Sunday, November 24, 2013

An AWEsome weekend

Weekends are good. Some weekends are great. Once in a while, you have a weekend that is truly spectacular.

Two weeks ago I went to Kuala Lumpur for the Asian Women's Empowerment conference, and I'm so glad I did!

The whole thing kicked off with a wander through KL's streets sampling various goodies with Food Tour Malaysia. It was a great chance to try some local food while getting to know some of the other conference speakers and attendees. I'll post some photos from that soon!

After the food tour, some of us went to a bar called the Helipad, which is, strangely enough, on an actual disused Helipad! There are no barriers, so they're pretty strict about making sure you don't go past that yellow line! It was a bit pricey, but gave us a great sunset and a view of KL tower and the Petronas twin towers.

After the bar, believe it or not, some of us were a bit hungry so we went for Roti Canai. Yum!

Saturday began with a brilliant speech by Juno, in which she told us that it's OK. Ok to to be who we are, do what we want, and live our lives our own way, despite the objections our families, friends, or society in general might have. Now, this isn't something I've really had a problem with, as my family and friends have all been very supportive of the life that I lead, but even so, these issues still come up from time to time. Even at work now it seems that everyone is so career-focused, and I feel like I should be too. I'm the odd one out because, honestly, all I want to do is travel. (I maybe shouldn't say this on a public blog, but whatever) I know I SHOULD go do a Master's degree in TESOL, but I can't quite get motivated to do it. I got into teaching English because of the travel possibilities, not for the love of teaching or the English language. So it still means a lot for me to be told that it's really ok if I want to leave my job and just travel.

Anyway, Juno went on to point out that to truly be independent, we need to be dependent. That everyone needs a support network, either at home from family, or from friends, or from other like-minded people (as in, everyone else in that room!) My life abroad would definitely be a lot more difficult if I didn't have family at home supporting me, looking after the odd bits of bureaucracy that just seem to come up randomly, and just generally being available for me to call up for help or to talk over any thoughts or issues I've been thinking about.

The Keynote speaker on Saturday was Sangduen 'Lek' Chailert, the founder of Save Elephant Foundation. She first fell in love with elephants as a child and has dedicated her entire life to freeing elephants from working in the tourism and logging industries. She had us all in tears as she spoke about the brutality elephants endure in the name of tradition. For her efforts she has faced criticism from her family, her hometown, her society, and even her government. To stand up and speak out for what she believes in in the face of all of that takes an astounding amount of courage, which she just seems to have in spades.

Me with Lek Chailert - what an inspiring woman!
On Saturday afternoon there were simultaneous sessions on freelancing, travelling as a solo female, writing, travel fashion, social media, and initiating social change. Unfortunately, because they ran at the same time I could only attend half of them but I'm looking forward to the video of the others being available.

Saturday finished off with the conference dinner, complete with giveaways! Of course I didn't win anything, but some of my new friends won some great prizes, such as a stay at Tune Hotel in Melbourne and a package trip to Phuket!

After dinner a few of us decided to go to KLCC to see the big towers and have a wander around. We even found a Krispy Kreme donut shop so Pamela and Aggy got to try them!

Sunday morning began with a few of the conference participants telling their stories. Makiko, Won, See, and Deborah shared their experiences and inspired us to be more and do more!

Next, it was my turn! Well, me and five others. We sat on the 'Travel Talk' panel and answered any questions the participants had on various parts of the world, solo travel, security, visas, and global work opportunities.

I think it went well, and was quite pleased when afterward one woman came up to me and was all excited to talk to me about the possibilities of doing a working holiday abroad! Yay! I inspired someone! Me!

Last up was final Keynote speaker Ligwina Hananto, who gave us a surprisingly lively and entertaining talk about finances! Her main point was that women in any situation need to have control of their own money, and that everyone should have an 'emergency fund' of at least 3 months' living expenses.

Me with the lovely Ligwina. What a character!

I was sad that it was the end! It all went by so fast and I met so many amazing people. 

I'm so glad I went to this event. I wasn't sure exactly what to expect but I came away from it inspired, motivated, and like I could achieve anything . I sat on the plane home feeling more positive and certain about what I want to do than I have in a long time. And most of all, I feel now like I'm part of something. There's a whole community out there, which I now belong to, that I can turn to at any time for friendship, support, and advice. I hope all the other women there left feeling the same way.

Thanks AWE '13, and I hope to see you all next year!

Monday, November 11, 2013

Tamarind Laos Cooking School

A while back I posted about my trip to Luang Prabang, Laos on the September long weekend of 2012. You've read about the market tour I did there with Tamarind Laos Cooking School, so now it's time to hear about the cooking class!

They drove us to their base outside of town, complete with a flat tire on the way so we had to get out and walk for the last bit! The kitchen area is in a peaceful setting next to a small pond where they grow and catch their own fish, and has separate preparation, cooking, and eating areas.

We started by making jeow, which is a dip made from pounding up a bunch of vegetables with garlic and chili. I made jeow mak keua (eggplant dip), which started with me pricking the eggplant a few times with a knife, then roasting it over hot coals along with garlic and a big green chili.

