Friday, October 31, 2014

Three Nights in Bangkok - Part 2

On our final day, we were so tired. Tired of waking up early, tired of heaving our backpack around, tired of walking, tired of the heat, and just tired of being a tourist. It was hard moving around every few days and not ever feeling like we could just relax. We had to take it in take it in take it in and it finally hit us on our very last day.  We decided the best thing to do was to sleep in, enjoy breakfast at the hotel, go do one last round of shopping for souvenirs, and then have an awesome night on the town before our midnight flight. So we booked some tickets to the most famous ladyboy show in town (#10 on our list) and did some last minute shopping. We started at a duty free shop that was next to our hotel. Chaos. We had some coupons that they gave us to use and unfortunately, they didn't work on the one thing we wanted to buy (alcohol) so we were a bit out of luck.  We ended up giving them away then going to a market at a mall to finish to finish off all of our souvenir shopping. I was really wanting to find a rice hat to take home because I skipped out on getting one in Vietnam and Cambodia since I didn't want to carry it. Turns out rice hats are hard to find in Thailand...and I never found one :(

That evening, we started off by checking off #9 on our list of things to do in Bangkok...go to the Sky Bar at Lebua State Tower. Oh my was that a fantastic decision. We took the train down to the pier then walked up the street to the tower. This tower might seem familiar to you if you've seen the Hangover II...which is why Andrew was especially keen to visit it.  We got there at around 5pm...which was too early to go to the well known Sky Bar, so we went to Distil Bar, which was also at the top but had a different view. It was a beautiful bar, and the service was fantastic. They all know we're there just to go to the Sky Bar, but they were really helpful and nice, taking pictures for us and giving us advice on ordering our drink before we go over to the Sky Bar to avoid long lines. The view was spectacular and we were there at the perfect time. The sun was slowly setting and our drinks were divine. I had the hangovertini (amazingggg) and Andrew had some sort of fancy mojito which was delicious.  He wanted to try something else so I took over his mojito and he got some sort of redbull drink that I think was combined with a fine champagne...pretty much the best cocktails we've ever had. Which they should be considering they were about $20-30 each. But just like with the movie we saw, we were paying for the experience...and man was it an unforgettable one.

At around 6pm the Sky Bar opened up and we were one of the first ones in.  Wow what a view.  It was beyond gorgeous and we pretty much had it to ourselves at that moment. It was spectacular! The sun was setting, the cocktails were delicious, and we were saying goodbye to SE Asia. Pretty memorable.  We snapped a few photos, took it all in, and then headed down to go to our show...Calypso Cabaret.  The show is located at Asiatique, this touristy shopping center with restaurants.  We decided to eat there and stopped at a random restaurant that sounded good because we were both starting to get really hungry.  It was called the Why97 Club and Andrew was all funny because he realized our pretty waitress was definitely a man. That was the start of our fun evening haha. When we booked the tickets online, we let them pick our seats so we didn't know where we were sitting. When we arrived, they took us to our the very front and center of the theater.  Andrew was right aisle front...and totally embarrassed.

The show was fantastic!!! The "ladyboys" were unbelievable. You would never know that they weren't originally a female. The show consisted of many different acts, and there wasn't any nudity.  They lip-sang to a lot of different songs and there was dancing. It was fun! One ladyboy in particular (who pretty much looked like a man in drag) had a particular interest in Andrew. It was hilarious! He had 3 solo's and during the first one, he spotted Andrew.  Not hard considering he was the only man in the front.
 He came over in his first act as a Chiquita banana girl and sat in Andrews lap...oh dear.  Next act he was a geisha and he had his eye on Andrew the whole act - making everyone laugh every time he looked in Andrew's direction.  Then he came back over, sat on his lap, and gave him a BIG kiss! The whole crowd died laughing haha. The final act he was some strange blue something that looked Raggedy Anne like.  He came over again, gave Andrew the look, and Andrew threw up his hands going "no no no!" and the guy laughed, came over, and shook Andrews hand. The whole crowed laughed and cheered and then the show ended. As we were leaving everyone saw the big red kiss mark on his cheek and laughed and laughed saying "you're the guy!". Then we went and had a few pictures with all of the "ladies" and at the very end of the line, was Andrew's gal...she smiled and laughed and we got a great shot of them together. It was the best end to a fantastic trip.

So by the end of our 3 days in Bangkok, we were able to be lazy and still check off 7 of the 10 things on our list (unless you count #6 because we did that in Chiang Mai, then it was 8). We skipped the trip to Ayutthaya because it was a tad expensive and would have taken most of the day to do. We also skipped Nana Plaza because well...I'm just not in to that. No strippers and ping pong shows for me thank you. One regret is that we didn't get to see the big floating market in Bangkok.  It was far from everything and we didn't feel like spending the money at the time...but I think it would have been the perfect spot to go and get the last of our souvenirs.   Other then that - Bangkok, you were awesome. I can't wait to come back and visit again! South East Asia...I will be back.

