Phenomenal Phnom Penh

After Angkor Wat it’s time to move on again, letting Siem Reap fade in the rear view mirror and looking forward to Phnom Penh.  Another day and another bus, story of my life lately! 

Our tour team selfie
Not sure he liked all the loud English spoken around him
Our chariot, half way to Phnom Penh

As I was watching the countryside scroll past me out the window I had a sense of déjà vu that I couldn’t quite put my finger on, but I found myself smiling.  And then it hit me:  What I was seeing was the real life version of a childhood fascination.  When I was about eight years old I learned that in some impossible-to-imagine place on the other side of the world people would live in houses built on stilts, letting them spend the day in hammocks in the shade under the house or keeping the floor dry when the flooding comes.  I remember vividly thinking this was the coolest thing ever, and I wanted to live in a “treehouse without the tree”.   Fun to witness it almost exactly the way I had pictured as a kid!

While in Phnom Penh we learned about the horrific period in Cambodian history during the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot regimes.  Heartbreaking doesn’t even come close to describing the devestation inflicted on the country, where in a four year span roughly two million people lost their lives by execution, starvation, exhaustion or war.  We visited the memorial at the Killing Fields as well as the Genocide Museum housed in a former detention prison, and I think each of us struggled to contain our emotion while hearing about the atrocities committed by the regime.   I find it really difficult to write about; on one hand I believe it’s important to share and educate people about such shocking events, and on the other I’m afraid to do a disservice to the victims due to my own ignorance.  Hearing from our local guide some of the facts and personal stories made me want more information.  If you would too, here’s two websites I’ve been reading through to learn more: Killing Fields or  Khmer Rouge 

A former school transformed to an execution prison
Bracelets left as blessings at one of the mass graves
Killing Fields memorial, built as a Buddhist stupa

I don’t know the real significance of the memorial stupa, but to me it evokes a graceful sense of hope in the soaring height of the pillars.  (A stupa is a sacred structure that contains the remains of the deceased.  Inside this one are more than 5000 carefully preserved skulls.) 

Emotionally drained by the weight of the Killing Fields, I had wanted only to escape to my hotel room and disappear into a novel for a while.  On the walk back, though, I spotted a beautiful spa promoting massages, and almost before I realized what I was doing I had Tricia and myself booked in.  We didn’t really know what to expect of a Khmer massage, complete with a guava and rice milk scrub, but the whole place just seemed so serene.  That is, at least, until our awkward nervous giggles broke the tranquility.  Tricia and I were led to side by side tables and instructed to take off everything – everything! – and to cover with the towel set on each table.  Feeling sheepish that I apparently booked us a couples massage, we did our best to swallow our giggles and just enjoy the treatment.  And as soon as the massage began I forgot about anyone or anything else…  My masseuse was a tiny beautiful woman who seemed to possess superhuman strength, which she used to wipe out knots I hadn’t even realized I possessed.  Once my muscles were sufficiently tenderized, jasmine and lemongrass oils were massaged into my skin.  First time I’ve smelled so nice since I left home I’m sure!   Next came the body scrub, and I was impressed with her ability to keep my modesty intact as she deftly folded the towel to only expose the limb she was working on while basically giving me a sponge bath with guava fruit.  The final step had her massaging a thick and grainy paste all over me.  Toes to nose my skin glowed baby soft!

Scene at the spa waiting for us after the massages were complete

Dinner together with our group this evening had been hotly anticipated (or dreaded, in Tricia’s case) as our guide Joe had promised to take us to a place that served spiders.  As we arrived, I think everyone breathed a small sigh of relief to see it was a really nice restaurant.  Just as we were placing our drink orders there was a commotion at the table beside us, and we got ringside seats to witness a plate of three tarantulas being eaten by one brave tourist.  So we couldn’t let our table be shown up, and ordered our own dish of horror to share among us.

Our order of tarantulas

The most surprising part of this story isn’t even that we ate huge and hairy fried arachnids – it’s that it actually tasted really good!  If you want to know what it’s like but don’t see yourself getting here, just imagine a big mushroom with a crispy coating and delicious peppery citrus soya sauce.   This was Tricia’s show, and everyone including the people at surrounding tables, was invested in her ability to overcome her phobia and take a bite.  After she finished her first bite spontaneous applause broke out! 

