Friday, August 29, 2014

Friday five: things we will miss about SE Asia.

As we enter this whole new world of Nepal for a month and start to make amazing new memories, we wanted to pause and mention a few random things we will miss about SE Asia. In no particular order, they include...

The ancient history. These cultures have intermingled, fought together against outside enemies and also against each other, and influenced each other since what seems like the beginning of time. As a result, architecture and religion came together in some really amazing ways over the centuries.

Cham Towers near Quy Nhon, Vietnam

Phra That stupa in Vientiane, Lao

Buddha statues in Si Satchanalai, Thailand

the story on the wall at Angkor Wat, Cambodia

And like the countries in South America, each SE Asian country we visited claims to have the oldest "this" or the most precious "that", and everyone claims that they ruled the whole territory back in the day. The perspectives were fascinating.

The markets. Not the shopping markets - but if you've been reading you know that already. We're talking about the fruit and vegetable markets that are usually surrounded by food stalls.

Hoi An, Vietnam's lunch market

Sapa, Vietnam's veggie market

Kampong Cham, Cambodia's fruit market

Phnom Penh, Cambodia's Russian market

We loved the fruit markets in Central Europe and we loved the addition of food vendors in SE Asia.

The critters. We spent a lot of time outside over the last six months, so we saw some pretty amazing critters. Butterflies of all shapes and colors, giant spiders, patient snails and grasshoppers, tiny geckos...

... lizards large and small...

... crazy jungle bugs...

... urban snakes...

... and one scorpion hung by its tail in Nong Khiaw
(yep, it was still alive)

The jungle bugs were the best. (They always are.)

The lush green even in the midst of otherwise dry, dusty villages.

terraced rice fields in Sapa, Vietnam

our backyard in Viang Veng, Lao

hiking in Koh Tao, Thailand

view from Kep National Park, Cambodia

The natural beauty in each country was really stunning.

And of course, the warm, friendly people and the kids screaming "HELLO!" everywhere we went.

Gia, SuSu, and Sang from Sapa, Vietnam

cute Misato at our Thailand farmstay

Mr Cherin from ThreeJ Guesthouse in Kamphaeng Phet, Thailand

our HFH Cambodian team leader Samvitey ("Raymond") from Phnom Penh

We especially appreciated the warm welcomes in the non-touristy towns and villages like Buon Ma Thuot, Quy Nhon, Oudomxai and Kamphaeng Phet. (And all of Cambodia.)

With the yen comes the yang, so here are five things we won't necessarily miss about SE Asia, in no particular order...

The hot. OMG THE HOT. It was no dry heat either - it was all humidity all the time. From March through August, temperatures ranged between 30-40C (that's about 85-105 for you US folks); add 80-100% humidity and you get OMG THE HOT. Didn't stop us from spending lots of time outside...

Dalat, Vietnam
(March 2014)

Cat Ba Island, Vietnam
(April 2014)

Nong Khiaw, Lao
(May 2014)

And that's about the time we stopped taking pictures of us sweating like pigs. But it went on through the end of Cambodia, and we never did acclimate to it - our last day in Bangkok, we ate lunch at an outside market and dripped with sweat the whole time.

The noodle soup. It can be quite tasty sometimes, and also quite photogenic, but more often than not it's quite plain and certain nutrients are consistently lacking.

our first noodle soup
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam - March 2014

we ate a lot of these too
(gotta do what you gotta do sometimes)

our last noodle soup
Bangkok, Thailand - August 2014

I'm pretty sure our bodies suffered from all the noodle soup. We had to work really hard to balance our vitamin intake, and even still this usually meant juices from the grocery store which were usually heavy on the sugar. Even milk has lots of sugar here. Really looking forward to a sugar detox soon.

The long bus rides. They were never actually comfortable, and the levels of "uncomfort" varied from A/C sleepers with hard short beds, to A/C buses with narrow seats and no leg room, to buses with no A/C and incredibly hard seats.

our first "sleeper" bus to Dalat, Vietnam

oscillating ceiling fans, one of the greatest inventions

Buses were often loud, one way or another. Many had TVs which blared atrocities like karaoke videos or Jackie Chan movies. And almost every bus had a horn and a driver who wasn't afraid to use it - nonstop. Thailand was the only country where horns were a rarity. As a result the rides could be pretty stressful at times.

border crossing bus rides were always stressful
no matter how many times we did them

But the scenery along the way and the amazing bus decorations usually made up for all the "uncomfort."

