A Travellerspoint blog

March 16, 2010: Siem Reap to Phu Quoc

Thus begins the lazy beach portion of our trip

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Nat rallied for our trip back to Vietnam, possibly because he had expelled all traces of food and paramecium from his system in the last 24 hours, or possibly because he feared that he would not be allowed on the plane if he appeared ill. I was sad to leave Cambodia and hope to make it back there some day and explore the country more outside what I suspect may be the archaeological equivalent of Las Vegas.

After Chop and Nat dealt with some visa hijinks and made a "charitable donation" to the Vietnamese government in Ho Chi Minh City, we were on our way to Phu Quoc island. We were not immediately impressed by our hotel, Hiep Thanh. And we were not any further impressed in subsequent days. But the rooms did have air conditioning, even if I did have to keep flicking the fluorescent lightbulb in the bathroom in order to keep it running long enough to put on sunscreen. The staff was abysmal, and could not even tell us if they had our reservation or how much our rooms would cost.

But the beach, ah the beach! It was fabulously uncrowded and about 100 feet from our bungalow door, with shaded cabana type things and lots of beach chairs, a snack bar serving Tiger beers for less than $1, and women giving beach massages for 50,000 to 60,000 dong (that's about $3). Even when the bar wasn't open, we were never more than a few searing steps away from a woman selling bananas, mangoes, and pineapple. And the water was deliciously warm and calm, although Dan found it prohibitively "bitey." There was some kind of stinging insect in the water. I didn't find this all that bothersome (they didn't leave marks or anything, just felt like occasional mosquito bites minus the itching), but it is my experience that Dan has been (in my humble opinion) utterly and irreparably spoiled for beaches by having grown up in Miami. And although our beach hotel didn't have a restaurant that was open at night (and indeed served a very spare breakfast begrudgingly handed out by a staff who acted like every baguette that we ate came out of their paycheck), there were plenty of good restaurants further up the beach.
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Now being a redhead I have never been a beach person and I don't even really like the ocean, but after running from destination to destination and dodging motorbike traffic for almost two weeks, I was very happy to throw myself into a peaceful beach routine that involved various arrangements of the following activities: go to beach, read in the shade, swim in ocean, get squid/shrimp/fish meal, swim in ocean, drink mango smoothie or beer, play dominoes, get massage, swim in ocean, knit in shade, eat banana. Repeat as desired. Paradise!
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Posted by redtogo 16:43 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

March 15, 2010: Siem Reap

Sunrise at Angkor Wat

sunny 103 °F
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This morning Soluy picked us up at 4:45 am to take us to watch the sun rise over Angkor Wat. When we met up in the hotel lobby we found out that Nat had gotten sick. This was surprising since we had all been sharing food (literally eating out of the same dishes) for 12 days now. The only thing we hadn't shared at dinner the night before was our drinks, and even then Nat and I had both had fruit smoothies (sinh to in Vietnamese; I'm not sure what they call them in Cambodia). In our little traveling group we call this "getting the king in the king cake." It happened to Dan in Morocco when we had all eaten the same tajine. Nat must have gotten the one paramecium in the fish amok or ice or whatever from the night before. If you don't know what a king cake is, google it and I think you'll get the metaphor. In any case, Nat was way too sick to join us, but at least he had a nice air-conditioned hotel to be sick in (Dan had to deal with "the king" on a cot in the Sahara).

Soluy lead us in the pitch dark to the edge of a small pond before anyone else had arrived and found us what she said was the exact perfect seat for taking photographs of the five towers of Angkor Wat reflected in the pond. She was right!
P1020494.JPGOver the next hour we watched the sky slowly lighten and the profile of the temple emerge. We also watched the shore of the pond fill up with dozens of other tourists. Soluy had warned us that we needed to get there early because Chinese tourists would try to push their way in front of us. In fact, it was (not suprisingly to us) an American who shoved his tripod, camera, and girth in front of me about a half hour after we arrived. The guy obviously knew he was being a jerk as he had a loud discussion with his companion about how if he moved any further to the right a tree would block his view of one tower and then turned to me and said, "I figure it's easier for you to move a chair than this tree." I noted that it was easier still for him to move his tripod, but clearly he figured getting his perfect shot was worth being a world-class asshole. In any case, he was only partially in front of me, and we had an extra seat since we had a chair for Soluy be she wasn't using it. The sunrise was incredible and Dan got some beautiful pictures. Chop also got a great picture of a woman practically climbing on top of me to take a picture over my shoulder.

