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

Entering the Kingdom of Cambodia

Cambodia: Land of friendly people, two seasons (hot, hot/wet), fried insects, Angkor Wat, and, unfortunately, the some of the worst recent history in the world. I can mention all that off the top of my head now because we've been here for almost two weeks already, but I'll save some of the details for a future post in the interest of keeping this somewhat chronological.

We arrived by bus on November 22 to the unscrupulous, scam-trap border town of Poipet and, despite getting through the visa and border crossing process hassle free, were harangued into the hands of "government tourist agents" (there's no government tourist office in Cambodia) from the minute we crossed out of Thailand all the way to Siem Reap. That's not to say we got scammed - after all, we arrived having paid no more than we should have for any part of it - but they did do their best to get us to eat and stay with their sponsored guesthouses and restaurants. Having read up on it beforehand, we departed their services and headed straight for our pre-booked guesthouse by moto tuk-tuk in the warm darkness.

I'd be lying if I said that it wasn't a bit of a rough start in Cambodia, but for every experience like that that we've had on this trip, there have been far more endearing points and Siem Reap (and Cambodia as a whole) have been no different.

Siem Reap is home to Angkor Wat. Technically, the ancient temples are a few kilometers outside of town, but the city clearly exists to serve the temples' draw - in the past probably locally, now via tourism. The main center of town revolves around several square blocks of restaurant, markets (day and night), pubs, food carts and guesthouses. We perused the market stalls, tried the local specialty: fish amok, shared some good (and funny) conversations and food* with the ever friendly and helpful crew running our guesthouse, chased down the street vendor selling delicious grilled rice cakes stuffed with some sort of greens, and of course, explored the ruins for the better part of three days.

It's true, what you read, about their grandiose scale. Temple after temple, monument after monument...all spread over kilometer after kilometer, most of them are in the 1000 year old range and were built to both impress and to honor by several generations of kings. The massive and dense sandstone architecture with all of the bas-reliefs and ornamental carvings serves as an impressive reminder of the capabilities of these ancient societies.

Below is nature taking over some of the ruins at Ta Prohm (a highlight for us and probably most, given the added natural beauty of the trees taking hold), some of the carvings on one of the long hall walls at Angkor Wat, and a crumbling, straight-out-of-ancient-Greece former library at Preah Khan.

I say we spent the better part of three days at the temples because, while we had a three day pass, our sunrise bike ride to Angkor Wat on day three ended early thanks to my not feeling so well. We did manage, however, to power through to the top of the world's largest religious structure, Angkor Wat, before calling it a day. I'd post a nice picture of that here, but since I already used that one up top, I'll instead show a self portrait of us trying to sum up the feeling of clambering around ancient ruins with a mass of other tourists while feeling...well, crappy.

It started out nothing too serious, mind you...just a little queasiness and a fever. The next day, however, the fever had climbed to 103° and Casey decided it was time for me to visit a doctor. Cue a moto tuk-tuk to the quietest (and really quite nice) facilities at the mind-easingly named Royal Angkor International Hospital where, an hour later, a couple of tests revealed it all to be nothing more than that medieval favorite: amoebic dysentery. To be honest, my developed-world brain didn't realize that still existed, but three, antibiotic filled days later I was back on track and we were on our way to Phnom Penh. In our back pockets (but at the front of our minds) was one more real life experience proving to us both that while not every place will (or can) be our favorite and some might be downright difficult, there's something of value everywhere we've been - it just takes a little extra patience sometimes.


* In one particularly worthwhile moment, Ti, the manager at our guesthouse, invited Casey to share in some of the grilled fish dinner he and one of the employees were having for dinner. It proved a welcome break in the tourism veneer and a valuable bonding moment in a place where people like us seem to come and go so quickly that nobody tries too hard to bond. This kind of grounding experience, in absence, has provided some of the hardest moments of our trip, so in places we know nobody (read: Cambodia), they are doubly appreciated.

