Author Archives: Ahimsa

How to be a Traveler – 15 tips for Long Term Nomadry

I’d like to begin with a word about budgeting. There is some dispute amongst travelers, with some camps accusing others of spending way too indiscriminately.  The other side argues it’s not a contest and who are they to get judged for how they want to spend their money? This ultimately begs questions of why you are traveling, and for how long but the way I see is that all other factors being more or less the same,  if you love something, you generally want to do more of it. I love reading and I read every day. This doesn’t make me better than someone who reads one book every couple months, but it does mean I have a different relationship with reading, even though technically we are both “readers.”

In other words, if you are spending less money to travel for longer, you have a closer relationship to travel/backpacking/nomadry. And, almost invariably, spending less money will create a closer connection to the people and world around you. (Money often serves as a buffer from reality).

(One other disclaimer–most of what I’m talking about is for people spending months or years on the road, not weeks.)

Nepal - Goat

The Goat Welcomes You

Here are fifteen somewhat scattered thoughts I think can help new travelers. Some are practical and some are philosophical and all are admittedly skew toward my style of travel. Your mileage may of course vary.

1. Pre-booking defeats the point.

If you’re flying into Melbourne at midnight during the Australian Open, or hitting Edinburgh in the middle of Festival, booking ahead is essential. Otherwise, there really isn’t any reason to pre-order your rooms. There aren’t many advantages: You could end up in a less than central location, the cheapest places often aren’t online, and even those that are give discounts in person that cannot be attained over the interweb. Most importantly, aren’t you traveling to learn how to let go of type-A, over-controlling tendencies? Why eliminate your flexibility before you even arrive?

Danish street art

2. Follow other tourists.

Like Dirk Gently and his holistic detective methods, you can have fun following other tourists around. Don’t get all creepy, mind you, but you don’t need a map or a phone if you simply observe where other tourists are heading. This can lead you into some unexpected fun places and being free from expectations, you definition of “rewarding” will be pleasantly lowered.

Christiana

3. Traveler’s insurance is for Fools and Mendicants.

This ties into my discussion about budgeting. Insurance isn’t cheap and wouldn’t you rather spend that money on adding a month to your trip? And again, aren’t you traveling to break free of the culture of fear and over-protection of the developed world? Take a risk, even if it’s one as banal as traveling with an uninsured digital camera.

So tough! So cute!

 4.  Slow down, speedy.

There is a tendency to “do” a country, meaning a quick 7-10 days zooming between 5 or so major sights. This county can now be ticked off and now has been done. There is something to be said for occasional short trips like this, but as a habit it is kind of superficial. Even the smallest places are worth a few days’ exploration. 3 to 5 days is a good rule-of-thumb minimum stay. This gives you long enough to either explore the town, visit a few restaurants, time to get to know the staff at that one place. You can wander around the town/city/village and also find the nearby places just outside of town that locals know but guidebooks do not mention.

It's in your head now, isn't it?

It’s in your head now, isn’t it?

5. Be an Ambassador.

Like it or not, fair or not, your actions represent more than just you. When trying to stave off aggressive touts, don’t say “maybe later.”  This means no, something they’re very well aware of, and you’re just too polite to say it.  But that kind of politeness is only needed when dealing with people of your own culture.  Just saying “no, not interested,” is a better of dealing with touts.

Those of us who grew up in West believe the human body isn’t disgraceful or disgusting. Many religions have strict dress codes, and it’s mind boggling to imagine gods who created humans (including shoulders) but feel disrespected by someone showing their shoulders at a temple. None of that matters. You are in their country, you play by their rules.

Maybe the difference between tourists and travelers is how they get to big locations?

Scandinavia - Street Art

6. Talk to Strangers.

Even if you’re shyer than the mayor of Shysylvania, there’s no better way to get around than asking the people who, you know, live there. Other travelers are great for information too if you’re not exactly sure where that last turn led you. You will meet people you never expected and for those collecting “authentic” points, a trove awaits here. This also will often keep you safer, as being human makes you less of a target than being an exotic other.

Ubud - Vanilla Discovery

7. Embrace the Unknown

If you’re fully embracing nomadry, you will constantly run into situations where you just don’t know what’s going on. The bus can be 24 hours late. The airplane may unexpectedly kick you off your flight. The UK doesn’t allow you to enter. These all happened to me–you will accrue similar ones of your own. This will frequently be frustrating but it is a good chance to practice living in the moment. Try your best to treat it all as a game, and don’t let the bastards get you down.

