Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The real Cambodia

I arrived in Battambang, in western Cambodia, yesterday around 2pm. I decided to splurge on a room with it's own bathroom, a fan, and a satellite television (!) for $5/night at the Royal Hotel. I arranged for a full day of sightseeing for today, but all I wanted to do yesterday was, well, nothing. The temperature has been about 35-40C (95-104F) and I thought the idea of watching crap television and movies for hours on end sounded grand. (I haven't had a room with a tv in it since. . .hmmm. . .I think Hoi An.)

At 9am today I met up with my driver, Dollar (yes, that's his actual, given name!). Our first stop was Wat Phnom Sampeuo, aka the Killing Caves. Much like the Killing Fields, the Khmer Rouge played a role here, too, and thousands died at the hands of Pol Pot's regime. Also like at the Killing Fields, there's memorials here that contain skulls and other bone fragments of the victims. The temple and its grounds are spread out on the top of a mountain, so it took quite a few hours to see it all. 

From there we went to Wat Banan, a temple that dates back to the 11th century (pre-Angkor Wat). It was 359 steps to the top and I was drenched by the time I got there (even with my own personal fan boy - a five year old local kid who followed me to the top, fanning me the entire way), but the view was worth it. 

The last temple of the day I don't remember the name of, but it seems to be known for the fruit bats that hang out in the trees on the temple grounds. Fruit bats are massive, did you know that? I couldn't believe how big they were and I could've hung out for awhile longer trying to take pictures, but they're pretty fast, so it was tough. I also briefly saw the bamboo train, quite literally a bamboo platform on train tracks, but opted out of a ride when I found out it would be $10 to go 5km and come back (as a point of reference, having Dollar as my tour guide for the whole day only cost me $10 and we probably drove 50 or more kilometers). The bamboo train is the closest that Cambodia comes to having a proper train, but I'm told that sometime next year it will be no more as new tracks will be laid and Siem Reap and Phnom Penh will finally be linked by an actual train network. 

It sounds fairly hum ho, right? A typical day of sightseeing. Where's the realness that I spoke of? The realness came from Dollar and the conversations we had. He joked about Battambang massages (what you get riding a motorbike on really rocky, bumpy roads) and Cambodian snow (the dust that gets blown up from the road when something bigger than a moto drives by). He was gracious enough to share the story of his family's personal experience with the Khmer Rouge, of how his parents walked from Phnom Penh to Battambang (230 miles, it took a month) and how his aunt and grandparents all lost their lives. He taught me how to drive a manual moto! Not that I'd say I'm proficient at it or anything, but at least I now know how. I had a conversation with a monk and Dollar helped with some translation; the monk wanted to practice his English, but he's still learning so it would've been a lot more difficult without a translator. Dollar also translated with the fanning boy who was otherwise quite timid when I asked him "sok sabai?" (how are you?). 

But perhaps I got the best idea of what life in rural Cambodia is like when Dollar took me to his village to see where he lives and to meet his family. Dollar's dad died two years ago, so now he heads his household and is responsible for supporting his mother, three younger sisters, and younger brother. Three of the kids go to school and his mom and oldest younger sister would like to work, but can't find jobs (he tells me that the unemployment rate in the area is 60%). To help bring in a little extra money, mom and sister sell a fruit that's similar to tamarind (Dollar couldn't remember what it was called in English). Dollar collects a bushel of the pods and takes them home so his family can crush them to harvest the seeds. About 10lbs of seeds (which are about the size of apple seeds) fetches 1000 riel (only 25 cents). The six of them live in a tiny bamboo hut that Dollar and his dad built 10 years ago, with a cat and a chicken running around outside. The entire neighborhood is full of people in the exact same situation. Even so, poverty doesn't prevent friendliness and Dollar's family offered up the biggest smiles and were genuinely happy to see me; his sister, with a shy smile, told him to tell me that I was very beautiful. I told him to tell her I thought the same thing of her. And she was.

What's (still) in my pack?

In honor of my impending six months traveling anniversary, I decided that I'd answer a question Laura asked in the comments ages ago. She basically asked if I was sick of any of the clothes I'd packed and I figured I'd expand on that to include my entire packing list.

Below is my original packing list, with today's commentary in blue.

Passport - obviously still in my pack, but now I have my passport number memorized so I don't have to constantly pull it out
Certificate of vaccinations - haven't looked at it since the day I packed :-)
Credit cards - don't use them except to book flights (and the two times I needed to get a cash advance in India because my bank was confused about my whereabouts)
Driver's license - have barely looked at it since I left
Photocopies of all of the above
- have barely looked at it since I left
Extra visa photos - have been used and replenished a couple of times already
Reading material - has been used and replenished a couple of times already (many, many times over!)
Photo album - looked at, enjoyed, and shared regularly. Has even been added to!
Travel journal - it's not a journal, really, just a place for me to keep notes and gather contact info, etc.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

A tale of two drivers

I referenced this story the other day and I suppose now is as good a time as any to tell it. This happened long, long ago in a faraway land (oh, okay, it was in India). . .

