Category Archives: Asia

Southeast Asia Costs 2014

I had generally expected the question of how I was financing my travels to come up. I mean, I’ve been a professional student for years, making roughly a living wage. What I wasn’t expecting was who would do the asking and how quickly my hard-core savings would be called “luck”! Let’s get this straight, while luck plays a role in my ability to travel (as I was born into a wealthy and stable country, have a wonderful family, and had no major health problems or catastrophic accidents), the fact that I saved up a significant chunk of money was due to my choices and determination to travel long-term post graduation.

We touched on the money aspect ever so slightly when we spoke about selling everything and moving our remaining possessions into my parents basement. But building our savings started long before that. In fact, I entirely attribute my ability to travel to my habit of tracking my spending. And no, I don’t mean with mint or some other app, I mean personally writing down every cent that I spent every day. When I first started writing down every purchase, I was shocked at how many monetary transactions I made every day! But doing this can quickly show where you’re spending your money and can highlight areas where you can limit your spending to increase your savings. However, my ranting on the financial benefits of tracking your spending and budgeting is not the purpose of this post!

As I mentioned, I have a habit of tracking my spending. Furthermore, I should probably call this “habit” what it is; an addiction. When we first started our trip, I had planned to abandon this habit for the first time and failed. Prior to our trip, I had only tracked my own spending, but as we started the trip our finances became too intertwined and I quickly (i.e. immediately) started tracking everything. As a result, my love of spreadsheets can highlight just how affordable travel can be, especially if you choose your countries wisely! Here is the breakdown from our Southeast Asia trip:

Note that flights are not included. This was done purposely because flights are a whole different type of expense. With patience and flexibility flights can generally be found cheaply but with them, so much depends on where you are coming from! In the following are a few notes specific to each country, as well as a favorite picture from each!

Thailand

As Thailand was the first country we visited, we were in vacation mode when we first arrived. What I mean by that is that we frequently had delicious and fruity cocktails with dinner, because we could. We also rarely ate street food, opting for restaurants (with curry!) as we slowly adjusted to life on the road. However, as any long term traveler knows, this is not sustainable behavior. I do think this is part of the reason that the food column is substantially higher in Thailand than in any other country (except Singapore, which is in its own expensive category)!

We also did several activities such as scuba diving, white water rafting and rock climbing with a guide. So much fun!

I mean, honestly, when you're sitting here, taking in this sunset, are you really NOT going to order a fruity cocktail?

I mean, honestly, when you’re sitting here, taking in this sunset, are you really NOT going to order a delicious fruity cocktail served out of a pineapple?

Malaysia

To be fair, we didn’t give Malaysia much of a chance. We high-tailed it out of there to Singapore where we stayed while M prepared for his interview. Our per day transportation cost was rather high considering that transportation here was relatively cheap. We were just moving almost every day. However, I did find my favorite curry of the whole trip on Tioman Island. My curry addiction most certainly fueled some of the food costs in both Thailand and Malaysia. You can easily get cheaper street foods… just none of them are as delicious as CURRY!

Petronas Towers

Petronas Towers

Singapore

We expected Singapore to be expensive. We just didn’t expect to spend as much time there as we did. On the other hand, it was a good base as M finished his interview prep. However, even the hostels were expensive, and while we did eat at some wonderful and cheap restaurants we also treated ourselves to drinks with views such as the one below.

Marina Bay Sands light and water show.

Marina Bay Sands light and water show.

Cambodia

Cambodia was definitely one of the cheaper countries. It probably would be near the same cost per day as Vietnam if it weren’t for our short stay as well as the entrance fees to Angor Wat being relatively high. But Angor Wat is simply stunning!

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat

Myanmar

We spoke a little bit about our surprise at the costs in Myanmar at the time given that they were significantly higher than the guidebook and websites had led us to believe. However, this had to do primarily with hotels and fees to the various regions we were visiting. Since most of the attractions are to simply see the country, the (lack of) activity fees kept the overall price fairly consistent with the other countries we visited.

Bagan

Vietnam

We seemed to have unintentionally saved the cheapest country for last. If you have ever spent money without making money for months and watched your savings balance drop, you know how much of a relief it is to see that balance dropping more slowly. We did a lot of tours in Vietnam, but we were still able to stick to a reasonable budget. By this time we were eating significantly more street food. M may have become completely addicted to the Vietnamese sandwiches (and will still immediately start drooling if you mention a particular sandwich lady from Hoi An).

