A Travellerspoint blog

The Most Difficult Career in the World

sunny 30 °C

How long can your concentration span in an old dirty classroom on a 30C and 90% humidity day with no fan or AC, listening to a teacher speaking in a language you barely know?


After 'sweating' a day with a few other volunteers at Prey Chrok Primary School about 45 minute from Siam Reap, I realize that weather is the last concern for these students from surrounding villages, opportunities is their priorty. Although a nearby wedding caused the attendance drop somewhat, the remaining 30 or so students in each class still participate eagerly during the one-hour class.


We met outside the SAGE agency in Siam Reap around 6:30am and began the one-hour minivan journey west on a bumpy dirt road. Perhaps I am of asian-origin, by the time we arrived at the school, many eyes were locked on me. I was there to research and take photos for a new website.


Since the English program started around Oct 2006 at Prey Chrok, most students seem to have already known the alphabets well. However, most have a hard time understanding what the teachers want to achieve in the exercises because of the lack of translation.


Perhaps it was a slow day, most other classes were idle with local teachers chatting with each other in the school yard while we taught inside the sauna classroom.


To be honest, after the first three classes and 100 photos, I felt embarassed at my own impatience because of the heat and humidity. The same material began to sound monotonous, like mosquitoes flying in my ear. But every time we walked into a new classroom, enthusiasm of the new students, like caffeine, refueled me.


What in the world can be more satisfying than bringing opportunities to children in the developing countries?

Posted by shinenyc 01:37 Archived in Cambodia Tagged volunteer Comments (0)

Love at first sight

Muang Ngoi, Laos

sunny 28 °C

From the Laos border town Huay Xai, I took a 2-day slow boat trip to Luang Prabang. By the time I stepped out of the overcrowded boat with hundreds of noisy western tourists after the first day, I decided to detour and go the local way. At Pakbeng, I befriended a local university student who let me stay in her 'new' family guesthouse. I joined her family for dinner that night. Next morning, we went to the morning market and she sent me off in a minibus to Odomxai.


Like many other small towns in northern Laos, Odomxai striked me as rural China as I walked down the main street looking for a guesthouse. The large Chinese and Vietnam population settled years ago show their prosperity with gated 2-story concrete houses along the main street, as compared to the Laos who stay in wooden and bamboo houses on dirt roads. High trunks carrying construction materials from China are common sight. There are not much to do here since I'm only passing by. So I walked up to the temple to watch sunset.


The following day, after a bus ride with beautiful scenery from Odomxai to Pekmong, and pick-up truck to Nong Kiew where the road construction had stopped. A 45-minute boat ride along Nam Ou (River Ou) later, I arrived in Muang Ngoi. Not knowing anything about it except it was recommended by my guidebook.


It was love at first sight. Surrounded by limestone mountains and a beautiful river with water strikingly clear, Muang Ngoi is what I leave my home for. It was a place to forget about stress, unhappiness and worries. I dropped my backpack and swinged around on the hammock outside my $2/night room, watching locals and naked children bathing and laughing in the river and secretly wish that I can stay forever...


There is no advertisment, no cars, no motorcycles, no mobile reception and no internet here. Most people still rely on farming, fishing and hunting for a living. Satellite TVs showing mostly Thai /Chinese TV shows, music videos, movies and football games are most people nightly entertainment. Because of my limited Lao single-word vocabulary, most people talked about Hong Kong movie stars with me.


Chicken fed on uncooked rice. Cats and dogs walk around freely looking for leftover food. Ducks walk down to the river for daily swim. Herds of buffalos bath and lay under the sun to dry off.


Next morning, I trekked to the nearby Tom Khang Cave where locals hide inside for 12 years during the Vietnam War when Americans bomb this area for no particular strategic reason. We lunched in a small village with a few Canadian French, visited more villages and headed back.


My next venture is a fishing and camping trip. I followed the local fishermen upstream, watched them fish the traditional way using a net, fruitlessly for a few times. Finally, we caught two small fish. My guide used his multiuse knive to split and tied the fish skillfully on the bamboo and placed carefully on the fire. With fish soup were made with fresh herb picked nearby, bamboo shoot purchased from floating merchants, and of course, sticky rice, we dined with our hands under a million stars.


A few days later, I did an overnight trekking with a taiwanese girl whom I met at the Gibbon Experience but travelled separately until now. We trekked uphill for hours and finally arrived at a village called 'Kiawkan'.


Exhausted, we joined the locals at their good-luck festival right away and drank moonshine straight from the jar with a 1m straw. It is a tradition to circulate Lao Lao (local moonshine) or Beer Lao during lunch or dinner. We had a delicious family dinner at the chief's house and talked over Chinese radio stations before going to sleep. More Lao Lao of course... Next morning, we watched breakfast prepared over wooden fire, filled our stomach and headed back downhill to Muang Ngoi.


