How To Overcome A Bad Travel Experience

Let’s get real for a second.

As much as we — and our bank accounts — would like to believe, travel is not always roses and sunshine. Sometimes shit happens that is out of our control, and we are forced to learn very quickly how to best deal with it.

Late last year, my friend and I spent a month traveling Southeast Asia. One of the most anticipated components of the trip was an excursion to Ha Long Bay, a much acclaimed highlight of northern Vietnam. The plan was to get picked up from our hotel in Hanoi’s Old Quarter in the early morning, shuttle to Ha Long and then spend the next 24 hours enjoying the resplendent views the bay had to offer onboard a luxury junk boat.

Doesn’t sound like a lot of room for things to go sideways, right?

Wrong.

The first foreshadowing of the misery to follow began at the ungodly hour of 7.15am when we received a phone call from reception informing us that our shuttle bus was waiting for us. As our travel agent, previous tour guides and itinerary had notified, the earliest we would be picked up was around 8am. At 7.15am, we had neither packed nor eaten and were barely unconscious. Panicked, we sprang to action throwing clothes on and stuffing belongings into suitcases. Reception rang us multiple times during this rush to warn us that the shuttle would leave without us if we didn’t get our act together.

“Hurry up.” the lady snapped in an ill-mannered tone. Well, excuse you.

We checked out and made it to the shuttle in a record five minutes (how’s that for two teenage girls?). The driver flung our luggage into the back and then pushed us towards the back seat. We buckled ourselves down and issued sincere apologies to the six other passengers, all whom returned cold looks that suggested the feeling was not mutual.

It was only once the shuttle had left Hanoi that I realised I had left all of my toiletries in the hotel room. It was fair to say that we were not off to a good start.

Our luck only worsened when the lady sitting in front of me spilt her takeaway coffee. It trickled down through her seat and into the bag at my feet. I may be a fan of Vietnamese coffee, but that enthusiasm extends to when it’s in my stomach and not all over my possessions. Frustratingly, the woman seemed more concerned with the fact that her morning coffee had met a bitter end (pun intended) than the fact that she had effectively ruined the contents of my luggage.

The drive from Hanoi to Ha Long Bay was an ordeal in and of itself. I suffer from debilitating motion sickness and had been reassured that the drive would take a couple of hours max, only to arrive at our destination four nauseating hours later. I had never experienced a more stomach-churning journey in my life. The driver didn’t seem to understand the concept of the brake, and last night’s dinner threatened to make a reappearance. As I had also contracted an aggressive throat infection, I took codeine which mercifully knocked me out for the majority of the ride. My poor friend however was subjected to rude and unnecessary comments from the fellow tourists that left her feeling victimised and hurt. No one — not even the driver — felt the need to stick up for her or put the other tourists in their place.

When we arrived in Ha Long Bay, the driver climbed into the back of the shuttle and yelled at me in Vietnamese to wake up. Disorientated from the drugs, I stumbled with my queasy friend out of the shuttle and towards the port. I promptly received a phone call from the junk boat company where I was informed that the boat we had booked wasn’t available and that we had been switched to another. Whilst we weren’t bothered over the change of boat, we were annoyed that our original itinerary was no longer to go ahead. Activities we had looked forward to for months were cancelled and replaced with ones we would not have opted for on our own accord.

As it turned out, we didn’t have to worry about the change in itinerary. In the throes of pain, I downed a couple more codeine and passed out in our cabin for fourteen hours straight. My friend — still traumatised from the journey and interacting with the driver and fellow tourists — was relieved to have an excuse to hide in the cabin for the remainder of the voyage. We managed to sneak onto the isolated top deck before the boat docked the next day to enjoy the view and take some gorgeous photos, but for the most part, our experience was not one I recall fondly.

Reflecting on the experience, it’s easy to let the fact that we were mistreated by the driver and fellow tourists, fell very ill, had our plans cancelled without compensation and didn’t actually get to participate fully in the cruise monopolise my memory of Ha Long Bay. But the more I think about it, the more I have come to realise that I have two options: either I can remain sour and complain that the reality didn’t live up to my expectations, or I can accept that it happened and learn from the experience (ugh, I sound like my mother).

So… what good came out of the trip?

  • I experienced the unforgettable grandeur of Ha Long Bay (even if it was for half an hour when I was doped up on drugs)
  • The confidence that I can take ownership of a sticky situation when I have no one else (*cough parents cough*) to rely on
  • The knowledge that you should always pack the night before (again, my mother would be proud)
  • The ability to put a dreadful experience behind me and see it, not as a waste of money, but as a learning curve

I’ve made the decision not to name and shame the company we traveled with, partly because I also feel the other tourists were also responsible for our anxiety and partly because I can’t remember what they were called (🙈). The point that I want you to take away from this blog post is that shit can hit the fan. Ha Long Bay was supposed to be the pinnacle of our Southeast Asia trip, when in reality it was something that I could quite easily afford to forget. But what can I do?

In saying all of this, don’t let my experience taint your impression of Ha Long Bay. The destination was the redeeming feature of all of this, and I would quite happily return someday in the future (albeit privately and not through a company).

Be sure to check out my blog post — Postcards from Ha Long Bay — on the beauty of the UNESCO world heritage site!

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Why I Hate The Word Wanderlust

If we are going to compile a list of travel words that need to go away, then we can start with wanderlust.

