Philippines

 

My cheeky little monkey boys and best friends while staying in the jungles of the Philippines!

My cheeky little monkey boys and best friends while staying in the jungles of the Philippines!

Main street in Daet. Scooter anyone?

Main street in Daet. Scooter anyone?

THE BUS RIDE TO DAET

After spending almost two days in Manila we were ready to make the long, overnight bus trip to Daet. In the past I have been terrified of this ‘ghetto’ bus terminal where large groups of loitering men without shirts, cigarettes hanging from their mouths, leer at you and try to wheel your luggage 50m (for a price) or try to solicit tricycle rides, while loud rap music blares from speakers above. Fortunately, I was only travelling with my mum, so we weren’t obvious tourists plus with my new found adventurous confidence I didn’t feel as nervous as previous visits. We waited hours before finally boarding and Mum managed to get two free seats at the back of the bus. Just before I stretched out across the two seats and fell asleep I noticed a chubby faced, young man in the seat behind watching my every move. I clutched my bag closer as a safety precaution but told myself he was harmless. During stages of my sleep, you know the kind where you are still half awake but too tired to respond I felt someone stroking my hair. Due to lack of human affection from my prior two months of travel, I told myself I was just dreaming. After our last stop I fell asleep sitting, only to wake with a hand carefully splayed around the top of my head as if someone was trying to perform voodoo of extracting thoughts from my brain. I quickly jolted and despite the bus being very dark, I noticed the chubby faced man’s arms were draped over both sides of my seats, his faced wedged between the seats. He retracted them slightly and asked, are you okay? I said nothing and clutched my cat pillow, eyes wide for the rest of the trip. When it was finally his stop and the lights came on, he stood in the isle awkwardly staring at me and said goodbye as if we had somehow developed some sort of friendship. I quickly ran to Mum at the back of the bus to explain what happened and she came to sit with me for the rest of the bus trip. Prior to Nepal the bus trip from Manila to Daet was the worst bus ride I had experienced. I had been dreading knowing I would have to eventually make this trip but was pleasantly surprised that after experiencing long bus trips on the roads of Nepal that were so rocky it felt like you were on a boat in the middle of an angry ocean, this overnight trip on the windy but somewhat solid roads was easy peasy.

A REGULAR NIGHT OUT

Jungle living, coming up next!

Jungle living, coming up next!

Daet is not a place you’ll see many tourists but luckily, I blend in, sort of. It’s obviously not an easy province to get to but we were only in Daet as a stopover before making another trip to ‘bundok’ a somewhat secluded village within the jungles of the Philippines where my Mum grew up. During our stay in Daet, we ate throughout the day and drank Primavera (local brandy) in the evening. After receiving some unsolicited, slightly drunk and R-rated advice on how to get a husband and make babies from my Aunties and extended relatives, my cousins asked if I’d like to join them at a local bar. Feeling the effects of the Primavera I happily accepted the invitation and we were on our way. The first bar we drank red horse and more relatives joined but as the evening continued some of the males announced they were going to watch the bikini finals…yes, they hold bikini competitions at 10pm in Daet (the humidity must keep the girls warm). Others were hesitant so a smaller group of us moved onto another bar. As we smoked shisha and drank apple flavoured Red Horse one of the staff members came over to our table, leaned in and said something to my cousin and his friend. In a heartbeat they were up and at their feet quickly muttering that someone had a machete. The music stopped, there was shouting, my cousin’s friend suddenly drew a handgun from his pocket and pointed it at the suspect, a warning shot was fired as they shouted at him to put down his drawn weapon. He didn’t listen so another warning shot and more shouting. I should probably mention, my cousin and his friend are both policemen in the Philippines although off duty, are well known in the area. I was also fairly intoxicated by this time so this all seemed very exciting and not a frightening experience had it would have been if I were sober. Eventually, they had to tackle the suspect, my cousin removed the large black machete, putting it back into its shield while the other restrained him until a wagon and a pair of on duty police officers turned up and took him away. At this stage I wasn’t sure what would happen, but after I reassured my cousin I was fine and we all downed some more red horse, the night continued. It’s more fun in the Philippines!

JUNGLE LIVING

Some local children collecting pili nuts in old coconut shells. 

Some local children collecting pili nuts in old coconut shells. 

Following a very squished but air-conditioned, one-hour van ride we were suddenly dropped on the side of the road where a few local street stores and people loitered, not really doing much just lazing around, watching the road, talking to one another, drinking, smoking and / or grazing on food. My cousin was there to meet us with his motorbike, but we had too much luggage to fit on the back of one motorbike, so we ordered two more and were on our way down a dirt, rocky path. As we rode through the jungle I had never seen my mum so happy and carefree throwing her hands in the air as she sat on the back, Rnb music blaring from the motorbike. It was an exhilarating feeling sitting on the back of a motorbike, wind in my hair, as we drove deeper and deeper into the jungle and the place my mum grew up, a life and childhood completely unlike my own and what would be a very humbling and eye-opening experience. Some relatives had described jungle living to me as primitive, but I had already done my time in the mountains of Nepal so this would be a piece of cake!

Coconut farm life!

Coconut farm life!

It took a few days before I settled into jungle life, but my daily routine would go something like this, I’d wake up at around 6.30am to the sounds of people talking (landscapers and/or coconut farmers) and/or 90s karaoke music and singing playing from a house at the bottom of the paddock (never too early for Karaoke). If you’re up in time, you can purchase fresh fish and/or meat from men riding bicycles with cooler bags attached along the rocky, dirt paths. After a coffee and cartoons (yes, you can get cable TV in the jungle), or mostly just when I felt like it I would set off for work in the yard, helping mum to dig up the soil and plant patches of grass or I would continue painting the exterior of the house. I took a break when I wanted, had something to eat when I felt like it, chatted and played with all the children hanging around, worked at my own pace and finished when I felt I had done enough for the day, it was a feeling of freedom I had not experienced in my working life in Australia. There were always people around, dropping in and out, children playing in the gardens surrounding, collecting and bringing me pili nuts, guavas, bananas or whatever other fruit they could find. There would always be someone cooking up a feast in the kitchen or people would drop in with bowls of food or to lend a hand, or even just to watch TV. Later in the day my cousins would drop in selling amazingly, delicious, freshly cooked Turon (a jungle banana, rolled in sugar, covered with a spring roll wrapper and deep fried) for 5pesos each or $0.12 each. Finally, when the sun was starting to set we’d make ourselves a cup of tea and take a break. At the end of the day my hands and feet were grubby, I was tired from working in the sun, but I also felt so satisfied. Relatives might bring over another bowl of food from their dinner to share and after a delicious dinner and refreshing shower, I would lay on the couch and watch cable movies and TV shows until it was time for bed.  Everything was so simply, relaxed, stress free - I felt so much peace and happiness within myself that I hadn’t felt before.

Two of six brothers, including a set of twins!

Two of six brothers, including a set of twins!

BREAD ROLLS FTW

Fun in the sun!

Fun in the sun!

