travel blogger

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.

Things I learned in 2015 by Jessica Lee

San Diego, U.S.A.

San Diego, U.S.A.

I began January 2015 in San Diego, California, a place where I realized I was at the happiest in my 20’s. It was a big gamble to go to California for a month at this time because though I knew I needed a break from the Winter in Canada, I still wanted and needed to hold on to my job in Montreal and also I needed to watch my budget. However, the sunshine, break and change of lifestyle was exactly what I needed to refresh myself to get ready for the rest of 2015.

San Diego also taught me a lot about myself and my resiliency, as the second day of my stay there, my wallet mysteriously disappeared. 2015 was a year of great breakthroughs, adventure and double-takes. I got published for the first time in the Toronto Star and made it to Canadian Press’ freelance photographer’s list. I spent a grand total of 59 days this year on the road when I wasn’t in Toronto or Montreal. There were so many good times and laughter, but also a few tough moments, which is where the learning comes in.

This is what I learned in 2015:

1. How to say no to things
Learning to say ‘no’ to multiple projects or people was one of the most difficult things I learned to do this year. It felt odd and there was a tension within myself. But to make room for bigger and better things, sometimes you just have to say no to projects that don’t pay enough or people who don’t respect your time or situations that drain you emotionally. Because I said no to some projects and contracts, I was able to say yes to spontaneous road trips, shooting for McDonald's Canada and shooting for Frito-Lay.

Road trip through the States!

Road trip through the States!

2. Take things slow.
This is your life, enjoy it. As much as you’re supposed to work hard and constantly better yourself (growing up in hyper-competitive Toronto, working hard is ingrained into you), sometimes you just need to relax. After living for a year in Montreal (I moved back to Toronto this summer), I learned to adopt the carefree French attitude of enjoying life’s pleasures. Every weekend, my routine included a leisurely brunch with friends followed by tanning and reading in the park. What is the point of life if you don’t get to enjoy the beautiful moments? I once knew a guy who was hardworking and had a great job and a great salary and a great apartment, but he spent so much of his youth working, he didn't have time to develop his relationships or even go out and now in his late 20's he doesn't have anyone to enjoy his life with and even worse, his social skills are so rusty, he is having trouble finding people to spend time with him. Anyway, the point of this message is: you don't have to be working hard all the time and you should keep a balance in your life.

San Diego living :)

San Diego living :)

3. Visualize the bigger picture.
Early on in my photography/writing career I did work for free and I also devoted a large amount of time developing my own blog (which was a labour of love) but with every photo I took and every blog post I wrote, I slowly got better at what I was doing and all my work became my portfolio and ended up getting me into the door of some bigger companies. I made huge strides (Toronto Star, Canadian Press) in my freelance career this year because of all that experience. You give some away, and you get some more. Don’t get discouraged if early on in your career you have to give away some (or all) of your work for free; all of it is coming back to you in experience, just remember to look at the bigger picture.

Crete, Greece

Crete, Greece

4. How to tell the client they are wrong (respectfully and politely).
Sometimes you can do all the work the client asked for, the way they asked for it, sometimes doing it several times over and still the client isn’t happy for whatever reason. This is not your fault. Early on in our lives, we learn to make people happy, whether it is our teachers or parents; by meeting their expectations in whatever way they expect from you; or at your first job where you’re told the customer is always right. Yet as you get more life experience, you realize that some people just can't be pleased, and sometimes the customer is just an unhappy person and that has nothing to do with you. The solution to this is to surround yourself with a network of other freelancers who will give you support and encouragement. 

Tanning in Montreal with fellow photographer, Dale.

Tanning in Montreal with fellow photographer, Dale.

5. How to live with little to none (this is especially useful for a freelancer)
As I mentioned earlier, this year in January, my wallet went missing on my second day in San Diego and I had to live with no money for a whole four days before my credit card, which was express-shipped, arrived in California. Through this experience (literally one of my worst fears while travelling), I learned just how little I could live with and still survive and have fun - sort of like how Evey in V For Vendetta, toughens up at the end when V put her through all that crap. The truth is, many of us have all of these built-up fears of “what if”s, but when things actually happen, we cope better than we think we can. Through the experience, I ate a lot of bread, and grumbled about being hungry, but a lot of people live with much worse. Also, a majority of people think they need a lot of money to have a great life (according to a study, after a certain point, money won't make you happier), but really it’s all about attitude, which brings me to the next point.

