Oslob, Philippines: Whale Sharks, Tourism And A Changing Climate

The exact details on how and why Oslob, Philippines recently became a whale shark feeding epicenter differs depending on the source. Here’s what I was told:

In 2011, when a Norwegian marine biologist passed through the small town of Oslob, a roughly three and a half hour drive from Cebu City on the Filipino island of Cebu, he had the intention of studying the local species. But when he saw a local fisherman throwing rocks at whale sharks, who had recently began feeding in the area again, he complained to the local government and convinced the mayor to make it an official tourist attraction. And just like that, Oslob became an internationally known tourist destination.

naptimewithyasmine-oslob
Taking a nap in between customers.

The center of Oslob consists of one main road called Natalio Bacalso Avenue, which houses a small market, a few restaurants, convenience stores and numerous guest houses. Ten kilometers from the main area of town is the whale shark area, Tan-awan, where tourists are dropped off to wait in line to be taken out on a small rowboat. From there, they can scuba, snorkel or watch from the boat while whale sharks get fed. Each person gets 30 minutes in the water.

While I was there, I estimated around 200 people were around trying to get a look as well, so the experience is far from intimate. Fishermen paddle around nearby dropping food in the water to attract the whale sharks to where the tourist boats sit.

Tourists travel great distances for just 30 minutes alongside the impressive sea creatures. Seeing them is on all of the great to-do’s of Cebu and gets mentions on all of the travel blogs.Tourism brings income, jobs and infrastructure, but it usually has a mixed reception for those directly affected.

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Many tourists opt to take a 3:00am bus from Cebu City or from the popular diving spot Moalboal. They leave and return the same day, therefore bypassing most of Oslob. Restaurants and the local government still benefit from their visit, which once used to cost tourists 50 pesos ($1 USD) for 30 minutes of snorkeling but now amounts to 1,500 a person ($28USD). Because the local government manages the project, only locals are employed.

Those who lived in Oslob before the big tourist boom mention that before, it was a very quiet town. I spoke with Pretty, a fruit vendor at the town market who told me the whale sharks bring lots of tourists who spend money. Now, the locals have more buildings and more business. (Later in the day, I returned to the market to pick up more fruit. I spotted the woman who at the whale sharks wharf sold me a few slices of pineapple and a bit of watermelon for an overpriced 100 pesos ($2 USD), something that would normally cost half that price, if not less. I tried to bargain with her, but she wouldn’t budge. I was starving, so I didn’t really care; and after all, what are two dollars to me? “Ah, I recognize her,” I told Pretty. “Oh yes, that’s my mom!” she said. And I realize now why else it’s beneficial to have tourists.)

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My sister and I decided to stay two days in Oslob, hopefully avoiding the potential for an excruciating, nauseating bus trip (prone to motion sickness). When we walked around town and children saw us, they, scream “Hello!” suggesting that they realize we’re a novelty, but our presence isn’t something new. Young boys got nervous speaking around us and several people stopped to ask where we’re from. Whereas surrounding the wharf there were crowds of tourists (reminding me of a smaller version of what I saw at the Vatican), around town my sister and I only saw a few. We asked Pretty what there is to do on a Friday night. Unenthusiastically, she explained that there is a bar, but it’s not that great. “Maybe singing,” she said. We had already heard the painful karaoke from our neighbor the night before.

In that sense, the tourism hasn’t caused the town to be overblown. A few tourists linger around Spanish colonial ruins, but not many. Most locals still live exactly as they used to. But the international community’s “discovery” of the whale sharks has inevitably changed it.

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John, the owner of the guest house where were staying, says that the whale shark tourist industry has altered his social relations with locals. He came here around 15 years ago when he retired after years of living in Canada. His aim was to fish, relax by the ocean, and host friends. He got to do so for a while. The water in front of the guest house used to be teeming with fisherman, he explained. While we were there, we only say two or three.

They would bring their fish in, drink a beer and talk. Now after they fish, he says they say hello but quickly run to their next job attending to tourists. “We’ve lost quality time, you could say,” he told me. John also explained other changes, like the how the road next to his house used to be like an old country road but now sounds like a freeway.

Even his guest house’s very existence is a direct result of tourism: The town didn’t have the capacity to hold the steep increase in tourists, so the mayor asked those with extra spaces to convert them into accommodation. John refused twice, but the third time he wasn’t really given a choice. “You don’t say no to the mayor,” he sighed.

