Angkor Wat Again

It’s -26 degrees celsius where I live right now, and as if that isn’t horrific enough we have the distinct displeasure of a windchill bringing the feel of the temperature to -33.   Yes that’s actually true and not a typo.  I have a cup of tea, a big cozy blanket, and blinds over the window so I don’t have to see the wintery misery outside; I’m directing my focus solely to happier memories of warmer climates!  And my first trip down memory lane brought me back to Cambodia, which I remember being more along the lines of 30 degrees celsius above zero instead of below.   Ahhhhh, feeling warmer already….

But I don’t think I’m going to write much tonight since I’m feeling much more visual than verbal.  Instead how about a few more of my pictures from Angkor Wat out of the 250 or so I took that day?

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These women came to Angkor Wat to celebrate a Buddhist Holy day.
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Temples hidden in the Jungle
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Ta Prohm temple ruins
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Gentle Guardians
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Ancient Hindu carvings on a temple wall
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216 faces of Buddha carved at Bayon, Angkor Thom
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This sweet Buddhist monk
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Serenity
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Just past a “Beware of Monkey Attack” sign, this cutie appeared
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A tourist (me) with a shot of another tourist taking photos of other tourists
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Angkor Wat

Stunning Koh Samui

If I ever run away from home (ok, if I ever run away from home again) and you need to find me for some reason keep this spot in mind as the first place to look for me.  And pack a swimsuit because chances are when you find me, you’ll forget about why you were so keen on dragging me back.  I’ll save a spot on the sand for you.

Koh Samui, a small island in the Gulf of Thailand, is one of those places that’s probably on millions of screen savers as the perfect beach paradise bored workers daydream about.  And it’s even better in real life.

Here’s a quick disclaimer about this post, though:  I spent a lot of time in a bikini and I’ll be including pictures.  If that’s going to be a problem you should probably skip this post, and return to my blog next week when I’ve returned to my modesty….

I already mentioned in my last post that I spent a lot of time on the beach here; you may remember that I ruined my iPhone this way.  Tricia and I had 6 glorious days where the cumulative extent of our experience could be summed as such: brunch overlooking the water, beach, pool, beach, dinner overlooking the water, fall asleep to the sound of the air conditioner. (I wanted to say waves but I promised I’d be fully truthful in this blog!)   Oh.  If anyone is trying to plan a honeymoon, apparently this is what you should do.  Someone should get to experience this as romantic!!

White powder sand beaches.  Crystal clear turquoise water.  Lush forest and dramatic bolders.  Teeny bikinis.   Yes.

View of the beach
Looking great!
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Feeling Great!
Us in the sun
Is it more artsy (acceptable) to post without colour?

I shouldn’t say it, but sometimes I wonder why Tricia or I ever bother to wear clothes… (sorry, I did warn you that my modesty was on hiatus…)

There was one day we experienced more than just the beaches.  Good thing, because I’m sure there’s so much more to the island that one could see, if one were to drag themselves away from the perfect coastline.   For example, the Big Buddha. Living up to its apt moniker, this beautiful gold statue is a sight to see.  It’s not my religion, but I love visiting these temples and monuments.  I’m continually fascinated by other cultures; and learning about the way that religion, history, and geography has shaped the lives of the people around me never fails to amaze.

Big Buddha
Big Buddha
Smaller Buddhas surrounded the base of Big Buddha
Bells surrounded the temple complex
Ringing the bells
Temple top

After spending the afternoon with Big Buddha we were ready to get back to the water, and fortunately found a great restaurant right on the water.  The views bathed in late golden sunlight were equally as delicious as the meals – my kind of place for sure!

Tamarina Bistro & Bar

What if it falls apart?

Rushing. Panicking about being late and wishing I could rewind to NOT waste those 5 minutes on Instagram earlier because I really need that time back now. I hate this feeling.

The day started off with an early morning knock on the door, 40 minutes prior to the time we were expecting to be picked up, and the hotel clerk politely informing us our driver was outside.  The scramble and sudden adrenaline had us scooting around the room stuffing everything into any bag we could find, and when we got downstairs 3 minutes later quite pleased with our ability to dress and pack so quickly we were told that the van had left without us.  All my nervous energy evaporated along with our ride, and I could feel worry seeping in as I considered our next steps.  It’s moments like these when I realize I build my travel plans like a Jenga tower – it all looks creative and great until one piece is bumped and the whole thing topples.  Missing our shuttle from the hotel means missing our bus that takes us to the ferry, and if we can’t get on the ferry then we can’t get to the island where our next hotel is already booked and paid for.  The hotel clerk was quite unsympathetic when he assumed we stupidly slept in, but after I showed him our tickets with “7:30am pickup” written clearly on the front his demeanour changed.  I may have also subtly played up the damsel in distress side a little too…   Whatever the reason, he was our knight in shining armour as he made several phone calls before triumphantly announcing the driver was returning for us.  He then dropped his voice to let us in on a secret: the operator we booked the tickets through wasn’t as good – if he had arranged our transfer we never would have been given the wrong time.

