NYC-based professional Chanel Vann embarked on a solo trip to Southeast Asia between jobs. From volunteering with elephants in Cambodia to exploring Thailand and Vietnam...read on to experience this journey with her.
My name is Chanel Vann. I work in film and television marketing. I currently live in New York City with my husband. My greatest joy in life is traveling and exploring the world. Exposing myself to new cultures has helped me grow as an individual. It’s a reminder to be grateful for what I have, to complain less, and to take an interest in strangers. It’s easy to put stock in unnecessary things and think your issues seem larger than they really are. When you get out of your daily bubble you’re reminded that there is a huge world out there and it’s not all about you. Your problems feel smaller and you realize that you can live with less.
What inspired your solo trip to Southeast Asia, and which regions did you visit?
I had a month long gap when I was changing companies and booked my trip very last minute. I had never traveled solo and this seemed to be the perfect opportunity to take on the challenge. I’m so proud of myself for doing this and would highly recommend that other women try it at least once. During that period in my life I was feeling particularly grateful for all that I had. I don’t take for granted what a luxury it is to have the means to travel and see the world and I wanted to spend part of my trip serving. I only had a week to find a cause and book an entire trip. That’s when I found Elephant Valley Project in Cambodia. They rescue elephants from captivity and educate people on the proper way to interact with these animals. Once I found the program I wanted to volunteer with it was decided that Southeast Asia would be my area of focus
Tell us about your experience volunteering abroad. What advice do you have for people interested in doing something similar?
When you volunteer you have to completely change your mindset. You’re in a beautiful jungle but you’re not on vacation. You’re there to work. You won’t be comfortable, you won’t be pampered. It’s not about you, it’s about the elephants. I was completely covered with huge bug bites, the heat and humidity were barely tolerable, the showers were cold, and you have to carry a lot when you trek into the jungle. Half the time I questioned why I chose to spend my time off this way. Then we would hike into the jungle and be up close and personal with these beautiful creatures and I was reminded what a privilege it was to be in their presence. I met the most interesting people from all over the world. We would stay up playing cards and learning about each other’s backgrounds until the electricity went out and we were forced to our bunks for sleep. It’s an experience you don’t fully appreciate until you get home and look back on it.
What sparked your interest in photography, and how does it influence the way you travel?
Photography has been a hobby of mine for a long time now. Growing up I was always a creative person and a story-teller at heart. I’ve explored so many mediums of self-expression and photography is my favorite. It’s a way to freeze time and I always think to myself that when I’m 80 with grandchildren I can show them the life I lived and hopefully that will encourage them to live boldly. Because I love travel photography in particular, it definitely motivates the types of experiences I pursue when I plan a trip. I find that documenting your experiences inspires others to travel to places they wouldn’t have otherwise. My favorite thing to do is just roam with my camera and get lost. Luckily, when I travel with my husband, he is so patient and lets me take all the time I want to photograph. He even helps me carry all my gear—which I don’t take for granted!
What was your approach to photography on this trip? (Did you strike up conversation with your subjects? capture them candidly?)
I photographed mostly people during my time in Vietnam. I tried my best to be respectful. If I bought food from a street vendor I would politely ask if I could take their photo. The people in Vietnam were incredibly warm and it was never an issue. You just have to remember that these are real people not just subjects and not everyone is comfortable having their photo taken by a complete stranger.
What were some of the most rewarding and challenging things about this travel experience?
I thought I might get lonely being on my own but I never did. I think it’s important to enjoy spending time with yourself. It was wonderful to not have to answer to someone else’s agenda. I could stop for coffee and read for as long as I wanted. I made my own plans. During my time at the Elephant Valley Project I was completely off-grid. No internet, no phone. I couldn’t communicate with my loved ones. That was hard but in the end a great experience because I was able to really be present and get to know the other volunteers.
When you’re a woman traveling alone you of course have to be cautious and alert. It’s important to be aware of your surroundings. A lot of women have fear about traveling solo but I guarantee that there is great reward coming back, knowing you did it on your own.
What is life like in Cambodia, and what might surprise people about the country?
Phnom Penh has a lot of expats. I was surprised at this. Lots of great food and it’s a bustling city. When I went to base camp for the Elephant Valley Project, it’s about seven hours away in Mondulkiri. Mundulkiri is very small and feels pretty underdeveloped. Ultimately, people have the same needs everywhere you go. Kids just want to play. They have very little but seemed happy with their simple life and were super warm with the foreigners. They loved getting their pictures taken and always wanted to see the photos afterward.
Please share the story behind your favorite image that you captured on this trip.
My favorite image from the trip is the overhead shot of the woman on her boat on Halong Bay. These women were everywhere and I discovered that majority of these individuals spent their entire lives living on the water and never learned to swim. Most of these people work every single day of their lives and have never seen outside where they grew up. Again, it’s a reminder how fortunate we are to have the means to see the world. I definitely do not take it for granted.
What are some recommendations you have for future travelers to Vietnam and Thailand (places to see, things to do, foods to eat etc.)?
Travelers should definitely visit Hanoi and Halong Bay. Halong Bay is NOT overrated. It’s incredibly beautiful. In Thailand I stayed at Vikasa Yoga Retreat to unwind after volunteering in Cambodia. It’s absolutely stunning, delicious food, great service and classes, and affordable.
What’s next for you?
My husband and I just got back from an epic honeymoon in Italy, Malta, and Morocco. So we are taking a small break from traveling. But I have long wanted to explore Africa and would love to go to Namibia, Kenya, and Madagascar. I would easily spend months exploring Africa if I could. It’s on the list!
For more of Chanel's travels, follow her Instagram @cestmoi_chanel
Images courtesy of Chanel Vann
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