So maybe you’ve been wondering what we’ve been up to. Maybe not.
There were some setbacks for Riki as its not possible to buy many things in Switzerland that he uses for his art. However, after much trial and error, and some importing thanks to family and friends in the States, he has found a combination that he likes enough and is now able to finish some of his pieces. All are on wood that we found or were given, which was also a tough task, as there is no abundance of dumpsters here as there is in New Orleans.
Here are some of the latest pieces, mostly by Riki. Most are incomplete, either lacking the final coat, or completely in progress. Enjoy!
People are always asking what our favorite part of the trip was. That is an impossible question and I usually follow it up with asking for a category, like best nature, or best cave, or best food. We’ve seen too many amazing things to narrow it down to one.
We started this list somewhere along the way and have updated it as we go. There is a story behind every one, many of which are somewhere in our blog. For the most part, Riki and I agree on these – but I’ve noted where we don’t. There are a lot of ties. This is by no means exhaustive as we could find a best and worst of all 275 days, but I’ll spare you. Here are the highlights, and lowlights:
Best Meal: Hanoi, Vietnam – sautéed pork with thick strips of coconut
Best sunrise: Poon Hill – over the Himalayas & Bagan – with its hot air balloons
Best sunset: Koh Ta Kiev, Cambodia – from the beach over calm water
Best snack: Fried fish powder & Broad beans
Weirdest food: Wood meat balls in Myanmar, Hue clams in Vietnam & tarantulas
Best coffee: Vietnam
Friendliest locals: Myanmar, but if you want just kids, then Laos
Most annoying tourists: Chinese in tour groups
Best outfits: Men – Monks with umbrellas in Laos & Myanmar (longyi – skirts), Women in Vietnam with their day pajamas
Best hairstyles: Men in Vietnam & Myanmar (slick & fashionable), Women in Nepal with dyed red hair
Cheapest meal: Pho in Vietnam
Best new vegetable: Morning glory
Best beer: Bia Hoi in Hanoi
Worst tuktuks: Phnom Penh, Cambodia – all just scams
Most painful moment: Sun/wind burn on my hands while motobiking the Thakek Loop in Laos
Worst sleep: Train from Sapa, Vietnam with snoring man
Worst road: Motorcycling on the Thakek Loop, Laos
Worst bus ride: Getting to and from Mrauk-U, Myanmar
Coolest museum: Jakarta’s National Museum
Coolest building: White Temple in Chiang Rai, Thailand
Coolest non-religious building: Marina Bay Sands (Boat Skyscraper), Singapore
Coolest Houses: Bajawa, Indonesia & Ubud, Bali
Ugliest building: Government view tower in Bagan, Myanmar (so ugly it’s not pictured)
Best attraction: The Himalayas & Orangutans
Best Rice Terraces: Annapurna, Nepal (most impressive) & Ubud, Bali (most beautiful)
Friendliest kids: Laos, where they all wave and yell Saibaidee
Worst internet: Myanmar – non-existent in many places
Best caves: Phong Nha, Vietnam
Best Collection of Buddhas: Sukhothai, Thailand & Mrauk-U, Myanmar
Worst dogs: Kathmandu’s gangs who bark all night
Most touristy thing we did: Canyoning in Dalat, Vietnam & the bamboo train in Battambong, Cambodia
Most kitschy: James Bond Island, Thailand
Best ancient city: Angkor, Cambodia
Best Ancient Structures: Prambanan & Borobudur, Indonesia
Best bike ride: Vang Vieng, Laos (though our butts hurt for a week later) & Lonely Planet city tour of Mandalay, Myanmar
Worst bike ride: Julie’s flat tires at Inle Lake, Myanmar (though I got to ride in a dump truck)
Dirtiest place: The river in Kathmandu, Nepal
Cleanest place: Downtown Singapore
Only place with a shopping mall on their currency: Brunei (also the strangest city we’ve been to)
Best skyline: Singapore because its variegated
Best land-based wildlife: Chitwan National Park in Nepal & Sukau in Borneo, Malaysia
Best ocean wildlife: Sipadan Island, Borneo, Malaysia
Most interesting city: Kathmandu
Coolest school uniforms: Girls’ skirts in Laos (I even got one made for myself)
Best propaganda: Vietnam
Coolest flag: Nepal
Safest street food: Thailand
Best night markets: Thailand
Best music: Nepal
Best dancing: Pokhara, Nepal during Tihar festival
Worst laundry: Pokhara, Nepal (sock disaster)
Worst utensils: Laos’ chopsticks would splinter just looking at them
Tallest trees: Angkor, Cambodia
Best public buses: Bangkok (and cheapest)
Biggest mistake: To be determined (though we are out of the incubation period for malaria so not taking those pills long enough is off the list)
Best decision: Halong Bay, Vietnam timing (going in October instead of December)
Biggest regret: Phu Quoc, Vietnam (over-priced)
Best Street Art: Yogyakarta, Indonesia
Best art purchase: Nepalese & Balinese paintings
Most useful purchase: sink stopper for laundry
Most useful item acquired: free wet wipes on buses
Best local quirk: Kissing noise in Myanmar(when ordering at bar/restaurant) & kids waving (all over)
Worst local quirk: Betel nut chewing and spitting noises
Hardest thing to find: sunscreen without whitening
Most used items: Travel pillow & electronics
Best item b(r)ought: Riki pants, tablet, umbrella
Most useless item: umbrella
Wish we had: Swiss army knife & variety of shirts
Best new game/time passer: Jenga & podcasts
Crazy things we are used to now:
trash in streets, long bus rides, motorbikes without helmets, bottled water, using a fork & spoon to eat, being stared at, being generally unclean, carrying tissues, crossing the street amidst hectic scenarios, walking on the left side of the sidewalk/escalator, never understanding the language
Things we missed:
Food – bread with flavor, Clothing – variety, Culture – western toilets & real showers
I still catch myself hesitating before using tap water to brush my teeth. I am tempted to head left when approaching people, walking up stairs, and standing on an escalator. Luckily, we aren’t driving anywhere, so the awkwardness is just that, not dangerous. I can’t shake the feeling that I should be out walking around all day. I want to eat chicken and noodles, not sausage and pretzels. I can’t buy food from a stall and I can’t get anyone to smile back at me on the street. But Zurich’s not all that bad. It has all you can drink water in fountains on every block and there’s no chance of finding a critter in the toilet bowl.