Wild Camping in Norway

8. Research all your options.

There might be flyers everywhere for a bus/train/ferry at a set price, but odds are the locals will have a cheaper, more interesting way to get there. For instance, in Malaysia it cost 20 dollars for a ferry from Georgetown to Langkawi. Every hotel and restaurant in Georgetown advertise this. But some googling showed that by adding a couple hours and going back via the mainland, you can save 8 dollars. And it’s a more interesting journey. This advice is mostly relevant in developed countries; some places there is one bus, and if you want to go, you’d better be on it. But it’s a good habit to research as much as you are able. You’ve never had more information at your fingertips–take advantage of it!

Lombok statue

 9. Take photos of more than just the Sights.

While a great picture of a castle, temple or mountain can win you some serious flickr fame or instagram cred, you might enjoy looking back more on a picture of your favorite kebab stand or that tasty popsicle you bought every day. Especially if you only visited the “sight” for an hour or two.

Bali Sea View

10. Trust everyone.

Why travel if you don’t believe in the innate goodness of your fellow man? People all over the world want to help you; give you directions or offer you a ride. And don’t insult them by carrying a money belt or bum bag. If someone wants to take your money, they will find a way. If you wouldn’t wear a money belt at home, wearing one abroad is, at best, highly prejudiced. Tourist countries have developed too many ways to steal your money legitimately via tours, touts and old-fashioned price gouging to need to emphasize pickpocketing.

Random Oslo creature

11. Don’t trust everyone.

Okay, this isn’t quite the same as the above note. Its true that you should in general trust people, and there are far fewer psychos than the local news would have you believe. However, there are still plenty of scam artists who would quite happily part you from your money or possessions. Developing a bit of judgment will help your trip immensely. This varies from country to country–in general people in Laos or Myanmar are less likely to lie than people in Indian or Vietnam. You will develop your own instincts about trustworthiness.

Copenhagen Street Art

12.  Tiresome tours.

There’s this idea that the more semi-official tours you do, the better your trip is. It’s pretty easy to land somewhere, sign up for a trip to the local whatever and move on. But instead of dropping too much money on a tour or boat ride, try walking around some non-touristy areas. Talk to whomever you meet—they’ll likely be much more interested than if you had stayed in the backpacker areas. And this can be a far more rewarding way to spend your day. Nearly all the pictures in this post were taken on random wanders.

Kebabistan - Copenhagen

13.  When in doubt, find a tout.

Touts can be annoying, but they are not evil agents of chaos trying to take all your money. They’re often very poor people trying to make enough to get by from people who are far richer than they. Most guidebooks advise not talking to them, but you can find some really good room deals by chatting with touts and looking at the rooms they offer. If someone has a hokey fortune telling bit, play along and give them a dollar or two. Traveling very cheaply is great, if that’s what you want, but improving other people’s lives, even incrementally, is much better.

Troll Tongue

 14. DO YOU SPEAK ENGLISH?

It’s usually fairly easy to get by speaking English, but if you are headed to a country for 3 or 4 weeks you can learn some basic words—yes, no, please, thank you, 1-10–before hand or in impromptu language exchanges. with the children who will swarm you on trains, in cafes, on the street, or at monuments. They’ll be delighted to hang out and teach you some of their native language, and you’ll pick up a smattering of useful words. Win-win.

Chiang Mai - New Fruit

15. Sly Money Trick

When you’re new to a country and don’t know how much things are, try paying with a low denomination note. (You can ask, but there’s no guarantee you’ll get the right price quoted to you.) Either they will ask you for a little more, or assume you know what you’re doing and give you back the correct change. You can use this to get a baseline for prices of all your staples.

In the interest of not writing too much, I think I’ll end it here. But I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments. Agree? Disagree? Completely apathetic?  Let me know!

This is not ‘Nam. There are Rules. (A Vegan Vietnam Experience.)

The Halong Bay cruise was admittedly a low point. Of course, it being Southeast Asia, everyone from the ticket seller to the driver to the people loading luggage onto the boat, had assured us that vegan food as available as an option. “Oh yes, very tasty, very fresh.”

It being Southeast Asia, they were all lying. The rice was vegan, it’s true. And a huge plate of crunchy peanuts were free from animal products. The rest, side dishes and fried eggs and entire fish, were decidedly not. I mixed the peanuts into my rice. I’d had worse meals, some of them cooked by me.

Dinner was no different–big piles of rice were the only surely vegan options–there were a few veggies swimming in a sauce that smelled of fermented fish. Plain rice isn’t so tasty but I happened to have a small container of nutritional yeast and some dried seaweed flakes, so even though I missed veggies it was a bearable few days.

