It's safe to say that we have a love/hate relationship with tuk-tuk drivers. They are the most annoying part of being in public in Asia, but they can sometimes offer a good time and a good laugh. When we arrived in Siem Reap Cambodia, we happened to meet a young guy named Wei that ended up being our tuk-tuk driver for three days- and boy did he end up earning his money.
On the third day, we wanted to get off the tourist trail a bit and asked about some ruins called Beng Mealea that are about 2 hours outside of Siem Reap. Wei told that he had never driven a tuk-tuk there, but he would do it for us. We left at 7:30am the next morning.
Wei is a handsome guy and every time we would leave him to do some sight seeing, we'd come back to see a pack of Cambodian girls around his tuk-tuk. He said "all they want is my money", with a coy smile. His English skills and good nature made us like him too and we felt a little bad to put him through so much.
The Beng Mealea ruins have only been open to tourists since about 2001 because of land mines. The attraction is that they are mostly untouched- viewed in the condition that nature left them for some 800 years. Like most things in Angkor- an incredible sight.
Within about one minute of arriving back at the entrance and waking up Wei, it began to rain. It rained very hard for a while and then let up, so we decided to make a move toward Siem Reap. At first, Wei refused a rain coat, perhaps wishfully thinking that it would not be needed. We choose to close ourselves into the tuk-tuk and stay dry. Along the way it rained a bit more, but there was an ominous could hanging on the horizon in the direction of home. It did not look good.
About an hour from Siem Reap, Wei decided to put on his poncho and braved some fierce winds and rain without a whimper. I stuck my head out a couple of times and told him it would be OK to take a break. He told me not to worry about it and continued to power on, holding one hand over his eyes to see. It just rained harder and harder and we could only wonder what it must be like on the front of the tuk-tuk. Wei was showing his determination in the face of adversity.
Just minutes from home, it seemed like a hurricane had come ashore in Siem Reap. I have never seen rain come down harder- it was as if the wind was blowing directly downward onto the ground, splattering the drops into mist upon impact. The Cambodians are used to monsoon rains, but the ones around us were visibly shaken by the force of this rain and wind.
Wei had had enough. He stopped and came around to the open back end of the tuk tuk with a smile- letting us know that he had given up for a while. We laughed until we felt the tuk-tuk convulse a couple of times. It was being shaken by Wei's shivering. The water had sucked every bit of warmth out of him and he was miserable. He finally climbed into the warm and dry cab of the tuk-tuk with us to recover before finally making it home.
We had to hand it to him- he tried his best to get through the worst that nature could offer and he did with a smile. We tipped him well and told him to spend it on a party with his friends, where he could tell stories about being his battles with the monsoon.
3AM: Lee wakes up to watch last half of World Cup finals. Goes back to sleep happy for Italy and wishing bad, bad things for Zidane.
6:30AM: Wake up and pack.
7:05AM: Go to front desk to check out and order breakfast to go. Find only one worker- a bar keep. Order is placed as kitchen shows no signs of life.
7:15AM: Take bags to front desk... Food is being cooked slowly, checkout process begins, slowly. Feel anxiety about catching 7:45am bus.
7:35AM: Breakfast is done, but no takeaway containers. Must wait for someone to run next door. tick-tock tic-tock. Finally board the backs of two motorcycles (motos) for the bus station. Board bus with little fanfare.
8:15AM: Cambodian karaoke plays on the bus TV and sound system.
11:15AM: While arriving in Phnom Penh, Sachi notices a large stream of ants traveling up and down the window on her left as the woman beside me utilizes a third bus-supplied barf bag. Sachi feels thankful for motion patch.
11:55AM: Arrive at first bus station in Phnom Penh only to reboard same bus to go to main terminal to catch new bus for 6 hour ride to Siem Reap. Our bus to Siem Reap is full. Walk to other bus companies, find another 12:30 bus to Siem Reap for US$7 per person.
12:48PM: Depart Phnom Penh for Siem Reap with an ETA of 5:30pm. We'll see.
1:48PM: This bus smells like urine and the AC doesn't keep the sweat away.
3:35PM: Lee commences all out assault on bus toilet door, which swings open incessantly just feet from his seat. After closing it for the 12th time, resolves to find a solution. The urine smell will be defeated!
4:17PM: Lee breaks a new sweat with each close of the toilet door. No one seems to appreciate the effort.
