Sunday, August 30, 2009

We are taking one final relaxation day, in order to avoid temple overload, before our last two days of temple exploration. Our seven-day punch-card is nearing its end, sadly, but given that our time in Cambodia is almost half finished, we need to get a move on to go and see the rest of this amazing country. Tomorrow will be an early morning, with a sunrise at Angkor Wat preceding a full day of adventure by van, in order to see some outer-lying places. Banteay Srei, Kbal Spean, and the mighty Beng Mealea are hopefully going to blow our minds with their respective finest carvings, 1000 river lingas, and jungle overgrowth. We'll give you the well-splattered report once we've written it.
Since the last blog post, we've spent two more tiring but great days exploring, seeing some of the most impressive temples besides Angkor Wat itself. The first day was dedicated to Angkor Thom, a massive gated city with numerous buildings still standing, including the dazzling Bayon. Known for its hundreds of carved heads, staring out protectively in all directions, it also holds some very well preserved carvings of the life of its former inhabitants. The faces were everywhere, noses or ears poking out into the blue sky behind them, making the temple's rubble-strewn exterior easily forgotten. Like many temples Bayon is currently undergoing restoration, meaning it is as active a construction site as an archeological one, though presumably the magnitude of the location isn't even lost on the workers.
We spent a long time at Bayon, it was too amazing not to, but the other nearby highlights of Angkor Thom - once we'd eaten a nice fried rice lunch - were also impressive:

Baphuon is also being repaired, so much so that only its lengthy walkway is really currently open, but it was still interesting to see such an enormous salvage job in progress.

The Terrace of the Elephants stretches for over 300 meters, a seemingly endless carved wall full of elephants, with statues guarding either entrance.

Hidden behind the main road, lies Preah Palilay, a smaller temple that is slowly being overgrown. Trees emerged from all sides of the main temple, which looked as though it were on a hill from all the surrounding flora and greenery.

We then went through another gate, not as impressive as the main southern entrance from earlier in the day, but still imposing with faces looking in every cardinal direction and statues pulling an enormous naga on either side of the road.

The end of the day was spent at Preah Kahn, a sprawling temple partially collapsing and overgrown, despite extensive restoration efforts. Featuring an unusual two-story building that may have once held the king's sword, it was a peaceful ending to a tiring day.

We had initially planned on tacking the infamous Ta Prohm on at the end of the day, but time flies when you are seeing temples, and as we found out it was more than worthy of its own day of exploration. Ta Prohm has always been well-known since it has been partially conceded to the jungle, but its recent popularity is primarily due to it's featured role in the movie Tomb Raider.

To say the least, the trees were more exciting than the temple, and it was pretty intense. A massive complex, with the majority of outer walls still intact, and plenty of passages to wander about in search of carvings and great photo ops. However, tourism has taken its toll, primarily in the form of wooden walkways and roped-off sections. Those help in getting around easily, but really detract from the intended “wild” ambiance, as does the almost constant crowd. Classic photos can still be taken, but sometimes there's a wait for other tourists to clear out of the frame.

Nonetheless, the remainder of the day paled in comparison, though the heights of Ta Keo were frighteningly impressive to climb, and both Thommanon and Chau Say Tevoda were interesting despite ensuing twilight. We also squeezed in the Victory Gate, though it seemed virtually identical to the more intact (and therefore spectacular) South Gate that we'd cycled through the day before.

Another exciting feature of Angkor Thom, which was somehow almost forgotten is.... monkeys! Technically macaques, they are all over the grounds, especially near the primary entrance to the city. We saw them scurrying about, relaxing in trees, and playing in hammocks – how cute!

Now for some other news: as you may (or may not) have noticed, there have been a lack of recent Holiday Fu articles by Anderson. Our friend Iain, who runs the website, has been laid off, and consequently Anderson's series left in a state of limbo. That has just about resolved itself, and once things have been finalized there should be an exciting announcement. Just have to wait...

That's the news for now, off to book our van trip for tomorrow, and then do a little shopping before dinner: the traveler's life, ever so rough!


PS - more photos to come soon, uploading them isn't exactly speedy over here!

Thursday, August 27, 2009

We have entered the wild world of Angkorian temples, and thus far we are very glad to have the bicycles at our disposal. They've made getting to and from the temples quite simple, and besides the $60 week-long pass, quite cheap. Otherwise we'd be paying tuk-tuk or van drivers $20 or $30 per day to haul us around, but instead we can stay sweat-free so long as we are moving rapidly through the humid air. We are definitely undertaking our Angkorian odyssey slowly, we very intentionally got the seven day punch-card (rather than the continuous week pass), so that we could take things at our own pace. Today has been spent resting, recovering from Christine's birthday yesterday, and avoiding temple burnout. Seeing amazing sights doesn't matter so much if you are too frazzled to appreciate them!
We've spent three days at the temples, working our way from some lesser known and older temples up to Angkor Wat itself for the birthday celebration. Sunset there was simply an amazing experience, such that we hardly even cared that some street kid stole Liz's watch off of her bicycle!
Siem Reap, the town from which everyone accesses Angkor, is located 6km south of the ancient monument itself. For our first day, after buying our official tickets from the well-organized ticket booth, we headed due east of Siem Reap to a temple group called Roluous, that was actually built several hundred years before most of Angkor.

As you can see, it was a pretty relaxing spot, once we managed to ignore the horde of attacking beverage saleswomen. As with many of the temples we have seen, the Roluos Group was in differing states of ruin and repair, as almost everywhere is undergoing some sort of conservation.

