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The following posts are in memory of my grandfather, Don Greathouse, who passed away January 7th, 2015. He was a big motivation for this blog and he is greatly missed.

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Cebu from above

Cebu

This was our first taste of The Philippines. Unfortunately, from the moment we left the airport we were met with uncomfortable scenes of dilapidation and grime. We had only planned to be in Cebu for four days, but I wanted to turn around and get out of there almost immediately. As the sun rose over a scene that left much to be desired, we crossed the bridge from the airport island to Cebu City. The city was not beautiful. As each we passed each group of buildings, I thought, “This looks sketchy.”

And then my heart was broken by a glimpse of half-naked children barefoot on a curb, beside the disturbing skeleton of a building that was either abandoned or under construction. There was no question in my mind that these kids were homeless. I’m not sure if I saw any adults with them. The taxi passed, again, through streets where I would not feel comfortable walking. I wondered nervously about the condition of our hotel. “Get me out of here,” I thought.

When the taxi turned the corner into the inclined driveway of our hotel, I breathed a sigh of relief. It looked safe. More than that, it looked clean! Wedged between the ruined crumbles of the building next door and a dinky shop, it looked FANTASTIC!

I breathed a sigh of relief as I waited for Brian to pay the taxi driver. He had a bit of trouble because—having just come from the airport—we only had large bills.

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Not the most spectacular view…

The room was small, comfortable, and clean. It had all the necessities and the air conditioning functioned properly. It became a sort of haven for me while we were in Cebu. It was my first experience staying in a hotel where you are provided with only a thin bed sheet. There’s really no need for a comforter in year-round warm weather after all.

The next day we decided to walk to the mall that was located a few minutes from our hotel. The road was a main road and it was a straight shot to where we planned to go, so we thought it would be fine. For a while it was fine, but then suddenly, not.

Women with babies on one-hip and outstretched hands begged for money, saying simply, “Christmas. Christmas…” There were entire rows of these women asking again and again for us to consider their plight. Barefoot children also begged for money, following us as we walked. We had no small bills, and even if we had had a little something, there were JUST. SO. MANY. I had never seen so many people begging in my life. I wanted to help them, but I didn’t know how. It was like being slammed in the face with a brick every time.

When we got to the mall, I was shocked, again, to see security search points at every entrance. I felt uncomfortable and unsafe. The food court was full of delicious-looking food, but I had no desire to eat. I drank a fruit smoothie and we made our way back to the hotel. I spent my time searching the internet for information about the poverty in Cebu City. I found a charity that helps impoverished families in the city with education, food, child care and more: http://riseabove-cebu.org/

After that, I did not go out for walks for any reason.

We took a taxi up to the Mountain View Nature Park, and for the first time I was glad to be in Cebu. From that distance, the city looked beautiful. We had been told that the night view was beautiful, but I preferred seeing the city and the ocean and the mountains as they looked during the day. We took the overpriced shuttle back down and were let out at a mall. There were few food options and it was night, so we had dinner there and caught a taxi back to the hotel.

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Outdoor courtyard of Ayala Mall

We took a taxi to Ayala Mall. Like the malls we had visited earlier, it had security and a search at the entrances, but, once inside, it felt like a mall back home; one that just happened to be ridiculously large. It had a beautiful courtyard area and a variety of restaurants to choose from. We relaxed in a coffee shop. We took our time people watching and talking. We looked at the well-manicured shrubbery and the fountains. Later, we ate dinner at a restaurant called La Mesa. After dinner we waited for a taxi at the taxi queue outside the mall.

Then we waited and waited some more. The strange thing about taxis that I noticed in the time we were in Cebu City had to do with how much of a hassle it was to catch one. Even though we were standing in the clearly designated taxi area with an attendant, and dozens of people were lined up and waiting, there was no line of taxis waiting for us. Not even one or two. It even seemed that the unoccupied taxis seemed reluctant to stop and pick anyone up! The attendant would energetically try to catch a driver’s attention—the driver might even look him straight in the face and pass right on by more often than not! Some people grumbled and left the line in disgust, but we stayed put. This was not the first time we had had to wait for a taxi, and I did not care to try going it alone again. And slowly but surely the people ahead of us in the queue were climbing into cars and heading to wherever they needed to go. After waiting in line for about an hour, we were able to do the same.

On the day we left Cebu City, I felt a huge sense of relief to be getting out of there. It was like Christmas. And, conveniently enough, it was actually Christmas Day. The flight attendants sang popular Christmas songs and I slept. Cebu hadn’t really been one of the places we’d wanted to see. It was just a stopover that somehow worked to help lower the price of our plane tickets. It hadn’t been one of the places on our list at all, but I was glad to have seen it. Otherwise I might have remained a little bit more blissfully ignorant. The Philippines is a breathtakingly beautiful country, but I will never forget the poverty I saw there.

Puerto Princesa

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I woke up just before our plane landed in Puerto Princesa. My first impression upon arrival was something like, “This is more like it.”

My favorite thing to do while staying at the Blue Lagoon in Puerto Princesa was to sit on the porch in front of our bungalow and relax. The room was nothing special, but the hotel had a decent restaurant and I can never get enough of green, flowering surroundings. The forest was beautiful. The weather was perfect and there was often a breeze that reduced the overall effect of the humidity. We explored very leisurely for the first few days after we got there. It was easy to catch a trike to the downtown area.

I really enjoyed riding the trikes everywhere. I loved the slow pace of traffic and the courtesy of the drivers. One driver, Mr. Bong, ended up taking us on a half-day city tour for a better price than our hotel would have offered. We went to the crocodile farm and saw crocs of all sizes. We went to a park called Baker’s Hill where there was a talking bird for me to try to communicate with. (It meowed at me and I meowed back.) We also went to the butterfly museum before rounding everything off with a stop at a souvenir shop.

