Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Last Day on Koh Chang

I will update more in depth about Koh Chang a bit later. It's been an interesting week though. We've had a bit of misfortune since our computer is kind of broken (screen issues). We knew it was on the way out but we were hoping it would last until we got back to Canada. So that's a bummer. Also, I am sick AGAIN. I have lost count of how many times I've been sick on this trip. This time it's an ear infection, which could just be from getting water in my ear or it could be connected to the tonsillitis that I had and took a million antibiotics for. I'm trying to tough it out but it means I've been sleeping badly and popping a lot of pain killers. I'm also trying a couple home remedies. We're leaving for Bangkok tomorrow morning so I figure if it's not much improved by the weekend I can break down and take MORE antibiotics there. I am really looking forward to seeing Leah and Stephie though! So that trumps all! And I have got a fair bit of reading done on this island so that's nice too. I can't believe we have less than a month left! Time is flying!

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Off to the Beach!

To bring everyone up to the present day (I can't believe I've completely caught up on my blogging for now!), tomorrow we plan to leave Khon Kaen and head south to Koh Chang. It's beach time again! Matt and I have both been sick AGAIN but he's better and I am on antibiotics so it should be a matter of time. It's amazing how many germs and infections we're catching out here. Luckily my trip to the doctor only cost me about $15 (including a pile of medications). I will sweat my tonsillitis away on a beautiful beach!

We are down to our last month and it should be busy and fun. On May 2nd we'll be back in Bangkok to pick Matt's sister up from the airport and on May 3rd my lovely sister Stephie will be arriving with her tour group. The plan is to meet up with her, maybe have some dinner and to bequeath her with the Laos money that we accidently have left over (she'll be in Vang Vieng for a few days near the end of her 40 days tour). After a few days in Bangkok with Leah and Stephie we'll put Leah on a bus to Khon Kaen and head further south for more beaches and relaxation before stopping in for a final Khon Kaen visit, picking up all the stuff that we have left at his Mom's house and then flying to Canada from Bangkok on May 21st. Whew!

Happy New Year!

It was a long journey to get to Khon Kaen and now we've been here just over a week. I'm glad that we rushed back for the Songkran festivities. I've never experienced anything quite like this holiday. I'm sure in the past and with certain crowds there was/is deep rooted spiritual significance to Songkran, however, things have been somewhat updated. It's not uncommon for monks to sprinkle water on people as a blessing. Well, this happens a lot during the new year and now it's turned into a massive 3 day (5 this year since Songkran fell on M-W and therefore Saturday and Sunday were thrown in for good measure) waterfight!

It was really fun and pretty phenomenal to walk down the street and see all these people laughing, dancing, singing, drinking and drenching eachother. They also wipe baby powder on your face (which is apparently also to bless you). Great fun! The people have so much endurance too and even on the fifth day they still hadn't lost enthusiasm. The downside to Songkran is the heavy, heavy traffic and that it's impossible to travel on foot (or have your car windows rolled down) if you don't want to get wet.

Since Ali and Byrun have made a lovely group of friends out here, we were invited to two different parties. The first one was at a small village nearby Khon Kaen and we got to visit their temple and afterwards had lunch. This was really cool and I felt honored to be there. They brought us into the temple and proceeded to bless us in a friendship ceremony. They also tied strings around our wrists as lucky blessings. You are supposed to leave them on until they fall off (or some say you can remove them after three days- mine aren't bothering me so I still have them on).

After the friendship ceremony they treated us to an amazing lunch! Before we went home we went into the kitchen area to thank the women who had cooked for us. They were sitting on a mat on the ground chopping meat. Matt decided to get right in there and help them out which they thought was hilarious. I was just lingering a bit when one lady grabbed me and hauled me down excitedly. They didn't really speak English but what I understood of the situation was that since she and I were of similar sizes she saw me as a friend or sister. She kept hugging me and everyone was grinning and laughing. Then she grabbed the bloody meat clever and promptly cut the chinstrap off her straw hat and starting tying it around my wrist. She gave me a piece to tie around her wrist too. It was an interesting experience!

The second party consisted of another huge, delicious Thai meal and a karaoke machine! It was so much fun! Of course we also spent a fair amount of time walking through the streets getting soaking wet and spraying water onto people. The Thais were delighted and we got quite a bit of attention as a result. One katoy (ladyboy) even kissed everyone in our group! I tried to get some pictures but understandably this was challenging (I didn't want my camera to get wet). You can see them over here. If you ever have a chance to visit Thailand during Songkran- do it!

