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I heart Cambodia PART TWO

Jun 20, 2012 by     No Comments    Posted under: Cambodia, Cori's blogs, Uncategorized

(By Cori) Cambodia continued….after our time in Battambang in December 2011 we headed to Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital, and left there in time to spend New Year’s on the coast in a seaside fishing town called Kep.  These final two weeks in Cambodia continued to convince me that I was in a very special country.  Read on!
 
Phnom Penh turned out to be, unexpectedly, a really memorable city

Usually we end up disappointed by capital cities when we’re traveling…they either are not tourist-friendly, too polluted, crowded, may not be safe, and just don’t have a great vibe or cozy feel.  Yet Phnom Penh ended up being a very enjoyable place to pass 3-4 days. Why?
 
We made a new friend. While waiting for our bus in Battambang we started chatting with a guy who looked like he was either Canadian or American (we were right – he was from Denver Colorado). Thom turned out to be a kindred spirit and we happily shared life and travel stories all the way to Phnom Penh and then Thom told us to pick a place for dinner and he’d treat us that night. WHAT?! We were so surprised and also super excited…this would be the first time during our travels (10 months at this point) that we’d actually be eating at a nice restaurant and not giving thought to budget. Yay! After an amazing night of food and beers and lots of personal, professional, and travel stories, we were all fast friends and spent the next two days sightseeing and dining together.  You meet a lot of people while traveling, less I suppose when you’re a part of a couple but still a good amount, yet being a picky person in general, it’s not often that I want to spend extensive time (usually a few hours is enough) with new people, or have any urge to follow up on a conversation that was started. Happily, Thom was different and joined a short list of people that I’ve met during my travels who I thoroughly enjoyed and plan to keep in touch post-trip.


 

We ate well.  Phnom Penh, catering to tourists and expats alike, has an abundance of restaurants to choose from – from the very budget conscious to the gourmet foodie, featuring cuisines from all over the world. Who knew? We had our first taste (literally) of this at the dinner Thom treated us to at a lovely restaurant called FISH where we feasted on salmon, snapper, and all sorts of yummy fishy appetizers that I can’t recall now.  Dinner for another two nights in a row (yes, shameful but we couldn’t help it) was at CANTINA, a Mexican restaurant that for the first time in all our travels, produced exceptional Mexican food. Homemade chips, guacamole, and amazing beer battered fish tacos made us instant fans. But our favorite meal? Our last day in the city while we were waiting for our bus to Kep we were searching for a quick and easy lunch close to the bus terminal where we could stow our big bags and have a cheap meal. Most of the restaurants that fit the bill were Chinese, and the one we stumbled into had friendly staff that greeted us with waves and smiles and our waiter cheerfully gave us menus that were in Chinese only (but had pictures!) and pantomimed that we should point at things we wanted. We ended up ordering what seemed like dumplings of some sort, a plate of string beans, and a plate of some tofu saucy dish. Sounds bland, right? Well when they came out we realized that we were in for Chinese family style dining with a big bowl of rice in the middle of the table and individual small bowls to scoop in rice and a portion of the main dishes. It was beyond delicious – the highlight for me were the crunchy string beans with a garlic sauce that was so unbelievably good I ate probably 80+ beans. A totally unexpected experience and one that set us up well for our bus ride to Kep.


 

We went to fun markets. We had read about the Russian Market (so called because of its popularity among Russian expats during the 1980s) and heard it was a great place to get cheap designer goods and souvenirs so we figured we had to go. It was set up as most markets are, with narrow and dark aisles absolutely overflowing with vendor stalls. What was for sale ranged from hardware to cosmetics to food (both raw and prepared), clothing, souvenirs, you name it! I was in search of high quality goods and got lucky when we found a stall selling crocodile skin accessories. Very unlike me, but I fell for a crocodile wallet and Brandyn managed to bargain down to a mere fraction of what I would’ve paid at home. The vendor wasn’t happy about it which meant we had gotten a good deal. With my fun purchase out of the way it was time to move on to checking off an item on Brandyn’s ‘to do’ list – trying durian. For those not in the know, durian is a big fruit (maybe the size of a small watermelon) with a spiky exterior that has a reputation for being really really stinky – like a very ripe bleu cheese or old gym socks.  In many places (like hotels) its banned. Literally – there are signs with pictures of durian and an X through it. So OF COURSE we had to try it, and we had been on the lookout for a small piece of durian that we could purchase, but most markets only sold the whole thing, which was a waste since we only wanted a tiny slice and we certainly couldn’t bring the rest of it home since it was banned in our hotels. But we got lucky at the Russian market! We found a fruit vendor that was willing to slice off a chunk of durian for us, and the second she put the knife to the flesh whoo-whee you could smell that! We carried our little styrofoam-packed bundle out to the street and opened it up. Fleshy, pale yellow fruit in a weird bloated oval shape – unappealing. We all tried it (me, Brandyn and Thom) and agreed it wasn’t worth all the drama but it was an unusual fruit. It was creamy and tasted a bit sharp (kind of like it smelled) but it was the texture really that I didn’t like. Very slimy yet firm, hard to describe but not a sensation I had before.



 

But the market fun wasn’t over! Brandyn was tired of shopping so went back to the hotel to rest and Thom and I pressed on, visiting Central Market with a goal of buying fun jewelry. Well, we did it. We were greeted with rows upon rows of glass-encased displays of gemstones…loose ones, earrings, rings, necklaces, everything! It was totally overwhelming but I quickly zeroed in on a few cases and chose a huge aquamarine ring and a pair of pink ruby studs. The super friendly staff bent over backward to convince me the gems were real (not that I really cared- it was cheap and fun to shop). Part of their spiel was to pull out a small hand-held machine that they focused on the gem in question and pressed a button and some special light went off and beeped alerting me that it was a real gem. They then passed the machine over a fake gem (which looked the same) and the machine made a wah-wah noise or something to tell me ‘not real’. Sigh. No matter, I got some shiny jewelry for less than $30 so I was happy.
 

We watched group exercising. Along the banks of the Mekong River there was a wide promenade/walkway that was a good spot for gazing at the river, the French colonial buildings and restaurants across the Boulevard, or the groups of locals exercising (one of my favorite sights).  I had become accustomed to seeing pairs of older people wearing track suits and walking slowly around a park, swinging their arms energetically, or doing a graceful Tai Chi routine, but the sight in Phnom Penh was a bit unique. There were about 4 groups of maybe 20 people each out along the promenade. Each group had a leader (my favorite was a young man in tight jeans, tank top and sideways hat) and a giant boombox (yep, old school kind) and was leading the group in a sort of random aerobic dancing routine that involved a lot of movement, but yet so slow that it didn’t seem like it would cause anyone to break into a sweat. Totally out of synch with the upbeat pop or rap music playing, but everyone was having a good time – from kids to the pretty darn old – and it had a wonderful communal feel to it. We debated for a moment joining in, but opted for dinner instead.
 

We learned a lot about Cambodian history. All cities should ideally present opportunities for visitors to learn about that country’s (or city’s) history and experiences, and typically that takes the form of a museum or a city tour that features a few prominent cultural and governmental buildings. But in Phnom Penh we were impressed in what they had to offer by way of a history lesson.  Two of the first things we did in this city were visit the Killing Fields (or Choeung Ek in Khmer) and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Center or S-21 prison camp. These are important historic sites serve to educate visitors as well as memorialize victims of the Khmer Rouge regime.
 
The Killing Fields were a 30 minute tuk tuk ride outside of the city and the three of us (Brandyn, Thom and I) were not entirely sure what to expect.  It is one of many places throughout Cambodia where the Khmer Rouge regime executed thousands of people (I think 17,000 at this specific site) and left them in mass graves.  The area is now essentially a memorial, and looks like a wide field with various signage where old buildings used to be, and indentations in the earth where the graves were/are.  The self audio tour was perfect, allowing us to move around at our own pace listening to the explanations of various locations on the site and also some survivor stories. It was all quite emotional and I was thankful that there was shady space to sit and reflect, and ironically, absorb the horrors of what you were learning about in a quite serene environment. I had a heavy heart throughout most of the audio tour, just finding my mouth dropping open at the descriptions of the mass executions and the barbaric ways the Khmer Rouge had of killing its own citizens. I will never look at a palm tree the same way again after learning that the stems (which if you look closely have razor sharp edges all along the side) were a ‘cheap’ method for slitting people’s throats (no need to waste bullets). We also learned that after it rains you can still see bits of bone, teeth, and fragments of clothing that are washed up out of the ground…which we did. Chilling. The memorial stupa was an impressive site – a tall glass sided Buddhist stupa  that houses the categorized remains of victims that have been excavated from the Fields – maybe about 8,000 skulls in all, arranged by age and gender and body part…skulls on one shelf, arm bones on another, etc. The sheer volume of the place just made you stop and stare and think.