The weirdest thing on Palawan for me was the butterfly museum because it also included a tribal village where the indigenous people of Palawan seem to be put on display. It was an awkward sort of exhibit that would not be considered acceptable in the United States. I hadn’t been keen on visiting the tribal village exhibit, but our guide insisted. She opened a wooden door and led us away from the butterflies into a little mock village where two young men in red plaid loincloths seemed to be waiting around with nothing to do. We saw men explain some of their traditional instruments, religious beliefs, weapons and products via a translator. We learned that the people come down from the highlands and stay in the tribal village for a few months before returning to their home. Their demonstration was interesting, but I did not feel comfortable visiting people in such a zoo-like environment.

The most exciting thing we did was go island hopping. I tried snorkeling for the first time ever and I really enjoyed it. I think that it was only after the experience of snorkeling in the sun that my stress level finally realized I was on vacation.

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We have a candle-lit dinner by the bay walk.

Boracay

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The secret to our success. Brian budgeting on the beach.

It wasn’t until we got to Boracay that I realized how spotless Puerto Princesa had been or how comfortable it was to walk along the streets there. Boracay is great, but it’s also crawling with noisy tourists. The beaches are beautiful but constantly overcrowded.

Brian and I had just planned to relax and only participate in a few tourist activities. Our plan was to walk along the beach visiting coffee shops and restaurants, taking some time to dip into the ocean or doze in the sand. The problem was that every ten feet there was someone trying to sell us something, whether it be sailboat rides, scuba diving adventures, snorkeling trips or selfie sticks. In Boracay we practiced the necessary art of saying “No,” or “No, thank you, we did that yesterday,” along with my personal favorite, “No selfie stick.”

What I learned while in Boracay was that everybody wants to get their hair did. Signs for hair braiding (‘reggae hair’ it read in Korean) were all over and tourists could get their hair braided in any style by local women. The most popular style was cornrows adorned with colorful rubber bands. People of various ages, ethnicities, and genders sat in chairs patiently getting cornrows done. Little White and Asian children played in the waves with hairstyles I used to sport as a kid. It was interesting and fun to see.

What I enjoyed a lot about Boracay beside the view was the locals’ positive reaction to my hair. Yes, it’s all about me. They liked it and they told me so, or talked to me about when they had worn locks too. It was a little friendly conversation starter. That was not a complete surprise to me because from Kalibo to Cataclan (where we caught the ferry to Boracay) our airport driver had been listening to reggae music non-stop. Once we got to Boracay I realized that it wasn’t just him. Reggae music was pumping from restaurants and shops, Bob Marley memorabilia was everywhere, and I saw several locals sporting long dreadlocks (while surfing, shopping or painting).

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Relaxing in a shady spot on the beach.

The best reaction by far was on our last day in The Philippines. We were walking up to the check in desk at the Kalibo airport. Brian gave them our passports and documents when the guys working behind the counter spontaneously broke into a Bob Marley song. They didn’t stop until we left. I just smiled and laughed.

One of the best parts of Boracay was our accommodations. Amihan-Home was just peaceful, tastefully decorated and extremely comfortable. It was a bed and breakfast type place with four or five rooms, two friendly dogs, and beautiful grounds. We weren’t on the beach, but it only took a few minutes to walk there. Because the house was on a somewhat steep hill, we always had a cool breeze flowing through. Out on the front patio, a dreadlocked artist in the process of painting an oversized portrait of our hostess added to the ambiance. After staying the first night on the ground floor in a suite adjacent to the lobby area, the owner suggested that we move to a quieter room upstairs. I was glad of the move since we could see more from higher up.I really enjoyed spending time on the balcony just watching the colorful kites of the kite boarders and dreaming.

The breakfast that was included was simple but delicious. We usually opted for the Filipino breakfast, which included seasoned beef, garlic rice, an egg and fresh fruit (usually mango). Coffee or tea was also provided. The way it worked was that each evening the staff would take our order and note the time we would be having breakfast. Then in the morning we would head downstairs at the appointed time and sit down in the dining room or outside on the back patio. I don’t know if the woman who cooked our meals spoke much English, but she seemed very kind. When our breakfast was ready, the staff would serve us our food and drinks. Sometimes there were other guests at the table with us, but often we were the only people on the patio enjoying a romantic breakfast (haha). On our last day in Boracay one of the resident dogs of Amihan-Home joined me and Brian for breakfast. It was a master of the pitiful puppy dog begging techniques, but, since I did not know the policy on feeding the dogs, I did not give in.

Visiting The Philippines was a great experience, and I hope to be able to return there in the future. There is so much more that I could share about this vacation, but it’s just not going to happen. I have to leave some things for Brian to write about after all.

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Winter Vacation: Summing Up

So a lot has happened, and it has made me forget about finishing up the posts on our winter vacation. What has happened? Well, we moved into a new apartment. There will be a post about that after we have everything put in place and whatnot. Also, our school had to change its curriculum because of some politics–both the government kind and the not-government kind. So we had to make a few big changes to our schedules and classes. That should be interesting. Also, four of our friends are leaving this month, in less than two weeks, so we’ve been busy trying to see them as much as possible before they go, the Canadians to Thailand to volunteer and take a special course, and the South Africans to Greece and other countries to work on a farm and do other work-travel stuff. Doesn’t that sound cool?

