San Francisco

I’ve always loved San Francisco. I’ve been coming here since I was a kid with my family–to the Exploratorium, the Asian Art Museum, the MOMA, Pier 39…it helps that I have family living an hour out, too. However, this time I decided to stay in a youth hostel. I’d stayed in a youth hostel once before in San Francisco–the San Francisco International Hostel–just for the night, as we were making a school presentation in Daly City the next day. Daly City, if you didn’t know, is the new business hub of the Bay Area, I would say. The San Fran International Hostel is great. I recommend it to everyone. It cost me $20, you get a free make-your-own pancake breakfast, there’s free wifi, a free “club” downstairs–sponsored by Rockstar and some vodka company, clean sheets, and it’s really easy to get to from BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) from the airport.

Unfortunately, on this occasion I didn’t book far enough in advance to secure the $20 rate–it was looking like an upwards of $40/night, for a shared bunk bed in a co-ed room–so I decided to go with the A.A.E. Amsterdam Hostel, on Taylor. It, too, is clean and features free wifi. Our room also included an ensuite bathroom, which was great (I went with a friend). What really irritated me was the tax appended upon check-in. I had to pay an extra $20 in tax, on top of an almost $100 room fee (for 2). I guess it doesn’t add up to much for a 2-night stay in a nice place, but as I had strictly budgeted for the trip, it came as a slap in the face. However, it ended up costing ~$30/night, which is certainly doable for most people. As it’s located just a few blocks from Union Square, it’s also highly convenient. The staff was friendly, and they even let us keep our luggage in a locked room the whole day after we checked out until we left town in the evening. SF is constantly full of tourists, both domestic and international, so a hostel is a great way to meet other travelers and practice your foreign language skills.

The Creamery

Speaking of transportation, you guys should really look into taking the Megabus for your next trip. I, who went to school 7 hours away from my hometown, had been driving the 411 miles for 5 years when a schoolmate who lived nearby (generally speaking) asked why I didn’t take the Megabus. I wish I had known about it 5 years ago! It’s amazing, the rates are stupid low–as they say–it’s almost non-stop, you can bring whatever luggage you can jam under the bus, you can eat, you can sleep, you can work online, they run all hours, in multiple states, and several countries (Belgium, France, The Netherlands, the UK, and Canada). TAKE THE MEGABUS! I caught it to San Francisco from Sacramento for $1. That’s cheaper than driving! There are toll bridges the whole way! I read a book instead! The night I left San Francisco, I caught the bus around 7:50PM at the CalTrain station–you can take a bus, tram, or metro there, IF THEY’RE RUNNING PROPERLY–and slept all the way to my 3:00AM Los Angeles destination for $24. It’s cheaper the earlier you get your tickets, I’ve seen tickets from Los Angeles to San Francisco for $9. The only issue is that the Megabus only stops in a couple places, and each route only runs to specific cities; therefore I can’t take a bus straight from LA to Sac, but must instead take a bus to SF from LA, then a bus from SF to Sac (pardon the abbreviations, but it gets old typing out such long names). In any event, however, the bus is way cheaper than driving, and you can do whatever you want on the way.

Beyond getting there and staying there, let’s talk about what there is to DO in San Fran. By the way, San Francisco can be called San Fran or even SF, but never Frisco. That’s something I constantly hear people say in Southern California, and it just grates on the ears. Wild SF Walking Tours even sings a song entitled, “Don’t Call it Frisco”, for this very reason. Another side note: all of Northern California does not consist of the Bay Area. There are many more regions above Fresno than the Bay Area, people! Anyways…

If you’ve never been to SF with people who live there or live near there, and you haven’t gone with your middle school and/or high school + 5 times, I’d recommend taking a tour. Wild SF Walking Tours offers free tours almost every day of the week, and alternates routes by day, so you can hit a different area of San Francisco each time. They start in Union Square at 10AM, and your options include the Barbary Coast, and the Mission/Castro District. You are highly encouraged to donate, but we didn’t, because we’re broke. The tour is fun and informative, lead by one of two guys–Wes or Jo–each with a musical instrument in hand and a song in their heart. I elected for us to take the Mission/Castro District, as the Barbary Coast tour goes through Chinatown and the surrounding area–I region I know like the history of the fortune cookie factory that is situated there, eg. by heart. We did have to take a streetcar up to the Castro District–luckily, we’d purchased a 3-day transit pass a priori; you should definitely do that. The SFMTA card is acceptable on buses, trolleys, streetcars and the metro; you’ll really need it if you plan on not having a car.

Twin Peaks--Castro District

After the tour ended in the Mission District, we wandered around to see some of the famed murals, I got a delicious burrito at Taqueria Vallarta, and my friend got a fancy beer at The Monk’s Kettle, which was a pretty cool place, featuring upcycled architectural elements ranging from Victorian to Art Nouveau. To find the murals, you basically walk down any of the alleys running perpendicularly to Mission St.; they’re all in a constant state of change, with people creating new work over old. Some of the pieces are in memorandum, some are just art for art’s sake, as far as I can tell. You never knew American street art was like this.

Mission Murals--San Francisco

If you’re looking to get away from the urbanity for awhile, you should go to Golden Gate Park. Golden Gate Park is a massive win for those looking for something to do, and not wanting to spend money doing it. It’s a huge green spot and houses several museums and gardens, including the de Young Museum–fine arts; the Academy of Sciences–features a planetarium and a living roof (last time I went to the planetarium, it was uninspiring); the Rose Garden–free!; the Japanese Tea Gardens–free before 10AM M/W/F!; the Conservatory of Flowers–free the first Tuesday of every month! (Otherwise, $5 for students, and $8 for those who consider it incorrect to present a student ID post-graduation); and many others. We took several buses there early one Wednesday morning, to meet the free Japanese Garden entry criterion. The garden was beautiful, although full of families who had the same idea.

Japanese Gardens--Golden Gate Park

After we left the garden, we watched a group of older Asian ladies performing sword dancing practice near the fountain in the center of the park. They were awe-inspiring. Definitely an unexpected boon. The Conservatory of Flowers was the next stop–each conservatory is like another in my opinion, but I still wanted to go. I love plants. This conservatory featured a butterfly garden on one side, and it was pleasant to be amongst the happy children and fluttering butterflies. One landed on my head! Bring your kids here for sure.

Conservatory of Flowers--Golden Gate Park

We hit the Dutch Windmills at the bottom of Golden Gate Park, and then walked across the street to the beach. It’s a really, really nice beach, especially being so near to a city; no trash, no barely-covered coal pits, no debris floating in the water. The water is cold and there are always waves.

Dutch Windmills--Golden Gate

Aside from public parks, you should consider going to one of San Francisco’s many museums. The SF Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) is a great one, and you can definitely get student discounts. It’s currently closed for renovations, but they’re apparently having open installations all over SF, so keep your eyes open for that. The Asian Art Museum is another good place to go. Besides having a really well-designed website, the museum is free the first Sunday of every month, and has very affordable prices the rest of the time. I saw a great exhibit there on the Ramayana and the Ramakien that really stuck with me. I’ve already mentioned the de Young and the Academy of Science; the last museum on MY list is the Exploratorium.

Die Neue Exploratorium--Pier 15

The Exploratorium is my single favorite museum of all time. I always thought it was geared towards getting children interested in science and science-type things, but when I was in SF last, I found that not only has the Exploratorium moved from it’s long-time locale down to the Embarcadero, but they now also offer an Adult Night! It is, hands-down, the best thing ever. It’s $15, which is cheaper than the usual entry, and you don’t have to lurk over the shoulder of a small child that hasn’t yet developed the social cues to understand silent guilt “Hello, I want to try that, too” pressure. You also get free drinks! The Exploratorium is crammed with all sorts of little experiments, if you will, that explore each sense–optical, aural, tactile, and so on. They were offering a talk on color mixing the night we went, and I was rather excited–graphic designers love color mixing talks–but the lecture ended up being quite banal. Don’t waste your time in the lecture! I always feel as though I’m racing against the clock while I’m there; so much to see, so little time!
Exploratorium Mood Ball
If you’ve never been, San Francisco’s Chinatown is definitely something to see. Unlike LA’s Chinatown, this one remains true to the spirit of the Chinese immigrants who arrived during the Gold Rush. The buildings are high and narrow, and they are interspersed with ornate temples. Each street has at least one bakery on it, and my favorite bakery, who’s name I can never recall, features almost life-size photos of Bill Clinton, and the story of when he came to that very bakery. They also have amazing moon cakes. Get the ones with the lotus filling, you probably don’t like red bean paste. The many temples in the area allow you to walk up and look around, and having seen temples in Hong Kong, I can tell you that the interior is exactly the same–smoky, gilt, red, tasseled, and full of doll-sized statues of the gods. You can buy a fat pack of incense for $1, and either light a few sticks, or take some home for the memories. The best restaurant in Chinatown, in my opinion, is The Four Seas; you’re seated upstairs and it’s very similar to a teahouse that I went to in Sheung Wan. The food is good and authentic, and the decor is old-fashioned and ornate.

Ma Tsu Temple--Chinatown
Don’t walk alone through downtown San Francisco at night if you can help it. People will constantly heckle you, even with a male companion. I usually try to keep my eyes down when I’m out on the town anyways at night–being 6 feet tall in heels doesn’t spare you a lot of anonymity. I’ve never had any issues with anyone trying to grab me or take my purse, but like I said above, SF is full of vagrants, and it can be stressful being torn between wanting to help them and worrying about what they might do in their infirmity. If you need help finding something, ask a bus driver, because they won’t get anything out of telling you the long way around, and they probably will know.

Psychic Advisor

Koh Samui

So it wasn’t as hard to get out of Bangkok and to an island as the T.I.T. would have you believe, but it was a bit involved. It’s easy enough to book bus tickets, I use Thai Ticket Major. The prices seem reasonable, you simply print your receipt and check in at the TTM booth at the bus station. The bus was comfortable, air-conditioned, and you are provided with blankets. It makes several stops where you can purchase food, snacks, or use the bathroom. However, getting to the bus station from Khaosan Rd. was a bit of a chore. Apparently, there is a bus that goes directly there, but I could not figure out what side of this giant boulevard to catch it from. I waited for the first bus, 509, and asked if it went to the BTS station. The lady seemed rushed and confused, and kind of shook her head. I then assumed I must want the opposite side bus and made my way over there. When that bus arrived, I asked the same question, and was told that I wanted the bus on the opposite side. WHAT IS HAPPENING HERE, PEOPLE?! Then I took a taxi instead.

Side note: the word for “go” in Thai is “pai” and it doesn’t decline or do anything funny, so you can use it in any context of  go or to go, such as when you’re ordering food “to-go”. “Pai nai?” means “Where are you going?” Servers will ask you, “Pai; tee-nee?” which means “to go or here?” (roughhhhhhly)

The taxi ended up costing 300 b, a little less than $9, but it was worth it to get where I was going and just chill in air-conditioning. Then I got on a bus for 13 hours. I arrived in Surit Thani, the eastern coast of Thailand, at about six in the morning. I got out and saw that we were at a dock. I was thoughfully informed, on wandering bleary-eyed into the nearby building, that I needed to purchase a ferry ticket. Apparently, some bus tickets include the ferry pass, but my ticket had been “quite cheap”. The ferry ticket cost 150 b. I boarded the ferry at 7am, and enjoyed exploring the ferry for awhile. I couldn’t check into my bungalow until 12:30, Hostelbookers claimed, so I didn’t care how long the ferry took. I’d gotten some snacks (dried lotus and some kind of filled pastries) at a roadside purveyor during the night, and subsequently had felt a little the worse for wear since.

Dock Dreamin'

I arrived at the dock at Na Thon, and decided to take a songthaew, as they’re the cheapest transportation on the island, according to the guidebook. Songthaews are pretty funny, they’re pickup trucks with a metal rig soldered to the back that includes seats and a metal rails for people to stand on the back and hold onto. It’s a combo truck and merry-go-round feel. You’ll see them all over the island, they always honk if you’re walking, and they’ll try to overcharge you hardcore. I didn’t think to have the bungalow address written down, but I was pretty sure it had said it was a 3-minutes walk to Chaweng beach, so I told the driver I wanted to go to Chaweng. I was feeling pretty smart, because the taxi drivers were asking 1,200 b to go to Chaweng, and I had secured a songthaew ride for only 100. When I sat down, I opened my guidebook and found that my ride should have only cost between 60 and 80 b. Ah well, live and learn, eh?

Lamai

En route on a crowded songthaew, I considered that it might be practical to have the bungalow address written somewhere, so I dug out my laptop. Thankfully, my mail handler saves my emails, so I could pull up the reservation. I was dropped off in downtown Chaweng, and asked the driver for Moo 3, which is where my place was supposed to be. He said we were currently on Moo 2, so Moo 3 should be nearby. I asked around a bit, showing the address written on my hand, and a friendly security guard told me I was in the wrong town. I was so worn out, I gave in and allowed him to call me another taxi. The driver was very friendly, and talked about all the places we were driving through, but I was mad at the rate (400 b) and tired and nervous about ever finding this place. However, the taxi driver must have felt bad for me, because he did an admirable job of bringing me right to the door of Green Canyon Bungalows. I staggered out and up to the desk, which was wo-manned by a French woman. I had prepaid a deposit online for the week, and as we completed the exchange in French, I was relieved to be in a language I don’t have gaping holes in. She told me I could pay the rest at any time, and I was led to the ricketiest looking little bungalow perched on the side of a mountain. At $8 a day, with a swivel, ceiling-mounted fan, an en suite bathroom, a mini-deck, and clean sheets and towels, I was in heaven. For the record, Green Canyon Hip & Cheap Resort is in Maret, a suburb of Lamai.

Fish Love

At that point, I was too tired to even want to lay on the beach. I showered off, and fell into bed. I roused myself later that afternoon to stagger over to Rose & Rose Thai Food, lately Rose & Mika (the Mika being taped over). I ordered some food, but couldn’t bring myself to eat too much of it. I had been feeling progressively worse since consuming the roadside snacks, and now felt as though I could barely make it home with everything inside (if you know what I mean). Crawling back into bed, I slept for the rest of the day, and almost the entire next day as well. By the next evening I was feeling good enough to try to hike the 3km to the Tesco Lotus for supplies.

The View from Rose and Rose

It ended up being more of a hike than I could take on. I’d say I didn’t get more than 2km by beach route–passing numerous on-the-beach bars with 100b cocktail offers and enticing beach chairs. I ended up bailing up through one of the bars and chugging back along the road. I did find the remains of a market, featuring fresh fruit, meat, and fish, along with the requisite food carts.

Fresh

I was jonesing for some Tom Yum if I could find it. As I walked along the road, I found an interesting sign, brown, and looking like a folded chefs cap, emblazoned “Phen”. It looked nice from the outside–clean and well-decorated. I inquired as to a menu, and the prices were doable (80b for a bowl of Tom Yum Kai, but the portions were big and I wrote off the expense). It was calm and quiet, an actual restaurant as opposed to a roadside eatery. The Tom Yum came, and was delicious–spicy, with onions, kaffir leaves, lemongrass, and tomatoes. She also let me drink my bottled water. Then I finished the trudge home. The next day I investigated a motorbike.

