Monthly Archives: January 2017

Good Morning, Vietnam!

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The horns. It always comes back to the horns.

We sat, two by two, white-knuckled and whispering Hail Marys, as our bus driver, cellphone in hand, pressed on with the urgency of a husband getting his pregnant wife to the hospital. Outside, a cacophony of car horns sounded, punctuated every 20 seconds by our bus’ staccato blare: BEEPbeepbeepbeep… Making it all the more comical was the soft elevator jazz playing on the radio.

We were on our way to Ha Long Bay, but it might as well have been the circus. Little did we know the highs and lows that would follow.

The highs: kayaking in the bay, eating plates upon plates of food, and spending the night in one of the most beautiful places in the world. The lows: questionable tour planning, a growing headache, and one grumpy septuagenarian. (His first words to me: “This must be the worst boat in the bay!” Our boat quickly bonded in our shared dislike of the man.)

Little, too, did we know that it was only the second-worst bus ride we’d endure in the week to come.

The worst?

10 hours from Hanoi to Hue. The sleeper bus from hell.

Southeast Asia is already cramped enough for anybody over six feet, but nowhere is it more apparent than the moment you get into a sleeper “bunk.” Sure, the seats recline, but the real challenge comes in fitting one’s legs into the compartment in front — a task made even tougher when sharing the seat with one’s bags. Try as I might, I kept hitting walls in all directions. Eventually, I settled for leaving my knees way up in my seat and bear-hugging my knapsack. I might as well have been a football player in a clown car.

Our bus finally arrived in Hue shortly after 4am, leaving the four of us to stagger along the main street in search of our hostel. Even when we eventually made it, we were out of luck — it was shuttered closed until the morning. Mercifully, another hostel let us and other weary backpackers into their lobby to crash for a few hours. 7am, and we were fast asleep on the couch.

Good morning, Vietnam! And good night, too.

Tales from the road:

1. Throw all the sights and travel experiences to the side — my biggest highlight from the past week? Roger Federer is a Major winner once again, and he did it by toppling his greatest rival as a 35-year-old 17th seed. The Maestro, back with a performance for the ages.
2. By sheer circumstance, our journey through Vietnam coincided with the country’s most revered holiday, the Lunar New Year — known locally as Tết. During this period, millions of Vietnamese get together with family and friends, pay respect to their ancestors, and celebrate with fireworks and festivities. Also by sheer circumstance, the holiday has made getting around Vietnam a royal pain. Flights, trains… everything’s booked.

Leftover glitter scattered throughout the city from Tet the Vietnamese New Year

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3. Our group has been down lately, but not out yet. Both Sara and Scott were hit with food poisoning in our first week in Vietnam. Lucky Sara, hers came during our never-ending night bus voyage. She’s taken enough bad luck for the four of us combined.
4. It’s remarkable, the power of a smile. Time and again, we’ve been greeted with kindness by Vietnamese young and old — from the simple nod of a shopkeeper to the beaming grin of a two-year-old. We spent the evening of Tết chatting with a family outside of their Bánh mì shop, enjoying their warmth and hospitality — language barrier be damned. In a week in which there’s been altogether too much hate and hostility towards other cultures, it was a welcome reminder: we’re all the same family.

Things I’ve seen:

1. A thousand islands.

Well… the bus ride sucked, but this? This, I could get used to. Vietnam’s Ha Long Bay is blessed with seemingly endless beauty, leaving no surprise as to why so many tour boats frequent its turquoise waters. (For the record: the total is closer to two thousands islets.)

#halongbay #cruisin

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2. A hundred coffees.

Here’s a look at the egg coffee I mentioned last time. (Also, remember that part about language barriers be damned? Well, sometimes it leads to interesting results. The other day, Warren tried ordering an iced coffee with milk to go and ended up with two black coffees and two teas, served at a table. You can’t always get what you want.)

Famous Vietnamese egg coffee straight from the source at Cafe Giang, Hanoi

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3. Hue’s Imperial City.

The highlight of Hue, the buildings date back to the 1800s under Emperor Gia Long. Here’s a glimpse of the side gate.

Imperial City, Hue. #hue #vietnam #travel

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What I’ve been reading/listening to:

Charles Bukowski – Notes of a Dirty Old Man
Eddie Vedder – “Guaranteed”
TiRon & Ayomari feat. beatnich – “A Lot On Your Mind”

(Header photo by Scott Riepert)

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Wisdom Scrawled On A Hostel Wall

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It’s amazing, what you’ll find when you’re really looking.

