A Travellerspoint blog

April 2009

Dirt roads of Cambodia lead to extremes

A country tries to balance beauty with poverty

sunny 95 °F
View A Rough Outline of our Trip on daveliz's travel map.

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FROM ELIZABETH:

Crossing the border between Thailand and Cambodia is an adventure sport not good for the faint of heart. A couple we met earlier in our trip advised us to immediately book a flight to Cambodia and not even attempt the feat, but our wallets had another plan, and we were confident we could beat the scams.

The website www.talesofasia.com pretty much walks you through the process if you are planning to do the trip. I won't give you all of our details, but the journey involved one bus, two taxis, two tuk-tuk rides, three fake Cambodian Consulate locations and two very tired travelers by the days end!

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After waiting in line to check out of Thailand, you have to walk about a half mile to reach Cambodia's border patrol. This walk is a step back in time about 50 years. Paved roads become dirt. Manicured landscape becomes dry and filled with garbage. The pickup trucks full of goods fade out, and massive, wood wheel barrels pulled by one man start to fill the street. The zone between countries is also lined with casinos that look lifeless and beggers.

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Poipet is the town just outside of border area in Cambodia. We do not have photos of the details I describe above as it was not safe to pull out our cameras.

We made it to a building with military men and a sign that said Cambodia visa $20 USD, which is the price we expected. But once the officer had our passports and $20, he asked for 200 baht, which is around $6. He wouldn't give us a clear answer why, but I suspect it was the lunchtime fee as it was noon and his staff was eating. So long story short, after avoiding about a dozen scams along the way, we ultimately were scammed by the 'real' officials.

From the border we shared a taxi to Siem Reap with Roger and Chloe, seasoned travelers from England who are wrapping up an impressive two-year stint on the road. We met them on the bus from Bangkok.

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The taxi driver made stops along the way, including one to get his car wash, conveniently at a store for us to buy snacks, and he wouldn't drop us off at our requested destination in Siem Reap, rather he left us on the side of the road near two tuk-tuks who claimed they would take us for free to our hotel. Buyer beware - nothing is FREE in southeast Asia! We crossed a highway to make a phone call to our hotel to pick us up.

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We made it! Our hotel welcomed us with a drink!

The next morning we hired a tuk-tuk to take us to Angkor Wat and many of its surrounding temples.

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Angkor Wat is a massive temple dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu. In the past decade it has also become Cambodia's most popular tourist destination. The temple is surrounded by a moat, is full of empty reflection pools, and many of its walls have carvings from Hindu mythology. Unfortunately, much of the temple was destroyed by the Khmere Rouge, which Dave writes about below.

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We hiked up a mountain to get an aerial perspective of Angkor Wat.

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Walking into Angkor Wat is an awesome site!

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Chloe and Roger on top of Angkor Wat.

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On the way to neighboring temples you go over and through a bridge with a collection of Buddha heads along the side. On one side of the road the heads represent good, on the other the heads represent evil. We like the happy Buddhas!

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Bayon Temple includes 37 towers of faces.

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Monks getting a tour of the Buddhist mecca.

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While other temples are getting repairs, Ta Prohm Temple has been left partially untouched. It is now full of fig and silk-cotton trees growing from the towers and corridors.

The sites at and around Ankgor Wat were pretty amazing, but the overall experience was not pleasant. At every step we were immediately surrounded by children asking for money or asking us to buy something. All day I heard, 'Lady, lady, lady, just one dollar, just one dollar. Come on.'

Tourists are left with a choice: engage in conversation with the children or ignore them. At first I engaged, but this only led them to follow me and beg for money. For many reasons I would not donate, rather I'd ask them about school, which I firmly believe none of them attend.

By the end of the day I was ignoring the children, trying not to make eye contact, but it felt awful. One girl about eight years old held her two year old brother in her bike basket. When I refused to give her money she started hitting him on the head with a plastic water bottle. It was horrifying, and I felt extremely helpless as she wouldn't stop and locals I approached wouldn't intervene.

What killed me most was that all of the local Cambodian women selling fruits nearby, and the male tuk-tuk drivers just turned a blind eye. No one wants to admit that this is a problem, or attempt to fix it.

