. Maybe that sign with the arrow was saying “up” not “straight”.

Up another level I went to the departures gate. After asking several people where to go, I was directed to the International Departures Passport security clearance. I entered and a nice lady pointed me back out because I hadn’t even checked in yet. Well, I know that, but this is where people told me to go. She sent me out to the Air Asia desk. I put my checked bag through the security scan, they cleared it and I went to the counter. The girl looked at me like I had three heads. Eventually she told me that I can’t check in because my flight isn’t until 4:30pm. I will have to wait until 1:30 for check in.

Back out I went, but now what? I’m wandering around a tiny airport with all of my luggage and nothing to do. I can’t go for a walk outside, the shops on this level are minimal …

Best I could hope for was free internet. I found a free connection with Nok Wifi, you just have to provide your booking number. Unfortunately, mine doesn’t seem to work. Maybe because I’m still six hours before my flight? Or maybe this airport just has it out for me.

Well, I guess I’ll look for a place to charge my phone and laptop that are dying. After walking up and down the main area twice, I finally found a dodgey looking plug in that someone else had used to charge their cell phone. When he was done, I dug out my converter, looked at the pieces and plugged it in to the wall, just to have it fall back out. It’s too heavy and the plug in is pretty shotty looking.

Another look and I discovered that my two-prong cell charger would actually plug directly into it.

YAY! Thank goodness for yet another small pleasure.

Boo. Just in time for me to realize that I forgot my two-prong laptop charger. I only have my three-prong charger.

With my computer having already run out of battery power, I was super bummed. Here I was, all the way in Asia with intent of writing lots of blogs, saving and sending photo updates to everyone etc and my computer is dead with no way to charge it. Even the converter that I bought doesn’t accept three prong plugs. Well damn it.

Then, I decided just to give it a try in the dodgy plug in. Lo and behold, I’m sitting on the floor at the DMK airport charging both my cell phone and my computer … knock on wood, neither of them have blown up and the plug in isn’t sparking.

And folks … This is how I roll … That’s right … in white pants, sitting on the airport floor in a country I’ve never been too with my laptop and cell phone charging in dodgy plug ins. When you are traveling, sometimes you just don’t care how ridiculous you look or how uncomfortable you are….

I’ll take it though. I have nothing else to do except for sit and write at the moment. It’s getting close to lunch time here, but it’s too hard to take care of all of my luggage, plus order, pay and carry my lunch. So, I’m hanging out for another two and a half hours until I can check my luggage in. Then I’ll head through passport control, security and find some food on the other side of the gate. (or at least I hope I will).

Besides, who knows … this may be the last three-prong plug in that I find. And, if that’s the case I won’t be able to send photo updates and blogs. ACK! I doubt I’ll find a 2-prong Mac book pro plug-in while I’m in Myanmar, but if worst comes to worst, I’ll have a look for one when I get to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam.

Here’s hoping I can keep my laptop up and running as long as possible!

Not to worry, I’ll still be able to send text and facebook updates via my cell phone whenever I have wifi service, so I won’t totally disappear!

Cross your fingers!

South East Asia – Chapter 4 – Leaving Canada

Finally, with all of the phone calls and complications behind me, my sister drove me back to the airport last night at 8:30pm for my new 11:45pm flight from Halifax to London to Bangkok.

I checked in without issue, my bag (backpack) is checked all the way to Bangkok and wrapped in a nice thick plastic covering to keep all the cords tidy and not caught in conveyor belts. It was tagged well and fingers crossed it will meet me in Bangkok safe and sound. I’m feeling pretty good about it, better than I was about three 1 hour connections with United. I didn’t think there was any way that my luggage would make that journey with me.

The lovely lady at Air Canada check in also pointed out that I would be arriving in Heathrow Terminal 3 and that my connecting Thai Airways flight departs from Terminal 3. Well, didn’t that make my night! I’d be arriving at one of the world’s biggest, busiest and most confusing airports and I only have to navigate a small portion of it. YAY!

Security was a breeze. I didn’t even have to have a body scan!

Boarding was on time, the flight was packed full. I was surrounded by children, but none of them made a peep throughout the evening until we were waking up for breakfast and then coming in for landing.