There is a large grassy area at the bottom of The Chalet that is soon to be rice terraces. For now, children (mostly boys around the ages of 6 – 10) gather after school with an old red bike and take turns riding it and pushing each other around the grass, making stick bridges to ride across and using large leaves as weapons to hit each other. Each afternoon they will call out to me, ‘Ate Sarah, Ate Sarah!’ (pronounced Ah-Tay, it’s a sign of respect to address a female that is older than you) until I eventually come out onto the balcony to wave at them. The only English phases they seemed to know were ‘I miss you’ or ‘I love you’ so they would yell these out from the grassy field along with other Tagalog until I made my way down where they would bombard me with questions in Tagalog and laugh at my English responses. One day I didn’t feel like making the trek down the hill as the previous visit I had slipped on my way back up and cut my palm open. Instead I yelled in response “Halika Dito” (come here), without hesitation, six boys came scrambling up the hill, taking their shoes off and climbing onto the balcony like a bunch of monkeys hanging off the railings and jumping up and down in excitement, slapping each other on the backs affectionately. I asked them if they were hungry and offered some Filipino food, bihon (noodles) but was met with indifference so I then asked if they wanted buttered bread rolls and you’d think I’d just offered them each a lifetime supply of ice-cream; they nodded and screamed yes, jumping up and down, crawling over each other to get to the bread rolls I had started buttering. They munched on their bread rolls excitedly chattering away in Tagalog and jumping from couch to couch while watching cartoons, still speaking to me in Tagalog I didn’t understand, not realising I had started a daily day care centre that would see the boys returning with all their friends up to three or four times a day for snacks and cartoons. They would wait for me to return if we went out during the day or follow me up the hill when I would try and get internet reception. Like most children, their clothes were dirty and torn and sometimes we had to tell them to go home and wash before they were allowed in the house, but they were the happiest children I’ve ever met, although greedy when it came to food, they rarely, if ever complained. None of them have phones or ipads, they play outside until the sun has set, running around, pushing each other along on the one red bike they share, making up their own games or playing things like leapfrog and tiggy. It makes me question the real benefits of technology and how it has affected humanity, human connectivity and development. I love these children so much and my heart is heavy when I think about how much I miss their constant and annoying need for my attention. My mum and I have just shipped off a massive box that will reach these children by Christmas full of teddy bears, chocolates, new and second hand (but in good condition) clothing and other bits and pieces. If you have anything you would like to donate, please contact me as we will be sending another box in the next few months!

I miss you all so, so much!!!

I miss you all so, so much!!!

AFTERWORD

My beautiful pet cat in the Philippines, Beauty.

My beautiful pet cat in the Philippines, Beauty.

When I returned home it was like I had never left. Within a few weeks my trip felt like a long dream. I quickly became so far removed from my time overseas because I jumped straight back into the daily grind! But, I’ve taken a breath now and am slowly starting to find the balance between wants and needs and learning to work to live and not live to work. As my boy Biggie said, “mo money, mo problems”.

My beautiful pet dog in the Philippines, Bogart..

My beautiful pet dog in the Philippines, Bogart..

I had gone on this 3-month adventure to gain perspective, to find direction and meaning in my life. I was hoping it would be a life changing experience, but I didn’t know what that meant or how it would feel. I thought I might change instantly but it hasn’t happened like that. I am only now gradually noticing changes within myself as time goes on. Overall, I now feel more at peace with myself, I feel less caught up in the materialistic, online world; I seek less reassurance from social media and care less, in fact do not care at all, about the lives of social media influencers. I care less about what others think and am generally happier with my self-image. I’m more concerned with my own achievements without constantly comparing myself to others. I catch myself admiring the smallest things about nature or people that I once wouldn’t have noticed before and I stop and appreciate them or it. Every now and then I’ll be doing something simple such as having a warm shower, laying in my soft bed, flushing a toilet and I’ll get a warm fuzzy feeling and truly appreciate my life. I compare myself to others less and am genuinely happy for other people’s successes without letting it impede on my own. Finally, I’ve cemented what I knew all along, money doesn’t bring happiness, and I don’t need material items to be happy, that human kindness is infectious and giving without expecting anything in return is one of the most rewarding things you can do with your life.

So, as most of you know, I’ve now taken steps to ensure I can follow this path to happiness and ensure I live a fulfilling life full of kindness and giving. My travels and volunteer work certainly won’t end here, so remember to watch this space!

One final note, a massive THANK YOU to all those who have taken the time to read my travel journals and send emails and messages of encouragement, advice, queries and general praise, it makes my heart so full and proud and appreciative! Thank you!

Malaysia

AN ACCUSTOMED LIFESTYLE

Entrance to the Batu Caves

Entrance to the Batu Caves

After struggling with a volunteer placement in Kathmandu, my deteriorating health and, poor head space I decided to cut my trip to Nepal short by one week. Once I knew I was leaving early, my mood instantly lifted and I felt a rush of relief. Instead of a short three-day stopover in Malaysia, I would be spending ten days. I didn’t know much about Malaysia, I hadn’t heard anything overly positive nor had I heard anything negative so I was pleasantly surprised at how amazing Malaysia was and all it had to offer!

My plane trip to Kuala Lumpur from Kathmandu felt like a mini-holiday. I usually hate flights but this was the first time in seven weeks I’d had air-conditioning and TV entertainment + a whole row of seats to myself. I snuggled up with a blanket, ate food, watched TV, and slept in comfort and with ease. You know you’ve been roughing it when a plane ride feels like a luxurious day spa.

The view from Chin Swee Caves Temple on the way to Genting Highlands

The view from Chin Swee Caves Temple on the way to Genting Highlands

I had been travelling solo for the past two months so when I landed in Kuala Lumpar after my relaxing, luxurious flight, I felt overly confident about my travelling skills.  With all my luggage, I hopped on the KLIA express train from the airport to KL Sentral before changing lines and getting on the LRT line to KLCC. I was just about to give myself a pat on the back when I hopped off the train, confident I could walk the 800m to my apartment without a phone or internet. However, after forty minutes of struggling with my luggage and one litre of sweat later I finally admitted I was lost. With some reluctance, I approached a nearby council worker. It was 11 in the evening and he could see I was flustered and very sweaty. After realising I had walked in the wrong direction I scanned the streets for taxi’s, feeling my despair, the worker then offered a lift which I quickly accepted (sorry Mum… don’t try this one kids).  

When I entered my high ceiling, wooden floor, self-contained apartment with an abundance of natural lighting and pleasant décor I felt a lump forming in my throat and tears welled up in my eyes. I wish I could say I’m a tough cookie and I had no issues living in Nepal but being exposed to harsh realities of an LDC had an overwhelming negative effect on my mental health and consequently my physical health too. That evening, I sat up against a mountain of pillows in a soft king size bed with the air-con running, a view of the city peeking through the long, white curtains, a bowl of noodles sat in my lap as I sipped a glass of sparkling apple juice and watched nonsense television shows. My body filled from head to toe with a warm sense of relief and happiness - a warm fuzzy feeling I wasn’t familiar with and a feeling I rarely felt when alone. In that moment I realised I could find happiness if I just stopped every now and then to appreciate the simple things in life. This was the lifestyle I had become accustomed to and I was overwhelmed with gratefulness that I had been born into a developed country, something I would try to never take for granted again.