Friend owned the boat, so free ride :)

Friend owned the boat, so free ride :)

6. Money is just something that can be made again (spend on people you love). Earlier this year, after making a transition from working at a full-time job to being a freelance photojournalist, I lived minimally for a while – rarely going out or having dinners at restaurants. Then in March, someone I met started taking me out a bunch, spending a lot of cash on food and drinks. When I asked him why he was doing all of this, he said "money is something you can make again", which I understand more now. At the end of your life, it's much better to have memories made with people, facilitated by money, than to die with a pile of money and no fond memories.

Sailing in the Bosphorus in Istanbul with my friend Dave!

Sailing in the Bosphorus in Istanbul with my friend Dave!

7. Be patient, and wait for your moment. Earlier this year, as a newly hired contractor for a project, things at the company shifted and suddenly there was a lot more than the team could handle. It was brought up in a team meeting that there was a need for a writer who could take on a couple more assignments each week. As the new person, I wanted to jump in and show initiative, yet somehow I knew this wasn’t the right opportunity for me as I knew I wanted to focus more on my photography. There was a tension in my chest as I held my tongue and didn't volunteer - they had to hire someone else, but in the end I was glad I didn't jump in as a few weeks later, there was a need for someone with video skills, which is much closer to photography than writing. The lesson to come away with is to wait for your moment. This is true for everything else in life, if something doesn't feel right don’t feel pressured to jump into a business opportunity, buying a property or a marriage, because if it’s truly right for you, it will come again. You just need to have faith!

Old Port Montreal office space

Old Port Montreal office space

8. You don’t get anywhere if you don’t ask. Earlier this Fall, I missed my flight home from Istanbul to Toronto because there was this thing called Passport Control where before you even enter security to board your flight, you have to get in this big line where it’s a pre-screen. In my entire life of catching planes and travelling, I’ve only ever missed one flight, so I didn’t accommodate for this extra two hours of waiting before boarding. In Toronto (and other airports around the world), if you’re about to miss your flight, there are airport employees who can push you through the lines so that you don’t miss your flight, but no such thing existed in Turkey. You are on your own in this country. Anyway, as I was about to miss my flight because I was in this line, I started asking people if I could skip ahead of them. I found that many people are surprisingly accommodating if you tell them you’re about to miss your flight and will let you go ahead of them, no questions asked. Unfortunately, I did this near the end of my wait, and still ended up missing last boarding call by 10 minutes. But now I’m less hesitant about asking for things, even from strangers.

Nashville, earlier this August.

Nashville, earlier this August.

9. Photography is not real. I knew this before, but I understand more of the depth of it now. I don't mean obvious things like photoshopping pigs in the sky, but rather things like how lighting can make a picture dramatically different. Through a lot of varied photography jobs this year, where I had to make products or people look good, I learned just how much work goes into lighting or waiting for that one key moment to get a frame. There was this local politician I saw quite often day-to-day professionally, who wasn’t the best looking guy out there in the world – but that’s okay, not everyone needs to be Brad Pitt. But in a photo I saw of him, this photographer managed to make him look attractive, even slightly appealing (with no photo alterations, just good use of lighting!). This is the power of photography. Hire the best photographers you can, it's worth it! :)

Tijuana, Mexico, in January

Tijuana, Mexico, in January

10. The gifts you receive aren’t really because you deserve them but because the people you know are AWESOME, big-hearted and generous. This year, I’ve been blessed by so many delicious treats, great meals and fantastic experiences. A lot of it was the plain luck of having the right people in my life or meeting the right people (like when I met my friend Alek who gave me an unforgettable motorcycle ride through San Francisco up to Hawk Hill, with sweeping views of the Golden Gate Bridge), but then there are the times when you try to give back to people who gave to you first and they end up giving you even more. And then there are things you receive which you just can't ever repay (like photography advice that ends with you getting published in Rock and Ice), so you just learn to be grateful and try to give back to the world in some other way. What I am trying to say here is that I'm really grateful for everyone who has contributed in some way to my life this year, so thank you.

Dave and I in Istanbul, Turkey

Dave and I in Istanbul, Turkey

*Bonus*: Always consider opportunity cost! This year, I found a cheap flight from Oslo, Norway to Crete, Greece. It was $53, what a steal! But what I didn't consider was that the flight time, 6 am, meant that I wouldn't sleep all night and would arrive to Greece sleep-deprived and cranky. It also cost $53 for the bus to the further airport in Oslo that this flight operated from. So if you see something that looks like a good deal, always consider the other factors.

Here's to an even more awesome 2016! Stay adventurous!

