two days in Battambang, Cambodia…

(Buddhist monk receives his morning alms donation of food – on the street in Battambang)

After Japan, arriving in Cambodia is a bit like falling down the rabbit hole and arriving at the Hatter’s tea party. Where Japan is order, precision and peaceful meditation, Cambodia leaps at you with chaotic traffic, blaring loudspeakers and all the colour and smells of the tropics.

Following two days in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, I had journeyed by bus to Battambang, a small city in the countries Northwest. The thermometer hovered near 40 C as I checked into my hostel and I just had time for a quick bite, a short walk and a cooling shower before retreating to my air conditioned dorm room for the night.

The next morning began with coffee on the hostel’s rooftop terrace. Already at 7:00 am the air clung thick and hot to the city, and an orchestra of engines, horns and birdsong filled the streets. Below me, in the courtyard of a Buddhist temple, monks clad in bright orange robes performed morning ablutions.

I had arranged for a tuk tuk to pick me up at 8:30 a.m. Promptly at 8:50 it arrived – its driver – the friend of a friend of the smiling young man at the hostel’s front desk – turned out to be the affable Zokor.

Now ladies, when preparing for a day riding around in the back of a tuk tuk, forget about your hair. The wind, dust and clawing heat will conspire to make you look much worse than something the proverbial cat dragged in. So that is how I look while sitting here writing this, but oh how I wish you could have had my day.

Zokor (despite his winning ways, five children and a wife who prefers money to flowers – wouldn’t any mother of five?) did not drive one of the better tuk tuks in this country. Ours was a slowish putt putt through the streets and into the countryside of Battambang, complete with pushing said tuk tuk at one point ( past a waving crowd of well wishers), shopping for a new front tire, and waiting in the comforting shade of a frangipani while the tire was duly changed. This interlude was well spent, however, in answering Zokor’s English vocabulary questions and in asking some Khmer language questions of my own. Language lesson and new tire complete – off we trundled.

The horrors of the Khmer Rouge (1975 – 1979) found Battambang and the ancient temple of Wat Somrong. Mostly women and children were imprisoned and tortured here, and some 10,000 died. A Khmer motto was “If we keep you, it is no gain, if we kill you it is no gain.” Truth held no value, and the lies devalued people until they also were valueless. Today a monument to the dead stands on the temple grounds, its inscriptions dispelling the myth that hatred ever leads to a better world.

(Memorial at Wat Somprong. The stupa is filled with bones from the mass graves unearthed here. The inscription on the panel above reads ” If we keep you it is no gain, if we kill you it is no gain”)

It is wedding season in Cambodia and Khmer wedding music ricocheted off my eardrums at regular intervals as we puttered along through the outskirts of the city visiting various cottage industries. I witnessed the making of kro lan, a staple Cambodian fast food made from sticky rice, coconut milk and beans and sold at roadside stalls.

(Making kro lan. Families rise at 1:00 a.m. to cook the sticky rice, pack the rice, beans and coconut mixture into bamboo and roast it over hot coals and have it ready for sale at dawn)

We also visited women making rice paper wrappers and something called “Cambodian cheese” which is open barrels of rancid fish and salt left to ferment in the heat for one year until it is a grey mass. Truly a health Canada nightmare. I declined a sample therefore cannot report on taste.

The thermometer hit 37 C as we reached Wat Ek Phnom – ruins that predate Angkor Wat, it’s more famous cousin to the south -an adjacent giant stone Buddha and its 10 carved sentries. A toothless older woman and two young boys offered to guide me which consisted of pointing and saying “see.” Cambodia is a country of ever visible poverty and children are everywhere selling trinkets or guiding the way.