Halong bay is beautiful, absorbingly so, and between climbing to caves and kayaking through lagoons and hiking through jungles and moonlit swims, the lack of vegan food didn’t interfere that much.

It was a low point, but only relatively so. Vegan Vietnam is an incredible treasure trove of tasty treats.

55 million Vietnamese people, give or take, are Buddhist, and have a tradition of eating veggie foods twice a month. (Snack options during this time include vegan pig ears, vegan chicken feet, vegan dried squid meat, and vegan king mackerel fish in tomato sauce, all of which costs two dollars or less ). Vietnam is easier than other places in SE Asia to be vegan in another regard as well. The word “chay,” written in a westernized script, adorns every veggie restaurant and food cart. Vietnamese being a tonal language, it’s a harder word to pronounce than you’d expect, but at the least you can keep your eyes out for it in written form.

The big cities have many vegan options of course. There are the cultish but always dependable Loving Huts, which often offer buffets on certain days and affordable, tasty meals the others. Not many people use Happy Cow anymore, and many of the listed restaurants have since closed, but the numbers do provide some perspective. Happy Cow lists 28 veggie and vegan places in Hanoi, 94 in Ho Chi Minh city (which puts it roughly on par with Tokyo and Kuala Lumpur and not too far behind Bangkok, which clocks in at 130. Interestingly, it’s the tiny Singapore that sports an all mighty 287 listings!) But the little towns are where the fascinating vegan options–and experiences–are to be found.

North from Ha Long Bay is Sapa, the famed hill station nestled in a land of misty rice terraces and cheeky Hmong touts. The specialty here is Dau phu Ca chua or tofu fried in tomato sauce and sprinkled with green onions. If that doesn’t sound exciting, then you need to hit skyscanner right now; the tofu is that good.

Because it is high in the hills and quite chilly by Southeast Asia standards, the other ubiquitous vegan friendly option is hot pot. Like shabu shabu or steamboat, they bring to you a grill and large pot of veggie stock, along with a table full of veggies, mushrooms, tofu, and even some mock meats. It’s fun to cook your own food at the restaurant, and one hotpot is enough food for two or three people.

One good thing about the tourism in Sapa, and other popular destinations in Vietnam, is that everyone understand what you mean when you ask for no egg or no fish sauce. All of the dishes are quite cheap–think in the 2 USD range–but for even cheaper you can DIY.

That most tasty remnant of French colonialism–baguettes–is everywhere and always vegan. It usually costs about .15 cents USD (depending on your haggling prowess, of course.) The markets have fruit, and many of the little stores sell western sundries, so peanut butter and banana baguettes are very easily achievable as well. (Or in a pinch, you can swap pringles for bananas, but it’s not recommended unless the very real danger of hanger is about to happen.)

Excepting the Ha Long Bay cruise of course, the food in the north was excellent. But it wasn’t until the cities of Hue and Hoi An that I really got to talking to Vietnamese vegans. In a crowded lunchtime place in Hue, one woman–who has lived in the US for over 30 years now–asked me if I knew that I was in a vegetarian restaurant. This made me laugh, as I had walked 4 kilometers along a busy road to find this place, and that the small room was filled with grey-robed monks. We chatted for a bit and I assured her I loved veggie and vegan food and had for all my life. The woman remained politely dubious–Americans she knew loved meat and cheese and milk. She watched in fascination as I munched on a plate of mixed rice.

Unfortunately, it was then that I discovered a vegetable that is truly loathsome. We’re talking a Lovecraftian menace; some kind of ancient, fermented something with a clear grudge against humanity. I can’t really describe the taste–though words like “rotting old socks” or “slightly corpsey” suggest themselves–and though I tried I could not eat it. Even the other foods on the plate it had touched were tainted. The woman watched my struggle, saying nothing, but when I left with half the food on my plate uneaten she smiled sadly to herself, clearly thinking something like “that’s what I thought.”

Three hours south, in Hoi An, things got better. Like everywhere else in the touristy parts of Vietnam there are plenty of great places to get vegan meals here (including the deservedly famous Karma Waters). But my favorite place in town didn’t even have a name. Down a side street off a different side street, it was the kind of place you could stumble into once and never find it again. There were no menus, only a small buffet for lunch with some of the tastiest eggplant I’ve ever had.

