A Travellerspoint blog

Travelling by the seat of my pants

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As I was bouncing down a dirt road in Siem Reap on the back of a motorbike, the thought did cross my mind that my mother would kill me if she knew what I was doing. Luckily I knew that by the time I posted this adventure to the blog, she'd be en route to China, where she would be able to see in person that I was still alive (and then kill me).

Cambodians start riding motos pretty much at birth - we know this because Megan spotted a woman breastfeeding her baby while riding on the back of a moto. It is common to put several people on a moto at once - in fact the record that we saw at one time was five. However, if you're American and you've never been on a motorcycle of any kind - it takes a bit of getting used to to ride on the back of one down a dirt road.

But I'm getting ahead of myself, as that was the last thing we did in Cambodia - first we had to get ourselves from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, which was an adventure in and of itself. Because there were three of us, the best option was to hire a taxi for the four hour drive to the home of Angkor Wat. The ride went smoothly enough - except that the driver used his horn the entire time to signal to every other person on the road that we were approaching, or wanted to pass, or were passing, or had passed them. We though for a while that this was standard form - until we realized that he was the only one doing it. It was a rather long ride, but very worthwhile.

Upon arrival in Siem Reap, we checked in to our hotel, had a great khmer dinner and hit the sack so that we'd be ready for our 4 am wake up to watch the sunrise over the main Angkor Wat temple (luckily by the time we got up, the ringing in our ears from the horn had stopped). It was an early day - but totally worth it as we watched the sky turn from pitch black to daylight while slowly the giant temple appeared. We spent the rest of the morning visiting several of the other temples, including Ta Prohm, better known as the temple in Tomb Raider, where nature and temple wrestle for survival. The vines and roots intertwine with the stones of the ancient structure, and one can only imagine what it must have been like to "discover" these again after so many years of abandoment. Like other ruins around the world, its truly outstanding to see the skill and technical ability that went into creating these structures.

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After a morning of temple hopping, we took a quick nap before heading out again with our guide to visit a floating village. We boarded a longboat and cruised down the river to the lake of Tonle Sap, passing houseboats and floating villages along the way. That night we caught some traditional Cambodia dancing before another early night - our best day was yet to come.

Thursday we had a bit later start (8am instead of 4am!) and headed out to the temple of Banteay Srei, also know as the Women's Citadel. Local lore says that this smaller and more detailed temple was built by women - though unfortunately the inscription on the temple itself counters that. Either way, it is another amazing structure which differs from the others in that it is built out of a beautiful pink stone.

Next we hit the road for another hour to travel to the abandoned temple of Beng Melea. Because Beng Melea is off the main circuit it is rarely visited by tourists, and for most of our time there, we were the only visitors. We had a great time climbing through the ruins, channeling our inner Angelina Jolie. It was a bit humbling that an older Cambodian woman in flip flops appeared to help us climb over the ancient stones and forest trees - reaching out to hold our hands each time. I'd like to think she was mainly there to help Megan, who was wearing flip flops - but I was very thankful everytime she grapped my hand and pulled me up the next step! It was great to have the place almost entirely to ourselves, and this was by far our favorite of the ruins.

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After all the climbing we were hungry, so stopped on the side of the road for a local khmer lunch. Then it was time to board our motos (mom, you'll be happy to see I was the only one in the group who wore a helmet - I'm sure the people we passed on the road are still talking about it). The ride took about forty minutes and then we boarded another boat for a tour of the Flooded Forest. Here we saw another "floating village" but instead of houseboats the homes in this fishing community were built on stilts six to seven meters high. Again, we were the only tourists, and felt like we really got to see a unique side of khmer life.

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Finally, it was time to go. After one last night out in Siem Reap, I bid farewell to Megan and Irene and boarded my flight to Singapore. I spent one more night with Christen, Tom and Nat, now I'm headed for Shanghai!