Phen's

The going rate for motorbikes was 200b per day, which is about $6, and you can rent one and just drive away–no insurance, no helmet, nada. You’re generally required to leave your passport, just to make sure you come back, instead of making off. You can haggle down to about 150b per day, if you agree to let it more than 2 or 3 days. I’m sure they could be found for cheaper, it seemed cost went in pockets. I did request a helmet (I’d seen the roads), and drove away. You can find gas all over the island, sold by almost everyone. It comes in old liquor bottles, stacked in a magazine rack display, with a sign proclaiming, variously “Gasolin, Gassoline” or just “Gas” and the price, 40b for 1 or 100b for 3. You can do at least 1 lap of the island on 1 bottle of gas. I sped off to get the lay of the land.

Gasoline

It’s a trip driving in Thailand. 2 lane roads fit roughly 4 lanes of traffic; Thai traffic drives on the left side, and the far side is somewhat reserved for motorbike drivers. The hills go up and down, curve around and around; the roads are paved, but sometimes a bit sketchy. Anyone can pass anyone, driving way over the median to do so. Some of the lesser used roads are so steep as to be barely mountable by a low-powered bike. I call these nightmare roads–like the roads you fly down without brakes in your nightmares. Drivers constantly come up behind you to honk, sometimes to pass, sometimes I’m not sure why. A good thing to know is that Thai drivers will try their best not hit you. If you step out (or drive out) into traffic, the drivers will actively try to avoid you, rather than running you down and claiming it was their right of way. But you’d better apply the same mentality to the motorbike holding father, mother, daughter, baby and grandma making a slow U-turn in the middle of the road. Full Thai families somehow jam onto single motorbikes, baby held by mother perched on back. Three schoolgirls or boys to a bike is not uncommon, the one on the back texting or eating an ice cream. It’s also fairly common for women to ride sidesaddle, especially younger Thai women and girls out with boys.

I drove down a random road, and ended up at a jungle wat. I was in my swimsuit, and felt a bit uncouth wandering around the swept dirt outer area of the wat, gazed at laughingly by young monks, but 10m past the end of the temple enclosure was the beach! A beautiful beach: white sand, clear blue water, packs of puppies roaming around terrorizing beach-goers… Yes, Thailand is full of dogs. It seems there are even more dogs on the islands. Dogs of all breeds, shapes and sizes don’t seem specifically attached to any one locale, but wander the island. Some daubed with raucous purple splotches of Gentian Violet, looking like they were caught in Holi crossfire. My travel advisor spun me about getting rabies from a dog lick, but apparently there’s been a lot of work done rounding up the dogs and giving them rabies vaccinations on all the Thai islands. These dogs have no fear. Dogs lie sleeping in the street and sometimes even road, whilst tour vans, motorbikers, and songthaews whizz around them. They’re not even remotely concerned with the possibility of being smashed flat by a ersatz tourist.

Nightmare Hill

Koh Samui is a good place to go to the beach. Every road that turns left off of the main road invariably ends in a beach at some point. The best beach I found was by following a posterboard sign at the end of a dirt road entitled “to beach”. This beach was actually pretty weird, it had a collection of decrepit buildings without ceilings, including some bathrooms, poured concrete flooring and a bar, but was overcome now by foliage, dogs and trash. I’m not sure if it was unfinished and abandoned, or abandoned and reclaimed. You’re also ok to topless sunbathe on most of the beaches, as you’re not quite into the Muslim district of Thailand yet. You can also wear shorts, shorts dresses, and belly-baring tops without much local comment. There’s a huge international population on Koh Samui, French and Russian peoples seem to make up most of it. Many of the eateries in towns cater to this tourists, with trilingual menus and signage. There’s also a large proportion of Westerners cum locals, who think they’re Thai, but don’t have the Thai respect for others and drive recklessly, sans helmet, with their enormous pitbull balanced on the footboard of their motorbike.

Lamai

A point to be addressed is buying food on the road. This is far more economical than eating at any restaurant in town, and the food is good and fresh. Driving down the road, you will see open-air diners with a roof, tiled floor, tables and chairs, and usually a counter. The counter will offer pre-made delights–don’t choose these, unless they look amazing–but you can order any typical Thai meal and they’ll whip it up for you. Pad Thai, Pad See-Ew, Pad Kee Mao, Rad-Naw, Pad Ka Prao, Khao Pad Anything, Laab, Tom Yum, Tom Kha…any of these are a viable option, and should cost less than 40b. You can also purchase some regional Thai desserts (khanom), such as sweet coconut milk filled with starchy root vegetables and tapioca shapes (khanom ruam mit) for a song.

Shrines

All over Thailand, but especially on the islands, you can see small shrines like the ones above in front of each house or establishment. They’re known as san phra phum (spirit house), and sometimes feature miniature statues of praying women and men. Food of various kinds is left in or in front of these houses each morning, as well as flower bracelets and other floral offerings. Occasionally, you will see stacks of these shrines in myriad colors, along with other poured concrete furniture such as tables and chairs, arrayed alongside the road. There’s usually only 1 or 2 of these locations per island, as I assume this is where everyone gets their shrines and/or outdoor furniture.

Night Market

There are so many things to say about Thailand that I never seem to get to. Like the smells. Walking down a street is like moving through a tapestry of scent. And it’s always a bit nerve-wracking. Thai food smells good: fried, but with the characteristic fishy undertone–you go to smell deeper and realize that “on-the-edge” odor you thought was sour pork is really the pile of rancid scraps on the other side of the next wall. The market streets are truly an experience. Raw meat, raw fish, herbs, garlic, onions, blood, old meat, day old fish juice, dogs, cats, toilets, fried food, sweets…you want to smell more, and then you wish you hadn’t.

Mangosteen

Mangosteens. Have you had one? If you haven’t left America you haven’t, as they’re currently illegal to import. These fruits are delectable–and it isn’t an overstatement to say so. You would never suspect them of such taste; the exterior is like a leather case, dusky purple, with four round, fleshy leaves perched on top. You have to “crack” this pith to reach the pulp inside: sweet, soft, segmented flesh, some filled with large, oblong seeds. The taste is entrancing; it’s hard work to crack into one of these guys, but the second you devour the innards, you’re onto another. To me, the taste is reminiscent of lychee, and a little of peach, or almost of “candy” grape flavor. You can get a kilo for 30-100b, depending on the quality, the area, and the seller. I found two bad ones in my last kilo, brought them up to the seller, and he gave me four new ones (two of which ended up being bad as well).

Phnom Penh

At the end of my stay in Baray, having spoken with some locals, I decided to just walk along the main road and throw my arm out. A minibus pulled over directly, and I gave the driver $5 to Phnom Penh. I’m not sure what the going rate is, but it seemed reasonable to me. Again with the dust and bouncing, but this minibus was also blasting Khmer dance tunes–it sounds similar to Indian pop to me–so we jammed the whole way there.

I had the address of the hostel, Spring Guesthouse, but written in English characters and numbers, so I couldn’t tell the driver where to go. We arrived at the final stop for the van, and everyone piled out. I figured a tuk-tuk driver might have a better idea, so I started walking down the street on the lookout for one. Unfortunately, and surprisingly, none of the tuk-tuk drivers spoke any English. I had assumed, mistakenly, that as the capital city there would be a large number of English speakers. Woe to me for my hubris!

Luckily, I’m pretty familiar with Khmer numbers and number systems now, so I told the next one I corralled  the street number and the place number instead, and off we went. Imagine my surprise when we actually arrived! I had little confidence in my ability to convey addresses, so it was a welcome relief to pull up in front of the very hostel I was looking for.

Moon's Up.

Spring Guesthouse was located near the heart of Phnom Penh, and offers excellent rates. I was posted on the 6th floor, and was definitely feeling my backpack as I followed the sprightly attendant up each flight of stairs. The room was clean, and offered a fan, TV, and wi-fi. Many of the hostels I’ve stayed in here also offer individually packaged mini soaps, which I immediately scope, as I love having soap on hand for those public bathrooms that don’t offer toilet paper or cleansing utilities, as well as toothbrushes. I probably have about 3 toothbrushes with me currently, and they perform all kinds of uses, from scrubbing out cups or utensils, to cleaning sand out of my camera. Some hotels also offer mini combs.

Interestingly, almost every bathroom in Cambodia will also have a comb at the sink. Clubs, restaurants, and other public places provide community combs for general use. There might not be soap, but there will certainly be a comb.

Sidenote: I know this is a long time in coming, but Khmer is pronounced “kuh-mai”. I had to learn that the hard way myself.

Being back in the city, I was reaffirmed in my realization of a disturbing Cambodian trend: a complete lack of concern for traffic flow. It’s extremely common for motorcyclists and cyclists to drive opposite the flow of traffic, in the lane you would normally be riding or cycling in going the correct way. Thus, you must drift out into the lane of car traffic to avoid a collision, and pray the people behind you avoid you as well. People will be attempting to perpendicularly bisect the road in front of you, and you must try to weave around them as best you can. Traffic direction has returned to normalcy here, that is, driving on the right hand side, but the disregard for flow is more terrifying than driving on the opposite side. Whereas Thai drivers use their turn signals scrupulously, here, you never have any idea what anyone is doing. The whole time, I felt as though I was playing Frogger on my bike.

Traffic Jam.

There is a general opinion in the U.S. that people from Asia are bad drivers. I would say that if you transplanted a Khmer person into American roads, this statement would be correct, according to our standards of transit. However, in Cambodia, there is no bad driving. There is no defensive driving. One simply tries to get where one needs to go, and God help the hindmost.

Another highly noticeable aspect of Cambodia is the smell. It’s more prominent in big cities, but you can find it in small towns as well. In some places, the air smells just like the cotton lining of a sweaty pair of underpants after a long day. Exactly like that. Markets smell fishy, with a whiff of overripe produce and a meaty undertone. In larger markets, you’ll smell delicious frying food, and then some funky smell like someone left the bathroom door open. I commented on this in Thailand, but that jarring “underpants” smell occurs so often, and in such unexpected places, I felt I had to clue you in. Sometimes I just elect not to breathe. This works, generally, but not always.

Wrap It Up.

I decided to rent a bike, because I didn’t want to pay a tuk-tuk driver every time I wanted to go somewhere, plus it feels so much freer to be able to hop on and off a bike every time you see a tasty vendor. There’s one street in Phnom Penh that’s dedicated to bikes. That street is No. 107. It leads right to the Phsar Orussey, which is also an awesome place. In the middle of St. 107 is an unassuming little shop, with a minute sign proclaiming “Bicycle for Rent”. This is the place to go. The owner selected a bike of the perfect height for me, aired up the tires, wiped down the seat, and gave me a lock. I left my passport with him, and away I went. The rental was $2 per day, well worth it considering a tuk-tuk in one direction to anywhere would cost you more than that.

Bikes for Rent.

I blithely set out on my way to the Russian Market, which I’d heard about from YeePei, charting my way using the handy hotel map of attractions. The city was much smaller than the map made it seem–to visually trick people into using tuk-tuks? I wondered, is this some big conspiracy?–but somehow I managed to go about 3 miles in the opposite direction, making a huge anti-clockwise parameter that I just needed to close to reach my destination. I pulled up at what I hoped was the Russian Market, it just looked like a clump of stalls, and had my bike valeted by an enterprising young man. The market was similar to all tourist markets, featuring the same tourist stuff, but in the middle was an extensive food court!

Transaction.

Disregarding the backhanded comment on the map that advised that eating at the Russian Market was for the “hygienically adventurous”, which nonetheless amused me, I sat down at what was obviously a well-cleaned bar and ordered a temptingly fresh spring roll from the young woman in front of me. She thoughtfully cut the roll into meatball sized chunks, and served it up with a small dish of spicy, sweet, peanut-chilli sauce. I woofed that down and ordered another. Then I watched as a couple of teenaged girls ordered some sort of noodle salad bowl, with a thick flab of fresh noodle being cut into mouth-sized pieces and dished up with mint, cilantro, and some other herbs, plus sauce, and a deep-fried meat egg roll type thing. You know, just everything I love. I was happily munching away, when all of a sudden I experienced a strong, strong fishy taste in my mouth. It was so hard for me to finish chewing and swallow, while making a sickly attempt at keeping an expression of enjoyment on my face. What was that horrendous flavor? I searched out the only leaf unfamiliar in form and hesitatingly took a bite. Yep, that’s the offender! Luckily, it seemed as though there were only two in my bowl. I found out later that the herb is a type of cordata, and is not only common in Vietnamese and other Asian cookery, but offers a variety of health benefits, including anti-obesity effects. Only because it makes you wary of continued ingestion!

Garlic Seller.

I ended up buying nothing at the market save lunch and a $1 fan from a poor lady who looked like she’d been burned. I went to collect my bike, but the bike valet was nowhere to be seen. As I began to make my way off the curb, I was suddenly apprehended by the erstwhile handler. I ripped my little half ticket off the brake lines and gestured, I handed him the remaining half, he said some things I couldn’t understand, and in the end he just shook his head angrily and let me go.

Back on the main road, I pulled over at one of the thousands of pushcart drink sellers. Cambodians seem to drink coffee black and liberally sweetened with sugar–so strong that even the melting ice doesn’t dilute it. These can be had, unless you’re getting ripped off, for anywhere from 1000-2000 riel; so fifty cents or less. These are proffered with handy little drink slot bags that hang perfectly from handlebars or hands. I’ll have to take a photo. Honestly, it’s the “usual” things in Cambodia that are the coolest, but you look like a total innocent abroad if you’re seen taking a picture of a coffee. And I don’t want to be laughed at anymore!

Bird Seller.

I didn’t go to the Killing Fields, and I didn’t go to the Central Market. I had developed quite a horrible case of heat rash, and was half-insane with itchiness. The rash started right on my bra-line and cleavage, a place you can’t go around scratching, especially in Cambodia. I eventually went to the pharmacy and bought some $3 anti-histamine cream, which saved my life. Even taking one Benedryl per night leaves me dopey in the morning, and the cooling sensation of the gel was an extra bonus. Pricey, but necessary.

Rinsing It Down.

Be warned that businesses, even pharmacies, shut up by 8PM or earlier, so get your supplies early.

A market I did go to was the nearby and aforementioned Orussey Market. This market is a market for locals; it contains household goods, hardware, food and food preparation items, clothing, and on the top floor, tailors and seamstresses. On the second floor, there are a number of closet sized stalls offering second-hand clothes. Each of these is tailored to a specific item or style of clothing: lace and openwork clothes, just shirts, just bottoms, just dresses, just velvet, just shoes, just bras. I did buy some bras; the lady perfectly guessed my size, and presented selections based on what I chose out of her first options. It was like a Pandora station for bras! I paid $5 for two, but I had to force the deal, as I only had $5.

Wire Wad.

I also bought a number of lacy bandeau-type deals that are so stupidly pricey in America. Speaking of underclothes, do you know what they don’t offer in Thailand or Cambodia? Thongs! That’s right, because Asian women are perfectly comfortable being sexual in a bikini or lacy brief-cut panty. And much more attractively so, in my opinion.

The back of the second floor is lined with hair salons! You can smell the hot hair scent as you approach. Salon after salon providing extensions, coloring, cuts. I wish I was in the market for some hair care.