You may remember that I mentioned Munna and I said that he'd had quite a life. Well, today's story is half about him. He's the first driver. Since I spent the day with Munna as he drove me around Agra, I had the chance to talk to him and get to know him a bit. I found out that his mom died when he was a baby, his dad had died by the time he was 6, and his older siblings pretty much left him to fend for himself. This meant that he was a street kid, not knowing where his next meal was coming from and having no stability in his life whatsoever. He never went to school and, as a result, he could not read or write.

By the time Munna was 12, he was working as a pedicab driver. Within a few years, he was working for someone else and had graduated to driving an autorickshaw. Now, you might expect that someone who's had such a rough life might easily turn into one of the many scammers or touts that are prolific in India. It'd be easy for someone who had nothing to try to get as much as possible at every opportunity. But that's not Munna. He knew that he'd not had the best childhood, but he figured others had had it worse, so he considered himself fairly lucky. He made it his mission to help people less fortunate than him whenever he could. This personal philosophy also extended to his work; he didn't think it was right that touts were scamming tourists and giving India a bad name, so Munna vowed to never be one of those guys.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Kingdom of Wonder

Sunrise at Angkor Wat. Doesn't it sound grand? Well, it did to me anyway and that's what I got up this morning to do. I couldn't sleep last night, but somehow, with only about 2 1/2 hours of sleep, I still managed to drag my butt outta bed because I really didn't want to miss seeing the sunrise.

It was worth it, lemme tell you. I won't go into the history because it's all been told before, probably better than I could tell it. Go here and read up on it if you'd like, or just go here and look at my pictures of it. :-) 

What I can tell you is that Angkor Wat is big and imposing and dark and in a combined ruins/restoration state. And so cool. It's hundreds of years older than the Taj Mahal, has been neglected and left to the jungle, looted and pilfered from, and had damage from civil wars. All of these things are readily apparent.

As interesting as Angkor Wat was, I think Angkor Thom, specifically the temple of Bayon, may be even more impressive. The 12th century king Jayavarman VII established the Cambodian capital at Angkor Thom and then set to work building and building and building. What makes Bayon striking is the 216 stone faces on the temple towers. The faces themselves are believed to be a composite of the king himself and a Buddhist representation of compassion. Everywhere you go in this temple, faces are looking down on you. It would be kind of creepy if the faces weren't so peaceful looking.

There are over 100 pictures from today and they are ALL uploaded, so go take a peek!

Sunday, March 28, 2010

More temples (and a side of shopping)

I did end up seeing some temples on Saturday after all, they just weren't at sunrise. Ta Prohm, the first of the day, is the least restored of all the temples I've seen so far. The jungle is very literally taking over; there are a lot more trees eating walls and piles of ruins everywhere. It was built in the late 12th and early 13th centuries, but then was neglected for hundreds of years after the fall of the Khmer Empire. Walking around, you get the impression that man first tamed the jungle by building this massive temple, but that now the jungle is reclaiming what land was once it's own. Ta Prohm was thisclose to being named my favorite of the day, but it's one of the more popular temples so it was fairly overrun with tourists and was kind of Disneyfied (boardwalks leading the way and sections that practically screamed "this is a good spot to take your pictures!"). 

Instead the honor went to Ta Keo, even though I almost didn't make it out alive. Ta Keo was cool because it's essentially a five-tier pyramid. Standing at the base, you can't tell just how tall the temple is, but I later found out that it's 45m (about 150 feet, or the height of a 15 story building). The stairs leading to each of the tiers is nearly straight up. It's more like climbing a ladder than walking up a staircase. And the temple is more than a thousand years old, so a lot of the stairs are worn and not in great shape. All of this is to say that the height was particularly dizzying when it came time to come back down. I'm only afraid of heights when there's a chance I can fall (when I'm not supposed to as opposed to bungee jumping or sky-diving when you are supposed to; that, I think I could handle) and with my clumsiness and the condition of the stairs, that was a very real possibility. I took my time - and lots of big, calming breaths! - along the way and I eventually made it.

By comparison, Phnom Bakheng was the least interesting temple. I'm almost glad that I missed the sunrise because this is the temple I would have seen it from. If Ta Prohm was the least restored temple, Phnom Bakheng is the most restored. Well, it's the most in process of restoration anyway. One neat thing about this one is that you can see destruction, preservation, and restoration all happening at the same time.

