Archive for April, 2008

Apr 28 2008

Homeward Bound

Published by under Travel

It’s almost over. Sigh.

We reluctantly left our beach paradise, boarded our very last overnight bus, and arrived in Bangkok (for the third time) this morning. Today, we’ve done some last minute shopping, indulged in our favorite Thai street foods, and kept each other from flipping out as best we can. Early tomorrow morning, we’re boarding a flight that will take us to Tokyo. Then one to San Francisco. Then New York. Then Richmond. Four flights. Thirty-six hours. Yeah, it’s really going to suck.

I am giddy to be returning home. We absolutely cannot wait to see our friends and families. I’ve realized during this trip just how lucky I am to have such wonderful people at home TO miss. Thankfully, we’ll have many opportunities over the coming weeks to see everyone — weddings, graduations, birthdays… First up (as in NEXT weekend!), I’m honored to be a bridesmaid in the wedding of my dear friend/former college roommate, Allison, to Evan, who’s a pretty cool dude even though he went to Virginia Tech. I can’t believe we’re all grown up and getting married. Long gone are the days when I’d overhear Allison, alone in her room, making fart noises with her hands and laughing to herself.

Do you know what else I’m doing at home? I’m going to get in MY car and DRIVE it. I’m going to turn on the radio and be able to understand what they’re saying. And if I want to call someone? I WILL. I’ll reach into my bag, pull out my cell phone, and call them. Playing this scene in my head right now is blowing my mind.

On the other hand, I am desperately sad the trip is over. So much so that it makes me feel sick to my stomach whenever I think about it. I’m terrified that I’ll never be able to do anything like this again, and that I’ll forget all the things I came to learn were important to me over the course of these eight months. Mostly, I’m just going to miss waking up every morning with no idea what the day will bring.

Because we’re not ready to let go of our trip JUST YET, we’re going to continue posting from home in sort of a “Tales We Never Told” series. We also have many videos we never uploaded. So, stay tuned!

We’ll see you in Virginia…

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Apr 26 2008

Finding our perfect Thai beach

Published by under Ko Pha-Ngan,Thailand

Finding your perfect Thai beach is a balancing act. Tip too far in one direction, end up in a place indistinguishable from Myrtle Beach save for the fact that two-thirds of the bars are named Same Same But Different. Too far in the other direction, and you’re acquiring dengue fever five to seven times per night in a poorly patched tent next to a castaway who insists his name is Marley.

Hat Thong Nai Pan Yai, Ko Pha-Ngan, ThailandOur shared vision of the perfect Thai beach fell, if you can believe it, somewhere in between. We wanted to spend the final days of our trip reflecting (read: napping) on a quiet beach, with plenty of space to ourselves. Unfortunately, we also have a common addiction which must be fed, and we call that the internet. For reasons unknowable to man, geographic isolation and internet connectivity tend toward mutual exclusivity. The sad truth is that if “Marley” could connect us to WI-FI, we’d probably hunker right down between the mosquitoes and his blacklight on whatever deserted island he’s currently annoying.

But he can’t. So on one of our last evenings at Railay Beach, we spread out the maps and guidebooks, and tried to locate our perfect Thai beach over a couple of coconut shakes. I was reading up on all the islands with names that seemed hardest to pronounce, figuring other tourists might be too self-conscious to try to buy boat tickets there, when Brittany suggested Ko Pha-Ngan.

My first reaction was to laugh. Ko Pha-Ngan is home to the monthly Full Moon Party, a world-famous all-night rave that attracts up to 20,000 people at a time. When I envisioned peace and quiet, Ko Pha-Ngan was the last place that came to mind. But Brittany put the map in my face, and I began to see what she was getting at.

The Full Moon Party is limited to the SE beach of Hat Rin. On the northern side of the island, our map showed another beach, and this one accessible only by boat. This “Bottle Beach” looked to be separated from the rest of the island by impassable jungle, making it a promising candidate for virtual isolation. But at the same time, its location on the developed island of Ko Pha-Ngan meant it was likely to have our highly coveted internet access. Could it be that our perfect Thai beach lay right in the belly of the beast? We decided to find out.

Getting from Railay to Ko Pha-Ngan was an all-day pain in the butt. By the time we landed on our new island, it was 10:00pm, and we quickly learned at the port that no boats would run to Bottle Beach this late at night. In the interest of getting to Bottle as soon as possible, we hired a taxi driver to take us to the north side of the island and drop us off where we’d be able to catch the first boat in the morning. We found a $6 bungalow, and went to sleep.

The next morning, we dragged our bags down to the waterfront, and bought passage on the first longboat heading around the island perimeter to Bottle Beach. Twenty minutes later, we approached the shore and immediately saw that Bottle fit our vision of near-isolation. The beach was only half a kilometer long, and I could see just two people on it, reading books together on a bamboo mat in the sand. Luggage held high, we waded ashore, and immediately split up to do our typical accommodation reconnaissance.

When we reconvened thirty minutes later, we had both made the same chilling discovery: while bungalows here were quiet AND affordable, each one of the limited internet access points was charging 5 baht per minute. That adds up to $10 per hour, a rate eclipsing anything we’d seen from even the most opportunistic French cafes. And as if anything in the world could possibly be worse, dining options were limited to about three hotel restaurants, all of which apparently chose to make up for their affordable room rates with astronomically expensive food prices. We’ve never been a slave to restaurant prices thanks to our stubborn insistence on buying as much food as possible in local supermarkets, but we were blindsided by Bottle Beach’s cunning when we made another revelation: there IS no supermarket.

“Well, that’s it then,” I concluded. “We’re not staying here.”

Brittany didn’t need convincing. The only problem was that we’d dug ourselves into something of a hole. Simply getting to and from Bottle Beach is a tricky endeavor, and getting to another island altogether would require the better part of a day. We realized that this was our likely fate, but in an effort to delay the seemingly inevitable, we decided to check out one more beach on Ko Pha-Ngan before giving up on the island altogether. So a mere two hours after arriving on Bottle Beach, we were wading our way into another longboat, and shoving off once more. This time, toward the East, and to some sort of bay that our map labeled: Ao Thong Nai Pan. I didn’t know how to pronounce it either, so I pointed east and grunted. And once again, we were off.