En route 

One of my favourite ways to pass the time is to people watch, especially when cultural differences are at play.  Thankfully, 25 hours of travelling have given me ample opportunity to sit back and observe!  My route took me from Calgary to Vancouver where I met up with Tricia (more on that later!) to Beijing, and finally to Bangkok.  During the 10.5 hour flight across the Pacific I was reminded again that the North American concept of personal space is something I’ll need to say goodbye to for the next three weeks.  I had a window seat and when I indicated to my two seat mates that I needed to get up, they both smiled at me, collected some of their items, and leaned back in their seats.  It took me a moment to realize they expected me to climb over them, since I was expecting them to stand up and move to the aisle to let me pass.  And so I did my best to delicately walk past/over these two strangers without stepping on their feet or touching their legs or having too much of my body in their faces.  No easy feat in economy class.  I was trying to decide which way is more appropriate – should I have faced away from them or toward them as I clambered across their laps??Apparently they were unfazed because when I returned to my seat we repeated the whole hoopla again in reverse.

My friend Tricia was with me, but we weren’t able to get seats together on the flight due to an error I made earlier.  Too bad… I had anticipated using those hours to get her opinion on the various details of my messy life!  Instead I watched a Chinese movie by reading the subtitles and noticed throughout the film that the characters showed affection by teasing each other.  Maybe we’re not that different after all…

Are you wondering what error I would have made to keep us from sitting together?  For a self-proclaimed “travel expert” I sure pulled a boneheaded move; one that almost cost her missing the flight!!  Here’s the scenario that I’m super embarrassed to admit.  If you remember a couple weeks ago, I had both of our passports after bringing them to Ottawa in order to get our entry visas for Vietnam.  The plan was for me to make a trip up to visit her before our departure and I could bring her passport, but due to some recent chaos at home I ran out of time for that.  So, I told her she could just use her drivers license to fly from Edmonton to Vancouver, where I meet her, then I’d hand her her passport for our international flights.   Yeah… that was really bad advice.  She was able to check in for the domestic flight using other ID, but was not allowed to be checked through the connecting flights, meaning her her luggage needed to be picked up at the baggage claim after landing in Vancouver then hurried over to check in for the next flights, all while still making making it past the security line ups and back to the gate in time for boarding.  There was only an hour for all this to happen, and while she was running around dealing with it I spent the whole time worrying and kicking myself for not considering a potential negative outcome prior.   Thankfully, Tricia was able to charm the right people into helping her, and she arrived at the gate with minutes to spare!  But because she was the last person to check in for the flight we couldn’t get seats together.   But as she said after we were both onboard “we made it!  If this is the worst hiccup we face on the trip we’ll be in great shape!” 

Next post from Bangkok Thailand! 

BFFs arrived in Bangkok

Not much personal space

More miles and Milestones

Guess where I am again right this very moment?   I’ll give you a hint…. in the background around me I’m hearing “cookies or pretzels? Cookies or pretzels?” on a continuous loop anytime I pull out my earbuds.   (Side note for anyone that may get tired of hearing the flight attendants always say the same things, even though you know what to expect on the flight:  I promise they are more tired of having to say it with a smile a trillion times each day!)     So you guessed it – I’m on another flight!!  Today I hopped over to Vancouver to trade in the windy weather of Calgary for the rainy wet West Coast.   And also to actively avoid the adult pressures I have at home…. life seems so much simpler when I’m literally running away from my problems!   Not that I recommend that – please do as I say and not as I do!!! 

So speaking of doing as I say… I’ve recently found a great website that has the potential to make my life as a traveller much easier.  Have you heard of RideGuru?  If you haven’t yet, I say you should go look them up!!  This handy site helps sort out the options available between ride share companies, and will give a realtime estimate of the costs for each option, including a traditional taxi cab.   It’s like comparison shopping for modern transportation!  Here’s a peek at what I had today when I pulled it up on my phone:

My RideGuru screenshots

Super easy!  And since I like things that make my life easier, this automatically ranks pretty high in my books.   Unfortunately, keeping with my “aimless” title apparently, I realized with hindsight that a little planning may still be a good idea, even when using a smart new website.   If you look back at the bottom left screenshot in the picture above, you might see that the Uber ride is from Vancouver Washington.   Turns out that Vancouver B.C. still has a lot of restrictions in place on rideshare operators, and there’s no Uber here.   So we took a taxi, but at least thanks to RideGuru I could anticipate how much it would cost!

In the cab, because Vancouver doesn’t have Uber
Rain on the window

That I had a little hiccup in my travels probably doesn’t surprise anyone who has read my blog before.  I seem to do this a lot, launching into action before looking at the details.  Maybe one day I’ll learn – but then what would I write about if everything went smoothly?! 

