Reflections on Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia is a special place for us.  We lived in Singapore from 1995-1998 and traveled extensively for work throughout the region. The return to Southeast Asia was about many things including visiting the places we missed such as Cambodia, Vietnam, etc.  Here are some observations over the last couple of months:

  1. People are nice and caring- not just to foreign tourists wielding dollars to spend but to each other.  It is the Buddhist way.IMG_2173
  2. Pajamas are worn all day by women of all ages.  PJs are the new leisure suit.
  3. There are no rules of the road. Traffic goes in many different directions no matter the size of the street.  Scooters ride on sidewalks, and the horn is a useful tool.
  4. Dogs are friendly ( or at least that is what everyone will tell you).
  5. Laundry service is abundant and same day service at that.  Pick up and delivery laundry service should be more prevalent in the US.  It is a wonderful thing.Laundry_Bangkok
  6. Fragapani trees with their beautiful, sweet smelling flowers seem to be everywhere emitting a lovely perfume in the air.
  7. There are 1500 different types of bamboo, 150 in Thailand.
  8. Chanted dharma’s can be heard at the temples no matter the day or time.
  9. Chinese tourists are more important to the economies than US tourists.IMG_0777
  10. Healthcare in Thailand is as good as it is in the States ( and maybe better), but far less expensive.
  11. All Thai people are happy, really.  We only met one grumpy Thai person, our bus driver to Pai, but he was a great driver handling all 762 curves.
  12. Older people are respected here as they should be.  Be sure to give up your seat to older persons around you, assist with luggage they are carrying, give them a hand.
  13. The word “no” does not existing in Asian languages.
  14. Wifi is everywhere. Every restaurant has it and even gas stations. This is both great and awful.
  15. Public transportation is abundant whether it is tuk tuks, mini vans, buses, trains, or taxis.IMG_2124
  16. Bathrooms at gas stations are cleaner and have toilet paper.
  17. Scooters can accommodate up to 5 people and are used to transport just about anything-a TV, a desk, painting, block of ice.  No problem, la.IMG_0252IMG_0804IMG_1070 3IMG_0807
  18. Bikes are as useful.IMG_1610
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  20. So are boats.  Rivers and water transport are key to the economy as well as daily living.IMG_1751 IMG_1208
  21. Soft rock is here to stay.
  22. 7-Eleven owns the convenience store market in Thailand and their brand/copyright is heavily infringed upon in Cambodia.
  23. Ford and Toyota trucks are popular.CMAC Truck Cambodia
  24. So are energy drinks and Tiger Balm.
  25. And for whatever reason, the Michelin man is everywhere.
  26. Clothes are cheap – both in price and quality.
  27. Vietnam is truly a rising dragon.IMG_1347
  28. Sex tourism is BIG here.
  29. Farm to table and sustainable farming really means something in Southeast Asia.  Nothing is wasted, and the food is outstanding.
  30. Pho is a good idea for breakfast, lunch and dinner. It was our preferred breakfast while here.
  31. Eggplants are tiny, and carrots are huge.
  32. Pumpkin is quite popular for soups and curries.
  33. Fruit is fresh and tasty here -super sweet mangos and watermelon, green papaya (for salads), and 12 different types of bananas.
  34. There are a lot of westerners living in Thailand enjoying life. 20,000 expats in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
  35. Coffee in Vietnam is outstanding and much better than any coffee in the States.IMG_1570IMG_1276  IMG_2098 IMG_1435
  36. We love Khao Soi, Banh Xeo, Banh Mi, Pho, and Northern Thailand sausage.
  37. It is too hot for wine, and one often regrets ice in a few hours so it is beer or whiskey neat for happy hours.
  38. Do not wait for the check at the end of a meal to be immediately delivered following the last course. A dinner out is something to be enjoyed at leisure and not turned for the next folks in line. Take as much time as you would like.
  39. Checkpoints seem to be the new norm.  We went through several in Cambodia and a few in northern Thailand.IMG_1430
  40. We both hope it is not another 20 + plus years before we return back to Southeast Asia. Happy Holidays and Cheers.

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Rent Collector – Another Read on Cambodia

Rent CollectorAnother great read to help understand the complex culture and history of Cambodia.  This is a fictional story but based in an actual municipal dump in Phnom Penh and inspired by real people. Similar to a lot of contemporary literature set in Cambodia, the civil war has a central focus in the story. A quick and engaging story with an interesting ending. A young family struggles to survive under horrible conditions and deal with their sick child while the older rent collector struggles for redemption and pains of the past. It is a classic story of human struggle and perseverance.   Many references were included to Western and Eastern literary.  (I love books that help build a reading list.) Interesting that the author was inspired by his son’s documentary of the dump. Look forward to viewing the documentary eventually. Check it out.

