The Wizardess of Oz

An American's Adventures in Australia and Beyond

Author: thewizardessofoz (page 2 of 6)

Hectic Hanoi

There are no sidewalks.

Well, there are sidewalks, but they’re used for motorbike parking and pop-up food stalls rather than pedestrian traffic. If you want to wander the streets of Hanoi, you’re going to be in the street, motorbikes narrowly dodging you as they manically steam toward their destination.

Hanoi is a sharp contrast to cosmopolitan and polished Saigon. It lacks the Western echoes, retaining it’s aura of Asian mystery that will always lure and confound us Westerners. It’s messy, and noisy, and unapologetically brimming with Vietnamese culture, impassive to the tourists and travelers that flock to it’s center.

After a few hours, though, your heartbeat catches up to it’s rhythm. You find yourself sipping coffee on a rooftop overlooking the lake, an oasis in otherwise concrete jungle. Or crowded around a banh mi cart, swapping stories with a young man from Wales, a middle aged couple from Birmingham, and honeymooners from New Zealand. After a few days, you’ve visited the National History Museum and gotten a sense of the scale of the history of this country. You’ve filed respectfully past Ho Chi Minh’s carefully preserved body, goosebumps rising on your arms as you take in his waxy face. You’ve watched the dance classes in the parks fringing the lake, unable to hide your smile at the senior women bopping around like they don’t care who’s watching.

And the narrow streets that you’ve learned to navigate start to feel a little like home. Take a left at this hotel here, when you see this restaurant turn right, and when you see the lights strung above the street, you’ve arrived at Beer Corner, where glasses of daily brew can be purchased for $0.20.

Hanoi is the kind of place you don’t realize you’ll miss until you’ve already left. Then you look back on the memories of who you were when you first navigated the streets, terrified of being hit by a motorbike. And you think about how, in the space of just a few days, you’ve emerged from the city an entirely different person.

That is magical, transformative, crazy Hanoi.

Cheers! On Beer Corner

Cheers! On Beer Corner

IMG_20150420_202331

Culinary Explorations

Culinary Explorations

National History Museum

National History Museum

Just your typical day on the Hanoi streets

Just your typical day on the Hanoi streets

Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum

Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum

Living the High Life in Saigon

If it hadn’t been for the Vietnamese on the signs that lined the frenetic streets, I could have mistaken it for New York. High rises towered above, streets clogged with motor and foot traffic, men in business suits bustled down sidewalks, and neon signs advertised everything from Coca Cola to the evening news.

Sure, there were still the markers of a large Asian city: Banh Mi and Pho street carts, alleyways full of stalls bursting with fresh produce, live poultry and very dead, yet-to-be-butchered pigs.

But Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon), was a mad mix of it’s Vietnamese roots and it’s love affair with the West. Perhaps because it was home to many American soldiers during the Vietnam War, perhaps because of it’s proximity to economic giant China, or perhaps because Westerners are flocking toward the opportunity in Asia, Saigon was a surprise.

I was lucky to have a host for my time the city, a friend I had worked with in Seattle who had moved here to continue his career in advertising. After two months in Asia, I decided to take a (little) break from Asian food, and so we set out to eat and drink our way through this glittering metropolis.

Where We Ate: 

Saffron
Cuisine: Mediterranean
Price: $20 – $35 USD for appetizer, main, and wine.
Walk into this cozy, tasteful little bistro, and expect an immediate and effusive greeting from either the lovely staff or the French-Vietnamese owner. Upon sitting, you’ll be brought a glass of champagne (gratis!) and an overview of the specials for the day. They take their food very seriously, and have a menu that will leave you struggling to make a decision. I dined entirely off the specials menu, which consisted of a baked brie appetizer (I hadn’t had cheese in ages!) and a seafood paella that was very delicious. I also was finally able to indulge in red wine! To end the meal, a limoncello shot and a fragrant flower bracelet. By Vietnamese standards, it was a ‘splash out’ meal, but for less than $40 USD I was stuffed, tipsy, and definitely happy.

Baked Brie

Finally… CHEESE!