I also chose to eat near this market, as there was an enormous selection of street food, as well as little “restaurants” set up on the encircling curb. I had some delicious borbor served on a clean table in the middle of the square, and an excellent num pang from a young lady on the curb, who hooked me up with a gang of papaya relish. Num pang are the Khmer equivalent to the Vietnamese bánh mì sandwich.

Num Pang.

Ok, I swear this is the last thing I have to say about food! At night, these picnic tables of Khmer desserts pop up all over. These mostly consist of certain mixes, arranged in giant stainless silver bowls, such as banana and tapioca, sticky rice and taro, corn coconut tapioca, and so on. You can eat it there, in a little bowl you’ll hand back, or you can take it to go in a tiny baggy. These treats are topped with coconut milk, and shaved ice if you ask. I’m a corn dessert addict, so that’s what I had. Similar in flavor to creamed corn, with an inviting texture of tapioca. You can also select from some small bowls offering palm seeds, rainbow squigglies, coconut jelly, and other small confections, which are then paired with coconut milk and ice as well, for an impromptu shaved ice treat!

Wandering around Orussey Market after dinner, I came upon a bin of baseball caps. I’d sent home my oversized straw sunhat long ago, and needed a light grade replacement. “Muy bo-an,” said the lady watching nearby. 1,000 riel, or $0.25. I picked through all the hats, finally settling on an red nylon edition, emblazoned “Profashion”. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed other piles. Mounds and mounds of clothes slightly sorted and piled on tarps. All for 1,000 riel each! I ended up digging out one stretchy, sleeveless, knee-length dress in taupe (French for mole, you know) and one pair of girl-style boxer/sleep shorts. Boy, if I lived in Phnom Penh, I’d be here every night! You could outfit your wardrobe in these pickings. I wish I could have snagged more, but I have to carry it all on my back, so, alas.

I took the plunge and decided to have my laundry sent out. *Heavens!* It cost $1 per kilo, so I got roughly 7lb of laundry washed for $3. I left it at 7:30PM, and picked it up the next day at 5PM. How easy is that! Dirty underwear, heavy towels, handkerchiefs, fabric bundles…it was all there, fresh, clean, and neatly folded in a plastic sack. Interestingly, my laundry didn’t have a particularly “clean” scent, it smelled like the air of Phnom Penh in which it had been hang-dried, so mostly like smoke and doughnuts.

Saigon

So, I arranged my Viet Nam visa through a travel agency in Kep, Cambodia. Don’t do this. Arrange it in Phnom Penh, or Sihanoukville, but not in a backwater ‘burb. It’ll take three times as long, and cost twice as much. I meant to leave on Tuesday, but the travel agency called in the morning telling me my visa hadn’t arrived yet and that we would go tomorrow. Wednesday morning arrived, and I set off on my journey. Easy enough, though cramped, in the minivan I took to Ha Tien–the border city of Viet Nam and Cambodia. The border crossing itself was a breeze, and I felt the $65 I’d paid for the visa might have been worth it, although it’s supposed to be $30.

Electrical Box.

The worst part of the border crossing was when I was shuttled from the first bus drop-off to the second bus pick-up, and there wasn’t enough room in the car, so my backpack was placed, PLACED, on the roof. And so it traveled to the bus station, with me praying the entire time for restraint and control on the part of the driver.

The bus itself was quite unusual–passengers were required to remove their shoes after climbing the stairs, and were assigned either an upper or a lower berth in a Space Age-type recliner chaise longue. It was rather too short for my legs, but not horribly uncomfortable.

Bus Ride.

I arrived in Sai Gon around 9 in the evening, and then was shuttled to the center of the city in a free bus nearby. The middle of the city meant nothing to me, as I hadn’t pre-booked a hostel, assuming the bus got in earlier so I could scout for a hostel on my own. I wandered the streets, looking for the tell-tale “Nha Nghi” sign that signified a guesthouse. None to be found, spotted pounding the pavement by an old Vietnamese man,  I was coerced onto the back of his motorbike and led from hotel to hotel until one was found with vacancy. I told him I had no money, and he gave the (I now know) ubiquitous Vietnamese sideways hand flutter.

The Vietnamese Hand Flutter: This means anything from “It doesn’t matter” to “I don’t know/understand what you’re trying to tell me” to “Don’t have it”. It’s essentially “Jazz Hands” with just one hand. Practice accordingly. It saves time and energy in staving off taxi drivers and street hawkers.

I ended up in a pay-by-the-hour hotel, at VND 240,000, about $12. It was clean, tidy, came with free soaps and combs, hot water, fast wi-fi, and A/C. Completely worth it. By the way, the D in VND stands for Dong (pronounced “dawm”), the Vietnamese currency standard. It’s roughly 21,000 VND to the dollar, but I usually just cover the last four zeroes in any price and divide by two.

The next day, after some strenuous research, I headed over to the Budget Hostel–about a mile or so away. Naturally, I walked, to save on cash. Naturally, I got lost. I staggered into a cafe to ask for directions, and immediately a young woman stood up, left her friend sitting at the table, and offered to escort me via motorbike to my hostel. I was also offered a seat and a place to put my pack by the security guard outside, and a cold glass of tea by the waiter. Of course I accepted her offer with alacrity.

Park Street.

It turns out I’d taken the wrong Cong Quynh. It’s broken (irritatingly similar to many streets in Long Beach) into two segments, and I’d taken the first one I came to. Arriving at the Budget Hostel at last, I was somewhat dismayed. It was literally a door in the wall of an alley, and stepping inside was like stepping into a closet after someone had a steamy 7 minutes in it. The cost was ~$5 per night and included free breakfast (of baguette and margarine). Miraculously, the dorm room was air-conditioned to a pleasingly frigid temperature, and each bed was replete with one electric fan. Ahhhh heaven, in high-90’s Saigon.

Coffee Snacks!

I had heard from many travelers that Viet Nam was the least favorite part of their trip, that the people weren’t friendly, that the country wasn’t beautiful; all of that is complete tripe. People are constantly trying to talk to you and to help you, or just to smile at you and show you how their baby can say “Hello”. Children, and adults, call to you day and night, with grins and waves. The country is beautiful–I don’t know how anyone could say it isn’t: fresh, green, and watery. Saigon is crammed with beautiful, old trees; it’s like the Stockholm of South East Asia.

Even the architecture is soothing. Almost every edifice is painted in a hue of blue or green, ranging from citron to sage to jade to sea foam to turquoise to true blue. The doors and windows are barred with metal, but metal of such fanciful design I’ve never seen elsewhere. Dainty patterns, birds, and starbursts cover windows and bar gateways. Airy bamboo birdcages hang everywhere, and the twittering of birds is omnipresent.

Alley Way.

I didn’t feel secure transporting myself via motorbike, and I couldn’t find a bike rental, so I walked everywhere. From my hostel, I could easily reach the Notre Dame, the Ben Thanh market, a small local market, and plenty of food, food, food. I ate every Vietnamese dish I knew from home, and found others I loved even more, such as Banh Bot Chien–thick, stir-fried chunks of rice dumpling in an omelette, with pickled daikon and carrot slaw, and no’u’c cha’m on the side. 20,000 VND. As usual, I had to face that some meals are only available at certain times, such as the above, which came out after the market closed, and the doughnut man, who rolled up after the fruit lady left in the morning (get out of here, healthy!).

Independence Palace.

My friend and savior, Nga, escorted me to the Independence Palace of an afternoon via motorbike; with an admission price of just 30,000 VND, it was well worth it. I thought the place looked ugly on the outside, just like some of our post-Modern architectural eyesores at home, but on the inside it was delightfully Chinoise. My favorite part was actually the interior of an architectural detail I thought ugly from outside–the huge, stylized bamboo, concrete window shades. Across from the palace is a French-influenced park, with soaring trees (sycamores? do those grow here?), and well-tended, geometric walkways and well-placed benches.

Hall of Light.

In this park, an old man sits with his violin, a microphone, and an amp. He plays popular songs and traditional Vietnamese songs, and young people cluster around him to sing into his microphone. It’s charming that the youth, instead of skulking around smoking, come to sit beside this aged performer, who speaks English as well as Vietnamese, and knows songs from both cultures.

Old Man.

One thing I absolutely love about Viet Nam is the lack of trash. Here, trash is collected. Regularly. If you put something down for a second, you’d better keep an eye on it if it looks like you’re done with it, or it’ll be gone before you know it! The streets are free of green debris, as well as trash of any kind, and the sidewalks and walkways are well-swept by hoards of women bundled in what look like parti-colored HazMat uniforms. Throughout the city, these (almost always) women can be seen sweeping, and grabbing trash to place into rolling mini-dumpsters they push in front of themselves. They also care not a whit for your personal needs, so don’t expect them to stay their sweeping if you want to get by.

Alley Gate.

Just like in Cambodia, the streets here are terrifying. Crossing the street feels like a Leap of Faith, like the one Indiana Jones had to make in I forget which movie, that ended up being glass or something, but he thought he had to step out onto nothingness. Only here, the assumption is not that you won’t fall into a bottomless chasm, but that you won’t be run down by the myriad of motorbikes, trucks, taxis, and cyclists. Press on slowly, but determinedly, and you’ll make it. The press of traffic parts around you in a way that encourages the idea of a forcefield that you half believe in. Honking is continuous, and like the Peace-cry of the women in Flatland (yes, I just finished that book) signals to others that you exist in space.

Inside the House.

The Ben Thanh market is unexceptional, just like every other market I’ve seen, so don’t waste time going there. Also, the shoes won’t fit you. Just to let you know. They say 39, but they mean 34.

Hair Care?

I was dying for another massage, so I went to one that said it was 100,000 VND. It was in an alley, but what else is new in Saigon? The best coffee I had was at a child-sized table behind some ladies’ house in an alley. Anyhow, the massage was good, but not great, and at the end the price was quoted at 120,000; an extra dollar. Then, I was presented with a tip card. Whoa, whoa, whoa, girls–high prices, and then a tip?! But I tipped 50,000 VND, making my grand total about $9. I know it isn’t much, but similar to how I feel in America (and everywhere else), it’s annoying when hidden costs arise. Also, the girl chatted with me the whole time, which made me feel like she was just trying to cadge a higher tip (duh, Kate). I thought she really liked my dorky tour hair!

Imperial Atrium.

Coffee here is easy to find and every present. Ca Phe Su’a Da is iced coffee with condensed milk. It costs between 10 and 15,000 VND. It’s easy to order, even I can’t mess it up.

Canker Sore.

It is exceptionally hard to make myself understood here, but I try my hardest. Six tones, with three of them interrupted somehow, make it nigh on impossible for a random foreigner to pick up the tongue in a few weeks. Ordering and money aren’t too hard, except for certain inconsistancies, such as how the word for “fifteen” instead of being mu’o’i nam is instead mu’o’i lam; I believe for phonetic reasons. Other words are met with a blank stare, no matter how I many ways I try to say them, like the word for train station. It should be simple! Ga + City You Are In. It just never works.

Door handle.

Koh Pha Ngan

Getting to Koh Pha Ngan, or Koh Phangan (pronounced by most people as “koh pang-gan”, probably closer to “koh pah-ngahn”), was as easy as hopping on a songthaew to Big Buddha Pier and buying a ticket on the Haad Rin Queen for 200 b. The Haad Rin Queen runs four times per day, and the tickets are a set price. Don’t be tricked into buying a speedboat or any other type of conveyance, the Queen runs daily, without fail! Travel agencies will try to psych you out over getting to Haad Rin near the Full Moon time, saying you won’t find a way over if you don’t book in advance with them, etc. etc. Don’t listen.

Have Queen Will Travel

Arriving at Haad Rin Pier after a brisk hour spent clinging to the foremost railing, you disembark to find yourself in tourist central. And a different kind of tourism than Bangkok. Koh Phangan caters to those moneyed youths who consider themselves experimental or “hippy” and the place is chockablock with neon tanks, tees, swimsuits, fake-flower headbands. A popular emblazoning is “Same Same” on the front of the shirt, with “But Different” on the back. I finally accosted a young man about what his shirt meant. If you took it to mean, things are the same, but different, you were right! Although I still don’t understand why that’s a Koh Phangan thing. However, a few of the international crowd I met used it continuously, so maybe you have to be an ESL person to get it.

Rasta Bar

Continuing on, the whole feel of the place is psychedelic-neon vomit, and it’s a mass of international bros and girls; stumbling against traffic, breaking flip-flops, looking horribly sun-ravaged… Haad Rin is considered a must-see for the tourist crowd, as it’s here that the Full Moon Party happens, once a month. Haad Rin Nai is where you land, it means Sunset Beach, but it’s on Haad Rin Nok (Sunrise Beach) that the party’s at–the beach on the other side of the town. It’s walking, eg. stumbling distance from any venue in Haad Rin, and at night the streets are lined with bucket vendors, selling 200 b buckets of mixed drinks. Each vendor has his own name, scrawled on the front of his little box lined with sandcastle buckets and two-gulp bottles of Smirnoff. Oddly, some of these impromptu baristas also hold signs, declaiming things like, “I fuck midget retards”, and something equally offensive on the other.

Spirits

The beach itself is a warring blast of top-40 hits, with bigger bars offering bigger sound systems and consequently attracting more people. There are also amateur Thai male fire dancers strewn up and down the beach, attempting to twirl and toss flaming batons, and later in the night you can see flaming jump ropes. My favorite place on the beach is the perched on the far left, hugging the cliff. It’s known as the Mellow Mountain. The music is Psy-Trance, and the walls are painted in an actually well-done psychedelic mural. You can buy mushroom shakes here, but I’ve heard from most people that you should save your money and try elsewhere on the island.

Mellow Mountain

Speaking of drugs, this island is a weird haven for all kinds of them. You can buy mushroom shakes all over the island, with varying degrees of strength. I heard that the White Rabbit in Ban Tai offers an all right shake for 500-700 b. You can also find drugs at Stone Bar, in Haad Yuan–apparently sketchy–and at Eden (no good link), also in Haad Yuan, where they’re supposed to be “safe”. It seemed like everyone on the island had weed, and tons of it, so it must be easy to come by. Acid is 400 b per drop, supposedly strong, and MDMA is 700-800 b per tab, but don’t buy it from the locals because it’s “not clean”. If you’re after drugs, you’ll be able to find someone who knows where to get them, is the upshot of all of this. Foreigners come to sell; there was a tiny Japanese raver dude selling drugs where I was staying.

Speaking of where to stay, don’t stay in Haad Rin. I spent one night there, in a dormitory called The Gallery. That place was the pits. Downstairs, it was a cafe/bistro with WiFi, upstairs, it was a bunch of beds jammed together and a closet toilet. The AC only worked until you went to sleep, then it stopped working and you sweated to death. Honestly, the place looked like a slave galley. I booked at 150 b per night, but others there were paying 350 b for the privilege. The proprietress was overdrawn and scatter-brained, she upbraided her help and then tried to kiss your butt. Don’t come here.

Sincerity Water

Then, I camped by the ocean in a copse of trees between someone’s summer house and a clutch of bungalows. There was no one in the summer house, or this probably wouldn’t have been ok. I stayed one night, driving into town for food and WiFi on me ol’ motorbike (120 b per day–Kung Bikes [kung means shrimp]). I’d actually hooked up with a cool group from the Gallery, through our shared misery. We were all trying to find a better place to stay, and the Italians hit on it first. Someone had clued them into an excellent bungalow situation, and they had to rush out to make sure it was still available. I said I’d look for it later. Trying to find Mac Backpacker in the dark proved to be a challenge. But when I found it, I was blown away.