Clarence enjoying a little buddy time on the bus to Battambang, Cambodia

The plumbing. We had no problems adjusting to the showers-with-no-bathtub and occasional squat toilets.

What killed us were the bathroom sinks with detached plumbing underneath. Brushing your teeth or hand-washing laundry became an exercise in keeping your feet dry because the sink drained directly into the floor. Sometimes there was the illusion of plumbing but sometimes they didn't even bother.

the pipe to nowhere -
Shang Hai Guesthouse in Battambang, Cambodia

Sometimes there was a makeshift drainpipe that hung over the balcony. Those were our favorites.

The rented bicycles.  Apparently it's a rule in SE Asia that bicycles for rent must have half-pumped tires, no gears or malfunctioning gears, and short seats that make your knees ache with every pedal rotation. We still managed to have fun on these bikes...

our first bike rental in Hoi An, Vietnam

not even thinking about climbing that mountain in Nong Khiaw, Lao

goofing in Sukhothai, Thailand

fun with signs in Si Satchanalai, Thailand

... and we've vowed that any bike we purchase when we get back to the US will have these exact specifications.

So that's our SE Asia wrap. The amazing definitely outweighed the mildly annoying, and we were usually able to laugh through the mildly annoying anyway.

If you've been to any of these SE Asian countries, leave us a comment with something you miss (or don't miss). We'd love to compare notes!

Thailand on $24.50/person/day.

We were on track to come in under $40/day in Thailand... and then we spent a week diving on Koh Tao.  That "vacation from our vacation" was worth every penny and even still, we're pretty pleased with the results!  Now that we've passed back through Bangkok on our way to the mountains, we can share the Thailand breakdown with some details...

Initial budget: no more than $30/person/day
Actual cost: 61 days at $2966 ($49/day, $24.50/person/day)

homemade flag brought to you by a cracker wrapper

  • Lodging: $533 - 54 nights at guest houses, 1-/2-star hotels, and our family friend's AirB&B averaging $10/person/night (excludes 6 nights at our Help Exchange farmstay)
  • Transportation: $307 - buses/songthaews and boats between major cities; motorbike and bicycle rentals; tuk-tuks within cities (mostly just to/from the bus station); public transit in Bangkok
  • Groceries: $202 - we had a kitchen in Chiang Mai but otherwise this is mostly bottled water and snacks during transport
  • Meals: $586 - like other countries in Asia, a few hotels had free breakfasts, and we were able to cook at bit during our Air B&B stay, but otherwise we ate out every meal which comes to roughly $4.80/person/day 
  • Tours: $239 - $80/person for Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai (also worth every penny); $20/person entree fees to Sukhothia/Si Satchanalai/Kamphaeng Phet historic sites (Sukhothai being the most expensive of the three); $7/person for Kanchanaburi's Death Railway train ride and Elewan National Park; nominal entry fees for museums and other attractions
  • Alcohol: $73 - AKA too much for crappy beer
  • Gear: $36 - $10 for clothes, bug spray, headlamp batteries for our village farmstay; $10 for new t-shirts (with the heat we had to increase our rotation supply); $8 for a new iTouch charger; $7 for work gloves for the Habitat build and beyond
  • "Misc": $929 - $832 (!!!) for a week of diving in Koh Tao including completion of one Open Water/Advanced Open Water course; $20 for Jen's dentist appointment; $18 for things related to our Chiang Mai discounted Air B&B stay ("hardware for stuff we broke", replacing laundry detergent and that sort of thing); $18 for books; nominal costs for laundry and WCs
  • Border: $62 - $31/person for our first 60-day visas (the second 30-day visas were free)

Other fun Thailand facts...

Time for currency #11 - rupees in Nepal!

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Cambodia on $19/person/day.

Here's the Cambodia breakdown with some details...