 

Our trip to the S-21 prison proved to be just as educational and shocking/horrifying as the Killing Fields. The prison is located in central Phnom Penh at the site of a former high school that was taken over and turned into a prison in 1975. Here the Khmer Rouge took innocent citizens, labeled them as political prisoners and tortured them (often in the form of interrogations to try to get them to admit they worked for the CIA – what??!!), and then those that didn’t die in the prison were often sent to the Killing Fields to be executed. Few survived. We hired a guide to help us better understand the prison and its place in Cambodian history. He took us to visit several cells that literally made me queasy. They were bare for the most part, with a rusty metal cot, some chains, and usually several blood stains (real) on the walls and/or floor. To illustrate what happened in the cells, most of them had an enlarged photograph on the wall of a victim in the aftermath of some type of torture. This was probably the worst thing I had seen…because they were real photographs and you couldn’t even in some cases recognize that it was a human on the metal cot because they were so disfigured or bloody. We also saw hundreds of ‘mug shots’ that were on display; all prisoners were photographed upon arrival to S-21 and some of them had their prisoner number safety pinned to them – through their skin, not their clothes. And many of them were young! Even worse was knowing that they were all innocent people just living their lives and then captured and corralled into prison by a completely wacko regime.  And this was happening between the time that I was born and turned 3. I was really thrown off by that – thinking about parallel lives and what I was doing and my parents were doing at the time that Cambodians were being slaughtered. Unreal.
 
A high point for me of visiting the S-21 prison was meeting 2 of the survivors. On January 7, 1979 when Vietnamese forces seized Phnom Penh and overthrew Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge regime, there were 7 surviving prisoners at S-21. These individuals had escaped death because they had skills that their captors believed to be useful (for example, one prisoner was an artist and was forced to draw portraits of Pol Pot). Two of these men were at the prison selling (and signing) books about their experience and greeting visitors. Our guide introduced us to one and translated for us as he described his time at S-21. I was incredibly moved…this man had bright expressive eyes and a friendly face and though he was speaking Khmer he was making eye contact with me and speaking as if we had a connection. He was showing us his fingernails that had been removed as a form of torture and it was hard to look at him without tearing up at all he had been through. Absolutely emotional.



 
While visiting Choeung Ek and Tuol Sleng wasn’t the happiest or most fun part of our time in Phnom Penh, it was definitely the most important and made me feel connected to Cambodia in a way that no country to date has.
 

Crabs, pepper and new beginnings

For New Year’s we wanted to be somewhere totally relaxing and not be in a city so we took a bus to the Cambodian coast.  Quick highlights…
 
THE BAD: BEACHES The beaches at Kep are bad. Well, the beach at Kep is bad. It’s just one sad lonely strip of sand that is dark yellow and off a major (though still quiet) road, with no chairs, nowhere to change, and no cozy palm trees to sit under. The water was dark blue, and not that inviting looking, in spite of how ridiculously hot it was. There were a few locals playing around and wading in the water but it hardly was what you would call a tourist draw.


 

Here’s the thing about beaches: you never know whose opinion to trust about them. Throughout our travels we’ve had lots of people telling us that beach X or beach Y was so gorgeous and we’d get there and it would be mediocre at best. I’m a beach snob.  A beach isn’t a good beach until it has turquoise crystal clear water and white sand. We have had people tell us about a number of beaches on this trip and many of them have been just okay. Ko Lanta in Thailand, Mui Ne in Vietnam, Palolem in Goa…we went to all three of those with high expectations and were disappointed by the beach and the water and (in some cases) the atmosphere.  So we were skeptical about going to Kep and in some ways, rightly so.
 

THE GOOD: CRABS Apart from the beach, everything at Kep was awesome. The focal point of the town (for us anyway) was the Crab Market, where  every day at the pier you can find women hoisting crab traps out of the water and a market area where locals are buying and selling crabs, grilled squid or sting ray on sticks, different fruits, sauces/spices, and tons of other fishy-smelling but unrecognizable stuff.  Next to the pier is a row of rustic restaurant shacks that hang over the water and sell DELCIOUS food at bargain prices. Nothing better than sitting at a little wooden table staring at the sea, ignoring the stray dog sniffing at your legs and digging into a huge pile of meaty, perfect little crabs with kampot pepper (a local specialty) for $5.





 

THE FUN: NEW YEARS It was a strange New Year’s Eve but a good one. We wanted to kick off the night by going to the Crab Market for happy hour sunset watching but our timing was off and by the time we left our guesthouse we realized we were not going to have time to walk. Luckily, a passing motorcycle offered us a ride and we awkwardly squeezed all 3 of us on and zoomed off. Try and picture it if you will: This was a standard small motorbike and  we had a smallish man driver, then me literally with my breasts pressed up super tight against him, and then Brandyn (who is a giant in comparison to most people in Cambodia), trying to stay on the back and not have his feet drag on the ground. Definitely got a few looks from people on our way to the Market but for $1 it was a bargain ride.
 
We luckily caught the sunset and enjoyed a few beers and rounds of cards, and then moved on to another restaurant on the water and ordered what else but CRABS. We were planning to head back to our hotel to rest before heading out to some party closer to midnight but then loud booming music caught our attention and changed our plans. Next to the restaurants on the pier there were huge speakers set up playing terrible music at a deafening level, but there were a bunch of locals (mainly kids) dancing to it so it was a fun people watching moment. We decided (read: I insisted and Brandyn acquiesced) to stay and watch for a while so we bought a bottle of Jim Beam ($10!) and a few cans of Coca-Cola and made some classy budget drinks. It wasn’t long before a dancing woman approached us and pulled us to our feet, so we asked a nearby couple (travelers) to babysit our bottle of Jim Beam and we were led to the dance floor where we let loose to a random mix of super loud songs. Once the initial bout of self-consciousness was brushed aside, it was liberating to be swirling around among kids, adults, locals, and a few travelers. The mood was upbeat, everyone was laughing and having fun and I have to say it is probably the most fun I’ve had on New Years.
 
Later that night we went to a nearby hotel that was having a New Year’s party. While there wasn’t really an official countdown, there were fireworks, or rather, there were loud firecrackers that gave off some light being set off all around the pool so that the air was super smoky and the local dogs were freaking out and barking and running in circles around the fireworks. Not really our scene, but we did the requisite midnight kiss and then retreated to our guesthouse to sleep, lulled by the beat of the music which didn’t stop until 6am. A memorable way to bring in 2012!





 

THE BEST: RELAXATION Our final days in Cambodia before we crossed over into Vietnam were spent relaxing, which was nice after a lot of touristy activities in Phnom Penh and Battambang. Kep is a small, sleepy town with not too much going on  – there are no museums to visit and few sites to see so it’s a great place just to be. We spent most of our days reading or writing or researching Vietnam on one of the decks of our awesome hotel (The Boat House – which is not on the water and has nothing to do with boats but is a beautiful and airy guesthouse with fantastic staff). Every day the staff would ask what our plans were that day and while we felt a little dumb saying “um, just sitting here” that was the truth! Since we weren’t really on a tight timeline we didn’t feel like we had to rush out and see or do a million things – just soaking up the atmosphere was all we needed. We did take a nice walk through the National Park to get our blood pumping one hot morning, and we also rented a motorbike and zoomed around town a bit, but aside from that and daily walks to the Crab Market we kept things pretty low key.




 

The good thing about all that relaxation is that it made us itchy for a new adventure, so leaving Cambodia to head to Vietnam wasn’t as sad as I thought it would be. We left filled with great memories and a certainty that we would be back. Thank you (Or khun) for an amazing experience Cambodia!


I heart Cambodia PART ONE

Mar 12, 2012 by     No Comments    Posted under: Cambodia, Cori's blogs, Where two now?

(By Cori) After lounging on Thai beaches for a while, around mid-December we figured a plan was needed for the upcoming holidays and so we decided to head into Cambodia, where prices were bound to be cheaper even in the high season.

Spoiler alert…we loved Cambodia!! We stayed from December 19 to January 6 and could’ve stayed longer, or long-term for that matter. For a country with such a painful past (and a quite recent one at that), we were overwhelmed by the richness of its history and the warmth of its people. We decided on a basic travel route from Bangkok to Siem Reap, then Battambang, Phnom Penh, Kep and on to Vietnam. But more on that later!  Our border crossing story is below, as well as highlights of our time in the first two stops…a part two post will follow shortly.

 

Bangkok to Siem Reap: a train ride and border scam

There is always a bit of anxiety associated with border crossings, as you never can be quite sure what to believe about how to get to, across, and away from borders. It usually requires several transportation combinations as well as vigilance to not fall prey to phony money changers, bribe-seeking officials, taxi touts, etc. After 10 months on the road, we were confident about crossing from Thailand to Cambodia and well informed/prepared about what we’d need to do. No matter what, I’ve found that border crossings tend to be associated with long days, longer lines, lots of carbs, a bit of frustration, a bit more inefficiency, and ultimately a sense of “there has to be a better way to do this.” That being said, our experience was fairly smooth but in retrospect, is also a sort of funny and typical travel tale. Read on for a taste of what we consistently seem to go through…

We left our guesthouse in Bangkok early enough that we needed to wake the staff member sleeping on the lobby floor and have her unlock the front gate.  We then hailed a taxi off the street to go to the train station, after insisting that the taxi driver use the meter (as they are technically required to do) instead of randomly charging us a high tourist rate. Arriving early, we quickly stocked up on crucial travel snacks like bread, peanut butter and water at the station’s mini-mart and splurged on some DELICIOUS freshly made waffles for breakfast.  Yum. Like fried dough, but it felt way healthier since it was in a waffle shape. I had two. On the train we were crammed into very hard and very straight-backed chair/benches (2 people facing 2 people) with an open window for fresh/hot air. The ride was about 4 hours, which wasn’t too bad but sitting the way we were our backs were killing us by the time it was over.

