Category // Travel

Feeling like Robinson Crusoe on Crusoe Island

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How we spent five days on the amazing Koh Ta Kiev

Ever since we first met we have been celebrating New Year’s on memorable places. Our first New Years was in Barcelona, we had only know each other for two months and this was our first trip together. Our second New Year’s was in a little hut in the middle of nowhere.
Angela fell asleep before midnight and when she woke up it was 00.30, having missed everything. It was one of the coldest New Year’s ever with -12 C. There was only one small wood burner which failed in heating the little hut. On top of that, there was something in the hut that made me really allergic. I was sneezing, feeling sick, it was super cold and we were in the middle of nowhere. It was horrible, but memorable.

This New Year’s eve plans formed in a busy alley in Saigon. We were sitting in the sun, enjoying our Vietnamese coffee. There was a unoccupied plastic stool next to us on which a South-African guy sat down. After the usual where-you-from-where-you-going-chat, he told a story of an uninhabited island in the middle of nowhere in Cambodia with hammocks on the beach and just a handful of people. Not thinking too much of it in early November, we wrote it down and forgot about it until some time later.

A few weeks later, the end of December was creeping in closer and we knew that we had to book something  if we didn’t want to get stuck in Siem Reap for Christmas and New Year’s. After shopping around a little on the usual hostel-websites we suddenly remembered the South-African guy and his hammock island. So we did some Googlin’ around and we were sold right away.

The place we were told about so many weeks ago in Saigon is Crusoe Island, and it’s one of three guesthouses on the island, Koh Ta Kiev. Crusoe Island is a place Robinson himself would’ve liked. It’s basic, it’s sandy, there’s bamboo, there’s jungle, it’s great. Crusoe Island is run by Liam, with amazing staff (Hi Talu and Jake!). Liam is a relaxed Australian guy who has set up Crusoe Island only a short while ago. He is not planning to make this in to a big fancy resort, thank God. If you want to visit Crusoe Island, you can make a booking on Liam’s website. (We were not sponsored, just really liked it!)

Crusoe Island has its own boat. Pick up is from one of the Sihanoukville beaches on the Crusoe boat. It takes about an hour to get to the island. Sitting in the sun with the wind in your hair, sailing along the Sihanoukville coastline is a good way to start any adventure on an uninhabited jungle island.

A night in a tent at Crusoe Island will cost you $5 with tent, mattress and pillows included. You can pitch your tent anywhere you like, Liam will tell you how big the probability of your tent being washed away is in the spot where you initially want to pitch it. We moved three times in the five days we were on the island. If you are willing to take the time to explore Crusoe Island’s part of Koh Ta Kiev there are amazing camping spots to be found. If you hate camping there are four bungalows you can rent, in varying prices and sizes. You can also just rent a hammock for $2 if you want to go survival style.

After pitching your tent there’s a whole lot of stuff to do on Koh Ta Kiev. There are lots of hammocks in Crusoe Island’s base camp where you can hang out, play cards, have a good conversation. read a book or everyone’s favorite: get high. Places like Koh Ta Kiev attract great people and you’re sure to meet someone interesting there. We met a great Dutch girl who was visiting with her 4 year old kid. They’d been traveling together through Thailand and Cambodia for two months. There are so many people who would never take that leap and travel that long and so far away from home with a little kid, and yet it can be so immensely educative for a child, we think every should do it. This little guy was speaking English and interacting with everyone and  he had learned so much more than school can ever teach a 4 year old

If you’re feeling all ‘Dora the Explorer’ you can go for a walk around the island. There are two other guesthouses down the coast, one is Cambodian run, the other is ran by a French dude. At one of those guesthouses is a guy making his own absinthe which once led to a liquor-fueled orgy right on the beach of Crusoe Island.

If you want to have the feeling you’re all by yourself, washed up on a truly uninhabited island, you can find a really secluded spot to pitch your tent and build things. There’s always some stuff to be found in the flotsam that you can use. I built a swing out of bamboo and rope when we were there.

The days we spent on Koh Ta Kiev were perfect. Waking up at sunrise with only the sound of the waves, coming scarily close to your tent. Spending days on our private beach, shared only with crabs, crawling out of their holes and running towards the sea. Seeing several ant colonies relocate. Skinny dipping at six in the morning, watching the sunrise. We loved it. Whenever you’re in Cambodia, go check it out! Koh Ta Kiev is amazing.