Location:Phnom Penh, Cambodia

BKK, In the Details

It's not saying much, I know. But take a gander at that leg room above! Plus, a bottle of water and a snack (bun) provided by our neon pink polyester clad hostess. Why doesn't Greyhound get this memo? Minus the polyester, of course. Additionally, the rest of the lavender tinged bus looked not unlike Sparta Lanes a la 1980s fabulousness. This also brought Eli some happy kneecaps, as they did not suffer from cramming themselves against the built-in plastic desk in front of him. This equals major bus success.

All of this magic happened on our eight hour bus ride from Chiang Mai to Bangkok. Until about twelve hours prior to this trip, we were thinking that our general trajectory would be through Northern Laos, to Vietnam and down through Cambodia to Bangkok after the New Year. In conversation about plans, or lack thereof, something clicked with reversing that idea. Thus, we hopped on a an air-conditioned (read: hella-fancy-to-us-post-Nepal) bus and it heralded us to the Mo Chit bus station in Bangkok. Right before our late night arrival, we - well, mostly Eli given that I had zonked out, witnessed some of the major damage from the floods.

People had established makeshift huts between cars on the freeway and the Don Muang airport area was full of water up to the brim of the same type of trucks that had been bringing us from one point to the next in Chiang Mai. It was all quite surreal - especially considering the difference between flooded and not-flooded that we witnessed firsthand, once in the city itself. In hindsight, as I write this, we had quite an easygoing visit to Bangkok, despite the tragic flooding so nearby in the farming areas. In fact, it is representative of the country on the whole, as we have thus far experienced it. The flood itself is a distinct, physical expression of the divide between different classes. For this, we feel conflicted, but simultaneously cannot deny the time we did spend.

The tile work above was reminiscent of our time in Istanbul, but surrounded by excessive opulence (to an almost stifling degree) at the Grand Palace in Bangkok. We decided to have one touristy day in the ever sprawling city by visiting the palace and Wat Pho all in one afternoon. The palace was bustling but still managed to be somewhat serene in certain nooks. Each building, and there are many, was decadently and meticulously covered in either gold, mother of pearl inlay, mosaic, intricate carvings, paintings of an epic story or some combination thereof. Our favorite parts were inspecting the inlay on the doors (we are still unsure how people had the patience to create this) and searching for the 'secret' story asides hidden within the long paintings. There are battles and Wat visits and the like, but also a smoking monkey and risky business in the shrubs next to the palace to be found. History should always be this entertaining.

Wat Pho is the home of an enormous reclining buddha statue, which also receives many visitors but exudes a calm presence, as one might expect of a large golden Buddha. It is difficult to convey the sheer size in images due to the somewhat cramped quarters, but the statue was more impressive than expected. The soles of it's feet are covered in inlay illustrating 108 auspicious renditions of the Buddha, and it is covered completely in gold.. What struck us was the sound in the hall directly behind the statue, where a line of people dropped single coins into dozens of small metal bowls all in a row. That sound combined with the echoing, almost ghostly voices from the other areas of the building was meditative almost. Listen here.

In addition to many good meals shared with Sharon, my cousin and fearless host in Bangkok, we went to a famous restaurant that educates on family planning and their own organization's focus on community development. Added bonuses to this is that it is all done in good fun and the food is actually tasty! Cabbages and Condoms (you heard me) topped off our tourist activities with good style - anyone up for wearing this dress? It probably isn't too comfortable, but it is definitely safe.

A few suggestions for what not to do in Bangkok include going to Khao San Road - the standard hotspot with backpackers is really just a dingy row of overpriced restaurants, stalls of trinkets and nothing much more, going IN to one of the places on Cowboy Soi, or is it Soi Cowboy? - the red light district lite of Bangkok, where ladyboys beckon you in with promises not to check your ID, free drinks and the like (you will also be sharing the premises with a heap of older, white men who give you the willies), or trying to use a crosswalk - because, like in the rest of Thailand, it won't do you much good. One just needs to develop extra eyes and walk intently while attempting to ignore the close calls. Do, however, test out Lao-Lao: an herb infused, honey sweetened moonshine offered on the street in shots, accompanied by a little fruit chaser. Perhaps choose the one for strength, like we did, over the UP all night version (aimed, perhaps, at the creepy men above). I have to personally thank Sharon's awesome friend Ji for her expertise on this one!

