Hits and Misses – South-East Asia Edition

My adventure is now more than half-complete – South-East Asia is in the can! I’m not so sharp at times and only came to the realization that I could in fact also shoot video about a week ago – so below I’ve included some (poorly edited) highlights. Tomorrow I begin my 17 hours worth of flights and layovers to head to London, so I’m going to be offline for a few days getting settled, getting over jet lag, and seeing family and friends! So until then…

THE HITS

Best Country – It’s hard to play favourites, as each country offered a completely different experience. However, for overall charm, ambience and fond memories (even with the great malaria medication-induced stomach meltdown of 2011 AND my debit card not working), it has to be Laos. Lovely Laos, I already miss you and your warm sunshine.

Best Accommodations – Prum Bayon Hotel, Siem Reap, Cambodia. We were spoiled rotten at this hotel. Gorgeous pool and lounge area, huge rooms (all to myself, sans Joanne), French toast for breakfast…great way to end the trip.

Best Eats – Tough call. For all the fried rice and bland tofu I consumed, occasionally there were gems scattered in there. The home-cooked meal we had in Luang Prabang, Laos was delicious. But at Chamkar Vegetarian Restaurant in Siem Reap I had fresh spring rolls and a pumpkin curry that I’m still daydreaming about. And my last accommodation, the Secret Garden Resort in Chiang Mai, had amazing dinners – spicy coconut soups and curries that helped clear my sinuses in seconds flat.

Best Almost-Freebies – Bike rentals. For the equivalent of $1 or $2 a day, renting a bike was a fantastic way to see the towns and surrounding countryside in a whole new way. Pay the extra dollar for a bike with suspension (and gears, if available) – trust me on this one.

Best Experience for the Money – Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Expensive, but for a great cause and something I will never forget – especially getting a smooch from a cheeky young elephant!

Most Pleasant Surprise – Traffic in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. For a city that size, with five million motorbikes, it was surprisingly organized and (relatively) easy to get around. Relative in comparison to Hanoi.

Favourite Local Snack – Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk!

Favourite City – Luang Prabang for its night market, variety of sights to check out, and that home-cooked meal. Siem Reap for Angkor Wat, tug-of-war contests in the streets, and locals who envied my pale complexion. Words that will never be uttered to me again.

THE MISSES

Worst Accommodations – Chiang Khong, Thailand. I don’t even know what the name of this place was, but it was straight out of a horror flick giving the Bates Motel a run for its money in terms of creepiness. Throw in a dark, freezing cold nighttime arrival, a pretty convincing “ladyboy” host, squat toilets and bad karaoke that went late into the night (plus Joanne snoring and hogging the blankets of the bed we essentially shared) and you have one night I hope to one day forget.

Worst Eats – Vietnam. While I did have two good meals, for me to call food bland…it must be bland. And just fried rice in general everywhere. It was a struggle being vegetarian and staying that way in each country, which really surprised me as I thought there’d be more meat-free options. Good luck to you if you’re vegan – short of hopping back into the kitchen, I don’t see how one could sustain that lifestyle without bringing their own eats.

Worst Experience for the Money – The unexpected tipping for EVERYTHING on my group tour. I understand local guides but tipping for a bus driver who drove us from town A to town B got a little excessive (and expensive) after four weeks. Should I start tipping pilots when I fly?

Worst Experience in General – Feeling like a jerk in Cambodia when confronted by beggers every five seconds. Go to the bathroom, have eight children following you begging you to help send them to school by buying bananas. Try to walk into your hotel, have six men ask if you need a tuk-tuk. Attempt to eat dinner in a restaurant, have several families wander in individually to stare at you with big eyes as you eat, while they tell you that they’re hungry.

Worst Surprise – A tie between my debit card not working at any ATMs in Laos, despite being assured it would. Thankfully, I carried emergency cash (always, always have back-up cash), had friends willing to lend me cash and was sick as a dog and therefore didn’t spend much money. And rooming with a 75-year-old woman who was NOT hip and cool like Betty White.

