Preparing to Teach English in China

Moving to a foreign country to teach English is a huge step and needs preparation; mental, financial and physical. It can get hectic trying to figure out what you will need to do and at times you may feel overwhelmed. I always make myself a checklist of all the things I need to do or take with me before I move to a new country. It helps me stay calm and focussed so maybe it will help you too.

Here is a checklist that could help you a bit in your preparation to teach in China.

Passport and Visa

First off make sure that your passport is valid for at least a couple of years and not expiring within your contracted work year. But, most importantly, have your work visa ready before the day of travel. Make sure you get the appropriate visa to enter and travel around China. If you are going to teach English in China, you will need a Z visa. This visa allows you to work in China legally. Registered schools are authorised to provide Z visas for their teachers. Do not trust a school who says its okay to start work on a tourist visa and that they will issue you a work visa later, this is illegal. For you to be given a Z visa you must be a native English speaker, have two years’ work experience or a minimum of 120-hours TEFL certification and possess a bachelor’s degree. Once you arrive in China, you are given 30 days to convert your visa into a resident permit.

Prepare to Teach English in China
China is filled with unexpected things….#onlyinchina is a real thing!

Personal items

It is advisable that you pack wisely, pack only what you need for your travel and especially for work. Leave the just in case items but be prepared for all kinds of weather as you are planning on being in China for at least a year.

Clothing

Pack enough light, easy to dry clothes including a sweater or light jacket. Remember summers in China can be incredibly hot so to pack enough sunscreen (SPF). It is quite expensive here in China and often contains whitening, bring your own sunscreen and protective creams for the skin. You will definitely need rain gear (raincoats and umbrellas) but those are easy to purchase once you are in China. Pack a comfortable pair of shoes because you tend to walk a lot in China, especially in those first couple of months while you are still trying to orientate yourself in your new city.

Personal effects

You will find most personal effects readily available in China. Pack enough toiletries for the first month as it can take time before you find the brands that work for you in China. Pack some tissue, wet tissues and a hand sanitiser for use in toilets during travel. You can find sanitary towels al over china but only the big cities sell tampons so you might want to stock up on those before travelling. Due to change in climatic zones, our skins tend to react so remember your lotions and moisturisers.

Medication

When travelling, it is advisable to have a small travel medical kit with you. If you suffer from a chronic disease, pack up all your medication and stock up enough for a given period of time. Other medications you can include in your kit are laxatives, painkillers, allergy medicine, motion sickness medicine and contact lenses or eye drops. Have bottled water to accompany your medication and to drink too as tap water in China is not safe for consumption.

Plane Tickets

Book your plane ticket only once you have signed your work contract and have a start date. Because you are travelling with a work visa you will not need to buy a return flight which is great as you don’t always have your end date in advance. Pay that little bit extra when booking your flight so that you are able to change the date without having to pay again. Do some research to find out which airlines offer the best baggage deals as you might need to check in an extra bag and don’t want to pay exorbitant fees. Check in online the night before you travel to make sure you get a seat where you are not squashed between 2 other people for eight hours. On the day of travel, arrive at the airport about three hours earlier as sometimes there are delays at the airport and its best to keep this at the back of your mind just in case. The good thing about working in China is that most schools will reimburse you for the price of the flight ticket after a couple of months!

Locks and tags

Ensure that your suitcase or backpack is comfortable and that it can be locked. Have luggage locks and identity tags to ensure the safety of your luggage during travel and to make your suitcase stand out on the conveyor belt.

Electronics

Remember to pack your camera because China is an endless adventure with photo opportunities around every corner. Pack your mobile phone too and a tablet or laptop. Do not forget your chargers and adapter plugs or converters.

Of course, everything you can think of is available in China, so there is no need to worry if you forgot a charger or a shirt!

Money

When travelling to teach in China, convert a substantial amount of your money into Chinese Yuan. You will need to purchase a new SIM card and there are some other set up costs to be covered your first week or two in China. The first month you can withdraw money from foreign accounts at institutions such as HSBC and Travelex. But do not forget to inform your local bank about your travel, they could be of assistance if you got stuck while in China. Your school should help you to open a bank account into which they will pay your salary for you.

