Gap Year Recap

100+ hours before my flight, 1+ week before university life officially starts, paralysed by fear about the unknown. Time to take stock of what happened during my gap year (which was to be exact, 1 year and 10 months).

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Travelling with Old Friends

22 Day China Trip with VP! We visited Xiaoyan in Wuxi, and got to meet her super nice and sassy grandma. Did some crazy stuff like staying at a dodgy hostel and buying black market tickets to watch 831 and Magic Power concerts.

After that we took a 36 hour train to find Tingnan! And her super adorbz grandparents. And lots of delicious Sichuan food. And scenic 九寨沟 and 都江堰, latter of which is like mecca for the geog geek in me.

 

 

Trip to Ho Chi Minh City with Ewe and Tingnan! Visited cool places like Cu Chi, and the Mekong River Delta.

Trip to Perth with VP! Which was basically eating fast food because food is so expensive in Perth LOL. And taking random photos at pretty beaches. And chilling at our Airbnb with our cat. Very very chillax trip hehe.

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Exploring Yangon and Bagan with Jingwen!

Another chill trip. Most of my trips with friends are really to chill lah.

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Backpacking with Dawn

Which you can read the brief story of it here.

It was a long 24 days though, of reflection and of adventure. Filled with interesting experiences whether with Dawn or wandering around by myself. Definitely warrants another post HAHA. I have too many backlog posts lah.

Travelling Alone

First Solo Hong Kong trip. I remember wanting to slap myself for being so stupid to even think travelling alone was a good idea. But it was :’)
Went hiking, egg tart finding, museum hopping and night street walking alone. Fun fun.

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Hiking at Tung Ping Chau!

Then I spent some time in Nepal by myself. Like, just a bit but ULTRA nerve wrecking because you hear stories lol. But Nepalese are so nice they don’t need streetlamps at night HAHA.

Left: Buses are packed AF I even had to carry stuff for other people LOL.

Right: Favourite town: Bhaktapur. Best yogurt in the WORLD. And just so ancient feels.

Went to Jakarta and solo-ed when I could escape the protective clutches of my relatives hehe. Mostly went Museum and to this cafe I loved which were ~safer~ I guess.

And another 2 week trip to Cambodia for some solo travel time.

Where I also got food poisoning FML haha because I have too much balls for my own good and ate street food all the time. Having diarrhoea in the dorm toilet with 5 cockroaches crawling around me ar 4am before I was due to fly in 3 hours was not fun but it was an experience. OH and it was also in Cambodia where I kena stung by bee. HAHA.

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Extended my Japan trip to travel alone, where I went to Crayon Shinchan Land! See my fangirl post on it here.

Travelling with Family

Probably wouldn’t have as much chances to travel and spend time with my family without this gap year.

We went to Taiwan, and then to Japan.

(Don’t my ahma look like a korean granny LOL)

Also went to Bandung for an extended family trip! Also visited Tanjung Pinang a couple of times and got in touch with my grandma and other aspects of my Indonesian heritage HAHA. You can read about my favourite kampung here.

Travelling and Making New Friends

Whenever I travel alone, I always end up making new friends!

Friends in HK, from all over the world hehe.

Friends in Phnom Penh! We went to Angkor Wat together.

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And my students from the dorm I volunteered at. Haha nobody came for my lessons LOL.IMG_1564

Made two friends in Nepal, one hiking buddy from London I found online and proceeded to hike with for one day, and a local tour guide who guided me around Bhaktapur.

Corsica from Perth.

IMG_5070And most recently, friends in Bagan and Yangon! (One dude was really creepy though)

SEALNet Projects and Making MORE friends

Project Mitjyu

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Beginning my journey as a SEALNutter haha.

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Worked with so many amazing people, and my first experience in a rural village where there is no electricity or piping. Listened to first hand experiences of extreme poverty, in one of the most beautiful places ever.

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You can read more about my time there here! It really shaped some of my values when it comes to development, community problem solving, nature vs urban etc.

It was also the beginning of my star-crossed lovers story with daal bhat. Love it so much but can’t find good ones out of Nepal ;(

Project Taunggyi

Another project that really shaped me in terms of being a change maker!

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I guess the power of cross-cultural interaction is this. You are out of your comfort zone and you get inspired by what can be done in other places, how people are like over there.

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Made friends to keep here!!

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Interacting with Old People

Volunteered for two main projects: JiakSimi and Cassia Resettlement. For the former it gave me a chance to interact with elderly who reside in nursing homes, most of whom have great difficulties taking care of themselves.

As for Cassia Resettlement, I got a chance to really understand the lives of the elderly who stay there, their stories and their concerns.

I think in school, the kind of CIP we did just tried to “make them happy” within the amount of time we had with them, or the activity we had to carry out.

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Responsibilities and Ground Realities

Especially for CRT – it gave me more insight into the realities of taking care of the elderly’s needs. It was the first time I had to bring the elderly to the hospital, wait for beds, collect medicine, try to make sure the elderly know what medicine to take in how much dosage, all very adult-ish stuff they don’t teach you in school.