Here we are (a bit blurrily) in front of a temple called Bakong. After a leisurely evening ride through the surrounding paddy fields, the obligatory "hello" of course being quite common, we ended our first day of temple glory.

Our next day involved much more cycling, 47km instead of the previous days' 32km, but also included several spectacular temples, ending with a great sunset at Phnom Bok. Along the way we cruised around Angkor Wat's massive moat (but avoided seeing it, in an attempt to save "the best for later" - we made it one more day), before stopping at several temples within the main cluster. There are temples literally all over the place, and our plan was to ride a ways out into the countryside, but we couldn't just ride past fascinating ruins without stopping at them!
So we stopped and saw:
Prasat Kravan - a few small chambers with some nice carvings, like the woman shown above.

Banteay Kdel - a seemingly endless series of hallways, with plenty of disrepair within its massively long complex, though the small serene pile of moss-covered remnants at the entrance were equally photogenic.

Sras Srang - now just a giant water tank, with only the temple's platform remaining, we relaxed here for a while to enjoy some peace and quiet.

Pre Rup - a large, climbable set of ruins, with plenty of towers of all sizes, and great jungle views to the north.
Banteay Samre - another large complex, with very intact walls and a proper entrance gate.

Phnom Bok - accessible by a serious stair climb, these ruins are well-renowned for the pair of trees growing out of the tops of two dilapidated buildings.

We rode back in the dark, no big deal on the smooth roads somewhat lit by our headlamps, but all the traffic drives slowly around here since there are plenty of other local cyclists that need to be watched out for. We were definitely exhausted from our long day - getting up the next morning was far from a priority - but we wanted to do something spectacular for Christine's birthday, and sunset at Angkor Wat certainly did not disappoint!
A photo collage is most certainly in order, and it will make an appearance soon, we promise!

More news from Angkor soon,

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Check out this delicious street food from Battambang...

Once you've enjoyed that, you can read this, which was written yesterday:

Our boat slowly cruises down the muddy river channel, fisherman's boats and raised houses on either side. The man at shoulder's length presumably cannot read what's being written, but if so then hopefully he enjoys this shout-out. The journey from Battambang to Siem Riep, by speedboat (make sure to thoroughly de-emphasize the 1st syllable), takes between 5 and 9 hours depending on water level, and also apparently if nets get caught in the motor (which already happened). As the heat of the day increases, the shade within the boat equally decreases, and for once we're rather pleased to have awoken before 6am. We have yet to smell the river, the overpowering stench of petrol is inescapable, and our headphones are serving more as earplugs than music-listening devices. That said, the scenery is beautiful, the fresh baguettes we bought this morning delicious, and the people are as friendly as always.
Cambodia, the land of “hello” and “goodbye,” puts Thailand's waving masses to shame. We have traveled from the border at Pong Nam Ron, to Pailin, and then onto Battambang, and everywhere we have been has been delightful. For sure, the dirt roads are brutal and dusty, and the fact that this was quite recently a war-zone is always apparent, but that hasn't managed to dampen anyone's mood, ours or the masses of smiling children of all ages we meet along the way. Something about five sweaty whiteys is pretty hilarious, no doubt, but the most common emotion we encounter is excitement.
Last night we enjoyed a fantastic authentic Khmer meal, with a tuk-tuk driver we met named (well, abreved) “T” and his extended family. His young wife (23 and the mother of two – 6 & 3 years old) prepared a multitude of delicious dishes; cooked vegetables, an egg and beef dish, a Khmer-style fish curry (sans coconut), as well as an interesting Cambodian cheese dish mixed with smelly fish and bacon, all dazzled us, as did the constant flow of whiskey and soda. We're already pretty confident it will be the best meal we eat here in Cambodia, and we've only been here for 3 full days now!
Truly, it was a fantastic evening, and by the end of the night we felt like old friends relaxing under the tin roof's protection from the rain. We learned so much about modern Cambodian life, and enjoyed an atmosphere – as well as a gaggle of children – that no restaurant can compete with. Not that we aren't looking forward to tonight's Happy Pizza mind you, but we travel to experience all aspects of a country's culture, not just the touristic.
So far we've biked around 135 km en route while in Cambodia, for a total of over 450 km, which doesn't count a 30+ km jaunt yesterday to see a bunch of sights around Battambang. What sights you ask? Patience, we're going to sort this all out chronologically....
From Pong Nam Ron, Thailand, we headed due east on Tuesday morning, getting hit by the rain showers mentioned in our previous post, before missing our turn to the border. Yes, we biked a few kilometers past, because there were no English signs indicating where the turnoff from the highway to the border was. Even though there were a plethora of English everywhere else, the actual border was apparently not deemed important enough to signpost! Thankfully some helpful ladies on a motor-scooter understood our gesturing, and were able to clear things up for us, though Blaise did have to grudgingly pedal back up a hill that he'd caught a free ride down by hanging onto a truck.
The border crossing itself was relatively smooth, the Thai side stamped us out without problem, and the overly complicated Cambodian side (three different booths for three different forms) worked out reasonably well also, after they realized we were going to only pay the correct amount of $20, and not 1200 Baht, or $22, or 800 Baht, or whatever. We did pay plenty in smiles though, and fortunately Agent 007 appreciated our James Bond-related humor.
After crossing over, we played the oh-so-appropriate, yet lyrically inappropriate Dead Kennedy's song “Holiday in Cambodia.” Yes, we really do cycle around while listening to an iHome stereo, that's just how we roll.

