Thursday, July 29, 2010

Jaipur (India)

Along with Delhi and Agra, the pink city of Jaipur in Rajasthan makes up India's Golden Triangle. We both lost our tempers a little by being accosted immediately off the train by a particularly persistent autorickshaw driver who followed us for a good 20 minutes despite our repeated attempts to discourage him. I would like to blame our initial disorientation on him. Eventually we reached our heritage hotel, which proved to be a perfect haven. I especially appreciated the softer bed (for Asia) in a beautiful room, working air conditioning, and quiet little courtyard when my head cold made me take the day off.

For sightseeing, we headed to Jantar Mantar, which looks like a cool arty sculpture garden (Julie) or the most awesome skate park ever (Richard)! It is actually an astronomical observatory built by the maharajah of Jaipur in the 1700's and includes the world's largest sundial. It was worthwhile to spring for the official tour guide, who besides being able to tell us how each structure worked, also related the importance of astrology in Indian culture.

The City Palace is where the current maharajah resides (in a closed section). Different exhibits included the royal hall for public audiences, elaborate textiles, and really nasty-looking weapons... with a back scratcher in the same case! Unfortunately, cameras were not allowed in the rooms with the really beautiful decor.

The cheapest way to get into the city from our hotel was taking the local stop and go bus. Staring is common and unabashed in India, and our fellow passengers were no exception. No one wanted to sit next to the foreigners. Eventually, as the bus continued to get more and more packed, they decided that we were at least better than the guy with the bag that emanated flies (also very abundant in India) who kept falling asleep on people. As a result, a couple of men were practically sitting on my lap!

We also took the opportunity to take in the latest Bollywood film at the Raj Mandir Cinema, which with its pink and white architecture, makes it look like a 6-year-old girl's birthday cake. Richard did not know that the 3+ hour long film would not be in English and was under the misconception that I told him otherwise. The audience rushes into the theatre as soon as the doors open, and you soon find out why - the film starts showing immediately, no 10 minutes of trailers for cushion. Khatta Meetha (as far as we could tell) revolved around a goofy engineer trying to expand his construction business. His attempts to fulfill a contract to build a road were severely hampered by an employee with a slapstick inability to do his job (i.e. the comic relief). The government official monitoring the lack of progress is an ex-love interest. The complex side stories also involved his more successful thug-like brothers involved in shady political dealings who marry off their sister to the biggest monster of them all. For a film with children in attendance, the mafia-like scenes were surprisingly violent. The requisite song-and-dance numbers were hilarious and extravagant, including a random pirate ship! [Sorry, folks, I did not see Nigel in this one!] Everything works out in the end - the engineer and official get married, the bad brothers go to jail ... except for the sister, whose husband passes her around his friends, and then she gets beaten to death for trying to escape (!).

In Jaipur, we also caught a ride with the cheekiest autorickshaw driver. Crossing the road during traffic, we were able to negotiate a decent price. However, he still outwitted his buddies on the other side of the road (who we were heading to) and flaunted it. Over the course of our 15 minute trip, he managed to stop 1 time for the toilet, 1 time to buy something, and 4 times to ask other buddies for directions! For the last few meters, Rich actually had to direct him. Occasionally, he would just glance back with this giant "yeah, I have no idea what I'm doing" grin and continue on with his erratic driving. We found it pretty amusing... and maybe that is just us settling into a good attitude for India.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Agra and Fatephur Sikri (India)

Our usual commentator is currently out of commission with a cold (don't worry, Mom!) brought on by wildly fluctuating environmental temperatures and general exhaustion (according to our guidebook, this happens to 25% of visitors to India) so Richard is making a guest writing appearance for today. I apologize in advance for the obvious lack of quality.

Following our rude awakening in Delhi (I met someone today that was also shocked by how hard that city was), we were glad to finally catch the slow train to Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. Most tourists catch the early train that takes about an hour and a half to get there, but it was fully booked so we caught the evening train the night before and opted for an extra night in Agra. The train ended up arriving in Agra three hours late, which is pretty impressive given that it was scheduled to take only four. It seemed like the Delhi construction had followed us there because we were put up in a room that still smelled of paint on the first night. For the second night, we moved into an older room with "Indian air-conditioning" - a fan that blows air over trickling water - personally, I think I preferred having no AC at all. Power glitches (not uncommon in Asia, but a daily occurrence in India) through the night kept us awake with the fan fluctuating between jet engine speeds and nothing at all.

