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Bring it, 2014

It’s the eve of the new year, so of course, I’m reflecting on the past year.

I rang in 2013 surrounded by new, yet lifelong friends on a beach on Koh Chang, Thailand with a bucket in hand, and I’m ending the year in the exact opposite way. It’s absolutely freezing in Toronto and I’m getting prepared to get all dressed up and head downtown to one of the fanciest hotels in the city for a party that I wouldn’t have been going to if it weren’t for work.

Throughout the year I’ve said emotional goodbyes to friends, my students and colleagues and had emotional reunions with my truest and dearest. I’ve gone from being gainfully employed, saving to travel to being contractually employed, saving to pay off debt, with a large period of (f)unemployment in between. I’m not really ending the year with a bang, but I’m ending it on a high note.

I’ve done a lot this year that I can be proud of. Of course there were low moments, lonely moments, but there were also (and continue to be) moments that I wished would never end.

I’m not too psyched about this New Year’s Eve, as I can barely afford a glass of wine at this hotel, let alone a buckets worth of alcohol, but I am excited about the coming year. I’m working with a company that I love (and think they love me too) and feel secure in what’s to come.

I’m preparing to move out with a close friend, and I feel like this is the year for growing up and doing things the adult way. I know that I’m ready; I can feel it in my bones. I’ve grown so much this last year, through so many unique and wonderful experiences, that I can hold my head high and say “Bring it, 2014.”

The materialistic mind frame and the secret to being happy

Recently, having received a few pay checks and being back in the swing of things, I’m hating my current mind frame.

When I was packing my bags and seeing how much I was leaving behind, when I was away and saw how little I needed and again when I got back and saw how much I left behind, I vowed that I would never return to my materialistic ways. After being home (and avoiding the blog updates) for 6 months, I’m sad to say that it’s all too easy to get sucked in.

I want / need everything. Everything.

I want / need new work clothes. I want / need a new phone. I want / need, I want / need.

Living in a cold climate, I’ve realized that adding warmer items to my wardrobe is an absolute necessity. As is dressing for the job. I’m lucky that I’ve landed a job that doesn’t have me working from an office from 9-5, that comes with some quiet little perks, and that feels rewarding when I’ve done something that made an impact. I couldn’t have done it without my friends. However, those client meetings wearing the same dress pants I wore as a teacher everyday for a year just doesn’t cut it.

Now that I’m going to be receiving semi-regular pay checks, I need to keep myself in check. I need to remember how little a person actually needs to survive and not go crazy with the shopping sprees. I need to remember what’s important; to save, pay off debt, and travel more. Always travel more. I need to remember that having material things doesn’t actually make me happy. It only adds to the illusion that I’m a contributing part of society, whatever that actually means.

Two articles this morning inspired me. This beautiful article about running towards life and not away from it makes me want to spend NOTHING so that I can be on a plane as soon as 2014 hits, escaping the harsh Canadian winter (oh, so harsh). Then, a friend bringing me back to reality shared this article about the pain required in order to be happy and successful.

Two very different articles, two very different messages, both completely accurate. I’m quoting the first article here though, and it’s something that rung true: “The real secret to life is that you get what you want when you do what you want.”

Yes, travelling and experiencing different cultures makes me incredibly happy, as does the freedom of not being tied down to anything. But in order to travel extensively and still feel fulfilled, I need to endure the “pain” of working hard. Again, I’m incredibly lucky that my work doesn’t feel like work, (especially when it’s mostly in my pajama’s), but to be well-rounded and achieve my goals I need to have both of these things in my life.

SO, while I have many goals, first and foremost my goal for 2014 is to include both of these things in my life simultaneously and find a happy balance.

(And to finally post some catch-up blogs… Sorry!)

Some deep thoughts and life lessons for a Monday morning.

A Canadian saying sorry in Thai

I had been in Thailand for approximately 6 months. At this point, I was feeling pretty good about my ability to order food and barter at the local market, all in Thai. While that’s about the extent of my language abilities, I picked up a few other random bits of conversation right up until I left.

However, one day I realized something. I didn’t know how to say “sorry.” For 6 months, I had literally been apologizing left, right and centre for bumping people or not knowing what they were saying to me… in ENGLISH.

Now it wouldn’t be that big a deal, but when the rest of your conversation is, for the most part, a combination of basic Thai, smiles and giggles and then you throw in random words that they may or may not know means an apology it’s just plain inconsistent.