I’ve now safely arrived at London Heathrow airport and easily navigated my way to my connection area. With this huge airport though, they only announce gates about 15 minutes prior to boarding, so you have to sit in a common area and wait for your flight to show a gate number.

So, here I am, sitting and waiting … about 10 flights ahead of mine to be announced and then I can start my 10 – 20 minute walk to whatever gate I need to get to.

I’m trying really hard not to spend any money so I’m avoiding the stores and restaurants. Although they’d be much more interesting and active than continuing to sit on my ass, I don’t need to pack anything else in my carry ons right now.

This whole thing is still feeling pretty unreal. I’m not excited yet, although I think it’ll come soon. I am a little excited to get on my Thai Airways flight. They are well known in the industry for their level of service and, I believe, more room in Economy class. Here’s hoping the flight is also not full and maybe I can find three seats to lie down on.

Interestingly enough, I’m in row 64. I’m pretty sure this is about to be the largest plane I’ve ever been on. And, I’m preparing for about 12-14 hours on board (if my calculations are correct). It will be my longest time on one plane for sure.

That reminds me … I really should go do some walking. My tailbone is already pretty sore and the Halifax to London flight was only five measly little hours. Oh dear.

Stay tuned. I’m sure Chapter 5 – Bangkok – Airport to Airport will be interesting. I’m planning to take some go pro video while I’m in the cab!

South East Asia – Chapter 3 – Air Asia

After being rebooked twice (United to Air Canada and then United rebooked me to a different Air Canada), I was all set to depart Halifax at 11:45pm on August 14th. Not soooo bad after the rotten morning I had when United originally told me I couldn’t leave Halifax until Friday.

After getting the International flight sorted, I was still left to sort out my connections. I’d be landing in Bangkok at 6:05am on August 16th at the Bangkok (BKK) airport and would need to transfer to the DMK airport about an hour away to catch my flight to Yangon, Myanmar. This, would pose a problem. I would be landing at the same time that I should be checking in for my flight at the other airport. This was just not going to work.

I tried to call Air Asia, but there was no answer. There was a message in Thai and then click. No English. Not that I’m surprised, but a little disappointed. Then, I discovered that they were closed for the day because it was after 9pm in Thailand. Hmmm … now what. I started looking through the website to figure out if I could change my tickets … after a bit I found the change penalties (1100 Thai Baht), but those are only if you cancel / change with more than 48 hours notice. Unfortunately I was less than 48 hours away. Now what?

I found @askairasia and I asked them. But, I didn’t get a response right away.

I found instructions in ‘help’ on how to manage my booking and make a change. I figured it was worth a try, so I tried, but no go … the computer knew I was under 48 hours until departure.

I called the insurance company back and confirmed that I did in fact have coverage for this flight as it was due to a cancelled flight by United … and then by Air Canada. They informed me that I did, for up to $1000 for change fees or new flights.

I asked if I could start the claim right away, because I had all the documents I needed. They advised that the claim form had been emailed to me and that I can’t start it until I have the claim form. Not seeing it in my inbox, I advised her. She told me it could take up to 24 hours. Really? How often now-a-days does email take 24 hours? (By the way, it’s now been 22 hours and it has not yet arrived in my inbox …)

There was no way for me to cancel my original Air Asia flights online (because of the 48 hour restriction) and the office wasn’t open. So, I went ahead and bought a completely new round trip ticket from Bangkok to Yangon for August 16th at 4:30pm instead of my original one at 7:15am. Total damage? About $250, which the insurance company should pay back.

Total time to sort out all of these issues: 7 hours

August 13th
– Check in to United through to getting off the phone with them – 2.5 hours

August 14th
– Check in for Air Canada flight (6:50am) – find out it was cancelled – 15 minutes
– Call to United – 1 hour
– Call to my manager at The Adventure Travel Company – 5 minutes
– Call to insurance company – 30 minutes
– Collecting proof of cancelled flights from Air Canada – 5 minutes
– Collecting proof of cancelled flights from United – 5 minutes
– United Staff member finding me good new connecting flights without me even asking – 10 minutes
– Waiting at United counter for my new ticket to be issued and printed old school as a paper ticket – 30 minutes.
– Sorting out Air Asia flights including their slow website (not normally, just yesterday) – 1 hour
– Calling credit card company because my payment wouldn’t work – 15 minutes
– Contacting Tucan Travel to re-arrange my airport transfer on arrival in Yangon – 5 minutes

Problems started at about 9pm on Tuesday evening. I didn’t have them fully finalized until nearly 2pm the next day. That’s a lot of pain in the butt.