After a shower and dinner I went to the Night Market. I hadn't intended to buy anything, but I was just in such a good mood that I couldn't help it. :-) Nothing for me, actually, just a few souvenirs. It was one of the more pleasant night markets I've been to: things were fairly priced so you didn't have to do a lot of bargaining, the stalls were laid out nicely, and the vendors were friendly and not pushy.

Today is a lazy day, intended for playing catch up on email and picture uploading (everything's up! go check it out!) before my last temple day tomorrow. I am getting VERY excited about finally seeing Angkor Wat!

Friday, March 26, 2010


I intended today to start day two of temple viewing at sunrise. I'd arranged with Rawy the other day to meet me at my guesthouse at 5am. Unfortunately, Rawy had something else come up and he was on the other side of town; he sent someone else in his place. In negotiating a price for the day before the driver and I set off, I felt more and more like I was back in India, being taken, assumed to be someone who didn't travel much and would blindly pay an overinflated foreigner price. (He wanted to charge me the same amount Rawy had charged me to see half the temples in half the day and half the distance.) I didn't like this new driver and he reminded me of another driver I once had. Ah, but I haven't told that story yet, have I? It's sitting in my drafts folder somewhere; I'll have to dig it out soon. In the end, I decided to go back to bed, grab a few more hours of sleep, and go to the temples later in the day.

* * * * *

Two days in a row now I've removed what I'm convinced is the same lizard from my room. I'm sure it's the same one because he's the littlest gecko I've ever seen, barely as long as the first joint of my pinkie finger, with the most translucent skin. He doesn't move nearly as fast as his full grown brothers and he's easy to catch. I can't even tell he's in my enclosed hand, that's how little he weighs. He's cute and I actually liked seeing him the second time. Maybe there will be a third day when he'll visit?

* * * * *

Yesterday at the supermarket I ran into Yacob. We passed each other in the aisle, saying hi as we walked in opposite directions. A moment later he came back saying, "Hey, I think we. . ." I hadn't recognized him with the hat he was wearing. We stood in the aisle for awhile, catching each other up on what we've been up to in the last few months since we parted ways. (He's mostly been in India and will be heading back there once his visa is in order.) Then we said our goodbyes, good-to-see-you's, maybe-we'll-run-into-each-other-again's. These random meet-ups really are happening a lot more than I ever expected.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Missed the sunset

(The South Gate of the Angkor Thom complex)

How happy was I that my bus arrived in Siem Reap yesterday morning at 7:30am instead of 4:15am? Really happy. By then, all of Cambodia had been up for a couple of hours and it was easy to find accommodations. I'm at Green Town Guesthouse where my room doesn't have a window, but it does have it's own bathroom, free internet/billiards/nightly movies, and is really close to all of the temples for $5/night.

Speaking of temples, you did know that it's the Temples (plural, with an 's') of Angkor Wat, didn't you? If you're like me, you didn't know this and I only figured it out a couple of weeks ago when I really started to look through the LP guide. By my count, there are upwards of 70+ temples in the area. It would take you weeks to really see them all.

My tuk-tuk driver from the bus station to the guesthouse was nice and spoke good English, so I arranged for him to be my driver for the day ($12). I showered, ate breakfast, and met up with Rawy and his motorbike to begin our tour. I had it all planned out - I wanted to start with temples in the Roulos group, the oldest temples in the area, to give some chronological perspective to things. From there I wanted to see a couple of the larger temples on what is referred to as the big circuit, finishing up at Pre Rup, supposedly a good spot to watch the sun set.

It's hard to explain what I was thinking and feeling as I was exploring the various temples. Those in the Roulos group - Preah Ko, Bakong, and Lo Lei (these are just the ones I saw, there are many more) - date from the late 9th century and are crumbling into a state of disrepair. Although they're not nearly as old as the pyramids, I found myself thinking similar thoughts. "Wow. Hundreds of years ago, people just like me though they're now long dead, built these temples with their hands. Amazing. How did they do it?" You know, that kind of thing.

(Tree overtaking part of the wall enclosure at Ta Som)

After the Roulos group, it was a 15km ride back to town to see Preah Khan, Preah Neak Pean, Ta Som, East Mebon, and Pre Rup. A number of these are literally being taken over by the surrounding jungle. In fact, if you've ever seen the movie Tomb Raider, you should have an idea of what I'm describing; parts of it were filmed at Preah Khan. Preah Khan turned out to be my favorite temple of the day. It was a massive maze of enclosures within enclosures, pieces in ruins, and jungle encroaching. At times I was torn between taking pictures of everything I saw and not even bothering to try, simply sitting down and letting it all soak in. I'm afraid I'm not doing it any justice at all, so when all of my pictures are finally uploaded (over 100 yesterday alone), you'll have to go take a peek and see for yourself (although I'm equally afraid that my pictures don't do it justice either).