The Amazing Race to Khon Kaen

We departed Siem Reap on April 9th since Songkran (Thai New Year) was fast approaching and the traffic would have been unbearable. Since Cambodia also has their New Year at the same time it would have meant that we would have been stranded in Siem Reap until atleast April 15th and that probably would have gotten old quickly. So we bit the bullet and left early. We figured that since we had our Thai visas already arranged that this border crossing would be a piece of cake. However, we didn't factor in the incredibly long lines and the very inefficient workers. Getting to Bangkok from Siem Reap took about 10 hours and atleast 2-3 hours of that were spent at the border, either waiting to go through or waiting for the next bus (we had to switch buses after going through the border) to show up.

One nice thing, the bus dropped us off near the backpacker area in Bangkok so we weren't stranded in the middle of nowhere like we'd been in Hanoi. At this point it was about 7:30 pm and we had to make some quick decisions. First stop was an ATM to get some baht and then next we went to a travel agent to ask about buses to Khon Kaen. The first place we walked into they were really bitchy so we went to the next place where they were much more pleasant. It seemed that we would have to find our way to the Northern bus terminal and take our chances if we wanted a night bus to Khon Kaen. It was pretty nerve wracking considering that this is the biggest holiday of the year and everyone goes to their home towns for it. We were nervous that everything would be booked up and we'd be stranded in Bangkok.

We flagged a taxi and negotiated a price (I wanted the meter but we didn't have time to find a cab driver who would go for that) and before we knew it we were at the bus terminal- along with about a million Thai people. Crap. The taxi driver advised us to go to the second floor to purchase a bus ticket to Khon Kaen. It took a bit of wandering around and looking confused before someone helped us find the right window. We got a ticket for the 9:30pm bus and even had time to chow down on some dinner at the food court.

The bus ride... Well, it was hellish. We were stuck in upright seats next to the bathroom, which had a door that was hard to close so everyone was constantly slamming it. Our location also meant that we weren't able to recline our seats but the people in front of us could and did so we had barely any space. Oh, and we were in this section that had a giant TV blaring some sort of Thai comedy show ALL NIGHT. Okay, they did shut off the video portion at 2 am but they kept the audio on until 4 am. They had told us we would arrive in Khon Kaen at 6 am but we actually got there at 5 am so we had to call and wake up Matt's Mom and get them to pick us up earlier than planned. It was pretty wild but we made it mostly in one piece (Matt somehow managed to cut the crap out of one of his toes so he was bleeding all over the place). I think the Amazing Race would be a piece of cake after that trip!

Siem Reap and Angkor Wat

From our guesthouse in Phnom Penh we were able to book a cheap bus ($4 US) to Siem Reap and arranged to stay at one of their sister guesthouses there. When we arrived there were tuk tuk drivers everywhere vying for our business but we were supposed to get picked up by the guesthouse for free. As it turned out, most of the tuk tuk drivers were willing to take us to any destination for free. Why would they do this? Simple, if they do you a favor then you will more than likely hire them to go to Angkor (or any other place) the following day. Clever. So if you go to Siem Reap, keep this in mind.

We stayed at the Hello Paradise guesthouse, which was nice enough. We were able to haggle a large room (had 3 single beds and a private bathroom) for $6/night. It's a little bit out of the way but Siem Reap isn't that big and this guesthouse provided free tuk tuks to the market/pub street. Even so, getting there would have only cost $1. Like I said, the town itself isn't that large.

When we arrived at our guesthouse Matt, Sarah and I arranged to see Angkor the following morning. We paid $5/person without haggling. We probably could have haggled but the guy was going to be driving us around all day so we didn't feel it was necessary. He picked us up at 5 am and drove us out to the place to buy our day passes. I was surprised when the lady told us to smile- they printed out a pass with our picture on it. Cool keepsake. Then we hopped back into the tuk tuk and continued on to Angkor Wat and Thom to watch the sunrise. Our driver, Hok, told us we could take as long as we wanted since we had hired him for the day.

