Cambodia

After a relatively hassle-free border crossing from Thailand into Cambodia, we stepped off our bus in Siem Reap and were pleased to see a smiling Tuk-Tuk driver holding a sign, “Le Malika d’Angkor Welcomes Jon Vohlers!”  Siem Reap is the gateway to Angkor, the epicenter of the Khmer Empire, which lasted from 802 – 1432.   At its peak in the 12th century, the city surrounding Angkor Wat had a population of over 1 million (vs. 50,000 in London  at that same time).

Jen had visited Cambodia and Angkor seven years before, and instantly she remarked how more developed Siem Reap was – roads were nicer, buildings bigger, shops more extravagant – it was cool to see the progress made.   But since Jen had visited Angkor before, she decided to only join Jon for one of the three days planned to visit the temples – the other two were used to stay back at the hotel in Siem Reap and do much needed travel planning for future legs of our trip.

It would be fair to say Jon got WAY into Angkor and the Khmer Empire.   Jon spent over 27 hours in three days visiting 25 temples, all via Tuk-Tuk, driven by Sokea (our now Facebook friend, hi Sokea!)  Over the three days, at and in-between Temples, Jon would read the guide book he purchased cover-to-cover, which explained the Khmer Empire history, the drivers of their Buddhist and Hindu religions, and each of the Angkor temples in detail.   It was really fun, and definitely a highlight of the trip – it’s easy to see why Angkor, and its main attraction Angkor Wat, is considered to be “the 8th Wonder of the World”

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We spent our last night in Siem Reap going to the Cambodian Circus, based on the recommendation of our friends we met in Thailand.   It was a great show, a great cause – the acrobatics were amazing.

The next day we took the bus to Phnom Penh, the capital and largest city in Cambodia.   We enjoyed our two days there, seeing the National Palace and exploring some of the bars and restaurants scattered throughout the busy streets and alleys.  We were especially pleased to explore the cocktail culture in Cambodia – somehow, creative cocktails have caught on, and we even enjoyed a gin and tonic spiced with young (green) black pepper!  Delicious.

Since Jen had visited it already, Jon also went to S-21, a high school built in the 1960s, then turned into one of hundreds of prisons used across the country when the Khmer Rouge communist party took power in the mid-70s and 80s.  It was one of the most secret detention facilities, and one of the cruelest, torturing their detainees into admitting “crimes” against the Khmer Rouge state many often did not commit.  As soon as they admitted guilt, they were bused to the killing fields a few kilometers outside of the city – thus how over 20,000 people from S-21 were killed.  Over 2 million people were killed in total, a quarter of the population, most from the cities where the educated or those “corrupted” by the West lived.  The museum was moving, and it makes you think and reflect on what anyone over the age of 40 must have lived through in Cambodia…  it’s awesome to see the country bounce-back, and meet and visit with the friendly, warm, present-day Cambodians.

More Bangkok

From Koh Tao, we took a ferry to a small town called Chumphon, then a bus up the coast back to Bangkok.  We spent two nights in Bangkok to recharge with some big city food and drinks, and to meet up for a day with Nuwan and his wife Antje – we hadn’t met Antje yet, and we needed to get our camera back!

Nuwan and Antje took us to a recently re-developed riverfront area called Asianique.  We walked around the markets, cafes and restaurants, took a ferris wheel ride, and enjoyed some very tasty (albeit expensive) Western beer.

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Scenic Ferris Wheel ride over Bangkok Riverfront!
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Jen coveting her first non-Asian beer in a month…

We admired the sunset, the lights set up for the queen’s birthday, and headed for our first Western dinner in awhile.

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Wat Arun from our sunset river taxi ride
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Bangkok decked-up for the Queen’s Birthday celebration

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We ended up back towards Nuwan and Antje’s neighborhood, first having dinner at one of their favorite restaurants, a super yummy Lebanese place, then to one of the few breweries and tap rooms in Bangkok.

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Enjoying a Lebanese feast with Antje and Nuwan

It was fun to hang out with Nuwan again and meet Antje, and a great re-charge to be in Bangkok and indulge on some big city treats.  The next day we caught our bus and headed to our next stop:  Cambodia!

Thai Island Hopping 4: Koh Lanta, Samui, and Tao

KOH LANTA

Koh Lanta lacks the stunning karst scenery of the aforementioned islands, but it makes up for it with long, sandy beaches and a laid back vibe.  We stayed at a beautiful resort on Koh Lanta, continued to recover from our bout of illness, and rented a motorbike to visit the National Park at the south end of the island.  We really enjoyed Koh Lanta, but it was time to move on.