So, without letting on to my friends, I had a little panic attack.

I ran to my English – Thai dictionary and looked it up. Of course, when I had been “learning” how to speak on my own and I’d write down phrases, sorry may or may not have been one of them. But those stupid books have so many unnecessary words and phrases that most Thai’s are too lazy to even speak.

Once I had learned to omit those certain phrases (unless speaking to certain people of authority, however) figuring out the book made a lot more sense.

A simple “kor tod ka” became a regular phrase in my vocabulary. But I didn’t just learn that! Something that I would have substituted sorry for anyway was “excuse me.”

So, “kor tod na ka,” a simple extended, politer version of sorry was also added to my vocabulary. Used mostly in crowded shops, when trying to get someone’s attention or to push past a crowd of unobservant teens on a crowded BTS train in Bangkok, people thought I was Thai until they looked at me.

Panic averted. I was able to keep my Canadian-ness while speaking Thai.

Inle Lake: Home of the leg rowers


Inle Lake has been made famous by the iconic image of the Intha fisherman who row their boats with an oar wrapped in the crook of their leg so their hands are free to set up their fishing nets. It’s an amazing thing to watch and the sheer balance and coordination that goes into it is simply astounding.

After our early morning arrival in Nyaung Shwe, (the town filled with hotels closest to the mouth of the river) and a nap into the early afternoon we set out to inquire about boat tours and bus tickets back to Yangon. We struck it lucky, finding a very friendly tour operator who offered a boat and a guide for up to four people if we “found more friends” for 16,000 Kyat for the entire day. 8AM to Sunset.

So the next day, with a friend from the hotel in tow, we drove the 4KM from Nyaung Shwe into the lake wrapped in sweaters and scarves, surrounded by wildlife and bird conservation sites. As we entered the actual lake itself our guide explained a little about the life of the fisherman and how many have given up the ways of fishing to collect weeds and seaweed to be used as fertilizer. A full boat can get them 5,000 Kyat, and they can usually do 3 boatfuls a day. Considering the average daily wage for most laborours is 2,000 Kyat, enough to buy a bottle of water, this is quite lucrative.

A seaweed collector in the foreground, a fisherman with a circular net in the background

A seaweed collector in the foreground, a fisherman with a circular net in the background


Our posing fisherman with a circular net

For most fishermen, the act of fishing itself is too often uncertain and requires a lot of work for little reward. There are two methods that they use to catch fish, the most common is to drop a net into the water and use an oar to scare the fish into it. The most beautiful and skillful method is to use the round net and wait for a fish to come so they can drop the net over it.

Fishing with a net

Fishing with a net

Our day around the lake was very full and we were constantly moving from place to  place. We started at the Phaung Dow Oo Paya Pagoda market and wandered around snapping photos and smiling at all the locals with their rows of spices, fish, fruit and handicrafts.

Dried fish for sale

Dried fish for sale

Then we headed to a weaving factory where we watched ladies sitting in front of giant looms creating beautiful Longyi, shawls and scarves. Per day these women usually make 3,500 Kyat (if they make one Longyi or shawl). But the atmosphere of the factory was lighthearted and compared to what one assumes factories in third world countries would look like, the fresh air and view of the lake was a definite bonus to the workers.

Making a Longyi (skirt - like clothing worn by men and women)

Making a Longyi (skirt – like clothing worn by men and women)

DSC02974From there we went to a blacksmiths, where we watched 5 men pounding away at heated metal to create knives, swords and tools. The intensity of their pounding echoed across the lake and the accurate pounds of their hammers was enough to scare any tourist from standing too close. It also made one wonder how often they miss and collide with a blow from their colleague.

After lunch at “Nice Restaurant” we visited a cigar and cigarette rolling display where we learned about the Burmese cigarettes and had a chance to smoke a minty fresh clove cigar.

Hand-rolled cigars

Hand-rolled cigars

We then headed up a small alley-way river where women rode up beside us to try and sell some jewelry as we made our way to visit the Longneck women. This was the biggest tourist trap of the day, and I felt bad for the four women who spend their day posing for pictures, either sitting in chairs or weaving in the shop. These Kayan women are the only four of their kind in Inle Lake, as  most reside in the Shan State of Southern Myanmar bordering Thailand. Thailand has three villages of Longneck women, and a visit to Chiang Mai can include the exploitation of a visit to these three villages. I never did it, and don’t know anyone who did, but simply being witness to the women in Inle Lake was sad in its own way. With the brass coils around their necks, they are incredibly beautiful and I can only hope that having their picture taken day in and day out doesn’t make them feel exploited, but beautiful and interesting instead. The coils themselves are worn since the age of five, and only taken off to change to bigger ones as they age. The appearance of a stretched neck is actually caused by crushing the clavicle and compressing the rib cage.


