Back in California

All good things come to an end. My trip across east & south east Asia is over, and I have finally returned to the San Francisco Bay Area. After visiting Japan, China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Germany (also made a stop in my home country), it is now time to start a new life chapter; and this will be in California. I feel certain that the Bay Area is the right place for me at the moment, and I am looking forward to 2014. It is going to be an exciting year with many new challenges, opportunities and experiences.

Right now, I am in the process of settling back in a life that is more stable and structured compared to the last five months. A long-term backpacking trip brings definitely along a different lifestyle, and it was something I haven't experienced before. One is constantly moving, discovering new things on a daily basis, and sleeping almost every other night in a different bed. Of course, there were moments when I was yearning for first-world amenities, but I quickly recommitted to the journey with its natural discomforts and inconveniences.

The two most frequent questions I get asked are "How was it?" and "Which country did you like most?". What can I say? It was an amazing trip, and each country was fascinating in its own way. I feel it is hard to share the whole story of the experience, because it was always a mix of people, images, feelings, among others at a particular moment. It's hard to put that into words. However, I did like Japan a lot, and will certainly return one day.

I hope that my blog could somewhat convey the story of this incredible adventure, and maybe encourage others to go on a similar journey. It is totally worth to get out of the daily routine for a longer period of time and to do something completely different. There is not only learning about other countries and cultures, but it also involves a better understanding about oneself. I am glad that I took the window of opportunity, and it was certainly not the last trip. Therefore, the story will be continued.. :)

Happy New Year!

Here are photos of my parents picking me up at the airport in Frankfurt, with friends at the main rail station in Cologne, and of course San Francisco. The place where I am going to stay for the next years.

Big cities

The final weeks of my trip are influenced by three big cities: Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. If I had to describe each in one word, I'd say Bangkok is diverse, KL muslim and Singapore modern. Of course, every city has more than one trait and it is an extreme simplification; nevertheless, this one characteristic stuck out.

I am a big fan of cities; in particular the metropolis is absolutely fascinating. I grew up in a small German town of 20,000 people, so big cities are not natural to me. However, they started to increasingly attract me by their economic, political and cultural significance. These megacities and urban areas are international hubs, which seem to offer limitless opportunities. Can I imagine to live there for some time? Definitely yes. And permanently? Probably not. I would clearly miss nature. For me, it is also important to walk through quite woods feeling nature's peace and balance. This is something what I love about the San Francisco Bay Area. It offers both.

The Bangkok metropolitan region has a population of over 14 million. It is the capital and most populous city of Thailand. Bangkok is an urban jungle and more ugly than pretty in my opinion. I guess one has to give this city more time, so that it can show its inner beauty. Unfortunately, I didn't have that time and hope to return one day. 

Kuala Lumpur (often abbreviated KL) is the capital of Malaysia, and the metropolitan region has a population of almost six million. Islam is the state religion in Malaysia, which has a significant impact on people and lifestyle. For example, many women wear the hijab, a veil that covers head and chest, and most often, it symbolizes modesty, privacy and morality. So far, I had only visited countries with Buddhism as the main religion. Therefore, KL was particularly fascinating, because it allowed me to take a closer look at another world religion.

Huge shopping malls including expensive restaurants can be found in all Asian megacities. It is especially the young and wealthy, who crowd these temples of consumption. However, traditional markets for working class locals are still around, and they have much more charm than modern shopping malls that all look alike. 

Singapore is a sovereign city-state with a population of 5.5 million at the southern tip of the Malay peninsula. It declared independence from the United Kingdom in 1963, and since then, Singapore has developed rapidly, earning recognition as one of Four Asian Tigers (the other three are Hong Kong, South Korea and Taiwan).

It is an absolutely amazing city that, similar to Hong Kong, combines tradition and modernity (although more modern). I have met with Jack, a friend from San Francisco, who was there for a business trip. We spent a day together exploring the city. We enjoyed the famous Singapore Sling cocktail at the Raffles hotel, had lunch in Little India, and visited the gorgeous botanical garden. 

The night safari in Singapore is a highlight, but unluckily all my photos of the animals are blurred. It is a nocturnal zoo that occupies 40 hectares (99 acres) of secondary rainforest, and houses 1,040 animals representing 120 species. Due to an open zoo concept, animals are separated from visitors only with natural barriers, and are made visible by lighting that resembles moonlight. This creates a fantastic atmosphere. Must-go if you visit Singapore.