Apps and VPNs

China censors the internet, they have put up a great firewall which blocks foreign websites such as Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat among others. Luckily, WhatsApp and Pinterest are not censored. To get around these restrictions, it is best to download some Apps and VPNs before you leave for China. WeChat (Weixin) is the most commonly used social media in China. It operates like a combination of Facebook and WhatsApp and is mainly used for communication. You may also need Chinese dictionary apps such as Pleco, Hanpinlite and Baidu Translate. These will teach you a few survival phrases you may need for communication in China.

You will need a VPN (Virtual Private Networks) to visit a blocked website. VPNs are used in China to bypass the great firewall. As a teacher of English in China, you will need some websites to enrich your lesson. To make this possible, VPNs such as ExpressVPN, Betternet, Buffered and VYPR are used to enhance internet access in China. Ensure you download a few on your gadget because the Great Wall causes most to have fluctuating performance. And do this before you travel as you cannot download it once you have entered China.

Books and Films

Before leaving your country, buy some books and save some films to help you deal with the homesickness that comes with being in a foreign country.

All the best as you prepare to go and teach English in China.

Feel free to contact me if you have any questions.

Empty streets of Shanghai

There is a certain unique and strange delight about walking down an empty street alone.

Published as part of Wordless Wednesday

4 Wonderful Experiences to Try

Once upon a time, holidays tended to consist of going somewhere hot, eating something (more or less) exotic and then tanning for as long as possible. But, as welcome as relaxation is, today’s travellers (rightly) demand more varied affairs, balancing indulgence with adventure, and comfort with exploration. And this opening up of what a vacation can and should be has also meant that wildly different regions now welcome tourists to take in experiences only known to locals even a generation ago. And so, we present here a handful of exclusive destinations to give even the seasoned traveller something new to look forward to.

Mt. Fuji, Japan

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  1. A cherry blossom tour of Japan

The cherry blossom season is definitely the right time of the year to visit Japan – this is when the country’s already breathtaking natural beauty is raised to another level. Whether you’re exploring the urban delights of Tokyo and Osaka, the natural splendour of Mount Fuji, or the historical charms of Kyoto, each location on your itinerary will be enhanced by the cherry blossoms spreading all around. The Japanese celebrate this time of year with ‘Hanami’ (flower viewing) parties – where friends and families gather together underneath the blossoms to enjoy each other’s company and appreciate the natural spectacle all around them.

 

pine trees on mountain with white snow during daytime

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2. Heli-skiing around the globe

A world away from the cosmic dance of celestial bodies – but still very, very high up – the technological adventure that is heli-skiing is gaining in popularity every year. For the uninitiated, this involves a helicopter transporting skiers to mountain spots inaccessible (or at least impractical) from the ground. This not only means pristine ski-ways in soft snow but also much less crowded slopes. Canada and the US lead the way, with multiple operators in British Columbia and Alaska, but there are also opportunities in Switzerland (naturally), New Zealand and Japan.

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3. The timeless ruins of Bagan

While Machu Picchu and Angkor Wat have been on the tourist trail for some time now, another awe-inspiring archaeological wonder – in Myanmar – has somehow stayed off the map, despite its comparable scale and grandeur. The more than two thousand superbly preserved Buddhist temples in this historical complex are surrounded by the ruins of more than double that again. Many of these are almost a thousand years old – countless otherworldly pagodas rising through the trees. Best of all, until tourism fully catches up with Bagan, the site can be experienced without the kind of crowds that can distract from the ancient architecture.

aerial photo of city highway surrounded by high-rise buildings

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4. The future today, in Dubai

From the remains of a lost empire to a marvel that’s still under construction – the global city of Dubai offers an incredible vision of the world-to-come. Especially well-suited to family holidays, the futuristic landscape offers up landmark skyscrapers boasting the world’s fastest lifts, and a shopping mall containing 1200 shops (making it, yes, the world’s largest) but also a floor-to-ceiling aquarium with 30,000 fish. Truly, this is a place built for superlatives – from the magical islands reclaimed from the sea to fountains which spout higher than the London Eye.

Four reasons why it’s time you take a Road Trip in Germany

Nestled among nine other countries, Germany is an expansive paradise for travellers who love to be on the road. Its idyllic mountain scenery and lush countryside combined with deep pride in its automotive exports are a formula for some of the best driving conditions in the world. The diligence and care they take in the cars they produce are reflected in the pristine, perfectly maintained autobahn. Here are just four of many reasons why a road trip in Germany should be on everyone’s bucket list.