When we got off the train several tuk tuk drivers swarmed around us, offering to take us to the border for about $2-$3. We had read warnings in our guidebooks and heard from others that tuk tuks often take foreigners to a ‘false border’ where they try to sell you a Cambodian visa at an inflated price, so we were on guard. But our driver (a young woman) seemed sincere and nice and took us to an official looking building with many staff members in uniforms who were helpfully shuttling us into the office to get a visa. My first red flag was when the man inside immediately gave us forms to fill out for our visa and I asked what about the Thailand exit stamp (since that always comes first) and he looked a bit taken aback and then said if we wanted he would take us there first and then come back for the visa. What?! That made no sense. Then I asked how much the Cambodian visa was and he quoted a ridiculous price so we immediately knew that we were in the middle of a scam so we got up, loudly said no way, and walked out, warning others on the way that this was NOT the official border. Obviously no one tried to stop us or deny that this wasn’t the official exit/entry point.  How annoying. We were especially irritated (and a bit impressed) with how comprehensive and slick the scam was with the official uniforms and all. Still felt like suckers for falling for it after all the warnings. Argh.

So we walked 5 min more down the road and found the correct official Thailand exit post and line to wait in. Some Cambodian guy who ‘looked’ official (baseball cap and some sort of nametag worn around his neck) asked us where we were from and made a big deal out of shouting “AMERICA!! I KNOW SOMEONE IN CALIFORNIA!!! GOOD COUNTRY!!” and then insisted on personally walking us across the street to the Cambodian entry point which was highly unnecessary but he was super friendly and seemed to want to help.  Even so, Brandyn and I wanted to ditch him…friendly people near borders are never to be trusted (see how jaded we’ve become!) and we didn’t want to face an awkward situation where he would ask for a tip for walking us across the street and giving us information we already knew.

Anyway, the entry point officials charged us the correct fee for a visa $20 USD each but then stuck on an extra 200 baht (for themselves presumably). No explanation, just a matter-of-fact “this is the fee” even though it wasn’t documented anywhere in the office. Oh well, nothing we could do so we paid it. Visa in hand we waited in yet another line to get our entry stamp and YAY we were legally in Cambodia.

Unsurprisingly, our friendly California-loving-official-looking guy was outside waiting for us and led us to a free shuttle bus to go to the bus station (again, unnecessary because the bus was like 50 feet away and its existence wasn’t exactly a secret). Arriving at the bus station our new friend was chatting away about where to change our Thai baht to US dollars (the currency used in Cambodia), and other helpful tidbits.  To get to Siem Reap our options were to pay $9 each for a bus that would take 4 hours, or pay $12 each for a taxi that would take 2 hours, would leave immediately, and would take us directly to our hotel. Yep, we chose the taxi. We met a nice Australian man and his daughter when we were in one of the lines so we decided to share a taxi with them. When our departure was imminent, our helper (who turned out to be a volunteer at the border who helps tourists get oriented) asked for a tip and when Brandyn gave him a dollar he literally was over the moon. We felt a little bit like jerks for trying to get rid of him earlier and thinking he was trying to con us.  This was our first official introduction to the genuine warmth of the Cambodian people.

 

Siem Reap: awe-inspiring ancient ruins meet a touristy backpacker haven

We stayed in Siem Reap for 4 nights and really enjoyed our experience. It has a pretty developed tourist infrastructure due to the fact that EVERYONE comes here and uses the town as a base to explore the nearby Angkor temples. Yeah, its touristy…lots of people selling souvenirs in the streets, night markets, “Pub Street” which is filled with bars and restaurants, tuk tuk drivers asking to drive you somewhere every second…but who cares? It was a nice and comfortable base to explore the area and introduce us to Cambodia. Highlights of our stay there include:

The temples of Angkor: So this is the reason everyone goes to Siem Reap. To paraphrase Lonely Planet, Wikipedia and a few other websites, Angkor (which means city) was the capital of the powerful Khmer empire from the 9th to 13th century and ruled a huge territory. Hundreds of temples were built during this time. They were (are) architectural masterpieces and there is immense Cambodian pride in these ruins. The one you may have heard of is Angkor Wat, the principal temple which is HUGE and is like a labyrinth with beautiful towers and it is nearly impossible to believe it was built by hand. Wow. But my favorite was Bayon, which has enormous stone faces on its towers. It also was one of the temples we visited early in the day so we were practically alone crawling all around the temple and exploring. I also loved Ta Prohm which had big old trees that had grown up and over and through the ruins. We had a LONG day of temple viewing – from sunrise to 1pm and after 8 hours of traipsing through temple after temple we started to get cranky and HOT. But they were super impressive and nothing we have seen since (in terms of ruins) even comes close.







Meeting Sam, our tuk tuk driver: We met Sam on our first night in Siem Reap when we were feasting on fresh shrimp spring rolls and 50 cent draft beers at an outdoor restaurant. He was sitting on his tuk tuk waiting for customers and struck up a conversation with us. He was clearly super proud of Cambodia and of his town and told us about Siem Reap and about the temples. He then, unexpectedly, started talking about the Khmer Rouge and how his family was impacted by their terrible regime. How his mother’s family was separated and his aunts are in France but they lost contact and now have no idea where they are or how to find them. He was matter-of-fact, super sincere and seemed to genuinely want to share information about Cambodia with us. Also, he had just about the best wide grin I’d ever seen. We were happy to spend the night chatting with him and then asked him to be our tuk tuk driver to explore the Angkor temples the following day.

Fish foot massage: Okay, so this is a kinda silly Cambodian memory since it could’ve happened in any other country I suppose. What’s the fish foot massage? A big tank filled with tiny fish (like fat goldfish sized) and cushioned benches around the tank where you sit and dangle your feet in and let the fish eat your dead skin. Sounds fun, right? Our feet were disgusting after so much sandal-wearing on dusty roads and we were in serious need of some foot treatment so after dinner one night when we were walking back to our guesthouse we finally said YES to one of the kids on the street trying to get our business at the massage place. The first second putting your foot in the water is a bit weird since you don’t know quite what to expect and then the fish just swarm around you and start nibbling! It felt ticklish for sure, but once you got over that it felt like tiny, rough (sandpaper rough), pinches and it didn’t feel bad or good. It just was. It was fun to watch them though and to see what part of your foot they went for (seemed to prefer toes, not so much into the calluses on our heels). Half hour massage for $3 and lots of fun pictures was a pretty decent way to end our night.


Silk farm tour: One day we visited Artisans d’Angkor, an artisan vocational training institution, that was originally founded to support and promote Khmer art and culture, and provide jobs to rural youth who were interested in traditional crafts. The grounds are filled with workshops where you can see the artisans in action with their wood carvings, stonework, silk painting, and other crafts. The showroom was GORGEOUS and filled with beautiful textiles and statues and amazingly beautiful and high quality art, nothing of which was appropriate to buy on our backpacker budget. They offered a free shuttle bus to a nearby silk farm where they make their silk for their products. I jumped at the opportunity, leaving Brandyn behind since he had zero interest. Long story short, I was blown away by the tour. The guide walked us through the whole silk making process which was incredibly interesting and gave me an even deeper appreciation for the work that goes into making natural-dyed handwoven silk products. I know that cloth doesn’t come out of thin air, but to actually see the process is eye-opening. I saw silk worms, and learned that they are fed mulberry tree leaves and then spin (silk) cocoons and then are put in the sun to dry out and then the cocoons are put in hot water and strands are pulled off the cocoons with some contraption to make thread and then they are dyed and then woven into gorgeous scarves, shirts, etc. It is such a manual and detail-oriented process and watching the men and women working in the silk factory was just amazing.  Seeing a finished product in the showroom and knowing it started with an ugly worm making its cocoon was a great souvenir for me to take with me.





Discovering fish amok: This is a classic Cambodian dish that we randomly ordered one night in a Khmer restaurant, figuring we had to try it, and it was, happily, DELICIOUS! Fish amok is made from chunks of white fish (or you can get prawns or chicken instead) that are cooked with coconut milk, kaffir lime, chilies, galangal (like ginger) lemongrass, and a few other things and then served in a bowl made of banana leaves. The taste is rich and creamy and so good and unlike any combination of flavors I’ve ever had. Such a great find.

