Thursday, May 27, 2010

Siem Reap and the Angkor Temples

Arriving in Cambodia there was some anticipation about what exactly we were going to experience. Here is a country that was controlled by Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge in the 1970's who brutally tortured the people and executed a fifth of Cambodia's population. The fighting and terror did not end completely until 1998 after a protracted guerrilla war. It was amazing to find that despite poverty, war and genocide the people of Cambodia are so warm, friendly and have a great sense of humor.

We flew from Kuala Lumpur directly to Siem Reap. Siem Reap, or more the temples near Siem Reap, was once the heart of the Khmer Empire from about 802 AD to 1431 AD. (note: Khmer are the Cambodian people, and the Khmer Rouge was the name given to followers of the Communist Party led by Pol Pot). The temples were abandoned in the 15th century and most of the temples were overtaken by the jungle surrounding them. In the late 1880's the temples were "rediscovered" by a Frenchman and the temples have been slowly restored and cleared since that time.

The temples of Angkor are spread out over 300 square kilometers so we tried to make a plan for seeing as many temples as we could without getting too "templed out" or soaked because of the ridiculous heat and humidity. Our hostel suggested a tuk tuk driver that they often use, Sambol, who turned into our de facto guide for the temples. Sambol was great and drove us around the temples for three days.

We started off in Angkor Thom where outside of the entrance we got to feed an elephant bananas (which was certainly a highlight of the trip!).

"I call him Stampy."

The major temple Angkor Thom is known for Bayon which from far away looks like a pile of rocks, but once you get closer you realize there are faces enigmatically looking down at you. The faces supposedly are the face of King Jayarvarman VII to represent the omnipresence of the king (as the kings were considered god-like at the time). Mostly these temples were built for either Hindu or Buddhist religion (depending on what king was in control at the time). These temples are huge and it takes forever to see all the hallways, small passages and reliefs on the walls.

After Angkor Thom we headed to Ta Prohm. Ta Prohm's beauty is that it has not been restored and there is little of the jungle that has been removed. Therefore it has a mysterious aspect that makes you feel like you are walking into the temples as they were when they were rediscovered. This is also where a lot of the Tomb Raider shots were filmed (for the Angelina Jolie fans).

Our final stop on the first day of temples was Angkor Wat. Angkor Wat is one of the few temples that was never abandoned. After the Kings left Angkor, Buddhist monks continued to worship at Angkor Wat. As it was never fully left to the elements, Angkor Wat is one of the best preserved of all the temples.

While we were walking through the massive hallways and corridors of Angkor Wat we ran into a group of four monkeys who make the temple their home.

Day two of temples brought us to Preah Khan, Neak Pean, East Mabon and Pre Rup. These temples were surrounded by huge lakes that required boats to reach them. Now, the lakes have dried and you can only imagine the huge moats and reflecting pools. One of these temples was still being excavated while we were there.

Finally, on our last day visiting the temples we headed about 40 kilometers outside of town to Banteay Srey and Banteay Samre. Our guide book from 2000 warns that these two temples are isolated and even dangerous because of their isolation. It is amazing how things have changed in 10 years as Banteay Srey was the busiest temple we visited now complete with a visitor's center. Banteay Srey is popular as it has some of the best preserved and most intricate carvings of all the temples.

Banteay Samre had some amazing carvings, however there was barely anyone there. Both of these temples feature a deeper red sandstone and were constructed during a different period.

In addition to visiting temples, we noticed that a lot of the restaurants in Siem Reap advertised Khmer cooking classes. It was a deal as the class was only $12 to learn to make a stater, main course and dessert (and it would cost about $11 to order all this in the restaurant) which you get to eat too!

For the class we first headed to the local market where we saw the local foods that we would be using to make the dishes. It is a great market with river fish moving around on trays, crabs trying to get out of baskets, buckets of eels, beautiful fruit and spices, even "aged" eggs considered a delicacy . 

I made a green mango salad with sweet and sour sauce, Amok fish and some crazy tapioca, jellied dessert. Not only did we make the food, but we also learned how to make little chili trees and a rose out of a tomato! It was a ton of fun and I am hoping to recreate the meal back home (I have to find a good Asian market in Boulder though for some specific ingredients!).

In addition to the temples, Siem Reap also has a vibrant night life. In the heart of town there are literally hundreds of bars, cafes and restaurants and most offer the local Angkor beer on draft for the low low price of $0.50! While certainly not the best beer in the world you can't beat that price and we had a few. We met a bunch of other travelers that were able to last much longer into the night (well dawn, really) than we were. It was with a few Brits that we sampled the cobra wine and absinthe.

All in all we enjoyed our short time in Siem Reap. The temples are certainly worth the trip and the town itself is the perfect size for us, allowing the local culture to thrive and not be totally engulfed by the tourism.