Anyway, we’ve written about Cambodia and Thailand, so that leaves Malaysia. I’ll just say a few things because I have quite a bit to do today, and I fear if I don’t finish this today you won’t see it ever.

Malaysia Malaysia Malaysia. It is hot in Malaysia. Of course, we were only three degrees north of the equator, so that could explain some of it.

What did we eat in Malaysia? I imagine we ate something that was traditionally Malay at one point, but we ate, for the most part, Indian food. We also ate some Western food because we had tried so many others things already and, sometimes, we just wanted to make a quick decision. Malaysia is a very mixed place. There are Malays, Indians, Chinese, and other ethnicities living there. The nation is Islam but it’s a small majority and several other faiths are practiced freely there. But since the government is Islamic, many chain restaurants cater to Muslims. People eat pork in Malaysia, but Muslims don’t. That’s how we ate at a Pizza Hut that served beef or chicken pepperoni, and how I ate a beef bacon burger at Chili’s.

And we love Indian food. Our most interesting experience was walking over to Little India and trying to find a place to eat. We chose the wrong place. We walked into a place full of Indians. There was a buffet bar type thing and it seemed that everyone had a different style plate. We weren’t sure if it was actually a buffet, though, or a cafeteria-style place, where you load your tray and then pay. Observing was only somewhat helpful. We asked the cashier and she told us, but it was hard to hear over all the noise and I still wasn’t sure. We sat down and ordered fried rice and wondered if we were then supposed to add meat and veggies from the bar ourselves. But the rice was delicious!

Anyway, that awkward and confusing experience is why we ate the next day at comfortable, familiar Chili’s.

It was also fun to eat at the Red Garden Food Court. You go, you sit down, someone asks you if you want anything to drink, and then you go to any of the dozens of food stalls that surround the area and order what you want. And because of the high multiculturalism of Malaysia, there’s plenty to choose from.

Also, prices in Malaysia are amazing. Once, when we had eaten lunch late and Ashley wasn’t hungry enough for supper, I went out alone and just went to a place near the hotel. I walked in and a friendly man showed me how to order. I chose a rice and a topping (a chicken curry) and then, if I wanted, I could choose some fruits from a display case. Whatever fruits I chose would be freshly squeezed into juice. The total was the equivalent of about $4 for my entire, filling meal. I thought I’d be lucky to have the fresh fruit juice alone for that price in the States or Korea.

I have a few words to say about shopping in Malaysia. Boy do they like shopping. They must, because their malls are everywhere, and they are huge. We got off the Monorail while going to see a popular area and the platform went straight into the 3rd or 4th floor of a 6-floor mall. Each floor goes in a square around the open middle, but there are also off-chutes that lead, I think, to a second surrounding square. I wasn’t sure. I was rather confused by the layout (probably from the overwhelming vastness of it all).

What else do I have to say about Malaysia before I talk about how beautiful it is? Well, I might as well mention that. We took a train from Thailand to Malaysia, and from one place to another within Malaysia. Now, Cambodia and Thailand are beautiful countries, but on the train in Malaysia, we constantly saw forests made of palm and coconut trees. I have never seen anything like it. Malaysia is so green, and green is my favorite color. As we rode the train and looked out the window, I wondered at how many hundreds, how many thousands, how many hundreds of thousands of trees we must be passing by. Even in the cities, there is a lot of green.

We took the subway and then walked to the Kuala Lumpur Bird Park in the capital city (Kuala Lumpur), which is the world’s largest free-flight walk-in aviary. Tons of birds and beautiful scenery. We really enjoyed it there, although it rained toward the end of our stay so we hurried it along quicker than we probably would have. It was a light rain, though.

A few other tidbits:

Blind people. We saw a lot of them (a lot of them), even crossing the street together, guided by the one in front and the beeping sound of the crosswalk light. I saw a few signs for massage parlors that advertised “blind masseurs,” so that might have something to do with it.

Buses. I don’t like them as much as buses in Korea. They’re cheap, and you only pay by distance, but I never figured out how to figure out my distance. We just paid the lowest rate, so I hope that was okay.

Taxis. It’s illegal for the taxi driver not to use the meter, but they still don’t use the meter. You have to negotiate your price up front. Fortunately, they are usually reasonable. When we stayed on Penang Island, we stayed in a place that’s still kind of in development, so drivers didn’t know where to take us. However, one driver did. He told us up front it would be 20 ringgit (just a bit over $6 US). His meter started automatically and sure enough, when we arrived at our place, it was 20 ringgit.

Also taxis. Or rather not-taxis. We went to the bus terminal to take a bus back to our area. One man was asking if we needed a taxi and offered to take us for 15 ringgit (a very good price from where we were). We said no. Then we asked when bus 11 was next going and they told us another 30 minutes. So we told the man, “Okay, let’s go.” He led us to the street and we passed a cab. We passed another cab. We approached the last cab and I thought, This is his. We passed that cab and then man opened the door of a very old car. We prayed to the LORD for safety and got in the car. It was difficult for him to find, but eventually he took us to where we wanted to go. Praise the LORD we made it! We think he just saw some foreigners and thought, Hey, I can make a few easy bucks! (Or, you know, ringgit.) He was very friendly.

Friendly people. They’re everywhere in Malaysia. Our first night in Penang we got locked out of the apartment complex we were staying at. One of the security guards there taught us how to open the doors. Apparently the locks are different there. If you lock it by turning the key two full times, you have to unlock it will two full turns, and so on. The man’s name was Muru and he gave me his number in case I needed any other help.

Durian. Durian is a Southeast Asian fruit famous for its taste and infamous for its smell. It was forbidden at the hotel way stayed at in Kuala Lumpur.

