High country, South Vietnam: Đà Lạt

Any town that molds itself into a hilly region via a chaotic, windy, no-rules streetplan gets immediate bonus points for charm, and Đà Lạt is no exception. Combine this with welcoming residents and beautiful temperate countryside and you have a winner destination unique in Southeast Asia. French colonial influence is constantly apparent here with the gardens, architecture, and coffee. The surrounding mountains are sided with clean pine forests, coffee plantations, and a cornucopia of flower and vegetable farms. The zig-zag streets are lined with all kinds of blooming trees and bushes.

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It’s not exactly a genuine old Vietnamese town. Đà Lạt is a product of French colonialism – they wanted a nice cool place to vacation and the idea caught on. But the vestigial colonial influence only goes skin deep (or not even, if we’re speaking literally). Once you’re talking to the locals, eating the food, or simply people watching, it’s quite apparent you’re still very much in Vietnam. And while it’s touristy, nearly all the visitors are Vietnamese – you know you’re a bit off of the beaten path for Westerners when broken attempts to speak earn you a laughing smile and a pat on the back rather than tired indifference.

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Phở stop. The little cake-donut things that look like bread get torn up as croutons, it’s delicious
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Mì Quảng, a new one for us

Đà Lạt is a popular destination for folks looking to do outdoor activities: hiking, biking, canyoning. I (Gregor) really wanted to get on a bike and Elaine wanted a day off so I went off for a mountain bike day with a local guide. ~$30 gets a day with a new Trek bike, lunch, and a guide who can add a lot of color and context to what you’re seeing – good deal! Even though he’s only been learning English for a year, Ho (the guide) was quite adept. It turned out I was the only one who signed up today so it was just us two.

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We got rolling out of town and into a nearby park. About an hour in, Ho’s chain broke, and judging by his perplexed expression he hadn’t encountered this issue before. I asked him if he had any tools, and despite the fact that he was carrying what turned out to be a really heavy pack including enough food for 4 and a huge floor pump – no tools. Ho, rather distraught, eventually decided on a solution.

“I think, we keep going.” Gestures forward.

“But,” I point out the obvious, “you can’t.”

Pause. “I will run for you.”

You can’t be serious. But of course he was. There’s no way that was going to happen but he was honestly trying to do the best he could for my day. Let’s try something different:

“Can you call the company? We can go back to the road and they could bring a new bike?”

“I think,” he considers, “this is a good idea.”

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Calling in for backup

Excellent. Ho managed to get in touch with his coworkers and we hoofed it back a couple kilometers to meet a van and swap out his bike. We only lost an hour or so and were back on our way. Problem solved! We wound up and down through pine forest, catching views of the surrounding mountains and family-owned farms growing all sorts of produce. From the park we went out onto a road past coffee plantations into a neighboring town that’s traditionally been home to a local ethnic minority. More farms, hillside views, and flowers everywhere. Everyone smiling and having a good-natured laugh at us hauling ourselves around. It was a great way to see the countryside around Đà Lạt!

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Mountains, pine trees, and coffee plantations

As I mentioned it’s relatively cool up here, meaning for me I can exist outside comfortably in a t-shirt and shorts. For Vietnamese however this is frigid weather and puffy jackets are in use everywhere. Even Ho was sporting a sweatshirt on our hilly mountain bike ride. “How can you wear this?”, I had to ask him in between panting. His response: “It’s better for me.”

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Ho and the pile of food he brought for us

A popular site to visit in town is the “Crazy House”, a unique organically-themed architectural work of art. It’s a whimsical fairy-tale like set of towers with windy stairs, funky colors, and absolutely no regularity. The result is reminiscent of Barcelona’s Gaudí sights, and while not as refined, fun nonetheless!

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Crazy house. Not all perspective distorted photographically.

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Đà Lạt has a modest night market in the center of town where a lot of the produce and flowers from the surrounding farms are out for sale. Strawberries are especially prevalent. There are also plenty of food carts and we tried out some interesting wrap-like things made with rice paper, egg, onion, dried shrimp, and a few other goodies grilled over a fire. It’s crunchy, creamy, savory, and fishy.

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night market with low-hanging clouds passing through
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grilling up a bánh tráng nướng

Our accommodations in Đà Lạt were on the less charming side of the overall experience. We ended up I think in a popular place for Vietnamese tourists to stay after hitting the numerous karaoke joints in town, and the walls were paper thin. Add in the very excitable insomniac dogs on the street and several roosters (at least one of which we were pretty sure was living inside the hotel) and it wasn’t exactly quiet! Ah well, at least it was clean and cheap.

Interesting eats here included “beef on tile” which involves getting a wicked hot charcoal brazier at your table (indoors, whatever) with a roofing tile on top where you grill yourself some beef. The whole setup is mounted in a nifty handmade arrangement that tilts the tile and deflects oil off into a bowl on the side. Super fun!

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Tabletop barbecue

We spent an extra night in Đà Lạt so we could catch a flight to Da Nang (near Hội An, our intended next destination). Otherwise we would have had to spend 2 long days travelling by bus and possibly train, and since there aren’t destinations we’re interested in between here and there we decided to skip that and fly. So anyway we had an extra day so we went for a hike with a small group from the same outfitters I biked with a couple days ago.

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Elaine loves crossing sketchy bridges

It was a nice way to spend the day and get some exercise. The hills around Đà Lạt aren’t epic but they are beautiful, punctuated as they are by coffee plantations and pine trees and churning rivers. We hiked down into a valley and along one such river (though by Vietnamese standards it is only a stream), crossing it a couple times via hanging bridges. The second such bridge had recently been damaged and was undergoing repairs by the local farmers but that didn’t stop us from crossing!

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It’s fine!

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There isn’t much in the way of large wildlife around Đà Lạt. The largest animals we saw were the mutts that every farming family has as pets, guarding their shack or running alongside a motorbike. We did see plenty of insects though, of all weird varieties (most too hard to capture by camera) as well as some interesting birds. We sampled some underripe passionfruit – very sour – which they grow overhanging coffee plants and alongside avocado and persimmon trees.

