From Halong with Love

Halong bay, one of the most beautiful and untouched locations in northern Vietnam. A series of islands, caves, hidden bays and still waters create a landscape that brings together the picture perfect scenes of cinema’s definition of paradise. The rocky, mountainesque backdrop is covered in lush green jungle and the waters are deep and mysterious. To say I was excited to set sail from the port of Hai Phong out to one of our final destinations is an understatement. As travelers do in these parts, we booked an overnight stay on a big wooden boat so that we could stay overnight right in the middle of it all, from sunrise to sunset, kayaking around the islands.

Our journey to Halong Bay began at 8.30am, like a can of sardines we ventured through the city of Hanoi in our little van, a mixture of people, nationalities and ages. Within about 5 minutes it became apparent that our driver had a death wish and felt that red lights, pedestrians, cyclists, animals, other vehicles and sometimes even buildings had no relevance or importance to his driving techniques. He also liked to drive on the left side of the road (generally you should be on the right side in Vietnam), beeping the entire way. At least he gave people a warning, move out of the way or become dust. 5 hours like this? No way. Eventually we stopped and I have him a talking to. LOL who was I kidding, we went back to being terrified and spending the majority of the time driving at high speed towards oncoming trucks, the driver lazily leaving one leg up on the dashboard (brakes also weren’t of importance) and chatting away on the phone. Due to the fact that we more or less broke every rule in the book and stopped for nothing and no one, we cut two hours off our journey time. Always a silver lining!

At this point it started to dawn on us that we’d more or less booked our trip with the Faulty Towers of cruises, which was confirmed when our “cruise” boat turned up, hours late. The photos we were shown of the boat couldn’t have even been taken 10 years ago, before the boat fell apart, they were undoubtedly just pictures of a different boat. We were told we couldn’t have our room for another few hours so we sat down for lunch. Fish carcasses were strewn across the table with mountains of rice and we were handed the list of “boat rules”. The number one rule was that you had to put your valuables in the “pig envelope” and rule number two was don’t buy drink “out of the boat”. We couldn’t understand the rest of the rules and we never found out what the pig envelope was. Ah well, things could only get better from there! 

We had a lovely few hours of discovering some huge caves and getting a boat ride from a local fishing village (a group of boats is probably a more apt name) and then headed back to our beautiful cruise boat for some kayaking. At this point our tour guide thought it was about time we got our rooms. Our twin room that we’d booked turned into a triple room with a double bed and an extra person. The air con was just for show, as were the lights and plugs. None of those are much use when you’ve no electricity! We did get cockroaches though which funnily enough wasn’t on the list of room features. 

Nevertheless, it’s Halong Bay, once in a lifetime trip, if we just ignored the boat and looked around us it was incredibly beautiful, even if a thunderous storm had descended. At 6.30pm darkness was starting to fall and we still hadn’t started kayaking, the main activity of the trip. Eventually our guide agreed that we could do it and as it was getting dark there was no time to change. In we hopped, fully clothed, into our kayak that was a few inches in water. No harm! However within 10 minutes we were in almost complete darkness and even though we hadn’t rowed far from the boat, it was nowhere to be found. All we could see were little lights on the boats in the distance, at least 30 of them, spread out everywhere. We were a tiny spec of nothingness in the vast area, both pretty much blind without our glasses and invisible to everyone else in the falling dark. Alas, a light in the distance signaled towards us, beckoning us in, clearly we were being rescued! “What boat are you on!”, “Which group are you with?”. We had no idea. “The really shit one!” ,”Ok, over there”. They turned their engine on and began to turn away from us. We could hear an English boy asking their tour guides if they weren’t going to help us. That would be a no! It turns out our boat actually left the area so we eventually climbed onto a different one and our own boat came back for us a while later. 

