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6 Warning Signs That a Hostel May be Dodgy

Ah hostels—the staple accommodation for backpackers traveling on a budget in Southeast Asia. Cheap and sociable, hostels are a great way to pinch those pennies and meet new people on the road. However, not all hostels are created equal. We’ve all heard the horror stories about dodgy hostels with noisy roomies, grubby toilets, and less than ideal locations. Fortunately, there are some key warning signs that you can look out for before you book that will alert you to the fact that a hostel may be less than ideal.

 

PS- Most of these tips are true for homestays, guest houses and hotels as well.

Chungking_Mansions_Electrical_Wiring_(2013)

 

1. Visible Rubbish

 

This should be a no-brainer. If you can see rubbish outside the hostel, in the reception area or even in photos of the hostel online, there’s a pretty good chance that you’re in for a disgusting stay. Think about it—if the owners or staff can’t be bothered to pick up litter in the common areas, how much attention do you think they’re going to pay to bed sheets, bathrooms and the kitchen? Common sense says to steer clear of dirty hostels.

 

2. Surly Staff

 

Part of what makes for the best hostel experiences are the staff, as these are the people who should be making you feel at home and helping you out with your basic needs and/or info about your destination. If the staff are rude, grouchy, or non-existent when you walk in, you can be sure that they won’t be going out of their way to make your stay a pleasant one. Trust your instincts. If you get a bad vibe from the staff or any of the other guests, just remember that they’re the ones with the keys to your room. You have seen the movie Hostel right?

 

3. Location, Location, Location

 

Sure, you may save money by staying at a hostel that is way out of town or in a down and out neighborhood. However, the reality is that you might actually end up spending more on transportation into town, food delivery, overpriced drinks, etc. Plus, is it really worth staying in a sketchy and potentially dangerous neighborhood just to save a few bucks?

 

4. Security

 

Again, another obvious thing to look for, but something that many people overlook. A good hostel should have lockers for you to store your stuff so that you don’t have to drag it around all day, secure locks on the bathroom stalls and shower doors, and a system in place where there are people on staff to make sure that outside people cannot enter the guest rooms or locker areas. Take the time to do a bit of research to save yourself a major loss later.

 

5. Curfew

 

Ok, so having a curfew may seem like a good idea and one that is geared towards safety and comfort, but do you really want to end up out on the street just because you weren’t watching the time or got stuck in a traffic jam or wanted to hang out for that extra little bit? In addition, a curfew may be a good sign that the staff won’t be around late in the evening. If that’s the case, who will be overseeing security or on hand in case of an emergency?

 

6. Bars/Restaurants on Site

 

Again, this may seem like a good idea at first. I mean who doesn’t want easy food and drinks right at their doorstep? However, keep in mind that restaurants and especially bars often play loud music, can get quite busy and may stay open until late in the evening. If you’re a light sleeper and need your Z’s, you may want to consider a hostel within walking distance, but completely separate from the dining and drinking venues.

An Interview with Jero Asri Kerthyasa, an Australian-Balinese Princess

Jero Asri Kerthyasa is a woman with a life story that reads like a fairy tale most women would only dream of. Born to a middle-class family and raised in Australia, Jero Asri (formerly named Jane Gillespie) met her future husband, Prince Tjorkorda Raka Kerthyasa of the Sukawati royal family of Ubud, on a vacation to Bali. A year later the couple were married and Jero Asri became the first foreign-born princess to become a member of the Sukawati royal family.

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Can you tell us a bit about your background before you came to Bali?

I was born in Singapore, but grew up in Australia, and in my former life in Australia I was a pre-school teacher.

 

What brought you to Bali?

The first time I came to Bali was for a vacation with some friends in 1972. I later came back in 1977 on holiday with my mother, and that’s when I met my husband.

 

How did you meet your husband?

I was staying in Ubud next to the Lotus Café, and just behind was Tjorkoda’s family temple. Tjorkoda was always there doing the Barong dances, and working with a group of children that he would take around to do performances. As a schoolteacher I loved children, so that brought us together.

 

Was it love at first sight?

Well…more like love at second sight (laughing). It took about a week before I knew I really I liked him. We got married a year later in 1978.

 

What did your family think when they found out that you were going to marry a prince?

My Mother had already met him and knew that he was really just a nice, normal guy and not too ‘princey-princey’, and my father was in the Army and worked for the government, so he was used to meeting foreign dignitaries and VIP’s. So neither of them was very shocked or star struck. I suppose some of my friends were more in awe of the whole situation.

 

Did you choose to change your name or was it something that was required of you?

Actually, the family changed my name and I wasn’t even aware of it until after the fact. Jero is a title given to an outsider who marries into the palace, or someone from an outside caste. Asri means perfect, although I believe they chose it to mean Australia and the Republic of Indonesia, which is not so glamorous.

 

How did Tjokorda’s family react to his decision to marry a foreigner?

His family was less enthusiastic than mine, and in the beginning there was a lot of opposition to the marriage. They wanted him to marry within the royal family, and so at first there was a little hostility and some of his family members wouldn’t speak to me.

 

How did the Balinese community react to the marriage?

Some people accepted me, but others would say to my husband, ‘Why don’t you get a real (Balinese) wife’, so I guess you could say there was a bit of subtle subterfuge going on there.

 

Was it difficult to adjust to life as a princess?

I guess the biggest challenge was not having a choice about doing certain things, for example having to change my religion and my name. After a while that really began to bother me.  I thought ‘Why do I have to change everything about my life. It’s not fair!

 

You have two sons, and one daughter. Do they have any special responsibilities as members of the royal family?

Yes, they still have a lot of responsibilities, roles, and expectations, particularly for ceremonies, but they also still have to work.


You’ve recently opened Biku, a restaurant, lounge and tea house in Seminyak. How did that come about?

Our eldest son Adam is a tea master, which means he had to learn the different tastes and blends of tea. I love tea as well, but I found it hard to find a good cup of tea in Bali, so I wanted to create a place where people could enjoy high quality tea.

 

Is Biku a family run restaurant?

Yes, my youngest son and I manage the restaurant, and my eldest son consults on us on tea selections and gives tea appreciation classes. My daughter just finished school, so she’s into doing her own thing right now, and my husband is very busy, but he likes to hang out here when he has time. Sometimes he lends a hand by clearing tables or taking orders.