Low Tide

The place was at the end of a tiny unnamed road, findable only by the landmarks on my Koh Phangan tourist map (right before the gas station, after the 7/11 on the left). At the end of this road, on the right, sat a cozy little open-air reception area, replete with hammocks and a bookcase. Walking back, the main walk is lined with bungalows on two sides. Each bungalow is screened by an overgrowth of bougainvillea, plumeria, and some Thai creeper. Each bungalow has a hammock strung outside on the porch. Each bungalow is lifted on stilts, and features one big bed, with mosquito net, small shelf, and fan. No WiFi, no TV, no running water unless you walk up to the common bathrooms. The place was crammed with backpackers, the cool kind. I found my Italians, and begged leave to sleep in their hammock.

Mac Backpacker

Speaking of common bathrooms, have I mentioned squat toilets yet? This type of toilet is a feature of Thailand, especially the more rural areas. It looks like a bidet, or a urinal mounted in the floor. You stand with a foot on either grooved side and let it fly. Then, if you’re lucky enough to carry your own toilet paper, you dry yourself and throw the paper in the trash. If not, you shake dry and curse your own misfortune. If you have refuse of a more solid nature, there is a lightly pressurized hose mounted on the wall for your enjoyment. Once you’ve finished these ablutions, you fill a bowl from the tank or bucket standing by and dump bowl after bowl of water until the mass is gone. It’s polite to refill said bucket via the spigot placed above. You just turn it on and wait. Otherwise, for some soothing background noise, turn it on low and hear it gurgle as you work out that extra spicy green curry.

Cats on deck.

Squat toilets aren’t really so bad though, in my opinion. It’s tidier and better than wiping and re-wiping, and you don’t blow through toilet paper so fast. What I don’t like are literal “squat toilets”–toilets in which the lid and tank have been removed, leaving only a basin. You know you don’t want to sit on it, because there’s no real accountability concerning aim, as the entire bathroom can just be hosed down. This seat is usually wet, accordingly, and you have to yank your pants down far enough to get your legs a bit around the basin, so in the end you’re awkwardly poised, trying to push your pants out of the way, not touch the rim, not pee down your thigh, or back-spatter on yourself from not being far enough over the bowl, and actually go. The bathroom is humid, and smelly depending on where you are. You’re probably also trying not to breathe. And you forgot your toilet paper. And you’re sweating. You want to put your hand on the wall behind or beside you for stability, but you fear the worst. These are the worst kind of toilets.

So back to the awesome bungalows. They’re located at a place called Mac Backpacker, across the street from Mac Bay. You can’t book in advance, your only chance of securing a spot in this highly sought after community is to show up and be at the top of the list. After sleeping on the porch, I decided this was the place for me. The price is 150 b for the bungalow, regardless of how many people stay. If you have five people staying, you’re paying $1 a night for this oasis. I waited for an hour at the reception desk, in front of a sign proclaiming, “FULL. We have NO idea where you can find a room. No booking here. Good luck.” As luck would have it, after about five minutes, a man came up to the desk asking if I’d seen the owener, and one-two-three he tells me he’s checking out today and that I can have his bungalow! I thought it was a done deal. I sat around to wait until he decided to check out, whilst several other parties meandered through, each one making me more nervous than the last.

Mac Backpacker Jungle

Eventually he did leave, at which point I approached the proprietress, Melanie, and asked about his room. She seemed surprised, and told me she had two people in line ahead of me, but perhaps the sight of my crumbling face convinced her otherwise, and she gave me the “1 minute” index finger. She wandered around a bit, checking outside, talking on the phone, then she came back and told me that she couldn’t get ahold of the girls who had been waiting, and the guys had just left, so it was mine if I could make it look like I hadn’t just rolled up. SCORE! I jumped right on it. Number 5 was more perfect than I could have imagined, a literal bower, with a heavy screen of foliage in front, and the only point of access through a hedge down the way. I had also taken the opportunity while waiting to begin a book from the lending library.

So begin my time on the Island of the Lotus Eaters. Because that’s what Mac Backpacker is. A haven for like-minded travelers, expats, and chillsters to just hang out. During the day, I’d get up, ride my motorbike or walk over the half mile to the restaurant that served Khao Tom (you know I gots to have my rice porridge. Daily.), wander back, read my book, do some yoga, hang out with friends, talk about lunch, have coffee, read more, sit in the hammock, talk about going to the beach, read more, decide to go to Thongsala–5 km down the road–to my favorite internet spot, Khunpen Restaurant (hot coffee, 30 b, tastes like espresso, comes with milk), walk around Panthip Market (just an empty square), bad time to come, no good food carts, motorbike back, stop by the old lady on the side of the road’s tarp shack of miscellaneous goods, buy a big knife, headphones, and some hair pretties for a couple bucks, stop by the fried chicken stand conveniently located in front of where I buy my morning porridge, wheedle as much fried chicken, sticky rice, and deep fried garlic as I can out of the stern countenanced man who works there, back to the bungalow, eat the chicken, keep it away from the hoards of friendly kitties, meet up with friends, go to the beach, read more, sun goes down, walk home, do I need more water?, motorbike to Big C, buy the daily pastries that have gone on sale (corn puff, anyone? 6 b), come home, read more, apply bug spray, apply more bugspray, light anti-mosquito incense coil, put down mosquito net, read more, sleep before 10.

Mismatched Shrines

This is what I did, every day. Sometimes I’d mix it up, go to Thongsala in the morning for some Patongo–fried dough xs for my Khao Tom. Then I’d have to get some Khanom Krok from the old lady in front of the mechanic’s shop. And a snowcone. Sometimes I’d go to other beaches, on the other side of the island. The best beach, in my opinion, is Ao Thong Nai Pan Yai, on the east side of the island. The water is so clear, no coral or seaweed, just a few tiny stinging jellies. You can reach it by motorbike or car, but the road is under construction and some is unpaved. I managed to pop a tire with a screw on the way back, and had to beg a ride to the repair shop. I thought the driver of the truck quite gallant, even going so far as to tie down the bike, until we reached Ban Tai and he said, “Don’t say thank you; pay me!” I only had 100 b, so that’s what he got. He wanted 300. And it turned out his truck was already full of people, Westerners and locals alike. I’m really not sure what I stumbled into, but at least I got into town.

Then I had to deal with the repair shop, who spoke English as well as I spoke Thai. No, it was not possible to just patch the hole, it required a new tire. It would cost 800 b. Well, I didn’t know if it would be cheaper to call the rental company and tell them the tire was busted and see what happened, or to just pay the bill and see if I could get some money knocked off at the end from ol’ Kung. I decided to pay, and shop was generous enough to lend me a bike so I could go get money from an ATM. I also scored a 50 b discount (woo, woo). I’m not sure what kind of deal I got, but in the end it didn’t help me much. When I tried to return the bike before I left the island, the guy started pointing to some dings and scratches, but I showed him the rear tire and we figured it was cool.

Dead Dog

But, back to best beaches, the best beach of all was definitely Haad Yuan. It’s reachable only by taxi boat or by a 4-wheel Indiana Jones ride. I walked over from Haad Thian, where I had been enjoying Guy’s Bar, and it was perfect. It has a deep, heavy surf, unlike most of the island, but the floor is still sandy, instead of cut-your-feet coral. The only people there are either staying at the Eden bungalows, or at the yoga camp at Haad Thian. Speaking of Guy’s Bar, that place is dope! It’s spoken of more as a thing than as a location, for example, Guy’s Bar is happening tonight! Guy’s Bar starts Friday night, pumping out Big Beat House all night long. It’s free to go, disregarding the 300 b taxi fare (one way, ugh). This goes until the afternoon of the next day, at which point everyone who doesn’t want to go home straggles down the hill to Eden, which begins it’s own thing at Saturday noon.

Candy.

A group of us decided to wake up at 3:30AM to take one of the last taxis to Guy’s Bar around 4, for a friend’s birthday. It is extremely hard to wake up in the early morning and go dance, even if it’s the coolest party/bar/thing you’ve ever been to. No coffee, no nothing. By mid-morning, I was ready for sleep. I staggered down to the beach, past the yoga retreat, up a stone staircase, down a stone staircase, past Eden, past Stone Bar, had breakfast at the Bamboo Hut (not bad prices, good food, and amazing scenery–right on the ocean), and eventually slumped into a sun chair on the beach at Big Blue and fell asleep. Until it started raining. Then I switched out clothes for swimsuit and had an amazing time getting bowled over by the waves.

A not-so-amazing time I had was at the Full Moon Party. My expectations were low to begin with, seeing the crowd it drew, but it was even duller than I imagined. We showed up around 12 midnight. It’s supposedly free, but I had to pay 100 b to get onto the beach–ostensibly the money goes to pay the people who pick up afterwards. I can support that. There were several different stages, each offering a raised platform for dancing. The one we gravitated towards was playing Industrial Techno, and it wasn’t bad, but the place was full of drunk people (which I wasn’t) and drugged people (also not) and so without even caffeine to aid me I felt, well, tired. I didn’t have a crazy rave outfit and I wasn’t out of my head, so it was just another party at that point. A party filled with lost shoes and worrying about where you’re putting your feet.

Haad Rin

The entire shoreline was dudes peeing in the water. I felt better walking through the break than on land, but with every warm wave I knew I was being laved with urine. I trudged back and forth, back and forth; determined to remain until sunrise. I had left my German friend at the Mellow Mountain, I returned to find him standing outside with a glazed expression. When I asked him a question, he answered in German, and when I laughingly told him so, he said, also in German, “Ahhh *face palm* I’m speaking in German! Why am I speaking in German?” and continued to try to talk to me in German. I assumed he was just tired, and was having trouble remembering his English, but I kept an eye on him, as for the rest of the night he simply stood wherever we were standing, and when addressed, turned silently to the speaker, then turned back to stare at the sea.

He.

Early in the morning, a huge scaffolding was lit on fire, spelling out, “Full Moon Party Koh Phangan”. Soon after the flames were out, people began scaling the construction, clinging shakily to the greasy bars. I myself had a go, until I was nailed with sand balls by the Thais telling me to get down. There were vendors selling cut fruit and meat sticks at exorbitant prices; for some reason a kindly Thai man with such kept giving me free BBQ pork sticks. Who was I to decline? I love pork sticks!

Finally, the sun rose. As the giant orange ball drifted up from the grey sea, a scene of devastation was revealed. The shore was littered with broken flip flops, discarded buckets, clothing, and cigarettes. People feeling the dregs of their drugs were frolicking with blown-out pupils in the sea, tripping over their own garb.

Anti.

At this point, I was ready for breakfast. I dragged everyone to my favorite local joint, a place I call Green Awning. It’s on a dirt road that shortcuts the longer main road into Haad Rin. It’s covered by a green tarp awning. I wish I could give better directions, as this is my favorite place to eat on the island, besides the fried chicken man. If you go before 9:30AM, you can get Joke (Chinese style khao tom), with chicken, egg, and toppings. The only thing missing is patongo, but it’s only 40 b for the whole shebang and the lady is super nice. I went every day when I was near Haad Rin, and she always laughed at me and asked if I’d come for the Khao Tom. You can also get a variety of local dishes, should you miss the joke cut-off, and I can assure you that the Thai Curry (pronounced Gang Pet) and the Green Curry (Gang Kee-Ew-Wan) are exceptionally good. It usually comes out to 80 b for curry and rice, but you get a heaping bowl and plate of same, and you won’t want to eat again for awhile.

Bird.

Anyways, back to my friend, it turned out he got rufied by a beer seller. Apparently that’s a common scam–rufie a tourist and then follow him or her discreetly and wait until they’re dazed and alone, then jack ’em. He says the last thing he remembers is buying a beer and the woman refusing to sell him a large, unopened beer, instead offering him a smaller, pre-opened one. The rest of the night is gone, with a brief memory of the sunrise. When he woke at home in the afternoon, he had no memory of how he got there (on the back of another friend’s motorbike, mumbling in German the whole way), and had rediscovered his English vocabulary. A situation that could have gone so much worse for someone solo, and one to be aware of if you plan to buy drinks on the scene!

Kep

Have I told you that Cambodia is the country of gateways? That every temple, school, hamlet, alley, will have it’s own beautiful, ornate gate? If any one thing doesn’t have a gate, it’s not worth seeing.

Temple Gateway.

Kep is no different. This tiny, dusty, old resort town is pretty much demarcated by the gates of country schools. Some are even in the same dated style as much of the rest of the town’s architecture–60’s modernism. Kep is a strange and wonderful place. It is chock full of abandoned houses, just sitting amongst the acreage of their old lands, inside walls still standing with stripped metal gates. It doesn’t help that I was reading Tolstoy’s obloquy on the landed gentry and their eventual demise.

Gate to nowhere.

These lonely remnants of a spectacular bourgeoisie were like candy to me. There is almost nothing I love more than exploring old houses. While in many cases only the concrete of the original dwelling remained, one could still get a good sense of the house that used to be. This activity remained exceedingly pleasant to me, until one day when I stumbled upon a house missing it’s second-story floors. That was creepy, but not the creepiest part. On the wall of the house, there was a painted chalkboard, with the words, “Wednesday 22 September 1995,” written upon it, and the patchy sentence, “May be we can’t to met for today.” It gave me the horrifying realization that a family had lived here, and one day, lived there no longer, leaving only a hastily abandoned blackboard and missing floors. What had happened to that family? Were they all brutally murdered? Was the domicile now jammed full with angry, hungry ghosts? Had one attached to me by my thoughtless intrusion? Was it hovering, unseen, by my bed this very moment?

Missing Floor.

These, and other thoughts, are what kept me awake three nights in a row. Luckily, the beneficent owner of the guest house I was at, the illustrious Arun Rass, had taken me under the aegis of her care. Chantoeurn assured me that her guest house was built in a good place to prevent ghosts, and that her young children had never cried the whole time they had lived there (a good sign, as it’s the young that see ghosts). She also informed me that the bracelet I had received from a silent nun (more on that later) protected against ghosts. Then she told me about how in Cambodia the pomegranate tree is seen as protection against ghosts, and she left a potted sapling on my veranda that I dragged into my room, to her amusement. Then her husband took pity on me, asked which house I’d gone into, and said that the stripped houses all occurred after the Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese War killings, and that the poverty of the Khmer people required them to strip their house of all salable items (read: tiles, metal fittings, etc.) and sell them in Viet Nam for rice–the border being just 30km away. Then I felt better. I still slept with a tree in my room.

Blue skies.And now, I’ll start at the beginning. I arrived at Kep via bus from Phnom Penh, an unremarkable journey. We pulled into Kep sometime in the afternoon, and I chartered a tuk-tuk to take me to the bungalows which I’d investigated ahead of time, Tree Top. When I arrived, I was informed that there wasn’t any more $5 bungalows, and that they only had $8. I agreed to this heist, and spent the night in a not unpleasant, but not $8-worth shack on a hill.

Arun Rass.