DON'T GO CHASING WATERFALLS

My Auntie has lived in KL for 22 years (and my cousin and family, 4 years) so not only did I get to visit all the tourist places, I also got to experience where the locals hang out. They were very keen to show me around Malaysia in their spare time, so much so that we would visit up to five attractions in one day!

Impromtu jungle trek turned into a blood nightmare after an undiscovered leech bite. R rated pictures of the wound available for viewing in person only!!!

Impromtu jungle trek turned into a blood nightmare after an undiscovered leech bite. R rated pictures of the wound available for viewing in person only!!!

On my first day in KL, my cousin asked if I wanted to go to a waterfall with a group of his friends. I didn’t think much of it, throwing on some shorts, shirt, and sneakers, taking only my camera and clutch bag (yes, I bought a clutch bag trekking). After getting lost and driving back and forth, we finally arrived at a waterfall (not the original one, but nonetheless, a waterfall). My stomach was grumbling with hunger but it was only a twenty-minute walk to the waterfall (apparently). After forty-five minutes I asked one of the girls who encouragingly said it was only another fifteen minutes, after another thirty minutes passed and I asked again…that was the last time I asked. There was no waterfall, at least not on the trail we had followed.

Eventually, we got tired and stopped to take a break. I quietly rejoiced that I’d finally have something to eat. Trail mix, sandwiches, protein bars perhaps? No such luck. Instead we ate potato crisps and drank shots of Chivas followed by shots of coca cola which made the journey back much more tolerable except for the leeches! They suddenly appeared on our legs, feet or between our toes as we squealed and quickly tried to pick them off each other before they attached. At one point, I felt a sharp sting where my shorts met my inner thigh but the pain disappeared after I jumped in the river so I didn’t think anything of it. We finally returned to the car, exactly four hours after leaving.

When I went to the bathroom for the first time after returning to my apartment, I realised there was blood everywhere, all over my underwear and shorts. Aunt flow wasn’t due for a visit so I was really confused and quite worried. I hopped in the shower and soon realised the bite in my shorts must have in fact been a leech that presumably dropped off once it was full or while I was frolicking in the water. As soon as I stopped washing or applying pressure to the area it would gush out blood again. There was no pain but the continuous flow of blood wasterrifying to watch, like something out of a horror movie. Despite my efforts, the bleeding wouldn’t stop, in fact it continued for at least 7 or 8 hours. After soaking all my band-aid supplies and complaining to my family I was going to die from blood loss, I decided I needed sleep. I tied a scarf tightly around my upper thigh, watching as it started to soak in blood and finally went to sleep. I woke up with relief noting the bleeding had stopped and that I wouldn’t have to rush myself off to a medical center.

Not usually a superstitious person, I do have to question the association with looking for waterfalls and running into trouble. The last time I spent hours looking for a waterfall on an island in the Philippines I was involved in a motorcycle crash…Ripley’s believe it or not. Ok, probably just a coincidence but I still won't be chasing waterfalls anytime soon. TLC were right, don't go chasing waterfalls! 

sore feet & cheap eatS

We may have been ridiculously outnumbered but I didn't see any Indonesian supporters wearing painted flags on their faces!!!

We may have been ridiculously outnumbered but I didn't see any Indonesian supporters wearing painted flags on their faces!!!

After some much-needed R&R following the leech incident the site-seeing began. In one day we visited the Batu Caves greeting a lot of cheeky monkeys along the way, a mosque (Masjid Wilayah Persekutuan) where we were dressed in burqas and were toured around by very friendly and welcoming Muslim volunteers, a Chinese temple with a magnificent view of the city followed by a night time stop to Icity admiring the lit-up trees and dancing waterfalls. Our final stop was KLCC Tower, we arrived with one minute to midnight and I managed to snap one picture before the lights were shut off!

On the night following, a group of us painted our faces with the Filipino flag to attend a soccer game in which Indonesian supporters ridiculously outnumbered the Filipino fans. It was late in the evening when the game finished and we were all starving, so we hopped in our cars and travelled to a food court where locals go, enjoying a midnight feast where I scoffed down a large bowl of mushroom noodles and 1L of watermelon juice for the equivalent of only a few dollars. Catch up Brisbane, Marketsquare in Sunnybank shouldn't be the only food court open past 9pm!!!! 

French Themed Village, Colmar Tropicale in Berjaya Hills

French Themed Village, Colmar Tropicale in Berjaya Hills

The next night, we attended an exciting MMA fight followed by a full night of eating pizza and drinking chivas and after arriving home at 7am the next morning, a full day of recovery (i.e. bed, air-con, junk food and TV) was required.  Following my recovery, I went to collect my mum from the airport and we were all out again, visiting Bukit Bintang for dinner (tourist area). I almost fell off my chair when I saw the westernised prices! Please note, if you’re travelling to Kuala Lumpur and only stick to the tourist areas expect to pay up to 50MYR instead of 6MYR for a meal.

On our last full day of site seeing we travelled up to Genting Highlands Resort and Casino, visiting the Japanese gardens, a French themed village called Colmar Tropicale in Berjaya Hills and the Chin Swee Caves Temple along the way! My fear of heights meant no one got to travel up to the Casino via the cable cars... but highly recommend doing so if you're not a scaredy cat like me.  The Casino sits within the clouds, with an eerie, cold atmosphere as fog clings to the buildings, so don't forget a jacket! 

Our final night was spent at BBQ Nights an amazing restaurant on Jalan P Ramlee that also catered for Vegetarians (Yaaay!) and was BYO(just pop into the local 7/11) followed by our final stop to get last minute photos at the Petronas Towers. Taking a selfie with these towers without a double chin requires true talent - if you're ever in KL I challenge you to the task!

Unfortunately, running short on time we weren’t able to make any overnight or even day trips to some of the amazing beaches in Malaysia but it’s on the agenda for next visit! Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Malaysia so much so I would even consider a working holiday there if given the opportunity.  I’m so grateful I could experience a local’s tour thanks to my amazing Auntie and Cousins and I hope to see you again soon Malaysia!

Nepal (Part Two)

Real Nightmares

Lunch provided by the school encourages students to attend

Lunch provided by the school encourages students to attend

Living in Nepal made me acknowledge there are far scarier things in this world than the worries I make up in my own head, that many children live through nightmares instead of just experiencing them in their sleep. Common stories Nepali children face (including ones I met and spent time with) would involve everything from rape and child sex trafficking to extreme poverty, physical abuse leading to permanent disfigurement, slavery, discrimination based on their caste and frequent natural disasters resulting in homelessness and loss of loved ones.

Human Trafficking in Nepal is and continues to be a major problem with young girls the prime target. Lonely Planet Guide Nepal (2012) estimate that 10,000 – 15,000 girls are tricked or sold every year into servitude, either as domestic factory or sex workers. They estimate that over 100,000 Nepali women are working in Indian brothels while UNICEF (2017) believe there are 13,000 girls being sexually exploited in Kathmandu alone. Unfortunately, even if these women are somehow able to return to Nepal they are shunned by their families and have virtually no assistance for themselves or any children. To gain a firsthand encounter, I recommend reading Sold by Patricia McCormick told through the eyes of a 13-year-old Nepalese village girl sold into child sex trafficking. I have a copy anyone is welcome to borrow, but please note it is an extremely confronting novel, at times I had to put it down and couldn’t pick it up again for weeks. Despite all their daily struggles and disheartening life stories the Nepali people’s resilience and ability to continue in the face of adversity is both remarkable and admirable. Anxiety and frustration are words not known to Nepali people and even trying to explain what these words meant were difficult.

