Author: ebrown118

Saigon

After a stopover in Phnom Penh, we began the day long bus trip to Ho Chi Minh City, or as everyone still calls it, Saigon.

The immigration building:

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It was pretty painless because we did our research and got our visas while we were in Sihanoukville.

Saigon is awesome. It’s always busy and things are constantly in flux. We had a great hotel tucked down a quiet alley that was actually a grocery market in the morning, so we could watch all of the Vietnamese ladies buying their seafood while we ate our pho.

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We visited the Ho Chi Minh Museum of Fine Arts, which was pretty cool, Chinatown, which was overwhelmingly crazy, and the War Remnants Museum, which was interesting but somewhat uncomfortable. There were a lot of gory photos and it was obviously skewed against Americans.

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At night, there’s a street where these (somewhat aggressive) ladies put out mats on the sidewalk and sell beer for really cheap. We hung out there a couple of times. It’s great because both Westerners and Vietnamese are there, and we made some good friends there.

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Overall, Saigon was awesome. Amazing food, really nice people… I can’t wait to go back.

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Kep and kampot

Our next stop was Kep, along the coast. It is primarily a town for vacationing people from Phnom Penh, but since we were there during the week, it felt oddly deserted. It’s really pretty, with a nice, small national park, and awesome seafood.

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The strangest thing about it was how large, but absolutely empty it felt. There were big, paved roads, and no one driving on them. At the ends were new, massive government buildings, which also seemed empty.

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This massive road was lined with pre-Khmer Rouge ruins with run-down stilt houses next door where people live today.

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Our next stop was nearby Kampot. It’s bigger and more touristy, but we stayed a little outside of the city next to a river.

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There, we rented motorbikes for a day and drove around, kayaked and chilled out. Next, a day in Phnom Penh, then off to Vietnam.

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Beach time

After Phnom Penh, we headed to the coast to Sihanoukville for a night before our island escape at Lazy Beach on Koh Rong Samloem.

Sihanoukville is a big party town filled with Europeans and Aussies. We stayed on one of the quieter beaches, Otres, for a night. It was pretty, just a little louder than we would’ve liked.

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Afterwards, we took a 2 and a half hour boat ride out to Lazy Beach, where we stayed for four nights on a totally quiet beach. We spent our days wandering the island, swimming, snorkeling, and just lazing around.

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After we had our fill of lazy beach time, we headed back to Sihanoukville for one last night before taking off to Kep. The best thing about Otres beach is probably the lady selling fresh grilled squid, who you can pick out by the stick over her shoulder carrying a charcoal grill on one side, and a cooler on the other. Everything else about it was just ok or was playing loud, annoying eurotrance music. We left for Kep early the next morning.

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Phnom Penh

We really enjoyed Phnom Penh. It can be truly depressing at times, with amputee beggars (which you can’t help but feel guilty for), prostitute bars, and children aggressively selling bracelets. However, there’s a plethora of affordable rooftop bars and awesome public spaces where everyone in the city congregates once it cools down. The National Museum and night market were also nice highlights of the city.

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After we visited the Silver Pagoda and Royal Palace, we stopped in the shade of the park directly in front of it. As the sun started setting, hundreds of Cambodian families, teenagers and monks converged on the park to hang out. Two friendly, 20-something, iPod and cell phone wielding monks came over to chat and practice their English. They were awesome. They were both studying at a university in Phnom Penh, one international relations, and the other electronics. It was interesting to hear how the poor in Cambodia cope while the rich people that control the country ride around in Land Rovers and Lexus SUVs.

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We took a cheap sunset cruise full of Cambodian teenagers and explored the central market.

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On our last night we relaxed at a rooftop bar happy hour and watched the ladies doing aerobics on the riverfront.

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The things that have really set Phnom Penh apart for us is its public spaces. You sometimes forget how important they are.

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Angkor what

We had heard that the journey from Thailand into Cambodia can be pretty rough by bus. But we found the best option to be a relatively new bus that has a partnership with the Thai government transport company, which is the only bus that can go directly across the border all the way to Siem Reap. Otherwise, you’d have to find a Cambodian bus once you cross the border, which can often be a crowded, overpriced, unsafe bet. Other buses also try to scam passengers by demanding extra money for a Cambodian visa before you reach the border, amongst other things. Our bus did stop and offer an overpriced visa before the border, but luckily we had gotten an e-visa after we caught word of this. In any case, it was pretty trouble-free, except when our bus ran into some engine problems at the border…

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But luckily after about an hour of watching them climb in and out of the engine, taking bricks and logs out, we were back on our way.

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Cambodia is totally different from Thailand. It’s at least 10-15 years behind Thailand in development, but the culture is totally different. The people are SO incredibly nice. The country itself is really beautiful as well. We stayed at a wonderful guest house in Siem Reap that was the nicest place we’ve stayed so far, but also is one of the cheapest. The people who run it are a British-Cambodian couple who were happy to set us up with a tuk-tuk driver for the temples and to point us to cool things in town.

Our first two days in Siem Reap were spent temple-marathoning in the intense heat, so we spent our third day chilling out. The temples were amazing, though.