Battambang: a boat ride and a Christmas celebration

You can get to Battambang from Siem Reap by bus (4 hours) or by boat (8 hours). We chose the boat. AHHHH! WHYYY?? Well, it was supposed to be a very scenic ride through narrow waterways and floating villages so we thought it would be interesting. Brandyn is much more into boats than I am, I tend to get bored of them after an hour, but I figured it wasn’t too big of a deal. We had heard that the boats uphold ZERO international safety standards so I was a bit nervous about overcrowding and drowning and those fun things, but we made it through okay. It actually was an okay ride. Good points – passing through floating villages, literally boats and structures that were houses and schools and stores and waving at the little kids along the way. Oh, and the little baby sitting next to us was super cute. Bad points – the hard wooden benches we were sitting on, our proximity to the engine so the noise and smell was overpowering, the man near us that had not one, but TWO seizures while on the boat so we had to helplessly watch his wife and other locals try to revive him by scratching him with their nails and then rubbing tiger balm in the cuts.





Arriving in Battambang we met a nice tuk tuk driver who spoke excellent English.  (“Call me Tea like the drink” he said when we asked what his name was, but I think its spelled Ty). He took us to Lux Guesthouse, a Cambodian owned/run place that had large, lovely rooms for only $11 a night. Yay! We immediately liked the vibe in Battambang. Though its Cambodia’s second largest city it has the feel of a sleepy little town.  There were lots of restaurants around and everything within walking distance, so we felt comfortable.

What did we do in Battambang? A lot centered around things we saw while with Ty, who on two separate days rode us around in his tuk tuk to local places of interest, made all the more interesting by his commentary and explanations, and the beautiful countryside filled with rice paddies, and small villages with houses on stilts. Notable standouts include…

Riding the bamboo train: This literally was a bamboo platform with a small engine on it that runs along the railroad tracks and can quickly be stopped and dismantled and moved if a real train is coming (or another bamboo train) from the opposite direction. Apparently it was ingeniously invented by locals to get to places faster while using existing train track infrastructure. Riding on it was SO FAST so bumpy, even though we were only going like 30 km/hr it felt faster since we were so close to the rails, and each break in the tracks made it feel like we were going to go flying off into the nearby rice paddies.



Learning how rice paper and rice noodles are made: Ty stopped the tuk tuk at a few seemingly random houses that he knew of where the families made rice paper and rice noodles. So cool to see in person how they make the foods we’ve been eating nearly every day and it was yet another reminder of how important rice is to the lives of Cambodians. Rice paper is made from a ground rice/water mixture that is the consistency of thin pancake batter that is spread in a thin circle onto a piece of fabric stretched tight over a boiling water pot, and then once cooked (just a few seconds) is quickly taken off and placed onto a woven bamboo rack and left to dry. It dries hard and with a neat criss-cross pattern, but then you just dip it in water quickly to get it to be soft again (like if you want to make spring rolls). Rice noodles are similar. The rice dough is pressed through some ancient looking lever machine and comes out in spaghetti-ish shapes and then are quickly put in cool water.




Visiting the Killing Caves: This was a solemn experience, but a very important one in terms of introducing us to the terrors of the Khmer Rouge and helping us slowly begin to see what the country had been through. Ty took us to a hill called Phnom Sampeau which we climbed up and first admired several temples (as well as fed bananas to some hungry and friendly monkeys). The hill is also the home of the killing caves, where thousands of innocent Cambodians were killed by the Khmer Rouge. It was extremely gruesome, people were brought to the top of the caves, and then bludgeoned to death or had their throats slit and were pushed down the skylight into a deep cave. A few memorials were set up, with skulls and bones displayed in glass cases, and there were still some small pieces of bone and clothing in the area. So horrible to think about and just standing there and picturing the atrocities that had occurred there literally made our stomachs turn. Barbaric. I couldn’t stop thinking about the fact that all of this had happened after I had been born. Did my parents know about it? Did the world know?  This was just the beginning lesson to a lot of education about the Khmer Rouge during our time in Cambodia.






Seeing an amazing acrobatic performance: So we wanted to go to this “circus” in Battambang that I think is misnamed/mismarketed. The actual Cambodian name is Phare Ponleu Selpak and it is an NGO that helps disadvantaged Cambodian youth learn a range of artistic skills such as painting, acrobatics, theater, music, etc. as well as traditional educational subjects. The organization is quite renowned and has sent several of its students on to Cirque du Soleil. They put on performances a few times a week to raise money for the organization (and hone their skills) and the one we went to blew us away!! Not exactly the dancing bear circus that the name suggests. The performers were ages 16-24 and so talented…there was a 3-student band providing a musical background to a high-energy, well choreographed acrobatics show. These kids were juggling, balancing, and doing crazy acrobatics literally just like Cirque de Soleil. Great showmanship and just fantastic entertainment.  After a tiring and mentally exhausting day at the Killing Caves, it was quite a contrast and very inspiring to see young Cambodians with so much energy and talent and clearly living life to the fullest.


Taking a cooking class: On Christmas morning we took a cooking class offered at a nearby restaurant called “The Smokin’ Pot”. There were 8 of us in total and we first went with the chef to the local market to buy fresh ingredients, which was such fun. The market is run by women, all of whom have small stalls on the inside or designated areas on the ground outside where they squat and sell their wares. The chef explained all of the ingredients (some of which didn’t look the way I had pictured them – like lemongrass), and we got to see him bargaining with all of the women for what he wanted. Definitely an experience! We got back to the restaurant and were quickly put to work chopping veggies, grinding spices and such in a giant mortar and pestle and then we moved on to individual work stations/stoves to cook up (and eat) three yummy dishes. We made fish amok, and two other spicy ones that I forget the names of but will remember soon enough since they gave us a recipe book which I sent home.  After our disastrous cooking ‘class’ in India we finally felt redeemed, and got a little bit excited about future dinner parties once we get back to Brooklyn.




Exchanging ‘secret Santa’ gifts: Since it was Christmas after all, we decided to do our own version of “secret Santa” and gave ourselves a $5 and 30 minute limit to buy each other a Christmas gift which wasn’t as easy as it sounds. Battambang isn’t a very tourist-oriented town so there weren’t any souvenir shops and the dozens of hardware, electronics and clothing stores didn’t quite have anything appropriate. FINALLY I found a small handicrafts place and bought a pair of bamboo wood chopsticks (which we had been admiring in several restaurants), a loofah made of Cambodian natural products (Brandyn loves them), and then as a final touch, I bought an Angry Birds keychain from a street vendor (we’ve become obsessed with the game on this trip). I was pretty happy with myself! I got back to the hotel and Brandyn was grinning, saying that he got a great gift for me but it wouldn’t be ready for him to pick up until 5pm. Hmmmmm. So that night we went to happy hour at a nearby restaurant and began the gift exchange. I had wrapped my gifts in plastic bags (classy) and Brandyn loved them. Yay! Then he handed me his gift, wrapped in his scarf. It was rectangular and hard…I had no idea what it could be. Then I took off the scarf and saw the back of a picture frame. Oh cool, I thought, he bought some art! I flipped the frame around and couldn’t believe it…I was staring at a professional totally air-brushed photo of Brandyn wearing his bright red Kingfisher beer muscle shirt, doing a double thumbs-up, and standing in front of a wrought iron balcony with fake smoke all around. At the bottom of the photo were the words “Merry Christ Mas 2011 Battambang Cambodia”. LOVED IT!!! We had been passing by tons of photo shops in Cambodia and all of them had these ridiculously posed and overly airbrushed photos of couples and individuals in front of outrageous backgrounds. Like a senior high school photo gone wrong. So Brandyn had played along and gotten a portrait and although it was all really was a big joke to him, he and the staff at the photo store had taken it very seriously  and took about 30 shots of him. Brandyn doesn’t want me to post a big picture of him but I DO have a digital copy so if you want to see it let me know and I’ll share it.

Pakse and the Bolaven Plateau

Feb 24, 2012 by     No Comments    Posted under: Cori's blogs, Laos, Uncategorized, Where we've been

Our initial days in Laos were spent in a few small cities in the Central and Southern parts of the country respectively, where we welcomed the sunny days and the relaxed pace of life.

Pakse doesn’t have many attractions in the town itself, but is a good base for nearby trips and also is a common bus stop on the Rte 13 North-South main road through the country.  We took a bus there from Savannakhet, a trip we thought would take 4 hours but instead took 6. Ugh.  It was a local bus that we boarded about an hour before it left, and it was a good thing we did since it soon filled up and then little plastic stools were placed in the aisle for additional people to sit on. There was not an inch of space left in that bus. We started off and soon realized that this was going to be a long trip. The bus literally stopped every 5 minutes (I was keeping track on my watch). Each time it stopped on the side of the road it was to cram more people on (as well as stow their big bags of rice or whatever on top of the bus), or to let people off. The thing about letting people off was that if someone was in the back of the bus they needed to make their way to the front by crawling and stepping over all of the people on the stools in the aisle which was a painfully slow and awkward process since there was no floor space to step on at all. No one seemed to mind at all though, this was totally typical. Occasionally the bus would stop to let people off to pee by the side of the road…no bushes really to hide behind, just out in the open, but most of the women had sarongs on so could be discreet. Since I was in my normal t-shirt and pants going to the bathroom was not an option for me.  In a few towns when we stopped the bus was instantly surrounded by women food vendors selling the ubiquitous grilled chicken on a stick which looks like the entire chicken splayed out. Also little sacks of sticky rice and sliced mangos and hardboiled eggs. All of which were enthusiastically waved in front of the windows or shoved inside for the passengers to buy. The bus soon smelled like a big barbeque.  It was brutally hot and the constant sweating combined with the constant stopping was making me cranky. After 6 hours the novelty of riding a local bus had long since worn off.