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We circled back to finish at Tiger Waterfall. While there our guide Hong told us a sobering story of his friend – also a tour guide – who organized canyoning trips to this waterfall despite it being illegal. (This is an activity where folks rappel down falls, among other things). It’s not permitted at Tiger falls because upriver is a dam which can open without warning, and three months ago Hong’s friend was killed there along with a tourist when this happened. Hong lit some incense for his friend and then we headed back into Đà Lạt for our last evening.

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Tiger Waterfall

True facts about Đà Lạt:

  1. Every third building houses a cafe.
  2. Flowers are on, above, and in everything. All flowers are always blooming.
  3. It rains every day, but not before 2pm.
  4. Any object remotely tall and pointy must be decked out like the Eiffel Tower. If this is not feasible, a Moulin Rouge windmill is acceptable.
  5. Wherever there are stairs outside there must also be a scooter ramp. The preferred method for making said ramp is by drooling concrete onto a perfectly good set of steps.

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We continue to meander our way north through Vietnam. This morning we hopped a flight up to Da Nang to visit nearby Hội An where I’m wrapping this up from. We got some great views both of the hills around Đà Lạt on takeoff and blocky meandering rice paddies on descent. Later!

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Đà Lạt hills on takeoff

Specifics: Phu Tho hotel is noisy. Dreams hotel on Phan Dinh Phung was nice. Groovy Gecko are the folks we did the day trips with. The night market is a good place for bites and we liked relaxing with some beers in Cafe 13.

Mũi Né, South Vietnam’s chill beach

It has happened. Gregor hit the wall. It’s not what you think. By hitting the wall I mean that he does not have enough to do so feels like he is wasting time. I told him this was exciting because it means he has recovered from being overwhelmed! However, now my task is to keep him busy, so I shipped him off to go mountain-biking (we’re now in Đà Lạt) while I write this post about Mũi Né.

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Mũi Né – Pretty typical beach town. A strip of buildings following a single road running along what in this case is quite a sizable beach, almost 10km long. It’s a popular destination for domestic tourists and Russians. If you are into kite-surfing this is the place to be. Having moved from Alameda, CA (one of the best places in the world to learn to kite surf) it feels funny to not be a veteran, but there is a pretty steep learning curve and I’m sure I would die.

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We got to Mũi Né from Ho Chi Minh by taking the Futa (Phuong Trang) bus, a well-known company that operates throughout Vietnam. Unlike the hop on/off tourist buses these aren’t directly catered to foreigners and so we were a bit unsure as to how it would go. It worked out just fine, though – the staff was very friendly and it’s a great deal with a 6 hour ride around $6! The most interesting thing is all the buses are “sleeper” setups which means 2 layers of 3 rows of almost-flat bunk things. As one would expect, a bit too small for 1.9m-tall Gregor but we managed fine. To keep the floors clean (the bottom bunks are basically on the floor) you take your shoes off at the bus door.

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Squeezing in on the sleeper bus!

Good things about Mũi Né:

  1. It’s a beach
  2. It’s warm
  3. Good seafood
  4. Sand Dunes
  5. Fairy Stream
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Selecting a fresh fish for dinner from a roadside display
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1-2 beers later, delicious grilled snapper is ready!

As far as beaches go, it’s good. It’s clean and you can get a good walk in as the beach is fairly long. It is pretty windy there and the current is pretty strong so it’s not the most gentle beach if you just want to lounge. We also packed headlamps so after dinner one evening we walked back to our hotel along the beach which was really entertaining because there were thousands of crabs feasting on all things dead, especially jellyfish, yum. They scattered when we got close except for the one that ran into Gregor’s foot.

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We did a half day tour which included red and white sand dunes and fairy stream. I did not expect to be impressed by fairy stream, but I think that was actually my favorite part of the tour. Basically you wade up a stream that has cut through the hard-packed dunes uphill. The sand has these dense formations that are quite impressive, especially with the contrasting red and white sand.

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Walking up the Fairy Stream. This is all sand!

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The white sand dunes were pretty good, although when you get there there are a line of ATV’s waiting for you to rent or give you a ride to the top of the dunes. Gregor wanted to drive one, but it was pretty expensive ($30 for a half hour) and the cheaper option was for them to drive us to the top and back. It still seemed pretty expensive, but when we told them it was ok we would just walk, the price came down, voila! Given that we had visited White Sands New Mexico just recently (which is an incredible place) the dunes were not overly impressive, but worth seeing since we were in town.

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The red sand dunes were smaller and less exciting. Except for the fact that the locals try to rope you into renting sleds to slide down the dunes. We read not to try this unless you were a kid and weighed nothing, otherwise it was hard to get moving. Since we are not kids and giants by Vietnamese standards, the locals did not even really try to sell us the sleds, they seemed to know that it would not end well.

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Mũi Né fishing fleet out past the red dunes

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Less-than-great things about Mũi Né:

  1. No bicycles. Would have been nice to ride around (it’s flat) but our hotel didn’t have any and other places wouldn’t rent them to us.
  2. No kayaks. Too windy to stand-up paddleboard, we thought kayaking would be a good option having read that you can rent them on the beach. However after walking the entire beach and asking every outdoor activity place, no one had them. Except this one place that had an aged inflatable mammoth for $10/hr which seemed ridiculous. They also had these round tub-like ‘boats’ that we never saw getting used and I’m not even sure we could have rented them, but given that they are round it seems unlikely we would have gotten very far.
  3. Very quiet: we like quieter towns but this was a bit too slow which I think contributed to numbers 1 + 2. It may have been the slow time of year when we were there.
  4. Russian as the second language: this isn’t so much bad as just strange. Apparently Mũi Né has been the target of Russian investment and subsequent group tours so it’s a bit of a destination for them, and all signs, menus etc are in a combo of Vietnamese and Russian.

Overall we had a relaxing time in Mũi Né and we’re happy we chose this as a beach destination instead of the party town of Nha Trang further north. We wouldn’t recommend going far out of your way for it but if you’re north of Ho Chi Minh and want a beach it’s an affordable stop!

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Top kebab on the trip so far is from Sinbad’s in Mũi Né

Next post will be about the high-country city of Đà Lạt!