The change between Thailand and Cambodia was immediately apparent. Thailand's road was paved, and its air clean. Cambodia's road, as mentioned, was rocky and full of potholes, dust being kicked up constantly by all vehicles, while all alongside children shouted and waved. Thailand feels sanitized, Cambodia is real, like India is. The travel here is raw, the cold water more greatly appreciated, the currency so low in value and reliability that the Khmer people primarily deal in US dollars. That's right, we buy things in dollars and receive Camodian riel in change. Not that the riel is worthless mind you, everything has a price in riel as well – but that fluctuates between 3300 and 4200 per dollar, and at least in western Cambodia the Thai baht is also accepted as a valid and preferred currency. So in theory we could pay with our leftover baht, and then get dollars and a small amount of riel as our change. How normal.
Our boat is still cutting through the water, though now the river has opened up expansively, as we steadily approach Tonle Sap, Cambodia's largest lake, and the source of much of its agriculture might (be that as it may). As always, we're the only North Americans around, the rest of the boat is about half European and half Khmer, and even here there are plenty of children. Half of Cambodia's population is under the age of 16, which is great in that the country needs to revitalize its population following the horrors of the Khmer Rouge, but worrisome so far as the lack of contraception and HIV/AIDS awareness is concerned. So now we are almost stuck in the river's thick vegetation, tarps have been pulled down on the sides, and we are in a claustrophobic nightmare, stuck inching along the tight channel within a veritable river garden, albeit one that looks as poky as tangled rose bushes. The heat is also rapidly increasing, both from the passing time and the absence of wind, so we can only hope we emerge soon from this prickly prison. Luke's trying (and failing) to sleep on the floor, Anderson is channeling his inner (OK, by now it's outer) nerd, and Liz, Blaise & Christine are sitting as calmly as one can given the circumstances.
Back to the journey recap, the last 20-odd km to Pailin (NOT like the former governor – and hopefully former politician, it's pronounced PIE-Lynn) went by fast enough, and outside of town we found a very relaxed guesthouse called Bam Boo. A later cruise through town verified that it was the best accommodation available, by far. The food was great, too, we had a family-style dinner after Anderson & Luke returned from the house of a local man who wanted to use his limited English skills on some captive (feel free to interpret that word either way) foreigners.
After a decent night sleep, preceded by laundry and a few Angkor beers – though not for Blaise, his upset stomach was still wreaking havoc at the time, we ate a quick breakfast of omelets and iced coffee before departing at the (somehow-early-for-us) time of 9:30 am. The brutal heat and humidity, such a nasty and constant combination here, kicked in right away. It may be the rainy season, but it isn't raining like it usually does – in one month we've only seen a couple true rainstorms. Thankfully, even in rural Cambodia, there are small shops along the road selling water and other beverages. Refrigeration is, when available, provided by large ice blocks, which are also carved up into smaller hunks for resale. But after even an hour on the road, our bottles of water are practically boiling, so even room-temperature (shaded) water feels blessedly cool by comparison. Do we love what we are doing? Of course, but that doesn't mean that pouring liters of sweat out of every orifice constantly is always enjoyable. Just like the choking petrol fumes right now are much more nauseating than any semblance of fun.
The day of cycling to Battambang was quite possibly the most hellish yet, only the last 10km up into the hills of Thailand is at all comparable. The 85km proceeded slowly, the road actually worse than the day before, at times looking like land mines might have recently altered the landscape. Bridges were dubious at best, some held together by ragged pieces of wood, making us glad we weren't driving a truck or something equally weighty. The countryside was full of natural beauty, though the storm brewing on the horizon trumped all else, and by “hello” five-hundred our enthusiasm for waving was waning just a bit. But the kilos flew by, if only our weights would change so quickly, and by late afternoon we were at least almost to our destination. Putting aside thoughts of stopping early, we pedaled onwards, for about an hour directly racing the oncoming rain (we succeeded). Only an hour before dark we finally saw dirt change to pavement, and soon enough we found ourselves at the Spring Park Hotel.

Priced at $6/room/night, the price was right, though the place looked 20 years old, not its actual age of only four. Kindly staff, and at least our shower worked even if the drain didn't. The water was reddish-brown from dust, and our bikes themselves are eagerly awaiting a bath and tune-up in Siem Reap. Oh, and the hotel has an elevator, which we immediately got stuck in. Lights out and between floors – par for the course.
A pizza dinner and then a pass-out were all we could muster, but by noontime the next day we were grudgingly ready for a little adventuring. The town's museum was underwhelming; while some statues were nice most were just jumbled on the floor. Next on the agenda was the bamboo train, Battanbang's unusual claim-to-fame.

Basically a bamboo-raft laid on top of twin axles, with the wheels powered by a cheap motor and a thick rubber band, the “train” bumps down ancient French-laid tracks from a long-past era. Now it's almost exclusively a tourist trap, as our heated price negotiations proved, but once we were finally moving (at $2/person) the ride was nice, though the scenery was limited, at the only destination was a store selling beers at the “end of the line” 15 minutes away. Good work, Lonely Planet, on the hype job. Is stimulating the local economy, at the price of feigning a cultural experience, beneficial to Cambodia? Or beneficial to we tourists? Hmmm....

