Traveling is my destiny. Ever since I was a toddler I dreamt of far off lands. From time to time I would become obsessed with random countries and check out every library book I could find about them. I still have a poster I made in second grade with facts about Greece and common Greek words. I even memorized the entire Greek alphabet! For me, traveling the world was about as likely to happen as life's two guarantees; death and paying taxes. It just came sooner rather than later.
I like to think I lead a life of grand wagers. I am absurdly addicted to freedom and possibly too independent for my own good. I have been known to close my eyes and leap into the unknown just for the thrill of what could be waiting on the other side.
Four years ago my dream was to live in California. When I set my mind to something it is damn well going to happen, and soon enough I was thriving in the Golden State. I woke up every morning in disbelief that I was actually living in California, and that it was through my determination and hard work that I called this beautiful place home. Eventually, I knew that if I wanted to realize my dream of traveling the world I would have to give up my beautiful life in California; my friends, a job in the midst of a recession and my savings account; everything that made me comfortable. Giving up a good life for the possibility of one that could be better was exhilaratingly terrifying. But, as I always seem to do, I accepted the challenge, closed my eyes and leapt into the unknown.
Here I am today, 21 countries and a million miles later. I sit overlooking the Bangkok skyline as I write this, gazing upon this beautiful masterpiece that has become the past seven months. Of course the journey has had its ups and downs and almost nothing has turned out the way I planned. I've been scammed to the high heavens, lost out of my mind, scared of the unknown and there have been days I wanted to give it all up and go home. But that is all part of the travel experience. On the other hand, I have experienced bottomless undeserved kindness from locals, laid eyes upon some of the most beautiful places in the world and been greeted with thousands of smiles along the way. It has been an amazingly challenging, exhilarating and rewarding adventure that I wouldn't change for the world.
I look back on all the gracious people I've met--the ones who gave me a ride, shared a meal with me, or simply sent me words of encouragement from far away--and thank them for shaping my world. Not only am I more open minded, compassionate and knowledgeable now, I have a new view of the world--one I can carry with me to places where the world seems so small and to people who can't know the world. I travel with the purpose to leave each place I visit knowing it's now better because I have been there. A bold statement and I acknowledge that I have many shortcomings, but I feel I have done my little part for this world I am madly in love with. I will continue giving, giving, and giving until grace falls from the skies like rain.
My journey has come to a turning point, this season is over, but this is no means the end. In typical Ember fashion--constantly searching for a new adventure--I'm beginning a new chapter that I'm sure will be just as rewarding. I've got a work visa in one hand and a one way ticket to Melbourne in the other...I'm moving to Australia!
A part of me is sad that this chapter of my journey is over, but a part of me knows it's time to move on. This is it; my wager is placed, I am closing my eyes and embracing the freedom of the unknown.
Now it's just me and the Red Dirt Continent in for some fine times together.
Here are some of my favorite misspellings I've encountered in Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. Really, how hard is it to open Microsoft Word and hit spell check? Apparently a lot harder than I thought...
This was a giant poster hanging at the Thai-Laos border crossing. Come on Laos Government, if anyone can produce a gramatically correct list of rules it should be you. I like #7...looks like I can cross Laos husband off the list.
If the English is any indication of the safety "yous fun come with your safe" I'd say its killer fun. Well, at lease insuranc is included. That is life insuranc, right?
I don't know about the Europecan shop, but I'd sure be keen on trying a Europecan pie! I've found that the Vietnamese really like to break their words into syllables ie: Viet Nam, Sai Gon, or more like Stan drd, whatever that means.
Victims of Pol Pot's regime
Forty years ago, over one quarter of Cambodia's population was slaughtered in a mass genocide under the communist dictator, Pol Pot. Cambodians where shuffled out of the cities and into jails and labor camps where they would be tortured and ultimately killed. Are you educated? You get murdered. Do you have a physical or mental deformity? You get murdered. Do you disagree with the communist government? You get murdered. Between 1975-1979 over two million innocent people were slaughtered and many parts of Cambodia became known as killing fields.
This was during the midst of the Vietnam War, and even after the genocide ended, Pol Pot's regime received financial support from the U.S., England, Australia and France and held a seat in the United Nations for many years after. It wasn't until 1997 that Pol Pot was finally put under house arrest, and not until the ripe age of 82 did he finally die.