When our longboat turned into the bay, we saw that it contained two distinct beaches, separated by a tall rocky outcropping. I would later learn their names: Hat Thong Nai Pan Noi and Hat Thong Nai Pan Yai, and that the two beaches do function entirely independently of one another. But when the boat driver paused the engine at this moment to ask which one we wanted to go to, the only difference I could see between the two was that one looked bigger. Hoping that bigger meant more likely to have a supermarket, I unknowingly pointed to Hat Thong Nai Pan Yai, and the motor roared once more.

During the shorts-soaking walk to shore, I looked back out over the water, and noticed that the rocky outcropping between the two beaches extended farther into the water than I’d realized from a distance, effectively making this area a bay within a bay. The beach looked to be twice as long as Bottle Beach, but looking up and down the kilometer of shoreline, I could count only five people. Once more, we split up for recon. But this time, we would quickly discover that we’d happened upon exactly what we didn’t know we were looking for.

Sand: white.
Water: clear.
Internet: $4/hour (phew)
Food markets: multiple
Restaurants: competitively priced
Bungalows: beachfront. With hammocks.

Where we live. Hat Thong Nai Pan Yai, Ko Pha-Ngan, ThailandSold. And speaking of bungalows, we chose one that sits all the way at one end of the beach – the opposite end from where the boats land. Down here we found the most isolated part of the beach, and relief from any unwanted boat engine noise that might interrupt our much-anticipated hammock naps. We have an overhead fan rather than A/C, but opening our wide glass doors lets in a sea breeze that renders the idea of both extraneous. And with the end of the trip now in sight, we let ourselves indulge in some uncharacteristic high-rolling: choosing a beachfront bungalow set us back $20 a night!

Breakast at the bungalow: Hat Thong Nai Pan Yai, Ko Pha-Ngan, ThailandAs I’m writing this, we’ve been here at Hat Thong Nai Pan Yai for ten days. Of course, the original plan was to stay for only five days before moving to Ko Tao for snorkeling… but that went out the window on the first afternoon here. So what do we do all day? Absolutely nothing. We eat breakfast in plastic chairs on the sand, we read books that we check out from a hotel down the beach, we swim in the bay when we get hot, and we take walks to open-air restaurants when it gets dark. Oh, and we get visits from Mama in the afternoon.

Mama is a Thai woman who walks the length of our beach every day, with two baskets slung over her shoulder, and a wet black dog by her side. What’s inside the baskets is a daily mystery: she always has fresh mango and watermelon to sell, but she could also be carrying some chocolate cake, banana muffins, sugar donuts… the list goes on. We were reading in our hammocks the first time Mama paid us a visit, and she caught us by surprise. Someone is here to bring us donuts, chocolate, and sticky sticky mango? We were loyal customers from Day 1.

Maybe a little too loyal. At first, we just referred to this woman as “our friend” or “snack lady.” Then, around Day 4, after I had just purchased a large mango from her basket, she began to peel and cut a second one. Confused, I started to explain that I only wanted one, but she put it into my hand and said, “You buy every day. Mama give.” Since that day, whenever we hear the shout of “hello babies!” approaching from the sand, we know it’s Mama.

As luck would have it, April’s Full Moon Party fell on the 20th, right in the middle of our stay on Ko Pha-Ngan. And while we had initially recoiled at the thought of The Biggest Rave in the Universe, we would soon meet four Irish travelers with other ideas. But our Full Moon Party experience is another story.

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Apr 25 2008

Krabi: Ropes and Water Guns

Published by under Krabi,Thailand

Our only stipulation was that we didn’t want to do anything. We didn’t want to learn or visit or experience. We wanted to sit and read and write and swim and eat and relax. Where was unimportant.

Our decision to go to Krabi was kind of random: we wanted to start at a beach on the Andaman Coast, we’d heard good things from other travelers, and we knew it wasn’t as expensive or crowded as the other, more famous Thai beaches (notably Ko Phi Phi [The Beach beach] and Phuket). But we had no draw to Krabi in particular other than that we’d read somewhere that Krabi’s West Railay Beach might be the most beautiful beach in Thailand. Which, for us, was as good a reason as any to make the trip.

We’d been so caught up with our to-do list in Bangkok that we hadn’t researched what would happen when the bus dropped us off in Krabi Town at six in the morning. How do we get to Railay? I think it’s only accessible by boat? Where is the dock? We anxiously stood at the bus station in the early-morning dark, hoping someone might come up to us and give us an idea.

Luckily we weren’t the only ones milling around the bus station, and Ben eventually approached a girl rifling through brochures. Her name was Yla, she was from Germany, and (thank God), she’d been here before and knew exactly what to do. Despite the guy at the nearby tourist office claiming that there wouldn’t be a pick-up truck heading for the port for another two hours and even then it would be 200 baht per person so we should really take this taxi now for a mere 250 baht per head, Yla knew better. And she turned out to be right: a truck pulled up shortly after and, for 50 baht each, took us to the dock.

Well, not really. He took us to a random beach they called the port. There aren’t really any docks, per se, in Thailand. To board the longboat from Krabi’s “port” to Railay Beach, we had to hoist our luggage in the air and wade into the sea. Which was nothing we aren’t used to, and good, actually, as Ben hadn’t bathed in a few days.

railay at sunsetRailay is a tiny isthmus jutting out into the sea. I have no idea what an isthmus is. Anyway, limestone cliffs surround the beaches on all sides, so you can only access it by boat (which meant a welcome reprieve from all those godforsaken motorbikes). West Railay is the famous beach, and this is where the longboat dropped us off. We could immediately see why it was so appealing: soft, white sand stretches between two rocky cliffs cradling a calm, turquoise sea. But along with all that beauty comes hefty prices. Thankfully, walk five minutes across the isthmus and you reach East Railay. It’s not a good beach (no one swims there) but the accommodation and food prices are noticeably cheaper. We rented a tiny wooden bungalow on the highlands. Even though it had no air-con and no hot water, the fact that it had a flushing, western-style toilet justified the price for me.