Waiting for that feeling

During my time in Nepal my stomach would constantly be in knots and I found it difficult to sleep at night, constantly waking up with my thoughts, trying to dream up some ingenious idea of how I could make a genuine difference during my time in Nepal. I wish I could say I had an epiphany, that I was filled with warm, fuzzy, rewarding feelings but the reality was, I didn’t. Instead I felt overwhelmed with sadness and guilt. I had been lucky enough to be born into a developed country while 22,000 children in developing countries die each day due to poverty (UNICEF, 2017).  

Literacy levels among women are improving. P.s that's 'drinking' water in her bottle.

Literacy levels among women are improving. P.s that's 'drinking' water in her bottle.

I had travelled halfway across the world filled with passion and inspiration to make a difference, even changing my travel time in Nepal from 2 to 6 weeks to ensure the trip was meaningful. I thoroughly researched NGOs, avoiding any large businesses charging ridiculous amounts of money to ‘volunteer’ with them and was very happy to see the children of NOH living in high standards and receiving a great education at a local private school. However, while my 6-week program fee did a world of good for the orphans, my placement was another story. Following Ramechhap, I tried (unsuccessfully) to get placements teaching at local Kathmandu schools (who were already overloaded with volunteers) and ended up working in Physiotherapy at a Special Education and Rehabilitation Centre (an area I am completely inexperienced in), an institution filled with many young, student volunteers. It was a great experience and I befriended and loved all the children, but did I feel I was making a genuine difference to their lives? No. Maybe I had improved their lives temporarily, buying them clothing and treating them with as much love, kindness, and patience as I possibly could until another volunteer came along and (hopefully) did the same. But, in reflection, a long-term stay is the only way to make a genuine difference, not a few weeks. Any small progress that may have been made may not last if the same learning practices are not carried on.

I found my time in Nepal confronting and overwhelming with a difficult living environment, even cutting my time there short by one week after my health began to deteriorate. Overall, it was a humbling experience and I truly learnt how many simple things I had taken for granted from sanitary bathroom facilities to clean, running water. I now find myself enjoying the smallest things, brushing my teeth with tap water, soft bedding, western toilet facilities, proper roads, wheelie bins and more! I only hope I never forget my experience in Nepal and continue to appreciate everything I have as a result of being born in Australia.

NOTE: Unfortunately, not all Orphanages are like NOH, with many taking advantage of the ‘Voluntourism’ trend. For this reason, there are even calls to outlaw 'voluntourism' with both SBS and ABC weighing up on the issue and many questioning the harmful impacts short term placements have on the children. You can find more information here  and recent news articles published by ABC here or on The Feed SBS VICELAND here.

cultural differences

Nepal is one of the poorest countries in the world and considered a LDC (Least Developed Country). I had travelled to Nepal with the hope to make a difference, to teach and educate but instead I felt overwhelmed by my actual ability to make a difference in a country whose religion was so deeply ingrained in the culture. Despite most outdated cultural beliefs being ruled as illegal in the past decade (yes, that recently) customs are still widely practiced especially outside urban areas. A few issues I am passionately opposed to include but not limited to:

Women will often do the majority if not all physical labour in the home. This woman has just collected up to 40L of water which she carries on her back.

Women will often do the majority if not all physical labour in the home. This woman has just collected up to 40L of water which she carries on her back.

Chhaupadi - the act of banishing women to the cow sheds during their period and following child birth (also referred to as being jiuto – impure) was only made illegal in 2005 although if you follow the Nepali media you will find it’s still widely practiced in villages outside of the cities. You can read about a recent case where an 18 year old Nepali woman died while being banished to a shed during her period here.  Even within the cities while women are not required to leave the house it is common for them to not be permitted to prepare food or come in physical contact with anyone whilst menstruating. Some remote Nepalese communities even believe they will suffer bad luck, such as natural disasters, abrupt death of animals, and illnesses, if women are not banished to huts or cowsheds when they menstruate. On top of experiencing isolation, women can be prohibited from drinking and given less or no food to eat while they are on their period.

The Caste System and being born into a lower caste and therefore a lesser ‘human’ because is a belief that you have done wrong in your previous life and this is your karma (puts a new spin on what we refer to karma in the western world doesn’t it). Lower castes accept this as their fate and rarely question the brutality they receive from being born into a lower caste. This can also be the attitudes and beliefs for people born with disabilities and as a result are sometimes treated inhumanely.

Kamalari - When poor rural families are desperate for money or cannot afford to look after their children, they may sell their young daughters into slavery for very little money often to higher caste families. These girls are known as Kamalaris and are often faced with inhumane standards of living, physical abuse and some even wind up dead. You can gain some insight into this practice here. 

Grandchildren of my host family in Ramechhap after receiving a Tikka blessing.

Grandchildren of my host family in Ramechhap after receiving a Tikka blessing.

Women Inequality - I witnessed women inequality first hand and although education is breaking down some barriers, especially in urban areas and Nepal has drastically improved women rights in the past decade, there are still many outdated beliefs. I watched as a wife sat on the dirt ground, waiting for her husband to finish his meal before she could eat her own, I watched her hike hours to collect and bring back 40L of water on her back while her husband sat around eating, I heard stories of discrimination against widows as many believe the wife is the cause of the husband’s death due to immoral acts (which are usually without any evidence) or crimes wives had committed in a previous life. Insight into this issue can be found here. Overall, some believe giving birth to a female child is considered less desirable as the female will eventually be sold through marriage to become the ‘house help’ for the husband’s family. 

Violence Against Women - While women face many issues from lower literacy rates and less economic status, I’ll finish this section with a UNICEF quote regarding the violence experienced by Nepalese women. “As many as one in every five Nepali women experience physical violence and one in 10 sexual violence. Nearly 1 in 10 adolescents aged 15-19 experience physical violence during pregnancy. Most often the violence is perpetrated by someone she knows, including by her husband or another male family member.” (UNICEF, 2017)

Pokhara

As a treat to ourselves, one weekend my new Belgium friend and fellow volunteer, Mieke, travelled to Pokhara, the second largest city in Nepal with views of the Himalayas. I loaded up on travel medication knowing it would be a rocky bus ride and was glad I had; at times, it felt like we were on a ship in the middle of an angry ocean (the roads in Nepal are the worst I’ve experienced in all my travels). After about 8 hours, we finally arrived and checked into our cosy hotel, The Blue Planet Lodge, a short walk from the main strip. Pokhara had a really relaxed, holiday atmosphere; a huge lake acts as the center point and main attraction for the town. If I were to compare it to Kathmandu I would prefer to stay in Pokhara. Occasionally, when the weather was clear, we would catch glimpses of the Himalayas. It was breathtakingly beautiful and for the first time, I had a strong desire to trek through them.