Although Rawy and I breaked for lunch, our timing for sunset was still off. We arrived at Pre Rup at about 4pm, a good hour and a half to two before the sun would begin its descent. I wandered a bit, snapping pictures, and even sat at the top of the western side of the temple to await the sun set, but after about 45 minutes I admitted defeat. After little sleep on the night bus the night before and a very full day of sight seeing, I was exhausted. And in desperate need of a cold shower! There was a break from the heat in Sihanoukville (notice the lack of complaints, lol?), but it's back in full force in Siem Reap, and I was covered in sweat (and grime, since every time the wind blew, the dust stuck to my sweaty skin).

Last night was Rhian and Marina's last day in Siem Reap and I had hoped to meet up with them before they head back to BKK, but I had energy enough to watch a movie and that's about it. Hopefully the three of us will catch up again in Australia in a couple months. Today I woke to find that it had rained overnight and the day is much cooler, at least so far; it's still early and that could change. Now, today would be the day for more comfortable temple viewing, but I decided yesterday that it would be an off day. (It's $40 for a three-days-in-one-week pass to the Angkor temples and I figured I'd do them every other day so that I don't get templed out.) Instead I will try to catch up on picture uploading (the connection is painfully slow) and go to the markets later to buy a couple much needed t-shirt replacements.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

More of the same

Sunday morning Rouven and I checked out of our room on Serendipity Beach and made our way to Otres Beach, eventually landing at a place called Vanny's where Rouven got a room with a shared bath for $4 and I got one with an en suite for $5. I mentioned already that we'd planned to make this move, but forgot until I was there that the quietness of this particular beach meant very limited electricity and no internet access. It would have been better if I'd remembered that before I scheduled a Skype call with my sister for Monday that I not only missed, but which I wasn't even able to explain until two days after that. Sorry again, Aim!

There's not a lot to do at Otres Beach except
consume. Consume drinks (fruit shakes and iced coffee with sweet milk mostly, but the occasional beer, too). Consume food (SO good here. Better than in Vietnam). Consume sun (as much as can be consumed while wearing SPF 45 as I sit in the shade, that is). Consume books (I think I read three in the last few days). And why - of all the things Dad taught me - did I have to learn the joys of hammock lounging all on my own? :-) It was great. The Cambodian people have been so incredibly friendly, it's kind of hard to believe. Vanny's is a family run guesthouse and you end up meeting and interacting with the whole family. One person arranges for the bus, one person takes food and drink orders, one is a tuk-tuk driver, they all care for the baby; each has their role. Some speak more English than others, but it all somehow works.

Yesterday, Tuesday, I decided for a little more activity. Rouven and I joined up with some others for
a boat ride out to two different islands for some snorkeling (for us) and diving (for the others). The visibility was no where near as clear as it had been in the Red Sea, but it was still pretty cool. At one point I thought I saw an octopus. And then, city girl that I am, I realized it was just a rock. Oops. The thing about snorkeling, for me, is that it's terrifying. As far as I can remember, nothing traumatizing has ever happened to me in or around water and yet I get panicky more quickly than I'd like to admit. I'm not a strong swimmer, so that could be part of it, but snorkeling doesn't involve much more than floating face down and kicking your fins every now and then. For whatever reason water and the things in it are scary. I don't want to touch anything because it's either damaging (coral reef), ouchy (have you ever seen a spiky sea urchin?), or icky (pretty much everything else). Sometimes I'm floating along, things are fine, and my heart starts racing. I try to talk myself off the edge and try to consciously slow my breathing and my heart rate. If it works, I'm good for another few minutes until the next panic attack; if it doesn't work, it's back to the boat for me, to wait for the others.

I'll be in Koh Tao, Thailand in the next couple of weeks. Besides the fact that PADI certification is cheaper than in the US by half, the diving is supposed to be amazing. Getting certification would mean that I'd be able to dive in Malaysia, Indonesia, and Australia's Great Barrier Reef. I think I'd kind of hate myself a little if I went to all those places and didn't dive because I was too scared. But I've been hoping that snorkeling would ease me into feeling comfortable with diving. After three tries at snorkeling, that hasn't happened yet, but I don't think I'm ready to give up yet.

Anyway. . .I'm back in the Serendipity Beach area, hanging out for the day and waiting for my bus tonight to Siem Reap. I'm hoping the bus will arrive late tomorrow because otherwise I'll get there at 4am and that's just SO not a great time to find accommodations. I'm actually trying to figure out a way to stay in Cambodia even longer because by not going to China and Korea, I'm a bit ahead of the skeleton itinerary I'd worked out for myself. That, and I'm really enjoying Cambodia more than I expected.