On our first day in Agra, we decided that we were too good for the Taj Mahal, and took some local transport out to Fatehpur Sikri, an ancient Mughal fortified city about 40 km outside Agra. It sounded interesting, but we weren't prepared for the incredible beauty of the huge red sandstone structures. I think I was expecting "a series of small walls" (as Eddie Izzard claims Time Team always composes), not full structures around well-manicured gardens. Most of what we saw was the palace buildings, including the homes of the dude's (Emperor Akbar) three favourite wives - Muslim, Hindu, and Christian. He was apparently very religiously tolerant. The fort was well-preserved and big enough that you could have some peace from the tour guide touts. The way back to Agra was a bit of an adventure. When the bus finally turned up, the driver got out and (I assume from the shouting and gestures) announced that he couldn't be bothered to drive back for the scheduled return! A pretty big shouting match erupted between him and the trailing Indian passengers, and we (the foreigners) were used as leverage to get him to run his assigned route. He got his revenge by beeping his horn for 80% of the hour-long journey, so trying to have a conversation sounded like a Quentin Tarantino script playing on daytime TV.

The second day in Agra was spent chilling out before our train. No, sillies, we got up at 5:30am to watch the sunrise at the Taj Mahal! Monsoon season is probably not the best time to see sunrises, and we were actually a little late, so we watched the early morning rain at the Taj Mahal instead. Most tourists don't show up until 9 am or so, so it was relatively quiet. Again, we managed to find a few quiet spots to sit and take in the Taj without being bugged by touts. It's funny that it actually looks fake from a distance. Part of that was probably the flat morning light, but one sees so many pictures of the "reflection pool" view that it's a little surreal to see it in person. Once you get up close though, no pictures can do it justice. You have to be there to appreciate its majesty (and consummate vees, for you Homestar Runner fans). The Taj Mahal, commissioned by Shah Jahan at the death of his beloved wife, is built out of semi-transparent white marble and is famous for changing colour with the lighting conditions. We were treated to a short example of this when the sun peaked out for a few seconds to light the building up beautifully. There is a lot of hype around the Taj Mahal, and it's worth every bit of it. I have a question, though: why is everyone obsessed with taking pictures of themselves jumping in front of it?

It looks like no blog post is complete without some mention of food, so here's my take. The food in Agra is god awful! We tried several Lonely Planet-recommended places and thought you could get better Indian food out of a jar. The place with a "great thali for 90 Rs" has the worst thali we've tried so far. Let this be a lesson to guide book readers: don't believe everything you read in that book! We mostly have been finding our own eateries by going to the crowded places. Maybe most travellers don't want Indian food? I have to admit that most people I've seen are eating omelettes and cheese sandwiches. To get around the poor tourist food, we finished off Agra by taking an auto-rickshaw out to one of the bazaars and getting food on the street. Julie got a fairly unimpressive mutton biryani (rice dish with a two pieces of actual lamb), and I had a delicious tandoori paratha (bread) with spicy kebabs and spicier minty dipping sauce. Surprisingly enough, eating meat off the street didn't appear to cause stomach problems... yet.

[Submitted with only minor editting and interjections by Julie. Thanks and good job, Richard!]

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Delhi (India)

Delhi was very hot and very dusty. This is because it is one big construction site, as the city prepares for hosting the Commonwealth Games (like the Olympics, but only for countries with the Queen still on their money) in October. For example, picture one of those World War II movies like Saving Private Ryan where they run through the rubble of the town dodging snipers, except change the snipers to touts, and throw in a placid cow chewing rubbish, and you have the road just outside of our hotel and the New Delhi Railway Station. According to a newspaper snippet, we are not alone in thinking it would be a miracle for all the construction to get finished in time for the Games.

Shaking us out of the easy cocoon of Thai travel, India asserts itself immediately whenever one tries to negotiate for an autorickshaw. With the abundant scams and ever present touts, I am counting us lucky if we only get screwed once a day. Our first adventure was getting to the National Museum (filled with artifacts, sculpture, miniature paintings, and other works of art) where we agreed to a price that we later understood to be 2-3x the fare. Our autorickshaw driver talked non-stop the entire way trying to get us to go to other places, finally settling on parking a little away from the museum and pointing at the scaffolding, saying "oh, it is closed on Sunday." We had heard of this possible scam and insisted, and when we walked around the corner we found, of course, the museum was open as scheduled. Let's call this Autorickshaw driver - 1, Rich and Julie - 1.