Wanderlust is defined as “a strong desire to travel”. The urban dictionary has felt the need to further define wanderlust as “a very popular hashtag used on Instagram by girls who love to show off in all of their journeys”. No comment.

Before I start receiving hate letters from Pinterest users, allow me to clarify that I have nothing against people who like to travel. In fact, if I were, I would be something of an enormous hypocrite. I have read many intriguing articles written by bloggers who feel that wanderlust preaches inauthentic experience. However, my problem lies in the terminology.

We can collapse wanderlust into two words: wander and lust. While I have no qualms with the former, I do hold serious reservations about the latter. Lust – a passionate desire for something – has the implicit connotation that this object one longs for is not within reach. When men describe themselves as lusting after a woman (or vice versa – I’m nothing if not a feminist), they are generally referring to someone they cannot attain. Lust is unrequited, if you will.

If we apply this unrequitedness to wanderlust, we observe well-intending hash-tagging individuals as people whom consume all their time with pining after that escape but rarely take the measures necessary to turn dreams into reality. Am I generalising? Unashamedly so. But one consultation of Tumblr demonstrates my point.

For most people, travel doesn’t have to be something that exists purely in theory. Saving to finance a trip can be soul-crushing and demands sacrifice, but it’s not impossible. I saved up enough money to travel to Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia in late 2016 after ten months of working five part-time jobs on top of full-time university. It was social suicide – and admittedly not the best for my mental health – but it got me those plane tickets.

Wikipedia (everyone’s favourite reliable online source) discusses how wanderlust might “… reflect an intense urge for self-development by experiencing the unknown, confronting unforeseen challenges, getting to know unfamiliar cultures, ways of life and behaviours”.

I like that, I really do. Furthermore, I completely understand where people using the term for this purpose are coming from. But to put it bluntly, I feel like people are abusing the term and using it to make excuses. If you want to travel, formulate a plan and invest your energy into making it come to fruition.

In the words of the Travel Playbook: Start Traveling. Stop Lusting.

Photos sourced from Unsplash.

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The Bucket List: Banksy’s Walled Off Hotel (Or Why Tourism is Political)

This is the second edition in the Bucket List series, with the first showcasing the Balinese architecture of Villa Ariana Grande. However, what makes this post so special is that what I am about to discuss is worth more than a pretty Instagram picture.

It is only recently that I have begun to take an active interest in politics, and it was one of the best decisions I have ever made. Not only is it crucial that someone has a reasonable understanding of the political and cultural dynamics when traveling to a different country (in the interests of safety, if nothing else), but following current events and the like provides that extra dimension of appreciation for the context in which one experiences a new place.

The centrepiece of this post is Banksy’s Walled Off Hotel. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you will know that Banksy is a controversial and political graffiti artist who created the likes of Girl with the Red Balloon and Pulp Fiction. It was only in March 2017 – one month ago at the time of writing – that he opened the hotel.

The Walled Off Hotel is quite literally a work of art. In fact, it’s more of a demonstration than anything. The Walled Off hotel – hence it’s name – is located in Bethlehem opposite the Separation Wall (a wall constructed by Israel to segregate the country from Palestinian territory) and is self-promoted as having “the worst view in the world”.

The Walled Off Hotel has the unique potential to send a political message through it’s geography. According to the Conversation, “… placing an operating hotel on a site where guests can feel the oppression of the wall and experience the surveillance of an Israeli watchtower works to embed visitors in the occupation.” Guests will be subjected to physical confinement, checkpoints and security checks in the hopes of inciting feelings of injustice for those suffering from conflict such as that between Israel and Palestine. Banksy invites guests to subjugate themselves to the tensions of occupation, and his intentions for his latest masterpiece to construct a marriage between tourism and politics are sure to hit the mark.

Banksy’s latest instalment has attracted substantial media attention. Al Jazeera reported that critics accused him of “… making a profit off Palestinian suffering, normalising the occupation (and) beautifying the wall”. However, others applaud Banksy on his critique of the way Western tourists divorce travel from a country’s civil affairs and oppression. As for your opinion…? Well, you’ll just have to decide that for yourself.

If you are thinking about booking a reservation, you may want to act fast; it is likely that the hotel will only be funded for the remaining of 2017. Learn everything you need to know here.

The ‘Deats

Name: The Walled Off Hotel

Creator: Banksy

Location: 182 Caritas Street, Bethlehem, Palestine

Website: www.banksy.co.uk

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Everything You Need To Know About Tailoring in Hoi An

Tailoring in Southeast Asia is vast and world-renowned, although perhaps nowhere as much as Hoi An. Hoi An – a small town in central Vietnam – is known for many beautiful things, among which include a thriving tailor industry. Over 700 tailors reside here, with the trade often existing generations upon generations back within a single family.

If you’ve read any of my other blog posts from Southeast Asia, you’ll know that I am unapologetically suspicious of anything that doesn’t quite stack up. So when I discovered how little it cost to get six items of clothing made at various tailors across town, I was skeptical about the quality of the garments I would be receiving. Yet after doing some research, I was quickly reassured that I would not be sacrificing quality for price. The low prices are attributed to the low cost of living (and consequently wages) in Southeast Asia.