Our 24 days in Cambodia included 7 days of the Habitat build, and most of these costs were covered under our Global Village participation fee. We sort of accounted for this under the daily per person averages. In general, though, the data is skewed but we don't really care because we aren't getting paid to do this and therefore we can do whatever we want.

If you're planning a trip to Cambodia just know that food is expensive here, much like Lao (we found that on average, a meal ran about $3/person in a sit-down restaurant - but the portions are bigger, also like Lao). Buses also seem to be a bit pricier here than elsewhere. Otherwise things were pretty much on par with the rest of SE Asia.

Initial budget: as with other SE Asian countries, no more than $30/person/day
Actual cost: 24 days at $929 ($39/day, $19/person/day)
Actual cost not including Habitat build week: 17 days at $929 ($55/day, $27/person/day)

apologies -
drawn on a bumpy bus ride
  • Lodging: $213 - 16 nights at guest houses, 1-/2-star hotels, or bungalows averaging $6.50/person/night
  • Transportation: $173 - buses and boats between major cities; tuk-tuks within cities; bicycle rentals for the Angkor tour
  • Groceries: $102 - mostly breakfast foods, bottled water and snacks during transport
  • Meals: $193 - some guesthouses offered breakfast but regardless of this we got into the habit of cornflakes and yogurt for one meal a day (to save on costs and also to avoid one noodle/rice meal a day at this stage in the SE Asia game), so for eating out we averaged $6/person/day 
  • Tours: $142 - $40/person for our 3-day pass to the Temples of Angkor; $29 for our day tour (including wat entry fees) in Kampong Cham; miscellaneous museum/tour costs in Phnom Penh; $4 in entry fees for Kep National Park; $13 for our bat cave tour in Battambang
  • Alcohol: $57 - with long, hot days at the Habitat site came self-encouraged happy hour beers plus a last night of fancy and not-so-fancy celebration drinks with the team (beers from bars instead of the local market are expensive!)
  • "Misc": $3 - $1 in laundry and who knows what else
  • Border: $46 - $20 each for our 30-day visas, plus a mystery 100 baht ($6) border control fee when we entered Cambodia... those cheeky border control police

Other fun Cambodia facts...
  • Cities visited: 5 (Siem Reap x 2, Kampong Cham, Phnom Penh, Kep, Battambang)
  • Tarantulas consumed by Patrick: 1
  • National parks visited: 1 (Kep National Park)
  • UNESCO World Heritage Sites visited: 1 (Temples of Angkor)
  • Plastic water bottles thrown away: yeah, yeah, yeah...

Almost time to wrap up Thailand costs too...

Putting the "bat" in Battambang (and some deeper thoughts too).

One 11-hour bus ride later (our last? we hope!) we arrived at the Battambang bus station 3km outside of town... in the dark. Luckily, our bus company offered a free shuttle to our hotel.

That didn't stop a dozen tuk-tuk drivers from aggressively accosting us as we got off the bus. And unlike in Kep, these guys were relentless throughout our stay. We couldn't walk a block without being approached; a few even followed us for a half-minute after we insisted we didn't need a driver, in case we suddenly changed our mind. A sign of the economic situation in this part of the country...?

Anyway. We saw a very cool thing in Battambang. There is a cave where hundreds of thousands of small bats exit every night to feed.

like Portland's Vaux's swifts show -
only longer, and with bats

They leave in a really organized formation but they scatter when one of the locals makes a "tssss!" noise.

see 0:36

They make a trail in the sky as they cross the field. Patterns form as they swoop and soar.

form of: stick figure on its side!

It goes on for about an hour; we saw about 25 minutes of the show before the bat line disappeared into the sky.

It was pretty magical.

The "bat cave" is near Phnom Sampeu, the "killing caves" where 10,000 Khmer were killed between 1975-1979. Tourists can easily combine an afternoon visit to Phnom Sampeu with an early evening bat viewing. We opted for just the bats - too emotionally spent for more Khmer Rouge history - but while we sat near the cave entrance waiting for the show, our (very nice, very friendly, very non-aggressive) tuk-tuk driver volunteered some information about that period of Cambodian history including his personal survival story and the challenges he faces today as a result. He didn't share his story because we asked - he was pretty clear that he was sharing his story because he wants to educate people about this time in Cambodia's history.