Along the same river we visited a silversmith where we watched them turn blocks of silver into intricate jewelry or elaborately etched bowls.

Then, my favourite part, as we floated through these tiny little roads between rows and rows of floating gardens anchored by bamboo sticks. This is where you see the weeds and seaweed that the fisherman now collect being put to good use, as it’s this mix of mud and much that creates the beds for all the vegetables produced in Inle.

DSC03038Just near the densest jungle of gardens is the Nga Phe Kyaung monastery, also known as the jumping cat monastery. While monks used to teach the plethora of cats at this monastery to jump through hoops and do circus tricks, there appears to no longer be a show of this. Most of the cats lazily lounge through the day and tourists wander around to see the large number of antique Buddha images collected from around Burma.

As the sun was setting we started heading home, slowing to watch the sunset and try to get shots of the leg fisherman. One of which was posing for us in the hopes that we would give him some money for his performance.


The whole day felt a little fabricated, a show put on for tourists to see how things are done in Inle, but it was beautiful and simply viewing all the gardens and neighbourhoods on stilts would have been enough for me. Thinking about how those people literally live their lives on the water, being unable to even visit friends without the help of a boat or a long plank of wood between houses is completely different to our Western neighbourhoods full of concrete.



Coming Home

I’ve been back for little over a month now, and while I’m not even up to date on blog posts of my travels, I’ve got to say that it feels good to be back.
Yes, the full-time job hunting gets depressing. But having some freelance writing to do fills the days (and the bank account) a little.

A lot has changed in a year and a half, but a lot has also stayed the same. I came across one of those sappy pictures on Pinterest one day while I was away and sent it to one of my closest friends, but I’ve realized that it applies to all of them.

friendship Read the rest of this entry

Mandalay Palace: “I paid $10 for that?!”


Considering that I paid $10 for the entire town of Bagan filled with plains and plains of temple ruins, it seems absolutely ludicrous that I paid the same amount to visit some silly palace in the middle of some silly protected fortress, putting money right into the governments pocket. Firstly, we hadn’t properly done advance research and learned that it had been completely rebuilt in 1995, possibly with the use of forced labour.

Secondly I had crazily assumed, because of the detailed roads on our tourist map, that the entire area inside the moat would be one giant preserved palace camp ground. However, as we sadly learned, tourists can only enter from [ONE] entrance, and once you’ve been walking all day to FIND that entrance, interest and excitement starts to wane. Once across the moat and the entrance fee is paid, tourists then learn that they can only walk down the main path, and around the old palace grounds. Exploring is forbidden and based on the heavy army presence, I would guess strongly enforced. Also, once across the moat, photos are frowned upon until you reach the palace grounds and it is likely assumed that everything you’ve seen, every army family or naked baby playing with a mangy dog is erased from your memory. “Restricted Area” signs blocked many side roads and military guards kept us in check, so onwards we headed to our allowed destination.


While the buildings and pathways were stunning, that’s really all there was. More than 2/3 of the buildings in the little lost city stood completely empty and without much ceremony about what was once inside. While the thrones where partially there, 3/7 where in their original places, the purpose of the surrounding rooms was only given away by their names.

DSC02735My favourite place on the whole compound was the watchtower, which just so happened to be one of the original buildings that wasn’t destroyed during WWII. After climbing the 50 steps up around the circular building the rooftop gave way to a perfect view of the whole compound and the back of the 7 tiered spire. It was while standing at the top, watching a couple monks meandering around the grounds with their families that I actually got a sense of history from the whole place. The buildings, despite being rebuilt, truly had a sense of history and ancient life that I could almost close my eyes and imagine scenes unfolding underneath me. I could see people lazily meandering down the paths, or taking their time washing in the bath house under the noon time sun.

It was upon discovering the Archaeological museum that we realized where all the replicas that should have been adorning rooms and buildings around the compound had gone. The museum was “easily” accessible at the very back of the “foreigner area” with the entrance facing what appear to be the gates at the back of the compound. If one were to pay the $10 to enter the palace grounds, they better not miss the two room museum filled with dressed palanquins of the royal families and their cabinet.