Side Note:
As some of you may know, this trip was primarily sponsored by friends and family as our "wedding gift" in lieu of traditional gifts.  So I want to take a minute to say thank you to all that sponsored us going on this amazing trip of a lifetime. We really couldn't have done it without you and you helped us create some memories that will last forever. WE LOVE YOU!!!!!

Three Nights in Bangkok - Part 1

View from our AWESOME hotel
Bangkok is...well...Bangkok. It's HUGE! It's a crazy huge city with crazy energy. There is SO much to do in Bankgok and having only 3 days made us feel a bit overwhelmed. We reached out to our Thai friend and a friend of mine who spent a month in Thailand and tried to figure out a plan...because having only 3 days, you need some sort of a plan. They sent us a few ideas so I've condensed them in to a list of top 10 things just in case you're interested:

Top 10 Things to Do In Bankgok:

1. See a temple, one suggestion was Wat Po or the Grand Palace Temple
2. Check out the shitshow on Kaosan Road
3. Take a river taxi along the Chao Praya river
4. If you're tired of touring, see an English-soundtrack movie in "Gold Class" seating, and never be able to watch a movie in the USA again
5. Go to a night market and eat street food
6. Ride in a three-wheeled tuk-tuk, making sure you agree on the price (and destination) before you get in. Hang on for dear life!
7. Visit Nana Plaza hahahahahahaha (this advice came from a man...)
8. Go to Ayutthaya
9. Go to the Lebua State Tower at sunset and have a drink
10. Go to a ladyboy show (and this advice came from a woman...)

Only being their 3 days - we were not able to do all 10. So this is what decided to do...

Unfortunately our flight was delayed that morning, and took forever, so after landing and taking the train in to the city, we were pooped.  We hauled our packs up to our hotel, the Pullman King Power Hotel which was Andrew's pick (he picked all of our Thailand hotels and did a fantastic job!).  It was AMAZING! We looked like total bums walking in to this gorgeous 5 star hotel (for only $90 a night).  It was beautiful. There are 5 restaurants, 4 bars, and an infinity pool.  Out of sheer luck, we got upgraded to a room on the very top floor...high rollerrrrssssss! When we entered the room the tv displayed "Welcome Mrs. Patricia Hofland. We hope you enjoy your stay". Snap. We were all tuckered out so we decided to take a bath, get all dolled up, and have a date night, taking advice #4. We looked up places to see a VIP Gold whatever whatever movie and found the Paragon Cineplex theater that was at a giant mall...sounded promising. So off we went to figure out the train system (which was pretty awesome by the way). 

When we arrived at the Siam Paragon Mall we were pretty much in shock. That place was freakin HUGEEEEEEE! It is home to the largest aquarium in SE Asia, 16 theaters with the largest movie screen and seating capacity in Asia, an opera concert hall, an art gallery, bowling alley, gourmet market and huge food court, 10 stories and over 270 stores. Wow. We started the evening by purchasing our tickets to a showing of Fury (there weren't a lot of great options) for a hefty price of like $25 a piece, and yes that was in USD. However, we were there for the experience so we sucked it up. After purchasing our tickets we went down to the food court to check it out. Oh my amazing. I ended up getting a bunch of different dumplings from one of their little stands, including a durian dumpling which was disgusting. We also got our first bubble tea.

After a while of checking things out it was time for our movie so we went up to the VIP lounge to get our snacks and drinks that were included with our purchase. It's no american sized treat - but they were cute and I got a baby Ben and Jerry's ice cream so I was excited. The theater itself was filled with awesome leather lounge chairs all sectioned in to two's.  Each seat had a pillow and a blanket and reclined so that you could put your feet up and lay back. Pretty much...amazing.  After the previews (all in English but dubbed in Thai), the national anthem came on.  It always comes on
in every movie and you have to stand or else you look like a jerk. So that was interesting...especially since the country is going through their whole Marshall Law thing. Then the movie started and all was normal. The movie was good...but not $25 good haha.  However, if you're an avid movie-goer, you must have this experience. It was quite unique.

The next day was our touring day. We started the day with breakfast at our fantastic hotel. They had the best buffet ever! Fresh fruit, fresh pastries, real pancakes (most places made crepes instead of American pancakes), and fresh hot dumplings, noodles, and more. It was a dream.  After a big breakfast we caught a cab and went to the Grand Palace Temple, suggestion #1. We paid too much for our cab because they didn't sue the meter (which we learned later) but that was the least of our scamming worries haha.