The Dwarf Empire: Ethics of the Kingdom of the Little People

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There are several crazy stories going around about China and the things Chinese do. Eating babies, among others. Most of these are hoaxes. The Dwarf Empire however, is not a hoax. It exists. It’s a village built for and inhabited by vertically challenged people, or dwarfs. It also goes by the name of the Kingdom of the Little People and it’s a theme park located near Kunming, that features performances by people with dwarfism. The correct term for anyone with dwarfism is: a person/people of short stature. I’ll say dwarf, as it’s shorter.

Quote from the Dwarf Empire flyer:

The biggest Dwarves Empire in the world, Dwarfs Empire is the magical refuge for the small people who now can live their lifes in peace, away from big city and also big people. Here they can able to be united and do the one thing that make them most happy: to sing and dance for you, spreading for you their Universal Love!

The Kingdom of the Little People is the brainchild of Chen Mingjing, a wealthy and flamboyant real estate investor. At the age of 44, he decided he no longer wanted to make money just for the sake of making money, he wanted to do something else with his life. Chen wanted to do good. So he did what anyone with a right mind would have done: he opened a dwarf theme park. According to Chen, the Dwarf Empire is a rare opportunity for dwarfs to find work and respect.

The current situation in China

Supporters of the park claim that it provides employment to people who would otherwise be unable to find work, but it has been criticized for treating dwarfism as a humorous condition. These opinions are pretty black and white. I think there’s a lot more to it. Read on to see what.

Attitudes toward disabled folk are getting a little better since China hosted the Paralympics along with the Olympics in 2008. This has moved disabled people into the view of the government. Healthcare and support for disabled people have improved since. However many of the Chinese still regard all disabled people as freaks. In smaller communities and bigger cities alike all around China they are often left without employment, healthcare, housing or any other help, ostracized by neighbors and stared at in the streets.

Many disabled people in China are degraded to beggars or to scrounge garbage dump sites. There’s just no one that will hire or help them. The Chinese are a very superstitious people, and some believe having a disabled around brings bad luck to a household. It sounds like the Middle Ages, but do not forget that even though Asia is in some fronts further advanced than Western countries, it lacks severely on others like healthcare and education.

Working at the dwarf empire

At the moment the Kingdom employs well over a 100 people. There are two requirements for being employed at the Dwarf Empire: you need to be aged between 19 and 48, and no taller than 130 centimeters to qualify for a job. The park receives 3 to 4 job applications every week from all over China. This does not necessarily mean the theme park is a popular employer among people of short stature, but I think it points out the bad job opportunities for disabled in China.

The employees of the Dwarf Empire pretend to live in the small, mushroom-shaped houses during the performances. In reality, they live in nearby dormitories, specially constructed for people of short stature. All necessary facilities are available. The employees are given English lessons and counseling/therapy during their employment. Even speed-dating sessions are being held among the employees of the park.

The employees make around ¥1000, or around €150 a month, including housing. University graduates in China make significantly less. Does this make up for the fact that these people essentially live in a freak show? Hard to say. Some interviewed employees claim to be genuinely happy.

They are proud to have a job where they are not extorted by their employers, they are proud they have learned to perform, and believe they entertain people by their skills, instead of how they look. They are proud for even having a job at all. They do not feel like they are living in a zoo. Many employees are happy to live and work with other people of short stature, they feel at home among themselves. They feel they gain self-respect by being able to provide for themselves and their family. According to the few interviewed dwarfs a fair share of current employees of the park had been considering suicide before they came to live at the park, and feel happy now.

So what about it?

I’m still in doubt. Is the Dwarf Empire a good thing or not? It’s a very ambiguous subject. There are obviously benefits to the place for its employees. Many of them lead good lives, happy to be among people they can relate too. Of course there is reason for critique as well. There is a semblance with a 1920’s freak show. People don’t visit the Dwarf Empire to admire the dwarfs’ dancing skills. But according the Kingdom’s inhabitants, they don’t really care. They are proud of their jobs, and their lives. There are lots of Western organizations that do not condone this park, but the question is whether these organizations look at the individuals involved and the dire circumstances some of these people have had to face before coming to the Kingdom of the Little People.

How much exactly can the Little People of America foundation say about the lives of people of short stature in a country that’s so vastly different from theirs in so many ways? The people working and living at the Dwarf Empire will probably never (at least not in their lifetimes) be accepted into China’s mainstream society, will never be given decent jobs, will never have equal opportunities. It’s unfair, but in the Dwarf Empire they are at least with like-minded people they can relate with. I respect the employees of the Dwarf Empire for making this choice for themselves. Their employment is voluntary, and they can quit when they want. The injustice that’s driven them to the Dwarf Empire is far greater than the injustice that’s being done to them there.

