12 Steps to Obsessive Travel Planning: Part 2

In steps 1 through 6, I talked about buying a map, doing research, and creating a travel calendar.

7/ Start to personalize your Great Big Map. At different times, I’ve used these three methods:

  • Take your GBM and put sticky dots on places and events which interest you. If you want to be really obsessive (I’ve done this once), use one specific color sticky dot for events, another color for natural attractions, and another for historical sites; OR
  • Mount your GBM on a corkboard and stick pins into places of interest; OR
  • Photocopy your GBM and draw directly on the photocopy with dots marking your events.

It’s fun to post your GBM in a prominent place at home where you can stare at it often and imagine yourself journeying in the places you’ve marked.

8/ At this point, I’m going back and forth between my research materials (websites and travel books), my calendar, and my GBM. This phase could last for weeks or months. From my Internet research, I bookmark sites for hotels, events, and stores and put them all into a special favourites folder.

Each box on your calendar might initially have multiple items: a couple of hotels, some activities available on that day, a store that looks interesting. Eventually, however, you will need to eliminate some options. This can be tough, but think of yourself as a kid in a candy store: choosing just one treat is hard, but whatever you pick, it will likely be sweet.

Don’t forget to note any driving (or other transport) times. For example, if I’m driving from Quito to Mindo, I would write on that date: Dr 1.5 hr to Mindo. That way, I can quickly see how much time I have to build into the day’s schedule for transit between locations and I can plan the rest of the day’s activities around that. Nowadays, it’s easy to get driving times instantly: just Google “driving distance Point A to Point B.”

9/ As you fill in your GBM, with luck you will start to see some clusters of dots. These are the areas you should focus on in your itinerary planning. Ideally, you can stay in one place for several days and do day trips in the vicinity.

If there are dots all alone and far from any others, you are going to have to decide whether that one thing is worth travelling to. If not, you’ll have to shelve that item for this trip.

Also, you need to start considering how far apart your clusters are. Can you drive between or will you need to fly? How much is that going to cost you, in time or money? Should you narrow down the geographical scope of your trip? E.g., You might start by thinking you would like to visit “Spain,” quickly realize that seeing the whole country is far too ambitious for a two-week trip, and eventually settle on a more realistic focus of Madrid, Barcelona, and Valencia.

As you develop your itinerary, keep in mind that you can fly out of a city other than your arrival point if this works better for you. I learned recently that flights aren’t necessarily more expensive if you do this (although you will almost certainly pay a bit more for your rental car), so be sure to investigate options.

10/ Okay, you have a map, a calendar, and a tentative itinerary—and you’ve had quite enough of all this research. Time to start booking.

Whether to book accommodations first or flights first is a bit of a chicken-or-egg situation. Most flights are non-refundable, so you don’t want to have to cancel them because the lodge you’ve set your heart on has no availability for the week you’ve chosen, but they do have an opening the following week. On the other hand, there’s not much point in getting your accommodations lined up only to discover that the flight you need is sold out. I usually try to check availability for the important accommodations just before I book flights.

Although you might be tempted to book your accommodations in order, starting with day 1 etc., it’s probably wiser to first reserve the ones that are most important to you or most likely to be full up. That way, if Pepe’s Perfect Jungle Lodge is unavailable on your first choice of dates, you can be a bit flexible with your itinerary. If you’ve already booked a bunch of other lodgings, you might find it impossible to fit Pepe in. You don’t want to miss out on Pepe’s!

If you’re having trouble booking parts of the itinerary, don’t be afraid to try shuffling the pieces around or even running the schedule backwards, if that might help.

This is how a typical itinerary looks before I start booking.

Aus calendar

11/ As you book each item on your calendar, mark it green. That way you can see at a glance which items still need to be booked and which are fixed.

Some of the information I like to note on my calendar once something is booked:

  • Name of hotel or event
  • City
  • Reservation #
  • Name on booking (yours or your companion’s)

As you get closer to your departure date, you might want to flag unbooked items on your calendar with red to remind yourself that action is still needed.

12/ In addition to the calendar (because not everything will fit in those little boxes), keep notes on each destination: activities, museums, theatres, markets, restaurants, tours, and shops that you may or may not have time for.

Once your entire calendar is glowing with green, you can relax and look forward to enjoying the fruits of all your labor.

Oh, yeah, there’s still the packing to do…but that’s another list.

Am I crazy for doing all this? How do you plan your trips? Or do you plan at all? Let me know in a comment.

