Posts Tagged With: Southeast Asia

Camping in Cambodia: A Trip to Kirirom

In America, June signals the start of camping season. People get out their coolers, tank tops, and bug spray. Living in Cambodia, it’s camping season all year round. The weather remains at a balmy ninety degrees, there are always mosquitos, and there’s always use for a cooler. So, back in March, we loaded up our cars and took to the hills for a weekend of camping in Cambodia. (Note: Many photos are compliments of the lovely Anna Sudra.)

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I know, it’s the last place you expected to see pine trees, right? Normally Southeast Asia brings to mind palm trees and white sand beaches.

Not in Kirirom. Screen Shot 2015-06-18 at 10.33.51 PM

Kirirom National Park is about two hours outside of the city along highway 4 and has an elevation of about 2,200 feet. Compared to the rest of the country which lies barely above sea level, Kirirom is home to a vast pine forest and cool evening temperatures. The perfect camping spot.

To get there, however—like the rest of the country—is quite a journey.

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Once we turned off highway 4, the road turned to dirt and potholes. Not to mention bridges on the brink of collapse. Cambodia is definitely more set up for motorcycles than cars.

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Climbing higher into the forest, families in wooden shacks selling porcupine needles, pinecones, and firewood dotted the roadway.

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Kirirom National Park is not exactly the stereotypical “National Park” that exists in many countries. In Cambodia, national parks are sometimes quite developed on the inside. This one has a hotel in the center, an active pagoda, and a few families selling things throughout. You can’t buy property in the park. Anyone who lives there I assume has been grandfathered in. However, even the national parks of Cambodia are for sale to the highest bidder, which is why there is a hotel now in the center of Kirirom. (Similar to the giant casino that rests atop Bokor Mountain National Park…)

Before the Khmer rouge, there were a few hotels and cottage-style homes on the mountain. There’s currently a small tea plantation and visitor center. It makes a great stopping point if you’re traveling to Sihanoukville.

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This plant naturally grows on trees all over the forests of Cambodia. (I’ve seen it before in Ratanakiri, Mondulkiri, and now Kirirom.) When I was hiking in Mondulkiri, the guide said it is good luck to see one of these plants for your wedding, but it is illegal to harvest and sell them. However, I saw them for sale all over Kirirom. I tried a number of Google searches and haven’t found an explanation. If you know about this cultural phenomenon, post in the comments below!

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The view from the lookout near the highest point in Kirirom.

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Once we got to our campsite we had lunch and set up the tents. Our campsite was not part of a regulated campground, but rather a clearing at the end of a deserted road. Because that’s how you make your own fun in Cambodia!

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As the sunk sank into the clouds and our campfire started up, we had our own little paradise.

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You couldn’t hear anything but bird calls and the wind.

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In the morning we drove to the visitor center.  Again I saw more local forested products for sale, which I recall reading were illegal. Looking back, I can’t find the articles that give me more information. I think the brown things are dried mushrooms, and the wood on the right is scented local wood. (It smelled delicious.) Unfortunately, I don’t think either of these things were sustainably harvested, but I hope I’m wrong…

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Having fun at the visitor center.

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Our last stop of the day was at a tiny waterfall off the main road.   10653673_10152670349147102_9136605122980195175_n

It felt great to rinse off the campfire smoke.

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Relaxing by the waterfall before heading back into the noisy city.

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Did I mention that it was my birthday? Chino and I are born a week apart, so we celebrated our birthday with a weekend filled of fun in the forest. Anna was sweet (as always) and baked us a cake. Nothing goes better with a waterfall swim than a chocolate brownie!

Add Kirirom to your agenda the next time you visit Cambodia! Just don’t forget to bring a flashlight.

Categories: Cambodia | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Cyclo Architecture Tour in Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh is a city seriously misunderstood.

When visiting Southeast Asia, tourists expect two things from Cambodia: The ruins of Angkor Wat, and the Killing Fields. After booking their flight to Siem Reap and their bus to the beach, they plan to pop into the dusty and chaotic city of Phnom Penh for a few nights—no more—to tour the Killing Fields and have a beer overlooking the Mekong River.

I have news. Phnom Penh is so much more than the Killing Fields. It is a city in renaissance. A city overflowing with a culture unlike any other in the world.

Sure, the roads are a bit busy and the air a bit humid. Phnom Penh is a city of 2 million people.

When you visit Phnom Penh, you walk the pebbled streets of smiling women scrubbing pots and brushing the hair of baby girls.