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Friends and Family

And of course, they are not just the elderly, they are also my friends. Was really happy when Mdm Yee and I found a nice clock at Sungei Road which actually worked! And our cooking sessions. And her ranting sessions. Playing Rummyo with the aunties. Gardening class.

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At the end of the day, it’s not the events we plan, the goals and objectives we have that define our work. It’s the keeping in touch with the lives of the elderly, living alongside them as they live and age.

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Teaching Young Children

Pure joy! Even though I’ve gotten so angry so many times, what I really remember is how children are just hi-la-rious.

“My daddy also called daddy, mommy also called mommy” 

“What about your brother?”

“Oh he is called Brandon”

Teaching them using phonics and reading also led me to think about language acquisition, how it can be nurtured, depending on each child’s learning style,  but also how it reflects learning abilities. And learning is also not just done in the classroom, but outside of school, so the environment children grow up in really can shape them.

And being a teacher was fun. The authority of being able to give stickers, manage classroom dynamics, being adored by kids who are so liberal and generous with their love (“Teacher you very pretty”) and being pekcek at the kind of things they say (“Teacher you very ugly”)

Interacting with Young Kids

And also did more light hearted activities on Monday night reading sessions at the CC. Tended to read with younger kids, and they are just so cute lah.

And volunteered with Creasionaid for two days. Made me think about creativity, and the idea of creating, doing things with my hands.

Working at a Cafe

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Did this mostly for the experience, and definitely found it somewhat meaningful. Lots of dishes to wash, realised the horrors of cafe food preparation and eavesdropped on patrons. Learning how to multi-task and deal with the boss’s expectations. Haha. Working till 3am.

Also experimented with rainbow waffles so I’m technically a chef HAHA. (In fact I cooked most of the food on top of waitressing LUH.)

Working as a Home Tutor

Did this mostly for the money, and yes it was pretty profitable haha. But also became good buddies with my primary 4 kid Clariece – kids nowadays really need people to not just teach them, but understand them I guess.

Working with a kid one year younger than me who faced a lot of pressure and expectations from the mother was pretty stressful. Really made me think about how doing well in school takes a certain combination of nurture vs. nature LOL.

Engaging in Environmental Issues 

So I began my journey by volunteering for ECO Singapore with the For and Against debates, where I got to meet some of the best people.

Continued to volunteer for various organisations/ events, including PMHaze, Up2Degrees.

Was most active as part of Plastic-Lite, where I did a lot of infographic and slides designing, all of which culminated in our numerous school talks and outreach booths. I am really proud to have been part of the early development of PLSG. Now it has a lot more support/ recognition, which is awesome!!!

While volunteering I also had to learn new skills like interacting with people. Really hate approaching strangers FML haha but it’s important I guess!

Accommodate

My entire gap year kind of culminated in/ crystallised into this.

Organising visits to Sungei Road, Kranji farms with the two Accommodate sessions where we had speakers to share about issues like relocation of Dakota residents, activism to save places like Sungei Road and food security issues in Singapore.

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Just think that people can 1) Be more mindful of how the space around them is like, by exploring it and thinking more about what they mean to them, and how it affects them in terms of their lifestyles, values and beliefs and 2) Which can then lead to deeper thoughts about the kind of issues that are important in society like heritage preservation, quality of life, social inequality, food security etc.

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Accommodate is really about everything and anything haha. So long as a space is defined as a place, and issues facing its people are explored. So it is very inclusive because anyone can provide a valuable perspective I guess!!! Met a lot of cool people through it, and hoping to continue and grow it through more collabs.

In fact, my entire gap year is really about places and people, right?!

Also my first experience starting something from scratch. So, I am really proud of it lah. It’s nothing big, but I’ve always thought of myself as a follower, less of a leader. So being able to create this was pretty satisfying as a personal achievement unlocked kind of way.


So there you go!!!

It’s hard to include everything, but roughly that’s what happened. Thankful for everyone who I’ve met throughout this journey. New friends, old friends. Family.

Looking back it’s just been a crazy 1 year and 8 months, but I am really grateful for all these experiences, which would have been quite different if I’ve decided to go straight to uni. Did I plan for all of this to happen? Not at all! Guess that’s life!!!

But alas, it’s time to go back to school. Graduated from a year of having to decide how best to spend my time, and this is my score card hehe. Definitely memorable, no regrets at least 😀

(Also I promise to write more on some of the above mentioned trips/ experiences – SO.MUCH.BACKLOG)


 

 

 

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SEALNet Project Myanmar 2017 Taunggyi

“I came here alone, thought I was on my own, but then I found you.”

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Throughout my gap year I’ve had to say a lot of goodbyes, and they are all hard. After projects in Nepal and Cambodia, after meeting fellow tourist friends in Hong Kong and Australia. Even saying goodbye to places, like the beautiful village in Nepal or the charming Hanoi, I always struggle with the parting.

This time, its the walking to PNO (and getting distracted by street food), the late night trip to the cinema for ice cream and eating 500 kyats tofu egg noodles. It’s the mentors, core team members and mentees who form the SEALNet family. In PM 2017 Taunggyi, I’ve been with such incredible people. Each of them taught me a different thing, each of them colour my world in one way or another.