5:43PM: Lee continues to be mocked by the bathroom door and it's rank smells. Despite fastening a canvas strap supplied by the bus people (a victorious solution), a steady flow of fellow passengers fail to recognize our plight and the door remains open for most of the time. Grrrrr. Lee admits defeat in the final moments.
6:10PM: Arrive in Siem Reap and into the typical SE Asian madhouse of tuk-tuk drivers, bags emerging from the belly of the bus and astounding inefficiency. We take a tuk-tuk to our hotel and retire for the evening after spending 10 hours on Cambodian busses.
Like so many of the things we do, the journey is so much better than the destination. This was certainly the case when we decided to go river rafting in
The day began with the precarious stacking of various river floating paraphernalia on top of an open air truck called a song tao (phonetic spelling) and meeting two of the more unfriendly travelers we’ve met thus far. Funny thing, their noses seemed to be permanently lifted into the air to such a degree that they found it unnecessary to interact with the likes of us. We could only chuckle in our bewilderment.
It was really more like river floating or river paddling than river rafting, I’d say. The rapids were surely class 1 and we spent much of the time paddling through nearly stagnant yoo-hoo colored water. In fact, on a couple of occasions, our trusty guides Pon and Jon napped (as is apparently customary in SE Asia). All the clothes below are for protection from the sun.
The fun began when we stopped to have lunch at a small 300 person village. As we pulled up on the banks of the river, the kids from the village came down to greet us. For the next hour or so we all played in the river and my camera, or the images it produced, was often the center of attention. They laughed so hard when they saw the picture below.
The guides let them take the boat out in the river and before long they started using it as a diving board.
The guides let them take the boat out in the river and before long they started using it as a diving board.
The guides gave them a little help in the air too.
The girls from the village were a bit more reserved.
We got thankfully separated from the other group and in our time waiting for them, Jon saw his cousin on the river and they invited us to the shore for a fish fry.
We pulled up on the banks as his family and friends proceeded to make a fire, set up a table and serve a freshly caught meal of river fish, stewed vegetables, pumpkin seeds, sticky rice and plenty of “lao-lao” or homemade Lao Whiskey. The whiskey is akin to moonshine, but made from sticky rice. They made us feel right at home.
Though the rafting itself wasn’t that exciting, the scenery was amazing and we didn’t need to remind ourselves that we’re floating down a river somewhere in the middle of
Looking around, it really felt like something from a movie with village fisherman, kids playing on the beach and not a speck of modern civilization in sight. It was surely some of the best
In Chiang Mai, we were offered two options to get to Luang Prabang, Laos. The slow boat would take a couple of days where you sit on a wooden plank for 10 hours per day and can't lean back on the metal siding because the sun makes it too hot to touch (though we've heard varied stories). Or fly in 50 minutes on Lao Airlines. We chose to fly.
As the plane took off I read our Rough Guide to Southeast Asia's instructions for getting around by planes. Here's what I read to Lee:
Most Western embassies still have travel advisories warning against flying Lao airlines. For some travellers flying Lao Airlines demonstrates bravado, but it's not really something you want to do unless you absolutely have to.
We made it just fine. Our bravado now seems to be unstoppable.
Chiang Mai is the northern city that makes up the mountainous part of what I would call the Big Three regions of
From the moment we arrived, we started to get a good feeling for Chiang Mai. It doesn’t have the colossal population, traffic and pollution of
Chiang Mai is also the jumping off point for the surrounding mountains that offer access to the Thai Hill Country Tribes, rivers, elephant camps and beautiful scenery. After seeing so much of the beach, it was nice to venture up into the mountains recently for a one day trek (US$25 per person). Trekking is big business in Chiang Mai and we were a bit overwhelmed with all the choices. In the end, we choose a day that included a visit to an elephant camp, two hill tribes, a waterfall and a trip on a bamboo raft. We were skeptical and the tour exceeded our expectations. Here are some of the things we saw:
After an hour or so in a minivan with a fun group of Aussies and Austrians, we arrived at an elephant camp. I have a soft spot for elephants and I get a little conflicted when it comes to riding them and seeing them used purely for human amusement. The fact is that most of the elephants in Thailand are working elephants used in the lumber industry, which was banned in 1989. This left a large population of elephants unemployed and many were abandoned by their owners. Tourism offer a sustainable way for the domesticated elephants to remain healthy and live quite well with their life-long companion, the mahout. Here is a mahout with his bathing elephant trying to get completely sumerged:
There are a number of hill tribes in Northern Thailand and most migrated from China and Burma. The Karen tribe is the largest and has a few hundred-thousand members. We learned that they are traditionally animist, meaning that they believe in the spirits of living things. However, about 80% have recently been converted to Christianity. While they see tourists every day, it seems that their village life is still quite traditional and tourists aren't allowed in most areas.
