By , July 21, 2013 9:00 am
Siem Reap was hot. It was something like 37°C outside every day. Not the hottest weather we've experienced, but combined with the crippling near 100% humidity, it sure felt like the hottest. After a few days of bicycling between temples in that heat, combined with the mandatory daily drinking of 8 litres of water, my skin became waterlogged. All my pores were swollen, red, and itchy. I had sweat too much.

The prickly dots of heat rash.

A quick Google search informed me that I had contracted what's known as a heat rash. The good news was that it's fairly common, and there's no need to see a doctor. The cure: Keep cool, stay in the shade, and try not to sweat. It sounds simple, but our main mode of transportation was a bicycle. Our guest room not only didn't have air conditioning, but what's more, it was on the top floor of the hotel. The mid-day sun practically turned it into a human-sized toaster oven so even if I wanted to avoid the mid-day heat, I couldn't do it there. There was no way I could just go on the way I had, my skin would eventually dissolve. We asked the hotel staff if we could have a room on a lower floor that didn't get so hot during the day. We had to wait a few days for their current guests to move out, but it was no problem. The room was probably 15°C cooler during the day. Now, you may be wondering why we didn't spring for a room with air conditioning, given that I had this heat rash and all. The answer is simple. I despise air conditioning. It has nothing to do with the added cost, I just don't like it. No seriously, I really really hate it. I'm not sure if it's because I'm Canadian, but I find it very difficult to acclimatize to temperatures in the 30's and 40's. If I spend all my time at ambient temperature, I eventually do adjust, but it takes about a month. If I spend any time during that month in an air-conditioned space, I just don't adjust. What's worse, it'll destroys any acclimatization I've managed to build up to that point. And it doesn't take long. It's really quite amazing. Something as simple as 15 minutes inside of an air-conditioned bank will take me almost a day to recover from. I go from being comfortable outside, to shivering uncontrollably, and end up feeling  sweaty, hot, and exhausted as soon as I leave the chill. I'd take this rash over AC any day. Add to all of this the fact that huge temperature swings seem to have an even more adverse effect on Ashley's migraines that just extreme heat alone, and you can see why we have never willingly stayed in accommodations with AC. The cooler room helped, but it wasn't enough on it's own. I had to give up bicycling every day. So we took the opportunity to hire a tuk tuk driver and explored some of the more distant ruins. In a single day we visited the somewhat distant temple of Beng Mealea (40km from Siem Reap), and the Roluos Group (13km from Siem Reap)
Infobox: Tuk tuk for the day - $30 Entrance Fee for Beng Mealea  - $5 each (not included in Angkor pass).

Beng Mealea

This is an un-restored temple. It's huge, partly collapsed, and overgrown. The best part: you can climb on anything you like. Nothing is off limits. That is, assuming you can muster up the courage. There's a sign just inside the entrance indicating that the area was once heavily covered with landmines. The majority of which have now been removed. We left Siem Reap as early in the morning as our tuk tuk driver would agree to take us, and had the place to ourselves for the first few minutes after our arrival. Despite it's distance from Siem Reap, tourists are no strangers. The tour buses began showing up soon after we did, and the temple was nearly as full as any of the temples we visited closer to the city.

Roluos Group

These three temples are small in size, but I really quite enjoyed them. There were nearly no other tourists getting in the way of our photos, and the crumbling plaster reliefs offered us something different and unique to look at. There is a children's school at one of the temples that we gave a bit of money to. Apparently we are now paying people to torture us. During the course of courting us for cash, the school's teacher fed us a bit of cheese fruit, also known as vomit fruit. I can't really describe it except to say it's flavour has a vague resemblance to strong blue cheese mixed with vomit. Yuck!
By , July 18, 2013 4:51 pm
We arrived in Cambodia after a terribly long travel day that involved a train, a tuk tuk, a border crossing, a bus, a tourist bus, and a really long walk to our hostel.  We were already worn out from a month of racing across Thailand, so we decided to slow things down. A lot. We had originally planned to stay in Siem Reap for about 5 days.  This would give us three days at the famous Angkor temple complex and a few days to bum around the city.  Instead, we stayed ten days and bought a 7 day temple pass.  And we wouldn't have wanted it any other way. While most people hire a tuk tuk driver for a day (or three) and temple themselves out trying to see it all, we decided to take advantage of the $1 USD/day bicycle rentals in town and explore the huge temple complex by pedal bike.  This gave us the time and leisure to take long lunch breaks, read amongst the temple ruins, and visit a reasonable 3-4 temples a day.  We certainly didn't see everything, but we saw a lot more than the average visitor.

