Activities for Kids: Small solutions for BIG problems

elc2015_bigproblemsmallsolution04

I’m posting my latest activity for all us of kids big and small stuck at home. So far, I’ve posted an activity to build a shrink ray and peg figures, along with the handouts to map a miniature person’s trek across a room in the house. It’s my attempt to make us perceive our current confined settings as bigger than they actually are!

Continuing the theme, I’m introducing another angle to this set of activities.

Creature Attack!

Whenever I’ve asked my students to map out an epic journey across a single room in the house, I then surprise them by springing a new challenge upon their characters: an attack by a deadly creature!

Well, it’s not SO deadly if you are normal sized, but for miniature characters, beetles, centipedes, and frogs are quite perilous!

What you will need:

  • Paper and writing supplies
  • Plastic critters (available at any dollar store, or also in your nearby toybox!)—spiders, snakes, beetles, grasshoppers, frogs, cockroaches—you name it!
  • Small “tools”:
    • Buttons
    • Bottle caps
    • Coins
    • Drink umbrellas
    • Birthday candles
    • Plastic spoons
    • Popsicle sticks
    • Spools of thread
    • Toothpicks
    • Crayons
    • Clothespins
    • Elastic bands
    • Paperclips
    • In other words, anything you have lying around the home that a miniature character could “repurpose”

I like to begin this activity by putting all the critters in “Bag #1” then having the students picking one out “blindly.” This introduces an extra element of fun and surprise.

Then, I put all the “tools” into Bag #2 and ask the students to pick out two or three of them.

Now, we’ve got the problem (the critter) and the solution (the tool), and we just have to figure out how the character can use the tools to escape and survive. This is fun problem-solving!

If you’ve been following along with these activities and already mapped out the setting, then this confrontation with the critter can take place in that epic landscape (like in the middle of a shag-rug forest)!

At the very bottom, I’ve posted a handout so that kids can brainstorm some solutions. And here are some photos from some of the past classes where I’ve rolled out this project.

elc2015_bigproblemsmallsolution03

elc2015_bigproblemsmallsolution05

elc2015_bigproblemsmallsolution01

cwcsecretworlds2016_bigproblem05

cwcsecretworlds2016_bigproblem06

cwcsecretworlds2016_bigproblem07

cwcsecretworlds2016_bigproblem03

cwcsecretworlds2016_bigproblem01

cwcsecretworlds2016_bigproblem02

And here is the Big Problem — Small Solution handout:

big-problem—small_solution

If you have writers in your family, this set of activities provides a lot of inspiration! But I have one other creative output that you can do with this set of projects, which I will post in the coming days. Stay safe, stay well, and stay tuned . . .

 

Door of the Day: Green Dragons!

Door of the Day: Green Dragons!

ChippingCampden-door-greendragons3

This is a door I passed by while strolling Chipping-Campden, England, a few years back. I did not dare knock—Green Dragons! A helpful warning, if you ask me.

I’m posting my door inspirations from around the world to celebrate the release of The Guardians of Zoone on February 25!

You can find order links for the books of Zoone HERE.

Zoonebooks-Bookshelf-basement

The magic of brooms: my new writing project

The magic of brooms: my new writing project

I’ve been working on a new project, which I can’t say too much about yet, but it’s a middle-grade fantasy book that involves brooms.

Most people think of brooms and fantasy and they automatically think Harry Potter, or, at the very least of some witch or magic-maker flying across the sky . . . but I want to approach the subject differently.

Don’t get me wrong—I love all the broom flying that happens in fantasy books like Harry Potter, The Worst Witch, Discworld or the newer Apprentice Witch series by James Nicol. My wife and I even purposely planned a vacation around spending a day at Alnwick Castle in England, where they filmed the broom flying scenes for the Harry Potter films. We took broom flying lessons there (and failed!).

Broom flying at Alnwick Castle

brooms

marcie_broomtraining

lef_flying_long

l&m&bottomley

But you may not know that, aside from potential flight capabilities, brooms have other magical associations in common folklore. Some of these are to do with marriage, such as a newly-wed couple jumping or stepping over a broom while holding hands to invite good luck into their home. There is also the idea that brooms can sweep away trouble or bad spirits. The overall theme is the idea of luck or success.

It’s that element of magic that I am drawing upon in my new book.

My interest in brooms far predates my lackluster attempt at joining at quidditch team. My grandfather used to make his own brooms. He grew the broomcorn, harvested it, then fastened the stalk to handles. In fact, I still have one of his brooms, made over forty years ago.

My grandfather’s broom

Grandpa's Broom

Maybe that’s why I have always noticed brooms in my travels. I see them everywhere. I’ll be strolling along and notice one perched, almost slyly, against a street pole, a park bench, a temple wall. And they are old-school brooms with often crude handles and natural straw bristles. Every time I see these brooms, I always feel that they have been up to something, something just a little bit out of the ordinary.

A few years ago, I started photographing the brooms. I never knew quite why, except my rule as an author is this: If something interests me, I record it. It doesn’t matter if I know exactly why something interests me, I just capture the detail, the moment, with my camera and/or notebook, and then let things percolate . . .

