Highlights: Cambodia

Siem Reap Angkor Wat: It'd be hard/ridiculous not to include this as it really is fantastic. While Angkor Wat was spectacular, and well worth a pre-dawn bike ride, our favorites were some of the smaller, older and less peopled ruins. With our three day ticket, we decided to navigate as close to chronological order as possible and that seemed to pay off in regard to the architecture and grandiosity.

Nom Gua Chay: This is probably spelled completely incorrectly, but it's more about the experience than the food itself right now. We saw the guy with his wood fired food cart after lunch one day and made a mental note to get back to try them. It was four days of searching before he reappeared and we got to sample the little round rice patties with a chopped scallions and greens filling, bathed in garlic fish sauce with a dollop of chili paste on top. Delicious.*

Walkability: The core of Siem Reap is pretty walkable which makes it that much more fun to explore bit by bit, without the feeling of being stranded in one area.

1961: A good marker of some of the developments and changes that are taking place in Siem Reap. Part gallery, part shop, part cafe, part education space, part hotel - all of it executed with individuality and a keen, hip aesthetic. An interesting contrast for us was its location along the river next to one of the most local (read: not affluent, not touristy) areas of Siem Reap we found. Interesting to the point of confusing. Our hope is that there is conversation and crossover between these two worlds, as the potential is certainly there.

Smateria: Another of the development changes, and one of a few locally made options in the recycled product category (bags, wallets, etc). While many of the recycled products on offer are made from the cement and rice bags, Smateria devised ways to reuse mosquito nets and crochet minutely thin plastic bags.

Shared dinner at Angkor Thom: Casey got invited (Eli was still a bit knackered with dysentery) to partake in dinner with the family that runs our guesthouse, Angkor Thom. Thi had small fried fish with a salted chili sauce which was an excellent grounds for one of the few really personal interactions we were able to find in a town so otherwise built around tourism.

The sparkling facilities at the hospital: In addition to the facilities being on par with (or better than? At least to our laypeople eyes...) any we've been to at home, the doctor at the Royal Angkor International Hospital ran some tests and in the most calming and clear way, delivered the results within the hour. Far from our worst nightmares of a hospital visit in a strange foreign land.

Phnom Penh Tat Guesthouse: It wasn't so much the actual room at this small, family-run space as it was certainly not near the nicest we have stayed. However, the willingness to help us out with mini Khmer lessons, introducing us to the beauty of jackfruit, and generally making us a wee (albeit fleeting) part of the crew for our six days with them. The young men and women essentially running the ship slept in the corner of the main roofgarden or above the kitchen, between the metal roof and raw framed ceiling...and everyday they were awake before us, asleep after us, and truly smiling or goofing around in the middle of it all.

Russian Market: Somehow we managed to explore this market twice without running into the souvenir section. It is three stories, all rabbit warren pathways and endless goods from glittering fabrics to shrimp paste to cell phones to fishing nets. A claustrophobic and beautiful maze to wind around for a few hours, we skipped almost all of the many photographic and audio recording rich moments in favor of just being there.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum: Not something that is in any way a true highlight, we list our visit here because it is necessary. Something about the simplicity of displaying the photographs of each prisoner kept here during the Khmer Rouge rule of the late 70s is most striking. The space itself is in disrepair and not exceptionally informative, yet it remains incredibly moving. The sheer weight of the realization that the entire city of Phnom Penh was emptied, this school cruelly transformed and such detailed documentation maintained by the Khmer Rouge is crushing...and worth the time.

Romdeng: This restaurant is one of various projects by the Friends International group aimed at helping street kids make choices and obtain skills that lead to a more fulfilling and sustainable life. It was here that our epic tarantula chomping experience occurred and there was no better place for it. It stands boldly as a moment where we really pushed our comfort levels out of the way and jumped in, gastronomically speaking. Though it wasn't a dish we will make for anyone upon return, we are more than glad to have it in our back pockets.

Knowing there is more to explore and more to return to: Though not a thriving metropolis, there is a lot going on in Phnom Penh. While we were there we managed to catch parts of a city-wide documentary photography exhibit and a film at Meta House, and read about a boatload of other things we would be missing out on. Leaving a place with loose ends can be exciting - it teases you to return and explore anew, and we look forward to that happening some day.