These are the times where I am torn between my attachment to people and places, and my thirst for more adventure and other things to do.

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These are also the times where I feel the most alone. Our pathways have crossed, but to continue on my journey I need to be by myself. There is no reason to continue working and living side by side everyday. An abrupt end after getting used to, or even close to each other.

My only way to remember them is to write down how they became characters in my life story and influenced me.

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Fe is my dependable roomie and fellow facillitator, always rational and chill but somehow still the most adorable person ever. Paris is the person who makes me laugh effortlessly and brings me warmth. Thun and her smile is my daily dose of sunshine and her confidence inspires me. Chit’s strength challenges me to be a stronger person. Julienne is so mature and sensitive, I wish I could be like her when it comes to dealing with emotions. Sheena is energetic and loving, lively and warm. Limeng is funny in his own shy and quiet way, and the only one happy to eat vegetarian with me. Vee is so talented when it comes to facilitating that I always find myself learning so much from her. Thida is well-spoken, confident and I wish I could be half as cool as her.

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Aung is dependable, patient and never tired of serving others. Khun is another reliable guy who is always ready to be of help, with his infectious smile. Hnin has such strong conviction and faith in her beliefs, and I look up to her so much for believing so much in everything and making all of this possible. Ziggy is the one who is always looking out for others, and willing to support others and to go the extra mile for them. And then of course there is Yuth, our young but incredibly wise shifu that always knows what to do at what time. He is our happy pill, disciplinarian and advisor rolled into one.

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I think I tried not to overuse the word strong, but I really thought a lot and learnt a lot about what strength means during the duration of this project. I used to think strong means not crying when I am emotional or being the one to speak and lead in all circumstances. But I realised that everyone can be strong in their own way, just like all of the people’s I met in this project.

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And it’s not just the mentors or core team members, but also the mentees. They’ve taught me that making a difference starts from having the smallest wish. They’ve taught me that the quietest passion is also the strongest and the most unwavering. They’ve taught me that people grow and learn, and that achieving great things is a journey.

I remember crying so much during reflections, because I feel like they taught me more things than I thought them. The kind of challenges women face in Myanmar are so different from Singapore; the kind of passion and courage they face to take on this issue, especially if they are girls themselves, is unimaginable. Many of them were introduced to ideas of gender equality or politics for the first time – and this awareness sparked in them the desire for action.

I tried to find the strength in myself and although I cried a lot during this project, I don’t see it as a weakness. I think I cried a lot more as I grew older, because I wanted to process my feelings rather than hiding them.

I also tried to reduce the nagging voices in my head that I wasn’t doing a good enough job. Even though they won’t go away anytime soon, I feel stronger because I promised myself not to let these voices hold me back when it comes to doing things I am passionate about.

IMG_2044.JPG“Beware, for I am fearless and therefore powerful.” – Mary Shelley

I knew that this project was about empowering girls in Myanmar, but deep down in my heart, I signed up because I wanted to empower myself. I was a girl who was insecure about my own body and my own abilities. I was a girl who didn’t know what I want in life. What I tried to ‘teach’ the mentees was what I wanted to teach myself desperately.

After this project, I choose to acknowledge the person I am and to work on the person I want to become.

And that ends another chapter in my gap year. *cue happy tears*

Constants: Tanjung Pinang

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It’s strange realising how hipster your childhood kampung is.

“This egg is from our chicken right?”

“This sweet potato very sweet. Not take aeroplane here, take bicycle here one. Okay lah not bicycle probably motorcycle.”

“Your ahma grew this vegetable. Nice right?”

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They call this mani cai and it is damn nice!! Someone please tell me its english name.

Not exactly subsistence farming, but I’d dare say that most of the ingredients on our tabletops travelled less miles to get here.

In fact we just bought gong gong from the fishermen, at the beach, and he just caught them.

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Asks fishermen’s daughter: “Have gong gong?” FIshermen’s daughter: “Yes, he catching now.” Everyone: “Okay lets go find him”.

Asked my ahma if she had turmeric powder to season my tempeh, and she say she don’t have, but she have turmeric root growing in her backyard. So she took some and pounded them for me immediately.

The house especially. Although it is now roofed (it wasn’t when my mother was a kid), it hasn’t changed ever since I first stayed over. The furniture have all remained the same. The same sofa. The same cabinets. The same dining table. The same barbie doll magnets on the same fridge. I cannot even. This is not even a dramatization. Everything is literally where they were, the whole 20 years of my life.

Heck, I actually have a longer-term relationship with this house than my own house in Singapore.

The way of life has largely remained the same too. Paper with superglue and swats always at the dinner table ready to destroy flies. Doors are never locked in this kampung. Random people just walk in, and everyone is a relative. Sometimes they walk out with a live chicken, tied at its legs. People selling vegetables just walk in and ask if we want their vegetables. Throwing fruit peels and anything out the window, wherever we are (that’s why I only eat watermelons in Indonesia. I am eating watermelons right now and just spat the seeds, tossed the peels right into the ditch nearby.) And the kids, haha. See below.

