Phnom Kulen National Park [Cambodia]

On our third day in Siem Reap, we wanted to get out.  Perhaps the prior day’s trip to Beng Mealea had affirmed the good times to be had when you step out of tourist central.  Or perhaps it was the thought of cooling off in a waterfall. 😉

We used our hotel, the Golden Butterfly Villa (full review here), to arrange a car for the day.  Our destination: the waterfall in Phnom Kulen National Park.  Ever since Ryan (also with us on this trip) organized the trip to Havasupai Falls in 2012, I’ll admit that I’ve been a waterfall chaser.

Sorry, TLC, but your advice sucks.

Phnom Kulen sits on a mountain top, approximately 2 hours outside of Siem Reap by car. After confirming our plans and the cost with the driver, we crammed into the back of the sedan and stomached the drive with no AC or leg room.  What I didn’t realize is that by hiring a driver to take us to Phnom Kulen, we also were agreeing for him to funnel us through two additional sites on the way there.

The first stop was an archaeological site at the base of the mountain, the River of 1000 Lingas.  We emptied out of the car, and–unsure of what to do–we started hiking along the river.

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We didn’t have a guide and most of the significance was lost on me, but I did gather some info about this site.  To many, lingas are a Hindu symbol of divine energy, associated with the god, Shiva.  To the non-Hindu that I am, they were squares with raised bumps, carved in the river bed.  As the water passes over these holy carvings, it is sanctified, made holy for the temples downstream.  We made two friends along the way, who enticed us into our second game of jump rope in Cambodia.

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The next stop on the way to the falls was Preah Ang Thom, home of the largest reclining Buddha in Cambodia.  We passed up these steps, lined by children and merchants selling flowers or other offerings.

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We removed our shoes (a couple of ladies fought over who would watch our discarded shoes while we went up to the temple.  Later, the lady who won demanding payment for her watchfulness) and continued up the steps to view the Buddha.  I don’t believe there is an explanation for why it is reclining, but it is magnificent, painted gold and surrounded by offerings of vibrant colors.  The terrace surrounding the Buddha’s room affords a nice view of the surrounding jungle.

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We piled into the car again ready for our final destination…the waterfall!  As with Preah Ang Thom, we passed through various vendor stalls and merchants before arriving at the falls.  The first set of falls was tiny, and I’ll admit that I was a little disappointed.  We came all this way for a tiny waterfall?  😦

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Then, we heard a larger thundering sound…there was another waterfall further downstream!  We climbed down some structurally questionable wooden stairs to find this bad boy:

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I could hardly believe it!  It was incredible.  Plus, the park was pretty empty, so we were able to enjoy the falls as if they were our own.  We waded out to a large rock poking out in the center of the pool and made that home base.  From there, we played in the falls and basked in the sun for the rest of the afternoon.  Too soon, it was time to leave.

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This place has to be Siem Reap’s best kept “secret”.  To be sure, the temples are spectacular, but this place had that intangible…je ne sais quoi.  It was peaceful, and beautiful, and it wasn’t somewhere we had to “check” off our list, but rather someplace we wandered in hopes of finding something amazing.  And we did.

Find me on Trip Advisor (the Other A List)

Phnom Kulen National Park

Genevieve’s Restaurant (where we ate after our day by the waterfall)

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Biking Through the Countryside to Beng Mealea [Cambodia]

On our first day in Cambodia, we biked around the Angkor temples, but our second day was arguably my most favorite of the entire trip.

We hired a guide (again through Grasshopper Adventures) to lead us ~40 miles into the Cambodian countryside to visit the far-flung temple of Beng Mealea.   We met our guide early in the morning, signed our lives away, then got situated on the mountain bikes that would be ours for the rest of the day.  The day was already hot, slated to reach around 95 degrees Fahrenheit that afternoon.

Our guide led us immediately out of Siem Reap, back along a sandy path that turned into a dusty dirt road.  It was if someone had drawn a line around the bustling city of Siem Reap and once we crossed that line, the level of poverty increased tenfold.  We pedaled along, passing palm trees, workers in the rice fields, people wading out into ponds to throw out fishing nets (not for sport, but to catch their food for the day).

I don’t have any pictures from our ride out to the countryside.  Part of it was logistical–it’s hard to manage a camera while riding a bike along a bumpy dirt road!–but the other part of it was out of respect for the people.  Seeing Cambodians as they are day-to-day wasn’t a tourist attraction, so I felt I would just observe and try to soak it all in.