IMG_20150416_201849

The roof inside Saffron – clay pots

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Urban Kitchen + Bar
Cuisine: Vietnamese-Western Fusion
Price: $12 – $18 for brunch
The interior of this industrial space made me feel tres chic as I sipped my Vietnamese coffee in a desperate attempt to rid myself of a hangover. We had come for their weekend brunch, and I dug into my baked eggs and bacon hash with gusto as coffee after coffee disappeared. This was a locals place if ever there was one – in the heart of Japan Town, surrounded by upper-class Vietnamese and other expats, with a menu to match. It apparently also does a good business as a late-night cocktail and snacks bar, too.

YUMMY Hangover Brunch @ Urban Kitchen

YUMMY Hangover Brunch @ Urban Kitchen

L’Usine
Cuisine: French Bistro
Price: $7 – 14 for lunch
The hipster movement hasn’t left Vietnam untouched, if this boutique/home goods shop/bistro is any indication. It’s the sort of place I’d park with my laptop all day, ordering Croque Madames and coffees and pretending I was penning the next great American (Vietnamese?) novel. The shop has all sorts of interesting and adorable trinkets that would make very unique souvenirs or gifts for friends and family back home. Just beware, the price of goods within the shop match American prices – no deals here!

So French! So Creative!

So French! So Creative!

Secret Garden
Cuisine: Vietnamese
Price: $10 – $12 for dinner
I would be remiss if I didn’t include at least one Vietnamese restaurant in my culinary tour of HCMC. Set in a pretty courtyard on the top floor of an easily-missed building in a laneway, this one is worth seeking out. It’s authentic, it’s not flashy, and the food is delicious. And it’s cheap! Maybe not street-cart cheap, but inexpensive enough to miss on your credit statement.

secret-garden-home-cooked

Where We Drank:

Glow Skybar
What’s a big weekend out without an evening on a rooftop? Here I started off with a (strong) martini, and the rest of night got fuzzy pretty soon thereafter. If you want to avoid the backpacker scene and see what a weekend out would look like if you lived and worked here, this is place to go. It’s a see-and-be-seen sort of spot where the locals always seem to run into a friend or two.

Just getting the night started...

Just getting the night started…

Chill
Another rooftop bar? These seem to be the the thing to do for the business crowd of this city. This one is a little flashier, and little more colorful, but also with good cocktails and service.

chill-skybar-saigon

Lush
I’ll be honest: My memory of this place is pretty fuzzy. I recall a huge bar in the middle of the place, a luxe VIP area and bottle service with some heavy-hitters in the Saigon advertising scene, dancing in a cage for a few minutes, and little else. But I’m assured by my guide that it is indeed one of the more fun places to visit, if you aren’t white girl wasted like I was.

It's a cage. But it's fuzzy, like we were by this point in the night...

It’s a cage. But it’s fuzzy, like we were by this point in the night…

After only a few days in the city, I could almost see myself living there. With so much influence from the US and Europe, many of the creature comforts of home are readily catered to, and with a booming economy, opportunity abounds. Don’t be surprised if Ho Chi Minh City is the next ‘it’ place for city-lovers to live in Southeast Asia.

The Back Roads of Kampot

The air was fresh and dewy, the sun not high enough in sky to bring the thick heat that would soon roll over the fields we sped through, a plume of dust feathering out behind us like a golden jetstream.

I watched as bamboo huts, palm trees, small gardens and wide open fields whipped by, scenes from a life so different from my own playing out in montages around me. A barefoot little boy running after a chicken. A thick woman with glossy dark hair falling over her shoulders as she swept a porch. A pot-bellied, shirtless old man smoking a cigarette, crouched over the disassembled motor of a bike.

Everything seemed clean in that early morning light, the promise of a new day stretching out in front of all of us in this dusty back road behind the city of Kampot.

We arrived at our destination, and I hopped off the back of the motorbike. Dozens of little boys ran over, but stopped short a few feet away, brown eyes shyly avoiding contact with me, but giggling with each other. One came forward and asked me in perfect English, “Ma’am, would you like a guide to show you the temple?”

IMG_20150415_085153

My friend Dara at the mouth of the cave

With the assurance that I only needed to pay a tip of my choosing, I was led up a steep set of stone steps by an officious-but-slightly-bored Dara and an entourage of young boys fanning out around me, scrambling over rocks, dancing ahead on the steps, trailing behind, afraid to get too close but desperate not to miss the action.

