Monthly Archives: May 2013

Angkor What?

With a nightly drunk hotel employee who mocks Borat, who also enjoys hugging and kissing Bryan, and what seems like millions of tuk-tuk drivers and massage people constantly reminding us of their existence, how could we not enjoy ourselves in Siem Reap?

But the real attraction to Siem Reap is due to the proximity to some of the most stunning ruins in the world. The Angkor area reportedly has over 1,000 temples which were constructed between the 9th and 15th centuries, with the center of the attraction being Ankor Wat, known as the World’s largest religious monument.


Being that there were a lot of remarkable structures to see, a lot of walking in the intense heat, and way too many pictures to be taken, two days turned out to be the perfect amount of time to make our way through all of the major sites. After rising at 4:30am the first morning, we headed out in the dark to attempt to capture Angkor Wat at sunrise. It wasn’t easy with a semi-functioning tripod and hoards of other tourists, but we got to witness the massive black silhouette become a beautifully aged stone monument before our eyes. We saved touring it for the next trip and headed to the less famous temples.

Picture: At the end of the first day in our pimped out tuk-tuk driven by the well dressed “Mr. T” and his gold-plated tooth.

We spent the following day taking a break in the city to ensure we didn’t get burnt out, then we made our way to the three most famous areas: Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm, and Bayon. I am completely stumped on how to describe our feelings and astonishment toward everything we saw. I can’t count how many times I was freshly stunned, when “wow” was the only thing I could say. We couldn’t believe the details that still remained after 600-1200 years: the bas reliefs, carvings, and stone faces. Many of the temples have undergone some or a lot of reconstruction, nearly all with the original stones that had fallen away.


Sadly, many of the temples received irreparable damage by the Khmer Rouge, who wanted to wipe out all history and religion and start anew, or from conversion of religions (Hindu to Buddhism or reversed). We saw stone men and Buddhas that had been beheaded, and most of the Buddha bas reliefs carved from walls.

Back in Siem Reap we have been doing a lot of reading and have enjoyed some fantastic food such as Spicy sweet and sour soup with coconut rice (coconut cream that literally tasted like white gravy poured over steamed rice, it was unexpectedly a perfect substitute for mashed potatoes and gravy); a Khmer vegetable curry meal with fried eggrolls as appetizer and for dessert, fried bananas with palm sugar and coconut milk (tasted like sauteed bananas in a perfect caramel sauce), and one night we went to a more upscale restaurant with a traditional Apsara dance show.


Tonight we are headed to Bangkok where we will immediately take a train up North to Chiang Mai. A whole night on a bus just isn’t enough! After a couple weeks in Northern Thailand we will fly out of Bangkok to spend 2 1/2 weeks in Myanmar, then back to Thailand.

The Kings Birthday

The last week has been quiet and relaxing.  We spent six days down by Sihanoukville, Cambodia.  This area is purely known for its really nice beaches.  It was also a great time to enjoy some food.  Megan and I started every morning pretty early with a nice little breakfast and hurrying down to the beach.  Typically there were only a few people on the beach up until noon, so it was a good time to enjoy the beach and do some quality reading.  Every evening on the beach all the restaurants and bars would have a bbq out front.  Megan and I took good advantage of this having squid, barracuda, and prawn (big shrimp).  I thoroughly enjoyed the squid myself, so if you have a chance to try bbq squid you should.  Megan found that one restaurant had an awesome veggie burger, and I would have to agree as it was the best I have ever had.

Once the weekend started tons of locals started showing up.  As we found out that Monday was the beginning of the Kings Birthday, and it lasted for three days.  It was interesting as most of the locals stayed to one side of the beach, but many of the establishments stopped doing happy hour or food specials.  Also, all the people that walked the beach selling stuff were quite irritated with the influx of Cambodian tourists.  I am guessing that is because they wouldn’t pay the prices asked for their wares.  Megan made a fun relationship with a little boy, Ben,  that kept trying to sell us bracelets and later roman candles.  He stopped by to talk to us every evening.

While the beach was pretty full we rented a scooter and ventured off to some of the other beaches.  North of us there were a few other beaches but they were run by Russians, and we had overheard they were not as pleasant.  To access the beach you had to be staying at their resort or stick to a small section that was occupied by a bar.  South of us was a nice quieter beach built more for the backpackers.  If it hadn’t been for the higher food prices there we would have stayed there.

Part way through our stay we had a front come through that brought a little bit of rain, but even better is that it stirred up some waves in the water.  This might have been one of Megan’s favorite things while we were there.  She was like a little kid in the water, but so was nearly everyone else.  All the locals would walk out to about knee height, and when a wave came in they would do a little hop.  It was hilarious.

Aside from all the people watching, reading, relaxing, and good food there wasn’t much else.  Since then we have made an overnight bus trip up to Siem Reap, but we will cover that in another post. All the pictures up until now should be up in the gallery.  Cheers!

Phnomenal Penh!

It has been easy to feel comfortable in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, as it is the most Westernized city we have been to as of yet. Even the large supermarket that we have already visited three times for measly items we can buy closer to our hotel is a comfort. In addition, the ATMs spit out US dollar bills and purchases are made with a mix of dollars and riels. Besides its Western features, this city is remarkable in so many other ways.