I ate at the notorious Crab Market of Kep. I bought a fried fish from a stand on the pier, not at any of the restaurants, as well as two little bags of “sides” and some rice. The fish was fine, certainly very fishy, and too much for one person to eat. The sides were so salty as to be inedible. It tasted like sea water with extra salt dumped on vegetables. Even the rice was slightly salted. I felt a bit ill the next day.

Sky view.

On the way back from the Crab Market, I stopped in front of an edifice that looked like a new apartment complex. I hearkened back to advice I heard from some other trekkers whilst having fish eat the scum off my feet, “When you go to Kep, stay at Kep Arun Rass. It looks like a half-finished set of flats.” And so it did, or rather more than half-finished. So I walked over to check the rates. The proprietress and her family were at dinner, but she and her husband hastily stood up and told me they had a room to rent. $12 a night. Did I want to see it? I said I’d look tomorrow. They looked concerned, surely I wanted to see it now? So I went to see the room. It was beautiful–spacious, with a beautiful green wall, and a giant bathroom. Hot water, even, the first in 2 months! I said I’d be back in the morning. They still looked worried. Did I have a place to stay tonight? I said I did. Their faces cleared. Ok, see you tomorrow morning!

Wildflowers.

So, I headed down the hill to Arun Rass. It was lovely. I immediately took a hot shower. I scratched all my itches with almost scalding water. Did I tell you I had a massive case of heat rash? Around 1:30PM, the tuk-tuk driver showed up to escort me to the nearby caves, as agreed upon yesterday. We set off and soon arrived. Scaling the massive staircase, I was approached by a scholarly young man who began the tour. We first passed a magnificently beautiful temple, much better than the caves, in my opinion.

White Elephant Cave Temple.

Coming into the caves, I saw the White Elephant stalactite, and was proceeding deeper into the cave with my guide when another guide came up. He took me by the hand, and said he would show me the Bat Cave. He hustled me up, down, outside, inside; until I was steaming hot and highly confused, not to mention skeptical.

Bat Cave

He finally stopped, and pulled me into a small cranny. “Do you know the Batman?” he said. I explained that I did, and he shone his flashlight overhead into the tower filled with flitting bats. Ok, great, bat cave. After a few minutes of polite viewing, with his hands around my waist, supposedly pulling me into proper position, I tried to walk away. He pulled me back again. “Do you know the Batman? Do you want to see the Bat Cave?” He wouldn’t leave me alone, and pressed uncomfortably close, closer, way too close. Finally I yanked free and walked off. But the rascal had no shame. He tried to drag me to another bat cave. Luckily, my original guide had caught up and escorted me out. However, as I was trying to peer through the slats of a stupa further along the tour, Creep Alert came up behind me, grabbed me, and hoarsely croaked his query about the Batman into my ear. As I rushed down the steps, he tried to call me back multiple times. Never, in all of Cambodia, have I felt so uncomfortable and put-upon by a local as I did in that place.

Golden Stupa.

After that harrowing tour, I headed along to Kampot. Unfortunately, I had not done any research on what to do there, so the trip was largely wasted, besides my visiting a Canadia Bank ATM, where one can withdraw without fees. However, I got to see much of the surrounding countryside! The next day, I elected to go to Koh Tonsay, or Rabbit Island.

Pier on Rabbit Island.

To get to this illustrious island, one must charter a boat. Mine was chartered through my tuk-tuk driver at $10 round-trip. I think I could have gotten it for less, but I was itchier than anything and didn’t care so much. Arriving on the island, one can see the entirety of available sleeping quarters in one eye-full. There is a strip of beach where the boats land–that’s where all the housing is located. Dotted along this beach are separate locations for eating and lounging, each affiliated with it’s parent bungalow vender. I didn’t know it before, but there is no electricity on the island, besides one time per day, between 6 and 10PM. You are cooled by the ocean breeze, if there is one, and you have to unplug your lights to charge your camera.

Boatride.

My bungalow was $8 per night, and came with hammock, mosquito net, and en-suite hovel bathroom that I was constantly banging my head in. I think Rabbit Island is more of a day-trip type place, unless you’re old, then it’s probably heaven. You sit, eating moderately (expensive for Cambodia, cheap for U.S.) priced meals, drinking coconut milk, enjoying the warm ocean, and the stingless jellyfish. I read a lot in the sun. I ate once per day, to save on food costs. The meals hover around $4, and it gets you a lot of food, but it feels so expensive after a month of fifty cent dining.

Koh Tunsay.

I stayed two nights, and then I was ready to go home. Unfortunately, the boats only come three times per day: 7AM, 9AM, and 4PM. I had missed the morning run, but met another couple whose bungalow owners had called for a boat. They had been waiting half an hour. No boat was in sight. I went to have breakfast. As I was waiting for breakfast, the boat arrived. I gulped it down, paid up, and ran towards the boat. It had to come back to the shore, but I made it!

Beachfront.

I was happy to return to Arun Rass. I had a new room, but the owners were happy to see me back. I felt as though I had been welcomed into the family. Staying there was more like a homestay than anywhere else I’d found. Daily, I was invited to Khmer meals. Daily, I borrowed a bike. Daily, the proprietress came to sit on my front porch and talk to me about Cambodia, Cambodian peoples, and Khmer.

Rice workers.

I’d come upon a $3 hot water maker in Phnom Penh, and had since been using it to both actually heat water for coffee and tea, and to cook one-pot meals in. I’ve become quite adept at making fried noodles with vegetable stir-fries, noodle soups, and curries. I went to the market almost daily, buying fresh vegetables for discount prices, like my twelve cent pumpkin. Along the way, I pushed my bike up the monster hill to Veranda, a swank resort nearby. They had an in-house bakery, where you could by meter long baguettes for $1. They also offer a completely orgasmic passionfruit panna cotta, and an $8 breakfast buffet. The buffet is completely worth it. I went once, but I would have gone every day.

The Nudest Khmer Woman.

Kep also offers a National Park. I went once. I’m not one for National Parks. It was fair. It cost me $1 to get in. It’s a giant forest. It does have butterflies, but it’s also mostly uphill. The way down is great, brakes squealing the entire way, as you whizz down the cyclist version of the Indiana Jones ride.

Cloud Nothings.

So, about the nun! I took a back path home from the market, and I was stopped by the beauty of a golden-roofed temple and the tinkling of bells emanating therein. I pushed my bike through the gate, to take a closer look, when all at once a diminutive nun was at my elbow. Nuns in Asia generally have shaved heads. If you see a woman with a shaved head, she’s either a nun, or a widow. If she’s wearing all white, or a particularly wrapped white and black outfit, she’s a nun. This nun had a friendly brown face like a wizened apple. She signaled that I should pull up my skirt–I tried to tell her I’d come back tomorrow, in better garb–and led me towards the temple. She showed me how they were doing renovations on the temple, and the formation of new statuettes, and paintings. She then offered me a plain red braided bracelet. I offered her a dollar, but she wouldn’t keep it, and changed me 2,000 riel back. She had to go through her entire (about 15) selection of bracelets before she came upon one which would tie around my wrist. The entire time, she spoke not a word. I wondered if she had undertaken a vow of silence. Her complete quietude, the surrounding chiming of fluttering golden bells, the chirruping of birds, the setting sun gilding every blossom and tile…it was an otherworldly experience.

Under Construction.

And then I got food poisoning! Actually, it was after I discovered my favorite dessert. Remember when I told you about how you can buy desserts on the street in Cambodia? Well, it is the same in the countryside. My favorite is one composed of jelly slivers, fake pomegranate seeds, coconut milk, condensed milk, and ice. It’s pink, pink, pink. It tastes like happiness. Then, later that night, you’re losing all the pumpkin curry you ate for dinner out of both ends. You can’t even keep down water, even though you’re dying of thirst. You lie curled in the fetal position in a towel, because you keep showering off, because you’ve run out of toilet paper. At least this toilet is Western style, so you can sit down and hold the trashcan at the same time.

Krop Toteum.

Chanteourn said my favorite dessert gave me food poisoning. She said part of it isn’t cooked. It seemed so innocuous, I even had it two days in a row! At two different places though. For 2 days thereafter, Chanteourn brought me plain borbor with a little salt–what she said Khmer people ate when they were sick–for each meal. She also sat on the bed and chatted with me while I lay there feeling half-dead. It was in this way that I learned much about Cambodian ways.

Baray District

Eventually, I got tired of being mosquito bitten and having toilets that were always packed with poo because people clogged them and bailed. I decided to look into a homestay, to get a better taste of the Cambodian life. I looked up a few online, but they were all very expensive, at $30 or more per night. I emailed one that looked promising and didn’t have the price listed. I hoped it was a work exchange homestay, as that’s how it appeared online, named Khmer Homestay. Unfortunately, when I heard back, the price was quoted at $25 per night. I asked if there was a way to do more volunteering and pay less, and was told that the lowest price per night was $15, without breakfast. I agreed to come, and took the Seila Angkor Khmer Express minibus for $10, which probably would have been less if I had requested my stop in Baray before I paid for the ticket. Ah well, live and learn.

The minibus company sent a tuk-tuk to pick me up from the hostel in the morning, and when I arrived, I, as well as 11 others crammed into the van, with our baggage mortaring us in place. There was AC, but the seats were so old the padding was worn to nothing right where your backbone connects with the horizontal inner-seat support. Not only that, but the main road is barely a road at all, consisting of almost pavement, potholes, gravel, dirt road, and construction. The van flew down this path, jouncing at every dip, almost bouncing us all out of our seats, and honking each time it overtook someone on the road, which was often. As I climbed back into my seat after our one stop, I noticed small beetles scurrying into the crevice between my seat and the next. This transit is quick, but it is harrowing.

Rainbow style.

The van pulled over to the side of the road–it was dirt–in between a couple buildings, looking like a pioneer town in the 19th century. I had arrived! I took a motorcycle taxi the few hundred meters to Khmer Homestay, and overpaid by about 250%. I was allowed to select a bungalow to sleep in, and chose the one lodged in a tree, with no back wall, just an insubstantial driftwood banister.

Front Gate.

I was given the full tour of the facilities by a friendly young Khmer woman named Pollam. The homestay property was quite extensive, consisting of several stilted bungalows located in a walled garden, as well as a wing of separate bathrooms, and the main house. Behind the property lay a less used dirt road and a few meters down that road was another area. This, Pollam informed me, was a hostel for youths from far out areas who wouldn’t normally be able to attend school. They lived here, worked around the main house, or paid, I suppose, and went to school. If I needed to borrow a bike, motorbike, or practice my Khmer, I could come here.

Khmer Shutter.

That night the meal was brought to the house in a series of small, interconnected, round tins. It featured rice and some other entrees. Another girl was also staying at the homestay, from Malaysia, Yee-Pei. In Malaysia, they are taught three languages: English, Mandarin, and Malay. The owners of the homestay all spoke Mandarin as well, being either Chinese, or from a Chinese-speaking nation. The grandfather figure of the ranch had already adopted Yee-Pei, and was constantly pushing more food on her, and, she said, lecturing her on business, economics, and other things, for what reason she wasn’t sure. Neither Yee-Pei nor I knew his real name, so we called him “Grandpa”. We were assigned to help Grandpa finish his chicken coop.

I’d been hooked on pork and rice breakfast (bai sach chroup) in Siem Reap, so I asked one of the owners whether I could find this dish nearby. She made a sharp left hand motion and said I could find it in the morning. After dinner, one of the owners said we would have a meeting at 9 to discuss the job. When I woke up at 8:30AM, I walked about a half mile down the road, without finding any bai sach chroup. Arriving home, I couldn’t find the Grandpa, Yee-Pei, or any of the owners. I went to look for one of them, and walked down the aforementioned back dirt road. It came out in the middle of a small village, i.e. in between some houses.

The Veldt.

There was a group of people standing near one of the houses, and I approached, asking if they’d seen any of the women. They didn’t understand, but immediately began dimpling their cheeks with their fingers and pushing their noses around, talking and laughing to each other. One woman tried multiple times to communicate with me, but all I could do was smile and nod. Eventually, I was led across the street to an old man sitting with some others. He, too, tried to speak to me, and spoke some numbers in French. I tried French, but it was clear he only had numbers left him. They wanted to know how old I was. Then they wanted to know if I was married. No? Ah yoiee!

Ah yoiee! is the Khmer equivalent to Ai-yah! or Ai-yoh! as heard in Chinese speaking nations, or Chinatowns all over the world. Sort of a negative exclamation.

Arriving back at the pad, there was finally someone available to take me to Grandpa’s chicken coop. Apparently the 9 o’clock meeting had been the night before, and work had started at 8:30AM this morning. Whoops! I twined chicken wire onto fence posts for a few hours, then it was lunch break! After lunch, we went to see an orphanage.

Writing Postcards.

I have never seen, or even heard of an orphanage nearby at home. We arrived to a single building, looking like a gymnasium, with a covered porch out front. On the porch were several tables, and some sweaty children. Trying out my Khmer on them didn’t seem to generate any interest, so I wandered away. There was an unattached bathroom, a well, a half-broken clothes drying rack, and a kitchen. It is very common for Khmer kitchens to be outside, or at least apart from the main house. Cooking is done en plein aire, and served at the table.

Chatting.

It turns out we were going to be building a duck coop for the orphans, so they could sell the eggs and eat the ducks. After sizing up the site, we drove into town to a hardware store, then to another hardware store, then to a wood (bamboo) store that also sold charcoal. At dinner, there was an elderly Malaysian couple who had come to teach Cambodian teachers how to teach English. Said the woman, “Cambodian schools don’t begin teaching English until Secondary School (sounds familiar). By this point, the children’s mouths can’t make the necessary sounds. They can’t say fish! They say ‘fis!’ It’s shocking.” To me, I felt these trilingual Malaysians were going a bit hard on the Khmer, as many Cambodians do reach a passable level of English, whilst how many of us ended up with good, unaccented Spanish, French, German, or Japanese?

Temple School.

The next day, I got up at 6:30AM to make sure I got my breakfast. Then we went to the orphanage. We were building the coop from scratch. Grandpa, who spoke basically no English, was in charge of construction. He laid pieces on the ground, and somehow communicated what we should do with them. First, we had to nail 20 ft lengths of bamboo to 4 – 5 one meter bamboo posts. Bamboo is exceedingly springy, if you didn’t know, and the normal method of nailing doesn’t work. You must deliver as much force as you can in a single, accurate hit.

The orphans gathered around to watch us attempt this feat. Calling to them, asking their names, and trying to introduce ourselves fared better today. Soon, we were being handed nails. Then after being given the opportunity to pound nails, they began to do it themselves. I’m not sure if they enjoyed the diversion, or if they wanted to help, or if they felt they must help; the only way to stop them once they started was to take away the hammer. Then they stood watching you, or handing you more nails.

Youth Group.

Midmorning, the children braved up enough to take some of the long bamboo rails and hit the cashew fruit out of the tree towering above us. In case you didn’t know, cashews are not nuts, but are the seed of the cashew fruit, growing on the bottom of it. The fruit has a most unusual mouthfeel–effectively depriving you of all moisture as you chew the stringy flesh. Not sweet, not bitter…very strange.

Sunset Village.

For lunch, the children had rice, soup, an egg omelette, and another dish. We had the same, and I was pleased that the children ate first. There was no running water–clean water was poured over a hunk of fabricated ice in a cooler and drank by a communal cup. The well was used for washing dishes. After lunch, we were allowed a siesta, and passed out on one of the four wooden beds, covered with a slim padded mat. Awakened by my own temperature, feeling hotter after sleeping than I had before, I stumbled out to the back porch where there was a small clutch of seated children.