The Magic of Bagan


Bagan is one of the places that neither words nor photos could ever accurately describe. I have definitely seen some amazing photos that do represent it well, but nothing prepares you for the breathtaking moment that the sun rises over a red landscape absolutely splattered with temples, stupas and pagodas.

Luckily for us, our very first encounter with the expanse of the Bagan plains happened just like that, in the wee hours of the morning. Our overnight bus from Yangon arrived shortly before 4 am and we had the option of paying half price for a room for the extra hours that morning, or paying the same amount to take our horse cart (horse cart!) and driver to see the sun rise. Out of sheer cheapness and the opportunity to both kill time before check in and view a Bagan sunrise, we chose the sunrise.

According to Wikipedia, during the 11th and 13th centuries when the Kingdom of Bagan was at it’s height there were approximately 10,000 structures built on the plains, of which only 2200 remain due to attacks and earthquakes. It is the iconic images of the Bagan plains which many tourists think of when they dreamily plan a trip, and is often compared to the Angkor Wat complex in Cambodia. Having seen both, I would gladly say that the entire experience of exploring Bagan from the back of a horse cart, or the seat of a bicycle was much more interactive and personal than that of tourist filled Angkor Wat.

Walking around New Bagan is like taking a step back in time. Horse carts and their drivers carry tourists and locals back and forth between Old Bagan (site of the old Kingdom) and New Bagan (where locals were forced to relocate to after the government kicked them out in 1990). While the biggest form of economy in Bagan is tourism, lacquer-ware production comes close in second place. Shops and stalls selling lacquered bowls, plates, jewellery boxes, jewellery and a multitude of other miscellaneous objects can be found all around the major temples and even some of the smaller ones. My biggest fear for these Bagan plains is that, just like Angkor Wat, they will become overrun with touts who are absolutely lovely and helpful, but desperate to sell their product. More than once we were surrounded by children offering to sell us hand drawn postcards of temples, or women showing us around a temple in the hopes that we’ll buy something from her shop afterwards.

In true Burmese style, they were lovely and helpful in order to get the sale, but personally I’m worried that they’re going to get jaded and it’ll be people running after your horse cart just like in Cambodia where they surround your tuk tuk the instant it stops.

Future fears aside, I thoroughly enjoyed everything about Bagan; from the clip clopping of horses down the dusty streets, to the cutest old man selling us the coldest beer in all of Burma, to the multitude of temples that we visited throughout our three full days’ stay.

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Bagan to Mandalay via the Irrawaddy River

I think I got my sea legs quite early on, as a young girl the most exciting part of the 8 hour drive to my grandparents was the 45 minute ferry from South Baymouth to Tobermory along Lake Huron on the MS. Chi-Cheemaun. So when Eira said that I could plan our trip through Burma but her only requirement was a day long float down the Irrawaddy river, I was only too happy to oblige.

Sunrise on the bow of a boat. Couldn't be happier.

Sunrise on the bow of a boat. Couldn’t be happier.

After waking at an ungodly 4 am, that was supposed to be 4:30 + snooze thanks to my phone  alarm clock still set on Thai time, (Burma is 1/2 hr behind) we set off for the jetty. I thought that “jetty’ “dock” and “pier” were interchangeable, but what we pulled up to was a boat literally anchored beside the shoreline with a wooden plank for crossing.

Villagers waving at our boat

Villagers waving at our boat

So after precariously balancing from shore to boat, we set off into the sunrise seated firmly on the bow of the boat watching fishing villages rise and get ready for the day all along the shore. As the day progressed and the heat began to rear it’s ugly head, and more and more fisherman happily waved as we passed, we readied ourselves for a long, hot day of little more than lounging, reading and catching up on writing.

Typical home along the river

Typical home along the river

However, tensions are rising along the river, something that we were oblivious about while we merrily sailed down it. The government is starting production of 7 major dams that will allow them to export electricity to China. While this is something that may be good for the economy, the fact of the matter is that it’s causing fighting and hostility between builders and displaced community members all along the river. Not to mention environmentalists concerned about the damage that will be done to the ecosystem when the flow of the river is controlled due to China’s electricity requirements, as well as the possible fate of the endangered Irrawaddy dolphin. I learned about this after seeing a t-shirt stating “Save the Irrawaddy,” and am glad that we had the opportunity to peacefully sail down the river despite a possibly doomed future.