Since we plan to go to Myanmar (Burma) later in our trip and knew we would be spending some time here, we decided to go ahead and apply for our Myanmar visa which would take nearly a week to get back. Thursday morning we purchased our airline tickets from Bangkok to Yangon, Myanmar for a little more than a month from now and made our way to the embassy. The application process was a breeze and they never did ask for our proof of entry and exit (airline tickets) as we expected we would need. This morning we picked up our passports complete with Myanmar visas! We are very excited we will have the opportunity to visit a country that is currently in the process of opening more to the outside world and changing drastically every week.

We spent Friday in the heart of the city where we visited the National Museum and the Royal Palace. The National Museum had an impressive array of Khmer art and sculptures, with fantastic educational resources to better understand the meanings to images we see repeated on buildings and sculptures everywhere. It is a shame pictures are not allowed inside most museums. We were able to take some outside in the courtyard though.

The Royal Palace was even more spectacular, with its grand buildings, temple, and related Buddhist structures. One building contains a silver-tiled floor and an emerald Buddha statue, the two main draws of the Palace. The silver tiles, bent, dinged up, and worn, were mostly covered by rugs. Not the wisest flooring material it seems! I couldn’t understand the fuss over the emerald Buddha, which was placed so high on a pedestal that we could barely get a glimpse. It was so much smaller and less beautiful in my opinion than many of the marble and stone Buddhas we have seen. I guess glitz and glam just aren’t my thing, because I was more impressed with the landscaping and shrubbery sculptures! Bryan and I couldn’t help but discussing, while walking through these grand structures and sculptures dedicated to Buddha, what the man who taught modesty would think of all this.

Saturday we decided to pay our respects to those who were massacred by the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979. We first visited Choeung Ek Killing Fields outside the city where we were given a headset tour guide. Prisoners from elsewhere were taken to these fields only to be killed. It was a very moving experience as we walked around listening to personal stories from survivors on our headsets. A large memorial sits in front of the entrance where the excavated bones from the mass grave sites are visibly stored. The exhumed graves remain as massive pits dotting the fields, with signs warning to keep an eye out for bones and clothes that regularly surface. We next visited Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, aka S-21, which was originally a school. The Khmer Rouge did not believe in education, so the school was closed and turned into prison and torture chambers. Shackles and torture tools remained on display. One of the buildings was left in the same condition it was found, with barbed-wire netting covering the front, and single cells partitioned with brick or wood. One of the 7 survivors from this prison was on sight, now an old man, signing his book. He survived because they found out his profession as a painter and they used him for portraits of officials and so forth. The Khmer Rouge took vigilant records and photographed each prisoner. As we were walking through the thousands of photos, three local women brought tears to my eyes as they lovingly caressed and mourned each of the faces photographed. As I take it all to heart, it is quite emotional for me to visit sites like this, but it is important to me. We must remember and learn from such events to prevent recurrences, but most importantly, we must recognize the beauty, courage, and strength within one another that shows up in the worst of times.

Friday night we had checked out the weekend night market, with its loud nightly concerts, super cheap clothes, and variety of foods. We had a pretty good sized dinner for $3, enjoyed on a grass mat rolled out on the cement. At breakfast on Saturday morning, our waiter asked if he could tag along with us to the Night Market on our second visit. He introduced us to something called nime, which we previously thought were eyeballs but they were just a spicy snack in little bags. Bryan ate a lot of them that night! He invited us to go to Dreamland with him on Sunday afternoon. Dreamland turned out to be a small amusement park where we rode a few small rides, and one which we had never seen in the U.S., and we found out why! It spun around in a horizontal circle like so many others, but you were in a round cage that rolled like being inside the tire of a monster truck. After one long ride, we were screaming and involuntarily laughing so hard that they must have thought we hadn’t had enough. To our horror they started it all over again (probably to amuse the crowd we drew)! It spun so fast we were profusely sweating, couldn’t see straight, and could barely walk for awhile afterwords. That was rough!

On Monday we volunteered at a small school outside the city for some of the poorest children. The school has a kindergarten, computer lab, and a vocational class that teaches English and German to older students in addition to what the public school teaches. Speaking a foreign language is very important for success to many Cambodians, and the public school nearby has no computers either. I spent time in the morning with the kindergartners while Bryan worked on a couple donated computers. At lunch time we went out with a truckload of kids to drop them off at their 10’x8′ grass huts built on the side of the road and to fill water jugs with clean drinking water for families in the area. It was beautiful to talk to these happy children that didn’t even have clean clothes but were doing so well in class, speaking clear English, and working towards bright futures. We were told one student is being sponsored by a German company and is set up for more education in Germany and possibly a job through that company.

Southern Laos, an Unexpected Experience

Savannakhet, what can I say. There wasn’t much going on here, but it had quite a bit of French architecture still around. There was a temple that we biked out to that had some of Buddha’s bones there. An important thing for many people in the area. The town can boast for its two room dinosaur museum, where a very energetic lead archeologist gave us a small tour including the back room where they work with bones. In this town could also pick up a delicious sandwiches for cheap, especially if you didn’t mind having pig liver.