But like all towns and people, they adapt. John realized he enjoyed meeting people from all of the world and eventually came to like being a guest house owner. Pretty seemed pleased with the changes, but she could have just been telling me what she wanted to hear. Obviously Pretty and John come from opposite sides of the spectrum and are aiming for different things, but whether or not others are positively or negatively affected by the newcomers is yet to be analyzed.

To me, Oslob was still a sleepy town. Besides the whale sharks, there’s simply not much to do. Of course there’s karaoke and the beach, but those aren’t unique to the place. And there are the recent travel warnings. My sister and I ran into a cheery Australian couple on the bus from Oslob to Moalboal. “Yeah, we were going to stay four days and we already paid for the accommodation, but we ditched after two nights,” they said, referring to the lack of activities.

Even though I didn’t see much destructive evidence of tourism beyond the area around the whale sharks, for those that saw the before and after, like John and Pretty, it must require some getting used to.

More demand brings hostels, drunken backpackers, bars and prostitutes. It’s not Phuket and it’s not Boracay, but as I watched the stream of yellow buses full of tourists disembark at the wharf, a fear washed over me that this could eventually become what no one wants it to. At least for a while though, it’s too boring to become any of those things.

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The oldest street in Oslob.

Thinking about swimming with the whale sharks? This article wasn’t about the environmental controversy, but if you’re going to Oslob you should do your research. Here are a few articles to help you make you decision:

5 reasons not to swim with whale sharks in Oslob

Whale Sharks in the Philippines- is it wrong to swim with them?

Should you swim with whale sharks in the Philippines?


Featured photo: A man rides his bike in front of the cuartel, still standing from the 1600s.

Character Tuesday: 9 Most Interesting Personalities Of Southeast Asia

This post is part of weekly series titled Character Tuesday, where every Tuesday I bring you a story about (a) unique individual(s) I’ve encountered. Like I always say, life can be good or bad, but as long as it’s entertaining, that’s all you need. This series is meant to celebrate our quirks and idiosyncrasies.

For this Character Tuesday we’re taking it back to Southeast Asia, list style! Our trip (read posts about Southeast Asia here) was full of fascinating people, in many senses of the word. Cultural barriers and communication faux pas led to hilarious circumstances with locals. Or, rather, hilarious interpretations of locals. Fellow travelers also make it to the list, as sometimes I had to take a step back and stand in awe. It’s amazing how creative, ingenious, and often downright ridiculous humans can be. Sometimes I look around and I’m so proud to be a human among so many exceptional ones (again, in all senses of the word). So here’s to them.

1- Man dancing to Puttin on the Ritz (Bangkok, Thailand)

I was terribly sad to have missed this unique performance. The following anecdote comes from my sister, Jennifer. While she visited the Chatuchak Market in Bangkok,  I was throwing up from a DIY barbecue and simultaneously in pain from strep throat (great way to end my adventure). But, I’m glad she didn’t have to stare at me all day, and therefore got to witness one of the best performances of her life.

She has declined (for now, but we’ll see about later) to reenact his performance, so I will relate what she told me. Jennifer explained that there was a Thai man at a booth in the market making paella. But it wasn’t a normal cooking class. It was a choreographed cooking drama to the song “Puttin on the Ritz.” She said the man would do a dramatic turn and with a surprised face fling throw vegetables and spices into the paella. Ingredients were thrown in in between dance moves. It sounds exceptional, and if I wasn’t barfing I would have loved to see it.

2- Sii from Tiger Tours (Luang Prabang, Laos)

Sii was our guide through the jungle outside of Luang Prabang (see photos and story here). He’s a character because his version of normalcy felt so out of our reach.  Through our one day trek through Hmong and Khmu villages, we spent much of our time one-on-one with him. We asked a lot of questions (he was a lot more informative than our guide at Happy Ranch in Siem Reap!) and he was great at explaining cultural differences. We also were curious about him. Sii was a young man with a small stature and spiky black hair. He wore flip flops through the weeds, mud and elephant poop.

 © Allison Yates
Sii walks through the trail outside of Luang Prabang.

“What do you like to do for fun?” we asked him. “Oh sometimes I wake up, and I just run for three, four hours, then I go home and eat, then I’ll go play soccer with my friends.”

What? Three or four hours? Is this normal? Isn’t he tired? We felt so weak in comparison as we were struggling through the midday heat in the humid Laos jungle. He must have thought we were pathetic. In his off time, he also likes to listen to a lot of slow music. Some of his favorites are James Blunt and Train.