Monkey Island

Monkey Island

All in all, our costs for traveling through Southeast Asia were cheaper than what we would have spent to live in either the US or Germany! While I know many people who spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on a two-week vacation, it’s all about the choices you make, from the location of the vacation, to where you stay, and what you do that dictate how much money you will end up spending. These are choices, not luck! We just happen to make pretty good choices, if I do say so myself! 😉

Using scooters to get off the beaten paths

I guess most people have a phase during their teenage years that they aren’t too proud of. For me that is a phase when I was too much into motorbikes. How much you ask? Well, enough to sport a mullet and one of those jeans vests with patches on it. My view of what qualifies as a motorbike was also rather narrow minded. A bike had to be either a full blooded street racing or moto-cross machine. I also thought that the worst thing on two wheels were scooters. These little plastic covered machines with the tiny wheels that don’t handle or accelerate well. I hope that I have become a lot more tolerant since these days. However, I was still having a hard time convincing myself to rent a scooter in Southeast Asia. But it happened. Not once, but twice and I have to admit that I had fun both times.

It started when we were in Bagan, Myanmar. You can’t rent scooters in Bagan because the taxi lobby has managed to get them banned. But the locals found a way around this by renting out electrical bicycles. These aren’t electrical bicycles as they are used in many European and some American cities nowadays. They do have pedals but they are just electrical scooters in disguise. They are fast enough and have sufficient reach to get you around the whole Bagan area. They were also cheap to rent and gave us the freedom to explore the temples at our own pace. Best of all, they were called bicycles and not scooters. Therefore I didn’t have to admit to myself that I was renting a scooter quite yet.

Cows, cars, bicycles and e-bikes in front of a temple in Bagan.

Cows, cars, bicycles and e-bikes in front of a temple in Bagan.

I had a great time riding the little toy bike around and noticed a few days later that I had been in serious motorbike withdrawal. I had sold my last one about four years ago after having owned bikes for almost 20 years. As a consequence I was all for it when J suggested a couple of weeks later that we should rent a scooter and drive to the temple ruins of My Son about an hour away from Hoi An, Vietnam.

The ruins of My Son.

The ruins of My Son.

Some scooters were in pretty good condition.

Some scooters were in pretty good condition.

We got a relatively new Yamaha scooter with enough power to carry the two of us comfortably. The deal is always the same in Vietnam. You get the scooter almost empty and hope that you’ll make it to the first gas station. I had heard that it is more reliable for tourist to buy the gas from the little stands next to the road where they sell it by the bottle. However, my experience was that the gas at the normal stations was significantly cheaper and nobody tried to charge me more than the meter showed. The traffic in Hoi An and the surrounding streets is not as busy and chaotic as in the big cities like Ho Chi Minh City. Nevertheless the driving style of the locals is creative to say the least. The only consistent traffic law is that whoever has more momentum has the right of way. If this question can’t be answered without a doubt it is discussed by honking at each other. But traffic is slow and people usually find a way around each other. The further away from the city I got the fewer trucks, buses, cars and scooters I had to deal with. Instead the number of bicycles, cows, buffalos, dogs, chickens and pigs on the road increased. But the same traffic rules seem also to apply here, i.e. watch out for cows and buffalos, everything else will move out of the way. I had a blast maneuvering the little scooter through this obstacle course. It reminded me a lot of my youth when I was riding 50cc bikes on the dirt roads around the town I grew up in.

Three little pigs on the back of a scooter in Vietnam

Three little pigs on the back of a scooter in Vietnam

Paradise cave in Phong Na Ke Bang National Park.

Paradise cave in Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park.

On a second occasion we rented a scooter in Dong Hoi and drove to some of the caves in the Phong Nha-Ke Bang Natinoal Park. The roads were in a better shape in this area of the country. This was very helpful because the scooter we had rented through the hostel was in a poor condition and needed more attention than the one we were on before. After a short drive I figured out that the order of the gears was backwards, similarly to a racing gear box. Needless to say this was the only racing gene that the little scooter had. I’m also still unsure where neutral was supposed to be. The breaks required a bit of foresighted driving and the speedometer was constantly bouncing over a wide range of velocities. But it was nice to have some kind of motion inside the instrument panel since all the other parts were broken too. Nevertheless, it was a lot of fun to be on the road and steer the scooter out of the town and towards the hills in which the caves are hidden.

Other scooters were in poor shape. But I'm still getting drive-by high fives.

Other scooters were in poor shape. But I’m still getting drive-by high fives.

But even more important than the fun and independence of driving around ourselves was, that we got to go off the beaten tourist path and got to see a glimpse of what life is like in the Vietnamese country side. Water buffalos were pulling carts along the road and plows through the muddy fields. Kids were playing next to the road and running up to us for ‘high-fives’. At one point we got into what seemed to be the going home rush hour. The little two lane street was filled with bicycles. They were all going in the same direction. It seemed like one big stream of bicycles with people riding in clusters of two to five bikes. They were riding next to each other, talking and joking along the way. Scooters were negotiating their way through the bicycles but every now and then a loud honking car or truck would come by and most of the bicycles would end up riding into the ditch next to the road. It seems chaotic and dangerous from the outside but people are aware of each other and somehow make it work.