In saying that, you should always be vigilant of tailors that are prepared to rip you off. Despite the cost of tailoring in Southeast Asia being low, there are still those that will try and sell you inferior fabric or overcharge for substandard service. Although I didn’t encounter any tailors that I was unsatisfied with, I have heard from a handful of travellers that there is an outrageous number of tailors who actually do not produce garments in their own shops.

If you are being accompanied by a tour guide, be wary that they may take you to certain tailors regardless of their quality of service simply because they receive a commission. This happened to me thanks to one shady tour guide, but luckily the tailor we ended up at was absolutely superb 👌

So how can you tell which tailor to invest in? Unfortunately, simply consulting TripAdvisor won’t always suffice. Tailors often pay companies to remove negative reviews and replace them with fake positive ones for the sake of improving business. Instead, I recommend engaging in some good old fashioned research. If you have the luxury of time, go exploring and investigate the different tailors on offer in Hoi An. If you have a particular design in mind, keep an eye out for tailors with fabrics to cater to your needs. Not all tailors have an abundance of materials on hand, so if you are looking for something special such as leather or chiffon, it pays to do your homework in advance. Furthermore, inquire about the experience of the tailors. Generally speaking, there is a reliable correlation between years in the industry and service satisfaction.

The Tailoring Process

  1. You walk into the tailor shop (without a reservation)
  2. You decide on the design(s) you would like madeA question I often receive is whether you need a preconceived idea in mind of what you would like made. There is no right or wrong answer to this; you can either bring a picture of a garment you would like made or you can collaborate with the tailor to create a design using their ideas. I myself have experimented with each option and have been ecstatic with the results of both (if not more so with the collaborated design).
  3. Your measurements are recorded with photographs taken if need be
  4. You will be required to make a deposit on your orderIn my experience, this is typically 50% of the total price. In return, you will receive an itemised receipt as proof of order.
  5. You will return for your first fitting where you will try on unfinished garments
  6. The tailor will make chalk marks and/or insert pins where changes need to be made to ensure the clothing is the right sizeThis step may be repeated a number of times depending on how long it takes to get the perfect fit. This generally depends on the difficulty of the design and the fabric used.
  7. Once the garment(s) are all finished, you will return for the final fittingReaching this final part of the process can take from between a few hours to a few days. When you are satisfied, you will pay what the deposit did not cover and the tailor will package your purchase in plastic sleeves.

Bonus Tips and Tricks

☞ Capitalise on the fact that they are tailors!

So you want an A-line skirt. Fantastic! But why are you traveling halfway across the world to buy one? The whole idea of tailoring is to order something original, so make the most of the opportunity.

☞ Be flexible!

As I mentioned above, not all tailors have the materials you may specifically request. To ensure you will be happy with the final product, endeavour to entertain all ideas and avoid a fixed mindset.

☞ “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours”

Cheesy proverb aside, if you are utilising the service of a tailor, it is only fair that you reciprocate. A little positive feedback on Tripadvisor goes a long way for small businesses (if you are satisfied with the experience, of course). This is especially the case as tourists rely on such means to finalise their itinerary. Tailors will also give you their business cards so that you don’t forget their name, and won’t be subtle in their hints for you to leave a good word or two on their social networks.

I visited a variety of different tailors in Hoi An, but perhaps my favourite was Two Ladies. There, I had the most stunning forest-green coat with a satin lining made that makes me feel somewhat like a Tolkien elf. I brought a similar style back home in New Zealand about a year previously on sale, where the original retail price was NZD$900 (approximately USD$630). In Hoi An, I paid around NZD$50 for the new coat (approximately USD$35) and — although I’m no couture expert — I am convinced that the quality of the latter is far superior.

The ‘Deats

Name: Two Ladies

Location: 71 Tran Hung Dao, Hoi An, Vietnam

Contact: +84 510 3928 123

TripAdvisor: Two Ladies Tailor Shop

Facebook: Two Ladies Tailor

Have you ever visited Hoi An for some unique retail therapy? What tailor(s) would you recommend to future travellers?

All photos sourced from unsplash.com

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Why Disneyland Is The Happiest Place On Earth… For Adults

To quote Buzzfeed, “… whenever you tell a person you’ve never been to Disneyland, they go through at least seven different stages of stunning disbelief before telling you that you have to — no, listen: YOU HAVE TO. Get in a car and drive to Disneyland, because every second you waste not being at Disneyland is apparently crushing your soul into tiny bits of magic-less oblivion.”

As someone who has visited the happiest place on earth both as an eight year old and as an eighteen year old, I feel that I am somewhat knowledgeable in terms of experiencing the amusement park from two very different walks of life. As an eight year old, my Disneyland experience consisted of stuffing my face with candy floss, queuing for an hour for Space Mountain, wanting to vomit said candy floss as I was hurtling through the nauseating galaxy of said Space Mountain – and repeat. It was only as an eighteen year old that I realised Disneyland is more than just a fantastical sugar rush for kids.

The Architecture

I’m a bit of a sucker for design, and — much to the delight of my friends — insist on stopping every time we pass a building so that I can take a picture. As cheesy as it sounds, ‘reading’ the Disneyland surroundings is an adventure in itself; you can learn as much from the environment as you can from the experience. One of my favourite aspects of the Disneyland architecture is that of the Main Street; here, you’ll find homage to Second Empire Victorian with a nod to Hollywood art deco.

(If this bores you, you may find yourself rethinking your appreciation for architecture when you’re waiting in line with nothing to entertain yourself except for the buildings around you.)