3- Gentlemen that says “That’s right!” (Somewhere between Hue and Hoi An, Vietnam)

A kind and patient gentlemen, Nguyen was the man who welcomed us into hotel when we unknowingly (randomly) stopped there on the road from Hue to Hoi An (read more about what happened to us here). He responded to everything we said with “that’s right,” but as if it was written in all caps and with an explanation mark. Enthusiasm is one of the most beautiful things we have in this world, and I’m happy he shared some with us. We needed it to get through the rest of our sickening car ride to Hoi An.

4- Scott and Ross (Hoi An, Vietnam)

Scott and Ross were two hilarious actors from Scotland. They played off of each other in a constant entertaining game of who can make the most references, voices and impressions.  Being with them was like getting in for free to the best improv comedy. We never stopped laughing the whole three days we spent with them.

 © Allison Yates.
Scott feeds Ross a spicy chili in Hoi An. 

5- Marco (Siem Reap, Cambodia)

Marco was an Italian we met in The Siem Reap Hostel. I slept in the bed above his in our six person room full of personalities. like Scott and Ross, Marco had an exceptional sense of humor. We were fortunate to share a room with Julian, a 20-something, Tinder loving, workout obsessed German. Like any good physically fit German, Julian traveled with his TRX Bands and demonstrated workouts for us. Unfortunately, the truth was…Julian kind of said some things that made him come across as a chauvinist dick (while these don’t define him as a person, they do make for some laughs).

Marco was especially annoyed with him, as Marco was naturally warm blooded and Julian had a problem with the air con. Marco’s sharp sarcasm and irritated undertones warranted some harsh comebacks that Julian didn’t notice but we certainly caught on to. After Julian left the room, Marco would retreat to Julian’s TRX bands and impersonate him doing “shoulder exercises, back exercises…”

6- Andy (Siem Reap, Cambodia)

As you know from this post, we stayed in Siem Reap way too long. Which meant that although Andy also slept in our room, he never crossed paths with Marco. That would have been a great pair. Andy makes this list for his blatant honesty. One of the best things we heard him say was “Yeah, once I had a date so bad we just decided to give up on the date and go to KFC.” I can just see the romance reigniting as you share your chicken bucket…

7- Little person selling gum (Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam)

Vietnam is full of street hustlers. Just take a look at any of my whiny posts of Hoi An or an article I wrote for Pink Pangea. Along the backpacker district of Ho Chi Minh City, there were plenty of these types of sellers. Instead of fruit or boat rides, the vendors in Ho Chi Minh walked along the outdoor seating of bars and restaurants with dried fish and octopus, random party supplies and gum. One of the gum sellers was a little person, who dressed similarly to a clown. Although it is probably demeaning to say, I have no other words to describe her than absolutely adorable. She knew and used this to her advantage.

She had a pixie cut, a bright pink rain jacket and white sneakers. She walked quickly and almost appeared to be miming. Perhaps it was because she didn’t speak English. We were sitting with two Germans having a beer when she approached us. She held out the gum in front of us and batted her eyelashes with a radiant smile. “No, no, thank you but I don’t want any gum,” we said. She lifted her fist up to her eyes and pretended to cry. Then she stood for a few more minutes hoping we’d change our minds. After a few more minutes she decided to try the next table, and skipped away happily. She would look back at us on occasion and give a giant grin.

8- John Wayne of Cu Chi Tunnels (Cu Chi, Vietnam)

John Wayne. Interesting for him to pick his nickname from an American. After all, his personal vendetta was against my sister and I, solely for being from the United States. We were two of the three people from the U.S. on his tour of the Viet Cong’s underground tunnel system. Therefore, his targets for backhanded comments and subtle anger regarding what had become of his country when the U.S. invaded. He spoke with a “cockney” accident, so to the dismay of the three East Londoners we shared the tour with. While on the bus on the way to the Cu Chi Tunnels, Jennifer and I were chatting with some Germans. Because he was behind us, we didn’t hear him starting to speak. He finished speaking and approached us after. “You need to listen to what I say,” he reprimanded. It didn’t feel great to be ridiculed in front of the entire bus. I was so weirded out by the availability of guns at the Cu Chi Tunnels that I made the following YouTube video:

9- Lance (Koh Phi Phi, Thailand)

This list won’t be complete without a mention of the most absurd friend we made. This outrageous Kiwi has made an appearance on this blog several times already, and for good reason. He was the backbone of our Phi Phi naughtiness (you heard about him in this post about the fire performers and this post on Vodka, the beach dog). He’s the man who is never seen clearly in photos because he’s always moving and says things like “same same, but not different at all.”

It’s hard to articulate why we find everything that comes out of his mouth funny. It could be his strong accent, his strong irritation at certain people we met (“…ugh, that guy Mike is THE WORST!”) or his heartfelt affection towards others (“Fabio is A LEGEND!”). He’s the type of person that despite all of his mess, seems to always pull it together.