I knew that Thailand’s southern beaches weren’t going to be a cultural experience. They are unfailingly tourist destinations, their indigenous populations having long ago been pushed aside to make way for large, farang-catering resorts. What I didn’t realize was that they also take advantage of farang pricing. For instance, a plate of pad thai whipped up on the streets of Bangkok will run you ten baht (about 30 cents). On East Railay, that same plate of pad thai will cost you 60 baht and on West Railay, it’ll cost you 90 plus baht. Granted, $3 is a fine price for an entrée, especially at a beach resort, but after knowing what it should cost, it’s hard to swallow paying anything more. After eight months of seeking out where the locals go to eat, it was a hard habit to break. The locals don’t eat here, at all, because they don’t live here. That didn’t stop us from asking every Thai person we came across—a harder concept than anticipated to convey. (“Excuse me, but where do you eat? … Yes, I know, I see that restaurant, but where do you eat… Yes, you…. No, not right now, just in general… You don’t eat? … Yes, but where? … ‘No’? What do you mean ‘no’?”)

But we’d vowed not to worry about anything during these precious last days, so we didn’t waste any time: our first afternoon in Railay found us lying on the beach, in the shade of a palm tree, fast asleep.

And that’s how exactly how we spent all of our days in Krabi. And it ruled.

Want to know something about Thailand in April? It is HOT. As in, the hottest place I’ve ever been, in my life. The moment you step outside, the heat is ON you, like a tangible presence, and every pore instantly doubles in size and starts dumping sweat.

There’s no use trying to look presentable. Make-up slides off my face like butter, my clothes are soaked, and my hair frizzes up to three times its normal size. When this happen, Ben, who I’M SURE loves me no matter WHAT I look like, says sweet things, like, “your hair looks like an animal.”

Thankfully, the ocean here feels like bath water, so when we weren’t snoring or reading on the beach, we were escaping the heat in the sea.

Krabi is famous among the backpacker crowd for one reason: rock climbing. Those limestone karsts make for some of the best outdoor rock climbing in the world, and there are climbing companies all over Railay offering equipment rentals and lessons. Ben and I hadn’t come here for this reason and hadn’t really planned on climbing. In fact, we were obstinately refusing to do anything during these last few weeks. But as I saw traveler after traveler hiking out to the cliffs in all their gear, and then scampering up rock faces like it was the easiest and most fun thing EVER, my interest piqued.

So when we ran into Yla one night in front of Gecko Bar and she invited us to go climbing with her the next morning, I said, why not? Not wanting to be shown up by a girl, Ben decided to conquer his fear of heights and tag along as well.

We met Yla and her rock-climbing instructor, Cho, at his shop, Good Day Rock Climbing, early the next morning. There, Cho fitted us with harnesses and special way-too-small shoes. We walked over to some popular beginner cliffs where Cho taught us how to belay, the special harness knot, and the terminology we’d need. Then he motioned towards the rock wall and said to Ben:

“Okay, go.”

I should establish our previous experience. Ben and I both had only been climbing once before, coincidentally together, at a large indoor gym at my brother’s sixth birthday party. So…twelve years ago, as high school freshman, and way before I ever called Ben my boyfriend. I’d invited Ben and my friend Kelly along to make being surrounded by 15 six-year-old boys bearable. Kelly, possessing a confidence I’ve never had, scrambled up the wall like it was nothing. I went next, got about half way up and, tired and afraid, opted to climb back down instead. Ben got about ten feet in the air, refused to go any further, and was hoisted down by his belayer.

So when Cho said “go” Ben looked at him, bewildered. “You mean, climb? Like, now?” he said.

“Ha ha, yes! Climb!” Cho responded.

“But… okay…”

So Ben walked over, put two hands on the wall, and pulled himself up.

climbing in KrabiWe both surprised ourselves by actually doing it, all the way to the top, not falling once, the very first time. (Although we both had trouble with the “okay, now let go!” command once we’d reached the top).

Outdoor rock climbing is very different than indoor: it’s harder, the holds aren’t smooth plastic so it can be painful to grab them, it hurts when you slip and slam into the rock, and you scrape your legs to pieces on jagged edges.

But it’s FUN. It’s really, really fun.

I’d be on the cliff, 30 feet in the air, stuck. “I can’t go further! I don’t see how!” I’d yell down to Cho.

“Yes! Yes, you can! You just need to stand on your right leg, swing around and grab hold of that rock with your left hand.”

And since his advice requires releasing what seems to be the only thing keeping you from falling, you think, there’s absolutely no way in hell I’m doing that.

But you do. Because there’s nothing else you can do. And you know what? Nothing happens. Making such a seemingly reckless decision and then being surprised by what your own body is capable of is astonishingly liberating.

I don’t think there’s a sport in the world I’m more suited for, which doesn’t say anything favorable about me: my disproportionately long arms and legs can reach seemingly out-of-reach holds, and my monkey fingers and toes are perfect for clinging.

Ben fell a time or two (he insisted on relying on his arm muscles to pull instead of his leg muscles to push, much to the consternation of Cho). But once you do fall, you realize how unexpectedly un-scary it is and his fear of heights quickly dissipated.

Ben belaying “How did you get past this point?” he’d call down to me after being stuck in the same spot for ten minutes.

“Uh, I don’t know,” I’d say, squinting up at him. “I think I put my right foot in that crevice near your arm and grabbed hold of the rock above it.”

He’d try it. “Okay, my body won’t DO that. Any other ideas, chimpanzee girl?”

We had so much fun we wanted to climb with Cho the next day as well. Unfortunately, Good Day Rock Climbing was closing for the week. Why? Songkran of course!

We knew that the Thai New Year, or Songkran Festival, was coming up because people had been telling us “happy new year!” for a week now, and most Thais had used the weekend holiday as an excuse to take off work starting Wednesday. We didn’t have to be reminded of it the next day as, the moment we stepped onto the street, a man ran up to us with a bucket of water and dumped it on our heads. “HAPPY SONGKRAN!” he shouted, gleefully, running away to claim another victim.

And that’s how the Thais celebrate their new year with the most awesome holiday tradition ever: a giant nationwide water fight.

