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Category: Personalities

Heritage Suites, Siem Reap: Hospitality With Heart

Cambodia’s a developing country, where the gap between the rich and poor is vast and the slow emerging middle class is the very stratum of society that indicate the country’s…

Cambodia’s a developing country, where the gap between the rich and poor is vast and the slow emerging middle class is the very stratum of society that indicate the country’s economic progress. Travel ten kilometres out of Siem Reap, Cambodia’s vibrant tourist town centre and you will see the real Cambodia – wooden stilt homes, lack of proper toilets and roads ridden with pot holes.

Now travel back to the heart of Siem Reap and the reality can easily be forgotten. Five-star and luxury boutique hotels, restaurants that cater for any palate with international standards in mind, wine bars and even designer boutiques – but none of these places are patronised by locals. They are established to serve the growing stream of tourists that have been increasing since the tourism boom in 2002.

Cambodia countryside

Those who stand behind the counter and serve the food and drinks are local Cambodians. They are young people who travel out from the countryside to seek employment in hope for a better life. Alongside this boom, organisations have sought to do more for Cambodia through social responsibility initiatives. You don’t have to look hard and long before you spot another initiative that sounds something like this: “Helping local Cambodians craft a future” or “Alleviating poverty one bag at a time”. While all this is great, I can’t ignore the fact that many organisations have also jumped on the bandwagon for marketing gain. Jarring leaflets and posters stuck on walls, tacky and thick compendiums in hotel rooms and websites claiming that they can save the world. When staff are asked if they know of the hotel’s social commitment, they simply shrug their shoulders and hand me another leaflet.

That’s why when I came across a hotel like Heritage Suites and an organisation like Sala Bai, I’m duly refreshed to learn of their genuine commitment and sustainable efforts in helping people through practical ways. In the sea of copycats, there are genuine organisations that want to help and find a way to make their contribution more meaningful and lasting.

Heritage, Creating A Legacy

The luxury 26 room and suites boutique hotel is tucked away in Slokram Village not too far away from the buzz of Pub Street and the Night Markets, but far enough for a peaceful retreat. During the day, I hear children from the local school laughing and chatting and school bells ringing just behind the hotel’s compound walls and at night, along the street leading to the hotel, I watch families sitting out on their verandah enjoying a meal of rice, soup and vegetables. The hotel in all its luxury and top-notch service is set amongst a local Cambodian commune – the very thing that preserves its sense of place and community charm.

Heritage Suites

The facade is that of a French colonial building curtained by palm trees. The hotel’s lobby, restaurant and bar sharing the same space, a lofty open hall with a tall ceilings supported by timbers and grand massive candle lights hanging over top. The arched window panes and large panelled mirrors at the bar facilitate the flow of natural light and magnify the spaciousness of the restaurant.

Heritage Suites 3

The same simplistic grandeur follows through into the suites. My bungalow suite had wall-to-ceiling windows with thick curtains that turn the suite from a bright and airy space into a slumber wonderland. The decor is minimalistic with an emphasis on Cambodian art and modern furnishings. The hallmark of the suite is the private steam room and stand alone oversized stone tub facing the private garden and open air shower.

Heritage Suites 1 Heritage Suites 2

Whilst I thoroughly enjoyed my suite, I wanted to understand Heritage’s stand on their community efforts. So I sat down for a chat with Magnus Olovson, the hotel’s general manager, a seasoned hospitality professional who’s been in the industry for years and leading in his game. “I’ve been doing corporate hospitality for so long and when I was given the opportunity to return to old fashion hospitality, I jumped at it”.

“What is old-fashioned hospitality?”, I asked. “It’s where I get to greet every guest by name and learn about their day. It’s like welcoming people into your home”. Just then, he spots a couple behind the thick glass doors alighting from the hotel’s vintage Mercedez. He politely excused himself to greet some guests that have just arrived from the airport. After a few handshakes, some jovial laughs and a warm welcome, he returned and candidly said, “My guests are important to me but my staff are so much more important. Without them, all this would not be possible”.

Magnus continued to explain Heritage’s partnership with Sala Bai, a hospitality vocational school that have trained over 1000 students in the last 13 years and given them job opportunities at world-class hotels in Siem Reap and beyond. “Look around, would you have guessed that they (the staff) come from really poor families? Look at them now, they are thriving and building a future of their own”.

Heritage Suites

Dressed in crisp black and white uniforms and a perpetual smile, the staff at Heritage Suites are all hands on deck. During my stay, I was met with prompt attentive service with the genuine warmth of Cambodian hospitality. I have stayed in Cambodia long enough to know that good job opportunities are hard to come by and even harder to keep. Cambodians, especially women have to battle with ongoing issues like human trafficking due to severe poverty and the social stigma that women are better off staying at home instead of working and earning a living. And those who fight through those battles have the chance to emerge as Cambodia’s new middle class.

Hope For Cambodia

Such is the story of Kim Hiv, a sweet, pretty, small statured lady with a big bright smile. At 27 years old, Thy Kim Hiv is the F&B supervisor at Heritage Suites and have hopes to climb the ranks in the future. Just five years ago, Kim Hiv’s story was extremely different. A graduating high schooler with no plans or means to further her studies, she heard from her neighbour about an application into Sala Bai school. She knew nothing about hospitality and her parents were disapproved of her decision to waitress as the job was frown upon and carried negative implications.