That’s probably our boat sailing away in the background
From there, things pretty much escalated even further with Gráinne even catching a disease on the boat. I can’t even tell anyone not to book with the company because they hid their name from everything, and our tour guide abandoned us and shouted “see you in the future, maybe! Hahaha!” before sprinted off, leaving our group even more baffled. However we can only laugh. The funniest moment was probably when Grainne got trapped in the tiny bathroom of our cabin because the door handle was missing. Thankfully, I heard her screams from the deck. We told our tour guide to check it out so we locked him into it so he could feel the fear for himself. He managed to get out after 5 minutes (we could see him struggling through the glass door) and said “no problem! Don’t need door handle.” 
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Cambodia: Social Eateries 

Traveling from north to south Cambodia, Siem Reap to Sihanoukville, we had a taste not only of Cambodian life but also their cuisine. As an added bonus we even got to experience some other elements of Cambodia that certainly were not on the to do list, such as the Intensive Care Unit of a clinic in Phnom Penh (there are cats) and many a police station in Sihanoukville (watch out for those motorbike Cowboys, they’ll snatch your handbag and bring you with them if necessary!).




Despite the crime, corruption and poor health system, Cambodia is miles ahead of developed countries with their restaurants and cafes that have more on the menu than something to fill your belly. They’ve got social justice and societal responsibility in every meal and aren’t afraid to let you know. In fact, these social restaurants are majorly differentiated by their change making business models. Here are 3 of my favorite social eateries that I was lucky enough to visit during my time traveling through Cambodia:
Daughters is a hugely successful NGO in Cambodia that began in 2007 when women and young girls were rescued from the sex trafficking industry in the red light district of Phnom Penh. The women were rehabilitated through art, music, counseling and educational classes to help them have a second chance in life and in joining society as determined, newly skilled and educated citizens. Daughters of Cambodia is not only a café and restaurant, training and employing the local women, but also a boutique with handmade Fairtrade products as well as a beauty salon. 

I spent a few hours here, speaking to the women and asking them how long they had been with Daughters, if they were happy, with many only having recently arrived, but everyone with a smile on their face. The beauty of this NGO is that the women are trained so well within their chosen path, that they later find jobs working in nice restaurants, hotels, bigger beauty salons and clothing factories, earning higher wages to care for themselves and often their children. The NGO is sustainable and profitable, and their services are spot on. I had a delicious lunch and smoothie and received amazing customer service across all three of their projects. Next time I’m in Phnom Penh I’ll definitely be returning here!
Banteay Srey, Kampot
Much like daughters of Cambodia, Banteay Srey is a project with the aim of rehabilitating women through offering them a kinder path in life. Perched on the banks of the Kampot river, deep into the jungle, this project has a vegetarian restaurant, juice bar, yoga classes and massage parlor. You can also get henna tattoos done! 

Myself and Grainne had an amazing day here which began with an hour and a half of intense yoga. This would probably have been more relaxing if I had ever done even 5 minutes of yoga before in my life but I made it to the end anyways. We then had interesting massages that began with a technique called brushing, followed by a peaceful lunch right on the river. The menu is very creative so even non-vegetarians will be satisfied with the choice. As for the juices, perfection! I could easily stay a few weeks here. Banteay Srey is strictly for the ladies. Sorry boys, no yoga for you.




Sandan, Sihanoukville
We discovered this restaurant on TripAdvisor and were pleasantly surprised by the beautiful building and decor. I don’t think I’ve ever dined somewhere with such attentive staff as Sandam, with the restaurant functioning under a student and teacher system. The restaurant helps to provide training and education to street children. An unfortunate reality in Cambodia is that many parents cannot provide for their children, forcing them to work throughout the day, causing them to miss out on school and getting an education, limiting their future prospects. Often, children don’t even have a parent in their lives and will sell postcards and other trinkets during the day and sleep on the streets at night. This is how the restaurant began, as the founders came across a group of young children sleeping on the beach at night. Sandan not only works with the children, but also their parents when possible, providing them with fairly paid jobs, mainly in creating clothes and other home wear items that can all be purchased at the restaurant. I had a delicious pumpkin curry here, wrapped up in banana leaf. Sandan specializes in traditional Cambodian dishes.


Siem Reap, Cambodia

Siem Reap is home to the world famous Buddhist and Hindu temples that date back to the 11th century. Although I had a few days here last year, we just did one day of temple trekking so this time we went for two, including a day that began at 4.45am so we could watch the sunrise at Angkor Wat, the most iconic temple at the centre of it all. 