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“This is my ‘it’s too hot’ face.”

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We also ran into a google street view camera guy at one of the temples, so we’ll look for ourselves later.

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On our third night we also went to an awesome Cambodian circus which is part of a charity that gives free art schooling to underprivileged kids.

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After that, we hopped on a rather bumpy bus to Phnom Penh.

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I like to think that Old Faithful (our old Camry identical to this) is living a happy second life as a Cambodian shared taxi, which are all over the place.

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Khao Yai

Khao Yai was totally awesome. The first night, our tour guide took us to a cave that was part of a temple, and showed us thousands of bats and bizarre bugs. It was especially other-worldy because there were carved Buddhas and shrines hidden in the cave. Pretty much all of those pictures were on my real camera though, sorry. He also took us to watch the bats leave another cave at sunset.

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The next day we had a full day tour in the park. It was incredibly beautiful and there was so much wildlife. Wild elephants, gibbons, monkeys, snakes, hornbills…

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It was awesome. We headed back to Bangkok the next morning for one more night. While there, we checked out the Chatuchak Weekend Market. It was insane. It seemed endless, and you could literally buy just about anything you want there: trendy clothes, tourist clothes, pretty good art, beautiful furniture, food, good cocktails, pets, jewelry, lamps, shoes, whatever.

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The next morning, we said goodbye to Thailand and hello to Cambodia.

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Bangkok dangerous

We’re in Siem Reap, Cambodia now… But I need to backtrack a bit.

We booked a room in a hotel off of Khao San Road, a touristy backpacker area. It seemed too nice for what it we paid for it. It had an aged glamour, James Bond kind of feel to it.

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It turns out that it was SUPER close to the protests. But it wasn’t really that big of a deal other than having to constantly negotiate with taxi drivers to stop over charging us to get there. There were army checkpoints somewhat regularly, making sure no one was carrying any weapons or anything. They ignored us farang.

Bangkok is massive, loud and awesome. We found some really good spots to eat/drink, rode the water taxi, visited the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, and wandered around Chinatown.

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We also wandered into the food hall of this huge crazy mall called the Siam Paragon. Outside was what looked like another market, so we decided to check it out. Once we kept going, we noticed that some of the merchandise was protest gear… And then found ourselves in the middle of it. Honestly, it was really relaxed. It could’ve been a music festival with stalls, massages, and food.

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After two days of Bangkok, we were off up north a little to Khao Yai National Park, outside of Pak Chong. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and mostly only Thai tourists from Bangkok visit it. To get there, we took a local public bus for about $5. We just had to trust that they brought us to the right one, and they blared what I would call Thai adult alternative music the entire way. It was overall kinda funny.

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The Khao Yai post is coming soon.

Oh my Buddha

We’re currently on the day train to Bangkok, since the night train was booked up before we tried to get our tickets.

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We finished our three day trek in the hills up north yesterday, and it was really fun. The first day consisted of a pretty steep, strenuous hike to a hill tribe village, where we stayed for the night. The hills were very pretty, but staying in the village was… strange. There were at least a hundred tourists staying in this one village, with several being driven up specifically for this experience, unlike our outdoor experience-themed trek. It just felt like tour companies are exploiting the other-ness of the villagers and making them a sort of spectacle. Our guide, Mike, grew up in one of these villages, though, and he seemed pretty aware of the effects of these tours. He was awesome.

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The second day was an easy hike to a couple of waterfalls, and a stay in a jungle camp. Some villagers taught us how to fish in the river, which consisted of rerouting the water and making pools of it, which you drain with bowls to find the fish. It was a lot of work for little reward, but the small, spicy fried crabs were delicious.

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Mike cooked our lunch with bamboo and banana leaves.

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The last day we rode elephants, went white water rafting and rode bamboo rafts. Riding the elephants was… Unpleasant. They don’t treat the elephants well at these camps for tourists, and the results are pretty sad. If we had been able to book a trek without the elephants and stuff, we could’ve, but they were all much more expensive. We hesitated before the ride, but since we were already there and had theoretically paid for it anyway, we did it.

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Anyways, now on to Bangkok!

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Same same, but different

Yesterday we had a pretty relaxed day wandering around Chiang Mai and getting a Thai massage.

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This is a picture of Wat Chedi Luang, in the middle of the old city. Because it’s one of the biggest and most popular temples, it has some of the best people watching I’ve seen so far.

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At night we decided to check out the hip university area, which coincidentally is where I (Emily) stayed 8 years ago. There used to not be much over there, but now it’s filled with fancy, bizarre malls and clubs/bars. We wandered around feeling under dressed for most of the places that actually had people in them, but then we found this fancy beer bar made out of a shipping container that could have easily been in Hayes Valley in San Francisco. Road House was even playing on TV. That area was totally too cool for school.

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Today we took a fabulous cooking class out on an organic family farm. They taught us how to cook 5 (!) dishes and gave us a recipe book, so if you’d like a recipe, let us know.

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We’re leaving for our trek tomorrow for three days, so we’ll be mostly out of touch. Once we’re back on Monday night… We don’t know what we’re doing since we’re having trouble finding a spot on the train to Bangkok. 😦

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