We spent the weekend relaxing and enjoying the sites, everything from a family walking their cow to a cow sitting/guarding a shopfront. One encounter stood out in my mind; among all the beggar children we saw two young pre-teen girls each holding a baby. One of the babies was clothed, the other naked. As we passed, I turned back to see the girl with the clothed baby removing its clothes and it took me a moment to realise why; to get more money. Despite pulling at our heart strings, we did not give any money to the beggars knowing very well where it was likely to end up. If you enjoy reading, I highly recommend Little Princes by Conor Grennan as it gives insight into how these children end up begging in the streets. I have a copy if anyone wants to borrow!

Kathmandu, Nepal (Part one)

First Impressions

Durba Square, Kathmandu

Durba Square, Kathmandu

As I exited Kathmandu airport and found my name in the sea of signs I was greeted by the wonderful Himal (Volunteer House Manager). Himal presented me with a blue scarf, another item of clothing I probably didn’t need to add to my jeans and long sleeve shirt in the scorching Kathmandu heat. As we walked towards the parking lot we were bombarded with taxi drivers all shouting at us in Nepalese presumably to take their cab. Eventually, Himal followed a small man to a small beat up car that looked like it belonged in a car wreckers and definitely not on the road. I wasn’t sure if this was for real, were we actually getting in this car? Could this car even start? It certainly wouldn’t pass a roadworthy certificate in Australia. I went to open the car door but there was no handle… not to worry, he opened it from the inside. I hopped into the back seat, sitting on an itchy rug that was placed over the back seat of the car. Instinctively I went to put on my seatbelt. None there. The driver did however have a seatbelt, it was tied to the interior door of the car with several pieces of straw.

Visiting the Garden of Dreams in Thamel, Kathmandu.

Visiting the Garden of Dreams in Thamel, Kathmandu.

It took a few starts but the car finally turned on, as we entered the chaotic, dusty, loud traffic I held onto my seat tight. I’ve travelled to many countries but this traffic was like none I’ve seen before. There are absolutely no lanes and the dirt roads with massive potholes made for a bumpy ride. The car stalled several times on the way and as other cars stopped suddenly only inches, maybe even centimetres away from our taxi before honking and speeding off I wondered if I was going to make it unharmed to the volunteer home.

We finally arrived and I breathed a little sigh of relief. The volunteer house was a solid three story building with an additional rooftop level, I was sharing a room with three other girls. Some things I would have to live without included a TV (although didn’t miss this), a washing machine, a decent internet connection, the ability to hop in my car and drive anywhere, comfortable and well supported bedding, a nice flow of warm water, a western bathroom, access to fast food and the ability to choose my meals. Lucky for me only a few days prior to arriving the volunteer house had finally purchased its first fridge so most importantly I had somewhere to store my insulin. In saying all of this, upon returning from my placement in Ramechhap the volunteer house was like returning to a five star hotel. My 10cm thick mattress and hard pillow felt like a cloud, the shower, access to flowing water and the delicious food made by our in house cook tasted incredible. I didn’t even mind having to hand wash my clothes anymore!

I haven’t backpacked before, I’m not much of a camper and I rarely attended any school camps but when the house was full and the conversations flowed I really enjoyed my time there. Following dinner a group of us would sit and enjoy tea and chocolate or biscuits and chat, sometimes for hours. We would talk about everything from politics to human rights. It was a nice change from my usual topics of conversations. On a few other nights we all (5-8 of us) huddled around a small laptop screen, clutching our pillows as we watched movies. 

Visits to Papa’s House and Sanctuary House

Papa's house. The one that started it all!

Papa's house. The one that started it all!

Papa’s house was the first home purchased, it’s what started it all. The large yellow building sits beside a large grassy yard with playground equipment and a half basketball court. Upon arrival to my first dinner invite to Papa’s house (one of the Orphan Homes) I was greeted by a group of the younger girls (the older girls were at after school classes held at The Chelsea Centre). The girls were excited to have a volunteer visitor but were slightly confused by my appearance; wearing a long yellow tunic and gold bracelets combined with my Filipina background, I blended in well with the Nepali women. Most stared in confusion saying I looked Nepali (I got this everywhere I went in Nepal, if I was with a westerner they would think I was the westerners guide and would continue to talk to me in Nepalese even when I tried to explain I was from Australia). On my visits to the home, the girls would touch my skin and smell my hair, they would call me sister and tell me that I have a very clean face, other times they would stand in front of me just gazing and I felt like I was on show!

Some of the sweet children from Papa's house. They were very excited to keep some photos from Australia!

Some of the sweet children from Papa's house. They were very excited to keep some photos from Australia!

On my first visit, they excitedly gave me a tour of the house and each room hosting 2 – 4 girls in each, depending on the size of the space. There was a total of 40 women and girls living in the home. The rooms were split over three levels plus a rooftop with an amazing 360 degree view of Kathmandu. Some rooms were covered in posters and cut outs of celebrities glued to the wall, while others were kept very clean and simple. The group of young girls eagerly took me to the rooftop, keen to show me temples in the far distance and baby birds in the trees surrounding. Once they were finished showing me the rooftop we went down into the yard where we met with the rest of the girls coming back from their after school classes and some of the children from the other nearby Nepal Orphan Homes. We played Simon Says then Tiggy while others played basketball or badminton. The bell rang and the children all hurried into the kitchen where they were served large portions of Dahl Baht (literal translation curry and rice). The children scoffed their food down and the chefs came out with more dahl and baht as the children scoffed down seconds.

Similarly I had the same experiences when visiting Sanctuary House for dinner. Sanctuary House was smaller in number (26 girls and women) and was located next door to the Volunteer house. Males are not permitted to enter the girl’s homes. Dinner is by invitation only and you must leave shortly after dinner as the girls run on a specific daily schedule as is required when living in a house with so many people! The girls always welcomed me and were very inquisitive about my family and life in Australia. They called me sister, played with my hair, sat on my lap, painted my nails, gave me a henna tattoo. The house had a fun atmosphere, you could feel the happiness.

Some of the girls including the teens were really affectionate, it was very sweet how quickly and comfortably they attached themselves to me, held my hand, called me sister, hugged me or sat on my lap. The truth is, even if you could adopt these children (which you can’t) I don’t believe they would be better off being shipped to a western country. They have a huge family network of brothers and sisters who care about them, support them, feed them, clothe them and educate them. They all care deeply about one another, to take them away from this emotional support and their family would be cruel.

Some of the lovely women and girls from Sanctuary House.

Some of the lovely women and girls from Sanctuary House.

SERC (Special Education and Rehabilitation Centre for Disabled Children)

Ted (also from Australia) and I worked together at SERC.

Ted (also from Australia) and I worked together at SERC.

I returned from Ramechhap feeling very hesitant for my second rural placement, a Buddhist nunnery on top of a mountain. While this placement did have access to water, it was more remote, less work was required and in terms of having people to communicate with it was even more isolated. My fears of being lonely were confirmed when I spoke to a number return volunteers who stated that while it was very beautiful, there was limited communication with others and no way to contact the outside world. I decided this was an experience I could live without.

With 3 weeks left in Nepal I needed to find another placement in Kathmandu, I attended EDUC-Nepal a school dedicated to the education and development of underprivileged children. To find out more or sponsor a child so they can attend school, for as little as $100 USD per year, please visit their website: http://www.educnepal.org.np/ Unfortunately, being such a worthy cause there was already a plentiful supply of volunteers and interns working at the school. So, my search continued.