When we arrived we were approached by a man who seeeeemmmmmeeeeddddd to be really nice. He gave us a map and said that unfortunately the temple didn't open until 12:00 so he suggested that we get a river boat and see the canals. Sounded fun, so we decided to go for it and check off to-do #3. He said that we needed to be sure we told the boat people that we "are living in Thailand", not visiting from the US, and he taught us how to say hello in Thai so that we wouldn't get "scammed".  Then he "called" us a tuk tuk and they dropped us off at a pier to "catch a boat". First thing they said was "hello" and so I answered "Sawasdee ka" (yes!) and Andrew said "Hello!" (no!) and they said "Oh, you speak some Thai"so I had thought I saved us. Then they asked "Where are you from?" and Andrew said "The United States". Fail. There went our we're from here so you can't scam us bit. So we haggled on a price for the boat and though it wasn't as cheap as we probably could have gotten it, Andrew still got it down to a price we were ok with...$20 for the boat ride. And it was a private boat. So we said sure. They took us all around the canals, even to a sad little floating market of 3 boats (haha).  It was pretty neat to see some of these homes on the water...barely being held up by wooden stilts that were eroding.  It lasted for a little under an hour and then they dropped us off at the pier in front of the Grand Palace Temple.

When we got off the boat we realized that though it was fun...we were definitely we vowed not to listen to the "nice" people who "offer to help us". We walked through the crowds and little vendors set up along the street and got stopped yet again by someone who said "the temple is closed until 2:30pm, you should go to the blah blah temple instead, it's free today only" and yada yada. "No thank you" I said, as I dragged Andrew away haha. Once finally in the temple, Andrew had to borrow some pants because shorts were not acceptable. Luckily I was fine in what I was wearing.  We toured all around the temple and it was absolutely beautiful. Loved every minute of it! They had lovely paintings on the walls telling stories that I couldn't really understand since I didn't know the history of their religion...still gorgeous though. A few hours later we were pooped, I was getting hangry, and it looked like it was going to rain so we decided to grab some ice cream then head back to the hotel for a shower.  Andrew took to the streets to haggle for a cab that would take his 150 baht but after about 30 minutes of no luck, it started to rain, and luckily we found a tourist stand that called us a cab. It was $5 the first time we took a cab and "haggled" vs. only $2 to go back when the tourist services staff made them use the meter. Now we know.

That night we went out to do activity #2...check out Kaosan Road. Apparently it used to be a crazy time, but now that Marshall Law was enacted, it was pretty tame. It was like all of the other night markets we visited except this time the stuff they were selling was pretty crappy.  Very touristy stuff that didn't seem unique at all which sucked considering I still had people to shop for.  We did a bit of shopping, bought nothing, ate some curry, and got asked multiple times if we wanted to go to a "ping pong show" (ummmmm NO). Andrew got adventurous and ate a scorpion...gross...and then we decided to retire in because the trip was definitely wearing on us...we were so tired...but we still had one more day of adventures before we could call it off to sleep we went to prepare ourselves for our final day in SE Asia. 

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Petting Tigers and Riding Elephants...Humane?

So as I mentioned in my last post, we did two super touristy things while in Chiang Mai.  The first was visit Tiger Kingdom and the second was supposed to be a trip to the Elephant Nature Park however, I never had time to book our spot so the park we originally wanted to visit was booked full.  After freaking out and almost changing our flight to make it work, we decided to just try a different elephant place which may or may not have been a mistake.

I'll start with our thoughts on Tiger Kingdom.  They claim on their website that the tigers are not drugged, and there hasn't been any sort of leak stating that their claims are false, so we decided to give it a go.  Andrew was veryyyyy hesitant about going because he felt like the tigers had to be drugged for people to be able to be in there with them, but I really wanted to do it so he said we could go. You had the option of playing with either the small babies, older babies, mid-sized tigers, and adult tigers.  The chick at the counter said we were more than welcome to watch the tigers for a while before deciding, so after checking out the few that we were allowed to watch for free, we determined that the baby tigers were the least likely to be drugged so we went for those. We had a bit of a wait before it was our turn so we walked around and checked out all of the other tigers. At that point, we began to question how humane this place really was.  A lot of the larger tigers were in small cages alone, which was really disheartening. Something you didn't see before paying.  We were hoping they would have had some large area for the tigers to roam or something - but nope.

When it was our turn to play with the babies, I will admit it was an amazing experience. They were really playful and loved playing with each other. It was quite hard to snap a good photo because they were so rambunctious which made me pretty happy to see that at least these guys weren't drugged.  Their fur was so was pretty much like playing with a large cat (like you would have guessed).  I think our overall conclusion was that though it was an amazing once in a lifetime experience, but we would leave it at that, once in a lifetime.  It is a strange situation because these poor animals don't really have an option. Out in the wild, they are caught and killed. However, being in a zoo or in this case, a petting zoo, really isn't that much better. So I guess it's up for you to decide what you think is best. If you go to zoo's you can probably handle this, but I wish they would have at least had some education on tigers and some more space for the bigger tigers...especially since they rake in so much money...but oh well.  