The Escapism

Escapism is defined as “an inclination to retreat from unpleasant realities through diversion or fantasy”. As human beings, we all experiencing adversity and the pressing weight of society at various points in our lives. In order to secure a satisfactory level of well-being, we all need a chance to release and ‘let down our hair’, so to speak. If Disneyland can’t do that for you, then I don’t know what can.

Stepping through the front gates is the phenomenological equivalent of stepping through a portal and into a magical and exquisite world. Everything is insurmountably better; Disneyland even seems to defy the laws of physics. Even as a temporary relief, the amusement park is an important source of happiness for those who seek it. If you approach the experience as an opportunity to escape reality, then you can be sure you’ll be getting bang for your buck.

The Food

Downtown Disney is the cuisine hub of Disneyland. The best time to visit it is at night when you can enjoy a refreshing beer beneath the beautiful lights of the boulevards. However, that is not to say that Disneyland itself has nothing mouth-watering on offer. In fact, I have compiled a short list that you should make your mission to try the next time you hear your stomach grumbling.

BBQ Tofu from River Belle Terrace (spot the vegetarian)

Hand-Dipped Ice Cream Bars at Clarabelle’s Hand Scooped Ice Cream

Peanut Butter Sandwich from Pooh Corner

Churros from… anywhere, really!

The Rides

Come on, you can’t discuss an amusement park and miss out the rides. Plus, I’m a firm believer that you are never too old for a rollercoaster, and that anyone who claims otherwise needs a good old dose of faith, trust and pixie dust to cheer them up. Although you’ll find more adrenalised rides at California Adventure right next door, one that ranks right up there for me is Space Mountain. Think a fast-paced rollercoaster. In the dark. Surrounded by a nebula of exploding stars. It’s a Trekkie’s wet dream.

If you are more disposed towards taking it slow, I recommend you check out the highly acclaimed Pirates of the Caribbean, an indoor “swashbuckling voyage” where your boat will drift past intricately crafted gun and sword fights. On that note, don’t forget to make a reservation at the Blue Bayou. This restaurant is located within the Pirates of the Caribbean complex and specialises in Cajun and Creole cuisine.

What I’m trying to say is that if you are planning a trip to Los Angeles, don’t completely write off Disneyland as catering solely to children. If you approach it from with right attitude, there is as much joy to be experienced as an adult as when you were a kid. From the architecture to the escapism and from the food to the rides, the happiest place on earth no longer has an expiration date.

Are you an adult who has dared to put on the mouse ears and venture into Walt Disney’s fantasia? What was your experience like?

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This Is Why I Travel

During a philosophy class last semester, I stumbled across a particular term: a posteriori. It means to know something through experience. And as it happens, a posteriori is how I would describe my knowledge of the number one reason I travel.

If you had asked me four months ago why I traveled, the answer to that question would have been simple; I travel to meet new people, to explore new places, to try new food and to learn new things. Whilst that answer isn’t necessarily wrong, there is another reason that now tops that list. I cannot think of one word to describe it; all I know is that I only discovered it through experience.
There we were – my friend and I – strolling through central Hanoi during a walking tour. We had just exited the Ho Chi Minh Museum when suddenly a couple of Vietnamese children who couldn’t have been more than five years old ran smack bang into us. One wrapped his arms around my legs and clung to me like a limpet. I had to shoot my arms out to capture my balance.

“I’m so sorry!” a woman apologised, descending upon us and peeling the child from my legs. My friend and I laughed and reassured her that it was no worries. We made to leave when the woman caught my arm and asked us a question. I didn’t quite catch her properly, but gathered that she was wondering if we would be interested in taking a quick English class with the children. My friend and I exchanged nervous glances; we were predisposed to be wary of scams or getting roped into something dodgy that would result in some form of payment – let’s be realistic, this was Southeast Asia – but in the end our manners got the better of us and we let her drag us across the bridge and to a square where the rest of the group were.

It turned out that she was the teacher of a class of about thirty students from an international language school. The children were all around the age of five and were wearing matching uniforms. I’ll never forget the way their faces lit up when my friend and I walked over. There was another teacher, and she and the first woman divided the children into two different groups and then allocated my friend and I to a class each.

I was given a set of A4 laminated cards, each with different pictures on them, and instructed to ask questions related to the content. The children would then answer in English to practice their language skills. For example, I might hold up a card with an illustration of kids playing outside in a playground, and ask how many ducks were swimming in the pond, or what colour the monkey bars were. The children would collectively shout out the correct answers in perfect English.

The feeling I got from being a part of this short yet valuable activity really made an impact on me. I got a rush of adrenaline every time the children got the answer right and cheered. The teacher asked if they could take a picture with me, and they all scrambled to stand next to me. I couldn’t wipe the grin off my face as fifteen pairs of tiny hands reached out to hold mine as we posed for the camera.

In that moment, I knew. I knew that this was why I traveled. I don’t just travel for the people, the places or the food. I travel for those small, unexpected moments where you’re pinching yourself to make sure you’re awake. I travel for those rewarding experiences that inspire you to flip your life upside down. I travel for the exuberance and utter joy that was on those children’s faces as I took my English class that day in the middle of the bustling Hanoi square. I knew very well that for those children, the memory of the girl with the red hair who asked them about ducks and monkey bars would fade in time, but what mattered was the impression I made in those few short minutes.