After the sunrise, Soluy took us for a tour of Angkor Wat itself. I could see why she saved this one for our last day. It is truly monumental, with towers (gopuras) that must be several stories high, all carved to the very top, huge interior rooms with pools, steep stairs to symbolize the difficulty of ascent to heaven, and endless walls of bas-relief historical and mythical scenes.
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Although most of these depict the ruling class or religious instruction, some do show daily life, such as people playing games or one of a woman giving birth. Again, adequate words to describe the site escape me, so I'll let Dan's photos do the talking.
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We were all feeling kind of wiped out between the early morning and tiny breakfast we had grabbed on the way out, to say nothing of the incredible heat. After Angkor Wat, we went back to the hotel to check on Nat. He was still way too sick to go out so we planned a shortened day so we could see more sites but get back a little early for Chop to take care of him and get him to eat the rice porridge and coconut water that Soluy prescribed.

Next we went to the temples of Ta prohm, a temple that is surrounded by jungle that is growing right through the site itself. This is the site that really struck me as something out of a movie, and indeed it is. Part of one of the Tomb Raider movies was filmed here (Cambodian people love Angeline Jolie, by the way).
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Next we went to Banteav Srei, which, although much smaller, was probably the most beautiful and intricately carved temple that we saw on the whole trip.
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By this time it was early afternoon and Soluy conceded slyly that it was getting a little warm, at which point she pulled out a thermometer and showed us that the air temperature was 38.9 degrees Celcius. That is 103 degrees Fahrenheit, my friends! With incredibly high humidity! We were not disappointed to get back to the hotel a little earlier than originally planned.

Posted by redtogo 15:11 Archived in Cambodia Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

March 14, 2010: Siem Reap

Templepalooza begins


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This morning we started bright and early on our tours of some of the many temples of Angkor. These are huge structures built between the 9th and 13th centuries (if I'm remembering correctly) to celebrate various god-kings. The complexity of these ruins is just mind-blowing and the fact that so much has survived so many years, wars, and plundering is incredible. I asked Soluy how it is that so many ruins are still so intact and she explained that basically this is what is left, which means that all this unbelieveable architecture (literally, I wouldn't have believed this really existed, and I'm a professional archaeologist with a PhD in this stuff) is the dregs. As she put it, showing me her hand with fingers outstretched, if I was going to steal some part of her hand, I would take the thumb, then the next person would take the biggest finger and so forth; what we see around Siem Reap is just what's left: the pinky finger.

These temples are just what you see in Indiana Jones and Tomb Raider movies (actually, one of these temples does appear in one of the Tomb Raider movies; it is nicknamed "Angelina Jolie Temple"), the kind where I am always saying "yeah right!" and Dan is always asking me, "why don't you ever find something cool like that" (answer: I'm a North American archaeologist. We're doing little happy dances if we find a mostly intact projectile point). I am going to have to stop saying that now. These things really do exist, elaborate stone structures with every surface carved with people, gods, and demons, even several stories into the air and room after room of statues (almost all of these have been looted, but you can see where they used to be). I was so glad to have Soluy to explain it all to us, otherwise it just would have been too overwhelming. I really can't find words to describe all of it, so I'll let Dan attach some photos instead.
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We took a break mid-day to have a much needed swim and a nap at the hotel. If you are considering a trip to Cambodia in the summer (their summer, which is apparently March to April), you must find a hotel with a swimming pool. We were so grateful for the pool at Steung Siem Reap, although it was quite salty. I assume because it was filled with the sweat of foreigners touring temples all day and then jumping into the pool.

After our break, Soluy took us for "afternoon tea" at another local food stall. I don't know the names of what we ate, but it was all delicious. My favorite was these things that we first took to be some kind of poached eggs, but in fact turned out to be rice (the part that looked like egg white) surrounding a bean paste (the "yolk"), drizzled with coconut water and crushed peanuts. There was also curry, some beef on sticks, a soup that included some gelatinous stuff Soluy told us was blood (but it didn't taste gross, so I'm wondering if I heard her wrong), and more noodly dishes. Again, so yummy and so cheap! After "tea," we were on to more temples. By this time we had talked quite a bit with Soluy about history and life in Cambodia so that Chop felt comfortable enough to ask her what her family had done during the reign of the Khmer Rouge. It was one of the most surreal experiences of my life to stand on top of a thousand year old temple, listening to her tell us about her father's experience in a forced labor camp, while the sounds of the Macarena drifted up to us from a wedding below.

Posted by redtogo 15:03 Archived in Cambodia Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

March 13, 2010: Siem Reap

In which we discover there is somewhere even hotter than Hanoi

sunny 95 °F
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What a delightful surprise Cambodia is! We arrived in Siem Reap's very modern and easily navigated airport (compared to Luang Prabang's which was something like a Greyhound bus terminal with fewer amenities). Thankfully we had not needed a visa to travel through Laos on our way here. I was very happy that we had gotten our Cambodian visas ahead of time (even if I did lose some stomach lining over the time it took to get my passport back) as we were able to skip the mob of people applying for visas on arrival. We were whisked right through the crowd by our Cambodian guide, Soluy (www.soluybesttour.com), who was the best guide we have had on this trip full of really outstanding guides. She speaks excellent English, has a master's degree in Cambodian history, and a background in photography as well so she knows all the good spots and angles for pictures. The depth of information that we got was astounding. Plus we cannot understand how she made any money off our tour since it was so inexpensive. Okay, commercial over, but I'm just saying that if you're thinking about going to Siem Reap, you must hire Soluy!