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  1. Go on a nostalgic journey through an enchanting Fairy Tale Route

The Fairy Tale Route is perfect for the young at heart, spanning from Hanau where the Brothers Grimm were born to Bremen. There are countless charming towns and villages along the way that still retain that picturesque medieval quality we associate with The Grimm Fairy Tales.

 

Some of the places you pass through actually featured in the stories – such as Hamelin, where the Pied Piper legend was born, Alsfeld, where Little Red Riding Hood’s house still stands, and Bad Wildungen, where Snow White lived.

 

  1. Lovers of wine can follow a route dedicated to the beloved grape

The ‘Deutsche Weinstraße’ is the oldest wine route in Germany, having been established in 1935. It starts in Schweigen-Rechtenbach, on the border of France, continues throughout the stunning Rhineland-Palatinate vineyards and ends in Bockenheim an der Weinstraße.

 

From March through to October many places along the German Wine Route host some of the largest outdoor wine festivals in the world. Everyone from amateur wine drinkers to expert sommeliers can soak in the heritage and majesty of the wine-growing region.

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  1. Enjoy a thrilling driving experience with access to roads that have no speed limits

While there are certain stretches of road that do impose limits, Germany is the only country in Europe that has no official speed limit on motorways. Drivers go at speeds of up to 150mph and sometimes more, with the government believing people do not need to be micromanaged. For the ultimate road-trip make sure you choose the right car and have a clear plan of your route. If you do decide to drive fast, be sure to have read the relevant highway information and adhere to all regulations.

 

  1. Spend a day in areas of astounding natural beauty like Lake Konigssee

The name means ‘Kings lake’ and at 190 meters, it is the deepest lake in Germany – surrounded by the steep cliffs of Mount Watzmann, all road trippers should wind down with a trip here. Fellow travellers recommend typing Hotel Bergheimat in Schonau am Konigssee into your navigation system. This brings you to the main road that leads into the Konigssee where there is a large area for designated parking that is close to the lakes and boats.

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As well as the ones already mentioned, there are a number of routes in Germany that are connected by a theme. The roads are signposted clearly and provide road-trippers with tried and tested circuits that suit their interests.

Things to remember when visiting a Church or Cathedral

You don’t have to have strong spiritual beliefs to enjoy a visit to a house of worship or a spiritual site. Virtually all religious sites allow travellers to enjoy the sanctuary space as long as they are respectful.

Christ Church Cathedral
Christ Church Cathedral (founded c.1028) is the spiritual heart of the city, and one of the top visitor attractions in Dublin.

I think that churches, cathedrals and other houses of worship offer a special insight into the beliefs and culture of a country. If you want to experience world famous art, reflect on the lives of princes, poets, and politicians or simply have a moment of personal reflection, you will enjoy visiting a house of worship. They are also of interest for those who love to connect with local culture, revel in architectural wonders or are just interested in local history.

For many travellers, visiting a house of worship is a deeply personal occasion. Some people are seeking spiritual guidance and comfort and others are looking to renew and enhance their faith. Travellers of all different beliefs cross the globe to visit those locations that are meaningful to their faiths.

For me, any opportunity to travel is an opportunity to connect to people of different cultures, faiths, and ways of life. Visiting a house of worship helps facilitate that connection and I always welcome the chance to learn more about different religious backgrounds.

I also love how houses of worship are gatekeepers of history, art, literature, and architecture. When I learn the history of a house of worship, I’m really getting to know a city, it’s people, and it’s community.

In some cases, houses of worship welcome as many tourists as they do worshippers. While you might be surrounded by hoards of tour groups, always remember:

  1. You are in a sacred site. Be Respectful. You don’t have to agree with or condone the place of worship you are visiting, but you should be respectful for the way others worship.
  2. Be Sincere. Visit a church because you sincerely want to learn about the building or know what they believe and practice, not because you want to mock and ridicule their faith.
  3. Dress modestly. If you are unsure as to what is appropriate attire follow the rule that covering more of your body is always more appropriate than covering less.
  4. Respect signs indicating photography rules.
  5. Don’t take photos during a service.
  6. Keep your voice down. Try not to interrupt those visiting for religious purposes.

I love you when you bow in your mosque, kneel in your temple, pray in your church. For you and I are sons of one religion, and it is the spirit.” – Khalil Gibran

Why I Walk to Explore places like Rathmullan in Ireland

Rathmullan, situated in County Donegal, Ireland is the perfect location to ‘get away from it all’. While driving along the Wild Atlantic Way of Ireland we spent the night in Rathmullan and the next morning walked along the Milford Sli na Slainte (path to health). With it’s wonderful beach and wooded hillsides we could relax and enjoy the quieter pace of life that is characteristic of smaller Irish villages.