Now, has this ever happened to you?
Two really strong points of advice …

1. Buy good Travel insurance for trip cancellation, interruption & medical. My insurance cost me about $90, but before I even left Halifax it paid for itself as they will reimburse me for the $250 for the Air Asia flight I had to rebook. Plus, I still have coverage if any other issues arise throughout the trip or on my return.

2. Book your travel through a travel agent. Unfortunately it didn’t help me much as I AM the travel agent, so I still had to do all my own work. But, if you have a travel agent, they can help you find better routings for cancelled flights so that you don’t have to believe that it is impossible to leave the Halifax airport and get rebooked two days later. Your travel agent will also have access to agent lines to get through the queues slightly faster at the airlines and access to more options than the standard person whose flight needs to be rebooked. This also means you can go about your day doing other things instead of sitting on hold with the airline. If you are in another country when any of this takes place, you make the call to your travel agent and then you don’t have to worry about wasting your cell phone battery power while on hold or making long distance, international phone calls or paying for wifi to research everything. Oh yeah … and that means that you can go home (hotel or airport bench) and sleep while the travel agent that you hired and paid does the work to get you sorted out. Doesn’t that sound like a good deal? When people wonder why travel agents are worth it and why they charge booking fees? This is just one example of many. I would gladly have left this all in the hands of a travel agent for a booking fee of ($50 – $60 – which insurance would probably cover), just to not have to wait on hold for all of that time and to get the right options first.

Air Asia did actually get back to me on twitter, but it was early this morning (during their work hours), so unfortunately it was to late and I had already rebooked my flights.

Fear vs Bravery

A lot of people know that I am heading out on my next big journey. This time to South East Asia, where I have never been before. People, for the last couple of weeks, have been asking ‘Are you excited?’ I know they’ve all been expecting a resounding ‘YES!’, but they’ve all gotten a different answer.

‘No, I’m not excited. Right now I’m scared. I’ll be excited when I actually make it to Yangon, Myanmar.’

Yes, you heard it, straight from me. I’m scared.

For those of you who seem to think I’m an old pro at traveling the world, you’re only seeing the outside. Inside, my stomach has been churning for weeks. In fact, I nearly had a panic attack when I booked the flights in May, confirming that I would actually be going. Since then, the fear has grown. I try to keep it under control and not let it overtake my life, but I have to admit, it does overtake my excitement.

So, right now, no, unfortunately I’m not excited. I’m stressed.

For years, on and off, I’ve seen a counsellor for many reasons, not the least of which is to deal with issues from the plane crash that I was in, in 1997. I know not everyone knows that I was in a real live plane crash (well, now you do), and sometimes people just forget, but EVERY SINGLE TIME I go to board a plane I think about that crazy-scary night in December 1997. It’s been 16 years, but it just isn’t something that you forget. And, with each day as my departure gets closer I think about it more and more.

A couple of weeks ago I was in talking to my counsellor and she said something to me about my fear that made sense. (She often does make sense, that’s why I see her!)

She had said that it’s very brave of me to be going on this big journey alone. I wasn’t feeling very brave, I was overcome with fear. What she told me is that the difference between the two is that someone who is brave isn’t any less scared, they just choose to face their fear and move forward, rather than letting their fear consume them.

Well, how could I argue with that?

Hearing this from someone else made it so clear to me that having fear is actually alright. I can’t push it away because it is natural, but I have accepted it and stopped beating myself up over it. And, most importantly, I’m not giving in to it.

I’ve struggled with this for 16 years. It is a big part of me as it was a life changing event. For nearly 11 of those years, I let the fear consume me and I refused to fly. I wouldn’t even consider it.

For the last six years, I’ve faced that fear. The fear doesn’t ever go away though.

I am about to embark on the longest journey (in distance) that I have been on. The farthest away from home, the longest flights and the most plane / airport changes to get to my final destination.

