Travel Guide: Yunnan Province

I recently had the privilege to lead a group of grade 11 students on a week-long journey through Yunnan Province in southwestern China. As on the trip to Battambang, Cambodia that I led for this group as grade 10 students, we worked with the JUMP! Foundation, who continue to be my favorite people. They develop, design, and manage the program along with their partner schools and it’s an honor to work with them each year.

This trip was the first time many of our students experienced what it’s like to be a backpacker. We traveled with packs and on overnight trains, moving to multiple locations throughout the trip. There’s a lot of travel in one week because we spend the first and last days transitioning between planes, trains, and buses but it was a phenomenal experience. 

After a series of opening activities (JUMP! programs involve lots of running around and games, which are really fun, as well as group reflections that are valuable) and another bus ride, we arrived in our first base, Jianchuan.  The town itself is quite small and there was no restaurant in town large enough for all 63 of us so one of the restaurant families opened their courtyard and invited local chefs to cook the three meals we’d be eating there. The food we had all week was truly extraordinary and a major highlight for some of the students and even the staff.

JUMP! had told us about Bai, the minority group that we’d be spending much of our time with on the trip. China doesn’t have the best history in its treatment of minorities, but Bai language, culture, and style of dress remain vibrant and distinct. Learning about and from the Bai people began almost immediately. After some food and our first shower in 36 hours, we headed to a traditional pottery workshop and learned about the ancient art of black pottery that is famous in this region. Interestingly, it’s the use of pine wood in the kiln at the comparatively low temperature of 500°C that makes the pottery black. 

Walking through Jianchuan the next day was like going back in time. The main road of the ancient town was part of Tea Horse Caravan Road that connected to the Silk Road and although no longer a merchant spot, it’s still a functioning street.

Our morning activity was a scavenger hunt following a hand-drawn map through Jianchuan Old Town. We began at the central town square . . .

. . . with the goal of investigating the local economy . . . 

. . . a beautiful shrine . . .

. . . and a local park with pagodas.

From Jianchuan we headed to Shaxi where we’d spend the next three nights. Shaxi is a very small town and a bit like a fairytale. Like Jianchuan, it’s part of the Tea Horse Caravan Road, which is really cool. I even did some shopping there!

We had time to wander through town during our stay and it was so serene and beautiful. 

The countryside was equally beautiful and we went on a bike ride through the fields across the river.

In keeping with the connection to nature, we hiked Shi Bao Mountain the following day. It’s a beautiful pine forest with grottos, temples, and views of Shaxi and the fields beyond. My stereotypes of China had been fading since our arrival and I voiced that for the first time with my students up on the mountain. I wasn’t the only one thinking that way. 

At the summit, we had a picnic linch of the rice rolls and rice balls that we’d made that morning, which had been really fun.

Then we spent the rest of the day in a tiny Bai village, Bao Xiang Si-Shi Long. “Bai” means “white” and many of the homes and buildings were painted white and then decorated, which was quite charming.

Much of the afternoon was spent learning a song in the Bai language. Bai bears no similarity to Mandarin, so it was a challenge for everyone. Our hosts also taught us a traditional dance and performed it for us in full traditional dress at a bonfire later that evening. Two singers performed the song that we’d painstakingly learned after transliterating the Mandarin characters and then we tried to show them what we’d learned of their dance. Try is the key word here, but the Bai people have only recently started teaching their language to outsiders so it was an honor to be included.

A major endeavor during our time in Shaxi was a fascinating anthropology research project that had students learning about local concerns as a result of migration, modernization, and the mixing of immigrants to Shaxi and the Bai locals. Students then followed a hand-drawn map around town to conduct interviews, mostly in Mandarin, to ask a series of questions they’d devised to learn more about the problems. Then, they were tasked with coming up with viable solutions, which prompted excellent group discussions about the appropriateness of walking into a culture and trying to be of help. On the last day of the trip, students presented their proposals to each other and the group voted for three of the ten presentations to give to some of the locals they’d interviewed. I certainly learned a lot and I know the students did, too. And as always, food was a highlight.

