Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Hello Vietnam!

Crazy streets of Vietnam
Hello Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam!

Leaving Cambodia was a bit difficult for both of us.  We had such a good time in both Laos and Cambodia and saw so many amazing things, that we were a bit nervous to go a different country, especially since we'd heard so many differing views on it.

This is the traffic crossing on a red light.
And, man, it was such a culture change.  Cars were zipping everywhere and in between the cars, scooters were taking up every inch of open space, including the sidewalk.  Amongst the crazy traffic were the shops.  Seriously, they had every luxury store you could even think of.  In addition to that, locals were sitting on every street corner eating food or drinking, sitting on possibly the smallest little chairs imaginable.  AND THEN, people are blindly walking into traffic and the cars and scooters just go around them, like they aren't even there.  It was, by far, the strangest thing ever.  Its so crazy that there is literally a intersection called the 'Roundabout of Death'.  We never saw it as the name did not have us running out to rent a scooter.

Expensive rooftop beer.
We got to our guesthouse, which was right in the heart of backpacker central, and decided to venture out to attempt to cross a busy street, something everyone in Ho Chi Minh MUST do.  After a couple tries, we made it unscathed, though I kept my eyes closed the entire time and Allan was almost taken out by a scooter.  We decided to celebrate our victory by having a beer at a very well-known spot overlooking the entire city.  It was definitely the most expensive beer (at $8 a pop for the local brew) but the Rex Hotel bar was by far the nicest view we'd seen.

Yummy Pho
After our super expensive beer, we hightailed it out to find a cheap thing to eat for dinner and found this great pho joint that used vegetables to make the noodles instead of rice.  The noodles were all different colors and was one of the betters pho soups we'd had.

View from the Rex Hotel.
We had a great day.  So far there was nothing to worry about, coming to Vietnam.


Friday, February 21, 2014

Celebrating The New Year In Siem Reap

We have been in Siem Reap for a few days and had already made good use of Pub Street while our Stray Asia friends were passing through.  We have toured the floating village, the temples of Angkor, played mini golf, eaten at countless restaurants, cycled through the country side to look at cows, and haggled at both the day and night markets.  But now, it was New Years Eve and we knew there was to be a big party on Pub Street.  We walked through the area during the day and there were large speakers being set up all over the place and many beverage supply trucks making deliveries.  Barricades had also been set up outside of pub street (Pub Street area is walking only and about about 2 blocks long) and they extended the area to about 8 square blocks.  I would not have liked to be driving that day, that's for sure.

Perpendicular to Pub Street pre-party.
Set up on Pub Street.
Street side service.
Being on a budget, and with our to do list checked off, it was a lot of clock watching until we felt like heading out of the hotel to see how all the setup effort had paid off for the city, and of course enjoy the night ourselves.  At about 10 o'clock we headed out for a late snack (after some Shisha, that's flavoured tobacco FYI) at a fancy foreigner owned pizza place.  It was super busy all over the city.  The business comes as expected to those who grew up using this night as a time to let loose, but the number of locals is what really caught our attention.  It was not a tourist party.  The area that had been created for tourists to have a Western style restaurant experience, and one or two backpacker bars, had been taken back over by the local party animals.  We thought the number of service staff we talked to throughout the day had been asking us about heading to pub street as polite conversation and easy small talk.  Taking part in the New Years' celebrations actually means a lot to the locals.  I probably need it explained to me again, hopefully this is correct,  but the locals use this time to celebrate a collective birthday.  We got both 'Happy New Year' and a few 'Happy Birthday's' during the day. Maybe a way to celebrate the unknown birthdays that came as a result of the Khmer Rouge, who knows.

Looking great at dinner
Yummy!  Eating fish amok, a national Cambodian dish
So the pizza place closed early so the staff could get to the celebration in time, along with a few others I'm sure.  We walked around the party and found it very hard to move as so many people were having a good time.  Aside from the largest party going on in the main area micro parties were popping up in front of any bar/store that decided to put out their own stereo system for the night.  Being brave I guided Christina right into the middle of the party which was of course just a sea of people.  Being at the front of the stage of a rock show would be the best way to describe it.  No one was getting rough but you were definitely sharing cologne.  We also found out that the locals love to shake a beer and open it into the crowd anytime they feel like, smiling and dancing the whole time of course.

Shisha lounge.  The cheapest shisha we had on the trip!
Needing to be a few drinks deeper than we were to stay in the heart of the party we opted to try the narrow alleys that you can use to access pub street.  This gave us a refuge from the party animals but still allowed us to have a good time and join in with the count down.  There were locals standing on tables, people on the second floor of restraunts and bars taking in the view, and me buying beer out of some kids back pack.   That's the best thing about beer, it always comes sealed and if it isn't sealed when you get it its really easy to tell right away.  There were drink stations setup all over the street,  no need to actually go into a bar, and of course there were many deals available when you bought those wonderful buckets.