Specifics: we stayed at 4 Oceans aka Bon Bien for $30/night including breakfast. It was fine – clean, and breakfast was good. The best food we got was at Bo Ke (seafood), Sinbad’s (kebab), and Ganesh (Indian). Other than seafood there isn’t much in the way of interesting Vietnamese food but we were really happy with both Sinbad’s and Ganesh. Joe’s Cafe is a good place to hang out with a beer or cocktail.

Into Vietnam: Saigon (H.C.M.C.)

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We arrived in HCMC after laying low in Phnom Penh for a couple days. In Phnom Penh Gregor was recovering from food poisoning so I did some sight-seeing by myself visiting S-21 Prison (The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum of Khmer Rouge infamy) which was shocking and interesting. So much of history in this part of the world is pretty recent so it hits home even harder. I was glad to have seen S-21 but what they did to people there I can’t even fathom. Only 12 people survived out of the up to 20,000 people imprisoned there. One of the survivors was there signing books, amazing.

In general we were not enamored with Phnom Penh. It was the dirtiest city I have ever been to, which makes it really difficult to enjoy, and the sights as they were didn’t really make up for it. All we were really doing was using it a rest stop before heading into Vietnam anyway, so no big loss.

From Phnom Penh we got a bus through to Saigon (officially called Ho Chi Minh City for the past 40 years, though everyone there still uses the old name). The border was a bit of a process involving switching buses and working through a few different queues but really wasn’t bad, having gotten an e-visa ahead of time. It’s a little harder for US citizens to get a Vietnam visa, but only in that visa on arrival isn’t available at the crossings. They have just started doing electronic visas so we fortunately didn’t have through a multi-day process at the embassy in Phnom Penh. Sadly though this meant we couldn’t use our intended path of entry via boat down the Mekong River as it’s not supported by the e-visa program.

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On to Ho Chi Minh! We immediately decided that we love this place. First thing’s first, the food is amazing. All the Vietnamese staples you know plus tons more we’ve never seen before. Soups are so good and run $2-3. We also found these chicken kebab wraps for $2 and we shared one every day we were there – better than any I’ve found in the states, for sure. The city feels quite clean despite it being one of the more polluted and we were quite comfortable wandering around between lush parks and tree-lined boulevards (punctuated by red hammer-and-sickle flags, of course). The residents have been quite friendly, cabs are reasonable, and the architecture is a fun blend including French colonial buildings and some impressive modern towers.

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What else do we like about this Ho Chi Minh?

#1- No tuk tuks. What a relief after Thailand and Cambodia to not be heckled every ten seconds while out walking! With that said,

  1. Holy scooters batman! They are like schooling fish and are everywhere. Think this is a one way street? It is! Unless you’re a scooter. Think this is a sidewalk? It is! Unless you’re a scooter. Think that is a red light? It is! Well, you get the picture.
  2. Crossing the street. Pick a car coming at you at less than 40k/hr and start walking. Do not stop, do not run. Traffic will flow around you. Very close to you, but around you. Or it has so far, anyway. Oh, and make sure you’re looking all ways all the time because as I mentioned, scooters going on the sidewalk the wrong way on a one way street are the norm.

#2- Rooftop bars, rooftop pools, coffee shops etc. They really know how to use their space here. Very fancy rooftop bars. Most have happy hour 6-9PM so you can go enjoy some rooftop scenery and pay $3-4 for a drink instead of whatever they charge you late at night. We went to Chill. Rooftop bars are not really our scene, but it was fun. No flip-flops allowed, fyi.

#3- It is pretty clean, especially compared to Cambodia.

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This is an apartment building which has been almost entirely populated by cafes!

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Elaine’s bánh canh soup

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In between eating adventures we took in a few of Saigon’s sights: the Independence Palace, the Museum of Vietnamese History, and the War Remnants Museum. Independence Palace is a pretty swank place that has been more or less preserved as it was 40 years ago when NVA tanks rolled in and ended the war. It was way more interesting than expected, brought to life by uniquely decorated and functional rooms with period maps and equipment. The Vietnamese History museum is modestly sized but worth the visit to get some cultural context.

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The outside of Independence Palace

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Our favorite room inside the palace
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The history museum’s sculpture collection is small but interesting

The War Remnants Museum primarily focuses on the Vietnam War (called the American War here). It’s a rather imbalanced look at the history of the war and the atrocities committed by the French and Americans, with clear propaganda-fueled underpinnings. That said it’s not as if the horrific things the museum highlighted didn’t occur, it simply omits any acts perpetrated by the North Vietnamese. It’s a very sobering visit with a lot of hard truths about the horrors suffered by the civilians of this country.

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Saigon has a surprisingly good craft beer scene, with several different popular breweries making some really good stuff. I don’t expect to find this level of beer elsewhere in the country, as cheap lager of course reigns supreme everywhere here in Southeast Asia, but it was good to get a few glasses of brew that has flavors beyond “cold” and “watery”.

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We liked Saigon so much that we decided to stay an extra day and splurge on a nice hotel and dinner. What a great idea! We booked with points (Gregor’s idea) and got a 5-star hotel with a rooftop pool, afternoon tea, and breakfast buffet for under $120. Best Westerns cost more than that in the US! It was gorgeous and the bed was really comfy. Dinner was incredible, we had a real bottle of wine and some modern takes on Vietnamese dishes so we had a great evening.

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The room’s cute teaset
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Afternoon tea overlooking the Saigon River
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The hotel we stayed at is the white one on the right

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On our last beach getaway in Thailand we decided we should be at a beach roughly every 3 weeks or so, therefore we are now off to Mui Ne on the Vietnamese coast a 5 hour bus ride from Saigon. See ya!

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The least-appetizing street food is very popular at night: dried flattened squid are sauteed in foul-smelling oil until it’s… edible, I guess. We did not try.

Specifics: we stayed at Ngoc Phan Guesthouse – good value and location, very friendly hosts. There’s great food everywhere, but one of our favorite places was the Ben Thanh Street Food Market a block north of the main market building (very good food of all types and plenty of cold beer). If you’re over by the history museum, Nguyen Trung Ngan is an alley with a busy food scene (but not always – Friday was good, we went back Sunday and everything was closed. So maybe only during the week). If you like coffee be sure to check out the apartment building on Nguyen Hue (midpoint, north side).