When I get back home to Canada in September, you should give me a hug … I’ll need one after all of this travel.

It is not going to be easy, but I am going to do it.

Maybe the biggest lesson I learned from the plane crash (and have been reminded of through regular travel), is to be thankful. Thankful that I survived that plane crash so that I have the opportunity to see the world. The crash wasn’t meant to hold me back, it was meant to catapult me forward to bigger and better things, new adventures, new opportunities, new challenges and most importantly, living life.

Traveling Visas

So far in my travels of 12 different countries I’ve been very lucky to not have to apply in advance for any visas. In fact, being a Canadian citizen makes us very lucky as there are fewer visas that we need to enter many countries. I guess technically in the Dominican Republic I probably had a tourist visa as I was there for 7 weeks and I feel like I also had a tourist visa for the Galapagos Islands, but both were done right at the airport. You paid for them, and then went on my way.

Now I’m entering a new realm of travel …. South East Asia …

With a little research on the Government of Canada Travel Website I was able to relatively quickly find out the visa situation for the countries that I will be visiting.

Burma – Visa needed in advance
Vietnam – Visa needed in advance
Cambodia – Visa needed – pay for it at the border when you enter the country
Thailand – No visa required for stays under 30 days if you fly in, or for up to 15 days if you travel overland from a neighbouring country (which is what I will be doing).

At about 11-12 weeks before my departure, I called the Burma Embassy to ask for the requirements / application and fees. The nice lady said she would send it out be email, which I promptly received.

I also called the Vietnam Embassy to get the requirements and they pointed me in the direction to print the application form.

It took me at least two weeks to get around to having my six passport photos taken and filling out the applications. Now, I can only send one application at a time because each one has to have my physical passport at the Embassy to place the visa inside. I must admit, I’m excited to see what they look like, but sending your passport away via mail is SCARY! Of course, it is sent by Xpress post or FedEx so that you can track it, but still … it’s a little scary. And, because they have your passport, you can’t do any out of country traveling while you are applying for visas. Not really an issue for me, but I can see it being an issue for someone who regularly travels to the US on business, or people who live in border towns and shop ‘over across’ on a regular basis. No passport = no other country than Canada for that period of time.

On June 20th, I made my way to Canada Post to get the required money order for payment of the Vietnam visa in the amount of $93. I had the paperwork filled out and the required passport photo, so I was all set. The directions clearly said to send it via courier and include a return pre-paid courier envelope (preferably FedEx).

So, off I went downtown to FedEx. I explained the situation to the staff member and he told me firmly that FedEx does not do any kind of prepaid return envelopes. That I could not in any way purchase something and pay for it in order for them to send me back by passport. I tried to explain that the visa application specified FedEx, but he stood his ground and told me I would have to do it by Canada Post.

I nearly lost it. But, I took a deep breath, walked out and returned to Canada Post. They were more than happy to help me both send the package and include a prepaid return envelope … both of which are trackable. Phew!

20 minutes late arriving to work that morning, but seeing as the trip is part work, I guess that will be forgiven.

Now the waiting game is on. They say 10 business days from the time they receive the application. So, here’s hoping that I will have my Vietnam visa in my hands by July 9th or 10th. I then quickly have to turn around and send off for my Burma / Myanmar visa that same week as it takes up to 15 business days. Yikes! That’s cutting right in to the beginning of August and I leave on August 14th.

I already have my money order for $30 purchased, although they could only fit TO: Embassy of Myanmar on it, not the required ‘Embassy of the Union of the Republic of Myanmar’. Hope that doesn’t cause any problems, but there’s simply not room for all of that on the Money order! Just a matter of finishing the application, getting a letter from my employer and heading back to good old Canada Post to send everything off.

This stuff is a little bit stressful! Sending your passport by mail … running around … paying the visa fees, the courier fees and the return courier fees as well. So much easier if you live in Ottawa and can just hand deliver everything to each Embassy. And, then, the worst part is the waiting … is everything filled in correctly? Are they going to approve the visa or will it be declined for not dotting an I or crossing a T somewhere along the way.

I sure hope it all works out in the end because I only have seven weeks to departure! Yikes!

I will keep you updated!