We flew into Seam Reap from Phuket with a stopover in Bangkok, where we bought visas on arrival and got a taxi into the city from there. Our taxi driver, Narith, was so nice so we organized for him to bring us around to the temples during our stay for $30 a day. It’s $20 a day per person for a ticket into the temples but with unlimited access so we bought a 3 day pass for $40 that can be used within a week. Narith was great and always had cold water (and air conditioning!) waiting for us whenever we made it out of a temple. If anyone is traveling to Siem Reap, send him an email and he’ll make sure you enjoy your stay. We realized on the first day that we were actually over-Asianly dressed when even the locals were asking us where we bought our hats. You’re meant to be well covered up when visiting the temples but very few people actually respected this!




We did all the big temples including Angkor wat, Bayon and the famous tomb raider temple as well as loads of smaller ones. My favorite was the East Mabon, a temple made entirely from bricks. The temples themselves are breathtaking and combined with the backdrop of blue skies, a tropical jungle and the red earth, it’s definitely my favorite place in Cambodia.

Siem Reap itself has loads to do. For travelers on a budget, the Mad Monkey Hostel and the Naga Guesthouse are great and you can get a bed for $5 a night with pool access. They support local educational projects and help out the developing communities so your stay there is a responsible one! Last year I stayed at the Sokhalay Angkor Inn which was absolutely amazing. It’s a beautiful 5 star resort and is definitely the most impressive hotel I’ve ever stayed in. We had our own villa just in front of the huge pool with an island bar in the middle. It’s a lot pricier but definitely worth it with breakfast and airport transfers included, as well as a cocktail handed to you on arrival! 

While in Siem Reap I did another cooking course but this time a Khmer one, which I actually preferred to the Thai cuisine! We also went to the Koulen where for $12 each you have access to a huge all you can eat buffet that includes different Asian cuisines as well as some Italian food, and a traditional Khmer musical and dance show. It was a rare opportunity to see the rich culture of Cambodia’s past in such a luxurious environment. As an extremely poor country, they’re not yet on par with neighboring Thailand in terms of tourist attractions.

The increase in poverty compared to Thailand is notable upon arrival in Cambodia and it’s heartbreaking to see young children on the streets selling postcards and bracelets for so little, the lack of money in their families depriving them of an education and often their childhood. Even the Tuk Tuk drivers are out all night, taking naps in their hammocks and always looking for work. There is a huge number of Cambodians that were left physically disabled because of mines and even these people are out trying to make a living, not begging, but playing music, painting or making jewelry. The courage and strength of the Cambodian people never ceases to amaze me and I encourage anyone that travels here to pay attention to where they’re staying and eating to make sure that the people who are welcoming you to their country are being paid a fair wage and treated well by their employers. A small tip or even just a smile and a few words of encouragement can go a long way.

Shipwrecked, Thai style

We arrived on Koh Phangan after another interesting boat journey and tried to take control of a not so great situation in which we found ourselves staying in a really strange hostel in an even stranger area, so we organized a trip with Safari Boatt around the island for the following morning. We were picked up by Tiger, the biggest legend we’ve met to far on our travels. We could understand about 50% of what he was saying and he was absolutely crazy. First he brought us on a hike up a mountain, then to a waterfall followed by some tree climbing and archery before a traditional Thai lunch. After all that we headed to a beach on the north of the island where we were given snorkels and an hour to explore. This is when we had our first encounter with sea slugs, yuck!

To finish the day Tiger brought us back to the pier and sorted us out with kayaks, oars and life jackets. We all paired up so I ended up with an English lad who did most of the rowing while I took pictures and tried to figure out how Maxi and Grainne managed to get so far ahead of the group that I couldn’t even see them anymore. We made our way out peacefully to a little island off Koh Phangan which is completely untouched, it was amazing! When all the kayaks were pulled up on the shore I realized that Maxi and Grainne were actually nowhere to be seen. In an attempt to stay calm I casually informed Tiger and the rest of the group that we lost 2 people. No one would be believe me. After a good 5 minutes of convincing everyone that I did not travel to Thailand alone and that we actually had lost 2 people, we identified a tiny speck in the distance as their kayak but with no people on it. Panic started to kick in and Tiger left us, rowing back towards the mainland at a ridiculously high speed.

