After an exceptional flight on Quatar Airways from Hanoi (dinner, unlimited wine, movies with Ryan Gosling… hello) we arrived in Bangkok. It’s wild to think it was almost two months since we were last here- it feels like ages ago.

Instead of Bangkok being a hectic transfer city, we had two days of R&R at the Hilton with our friend Chris. (Are we still backpacking?!) We lounged by the infinity pool, put a serious dent in the breakfast buffet, and enjoyed our first hot shower in ages. My former teammate Matt met us for the day on his way through Bangkok – great to see friends from home.

The first stop in Southern Thailand was Ko Tao, a small island off the East coast of Thailand, where we completed our open water and advanced scuba diving certification over five days. We met some fantastic people both in the course and teaching the diving- our course instructor had been teaching for 18 years and couldn’t have been more enthusiastic. He had a wicked and mostly inappropriate sense of humor that kept us splitting our sides. We were all bitten by the diving bug.

Ko Tao had some amazing Thai food – our favorites were e-san pork, almost caramelized on the outside and tender with a spicy dipping sauce, the green and red curries with fresh coconut milk, no-name vegetable, and shredded green mango salads. The nightlife was also a lot of fun – the beach was set up each night with small mats and tables, torches, and candles lit in small caves built in the sand. Perfect to enjoy a Chang beer and play some cards.

After Ko Tao, we spent three nights in a beach bungalow on Koh Phangan. We planned to spend Christmas Eve listening to a Charlie Brown Christmas, drinking wine, and watching Elf. However, after the wine we decided to head over to Hat Rin Beach (the party beach) and check out the scene for Full Moon and had a fabulous time dancing the night away on picnic tables.

Christmas day was slow, reading on the porch and walking on the beach. We found an English pub for a proper Christmas dinner which was a welcome taste of home, where we found two other couples there that were also traveling- funnily enough, both guys in their group were also named Chris. After a few games of pool, darts and a few rounds of beer, we were having a great time and skipped out on the madness of Full Moon for a slow walk home in the moonlight.

After Ko Phangan, Cami and I headed to Khao Lak for some diving and to see Cami’s former Penn roommate. Island hopping means boats instead of busses, a much more civilized mean of travel.

We know it’s late (it’s hard to find computers in Southern Thailand… and we’re very busy on the beach!) but we hope everyone had a very happy Christmas with family and friends. We missed everyone very much- and also missed Christmas baking!

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It can be funny to see elements of Asian culture intersect with parts of North American culture in places I least expect it.  We were on the second night of our Halong Bay tour, and headed to the bar after dinner that our tour guide Minh recommended. We met him there and were chatting with him about his favorite music- he said the Backstreet Boys. (Say what?) Lucky for them, I had the best of album on my iPod (er, perhaps I shouldn’t admit that online…) Next thing we know, Quit Playing Games with my Heart was pumping and the bar is full of frisky old Vietnamese men singing along and buying us beers. Huh. We invented some defensive dance moves to repel our creepy BSB-loving Vietnamese ‘friends’ and had all in all a great night. (Bar tab for 6 of us after a night of drinking- less than $10. Seriously.)

One of the biggest draws to Vietnam is Halong Bay, a collection of over 3000 limestone islands jutting out from the sea just three hours away from Hanoi.  We met up with my cousin Janelle and her fiancé Jesse for the trip- it was great to spend some quality time with the both of them, especially since I’ll be missing their wedding next summer. They were great travel companions – Jesse will be a great addition to the family! With a lovely Welsh couple, we kayaked, hiked a precarious trail and a radio tower that adhered to no safety standards at all, explored caves, played cards, ate way too much, and gawked at the limestone karst landscape.

We didn’t spend too much time in Hanoi- we enjoyed some local jazz at a smoky club (I really won’t miss Vietnamese cigarettes) and ventured out on a local bus (always with Vietnamese pop music) to the Museum of Ethnology. The museum featured local dress & fabric exhibits which I loved, and was surrounded by different types of houses from different cultural groups shipped in from around SE Asia that you could explore. Very cool. To be honest, I wasn’t as impressed with Vietnamese food as I thought I’d be, but we had some unbelievable rice noodles in a cold vinegar sauce with freshly sauteed beef, crispy garlic & shallots, cilantro, and basil from a street vendor sitting in child sized seats watching traffic going by. Delicious- and about a buck each. The other thing we enjoyed were warm chiffon-like coffee flavoured buns with melted chocolate in the middle we would find for sale on the street later on at night. Yum!

Up next: Bangkok, Koh Tao, and Christmas!

-Claudia

 

 

Misty rain hung over Ninh Binh for the entirety of our visit. Instead of dampening our experience, we found we felt at home and loved what it added to the atmosphere of the steep limestone cliffs and caves of Trang An, just outside of Ninh Binh.  To experience this area, we were rowed on a boat through the waterways and caves, the only noise being the paddles being pushed through the water, birds chirping, and me flubbing along in French to try to communicate with the lovely French couple we shared a car over with.  We were treated to a beautiful impromptu bamboo flute concert which harmonized with the peace and quiet of nature.  We captured all of this on video just for you – check it out below.

I gave the flute a shot as well, and despite finding it very different to the concert instrument, I gave a rousing rendition of Mary had a little lamb. 20111207-194446.jpg20111207-194438.jpg

Not so pleasant a noise was the thud of my head against a stalactite whilst touring a cave on our boat, which kept Claudia laughing for a good two minutes after a fleeting second of concern. Thanks, Claudia.  It doesnt appear any serious damage was done (yet).