After our first sour experience, we opted to walk to Connaught Place (a giant 3 circled roundabout with shops all along the way). This time we did not fall for the autorickshaw driver who tried to get us into his vehicle with a new one, "There are protests that way!" It took us forever to find the restaurant in the maze of construction, but we were rewarded with excellent unlimited thalis (trays with a set menu in tiny dishes). The set up was a bit like a Brazilian churrascaria with servers refilling your portions except without the necessary stop/go cards. As a result, you have the same guy asking if you want more parathas about 3 minutes after the last time he asked you. It was delicious though with these thalis having about 5 vegetable dishes, 3 kinds of dal (lentils), 3 kinds of bread, and various sweet things.

We also visited Lal Qila (Red Fort) in Old Delhi, one of the other impressive building ventures of the Mughal emperors. It was refreshing to walk around the different sandstone-edificed buildings without constant pressure from touts. Rich was very happy to have his first proper cup of tea in Asia (i.e. without condensed milk or ice). For lunch, we stopped along Chandri Chowk where Julie had yet another thali (this time, not unlimited) and Rich indulged in some chaat (Indian snacks). The raj kachori (a giant crispy shell filled with yogurt, lentils, and other nice things) and bhel puri (spicy crispy bits, the variation with pomengranate seeds) were awesome. [Special thanks to Muk for introducing us to such things!]

The Delhi Metro - clean, fast, and high tech- was a pleasant surprise. You get an electronic token that scans to let you in, and presumably, will alert the authorities if you try to exit at a place other than your stated destination. The only hiccup was the long lines to exit since there were technical difficulties at the gates, where the agents had to scan each person's token by hand.

Ko Samui (Thailand) and Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia)

Just a few notes on passing through airports:

- Ko Samui airport was like a tropical version of an American shopping mall. The terminal was open-air with shops and a spa lining the walkway and a small park with wood sculpture picnic tables. The gate looked like the lobby for a boutique hotel with rattan couches and low tables. The bathroom had automatic sliding glass doors, air conditioning, and a freakin' huge aquarium, which would have been more suited as the centerpiece in a fine upscale restaurant. Unfortunately, this beautiful example of an airport was marred by the overwhelming sewage smell emanating from the drains, which seems to curse most open water in Thailand.

- Kuala Lumpur airport is very business class stylish with your Mont Blanc, Hermes, and Harrods outposts. There is a jungle boardwalk in the middle of the terminal with tropical plants and a fake waterfall. It cost about 9 USD to print out 3 pages in a you-don't-have-enough-miles-to-get-into-one-of-the-airline-lounges-so-you-can-just-shell-out-the-cash-to-pretend lounge.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Final Thoughts on Thailand

It is time to move on again so here are some final thoughts on Thailand, mostly related to food and drink...

- Despite being probably two of the most easily recognizable Thai dishes except for pad thai, we never did get any sticky rice with mango or chicken satay. By the time I felt like ordering sticky rice with mango, I couldn't find any place selling it!

- Also surprising, it can be really difficult finding a Thai iced tea! Even if a place has it on the menu, there is a 75% chance they don't have any.

- Best street food: sweet rotee, a crepe-like concoction fried with butter and topped with sugar and sweetened condensed milk selling for about 30 cents.

- Having tried probably over 40 Thai dishes from the buffets at ENP and the cookery courses, we overindulged in Thai cuisine so we had a brief flirtation with overpriced Western fare. The biggest head-scratcher still remains the mushroom dish served at ENP lunches, which confounded vegetarians and omnivores alike in its truly remarkable similarity to beef.