Featured photo: My sister being a character herself in Hue, Vietnam. 

Want to read other Character Tuesday posts? See them here.

Photo Friday: Siem Reap Beyond Angkor Wat

© Allison Yates. Angkor Wat
Hello from Angkor Wat with pants that every Western girl in Southeast Asia wears.

When we got to Siem Reap (strategically avoiding the burrito restaurant Viva) and took our first bike ride around the city (free bike rentals from our hostel The Siem Reap Hostel), we were immediately in love. We biked under the weeping willows along the river, found refuge from the heat on the beds at Peace Cafe and soon discovered our love of Sister Srey (one of the best cafes of Southeast Asia, one of seven best meals of Southeast Asia but still a point of international development controversy).

© Allison Yates. Angkor Wat.
A cloth covering a stone Buddha at Angkor Wat.
© Allison Yates. Angkor Wat.
Monkey says hello at Angkor Wat. 
© Allison Yates. Angkor Wat.
Angkor Wat gets the award for happiest toilet graffiti. Congrats, Angkor Wat!

Not surprisingly, we loved visiting the temples. But the crowds, heat and overpriced everything made it a less than ideal tourist attraction. We only went once, skipping the three day pass and opting for a one day pass. Although after our second day we had already checked off the main attraction in Siem Reap, we loved the city and wanted to stay for longer. But we had nothing to fear, there is much more to do Siem Reap than just visit temples! Bloggers at Never Ending Voyage have an excellent guide for alternative activities. Unfortunately for us as backpackers with a tight budget, we couldn’t afford to do most of the things on their list. Although it was pricey, we were drawn to their description of horse riding at Happy Ranch.

Erin and Simon of Never Ending Voyage describe their horse riding excursion with Happy Ranch as eye-opening. They received great information and while on their horses saw rice farmers, water buffalo, and a Buddhist ceremony. The photos they published were stunning – just the thing my sister and I were looking for. Knowing it was going to be worth our time, we didn’t mind paying $46 for a 2 hour ride (that’s a huge sacrifice for a budget traveler; my typical budget was between $20-$40 per day).

What happened when we finally did go on our two hour ride was very different than Erin’s and Simon’s experience. Although we kept a good attitude and tried to goof around with our guide, it was nonetheless a very disappointing experience. The photos below were taken while on the horse which unfortunately was a bit more challenging than I had anticipated. Please excuse the poor quality.

© Allison Yates. Siem Reap.
Temple around Siem Reap.

The tour promised a cultural experience, visiting villages that aren’t typically tourist destinations and getting to know the people there. The above picture is a temple we passed. It took us over 30 minutes of horseback riding down paved roads and through a construction site of luxury hotels to reach this.

© Allison Yates. Siemp Reap.

We continued past the temples without explanation. As we passed, many people were sitting in shops and watching small TV screens with a big antennas. The stores were stocked with packaged, manufactured snacks. Sometimes I saw fruit.

We continued walking along the road. By this point it had become a dirt path. The horses easily got scared by reckless motorbikes and tuk tuks. The houses were small huts, sometimes made of precarious materials and other times of concrete.

A few people started to notice us. This was the best part of the whole tour. Children would see us from afar and sprint to meet us at the edge of the road. They waved and jumped and the littlest ones would just scream and run in circles. The more outgoing of the bunch would scream “HI HOW ARE YOU” without fail. Although the adults were often more reserved, if their children were with them they would encourage them to wave and smile at us. Moments like this made us feel very welcome prancing about on a horse through their village.

© Allison Yates. Siem Reap.
A woman walks her bike down a country path. 

Our guide spoke very little English. We are very lucky that he spoke any at all. However, we were paying a large sum, especially for the local prices. He was kindhearted, but it started to become irritating when we had questions. For example, as we rode through the village, we passed many women all in one building staring at us. A group of around 15 children were outside playing in a field across from them. There was a school, a few more convenience stores selling junk food, and more houses.

“What do most people do here?” I asked our guide. He started to laugh. He crinkled his forehead and shook his head. “I don’t know!” he shouted as if I asked the dumbest question possible. “This isn’t MY village!”

When he said that, I realized we wouldn’t be getting much cultural information. Still hopeful, I asked questions throughout the tour but got the same responses. How dare I be asking him these things! Either that, or he didn’t understand my question and ignored it.

© Allison Yates. Siem Reap
A cow says hello. 

