Cambodia: I Understand the Asian Face-mask Love

I had mixed feelings about visiting Cambodia.  In talking with other travelers I had kind of gathered the impression that Angkor Wat was a must see, but that the rest of the country was kind of hit or miss.  Given the trouble we had just making it to the border, I was already less than thrilled when the Cambodia leg of our adventure started.

First impressions: It was hot.  And dirty.  And incredibly dusty.  The two-hour cab ride from the border to Siem Reap was a nice enough one, with none of the terrible roads we had heard so much about, but the tuk-tuk ride from the station to our hostel was suffocating.  It was unbelievably hot, and the dusty, polluted air was pretty overwhelming.

The dusty, dirty, polluted theme followed us across the country to the capital of Phnom Penh.  (During that bus ride we had the misfortune of finding out first-hand just how bad the roads between these two cities are).  Upon arriving in Phnom Penh, “extremely crowded” was added to the list of negative descriptors.  I’ve never seen so many motorcycles in my life!  Crossing the street was absolutely terrifying.  Each attempt was like taking your life in your hands.  The heat and the pollution were inescapable.

As we rode around the city in a tuk-tuk, I finally understood the Asian love of surgical face-masks.  I can’t remember ever wanting one before–in fact I often get a kick out of it when I see people wearing them.  But I would have killed for a face-mask in Phnom Penh.

Despite the dust, pollution and crowds, I loved Cambodia.  The poverty was extremely apparent (it was impossible to sit down for a meal or walk down the street without a dozen kids or amputees begging you for money,) but the people were overwhelmingly kind and welcoming, and the kids couldn’t have been cuter.  The country was wonderful, its food was delicious and its sites were moving.  I’m definitely glad that we went to Cambodia, but I think our four days in the country were the perfect amount.

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Backpacker Fashion Fails II

In this installment of backpacker fashion fails I thought I’d address an all-too common fashion fail among the male backpacker set.  The male purse, or “murse,” if you will.

Now all you male backpackers out there, I mean no disrespect by this post, I’m just hoping to demonstrate to you the error in your ways.

I really do feel for you.  A purse is such a nice travelling option.  A purse doesn’t trap heat like a backpack does, and it allows you to keep your valuables closer to you.  While I understand your desire to wear a purse, I do not support it.

Sorry guys.  Leave the purses to the ladies.

 

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Cooking with Boom

I always like to pretend that I can cook. I’m not totally helpless; I can follow a recipe well but usually my motivation to shop for and prepare something specific is lacking. I find ethnic cuisine to be a particularly daunting task. I attribute this to two things:

1. Fear of the lesser-known ingredients (can I get three different types of basil the US? How do I prep dragon fruit? Can you eat the stem of this scary looking vegetable? etc.) and 2. Purchasing an excess of ingredients that I will never, or rarely, use again (Fish oil, oyster sauce and ghee are not exactly staples for me).

But I do love fresh Thai food.


Enter Basil Cookery School in Chiang Mai. The six-course, four-hour class came highly recommended to us by Jennifer. And once again, she made a stellar suggestion. The course is limited to six people, which is great if you have very little experience with a wok but still want to learn some classic Thai dishes. It is also great if you have a fun group of people to share in the trials and tastiness of your hard work, and we certainly did. Boom, the instructor, was very efficient and, more importantly, patient with everyone and I only saw her smile fade slightly when I immediately burned my garlic or when Elia knocked the burner off kilter (the first time). She runs the cooking school out of her own home and her boyfriend chauffeurs her students from their hotels to the market to the cooking school and back to their lodging. I believe he gets paid in food, so Boom says he is not quite as thin as when she first met him.

The class starts off with a trip to a local market where Boom explains different traditional components to Thai food and purchases fresh ingredients. Participants have the choice between three different dishes to prepare for each of the six courses. Trust me: it’s a very hard decision! There were appetizers, entrees, curries and desserts. We ate the first three courses before our ‘exercise break’ of grinding curry paste and squeezing fresh coconut milk for the next few courses.

It was a wonderful evening and a great way to dabble in an unfamiliar cuisine. What surprised me the most, besides how much Thai food I can consume over the course of four hours, was how simple the recipes were. Most of the dishes required about five or ten minutes of prep time and only a handful of minutes to cook.