Ban Lung The tall woman at the market: We were directed to this market stand by a few girls working in a nearby village as teachers - they described a tall Cambodian woman who (gasp!) sometimes bared her shoulders. This is how we found her - smiling and incredibly helpful through the language barrier, she is hopefully an inspiration to other vendors. The iced coffee* we sipped was liquid mocha, minus the fancy price tag. Additionally, her morning phó left Casey's belly happier than any other meal in the country. Go figure.

Walking around the lake: Nothing particularly stunning, just a simplified peek at the life that goes on just outside the town center ... Accompanied by the quiet that comes when the motos are not revving around you.

Riding on the back of a moto with less traffic around: Speaking of motos. Our favorite rides yet brought us to waterfalls and a lake down bumpy, red dirt roads at a quickened (heart and rpm) pace. High fiving the beaming kiddies on the back of the water truck while riding by brought the ride to the next level.

Tree Top: The view from this guesthouse/restaurant deck brought on daydreaming and allowed us to get a glimpse at the back of a few homes sitting on the opposite ridge. Cashew nut trees surround the perimeter and a small gorge bursts with green everywhere. We didn't sleep here, but were lucky to have several mornings to chat with the owners, watch a hawk circle and cry, and see Ban Lung from a different perspective.

Having seats on the bus: A simple pleasure. Since we boarded first thing in the morning, our seats were just that - true bus seats, and two to boot. Others who boarded along the way were not so lucky, as more than six precariously balanced in the center aisle in mini plastic chairs for the ten hour trip.


* For those interested, we're keeping notes for a Southest Asia Food Porn post to add in all the loose (but tasty/weird/amazing/crazy) ends.

Location:Thái Phiên, Hội An, Vietnam

One Lung, Two Lung, Red Lung, Ban Lung

As I sit writing this, day three of our time in Vietnam, my pack and shoes next to me remain caked in the red clay dust that dominates Ratankiri Province - the northeastern most province of Cambodia - and its capital, Ban Lung. We spent the last week of our time in the country slowly but surely exploring this rural outpost, population 25,000. It might have originally been a little oversight on our part to allot seven full days to a town with so little going on besides a days worth of waterfalls or longer treks. We quickly learned a good lesson, however, about the variation in size and scope of exploration that made our time in Ban Lung no less meaningful than the time we spent in Siem Reap or Phnom Penh.

So how did we spend that time? Apart from our one requisite day of checking out the three beautiful waterfalls and volcanic crater lake (Great for an afternoon cool down swim! Strange for us northerners to say that in the middle of December!) in the area via moto rides on the bone rattling backroads, it was all about the mini explorations. The little day to day things like walking around the lake on the north side of town past the merry go round with the strange almost horse-like creatures for seats. Or working our way through the market fully three times before finding the noodle soup and iced coffee lady we'd heard about from some other travelers. (A side note on the coffee: this was a magnificent hint of the chocolatey wonder we've since found in the Vietnamese iced coffee specialty, complete with a melt-your-teeth-off layer of sweetened condensed milk on the bottom.) Or discovering the joys of fresh pressed roadside sugarcane juice (with half a lime added in for good measure), which isn't nearly as sweet as I expected it to be, ending up much more like lemonade. We also go to know this guy:

He or she (we didn't get around to checking) was the 8-9" long primary resident in our bathroom along with a possible mate and a couple of smaller cohorts.

Since most visitors don't seem to spend more than a couple days in Ban Lung, we were several times mistaken for long term workers. By way of meeting a couple girls from Norway and Sweden, we learned that what that means for the most part is people coming to work in the schools or hospitals that work with the local hill tribe minorities. Their five day work weeks in the even more rural jungle areas are topped off with weekends in the city and all the creature comforts that has to offer. We met them at a small bakery with some truly excellent banana bread cake. The rest of the economy of the area seems largely focused on either the market or tourist services to visit the aforementioned waterfalls, lakes, and treks to visit the hill tribes.

With a quiet week of Ban Lung in our minds and all of its red dirt fully inundating our every pore, we boarded a wonderfully spacious minibus for the seventy mile trip to the border of Vietnam. After a quick bag search and the shortest line of all of our customs experiences (number in line: zero), a second minibus was waiting to take us the rest of the way on to Pleiku - a larger but largely un-touristed city in the Vietnamese central highlands. I'm a sucker for some topographical variation and the emerging hills and valleys on our way out of Cambodia and into Vietnam perfectly whetted our appetites for the weeks ahead.

Location:An Dương Vương, Qui Nhơn, Vietnam