I wasn’t going to ride the bamboo train, the remnant of a larger network built by the French, but was persuaded because, as a tourist attraction, it supports a broad local micro economy – and it ended up leading me to Sukre. I clamoured onto the Nori, (a straw mat covered bamboo rack that sits atop two sets of metal railcar wheels) with a fellow traveller from Britain. The staccato engine roared to life, drowning all conversation, and we shot forward, the wind blast-furnace-hot. Judging from the scorched fields that surrounded us, crop burning is done here, a practise where, after harvest, instead of tilling the stalks into the soil, they are burned. It leads to soil nutrient depletion and the need for synthetic fertilizers. Rib jutting white cattle trudge the thirsty landscape.

Our mobile bamboo mat roared 15 min out into the landscape then stopped at a posse of makeshift huts offering drinks and souvenirs. Enter Sukre, proprietor of a hut. She had a great smile and really wanted to sell me something. I chose a tshirt. Sukre was happy but not ecstatic and began to wheedle in a theatrical sing-song that was half cry, half laugh. We looked at each other then burst out laughing and her mother joined us. Then we were hugging and still laughing. The British tourist snapped our picture, no doubt believing we were all nuts. Sukre gave me a final hug and said, “Something else for you Canada?” as I boarded for the return journey.

Our final stop of the day was Temple Banan, a 12th century temple ruin at the top of a daunting (in this heat) vertical climb of 350 stone steps. But first – lunch!

(Top: Temple Banan beckons in the shimmering heat. Middle: the lunch kitchen. Bottom: lake with water supply for lunch kitchen and homes of locals)

Local entrepreneurs have constructed a restaurant shantyville at the foot of the temple and lunch was a tasty affair of noodles and veggies that had me praying that my Dukoral vaccine would do its job. It wasn’t the cooking or the cook (a lovely shy woman) but rather the local water supply that had me worried. (I am glad to report that Dukoral saved the day).

I arrived back at the hostel to find a power blackout (thus no A/C. The heat has the grid under severe stress throughout the country). I grabbed my bathing suit and headed to a local hotel where for $5 you can swim in their pool – heaven! The power returned later while sharing a drink with fellow travellers on the rooftop patio (big happy roar) then failed again (big sad shout) then returned (happy roar again) to give us A/C for the night.

My final day in Battambang, the power was out again, so I wandered. I do not feel afraid in this country and find people friendly. The children holler “Hello!” and the women return my smiles. Wandering lead me to the small but beautifully curated Battambang Provincial Museum stuffed with priceless artifacts from Cambodia’s past (fortunately the Khmer Rouge did not destroy most of the country’s treasures). I also found a wonderful temple complex, Sangke Temple, not listed in any guidebooks. (Battambang is like that. It is not yet a tourist staple and is filled with little discoveries). While browsing there, a young Cambodian man asked me where I’m from. It turned out that he is a teacher who volunteers time teaching the children of poor families who care for the temple grounds. He showed me the little school, and when I asked him if I could give a donation for the school, he declined, saying that he had everything he needed. I asked if any of his students needed supples and only then did he agree to take money to buy something for them.

(Top: Humble and well spoken volunteer teacher. Middle1: Dog at temple gate. Many dogs take refuge in temples. Middle2: Colourful paintings tell a story in a Buddhist Pagoda. Bottom: Spirit house in a yard. To keep ghosts away)

At 2:00 p.m. I boarded the bus for Siem Reap (home of Angkor Wat) – 3.5 hours away.

But before we leave Battambang, let me tell you my favourite part. On day one, after visiting the victims memorial, Zokor and I strolled into the grounds of an adjacent school. After the sober brutality of the Khmer Rouge, the children’s voices floated over us like a refreshing breeze. Cries of “Hello!Hello!” filled the air. Some of the children grabbed my hand and pulled me with them (while throwing clouds of talcum powder into the air!). And in the shadow of the memorial, their little smiling faces gave me hope. May we never forget.

A Tribute: To Women Everywhere Pushing The Boundaries Of Solo Travel

Pictured: My Daughters , Both Travellers. Top picture – my older daughter hiking in Jordan. Bottom picture – my younger daughter chats with kids in Kenya

I’m lounging beside the pool at a popular hostel on a sweltering evening in Cambodia. Music blares as people from umpteen different countries talk, laugh, swim and play cards. Many of the women are travelling alone.