The next day was our day with the elephants at Baanchang Elephant Park. We started out feeling really good about it because the reviews were really good online and the company seemed to be pretty humane. They did have a disclaimer about how they used bull hooks on the elephants (which are the things animal cruelty people shout about) but they said they were only in case of emergency because the elephants are out in the open and can easily hurt someone if frightened (understandable). We showed up and got changed in to their little outfits then went to meet the elephants. We were in a smaller group of about 10 people and everyone in the group was really nice.  First we got to feed the elephants bananas and sugar cane which was really cool. They gave us some education on the elephants and the tour guide for the group, Jimmy, was fantastic. The elephants were all chained up at the foot which made us feel a bit sad but we were told it was for our protection because all of them are very greedy with the food, trying to snatch others, so it made sense.  Because man were they greedy haha...

After feeding them we learned how to ride them bareback which was awesome and MUCH better for them than those big chair things you can ride on them with.  After that we went on a little trek around the park and Andrew and I shared an elephant, taking turns being in the front. I was hoping we were going to see a big open space that they let them out when it's not feeding time, but no...turned out they were chained most of the day because a lot of them aren't "friends" so it isn't safe to allow them all out together. So that made us a bit sad. We all went in a big line and each elephants mahout (basically their trainer) came with them, standing next to them to make sure they were good. Most of the mahouts had a fantastic relationship with their elephant. You could see that they really loved them and bonded with them. Unlucky for us, we got stuck with the jerk. He seemed to be really mad at his elephant, yelling at her and threatening her with his bull hook when she went out of line. It made us both really uncomfortable...and then at one point he even took out a knife and threatened it. It was so weird because all of the other mahouts were really good to their elephants. Our elephant was one of the oldest, 40 years old, and she was pretty grumpy, but it was still no excuse for the mahouts behavior. Kind of soured the experience a bit for us.

After walking around, we got to bathe the elephant...Andrew did it because he wanted to give the elephant a bit of love, but after all of our mahouts yelling and threatening, I felt uncomfortable so I stayed back.  When it was all over, Andrew had a talk with Jimmy about our elephants mahout. At one point Jimmy said that they prided themselves on having great mahouts that never threaten their elephants with the bull we felt he needed to know.  He did seem to take the issue seriously which was good - and said he would talk to his boss. Fingers crossed the jerk got fired. When we were leaving we got to see a really adorable site.  We got to see the mahouts take the baby elephants and their mommys for their afternoon swim! Oh my were they so cute and happy. Made me feel better about our experience because most of the trainers there really did seem to love their elephants.

In conclusion, I think I would say stay away from those two attractions. Everyone says to go to the Elephant Nature Park if you want a good humane experience and I think that's probably your best bet. Just make sure that you book in advance because they do sell out - even on a Monday during the off season.  I wouldn't say we regret going to either, but I would say that we have mixed feelings. Yes we got to pet a tiger, yes we got to ride an elephant, but I think its better to donate funds towards a real conservation effort that has the animals best interest at heart. These groups were saving the animals from "worser fates" but they definitely made a pretty penny off of it...

Thailand Tastes So Good

We landed in Chiang Mai, Thailand on the evening of the 25th of October. The week was going to be jam-packed with things to see but we were really pooped so we ended up heading straight to our hotel to rest.  The hotel Andrew picked was lovely. It was called the Raming Lodge and it was central to town, had a delicious breakfast buffet, and best of all it had AIR CONDITIONING and a WARM SHOWER! Something we reallllyyyy missed after our time in Cambodia haha.  We only had 2 full days in Chiang Mai so we had to fit a lot in to the time we were there. The first day we decided to go check out the tigers at Tiger Kingdom, climb to the top of Doi Suthep, and check out the markets.  We walked down the streets, got some cash from an atm,  and found ourselves a taxi that we hired for the day for $30. Not bad.

The first stop was our trip to see the tigers, which I'll talk about in my next post.  After that we headed up to a mountain temple called Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep.  The walk leading up was filled with shops and food stands. After that you hit the 309 steps that lead up to the top of the mountain where the temple is.  Once there, you pay a little bit to get in (30 baht or $1) to the actual temple area.  It was an absolutely gorgeous drive up the mountain and an even more beautiful view from the top.  If you go to Chiang Mai, you must see this temple.  Because we were there in the off season, it wasn't really that busy so that made it extra nice. They had you dress in appropriate attire, covering your legs and shoulders, and you take off your shoes and go in to the actual temple. The walk around it was really lovely. There were bells and statues and all of the decor was so intricate. I love all of the mosaics and how everything was shiny and gold. It was such a gorgeous spot. I felt so alive up there.