* * * * *
On another note: Obviously I've been out of touch with news and current events these days. In scanning a few of the blogs that I read regularly, the topic of a passed health care bill in the US came up. Would someone like to give me the lowdown on what this is all about and what it means for us?

Saturday, March 20, 2010


Oh hey, look at that! I have a blog! I just realized today that it's been a few days since I posted anything, but things have been pretty quiet.

After Phnom Penh, was Kampot for two nights. The first night I spent at a guesthouse called Long Villa. The guesthouse was fine until it was time to check out. They tried saying that I hadn't paid for my meal the day before and I know that I did. I could have argued the point over principle, but decided that for $2.10 it just wasn't worth it. The sucky thing is that I found out just today that Rhian and Marina had had the same exact problem (coincidentally,
they stayed at the same guesthouse a couple of days earlier than me). My second night in Kampot I had a CS host. Tony is American but has been traveling for the last year or so, and has been living in Cambodia for the last couple of months. Tony was more than happy to accommodate my feelings of laziness, so we didn't do much more than hang out. I got to meet a number of his friends, we shared a couple of meals together, and talked about our travels, but that's about it.

Yesterday, as I was sitting on the mini-bus waiting for it to leave for Sihanoukville, I ran into Rouven. We happened to be on the same bus, so shooting the breeze with him was a pleasant way to spend the hour and a half trip. We decided when we arrived that we would split costs and share a room. It's SO much cheaper to travel in a pair or triple than as a single. As an example, a room for a single might be $10, but the double room is only $11 (meaning $5.50 each as opposed to $10). That might not seem like a very big difference to you, but if your daily budget is $20, every dollar counts. Anyway, we're staying at a place called Sen Penh Chet Guesthouse for $4 each and it literally takes about 30 seconds to get to the beach.

For the rest of the day yesterday and all day today, the scene kinda looked like this: find a lounge chair and umbrella or a big, comfy, cushy chair, order a fruit shake, "no, I'm not interested in buying a bracelet," read, order iced coffee with sweet milk, "no, I don't want a massage," read, listen to iPod, chat a bit, order a fruit shake, "no, I don't have any money to give you," read. Lather, rinse, and repeat about 87 times and that was my day today. Although the touts on the beach are a bit annoying, the girls are actually pretty sweet. Their English is really good and they always ask the same questions: 1) Where you from?, 2) What's your name, and 3) You have boyfriend/girlfriend? Poor Rouven, though. As a 20 year old kid, he's probably mortified that anyone would think this old lady is his girlfriend! We did manage to pull ourselves off the beach for dinner. . .but then we went back for an after dinner coffee. :-) The ambiance is just nice and the breeze coming off the water (the Gulf of Thailand, btw) is cool and relaxing. Oh! The other interesting thing that happened today? Remember Adam? Yeah, I randomly ran into him today at the beach. This keeps happening to me and I can't decide if it's cool or creepy.

Tomorrow we're moving from Serendipity Beach in Sihanoukville to Otres Beach. Otres is supposed to be quieter, with not as many backpackers, and an even more laid back atmosphere. Considering that I have days of temples (including Angkor Wat!) ahead of me, I think a few more days of beach time will suit me just fine.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010


Day three in Cambodia now, the capital Phnom Penh to be exact. Unfortunately, it's just as hot and sticky here as it was in Vietnam. I suppose I'm getting more used to it, but I'm not doing a whole lot in the afternoons when it's hottest and I'm sucking down TONS of water and iced tea.

After a six hour or so bus ride on Sunday, I arrived in Phnom Penh but didn't do a whole lot for the rest of the day. I found accomodation at the Grand View Guesthouse for $4/night and I started reading The Girl in the Picture over a leisurely late lunch/early dinner. It's about Vietnam and Vietnamese history and some may think that maybe I should've read it while I was still there, but I don't do it that way. I like to read about the history as I'm leaving a country or after I've already left because I can appreciate it more. After reading for awhile, I headed back to my guesthouse to watch the 6:30pm movie, 1984's The Killing Fields, about the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, particularly in Phnom Penh. I planned to go to the actual Killing Fields the next day, so I figured it would give me a good starting point.

I woke up early, had breakfast, and arranged for a motorcycle taxi for the day. For $8, my driver took me 14km south to the Killing Fields, to S-21 (more on that in a bit), and then back to my guesthouse. The price was a bit high, but still less than the $10 quoted to me by the guesthouse.

