The Ruins of Angkor Wat - Tuesday, February 24, 2004

It was pretty easy to find a guesthouse. The internet and our used copy of Lonely Planet are pretty helpful. We didn't know whether or not to expect someone from the guesthouse to be waiting for us outside the airport. Our driver Preyta was waiting with a sign. Five star service at one star prices! We took the 20 minute drive past Angkor Wat to our guesthouse in an extremely comfortable moto. It's really comfortable carriage with pillows attached to a scooter, very lounge chair-like.

We hired Preyta and his Moto for two days to drive us around the many temple complexes surrounding Angkor Wat, which are quite spread out. We considered biking from temple to temple, but it was over 100 degrees with humidity. I think we would've petered out pretty early in the day. The day was long and hot, but well worth the trip over.

We had missed sunrise, but were early enough to tour half of what we wanted to see.

For some in-depth information on the history of Angkor Wat check out this link. A quick general overview:

The temple complex was built at the height of the Khmer influence on this region of SE Asia. During the years, 879 - 1191 CE, a series of kings which ruled an area stretching from the Bay of Bengal in the west to Vietnam in the east and also going as far north as the Yunnan province of China and south to modern day Cambodia and Thailand. This complex was a social and administrative complex built in there for the strategic military and agricultural importance. During the reign of the Khmer, citizens worshipped Buddhism and Hinduism, but there were a variety of other cults followed depending on what time period the different kings ruled. People even worshipped the kings themselves.

Day 2 was much different because we decided to hire a local guide to fill in where Lonely Planet had left off for touring the main sites at Angkor. We wanted to get our money's worth since we only had 2.5 days to explore. Unfortunately it was not worth the splurge because our guide's English was a bit lacking, and his explanations were extremely specific. He wasn't too good at answering our general questions about Buddhism, Hinduism, and the time period. However, he relayed some interesting factoids and stories about certain carvings and significant ruins. We could have done with a bit of higher-level historical perspective, but later learned all that on the internet. Forget the stories, the ruins were incredible. Monks are still doing sit ins amidst the ruins of these once grand palaces and buildings. Like Tikal in Guatemala, it is easy to see how much effort it took to construct these immense structures.

Visiting the main sites of Angkor surprisingly only took us two days. We saw more than the average bear on the first day and then followed up on the second day with Angkor & Bayon Temple, and were ready to call it quits after lunch. At this point, we had seen enough wats to last a lifetime. Apparently another set of ruins was only 35km away. We didn't even consider it. OVERLOAD!

You can see the French influence in the town's architecture. We wandered around the city market, visited roadside food stalls, and M had another foot massage. Too bad it's not this cheap at home for an hour of bliss! It is a bit surreal to be in SE Asia having a baguette and coffee in the morning, and then followed up by a traditional Khmer lunch. The food was pretty darn good. There also seems to be more Vietnamese restaurants here than in Thailand. Mmmmm?

For our evening activity, we watched a traditional Khmer dance show for a few hours over dinner. It was beautiful, but our pictures don?t do it justice. The men, women, and children were incredibly graceful.

Our flight back to Bangkok was in the afternoon, but we were done visiting wats. We considered going to a lake nearby and having lunch at a floating fishing village. Good advice from fellow travelers kept us wandering around Siem Reap for the day. According to the grapevine, the road is one of the worst in Cambodia and the fishing village smells like a sewer.

Not sure lunch would have tasted so good!

 Pitstop in Bangkok - Friday, February 20, 2004

Bangkok had become much hotter in the weeks we had spent down south. This humid, polluted, FAST city was quite a shock after quiet beach life. We spent a day figuring out how to get to Siem Reap, Cambodia and a day at the famous weekend market. We splurged one night and caught a movie (Cold Mountain) and ate some great Vietnamese food for dinner at the 7 story mall near our guesthouse. A movie and dinner was $5…not bad!

The Chatuchack weekend market was pretty intense as you can find anything you can imagine being sold. The very efficient and cheap monorail was packed with all types of people heading to the massive covered market. This place is great…a mass of jumbled mass of bodies, furniture, animals, food, clothes, jewelry, art, pottery, electronics cleaning supplies, and foot massage shops, all organized by section. It’s easy to get lost in the maze of alleyways full vendors. We had more fun wandering around than actually buying stuff. We knew we’d be back to fly home and didn’t want to carry anything for the next few weeks. Walking around in the mid-day heat was exhausting. However, M did get an hour’s foot massage at the end of the day for $3 and plans to do her part by eating less to have more fabulous foot massages. We stumbled upon the animal area where we could pretty much buy anything animal worth domesticating from baby squirrels on leashes to guinea pigs, hamsters, and fish. We had heard that the pet section can be pretty off-putting b/c of the types of animals and how they are kept. The animal trade has very little regulation. We didn’t’ wander too far and were thankful not to see any monkeys.

We scooped up a web fare to Siem Reap, Cambodia deciding to eat a little lighter for a few days and lay off of the beer and pineapple shakes. Apparently the roads in Cambodia are horrid. The bus ride would have been 8 hours. I’m sure we would have taken the bus if we had visited Asia earlier in our trip. No sirree, we are completely bused out.