IMG_20150415_190750

After much encouragement, they finally crowded in for a photo

It was the start of one of the best days of my travels. There wasn’t any particular reason why it was the best, other than the restoration of a peace, a contentment, that had gone missing for a few weeks. It wasn’t the 4th century temple I visited, but it might have been the mischievous smiles of the little boys who accompanied me there. It wasn’t the pepper plantation or the salt flats I saw, but it might have been the pride of my driver, who explained in broken and limited English how these supply all of Cambodia and most of Vietnam. It wasn’t the roads that we traveled, but it might have been the fresh air in my face and my hair as we sped along. It wasn’t the sleepy river city of Kampot, but perhaps it was wildness of it’s riverfront, or the unworried steadiness of it’s countryside.

I spent the entire day with a man I didn’t know and would never see again, using sign language and a few words of English to communicate.

I glided on the river and watched the fisherman coming in at dark, the trees lit up like Christmas trees from the fireflies.

And as I departed the next day for Vietnam, I knew that somehow I had found my equilibrium on the back roads of Kampot.

Phnom Chhngok Temple

Phnom Chhngok Temple, the ancient temple in a cave in the mountains

Kampot Countryside

Those backroads

IMG_20150415_105551

The salt flats of Kampot

IMG_20150415_094926~2

The pepper plantation

IMG_20150413_181209~2-EFFECTS

Kampot River Cruising

IMG_20150414_172524

Rustic accommodation on the river’s edge

IMG_20150415_095844~2

Pride of Kampot: It’s world-renowned peppercorns

The Beaches of Cambodia

For many, Cambodia = Temples.

And you wouldn’t be wrong, with the Angkor compound stretching for miles around the northern city of Siem Reap. But spend a little time in the south, and you come to the coastline of Cambodia.

This area is a hidden gem for budget and off-the-beaten-path travelers. Without the hype surrounding much of the Thai coastal areas and islands, Cambodia dishes up pristine beaches for fractional prices.

Unfortunately for me, the whole thing was a bit of a flop. 

At least storm clouds make pretty sunsets

At least storm clouds make pretty sunsets

I didn’t have a plan when I arrived in Sihanoukville after a 10-hour bus journey from Siem Reap. I had spent most of the night in a surprisingly comfortable sleeper bus. That is, it was comfortable until the ‘co-pilot’ decided that the aisle directly next to my bottom-bunk sleeper space was where we was going to rest of the duration, his hand casually brushing me every once in a while until I finally smacked at him.

I had heard glowing reviews of Otres Beach, so I hopped on a motorbike, jetted over there, and started my now-customary slog to each of the guesthouses to see who would give me the best deal.

I had heard that I should check out Koh Rong or the more relaxed Koh Rong Samloem, or at least find my way to one of the islands off the shore at some point while down here. But not long after my arrival, the clouds rolled in and a rain shower began!

Thus far into my travels, I’d had luck with the weather. I was chasing the end of high season as I made my way east, and this was intentionally done so I had negotiation power for accommodation. It had finally bitten me in ass: I was at the first beach I’d seen in weeks, and it looked like rain. Since my visa to Vietnam needed to be processed in Sihanoukville, I was stuck here for at least a couple of days while it was processed.

So, I decided to just relax. I caught up on a lot of writing. I made friends with Mern, the bartender at the guesthouse I was staying at, and defended myself against the playful advances of middle-aged Psykhe, the Greek manager of the place.

Rain-washed beach

Rain-washed beach

The day before my departure, it looked like the rain would finally stop. So I booked myself onto an island hopper tour that allowed me some social interaction and an exploration of Kaoh Russei, Kaoh Chanloh, Koh Ta Kiev. On Koh Ta Kiev we discovered a treehouse absinthe distillery run by an American guy who had a Keith Richards/Jack Sparrow thing going on, but the majority of the trip was forgettable.

IMG_20150413_130212 IMG_20150411_124700

Trying to leave the beaches is what proved to be the struggle. I had booked a van transfer to Kampot for the afternoon, so I could go to Sihanoukville and collect my passport with my new Vietnamese visa. However, the travel agent who had booked the van service had (mistakenly?) put me on the morning van, and now he was gone for Khmer New Year with the $8 USD I had paid him for the booking. I started to fear that I would be stuck in Otres or Sihanoukville, and I was really starting to get cabin fever.