Time flies here. There is always something to do. One morning, the hunters drowned a pocupine and we all helped pucking the needles, cleaned and cooked. Everyone treat me like family.


Other days, I helped out at my friend's restaurant as waitress, watched and learned food preparation and cooking in a small and basic kitchen. (While most of us would not even know what to begin with to cook given the facilities here, 'professional' locals make it look so easy.)


Sometime, I'm invited to dinners at local fishermen houses when big fishes are caught while other times, I indulged myself on noodle made fresh from sticky rice. Then drained my energy playing with little children.


Life should be simple afterall. I think I found my happiness and my future home. It must be fate that took me to Muang Ngoi.

Posted by shinenyc 23:44 Archived in Laos Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

The Gibbon Experience

semi-overcast 25 °C

After spending almost a week in Pai, I took an overnight minibus to the border Chong Khong and crossed into Laos. While I was still in Pai, my new friend, Jea, a 20-something girl who works at an internet cafe and makes jewelry for sale part-time, ethusiastically told me about something called the 'The Gibbon Experience' in the border town, Huayxai, of Laos. So instead of following the rest of the 'falang' (foreigners) to take the slow boat to Luang Prabang. I requested about availability for myself. And sure enough, they squeezed me in the following day. Even with a slight fever and sinus, I was determined to spend the unexpected expense.


The owner of this company, Jeff from France, had dedicated the past 12 years to get the government to set up a national park in the northern part of Laos, where forests are still pristine enough, compared to the overlogging in the neighboring countries such as Vietnam and Thailand, by companies in China. After 10 years of hard work, Jeff and friends had a brillant ideas of building treehouses around the forests and linking them with ziplines so people can have a bird-eye view of the forest.


An unusual morning shower postponed our departure, but they doesn't deter our drivers' desire for speed on a very bumpy and slippery road in the jeep. We arrived in a very poor village hours later and started immediately trekking across corn fields and uphill to the main station where we were greeted by two hyperenegetic monkeys and 1-year-old asian bear.


After a brief intro, our group strapped on our zipping equipment and zipped into the first treehouse. Due to my sinus, I stayed in the first treehouse while the others kept going. There I met two New Zealand women who are cycling thru Laos and an American woman taking a break from her journalist work in Nepal. We decided to zip around freely and tried our luck on spotting the black gibbons.


An hour of walking through bamboo forests did not allow us to see much of anything. In fact, gibbons jump from tree to tree quickly and extremely difficult to spot. But we did hear their loud noise. That's probably enough for us.


While we were having delicious family-styled Lao food for dinner, a civet appeared on the brance right in front of us. Although I like to quietly observe the forest that night, busy dinner conversations had overrided my plan.


Next morning, I was waken up by the sounds in the jungle, 50m above ground in a misty fog. Breakfast and fruits were served promptly. I birdwatched and spotted some amazing beautiful birds with bright-colored beak, head or tail, joyfully searching for their own breakfast.


After a brief lunch, I zipped to another treehouse to join a small film crew preparing to document 'the Gibbon Experience'. At last, a moment of silence that I had hoped for. We stayed still and quiet for hours before playing cards and dinner. Early the following morning, the crew played a recording of gibbon calling. Surely after a few minutes, the real gibbons call back. I enjoyed my two-second 'experience' of a gibbon jumping from one tree to another at least 100m away from us.


After having a lovely western breakfast with the crew, and by this I mean toast with nutella, I zipped back to the base station and hanged out with my new monkey friends before trekking back to the village for departure. Of all the time I spend watching Animal Planet at home, this experience had worth more than I had expected.

Posted by shinenyc 06:14 Archived in Laos Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Chiang Mai & Pai

sunny 27 °C

Selling beer on overnight buses is not a smart move. Nevertheless, it was done on my eight-hour overnight bus ride from Ayutthaya to Chiang Mai. The obnoxious New Zealander in front of me was so drunk that the driver had contacted the police. It was literally a nightmare.

Fortunately, Chiang Mai has its own charm in certain areas. Like many Thai city, some streets with the old city are flooded with 'farang'(westerners) and young girls trying to make a living. The scene of oversized white male and petite thai girl is all too common.

I stayed with a tall Swedish woman, another victim of the torturing bus ride. I was surprised at the kind of attention we would get. Normally, by myself, I would just be mistaken as Thai, or Japanese. It doesn't take long for us to encounter our first gem scam. A local man inside a wat, claimed to have a Australian wife (with picture proof) and children, vacationing in Chiang Mai and wanted to drive us to the gem market to see monks work on handicraft without charge. The friendliness was a little too good to be true. We refused repeatedly and walked on.