Some of my observations (filled in with little facts from our guide):

  • The houses are built on stilts, which originated when their ancestors lived in the jungle and needed to keep their homes out of reach from predators.
  • Back home, it’s easy to take for granted what we have or to feel inadequate if we don’t have the granite counter tops, the stainless steel appliances, or the living room crafted together à la Pinterest.  These houses have no running water, no electricity, no AC in blisteringly hot weather, and have roofs and walls fashioned from dried palm leaves.  It really put things into perspective, and helped me recalibrate what I thought of as “normal”.
  • We didn’t go unnoticed.  It was Sunday, so the children were at home and the adults were working nearby.  The adults waved, and the children would run as fast as their little legs could carry them to shout “Helllllllooooo!!!!” as we pedaled by.   They weren’t asking for money, as children in Siem Reap did.  They were simply excited to be practicing the English they had learned in school.  One little girl ran up beside Kursten and asked, “Where are you from?”  When Kursten replied (“America”), the little girl’s eyes lit up and she said “I know!  Capital: Washington DC!”  After correctly recalling the capital of the US, she stopped running beside us.
  • Family sizes in Cambodia are quite big.  Our guide told us that a small family would have up to 5 kids, the standard size being 6-10.  Families lived off of ~40 cents/person/day.  40 cents a day.
  • Cows are skinnnnny.  They use them for labor, not necessarily for juicy steak.  I wouldn’t recommend ordering beef anywhere in SE Asia.  Stick with the fish, vegetables, and rice 😉
  • Roadside shops are common, set up on tiny wooden tables selling drinks, snacks, and gas in glass bottles.  They are manned by members of the family, whoever happens to be around to take care of the customer.  We stopped at a few!
  • Jump rope was pretty big.  We stopped to play (video here).

Later that afternoon, we completed the Tour de Cambodia.  We had made the long journey and tucked into some lunch before heading on to the temple.

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The Beng Mealea temple was well worth the journey.  We had the temple nearly to ourselves, most people not taking the trouble to travel that far out of Siem Reap.  The temple itself is being swallowed up by the jungle–vines are weaving their way over and between the stones–and trees are growing out of the carvings.  The temple is in shambles, seemingly forgotten.  It is quiet here.  Our guide told us that the Pol Pot regime had used this temple as a sort of base in the jungle, and that the land mines surrounding it had only recently been removed by funding from a German organization.

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I will never forget this incredible place.  Not Cambodia.  Not Beng Mealea.   What an impression they have made.

Find me on Trip Advisor (the other A-list)

Grasshopper Adventures Bike Ride to Beng Mealea

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Angkor Temples by Bike [Cambodia]

As I left Thailand, I prepared myself to be a unnerved by Cambodia.

I shouldn’t have gone through the effort, though, because Cambodia calmed me from the start.  First, it was the friendly people.  We flew into a rinky-dink airport and were greeted  by a man with a smile and a tuk tuk.  The hotel had sent him.  He loaded our bags into his tuk tuk (a motorbike with a passenger cart hitched to it), smiled at us some more, and then motored down the road to our hotel.  Once there, we were greeted by the staff pictured below.  Someone carried our bags up to our room while another served us a traditional Khmer welcome drink and sticky rice wrapped in a banana leaf.  Still another kept us company while we ate and he described all of the hotel services that would be available to us free of charge.  I think I’m going to like it here.

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The people of Cambodia charmed us with their genuine hospitality and warmth; wandering through Angkor had us enchanted.  The next day, we hired a guide (through the tour company, Grasshopper Adventures) to lead us through Angkor, the UNESCO World Heritage site that houses remains from the Khmer empire and includes temples such as Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm, and Bayon Temple.

Watching the sunrise over Angkor Wat was our first stop and as the light crept over the temple, we sat on the edge of the moat, munching on croissants.  Once the sky had lit up enough, we wandered into the temple and our guide explained the symbolic significance of the various architectural features.  The precision in the design, the symbolism throughout, and the sheer enormity of these temples bears witness to a remarkable civilization.  I am most impressed at the applications of astronomy in the architecture.  The temple was built with such exactitude that the sun will crown the highest pinnacle of Angkor Wat during an equinox.

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Our first day in Cambodia also marked the first day with Chris and Ryan, who had flown across the pond the night prior.  As you can see, we were super stoked to finally be here!  As our guide explained that Angkor Wat was modeled after the mythological Mount Meru (home of the gods in Hindu mythology and center of the universe), we wondered aloud about what daily life would have been like in a place inspired by the divine.