A quick consult of the Lonely Planet reminded me about share taxis in Cambodia – people who drive their private cars and sell half-seats to people who wish to travel from one place to the next. So my tuk tuk driver started toward the bus station, where these could be found. I was a stressed-out, harried wreck, having just had strong words with the woman who operated the van service in the hopes that I could convince her to give me a space on the bus.

But before we’d even reached the bus station, my tuk tuk driver abruptly pulled to the side, having heard something shouted in Khmer that I would never have understood. It was a man offering rides to Kampot and Kep! After an attempt at negotiation, I parted with $20 USD so I could leave immediately, thus purchasing the last two seats in the car (which ended up being just the whole back left seat of his four-door sedan).

After a squishy (but blessedly fast) ride, I was in the center of Kampot, ready for the next adventure.

What I Learned:

  1. Confirm travel arrangements, especially if they’ve changed. I was supposed to have my passport back earlier, but the Vietnam Embassy pushed back it’s availability, so I had to push back my van departure time. The change was clearly not confirmed!
  2. Pay attention to the weather reports. If it hadn’t been for the visa situation, I probably would have simply moved on to the next spot after a day or two of rain. But if I had paid a little more attention, I could have maybe skipped the beaches entirely and made my way to Rabbit Island, which I unfortunately had to skip!
  3. Educate yourself on all (legitimate) ways to travel. If I hadn’t known about share taxis, I’d have been stuck in Sihanoukville or have had to pay $60 USD for a taxi to the next town (which was so not going to happen). The best way to think in your feet is to arm yourself with knowledge!

Cooking Khmer

I wasn’t sure what to expect from Cambodian food. I was intimately familiar with the cuisine of Cambodia’s neighbors, Thailand and Vietnam. But I had yet to be acquainted with the flavors of the small country sandwiched in between.

So when we decided to take a cooking class while visiting Battambang, I was looking forward to trying things I’d never tried before, and silently crossed my fingers that it wouldn’t involved any insects.

After a morning shop at the large open-air market for some ingredients, we set up shop at Nary Kitchen. Our menu: Fish Amok, Beef Lok Lak, fried spring rolls, and a sweet banana coconut dessert. No insects! Score!

Produce-hunting at the market in Battambang.

Produce-hunting at the market in Battambang.

I can’t say enough about the freshness of the meat and produce in Southeast Asia. One stroll through any market will be evidence of enough: fish are still wiggling, vegetables have just been picked, and meat is still in the process of being butchered. So although replicating these dishes may be difficult, I’ve put a recipe for Fish Amok and Beef Lok Lak below, if you’d like to sample the flavors yourself. I particularly love the Beef – the sauce and marinade are a delicious, earthy treatment that’s sure to be a crowd-pleaser.

Fish Amok
Serves 4

The heart of this dish is a lemongrass-based paste, which includes many ingredients that can only be found in specialty asian food stores. It’s worth the search! The flavors in this paste will knock your socks off, and you’re guaranteed to find other ways to use this paste as a marinade for other dishes. 

Fish Amok is traditionally placed in banana-leaf bowls and steamed for 15 - 20 mins.

Fish Amok is traditionally placed in banana-leaf bowls and steamed for 15 – 20 mins.

Ingredients:
Lemongrass Paste:
4 stalks of fresh lemongrass*
4 kaffir lime leaves*
1 inch chunk of galangal or ginger*
1 inch chunk of fresh turmeric or 1 tsp powder*
1.5 inch chunk finger root, or Chinese ginger*
6 cloves garlic
2 Tbsp paprika
2 Tbsp Prahok (Khmer Fish Paste) or shrimp paste*

Fish:
3/4 lb. of freshwater white fish
2 tsp chicken stock powder
2/3 cup coconut milk, divided in half
3 tsp sugar
1 tsp salt
Pinch of cornstarch

 Directions:
1. Slice the lemongrass, kaffir leaves, galangal, turmeric (if using fresh), ginger, and garlic.
2. Place sliced fresh ingredients with paprika (and turmeric if not using fresh) and fish paste into a mortar and pestle,
and pound until all ingredients become a very fine paste, 8 – 10 minutes.
3. Thinly slice the fish, then place in a bowl and add chicken stock powder, salt, sugar, half of the coconut milk, and the lemongrass paste. Set aside and allow to marinate for 15 minutes.
4. Take the remaining coconut milk and add a pinch of cornstarch. Bring to a simmer, stirring constantly until it thickens to a cream, about 2 mins. Add more cornstarch if needed.
5. Place the marinated fish into a saucepan and heat over medium heat until it starts to bubble and the fish is no longer translucent. Serve in bowls with a side of steamed rice.