Posted by jme75 02:55 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

Back to the Beach

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After three days of the chaos of Bangkok, I think we were all happy to land on the beautiful island of Ko Samui. The hotel we stayed at was beautiful - and there really is not much to tell about this leg of the trip, as we spent much of it on the beach and by the pool. I did spend two more days diving with Irene, who had an underwater camera, so we got a lot of fun pictures. We both came pretty close to ditching everything and moving to the island to spend the rest of our days diving with our hot German dive master - but decided to continue on to Phnom Penh instead.

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Phnom Penh was a fabulous town and we all really enjoyed it - even though it was the stop where my camera "disappeared" - one minute it was in my lap in a tuk tuk, the next it was gone, and none of us saw anything. Luckily it was an old camera, but I was sad to lose all of the pictures (especially a particularly nice one of the aforementioned hot German dive master!). Luckily I've been able to copy all of Irene's on to a CD, and I'm now in charge of making sure we take pictures with Megan's camera.

In Phnom Penh we visited the famous Foreign Correspondents Club - which was indeed a fabulous place to cool off with a cold beer in the unrelenting Cambodian heat. I thought I knew heat and humidity having grown up in Houston - but I am obviously very out of practice. Phnom Penh is a beatiful colonial town and you can see the French influence mixed in with the local architecture. It is not nearly as busy and growing as Bangkok, and had a very laid back atmosphere.

We also made a very sobering visit to the Killing Fields monument - and despite standing in front of a tower of 8000 skulls, it was still hard to imagine the horrible atrocities of Pol Pot's regime, when an estimated 2 million Cambodians were killed. It is a wound that is still very raw - everyone we meet has a story - and now over 40% of the population is under the age of 15.

I hear Megan's family is reading this now too, so thought I'd post a picture of the three of us in Phnom Penh so you can see she is alive and well in Cambodia!

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Ok, that's it for now - I need to go douse myself in the pool before I completely melt!

Posted by jme75 23:16 Archived in Cambodia Comments (1)

One Night in Bangkok

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I'm hoping when we leave Bangkok I'll be able to get that song out of my head, but I have a bad feeling it may end up being my theme song for the trip.

Bangkok is intense, but really cool (actually, its really, really hot). Everywhere you turn there is a shiny new shopping mall, fancier than anything we have in the states - interspersed with temples and typical teak houses. The non-stop traffic is a mix of new cars, thousands of motorcycles, hot pink taxis and tuk-tuks (motorized scooters with passenger carriages on the back - Irene is taking a ride below). The food is fantastic and the site seeing is great.

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Of everything we've seen, I think one of the highlights for all of us was the Grand Palace and the nearby Wat Pho temple. The Palace is this amazingly ornate series of buildings where everything is covered in gold leaf and jeweled tile - our White House looks pretty boring by comparison.

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But even more enjoyable is the Wat Pho temple which is home to the famous blind monk massage school. Many years ago the King was worried that the ancient rituals of Thai massage would be lost, so he had them inscribed on the walls of the temple. Now foreigners and Thais alike come to the school to enjoy the rituals. Mind you, we saw no blind monks during our visit to the school - but rather small Thai women who can contort and twist your body in ways you didn't think it could go. Before long you've forgotten that they are not monks, and while the massage isn't necessarily soothing (in fact, its a bit painful) - its the good kind of pain that you know will do your body good. As I stood in line for the changing room, I looked down at a Spanish man undergoing a massage who opened his eyes and looked at me with an expression that said "yes, its really that good". (I know he was Spanish because a few minutes later when I was on the bed next to him he proceeded to answer his cell phone and have a conversation mid-massage. I have a feeling that neither the King or Buddha would have been very impressed with his massage etiquette).

Wat Pho also houses the famous reclining Buddha - which is an enormous gold statue of the Buddha, and apparently one of only two in the world. This one is the length of half a football field.