On my fourth or fifth visit there, the woman in charge started talking with me. She was a new vegan, and in a case of no one as pious as the recently converted she talked to me of the powers of grains and veggies for quite some time. It was all quite interesting, but when I told her I had been a vegan since 1995 she stood up and grabbed my biceps. With a big smile, she then disappeared into the back. Moments later, she returned with a dilapidated Polaroid and took a photo of me, which she tacked up onto the wall. “Very strong,” she said, smiling at me.

I took the night bus that night and didn’t see her again, but for all I know there’s still a photo of me hanging on that wall. What I learned later is that many Vietnamese think that without the protein provided by meat, there won’t be enough nutrition and you’ll waste away, or even break in half. (Seriously.) Having seen (and photographed) me, a 6 foot 3 guy, who is not skinny, might have helped her win the next argument. At the very least, she got to tell me about how healthy beans were, and I think that meant a lot to her.

Further south, the Russian enclave Na Trang was the land of 50 cent vegan Bánh mì from a smiling lady with a cart close to the ocean. I bought four from her on the way out of town. Dalat, another hill station with horses painted to resemble donkeys, had more cheap vegan restaurants than I could even try in a week and all of them were more delicious than I can say. Think a big bowl of phở (or something like it), three enormous fresh spring rolls, and unlimited tea for around 1 dollar USD. As for Hanoi–well Happy Cow wasn’t lying. The number of restaurants were staggering and all of them were grubbin’, but a small place called Huong Sen earned repeated visits for its awesome set lunches.

The tradition of abstaining from animals and their products has existed culturally for long centuries, but veganism is still new, burgeoning even, and that makes for a rewarding place to travel. As part-time vegetarians, they understand the needs of full-time vegans surprisingly well. From the powerhouses of phở and Bánh mì, to the equally tasty rau mong (the tastiest river weed around), you’ll eat well in Vietnam. Just watch out for the fermented gym socks.

Random discoveries at a Korean Grocery store

There is a small Home plus close to my new place. Home plus is partly owned by British super giant Tesco, which means you can find some Western things that the other big Korean markets (Emart, Lotte) do not have.

IMG164

This neighborhood, however, is rather Korean, especially as I was just in HBC (the most western part of Korea) for the last 2 months. So you can find things like Sweet Pumpkin/Yam tea.

IMG167

A cider that I have not seen anywhere else but might be fun to try in the summer time.
IMG165

And my favorite. Korean “Black Beer Stout” which is decidedly average. But this particular promotion comes with a a free toothbrush and mini-toothpaste. Perhaps to erase the bland taste as quickly as possible?
IMG166

So you’re going on a visa run to Fukuoka

Firstly, this information changes quickly. With my trip coming, I googled around a bit and found a lot of conflicting information. None of it was particularly old. So as of February 2015, this is absolutely correct but it no doubt will be out-of-date sooner rather than later.


Step 1: Get to the Airport. Take the Earliest Flight you Can

Korea-Incheon-International-Airport-Deperture-lobby-overview

Ideally, you would want to catch a flight at 7 am from Incheon. My flight was at 8 and I slept at the airport the night before. You cannot get through security to the really nice sofa lounge, but there are plenty of benches and charging points in the general public area.

Even then, I had to pay for a super expensive cab just to make sure I got to the Embassy in time.


Step 2: Get to the Embassy

Korean Embassy

Korean Embassy

The first new thing I found is that the Korean embassy in Fukuoka now closes for applications at 11:30. (It used to be 11:00) From the airport, it takes an hour on the subway (which is ten times cheaper than a cab and only two times as slow.) If you land and get through customs by 10, you should have enough time. First, take the free shuttle bus to the domestic terminal. This takes around 10 minutes.

Then hop on the subway and take it to Tojin Machi. This is 9 stops from the airport and it takes 30-40 minutes. Get out and leave via exit 1 and walk straight about 300 meters (5 minutes), then turn right at the big intersection and go about 400 more meters (6-7 minutes.) The Korean Consulate, recognizable by its flag, is on the left hand side.

The actual address, should you need it, is 1-1-3 Jigyohama, Chuo0Ku, Fukuoka, Japan, 810-0065.

The Phone Number is 81-(0) 92-771-0461/3.

If you do want to take a cab, get a map from the information desk and ask for them to write the name of the embassy in Japanese.

this is what it looks like

this is what it looks like


 Step 3: Everything you Need

  • Visa Application Form (available online or at the embassy.)
  • Name of your academy
  • Name of your employer
  • DOB of your employer
  • Phone number in Korea
  • Address in Korea
  • Visa issuance number
  • Passport Photo (1)
  • Fee in Cash (Yen) For Americans, it costs 5.400 Yen. It’s 7,200 Yen for Canadians, Kiwis, Irish, and SAers. Ozzies pay 14,400 Yen and Brits must shell out 24,000.