The end of our interview day was one of my favorite experiences of the trip, probably because it was so simple. We went stargazing! We don’t see stars that often in Singapore because of light pollution and cloud cover, but the sky in Yunnan was clear and bright. It was cold, too, winter cold, but we headed to the rooftop of our hostel after dark to lie there and simply look up. We gazed in silence for a while and then played a game of “I Wonder”. At the end of the day, I wonder how we all happened to be there.

Our final activity the next afternoon was a really nice follow-up to the stargazing, meeting people, and group reflections that we’d done throughout the week. My group’s leader and I also taught a few meditation techniques that our students enjoyed. So when it came time to hike an hour through the rice fields for half an hour of silence and solitude, our students were ready and looking forward to reconnecting with themselves and how they’d changed during the week.

And all too soon, we were back on buses, the overnight train, and the plane home. As a staff, we high-fived at the happy faces and safe return. As an educator, I delighted in seeing my students grow and mature over the week, developing new friendships and connections with others. And as a person, I was happy with the crisp air, bright sunshine, learning, and laughter that made up every day.

In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks. -John Muir

Living as a Traveller

I feel like a different person when I travel.

I walk with my head up, camera in hand, not thinking twice about asking for advice or sitting alone in a restaurant to write or walking in circles because I can’t read a map. When travelling, I stop noticing myself and notice what happens instead. Even with transport delays, inclement weather, and various discomforts, there’s a sense of calm coolness and detachment, a sense that everything is temporary and will make for a good story later.

When I travel, I feel younger, newer, wide-eyed at the brightness and color of the world. I feel happy and free, light and airy, and I look for the small things that make people tick. The present is enough because I don’t know what the next thing will be.

Of course, I sometimes want to share my joy with someone else, the excitement over whatever it is or wherever we are. When travelling alone, I can usually catch the eye of a stranger and smile, or express my delight to a barista or bartender. It’s fun to see pride and appreciation in their eyes.

For about six years now, I’ve written three things I’m grateful for at the end of each day. When travelling, I’m constantly grateful for the opportunity and for the choices that I’ve made, even the hardest ones, that have given me such opportunity. I find myself comfortable with my decisions and with myself as an individual. I fall asleep at night feeling warm and fulfilled, waking in anticipation of the next adventure. Whatever is here now is good, even in the dark. Everything else can wait.


I noticed my traveller outlook acutely during my recent trip to Greece. I was with two girlfriends and took time each morning to meditate for about ten minutes. I found that it opened my mind at the start of the day to whatever would come and left me clear-eyed and able to simply observe.

In addition to awareness of what was around me, I noticed how I was feeling as the feelings arose. I noticed sensations, energy in the body, my general attitude, and the contentment of a state of equanimity. And I noticed it then rather than noticing the change that often takes place when reality sets back in. This time, I felt a sense of peace instead of its absence.


But it’s different, of course, going from the delight of friends and new experiences to lying in bed in a quiet apartment. That’s the point at which I normally feel inadequate, afraid. That’s the point at which I normally berate myself for making the very choices that I cherished just hours before.

But this time, jet-lagged and lying awake with the physical sensations that normally send me down a rabbit hole of self-doubt, I recalled the interpretation of the same sensations, the same energy, throughout the week. I remembered contentment and delight, warmth and gratitude. And I came to the same conclusion in the darkness that I usually need the day to illuminate – these choices are okay and I’m doing just fine.

I am the same person not traveling as when I’m a traveller. The difference is not in what I’m doing or where I am or who I’m with. The difference is openness, living without judgement, simply experiencing. The difference is knowing today to be enough.

Not all those who wander are lost. – J.R.R. Tolkien

Travel Guide: Athens and Delphi

Don’t spend much time in Athens, they said. There’s not much to see there, they said.

But I loved Athens and wish we’d been able to stay longer! Then again, I studied history in university and taught history until last year so I’m a little bit biased. We were also in Athens in October when it was far emptier of people than it would be during high tourist season. The temperature was also quite cool, which was nice coming from Singapore.

Upon arriving from Santorini late in the afternoon, we headed straight for the Acropolis. It was a beautiful sunny day and the sun cast long shadows on the stone. We entered the Acropolis at 4:15pm and were escorted out when it closed at 6. That’s the one downside to traveling in the offseason – limited hours for many sites and museums. But nearly two hours was enough time, especially because of how empty it was! Many of our photos had no other people in them!