On the way down we stopped at some of the food vendors. We got our first street food in Thailand at this spot that was basically a hot waffle on a stick with honey or chocolate on it.  Pretty darn good. Then we headed down the mountain again, back to our hotel.  We showered off the sweat from the day and decided to go check out the Sunday night market. They have lots of markets, all the time, but the Sunday Night Walking Market is the one to beat. It was AMAZING!!!! We started off on the east side and got ourselves a delicious mango drink to sip as we perused through the stands.  It was so big that we couldn't get through the whole thing! It was also ridiculously, I was feeling claustrophobic crowded...and I've never felt claustrophobic. Andrew wanted to punch me in the face because I started having a panic attack and made us step off to the side to breathe. However, that step aside lead us to the best street at the market...the street with the FOOD!

I cannot believe how much we ate. We had sticky rice with mango, fresh smoothies, egg rolls, meat on a stick, noodles, and so much more. I can't even remember all of the things we tried. It was the best feeling ever until it finally hit our stomachs and we stalled and determined we needed to sit down. We found a bar a few blocks down that wasn't too busy and had a sit and a drink.  After a while we determined we needed to attempt to do one last round at the shops to try to get the last of our souvenirs. After all of like 10 minutes we were DONE with shopping (mentally, not actually done because we still needed to get a bunch more for family members), so we headed to a bar that a friend of ours recommended called Zoe in Yellow.

It was pretty neat, but it was a slow night (or maybe just too early because it was like 9pm) so we sat in the "beer garden" and each had a beer as we people watched.  There were surprisingly a lot more females than males...and they were horribly was pretty funny. Unfortunately we were really tired, so after a short while, we determined we needed to go back to the hotel to sleep. So off we went back to the hotel, passing by the hilarious food stands (ex: Tacos Bell and Burgers Queen haha) until we got back to our nice air conditioned room and passed out. Oh how I love air conditioning...

The next day we rode elephants for the first time. It was a day of mixed feelings...but I'm glad we got to do it. I talk more about it in my next post.  Anyway...after the elephant riding we decided to go out for some Khao Soi, one of the dishes that our Thai friend (who was from Chaing Mai) said that we HAD to try. We ended up at a restaurant that was close by called Dash Teak House. It was a really pretty restaurant with great indoor/outdoor seating. They had a live band that was surprisingly really really good and the food was AMAZING! We decided we wanted to try two restaurants that night because we had limited time in Chiang Mai, so we split an appetizer of bacon wrapped shrimp and then the entree, Khao Soi. Oh my was it the best thing I have ever had. So flavorful! So delicious! And when I think of Thailand, I will forever crave this dish. We were kind of bummed we didn't just stick to eating dinner at this restaurant (because it was so good) but we really wanted to try out a different place that seemed to have a good nightlife feel.  So off we went to restaurant #2 and on the way we ran in to the strangest looking dog I have ever seen.  There are LOTS of dogs around SE Asia and they are all mini sized large dogs...its very strange. However, this was the strangest dog I saw on the trip so I feel it was worth noting.  It was spotted with this long black stripe in the shape of a question mark...weird.  Anyway, after taking pictures of the dog, we arrived at the next spot, Loco Elvis, a Mexican restaurant...yes, I said Loco Elvis...haha.

Loco Elvis was a restaurant we had walked by the night before that seemed to be pretty poppin'. They had a great band playing and it was packed full so we decided we should check it out. We sat outside at a table on the sidewalk and ordered some food. Originally we were going to split something but then each wanted something different so Andrew got a burrito and I got a quesadilla (not expecting much).  It was surprisingly really good for not having much cheese. While we were eating we noticed a flier on our table for a Muay Thai match that was happening that night. It was our last night in Chiang Mai, and Andrew was DYING to see a fight, so we figured, why not?! So we asked our waitress about it and she said they would give us a discount on the tickets and get us a tuk-tuk to get there...$30 later we were SOLD. Around 30 minutes later our tuk-tuk arrived. It was one of the most dangerous ride's I've ever been on (second to riding in the back of a truck in Haiti). These contraptions are ridiculous. The cart where you sit is strapped OVER the motorcycle...not connected by a's alllllllll one thing. So when you turn...oh dear, hold on. And did I mention they like going fast? Yikes!!