Everyone in Thailand comes out on April 13th armed with something—buckets and scoops, hoses, water guns. We saw toddlers who could barely walk carrying water guns bigger than they were, and the toothless old women who sell us barbecued corn sprayed us with Super Soakers. We were sitting at a bar the night before and, at the stroke of midnight, the DJ came out from behind the booth and sprayed everyone on the dance floor with a water hose. At first you try to avoid it, but there’s no getting around it: you will be soaked within ten minutes of leaving your house. They take no prisoners: what you don’t want wet, you better leave at home (meaning we couldn’t really get pictures of the event). Even us tourists get in on the action. We saw an elderly British woman crouching behind a tree on the beach, wielding a water gun and mumbling, “I’m going to get those buggers once and for all!”

To add to the absurdity, everyone has white streaks all over their face, as to keep evil spirits away in the coming year, it’s best to smear talcum powder all over everyone’s cheeks.

Seriously, though, is this not the best holiday tradition you’ve ever heard of? You can run up to complete strangers on the street and soak them with water and it’s not only acceptable, it’s encouraged. Don’t tell me there’s not more than a few people you’d like to douse with water if given the opportunity.

By the way, according to the Thai calendar it’s something like 2500, so technically I am currently in the future.

As gorgeous as it is, Krabi, with its massive resorts and boats full of daytrippers, wasn’t exactly what we were looking for in our Thai beach getaway. We found that at Ko Pha-Ngan…

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Apr 24 2008

Back to Bangkok

Published by under Bangkok,Cambodia,Thailand

Back to Bangkok! Three magical words. As much of a relief as it was to LEAVE Bangkok after our first visit, the idea of returning to the City of Chaos now lightened both our spirits. After spending these last five weeks traversing Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia, we’d both gained a new appreciation for the land of mango sticky rice and modern health care. We would only have a day in Bangkok before heading south for the Thai beaches, but finding these two necessities topped our packed capital city agenda.

Because nothing ever is ever as simple as it sounds in SE Asia, just getting to Bangkok was an unwanted adventure in itself. We booked a bus ride that would take us from Siem Reap, Cambodia straight across the Thai border, and onward to Bangkok. The travel agency sent a minivan to pick us up at our hotel around 6:00am, and we thought we were on our way. Instead, the minivan driver spent the next hour driving around the city, trying to find more passengers to bring to the bus. When we finally arrived at the bus stop, we learned that the travel agency had over-sold the bus. Because the travel agencies do not consider empty seats to be a prerequisite for selling tickets, they had sold tickets to a dozen or so more passengers than the bus could accommodate. We sat on the sidewalk with the other confused passengers as they bus company worked out a solution.

After two hours of doing absolutely nothing, taxis began to pull up at the bus stop. The bus station had hired them to take the excess passengers all the way to Bangkok, which is about a ten-hour ride. When we saw the company representatives begin forcing five passengers, plus luggage, into each taxi, we put on our battle faces. Having paid for seats on one of the plush-looking A/C buses shown on the travel agency posters, we were NOT about to cram into the backseat of a taxi with two other people, plus their luggage, for a ten-hour ride.

But just as a company rep approached us to try and load our luggage into a taxi, his cell phone rang. The bus to Bangkok had two empty seats after all. A quick look around revealed that Brittany and I were the only group of two left among the passengers waiting for taxi seats, so we found ourselves loaded into a new mini-van, and whisked away to meet the bus.

Another hour later, the mini-van came to a stop, and as we climbed out, I noted with dismay that there was only one bus in sight. Looking something like an extended VW Minibus, with backpacks and elbows jutting out of every window, this was a far cry from the bus we’d been shown at the time of booking. Sadly, five weeks in this region had caused me to expect the bait-and-switch by this point, and I simply climbed aboard with head hung low. After all, nothing we’ve ever paid for up front since leaving Thailand has been delivered as promised. But for Brittany, this was a breaking point. She took one look at the bus, and began yelling at the company driver who’d just dropped us off.

“THIS is not the bus we paid for! Does this bus even have air-conditioning? We PAID for air-conditioning!”

“Sure, sure, air-con,” the driver replied. “FRESH air.”

This sent up a roar of laughter from the employees on the VW Minibus. And why not? They know that we farang have no recourse in these situations but to bend over and grab our ankles. This bus is going to Bangkok with our without us, and the idea of getting something as ridiculous as a REFUND is a pipedream in this culture. And so it was, that four hours after first being picked up from our hotel, we finally left Siem Reap, in an extra-long VW Minibus with no A/C, backpackers in every seat, luggage piled high in the aisle, and five company employees in plastic chairs beside the driver. Why must there always be at least four employees sitting in plastic chairs beside the bus driver? This remains one of SE Asia’s greatest mysteries, and the only conclusion I can draw based on the evidence is that they’re simply on hand to harmonize with the driver during on-board karaoke.

I’ve tried to block out the details of that cramped, sweaty, full-day ride, but I do remember that we finally arrived in Bangkok several hours later than we’d been promised. The bus dropped us off at the infamous Khao San Road, one of the prime contenders for “Backpacker Mecca of the World.” Cheap accommodation, food geared to the Western palate, an abundance of souvenirs… no matter what you’re looking for, if you arrive in Bangkok with a backpack on your back, odds are you’ll be on Khao San Road within the hour. But despite the fact that we were in Bangkok for six days the first time around, we never actually saw Khao San Road.

That’s a record, you know. The backpackers that we bumped into second place lasted only twelve hours in Bangkok before finally succumbing to the magnetic power of Khao San Road. Their record stood for years before we came along. We were eager to finally see what all the fuss was about this time around, and had decided before arriving that we would find a hotel on Khao San Road for our one night in the city. We slid off the bus, marched into the first seedy hotel we saw, and immediately booked a room. Time elapsed from bus to bed: forty-two seconds. Another record! We decided to celebrate by immediately setting out to explore this Khao San Road we’d heard so much about.