There was one good piece of information that came from our guide: Cambodian women. We commented how there are many Westerners living in Siem Reap. “Yeah,” he said, “Cambodian women love Western man, because they pay for everything. We say ‘no money, no honey.'” At least it’s no secret why there are so many tiny women gallivanting about with European men in Siem Reap.

© Allison Yates. Siem Reap.
A man tends to his cattle.

When we reached the village, our guide told us to get off our horses to have a break. Jennifer and I had to stretch our crotches out (painful!) so we walked a few feet down the path where the cows were grazing. This part, despite my annoyance at lack of information, was breathtaking. It was golden hour, my favorite part of the day, and it turned the fields glistening green. Everything became more radiant, and therefore more magical.

The man in the above photo was limping, he appeared to have a prosthetic leg. Even so, he was busy tending to his animals. He smiled at us and I attempted the Khmer I had watched in a YouTube video. He nodded and kept walking.

Even though I was disappointed with the tour with Happy Ranch itself, I was amazed by the warmth of the people we passed. I would get so sick of tourists if they walked through my neighborhood on horseback. Even though people pass through their villages all the time, they were kind, smiled, and didn’t appear to be bothered.

Photo Friday: The Women Of Hoi An

It’s not Friday. But this was meant for Photo Friday. So here it is… only a couple of days late. Unfortunately I’m not that far ahead of the rest of the world that I can blame it on the time difference.

Hoi An, Vietnam (Yes! That is the place that I took a cooking class with Gioan Cookery School) is UNESCO World Heritage Site port city in the central part of the country and a major tourist site. It’s home to a bright and well-preserved old town, with centuries of Chinese and Japanese influence. It’s was the quietest, cleanest city I visited and even though it was a pain to get to (don’t take the road from Hue to Hoi An if the weather is nasty!) and I was hassled by women asking me to ride their boats, it was the highlight of Vietnam for my sister and I.

(c) Allison Yates. Hoi An.
Hoi An, Vietnam. Fruits for sale.

What was most striking about Hoi An was its undeniably strong female presence. It was women who approached me about going on their boat. It was women who sold me fruits and bahn xoai (mango cakes) along the Sông Thu Bồn. It was women working in the rice fields as we peddled out of town to reach the beach. It was women who chopped up mean with huge butcher’s knives at the market.

 

(c) Allison Yates. Hoi An, Vietnam.
Touching meat and on her cell phone.

There is something so quintessential about the women of Hoi An. Maybe it’s that they fit the perfect stereotype of what Westerners want Vietnamese women to look like. They wear the nón lá, or conical hat. They sit in seemingly uncomfortable squatting positions, as if their legs are two bendable plastic limbs waiting to be molded into a new shape.

(c) Allison Yates. Hoi An, Vietnam.
Sitting in the market. 

With the women we encountered, they seemed to be doing all of their tasks effortlessly. No matter what it was, they doing it with ease, their faces-wrinkled but calm-showing no angst.

(c) Allison Yates. Hoi An.
Cooking in Hoi An, Vietnam.
(c) Allison Yates. Hoi An, Vietnam.
Selling produce and food at the market. 

The women at the markets were selling to many people at once, preparing food and all the while appearing unfettered. While visiting the market, I noticed that most of the customers were also women.

(c) Allison Yates. Hoi An, Vietnam.
Buying produce at the market.

If you’ve visited Hoi An, did you feel the female presence? 

(c) Allison Yates. Hoi An, Vietnam
Cleaning up behind the market.
(c) Allison Yates. Hoi An, Vietnam.
My sister walks in front of a woman carrying purchases. 

 

Viva: The “Authentic” Burrito Place Of Cambodia

 

In this post, I describe the odd obsession travelers have with Viva, a Mexican restaurant in Siem Reap, Cambodia, and share some of the best TripAdvisor reviews of its food. 

VIVA.

The famed “Khmer-Mexican” fusion restaurant chain. A favorite of the backpackers of Southeast Asia desperate for a the closest they can get to south-of-the-border cuisine. It’s even a go-to for any Westerners craving a slice of exoticism once their tolerance for cheap and repetitive noodles has dried up.

I don’t blame them. I imagine it happens a lot like this: They arrive in the dusty streets of Siem Reap after bumpy, head-jerking 15-hour bus ride though twists and turns. They get off the bus into the stench and vapor of the mid-afternoon heat. They feel the dizziness, a combination of hunger and sickness from the stale air of the bus. Taking an overpriced tuk tuk to Pub Street and paying with USD, they carry their already sweat soaked backpacks past screaming massage parlors, men with their bellies showing and street vendors. Two kids are trying to fish from a puddle on the side of the road. They shiver – it’s going to take a bit to shake sharing a vertical “seat mattress” with a strange man.