Solo Gregor: Kampot via Phnom Penh

Kampot: a charming riverfront town in southern Cambodia, friendly and surrounded by lush countryside. I’m here exploring on my own as Elaine attends a yoga and meditation retreat up near Angkor. I’m by no means off the tourist trail but it feels a lot more balanced and genuine than where we previously were in Siem Reap. It’s also cleaner and less hectic. Many of the top activities here (a day at Kep beach on the coastline, summiting Bokor Hill, a refreshing swim upriver at the rapids) are undertaken almost entirely by locals with only a smattering of foreigners mixed in. Of course some things are catered to tourists – riverfront dining for example – but the gap between worlds is a lot smaller. I expect this has more than a little to do with the type of traveler or expat that ends up here (laid back, friendly, respectful).

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Kampot’s waterfront at sunset

Before I arrived here I passed through Phnom Penh for a night on my way down from Siem Reap. This brought me through my multi-step Asian city acclimatization process (see below) with a wander along the Mekong riverfront, busy streets, and a food market unlike any I’ve seen before.

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Walking around Phnom Penh

Asian cities are weird. European cities are immediately engaging for me – all the in your face history (that I know), clean, sophisticated, beautiful. Walking around and visiting sights is hugely satisfying. It’s quite expensive to enjoy these places though, and as most big cities go it’s harder to find genuine experiences and open people. Here though, nothing is hidden – not the garbage, the smells, the sounds, the everyday lives and livelihoods of the inhabitants. In some ways it’s similar to areas in central and south America, but (at least in my experience) these cities in Asia are larger and denser. So instead of initial European enamorment I get a sense of disappointment and frustration: the former from the griminess and lack of outward beauty (at least as I’m accustomed to) and the latter due to my inability to sense and see how things work, something else that has come easily in Europe. It takes some time and patience to work through this and arrive at contentment. This usually involves wandering around, a few really cheap beers, and finding an amazing street meal (generally a noodle soup) that has awesome depth and flavor yet is served out of a street cart for next to nothing, for chattering locals and occasionally people like me too tall to stand up under the shades they’ve erected, a packed street on one side and an equally packed food market on the other. That’s pretty fun and awesome and (in my limited experience) really unique.

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Phnom Penh shop – on the street right next to restaurants, engine blocks on the sidewalk
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Phnom Penh market scene. Meat lady on the right is (like many vendors) sitting cross-legged on the short market table with a cutting board in front of her
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Sugarcane being sold just outside of the market
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Yeah another picture of soup. But it’s so good! Peanutty and peppery makes chicken noodle a whole new ballgame.
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Early evening on the streets outside of the market is where garbage goes to be picked through by kids and sometimes adults

So back to Kampot, where I have spent my four days with a mix of leisure and activity: climbing, crawling around in caves, touring around and sightseeing. I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t have any Cambodian blood in me. What tipped me off, you ask? The fact that I can’t simply exist here without turning into a swampy sweatbucket. I walk around seeing local after local staying bone dry in the heat, humidity, and piercing sun and meanwhile I’m melting like the wicked witch in a wet t-shirt contest. I was on a caving/climbing trip the other day with a couple local guides, and much to their amusement it wasn’t long until I could wring my shirt out and create a small deluge – and this was before I started climbing! There are only two effective approaches in dealing with this issue, and the first is to stay as motionless as possible. In the shade for sure, icy drink in hand. One of the best cool beverages (aside from the requisite beer) is sugar cane juice. Just by itself it’s ok, but throw in a bit of mandarin orange as they do here and it’s fantastic. I’ve had quite a lot of sugarcane these past few days.

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Limestone caverns dot the landscape around Kampot
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A couple of the routes I climbed. Very cool climbing in a cave! (quite literally, but also figuratively). Company includes several bat species, big millipedes, and probably the largest snails I’ve seen anywhere. Also it turns out smooth limestone is wicked slippery when wet
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This cave has a 7th century temple built inside.
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A happy group of un-sweaty locals. It’s 9am on Kep Beach – time for beers and a big bag of crabs!
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Adorable little fish-on-a-stick snacks at Kep, including skates

The other method of staying cool is moving quickly in the open air. Not through your own efforts of course but dinosaur powered via a moto. This has the seemingly contradictory effect of cooling you off immensely while at the same time burning you raw wherever there is a chink in your sunscreen armor. In between moments where you do not have the necessary combination of shade and refreshing beverage, motoring around is a necessity. Just don’t look too closely at the odds of survival involved because here you are threading your scooter steed through the rightly notorious traffic of wild Cambodia.

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Kampot countryside: rice fields and palm trees
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Sugarcane juice stop.

So don’t tell Mom but I rented a scooter for a few days down here to do some exploring. I wasn’t sure about it to say the least, partly because of my inexperience with anything two wheeled and motorized but mainly because of the unsafe roads. But the countryside around Kampot is far less chaotic than the streets of Siem Reap and interesting experiences don’t come from playing safe so I went for it.

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Any concerns about moto inexperience were unfounded as I ended up with the most user friendly scooter possible, automatic with electric start. It’s also the only yellow scooter in the entire kingdom of Cambodia – all others range from black to muddy brown depending on how dirty they are. Elsewhere I would have been interested in learning a manual bike but here I was happy to save all attention for the road.

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Scooter and guard puppy

I’ve found two types of road here: busy “highway” (paved, 2 lane) and quiet back roads (dirt, 0.1 to 1.5 lane). Highway driving is not that fun and involves dodging potholes and stopped traffic while constantly keeping an eye for and aft, as passing occurs indiscriminately and often. It’s not terrifying, especially at the speeds I stayed at, simply not a worthwhile exercise in and of itself. The back roads however are a different story – these are lightly trafficked (a cow or bicycle is as likely to see as a moto) and surrounded by beautiful countryside, rice ponds interspersed with palm trees and limestone hills. People you pass will smile and wave, and weaving through the potholes is now an entertainment. And if it rained the correct interval ago it’s neither too dusty nor too flooded. I spent more or less a whole day exploring around on these and had a great time.