Languages. English is common in Malaysia, especially in the cities, although it wasn’t hard to hear several other languages as well. We’re pretty certain we heard more than just Malaysian because sometimes what we heard sounded completely different. I heard one man speaking a language that was so fast, I don’t even know. It sounded like the sounds of that language naturally go well together fast, so it’s possible to speak it faster than English. Or he was just a speed-rapper by night. Maybe that’s it.

Leaving the country. Our flight was at 1 AM, so we went to the airport in the evening and then, after checking in, I asked the man checking boarding passes at security if there was anything to eat beyond security. He said only Dunkin’ Donuts, so we waited to go through security. Outside the airport was a food court and several places to eat. Very interesting. Also, when we were boarding our plane, some officials checked our passports and asked us all a few questions before letting us through. One man pulled me aside after another woman checked my passport and was interested in my last name. “Is it an Israeli name?” he asked. I told him it wasn’t and he asked me a few more polite questions before letting me through. That was strange. I know there are passport controversies when talking about Israel and may Muslim countries, but…I don’t know. We were leaving the country, not entering it, but I guess they are still concerned.

So that’s all for now. Soon I hope to tell you about our new apartment and how that all came to be. I’ll be done taking pictures soon. Then I can write about it.

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Preparing to eat my first Thai curry

Now that we’ve returned to our more-or-less normal lives in Korea, I find myself thinking back lovingly to the gorgeous flavors we’ve left behind. Last week during a short trip to Seoul, we decided to try out a Thai restaurant here in Korea to re-experience the delight. Of course I was a bit disappointed. It fell short of what I’d experienced before.

Anyone who knows me well enough should know that Thai food is my favorite. So, as we crossed the border into Thailand, Brian was stressed about immigration but I was anticipating the deliciousness to come. I had had Thai curries and teas in the United States, but I had not yet had “authentic” Thai food in Thailand. Let me just say that it was everything I expected, and much more flavorful and spicy! I loved it.

We only stayed four days in Thailand so it was a whirlwind tour. We were in Hua Hin, Thailand, and so we were able to visit a few sights near that area. We walked on the beach, rode an elephant, saw a pineapple plantation, watched a reptile show, visited a floating market, did some shopping, and ate food at seaside restaurants. It was fantastic. I only wish we had planned to stay longer so that I could have tried a wider range of Thai dishes! Here is a slideshow of some of our other adventures.

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[Note: I wrote this when I wrote the previous entry, but I didn’t want to overwhelm anyone with too many posts. So I didn’t post it, but then I forgot about it. Sorry.]

On Sunday the 29th, we left Cambodia. We woke up early, packed up all our stuff, ate breakfast, and checked out of the hotel. At 8:00, we boarded a bus to Bangkok. (Actually, it was around 8:30 because the first bus got full, so another bus had to come for the remaining travelers.) The bus made a rest stop halfway to the border, and we bought some pineapple and little pastries. Those treats were the last things we ate in Cambodia.

And then we left Cambodia. We stood for quite a while in a line to reach the departure desk, where officials put exit stamps in our passports. That was not the stressful part.

The stressful part was next: getting into Thailand. Remember how I mentioned that the desk attendant at the airport was concerned about how I would leave Cambodia? Well, I had read online that Thailand also has a similar concern. US citizens (and citizens of many other countries) can receive a visa exemption. That means we don’t need a visa to enter the country, we can just enter, and we’ll have 15-30 days (depending on our nationality) to stay in Thailand. There are some rules, however. We have to have proof of onward travel, and we have to have enough money to support our stay.

Online, most people said that immigration officials, who just want to stamp people in so tourists will spend money in the country, wouldn’t really apply the onward travel rule. It’s more enforced by the airlines, who don’t want to foot the bill for someone who has to be ejected from the country. Still, there was the occasional story of someone being denied access.

What really bugged me about the situation, and seemed to be a big concern on the Internet, was that all the information seemed to conflict with each other, that Thai immigration laws are always changing. One embassy’s site will say that proof of onward travel is any plane, bus, train, or boat ticket. Another embassy will say that only air travel is accepted as proof.

Well, we like trains, and we weren’t planning on flying from Thailand to Malaysia. We had our train tickets so that we’d have proof, in case we were asked, but what if the immigration officials enforced the strange rule of air travel only? (It didn’t seem likely, because we were crossing into Thailand by land, but the possibility of it and the absurdity of the rules stressed me out.)

But it was no trouble. They didn’t even ask for proof of onward travel at all.

And we were now in Thailand. First order of business? Find a bathroom. What we learned was that public toilets in Thailand often carry a fee. We would need 3 baht to use the toilet (or about nine cents). That means we’d need some baht. So I had to find a currency exchange booth (which wasn’t hard).

Next order of business? Wait for the next minibus to Bangkok. Right there near our line was a vendor selling fruit. We bought another bag of pineapple (the woman cut it up for us and included two sticks for spearing the fruit). So one of the last things we ate in Cambodia was pineapple, and the first thing we ate in Thailand was pineapple.

Another minibus finally came and we got in. We thought we’d have to wait for yet one more, because we weren’t near the front of the line, but then one of the people who oversees the loading of passengers saw that we were together and had just one bag. “One bag two people? Come with me.” We got the last two seats on that bus, next to the sliding door and the dense pile of luggage. (So actually, we had the best seats, while the other people sat three or four in a row.)

It was a long ride, about four hours, but we made it safely to Bangkok. Next we’d need a cab to our hotel. We saw a small group of tourists talk to a cab driver, who then drove away without the tourists. I spoke up and asked the man what he said to the cab driver. I already read that you need to make sure cab drivers in Bangkok use the meter, because some will try to quote you a higher price. But I didn’t know what way to say these things, so I asked a fellow traveler.

