Is there a better way to travel?

I’ve had my fair share of travel experiences in my life. And so has, I expect, most of the students in Yale-NUS. But how many of us have actually had meaningful travel experiences?

This travel fellowship in particular has been a dream – we’ve engaged in depth with locals of each city and village we’ve been to, gotten the names and stories of those we conversed with. We’ve tried local cuisines, travelled with locals instead of foreign tour groups, and made local friends that we’ll definitely be in touch with for a lifetime. Sure, we gave in a couple of times and did some touristy things like get bubble tea and fries. But for the most part, unlike any other trip I’ve been on, I can confidently say that this travelling experience has not just been touch-and-go, not a privileged student traversing “less developed” lands.

But again, how many of us can say the same? As a group, we questioned this multiple times. On our long bus rides, when we were struggling to express what we meant via gestures – the only way we knew how, when we were crossing the border into Cambodia, a land that is associated (in Singapore) almost exclusively with overseas “service learning” trips, and even now, as we pack our bags and ready to leave this chaotic but charming (in its own way) part of Southeast Asia.

There’s something very disturbing about the fact that this travel experience has felt so different from other travel experiences we’ve experienced thus far. Something that indeed makes me wonder, how did we go so wrong? How did travel become so glorified, self-indulgent, superficial? We could point fingers at tour groups, governments, advertising businesses, and sometimes even the locals who encourage these thoughtless travel experiences, but at the end of the day, it’s still a choice we make.

It’s many choices we make. From the method of transportation, the food places we eat at, the attractions we mark as to-gos, the people we converse with, even down to the way we say hello, goodbye, and thank you.

But then again, does it matter? There is no easy answer to this question. We stumbled when we got to this question too. Does it matter that most of us just visit cities to take advantage of the strong Singapore (or American) dollar, to take nice photos – devoid of its meanings, its context, and its histories, to say that we’ve actually been there?

Perhaps the more important question to answer is how do we travel better? This trip has provided us with an insight into possible answers, including (but not limited to): supporting local enterprises, eateries, transport companies, staying in homestays instead of international hotel chains, engaging and getting to know locals whenever possible.* These are things we know to do, but rarely carry out. Not because they’re difficult, but because they’re inconvenient most of the time. And sometimes, I guess we all just want a break.

But as we found out from this trip, and as we hope other travel fellows have also learnt, when you travel with a specific desire to engage and learn, you come up with a much more enriching experience that will probably change your life.

*Of course, it’s not a checklist. Even doing all these things doesn’t make you a “better” traveller. The goal is not to “live like a local”, because the truth is, we’ll never be able to. The point is, I think, to acknowledge that we are foreign to the lands we travel to, and respectfully engage with as much heart as we can.

Blogpost #2 Hello Siem Reap: Lotus stems & miracle thread

16 hours’ worth of bus rides and a day later, we arrive in Siem Reap.

Crossing the thailand-cambodia border was no easy feat. The little in-between town was filled with people yelling and engines blaring; the lone traveller would surely be no match against the criss-crossing alleys and misleading dirt footpaths that all seemed to lead to the arrival checkpoint. Memories of it include the intense smoke and heat, and the 100 baht we had to pay the immigration officers to get across the border. (Kimberly, on our daily expenses, wrote the words “corruption-300 baht”. Its not a lot of money in a sense, but its still something that we weren’t used to as Singaporeans with “the best passport in the world”)

The bus rides have been long and winding so far, but also a great time for reflection and some sleep. Our experiences with the artisans in Phrae have left us with wide-eyed wonder for the hidden communities and trades that we never considered previously. We were awed by the knowledge of the ladies we talked to about both natural indigo dyes (Hom) and weaving fabric, and their almost instinctual connection to their surrounding nature and process. Process, for them, is something slow, thoughtful and dignified – it was something that gave them economic benefit and value, as well as something that gave their life purpose. Artisanship is as much about the people as it is about the final product – the artisans, their friendships with each other, and the support it gives to their families and loved ones, as well as the wider communities these sustainable processes benefit.