I’ve never owned a motorbike that was suited for travelling on. For the few short trips I did on my bikes I usually crammed my toothbrush and a set of underwear underneath the seat and called it good. However, these two excursions have sparked my interest and I can imagine doing a longer motorbike trip in the future, e.g. in South America.

“You kiss me?” A Glimpse into Myanmar/Burma

“You kiss me?” I looked around the festival we were walking through only to have my eyes land on a group of monks. To my astonishment one of them said, again, “you kiss me?” I started laughing as his buddies kept him walking past us.

Not this Monk...

Not this Monk…

We had been in Myanmar for less than three hours and already my time in this country had surprised me and made me giggle on numerous occasions. Shortly after walking out of the airport we found ourselves in a taxi on the way into the city. The driver sat on the right side of the car, and M noted out loud that they were also driving on the right side of the road. Shortly later we realized that there were cars with the steering wheel on the right, but also several with the steering wheel on the left! As it turns out, they used to drive on the left hand side of the road, but recently this had changed, and of course the cars hadn’t quite caught up with the change!

Look closely, the steering wheel is on different sides of the cars!

Look closely, the steering wheel is on different sides of the cars!

As it turns out, the timing of our trip into Myanmar was impeccable. We arrived on the evening prior to the second largest festivities of the year and it turned out that there was a large festival going on within walking distance of the hostel. We quickly set out to find dinner and to tour the festivities. In many ways the “market” resembled fairgrounds with a small Ferris wheel and assorted games with food and drinks everywhere.

Ferris wheel in the middle of the festival.

Ferris wheel in the middle of the festival.

While walking through the crowds of people I was surprised to notice that the monks were wearing maroon colored robes as opposed to the orange robes we had seen in all of the other Southeast Asian countries. We saw groups of monks playing carnival games; kicking balls towards goals, throwing rings onto cans of beers and generally participating like everyone else around us. And food! Of course, there was food everywhere we looked! We watched as several people juiced sugar cane by pushing the sugar cane through these machines so quickly that I was shocked they didn’t accidentally push their own hands through the press.

Sugarcane juice.

Sugarcane juice.

We wandered through the chaotic and overflowing streets and into the crowded pagoda, people-watching and trying to take in everything that surrounded us.

Inside the pagoda

Inside the pagoda.

Outside the pagoda

Outside the pagoda.

Prior to arriving in Myanmar, I’d read a bit about the country. I’d read that I should expect that life didn’t work in quite the same, predictable way as it did back home. Even while reading about backwards-moving clocks and beetle-nut-destroyed-teeth, I didn’t expect the embodiment of these passages to leave the impact on me that they did.

Monks at a money exchange...

Monks at a money exchange…

To be clear, my amazement, surprise and confusion didn’t just revolve around monks. However, most of the impressions that stuck with me are difficult to put into words. We saw people sleeping in eccentric places such as the luggage compartments of buses or relaxing on plastic road dividers.

People sleeping in luggage compartments of buses.

People sleeping in luggage compartments of buses.

Relaxing everywhere!

Chatting on the phone.

Resting.

Resting.

We saw recycling being sorted, in the middle of a busy street.

Recycling!

Recycling!

We saw mothers taking care of their children, just as they would anywhere else.

Family

Family

We saw live chickens carried home on the train.

Live chickens!

Live chicken, looking around!

And that was just in Yangon! By the time we got to Inle Lake a couple days later we were already overwhelmed with impressions! We had no idea what we were in for, during that particular festival…

Filling up the boat tank from a bucket.

Filling up the boat tank from a bucket.

Rowing boats with their legs.

Rowing boats with their legs.

Besides floating floats, we saw floating gardens in Inle Lake, exemplifying the original version of the recently-trendy aquaponics movement.

Floating Gardins!

Floating Gardins!

During our bus ride through the hills of Myanmar from Inle to Bagan we saw our bus being manually cooled down.

Cooling down the bus...

Cooling down the bus…

We saw pagoda after pagoda and then some more pagodas, especially in Bagan.

Pagoda!

Gold Pagoda!

Old Pagodas.

Old Pagodas.

Monks on Pagodas.

Monks on Pagodas.

Countryside filled with pagodas.

Countryside filled with pagodas.

While these are just snapshots of our time in the country, my mind is equally filled with our direct interactions with the locals. We had countless people take our picture and ask us to pose with them in pictures. That picture of the monk and I? A picture at his request! I couldn’t tell you which one of us was more giggly and happy about it! Children would run up to me and grab my hand. We had monks encircle us on their mission to interact with foreigners and practice English. These are the moments that I love about traveling. The all-consuming nature of this constant state of confusion, surprise and wonder as we look around a country filled with the everything you would expect, but in a distinctly unfamiliar way. And yet, even in a place where nothing is “normal,” there are people. And people are always people, often curious, and mostly friendly. Exactly like the little boy in a group of kids in the bed of a pick-up truck who yelled out “Hello! What is your name?” before continuing on and telling us his name before we could even reply. When we did respond, he grinned widely, his friends giggling by his side as the truck drove away and out of sight.