 The long-haul from Paradise to craziness - Thursday, February 19, 2004

The journey took all day. So we found a cheap ticket (<$20) back to Bangkok from Phuket, a touristy island ~ 7 hours north of KBL. Our original intention was to stay on KBL for a week then work our way north towards Phuket, exploring the many islands along the way. So much for that!!! Why mess with perfection? We took the long-tail boat at 9am to meet the ferry for an hour’s ride to the pier on the mainland.

The next part of our journey was a 1.5 hour trip north to the transportation hub of Trang stuffed in the back of a small covered pickup locally called a sawngthaew. We picked up some fried rice and boarded the $4, “air-conditioned” bus to Phuket. The bus was decorated in SE Asian kitcsh look complete with a karoke video system for our entertainment. The ride was ~6 hours. The air conditioner sucked, and our driver must have spent time in Bangkok learning how to drive.

We made it there without puking but vowed to not take a bus ride over 3 hours for the rest of our trip. The poor guy sitting in front of us was puking the ENTIRE trip! We’ve had more than our fair share of pukey bus rides the past two years. Our cheap flight was on a Southwest Airlines-style carrier but with leather seats. Pretty uneventful. Phuket was only discovered ~ 20 years ago and now is a bustling tourist hub full of beach resorts and pollution. I'm glad we found KBL instead!

 KBL part 2 - Tuesday, February 17, 2004

We must have needed a vacation after traveling so fast and furiously through Israel, Turkey, Africa, and Honk Kong for the past two months. We can't seem to leave our little paradise in Koh Bulon Lae (KBL). Nope, don't want to take a boat trip to another island, get on a train or plane. We just want to sit. And that's we are doing. It's even an effort for us to leave the area and walk 1K to go to another restaurant for food. Why leave here? Everything goes on our tab, and it's cheap and really tasty! This has been one of the most relaxing and fun parts of our trip.

What do we actually do everyday? Not much. It's amazing how the days just seem to pass by quickly with not much to show for it. They have a good book exchange here which we've just about exhausted and read the Bangkok Post when it's available to catch up on bird flu details. One of the toughest decisions of the day is deciding which half of the beach to lie on and whether you want to take a swim before relaxing in the sun.

Walks along the beach at sunrise are chock full of thousands of interesting shells and coral from the reef just 30 yards off the coast. The random designs on shells remind us of the coats of cheetahs, zebras, and leopards we saw recently in Kenya. M has a little collection displayed on our porch. She is just ripe with ideas for necklace designs. I think that's what happens when you are on the beach for this long. The minute you come home, there's no way you'd wear a shell or shark's tooth around your neck.

We've enjoyed trying some new and interesting foods. The island is a mix of Thai and Malaysian influence since it is so close to the border. We have noodle dishes about once a day. M is in heaven, as there are so many different varieties of soup: with our without meat, shrimp, pork, squid, lots of veggies, several types of noodles, with coconut milk, lemongrass. Pad Thai and curry are also staples. Green, yellow, red, and mossaman curries are all yummy. We had no problem finding good seafood such as king prawns, barracuda, squid, and snapper. Dave's new favorite dish is Laab Kai - a cold salad of spicy chicken, beef or pork with cilantro, red and green chilies, and cucumbers. Mmmm! As expected, it took a few days for our bodies to get used to the new spices and foods, but no problems since then, luckily! No bird flu for us. No one seems too concerned about eating chicken because as long as it's well cooked, it won't hurt you.

Since an Italian woman and her Thai husband run the resort, there are many Italians and Europeans vacationing here. It's pretty cool, people come here alone, with their kids, with parents or friends and spend a month or two relaxing. How much trouble can the kids get themselves into? There were a lot of naked kids running around with tanned bums just as cute as can be. Well, that is except for the evil Swiss devil children who were aggressively terrorizing the cats and other kids. The kittens and cats provided constant entertainment for everyone.

We bonded right off with an Australian couple from Melbourne on their honeymoon, Sarah and Mark. Mark is a professional chef and Sarah has taken a new job with a wine distributor - they certainly eat and drink well! Mark has traveled all through SE Asia and wanted to bring Sarah here on there Honeymoon. Great choice mate! We enjoyed a relaxing sunset cruise with the honeymooners.

Some years ago Sarah spent a lot of time rock climbing in the states and met too many Californians. She brought back the term 'Dude'and all it's iterations to our vocabulary. Thanks Sarah, we've been saying it way too much lately. They are a lot of fun and hope they can come visit us in the states sometime, or better yet maybe we can visit (someday), eat some great food and Aussie wine. Yeah, we need to head back down-under one of these days. We really enjoy it and our 3 months wasn't enough time.

The Roger Moore version of James Bond was on Koh Bulone Lae. This handsome, 47 year old, tanned, Austrian had the air of an international man of mystery. He always seemed to have a gleaming, white smile on his tanned face, a cocktail or wine in hand, a cigarette (complete with 4" cigarette holder), and an interesting story to tell. He was one of the nicest people we met on the island. He lives there for 6 months and returns to Austria to run a lakeside resort in the summer months. Nice life. Of course, he was too stealthy for us to get a picture of him!