The day prior to leaving for Ramechhap a friend at the volunteer house, Ted, encouraged me to attend SERC with him where he was working as a Massage Therapist alongside a group of Physiotherapists. I had been warned by other volunteers to be prepared – that SERC was very confronting.  When I arrived at SERC and followed Ted up to the Physiotherapist room I was met with an array of friendly children. Most of the children greeted me with a ‘namaste’, high five or a hug. The children we were assisting had multiple disabilities from Vision and Hearing impairments to Cerebral Palsy and all were unable to walk.  Some had intellectual and physical disabilities while others were without an intellectual disability but not able bodied. I instantly fell in love with the children and felt a strong connection with them so when Ted asked if I wanted to spend the remainder of my time at SERC, I jumped at the chance.

Throughout my time in Nepal I heard harrowing stories about children with disabilities and the extremely poor treatment they received. I also heard stories about how children had become disabled due to malnourishment, abuse (physical, including sexual and verbal) and ignorance as a result of lack of education and outdated beliefs. Something as simple as not wearing appropriate eye protection while receiving an X-ray had left a young toddler blind and therefore impaired his development and motor skills as he grew older. Disabilities had been left untreated for so long some of these children, now adolescents, who with the correct treatment early on could have learnt to walk, were sliding and rolling across the floor.

Initially I found it difficult, some of the children were unable to crawl or lift their heads but could answer a difficult math problem in 0.125seconds. I wasn’t sure how much assistance they wanted/needed or how they wanted to be treated. But, I soon learned they thrived on independence and much preferred to do things for themselves and that they wanted to be treated just like everyone else, with respect and dignity. At times my heart would break to sit back with an encouraging smile and watch as they would struggle to lift themselves onto a chair or in pain as they tried to open their hands wide or stand flat on the ground. My instinct would tell me to go in an assist but they would shoo me away and I would feel guilty for not being able to control my impulse, knowing they CAN lift themselves or move to the other side of the room but it would just require my patience! The children taught me many things, about patience, happiness and resilience.

On my last day at SERC my heart was heavy, not knowing whether I would see their beautiful faces again and hoping and wishing that their rehabilitation would continue and they would one day find their independence. I will never forget each one of their beautiful smiles - they will be forever in my heart. For more information about SERC please visit their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SERCschool/

The Children’s Hospital

In my last week I was invited to attend a birthday party for a patient turning thirteen at a Children’s hospital. I had been previously been warned by other volunteers about the conditions and to mentally prepare myself. I knew we were getting close to the hospital as we passed by crowded pharmacy shop fronts full of families with visibly unwell children. The hospital was overcrowded. The ground level had a urine and toilet stench that made my stomach churn, people were everywhere, some lay or sat with their children on the concrete ground, others waited in the massive cues, while some took naps on the concrete benches.

As we ascended up a set of stairs, the hallways were filled with more people; feeding their children, hanging their washing on the railings, taking naps in the hallways. We passed a ‘resting parents room’ filled with basic single beds side by side, cardboard boxes filled gaps in the windows. As we entered the cancer ward and slipped into a solid concrete room my heart sank. Up until this point all the children I had met were happy, energetic and affectionate – they would pounce on you as soon as you arrived, wanting to talk to you as much as possible, hold your hand, give you high fives and hugs. These children were not like this. They were visibly going through chemotherapy, most were severely malnourished with protruding bones and skin infections. When I smiled, they forced a smile back and the pain in their eyes caused a lump in my throat. I sat most of the time, watching them, unable to communicate and concentrating on not crying. The birthday girl was happy, her smile genuine. Her family and families of other children had gathered in the small room to celebrate. NOH (Nepal Orphans Home) provided cakes, chocolates, balloons and decorations. As is tradition in Nepal, the birthday girl held the first slice of cake in her hand, she took a bite and held it out to a family member who took a bite, she then held it out to another family member who took a bite and so on until all family members had taken a bite out of the first piece of cake. Now the cake could be shared around. It was a beautiful moment to watch but I left the hospital feeling sad, overwhelmed and helpless.

Ramechhap, Nepal

My host 'mother' taking a break.

My host 'mother' taking a break.

Description of the assignment as described by Nepal Orphans Home

“Dumrikhara is a small and poor Dalit (“untouchable”) caste village in the high hills of the Ramechhap district. For many years we have helped sponsor the local school and have provided volunteers to assist with English teaching and village work. This placement is recommended for volunteers who are not afraid of hard living and tough assignments. To reach the village, you will travel 5 hours by bus followed by a 2-3 hour uphill hike”

For people thinking about travelling and volunteering in a rural Nepal placement, please remember you’re not there for a holiday and it’s not always smiles and beautiful children like it may look on social media. Rural living is charming; the beautiful mountain views, the cool (occasional) breeze, the chirping birds, the peace and serenity. However, without any running water and very limited clean water overall (water purification tablets came in handy) nor the ability to communicate with anyone it can become really difficult and lonely. There's no health care facilities, no pharmacist if you get sick, no corner store if you need a snack. Everything you bring with you with the exception of rice and vegetables supplied by the host family will be your lifeline.  

Days got really hot and combined with the dusty landscape within a few hours of each day I was covered in sweat and dirt. Then I had to make the choice, do I use my only water for cleaning my face or drinking? The latter always won so every morning and night I used a number of baby wipes to clean myself. I almost felt guilty for spitting out water when brushing my teeth!

My host 'father' enjoying some Nepali herbs.

My host 'father' enjoying some Nepali herbs.

My first school day

I arrived on a Wednesday, the children ran to the edge of the cliff squealing hello's and waving their arms around enthusiastically but I didn’t return to school until the next day. When I arrived, I was made to sit on a chair in front of the whole school (around 55 at my count) and several children came forward to place flower necklaces around my neck. When I thought there was no way they could fit another necklace over my head, another child came forward. When my face started becoming buried in all the necklaces they then proceeded to come forward and pour full bags of flowers onto my lap. It was one of the nicest welcomes I’ve ever received!

I was then escorted to the staffroom and had no idea what to expect. The principal, a kind and gentle man wrote my timetable onto a piece of paper and another teacher handed me a whiteboard marker before showing me out the door to my next class. It took improvisation to a whole new level and I found my first lesson really difficult. The children knew limited English, so trying to communicate and teach them in English was initially quite difficult! However, I soon found my groove and with brand new resources (although still very limited, pencils, erasers, a few books etc.) left by previous American volunteer teachers I was soon able to understand their abilities and started planning lessons to maximise my placement at the school. By the end of my time at Ramechhap, children were having simple English conversations with one another and that small achievement made me really proud!

The Children of Ramechhap

The children are much smaller by comparison to Australian children. A child of 8 – 10 years can look as young as 4 or 5. Some of their uniforms were dirty and ripped, some children had cuts and visible infections on their faces, some used plastic bags and old rice sacks for school bags, lots had snotty noses, most had very grubby hands and feet but all wore beautiful smiles!  In my travels I’ve come to learn that children are the same all around the world, some are sweet and some are naughty but all just want to play and have fun!