According to our Travel Map, we’ve traveled over 38,000 miles (61,000+ km) since we left New Orleans. And while we didn’t actually make it around the world, the circumference of the earth is only 25,000 miles (40,000 km), we went pretty far. We can’t abbreviate it as an ATW (Around the World) trip, which would be disappointing, except that I’ve just finished our budget and discovered we spent almost exactly the maximum we had intended to spend. Considering we stayed many months longer than we initially intended, this is exciting news. We were not as organized in our budget as some people, so my numbers are rough and are strictly based on ATM withdrawals in each country and credit card purchases. I can’t provide daily eating or transportation expenses, but accommodation I tracked throughout the trip. There are a few variables that could swing figures from one country to another, but overall, this is a pretty good guess of our expenditures. For example, we took some US dollars with us as emergency money in case ATMs weren’t working or our debit card was lost or stolen. This was a few hundred dollars, and we used most of it in Cambodia and Myanmar, where dollars are accepted. We also exchanged money from one country to the next, but usually tried to use it up rather than waste it on exchange commissions. These figures were undocumented, but since we did this almost every time we crossed a border, I am going to say its probably a wash. The extra Thai Baht we had converted to Singapore dollars we used in Brunei, and it wasn’t very much in the grand scheme of our trip. We had some very generous gifts of hotel and flight points, which I have excluded from my averages. For instance, the 5 days we spent at the Hyatt in Danang, Vietnam for Christmas and ate only the free food provided have not been factored into days spent in Vietnam (except for the tailoring we had done in Hoi An at that time, which has to, as its something everyone should do when there).
First, the average accommodation prices. Keep in mind these are double occupancy. Dorms tended to be about half what a double room cost. Check out our Hotels List for specific prices and reviews.
We often went for the cheapest accommodation we could find that still offered wifi and hot water (we achieved this about 80% of the time), so you could probably spend less than this if your willing to go a bit more rustic.
Street food is often the most economical way to eat in most of these countries. However, in Nepal and most of Cambodia & Myanmar, we did not partake in the street food as we were very wary of the cleanliness of the vendors we saw. In Singapore and Brunei, we had trouble finding street food, so we spent considerably more there on food. Cheap meals could usually be found for $1-2, on the street and in the plastic chaired restaurants. Our criteria for restaurants was: lots of locals, plastic chairs, and a picture menu. These three factors pretty much guaranteed a good, cheap meal. Some of our favorite meals were eating $1 pho for breakfast in Hanoi sitting on tiny plastic chairs at tiny plastic tables, amidst dozens of other people, slurping away at hot soup in the hot air (mostly Riki’s favorite – I prefer soup when its cold and not in the morning). My new favorite street food became $1 mango and sticky rice, when we crossed into Thailand for the last time. Why I didn’t discover this earlier is something I still regret.
Indonesia, Nepal and Malaysia topped out our most expensive countries. This is mostly due to the necessity of flights to get there and in between the islands (Indonesia), as well as some more expensive activities, such as diving and trekking. Laos was by far the least expensive country, with food being dirt cheap and accommodation far cheaper than any of the other countries.
Some tips for planning:
We started with the cheapest countries (Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia). These countries are heavily backpacked already and thus are set up for budget-minded travelers. It is easy to get around, cheaply and mostly efficiently. Flights are not required unless you have a time constraint, and even these flights can be inexpensive. We generally paid about $1 per hour for buses and found them long, but manageable (my earlier ramblings may contradict this, but by now the agony of these trips has subsided). Meals along the banana pancake trail are cheap and can be had for $1-2+. We had a water purifier that cost about $90 with us. It paid for itself and we didn’t have to buy an endless supply of plastic water bottles. For a long trip like this, it was worth it. For a few weeks or even a few months, it may not be cost effective, but will certainly reduce your waste.
Nepal is a tough one to write. We were there in October, after a blizzard in the Annapurna region and about 40 people died. It is a small tragedy compared to what they have more recently gone through, and all of my advice for Nepal is probably obsolete. However, we are still in touch with our great guide in Pokhara, who is itching for more clients. His name is Raju and he speaks English better than he responds in emails (firstname.lastname@example.org). It would be great if I could get him more business, especially following the earthquake.
In Myanmar, we found the street food, covered in grease, unappetizing and ate more expensively than we would have liked. The buses were also a lot more than we had anticipated, often twice what we would have paid in Vietnam for half the comfort. Attractions as well seemed closer to American prices.
Due to thousands of islands, Indonesia was harder to traverse and thus, more expensive. While we could have taken more boats, we had heard these were not always safe and can take many hours. We opted for cheap planes to island hop through Indonesia. Bali is surprisingly affordable, with so much competition, that most of the places we saw were clean and even provided big breakfasts.
As our trip was winding down, we lost the budget-minded sensibility regarding food and went all out in Malaysia. For this was the place to do it. By this I mean, we spent $3-4 per meal. And it was so worth it. Spectacular arrays of Indian food and piles of noodles, we gorged ourselves during our last month. You could certainly spend a little less, but its not the cheap eats you find in Vietnam. Meals were generally at least $2, but you would get a lot of food.
In Singapore and Brunei, the food budget went out the window and we paid western prices for almost everything. Don’t avoid Singapore because you hear its expensive. There are still plenty of budget attractions and cheap food can be found in Little India and as always, look for plastic chairs.
MONEY. Contrary to guides we read, ATMs are available everywhere (even Myanmar). We opened a checking account before we left with no withdrawal fees and estimate that it saved us hundreds in transaction costs. Local ATMs generally charge a small fee, but you learn which banks are less and which ones give smaller bills. Otherwise, we used a credit card with travel rewards. We never used it in Cambodia or Myanmar, but it was helpful for paying the small service fees for online hostel booking, as well as booking flights and larger purchases (trekking and diving). Keep in mind, many small businesses still charge a 2-3% fee to use credit cards. With our credit card, we received 2% back anyway, so for large purchases, it was often cheaper to use the credit card rather than accumulate ATM fees as they usually have low withdrawal maximums.