We spent some time hanging out with a Danish couple and his parents who have been visiting the island for 7 years. John was about 6' 6" and tipped the scales at close to 260. He would have been a good prospect at tight end for the NFL. Funny thing, he's the last person you'd expect to specialize in hair and make-up for fashion shows. M is remiss that she didn't ask for a haircut. Not a problem for D.

Twice while we were on the island, kids from elementary English school classes from other islands came to KBL to speak with tourists to improve their English skills. We'd be sitting on the beach reading, and a bunch of giggling kids would come up and ask us "Where you from?", "You like beach?", "What you name?". After 10 minutes of basic conversation, we were invited to a party complete with games and food. It was really fun! The kids treated us like royalty, serving us food and drinks non-stop. Dave won a prize for his aggressive playing of musical chairs. Anyone who knows D would be suprised that he even went up in front of a group of 100 people to play musical chairs. OK, I threatened just a little bit... My shy husband had a blast but was red as a tomato (sunburn maybe?) when they awarded him a little elephant key ring!

I was partnered with a 12 year old about my size to play a game in which we had to stand on a piece of newspaper that is folded in half after each round of music. Our jobs as partners were to keep our feet on the paper not on the ground. The kids REALLY enjoyed this one. Some of the male tourists were paired with these girls from class. The Thais are so modest that the place was roaring with giggles when the guys had to pick up the girls to keep their feet off the floor. It was great!

We plan to vacation in KBL again someday. This island is so peaceful, not very developed, and off the normal tourist route. We may have found a little paradise and hopefully Lonely Planet won't find out about it!

 Koh Bulon Lae - Tuesday, February 03, 2004

We are now doing absolutely nothing on a very small island in southern Thailand. We are pretty close to Malaysia on the Adaman Sea. The overnight train from Bangkok was much nicer than we expected. We upgraded to our own sleeper complete with a sink since Dave had such a hard time fitting in the dorm-style sleepers in Europe. We were a bit wary of the lovely chicken dinner included with our fare since the news is filled with not very useful information about the bird flu. Hunger prevailed. No fever as of yet.

We arrived in the buslting town of Hat Yai first thing in the morning and had to wait a few hours for our 2 hr. mini-bus ride to Pak Bara pier. We took the advice of our guidebook and found a Chinese hotel that supposedly served "real" coffee. No such luck, as we endured yet another cup of Nescafe. No, it's not growing on us! We had a yummy bowl of noodle soup to accompany our breakfast. It actually wasnt' THAT weird having soup for breakfast.

We luckily scored the front seat (thanks to D's long legs) for the steamy ride from the western side of Thailand to the east coast. After yet another yummy, filling, and cheap meal of pad thai, we boarded a ferry for an hour to the island of Koh Bulon Lae. We passed the most amazing rock formations and small islands along the way! The ferry stopped a few hundred yards off-shore. We dumped our packs into a long tail boat which took us the rest of the way.

We've been on the island 5 days and anticipate staying another week. We had planned on working our way north checking out several islands along the way. Not so sure now... We've found paradise. Since the island is so far south and hasn't made it into the popular guidebooks, it's not overrun with tourists. Good news for us. Many Europeans here. Clean beach. Our bungalow is $5. A nice meal with drinks is $10. An hour's massage is $7. However, an hour on the internet is $12...Rip off... We are going to try to unplug for a while.

 Bangkok Joyride - Monday, February 02, 2004

After grossly underestimating how long it would take to get to the train station, we missed our overnight train down the Thai peninsula to Had Yai. We thought that 1 hour would be plenty of time for our cab to navigate the 6km distance to the station. No Way! This is Bangkok traffic and we missed the train by 10 minutes. One of the info desk employees who saw our disappointment and look of panic in our eyes, called over his buddy to help us out.

Our tickets weren’t refundable or changeable, our new friend tells us no to worry, he’ll get us to the last Bangkok train station with time to spare. Before we really knew what was happening we were firmly planted on the back of a pair of scooters holding on for dear life. Bad day for M to choose to wear a skirt as she had to sit side saddle. Dave had to watch out for his knees to keep them from hitting rear view mirrors as the scooter zipped between trucks, busses, and cars. Motorcycles and scooters weave through Bangkok traffic like busy bees zipping around.

With big packs on our backs and smaller ones on our fronts we hung on to our fabulous Mario Andretti style drivers. BTW – the temperature was approaching 100 and rather steamy. The 20 minute ride was thrilling. I can’t imagine taking a cab or Tuk-Tuk to get somewhere in a hurry. I can’t tell you how many times I thought my backpack would knock off someone’s mirror or if I just reached out my hand, I could touch a bus on either side of me. We made our train with 10 minutes to spare. Paying these guys their extortionist price was better than buying new train tickets and waiting around Bangkok another day, and much more fun.

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