We did visit what was called a "hill tribe" but resembled more of a gift shop with a few huts around it. Not great.
One of the highlights was floating down a river on a bamboo raft. Touristy? Yes. Fun? Very much so. I got to do my best to be the aft guide...
We did some trekking through the woods, where Sachi tried her best to avoid bugs:
We crossed some super-sketchy bamboo bridges...
And had a better time than we expected.
Of course, this was a bit different than the Shotover Jet River Boats in New Zealand...
I can't get enough of the bullet trains. It seems to me that the design of the front of the train is a bit gratuitous. Does it really need to look that cool to function properly, or is it all just looks? It doesn't matter to me.
8:15AM: Wake up, shower, pack backpacks, post to TwinF.
9:08AM: Depart Kanazawa Garden Hotel for the beautiful Kanazawa train station (literally best exterior we've seen)- no train schedule to Takayama in hand.
9:22AM: Arrive at station, get coffee, breakfast, visit ticket counter. Ticket guy gives us ticket to Toyama (next town up) and says little but "change change change- change change change".
9:49AM: Board train to Toyama.
10:30AM: Arrive at Toyama, find schedule for next train to Takayama- see that next train leaves at 10:31 on Track 3.
10:31AM: Race to Track 3 in time to view the caboose of Takayama train mock us while departing station. Exasperate knowing former train guy could have let us know.
10:35AM: Visit ticket counter to discover meaning of "change change change". To get to Takayama, we must depart at 1:47PM (3 hours later), change to a bus, and then change back to train to arrive at 5:15PM. Feel pangs of discouragement.
10:47AM: Resolve to tour Toyama. Put bags in locker (US$5), rip out page in guidebook, which reads "The heavily industrialized city of Toyama has few tourist attractions." Roll eyes, take page with us.
11:21AM: While sitting on park swings at Toyama Castle Park, discuss Ben Franklin's public library idea and the naming of UPenn's Oxymoronic Fighting Quaker Marching Band (of which Sachi's brother Mark was percussion leader).
12:17PM: Eat ramen noodles for lunch next to Japanese businessmen. Despite delicious noodles, discussed our preference for the rich and hearty Southern Kyushu ramen.
1:44PM: Buy two giant maple cream puffs and salmon sushi. Board two-car train packed with Japanese school girls, which seem to make up at least 60% of the Japanese population on weekdays around 12-2. Wonder outloud- why aren't they in school right now? Why do they ALL have the same haircut?
2:35PM: Arrive in the tiny mountain town of Inotani having gobbled cream puffs and sushi. Oishi!
3:25PM: Depart Inotani on a small bus containing 3 people (us included) with legroom about 3 inches shorter than Lee's femur. Ride through the brand new 2.6 km Koshiji Tunnel. Even on the rickety mountain bus, an automated female voice reminds us of the stops in Japanese.
4:35PM: Arrive in the two-horse town of Tsunogawa to catch final train.
4:45PM: Depart Tsunogawa for Takayama in 2 car train, containing the same 3 people as the bus.
5:15PM: Arrive in Takayama- on time as usual. Pick up map from tourist office. Walk to first choice hotel- closed for renovation. Walk back to tourist office for more info. Walk to Rickshaw Inn (7 minutes) to find it is full- realize we should had the tourist office call first. Walk to Hotel Hana- get room for US$93 per night for 2 nights- expected. Relax.
6:05PM: Tour town on foot, laugh at our knack for walking streets after closing time.
6:45PM: Eat at tiny bar restaurant run by a friendly couple knowing little English. Have local specialty Hida Beef and sake. Sachi translates conversations about us between unsuspecting people at the bar.
8:15PM: Return to hotel for long hard night's sleep.
This has been a pretty high pressure morning, thanks to our ignorance of business closings on May Day yesterday.