To read more about the proposed project, the Kachin Development Networking Group keeps an updated list of all developments surrounding the proposed dam sites and villagers reactions.

Riding the Circle Train around Yangon


While in Yangon, one of the best ways to see the area surrounding the city is to hop on the train that runs a loop around the city proper. I love public transit anyway because you’re exposed to what a city is like day to day, and you get to people watch.

I don’t know what I expected on the train ride, but I certainly got a feel for the people and the culture throughout the duration of the 3 hour ride.

As we approached platform 6 and 7, we were ushered into a ticket office and an official looking ticket was issued after we handed over our crisp clean $1 bill. While we waited for the train to arrive we were entertained by an adorable little girl and her even littler sister who high fived us and hopscotched and showed us their Gangnam Style abilities.


Initially the train was packed, but as the train moved on away from the city, it began to empty out. As I effectively emptied my camera batteries by photographing the train, landscape and stations we passed, Eira set to filling her pocket sketchbook with quick drawings of people on the train. Initially I had hoped that we could hop on and off and visit the towns around the stations, and while you’re allowed to do just that and make an entire day of it, we had a bus to catch that evening and opted for a walk home and some dinner in a tea house. So we stayed put, sketching, watching, photographing the scenes and sharing cigarettes out the window with the old man sat next to us.


I’m glad that the train was simple benches along each side instead of sections of seats because it was much more conducive to creeping everyone on our car.

As we reached one station in the country there was a giant commotion as the car emptied out and people started chucking parcels of produce through the window. Bags upon bags of Chinese kale, holy basil, chilli peppers, apples, cucumbers, tomatoes, and anything that grows in the countryside around Yangon were hoisted through windows and settled anywhere there was space. As the farmers themselves jumped on the now moving train and organized their packages the security guard, who had previously been oblivious to passengers and tickets, now went around collecting fees for all the extra parcels from the newly boarded.


It was after this that the atmosphere on the train changed. It had started out as a packed commuter train, but was now a joke-filled little community. As the farmers and produce sellers organized their product they teased each other, shared leaf-rolled cigarettes and bettle nut and dozed off cross-legged facing the window.


Feeling like part of a community, we disembarked back in Yangon proper and wandered around until we met a couple ladies who wished us a happy Easter and chatted with us for a bit before leading us to a tea shop employed entirely with boys under 17 years old for a delicious lunch of pasada’s.

Shwedagon Pagoda – Yangon’s glistening jewel

When people get ready to head to Yangon (or Rangoon, depending on who you ask) the first thing they add to their itenerary is Shwedagon Pagoda.


Shwdegon Pagoda is the first pagoda in the known history of Buddhism. After two merchants from Okkalapa (current day Yangon) became the first followers of Guatama Buddha shortly after his enlightenment, they returned home and built this shining golden pagoda which quickly became one of the most important centres for Buddhism.

DSC02336With the sun setting on it, the main spire looked absolutely stunning. To add to my enjoyment of basking in the golden glow, I made friends with yet another monk who showed me pictures of his travels through Thailand and Angkor Wat in Cambodia and tried to continue my Thai lessons by attempting to teach me the alphabet. (Ugggh 32 vowels… NEVER going to happen!)

Throughout the most visited middle level there is an abundance of pagodas, stupas, shrines, pavilions, Buddha’s and bells all the way around the towering middle stupa.

The importance of this pagoda quickly became apparent during my visit as many families were initiating their sons into Buddhism, with Community Shinpyu Ceremonies, which requires an elaborate procession around the central pagoda, complete with prayers and offerings to Buddha. Because of the expense required in the preparation of this initiation the family often will initiate all their sons at once. The boys were carried on shoulders by family members and done up in the most ornate gowns, make-up and jewellery, with the entire family done up in their most special finery and carrying donations for monks at the temple.

While we were in Burma, we saw this happening in most cities. In Mandalay we watched and listened as families crammed into songthaews and pick-up trucks blaring music with their children sitting on chairs in the back under golden umbrellas, prince for a day. In Nyaung U, we watched as young boys were paraded down the road on a horse and friends and family danced down the street in front and behind them.


Smiley older brothers carry new initiates on their shoulders at Shwedagon

A young boy during a parade to the temple at Inle

A young boy during a parade to the temple at Inle Lake