Kim Hiv Heritage Suites

After some persuasion, her parents agreed to her application into Sala Bai and she underwent seven months of intensive hospitality training with an additional four months of practical training. For Kim Hiv, this was the ideal opportunity as her food, lodging and tuition fees were completely paid for by Sala Bai and a job was guaranteed after her training.

“Heritage is my first job and I have been working here for five years. I am very lucky to learn about Sala Bai and when I started working, I help pay for my sister’s school fees”. Her family is one of many families living below the poverty line. They are simple farmers slogging to make ends meet. “Now, I am able to give my parents money too!”, Kim Hiv added with a wide grin. Schools like Sala Bai give hope to people who have little to look forward to. Sala Bai’s efforts are realistic with a clear goal in mind, to raise people from poverty and to create opportunities for a better life.

But the model won’t work without the commitment of hotels like Heritage Suites, the Raffles, Amansara and other trusted hospitality names. Heritage Suites give amateur hoteliers a chance to be further trained on the job and allow them equal opportunity to climb the ranks if they so desire.

As with all NGO organisations, Sala Bai is dependant on donations and have been thriving since with strong donor partnerships across the globe. Heritage saw an opportunity to give back and so every year since 2013, the hotel organises an annual charity gala dinner and auction at their beautiful property. This year in May, the gala titled ‘Changing Lives’ featured a culinary feasts prepared by Thailand’s rising culinary star Chef Thitid ‘Ton’ Tassanakajohn. The dinner was aimed at raising funds to help Sala Bai expand its new campus to accommodate more students. The gala was a glamorous success and Heritage raised a total of $15,000 in funds, which, for a property of its size, is truly remarkable.

Photo credit: Sala Bai

Photo credit: Sala Bai

Social responsibility can be a fad that fades off over time for those who jump on the bandwagon, but genuine organisations are those that go the extra mile because they believe in the cause that would outlast the organisations lifetime.

Claude Colombie, director of Sala Bai explained, “Our model very simple, in a country as poor as Cambodia, we need to find real solutions that help close the gap. We find the poorest of the poor, educate them and give them a job. That’s it! And this model has proven successful over 13 years, families who earn less than $500 a year now have a daughter or a son who earns half or more a month and are able to support their families”.

It’s incredibly remarkable what a door of opportunity can do for one life, one family, one community. At Heritage Suites, there are no garish posters that spell “DONATE” or leaflets in the room’s compendium. Instead, an unassuming bicycle with a simple poster at the entrance explains the hotel’s partnership with Sala Bai. Hotel guests can donate if they wish and donations help pay for school materials and bicycles for the students to get to their place of work. The truest and most sincere testament of Heritage’s commitment to social responsibility is in the people, people like Kim Hiv who live to tell her story.

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Perfect(ing) Heston

What do you get when you mix science and food? A revolutionary dish that is bound to invigorate your senses. Heston Blumenthal is the creative genius and his playground is…

What do you get when you mix science and food? A revolutionary dish that is bound to invigorate your senses. Heston Blumenthal is the creative genius and his playground is his kitchen. I was privileged to meet this culinary genius and learned what it takes to be a Michelin Star chef. 

Heston Blumenthal_by deborah chan

Described as a culinary alchemist, food scientist and perfectionist, Heston Blumenthal has definitely piqued the interest of chefs, gourmets and home cooks all over. His award winning TV series “In Search of Perfection” is mind blowing yet simple, which makes for an interesting watch. He makes poaching eggs and roasting potatoes somewhat of an experiment with meticulous instructions that entail specific temperature and precise technique. All of which results in a perfect dish – tried, tested and approved by the perfectionist himself.

Ironically, he looks less of a geek than I thought. Clad in a casual dark blue tank top, jeans and his famous thick framed glasses, Blumenthal, 47, exudes a childlike enthusiasm and perpetual chattiness when it comes to conversations about food. His excitement is contagious and his inquisitiveness is infectious. When describing how to make spaghetti bolognese, he chimes, “Did you know that whenever you’re making a meat-sauce using onions, you should add a hint of star anise? It reacts with the sulphur compounds and increases the flavour of meatiness?”

One would think a guy like him would have aced science in school, but that was the contrary. “I’d been intrigued with food from a young age but had failed science at school, though I got an A in Art so there was some creativity there.”

heston

Heston Blumenthal is often referred to as a culinary alchemist, food scientist and perfectionist. Credits: www.telegraph.co.uk

This enthusiasm coupled with creative genius and lots of hard work is what propelled him to culinary stardom. Blumenthal made his name when he bought over a 450 year old dilapidated pub in the small unsuspecting town of Bray, Berkshire. He transformed this teeny weeny, one door kitchen pub into a restaurant initially serving French bistro type dishes into a three star Michelin restaurant in just five years. This award winning restaurant is known as The Fat Duck and takes reservations up to two months in advance with a string of eager foodies on the waiting list.
Blumenthal is arguably Britain’s most innovative chef of all time. “We eat with our eyes and our ears and our noses. Eating is the only thing you do that involves all senses.” He recalls some unusual foods he has eaten and cringed adding “reindeer kneecap in Siberia, leeches fed on goose blood sautéed with parsley and garlic and freshly milked camel milk where you have to pick the hairs out of my mouth” to the list of nastiest food experiences.