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Driving around in town is perhaps the most dangerous (though I don’t know the statistics). Intersections are unsigned and are approached from all directions without slowing, say at 30kph, regardless of how much or little you can see of the crossing road and traffic. All potential interference is resolved quite seamlessly as these folks are all very used to this, having started driving when they were 8 or so (not kidding). This is where the overlap between defensive and predictable driving disappears for me – I slow down because I want to see what I’m throwing my body into, but of course this is unexpected by surrounding traffic and therefore dangerous as well. Ah well, I do my best and aim for quieter streets and right hand turns, or the rotaries which are spacious and quite civilized.

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Kampot’s riverfront with Bokor Hill in the background

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My last day in Kampot I rode up Bokor Hill (~1100m high) a popular destination for locals and tour groups because of good views, history, and a large shrine of a local patron saint of sorts. The road up has been recently rebuilt to be wide and pothole-free, making for quite a fun ride around switchbacks and curves especially once I got high enough to be zooming through low clouds passing by. The top is adorned with a tacky new casino and (far more interestingly) the skeletons of some French colonial buildings. This site has had a lot of ups and downs through the years including a gun battle between the Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese forces.

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View from the road partway up Bokor Hill

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From the top of Bokor Hill, clouds passing by the old French colonial building
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The passing clouds make for quite a scene here

Cambodian food continues to be so-so for me. Here in Kampot the street food scene is distilled down to its simplest forms: noodles (always instant, soup or fried), grilled protein stick, or mystery-meat-in-a-baguette. My favorite remains the sandwiches which seem to nail the mix of flavors and textures pretty consistently. Instant noodles are OK, but don’t really inspire cravings for more. Of course all of these items come very cheaply ($1-2) so who’s complaining. I’ve tried a couple Khmer dishes at sit-down places and haven’t found this a great deal more impressive. There is a solid international food scene here though and I’ve had some great falafel, a very satisfying calzone from an Italian chef, and the best tacos al pastor since I was in Mexico, all served by friendly and welcoming hosts (Aroma House, Max Bar & Kitchen, and Cafe Espresso respectively).

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This is about 1 kilo of half-ripe mango that I got as a snack thanks to my amazing communication skills. The green stuff is spicy salt. Delicious

Tomorrow it’s back up to Phnom Penh to reunite with Elaine, hopefully succeed in getting our visas for Vietnam, and then onward!

Specifics: I stayed at Ta Eng guesthouse. The family is very friendly and the accommodation was cheap ($7/night) and accordingly sparse. For 4 nights including breakfast each day, a load of laundry, and 3 days of motorbike rental I spent a whopping $50. Cambodian food in Kampot is so-so. Be sure to find a copy of the Kampot Survival Guide (expat-authored) which was really helpful. Best meals I had were at Cafe Espresso – absolutely go there, I wish I had found it earlier – Max Bar + Kitchen, and Aroma House for Mediterranean. Climbodia was great to climb with. I got mid-grade food poisoning here from some street food (it was either fruit or a sandwich, don’t know).

Angkor, Cambodia: Indiana Temple Time

This post is mostly about the Cambodian temples of Angkor. It’s a big post with a lot of pictures. If Indiana Jones-like scenes are of interest then you’re in luck: out of the bazillions of photos we took we judged a solid 150 to be worthy of sharing, and paring that down further still left us with close to 90. So you’re going to see a lot of (what we think are) awesome photos of an amazing place. If you don’t like badass jungle temples then I guess you should skip.

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Banteay Srei
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(part of) the temple of Bayon

But first, as there’s more to life than sightseeing: a bit of context on the Cambodia we’ve seen so far. Over the years while thinking of places I’d like to travel I can’t say it ever popped up as an option. I really knew nothing about this country and had a fractured mental picture based on general attributes (poor, hot jungle, less interesting food) and snippets of history (Vietnam war spillover, land mines, Khmer Rouge). While all of these features are a real part of life here they of course do not tell the whole story.

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So have we fallen in love with a Cambodia we didn’t know existed? No, at least not yet. It’s gritty and grimy, not an endearing country for a newcomer. Whether that’s just because we’re seeing the touristy Siem Reap I can’t say; but welcoming smiles are harder to come by, garbage-strewn streets bring out feisty rats and cockroaches, and the food lacks the inspiring flavor and variety of Thailand. This all said we’ve still gotten plenty of smiles and laughs once we bust out (and mangle) a couple Khmer words, there’s clean beauty outside of the city, and tasty meals have been found with a bit of luck and patience.

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Food market – highlights include live catfish flopping around and onto the floor

Siem Reap is a big town / small city with a definite tourist quarter, outside of which we’ve seen zero travelers wandering around. Which is too bad because as adventurous travelers would expect we’ve found the best and cheapest food and shopping outside of the tourist zone. Our favorite street food here are the banh-mi like sandwiches called num pang that frequently contain grilled chicken along with the typical veggies and pate. Sketchy meat sitting in a street cart? Yum! The one thing the tourist area does have going for it is the preponderance of cheap draft beer which they basically give away at $0.50 a glass and is most welcome during or after a sweltering day.

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Enjoying a num pang

Speaking of cold beer on a hot day, it’s mind-meltingly hot here. More than expected, because just looking at the thermometer is nowhere close to the whole story. Chiang Mai hit 40C while we were there and though it’s been several degrees lower here it’s been much tougher to bear hiking around in piercing sun and all the humidity the gods can muster. On each of the three days we toured Angkor we got up early (~5:30) and finished by 1-2pm, which was wise because being in the sun between 9 and 4 is just killer. We combined to consume at least 7 liters of water a day. Thankfully the park is scattered with vendors selling delicious fruit smoothies ($1), fresh peeled pineapple-on-sticks ($1), and basically anything else you might want ($1).

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Out to dry: laundry and fish.
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These street donuts surprisingly contained durian paste stuff, which was (just as surprisingly) delicious

We quickly got into a rhythm: wake early and adventure. See several temples. Return for a light lunch and siesta by the pool (“What day is today?” “I dunno.”). Cheap beer and food, play with photos and repeat. Elaine splurged on our hotel here at a whopping $25 a night which has us at what would be a 4-star place that’s very clean with attentive staff and a nice pool. We did have to endure an awkward upsell attempt when we arrived but once through that it’s been great.