You wave at the moto drivers playing chess on the street corner and they wave back. When you visit Phnom Penh, you giggle with the girls in the market as you try on clothes that obviously don’t fit.You are invited to play games in the street. You taste countless different types of sour soups and steaming curries. You never knew a noodle could be cooked so many ways. You never thought flowers could smell so sweet or fruit could be so fresh. You take a selfie with your lover in the moonlight, and look behind your shoulder to see a young Cambodian couple doing the exact same thing. You hear men singing as they pedal their bicycles past you as you walk home from the market. Teenagers sip bubble tea as they get a manicure for a weekend wedding. You try to photograph the architecture of the wooden Cambodian houses peeking out alongside the French colonial facades, but you realize that your camera can never capture the creeping vines, the butterflies, the shadows, the tiles, the apsara dancers carved in wood, the smell of the incense. And when you fall asleep, you dream of the people who were so patient with you in a place where you are so clearly a foreigner.

Phnom Penh is not a place to be “done”. It is not a place to ask, “Is it worth it?” When you go to Phnom Penh, you need to slow down, take a deep breath, and look around you. I have lived here for two years and I am surprised every day.

When my family came to visit, I wanted to show them a part of the city neither of us had experienced before. I had seen the cyclos looping around Wat Phnom on Saturday afternoons, and knew there was a pretty popular cyclo tour. After a quick visit to the Khmer Architecture Tours website, I knew it would be the perfect way to spend the morning.

IMG_5185(All pictures are courtesy of master photographers; my Aunt Pat and my sister.)

There were seven of us: Sean and I, my dad and sister, my aunt and her two friends. We arrived at eight in the morning to a group of men in lime green t-shirts and white hats. They didn’t speak English, and my Khmer small-talk is brutal. We had a tour guide who was a recent graduate of Phnom Penh University with a major in architecture. IMG_5187Our sunscreen on, and our introductions complete, we set off to learn more about the architecture of Phnom Penh.

IMG_5202Our first stop was at a Chinese temple, one of the few in the city.

IMG_2816The temple had a few people praying or making offerings. There is a large Chinese-Cambodian presence, and many Cambodians identify as both Chinese and Cambodian to a certain extent.
IMG_2819The streets weren’t crowded as we cruised along, seven cyclos in a row. I can’t imagine what someone sitting in a barbershop must have thought when they saw us filter past!

IMG_5221We stopped at an old Jesuit church that has now been converted into housing. Before this tour, I had no idea how complicated housing is here in Phnom Penh. During the Khmer Rouge, people were marched out of the city and the houses became abandoned. After the Khmer Rouge, people returned to an empty city to try and rebuild their lives. The government passed a new law which said that if you inhabited a place for one year, then it legally became your property, and you were the rightful owner to sell it as you pleased. This presented a real problem. Imagine that you were forced to leave your home during the Khmer Rouge, crossed the border into Thailand, and were finally able to return three years later. You are dropped off on your street. Not only does everything look different, but you walk up to your door, and a stranger opens the door. Your house does not belong to you. However, the new owner is “so kindly willing” to sell your house back to you, if you can agree on a price.

The whole system is terribly flawed, and shattered the lives of thousands. They not only lost their loved ones, but their houses were now “owned” by strangers.IMG_5224This church had room after room that had been cobbled together and built on top of each other. The church can’t be taken over by one dominant person as each room is independently owned by the people who resettled there after the Khmer Rouge.

IMG_5266The tour was fantastic not only because of the history and the architecture, but I had never seen Phnom Penh from the viewpoint of sitting inside a cyclo.

IMG_2817Each bike was a testament to the life of the man who drove it. You could tell they were meticulously crafted and continued to be cared for. These cyclos are the cadillacs of the city, man. Not to mention one of the drivers who really enjoyed saying, “Ooh la la” to make us laugh. IMG_5226At the end of the day, we said goodbye to our guide and our drivers, our minds full of awe at this city and it’s hidden alleys, temples, and histories that we never knew existed.

If you have the chance, come to Phnom Penh. And stay a while. I’ll take you to my favorite neighborhood. You’ll meet some really great people. It’s a hard place not to love.

Categories: Cambodia | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Weekend in Ho Chi Minh City

Ho Chi Minh, HCMC, Saigon. Whatever you call it, this massive city in Southern Vietnam has become a post-war metropolis, tourist destination, and cultural capital. To some Americans, Vietnam evokes images of rice paddies, small children, and the horrors of the 1960’s and 70’s. To others, it is an exotic labyrinth of markets, canals, and mysterious soups waiting to be slurped and Instagrammed.