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After Angkor Wat, our guide led us to an area where we had a more substantial breakfast.  Over the meal, we chatted with the two people in our tour group that we didn’t know–a girl from Australia and a guy from Sweden that were currently working in Phnom Penh .  They were so friendly and gave us many suggestions of fun things to do in Phnom Penh (our next stop after Siem Reap).  After breakfast, our guide led us to a row of mountain bikes, our means of transport for the rest of the day.  The mountain bikes were, in my opinion, the best way to go.  We rode through the jungle from temple to temple, bypassing the tuk tuks traffic throughout Angkor.

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We rode through the jungle to our next stop, Bayon Temple.  Bayon was more intricately carved and decorated than Angkor Wat, but it was in much worse shape.  Time had not been kind to Bayon, and it just looked tired.   What I found interesting about Bayon is that it felt like I was weaving through a labyrinth, the confused layout a souvenir of remodeling done in the years after the commissioning king died.  More distinguishing features include the faces carved on the pinnacles and the enormous bas reliefs, with carvings depicting every day life.

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Our final stop in the mountain bike/temple excursion was Ta Prohm.  Most tourists come out here to feel like “Tomb Raider”, as portions of that movie were filmed here.  As you can see from the pictures below, this temple is known for the trees that have claimed it.  The kapok trees both support and destroy the temple, which I found fascinating.  The roots wedge themselves in between the stones, tearing them apart and making the integrity of the structure dependent on the tree staying alive.  The temple itself is in ruins, and if the kapok trees die, the temple might collapse, allowing the jungle to swallow it up.

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After Ta Prohm, we enjoyed lunch (and a few Angkor beers) as a group before heading back to our hotel for an afternoon siesta.

Check out my Trip Advisor reviews (under TheOtherAList)

Golden Butterfly Villa

Grasshopper Adventures

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On Panic, Wii Brackets, and Turning 26

Last Sunday, my parents and grandparents came over for a birthday brunch.  It was a great visit, but when they left, I felt old.  Ancient, really.

So I did what any logical person would do: got in my sweatpants to watch Beauty in the Beast, drank a mimosa, and panicked.  What if there’s not enough time?  What if I can’t cross all of the items off the bucket list? What if some items aren’t in the cards for me?

Rationality finally stomped out my über-depressing panic session and I realized that the most fulfilling part of the whole bucket list project is in the simple act of trying.  By stepping up to bat on some of these things, I’m defining myself by what I did, not by what I didn’t do.

This positive attitude stuck and by this weekend, my age didn’t seem to scare me nearly as much.  I was invited to a friend’s house to play in a Wii “Just Dance” tourney (we had a bracket and everything :)). We ended up at a nearby bar, dancing to live country music, and bringing in 26.  It was such a wonderful way to usher in the next year!

turning 26

Looking back on 25, I was able to cross some items off my list!

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As per the birthday tradition, I need some new bucket list items and a birthday athem.  The birthday anthem is easy.  Neil Young this year.  This is my jam.

The new bucket list items are a little harder to choose.  After much thought, I’ve decided that the following should be added to the list:

Get a face full of mist from Iguazu Falls (idea courtesy of a friend at work)

Try paddleborarding (because, why not?)

Go on an African Safari (because I can’t believe that this is not already on there)

Launch this blog as my own site.  Taking the step over to the dark side…

Posted in Birthdays & Other Holidays, Life Milestone | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Observations, In Pictures [Thailand]

Some parting observations on Thailand, in pictures.

monk mobile

Forget Black Coffee

24 hour massage

Rose Apple

Never Coming Home

Whole Fish

I CAN DO THIS

Chang Beer

 

Peanut Sauce

gasoline

Bolonees

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Big Elephants and Big Buddha [Thailand]

The day after returning from the island, we went on a day trip to Siam Safari.  A safari this wasn’t, but we expected as much when we booked it.  It felt very “Disney” in that we went from station to station to learn about different industries in Thailand (like rubber, rice, coconuts, and curry) and to watch a short demonstration.  Although Siam Safari wasn’t totally up my alley, I’ll admit that I learned a lot at these demonstrations!

The last station–interacting with the elephants in the camp–didn’t sit well with me, though.  Turns out, I’m not alone–using elephants to generate income in the tourist industry has sparked much debate in scientific communities, government agencies, and animal activist groups. 