Rathmullan, situated in County Donegal, Ireland
The beautiful Beach of Rathmullan, situated in County Donegal, Ireland

The Milford Sli na Slainte is a path that started at the pier and took us all along the beautiful beach to a rocky outcrop at the mouth of a small river. After crossing the bridge over Maggie’s Burn we turned left onto the Fanad by-pass road. This road took us through the countryside, along pastures and woodland until we once again got back to the town centre.

Here are ten reasons why you should sling on your best walking shoes and explore the countryside:

  1. Walking is free exercise. Walking is as close to free as it gets. You don’t need fancy shoes, or clothes, or equipment. If you head straight out your front door, a walk will only cost you some time and a little rubber off the bottom of your shoes. Many people are surprised to learn that walking is actually a serious form of exercise. Although you may not feel like you are working too hard, in just one mile you can burn off over 100 calories.

  2. Walking connects me with my surroundings. One can’t possibly notice the many small details of buildings and woodlands while driving. When you’re on foot, you notice all kinds of things you’d never notice in a car. I always thing of a walk as an opportunity to explore the area and to admire the scenery. I usually try to do some research beforehand and find out a bit about the area and always take my camera with.
  1. Walking changes your perspective. You start to see where the environment is built for people, and where it’s built for cars. Cosy shops lining the street become more inviting. It’s while I’m walking that I notice the frost on the grass, or a rabbit hiding behind a tree, or the moon peeking out from behind the clouds.
  1. Walking inspires curiosity. Who built that building? What was it like then? Who uses it now? What is over that hill? Are those berries edible? Wouldn’t it be cool to have a coffee shop on that corner? You might not know where you’re headed, and that’s ok. Getting lost in nature is the bes thing ever!
  1. Reduce your carbon footprint. Many of us would like to make a personal contribution to climate change, and here is a simple way that you can… ditch those car keys in favour of walking shoes and avoid carbon emissions completely. Every trip (however short) you take on foot is one you aren’t taking in your car. That’s good for you, and it’s good for the environment.
  1. Free your brain. Anxiety, stress, and mental health issues are common issues that people face in today’s society. Walking is a perfect way to zone-out, de-stress and rid yourself of all the negative thoughts in your mind from the day. A brief walk can melt mental fatigueimprove memory, and even help stave off the progress of Alzheimer’s disease. Taking a walk is a great way to leave all the worry of the day behind.
  1. It’s a Great Way to Enjoy the Weather. Summers are short and oh so sweet. I just can’t wait to get outside, and while I haven’t figured out how to be able to spend all day on a blanket at the park, walking somewhere gives me a great excuse to savor a few sweet moments of sunshine. I have nothing against the other seasons. I love rainy spring walks, and crisp fall walks. I even love bundling up for an icy winter walk, especially late at night. Every season (and day, for that matter) has its moments. Walking gives you a chance to soak them up.
  1. Its Great for Your Creativity. English wordsmith William Wordsworth is said to have spent much of his life on foot, walking. Henry David Thoreau often walked up to 20 miles at a time before he put pen to paper. Virginia Woolf was a regular walker. In fact, there’s a very long list of writers who considered walking part of their craft. If you’re a creative type, the walking path might just lead to enlightenment.

 

  1. It’s an Excuse to Get Some Ice Coffee. Walking is a great excuse to pick up a cup of ice coffee to enjoy along the way. At least you’re burning some of those calories, right?

 

  1. It’s the Perfect Time do do Some Reflecting. We often think of meditation as something that happens when you’re sitting still, but in reality, that’s very hard to do. The washing machine will chime. The phone will ring. Your neighbours will make noise. If you walk, your brain will be able to do its quiet wandering with less distraction.

 

What are your reasons for walking?

Postcards from Dublin, Ireland

These are some of the photos I took in Dublin while on my Road Trip through Ireland.

Postcards from Dublin, Ireland
Dublin is filled with some amazing buildings. This is the Building housing Modern Art.
Postcards from Dublin, Ireland
In the heart of Dublin

“What you’ve done becomes the judge of what you’re going to do – especially in other people’s minds. When you’re traveling, you are what you are right there and then. People don’t have your past to hold against you. No yesterdays on the road.” – William Least Heat Moon

What I learned from my Ireland Road Trip

Road Trips are a commitment, there’s no way around that. And once you’ve started, there’s absolutely no getting out of it. Well, I guess you could always hop out halfway and call for a cab, but that’s for quitters and it’s also slightly dangerous. Stay in the car.