Hun Sen’s Cambodia

After reading In the Shadow of the Banyan, I craved more information about the 5110qGlRi1L__SX321_BO1,204,203,200_history of Cambodia and wanted to try to understand why Cambodia appears to be still struggling especially as compared with its neighbors – Thailand and Vietnam.  Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s Prime Minister, visited Cambodia in 1960’s and was very impressed, declaring that he had ambitions to make Singapore like Cambodia. Yet, here it is 2015, and Cambodia still feels like it is recovering from its civil war.  So I read Hun Sen’s Cambodia and would recommend this book to get a different perspective.

Cambodia is a country still haunted by its complex past.  Hun Sen, the Prime Minister, has been in power for about 30 years since about 1985.  He was a member of the Khmer Rouge, the organization behind the genocide.  This is one of the many things we struggled to understand when we were in Cambodia.  Members of the Khmer Rouge have been re-integrated back into regular life and only a few are still awaiting trial some 30 plus years after the fall of their reign.  However, Hun Sen and the UN can be credited with restoring peace in the country and injecting large amounts of capital for building and growth. but the country still lacks some basic infrastructure- schools, roads, health care. Public land and building, such as schools, have been allegedly sold off to foreign interests. The drive from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh took our guide over 8 hours because it is a “bumpy road”.  It is a mere 196 miles and should only take about 3 hours or less but lacks a proper highway (note: this is the connection between the countries’s capital and their largest tourist destination).  Despite investment from China, Vietnam, the US, etc., the money remains in the hands of the few.

The next election is to be held in 2018.  There are few real sources opposition.  However, things may be changing.  We had a chance to talk with some young Cambodian’s.  Today, Cambodia’s population is growing.  It is now about 15 million as compared with roughly 8 million during the reign of the Khmer Rouge.  Kids were constantly running up to us, no matter where we were in the Phnom Penh or in the countryside out in Pailin, saying hello.  Sixty-five percent of the population is below 30 years of age.  The younger generation may not be haunted by the past and may be willing to demand some change.  Facebook is pervasive among the young and they feel empowered by it.  We will be watching the next election in 2018 very closely.

At the end of the reading Hun Sen’s Cambodia, I am still wanting more information on the rich history and culture of Cambodia; however, the book provided an interesting perspective and some additional facts.  That said, I will need to put a hold on some additional reads related to Cambodia.  We are moving on to Vietnam, and my reading is moving on as well.  Next up on the book list is a Perfect Spy.

Goodbye Cambodia, Hello Vietnam!

Chanted dharmas lingering in the air as we cycled past temples in every village. City and province homes with their spirit houses erected in their front lawns welcoming ancestors.   The gifts of food and burning incense left at the feet of statues of Buddha. The graciousness of the Cambodian people. These are just some of the things that we loved about cycling through Cambodia.  It is fascinating place with a complex history and a culture deeply rooted in Buddhism.

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Cambodian people were consistently so gracious and generous no matter where we were. They opened their homes when we stopped for water breaks or offered a chair to sit on the side of the road.  Cycling has been a great way to see the back roads, villages and smaller towns  of Cambodia as well as experience as much of the culture as one can in two weeks. Our last few stops in Cambodia prior to crossing the Cambodia/ Vietnam border were Kampot, Kep, Rabbit Island and Takeo.

The bike ride from Sihanoukville to Kampot was about 110 km on an extremely hot day.   Due to Delhi belly, I only cycled about 50 km.  Thank goodness for antibiotics and the sag wagon.  This also presented a great opportunity to have really interesting discussion with one of the guides about politics in Cambodia. Many here are looking forward to the election in 2018.  We both hope it will be peaceful.  Chris, on the other hand, rode the whole metric century on an extremely hot day.

Kampot is a small town close to the Gulf of Thailand that is known for the pepper farms.

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Kampot is also strategically located (about 25 km) near a gorgeous, little beach town (unlike Sihanoukville) called Kep known for its pepper crab and proximity to Rabbit Island. So after a short ride one day, we took a boat to the island for an afternoon of crab, beer, and hammocks. If you ever find yourself in Cambodia – avoid Sihanoukville and head to Kep and Rabbit island.