We visited the Elephant Nature Park the next day, the largest rescue centre and santuary in northern Thailand, for domesticated and over-worked and abused elephants. Lek, a local Thai woman who started this project over 10 years ago, speak great English, has a passion for elephants. The sauntuary located in a valley supported about 30 elephants, including a few babies, who love bathing in the river. She also operates a jumbo express on a river boat to bring medical supplies to elephants in the surrounding villages in northern Thailand.

Our guide explained that Thai labor law treat elephants, an animal as intelligent as human, as domestic animals such as cows and pigs with virtually no holidays or maternity leave. On top of the torturing weeks of training when they are only 4 or 5 years old, a mother elephant could be forced to work for illegal logging or tourism until the day her baby is borned. There are cases where female elephants were forced to keep dragging woods after her baby was still born on the floor in the jungle. Then months old babies, who can barely walk, were forced to follow their mothers to work everyday until blazing sun. Some abusive mahouts would starve male elephants in order to prevent them to go into musk and therefore more obedient. Putting heavy chairs on an elephant back for a long period of time would actually cause deformation. Sometime I wonder if buddism is genuine in this country who claim elephants as their sacred animal?


That night, we found a little heaven ourselves, in an antique shop and guesthouse on the east of the river called Regina. My first glass of red wine.

A 3-hr local bus ride later, we arrived in a small town west of Chiang Mai called Pai. This town is known for its bohemian feel, popular for both farang and local youths, because of the abundance of hippyish bars, restaurants and gallery and proximity to surrounding mountains. I signed up with a 2-night, 3-day trekking with a local company. We were wrapped up in layers of fleece early morning before we start and quickly strip when the weather rises.


Our porters led us thru the mountains even without any visible path or tracks. We overnight in a guesthouse in a Lahu village surrounded by livestock. After a 'romantic' candlelight dinner including the slightly sweet and chewy Lahu rice and several great dishes, the Lahu children entertain us with children songs. In return, we sang a few western toons and danced like idiots.

Most of my fellow trekkers left me and another porter on the next day. We headed on a longer route to a Karen village. My porter made chopsticks from bamboo and bowls from banana leaves for lunch utensils.
Then come nap time. No point to rush under the hot sun...

A few river crossing and herds of cows grazing later, we arrived at the Karen village. My host family was very friendly. However, because of language barrier, I was only able to communicate with the owner who was quite occupied with my whisky-loving porter. We shared dinner, talked and laughed until the cats were curling up sleeping on my legs.

I arrived at Tham Lod (Lod Cave)after 2.5 hr trekking up and down river bank next morning. Tourists came in minibuses and 4x4 in groups. I followed a local woman with an oil lamp into the caves to see nature's work.


Posted by shinenyc 22:02 Archived in Thailand Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

A Monkey's snatch and a baby's touch

Ayutthaya & Lopburi

sunny 28 °C

Back to Bangkok for another sniff of the polluted air, my supposedly highly-rated hostel turned out to be less than satisfactory. I hopped onto the train and headed to the old capital city of Thailand - Ayutthaya.


This UNESCO Historic Heritage town has more than 40 magnificent wats. Some are Lao-styled, some burmnese, chinese and even Khmer-styled. Most look great from a distance away, however, need some major restoration.


My friendly tuk-tuk driver took me to a local restaurant for lunch and all the impressive wats around town. Over sunset at the elephant kraal, we watched teen elephants bathe themselves in the river after a day of carrying tourists on their back under the hot sun (a practice that can lead to deformation.)

Right when we were leaving, I noticed two baby elephants tumbling around their mothers in an enclosure. I couldn't help but to introduce myself to these two four-month-olds by gently putting my palm forward. In return, they placed their tiny and amazingly soft baby trunk on my hand. We bowed to each other. Then they tumbled back to get more milk from their mothers, seemingly knowing that I'm watching.


The next day, my tuk-tuk driver took me to Lopburi in his motorbike. In old Lopburi, there is a temple and ruins infested with hundreds of macquets, fed daily with fruits and vegetatables, for tourists. First brought into the town by a monk, these macquets quickly reproduced into a small colony. Temple keepers use sticks to scare them away from food on the altar (although there is a successful attempt at the roasted chicken.)


At the ruins opposite the monkey temple, hundred more macquet families and gangs reside. Tourists are actually encourage to go inside the ruin and look at the monkeys thru the bars, as if we are the zoo animal being watched by the residents here.


I ventured outside the safety of the temple ruin and tried to capture these creature under natural light. Just when I was focus at a shot, I heard a noise from my backpack and saw my lucky golden elephant keychain in the hand of a teenaged macquet. Within a millisecond, it was popped into his storage pouch inside his mouth. My attempt to chase after this thief and retrieve my keychain went in vain. Another lesson learned. Were we really evolved from monkeys or was it simply monkeys being monkeys?

Posted by shinenyc 06:38 Archived in Thailand Tagged backpacking Comments (1)

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