Hopefully, with Boom’s instruction, the assistance of the complimentary cook book and a boost of confidence from the Certificate of Completion we received at the end of the course, I’ll be able to recreate some of my favorite dishes at home. Anybody want to be my friend in exchange for Thai food?

Click here for Photos

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An Epic Journey to Cambodia

Getting to Cambodia from southern Thailand was nothing short of a nightmare.  Erin, Hannah and I booked ourselves an overnight bus from Koh Lanta to Bangkok where we planned to transfer to another bus which would take us to the Cambodian border.   Unfortunately for us (and the 60 other really happy passengers on board,) our 12 hour bus ride turned into a nearly 20 hour one.

Having treated myself to a double dose of Dramamine, I slept for the majority of the ride and missed the tire problems and countless roadside stops.  I guess I shouldn’t complain too much, but even drug-induced sleep is uncomfortable on a bus seat…

We made it to Bangkok about 7 hours late, and needless to say we missed the bus we were hoping to catch to Cambodia.  Faced with the prospect of spending the night in Bangkok and setting our travel plans back an entire day, the three of us decided to take matters into our own hands.  We took a cab to the public bus station to arrange our own travel to the border rather than relying on the tourist packages that only leave Bangkok early in the morning.

We managed to get tickets on a bus to Aranyapraythet, a city on the Thai side of the border, and grabbed our seats minutes before the bus left the station.  Thankfully the 4 ½ hour ride was a pretty and uneventful one.  We made it to Aranyapraythet just as the sun was setting.  We were swarmed by tuk-tuk drivers offering to take us to the border, but knowing that the border was already closed, we passed on their offers.  Instead we planned to hit the border first thing in the morning, and so we set off to explore the sprawling metropolis that we’d landed in.

After walking around the tiny town for a few minutes we came to the conclusion that Aranyapraythet didn’t have a whole lot to offer in terms of accommodation.   Just as we were getting worried we stumbled upon the Aran Mermaid:  a nice looking hotel that definitely didn’t compare with the budget guesthouses we’d been staying in.  Figuring it was worth a try, the three grungiest gals on earth, who at this point had spent the better part of 30 hours cramped on a bus, walked into the beautiful lobby to inquire about room rates.

I think the woman at the front desk took pity on us (or maybe she was just hoping to get us out of the lobby as quickly as possible) but she gave us a decent room rate and threw in free breakfast vouchers, so we decided to go for it.

We dropped off our bags and paid a visit to the night market in hopes of scoring our first real meal in a day and a half.  Pockets full of Thai baht to be spent before crossing into Cambodia; we went from vendor to vendor buying mysterious and delicious looking food.  Our generous spending, combined with the fact that we were the only westerners to be seen, earned us our fair share of stares.  But as always, the Thai people were nothing but friendly and hospitable, and the food was delicious.  Our arms full of to-go containers housing incredible food, we headed back to our air conditioned room to enjoy a hard earned feast, well over due showers, and real beds.

The perfect way to end an incredible 2 ½ weeks in Thailand.

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Grand Palace Wardrobes

The Grand Palace in Bangkok is incredible.  The intricate detailing and workmanship on the buildings is just unreal.  It’s definitely a must see if you’re in Bangkok, but I feel the need to warn you about the possible horrors you might face on the Palace grounds if you’re not properly prepared.

My guidebook led me to believe that in order to visit the Grand Palace grounds in Bangkok, you needed to wear clothing that covered your shoulders and knees.  Turns out this isn’t exactly the case.   Yes, your shoulders need to be covered, and so do your knees, but the rules are a bit more detailed than that.  If your outfit doesn’t comply, you’re required to rent appropriate apparel from the Grand Palace.

Erin, Hannah and I thought we were so smart.  We tried to beat the Bangkok heat by wearing sleeveless shirts and covering our shoulders with scarves…  Apparently that doesn’t cut it, and we were forced to rent these beautiful, incredibly flattering numbers:

Poor Hannah had to rent a skirt too, even though her capris definitely covered her knees.