The result of  a hard day's cycling... very dirty feet!

We didn't bike all 7 days - we rented a tuk tuk for two of them to give ourselves a break (it was a blistering 35+°C and we're not too keen on heat stroke).  This also allowed us to see the more distant Banteay Srei (see below) & Kbal Spean, and later the magical Beng Melea and distant Roulos Group (post to come). We left Siem reap with over 650 photos, so I'll try to limit myself to our top 5 favourite temples and only a few pictures of each.  Here they are, in no particular order: 1. Ta Nei This temple tops our list because of the complete solitude you can find here.  It can't be reached by tuk-tuk, only bicycle or walking.  Most of the guides haven't even been here.  While not the most impressive temple, you can spend an hour wandering around and climbing over the ruins without seeing another soul.

Road to Ta Nei

2. Ta Prohm Ta Prohm is everything Ta Nei is not... crowded and busy.  But it's easy to see why.  Like Ta Nei, nature has been working to overtake this temple with trees and roots winding their way through and along the temple ruins and walls.  Apparently some Tomb Raider scenes were filmed here (I've never seen it, so I wouldn't know). 3. Banteay Srei This temple required a tuk-tuk, but was so worth it.  Famous for its red colour, it was the intricate carvings that really made this one stand out for us.  We walked the entire temple grounds once with cameras in hand, then put them away and walked it all over again to pick up all the detail we missed while peering through our lenses. 4.  Banteay Samre This temple was special because not only did it have beautiful carvings, it didn't have the crowds of Banteay Srei.  There were a half dozen people wandering about this temple... all serious about photography.  Everyone kept out of each other's shots and there was a quiet and peace to be cherished here. 5. Bayon The Bayon was one of the few temples we made a point of visiting twice.  It looks like a pile of rubble from a distance (at least when you approach it from one side), but once you climb up the stairs you find yourself surrounded by giant heads.  Everywhere you look there are more... just staring and smiling. Why didn't Angkor Wat make the cut? Don't get me wrong... Angkor Wat is an incredible piece of design and construction.  Whether it was the constant crowds or the hype, it just didn't touch me the same way as many of the other temples.  I would never recommend skipping it of course... it is still a must-see!

View of Angkor Wat from Phnom Bakheng temple

Reading across the moat from Angkor Wat... a nice way to appreciate it

Useful tips:
  • Entry passes are as follows:1 day - $20 USD 3 days - $40 USD 1 week - $60 USD
  • Multi-day passes require a picture, so cannot be used by other visitors.
  • The one week pass does not need to be used on consecutive days.  It allows you entry on seven days within a one month period.
  • Passes issued after 5 pm are valid that day and the next.  This is especially nice if you only have time for a one day pass.
  • Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, Ta Prohm and many of the other popular sites will be swarming with tourists at sunrise and sunset.  Consider visiting a less popular temple to take advantage of the light for photographs.
  • If you are planning to go to Angkor during Chinese New Year, it will be packed.  So will Siem Reap... book accommodations well in advance and expect rates to double.
  • If you are planning to go by tuk-tuk, ask around and get a good price.  Everyone is a tuk-tuk driver in Siem Reap, so there's a lot of competition.  (When we were there, the going rate was $10 USD for a day, or $15 USD for a full day including sunrise and sunset).  Expect to pay more for more distant temples.
  • Make sure that when you book a tuk-tuk driver, you have contact information and assurance that your driver will speak English if you want to be able to communicate.  The nice guy that you book with will rarely be your actual driver.
  • Have an itinerary in mind if there are certain temples you want to see.  Be wary of the tuk-tuk driver that suggests the floating village... it will cost you another $10 USD or so to get on the boat to see it and will take about half a day out of your temple seeing time.
  • Haggle at the restaurants.  The first price offered is never the real price, nor is the listed menu price.  If you really want to negotiate, you can probably get yourself some free fruit just for sitting down.

Typical budget Angkor restaurant... may not look like much, but they make a mean $1 fried noodle!