To sum it all up and to generalize a lot, I will put it simply. Estimate accommodation according to above numbers. Spend $3-8 on food per day. Buses for $4-10 depending on length and excluding outliers like Myanmar. Planes can cost as little as $8 (Kota Kinabalu to Tawau) and up to about $70 per way – mostly we paid around $40. We found great last minute deals on AirAsia and were happy with the service. Walking is the cheapest transportation, but city buses are a great alternative and we found locals to be very helpful in guiding us to the right stop. For instance, Bangkok has a very confusing bus system, but once we figured it out and got a map, we saved a lot of money rather than hiring a crooked tuktuk or an expensive cab. Attractions vary a lot, but search online for top free activities in each city and you may come across some great alternatives, like we did.
Talking to other travelers proved to be the best way to research a destination. They have the inside scoop and can often recommend places that you won’t find on Tripadvisor or in Lonely Planet. If you must resort to guide books, we found that the places right next door to the ones in the books are often cheaper and better than the listed ones, as they must compete and don’t rest on their laurels as many places in Lonely Planet do. Although I overflow with more advice, I will quit here. Some of our best (and worst) memories are just relying on information we received along the way. Our recommendations will be in the next post.
(I have been hounding Riki for months about typing up his journal notes for me to post. Now, as we are sitting in the Swiss Alps, it all comes together and all you guys who have been bugging me about this can all relax. And check out the pictures too – some hand drawn maps included.)
Border Crossing from Phu Quoc (Vietnam)
– 5 Buses, 1 Boat, & 1 Clueless Tuktuk
– Didn’t have luggage with us at one point, separated when driving to Bus Station, was not cool
– There was an immediate change in buildings and stores on the other side of the border (much poorer construction with far fewer supplies). There was also a crazy big casino right on the Cambodian side (many vices found in Cambodia are not allowed in Vietnam).
– Drive through the countryside was really cool – dried rice paddies, flat, pockets of palm trees with little wooden huts. Much more similar to Laos than Vietnam.
– Crazy Tuktuk guys introduced us to the city as 10 of them would run 30 meters alongside the minivans seeking any business they could (each time we let a person off as we wound our way through the city), absolute madness.
– Traffic in this city is like Vietnam, but more cars and absolutely no organization whatsoever. They have quite wide roads, which makes it far more difficult and dangerous to cross (nothing like the organized chaos of Hanoi & HCMC), and there are Toyota Camrys everywhere, likely 90% of all the cars, all different ages (probably some knockoffs too).
– Great to be able to get draught beer again, $0.50 for a glass, but I miss ripping off the labels from the bottles (to save for art projects at a later date).
– Back to seeing SexPats (far more than we saw in Bangkok). Granted the Khmer women are all beautiful, it’s very weird and off-putting to see 7 skinny women, dressed like they are out clubbing, hanging out in front of the bars, at ALL hours of the day trying to lure in tourists, as well as all the 18 year old Khmer girls (some likely younger) hanging out with 60 – 70 year old white men.
– Some of the SexPats are young (but really quite unfortunately ugly) men hanging out with these beautiful women.
– Saw, at a minimart, a short Khmer girl holding the crotch of the much taller white guy… from behind (through the legs)… at the cash register (while the cashier, her friend, Julie and I all look at each other trying to hold back our ?laughter?).
– Genocide/Prison Museum was very intense (especially the movie we saw where one of the few surviving prisoners was interviewing his former guards), you could still see the signs of it being used as a school before the Khmer Rouge took control.
– I noticed that all the faces of the KR leaders were completely scratched off by people (even some I didn’t recognize).
– I also noticed that the pictures they had of the prisoners, were awful and showed an obsessive/crazy rule (where everybody was always suspicious of all others), but there were a number of duplicates (saw this even though all prisoners had the same haircuts, women: short bob & men: even shorter).
– The City seemed a little more sketchy/rustic/poorer than all of the other major cities we visited, but it definitely wasn’t the shit hole that a bunch of people made it out to be before we got there.
– Once again, the men, like in the rest of SEAsia have these amazing mole hairs on their faces that grow out about 3 inches/8 cm, everything else they shave or can’t grow (I heard somewhere that they are good luck).
– One can definitely notice that there aren’t as many older Khmer people as there were older people in the other countries in the region (a still highly visible aspect of the genocide).
– We are convinced (especially Julie) that we need to buy these awesome PJ’s that all the ladies here are wearing (usually top and bottom matching) all day…
– It is really odd using US Dollars here (with Khmer Riel as the small change 4000=1). Got a $2 bill! (a couple we met didn’t realize that they are legal tender in the US, you just don’t see them much) But apparently they often don’t accept them at stores/food stalls in Cambodia (though they are more than willing to include them in your change).
North East Cambodia – Kratie & Banlung
– The red dirt/soil up here is amazing (much like Cuba), but it can be quite awful when it’s all dust
– In Kratie, just a couple of minutes up the road from the Irrawaddy dolphins was this amazing place with boardwalks, thatch roofs & hammocks everywhere over these small rapids (whish I could spend every weekend there forever…). There were some kids doing flips and posing for pictures after we went onto a sandbar past where the people use the toilet, pretty impressive acrobatics.
– All the kids in the northeast are really cute when you ask if you can take their pictures (they never ask for anything, candy or money, unlike all the other touristy places we go), and they are always very excited to see themselves in the picture.
– In the north especially, but really most places in Cambodia, the locals are all wearing soccer/football jerseys (literally half of all people, mostly young to middle age men and women, the older ladies all wear PJ’s).
Siem Reap & Angkor Park
– “Siem Reap is a tourist town that I like.” – Julie remark at the market
– The city is completely transformed at night, with ten times more people out and about (having all just left a long day at the temples).
– Was fun to go to Angkor Wat at sunset (instead of that hill where everybody else goes) and be slowly chased out by the guards at closing (like 20 other people doing this too). Was actually able to get a couple of photos of the temple with a few, if any people, ruining the view.
– Waking up in the morning and leaving the hostel by 5 and arriving at 6 at Bayon, all alone, was super frigging awesome! Walking around, losing your bearings, all dark, mysterious faces on the stones, etc…. We did the same thing at Ta Prohm the next day and it was equally as awesome, but two British girls beat us by half an hour (but they hadn’t entered yet because it was still too dark to see anything).
– It was so amazing climbing over the boulders and stones at the fallen temples (especially Ta Nei, Ta Prohm, Beng Mealea, etc.). Though it was awkward to be “contributing” to the slow destruction of the temples… but everybody else was way worse, and I was always very careful never to step on any of the carved stones.