The next day we took a bus to the capital city of Phnom Penh, primarily to get our Vietnam visas. Dave and I decided that with just three and a half weeks left in southeast Asia, we wanted to devote more time to Vietnam and Laos, hoping for a more positive experience, but who knows what lies ahead.

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On the road we stopped for a Buddhist ceremony where locals give alms to the monks.

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Check out the young motorcycle driver!

Driving across the country by bus gave us many hours to check out the landscape. Unlike parts of Peru where traditional garb is still warn, people in Cambodia are wearing jeans and t-shirts like us, but bicycles are from the 60's, houses are made of bamboo and rarely finished, and rivers are dirty brown.

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Exercise is not a problem in Cambodia, as most children and adults ride bikes, usually alongside cars, motorcycles, trucks and tuk-tuks.

Only two Asian countries into our trip, I have a better understanding for their chaotic driving style at home. Simply put, there are no road rules here and oddly everyone seems to get through the intersections in one piece. We have driven on the wrong side of the road, gone through traffic lights, and driven on sidewalks among other things.

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Cars and trucks are often packed to the max with people overflowing out the back, windows and on roofs.

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Garbage lines most city streets, especially near markets.

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Pollution is awful. You have to cover your nose and mouth to prevent ingesting all of the fumes.

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Women usually work at the markets or sell fruit on the street to make money.

We realize we may not be giving Cambodia a fair shake. We are skipping Sihanoukville (a beach town we heard was beautiful on the south coast of Cambodia), Kampot (a rural town with rice paddies and farms) and Battambang (a French inspired village), but we just don't have the time to do everything.

A few final thoughts...
- Even though I saw plenty of solo western women traveling through Cambodia, I don't recommend it. Even with Dave I felt uncomfortable on most city streets in Phnom Penh, feeling stares and creepiness from men just sitting on the street.

- The front desk manager at one of our hotels makes $3 a day. He says he has multiple jobs to just afford food and housing. He's never ordered a pizza, because that would break the bank. Now that's food for thought that made me lose my appetite.

FROM DAVE:
Understanding Cambodia's poverty and the destruction caused by the Khmere Rouge ...

The Khmere Rouge led by Pol Pot was in power from from 1975 to 1979 and committed genocide on the Cambodian people in a sick attempt to achieve a radical vision of a Maoist society. One point seven million people (although some people argue up to three million) were brutally killed.

While in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh, Elizabeth and I visited the S-21 museum and the Killing Fields, which you may know from the movie by the same name.

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S-21 was the name given to an elementary school that was converted into a jail and torture unit for prisoners including women, children, highly educated Cambodians and foreigners, who could not be brainwashed.

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After being tortured using methods such as water boarding, these victims were sent to the Killing Fields, a farm just outside of town, to be shot and buried in mass graves.

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Today a memorial monument holding the skulls of many victims stands in the middle of the field.

It was incredibly powerful to see the museum and field in succession, as well as observe the affects of the war on Cambodia today. While walking around the graves and monument at the Killing Fields you could hear laughs of young children at a neighboring school, which gave us some hope that things are improving for the Cambodian people. However, as Elizabeth described, the country still has a long way to go and throughout most of Cambodia, the amount of kids not attending school and begging is heart breaking, and the amount of unemployed people on the street waiting to pick up odd jobs is eerie.

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It is a common site to see Cambodian's just squatting on the street with no place to go.

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Men with motor bikes offer rides to try and earn a dollar.

The troubled infrastructure and economy in Cambodia is partly due to how the Khmere Rouge regime broke up families, eliminated the school system and free market to achieve a classless society of peasants and workers. From stories we've heard, current government corruption and a strong mafia presence isn't helping the situation either. Further, I can only imagine the psychological damage caused by the Khmere Rouge. I watched The Killing Fields at our hotel with a worker who lost a lot of family and our tuk-tuk driver who lost his dad told us, “everyone lost someone.”

The fact that the US had a part in sending Pol Pot into power made us feel even worse. Under Nixon's leadership, our country indirectly supported China and Thailand in arming the Khmere Rouge to fight the Vietnamese. We also carpet bombed Cambodia, destabilizing the former government, which allowed Pol Pot to rise to power.