Kha San Road, Bangkok, ThailandHow to describe Khao San Road? It’s like someone crammed the Atlantic City boardwalk in between some dirty Bangkok alleys, gave it one look, and determined that it would be THE PERFECT PLACE to sell Che T-shirts, pirated DVDs, unsanitary western food, counterfeit designer jeans, plastic buckets of Thai whiskey, questionable currency exchange services, and porn. And based on the number of eager customers elbowing for room in the middle of the street, I guess that someone was right. But for us, no. Not even “no thank you,” just no. As in, get us out of here this instant. I’d say we gave Khao San Road about ten minutes before extricating ourselves, never to look back. It would have been even sooner, but we passed a woman selling mango sticky rice on our way out. OK, so Khao San Road does have one redeeming quality.

We woke up early the next morning with a list of things to accomplish in Bangkok before leaving on an overnight bus south to Krabi…

  • Visit a travel clinic for consultation on several lingering medical issues, ranging from Brittany’s second degree burn (blame a Phnom Penh motorcycle exhaust pipe) to my own on-going war with the indefatigable Bangkok belly.
  • Find a storage facility to lock up our oversized duffel bag of tailored clothes for the next three weeks
  • Buy a waterproof camera case from Bangkok’s always-useful Pantips Plaza
  • Eat delicious fried chicken and sticky rice from a restaurant we love here
  • Buy sunscreen and bug repellant from a pharmacy (you’d be amazed how hard these can be to find outside of Thailand)
  • Buy our plane tickets home from a Khao San Road travel agency
  • Buy tickets at the bus station for tonight’s overnight bus to Krabi

An ambitious list, but nothing that shouldn’t be feasibly accomplished in one full day. Except that this is Bangkok. And while the places we needed to visit are spread out over the city, it’s not the distance that makes hitting them all difficult: it’s the traffic. No matter how close your destination may be, the relentless Bangkok traffic ensures that it’s going to take you at least an hour to get there by taxi or tuk-tuk. Which is why you take the overhead SkyTrain whenever possible. But for reasons unknown, the SkyTrain was only set up to service half of the city. If your destination happens to be in the other half… well, I hope you’re not in any hurry. And if you are, may God have mercy on your soul.

As fate would have it, most of our destinations for the day were, quite inconveniently, established in that SkyTrain-forsaken other half of Bangkok. We try not to let getting up early become a habit, but when it came to today, we knew what we were up against. We tried to tackle the items on our itinerary as efficiently as possible. First stop: a travel clinic I’d found online.

After an hour-long taxi ride, and an hour-long wait in the clinic’s reception area, we finally saw a doctor. We got attention for all our many needs, but as for my Bangkok belly, the doctor needed to run some tests. We were told to come back in a few hours for the results.

Having to return to the clinic in the afternoon was an unexpected wrinkle, so we decided to split up for increased efficiency. I caught a taxi to the bus station to buy tickets to Krabi, while Brittany headed back to the travel agencies on Khao San Road to shop for plane tickets. But it only took that long for things to unravel.

By the time I made it back to Khao San Road, bus tickets in hand, I was expecting that Brittany would have already bought our plane tickets home. Instead, the tickets turned out to be much more expensive than the prices we’d been quoted by these same agencies over the phone, and I found Brittany scrambling from agency to agency in search of better prices. I joined in the hunt, but after an hour of fruitless searching, we realized it was already early afternoon, and we needed to get back to the travel clinic.

Another hour-long taxi ride to the clinic, this time with duffel bag of tailored clothes in tow. Once more, we waited and waited for the doctor, only to learn that the tests showed nothing wrong with me. I could tell the doctor all the reasons that is definitely not the case, but there’s no time for that. We have to get a waterproof camera case, find something to eat, and get this duffel bag to the storage facility before it closes at 6:00. And more bad news: it’s already 5:00.

Change of plan: straight to the storage facility! We can get the camera case and food after we store this bag. It’s not like it’s going to take an hour to reach the storage facility… we can actually take the SkyTrain there!

Which might have worked, had we not gotten lost after disembarking the SkyTrain. By the time we FIND the storage facility, it’s 5 minutes to 6:00. We burst through the doors, duffel bag in hand, just as the manager is closing up. We start filling out the paperwork to get our bag stored for the next three weeks, and answering all the manager’s questions about where we’re headed. But now we’ve got some really bad news: the overnight bus leaves at 7:00, which gives us exactly one hour to get back to our hotel, gather up our luggage, and then make it to the bus station. The minimum amount of time that I can imagine for this trip is an hour and a half.

“I’m sorry!” I blurt. “I know this is rude, but we have a bus to catch. Can we just leave this bag with you, and you fill out the rest of this paperwork?” I’m already backing out the door as I ask. The manager seems confused, but agrees to my proposal. Or I hope he did… we didn’t stick around to really hear his answer. Our bus tickets were quite expensive, and there’s no refund if you miss the bus. You just have to buy expensive tickets again tomorrow night. The countdown to 7:00 has officially begun.

6:00pm: We sprint to the nearest SkyTrain station. It doesn’t go all the way to our hotel, but if we get off at the nearest stop to our hotel, we can cover half the distance of the trip more quickly than a taxi could.

6:15pm: We disembark the SkyTrain, and run down the steps from the elevated platform into the street. I flag down the first tuk-tuk I see.

6:16pm: “Khao San Road!” I shout to the tuk-tuk driver. He quotes me an inflated price, but we have no time to argue right now. We climb aboard, and although the tuk-tuk drivers rarely speak any English, I can’t help myself from yelling, “and FAST!” Guess what? This tuk-tuk driver speaks English.

6:17pm: I re-attach my head to my neck. The driver has put the pedal to the floor, and we’re weaving through Bangkok traffic like I’ve never seen. Mr. Hoa, eat your heart out! I encourage the most reckless of our driver’s dare-devil maneuvers with cheers.

6:40pm: We arrive at our hotel, and leap from the tuk-tuk before it comes to a full stop. We grab our luggage, and I try to convince this driver to take us all the way to the bus station. He doesn’t want to make that long trip, meaning we’ve got to find another driver.

6:45pm: After several minutes of being turned down by prospective drivers, a taxi agrees to take us to the bus station. He speaks a little English, and I explain our situation to him. “7:00??” he asks. “Uh-oh.”

7:00pm: “Uh-oh” is right. Our bus is officially leaving the station now, and we’re stuck kilometers away, in standstill traffic.