Artisanship becomes a far wider concept than we could possibly frame within a singular definition. It is both a product and process, and it concerns both the beginning, the middle and the end of the production process. Yet for the people at Mai Kam Fai, it was a way of life, a living wage, and an intimate community of women. Artisanship was also “folk wisdom” – knowledge passed down from their ancestors that they strove to preserve and pass on,

So here in Siem Reap we were excited, but cautious. After our experiences with the weaving community in Mai Kam Fai, we wondered how Siem Reap would be like. We were visiting Samatoa Lotus Textiles, which was a far more international brand than Mai Kam Fai. What would be their focus? How would they differ from what we had already seen? Sometimes, the fear lies in not liking what we might see.

My scepticism faded after conversing with the owner of Samatoa. A Frenchmen who began a lotus thread weaving workshop in Cambodia, Awen told us that his main concerns were the natural environment, and the process of craft. One thing that struck me was his belief that our human processes should fit and adapt to our surrounding environment, rather than the other way around. This was evident in the practice of the artisans and thread weavers there – I remember staring, mouth agape, when I saw the women pulling apart lotus stems to reveal the many microfibres within them, and then pulling them and rolling them into strong looking white thread. A loom stands in a corner and two women sit on it, weaving long rolls of fabric. All from the lotus stems!

I was shocked to see how the tiny fibres in between lotus stems could form such strong, beautiful fabric. The women worked simply in a wooden workshop, shaded from the sun, with knives to cut the lotus stems and water to wet the thread. “A lotus is a living thing, so water is an intrinsic part of the process,” says Awen. The process was unbelievably simple, and ingenious. Typically, lotuses would be harvested in Cambodia for the flower and the seed. The stems would be discarded or composted, but now the stems have led to sustainable fabric being produced, and more women working in safe conditions with a fair wage. It is amazing to see how thinking alongside nature, and adapting our processes to our natural environment, could have such great results.

The loveliest thing, I think, was to see the circular economy at work in this workshop. The focus on process was evident in every small step in the process of making lotus textiles. Yesterday, we saw the lotus stems being turned into thread, than fabric. Today, we visited the nearby lotus farm where Samatoa works with farmers to get their lotus stems. The farmer was a lovely bespectacled old man with a dog named “Shorty” in Khmer. He was a jolly man who laughed a lot at us young girls with our cameras and equipment. He told me how he had to stay in a hut near his farm so he could make sure no one stole his lotuses. Because it was summer season, he was using some of the fields to plant rice, and would only start planting lotuses when the water level rose. Being able to see the origins of the lotus stems, the exact person and farm who grew them, brought me unexpected joy and warmth. It was the first time I could safely see each and every single person who contributed to the making of my clothes, and recognise their simple yet important stories.

I think the farmer was intrigued by my curiosity, and he went around his farm to get me a bunch of lotuses so I could eat its seeds. I wish I got his name! (and not just the name of his dog) But in the moment I was too busy trying to convey with my nods and smiles that we were immensely grateful he let us tour his farm and talk to him, and basically give us the time of day!

A lotus bouquet full of edible seedy goodness!

Of course, my team and I have recognised over the trip that our goal is not to “convert” everyone to artisanship. Artisanal goods are still considered expensive and inaccessible to the usual mall crowd. But we have come to see it as more than just a good, but a concept and way of viewing consumption and production. Artisanship is a lens we can use to view the world around us – placing process, rather than product, at the forefront of our considerations. The question “who made my clothes” will no longer be a far-off concept but the first one that comes to mind when we finger a fabric. It is a way of thinking that reminds us that there are always people and communities behind the final products we use and see, and that they are not as far away or as unrelatable as might think.

These are the girls who work at Samatoa lotus textiles. Most of them make thread, some of them weave. (I told them to do a funshot!)







First leg, Phrae: Indigo dye, weaving & a long bus ride


In Phrae (pronounced “preh”), you cannot escape the mountains. Every which way you turn, the blue-green shadow of sloping mountains peek through. Our friend told us that Phrae is like a pan – it is flat but completely surrounded by tall mountains on every side.