*Many of the ingredients listed are readily available at Asian specialty markets. If you can’t find something, ask the grocer for an appropriate substitute. 

Beef Lok Lak
Serves 4

The marinade on the beef really makes the meat sing, and the dipping sauce gives the perfect acidic twang to an otherwise earthy dish. With ingredients found in most kitchens, this is an easy foray into the world of Cambodian cuisine. 

Ingredients:
Beef:
1 lb. beef, cut into 1-inch cubes
2 Tbsp vegetable oil
2 tsp chicken stock powder
2 tsp sugar
1 tsp salt
2 Tbsp soy sauce
2 Tbsp oyster sauce
2 Tbsp mild hot chili sauce, or sweet chili sauce
2 Tbsp ketchup
2 tsp black pepper
6 cloves garlic, chopped

Dipping Sauce:
3 – 4 limes, juiced
1 tsp salt
2 tsp sugar
2 tsp ground black pepper

Garnish (Optional):
4 eggs (optional)
6 leaves lettuce
2 tomatoes, sliced
1/2 onion, sliced

Directions:
1. Place the cubed beef in a large bowl, and mix in all ingredients listed under “Beef,” except the garlic. Set aside.
2. Combine all ingredients listed for the dipping sauce, set aside.
3. Heat a skillet on high heat with approx. 3 Tbsp vegetable oil. Add garlic when pan is hot. Saute until aromatic, about 15 seconds.
4. Add the marinated beef to the pan and stir-fry until the beef is cooked through, about 2 – 4 minutes. Place onto four plates to serve.
5. Pour the dipping sauce into the pan used to cook the beef to deglaze, stirring to lift all remaining marinade from the pan. Pour into a bowl to serve with the meat.
6. Optional: Fry an egg until cooked to medium, and place on top of each serving of beef. Garnish each serving with 2 leaves of lettuce, a 2 -3 slices of tomato, and 1 slice of onion.

Beef Lok Lak is typically eaten by spearing a chunk of meat, egg, and vegetable onto your fork, dipping in the sauce, and shoveling the whole mess into your mouth. It’s usually served with steamed rice.

I hope you’ll give one of these a try — happy eating!

Battambang

I didn’t arrive in Battambang in the best of spirits.

I was on Day 2 of the worst attack of bedbugs I’d ever had, thanks to the hostel I had stayed in my first couple of nights in Siem Reap. The weather was suffocatingly hot and humid, which is the worst weather to be in when you’re covered in painfully itchy bug bites. I had to sort out getting all of my clothing and bags professionally cleaned and treated, in case I had picked up any hitchhiking bugs that wanted to plague the rest of my travels. And I was tired from sleeping poorly and being run ragged during the days by the adorable but energy-filled young children I was volunteering to help.

Which was why I spent my first night locked in my private room at the Here Be Dragons hostel, sobbing at my fiance on the phone.

Putting on a Brave Face with My Travel Companions

Putting on a Brave Face with My Travel Companions

But by the next morning, I had chinned up, dropped all of my belongings at the laundry, and was jumping on a tuk tuk with the rest of the group to spend the entire day seeing the sites that this central Cambodian city had to offer. Our driver, CJ, promised us the best of the area all in one day.

We kicked it off with the Bamboo Train, which is essentially a flat bed on railway wheels. Bamboo mats were put down, and we climbed aboard. Next thing we knew, we were flying through the Cambodian countryside, desperately trying to find something to hold onto as the wind whipped our hair around our faces, and trying to dodge any overgrowth from the side of the railway tracks.

All Aboard the Bamboo Train!

All Aboard the Bamboo Train!

From there we toured a few villages, where they showed us how to make rice paper rolls and rice wine – a concoction that tasted and smelled a lot more like whiskey than like any wine I’d ever had.

IMG_20150404_113345 IMG_20150404_113447

We stopped off at an ancient temple, which happened to be the site of a wedding photo shoot!