Upon our arrival in Pakse, we settled ourselves into a decent hotel in the center of town and strolled along the Mekong River getting our bearings, eating (yummy papaya salad and sticky rice), people watching, and bowling.




We debated how to spend the next few days and decided that we wanted to visit the Bolaven Plateau which is a nearby elevated area that has a cooler climate, is home to several small village and is known for its coffee plantations and waterfalls. It seemed like a very scenic and interesting place to explore and the best way would be by motorbike. There is a common route known as “the southern swing” which you can follow around the Bolaven Plateau, taking as little as 2 days or as much as 2 weeks to complete, depending on your side trips. I, of course, being someone of a square and a scaredy cat was hesitant. I wasn’t sure how safe it would be on the motorbike or what the conditions of the roads were like. I didn’t want to rent my own motorbike, and though Brandyn wasn’t overjoyed to lug me around on the back of his, he ultimately was okay with it. Having never ridden one before I didn’t think a 4 day trip was the best initial training ground…plus renting a motorbike in places like this is like renting a bicycle. No explanation, no safety instructions, just here are the motorbike keys – BYE! Not for me.

So we ended up with a cute red Honda Wave 100cc (no idea what that means) with Brandyn up front and me in the back wearing the daypack crammed with our stuff for 4 days. On January 31 at 8am we were off!

 

Day One: We rode from Pakse to Tat Lo which was about 85/90 km or so on a paved road, and traffic thinned considerably once we were out of town which was great. My views (except for the back of Brandyn’s helmet) were of the Bolaven Plateau in the distance, occasional cows by the side of the road, houses on stilts, and just nice greenery in general. We stopped at Phasoume Waterfall along the way and had some baguettes and Laughing Cow cheese (our go-to snack in Southeast Asia). We reached Tat Lo around 1pm and checked into a riverside room with a lovely view off the deck of some waterfalls and other nearby wooden bungalows. Explored the area for a bit by traipsing through the woods and enjoyed dinner on the deck while watching little kids playing/bathing in the river. Very peaceful.







 

Day Two: We got up early and walked about 20 minutes along a path up to the big waterfall – also named Tat Lo – and spent some time sitting at the top taking pictures. The whole scene reminded me of upstate New York, particularly the Finger Lakes region.  We got back on the motorbike and continued along the loop, this time with Sekong as our destination, about 75 km away on paved roads again. We passed by rice paddies, more houses on stilts, many of which were drying coffee beans spread out on large tarps in the front yard. Saw several big pigs snuffling along the ground or crossing the road (my absolute favorite), and then ended up in Sekong which was a small and empty town. We found a nice hotel to stay in and a nearby restaurant that had an English translation on the menu so we ate and then just settled in to read and relax. We had a TV in our room but the only English language station was ESPN so we watched the world bowling championship for a few hours – riveting.









 

Day Three: This was going to be a long day of riding but we were mentally prepared for it. We bought breakfast at some food stalls in town which consisted of a huge bunch of mini bananas (they wouldn’t sell us individual ones) and about 6 mini Chinese doughnut-like pastries, all accomplished through pantomiming and pointing and laughing. The Chinese buns turned out to be amazing…doughy and fresh and some of them were stuffed with what looked like mushrooms and tiny glass noodles but we weren’t sure. Sounds gross but was awesome. Best breakfast ever. After stowing the banana bunch in our bike basket we set off again, this time heading south. We turned at a waterfall sign down a long dirt road hoping it would result in something cool. Success! A beautiful waterfall and some nice rocks to sit on and eat more doughnuts. Back on our way, we were looking for a turnoff onto a dirt road which we needed to take for another 71 km west to the town of Paksong. We had heard it was a really rough road and I was a little nervous since we’d been spoiled by perfect paved roads and low traffic the past 2 days. We found the turnoff, filled up our tank and headed off.  The road was pretty bumpy, all packed down red dirt with quite a few bulldozers and tractors since the road is currently under construction. But once you looked away from the red dirt road you realized you were in what felt like a jungle. It was absolutely beautiful and so quiet. We were slowly ascending and whenever we stopped to stretch our legs we could just hear tons of birds chirping and then silence. Our first goal was to spot Nam Tok Katamtok, which we had read was super difficult to find and we had to look for landmarks by crossing 3 bridges and then heading slightly uphill. Turns out the waterfall was super simple to find – it was right off the main road and it was huge and quite beautiful. We tried to walk a bit into the woods to get near the top of it and then sat for a while just enjoying the atmosphere. Back on the road we continued navigating over our bumpy dirt trail and our backs and butts were starting to hurt from all the jostling. Brandyn did an excellent job of keeping us upright though and managed to avoid most of the potholes.  The last 20 km were the worst because the road turned to gravel and it was incredibly hard to stay steady on and in general it was super jarring and uncomfortable. We were thrilled to finally reach Paksong, which seemed just like a small one street town, but at least it had paved roads! It was also much cooler now that we were at a higher altitude and I realized I needed a jacket! We had lunch (amazing noodles and fresh veggies) and then visited a coffee shop we had read about in our guidebook that is run by a Dutch ex-pat and his wife who is from a nearby village.  We had hoped to go the next morning on a coffee plantation tour but they didn’t leave until 10am which we thought was a bit late, and also the Dutch guy turned out to be quite arrogant and unfriendly and we weren’t in the mood to give him our business. Our silent protest! So we spent the rest of the day reading and hanging out.

















 

Day Four: Instead of having breakfast in Paksong we thought we’d get on the road early and have breakfast at Tad Fane Resort about 20 minutes away.  This turned out to be a great idea! The road there was paved and easy and the resort itself was rustic and beautiful. We had a second floor view from the restaurant out into the valley which overlooked the Tat Fan waterfalls, twin cascades about 120 m high. Breakfast was delicious and the service was absolutely fantastic. We met a few Germans who were watching us playing cards while we waited for our food so we taught them our game (Shithead) and chatted with them for a while. By then it was 9am so we started to explore the grounds. We left our helmets and bag with the restaurant staff and started off on a nearby trail, not knowing exactly where it would lead but since it was a well-worn path we figured we were safe. Turns out the path went first through a coffee plantation and then down down down through the dense forest we had been looking at during breakfast, and then up up up again to the waterfall we had been admiring. It was a hot and challenging walk because of the steepness, but worth it. We sat for a while on the rocks of the waterfalls, enjoying the serenity and then headed back. Oddly, climbing back up the steep hill turned out to be much easier than going down because we were able to just pull ourselves up by tree roots and not worry about slipping so much. All in all it was a great hike, Tat Fan was definitely the highlight of our day and probably the whole motorbike trip.

We left the resort, sweaty and hungry and pushed on to the final 50 km or so back to Pakse.  It felt weird to see all the traffic increasing as we approached town as we had gotten used to being the only people on the road. But we made it back safely and were happy to check into our hotel again and reward ourselves with a hot shower and the first change of clothing in 3 days.





For my first ever motorbike trip I think I did pretty well. After the first hour or so on the bike I was much more comfortable and less of a backseat driver (even Brandyn agrees). Riding a motorbike definitely gives you a different perspective on the areas you’re passing through too…in part because you’re moving through at slower speeds and have more time to look around but also because you’re out in the open air sort of feeling what’s around you in addition to seeing it. Every bump in the road, passing dust cloud, mooing cow crossing in front of us, smells of foliage, just felt more real than I think it would’ve felt had we been speeding along in an A/C vehicle. Arriving at a destination dusty and sweaty with a sore backside also makes you feel like you earned whatever it is you’re about to treat yourself to, whether it is an ice-cold Beer Lao or a beautiful waterfall.

Maybe next time I’ll even try to drive.

Nepal Trekking Takeaways

Feb 9, 2012 by     3 Comments    Posted under: Cori's blogs, Nepal, Uncategorized

I know Brandyn already written a great post about our time in Nepal but I wanted to add my perspective on the amazing Annapurna Circuit trek that we did for 20 days.

Brief background: As Brandyn described in his blog post, the Annapurna Circuit is a popular hike in Nepal that typically uses the city of Pokhara as a base. From there trekkers generally move in a counter-clockwise circle around/through/up the Annapurna mountain range which is part of the Himalayas. The trek goes through villages, past Buddhist and Hindu sites, is characterized by changes of scenery from tropical greenery to forests to desert-like conditions, and is within sight of some of highest mountains in the world (Manaslu, Annapurna I, II, IV, III, Dhaulagiri and more). Our “goal” was to cross the Thorung La Pass at 5,416 meters (17,769 feet) about mid-way through the trek and then go back down the other side and around. Whew.

While the trek can be done on your own (the trail is well marked and there are many teahouses or lodges along the way where you can easily eat and stay the night – no need to carry tents and equipment with you), we opted to hire a porter/guide for a few reasons. Most importantly, I didn’t want to carry a heavy bag and make myself miserable through tough climbs and changes in elevation. I had nothing to prove and didn’t consider it a weakness to have a porter.  Also, we thought it would be fun to have a Nepalese person with us to tell us about the culture, land, etc. And we were right…Jaya was amazing and really helped give us insight into the lives of the Nepalese. Lastly, for a relatively low price we were able to help the economy and employ a local for 20 days, who in turn could better support his family. Pretty good deal all around.

