Welcome to Saigon

12 May 2014

A highlight of the day and quite a funny moment was going thru security at the very small Siem Reap airport where for the first time in months and many, many flights we were required to take off our shoes going thru security. I almost wanted to laugh and remind the airport security where we were and that no one has cared about taking off shoes, taking out liquid bags or laptops to go thru security since we left the US. Oh, the fun of airport travel!

Upon landing in Saigon and making it off the plane and thru the terminal to the visa booth, it was about a thirty minute wait after we completed the arrival paperwork and submitted our visa approval letter before we had our passports and our thirty day visas in hand. I guess we should have seen the extra steps in receiving a visa and hefty price tag as an omen for things to come.

We followed the signs out of the airport to the taxi stands but after we hoped in the taxi we knew we were in the wrong type of taxi. Immediately he wanted us to pay for the airport exit fee but we insisted we would only pay the meter rate. After taking the long way to the hotel we finally arrived and again our driver tried to ask for another 50,000 dong but we said no and walked off. We had no small bills so he had already received much more than the metered fair, not the best of welcomes to Vietnam.

We made it down the alley to our hotel and were greeted by two very gracious hosts, which was a nice change. Our room wasn’t ready we left our bags and at their suggestion made our way around the corner to a good pho restaurant. It was then off to do some wandering in our new neighborhood. While I quickly took note of the Starbucks and thought a coffee would be nice, I could tell from the side eye I got from Adam that, Starbucks was not in my future. I did however as we watched traffic go by at the main roundabout see local looking coffee spot and after one sip I was in love and wondering why they hell I was even thinking Starbucks sounded nice. It was also the best spot to just sit and watch the chaos that is driving here. And of course laugh and sit in awe of what can be carried on a motorbike. Most days I think I have seen it all, but the next day I will see something else crazy. You really can carry any and everything on a motorbike.  I guess I can never complain that my car is not big enough to fit my belongings. Once we finished our coffee and tea (it comes with a cup as well) it was back to settle into our room and relaxing before we heading out for the evening on a tour with Back of the Bike.

We were both very excited to get oriented to this city especially on the back of a motorbike. After traveling by motorbike in a few cities I feel plenty comfortable on the back of one, but I was still curious to seeing how I would react in such a busy city, either way we figured it would be a great experience and a lot of fun. There are about 10 million people in HCMC and about 6.7 million motorbikes so there really isn’t any better way to experience a local perspective. Our drivers arrived at our hotel to pick us up and soon we were off on our tour that would take us throughout a good portion of the city.

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Our guides would drive us around to a bunch of different neighborhoods all while pointing out different sights and giving us an overview of some of the uniqueness of HCMC and Vietnam.

We started by traveling just across the river from our hotel into the hustle and bustle of the backpacker area. And just like any other backpacker area it was wall to wall inch to inch vendors selling crap clothes, tourist day trips, food so I really couldn’t tell you if we were on Khao San road in Bangkok or HCMC, it really looked almost the same. It was then up the road by one of the many parks we would see on our ride, I really am impressed with the number of parks here and how everyone at all hours takes advantage of the open space. Since it was just after 6pm, most people were using the park as a workout spot. We even saw a group doing Zumba!

As we passed by a hospital, my guide told me that if you want a bed at a local hospital make sure you book five months in advance, including all you moms to-be otherwise you will be giving labor out in the hall. When you go to the hospital there are three types of groups, those with insurance, VIPs and cash (I don’t recall if the last one is right). As insurance is compulsory here it really does you no good if you want a bed in a room, for that you need more money.

We cruised thru a section of town that featured shops solely dedicated to wedding stationary. It was here I learned that the process to determine the day you are married is very similar to that in Cambodia. Here the matchmaker will pick a date that is lucky for both the bride and groom and that is the date you will get married. I was also told that men and women do not cohabitate; the response was a solid no with a furrowed brow almost like I was asking a crazy question. In conversation she also told me that if a family member were to die the couple could not get married until three years after the death.

We then drove thru a section of town where flowers were sold, mostly for weddings and funerals. While it was much smaller than the flower market in Bangkok but there were still so many colorful varieties of orchids to ogle at.

