Archives for the month of: November, 2011

To my American friends – Happy Thanksgiving, I hope you enjoyed the company of fiends and family and ate well.

On American Thanksgiving, I had the best pumpkin pancakes I’ve ever had.  It may sound strange to eat pumpkin pancakes in Cambodia, but funnily enough it’s not that big of a stretch.  For one, pumpkin is on a lot of the menus here in soup and curries – we even saw some growing on our hike in Thailand. Second, the “sisters” who run the cafe learned to bake American recipes at the same America run orphanage together.  One of the sisters shared with us her amazing story. She was from Vietnam living with her grandparents.  When she was 12 she was told her mother was in Cambodia, and en route there to find her discovered she was actually to be sold in Sihanoukville. However, a bad motorbike crash left her with an amputated leg and this twist of fate saved her life. She then found herself in an orphanage with a new “family”.  Today her and her husband work at the local orphanage and have both a biological and adopted child.  Sadly this story isn’t as unusual as one would hope – we picked up a book I’m just starting by NY times columnist Kristof called Half the Sky documenting the human trafficking trend in SE Asia and other regions of the world.

Dinner that day was equally as indulgent as our pancake feast. We took the beautiful ride out to Kep, what Claudia and I figured was the White Rock equivalent of Cambodia.  After a hike through the national park, we found a shack overlooking the ocean and had a feast fit for kings. Crab with local green peppercorns, prawns in local spices, fish in fresh coconut milk, shark in lemongrass and a nice cold bottle of white wine.  A bit nicer than our usual backpacker fare, it was a dinner to be remembered.

We returned back to our favourite pancake spot the next day for more and stocked up on treats for the next leg of our journey (which was a good thing considering it was much longer than anticipated). Needless to say, we have eaten very well in Kampot and Kep.   It was farewell to our friend Chris for a few weeks as Claudia and I continue on to Vietnam joined by our friend Daniel.  In Vietnam, we’ll be spending a few days in Saigon / HCMC, on the coast in Mui Ne, then moving into the Central Highlands.

We’ll miss the beef luk lak, seeing volleyball courts everywhere, and much more about Cambodia; I’m already planning the trip back in my head, which will, of course, include more pumpkin pancakes.

-from Camille

We love Cambodia. The people are so friendly, the food is so good, and we have found some fantastic travel companions  who we’ve had an eventful few days with.

We met Daniel on the dive boat over to Koh Rung when we shared our peanut butter and banana sandwich (yes, we carry peanut butter). He’s blogging about his year-long adventures for the radio station he used to coordinate events for, Radio Hamburg and is teaching Cami German. We met Chris on Koh Rung, and it only took a few minutes to figure out he also works for Accenture out of Manchester! Small world. He’s an amazing photographer- some of the photos you’ll see are his, and is teaching me about the settings on my camera as well as cockney rhyming slang.
When you book a tour, you never really know what to expect. We did our due diligence shopping around and choosing a tour company recommended in Lonely Planet, but our day tour at Bokor Mountain was still ‘Scheissdreck’ ( ‘shit rubbish’  in German). We hiked for an hour part way up the mountain to an old historic French hotel and casino which is now a huge construction site. Next up was the worst excuse for a waterfall I have ever seen interspersed with not very interesting information from our guide Tiger. It’s a good thing we had fun regardless, goofing around, laughing at a German woman who videoed everything (the half hour ride down the mountain), playing games and making jokes. We were down Bokor Mountain by 4 and off for a Sunset cruise along the river, enjoyed with a few Angkor beers. We met a lovely couple from Quebec who told us the wanted to make friends with us because they couldn’t figure out how we were having fun on the tour. Ha! This is where the night got started.
We headed to the Rusty Keyhole for more beer and the best ribs I’ve ever had, moved on to another little bar where we formed a band and played air guitar and air triangle (Camille), then followed our ears to the music of a Cambodian engagement party. Initially timid, we were welcomed in, given beers and water, and pulled on to the dance floor. The party was set up on an intersection taken over with a stage, band, large tents and a table with coconuts that everyone danced around. Camille and I showed them a line dance (we will share the video later) and we learned some Cambodian hand dancing. Chris and Daniel made friends with the bride-to-be’s father, and rounds of ‘happy happy’ (down your drink) were endured as a mark of respect. Once that shut down, we were lured into a karaoke place, which played us Britney Spears and loved our dance moves, and a Cambodian night club where we made friends with the DJ. A hilarious, fantastic night where the main takeaway for me was the overwhelming friendliness of the Cambodian people.