Wedded Bliss @ Banan Temple

Wedded Bliss @ Banan Temple

After a break for lunch and a rest during the heat of the day, we went to Sampeou Mountain. Here, we were able to take in views for miles from a pagoda at the top. We then proceeded to a temple, which had been a prison during the reign of the Khmer Rouge.

We descended into a nearby cave, shivering as the temperature dropped nearly twenty degrees. Our guide explained that this had been a Killing Cave, a place where the Khmer Rouge cast anyone they considered a dissident of the fascist rule. In the beginning, they would shoot their victims and throw them 100 feet below. But as money became scarce, ammunition was considered too valuable to use on those who would soon be dead, so they were simply thrown in. Some would take days to die.

Khmer tradition requires that the remains of the dead stay where they died, so two glass shrines held the bones and skulls that had been found at the site as it was excavated for tourism. I looked at the tiny skulls of the children who had been thrown down, trying to fight the lump in my throat. Surrounded by the ghosts of the oppressed, my petty concerns from the night before didn’t seem to be such problems anymore.

The Site of Many Deaths @ the Hands of the Khmer Rouge

The Site of Many Deaths @ the Hands of the Khmer Rouge

In an attempt to lighten the mood, CJ then took us to the bat cave, where we watched a beautiful Cambodian sunset behind the mountains that border Thailand. Watching tens of thousands of bats streaming into the forests as the sun set wasn’t exactly the mood lifter our guide had hoped, but it did get us squealing and mugging for the cameras as we modeled our face masks, handy for blocking out the overwhelming smell of bat poop.

Thug Life

Thug Life

Sunset from the Bat Cave

Sunset from the Bat Cave

By the time it was time to leave, I returned to Siem Reap in much better spirits than I had arrived. Maybe there’s something to that mountain air in northern Cambodia…

The Temples at Angkor

It was that moment before the sky starts to get light, a shadowy, gray space that makes everything feel shrouded in mist. The air was refreshingly cool on my face as the tuk tuk sped through streets that were normally choked with vehicles and dust. We passed through a set of gates, showed our passes to the guards, and soon were out of the city and surrounded by trees and grass. Behind the vegetation, curious domes reached toward the lightening sky.

First Light @ Angkor Wat

First Light @ Angkor Wat

We pulled up to the front entrance of Angkor Wat, the crown jewel of the 400 square kilometer complex of temples outside of Siem Reap. Here, the hubub of tuk tuks and tourists presented a sharp contrast to the silence of the city we had just driven through. Like moths to a flame, hundred of people thronged through the ancient stone gateway into the courtyard of the temple.

The sky was just starting to pink, and the masses fanned out from the gateway to find an ideal position to watch and photograph the most famous spectacle in this dusty corner of Cambodia: Sunrise over Angkor Wat.

We settled ourselves on the 900 year-old ledge of an outbuilding and watched as the pink deepened to magenta, orange streaking through the clouds like the jet streams of a flock of mythical birds. And slowly, slowly, like the syrupy heat it would bring along with it, a bright red sun peeked between two of the domes of the temple. It ascended behind one of them, casting long shadows into the courtyard and bathing the onlookers in rich golden light.

Sunrise @ Angkor Wat

The Sun Peeks Out Behind Angkor Wat

Despite the large numbers, there was a hush within the complex, the temple’s daily dance with the sun demanding and receiving reverence. As the sun climbed well above the temple, the sky mellowed from red, to orange, to blue, and the spell was broken, ready to be cast another day.

Sunrise Angkor Angkor Sunrise Dramatic Sunrise at Angkor Wat

The Gift

The little girl clung to her father’s leg as he tried to disengage her, tears sprouting from her eyes and rolling down her face instantaneously. He looked over at me with a heartbroken expression. Though we didn’t share a language, words weren’t necessary in this moment. He looked a little embarrassed as he held his daughter far enough away that she couldn’t grasp him again, and I swooped the sobbing little girl into my arms.

As he walked across a hot, dusty courtyard to the gate that led to the street, the girl started screaming and writhing in my arms. I turned my back to the gate, both so the girl could catch a last glimpse of her father as he left, and to hide the tears that were streaming down my own face from the rest of the children at my feet.

My fellow volunteer looked at me with sympathy, and I bit my lip to keep myself from breaking into sobs. I busied myself with murmuring calming things in a language this girl didn’t understand, kissing the top of her head and rubbing her back in a vain attempt to console her.