Convinced that dining is a multi-sensory experience, Blumenthal toiled with the idea of creating food that stick in your memory. “Diners listen to an iPod placed in a shell that plays the sound of the waves lapping up against the shore, along with the occasional call of gulls, while eating edible sand, foam, and various food from the sea.” That’s ‘Sound of the Sea’, a sought after experiential treat on the tasting menu at The Fat Duck.

sound sea

The very famous “Sound of the Sea” served at The Fat Duck. Credits: www.cnn.com

As news caught on, Blumenthal’s list of credentials grew and so did his cache of restaurants including Dinner, The Hinds Head and The Crown. He has a number of very successful TV series that has fascinated viewers all over and gain growing followers. He has written seven cookbooks to date and even had the honour of cooking for the Queen of England, not once but numerous times.

“Naivety is one of the best friends of creativity. The first time you see something you get incredibly excited. When I first opened the Duck, I had no idea how hard it was going to be. There was good and bad. The naivety meant that I could question everything. The downside was that my organizational knowledge was rubbish.” He now looks back at the years spent establishing The Fat Duck as foundational years of his success.

“I was working 120 hours a week probably for the first 8 years. You get to levels of delirium that you never thought possible.” His creative gastronomical innovations are not plucked from the sky or fished out of a magician’s hat. Blumenthal is firmly rooted in tradition.

Garden salad

Heston Blumenthal’s (soil) garden salad with sauce gribiche recipe. Credits: www.theguardian.com

“You’ve seen all the crazy stuff that I’ve done, it is really heavily bedded in a technical foundation which starts off with classical French cooking and then from there you need a very deep understanding of classical French cooking in order to question it. And when you start questioning, that forms the building block for something new.”

“I’m basically a big kid and I ask lots of questions. I’m not a scientist, but I am endlessly curious. The best advice I can give to anyone is question everything. You have to respect tradition but prepared to question everything,” that was his advice to young emerging chefs and enthusiastic home cooks. His tenacious probing for the next new thing has kept him going.

His success did not come without sacrifice. In 2011, Blumenthal went through a rough patch having separated from his wife of 20 years, with whom he has three grown up children. It was also around the same time that Blumenthal lost his father. Adding to the upheaval, he had to juggle the opening of Dinner, his newest restaurant at Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park in London.

“Things like that, you have to deal with deep. Really deep. It’s much easier now, but of course, anything like that is going to affect focus,” he said in an interview with Good Food. Blumenthal’s persistence ploughed through.

When he was awarded the ‘Chef of a Decade’ Observer Food Monthly 2013 Award by The Guardian UK, Blumenthal humbly reflected on the last 10 years of his career and said, “With all the knowledge I have now, I still feel I’m just scratching the surface.”

Oak moss

Visually intriguing “Oak Moss” served at The Fat Duck Credits: www.londonfoodfreak.com

When asked what’s next in his culinary journey, the sought after VIP guest at the recent Margaret River Gourmet Escape, a gastronomical extravaganza in Western Australia’s food mecca cordially replied, “I have no fixed plans but hopefully, the next restaurant I open outside of the UK will be in Australia.” To which he received thunderous applauses from his passionate fans. There is no stopping a perfectionist who is (still) in search of perfection.

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Let’s Chat With: The Red Bohemia

A lot of us love to travel, but only a few take it to the next level of being a part time traveler. I had an interesting conversation with the gorgeous…

A lot of us love to travel, but only a few take it to the next level of being a part time traveler. I had an interesting conversation with the gorgeous lady behind Red Bohemia, a down-to-earth, heartwarming travel blog and got a low down on what it means to be a part time traveler (with a full time job) and why Kavitha started the Red Bohemia alongside her pursuit to see the world.

Ardent Traveler (AT): “Red Bohemia”. That’s a rather interesting name you’ve chosen for your site. Is there a story behind it?
Red Bohemia (RB): Believe it or not, I actually came up with it in the middle of a football match. I was watching my team Liverpool ( YNWA!) play erm, some other club when half-time came about and I thought I should incorporate “red” into my blog name – fire, passion, strength and all that good stuff. Bohemia or the bohemian-lifestyle has always been something I’ve loved for its freedom, creativity and wanderlust qualities. I already had the “bohemia” bit in mind for some time, but nothing seemed to gel with it, until “red” came along. That’s how Redbohemia was born and I’ve stuck with it ever since.

AT: So you have a regular job and you live to travel. That makes you a part-time traveler… why not go full swing?
RB: Yes, I am a part-time traveller – for now. I intend to make travelling a more permanent fixture in my life sometime this year. I have been working for the last 15 years or so and I think it’s about time I took some time out to do different things and for some much-needed slow travelling. Wish me luck!

AT: When you plan your travel journeys, are there specific things that you’re particularly interested to discover? Tell me a story of such a discovery.
RB: The architecture and design aspects of a city are usually something I fall in love with very easily. So many cities have impressed me in the past, but I have to go with the first one that blew my expectations out of the water – Amsterdam.

amsterdam_love

Love the charming ways of Amsterdam

It was the first European city I visited and I was duly impressed by how all the buildings by the canals were so full of character and charm – the quirky doors, the pretty windows, the colourful window displays, the cosy cafes.
Add in how organised the streets were (with trams, bicycle lanes and walkways co-existing), it sure was a wonderful feast for the design-lover in me.