12 Steps to Obsessive Travel Planning: Part 1

Are you one of those spontaneous, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants travelers? The kind who books a flight, throws a few things into a carry-on bag, and takes off? If so, this is not the blog for you. I admit to being a careful—many would even say “obsessive”—travel planner. I have every night booked long before I leave home and I usually have a general idea of what I’ll be doing each day. Having plotted out many trips over the years, I find this works for me. I find decision-making one of the most stressful parts of travel, so I like to have the bulk of that out of the way so I can relax and enjoy the actual trip.

I have friends who like nothing better than to hop from one bed and breakfast to another, never knowing where they will lay their heads that evening. To me, that would be a nightmare; I would spend far too much of my precious vacation time worrying about finding a place to sleep.

Yes, there are disadvantages to my method: I can’t decide on the spur of the moment to stay another night somewhere or tear off across the country when I hear there’s a great festival happening “up north.” I try to mitigate those disadvantages with detailed research that allows me to make good choices in advance. Besides, I tell myself, I can always return in the future if a particular spot warrants a longer visit or I miss an event.

The process I use for planning is the same whether it’s a long or short trip, but I find that the longer the trip, the more difficult the logistics, so the itinerary becomes even more crucial.

1/ Get the biggest map of your destination that you can find. There are map stores or travel specialty stores in most large cities, or you can buy online.

2/ Research as much general information as you can about the destination. What is the climate like at different times of the year? Are there times you need to avoid e.g., hurricane season, hot season, local school holidays? When is high season, low season, shoulder season? Will you need to take health precautions? What are the different areas of the country? Which city(ies) are you likely to arrive in and depart from? How much will the major flights cost? What is the standard of accommodations in city and country? How far apart are the accommodations in the country? What are the roads like? How difficult will it be to travel if you don’t speak the local language? Will you need to fly between areas or will you drive? Are there trains, buses, ferries? Are there safety issues e.g., carjacking, kidnapping, conflict zones?

I’m still old-fashioned enough to do most of this research via travel guidebooks, but I also consult online trip reports, blogs, Tripadvisor, and forums like Thorn Tree (Lonely Planet’s site) for specific and timely information.

3/ In simple list form, note the dates of any specific events you would like to experience, such as festivals, holidays, natural events (e.g., animal or bird migrations, flowers blooming, trees in fall colors). Based on the time of year you can or want to visit, which events might you be able to attend?

Note the names, general locations, and points of interest of specific towns or areas. For example, you might write:

Mindo (1.5 hr west of Quito) – excellent birding, zipline, Sunday market, Milpe Lodge

4/ Start to build a calendar. I use a table in Microsoft Word with seven columns (one for each day of the week) and as many rows as I need for the weeks I’ll be travelling. I fill in tentative dates for each box. Here’s what it looks like (far left column is Sundays).

Sometimes, I’ll have two of these tables at first with alternative sets of dates. This lets me build a couple of itinerary options based around specific flight dates, for example (April 18 and May 16 vs May 3 and May 31) or travel season (high season vs shoulder season).

5/ Transfer over to your calendar those event dates and the points of interest from #3 above. If an event stretches over several days, include it on each calendar day that it runs. You may only want to attend one day, but at this stage, you don’t necessary know which day that will be. Also include where you’ll need to be for each item.

6/ Research flights for best routes and cheapest options. Now that you’ve got a general idea of when and where you want to be, you can start looking at flights. Unless you’re bound to a very strict timeline, always check several departure dates and return dates, as prices can vary quite significantly depending on which day of the week you fly. You can also research airport options. For example, most people fly in and out of Costa Rica through San Jose. We found that arriving at and departing from Liberia worked better for our itinerary and gave us better routing. As it turned out, the smaller airport was a real breeze and we were more than happy with our choice.

More next week on finalizing your plans.

Is this all waaaaay too fussy for you? Do you think spontaneity is the essence of travel pleasure? Tell me your opinion in a comment.

 

 

 

Khon: A Fascinating Find

Khon performance in Bangkok. Image source: asianitinerary.com

 

 

In a quiet corner of the Grand Palace complex in Bangkok, rarely noticed by the streams of tourists focused on golden stupas and kinnaris, we stumbled into the Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles. It’s a cool, dignified space staffed by serious people who welcome you with a polite smile and guide you firmly through an appropriate visit. Appropriate, in the case of this royally sponsored institution, meaning quiet, properly dressed (no bare arms or legs), and, above all, respectful.