It’s not unusual to see teachers hit misbehaving children with their hand or a large stick. However, it usually only kept them discouraged for a short period before they start misbehaving again. At no point did I think it was cruel or that they were using excessive force. It was the way a parent might give their child a smack in a shopping centre for throwing a tantrum.

Comforting a crying student who had been hit by one of his peers!

Comforting a crying student who had been hit by one of his peers!

Nepal Orphans Home is one of the sponsors for this school and children are incentivised to go to school as they are provided with tiffin (lunch), a bowl of rice, plain biscuits or something along these lines. Some children would scoff down their food as if they hadn’t eaten in weeks before running back for more. I would skip lunch mostly because I’d had a large breakfast. I was given meal portions much too large but I forced myself to eat everything on my plate otherwise it would be considered ‘juto’ (unclean) and thrown out. I don’t know all the stories of the children that attended the school but I know some of them have to walk for hours to get to school each day. Even some of the teachers walk up to two hours each morning and evening to get to school and back home again. 

Everyday Living

Sunday through to Friday, I walked through the corn fields and up the dusty dirt path to school. When I arrived at school the children were very excited to see me, they all wanted to shake my hand, hold my hand, touch my skin, give me high fives and hug me. I made the mistake of bringing my SLR camera on the first day and got bombarded with children wherever I went constantly begging me to take photos of them, not even the teacher staffroom was safe! It occurred to me early on that I didn’t bring a mirror with me and there were no mirrors at my host home. My theory for the photo obsession is that some children rarely get to see their reflection. Thus they would squeal with excitement and laughter when they saw photos of themselves on the camera screen and ask “just one photo Miss?”

A naughty boy that loved to climb trees and took frequent toilet breaks!

A naughty boy that loved to climb trees and took frequent toilet breaks!

 

My bed consisted of a doona over a wooden bed frame with a rock hard pillow, although this was never an issue for me as I usually slept pretty well after a day in the hot sun. I shared my hut with large spiders, ants, crickets, mosquitoes and lots of flies. My meals were set for around 9.30am and then again at 7.30pm and consisted of rice and potato, rice and beans or rice and pumpkin leaves. My ‘host mother’ often watched me eat, her gummy smile only inches away from my face and I always ate my meals alone (cultural practice for guests). She would often try and offer more rice and I would pat my belly and say pugyo (enough/full) but that didn't stop her from appearing from the mud hut 'kitchen'' with another big scoop of rice, maybe my Australia accent confused her... I was served very sweet tea throughout the day, although I felt my teeth rotting as I drank it, I didn’t want to be impolite so would finish it off. One day I sipped with relief, the tea wasn't sickeningly sweet that was until I realised it was overloaded with pepper, not a flavour I will be rushing to add to my tea anytime soon. Apparently drunk for medicinal purposes.

On my first day at school, I made the mistake of not bringing my own water. The water in Ramechapp is not safe for drinking, especially not for foreigners so one of the teachers offered me some boiled water after seeing I was sweating profusely. Little did I know I would actually get a cup of boiling water…I sipped it slowly, I was very thirsty! Hot tea was also served each day in a metal cup that almost burnt my fingers each time it was handed over. During one of my last days I decided it would be a good idea to take my purified water to school with me, unfortunately someone drank it all while I was in class so my last few days at Ramechhap were without water. I even had to brush my teeth without water!

A group of boys playing on the edge of the mountain during their lunch break.

A group of boys playing on the edge of the mountain during their lunch break.

During my rural stay I found a lot of comfort in lying in bed of an evening and watching TV shows on my laptop. One evening while it was raining I woke up around midnight to stand in it, it was only a drizzle but the feeling of water touching my face was pretty magical and in that moment I realised how beautiful simple things in life can be. Despite at times being a difficult assignment, overall, it was an amazing and unforgettable experience and I would recommend to anyone wanting to shift their perspective of life! 

For more information on how to make a donation or do a placement of your own, you can contact Nepal Orphans Home here.  

A preview to a film recently released about Nepal Orphans Home can be found here.

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Isaan - Sakon Nakhon

My time in Sakon Nakhon took me back to the reason I love to travel. Initially I felt a little out of my comfort zone but I soon adapted to the ‘Isaan’ way of life. The humidity accommodates one to several naps per day and everyone seemed very relaxed and content with life. Don’t get me wrong, those rice farmers work hard, really hard and I have a new found appreciation of rice and how it’s made but, no one is stuck in the rat race, the daily 8am-5pm (usually longer) grind. From commuting around in the back of a ute, to catching a songtaew, to visiting a cricket farm, to watching animals roam free in the streets to washing my clothes (Asian style) and appreciating how water on Dad’s property is pumped from a well I think I truly immersed myself into the Isaan way of life and loved every moment!

This was the first time visiting my Dad, his Thai family and their rice farms. I rarely get to see my Dad (once every few years) as he’s a bit of a travelling nomad but has finally set himself up in Thailand. The best memory from my stay with him is travelling on the back of his motorbike with the wind in my hair exploring the villages and being toured around the rice farms. I didn’t even mind the bushwalking and massive bruises I got from trying to follow him up to a rice hut. Safe to say I don’t have the same upper body strength as my Dad.

Phra That Phu Pek

Following a full day of sightseeing in the hot sun, Dad “forced” me to climb up 491 very steep stairs to get to a Buddhist temple ruin of Khmer origin, built in 16th-17th century (having flashbacks to my childhood of being forced to climb mountains when I just wanted to have tea parties and put on makeup). As I sweated profusely in the humidity and my unfitness, dodging the hundreds of millipedes along the way, my step sister, Mew, explained to me there are 7 bells on the way up to signify the 7 stages/stairs to heaven. When we arrived the peace and serenity was something else. There was a cool breeze and something so magical about the place I can’t quite explain but if there is a heaven I imagine the atmosphere would feel something like this and in this moment I was grateful that I had sweated my way up to these ancient ruins.

Food

English is limited here so trying to explain ‘no meat’ every time we went out to eat proved to be difficult, I would end up with either extra meat, a small sprinkling of meat on top or just a bowl of plain noodles. With all the mystery foods from green goo, fried frogs, bamboo concoctions and fried crickets I did find myself eating A LOT of lays chips. I was on the fence about eating insects but eventually decided against it. On the plus side despite being a bit confused about my requests no one questioned me about my vegetarianism in contrast to Australia where people insist on getting all the details of why I’ve stopped eating meat and sometimes even want to get into a political debate about how one person is not going to make a difference to the environment and the food and beverage industry. Either way food was cheap, real cheap. Around 30 baht for a big bowl of noodles ($1.15) but the best noodles I ever had (and the one and only time I got vegetarian noodles) was only 25 baht ($0.96)!!! I also got to try a lot of new and exotic fruits, some were really yummy and others not so much.