The Killing Fields is an actual field where the Khmer Rouge systematically killed men, women, and children and "buried" them in mass graves. The largest grave had 450 corpses in it, but there were a total of 129 mass graves and nearly 17,000 dead. The largest graves were marked with signage, but there were dozens of sunken holes everywhere. I don't know how long I walked around before I realized that all of those holes were also graves. In the middle of the field is a stupa, a religious monument, which houses the bones of 9,000 victims and serves as a memorial.
(Inside the stupa, human remains behind glass)

S-21 started out being a school and was turned into a security prison by the Khmer Rouge. Prisoners there were interrogated and tortured before being sent to the Killing Fields for execution. Of the nearly 20,000 prisoners kept at S-21, only 7 made it out alive. Seven. The prison consisted of four buildings, buildings that looked like it would have made for a very nice school before the KR came through. Some classrooms were kept whole and hosted a single prisoner; others were divided up into teeny, tiny individual cells. Several classrooms were filled with hundreds of mugshots of the prisoners - men, women, and even babies. There were also photographic exhibits about the lives of people before, during, and after the reign of the KR.

(Hallway view of the individual cells at S-21)

A morning of this kind of intensity meant that I was emotionally shot for the afternoon. I went back to my guesthouse and read and napped for awhile. Met up with Rhian and Marina for dinner and then said goodbye to them as they left Phnom Penh today.

Today I intended to go to the Royal Palace and to a couple of wats and pagodas, then hit the central market before the day got too hot. Yeah, that didn't happen. Over breakfast this German kid, Rouven, and I started talking and, next thing you know, it was almost noon. Together we decided to get a moto to the central market - it was just too damn hot to attempt a walk that one person said was 4km away and another person said would take 20 minutes; we didn't want to risk it! For just $1 a piece, we decided the moto was well worth it. We wandered around a bit and then stopped for lunch. Rouven had fried rice and vegetables, I had marinated beef with bread, and we both had 2 glasses of super yummy lemon iced tea. It tasted nothing like lemon iced tea, but it was very cold and very refreshing. Actually, and you Marylanders will know what I'm talking about, it kind of tasted like a not-too-sweet orange snowball. The grand total for lunch for two was $4.25.

That's pretty much the extent of today. I've uploaded the rest of my Saigon pics and some of the Phnom Penh shots. Although the internet connection is pretty decent, the upload speed is not so much. I'll get there, though! Tomorrow I have a 9:30am bus to Kampot (on the southern coast) and described by Lonely Planet as having a "lovely riverside setting" with "aging French buildings."

Saturday, March 13, 2010


I've been trying to suck it up and not be a baby about it, but man is it ever hot in Saigon these days. So hot, in fact, that I've developed a case of swamp lip. Not familiar with it? Profuse sweating of the upper lip? Yeah, but I have it super bad because my lower lip does it now, too. Gross, right? It's so hot that just walking down the street makes sweat roll down your back. Two showers a day are an absolute necessity. Air conditioning is mostly a luxury, so there's really no relief.

I usually handle the heat fairly well - I've had a few months to get used to it now - but I've really been feeling the effects of it the last few days. I've had zero energy and, as a result, haven't done a whole lot of, well, anything really since I arrived in Saigon. Sure, I had a massage by a blind masseuse the other day ($2.50/hour!), but that didn't involve a whole lot of effort on my part. Other than that, I've mostly just been hanging out, reading, doing a little shopping, drinking fruit shakes like it's going out of style, that kind of thing.

I did manage to go to the War Remnants Museum today (formerly called the Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes), however. Outside the museum are US military planes, tanks, helicopters, and bulldozers which are pretty interesting to see so close up. Inside the museum are two floors of weaponry, ammunitions, propaganda posters (from countries and groups imploring the US to stop their illegal war on Vietnam), and maps. The most heartbreaking exhibits, though, are the photographs, specifically the ones showcasing the effects of Agent Orange. Hearing about the atrocities of war are one thing, but seeing photographic evidence of it is another thing entirely. After awhile it gets to be too much, too intense, and I knew it was time for me to leave.

I'll post pictures in the next couple of days, after I buy batteries for my camera. I bought four batteries on Thursday. Today is Saturday and they're all used up. You'd think that must mean I took a ton of pictures, but you'd be wrong. I must've bought crap batteries because the first pair lasted until today; the second pair lasted for less than 10 pictures. Argh.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Sad decisions

There's been a change of plans to my change of plans. I went to the Chinese Consulate this morning to apply for a Chinese visa since I wasn't able to get one in Hanoi. I could get one and I could have it by tomorrow, but it would cost me $150. That's a lot for a visa! The most I've spent up til now for a visa is $100 for India, but even that was an anomaly; normally a visa is $30 or less.