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Our balcony view

What else to mention about Siem Reap? The tuk-tuks are everywhere and if you’re walking around on foot it’s hard to go ten seconds without being asked if you need a ride. Though when you do, it’s great – $2 gets you where you need to go in town, and puttering across the expansive Angkor complex won’t set you back much either. It seems it would be way more efficient to have a set of hop-on / hop-off buses to get around the sights rather than everyone hiring their own moto/tuk-tuk/car/elephant but efficiency doesn’t seem to be the name of the game and I suppose it would take away a bit of the character.

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It’s charcoal delivery day! Two things of note: the awesome big chunks of nice, real charcoal; and the weird long-handled tractor gizmos that are common here.

Driving here is something else. Bangkok’s roads might as well be in a gated retirement community by comparison. It’s right hand drive, but that only means that when one is not utilizing any space available between road, sidewalk, parking lots, and gas stations, one tends to drift leisurely to the right side. Flow at intersections is something like a pointing a couple hoses at each other, or those epic battle scenes where two charging armies sweep through each other. Not sure if you can pass? Try it! Traffic ahead too slow? Lay on the horn and don’t slow down! Also be sure to honk at each cyclist, chicken, dog, cow, or water buffalo.

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A situation warranting not only the horn, but actually steering around something
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A durian cart traffic jam
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Driving around Cambodia is a dusty business. It didn’t take us long to buy these
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A roadside gas station. These are everywhere and aside from old water jugs the most common containers are Johnnie Red and Gordon’s bottles.

One interesting thing about this city is its population of huge bats. We discovered these bats on a walk back after dinner through a nice garden area, where they have apparently taken residence with some degree of protection (otherwise they’d be on the nearby grills). These are really massive bats – by my eye wingspans around 1m and unlike their smaller bat brethren which zip effortlessly about these guys heave themselves through the air with difficulty until they plop upside-down on a tree. A little googling revealed that these are fruit bats aka flying foxes and are indeed the largest suborder of bats (called Megabats!) that can have wingspans larger than 1.5m. Cool!

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I don’t have a picture of the bats, but I do have one of this cute street pup on the sidewalk.

Okay, enough of all that, let’s show you our take on “the 8th Wonder of the World”!

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Elaine and the temple of Bayon

With dreams of renting bikes with manual pedals, baskets and comfy, wide seats, breathing deeply under the foliage as we passed other smoothie-wielding, carefree individuals also on their quest for archeological enlightenment, we arrived in Siem Reap. Fast-forward to the two of us stuffed into the back of “Mr. Phe Rhong #48” tuk-tuk murmuring to each other how cocktails should be mandatory while cruising down a one lane road competing for real estate with buses, motorbikes, other tuk-tuks with wide-eyed Europeans in their cargo and school children on bikes, we embarked on the Disneyland that is Angkor. And by Disneyland I mean a really weird dream where you’re in this ancient stone labyrinth with very important information that you can’t understand because it’s literally in Sanskrit combined with a dollar store where instead of there being shelves where everything’s a dollar, it’s all walking beside you trying to get you to put it in your cart. Lady, lady, you buy pineapple one dollar! Lady, cold water one dollar! Sir-Lady you hungry? I called you first, cold water!

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More of Bayon temple

Ok, ok, I’m done. In all seriousness, it is way magical and awe-inspiring and not to be missed experience. I actually enjoyed the tuk-tuk rides and the peddlers are not overbearingly persistent, especially as they are not allowed in the actual temples, so you’re safe there. Also, if you have a problem for paying $1 for a mango-papaya smoothie in 100 degree heat there is something wrong with you.

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In our 3 day visit we saw 16 different temples. It would be excessive to describe them all – we’ll name a few. I can say that despite being relatively proximate in geography and time (all 10th-12th century) there is a lot of variation in these ruins and they don’t get old quickly. Each one has something different about it, be it layout and style, building methodology, carvings, or degree of completeness / ruination. Some (Angkor Wat, most notably) are quite intact while others are closer to jungle-swamped rubble. Some (Angkor Wat again) are mobbed with tourists while others really do feel like you’re Indiana Jones exploring a hidden temple. The contrast between locations is part of what is really special here: like a wine tasting, the differences help you appreciate what makes each one unique.

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the giant faces of Bayon

Bayon was one of our favorites. Possibly because this was the first place we visited (before it got busy) but who knows. The huge serene stone faces on this one are amazing and climbing around the steep stone steps added to the exploratory effect (and sweatiness).

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sea battle scene at Bayon
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For a sense of scale – one of Bayon’s outer towers

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A lot of these temples have been pieced back together by restoration groups – you see piles of blocks and rubble around areas they haven’t gotten to yet

Ta Phrom is appropriately famous as the “Tomb Raider” temple – this one has been engulfed by huge kapok and sacred fig trees to create spectactular scenes. This one was busier than most but was still totally worth it as you can see.

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Ta Phrom’s entry gate also has giant faces

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It’s like the temple and the tree are made for each other
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Inside Ta Phrom

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Banteay Srei was another winner. It took a bit over an hour to get to this place and is definitely small in comparison but well worth it. It was on our must-see list because it has the most intricate stone carvings in the park. I won’t bore you with the stuff you can read on Wikipedia, but what they don’t tell you is that if you are early enough and no one is around you can pay a “Policeman” $5 to let you hop over the ropes and get up close to the otherwise off-limits ancient carvings. He will even try to explain them to you in broken English, bonus! It was really amazing to be able to see these carvings up close, especially between the structures as you have a very hard time seeing them from the distant roped-off area. The “Policeman” will then shuffle you over the rope again behind the temple when others arrive. He will later try to sell you a “Policeman” iron-on badge for $3, which I can only imagine if we had bought beforehand we could have charged other tourists $5 to hop the ropes AND gotten two smoothies…

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Sunrise at Banteay Srei
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Carvings like this above every doorway – glad we got a close look!

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Multiheaded “naga” serpents adorn the corners
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Monkeys guard Banteay Srei
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Vishnu slayin some ogres
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Intricate carving everywhere
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The rope barriers we were able to circumvent for a “fee”

Plenty of other lesser-known temples were great too. Banteay Kdei is labyrinthine and quiet; Preah Khan is massive; and Neak Pean unique as a pool-flanked monument. Just to name a few more.