AT: Why travel and write?
RB: I grew up reading Reader’s Digest and magazines such as LIFE, Time and National Geographic. Thanks to such stellar reading materials, I was constantly enthralled by tales of adventure and photographs of faraway lands.

natgeo_inspiration

Still getting inspired by National Geographic to this day

It seemed like a different world, almost unreal. Coming from a small town in Malaysia, I constantly dreamt of visiting those seemingly magical lands. I want to do for others what those words and photographs did for me – inspire them to see the world, learn from different cultures, to love and respect one another.

AT: In the flurry of travel blogs in the online space, have you found a few travel bloggers / travelers that you can connect to? Why and who are they?
RB: Flurry is indeed the right word! It was hard in the beginning, but I was a little more confident of myself once I met some amazing travel bloggers at AWE Asia 2013 in Kuala Lumpur (hey, that’s where I met you too).
That is where I met the awesome Jeannie Mark from NomadicChick.com. She may be one of the top travel bloggers around, but she was so down-to-earth and kind. I was scared to even talk about my teenie tiny blog, but she encouraged me to continue and keep reaching for my dreams.

Aggy from DEW Traveller is another blogger I met at the conference. We keep in touch often and I just love her positive outlook on life. And, thanks to her, I got connected to Vlad from Eff It, I’m On Holiday. He’s been such a great supporter of my blog and we plan to travel together someday *fingers crossed*

More recently, I connected with a lovely blogger, G. Maria from Travel With G. Her love for food, photography and travel inspire me. Not only is she a wonderful writer, she is kind beyond words.

travel_in_kindness

Kindness is a quality I find important in travelling

All these bloggers constantly inspire me to do better and most importantly, to be kind to one another. It can be very competitive out there in blog-land, but these bloggers prove that it doesn’t have to be like that.

AT: Do you have a travel buddy? Or do you usually travel alone?
RB: My travel buddies tend to change from trip to trip. But I usually stick to a pool of close friends, so I know what to expect when we eventually travel together. I tend to travel alone for shorter trips, but I’m sure that will change sometime this year.

london_travel_buddy

My close friend (and travel buddy) in action on the Tower Bridge

It’s nice sometimes to have that one other person – for company, to help carry your bag when you’re tired, get directions when you’re lazy or just around for some much-needed laughter and fun.

AT: What are your travel plans for 2015?
RB: 2015 is going to be the year I finally venture out solo. I have a shiny, new Lonely Planet guidebook to Great Britain, so I might as well put it to good use 😉

Actually, I’ve wanted to explore this part of the world for the longest time – get to know the people, how the cultures differ from one country to another, try Haggis (I hope I don’t chicken out at the last minute), immerse myself in the moors of Wuthering Heights (pretending to be Kate Bush), educate myself on organic farming and drink tea all day long. Seems like a tall order, but I intend to go for it. If not now, then when, right?

AT: All the best, Kavitha! Stoke that you’re following your dreams and taking a route that’s often seen as against the grain. Happy travels babe! 

*Follow the Red Bohemia as she takes the leap to make travel a constant in her life on her website, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter space. 

Let’s Chat With is a new series of light hearted, down-to-earth, personal interviews with people I’ve met or connected with along my journey as a traveler. These are people who have piqued my interest and have an amazing tale to tell. I hope that my conversations with them will inspire you, challenge your perspective on life and feed that wanderlust within you.
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Two Year Honeymoon Around The World… Really?!

Planning the ideal round the world trip (RTW) is no easy feat. Those who have done it will tell you that it takes longer than imagined, more than they budgeted…

Planning the ideal round the world trip (RTW) is no easy feat. Those who have done it will tell you that it takes longer than imagined, more than they budgeted for and it’s harder than just booking flight tickets. Those who have done it will have a list of travel hacks and lessons to share on how to reduce expenses, stretch the dollar and get the most of a destination.

Lovebirds, Anne and Mike Howard have traveled 6 continents, over 32 countries and 302 places, and they chose their honeymoon for their RTW. While most honeymooners don’t think twice about booking a holiday on an idyllic beach and spa-worthy destination, Anne and Mike decided that it was too “normal” and instead they went for the unconventional. They planned a 2-year long honeymoon around the world to celebrate life together. I checked in for a quick chat with them and got some travel tips from the globetrotters.

MikeAnneHoneyTrek

Ardent Traveler (AT): You guys are probably the only people I know who spent 2-year honeymooning around the world with no break in between. Who’s idea was it?
Mike & Anne (M&A): A German friend-of-a-friend told us he and his girlfriend just returned from a one-year journey around the world. The concept seemed unfathomable yet it affixed itself to our brains. In thinking about where we wanted to spend our honeymoon we didn’t have enough paper to list all the places we wanted to visit and this couple’s RTW kept crossing our mind. Then about six months before our wedding we started seriously talking it out. “We’ve got some money saved, we don’t have kids, there’s a lot of world to see, and we’re only young once…maybe we turn our honeymoon into the greatest excuse to quit our jobs and travel…” Then we set the dream in motion.

AT: You also made a really bold step by quitting your jobs to travel the world. Was it hard for you? Is it workable?
M&A: It was a little scary leaving stable jobs, but the risk of not following our dream seemed far more frightening. Travel is the greatest learning experience imaginable and it can also be a resume builder. Immersing yourself in other cultures and throwing yourself into new environments sharpens your skills from communication to negotiation, problem-solving to global thinking…a good employer will definitely value those skills. Imagine the stories you will have for your interviews when you return home!