Fascinating, Beautiful and Confusing Festival at Inle Lake

Large crowds are a weird beast that cause very mixed feelings in me. I remember being at concerts and enjoying the feeling of being in a crowd. The people around me all seemed happy and the music connected everybody no matter what background they had. I remember being at trade fairs and feeling annoyed by the masses that were pushing me along. And I once had the bad luck of crossing paths with hundreds of soccer fans in a train station who were on their way home from a game. Their team had lost and they were looking for somebody to give them a reason to start a fight. That was one of my scarier crowd experiences. Nevertheless, I always knew what was going on around me and could behave accordingly. That was not the case when we found ourselves in a festival at Inle Lake in Myanmar. I still don’t understand everything that went on around me that day. But to be fair, the confusion started long before we got to the temple where the festival took place.

We arrived at Nyaungshwe after a long night on the bus. The videos of praying monks had shouted at us from the tiny screens along the bus’s center isle until late at night and also woke us up early. It wasn’t until later that I realized that people really start the day early in Myanmar. Whenever we had to catch an early bus or ferry, people were already up and about in the streets at 5am. The bus couldn’t make it into the narrow streets of Nyaungshwe and we were loaded onto a small pickup truck for the last few miles of the trip. One of the guys who were operating the pickup truck told us that we were lucky because we got to Inle Lake during the last two days of a big festival that takes place once a year. The manager of the hotel we were staying at also asked us right away if we wanted to go to the festival the following day. He was organizing the trip for another couple and there were still two free spots in the boat. We were happy to take the offer since it sounded like an uncomplicated way to see the festival and sharing the boat made it cheaper. The manager stopped by at our room with the other couple a bit later and we all agreed to meet the next morning. Unfortunately the other couple didn’t understand the conversation and went out to organize another boat trip to the festival. I was confused when they showed up at the hotel with the boat owner that they had found. It took me a while to figure out that this was not the same boat that the hotel had arranged for us. But eventually we got it all worked out and were looking forward to the festival.

The Nyaungshwe jetty before sunrise.

The Nyaungshwe jetty before sunrise.

We got up before dawn the next morning and met with the boat owner at the jetty. He put us on the four chairs that were lined up in his boat. The boat looked like an oversized canoe with an engine in the back. Then a kid who was maybe 15 years old took over the boat and the owner disappeared. This was a surprise as he had told about all the places that he was going to take us when we had met the day before. The first stop was at a gas station just a few hundred yards down the river. It happened to us on a few trips that the driver of a boat or sometimes even a bus would go and get fuel after he got paid for the trip. Afterwards we continued our trip up the river and into the lake. The river was already busy at this time of day. A number of boats were also heading towards the festival. The locals were sharing these boats with at least ten people while there were only between one to four tourists in a boat. At least the same number of boats was heading towards Nyaungshwe. These boats were carrying everything from fruits and vegetables to stones and mortar. Inle Lake is surrounded by hills and the sun just started to move over the crest and break through the clouds as we got out on the lake. Here people were already working. They were fishing and harvesting sea grass from their boats.

Fishermen on Inle Lake at dawn.

Fishermen on Inle Lake at dawn.

Locals harvesting sea grass on Inle Lake.

Locals harvesting sea grass on Inle Lake.

We reached the little town where the temple was located about an hour later. Our guide parked the boat and took us on through a maze of small trail past simple wood houses and merchant stalls until we ended up on the river bank across from the Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda. The pagoda was located at the intersection of two waterways. A crowd had gathered right next to the temple but other than that things were still relatively quiet on land. This was not the case on the water where the three police officers in their canoe were half-heartedly trying to organize the constant stream of boats that were bringing in more and more people. However, the police men came to life the moment that the first official guests arrived. Now they were blowing their whistles and making sure that all other traffic got out of the way. Everybody seemed to be waiting for these officials to arrive. Some of them were monks who were easy to spot because of their red robes. Others were wearing military uniforms or festive dresses and were accompanied by guards. I felt like a participant at a medieval fair where the crowd is waiting for the members of the royal family to arrive in their carriages. Everybody around us was cheerful. Little kids, who were not steady on their feet yet, were playing next to us. Women were moving through the crowd trying to sell pigeon eggs. They were carrying the eggs on big plates which they balanced on their heads.  A boat had stopped across from the temple. On it traditional music was coming out of speakers and the women were performing dances.

Crowds in front of Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda.

Crowds in front of Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda.

Official guests arriving at Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda.

Official guests arriving at Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda.

A boat with monks arriving at Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda.

A boat with monks arriving at Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda.