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Kids here are always dressed like angbaos. Like for real. Currently typing this and another kid is also dressed completely in red. LOL.

It’s all just, very different.

At downtown, we would meet random people, and my mom would speak to them in Teochew, with such a great sense of familiarity that I would ask if we are relatives. We may not be, although somehow we are. It’s just the way all Chinese in Tanjung Pinang are probably Teochew, and speaking that common tongue makes us ga gi nang (ironically my attempts to use teochew always betray me as Hokkien).

When a place is almost frozen in time, it serves as a comforting anchor to return to whenever one is weary of life which is basically a series of changes which often overwhelms.

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Land of Keropok and Dreams

Whenever we are back, we do practically the same things. Go and buy keropok from the same stall, take the same boat, go to the same salon, eat chendol from the same store. Eat martabak. Talk about how nice martabak is. Buy petai. Peel petai. Eat petai. Get bitten by mosquitos. Everyone freak out about me getting bitten by mosquitos (I disproportionately get bitten, okay).

There’s a certain anticipation on my side to going to the same places, doing the same things as if they are rituals, affirmations that what I know to be there is still there and will always be there.

Except the stupid mosquitos (I just killed two and blood oozed out of them. My blood. GRRRR).

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Took a motor boat to the salon because it’s located in a settlement on stilts. Was raining so we put on lifeguards to make ourselves feel better but TBH I wore mine inside out and was too lazy to wear it properly. Don’t ask me why we try so hard to get to a salon.

But of course, returning to this haven is a luxury, an escapade time to time.

Whenever one uncle visits, he would refer to me as 新加坡人. The city is often less environmentally friendly. The city is often less people-oriented. The city is always changing. But that also means it is dynamic, with its endless possibilities. There are more things to do, more goals to strive towards.

Maybe there can be balance between the old and the new, familiarity and novelty, drive and contentment. Maybe????????

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Something I never saw before haha roadside petrol station!!!

Meanwhile let me just be excited about learning motorbike here the next time I come to Tanjung Pinang again :>

 

Happy Place: Takesato (小新 land)

IMG_7845The closest thing I have to an idol is 小新 (Crayon Shinchan) (he was not a particularly great influence while I was a kid, but that’s another story for another day). Despite his fondness for sexual innuendos, he is to me a symbol of innocence. And of course, he delivers pure joy.

So during my 72 hours solo time in Tokyo, I decided that a pilgrimage must be done – to the hometown of Crayon Shizchan’s author – Takesato in Kasukabe City.

It was a 40 minutes ride from Asakusa to Takesato. There are no attractions there. Just get down and feel the 小新 vibes.

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I always remember the canals in the episodes. Particularly in one ultra touching episode where 小新 runs away from home and the canal served as the background for the mother-son reunification!!!

IMG_7808Interestingly, Takesato is a public housing estate, something not that common in Japan.

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On the other side I found more houses that resembled 小新’s neighbourhood.IMG_7815

Bonus: Sakura blossoms!!!

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This house, I decided was that of 小新’s gossipy neighbour HAHA.

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There are two kindergartens in Takesato – Futuba and Takesato, the former of which is similar in name to the one in the series as its kanji is basically “双叶” .

This is Futuba! Just loved the 大象 slide (only 小新 fans will get this).

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Then I went to the park! And this is exactly like I remembered it – small playground with the slide leading to a sandpit, where 小新 and his gang would play.

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The town is super duper quiet. But as you can see, I found kids in the park! Which means I was determined to find my 小新 and gang.

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Which I did! Exactly 4 boys and 1 girl. Okay another girl joined them later and I just pretended she is the rich girl who has a crush on 小新.IMG_7850

Even the cars! The dark blue one is like THE car.

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Unexpected find: The hospital which I kind of remember from the episode where 小新 was born (with already thick eyebrows).

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Found the other kindergarten, which had an extremely beautiful sakura tree beside as well.

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Not exactly like the Cat School Bus, but this is like super A+ for effort LOL.

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Literally stood there like a stalker putting my phone’s lens through the grills.

The squarish exercise thing is where 小新 is always at!


To be honest, Takesato is probably quite a typical Japanese suburb. But never mind that because it’s just different when it is literally where the author of 蜡笔小新 grew up in.

My memories of the specific places are also hazy, so although I go like “OMG this is that place” it may be more like psychology. And that’s okay too. For that brief 1+ hour walking around aimlessly, I could go to another world, a simpler one back in time.

And I would imagine that the place has probably changed from the time the author was growing up. The kids are (obviously) not 小新 and gang, but that’s how it is. Places hold memories but they also exist over time. Kids grow up. New kids are born. Some things change, like buildings in the estate. Some things don’t, like kids having fun at the playground.

 

3 Countries, 9 Places, 24 Days: In Pictures and in Bold

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While we were on our 24 day adventure, we didn’t find many other Asian backpackers. Backpacking in SEA, or what is known as the Banana Pancake trail is easier than one thinks.

We decided to start in Hanoi, and end in Bangkok (Reason: Most shopping will be done in Thailand).