-from Claudia

After a short and relatively pain-free bus ride from Siam Reap to Phnom Pehn (minus the chewing noises from the people in front of us eating deep-fried tirantulas, I kid you not),  we arrived in the city. What was once the ‘pearl of South Asia’ retains some of its charm it was known for in the early 1900’s, despite being almost completely evacuated by the Khmer Rouge during the late 70’s.
We spent a few days in the City visiting the killing fields (sobering, shocking), checking out the National Museum, doing some shopping, relaxing by the river, and enjoying the happy hour(s) at the Foreign Correspondants Club (first glass of wine in Asia!). I even fit a run in along the river!
Ready for a break in city travel, we moved on to Sihanoukville. It’s the Vang Vieng of Cambodia, the backpacker party central. Not exactly what we were looking for, but good for a day at the beach and a night on the town*.
My co-worker Emma (thanks Emma!) had suggested we check out Koh Rung island off the coast of Sihanoukville, so we booked a night in a bungalow at Monkey Beach and a 2 hour boat trip with the dive shop. It was just what we needed, and as Camille put it, a real turning point of our trip so far. As soon as we got on the boat we knew we had something good. Pulling up to the island, there’s only a few bungalows and a white beach with crystal blue water. We booked a second night as soon as we ate at our bungalow restaurant for lunch. Unbelievable Thai food. Perfection.
We spent 3 full days on Koh Rung lounging in a hammock, laying on the beach, floating in the water, reading, playing volleyball, eating, hiking, and drinking a few beers.  We’ve figured out there are a few simple elements to having an amazing time at a location: great people, good food, good location, and availability of cold beer. Koh Rung had it all.

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-from Claudia

 

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Hi everyone!  We just left the closest thing yet to paradise on a little island called Koh Rung and wrote up our thoughts on Angkor Wat whilst relaxing on the beach. We are currently in Kampot, Cambodia and off to Vietnam in the next few days.  More on Phenom Penh and Cambodia’s unknown beaches soon, for now enjoy our experience at one of the wonders of the world!

Everyone has heard of the wonderous Angkor Wat, mysterious temples in the North of Cambodia. The trip is a must do for any Southeast Asia traveler and its easy to see why.

To demystify this ancient wonder, here’s some background.  The word ‘Angkor’ is a derivation of ‘nagara’, which is the Sanskrit word for city.  All of Angkor was more than a city – the temples that survive are a skeleton of the ancient Khmer empire that in its heyday had an estimated population of 1 million (when London was only 50 000) and included not only temples but residential areas, rice fields and a water management system. Records on the daily life at Angkor are limited, as inscriptions were for matters of religion or state. Chinese emissary Zhou Daguan visited Angkor for a year in the 1200s- his notes after his return for China paint a picture of Khmer life that remain similar to today in the countryside.

During the Angkorian period the ruling god-kings built temples as a way of asserting their divinity, and more than 900 temples were built between the 9th and 15th centuries.  Angkor Wat is the most well-known temple and is considered to be the largest religious building in the world. One of the interesting things we found while exploring Angkor was the influences of both Hinduism and Buddhism, a small example of a larger theme in SE Asia of the dominant communities of China (trade) and India (spirituality).