After a couple of hours the grounds around the intersection were filled with people and also most of the official guests who were seated in a special area next to the temple entrance had arrived. At this point long traditional boats that were rowed by approximately fifty men each started the parade. They had the shape of very long canoes and were decorated with colorful flags, umbrellas, flowers and leaves. The men were rowing these boats in the old Inle fashion which means that they were standing upright with a long paddle next to them in the water. They held the paddle with the arm that was closer to the water, wrap the outside leg around it and use that leg to push the paddle through the water. We had seen that method used by some of the fishermen earlier but I was amazed to at how fast the boats got when the men were paddling as a team.

Parade boats in the middle of the intersection.

Parade boats in the middle of the intersection.

The grand finale of the parade.

The grand finale of the parade.

The parade was long. Whenever I thought that this had to be the last boat a new crew came paddling down into the intersection, quickly took the decorations down and lined up along the side of the waterway that lead out of town. Finally two heavily decorated boats made their appearance. One was significantly bigger than the other but both had a statue of a golden chicken head at the bow, a golden chicken tail at the stern and were carrying a little golden temple in the middle. The boats both stopped in front of the (land based) temple and the passengers made their way over the red carpet into the building. Nothing happened for a while but then a few of the officials reappeared from the temple and everybody’s attention shifted from the temple over to one of the waterways. The crowd started to cheer as the first two of the long canoes came racing down the lane towards the intersection. The crews had barely time to get the boats out of the way before the next pair was rushing towards the finish line. After a few races our guide appeared to have also seen enough and we made our way through the crowd towards our boat. We were able to leave the town on back channels which bypassed the main festival area. Even here the waterways and bridges were crowded but once we got out of the town and continued our tour of Inle Lake things got a lot quieter. The main fascination of the event was that we never knew what was supposed to happen and were always surprised and confused by the colorful and festive acts of the ceremony that kept unfolding in front of us. Thinking about it now, that does remind me a bit of the first baseball game I attended a few years ago.

Picture of the Day: Days 102 – 108

Day 102: Rock formations and boats in Ha Long Bay.

Day 102: Rock formations and boats in Ha Long Bay.

Day 103: Trail through the jungle in Cat Ba National Park.

Day 104: Eagle fishing at Ha Long Bay.

Day 104: Eagle fishing at Ha Long Bay.

Day 105: Sunset at ho Hoan Kiem lake, Hanoi.

Day 105: Sunset at ho Hoan Kiem lake, Hanoi.

 

Day 106: Local Fisherman on the suoi Yen.

Day 106: Local Fisherman on the suoi Yen.

Day 107: Workers next to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum.

Day 107: Workers next to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum.

Day 108: Fall in the Seattle Arboretum.

Day 108: Fall in the Seattle Arboretum.

Indiana Jones and the Temples of Angkor

The stone bridge over the Angkor Wat moat.

The stone bridge over the Angkor Wat moat.

Since watching the Indiana Jones movies I always wanted to go to Central America and visit temples in the jungle. I hadn’t expected that I would find the most amazing temples in Southeast Asia. I had expected all temples in this part of the world to be like the Buddhist ones with the long pointy roofs and gold ornaments. I had, of course, heard about Angkor Wat but hadn’t realized that the old Khmer temples looked as if they were straight out of an Indiana Jones movie. Therefore visiting the Angkor complex wasn’t that high on my list of places to go. But it is a World Heritage Site and a friend of ours had recommended that we go there before the many visitors take a toll on its beauty. I’m very happy that we took his advice. The trip to Siem Reap, which led us through the country side of Thailand and Cambodia, was already amazing. Siem Reap turned out to be a nice little town and the Cambodian people were very open and friendly. After spending a day exploring the town, we rented bicycles from our hostel and rode down the long, straight road that leads to the Angkor Temple complex. The street is surrounded by the jungle with big trees lining its side. We had a late start, but the shade of the trees made for a pleasant ride despite the late morning heat. When the trees opened up for the first time we found ourselves at the moat that surrounds the Angkor Wat temple. We found a parking spot for the bikes and took the stone bridge over the moat to the first cloister ring. The temple grounds weren’t very busy since most people seemed to be already eating lunch at one of the little restaurants across from the temple. Storm clouds were moving in as we were getting deeper into the temple grounds and even more people left the premises. Seeing the temple for the first time is already breath taking. But it wasn’t until we crossed from the first ring over to the center of the temple that I started to grasp the dimensions of this building.

The inner quarters of Angkor Wat before the storm.

Inside the fist walls of Angkor Wat before the storm.

We walked through the dark corridors, discovering more and more corners of the building. By the time we climbed to the highest point of the temple where the sanctum is located it was pouring down and lightning was flashing across the sky. I couldn’t have wished for a more impressive atmosphere. We were stuck in one of the greatest temples in the world and had it almost to ourselves due to the weather. But I only realized how lucky we had been when the sun came back out a little later and the hordes of tourists returned.

Inside Angkor Wat.

Inside Angkor Wat.

Monks visiting the Angkor Wat temple.