Broom at Ta Som temple, Cambodia

ta_som_broom

Street broom, Hanoi, Vietnam

broom_hanoi

Park broom, Qibao neighborhood, Shanghai, China

Qibao - lonely broom.jpg

I percolated on this idea for a long time, and was busy working on other thing, like my Zoone series. But the time came this summer to finally begin developing this idea in earnest. Part of that process means doing some research and I’m particularly lucky, because I just so happen to have a traditional broom-maker in my neighborhood.

Researching brooms

So, one crisp fall day, I headed to the Granville Island Broom Co. and peppered Mary, one of the owners, about the tradition of broom making and watched her process. It’s somewhat mesmerizing and a lot more complicated than I originally imagined.

granivelleislandbroom-sign

granvilleislandbroom_brooms-manzanita

granvilleislandbroom-braiding

granvilleislandbroom-marriagebroom

granvillesilandbroom-whisks

Granville Island Broom Co. sells and ships all over the world, and it’s no wonder—their brooms are works of art.

Here’s a photo of the broom I bought, which has a handle fashioned from manzanita wood:

spellsweep_broom_with_manzanita_handle.jpg

I’ll just say, for the record, that my infant son also loves Granville Island Broom Co. I mean it is a pretty enchanting place!

These days, I’m working in earnest, outlining, writing, rewriting. As I said above, my intention is to focus on brooms for what they are intended to do: sweeping. Sound mundane? Just remember, folklore says that brooms are for sweeping away bad fortune or evil spirits. Or, if you prefer, magic . . .

 

Sometimes finding inspiration can be a trainwreck: pondering the creative process

Sometimes finding inspiration can be a trainwreck: pondering the creative process

Inspiration is everywhere. Sounds cliché, right? Or perhaps trite or obvious—but I think the thing that a lot of people miss is that inspiration floating around everyone is pretty much useless unless you train yourself to pay attention to it and (most importantly in my opinion) record it.

It’s something that I didn’t always realize. Back when I had a 9 to 5 job working as a graphic designer, I’d race home after work and write and draw. Evening and weekends; these were my blocks when I could truly be creative and do what I want.

But now that I’ve been a self-employed writer and specialized arts educator for the last fifteen years, I’ve learned that I need to be in-tune 24-7.

To put it simply, working in a creative profession means I am alwaysworking. That doesn’t mean I’m forever hunkered down over a computer or notebook. It simply means my antennae are always circling, waiting to pick up the signals that are floating around out there.

I guess what I’m saying is that this was something I didn’t always conscioiusly realize. Or it didn’t come naturally to me. I had to train myself to, first, pay attention and, second, make sure I documented what caught my attention.

I realize this same problem in many of my students. Whether they are in elementary school, high school, or university, so many of them are extremely well-trained to think in “blocks: This is math block, this is writing block, this is history block. Yes, some of those blocks aren’t your passion and you just want to survive the hour or so that you are locked inside of them. But there are other blocks that should needle your passions! Those passions should ooze out of their confinement and seep into every aspect of your life. Being a writer (or an artist, or an actor, or a . . .) means thinking like one all the time.

To some people, this comes naturally! But, as I mentioned above, I was one of those people who came from an exceedingly practical background. Maybe it’s the case with many of my students.

That’s why I now carry my notebook (or, as I call it, my brainstorming book) with me everywhere. I have specific books for specific projects, but often things that are unconnected to that project (or at least SEEM like they might be unconnected) go in there.

I only have one criteria for recording something: it interests me. Most of the time, I don’t know what it is about something that grabs me—just that it does. In those cases, I photography, draw, and scribble notes. That means those ideas are waiting for me in the future. It might be a week down the road. Maybe a month. Perhaps years. Or, quite possibly, NEVER. But I’ve learned to honor the process, not the result.

Vacation/smacation

All of this is to say, when my family was on “vacation” a couple of weeks ago in Whistler, BC, and we learned about the famous Whistler train wreck, my Spidey-senses perked up. I knew I needed to grab my sketchbook and my camera and head there.

(Also, I tend to now just call all vacations “inspircations” because it is impossible for me to go anywhere and NOT be inspired.)

About the trainwreck

Just south of the resort town of Whistler, not so deep in the forest, is the site of a train wreck that occurred on August 11, 1956. The train had started in Lilloeet, 130 km north of Whistler and was bound for Vancouver with a load of lumber. The train was behind schedule, so was going twice its speed to make up time. When it arrived at a narrow passage carved in the rock with a sharp curve at one end, one of the engines jumped off the track. Twelve boxcars in total were derailed.

The clean up took a long time, and some of the carriages were left behind—and this is the site you can now visits. Here, in the not-so-deep woods, the boxcars are both solemn and garish, painted with graffiti after all these years.

Getting to the train wreck

The site is a short drive south from Whistler, and once Google or your satnav takes you to the appropriate turnoff, you’ll find signs marking the way into the woods.

