koh phi phi

2016 My Year in Review by Jessica Lee

Angkor Wat, Siem Reap Cambodia. Photo: Najeer Yusof

Angkor Wat, Siem Reap Cambodia. Photo: Najeer Yusof

2016, for me, was a year that could only be described as “FULL”. I spent a record (in a year) total of 110 days (30% of the year) travelling locally and also to other eight countries, five of which were new to me; had a full-time job; on top of another full-time job (freelance photography); on top of helping my best friend get married (almost a full-time job); and also managed to accomplish some personal goals like reading 52 books this year, getting my motorcycle license, finally paying off all of my student loans (phew!) and getting my Open Water Diving Scuba certification. I also finally went on my South East Asia backpacking trip which I had been planning for since 2012 but something always came in the way. 

I spent this year climbing, swimming to the depths of the ocean, tanning on exotic beaches, exploring new careers (I spent ten days as a bartender on a Thai island), going on motorcycle trips around Vietnam; and subsequently also spending some time at the hospital getting minor surgery because of the aforementioned motorcycle trip. It’s been a fantastic journey and though it was exhausting at times, there’s no way I would stop living so fully.

Exploring Koh Chang, Thailand by motorcycle

Exploring Koh Chang, Thailand by motorcycle

While I didn’t get everything I wanted handed to me this year (bummer), I am truly satisfied with where I am in this moment in my life. I am grateful for the richness of experiences I’ve been fortunate to have, for old friends, new friends and beautiful moments I’ve been able to share with people this year.

Here is what I learned from 2016:

Ngapali Beach, Myanmar

Ngapali Beach, Myanmar

1. Don’t take for granted where you are now and have insurance for the future, or at least an exit strategy or escape plan. Earlier this year, I was photographing a news event with a bunch of photographers. There was one photographer who caught my eye because though he was in his late 40s or early 50s, he had sense of style that belonged to someone in their teens or late thirties. It was really cool. I later found out that he used to be the editor in chief of this niche national magazine I loved back in high school. Back then, in my teenage eyes, he had the dream job. Now, ten years later, he was reporting for a publication that no one reads. I do not know his entire story (and also everyone knows print journalism is declining) but was sad to see how his career and situation changed so drastically. What I’ve learned from this is that careers don’t always advance, sometimes they go the other way – have a good back-up plan for ten/twenty/thirty years from now.

They're married! Photo: Dave and Jen Stark

They're married! Photo: Dave and Jen Stark

2. Spend more time with people you love. Life is short! This year, my best friend of 20 years got married to the love of her life. Her and I had been dreaming of this day since we were six, and how we agreed we would be maid of honour for each other. The wedding was a major milestone – we were waiting our whole lives for this moment and now it was finally here. While standing at the altar, supporting her, I realized how quickly 20 years had passed, and how quickly the next 20 years will pass. Make sure you make time for the people important to you before life passes you by.

Giving my Maid of Honour speech, notice how everyone is laughing but the groom appears worried. :) Photo: Dave and Jen Stark

Giving my Maid of Honour speech, notice how everyone is laughing but the groom appears worried. :) Photo: Dave and Jen Stark

Photo: Dave and Jen Stark

Photo: Dave and Jen Stark

3. Follow your own plans, don’t get swayed by other people’s projections on you. Earlier this year, I worked in a fancy corporate office where most of the people had mortgages, multiple cars, and cottages. They had comfortable lives in the same job for several years and were planning to retire in the same state. It wasn’t the life I wanted for myself – at least not yet; but in conversations, I was made to feel like I wasn’t a complete person just because I didn’t own a car like everyone else. In the end, I stuck to my guns and chose not to buy a car (I walked 20 minutes to the office each day) because I knew that if I had to make car payments, I wouldn’t be able to do other things I wanted to do more. Like right now, I’m writing this from a sunny, pristine beach in Myanmar while sipping a pina colada. I can afford this lifestyle because I chose to follow my own dreams and not be swayed by other people’s opinions.

Ngapali Beach, Myanmar

Ngapali Beach, Myanmar

4. Know your own value. This is what I had to deal with earlier this year while quoting rates for photography: “Are you even that good?” “You’re not even a wedding photographer, why are you so expensive?” “The real photographer will be here on Wednesday”. The truth of it is, photography seems like it’s easy to do, but it’s more complicated than that. Behind the scenes, photographers are constantly testing new lighting techniques, reading about new equipment and researching locations. There is so much work that goes into things a non-photographer doesn’t even think about, like photography permits or post-processing. Anyway, I’m not bitter if people don’t understand this all at first. I keep getting photography jobs at rates I’m happy with so I must be doing something right.

Exploring the 'Tomb Raider' temple in Siem Reap, Cambodia

Exploring the 'Tomb Raider' temple in Siem Reap, Cambodia

5. Great things take time. I think when you’re young and you have the fortune of meeting extraordinary people who have done amazing things, you tend to get overwhelmed by their stories. But over the years, I’ve learned that you can’t do everything (well) in a short period of time. Many significant projects take years. When I was 21, I met so many older, well-travelled people who seemed so knowledgeable and cultured. But throughout the years I’ve been slowly accumulating experience and going to far-flung places myself. Now, I am the one getting asked for advice from 18 year olds. Just be patient, keep working hard, enjoy your life and great things will come.  