7:20pm: We arrive at the bus station. As Brittany unloads our luggage and pays the driver, I make a dash for the boarding platform. If the bus is still somehow here, I have to hold the driver. Pushing my way through the crowd, I ride up the two escalators, run across the booking floor, and fight my way to the front of the line at the security checkpoint. Flashing my tickets, I dash past the two posted guards.

7:25pm: I race up to a desk in the middle of the boarding platform. “Tickets?” asks the seated woman. I pull our sweaty tickets from my pocket and hand them over. “Oi!” she shouts. She jumps out of her seat, and runs toward one of the platforms, shouting in Thai at the top of her lungs.

7:26pm: I follow her, and can’t believe what I see. Our bus has just pulled away from the platform, but this woman has been able to get the attention of the driver. He backs the bus up, back into the boarding area. The driver, a little confused, hops off to help me with my luggage. Of course, Brittany has all of that. I can only yell “Thank you! One second! My friend!” before darting back through the crowds to the security checkpoint. There I find Brittany, detained by security for not having a ticket, and I show our boarding confirmation tickets to the guard to get us both through.

7:30pm: Our luggage now stowed safely underneath, our bus for Krabi departs. And somehow, we’re on it. We failed to get plane tickets, a camera case, sunscreen, bug spray, or any food all day. We’re sweaty, smelly, exhausted, and hungry. But we’re on it. At this moment, despite the catastrophe today amounted to, we feel like the two luckiest people in Bangkok. And that’s when we look up to see the steward handing out individual boxes from Mr. Donut.

I couldn’t write a better “happily ever after” if I wanted to. THE END!

But just for fun, here are a couple of shaky videos taken on the ever-popular Khao San Road…

Khao San Road, Bangkok from Brittany & Ben on Vimeo.

Khao San Road, Bangkok from Brittany & Ben on Vimeo.

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Apr 23 2008

Cambodian Finale: Angkor What?

Published by under Cambodia

As the bus pulled out onto the bumpy road from Kampong Cham, a guy came around handing plastic bags to all its passengers.

“Are these supposed to be barf bags?” Ben asked me.

“This is so not a good sign,” I replied.

We were headed for Siem Reap, home of the mighty temples of Angkor, a requirement on any S.E. Asian tour. Surprisingly, the six-hour ride passed tolerably, with two exceptions: the woman directly behind me who kept retching into her barf bag, and the ever-present karaoke blaring from the televisions. Bonus this bus ride: the featured DVD must have been a “best-of karaoke duets” compilation – both Ben and I could sing along!!

As we stepped off the bus, we were immediately surrounded by the typical torrent of tuk-tuk touts. Knowing we needed a ride to a guesthouse in the city center, we paused to hear their pitch. We were surprised when one man approached us offering a free ride.

“Hello, hello!” he said. “I give you free ride now IF you hire me to be your driver tomorrow.” (The many temples are too far apart to walk comfortably between them, so some form of transportation is necessary.)

I was impressed with this man’s clever business savvy, so after negotiating a price (one that was “good for me, good for you!”), we agreed.

Luckily, our driver also had lots of insider information, including that if we bought tomorrow’s tickets to Angkor Wat tonight, we could visit a temple this evening at sunset for free. Having heard so much about the legendary sunrises/sunsets at Angkor Wat (and knowing full well we’d never wake up in time for sunrise) and enticed by anything anyone calls “free,” we had the driver pick us up that evening to take us to a temple he recommended as having the best sunset views.

Didn’t take us long to figure out why the views are so good from this particular temple: it’s on a freakin’ mountain. A mountain we unwittingly found ourselves climbing with throngs of other weary tourists.

About halfway up, Ben and I were startled by a young guy ahead of us turning around and saying something unexpected:

“I’m sorry, but do you have a blog?”

I can’t describe the exact feeling that accompanies a stranger asking if you have a blog, but it’s somewhere between apprehension and fear. We both hesitated as I did a brief risk-analysis in my head.

  1. What are the chances this person will expose me as the huge dweeb I am if I admit that I am a blogger? VERY HIGH
  2. What are the chances I’ve ever insulted this person, or any person or company he may be affiliated with, on my website? VERY HIGH

Upon frantically looking around and determining there was no means of escape, Ben and I simultaneously mumbled a hesitant “yes.”

As if we weren’t flabbergasted enough by being recognized, the guy surprised us further by saying he’d actually emailed us recently. A few weeks ago, we received an email from Nate in Colorado. Nate and his girlfriend, Jenny, were coming out to S.E. Asia for a while and, in his research, had stumbled upon our site. Since WE are obviously SO AWESOME and THEY are obviously SO AWESOME, why don’t we meet up to talk about just how AWESOME we all are?

Ben and I were game, but as our means of communication are limited and S.E. Asia is the size of, like, a continent, it was harder than anticipated to meet up, and our plans fizzled.

But here we were: we had indeed, if unintentionally, met up!

I can’t begin to fathom the coincidence of running into Nate and Jenny in Cambodia and can only assume destiny has something momentous in store for the four of us. Hopefully it involves forming an elite superhero task force, saving backpackers the world over from hawkers, scammers, lousy exchange rates and bed bugs. Oh, and blogging all about it, of course. Ok, really I just want to see Ben in tights.

We climbed to the top of the temple with Nate and Jenny, at which point Nate unzipped his backpack, pulled out a bottle and was all, “hey does anybody want some wine?”

Then I was all, you are my new best friend.

So that’s how we found ourselves enjoying the first wine we’ve had in weeks, chatting with our new best friends, and watching the sun fade behind the clouds from the top of an ancient temple.

This is why I love the internet, people. Because you’re hiking up a random mountain in the jungle of Cambodia, talking about why Indiana Jones had the hots for that severe Nazi woman even though she was a severe Nazi woman, when someone turns to you and asks if you have a blog. Cyperspace is the coolest.


Later that evening, we met Nate, Jenny, and another couple at a bar near Siem Reap’s central market for several rounds of Angkor beer.