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After Kampot, Kep and Rabbit Island, we cycled another 80 km to Takeo which is a sleepy border town.  It was incredibly quiet – very unusual for most cities that we have visited. The town’s infamous past includes the residence of  Ta Mok.  Ta Mok, otherwise known as The Butcher, built a large home essentially with a moat around it.  He was the Khmer Rouge Commander of the Southwestern Zone.  He was not captured until 1999 and died in prison awaiting trial.  His palatial estate was turned into a university.

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After spending a night in Takeo, we cycled 50 km to the Vietnam border and then another 27 km in Vietnam to Chao Doc.  The border was mostly straightforward as we got our visas (30 days for $65) back in Phnom Penh.  We only had to pay extra to one official, but at $1 USD per head, we were not too worried about it.  While there is much to love about Cambodia, we were both excited to move on to another country.  The increased infrastructure in Vietnam was immediately apparent traffic lights, curbs, paved roads, irrigation system, pedestrian walkways and lights.

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Cambodia’s National Parks and a Beach Town on the Gulf of Thailand

We have been staying in the beach town of Sihanoukville, Cambodia for the last couple days. We had high expectations for Sihanoukville as it is named after of one of Cambodia’s most revered Kings and built on a white, sandy beach.  However, it is anything but a white, sandy beach town.  The Serendipity beach, one of the largest beaches, is loaded with trash, shops pedaling a variety of kitschy items,  backpackers who like the $7 guest rooms and more creepy, western men.  The Chinese are here in large numbers. They have built the highways, opened a national park, and developed many casinos and hotels.  It is a bit run down, but there is certainly a lot of energy here.

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(Note: the pictures above don’t accurately represent the chaotic vibe of this city)

Last night, we had dinner on the beach (we had french fries! – first western food in 20 days). Weather is beautiful in the evenings with a cool 80 degree ocean breeze.  The beach scene was chaotic with diners, swimmers, hawkers selling everything and drinkers shouting “chul muy”.  Older women weaved through the crowd balancing a bamboo pole on their shoulders with buckets of fresh crab on one end and red hot coals on the other end, ready for those in need of a BBQ. Chairs and tables were arranged on any free spot of sand and stretched out for at least a kilometer (they were all filled). Thumping music from the shops competed with the tunes of the neighboring restaurants. People were buying fireworks and paper hot air balloons by the dozens and immediately igniting them and illuminating the beach. Of course, this was all happening just a few meters where a fire ripped through restaurants, bars, and guesthouses just 2 years ago.

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It has been quite a departure from the last two days of biking through two Cambodian National Parks. The parks are wonderful as they are mostly without traffic and people -truly an anomaly for our riding over the last few weeks where scores of scooter drivers seem to find even the most remote paths and byways. Although, unlike many parks around the world, people still live within their borders.  The parks are cleaner than most other locations (except Angkor), but there is still a very significant different perspective on trash over here than in the West.  Trash, unfortunately, is everywhere.  We rode most dirt roads thru the National Parks with a 2000m climb over 16k – a bit punishing with the relentless heat.  We were averaging 3 water bottles an hour yesterday.  The first National Park we visited was Kirirom National Park.

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The second park we visited, Ream National Park, was developed by the Chinese. A highway from the US, mine clearing by the Japanese, a park and road from the Chinese; Cambodia is aided by many and has been for some time.  For example, the UN has here in the early 90’s and invested billions.

The park has a modern, paved and deserted approach road yielding to a well-graded dirt road once in the park.  Very few cars or scooters are on the road.  It was truly one of the first spots that we felt alone, but we still managed to run into a large party celebrating a new Buddha statue and a fishing village with about 300 families. Nevertheless, it was truly astounding scenery.

Ream National Park

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A metric century is in the plans for tomorrow. We are both hoping for overcast skies.

Phnom Penh-sive: Killing Fields and Genocide

Another boat ride from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh.  This time around, we traveled on a bigger and faster boat. Our fellow travelers were all tourists – no locals on this one. There was room for 150 people but could not have been more than 15 of us on the boat. Like many things in Asia, there is little concern for safety features or guidelines. We were free to wander around the boat – on the top, on the sides, etc. – while motoring at 43 km/hr through the Tonle Sap Lake and River.

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The boat ride was quicker than expected and within 5 hours, we were in the heart of Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia and a growing city of  approximately 1.5M people. The city is not as filled with Westerners as Siem Reap, but there are still many, and pockets of the city are filled with restaurants and bars catering to them. Unfortunately, similar to Bangkok, the city appears to attract a lot of western men looking for cheap beer and cheap entertainment. You cannot help but think about the thousands of women that are exploited here because of their economic situation.