 

Any plans for the future?

I’d like to build up Biku a bit more, maybe have special events and dance performances. I also plan to use more products from Indonesia. At the moment we have a number of really great teas from Java, and chocolate as well. I really want to showcase what Indonesia has to offer. But as for another hotel or restaurant, no – I think this is it. You know I’m not really into empire building – I just want to do one thing and do it really well.

 

Note: This interview was originally published in Baru di Bali the Mag, Edition 21. Check out the story and the rest of the issue here.

 

Wat Kuk: Cambodia’s Grisly Version of Buddhist Hell

At first glance, Wat Mondul Seyma (also known as Wat Kuk) seems like your typical peaceful Buddhist temple in Cambodia. The temple itself rests in the shade of tall trees, colourful prayer flags ripple in the wind, and pious monks and laymen place burning sticks of incense onto altars and pray amid murals that depict the story of Buddha’s life and teachings. However, follow the non-descript path behind the temple down to the riverbank, and a much more grisly scene unfolds.

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As you make your way to the rocky outcroppings next to the banks of the Stung Metuk River, you come across a bizarre set of statues. Crawling frantically up a spiny tree are three naked and bleeding figures who appear to be trying to escape a devilish figure sneering up at them from the base of the tree while his dog barks menacingly beside him. Next to the tree, there is massive boulder with an unfortunate soul being sawed in half by two smirking demons.

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You would be forgiven for thinking this is some sort of twisted theme park, where only the truly sadistic would spend an afternoon. However, a sign next to the figures explains that this is in fact Buddhist hell, and this is what happens in the afterlife to those who commit sins in this life. More a lesson in morality than a macabre playground, the scenes here are a warning against specific wrongdoings.

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For example, the tree climbers represent what happens to those who commit adultery, while the man being sawed in half is warning against corruption. Two emaciated figures holding up a massive boulder on their bloody shoulders pay the price for robbing the less fortunate of land and power, while a menagerie of half-human, half-animal figures take turns being gutted by evil demons— a terrifying sign of what is to come for those who take the lives of other living beings.

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Although not for the faint-hearted, the collection of statues at Wat Kuk offers a fascinating glimpse into Cambodian culture and religion. Many of the themes here center around taking advantage of and harming others, which is no surprise when you look at the country’s bloody history and past and current government. In addition, unlike so many other Buddhist practitioners, the majority of Cambodians believe that bad karma will get you a whole lot more than a dodgy reincarnation.

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To get to Wat Kuk, drive a few minutes outside of Koh Kong City and head towards the Thai border. Most tuk-tuk and motorbike drivers will know exactly how to get there, and tourists are welcome to visit the temple, stroll the grounds, and of course, explore the gruesome images of Buddhist Hell.

Best Wine Bars in Southeast Asia

Wine Bottle Rack

 

Ah vino—nectar of the gods, social lubricant and a welcome addition to any meal. Although wine is not a traditional drink in many Southeast Asian countries, that doesn’t mean you can’t find a good glass or three on your travels. For serious oenophiles or those who simply want a change from the usual Bintang, Tiger or Beer Lao, check out these top wine bars in Southeast Asia.

 

White Marble Wine Bar & Restaurant

Photos of White Marble Restaurant & Wine Bar, Hoi An
This photo of White Marble Restaurant & Wine Bar is courtesy of TripAdvisor

 

Located in the heart of historical Hoi An, this chic wine bar is housed in a 2-story wooden colonial building that has been revamped to offer a contemporary twist. The wine list here is impressive to say the least, with bottles from places as varied as Italy, New Zealand, California and France, and 12 wines by the glass, starting at just $4. The menu is an eclectic mix of Vietnamese and Hoi An cuisine like Fresh Rice Paper Rolls and Grilled Beef in Betel Nut, as well as international fare like the Trio of Dips, Sushi and a heavenly Cheese Platter.

98 Le Loi St

Hoi An Old Town, Vietnam

Tel: +84 (0) 510 3911862

http://www.visithoian.com/whitemarble

 

The Wine Pub

Photos of WP wine pub, Bangkok
This photo of WP wine pub is courtesy of TripAdvisor

Beer may be best for many in Bangkok, but wine lovers in the know head to The Wine Pub for its European-style ambiance and huge selection of bottles. Grab a seat at the huge bar or in one of the cushy booths and choose from over 100 labels from around the world or their 6 wines by the glass that change on a regular basis. If you need something to soak up all that plonk, The Wine Pub offers up a great tapas menu, as well as delicious French cheeses, charcuterie platters, salads and pastas.

Pullman Bangkok King Power

8/2 Rangnam Road, Thanon-Phayathai,

Ratchathewi, Bangkok

Tel. +66 (0)2 680 9999

Hours: Daily: 6pm – 2am

www.pullmanbangkokkingpower.com/promotions/wp-wine-pub

 

Rubies Wine Bar

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It may be small, but what Rubies lacks for in size it makes up for in vibe and vino. Snag a spot at the wooden bar inside or one of the cozy tables outside and order from a diverse mix of international wines by the glass or bottle. Get here early on the weekends, as the place packs out with expats who come for the great drink specials and live bands and DJs. They also throw lively parties throughout the year on holidays and special occasions.

Corner of Street 19 and 240

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Tel: +855 97 884 9664

Hours: Tue – Thu: 10am – 1am, Fri – Sat: 10am – 2am, Sun: 10am – 1am

www.facebook.com/RubiesWineBar

 

VIN+

VIN+ Senayan Arkadia - Escargot in Zuccini

New to Bali’s burgeoning wine scene, Vin+ is hard to miss with its soaring bamboo structure that evokes the shape of a wine barrel and sleek glass windows that offer indoor diners glimpses of the treetops and the lively Seminyak action below. Guests can sit outdoors in the shady garden wine lounge or lush al fresco dining area or enjoy air-conditioned comfort inside. On your way out, hit up the retail shop to peruse over 18,000 bottles, including rare and exclusive vintages. Or even better, call them up to have bottles delivered directly to your door.