Monks visiting the Angkor Wat temple.

We got back on our bicycles and continued to the Angkor Thom complex. This was the last capital city of the Khmer empire and home to a large number of temples. We rode through the south gate of the old city wall with the monkeys watching us from its top. From there it was only a short ride to the Bayon temple located in the old city center and the elephant terrace. But after walking up and down the many stairs inside of Angkor Wat we decided that we should call it a day and explore these temples another time.

Gate in the city wall of the Angkor Thom complex.

Gate to Angkor Thom.

After a recovery day we were back on our semi-trusted bicycles and cruising down the roads towards the Angkor complex. This time, the Ta Prohm temple was at the top of my to-see list. Nature is in the process of claiming the temple area back. Giant trees grow out of and over the temple walls, their roots holding the stones with a firm grip. Seeing the dimensions and thinking about the time scales on which the processes of construction and destruction of this temple take place is truly impressive.

Tree framing a doorway of the Ta Prohm temple.

Tree framing a doorway of the Ta Prohm temple.

  • Ancient stone carvings on the walls of a temple ruin.

    Ancient stone carvings on the walls of a temple ruin.

We continued exploring and climbed a few more temples. The last one was the Bayon temple that we had ridden our bikes around previously. The top of the temple is covered in faces that are carved into the stone. We walked through a short corridor and ended up in the sanctum. The room was dark except for a few candles that were burning below a Buddha statue and a small column of light that entered the room from a hole at the top of the ceiling. Before our eyes had completely adjusted two people had moved us into the center of the room and motioned for us to sit down. They prayed for us and put red bracelets on our wrists.

Our bikes in front of the Bayon temple.

Our bikes in front of the Bayon temple.

Afterwards we headed back towards Siem Reap. This time we weren’t as lucky with the weather as a couple of days earlier. We had just cleared on of the old Angkor Thom city gates when it started to pour. Everybody tried to get to a dry spot. Busses, tuck-tucks and scooters flew by us. But after the initial rush, things calmed down and it was fun riding through the warm summer rain as we had the road almost to ourselves. At least until we got to the outskirts of Siem Reap. This was where things got interesting. It wasn’t raining that hard any more but the road was disappearing in big puddles of brown water. Traffic was heavy and we had to share the road not only with the usual amount of scooters and bicycles but also with trucks and buses. This, together with the creative driving style of the locals, made for more than one surprise before we could finally take a turn onto a less busy road. But we got to our hotel safely and a hot shower later the ride didn’t seem that scary anymore.

The Train from Bangkok to Cambodia, and the Tourist Bus

House and fish farm.

One of the things that I enjoy about traveling is the chance to experience other cultures. However, I think it’s easy to forget how confusing navigating other cultural norms can be. As a result, every once in a while we think that it’s a good idea to take the easy option, and book transportation or a tour through a travel agency (often within a hostel). Even though we had pledged to stay away from tours after our debacle with our very long day visiting Chaing Rai and soaking wet, 45-minute visit to Laos, we have had trouble following through. The most common error seems to be our inability to stay off the tourist buses.

For example, our journey from Krabi, in Southern Thailand, to Bangkok took place on one of these tourist buses. When we purchased the bus ticket, we were told that we would be picked up from the hostel, driven two hours in an AC mini-van to Surat Thani, at which point we would eat dinner and board the night bus that would take us into Bangkok. What actually happened was that we were picked up from the hostel by an AC van. We drove around Krabi for 30 minutes picking up other unsuspecting tourists and running errands with the driver such as stopping while he took care of some banking. After driving around town, we got dropped off in a mosquito infested cluster of tables a few miles out of town. These tables were of course accompanied by various booths selling food and drinks and we were told we would wait about thirty minutes for our bus there. So we sat, and waited expectantly as darkness fell and the 30 minutes turned into 2 hours. When the bus finally arrived, we watched as they took out flashlights and started investigating the wheels on one side of the bus. Shortly thereafter we were on the bus; still curious as to if this bus was in fact going to make it all the way to Bangkok. However, about two hours later we reached the outskirts of Surat Thani and pulled over to a curb. We were herded off the bus and onto a slightly nicer bus that then drove us all the way to Bangkok. While no night bus is ever the most comfortable, this was the first night bus that woke us up at 1am by turning on all the lights and blasting music. Apparently, this was our dinner stop, as the bus pulled into what was some sort of outdoor restaurant at the side of the road. After dinner, there weren’t any further interruptions until we arrived in Bangkok just after sunrise. As in Surat Thani, the bus pulled over to a curb and dropped us off into the midst of many eager taxi and tuk-tuk drivers. Having no idea where in the city we were, we were forced to negotiate a price to be brought to our hotel (using the meter was unheard of and unacceptable, evidently).

House and fish farm.

House and fish farm.