The path is even and not at all onerous. In fact, we took Hiro in his stroller and only parked it once we arrived at the hill that led up to the final site (a one-minute walk).

The way there also features a suspension bridge and a view of the gorgeous, swirling river.

whistlertrainwreck-pathway

whistlertrainwreck-woodenpathleadingtobridge

whistlertrainwreck-marcie&hiro-suspensionbridge

whistlertrainwreck-river

Exploring the train wreck

Once you arrive at the site, you can explore all the different carriages. You can climb some of them (at your peril!), and one leans toward the river gorge, tempting fate.

This place certainly stirred my imagination and gave me inspiration for a scene in a story that has been percolating inside of me lately. I made sure to take as many pictures as possible and to jot down some notes, too.

The rest of the family enjoyed it as well (though I was the only one brave—or foolish—enough to climb atop one of them). Hiro loved the colors.

I think my favorite part were the couplings, painted to look like creatures. In my mind, they are train gargoyles! You can check out a few of our photos below (including those mischievous looking gargoyles). . .

whistlertrainwreck-leewithbook

whistlertrainwreck-hiro

whistlertrainwreck-carriages01

whistlertrainwreck-carriages02

whistlertrainwreck-carriages03-river

whistlertrainwreck-gap

whistlertrainwreck-leeinsidecarriage

whistlertrainwreck-leeoncarriage

whistlertrainwreck-mangledlader

whistlertrainwreck-mulch

whistlertrainwreck-traingargoyle01

whistlertrainwreck-traingargoyle02

whistlertrainwreck-wheel

Exploring Cambodia, Day 3 & 4: elephants, lions, and flying frogs

Exploring Cambodia, Day 3 & 4: elephants, lions, and flying frogs

My wife and I press forward on our “inspircation”—a holiday that is part vacation and part inspiration-finding for our 2018 projects. We spent Day 2 of our time in Cambodia trekking through some of the biggest temples in Angkor, but had preplanned to take Day 3 off from the temples and to hang around Siem Reap, explore the markets and the hotel pool.

We did this partly to rejuvenate physically, but also just mentally. Venturing through Angkor has been such an overwhelming experience—it’s hard to absorb everything. We felt that a day off in between would set us up to better appreciate a second day of exploration.

Poverty paparazzi

It’s not just the beauty here that is overwhelming, though. It’s also the poverty. Everywhere you go, whether it be temple or town, there are people trying to sell you something, people who are in desperate need. I’m not much of a shopper; I tend to buy one or two things every time I travel, and they’re rarely trinkets. And I’m not the kind of person who wears a T-shirt with the names of places I’ve been scrawled across the front. But here, every time you leave a temple, or, in the case of the town of Siem Reap, a restaurant, people scurry up to try and sell you their goods.

“Kind lady! Kind man? Something to buy? Something to buy? I have cheap price for you!” This is the common refrain we hear.

In many cases, those people are children. They are particularly hard to turn down. One thing that I have found particularly distressing is a penchant by tourists to photograph these children. In one case I saw an entire tour bus of people crowd around an infant boy, snapping shots at him like he was a celebrity and they were some sort of poverty paparazzi. It wasn’t that the boy was smiling, laughing, or doing something cute and precocious. He was stark naked, wandering around in the dust and dirt in his bare feet.

I guess the people found that . . . actually, I can’t even begin to imagine what was the mindset behind that episode. They clicked their photos then scurried off in a herd, leaving the boy exactly where he was, ambling around in the dust, his mother sitting nearby, slightly bewildered. Or perhaps she wasn’t bewildered at all. Perhaps she was just used to this sort of happening. But I can’t imagine she wanted it. It’s not like any o the herd gave her money for photographing her son. Her naked son.

It’s the norm here for the children in these “strip malls” of shops to be naked, at least from the bottom down. They might wear a T-shirt, and that’s it. Why someone would want to photograph a naked kid is beyond me. I find it disturbing on so many levels.

In another instance, a woman with a very expensive camera photographed a little girl trying to help her mom sell souvenirs outside a temple. She even clucked at her and tried to direct her pose, tried to make her smile. Then she sauntered off, pictures taken, without so much even looking at the girl’s wares, her mother, or even offering a dollar. It disgusted me, as if, somehow, this tourist felt the girl was just another part of the landscape for her to coax into her camera.

So, without bowing completely to western consumerism, which equally upsets me, Marcie and I have tried to buy what we truly need (hats, water) and what we truly want (a few items of clothing, a book, and odds and ends) from the locals, and we’ve endeavoured to tip well. Which, really isn’t hard to do when you can eat a meal for $5 and have a draught of beer for fifty cents.

The positive side I’ve tried to take from all of this is to admire the Cambodian people for their hard-working spirit and perseverance. It’s humbling. But, if you go to Cambodia, please just leave their kids alone!

That’s enough about my rant when it comes to how people treat other people. Time to talk more about temples . . .

Elephantine traffic

We had the same guide as the day before, Yam. He picked us up in his tuk-tuk at 9 am, which provided us with a much more leisurely start to our day compared to the 4:30 pick up two days previously, when we had set out to watch the sun rise at Angkor Wat.