Laos has been full of surprises at every turn. We left Savannakhet for Pakse on a local bus. The difference between local and VIP buses is that the local one stops every 100m through a town instead of every few kilometers to see if anyone else needs a ride. Extra money for the driver, and slow progress for the rest of us. As we were getting close to Pakse the bus pulled over at a “bus station” and dumped all the tourists off telling us this was our stop. We were 8km from town and 15km from the bus station. Conveniently a tuk tuk was there and could take us the rest of the way for more than what our bus tickets cost us. With no good choice the nine of us got in and he started down the road until we made it to a gas station where he demanded money so he could get gas. A couple immediately payed up but Megan and I threw up a stink and wouldn’t pay until the end. No one else decided to pay either. After five minutes of arguing most of us unloaded all our stuff to try and find a different ride. The tuk tuk never got gas but took his few people to their destination. We went up to a guy with a pickup truck to see if we could get a ride and he was super nice and helped us out. He wouldn’t even take money for giving us the lift to town. We made our way to the bus station where 20 of us and a motorbike crammed into a tuk tuk that drove us to Ban Nakasang, 3.5 hours. It stormed on us for part of the way so we had a good time just trying to stay dry. Once we made it to our destination we got a ferry to the island and quickly scoured for some food. It was a long day.

We had a nice bungalow on the riverside and enjoyed a nice day in our hammocks reading. Relaxing!  Getting up early the following day we hiked over to the neighboring island Don Khone. We made our way to a small beach area with a few restaurants and only one other tourist where we were invited over for a free lunch. The very happy local offered us snails, sticky rice, and hot chilli sauce. Being polite we tried them and I found them pretty tasty, but it was hard to pull them from their shells with a toothpick. The local had a blast talking to us even though we only understood about ten percent of what he sad. The other tourist that looked most excited about the snails ended up taking a boat ride with us to see the Irrawaddy dolphins when a local fisherman offered us a ride considerably cheaper than anything we could have booked. This was pretty amazing. The river was full of eddies and rapids surrounded by lush islands. As you made your way down the river you would see a large group of water buffalo going for a soak, fishermen bringing in a nice catch, or large reed patches swaying to the wind. On the opposite side of the river is Cambodia and all the official tours included a permit to venture into their area, something we didn’t have. When we reached the area where sightings normally occur we were dropped off on a rock in the middle of the river in Cambodia while the fisherman went to get gas. Fortunately we were able to see the dolphins but they were about 100m away. While on this rock we had three other Cambodian tour boats come over and unload a bunch of excited people. The tour operators didn’t care that we weren’t legally there but were concerned we had been abandoned. All the tourists took our pictures as we were clearly more fascinating than rare dolphins that are nearly extinct. Moments later our fisherman was on his way back over. The ride back was nearly more enjoyable than going out. There were times you were speeding through some rapids but at the same time you felt as though you were motionless in speeding water. If anything just the boat ride itself was worth the price. After arriving back at the beach we made our way to the Somphamit waterfalls. This area was like a small canyon with copious amounts of waterfalls, but we could see how it becomes one massively wide waterfall in the wet season. You will have to check out the pictures.

After making our way back to our bungalow a local ran up to us excited telling us they were having a free BBQ next door. Invitation accepted! They had quite the party going, and some delicious grilled pork that was butchered fresh that morning.  Makes sense why we heard all the squealing early on.  Enjoying ourselves we asked what the occasion was, and all we figured out was that one of the guy’s brother had or did something. He wasn’t even there with us? We were at the pre-party. A couple of hours later we headed to the other side of the island where there were a lot of people and we were the only small group of Westerners. Bit awkward at first. One guy said we first must give a small gift to someone. We were led up some stairs to a balcony where a bunch of old ladies sat next to a small table adorned with flowers, money, food, and other things. I was the first to walk up having no clue what to do, but I got on my knees and put 10,000 kip (about $1.30) into a small gold metal bowl. The ladies put a small flower on it and said something, so I bowed lower folding my hands together in a traditional way of showing respect and saying thank you. Then they handed me a bag full of some kind of food that ended up being ground sweet corn wrapped in sticky rice and then wrapped in a leaf. Everyone else followed in suit. With snacks in hand we made our way to the lawn to have a seat on some bamboo mats. Already stuffed with BBQ we were hoping to just drink, but they ended up serving us tons of food that we had to eat. Food comma! The evening went spectacular as we enjoyed a party we didn’t understand, had good food, beer, and a very unique experience.

We spent another day relaxing, looking for books, and scheduling our next bus ride that took us into Cambodia.  We did make it across the border, but found that if we hadn’t had a guide the officers would have been very difficult to deal with, as we witnessed with some others.  We had a guide and only cost us $2 more in the end.  Had everyone done that we could have shaved a couple of hours off the crossing.  Did I tell you how hot it is in the middle of nowhere between to small shacks?  We are currently in Phnom Penh, but I will leave the post where it is for now and pickup on the rest later.