With this in my mind, memories of other warnings I had read about tourist scams blazed behind my eyes.  I recall reading that people have been ripped off when booking a combination bus and ferry ticket to the Thai island of Koh Samui…. exactly where we’re headed to.  So even though the van returned to pick us up, all through the drive I was alert for the moment when we would be informed we needed to pay more to continue our journey.  And there were several moments appearing to be exactly that – when the van driver rushed us to get on the waiting bus but wouldn’t take the time to return our ticket which was our only proof of payment for the whole trip.  Or at the next transfer point where we were told a new bus would take us to the port, still had no ticket in my hand but was assured it wouldn’t matter.  Amazingly enough, all the way to on the ferry and including the van transfer on the next island to our hotel, everything ran just tickety-boo and we were never once asked for more money or proof that we actually paid our fare the previous day.        ————————————-

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Nervous on the road today

So.  I made it to my island paradise, but for me there was a little downside to being surrounded by tempting beaches.  I of course brought my phone with me to the beach – all the better for taking photos and jotting down my thoughts while simultaneously sunbathing – but my phone had an unfortunate encounter with salt water.  If you were wondering why there was suddenly radio silence on my end, it’s because I allowed my phone to drown.  My lifeline!  I didn’t know how reliant on (addicted to) my phone I had become until I needed to finish my travels without my phone.   Thankfully I had already written the above portion of this post, and it was saved in my drafts online, but I didn’t have access to it at all.

 

I will say, though, that it truly was a serene paradise.  If you find yourself headed to Koh Samui, I can highly recommend the resort we stayed in.  It was difficult to leave, despite hoping I could save my phone once we made it back to Bangkok.  Check out the Crystal Bay Beach Resort and see for yourself why it may be topping my mental list of favourite locals lately.

 

You know what I realized as I was finishing up this post?   As I worried about the worst happening (getting scammed, ruining my electronics) I have somehow come through it all without any real problems arising from my worries.   I feel so incredibly lucky to have gone this far, travelled so much, and really not had any major mishaps ruin my days.  …yet…   So from me to you:  safe travels, friends.   May your luck hold even better than mine!

 

Phuket Island

Finally arriving at Phuket airport, back in Thailand to explore the South part of the country and bask on beautiful beaches, I breathe in a lungful of ocean air.  This is going to be good!  Standing outside, late at night, waiting for the shared shuttle that will take us to our hotel I just keep breathing in and smiling.   It’s also partly an effort at self-distraction to keep myself from being irritated that my backpack arrived on the luggage conveyer with zippers open.  Again…  Five flights on this journey, and every single time my bag has been rifled through or little things taken from pockets that I was unable to lock.  Thankfully I never travel with anything of value in my checked luggage, but still, it’s maddening.  Tricia suggested my bag has been targeted because it looks so girly, and girls usually have good stuff with them; I think she might be right.  

But no matter.  I’m in a place famous for some of the most beautiful beaches the world has to offer so nothing can ruin my joy!   Patong Beach, where our hotel is located, is more of a party town than I’m currently in the mood for but at least I can still appreciate how fun it would be…. hopefully that means I’m not entirely old yet!  While walking around the street stalls and markets next to the beach it’s impossible to avoid the sales pitches from vendors selling day trips, and by the end of our second day here we stopped and chatted with a woman about our options.  After a bit of negotiating, lots of smiles and some friendly banter, she “remembered” that the trip we were most interested in had a promotion – tomorrow the last day! – and we could book it for 50% of the cost printed on the brochure.  She was really sweet, despite my scepticism of her prices, and we were happy to book our excursion from her.  

So bright and very early the next morning Tricia and I set off to explore some of the limestone islands around Phuket, along with a few hundred other likeminded adventurers.  (The surprising thing, really, is that I can still be surprised by what a massive machine tourism has become.  I’ve not only witnessed this over and over, I’m also a part of it – so why do I always hope I’ll be the only one out??)

Our full boat; and about 6 more just like it

Crowded, sure.  I guess the takeaway for us travellers and tourists creating this demand is to do our best to choose companies that are careful in sustainable and ethical operations.   Now with that soapbox spiel out of the way, without further ado, the best parts of a very great day!