The museum was founded by the Thai queen in 1976 to promote the appreciation of traditional Thai handcrafts, especially the creation and use of silk. As the queen is also a champion of khon (variously spelled as kohn), the museum includes a small display of the elaborate costumes worn for this traditional masked dance (“Dressing Gods and Demons”). Constructed of silk heavily embroidered with gold/silver and “jewels” of colored glass and beetle wing, the costumes are based on research conducted in conjunction with a 2007 revival performance of the ancient art.

After viewing the exhibition, I was eager to check out a performance, and through considerable digging around, we discovered shows played at the Sala Chalermkrung Royal Theatre. Our efforts to see one, however, turned into a comedy of errors.

On the evening of the show, after an excellent meal in the tiny hole-in-the-wall Café 511, we asked the taxi driver to take us to the Sala Chalermkrung Theatre. We showed him the tickets, which had on them the name and address in Thai. We told him we were going to see kohn. None of these references worked. He consulted with his taxi colleagues. Nope, none of them had a clue. Finally, we said “Old Siam Centre,” which is in the same block as the theatre. Ah! Yes, now he knew! Off we sped, only to arrive at the Siam Paragon, a luxury shopping centre. Try again. Next stop: Siam Discovery, another mall. The poor guy obviously only understood “Siam” and was doing his best based on what the bulk of tourists wanted to find. On the other hand, this is the royal theatre, for gawd’s sake, surely someone must have heard of it? By a process of elimination only, I believe, he finally brought us to the Old Siam Centre.

We walked around the place several times, thinking, How can they possibly hide a theatre here? Is it underground? Is it on the roof? We began to question our mental competence: Could a Thai theatre look so very different from what we’re used to that we’re just walking past it? We commenced staring suspiciously at young Thai women selling Hello Kitty merchandise in the market: perhaps one of their booths concealed a hidden entrance to the theatre?

Finally, we asked the crisp information officer by showing her the tickets and she sent us off with a series of hand gestures. Tickets in hand, we walked out of the mall, following her instructions as best we could, only to be accosted by a sincere-looking old man who pointed to the tickets, shook his head vigorously, and sent us back into the mall. How were we to know that he was not a kind citizen but a critic who was warning us away from the show? At least, that had to be the explanation, because having slogged around the block yet another time, we ultimately discovered that we had literally been on the theatre’s doorstep when he intercepted us and sent us away.

Fortunately—having had much experience of losing our way in Bangkok—we had allowed lots of time. We were finally seated in the vintage-1933 theatre along with a dozen giggling schoolchildren and a handful of other patrons. This in a theatre that holds well over 450. My companion suggested that the rows of emptiness probably belonged to scores of confused ticket-holders wandering the streets outside after being turned away by the helpful old man.

After all our misadventures, I can happily report that the show was worth the effort. Although khon has been compared to classical ballet, they are similar only in that their movements are formal and stylized, and the dancers use mime. Where ballet dancers balance on their toes, khon dancers stomp down heavily on their heels. Where ballet calls for airy lightness, khon favors strong, deliberate movements. Khon is mostly quite slow and often involves balancing on one foot, moving the feet and hands very precisely, and sometimes posing in tableaux-like formations. There’s also a dash of acrobatics thrown in.

The stories are drawn from the Hindu epic of Ramayana and feature gods, demons, and monkeys. Despite wearing rigid masks that cover the entire head, the principle dancers were able to convey character and humor through hand gestures and subtle body and head motions. To make the performance comprehensible to foreigners, the theatre has LED surtitles above the stage (in English only; tough luck to other non-Thais).

The onstage costumes were similar to those I had seen close-up in the museum, and it was wonderful to see the silk, dazzling metallic embroidery, and “jewels” move under the stage lights. (Okay, you may need to be a costume geek to get excited by this, but I did.) At the same time, the background information I had picked up from the exhibition enhanced my appreciation for the performance.

The two experiences made a perfect pairing I’d recommend to anyone visiting Bangkok. Just leave generous amounts of time to find the theatre and beware of that kindly man who wants to give you directions.

This excellent video shows khon both in performance and behind the scenes.

Currently, khon performances run on Thursday and Friday nights. Tickets available from thaiticketmajor.com and their outlets; 800-1200 Baht (US$23-35). The Queen Sirikit Museum is open daily from 9:00 am to 4:30 pm; admission is included when you purchase a ticket for the Grand Palace complex.