I don’t want to go into too much detail, but let’s just say that it was really hot out, and I don’t think I was the first tourist to wear my lovely purple shirt that day.  It didn’t smell so great…

We definitely didn’t get the worst of if though.  Check out what these poor guys had to wear:


The craziest part is that I think the Grand Palace officials just enforce the rule for entertainment.  They charge a deposit on the rented clothing, but you get all of your money back when you return them—(personally I don’t think there’s a huge risk of those shirts being stolen…)  But anyways, they’re not even profiting from making 40% of their visitors dress like fools!

So, if you’re headed to Bangkok be sure to visit the Grand Palace, but please, for your own sake, dress appropriately.



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Scuba Diving: Koh Ha

Southeast Asia is home to some of the best dive sites in the world, so obviously I could not pass up a chance to dive while visiting the beautiful beaches of Thailand.

 

In the world of diving I am still somewhat of a beginner, having only 2 certification dives and 6 sport dives under my belt. Needless to say I am not 100% comfortable with diving yet…there is a lot of equipment to balance and it is a bit difficult to come to grips with breathing easily under 60 feet of water. So after I signed up for my dive adventure to Ko Ha with GoDive Ko Lanta and realized that I would not have a dive buddy that I was familiar with for the first time ever, I got a little nervous.

 

Therefore, the mantras: you are in Thailand and you are diving in crystal clear water with amazing marine life, you are with a company that was recommended, you have done this before, everything will be fine. I tried my hardest to quell the nerves because this was supposed to be fun, right?

 

Right. Once on the dive boat, an instructor took me and a few other divers through a refresher course. This was actually essentially required by the company if you had not been diving for a year or more, and it automatically made me feel safer. As soon as we started reviewing, I had a new mantra: I remember how to do this! And it is enjoyable not nerve wracking!

Enough about the preparation though, the dives I did that day were unbelievably awe-inspiring! The first dive took place in the Koh Ha lagoon. Ha means five in Thai, and Koh Ha is a collection of five (well technically six, but who’s counting?) islands that surround a lagoon. Even before I started my descent, I could see about 25 feet down (great visibility if you are not familiar with diving) through the clear bright blue water to the reef below. Once I made it down there I was finally able to relax and take in the sights around me.

  • A reef that stretched forever it seemed covered in all sorts of colorful sea life
  • An eel  poking its long head out of a hole to grab a snack
  • NEMO! Literally. A clown fish coming out of its home in a purple anemone
  • Schools of 1-2 foot long barracudas

At the end of the dive, while swimming in the middle of a school of tiny neon yellow fish, I made my ascent to the surface feeling accomplished and amazed.

Dive number 2: the  Ko Ha caves. We moved to the far side of the island grouping and were told that we would be diving near some underwater caves.  This alone was exciting information, but when I heard whispers that the dive instructors would let us surface inside of the cave, I felt anticipation instead of nerves.

 

We descended next to a wall of coral reef. I have seen this formation once before, but its sheer size is enough to take your breath away. I forget about the cave, I forget about my depth, and I just floated along with my dive team next to this underwater high rise. I saw butterfly fish, shrimp and small clams, a lion fish with scales arranged in a crazy patter, and so much more. As we moved past the wall I saw my dive instructor pointing at a rock. I swam over to check it out, but it was a rock?? Then it moved, like it was breathing, and I saw a long tentacle emerge. There is an octopus a foot from my face. This is an octopus!! I have never seen one before and I am so excited that I have forgotten about the cave.

 

Then I looked up to see my dive team move towards a darker area and I remember. The dive instructor brought us into a massive chamber connected to a second chamber by a wide tube. We were swimming in an underwater cave. We got the go ahead and ascend and surfaced inside the cave. The water line was at the top of the opening and I was sprayed as soon as I surfaced. Floating in an underwater cave, I looked up at stalactites and peered down at the bright water outside the cave filled with schools of fish…I am amazed.

 

As I reflected on the way back to shore (while eating some of the best Thai food I have had on this trip), I realized that I was very glad I went through with the dives despite my anxiety.

 

If you are a scuba diver and have not made it to Southeast Asia, it is a must. And if you are looking for a dive company to go with, I highly recommended GoDive Koh Lanta. Maybe I’ll see you there? Because there is no way that I can have an experience like that and not return.

 

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Backpacker Hygiene

So I know it’s tricky to stay neat and tidy when you’re living out of a backpack for months on end and you have a limited budget.  But there is no excuse for some of the poor hygiene practices we’ve seen demonstrated among our fellow backpackers.   Showers aren’t that hard to come by, and it only costs about a  $1 per kilogram to get your laundry done, so I’m gonna go ahead and call out the nasty backpackers on their lack of cleanliness.