I’ll be covering where we went, giving any potential backpacker out there an overview on overland transport, border crossings, accommodation and what we did in each of the 9 places we went to, which included Hanoi, Cat Ba Island, Sapa, Mung Khua, Nong Khiaw, Luang Prabang, Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai and Bangkok (in this order).

If you’re lazy to read through my blabbering look for the bolded texts, and the transport guide at the end of the post.

Gorgeous photography by Dawn, who was holding on to her DSLR even while climbing limestone karsts. Bad pictures by me, who survived on an iPhone which had half the LCD spoilt the entire trip. (Same limestone karsts).

Hanoi 

For Hanoi, think Old Quarter and Hoan Kiem Lake. A hostel/ guest room around these area will serve you well. Most places/ attractions can be reached by foot.

The main highlight of Hanoi for us was the pedestrianisation of the area around the lake from Fridays to Saturdays. No more crazy traffic. There were many street performers and community activities – the locals were engaged in games like dog and bone and tug of war on the streets! The lake area is also beautifully lit up.

The cafe culture in Hanoi is also not to be missed. Our favourite was The Notes Cafe.

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Cat Ba Island 

Instead of doing a day tour to Halong Bay, we decided to stay a few days on the island which also features similar limestone karst scenery. To get to Cat Ba Island, we spent 170,000 VND for a bus by Hoang Long Bus Company. The trip took around 4 hours, with a bus to Haiphong, then boat transfer to the island before another bus to Cat Ba Town from the port.

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It’s hard to get lost on the island – Cat Ba Town (the touristy part, not where the locals live) is mainly a long stretch of restaurants, shops and accommodation lining the beach.

Our favourite cafe (which we went to every day, sometimes more than once) is the charming Like Coffee, with a very kind owner. Food-wise, Cat Ba Commons serve pretty dope fried rice.

Boat tours to see the bay can be found all over the island, but they are mostly the same. We booked our tour with our guest house Cat Ba Hostel for $17SGD, which is quite a steal. The tour included a hike on Monkey Island (no safety precautions, attempt at your own risk), one-hour kayaking around the karats, snorkelling and a very delightful lunch. The scenery itself would have been worth it!

We also did a tour to Cat Ba National Park and Hospital Cave with the guesthouse (though we would recommend you hire a motorbike driver to get you to those places instead to save money – we had to catch a bus so didn’t want to risk it). The former is a challenging but short 1-hour hike to the peak with rewarding views. The latter is an small but interesting cave (it was used as a hospital during the Vietnam war) with a guide that has his lines memorised very, very well.

We would also recommend Cat Ba Hostel for its cheap $7.50SGD tidy, spacious double room and friendly owner.

Sapa  

Unfortunately, we found Sapa very touristy. The constant clamouring by the hill tribe villagers starting with the similarly voiced “Where you from?” made for quite an uncomfortable stay. Nonetheless, the views were not too bad, from Sapa Lake in the wee morning, to the waterfalls at Cat Cat Island and of course, the famous rice fields.

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To get to Sapa, we booked a 380,000 VND trip from Cat Ba, which included transport to Hanoi before a sleeper bus to Sapa, which was very comfortable despite the weird neon lights.

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Sapa town is again, very small and very walkable. Use Sapa Lake and the Church as a way to orientate yourself – it is near impossible to get lost.

The hike to Cat Cat Village (50,000 VND entrance fee) is easy and takes less than 4 hours (expect some incline though). It does however, feel rather artificial. Nonetheless, there are some nice views along the way. We booked a Bac Ha market tour for 12 USD, which also brought us to the Lao Cai – China border, and the Ban Pho village.

We also booked a homestay in Hau Thao Village via AirBNB, called Zizi Homestay. The village is very small and simple, just what we liked. We also met fellow travelers there. It kept raining though, but we did manage to do a small hike to the top of the hill, and a short one to Ta Van village on the other side of the valley.

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We stayed at Sapa Stunning View 2 Hotel, which was basically a 3 star hotel, with warm showers, nice beds and good view of the mountains ($20SGD per night).

Mung Khua 

Mung Khua is a village with practically just two main streets. It is really just a transit town for one to ease into the laid back vibes of Laos and do the five hour river boat ride down the Nam Ou, which is what we did.

We asked a couple of tour agencies to get a sense of the price for the bus to Mung Khua – the cheapest we found was 400,000 VND. This bus ride will not be comfortable. It is overbooked and there will be many locals squeezed onto the bus, the bus drivers will blast music, it will be chaotic.

At Mung Khua, we recommend Saibaidee Bar, a delightful cafe run by a French-Lao couple (try their grilled pork and eggplant with sticky rice, but stay away from their fried rice). It is one of our favourite cafes for its laid-back ness. We even met the boatmen at the bar, who was very interested in Singapore, so say hello to him if you meet him there too!

The lonely planet recommended Saifon Restaurant seems to only serve rich tourists – they were reluctant to take our orders twice!

We stayed at Nam Ou River Guesthouse for 50,000 kip. It was basic and quite dodgy, but it did have comfortable beds. We heard better things about other guest houses though (such as them including wifi), so ask around.