My guide was born and raised in Saigon and when she mentioned her grandmother lived in San Jose, I asked if she had ever been there to visit. Immediately she said no as she was afraid it might be too cold. I laughed and said well I was afraid that traveling here I would not be able to handle the heat and humidity, to which she quickly responded that there was AC. And at that moment I think I blew her mind when I said, well we have heaters for when it gets to cold.

Our first stop of the evening was at the market. And we started off our visit with a very fun game. Adam and I were each given 10,000 dong (about 50 cents) and a mission to buy as many different items in the market and the winner will take home a bag of mangosteens.

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Feeling very confident in my negotiating skills and with the help of my guide teaching me a few key phrases like ‘how much?,’ ‘one,’ and ‘thank you’ I was impressed with my loot in my three bags, until we reconvened and counted up how many items each of us had bought. Turns out Adam ended up with 21 items to my 20 because one of the ladies selling produce just gave him a bunch of random small produce. I guess the local women were too happy to have a man wandering in the produce market so they took a liking to him. Go figure???

As we made our way out of the market on motorbike navigating by the vendors, people, bicyclists and of course other motorbikes, I was shocked at how calm I was getting so close to many people and things. I guess I really have adjusted to this chaos being a new normal and a way of life. I really have come a long way. After this trip I will probably have to reteach myself to use a seatbelt.

There are only three Starbucks shops and on our tour we went by two of them. McDonalds opened two months ago (Feb) here in HCMC and there were lines for hours. Near our hotel there was a grand opening sign of their section franchise set to open May 16, needless to say we weren’t too sad we wouldn’t be around for it.

Making our way down another side street we went by a large group all dressed in white with a man serving food in a unique white headdress. When I asked what was going on I was told it was a funeral and that they can last for a week.

Next we made our way to our dinner stop for the evening where we got to try our hand at cooking up some local street food banh xeo which is a rice flour batter fried and then filled with shrimp, pork and bean sprouts.

Amy trying her luck as a street food vendor

Amy trying her luck as a street food vendor

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Once it’s finished cooking you place it on a sheet of rice paper, add some fresh herbs, roll it up like a taquito and enjoy. After cooking up a few ‘pancakes’ we pulled up some chairs and sat down to enjoy the fruits of our labor and were quite pleased. In addition to the banh xeo we also had some bo la lot which was beef cooked up inside a betel leaf, and lastly we tried some balut.

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The balut

The balut

If you’re unfamiliar with balut it a fertilized duck egg that they stop during the incubation period and then ‘hard boil’ the egg and serve it up. Now we were a little hesitant to try this (me especially) as the only image we had of belut is how they eat it in the Philippines. There they let the incubation go until only a few days before the duck would be born so when you crack open the shell you’ve got a whole baby duck beak and all ready to go.  As we were talking with our guides they assured us that the balut here was nothing like that as that would be really, really gross and they stop their eggs about halfway through the incubation period as opposed to a few days. We got a good laugh out of that as we’re sitting here thinking any of it would be gross and they’re thinking how gross it would be to let it incubate longer. The difference in perspective always has to make you laugh. After realizing that he wouldn’t be chewing on a duck beak Adam decided to give it a shot and actually quite enjoyed the egg. After convincing me that it just tasted like a really good hard-boiled egg I took a bite and it was not half bad.

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After dinner our next stop was to a vendor selling coffee. And we learned the secrets of my new favorite coffee. They roast the beans in butter! So if you never believed the statement, butter makes everything better, well you should. The beans smell and taste as if they have chocolate ground in and the end result is a cup of coffee that basically tastes like you’re drinking a chocolate cake. And the secret to making the perfect cup is to place two spoon-fulls in the ‘coffee-maker’ place the press on top, add another half scoop and add just a dash of water, count to 10 or 15 then pour the rest of the water in. Sit patiently and wait for the coffee to drip thru the filter, remove the coffee maker add sugar and enjoy. And for those who like milk, add sweeten condensed milk to the cup prior to the start of the coffee making process!