Armed with this information, I hailed a taxi. He rolled down the window and I asked, “Meter?” He said no, so I walked away. I hailed another cab. He rolled down his window and I asked, “Meter?” He said, “Where to?” I pulled out the hotel voucher and pointed at the address, saying, “Here.” He looked at it, trying to read the English (even though the Thai was just beneath it), then said, “Two hundred baht.” I asked for the meter and again he said no.

So I hailed another cab. This time, he was willing to use the meter. Did it come close to 200 baht? No. Once we reached our destination, the meter read 77 (about $2.33). That is cheap. South Korea’s taxis, by what everyone from America or Ireland or the UK or Australia or any other country says, are cheap, but even their starting price is around what we paid for the full trip.

Even 200 baht is only about $6. Why not just take that offer when we need to get from Point A to Point B? For one, that was more than double the fair price. For two, I’d just read the day before that it’s not only bad for tourists, but it’s also bad for locals. Many Thai citizens in Bangkok have a hard time hailing cabs, especially in touristy areas. The cab drivers know that they can get about 200-300% more by carrying foreigners. So the Thai people (except cab drivers) also want foreigners to get the fair price.

So I felt pretty good after that. We’d successfully stood up for ourselves and weakened the grip, however slightly, of scamming greed in the beautiful Kingdom of Thailand. This pride, of course, would be equally countered the next day in Hua Hin. There are only a few metered taxis in that city. Mostly you travel by a small-bed truck version of a tuk tuk. I read that you should haggle the prices of tuk tuks, starting at about 50% of their offer until you reach an agreement. Well, I think that’s mostly for Bangkok, where transportation is more plentiful. I tried to bargain with a tuk tuk driver, offering 120 instead of the 200 he quoted. He refused. Even when I agreed to 200, he wanted nothing to do with me. So we had to find another driver, and I realized then that, especially with our out-of-the-way location, we were in no position to bargain. We’d take whatever prices we could. (And, with one small exception later in the week, they were fair prices anyway.)

So I got a bit ahead of myself there. I talked about our stay in Thailand beyond Day 9 a bit. But that’s okay. I’m going to break from a strictly chronological method of telling you all about our vacation. Instead of doing that, we’ll more likely write things such as “Food in Thailand,” “The Views of Penang Island,” and so on. It’s kind of boring for me to write our vacation entirely chronologically, and I imagine it wouldn’t be good to read it that way, either. So we’ve finished three weeks of traveling in Southeast Asia, and over the next few weeks we’ll write some things about our experiences there.

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On Friday (Day 7), our tuk tuk driver, Mr. G, took us on one more trip. Our Angkor Wat passes were now invalid. We had received three hole punches. We took a shorter trip to the small, outdoor War Museum. I learned a lot more about the civil wars in the ‘70s from our tour guide, who was a kind and friendly man. He showed us the guns, tanks, helicopters, mortar shells, landmines, and other instruments of death and destruction used in Cambodia’s recent, violent past. He explained the differences between various landmines. The plastic kind that don’t wear out from rain and time. The kind that are designed just to blow off a leg. The kind that are designed to spray shrapnel, that blind or kill. The kind that are safe to walk on, designed to target tanks and cars and requiring more weight to trigger. The kind that are tied together with trip wires to blow up around the entire perimeter of a water source, preventing the common people from safely accessing our most precious resource. He explained how the rate of landmine and other old weapon accidents decreased over the years, but was very high even decades after the war. Some children would play with the small shells they found, thinking they looked like toys to be thrown on the ground, only to have those “toys” explode. Many children, he said, did not know about the landmines or where they could be found. “Including me,” he said, lifting up his pant leg and showing us the plastic replacement beneath. He was a soldier in the 90s, he said, when that happened. He has a calm attitude about it, though. He feels more strongly about the landmines that blind or kill people. He went through losing a leg to a landmine, but he can still work. In fact, he said, for some jobs (such as working at the War Museum), you have to be a landmine survivor. In any case, I think landmines are especially heinous. A gun, a tank, or a helicopter is removed from the land when the battle is over, when the soldier wielding it leaves. A landmine is not.

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On Friday afternoon we simply took a walk. Mr. G dropped us off in the downtown area and we explored. I really like Siem Reap. It is far different from any other city I’ve been in. (In fact, I’ve seen Siem Reap referred to both as a city and as a town.) It has a very special character. The atmosphere is nice. The downtown area is bustling, but the buildings don’t reach to the skies. Most restaurants have indoor and outdoor seating, and there are plants everywhere. Just outside the downtown area, things get more rural. It’s dusty and dirty, but there are trees. Oh the trees. Beautiful trees. Here you can see houses built on stilts, houses made with whatever materials were available, houses that make no attempt to be airtight. One day, Mr. G asked us if there was snow in our home country. “Yes,” we said. “In Cambodia, if there is snow, all die!” he said. The houses are open. The warm breeze comes in. Snow indeed, and the cold it accompanies, would be a terrible thing. But as it is, the weather is friendly for such living. It’s wonderful. We are not looking forward to returning to winter.

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Saturday was our last full day in Cambodia. We rested in our hotel. We took a walk to the river. We sat by the river. In the evening, we went to one more restaurant to eat one more Khmer dish. We really enjoyed eating Khmer food. They have curry with coconut milk and various herbs and leaves that I don’t even know the names of, but that make the soups taste like a tropical island. They have sour spicy soup. They have specially seasoned beef. They have fried noodles. They have amok (steam-cooked curry in banana leaves with a meat or other protein). It’s very good.