Unfortunately, being woken up at 5:30 in the morning by roosters crowing and clawing under your bamboo hut (us), and a long day of exploring temples under the hot Cambodian sun (them) does not leave you feeling like your fun-loving, awesome self. Come midnight, the increasing number of yawns around our table made it clear that it was time to turn in for the night. Unfortunately, we were heading our separate ways the next day: Nate and Jenny were off to Vietnam and we were staying put in Siem Reap. Ben and I were both disappointed that our new best friends were leaving, as Nate and Jenny really did seem awesome. Fortunately, they live near a ski resort in Colorado, so even though I’m sure you only extended an invitation to visit to be polite, please do not be surprised when Ben and I come barging into your home next winter. Thanks!

We have also decided that we are going to model our lives on theirs: they own their own business and take time to travel the globe 3-4 months out of every year.

Our next day began too early. We had a lot of ground to cover and only one day to do it. Whereas most tourists spend at least three days exploring the giant complex of Angkor temples, we only had time for the one-day pass.

Angkor Wat is the pride and joy of the Cambodian people. It is pretty much their only claim to fame, and they cling to it desperately. An image of the temple is smack in the center of their national flag! One time, when a false rumor got around that a popular Thai soap star was claiming Angkor Wat belonged to Thailand, it sparked riots on the streets of Cambodia.

And having seen it, I can see why. These temples are amazing. Seriously, I’ve never seen anything like it: they look like they come straight out of a movie. In my opinion, they are the best ancient ruins we’ve seen on our trip. And we’ve seen a LOT of ruins.

The various temples are surprisingly intact. And ’cause this is Cambodia, where they really don’t care what you do once you fork over your $20 per day ticket fee, you can clamber up, in, and around the temples however and wherever you like!

I could bore you with the fascinating history of the Angkor temples, but I’ll refrain. Mostly because I refrained from learning any of it myself.

Instead I’ll give you a brief photo tour of our day exploring Angkor Wat.

This one’s the biggie. It’s the temple that’s actually named Angkor Wat.

The next most famous temple, Angkor Thom, popular for the giant faces on its towers.

Close up!

“Mountain temple.” Stairs at Angkor temples are less like stairs and more like ladders, with their vertical faces being about a foot long and their horizontal ones being about two inches wide. Very tricky, let me tell you.

Our favorite temple. It’s called Ta Prohm, but everyone just calls it “jungle temple” as the jungle has taken it over — giant trees have sprouted up on top of the temple, their roots snaking through the ruins. Lara Croft was filmed here.

Ok, so I like to climb in things.

Check out our Flickr page for more photos. I didn’t label them because there are hundreds of them and, well, all this blogging is taking major time away from swinging in my hammock.

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Apr 22 2008

Things I Learned During My Cambodian Village Homestay

Published by under Cambodia

Cambodia’s tourist trail looks like this: Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. The end. Siem Reap is home to the monumental Angkor Wat (which is what everyone really comes to see) and getting to Siem Reap generally involves passing through Phnom Penh. Our visit to Cambodia was shaping up to look no different, until Brittany stumbled on something intriguing online. An American expat has been going around posting on different travel forums, advertising a homestay opportunity in his Cambodian residence: a small village near the eastern town of Kampong Cham. E-mails were exchanged, and before we knew it, we were adding a slight detour to our Cambodian itinerary. So when we left Phnom Penh early one morning, we did not catch the bus north for Siem Reap. Instead, we headed east, to meet our new friend Don.

Don is originally from Michigan, but has been living in Cambodia for years. When he met us at the bus stop in Kampong Cham (we weren’t especially difficult to spot among all the villagers on the bus), he introduced us to his English-speaking Cambodian wife, Kheang. A twenty minute tuk-tuk ride later, we arrived at their village home, where we would stay for the next two nights. Don and Kheang have been operating their homestay for less than a year, but they have a smooth system in place. We would sleep in a stilted bungalow detached from the main house, and eat home-cooked meals with the family. Which includes not just Don and Kheang, but their two adorable children: a 5-year old son (Ra) and a 4-year old daughter (Na). In between sleeping and eating, Kheang would lead us on walks around this village where she was born, acting as tour guide and translator along the way.

Don’s online description touted that we would even LEARN something during our homestay. Ha! I folded my arms, shut my eyes, and turned my head to the side. Not if I have anything to say about it, I smugly thought to myself. It turns out that I did not, in fact, have anything to say about it.


1. Mosquito nets keep out scorpions

Good thing too. I have been clinging to mosquito netting throughout SE Asia as my best night-time defense against malaria, dengue fever, and the like. When Don told us that their last homestayers had encountered a scorpion in the guest bungalow, I made sure to tuck that frilly mosquito netting up under the mattress. This meant no breeze at night (which was made harder by the absence of any fan) but no venomous tails or pincers either. Fair trade.

2. Ra and Na are the most photographed children in Cambodia

Palm sugar! Rana Homestay in CambodiaOr so insists Don, who is probably statistically correct. Thanks to the endless cycle of homestayers coming through, these two kids, who have probably never seen a television in their lives, are semi-professionals in the area of digital photography. Looking back over the photographs from our visit, I discovered that half them show Ra and Na mugging for the camera. The other half are out-of-frame shots taken by the kids themselves. Oh well, the kids are just too cute to say no to. Somewhere, Don grunts his disagreement.

3. Fresh tropical fruit is the ultimate dessert

Jackfruit at Rana Homestay in CambodiaI quickly learned to look forward to every home-made meal Kheang served us, from grilled eggplant to the Cambodian signature dish, fish amok (fish grilled in a coconut). But truth be told, I will forever envy all people from this region their daily dessert. After every meal, Kheang served us a plate of fresh pineapple, jackfruit, and sticky sticky mango. I’d never even heard of jackfruit before a few weeks ago, and I don’t know where to begin trying to describe it. Just look at the picture to the left. As the Greeks would say, it’s very e-spe-see-al. Sticky sticky mango speaks for itself, and has become a staple of my diet that will surely prove painful to remove.

4. OK, maybe it’s a tie with palm sugar

Palm sugar! Rana Homestay in CambodiaOn one of our walks, we stopped to watch some villagers refining palm sugar into warm, maple-colored blocks. Kheang bought several blocks to use for cooking, and the delighted villagers insisted on giving us all samples to our heart’s content. But the hearts of those who have never before tasted palm sugar know no satisfaction. Brittany and I ate a LOT of palm sugar. Considering that it’s like drinking maple syrup straight from the bottle, we should probably be ashamed of that. But it’s so warm and sweet, and really, Ra and Na probably ate more than we did. Later, everyone but Kheang had tummy-aches.