This time, we got to whisk into the Angkor region in full daylight. In fact, our route took us past and through many of the temples we had already visited, including Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom.

tuktuk_ride.jpg

We had a “only-in-Asia” moment while passing through Angkor Thom. Yam had to pull out and pass an elephant!

00-gettingpassedbyanelephant

We just didn’t pass giant mammals, though; we also passed beautiful countryside. Here you can see farmers and their livestock, going about their daily lives.

I was able to snap this photo from our tuk-tuk:

countryside_farmer.jpg

Notice how she is not naked. It’s called discretion, my dear poverty paparazzi. Oh, right. My rant was finished already.

Preah Khan

Even though our start was later, the weather was significantly cooler. The sky was clouded, so the sun wasn’t hammering at us as with our visit to the other temples. We hoped this would make our day a lot easier—and it did. The previous temple day had involved six bottles of water each, but on this day, we barely made it through one apiece!

Our first temple of the day was Preah Khan.

preahkahn_entrance

Near the entrance, we happened upon two flanking figures, each grasping the tails of cobras in their hands. I recognized this figure as Garuda, having seen many depictions of this mythical creature on my visits to Thailand.

preahkahn_garuda.jpg

Once we entered Preah Khan, we found it to be expansive, beautiful, and, in many sections, falling apart. There is a large crew installed there to conduct renovations, but part of the charm is to suddenly turn a corner and find rubble filling a doorway. To me, it just helps signify the passage of time, giving the place a sense of romance and adventure.

preahkahn_temple_entrance

preahkahn_corridor

preahkahn_lef_doorway

preahkahn_temple_grounds

preahkahn_rubble

preahkahn-lef_at_rubble_doorway

There weren’t as many tourists here as we had seen at previous temples and, because the site is so vast, we had plenty of opportunity to take photos without having to worry about getting in any one else’s way.

preahkahn_marcie_window

preahkahn_marcie_columns

Inside the centre of the complex, we found an old monk providing blessings. Marcie was instantly attracted to her energy; despite her crooked frame and frail limbs, the monk was radiating positive energy, treating all passersby with her toothless grin.

Marcie received a blessing, which, now that I think about it, was a powerful moment for her that played out later in the day (more on that later). Suffice it to say for now, that part of this blessing involved the monk whisking away negative energy.

preahkahn_marcie&andthemonk.jpg

There was plenty of time and space here for me to find a quiet spot, take out my notebook, and do some brainstorming and note taking. I’m trying to capture as much inspiration to help aid the world building I need to do for my new book series, Zoone. Marcie snapped this photo of me “at work”:

preahkahn_lef_drawing.jpg

And there is plenty of inspiration to be discovered here. Similar to other temples we have visited, there are many areas at Preah Khan where the trees have insinuated themselves into the stone walls and become permanent fixtures.

preahkahn_lef&tree

preahkahn_tree_spilling_over_wall

preahkahn_tree_overgrows_windows

Those are the big-picture views, but here a few photos of the details I captured at this temple:

preahkahn_dancing_figure

preahkahn_errodedbuddha

preahkahn_figure&plant

On the way out, we saw this solemn monkey. One of the guards was trying to coax him to take a banana, and the little fellow wouldn’t go for it. The guard finally tossed it to him and let him eat it at his leisure. Here’s my photo, taken from a distance. Thankfully, one of those poverty paparazzi weren’t around, or they might have tried to make him dance for their amusement. (Though I suppose I am guilty of photographing a naked monkey.)

preahkahn_monkey.jpg

Neak Pean

We met Yam on the East side of the temple (so didn’t have to backtrack through the entire temple), and he carried us away to our next stop: Neak Pean. This is a unique site, constructed on a man-made island, which means taking a long walkway across the water to reach it.

prastaneakpean-walkway

The views are stunning. The temple is in the middle of a pond on the island and while you can’t actually reach it, it offers some stunning perspectives.

prastaneakpean-pond

One such perspective came from Marcie. If you have ever met my wife, then you know that she pretty much lives in her own world (we call it “Marce”—you can pronounce it “Mars” with a longer “s” sound at the end).

Here is basically how our conversation went at a holy Buddhist temple:

Marcie: Maybe we’ll see flying frogs.

Me: Those don’t exist.

Marcie: Yes, they do. I’ve seen them.

Me: No, you haven’t.

Marcie: I’m pretty sure I have.

Me: There’s no such thing as flying frogs.

Marcie: Well, there are flying squirrels.

Me: Those are two different things! One’s a rodent and one’s an amphibian.

Marcie: Well, I still think we’ll see one.

Which, incidentally, is why you can’t win an argument with my wife. Because if she decides something’s true, then it is. Then, once we were back at the hotel, I looked up flying frogs and it turns out they do exist. Sigh. I hate being wrong.

We trekked back along the bridge to reconnect with Yam. By this time the bridge was busier and it’s really not that wide—especially when there are herds of tourists all stopping, posing, and turning with giant bags on their backs. I’m surprised I didn’t see anyone plunge into the water. I’m surprised it wasn’t one of us.