Today, the Cambodians are better than ever and have many reasons to smile. They are a vivacious culture, happily mingling in street markets, dancing in the streets and flaunting their surprisingly Westernized lifestyle. The countryside is sprinkled with temples and the cities have gorgeous parks and swanky eateries. The locals are very curious about tourists and will yell at you from the sidewalk to say hi or stop you in the street to talk. The always leave with a, "good luck to you." Here are just a few reasons why I have fallen in love with these beautifully resilient people:
Hanging out with locals at my hotel
5. Hello Lady and good luck to you, two of Cambodia's favorite phrases and oh so sweet. Wouldn't you rather be bade farewell with a good luck than a goodbye?
4. Cambodian New Year. We danced the night away at a local bar and cheered with the locals at midnight. I got to test my groove skills with a few of the locals' favorite line dances!
Shopping at a local market
3. Currency. Did you ever think you'd get handed a wad of U.S. Dollars from an ATM in one of the poorest Asian countries? That's right! The currency is the dollar, with a mixture of Cambodia's own Reel thrown in just for fun. Prices are in Dollars and change is an eclectic mixture of Reel and Dollars depending on the item price. Complicated, but all the while entertaining.
2. Temples, temples, temples galore! Cambodia is home to Angkor Wat, an ancient city containing over 1,000 temples. It is said to be the largest pre-industrial city in the world. Today, tourists hire a tuk-tuk for the day and visit the dilapidated structures wrapped in jungle foliage.
1. Locals outside line dancing in the streets. Think Slumdog Millionaire status...remember the dance at the end? That's Cambodia! Every night the locals gather outside blasting Cambodian music and doing specifically crafted dance routines to each song. I personally can't think of a better way to celebrate, exercise, or just spend a Saturday night. I definitely couldn't take my eyes off the happy dancin' locals!
I am a Hmong woman. A wife, mother, daughter, sister, village member. I am Hmong. The Vietnamese tried to make us part of their culture once. Some people left my village, others were sent to jail for being Christian or Buddhist. Not my family. Our culture runs through our veins like the roots of the trees on the mountainside, and no one can take it from us. We have always been a part of the earth. My ancestors lived on and harvested this land for as long as time, farming chickens, goats and pigs and growing rice on the tiered mountainsides two seasons out of the year. The animals were fattened and saved for special occasions like holidays and family celebrations. Whatever was left from the rice harvest they would take to the village to sell. They didn’t make much, but it was enough for their simple lives. The men worked in the fields hand planting and picking the rice, and the women cared for the children—three sometimes four or five.
Sometimes I think about the lives of my ancestors and the traditions they passed down to us; how to work the rice fields with water buffalo, the colorful hand woven head scarves we still wear and how to wrap cloth around our bare legs when it’s cold outside. It’s funny to think how much my life resembles theirs hundreds of years ago, yet how many things have changed with the influence of the Vietnamese and tourism.
It's a Tuesday morning. I wake up at five, dress my son, Liaj and walk him to school. I had two other children but they died as babies. It has always been just Liaj and me, but I recently got the joyous news that I an pregnant with my fourth child! Liaj just turned five and just started at the primary school built in my village last year. He is the first generation in my family to get an education. I am happy he can have the education I never got. I can’t read or write but I can speak English!
After saying our goodbyes I catch a ride on a motorbike to the nearby Vietnamese town of Sapa. It is in the north of the country near the Chinese border and has become very popular with tourists in the past few years. I spend the day selling silver earrings, bracelets, woven scarves and purses made by me and my fellow villagers.
I get to Sapa and there are tourists everywhere! I greet them saying, “hello, where are you from? What is your name?” and they turn around stunned at my English! Sometimes they answer me and sometimes they simply rush down the street ignoring my questions.
I talk with the foreigners who do stop and tell them about my culture. Sometimes they even come to my village and I cook them lunch and invite them to stay the night with my family. I get out our nicest bowls, pick fresh greens from our garden and we all gather around the table for a meal sharing each other’s company laughing and drinking rice wine.