You see, we really needed to get a Japan Rail Pass (JR Pass) for economical bullet train travel around Japan. It is only possible to purchase a JR Pass *outside* of Japan and we planned to buy them in Bangkok. We carefully planned our time in Bangkok to have a weekday for acquiring said pass. As noted previously, the May Day holiday through a monkey wrench into the plan- all travel agencies were closed.
So, this morning the goal was to take the SkyTrain at rush hour (with our backpacks), find the travel agency somewhere on the busy Silom Rd. that opened at 8:30, get the pass and make our 11am flight to Tokyo, JR Pass in hand. Delays in getting the pass or traffic could have caused us to miss the flight and not getting the JR would have cost us hundreds of dollars extra in travel. Stakes were high.
Things this morning went hurriedly, sweatily and luckily quite smoothly and here we are with our boarding pass and JR Pass safely in hand, ready for Tokyo.
One quick note: We were amazed and a bit worried when we tried to board the first train this morning. The doors opened to reveal people packed in like sardines- you could see that the opening of the doors gave them a little relief. We looked in there, then at our backpacks, and let that train go. When the next one came, I remembered watching the men board the train in Mumbai, India and as soon as the doors opened, we pushed in and made room for ourselves, much to the dismay of the man behind Sachi, who pushed her for the rest of the eerily silent ride. If nothing else, we're becoming more aware of what it means to give up person space to things done.
6:30AM: awake after 5 hours of sleep, pack bags.
7AM: Arrive at resort reception to check out and have breakfast. Scrape enough Baht together for bill- 7 nights, 6 breakfasts, 5 dinners for US$280. We heard they accepted credit cards.
7:30AM: Depart for 8AM boat to Phuket in back of pickup truck.
7:38AM: Truck proceeds one quarter of the way, stops, turns around, heads back to resort to pick up forgotten passenger- Jack from the UK. Begin frantic drive to catch boat.
7:58AM: Arrive at boat, both whacked with motion sickness, sweating and feeling green. Banana shaped boat departs into moderate swells and a cloud of diesel exhaust.
8:35AM: Thanks to the heat and exhaust fumes, Sachi promply tosses breakfast out the starboard side window and returns to seat, refreshed.
9:15AM: Arrive in Ko Phi Phi, switch to larger, air conditioned boat. Lee contemplates the adventures of his right flip-flop after a mix up last night that resulted in a mismatched pair of footwear.
9:45AM Jack from the UK sits with us and pours through our Japan guidebook, circling things we should see and do. We both feel much better than before.
11AM: Arrive in Phuket port and try to find a cheaper way into the town center than the standard charge of US$1.25 (50 Baht) per person. No luck.
11:15AM: On the way to Phuket Town, remind taxi driver- no we do not want to see your friend's hotel- no we do not need a new suit. No stops.
11:30AM Begin sweltering search for air conditioned lunch and place to chill out in 90(f) heat with everything we have on our backs-on a Saturday-when fewer things are open for lunch. Find an oasis at a coffeeshop called Kopi de Phuket and stay for a while. Mmmm.
2pm: Try to find taxi to Phuket airport for less than US$10 (400 baht). We give up, it's hot and they let us walk away when we insist on 350 baht- the taxi drivers are feeling the gas prices here too. Listen to "Hey Jude" (Beatles), "Hang On Sloopy" (The McCoys), "Venus" (Bananarama), "Sugar, Sugar" (The Archies) via mix cassette tape. Mmmm.
3:55PM Board plane bound for Bangkok with mostly Thai people. Plane's speaker system is excruciatingly loud. Witnessed the fastest ever bi-lingual safety demonstration, performed through no less that 20 blasts of piercing feedback, each followed by attemps to finish the demo and spare everyone's sanity. Lee wonders why it is that people in front of him on planes insist on putting their seat back with enough force to catapult a pack of peanuts to the back galley.
5:37PM: Arrive in Bankok and survey the taxi situation. A typical dilemma: catch a cab right now for US$12 (negotiated) or wait in a line of 64 people for a metered cab, usually costing US$5-7? We wait- it takes about 15 minutes and costs about US$7.
6:43PM: Arrive at nicer-than-we-need Asia Hotel in Siam Square for 3 nights at US$41 per night. Our reserved room type is not available, so we get a free upgrade to Delux. Sweet.
So this ends a pretty typical and low pressure travel day, minus the tossing of breakfasts. The author is happy that he can now stop referring to himself in the third person.