Erica and Matt Chua: He Said/She Said: Travel Lessons Revisited

lmost a year ago we wrote about the lessons we’ve learned from travel.  After five more countries as diverse as Australia and Nepal here are the things we think we know.

HE SAID…

Arriving in India from the developed world highlighted the contrasts and taught me more than if I had arrived from another developing culture.  Moving from some of the most functional democracies in the world, Australia and Singapore, to arguably the world’s least, India and Nepal, showed me that good governance is the difference.  These are the most important lessons I’ve learned in the past year.

  • Government services and infrastructure matter. I said this last year after enjoying the epic infrastructure of China, Japan and South Korea.  Seeing perfectly functioning societies with huge infrastructure investment isn’t nearly as powerful as seeing countries without it.  India and Nepal don’t have trash collection, reliable electricity, water or roads.  Without focusing on providing these services and projects the countries will never advance.

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A Chinese bullet train station above versus an Indian train station below.  China’s investment in transportation will pay dividends for generations…

  • Justice must be blind. Laws and legal decisions must be made in the name of justice, not family name, bribes, or to gain favor.  If everyone doesn’t have to play by the same rules, a country cannot fully develop as those that are disenfranchised have no incentive to innovate and create.  While the riches will accrue to the few that aren’t bound by laws, the society as a whole won’t benefit.  You can see this in Mexico and India, home to some of the world’s richest people, surrounded by some of the poorest.
  • It’s a big world out there. Entering our third year of consecutive travel we have barely scratched the surface of seeing how people live, interact and make a life.  While there are PhD’s that have super-specialized knowledge on cultures and people, traveling is still the best way to get a sampling of what makes us all different and similar at the same time.

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Erica and Matt Chua: He Said/She Said: Travel Lessons Revisited

Erica and Matt Chua: Korean Food: the Good, the Bad & the Ugly

Korean food ran the gambit from the good, the bad and the downright ugly.  On many occasions Korean cuisine surprised us, apparently South Koreans are better at more than kimchi.  Who knew that South Korea makes the best fried chicken in the world?  I feel that I am uniquely qualified to make a judgement on the best fried chicken in the world because I’ve tried my fair share due to my husband’s  fried chicken addiction.  He even believes his future is in fried chicken and beer.  So, while I know your dying to hear about kimchi, let’s start with the ugly and work our way to the highlights.  I want you to enjoy Korean cuisine, so I’ll end on a high note.

You will enjoy Korean food if you avoid two things; Lotteria and pig’s foot.  Lotteria is South Korea’s answer to McDonald’s.  Everything from the menu to the value meals is a mirror of McDonald’s offerings.  While I’m not a huge fan of McDonald’s, we were told several times that we had to try Lotteria.  We decided we didn’t have too much to lose as it is a fast and cheap food option.  Little did we know that the similarities ended with the look alike menu. The cheeseburger we had tasted as if it had strawberry jam mixed with mayonnaise on it and I’m convinced the french fries we were served were made weeks ago.  In short avoid Lotteria at all costs.

The pig’s foot should have been more obvious than Lotteria as something to steer clear of, some may even say that I deserved what I got when I decided to try this local delicacy.  However, I am a firm believer in the old adage “when in Rome…”  We had heard of the popularity of pig feet, but it wasn’t until we saw it prominently displayed by every vendor in Seoul’s Namdaeumun Market that we decided we had to try it.  We hunted out the best pig foot we could find, not having any idea what you look for in a good pig foot.  Because quite frankly “good pig foot” sounds like an oxymoron to me.  However, even as I watched the woman we purchased our foot from working to dismember it in preparation for us to eat it I remained positive. When she set it in front of us it didn’t look too promising and then she gave us each a set of plastic gloves and my optimism started to fade.  Anything too vile to touch with bare hands probably shouldn’t be eaten, but against my better judgement I put a gelatinous piece of foot in my mouth.  It lived up to my worst nightmares, it was a fatty, Jell-O like texture and the taste was so bad I almost gagged trying to swallow it.  Then and there the award for worst item imbibed on this trip was given to the pig’s trotters.  We paid for our foot and passed on the remaining bits to the eager Koreans sitting next to us, laughing at our disgusted expressions.