Have you experienced a piece of traditional culture in a places where you’ve traveled? Tell us about it in a comment.

Calidris Reads: Bangkok

 

Reading and traveling are two of my favorite things, so it’s a joy to combine the two. Aside from being a voracious reader of travel guides, I also love to read novels and nonfiction written by authors from places that I visit, or set in those countries. In Calidris Reads, I will briefly introduce you to these books and provide my personal rating from 1 to 5 knots (Terrible to Must-read).

Tone Deaf in Bangkok

Janet Brown

First sentence: “I have spent most of my life searching for a home.”

A series of essays by an ex-pat on Thai (mostly Bangkok) food, language, culture, aging, relationships, home, and exploration, with a dash of Cambodia thrown in for good measure. The writing is excellent, the analysis and self-examination, astute.

The title is in reference to the tonality of the Thai language, where a slight mistake in the tone you use can make the difference between “water buffalo” and an unmentionable part of the anatomy.

Reading this before my trip, I was struck by some of her observations and looked forward to seeing for myself if they held true.

  • “It’s such a filthy place that I’ve scraped dirt from my skin while sitting in an apartment fifteen minutes after having taken a shower, and I’ve had to pick my way down neighborhood thoroughfares to avoid stepping in dog shit.”

Yes and no: the air pollution is palpable and visible at sunset as a thick haze over the city. However, I didn’t find the streets particularly filthy. Of course, you always have to watch where you step, but that’s true in my home town, too. In some neighbourhoods, there are actually people who spend their days sweeping the sidewalks with palm brooms, so things are kept pretty tidy.

  • “The air tastes like a cigarette and frequently smells far worse.”

Let’s just say the air is noticeable, whether tinged with the pong of sewage and garbage or perfumed by blossoming trees.

  • “It is unusual to see a Thai girl who isn’t beautiful, and it is rare to see a woman over forty who is.”

Not true at all. I saw lots of both.

  • “Western toilets abound in Bangkok, although the stalls all too often come without a supply of toilet paper.”

Yup. However, you have to remember that toilet paper is not part of Thai culture; they traditionally use water to cleanse. You may find a toilet that has no toilet paper but does have the ubiquitous spray hose. Besides, the number one rule of travel is “Always carry TP on your person.”

  • “On the Skytrain, it is possible to explore the city without getting lost….It’s convenient, it’s clean, it’s scam-free, and it keeps culture shock at bay.”

I am pleased to report that this is basically true. We criss-crossed the city on the Skytrain and the only issue we faced was trying to figure out the correct platform.  In one case, a young man noticed our hesitation and took the trouble to speak to us and give us directions to our platform. As we followed his directions, we found that he had mistakenly told us to go right instead of left, but we figured it out. A few moments later, while we waited for the train, he came running up to us: he had realized his mistake and tracked us down to make sure we hadn’t gone astray. Now, that’s a kind and thoughtful stranger.

4 knots (Recommended)

What do you read when you travel? I’d love to hear about it in a comment.

 

 

 

 

 

A is for Apsaras

The following is a whimsical summary of my recent trip to Thailand and Cambodia, in the form of rhyming couplets and photos. Any groans elicited at improbable rhymes or tortured scansion are purely intentional.

A is for apsaras carved in the rock

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

B for buffet where we ate lots of choc

 

 

 

 

 

 

C is for clown fish we saw in the sea

 

 

 

 

 

 

D is for dog, her name is Mutley

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

E is for eagle with imperial eye

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

F is for food we loved, especially Pad Thai!

 

 

 

 

 

 

G is for guards (we saw quite a few)

 

 

 

 

 

 

H is hotel rooms with fabulous views

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I is for idols in black and white stripes

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

J is for journeys on boats of all types

 

 

 

 

 

 

K is for kohn dancers covered with jewels

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

L is for lounge chairs close by the pool

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

M is the mist on Cambodian fields

 

 

 

 

 

 

N is for nightfall with sunset revealed

 

 

 

 

 

 

O is for owls with gazes serene

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

P is for pitta—the first one we’ve seen!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Q is for quiet walks down on the beach

 

 

 

 

 

 

R is for tree roots that ancient walls breach

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

S is for stupas, gleaming and gold

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

T is for temples with faces so old

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

U is for up, where we see hornbills pass

 

 

 

 

 

 

V is for village with walls made of grass

 

 

 

 

 

 

W for waters with colour sublime

 

 

 

 

 