The tourists say they don’t have meals like this at home. Their family eats different food at different times and they rarely see each other. This is hard for me to imagine. My family is the most important thing in my life. We share everything.
Tonight the tourists have come. They ask me questions about my village and culture, trying to understand our lives. They look surprised to see my small house with dirt floors and a single bed that my husband, son and I share. They spend time playing with the village children and even give them crayons they have carried along as presents. We don’t have paper, but the kids are happy coloring on wood planks and smooth rocks.
My mother, cousins and neighbors come over and we have a big dinner and sip rice wine all the while telling stories about our cultures. We live such different lives and I’m not sure they will ever understand our choice to live so simply, and I will never understand their busy schedules and separated families, but we have become friends and respect each other.
Tomorrow morning, I’ll wake up and return to Sapa hoping to sell my crafts to tourists. The tourists will give me the money I need to support my family, and I will give them memories to bring home to their countries. Maybe one day they will tell their children about the Hmong villages in Vietnam, and my children will grow up hearing stories from their far off lands and we will learn to listen to the sound of harmony growing stronger with each passing word.
Hiking to the Hmong village for an overnight homestay with my new friends.
Trekking through the mountains with the Hmong women to their village...seven miles away.
The Hmong kitchen: cooking lunch over a fire
The ricefields of Sapa
The chatters and shrieks of ten year olds flow from the windows of my bus as we roll through the Vietnamese countryside. The floor is stacked several boxes high with ceramic tiles and a kitchen sink is blocking the isle, so anyone wishing to pass must shrewdly shuffle around the corners or jump over the beast. I can’t decide if it’s a school bus or a hardware store delivery van. We just stopped to pick up more passengers and a thirty something lady slipped into the seat next to me, placing her hand on my leg. Awkward.
While I am debating whether to casually move my leg over or wiggle it a little, she looks down, acknowledging the position, raises her hand and replaces it, now grasping my knee. She clearly wants it here...maybe its my new $8 Ferrari brand jeans? Irresistible. Oh, and did I mention someone just started playing the Titanic soundtrack? Thank you Vietnam, my heart will go on.
How did I become part of this bus circus anyway? It all started with my Halong Bay trip. After an excruciating van ride packed to the brim with tourists locals and luggage, a few run ins with rude tour operators and a hilariously awkward evening on a boat with two Chinese couples, five German guys and a very young Vietnamese girl coupled with an old fat Dutch man (sex tourism anyone?) I found myself wandering around Cat Ba Island in Halong Bay.
Me and a fellow German were shuffled around the island for a day hiking through a national park and wandering around town. When it was time for us to get back on our junk boat for the night the tour guide put us on an unmarked van which dropped us at the harbor where we were instructed to wait for said school bus turned Home Depot delivery truck.
After driving for an hour through the countryside, dropping the school children at their respective homes and delivering the building materials, the German guy and I were the only people remaining on the bus. Much to my surprise we actually made it to the harbor where we waited another hour with a collection of tour guides and boat captains, the German feeding them rum shots all the while, shooting the breeze and waiting for our boat to arrive.
Once again, much to my surprise, a boat emerged from the foggy bay to pick up the two lone tourists waiting at the harbor. The name of the boat was Halong Bay Party Cruiser, which I must admit, did live up to its name. My new tour guide—this time a more amiable and energetic character—kicked off the evening with a Backstreet Boys karaoke debut along with some sort of tai chi flailing arms dance moves. It was stellar. After that the four dollar bottles of vodka started rolling and we sang the night away. This country never ceases to amaze me.
Some pictures from my three day boat excursion to Halong Bay, coined one of the seven natural wonders of the world!
A foggy day in Halong Bay
The "junk" I stayed on, Halong Party Cruiser...it surely lived up to its name!
It is no secret that the Vietnamese favor their own people, and rightly so. I would equally favor an American, but when it turns into a Robin Hood act, taking from tourists and giving to the Vietnamese, it becomes a problem. A few days ago I was riding in a tour van packed with 20 tourists, luggage and all. There was not much space, and the four hour ride was going to be less than jovial. A few miles down the road the driver pulled over to pick up a few local women hitching a ride; only one problem, there were no seats left. The tour guide asked three of the tourists the get out of the van, giving their seats to the Vietnamese women and assigning the tourists to the portable fold down seats in the aisle.