Then, they see it. VIVA! Mexican Food? I’m tired, hungry and don’t have patience for much else. I feel like I’m going to throw up. Just this once!

It must be noted that I never went to this restaurant. No, I’m not above the tired backpackers. I’ve been in that very position multiple times. That explains why I’ve paid exorbitant prices (relatively speaking) at places like Red Snapper in Ko Lanta, Thailand, and Sister Srey in Siem Reap, Cambodia.  But I shied away because in my experience, a fusion restaurant that seems unlikely in an unlikely place probably is. When Kimberly and I were in Portugal and we ate at an Indian-run Italian-Indian fusion, I stuck to the tikka massala (that’s not to say it can’t be done. Every night at Diamond B&B in Rome we had pasta classics with an Indian flair). All particularities aside, I have another reason to avoid faux-Mexican. I have a sister who is hesitant to pay money for anything that can’t be trusted as excellent. “We have the best Mexican food in San Diego,” she’ll explain. “I’m picky.”

And therefore I didn’t dare step foot into Viva. But somehow this small establishment became the talk of the hostels, a debate among travelers and point of argument between those who knew Mexican food. According to Mike, a Mexican-American from San Diego, it was good. But what ultimately put the breaks on our temptation was the food poisoning it caused several of our fellow backpackers. Germans, Canadians and British alike proved to have ill-trained stomachs for the powerful concoctions found at Viva. After seeing this, I’m glad to have a taco connoisseur of a sister.

This new intriguing obsession with the suffering Viva causes and the determination of travelers find Mexican food inspired me to read its TripAdvisor reviews. In a recent This American Life episode, Ira Glass discusses the human tendency to hide behind the internet and say any number of defamatory remarks without the real-life consequences that uttering these phrases in person might cause. Your average mail delivery guy can end up being a misogynistic troll telling feminists to “go die” and “jump of a cliff” in the comments under an article.

It’s a little far-fetched to compare TripAdvisor reviews with such brash behavior from the people on the internet, but it is worth noting that because there are no consequences to malicious writing, TripAdvisor too has entertaining descriptions. Especially if your food gets the patrons sick. Some of the best reviews were brutally honest.

One titled “I would rather gorge myself on McDonalds mystery meat.” (excellent illustration of your disgust, Robert!) describes the unpleasant setting as well as the derelict food tasting of “cardboard.” Robert writes:

We sat outside on the patio which ended up being a huge mistake due to the heavy population of tropical bugs flinging themselves at you with gusto to fill your hair,plate,and skin with nothing short of a swarm due to the bad taste in bright lights outside, the kind of lights that bugs adore. This is Cambodia though so we got over it until the food arrived.

If the surroundings weren’t unpleasant enough, he was in for a rude awakening. The food wasn’t much of an upgrade from the tropical bugs flying with gusto. He then goes on to explain how much he detested his meal:

The filling of both the burritos and the fajitas was disgusting. It tasted like sweet ratatouille with chicken and steak and covered in taco seasoning…absolutely atrocious. My time in France tells me this is either French owned or using a French recipe. It is the same filth they pass off as Tex-mex in France.

Robert wasn’t the only one who thought the food “atrocious.” Juan from Chicago was utterly appalled in review “Great if you’ve never been to Mexico, aren’t Mexican and have no clue.”  He too, was informed that it was a good choice by fellow travelers. Man, he must have wanted to slap them across the face after his disappointment. According to Juan, there is “better Mexican to be had in food courts around the world.” OUCH!

Besides Robert and Juan hating the food, other travelers spoke of even less pleasant experiences. A slew of other reviews described the food poisoning they got as the result of the poorly prepared food. One would think that after so many bad experiences, even in writing, on TripAdvisor, people would begin to second guess spending their money there. Yeah, you can technically get food poisoning anywhere, in any country. But so many instances? Something doesn’t add up. It is important to note that like the hypothetical backpackers described at the beginning of this post, many are too tired and hungry to consult TripAdvisor before being lured in by the tantalizing thought of fresh avocado and hints of lime.

A review titled “Nice food but made me very sick!”  explained that she saw the crowds and thought it must be a great restaurant. Later, she probably wanted to join a support group with all the other victims:

I had a veggie ‘pizza’ with a taco base and enjoyed every bite. Unfortunately I spent the next 24 hours staggering between the toilet and the bed, with violent diarrhoea and vomiting.

Another review “Stay clear” wrote:

Six of us got sick that night and the next day, no wonder after seeing the condition of the toilets they were disgraceful , would hate to see the kitchen.