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It has been scorching hot here, and instead of biking, we visited the Royal Place where the King lives (The king is a ceremonial head of state with little political power – similar to many royalty around the world.) and the National Museum.

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Our primary destinations for the day were the infamous S-21 prison and the Choeung Ek killing fields.  Both locations are where horrific, genocidal acts during the late 70’s civil war and the reine of the Khmer Rouge took place. Admittedly, our understanding and perspective on this civil war and the atrocities was limited when we arrived in Cambodia. Of course, we knew of the events and the shifts of power; however, we were less aware of the American impact – the bombings that some say strengthened the Khmer Rouge (KR) or the backing of Pol Pot to help fight the Vietnamese. It was clearly complex times.  We have certainly gained new perspective – especially on the impact of the genocide that killed approximately 25% of the population at the time.  Indeed, one of our local guides was born to parents forced to marry in a labor camp just months before the fall of the KR.

Choeung Ek Killing Fields Memorial is where 100+ mass graves and 8K+ human remains were found – just one of 20K+ mass graves throughout the country where over 1.5M people were killed (3M total including deaths from hunger and work camps). Today, locals visit and leave their blessing bracelets on the bamboo fences surrounding the graves.

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S-21 Prison is where thousands were tortured and killed. Once a high school, it was turned into a prison in 1975 with the uprising. It is now a museum in the middle of the city.

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It will be good to get back on the bike tomorrow.

For more perspective, we do highly recommend In the Shadow of the Banyan and Hun Sen’s Cambodia. If you have not seen the movie, The Killing Fields, this is a good one to check out as well.

Angkor What? Thousand Year Old Ruins and Biking

We have spent the last few days cycling in and around Siem Reap. It has been incredible to have the opportunity to bike ancient dirt paths through thousand year old ruins of an incredibly powerful and prosperous people.

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With  roughly four million tourists visiting Cambodia last year and most of these visitors going to Angkor Wat, cycling through Siem Reap and Angkor is the way to go.  There are  A LOT of tour buses and packs of visitors from Asia and Europe, but Cambodia Cycle did another great job getting us off the beaten path and on the back roads, slipping us into back entrances and following the path less taken.  Destinations were temples created during the Pre-Angkor (roughly 1-800 A.D.) and Angkor periods (800-1500 A.D.) – Kravan temple, Banteay Kdei, Ta Phrom, Angkor Wat, Banteay Srei , Bakong. We managed to bike 3-4 hours each day for 3 days and still spend time seeing all the sights.

The two temples that stand out were Ta Phrom and Angor Wat.  Ta Phrom  IMG_0514IMG_0496

(aka Tomb Raider) has these massive trees (Spung trees) that have grown around the temples, and restoration teams have intentionally left the trees.  Angkor was stunning and although Cambodia is a gorgeous country, trash on the side of the road is common, but not in Angkor.  It was truly pristine. Roughly 30% of the funds from the entrance to Angkor go to the maintenance of this gorgeous area.  And Angkor Wat, the largest religious complex in the world, is stunningly beautiful.   Word of caution… We knew we needed to wear clothes to cover shoulders and knees and planned accordingly.  However, upon arriving, the officers would not let me (Susan) in the temple, probably because of the small slit in the biking skirt.  Our resourceful guide went around the corner and borrowed some pants from a female worker at the site.  Chris has the picture to prove it, but this is definitely not one for the public viewing. Let’s just say the pants were colorful.

Biking in and around Siem Reap was fantastic.  We biked mostly on dirt roads through rice fields and farms.  We had a chance to visit a charcoal producing farm which was interesting.  Wood is put in mud ovens for 2-3 hours, and then the charcoal is cooled.  Once cooled, it is bagged and taken to the local market. A sobering adder: the owner of the charcoal farm showed us his bullet wounds from an AK-47 fire fight during the civil war. The war, the mines, the aftermath, the impact from both the Vietnamese and Americans (we dropped more bombs on Cambodia than we did in all of WWII) weigh heavy here still.

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We also visited the River of Thousands Lingas which has Hindu mythological and religious carvings in the Kbal Spean River.   A great place to bring a date?  Lingas are basically phallic symbols that are thought to bring good luck and fertility.