We hired a tuk-tuk for the first day around the temples, which was a great way to explore and see the main sights. We took bikes out the second day, which we loved – it allowed us to really feel the size of the city and experience the small things. (We found a bar with a pool to cool off afterwards!) We saw sunrise over Angkor on our third day, and explored the temple again to revisit the amazing bas-reliefs (carved religious stories protruding from the walls).

Because things are more fun in list format, our top 7 temples are below in no particular order.

-East Mebon: Known for its well-preserved elephant statues, so a clear winner in Camille’s books.

-Angkor Wat: One of the amazing features is the well-preserved stories captured on the bas-reliefs including the Churning of the Sea of Milk which depicts a God / Demon tug of war with a serpent instead of a rope.  The same motif can be found around the complex.

-Preah Khan: At one point it was a Buddhist university! A huge, quiet complex.

-Bayong: A mass of face towers gives off the impression someone is always watching.  I’m guessing this is what they intended.

-Ta Keo: Huge complex of sandstone made to seem larger as it was unfinished after it was struck by lighting.  Sean’s favourite temple, this was a must see for us.

-Ta Prohm: Inspiration for the temple in Tomb Raider, fun to explore in its natural ‘ruined’ state with overgrown trees and roots looping in and around the temples. Lots of dead ends of doors filled with tumbled bricks meant retracing your steps frequently.

-Banteay Kdei: One of the less visited temples means this was fun to imagine uncovering as the French did in the early 1900s.

A long day biking through  the temples left us too exhausted to make our way out on the town, and the blog is better for it.  We’ve added a new post with video (fancy!) and also updated some existing posts.

Check out the updated posts at the following links:

Off to Phnom Penh today, we were planning on Battambong, but unfortunately all the buses were full!  We plan to see the Cambodian countryside in Sihanoukville and Kampot / Kep.

Ta ta for now!

-Camille

A travel journal we are using suggested that when traveling, you should a)go for both the most appetizing and least appetizing items off the menu and b) ask the server what is not to miss.  The fish with sour mango fit category b), and as soon as it arrived on our table also clearly fell into category a).

Claudia, always up for the challenge (see Laos album for the number of high things she jumps off of!), was the first one to make a move.  Check out the video here!

November 13 – UPDATED: pictures at the bottom!

Hi everyone!

We have arrived in Siem Reap! We wanted to post this while in Laos, but had some internet difficulty.  In case you are wondering, yes feeling much better now – we were back to normal after a day or so of sleeping in Vang Vieng.  Here is our Laos experience.

We arrived by slow boat to the UNESCO World Heritage site Luang Prabang and the boat was in fact as described, slow. Luckily, it was not short on scenery of the beautiful Mekong River and also not short on friendly fellow travelers who we ended up with for a week of our journey.

A bit of background- Laos is the most bombed country in the world by capita (and 35% of those dropped remain undetonated).  Of those 35%, they have so far cleared only 14%.  This mostly impacts the North, where locals look for UXOs with chicken feathers and detonate them without professional help.  They then of course use the bomb material for scrap metal. You start to see this everywhere – the bell at the entry of a wat, planters, cow bells, and so on.  Laos is one of the poorest countries in the world, but regardless (or perhaps unrelated) the people are very friendly.  It’s Laos’s goal to get out of the bottom 20 poorest countries in the world, and tourism (along with natural resources) will likely play a big part in that.  Hopefully Laos can retain its natural beauty and culture along the way.

The highlight of Luang Prabang was biking a not so ambling 36 kilometer ride to the Kouang Si waterfall.  After a refreshing Tarzan-style rope swing into the water, we climbed up to the top to find a fairy-tale like brook where, when peering over the edge of the cliff, you can see all the way down to the bottom of the falls. We also stopped at a mid-way point to the top of the falls, walking along stairs carved out of the rock and getting quite wet while doing it. Luang Prabang is a beautiful town, however we did find it difficult to get an idea of what daily life is like there given the extensive tourism.