When we got to the fight we were a bit weirded out haha. There were pretty girls everywhere and they lead us to our seats in the middle of this strange area surrounded by lots of bars. A girl ran and got our drinks really quickly and then we waited for a long time for the fight to finally start. We were thinking it would be packed so we got there early. It ended up being almost full, but we definitely had a while to wait. The atmosphere as I mentioned was pretty strange. One of the bars had GORGEOUS transvestites working there. There were kids walking around trying to sell flowers and leis. Girls were basically running to be the first person to take your drink order.  It was odd. The fight started and I thought we had been jipped and we were at a fake fight because they were clearly rehearsed in their fighting, but apparently its tradition to do a dance before a fight, which was what we were seeing. We watched like 6 rounds of fights, all pretty hard core. No one bit off an ear or anything but it was definitely some real fighting! The final fight was an "international fight" between a Frenchman and a Thai fighter...when he came out Andrew decided it was a waste of time because he sucked haha. So we headed out to get another tuk-tuk and go back to the hotel.

Overall - I would say Chiang Mai had the potential to be my favorite place of the trip. There's something about a mountain city that I just love. The food was great, the markets were great, the people were super nice, and it was a beautiful place.  The city was pretty modern and it was relatively cheap. I feel like it would be a great place to live for a while some day. I definitely plan to come back because 2.5 days were not enough.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

What Could Koh Rong? Top 5 Things I Liked and Disliked About Koh Rong, Cambodia

Ok enough with the puns...or maybe not, I love puns. After traveling through Cambodia and seeing more of the serious side, it was time for some vacation...finally.  The purpose of Andrew being with me was to celebrate our marriage with an AWESOME honeymoon and the whole trip had been work focused with a side of fun, until now. We started off our "real" honeymoon in Koh Rong, an island off the coast of Cambodia. We had originally planned to beach it up in Phuket, Thailand, but a coworker of mine from Thailand said that we should skip the touristy beaches there and head to Koh Rong. So that's exactly what we did.

The boat ride over kicked everything off to an interesting start. We had booked the ferry over on a "faster boat" that took about an hour but when we got there, they had over-sold (which is apparently always an issue with them) so we were bribed to go on the "fast boat" that was supposed to take about 1.5-2 hours to get there. They offered us 2 free beers, and we weren't in a hurry so we figured, hell, why not. The boat was jam-packed with young people...probably ranging in age from 18-30 but mostly on the under 21 side. Off we went on our lovely boat ride to the island when suddenly, we stopped...we were broken. While they were trying to fix the boat, some of the crazzzyyyy youngsters said "are there sharks?" and when "no" was the answer, they all decided lets go swimming! So off they jumped in to the water...and Andrew went right along with them haha. After some time of not moving, a new boat came to rescue us. We piled on the smaller boat and finally headed on our way to the island. All in all the trip took about 3 hours.

Koh Rong is a very small island, with a very small strip of restaurants/hotels right when you get off the boat. And when I say very small I mean like 10 restaurants haha.  No roads, no tuk-tuk's, just sand, young people, and beer. Lots of beer. It was quite funny to watch these girls with their rolley bags going through the sand...luckily we had backpacks. Our hotel was called Paradise Bungalows, and though it was a bit expensive compared to other places on the island (still only $50 a night) we liked it. The first 2 nights we were in the honeymoon suite, not sure why it was called that, then the last 2 we were in a much better spot - beach front bungalow. It was more expensive ($65/night) but it was beach front so WHO CARES?!

We spent most of our days lounging around reading and thinking about our next meal. We tried almost every restaurant on the island and especially loved the burgers at Bongs. The highlights included making friends with Boris and Morris (the two water buffalo we named), seeing a monkey, and being able to finish our books haha.  We also met a really fun Aussie couple that let us go with them on a private boat tour to see the glow-in-the-dark plankton one night.  Pretty much the most amazing natural wonder I've ever seen.  Every time you moved in the water it sparkled like the stars. Think of that one scene from Life of Pi.  Amazing.  Absolutely amazing. I think that was one of our most exciting nights because we got to see the plankton and we got to drink with someone other than ourselves haha.

We spent a total of 4 days there, which I think was plenty. You wouldn't want to stay longer unless you like the party 24/7 and sleep all day vibe.  I'm a bit more in to seeing and doing things than that.  However, with 4 days, it was just enough relaxation and getting yourself out of your routine to make it an awesome trip.  I would say it's definitely a place I would recommend, but only to certain types of make it a bit easier to see why, I made a list of my top 5 favorite and least favorite things about Koh Rong.