Alek and I on Hawk Hill, San Francisco

Alek and I on Hawk Hill, San Francisco

My favourite memories of Toronto by Jessica Lee

In honour of TBEX (travel blogger conference) happening this weekend (May 31st- June 2nd) in Toronto, I decided to write an entry about my hometown and my favourite memories there.

I was extremely privileged to grow up in a city where there were always big cultural events happening and lots of different niche groups where I could explore my interests with a supportive community.

My favourite things about Toronto would be:

1. We have a diverse and impressive food scene. There are literally dozens of cafes and eateries littered around the city. You can have your choice of any culture of food here.

My ideal day would consist of breakfast (caramelized banana pancakes) at Saving Grace in the west end, then a pho lunch in Chinatown, a coffee break Merchants of Green Coffee (great atmosphere) and I would finish off with either pasta at La Bruschetta near St. Clair or most of the entrees at Glow Restaurant (Don Mills) or pretty much any of the restaurants run by Mark McEwan and Oliver and Bonacini (Luma at the top of the TIFF building is fancy and great for desserts).

Here are said pancakes from Saving Grace:

The atmosphere at Merchants of Green Coffee:

Desserts at Luma:

For a comprehensive list and photographs of dining places I recommend in Toronto, follow my Twitpic account here. Or alternatively, feel free to message me at @jessicaology for specialized recommendations.

2. My second favourite thing about Toronto is its festivals.

Since I love jazz music, the Beaches Jazz Festival which takes place around July is my favourite.

It's a lovely atmosphere where bands play on the street and you go and dance with your friends. It's completely free.

This is what it looks like, but the lead photo represents the feeling.

This is Buskerfest, which happens at the end of summer.

It's a gathering of international buskers (singers, street performers, acrobats) and it's a free event.

This is Nuit Blanche, which is also free and takes place at the beginning of October. It's an all-night arts festival which aims to promote artists and to stimulate the minds of attenders. But really, it's fun to just hang out with your friends and do novel activities such as watching these performances and wandering into random buildings which are usually closed off.

One of my favourite instalments took place in the film building beside OCAD where they played an old silent Max Weber film and had a live pianist accompany it. It was like the 1930s! Isn't it strange how surround sound is supposedly an improvement to film but watching a retro film is now a treat for me?

3. Neighbourhoods

Toronto has many diverse and fun neighbourhoods to explore.

Here are my favourites:


Harbourfront is a lovely place to hang out with friends or with a date. During the summer they hold free swing dances with a live band down by the Harbourfront Centre and during winter, there is free skating. It is a great place to watch the sun set or to go for a walk.

Here is another photo:

Other neighbourhoods you should check out that I don't have photos of include:

A) Kensington Market/Chinatown
This is a hip neighbourhood with great patios for the summer. Back in high school, I used to love Kensington Market because I was going through a hippie stage and I loved the vintage t-shirts I could pick up in one of the many vintage stores there. Nowadays, I hang out in Kensington during Pedestrian Sundays, where they close off the road in the summer. It's a great place for cheap food, meeting artsy people, eating on a patio and of course, vintage shopping. Wear: a flower in your hair and dreadlocks.

B) Yorkville
Back in high school, I used to love Kensington Market because I was going through a hippie stage and I loved the vintage t-shirts I could pick up in one of the many vintage stores there. Nowadays, I hang out in Kensington during Pedestrian Sundays, where they close off the road in the summer. It's a great place for cheap food, meeting artsy people, eating on a patio and of course, vintage shopping. Wear: a flower in your hair and dreadlocks.

C) Queen Street West (for edgy shopping and fashion)

D) Distillery District
The Distillery District is a really nice, classy place, great for romantic walks at night (they have cobblestone roads), or ice cream breaks during the day.

I lied, I actually have a photo of the Distillery District. Here I am with my friend Josh and his sister during the Christmas Market festival in December.

I also feel like I should mention Roncesvalles (little Poland) and Little Italy because both of these neighbourhoods are fun to walk through and explore. There are many little cafes and eateries to discover and lots of boutiques to shop at.

While you're in town, you should also see which bands are playing shows. Since Toronto is one of the larger cities in North America, pretty much every band that makes a Canadian tour will stop in Toronto. I've been lucky to attend the shows of many of my favourite bands because of this.

Also, the MuchMusic Awards take place every year in late June, it's a riot. You should definitely check it out if you're still here by then. It's free. Teenyboppers flood the streets and there is a red carpet, paparazzi and celebrities. And free music of course. Even if Top 40 isn't your cup of tea, the whole spirit of it is fun.

There are literally lists upon lists of places to explore in Toronto.

I have decided to pick my top three tourist attractions (outside of the neighbourhoods I just described to you). I am a bit of an artsy person.