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And no tour with would be complete without a conversation about Vietnam. As we road thru another market and towards our hotel my guide dove right into the topic with a ‘most Americans always ask how I feel about the war,’ and her optimistic, never look back thinking said it all when she said something along the lines of, ‘that was in the past, things change.’ Which sums up perfectly my impression of this city has been thus far.

Best item being carried by a motorbike: A tree

Today’s Travel: Flight from Siem Reap to Ho Chi Minh City on Vietnam Airlines, and around Saigon motorbike

Accommodations: Huong Trinh Hotel. A nice guesthouse down a quiet alley in a perfect location to take in all the sights of the city.

I’m running away to join the circus

11 May 2014

As I went to drop off our laundry at 7:15am I got caught behind a wedding party crossing the street to the river for portraits. I guess when it is this hot and you are wearing formal wear you have to get hitched before most people eat breakfast in the West.

After lunch we had once again felt we earned a foot massage or food massage as the back of the sign said. And not to worry this time I made sure I stayed awake and didn’t startle anyone.

As planned the night before we were off to the circus. Making our way by tuk, tuk we had a close encounter with a motorbike only to shrug our shoulders and say ‘oh, there was a good six inches between the bikes, plenty of space’ plus since everyone drives so slow it would have been only a love tap. We both had to laugh as just a few short months ago we probably would have crapped our pants being that close. But at some point we just learned to really trust others and understand that it is just us that is not used to this style of transport and that the locals somehow make it all work.

Timing was on our side this evening as today was the start of a new performance at the circus. We were so impressed with last night’s performance that we really wanted to check out a completely new show. Tonight’s show was called ‘Eclipse,’ it told the story of a village outcast who was treated horribly and how the village came to accept him. I thought they could not top last night’s performance but it turns out they did. The drama of the story was portrayed with so much conviction and strong movements. And as the story ended it then turned into an acrobatic ‘jam session,’ with some of the artists launching each other off a see-saw with some insane back flips.

I noticed that the main character was also in last night’s performance which I assumed just meant he was a great and very diverse artist. But it turns out that it was a little art imitating life as the original guy who was cast in the role was injured just a few days ago and he was the replacement.

Today’s Travel: Walking around Siem Reap and to the circus

Accommodations: Shadow Angkor Inn

A temple a day…

10 May 2014

We had the alarm set for 5am and just as planned our tuk tuk driver was out in front at 6am waiting to take us to Angkor Thom.

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As we arrived we got out of the tuk tuk to walk across the bridge leading towards the temple complex. With the detail in the bridge statues alone, I had a feeling that this was going to be a favorite temple.

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It was then back in the tuk tuk to carry on to Bayon Temple. With the early daylight and maybe 10 or so others touring the temple grounds, we felt like we had the place to ourselves.

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We once again found ourselves walking down narrow passage ways and wondering which hall to turn down acting as if we were true explorers.

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It was then up the stairs to be greeted by all of the eery carved faces. Just as you would walk around one corner the faces would follow you as you walked only to look up to see more faces. It was just so trippy to see. And again realizing how old the temple complex was it was fun to imagine what life was like here when this temple was just built.

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The whole temple is made up of pillars with these faces carved into all 4 sides.

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After walking around Bayon for a decent amount of time we started to make our way to the other temples and sights that were in the Angkor Thom complex. It was only 7:45 and the sun was already making it near impossible to enjoy our time outside, but luckily there were only small sections that were in direct sunlight as most of the walk ways were shaded. We continued our possibility of the visit (these signs really did make us laugh- I guess we are now officially delusional travelers) with a walk by Preah Ngok Pagoda Baphuon Temple and the Royal Palace & Phimeanakas Temple.

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We then stopped for a while to enjoy the silence and the beauty of so many trees growing from the steps of Preah Paliliay Temple.

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We simply strolled by Tep Pranam Pagoda and then we wandered around the Leper King Terrace where we saw many intact large stone carvings, a few wrong turns and as is our new normal we began to sweat walking in the direct heat (even my umbrella didn’t seem to do much in providing shade).