I travel for the times where – after rendering myself broke to afford a trip – I feel like the richest person on the planet.

All photos of Vietnam sourced from unsplash.com

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6 Things to Look for in a Tour Guide

Should I hire a tour guide?

It’s not a straightforward yes or no answer. There are countless reasons people decide to fork out for this service, whether that be to gain historical or cultural insight, to translate information from a foreign language, to ask for recommendations or purely out of safety. I personally have been motivated by the latter, as there are certain places in the world where being an accompanied young woman is not in the interests of my wellbeing.

Having a tour guide can be fantastic, but it can also make or break a trip.

I’ve had tour guides who have followed me into an ATM room and have physically taken cash out of my wallet in an effort to ‘help’. I’ve had tour guides who have refused to take me places I specifically asked to go because they received commission at other businesses. And I’ve had tour guides who have outright shouted at me for not understanding their instructions.

The problem for me is that I am not naturally upfront; I’m the first person to admit that I am something of a pushover. In these situations — although the idea of standing up for myself crossed my mind — I was not confident enough to put my foot down. So if you want to avoid getting stuck with a tour guide like this, then the following six things are what you need to be mindful of…

1. Flexibility

Your tour guide needs the plasticity to be able to adapt to unforeseen circumstances and roll with the punches. Their priority should be to cater to your interests and to be sensitive to your needs. If you want to skip an activity, then they should accept that. If you want to stop and grab a bite to eat, then they should recommend a nearby café. If you are tired and need to slow down, then they should match your pace. An itinerary that is meticulously planned with no room to improvise is doomed to end in failure.

2. Knowledge

This is kind of a given. Perhaps one of the main reasons people enlist the help of a tour guide is so that they can gain a further dimension of understanding for the location. If your tour guide is not up to date with historical, political and cultural information, then you’re not getting bang for your buck.

3. Language Barriers

You may be surprised by the number of languages tour companies cater to if you make the effort to seek them out. You need not settle for a tour in a second language that you have to continuously translate in your head just to make sense of what they are saying. Your tour guide should also be able to speak the national language so that you have the opportunity to interact with locals and read written texts. A further thing to keep in mind is that — even if your guide speaks your language — their accent needs to be understandable. From experience, constantly asking them to repeat themselves can be very embarrassing.

4. Sense of Humour

While tour guides don’t need to be stand up comedians, it’s important that they have the ability to deal with their client’s… well, stupidity. In short, they need to be able to laugh when you make mistakes and not take anything personally. A red flag is when they are offended by questions you may ask. As a naive kid from New Zealand, I remember unintentionally insulting a Vietnamese tour guide once by asking them a question related to communism. Tour guides need to be equipped to deal with enquiries like this. Tourists want to learn, and they can’t do that if they don’t feel comfortable asking for clarification.

5. Professionality

And yes, I did just invent that word. Nevertheless, many aspects fall under this. You should expect your tour guide to be punctual, well-dressed and ethical whilst still being friendly and welcoming. You want to feel comfortable enjoying their company whilst at the same time knowing that you can approach them regarding serious matters.

6. Passion

This may sound clichéd, but it’s true. The more passionate your tour guide is, the more you will get out of the experience. Enthusiasm is contagious; I have found myself getting really excited about activities I was tempted to skip purely after seeing the smile on my tour guide’s faces.

If your tour guide is making you feel uncomfortable, then it is important that you communicate this. At the end of the day, you are the one paying them, and it is your holiday that is being sacrificed if you keep your thoughts to yourself. A lot of tour guides will also appreciate your feedback, as it is in their best interests to provide a satisfactory and memorable service. Think of yourself and your tour guide as a team; both sides have to participate for the experience to be a success.

All photographs taken during a walking tour in the Old Quarter of Hanoi, Vietnam.

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The Reality of Elephant Riding in Thailand

You can’t travel to Thailand and not ride an elephant.

Or can you?

I try to live an ethical life. I only eat vegetarian so as not to support the meat industry. I avoid buying cosmetics that have been tested on animals in a laboratory. I make a conscious effort to educate myself on global issues from a variety of sources so that I can make informed choices on things that matter. So you’d think that I would be able to resist my temptations to visit an elephant park on my trip to Thailand, right?

Wrong.

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Just why are elephant parks unethical?

There are a number of reasons. For starters, despite claims that the elephants are ‘rescued’ from the wild, this is not always the case. Many elephants are captured as young calfs, and tortured into submission. This process is referred to as ‘Phajaan’, which roughly translates to ‘Elephant Crushing’.

Furthermore, even if they were rescued, that does not mean to say that the park has bettered their situation. As Brendan van Son of Brendan’s Adventures put it: “… these animals are being exploited for the financial wellbeing of the company that rescued them.”

Many riding experiences also include mounting a howdah onto the back of the elephants for tourists to sit on. These platforms have been known to rub against their skin and cause blistering and pain. Despite their enormous size, the weight of these platforms can also be problematic and lead to permanent spinal injuries.

It is also impossible to provide the equivalent conditions for elephants in captivity as they would experience in the wild. Elephants have evolved to survive – and thrive – in an environment that parks just cannot recreate. This can lead to premature death, disease and an overall diminished quality of life.

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I know what you’re thinking: You’re a massive hypocrite, Dani! You participated and reaped the rewards of elephant tourism, and yet here you are, bad-mouthing the industry. Sort your shit out!