Siem Reap reminded me a lot of Tucson, only hotter! It was super sunny and bright and blessedly calm. The refreshing sanity of Cambodian traffic was like those cool wet cloths that Vietnam Airlines is forever handing out. Everyone drives on the correct side of the road (I'm not being provincial here; I don't care whether you drive on the left or the right, but in Vietnam, people drive in ALL directions, including perpendicular to traffic and on the sidewalk) at reasonable speeds and actually stop at stoplights, honking only while passing. So pleasant! Even though we have found Vietnamese people to be super friendly, Cambodians seem to be even more so, smiling and saying "hello" or "sua s'dei" when they see us, even calling across the street to us. Also people were really tickled whenever we attempted to use the two words of Khmer language (Cambodian) with them ("sua s'dei" being "hello" and "ahr coon" being "thank you") that Soluy taught us on the short drive to our hotel.
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After getting us settled in our hotel, Stueng Siem Reap, Soluy took us on a bike tour around town. She had gotten us actual mountain bikes with suspensions and even matched them to our heights (she'd asked when we booked the tour), plus bike helmets! Soluy is a competitive cyclist so she knew what she was doing. I was a little skittish about riding in the street after the craziness of Vietnamese traffic, but once we were out of the main part of town it was very peaceful. She took us on a loop through the countryside immediately surrounding Siem Reap so we got to see local Cambodian's houses, farms, and schools.
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Everywhere people were waving and calling hello to us, adults and children alike. She took us to a little gallery with amazing photos of the Angkor temples we would be visiting so we could see historical photos of the sites before they were filled with tourists and then to a Buddhist monastery. The colors and scenery were unlike anything we have at home and we should have taken more pictures as we passed through.
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Soluy had planned to send us to a restaurant called Khmer Kitchen for dinner but we persuaded her that we were trying to make this a tour of "real" local foods and didn't want tourist food (we did eventually eat there and it was good as well). After verifying that we REALLY meant this, she said she'd take us to have street food after we got some air conditioned rest (she was always concerned with our health and hydration; our friend Kelly Larkin, who is forever questioning her field employees about the color of their pee, would be proud). We took her out to dinner at some food stalls and tried a selection of local Khmer foods. Everything was really good and flavorful. She even brought her favorite food to share with us from wherever she gets it outside of Siem Reap: pig intestines with a kind of spicy peanut sauce. It was delicious!
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So was the fried morning glory. We really struggled to finish all our food though. And we discovered our new favorite beer: Angkor Beer. After dinner Soluy showed us the night market, a labyrinth of stalls selling silk scarves, woven grass bags and place mats, carved Angkor-style statues, spices, and t-shirts and we browsed a little while she watched who was buying what at the two sections of the market that she is considering opening a stall in. Part of the proceeds from her business go to support a local orphanage. The stall will be used in part to provide a location for the sale of artwork produced by the orphans. Sound too good to be true? No, in fact, she is that awesome.

Next we attempted to go to a bar to watch a local band but after about an hour of sound checks, the sleepiness and heat combo hit me hard and I had to go back to the hotel. It was great to spend an evening with Soluy though, talking about Cambodian life and history. I really hope she didn't have other plans for the night. She's the best!

Posted by redtogo 14:57 Archived in Cambodia Tagged bicycle Comments (0)

March 12, 2010: Cat Ba to Hanoi

They do indeed punch you in the head

semi-overcast
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After our two days of sightseeing on the boat in the cold, we were all content to hang out at our very nice resort on the last day on Cat Ba Island.
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Although it was still too cold for swimming, we enjoyed walking along the beach and Chop, Dan, and I enjoyed our first Vietnamese massages. Mine was rather so-so, and the room was really chilly (considering I was naked), but at $20 for a two-hour massage, who can complain? I was reminded of a posting on Trip Advisor where someone warned about Vietnamese massages, "they punched me in the head!" Indeed there was some (very limited) head punching. Dan seems to have been punched much more, but then his masseuse also walked on his back, so I suspect that I got some kind of light weight ladies' massage. Afterwards, we reversed the whole bus-boat-car routine and returned to Hanoi, where we would fly out to Cambodia the next day. After the idyllic time on the boat, Hanoi seemed incredibly frenetic, although we were able to console ourselves with more street food.

Posted by redtogo 14:25 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

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