I'm sad, bummed, and disappointed. I'd been looking forward to seeing friends both old (met in high school) and new (met in Thailand). I don't think I officially mentioned here before, but I'd also planned on going to Korea. The new friend that I met in Thailand offered up the extra room in his house if I was ever in the area and when I realized how close Seoul was to Beijing, I figured I'd be a fool not to go.

But, to use a really professional sounding term, I did a cost-benefit analysis. The high cost of the visa, the multiple bus and trains through China, the high cost of living in Shanghai, Beijing, and Seoul, and the nearly $400 one way ticket back to Cambodia just didn't add up. Or, rather, it added up to a lot more money than I wanted to spend for a two week diversion. Even considering that I'd have (free) places to stay in all of those cities, I'd end up spending well over what I spent the entire time I was in India in less than half the time (5 weeks in India vs. 2 weeks in China/Korea).

The new plan is the old plan. From HCMC I will head into Cambodia, first stop Phnom Penh. From there I'm not exactly sure what direction I'll head, but I'll figure it out along the way.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Frogs and funny faces

Last night, after spending the day at the beach, Marina, Rhian, and I decided that we wanted to check out the restaurant next door to the hotel we're staying at. We'd looked at the menu the day before and were intrigued because some of the items available were, let's say, less than traditional.

I should've taken pictures of the actual menu just to prove that I'm not lying, but I didn't so you'll just have to take my word for it. You could choose from all kinds of seafood (lobsters, crabs, prawns, eels), civet cat, oxtail, java mouse deer, venison, plus your normal ol' beef, chicken, and pork. I wanted to try something a bit off the wall, that I hadn't had before and might not have an opportunity to have again any time soon. I was worried that Marina and Rhian would chicken out and order their fallback choice of fried rice with egg and veg. They surprised me, though, and we ended up with quite the selection.

So what did we end up with? Sauteed frogs with chili and lemongrass, grilled hedgehog, and our
"safe" dish was fried noodles with squid and prawns (we wanted to make sure we ordered something we knew we'd like, just in case the first two were horribly inedible). Verdict? The frogs were delicious - spicy and not at all greasy like they tend to be. I had to teach the girls how to eat them (I'd had frogs legs before, but never the whole frog) and they were too spicy for their liking, but they actually liked them, too. The hedgehog was also spicy. It has a gamey flavor, somewhat similar to lamb, and eating it was kind of like eating ribs off of very tiny bones. It was a bit tough, but I don't know if it's always like that or if it was due to preparation. The noodle dish was mostly great. The squid was probably the best squid I've ever had, but the dish lost points for using instant noodles - not a problem if I'm expecting them, a disappointment if I'm not.

Afterwards, we were in the mood to go out. Actually, we'd decided before dinner that we were gonna go out because it was our last night in Nha Trang. We all wore new dresses and were looking pretty (if I do say so myself!). And then the silliness kicked in. All of a sudden we needed to get photographic evidence of various funny faces that we could make. We even asked the guys sitting at the other end of the table to pull faces with us. For some reason, they didn't think we were completely bonkers and they actually joined in. It was a really fun night and our latest night out in a long time. I don't think we got back to the hotel until after 1am and then we did the girl thing and stayed up for awhile after that talking.

We were up bright and early this morning, though, sleep be damned. We checked out of the hotel and stored our packs. Marina and Rhian went to Vinpearl, an island in the South China Sea reached by cable car that has a water amusement park. I opted out. Partially because we're getting on an overnight bus later and a shower beforehand probably won't be an option, partially because it's nearly a day's budget entrance fee, partially I just wasn't feeling like it.

The bus leaves tonight at 8:30pm and arrives in Ho Chi Minh City at 6am. In HCMC, I'll be getting back to my couchsurfing roots as I have a host all lined up. I'm excited about it and think it will be a good way to wrap up my time in Vietnam.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The update

Hmmm, so where did I leave off? I guess I never finished up telling about Hoi An, did I? I was hoping to post pictures of all of my beautiful new custom-made clothes, but it looks like that's not gonna work because of the flash drive issues that I'm still having. I ended up getting a brown, shimmery silk dress with a Chinese style collar and a row of dragonflies embroidered under the bust (embroidery not shown in pic); a cotton summer dress; a dray gray silk kimono with tiny flower embroidery; and a corduroy coat with green silk trim. I love all of it! I'll be shipping the silk dress and coat home, but the other items will stay with me and have already gotten some use. :-)

I also did a cooking class on my last night in Hoi An. It was only so-so, unfortunately. The food was good - fish in banana leaves, shrimp spring rolls, beef salad, wontons, and white rose (a Hoi An specialty that's pretty much a dumpling) - but it wasn't nearly as hands on as I'd have liked. We basically just chopped and mixed and didn't do any actual cooking. The course in Chiang Mai was much better.