OriginalHoneyTrekRoutemap

AT: Where did you start when it comes to planning a 2-year trip? Which countries to go to:
M&A: Our travel philosophy has always been to go places too far to visit while we have jobs and too rugged to tackle when we’re old. That meant skipping Central America and most of Europe and focusing on all the places we’d dreamed of visiting in South America, Africa, Asia and Oceania. Here is the country by country breakdown:

  • South America: Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, Bolivia and Peru
  • Africa: South Africa, Lesotho, Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique, Tanzania and Kenya
  • Asia: Nepal, China, Japan, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, Philippines and Indonesia
  • Oceania: Australia and New Zealand
  • Europe: Scotland, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Wales, England, Norway and Turkey

Norway_Hopperstad Stave Church Norway

AT: How much time to spend in each country?
M&A: We aim for 3-4 weeks in each country and 2-3 nights in each location. This is a fairly fast pace in each town but the fact that we get to experience so many regions within each country keeps us energized and excited to keep exploring every single day. With 675 days to travel it actually would have been easy to visit more countries, but we like to stay close to a month in each country so that we can get a stronger sense of the people, customs, and character of a place.

AT: Budgeting?
M&A: We did our 675-day trip around the world for just under $40 per person per day, including flights, ground transportation, food, lodging, activities, gear…the works. This is an average of the pricier countries like Japan, Australia, and Norway (~$75+ pppd) with the less expensive places like Bolivia and Southeast Asia (under $20 pppd). We learned all sorts of ways to save money with mileage hacking, homestays, and tons of other travel tricks to to keep our budget low and fun levels high. You’d think we were millionaires (far from it!) but traveling around the world turned out to be less expensive than just the mortgage on our apartment.

HoneyTrekCappadociaTurkey

AT: I’m sure you stored a million memories from the epic trip. Was a particular event or destination that you would call “life changing”?
M&A: I think the overwhelming kindness of strangers impacted us profoundly. Like the time our motorbike broke down in rural Thailand and a family picked us up and took us into their home for two days, making us a bed in their living room and cooking us three meals a day. Or when we asked a local guy directions in Hangzhou, China and when he couldn’t explain it in English, he took the bus 20 minutes in the wrong direction to make sure we got to our destination safely. Incredible instances of kindness happened to us in ALL 33 countries and these experiences always remind us to be open-hearted and pay it forward.

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AT: Tell me a funny story from your travels… One that you will tell your friends over dinner and have a good laugh:)
M&A: We were driving in the mountains above Colca Canyon, Peru when we see a big group of locals all in traditional garb throwing a party in the middle of the road. We creep forward thinking they’d move to let us pass but instead this lady knocks on our window and says in Spanish, “Come dance! You can’t pass until you dance!” The next thing you know Anne is being pulled out of the car into a circle of elderly ladies doing a Peruvian jig. Mike is being poured mystery shots from a communal jug and sent to play in the band. We rocked out with our new best friends well into the evening…it was the best traffic jam we’ve ever been in.2-peruvian-dance

AT: After your 2-year honeymoon, did you settle back into a regular job? What happened after the big trip?
1-htlogosmall21M&A: Well…we may not be done with our honeymoon just yet. We are currently planning a road-trip honeymoon to all 50 states…as an interactive travel show. We are actually in Hollywood right now pitching the show, and continuing to focus on HoneyTrek. Basically it’s a one-on-one service (via skype) where we share our best tips and takeaways from our 675 days on the road. From how to save thousands of dollars on flights to backing up a terrabyte of photos from a Vietnamese internet cafe. We want to give more people the confidence and skills to mobilize their own epic journey. Even if you are even remotely thinking about long-term travel, please reach out to us at TripCoach@HoneyTrek.com.

AT: As a frequent traveler, share with me some tips or travel hacks that will help reduce travel costs.
M&A: School yourself in the art of mileage hacking. We read books, blogs, and even signed up for a course to learn how to maximize our miles and we were able to earn 430,000 frequent flier miles in the eight months leading up to the trip. It was no small task but considering it saved us more than $9,000 in flights, it was well worth it! One thing that can help keep your miles organized is AwardWallet.com (paired with a detailed excel spreadsheet)…and we have tons of tips on the topic and actually offer a Trip Coach mileage hacking course specifically for if you want to know more!

Bhaktapur Nepal

AT: Can travel be sustainable? What are your thoughts after visiting 6 continents, 33 countries and 302 places?
M&A: We know people who’ve been traveling for as long as 18 years! There all sorts of ways to travel affordably or make a living on the road; plus, the cost of living in the vast majority of the world is cheaper than the States– so if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere! With an open-mind and an adventurous spirit, long-term travel is entirely possible and a pretty amazing way to live.

Special Discount
Planning a RTW soon? Thinking about it? Get the best advice for that ideal trip. Honey Trek is giving a special discount to all Ardent Traveler followers. Get a 10% discount off on any of the Trip Coach courses. Simply write this code: “ArdentTraveler10%” when registering for the course and you enjoy the discount.
Let’s Chat With is a new series of light hearted, down-to-earth, personal interviews with people I’ve met or connected with along my journey as a traveler. These are people who have piqued my interest and have an amazing tale to tell. I hope that my conversations with them will inspire you, challenge your perspective on life and feed that wanderlust within you.
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Are Backpackers Destroying The World Or Changing It For The Better?