Saturday, May 22, 2010

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

We had not planned on going to Kuala Lumpur. However when the political situation in Thailand (mostly Bangkok) was becoming hairy with standoffs between the government and protesters we decided to go somewhere else to get our China and Vietnam visas.

There was an inexpensive direct flight from Koh Samui to Kuala Lumpur and so we decided to get a ticket to Malaysia. Neither of us knew much about Kuala Lumpur besides (of course) the Petronas Towers. The Petronas Towers were the world's tallest buildings from 1998 to 2004. The towers remain the tallest twin buildings in the world. We walked by these towers numerous times as most of the embassies are located near the towers. We were both impressed with their uniqueness, and they are really beautiful buildings. We stayed in a great hostel right in a colorful part of the city as evidenced by the downstairs neighbor...

The city of Kuala Lumpur is very modern and (maybe it was just the area we were in) has some of the fanciest malls I have ever been in. If you need a Louis Vitton, Jimmy Choo shoes or a new Bentley this is the place to find it. Luckily Jim and I are not in the market for any of these expensive things, but going though the malls provides a shortcut to get to the embassies. Also it provides a little A/C because it was extremely hot and humid. Also Kuala Lumpur has good public transportation, but we were close enough to most sights that we only took the monorail a few times.

As I am a food dork, I was really excited to find out that Kuala Lumpur is a hot spot for food as numerous different cultures and people (Malay, Indian, Chinese, Pakistani, Afghan, Thai, etc.) have settled here. Right near our hostel was Jalan Alor. Jalan Alor is a tiny street food haven surrounded by fancy malls. There are rows of hawker stalls with people out front trying to reel you into their open air restaurant where the seating is right on the street. You have cars trying to squeeze through next to the plastic tables and chairs as well.

Both Jim and I were excited to try the grilled fish and Meng Kee Grill Fish was recommended. We tried both the grilled stingray and the grilled "chicken" fish. We are not sure if "chicken" fish is a type of fish we have never heard of, or just a different name for a more common fish. Either way, the chicken fish was good, but the grilled stingray was amazing. Both are grilled crispy brown and the fish inside melts in your mouth.

I had to try one other Asian delicacy that is pretty hard to find in the U.S., and that is the infamous durian fruit. Durian fruit has been described as smelling like smelly feet, compost or onions (or all of those in some freakish combination). Because of this smell, the fruit has been banned from most hotels and public transportation. People either love it or hate it, and with this kind of reputation.... I had to try it. I loved it. It tastes like sweet cheese or a custard. It is a taste that is hard to describe but I thought had a perfect balance of sweet and creamy. Also, I didn't think it was THAT smelly. Besides being tasty, I read that it is also a very healthy fruit, high in B vitamins! I think they are really hard to find in the U.S, so no worries! I will not be bringing one over as a dessert!

The last "interesting" food I had to try was a "dried meat and meat floss bun" burger. This is a Chinese delicacy and the store is filled with vacuum packed dried meats and a grill up front cooking all sorts or dried meat in a sauce. They put a bun on the grill, heat up some dried meat, and then top the bun and dried meat with cucumber, mayo, chili sauce, and finally shredded pork floss. For about U.S. 80 cents, this was another great food find!

Malaysia was another country where the people couldn’t have been friendlier. In fact it might be the safest we’ve felt in a city of this size anywhere, including the U.S. The mix of expensive high rises and street stall markets, women shopping in fancy malls in full birquas, the vibrant art and cultural communities, and Kuala Lumpur’s explosion as financial capital all contribute to make the city a very great (and, sadly, overlooked by most tourists) place to visit.


Sunday, May 16, 2010

Island hopping in Thailand

After the trek to (and from) Makalu in Nepal, we were ready for a change of pace, so we headed from 5000 meters down to 0 meters and eventually -30 meters in the Thai islands. It being the low, rainy or "green" season (depending who you ask), we decided to stick to the Gulf of Thailand rather than the Andaman Sea islands as they are supposed to be drier this time of year. We settled on Koh Tao, a more recently developed, quieter island that has become a mecca for divers.

Getting there was an adventure in itself. After arriving back in Kathmandu we found the city and indeed the country more or less shut down for a protest strike or "bandh" led by the Maoists. This left us relatively confined to our hotel in Kathmandu with no businesses open and no motor vehicles on the road. The exceptions were emergency vehicles and tourist transport buses. The tourist transport buses were very difficult to get though, so our friends at Rolwaling Excursions picked us up from our hotel to take us to the airport. We did get stopped at one point by some Bandh enforcers looking to make sure they were transporting tourists. They saw us and we had no further problems.