 

X is xpensive but worth every dime

 

 

 

 

 

 

Y is for yawning in elephant style

 

 

 

 

 

 

Zzzz is for sleeping while earning air miles

 

Going the Distance with Travel Comfort Gadgets

Airplane sleep: an oxymoron

 

 

On past long-haul flights, I’ve often sat slumped forward with my head propped on my hands, elbows on the fold-down tray, desperate to sleep, but unable to relax. Sure, you can recline your seat back to a greater or lesser extent, but even when fully reclined, I find that my head lolls forward as I doze, preventing any real sleep. Those horseshoe-shaped neck pillows don’t really help. What I really needed, as I contemplated blearily over many dopey hours doing the tray-table thing, was a pillow shaped exactly to fit the cramped space between body and next-row seatback. It had to fully support my head in a forward position and, of course, it would have to be deflatable in order to fit in my carry-on bag.

Reasoning that I surely could not be the only person with this idea, I checked out a number of travel pillow styles online before choosing two to try.

The SkyRest is basically an inflatable quasi-cube (approx. 14″ x12″ x11″) with one slanted side where you rest your head. You place the pillow on the tray-table or on your lap, whichever height works better. There’s an attached pocket on the outside where you can slip in your hands, but that didn’t feel comfortable to me, so I let my hands/arms dangle or put them on top. The pillow has a large, easy-to-open inflation/deflation valve.

Unfortunately, I just couldn’t find a position that worked with this pillow. I tried various levels of inflation and several positions, but none allowed me to relax enough to sleep. Either I was suffocating with my nose and mouth pressed into the pillow or my neck was twisted to one side. Perhaps if you normally sleep on your stomach, you might have a way to get comfy on this pillow. It folds up to about 12.5″ x 9″ x 2”.

My second option is a bizarre device that looks like a cross between a World War I gas mask and the head of an arthropod. Imagine you have an air mat about 24” wide x 22” high, inflated to 2” thick. You roll that mat into a hollow cylinder. Prop that on end upon the tray-table and stick your face in the hollow. You will look like your face is being eaten by an alien. Never mind; your head is comfortably resting. However, it’s a bit stuffy and claustrophobic in there, so let’s cut a hole to the outside world to let in air. For good measure, we’ll cut two more openings so you can put your hands inside to anchor this structure. You now have the general idea behind the Little Cloud Nine.

This pillow comes in two sizes depending on your height. I am 5’6” and I bought the smaller size, which suited me. You can also adjust the height by inflating it more or less firmly. The two small valves work fine for inflation, but releasing them for deflation is tricky and a bit fiddly even once you get the right idea. Be sure to practice a few times at home or you may wind up wrestling the fully inflated contraption off the plane because you can’t open the valves.

I liked this gadget, odd as it may look. I was able to sleep for several hours, which is better than nothing on a trans-Pacific flight. Of course, once I raised my head, I realized I had unsightly dents and furrows imprinted on my face, but I have long ago said farewell to vanity, so I didn’t mind (much). Deflated, the Little Cloud Nine folds to about 13″ x 6.5″ x 1”; not tiny, but doable.

If you buy either one of these pillows, remember to inflate and deflate it several times before you travel to make it easier to do on the plane. Also, leave it in a space with good air circulation for as long as possible after you open the packaging so it can off-gas the heavy plastic odor. Finally, do not fully inflate any inflatable toys(!!) on a plane until you’re at cruising altitude, or your air buddy may explode from the change in cabin pressure.

Aside from not being able to sleep, another factor contributing to the discomfort of long flights is that there are limited positions you can manage within the confines of your allotted space. Any device that permits some further variation on possible contortions is worth trying out. I picked up the BlueCosto Portable Footrest online for about US$18. This is a simple item with a long strap that goes over your tray table. From this, a kind of foot hammock is suspended. Once it is adjusted to whatever height you prefer, you slip your feet in and enjoy. After several hours in the air, it is a relief to elevate your feet by even a few inches (which is about all you have room for under the seat in front). You can rest one foot or both, or use the footrest as a swing to work your leg muscles a bit, good practice for avoiding blood clots. The footrest is made of durable fabric and folds up into its own (flimsy) 10″ x 7″ x 1” pouch.

For the minimal cost and the space it takes up, I would recommend this gadget for long-distance air travel.

All three gadgets are available on Amazon. Tip: monitor the prices. I found they changed markedly over a period of weeks.