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By 9am we had seen all we wanted to see and were ready to head back to the hotel for breakfast. On our way out of the city we sat wide eyed by the amount of tourists that were flooding into the Bayon Temple, just a few hours before we were one of only a handful of couples and small groups of friends wandering the sites and now there were dozens of larger buses and the masses were covering the steps of the temple. Even the bridge we stopped on where we were alone for a few moments was now so packed it felt like our driver was playing frogger.

After lunch we made our way to a much deserved foot massage. After stopping in one very nice western place only to find western like prices, we found tucked down an alley a sign for a foot massage by blind masseurs. It was one of the best massages ever. I enjoyed it so much that mid-way thru I completely fell asleep and woke myself with one very loud and weird sounding snore; which I think shocked both masseuses as they both stopped and turned to the direction of the noise and it was all I could do not to laugh. Walking out of the shop Adam and I could not stop laughing at the fact that I fell asleep and it was snore that woke me from my slumber. It was early enough in the day that we made our way to Blossom Café for an afternoon sweet.

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That evening we had a very fun date night. We made our way to Sugar Palm for a nice dinner. The ambiance at the restaurant was nice, but the food was just okay. I guess with the fancy décor we were expecting more.

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It was then off to the Phare Cambodian Circus for the evening performance of ‘Panic,’ a show about a last minute circus audition.

At the big top

At the big top

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There were 7 acrobatic performers and 4 musicians under the big top but the amount of energy and excitement they had you would have thought there were 50 performers.

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Here's an example of some of the acrobatics they were performing

Here’s an example of some of the acrobatics they were performing

We loved it so much that as we were exiting we were already talking about making plans to come back tomorrow night.

After a few days here I have been so awestruck by the follow thru of people and the honoring of a verbal contract. And tonight was no exception, the Tuk-Tuk driver who dropped us off at the Circus was waiting for us right when we walked out. It’s amazing here, when you ask someone to pick you up or make arraignments it gets done. There is no follow up, no email confirmation, no receipt, just an agreement made. It really does restore my faith in the world that not everyone is a flake or can’t remember they made a commitment without five different forms of confirmation.

Today’s Travel: Tour de Temples, Day –  Angkor Thom City: Bayon, a walk by Preah Ngok Pagoda, then we decided to take the direct sun route (even at 7:45am it was already unbearable in the direct sunlight) Baphuon Temple, Royal Palace & Phimeanakas Temple, we then walked out to the Preah Paliliay Temple which had been taken over by trees, strolled by Tep Pranam Pagoda and then we wandered around the Leper King Terrace where we saw many intact large stone carvings. That evening we made our way to Sugar Palm for dinner and then to the big top at the Phare Cambodian Circus.

Accommodations: Shadow Angkor Inn

There is much more to Siem Reap than temples

9 May 2014

Our adventure for the day was a tour with Dani from Bee’s Unlimited. Dani has an interesting history as an American who grew up in India before moving to Cambodia about 20 years ago. He started off doing some NGO work before falling in love with the country and its people and decided to make Cambodia home. He now runs a company which does private tours of the area around Siem Reap which provides a great alternative when you start to get templed out. After meeting with him the previous evening to talk through our interests (food, people, and local culture) we knew we were going to be in for an entertaining and unique day.

We started our day heading out of the main center of town to the tofu ‘factory.’ It was set up in the now under construction (business must be good) family home. It was the most basic set up and on our visit run by two guys with the greatest of efficiencies. One brother made sure to feed the soy beans thru the grinder with enough water and then take the grounds thru a strainer while working the ground beans to make sure it was pure soya bean milk. The other brother than grabbed the bucket to take to the very hot bowls for boiling; which while we were there he also cleaned, with no gloves or OSHA safety equipment, clearly he has tough skin. It was then strained again and cooled before being pressed into squares. While we missed the process of pressing we did get a chance to see the freshly made and still steaming batch that was just made and try some of the scrap pieces that just didn’t want to fit in the square form.