That night we ate some great fried beef-and-noodles at a local restaurant down the road, lathered in a slightly spicy red sauce they were fresh and delicious, all the while an apparently-important Cambodian kickboxing match blared on the television's long-shattered speakers. Later in the evening, we checked out the surprisingly classy Sky Club, which featured some sort of buy four beers and get one free deal, though the language barrier made the explanation of that quite complicated. The club had a sweet sound-system, thankfully since any sort of a lesser system would not have been able to handle the relentless bass that the weird mix of happy-hardcore techno and Khmer love-songs required. Plus the average clubber's age was no more than 18, giving the whole place some sort of weird high-school dance feel, though one where the BPMs fear no upper-limit. From the “We Will Rock You” remix when we entered, to the crooning slow-dances, it was a bizarre musical night to say the least. But the people were all friendly, and (we're pretty sure) due to their general wealth/class, they all spoke an amazingly high level of English. We met a guy from Siem Riep who works at a guesthouse there, so we've got a hookup for tonight's lodging, and we've discovered that Cambodia seems to be much more accepting of the idea of gayness, in the men-with-men sense, while Thailand was only thoroughly caught-up in the whole “lady-boy” phenomenon. Political borders really seem to mean a lot in this part of the world... in more ways than we could have initially imagined.
Yesterday, as in Friday, was spent doing a bit of a cycling circuit outside of Battambang, which meant we saw a lot of strange and different things. First up was getting our boat tickets for today, $20 + a $3 bicycle charge and that was easily taken care of, plus we met our now-friend “T” who was hanging out looking for customers. Next we checked out an abandoned Pepsi plant, left for ruin in the mid-70s when the Khmer Rouge ran amok in Cambodia. The buildings are still standing, apparently now the home for an elderly man, and plenty of vintage glass soda bottles were stacked up and strewn about. After a bit of an adventure through some dirt-path side-streets, we found our next destination: a completely unmarked crocodile farm, where about 100 of the beasts laid in the shade or hid in the water. The utter lack of safety was a touch frighteningly, but we managed not to fall into their lair – what would our insurance carrier have said about that one?!
Oddly enough, the entire trip was on the best-paved Cambodian road we've seen yet, so apparently our final destination, the ruined temple of Wat Ek Phrom, gets a decent amount of traffic. The setting was quite nice, a modern temple in front, a lotus-filled pond to the side, and crumbling rocks piled all about, with flags and flowers emerging out of the wreckage. Dating from the 10th century, now the inner sanctum is still in use as both a place of offering and a man's bedroom. A few children acted as impromptu guides, our beverage purchase price decreased by 50% when we switched from dollars to riel, and thanks to our fine negotiating skills we got the previously unknown cyclist-discount, of $2 off our total admission fee. We even managed to have a P-Funk dance party for a few minutes, before getting back on our cycles to return to Battambang.

That's that then, hopefully we'll be in Siem Reap shortly, though our boat is rather unusual in that a Canadian film crew, following a young Khmer girl's return to her ethnic homeland, is onboard and shooting extensive video footage, so perhaps we'll be inadvertently featured in their documentary! Or maybe they'll realize our story is equally interesting, and switch projects mid-way... yeah, right.


So now we are actually in Siem Reap, settled into our rooms at Lee Phallean Guesthouse, conveniently located - for Luke - across the street from a "for men" steam room/gym/massage facility. Later today (Sunday) we will go out get our one-week passes to Angkor, though we plan on doing so after 5pm so that tonight will be free. Our next days will then be filled with extensive temple madness, some cycling to get to the closer temples, are probably one day of riding in a tuk-tuk in order to see the more outer-lying temples. Gonna be exhausting and fun, for both us and our cameras!

And now for your moment of zen, from Wat Ek Phrom temple outside of Battambang:

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

This was written yesterday (Tuesday) morning, but a further update will appear very soon, we promise!
It's just been a touch difficult to find functioning internet over the past few days, but that's what happens when you're out in the Thai/Khmer boonies. But all is well, have no fear, other than tired legs and a bit more that you'll have to read about below, all is going fantastically.

We're currently beneath a yellow rain shelter, approximately 7 (or 8) km from the Cambodian border. Internet access isn't exactly available here, so the actual posting shall occur later, but given that the rain doesn't look like it's going to let up anytime soon, typing seems like a good way to pass some time.