– The temple being restored by the Chinese (every temple has different countries helping to restore them in their own unique ways: France, India, Japan, Germany, etc.) looks disappointingly fake, with new stones of different colors everywhere.
– Our guidebook ($10 in Phnom Penh with a week to read it vs. $5-8 in the Temple park) is obviously a rip-off used there for the last 15 years, but also awesome. I would read it twice before we visited a temple (so I could walk around a take pictures of the stuff I had learned about), while Julie studied it and used it as a guide at the temples (though sometimes it was quite hilariously out of date).
– Saw a gutter punk looking white guy without shoes on at least three occasions throughout the day… I dunno… I guess its relatively clean, but still, how does one climb over all those sharp rocks and steps?
– Its really interesting to see the legacy of when the region changed between the religions (Hinduism, two types of Buddhism). Lots of whole Buddhas scraped off walls, same with some of the faces of Hindu gods. Looked way different from the general looting that has taken place (& it’s vast).
Koh Ta Kiev
– Various thoughts while sitting on beach/patio: It’s so cool here with all the little beaches where you are alone and feel like you have the whole island to yourself. Perfect setup they have here at Coral Beach, right before the rocks start, and after all the other bungalows and day trippers, with 3/4 nice little beaches.
– What I’ve “accomplished” since I’ve been here (on the island): sewed on all of the flag patches I had, made a piece of “art” – an intense dream catcher thingy with stuff found on the beach, started working on my journal again, and learned a couple of new fun games.
– One of my favorite things to do on a vacation (or in life really): have a nice breakfast, with coffee, sitting on a small dock over the clear blue water with an amazing view of the gently lapping waves of the bay…
– Perfect situation #10 (I don’t remember all, they just happen…): sitting on the tree house level platform with the sun going down, with a group of people playing music and singing on the beach below (some of them had great voices).
– Different times at the Absinthe Distillery: First Night – with staff , had the green one, kittens playing all around me, guy (owner?) asleep in corner. Second Time – with Chilean couple, show up right as they are closing, kittens asleep, guy asleep in corner, tried the strongest one. Third Time – no drink, changed camera battery, guy asleep in corner.
– Funny moment when a group of Italian girls from Florence and Rome were arguing about who’s city had the greatest culture/legacy.
– Pretty sad when we had to leave the island. I had an amazing time doing nothing, but would not have made it much longer there… tummy issues, wanted a hot shower (had only washed with soap maybe two times), no more sand…
– … only to be stuck at a shithole place for two terrible nights with termite noises, Rat poo, and the giant accompanying Rat (who moved rocks and wasn’t afraid of us at all!).
Otres Beach One
– I imagine this to be what Phu Quoc (Vietnam) was like 5/10 years ago. But here there are more shacks (“bungalows”), a flat red dirt road, and a bunch of empty beach chairs.
– Said “Aokun” (Thank you) for the first time in a week (was a little weird how it was like a western peoples utopia on the island). I was also odd looking at some of these beach places (bar/restaurant/hostel things) where it looks like 5-10 western kids (“employees”) were doing nothing , one “working” at the bar while all the others took up all the bar chairs, while the one Khmer guy or girl does all the actual work.
– Ladies and Girls selling trinkets in Cambodia (at least the southern part) be like: “If you don’t buy now, you promise, if you buy later, you buy from me? Pinkie promise?”
Our trip from Sihanoukville, Cambodia into Thailand went pretty much how we predicted. Chaos and scams. We have yet to do a land crossing that hasn’t been ridiculous, so we were prepared. We took a tuk-tuk from the beach to the bus office, where we almost forgot our food bag (and discovered the rat from our previous accommodation had nibbled through it). Luckily, I spotted it out the window of the bus before we left. This is an important bag. The places the buses let you out for breaks tend to be over-priced and often not very clean. We always have snacks.
We had booked the bus to Koh Kong (on the Cambodia side of the border), but were actually able to take it all the way to the border, about 10 minutes further away. This saved us a couple of dollars and was much more convenient than finding a tuk-tuk (who will over-charge because they are the only other option). Having reached the border, we disembarked with all the other passengers, grabbed our bags and walked through the scorching sun to the departures and arrival building. This is where we encountered probably the biggest scam of our trip. The line for departures was only about 20 people deep when we arrived. So we stood in the sun and waited. And waited. And waited. The line barely moved. And this is why: There are a bunch of Cambodian guys who offer to take your passport for as much as $7 each and get the exit stamp for you. They are not official workers, just guys in polos and jeans. But what they can do, which we could not, is cut to the front of the line and pay off the guys behind the counter to stamp the passport faster. This just makes it even slower for the rest of us. Another reason the legitimate line is slow: they take your fingerprints. I’d like to point out here that they don’t take your fingerprints when you enter the country and Thailand doesn’t either across the border. And I have NEVER been finger-printed in my entire life. So what are they going to do with my fingerprints? Absolutely nothing. I purposefully put my fingers a bit sideways so they couldn’t have my full print. So there Cambodia. AND, the people who paid the $7 to expedite the stamp, they weren’t finger-printed either. After an hour of waiting, we finally got our stamp and were able to exit the country. And by that I mean, walk 100 meters down a dirt road to the Thailand arrivals counter, where it took less than 10 minutes to enter the country. No questions asked. Literally, none.
After all that, we were pleasantly surprised by our awaiting transport. We hopped in a spacious and air-conditioned minibus for the hour trip to Trat, where we planned to stay two nights before continuing onto Bangkok.
Trat is a jumping off point for some Thai islands, but it appears its glory days have ended. It used to get a lot more tourists, who had to stay over in Trat before continuing on after their trips to the islands. With more bus and boat options, you no longer have to spend so much time there and it appears not too many people do. We were only there to break up the 12 hour bus ride to Bangkok. It is a cool place though, small streets and many old buildings.
We spent that afternoon wandering around the city. They have an interesting short walkway along the water, complete with fire hose stations. The next day we went to the Trat Museum, which had loads of English signs, but not another soul besides us and the ticket lady. We also saw a wat or two. With decent wifi, we did a lot of research and caught up on blogging that night.
The next morning we took the bus to Bangkok. We stayed at the same place we have stayed at the past few times we were there. This was our fourth trip to Bangkok and were only coming to catch a cheap flight to Myanmar. We spent one day wandering around Chinatown, which was in full swing as this was just before their New Year.