Backpackers are predominantly known as budget travelers. They want to spend the least and get the most. They will stretch the dollar to the max and squeeze every cent just…

Backpackers in AsiaBackpackers are predominantly known as budget travelers. They want to spend the least and get the most. They will stretch the dollar to the max and squeeze every cent just to get an extra drink or a super discount. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that! After all, money is hard earned and bargains are great. However, backpackers have increased over the years with the rise of budget airlines such as Jetstar, Air Asia and Cebu Pacific. This means that more backpackers are hitting the road annually and the impact on the destinations are both good and bad. Obscure destinations are getting free publicity via travel blogs and shared photos, money is spent and job opportunities are created. However on the flipside, tough issues such as over development, siphoning of money out of the local economy and the erosion of cultures are becoming an apparent problem.

More than footprints_logoMartin Stevenson is the founder of “More Than Footprints”, a website written by backpackers, for backpackers. It hopes to debunk the glossy travel writing that sounds more like advertorials and to provide a platform for travelers to find real information and discuss real issues while on the move. Martin was and still is a backpacker – a nature of travel that he enjoys. He spent three years in Southeast Asia researching and writing ‘More than footprints? – How backpacking lost its way’, a fantastic read uncovering lessons learnt while he was on foot in Asia.

In this short interview, Martin shared with me some insights into the world of backpackers and the impact they leave on destinations they have trodden on. It left a huge reminder that all of us, independent travelers can do something – somewhere, somehow when we go on our next holiday.

Ardent Traveler (AT): What inspired you to write “More Than Footprints”?
Martin: When we think about un-sustainable tourism, we usually think about ‘mass’ tourism; big resorts and hotels on beaches. But over 20 years of backpacking, as I returned to places, I started to look at the development that was happening in ‘backpacker’ centres – places where mass tourists generally never set foot – and I started to wonder if backpacking might have a few problems of its own. I started to write about it and the articles and blogs became the book.

Martin StevensonAT: What was the most surprising thing you learned over the course of writing & putting together this book?
Martin: How much backpacking has changed. It’s not just the places that have changed; it’s the backpackers themselves. Twenty years ago you could pretty much guarantee that a backpacker would be young, taking time out from uni, and from nothern Europe or Australasia. Today they cover every age group, background and nationality. The couple flicking through their Lonely Planet are as likely to be in the fifties as in their twenties. With this change in the demographic, the way in which we need to promote sustainable, responsible tourism has also changed.

AT: Is there a reason why you chose to focus on backpackers instead of tour groups or luxury travelers and the types of damage backpackers are doing when they travel?
Martin: Lots is published about ‘mass’ tourism and its environmental, economic, political and social impact on destinations, but as I started to research backpacking, and tried to find some literature about it, I found there was very little being written. A handful of academics cover the subject, but most NGOs and sustainable travel websites focus on the package and all-inclusive industries. The work they do is important of course, but with backpacking’s ever growing numbers, we need an outlet for them to be discussing the issues too.

One of the most striking things about the research was that whenever I discussed the issues with backpackers, they recognised every issue I mentioned, but I was the first person who had ever talked about it with them.

AT: When backpackers say they are contributing back to the community by volunteering, do you think they actually leave a positive impact or it is more of a “feel good” gesture?
Martin: The voluntourism sector is a very worrying area. If a volunteer feels good about what they’ve done, that’s not necessarily a negative side-effect – if the project was beneficial for the people they were working with. The problem really lies with the organisations that these volunteers are paying to join. A volunteer with no experience cannot be expected to know a great deal about development practices, so they have to place their trust in the organisations and projects they join. There is nothing wrong with the desire to ‘help’, but there are some highly unethical projects and organisations out there who are happy to exploit this desire – usually at the expense of those communities they are supposed to ‘help’. Of course, there are also excellent organisations who genuinely benefit local communities. The problem is that most volunteers don’t have access to the information they need so that they can’t ask the right questions.

AT: There are huge numbers of backpackers exploring South East Asia annually because it is relatively cheap and your dollar goes a long way more. What does this mean to the destination and its people in the long run?
Martin: The popular image of a backpacker is a student who is watching every penny, and this is true, but there are hundreds of thousands of backpackers out there and together they spend a vast amount of money.

Over half a million backpackers will visit Australia this year, and they will spend over $3 billion between them. The question of whether this money benefits local people is perhaps the most important one facing backpackers at the moment.

Traditionally, backpackers have stayed in locally-owned hostels, eaten in locally-owned restaurants, and their money has tended to stay in local pockets, but as the wider tourism industry has noticed how much money backpackers are spending, they have started to move into the ‘independent’ travel sector. X Base, a chain of backpacker hostels in Australia and New Zealand, is owned by the same company that owns the Sofitel, Ibis and Mercure hotel brands. So in order for backpackers to be of economic benefit to Southeast Asia, they have to ensure that the money they spend is staying in the local economy, and not being syphoned off to a foreign bank account.

AT: What choices do you see that travelers can make to positively impact destinations they travel to?
Martin: It really all comes down to how we see ourselves when we’re travelling. If we think of ourselves as Marco Polo, we are going to have a hugely negative impact on the places we visit. But if we stop thinking of ourselves as adventurers (let’s be honest, what have we discovered lately?), and start to acknowledge that we are part of a new form of ‘mass’ tourism – mass backpacking – then we can start to look at our ‘combined’ impact. It’s a less romantic view of travel than we might like, but if we place ourselves at the front of a very long queue of people who are all doing the same thing (because we are all going to the same places, and using the same guide book to get there), then we can start to see our purchases and activities in term of multiplying them by the number of other people who are just like us and doing exactly the same things.