The world is full of spectacular intricacy — the petals of a rose, the gears of a wristwatch — and yet, we often pass it by without so much as a second thought. We focus on the destination, blind to our surroundings.

It’s a shame, especially when those surroundings are shouting to be heard.

Ever been to a hostel? They’re filthy — or at least, the well-travelled ones are. Signatures cover the walls, ceiling, and sometimes, the furniture — mementoes of trips long-past. If you look long enough, you’ll see other things, too: words of wisdom left from one traveller to another. Some quotes are well-known; others are brand new.

Below are a few of the favourites I’ve come across:

“Not all those who wander are lost.” – J.R.R. Tolkien

“It’s not where you go; it’s who you meet along the way.” – The Wizard Of Oz

“The meaning of life is just to be alive. It is so plain and obvious, and so simple, and yet everybody rushes around in a great panic as if it were necessary to achieve SOMETHING beyond THEMSELVES.” – Alan Watts

“Be happy in the moment and you’ll never worry about the future.”

“I don’t know what I’m doing in life, but being here feels like a good place to figure it out.”

“The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” – Socrates

“If you are lucky enough to find a way of life you love, you have to find the courage to live it.” – John Irving

“The only trip you regret is the one you didn’t take.”

“Travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer.”

“You cannot control the wind, but you can direct the sail.”

“We travel not to escape life, but for life not to escape us.”

“I trust that the universe gives me exactly what I need at exactly the right time. Everything works out perfectly.”

“Everything you have in this world is borrowed for a short time.” – Welsh proverb

“Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all.” – Helen Keller

I read those words and thought of the thousands of other wandering souls who had sat there before me, and the many thousands yet to come. I thought of the simple pleasure of leaving words for someone else to read, and the equal pleasure of finding a message others skimmed right past.

Then, I read this one:

“It’s all shits and giggles, until someone giggles and shits.”

Just when you begin to feel inspired by humankind’s intelligence, you’re reminded that you’re reading quotes on a hostel wall, and life isn’t so serious after all.

More words of wisdom.

Tales from the road:

1. One drawback of growing out a beard: it doesn’t fly too well with airport customs. I had to write my signature on the spot in Hanoi as further proof that I was indeed who I said I was.
2. Laos has the unfortunate distinction of being the most heavily-bombed country per capita in the world: over two million bombs were dropped on the country by American fighter planes during the Vietnam War. While we were in Vientiane, a fellow traveller recommended we check out the COPE visitor centre, a place where amputees — many of whom have fallen victim to long-dormant explosives — can receive prosthetic limbs and undergo rehab. It was especially heartbreaking to hear the stories of families who lost loved ones to hidden explosives.
3. On the topic of the Vietnam War: in Hanoi, we paid a visit to Hoa Lo Prison, where American POWs were held — including, most notably, Senator John McCain. The Americans dubbed it the ‘Hanoi Hilton’ during the war — further proof of humankind’s ability to find humour in the bleakest of situations. Before that, it was used to imprison Vietnamese resistance fighters during the years of French occupation. Incredibly, many managed to escape through the narrowest of underground sewers.
4. Hanoi has a fascinating legend attached to its lake in the Old Quarter. From Lonely Planet:

“Legend has it that in the mid-15th century, heaven gave Emperor Le Thai To a magical sword that he used to drive the Chinese out of Vietnam. One day after the war, while out boating, he came upon a giant golden tortoise; the creature grabbed the sword and disappeared into the depths of the lake. Since that time, the lake has been known as Ho Hoan Kiem (Lake of the Restored Sword) because the tortoise returned the sword to its rightful owners.”

5. The coffee in Vietnam is on a completely different level. I tried egg coffee for the first time, which may very well have been the best cup of coffee I’ve ever had: think the taste of tiramisu, with the thick foam of a latte throughout.

Things I’ve seen:

1. Mountains galore.

Laos is full of them — spectacular limestone karsts, rising above rice terraces and farmers’ fields. Nowhere are they more prevalent than in Vang Vieng — one of the most visually-stunning places I’ve seen in the past four months.

Mountains of Vang Vieng. #vangvieng #laos #travel

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Exploring Vang Vieng, Laos

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2. Vientiane.