Jl. Kayu Jati #1 Seminyak

Bali, Indonesia

Tel: +62 361 473 2377

Hours: Restaurant: 5pm – late, Shop: 10am – late

www.vingroup.biz/index.php/wine-boutiques/vin-seminyak-bali.html

 

Douang Deuane Restaurant and Wine Bar

Wine glass

 

Cheap and cheerful, this charming little spot that serves up great French and Asian dishes accompanied by divine wines by the glass, carafe or bottle. The French owner is super friendly and makes you feel right at home, and the soft lighting and sultry jazz playing in the background add to the ambiance. For a romantic dinner out, reserve the secluded and solo table for two on the upstairs balcony.

Th Francois Nginn

Vientiane, Laos

Tel: (021) 241 154

Southeast Asia’s Coolest Dive Resorts

It’s a well known fact that Southeast Asia offers some of the best scuba diving in the world, so it should come as no surprise that there are also equally impressive dive resorts across the region. For an unforgettable diving holiday, check out these spectacular dive resorts that will impress both on land and under the sea.

 

Amanwana Resort

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Photo courtesy of Amanwana Resort

 

The name Amanwana means ‘peaceful forest’, which is a fitting name considering the resort is the only one on the tropical island of Moyo, which itself is located the middle of a protected marine park. Book into one of the luxury tents here to enjoy stunning views of the secluded cove and the Flores Sea, sugary white sand beaches and pristine coral reefs. In addition to incredible dive trips, the staff here can arrange tours to Rinca and Komodo to see Indonesia’s infamous Komodo Dragons.

Not your ordinary camping tents, the 20 luxury tents at Amanwana feature hardwood floors and wooden walls with huge windows, special waterproof canvas ceilings, eye-catching Indonesian artwork, king-sized beds, divans, sitting areas and ensuite bathrooms. There are also large wooden decks out front for soaking up the sun or taking in the views of the ocean or jungle.

Amanwana has its own dive operation, so guests can take trips out to the Flores Sea to explore the fascinating underwater world. Sites include sea walls and reefs awash in colorful coral and sea fans, and crawling with turtles, eels, manta rays and whale sharks. You can also take single or multi-day PADI certified dive courses here.

 

Sumba, Indonesia

www.amanresorts.com/amanwana/home.aspx

BOOK IT HERE

 

Seaventures

Seaventures Resort

 

Quirky and unique, Seaventure was once a massive oil rig, but it now has a new life as a revamped and renovated dive resort just a few kilometres from the popular Malyasia dive sites of Mabul Island, Kapalai Island and Sipadan. Besides a comfortable dorm, private rooms and communal dining and chill-out areas, Seaventures also offers a custom-made lift down to the house reef under the rig.

Guests at Seaventures can opt for shared accommodation in the dorm cabins that sleep up to 4 people in bunk beds and include a separate dorm guest-only bathroom with six individual hot water shower stalls. There are also roomy Twin and Double rooms with ensuite bathrooms and large Suite Cabins with A/C, fresh linens and towels, sitting areas and huge bathrooms with hot water showers.

Whether you’re a complete newbie to diving or an experienced underwater explorer, Seaventures offers a range of courses and dive trips for you. Learn the basics with a PADI Scuba Diving Course, up your skills with a PADI Advanced Open Water course or go for a specialty course like the Rescue Diver, Divemaster or PADI Adventure Diver. Once you’ve passed with flying colors, head out to amazing sites like Sipadan for reefs and drops with turtles, barracuda and jack fish, Mabul for macro-diving, or Kapalai for intriguing artificial reefs.

 

Semporna, Malaysia

www.seaventuresdive.com

BOOK IT HERE

 

Misool Eco Resort

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Photo courtesy of www.misoolecoresort.com

 

Located on the private island of Batbitim, Misool Eco Resort is an exotic hideaway made entirely of reclaimed tropical hardwood. Eight cottages sit on stilts over the water with stairs that make their way down to the lagoon, so you can snorkel in the clear waters right in front of your suite. The secluded island also sits inside the 46,000 square meter Raja Ampat Shark and Manta Sanctuary, which makes for incredible diving opportunities.

This exclusive dive resort is located amid 1,220 square kilometres of deserted islands, which means you have all the sugary white sand beaches, lush foliage and impossibly clear waters to yourself. The maximum capacity of the resort is just 32 guests, so you never feel crowded, and the rooms feature shady verandas covered with traditional grass roofs that offer a great deal of privacy.

As an added bonus, Misool Eco Resort is in a No Take Zone, which means that fishing, bombing and harvesting of shellfish and turtle eggs is prohibited. This makes this region in the heart of the Coral Triangle incredibly rich in marine biodiversity. Head out on one of the enlightening dive trips to see untouched reefs, vibrant coral gardens, swaying sea fans and over 1,400 species of fish. Plus, a portion of the proceeds from your stay go towards supporting the resort’s conservation initiatives and local employment.

 

Raja Empat, Indonesia

www.misoolecoresort.com

BOOK IT HERE

 

Wakatobi Dive Resort

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Photo Courtesy of www.wakatobi.com

 

This all-inclusive private dive retreat features beautiful bungalows built out of natural materials like sandstone and wood, and it is located just a short boat ride from over 40 dive sites off of South Sulawesi. One of the key features of the resort is the 3-mile house reef just offshore that offers plenty of thriving coral, glossy sea grass and intriguing drop-offs. You can also feel good knowing that a significant portion of the money from your stay goes towards conserving the reef and supporting the local community.

Guests can choose from three different types of accommodation here: the Villas, Ocean Bungalows or Palm Bungalows. All rooms are bright and spacious and have a king-sized bed or two twin beds, A/C and ceiling fans and balconies with comfy lounge chairs. Some of the rooms even offer hammocks for lazy afternoons spent with a good book and a cold drink, and spectacular views out over the sea.

For an easy diving and snorkeling session, head to the beautiful House Reef directly in front of the resort, or arrange exciting trips farther out to see bizarre sea creatures, unique topography and pristine coral reefs. If you really want to immerse yourself in the underwater world, board the luxurious Wakatobi Dive Yacht, the Pelagian for off the beaten path sites and unforgettable discoveries. Also, unique to Wakatobi is the new science of Fluo-Diving. This involves heading out to the reefs at night armed with a UV light, which illuminates marine life with natural fluorescence in completely different glowing colors, including bright neon pink, green and blue.