Something I Wish I’d Done Differently – My tailoring fiasco in Hoi An, Vietnam. I should have brought photos, I should NOT have had boots made which I’m now lugging around with me, and I probably shouldn’t have gotten a silk leopard print potato sack!

And now for the highlights!

Boating Adventures on Tonle Sap Lake

No offence to boating enthusiasts out there, but I’m keen to have a break from it for awhile. In the past month I’ve noodled around the Mekong three times and enjoyed it immensely. My enjoyment of the water kind of petered out during a trip to Tonle Sap Lake, however.

Tonle Sap is a river/lake combo in Cambodia that’s the largest freshwater lake in South East Asia. I use “freshwater” loosely here as what I smelled…wasn’t that fresh. It’s unusual because it changes direction twice a year depending on the season – in the dry season, it drains into the Mekong, while in the rainy season it backs up to form an enormous lake. Neat, right?

Well yes, however I went in the dry season. The water was, at best guess, no more than a metre deep, which made boating a tad dicey as boat propellers tend to get stuck in all the garbage in the water. And where’s the garbage from you ask? In the dry season, all the people that live along the river move out into the lake. When it’s the rainy season…they come back to the river. If you live on the water, you don’t pay taxes, therefore it’s a pretty attractive place to live. Minus the fact that there are no amenities for things such as sewage drainage, so in addition to throwing all your garbage in the water…your sewage goes there too.

So it smelled rather unpleasant as it was, of course, a hot day. And when you get stuck in the water and have to untangle a propeller, there’s no breeze to nudge the smell along. We stopped periodically to get untangled, and at one point came upon another boat that was struggling. So we naturally slowed down, but the boat behind us clearly didn’t get the memo and SLAMMED into the back. Therefore, no more propeller for us. And as we sat in the heat, watching our Cambodian drivers wading around in the water trying to work stuff out, more boats appeared. It quickly became a five-boat pile up, blocking the entire river. After a few minutes, Joanne (grandma roommate) made the keen observation “oh, have we stopped?”, as she had apparently missed that time when we got rocked from behind. She was likely wondering about where the children go to school, for she asks questions about schools EVERYWHERE we go. That and social services, medicare, etc. Even in Vietnam, she picked away at the social services available and tried to get our guide to admit that some things were wrong. Seeing how Vietnam is COMMUNIST, our guide was afraid to discuss anything.

But I digress. The boat was stuck, amid whispers of  “what if we sink?!” (again, the water was a metre deep, however I don’t think I got enough vaccinations to cover a walk to shore), and we eventually had to abandon ship and hop over to the ONE THAT HIT US. Enemy territory. Full of Asian tourists (Korean? Or Chinese, can’t remember) who stared at my shorts. Yes, they’re probably too short but it’s 40 degrees.

We got to the lake and were dropped off at one of the floating villages, which happened to have a large crocodile farm:

Which really is exactly what you want to see when you’re in shallow waters.

The floating villages are quite cool – some have small populations, others have hundreds or a thousand, and depending on the water levels they migrate back and forth between river and lake, forever in a nomadic existence. Out on the water there are churches, stores, schools, restaurants and houses. Conditions, like much of what we’ve seen in Cambodia, were quite poor, and several times a boat would speed up next to ours with an entire family loaded on. Sometimes they were selling drinks, while other times…the smallest child would be holding a snake. They charge $1 for photos of the children doing so, and it was such a bizarre site to see a tiny child indifferently holding onto a snake like it was a toy.

For our last stop before heading back to the dock, we gathered together hotel toiletries that we’d stashed away and dropped them off with a few families. I loved this little girl, with the saddest eyes in the world. She perked up when we handed over the toiletries. I wish I’d had more to give her.

After making it back to shore without any further breakdowns, we stopped at a village before returning to Siem Reap. Following a much-needed nap (following a long day and late, late night before) I had my weirdest experience thus far on the trip.

I had a fish massage.