I know, I know. I’m the first person to admit that there are so many appeals to elephant riding. It’s sensational to get up and close with creatures that have previously only existed in films or in enclosures at the zoo. Especially coming from a country where elephants are not indigenous (*cough New Zealand cough*), this is an undoubtedly thrilling experience.

Secondly, there is an element of control that goes hand and hand with being taught how to ride an elephant. These beings are the largest land mammals on earth. Riding them is nothing less than a humbling experience.

Thirdly, it can sometimes be hard to imagine traveling to destinations such as Thailand without ticking elephant riding off your bucket list. They’re a cultural icon of Southeast Asia, and boycotting the experience is far more than a missed photo opportunity.

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The elephant park I visited in Chiang Mai, Thailand was called Baanchang Elephant Park. We learnt how to look after, feed, ride and bathe the elephants, all of which were experiences I thoroughly enjoyed.

They didn’t use howdahs, but rather invited you to ride on their backs with nothing but a loose rope knotted around the elephant’s neck and girth for stability. I have researched this, and the evidence shows that this is not nearly as harmful to the elephant as are howdahs (for more on this matter, see below). While in hindsight I would not do this again, if you are hell-bent on getting on the back of an elephant in some way or another, then this is the way to go.

I did not witness any examples of unnecessary brute force being inflicted upon the elephants at any point during my stay, even when the elephant I was riding decided to veer off the track and go walkabouts through the bush. It was lightly guided back to the group where we peacefully carried on without any fuss.

I do not have complete and unwavering knowledge of how ethical Baanchang Elephant Park is, but from my experience and research, they seemed to tick a lot of the boxes. If you are considering visiting Baanchang on a future trip to Thailand, I suggest you peruse their website to fully understand the nature of their company and their dedication to giving elephants the highest quality of life possible within a domesticated environment.

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I am not against all elephant parks. Just the unethical ones. If you are firmly planted in your plan to visit a park, then I ask that you consider the following in mind…

  • Take your time when choosing a park to visit. If you are rushing to map out your itinerary and don’t allow yourself to carefully research what each park offers, then you are far more likely to risk supporting the dark side of elephant tourism.
  • Ensure that the park only features elephants they have been rescued from abusive circumstances, and has an emphasis on educating tourists about caring for elephants as opposed to giving rides. Whilst I discussed that riding bare-back is better than riding with a howdah, refraining from riding at all is even better.
  • If you are like me and can’t keep your hands off souvenirs, check to make sure you are not purchasing ivory. Ivory’s monetary value is the primary reason elephants are poached in the wild. To put the gravity of this issue into perspective, it is believed that – since the 1900s – the Asian elephant population has halved. Halved. Let that sink in for a moment.

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The Asian elephant is now an endangered species. It is estimated that only 30,000 exist in the wild. While I do not condone parks that mistreat elephants, there are those that strive to rehabilitate and protect them from extinction. We may have to come to terms with the reality that these parks could be the saving grace for these animals, and I strongly believe that we should support them. You can find a list of ethical elephant sanctuaries to visit here.

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I would like to note that I am not an expert on the ethics of elephant parks. I am purely someone who is discussing a personal experience, has researched this issue and is passionate about the politics of animal cruelty.

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The No-Bullshit Way to Survive a 12-Hour Flight

Ugh. Flying. The bane of travel.

At least, that’s what I think. As someone quite tall I hate the cramped seats, I’m super sensitive to the pressure on your ears, and I’ve never had a satisfying inflight meal. True, I ask for the vegetarian option, but I’ve never encountered an airline that seems to understand that vegetarians can eat food other than vegetables.

On the other hand, some people love it. They anticipate the thrill of taking off and landing, the adrenalised buzz of airports, the extensive range of inflight entertainment and the friendliness of the staff.

But if you’re anything like me, then a long-haul flight can be a major drawback to a trip. But fear not! I’ve gathered together a collection of tried-and-tested tips to help you survive a 12-hour flight. So kick back, relax, and try not to scream at the obnoxious kid behind you kicking your chair the whole flight.

Set Goals

There’s nothing like half a day of sitting on your ass to be productive. If you’re one of those people who never seems to have enough time to tick off everything on your to-do list, then what better time than when you’ve 30,000 feet in the air?

Draft those emails you’ve been meaning to write. Finish that podcast you’ve been putting off. Update your resume.

I personally try to seize the opportunity to prepare blog posts in advance so that I’m never stressed about not making my schedule. I set myself a goal; for example, “I am going to write 5,000 words before this plane touches down on the runway”. Not only does this make the minutes fly by (excuse the pun), but it also gives the trip purpose.

Power Up

This may seem like common sense, but the one time I was caught out on a flight with a half-drained battery was one time too many.

Ensure your laptop, cellphone and all other electronic devices have a full battery by the time you leave the ground. If this means sitting next to a charging port whilst you wait for your boarding call, then so be it. I’ve only ever been on one flight where there were in-seat power outlets, so it is not something you should rely on. There’s nothing worse than getting halfway through your flight when your laptop decides to die

Catch Your Forty Winks

As far as I’m concerned, the best way to experience twelve hours in the air is unconscious. Whilst I have been known to resort to sleeping pills, this is not something most people advocate. Not only can sleeping pills render you useless in an emergency, but you will more often than not wake up feeling groggy and unable to adjust to the new time zones.