 

Sulawesi, Indonesia

www.wakatobi.com

BOOK IT HERE

 

Sangat Island Dive Resort

Sangat Island Dive Resort

Photo Courtesy of www.sangat.com.ph

 

Just the location of this dive resort is enough to make you start packing your bags now. Towering limestone cliffs jut upwards from a 300-meter stretch of pristine white sand beach, native-style cottages and villas look out over the turquoise waters of a tranquil bay, and an abundance of marine life awaits under the surface of the water, including the hulk of a WWII Japanese shipwreck just minutes from your door. When you’re not exploring the sea floor, you can go trekking, rock climbing, sea kayaking or simply lounge on the private beach.

 

Palawan, the Philippines

www.sangat.com.ph

BOOK IT HERE

How Not to Piss off the Locals in Southeast Asia

Although I like to consider myself an intrepid traveler, I admit that the first thing I do before I go on any trip is to check out a travel guide for the area I will be visiting. It’s not that I want to map out my trip down to the finest detail (although I do like to check out what’s on offer), but it’s more so to get a feel for the country, and more importantly, the people and culture. The reason for this is that I want to know that when I travel to a country halfway across the world from my own where I don’t speak the language or know the local customs, I won’t be pissing off people left right and center with cultural faux pas that could be easily avoided. To me, learning the local cultural etiquette is one of the most important preparations for any trip.

Although each country in Southeast Asia has a myriad of unique cultures and customs, there are some common themes when it comes to basic etiquette in the region. Here are some tips on how not to piss off the locals in Southeast Asia:

1. Dress appropriately

While a visit to the girlie bars in Bangkok or Phnom Penh might have you thinking otherwise, the people in Southeast Asia are relatively conservative when it comes to dress. This is particularly true in Muslim areas, local villages and when visiting temples.

I remember visiting the beaches of southern Thailand and being appalled by the number of women sunbathing topless just steps from beach vendors dressed in hijabs and Islamic prayer hats. Sure it may be ok in your country, but in another culture, you’re simply reinforcing the fact that Western people are vulgar and promiscuous.

A good rule of thumb is to watch how the locals dress. If they’re not flouncing around showing off their cleavage, walking around shirtless or wearing miniscule shorts or skirts, neither should you. You don’t have to don a hijab, but try to show a little respect for what passes as acceptable in the country/city you’re in.

 

Áo dài hồ Gươm

 

2. Mind the Head and the Feet

For the majority of Southeast Asians, the top of the head is considered closest to the gods, while the feet are considered dirty. This means that touching people on the head is a big no-no, as is pointing the bottoms of your feet towards others, especially monks or elders.

I once had a good Cambodian friend who nearly lost his mind when a friend of his reached out to tousle his hair. To my friend, the gesture was purely derogatory and indicated that the tousler was showing that he had little or no respect for my friend. In fact, it was considered a huge loss of face for my friend, considering it had happened in a very public place.

In keeping with this theme, Southeast Asian people also consider it very rude to wear your shoes inside a home, temple, mosque and even some places of business. When in doubt, always take your shoes off and leave them at the door before entering one of these places. And never EVER wash your shoes or place dirty footwear or socks next to places where people eat or sleep.

 

Shoe rack - Temple of Emerald Buddha, Bangkok

 

3. Control Your Temper

One of the first things that you will probably notice about Southeast Asia is how friendly and quick to smile the people are (Ok, maybe not everywhere—there are always exceptions to the rules right?). This is because politeness is revered in most Southeast Asian cultures. Losing your temper, yelling or getting physically aggressive are frowned upon here.

It’s easy to get frustrated and upset when you’re in a foreign country and things aren’t going your way. And yes, of course you will encounter the occasional scammer, annoying vendor or downright dodgy individual who might make your blood boil. However, try to resist the urge to scream and make a scene. This will only make the locals lose respect for you, as they will think you cannot control your emotions, much like a child or animal cannot control their behavior. Better to grin and bear it and try to work out another way to deal with the situation calmly and cooly.

 

Laos - Luang Prabang 62 - Buddha statues at Wat Sensoukharam (6582104333)

 

4. Purge the PDAs

Maybe you’re on holiday as newlyweds, traveling as a couple, or you’ve met someone special along the way and you just can’t seem keep your hands off each other. Well, I’m sorry to say this ain’t Paris, Sydney or even Des Moines. In most Southeast Asian countries it is considered very bad form for couples of the opposite sex to kiss, touch or even hug in public.

On the flip side, you will often see same sex friends in Southeast Asia holding hands, linking arms or even sitting on each other’s laps. This is considered acceptable and not an indication of sexual identity whatsoever. While this may be a godsend for gay couples traveling in the region, remember that homosexuality is still not widely accepted in many cultures here, so sure, go ahead and hold hands, but don’t go overboard.

 

Sampeah

 

5. Right is Right

In countries with large Muslim and Hindu populations like Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and Brunei, people typically use the right hand to eat with, while the left hand is reserved for toilet duties. This means that you should always shake hands, pass and receive business cards, money and gifts, and point using your right hand. Avoid touching anyone or picking up communal food with your left hand at all costs.

Eating with your hands may seem like such a simple task, but when you add the challenge of using only your right hand,especially for rice of all things, it can get a bit hairy. In Southeast Asia, rice is a given at almost any meal. The best way to eat rice using your hand is to gather small amount of rice and a small amount of meat or veggies and press them together into a ball (using only your RIGHT hand of course!). Use all five fingers to pick up the ball, and then use your thumb to push the ball into your mouth. With a little practice, you’ll be eating like a local in no time.

 

Handshake - Hard Times

 

For more tips on cultural etiquette in particular countries in Southeast Asia check out the Culture Shock! series. I’ve found them particularly useful for pointing out major dos and don’ts, as well as giving great insight into the people and culture of each country they cover. Click on the images below to check out the various Culture Shock! titles for Southeast Asia.

Do you have any other tips on how not to piss off the locals in Southeast Asia? If so, feel free to leave us a comment or drop us a line.

Arak: Bali’s Favorite Alcoholic Drink or Deadly Cocktail?

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When 45-year old Nyoman Laka accepted a drink from his employer on a cool morning in Ubud, he never imagined he would end up fighting for his life and spending the next two months in and out of hospitals.

For many Balinese farmers and labourers, it is common practice to start the day with a shot of arak, a local spirit made from coconut sap, palm sap or fermented rice. Many believe that arak warms the body and is good preparation for a long day’s work.