Got a favorite in-flight gadget? Let me know in a comment.

 

Spending Wisely

Not the moderate $80-per-night lodging I chose in Phuket.

As you begin to plan a trip, one of your first considerations may be budget. Unless you’re a part of the lucky elite who live and travel without a thought for money, you’ll likely have to work within some kind of limit. Does this mean you can’t have fun and enjoy travel? Not at all. One of the keys is choosing where to spend your money—and where not to spend it.

On a recent trip, I had a two-night layover on the resort island of Phuket in Thailand. I had to find accommodations, not a small task, as Phuket has upwards of 5,000 hotels/guesthouses/rentals. I was dreaming of an ultra-luxury resort, the kind you see in ads, with poolside teak bungalows, uniformed waiters delivering drinks to cabanas on a private beach, Thai massage in sublime surrounding, and lotus blossoms floating in the toilet. Thailand is—relatively speaking—cheap, so I could afford the kind of place I could never visit otherwise. Besides, I was only there for two nights, so why not splurge?

But on further thought, I realized this was not a good use of money. I would be arriving late on the first day, so wouldn’t have a chance to really enjoy the place. Maybe the lotus blossoms in the toilet, but not much else. I would be leaving early on the last day, so, again, not much time to play. That left me with one full day. Whatever luxury I enjoyed on that one day, would it be worth the hundreds of dollars it would cost me to book two nights?

Would I really have a massage? Would I want a cabana on the beach? Would I order drinks? Would it be significantly less pleasurable to walk a few metres to the pool instead of jumping in from the bedroom door?

Other factors came into play: were there other, comfortable and clean, if not luxurious, places to stay that offered facilities I really would use? Yup. These were the final two nights of a long trip through Thailand. I knew I would be tired and want to be away from crowds and noise. For convenience, I wanted to be fairly close to the airport.

In the end, I chose a small, locally-owned guesthouse for under $80 that had good reviews and everything I needed for a pleasant two-night stay. I figured I could buy a lotus blossom and throw it in the toilet if the mood hit me.

I can better justify spending big bucks on accommodations that offer something I can’t get anywhere else, or are situated in remote locales. The year we visited Namibia’s Etosha National Park—one of my bucket-list destinations—the park opened up a vast new area previously closed to tourists. The only way to visit this area was to book at their exclusive camp, Dolomite. The camp offers accommodations in permanent safari tents and has a small pool and restaurant. Comfy but not nearly worth the high price tag. I booked because I really wanted to experience that part of the park. As they say: location, location, location.

I feel the same about food and drink when I travel. Generally, I don’t seek out expensive or gourmet food because I just don’t appreciate it enough.* I’m happy to eat simpler fare in humble surroundings. I know this about myself. But when circumstances demand it—like I’m stuck in a lodge with only one, overpriced, restaurant, or I’m thirsty and the only drinks available are selling for three or four times the retail value—I don’t deny myself to economize.

My point is that sometimes you do have to make hard choices about money when you travel. Maybe you just can’t swing the cost of both the deluxe hotel and front-row tickets to that hot Broadway show, and you have to choose. Many times, though, if you examine the options closely, you might find that what you think you want is based more on glossy advertising and other people’s fantasies than your own preferences. Know yourself and understand what truly makes you travel-happy and you’ll be able to dole out your hard-earned cash when and where it counts most.

*Chocolate excepted, of course.

Where do you choose to spend your travel dollar? Luxury resorts with 5-star service? Remote locations? Unusual activities? All-inclusives? First-class airline tickets? Expensive souvenirs? Stupendous food? I’d love to hear about it, so leave a comment.

Calidris Reads: Cambodia

Reading and traveling are two of my favorite things, so it’s a joy to combine the two. Aside from being a voracious reader of travel guides, I also love to read novels written by authors from places that I visit, or set in those countries. In Calidris Reads, I will briefly introduce you to these books and provide my personal rating from 1 to 5 knots (Terrible to Must-read).

For our trip to Asia this winter, my companion and I each brought a novel set in Cambodia. As often happens, we read our own books and then swapped. The two books were similar in many ways: historical fiction set in the same general time period, focused on the Angkor area, and written by outsiders. I found both to be light, pleasant introductions to this era and place.

A Woman of Angkor by John Burgess

First sentence: “What if I’d told my husband no, no, we must reject the priest’s command, we must take the children and run away.”