We were already excited on our way up . . .

and then we just stood at stared at Parthenon and ruins around it.

The Erechtheion is really interesting because the statues are copies (the originals are in the museum) in the condition of the excavated originals. so I didn’t actually know until visiting the museum later.

I was also excited to see the Temple of Athena Nike because I remembered studying it in art history in university.

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The view from the highest point in Athens (the literal translation of Acropolis is “high city”) was incredible, too.

And we had to sit in the stadium before we left!

Then we visited the Acropolis Museum, home of most of the original statues and artifacts. The floor is glass so we could see the site excavation, which was really neat.

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The coolest part of the museum was the top floor, lined with three walls of windows looking out to the Acropolis, housing the original sculptures and frieze from the Parthenon laid out in the dimensions of the actual building.

In terms of its vibe, Athens feels a bit gritty and rough around the edges, like its residents have something to say that only they can understand. And there are amazing views of the Acropolis all around the city.

There are cool hidden gems that I wish we’d had more time to explore and pretty awesome graffiti that seemed a bit more like vandalism than street art.

Athens has a number of neighborhoods full of restaurants and cafés, which is another reason to come back. We saw a few areas that looked really interesting from the windows of our bus ride to Delphi (more below) but spent our evenings in Plaka where we were staying. There was plenty of deliciousness there, including the best ice cream I’ve ever had, so next time I’ll have to see what’s elsewhere, too. And I haven’t had ice cream since.

We were staying basically across the street from Hadrian’s Arch . . .

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. . . which is located right next to the Temple of Olympian Zeus. Unfortunately, we could only peek through the gates because closing time in the offseason is earlier than was we read online.

The morning of our only full day in Athens, we took a free walking tour with an incredibly knowledgeable guide who literally walked us through the history of Greece from ancient through modern times. (I even made an account on TripAdvisor to write Michael a review when he said that’s how the company determines who gets tours.) It was very cold that day so we looked for sunny spots to stand in at each place we stopped.

We visited Hadrian’s Library . . .

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. . . Monastiraki Square and flea market . . .

. . . and the Roman Agora.

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For lunch, Michael recommended Bairaktaris Taverna in Monastiraki. It was great and definitely the most local of our meals. And what an experience! The restaurant was large and crowded with tables covered in green-and-white checked cloths. There were large framed photos on the walls and beams leading up to the ceiling of people enjoying their food. At least two walls contained a wide variety of Christian art and the kitchen itself seemed to exist on one long counter at the back where we were sitting and another counter towards the front that may have also been operating a takeaway window. There were tables outside, as well. And to top it off, a three-man band was playing Greek folk songs and a very elderly man, possibly the owner, clapped along every so often. The place has been around since 1879 and it felt like we’d walked into a large family party.

I made the mistake of smiling twice at a line cook, once when I heard him singing and once when I saw him turn a mixing bowl into a drum, and after our gruff yet warm server brought us dessert and mastika on the house, he sent over a plate of lamb kebabs. Adorable, but I’m a vegetarian. (And I instantly had visions of having to break that to him on our third date.) What a country.

After our tour, we continued to follow Michael’s recommendations and went back to visit the Ancient Agora. We started in the museum, which had some interesting artifacts from the site and then walked around. It is really so cool to wander through something so old.

The reason we only spent one full day in Athens was because we wanted to visit Delphi, which was a wonderful day trip. Along the three-hour drive through Mount Parnassus and its environs, our tour guide, Effie, told us in English and French about the city of Athens, pointed out geographic areas of interest, and talked about the lifestyle in the small towns we passed.

When we arrived in Delphi, Effie provided a fascinating history of the oracle and Ancient Greek politics and explained architectural and archaeological features, as well as changes to the site over time.

Effie took us through the Delphi Archaeological Museum, as well. While I could have spent more time there it was good to learn from someone with deeper knowledge than what was written on wall placards.

We stopped for a late lunch at a taverna with beautiful views of the mountains . . .

. . . and then spent a few minutes in the ski town (yes, the only one in Greece) of Arachova.

Then next morning, before we were ready, it was time to go. And we agreed that we’d have to come back.

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Photos, travels, musings, and ideas on education by a twenty-something teacher trying to make the world a better and more peaceful place