It was my second to last day volunteering at the Missionaries of Charity, a place where nuns ministered to the poorest and most needy in Siem Reap. Part of that ministry involved taking in children who couldn’t be cared for by their families. This four-year-old girl had just lost her mother to untreated cancer, and her father had to go to Thailand. The work was in Thailand. Better money was in Thailand. He had two daughters to provide for: the four-year-old he’s just said goodbye to and an eight-month-old who was so malnourished she couldn’t sit up on her own. But there was no room for them in Thailand. So they were here.

I only spent a week with the children at the Missionaries of Charity, but the profound impact that week had on my life will be reverberating through my soul for the rest of my life.

It was more than learning to tie cloth diapers, battling a stuffy nose and eye infection from the myriad illnesses circulating the children, and finding the odd poo on the floor throughout the facility.

It was teaching bright brown eyes how to count in English, singing the alphabet song with my friend and fellow volunteer (though it turns out Australians and Americans end that song quite differently), giving hugs and cuddles on the bad days, chasing squealing kids around on the good days.

It was hearing two adorable twin boys, who otherwise didn’t know a word of English, parrot “Okay! Okay!” after hearing me say it five-hundred times per day.

It was the joy on the face of mentally impaired boy, which could dissolve into tears without any reason or notice.

It was the bashful smile of a child with cerebral palsy as he was cheered for walking on his own with a walker, relishing the attention he rarely got.

It was feeding a little girl who hadn’t had enough to eat for months, and didn’t really know how to feed herself.

It was watching a five year old girl touch the polish on my toes, then touch her own unpolished toes. Or sitting very still while I applied lip balm to her lips, then touching them with a smile once I had finished.

It was spending the morning with a normally-rambunctious three-year-old clinging to me for cuddles, because it was just one of those days when he needed to be held.

It was the unceasing cry of “Sistah! Sistah!” (which the volunteers were called) whenever we wheeled our bikes into the courtyard.

It wasn’t all moments of joy, but the painful moments that were so common throughout the day made those bright spots that much brighter and more beautiful. Often, my heart contracted, closing in on itself as I witnessed lack, pain, and sadness. But even more often, it was expanding, swelling to proportions that threatened to crack my ribs. It was here, in a hot courtyard on a back road in Siem Reap, where I realized that my body was a poor vessel to contain all the love I could feel, and I was certain I would explode from the pressure of it trying to pour from my body.

On my last day at the house, I brought some necessities for the Sisters: formula, diapers, clothing. But I also brought along a play tool set, because the kids had been chirping and pointing at a man hammering away at the roof next door all morning. The squeals of excitement and complete absorption of playing with a new toy filled the yard for the rest of day.

And though I may have been the one bringing gifts that day, I received far more than I gave.

 

The Start of the Solo Travels in Pai, Thailand

IMG_20150328_163901

I bid my sister adieu in Chiang Mai with a little trepidation – we’d been on the road for the better part of three months together, and now the next five months yawned ahead of me, only a rough sketch of plans in place, and no one to ask, “Is this a good idea?”

I’d already been in Chiang Mai for a few days longer than I felt I needed to be, so I packed up, headed to the bus station, and jumped on the next minivan for a small town called Pai. The ride to town was a nausea-inducing three hours hurtling through forests and winding mountain roads, upon which we were unceremoniously dumped in the town center.

My arrival in a new place was enough to keep me busy for the first few hours – find a place to stay, get myself situated, peruse the Lonely Planet and a few blogs for things to do here, and check out the map to situate myself. And then it was time to go out on my own.

There are a lot of blogs that extol the virtues of solo travel, and all the things they post are true. But maybe a lot of them don’t remember that traveling solo for the first time requires a little warming up. I felt weird wandering around a town with no real destination and no one to mark my observations to. I felt like people were staring at me  wandering the streets alone (they weren’t, I’m just paranoid and always think people are staring at me), I wasn’t sure what to do with my hands while I wandered the roads with no real destination, I felt like I should be making friends but it would have been so weird to just walk up to someone and introduce myself. So I parked in a little hippy cafe, ordered a stunningly delicious chai tea latte, and caught up on my travel journal like a recluse. Some things take easing into.

I did sign up for a trip to Pai Canyon to watch the sunset, and was able to chat with a group of girls from the UK on the way up and the way back, so my social interaction wasn’t exactly zero for Day 1 solo on the roads.