It turns out Maxi and Grainne’s kayak had a large hole in it and after a few minutes of rowing it became nothing more than a large plastic container of water, barely floating and unable to hold either of them. By the time they realized what was going on, we were too far ahead and couldn’t hear them screaming for help. When Tiger reached them they had abandoned ship and were attempting to swim to the island as they thought it looked a little closer than the mainland.

As Tiger rescued them and towed the useless kayak back to the island, the rest of us all became great friends while bonding over our mutual shock at the lack of safety in Thailand. Tiger arrived back and pulled an iPad out of no where, put on some music and had a smoke while ringing his friend on Koh Phangan and organized for someone to bring out a new kayak. About ten minutes later someone in the group noticed that the rogue kayak had gone back out to sea and Tiger was off again. Meanwhile we learned that the island did not support life and that a resort was meant to have been built on it but plans were abandoned because no animals could live on it, and wild dogs that were on the island would die because of the strange frequency. Cats and dogs were sent out to the island to test this before plans went ahead with the resort and apparently they all died, bleeding from their ears. 

Tiger came back and confirmed that the story was true and thought it would be funny to elaborate on it, saying the island was like the perfect location for a horror movie and that strange monsters lived in the depths of the lagoon. He then looked at me and said “funny girl always dies first”. 

Darkness started to fall, we were already over an hour behind schedule and Tiger’s friend was no where to be seen so myself and my new friend Kyle took Grainne on our kayak and we made a painfully slow and unstable journey back to Koh Phangan. By the time we made it back, we had so much water in our kayak that we were basically swimming and were nearly knocked off multiple times due to the ferries that kept coming up behind us and creating waves. 

Thirty minutes later Maxi and Tiger washed up on another wave, just as we were really starting to consider finding out if there was a coast card on the island. In the end, we actually really loved Koh Phangan and the crazy islanders, despite the fact that I momentarily thought I’d be traveling alone for the next few weeks. Next stop, Phuket!

Master Chef Thailand

Since arriving in Thailand I’ve had pad Thai or a variation of pad Thai at least twice a day. Whether getting a street food version in Bangkok for 30 baht (less than a euro) or in the restaurants on Koh Tao for about 100 baht, it’s always so good! We’ve even had it for breakfast. It’s more or less noodles with vegetables and you can get chicken, beef, pork or seafood if you want, or for the vegetarians there’s also pineapple and cashew nuts or tofu versions! 

We took the obsession to an new level and signed up to a Thai cooking class to find out exactly what makes the pad Thai so delicious. We took the class at Koh Tao Thai Cooking Class and had some lovely local ladies teach us how to prepare three different dishes: vegetable pad Thai, Thai red curry and “no name”. “No name” is a dish that they haven’t found a name for yet and is therefore conveniently called “no name”, even on the restaurant menus.

Grainne and Maxi made slightly different dishes as they included fish and meat in their recipes and I had extra vegetables and less spice in mine.
First we made “no name” which is kind of like an Indian onion bhaji but with ingredients that are easily found in Thailand. They’re vegetarian, really easy to prepare and super tasty! We ate them immediately after making them which was a terrible idea because we were so full afterwards and had two more dishes to go. It was really funny cooking in a traditional Thai kitchen as everything was measured in a unique way and when heating things up there wasn’t a certain gas mark or temperature, just the “on” mode. I’ve included the actual recipes we were given.

“No name” recipe
Ingredients
30 grams sliced cabbage
20 grams sliced onion
20 grams sliced string bean
1/2 tsp red curry
3 large spoons cornflour 
1 cup of water
Preparation
Mix everything together
Fry in pan with vegetable oil

Next up was the pad Thai, the moment had finally arrived! We were dying to find out how to make the noodles as they were nothing like what we’d ever had before in Europe and are so much better than normal noodles. After we had all of our ingredients and made the pad Thai sauce as well as preparing all the veg, our chef gave us the noodles already prepared and said she “bought them in the market”. Our dreams were crushed and we never actually found out how they’re made! Making the pad Thai sauce was quite complicated as the ingredients were really strange and we’d never heard or seen a few of them before but I’ll make an attempt to pick them up in an Asian food store when I’m back home. I’ve a feeling I won’t find them all in Supervalu.