This kid was mesmerized when he saw his face on my camera screen

By , July 9, 2013 7:39 pm
OK, I'll admit it.  We've been slacking.  Big time.  On the blog, I mean.  We've been home for 3 months now and we're still finishing up posts about Cambodia and Thailand.  We're lucky to get in one post a week!  But you know all that. Sorry to all our loyal fans out there (all five of you), but we've been busy.  As soon as we were settled in, I was working as a substitute teacher (which was actually great for blogging, as I wrote one a day during my preps) and then scored a temporary position as a full-time temporary math and accounting teacher.  I've gotta say... I really enjoyed being back in the classroom, but it definitely cut into my free time! Mike was busy baking and doing.... well, even I'm not quite sure what Mike was busy doing.  But that's not the point.  We got busy.  Between work, reacquainting ourselves with family and friends, learning to bake the most amazing bread, and a little bit of play the blog's been suffering.  And it may just continue to do so all summer long. You see... we've left our good old family, friends, and home province of Saskatchewan behind to explore a little more of our own country.  We figure we've travelled to 21 countries besides our own now, so it's about time we saw some of our home soil.  We loaded up our car, borrowed my mom's GPS and CAA maps, and set out for the east coast of Canada.  That's pretty much the entire plan... EAST.  The only concrete detail is Sappyfest in Sackville, New Brunswick in August. We will, of course, blog about our adventures... but it's going to take some time.  Like sometime in September kinda time.  If that's not current enough for you, check out our Facebook page... we are using our newly acquired data plan (we really are back in a first-world country, aren't we?) to post photos and updates as we cross the country.  We'll keep trying to get the rest of the RTW posts up (so check in every now and then) but first and foremost we're going to enjoy every minute of our two month cross-Canada expedition.  It's also kind of hard to blog from a National Park campground.  But we'll do what we can. Enjoy your summer, because we're definitely going to enjoy ours!
Mike taking a road side photo - The Hills of Saskatchewan

Mike taking a road side photo - The Hills of Saskatchewan

By , June 23, 2013 11:04 am

Wat Saket & Phu Khao Thong (The Golden Mountain)

A Buddhist temple in Bangkok, dating back to the Ayutthaya era.

Phu Khao Thong (also called the Golden Mountain) is built on top of a man-made hill within the Wat Saket grounds.  The hill is the result of a collapsed chedi that King Rama III (1787 - 1851) had constructed.  It collapsed during construction because the soft soil couldn't support its weight.  It was left there, and over time, formed the shape of a natural hill. King Rama IV began to build a small chedi on top of that hill, which was finished during the reign of his son, King Rama V.  A Buddhist relic was brought from India and placed inside.  Concrete surrounding walls were added in the 1940s to stop erosion of the hill.  Finally, in the early 20th century, the modern Wat was built of marble. Climbing to the top of the Golden Mountain offers a nice panorama of surrounding Bangkok.  There is no entrance fee.

Path leading up to the top

So many bells

Lighting incense

Striking the gong

More bells

The Golden Mount

Donations

You can buy small squares of gold foil to cover the Buddha images

View from the Golden Mount

Panorama from the top of the Golden Mountain

Khaosan Road

Khaosan Road is an iconic part of Bangkok tourism.  It's crowded, noisy, and full of food, clothing, and souvenir vendors.  If you're going, keep an eye on your wallet (always a good idea in a crowd), practice up on your negotiating skills, and enjoy some cheap eats (the street vendors are some of the cheapest around). If you are more into restaurant meals than street food, I suggest avoiding the eateries on and near Khaosan. The surrounding restaurants seem to be over-priced and mediocre at best.  Better, walk Khaosan, then dodge off a couple of blocks until you find the authentic food vendors and restaurants. That's where the Thais will be eating.  The food will be cheaper and much tastier.

Khaosan Road

Khaosan pad thai

Random Sights

There's so much to see and do in Bangkok.  Here's a few more of our favourite pictures from our time there:

Hua Lamphong train station

Hua Lamphong train station

Fish in the aquarium in our hotel lobby

Delicious and cheap - an authentic Thai lunch

Sunset walk

Sunset walk

Sunset walk

Sunset Walk

My best Korean tourist impression

By , June 17, 2013 11:34 am
Wat Pho (also spelled Wat Po) is next door to the Grand Palace and complements a palace visit nicely.  It is the largest and oldest wat in Bangkok, and is also known as the Temple of the Reclining Buddha (its official name is Wat Phra Chettuphon Wimon Mangkhlaram Ratchaworamahawihan).  It is also known as the home of the traditional Thai massage.  There is a bodhi tree in the Temple's gardens that is supposed to be propagated from the original bodhi tree the Buddha sat beneath while awaiting enlightenment.