Nong Khiaw 

IMG_8185 copyMung Khua is so tiny you will end up meeting the other tourists/ backpackers who will join you for the five hour boat ride, so ask around and chances are there will be enough of you for the boat ride. Turn up before 9am and get a ticket for 135,000 kip, and wait around for another hour before the boat leaves.

The five hour will make your butt hurt, but it is great change of pace from the bus rides and human jams. The boat ride is on a typical Laos long-tail, which is not very comfortable. The view gets better towards the end, where you get to see large limestone karsts.

If you do not make this boat trip, we would still recommend staying at Nong Khiaw (instead of taking the vastly overpriced bus from Sapa to Luang Prabang). Ask a local where to catch the bus to Nong Khiaw.

Nong Khiaw is similar to Cat Ba. Quite tourist-centered, but dotted with local cafes and guesthouses which makes it quite enjoyable. It is small enough to walk around. There are two main parts to the town connected by a beautiful bridge with wonderful views of the Nam Ou.

We recommend you check out the local morning market west of the river, which is near Alex 2 Restaurant, a nicely decorated cafe. There is a very tiny cave 3-4km away, east of the river, which you can either cycle or walk to. Go into the cave with a large staircase, avoid the other where you will likely be scammed by 2 young girls (up to 40,000 kip) (Yes my friend got scammed).

Walking/ cycling will take you through several villages as well. Expect some curious stares because they aren’t that used to tourists yet!

We tried several restaurants/cafes, and we would recommend Alex Restaurant, with its homey vibes and moms-cooking like dishes. We also enjoyed our food at VongMany Restaurant.

We would skip CT Restaurant, again lonely-planet recommended, for its overpriced, meh food. The backpackers hub will be Delilahs, but we didn’t enjoy it too much either.

Best wifi was at Riverside Lodge. It may look posh, but the food is only slightly more pricey. Expect great service, great views by the river and the best possible wifi in Nong Khiaw. The security guard is very, very friendly – say hi to him too!

Luang Prabang 

IMG_8316 copyLuang Prabang is quite a classy tourist destination. As comfortable as any city, but as laid back as any Laos place – perfect for holiday!

To get to Luang Prabang, walk to the bus station west of the river (past the morning market) and get a ticket for 37,000 – 55, 000 kip (depending on comfort and timing). Buses run from morning to afternoon.

When you get to Luang Prabang after 3-4 hours in an overpacked mini van, get your ticket to Houy Xai immediately (it is Bokeo on the board). You should arrive at the Northern Bus Terminal. We were too shook when we arrived – it was in the middle of the day, super hot, super dusty – and ended up paying 40,000 kip more for the ticket from a company in the city. Arrange your own songthaew (mini-van) to the bus terminal to save the money.

There are so many cafes in Luang Prabang. We would recommend splurging a little at [chocolate croissant] place for the French Vibes. For good wifi try Indigo Cafe (pricey food, but you can always get some of the more affordable pastries). We also tried [expensive cafe] which was again pricier, but was pretty empty and quiet with good wifi to boot. Croissant d’or was not too bad either. My friend liked Coconut Luang Prabang for its drinks and wifi. We enjoyed Poko Loco for its unique garden setting, but it is definitely quite pricey too.

We didn’t try the night market buffet, but hygiene is a little questionable. We did try the crepes stand, and they weren’t great but they were just fun to try. A must eat would be the coconut pancakes at the night market – so delicious!

The main attraction of Luang Prabang is definitely the night market. The goods are unique compared to those in Thailand, and the sellers are so chill it’s not stressful to look around at all.

People usually visit Kuang Si and Pak Ou Caves, but we were too stingy and tired (transportation would cost up to 50,000 kip and take some time). Instead, I crossed the Bamboo Bridge (5,000 kip ticket) to the less bustling side of Luang Prabang and visited some wats. We also observed the morning alms ceremony, which was a nice quiet affair although we did see some tourists who posed as they participated in the ceremony, which I didn’t really agree with. You can also climb Mt Oudang very easily, but we are not sure if the view will be very rewarding.

We stayed at Heritage Guesthouse (200,000 kip/day), which was a little old as well. But accommodation seems to be lacking in Luang Prabang, and prices were very high for the backpacker, so that was the best we could find.

Chiang Rai 

Chiang Rai is another charming little town with nice cafes and local street life.

Bus to Chiang Khong for the border crossing is another half-nightmare. The bus is again overpacked, with stools lining middle part of the bus. Music was again blasting. The roads are not too paved either. You will be dropped at a bus terminal. Try to make some friends – helpful for arranging a tuk tuk to the border. Opt for the later, pricier 7pm bus. We arrived too early and froze in the cold for 1 plus hour before the border opens.

The border opens at 7am, but they will charge you a ridiculous overtime fee, so wait till 8am! From there you can take a 24 baht bus across the border, get your passport chopped and take a 40 baht bus into Chiang Khong. From Chiang Khong we just walked aimlessly till we found a nice restaurant run by a super nice lady, who helped us flag down the bus to Chiang Rai, which cost us 35 baht.

Chiang Rai doesn’t have any high rise buidlings, but you start to see chains like Watsons and The Pizza Company. We stayed at the marvellous Orchid Guesthouse, with aircon, strong wifi and wonderful bathroom ($20 a night).