At the end of the bridge, we ran the same gauntlet as before—a long line of merchants trying to sell us anything and everything. We had already bought a guidebook to Angkor, so we settled on the response of “we already have it!”

prastaneakpean-marketstreet

Ta Som

After Neak Pean, we headed to the beautiful temple Ta Som, sequestered in the jungle. The main entrance is capped by giant faces, similar to the ones we saw at Prasat Bayon.

ta_som_marcie_entrance

ta_som_heads

Once you enter through the gate, there are a few different corners to explore. We realized that we had started developing a system to our explorations; instead of going straight through, we immediately branch off at our first opportunity and venture through the outskirts, slowly moving inward. This seems to be the opposite of what most visitors do, so gives us a bit more privacy and room to meander and contemplate.

ta_som_gate

I keep finding lonely brooms tucked away in different corners of the temples. I don’t know why they capture my attention . . . there’s just something whimsical and magical about an unused broom in such a location. (Hmm. Maybe there’s a story brewing here.)

ta_som_broom

At one point, Marcie got “low”; anyone with diabetes will understand the term. It means she suspected having low blood sugar, and so had to check her levels. She has to do this throughout the day, then make adjustments accordingly, either by giving herself insulin through her pump-injector or by eating and drinking.

I just snapped this photograph while she was checking her blood; even though you might be in the most magical place in the world, diabetes stops for no one! But, on the other hand, Marcie doesn’t stop for anyone either. Having Type-1 (or juvenile) diabetes has never prevent her from exploring, or taking on, the world!

ta_som_marcie_testing

Despite the fact that the temple is surrounded by walls, the trees are having their own say. This is no more apparent than at this gate, which has been oppressed by a giant strangler fig. We loved this image, and took (or had taken) many photos:

ta_som_door_guarded_by_tree

ta_som_door_guarded_by_tree02

ta_som_door_guarded_by_tree03

Beyond the tree, on either side, was a long wall, and the jungle. I ventured along it, leaving Marcie to rest at the gate, and found more trees reaching onto the wall, as if they were attempting to pluck the stones from the ground and devour them whole.

ta_som_junglepath

Then I came upon what looked like a gigantic (but, thankfully deserted) ant hill and decided I better whisk back into the temple before I got attacked by something. Like an ant. Or a monkey. Or maybe one of those trees!

East Mebon

After Ta Som, we took a short ride to the temple known as East Mebon. It was once surrounded by a moat, creating an artificial island, but now the surrounding area is dry. We ending up dubbing this the “elephant temple” for the statues of the magnificent creatures that are positioned on the four corners of the outer and inner walls.

As with Ta Som, we entered the main gate, climbed the stairs, then immediately veered to our left to explore the outskirts of the complex, thus avoiding the crowds and finding our own places of solitude. It was here where we found the first of our elephants.

eastmebon_elelphant

eastmebon_elelphant02

The outer walls are lined with trees now, creating shady and romantic walkways.

eastmebon_marcie&elephant

Once again, there was time for me to sit, contemplate, and brainstorm. And what’s better than brainstorming next to an elephant? Marcie captured these photos of me—notice how I’m sitting out in the open, without even a hat. This is something I would have never been able to do when visiting the other temples, two days earlier. That’s how different the weather was. The temperature this day was perfect: warm and comfortable.

eastmebon_lef_drawing_elephant

eastmebon_lef_drawing_elephant02

Eventually, we made our way into the inner city, taking in the turrets, doorways, and stairways.

eastmebon_temple

eastmebon_marcie

eastmebon_marcie_doorway

eastmebon_lef_doorway

eastmebon_marcie&lions&towers

Pre Rup

The next temple on our itinerary, Pre Rup, was similar to East Mebon in its architectural features, size, and layout—so much so, in fact, that I confess I’ve had trouble sorting out my photos between the two of them.

There are no elephants at Pre Rup (though many lions), which is one distinguishing feature. The other is that the jungle is not so close, offering a far more expansive view of the surrounding landscape.

prerup_ov

prerup_site

prerup_lions&tower

prerup_lionforeground

prerup_lion_broken_statue

prerup_jungle&building

prerup_doorway

prerup_jungleview

This temple not only offered us spectacular views, but, for Marcie, an epiphany. Standing up there, high above the world, she was suddenly overcome with emotion and experienced what she described as a significant moment of clarity. I’ve had a similar experience many years ago on the Great Wall of China. I haven’t pressed Marcie, yet, on exactly what became clear for her—but I’m pretty sure it’s no coincidence that she had been blessed by that old monk only a few hours earlier!

Prasat Kravan

Our final temple of the day was a small one, Prasat Kravan. In some way, it was an anti-climatic finish to our day. Not only is the temple small, it was being swarmed by workers who were setting up for an event. We assumed the hubbub was for a wedding, but Yam informed us it was for a corporate VIP event.

prasat_kravan_ov

prasat_kravan_settingup

Still, we found some interesting details, such as this inscription inside one of the door jambs, weathered by time:

prasat_kravan_script

And here’s a final parting shot of Marcie, summing up how we’ve felt at the end of our tour:

prasat_kravan_marcie_laughing

Our adventures aren’t quite done yet. We’re off to explore a floating village and then heading to the big city of Phnom Penh. More inspiration to come!

