Top Ten Fun Facts About Toronto – The First Timer’s Special

Today I had my first pre-TBEX tour – The First Timer’s Special: All About Toronto, and it was a whirlwind!

From the entertainment district to St. Lawrence Market, the financial district to Queen’s Park, Forest Hill through to Chinatown – there was quite a lot of information to fit into three hours!

That said, since the tour was full of facts and figures about the city, I thought I’d share the top ten fun facts (some impressive, some geeky) that I learned.

Top Ten Fun Facts About Toronto

10. Toronto has approximately 200 cultures! 200!

9. Toronto’s PATH is the world’s largest underground complex. Linking offices, attractions and shopping arcades, it’s got to be big – it has 29 kilometers worth of walkways!

8. The hospitals concentrated on University Avenue are all actually linked by a tunnel 20ft underground in case a patient needs to be moved.

7. The new City Hall is designed by a fella from Sweden – when viewed from above, the Council Chamber is supposed to look like an eye between two sets of lashes.

6. Toronto’s Island Park is actually a 900-acre floating sandbag. It’s also where Babe Ruth hit his first professional home run.

5. Casa Loma’s original inhabitant was able to build the lavish castle because of the money he made providing electricity to the city. He started losing money when Sir Alex Beck’s generation system was set up on Niagara Falls.

4. Front Street is called as such because it used to be the front of the harbour. The few blocks between the current harbour and where the water used to come up to on Front Street are actually all landfill.

3. Toronto was originally established in 1793 as York by Governor John Graves Simcoe who thought the location was a less vulnerable than the previous capital of Newark to an attack by ‘evil Americans’.

2. Toronto has more condominium and high rise buildings than any other place in North America. And has many more permits for the upcoming years!

1. When the City Hall moved into what was called “The Ward” – the Jewish neighborhood between College, University, Queen and Yonge streets – the Jewish community moved to where employment could be found, specifically in the textile hub of Kensington Market. Times have changed – this is now better known as Chinatown.

Fake islands and harbours, underground passages and an intense turnover in cultures. Cool, huh?

Do you know any other cool facts about Toronto?? Add them in the comments!!

Photo of the Week: A Hand in Rice Production

I love this photo. I love the color, the focus, the position, but mostly I love the innocence portrayed in it.

Girl holding rice at factory in Battambang, Cambodia

 

This is the hand of my tour guide, a little girl who couldn’t have been more than 10 years old.

The bamboo train in Battambang had stopped at a ‘tourist trap’ where there was nothing to do but buy a tee shirt or a drink, and a slew of little children had run up to our group asking if we wanted to see the rice factory.

Taking me through fenced gates and over rooster filled yards, this little girl finally stopped outside a giant barn door through which dozens of bags of rice were visible, and started explaining the varieties of rice to me.

“This rice is brown and is for people to eat. This rice not good. People no eat. This rice for the pigs. This rice is for…”

She was adorable and seemed decently knowledgeable, taking me through the rice production process, explaining which machines did what, which rice came out of where and what was done with it, rambling off the information like a seasoned pro.

Girl in rice factory
“This is where the rice comes out.” The tour continues amidst ancient machinery.

I guess she was doing her part to support the community, and when she stuck her hand out, this time empty, quoting one dollar each, we did ours: we paid up.

West Baray: Siem Reap’s Secret Beach

I’ve mentioned my extreme like for Siem Reap a couple of times now, but I know that there’s a lot of people that are simply turned off by its touristy hustle and bustle.

Well, let me fill you in on a hidden little beach getaway that’s close enough to touch yet well off the beaten tourist path of Angkor, so off the path in fact that it’s only through a friend with a local contact that I heard about it at all.

Hammocks at West Baray, Siem Reap, Cambodia - YourLocalKat
Boats, tubes, hammocks and baskets of yummies: Ahhh, Baray.

West Baray: Not Actually Hidden and Actually Quite Significant

Referred to locally as just Baray (and pronounced more like the first part of “pariah”), the beach is in fact part of a two kilometer-square reservoir hidden 12 kilometers from the center of Siem Reap.

But the reservoir isn’t really hidden at all, in fact, it’s quite blatantly there as a giant chunk of water when viewed on a map.


View Larger Map

It’s also remarkably close to the Angkor complex (see those square marks in the top right corner?), and, along with the East Baray, now dried up, was a phenomenal reservoir in the Angkor civilization, thought to have either spiritual or agricultural significance.

The reason that the reservoir is ‘hidden’ at all is simply because it is highly overshadowed by the glamour of Angkor, with tourists rarely following the main highway to the narrow road that leads to Baray.

En route to West Baray, Siem Reap, Cambodia - YourLocalKat
The narrow (but busy!) road that leads to Baray.

West Baray Today

Today, Baray is used by locals and very few tourists for swimming and occasional boating.

Boys play at West Baray, Siem Reap, Cambodia - YourLocalKat
Two local boys play on the beach. Their parents were there too, but were fully clothed.

When you arrive at the end of the narrow road, vendors to the right and left wait to greet you. There is fresh cut pineapples, durian, mango and papayas. Sugarcane juice, coconut juice and coca colas. Grilled birds and fish and raw meat. And all the overpriced patterned souvenir dresses, hippie pants, bracelets and purses you could want, in case you haven’t gotten enough in town.