If you want to pick up hitchers with your full tour van, whatever. I know this would never fly in a Western country, but being it was Vietnam I could let it slide. Forcing tourists who had paid anywhere from $60-80 for the tour to give up their seats to freeloaders? Unacceptable. I don’t care which country you’re from—Eastern and Western alike, that is just bad customer service.
To make things more exciting, the ladies chattered on their cell phones the whole drive and had an especially loud conversation with each other when the tour guide was trying to explain the day’s itinerary to us. After the four hour journey, we were an annoyed bunch. This, however, would not be my only aggravating bus adventure.
The bus anger was left to brew in my mind for a few days, coincidently perfectly preparing me for a scrimmage with an evil bus driver the following week. I had booked a sleeper bus to the north of Vietnam . It was a bunk bed set up with overly reclined bus seats and I happened to have prime pick of the territory, being one of the first people on the bus. Remembering advice from my travel mates, always sleep on the bottom, I settled on a nice bottom bunk in the middle of the bus. As I approached the seat the bus driver ran at me pointing to the top seat saying I must sit there. I refused, inching closer to my beloved bottom bunk. A British girl next to me—also headed toward a bottom bunk—exclaimed, “why do you always make us ride on the top when the Vietnamese get the better bottom seats? Tell me! Why can’t I sleep on the bottom?”
This tipped the driver off. He turned into something resembling an angry monkey, howling and flailing his arms, all the while ignoring the British girl’s inquiry and yelling at us to take the top seats. This was my breaking point. I had dealt with enough rude people in this country and wasn’t about to tolerate one more.
“Ever hear of someone named Rosa Parks?” I asked. He stared, confused. “Didn’t think so. Well I’m about to rock your world.”
I turned to my bottom seat and plopped down. The driver grabbed my arm threatening to yank me from my seat, and I screamed in protest, “I can guarantee you I paid more money for this bus ride than any Vietnamese person, and I will sit wherever I damn well please.” I shoved my ticket in his face exclaiming, “show me where it says the seat number! Nowhere! You can't tell me where to sit, then.”
Needless to say, he relinquished. This was the first time I had succeeded in a long list of struggles with the locals and it felt good.
Hanoi greeted me with a perfectly foggy jeans and t-shirt type of day. It was love at first sight. The city was charming with European style buildings, windy streets, numerous cafes and merchants pedaling French baguettes on street corners. There was a lake in the middle of the old quarter where locals would come to practice tai chi, play guitar or just sit on benches watching the whole scene. I went for a six A.M. run one morning to find the lake bustling with couples cha-chaing to blaring Latin music and teens partaking in a badminton battle. The Vietnamese really knew how to enjoy themselves.
Dao, the worker at my hostel greeted me with open arms asking all about my trip and what I planned to do in Vietnam. The warm welcome was nice after my four A.M. wakeup, flight, and treacherous journey meandering the unnavigable streets of old town Hanoi to find the hostel. I stumbled into my bed for a mid-morning nap.
It wasn’t long after my first stroll through the city that I learned the words on the lips of every tourist were “rip off,” and my rose-colored romanticized image of Hanoi began to fade. There seemed to be an irritable tension in the air among every traveler I met. Outwardly, I attributed this to the ear piercingly incessant motorbike honking. That’s right, I had missed the rainy season, but if the honking was any indication of the weather, Hanoi would surely be flooded and wiped off the map in no time. New York City, you’ve got nothing on Hanoi.
The locals drove as bad as, well, they sounded. One way streets and red lights meant nothing. Motorbikes, sometimes piled high with four people zoomed, swerved, and u-turned through the narrow streets competing with street vendors and pedestrians who were forced to relinquish the sidewalks to motorbike parking. Crossing the street was an animal all of its own. Traffic (obviously) never stops, so one must boldly step into the blender, as if poking a finger into a fan, and walk roughly at the same pace as the mopeds perfectly timing an entry through the spaces between each oncoming vehicle.