While each tourist bus has its own deviations from the above example, the general theme involves the buses taking significantly longer than necessary and ends with us being dropped off at a curb into a herd of pushy taxi-drivers. Understandably, when M and I wanted to travel from Bangkok to Siem Reap, Cambodia a few days later, we were eager to avoid another tourist bus. To do this, we changed tactics and took a train from Bangkok to the Cambodia boarder. We bought our tickets, paying a whole $3, and boarded the train at 6am. As the train slowly made its way from the city center we passed through shanty towns, street food vendors, nicer suburban houses and more shanty towns. Through these glimpses into everyday life of the people living in Bangkok we saw a different side of the city than had been apparent on our walking journeys through the streets.

Cooking breakfast next to the train tracks in Bangkok, Thailand.

Cooking breakfast next to the train tracks in Bangkok, Thailand.

Just as fascinating were the happenings within the train. Every few minutes more people would clamber into the third class cars, sometimes at stations, but frequently at what appeared to be random stops along the way. At one station a family climbed in with five huge plastic bags almost bursting at the seams. Eventually they had hoisted the bags onto the luggage racks and stuffed them under the seats. Shortly after, a conductor came through to punch the tickets. He proceeded to point at the bags after which more pointing and discussion ensued. Through the gesturing, it became evident that there should only be one bag per person. Suddenly a pink 100 Baht bill appeared and was quickly stuffed into the conductor’s pocket. Our section of the train fell silence silent again as he continued down the isle punching tickets.

Squat toilet on the train.

Squat toilet on the train.

A short while later, more people crammed into the train carrying several fans that were then added to the precariously full rack above the seats. As the train continued to fill, M and I were grateful to have boarded at the first stop and gotten seats by the window. And then suddenly, everyone was moving towards the back of the train and our car emptied out with the exception of half a dozen people and all of the stuff that had been brought onto the train. M and I looked around, trying to figure out if we had missed some sort of cue, and then saw that there were two policemen walking down the aisle towards us. Neither of them seemed interested in seeing our tickets so we returned to looking out the window and watching the farming landscapes that had come into view.

Farmers spraying presumably pesticides onto their crops in rural Thailand.

Farmers spraying presumably pesticides onto their crops in rural Thailand.

After the majority of the people cleared out of our section of train, the locals that were left decided it was time to start talking to us. One woman made it clear she wanted to know if we spoke Thai. M shook his head no, and she gave him a disbelieving look so I told her “thank you” in Thai. She laughed and rambled on in Thai for a few minutes. The man across the aisle then interrupted and started showing all sorts of jewels to M. M shook his head, and tried to make it clear he wasn’t planning on buying any jewels, at which point the mad tried to give M some sort of stone along with a slip of paper that presumably had his phone number on it. We’re still not sure of his intentions, but M declined.

Farming in rural Thailand.

Farming in rural Thailand.

Eventually the 6 hour train journey came to an end, and we got off and started to navigate through crossing the border. Crossing borders in these countries is not as straight forward as you might think. We spent a considerable amount of time declining offers of “help” and other various scams that you can read about online. Eventually we found our way to the official visa office and each paid the official $30 for a visa, plus the 100 Baht (roughly $3) that was being collected by the 10 or so customs officials standing between us and our visas. With our visas in hand we made our way through a long line and eventually crossed the border, where we were supposed to catch a free government bus to the bus station where we could then catch another bus into Siem Reap. We assume that this is where we made our error. As I recall, we followed the signs to the free bus, and were pointed towards a bus by a few men, but we have now come to the conclusion that it was likely the wrong bus. However, as expected, we did board a bus, which took us to another bus station. However, from then on we had clearly, once again, ended up on the tourist bus. We bought our tickets into Siem Reap, in US dollars, receiving a two dollar bill back from the bus company as change. M immediately started laughing as he thought we were being scammed because clearly there was no way that there were two dollar bills. Once I convinced him that, in fact, there was such a thing he ranted about the fact that he had to travel to Cambodia in order to see one for the first time. Shortly later we were herded onto the bus. However, the bus didn’t leave until every last seat was filled with tourists, about two hours later. We then proceeded to drive slowly into Siem Reap, stopping at the driver’s Uncle’s restaurant for dinner. Once we arrived in Siem Reap, we were dropped off into yet another mob of motorbike and tuk-tuk drivers waiting to take the exhausted tourists into town.

Sunset at the dinner stop in Cambodia.

Sunset at the dinner stop in Cambodia.

Picture of the Day: Days 95 – 101

Day 95: Exploring Mỹ Sơn Ruins after a treacherous scooter journey from Hoi An.

Day 95: Exploring Mỹ Sơn Ruins after a treacherous scooter journey from Hoi An.

Day 96: Lanterns and floating candles along the river in Hoi An.

Day 96: Lanterns and floating candles along the river in Hoi An.

Day 97: Morning ferry commute to the market in Hoi An.