To me, it is a five-hour bus ride away. And in a simple weekend, the city of distant awe became a real place in my memory and my heart.

Our school in Phnom Penh—along with others in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam—is part of the “Mekong River International Schools Association”. As such, our sports teams all compete with each other, and we travel to the respective schools for the tournaments. There is also a “Cultural Exchange” between the schools and their art programs, which happens once a year. This past February, I was the female supervisor for our schools varsity basketball team at the MRISA 2014 basketball tournament in Ho Chi Minh.

In between watching the games and helping as needed, I was able to slip away and explore the city.

IMG_1006The first place I headed was downtown. The above photo is at the massive roundabout in front of Bến Thành Market. The entrance to the market is below the clock tower on the right. As you can see, there are as many—if not more—motos in Vietnam as in Cambodia.

 

Actually, that reminds me—if you’ve never thought about the size and scope of populations within Southeast Asia, this is a prime time to do so. In the map below, you can see the population densities in our region:

seasiapopdensityLaos is the least populated country in SE Asia, with Cambodia a close second. Vietnam is jam packed all along the coast, and particularly around the Mekong Delta.

 

IMG_1007But you would never have known it, the morning I was out. The streets were quiet in the early morning, lined with trees and paper flowers.

IMG_1009I headed into Bến Thành Market, ready for a coffee and something to eat.

IMG_1010If SE Asia is famous for its iced coffee, then Vietnam is king. They have perfected the iced coffee, with sickeningly sweetened condensed milk, hot, rich coffee, and a chilled glass filled with ice.
IMG_1012Much of the market was similar to Cambodia, especially with the gelatinous deserts.

IMG_1013All the skewers tempted me, with their perfect seasonings and fresh herbs.

IMG_1014But behind the pristine displays of food is a chaotic kitchen!

IMG_1016I walked through the produce area, feeling just as if I was back at home in Phnom Penh.
IMG_1017Although I have never come across fish this delicious in my local market! Look at that! What type of fish do you think it is?

After Bến Thành, I strolled around the streets of the city with an iced coffee and my camera.

IMG_1062A few cages waiting for a bird to make them their home.
IMG_1038As Vietnam is communist, I saw governmental posters all over the city. Sean thought this one was particularly interesting, and it shows all religions coming together under Communism.

IMG_1030More promotional artwork, celebrating the government.

 

IMG_1036Did you know there was a Notre Dame cathedral in Vietnam? In the center of the city is this gigantic basilica, built by the French in the late 1800’s. It is still used to this day, and all of the original material the building is made of was imported from France.

IMG_1040The Saigon Opera House, where regular performances are held.

IMG_1043Ho Chi Minh City’s city hall building.

One man I spoke with described the downtown as the ‘lungs of the city’. And I can see why. With it’s beautiful architecture, flower-lined pathways, and bustle of people, it really felt like an integral part of the greater puzzle that is Saigon.

IMG_1069And for my final meal before the bus pulled out of the station to go home: legendary phở. Pho is becoming more popular in the States, but I’ve never had it myself. A steaming bowl of heavily seasons soup was set before me, alongside a massive pile of fresh herbs, limes, bean sprouts, and chilis. Need I describe how delicious it was?

I can’t wait to return to Vietnam, and see more than the city of Ho Chi Minh. I also want to bring Sean back with me—the country is absolutely massive, and this was a mere weekend.

 

Stay tuned for a blog post on our second adventure to Silk Island, as well as our first village celebration!

Categories: Vietnam | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

How To Know When You’ve Fallen In Love (With A Country)

We all know the feeling. The rushing, pulsing of your blood. The grin. That stupid, cotton-candy grin. The wide eyes. The slack jaw. The wonder. The mystery. The fascination. The endless adoration. You’ve fallen in love.

In my life, I have fallen in love with one man, and three countries.

When you fall in love with a country, you go through the same system of shock and awe. You cannot get enough of the country; it courses through your veins. You hate to fall asleep because it will only separate you from spending another day with it. And when you leave, it is a bittersweet flight of tears. You begin a long-distance relationship, bound to return.

What were the three countries, you ask?

1. New Zealand

2. Sri Lanka

3. Thailand

If this has happened to you, you’re probably nodding your head along with me. If this hasn’t happened, to you, visit http://www.skyscanner.com and start looking up some flights!

Anyways, this new-found love of mine is with Thailand. We had to fly to Bangkok in the beginning of January as it was time for our next job fair.

Yes, we have decided to move on from Kuwait. This is our last year here as we had only signed a two-year contract. This means we’ve only got three and a half months to enjoy this, interesting, country left! I better stop blogging about other countries and start blogging about the one I actually live in!