That evening, Riki ordered the sauteed morning glory at one of our favorite cheap places. Unfortunately, his morning glory also came with two small pink worm-like bugs. When we showed the waitress, she squealed and jumped back. Good to know this is not a normal thing. She took 10 baht off our bill, a bargain, as lots of people actually pay to eat bugs in Bangkok.
Our last day in Bangkok we had an appointment to get our teeth cleaned (~$35 each), bought some more malaria medicine, did a little shopping and discovered our hotel had just built a pool. Score!
I almost forget we even went to Battambang, as I am about two weeks behind with my blogging. I have an excuse though. We had no wifi for an entire week.
Our trip from Siem Reap to Battambang, the second most populous city in Cambodia took about 4 hours. It was relatively uneventful, except for when we stopped halfway through for a break, got off the bus with everyone else and the bus drove off. It took quite awhile to return and we were a bit worried for our bags. Scams are notorious in Cambodia and you never really know what is normal or if you are being conned. Eventually the bus returned, our bags were intact and we continued on our way.
While having a late lunch in Battambang, we ran into a Dutch/English couple who invited us to join them the following day for a tuk-tuk tour of some the sites around town. Turns out we had spoken in Siem Reap about e-bikes a few days before, but neither of us could place why we looked familiar until later.
Battambang has some French colonial architecture, a bit reminiscent of New Orleans. Low buildings and small streets along the river are semi-filled with shops, restaurants and hotels. Many were shuttered and we couldn’t tell if they were just closed or empty. There is not a whole lot to do, but we met up for our tuk-tuk tour the next afternoon ready for anything.
And I was pleasantly surprised. Our first stop was a bamboo train, which I had read was overrated, touristy and a waste of time. You have to take what you read online with a grain of salt. Usually the people who review either love or hate something, not so much in between. I review almost everything we do, whether good, bad or just ok. I really liked the train. It is expensive ($5 each) and weird and at the end they drop you off for 20-30 minutes and you are bombarded by young girls selling bracelets. But along the way, you bounce around on bamboo slats through some decent scenery. And when you meet someone coming the other way, you have a bit of a chicken fight. There were four of us, so we won a few, as it seems the larger groups get to continue. The others have to remove the bamboo platform and the two axles with wheels and reassemble when the other train passes. The wheels are fueled by a small, noisy motor at the back of the platform. It was fun. And at the end, before we turned around to go back to the start, while Riki was off taking pictures, I befriended some small girls, despite not buying any of their bracelets.
Our next stop was Phnom Sampeu and the killing cave. We declined the offer of a moto ride to the top and walked up the steep road instead. The cave is where the Khmer Rouge threw people over the edge to a mass grave after bludgeoning them to death. There is a small shrine of skulls and bones, but not much info otherwise. There is also a monastery up there too, which has a nice breeze and a good view of the surrounding flat area.
At the base of Phnom Sampeu is a tall non-descript cave. Easily missed most of the day, but just before sunset, millions of bats swarm out of the cave into the air. We sat around with a bunch of other tourists and waited for this spectacle. And we were not disappointed (except for maybe being peed on a number of times from above). The bats (perhaps a million or more we were told) streamed out of the cave in a thick line of black spots overhead. They swerved left and right and became a unified beast. After about 10 minutes of watching them emerge, our tuk-tuk driver took us to an open area where we could see much further and how they fly in unison and create a long ribbon over the skyline. It was awesome.
The next day we got on yet another bus, headed for the coast. But with a transfer in Phnom Penh (6 hours) where we had been assured that we would be dropped at a place where we could buy another ticket on another bus with the same company. Not the case. But we were only a bit surprised. So after some confusing hand-gesturing conversations, we managed to get a tuk-tuk to take us to the bus office, but not before trying to drop us at a closer office of a different company (one we had heard terrible things about). Luckily, there were seats on the next bus and we only had to wait an hour before the next bus left.
Another six hours later, we arrived in Sihanoukville. We had arranged to stay on an island half an hour away by boat, but could not go until the next morning. So we holed up in a decent looking hotel for the night, bought some supplies and did some last minute emails before going off grid.
Ko Ta Kiev is not the most popular island to visit out of Sihanoukville. And that is why we went. Ko Rong is more of a party place, way over-priced and not the kind of beach time we desired. We booked four nights at Coral Beach on Ko Ta Kiev, but liked it so much, we stayed for seven. There is no power on the island, only a generator to power a few lights in the evening. And no wifi. Hence, I am way behind on the blogging.
We spent the next week reading whatever English books I could find, lounging in hammocks, swimming in the flat clear water, and playing cards. There is a bamboo platform, not unlike the train that you can pull out into the water and jump into deeper, equally clear water. That and playing frisbee were the extent of our exercise for the week. And a few walks to meet up with the same couple from Battambang who had followed us to the island and to the absinthe distillery where they had three cuddly kittens.
We ate amazing fresh food, sometimes never leaving our little beach all day. Our bungalow was $20 a night, had no power, was enclosed on three sides and faced the water. Oh, and we had a huge round bed. I have seen numerous mattresses carried around on motorbikes and trucks here. None have been round. Where they got these is a mystery. Custom sheets no doubt. We loved it, despite the cold bucket shower and the sand in everything. We even had a night visitor, but a good one. One of the young cats slept by my pillow outside the mosquito net a few nights. Riki didn’t even mind, a few sniffles to keep away any other unwanted guests is a small price to pay.
We had $21 cash left and we realized we had to leave. It was tough, but we went back to the mainland to hang out for a few more days of beach time before our visas ran out.
Unfortunately, the guesthouses in Otres were pretty booked up and we settled on a place on the beach for $12, which turned out to be infested with rats, roaches and termites. The worst place we have stayed on our whole trip. Luckily, we found a great pizza place and moved to another guesthouse down the road.
We ate pizza every night and even caught their quiz night. Proudly, I must say, we won two rounds (of the small groups), and thus two rounds of beer. We stayed longer in Otres than we thought, but were able to correct Riki’s Myanmar visa (as he had been classified as female) and research a lot for our next leg.
I managed to get my first sunburn on our last day, despite being in the shade all day. Must have been the glare off the water. We packed up and prepared for our border crossing to Thailand on the very last day of our Cambodian visa.