Before a logging ban imposed by the Thai government in the late 1980’s, many elephants worked  in the logging industry.  Doing so provided for their food and care.  Since the ban, the majority of these elephants were out of work and their mahouts (a sort of caretaker that stays with the animal for life) had to find alternate ways of getting enough food and adequate care for their animals.  The logging ban coincided with the rise of tourism to Thailand, so many elephants went from the logging industry to tourist camps, which (in many cases) provides employment for the mahouts, a vet for the elephants, and a way the elephant can get adequate nutrition and care.  Even though I understand the rationale of why camps could be a good thing for elephants, it still breaks my heart to see such intelligent creatures confined to relatively small spaces, posing for pictures with tourists.  And I was one of them.  We researched to find the most ethical elephant trekking company in Southern Thailand to find Siam Safari, but I still couldn’t suppress a tinge of shame.

Of possible interest:

The Elephant Situation in Thailand and a Plea for Co-Operation (Roger Lohanan)

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On a more light-hearted note, the remainder of the day AFTER Siam Safari was one of my fondest memories of our time in Phuket.  It was my “we’re not in Kansas anymore” realization in Thailand, and the saga goes a little like this…

From afar, Kursten and I had seen the Big Buddha that looks down on Chalong Bay, but originally, we didn’t have any plans to go see it.  When the Siam Safari peeps picked us up from our hotel and drove us up the hill to their facility, I could see the Big Buddha getting closer and closer.  We decided that we would try to hike up to the Buddha statue after our “safari”.

**Fast forward to the end of the “safari”**

Assured by of one of the safari “rangers” that we would be able to find a taxi up by Big Buddha, we declined our complimentary ride back down to our hotel and hiked our butts up the winding road.  Even for two pretty fit girls, this excursion was tough, and before long we were drenched in sweat.

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As the road wound upward, we approached a monkey chained to a nearby tree, which was apparently the road-side shop owner’s sad way of attracting tourists.  We eyed the monkey from the road for a little while and then Kursten got up the courage to bend down and say hi to the little guy.   Before either of us knew what was happening, the monkey grabbed hold of Kursten’s pigtail, swung from it like a vine, and bit off her hair tie.  I cannot believe I caught this moment on camera–it is 100% candid. Once Kursten pulled free, we scurried along, laughing at what a mischievous little bugger that guy was!

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Finally, we reached the top of the hill and entered  what I’ll call the Big Buddha complex.  Monks were roaming the grounds under the Buddha’s shadow and we moseyed around before climbing up the stairs to reach the base of the tall marble Buddha.

One of the first things I noticed was the sound, the thousands of brass bells chiming in the wind.  Each bell held an inscription in a foreign language, a dedication or prayer it seemed.

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The Buddha and the viewpoint itself were spectacular, the breeze giving us a nice break from the stifling heat of the trek up there.

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We wandered around for a while, soaking it in, appreciating the craftsmanship that went into constructing a statue of this size.  Eventually we made our way back down to the stairs to find the monks chanting in prayer.  It was a pretty neat thing to witness.

As we were leaving the Big Buddha complex, we had our “we aren’t in Kansas anymore” moment.   We learned that the ranger from earlier was wrong.  So wrong.  You can’t just hop in a taxi to take you home.  No empty taxis were there just waiting (we felt like silly Americans to even believe that would be true); all taxi drivers had been hired by the day by their customers that were currently exploring the Big Buddha.  We would have to appeal to their customers for the driver to allow us in their taxi.  It made sense, and we waited around a bit, hoping to approach some random people to bum a ride.  Before long we gave up and hiked back down in the way that we came.  Our goal was to make it back to the Siam Safari camp and either (a) see if there was any way we could cash in on the ride we had declined earlier or (b) use their telephone to get a taxi to take us home.  With that plan in mind, we made a pit stop for a coconut.

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And then we walked.  And walked.  And walked.  Until we realized that we had hiked ~1.5 miles further down the hill, missing the entrance to Siam Safari completely.  Fail…just…fail.  We felt so stupid.  At that point, though, we were in the middle of nowhere and had no choice but to hike the 1.5 miles back up to Siam Safari.  When the ranger (the one who originally gave us the bum advice about the taxi) saw us approach the Siam Safari camp, her eyes bulged out of her skull in shock.  We must have looked like sweaty ass zombies.  She felt bad about giving us poor advice, so she pulled some strings to help us out.  One of her colleagues was able to drive us down into Chalong so we could hire a taxi to take us back to our guesthouse.