A sleepy alternative after the backpacker hub of Vang Vieng, the nation’s capital offered its share of grandeur. Among its most-known landmarks is Patuxai, a monument built to commemorate Lao soldiers who died fighting for independence.

A glimpse of Patuxai Victoria Monument between obscene amounts of traffic 🛵

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3. Hanoi.

I thought Bangkok was chaos. This is chaos. Car horns permeate the city of six-million at all hours, and red and green lights might as well be one and the same. To add to the frenzy, scooters fill the sidewalks, and vendors hawk their wares on every corner.

A slow Wednesday night in Hanoi. #scottsvacation #vietnam #hanoi #duckandweave

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What I’ve been reading/listening to:

Dan Brown – Deception Point
Snakehips feat. Tinashe & Chance The Rapper – “All My Friends”
Great Big Sea – “Ordinary Day”

(Header photo by Sara Panchaud)

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And We Felt Infinite

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The best moments take you by surprise.

Never would I have expected ours would come on a day we spent crammed in a minivan, 13 people in all, in a space that comfortably fits eight. With a full day to spend in Luang Prabang, we were on our way to the Kuang Si Falls, surrendering any notion of personal space for the 50-minute ride there.

“This guy drives like a 16-year-old who just got their learner’s permit and robbed a bank,” Sara said.

She was right. We barreled down hills and around corners, passing every car in sight, no matter the speed or conditions. At any given moment, you felt either close to death or close to vomiting. By the time we arrived, I was more interested in a bed than a dip in the waterfall.

Still, we pressed on.

The Kuang Si Falls are laid out in a set of tiers, and they get better and better the more you climb. They start an impossibly azure blue, growing in size with each stage, until you reach the grand finale: 200 feet of waterfall, cascading down level after level of turquoise pools, spraying mist into the sunny afternoon. It’s the kind of sight that stops you in your tracks and leaves you with no response but to laugh at your good fortune — the most beautiful waterfall any of us had laid eyes on.

That could’ve been it right there, but then we ran into friends we’d made back in Phnom Penh. They told us about a secluded swimming spot halfway up the waterfall, so off we went, veering off the track and through mud, branches, and long-abandoned paths until we found it: our own personal Eden.

We lingered there, just the four of us and the waterfall, soaking it all in — a rare moment of solitude on a trip spent surrounded by people. Later that night, we caught the sunset over Luang Prabang from the top of Mount Phou Si, watching the mountains of Laos turn from gold to amber as the sun dipped behind them — its last rays coming to rest on the lazy river and town below.

Some moments, you wish you could freeze in time.

Tales from the road:

1. One thing I never thought I’d see: three Buddhist monks huddled around a cellphone as one monk takes a picture. The world is full of surprises.
2. You know the whole “when in Rome” thing? Well, it applies to Southeast Asia, too. We were killing time at a fashion store in Bangkok when Warren and Scott started looking at custom suits. The only problem? We were leaving the next morning. No problem, we were told. They could be finished and delivered that same night. In the end, we all got in on the action, and in a flurry, we were looking at fabrics and having our measurements taken. Four hours later, the mock-ups were ready to try on. Sure enough, our suits (and, in Sara’s case, a pea coat) were delivered that same night. From a piece of fabric to a custom-tailored suit in the span of 10 hours. When in Bangkok.
3. Just when I thought food couldn’t get any cheaper, we came across the Chiang Mai market: any number of meals are on sale for less than $2. I had two spring rolls, wonton noodle soup, and eight pieces of sushi for under $4.
4. On the topic of food, we’d been talking for weeks about trying durian, the world’s smelliest fruit. Its reputation for stench is so bad, it has been outright banned from at least three of the hostels we’ve stayed in. I finally tried it in Chiang Mai as an ice cream flavour — no word of a lie, it tasted like raw onions. Warren was in tears from watching me struggle with it.
5. Guess which country’s travellers pay the most to enter Laos? Canada’s. A list of visa fees for other countries’ travellers went back and forth between $30-40, but Canadians are required to pay $42.

Things I’ve seen:

1. Sunsets.

Both nights in Luang Prabang offered their share of beauty. The first shot is a glimpse of the Buddhist temple outside of our hostel. The second shows the city from atop Mount Phou Si.