We left Banlung in a standard minibus, cramped and speeding down the road, in hopes of meeting our connection in Stung Trang, which should have been waiting on the side of the road for us. Well it wasn’t waiting, but it showed up a few minutes after we pulled over at a deserted intersection. We switched to the empty minibus, expecting the worst, to be put in a packed vehicle for the next 6-8 hours. But we were wrong and the rest of our trip to Siem Reap involved only 5 other people and few stops. Riki was even able to lie down in the back seat and nap. A far cry from our normal bus trips. We even arrived after only 5 hours.
We checked into our guesthouse, a recommendation from an American from Kansas we met at the crater lake in Banlung. A steal at $7 a night, but pretty much deserted as far as we could tell. That night we walked to the central market and tried to get our bearings. We had heard so many different opinions about what to do here and the order to do it in that we were a bit overwhelmed and hoped to meet some people who could offer more insight. We were delighted to find 50 cent draft beers and an American/Swiss couple who had done a quick one day tour of the temples, a bit too speedy for our liking.
The next day, we wandered Siem Reap and bought provisions for the upcoming marathon of temple-viewing. We had heard food near the temples was expensive and it was best to bring your own. Fortunately, we found a bakery and a giant grocery store (not a common sight here). Riki was even able to stock up on Goldfish, and if you know Riki, that is heaven on earth for him.
There are a few options for tickets to see the temples. You can get a one day ($20), three day ($40), or seven day pass (all of which involve getting your picture taken and printed on a paper card). They also all allow you to buy the day before, at 5 pm and enter for free to see the sunset, not counting as one of your days. We hired a tuk-tuk and for an astronomical $7 he agreed to take us to pick up our tickets, watch the sunset at Angkor Wat and bring us back. Angkor Wat is not highly frequented for its sunsets. Most people go there for the sunrise, as you can get a good silhouette as the sun rises behind the temples. So when we arrived at Angkor Wat, the tuk-tuk driver was a little confused why we wanted to stay there the whole time and not continue on to the hill where most people watch the sunset. But this turned out to be the first of a long list of good decisions we made this week. There were not very many people and the crowd thinned rapidly as the tour groups were ushered to the sunset hill. We were too late to climb the tower, but we wandered through the massive complex until we were forced to leave because it was closing. Dilly-dallying the whole way, we managed to be some of the last few to leave and Riki was able to snap some shots with little to no people in them (a rare thing we discovered).
The next morning at 5 am, we took our rented bikes ($2 each) and rode about 40 minutes into the park. It was pretty chilly and very dark, though the bikes had lights that were supposed to turn on when you started going fast enough. Riki’s worked and mine worked occassionally if you kicked it hard enough or went over the right kind of bump. Though commonly just called Angkor, the archaeological park is home to many many temples, some huge, most not. The Khmer kings a thousand plus years ago would each build a new capital, but not that far from the old ones. The temple part was the only part built of stone. The surrounding city was built of wood and thus did not stand the test of time. Consequently, the remaining stone temples are a bit spread out, with lots of walls, gates and towers remaining. It is possible to reach some on bikes comfortably, but the rest are a bit far and require a tuk-tuk, private car, or as we discovered, an e-bike.
The first temple we reached was Bayon, about 45 minutes before sunrise. The place was deserted and we clamored with our flashlights into the maze of stone. We had counted on being alone and only saw a quiet couple appear just as the sun was rising over the many giant stone faces of Bayon. The sun slowly changed the faces from purple to orange as it rose higher in the sky.
Like many of the temples we were to encounter, this one had never been fully completed. For almost an hour I followed the guide we had bought and read about the incredible bas-reliefs depicted in every corner of the temple. Incredible chiseled images of war and day-to-day life lined the walls, some twenty feet tall. And then, just as other people started showing up, having already seen the sun rise at Angkor, I was studying a particularly gruesome image of people being eaten by alligators and a tiger engulfing a man and engorging his claws into his stomach, I was startled by a movement to my right. An agile monkey (as if they aren’t all agile) scampered up the wall and sat right above the scene I was studying.
And there were a lot more, coincidentally arriving just as the tour buses arrived from Angkor Wat. And that was our cue to move on. This was our second good decision. The temple complexes have become even more popular, with so many tourists that it can be overwhelming, especially when visiting a place that was meant to be pretty serene. Our itinerary became based on avoiding the crowds as much as possible, something I highly advise to future visitors.
Our second stop was Baphoun, just north of Bayon. It is a largely restored 11th century pyramid with a 16th century giant reclining Buddha at its west wall. Apparently, the very top tower was dismantled to make this Buddha, as they couldn’t find any of the top pieces when it was being restored. Many of the temples have been restored in the past hundred years or so when a French group re-discovered the area and started putting resources together to reassemble the temples. Some temples have been left largely in their dilapidated conditions, either because of lack of funds or just to show the state they were discovered in.
The tour groups started showing up and we high-tailed it a little further north to the Terrace of the Leper King. This 20 foot tall terrace flanked the entrance to a Royal Palace and had two sets of carved walls, one inner and one outer. I overheard a guide tell his group it was because they wanted to expand the terrace, so they just built another wall further out and filled in the gap. It was later excavated so you can walk between the two walls and see both sets of carvings.
We decided not to hire a guide for any of our three days and bought a book ahead of time to read up and be our own guides (see pic above). This didn’t keep me from following around the English speaking guides I came across though. I love the elephants with the supporting tusks and the five-headed horse. The Terrace of the Elephants, flanking the other side of the entrance, surprisingly had less awesome elephant carvings than that of the Leper King terrace.
Next stop, Preah Pithu Group, oddly named Temples T, U, V, X and Y. These were a bit off the main route, almost deserted and really cool. I don’t think much is known about them, otherwise they would have better names.
We continued east, to guess what, the East Gate, or Victory Gate. Here, we got off our bikes and walked them up the dirt wall to the path at the top, where we rode south to the next gate, the Gate of the Dead. Apparently, if you came back from fighting your enemies and had won, you could come through the Victory Gate. If you had lost, you had to hang your head and come through the Gate of the Dead. Both were pretty incredible and remarkably similar for having such different purposes, in my opinion.
Just outside the gates of Angkor Thom (which houses the aforementioned temples), we stopped briefly at two temples that have undergone extensive reconstruction. Thommanom was redone in the 1960’s and has interesting concrete ceilings.
