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Archive for May, 2008

First impressions of Angkor Wat are overwhelming: a crush of people selling and buying; tuk-tuks, motos, tour buses; cries of ‘one dollar, one dollar.’ Separated from the masses by a wide moat is the structure itself – towering, wide and massive. Except, once you cross the bridge and pass through the building’s threshold you realize that the towering building isn’t the actual temple. It’s just a gateway. Then you truly understand why this is the world’s largest religious monument. Nothing compares.

In total, I visited 14 different temples. I hardly know where to begin writing about them. Each was different and the whole complex entralled me for three days. To write about only a few seems to stip the other temples of their beauty and worth – just trust me that each was magnificent, and unique.

But back to Angkor Wat. The Grand Master. Built in dedication to the Hindu god Vishnu and the centre of what was once a massive and thriving city. The walls are covered with bas-relief depictions of Hindu legend and three-dimensional carved asparas (like dancing nymphs). It is complex and awesome – in the true meaning of the word. I was lost in there for hours.

Ta Prohm was the most unique temple, strangled by the thick roots of silk-cotton trees. It is romantic and otherworldly; it seems to belong to nature as much as nature has taken over it. The Bayon was the creepiest, with literally hundreds of carved faces looking down at you from every angle. The most beautiful was Banteay Srei, with its minature sandstone carvings and layers of intricate detail.

Although most of the time it didn’t feel like it, I was visiting the temples in the low season. That meant heavy rain showers in the afternoon and also that I sometimes found myself completely alone in the temple grounds. This wasn’t really an issue – in fact, it added to the feeling of sanctity of the place – that is, until the grounds of Pre Rup. It was while walking around this temple – quite alone – that I encountered a snake. Or rather, it encountered me as I must have shocked it; it darted across my feet and disappeared under a rock. I didn’t scream but I was frozen in shock. All I could think of was all the poisonous snakes that must be lurking in Cambodia. I recovered my composure and found the snake so I could take its picture. I was thoroughly spooked though. And I wasn’t really keen on spending any more time alone. But, strangely enough, after the snake incident, I met people in every other temple I visited, evn though I had been temple-gazing for hours before without speaking to anyone. Someone out there is listening to me, I can tell you that!

Siem Reap

Siem Reap is a remarkable city and incredibly tourist-friendly. It is difficult to see the “Cambodia in Crisis” while walking the streets lined with 5* hotel, cafes and fashion stores. But I got a small glimpse after attending a showing of “Dr. Beat and the passive genocide of children,” a documentary on the state of health care in Cambodia. Dr. Beat (pronounced bee-at) is famous in Cambodia and in his home country of Switzerland for operating six privately-funded hospitals for children in Cambodia. He is very anti-WHO – whose quest for sustainable development often leaves behind sick children in need of real cures – and his message was a strong reminder of the struggle beneath the calm surface.

Coming to Cambodia after the relatively care-free Thailand is a shock to the system, especially my traveller’s conscience. What am I doing here? What am I contributing other than a very un-green amount of greenhouse gases as I jetset in planes around the globe? Cambodia pulls on the heartstrings. The children – it sounds so cliche but its true – are so special. They are constantly hawking their goods but not without sharing their school knowledge. They find out I am from Canada and immediately launch into their spiel: “Canada, capital Ottawa, it has two official languages French and English, bonjour, comment ca va, comment appellez-vous?” It’s adorable and impossible to ignore or push aside.

If only I knew how much worse it was going to get in Phnom Penh!

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Crazy Cambodian Border

The bus picked me up from Bangkok in the early hours of the morning. Almost immediately I got chatting to a girl who was just on her way to Poipet (the Thai-Cambodian border) to do a visa run. Her name was Sarah – from Sarah to Sarah, quite ironic! She told me all about her last visit to Siem Reap and was especially detailed when it came to the border crossing. It’s going to be crazy, she said. Be prepared to get ripped off. I knew the price of the visa: $20USD. I wasn’t going to pay any more and I definitely wasn’t going to pay in Thai baht.