Going on a road trip Through Ireland, along the Wild Atlantic Way with my friend Amy sounded like the best thing ever! It was only once our trip had started that I realised we would have very limited space for most of our trip. My travel companion was literally twelve inches away from me for most of the day. I also quickly learned that the driver needs to be fully focused so there was no talking while she was trying to navigate the treacherous back roads along the Irish coast.

I think the big thing about Road Trips are that everyone, at some point along the journey, finds themselves wondering why on earth they decided that this was the best way to travel? And yet, despite this moment, you will get back in the car, and continue the adventure. And then – maybe not immediately, maybe not in a week, but eventually you will realise that there were also lessons learnt along this journey.

#1 There is no such thing as too many snacks.

We were both travelling on a very tight budget so before heading out, we thought that skimping on the number of snacks we purchased was one of the best ways to save a little money. This was a very big mistake. We realised this half way through our journey and this time round, properly stocked up on snacks. Snacks were an important component to keeping the both of us sane on this trip.

#2 There is no such thing as too many stops.

Sure, it was important to reach our destination eventually, but it was the stops along the way that I remember most clearly about our time on the road.

Being able to stop whenever we wanted was one of the greatest benefits of a road trip so we tried to take advantage of it! Whenever you saw some beautiful landscape or a great look out point we took the time to pull over to the side of the road to enjoy it!

#3 Just be present.

Like a lot of people I am guilty of taking a lot of photos, more than needed. And in doing so I often miss out of the moment. Just by taking in the scenery and not looking through my camera lens constantly I felt more present.

I realised that I had to stop rushing through the sights and take a moment to appreciate the beauty of the scenery. I tried to slow down and take in my surroundings with all five of my senses. While on this road trip I was forced to relax and do one thing at a time. When we weren’t driving somewhere we focused on what we were doing right at that moment, whether it was hiking or having a cup of coffee or walking along the beach.

Even though we were busy almost constantly, I felt more present, and time seemed to last longer.

#4 Silence is okay.

I don’t always deal very well with silence. While travelling I am usually either talking or listening to music. But I quickly learned that my travel partner needed to be fully focused so there was no talking while she was trying to navigate the treacherous back roads along the Irish coast. At first I found it quite frustrating to drive in silence, but it did give me the chance to think and to take in my surroundings. There were a number of wonderful, peaceful silences that I experienced with my fellow traveller while driving through scenery that looked like it could be from a documentary.

#5 Patience isn’t just a virtue, it’s a necessity

If ever patience were required, it is on a road trip. Things go wrong. You get lost. Sometimes things go wrong and there is nothing you can do except breathe, take a step back, and find another way. Sometimes there’s nothing you can do except wait and be patient.

There is traffic. You’re have to deal with other drivers. There are 20km/ph towns and 80km/ph highways. Your GPS is wrong or does not know where you are. We knew we were in Ireland the moment our GPS couldn’t pronounce the names and settled for spelling it. Your sandwiches will get soaked, cheese will spoil and milk will go bad. You and your road trip partner will probably get on each others nerves at some point.

It happen. We had to deal with it. I had to embrace the chaos.

#6 It’s the Company You Keep

At the end of the day, what matters most is who you are with. This holds true in any circumstance, but especially on a road trip. Choose someone you can get lost in conversation with for hours. Someone you can be yourself around. I’ve learned that you truly know someone only after you’ve ridden with them in a cramped vehicle for days on end and witnessed their driving, and what they really look like when they wake up in the morning.

#7 Go With the Flow and be Spontaneous

I love lists and checking things off and knowing what’s supposed to happen before it does. In our day-to-day life, it’s natural to try hard to maintain strict control over things. We plan and budget, set up meetings, and schedule activities. Our lives are often ruled by our calendars.

On our road trip however, all of that went out the car window. It was quite a challenge for me to go on a road trip where I didn’t have every minute planned. Not knowing where we were going to stop next or even spend the night was quite stressful for me. It took me some time to feel comfortable with having no plan and to just go with the flow. By not having a set itinerary we had time to stop at amazing scenic spots we would have missed otherwise. We got to lingering at deserted beaches and ended being so busy enjoying the moment that I even forgot to look at my watch.