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Erica and Matt Chua: Korean Food: the Good, the Bad & the Ugly

Erica and Matt Chua: Easily Score an Indian Train Ticket

“The pride of India” is India Railway’s undeniable slogan.  The train system is a marvel, moving hundreds of millions of people annually.  There is nothing in India that works with the efficiency and scale that the railway does.  It’s not world-class in any sense, but to get around and interact with Indian people, the trains are the way to go.  Serving as an artery to connect nearly every city, this is how nearly every person, caste, and family gets around.  The conversations that can be had in a compartment will be at least as memorable as the trip itself.  Here’s how to get train tickets when you need them to maximize your time in India.

An Second AC (2AC) cabin.  Not too bad…but either is the much cheaper 3AC.

THE CLASSES OF TRAVEL

In most trains there are five classes: First Class (1AC), Second A/C (2AC), Third A/C (3AC), Sleeper (SL), Second Seating (2ND) and General Seating (GS).  On some trains there are AC Chair cars which are exceptional for daytrips, but this is not recommended for long rides as it’s basically an economy class airplane seat.

As you can see there is a huge difference in cost, First Class costing over 12 times the reserved seat price.  With such a price difference you can be assured a totally different clientele in each, providing a different perspective on India in each class.  Most budget travelers opt for Sleeper class.  Due to the noise, dust and grime that come with open windows we always preferred 3AC.  2AC is hard to recommend, while substantially quieter than 3AC due to less families, the cost differential was too much for us as the bed itself is the same.

If you gamble with General Seating you may end up squeezing in this close as we did on a train to Agra.  (Read about that experience here)

BUYING TICKETS

India Railways does an admirable job to ensure that tourists aren’t delayed by lack of tickets.  There is a quota of tickets available only for foreigners on almost every train. To get these tickets you must purchase them at a station, in-person, with your passport.  Touts and tour agencies will often tell you that tickets aren’t available for certain routes, trying to steer you onto a commission paying bus, but always check the station in person for Tourist Quota before giving up on the train.  Buying tickets at the station is relatively painless and will save you big money on commissions and hassle from tourist agencies.

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Erica and Matt Chua: Easily Score an Indian Train Ticket

Erica and Matt Chua: Romans in Jordan?

The Romans never cease to amaze me, here I am writing about Jordan and the Middle East yet the Romans have yet again inserted themselves into the history of the region.  I shouldn´t be surprised considering that they were one of the largest empires in the ancient world.  I guess it says more about my poor grasp of history than the Romans that Ididn´t realize they conquered the lands around the Mediterranean and beyond.  Yet I was shocked to find one of the most important and well preserved cities of the Roman empire in modern day Jordan.

The imposing Hadrian´s Gate sets the tone for your visit to the impressive ruins of Jerash.  Passing under the enormous arch of the Gate I was even more blown away by the Romans.  Not only had they stretched their empire farther East than I had thought, but I was dwarfed by the stunning architecture, collonaded streets and towering temples that made up the ancient city of Jerash.

While Petra gets all the attention Jerash should not be missed, a far less crowded visit allows for a close-up look at the splendour of the ancient Roman empire. If you time your visit right, which seems to be more luck than anything, you can enjoy the site void of any other visitors.  Without the crowds I found a new appreciation for the worn cobblestones of the Cardo, where if you look closely you can see the chariot tracks and begin to imagine the city´s major buildings, shops and residences that lined the road.

The Nymphaeum set my imagination in motion once again as I tried to picture the grandeur of the fountain in it’s prime, decorated with lion heads and etched with detailed carvings.  Somehow without any modern day reminders transforming the sights of ancient Jerash to their original glory, in my mind, was easier.  The luxury of seeing the city without a throng of tourists gave me a new appreciation for the  Romans and their amazing ancient cities.