- Bangkok Airways gets our approval. If you have a tight connection, an agent meets you at the gate, takes you to the correct baggage claim, and expedites your security check. As a bonus, they still feed you on the flight at no additional charge! ...although we noticed this seemed to be true of all the Southeast Asia carriers we have been on, and even if the flight is only an hour long.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Ko Tao and Ko Samui (Thailand)

Ko Tao is an island in Southern Thailand famous for its diving. We are not divers, but we headed down for some beach time and snorkeling. A basic bungalow with cold shower and a manual flush toilet (i.e. bucket and tap) was a little above the average cost of a room on our trip, but it was also 20 feet from the beach, Hat Sai Ri. A bricked path with backpacker hostels and resorts alike winds along the backside of the beach. It would be a nice stroll most of the time except for the odd motorbike that decides to plow down it, forcing pedestrians to scamper out of the way. Many of the bars are just a few low tables and cushions with sunset views. On our snorkeling day trip, our rust bucket of a boat (the captain told us not to lean on the rails because they would break off) stopped at 5 sites around Ko Tao, several of which were quite beautiful. Richard got to see one of the black-tipped reef sharks, and I was content to not see one. The last site was near a tiny island off the coast where the resort on it charged for stepping foot on land. I opted not to go and just enjoyed some people-watching and close calls as dive boats jettisoned their instructor-led groups amid busy boat traffic. We also ran into a fellow ENP volunteer on the beach and again while we were snorkeling.

One item I got to tick off my list of things to do was the seafood blowout. We found our perfect restaurant - if you could call a dozen plastic picnic tables on the beach a restaurant - where you pick out your choices from the fresh caught seafood by weight. They throw it on a grill, and you get it back with a salad and a baked potato. We ordered 1 crab, 1 squid, 2 tiger prawns, and a lobster. The German couple in front of us was amazed and kept turning around every time a new plate was delivered - how were we supposed to know we would get the sides with each order? ...but it was delicious! My mom and dad should be proud that we even picked through all the heads. We arrived around 6:30 pm, when there was already a wait for a table, and by 9 pm, like Keyser Soze, it was gone! No trace. We spent the rest of the evening sitting on bean bags overlooking the sea at a bar with surprisingly good music, almost as if the mixes were tailored to people our age.

After beach bumming in Ko Tao, we decided to break the bank and spend a couple of days in luxury on Ko Samui, a larger island further south. A vacation from our vacation, if you will. The simple things were magnified just from our last few weeks of roughing it, like being able to leave the shower without immediately getting soaked in sweat or covered in sand, having a refrigerator, and best of the best, the softest bed in Southeast Asia! In retrospect, Richard and I have to come to the conclusion that it was probably not much softer than our bed at home, we just have not slept on anything with springs that actually gives in a long time. Chaweng Beach was also a level above Hat Sai Ri with truly powder sands although both beaches had calm, crystal clear water with bath-like temperatures. While I was getting pampered with a tamarind scrub and aromatherapy massage, Richard took a spin out on a 1500 cc jet ski. He thought it was both terrifying and awesome! Our Ko Samui interlude was well-appreciated as we try to psych ourselves up to take on India.

Chiang Mai, Bangkok, Surat Thani, and Ko Tao (Thailand)

41 hours. That is how long the adventure to get from Chiang Mai to Ko Tao took us. Having some time to kill, we decided to take the scenic route through Thailand by catching trains. In Chiang Mai, we were excited to try out the first-class sleeper with our own private cabin with washbasin and complimentary drinking water. Alas, we realized when we boarded the train that our tickets were for second-class sleeper with only a curtain between you and the other twenty or so people in the carriage. The beds were surprisingly comfortable, probably the softest we have had so far in Southeast Asia (where on the average mattress, sleeping on your side means your arm dying and waking up with a massively swollen hand in the middle of the night). Really, other than the bruised egos and the ridiculously expensive dinner we bought on board, it was actually quite pleasant.

The overnight train only took us to Bangkok, and our only experience in the capital (besides the previous airport layover) was getting breakfast at a street stall and popping into the 7-Eleven across from the train station. Thailand is absolutely riddled with 7-Elevens with one on nearly every block, yet another testament to the Westernization of the country (as well as Starbucks... and Tesco... and Boots).

Bangkok to Surat Thani was a seemingly endless day train with seats like a coach bus and air con cold enough to require my hoodie. If we had done some forward planning, we should have gotten off the train a couple of hours earlier than Surat Thani and caught a ferry to Ko Tao to be there in time for bed... But since we had not even decided we were going to Ko Tao until about a half hour previous to this stop, we did not have our wits about us.