Those must have been some nasty toilets! (Nothing like the pristine toilets and humorous toilet signs I see on my travels!).

So, what keeps people coming? If the food is dismal, the conditions unpleasant, and the result coming out of both ends, why are they still in business? With over 360 people giving Viva an “very good” rating on TripAdvisor, they seem to have pulled a fast one on some vulnerable travelers.

Maybe I’ll have to ignore the wishes of my Mexican food-loving sister, go back to Siem Reap and try it out myself.

Have you been to Viva? What did you think?

Featured photo: A California girl desperately searches for that burrito she’ll never have. Taken in Phnom Penh. 

 

Photo Friday: Children of Luang Prabang

I recently submitted the featured photo for a contest on EyeEm titled “Youth of Today.” This photo captures a toddler who is snacking on crackers along side his grandfather in a Khmu village outside of Luang Prabang, Laos.

(c) Allison Yates. Boy in Laos
A young boy snacks next to his grandfather.

Out in the jungle with just my sister and I and our guide Sii, we started off our one-day trek through Tiger Trails with a 30 minute sickening tuk tuk ride outside of Luang Prabang. After a short boat ride down the Mekong, a hike through an “elephant sanctuary” (judging by their shackles, I wouldn’t call it freeing), and crossing several small streams, Sii announced we had arrived at Houayfay, a Khmu village.

The collection of straw houses had street signs, house numbers and various facilities. The only thing missing was people. It was a mystery where everyone was. Then, we saw our first greeters, four small boys sitting outside of a house.

(C) Allison Yates. Boys in Laos
Kids sit outside a house in Houayfay village.

The youngest of them all was disturbed by our presence. He saw my camera and started to cry. The older boys giggled and pushed him a little. I can imagine how odd it must feel to have groups of tourists filing through your ten house village. They don’t speak your language, they don’t look like you, and they have massive machines in your face.

While many adults were absent because they were working in the rice fields, others must have known we were coming and avoided us altogether. With the exception of only a few adults, the only locals we saw in our tour were young children. There is a fine line because treating locals like zoo animals and encouraging cultural exchange.

Sii lead us to the dining room of one of the families-a covered area with dirt floors and a wooden bench. There, we sat with an older gentlemen and two of his grandchildren he was looking after.

(c) Allison Yates. Girl in Luang Prabang.
A toddler hangs on her grandfather’s back.

I tried to utilize Sii’s language skills to make the situation less uncomfortable. After all, we were sitting in this gentlemen’s dining room and staring at him and his grandchildren. This family also had a spare room where tourists who do the two-day tour sleep. They had experience with foreigners.

“Is there anything that Westerners do that you find weird or odd?” I asked the grandfather.

He laughed and shook his head. “We are just all so different,” he responded through Sii’s translation. “We have different customs.”

While the female grandchild was comfortably perched on her grandfather’s back, a precarious little boy was ready for the camera. By the way he posed and looked at me, I could tell he enjoyed the foreigner’s camera and liked the attention.

(c) Allison Yates. Boy in Luang Prabang
A little boy sees my camera and runs up to me.

Notice his shirt saying “Wold Cup 2014.” Counterfeit?

(c) Allison Yates
A little boy enjoys being in the spotlight.

I’m not entirely sure what he was screaming or why he was posing the way he was, but he gave us a good laugh. After feeling a bit odd walking through someone’s home, it was nice to have someone appreciate the attention.

After saying goodbye to the grandfather and his grandchildren, we took a quick walk around the village. There was a girl sifting through a 15 x 15 tarp of rice. She was shy, but smiled and showed us how to break the rice and eat it. As soon as we approached her, three children came running in from the jungle.

They were visible dirtier than the other children, with disheveled hair, mud on their skin and green, dried-up snot coming out of their noses. The most noticeable aspect about them, however, wasn’t their unkempt look. It was the huge knife they carried, swinging it up and down like a loose leaf piece of paper. (This wouldn’t be the first group of children we saw with extremely sharp objects. Later on that day we saw a boy playing with a long knife that had a live bird attached to it. He was throwing it around as his parents laughed from behind.)

(c) Allison Yates
Girls from the Khmu village greet us.

“HELLO HOW ARE YOU!” they screamed. One of the girls wore shorts that had “Paris Hilton” embroidered on the back pocket. I would love to investigate how and why some clothing, counterfeit brands and odd sayings become popular abroad. How, and why?

We continued on our hike. Later, we passed through a Hmong village. There, we didn’t see anyone except one massive family with at least eight kids. They sat on a bench and watched us as we ate our pack lunches of fried rice. They laughed as the piglets, birds and apparent ravenous dogs fought for our handouts.