The tofu 'factory'

The tofu ‘factory’

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From there it was on to the local market. Now we have been to a few markets in our travels, a handful of those catering to tourists but many have been for locals to buy the day’s meats, fish, fruits, snacks, etc. However this market was nothing like anything we have seen before. The meats and fish section really stuck out in my mind from the women scaling the fish while carrying on conversations, the live frogs being pulled out of a bag and then presented as ready to cook, the fish eggs and bird eggs on display, the live fish moving about in boxes thinking they could make an escape and just the endless row of meats on display. Needless to say there was really no need for coffee after walking thru this section of the market all while trying to navigate through the sea of shoppers and of course motorbikes making their way thru the crowds. As we continued on towards the fruits and nuts we nibbled on cooked peanuts, lotus seeds, cloves of garlic soaked in salt water for the last four months (divine!), tofu and ginger (a fantastic sweet snack), jackfruit and sticky rice (yummy), fried sweet potatoes, a sweet fried dough, ant eggs (that was just Adam). After our morning snacking was complete it was now time for us to make our way back to the breakfast stall. As we were both nearing capacity we decided it would be wise to split the plate of rice noodles, fried egg and fried chives. But the homemade soy milk was something I would not share; it was the best I have ever tried. And it has inspired me to learn how to make my own.

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As we wandered through the market taking in all the sights, sounds (yep, they even have QVC/fair style pitch men hawking unusual looking products the women were flocking to) and smells you could find the young kids being dragged around catch a glimpse of you and have a look of astonishment that you are here. And one girl who caught us all in conversation every time I gave a glance down she was looking up at us holding on to her mother’s hand with all of her attention on us and not where she was going. We knew based off their reactions alone that not too many tourists make their way to this market.

We then left the town and paved roads behind us began our adventure around the countryside.

Dani our guide

Dani, our guide

Our first stop of the day was to a home where the women of the household perform the eastern healing art of cupping. Usually it is the younger daughter that does it, but since she was busy doing laundry the mother was the one doing our cupping for today. I had heard about this before and was very interested to try (and considering it was only $1 this seemed like the best place to see what all the fuss was about) so I was the first one on the table. I was expecting pinching and excessive heat but I never really felt either. It was already 95+ outside so if it was hot, I was already sweating so I couldn’t tell the difference.

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(photo courtesy of Dani from Bee’s Unlimted)

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(photo courtesy of Dani from Bee’s Unlimted)

After our foray into eastern medicine it was off to the local family that makes rice noodles. Watching just the first few steps in the process was very impressive. The amount of work that is put into making these noodles is something I just never think of. It was a moment to remember where our food should come from and that it really is a laborious process. The family first had to grind the rice with water into a mixture which they would then pound into a dough using an old fashioned see-saw like contraption. It was fascinating to watch the process play out and we were excited to try the finished product later in the afternoon on our way back from venturing further into the countryside.

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We then saw a women selling sugar cane juice. So naturally we stopped for some roadside, made with the help of a motorbike engine no less, sugar cane juice.

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It was then time for another quick pit stop, and since we hadn’t had enough food (haha!) we placed an order for fresh spring rolls to pick up on our way back to town. I guess the family used to sell and make them here in front of the home, but now they sell and make them down on the main road.

As was the way of this tour, we saw a family working out in front of their home and stopped to see if we could come have a look. As it turns out this stop was with a family, who our guide had never stopped at before, to watch the matriarch shred mangos to fill a very large pot for cooking to then lay out to dry as fruit leathers.

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Drying the mango leather

Drying the mango leather

The husband was very generous and offered us a very large piece of ready to eat dried mangos. There was absolutely no hesitation as soon as he we walked up he was off to get us a piece to try. And to see that what the family had was not much and with two small boys, it was almost unbelievable how generous this man was. I was just so floored by it. I can’t think of anywhere else someone with seemingly so little would be willing to give to completely strangers. And as per usual this super fresh and just pure dried mango was pure perfection. It makes me wonder why I don’t just become a professional housewife and just make everything myself. It appears to be simple and just time intensive and the end result of tasty, fresh preservative free goodness I think is worth it. Plus it will match up to what I have been stating on all my immigration forms under occupation.

We then made another stop at a family’s home where our guide usually says hello to see where they were at in the process of drying mangos. Well the neighbor kids also saw us stop and two young girls probably 5 and 3 years old came along with two other boys to check us and see what we were about. After the boys tired of us they ran off but the two little girls were almost like our shadow watching our every move with such intense curiosity. It did prove me a good chuckle as they were way more interested in Adam. I am not sure if it was the beard or the camera or the fact that he was a white guy that intrigued them the most.