6. Slow down and do things right the first time. I wish someone had whispered this into my ear several times this year. Once, when I was trying to claim something from my health insurance and got denied because I didn’t read the instructions thoroughly – this led to so much wasted time trying to wrap up loose ends. And second, before I got on the motorbike and drove 182 km on dirt roads during the night time in northern Vietnam. We swerved off an indent in the road I didn’t see until it was too late (it had been a nice smooth road until that point). We were just an hour from our destination before we hit the indent, flew off the bike and I had to go to the hospital to get minor surgery to clean my wound. Three stitches, some morphine and acetaminophen, a tetanus shot and a prescription for eight antibiotic pills a day later, I hobbled out of the hospital and continued my travels around South East Asia, but with much more difficulty, inconvenience and pain. (My friend was fine, except for one cut.) We were rushing back from Halong Bay to Hanoi to catch my friend’s flight that next morning, but I keep thinking that if we gave ourselves more time or if I drove just a little slower, we wouldn’t have had this accident. Of course, at worst, this accident is just an inconvenience in a minor part of my life. There were some things I couldn’t do because of my injury, some days I had to stay at the guest house and rest; and I had to constantly clean my wounds when I would rather be doing other things. Yet, the important thing is I haven’t permanently ruined any lives or done anything that is irreversible; so I think if flying off the bike and suffering the week after while recovering was meant to be a lesson, it was a good one.

E.R. in Hanoi, Vietnam. One of the worst days of 2016

E.R. in Hanoi, Vietnam. One of the worst days of 2016

Chicago in September

Chicago in September

7. Be bold and ask for what you want – because sometimes you will get it. This one keeps surprising me: all the times I got yeses when I thought I would be met with a no. Earlier this Fall, I received a photo assignment in Singapore where I had to find someone to model in a product shoot – keeping in mind I know no one in Singapore – I somehow met a girl at a lounge who was willing to let me photograph her and also several people who were just curious and volunteered to help. They became my set assistants for the morning. If there is one piece of good advice I leave you for 2017, it’s this: be direct and ask for what you need/want. You never know what might happen.

Koh Chang, Thailand

Koh Chang, Thailand

My favourite books I read this year:

Fifteen Dogs - André Alexis
What I was Doing While You Were Breeding - Kristen Newman
Catherine the Great - Robert K. Massie
A Moveable Feast - Ernest Hemingway
How to get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia - Mohsin Hamid
The Song Machine - John Seabrook

Favourite places I went to:

Chicago, Illinois
Koh Chang, Thailand
Koh Phi Phi, Thailand
Siem Reap, Cambodia
Singapore, Singapore
Cat Ba Island, Vietnam
Ngapali Beach, Myanmar

Gardens by the Bay, Singapore

Gardens by the Bay, Singapore

Watching fire dancers on the beach on Koh Chang, Thailand. One of my favourite days of 2016.

Watching fire dancers on the beach on Koh Chang, Thailand. One of my favourite days of 2016.

Cat Ba Island, Vietnam

Cat Ba Island, Vietnam

See ya in 2017! Stay adventurous!

See ya in 2017! Stay adventurous!

Koh Phi Phi - An Island Paradise in Thailand by Jessica Lee

Of all of the lives I've led so far, currently, this is the strangest one.

Three weeks ago, I landed in Bangkok to backpack around South East Asia and to see first-hand what it's like to be here. After travelling around the island of Koh Chang, then Tonsai, and Ao Nang; I took a ferry to where I am now: the island of Koh Phi Phi. Originally, I was led here based on the good things I've heard about this island; it being on many of the "most beautiful island" lists of travel publications around the world and also being mentioned in glowing terms in casual conversations with other travellers. Yet initially, the charm of this island escaped me as I had seen so many stunning beaches in the last couple of days that one more picturesque beach didn't quite knock me over the way I see it affects some of the tourists who freshly disembark from the daily ferry boat to this island. But that was all about to change. Something else would grab me.

Three nights ago, I went out to the bars with a bunch of other travellers and I ended up chatting with the expat owner of one the bars on the island and he offered me a job at the bar, which I happily accepted because: why not? I've always wanted to be a bartender.

Now, my days consist of waking up to a beach view, going for tea and breakfast, doing some reading, writing and photography, taking lunch and dinner; then getting ready for work.

The work is not overwhelmingly good or bad, just vastly different. I went from doing public relations for the government to bar relations with my customers.

The secret of a good bartender, as I have learned, not only involves creating tasty and presentable drinks, but also involves making it look effortless while creating said drinks and chatting with the bar patrons. To get to "exceptional level", one must make creating drinks look fun and entertaining; and also innovate new drinks at the bar.

It's a good and fun life here on Koh Phi Phi. My biggest problem here so far was when my favourite breakfast place ran out of ripe bananas so I couldn't eat the Thai Nutella Banana pancake I usually ordered. I spend the day tanning at the beach while reading or going scuba diving. And because the island is fairly small, I've started bumping into friends and acquaintances when I make my way around town. It's nice to be able to say hi to familiar faces, even if I barely know them. I've also started "visiting" friends. This is a new habit for me because when I was in Toronto, I lived so far from everyone I know, that a visit can take up to half an hour to drive. And most times, friends are out. Here, everyone more or less has a predictable schedule and I can drop by in a ten minute walk for a quick chat or a long sunset watching session.

It's very easy to get swept up into the lifestyle and never leave. Most of the bar staff I work with, initially started off as travellers like me. Now, some of them have been living on this island for two years, tanning away their days. In a way, Koh Phi Phi is a small town paradise. Almost everything you need for a happy existence can be found here. There is a good community, plenty of sunshine, a good work/life balance, cheap living, and love, if you look for it. The challenge is giving yourself the push to drop out of this easy comfort and eventually adventure off the island. Because there is so much more out there in the world.