traveller

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!

South East Asia: New adventures! by Jessica Lee

Biking around Koh Chang, Thailand

Biking around Koh Chang, Thailand

They say with every closed door, a new one opens. And to be honest, I couldn't wait for this aforementioned door to shut fast enough. I've been wanting to do this South East Asia trip since 2012 and each time, something was in the way. But now it's finally happening. I've been in Thailand for the last couple of days and can't wait to see more of the world and take some photos too.

I've been updating Instagram the most often, and you can follow along on my adventures from there.

New York City round two! by Jessica Lee


This story starts way back in May of this year. Or if you want to be even more specific, it starts in the year 2007, when I was in high school and had just discovered one of my favourite musicians of all time, Butch Walker. You may know his name from his production work with some of the biggest pop musicians of today such as Pink, Taylor Swift, Avril Lavigne, Fall Out Boy, etc.

Anyway, he had a few shows with Ryan Adams in New York City and I was thinking of going.

I had never been the type to travel from city to city just to catch my favourite musicians - the furthest I had travelled for music was from Toronto to London, Ontario. But alas, they weren't playing a show in Montreal and so it was between Toronto (my hometown, at Massey Hall, a venue I had been to countless times) or the more exciting option, New York City.

Sometime between late Summer and Fall, I must have have mentioned to my friend Olivier that I wanted to go to New York City for the concert because he booked a hotel for the weekend and suddenly it was set.



New York City was kind to me this time around. I spent the weekend walking around Manhattan, jetting around the city in taxis (the way locals do it), taking in the Christmas spirit and eating a lot of gourmet food. I recently moved in with two serious rock climbers and everyone's always watching what they're eating, so I decided to take a break weekend in New York.


Our first day in New York, we walked around Lower Manhattan, visiting neighbourhoods the neighbourhoods of Little Italy, Chinatown and NoHo.


We stumbled into a New York rollerblading group called I Roll NY and watched a competition for a while.


Then, we found a Christmas Market and all these European Christmas Market memories came flooding back.


Of course, there were key differences between the New York City Christmas market and the European Christmas markets - the main one being the food focus of European markets and the artisan focus of this one.






We ended our first night at the Village Vanguard, enjoying jazz music in a basement and knocking back some brandy. It seemed like the appropriate thing to do in New York.


The next morning, we started our hunt for breakfast and by chance came upon Eataly, a gourmet Italian food market by Madison Square Park.


I first heard about this market by its recent cookbook being featured in all the bookstores in Canada. To all the marketers out there: writing a book with beautiful pictures is an awesome way for self-promotion.







We consumed all the pastries with our eyes, but eventually settled for a sit-down meal of fresh pasta.



I enjoyed my meal of tagliatelle with short rib ragout very much.


Next, we headed to Chelsea Market, which might be my favourite place in New York City.




There's an incredible contemporary artisan vibe at Chelsea Market. The place is made up of exposed brick walls and beams, but finished with crisp glass windows and design-driven typography. It seems like an ideal place to spend a morning with friends, eating your way around the different stalls and restaurants.








After a quick tour around the market, we made our way to the High Line, a pedestrian-only structure above the city that allows visitors to view the city without traffic or bike interruption.


The High Line used to be a means of transport for goods throughout New York, but when the trucking industry gained popularity in 1980, they shut it down and turned it into a walking path instead. While they were redeveloping the neighbourhood, it became trendy and new apartments were built along the way.




There are park benches, picnic tables and a million different places to view the sunset - which is exactly what we did.











As night settled in, we rushed to Hammerstein Ballroom to see the concert which had brought us to New York. If you squint, you can see me in the second row of the floor on the left side of this photo taken from Ryan Adams' twitter.


It was a good concert, but both Butch and Ryan didn't play my favourite songs! I suppose it doesn't matter too much. The concert was a fantastic and fairly legitimate reason to visit New York and I'm glad I finally caved.

Off a post-concert high, we went to Shake Shack and had our first Shack burgers, then disappeared into the night in the city that never sleeps.



Chemin du Roy/Quebec City Part 1 by Jessica Lee


I took a little road trip from Montreal to Quebec City with Mike and Anik, two friends I met last summer in Saskatoon. Together, our stories are weaved throughout Canada. Mike is originally from Winnipeg, but now both of them live in Toronto. They drove down for a weekend to come visit me in Montreal and to tour the province. All of us would not have met if not for the fates that brought us all to Saskatoon. Mike was finishing his Masters degree at University of Saskatoon, and Anik and I were part of a Canadian Heritage program (aka government-funded French exchange), which happened to give both of us our last choice in destination. Luckily, we both still decided to do the program.

Lately, I've been thinking about how small the world seems when you know a bunch of people from different places. I found out recently that a friend from Europe whom I met in Toronto met this girl in Asia whom I was about to meet in another city in Canada. It's not like I know a large portion of the world's population- it's just likely coincidences (we're all travellers, we're all social and we're all in the same age demographic; we were bound to bump into each other on the road at some point). Anyway, I digress, back to the trip.

We drove to Quebec City from Montreal on Chemin du Roy, which is a beautiful winding country road that leads to beaches like this:


And views like this:


We arrived in Quebec City after a few hours, just before the sun set.


It gave the boys time to wander around the old Quebec City before dinner, while I enjoyed a gypsy jazz busker band we stumbled upon.


I've always loved jazz music. Every summer in Toronto, I would go to the jazz festivals, some summers, I attended every night. When I first moved to Montreal, the jazz festival was taking place and I went as often as I could. But of course, the jazz festival stopped after two weeks, so I love random treats like this!


Here is a snapshot of what the touristy part of Quebec City looks like:

The architecture and small streets are gorgeous aren't they?


It definitely takes me back to Paris or even Bruges. One day I would like to live in a city like this with a balcony overlooking one of the busy streets, but instead of clothing stores, it would be a residential neighbourhood. On the street I would live on, there would be a cheese shop, a small grocery store, cafe and also a bakery. Further along the road, there would be a cinema and some restaurants. I would own a bike with a basket, and not much else. I'm going to stop here. I'm starting to realize this city I'm describing sounds a lot like Lund, Sweden.

We had dinner at Le Lapin Sauté because rabbit is a French delicacy and you just can't eat hamburgers and salad everywhere you go. To really experience a place, you have to experience their food too, even if it sometimes makes you queasy. I ordered the rabbit with rosemary and honey sauce, which actually tasted like chicken, but at least now I know. The only other time I've had rabbit was in Indonesia two years ago, where it was grilled with satay sauce.


After dinner, it started to rain heavily, which sounds terrible, but actually, it's perfect for photography because when people leave and duck to find shelter, you end up with empty streets without anyone jumping into your shots. I stuck around and grabbed a few photos, then we turned in for the night.