The Romans were never ones to overlook entertainment as is evident with the 3,000 seat theater in Jerash.  Occassionaly used today for performances, it’s amazing how the stone steps and massive stage have stood the test of time.  Without a performace in the amphittheater it was still an incredible testament to the Romans architectural expertise.

While I sincerely hope your historical knowledge is better than mine, if you let the world be your classroom you can learn about the Roman empire in Jordan of all placews.  The architecture will amaze you, sending you back in time to imagine what the ancient world was like in the Eastern reaches of one of the most powerful empires in the world.

WHEN YOU GO:

Get a taxi from Amman, we opted to navigate the confusing and difficult public transport system to make our way to Jerash only to find that a shared taxi home was much easier and almost the same price.  Skip the hassle and get a cab

Come prepared, Jerash is huge and requires a fair amount of walking, wear comfortable shoes and bring lots of water

Plan for a half day at least, visiting the ancient ruins of Jerash requires a lengthy cab ride and lots of working so make sure you budget enough time.

Erica and Matt Chua: Da Lat | Where to Stay

 

The center of Da Lat is mostly accommodations, with a huge variety in quality.  There are places from $5 to $200 per night, so you should be able to find anything you want.  The backpacker area is near the market where the going rate is $10-12 a night, but there is a huge variation in quality.  Make sure you check out several different hotels as price doesn’t dictate the quality of rooms.

We headed downhill on Đường 3 Tháng 2 from the market with a Canadian couple.  After viewing rooms in 4 places we found that there was little variation in prices, until we found a great little place that charged $6 a night.  It was difficult to figure out the price due to their total lack of English.  Finally they called a friend who spoke English and had me speak to them.  The room was equivalent to the $10/night rooms in hotels surrounding it and had good Internet access.

Erica and Matt Chua: Travel Guilt

When I decided to take a trip around the world with my husband I never thought that we would have a constant, often unwelcome third wheel: guilt.  In my mind it is impossible to do third world travel and never feel even a twinge of guilt about the fact that your traveling in a place where your daily expenditure, even if you’re on a budget, is often equivalent to a month’s salary (or more) for the average resident of the country your visiting.

It is impossible to avoid history, politics, the morality of tourism and the complications of charity while visiting developing countries. In fact thinkCHUA and I often can’t help but wonder if third world travel is one of the most selfish things you can participate in.  Enjoying the wonders of impoverished nations at dirt cheap prices then writing home to our family and friends about our adventures.  Sounds pretty selfish and makes me wonder about my role in it all.

Are some of the issues, such as begging that I find so hard to face, actually my fault?  Are the children selling me bracelets, postcards and flowers exploited because so many people fall victim to their adorable smiles and disarming requests for “one dollar, you buy something, one dollar.”  Do the adults that send them out to peddle their goods and pester tourists really mean ill or are children just better salespeople because their efforts are more fruitful?  Is the answer to say “no” to the children and if so, have you ever done it?  Because it’s not easy, it is so hard to tell a grinning child that you won’t part with just a dollar for their benefit.  Or to tell a leg-less man that you won’t give him a few dollars as he drags himself along the sidewalk by his hands.

Traveling responsibly requires that we make an effort to know more about a country than simply the location of its monuments and the bargains in its bazaars; it charges us to have a better understanding of the reality of peoples’ lives.  The only way to learn more about a country and it’s culture is to experience it on the ground, which is where the “catch 22″ comes in.  We have enjoyed our time in developing countries immensely and would recommend it to anyone, but from my experience it is difficult to avoid the guilt completely no matter how responsible you are.

“Power lies in the growth of awareness.”
Herbert de Souza, Brazilian human rights activist

I also have to remember that travel is about seeing the world with open eyes, stepping outside your comfort zone and taking the bitter with the sweet.  The more I travel, see and learn about the world the more I realize how little I know, how many more places there are to travel to and how much there is to see and learn.  This awareness is arguably the most important part of this entire journey.  Without my intense feelings of guilt and my confusion about what is the “right” thing to do about it this trip would simply be a sightseeing adventure.  However, it has been much more than that and it will change me and how I see the world forever.