It has been a sad few months for female travellers. Just last week a young British backpacker died in undetermined circumstances in Guatemala. In December another British woman was murdered while travelling New Zealand and another two young women died in Morocco. And in Sept. 2018 a female Belgian tourist to Canada was murdered.

When you hear about these stories, please do something for me – don’t blame the victim – don’t shame these young women for daring to venture out to see and experience all the splendours of our planet.

Instead, please ask yourself, “What is broken in my part of this world and how can I fix it so that women everywhere can travel without fear?”

As a woman, I not only deserve safety while in a foreign country. I deserve to lose my way on a deserted country road in Canada and to live to tell the tale. I deserve to walk to my car alone at night without worrying about being raped. Women everywhere deserve an evening out – dinner, wine, dancing, a movie – with the secure knowledge that they will arrive home safely afterwards.

Every taxi ride, every walk across campus, each and every daily commute and morning jog, every time a woman shoulders a backpack or grabs her suitcase, she deserves safety.

Demand it, make it happen, give it. Women are half the sky.

I think of my mom who, when I was 14, travelled for a month by dugout canoe deep into the Amazonian jungle. Mom would have been 42 at the time and she and another woman stayed in village huts and ate simple local foods. She had been really nervous to go but that trip changed her and became one of the highlights of her life. I own a small black and white photo of Mom smiling from that canoe.

I think of my daughters who are both world travellers, world changers. Let us help change this world and make it safer for them.

So today, now, please hold a moment of silence for these young women, so needlessly lost, and for their families whose lives are forever altered.

I close with these words from American poet Audre Lorde:

“I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.”

Cake…

This is a short post , but very sweet. Do not be fooled, Japan is not about sushi or sashimi or seaweed or seafood. It is not about rice. Forget all of that. Hands down, 100% it is about cake – cake that sends taste buds to nirvana, and so light that it hovers over your fork.

Just one bite on my first morning here and the 13 hour flight (14 hour time change) was all worthwhile.

I have been a noncommittal cake eater all my life but Japan has transformed and for that I am grateful.

Japan, my reality…

(Top photo: Zen garden, Zuiho-in temple, Kyoto. Bottom photo: View from Miyajima island of Hiroshima)

It’s my fourth day in Japan and I am standing on the raised wooden walkway of Kyoto’s Zuiho-in Zen Buddhist temple. An older gentleman, dressed in a traditional black robe, engages me in conversation. I ask if he is a priest. Laughing, he shakes his head and in halting but fluent English explains that he is preparing for a traditional tea ceremony. Then he asks, “Tell me, is the reality of Japan different from the Japan that you anticipated in your head? Are you disappointed by the reality?”

These honest questions have reverberated through my mind ever since. I contemplate them while sitting by the Zaiho-in Zen garden, as I climb the 12,000 steps of the Fushimiinari shrine and pass through its 10,000 red Torii gates, and while searching the faces of elderly shopkeepers and the impassive countenance of the giant bronze Buddha in the great Todai-ji temple in Nara.

(Photo: Giant bronze Buddha, Nara. Originally gold covered, it has seen several reconstructions over the centuries due to disaster.)

But as I wander and listen and touch and see, the questions change, for in reality it is not Japan that is under scrutiny, rather it is my own heart. So here is my attempt at philosophy – as I experience this bountiful feast, these incredible opportunities which compose my life in Japan – what do I bring to the table and what do I take from it? I think I can only answer for here, today, this moment, and this one – now. Today I offer gratitude and joy for everything I have received from Japan.

This is a country bursting with natural beauty. Plum trees blossom and birds twitter (don’t ask me the lyrics – they are singing in Japanese) in immaculately sculpted serene gardens. Ancient trees are nurtured and supported.