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One of the bridge dudes over the Angkor Thom moat
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We waded past the spots that cater to tourists to find a locals-only soup breakfast. Delicious!

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The bananas here (along with all the other fruit) are wicked good

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The pools of Neak Pean

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One of the many elephant carvings on the Terrace of the Elephants

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Low doorways, really steep stone stairs (like Aztec temples if you’ve seen those), and ambition that outpaced ability (leading to stuff falling down, or looking like it’s going to) are common elements in Angkor construction. Hitting my head on one of these doorways was a daily occurrence. I suppose I could be grateful that most of the construction was done with ‘softer’ stone like sandstone and laterite, though I’m not sure my head would know the difference.

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Indy would not hit his head here

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Lifesize elephants guard the corners of this temple

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We left Angkor Wat for the end to cap off our visit. This vast, tall temple is by a large margin the most intact and impressively large, with a huge moat, solid stone ceilings much higher than other temples, and the iconic central towers. The wholeness is both a blessing and a curse in my view: it’s a grand testament to (in this case) solid construction and restoration efforts, but the visual effect is less striking than at other sites where the jungle is taking over. Rather than contrasting colors and shadows, you see fairly monotonous weathered gray stone reminiscent of a parking lot.

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Approaching Angkor Wat, we ran into what appeared to be a ceremony for Buddhist nuns. Not sure what but it certainly involved some Buddhist monks and a lot of young women in novitiate clothing.

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The ceilings of Angkor Wat are pretty awesome

Still it’s absolutely an impressive sight, with no doubt our less-than-exultant reaction partly due to fatigue and desensitization (this was day 3). Our favorite part was the extensive and intricate 2m-tall relief illustrations that wrap all the way around the perimeter of the central temple. These carvings are really skillfully made and well preserved, easily outdoing similar panels at the other temples (Banteay Srei – king of carvings – is a different technique). Also adorning Angkor Wat are hundreds of female worshipers in all kinds of ultra-fashionable hairdos and dresses.

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Some unlucky damned fellows being torn apart by underworld demons

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Hundreds of female devatas are carved in Angkor Wat sporting great hairdos

So there you have it! 3 days was the right amount of time for us, though more might suit other folks. I bet if I knew more of the gritty details about the history and background of the area I’d get drawn in for longer. You’d be dumb, however, to come all the way here for only one day – only seeing Angkor Wat and maybe a couple other temples as part of a tourist herd would be such a lost opportunity.

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Angkor Wat’s back (eastern) facade

Cheap advice on Angkor:

#1- Figure out which temples you really want to see and go there first thing, early in the day. If you do not care because you cannot be bothered enough to look them up beforehand, Bayon, Banteay Srei and Ta Prohm (aka Tomb Raider temple, but no one there is even close to as good-looking as Angelina Jolie) were among our favorites. If you get there early, you avoid the crowds.

#2- Get there early. We did not do the sunrise at Angkor Wat thing, but we did get to a few temples right when they opened which was key – you get the place to yourself. #2A- They say all places open at 7:30 (except Angkor Wat which opens at 5:30 for sunrisers), but we got to places around 7AM and they were letting people in no problem.

#3- We got this tip from some cool travelers we met in Thailand: buy your ticket the night before you want to go. The ticket office is out of the way so if you only have 3 days to see things, not waiting in line in the morning would make a big difference. If you buy between 5-5:30pm they date your ticket for the next day so it doesn’t count against your visit. You can then proceed to Angkor Wat and see the sunset if it suits you. Ticket run+sunset was $10 tuk-tuk ride. You could probably do it for $8 if you are fierce.

#4- The bathrooms are actually pretty good – mostly. You’d be wise to carry some tissues with you and don’t be surprised if your only option turns out to be a squatty. Thanks hand sanitizer!

#5- Some kind of book that describes the unique aspects of each temple as well as some of the history is really helpful. (Or just hire a guide, but for better or worse we usually don’t do that sort of thing). It really drives home the magnitude of some of these places when you hear about collapses during construction, the weird stone artifacts that scholars don’t understand, and facts like the walls of Angkor Thom housed a million residents!

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Specifics: we stayed at Memoire Siem Reap (there are 2 Memoire hotels, this one is on the main “highway”) for $25/night without breakfast. For the relative fanciness this was worth paying, just keep in mind that most food/drink you will want is closer into town centered around the “Pub Street” area. Walking around at night isn’t fun – dodging rats, cockroaches, and scooters – so just fork out the $2 it costs for a tuk-tuk ride back and forth. They’ll ask you to pay more but $2 is enough to get somewhere in town. We had a nice dinner at Marum and Long’s Bar is a quiet place with AC to have a drink. 

Chiang Mai: Hot and Spicy

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Chiang Mai: a lovely busy city that based on our brief stays in both has more character and friendly people than bigger Bangkok.

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Chiang Mai mangoes and tuk-tuks

But first – when we last wrote we were en route from Railay to Chiang Mai via the town of Krabi. We stayed there a night and it’s worth a mention and a few photos. It’s a quiet town on a river delta with lots of through-travelers but we liked it as a relaxing stopover and a good place to get a more unfiltered view into local life. Walking around the waterfront we saw plenty of folks exercising, playing, and commuting. A local park teaches the Thai alphabet to kids with small statues of animals and objects next to block letters. All sorts of boats, sharing a common well-worn appearance, puttered around the river mouth.

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Waterfront view from Krabi

We happened to be there on a weekend night and were able to see the night market which was great – a packed plaza with all kinds of food (chubby kid selling fried sandwiches, dancing older man cranking out pad thai, fish being grilled inside homemade sheetmetal ovens, stalls selling icy beer) and live entertainment (music if you’re feeling generous, karaoke if you’re striving for accuracy. Click for video). A dish here takes the lead as weirdest meal eaten yet – khao yam, a funky spicy southern Thai salad with rice and fermented fish chunks and liquids. Unprepared for the level of funk Elaine ordered this for herself but quickly gave up and ate Gregor’s fried chicken instead, leaving Gregor to the salad. It’s hard to describe it as yummy – it’s quite a blast of unusual flavors – but I did enjoy it and washed it down with what counts as craft beer around here (“U” lager).