Pad Thai recipe
Ingredients
1 egg
30 grams fresh flat rice noodles 
20 grams bean sprouts
1 garlic clove
1 piece of lime
1 tbsp ground roasted peanuts
2 tbsp cooking oil
Pad Thai sauce ingredients
20 grams tamarind juice
3 large dry chillies (remove seeds)
50 grams palm sugar
2 tbsp vegetable stock
80 grams red onions
1 tbsp salt
2 large spoons coconut milk
Preparation for sauce
Mix tamarind sauce, onion, salt, chillies, palm sugar, vegetable stock and coconut milk. Grind until fine
Mix well and bring to the boil
Preparation for pad Thai
Heat oil in frying pan and sauté garlic
Scramble egg and add noodles and sauce
Take off heat and add bean sprouts and onion

We simultaneously prepared the Thai red curry which was actually yellow. With every ingredient I added to our mix I asked if it was spicy. Our chef said “no” and laughed each time, even for the large chillies and curry powder. It turns out Irish “not spicy” and Thai “not spicy” are on two different planets. 
Thai red curry
Ingredients
20 grams carrot
250ml coconut milk
20 grams eggplant
2 baby corns
2 tbsp cooking oil
1 string bean
1 tsp sugar
2 kafir lime leaves 

Ingredients for curry paste
4 hot chillies
1 big red chilly
1 garlic clove
1 small slice of galangal
1 tbsp lemon grass
1/2 tsp sliced kafir lime rind
1/2 tsp vegetable stock
1 tsp coriander root
5 pepper corns
1/2 tsp roasted coriander seeds
1 small slice of turmeric
1/4 tsp salt
1 tsp vegetable paste
Put all curry paste ingredients in mortar and grind until mixed thoroughly 

Preparation 
Fry curry paste with oil and add coconut milk
Add all other ingredients (except kafir lime leaves) and mix
Remove from heat and add leaves
Our Thai red curry turned out really well but as we’d already eaten enough “no name” to serve as a full meal and it was only 11am, we struggled to eat much more and had to lie down for an hour before attempting to get back to Sairee beach. Also, as pretty clear from the photos, we were absolutely dying with the heat! All in all, a fantastic outing and we’ll definitely be putting our new cooking skills into practice when we’re home. Understanding a country’s cuisine is one of the nicest ways to discover its culture and learning how to cook their food is an easy way to bring your travel experience home with you. If only we actually found out how to make those noodles!

The cooking class has also helped Grainne and Maxi make progress in their attempt to become Asian and integrate into the local community, although Maxi’s height is holding him back.

Koh Tao: Surviving our first diving experience

On the ferry from Chumphan to Koh Tao it became apparent that we were actually making our way towards a scuba diving mecca. As none of us had been diving before, we didn’t think much of it and were more … Continue reading

€1,000 and counting… Thank you!

CHD New School Building

Over the past few days, thanks to family and friends, we have received €1,000 of donations for Children with Hope for Development! I would like to give a big thank you to everyone that has made this possible through their generous donations, especially all those who made it to the fundraiser on Friday in Craughwell as well as all those who have made online donations. The €1,000 that has been fundraised will go so far in Cambodia and will be of huge help in bringing Children with Hope for Development towards sustainability.

Last week due to bad weather conditions in Takeo, one of the classrooms was completely knocked down. This led to Children with Hope for Development urgently seeking donations to not only help repair the classroom but also to replace it with a concrete one, much like the computer room that we were able to fund last year. It is for reasons such as this that CHD is trying to become sustainable, so that they can stop relying on donations to make repairs to their classrooms or furthermore, to improve their facilities in general.

If you’d like to make a donation or learn more about CHD, CLICK HERE.

Old school building Old school building (2)

Thanks again,

Ashley

Children with Hope for Development – One step closer to sustainability!