From the bridge, you can see the reservoir:

West Baray from bridge, Siem Reap, Cambodia - YourLocalKat
West Baray from bridge.

The Beach at Baray

A set of narrow stairs takes you down to the sand where boats line the water and hammocks dot the shore. A lady will come up to collect money for the tented hammocks  – 1000 riel per person – $0.25 that’s more than worth your time watching the locals dip into the water fully clothed, the fishermen tidying up their boats, and families peeling and eating quail eggs next to you.

The women and children that come around with food baskets will provide a much deserved snack. Almost anything edible is available: pineapples and mangoes, boiled eggs, crickets, beetles and scorpions.

.Yummy crickets and bugs to eat. West Baray, Siem Reap, Cambodia - YourLocalKat
Yummies hawked at West Baray, Cambodia.
Personally, the bugs just didn’t look that refreshing for a hot day.

The water is warm and it is a welcome reward, but the tented hammocks beckon – they are low to the ground, and wrap you in their pleather fabric unconditionally. Without you noticing they will lull you into slumber and you’ll have no choice but to pass out in the 35°C shade.

And between snoozes all you’ll be able to think is that two hours here is simply not enough: so close from everything and yet away from it all.

Hammock. West Baray, Siem Reap, Cambodia - YourLocalKat
Bliss from inside a hammock at West Baray.

Fun fact: You can see where East Baray was very clearly on the terrain map above – it still shows up as a block of blue!

Motorcycle Cowboys: Purse Snatching in Southeast Asia

I’ve been quite lucky on my travels – the worst that I’ve had happen out of all the things I’ve been warned about was getting overcharged by 70Baht (so maybe $2 whole dollars) at a 7-11 and…that’s about it.

Everyone warned me ad nauseum: “Watch your purse – guys on motorbikes will drive by and snatch it.”

Guidebooks everywhere reminded: “Prepare to let go versus getting your arm broken.”

And I get it: be cautious. But I rolled my eyes at every warning – I’m not stupid, I don’t walk around alone at night in dark scary deserted neighborhoods, I don’t flaunt money around, and I don’t dress inappropriately. I’m cautious, but I don’t believe in living in fear. How careful could I possibly be?

And then on my way to a bus station in a tuk tuk in Cambodia, I saw something that would replay itself in my mind for the next week and changed the way I handled my belongings while I traveled.

In the back of a tuk tuk, Siem Reap, Cambodia - YourLocalKat
In the back of a tuk tuk, Siem Reap, Cambodia

It was myself and two other women in the tuk tuk, on a main street in Phnom Penh; it was almost midnight and besides the occasional motorbike or pedestrian, the streets were quiet.

Up ahead I could see two girls walking in the middle of an intersecting street, heading away from us, and I saw their reactions before I saw the motorbike.

It seemed to come from between them, and they turned with it as it passed, in confusion and anger and shock. The passenger on the back of the bike seemed so impassive, I was sure that it was some sort of accident.

I could see something like a strap connecting the bike to the girl walking on the right, and I thought that maybe she got caught on something on the bike, or that the motorbike got caught on something of hers. Except then there was a scream, and the girl holding on to that strap was falling on her elbows, chest and knees, and then was being dragged behind the bike on the cement.

View of Phnom Penh, Cambodia - YourLocalKat
View of Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Luckily, she let go immediately, and I turned back in the tuk tuk, shocked and confused. It wasn’t until one of the women riding with me said, “I think he grabbed the girl’s purse,” that I actually realized what we had seen; that I’ve just witnessed the ‘motorcycle cowboy’ phenomenon I’ve heard so much about.

It was terrifying, and that guttural scream reverberated in my mind all night.

We all sat in silence the rest of the way to the bus stop. Was there anything we could’ve done?

I hope that girl’s alright, but I’m grateful I saw what I saw because it smartened me up a bit: it made me realize that things like this do happen, they’re not just urban legends or stories mothers tell you to scare you from traveling.

Did it scare me from traveling? Of course not, but it made me think.

If the girls had been on the sidewalk, if they’d been keeping their belongings hidden, keeping them close, if, if, IF – could this have been avoided? How careful can you possibly be?

I, for one, stopped letting my wallet-purse swing around my shoulder wildly on its centimeter-wide strap when I walked around, and started paying attention more to my surroundings.

Buddha Statue in Phnom Penh, Cambodia - YourLocalKat
Buddha Statue in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

The thing is, I still don’t believe in living in fear, but there’s really no need to tempt crimes of opportunity.

Have you ever been a victim or witnessed any crimes during your travels? How did it affect your usual attitude towards safety while abroad?

Photo of the Week: How Many Motorbikes at this Saigon Intersection?

It’s probably more than you think.

Saigon, Vietnam’s largest city, is widely considered the motorbike capital of the world.

How many motorbikes in the city exactly?

Motorbikes in Saigon, Vietnam - YourLocalKat

Oh, only FOUR MILLION.

For a population of ten million, that’s 40% of the population behind the wheel of a bike! And considering how many people ride two-up, three-up or even six-up on every ride, that’s a majority of the population on motorbikes.

So considering this photo doesn’t even encompass the whole scene…

How many motorbikes do you think there are at this intersection?