I learnt that the main key to enjoying every aspect of a road trip is to relax and go with the flow.

#8 Choose experiences over things

We lived out of a car (actually, a crossover van – thank you, Amy!) for 3 weeks while driving along the Wild Atlantic Way of Ireland. I tried to pack light but after 3 weeks there were still things I brought that I hadn’t used, and clothes I packed that I didn’t wear. Truth be told, I didn’t miss them one single bit. There wasn’t one time that I thought “I wish I’d brought…”

I also didn’t miss any of my stuff from home while we were gone. I was too busy living to worry about stuff. I have decided to travel lighted, to acquire less and to do more in the future!!

#9 It’s the Journey, Not the Destination

A real Road Trip is all about the journey and not the destination. Even though at times the experience seemed endless I was never quite truly ready for it to end. The sore butts and the cramped feeling of being so close to someone else 24/7 are just some of the memories I’ll be taking with me forever. It’s the stops along the way, both expected and unexpected, that really make a road trip. The quaint small towns, weird roadside attractions, and even getting lost that add to the excitement.

When the trip was finally over, there was a sense of loss. So relish the journey—every part of it.

#10 Following your dreams isn’t easy – nor should it be.

Following mine has taught me so much more than these lessons. Many of them aren’t clear, yet, but they will be. And when they are, I’ll share them.

These are just some of the lessons I learned from our epic road trip. What have you learned from your own experiences?

Photo diary of Londonderry

Photo diary of Londonderry
Photo diary of Londonderry

The Wild Atlantic Way of Ireland took us through Derry, officially Londonderry, the second-largest city in Northern Ireland. This is the only remaining completely walled city in Ireland and one of the finest examples of Walled Cities in Europe. We walked the approximately 1.5km city walls around the inner city. This wall provided a unique promenade to view the layout of this beautiful city.

I see my path, but I don’t know where it leads. Not knowing where I’m going is what inspires me to travel it.” – Rosalia de Castro

Churches of Ireland

May the road rise up to meet you.

A popular Irish blessing (in Irish Gaelic: Go n-éirí an bóthar leat). One of the main characteristics of Celtic Christianity is the use of images of nature to show how God interacts with people. “May the road rise up to meet you/ May the wind be always at your back/ May the sun shine warm upon you face …” uses everyday images to mean, may God remove obstacles in your journey through life.

Pubs of Ireland

Sláinte!

In an Irish pub, patrons toast each other sláinte (pronounced “slaan-sha”) as they clink glasses of Guinness. Derived from the Old Irish adjective slán (which means “safe“), sláinte literally translates as “health” and is used as a stand-in for the more time-consuming “I drink to your health!”

Just some of the beautiful pubs we passed while driving the Wild Atlantic Route of Ireland.

Postcards from the UK countryside

I long for the countryside. That’s where I get my calm and tranquillity – from being able to come and find a spot of green. – Emilia Clarke

There’s nothing like the peace of the countryside, the quiet and the lack of distraction. It helps you to focus your mind. – Jenny Nimmo

Greenwich Meridian Line where east meets west

Where east meets west. The Greenwich Meridian separates east from west in the same way that the Equator separates north from south.

In the sky, there is no distinction of east and west; people create disticntions out of their own minds and then believe them to be true. – Gautama Buddha

Leadenhall Market, the film location of Diagon Alley

Leadenhall Market is one of the oldest markets in London. This ornate 19th-century covered Victorian market is located in the historic center of London’s financial district, just around the corner from Bank station.

Leadenhall Market is definitely one of London’s hidden gems. This market has sold meat and fish as far back as far as the 14th century. The present magnificent wrought iron and glass structure with its green and red roof was designed in 1881.

The painted roof and cobbled floors of Leadenhall make it a rather magical place, even before it played a starring role in the Harry Potter films. This Victorian marketplace was the film location for some of the original exterior shots of Diagon Alley, the cobblestoned shopping hub of the wizarding world where Hogwarts students can stock up on school supplies like spell books and wands. If you look very close you may recognize the door used as the entrance to the Leaky Cauldron in Goblet of Fire.

What is your favourite hidden gem in London?

Would you drink snake wine?

With these bottles of unusual wine produced in Thailand, a tasty tipple comes with a potent bite. The venomous cobra snake is used to make the snake wine but the poison is cancelled out by the alcoholic content of the drink, meaning you’ll avoid a pounding hangover.