Our round-trip ride to the bat cave was $8. On the way back we had a quiet conversation about the ever-present question we've faced in SE Asia: to tip or not to tip? If we do tip, how much?

See, in some cultures it's insulting to tip. The price of service is the price of service, and locals see tipping as foreigners frivolously throwing money around. An $8 charge for a 90-minute "tour" (more like a ride) in this part of the world is pretty generous and the guesthouse that arranged it for us didn't seem to take a cut. We could tell from talking with our driver that he was obviously a proud man and we did not want to insult him.

On the other hand, in some cultures tips are expected when service is provided to foreigners (particularly Americans - we are one of the few cultures where tipping is expected for any and everything in our own country, service quality notwithstanding, and this expectation has unfortunately extended worldwide).

And on the third hand, this man had been through so much.  From his story we knew he wanted more for his life than to be a tuk-tuk driver. While Cambodian kids today have a better future, kids who survived the late '70s were robbed of educational opportunities and as adults today they seem to get little educational assistance from their government. And Cambodia has gotten little help from America over the years...

On the fourth hand (thank goodness there are two of us!) our fundamental stance on helping less fortunate people (at home or away from home) is that if you give to just one person you're not helping the root of the problem. You have no idea where that money is actually going to go, once it's in that person's hands. Ideally you give to quality NGOs that provide equal opportunity services to people in need. Less money filters down, but it filters down to more people.

Behold our first world dilemma.

We could tip, or we could ask for a ride to the boat station the next morning (literally a 10-minute walk from our hotel) and try to compensate him in that way.  In the end we made an exception to our usual rule. We used the "pay it forward" rationale, and when our driver dropped us at the night food stalls we gave him the money we saved when those awesome ladies bought us lunch in Phnom Penh. We told him it was for his daughter's schooling. He looked confused (or was it insulted? we'll never know) but he thanked us and drove away.

At the night food stalls we were approached by a steady stream of children begging for food or money. We refused them all, as our guts and the guidebooks have told us to do. Kids begging for money are less likely to go to school. This is not good.

But when an older disheveled woman approached and held her hand out Patrick slipped her some riel. Older people who survived the Khmer Rouge are less likely to get any support from anyone - internally or externally. This is also not good. The woman smiled, said a few sentences to me in Khmer, made a blessing-like gesture to him, and moved on.

And now we're on a bus to Bangkok with $2 in leftover riel between the two of us. We can't use it. Many of those tuk-tuk drivers probably could. That disheveled woman probably could. Those kids probably could too. In the grand scheme of things should you really have to decide exactly who to help, and exactly how to help? Shouldn't you just give if you have it and they need it? (And the truly burning question - do you really need to dump a bucket of ice water on your head in order to take action to help? But that's a question for another day.)

The dilemma continues.

Anyway. There was a lot more to Battambang than the ramblings above suggest.  It had its statues, of course...

(this is the Flying Prince on a Horse)

(some statues made more sense)

(some made less sense)

It had a nice river lined with benches...

(some of which were even in the shade!)

And it had its share of weird.

(martial arts students dancing The Macarena)

It had real food stalls and a real market and a surprisingly small backpacker area.  It was dusty and cramped and busy... but not overly so.  And we loved it.

street view #1

street view #2

Food notes:
  • we tried the fruit shakes from the White Rose
the taro was "interesting"

  • we tried delicious sweets from the market food stalls
sweet sticky rice with coconut, coconut custard cake

  • we tried an awesome breakfast from Te Kuch La.a near the Asia Hotel
sizzling vegetarian plate o'goodness

Lodging notes: we stayed at the Shang Hai Guest House. We kinda picked it for the name. The room was barren, the plumbing sucked, and the hallway smelled like durian.

it was an appropriate name

Guesthouse aside, we liked Battambang a lot and we regret not staying an additional night. Or five.

But with Nepal looming we wanted to get to Bangkok sooner rather than later to wrap up any last-minute purchases, offloads, and noodle soup cravings. So back to Siem Reap we go...