(Photo: Tree supports, Imperial Palace garden, Kyoto)

Probably I am most surprised by the devotion of Japanese people. Officially, 4% Shinto, 35% Buddhist, and 2% Christian, the prayers and incense rise here with a devotion I can learn from.

(Photo: prayers offered at Fushiminarii Shinto shrine. Fox revered here as messenger from God)

Yesterday, while visiting Nara’s Todai- ji Temple, I took advantage of the offer of a free personal guided tour. The aptly named Sachiko (“Happiness”) was my smiling guide and together we roamed the grounds – two middle-aged women from different cultures, sharing laughter and learning, together. It felt very real.

(Massive gateway to Todai-ji Temple, Nara. The temple has been rebuilt 3 times after destruction by natural disasters, each time on a smaller scale)

(Japanese school girls who asked me for assistance with a school project)

solo backpacking as a middle-aged woman – the how

Ruins of Ephesus – Turkey, 2016

I am often asked, “How do you plan your trips?” The good new is that in this digital age, planning is much simpler than when (in medieval times) I first began travelling abroad. I have many vivid teen-aged memories of arriving in a foreign city, queuing at the train station tourist information booth to book accommodations, then racing down dark streets trying to find the hostel before it closed for the night. We slept many nights on the train station floor. Looking back, I cherish those adventures. (My travel guide was a book titled “Europe on $20 a Day” and we managed on even less. I ate a lot of bread and jam). But that was travel in a pre-cellphone era, and I am now grateful for the ability to book from the comfort of my phone. Here are my tips for planning a solo trip in an age of apps, plentiful travel videos, and translation tools…