Similarly, months of fermenting means the dead scorpion encased in the yellow bottles doesn’t have the same sting in the tail as when it was alive.

Venomous snake wine
Not something I am quick to trust

Instead, the liquor is considered healthy and seemingly has many health benefits. These rice-based liquors are considered to be a strong natural aphrodisiac.

Are you brave enough to drink snake wine?

Is it Ethical to Visit Thailand’s Long Neck Women Villages?

In my earlier years of travel I would often only read about the ethical concerns about certain places after I had been there. These days I try to be informed before I go on an adventure to see the most popular tourist attraction of the area. For a lot of people, seeing the giraffe-like, long neck women is just another stop on their Thailand adventure. Many tourist agencies make a quick stop at these hill villages so that tourists can have a quick photo opportunity with exotic-looking women before being shuttled on to the next destination.

But do you know who these woman are? And the biggest question is, should you support this controversial tourism attraction?

Thailand’s Long Neck Women
Young girls keeping up the Kayan tradition

Over two decades ago, a civil war caused the Kayan residents to flee Myanmar. Thailand granted them temporary stay under “conflict refugee” status, but now they live in guarded villages on the northern Thai border.

What makes the Kayan woman unique is their custom of wearing rings to create the appearance of a long neck. This exotic tradition inspired the creation of tourism villages in 1985. Unfortunately, without citizenship, Kayans have limited access to utilities and aren’t allowed to resettle outside of these tourist villages. This is because the Thai government claims they are economic migrants and not real refugees.

Thailand’s Long Neck Women
A young kayan long neck girl

Starting at the young age of four or five, Kayan long neck women wear these rings, adding more annually as they acclimate to the increased weight. These coils weigh up to 25 pounds and depress the chest and shoulders. This creates the illusion of a disembodied head hovering over a shimmering pedestal of gold rings. Contrary to popular belief, the coils don’t lengthen the neck itself and thus can be removed without the neck snapping. Yet, women still wear these coils year round, even while sleeping.

Thailand’s Long Neck Women
Its a family tradition

The origin of the tradition is a mystery even to the Kayans. An ancient legend claims rings protected villagers from tiger attacks, since the cats attack victims at the neck. Another theory said the rings helped ward off men from rival tribes by lessening the women’s beauty. Today, people believe the opposite– the longer their neck, the more beautiful the woman. It is true that some women enjoy upholding this tradition but others feel pressured to endure the painful custom to make a living.

Thailand’s Long Neck Women
Young Kayan girls selling some of the handmade crafts

An estimated 40,000 tourists per year pay between $8-16 to stop by these hill tribe villages to gaze upon the women’s unusual appearance and take pictures. Unfortunately, the entry fee is rarely dispensed to the villagers directly. Instead, the long neck woman have to sell trinkets, crafts and photo-ops to make a living, essentially working in a live-in gift shop. The women are known for their tremendous weaving skills which is done on a backstrap loom. You can witness them practising their impressive craft while getting to know them. While some say the villages give Kayans a paid opportunity to retain their culture, others condemn this arrangement for exploiting stateless women and children in exchange for tourist dollars.

Thailand’s Long Neck Women
They learn to weave from a very young age

Here is my answer to the big question of, can you justify ethical travel to these villages?

Yes, just do your research. Most women view tourist visits as a way to make a living since their non-resident status limits employment opportunities. However, sensationalizing dress, customs, and unique traditions of these people mean nothing if they are not treated with respect.

Thailand’s Long Neck Women
Young Kayan girl

Here are some recommendations for when you visit:
1. Do some research and find a responsible tour company that will promote a socially responsible visit.
2. Make sure your money benefits the village directly instead of third party companies. Support the women by purchasing their handicrafts and by paying a fair price for their beautiful handwork.
3. Don’t just stop by for a photo shoot. Learn about the people and hear their stories.
4. Consider volunteering in a village if you are staying in Thailand for a while.

Thailand’s Long Neck Women
Youung Kayan kids playing around the village

The goal of travel shouldn’t be taking pictures of exotic things to brag about back home. Travel is about forging relationships and making connections with people from different cultures. Create a symbiotic relationship with locals by reaching out to find common ground with the people you met, instead of treating them as spectacles to exploit.