We did take a break from site seeing to enjoy the nightlife. We were lucky enough to meet up with Regina (thank you Cooper!), an American living and working in Bangkok with her kiwi boyfriend. They took us to the launch party of a new art and design guide, and then out to dinner with their friends - expats from around the world. It was great to get the insiders' perspective on Bangkok and also get travel tips for our next destinations from a group of people who have seen all that Asia has to offer.

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Finally, we finished this morning with a visit to the floating market outside of Bangkok. It now caters almost purely to tourists and entails quite an ordeal to get there - but was still really cool to see. We took a boat tour of the small canals where Thai women pull up next to your boat to offer local fruits, handcrafts and souvenirs.

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And that's it for Bangkok - next stop, Ko Samui.

Posted by jme75 02:13 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

And then I died and went to Heaven

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Apparently, I have been good. Very, very good. Only extremely good luck or good karma would bring someone to a place like this, and I have never been lucky. It must be karma (four days of this = four years working for a non-profit perhaps?).

The Baan Hen Villa sits perched on a hilltop which overlooks the Andaman Sea. A typical Thai style teak house, it is a villa that sleeps ten, but we are only three (and a half if you count baby Nat). This is the same number as the staff that is here to tend to us. The biggest decision we have to make each day is what time we want to have lunch and dinner, and what we would like to be served. Tom and I have decided that it is actually a good thing that we had a bit of rain in our first days, as the full extent of this all in good weather might have been more than any of us could handle - we needed to ease in to it.

This place is ridiculous. The fact that I could stay here the rest of my trip and pay less than I will pay for one month's rent in New York is also ridiculous. I am tempted to stay. Forever.

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I did manage to drag myself out of the villa for one day to spend a day diving the, as they say it "to dive for" waters of Phuket. They did not disappoint. We saw all sorts of fantastic sea life, including lion fish, moray eels, a small ray, and schools and schools of baracudas (which despite many a horror movie to the contrary, were really not at all interested in us). Given this brief introduction in Phuket, I'm looking forward to getting more diving in in Ko Samui.

In the meantime, I will be sad to leave this fabulous place. These four days have been a perfect way to start my vacation, and to unwind from the chaos of the past few months (years?). That said - I'm hoping that arriving in Bangkok on Sunday night I will finally feel as if I'm in Asia - and not just some tropical destination filled with Westerners!

Posted by jme75 01:58 Archived in Thailand Comments (1)

Singapore Slings

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Touching down in Hong Kong at sunrise is truly breathtaking. We couldn't even see the city, but the green hills rising out of the water as the fishing boats went out for the morning catch was quite amazing. All I saw that day was the airport, but I found it fitting that my first glimpse of Asia will also be my last when I depart from the same airport in a month.

But first, Singapore. On first impression you would think you're in Miami, except for the fact that noone is speaking Spanish. Christen induldged me in taking me for the prerequisite Singapore Sling at the Raffles Hotel. I will admit I had been duly warned, and the drink lived up to its reputation of being sickenly sweet and not worth repeating - but as an Everett, it didn't seem right to pass up trying the national drink! I also had the opportunity to catch up with Victoria and Gaurang, old friends from San Francisco, who joined us at Raffles for drinks (having lived in Singapore for many years, they knew better than to get the Sling). After drinks we had dinner at a typical Peranakan style restaurant - and then I slept for 15 hours.

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Given the heat and humidty of Singapore it is very lush and the botanic gardens are a great place to spend the morning. One of the highlights is the Orchid Garden, which is apparently is famous for breeding unique strains of orchids. Each celebrity who has visited the gardens has a new breed named for them - which includes everyone from Kofi Annan and Princess Di to Ricky Martin. I'm looking forward to seeing which kind they name for me. . .

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As the Lonely Planet claims, Singapore has been a good "starter" country for Asia, as everyone speaks English and suprisingly I've actually seen almost as many Westerners here as non-Westerners. But that's it for my 24 hours in Singapore - we're off to Thailand tonight!

Posted by jme75 21:14 Archived in Singapore Comments (1)

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