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Weirdest dish! Khao yam

On to Chiang Mai then! We flew up since it’s really quite cheap and with Thailand being really much bigger than we realized before we got here a bus ride would have been something like 24 hours long. This time we got ourselves a nice airbnb apartment in a good location between the old town and the trendy Nimmanhaemin district. It’s nice to have a small kitchen even though (as we confirmed by doing some grocery shopping) it really is as cheap or cheaper to buy street food here than it is to cook for yourself!

While we’re on the subject of food – always one of our favorites – I’d say that Chiang Mai, while lacking the immense variety and availability found in Bangkok, generally has tastier eats when it comes to noodling around the street food and cute restaurants. We’ve had some great dishes here especially in the soup category where the broths are just awesome. It perhaps seems odd to eat spicy hot soups on hot + muggy days (it’s been regularly hitting 40C+ here or 105F and the sun is torching) but for some reason it works. Perhaps it’s because you’ve already given up on not getting all sweaty, or perhaps it’s your body simply being overwhelmed by heat on all sides, who knows, but let’s go find some more soup.

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Not sure what this soup is! Except amazing
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Tom yum with roast duck

Chiang Mai also has a great coffee scene. Apparently the government has engaged in some successful programs to replace opium growth with coffee plants up here in the northern jungle and the city dwellers here are taking full advantage with lots of boutique coffee shops. Great Thai-style iced coffee yes, but also as good an espresso as I’ve had anywhere. One more tick on the register of items that makes this city livable!

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Part of Chiang Mai’s character is it’s appearance, a clean mix of gardens, old city history, and brightly colored temples and buildings. While Bangkok by and large seems like you’re looking through a gray-colored filter, Chiang Mai bursts with greens and reds and yellows. The old town is surrounded by the ruins of a 700-year old brick wall and moat which is nicely integrated into the modern city structure and provides a shaded walkway. Wats (temples) are not as opulent as the capital’s but have great proximity and variety – teak walls and columns, large old ruins, bright flags and sculptures.

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Chiang Mai’s pretty moat
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Wat Phra Singh

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Wat Chedi Luang, Gregor’s favorite, includes an old 15th-century ruined temple
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Elaine enters in her Buddha-approved watwear
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Sweaty Gregor explores a wat

We checked out several wats over the span of a couple days while dodging the early afternoon scorching heat. Perhaps most unique is Wat Pha Lat, halfway up what is called the “monk’s trail” to Wat Doi Suthrep. The latter sits atop the mountain of the same name to the west of the city and is quite a popular site to visit, typically by catching a ride up the windy road that gets you there. We decided instead to get up early and hike the trail from the base of the hill. The trail is apparently regularly used by monks, though we saw none (we did, however, see plenty of ants marching in thick columns on important ant business). An hour in we reached the secluded Pha Lat. It’s quiet and subdued, lacking some of the louder decorations typical to these temples, but I appreciated how it’s woven into the surrounding forest.
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We intended to carry on with our hike to the top but were thwarted. Either we were unable to find the continuing trail, or it had become overgrown through lack of use, but in either case the route was less than clear. Additionally the aforementioned ant armies had a tendency to end up on you in thick clumps when pushing through the brush, and to top it off, many trees had pretty serious multi-inch-long thorns growing on them that would make any slip or tumble on the steep hillside end rather unpleasantly. So we abandoned our hike and caught a ride-share red truck up the rest of the way to Wat Doi Suthrep. It’s a nice place with a good view but by then we were pretty watted out and I guess wouldn’t consider it the “must see” that many describe it as.

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Wat Doi Suthrep in the sun

We also took a Thai cooking class here. There are innumerable options so we went with one that takes you out of town a little ways to their own organic farm for a full day of cooking, aptly named Thai Farm Cooking School. We had a great time and made some delicious stuff (curry using our own made from scratch paste, pad thai, tom yum soup, and more). We’d never really had an opportunity to use a full-powered wok before and it turns out it’s both really easy and really fun. We also realized just how simple and quick good Thai food can be to prepare. This school really had their business figured out and had multiple spacious and clean covered outdoor setups with cooking stations for everyone and fresh herbs and peppers growing right nearby.

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From scratch yellow and green curry pastes!
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Pad thai like a pro

Just as satisfying as the food at our class was fulfilling our hope of meeting some like-minded travelers and getting some good advice. We got to talking to a really nice and fun couple from southern Mexico who had lots of good suggestions for us, particularly on some upcoming legs of our journey through Cambodia and into Vietnam where they had just been. Thanks guys!
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Another Chiang Mai staple is the night bazaar, really a combination of extensive street stalls and multiple large covered markets that somehow these folks have the energy to set up every single night. We wandered over after returning from our cooking class, definitely not hungry but looking for some cold beer and interesting sights. We weren’t disappointed! A lot of the stuff being sold are your run of the mill trinkets and souvenirs but there’s quite a lot of items made nearby (or on the spot) as well as some great people watching and more food sights. We finished off the night at an expat-favorite blues bar above one of these markets where we enjoyed what was really quite good guitar work along with cheap beer in ice (a common trick here to keep it cold in the heat, and it already tastes like water anyway).

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Fun herbs including big bags of saffron for 200B ($6)

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Last experience worth mentioning: catching a movie mid-afternoon to beat the heat. Seats – reserved ones, no less – in a very nice theater for a big-budget film not even out in the States yet were only $3. The movie was noticeably preceded by at least half an hour of stuff: trailers, the king’s anthem (for which one stands up), and a series of advertisements including a rather graphic PSA about not riding your motorbike too fast. Yikes.

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Scooter parking!
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A great mess of signage, bamboo scaffolding, and all types of wiring imaginable

Specifics: we got an Airbnb which was great, halfway in between Nimmanahaeminda and the moat. It was run by Stay in Chiang Mai so you could book directly with them as well. For necessities in this area, the MAYA center has everything but is pricier, Tops Market has cheap groceries. Definitely use the red pickup trucks to get around town, we wish they were everywhere in Asia! We got excellent soup at East Coffee in the northwest corner of the old city. Boy Blues Bar was good for a drink after walking around the night market.