Top 5 thinks I liked about Koh Rong:

  1. Lots of young people - meaning lots of fun, laughing, and having a great time. Most of them were westerners but it was rare to see an American. Everyone spoke English. 
  2. Lots of outdoor activities you can do - There's trekking, kayaking, fishing, boat trips, beaches, scuba diving, snorkeling, and my favorite - glow-in-the-dark plankton!!!!! All if it is really relaxed too - totally on beach time. You just take the kayak for the day and bring it back - or as one of the bars/hotels if they can take you to see the plankton. 
  3. It's small and pretty undiscovered - This place is touristy, don't get me wrong, but it isn't commercialized touristy, which was really refreshing. It's going to explode so fast once people discover it. We talked to a few people that had been there for a year and said that the "town" is double in size. If you want less people though you can go to Koh Rong Samloem which is very remote like Koh Rong was a few years prior. 
  4. It's beautiful and cheap and friendly - All of the people that run the businesses are friendly, the food and hotels are cheap, and its absolutely gorgeous. The water is super blue, the sand is pretty white, and it's pretty natural. We especially loved the monkeys (that I hear can be pests) and the water buffalo. I love water buffalo.
  5. It's basically Neverland - This is the place you go when you don't want to grow up. You party all night, have no responsibilities, and sun tan all day. When I feel really stressed out and ready to quit life - this is the place I take myself back to in my mind. 

Top 5 things I didn't like about Koh Rong:

  1. Lots of young people - Though it can be a pro, it also means lots of drunken loud people partying all night and keeping you up. They were also rude in that a lot of them didn't respect the local customs (lots of girls sunbathing topless though it's considered disrespectful to the locals) and they threw their trash everywhere.
  2. No air conditioning - We were lucky and had a fan, but it was HOTTER THAN HELL and all we had was a dinky fan. Our hotel was one of the few that had power through the night so we were lucky to have the dinky fan.  It got cooler by the middle of the night but the heat definitely woke you in the morning. 
  3. Expensive for Cambodia - Hotels were a bit more expensive as well as the food and drinks - but it was still like  $3-5/dish and $1-3/drink soooo that's just me nit-picking. It was also frustrating to see the price differences. If it's not high-season and sold out, it's definitely cheaper to just do everything once you're there rather than booking in advance. Our hotel charged WAY more for the boat ride over, WAY more for food, and WAY more for a room. There were places on the island you could have stayed at for $5 a night. You probably shared a room with drunks, but still. Speaking of money, DO NOT BRING LARGE BILLS ON THE ISLAND - no one wants them so it took us a while to find a place that would let us eat there. 
  4. Lots of trash - Unfortunately, Cambodia is filled with trash and they don't know what to do with it. One of the days we were there, the wind blew the wrong way and trash came floating by. Not just a little trash, so much trash that the tourists that were trying to clean it got so overwhelmed that they just stared at it. 
All in all - I am really glad I went. Would I go back? Probably not. Especially once I'm over age 30......however, I think it was the perfect experience to kick-off our honeymoon. We were able to relax, have fun, drink cheap beer and meet great people. The island really is a beautiful place, but as I said before, it's just a matter of time before it's over-run with tourism like any other beautiful place ends up being.  So if you're going to go, go NOW before it's too crazy.  We definitely had some experiences that I will never ever forget and for that, I will always remember my Neverland, Koh Rong. Now off to Thailand!!

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Impressions of Cambodia

Most of our time in Cambodia was time spent in conjunction with my job. We traveled from Siem Reap down to Balang to visit our first orphan home that receives meals from Stop Hunger Now.  Over the next 3 days we traveled down to Phnom Penh, stopping at different orphan homes along the way in Pursat, Kampong Chnang, and Tumnup Island.  Each of the homes were really interesting, having some great sustainable practices such as growing gardens and raising animals. They also re-used our meal bags and boxes in very creative ways which was awesome to see. Overall it was a really great experience, traveling through the countryside and getting to spend time with people that are living day to day life there. It's a completely different scene (as you could imagine) to what tourists normally see in Siem Reap, Phnom Penh, or at the beach towns on the coast.

When we arrived in Phnom Penh we saw our partners headquarters office and then they took us to a museum, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. The museum was actually an old high school that was turned in to a torture facility during the Khmer Rouge.  I think this was one of the most important stops we made in Cambodia. As mentioned, you can go all through Cambodia the tourist way and never understand the country. Now I don't feel like I realllly know the country (I would need way more than 2 weeks to be able to say that) but I do feel like I know it better than most.  As a child, I was never taught about the Khmer Rouge, and if you're like me, and had never heard about it until now, I highly suggest you Google it. It was a very horrific time in our recent history, key word being recent. The Khmer Rouge happened from 1975 until 1979, however the government party responsible didn't dissolve until 1999.  Some say it was around until the early 2000's in the remote places of Cambodia. During those 4 years an estimated 2,000,000 Cambodians, a quarter of the country, were killed.  And just at the facility we we saw, it was estimated 20,000 were tortured and killed.