1. Royal Ontario Museum (go see the T-Rex)
2. Casa Loma (For architecture fans)
3. Art Gallery of Ontario

Also, if you have time, bring a group of friends to Snakes and Lattes, which is a board game cafe. They close at 2 am, which is ridiculous! It makes for a fun and inexpensive night of bonding with buddies. It's just $5 for admittance.

I know this list just seems to go on and on, but while you're in town, don't forget to check out some Toronto theatre. Many nights, you can get rush tickets for as littles as $5, or pay-what-you-can. Theatres that have this include Tarragon Theatre, Young Centre for the Performing Arts, Factory Theatre and Theatre Passe Muraille- to name a few.

Readers: What do you think of this list? Did I miss any of your favourite places in Toronto?

Wine tasting the Niagara Escarpment, Ontario by Jessica Lee

Wine tastes the way it does because of the climate and the soil it's grown in.

And because of the moderating effects of the lake surrounding the Niagara Escarpment, it is a great place to grow grapes.

I spent Sunday on a work-sponsored field-trip down south near St. Catharines, Ontario, tasting wines and learning more about them.

Here is a photo of my co-workers packed in a school bus:

I've only been with the company for about a month, but I really like how everyone is so welcoming and friendly. Or that they give off that image at least. There was a great camaraderie on the bus ride to and from Toronto.

The last wine tasting I did was back in Australia, in Adelaide. It was with a bunch of strangers, so the feeling was quite different, though I enjoyed it very much. I find that alcohol generally tends to go better with people you know, however.

Cave Springs Cellars was gorgeous. It made me wonder what it would be like to work at a winery, picking grapes. Of course in my head, I envision waking up every day in a distinguished stone house and prancing bare feet in the grass, through the vineyards to work in a lovely, flowing white summer dress.

The reality probably looks something like muddy rain boots, ratty jeans and a farmer's shirt- which I suppose is something I could deal with as well... (oh the sacrifices!)

We spent the day touring the place and learning about what affects the taste of wines. What really interested me the most was that the owner knew so much about the soil- what it's made of (limestone mostly), and it's history (the field used to be a cow pasture so there's lots of organic matter in it). I mean, thinking about it now it's really obvious that he would have to since it affects so much of his crop, but being from the city, I obviously know nothing about soil except that you grow things in it. Soil is a whole new field of knowledge I'd be interested in learning about (haha get the pun?).

I learned from one of my co-workers that when you swirl the wine glass, you can see the tannins (the flavour in wine which comes from the grape skins) dripping down. They look like thin, clear lines. The more tannins you see, the dryer the wine will taste; and the dryer the wine is, the more alcohol it will likely have.

Afterwards, we ate lunch on a hill and had prosciutto sandwiches, cheese, almonds, fruit preserves, couscous salad, chickpea salad and a raspberry custard tart. I think all of this was supposed to go with the wine we drank.

Then, it was time for our second tasting, but this time with specific food pairings.

I found that there was no right or wrong answer when it came to pairings, as everyone has a different palate.

We were all given a plate with smoked cheese, Italian Cacciatore sausage, honey soy-glazed shrimp, chocolate salt tart and a gherkin. We sampled these foods with Cave Spring's 2010 Estate Riesling, which is a fresh-tasting white wine that had a citrus/lime scent.

Personally, my favourite pairing was with the cheese and the shrimp and not so much with the chocolate tart- though it tasted great on its own. My co-worker echoed this opinion, but someone else found they liked the tart with the wine.

The next tasting we had is what is called a "vertical tasting" because we sampled the same estate wine, but made from different years.

It was incredible because I could actually taste the differences between them though they are made from the same grape, from the same winery using the same process.

We sampled years 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006 and 2005. My favourite was the 2009, which was the coldest year, which means there is more residual sweetness in the wine.

It was a wonderful day of co-worker bonding and learning about wine. I'm extremely fortunate I'm with a company that encourages drunkenness wine knowledge in its staff.

Now if anyone asks me about say tank fermenting versus fermenting in bottles, I can say with confidence that tank fermenting produces coarser bubbles in the wine because the bubbles are bigger.

Honestly though, that is one of the few impressive things I know about wine, and it's all for show. I really am still in the beginning stages of learning. I can't wait to taste more though.

Montreal, briefly by Jessica Lee

When we stepped into Montreal, the sun was just setting and the night life was revving up. Montreal is known for its night life and food apparently, so I thought it would only be fitting to check it out.