If you're at all familiar with Thai geography, you're realizing that we're nowhere Ko Samet, and that's definitely true. We were delayed from departing the island first by our love of sand and sea, and then second by Blaise's recent illness of the liquid-out-both-ends variety. Thankfully he's being quite the trooper, despite our rather brutal cycling schedule over the past two days.
We (finally) left Ko Samet mid-morning on Sunday, hearts heavy as our adopted dog, Mama – 'ma' conveniently means 'dog' in Thai, so when we called her 'Mama dog' we were sorta calling her 'dog dog dog' – stood by the pier and watched our ferry depart. Unlike our arrival, our departure was smooth sailing as the waters were very calm. After breakfast in Ban Phae, and the acquisition of a reasonably cheap used Lonely Planet Cambodia, we then headed due east on the beach road, opting for better scenery and fewer cars for as long as we could. We eventually rejoined Highway 3 (Sukhumvit Road, still) in the town of Klaeng, but since it was only mid-afternoon we decided to soldier on for at least a few dozen more kilometers. As darkness began approaching, and no hotels were on the horizon, we stopped at a random gas station to inquire about a hotel.
Between our gestures for sleep, the word hotel, and some broken Thai phrases that Yan had written down for us the week before, we eventually made our request clear, but when the lengthy Thai explanation failed to be understood, a kindly woman on a scooter agreed to escort us to our lodging. A half kilo up was an intersection, called Na Yai Am, and then a further kilo off of the main road, essentially completely out in the countryside, was a nice modern (for Thailand) hotel, with A/C and a fridge, for 400 Baht/night. It was exactly what we needed, and without the woman's help we would never have found it. We imagine her directions, that we failed to comprehend, went something like this: go straight until you see a 7-11; at the next intersection turn left, then go straight for at least a kilometer; then turn right at the enormous poster of the King, go straight on that road until you see the panda bear statues and it's on the right. Duh.
Anyways, after showering everyone but Blaise (lounging in internal agony) went out to the night market for dinner – but only after the amazing lightning performance had pretty much concluded, and several bouts of rain had been waited out. Dinner was great, the cheapest food we've had yet, and quality was not sacrificed for price. Coming from a well-touristed island, 15 Baht pad thai was literally ¼ the price we had been paying! One beer was all we could handle with dinner, something about sweating out liters of liquid makes barley and hops a bit less appealing.
A decent night of sleep ensued, and the next morning came all too soon, but at least we'd bought breakfast provisions the night before (all hail the mighty 7-11) so we had pastries and coffee in addition to our usual Lara Bars. That's right Stacy, we really eat Lara Bars for breakfast :-). And they are delicious!
Little did we know that our most brutal day yet was beginning, for it felt quite low-key and easy cruising through the Thai lowlands on flat well-paved roads. We skirted around Chanthaburi, opting to keep a more direct route to head into the mountains rather than seeing an unnecessary city. To our female members' dismay we later learned C-Town is arguably one of the diamond capitols of the world, supposedly one-third of all the world's shiny see-through gems pass through the town en route to all the globe's jewelry stores.

Turning north on Highway 317, the countryside immediately changed, as cool, lush, and cloudy hills were visible on all sides of the still flat road. Pushing onwards, we set our goal for Khamen, a town we eventually realized was imaginary. On the map, but not on the road. To seek solace we checked out a beekeeping site, part of Thailand's apparently growing Agro-Tourism industry.

The beehives themselves were perhaps not the most exciting, but the lotions, shampoos, and lip balms made from honey – and priced for local Thais and not foreign tourists – were spectacular. We got to sample the two varieties of honey, as well as the uber-pricey and uber-healthy yet uber-nasty Royal Jelly.
Then the hills began. And they were rough.
Having already biked around 75km, the last ten proved excruciating and sweat-soaked.

The climate was at least cool (we'd waited out the now-daily monsoon at our lunchtime eatery: rice, egg, and spinach never tasted as good), though the incline was nasty. And lengthy. But we're hardcore, apparently (!), and we had no choice but to continue up the mountain to Pong Nam Ron, the last Thai town before the border at Ban Pakkard / Psar Phrom. Arriving energy-less, the 7-11 was a welcome and familiar neon glow. And then a miracle occurred – we met, in the rural mountains, the one local foreigner (from the UK) and his kindly Thai wife. We got helpful directions for the town's two hotel options – we opted for the cheaper bungalows, the satin sheets were a nice touch – and then ended up having a great dinner with them at a local restaurant where people go to 'eat street.' The food was super spicy, so much that the smoke from other people's food literally choked us. But it was also super tasty, so the trade-off was worth it.
He regaled us with stories of enormous spitting cobras, his dog that was stolen by Cambodian fruit pickers to eat for dinner, and the general joys and pains of running an almost self-sufficient fruit farm in Thailand. It was a quite enjoyable dinner for everyone, since he usually doesn't get to speak much English, and we were pleased to have some company so far off the beaten track.
Whoa, we just saw a car accident as I'm typing this. Car on truck, but both people are full of smiles as they sort it out. The damage seems minimal, though the car's grille is currently unattached, and the truck definitely has a huge dent in its side, but apparently all is well today in Thailand. Must be the rain chilling everyone out!

That's what was typed previously, there will be another post soon to get you all caught up – we've definitely covered a lot of ground, albeit bumpy ground, over the past 2 days, but you'll have to be patient to learn exactly where we are in the Kingdom of Cambodia!

Peace from Kampuchea,

Monday, August 10, 2009

Posting blog entries is sorta a paradox – we want to write them all the time, but we have to actually have the time do so, which means there has to be a break from the daily awesomeness of such length that some diligent and self-retrospective thinking and typing can occur. Yes, Thailand is undergoing a bit of “awesomeness” right now, something about body-surfing between drink specials on the beautiful island of Ko Samet combined with having biked over 175km already is making us feel pretty grand.
Obviously there's a few days of insanity that you need to get the down-low on – so here we go.
Last thing you read we were going to bed, ready to arise early and begin our much-hyped cycling adventure. Well, we did it.
It may have taken us a bit longer than planned to eat breakfast, get all our bags strapped down, and take a few take-off photos, but by around 8am we were cruising through congested traffic, going south-east on Sukhumvit Road. Frankly, it was hot, all day long, which combined with the rampant noise and air pollution, was a bit much at times. Thankfully, a multitude of people honked, waved, and smiled their ways into our hearts the entire time. Seriously, almost everywhere we go we are greeted enthusiastically, despite our sweat, stench, and silliness – after all we are often biking on rather major roads, full of trucks and other large vehicles. Thais ride bicycles, but not across their country, so we definitely stand out at all times.