Ork

Ork is a special friend I made during my stay that deserves his own paragraph! Ork is special and even by Caucasian standards he is a large boy. At 14 years old he looks like a fully grown man but once you start talking to/communicating with him you realise his sweet, gentle and naïve nature. Ork lived a few houses down but would randomly turn up to the house uninvited, wander through and look for my Dad who he watched with intense inquisition (a farang aka foreigner aka expat in this area is rare to come by). As Ork spoke no English we would communicate with hand signals, smiles and a combination of repeating the same Thai and English words over and over again to each other. One morning, very early I heard someone knocking on the bedroom door, I assumed it was my Dad and kept saying come in but the knocking continued. When I eventually got out of bed, there was Ork sitting and waiting for me to come out with a big smile on his face. They started locking the front gate after that…Thanks for your company and all the laughs Ork! Was so great to meet you.

Wat Tham Pha Daen

If you’re up in this part of Thailand and get a chance to visit, it’s well worth it. The architecture is amazing, intricate and mesmerising. Try your luck purchasing a cup of coins and throwing them into the wishing wells overlooking the countryside, each one represents desires in life, winning the lotto, health, wealth, love and happiness. I tried my luck at all and managed to land a single coin in the best one, happiness!

**In transit from Thailand to Nepal I received some very heartbreaking news. Read about the hardest day I've experienced in all my travels and how I dealt with it here**

Koh Phi Phi Island

Note: The entirety of my time at Koh Phi Phi was at Phi Phi Island Village Beach Resort

Following a one hour transfer from Karon, a two hour ferry and a 20minute boat ride we had finally reached our destination!!!! But wait, do we have to walk all the way to shore with all our luggage? Nope! Tractor to the rescue! It comes to transfer guests from the shore to a boat and vice versa during low tide. My first impression was that it didn’t look like the pictures (low tide) but after we were seated in a tropical haven lobby, given a Pina Colada, cool towel and flower bracelets the tropical paradise atmosphere emerged. We were then escorted in a buggy to our hillside infinity pool villa. The view left me speechless and was worth the 4 hour commute! Our villa, 509 was massive and split into three large rooms - the bedroom, the lounge/dining area both overlooking the ocean and an open plan bathroom. With three additional sofas/day beds, the villa could easily sleep 5 or 6 people. We soon learned that high tide was when the resort turned into a paradise and the view was like nothing else I’ve seen before. It was one of the most romantic and beautiful places I’ve ever visited and on par with our accommodation in Santorini, Greece.

Highlights

  • A family of monkeys came to visit us in our villa (beware, they are naughty and will try to steal your things)!
  • Pool bar.
  • There are 4 restaurants, 2 bars, 2 swimming pools, private beach front with sun lounges, sunbeds and bean bags, a tennis court, a recreation centre and shop at the resort so you’re pretty much set!
  • The hillside villas are limited and tucked away, so whenever you need to go anywhere a buggy is only 5-10min away to pick you up!

Tips

  • The resort restaurants are very expensive and displayed prices don’t include service and tax. Try one of the Thai restaurants in the village behind the resort for better value!
  • Make sure you get a room inclusive of breakfast otherwise you’ll find yourself spending a lot of money! Eat a big buffet breakfast then you won’t even need lunch…. Haha!
  • If you want to do a bit of exploring of the local town, Tonsai, you can get a scheduled long tail boat for 200baht per person, per way (we didn’t use this service as we were happy to chill at the resort or in our amazing villa).
  • This resort is almost entirely full of couples and I can see why, it has a very romantic and chilled atmosphere. We met a few really lovely couples that we befriended during our stay! You can even organise a romantic dinner for two on the beach front.
  • There is a lovely traditional Thai Restaurant near the hillside villas, the food is amazing and they have a huge vegetarian selection but beware, quite spicy!!!
  • Low tide usually runs from the late afternoon (4ish) to around 10am the next morning so make sure you get the most of high tide during the day!
  • In our villa (as expected because you’re practically in the rainforest) there were lots of bugs especially millipedes!  I don’t mind creepy crawlies so this didn’t bother me too much. Just added to the ambience of the jungle retreat!
  • Originally the Phi Phi speedboat transfers were quoted to us at 2,200 baht per person, per way which we decided against as the local ferry is only 200baht per person, per way (plus around 150 for hotel transfers to the wharf). However, upon arrival they sold us a speedboat return transfer for only 1000 baht per person. Beware, although the speedboat is much quicker (around 50min) if you are prone to seasickness,  it's likely you will get sick!!!
  • We had really mixed service, some staff were really warm, friendly and welcoming (especially the Filipino staff - you can pick them out by their fluency in English and American style accent) then others were quite rude, grumpy and blunt which put a damper on what could have been a perfect stay (I’m all about service, if I receive bad service, I won’t return). 

Overall

Phi Phi Island Village Beach Resort was a picture perfect oasis with a very romantic and relaxing atmosphere. We had an almost perfect stay except for the few run in’s with poor service. It’s definitely a splurge type of place to visit but would I recommend going there? Absolutely! Add this one to your bucket list. 9/10

Phuket, Thailand

This was my second visit to Phuket and probably my last. It’s very touristy and very expensive (by Thai standards) although still cheaper than Australia. My friend and I stayed in Karon, about 15min tuk tuk ride (300baht) from Patong and a lot quieter. Unfortunately, due to wet season we didn’t have the greatest weather. When it was sunny, Karon beach and our resort was absolutely beautiful but when it was windy and rainy it was pretty miserable. Fortunately, the rain rarely lasts all day so you can usually get a few hours of sunshine. During the rainy periods, massages, naps and cocktails got us through!

Highlights

  • Karon Temple Markets are open on Tuesday & Friday.
  • A beautiful Slow Loris in Karon, this will set you back 100baht to hold and get a picture with.
  • Majority of restaurants in Phuket cater for Vegans and Vegetarians so I never had an issue with food (in contrast to my time in rural north Thailand – next post)!

Tips

  • Some restaurants display prices that exclude Tax and Service charges so you can get a little shock when the bill is 17% more than you expected.
  • It’s better to spend a bit more (50-100baht more) and go into an actual day spa for a massage and not some seedy room with shower curtains. Beware…you may get lured in off the street for a cheap massage and nekminnit they are taking you down an alleyway where you are lumped in like cattle to lie next to an array of sweaty foreigners on mattresses, on the floor.
  • Tipping isn’t essential, but I always do anyway.  A few dollars can go a lot further to a Thai than in Australia.
  • For those who haven’t had one before, a traditional Thai massage involves lots of stretching and requires a bit of flexibility. Some people can find it a little intrusive, especially if you’re just expecting to lay there and have your back rubbed.  I’ve had all sorts of strange encounters including my fair share of bare tummy, inner thigh and boob massages which I must admit, I wasn’t 100% comfortable with! If being stretched and kneed in the back isn’t your thing, opt for an oil or aromatherapy massage.
  • Don’t fly AirAsia. I’ve now added it to my blacklist of airlines along with Jetstar, Ryan Air and Cebu Pacific due to extremely poor customer service and a vast array of hidden fees and costs. I will always pay extra to avoid flying with these airlines.

Overall

I’ve travelled to a number of Asian islands before and I find Phuket, Patong and around Bang La Road in particular, a seedy, overpriced city and not a true reflection of Thai culture and hospitality. There are plenty of amazing resorts in Phuket that have their own private beaches, swimming pools, restaurants, bars and even mini golf, so if ping pong shows, street hawkers and go-go bars aren’t your thing, opt for a large resort just outside of Patong or somewhere near Karon or Kata beach.