The night bazaar is worth a visit, though if you walk further away from the main tourist street you will find the local night market, which has more food. We found the choices lesser than that in Chiangmai, but the prices were cheaper too (100 baht for 4 pairs of socks!)

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At Chiang Rai we cycled to White Temple, which took about 3 hours one way. The temple is impressive, but doesn’t take much time to cover. Spend some time in the artist’s gallery huddled near the temple though, it is worth a tour.

Chiang Mai 

Chiang Mai is like an upsized Chiang Rai. It’s growing as a tourist destination, but you wouldn’t find that many international chains away from the Chiang Mai night market.

We took a bus from the bus terminal for 429 baht, which took 4 hours. Chiang Mai is definitely much bigger than Chiang Rai, but still walkable. Plus, It is easy to navigate as well, with the city gate boxing up the main tourist area. I spent most of my time just walking and exploring, and even wandered to the ‘wet market’ where the locals go to.

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I did a simple walk from the Phrae Gate to Wat Chedi Luang, passing by the Architecture Museum before reaching Wat Suan Dok for really delicious food at Pun Pun Organic. All you need to do it walk the main Ramchedron Street. I also passed by The Workshop, which is a beautiful cafe and cat house. All drinks are 65 baht and you get to play with the cats!

The wats are usually quite packed with tourists though, so I would recommend getting templed out in Laos instead.

My friend did a cafe hopping tour, and loved Graph Table. We also had good food at Diamond Cafe, though it was quite packed. Our favourites for food will however be the Salad Concept., with Cedele-like food but supersized and much cheaper. 69 baht for a giant salad with 5 toppings, and only 6 baht per extra topping. They also have plugs and wifi. Win.

The Chiang Mai night market was also thoroughly fun to explore. The goods are no longer too touristy which is good in a way. We did buy some fruit soap, which smell amazing and look adorable. We recommend trying the Bingsu near Hard Rock cafe.

There is also Pasa-Bellar like food market at the night market area, with food stalls and hipster seating, and a live-band. The food we tried didn’t impress us, but the grilled seafood looked enticing.

Do also check out the Warorod Market in the morning to pick up some food souvenirs. Very busy with some local vibes! I managed to snag some 70 baht hair dye from here, which actually worked very well.

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We stayed at Chiang Mai Inn Guesthouse (250 baht a night for a double room), which was honestly quite old and unimpressive. But the staff is nice and responsible, and the location was right outside the Phrae Gate, which is quiet yet near to the major attractions.

Bangkok

We didn’t spend much time in Bangkok. Again we booked our tickets when we arrived at the bus terminal, for 488 baht. It took around 10 hours because of a massive jam in Bangkok. From there, we took the city bus to Mo Chit BTS to avoid the expensive tuktuks/ taxis (follow the signs, or see where others are walking), and went to Central World Mall via BTS.

We used the Aero-Link to get to the airport, where we slept overnight before catching our flight back to Singapore.

So yes, that’s it! If you are interested to find out more about the transport details, I’ve done a transport + border crossing guide in a google docs file accessible by this link.

Transport Guide

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Other remarks:

  • Factor in fact that bus stations are usually not too close to where you stay aka central parts of each place. This is why I recommend buying tickets for the next destination once you reach a particular place. This also means you may need to get a tuk-tuk into town/ walk for some distances.
  • Safety: We didn’t worry too much about human trafficking – though I heard stories of that for the Cambodia / Vietnam Border
  • The table above doesn’t include crossing borders
  • Factor in the timings too: buses in Thailand and Vietnam tend to have more timings compared to buses in Laos. The buses we took in Laos were also public buses, compared to the ones run by tour companies in Thailand and Vietnam.

Travels: Lessons on Nature

img_3410I remember telling Dawn when in Sapa, “It feels like we are in one of those 360 all around image drag”. The use of my wholly unnatural, technology-inspired phrase to describe the experience clearly reveals just how swagu I am in terms of nature.

Expanse. That was the sensation I was trying to describe. No towering buildings casting shadows on us to make us feel claustrophobic. Feeling like the world is so big and feeling I am so small.

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Throughout our 24 days we had the luxury of being in the mountains in Sapa, following the flow of the river in Laos, winding through karsts and hiking through forests in Cat Ba. We visited many well-known natural features specifically, like Halong Bay and Sapa’s terraces. But there’s a real difference between living in a place where man-made structures pop up amidst the nature as opposed to the other way around. Pure nature rather than the manicured patches of grass cut and pasted to fit around the concrete pavements and traffic lights in Singapore.

img_3599Nature is something I’m trying to get to know. Afterall, it wasn’t in the Singapore syllabus. I remember noticing how my Nepali friends were touching every plant along the way. After all in Singapore, nature means Singapore is a Garden in a City, but this Garden has rules.

“You mean, you can just pluck them off like that?”

“You mean, you can just throw peels on the floor?”

Stupid me. Banana peels are biodegradable – they’d be better off in the bushes.

Overtime I had to get used to being in non-Singapore. “Okay this is not Singapore, I can touch these.”