What to pack

I want to share my experience regarding clothing and equipment on a backpacking trip. This opinion is based on traveling in east and south east Asia, and is obviously not applicable for other parts in the world.

First of all, one doesn't need much, and it is very easy to overpack. Please resist the temptation to be prepared for all possible circumstances. It doesn't make sense to carry an item for months just to use it once or twice. There is usually a workaround that one can figure out on the spot. Also, as long as a person is not for weeks in the bushes, there will always be a store somewhere nearby to purchase an item if really needed. In particular, south east Asia is very backpacker friendly, and it is easy to get one's hands on backpacker equipment.

The convenience and freedom of having a small portable backpack is definitely worth giving up the all-around carefree package. It is just great to take all your stuff on a flight as carry-on luggage, and to fit the backpack under the seat of a bus or train. This removes a lot of hassle during the trip, and other independent travelers with big, heavy backpacks will envy you for that.

My goal to travel light led to a smaller backpack of 38 liters to constrain myself and not taking too much unnecessary stuff with me. Good decision, but I actually could have gone even lighter. Some items were only used a few times, which doesn't justify to carry them around for the entire trip. I feel pity for the people who carry 80+ liters backpacks on their back plus a loaded daypack in the front. If someone stays in warm south east Asia, this is completely overkill in my opinion.

You have seen me on the photos wearing most of the time the same clothes. This is the "downside" of traveling light; there is not much room for being vain. With only four shirts, it is always easy to make a decision about what to wear. ;) The key is to just have a few items, but those should be of high quality.

For example, I decided on Merino wool as the fabric for my shirts. Merino is a breed of sheep prized for its wool, which has amazing properties such as regulating the body temperature, retaining warmth when wet, containing antibacterial wool grease, and it is one of the softest types of wool available. On top of that, due to its capacity to absorb a significant amount of moisture, Merino wool reduces the opportunity for odors to develop. I can wear my shirts for days while sweating a lot without becoming a stink bomb.

Here's a short list of the essentials:

  • Backpacks from Osprey are pretty awesome and highly recommended.
  • Merino wool clothing. I've got my shirts and sweater from the company Ibex.
  • Pants with zipper side pocket for money and important documents such as passport and credit card. My choice was one short and one long pant from Patagonia.
  • Shoes is a tough decision, but I was really happy with my Merrell Barefoot footwear plus the obligatory flip flops (used more than 50% of the time).
  • To keep things in my backpack organized, I use packing cubes from Eagle Creek.
  • A travel sheet is a must if one plans on staying in cheaper accommodations. The Cocoon CoolMax Travel Sheet is very comfy and keeps bedbugs away.
  • Few pair of socks and underwear. Not too many, one can always wash. Choose a good fabric, so that it can be worn multiple days (and no white colors).
  • Small travel towel. Many places provide towels, so don't worry too much about it.
  • Medical and wash kit. Keep it down to the essentials. Things can be bought along the way.
  • Electronics! Laptop, tablet and smartphone are a must for me. I'd rather forgo something else to keep these items. For instance, my offline map app saved me a couple of times. Wifi coverage in Asia is excellent. There is always a place nearby that connects one to the internet.
  • Don't forget the camera. I only have a simple point-and-shoot that takes actually pretty good photos. However, I could imagine to bring a better camera on the next trip.
  • A headlamp.

There are a few things that are nice-to-haves, but not really needed. I barely use my water bottle; instead I buy bottled water at one of the countless shops along the way. My rain jacket is a really nice one, but I used it maybe twice. Not worth the space. If it rains, buy a cheap rain coat from the shop for less than a dollar. Also, I love my Mountain Hardwear vest, but unfortunately I don't need it. Bring one sweater, that's enough. I brought many little items such as spare batteries, detergent, travel pillow etc. Not needed, leave all this stuff at home. However, don't forget ear plugs, and I also have an eye-mask (prefer to sleep in the dark).

Exploring a new world

My plan was to have at least a little bit of beach time on the trip. Nha Trang in Vietnam was rather disappointing in terms of beach and water activities, and I didn't check out Cambodia's coastline. So, the winner was Thailand, and I decided on the tiny island Ko Tao near by Ko Samui and Ko Pha Ngan. One of the ideas was to just hang out and relax, but I figured this would have been too boring. Therefore, I signed up for a diving course, and this was so much fun that I not only got my open water license, but the advanced one as well.