If I pick the smallest amount of coral out of the seabed as a souvenir, I can imagine that there are a lot of other people just like me doing the same thing, which means the end of the coral. A beneficial flip-side of that coin is that if we can travel responsibly, then we can have an equally positive impact.

AT: What are you doing as an ‘enlightened’ traveler to help make tourism more sustainable?
Martin: Ha! Makes it sound like I wrote the book sitting under a Banyan tree! Now that the book is out it’s a question of getting the information out too. Most of the readers I’ve spoken too were shocked by what I’d found out. The book was very well received when it went on sale but I realised that far more people would have access to the information if they didn’t have to pay for it, so the decision was made to give it away for free through a new website. We launched the site this week, and anyone who posts an article on the site gets the book. The writing isn’t just about sustainable travel – though there is a section dedicated to it – we also have guides, travelogues, and section for travel fiction (only the location has to be real!). So I’m looking forward to seeing the debate grow, and the information backpackers need coming out of our writers’ articles.

More than footprints_martin stevensonAT: In this day and age, travel blogs and social media have somewhat taken over traditional travel guidebooks. What role do you see bloggers playing in helping to create better destinations?
Martin: If there’s one thing backpackers do more than any other type of tourist, it is look to their fellow travellers for information. The discussions that backpackers have in bars on Changkat, on boats out to Full Moon Parties, and while taking photos of the sunrise at Angkor Wat, are the perfect medium to disseminate this information. A major problem though is that there is a new generation of backpackers every year who have never been to the Perhentians before and so assume that’s what it has always looked like. They don’t go back year after year and so don’t see the impact they are having, so they assume they aren’t having an impact. Because backpackers do over half their research online, blogs have a key role in making them aware that backpackers impact those places we visit just as much as mass tourists. Some backpackers do go back of course, and it always amazes me when I hear some guy on a beach somewhere say: “It was much better when I was here ten years ago, less developed.” Well, where does he think that development has come from? It was the money he spent ten years ago that paid for it!

Let’s Chat With is a new series of light hearted, down-to-earth, personal interviews with people I’ve met or connected with along my journey as a traveler. These are people who have piqued my interest and have an amazing tale to tell. I hope that my conversations with them will inspire you, challenge your perspective on life and feed that wanderlust within you.
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Homestay In Kaikoura Run By A 75-Year Old

It’s a daunting thought for most of us to wake up every morning at 5:30am to cook breakfast for guests, but for Margaret Woodhill, it’s a joy and something she…

It’s a daunting thought for most of us to wake up every morning at 5:30am to cook breakfast for guests, but for Margaret Woodhill, it’s a joy and something she looks forward to.

Her modest home is perched atop a hill with sweeping views of Kaikoura’s rolling mountains that meets the grand sea. Kaikoura is a small town north of Christchurch made famous by its whale watching activity. Annually, the town welcomes enthusiastic wildlife lovers from all over the world. Before the big whale watching boom about 28 years back, Margaret together with her late husband, Bob first opened their home to travelers. At that time, their four children had all grown up and moved out leaving an empty nest. So, the most logical decision was to find a way to fill up empty rooms and that was how Bayview Homestay came about.

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Margaret recounts the first official advert that was published about Bayview Homestay. It was printed in the New Zealand Bed & Breakfast book together with 25 other operators. They welcomed their first six guests and since then, there have been thousands from around the world. Margaret has a poster of the world map stuck on the pantry wall and guests are encouraged to stick a pin on the country of their origin. The map is polka-dotted with many pins, too many to count.

Staying at Bayview felt like putting up a night at grandma’s, especially since I was traveled with my husband and baby son. Margaret treats everyone like family and her warm and infectious smile is the very thing that made me feel at home. The guests’ rooms are situated in a separate section of the family home with a small pantry, living space and a separate entry and exit. But despite the wall that separates us, Margaret never made us feel that we had to stay in the guest area. She welcomed us to roam freely and to join in conversations over a cup of tea at the breakfast table.

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Breakfast was a grand feast at Bayview. Margaret took painstaking effort to provide us with homemade food. Breakfast at Margaret’s is as good as having brunch and she takes pride in what she serves her guests. For two consecutive mornings, we had bacon, perfectly poached eggs fresh from Margaret’s chicken coup and homemade toasts. Atop that, we had a selection of other goodies to choose from; cereal, fresh rhubard and peach jams and yoghurt.

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There is a great sense of respect for the environment at Bayview. Margaret shared with me her passion of tending to her garden, the hours invested in caring for the land and some tips on creating good compost. In her one-acre garden she grows tomatoes, lettuce and other greens. She has a neat chicken coup only for eggs and a beautiful garden of blooming flowers. Despite the garden looking immaculate, Margaret remarks, “I wish I had more time to spend in the garden. If I have a spare minute in the day, you will see me in the garden.”

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Her green thumbs were cultivated over time and she credits her father for sharing tips on keeping the plants healthy. “You need good compost,” she said. “The trick to good compost is seaweed. Layers of grass, animal manure, grass, seaweed…” I listened intently as Margaret freely shared her garden secrets.

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Although Bayview Homestay is opened to guests, the home remains a family sanctuary. Margaret hosts her children and grandchildren when they come to visit from afar. The home is also a meeting place for special occasions such as Christmas. Having spent three days at Bayview, there is undoubtedly a family atmosphere in the place. I asked Margaret what is the best thing about living in Kaikoura. She beamed and told me two reasons, “This home. I’ve lived here so long there are so many memories here. The scenery – looking out the window at the breakfast table, I am reminded how fortunate I am to be living here. Especially when the guests’ go “Wow!” at the view.