We were offered coffee, tea and fruit on the boat during the hour it took to reach the first island we stopped at, and I think we were all happy to be out on the water.  When we stopped it was to hop into small canoes with experienced guides who would take us into caves (bat caves!) and through lagoons deeper around the islands. 

Inside the first cave
Islands of limestone cliffs
Perfect lighting for selfies – can’t pass that up!
Phang Nga Islands
We had some admirers taking photos – I’m trying to consider it sweet instead of creepy. This is one he shared

We were taken to a tiny remote beach and given free time to swim before returning to the big boat.  A delicious lunch was served while we made our way towards the “James Bond Island”  famous from a movie scene and countless photos on  Pinterest.

The guides waiting while we swim

While very toursty, the stop to view this jagged rocket of an island was a lot of fun.   I can’t tell you have many photos I have of myself in various fake-sultry Bond girl poses…  Seriously I can’t, it’s too embarrassing.   So instead I’ll post some of the shots I got of Tricia, she pulls it off much better than I.  In fact, if the right person sees this, she’ll probably be cast in the next remake! 

We had one final surprise on the way back to the harbour before finishing the tour, and it was pretty impressive.  Our guide had told us all day he could finally call the eagles to the boat, and it had taken him 24 years to learn how to do it.  As our boat passed the right spot, he had us all begin to clap and shout “up up up”.  I don’t generally consider myself a cynical person, but I was 100% sure there wouldn’t be an actual bird swooping down to join us.  My guess was a rock formation in avian shape, or maybe a plane high in the sky above us.   But I saw something entirely new to me; childlike awe and wonder erasing every trace of dubiosity.  He wasn’t joking.

Photo by Tricia

A Vietnam Voyage

I need more time in Vietnam.  I know I say things like that all the time – but I really wish I had more time here now.  I’ve had this zip of happiness bubbling in me since I arrived across the border, and each day I’ve been delighted by something new.  Maybe I was already primed to love this country between the positive stories I’ve heard from friends and the charming way I entered, by small boat and the Mekong River; or maybe there is still a joie de vivre lingering in the atmosphere from the former French influence.  Whatever the reason, Vietnam is high on my “return to” list.

I took a little break from writing to just completely enjoy myself, and now that I’m trying to sort it all out there’s so much to say I’m not sure where to start… since they say the beginning is a good place I guess that’s what I’ll do! 

The boat our tour group was led to in Phnom Penh elicited some chuckles when we first saw it – the tiniest little vessel in the harbour would be our home for the day’s journey down the river!  Cozy, I guess…  With about an hour left to go before our arrival the sky turned dark, the wind raced and sheets of rain dropped from the sky.  I never worried about the boat capsizing but I was closely watching the crew as they attempted to navigate nearly blind.  

Little river boat
Peering through the rain

Thankfully, as I’ve become accustomed to in SE Asia, the rain storm didn’t last long and by the time we arrived at the harbour we only endured a light sprinkle as we walked to the hotel through the small city of Chau Doc.

Absorbing the city on the walk to check in

Day two in Vietnam began before the sunrise when we set off to visit the floating markets.  Life along the Mekong Delta revolves around the river, and commerce is no exception.  Larger boats will arrive stuffed to the gills with produce and anchor offshore until their items have been sold.  Small boats come alongside and purchase their selections while even smaller boats putt past selling drinks and breakfast.  Like a set of Russian nesting dolls, these Vietnamese boats! 

A scene from the floating market

Breakfast to go at the floating market

As boats are for Chau Doc, scooters are to Ho Chi Minh City.  I feel like I’ve seen a lot of busy cities with chaotic roads during my travels – that contrast to home is part of the fun for me – and Ho Chi Minh doesn’t disappoint!  Getting around the city was an adventure all its own, and the perfect chance for me to use RideGuru again.  I wanted a do over since I ended up not actually finding a rideshare company to use in Vancouver, (plus I ended up with a super cute little swag bag from them, if I’m being honest).  Free wifi is really easy to find in HCM City, and with that it was a quick click to bring up cost estimates using my exact location.  I booked two different Uber trips through RideGuru and both times the fare was within a couple dollars of the estimate I was shown on RideGuru 

Moment before my rideshare car arrives

The one downside to the days in Ho Chi Minh was saying goodbye to the rest of the tour group as we all went our own separate ways from here.  So to Joe, Gemma and Eric, Maisie, Dawn, and Mia – good luck with the rest of your travels!  It was an absolute blast exploring Cambodia and Vietnam with each of you!! 