Driving along the countryside

Driving thru the countryside

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It was then off to watch an older woman, which is a rare site here, roll incense sticks. She made it seem so effortless with each stick the same size and the starting point in the exact same spot. She really was like a machine.

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Bee's Unlimted 4

(photo courtesy of Dani from Bee’s Unlimted)

We carried on down the dirt road passing more homes and peaking in to see what families were making and continue on with our tour of just popping in to say hello and watch. We even got to get in on the action helping make a sweet treat of palm sugar rolled into rice flour, boiled for a few minutes, let to cool and finished off with fresh coconut shavings.

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And one of the best stops was back at the family home where they made rice noodles. While they had finished production for the day the family was now placing on bamboo trays perfectly divided portions of noodles.

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So we got to step in as QA and taste test! And with one bite I was blown away with how delicious they were. I can already tell that I am now going to be even more of a noodle snob and only want this type of perfection.

Adam enjoying the fresh noodles

Adam enjoying the fresh noodles (photo courtesy of Dani from Bee’s Unlimted)

But I had to stop myself as we still had the spring rolls to enjoy. I guess our countryside tour really became a food tour, but to us that is one of the best ways to get to know a place. After all as the author James Michener once said, “If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay at home.” And I couldn’t agree more with him. And those spring rolls were worth feeling over stuffed! As we made our way back into town we had one last quick stop at a roadside bug stall where they had several different insects fried up and ready to eat for snacks. Adam was up for trying some cricket and had quickly ate one (apparently it really does just taste like a potato chip) but I couldn’t work up an appetite so took a pass.

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Care for a quick snack? Worms on the left, crickets in the middle, and water beetles on the right

After just spending a few hours outside the city, we both have completely fallen for Cambodia and the generous spirit of the people here. I am now only bummed that we will not be spending more time here.

That evening after our standard air con relaxing and nap afternoon we met up with Dani at a small fruit shake stand just across the river.

Sunset from our hotel as we were heading out for the evening

Sunset from our hotel as we were heading out for the evening

And since he had led us to so many great places during the day, I knew this would be no ordinary fruit shake stand. And at first sip, I knew. Made with only fruit and a little sugar, with creamy texture you would have assumed there were a few scoops of ice cream in it, but the freshness of the fruit was the true testament to the fact that only the best fruits were available and used. Even the piece of durian and sip of the durian shake I had wasn’t too bad. It really did have the texture of an avocado but the after taste wasn’t the best. I think I still need one more try before I actually like it.

Since we were out, we decided to wandered more of the main area of town and were quickly over it as it was just more shops, massage places and tourist bars and restaurants. After a day in the beautiful countryside seeing this was even more off putting than usual. So after a quick walk we were back at our hotel for our senior bed time. After all we have another early morning and a date with more temples!

Today’s Travel: Exploring the countryside around the East Baray area

Accommodations: Shadow Angkor Inn

Sunrise and temples

8 May 2014

Our day started with a 5am pick up for sunrise at the famous Angkor Wat. The early wake up was fine as we were able to enjoy the cool breeze as we sat in the back of the tuk tuk on our ride out to the temple. And as we saw the lake (moat) around the temple with the sunlight barely breaking thru there was a mythical feeling. We stood outside the temple complex along the moat wall enjoying the views of the temple and being in awe of the massive structure.

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After a few minutes we decided to make our way inside the complex to the small pond on the temple grounds for the actual sunrise. While it wasn’t the most amazing sunrise we have seen, the few clouds around the temple did provide some vibrant early morning sun reflections and was quite impressive.

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The other great thing about getting up so early to take in the sights was getting to wander around an uncrowded Angor Wat at the early morning hour. I guess most people just came for the sunrise and left as there were just a handful of people wandering around the temple.