 

 

 

 

Exploring Cambodia, Day 1: Doctor Fish is in the house

Exploring Cambodia, Day 1: Doctor Fish is in the house

My wife Marcie and I are currently on an “inspircation” in Southeast Asia, in which we are exploring and finding inspiration for our 2018 projects. So far, we’ve been to Korea and Vietnam, and now we’ve moved on to Cambodia.

We arrived in the kingdom of Khmer yesterday after a short flight from Hanoi. We found the entry process to Cambodia much easier than that in Vietnam, and that probably had something to do with the fact that we flew directly to Siem Reap, rather than the big airport in Phnom Penh. We got off the plane, stood in a short line for customs, collected our luggage, then immediately met our driver.

Turns out the taxi that Marcie had arranged for us was a tuk-tuk. That was a surprise, but a pleasant one, as it immediately immersed us in the whole new world that is Cambodia. Soon, we were zipping along the roads and alleys of Siem Reap, spotting the locals going about their evening chores, selling their wares, transporting their goods, herding their kids. We had an embarrassingly amount of luggage with us (just because of all our travels), and it barely squeezed onto the tuk-tuk. We held onto it tight the whole way, especially on the corners.

tuktuk_airport_to_siemreap.jpg

The ride really was a pleasant one—and, after the hubbub of Hanoi—really quite sedate.

We arrived at our hotel, settled in, then decided to set out into the town to get some grub. We are located only a few minutes’ walk from the market and the pub street. That’s it’s actual name, and it fits. The street is lined with all sorts of restaurants, bars, and taverns, offering all sorts of local cuisine, as well as other international fare. We settled on a restaurant that offered Khmer-Mexican, which is really just a restaurant with a menu that is half Khmer, half Mexican. Which suited us perfectly—I went for the former, and Marcie went for the latter.

On the way back home, I decided to stop at one of the many “fish-foot” massage places. Called “Dr. Fish,” this is a type of massage in which you put your feet in a pool or tank of fish and let them nibble away your dead skin.

lef_drfish_cambodia.jpg

Marcie was horrified by the idea, but I had done it before in Korea, and decided to do it. (It was only three dollars for unlimited time!) The one thing about this Dr. Fish, though, was that it involved three different tanks. I started with the small fish, then moved up to progressively larger fish, until I had ones half the size of the foot sucking at my toes.

I will admit that I am slightly squeamish when it comes to fish. It seems so plague like when they are swarming around your ankles. In fact, my original experience with Dr. Fish in Korea was the inspiration for one of the characters in my forthcoming book, The Secret of Zoone. Fidget is plagued with a peculiar curse—as soon as she approaches water, slimy little tadpole-like and worm-like creatures appear and begin trying to gnaw at her flesh.

drfish01

drfish02

drfish03

Last night’s definitely experience allowed me to commiserate with poor Fidget!

Our next day in Siem Reap was spent touring the different temples of the massive complex of Angkor Wat. But that demands a future blog post all of it’s own . . .

 

Exploring Vietnam: Finding inspiration at Ha Long Bay

Exploring Vietnam: Finding inspiration at Ha Long Bay

Day 5 and 6 of our continuing trip in Vietnam brought my wife and I to H Long Bay. This was a part of the trip I had been particularly looking forward to, not only for the pure pleasure of seeing the famous islands, but because I knew they would help inspire me for a world I’m building for my upcoming Zoone book series.

About Hạ Long Bay

Hạ Long Bay is a world heritage site containing 1,969 islands (our guide informed us that we could easily remember the number because 1969 was the year that Ho Chi Minh died). The islands are limestone cliffs topped with tropical forests, and they jut out of the water in numerous shapes.

ha_long_bay_pano02

The name Hạ Long means “Descending Dragon.” According to legend, in the early days of Vietnam, the people were invaded by an army from the north, via the sea. The people prayed for a miracle and a mother dragon, along with her children, descended to repel the attacking ships. The dragons gushed fire, but also jewels and jade, which became the islands that now sprinkle the emerald waters and form a natural barrier to protect Vietnam.

As the story goes, after defeating the invaders, the dragons fell in love with the realm and decided to settle in the bay. Where the mother dragon settled is now called Hạ Long, and where the children settled is Bái Tử Long Bay.

ha_long_bay_island_closeup

Getting to Hạ Long Bay

You can find places to book tours to Hạ Long Bay (and many other sites in northern Vietnam) on almost every street corner in Hanoi. Prices and quality vary. Most hotels will also offer to book tours as well, which is the avenue we took. Our friend Shaughnessy, who was staying at a different hotel, decided to book the same tour as us throughout hotel. So, the next morning, he got up with the first honking scooters to trek across town and meet us at our hotel, where the tour bus was coming to fetch us.