  1. Buy a cellphone that you like and spend time learning what it can do. Comfort with your cellphone is a great start to booking and sustaining a trip. (P.S. I also use my cellphone as my camera and have spent some time familiarizing myself with the camera settings. This saves me from having to carry around a separate apparatus).
  2. Download and experiment with different travel apps. My favourites are Booking.com, Hostelworld, Rome2Rio, and Flightnetwork. Booking.com is actually my #1 favourite for finding accommodations due to several feature: it displays plenty of hotel/hostel options for each location, you can filter results to fit your needs, it is vey simple to change and cancel bookings, and my bookings automatically load into the calendar on my phone. Hostelworld is also a good option. True to its name, listings are mostly hostels, so fewer but more focussed results. The downside to this app is the difficulty in making changes to or cancelling bookings. I often use the Booking.com and Hostelworld apps in tandem РI find a hostel on Hostelworld, then look for it on Booking.com and book it there. Always choose the free cancellation option when booking accommodations. Rome2Rio is a delightful little app that allows you to type in two destinations anywhere on the planet and it will tell you the transportation options between them, number of times those planes/trains/buses/ferries leave each day, and approximate costs. Flightnetwork displays your best flight options all over the world and costs them in Canadian dollars. Perfect!
  3. Join an on-line travel forum. I use Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree. You can login to the forum anytime to read comments and ask questions of other travellers and the in-country moderator. Lots of good advice about the nitty gritty details of any travel itinerary available here.
  4. Plan to use public transportation in the countries you visit. Buses and trains are affordable and relatively stress-free modes of travel. You don’t have to park them, worry about dents, or navigate freeways or shoulder-narrow one-way alleys in foreign countries. Instead, You just sit back, relax, and enjoy the scenery. Many countries/regions offer travel passes that you can purchase ahead and that cover train/bus/ferry transport. Explore these options before you go. (If you do plan to rent a car, explore whether that country requires an International Driver’s License. Some do and some don’t. Know before you go to avoid disappointment)
  5. Passport – All countries require that you have space in your passport for their stamp and that you have at least 6 months (or sometimes more) remaining before your passport expires. Before you book those tickets, check your passport.
  6. Visa – Many countries require that you have a visa to enter. The type of visa will change depending on your planned length of stay and the purpose of your trip. Some countries allow you to apply for and purchase this at the airport. Other countries require that you attain this ahead of travel. This is must-know information. If you do not have a required visa, the airline may not allow you on the flight. Every country now has a website where they outline the process for attaining an entrance visa. For example: Vietnam requires that all Canadian tourists have a visa. To obtain this visa, you must first apply and pay for a permission letter which is emailed to you. This permission letter must be shown at your port of entry into Vietnam where you then pay another fee and receive the visa stamp in your passport.
  7. Purchase comprehensive travel medical insurance. Do not leave home without this because your home country medical coverage will not cover your medical costs abroad. Having said that, for Canadians at least, your Canadian medical coverage card must be current in order for the travel medical insurance to be valid. Some travel rewards credit cards automatically cover you for limited (i.e. 3 weeks) of travel. Also if you are planning a very active, adventurous trip (i.e. including skydiving or scuba diving, etc), you must disclose this to the travel medical insurer. Many insurers will not cover these pursuits but there are companies, like World Nomads, who will.
  8. Vaccinations and Medications – start looking into this early as some vaccines are given as a series over weeks or months. Most major centres now have travel health clinics so book an appointment with a travel specialist. A good source of information is the U.S. Center for Disease Control (www.cdc.gov) website which lists current outbreaks and endemic risks and advises how best to protect yourself. And please, please, please consider taking Dukoral vaccine to prevent “Traveller’s diarrhea.” When I was growing up, gastrointestinal illness was just an expected nuisance while travelling. Thanks to Dukoral, it no longer has to be.
  9. Register on the travel.gc.ca website (look for Registration of Canadians Abroad). This government website supplies Canadians with up-to-date travel advisories on every country in the world. Registering your trip here informs the government about your presence in a given country and allows them to account for and contact you if there is ever an emergency there. In this beautiful world in which we live, ugly situations can arise. (I pay attention to the news and to travel advisories and removed two countries from my original itinerary for this trip due to political instability. There is always next time). From this site you can also print off wallet-sized cards containing contact info for the Canadian consulate/embassy and emergency services in that country.
  10. Plan an itinerary that is attainable. If your travel goal is to relax and renew, then racing everywhere to see everything accomplishes nothing. Decide the focus of your trip and the must-sees and leave the rest. I promise, you will enjoy the trip more. And please leave time to interact with and learn from the local people. I have found that people love to talk about their country and help you to see it through their eyes. My favourite memories of Turkey are of taking tea with a shop keeper (who also showed me the antiquities he had for illegal sale) and the scrumptious lunch we shared with our hotel owner and his family.
  11. Consider your fitness level. If you want to do a hiking trip abroad, train for this. Don’t just arrive and think that you can traverse that mountain trail without problems if you haven’t exercised in six months. This is a consideration whether you travel with a group or solo. And since a solo traveller has to rely on herself a lot this is a big consideration. So make travel your fitness goal. I have spent the past year and a half recovering from a severe leg crush injury. Intensive physiotherapy and effort have allowed me to fully recover for this trip, but eight months ago I could never have attempted it. Know your limits.
  12. One more little item before I sign off this post. I invite you to please always travel with humility and with a respect for the places you will visit and the people whom you will meet. I truly believe that whenever I travel I am an ambassador for Canada. Whatever I may believe about the politics or practices of a country, I am a visitor and must always find the energy for thoughtful and respectful attitudes. I do not travel expecting or wanting everything to be “like it is at home.” Please view travel as an opportunity to learn from other cultures and to examine your own culture from afar. The results may surprise you.

Happy travels everyone! Thank you for reading and stay tuned for my next post from the road!

solo backpacking as a middle-aged woman – the why…

The Baths of Lady Maria de Padilla – the Alcazar, Seville, Spain – 2016.