The Good, The Bad.

Feeling horrible because I had nothing to offer them, I brought out a stack of postcards. The girls drew some pictures and showed off their smarts. Then we drew in my sketchbook, and I learned a lot of Khmer. The girls knew the English and Khmer for many words, and the boys chased Yee-Pei around trying to tickle her. When we left, we tried to give hugs. The Cambodians are normally very physically affectionate and touchy, but the children did not seem overly comfortable with the demonstration.

Learning Khmer.

The next day was Sunday, so we got to hang around. I’d been plucking and ripening mangoes from the many trees on the property, so I sat in a hammock reading and peeling mangoes. Yee-Pei and I went to the youth session of church. A friendly girl named Ruth, the pastor’s daughter, sat by me and translated. She was very well-versed, and very helpful. After the service was over, Yee-Pei brought out her Polaroid camera and made snaps for everyone. The Cambodians were so pleased, and many, many photos were taken.

Cross.

Later in the week, we went to tour some schools, giving tiny English lessons, and seeing how things were done. I thought the method of teaching letters was quite well done. The classes are polite, and the children are clever and willing to participate. Overall, it seemed that it was almost always a girl with the right answer, and the boys who were messing around, but it could have simply been the age. At one of the schools, we saw again the children from the orphanage. They performed very well in class, and I was so happy to see them again.

The Letter P.

Did I mention that everyone calls you “sister” in Cambodia, if they don’t know your name? Bawng-srei is big sister, and boon-srei is little sister. I think it’s lovely.

Koh Pha Ngan

Getting to Koh Pha Ngan, or Koh Phangan (pronounced by most people as “koh pang-gan”, probably closer to “koh pah-ngahn”), was as easy as hopping on a songthaew to Big Buddha Pier and buying a ticket on the Haad Rin Queen for 200 b. The Haad Rin Queen runs four times per day, and the tickets are a set price. Don’t be tricked into buying a speedboat or any other type of conveyance, the Queen runs daily, without fail! Travel agencies will try to psych you out over getting to Haad Rin near the Full Moon time, saying you won’t find a way over if you don’t book in advance with them, etc. etc. Don’t listen.

Have Queen Will Travel

Arriving at Haad Rin Pier after a brisk hour spent clinging to the foremost railing, you disembark to find yourself in tourist central. And a different kind of tourism than Bangkok. Koh Phangan caters to those moneyed youths who consider themselves experimental or “hippy” and the place is chockablock with neon tanks, tees, swimsuits, fake-flower headbands. A popular emblazoning is “Same Same” on the front of the shirt, with “But Different” on the back. I finally accosted a young man about what his shirt meant. If you took it to mean, things are the same, but different, you were right! Although I still don’t understand why that’s a Koh Phangan thing. However, a few of the international crowd I met used it continuously, so maybe you have to be an ESL person to get it.

Rasta Bar

Continuing on, the whole feel of the place is psychedelic-neon vomit, and it’s a mass of international bros and girls; stumbling against traffic, breaking flip-flops, looking horribly sun-ravaged… Haad Rin is considered a must-see for the tourist crowd, as it’s here that the Full Moon Party happens, once a month. Haad Rin Nai is where you land, it means Sunset Beach, but it’s on Haad Rin Nok (Sunrise Beach) that the party’s at–the beach on the other side of the town. It’s walking, eg. stumbling distance from any venue in Haad Rin, and at night the streets are lined with bucket vendors, selling 200 b buckets of mixed drinks. Each vendor has his own name, scrawled on the front of his little box lined with sandcastle buckets and two-gulp bottles of Smirnoff. Oddly, some of these impromptu baristas also hold signs, declaiming things like, “I fuck midget retards”, and something equally offensive on the other.

Spirits

The beach itself is a warring blast of top-40 hits, with bigger bars offering bigger sound systems and consequently attracting more people. There are also amateur Thai male fire dancers strewn up and down the beach, attempting to twirl and toss flaming batons, and later in the night you can see flaming jump ropes. My favorite place on the beach is the perched on the far left, hugging the cliff. It’s known as the Mellow Mountain. The music is Psy-Trance, and the walls are painted in an actually well-done psychedelic mural. You can buy mushroom shakes here, but I’ve heard from most people that you should save your money and try elsewhere on the island.

Mellow Mountain

Speaking of drugs, this island is a weird haven for all kinds of them. You can buy mushroom shakes all over the island, with varying degrees of strength. I heard that the White Rabbit in Ban Tai offers an all right shake for 500-700 b. You can also find drugs at Stone Bar, in Haad Yuan–apparently sketchy–and at Eden (no good link), also in Haad Yuan, where they’re supposed to be “safe”. It seemed like everyone on the island had weed, and tons of it, so it must be easy to come by. Acid is 400 b per drop, supposedly strong, and MDMA is 700-800 b per tab, but don’t buy it from the locals because it’s “not clean”. If you’re after drugs, you’ll be able to find someone who knows where to get them, is the upshot of all of this. Foreigners come to sell; there was a tiny Japanese raver dude selling drugs where I was staying.

Speaking of where to stay, don’t stay in Haad Rin. I spent one night there, in a dormitory called The Gallery. That place was the pits. Downstairs, it was a cafe/bistro with WiFi, upstairs, it was a bunch of beds jammed together and a closet toilet. The AC only worked until you went to sleep, then it stopped working and you sweated to death. Honestly, the place looked like a slave galley. I booked at 150 b per night, but others there were paying 350 b for the privilege. The proprietress was overdrawn and scatter-brained, she upbraided her help and then tried to kiss your butt. Don’t come here.

Sincerity Water

Then, I camped by the ocean in a copse of trees between someone’s summer house and a clutch of bungalows. There was no one in the summer house, or this probably wouldn’t have been ok. I stayed one night, driving into town for food and WiFi on me ol’ motorbike (120 b per day–Kung Bikes [kung means shrimp]). I’d actually hooked up with a cool group from the Gallery, through our shared misery. We were all trying to find a better place to stay, and the Italians hit on it first. Someone had clued them into an excellent bungalow situation, and they had to rush out to make sure it was still available. I said I’d look for it later. Trying to find Mac Backpacker in the dark proved to be a challenge. But when I found it, I was blown away.

Low Tide

The place was at the end of a tiny unnamed road, findable only by the landmarks on my Koh Phangan tourist map (right before the gas station, after the 7/11 on the left). At the end of this road, on the right, sat a cozy little open-air reception area, replete with hammocks and a bookcase. Walking back, the main walk is lined with bungalows on two sides. Each bungalow is screened by an overgrowth of bougainvillea, plumeria, and some Thai creeper. Each bungalow has a hammock strung outside on the porch. Each bungalow is lifted on stilts, and features one big bed, with mosquito net, small shelf, and fan. No WiFi, no TV, no running water unless you walk up to the common bathrooms. The place was crammed with backpackers, the cool kind. I found my Italians, and begged leave to sleep in their hammock.

Mac Backpacker

Speaking of common bathrooms, have I mentioned squat toilets yet? This type of toilet is a feature of Thailand, especially the more rural areas. It looks like a bidet, or a urinal mounted in the floor. You stand with a foot on either grooved side and let it fly. Then, if you’re lucky enough to carry your own toilet paper, you dry yourself and throw the paper in the trash. If not, you shake dry and curse your own misfortune. If you have refuse of a more solid nature, there is a lightly pressurized hose mounted on the wall for your enjoyment. Once you’ve finished these ablutions, you fill a bowl from the tank or bucket standing by and dump bowl after bowl of water until the mass is gone. It’s polite to refill said bucket via the spigot placed above. You just turn it on and wait. Otherwise, for some soothing background noise, turn it on low and hear it gurgle as you work out that extra spicy green curry.

Cats on deck.

Squat toilets aren’t really so bad though, in my opinion. It’s tidier and better than wiping and re-wiping, and you don’t blow through toilet paper so fast. What I don’t like are literal “squat toilets”–toilets in which the lid and tank have been removed, leaving only a basin. You know you don’t want to sit on it, because there’s no real accountability concerning aim, as the entire bathroom can just be hosed down. This seat is usually wet, accordingly, and you have to yank your pants down far enough to get your legs a bit around the basin, so in the end you’re awkwardly poised, trying to push your pants out of the way, not touch the rim, not pee down your thigh, or back-spatter on yourself from not being far enough over the bowl, and actually go. The bathroom is humid, and smelly depending on where you are. You’re probably also trying not to breathe. And you forgot your toilet paper. And you’re sweating. You want to put your hand on the wall behind or beside you for stability, but you fear the worst. These are the worst kind of toilets.

So back to the awesome bungalows. They’re located at a place called Mac Backpacker, across the street from Mac Bay. You can’t book in advance, your only chance of securing a spot in this highly sought after community is to show up and be at the top of the list. After sleeping on the porch, I decided this was the place for me. The price is 150 b for the bungalow, regardless of how many people stay. If you have five people staying, you’re paying $1 a night for this oasis. I waited for an hour at the reception desk, in front of a sign proclaiming, “FULL. We have NO idea where you can find a room. No booking here. Good luck.” As luck would have it, after about five minutes, a man came up to the desk asking if I’d seen the owener, and one-two-three he tells me he’s checking out today and that I can have his bungalow! I thought it was a done deal. I sat around to wait until he decided to check out, whilst several other parties meandered through, each one making me more nervous than the last.

Mac Backpacker Jungle

Eventually he did leave, at which point I approached the proprietress, Melanie, and asked about his room. She seemed surprised, and told me she had two people in line ahead of me, but perhaps the sight of my crumbling face convinced her otherwise, and she gave me the “1 minute” index finger. She wandered around a bit, checking outside, talking on the phone, then she came back and told me that she couldn’t get ahold of the girls who had been waiting, and the guys had just left, so it was mine if I could make it look like I hadn’t just rolled up. SCORE! I jumped right on it. Number 5 was more perfect than I could have imagined, a literal bower, with a heavy screen of foliage in front, and the only point of access through a hedge down the way. I had also taken the opportunity while waiting to begin a book from the lending library.

So begin my time on the Island of the Lotus Eaters. Because that’s what Mac Backpacker is. A haven for like-minded travelers, expats, and chillsters to just hang out. During the day, I’d get up, ride my motorbike or walk over the half mile to the restaurant that served Khao Tom (you know I gots to have my rice porridge. Daily.), wander back, read my book, do some yoga, hang out with friends, talk about lunch, have coffee, read more, sit in the hammock, talk about going to the beach, read more, decide to go to Thongsala–5 km down the road–to my favorite internet spot, Khunpen Restaurant (hot coffee, 30 b, tastes like espresso, comes with milk), walk around Panthip Market (just an empty square), bad time to come, no good food carts, motorbike back, stop by the old lady on the side of the road’s tarp shack of miscellaneous goods, buy a big knife, headphones, and some hair pretties for a couple bucks, stop by the fried chicken stand conveniently located in front of where I buy my morning porridge, wheedle as much fried chicken, sticky rice, and deep fried garlic as I can out of the stern countenanced man who works there, back to the bungalow, eat the chicken, keep it away from the hoards of friendly kitties, meet up with friends, go to the beach, read more, sun goes down, walk home, do I need more water?, motorbike to Big C, buy the daily pastries that have gone on sale (corn puff, anyone? 6 b), come home, read more, apply bug spray, apply more bugspray, light anti-mosquito incense coil, put down mosquito net, read more, sleep before 10.

Mismatched Shrines

This is what I did, every day. Sometimes I’d mix it up, go to Thongsala in the morning for some Patongo–fried dough xs for my Khao Tom. Then I’d have to get some Khanom Krok from the old lady in front of the mechanic’s shop. And a snowcone. Sometimes I’d go to other beaches, on the other side of the island. The best beach, in my opinion, is Ao Thong Nai Pan Yai, on the east side of the island. The water is so clear, no coral or seaweed, just a few tiny stinging jellies. You can reach it by motorbike or car, but the road is under construction and some is unpaved. I managed to pop a tire with a screw on the way back, and had to beg a ride to the repair shop. I thought the driver of the truck quite gallant, even going so far as to tie down the bike, until we reached Ban Tai and he said, “Don’t say thank you; pay me!” I only had 100 b, so that’s what he got. He wanted 300. And it turned out his truck was already full of people, Westerners and locals alike. I’m really not sure what I stumbled into, but at least I got into town.

Then I had to deal with the repair shop, who spoke English as well as I spoke Thai. No, it was not possible to just patch the hole, it required a new tire. It would cost 800 b. Well, I didn’t know if it would be cheaper to call the rental company and tell them the tire was busted and see what happened, or to just pay the bill and see if I could get some money knocked off at the end from ol’ Kung. I decided to pay, and shop was generous enough to lend me a bike so I could go get money from an ATM. I also scored a 50 b discount (woo, woo). I’m not sure what kind of deal I got, but in the end it didn’t help me much. When I tried to return the bike before I left the island, the guy started pointing to some dings and scratches, but I showed him the rear tire and we figured it was cool.

Dead Dog

But, back to best beaches, the best beach of all was definitely Haad Yuan. It’s reachable only by taxi boat or by a 4-wheel Indiana Jones ride. I walked over from Haad Thian, where I had been enjoying Guy’s Bar, and it was perfect. It has a deep, heavy surf, unlike most of the island, but the floor is still sandy, instead of cut-your-feet coral. The only people there are either staying at the Eden bungalows, or at the yoga camp at Haad Thian. Speaking of Guy’s Bar, that place is dope! It’s spoken of more as a thing than as a location, for example, Guy’s Bar is happening tonight! Guy’s Bar starts Friday night, pumping out Big Beat House all night long. It’s free to go, disregarding the 300 b taxi fare (one way, ugh). This goes until the afternoon of the next day, at which point everyone who doesn’t want to go home straggles down the hill to Eden, which begins it’s own thing at Saturday noon.

Candy.

A group of us decided to wake up at 3:30AM to take one of the last taxis to Guy’s Bar around 4, for a friend’s birthday. It is extremely hard to wake up in the early morning and go dance, even if it’s the coolest party/bar/thing you’ve ever been to. No coffee, no nothing. By mid-morning, I was ready for sleep. I staggered down to the beach, past the yoga retreat, up a stone staircase, down a stone staircase, past Eden, past Stone Bar, had breakfast at the Bamboo Hut (not bad prices, good food, and amazing scenery–right on the ocean), and eventually slumped into a sun chair on the beach at Big Blue and fell asleep. Until it started raining. Then I switched out clothes for swimsuit and had an amazing time getting bowled over by the waves.

A not-so-amazing time I had was at the Full Moon Party. My expectations were low to begin with, seeing the crowd it drew, but it was even duller than I imagined. We showed up around 12 midnight. It’s supposedly free, but I had to pay 100 b to get onto the beach–ostensibly the money goes to pay the people who pick up afterwards. I can support that. There were several different stages, each offering a raised platform for dancing. The one we gravitated towards was playing Industrial Techno, and it wasn’t bad, but the place was full of drunk people (which I wasn’t) and drugged people (also not) and so without even caffeine to aid me I felt, well, tired. I didn’t have a crazy rave outfit and I wasn’t out of my head, so it was just another party at that point. A party filled with lost shoes and worrying about where you’re putting your feet.