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So you're saying there's a chance

So you’re saying there’s a chance

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After discovering the many halls and rooms of the temple we enjoyed some people watching and the temple views as we waited for the top of the temple to open. As the second people in line we had a chance to quickly see the top empty of tourists before the crowds made their way up. But relatively speaking, there were probably only 50 or so people so it wasn’t really that crowded. Walking thru the halls taking in the views of the dense forest that was as far as the eye could see and taking in the detailed sculptures along the walls and high above in the stupas, I was once again beyond impressed with the architectural details.

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It was then back to the tuk tuk, after we braved the now blistering sun along the very long pathway from the temple to the end of the moat, to head to Ta Prohm. Now I thought we had seen some cool Indiana Jones like site yesterday but this one was even better.

You know you're in for a cool temple when this is the entrance

You know you’re in for a cool temple when this is the entrance

A before and after of the restoration work currently taking place at Ta Prohm

A before and after of the restoration work currently taking place at Ta Prohm

The wing after restoration

The wing after restoration

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There were even more random entry ways with no signs and you could make your own path with many ‘ooops, we have found another dead end’ included.

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Just to give you an idea of the scale of the temple and trees here I am standing next to the roots

After our fun little adventure we found the tourists paths and of course the ‘Tomb Raider’ tree which was featured in the Tomb Raider movie with Angelina Jolie (the locals are very proud of this fact).

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The infamous Tomb Raider tree

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Some of the restoration work

Some of the restoration work

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We were done with our temple tour around 9am, which gave us plenty of time to rest and recover for our next day’s activity, a tour around Siem Reap. We met with the owner of Bee’s Unlimited around 6 to have a quick chat about what we wanted to see and do the follow day and were left feeling very excited for our day tomorrow!

Today’s Travel: Tour de Temples, Day 2- Angkor Wat to Ta Prohm

Indiana Jones eat your heart out

7 May 2014

In contrast to our normal style of wandering the streets of a city and simply eating our way through town on the first few days, we decided to go against our norm and begin our first full day touring a few temples. Our driver arrived at 8am to start our day.

We made the 70km drive outside of Siem Reap to Prasat Beng Mealea. Arriving at the side entrance we had a quite walk up to the temple. Once inside the temple walls the temps and the humidity rose as the occasionally cool breeze we felt as we walked up were a thing of the past. The temple has a unique charm as it’s been left almost completely unrestored so for most of the complex you are hopping over giant stone blocks that once used to form the walls and ceilings of the temple.

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With some marked walkways but many not so marked paths we had fun pretending we were Indiana Jones, hopping from one rock to another and looking down into what once was a temple hall.

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Many of the trees in the area had made their home in the cracks of the rocks that had been created from either war our just natural erosion. It was almost like we were in an untouched land until the large group of tourists went by.So after some time on the path we enjoyed some more exploration thru the ruins. But before we did we took a moment from the pathway leading us along the top of the temple to take it all in as were the only ones around.

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As I was sitting and enjoying the view, I heard some commotion below me and thought maybe it was some creature climbing up the rafters. Luckily I didn’t have a bag with me and Adam called in to my attention that there were two boys maybe 7 and 8 climbing underneath the bench and if I had placed anything next to me it would have been any easy take, as something tells me these boys weren’t here to enjoy the sites on a Wednesday morning – call it a gut feeling. It was just a reminder that we are in a very poor country that is seeing a huge influx of tourism and hopefully it will be beneficial for the local people and not just lead to easy petty theft. I guess only time will tell. After we finished playing Indiana Jones for the day we hoped back into our car to head to the next temple we were visiting that day Bantai Srei.

Our guide and driver for the day turned out to be a wealth of information and he constantly provided us with random facts and history of the area. He gave us a great overview of the history of Siem Reap including the past wars between Cambodia and Thailand and the Cham people. With lots of back and forth over who controlled this area. Even today there is still conflict at the border of Thailand and Cambodia over who owns the around Preah Vihear Temple even though the UN stated back in November that the land belonged to Cambodia.

Once we made it to the complex at Bantray Srei we stopped to have lunch at one of the many restaurants located there. Our seats had a nice view of the TV in the restaurant which was playing a video that detailed the history of a lot of the temples around Siem Reap. The video inspired what had to be one of our best conversations yet:

Me: Wow he (King Rajendravarman II) had over 2,000 concubines. You couldn’t handle that.