Amazingly, it has been almost I year since my brother Christopher and I returned from our 5 week trip to Cambodia where we were welcomed with open arms by the local people of the country’s oldest and most eastern province, Takeo. During our 5 weeks of volunteering with grassroots NGO Children with Hope for Development (CHD), we discovered the beautiful but struggling country through the eyes of teachers, having the opportunity to teach over 200 children on a daily basis in the tiny village of Po, where everyone – women, children and the elderly included – works in the rice fields along the Vietnamese border. To put it lightly, the province of Takeo is severely poverty stricken and in desperate need not only of funding but also of volunteers.

Students at CHD

Our experience at CHD is one that my brother and I will hold forever, and drastically changed how we view many things in life, but mainly the appreciation we now have for the basic services that we benefit from and the privileges that, as citizens of a developed country, we all take for granted. Cambodia is still recovering from a gruesome genocide that resulted in the loss of a quarter of the country’s population only 30 years ago, leaving them decades behind in terms of development. The education system was practically non-existent at the end of the Khmer Rouge’s reign and infrastructure was left in ruins as the country’s population was taken out of cities and contrived into forced labour amongst the rice fields. Only last year, during our time in Cambodia, were two leaders of the Khmer Rouge convicted for crimes against humanity during the genocide. Although justice has still not been served to the people of Cambodia, they are making huge progress and a new generation of students are finally having the opportunity to benefit from a continuously improving education system, thanks to international aid and NGO’s such as Children with Hope for Development that recognise Cambodia needs to adopt western style education systems in order to develop further.

CHD Students (2)

Children with Hope for Development provides English, French and maths classes to students that live within a 10km radius of the school. The students are aged between 4 and 17, and although they also attend the government school, it simply isn’t enough. Classes taught in Cambodian schools are extremely basic and for only 3 to 4 hours every morning. Sokha Treng, founder of CHD, recognised that the continuous circle of poverty in the rural region of Takeo was never going to change if the children did not receive an adequate education in order to learn how to read and write not only in Khmer but also in English, enabling them have the opportunity to find a job out of the rice fields and possibly even study at university. However, the organisation is not yet sustainable. CHD relies solely on donations to pay their bills – salaries for the Cambodian teachers, electricity, internet, books and school supplies.

New classroom under construction

Last year, thanks to our neighbours, friends, family, Craughwell Athletics Club, Craughwell National School and NEOMA Business School we raised US$3,000 for the organisation and ieDepot generously matched this figure, bringing our total donation to US$6,000. This enabled CHD to build their first concrete building and for my brother and I to begin an IT class with the students. Technology, computers, even smart phones are a rarity in Takeo with the majority of the students not even having electricity in their own homes. The opportunity to learn how to use a computer or even just to see one, attracted students from afar to CHD and will surely open many doors for them in the future. The US$6,000 was raised covered all costs for the building of the fantastic new classroom, the first of its kind for the school to have an actual floor, walls and roof as well as electric fans to keep the students cool all year round. The new building also means that school can continue throughout the rainy season, unlike with the previous classroom that merely provides shade.

CHD New Classroom

It is at this point that CHD has a strong foundation and a growing number of students as well as active volunteers traveling from all over the world and bringing whatever donations they can with them. CHD has identified that in order for them to really spread their wings and have a big impact on the local community, they need to become sustainable. CHD’s next big project, a goal that once seemed impossible, is to build accommodation for the volunteers so that the money generated from food and board can be used to cover the school’s costs. Furthermore, CHD is also planning on starting a farming project with chickens and other small farm animals. Eggs and milk will be sold locally to generate funds for the organisation and give them the freedom to make progression without relying on donations from volunteers.

20140811-070215-PM-68535472.jpg

In less than two weeks’ time, I will be leaving for another trip to South East Asia and hope that with the help of others I will be able to contribute towards CHD’s attempt at becoming sustainable. If you’d like to make a donation to CHD, no matter how big or small, it will be hugely appreciated and will bring the organisation one step closer to becoming sustainable. If you’d like to know more about the project or get involved, don’t hesitate in contacting myself or CHD directly.

Thank you for taking to the time to read my blog, I look forward to sharing more about the progress at CHD in a few weeks’ time 🙂

Ashley

Teaching in Takeo

As our four weeks of teaching, volunteering and taking part in the general day to day business at Children with Hope for Development comes to a close, it’s clear that not only the children have learned a lot, but we … Continue reading