We caught a local stop-and-go bus from the Surat Thani station to the pier in town, which was an adventure itself. We were surprised to watch the attendant at the gas station fill the tank from the opening under the front seat (and the car battery was under the seat across from it). The bus driver and the lady who collected fares were engaged in a heated conversation that involved frequent gesturing to us. We were worried it was something along the lines of, "why did you let these foreigners on who are too stupid to even know exactly where their stop is?" ... so I was relieved to catch the word "Philippine" in their conversation, realizing they were playing the game of "What Asian is she?", which has happened rather commonly on our trip. When I confirmed, "Philippine," the fare lady was triumphant that she had guessed correctly.

We had four hours to kill in Surat Thani, which we spent visiting a couple of night markets. Finally, we found someone in Southeast Asia selling insects to eat! Richard bought a mixed bag with fish sauce, but honestly, as an entomologist, I have to admit that eating grasshoppers is a little passe for me.

The night boat was wall-to-wall sleeping mats with each person occupying half of a mat and backpacks and shoes piled in every other bare inch available. Aside from the general poor hygiene of the rest of our fellow travelers (typical backpacker hippies), I tried to ignore the cockroach (Oriental) I saw, and the stink already emanating from the toilet before. Unfortunately, I also got to sleep next to the group of English latecomers, who decided that in the interest of staying together, really they could just squeeze in tight. What it actually means is that the six people, who are trying to fit into the space that would fit a cozy four, just make it miserable for those around them. I spent the evening fighting for territory and not hesitating to leave the occasional elbow sticking out. Amazingly, Richard slept like a rock... it must have been the dramamine.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Chiang Mai (Thailand)

Most of our time in Chiang Mai was devoted to cooking or in markets. We did 3 days of cooking courses at the Chiang Mai Thai Cookery School. In our opinion, these were the best cooking classes we have ever been to. Each dish was first demonstrated by the staff, and each student then cooked their own version at their own prep station and gas burner after sampling the pro's. They also provided suggestions for altering the taste of a dish as well as how to select and store ingredients. The best morning activity was preparing curry paste, which involved enough mortar and pestle time to make our arms sore, but the results were already better than anything we have ever made at home. The cookery school is an efficient machine, considering we got through 6 dishes in as many hours. Towards the end, we were getting cocky with our technique so then we played around with our garnishes and plating. Richard's best effort was making a smiley face in his soup using straw mushroom and coriander/cilantro stalks, and mine was a palm tree in my red curry out of fresh bamboo shoot and the top of a basil. Some of our favorite dishes included:
- penang curry with pork
- hot and sour prawn soup
- fried fish cakes with a chili-cucumber sauce
- spicy papaya salad eaten with a "scoop" made from a ball of sticky rice
- banana coconut cake steamed in a banana leaf

Chiang Mai also has fantastic markets. The Sunday Walking Market, which we went to twice, was a major thoroughfare with anything for sale, buskers, and amazing street food that tops any street festival in the States (even the one in Chicago before we left). One of the best things about the street food in Thailand is that it comes in snack sizes... even tiny omelets, each made out of a single quail egg. Our interesting finds included:
- Black gelatin shaved from a giant block and topped with ice and heaps of brown sugar, which tasted like sweet tea jello
- A crepe-like thing with coconut cream, shaved coconut, sugar, and cheese
- A giant deep-fried ball of rice, which we thought would be safe, until the seller broke it up, mixed it with vegetables and spices and almost (until we stopped her) what looked like uncooked ground pork... she dropped it, but still used the same hand to mix
- Finally, a decent sausage in Asia! Pork with chilli and lemongrass... so good we went for seconds

My other interesting experience in Chiang Mai was yet another massage (is there such a career as a massage anthropologist? Because if so, sign me up!). It was given by a cute girl with a smile and a bow in her hair... and knuckle tatoos! The women's prison in Chiang Mai has a program for the inmates to learn massage skills, and the money goes into an account for them to use when they get released. She seemed like such a nice girl, and I was dying to know what her crime was... but "so, what are you in for?" is not exactly the sort of conversation you want to have while in a vulnerable position like having your elbows pinned down with her knees. In Thailand, a full body massage seems to also mean their full body as well, since most of the time, it looks like the two of you are wrestling (case in point, sitting cross-legged with her grabbing under your armpits as she swings your upper body to crack your back). Rehabilitation for her and for me.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Bangkok and Chiang Mai (Thailand)

We flew out of Cambodia and into the Northern Thailand city of Chiang Mai via Bangkok. It was immediately evident from the Bangkok airport that Thailand is the most Westernized of the countries we have been in yet. Some people have criticized Thailand as being too open to foreigners, and it is a little surreal at times... Bangkok airport looked like it could have been Heathrow, and we had to resist stopping in the Dunkin' Donuts!