Unfortunately the day was a bit grey so the sunrise wasn't spectacular but Angkor is pretty darn impressive. There are different kinds of passes you can buy- one day ($20), three day ($40) or one week (not sure the cost). I'd heard from people that you MUST buy the three day one because it's so huge and fabulous and one day isn't enough. Maybe I'm totally uncultured but one day was plenty for me. I mean, they were gorgeous and impressive but there is only so many stone temples I can look at and take pictures of. I was definitely satisfied with our one day trip and would have been overwhelmed if we'd gone back for two more days. (We also were rushing a bit through Cambodia to get back to Thailand for Songkran so that came into play too.)

As you can see, I took A LOT of pictures. I especially loved Bayon with the huge stone faces and Ta Prohm with it's giant, twisting trees growing through the stone. While we were exploring Angkor Wat it begin to pour and so we had to scramble to take cover. Some little girls came running through the rain to sell ponchos and so we scooped up a couple and continued on our way.

It was a fabulous day- we packed some sandwiches and snacks for lunch and treated ourselves to an ice cream (yes, there was a random ice cream truck out there) part way through the day. One thing that wasn't thrilling about the temples are all the people trying to sell you stuff, in particular, all the children. They swarm you and follow you as long as they can with their bracelets, postcards, flutes and other wares. It got a bit tiring and we felt bad for all these kids selling instead of going to school. At one point we starting pointing to other tourists and telling the kids that they had lots of money in an attempt to get some peace. One clever girl replied, "Okay! But if they no buy then YOU buy!". Hahah.

In summary, Angkor Wat is an amazing place, must see, but I think one day is sufficient unless you're really hardcore. We were tired out and finished by about 2pm (which sounds early but we left at 5am so that was 9 hours of touring around Angkor). I really wanted to see the Landmine Museum but alas, there wasn't enough time. If I ever end up back in Siem Reap I will make a point to go there since it's supposed to be really awesome.

Besides Angkor, we spent a bit of time in the market and on pub street. Lots of good restaurants and many have $0.50 draft beer. I recommend trying the fish or chicken amok- really yummy! Cambodia definitely has a lot to offer and it would have been nice to stay a little longer, but maybe if I had more money. It gets a bit expensive considering everything is in US dollars (even the ATMs dispense US dollars). I'm glad I was able to experience it and now I'm reading a book by a survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime. It's called "First They Killed My Father" and it's a quality read and helps put Cambodia in perspective.

Thursday, April 16, 2009


I tried lotus seeds for the first time when I was in Cambodia. You can see people selling them all over the place (as well as lots of more recognizable fruits and veggies). They are a bit cumbersome to get into but are pretty tasty if you have the patience. They reminded me of fresh peas. Yum! Don't they look like alien lily pads?

Around Phnom Penh

I'm going to try and lighten things up a little. Phnom Penh is a lovely city and while it may be a bit expensive (by SE Asia standards) it does have a lot of great places to eat and plenty to see. We didn't go to the Royal Palace but we did walk by it a lot and the riverside. After spending our day at the Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng we decided to try a restaurant that helps street kids with education and job training. It was called Friends and is located near the National Museum. We paid North American prices but since it was going to a good cause (the school they have funded is next door to the restaurant even) we decided to splurge. Oh, and the food was incredible. I think it may have been the best meal I've had on this trip. If you have a little bit of money to spend I would really recommend trying this place.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng

We arrived in Phnom Penh and having made a new friend (Sarah from the UK) on the bus, the three of us decided to grab a tuk tuk to a nearby guesthouse. We also realized that we were interested in seeing a lot of the same sites so we arranged to have the same driver come and pick us up the next day and take us to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. We stayed at the Okay Guesthouse and it was a nice enough place with friendly staff and a good location (right by the palace and National Museum). The food was also really tasty and they had a clever way of keeping track of what you bought and they let you pay for everything when you leave.

A bit of a warning, this is going to be a depressing/sad entry. Most of the places we went to in Cambodia had to do with the Khmer Rouge genocide. If you haven't seen the movie "The Killing Fields", I recommend it. Very horrible and dark things occured in this country and even though the people are recovering, you can still sense it everywhere you go. At least I could.