We stumbled into an indy car festival, right on the street which I thought was awesome. They closed down a street so people could look at cars. Street festivals are one of my favourite things to attend so Montreal was already growing on me.

My absolute favourite thing about Montreal however was all the French people!

I loved how they would speak in French with me because they assumed I was francophone. I had read articles in the paper before about how it was difficult for an anglophone person to fit in with the culture and how they feel alienated and such. Controversial former Globe and Mail columnist Jan Wong even suggested the Polytechnique Montreal, Concordia University and Dawson College massacres were because the three shooters didn't fit in.

I also enjoyed their French accents when they would switch to English to talk to me once they realized my French level was subpar. Montreal feels more like a European city than a Canadian one.

This was a free concert by Karl Wolf, a Canadian singer most known for his hit "Africa". It was just down the road from where we ate.

In the morning we got out of bed relatively early (9 am), but Montreal turns out to be somewhat laid back. Rarely anything was open for breakfast even though it was a Friday.

I thought the below bank was somewhat fishy. Bank of Toronto in Montreal? What is going on!

We walked up Rue Catherine, which is one of the main streets (kind of like Queen St. in Toronto) and sat down at Cacao, a chocolate cafe.

They had about 30 different varieties of chocolate from different regions in the world. I was in love.

We ordered breakfast, but it also came with a dipping plate with fruit and melted chocolate. It was really delicious.

I also ordered a Belgian hot chocolate which was extremely rich and lovely.

Here is the "lazy breakfast":

I didn't do much in Montreal before having to leave and go back to Toronto, but I'm heading up there next week again. More to follow...

Life in a car by Jessica Lee

You would think that driving along the coast with friends would be romantic and fun and all.

Here is how I imagined it:

Driving while the sun sets in the distant horizon over cornfields; finding a beach to camp in, falling asleep watching the stars and waking up to sunrises; cooking breakfast to birds chirping, roasting marshmallows at night…

In reality, living on the road is not like that at all.

We have driven to sunsets in the background and we have encountered a couple of beaches, however life on the road is quite rough. Here is what I've discovered so far:

1. You never know if you will get to shower, and on the off chance that there is a shower on the beach, the shower is usually cold water.
2. If it's cold and you just want to drink tea, it's not so easily accessible. I've come to realize how much I take hot water for granted, especially since some restaurants have a nasty habit of charging money for hot water.
3. Depending on where you are, you may or may not have to pee in some questionable places. I'm not going to go into further detail on this...
4. Sometimes the car smells because someone wears the same pair of socks over and over again. I am not naming any names except for the fact that this person's name starts with the letter D. And he is reading this as I am typing this... I hope you get the hint. *Ahem.*
5. Driving for long distances and waking up early because of the sunlight wears you out pretty fast. Despite being on the road only for a little more than a week, I am quite tired.

It's not all bad though. Some of the landscapes are really quite pretty. I wish I could have taken more photos from the road.

These were taken early in the morning on our way to Noosa.

Another benefit (or disadvantage- you decide!) of road trips is that you get to know your friends really really well. Like who snores for instance (you know who you are).

You can also understand someone just by the way he drives. This would be 1. without a seat belt on highways, 2. while looking at the GPS on his phone 3. sometimes not holding the wheel at all, and 4. hitting as many curbs as possible in a single block while remaining completely relaxed.

I have never been in a car where so many people have honked their horn at us!

I have also never encountered the police so many times in such a short period of time.

It is okay though. We are still alive!

Don't get mad, Dan. These are just the facts. And it's not so bad because throughout the years, you've become quite proficient at handling cops (no tickets so far! woohoo!).

Another benefit (for real) of driving on your own as opposed to taking a bus from one town to another or going with a tour bus (these are generally a bad idea) is that we get to stop wherever and whenever we want for lunch.

In previous years, I have sat through more than enough crappy all-you-can-eat lunch buffets provided by tour buses or being dropped off at a random fast food chain somewhere along the road.

This is why I am glad everyone on our trip is onboard with being hedonistic in the sense that we pick beautiful, scenic places to stop for lunch at and we really pamper ourselves in terms of diet.

Look, we are on a beach!

I made grilled fish and steamed vegetables for lunch the other day.

Then for dinner, Dan made Kangaroo steak, which we had with mashed potatoes and more veggies.

We even celebrated a birthday on the side of the road!

Though nothing is perfect, and though I miss the luxuries of readily available electricity and hot showers; I would still heartily recommend taking a long road trip with a couple of buddies. It's a unique experience in that no two road trips are exactly the same and that the people you're with make up most of what you take in. It's cliched, but it's true: "It's not what you're doing, it's who you're with."