Ko Tao is located near the western shore of the Gulf of Thailand, and there is a ferry service from the mainland city Chumphon that takes less than two hours. The island has an area of only 21 square kilometers (8 sq mi), is less developed than its neighbors, and the 1,300 inhabitants live almost exclusively from tourism. People (mostly backpackers) visit the island particularly for scuba diving and snorkeling. There is not much else to do except hitting the bars and restaurants after a day in the water. However, the island is beautiful and time flies by pretty quickly. Most of the dive instructors came for vacation to Ko Tao and just stayed there.

I chose the school Big Blue to learn diving. Great choice! Everything was perfect. Good people, well organized, and a lot of fun. Before you get the real deal in the ocean, one starts in the pool and has to learn theory as well. There is even an exam; I definitely didn't expect to study on this trip. ;) Once all this foreplay is over, it is finally time to enter another world. It is amazing! Spending time in the underwater world was a fantastic new experience, and I can highly recommend it. One also recognizes how fragile this ecosystem actually is, and divers are only guests who need to treat the environment with great respect (something we should also do on land). In the advanced course, we did a few extras such as navigation, deep water (30 meters), wreck and night diving. So, I am now prepared for other dive spots in the world. Can't wait!

If you have the time (25 minutes) and motivation, watch this video from our last dive for the open water license. Includes some great underwater pictures among others (turn on the sound). Oh by the way, my dive buddy was Sam, she took the same dive course. It is unbelievable that I met her and Liam again in Ko Tao. The last time we saw each other was when we partied at "Angkor What?" in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

The last night in Ko Tao with folks I have met at Big Blue. Judith and Thorsten, a couple from Germany, were in the same dive course. They are on a two years around the world trip visiting each continent including Antarctica. I am jealous. Joe is American, but he lives currently in Kabul working at the Afghan U.S. embassy. One meets so many interesting people when traveling; I am going to miss that. We went to MOOV, a place that suddenly turned into a big party with live music and a bunch of people. Afterwards we checked out Baby Rasta, a funky reggae bar. The next morning I said goodbye to Ko Tao with a little headache. Worth it.

The SOLD Project

The main reason to travel to the Chiang Rai area in Thailand was a short-term volunteer service at the non-profit organization "The SOLD Project". Its goal is to prevent child prostitution through education by providing scholarships and resources to children at risk. I learned about this organization from an ex-classmate at Santa Clara University. He initiated the contact to the president Rachel Goble, and I applied for a volunteer service.

The sex industry is widespread in South East Asia, and in particular Thailand is well-known as an international sex-tourism destination. The country has gained a reputation among sex tourists since the Vietnam War when prostitutes were catered to soldiers and foreigners. However, Thailand's entertainment places such as go-go bars or massage parlors shouldn't be seen as something solely for foreigners. There is an even more active domestic sex industry, and over 90% of the people visiting prostitutes are Thai men. Although, prostitution is technically illegal in Thailand, it is often protected by local officials with commercial interest in these establishments.

There are often economic motivations for engaging in prostitution, and the main underlying risk factors are poverty, low education and lack of opportunities. A majority of the prostitutes, many of them are still underage girls, come from impoverished villages in the northern part of Thailand. For them, sex work is one of the highest paying jobs they can ever get, and women often choose (not always voluntarily) this path to support their families back home. The SOLD Project works on increasing the opportunities for children from poor areas by providing funds for their education and other resources to keep them away from the industry's temptations.

My specific job at the organization's resources center was to fix the computers. I indicated my computer skills in the application, and this was an area where support was needed. The kids use these computers to do research, play games, or watch videos. I updated the software, fixed hardware problems and removed viruses (one computer had over 700 of them). Also, at the end Nathan (the local volunteer coordinator) and I did a short presentation on computer viruses and internet security to raise awareness for using computers appropriately.

Reducing prostitution is a fight over the long-term. It probably can never be entirely defeated, but this doesn't mean to give up. Many children can be helped by improving their level of education and hence opportunities, so they don't need to engage in prostitution to earn a decent income. I believe SOLD's method of prevention is a good approach and really makes a difference in the children's lives. The organization just turned five years old and is still in its infancy. The team has many more ideas, and I am confident in its bold ambitions.

The resource center in the Chiang Rai province provides a safe haven for the children. A new building with more classroom space is currently under construction, but unfortunately put on hold because funds dried up. Tawee, the local director, regularly informs university students about the organization's work. It is not allowed to show photos from the kids on a blog site, so you just see me working on the computers. ;)

Please watch the following video about the SOLD Project. It gives you a better understanding of the problems the organization is addressing, and how it is achieving its goals. Visit also the website for more information.