A pint at the harbour

I’m lucky enough to have high caliber friends in multiple cities who are willing to put up with me when I say things like “Hey! I’m in town for 5 hours – want to show me some city hotspots?”  And two of the best happened to be available to do just that today in Vancouver!  From our first perch overlooking the False Creek Harbour, to a scenic walk through a rainy park and into a new Distillery at Granville Island, I don’t think I stopped laughing.  Next, with a little help from RideGuru, we zipped to Yaletown and settled into yet another pub.  Usually I spend a day walking through a city; today I ate and drank my way around.  I like to keep it balanced!  

My day with Mark and Dave
These poor guys had to listen to me gush all day about how much I love writing my blog, and while I’m sorry for being repetitive, I’m currently a little obsessed in my excitement about all this.  I am over the moon thrilled with the response I’ve been getting, and it truly makes my day learning that people read what I write.  From they bottom of my heart, thank you for following along aimlessly with me!!  I reached a big milestone today – 500 WordPress followers!   So exciting!

Hometown Tourist

People looove to complain about social media these days.  Have you noticed that?  It almost seems like the trendy sport du jour, especially from people who are perhaps ‘recovering digital addicts’ themselves.  I maybe have tiptoed on that bandwagon myself once or twice, fed up with all the angry/prejudice/ranting commonly found, but at the moment I am a staunch supporter.  I’m thankful for the connection I get with people online, and that has been extra apparent to me this past week.  Personally, it’s been a bit rocky for me but I have had so many comments of support via my social media outlets that have brightened my day and genuinely made me feel better.  So thank you.

Speaking of great people, let’s segue in with some of them I spent my weekend with.  If you’ve followed this blog before you might remember Jeff and Jeanette and my Warsaw adventures with them earlier this summer… Well those two beautiful love birds tied the knot on Saturday and I was fortunate enough to celebrate with them.  With their wedding in my hometown, I feel qualified to announce their venue picks were pretty fantastic: What more could you want than to spend a day surrounded by indoor tropical gardens in the middle of downtown, and then (for us aviation geeks/travel addicts) party surrounded by old airplanes?   Seriously, it was perfect.

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Jeanette and Jeff’s wedding at Devonian Gardens

 

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Perfect for this gang of aviators (photo credits to Natasha and Dave – thanks guys!)

So that was a lot of fun….

 

I have been desperately missing my travel adventures for the past couple weeks I’ve been at home, and yesterday I finally decided to do something about it.  I took my camera for a walk and played the role of tourist for a couple hours, and you know what I (re)discovered? I live in a beautiful city!!   Here are a few of my favourite shots from one corner of Calgary:

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The Peace Bridge and downtown Calgary
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Peace Bridge
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Calgarians soaking up the summer-like Fall; still going at 6pm on a late September day!
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Still on a bit of a graffiti kick from being in Bogota
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The city viewed from McHugh Bluff
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Calgary and the Bow River
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Prairie sky

And finally, because my walk took me here, a Calgary icon and home of all my best memories of milkshakes and burgers.  Peter’s Drive In.  I recommend the caramel coffee milkshake!

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Hopefully in the next few days I’ll be free to get back on the road.  Not sure yet where it will take me!

 

Playing Ball in the Fall

My last post a few days ago was from Bogota, and now here I am again in Calgary, some 6350 kilometres later.  I have been bouncing around the globe in the most inefficient fashion, back and forth across the Atlantic twice, then a couple times across the Americas, with no end in sight yet.  I love it!   When else in life will I ever get a chance like this to be so irresponsible with my itinerary and fully live up to my Aimless potential??    Maybe I’ve seen that “It’s not the Destination that counts, but the Journey” quote in all its various Pinterest forms too many times and have really taken it to heart…. 

As I’m forming my thoughts right now, I’m soaking up the last of the afternoon light on a patio and absolutely revelling in the feel of the warm sunshine on my bare skin.   These are the kind of days I will always associate with HOME:  The sky a bright blue in all directions, the air just slightly cool but the heat from the sun making it more comfortable to be in shorts than jeans, green grass and yellow leaves.    Summer will always be my true love, but apparently I’ve got a bit of a thing for Fall now, too.   Fall is mysterious in my home town, changing daily and forever leaving me wanting more of these perfect days.

Like if we back up to earlier this week when I first arrived off the plane, Calgary was cold! Of course it was, since I had plans that kept me outside…  Here’s a little secret just between us: I came all the way home only to keep a commitment to my softball team after I had told them earlier I’d be at this final tournament.  That was before I knew I’d be in Colombia, and before I realized just how much I’d like Colombia and want to stay longer.  Oh, don’t get the wrong idea, it is NOT my skill that the team was relying on.  Nope not at all.  I’m really terrible at this sport. Embarrassingly bad.  But I’m a good cheerleader for the rest of the team, and I think I help by making everyone else seem like a superstar in comparison.  It’s good to know your role, right?!   