I am not an adrenalin junky. You won’t catch me jumping from airplanes or rafting down whitewater. The thrills I seek are found in history, hiking and introspection. (Let me make something else clear – I don’t always travel alone. I often journey with family and friends and enjoy those trips as well). My first solo backpacking trip was a week in Switzerland where I hiked alpine trails, rode gondolas to mountain peaks, and anxiously watched as young base jumpers leapt into seeming oblivion. Next came three weeks meandering across southern Spain and the discovery of a dormant love for long periods of reflection, of setting my own agenda, of drinking coffee and reading books in beautiful locales. I discovered something else too – the hostels where I stayed were packed with young people who sometimes missed their own mothers and appreciated a listening ear or a word of advice as much as I loved hearing their stories. Travelling alone is like that – you talk more to strangers – and learn that the world is filled with people who are your friends, your sons and daughters, your aunties, sisters and grandmothers. In short, you are not alone at all, but often surrounded with inquisitive people who are on their own journeys of discovery.

Now as I embark on a 14 week journey across the world, I feel joy in the anticipation of both solitude and discovery. But why does a woman travel alone and what are the inspirations for such solo wanderings? For me, the roots branch in several directions. Travelling and living abroad as a child enabled me to closely observe new cultures and, from a young age, begin to discern similarities and disparities. These observations have fostered a life-long yearning to experience and learn from the people that inhabit our world. I have been humbled to tears by women dwelling in smokey African huts and inspired by the fierce protectiveness of the Greek woman who rescued me in Athens decades ago. I have watched these same roots nurture my daughters and listened as they described their own insights gleaned from living and travelling abroad. These insights have also fostered a deep love of and gratitude for my home country. I love Canada and am eternally grateful for the rights and freedoms and access to natural beauty that we have here. Thus, for me, the introspection of solo travel affords the opportunity to grow as an individual and as a citizen.

One lesson I continue to learn in my work as an RN is the lesson of time – as in “we do not know how much time that we have,” and as in “I have this moment to hold in my hand.” Along the way, I have held many, many moments in my hands and savoured them. Now that my children are grown and independent, solo travel is my ongoing response to this lesson. It is acknowledging a deep gratitude for my career and pension, while pursuing life beyond their limitations. It is living along the road to retirement. Some time ago, I cared for a man, not much older than myself, who suffered from incurable ill-health. This man stared into my eyes and implored me to “not wait to do the things you love.” These journeys are my answer.

Ultimately, though, I travel because of faith – faith in God who created such diversity and beauty, and who is, I believe, the source of my curiosity. I have a burning desire to wander along mountain trails and through temples, to chat with women in markets, to hear stories translated from other languages, to become lost in the gardens and slums of the world and to learn and contribute along the way. Lucy Maud Montgomery, herself a Canadian and a woman of faith, perhaps expressed it best when she wrote, “Dear old world, you are very lovely, and I am glad to be alive in you.”

travelling with a grateful heart…


the world is wide and its people so interesting – it is teacher and student, prophet and poet – and i have much to learn

with my daughter in Peru where it all began  (June, 2011)

It seems I have backpacked all my life – a blessed fact owed partially to my parents who, though not wealthy, made sure that we ate a steady diet of the unusual. Mom and Dad were always pitching our cumbersome canvas tent somewhere in the Canadian Rockies or along the B.C. and Oregon coasts. Eventually they transplanted us into the Peruvian jungle where I cavorted barefoot, swam with dolphins and piranhas, and dangled from trees while eating fresh mangoes as the juice wept off my elbows. I even managed a pet honey bear and a short stint as a dental assistant in a remote village (I held the flashlight and swatted mosquitoes while the nurse pulled teeth). But that was decades ago. The intervening years have found me raising a family, working, and living in Canada, with short stints in Africa and Europe. I have travelled Europe, returned to Peru to hike the Inca Trail, rambled across Turkey, and annually fly to Kenya to do aid work. In short, I am a sometimes traveller, always with a backpack – a woman who takes every opportunity to wander the world. This blog is for women who travel solo (or hope to!) – and always with a grateful heart