The closer we got the border, the more the bus driver and guides tried to get us to buy the visa in advance. They used all the most persuasive arguments: they only accept 1200thai baht, you’ll have to wait hours at the border to pay in USDs, the bus will leave you behind. They promised us that they were telling the truth (ha!). And, by the end of the five hour trip to the border, every single person except me had bought their visa in advance. The bus driver advanced on me. I had to pay him or else get left behind. Other passengers looked at me with pity in their eyes, one of them even had the nerve to pat me on the back and say “good luck” in a patronizing, you-should-have-just-gotten-ripped-off-like-the-rest-of-us kind of way. It just strengthened my resolve. I walked toward the border counter (no line up, by the way!). I was stopped by some men in intimidating police uniform. They asked for my passport. But no! I knew this was one of the tricks that they used to get me to pay baht, so said my trusty informant Sarah (you can always trust a Sarah!). They demanded 1200baht. I actually didn’t have that much thai baht, which helped my cause a little.  They ended up taking my passport, which I eventually got back and went to the counter and got my 20USD visa as if it was the easiest thing in the world.

I got back to the bus with the rest of the group – they didn’t leave without me! – and immediately we faced with awful roads. They were so awful that within the first minute, a truck in front of us blew out one of its tires with a huge bang and puff of smoke. It was quite theatric – and we all thought that we had struck a landmine (it being Cambodia and all). Quite the scare for everybody. But the rest of the eight hour journey was uneventful.

 

 

 

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Sarah’s last few days in Bangkok were active and jam-packed. Luckily, a lot of the major sights are close to Khao San Road, where we were staying (Star Dome Inn, soi Rambuttri). As a result, we could easily walk to the Grand Palace and Wat Pho. Both structures were incredibly beautiful – but especially impressive was the reclining Buddha in Wat Pho – it’s absolutely massive!! We ate lunch across the river from Wat Amon and were treated to some great views of the city.

The heat in Bangkok is oppressive and we decided to head to mega-mall MBK for a break. It was like going from one form of oppression to another – the mall was packed to the brim with bag laden Thai teenagers and dazed looking tourists. Sarah and I joined the confused masses as we tried (in vain) to navigate the hundreds of stalls (rather than proper shops) inside the shopping centre. Eventually we gave in to fatigue and overwhelmed senses; Sarah went home and I sat in a hair salon for a while taking advantage of a very cheap priced haircut/colour.  My stylist at home will be disappointed with me (sorry Chris!) but they did a really good job.

Kanchanaburi

Our day tour to Kanchanaburi turned out to be one of the best days of my entire trip. We left Bangkok early in the morning for the floating markets. This wasn’t a traditional floating market – it was clearly designed for tourists – but it certainly gave a glimpse into life in the “Venice of the East.” The sun blazed down on our little long-tail boat as we floated past stalls filled with all kinds of exotic fruit, tourist souvenirs and funny woven hats. At one point we got stuck in a traffic jam and were at a standstill for a good five minutes… I can only imagine what it must be like during “busy” periods in the early morning! Our boat was poled along by a woman who looked almost 80… but navigated those narrow canals like only a pro could.

Our next stop was the bridge over the river Kwae. Now that was something else. There was a small museum dedicated to the Death Railway and we walked across the fated bridge… it was quite emotional and a learning opportunity for all of us. It’s always humbling to find yourself standing in the midst of history – one that I should know more about, but I don’t, at least not from the point of view of this side of the world.

The most anticipated stop on our tour came next…. the Tiger Temple! The abbot of Tiger Temple found himself caring for tigers quite by accident. But through word of mouth, it gradually spread that this abbot had a gift for taking care of injured or orphaned tigers and now he has become a major tourist attraction! It really is a unique experience to get so close to these massive and dangerous animals. They hardly seem dangerous though, while they are sleeping in the heat of the afternoon and tourists are approaching them left, right and centre for photographs. The process is all very carefully organized, however. You are led around by a guide who takes you forcefully by the arm to make sure you don’t accidentally walk into a tiger’s gaping jaws. But they then sit you down and drop a tiger’s head in your lap, so they obviously aren’t too concerned about them waking up! I could go on and on about how much this experience meant to me – tigers are by far and away my favourite creature on the planet and my Chinese horoscope animal. But the pictures truly say it all.

Sarah’s Last Day

Sarah’s final day out was dampened by the fact that she fell into a category along with about 30-50% of other travellers… she got the Bangkok belly. That’s no fun for anyone. It meant that she couldn’t come out to the famous Chatuchak market with me – but trust me, that is one place you do not want to be with a dodgy tummy. The moment I arrived I was… even overwhelmed doesn’t describe it properly. I was consumed. There was so much pure stuff everywhere. Beautiful, trendy designer clothes fit for tiny Thai people and sold for dirt cheap prices hung off the stalls. Jewelry, jeans, leather belts, knives, guns, dogs, cats, fish, orchids, kitchen applicances… there was absolutely everything for sale. And it was hot. Oh boy, was it hot and I quickly got discouraged by all the haggling and the clothes that definitely did not fit, no matter how cheap they were, it was not worth the hassle! I remember trying on jeans and the sweat literally pouring off my face as I was trying to pull the heavy denim on. I don’t think I’ve ever sweated that much in my life! Nice image, I know, but it was nuts. I made the decision to quit and get out of there as soon as I could. When I finally found the exit I looked at my watch and discovered I had been walking up and down the aisles for over four hours. And I still had only seen a very small part of it!