A much better way to approach this is to encourage natural sleep through comfort and ease. Preparation is key! Ensure you have packed some sort of travel pillow and an eye-mask if you are light sensitive. Airlines do provide pillows, but let’s be honest here; they’re about as useful as using a tea towel for a blanket. You can purchase cheap alternatives at the gate before you board, and whilst you may be embarrassed climbing aboard the aircraft with your neck support pillow, it’s a damn sight lot better than being kept painfully awake because you cannot physically relax.

Hydrate, Hydrate, Hydrate!

I cannot emphasise this point enough. The frustrating thing about drinking water on airplanes is that you never want to. I don’t know the science behind this, but there has never been in the air where I’ve thought to myself, “What I really want right now is a bottle of H20”. Nevertheless, discipline yourself to keep sipping throughout the flight.

Because the cabin environment has low humidity due to high altitudes, travellers are especially prone to dehydration. Consistently drinking water helps combat undesirable effects such as exaggerated jet lag, dry and chapped skin, fatigue and constipation.

In saying that, go easy on the alcohol. I’m not suggesting you shouldn’t treat yourself – I’m no spoilsport – but that glass of champagne you ordered will only dehydrate you further.

Go Easy on the Carry-Ons

If I had a dollar for every second I’ve had to wait for fellow passengers to get their shit together and pack up their belongings after the plane has landed, I could probably upgrade to first class. You will not be popular if you are the reason people are waiting to disembark because you didn’t have the good sense to make sure you were ready ten minutes ago.

The way to avoid this is to pack light. Unless you are in a situation where you for some reason have to pack items in your hand luggage as opposed to your suitcase (don’t worry, I’ve been there before),  there is no reason to be packing half of your life into your carry-on. Pack the bare essentials and then draw the line. Not only will this save you the embarrassment of trying to organise everything when the plane lands, but it is so much less stressful when you’re not trying to keep tabs on all your stuff.

♫ Let Me Entertain You ♫

Despite most long-haul flights offering you more movies than twelve hours permits, sometimes you just have to channel your inner Robbie Williams and make your own entertainment.

My two go-to platforms here are audiobooks and kindle. Aside from the fact that they are not prone to running out of battery as quickly as other electronic devices, they are catered towards long-lasting enjoyment. Furthermore, you can store numerous titles on your account as opposed to lugging round heavy and cumbersome paperbacks. Just make sure you’ve downloaded everything you need before you leave wifi!

If you’re looking for a book suggestion, I highly recommend you download Sapiens by Noah Yuval Harari. I think it is the number one book travellers should read to understand human culture and civilisation if they are passionate about the world around them and how it came to be.

Chew Gum

As a child, I used to have to be dragged kicking and screaming to the airport. Why, I hear you ask? Because I suffered from intense ear pain whenever the cabin depressurised.

This is not something that resolved itself with time, but thankfully, this has an easy fix. For a couple of bucks, you can buy a packet of chewing gum from a shop at the airport which you will be allowed to take through security aboard the plane. I find that consistently chewing gum throughout a flight prevents your ears from getting clogged. Or, if you prefer a more scientific explanation; chewing gum prevents the phenomenon of mucous membranes swelling in your ears and nose which makes it harder to equalise the pressure in your middle ear.

Flavours featuring menthol and eucalyptus work a treat, although I personally prefer strawberry as the more muted taste doesn’t effect food to the same degree.

All photos sourced from Unsplash

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Everything You Need to Know About Getting a Tattoo in Thailand

If you had asked ten year old me if I were likely to ever get a tattoo, I would have given a squeaky, pre-pubescent laugh. Me? The goody-two-shoes kid who always checks twice before she crosses the road? Not fudging likely. But as you will know, young adulthood always turns up late to the party with a plus one of experimentation, and why not explore your new identity with getting a tattoo that you will be stuck with for the rest of your life? That’s the exact opposite of a recipe for disaster, if you ask me.

Nine years later and — much to my parent’s disgrace — I have initiated a tradition of acquiring a tattoo in every new place I travel to. I have homage to New Zealand, the United States and Rarotonga permanently etched into my skin, and plans for many more. I have so many ideas and opinions about tattoos that I would love to share, but they alone warrant their own post. For now, I am going to share my experience of adding to the collection with a Thailand tat.

So there we were; me — the veteran with my measly three tattoos — and my ink virgin friend Poppy, roaming the sleazy and drunken streets of Pattaya for a semi-reputable tattoo parlour. Just that sentence in and of itself is a parent’s worst nightmare. We had investigated maybe seven or eight studios before settling on one that looked to offer a sanitised and satisfactory experience.

And so I present to you: Eve Tattoo Studios.

I’m not going to lie; I was drawn to my tattooist Jim because of his devilish good looks. Very professional of me, I know. The other factor that ticked the box for me was that he looked to be of European descent. This stemmed purely from the fact that I was searching for someone who would speak English well, and that I would be able to communicate with throughout the process. In light of the fact that we were tattoo-hunting in Southeast Asia, this was quite the priority in my books. I consider the Thai artists to be very talented and innovative, however when you are getting work permanently inked into your skin, you need to be on the same level of understanding. A language barrier is the first step to painful and expensive regret.