Nyoman digs wells for a living, a job that can be especially taxing on the body. On many occasions, his employer would offer arak to the workers before they started to give them a boost of energy. Little did any of them know that the arak he had picked up that day contained the lethal toxin methanol.

“After I drank the arak, I went to the rice field to work, but I didn’t feel well at all, so I went home,” Nyoman says. “Shortly after, I began throw up blood, and then I passed out. I woke up one day later in Sanglah Hospital and could not see properly. One of the guys that I worked with was there as well with similar symptoms, but he died the next day.”

Nyoman was in the hospital for 14 days with methanol poisoning, a potentially lethal affliction that affects the body in a number of different ways. Symptoms include dizziness, disorientation, loss of consciousness, blindness, and convulsions. High levels of the toxin can cause the vital organs to cease working, which can and often does result in death. Nyoman eventually gained back his vision and escaped with his life, but others have not been so lucky.

On New Year’s Eve, 19-year-old Liam Davies ordered what he thought was a vodka cocktail at a bar on the island of Lombok. It was discovered later that the cocktail was actually made with methanol-laced arak. After becoming violently ill, Davies was airlifted to a hospital in Perth, where he was declared brain dead. His family later made the heart-wrenching decision to cut off his life support.

Arak Madu cocktail

Arak Cocktail

Similar stories of holidaymakers in Bali and Indonesia suffering blindness or dying from methanol-laced drinks have sparked a flurry of newspaper headlines and government travel warnings about the dangers of drinking bootleg alcohol in Indonesia. Arak is particularly vilified as a deadly drink that should be avoided at all costs.

While there is no denying that methanol-laced arak has been responsible for many tragic deaths, arak is also very much a part of the history and culture of Bali. Many Balinese use it in ceremonies – where it is sprinkled on the ground to ward off evil spirits; for medicinal purposes as a remedy for headaches; and in boreh, a traditional body scrub for sore muscles. Arak is the social lubricant of many gatherings and supports the livelihood of many villagers.

The biggest arak production centre in Bali is in Sideman, Karangasem, where more than 300 farmers depend on the local spirit for their monthly income. Local arak producer, Ketut Mertika says, “I learned how to make arak from my grandfather, who learned how to make it from his grandfather. It is a village tradition.”

Every day at 4:00 am, Ketut heads into the forest to collect sap from the leafy shoots that grow on the palm trees on his land. The sap starts out as a mildly alcoholic, cloudy beverage called tuak. “Tuak only tastes good for one day”, says Ketut. “After that it goes bad, so it’s better to make arak with the tuak.”

COLLECTIE TROPENMUSEUM Een verkoper van palmwijn (tuak) op Bali TMnr 10002905

Collecting palm wine

To make arak, the producers in Sideman distil tuak in metal stills over a low burning fire, and collect the clear spirit in plastic containers. It takes Ketut about four days to make 28 litres of arak, which he then sells to distributors from the surrounding areas and the cities for about Rp.200K. The higher the alcohol content, the more expensive the arak is.
“We never add anything to the arak that we produce here,” Ketut says.

“Maybe other people want to make more money, so they water down the arak or add things like methanol to make it taste stronger. If our arak made people sick, nobody would buy it and the government would crack down hard on us. Why would we want to lose our business?”

Ida Bagus Rai Budarsa, founder of Hatten Wines and owner of Arak Bali and Dewi Sri Brem, agrees with Ketut.

He says, “The people in Karangasem never seem to have problems with methanol poisoning, so why does it always happen so far from the source? I think the problem is not the arak, it’s the middlemen who tamper with it.”

Budarsa’s family has been producing brem – Balinese rice wine – since 1968, and later expanded to include arak in 1992, followed by (grape based) wine in 1994. The company sells about 1,000 bottles of arak a month, mainly to hotels and shops in Bali.

arakbali

The arak produced at the Brem Dewi Sri production facility is not only government regulated, but also distilled in copper stills imported from Spain, and then undergoes a series of tests in the Hatten Wines laboratory to ensure that it meets international spirit standards. The company then bottles and seals the arak on site.

Although Arak Bali is made from white rice, which is fermented, pressed and then distilled, Budarsa sees the value in the traditional palm wine that comes from Karangasem.

“In the past, I’ve suggested working with the producers in that area,” he says.

“If they created a cooperative that only certain people could register and join, they could possibly make more money. They could supply us with the tuak, and we could produce the arak in our facilities. But they opted to continue producing and selling the arak themselves.”

While it goes without saying that the arak producers are proud of their product and traditions, once it goes out of the hands of the producers, it can be very difficult to predict what will happen to the product. Unless you buy straight from the producer or a trusted vendor with trusted sources, you can never be sure what goes into the mix.

“I understand that people have concerns about drinking arak in Bali”, says Budarsa. “Of course, even for me, I would not want to drink something that might make me sick. But if you want to drink arak, there are things you can do to be safe.”

Budarsa suggests sticking to a trusted brand, because they have a responsibility to keep the quality high. He also recommends being selective about where you drink.

“If a bar is offering free-flow drinks, think about how they can do that without losing money,” he says.

And herein lies the problem. With alcohol taxes at an all-time high in Indonesia, it makes sense that people would turn to cheaper alternatives rather than the wildly expensive imported spirits available here. Even local producers have a hard time keeping costs low, especially those with small-scale production facilities.

Budarsa says, “If you want to produce alcohol here, you must have a license, as well as a building permit for the facilities, and then you need to register the product.”

Then there are the taxes. In 2010, the Indonesian government increased the excise taxes on alcohol to a staggering 100 to 214 percent, depending on the alcohol content. This effectively created a boom in black market production and sales.

According to a spokesperson from the Directorate General of Customs, “Objects that are charged with excise have their excise tax increased every year, because it is done to protect the health and well-being of our people”.

While the tax increase certainly may have limited alcohol consumption for a large percentage of the population who cannot afford the inflated prices, it has also led others to find imaginative and sometimes deadly ways to cut costs.

In light of this, it should come as no surprise that unethical bar and restaurant owners replace quality spirits with bootleg alcohol, while shady distributors and vendors water down perfectly good arak and add dangerous substances to make it taste stronger.

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Since his terrifying ordeal, Nyoman Laka has made the decision never to drink arak again. “I’m so angry and confused,” he says.