We will be returning to this metropolis in January sometime, so you may hear some more about it soon enough. In the meantime, we are looking forward to going back to the place with the most amazing foot massages for $3 and the stalls across the street from Sharon's place for some of the best Thai iced tea yet. A little indulgent, yes, but in a city as dense, huge and overwhelming as Bangkok, it's the little things on the side streets that are, so far, the most memorable.

Location:Bangkok, Thailand

Slow Merge

"Travel is the best way we have of rescuing the humanity of places, and saving them from abstraction and ideology."

This quote from an essay by Pico Iyer not only resonates with our motivations for this adventure if ours, it is in some ways a mantra - reminding us of the point of it all, the need to slow down when the urge is there, and go slower still in order to really absorb the places we are. I also think it is a way to look at oneself within that travel and slowness - a post-it note on your forehead to shed that notion you may have of yourself and make it a priority to just be that person. Making the choice to put things in neutral for a few weeks here in Chiang Mai has been an effort to ensure our health, hone our vision for our time in Southeast Asia, and digest the transition into this new place.

Arriving in Bangkok a few Tuesdays back, we eased into the city via a fuchsia taxi and dry highway roads. My father's cousin, Sharon, lives and teaches in the city, so we were welcomed in style with coffee, a big and comfortable bed, and crisp air conditioning - never mind wonderful conversation and a friendly face. We had spent a relatively painless seven hour layover in the Delhi Airport (which is not unlike an upscale mall after it's makeover) the night before and flown on a red eye to Bangkok. That day we managed to venture out just twice - once for a light lunch at the food court near the giant Tesco Lotus and once for dinner with Sharon. The first meal tested our math and pantomime skills, and we purchased some delicious and not at all mysterious noodle soups successfully. The second brought us through the dark streets and busy sky train in a total downpour to, of all things, a Mexican meal. Either way I'm glad for both, considering our unplanned and rapid departure to evade the impending floods the next day. We consider ourselves lucky to be able to make such a choice. See some photographic coverage of the current situation here. Bangkok, to me, remains a mere fleeting image of transportation, staggered apartment buildings and the general view en route from the airport. Perhaps the future will bring it into a clearer light.

A twelve hour bus ride took us out and around the usual route north; we rolled into Chiang Mai around 2:30am and pretty much fell right into our hotel beds. Something we both observed on the way, fresh, as we were, from Nepal, was how the bus ride felt downright glamorous, with air-conditioning and videos, and the road was smooth the entire way. Shocking.

This former capital of the Kingdom of Lanna has the Ping River flowing through part of the city. The Old Town square area is surrounded by a moat and several old brick gates sit quietly in the background at crossings. There is a Wat around every corner, so we should have a chance to brush up on our Buddhism some more. Though they look so similar, they are all mysteriously beautiful individually. The Burmese one is most interesting to us in it's simplicity - the teak wood, minimal gold, and traditional elements almost lost amongst the city buildings around it. In complete contrast, here is the sacred Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep, which resides high on a hill overlooking the city:

Chiang Mai almost instantly invokes a relaxed holiday mentality - so many businesses are focused on massage and spa services, cafes are everywhere and strolling the markets is a regular day or night activity. Given the circumstances, it is a very easy place to rest our feet and regroup our heads for a few weeks. To be honest, we were wooed by Nepal and our minds were still wandering back there in daydream and reference for days after arriving here. What we want is to give ourselves and our bodies time to pay complete attention to the present moment and place. To do this, we will step back some...and then take a few extra steps, just to be sure we are truly looking at everything in front of us.

Taking stock of our writing and communication, our big ideas for the future, our constant lists of craft and design thoughts, our lifestyle values - all of this is important. But it is also important for us to be right here in one place, turning it over with our eyes and letting its language tangle our tongues. The smaller moments spent dueling for the sidewalk on the street corners, ordering a mystery snack that is so-so, going on a failed visit to the university art center, traversing to the pharmacy for pro-biotics and just sitting around reading a book - these regular life activities are strangely grounding and comforting. Necessary, even, as without them we wouldn't be our human selves and therefore unable to candidly, curiously, or genuinely approach new places and people.

Location:Ratvithi Rd, Mueang Chiang Mai, Thailand