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The temples ruins are amazing.  Here are a few more photosIMG_0651 IMG_0433 IMG_0600 IMG_0432

Squeezing Down the Sangkae River

We left Battambang headed for Siem Reap on the Angkor Express –   a “modern” wooded boat that had seats for about 30 with room for another 15 or so on the top and plenty of room for bags of rice, boxes of beer, live chickens, cartons of cigarettes and  many other unidentifiable boxes and bags.

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The passengers were mostly Westerners – German college students, English and Swedish gap year travelers, a couple photographers and some adventurous families. There were also more than a few local folks that we dropped off at countless floating villages where family members met the boat on canoes and transferred people and goods.

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The boat also came equipped with a bathroom for the 7 hour ride which turned into an 8+ hr journey after some hairy negotiating of some narrow, unmapped streams that were seemingly too small for the boat. Our waterway was the Sangkae river which ultimately flows into the  Tonle Sap lake. Every rainy season (May to October), the main navigation routes change significantly depending on the flow and levels of the much larger Mekong River. This year’s route did not disappoint.

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The pictures do not fully explain the experience. The boat squeezed through a water way just deep and wide enough to make it through. We were thrashed for an hour by  branches of dense mangrove trees and bushes, dumping leaves, twigs and bugs all over the boat and forcing us to hang in the middle isle of the boat. More than a few times were got lodged on the banks or bottom, but eventually we emerged, albeit a bit delayed.

The floating villages were amazing and prevalent throughout the day.  In addition to homes, they also include “convenient stores”, restaurants, crocodile farms, floating pigsties. They also included temples complete with buddist monks chanting their dharmas over load speakers for anyone on the river to hear (very surreal).

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Post landing, we had about a 25km dirt ride through rice fields to our hotel in downtown Siem Reap city.

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Battambang – “Battamboom”

 The ride today was about 80km and very hot, but very scenic and mostly flat.

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On the way, we stopped by an engagement party for a friend of our guide. It was only 8:30 am, but the party was already rolling.

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Our destination, Battambang, is the 4th largest city in Cambodia. It was founded by the Khmer Empire in the 11th century! The region is known for its rice production currently. There is a lot of rice consumed over here – by locals and visitors.

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The French built many buildings in the middle of last century and many still remain. They also built a railroad that is mostly not working now but stretches to the capital, Phenom Penn.

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Some enterprising locals in the government have turned the abandoned railway into a bit of a tourist attraction. We are not ones usually attracted to pure tourist spots ,but this one was too hard to pass up. After the French left and the train service was cut to two trains a week, the locals build their own cars – simple platforms that were propelled by drivers using bamboo poles. Today, there are simple, two-stroke engines attached to an axel with a fan belt. There is enough horsepower to propel the platform 20-30 km/hr down the track through acres of rice fields.

No seats, no seat belts no lights, not much to hold on too or other pesky, safety features. Tracks mostly line up, but there are some good hits when they do not.  It is pretty much hold on and hope it doesn’t down pour before you make it back (we made it by seconds)..

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Link to a video

Vietnam or Bust

We left the rain and exited Bangkok today.  We are heading to Vietnam via Cambodia . After a four hour van ride to get outside the city and a stop at the Big C (the Thai Fred Meyer), we made it to Rayong, along the coast of Thailand, and hopped on a couple bikes.

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Today is the start of a 1200 km, 21 day bike ride to Ho Chi Minh City. It is about two and half days of riding to reach the Cambodia border where we will spend the majority of the time, hitting  a bunch of beaches and UNESCO sites. Cambodia is where the elevation is supposed to increase.

Cambodia CycleWe are headed out with Cambodia Cycling who will manage all of the logistics and bags so we will not have to worry about lugging packs, finding hotels, etc. so we can focus on the pedaling (about 18-105 km per day) and the sightseeing.  For now, it is Susan and me, a biking guide from Cambodia and a driver from Thailand in the sag wagon.  No one speaks each others language all that well, but we all love to bike and enjoy a cold beer so I think we will get along just fine.

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Roads are broken, dirty and muddy so we will be doing it on mountain bikes-Trek 4500 hard-tail bikes. The bikes are well used and heavy – everything we expected  – so we will earn every km.  However, today’s ride was an easy, flat 40 km along the coast with a cooling tail wind in a bike lane (for most of the way).

Today was the first day in a week we did not get some heavy rain, but we timed everything perfect to align the next few days with Tropical Cyclone MUJIGAE. Good news… it looks like the storm may have been downgraded to HEAVY RAIN. All is good.