“Ok,” I thought, “this crossing the street business seems a bit dangerous, but no one would actually hit me. This was just a scare tactic, when it came down to me and the motorbike, the driver would surely stop.” FALSE! Apparently in Vietnam, you pay a smaller fine for killing someone than just injuring them, so it would indeed be beneficial for the motorist to go for the kill. Pedestrians beware!
The stressful street scene kept tourists on their toes. Everyone either outwardly despised Vietnam and weren’t bashful to say it, or tried to convince me it was great, nervously twitching all the while. I was somewhere between apathetic and twitching happy tourist. I thought I liked it. That is until I got rudely shuffled out of a restaurant and a shop for no other reason than I can conceive but being foreign. Before I could even say a word, the respective owners flung their hands at me in an out the door type of gesture hissing all the while.
I started to get the sense that Vietnam was out to get me. I was quoted ridiculous market prices that no Vietnamese would pay (like $.75 for one orange) and the locals refused to bargain even a bit. I went to the supermarket and oranges were going for $.75 a pound! Go figure…I eventually began to forgo the markets. If they clearly didn’t want me here, I didn’t want to give them my money.
My first week in the country went like this. There were ups and downs with overly friendly locals who made me want to love Vietnam, and unspeakably rude people who made me hate Vietnam. Likewise, I was flung through an exhausting rotation of content to irate tourist and all the shades between.
After an exasperating run in with a bus driver, I decided this love hate roller coaster was here to stay and I wasn’t getting off any time soon. I pulled out my bossy shoes, toughened up my skin and figured I could play the same game. And things started to get a whole lot better...
"Honey I've found a motorbike that can fit the whole family! Road trip, anyone?"
Any time you're looking for a true taste of local flavor, I would recommend taking a ride on the local bus. I must warn you, it's not for the faint of heart, and the results are either elating or steam coming from the ears maddening, but nonetheless, I guarantee it will be a memorable experience.
The buses of Bangkok are a species all of their own, coming in all shapes sizes and colors, melding together into a secret sort of code which indicates the cost and destination of the bus. Once you get past the secret code business, each bus is assigned to two numbers (the specific meanings of which still remain a mystery) placed strategically along the front or side of the vehicle, making it a bit of a scavenger hunt to find the correct bus. This just made the challenge of navigating through the city even more exciting.
My misadventures on public transport started as a youngster, at the age of five to be precise. I rode the school bus to kindergarten each day. Eventually the route got overloaded and being the last stop, I was frequently re-routed, shuffled onto an alternate bus, or-worst case scenario-picked up in a sketchy brown striped suburban owned by the school district and transported to school. It wasn't uncommon for me to accidently board the wrong bus or for the driver to forget about my stop altogether, forcing me running to the front yelling at him to let me off. I hated the school bus. It was hot, the kids were loud and I somehow always got the worst seat next to the fattest, smelliest kid.
When I got over my traumatic Lil' Tyke bus misfortunes, and before my driving days, I began riding the city bus to my job. It had a tendency for being late or straight up not showing up at all and I had a track record of catching the wrong bus, or missing my stop; a fatal combination. One day I got so lost on the bus, that I had to call my mom to leave work and come rescue me. That was the end of me and the bus.
On my very first day in Bangkok I was feeling particularly savvy and decided to take my chances on the local bus directions my guesthouse had provided from the airport. I caught a bus filled with fellow Thai travelers and airline employees-this was much too far from the beaten Western backpacker route-and was transported to the local bus station. There I boarded bus 252, as instructed by my online directions with a slew of locals who didn't speak a lick of English.
"Get off at 89/56 Sukhumvit Road, after about 45 minutes on the bus," read the directions. I reread the sentence. What was 89/56 supposed to mean? Was it 89 or 56? Make up your mind people! I wasn't about to take my chances guessing on one or the other and spending the rest of the day intimately getting to know Bangkok and the other 36 numbers between. I showed the address to the bus driver, who looked clueless, responding that the bus didn't go there. Luckily, I was still at the bus station, so I flirted with the idea of getting off the bus and searching for one that could guarantee me a stop at 89/56 Sukhumvit Road. But, once again remembering no one spoke English, I decided to take my chances with 252.