Saying goodbye to Sarah was so tough… but it’s hard to dwell on it now, I just gotta keep on moving for one more week. It’s so strange to think that the next time I see her is in the UK!

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Chiang Mai is in northern Thailand and from the moment we touched down after a day in Bangkok, it felt somehow more authentic. The people are much more friendly and, unlike in the islands and in Bangkok where you feel the locals are somehow touristed-out, Thailand’s catchphrase “land of smiles” becomes much more self evident. We checked into “Julie’s Guesthouse,” a beautiful, social – and uber cheap – hostel in the middle of the walled city centre. Everything is cheaper in Northern Thailand too. 15Baht (about 50cents)/hour for internet, 90B (about $3) for a room and 150B (about $5) for a one-hour Thai massage! Can’t get much better than that.

Markets Galore

Now that we are on the last leg of our journey we can finally justify shopping! Walking markets are ubiquitous in Chiang Mai. Saturday markets, Sunday markets, the famous Night Bazaar – we hit them all! We have become master hagglers too, and for handicrafts and textiles, Chiang Mai is noticeably cheaper than Bangkok (or at least the Kao San road as we haven’t made it to the huge weekend market in Bangkok yet).

I think you could find anything you want for cheap-cheap in these markets. I’ve seen Prada fakes, real Mac make-up, pashminas, bags, Tiffany brand jewelry, I-pod Touch, every CD and DVD ever made and photocopied Lonely Planets. Sarah and I met up with Sarah’s friend from home, Charlotte and her travel partner Jenn. We went into a store which was wall-to-wall jewelry – literally every surface was covered in some kind of necklace or bracelet or semi-precious stone. I wasn’t sure if we were going to be able to tear the girls away from there! But even I had to admit, it was pretty fabulous.

Mountain Sightseeing

We met up with a couple from our hostel in order to share the price of a song thaew (a red, open-air taxi) up the mountain to Doi Suthep and the Winter Palace: two of Chiang Mai’s most famous attractions. The Winter Palace was first and we spent a while exploring the grounds. Unfortunately, the weather was abysmal. The whole place was shrouded in cloud and so the normal splendor of the gardens and fountains was a bit lost on us. We hoped it would be better at Doi Suthep.

In fact, the weather didn’t improve but it did lend an air of mystery to the temple that it wouldn’t have had otherwise. We couldn’t see the (apparently) fabulous views of Chiang Mai but we did have fun exploring the temple and walking the steps.

Village Walks

The last thing we did in Chiang Mai was visit some of the villages in the surrounding area. It was a very mixed bag kind of tour, which we thought was going to be exclusively about the villages but ended up also including a tour of an elephant dung paper factory, an orchid and butterfly farm and the caves at Chiang Dao. Quite random.

The villages, however, were eye-opening. Or rather, the village was. All the tribes we thought we were going to see were in fact located in one, highly touristy village. In the one complex were members of the long neck Karen tribe, the big ear hill tribe, the lisu tribe, amongst others. Most of the tribe members are refugees from Myanmar. We were allowed to take our photos with them and to buy their goods but most of them didn’t speak much English – or were reluctant too – and we were soon ushered back into the car to the next stop. We did in fact go and visit some other villages, but again it was to be bombarded by children selling friendship bracelets. Cries of “10Baht… 10Baht” became a kind of mantra to the group. I swear I hear it in my dreams now!

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For the most part I’ve been blogging in chronological order, but I’m going to have to take a more themed approach for this entry and write about my favourite Thai subject: food!

Most of the streets in Bangkok and Chiang Mai are packed with food stalls. You can walk from one part of the city to the another and pick up some pad thai for breakfast, fried chicken (way better than KFC) for lunch, chicken satay for dinner and some fresh Alphonso mangos for dessert. Can’t really imagine anything better… and for under a dollar each meal!