Disaster struck almost immediately, which was nice to 'get out of the way:' Christine blew a tire 90 minutes into our ride, rubber losing out to an invading nail. Blaise stepped up, despite a torrent of sweat upon his brow (and thus on the ground), doing an Indy 500-worthy job. Our current cycling schedule then emerged – ride for an hour or so, and then take a well-deserved break, which might involve beverages (almost always plural, we are sweating liters of water out so quickly that it's hard to earn a trip to the toilet that's not 'curry scurry' oriented), street food which is either rice or noodle based, or just pure standing satisfaction.
Right now we are averaging a bit over 16km/hr, which ought to be faster except we are carrying many kilos of stuff – Blaise's bike w/luggage weighs just under 30kg. His is the only weight we know, since so far no one else has bucked up the 1 Baht to weigh their ride. Perhaps soon.
Back in the heat, tire repaired and water consumed, we fearlessly rode onwards until hunger struck. Finding food proved to be a touch more difficult than craving it, as the first three places we stopped at were not able to provide any vegetarian food. Then a pad thai stand appeared, almost like a mirage (OK, that's a bit of exaggeration, but we were quite ravenous and drenched at the time), which ended up being the first in a series of unusual events.
Wading through the usual language barrier, we managed to sort out our order of two vegetarian meals and three non-vegetarian meals (chicken), and as much water as we could drink (!), before the whiskey-drunk-at-noon local man started asking us questions in Thai. Yep, he was already wasted, needed help opening another bottle, and wouldn't stop yammering even when we were eating. Thankfully, the karma police were keeping a lookout, as seated at the next table was an extremely helpful Thai man named Yan.

Yan spoke excellent English, wrote down a bunch of helpful Thai food phrases for us, and offered to meet up with us later in the evening, once we'd biked to our destination Chan Buri – which was located about 20km away. He gave us his business card to call him, and we figured we might as well since Chan Buri isn't exactly a tourist destination.
As luck would have it (well, when you're traveling you don't really want to concede it's luck, perhaps good fortune), his 1:30pm appointment was canceled, so perhaps 45 minutes later he drove back to the restaurant, where we were still relaxing in the shade, and offered us a ride onwards. With about 50km under our belts, and the afternoon sun still shining away recklessly, without much debate we loaded up his truck-bed with our bikes, and the truck-cab with our bodies. Despite the cramped conditions, the air-conditioning felt blessed, and the kilometers flew by in comparison to our usual pace. Without us really being aware Chon Buri flew right by (it was about 20km or so from where we had stopped for lunch), and soon we started seeing signs for Pattaya. It was there, about 80km later, on the outskirts of town at a petrol station, where we landed without much knowledge of our location.
Well, we certainly figured out quickly that we were in one of the sex capitols of Asia. Getting directions to the backpacker-friendly part of town (that means low prices, and perhaps equally low quality), we soon found ourselves on streets full of cat-calling and scantily-clad women, all at bars with cheap drink specials and flexible hours of operation. Our hotel, somewhat surprisingly, was rather upmarket for being only 400 Baht/night, especially since they let us pack three people in one room. They even changed our linens, and gave us new soap and shampoo – perhaps necessary given the usual clientele :-).
We spent one day relaxing on Pattaya's beach, which was, perhaps fittingly, a bit nasty. However, the sun felt great, Liz got a pedicure and a manicure beach-side for a mere 200 Baht, and our rented (30 Baht) beach-chairs provided good comfort for reading. As for the water itself, between the garbage, the glass, and the jellyfish (both dead and alive), we hardly spent anytime in it.
Being so Westernized, Pattaya had all sorts of chains, both restaurant and hotel. So Blaise got to eat some of his beloved Subway (could be the last time for a long while), and we got to see a scenic Holiday Inn looming over the skyline. On ground level the streets were full of bars, shops, and go-go bars.

“Comfort women” - if you will, were everywhere, and older white European men, rarely alone, were omnipresent. It was a strange environment, but we had fun with it, and all the workers (of all types) were friendly and polite to us, a few even recognizing us from our initial cycling about in search of lodging.
One night of partying late was plenty for us, though we could at least somewhat understand why most visitors stay for at least a month, so our second night ended around midnight so that we could start riding in the morning's cool. Things actually worked out well for us on our lengthy Saturday ride (Pattaya to Rayong = 70km and over four hours actually pedaling), as the sky overhead remained cloudy-yet-rainless the entire time. We kept a good pace, and the road (Hwy 3 primarily, which was still technically called Sukhumvit Road) was well-paved and flat, so the kilometers passed by. When we stopped for an early lunch, at 10:30am, we had already taken care of 50km. We ate at a fantastic place, owned by a Westerner and aimed at foreign tourists/golfers/businessmen, so the food was very well-prepared and yet the prices were wholly reasonable – most Thai dishes were 50 Baht, cheap considering that even out on the street they are thirty.
We took our time eating and drinking, and when the owner of the place recommended a non-touristy temple a turn up off the main road, we figured we'd check it out. Late last night this became Anderson's first collage project using Picasa, so hopefully it turned out to your liking!