Adam: Yeah I could.

Me: Well what if 2% were like me, that would be a lot of crazy to deal with.

Adam: Please, I would have had you beheaded a long time ago.

Me: {head shake} hm, true

And that world is true love.

After we finished lunch we walked to Banteay Srei (or Srey – because one spelling would be too easy) also known the ‘Lady Temple.’

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The carvings at this temple were so intricate that it was almost too much to take in. I just slowly moved around stopping about every two steps just to take it all in. And since it was a small temple, we walked around it twice and I still I don’t think I saw every detail. I’ll let the photos do most of the talking but this temple ended up being one of our favorites from during our time in Siem Reap.

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Almost every inch of the temple was covered in intricate carvings like these

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Throughout our tour we happened to drive past many wedding ceremonies to which I had a few questions our guide was more than happy to answer. Marriage dates here are determined by the calendar year the bride a groom our born under. So for example, if the groom was born under the year of the rat and the bride under the year of the horse than the best day – the day with the best luck, to marry on would be a Tuesday. And all of this is determined by the priest (not sure if this is the real name or what our driver knew we would understand).

As we were making our way back into town, we pulled over to buy some palm fruit and while tasting this refreshing little snack our driver offered to stay for a bit if we wanted to walk across the street to Pre Rup. Since we were already getting tired from the heat we just made it a short visit walking into the temple grounds to take in the sights and snap a few pictures.

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Back in town we made arraignments for a very early morning pick up the next day so after dinner it was off to bed for us.

Today’s Travel: Tour de Temples, Day 1- A 70km drive to Prasat Beng Mealea looping back towards town by way of Banteay Srei (about 37km from town) and a quick stop at Pre Rup before making our way back into town

Accommodations: Shadow Angkor Inn

Goodbye’s never get easy

6 May 2014

While we didn’t spend much time in Laos, we really enjoyed our time there from the beautiful landscapes to the slow and relaxed way of life. But once again it was time to back our bags and start to explore a whole new city and culture.

We went into town in the morning to enjoy some of our favorite spots one last time, enjoying one last breakfast, and another delicious noodle soup and some bread for lunch before we made our way to the very tiny airport in Luang Prabang.

Mango-oat french toast for breakfast

Mango-oat french toast for breakfast

Our lunch

Our lunch

It was then on to the prop plane for our hour and a half hop to Siem Reap.

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Upon arrival we made our way to immigration to pay our visa fees and get our stamp. In our grand plans we just assumed we would get cash at the ATM at the airport and be on our way. Well, that was not in the cards for us, as the one ATM was broken. With some hand gestures to one of the guys who worked at the airport he nicely paid our fees for us and then showed us the way to the ATM outside the airport to pay him back. Now the first thing I thought of was that we were going to have to pay some crazy commission to this guy. But I was wrong he even helped at the money changer, who did not want to give any small bills, since ATM’s here only give out USD 100’s. And with that we only paid an extra $5 since at that point we were just grateful that things worked out.

It was then out to the taxi stand where our driver, Narin Chum, started on his history lesson about the area the moment we got in the car. Turns out he was also a tour guide and a driver. With so much great info we decided to have him drive us the next day to see some of the temples further out from town. It was so simple, just a handshake and a promise that he would be at our hotel bright and early to start the day temple touring!

After we settled into our room we wandered the neighborhood to get a sense of the area and find some good places to eat.

Today’s Travel: One last walk around town for breakfast and lunch in Luang Prabang then off to the airport for a flight on Vietnam Airlines to Siem Reap

Accommodations: Shadow Angkor Inn. At this very new boutique hotel, we were lucky enough to get a great rate. As we opened the door to our room you could smell that everything was new and we were probably the first guests in the room, it had that new room smell. The room was large and had plenty of space for storage. The look of the room was very modern with all concrete floors and desk, white stone and grey tiles in the bathroom and a few wood touches to round out the space it has both form and function. The hotel even though very small still has the boutique staples of a pool and rooftop patio. Since everything is still so new it appears that there are plans for a rooftop bar/café. But for now it is just a nice place to take in views of the city.