That’s what inspired me most to go out in Chiang Mai and do a cooking course. Mine was with Pad Thai Cooking course and I would definitely recommend them! We made six dishes each: breakfast, appetizer, soup/salad, curry, stir-fry and a dessert. Each category had six different options to choose from so there was a lot of choice in what you could make. I ended up choosing pad thai, spring rolls, tom yum soup, panang curry, chicken stirfry with cashew nuts and fried bananas.

First of all we did a market tour. We were taught all about the spices used to make curry paste and the different “Thai” versions of fruit and vegetables. We tried different types of fruit including mangosteen and rambutan – both delicious, white-flesh fruits, similar to lychee.

The cooking school itself was about half an hour outside of Chiang Mai in the countryside. The kitchen was open-air, with enough cooking stations for everyone. We jumped straight into making “breakfast” (although by now it was almost 11) and for me, that meant pad thai! This was definitely one I had been looking forward too, having devoured so many delicious pad thais off of street stalls. Everyone had their own tray of fresh ingredients, pre-measured for the perfect single portion size (although the cooking was easy, this is going to be the most difficult step to get right at home – portion sizes, and all the preparation). A little wok technique here, a little pinch of sugar and a douse of crushed peanuts there and voila! The perfect pad thai! And it was delicious, if I do say so myself…

The rest of the day passed in much the same way. The chefs were hilarious and spoke amazing English; they made everyone feel right at home in the kitchen. But the highlight of the day was by far the “cooking with big flame.” This was the ‘stir-fry’ category, and a definite don’t-try-this-at-home moment. Holding a wok on very high heat in one hand and a bowl full of chopped onions and a tablespoon of water in the other I waited for the 3…2…1…. countdown and then threw the onions into the wok — instant giant flame!

By the end of cooking school, we were all stuffed to the brim with thai food, a little sleepy and full of inspiration to try cooking at home. We were each given a recipe book, but I just don’t know if I’ll ever be able to replicate the tastes without access to the fresh ingredients… I’ll just have to try and see!

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For backpackers, Koh Phangan is known for one thing: full moons. Not that it is inhabited by a bunch of werewolves (although from stories I’ve heard, you wouldn’t be half wrong) but for the crazy parties that are held once a month when the moon is brightest. Unfortunately, I wasn’t there for one of these full moons, but we did arrive on the day of a half-moon party. After checking into another cute bungalow on the beach and exploring the full moon beach of Haad rin, we headed into the jungle for the party. Immediately we are bombarded by thai men and women armed with glowing body paint. It’s impossible to resist; Sarah gets a butterfly on her shoulder and I get a Canadian-UK flag on my arm (yes, I was feeling particularly patriotic that day!) The music wasn’t entirely mine and Sarah’s thing – heavy trance and house musi. But it was accompanied by some awesome firedancers and generally we had fun partying into the wee hours of the morning (although not as wee as Adam – at least we got some sleep!)  

We recovered the next morning back at Haadrin, where there is more action. Unfortunately there was also a lot of clouds, so we passed the time in a “Friends” bar (non-stop Friends episodes, feels like home!) and then by watching the movie “The Beach.” Having just read the book in NZ, I was keen to see the film. Certainly having been to Th Khao San I can say the portrayal is pretty much accurate, although we are staying in a nicer hostel! And as for the beach itself, it doesn’t exist…

Turtle Island

While Phangan might be famous for parties, Koh Tao is famous for diving. You couldn’t walk three steps without stumbling over yet another dive shop. While wandering the streets we were spotted by Katie (it also seems to work like that: completely random) and so we stayed with her at Crystal Dive Resort. There was no diving for me this time – I wanted to do it in the Similans but it is the wrong season.

It also happened to be Katie’s birthday! We had a chilled out night sitting on the beach at Lotus bar and almost got lost walking home. We walked home because we didn’t want to shell out 70Baht for a taxi… about the equivalent of $2! Needless to say, we are anxious not to get ripped off in Thailand, even though getting ripped off is still about a quarter of the price (or an eigth, if you’re English!) we would pay at home.

Our stay at Koh Tao was short but sweet. Sarah only has a few more days in Thailand and we had to make sure we arrived in Bangkok on time so we didn’t miss our flight. Ironically, after having heard so many stories of late buses and missed connections, our bus ended up arriving in Bangkok 2 and a half hours early! Wandering Th Kao San at 3:30am is an interesting experience… everyone is awake still – chatting in bars, drinking, wandering, shopping, eating – as if it were 3:30pm. We weren’t even charged for the extra night, even though we reached the hotel and crashed on the beds. We weren’t up for joining the much-too-alive Bangkok night scene after the long bus ride. Tonight may be different though!

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