Now before you envision someone slapping fish around on your back, the fish eat the dead skin off your feet, so more of a pedicure really. And as anyone who knows me can confirm, I have a bit of an issue with feet so sticking mine into a tank full of fish SEEMED just ridiculous enough to try. It was as ticklish, strange and hilarious as I’d imagined it would be. 20 minutes of little tiny fish nibbling at your feet while you sit on the sidewalk with your feet in an aquarium, watching the world go by. While I know it’s catching on in some spas in North America, there’s something a bit more fun about doing it in Asia – it’s fairly popular in Thailand as well, so worth checking out if you feel like doing something a tad bizarre!

Exploring Angkor Wat

So as I alluded to in the previous post, I fulfilled one of my goals for this trip and went to Angkor Wat!  It’s one of the most important archaeological sites in South-East Asia. Within the archaeological park there are the remains of the different capitals of the Khmer Empire, dating from the 9th to 15th centuries, and Khmer art was developed here and had a large influence over much of South-East Asia.

Most of the group (minus Joanne – granny roommate) sleepily climbed onto a bus at 5 a.m. and made the short drive to the outer wall to see the sunrise. It was a very surreal feeling walking in the darkness with hundreds of others, climbing over unseen rocks and hearing all sorts of mystery animals chirping a morning hello.We parked ourselves in front of the temple, sitting on the steps of one of the libraries, and waited. And waited. An enterprising fellow brought over coffee and tea – genius – so we waited some more, with beverages. As a sidenote, while I have been proclaiming my love of coffee with condensed milk, this magic does NOT translate to tea. At any rate, 6:30 a.m. rolled around and there was still no sun, but dark, ominous rain clouds. We sadly decided to retreat to the hotel for breakfast and return in a few hours for the tour.

Thanks (for once) to the rain which was on and off, the humidity and heat were reduced to tolerable levels and we didn’t melt too much while exploring. It is a MASSIVE place, full of history, and was only rediscovered about 150 years ago when a Frenchman stumbled through the jungle (I may or may not have made that part up, but the way I imagine it was that he was literally stumbling around the jungle as it makes it more interesting to me). Our local guide told us all about the different kings that had modified the temples to follow their religions (Hindu and Buddhism), the reason for multiple entrances (one for the king, one for others, one for elephants), and pointed out areas that had been damaged by poor restoration efforts or the Khmer Rouge (bullet holes are visible throughout the main entrance). Even though we had to stop every five seconds due to questions being asked (repeatedly), it was still fascinating.

Continue reading “Exploring Angkor Wat”

The How-To Guide to a Proper Night Out in Cambodia

Step 1: Get up at 4 a.m. to see the sunrise at Angkor Wat (more on that later). Ensure it’s a cloudy, rainy morning so that the sun doesn’t appear.

Step 2: Spend the day walking around Angkor Wat and jungle temples in the drizzle and 40 degree heat.

Step 3: Eat curry for lunch. Spicy foods cool you down.

Step 4: Follow lunch with an ice cream. No explanation necessary.

Step 5: Instead of napping upon return to the hotel, have a pool party. Accidentally swallow half the pool when tipped off the shoulders of someone during an attempt at making a pyramid.

Step 6: Dinner. Eat something delicious (easy to do). Again, no explanation necessary.

Step 7: Take advantage of the buy one-get one deals at every bar in town. Celebrate something (such as a friend’s birthday!).

Step 8: Take part in an impromptu tug-of-war match in the street.

Step 9: Eventually call it a night upon realization you’ve been up for 22 hours. On tuk-tuk ride back, witness the near-death of a man on a motorbike as he crashes into your ride.

Step 10: Moderate amount of sleep.

Step 11: Coffee.

Step 12: Take a boat tour to Tonle Sap Lake (also, more on that later). Go in the dry season, when water levels are extremely low. Prepare for the smell of the water (think heated sewage). Get in an accident when a boat speeds up behind yours and crashes into the back, severing the propeller.  Hop onto that boat, full of Asian tourists who stare at your paleness in admiration and your shorts in disapproval. Try to avoid getting the water that’s spraying over the side on your face. Marvel at how ridiculous the last 24 hours have been. Repeat.