The tournament was held in a tiny rural town, and even though it was all new to me (I’ve never been there nor attended a ball tournament before) I had a sense of familiarity.  There’s something that just felt so quintessentially Canadian about this; where else would you find a couple hundred people camped in an open field and everyone smiling and having a great time despite nearly freezing?

Cold. Happy. Amy and Heidi

Our team at bat
Everyone is smiling – and no one knew I had a camera out! Maybe it’s the breakfast beers….

Close to the action at all times
Natasha and I around the campfire. Finally not cold!

I didn’t take many pictures, I blame my sudden shock at being reacquainted to the Canadian weather.  Too hard to take good photos when my fingers are numb and teeth chattering from the cold!   Still glad I came back for this, however much I miss my sunshine and beaches.  After travelling alone so much it felt great to be part of a team again! 

A traveller not travelling (much)

I wrote most of the last post while I was en route from Cartagena to Santa Marta, so I’ll pick up my narrative again from there.  I had planned (and I of course use that term loosely) to start a trek into Colombia’s mountainous jungles the day after arriving in Santa Marta.  This trek is Colombia’s version of the Inca Trail in Peru, an intense 5 day hike to the “Lost City” of an ancient civilization.  Since I’m reasonably fit, and happened to have running shoes, first aid kit, flashlight and insect repellent all my in my bag I deemed myself ready to tackle whatever would come my way.   However, as soon as I arrived at my Santa Marta Hostel I saw a sign informing travellers that the Ciudad Perdida (Lost City) Trek was closed for 10 days.  Ugh.  Maybe if I had done some actual planning I would have known that, but it came as a surprise to me, and of course just after I had spent 3 days getting excited about it.

I think that should actually be the theme of this post: Things I Didn’t Do in Colombia.  Starting off with this trek, I also managed to miss seemingly all the other highlights.  Whenever I would chat with people I would inevitably end up having to weather the surprised looks from them as they learned how little of the tourist trail I was experiencing.

  1. I didn’t get to Medellín to take the Pablo Escobar tour.
  2. I missed Salento and the stunning scenery there.
  3. Skipped the National Park Tayrona where people camp in a hammock on the beach to see the bioluminescent algae at night.
  4. Never made it to the Pacific side of the country, nor the South at all.
  5. Even touring a coffee plantation somehow got knocked off my to-do list, and that really is surprising considering how much I had been looking forward to learning about (read: stocking up on) those magical beans that I rely on to kickstart my brain every morning.

Looks like I need to get back to Colombia, pronto!  I still want to experience it all!

So, sensing that I might be in danger of losing my Travel Blogger Badge after that list I think I’ll launch right in to what I actually did experience….  Which is in short the rejuvenation that comes from meeting great people I really click with at a hostel that I didn’t want to leave.  A special shout out here to the New Zealand kids that kept things entertaining, Victoria from New York, and Marc from Zurich – you guys were exactly what I needed this week!

Victoria and I took a day trip to a small town in the Sierra Nevada mountains called Minca.  We had heard about a hike to a waterfall near there and decided to see for ourselves.  After negotiating a ride in a shared Jeep up the mountain we were dropped off on the Main Street of town where local teens were waiting to take tourists up further on the back of their motorbikes.  We came to hike, so we declined and set off on our own.  

By early afternoon our destination revealed itself to be shimmering pools at the bottom of a small series of waterfalls, and we both happily plunked ourselves in the cool clear water.  As it turns out, I learned later that night that “the” waterfall of guidebook fame was actually in the other direction… so chock that up to another item I missed!

We knew we were in the rainy season so we’d need to start back down before long, but I’ll admit we took our time, naïvely assuming that a little rain while we walked after already being wet from swimming wouldn’t bother us.  Wrong again – but it did bring in the adrenaline portion of our adventure when we realized we needed to get to town ASAP to avoid drowning in the torrential rain.  Only one motorcycle was still up there, so both of us squeezed on a tiny bike behind our young driver and hurried off down the steep muddy and rutted trail.  I was just hoping that when we crashed the worst injury would be scrapes and bruises, but I’ll give credit to his skill and admit that it was actually fun.   Needing a place to wait out the deluge, Victoria and I agreed to have a late lunch at the home of this driver – he assured us his mother’s cooking was better than any restaurant in town.  Agreed!  The very traditional meal of vegetable soup followed by chicken with coconut rice and fried plantains was amazing!

