A ‘world’-class education? Wocka wocka

Travelling can and will teach you a lot of things…more than even you know. From the moment you step off a plane in a foreign country, your senses are bombarded by stimuli that are different from what you are accustomed to. A mere glance at the landscape with all its accompanying sounds and smells will give you an inherent feeling of the place that you would not gain from reading an encyclopedia on your destination. Often, the feeling I get from people entering Bangkok is a “…Oh.” Not many people expect a sprawling metropolis, massive skyscrapers in every direction, giant billboards and honking, state of the art Toyota (oh, aren’t they all) cabs. No, Thais do not live in mud huts. Yes, they have running water. Computers do exist in Thailand. These are the kinds of things that you take in nearly instantaneously without even realizing it, and they are invaluable in assessing the cultural norms and how they compare to your own back home.

Then there are the kinds of things you can actively learn from travelling – cultural displays like dance, eating habits or various historical monuments and museums – all of which offer you insight into what makes a different culture tick. I enjoyed this quote from a book I was just reading about the Vietnam War – a perfect example of how a cultural difference meant all the world. “To Asians steeped in Confucian concepts, time is an endless river flowing from an infinitely regenerative source. Time to Westerners is always precious; to the Oriental it can be spent with generosity.” It even goes so far as to compare calendars in the West with calendars in the East: ours are linear, with pages that begin and end…a year is a long time. In Eastern calendars, time is a wheel with no beginning or end. It goes on to say, “Quick victory is a Western concept. All the Vietnamese had to do was not lose.” They were patient, and it worked. But I digress.

For those out there who have travelled far and wide, it is all too easy to follow the rote tourist route, see what you came to see, and climb up on that high horse and say you’ve done it all. And maybe you’re right.  But what is even more important about travelling is what you learn.  Even if you go off the beaten path and do it your own way – if you aren’t applying the things you learn to improve yourself or the world around you, there is another opportunity missed.

Travelling for the sake of travelling is just like any other hobby. What makes it unique is there are often more opportunities to take what you see around you and use it to better yourself. Look around you, at the things other people do through their unique personalities or through their different cultural perspective. Take those things you like and make them a part of yourself. Remove those habits that you hold on to that you dislike. Create your own culture and cultivate your personality to be how you want it to be. No one else has as much power to do that as you!

Whether it be exercising your body or your mind, testing your ideas against someone else’s, helping someone in need, or contemplating your purpose in the world to better clarify your goals, make every day count. We only gots so many of em. And travelling is one of my favourite ways to find new ways of improvement!

The name of the game is self-improvement, and if a day goes by where you haven’t learned something new or gained a new perspective or changed your life or someone else’s in any way, was that day well spent?


Who said travel days had to be boring??

One would think that since the word ‘travel‘ implies moving from place to place, then travellers would be accustomed to such a thing. Some more than others do enjoy the thrill of heading somewhere new and unknown, but I have seen more than a little dread cross someone’s face when they look at the endless kilometres that must be traversed to their next fun destination.

Night train with a solid crew!

Crossing a border? We’ve got you covered on all party fronts!

Although the saying “It’s not the destination but the journey that matters” is true in the larger sense of your life long journey, try quoting that to a haggard soul who has been on a train for 36 hours and they might tell you different. Travel in most people’s experience involves seeing new places and experiencing new things, not just passing them by at 80 km/hour. And so the oft-dreaded ‘travel day‘ is born. Luckily, Free & Easy has a solution to that.

With Captain “Clown College” Coolin in charge, a course was set for epic-ness!

It all started on the ferry back to the mainland…

Travel with Free & Easy is not comparable to anything I have ever experienced. What might have been a long, lonely, iPOD filled ride (better hope that battery doesn’t run out!) if you were travelling solo or with a friend has the potential to turn into a massively mobile party on wheels. You are never alone without someone to share a conversation with when you are in a group of 20+ happy, friendly people travelling the same direction without a care in the world except when is the next bathroom break (or beer stop!). Whether it is chillaxing on a ferry from one paradise island to the next, playing games at the pier waiting for a transfer, or enjoying the wind whip your hair into a frenzy in the back of a truck, Free & Easy travel days are anything but boring!

The girls enjoy the wind in the back of a Song Thaew

While the boys take the back of a pick up

Indeed, they have perfected the recipe for group travel over the past decade, and even provide the Thailand trip with the ultimate travel vehicle: the PARTY bus! Equipped with a devastating sound system, indoor siren lights, and a leather couch at the back, the party bus is an explosion waiting to happen like a chemical reaction. Take a group of fun loving people, add costumes, a few road pops (that’s allowed in Thailand, and for that matter pretty much anywhere outside of the western world), some sweet tunes and maybe a rainbow coloured wig, enclose for 3 hours, shake it up with some on bus crowd surfing and a bumpy road and BOOM! Party time! You are at your destination in no time, and kind of sad to be getting off the bus!

Party bus!!! With Bryn, Sara, Kimber, Coolin and me.