(A view you get at the end of every road)

The 8-hour bus ride from Bangkok to Phrae with little to no WiFi meant a good amount was spent (somewhat pensively?) staring out of the window. It is fascinating how the landscape slowly changes as we began the upward drive to Phrae. The roads started winding, and we were shrouded by endless green – large expanses of farmland and forests. I see trucks crammed with cattle driving past me, and Tammy whispers, “to be slaughtered!”

Along the journey to Phrae, I witnessed several of what seemed like roadside communities. These communities lived directly by the road, sandwiched between huge expanses of farmland and the long stretch of road. They live in between towns, in between cities, seemingly unconnected to where we came from or where we were going next. It appeared to me like a strange, disconnected life. Of course, I could be making assumptions from a privileged person, but their geographical location, where they lived, seem to greatly affect how they lived their lives, and how they could see their futures.

In particular I remember a scene of several watermelon stands next to the empty road, and behind there is farmland. I automatically assumed they were watermelon farmers.They sat next to their watermelon stands, rows of red watermelons cut open to reveal fleshy juicy insides, flies buzzing. The heat was strong, and the road was empty other than our bus and some trucks. I wondered who they could be selling for. It seemed hard to envision they could have many customers other than the odd tourist. Perhaps they could be supplying watermelons to the nearby communities.

The idea of the three of us on our travel fellowship, then, became almost dissonant in its privilege. I didn’t want to feel guilty, but I acknowledged that my geographical location – Singapore, where things were close by; the city was small and accessible – has greatly shaped my freedom to aim and strive for things that I wanted. In turn, there are also communities and people living in the nooks and crannies of Thailand that seem almost forgotten or unheard of, their daily striving for food on the table something many people do not see or recognise. In a country that is big, sprawling, where roads are long and land plentiful, people can easily be cut off from opportunities and growth. This 8-hour bus ride became a small, limited window into what might be a daily reality for some who live by the road. I wanted to remember that there are people everywhere trying to make a life for themselves. And I wanted to remember that aspects like geographical location, urban planning and the environment could have very real and present impacts on individual lives.


The artisan community: Mai Kam Fai 

The moment we stepped into Mai Kam Fai, we were warmly greeted by an elderly woman with curly hair and a large smile. This short and sweet woman was actually the original owner of Mai Kam Fai who had the ambition and hope to continue the traditional practice of weaving and natural indigo ink dyeing. Over the next few days, we learnt that the craft carries the weight of over 200 years of tradition which originated from Laos, something that was very unexpected to me.

She was welcoming and open to sharing her remarkable story of who she was and what Mai Kam Fai meant to her. She proudly shared how Mai Kam Fai has grown since their humble beginnings in 1999 where they have since been recognised by the Tourism Authority of Thailand and have won several awards. She affectionately talked about the artisans that worked for her, consisting mostly of elderly women who weave as and when they please. She went on to share that she was extremely happy that Mai Kam Fai gave the women around her a job and has bonded her community even more ever since indigo dyed fabric became Phrae’s speciality product. And this proved to be true as we explored her workshop and met the weavers. It became very apparent to us that artisanship was much more than a skill. Many of the women working there mentioned that they enjoy their work not only because it provided greater financial stability, but also because they could return to their friends and have a place where they could talk.

However, like so many products that are steeped in tradition, there is a fear that these trades will not be passed on to the next generation and ensure its continuity. The co-founder, Beau, has expressed that her 14-year-old daughter is adverse to the idea of becoming a weaver or continuing the business and we soon learn that Phrae’s youth tends to be uninterested in these traditional crafts, choosing to leave when for bigger cities like Bangkok and Chiang Mai when they are independent. This led us to reflect on the importance of continuity of tradition and the value of artisanship. I am left with this uncomfortable feeling of guilt where I can easily say that I love artisanship and the significance it holds in culture and utility but cannot say that I wish to become an artisan. What can I do to protect this practice when the issue is not with the lack of demand but rather with supply? What happens if this practice dies out? I still don’t have any answers but this experience has surely left me with some confusing perspectives of the significance of artisanship and its future.