Elizabeth and I think all US politicians should be required to travel across Cambodia to see what poor decision making can do to the common person.

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On the way out of Cambodia our bus was surrounded by children banging on the windows for money and food. Elizabeth got really emotional and started to cry. We opened the window and gave this boy our remaining Cambodian change, equivalent to $.15. It was as if he won the lottery!

Posted by daveliz 08:54 Archived in Cambodia Comments (2)

Thailand Hike, Bike & Kayak

On the move in Thailand for a month ...

sunny 105 °F
View A Rough Outline of our Trip on daveliz's travel map.

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From infant to elderly, motorbike is the main form of transportation in Thailand. I cringe when I see families of four on one bike, or a ten-year-old or ninety-year-old behind the wheel.

It didn't take long for Dave and I to learn that Thai people work extraordinarily hard, often seven days a week from sunrise to sunset, with just two days off a month. The economy is weak so people work to survive, rather than take part in luxury activities like travel. With that said, and with all of you working hard at home, I feel a little guilty about sharing our adventures, but when it comes down to it, the Thai people depend on tourist dollars as a main source of income. With political unrest becoming public globally, the Thai people worry about the future of its tourism industry.

For two weeks, Dave and I went on a trip with the tour company Gap Adventures. We will also travel with them in China and parts of Africa, primarily in areas that are harder to reach as independent travelers. With the group we are able to visit places we may have otherwise not gotten to, giving us better insight into the people and culture. Thank you Gary, Lisa, Cheryl, Jared, Joanne, Sue and Art for your GAP wedding gift. It was such a treat!

Our group was a fabulous international collection of people ranging in age from 19-48; Lucy (Australian living in London), Graeme (Scotland), Brigitte (Austria), Essa (Sweden), Paul & Lindsey (father & daughter from Canada), Matt & Alice (brother & sister from Wales), Gernot and Katja (dating couple from Germany) and us (Team USA), plus our guide Koko (Thailand).

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Our first overnight train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai in the north of Thailand. You sleep better after a few drinks with Lucy and Graeme - a.k.a. Grrrrrraaaaaame (say it with a Scottish accent!)

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The sleeper car is meant to host one person on top and one on the bottom - insert appropriate joke here! But since our bags wouldn't fit under the chairs, they got the top bunk and we squished below.

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No time to rest in Chiang Mai. We got into a pickup truck with seats in the back to head for the mountains for a three day hike.

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It is common to pass elephants along the roadside.

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Our Hilltribe trek took us through small villages in the mountains where people live, work and go to school. The people live a rural lifestyle in these mountains with many young adults moving to a bigger cities when they grow up, putting the survival of these communities at risk.

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We hiked like warriors uphill for about four hours the first day. Paul led the charge!

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The first village we stayed at was quite rustic. The second photo is of the bathroom....inside you'd find a hose for the shower and a hole in the ground as the toilet. There was one western-style toilet with a seat, but as you'll notice on the far right, there is no door.

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The hilltribe children loved looking at themselves in our modern cameras.

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We cooked, ate and slept on this floor. Yum!

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The next morning, we made lunch; noodles held in a bamboo leaf wrap. We ate it with bamboo chopsticks. A delicious meal with completely biodegradable trash.

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The second day of hiking was for much longer, but it was a little easier on the legs with more ups and downs, plus a few watering holes to cool off in.

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The second hilltribe village we stayed at was much more modern. Each of us had a bed, western-style toilet and shower. The village people also gave us traditional Thai massages. Child labor laws prevented the little one from working solo.

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By the end of the third day I was ready for a beer! But before we got to our accommodation for the night, we got a ride on an elephant.

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These animals used to work on farms and in construction in Thailand, but now much of the work for elephants is against the law, so many owners have turned to giving rides to make a penny. According to the locals the elephants now have a much better life.

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Dave and Koko help two school girls with their homework. They want to learn conversational American English. Dave writes that for them in English for their teacher.

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One of the best things we did in Thailand was Smart Cook Thai Cookery School in Chiang Mai. With the instructor we visited the market to learn about local produce and then we made ten delicious Thai dishes ranging from curry to sticky rice with mango to pad Thai. Whose coming to dinner at our place (of course when we have a place)?