Yes I understand that overnight bus rides are brutal.   But do you realize how much more brutal your impressive case of B.O. makes a 12 hour windowless bus ride for your fellow passengers?   And when I see you in town the next day wearing the exact same clothes I really don’t think you should be surprised when I vomit all over my shoes at the very memory of your unique sent.

If you’re in the mood for some scruffy people watching, look no further than Kaho San Road in downtown Bangkok.  This single street must boast the largest density of grungy backpackers on earth.  From those wrapping up their travels (are those tan lines or dirt lines that your feet are so prominently boasting?),  to those fresh-from the plane farangs (foreigners)  who are sweating bullets while lugging their packs and just beginning their initiation into the backpacker fraternity of the unclean, Kaho San Road has no shortage of dirty travellers.

Hands down though, the foulest hygiene related event that we’ve witnessed took place on a ferry from Krabi to Koh Lanta off the Andaman Coast of Thailand.  This middle-aged couple stepped on the boat and began to settle in.  I was grossed out when the woman started picking at her feet and pointing things out to the guy.  As I’m not much of a foot person, that was enough for me to look away permanently.  And I’m glad that I did, because seconds later my friend Hannah turned around from the seat in front of me with the widest eyes I’ve ever seen.

Apparently after completing her foot inspection, the woman pulled out some hand sanitizer and liberally applied it to her underarms.  I guess I appreciate the effort, but deodorant isn’t that hard to come by….

 

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Lessons from Thailand

As we wrap things up in Thailand and head to Cambodia for the next leg of our adventure, I thought I’d take the time to reflect on some very important lessons I’ve learned during the past couple of weeks in Thailand.

  1. Never go to a restroom unless you’re armed with your own supply of toilet paper and hand sanitizer.
  2. Using an Asian style restroom on a moving train takes balance, coordination and a good sense of humor.                       
  3. Always check the toilet before using it; otherwise you might just give yourself and a gecko the scare of a lifetime…
  4. No matter how seasick you might be feeling, do not sit on the deck of a ferry boat unless you’re well covered in sunscreen.  You will fry.
  5. Regardless of the temperature, or your plans for the rest of the day, do no wear shorts to ride an elephant.                    
  6. If you want to keep your taste buds intact, always reply “no” when asked if you like your food “Thai spicy.”
  7. Even if you don’t know what exactly it is that you’re eating, go for it.  It’s all but guaranteed to be delicious.          
  8. If a hostel advertises “traditional Thai style” mattresses, know that you might as well be sleeping on a cement floor.
  9. Bring an extra book for that 12 hour overnight bus ride you booked.  It might just turn into a 20 hour ride.  (Oh the joys of budget travelling…)
  10. Motorcycles aren’t meant for two people, but rather four, or even five, depending on how creative you are with seating arrangements.  Pets are welcome to catch a ride as well.                                                                                                  

In all seriousness though, I have absolutely loved Thailand.  The country is beautiful, and the people are just so kind, gentle and generous.  I’d love to come back some day.  Two weeks definitely wasn’t enough time here.

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Beach bound!

Finally! We are soaking up the sun on the beaches of Krabi and taking in some spectacular sights. We’ll be catching  up with our blog posts on our last few days of travel soon! Look forward to tales of misadventure, rented clothing and charades.

For now, since there is no way I can do justice to what we’ve seen with my words, here are a few pictures for you to enjoy accompanied by the song I always think of when I am at a breathtaking beach. Enjoy!

I dig my toes into the sand

The ocean looks like a thousand diamonds strewn across a blue blanket

Poda IslandI lean against the wind

Pretend that I am weightless

Poda IslandAnd in this moment I am happy, happy

I wish you were here.

Aonang BeachSunset Aonang Beach

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Ayutthaya

Erin and I decided to make a stop on our trip back from Chiang Mai to Bangkok.  We had been told that Ayutthaya, just 70 kilometers north of Bangkok, was a great place to spend a day.  So we bought a train ticket to Ayutthaya and booked a room at a hostel in town.  Thankfully I remembered to write the hostel’s address and the phone number in my notebook.