5. There is a reason no one wants my sweet rice balls

Sweet rice balls! Rana Homestay in CambodiaWe saw one lady in the village sitting cross-legged outside her home, selling little white balls of sweet rice. We’ d already eaten everything else in the village, so I bought six balls for our group, for the price of 100 Cambodian riel (about $0.025). They were so good that after leaving her and walking down the road a bit, I broke off from our group and hurried back to buy some more. I asked for six more rice balls by holding up six fingers and putting on a very hopeful face. She looked surprised, and then started grabbing rice balls by the fistful and stuffing them in a plastic bag. I was confused for a moment, and then suddenly realized she thought I’d asked for 600 riel worth of rice balls. Since 600 riel is still only about $0.15, I let it slide and became the proud owner of an over-stuffed plastic bag of sweet rice balls. With way more sweet rice balls than our group would be able to successfully keep down, I tried offering some to every villager I passed on my walk back to the group. But every time I offered, my intended recipient would lean away from me, laughing, and wave both hands in the air. I began to become confused: why doesn’t anyone want my sweet rice balls? Having been turned down by three different people, I approached a girl sitting in a chair by the roadside, apparently managing a small shop with her brother. I held out my bag and pointed to her and her brother. She nodded (at last!) and I handed her the bag. I waited for her to take some sweet rice balls, but instead, she closed the bag and placed it in her lap. I stood there waiting for her to take a few. She sat there staring at me. I stood. She stared. I looked around, confused. She kept staring. I backed away slowly. She stared. I started walking backwards down the street. She stared. Finally, I turned and hurried away. In all likelihood, she stared. What happened?

Later that evening, Brittany uncovered the answer. What she’d noticed (and I obviously hadn’t) is that whenever a Cambodian wants to give something to another, they give the whole thing. So, if you want to give your neighbor some cucumbers, you don’t come over with ten in your arms and offer five. You put five in a bag, bring it to your neighbor, and give her the whole thing. “Have a few and give me my bag back” is an alien concept. So, my giant bag of sweet rice balls had simply been more than anyone I met had wanted to take off my hands. Until I found roadside girl and her brother, who are probably still eating from that bottomless bag today.

6. To Cambodian children, everything = toy or food

Every house we passed on our village walks seemed to have a yard full of kids, screaming and pulling all sorts of make-shift toys behind them. Beer carton + a bit of string = racecar, and anything not square = ball. Ra and Na were too busy eating everything we passed to have any time for such play. Every time I looked around, one of them had climbed a new tree to grab cashews, mango, berries, seeds, flowers… anything that would fit in their mouths, went into their mouths. There’s some kind of worm that leaves a slimy trail on tree leaves, and the kids love to lick its goo. Yum! Actually, it was striking to see all the village children playing outside, when Ra and Na didn’t seem to have playmates in the village. I asked Don about it, and he told me that the villagers don’t consider Ra and Na to be Cambodian. Since they have a foreign father, they don’t fit neatly into the established social equation, and are thus viewed as outsiders. But Don isn’t too anxious about how Ra will be received by his classmates when he starts school next year: having an American father has ensured that he is much bigger than any other village boy his age.

7. Never trust the Cambodian government

Rana Homestay in CambodiaDon and Kheang didn’t always live in this village where Kheang was born. In fact, when they met, both were living in the capital of Phnom Penh. Don was teaching English, and Kheung was working for a NGO, and she had recently purchased a home in the city center. Then, something unexpected happened. Lots of foreign investors got very interested in city real estate, and property value in the capital suddenly soared. For Kheang, this should have been great news: her investment had paid off in a bigger way than she could have dreamed. Instead, the corrupt Cambodian government decided that it should be great news for themselves. One day, government agents showed up at Kheang’s door, and told her that they were claiming her home. It was worth so much now that they had decided to sell it to foreign investors. Oh, but don’t worry: the government had graciously decided to give Kheang replacement property: a small parcel of unfarmable rural land, miles outside of Phmom Penh. Market value: one fifth of the price she’d originally paid for her city real estate. Amazingly, she managed to find a buyer for this rural parcel, and she and Don went about stripping her city home of all useable building materials. With these supplies, and a little bit of cash from her sale, the two moved out to Kheang’s childhood village, bought some land, and built a house. Both Don and Kheung had to leave their jobs in Phnom Penh, and running a village homestay is now their sole source of income. Did I mention that the current “President” of Cambodia is a former Khmer Rouge guerrilla? Makes a lot of sense, actually.

8. Seriously, you can’t trust the Cambodian government

Don and Kheang’s home doesn’t have electricity, which isn’t too hard to believe. We are talking about Cambodia, after all. But here’s an unexpected wrinkle: they live in a village that DOES have electricity. Huh? A couple of years ago, the government came through and connected the village to the power grid. But when they came to Don and Kheang’s small street, they decided that there weren’t enough homes here to justify installing a meter. Translation: not enough money in it to bother working up a sweat. And so, while the rest of the village entered the age of electricity, a handful of homes were simply passed over. Lights shine throughout the village every night, except for one dark patch. Don, Kheang, Ra, and Na are right in the middle of it. With no electricity, we found ourselves turning in at night around 8:30. But as part of some cruel joke, the village chief DID receive electricity, and each night we lay awake into the wee hours of the morning, listening to his outdoor speakers blasting Cambodian karaoke.

Rana Homestay in CambodiaTales of governmental corruption in Cambodia are seemingly endless. I doubt any government has a more transparant facade of democracy than this one. To learn more lessons like these, we highly recommend staying at the Rana Homestay near Kampong Cham, Cambodia. Don has a million and one tales to tell. As a bonus, you can join Ra and Na in enjoying such village delicacies as jackfruit, palm sugar, and sticky sticky mango. And let us know when you go: I’ll tell you where to find a girl with a big old bag of sweet rice balls.

Rana Homestay: Don and Kheang’s Blog

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