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The next day we would be crossing the border into Thailand, so part of that day would be spent in Cambodia. However, I want to write a separate entry for Day 9. Here, instead, I’ll sum up our stay in Cambodia, touching on the things we didn’t mention from the previous days and offering some general reactions.

What else did we do?

We saw Phare, the Cambodian Circus, performed by students under the support of the Phare Ponleu Selpak, which you can read about here. We drank smoothies and shakes at Sister Srey Café, which supports Cambodian students (and has really delicious caramel shakes!). We ate lots of Khmer food (so Ashley ordered lamb chops once because she just can’t pass that up, especially when they were only $14, but in general we tried to eat the food of the region, since we’d only be there a short time).  We generally had a good time.

And what about Cambodia?

Cambodia is beautiful. It’s so green. Yes, Siem Reap is kind of dirty. There’s trash along some of the streets, especially outside downtown (but also in the downtown area). But it’s beautiful. And the people are so friendly. They have good attitudes. Maybe the tour guide on our Tonle Sap boat ride was a bit bitter about his country’s government, but even he was very friendly and funny.

Since our hotel was not downtown, in fact a twenty-minute walk from downtown, many tuk tuk drivers didn’t know where it was. The hotel card was all in English too, and didn’t have an actual address, but just an area. So that was minimal help in pointing the drivers in the right direction. One friendly driver had a hard time finding the place. He asked another driver if he knew where it was. The other driver mixed up Siem Reap Niche Hotel with La Niche d’Angkor Boutique Hotel, so we went roundabout awhile. He continued to search for and ask about Siem Reap Niche Hotel, showing various people the card and asking for help. As we drove down a dark, deserted road, he said, “I WILL find your hotel, even until morning!”

Of course, not every person you meet will give you a positive encounter. There are, of course, those who are trying to sell you something. And they are very persistent. At nearly every temple and site there are women and children trying to sell scarves (the decorative kind), dresses, magnets, postcards, and other souvenirs. Some men try to sell books and services as tour guides. The women tried to sell Ashley various clothes. “You buy from me, leh-DEEE [lady]. Five dollar. I give you good prai [price].” At the last temple we visited, Banteay Srei, as soon as we entered the path that leads to the site, a young boy said to me, “Give me a dollar!” WHAT? You’re not even selling me something? Well I guess he was, but he said the completely wrong thing. Remembering what our Tonle Sap tour guide said about giving children money, I said to him, “Go to school.” (It was just past noon.) He tried to sell me postcards and said, “You buy and give me a dollar, I go to school in the morning.” Little hustler. At the market buying fruit one day, a little girl saw us and said, “One dollar, sir.” Then she realized she didn’t have anything to sell us and went away.

Before we came, we read that Cambodia was very cheap. And in a way, it is. We stayed at a nice hotel for around $23 a night. (So what if we shared our room with a gecko? It stayed out of our way.) A few restaurants had meals for as low as three dollars (although we didn’t always want those places). Yet somehow, Cambodia is also a bit expensive (compared to its cheap reputation). Ashley overheard someone say that five or ten years ago, the attitudes of the people were more genuine. Now tourists are seen as people with bottomless wallets. A lot of people, from what we’d read online, thought Thailand to be more expensive than Cambodia, but even some Cambodians we met said the opposite.

I talked about some of the negative things of Cambodia here in the wrap-up, but please don’t be dissuaded from visiting. Like I said, it’s a beautiful, beautiful country, with beautiful people. So some of them are trying to sell you something. That’s true of any place. So some of them will try to rip you off. That’s true of any place, too. The food is good, the sites are thought-provoking, and it certainly is possible to visit on a budget, as long as you guard yourself from scams, bargain at the markets, and don’t buy any good or service you hadn’t planned on before arriving. In fact, sometimes we didn’t even have to bargain. We bought a large package of dried mango. We asked the women how much it would cost. “Six dollar,” she said, and Ashley and I looked at each other. We had just walked up to the stall, so we weren’t even sure we wanted to buy mango. While we were considering whether we even wanted it or not, the woman must have thought we were hesitant about the price. “Four dollar,” she said, not five seconds later. “I give you discount, four dollar.” Well, then, okay! (And that kind of thing happened a lot. Just look hesitant about the first offer and they will reduce it for you right away.)

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Note: We took several pictures of our visit to the temple ruins. I’m just going to put them all in a slide show at the bottom of this page. Also, this is written by Ashley.

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I have so much that I could say about our visit to the ruins, but I hope to keep this readably brief.

The ruins were fantastic. If you ever have occasion to be in Cambodia, you should see them all. There is so much more to see than Angkor Wat, which is a Hindu temple that was refashioned into a Buddhist temple, or Wat, before it began to crumble into ruin. Thanks to the Khmer kings—who each felt it was his duty to build magnificent stone temples—it seems ruined temples are everywhere in Cambodia.

We bought three-day passes that allowed us access to the ruins. The passes were non-transferrable, and were made official by our mugshots printed on them. We had read that one day would not be enough to see all there was to see and that a three day pass was better, but now, after the allotted time is up, I feel that three days was not enough. The passes allowed us to visit ruins not only in Siem Reap but also Phnom Kulen National Park, with a nice hike and a waterfall that tumbles over broken ruins, a botanical garden, and temple ruins over an hour away by tuk tuk.  (Riding in the tuk tuk was one of my favorite things about Cambodia.)