After the flight, we felt like we were going out of the frying pan and into the fire as Bangkok was similarly embroiled in political upheaval. However, like our first visit, we found the protests confined to a small area of Bangkok and not an issue for us. We cabbed it directly to the rail station, however, and hopped on the overnight train to Chumphon (over the bridge on the river Kwai incidentally). From there a two hour ferry to Koh Tao and another world seemingly as far away as you could get from politics and protests.

In Koh Tao we made the decision to first head to the quieter east side (or sunrise) side of the island and Tanote Bay. Though the island is not big, a very bad road serves to fairly isolate Tanote. There are only four or five "resorts" in the bay, each consisting of maybe 10 (maybe fewer) bungalows. It being low season, we guess it was less than half full. Our bungalow, though modest, was right on the water and cost about US$13 per night for the two of us!

We spent our days lounging in the bay and snorkeling and occasionally cliff diving (see that big rock in the bay in the pic above). The snorkeling here was as good as we've ever encountered. The reefs go right up to the shore and there is virtually no tide. But swim out a bit and you can dive down along some striking walls. We saw tons of reef sharks, grouper, triggerfish, barracuda, a ray and tons of other assorted colorful tropical fish. The coral and anemone were beautiful as well. Sorry though, we no longer have an underwater camera so we have to poach pics from the web.

Each night we tried a different restaurant and ended up enjoying Poseidon the most with its treehouse-like atmoshere. We were a bit disappointed, however, in the lack of good seafood and fruit. I guess Tanote's isolation keeps that stuff out.

After five days, we decided to head across the island to the west (or sunset) coast to the more happening Sairee Beach. This is Tao's main drag just north of Mae Haad where the ferries come in. We found another cheap bungalow though this one wasn't on the beach (there are plenty on the beach for more money though). Sairee has a ton of dive operators and it seems the beach is deserted by day as everyone is off diving. Just before sunset though the boats roll back in and the bars and restaurants start hopping with beers being swapped over stories of the day's adventures. The sunset is amazing and some of locals entertained us twirling their sticks. A bit down the beach they were twirling sticks that were on fire.

We were going back and forth as to whether to dive or not since the snorkeling had already been so good and so cheap. But we relented... it is one the cheapest places to dive on earth. We decided to go for a full day, three dive trip to Sail Rock, one of Thailand's most celebrated dive spots. It didn't disappoint. Though we saw much of the same marine life we saw snorkeling, the swim-through "chimney" was worth the trip alone. We also got a great look at a lionfish which was pretty cool. We had a great time and it was a perfect day. The only disappointments were we did not spot a whale shark and the visibility at 30 meters was pretty bad.

After two dives at Sail Rock, the final dive was at the Southwest Pinnacle. This was the highlight for me as we swam through a huge school of yellowback fusiliers that was simply surreal.

Back onshore, we grabbed a spot on the beach at the Big Blue Bar and shared a beer with Jen, our divemaster and took in yet another beautiful sunset. The next day we hopped to Koh Phangan. Phangan has a reputation as a party island, but we were led to believe that if you avoid the "Moon Parties" it isn't that crazy. We made the mistake of going to the cheaper Haad Rin, the backpacker destination on Phangan and the site of the Full Moon Party. Being weeks away from the full moon we expected it to be mellower. We were mistaken. We spent one night partying with kids half our age (okay well maybe half Jim's age), drinking free Red Bull and vodkas (courtesy of the hotel) and the legendary "buckets" (see photo below of our friend Dennis deep into one). We didn't even make it to 11:00, let alone the midnight traditional start to the nightly festivities.

We quickly headed up island to the more low-key Haad Yao. One benefit of Koh Phagnan is that it is more developed and therefore things are a bit cheaper. An A/C room was about half what it was on Tao (though we stayed in a fan room on Tao). That was nice, but we definitely preferred Tao, though it is impossible to truly evelauate either island after so little time and so few places visited.

We didn't spend really any time on Koh Samui other than from ferry to airport, but it definitely seemed to be the biggest, most developed of the three with chain restaurants and even malls. It was a nice time in the Thai islands, though we didn't encounter much local culture. It is definitely a spot catering to tourists and western tourists specifically. One spot on Phangan even had a sign that said "westerners and foreigners only" which made us sad.

We decided that rather than test the political climate in Bangkok, we would re-route through Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to get our visas for Vietnam and China, so we loaded into a small prop plane and left these little island gems behind.


Monday, May 3, 2010

People of Nepal

One of the real treats of Nepal has been how friendly the people are, particularly in the Makalu region where tourist presence seemed like the exception rather than the rule. Also, digital cameras are a big hit and seemingly everyone wants their picture taken so they can view the result on the LCD screen. We thought we'd post some of our favorite of these pictures from our time in Nepal.