Every month, we delve into the travel experiences of people in the extended WHL Group network. Cindy Fan is a Canadian travel writer and photographer addicted to exploring the planet. Since 2005, she’s had adventures (and misadventures) in 29 countries – hiking, biking and paddling her way through the world’s great landscapes.
Based in Laos since November 2011, Cindy is blogging, tweeting and photographing her journeys through Southeast Asia for whl.travel local partner Teamworkz on their blog The Slow Boat. We discuss life on the road with this modern nomad.
WHL Group: Which is your favourite WHL Group destination and which would you most like to visit?
Cindy: I dream of overlanding the Silk Road, starting somewhere in Asia, travelling through the ‘stans revisiting Iran and eventually ending up in… oh, let’s say Malta.
My favourite destination is always where my feet are, so right now that’s Laos.
WHLG: Why Laos?
Cindy: Laos is one quirky country. While the rest of Southeast Asia has barrelled forward, here is this small, stunningly beautiful country moving at its own slow pace. I love that about it. People usually assume Laos will be like Thailand or Vietnam but it’s wholly unique. It’s such a joy to discover the idiosyncrasies of life here. It’s a down-to-earth, quiet place, where I can recover after a long stretch on the road. People are easygoing, good-natured, fun-loving. We should all learn to be a little Lao.
Laos can also be utterly ridiculous. It makes me laugh and smile every day – and sometimes makes me bang my head against a wall in frustration. I pop into Thailand when I’m craving a beach, curry or civilisation.
WHLG: What’s the most adventurous trip you’ve ever taken?
Cindy: An overland trip in West Africa, travelling by truck from Senegal, crossing Mauritania and the Sahara into Morocco. Most nights were wild camp. Once, while driving through the desert, the truck got stuck in a pit of clay and we spent two days digging it out with our bare hands. Overlanding is definitely not a beach holiday! You’re part of a crew and it’s a lot of work. When it was my turn to cook, I had to go to markets in shrivelled up towns and haggle for weevily rice and tough beef. We lived on a diet of sandy Laughing Cow sandwiches, one-pot meals and illegal beer. To this day, the sight of Laughing Cow makes me both warmly nostalgic and ill.
It took us three days to cross Western Sahara, a disputed territory. The landscape was surreal: barren, moon-like, littered with the skeletons of bombed-out cars. We camped in minefields.
It was one of my most rewarding trips. Nights sleeping under starry skies, mysterious ancient caravan towns, sand seas that stretched out as far as the eye could see, real desert oases and days driving on the beach up virgin coast, where the Sahara’s dunes collided with the Atlantic ocean. It felt like I was at the edge of the earth.
WHLG: What is your funniest travel experience?
Cindy: Oy! There’s a whole vault full of stories.
I was taking a stroll along the cliffs of Lima, Peru, when I came across paragliders. Overtaken by impulse, within three minutes I was harnessed and running at full speed off a cliff in tandem with a man named Fernando, who was wearing skintight jeans . The entire time we were flying, tight-pants-Fernando moaned, gyrated his hips and shrieked Oh yes, yes, yes! It was a bit of an awkward situation. I was stuck in the air, soaring above skyscrapers because of a piece of cloth, some string and a pilot who was having a little too much fun on the job. It was not the kind of uplifting experience I had been looking for.
On the final day of a four-day rim-to-rim trek through the Grand Canyon, the guide gave us a head start on the long ascent out, letting the five of us leave first while he finished clearing camp. Later on, as we waited at Three Mile Resthouse, I spotted the guide coming up the switchbacks. I got the whole group – which included a university student, a stay-at-home mom and an ER doctor – lined up in a neat row. I called out his name and waved. He smiled and waved back. Then we all turned around and dropped our pants for a full moon. The expression on his face was priceless.
I was standing on the tarmac at Kathmandu airport waiting to board a tiny prop plane when a priest and some assistants led a white goat to the front of the plane. They seemed to be performing a pleasant kind of ritual. They sprinkled water on the goat; it happily flicked its tail. It wasn’t until I saw the priest draw out a machete that it dawned on me what was going to happen. Before I could avert my eyes – whack! – off came the head. I stood there bug-eyed, mouth agape while the priest dragged the bloody headless body in a circle around the plane. I guess I can check ‘goat sacrifice’ off the bucket list? Obviously, goats wouldn’t find this story very funny.
WHLG: What is your scariest travel experience?
Cindy: We had left Western Sahara and were driving in the middle of nowhere southern Morocco when the truck hit slippery road and began fishtailing. The driver tried to correct but each time the back slid wildly – this lasted for what felt like forever. He finally lost all control and the truck went off road, crashing hard and rolling two, maybe three times. I was flung around the truck’s big interior like a rag doll in a dryer. Needless to say, it was a terrifying experience.
The Chittagong ship-breaking yards in Bangladesh were a different kind of scary. I’ll never forget the sight: beached supertanker carcasses, hundreds of people crawling all over them like ants taking the rusted metal apart by hand. The toxic destruction, the demoralization, the pollution; I could feel how hardened and broken the people were.
Then there was the time I was waiting in Lukla‘s tiny one-room airport when rioting Maoists tried to storm the building. I had been in the mountains for 15 days and had no idea what was going on. They pelted the airport with rocks, breaking all the windows. I took cover under a desk. A violent skirmish broke out when the police arrived.
WHLG: What would you never travel without?
Cindy: My camera. Pen. Paper.
WHLG: What do you miss most about home when travelling?
Cindy: Family and friends, of course. Cooking in my own kitchen. Cooking for friends. Soft beds – beds in Southeast Asia are ridiculously hard! And I miss all things Canadian: I miss kayaking on Lake Ontario, camping, poutine, hanging out on patios with friends and fresh apples. As much as I like escaping the long winters, I miss not being hot and sweaty all the time. And I miss anonymity. I can’t walk down the street in Laos without attracting attention. Sometimes I feel like an ogre.
WHLG: Describe the best and worst accommodation you’ve ever stayed in.
Cindy: Best: Ban Sabai Bungalows in Vang Vieng, Laos.
Worst: An awful place in Ngwe Saung, Myanmar. I was nearly out of cash and there are no ATMs in Myanmar so it was the only thing I could get. It was so bad, I almost slept on the beach.
WHLG: You have a dream job! Any advice for those wanting to become a travel writer?
Cindy: When people ask me, “How do I get your job?!” my question to them is always, “Do you write?” Travel writing is writing, and writing is a craft. You have to love the written word, learn and practice the craft like you would for fiction, journalism or poetry.
Don’t read too much travel writing. Be discerning – there’s a lot of rubbish out there. Just because it’s published or on a prominent site doesn’t mean it’s good. Be original and creative.
WHLG: Do you find it difficult travelling solo as a woman?
Cindy: It certainly has its challenges. You have to grow thick skin, listen to your instincts, and be charming and tough at the same time.
But travelling solo as a woman can be incredibly rewarding. In certain countries and cultures, I have access to a world not seen or experienced by men. I can get in there and discover a different perspective. I listen to voices that are unheard. And those are the worlds I’m drawn to. Those are the stories I want to tell.