Having not really committed to any particular design yet, I opted for a spontaneous rendition of my favourite piece of artwork: The Great Wave off Kanagawa, a woodblock print by artist Katsushika Hokusai. And yes, incase you feel the pressing urge to remind me, I am very much aware that I got a Japanese-style tattoo to honour Thailand. Don’t question my motives. Meanwhile, Poppy stuck to her guns and settled on an intricate dragon fly that she’d had her eye on ever since I had thrown the idea of her also getting a tattoo into the mix.

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The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Katsushika Hokusai

If you have never gotten a tattoo before, then I’m sure you probably have a lot of questions. I was exactly the same. Whether it hurts or not tends to be the most pressing, and I’m not going to lie; it hurts like a bitch. In saying that though, I am a complete and utter wuss. I cry when I have to get a blood test, and I have avoided piercing my ears for fear of inexplicable agony (*cue derisive laughter*). Yet somehow, I manage to drag myself into that chair time and time again.

The best way I can describe the sensation of the needle upon your skin is by likening it to that of a prolonged cat scratch. What’s more, the beauty of tattoos — as opposed to piercings, as I have been told — is that as soon as the artist removes the gun, the pain vanishes (at least, in my experience that has been the case). Sure, you get some itching and irritation during the healing process, but you will not have to endure months and months of tenderness or rawness in the aftermath. The pain itself is a very concise and fleeting sensation.

Things to be Mindful of when Tattoo-Hunting in Thailand

Avoid Language Barriers

If you cannot clearly communicate what you would like done, then maybe it is time to consider another studio. There are so many important things to discuss — whether that be finalising a design, settling on a price, answering any burning questions or detailing the healing process — that crossing your fingers and hoping ambiguous hand gestures will do the trick just isn’t good enough. If you are prepared to walk away with a tattoo you are not happy to have on your body forever — with no idea how to look after it — then by all means, ignore this tip. But if you want the process to be smooth sailing and stress-free, then this should be at the top of your checklist.

Do Not Use a ‘Cheap Bargain’ as the Dictator of Where You Get Your Tattoo Done

As is the general rule of thumb with most goods and services, a higher price is indicative of higher quality. Tattoos are no exception. In a place such as Southeast Asia where bartering is the norm, quality can be harder to gauge as artists are always trying to beat the previous price. We ended up going with Eve Tattoo Studios, who provided the most expensive quote.

Cleanliness

There’s a reason for all the jokes around HIV and AIDS when telling friends you’re getting a tattoo in Thailand. Okay, maybe that is reserved for the worst case scenario, but there are still plenty of consequences to reap from short-cutting the process. You need to make sure the studio is sanitised and clean. A professional artist may tell you that they are using a new needle straight out of the packet, and some — such as Jim — will even show you as they open it for peace of mind. This tip is more common sense than anything, but as someone who understands the feeling of getting caught up in the excitement and adrenaline of a new tattoo, it is not difficult for the basics to get brushed to the back of your mind.

Do Your Research!

Can we please take a moment to appreciate the magic of Tripadvisor? You wouldn’t send your child to a new school without looking into the quality of both the institution and the employees. Okay, strange analogy, but you get the gist. Another thing I strongly recommend doing before committing to a studio, is asking to view work done by the tattooist that is similar to what you are looking at getting done. I have found that this is especially relevant to conventionally feminine designs, as studios are more likely to advertise their big, colourful pieces that accumulate hours and hours of work, and tens of thousands of dollars. It is one thing for an artist to be adept at these styles, but if you are more interested in minimalist pieces, it definitely pays to ask to see their personal experience with these.

Find the Balance Between Assertion and Flexibility

I learnt the hard way that it is unfeasible to waltz into a tattoo parlour lacking the mindset to adapt your design according to the artist’s recommendations. You need to remember that your artist has your interests at heart, and is just trying to negotiate a compromise on a design and placement that will both suit your tastes and look good at the same time. In saying that, if they suggest a final design that you do not like, you need to make it clear that you are not happy with it. As a naturally passive person, it took a number of goes for me to muster the confidence to tell my tattooist that I didn’t like what they were suggesting, but that I was willing to explore other options.

Choose Your Timing Wisely

This is especially applicable to traveling. The healing process of a tattoo is not long and complicated, but there are a handful of things you need to abide by for your designated time period. One of these is that you must avoid swimming and sun exposure. As you can imagine, this can prove a hassle if you are traveling to a tropical destination where lounging on a sun-drenched beach is one of the selling-points (ahem Thailand). If this is the case, you might want to book your tattoo in for the end of your trip. Otherwise, it’s hello layers.

Cultural Appropriation

If you have culturally-orientated ink lined up in your sights, you may want to double check what is appropriate and what is not. In Thailand, it is considered disrespectful to have the Buddha tattooed onto you. Whilst this may not appear to be such a pressing issue once you are on the flight home, I firmly believe that respect and courtesy to the customs and values of your host country are of the upmost importance.

So there you have it; my tips and tricks for getting a tattoo in Thailand. And if you ever feel like making a spontaneous and permanent decision in the southern town of Pattaya, I highly recommend you pay Jim and the rest of the team at Eve Tattoo Studios a call.

The ‘Deats

Name: Eve Tattoo Studios

Location: Pattaya, Thailand

Number: +66 87 130 1808

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Enjoying my fresh ink at Ha Long Bay

Have your own crazy tattoo experiences or advice to share? Comment below! I would love to hear all of your stories!

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