“Why would people purposely do something so terrible, when they know that it can kill people? Arak is supposed to be part of our culture, not just something for people to make money off of with no care for human life. That is the opposite of what our religion and culture teaches us”.

A sentiment most of us would agree with, regardless of religion or culture. When it comes to health and well-being, money should simply not be an issue.

However, until there are cheaper options available, arak will continue to be popular and the risk of methanol poisoning will continue to be a very real possibility. For those who want to imbibe, it is better to pay more for commercially produced arak or invest the time to find a trusted producer who truly values his or her product and customers.

Written by Stephanie Mee and previously published in the Yak magazine issue March/April/May, 2013.

 

Where to Find the Best Street Food in Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia has long been known as one of the best places on earth to get fresh, tasty and cheap street food. From Singapore hawker stalls to Indonesian bakso carts, Thai night markets and Vietnamese roadside restaurants, we give you the rundown on the top hotspots for street food in the region.

Bangkok P1100339

Best Street Food Spots in Bangkok, Thailand

 

Sukhumvit Soi 38

 For a true Thai street food experience, head to Sukhumvit, Soi 38 where you’ll find a plethora of tin tables and plastic chairs and vendors selling everything from Pad Thai noodles to mango sticky rice. The stalls here are clean and there is a high turnover of locals and foreigners, which means the food is fresh and tasty to boot.

Time: 6pm til late

Pad Thai

Pad Thai

Victory Monument

 The Victory Monument acts like a beacon calling hungry office workers, students and foodies to the small laneways shooting off from the traffic circle here. Wander down any of these streets and you’ll find plenty of food stalls selling delectable lunch dishes, including the famous Thai boat noodles. With a dark, rich broth flavored with herbs, spices and pork blood, slippery rice noodles, green vegetables and pork or beef, we bet you can’t eat just one bowl.

Time: 7am til late

Chinatown (Yaowarat)

 After the sun sets, busy Yaowarat Road transforms into a bustling night food bazaar with hundreds of vendors selling classic Chinese specialties like bird’s nest soup and roast duck, as well as some Chinese influenced Thai dishes like fried pork belly in peppery soup and rice noodles with ground pork, fiery chilies and aromatic holy basil.

Time: 6pm til late

Poultry at Chinatowns Talat Leng-Buai-la market (6491924593)

Roast Duck in Chinatown, Bangkok

 

Best Street Food Spots in Singapore

 

Maxwell Road Hawker Centre

 Smack in the middle of Chinatown, this hawker center is a Singapore institution and home to some of the most beloved street food stalls such as Tian Tian Chicken Rice with its succulent chicken served over broth infused rice with a side of fiery chilli sauce and Jin Hua Sliced Fish Bee Hoon, which offers up golden pieces of fried fish floating in a milky broth with thin rice vermicelli noodles.

Time: 8am to 10pm

Chatterbox ChickenRice

Chicken Rice

Old Airport Road Food Centre

 With up to 30 minute queues for quintessential Singapore hawker dishes like oyster omelette in chili sauce and Char Kway Teow (rice noodles with Chinese sausage, cockles, bean sprouts, chili sauce and dark soy sauce), you know the food stalls at the Old Airport Road Food Centre have got to have something good going on.

Time: Mon to Fri: 11.30am to midnight, Sat to Sun: 10.30am to midnight

 

East Coast Park Lagoon Village Food Centre

It’s all about fresh BBQ seafood like chilli crab, spicy grilled stingray and black pepper crab at the East Coast Park Lagoon Village Food Centre, as well as tasty wonton noodles, braised duck rice and satay. It doesn’t hurt either that the location is right on the beach, so you can grab your grub and have a picnic by the sea.

Time: 8am to 9pm

Chilli crab-01

Singapore Chilli Crab

Best Street Food Spots in Kuala Lumpur

 

Jalan Alor

A favorite foodie pit stop for locals, Jalan Alor runs parallel to Jalan Bukit Bintang, and is packed with hawker stalls selling Malaysian staples like chicken satay, grilled fish, braised duck with rice and fresh tropical fruits like durian, rambutan and mangosteen.

Time: 6pm til late (although some stalls are open during the day)

Kuala Lumpur - Jalan Alor

Jalan Alor, Kuala Lumpur

Chow Kit Market Hawker Stalls

Chow Kit is the biggest wet market in Kuala Lumpur, and as such, it should come as no surprise that there are tons of hawker stalls here that sell delicious street food made from only the freshest ingredients. This is the place to go to get heavenly nasi lemak—coconut rice with various side dishes such as fried chicken, crispy anchovies, roasted peanuts, hard boiled egg and of course, fiery sambal, golden shrimp fritters, ikan masin (salted fish) and murtabak—flaky pan-fried bread with an egg and minced meat filling.

Time: 9am to 5pm

 

Petaling Street Night Market

Located in the heart of Chinatown, Petaling Street is a warren of shops selling clothing, electronics, handbags and souvenirs during the day, but come evening, the hawker stalls start to emerge. Many of the hawker stalls here have been in operation for decades, so you can sample tried and true recipes for delicious seafood, chicken and rice, BBQ fish, curry laksa and roti.

Time: 4pm til late

Laksa

Laksa

Best Street Food Spots in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

 

Ben Thanh Market

Enter Ben Thanh Market, pass the colorful displays of silk scarves, beaded shoes, leather handbags and glossy lacquerware, and head deep into the interior where you’ll find simple stalls selling everything from steaming bowls of pho to crispy and fresh spring rolls, banh mi pate sandwiches and bun thit nuong (rice vermicelli noodles with BBQ pork, mini spring rolls, fresh herbs and fish sauce). Wash it all down with a rich iced Vietnamese coffee served with sweetened condensed milk.

Time: 6am to 7pm

Pho-Beef-Noodles-2008

Pho Beef Noodles

Ton That Thuyet Street, District 4

Everyday, food vendors and foodies alike flock to this long strip of pavement to grab mouthwatering Vietnamese dishes like bun bo la lot, rice vermicelli noodles topped with grilled beef, pickled vegetables, peanuts, sprouts and herbs, sticky rice with Chinese sausage, dried shrimp, chicken and fried shallots and che dau trang, a sweet dessert made with glutinous rice, beans and coconut milk.