Aly, Kyle and Shawn join us while Roanne decides its roof dancing time!

The costumes get busted out – wigs and all!

Kirb-stomp finishes off the bucket by her lonely self =)

Even bathroom breaks can be a blast!

Even when things go wrong on a Free & Easy travel day, there is always a silver lining hidden in the clouds. While travelling from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang on the LTC, my group experienced quite heavy traffic due to excessive mud on the road caused by recent landslides. At first we were expecting a few hour delay and grabbed some snacks and beers from local roadside villagers, but as we edged our way around some clifftop roads and the tires slipped closer to the edge with every tap of the brakes, we knew something was up. As time wore on we realized we were in this for the long haul…it looked like we were going to be delayed over 15 hours and would have to spend the night on the bus! Not to be discouraged, we made friends with some of the locals to ferry a few crates of beverages to and from the bus for us to enjoy, and after a few hours of hanging out on the bus we decided to go and explore the local cliffside village. The locals were excited to see us, as they don’t have much exposure to foreigners except in the odd roadside stop. The women of the village graciously offered us food for free as we were quite hungry and stranded with no dinner, but we understood the plight they were in living in such poor conditions so we offered them a fair price of a dollar or two for corn and rice to tide us over until we reached our destination.The children came out and wanted to play games with us, resulting in endless rounds of Stella Ella Olla for the girls and catching cicadas (a noisy but harmless bug about the size of half your palm) and giant bat-sized moths (honestly, it was as big as your hand!) for the boys. I have never seen a child so happy as the boy who had a cicada in each fist – it was like Christmas morning! Who needs that expensive plastic Tonka truck when you’ve got perfectly good bugs to put in your pockets?

Look at that thing! Isn’t it cuuuuuuuuute?
At first we thought it was a bat.

Dani tries to steal local children. “It’s not CREEPY, it’s called the maternal instinct!!” Sure, Dani.

We also discovered that a 4 year old Laos child was much better at catching the cicadas than we were – they had no hesitation to get in there and grab it by the wings or thorax, where a lot of us foreigners would hesitate or recoil because we thought it was gross. It reminded me of how some people hesitate to take the reins on their life and idly watch it pass by from the sidelines – while Free & Easy shows us that it is okay to grab life by the horns and enjoy every minute of it. Even on a travel day!

Songkhran – Country wide water fight!?

Songkran…What is there to say about it? Perhaps one thing: if there is a time of year to be in Thailand, this is it. If there is a place, it is in Chiang Mai. It is in this very place that 16 Free & Easy travelers (and a score of others along for the ride) are lucky enough to celebrate the half week long Thai new year’s festival.

That poor kid looks so confused by all those white devils…
Water accessories not only necessary, but encouraged!
The holiday of Songkran coincides with the coming of the new year in the Thai calendar (among others in South and Southeast Asia). Historically this was a time of cleansing and renewal, and a ritual evolved where water was poured over statues of the buddha to cleanse them of dirt. Afterwards, the “blessed” water that had been poured over the statues would gently be poured over relatives and friends shoulders to cleanse them of any past misdeeds. The holiday has largely modernized into a gigantic country wide water fight, in which it is perfectly acceptable to spray anyone anywhere as long as they are outdoors and it is relatively daytime.
Told you it was gigantic.
Outdoors? Check. Daytime? Check. Spray on!

Jon and Lindsay having a good time blasting people in the face. Note the foresight in buying classic WWI pilot goggles. This isn’t his first rodeo.
Chiang Mai has an Old City surrounded by a moat, which makes for water fight central during this week of warring wetness. To celebrate the holiday in true Free & Easy style, we rented three pickups off of our good friends at Libra Guesthouse and placed a garbage can full of water in the back of each. To be extra sneaky, we bought a few giant chunks of ice to cool the water down and give it that extra kick when you dump a bucket over a stranger’s (or friend’s!) head. We took the pickups for a rip out and around the old city, and by ‘ a rip’ I obviously mean waited in traffic for hours as the roads were full of revellers on foot, bike, and pickup dousing each other mercilessly with unending buckets of water. It was pandemonium! People lining the both sides of every road, two or three deep, and an equal number clogging up the roads themselves, with a few more unfortunate enough to have been pushed into the moat. I made the mistake of choosing the truck packed with Canadian girls…now if that isn’t a target for Thai’s and foreigners alike, I don’t know what is. I tell you, if this water absolves sins, then by the end of this week I will have atoned for every sin of my life. Not that they believe in sin in Buddhism, but you catch my drift. Being in the back of that pickup was like being in a torrential monsoon, non-stop! There was no break in the downpour, not even time to shotgun a beer! That didn’t put a damper on our fun though, as we hopped in and out of our truck, refilling our water guns and going to find our friends and blast them in the face while yelling “Sawat dee bpii mai!”, which means “Happy New Year” in Thai. All in the name of cleansing, right?