The Reclining Buddha

“When you’re traveling, you are what you are right there and then. People don’t have your past to hold against you. No yesterdays on the road.” – William Least Heat Moon

Why you must visit the White Temple of Chiang Rai

Even though it was years ago, one of the strangest temples that I have ever been in is still Wat Rong Khun, the White Temple of Chiang Rai, found in northern Thailand. It was quite a while ago that I went on my Thailand adventure but this temple still stands out as one of my favourites and I think you should definitely visit if you have the chance.

The temple is just outside the town of Chiang Rai and well worth the three-hour bus journey from Chiang Mai where I was staying. I got to enjoy some of the beautiful countryside along the way and had some time to read up about this strange temple. 

The White Temple of Chiang Rai in Thailand
The White Temple of Chiang Rai in Thailand

I can not compare it to any other temple in Thailand as it is quite unique in it’s white colour and the use of pieces of glass in the plaster which sparkle in the sun. The white colour signifies the purity of the Buddha, and the glass symbolises the Buddha’s wisdom. Every detail of the temple and structures carries meaning and encourages the visitor to reflect on the Buddhist teachings that show the way to escape from the worldly temptations, desires and greed and focus on the mind instead.

The White Temple of Chiang Rai in Thailand
The bridge of the cycle of rebirth

The main building at the white temple, the ubosot is reached by crossing the bridge of “the cycle of rebirth”. In front of the bridge are hundreds of outreaching hands that symbolize unrestrained desire. The bridge proclaims that the way to happiness is by foregoing temptation, greed, and desire. It feels quite eerie as you walk across this bridge.

The White Temple of Chiang Rai in Thailand
The Gate of Heaven

After crossing the bridge, you arrive at the “gate of heaven”. This entrance is guarded by two creatures representing Death and Rahu, who decides the fate of the dead.

I was sure to dress respectfully, which means no revealing clothes, shoulders covered and a long skirt. You have to take off your shoes before entering a temple building. Unfortunately taking photos inside the temple is not allowed. Normally this would not bother me but I would have loved to capture the inside. Inside the temple, the decor swiftly moves from pristine white to fiery and bewildering. It was quite mind blowing with its murals depict swirling orange flames and demon faces, interspersed with Western idols such as batman, Freddy Kruger and even Micheal Jackson. Images of nuclear warfare, terrorist attacks, and oil pumps hammer home the destructive impact that humans have had on earth. I have often wondered about this strange ensemble of figurines as the presence of Superman and Hello kitty confuses me a lot. But I am quite sure that the overall moral is clear: people are wicked.

I do enjoy the fiery “don’t smoke” sign that clearly sends the message of going to hell for smoking.

Even the restrooms are worth a visit as they are situated in”the golden building: It is said that his golden building represents the body, whereas the white ubosot represents the mind. The gold symbolizes how people focus on worldly desires and money.

What are your thoughts on this strange and unique temple?

Why Nature is Good for the Soul

Cape Point Nature Reserve
Just an hour’s drive from the bustle and buzz of downtown Cape Town lies a large and peaceful reserve: Cape Point – one of the most scenically spectacular parks in the whole of South Africa.

Being out in nature is not only good for your physical health, it is also very beneficial for your mental health. Have you noticed how grumpy people get in winter compared to their mood during spring and summer? I think it is because we don’t always get out into nature during winter and that this affects our mental health negatively.

Here are some reasons why nature is good for your soul.

( All of these photos were taken on a recent trip I went on to the Cape Point Nature Reserve. It is a rocky headland on the Atlantic coast of the Cape Peninsula, South Africa.)

1. Nature helps to center your mind

If we don’t watch out we are constantly glancing at your to-do list or worrying about, our finances, our relationships, or something else. It seems like we constantly have a never-ending list of things to do. We need to make it a point to give ourselves a cognitive break by distracting ourselves with the sights and sounds of the outdoors. Watch and listen to the birds chirping, the waves crashing, the trees swaying in the wind, and the bugs moving around you. Taking at least a 30min break a day will help improve our mental health.

2. Unplug and Escape the technological trap.

Multi-tasking, particularly with electronic devices, is a leading cause of stress. Breaking free from the never-ending loop of your Facebook or Instagram newsfeed should be a top reason for getting outdoors. After all, staring at screens too long can hurt your eyes and strain your neck, and it’s often a sedentary activity. Nature, on the other hand, offers a beautiful window into real life. Put down your phone. leave your devices behind and head into nature and just enjoy the calming effect this will have. Nature allows us to to leave the stressors of our everyday lives behind and instead focus our minds on something more pure. By centering your mind, you can relax your body.