The image of the reclining Buddha is 15 m (49 ft) high and 43 m (150 ft) long.  It is the largest Buddha image in Thailand and was made to celebrate King Rama III's restoration (1824 - 51 AD).  The image is decorated with gold leaf, and his eyes and feet are inlaid with mother-of-pearl.

The famous (and enormous!) Reclining Buddha

A few of the 108 bronze bowls lining the walls of the Temple of the Reclining Buddha.  People drop coins into the bowls for good luck (and to help the monks maintain the wat)

The reclining Buddha is definitely not the only Buddha image to see in Wat Pho.  There are over 1000 Buddha images in the massive grounds.   Mom, Terry and I followed the crowds out, missing nearly half the grounds.  Since our tickets were single-entry, we couldn't get back in without paying the entrance again.  Mike, who was lagging behind to take photos, wandered through the rest of the grounds while we waited outside.

If you're planning to visit Wat Pho, please remember to wear respectful clothing.  No exposed shoulders, knees, or cleavage.  Entrance fee:  100 baht (~$3.30 CAD).

And because you can never share enough photos....

By , June 11, 2013 3:35 pm
Bangkok's China Town is a popular tourist attraction.  It is centered around Yaowarat and Charoen Krung Roads, and contains many streets and alleys full of shops and vendors selling just about anything.  This is one of the oldest areas of Bangkok. The main roads are lined with gold shop after gold shop by day, and are always packed full of customers.  The streets and alleys are lined with vendors selling fireworks, decorations, and every food item you can imagine.  At night, the gold shops are shut down and the food vendors come out to play. There's also a lot of high-end restaurants selling shark fin soup. Having lived on and dived off of an island whose shark population has been devastated by fisherman selling fins to these restaurants, I implore you not to eat the shark fin soup.

China Town streets at night

China Town at night

China Town at night

China Town streets at night

China Town at night

Duck for sale in China Town

China Town market

China Town market

China Town market

It was sad to see shark fins for sale all over China Town (they're hanging in the background.

Meat for sale

Steam buns at a dim sum restaurant

Delicious jackfruit for sale at the market

China Town

 
By , June 7, 2013 11:02 am
It's impossible to travel Southeast Asia without at least a few obligatory stops in Bangkok - the transportation hub of Thailand.  We made six separate stops in the city, and spent a total of 14 days.  We saw many of the "must-sees" (like Khaosan Road, the Grand Palace, China Town, and the Reclining Buddha) and a few more off-the-beaten path destinations. Our Explore Bangkok series will share a few of the photos and stories that came along with our explorations.  First up - the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew (better known as the Temple of the Emerald Buddha).

Statue at the Grand Palace

Just about every Bangkok tourist visits the Grand Palace, but this doesn't mean it's easy to get to - there are plenty of people that will try to change your plans along the way.  We were sleeping just off Khaosan Road, which made it an easy walk to the Palace.
If you are staying farther away or just don't want to walk, I strongly advise you to take a metered taxi.  I haven't seen a Bangkok tuk tuk yet that isn't a complete rip-off (they are always priced higher than the taxis, even after negotiations) and if the taxi driver tries to get you to agree to a lump sum fare, it will always be about 3-10 times the price of a metered fare.  We have had to ask as many as ten cabs to turn on their meter before a driver would agree to do it, but the savings were worth the extra time and hassle.

Scam 1

Not far into our walk, a man waved us over to talk.  He introduced himself as a city worker and after asking where we were going, went on to tell us that the Grand Palace was closed for the day.  He had us pull out our map and suggested some alternative sights to see across town.  He was also so kind as to give us advice about how not to get ripped off by the tuk tuks drivers.  The key, according to him was to watch for the tuk tuks with a white front license plate. They were the cheap ones. He kept us talking long enough for his friend, a tuk tuk driver with a white front license plate, to coincidentally drive by and stop for a quick visit.  Also ever so helpful, the driver suggested a number of sites we could see (except the nearby Grand Palace which was supposedly closed). We knew a scam when we saw one, said thank you and goodbye, and continued on our way.  As we rounded the corner, we saw throngs of people entering and leaving the Grand Palace gates, despite its apparent closed status.

Scam 2

We also encountered an elderly woman surrounded by pigeons on our walk.  She had bags of bird seed and held them out for us.  Mike and I quickly refused and tried to keep walking, but my Mom and Terry slowed down to talk to her.  As soon as we stopped, she started ripping open the bags, forcing our hands open, and pouring the seed into our palms.  Terry pulled out some money to offer her.  She smiled, refused, and kept handing over more birdseed.  We threw the seed on the ground, the pigeons gobbled it up, and she asked for her bags back.  Then, she demanded something like 150 baht ($5 CAD).  I guess the reason she refused Terry at the start was he wasn't offering enough money.  Angered at the scam, we all pulled out a few baht and handed it to her so she would let us go - what we offered was no where near what she thought it should be.  I'm pretty sure she was cursing us in Thai as we walked away.