As long as rights for all humans in China are not up to par with those in Western countries, I believe the Kingdom of the Little People might be a safe haven for its inhabitants. So in this case, the ethics of this place may be related to human rights in China. As they change, ethics change. Ethics aren’t static, you need to view them through the specific characteristics of a region, that region’s culture and that regions development. I think anyone fighting the battle against the Dwarf Empire is fighting the wrong battle. Human rights in China should be your priority.

I’d love it if you share your thoughts! Respond in the comments section below.

Why You Should Never Travel During Golden Week in China

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This is my story of traveling by train from Beijing to Xi’an during Golden Week 2012 in China. I will walk you through my experience .

China has two mayor holidays throughout the year, where everyone gets a week off. One of those weeks is Golden Week, the first week of October. Now, China is always a crowded place, with people everywhere, all the time, but Golden Week is something else entirely. The Chinese celebrate the end of the harvest and the founding of China in this week. This Golden Week (2012) 86 million people travelled by road, 7.6 million people travelled by air and 60.9 million people traveled by train. In one week. Chinese people love to travel during Golden Week!

People use this week to go home and visit the family they can’t see for most of the year, or for seeing the landmarks of their great nation, mainly Tain’anmen Square and the Forbidden City, both in Beijing.

This completely clogs up the public transport systems of China. In Beijing they closed the subway stations at Tian’anmen Square, due to the masses and fear of terrorist attacks. More stations all over Beijing were closed for the same reasons. In this week, we chose to take the train. This story might scare you, but I promise it’s not always this bad.

In China, besides hard/soft sleeper, hard/soft seat, but you can also buy standing tickets. For 16 hour train rides. In Golden Week, even the standing tickets are sold out.

Getting in to the train station

Imagine arriving at the station, trying to fight your way out of a bus, into a huge crowd. All these people need to get into the station, past luggage checks, ticket checks and body searching officials. You kind of charge your way through, using your elbows and the added weight of your backpack and the daypack in front of you (the only occasion where having two bags on me was convenient), you get in what you think is the line for the ticket check.

When you finally get to the wrong gate you will be let through on account of being a lǎowài (foreigner). After having your ticket checked you can get in line again, luggage check. Usually this line moves reasonably fast.

It works like this: you dump your bags on a conveyor belt and walk through a metal-detector gate, while a bored official with a big gun pretends to look at the screen where the x-ray of your bag appears. Everyone beeps at those gates, no one gets checked. This predicament cleared, another official (with white gloves, think Mickey Mouse, but Chinese) will pretend to do a body search on you, so her boss will think she’s actually doing any work. The boss is smoking a cigarette and playing with his phone at that moment, so it doesn’t really matter what she does, it’s just keeping up appearances.

So after all this, you arrive in the waiting hall. Sounds relaxed eh? It’s not.  The waiting room is small, filled with stinky, coughing, retching, farting, noodle-eating, staring-at-you Chinese. It’s the most impressive cacophony of sound and smell anyone can ever experience, barring India.

Every track has its own waiting hall, and usually about four trains per day leave from a track. So most of the people in that hall are waiting for the exact same train you are waiting for.

Surprisingly, Chinese trains and railway stations almost always run in time, we’ve only once or twice experienced a late train.

Getting on the train

After about an hour of waiting, the gates to the track open up, and everyone around you stands and rushes headlong to the gates dragging along kids and bags, creating a nice little traffic congestion on the way. After waiting in line for a while, your ticket again gets checked at the gate. So you get to the train.

It’s usually about 20 carts long, and printed on your ticket is your cart number, and your seat number. If you get a bed there is also upper, middle or lower printed in a Chinese character, which is pretty easy to read. You’ll be fine.

Anyway, you get to the train, along with the two thousand people who were in the waiting hall with you. You find your cart and get in line to get on. Your tickets are checked once again, this time by the caretaker of your cart. Every cart has a caretaker/train-conductor who sweeps and comes by with a garbage bag once an hour. He has to do this or else all the waste the Chinese produce will soon fill the train to pour out the windows. The conductor didn’t even try to do this in Golden Week, as there was no way he could have swept the floor with all those people standing, sitting and lying everywhere.

We had only gotten our tickets two days earlier. This due to some amazing planning and great ignorance on our side. We didn’t even know China had a Golden Week until about three days before. The only tickets we could get for our 13-hour train ride were hard seat tickets. Mixed in with the hard seat crowd are the standing tickets people.