It is about a four-hour ride to Hạ Long Bay. The first part is spent navigating the busy streets of Hanoi, and then it’s out to the countryside. However, the same principles of driving in the city apply to the country—our bus driver would eagerly slip in and out of lanes of traffic (one of those lanes being the shoulder of the road) and would often pass vehicles without the slightest concern for the oncoming trucks speeding directly towards us! Having been to enough countries where this is the norm, I didn’t find this part too concerning, but others on the bus were gripping their seats a little tightly!

Our guide was named Viet An, but recommended we just call him “Andy” as foreigners usually bungled the pronunciation of his name. Along the way, he told us a few stories about Hanoi and gave us some advice about crossing the street. According to Andy, the smallest is always right on the streets of Hanoi; scooter beats car, and pedestrian beats scooter. The pedestrian is always right and scooters and cars will do everything to avoid hitting them. Not exactly our experience in Hanoi!

Speaking of scooters, we saw a lot of them on the arteries leading in and out of Hanoi, and many of them seated entire families. I noticed a bit of a system in terms of how the family is ordered:

  • If only a mother and child, the child goes in the front.
  • If mother and two children, the order is mother, smallest child, oldest child.
  • If entire family, the order is smallest child, father, next child, mother.

I saw a few variations on the above, but this seemed to be the main approach. What was even more fascinating was the number of riders who were sitting behind the driver of the scooter, completely asleep. The way the scooters swerve in and out of traffic . . . I thought for sure someone would fall enough. But, of course, they didn’t. What seems completely mind-boggling to the Western mind is just a way of life here.

Our journey to Hạ Long Bay included the obligatory half-hour stop at a giant tourist mall. We didn’t really care much to buy anything (well, except Marcie), but it was good to stretch our legs after being on the cramped bus for an hour and a half.

Eventually, we arrived at our destination. Despite it being low season, there were countless buses unloading at the piers, and swarms of tourists clamouring to get on their boats.

Marcie, Shaughnessy, and I instantly regretted not packing warmer clothing. The wind was up, there was a chill in the air, and rain was threatening. Thankfully, in Vietnam, there is a store pretty much everywhere for tourists, so we bought some fleeces at the pier (mine only cost $20).

Setting out into Hạ Long Bay

I find the problem with any tour is the busy itinerary. We were loaded onto our boat, assigned rooms, and fed lunch, and by that time our vessel was speeding towards our first stop on the tour. There was not a lot of time to rest, relax, and dwell on the gorgeous landscape!

Our boat had three decks and sufficient space for all the passengers. Our cabins included a large bed and our own private bathroom.

ha_long_bay_cabin.jpg

Of course, we didn’t intend to spend much time in our cabins anyway; as soon as we could, we set out onto the decks to gaze at the stunning rock formations.

ha_long_bay_marcie

ha_long_bay_shaughnessy&lef

ha_long_bay-lef

I had always wanted to come to Hạ Long Bay, partially because I had seen its beautiful landscape in advertisements and film. The James Bond films, The Man with the Golden Gun and Tomorrow Never Dies were partially filmed here, as were the more recent movies Pan and King Kong: Skull Island.

Kong_Skull_Island_poster.jpg

So, between myths and movies, I feel there is a certain element of adventure invested in the island-cliffs of Hạ Long Bay. Shaughnessy and I kept an eye out for giant gorillas, but before long, the boat came to a stop: a place to go kayaking near a pearl farm harboured in a ring of islands. We were only given 40 minutes to kayak, so Marcie and I quickly hopped in our vessel and began fervently paddling to see as much as we could.

ha_long_bay_kayaking02

ha_long_bay_kayaking01

We made it far enough to see one of the famous islands with the head of an eagle (you can see it in the photo below, in between the two other island clusters).

ha_long_bay_kayaking_eagleshead

The shacks you see on the left side of the photo are part of the pearl farm. A visit to the pearl farm is included in a three-day, two-night tour of Hạ Long Bay, but we had opted for a one-night tour, so did not get to visit the farm directly.

Then, back to our boat, and we were whisked off to Ti Top Island. The island got its name from Ghermann Titov, a Russian hero in the second World War. The beach has a crescent-shaped beach and series of steps that you can climb to the top.

ha_long_bay_titopisland_steps

We had just enough time to either go swimming or climbing, and we opted for climbing. Most of the other tourists made the same decision. There were scores of them ascending the mountain—at least to begin with. The way is steep, with over 400 steps, and not everyone could make it.

But, if you can make it, the view is spectacular.

ha_long_bay_titopisland03

ha_long_bay_titop_island_pano_feature

We snapped many photos, but the sun soon started to set and I had noticed that there were no lights on the steep stairs coming up, so I urged Shaughnessy and Marcie to start heading down before it was pitch-dark. The stairs twist and turn, and there are railings, but the last thing we wanted was to go tumbling down and break something on an island too far from civilization.