Day 97: Morning ferry commute to the market in Hoi An.

Day 98: Deep within Paridise cave within Phong Nha National Park.

Day 98: Deep within Paridise cave within Phong Nha National Park.

Day 99: Watching the fisherman maneuvering the fist from the net to their tub-boats.

Day 99: Watching the fisherman maneuvering the fish from the net to their tub-boats.

Day 100: Carrying baskets in the streets of Hanoi.

Day 100: Carrying baskets in the streets of Hanoi.

Day 101: Washing snails and shells, presumably to be eaten...

Day 101: Washing snails and shells, presumably to be eaten…

Climbing in Southern Thailand

I couldn’t feel my fingers. They were just too cold. I looked at how they were fitting into the pocket of the rock face that I was slowly moving up, trusted the grip and pulled myself up. I had started climbing a few months earlier and this was my first lead climb. This was in southern California and I wasn’t supposed to have to deal with cold! Except that it was early December and we were climbing at 7000 feet elevation close to Big Bear Lakes (Holcomb Valley Pinnacles -HVP). This was my favorite climbing area and one of my favorite climbs. It seems that for many climbers, including myself, the spot where they climb outside for the first time stays their favorite one. With all the great climbing places in California and Utah I was able to add many more to my list of best crags. None ever threatened to push HVP from the throne. However, that was before we went climbing on Raileh.

Some of our friends had raved to us about the climbing in southern Thailand, especially on Raileh and Tonsai Beach. This resulted in us going back and forth about what kind of climbing gear we should take along on our trip. If we wanted to do some serious climbing we should bring our own gear. You can’t climb near your limit when the tiny voice in your head is wondering how many falls the rental rope might have already taken. But even just taking the basic equipment would add another bag that we would have to haul around with us. We had a long debate that included the options of sending things by mail or leaving them with friends in Bangkok. In the end we decided to only take our climbing shoes along and to just see what the rental places would be like.

The islands in southern Thailand are made out of rock formations like the one in this picture.

The islands in Southern Thailand are made out of rock formations like the one in this picture.

Already on Kho Phi Phi I was fascinated with the large rock faces that seemed to come straight out of the water. But these cliffs had nothing on the walls we found on Raileh. Giant stalactites were growing out of the roofs on these walls and little stalagmites were forming on the ground in some places. I expected the rock to be wet and slippery and was pleasantly surprised when it felt rough and had lots of grip. There was no question that these rock formations needed to be climbed. After checking out a few climbing shops and talking to the people working there, we decided to hire a guide for an afternoon. I felt lame hiring a guide but in retrospect I’m very happy that we did. He tested at which level we were climbing and took us straight to the best routes for us. This way we got to do many more climbs than had we gone by ourselves. We also didn’t have to worry about routes with non-titanium bolts that corrode quickly in this climate and of which there are still a few around.

Climbers at Raileh Beach.

Climbers at Raileh’s West Beach.

Anchors dangling at the end of a long roof off the beach at Tonsai.

Anchors dangling at the end of a long roof off the beach at Tonsai.

One of the most amazing climbs was going up a stalactite. To start you had to jump to the first hold and climb over a little ledge at the base of the giant structure. From there, numerous positive holds on the face and cracks between the small stalactites that sit on top of the big structure made for very entertaining climbing. On a second long route the guide and J convinced me to take the camera along. Again it was nice to have somebody along who knew the climbs and could judge if it was reasonable for me to take a camera up with me or if the likelihood of falling was too high. I was still reluctant to take the camera along but (of course) the other two were right and it was an easy enough climb.

J at the base of the large stalactite.

J at the base of the large stalactite.

Look down on to Raileh Beach at low tide.

Look down on to Raileh Beach at low tide.

Half a day of climbing was all it took to completely exhaust us since we are both not in the best shape at the moment. We had a great time and it felt good to be worn out. Raileh is definitely one of the best places I have climbed. It is definitely a better climbing spot than HVP when judged objectively. However, I have too many good memories attached to HVP and it is still my favorite crag. So it seems like my theory holds up so far. But I’ll keep trying new spots in order to test it more!

Picture of the Day: Days 88-94

Day 88: Fishing boats close to Mui Ne.

Day 88: Fishing boats close to Mui Ne.

Day 89: Dinner waiting to be served in Mui Ne.

Day 89: Dinner waiting to be served in Mui Ne.

Day 90: Da Lat before the rain.

Day 90: Da Lat before the rain.

Day 91: Greenhouses at the outskirts of Da Lat.

Day 91: Greenhouses at the outskirts of Da Lat.

Day 93: Vietnamese flag at Nah Trang beach.

Day 93: Vietnamese flag at Nah Trang beach.

Day 93: Coconut harvest at the beach in Nah Trang.

Day 93: Coconut harvest at the beach in Nah Trang.

Day 94: Hoi An market place in the morning.

Day 94: Hoi An market place in the morning.