The life of one rather extraordinary Khmer woman at the time of the building of the great complex at Angkor. While the main character is a bit too virtuous to be really sympathetic (Where are those likeable fatal flaws?), I still enjoyed reading about her challenges and everyday accomplishments.

That first sentence tells you everything you need to know about the writing style.

Temple of a Thousand Faces by John Shors

First sentence: “The temple of Angkor Wat had been designed to house the Hindu Gods but looked as if it had been built by them.”

Engaging novel that follows a range of characters from prince to fisherman through a period of conflict between the Khmer Empire and the Cham people. The writing is perhaps a bit more sophisticated than Burgess’. Forbidden love, heroism, cruelty, battles, it’s all here.

Perfect plane read en route to Angkor.

Both books: 4 knots (Recommended)

What do you read when you travel? I’d love to hear about it in a comment.

 

Trans-Pacific with XiamenAir

Image of happy smiling XiamenAir employees from the company website.

Whenever I have to book a long flight, I wrestle with balancing cost against convenience. It doesn’t take much online savvy to know that shorter, direct flights on well-known carriers are generally the most expensive, while the 24-hour-plus routings through cities you’d never want to visit on airlines you’ve never heard of entice you with irresistible price tags.

Such was the case on my trip to Thailand earlier this year. There are a number of ways to fly into Bangkok; it’s a huge hub and many airlines use it. After much comparison of flight lengths, layover times, routings, and prices (not forgetting to include extras like booking charges and baggage fees), I found return flights on XiamenAir for an incredible $700 Cdn. The flight lengths were comparable with other airlines’. The two downsides were a 6 hr 45 min-layover on the outward journey and routing through Xiamen, China. The arrival time in Bangkok was convenient for our schedule and arrival back home also worked well. With some misgivings, I booked.

Happily, my experience on XiamenAir was no worse than on any of the other airlines I’ve taken on long flights. Check-in was fine, although they weighed the largest of our carry-on bags, which is unusual (usually they just check the dimensions). They allow two free checked bags. On the plane, there was reasonable legroom, the seats were decently comfortable. Everything was about as clean as I’d expect. They gave us a blanket and pillow, slippers and headsets for free, which is more than a lot of airlines do nowadays. We also received two free meals and a couple of snacks. The food was average airline food—but we did get a little box of chocolates for flying on Valentine’s Day, which was a nice touch. Inflight entertainment choices in English were not as extensive as on some airlines, but I had enough to keep me amused, and the choices in Mandarin were excellent!

Once we arrived in Xiamen, the challenge began. We had that long layover and there were vague promises of a free hotel room. When we checked in at YVR, we specifically asked about this and the rep assured us that this would be possible. She told us that once we arrived in Xiamen, we would have to check in for the second flight (Xiamen to Bangkok) and the check-in people would have info about the hotel. However, as we wandered from corner to corner of the Xiamen airport, it became clear that this was easier said than done. First, we couldn’t find the place to check in. We were given conflicting directions from the various people we asked. To be honest, part of the problem was that (a) their English was rudimentary, (b) our Mandarin is nonexistent, and (c) we were trying to check into a flight that didn’t depart for 6 hours. It wasn’t even listed on the departures board yet.

Once we finally located the check-in counter, we were told that we couldn’t check in until two hours before the flight and that info about the hotel was not available there, but we could ask at the International Transit Lounge. So then we started hunting around for that. (Do not—as we did—confuse the transfer area with the transit area; the former refers to the place where you connect with—transfer to—other forms of transport, such as taxis and buses.) By the time we found the lounge, we had wasted so much time that we were afraid that if we left the airport for the hotel, we would not make it back in time for the flight—especially since we still had to check in—so we opted for the lounge instead.

This lounge is nothing to get excited about. There are a few beds to lie down, but they are popular, so your chances of getting one are small. There are cushioned chairs and we pushed a couple together to make a short bed. There is water, coffee, and tea, a few room-temperature soft drinks. Packaged snacks (nuts and bolts kind of thing). No entertainment. Airport wi-fi. Remember, this is China, so you may find some of your favourite websites blocked. We couldn’t access Google and our sent emails wouldn’t go. At least it’s quiet and there are plugs to charge your electronics.