We crossed the peninsula and went to the Gulf of Thailand side, where it was high season and supposedly better weather.  On the Andaman Coast, we had wonderful weather, little to no crowds, and cheap accommodation, during its shoulder season.  In contrast, we found rain, massive crowds, and booked and expensive accommodation on the Gulf of Thailand side.  We decided to spend very little time on the Gulf side of the Thai peninsula.

KOH SAMUI

We stopped here just for a night on our way to Koh Tao.  We disliked the rain and the loads of people walking through the strip malls near the beach.  (I am sure there are nice quiet beaches on this island, but we didn’t stay long enough to discover them, due to bad weather.)

KOH TAO

We had planned to take a scuba dive course in Koh Tao, but we were met with more bad luck.  Our chosen dive operator, known for their safety, refused to take Jen diving due to her asthma without a note from a doctor in the US.  We were unable to speak to our doctor in the US on the phone, and later found out that no note of good health could be signed unless Jen had a physical within the past year.  Which she hadn’t.  We were bummed out about missing the SCUBA certification, but did manage a bit of snorkeling, so all was not completely lost.

We will be back for our final doses of Thailand in Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai (where Jen taught English seven years ago) after China, but excited now for the next legs of our trip in Cambodia and Vietnam.

Thai Island Hopping 3: Koh Phi Phi

We had been warned that Koh Phi Phi’s paradise had met its demise due to overdevelopment, so we searched for our own quieter beach on the island.  We managed to find a stretch of white sand beach with Phi Phi’s famed spectacular turquoise water, with only a few sleepy resorts nearby.   Unfortunately, we encountered trouble in paradise after eating dinner in the main tourist hub:  Jon and I contracted a nasty case of food poisoning at the “Four Seasons” hotel Phi Phi.  Definitely not the real Four Seasons, but an (apparently dirty) Thai knockoff.  We were laid up in our cabana for 36 hours, only venturing out briefly for rice at one point.  We made it through and moved on to Koh Lanta.

Thai Island Hopping 2: Railay

Next we moved onto a rocky outcropping in Krabi province, called Railay.   The views of the karst limestone islands are gorgeous; we could hardly contain our excitement on the boat ride in.  We stayed up on a hill in a beautiful valley surrounded by cliff instead of the beach, as the island is packed with people.

We rock climbed one day, and hiked up to a view point and lagoon the next day.  After our hikes, we hung out on a gorgeous beach, with an interesting shrine in the cave.  A nice island day…until:  ANIMALS ATTACK!  First, while we were relaxing on the beach, a green snake slithered across our blankets!  We were on our feet before we realized what had happened.  Then a few minutes later as we were walking back to our hotel, a rather large monkey jumped onto the path in front of us and briskly walked straight at us.  Jon bolted, Jen tried to run, but the monkey pursued.  When he was very close, Jen thrust her plastic bottle at him, as protection, or a last ditch effort, or the only thing she could think to do.  It turned out that’s what he had wanted all along:  the plastic bottle of iced tea!  He climbed a tree, opened the bottle and drank it.  We felt a little bad for giving him the bottle, but relieved to have avoided further confrontation.

Thai Island Hopping 1: Phuket, Koh Yao

PHUKET

We started our tour through tropical paradise in Thailand’s best known, biggest, and ugliest island:  Phuket.  We did meet a lovely Irish couple (hi Breffni and Orla!) and we even learned how to pick a delicious and un-smelly durian fruit.  Yes, it’s true.  We are DURIAN-LOVERS!  After a couple of nights, we had enough of the strip malls, trash-filled beaches, and grouchy Russian tourists, and so we headed for a less-touristy island:  Koh Yao Yoi.

– Note:  Our camera was left under the bed in Phuket, so all of the photos are from the iPhone until we recover the camera in Bangkok!

KOH YAO YOI

This one was fun because we found the gorgeous and less-travelled island on a fluke:  Jen looked at a map, and wondered why she had never heard of the giant islands right next to Phuket.  After a quick google search of the island revealed the phrase, “one of the last unspoiled islands in Thailand,” we planned our trip there immediately.

The island lived up to its accolades: the scenery was stunning and the people were kind and Thai-quirky.  For example, on arrival, our taxi driver told us, “You are welcome to Thailand!” at least 10 times, before suddenly pulling over and declaring that it was time to take photos.  An awkward photo session of epic proportions ensued session.  For every shot he would arrange us with expert precision:  hands held, Jen’s head tilted against Jon’s chest.  He was adorably wacky in a way that reminded Jen why she loves Thailand.

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The view and the pool at our bungalows were stunning, and we hardly left the resort for 3 days.  We met Canadian writers, Kristen and Kavi, who were also on an extended RTW journey, and together we took a long kayaking trip to a nearby beach, and later celebrated Kristin’s birthday, a couple of times.