We got to “relax” with blue Buddhas, and cute puppy dogs, too, before ascending a flight of steps through a bit of forest/jungle to get to the temple. We could see an enormous green Buddha towering on the hillside most of the way up – the hideous radio tower behind only became visible when we actually got to the temple. The entire temple was strange: everything seemed fake and cheesy, like leftovers from a Disneyland Buddha ride that never quite materialized. To add to the delirium, families were faithfully worshiping in our midst. What they thought of the herd of sweaty cyclists, in tight black shorts holding handkerchiefs, snapping photos and chugging water, we can only guess.
The final 20km or so went by quickly, though most of it was spent cruising though a series of adjacent towns, so we did take a pair of fast stops for more liquids. We got into Rayong just about dinner time, which means a little past 4pm, and after some city cycling and direction-asking, we found two great deals: 10 Baht/plate food at a corner store, and then the city's only real affordable hotel, the Star Apartments. Located in the shadow of the pricey Star Hotel, they were a bit dingy and ant-filled, but passable given the circumstances. Finding dinner was even a tad difficult, as our desire to actually sit down to eat turned a task into a chore. Blocks later we finally found a restaurant, only to have one of our meals forgotten (which has actually happened several times so far), but at least the eats were actually good.
We didn't realize internet was available at our hotel, else this would've been written/posted a few days ago, but so it goes. The night passed quickly enough, so quick we slept in a bit, so after we'd finished our rice breakfast, it was around 11am. But the 26km wasn't too big a deal at all, and after getting intentionally misled by a boat tout to an alternate pier, we found ourselves waiting for the public ferry. Cycling down the pier once the boat had arrived, we then had a bit of an ordeal getting our bikes actually on the roof of the boat. The only access point was a wooden plank walkway, so we had to take all the luggage off of our bikes, and then dangerously pass it over the open water while choppy seas swayed the boat every which way. Literary license aside, it was more intense than we'd expected – as was the actual ride, which really made Liz wish she'd taken some Dramamine.
We'd done some beach research about Ko Samet before arriving, so we were aiming for either the main Hat Sai Kaew (aka Diamond Beach), or Ao Hin Khok right next door. The former ended up being too upmarket for our needs, but the latter, after we'd finally found a way through the maze of shops near the beach, was just our style. Not too many people, good enough waves for body-surfing, and a nice white beach all awaited us, we just had to locate an affordable hotel. That proved difficult at first, as everyplace we checked out had prices double what we wanted to buy, but finally we found some dumpy bungalows for 300 Baht/room directly up the hill behind the beach. While not glamorous, Tok's Guesthouses are certainly functional, and with the fan blowing on us it actually feels quite cool in our rooms.
We arrived in the mid-afternoon, so we got several hours of immediate beach-time in. We also got numerous hours of dancing in that night at the Silver Sands Bar, where everyone drifts to for pounding dance music until 3am.

Monday was much more beach-time, sunning, swimming, and lots and lots of body-surfing. Plus plenty of eating, the food at our guesthouse is really quite amazing, and with a plethora of happy hour specials the drinks are also reasonably priced even if we weren't on an island.
We'll try again for internet usage on Tuesday - which as you can read has been successful, our attempt today (Monday) was met with “it's broken.” At least that's about as stressful as it gets here in paradise.

More blogging when there's news to blog about,

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Just a quick post to say that we have gotten our bikes (!), survived the 10km bike ride through the hectic city streets to our guesthouse, and that we will officially be departing Bangkok tomorrow morning. If all goes to plan we'll be leaving in about 7 hours - that's why this post is so short, it's definitely bedtime - and be riding approximately 80km or so to Chonburi, Thailand. We may stop earlier if we get tired or whatnot, but given that it is our first day we really want to get in a good days worth of riding.
We also got our bikes all pimped out today at Bike Zone: new saddles, water bottle holders, mirrors, bike bags, etc. Together we've spent almost $2000 just on our bikes and basic accessories (not counting panniers and such), but all money well-spent as far as we are concerned. Our bikes look nice, they rode great today, and we're very excited to get a move on!
Brian also departed for America today, we know he's having a wonderful time in the air right now in business class - in his new suit! We definitely had a great time with him in Bangkok & Chiang Mai, and are wishing him the best of luck in his upcoming job search!

It's officially bedtime

Monday, August 03, 2009

Picking up where we left off, Muay Thai ended up being quite interesting, and certainly authentic. We'll overlook the fact Liz passed out mid-evening, or that Anderson lost 50 baht gambling, since eight fights in a row is certainly a lot to endure without distractions arising :-). Many of the fighters were very young, there was one 30kg fight between literal boys, and plenty of other battles were in the 40-45kg range. The top fight, billed as Heavyweight, was between two 90kg warriors. However, all the fights were entertaining, and while foreigners outnumbered local fans, everyone was enthusiastic and, it seemed, at least somewhat intoxicated. Singha Beer was the official stadium sponsor, and Thai culture is certainly relaxed about drinking - like Korea it is literally available everywhere.

After the Muay Thai, Blaise and Anderson ended up wandering the streets for a while, which resulted in them witnessing a stopped tuk-tuk getting smashed into by a woman on a speeding motorbike. From about 10 feet away, it definitely was a bit of a shock, and ruined any chances of them getting a ride. Thankfully the woman appeared to be alright, although she probably wasn't going to be driving anywhere for a while...
Earlier in the day we'd wandered around, stopping at a few travel shops, looking to book a "Hill Tribe Tour." There are a plethora of options here in Chiang Mai, but we wanted a lot of bang for our buck, even if it meant being uber-touristic. The tour we wanted was a one-day trip, including two hill tribes (Karen & Hmong), plus a one-hour elephant ride and a one-hour bamboo raft ride. After some price shopping, we got it down to 600 Baht/person, with Mr. Whiskey Tours. So Saturday we awoke around 7:30, sleepily showering and downing breakfast in silence. After a short walk to the travel shop, and a water pickup (sorry, no whiskey) at 7-11 (they have the best deal, 1.5 liters for 12 Baht), we were ready to go when the minivan pulled up. Our guide was a man named Po, who not only spoke excellent English, but was very fun-loving and informative once we'd warmed up to each other. First on our busy agenda was our elephant ride, which is about the most awesome way to start a day. Elephants are spectacular, and even if you're riding around on an established track, with vendors along the way selling bags of bananas

and sugarcane (20 Baht), its still an incredible ride. Liz & Luke had the cutest driver, a boy of no more than 4 or 5, who nonetheless drove the elephant with sufficient skill. The elephants have become a bit

greedy - helps sell more fruit - but how can you refuse a trunk curling up needfully in your face? With plenty of photos taken, our next stop was our the Karen village, which was empty except for pigs, chickens, a spicy chili pepper plant, and one woman selling beautiful traditional woven handicrafts. We might have bought a few, its true...