The train ride was a long one, but not completely unbearable.  It was clean and they fed us plenty of food, so I’m not complaining.  But even though we left Chiang Mai at 8:45 am, we didn’t arrive in Ayutthaya until after dark.  We should have realized that finding our hostel wasn’t going to be easy.  Lugging giant bags makes everything tough to begin with, but add darkness, the lack of a map and our collective knowledge of exactly two words in Thai, and then things get really interesting.

Our first problem: we didn’t have a map.  Well actually our guidebook did have a map of Ayutthaya, but let’s just say it wasn’t terribly detailed.   Though it did show the names of about 4 streets on it, none of those streets were the ones we needed.   So, we decided to stop in the 7 Eleven and try our best at sign language/non-verbal communication to find out where our hostel was.

Our second problem:  nobody had ever heard of the hostel or seemed to recognize the address.   But that wasn’t going to stop our new best friends inside the 7 Eleven from helping us out.  My notebook, with the address and phone number was passed around to everyone working in the store and a few customers as well.  When it turned out that no one knew where it was, some man motioned for us to follow him, so we did.  Out of the store, and down the block, to a group of people standing in a hotel parking lot.  One of them kind of spoke English and looked at the address for us.  He then called the hostel’s phone number and started speaking really quickly in Thai.  He hung up, asked us where we were from, whether we were students, and if we wanted a Thai massage (uh, no, but do you know where our hostel is?)  He then took us to a tuk-tuk and explained to the driver where the hostel was.

Erin and I, along with our giant backpacks, squeezed into the back of the tuk-tuk, relieved that somebody knew where our hostel was.   After two stops and two calls to the hostel, our tuk-tuk driver finally got us there.  Turns out the hostel was less than a mile from the train station…  Given our evening experience, we decided it would be best to explore the city in the daylight, and so we went straight to bed.

Ayutthaya was once a magnificent city but, this Unesco World Heritage site is now overrun with tourists.  The former Thai capital, Ayutthaya is an island formed where the Mae Nam Lopburi, Chao Phraya and Pa Sak rivers merge on their way to the Gulf of Thailand.   It’s home to dozens of ruined wats, or temples.   Less than a two-hour train ride north of Bangkok, it’s one of the most popular day trips from the city.

Personally, I didn’t love it.  It was incredibly touristy, and while the ruins were pretty impressive, the town didn’t have a whole lot more to offer.   I love ruins as much as the next person (I did study history,) but when it’s 90 degrees out, the last thing I want to do is battle with hundreds of camera happy tourists in hopes of snatching a picture or two of a once-great temple.

Although, the coach busses and tour groups did give us one advantage.  Erin and I “joined” a nice German tour group.  By joined I mean we stepped in line with them and were herded past the gate surrounding the site.  Entrance fee?  What entrance fee?  The ruins were pretty incredible.  It’s crazy to imagine what the place must have looked like during its heyday (from the 14th to the 18th centuries).  I especially liked the Buddha statues in various stages of ruin.  One notable statue is a Buddha head that is encompassed by tree roots.  

Another popular thing to do in Ayutthaya (or so the guidebooks will have you believe,) is to rent bikes and use them to get around town and to the various ruins.  In theory, this is a great concept.  In practice it was largely terrifying.  The roads were busy, and the idea of a bike lane was a pretty fluid concept.  The “bike lane” was shared with parked cars, motorcycles, food carts, you name it.  Add to the mix the fact that in Thailand they drive on the opposite side of the street than they do in The States, and you can see why it wasn’t quite as fun and carefree as I’d imagined.  Also, compliments of the high quality of the bed and pillow at our budget hostel in Chiang Mai, my neck hurts, and can’t turn my head to the left.  At all.  So looking left before crossing 3 lanes of traffic on my bike?  Very difficult…

Luckily we survived.  We had some lunch, turned in our bikes and checked out of the hostel.  We then hoofed it over to the train station.  (Walking seemed like a great idea in our air-conditioned room, but in reality it was brutal).  The trek, though under a mile was a tough one in the midday sun, and I don’t think I’ve ever been that hot in my life.  When we finally made it to the train station we let ourselves splurge on the train with air conditioning.

Next stop: Bangkok to meet up with my friend Hannah, and then some beach time on the islands off the Andaman Coast!

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