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-from Camille

Hoi An and backpacks do not get along, especially when it is raining (as it did all three days we were there).  The city is quaint and beautifully preserved – pretty much all there is to do is get custom designed and tailored clothes for great prices, and eat.  I think you know where this is going.

To be fair, I did need to replace a few items I had been regularly borrowing from Claudia in the two years we lived together and she did need a power interview suit to find her dream job (or a job) for the London Olympics.

After touring through the multiple tailors lining every street, we settled on a few (ok, 5).  One in particular proved especially dangerous since we loved everything so much that we kept ordering more.  When I saw Claudia’s blazer, I just had to have one, and vice versa when Claudia checked out my new trousers.

Our conversations with the tailors all pretty much went the same way. “Sisters? Twins?!  Who older? You so slow! (to Claudia who was 45 minutes behind me, who at this point interjects that she is slightly taller). You have boyfriend? No? (again to Claudia).  No worry, hair and makeup and you will find one in no time. (Claudia is now rolling her eyes in the background).  You have brother or sister?  Are they married?”  Without fail, the same questions and same response.  They remembered too – when we were leaving, they would yell “no worry, boyfriend soon! You buy more!”

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You may have noticed on our tracking page we are attempting to count how often people ask if we are twins.  Vietnam is the highest so far by a large number. Most can’t say twin in English, so they just point at us and look at our faces back and forth, or say “same same!”.  We nod and smile, and then they chatter excitedly to their friends.

Hoi An has an interesting history as a former port and therefore has both Japanese and Chinese influence on both architecture and food.  Local specialties include “cau lau”, a wheat udon-like noodle soup, white rose (shrimp in rice paper) along with other Vietnamese mainstays like spring rolls and fish in banana leaf.  Another food item you’ll find all over from Hoi An is “com ga” (chicken and rice), which often times is the only dish a restaurant serves.  Interesting concept.

We are very lucky we packed light – our bags are definitely busting at the seams.  We are meeting a friend in Bangkok who is heading home to Vancouver and has graciously offered up some space in his bag.  The backpack is grateful.

…you decide on a whim to bicycle to the next city 260 kilometers away instead of taking a bus.

We were in the beautiful central highlands city of Dalat, a former French hill town now known as the honeymoon spot for Vietnamese couples, and we were looking to head back down to the coast of Vietnam.  Given the number of bus hours we have logged so far (check out our tracking page for the latest number), biking just seemed like much more fun!  We were rewarded with soaring mountain roads overlooking rich, fluffy forests and manicured rice fields. We passed by coffee plantations, local villages with countless kids leaping and screaming “hello” from their stoops, and too many cow herds to count. On the ride, we were also able to see local industry first hand, ranging from growing roses, harvesting coffee, raising grasshoppers, making rice wine, weaving silk, and firing bricks – our very own live edition of “How Its Made”!  This broke up the 6 hours or so of biking on the two-day trip, as did short rides in our support vehicle to make up the extra distance.  The ride was not easy, but it was well worth it for the spectacular scenery and the fabulous descent we were rewarded with at the end. Our bike ride ended in Nha Trang, where we promptly booked onward travel to Hoi An,Vietnam. You’ll hear more on that in our next post. Hopefully we’ll get our video up of the ride shortly so you can experience it, too.

So how exactly did we get to Dalat?  We left off in Kampot, where we alluded to our less than smooth journey to Vietnam. As a general rule, multiple any given bus time by 1.5 and you have your actual arrival time. Double is a little extreme. Our 9 hour ride from Kampot to Saigon somehow became 19; luckily we were in great company and made the most of the situation with a lovely 65-year old couple backpacking for four months and our good friend Daniel.

What was most interesting to me in Saigon was the history of the Vietnam War (or, as they call it, the American War). The pictures and stories were not easy to digest.  I found that some exhibits  were filled with emotion, like the photos of the effects of Agent Orange, while others demonstrated an apparent lack of emotion, for example, when our guide described the variety of vicious bamboo traps used against the American soldiers demonstrated at the Cu Chi Tunnels.

After dinner at Pho 2000 and a night of dancing at an expat bar in Saigon, we headed to Mui Ne, where we spent two days checking out the Egypt of Southeast Asia (the Mui Ne sand dunes) and learning how to windsurf. A short bus ride later, and we had arrived in Dalat.

In Dalat, it was wonderful to wake up to cool mountain air. Cafes are filled with men “chewing the fat” over a cup of local coffee or tea, and streets steeply wind in circles like San Francisco. Since the city is catered towards Vietnamese tourists and not Western tourists, we had a welcome break from touts selling sunglasses and could more easily participate in local life. We enjoyed some of the best Vietnamese food so far in our visit – a delicious pork bahn bao, pho, rice pancakes, and deep-fried sesame buns. We spent our time in Dalat with a local guide who took us up to the top of Liang Bian Mountain, named after a Vietnamese Romeo and Juliet story.  He proudly showed off his village from the top where we enjoyed 360 degree views. The tough climb was well worth it.

Vietnam (well, all of Southeast Asia) has somewhat of a reputation for trying to take money at every opportunity, so it’s become a habit to say no to everything. For example, in one night drinking a beer over the space of 2 hours, we had about 20 vendors try to peddle their fake Ray Bans or cigarettes on us. It was always no, until someone offered to fix and polish my broken and dirty Birkenstocks while I sat in a Saigon park for one dollar – I definitely can’t complain about that (until he tried to charge me double after he was done. Don’t think so, buddy!)

-from Camille

We’ve finally found a good computer and solid internet connection to add some photos.  Check out the Cambodia slideshow below, and also our Angkor Wat post for pictures!

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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.