Ta Keo is being re-done by a Chinese organization. We didn’t even climb up this one. The reconstruction had too much smooth concrete, which made it unappealing to us.
This next one was my favorite temple of the day, though second favorite experience (after the sunrise at Bayon). North of Ta Keo along a sandy overgrown path is Ta Nei. It is not on the main route and is largely in its natural decay. The central area is cluttered with piles of stones and the outside is not much different. We sat and ate our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and encountered a guy and his guide looking for a lost brown wallet, no luck unfortunately. Probably one of the worst temples to lose something that would just blend right in or get stuck between the rubble.
Ta Prohm is known for being the place that Tombraider was filmed and it is HUGE. We arrived and immediately encountered dozens of tour groups. Having looked forward to this one because of its overgrowth and protruding trees, I gave it my best shot and sped for the far side, hoping it would be less crowded. It wasn’t and I made an executive decision that we would have to come back the next day before the crowds arrived. At this point, I had lost Riki (very easy when he is off photographing things). I headed for our meeting point and sketched until he came to the same realization as I had and returned, overwhelmed by all the people getting in the way of his pictures. Third good decision.
Right down the road is Banteay Kdei. There were far fewer people, lots of lichen and is much smaller. A good one to end on as the view from across the road is nice out over the Srah Srang – a huge royal bath.
We returned almost 12 hours after we had left, exhausted and not sunburned. We took the next day off to do some shopping and catch up on some blogging. We also did some more research on the temples and rented e-bikes ($10/day), which are essentially electronic scooters with pedals that you aren’t supposed to use because it wastes more battery. Seemed backwards to me, but it was cheaper and less hassle than having a tuk-tuk driver hurrying us along all day. Fourth good decision.
We arrived in Kratie in northeast Cambodia after an uneventful 6 hour bus journey from Phnom Penh. It is a tiny town, but is the capital of the province. There is really not much happening here, but its a good stop over for our next destination, and they have freshwater dolphins nearby!
We checked into a cool hotel, housed in two old raised wooden structures with mosquito nets and unfortunately, an incredibly confused rooster. If it weren’t for the rooster crowing as often as every 10 seconds (I timed him) from before 4 am until 6 pm, this place would be charming. Ear plugs did little to drown him out and I even downloaded a noise making app just so I could sleep.
Our first day we took the ferry across to a small island in the Mekong River. Ferry means creaky old wooden boat with a small awning and a very loud motor. It drops you and the 10 or so other people it can fit at the edge of a long sand bank. In the wet season, I imagine this is completely gone and the boat can go much closer to shore.
The island of Koh Trong, which is little more than a sandbar, doesn’t have electricity, except for what is provided by generators. There is a 9 km loop around the island that you can bike or walk, dotted with wood stilt houses. The interior of the island is mostly farmland. It is an incredible contrast to just over the water in the town. We opted to walk and spent the next few hours meandering along waving at the small children who were more than excited to yell ‘Hello’ at us. While waiting for the ferry back to Kratie, we ran into a French couple from our bus. We taught them a new card game and agreed to meet up later for dinner. We only know a few card games and unfortunately, I tend to lose.
The next day, we rented a motorbike and drove about 20 km to the north. We stopped at a place where people have built wooden structures over the water for lounging and swimming in the rapids. For about 25 cents, you can enter, walk across, hang out in a hammock and picnic. We were intrigued and paid just to go in and see what was going on. It was Saturday, so there were lots of locals and naked kids jumping in and out of the rushing water. We walked to the end and onto a sandbar, where some local boys were delighted to let Riki photograph them doing somersaults and flips into the sand and water. The structures must be temporary, as the water rises a lot in the wet season and they were only a few feet above the water. A lot of work to do just to have it destroyed come rainy season.
After, we went south 1 km to the location of the Irrawaddy dolphins. We paid the $9 per person (very steep) to get a boat for one hour on the water. With potentially as few as 20 dolphins left in this area, we were skeptical that we would see any. But our 3 pm arrival seemed perfect. A tour group was leaving and before we even got in the boat we heard and saw a dolphin surface to breathe. The dolphins stay in this area of the river because it is protected from the current and pretty calm. We spent the next hour craning our necks back and forth as we heard them exhale before we turned to see them. Just as we were leaving, it seemed to be feeding time and we were able to watch a few dolphins skim the surface chasing small fish. To say it was magical sounds corny, but it was pretty awesome.
Our last stop in the way back to town was Phnom Sambok, a small hill with a monastery on top and a decent view of the Mekong River. As we pulled in, we were greeted by a curious monkey who was in the middle of licking and inspecting some push bikes at the base of the stairs. He wasn’t too keen to be interrupted.
On the way back to Kratie, we pulled over and bought grilled bamboo shoots stuffed with sticky rice and a few sweet beans, which this small village is known for. It is eaten at all times of day as a snack. We took ours back to devour in town along the river.
There are not as many travelers further from the main cities, and this was very apparent on our next leg, as we had to take a much smaller bus to get further northeast. It took us two hours to actually leave Kratie, as we drove around picking people up, stopping to get gas, returning to the bus station and then ultimately tying two motorbikes on the back of our little minibus. In true Cambodian fashion, we packed 20+ people in and were off. Eight hours later, we arrived at another small capital town, Banlung.
We met up with the same French couple from Kratie, played more cards and planned our next few days. Many people go for 2-3 day treks here, but as Riki wasn’t feeling well, we opted to stay in town and do day trips at our own pace. Our first spot involved a long walk through the outskirts of the city to a lake, presumably a crater as it is almost perfectly round. We could have walked along the main road, which was busy and boring, but one of our maps had a dashed path connecting the town and the entrance to the lake. It took us through a small village next to the town and then out into fields of dried crops. Somewhere in the midst of these fields, someone had decided to start a small fire, a pretty standard practice here. People burn everything, everyday. Paper, food scraps, plastic, everything. It makes for a odorous evening, when small fires burn all along the roads. They also burn the undergrowth and you can frequently see black ash-laden ground under fruit trees and along fences. Well this fire had gotten way out of control. There were two fire trucks on the scene when we walked up and numerous bystanders. They were nice enough to let us up on the truck to get a better look, as there was nothing they could really do. Fields and fields of dried plants were crackling away. One family was hosing down around their house in hopes that it wouldn’t burn that close. There is not a lot of water to spare either. People have cisterns of water if they are lucky, which are refilled only when possible. It is the dry season after all.