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Along the River Kwai we stayed on a raft house, allowing us a perfect spot to kayak or swim, and a beautiful sunset. Other raft houses either floated by or rested by the shoreline.

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Autthaya, a city surrounded by water, was the capital 0f Thailand for more than 400 years until the Burmese destroyed it in 1767. What remains are extensive ruins of temples, palaces and pagodas. We toured the area by bike.

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On a scorcher of a day we strolled the seven tiers of Erawan Falls at Erawan National Park. Each level has its own unique waterfalls, many with swimming holes full of snipping fish. None-the-less many in our group jumped right in!

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On a bike tour, we visited the bridge over the River Kwai which was built by prisoners of war during World War II under Japanese control who wanted a speedy route to Burma to supply their troops with ammunition and food. At a local museum we learned the Japanese pushed thousands of POW construction workers to their death from grueling environmental conditions and malnutrition. Engineers estimated construction should have taken five years, but under Japanese control it was completed in 16 months. During the war the bridge was blown up by the US, later rebuilt by Thailand to use for regular service train travel which continues today.

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We stopped at several Buddhist temples. We liked glutton Buddha. Here we learned that a Buddha is assigned to you at birth based on the day you were born. I suspect Dave and I were not born on the day honoring reclining Buddha.

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There were also several mini monks, children dressed in traditional Monk orange at the monasteries. These children live and get educated by the Monks. They often come from poor families who feel the Monks will give their children a better quality of life. The children can decide for themselves if they want to become a Monk when they become an adult.

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Graeme turns 40-something...shhh..... The group lets loose and celebrates with cake, drinks and dancing in Au Nang, a touristy ocean side town outside of Krabi.

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Alcohol is often served in buckets in Thailand. We shared a bucket of rum and coke for the cost of one drink in Boston.

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Clearly, I had one too many sips....is the US gymnastics team looking for a new member? To my future boss...this is a rare occassion!

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Again, child labor laws are out the window. The youngest DJ in Thailand knew how to get his groove on!

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Before heading to the ocean we kayaked through mangroves and caves outside of Au Nang. Lucy and Graeme are looking for wild monkeys....they hear them....just can't find them!

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Dave tries some coconut juice, a traditional drink in Thailand.

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From Au Nang, we took a very loud longtail boat to Bamboo Island passing many other islands along the way. The water was a beautiful turquoise blue, which oddly seemed very clear and clean. Longtail boats are quite popular in Thailand and usually driven by 15-year-olds. Unfortunately they seem to use old car or truck engines creating massive noise and pollution in the water.

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We were supposed to kayak around the Hong Islands, but the government was there checking things out, so we had to re-route to Bamboo Island, one of the Phi Phi Islands, which you may remember as the target of a major tsunami in 2006. The islands have rebounded with extra evacuation plans now in tact.

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Bamboo Island is extremely remote and unfortunately our dodgy local leader was not a great chef. That, along with poor refrigeration and poor cleanliness, 90 percent of us developed stomach problems. Let's just say mother nature was a more appealing toilet than what was offered. As a result, we don't have too many photos of the actual ocean kayaking. Sorry!

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Dave did strike a chord or two with the locals.

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On the boat, Matt strikes a few poses for his calendar.

Overall our Gap trip was phenomenal. With a few tweaks to the kayaking portion of the trip we'd highly recommend it. As most of our group headed back to Bangkok, we decided to go to Koh Phangan, an island off the east coast of Thailand to chill out.

The island is known for having some very remote, beautiful beaches that are great for swimming. In one week we checked out three different areas; Haad Rin Nok, Ao Thong Nai Pan Yai and our favorite AO Thong Nai Pan Noi.

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View from La Polita Lodge, Haad Rin Nok.This part of the island is best known for its full moon parties, which we gladly missed by a week. It sounds like a location for 'Girls Gone Wild'.

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Relaxing at Thong Noi Pan Noi.

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A handful of friends who have been here before told us of beach-side bungalows with a hammock for $5, well those days seem to be long gone as the island has been built up in the past ten years. We were able to score some beach front views though for $20-$30 and in some cases, pool included!