Getting in your seat

When you get on the train it will became painfully clear to you just how much of a train ride from hell this is going to be. There already is some disagreeable woman and her fourteen bags sitting on your seat. This woman has a standing ticket and isn’t planning to use it, she’s planning to use your seat. Getting her off your seat is a challenge involving smiling on your side, angry looks on her side, her studying your ticket for about 5 minutes, a train conductor, some shouting and help of the Chinese crowd around you. But in the end, you will claim your seat, promise.

The seat is hard. You will have to sit on it for 13 hours. There is no air conditioning and there are over a hundred people with standing tickets in your car. Chinese like to stare and if they’re a crowd they care even less than usual. Being in a crowd that stares justifies staring for them. At least you’ll have the feeling you’re being well looked after.. Or at.

After a while an elderly lady spreads out a bamboo mat underneath some chairs which are about 40cm from the floor. You wonder what she is going to do. Next thing you know she crawls under those seats, and starts sleeping. It honestly looks like a better idea than your hard seat, but imagine an elderly European woman on a train in any country in Europa taking a bamboo mat out of her luggage, spreading it out underneath some chairs people are sitting on, and then shooing these people out of the way so she can crawl under and get to sleep. Can you even?

Did we tell you travelling during Golden Week is madness?

Getting of the train

So after a night of wallowing in excruciating pain in your entire body, caused by the hard seats, you get to sit there for a couple more hours while all the Chinese do what Chinese do best. Staring. At you. You should be used to it by now. When you finally get to Xi’an, sleep deprived and in need of a psychotherapist, you are glad to have it over with. If only.

You get out of the train and walk toward the exit of the tracks, along with all the rest of the people on the train. Your tickets are being checked again at that point. Then you get to walk toward the exit of the station, where you pass through another luggage check, body search and ticket check, because apparently the ones in Beijing aren’t sufficient. You walk out the station and are greeted by a huge crowd of people. Those people are the families, extended families and friends of the people who shared the train with you, who’ve come to pick up their relatives.

Imagine about ten-thousand people crammed into an area that’s not fit for even a quarter of them. So you do the routine of charging your way through again, to find the bus stop. Same story there. On the way there you are constantly harassed by motor drivers who are sure they can bring you, your girlfriend, two 50 liter backpacks and two daypacks to your hostel just fine. As you are in no mood to die after all this, you politely tell them to fuck off.

You got on the bus, built in 1934, and a miracle unfolds. It’s the right bus, and you have the right amount of yuan to buy your ticket. Bus drivers in China don’t do change, you just give them what you have closest to what it costs. It’s similarly crowded in the bus as everywhere else during Golden Week, but at that point you’re happy to have found the right one.

After this train trip, finding your hostel is cake, and as you collapse on your bed you vow yourself never to travel during Golden Week again.



The Great Wall of China: Keeping out Mongolians Since 220 BC

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It takes a lot for me to be impressed but when I got out of the minivan and saw the Great Wall of China for the first time, I was awestruck. We approached the wall and I could just sense the greatness of societies past. I have never felt so humbled before a structure.

If you want to enjoy the Great Wall of China in peace and quiet, go to the Great Wall at Huanghua. According to official government signs this part of the wall is closed but villagers from Huanghua keep it open, charging 3 yuan entrance fee.

There is no entrance to the Great Wall but a rickety ladder. The ladder is way steeper than it looks on the pictures, and the steps are quite slippery. At the end of the ladder is a window you have to crawl through to get on the Wall. All in all, lots of fun.

Once on top there’s a lot of climbing and walking to do. Try to get to the highest top you can reach, it’s well worth it for the experience and the view.

Ha Long Bay, We Needed You

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We always talked about how much we hate organized tours and how we would never join one. Travel can change you and sometimes doing the easy thing feels a lot better than doing the hard thing.
After China we needed some relaxation and somehow we ended up on a three-day organized cruise through Ha Long Bay. Being on a boat, lying in the warming sun of Ha Long Bay and feeling the silty sea winds blow through your hair. We have longed for this. We haven’t actually relaxed since we left home. Traveling can be hard work sometimes.

This was the first time we really did not have to do anything. Every second of the day was planned out for us, we did not have to bother ourselves with itineraries or planning. Herded like sheep we followed the tour guide around. Sounds horrible. It was amazing. So relaxing. We met some really nice people on the boat, we had three very nice Vietnamese meals every day and we saw the fantastic  things Ha Long Bay has to offer.