Now on to a few of my takeaways from the Annapurna Circuit Trek…

The Start of a Hike is the Worst Part

I really like the idea of hiking…meaning I like the concept of being outside in the fresh air and getting exercise. I also, admittedly, like being able to brag to people after a hike “Hey, I hiked that!” But the first half hour or so of hiking I am not very happy. I for some reason am usually terribly fatigued, each step is slow and heavy, and I feel critical of the weather, of the way my daypack is making my back sweaty and itchy, of how my trekking pants curl up weird at the hem and make me look frumpy. Most of all I am resentful of being active and think that I’d much rather be curled up with a glass of wine/mug of coffee, reading and admiring the mountains from a balcony of a lodge somewhere.  But then something begins to happen.  My legs no longer feel heavy, but strong. Wiping the sweat off my face makes me feel accomplished, not annoyed. Suddenly I’m enjoying myself! I’m taking in big gulps of delicious air, admiring scenery and my fatigue is slowly being replaced with energy. The “hiker’s high” I suppose.  The minutes and hours quickly pass and when I ask Jaya how far to the next teahouse and he says 10 minutes I am shocked! Happy of course to reach our destination, but a little bit sad to stop hiking*, something I couldn’t have imagined about 4 hours earlier. And yes, this hate-love experience happened pretty much every day on our 20 day trek.

*The exception being about 2 or 3 killer long days on the Circuit when I was deliriously happy to stop hiking for the day and just sit and drink tea by the liter. But I’m generalizing here…

Macaroni Meals Never Get Old

Every teahouse/lodge actually had a surprisingly extensive menu, with some Nepalese specialties and then a variety of foods that they thought Westerners would enjoy. Probably too many options, since a lodge in the middle of the Himalayas working on a wood fueled stove shouldn’t be expected to whip up Indian curries, lasagnas, yak burgers, soups, burritos, Tibetan dumplings, spring rolls, and pizza. Yet they did, to varying degrees of quality. The most consistent and safest bet always was Dal Bhat, the classic Nepalese meal of white rice, lentil soup and curried potatoes. But I HATED it. I don’t know why exactly, the first few bites always tasted good but then it just made me feel so full and bloated and unsatisfied. Sorry Dal Bhat! So after 1 or 2 days of Dal Bhat lunches and dinners I switched to macaroni. Not the mac n’ cheese variety that is near and dear to my heart, but shell-shaped pasta and was either boiled or fried…if you had it fried it was boiled a bit first and then sort of stir fried with vegetables and egg. Delicious. Being somewhat weight conscious, I rarely eat pasta when I’m home so it felt like an amazing gift to be able to order heaping mounds of macaroni for lunch and then again a few hours later for dinner. Completely guilt free greasy pasta – doesn’t get better than that.

Mountain Animals are Adorable

I’m the kind of person who says ‘awwww’ at nearly animal I see, and this trek was no exception! We saw so many animals that may have looked ordinary back home but when seen in their mountain habitat it was just a whole different level.

Baby goats: There were two of these cuties in Ghermu on our second night, and they were prancing around while staying close to mom, who sas tied up in a nearby shed with the food. I spent a lot of time watching them skitter across the path, climb up walls, race back to mom, and sleep curled up around each other in the garden.


Adult goats: We saw quite a few groups of them being herded along the trek, but my favorite sighting was of about one hundred of them being led across a suspension bridge. Some were trotting uniformly, some were pushing and shoving ahead of others, bells ringing, occasionally bleating and totally ignoring all the hikers on the path that had moved to the side to let them through.


Donkeys:  These passed us quite frequently, always carrying heavy loads of food, water, petrol or some other supplies that needed to make their way to the mountain villages. They all wore huge bells around their necks and brightly colored blankets or headgear and hearing them come from around the bend was always so festive – like sleighbells.

Yaks: Already on this trip I have become fond of ox, cows and buffalo and now I added yak to my list. Big and stocky with a curly mop of hair, yaks look very huggable even though apparently that’s not something you should attempt. My favorite sighting was one taking a drink of water from a faucet on the trail.


Dogs: Nearly every village we passed through was home to some mountain dogs. Usually a bit stubby legged, with a thick coat of fur, these dogs looked adorable but rugged.  Often found curled up on a step in the cold wind with bits of earth stuck in its fur, I was lucky enough to come across a few puppies along the way that were still mushballs of cuteness and hadn’t toughened up yet.



Sometimes Routines are a Relief

I’ll be the first to admit that one of the joys of traveling is the spontaneity you can have, and the last-minute decisions you can make to totally change course and stay longer/shorter somewhere, add a new destination, avoid another one, etc.  It’s something I find myself saying to others when they ask how I like travelling and tend to say things like “I love just making it up as I/we go along.” Well that’s true and that’s also false. It’s sometimes super nice to take a break from the constant planning and deciding and just get into a consistent routine that we could count on. That was part of the beauty of our trek.

Every day we’d wake up at 6am or so, put on the same clothes as the day before, pack our bags and head to the lodge’s dining room for a breakfast of tea, chapatti and boiled eggs. We’d eat quickly, focusing on fueling our bodies not enjoying the meal and then Jaya would head to our room to get the pack set for him. Usually we were on the trail by 7am and hiked about 4-5 hours, making it to the next teahouse by lunchtime. We’d drop our bags in our room, change out of hiking clothes into our spare ‘clean’ set (occasionally shower if there was hot water available but that happened maybe 5 times in our 20 day trek) and head to the communal dining room. We’d order lunch (Dal Bhat for Brandyn and Macaroni for me) and a large thermos of hot water which we used to make our own tea with bags that we’d brought. We’d play cards until our food came, eat, resume playing cards or reading or talking to fellow trekkers about their route and how they were feeling and what town they were stopping in next. We basically would try to kill time until around 5pm when we’d order dinner (macaroni for me again and either Dal Bhat or some veggie curry or veggie burger for Brandyn) and then continue to play cards and talk while huddling around the closest stove, and finally retire to our rooms by 7pm at the latest. We’d brush our teeth at some random cold outdoor faucet (or at a sink in the bathroom if we were lucky enough to have that) and then get fully clothed into our sleeping bags and fall promptly asleep, only to repeat the exact same thing the next day.

Seem dull? Well it wasn’t at all…the consistency of waking and sleeping at the same times every day, the timing or meals and the great daily exercise made us (well, me at least) feel quite balanced. And it really was a welcome relief to take a break from making the constant travel decisions that have come to define our life…where to spend the night, where to eat dinner, how best to get from point A to B, how much to pay for a particular item or tour, etc. Toward the end though we were starting to get desperate for our own time back, to veg in a hotel for a day, to watch a movie on a laptop, to eat SOMETHING DIFFERENT for breakfast. Turns out routines are a relief, but for us, they have a shelf life of about 20 days.






Slow and Steady Really Does Win the Race

Our route on the trek was planned out more or less in advance – meaning that we had a fair idea of how far we’d hike each day and what town we’d stay in, though we had the flexibility to change it if we wanted. This was dictated partly by Jaya’s experience and also by our need to ascend gradually to get our bodies used to the high altitudes that we would be getting into.  I got into a groove over the first few days and even though I hate hiking uphill I realized it was obviously necessary. The difficulties came as we got higher up…my legs by now were used to the steep climbs but it was my lungs that were not happy. I was getting out of breath after just a few steps and needed to stop and rest often. It was frustrating because Brandyn seemed immune to any of the altitude changes and could just bound up the hills and for Jaya of course it was effortless. My two lowest points happened during the climb to Tilicho Lake and the final ascent to Thorong La Pass. Both times I was so bundled up in clothing to guard against the cold that I didn’t feel limber, and I was taking these tiny baby steps then pulling up with my hiking poles and just repeating that again and again. Breathing was fairly regular, but deep and a few times I’d stop and just gasp in air again and again, trying to force as much oxygen as possible into me. Jaya was my cheerleader, telling me how it wasn’t so far left, how I needed to make it so I could take a picture at the top, etc. I was so conscious of how slow I was going and how slow time was going. I’d hike for 10 minutes and realize that I didn’t really cover too much ground. Sigh. Then, when we were almost up to the Pass my heart started hurting. “Hey Jaya! Is it normal to feel like someone is stabbing your heart with a knife?” “Okay!” was the reply so I babystepped on. The great thing was that I knew I was hydrated and hiking the right way and my slow and steady approach got me successfully both to Tilicho Lake (a beautiful turquoise lake that is about 5,000 meters high) and to Throng La Pass. Both times as soon as I reached my destination my breathing was totally normal again and I rewarded myself with tea and a snickers bar and thought to myself “that wasn’t so bad after all”.