As the bus departed the terminal, I started timing the ride. Just as promised, 40 minutes into the journey I saw the Sukhumvit Road sign, and increasing numbers every block. Perfect! I screeched with joy motioning for the driver to stop as we approached 89. I happily departed the bus, and saw number 56 on the opposite side of the road; there was a method to their madness after all. Within a few blocks I was inside my guesthouse, thoroughly impressed with my local bus navigational skills.
Map Reading Gone Wrong
During my second visit to Bangkok, I was feeling restless for an adventure and set out to find the Vietnamese Embassy via local bus. The route appeared pretty simple on Google Maps and I could get there without having to transfer buses. I scribbled down the address along with a quickly drawn map of the bus stop and set out on my adventure. The bus came just as I arrived at the stop, and I boarded it confidently as if I had been riding these busses my whole life. I was soon on a journey meandering through the side streets of Chinatown. I was trying to follow the route outlined on the Google Maps page I had saved, but nothing seemed to match up.
I strained my eyes to catch street names as we whizzed by swerving tuk tuks and vendors pushing carts of fried rice, traveling further and further away from the center of Bangkok. I knew I was lost, but I didn't want to admit it to myself or my fellow Thai passengers. I shyly asked the ticket collector about a specific street we were meant to cross and she along with five other eavesdropping passengers exclaimed, "ooohhhh" in their best we feel sorry for this tourist tone of voice, "wrong way, get off GET OFF!"
Their urgent cries startled me out of my seat and I was ready to jump off the bus, belongings in hand, as if it were a ticking bomb about to blow. The driver slowed down just enough for me to jump from the moving vehicle before speeding off again. I was left in a cloud of dust and bus exhaust as locals leaned from the bus window pointing and yelling for me to cross the street and catch the opposite direction bus.
I waited at the stop recovering from local bus gone wrong. Ten minutes, thirty minutes, no bus. Was I at the right place? Had I misunderstood the locals? Frustrated and anxious to get to the embassy, I began to walk in the direction my local bus had come from. I soon found myself wandering through the same circular streets in Chinatown and knew it was time to ask for help.
I approached the friendliest looking man on the street and was soon surrounded by four Thais chattering and offering me their best local bus advice. Before I knew it, I was on the correct local bus, headed the correct direction and was at my stop, the embassy. Success never felt so sweet after a day of navigational strife. I eventually re-read the Google Map depicting the local bus route I was meant to take, and to my amazement realized I had forgotten a minor detail; Thais drive on the left. Silly me, I had caught the bus on the wrong side of the road. Looks like I won't be repeating that mistake any time soon.
Backpacker vs. Bus: The Ultimate Showdown
After a voluminous victory and major mishap, I was ready to go all or nothing with this bus game. This time the target seemed simple but Google as I may, I could not find an address, website or location description for the mysterious place I was headed. Sai Tai Mai-the bus station for long distance buses was off the tech radar. Google aside, this challenge was strictly between me and my information gathering skills from the locals, and I was determined to win. I armed myself with a photograph of the alleged Sai Tai Mai, a phonetic spelling and was off.
Luckily, the first lady I spoke to gave me everything I needed; the bus number, the location of the stop and Sai Tai Mai written in Thai. I waited at the bus stop with 20 Thais. Soon their busses came and 20 new Thais appeared. Locals and bus drivers alike had assured me I was at the correct bus stop, but bus 740 was nowhere to be seen.
As this cycle continued my anxiety grew. I was always the last one standing, surely someone else had to be waiting for 740, right? Another woman waited at the stop with me for 20 minutes and eventually ran into the street, flagging down a cab to take her to wherever she was going. Maybe I should follow suit. Maybe I had been too rash with my bus skills and was stubbornly waiting for a phantom ride. My mind ran through the taxi vs. bus scenario, then, there it was. A seven faintly emerging from the throng of traffic, a four, and a zero! I ran to the door, anxiously boarding the vehicle and shouting, "Sai Tai Mai," to be confirmed with a hurrah of "chais, yes" from the passengers. Triumph was mine. I had come full circle from my elementary days and defeated the ominous local bus system of Bangkok. Maybe the tables had finally turned and the bus gods were looking favorably upon me, or maybe I had just finally become bus smart. Either way, I ended up with a few funny experiences and I'm sure the locals got a good laugh at the tourist trying to ride the local bus.