Haad Rin

The entire shoreline was dudes peeing in the water. I felt better walking through the break than on land, but with every warm wave I knew I was being laved with urine. I trudged back and forth, back and forth; determined to remain until sunrise. I had left my German friend at the Mellow Mountain, I returned to find him standing outside with a glazed expression. When I asked him a question, he answered in German, and when I laughingly told him so, he said, also in German, “Ahhh *face palm* I’m speaking in German! Why am I speaking in German?” and continued to try to talk to me in German. I assumed he was just tired, and was having trouble remembering his English, but I kept an eye on him, as for the rest of the night he simply stood wherever we were standing, and when addressed, turned silently to the speaker, then turned back to stare at the sea.

He.

Early in the morning, a huge scaffolding was lit on fire, spelling out, “Full Moon Party Koh Phangan”. Soon after the flames were out, people began scaling the construction, clinging shakily to the greasy bars. I myself had a go, until I was nailed with sand balls by the Thais telling me to get down. There were vendors selling cut fruit and meat sticks at exorbitant prices; for some reason a kindly Thai man with such kept giving me free BBQ pork sticks. Who was I to decline? I love pork sticks!

Finally, the sun rose. As the giant orange ball drifted up from the grey sea, a scene of devastation was revealed. The shore was littered with broken flip flops, discarded buckets, clothing, and cigarettes. People feeling the dregs of their drugs were frolicking with blown-out pupils in the sea, tripping over their own garb.

Anti.

At this point, I was ready for breakfast. I dragged everyone to my favorite local joint, a place I call Green Awning. It’s on a dirt road that shortcuts the longer main road into Haad Rin. It’s covered by a green tarp awning. I wish I could give better directions, as this is my favorite place to eat on the island, besides the fried chicken man. If you go before 9:30AM, you can get Joke (Chinese style khao tom), with chicken, egg, and toppings. The only thing missing is patongo, but it’s only 40 b for the whole shebang and the lady is super nice. I went every day when I was near Haad Rin, and she always laughed at me and asked if I’d come for the Khao Tom. You can also get a variety of local dishes, should you miss the joke cut-off, and I can assure you that the Thai Curry (pronounced Gang Pet) and the Green Curry (Gang Kee-Ew-Wan) are exceptionally good. It usually comes out to 80 b for curry and rice, but you get a heaping bowl and plate of same, and you won’t want to eat again for awhile.

Bird.

Anyways, back to my friend, it turned out he got rufied by a beer seller. Apparently that’s a common scam–rufie a tourist and then follow him or her discreetly and wait until they’re dazed and alone, then jack ’em. He says the last thing he remembers is buying a beer and the woman refusing to sell him a large, unopened beer, instead offering him a smaller, pre-opened one. The rest of the night is gone, with a brief memory of the sunrise. When he woke at home in the afternoon, he had no memory of how he got there (on the back of another friend’s motorbike, mumbling in German the whole way), and had rediscovered his English vocabulary. A situation that could have gone so much worse for someone solo, and one to be aware of if you plan to buy drinks on the scene!

Siem Reap

So, upon the realization that my Thai visa was about to expire, I rushed for the Cambodian border, upon the instructions of this site. It’s quite accurate, but the timing was very close. Turning in the motorbike in time to catch the ferry at 11:30AM was a close shave, but manageable. Upon reaching the mainland, however, I began encountering difficulties in locating a songthaew to take me to the ferry pier in Na Thon. I’d mapped it prior, it was about 15km, so I knew if worst came to worst I could walk, but as I staggered down the side of the road in the blazing sun, hailing each songthaew that passed, and being greeted with a friendly (and mocking?) wave as they flew by began to grow wearisome. To this day, I’m still not sure why not one songthaew would stop on the stretch of Hwy 3170 between the Big Buddha pier and the pier at Bo Phut. Eventually, I trudged out to Hwy 3169 and a songthaew grabbed me there. Even then, I had to wait about 20 minutes for one to show up. That’s like an anti-miracle. Those dang songthaews are usually two per minute at any other time.

Giant Mantis

So, I made it to the bus station. But, I hadn’t pre-printed my ticket, as I wanted to see whether I could simply show my e-version of the bus ticket to the driver. So i whipped out (ha, as if, more like dredged up) my laptop and the driver whipped out the ticket that had been sent from Bangkok in my name. Woohoo, good to go. In other news, the bathroom at the bus station is excellent–clean, and offering showers, toilets, several sinks and a long mirror. Got on the bus, bus went to the ferry pier, got off the bus, bought a ferry ticket, got on the ferry, landed on the other side (Don Sak), got back on the bus, and passed out. Woke up for some spicy noodle soup at a bus stop eatery–no problems this time. Woke in the morning to the bus driver barking, “Hey, you; leave!” and was promptly shunted from the vehicle. Staggered into the bus terminal at 6:30AM and excised my laptop once again to check how to get to the Chaloklum metro station. It looked walkable–just through some park. Totally doable! Repack, and set out.

Kids on Motorcycles.

Crossing under the freeway, I came upon a joke seller amongst a group of construction workers, and in the spirit of breakfast we supped together. I then realized the fence directly in front of me encircled the very park I was meant to cross. It looked huge. I circumambulated the perimeter for a bit without seeing an entrance, then gave it up and hauled myself over it–backpack and all. A cute young couple on a motorbike sped by laughing and pointing. I’m sure I deserved it. Trekking through the gardens of the park, I wished I was in a place to better enjoy it. The foliage was neatly labeled in Thai, English, and Latin, but I couldn’t be bothered to note it. My backpack was weighing ever more heavily upon my sweaty back, and I needed a restroom.

Handy Bathroom Information:

Bathroom in Thai is “Hong Nam”. To ask whether there is a bathroom, say, “Mee hong nam mai?”. To ask where the bathrooms are, say, “Hong nam you tee nai?”.

After the helpful ministrations of a young military man, I was ready to continue my journey. I had to cross through one more park, and then walk along the fence line for a bit before I stumbled upon the Chaloklum metro stop, conveniently located inside the park. Inside it was cool and clean, and I sat in the corner on the floor for a while to collect my wits. Onlookers glanced quickly, then looked away. I eventually hopped the train, and came out at the Hua Lamphong train station. Recognizing that the train to Aranyaprathet (the closest Thai town to Cambodia) runs at 6AM, I had planned to simply squat in the train station overnight. As I looked around me, this seemed to be a less feasible reality. I asked the lady at the information desk which bus I could take to get to Tesco (so I could use the fee-free Aeon ATM), and she told me 113. I waited at what I hoped was the bus station, ardently turning away tuk-tuks, and eagerly hopped on the bus when it arrived.

Stone Fishing.

The ticket collector came around after a time, and I asked how much the ticket was. At this point, communication devolved. I could not for the life of me understand what he was saying. I offered him 20b, it seemed fair for a bus ride, but he kept repeating “20b, 20b”. I didn’t have another 20b. Then strangers became involved. A man who had been repeatedly asking me at the bus station, “Where you from? Lady! Where you from?” moved into the seat across from me and took up the call again. Passengers began asking where I was going. “Tesco,” I cried, “I’m going to Tesco!”. At the climax of that situation, the bus stopped, I looked out the window and, blessings be, saw Tesco across the street. I hurriedly left, and determined to walk back if it killed me.

Cave of Wonders.

As it turned out, the Aeon ATM in this Tesco did charge a service fee, which really ground me up, considering the trial it had been to come. I did get some more V-Fit 7-rice milk, which is what I pretty much live for, and some fried chicken and sticky rice (Tesco makes great food). Having regathered my strength, I set off for home, wandering here, wandering there, asking always the way to Hua Lamphong. It seemed much further on foot, but at least the sun had dropped below the buildings. I finally came back to the station, and put up at a coffee shop across the street. The girls asked where I was going, where I was staying, and when they heard I was planning on staying the night in Hua Lamphong, put their foot down. I had searched nearby hostels, etc. online, but had found only upscale results, running much higher than I wanted to pay. The girls told me about a cheap place right behind that very location, for $2 per night. Sold.

Rococo.

I had to pay when I checked in (it ended up being $3), but there was an elevator, and clean towels, and an ensuite bathroom. It was cool and clean and had a fan. Much nicer than other hostels I’ve been in. It’s called The Station Hotel and I recommend it to any traveler coming to or going from BKK by train.

Got some khaotom to-go for the ride, got on the train, and fell asleep in a variety of yoga-istic positions. When I awoke around 11:30AM, we were about an hour out, and my hair was coated with train smoke and travel dust. The train has glass windows the slide up or down, slatted wooden shutters, and fans. You’re going to want that window open. Arriving in Aranyaprathet, I was approached by a tuk-tuk driver and actually wanted a ride. He took me to the bank (didn’t get enough money out of the ATM, dumb), and then to Poipet, leaving me near the border for 40b.

Siesta.

Getting into Cambodia is like trying to get into the U.S. from Mexico. You have to pass through a variety of stations, wait in lines, be sweaty, and pay fees, plus everyone is in uniform and means business. I had read online ahead of time that a common scam is to get tourists to buy visas before the border, claiming that it must be purchased before, or that you have to get them at such-and-such a place, so I proceeded to the border, heedless of the calls. I met two other tourist sets who had been scammed in such a way, once I got to Siem Reap, one set for $30 and one for $50! Be on your guard, everything you need can be purchased AT THE BORDER for $20. You should also be traveling with some mini photos of yourself, as many visas request those. I don’t have any yet, so I paid a 100b fine. Then lines, lines, lines. Finally, I got to the other side.

Anti.

A helpful young man escorted me to the tourist shuttle going to the bus station, then, upon arriving, showed me which bus to buy a ticket for, and where to change money. Then he asked for “a little something” for the help. I only had $2, but he didn’t seem displeased. Then I was on the bus again. I fell asleep until we jounced into the bus station outside of Siem Reap. From this potholed dirt road you take a tuk-tuk to your final destination in Siem Reap. My tuk-tuk driver was very helpful, and drove me first to the well-regarded hostel The Garden Village Guest House. Being quite popular, as I’ve mentioned, it was full up. He then directed me to another hostel, this one in the heart of Siem Reap, I Win Hostel. I only had large bills, and he couldn’t break a $10, so he said he would come back to take me to the Floating Village on Thonle Sap at 3:30PM the next day, and that I could pay him then.

I was grateful then to climb the 3 flights of stairs to the sweaty garret filled with bunkbeds. I took a shower, felt revived, and went out to see the town.

Meats.

Directly behind my hostel was a small market, comprised of very overpriced tourist items, etc. Passing through there, and across a canal, one comes to the Siem Reap “Night Market” : a city block of tourist stuff, encircling an inner food market patroned by locals; flanked on one side by the infamous Pub Street and on the other by tuk-tuk drivers and snack cart pushers. This market undergoes a radical change between day and night time purveyors. During the day, the perimeter of the market sells household supplies–literally, anything anyone would need for their house, including building supplies. There are a few tourist shops, but mostly jewelry and things that remain in cases or displayed in a certain way. After about 6PM, these household shops have all disappeared, to be replaced by shops selling the same Khmer dresses, pashminas, kramas, “Aladdin” pants, shorts, at prices dependent on the proprietors individual aims.

Did I mention the dress code in Cambodia? As whimsical and lax as Thailand is, so, oppositely, is Cambodia conservative and incongruous. 98% of Cambodians wear long sleeves and pants, all the time. There are varying styles to this. I could actually discourse long on the nature of Khmer fashion–it’s very iconic! In general, young men are much more neatly dressed than anywhere else I’ve seen–IN THE WORLD. They wear nattily fitted jeans, or dark khaki culottes, and button downs, with flip-flops. Young females have two apparel options : the long-sleeved, skinny jean style, or the “pajama” style. This entails a matching top and bottom set, usually in a bright floral pattern, with narrow legs and a buttoning front. It looks just like a pair of funky pajamas. This is also paired with flip-flops. Women of an age wear a Khmer skirt–a wrap skirt with a Cambodian print–and a 3/4 button down or long-sleeved shirt. All school children wear uniforms; the most common being a navy bottom and light button-down top. The girls all look like something out of a Hiyao Miyazaki film : bell-shaped skirts, doubled up on the back of bicycles or motorbikes.

Anyhow, you look like a boob if you go out in anything shorter-sleeved than a t-shirt, or shorter than knee-length. So I elected to grab a couple baggy pants. $3 a pop, I figured I could leave them somewhere if they didn’t work out. The girl I bought them from was vivacious and friendly, like most Cambodians I’ve met. She also taught me how to say, “No bean sprouts!” Or literally, “I have no need for those bean sprouts”. This unfortunate phrase was occasioned by my finding the perfect breakfast place just meters away from my hostel. It served borbor, the Khmer equivalent of khaotom, and even had those little doughnut things I like. But! Khmer-style borbor has bean sprouts in it! And I didn’t know! And I hate beansprouts in soup, glug.

Speaking of new gustatory experiences, Cambodians put other mysterious things in the otherwise unassuming rice porridge, such as offal. Buying some borbor on the street, I arrived home to find some exciting kidneys? veins? liver? in my bowl. I’m not sure how to decline these things, but the taste sort of blends when it’s all together and sliced thin.

Market.

Siem Reap is a funny place, kind of a big-little town. The streets are dusty and poorly paved, and a few hundred meters outside of the city center you will find yourself on a dirt road surrounded by stilt houses and children laughing, calling, “Hello! Hi! What’s your name!”. A canal runs through town, and along it are mansions that look like they’ve survived French colonialism. Classical parks grace the sides of the canal, and frangipani drops blossoms along the street.

Temple Road.

Then there’s the shantytown aspect. Corrugated tin houses, stirred only by the wings of flies; pregnant dogs panting in the heat, skeletally thin; begging children (always girls), naked kids dredging the canal for miniature clams and waterweeds to sell, shaved-headed old women with eyes that don’t see straight, hands held in front of them; land mine victims. Children playing in a construction site while their fathers work behind them. Men pulling carts taller than themselves in lieu of a cow or horse. Young girls asking if you want a massage. Women trying desperately to sell you a pair of pants, or some cut pineapple. “What you pay?” they call, as you try to run away, “How much you pay?”. Don’t look interested in anything, or the proprietress will try her hardest to sell it to you. If you get out once, don’t go back that way, or they’ll remember you and get you again.

Sleepy.

Aside from that sadness, there are excellent, fun aspects of Siem Reap; not limited to $1 a day bicycle rentals, the Angkor temples, how nice everybody is, the excellent Khmer taste in music, the delicious food, and the free tea at meals. Street food and lodging are cheaper here than in Thailand, and people everywhere will approach you to meet you, just because they’re interested in you. Expect to be treated with extreme frankness; Cambodians don’t pull any punches when it comes to personal appearance or any embarrassing thing you might do. They’ll openly ask you if your piercings hurt, or if you have any injury, they want to know what happened. They’ll also tell you that your nose is big (every nose is big compared to Khmer noses), that such-and-such a size won’t fit you; and if you’re near a group of Khmer women, you can be sure they’re talking about you, and yes, laughing at you. Sometimes they even laugh at you for being too polite. But it’s not just you! They often laugh at each other, and regularly play tricks and tease one another. Cambodians are always smiling, and usually laughing. Don’t be fooled by that smile though, sometimes it serves to hide their true feelings of fear, embarrassment, or uncertainty–Cambodia is a face-saving culture.