The view whille we ate
Still flooded, more than an hour after the rain stopped

Well. For a post on the 5 days I stayed put in the Santa Marta area, this is really getting long.   The rest of my time was beautifully busy being lazy; alternating the beach, pool and hammocks with occasional walks to explore the area.   Full of reading, laughter and conversations, and great food.  I mentioned already I loved the hostel but I need to reiterate: If I could have moved permanently into Hostel Calle 11 Santa Marta I think I would have!  Rumour has it the building was a former drug cartel mansion, but the new owners have created the perfect space for lounging. I think I’ll always smile when I think of this part of Colombia.  Plus, the tranquil atmosphere was the perfect prep before arriving in the extreme chaos of that is the city of Bogota! 

More from New York

I have a confession to make.  I have been avoiding this blog for a week, even though I still have lots to say and even though I really do love writing it.  That’s weird, right?   I would want to sit down and start a post telling you about all the great things I saw on my last trip, (finishing off the post I started in Naming New York ) but then I would open YouTube or Pinterest instead, or watch a movie or pick up a book, pretty much anything to avoid productivity.  I’ve also managed to avoid laundry and vacuuming through these same tactics.   But I think it’s about time for me to wrap up this little brain break I’ve given myself and get back to seeing how much I can accomplish in my day instead of how little.  Do you know the feeling – have you ever had a chance to just let yourself be a blob for a while?  (Not counting any times prior to your 23rd birthday!  I remember lots of us choosing to be brainless at times before the full pressures of adulthood kicked in!)

So here we go.  I think I’ll still start off with something easy, though, and keep this to a pretty simple recounting of the time I had in New York with my girls last week.

Four childhood friends from a small town are set loose in a big city where they discover new adventures and new things about each other.    If you didn’t read that last sentence in an exaggerated movie-trailer-narrative voice then please go back and read it again the way it was meant.  Or skip it entirely – lines that cheesy aren’t meant to be taken seriously!!    But actually….  that pretty much sums up my 5 days in New York.    The four childhood friends are myself and 3 of my cousins that I grew up with, and we really did keep busy with exploring for the entire trip.

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Amanda, Erin, Julie, and yours truly
We’re not always so elegant…  That photo was just before the one Broadway show we were able to see.  And side note – go see Cirque Du Soleil PARAMOUR if you ever get the chance.  I loved it sooooo much!!  I think my exuberance to see the show must have caught the attention of Karma, because when we arrived at the theatre to pick up our tickets, (cheapest ones available and at the top back of the room) we were given an upgrade and watched the show from nearly the best seats in the house!  Made my night!!

Another highlight was going to Yankee Stadium to watch a baseball game, again made even better when our team won! Go Jays!  We had jokingly wondered before if it would be a problem cheering for the visiting team, but when we got to the stadium we saw almost as many Toronto fans as there were for the Yankees.   It was incredible to sit out in the sunshine with about 37,400 or so other people and cheer on the teams.  IMG_0016

On a day that was slightly less hot and sunny, we chose to be a little more active than we had been previously so we found some bicycles to rent and cruised our way through Central Park.  I still find it amazing that a park so big can be in the middle of 8.5 million people… and there were times where it felt like we were the only ones there!  Beautiful!  As we were making our way through the park, Julie saw signs leading to a castle in the park so we made our way to go see it.  Now, the part that I really want to convey other than the fact that an almost secret mini castle exists, is the fun coincidence that this is Belvedere Castle.   If you’ve been reading my other posts, you may remember that I was just at Belvedere Palace in Poland with two other friends.   Unless I was just the only one that hadn’t realized Belvedere was a major global name, this seems an unlikely parallelism.  Not that I’m reading anything into it – I doubt the universe is trying to get me to drink more Belvedere Vodka! – but it’s made me smile none the less.

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Part of Central Park’s Belvedere Castle in New York

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So active
Other things we did during our days there:  Ate a lot of ice cream.  Gawked at the crowds in Times Square.  Walked through SoHo and countless other communities.  Shopped on 5th Ave.  Saw the Statue of Liberty.  Took a moment to reflect at the 9/11 Memorial site.  Rode the subway.  Noticed two rats.  Marvelled at the Brooklyn Bridge.  Gossiped together while getting pedicures.  Laughed at the “Pretty Lady Discount” we were offered by creative vendors.  Took a ton of pictures of the four of us together.  Further cemented our bond as friends for life.

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