From my experience traveling in the developing world it is more often positive for everyone involved than it is negative.  As I mentioned a huge part of making the experience positive is awareness.  The awareness of my guilt is in actuality a beneficial part of third world travel and sharing my stories and experiences on this blog is helpful for me and in raising awareness about these issues.  As Herbet deSouza says “Power lies in the growth of awareness.”  So, my hope is that by sharing my thoughts and anecdotes from our journey I will at least in a small way raise awareness about the triumphs and struggles of the developing world.

Erica and Matt Chua: The Experience that is Khao San Road

Khao San Road is the gateway to Southeast Asia, which means this is the first stop for many young and often inexperienced travelers planning a trip to the region.  It has almost a spring break type atmosphere and just about anything goes, before I go into detail about “anything” lets take a quick look at history. According to wikitravel  the word khao san itself means milled rice and is an attribution to the historical role of this street in the rice trade. The first business to open on Khao San Road was a small hotel aimed at serving civil servants from the provinces who came to Bangkok on business. The hotel was followed by Sor Thambhakdi, a shop selling monks’ accessories. Four similar businesses moved in after, and Khao San became known as a “religious road”.  Let me tell you that the only religious thing about Khao San Road anymore is how people drink religiously when they visit.  Nonetheless, Khao San Road is a must-see in Bangkok.  You might not choose to stay at one of the  cheap guesthouses in the middle of the action, but you may want to do one of the following:

Top Ten Things to do on Khao San Road

1. Drink, I’m not condoning binge drinking here, but this is definitely the place to grab a local Chang beer or a bucket.   A bucket is just that a sand-pale style bucket filled with liquor it’s typically whiskey (the local Sang Som) and Coke,  but you can pick your poison.

2. Stay awake, Khao San Road never sleeps so you can visit anytime day or night.  The morning is the quietest and at night everything comes alive.  Once the bars close by 2:00 am or so, the patrons will flood the street moving the party outside.

3. People Watch, this goes hand-in hand with staying awake as night offers the best people watching.  Herds of young backpackers roam the streets intermingled with street vendors, lady boys and tuk tuk drivers.  It’s hard not to stare at all the crazy characters hanging out.

4. Buy Art, there are some very talented artists that sell their paintings and photographs on the side of the street, it is definitely worth checking out.  Remember to bargain and you could take home a fantastic painting for under $20.

5. Shop, Khao San Road is the bohemian capital of Bangkok, so if you are looking for patchwork skirts, a buddha t-shirt or want to get a singing bowl you will find it on Khao San. Make sure you bargain because all the vendors are willing to “make good price for you.”

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Erica and Matt Chua: The Experience that is Khao San Road

Erica and Matt Chua: The Love Saga of Sapa

 

The saga of Sapa begins in the small hill tribe villages, whose civilizations have yet to reap the benefits of modernization.  They have recently been inundated with tourists, however many of the traditions of the Black H’mong and Red Dao people persist.  In particular the traditions that dictate love hold strong and the courtships of very young villagers are short and arranged, but I learned from our young trekking guide Coo that it is a little more complicated than that.

At first glance Coo looked like the twelve year old daughter of one of the travelers in her bright pink, rhinestone studded jacket talking on her cell phone.  Upon closer examination I could here that she was clearly speaking in a foreign tongue, wearing a traditional skirt and had long, silky black hair to her knees.  As we began our trek I hurriedly caught up to Coo as I had lots of questions for her, much to my pleasure she was happy to chat and eager to share her life with me.  We became fast friends.

She was only sixteen years old, but clearly wise beyond her years.  She had gone to school up until high school as her family could no longer afford to send her and she could contribute more by supporting her family as a trekking guide.  It was clear that her dreams lie in Hanoi where she could get a proper education and have some independence before she married at 25 rather than fourteen like many of her peers that by sixteen already had one or two children.  She was rare in the villages surrounding Sapa with her hopes of delaying marriage and going to school, but the constant Western influence of trekking tourists surely swayed her opinions.