Craving some quality beach time after all the busyness of the tour and cities, Google informed me that Vung Tau is the closest beach town so we set our minds to get there asap.  I wanted to double check the best way to get there so I stopped in to ask one of the travel agents near the hotel.  She told me not to go there, that the beach was filthy, and then quite adamantly told me the departure times of a shuttle to some other beach further away.  Her forcefulness made me suspicious, and assuming that she receives a kickback from that shuttle company I chose to ignore her advice.  It was a gamble because Mia and Tricia were coming with me and I didn’t want to disappoint, but thankfully one that paid off.  Vung Tau is a town with a great feel to it, we got a room in a beautiful resort for less than the cost of a grungy motel back home, and the beach was fine.  Some litter marred it, but no more than I’ve noticed at a lot of other developing nations’ beaches. 

On our last day there (sadly after Mia already left) the hotel manager introduced himself to us, along with the head chef and some other staff memebers.  We chatted for a while and assured them we loved our stay there and assumed that was the end of the story.  Hours later, the most beautiful gift showed up for us from the manager and chef.  

Hand carved wonders

Personalized carved watermelon and pumpkin!!  These pictures do not do justice to the artistry; each detail was exquisite.  Enchanted by our gifts, and especially the sweetly proud way they were offered only to delight us, we promised to stop in if we ever find ourselves near Vietnam again in the future.  If you go to Vung Tau, stay in the DIC Star Hotel and Resort! 

This South corner of Vietnam that I was lucky enough to visit has me magnetized, already pulling at me to return.  

Delightful

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! 

Cambodia: Part Two Angkor Wat

3:40 in the morning and my alarm cuts short the end of my dream; but I don’t mind because I’m about to go experience a real life dream come true!   We’re both a little groggy from lack of sleep and we have a quick deadline that doesn’t leave us much time to get ready – no time even for coffee or breakfast! – but I don’t care at all because nothing can dampen my enthusiasm for getting out to watch the sun rise over the ancient temples of Angkor Wat.  I’m buzzing with a giddy energy, and already envisioning all the epic photos I’ll be able to take.  
The drive from our hotel in Siem Reap to Angkor Wat was about half an hour, and some time during those thirtyish minutes  it started to rain.  The guide made a comment about how nice it was for us to be here in the rainy season, as it meant there would still be water in the ponds. “More much beautiful this way.”    Within three steps of exiting the van the rain intensified and all of us travellers made the instinctual decision to buy the plastic rain ponchos being offered us.  We finally enter the complex and try to get ourselves set up in the best spots for the sunrise photos, mostly by following the crowd of other ponchos and umbrellas.  Apparently we had about 25 minutes before the big moment.  But the rain kept pouring and it was starting to become obvious that we wouldn’t see a bright sunrise through all the rain and clouds.  I had left my umbrella in the room that morning, and the worst part was that I hadn’t forgotten it, I deliberately took it out because I didn’t want to be bothered carrying it all day; that fact added to my mood steadily souring as I tried to shelter my camera with a plastic bag.  Standing in the rain and mud I snapped a few photos but it wasn’t long before I was ready to give up.  Cliche as it is, I kept thinking “man, when it rains it pours!” because my list of little grievances was suddenly flooded.  No Sunrise. No golden photos. Ruining my camera in the rain.  Water dripping down my neck, mud coating my sandals and toes. No coffee or breakfast. Not enough sleep.    I finally bought another umbrella from a vendor because at least that could protect my camera, and didn’t even care that I paid his first price instead of barganing down to a more reasonable price.

Mood of the morning
Angkor Wat in the rain

Our tour group of seven made the unanimous decision to return to our hotel for breakfast in the hopes that the rain would stop during that time, and I’m sooo glad we did.  That was the reset I needed, and by the time we returned I was on my way back to being able to enjoy it all.  The rain did stop, sun came out again, and we were able to explore the three main temple ruins like we had originally planned – Angkor WatAngkor Thom, and Ta Prohm

Throughout the centuries in Cambodia’s history the religion practiced here changed between Hindu and Buddhism depending on who was in power.  It’s left behind an amazing mix of carvings depicting Vishnu and Rama next to statues of Buddha, both hemmed in together by the surrounding dense jungle.  

Hindu and Buddhist
Buddhist monk visiting the temple
Amazing ancient ruins
Monkeys!
Elephants!
The Tomb Raider scene
Ta Prohm temple ruins

The good looking group

Angkot Wat is unlike anything else I’ve ever seen, and exploring through the complex is still a complete dream come true.   If you ever get the chance to go there yourself don’t pass it up – but just be open to having a different experience than what you may have pictured.   I didn’t get the stunning sunrise photo like   seemingly the rest of the Travel Bloggers were able to but in the end I don’t even miss it.