Time: All day

 

Banh Xeo 46A

Banh xeo is a Saigon favourite, and locals in the know head to Banh Xeo 46A in District 1 to fill up on the savory rice flour crepes packed with fatty pork, shrimp, bean sprouts and green onion and just a touch of turmeric and coconut milk. This roadside restaurant also serves up divine fresh and fried spring rolls.

46A Dinh Cong Trang Street

District 1, Ho Chi Minh City

Time: All day

 

Best Street Food Spots in Jakarta

 

Pecenongan, Central Jakarta

By day, this street looks like any other, but as soon as night starts to fall, the mobile food carts move in and locals from far and wide flock here for tasty and affordable Indonesian fare. Get your fix of sate kambing (goat satay), martabak (a mix between a crepe and a pancake with sweet fillings like bananas, chocolate or cheese) and nasi uduk (coconut rice with roasted chicken, tofu or tempe).

Time: 6pm til late

Sate kambing sate ayam

Sate Ayam and Sate Kambing (chicken and goat satay)

Jalan Sabang

One block west of Jakarta’s backpacker area of Jalan Jaksa lies Jalan Sabang, a haven for street food that pulls in hungry diners both day and night. This is one of the best places in the city to get cheap eats, including nasi goreng (fried rice), chicken and mutton satay with spicy peanut sauce, fragrant duck rice and pisang goreng (fried banana).

Time: All day until late

Jalan Mangga Besar

If you’re craving Chinese food or seafood, Jalan Mangga Besar is the place to be. Some specialties here include bakmi kepiting (noodles with crab meat, fish balls and crispy fried wontons) and bubur ayam (chicken porridge). For the truly adventurous, try the cobra satay washed down with a shot of cobra blood.

Time: 5pm til late

Bubur Ayam Travelling Vendor 4

Bubur Ayam

 

For more info about Southeast Asian street food, including recipes that you can make at home, check out these great books from Amazon:

 

Unraveling Alternative Healing in Ubud, Bali

Stroll the streets of Ubud, and it may seem like the entire town is one big new age healing center. Flowing white clothes abound, ecstatic dance sessions pack out, and it seems as though ‘traditional’ and ‘alternative’ healers are more ubiquitous than the motorbikes and cars that plague the streets during high season.

© Romko | Dreamstime Stock Photos & Stock Free Images

Whether deserved or not, Ubud has earned a reputation as a center of spirituality, and the numbers of people who travel here looking for spiritual enlightenment and self-transformation are increasing at a rapid pace. There’s no denying that there is something special about Ubud, but is it really the magical and spiritual place that so many claim it is? And are all these healers and gurus all they’re cracked up to be?

The name Ubud actually comes from the Balinese word ubad, which means medicine. Once a small village renowned for its medicinal plants and herbs, Ubud soon began to attract the attention of foreigners for its incredible arts, culture and temples. As far back as the 1930s, foreign artists and musicians would visit the town, become entranced by its ‘magic’ and set up camp along river gorges, amid the jungles and perched on the edge of rice fields.

Skip ahead to present day, and Ubud is a rapidly developing international tourist destination, with visitors from all corners of the globe booking into hotels and luxurious villas, frequenting the hundreds of cafes and restaurants that line the main (and not-so-main) streets, and signing up for detoxifying retreats, yoga teacher training courses and raw food classes.

Dig a little deeper and you will find self-proclaimed clairvoyants, aura readers, tantric and sacred sex gurus and past life interpreters. In fact, take a quick flip through one of the local free mags here and you might find that every second article or advertisement contains phrases like ‘harmony transformation process’, ‘absorb shamanic energies of holy volcanoes’, ‘intuitive channel counseling’, or ‘transformative global energy’. And no, I’m not making that up, all of those phrases actually appeared in one issue of one magazine.

Authentic Balinese healers are now outnumbered by global gurus that hail from exotic climes such as California, Melbourne, Manchester and Ohio. Judging from the price tags attached to the spiritual tours, healing sessions, soulmate readings and life transformation workshops, business seems to be booming.

The truth is, Ubud has had its fair share of people seeking and teaching alternative lifestyles and self-improvement for decades. For example, the Anand Ashram opened its doors in 1991, AsiaWorks has been giving its 12-step program of self-discovery here since 1993, and the Ubud Bodyworks healing center has been offering holistic therapies to travelers and locals alike for a staggering 26 years.

There is no disputing that certain holistic therapies and practices are good for the body and the mind. Yoga is a highly beneficial form of exercise, meditation has been proven to lower stress levels, and lets face it—massage just feels damn good. While some may scoff at energy healing like reiki and light therapy, practices like aligning the chakras or re-balancing the body with sacred crystals, or courses designed to ‘Discover the Goddess Within’, others swear by them; and if it makes you feel good, why not do it?

The problem lies not with the practices themselves, but with the simple fact that where there are people willing to part with their cash, there will always be others willing to take it. That’s not to say that all healers or gurus are scammers. In fact, many of them are quite good at what they do and can considerably help people, whether it be with with physical health issues or mental or emotional damage. However, when you visit a traditional Balinese healer with a compound packed with tourists and not a Balinese person in sight, or come across young Australian women claiming to be Balinese shamans offering healing sessions for upwards of $300 AUD a pop, you have to wonder.

 newage

 

Then there are the stories of starry-eyed travelers falling head over heals for that deep, oh-so ‘in tune with the universe’ guy or gal (local and foreign), only to go home at the end their trip with half their life savings gone and nothing to show for it.

The bottom line is—yes, Ubud is a spiritual place and it can feel like magical at times. And yes, there are people out there who truly are healers and people who can improve the lives of others through counseling, holistic therapies and good old psychology. If you really, truly believe that alternative healing may be for you, then by all means, seek out a tarot reader, take some life transformation sessions or get some crystal therapy if that’s what you want. But be sure you know what you’re getting into before you part with your money.

Ask around to find out who the trusted healers are, do some research and read reviews from past clients. Know what to look for when you’re on the search. For example, most Reiki Masters train for at least a year or more before they gain certification, and a massage therapist in the United States must have anywhere from 330 to 1,000 contact hours in addition to classroom training in anatomy, physiology and kinesiology before they can obtain a license to legally practice massage therapy. Even an entry-level psychotherapist must study for at least six to seven years before they can practice – four years for a BA and two or three more for an MA.