As told by Coo the traditional path to marriage in many of the small villages surrounding Sapa started with a “kidnapping” of the fourteen year old soon-to-be-wife to their future husbands home to meet his family and gain their approval.  A dowry was arranged for the girl, which often included a combination of money, animals and textiles.  The steps that followed were quick, starting with the new wife taking up residence in her husband’s family’s home and then quickly moving into child bearing and child rearing. Love may or may not ever be part of the equation at any step in the process.  Her feelings on the subject were clear, fourteen was much too young to marry.

The more we talked the more complex it got; for those of her friends that didn’t have a traditional path to marriage they risked being kidnapped and sold just over the border into China.  With China’s strict laws on having just one child, many people abandon girls in hopes of having a boy.  This has created an abundance of boys with no prospects for marriage.  Girls in Sapa may also be considered a burden or embarrassment to their families because they were not married off.  All of this is slowly changing and Coo is an example of that, but she was still saddened when she spoke of friends that had disappeared, presumably to China.

All of this sixteen year old drama was interrupted frequently by her cell phone buzzing, which indicated another incoming text message.  One from a Singaporean she had guided on a trek a few months ago and another from a local boy telling her he loved her and wanted to get married.  All of this made me a little more suspicious of her dramatic love stories, she may be wise beyond her years, but she is still “sweet sixteen.”  All of my conversatios with Coo led to one clear conclusion, village love is certainly much different from courtships and weddings at home.

Erica and Matt Chua: Monkey Business

When taking photos one thing always distracts me: monkeys.  As soon as they arrive on the scene I watch them carefully to ensure that the crafty primates don’t steal my things.  Beyond that my attention is attracted to them because of their facial expressions, behavior and physics-defying leaps.  I can’t help but snap a few photos of them, but when time comes to put things together for LivingIF I can’t find a way to work monkey photos into it.  Today though it’s time for monkey business, here are a few of my favorite monkey photos and where you can meet these crafty creatures on your own.

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INDONESIA

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In the archipelago of Indonesia you will find monkeys of all shapes, sizes and colors.  City dwellers are wise to human’s ways, raiding fruit stalls and harassing house pets while the jungles are home to a wide variety that will be as interested in you as you are in them.  Ubud, Bali’s Sacred Monkey Forest is home to beautiful, but pesky monkeys that know humans as an easy source of food.

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The wise elderly monkeys sit atop temples watching people pass.
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The young scurry around to get food from tourists.  This happens one of two ways: the people give it willingly or the monkey scares them into dropping it.
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The very young nestle in the safety of their parents.
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INDIA

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Like the people of India, the monkeys are often forced to interact with hoards of people in sprawling cities.  They have learned many tricks such as raiding rooftop gardens and kitchens.

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Erica and Matt Chua: Monkey Business

Erica and Matt Chua: 36 Hours in Bangkok

 

My disclaimer on 36 hours in Bangkok is that no sane person should ever attempt to see Bangkok in 36 hours.  You certainly won’t be able to get through the aggressive timeline that I lay out below even if there was no traffic, heat or throngs of tourists to deal with.  That being said book a few extra days to see this remarkable city and learn the in’s and out’s of the city’s mass transit system because bypassing it will immediately change the way you feel about this Asian metropolis.  In fact if you really take the time to enjoy Bangkok you will find quiet wat’s off the beaten path and tree lined neighborhoods that provide a much needed respite from the chaotic city that surrounds you.

Friday

5 p.m.
1) RELEASE THE BIRDS

Visit Wat Indrawiharn and the 32 meter (over 100 feet) standing Buddha, which is the largest Buddha in the world.  To get your weekend off to a good start you can release birds, which is supposed to increase ones positive karma in this life thus leading to a better life in the next incarnation.

6:30 p.m.
2) GOLDEN MOUNT AT THE GOLDEN HOUR

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Erica and Matt Chua: 36 Hours in Bangkok

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