Our return flights were similar to the outgoing ones. Economy class was clean and comfy, food was okay, entertainment ample, service friendly. The layover in Xiamen was short this time, only 1.5 hours, and because you must get a transit visa (free) on arrival, go through customs and security, and exit the arrival area, then go through the whole process in reverse one more time (find the check-in counter, check in, go through customs and security, and find your gate), we had only just enough time to make our connection. The only easy part was being able to check our bag all the way through from Bangkok to Vancouver, so we didn’t have to pick it up in Xiamen. Kudos to the airline which supplied each Canadian in the line-up with a personalized document to show to passport control officials. This paper made it clear that the baffled foreigner in possession was merely in transit and did, in fact, have a seat waiting in a departing plane.

I chatted with another passenger who had arrived in Xiamen from a different country and had a 20-hour(!!!) layover. He had been offered that mythical free hotel room and had taken advantage of the time to rest and tour the city a bit.

If you’re heading to Asia and you’re a confident traveler who can handle trying to navigate through a confusing bureaucracy and a foreign airport with little assistance (some airport personal may speak a little English, if you’re lucky), I suggest you check out XiamenAir’s prices and make your own comparisons on other features. Flying through an unfamiliar city with an obscure carrier may take you out of your comfort zone, but may turn out to be worth the trouble.

Have you had an experience good or bad with a less-known airline? Share your wisdom in a comment.

 

Healing a Wounded Country Through Art

Photo source: https://pharecircus.org/

They call it Cambodian traditional circus, but slapstick clowns and trained poodles, this ain’t.

It’s a steaming hot night in Siem Reap, the tourist town built on the doorstep of one of the world’s great heritage sites: Angkor. Visitors from across the globe fill the neon-lit bars and restaurants on Pub Street, where vendors hawk everything from “Fear Factor” fried scorpions on a stick to toe-tickling foot massages delivered by nibbling aquarium fish. There are only two kinds of people in Siem Reap: those who are there to see the temple ruins and those who are there to extract money from the first group. And who can blame them? This is a poor area in a poor country. Foreigners throw away big money on lodging, food, transport, and fun. Every local desperately needs a piece of that largesse and most work extremely hard to earn it.

In a dusty lot on the dark outskirts of town, far from the hustlers and the massage parlours, stands a tent. Inside, a simple, mostly empty performance space is surrounded by tiers of wooden benches. It’s well organized: young people in bright red t-shirts deal out tickets, hand out bamboo fans to keep the sultry air moving inside the tent, usher patrons to their seats, and sell snacks and merchandise. The place is packed and when everyone is seated, two musicians enter, bow, and take their places. The performance begins.

Sokha is nothing less than a retelling of the horrors that engulfed Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s and the struggles of the people to come to terms with this period when between one and three million Cambodians were executed or died from starvation and disease. The story is based on the experiences of the founders of the Phare Ponleu Selpak School, who lived through that time. The school’s mandate is to provide free education in academics and the arts and to train young artists for professional careers in visual arts, theatre, music, dance, and circus (two of their graduates were recently hired by the Cirque du Soleil). The Phare also strives to create opportunities for local artists and help to revitalize the arts in a country where most artists were targeted for death under the former regime.

The performance is a skillful blending of music, mime, visual art, dance, and acrobatics. With minimal props and basic costumes—a far cry from the elaborate trappings of the Cirque—the artists evoke laughter, tears, amazement, and total engagement from the audience. The story could not be more powerful, and knowing that the performers were all personally affected by the events referenced makes it incredibly moving. The use of masks to dehumanize the persecutors is chilling; you see that the ordinary people were under those masks and participated in the killing.

As the show progresses, we see Cambodia’s slow, courageous steps toward recovery after the end of the Khmer Rouge. Despite the trauma still felt today, the people are acknowledging and healing from their past. They are celebrating the rebirth of the arts through performances such as the Phare.

Near the end of the show, during an emotionally charged scene in which a teacher helps a shattered child to see the healing power of art, the electricity in the tent suddenly went out. The performers froze and did not move for many long minutes while crew scrambled to get the generator restarted. It was like Cambodia herself held her breath through her long darkness, balanced on the knife edge between annihilation and hope. When the lights came on again, the audience cheered and the actors moved forward to the end of the scene and toward a brighter future.

The day after the circus, we went on a nature tour to a manmade wetland in the countryside. It was filled with birds and fisherman poled their dugouts across the serene waters. As we commented on the beauty of the place, our guide said quietly in his broken English: “Built by Khmer Rouge. Three thousand people die.”

More information and tickets for the Phare are available at https://pharecircus.org/. Advance purchase during the high season is recommend; the performance was sold out the night we attended.
Have you seen a local performance during your travels that is a must-see for visitors? Let me know in a comment.