Margaret had recently published a book about her life called “Life of Mar”. It is a beautiful recount of her life from childhood up until the birth of her first great grandchild. Precious personal memories and descriptions about Kaikoura were documented. Margaret wrote it as a personal memoir for her family to remember.

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She had lived in her Kaikoura since 1934 and back in the day, there were only 5 houses on the hill – now there are 66 houses. It gave me a sense that development has crept into this small little town, now made famous by the big ocean mammals. But even with the boom, Kaikoura has not lost its charm. The people are still as friendly and communities tightly knitted. Possibly, it is this community-type hospitality that keep tourists coming.

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Two Adults, A Baby, Four Bags & An Address To Golden Grove B&B

It was late. Not midnight late, but late enough. The sun was no more and the neighbourhood silent. We arrived in MacDonaldtown station from the airport, after an 8-hour flight….

It was late. Not midnight late, but late enough. The sun was no more and the neighbourhood silent. We arrived in MacDonaldtown station from the airport, after an 8-hour flight. The place is dead quiet. With us are four bags, a baby in the pouch and an address to ‘No.30, Golden Grove Street, corner of Abercrombie Street.’

The train roared on leaving a thunderous echo on the tracks. We exited the station and decided to let our instincts lead us. Thankfully, our instincts weren’t put to the test (I fear, we would’ve been walked for ages!). We stopped a cyclist that was zooming by and he accessed his google maps to give us directions. Bless him!

Sydney_Macdonaldtown

We arrive at No.30, a prominent stair canopy rising up from the street and a glass door at its entrance with a Kookaburra image etched on it. We led ourselves in and Lloyd Suttor, who had been waiting up all night for us greeted us with a warm smile. He briefly showed us around and excused himself so that we can retire for the night.

The apartment is beautiful, tastefully decorated. It was warm and cosy and instrumental music piped in the background. It felt like home. Famished and a little disoriented, going out for dinner was not an option. Thankfully, Lloyd had stocked the kitchen with bacon, eggs, bread, yoghurt, juice, cereal, fruits and cans of soup.

Dinner satisfied our hunger and it warmed our soul to know that Lloyd planned ahead and anticipated our need. It’s one of those moments that you will remember a place for – like how you remember home. There’s always food, anytime.

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The spacious self-contained studio apartment is a split level unit with the bedroom and lounge rising up from the kitchen. The stylish modern décor is splashed with green, grey and white hues and refreshing floral elements. On the walls are intriguing art pieces by Tony Twigg, an Australian who draws inspiration from Asian cultures in Singapore, the Philippines and Malaysia. The art pieces on display in the apartment are made up from recycled elements collected from these countries.

Golden Grove Tony Twigg

Golden Grove B&B was nothing close to stylish when Lloyd bought over the property in 2010. Previously, a dilapidated student accommodation providing shelter to nearby university students, the building was quite worn out. Lloyd took on this retirement project with gusto.

Hospitality was never on his portfolio, until now. Lloyd was more of a creative person, one with lots of ideas and ways to make magic happen. He was one of the brains and actors behind the well-known Flying Fruitfly Circus, the only Australian full-time circus academy for young people. His retirement project had one condition – it had to involve people. He enjoyed meeting new faces and sharing stories.

We sat around the breakfast table over morning tea as Lloyd told me more about how Golden Grove came to be. Right next to us beyond the glass shutters is a pretty roof top garden and a turbine spinning away. “Sustainability wasn’t quite on my list when I first started tearing this place down. It was Duncan Bond, my architect who introduced earth-friendly elements into the reconstruction,” said Lloyd.

Golden Grove

“I’m sure glad he did! Now the apartment is self-warming and cooling as a result of perfect ventilation. Hot water is powered by solar panels, the garden roof top provides cool to the apartment below and there is plenty of sunlight flowing in from the glass window.” Guests may even overlook these elements, but Lloyd made sure he made a mention in the apartment compendium as a way to educate guests.

Rooftop garden

Golden Grove has two studio units for short-term and long-term rental. “The units are often filled up with people working in Sydney for short stints, parents of students from the university and academics.” It is no surprise the B&B receives repeat guests, as it really feels somewhat, like home.

Located in lively Newtown, one of Sydney’s flourishing precincts, there is always something happening round the corner. Known for its shopping strip, vibrant coffee culture and creative spaces for contemplation and ideas, Newtown attracts both young and old, free-spirited artisans and young families. We had time to stop by Carriage Works, one of the many community galleries in Newtown. This former railway workshop was the hub for Australian-made carriages. Its external red bricked walls and clouded glass windows makes a for a perfect photo backdrop and its high ceiling interior is suitable for any kind of art installation.

We saw the installation by Christian Boltanski called “Chance”. A giant film reel filled with photos of babies whirling from one end to the other on a massive steel structure. Each photo represented a life. At the end of the steel structure was a giant LED board with numbers ticking by – in green are the number of births and red the number of deaths, at the current time. A reminder of the rhythms of life as it unfolds.

Carriage Works

A meaningful installation and a timely reminder to life live to its fullest. This was the chapter that kick started my one and a half months travel to Sydney and New Zealand. Thanks Lloyd for such a warm, welcoming stay.

More stories to follow…

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