Step 4: Passing Time

Dazaifu

Dazaifu

Get your receipt–make sure it’s stamped–and come back in two days between 1:30 and 4:00 pm. If you are going in February, book your room early or you might end up having to pay a fair chunk of money. Fukuoka is full! Not only are there people on extended Lunar New Years, and loads of other visa runners, but also many parents are in town to see their children graduate. I couchsurfed the first night and then slept in a manga cafe the 2nd night. The hostels and all hotels under 100 dollars were full a week before.

There is quite a bit to do in Fukuoka for two days, but I recommend taking a day trip or two. Beppu is an amazing land of hotsprings, and almost as nice is the old capital Dazaifu.


Ask for this in the airport

Ask for this in the airport

I think that about covers it. Let me know if you have any questions.

Five Asian Places Surprisingly Difficult to Pronounce

Adapting different languages into a romanticized alphabet can be tricky. Many places in Asia, especially countries with the more squiggly alphabets, are difficult to translate into English. Obviously something like”Krung Thep Mahanakhon Amon Rattanakosin Mahinthara Ayuthaya Mahadilok Phop Noppharat Ratchathani Burirom Udomratchaniwet Mahasathan Amon Piman Awatan Sathit Sakkathattiya Witsanukam Prasit” is a bit of a mouthful, but you can get into linguistic difficulty with far fewer syllables.

Here are five places more difficult to pronounce than you might guess.

Hspiaw, Myanmar

Hsipaw

Hsipaw

Pronunciation

Looks like: Hiss-pi-ah
Actual: See-Paw (or Tee-Bor) !!!

Myanmar has a lot of places that are tongue-twisters for most westerners, but Hspiaw with two distinctly different pronunciations is an easy choice.

Ubud, Indonesia

Ubud

Ubud

Pronunciation

Looks like: Oo-bud or Uh-bud
Actual: Oo-bood

The culture capital of Bali, where you can pay good money for plenty of “authentic” dances is a little tricky to say for a four letter word.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Phnom penh

Phnom penh

Pronunciation

Looks like: Fu-nom Pen or Pa-nom pen
Actual: Nom-pen or P’nom (one syallable, aspirated p) pen

This sexpat capital is full of middle age blokes adding needless p or f sounds, but at least their linguistic crimes are not as momentous as their moral ones.

Sihanoukville, Cambodia

A water buffalo in the water

A water buffalo in the water

Pronunciation

Looks like: Si-han-ook-ville.
Actual: Say Hack nook wheel

Cambodia earns two entries with this dire seaside resort that few travelers know how to say. Most Cambodians will understand it’s the one that isn’t Siem Reap or Phnom Penh.

Pie, Thailand

Slice of Pai

Slice of Pai

Pronunciation

Looks like: Pie
Actual: Bye

Almost every westerner says “pie,” which fits because this little town is so sweet, but in the Thai langauge it is pronounced “bye.”

Rambling Namsan

One of my favorite things about spending almost two months in the HBC area has been how close Namsan is. Namsan is a little hill in the middle of Seoul, where the Seoul Tower hangs out. There is a cable car to take those not interesting in walking up, but also many ways to climb up. (I actually seem to find a new way to the top each time I go up there.)

At the top are the usual convenience stories, overpriced restaurants, colored locks clinging to fences, and teddy bear museums.It’s high and shaded enough that snow lasts pretty much all year and on a rare clear day, the view of the city below is quite nice.

From HBC it takes a little less than half an hour to get up to the top. It’s not steep as other Korean mountains but you will see Koreans walking backwards or utilizing the exercise equipment. Anyway, here are some pictures taken from various parts of the surrounding areas.

A Kold Day in Korea

On a cold windy day in January, I went to visit Yeoido Island. (Technically, I suppose, it’s Yeoi Island, as “do” means island, but that sounds weird.) One of my favorite Korean movies is The Host (aka Gwoemul) and I’d heard there was a statue of the monster here.

It was quite easy to find old Gwoemul and on this cold day there weren’t many people out. I love sunny, clear cold Korean winter days. The antithesis of drizzly, cloudy, not-that-cold and hardly ever windy Oregon winters. Later I wandered over to the 63 building and though it is so big I couldn’t find the entrance, it had a really cool reflection of the river behind it.

I was able to get some pictures of the area. Take a look for yourself!