Sunset in Luang Prabang. #luangprabang #laos #travel

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Sunset in Luang Prabang, Part 2. #luangprabang #laos #travel

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2. Elephants.

We spent the better part of a day at an elephant sanctuary outside of Chiang Mai, feeding, bathing, and walking alongside the beautiful, towering creatures. The feeding part was a riot — they never stopped eating. Our guide told me an adult Asian elephant will eat up to 700 lbs a day. We had bananas, watermelon, and cucumber to give them, and each time we reached to put food in their trunk, they’d come right back asking for more. It turns out elephants have a sweet tooth, too: ours would drop the cucumber on the ground and wait for bananas.

Elephant Nature Park, Chiang Mai. (Photo: @warrenlejones) #chiangmai #thailand #travel

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3. Gold everywhere.

Chiang Mai’s Doi Suthep is an architectural marvel: a beautiful blend of carved wood, rich red tile, and golden monuments. Legend has it a white elephant chose the site for the Buddhist temple centuries ago. Today, it offers one of the best views of Chiang Mai you’ll get.

Gold, Jerry! Gold! #chiangmai #thailand #travel

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What I’ve been reading/listening to:

Joe Abercrombie – Half A King
Jonathan & Jesse Kellerman – The Golem Of Paris
Scarub – “California Sunrise”
Shad feat. Eternia – “Love Means”
Alessia Cara – “Wild Things”

(Header photo by Warren Jones)

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Dépayser

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It’s not always the big landmarks you remember when you’re travelling. Often, it’s the little things — people you meet along the way, sights and smells of distant streets, encounters with the unexpected.

A fellow backpacker from France captured the feeling perfectly with a word from his home country: dépayser. Strictly speaking, it’s the act of getting out of one’s environment, or more broadly speaking, getting away from whatever’s familiar and comfortable.

Southeast Asia has offered a wealth of those opportunities.

Sometimes, it’s something small: the struggle of reading a menu and wondering what’s going to come with your meal. Other times, it’s a different experience altogether: wandering through a sea of bodies and merchandise at the night market; holding on for dear life in the back of a tuk-tuk swerving through rush hour; or navigating a scooter through narrow Thai streets with the tank on empty.

In the past week and a half, we’ve slept in shipping containers, huddled for shelter under a street vendor’s tiny awning, and survived a second encounter with bed bugs. We’ve also swum in the Andaman Sea, watched fire dancers light up Koh Phi Phi’s beach, and ferried through the heart of Bangkok.

We’ve taken planes, trains, boats, buses, and tuk-tuks. We’ve drunk from buckets, chomped down on insects, and forced down malaria pills.

Dépayser.

I may have only learned the word yesterday, but I suspect I’m coming to understand its meaning well enough.

Tales from the road:

1. We finally rented scooters — what a blast! When you factor in how cheap it is to get around — with gas and the rental price coming to around 250 baht (or less than $10) for the day — it’s hard to turn back.
2. One thing I’ve learned about Warren: he squeezes toothpaste from the middle of the tube. All this time, I’ve been travelling with an animal.
3. The group has stretched to four. Our good friend, Scott, joined us on Koh Phi Phi and will be with us until the end. A bit about him: he’s a chef, so trying new kinds of cuisine is a big part of the trip for him. I’d say his stomach is learning the meaning of dépayser, too.
4. It’s remarkable how popular fighting is in Thailand. On any given day, you can count on a truck driving down the streets, announcing the latest Muay Thai bout over loudspeakers. We went to one in Krabi Town, and the place was packed — there were announcers, a television crew, and sponsors everywhere. That’s not the only kind of fighting with a following here: two days in a row, we passed by a group of men watching cockfighting on TV and placing bets with each other. Quite the sight.
5. One thing that’s impossible to describe is the sheer array of smells you encounter while wandering through any market in Thailand: fragrant flowers, spicy curries, fresh fish, and garbage, too. All compete for attention.
6. A word on pronunciation: the ‘ph’ sound in Thailand is pronounced the same as a ‘p’. Think Poo-kett (Phuket) and Koh Pee Pee (Koh Phi Phi).

Things I’ve seen:

1. More islands.

There’s plenty of them in Thailand’s Krabi Province — enough to spend weeks exploring them. After our time on Koh Lanta and Koh Phi Phi, we did a day trip from Krabi Town to Chicken Island, Turtle Island, and Railay. If you look at the former two, you’ll see how they earned their names.