Concerned about cost, we toured the temples without hiring a guide. Although we did catch tidbits of what other tourists’ guides were telling them, which helped us to unravel some mysteries. It also helped that we had first visited the Angkor National Museum, which gave us some insight into the history of the culture and religion of the Angkor period. Apparently, much of the information from this empire was lost. No written records, beyond those etched in stone, survived in Cambodia. If it weren’t for Chinese diplomats who visited and wrote about the golden cities, there would be nothing written to help people understand what the Khmer empire was like in its day.

I had never before seen something over a thousand years old and so far removed from my Western cultural context. It was a fascinating experience that submerged me in history. I kept dreaming that the halls were filled with monks, and the buildings new, even though I could see the gaping holes in the ceiling and tumbled stone. I kept thinking about how much devotion and effort it must have taken to build and sculpt the intricate designs that cover the pillars, entryways, and window frames. On the walls of Angkor Wat, and other ruins, mythology and history are carved in bas-relief. Who carved these works of art? What were they thinking about as they worked? The faces and bodies of women dancing are etched into the rock. Many of the faces seem unique rather than duplicates. Did women the artists knew inspire them?

I kept thinking, too, about the significance of the sites we were treading, many of them had only been open to monks and kings. If the empire hadn’t crumbled, we would never have been allowed to see any of these places. What would the kings of the great Khmer empire have thought about foreigners and the uninitiated trampling over the ruins of their most sacred places? How would they have felt about the children of their descendants begging and hawking their wares on the steps?

We spent almost five hours visiting Angkor Wat itself. It is an impressive temple, and amidst the signs of decay—decapitated Buddha images, carvings with faces that have been lopped off and stolen, and colonies of bats—people still worship, offering incense to the images. It is mind-boggling that the temple, though it is toppling and ruined, is still so beautiful. It stands out against the jungle, commanding attention. To me it said: “Look what grandeur humans have built, and see how time has destroyed it.”

We toured many temples and sites: Preah Khan, Neak Pean, Ta Som (with invading tree), East Mebon (with elephant statues), Pre Rup, Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom (ancient capital city, full of faces), Bayon, and Banteay Srei (ornate red sandstone). We missed out on several more of the temples including the famous Ta Prohm that has wonderful intertwining trees. There just wasn’t enough time to see everything. I hope that we will have a chance to visit the ruins again. If so, I think we’ll get a week long pass and hire guides to lead us through some of the historical complexity.

And now, for the pictures.

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Winter Vacation: Days 1-3

Note: I’m writing this on Wednesday, Day 5. These posts will be delayed a few days, or more. I am, after all, busy having my vacation. 🙂

Korail went on strike. A large percentage of passenger and cargo trains were canceled, including the one I had booked from Gwangcheon to Yongsan Station in Seoul, the train that we would take to start our winter vacation’s journey. We left, therefore, about fourteen minutes after 8:49 pm on Saturday—much of the railroad workforce had been replaced with contract workers, leading to delays on top of the pruned timetables.

It was dark while we waited for the train. They must have been preserving electricity because of the strike. Also, it was cold. But we didn’t care. In an effort to not fill a quarter of our suitcase’s space and a tenth of its weight allowance with my bulky winter coat, I wore four layers. TOASTY!

This was, by the way, Day 1 of our vacation. Friday the 20th was our last day of work for the year. I suppose you could call Friday Day 1—after all, we could have left then—but we started traveling on Saturday. Let’s call that Day 1.

It was a short day, in terms of our journey. It started with three hours left in the day, and by the end of those three hours, we were checking into a budget hotel in Seoul. We stayed there for about six hours, leaving around six am of Day 2. We rode a cab to Seoul Station and took the Airport Express train to Incheon International Airport.

There, we had our first snag. You see, we didn’t have return tickets. We had a one-way ticket to our destination. If that destination were to our home country or the country we have work visas for, no big deal. But if those conditions aren’t met, airlines get nervous. If we get to Cambodia and they say, “You’re not welcome,” the airline has to foot the bill to get us out. They were liable for allowing an unqualified passenger to obtain boarding passes. (This is the way I understand it from various travel sites and blogs.)

In truth, we already had visas to Cambodia. They just weren’t in our passports. Instead, the Cambodian government allows people of several countries to apply for visas online and print them at home, even in black and white. We had copies of those in our backpacks in case we needed to use them. Instead, the desk attendant asked if we had a return flight from Cambodia.

“No,” we said, and she looked a little nervous. Then we told her that we had a different flight. I opened my backpack and pulled out my copy of our plan (we have two copies, just in case). This plan was a clear plastic file with about 30 pieces of paper in it, in order of need for the most part. I had the train tickets to Yongsan, the hotel reservation voucher for our night in Seoul, copies of our passports, the email print-off including our flight information, the entry copies of our e-visas, the hotel voucher for our stay in Cambodia, the exit copies of our e-visas, and so on. I pulled out relevant portions of this plan and showed them to the attendant. There were train tickets from Thailand to Malaysia, and there was a sheet for obtaining our flight tickets from Malaysia back to Korea.

The only thing missing was any proof of onward travel leaving Cambodia. “We’ll be taking a bus,” I said. There are no rail lines currently operating in Cambodia, after all. The desk attendant looked a little concerned, and as I said, we had the e-visas as well, but she printed our boarding passes and gave them to us.

Security, as usual in Korea, took all of ten minutes. I didn’t mean “all” literally there. Our flight to Ho Chi Minh City was a standard, on-time flight. Going through security in Vietnam took all of five minutes, and I’m using that expression just the same as at the beginning of this paragraph. I don’t know if they only did it as a formality, knowing we’d been screened in Korea, or if Vietnam’s security is easier to deal with than any other country I’ve been to. I plopped my bag onto the conveyor belt, walked through the detector, and retrieved my bag. Didn’t even take the laptop out of it.