The museum we visited was the site of S-21, one of 150 execution centers in the country. The museum isn't like you're normal American museum, it wasn't filled with facts and figures, it was almost 100% imagery.  I've never in my life felt such bad energy. I walked in to one of the rooms of the school and instantly felt like the happiness was being sucked from me. My heart sank. My eyes welled up. It was the strangest, saddest feeling I've ever had. It is absolutely mind blowing that something that horrific happened in our recent past.  Even more mind blowing is that no one really did anything about it - no one seemed to care. Cambodia was eventually saved from the Khmer Rouge by the Vietnamese but it wasn't out of "this is bad we should stop it", it was more out of the fact that the Khmer Rouge was trying to take over Vietnam as well so they decided to put the kibosh on it all. I don't think I'll ever forget that day at that museum. I started to understand the people of Cambodia a bit more - and understood their recent struggle and why they are going through what they are today.

There was something odd about the people of Cambodia. They were wonderful, sweet, and a joy to be around, but it was a strange because people treated us as superior.  I rarely received eye contact from people, and a lot of people lowered their heads in your presence. We also noticed that the government and officials were corrupt and easily bribed. It was all about who you know and who you can pay off, which I think is the case everywhere but here, it was extreme. At one point while driving through Phnom Penh we were stopped for no reason...when our driver (who was American) started speaking in Khmer, he let us go.  Our guide told us that it happens all the time, and basically all they're looking for is people to give them money to go away. Police and teachers are paid as much as factory workers so they themselves become corrupt just to get by.  So strange. However, after visiting that museum, I started to understand why. The people were forced in to labor, the educated were killed, they were brain washed in to thinking the Khmer Rouge was improving the country and there was no one could stand up to them. Horrifying. The children we had met in the orphan homes were so shy. They were malnourished (like the 14 year old girl in my picture, left), doing bad in school, and we were told that school is just not a priority for people in Cambodia - surviving is. Such a different way of life...

After the museum we went down south to Kep City to visit another partner. This partner...oh my...beyond amazing! We visited the Salesion Don Bosco Technical Schools in Phnom Penh, Kep City, and Sihanoukville. The schools are technical colleges for kids from Cambodia. They have programs ranging from electricity to cooking to welding. Each of the classes are taught by previous students or volunteers that come from around the world (if you're looking for a place to retire and pass on wisdom, do it here).  The students were all SO impressive! We were shown around by many of the kids who used to go to that school and now are department heads. The people we met were so welcoming and kind. They let us stay there, fed us, and we even got to see their first day of school celebration where they had cultural dance and singing performances! It was so amazing and the campus was absolutely beautiful! It was right on the water with the mountains behind it...stunning. They have such great dreams of turning the program in to something that changes the country. They want to make everything sustainable and green, they try to grow their own food and use solar energy. It was fantastic!!

On one of the days in Kep, they took us to the caves. The caves were a place that some Cambodians came to flee from the Khmer Rouge back in the seventies. There were all kinds of crevices and caves to hide in. Now it's a Buddhist temple, where people come to worship. It was a bumpy ride past homes and rice fields and we even had a few kids jump on to our truck and ride with us up to the caves. When we got their, the kids assumed their position and became our guides for the trip. "The throat of the dragon...mind your head!" they would say as they pointed to the different rock formations. It was the cutest thing ever! They had learned just enough English phrases to become tour guides and get a few extra bucks for their families.  It was a bummer that they weren't in school though...

After the trip to the caves we went to one of the teachers childhood homes in the rice fields. The drive was absolutely gorgeous. There's something about those rice fields up against the blue sky. I've never seen anything that green. Gorgeous. We arrived at their home and they had an adorable set-up for us of fruit and coconut to drink. We sat and talked to the student who grew up there, Sehya, about his life and how he used to walk about 5kms to school each day and how he has like 10 brothers and sisters. He said that the girls couldn't go to school because it was too dangerous for them to walk that far. There is still a big fear of the girls getting raped on their way to school...which I knew was an issue in some places around the world but it was different to hear about it happening first hand.  He said that when he was a child, he decided he wanted to be an electrician so that he could bring electricity to his home. So he got a scholarship (like most students there have) to go to the Don Bosco Technical School and studied electricity. He is now the head of their department and though he hasn't been able to bring electricity to his home yet (he said it was much harder to do than he had hoped), he has been able to bring water and a toilet to their home. So inspiring.

I think that my final impression of Cambodia is that the country is corrupt and suppressed...yet filled with hope. The people we met along the way were so amazing. They were doing all they could to empower the children of Cambodia to make a difference in the world. They knew that the adults were a bit broken, and the government is still quite corrupt, so the children were the only way to really turn things around. We met so many people that had dedicated their lives to empowering these children. It was beyond inspiring. I'm so glad that we are working there.  Though it is a difficult place to be, it is the right place to be. And I cannot wait to go back.