After this brief glimpse into the industrialized world, we headed in the opposite direction while we volunteered under more rustic conditions for a week at Elephant Nature Park (or ENP,, a sanctuary for Asiatic elephants about 60 km outside of Chiang Mai. The elephants at ENP were rescued from a variety of abusive situations.

It was a fantastic experience even though the day-to-day life initially may not sound so exciting. The morning chores mostly revolved around elephant upkeep like preparing their food, and of course, picking up poo! Afternoon chores and other jobs involved taking care of the park itself like weeding and planting... hmmm, that sounds an awful lot like what I would be doing anyway this time of the year. In the process, we managed to pick up mad machete skills cutting grass (looked exactly like maize, just as tall, but without the ears... and very satisfying to take down) as well as learn more about tropical agriculture with jobs like preparing and planting sugarcane cuttings. We also spent one morning at the local school, doing a horrible job trying to get Thai kids to practice their English.

Of course, our favorite part of the whole ENP experience was getting up close and personal with the elephants. Every day it was a whole lot of fun getting into the river and bathing the elephants in the morning and afternoon! Feeding was also twice daily, and we "got" an elephant to present to the day visitors during these times. Our elephant was Lilly, who was rescued from a family who worked her day and night by feeding her speed. It took Lek (the founder) almost 2 years to wean her off the amphetamines. Lek was just as amazing as her reputation, too... we saw her sing lullabies to the baby elephant while sitting underneath it, care for orphaned birds that needed feeding every fifteen minutes, and even cook lunch for over 50 people!

The real stars were the baby elephants... every time. Faa Mai (the girl) and Chang Yim (the boy) are about a year old and painfully cute. Despite most of the elephants being unrelated, they have re-formed family groups. Volunteer contact with the families with the little ones was limited (since the herd gets very protective, and even the babies weigh over 300 kg). However, we did get to feed the babies a couple of times and helped prepare their mud bath with a citronella and lemongrass solution (night time bug spray).

Our last afternoon we spent trekking to Elephant Haven, where Lek originally started rescuing elephants is more jungle than the open plain of ENP. The way was very steep, but the elephant family we were taking up there (Jungle Boy's) stopped to eat every 10 feet or so, making it a pretty easy stroll. Most of the way there the last elephant in the line had a flatulence problem, and we all found it challenging to not erupt into giggles every time it let one rip! The human overnight accommodation at Elephant Haven itself was stripped down with termites doing their fair share on the meager platforms. At night, the mahouts treated us to their version of STOMP!, playing songs using PVC pipe flutes, a trash can drum, and the best - a tambourine of kitchen utensils in a plastic laundry basket. Their odd repertoire included a couple of Christmas Carols and Auld Lang Syne, which funnily enough, we also heard randomly at a concert in Vietnam. In the morning, we had to look for the elephants, who were allowed to roam in the night, and Rich and I learned a mahout trick to call to them by making a firecracker sound with your hand and a leaf. We also were given monk robes to tie onto trees, which would protect them from being cut down by illegal loggers since most Thais would respect the Buddhist blessing.

The stay at ENP was educational and fun, and doing manual labor for a good cause was refreshing. It really gave us food for thought, making us consider the use of elephants in industries, including elephant trekking, use in entertainment shows, and logging operations. This was especially poignant knowing the elephants we helped take care of came from these situations.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Final Thoughts on Cambodia

We spent a scant 5 days in Cambodia, and almost all of it in Siem Reap. Here are some mostly non-temple-related observations:

- Siem Reap is big tourism. The least aggressive tout is the adult male drivers ("Tuk-tuk, sir?") on the street corners. This is minor compared to the children ("Sir, you buy postcard necklace I give you good price 10 for 1 dollar") who descend upon your table inside the restaurant in mass. However, the most annoying has got to be the adult females of the species, who cry in a sort of nasal sing-song pitch, "SIIIIIRRRR, you buy cold DRIINNNKK? I remember you, you buy from MEEEEEEEE," continuously from the moment your tuk-tuk slows down, throughout the walk around the site, and as you are driving away from the temple. In all fairness, the majority of the big ticket price for the Temples pass goes to some big corporation so buying from the touts is one way to add some money into the actual local economy.