Why have we decided to move on, you ask? Well, it’s not because of the school. We love our school. It is a perfect fit for us. We love our students, we love the people we work with, we love the IB program. We are only moving on because of the climate and geography. We can’t sustain life in the desert. It’s been a nice, sunny, warm two years, but we need more outdoor recreation.

We flew to Bangkok for the recruitment fair, which is a hectic, four day chaotic event. Luckily, we had done our homework, and arrived cool, calm, and collected.

We had quite a few interviews…

Even quite a few job offers… and….

Drumroll please….

We accepted positions in Cambodia!

That’s right, tropical, beautiful, lush, Southeast Asia. Miles of quiet beaches, elephants, monkeys, temples, color, flowers, love, life, smiles, music, dancing, iced coffee on the street and cold beer at night. Cambodia. Angkor Wat. We couldn’t be happier. Further, the school we signed with is also an IB school; check it out at ‘Northbridge International School’ in Phnom Penh. Phnom Penh is the capital. We’ve got family friends who live there and rave about it. We are incredibly excited.

So, maybe you can say I’ve fallen in love with a country I haven’t even been to yet…

But first, Bangkok. We only got to snap a few pictures because we were at the job fair the entire time, then had to fly back to Kuwait to work. We did get out and about a bit, though, which I am excited to share with you.

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Out of the airport, we took the metro all the way downtown Bangkok to our hotel. I loved how clean and organized the city was!

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A street in downtown Bangkok. I loved all the dogs that lounged around! Look at how clean and green it was…. *sigh*

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Just some alley with cool architecture. Yeah, I can’t wait to live in Southeast Asia.

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A tuk tuk. It’s like a taxi, but far more dangerous.

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One afternoon we had free, we decided to walk around a bit. We found this ordeal going on outside a restaurant. I am not sure what kind of animal it is, but everyone sure was excited to cut it open.

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You can tell by the script behind these men that it is a Japanese restaurant, and I even wonder if the picture on the wall is the animal they’re cutting up. What do you think?

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Sean loved this picture of men playing chess on their break. I loved how everyone was socializing with each other! Just relaxing outside, enjoying each other’s company. The whole city made me feel so happy.

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After we signed the contract with Cambodia, we had a free day to enjoy Bangkok. Unfortunately, and most likely due to all of the stress and travel, Sean became quite sick and stayed holed up in the hotel watching television and coughing. I gave him spoonfuls of cough syrup, bought him lunch, hung the “Do Not Disturb” sign on the door, and started my own walking tour of Bangkok.

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I loved all the temples (and color!) everywhere.

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I took a water taxi to another part of the city. Look at all these homes built right on the river.

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A view of a temple (that I read was built in Cambodian style) across the river.

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When I got off the boat, I found a street vendor selling pad thai. I sat down at her table and ate the most delicious pad thai of my life. How much did it cost? 60 Thai Baht, or $2. Paradise. (And all you flower lovers, can you spot the orchids sprinkling her kitchen? Love it!)

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Want some dried fish?

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I’m pretty sure this was at the Temple of the Reclining Buddha.

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This guy was creepily life-size. I expected him to turn and look at me!

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Outside a monastery for the Buddhist monks. IMG_4335

Ssssh, I snuck a picture inside the monastery where the monks live!

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I don’t know what concerns me more, the mass amount of people or the massive amount of power lines…
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An intersection in Bangkok.

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A road that I just hated. I had heard that it would be fun to see “Khao San Road”, so I decided to check it out. What a mistake that was. Thank goodness I went during the day and not at night. It was a drunken tourist trap! I can only imagine what else is going on behind closed doors here…IMG_4330

I only stuck around long enough to take a few pictures and laughingly continue on my way. Adios, Khao San Road. No thanks.

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A Chinese school in Bangkok : )IMG_4337

After all this walking around, I decided to grab some fried banana strips. Mmmmm! (I love the middle east for their hummus, but as a vegetarian they really don’t have anything you can eat on a stick. I don’t eat kebab or shawarma, that’s for sure.)

IMG_4340I returned back home to my loving husband, who claimed he was feeling a bit better. I got us some fried rice and we celebrated our successful job fair, and looked forward to an exciting future in Southeast Asia.

Well, there you have it. If you were motivated by the beginning of my blog, and want to travel somewhere new, come see us this fall in the land of palm trees, coconuts, and ancient temples. Hopefully I will speak enough of the language by then, and Sean and I can help you fall in love with a country, like we have…

Categories: Thailand | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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