Lesson learned:

*Locals aren’t always right *

*You can’t just find a taxi when you need one *

*Always arrange transport or hire a motorbike/car for the day.*

*Thailand has a taxi mafia.  Even after we found a taxi stand in Chalong, the driver insisted on calling the owner of our hotel…where we were already staying..to try to scheme a commission for bringing weary travelers to her hotel.  *

Check out my Trip Advisor Reviews here (posted under TheOtherAList):

Siam Safari

Big Buddha

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The Koh Phi Phi Islands [Thailand]

Kursten and I often joked that we didn’t sleep very much while on vacation. We went through a lot of trouble to be on the other side of the world, so why would we be asleep for it!? Ain’t nobody got time for that!

In that spirit, we were up early the next day to catch a ferry to Koh Phi Phi Don island.  The ferry was actually quite nice.  It took ~ 2 hours to get from Phuket to Koh Phi Phi Don island, but there was a nice breeze, and we passed some really beautiful islands on the way there.

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Once we arrived on the beach, we went into full relaxation mode in this island paradise.  Order of business:

1) Food…get in ma belly.  Let’s be clear, one doesn’t go to Phi Phi (pronounced Pee Pee, ;)) for the food, but there are two distinct advantages to dining on the island.  First, everything is insanely cheap.  A beer would run under $3 and a dinner, under $6.  Secondly, fresh fruit is really easy to come by.  We were able to get sliced papaya, pineapple, a fresh fruit smoothie…you name it!

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2) Relax in the water with a cold one.  No elaboration required.

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3) Massage.  Two hour-long massage ran us $15, I kid you not.  I learned, though, that light on the wallet does not mean light on my back.  I was “coppertoned”, where my bathing suit bottom was pulled halfway down.  Since these massages took place on a veranda overlooking the beach/bay, I’m sure some strangers saw my plumbers crack.  Boy do I feel bad for them!  Knuckles were cracked against the vertebrae of my back, and I was twisted and folded into positions that I feared would paralyze me.

Dee Dee Beach Hut

Vintage Coppertone ad credit: http://tinyurl.com/m454a78

4. Nap.  Jet lag is real, yo. Kursten and I slept a solid 3 hours, waking up to the “uns uns uns” of music blaring from the beach.  The sunny paradise of Koh Phi Phi Don was no longer.  In its place was an island teaming with neon, kerosene, and the European equivalent of the frat boy.  Still worth exploring, if you ask me.

The beach parties were something else.  Every bar puts on a fire show with Thai guys twirling batons of fire to the beat of the techno music.  I got wild and jumped through a ring of fire…when in Rome, Koh Phi Phi right?

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Modesty Patrol

The next day, we went snorkeling in bays of Koh Phi Phi Ley with the Adventure Club.  Although I got a little queasy on the longboat ride out to Koh Phi Phi Ley, I really enjoyed this trip.  We snorkeled in three bays:  In the first bay, I was mildly disappointed when I saw brown coral.  It didn’t last long, though, because the vividly colorful fish were amazing to watch.  Blues, greens, purples, and yellows zoomed around the reefs–my eyes didn’t know where to look next!  In the second bay, we were stung by thousands of little…somethings.  They looked like small little jellyfish, but even that isn’t an accurate description.  In any event, they creeped me out, and I felt like a water ninja dodging them for a half hour. Hiiiiiiiya!  Take that ya (sort of) jellyfish!  We rested in Maya Bay, where Leonardo DiCaprio’s “The Beach” was filmed before heading to the third bay.  The third bay was my absolute favorite.  We saw a turtle and some black finned reef sharks!  It was incredible.

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That night was our last one on the island–we left early the next day.  On the ferry back to Phuket, I was surprised that I felt relief in leaving.  The island is equal parts beautiful and disgusting.  No doubt about it, the islands have a natural beauty that is unsurpassed.  However, tourism has definitely taken its toll.   Litter is everywhere, kerosene from the nightly fire shows oozes into the waters of the bay, and there’s an undentifiable”funk” that locals attribute to the horrible plumbing system of the island.  If I were to go on this trip all over again, I would visit a less touristy island, but I was glad that I did get a chance to experience Koh Phi Phi at least once in my life!

Check out my trip advisor reviews (showing under TheOtherAList):

Dee Dee’s Beach House (where we stayed)

Adventure Club (snorkel)

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