Solitude + Hiking = Peace

This trek turned out to be the perfect time to do a lot of thinking. I tend to be a chatty hiker, but most of the time I was alone, with Brandyn way up ahead and Jaya somewhere behind me (sometimes directly on my heels but he was a quiet hiker too.) So I thought a lot…sometimes just taking in the beauty of all that was around me, sometimes trying to think about eventually going home and what type of job I may want to have, sometimes imagining how I’d react if there were a landslide (usually I would be a hero and save several people), sometimes thinking of every person I love and what exactly they might be doing at the moment I was hiking (usually sleeping).  I confronted not so pleasant memories too…I thought through all the semi-major decisions in my life in the past 10-13 years and where I may have taken the wrong path, and why. I tried to remember silly things, like how I spent New Years Eve for the past 5 years. I also thought through my favorite memories…I relived my wedding day. I relived meeting my nephew for the first time, and holidays at the Hermit Loj. It was actually very soothing. I have had a lot of downtime on this trip for sure, but often that’s on a bumpy bus ride or right before going to bed at night or while waiting for our meals to come, and it has been rare to have a long stretch of uninterrupted time when it’s truly quiet and peaceful and you can really just get comfortable with your thoughts. I wasn’t expecting that heading into this trek, but ended up really enjoying it.


I Have Much Admiration for Mountain People

As I mentioned, we decided to do this trek with a porter/guide who was carrying the bulk of our things on a big pack, while we each had a light daypack. There were many times while trekking when we would be huffing our way up a steep hill or carefully taking mincing sidesteps down a hill when we would be quickly passed by locals. Sometimes this was a group of schoolchildren in their uniforms and shoes (note: not hiking boots) literally running along the trail talking and laughing, or it was someone carrying a crates of chickens strapped to their bag, or it was a porter with 3 huge packs attached to a strap around his forehead, or it was simply men and women of the villages carrying huge bundles of grass or sticks or baskets of some type of food. It was just incredible the amount of weight they could carry and their surefootedness along the different terrain. They made it look effortless and made us look and feel like ridiculous, overdressed tourist trekkers. They really were amazing to watch – I have nothing but respect for the people of the Himalayas.

No Photos Will Ever Do Justice

We saw such stunning scenery on this trek and even though we tried to take pictures along the way, when I look back at them now they really don’t accurately represent what we were seeing. I suppose if we had a better camera it would’ve been different, but even given that, I don’t think it would’ve helped that much. The beauty was enhanced by our adrenaline, by the sounds we heard, and by our wonder at hiking through such an extraordinary place.  One day we’d be in thick forest that reminded me of my beloved Adirondacks and then we’d make our way through a village climbing over big stone steps, passing huts with vegetables drying on the roofs, little kids playing, colorful prayer flags flying, chickens squawking and dashing in front of us, and then suddenly we were plunged into quiet wilderness again and listening to the mighty Marsyangdi river follow us along. One of my favorite parts of the hike was walking from Upper Pisang to Bhraga on Day 7. The beginning was super difficult – gaining 420 meters in 5 km and I struggled through the switchbacks only to be rewarded by an incredible view.  Next we were on a (relatively) flat trail that wound around the mountain and everywhere I looked I saw beautiful rolling hills and greenery and then I’d turn my head a bit and these hulking, gleaming white mountains would be right there, literally looming over us (I think Annapurna II, III and IV). I’d stop and stare up, squinting against the glare and see what looked like little puffs of smoke coming off of the top and realize that was huge gusts of wind and snow. Can’t believe people have actually climbed those peaks. I’ve never been that close to mountains that big and I kept moving by head around while I hiked just stunned by what was around me. We stopped for a noodle soup snack along the trail, enjoyed with the mountains as a surreal backdrop. When I close my eyes I can re-live it all again perfectly in my head and can feel the wind whipping around the bends, smell the fresh scent of the air, and see the glowing mountains. Which may in fact, be better than a picture after all.




A taste of Chile

Jan 4, 2012 by     1 Comment     Posted under: Chile, Cori's blogs, Uncategorized, Where two now?

Yet another better-late-than-never post! We made our way through parts of Chile for about 2 weeks, some of that in mid-May and the rest in early June after we detoured through Northern Argentina. I started writing this after we left and then lost steam, but this delay shouldn’t detract from the fact that Chile was a fantastic experience.

I actually was surprised a few times during our stay when Chileans asked us why we were there…wondering why we would want to visit this country on our vacation. It certainly created a few awkward moments as we tried to explain why we thought Chile was a great tourist destination.  I mean, for such a narrow (but long) strip of land* it really has it all…a huge desert, amazing coastline, bustling cities, lakes and forests and of course, mountains. On top of that, we found Chileans to be very friendly and approachable, the country was easy and safe to navigate, and the food was delicious.  We were lucky enough to sample a bit of the diversity of Chile…read on for some highlights.

*Nerdy stuff: Chile is 4,300 km long (2,700 miles) but its width is never more than 240 km (150 miles).

First stop, a cold and dry desert

We entered Chile overland by way of Bolivia – it was the last day of our Uyuni Salt Flat Tour and we were dropped off at the border in the mountains and then taken by bus about 40 km downhill into San Pedro de Atacama. The transition from Bolivia to San Pedro was a bit of a shock to the system. Why?

  1. Change in weather. It was so cold at the last stage of our tour in Bolivia since we were at 4,482 meters in elevation at the border near Lincancabur Volcano. The temperature dropped significantly heading down to San Pedro (elevation 2,440 meters), and we ended up peeling off layers during the short ride and even, gasp, starting to sweat (I had forgotten what that felt like). Though we were soon to learn that heat only stuck around during daylight hours.
  2. Tourism focus. San Pedro de Atacama is a tourist wonderland…it is a Gringolandia that looks like the set of an Old Western movie, everywhere you look is a cute café, well marked street signs, lots of tourist agencies, clean plazas, free wifi in the main park, other tourists wandering around, souvenir shops, etc. Cheesy, yes, but in an upscale kind of way. It honestly was a refreshing change to be in a place that looked and felt safe and clean and welcoming for tourists, especially after the past few weeks in the desolate terrain of the Bolivian salt flats or the small, dusty, not-made-for-tourists Bolivian towns.
  3. Delicious food. Our first Chilean experience was at a place offering a menu del dia for about 4,500, which is the equivalent of $USD 9.60. I had a creamy vegetable soup (pumpkin based), grilled Merluza (hake) with a side salad, and I think pineapple for dessert.  The absolute best part was the olive oil that was on the table for our salads and also our bread. You opened the bottle and it literally smelled like you were walking through an olive grove – my senses were overwhelmed with the smells and tastes. We got the feeling that this was going to be very different from the near constant intestinal distress we had been in over the past several weeks.
  4. Sticker shock. We’d heard other travelers say that Chile was more expensive than other countries in South America but it didn’t really register until we started to try to pay for things. It was a startling awakening coming from Bolivia. Food, lodging, beer, etc. were about double (or triple) what we were used to paying. Looking back, it wasn’t really that expensive at all, and the prices were appropriate for such a stable and prosperous country. But at the time, given it was our first experience with $20 hostels being the budget ones instead of the ‘splurge’ ones, we felt a bit panicked and constricted by the prices.
  5. Language. People definitely have a different rhythm to their speech in Chile, and use quite a few different words as well….from basic vocabulary like names of fruits to slang thrown into normal sentences, I had to strain my ears and take more than a few leaps of faith to understand what some people were saying. Sort of a disappointment after having felt so confident with my Spanish over the previous few months, but a fun challenge!

As for San Pedro de Atacama itself, we had a good time but it wasn’t my favorite. Our hostel was super basic (again we were in sticker shock and didn’t think it was worth what we were paying) and had an okay common outdoor courtyard where we met some people and started to get tips on where to go/not go in both Chile and Argentina. We didn’t go out at all at night since drinks were so expensive. Atacama Desert is really the main attraction in this area, since it is a huge desert and I think the world’s driest one. We didn’t want to go horseback riding, and a lot of the tours into the desert and beyond were very similar to what we had just seen in Bolivia, so we opted for an (overpriced) tour to El Valle de la Luna. This consisted of a minibus taking us and 8 other tourists to various scenic points in the desert to admire the endless landscape of reddish rocks and sand, culminating in a short climb up to a ridge where you could watch the sunset and see how the nearby rocks and mountains seemed to change color once the sun went down. Quite pretty, but not AMAZING and really overrated. I honestly was a little bit over desert/barren landscapes and was craving lush forests. For Brandyn, having grown up in Arizona, Atacama was cool but not wildly different from anything he has seen before. We are hard to impress!

Next up…a brief Chile hiatus

From San Pedro de Atacama we crossed over the Andes into Argentina on a curvy and scenic ride that lasted I think about 12 hours, with Salta as our final destination. Two weeks later we re-entered Chile, this time a bit further south, coming from Mendoza, Argentina direct into Santiago, the country’s capital.

On to surfing in Santiago (couch)

At first we had mixed feelings about heading into Santiago…it’s a big city (which we typically don’t like visiting) and we heard from a few other travelers that it was okay, but not great. Luckily, we had a different   experience!! This was our first time couch surfing as a guest, not a host. We had found a great couple online (former around the world trippers as well) that unfortunately had a very busy weekend already planned but were also willing to let us stay in their spare bedroom and give us travel tips in their free moments. We found Santiago to be very welcoming and fun…a city that was intuitively laid out with a decent, clean metro and a safe feel to it. Again, a welcome change after many of the bigger South American cities we had been to in recent months.