- Khmer cuisine is pretty good. We were big fans of the Cambodian dish amok (fish, shredded cabbage, onions in a creamy coconut sauce, sometimes with egg, and always in a bowl made from a banana leaf)... not so much into the lok lak (lukewarm tomato-y beef on a bed of onion, tomato, and cucumber slices with a black pepper sauce). Because of the huge tourist influx, eating options (and many other hospitality services) vary wildly from cheap, fantastic plates at the street stalls to Western prices (ridiculously expensive by Southeast Asian standards) for what seems like mediocre Western food. The dollar menu at the street stalls - a heaping pile of fried rice or noodles with recognizable vegetables AND shrimp! - puts McDonald's to shame.

- Sure, it's a gimmick, but we could not resist trying out the fish massage. You put your feet into what is essentially a blow-up kiddie pool on the sidewalk with tiny little fish that are supposed to nibble the dead skin off your toes. It is really more akin to that scraper they use in a pedicure for your calluses than an actual massage. The sensation tickles at first, which is why people getting the massage are laughing their heads off, and later, if there are a lot of fish nibbling, feels like one of those vibrating Brookstone or Sharper Image massagers or, as Richard more succinctly puts it, like getting pins and needles. For good measure, I also tried out the traditional Khmer full body massage, which was the best one yet.

- Getting back in touch with entomology, we also visited a silk worm farm as part of a visit to the Artisans of Angkor workshop. Cambodian silk is naturally yellow in color, and they do the dyeing, weaving, and embroidery there as well. Silk is one of the traditional crafts they teach (also wood and soapstone carving, lacquering, and silver-plating), and their pieces are really beautiful (although pricey because it is fair trade).

- Small world moment: In a bakery/cafe with awesome ice cream (we tried four-spice, caramel and cashew, Khmer fruits, and jackfruit flavors) and an even more awesome white-on-white minimalist lounge, Richard randomly ran into one of his college floormates who he has not seen in 10 years. Crazy!

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Siem Reap (Cambodia)

A 12-hour bus ride from HCMC through the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh brought us to Siem Reap. We were concerned about hearing stories of greasing palms along the way at the border crossing of Moc Bai-Bavet, but our e-visas made it pretty smooth. The bus was a "video bus," which showed a marathon of Rambo films (or it could have all been the same one - who can really tell?), Cambodian pop videos, and Michael Jackson's History.

Siem Reap is THE stop for anyone coming to Cambodia since it is the base for exploring the magnificent Temples of Angkor. Most of the structures were built around 9th-11th centuries by Hindu god-kings in the heydey of the Khmer Empire, which used to cover most of SE Asia. Rich thought many were more intact than Machu Picchu. Most of them are now Buddhist. We opted for hiring a tuk-tuk (motorcycle with a carriage on the back) and driver. Our favorite visits included:
- Angkor Wat, the most famous - the largest religous monument in the world, which we viewed with the multitudes at sunrise. The sunrise was so-so because it was cloudy, but it was pretty cool to be wandering around a ruin in the moonlight beforehand.
- Ta Prohm, aka the temple from the Tomb Raider movie, which has been kept in a semi-suspended decline where giant trees (one looking strikingly like the White Tree of Gondor, for all you LoTR nerds) have overtaken the structures. It is a striking dichotomy, to see kings assert their dominance by building these massive structures and then to also see how nature can still overcome and turn them to ruin.
- The Bayon (temple) in Angkor Thom (a huge fortified city) where giant stone faces are staring out at you from every angle.

One of the greatest unexpected pleasures in visiting the Temples of Angkor is that you can just climb all over ruins, and very few sections are cordoned off limits, and even fewer sections are supervised by the guards/park rangers. Of course, this has encouraged some pretty devastating looting. However, for everyone not looking for a career in grave-robbing (or dare I say, tomb-raiding), you can wander down mazes of corridors and courtyards, and given the scale, find yourself alone and free to pretend you are Indiana Jones. I swear some of those doorways look like they could be Stargates. A busy schedule can be an excellent workout, too, since many of the structures are meant to evoke mountains, and going up the "stairs," many times is more like plotting your hand holds in rock climbing. We both finished in one piece, but there were easily some vertigo moments.