The view after climbing 12467753289 unexpected hills ⛰#viewpoint2

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The chicken and the tortoise. #thailand #scottsvacation

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2. Night markets.

A sure draw wherever we go in Southeast Asia, from Bangkok’s JJ Greens to Krabi Town’s night market. There’s just no comparison back home.

Deal-hunting at Krabi Town's Night Market. #krabi #thailand #travel

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3. Busy streets.

Going from the calm of Krabi to the bustle of Bangkok has been quite the change of pace. It’s been exciting to explore the country’s capital and take in the energy of a city where eight million people live.

Concrete jungle. #bangkok #thailand #travel

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What I’ve been reading/listening to:

Stephen Chbosky – the perks of being a wallflower
The Streets – “Roof Of Your Car”
Bastille – “Pompeii”

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The Year That Was

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Another year in the books.

While many are eager to say good riddance to 2016 — and with good reason, at that — it’s brought its own share of good moments.

I biked across Canada this past year and met hundreds of people along the way, all while raising funds for a cause close to my heart: mental health. I got to be a part of people’s mornings on my hometown radio station, working alongside a stellar crew that often felt more like a family. I gained a sister-in-law and got to celebrate the best day of my brother’s life, all while having more fun at a rainy wedding than I’d thought was possible. I met my girlfriend this year — an amazing woman — and then promptly left for eight months of travel. (I probably remember this more fondly than she does.)

I thought of all these things while ringing in the New Year in Thailand, watching fireworks light up the beach and Chinese lanterns drift off into the night sky. How lucky I am, indeed.

It’s funny, the rituals we’ve created around a calendar last updated nearly 500 years ago: the resolutions, the “Best Of” lists, the time spent with friends and family. We love beginnings and endings, and thus reserve our stock-taking and goal-setting for the year’s bookends, putting them on the shelf the other 363 days of the year.

Imagine if we could tap into that same gratitude, reflection, and motivation every day.

What a different world it might be.

Tales from the road:

1. One thing worth mentioning: the toilet system is a little different in Southeast Asia — specifically, the clean-up part. Rather than jumping straight to toilet paper, each bathroom has a mini hose next to the toilet. It took a bit of trial and error to figure out how to use the thing without making a mess.
2. Just when I thought we’d found the cheapest beer possible at 50 cents a glass, I was proven wrong. We found a place on Pub Street in Siem Reap selling 25 cent drafts.
3. Even better than the cheap beer is the pad thai. The best one we had came with a fried egg on top that you punch through with your chopsticks to reveal the steamy noodles beneath. Combine that with cold coconut water served fresh out of the coconut, and we were in heaven.

Shovelling pad thai instead of snow this New Year's in Koh Lanta, Thailand

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4. A few other highlights from 2016, in no particular order: the Raptors made the Eastern Conference Finals; All-Star Weekend came to Toronto, and the Dunk Contest was a classic; the Jays made the ALCS; Toronto FC made the MLS Cup Final; the Leafs won the Draft Lottery and didn’t blow it; HBO did Westworld; Chance did Coloring Book; Marvel did Deadpool and Captain America: Civil War; The Hip put on one hell of a show; Penny Oleksiak ran (or rather, swam) away with The Olympics; Usain Bolt really ran away with The Olympics; the Cubs won the World Series; the Warriors won 73 games; and LeBron brought Cleveland a championship.

Things I’ve seen:

1. Smiling monks.

A rare moment at Baphuon Temple inside Angkor Thom. We came across these two monks, leaving the temple and heading towards us. I thought I took a good picture, but then Sara showed me hers.

Smiley monks 😌

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2. Houses on stilts.

We visited Kompong Phluk in Cambodia, a village built entirely on stilts. Boating through them was even more remarkable than the canals of Venice.

Kompong Phluk Floating Village, Siem Reap, Cambodia

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3. Island oases.

Thailand’s islands have earned their reputation. The beaches are spotless, the water is inviting, and the scenery is breathtaking. We’re spending the better part of a week between Koh Lanta and Koh Phi Phi — a pretty nice way to cap 2016 and bring in the New Year.

Koh Phi Phi. #kohphiphi #krabi #thailand #travel

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What I’ve been reading/listening to:

Michael Crichton – The Andromeda Strain
Shad – “Remember To Remember”

(Header photo by Warren Jones)

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