Be healed, heathens!
The greatest thing about this holiday (other than being able to be a kid in a water fight again) is the friendliness and openness of the Thai people to strangers. I rode countless motorbikes and jumped on the back of dozens of trucks, just to catch a lift around the corner or to graciously refill my empty water gun with precious ice cold water, which I inevitably turned on those very same Thai people 30 seconds later. It’s a blessing, right? You have to be polite. There were smiles all around, even after a bucket in the face. Locals would cheerily invite you onto their trucks, offering to share their whiskey as they asked about your home country and what you were doing in Thailand. This would all happen while you simultaneously soak every victim in sight. Now there’s a bonding moment.

I’m pretty sure I’m in one of those trucks out there. Or maybe I made that up. You can look for me if you want.
Walking around the moat, you were inevitably targeted by Thais in posession of talc powder mixed with water, often used by monks for blessings but during this week of mayhem it was more for the purpose of face paint. You could expect to walk out of there looking like you were just in a mud fight with your younger sibling. But it washed off easily enough, and your luck should be improved for the rest of the day! More likely than not it would be washed out by the next wave of water to hit you head on. Even the street vendors got into the fun, getting soaked and returning the favour, shooting back with their own wares of water guns and buckets.
This is the only week a year where you can slap a complete stranger across the face with a full bucket of water with no explanation other than a smile. (Preferably a foreigner…the Thai’s are usually more polite with a sprinkle of water from a bucket or a gentle pour over your shoulder). So I know where I’ll be next April…do you?? Sawat dee bpii mai!

China: Progressive World Power or Oppressive Backwater Regime?

China. A country of unending size, where each city seems as far off as the last. (I can sympathize with backpackers travelling to Canada!) Exotic food delights you at each street corner, and beautiful landscapes surround you each time you depart from city life. For a country poised to take center stage in world economics, to become a superpower with a powerhouse of an economy, China still has a few surprises in store for visitors.

Children urinating in the streets, epidemic impoliteness in crowds, and other uncouth habits plague those who are not accustomed to such behaviour, but there are more concerning issues to be dealt with. An ingrained paranoia in the upper echelons of Chinese leadership has persisted seemingly since the dawn of Chinese civilization, starting with the first emperors who believed themselves to be immortal dragons – yet at the same time built their palaces with a courtyard 15 LAYERS of brick deep, to prevent subjects from the city common from digging under the palace to attempt assassination. In Curtis’ words of the architect: “Well sir, if you’re a dragon, couldn’t you just…fight them? Or at least fly away?” At which the emperor would probably say: “Uhhh…yeah…well what if I didn’t…you know, what if I didn’t want to…nyeah…just put down the damn bricks, I’m the dragon emperor! Rraahh!!”
This paranoia persists today in their fear of a politically educated society. With internet censorship including a block of Facebook, Youtube, many blog sites and parts of Google itself, and with Lonely Planet China being confiscated at the border one has to wonder at the maturity and honesty of an elite so afraid of the truth being found by their own people. Not to mention some of the human rights abuses such as the disputed claim over Tibet and Taiwan that have garnered much international rebuke lately. China, although a grand and ancient country, seems to have some distance to cover before emerging as the world leader that many predict.
For another thing, Chinese tourism smacks of the rank and file proletariat. “Oh, we’re making an 8th stop between here and lunch? Alright, we’ll follow you in line wherever you go, as long as you’ve got that flag! Time for food? Okay. Whatever you say Mr. Tour Guide. Oh, that Mountain looks like Chairman Mao, Zhou Enlai, AND Deng Xiaopeng? Ha ha, why it does, doesn’t it! Don’t we love them!” It seems that there is quite a bit of propaganda still in China, with the government seeking to control the thoughts of the general population in order to keep the reins of power as long as possible. For example, the Lonely Planet for any country can be bought within China, except for the China edition itself! They claim it has something to do with a map in the book that marks Taiwan as a separate country (which China obviously disagrees with), although I wouldn’t be surprised if it had something more to do with some of the history presented by the unbiased authors of the Lonely Planet (compared with the government approved drivel printed in the tour books that are legally allowed to be sold in China).
This ‘brainwashing’ definitely has it’s negative effects, but there is also a surprising upside to the information that the government crams down people’s throats. They are incredibly well informed about different market systems, from communism (when that was all the rave in China) and more recently about the workings of a capitalist market system. China has pursued a calm and cautious approach when shifting their economy from a closed communist system to a more open market, compared with many unsuccessful market shifts in Eastern Europe and South America, to name a few examples. China has consistently resisted the Western world’s requests to give up all authoritarian power in government and move to a completely free democracy, while at the same time moving from a centralized, government run communist economy to a completely free market. China has studied the history and mistakes of other countries who have tried to do this and failed, and has instead slowly opened up its market piece by piece, at the same time holding tightly to authoritarian power which allows for a controlled market shift with acceptable time to build the necessary institutions to accomodate such a shift. With its broadening economic freedoms comes a slower trickle of democratic freedoms, which China is accepting in stride. Not bad for a country who brought one sixth of the world out of abject poverty within the past few decades…