We continued along the very dusty road/trail to the lake, where we took a quick dip as the sun had hidden behind some clouds and it was a bit cool. We walked back the same way a few hours later. The fire was pretty much smoldering, except for a few parts and it had come quite close to the family’s home. Seems very obvious to me how to prevent this from happening.
Our last day, we rented a pink motorbike and visited three of the nearby waterfalls. The way to the falls is scenic and passes through some outlying villages of Banlung. Everything within 10 meters of the road is covered in a thin layer of rich red-brown dirt – plants, roofs, goods for sale, everything. By the time we reached the first waterfall, my exposed ankles were a similar color, not that much different from the smooth brown skin of the locals. There was a wobbly cable bridge to reach the swimming area and we watched as some monks de-robed and played in the water. The water was pretty cold so we just stick our hands in and tried to scrub the dirt from our skin. But to no avail, as 3 days later, I still have a lingering “sock tan.”
We booked a 6 hour journey with our guesthouse to Siem Reap, involving a transfer where another minibus “will be waiting at the side of the road for you.” An ominous sentence, so we prepare with extra snacks and the Allegiant book-on-tape.
1. Check out our new poll on the sidebar – where should we go next? (full site view only)
2. If you don’t know much about Cambodia’s recent history, read up. It’s been a rough half-century for these people.
Leaving Phu Quoc, Vietnam for Phnom Penh was probably our most confusing day of travel yet. We knew it was going to be rough going in and we had downloaded Insurgent to listen to on the way, so we thought we were prepared. But alas, we weren’t. We boarded a jam packed minibus to get to the ferry, which turned out to be an older one (not the nice Superdong we took over). Our bags were put on the open top deck, too close to the spray from the fast boat in my opinion. An hour and half later we were picked up at the ferry station in Ha Tien by a very nice minibus, large and clean. Thought that was a good sign. Wasn’t. We were shuttled to a travel agency with a bunch of other Westerners, where we were told to give over our passports, $35 and our yellow international health books to get our visas. I’m pretty sure the visa fee is only $30, but the lady would not budge and then insisted we would have to pay an extra $1 if we didn’t give the yellow health books. I’d like to point out that the only thing in my yellow book is a yellow fever shot I got 7 years ago. Its not going to tell the Cambodians much, if anything. So we did all this and were told to wait an hour. Meanwhile, we ate lunch and waited 2 hours before being put into a different, not as nice minibus with 8 other people to go to the border, without our passports. At the border, we were kicked out of the minibus without our bags and told to walk. To where, we didn’t know. We went through one building, right around the metal detectors and out again. No one stopped us until we reached an open hut, where they actually had our passports and proceeded to distribute them to our growing group of confused tourists. Then we were beckoned back to our minibus, which had gone through a different route. We were told to grab our bags and switch to a different minibus, that some other tourists had come across on. We settled in, only 10 of us, half going to Phnom Penh. Its comforting when you have other people in the same boat. But that sentiment didn’t last, as we went about 3 minutes down the road, past the brand new casino, and turned around. The driver got out and beckoned for Riki and I to exit the bus (not the other 4 people going to the same place). We were loaded onto another minibus, empty, except for the 30 or so flies swarming around. Then we just sat there. With the flies in the heat, no English explanation. Eventually, a bunch of Cambodians boarded the bus and off we went. From there we did the normal thing, load as much stuff and people as you can possibly cram into the bus and go hurtling down the road, at top speed, only to stop abruptly when someone waves you down. We eventually arrived in Phnom Penh, got dropped off in the middle of nowhere, except conveniently next to the bus driver’s friend, a tuk tuk driver. We paid an exorbitant price to a different tuk tuk who didn’t know where he was going and arrived 30 minutes later at our hostel. So long story short – 5 minibuses, 1 ferry, 1 lost tuk tuk and almost 10 hours later, and we were hungry. Walking around that evening, we ran into one of the other couples from our original minibus in Vietnam. Turns out, after they dropped us off, they stopped on the side of the road for no apparent reason and waited as well, arriving about the same time as us, but with about 10 less people in their minibus and not left in the middle of nowhere.
Phnom Penh is the capital and largest city of Cambodia. It has about 2 million of Cambodia’s almost 15 million people. But there isn’t much to do as a tourist. We walked to the waterfront and then up to the S-21 genocide museum.
Ever wondered how to dry meat? All you need is a chair and a laundry basket, and a little sun. And maybe some flies.
In the 1970’s Cambodia had a leader, Pol Pot, who thought education was bad (despite going to universities in France). He uprooted everyone from the cities and forced them to walk to rural areas and work the land. So Phnom Penh became pretty deserted. At one of the old high schools, a prison was created. Pol Pot sent people perceived as political enemies here, some just for being educated. Some for being “lazy.” The people here, men, women and children, were detained and tortured until they confessed. Most who confessed, confessed to made up things, like working for the KGB or the CIA or to wasting too much fabric in their tailoring shop. The museum is housed in the school buildings and has an incredible exhibit on what happened here. There are thousands of mug shots of prisoners displayed, as well as the “confessions” they made. Once the prisoners confessed, they were killed, either from the torture or when taken to the killing fields nearby. Only something like 12 people survived this prison. Guards were also killed, for leaning on the walls while on duty. In total, it is estimated that about 2 million people died while the Khmer Rouge were in power. Half from executions and half from disease or starvation.
They also had a video at the museum of an artist who survived, interviewing some of the guards who had worked there. The guards were mostly teenagers at the time and had been told the prisoners were terrible enemies. So that was a pretty somber visit.
After, we walked to the Russian Market, which has nothing to do with Russia anymore. Then we went back to our hostel and had pizza for the first time since Nepal.
Our last day, we did a walking architecture self-tour. It was a bit tough, as there weren’t any addresses on our guide and some of the buildings had been torn down. But we found a book store and bought a book on Angkor Wat to prepare for next week. We also went to the National Museum, which was mostly ancient sculptures that have been recovered from all over the world after being bought or looted from their original homes.
The next day, we boarded a real bus, – big, with only one person per seat and made it in a record 6 hours to Kratie, north and east of Phnom Penh.