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Local digs for clams.

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This week was the closest Dave and I have come to a traditional honeymoon, and we thoroughly enjoyed the peace and quiet, of course with a night mixed in with new friends from Sweden, England and Australia.

A few final thoughts about Thailand as we get ready to travel by bus, tuk-tuk and taxi to Cambodia ...

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In a country where supermarkets rarely exist and street vendors are where you buy everything from jeans to pad Thai, 7-Eleven has invaded. There is one on almost every corner. You can see two from our hotel room on Khao San Road, a popular place for backpackers.

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My favorite treat is Thai iced coffee served in a bag from a street vendor.

- People from Thailand, and I suspect most of Asia, have strong legs and knees. The Thai toilet, or squat toilet, as we like to call it, is everywhere except for hotels catering to westerners. It is basically a hole on the ground surrounded by porcelain with a bucket of water nearby to manually flush. Comfort goes out the window and balance is a must. Try using one of these on a moving train or ferry. Photo to come!

- Thai people are always smiling. They are extremely welcoming, although one smart 15-year-old let us in on a secret. He says the Thai people smile when they don't understand the westerners ; - )

- The Thai New Year, April 13-15, is normally celebrated with massive water fights. This year the festivities were minimal as most locals were ashamed of the violent protests regarding the country's current prime minister in Bangkok. People we talked with did not feel it was an appropriate time to celebrate. They seem divided amongst the two sides of the issue, yellow and red shirts, although all agree Thailand should aim to move forward and try to boost its economy.

- Thailand is full of colorful sex tourists and lady boys. In order to stay kosher I'll keep my thoughts quiet. If you want a story or two...just ask!

- In Thailand you bargain for everything from dinner to a hotel room. Even if the price seems inexpensive to its equivelant in the US, I never know if we are getting a fair deal. I much prefer when prices are marked, and you just have to go with it.

- Dave picked up his sports coat and it looks good. Scam avoided! (reference to last Bangkok blog entry.) Of course it is on the slow boat to the US now.

- Two funny notes about me. In the past week I've been confused for an Israeli several times, by Israelis and shop owners. I gather it is from my tan among other things - don't worry, I'm using 40 spf multiple times a day. I wish I remembered Hebrew and could respond! And many Thai women have come up to me and pointed to my nose and said "so-ay", which means beautiful. I'm flattered, but think many western noses get compliments here!

You'll hear from us soon from Cambodia.
For those of you on the GAP trip, go to our photo gallery for more pictures of the trip. You'll likely find one or two of you!

- Elizabeth

Posted by daveliz 22:46 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

Bangkok

Senses overload in Bangkok, Thailand

sunny 100 °F
View A Rough Outline of our Trip on daveliz's travel map.

We arrived in Bangkok, Thailand, after 16 hours of travel with tiny petite Chinese and Thai flight attendants serving big burly men on their way to see The Sevens, the super bowl of rugby tournaments which takes place in Hong Kong. Elizabeth and I got a kick out of the contrasting people sizes. We got upgraded on the last leg of the trip for reasons we're unsure of, but we didn't ask questions and welcomed the nice seats and delicious food!

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Livin' in style in first class.

We spent three days exploring the amazing and overwhelming mega metropolis of Bangkok. Extreme sweat and exhaustion followed each day as our senses were continually bombarded by the city's seemingly endless strands of street vendors and shops. Within five steps, we would smell five different odors - delicious, disgusting, sweet, rotten, & intolerable. We were dizzy with the sight of all the colorful vendor food and knock-off clothing. The sounds of deafening tuk tuk taxis, a little three-wheeled vehicle named for the sound of it's high pollutant engine, also dominated the streets.

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Fish and other meats line the streets. Traditional supermarkets are not common.

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In this overwhelming city it's amazing that Thailand lives up to its reputation as the land of smiling people. The Thai people are very handsome and friendly, always greet you with a smile, and are incredibly appreciative for any attempt to speak their language. However, with a smile on their face, many of the vendors and tuk tuk drivers will try to scam you. Never-the-less, haggling is easy, and they will quickly agree to a reasonable price and will happily do business with you.