Phnom Penh

Cambodia is hot, in case you didn’t catch that in my previous post. We’ve been here for a few days now, and it’s been averaging high-30s each day. BEFORE HUMIDITY. My hair is unruly, my patience waning, and energy zapped. So essentially, I’m hot and lazy. Therefore a cyclo tour of Phnom Penh was a great way to spend an evening!

The cyclos support the homeless and we had great guides zipping us around some of the sites to help orient us with the city. Granted, my guide seemed a tad hell-bent on playing chicken with traffic and consistently veered into oncoming cars – and I have video proof of this which I’ll edit and post soon. But otherwise, it was an interesting (and touristy) way to get around. We even got to ride them at one point…which almost ended in a spectacular disaster for me when I couldn’t reach the pedals or steer.

After drinks at the FCC (Foreign Correspondents’ Club) we had dinner at a great local restaurant supporting street youth, and I went to bed quite happy and content at how the day had gone.

The next day, we visited Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21) and the Killing Fields. While I did take some photos, I felt conflicted in doing so as I didn’t want to be disrespectful to the deceased and anyone who suffered at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. I was unprepared for the emotional impact that both of these places would have on me. Our local guide had been imprisoned as a child and spoke of his experiences, and we met one of the remaining survivors of S-21. Coming from a country that has been peaceful in my time, it’s hard to understand how such atrocities can take place, and how someone can turn on their own citizens so horrifically – over 1/5 of the country’s population was killed. While I was familiar with Pol Pot and had read about the Khmer Rouge, seeing the devastation that took place, and that people are still recovering from, was heartbreaking.

And that’s the overwhelming feeling I’ve had so far in Cambodia. There’s so much poverty here, especially with children. You can’t walk down the street without being hounded by mothers holding babies with hands outstretched for food, children selling fruits or small crafts, people begging for help. I feel guilty for not giving money, but that just encourages the behaviour and we’ve been instructed not to. I did buy a bracelet off of a charming little boy who I hope gets to follow his dream of becoming a lawyer (he was such a smooth talker, he’d make a good one). And I hope that this country is able to get back on its feet as it is absolutely beautiful.

Goooodbye, Vietnam!

Short and sweet for now – apologies for the delay, but I’ve been melting in the heat, lacking reliable internet access, and picked up a weird cold/flu hybrid to boot. After weeks of wondering why it was so damn cold in this neck of the woods, the heat and humidity finally caught up with us full-time. So glad I had leather boots and a wool coat made in Hoi An.

For our final day in Vietnam, we went to the Mekong Delta and cruised in a riverboat. We stopped along the way to take a lazy side trip through some of the canals before stopping for lunch at a riverside restaurant. Spending several hours slowly making our way across the water, savouring the peace and tranquility, was the perfect anecdote to the hectic pace of Vietnam. The breeze was lovely, as were the giant coconuts we sipped on during the ride.

After returning to Ho Chi Minh City, we finally got pho (at a joint that looked a bit nondescript from the outside, but it had photos of Bill Clinton with the staff on the walls so I figured if it’s good enough for Bubba, it’s good enough for me. And it was. Perfect way to end Vietnam. Well, getting a street beer would have finished it off, but there was a thunderstorm outside that made that a tad difficult.

The next morning we packed onto a public bus and headed to the border for our fourth country – Cambodia. It was a long drive, and much of it was spent watching bad American movies (Rush Hour 3, The Happening). There was something rather…strange…about watching flicks in English, surrounded by Vietnamese and Cambodians who likely didn’t understand half of it (although let’s be honest, does anyone understand M. Night Shyamalan movies?). After a confusing border crossing (they check your temperature with a radar gun, who knew) and an even more confusing lunch stop (more fried rice, hurray), we began the drive to Phnom Penh…before the AC broke down and we sat baking on the side of the road in 40 degree heat.

Welcome to Cambodia.