Happy New Year!!!!
We left the party at around 1 am and there were no signs of not just the main party slowing down, but the rest of the city as well.  There were no fights, no fires, no police in riot gear, no crying babies, no random acts of vandalism and looting that we noticed.  Leaving at 1 am, we definitely did not shut the party down but the next morning the street looked almost back to normal as a confirmation that as young and rowdy as the kids (16 would be a good average age estimate) were, violence and destruction did not appear to be on there to do list.  A little more digging would be needed to confirm our impression but my point is that if the same 'drinking rules' were applied to New Years party on Granville street I doubt I could say the same thing.  This is definitely a debatable topic but I'll leave it alone :)

The next day, as I said before, the city was back to normal with a bit more to clean up but nothing that stopped anyone from getting around.  The front desk staff at our hotel were understandably a little slow in the morning as well.  One of the girls said that she got home at 4 am only to have to work at 5 am.   I'm sure most of you remember that feeling.

It was a great time anyway you look at it.  With a little more drinking effort on our part we could have definitely gotten a little wild, but is possible to have a great time without blacking out too.  Highly recommended to others to time your travel through Siem Reap during New Years if you are looking to let lose.  If you are looking to be a fly on the wall just make sure you get to the second floor of a restaurant/bar early.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

The Floating Village of Kompong Phluk

So the floating village of Kompong Phluk was definitely built on water and the lives of the people that lived there relied heavily on the water for their livelihood - but the village was technically not floating.  All the houses were built on stilts, high enough to accommodate the tide, the change from wet to dry season, and moderate storms.  Only a few sheds or small buildings were REALLY floating.  So with the disclaimer out of the way, here are the details.

So the tuk-tuk ride out of Siem Reap took about 40 minutes and was mostly down the paved main road.  After about 30 minutes we turned off the main road and passed through a little village with a slow moving stream.  The whole scene was rather peaceful.

Our chariot for the day (not the bus)

Some people have trouble carrying one mattress with a van...

Our driver then stopped at the first 'checkpoint' that required us to pay $25 total to enter 'the park' where the village was.   Looking back this charge is better described as a boat fee but given that we'd already spent about $40 to have the tuk-tuk driver escort us here, we still felt gauged.  After we got our tickets and had a quick bathroom break, we drove down possibly the worst road we have EVER encountered.  It probably would have only taken 3 minutes in a car, but took almost 20 in the tuk-tuk as the potholes were so big and wide that you felt nauseous riding over them.  Seriously, it probably would have been easier to get out and walk instead.  At the end of the worst road ever, we were passed on to our boat driver.  There were tons of boats and tons of drivers waiting for the tourists, and for some reason there was only one group per boat.  So this means that Christina and I had a boat equipped to carry over 20 but instead it carried only us.  We actually saw another boat of the same size carrying around only one foreigner.  Seems terribly inefficient to me but I guess this is a better way to spread out the money coming into 'the park'.

This road was definitely not flat.

The long line of boats waiting to shuttle visitors to the floating village.

Heading down the river it probably took about 30 minutes to reach the village.  Looking out over sectioned off pieces of the delta that would be used for cultivating fish and other water based livestock.  On the right side we could also see sporadic evidence of a road that once served the village.  Parts of a flat well-travelled road every now and then, mixed in with some old concrete bridges that were better labeled as islands.

The left or right view from the boat on the way to the village

Remainder of the old road.

The village itself was very well put together and in a way almost makes you wish you could stay there for longer, just to experience what living this way is actually like.  I'll let the pictures tell the rest of the story.

After we made it through the actual village, we were offloaded onto a floating restaurant that also doubled as a dock for our second, and much smaller boat ride.  10-20 boats with 2 women each (no men) in shallow paddle boats waited for us to climb on so they could slowly paddle us through the mangrove forest. A bit of a scam, really, as they don't tell you that this is coming and they expect you to pay an additional $8 for the boat.  We, of course, did it as the scenery was gorgeous and never have we ever seen mangrove trees that close up before.  The lady at the front of the boat had her very young baby along for the ride as well.  It was very peaceful and calming as we could not here any of the motor boats and there was no other sources of man made noise.  And despite the number of boats waiting to paddle tourists through the mangroves we only ran into about 2 other boats on our 30ish minute cruise.  At one point the lady at the back of the boat even picked a bouquet of flowers for Christina.  Despite feeling forced to take the mangrove cruise and knowing that they are trying to take every last dollar they can from you, Cambodia really seemed to make you feel as good as possible while doing so :)

There was also this large incomplete man-made walkway that stretched from the little piece of land the village was resting one foot on, out to a large platform on the edge off the large lake.  For you geographical types, we were touring the village and mangroves on the north side of the lake that is at the centre of Cambodia.  With the wet and dry seasons so extreme there did not appear to be any fresh water beaches despite the many pockets of water in Southeast Asia.  The freshwater shores all seemed to be covered by forest or farmland (rice paddies, fish farms).