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Even Ronald greets people with the customary bow and a smile!

Elizabeth and I explored for two days before joining our first organized group tour with GAP adventures. In that time we saw the Wat Pho temple which is known for it's giant reclining Buddha. The temple has beautiful and intricately tiled Pagodas and statues of warrior gods guarding each doorway. You are guaranteed to be within a few kilometers of a temple in Thailand which has a rich Buddhist culture followed by 90% of it's people.

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If I only had a staff like his.

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Gong beware!

We also visited the Chatuchak market. This market is the epitome of the Bangkok vendor scene. It puts all other markets we've seen to shame with 10,000 vendors selling everything from knock-off clothing and accessories to beautiful and original hand made clothing to food and kitchenware. The smell and heat were overwhelming and the narrow alleys and giant matrix of market vendors were difficult to navigate, but everything was dirt cheap! Too bad we can't fit anything in our travel bags. To Elizabeth's mother's dismay, we only walked away with a knock-off Diesel watch for me (my 20-year-old Casio finally gave out) and two tank tops ($4 US total!) for Elizabeth.

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We had been warned that tuk tuk drivers are almost guaranteed to scam you, but we couldn't resist the experience. We hopped on one to show us around town for 20 baht (about 50 cents US), but we ultimately got taken for more of a ride than we bargained for. These guys get kickbacks from jewelery and clothing stores they "convince" you to go inside, so they basically park outside until you promise to go in for five minutes. It works! We had been told by several friends that you can get high quality, well priced custom clothing from the same factories that take orders from top American brands. When the tuk tuk driver stopped at a tailor we splurged for a nice sports coat for me to wear at my sister's wedding. Sensing his profit had been made (and his gas tank full from the jewelery store he stopped us at), on our second to last stop he ditched us before even collecting his 20 baht! We had to take a taxi to our next adventure, a traditional Thai massage, but didn't feel too bad since the tuk tuk experience was exhilarating!

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I didn't know what to expect from a Thai massage. After changing into Thai pajamas, Elizabeth and I lied down side by side, and it didn't take long to realize this was no western-style massage. Before we knew it we were being whipped around and stretched in ways we didn't know were possible! These little Thai women used their entire body to stretch you, walking on your back and legs, using their feet to dig into your muscles, bending you backwards and forwards. Finally, I lost it. With my masseuse's arm under my arm and her leg wrapped around my waste in a way bordering on inappropriate, she rolled both of us back as if we were doing ballet. My back cracked so loud it startled Elizabeth. I couldn't stop laughing for the rest of the massage, yet fearing I wouldn't be able to move the next day! My masseuse and Elizabeth were laughing with me too. In the end, I felt like I'd finished a week of intense yoga in an hour all for $6 US, and thankfully, I felt fine the next day.

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The next day, we joined a tour group whom we'd be with for two weeks. Our first activity was a bike tour of Bangkok, which was an incredible way to see things missed by most tourists. It gave us a better sense of the local lifestyle. We biked through busy streets, over bridges, down narrow alleys, and through people's houses and restaurants! It's all too much to describe, so hopefully the following photos will do it some justice...

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Posters and billboards of Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej are everywhere. He is loved by the people and so revered he is on par with a Buddhist god.

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The base of most temples are shaped like boats. Notice how the base of this temple is curved.

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A scripture storage house surrounded by a moat filled with turtles to protect from rats. People donate a turtle for good luck on special occasions.

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Navigating through a restaurant/house.

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Our always smiling GAP adventure guide Koko.

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A common Buddhist theme.

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Safe water is only available in bottles or from these vending machines.

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Copper worker works near flame in 100 degree weather!

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Mmm... taro treats.

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Our wonderful guide Nok, from Grasshopper Adventures, sings us a song of Bangkok's full name. The official name is the longest city name in the world!

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Bangkok's full name is a mouthful.

We're recuperating from our 14 day GAP adventure tour of Thailand on an island in the south east, away from the protests happening in Bangkok regarding the current Prime Minister. The protests should fizzle out after the Thai New Year before we return to Bangkok on our way to Cambodia.

- Dave

Posted by daveliz 23:13 Archived in Thailand Comments (1)

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