I didn't take a lot of pictures at Choeung Ek (Killing Fields) but I have to say, it was an experience to walk through, see the memorial filled with bones and skulls and to occasionally stumble and realize that you tripped over a piece of clothing or a bit of bone poking out of the ground. I was also conflicted by the children and men lingering around the outskirts begging for money. On one hand, they are probably suffering and living in poverty, but on the other it felt like they were just exploiting the pain and tragedy of their country to make an extra dollar. I suppose I would probably be doing the same thing if I were them though... Although I should add that Cambodia chose to privatize this site and basically sold it to a Japanese company in 2005. Anyway, it's a chilling place to visit and a must see if you want to know the real horrors of war and genocide.

Next we went to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. I wasn't familiar with this place before I visited Phnom Penh but I would really recommend visiting it. It also hasn't been privatized. Tuol Sleng used to be a high school but during the Khmer Rouge regime it was transformed into Security Prison 21 (S-21). Apparently they show a film at 10 am and 3 pm but we unfortunately weren't able to see it. It was tough walking through and looking at the former classrooms that had been turned into tiny cells and torture chambers. Some rooms were filled with pictures of some of the many victims, while others contained only rusty beds and blood stains on the floor.

I can't even imagine the devastation, fear and loss that has been suffered in this country. It was as if they were blasted back into the Stone Age. During the Khmer Rouge occupation millions of people were murdered (starting with anyone who was educated) and they even did away with currency (they burned all the money) which basically meant that if you wanted to eat you needed to work for them on their rice farms, etc.

One of the most interesting sections in the museum was created by a foreign (I think he was from Sweden?) activist who had belonged to a group sympathizing with the Khmer Rouge during the late 70s. He and some of his colleagues actually entered Cambodia during the peak of the murders and were hosted by the Khmer Rouge. Today the man thoroughly apologizes for supporting the Khmer Rouge and the museum displays his photographs that were taken on that trip with commentary. It's interesting to think that these people were there and they didn't notice anything sinister occurring or if they did they were able to deny it and turn their heads the other way.

Again, I didn't take a lot of pictures but you can find a few more over here.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Get Your Visas Ahead of Time

This is something I have learned on this trip. Don't be lazy. If you can get all your visas before you go, do it. Yes, even if it's supposed to be simple and they are giving them out like hotcakes at the border. Every border crossing we had was a headache in one way or another and it would have been lessened if we'd had our visas already set up.

For example, going from Saigon to Phnom Penh. A visa is supposed to cost $20 US but when we were on the bus they informed us that they charge $25 US so that they can speed us through the border. We were annoyed but didn't want to be left behind by our bus, like we were when we went to Laos and got our visa on arrival there. Then it turned out that at the ghetto border crossing (aka mountain hovel) where we came into Vietnam they had failed to give us a departure card. In most other countries this would have been no biggie. Just fill out another one, right? However, they are sticky in Vietnam and these cards are stamped on arrival to show where you entered the country. The bus guy said that they usually don't care if people lost them but it was our lucky day because they cared. So we had to stand there nervously and eventually they let us through but we had to bribe them. So there goes an extra $3 US/person. Getting into Cambodia cost us $16 US more than it should have. It was annoying and a little nerve wracking. Yes travelers, get your visas before your trip!

Friday, April 10, 2009

Cao Dai and the Cu Chi Tunnels

We took a tour while in Saigon to see a Cao Dai church and service and then to check out the Cu Chi Tunnels. Our guide was a plucky former teacher named Thong or "Slim Jim" as he was nicknamed by a random tourist. He was really informative and entertaining. He had a penchant for slang which was really amusing. He especially liked phrases about drinking and alcohol so we taught him a new one "worshipping the porcelin god". Thong spent the whole day repeating it under his breath and committing it to memory. A note for people thinking about visiting these places. I'm sure you could find your way to both of these places on your own but they are pretty far out of Saigon and every tour agency has a cheap ($7 US/person) daily tour to both, so why bother?

I hadn't heard of the Cao Dai religion before but it's pretty unique. You can read indepth about it if you follow the link but I'll give you a brief overview. These churches are found almost solely in Vietnam (there are some elsewhere but usually the congregation is Vietnamese immigrants) and it was formed in 1926. It is monotheistic but it combines Catholicism, Buddhism and Taosism and therefore you can see imagery from all of these faiths in the church. They also include other Eastern/Chinese philosophies and have three patron saints- one of whom is Victor Hugo. Random!

Everything is bright and colorful and they kindly let us watch their service. Certain higher officials wear different colored robes but the average follower dresses completely in white. The crest is really interesting too, as it appears to combine a fan, a sword and a mop. Religions can be so absurd.