The Grand Palace

After leaving the scams behind us, we finally arrived at the Grand Palace.  As the name implies, it is indeed grand.  The ornamental work is stunning and the closer you look, the more there is to see.  It's impossible to take everything in at a glance, so plan on giving it more than a cursory walk-through.

Grand Palace

The palace was the official residence of the kings of Siam (and, later, Thailand) from 1782 until 1925.  It was also the location of the administrative seat of the government.  Now, it is used for official events and as a tourist attraction.

Inside the Grand Palace grounds

We didn't see the king

Today, the king lives at Chitlada Palace, which we spent another whole day visiting (we were walking around looking for street food and thought that it was a park and, thus, a great place for food vendors.  We learned otherwise when the guards turned us away from the gate)...

Outside the king's residence, Chitlada Palace

Outside the king's residence, Chitlada Palace

The grounds

The grounds and exteriors of the Grand Palace buildings are impressive, which is good since most of the building themselves are off-limits.  The throne room was closed to the public the day we visited (as I later found, it's always closed on weekends), but that didn't stop everyone from pressing up to the windows to see the decadence. Also located in the Grand Palace grounds is Wat Phra Kaew - the Temple of the Emerald Buddha.  This is one of the most sacred temples in Thailand.  Despite all the fuss about it, the Emerald Buddha is relatively small (about 66 cm or 26 in tall).  All the gold around its case almost overwhelms the statue itself.  It is not actually made of emerald, but rather its carved from a single stone of jade.  Three times a year, the statue's golden outfit (made of real gold, of course) is changed to mark the change of seasons.

Emerald Buddha

The story behind the statue is that in 1434, lightning struck a Chedi (a.k.a. a Stupa - a mound-like structure containing Buddhist relics) in the northern Thailand province of Chiangrai.  This lightning strike revealed a stucco Buddha statue inside.  The abbot of the temple notice that the nose was green where the stucco had flaked off.  He removed the stucco to reveal the green jade image inside.  The statue made its rounds over the years - Chiangrai, Chiangmai, Lampang, Prabang (Laos), Vientane (Laos), Thonburi, and finally Bangkok.  The Temple of the Emerald Buddha has been its home since 1784. There are a few museums within the palace grounds - the Queen Sirikit Textiles Museum, where we learned about the production of silk and everything that the royal family has done to encourage the rural economies of Thailand.  Here, mom and I got to play dress up and try on the national Thai dress. The dress style was created by Queen Sirikit in the 1960's to combat the westernization of the Royal dress that had been evolving over the years.  Using photographs and designs from the past, Queen Sirikit and her team of designers created and popularized this throwback to traditional Thai fashions and created a national dress equivalent to India's sari and Japan's kimono.

The national Thai silk dress

There is also a number of other museums. To name a few, there is the Pavilion of Regalia displaying a number of royal decorations and coins, a weapons museum, and the Musuem of the Emerald Buddha Temple (where you can see the seasonal dress the Buddha is not currently attired in, as well as various other artifacts). Not really a museum, but interesting none the less, was the scale model of Angkor Wat, which could be found among the fish ponds. While the Grand Palace is definitely dazzling, not all that glitters is golden.  The crowds are immense, the heat is oppressive (especially with all the people about), the majority of the grounds & buildings are closed to the public, and the price tag is hefty - 400 baht (~ $13 CAD).

Crowd at the Grand Palace

The palace is open 8:30 - 3:30 every day, unless there's a royal ceremony or other official function taking place (like I mentioned before, this is rarely the case so check it out for yourselves).  The audience halls and throne rooms are open on weekdays, but closed on weekends - keep this in mind when planning your visit.  And don't forget to wear suitable attire - no bare feet (wear shoes),no knees, no shoulders nor cleavage allowed (you can rent a pair of pants on the grounds if you like, but don't lose your rental slip unless you were in the market for some over-priced, ugly, ill-fitting trousers anyway).

Sign at Grand Palace, indicating unacceptable dress

More photos for you...

Changing of the guards

Check out that detail!

Beautiful door

These guys...

... are in love!

Love the woman that snuck her way into this shot!