We used these great ceramic barbecues, similar to the ones that were used at Freedomland on Phú Quốc Island.

When the everything was thoroughly cooked and the eggplant was black on the outside, I took it off the barbecue and pounded it all together with a mortar and pestle.

This is excellent with sticky rice balled up in your hand and dipped in it!

 Next was mok pa (fish steamed in banana leaves). Again, I pounded up a bunch of herbs with a mortar and pestle, covered a piece of fish with it, then wrapped it into a little banana leaf package to be steamed later.

This is how it came out, and I know it doesn't look very appetizing, but it tasted amazing and was one of my favourite dishes of the day!

Next was Tamarind's specialty, oua si khai (stuffed lemongrass). Now, you might ask "How could you possibly STUFF lemongrass? I'll show you.

First, we pounded up minced chicken with a bunch of herbs and let it sit while we prepared the lemongrass. This took a very sharp small knife and a lot of patience and skill. I had to slice the lemongrass a bunch of times all the way around, through multiple layers for about a 10cm length of the stalk, all without slicing any of my fingers off!

Then you kind of push the lemongrass from each end and stick your finger in the cut part and hold it to make sort of a basket, and stuff the chicken mixture inside.

After letting them sit while we prepared the next dish, we rolled them in beaten egg and deep fried them until the chicken was cooked and the outside was crispy. It was served with jeow som (sour peanut dipping sauce) and was absolutely delicious!

Then we made laap, or what most people would call laap but is actually koy (minced meat and herb salad) because it doesn't have an eggplant base. We used buffalo meat cut very finely, and cooked it with a bit of fish sauce and salt. Then we added a ton of other ingredients and herbs and mixed it all together and voila!

 Then we sat down to eat this entire delicious meal! The tiny basket is full of sticky rice for eating with the jeow and koy, but I didn't eat much of that because there were so many other tasty things and I didn't have room in my belly!

 After all of that we still had dessert, which was khao gam (purple sticky rice with coconut sauce), which simply involved heating coconut milk with sugar and salt, then pouring it over purple sticky rice and leaving it to sit and absorb the liquid. Then top it with fruit of your choice and dig in! Yum!

This was an excellent way to spend the day, and if you're going to Luang Prabang, I highly recommend Tamarind Laos Cooking School. Don't eat before you go because you'll be stuffed by the end of it!

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

AWE Conference '13

So, this post is pretty un-food related and I apologize for the lack of posts recently, but this is one I really want to spread the word about. 

In a couple of days time I'll be headed to Kuala Lumpur for the first ever Asian Women's Empowerment Conference. It's being hosted by my dear friend Jiyeon Juno Kim of Runaway Juno, and aims to inspire and enable women to live the life they want to lead, rather than the one expected of them.

Juno and I at Chinese New Year in Singapore, 2006.

Juno herself has broken free of that mold. I first met her when we were both traveling in Singapore, but she was on a very short trip because she had to go back to Korea to finish her Master's Degree in Mechanical Engineering. When she graduated, she got a job in what she calls the 'cubic farm', where she was expected to work ridiculous hours in exchange for a promising career that she could work at for the rest of her life.

Having a ride in a ridiculous rickshaw in Melaka, 2006.

The problem was that she longed to see the world and hated the environment she was stuck in. She finished her work within a normal work day, but was expected to stay in the office for many more hours, all for show. So what did she do? With all that spare time and solid internet access, she started the travel blog Runaway Juno. 

How much further to the top?  Batu Caves, KL, 2006.

After a year or so of blogging and looking for a way out, she made the huge decision to leave and travel the world. Everyone thought she was nuts. Why would any good Korean girl leave a stable job in her home country, where she was supposed to get married, settle down, and pop out a couple of kids? I know she dealt with a lot of negativity from just about everyone around her, and I completely admire her courage in standing up to all of her colleagues, family, and friends to live her life her way. 

On a big night out in KL, 2006.

A couple of years on, her travel blog is hugely successful, she's quite an accomplished photographer and a social media expert. And now, she's hoping to inspire other women caught in the snare of family and societal expectations to stand their ground and do what they want!

At Trấn Quốc temple, Hanoi, 2012.

AWE is all about that. It's a three day conference featuring successful women (and a man or two) speaking about how they achieved their goals, and empowering other women to achieve theirs. There's everyone from writers and travel bloggers to small business owners and even the founders of charitable organizations aimed at literacy and conservation. And me, ESL teacher and traveler! I'll be sharing stories and advice in the 'Travel Talk' panel on Sunday morning. 

I've been living a somewhat unconventional lifestyle myself for the past several years, as a traveler and expat, but I don't think I get nearly as much flak from people back home as many Asian women do. However, I too need inspiration, ideas, and direction, and am looking forward to meeting all of the amazing people who are going to be attending AWE '13.

The Asian Women's Empowerment Conference is being held at the 5 Elements Hotel in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia from November 8-10, 2013.

At the Welcome dinner on Saturday night there will be giveaways from sponsors Sedunia Travel, Back Home hostel, and Emila Yusof.