The little boat through the mangroves docked us at a different floating restaurant than where we started.  Despite the waving of a menu and the offering of a table, Christina and I decided to get back on our 20 person boat for 2 and get back to the mainland.

There was supposed to be a bit more involved with today's adventure but to get to the other temples we had to buy another pass for Angkor ($20 a head I think), no one told us that we had to get this pass up front, nor did they tell us that we should buy the 2 day pass the day before.   A little more research on our end would have probably worked out well here too.  So we missed out on some temples (tragic as it sounds) and headed back into town to enjoy the markets and pub street.

Monday, February 3, 2014

The Ruins of Angkor Wat and the Surrounding Temples

The stunning Angkor Wat
Occasionally when travelling and especially after seeing many different temples and religious sites, you almost become oblivious to the sheer beauty and vastness of everything around you.  For me, this happened in Phnom Penh where almost ever temple we saw was so beautiful that it was hard to distinguish which temple was which.

Inside Angkor Wat
However, upon seeing Angkor Wat, both Allan and I woke up from our temple haze and could finally see very clearly how stunning the grounds, temples and the ruins truly are.  There is a reason it's one of the seven wonders of the world.

Pillars underneath the temple
Without going into too much detail, Angkor Wat was originally created as a Hindu temple but then became a Buddhist temple complex and is the largest religious monument in the world.  In the grounds surrounding Angkor Wat are many other temples and sites that we wanted to see: Angkor Thom, Bayon and Ta Prohm (or the site where Tomb Raider was filmed) to name a few.  Anyway, check out these pics...

The bridge to Bayon Temple
The many faces of the Bayon Temple
Inside the dark Bayon
Each face is unique
Inside Ta Prohm (where Lara Croft Tomb Raider was filmed.)
The trees grow right through the temples.
They are amazingly resourceful.
We took so many pictures of the grounds and temples of Angkor but with as many tourists as there were, a lot of them did not turn out the way we'd hoped.  Regardless, I am so grateful to have the ones we do and to have seen such a mystical site.


Monday, January 27, 2014

A Drunken Night on Pub Street

The entrance to our guesthouse, Alibi.
For both Allan and myself, leaving Sihanoukville was really difficult.  It truly felt like we were leaving our own strip of paradise behind.  We knew that 4 days beach side wasn't enough time to begin with and, while there, we began to fantasize about leaving our jobs behind and moving to this remote beach side town where life, and time, stood still.

Pub Street: The place for drinking and debauchery
After realizing that we'd most likely only be able to afford a good two months of beach side living without jobs, we boarded a bus to Siem Reap, our last stop in Cambodia and our home for the next 6 days.

The awesome Max and Emma.  Our Stray Asia friends.
Siem Reap is absolutely breathtaking.  The architecture is very French Colonial complete with awnings on windows and verandas on the second level of every  building.  The town itself isn't that big but what it lacks in size it makes up for in character, tenfold.  A river runs directly through the town and either side of the river are shops, cafes, guesthouses and street carts.  Siem Reap still remains one of our favorite stops along the way.

My worst mistake was ordering a G&T bucket as NO ONE else would help me drink it
We checked into the cutest guesthouse that had the friendliest staff around.  The neat thing about this place was that it was locally owned by a fantastic Cambodian family which made you really feel like one of them, for a short time at least.  Another great thing about this place was it's proximity to everything fun, especially Pub Street.

Yes, I'm still drinking it
Even now, I am struggling with the words to describe Pub Street.  Okay, try this...think of Las Vegas' Fremont Street.  Complete with lights dangling everywhere, people dancing in the streets, beer replacing water and more street food than you could even think of eating.  Oh, and then times that by 2.  Seriously, it was a different party every night.  This night, though, we met up with two of our Stray Asia friends to have dinner and go dancing.

So cute
These two ruled the dance floor.  It was epic
And dancing we did.  Since there are really only two bars in the vicinity of Pub Street, we started at one and drank way too many buckets than went to the other one and drank way too many buckets there AND started dancing with everyone.  Yes, even Allan was dancing on stage.  Then we went back to the other bar and started drinking buckets again and dancing.  We actually ended up getting two free t-shirts out of it (YAY for drinking buckets) and woke up with the worst hang overs ever.

Poor hungover Allan
Best introduction to Siem Reap if I say so myself....

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