IMG_20150327_181424

Since my time in Pai was limited to a couple of days, I signed up for a ‘Pai Sights’ Tour, one of these package deals where they pack you into a van and take you around the various sights for a fee. It was about $18, and I figured it was better than trying to figure out how to get everywhere on my own. And then my decision to do this crazy traveling thing alone was fully validated by discovering that every person on the tour was a solo female traveler! There were five of us in total, we all came from different places, were different ages, and we all got along great.  All my doubts from the day before were put to rest.

IMG_20150328_100732

Swinging at the Treehouse in Pai

IMG_20150328_104939

Pai Natural Hot Springs… No Egg Boiling Allowed

IMG_20150328_105432

Natural Hot Springs That Actually Felt Natural!

IMG_20150328_131025

A Casual Barefoot Hike, As You Do

IMG_20150328_141624

I LOVE Pai!

IMG_20150328_092450

No Visit Is Complete Without Buddha

Pai is a place that seems to encourage becoming one with the earth. There are plenty of dreadlocks, Bob Marley decor, incense and other hippy-esque details about the place that give it this vibe. So naturally part of the day included taking a dip in the natural hot springs and choosing to climb the sandstone rocks of Pai Canyon barefoot, just to get into the spirit of the place.

Pai is what the rest of Thailand probably was 15 years ago: still a little undeveloped, a little off the radar, but beautiful in it’s own rough, earthy, unapologetic way. What a fabulous place to start traveling alone.

Til next time, xoxoxo!

Taking a Bath with an Elephant

I have always been an avid animal lover.

Well, ‘avid’ might be putting it mildly. I’ve always been a rabid, borderline-obsessive lover of anything with four legs. When I was five, we ‘rescued’ a bunny that turned up in our back garden. I carefully made a comfy nest for it in the bathtub of my childhood home, where I would sit and hold and hug it like it was a stuffed animal. It returned the favor by biting me in the leg one day and giving me my first set of stitches before running off forever. I was inconsolable, both over the mutinous stitches and the loss of my precious (and probably wild) bunny.

For years, I wanted to be a veterinarian, until I realized that veterinarians have to perform surgery on animals, and most often put pets to sleep.  So I settled on getting a puppy when I was 21 and just finishing college, much to my parents’ chagrin.

So when I read that there was an opportunity to volunteer with rescued elephants in Northern Thailand, it was a no brainer. I was in.

I wanted to spend a week at the Elephant Nature Park, the most famous of the elephant rescues in the area. But my sister was worried about the expense of a week and she isn’t as weirdly into animals as I am, so we opted instead for the full-day trip.

The whole ride from Chiang Mai out to the rescue center I was buzzing with anticipation. I wanted to sprint into the center when we arrived, but our guide led us to an area where we were told the basic rules of interacting with large animals before they let us out onto a viewing platform where we could hand feed elephants chunks of squash and watermelon. The first time a trunk extended in my direction for the food in my hand I was suddenly that five year old girl again, amazed and wowed by this wild animal in front of me, and incongruously wanting to give it a hug.

IMG_20150325_102049
IMG_20150325_102341

Throughout the day we were able to both observe and interact with these amazing animals, walking with them, giving the adults scratches behind their ears, and watching the babies frolic and cause mischief. At one point, the youngest in the rescue center (a one year old calf) managed to get his collar off his head, which then got stuck around his nanny’s right foot, and then it also wrapped around her left foot, nearly tripping her! One of the guides managed to help her extricate herself before she went down with a big thump.

IMG_20150325_104840
IMG_20150325_134838

But the highlight of the day was when a group of eight of us waded into the river with a big old female elephant to give her a bath. Armed with a bucket each, we were encouraged to fill the buckets with water and toss it at the elephant to get the mud off of her body. I swear she was smiling as she was doused with water, enjoying her day at the spa.

The Elephant Nature Park also rescues cats and dogs. Just after lunch, I wandered into the cat den, a netted enclosure that’s full of young cats. We were called back to the elephants before I had a chance to visit the dogs. But between all the animals, I was on cloud nine. I definitely will be planning a return trip, and this time, I will stay for that whole week!

IMG_20150325_110733
IMG_20150325_105542
IMG_20150325_143801

Older posts Newer posts

© 2017 The Wizardess of Oz

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