At the bottom, we waited to be picked up by our taxi boat and watched visitors far braver than us go for a swim.

ha_long_bay_titop_beach

Then our taxi arrived, and we all piled on. It was at this point that I remembered that we had been brought over in two separate boat loads, but now, we loaded everyone onto the same taxi. The boat was really struggling to leave the island and some of the passengers at the back even hopped out to push us. Then the pilot frantically began moving us about to balance the boat.

Well, it was only a ten-minute ride, and we ultimately made it without incident. We watched Ti Top island disappear into the mist then arrived back at our main boat.

ha_long_bay_titopisland

Fishing for squid

The night was free time, so while many people chatted or watched a movie on the main deck (unsurprisingly, they were showing King Kong: Skull Island), I decided to wander out and try my hand at squid fishing with our guide, Andy.

It was only he and I, and I quite enjoyed hanging with him and plying him with questions about Vietnam life.

squidfishing.jpg

We directed a giant light from the boat into the water to try and trick the squid to rising to the surface and snap at our lures. We had no such luck that night, but I did find out a lot about Vietnamese cuisine by picking Andy’s brain about the various things I had seen being sold on the streets of Hanoi. He explained to me recipes for preparing eels and these types of river worms that I had seen an old lady selling. Apparently the worms are fried up with onions and spices and made into a sort of patty.

He also told me there were many islands in Hạ Long Bay inhabited by monkeys. He said sometimes you could hear them shriek—but, though I kept my eyes and ears open, I found no hint of them during our tour, just like that elusive King Kong.

The boat children

The next morning, Marcie got up at 6 am to go do tae chi with Andy on the upper deck of the ship.

marcie_taichi

I wasn’t quite that earnest, so I wandered out to the bow of the ship and watched the islands in the mist. It was while I was lingering here, amidst the mist, that I heard a plaintive voice call out, “Something to buy? Something to buy?”

I peered over the edge of the ship and noticed a girl right below me, piloting a flat-bed boat full of snacks and drinks. It was a floating corner store! She was moving from cruiser to cruiser, offering her wares. It was a little to early for me to entertain a warm soda pop, so I thanked her and she set off to find custom at the next ship.

ha_long_bay_somethingtobuy.jpg

Afterwards, Andy explained to Marcie that this girl was one of the boat children. They live with their families on their junks. Traditionally, they make a living by fishing, but now they are clearly trying to adapt to the tourist industry. Andy said many of the children live their whole lives on the boats and receive no formal education, never learning to read or write. The government is now trying to instil regulations to make sure the children go to school. I found the situation fascinating and my mind began percolating with ideas for a story . . .

Hang Sửng Sốt Cave

After a hasty breakfast, we set out on another mini-tour, this time of Hang Sửng Sốt cave, a UNESCO world heritage site. Hang Sửng Sốt, which means “surprising” or “amazing”, is a giant network of caverns on Bo Hon Island. It was originally discovered by the French during their colonial rule, but then forgotten about and rediscovered in recent years by a Vietnamese fisherman trying to find haven from a storm.

Nowadays, it’s a busy tourist site! Andy got us there ahead of the morning rush, but even so, the place was still teeming with people.

The caves are huge, and photos don’t really do them any justice, but if you examine the two photos below, you will spot people in amidst the stalactites, and that might give you a sense of scale.

hang_sung_sot_cave04

hang_sung_sot_cave01

A path has been constructed through the caverns and everything is safe and well-lit, affording clear views of the alien-like rock formations. The guides eagerly point out the many shapes to be seen—this one looks like the mother dragon, this one looks like King Kong, and so forth.

hang_sung_sot_cave06

hang_sung_sot_cave05

hang_sung_sot_cave03

hang_sung_sot_cave02_babydragon

The caves were unexpected inspiration for me. I had not really researched them beforehand, but I found them overwhelming in scope and scale and was instantly put into world-building mode. I kept kicking myself for having left my sketchbook on the boat. I consoled myself by snapping as many pictures as I could and then making a promise to myself to sketch as soon as I got back to my book.

It takes a good hour or so to go through the caves. There are many outcroppings that allow visitors to view the water. And, of course, on those outcroppings there are also souvenir stores! At the largest outcropping, you can see a pair of giant stone “feet” dangling off the edge. Perhaps some troll got caught daydreaming here at sunrise.

hang_sung_sot_view02_feet

Here is a view of the bay from the outcropping, showing the pier where the water taxis dock after ferrying tourists from the larger ships.

hang_sung_sot_view01

Some time to brainstorm

After leaving the caves and returning to our main boat, I snatched up my sketchbook, flew to the top deck of the ship and began jotting down my thoughts and inspirations. I had the entire deck to myself and, to be honest, this was my favourite part of the entire tour. The boat was on the move, the islands were sailing solemnly past, and I had time to just be.

ha_long_bay_pillar

ha_long_bay_brainstorming&writing02

Well, that was it for our tour. The boat headed back to dock and it was back on the bus towards Hanoi. It was our last full day in this country.

I have loved my time in Vietnam. The people are inventive, hard-working, and earnest, carving existences for themselves in what would be impossible circumstances for most of us hailing from a western sentiment.

Farewell to Vietnam . . . and, now, on to Cambodia!