People in Chile (and in Argentina) eat late, so we had to adjust our internal clocks a bit. Our first night in Santiago we did an okay job, arriving at our host’s house at around 8:30pm and then walking to dinner sorta nearby (walk-able by a New Yorker’s standards – 25 minutes at a brisk pace) and had SUSHI for the first time since we left home, eating by 10pm or so. YUM. Weird though, only really salmon and octopus available in terms of raw fish – no tuna, yellowtail, etc. like I’m used to. Oh, and EVERYONE was smoking. Welcome to Chile.

Spent some time over the next few days exploring the city a bit…went in and out of various parks, museums, restaurants, etc. just enjoying moving around. We were lucky to have another local connection as well – Pamela, a friend of my sister-in-law lives in Santiago and she picked us up one afternoon, took us to the Mercado a traditional/touristy place to eat seafood (and watch the soccer game), and dropped us off in Bella Vista neighborhood with instructions on cool things to see. She also graciously invited us to join her at a house party she was going to that night – a birthday party of one of her friends. We hesitated at first….was this just an offer to be nice or really were we wanted there?? Also, could two gringos still not used to these late hours keep up with the others? I forced myself to get a second wind that night around 10pm (easier said than done) and we asked Pamela to pick us up and take us with her! What resulted was an incredibly fun night…fantastic food, a wonderful warm group of people, a welcoming atmosphere, lots of pisco, tons of funny English/Spanish exchanges and a departure at 4am (first ones to leave!!) to try and get some sleep so the next day wouldn’t be a total loss. Gracias Pamela para una experiencia buenisima!!

Time for coastal fun and fish

Even though it was off season, we wanted to visit the coast. We had heard mixed reviews on Valparaiso, a port city that apparently is colorful and unique but also slightly dirty and unsafe. We decided to check it out, in large part because it was only a short 1.5 hour bus ride away. We hadn’t organized a place to stay yet in Valparaiso which nearly always equates into a stressful experience. Arrived and were greeted by the first helpful tourism person encountered on this trip (no joke). She gave us a small map and very explicit instructions on how to catch the public bus to the area where we thought we wanted to stay. It’s always a bit awkward to arrive in a city with a huge backpack on, not know exactly where you are, how to use the public transport, etc. But we managed and only got off a few blocks past where we were supposed to. We took the infamous Valparaiso funicular elevators (inclined cable cars) up the steep hill to a cute little neighborhood with a (foggy) view of the sea and hiked around trying to find a reasonable place to stay. We ended up at an okay little hostel with a big common area and decent sized room for us. All in all not too bad but SO CHILLY! Over the next few days with spent time wandering around the small streets near our hostel but most were restaurants/bars out of our price range or shops that we couldn’t buy stuff from so though it was neat to look at it wasn’t really right for us. A big plus? All of the colorful murals decorating most of the streets – just like a big street art gallery and so festive. It really made the neighborhood. The port, on the other hand, was nothing special, at least for a traveler. It was as you would expect a working port to be…busy, gritty, gray and also cold. Much better was the nearby fish shack where we had a spectacular menu del dia of grilled merluza, empanadas de mariscos and cerveza of course.

We decided to head a bit further North however to the small fishing town of Horcon, that we had heard about through reading another couple’s blog on their around the world travels. It seemed small, quaint and just what we were in the mood for, so we hailed a bus on the main street and rode for about two-three hours up the coast (past Vina del Mar and dozens of other little coastal towns) until we finally arrived in Horcon. It was perfect.  Just a few streets lined with little beachy looking houses/cottages leading to the sea where there were dozens of colorfully-painted fishing boats in the sand and lots of fishermen (real rugged, serious career fishermen) hanging out near the boats untangling the fishing nets, cleaning their day’s catch, selling fish to buyers that had driven in, etc. All along the beach were cute little fish shacks too, where we promptly settled ourselves for a very fresh and large fish lunch. We found a place to stay on the main street by responding to a sign advertising rooms – turns out that it was a cute old woman’s house with two apartments upstairs that she rented out.  It reminded us of a NYC studio apartment and even had a view of the ocean. We spent about 3 days in Horcon but could’ve spent weeks there just sitting by the sea watching the fisherman, especially when they came into shore and this guy on horseback would bring two other horses into the water, hitch them to the fishing boat, and use their power to drag it to shore. Incredible to watch.

Last but not least – time to check out the Lakes District

We decided to head down to Pucon because we had heard so much about it from other travelers and we also wanted to get a taste of the South in Chile. We knew it was too cold for us to venture down into Patagonia, but figured even if Pucon would be cold/possibly rainy at least it would give us a feel for the area. We decided to try our luck couchsurfing again and we’re so glad we did. Pucon was a cute mountain town but we were definitely there off season. The main attraction is climbing Villarrica volcano, which we actually never got to do due to the rainy/foggy weather, but we had a great time anyway. Our host, Carlos, was friendly and welcoming and we had such fun every night making dinner together at his apartment and just hanging out. On Saturday, when Carlos wasn’t working, we went together to the nearby Huerquehue National Park and took a long 6-hour walk/hike to a series of lakes. It was beautiful, serene, and we had great views of the volcano. Interestingly enough, it was while we were in Pucon that Puyehue volcano erupted about 300 km away from us. We could see the cloud of ash rising from where we were and in the days/weeks to come would witness how it was messing with the travel plans of lots of people.

 

So, that was Chile. All in all, it was a really special country to visit and I would definitely want to go back there someday…ideally in a different season so I could really experience the full beauty of the Lakes District and also Patagonia. Until then!

 

Tales of a Lazy Blogger

Jan 1, 2012 by     No Comments    Posted under: Cori's blogs, Uncategorized

In honor of New Year’s resolutions I’ll first confess to my utter failure as a blogger and then *try* to start anew and turn my shameful stats around.

  • Months on the road: 10
  • Blog entries posted: 6 (all from February-May)
  • Times blogs were thought about, but not written: Far too many

I remember being so excited before leaving for our around-the-world trip…obviously in large part because I was ready for a new adventure but also because I wanted to write about it along the way. As we prepared and planned I went back again and again to other travel blogs to get a sense of itinerary, costs, what to pack, and just inspiration in general. My favorites were those by other couples, I suppose because I could relate to them the most, and I remember proudly showing them to my parents and explaining how we were going to do something like that, with big glossy shots of our enviable experiences and pithy yet thoughtful commentary of all that we saw. Nope.

I don’t know exactly where it all fell apart…I think maybe when we were originally trying to choose a blog design and set expectations (of ourselves) that were waaaay too high. We probably would’ve been better off with a simple, one column design that was primarily text. Instead, we have a really nice looking site but I found it hard to manipulate the pictures to get them where I wanted them and it was sooooo sloooooow to upload anything. Okay, that was often not the fault of the blog design, but of internet speed or lack thereof. I remember in Bolivia trying to post my Peru blog when Brandyn was touring the silver mine and I was sitting in the lobby of our hotel for 3 or 4 hours (literally) just uploading pictures. Didn’t exactly stir the creative juices.

Then in Africa internet was either extremely expensive or non-existent so we didn’t even bother with emails, let alone blogs and pictures. We had high hopes for India and what we hoped would be a very accessible and speedy internet, but thanks to finicky connections that would kick us offline for no reason or planned power outages, that was not the case.

What else? Oh, laziness. Admittedly we do have quite a bit of downtime, but it never seems to coincide with when I actually feel like writing. My downtime strikes usually when I’m on a bumpy bus ride, or right before bed, or during the hot part of the day when I’d often rather be reading, watching a movie with Brandyn, or napping/having a cocktail, respectively. So I’ve often put off the blogging until a ‘better time’ but then I’m off and running and doing something new and the original idea/inspiration to write about something fades away and the blog becomes a chore. Or, even worse, my type A personality flares up and suddenly wants to write about things in chronological order. “Hey!” i scold myself, “you can’t write about India before even acknowledging anything about Africa!!!” An internal battle ensues and writing loses.

Now we’re in Cambodia and ever since we arrived in Southeast Asia internet has been reliable, fast and everywhere! So no more excuses on that front. What else is getting in my way? It can’t be that I don’t like writing…because I love it, and in fact, it’s one of the rare things I miss about home since I used to write all the time. Mainly for work, but even that I enjoyed. Perhaps (if I’m really honest with myself), it’s because I can no longer honestly fantasize that during my year of travel I’ll write such savvy and interesting anecdotes that I’ll develop a following and people will want to hire me as a travel writer and I’ll someday write a book of my stories.  Think I can pretty much rule that out right now.

But I know what I CAN do. Rather than be disappointed with myself for what I haven’t done so far, I can just begin again without rules or excuses. I can just write, without pressure, the things that are going through my mind about where I have been, and where I’m going, especially as we start the last four months of this journey.

Oh, plus my Dad has gently asked/urged me if I’m going to write anything else…not just for him and my mom to read, but because he thinks it’s a great way to record our travels, as random and disjointed as the memories may appear. I agree.

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