From there we did a bit of jungle walking, it was impossible to call 30 minutes on a wide path 'trekking,' but we ended up at a very nice waterfall, where we got to go swimming for a while. The water felt great in contrast to the hot, humid air, so even our guide took a dip. The swimming hole was located right at the waterfall's base, so when we would jump in the current would immediately push us downstream - not much swimming was actually required.
Our next village stop, the Hmong people, was even more touristed-out, as all we saw was a row of houses next to a row of handicrafts for sale. Thankfully lunch was next, as our stomach's were in need of sustenance. The food was actually quite delicious, always a concern on any type of package tour, but we got a decent Massaman curry, plenty of fresh veggies with fried rice, and a variety of cold beverages were available as well. The grand finale was bamboo-rafting, which ended up being pretty awesome as the river we were on at least had some semblance of rapids, and the raft drivers were more than willing to make it a good time, engaging in water and fruit fights. Yep, we were picking up fruit from the river and throwing it at each other!
Saturday night we split up, LLC going out earlier, while ABB relaxed for a while before journeying out to find food and beers around midnight. LLC perhaps lucked out, getting to watch a real elephant dance around outside the bars, keeping beat surprising well, and making some new friends who gave them a motorbike ride to Spicy, one of the biggest clubs in town for late-night dancing. ABB ended up eating tasty fried mystery meat and an equally mysterious-but-tasty fruit and vegetable dish. At least the Beer Changs were without a veil of secrecy!
Sunday we had a different animal experience, as we all piled into a songthaew in the later afternoon to go to Tiger Kingdom. Basically its a place where you pay money to be able to touch real tigers - there's a perhaps more famous Tiger Temple outside of Bangkok, however this place, only 15 minutes (versus 3 hours) away, was much more convenient, and actually turned out to be less expensive, too. Liz and Brian chose the 520 Baht "Smallest" option, while the rest of us picked "Medium" for 200 fewer Baht. So that's $10 or $16 to spend 15 minutes with real, live tigers. Yeah, we know - it was a great deal. We got to pet and pose away, the tigers were definitely awake and not drugged, they were just relaxing as the heat of the day ended. Frankly, if the tiger's were any more excited, it might have been a bit scary. Looking into their eyes (briefly), we knew they were happy yet still wild. After our time was up, we then got to watch an employee play with a group of five juvenile tigers, who were more than happy to chase after a toy on a stick, wrestling with each other the whole time. They'd jump into a big pool of water, pull on each other's necks and tails, and do a multitude of other cute things. Getting to watch tigers at play from so close (10 feet, just separated by a chain-link fence) was arguably cooler than actually touching the tigers - a cat feels like a cat no matter how big it is.

Last night was then spent wandering about, and we ended up having a chance midnight meet-up (of our different wandering groups) at a fried insect stand outside the local gay bars. The infamous ABB combo was bold enough to try grasshoppers and frogs, with Blaise even downing a cricket. They were all without doubt nasty, however the fact that enormous roaches and other 'tree bugs' were also available meant we were actually being pretty tame. It's not like we're on 'Man Vs. Wild' or anything over here - our lunch today at Subway (daily special 6" sandwich = 59 Baht) was very satisfying! The gay bars were understandably lowkey on a Sunday night, though the pulsating electronic dance music and the lady-boy bartender made for quite the atmosphere. We were surprised to hear some of our own favorite songs, 'Dhoom Utchali' from India, as well as 'Tell Me' & 'Nobody' from Korea, blasting on the stereo - though the bar-staff swore they were Thai in origin. A song's still a song even if the name's wrong...
Today's been a day of relaxation, though Luke & Christine are currently at the Chiang Mai zoo, and we remaining boys made a ticket run to the train station, but we've mostly been reading, writing, and packing for our 9pm overnight train back to Bangkok. Unfortunately sleeper class wasn't available this time around, so we're just going to have to stay up most of the night - good thing we're oh so flexible! Tuesday will be spent doing final biking preparation, and then Brian will fly out Wednesday afternoon, so hopefully we can get a decent night of sleep Wednesday before our planned departure early Thursday morning. We want to leave early to beat both the heat and the traffic, almost half of our first day will be escaping metro-Bangkok - wish us luck on that, please!
For a different perspective on our travels, make sure to check out Blaise's blog: Keep On Keepin' On. It's been added to our link list for easy accessibility, just make sure to be ready to laugh while you read, since his writing is definitely quite hilarious!
There is also a new Holiday Fu article up, called 24 Hours in Bangkok, while a Chiang Mai/Muay Thai piece is also in production. To give fair warning, these articles are definitely much more gritty and 'real' than this blog, if you want to keep viewing our adventures through Disney-glasses, then you should probably stick to the blog only :-).

Peace A&E&posse