Quy Nhon was very quiet. I'm pretty sure that I was the only foreigner there right up until my last night. I'd found a guesthouse called Barbara's Kiwi Connection that had a dorm with a bathroom en suite for 50,000 dong (about $2.50). It was already a great price. What made it the deal of the century was that I was the only person in the room for 2 out of 3 nights; I had a huge room with a hot water shower all to myself. I spent two days doing exactly what I said I was going to do. Nothing but lying around on the beach or beachside with a book. I did manage to upload all those pictures that had been hanging out in my camera, but that's the only productive thing I did. I ended up having dinner with my new roommies on my last night. A Swedish girl named Madeleine, a New Orleaner named Ryan, and I went to a seafood restaurant that we'd heard raves about. It was truly a place for locals. No one there really spoke English and although there was a menu, it had the most basic of English words on it and no prices. The three of us just pointed at a few different things and hoped for the best. We had two beers each, salad, grilled shrimp, steamed crab, and a tuna steamboat (hot soup is brought to the table along with a plate of fish and vegetables and you cook it yourself). It was very tasty. And cost less than $6 per person!

The day I came to Nha Trang, I was to meet up with Rhian and Marina who arrived from Hoi An the same day, just a few hours earlier. I stepped out of the cab in the center of town wanting to find an internet cafe so I could find out where they were staying. Purely by coincidence, they were standing right there and we'd met up before my bag was even out of the cab. Today was spent at the beach, tomorrow will be more of the same. On Tuesday we plan to catch an overnight bus to Ho Chi Minh where we will celebrate Rhian's birthday and where I will (hopefully) get a Chinese visa lickety split.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

New beach, new city

It's been days since my last post, but that really wasn't my intention. I'm in Nha Trang now and would have posted sooner, but for some reason after my last post in Quy Nhon, I couldn't access Blogger at all. I couldn't even go to any website that had in the address. It was weird.

Anyway, this isn't my official catching up post; I'll try to do that later today. Right now the girls and I are getting ready to check out of one hotel and into another that's slightly cheaper. We'll have breakfast and spend the day at the beach and then I'll be back with more.

To tide you over, I have uploaded all pictures - Halong Bay, Hue, and Hoi An - so go check them out!

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Beach time

I'm still having issues with getting my pictures uploaded. I'm pretty sure I have well over 100 that still need to be posted - from Halong Bay, Hue, and Hoi An, with Quy Ngon soon to follow. I have a connection right now that is good and cheap, so I'll see what I can do about fixing that soon.

I also have a shopping spree update (yay!), but I want to wait until I have pictures to go with it. What good is show and tell if you can't show?

I arrived in Quy Ngon (pronounced hwee and then your best approximation of the French 'no' - if you try saying it out loud and you think you sound like an idiot, then you're probably saying it right!) Wednesday afternoon around 1:30pm. I'm here by myself for a couple of days before I meet up with Rhian and Marina again in Nha Trang. I plan on doing a whole lot of nothing over the next few days unless it involves drinking fruit shakes, laying on the beach, or reading a novel. Perhaps all three at the same time. :-) Posting may be sparse around here for a couple of days as there won't be much of interest to post about: "I laid on the beach. The next day I did the same thing."

Monday, March 1, 2010

Today marks

five months on the road for me. But before any particular person gets in an uproar over that statement, it's also my little sister Amy's birthday. She turns - should I say? yah, why not? this might be the last year she lets me - 29. Every birthday for the last 29 years I've spoken to her or seen her to wish her a happy birthday. This year, being that I'm 8,279 miles away (I just calculated that now and it doesn't seem as far as I'd have thought), I'll have to make do with a "Happy Birthday!" via blog.

Traveling with and getting to know Marina and Rhian over the last month or so has been a little bit like having my little sister with me. They are sweet, fun, and funny, but they can also be frustrating and annoying (although maybe that last bit is just because I'm used to traveling on my own now and it's so much easier to do things, make decisions, etc, when you're only one person). Kind of like my own sister, in other words lol, but that just makes me miss her that much more.

I've had many names for my sister over the years. Amy, Aim, Aimers, AJ, brat. Heck, when we were in high school together, she didn't even get a name; she just got a punch, a pinch, or a push. All in good fun, of course. :-) Now she's Military Mommy Amy and it just goes to show how quickly things can change and people can grow up. She's my little sister, but in some ways she's so much more adult than I am. She has a family, owns a house, works a full time job, and has started her own business. All at the same time! And now she and her family are preparing for a deployment on top of everything else. I have no idea how she does it (and does it well, I might add!), but I admire her strength and am so very proud of her.

Amy, happy birthday! I love you, miss you, and hope you have a fantastic day!