We went to a small restaurant for lunch and then continued on to the Cu Chi Tunnels. These are the tunnels that the Viet Cong (VC) or Cu Chi people used during the Vietnam war to fight the Americans. In case your knowledge of this war is shaky, South Vietnam was mainly capitalist sympathsizers and the North followed communism. What made the VC unusual is that they are from the south but supported the north, hence why they were fighting the Americans.

We got to look inside some of the actual tunnels and there was the option to crawl through a "king-sized" version that they expanded for tourists. I'm not claustrophobic but I don't like the idea of getting stuck somewhere inconvenient to retrieve me. I don't want to be Vietnam's baby Jessica. I saw the movie! Terrifying. Matt was brave and went through it though.

There was a firing range but since it was the day before we were leaving Vietnam we didn't have much dong to spare. It was about a dollar/bullet. Some people gave it a shot (pun intended) and we just posed by the guns like losers. It was a fun day and we were lucky to finish up and make it into the van just as it started to pour. Here's some more pictures!

Hello, buy something?

As I've mentioned, there are vendors situated on every square inch of Vietnam. I found Nha Trang and Saigon to be particularly bad for this, but it's possible I was just fed up at that point since they were the last two destinations in Vietnam. It's a hard life being a vendor- look at the heavy and cumbersome things you have to carry around. Plus they aren't that innovative so EVERYONE and their dog is selling the exact same copied books, sunglasses, postcards, etc. The exact same. Seriously. I guess I would be happy to see them if I had lost all my books, sunglasses, postcards at the same time in a freak accident.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Rules, rules, rules...

Here are the rules from our guesthouse in Saigon. They are pretty standard, however, number 5 is probably my all time favorite. I wonder what kind of special cases would be allowed???

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The Wonders of Saigon

Arriving in Saigon was interesting- it was handy that the bus dropped us off in the "tourist" area but the prices were outrageous for rooms. We managed to find something for $8 (US)/night in a dark, creepy alley though. Saigon (or Ho Chi Minh City) is the craziest city I've ever been to. I thought there were lots of motorcycles and traffic in Hanoi but it's a million times more in Saigon. We decided to see the Reunification Palace and the War Remnants Museum (formerly known as the Museum of American War Crimes... wonder why they changed it?).

The Reunification Palace is pretty interesting and the best part about it is that they provide you with a free guide. Matt and I were getting a bit jaded since you go to lots of places and someone asks you if you want a guide but then they want a lot of money for it. So when they asked us my first reaction was "NO". Matt wasn't as grumpy and found out it was free so we sat down and waited until enough people had gathered and then we had a free one hour tour of the palace.

The palace is huge and is still used for meetings so there are places that they don't allow you to access. You can see lots of the rooms which are ornately decorated and we were allowed to go to the top where they have a dance hall and a helicopter landing pad. They also took us into the basement (there are 2 of them) where they have their bomb shelters. I couldn't help but take a picture of the elephant feet "gifts". Poor elephants! I recommend checking out this place and the next place we went to- you can walk there easily and they are both in the same neighborhood. Be sure to buy water before you go since it's ridiculously overpriced around the palace and museum.

The War Remnants Museum is really intense and an excellent place to go if you want to understand the effects of the Vietnam War on the people (although in Vietnam they call it the American War). I would say that this museum is probably a bit biased but I think it's safe to say that everyone knows that war is horrible and ugly and both sides would have committed terrible atrocities. This museum is full of incredible pictures. Many are hard to look at but they are so important. I wish everyone could see the pictures and read the accounts of war that we saw in Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. Maybe it would help them rethink the wars we're fighting now.

One section of this museum is dedicated to the many journalists who braved war zones in order to report about the war. Many of them perished in the process. The most memorable section was the one about chemical warfare. Now that is truly scary shit. You hear about napalm and agent orange, but do you actually know what it does to a person? or a fetus? or an area of land? It's shocking and disgusting. The pictures of the people affected by these chemicals and the generations of people with birth defects were astounding. They even had some babies on display that had died when they were born because of their deformities.

They do try to end the museum on a bit of a hopeful note. They have a lot of art from Vietnamese children promoting peace and goodwill. There are also some statues and posters from other countries supporting Vietnam. It's a heavy place to visit but a must see. Go here to see the other pictures from the day.