Then we waited for our one-hour flight to Siem Reap, Cambodia. We ordered a late lunch. I know it was airport food, but it was pho that was actually from Vietnam! I love pho, but I’ve only had it at a couple of restaurants in Korea. Look at it:

Yummy pho.

Yummy pho.

There were some kind of leaves in it that I’ve never had in Korea. They were delicious. I even just dipped them lightly in the sauce and enjoyed them.

Anyway, our flight was delayed. At first it was delayed by 70 minutes (although it wasn’t listed as delayed, so maybe it was an updated time, since the updated time was even on the boarding passes we were given in Korea), and then by another 30 (this time it was marked as delayed). I started to worry for the tuk-tuk driver who would be waiting for us at Siem Reap International Airport. Would the hotel check the flight status and wait to send him? Or would he be waiting there for the extra 100 minutes, plus however long it would take for us to taxi back to the airport after landing, deboard the plane, get through immigration, wait for our luggage, and clear customs?

He was waiting there the whole time. He smiled exhaustedly when Ashley saw him holding a paper with my name on it. But even that is getting ahead of myself. What I want to say is that Siem Reap International Airport is great. It’s just one long building with a big airplane parking lot. After leaving the runway, the pilot drove the plane to this parking lot, parked the plane, and we go out with those drivable staircases. We walked into the building. And we had e-visas, so we didn’t have to apply for a visa on arrival. We were through immigration less than two minutes after stepping off the plane. We only had to wait for our bag and to clear cus—Well, would you look at that? We didn’t have to clear customs at all. There was no one at that desk, so we all just walked right on by.

We rode Mr. G’s tuk-tuk—Ashley thinks they’re superfun—to our hotel. He dropped us off and asked us what time he should pick us up to take us to Angkor Wat the next day. We settled on a time and checked in to our room.

The next day, Day 3, we did not go to Angkor Wat. Instead, we went to Tonle Sap, a large lake near Siem Reap (and several other places in Cambodia). We took a boat trip around part of the lake, and we saw the floating village. Perhaps there are more, but we saw one. It was a village, and it floated on the water.

LIke this.

LIke this.

Behind Ashley, those houses are just floating on the water. Maybe they’re on stilts, like other houses around the lake, but the boat’s tour guide said they float.

Here's a closer look.

Here’s a closer look.

Might as well put myself on this, too.

Might as well put myself on this, too.

The tour guide told us that Cambodian children always beg, but don’t give them money. “If you pity them, don’t give them money. They always say, ‘Dolla, dolla,’ but if you give them a dollar, they think they can just get money like that. Those children stop going to school. Then they are stuck.” Well, I don’t have such an awesome memory, so that’s a paraphrase. He said that a better thing to do is to go to the market, buy food, and give it to the teacher at the school. Then the students have to go to school, but you still help out. This is in line with things I’ve read about charity in Cambodia before coming. So they asked us if we wanted to buy some rice for the students and we agreed that it was a good idea. We got to take it to the school and give it to the children, so we saw directly where that rice went and whom it would help.

Oh, and Ashley held a snake. So did I.

Oh, and Ashley held a snake. So did I.

On the way back, I got to drive the boat for a few minutes. I don’t think I did a very good job (although we didn’t tip over so maybe it wasn’t so bad after all).

This is me, driving the boat.

This is me, driving the boat.

Ashley decided to film it: 

Anyway, after we visited Southeast Asia’s largest freshwater lake, we still had a lot of day ahead of us. Mr. G took us to the Angkor National Museum next and said he’d be back around 4:00 to take us to the hotel for a rest. I don’t have pictures of inside the museum, of course, but it was good. There was quite a bit to see. It started off with the Gallery of 1,000 Buddha Images, which is exactly what it sounds like. Then there were things about Cambodia’s history, the temples, the kings, the historical beliefs of the Khmer (Cambodian) people, etc. Fascinating stuff (especially seeing many depictions of Buddha sitting atop a seven-headed serpent), but eventually our hunger overpowered our interest in museums. We powered through the last three rooms and went next door to get a late lunch, nearly seven hours after our light breakfast.

Here's what I ate. Turns out it had chicken AND shrimp. Well, I just ate it anyway.

Here’s what I ate. Turns out it had chicken AND shrimp. Well, I just ate it anyway.

You can see Ashley's dish in the foreground.

You can see Ashley’s dish in the foreground.

Waiting for Mr. G.

Waiting for Mr. G.

Waiting for Mr. G.

Beautifully waiting for Mr. G.

Finally, we had a break. For a couple of hours. Mr. G. asked us if we wanted to go to Angkor Mondial Restaurant, one of the dinner-and-a-show places that features Apsara dancers. We had heard about these and wanted to go, so we said yes. We went at 6:00 and he dropped us off. He had called ahead, so we had a table reserved for us in the front, rather than arriving later and sitting who knows where. It was very nice: a large buffet and a show of traditional Apsara dancers. (Not entirely traditional, though. Women had bare chests in the Angkorian Era, it seems, but modern Cambodian culture is much more conservative.)

The show mostly featured female dancers, although it included some scenes with male dancers as well. Ashley took a brief view of the female portion of the dance. You can see it here: 

It was hard to get pictures in the dim light, but we finally managed.

It was hard to get pictures in the dim light, but we finally managed.

They had flowers in their hair for some of the dances.

They had flowers in their hair for some of the dances.

The buffet and show altogether was twelve dollars a person. A pretty good deal, I’d say. I ate too much, I think. Afterward, we went back to the hotel and called it a day. What a day it was.

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