We took the wonderful bus ride (see post below) down to Vang Vieng, which could be renamed College Town International.  After learning about Laos modesty (long skirts, covered shoulders) it was shocking to see people walking around in their swimsuits after tubing on the streets around town.  Vang Vieng is definitely not Laos culture, but it was fun.  It wasn’t too difficult to get out of the Western bars to see some of Laos’s natural beauty. This includes some amazing caves – one filled with water in which we floated on tubs deep into the pitch-black middle, another named the Elephant cave with a natural Elephant head formation, and the aptly named Blue Lagoon with turquoise waters and fascinating-yet-spooky stalactites.

We’re now in the capital city of Vientiane, which we actually quite like – maybe because of the number of cafes with delicious Laos coffee (the French influence seems the strongest here out of the cities we visited), the friendly people and less of a tourist focus.   Right now it’s the Boun That Luang festival.  We walked up to the Wat to observe the colourful and joyful procession of Laos people carrying offerings, usually of banana leaves and flowers with money stapled to the leaves to ensure a good afterlife.  This is a time when Laos people flood to their capital city and get together with friends and family.  The festival was accompanied by a Fair-style bazaar where Claudia picked up some beautiful Laos silk.

Next up is a very long bus ride to Siem Reap.  We bought a book on the history of Cambodia, so you can expect a succinct synopsis shortly which we’ll use to keep ourselves busy.

-Camille

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Check out the “about” tab for our planned (yet flexible) itinerary and “keeping track” for some fun stats we’ll be counting throughout the trip.

Thanks for all the comments so far, we look forward to reading more!

Chiang Mai was an incredible city. With a population of about 400 000, it’s small enough to walk everywhere but big enough to keep us entertained. Great food (and local coffee!), friendly people, and incredible outdoors.

A highlight for me was getting back on a mountain bike with Mountian Biking Chiang Mai (the mountain biking capital of SE Asia, who knew!) to do some xc/technical downhill on Don Pui Mountain. The trails were great, we met some fun people, and it was really nice to get to know the local guides.  We spent some time on a trail called the Old Smuggler’s Route- it looped through an old opium plantation that had switched over to coffee about 40 years ago through a government program.

We did a two-day trek with Chris and friend we met mountain biking. Our guide, Mr. T, took us through the mountains on a 5 hour hike to a local village, stopping to feed us bananas, cucumber, pomelo, and lemongrass. We slept in raised bamboo huts in what I thought would be a tranquil setting, before I realized that we had two families of pigs and three families of chickens roaming under our hut. Not so quiet- but it was a great time either way. We played cards (er, card houses) with a little girl from the village, rode elephants, and did a bit of white water rafting.

Chiang Mai has incredible shopping – we didn’t buy much but enjoyed the fabric markets, the amazing Sunday night market, and great specialty stores (one being a compound of boutiques called House – really neat, like an Thailand Anthropologie).

Another highlight was a local bar called The Riverside for cheap whiskey (SangSom) and a local cover band who did Adele exceptionally well. Or was that the whiskey? Either way, a really fun night.

-Claudia

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It’s the sensation that suddenly you’re not feeling so hot. Then suddenly you’re “talking to dinosaurs” or “praying to the porcelain gods” all night long. So what’s the best thing to do when you’ve got food poisoning?

Get on a bus for 6 hours on the steepest, curviest, bumpiest road you’ve ever been on dodging cows, stray dogs and cats, kids biking to school, entire families on motorbikes, ducks, and chickens. By far the worst road I have ever traveled on. Luckily we have some great travel buddies that looked after our bags and let us sprawl on the floor of the van.

On a positive note –
1. Sick on a travel day means we weren’t missing out on the fun
2. The drive was actually quite pretty when I managed to squeeze my eyes open and remove my head from my knees
3. Since this hit both me and Claudia we can take care of each other

In Vang Vieng now after a good 13 hr nap here, taking tomorrow off to rest and rehydrate and then will be back at it to tube down the river and kayak through some limestone caves.

– from Camille