We finished out the hike in the humid air, jumping through creeks, stepping in wet undergrowth and passing through valleys. As Sii got increasingly annoyed with our inability to walk briskly in such adverse conditions, I thought more and more about how accepting children are. If our trip through the villages solidified anything, it’s that children are special creatures.

(c) Allison Yates. Luang Prabang
Countryside outside of Luang Prabang.

What else happened in Luang Prabang? Jennifer and I felt left out. Read about it here.

 

 

6 Favorite Cafes of Southeast Asia

Although we had some delicious meals, sometimes the atmosphere was more noteworthy than the food. Other times, a calming cafe can be the perfect thing to break up the monotony of a long journey or offer a break from the hustle of a big city.

Here are our 6 favorite cafes that we visited in Southeast Asia.

1- Cong Caphe

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Where: Hanoi, Vietnam
Why: This eclectic cafe was beautiful in an mysterious way. Kind of like the way I feel about colonial architecture: it’s stunning and picturesque, but I just can’t shake the image of British soldiers beating Indians, for example. In this post I describe Cong Caphe as “uncomfortable grey area between historical knowledge and a Saturday Night Live sketch.” If that doesn’t ward you a visit, I don’t know what would.

2- Unknown cafe

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This is what it looks like on the outside! GO!

Where: Hue, Vietam
Why: Right after visiting Hue’s famed Imperial City, we stopped in this cafe for some refuge from the irritating mist (not quite raining, yet moisture isn’t letting you be). This cafe was our favorite not for the decor, but for two very important reasons: 1) A little nugget who gives gifts, and 2) insanely good lemon ginger tea. I don’t care about the cockroaches; there was no tea that compared to its crispness. Maybe they put MSG in it? Wait, is that insensitive?

The staff was open, friendly and accomodating, even given the language barrier. It was a stark contrast to the never-ending requests we got for us to buy someone’s product or take a cyclo ride. It was on par with being asked to ride a boat in Hoi An.

3- Sister Srey

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It was from an Iphone, okay?

Where: Siem Reap, Cambodia 
Why: One day there will be a post without a mention of Sister Srey. We certainly couldn’t get enough of it when it was in our vicinity and now that I have free reign to write about whatever I want I certainly can’t stop talking about it.

Everything about this cafe (minus my doubts about the productiveness of training cafes) was perfection. The owners were present and clearly had excellent relationships with their staff. They were supportive and encouraging, and I loved seeing them interact. The food was spectacular, and the people watching was on point. Sitting at one of their picnic tables in the open air cafe, my sister and I watched street vendors, tourists, locals, motorbikes, bicycles, cars, and animals go past. It was the perfect place to write in a journal or just *be.*

4- I.D. Cafe

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Who can resist this floor-stool-wall combination? A designer’s dream! Not that I would know. I’m not a designer.

Where: Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam 
Why: When I got a look at those floors, I knew I was going to enjoy my drink. At this cafe, instead of my usual tea or latte, I jumped at a chance to try a local brewery’s beer. I had Pasteur Street Brewing Company‘s Jasmine IPA. Since I’m not beer expert I’m not going to describe it for you, but I will vouch for it and say it was delicious. We sat on the top level in a wide, open room with the windows open. We felt the breeze and could hear snippets of life below on the street.

5- Sip & Chew

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Where: Phnom Penh, Cambodia 
Why: Jennifer and I were greeted here by the very attentive and friendly staff. The bright atmosphere was calming. We sat at a table by the window and looked out onto the Tonle Sap river. We watched people pass, noticed the diversity of tourists and locals and watched the sunset. The green tea flavored cream puffs pictured above were delicious as well. This was a perfect cafe to reflect and digest our surroundings.

6- Cafe d’tist

cafe dtist
Jennifer and I ate breakfast with our lovely friend Patrick.

Where: Pai, Thailand
Why: Although Pai was a relaxing town on its own, Cafe d’tist was an exceptionally calming place. Pictured above, Jennifer, our friend Patrick and I sat in a bungalow and savored a yummy brunch. It was cool, breezy and had a fresh scent. The wifi here was of exceptional quality and the coffee sharp. There was soft music that was low enough to create a mood and high enough to eliminate the silence. Their sugar packets had inspiration phrases on them (see one of them in this post).

This is how I feel when I’m so happy to eat food or drinks from one of these delicious cafes.

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FEED ME, FEEEEED MEEEEH

Featured photo: Happiness on the streets of Hanoi.