Be wary of people who claim to have a great deal of experience but no certifications, or ‘healers’ who take a four-week course and call themselves a ‘master’. Would you take your broken computer to a self-taught, self-proclaimed computer fix-it guy or would you want to go to a trained and qualified professional? The same should be true for your body and mind.

When it comes down to it, you don’t have to be paranoid, suspicious or uptight when it comes to healers, therapists and self-help experts. But at the same time, just because you’re on holiday doesn’t mean your common sense should be too.

Bun Da Lean – Rice Harvest Festival

Bun Da Lean – Rice Harvest Festival

Bun Da Lien monks
Cambodia has more holidays than any other country in the world. Almost every month there is anywhere from one to five festivals, national holidays, or religious holy days. And each province and village has their own unique celebrations, which is how I ended up last weekend in a small village in the countryside just outside of Phnom Penh, dancing in a dirt clearing until the early hours of the morning and celebrating the end of the rice harvest, known here as Bun Da Lean.

It all started when my Cambodian friend Kim, asked me if I wanted to spend the weekend in his home village of Takeo for Bun Da Lean. Bun Da Lean is a festival at the end of the rice harvest, when entire villages come together to thank the spirits for the good weather, good growing conditions, and the bounty of rice that will feed and support the people for the following year. Typically, people make offerings to the Buddha and the spirits of the rice fields and villagess, receive blessings from the monks, and donate part of their crop yield to the monks and the temples. Afterwards, a party takes place with good food, lively music and plenty of dancing. I was up for all of it.
So on Saturday morning, off we went on Kim’s Suzuki Best, me on the back, Kim driving, and Kim’s 8-year old nephew balanced between his legs.

Driving out of Phnom Penh, we passed entire families poised on motorbikes, lorries jam packed with snorting, nervous looking pigs, and baseball capped men, carrying dozens of chickens on the back of their bikes, each one tied to another by the feet, and slung over the back of the bike so their beady little eyes bobbed precariously, inches from the ground which was racing beneath them. At one point I looked up to see a mini van speeding past us, stuffed to capacity with plastic bags full of chilies and green beans.
As we left the city limits, the landscape began to open up to vast open fields, and the ubiquitous Cambodian palm trees (daum t’nout) that are scattered across the country.

palm-tree, Cambodia
The roads changed from paved, crowded highways into dusty dirt roads, with significantly less motorbike traffic and only the occasional truck or van leaving an eye-burning cloud of dust in it’s wake.

Upon arrival at Kim’s mother’s house we could see that the main stage for the celebration had been set up almost directly in front of her house. A small stage decorated with bright, colorful Buddha posters had been erected as well as a long platform like bench along the side, and huge, tarp awnings to protect the area from the sun and/or rain. And of course the microphone and speakers – Cambodians love to set up loudspeakers at celebrations and blast traditional music or belt our announcements on the microphone. For birthdays, weddings, funerals, and festivals, it’s not a party unless the entire neighborhood can hear you.

A small group of nuns, attired in white lace shirts and sarongs sat cross-legged on the intricately woven rattan mats, and listened to the oraters read out the amounts of money that had thus far been donated to the temple. Small, dusty, half naked children played on the outskirts, occasionally stumbling onto the mats and crawling into the nuns laps. Soon, the area began to fill up with villagers, and shortly afterwards, the monks arrived in tuk tuks and on the back of motorbikes. They sat in order of their status, with young monks at the end farthest from the stage, and the older monks at the front. The head monk was given the seat of honor—a throne like wooden chair with plush yellow cushions.

Bun Da Lien, Takeo

Soon the area was packed with people in prayer, giving their respects to the monks, and listening to the Head Monk preaching the dharma and giving advice to them on how to live a good Buddhist life.
After about an hour or two of praying, the ceremony was over, the monks went back to the temple, and the partying began. The mats were cleared out, loudspeakers brought in, and the music started with a mighty thump of bassline. For hours people danced in the traditional Khmer style—slowly stepping forwards in a large circle, and seductively twisting their hands along side of them in time with the music. Nobody touches, nobody moves quickly, and nobody breaks ranks or direction with the circle of dancers. And the style never changes, regardless of whether it’s a Khmer love song playing or a Westernized Khmer hip hop or pop song.

Kids Having Fun at Bun Da Lien

Kim managed to ply us both with beer, and I was constantly being dragged up every few songs to dance in the circle with Kim’s sister and friends or various other villagers, all of whom were thoroughly amused at the sight of a blonde haired barang girl attempting to dance Khmer style. Our evening was also peppered with the frequent appearances of Kim’s cousin who would pop out of nowhere and drunkenly shout “Hello!!!” which seemed to be the only English phrase he knew besides “sorry – sorry”.

At about midnight I was very hospitably led to bed by Kim’s sister, who seemed to sense my drunken exhausted state, and I retired to the only mattress in the house, which was shrouded in a much appreciated mosquito net. The rest of the family – Kim’s mother, 3 sisters, two brothers-in-law, a younger brother, two nephews, a niece, and the new baby (2 months old) all slept under mosquito nets on blankets on the top floor of the house.

In the morning, I awoke to more chanting, and crawled out to sit on the front steps, where I watched villagers carry large baskets of rice to a tarp on the ground in front of the house. Each person ceremoniously poured the rice onto an ever-growing pile. Apparently, each family in the village makes an offering of rice to the temple, which will then be stored as food for the monks or sold to help pay for the upkeep of the temple.

After a quick breakfast of crusty baguette dipped into a bowl of curry, I was led to the back of the house where I was pointed in the direction of a giant water vat to brush my teeth and wash my face. Kim’s neighbor had a toilet in her back yard (the only one in the village), so I didn’t have to squat in the backyard with the cows in broad daylight, as I had done the night before under the protection of darkness. And then we were off, back to the city—a completely different world than the village of Takeo.

My Bun Da Lean experience gave me a new found respect for the tenacity and generosity of the villagers who work hard all year round, with few luxuries and even fewer so-called “necessities” of life. Yet these people make a point to share what small excesses they do have with the community, and have no qualms inviting a foreigner into their midst. I am grateful that I got a chance witness and take part in the celebration of the rice harvest, and a chance to experience the overwhelming sense of community that is often times taken for granted in big cities all over the world.