I was also in complete awe when they told me they knew the names of the plants they see. My vocabulary before I started to care was limited to names of fruits and a few other flowers such as bougainvillea (the kind on bridges and in schools), ixora (my primary’s school’s friend name), angsana (learnt that in science). Now I know a little bit more. And I was a rebel when I touched the plants in Pulau Ubin and even plucked off a tiny leaf despite the initial (because I know there’s no CCTV).

In comparison to my technology-inspired vocabulary, I remember a little girl who lived in the Nepali village who told me my green hair made me look like a peacock. The Sapien-whorf hypothesis really cued to my mind back then. If I asked myself as a little kid I would probably have said I look like a monster with my green tresses. In fact I have asked little kids at the program I volunteer with before and they just say I look like a monster that ate too much vegetables.

So yea. I remember coming back and immediately feeling inspired to initiate a day out with my friends at Pulau Ubin. It is truly one of the few places in Singapore where I could have feel a semblance of the expanse I felt when in Sapa amongst the rice terraces or at Halong Bay when on the boat. That was also where we saw crabs having sex.

On the other hand I was quite amused when I saw palm trees being planted in Marina Bay and the pathetic amount of grass they were afforded. The idea of Marina Bay is too progressive and futuristic for me to understand and appreciate. A great place for community I am sure, but the tribute it pays to nature seems a bit narcisstic, with its own super dome, trying to outshine nature but ending up as a expensive but poor mimicry.

And all this talk about nature matters because I’ve come to realise the lack of connection between Singaporeans and nature, which led us down paths of consumerism and a stressful lifestyle. How can we be environmentally friendly if nature is not our reality?

I remember someone being shocked that I volunteer for the environment, making the comment that: “I prefer to help the elderly and children. Like you know. People.” In that moment it made sense why nobody was turning up for the events we were organising. Environmentalism in Singapore is seen as lofty ideals serving an abstract. It is intuitive for people to help fellow human beings – the immediate human connection, the feeling of helping someone – that’s great. But what about the very soil we inhabit?

Environmentalists have tried to personify the environment of course, with terms like “Mother Earth”. But in Singapore, the disconnection is so great because we don’t depend on it (or at least it seems like we don’t). We have free flowing taps, food imported daily. We are living in such a built and man-made environment we are detached to the effects on the natural one. It’s okay to use styrofoam because it gets thrown away, incinerated and landfilled. My living environment is still clean because waste management in Singapore is efficient.

I’ve always felt that people who go for nature trails are hardcore nature lovers. But nature shouldn’t be a niche thing, or relegated to a hobby. I don’t expect myself to remember the names of every species of animal and plants. But I can try harder, look out for the greenery around us (I realised that the variety of plants planted in Punggol is quite high) and appreciate them. Literally stop to smell the roses.

On the other hand, I remember coming back to Singapore and going to Nex, and feeling overwhelmed. I want to hold on to that feeling because I need to remember that malls bring me into a place where I am not longer connected to the environment, where my values and actions are often reduced to purchasing items for momentary pleasure.

I mean, I’m no good at math. But surely the things we are producing, the number of malls we have, are excessive compared to what we actually need.

And that’s the end of my attempt to green-wash a travel piece. Or the other way around. A way to get people to read about environmental issues by tricking them into thinking its a travel blog.

Real travel pieces upcoming, I promise 😛

3 Countries, 9 Places, 24 Days

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Always torn between going on an all-out adventure and ensuring my personal safety, one thing I’ve learnt on this trip is that it’s not that easy to die. And that, shall be my personal travel mantra.

Accompanied by the petite but kickass Dawn, the two of us shower-hating girls embarked on a journey where we overcame our fear of being human trafficked while crossing borders, battled overnight-bus-hangovers and went to too many cafes.

Each place was wonderful – I shall cover them slowly but surely – but on the whole, this trip was about the distance travelled. We took buses, boats and walked a lot. The numbers are pretty – all multiples of 3. The point is that we were on the move.

I remember whining to Dawn: “I’m going to miss Hanoi.” when it was just day 3, when we had to go to Cat Ba. Could anything be more amazing than the quiet bustle of morning in Hanoi when street hawkers start their business? Hoan Kiem Lake in its glory at night? Our favourite cafe which we have only been to once? What if Cat Ba sucks?

If you know me, sentimentality is my middle name.

When I arrived in Cat Ba however, the initial irritation over having to find lodging after a long bus/boat journey in an unfamiliar place soon turned into love for the laid back pace of the town. Hardly any motorbikes unlike Hanoi. We also found another favourite cafe.

This pattern would repeat itself. I hated leaving each place and would constantly moan (to Dawn’s dismay). I’ve found my favourite spots, and settled in. I would arrive in the new destination hung up on the previous, only to find myself all happy again once I realised how wonderful the new place is.

And that is my greatest lesson, to move on. That change is scary but necessary for new discoveries. That familiarity is comforting but can chain me. I think letting go has never been something I was good at, but I’ve learnt to be less attached to anything – things, places, people.

So yes, I still miss these places very much, and I hope to return to them one day. But for now, there will always be more places to explore, other things to do.