Lucky.

I generally make a little wai to each person I meet (in Khmer these are called Som Pas) or see. Most people seem to think it’s cute, or nice, but I’ve had women tell me that I shouldn’t som pas to them, they are “too low”, so there’s more to the story, but I don’t know it yet.

Indie 2.

I know you’re all wondering about Angkor Wat. Well, to me, this is just one part of the experience, not the whole reason for visiting. You can get a day pass to the Angkor temples for twenty bones, or you can pop $40 for a three-day pass. If you have the time, I’d recommend the latter. I got up before sunrise to ride my bike to the temples–my favorite borbor place wasn’t even open yet–and was passed the whole way by like-minded tourists in tuktuks. Everyone crowded around the first pool at the temple to watch the sunrise, but I went on to find the highest point–the Bayon. Unfortunately, you can’t get into this until 7:50AM. Shucks. But the sunrises and sunsets here are nothing to get excited about: a gradual coloration of a grey haze.

Predawn.

Yes, the stonework and sheer immensity were breathtaking; yes, it’s impossible to believe the length of time necessary to complete such a work; yes, it’s very, very hot and you didn’t bring any water and you’re on a bike, trudging from temple to temple (there are a gang of them); yes, there are at least three steep staircases per temple; yes, some of the temples are crammed with tourists.

Ta Prohm.

There are so many temples, you will certainly enjoy yourself more if you only take on a select few per day. The ride isn’t bad from Siem Reap to Angkor Wat–about 5 miles. Then you can ride the short circuit or the long one, don’t ask me the distance. The short one is less than 10 miles I’d say, the long one is supposed to be 32 km. If you’re not getting off and on your bike every five minutes to look at temples, you’ll enjoy the ride, the temples you do choose to see, and the day. My favorite temple was definitely Ta Prohm, or the Tree Complex. It has been majorly reconstructed, but is not yet complete. The trees growing all over and around give the temple an additional otherwordly/anime feel, like Laputa of Castle in the Sky.

Compelled.

The good news is, you can probably lurk onto a tour group in your language, if you don’t want to pay for one, as I heard Cambodian guides speaking Russian, German, Mandarin, Japanese, and French, not to mention English. You will also see a ton of monkeys! They are relatively fearless, and you can get quite close, but watch your food! They will snatch it right up, be it a health bar or a bag of sliced pineapple.

Sorry I skimped on the Angkor descriptions, but what I remember most is being hot and thirsty. To make up for this, I have included a selection of the kadgillion photos I took. Enjoy!

Đà Nẵng

I had read previously on Seat61 that trains in Viet Nam are plentiful and cheap. I love trains, and decided to investigate. There are varying degrees of luxury on Vietnamese trains, ranging from slatted wooden seats, with open windows and fans, to air-conditioned “soft sleepers”. There are mid-range seats as well, air-conditioned hard seats, and soft seats, but the price jumps up accordingly. I figured I could tough out a hard seat; after all, I’d been 6 hours on a (to my mind) hard-seated train in Thailand to the Cambodian border. I checked the train charts: the train to Da Nang left Saigon at 12:20, and reached Da Nang at 7. I can handle 7 hard hours, I thought.

Hard Seats.

I should mention that I’d collected a fellow traveler by this time: Olivier, a French-Canadian on his first tour abroad. We met at the ill-starred Budget Hostel, and he declared his desire to adjourn to Da Nang as well, and so we went. We purchased our tickets, and boarded the train. Around 7PM, I thought I heard the conductor say, “Da Nang!”, so we prepared to disembark. However, when the train stopped, the station was discovered not to be Da Nang at all. For a few hours, I’d had a sick feeling growing in the pit of my stomach due to my laissez-faire attitude towards train times. I recalled belatedly that times in Asia are almost without fail in what we call military time. After our attempted flight from the train, and upon hearing that we were heading for Da Nang, the conductor broke into laughter, and told us we would reach Da Nang at 7…in the morning. Whoops!

Pond.

Olivier, looking at me with a horrified face: “You mean…we have to stay on this train all night?” Our butts were already sore from seven hours of travel, we had exhausted our food stores, drank our water; in short, we were screwed. The benches are about a meter long, short-bodied Viets can lie in an almost comfortable fetal position on them without poking their heads into the aisle. I cannot. In the end, I ended up sleeping upright, with my legs extended under the next seat. Olivier laid on his back, with his crossed legs propped against the wall. His torso alone took up the entire length of the seat.

Dragonfruit.

In Viet Nam, I’ve noticed any foreigner exudes a peculiar attractant to the Vietnamese peoples. Not long after my embarrassing revelation on the train, a young man approached Olivier, seated himself beside him, and began speaking companionably with him. This young man, Trung, spoke with him for several hours, and when he left to sleep, said he would find us again in the morning. When we rolled into Da Nang, he escorted us from the train, and said he would take us to a cheap guesthouse nearby. I offered to carry a taped styrofoam box he was struggling with, and noticed, over the course of the journey to the guesthouse, that it felt as though something was trying to climb out of it. “Are there crabs in here?” I asked Trung. He looked confused. “Lobster?”. Nothing. “Animals?” His face brightened. “Yes, animals!” I felt like I was holding the box that held the monster cat in Mousehunt; every so often it lurched fore or aft and the skittering of crustacean appendages could be detected along the inside of the box walls.

Morning Light.

The guesthouse he brought us to was down an alley, where else, but it was clean, and offered two beds, a bathroom, a T.V. and a fan at 150,000 VND/night. It was called Ha Chau Nha Nghi–good luck finding it. Even in the city, no one knew it. At night, a dessert vendor encamped near the entrance; in the morning, a woman selling Bahn Mi Loc sat in the alley itself. The alley connected with numerous other alleys, and one could travel the city without ever putting foot on a major street (a smart move, if one knew one’s way).

Alley.

I didn’t do much during my stay in Da Nang; a lot of wandering the city and eating. I could tell you all the tasty things to try, though! There’s a delicious bakery on Ly Thai To Rd that I bought tartlets from every single day. I’ll give you the name when the internet works better. Updated: I hope this is the right one. There is a horrible one on the opposite side. They speak no English, but like I said, I’m pretty good at food ordering and paying. The options are passion fruit, chocolate, lemon brie (not sure on this one, just going by taste), pineapple, strawberry cream (not good), and egg. There is also a rude and not delicious bakery on the same road, beware! However, it’s on the left side, as one walks towards the beach, and the good bakery is on the right a little further.

Da Nang Traffic.

Try some new fruits. Dragonfruit is a large, ovoid, pink fruit, with green tipped tentacles. Inside the fruit is sweet, white, with a mealy texture and small black seeds. Rambutan is a small coral-shelled fruit, covered in inch-long bright green hairs. Inside, the fruit is similar in texture to lychee, with a taste similar to herbal tea. Guavas are green like Granny Smith apples when unripe, and gradually shade to a light green, perhaps with a touch of pink when ready to be eaten. They are bumpy, and about the size of a grapefruit. The flesh is milky, with the soft, slippery texture of ripe mango. Not a strong taste, but the rind is reminiscent of eucalyptus. Longans come in little brown spheres, with a thin, hard case. Inside, the flesh is translucent and hard, just like rambutans and lychees. The taste is similar to rambutans, but with a much stronger flavor. Sweet and herbal. Rose apples are shaped like pears, but with deep grooves in their sides, and ruby-shaded. The flesh is light, with almost no flavor, and crisp. Passionfruit looks like a small rugby ball, hard, and must be cut open. Inside, the edible portion looks like snot. It is a brilliant acid green, filled with small seeds much like tomato seeds. It is delightfully sour, and lends its flavor to many enjoyable snacks in Viet Nam.

Dragonfruit.

I tried Chè of various flavors. Chè, says my little phrasebook, is sweetened gruel. Well, it’s not just that. Nobody just eats chè plain, as far as I can tell. One eats Chè Xoa Xoa , sweet gruel, coconut milk, ice, and various gelatins and chewies. This can be had for 7,000 dong, or 20,000, if you get stiffed on a main road. There’s a delicious yogurt made from condensed milk, but I’ll have to double-check the name. Update: It’s Sữa chua. Bún is simply rice noodles, and you can get an assortment of toppings, such as grilled meat (Thịt Nướng), fish (Cá), pork sausage (Chả), and fried spring rolls (I forget this one, maybe chả nem?). It will come with greens, usually including the dreaded Fish Mint (rau giấp cá) so tell them you don’t want it, if it offends you. When I order almost anything, it’s with the added request, “không rau giấp cá va giá đỗ”–no Fish Mint and beansprouts. It’s pronounced “Kum Rao Yee-ap Kha vah Yee-ah Dao”, if you take your meals as I do.

Offering.

One day, I decided to go to the historic city of Hội An. This is the one day it has rained in Viet Nam. We hailed a bus–they go all day long from Da Nang to Hội An and back–and got on. The female bus conductor told us the fare was 50,000 dong. This isn’t true. She even got the other bus passengers to agree with her. The true passage is 20,000 dong, but as a foreigner you’ll almost certainly be charged 30,000. Just hand them 30,000 dong and be done with it. So the day started off on a bad foot. It was pouring rain when we reached Hoi An an hour later. I bought a poncho, and we set off to find the center of town. It’s about a half-mile walk from the bus station to the center of town, or maybe a bit more. Don’t take a motorcycle taxi unless you’re in a hurry; they won’t take you for less than 10,000 VND, but it’s not worth even that.

River View.

Walking down Hai Ba Trung, we came upon a bike renter. There was something of a kerfuffle when it was discovered we weren’t boarding in town, but it was overcome by our rapid proffer of 20,000 dong. $1 per day for a nice bike is, as I’ve mentioned before, highly equitable. On the bus we had made the acquaintance of a young Swedish woman. How pleased we both were, to find semi-kindred in the diaspora! She joined our gang, and we peddled away towards the Ancient City.

Lanterns.

You have to buy a pass to go into any historical area; 120,000 VND gives you entry to five places, or more if you’re not caught going in. I was always caught. The others made it out with a score of unused tickets. I had read a guide to Hoi An the morning of, in which a woman offered her opinion on the available attractions, and had decided to go to the Tan Ky House, the Phuc Kien Assembly Hall, the Museum of Folk Culture, the Phung Hung House, and the “Evening Art Performance”. Unfortunately, the rain made all of us a little slow-moving, and two of us reached only three of these places. The Phuc Kien Assembly Hall is definitely worth a visit, it’s beautiful and relatively unpopulated. The Tan Ky House is a waste of a ticket, you see only the reception room. The Museum of Folk Culture is great to see, you can get in and away without losing a ticket, and there’s not a sole inside besides you. Outside this building, there are what look like weaving demonstrations–surely during drier weather.

Moving Statue.

We never made it to the Evening Art Performance, although I’m told it takes place “to the right of the An Hoi bridge, near the cao lầu stands” at 7:30PM. Speaking of cao lầu, it is great. That statement seems feeble in describing the immense pleasure I have in eating it. The noodles are similar in form to fettucine, but thick, and made of some other grain. The broth is rich, and it is topped with pork, deep-fried pork skins, and greens. Even the greens are delicious!

Temple Ceiling.

Nearby the Central Market, where we had lunch, is a warehouse of smaller shops. It was here I attempted to have an Ao Dai made. Don’t do this. I was rushed through the choosing of a pattern, of cloth colors, and then rapidly fitted and told to return the next afternoon. I forgot to haggle, and agreed to a $45 outfit (NO NO NO). When I went to pay, I was sure I handed the lady a 500,000 dong bill I had been keeping at the bottom of my coin purse, but she ran out after us and caught us on the steps, claiming I had only handed her a 20. To this day, I don’t know what happened to my 500,000 dong. The woman swore up and down she didn’t have it, and the owner of the shop also, stating their Buddhist inclinations as proof of her honesty. Anyhow, I should have given it up then, but I didn’t.

Metal Grate.

Upon returning the next day, I was shown my new Ao Dai. Where’s the collar I wanted? Then the tailor woman became defensive. “You say, 1-color! I make 1-color. I ask you, you say, no 2-color, 1-color; cheaper!” Where I had assumed the part that was shown in the picture to be two colors would simply be made in one color, she had removed the part altogether, leaving a plain V-Neck color. The Ao Dai fit imperfectly, and I was crushed. The owner came up to me as I drifted sadly out, telling me that she had spoken to the seamstress, and telling her that she must fix it if I was unhappy, but the seamstress was adamant, claiming I had told her it was to be made this way. She extended sincere apologies on behalf of the outcome, of both the dress and the lost money. She seemed truly unhappy, but then so was I.

Door.

Reaching Da Nang again, after an hour bus ride in the opposite direction, I went for a walk to see if I could find a seamstress to append a collar to my sadly-lacking Ao Dai. I was led by a silk seller to a tailor in an alley, but through a young woman neighbor I was told she was unable to change it, but could make a new one for 400,000 VND, and have it ready in two days. I agreed, still cherishing a hope of the perfect Ao Dai. Instead of choosing from the book of patterns, having previously drawn an account of what I wanted the appended collar to look like on the Ao Dai I had, the young girl told me the seamstress claimed she could make my new Ao Dai with such a collar. So I acquiesced to the second attempt on my fancy-collared Ao Dai, and signified the colors I would like. It seemed shady to not come back for a second fitting, but they assured me everything would be perfect.

Empty Lot.

The next day, I found an Ao Dai maker who agreed to take in my first Ao Dai, at least giving it a proper fit. Everywhere I wore it, people smiled, said, “Dep, dep!” and “Ao Dai Viet Nam”. Even our young friend from the train, Trung, said it made him so happy to see a foreigner wearing traditional Vietnamese Ao Dai, and that he thought it was beautiful. However, in my heart of hearts, I was unsatisfied, and eagerly awaited my new one.

Baby Deer.

I returned the evening we were to leave for Dong Hoi to collect my new Ao Dai. When they brought it over, my smile fell off. There was no collar whatever! The seamstress hadn’t understood my injunction, it appeared, and had made the Ao Dai off-the-shoulder. It was in a brazen gold, with bright tangerine pants–not the demure sand and soft coral combo I had envisioned. Even beyond that, it was almost intolerably tight. It was well-made, but wore like a second skin. I felt like a prostitute.

Portal.

The owner of the shop, looked at the Ao Dai, looked at me, and asked what I thought of it. “It’s beautiful,” I said, “but it’s not what I wanted”. She and the other seamstress had a rapid back-and-forth, and the owner turned back to me and said, “She did not understand what you wanted, and she says she’ll make you the Ao Dai you want for free”. Alas, I was leaving! But what a generous offer! I would try again there, if I but had the time. Trinh is the name: 332/1 Le Duan, Da Nang. I wore it home, and again compliments flew from every quarter, but under my genial smile, my heart was breaking. What a fool!

Look Right.

When you order an Ao Dai, just take it exactly as it looks in the pattern book.

One night we went to karaoke with Trung and some of his friends. The karaoke house offered some English selections, and we had a great time belting old favorites, and mangling new ones. The room came with an assortment of drinks, sort of like the mini-bar in a hotel–you drink, you buy. How much could it possibly be, we wondered. The answer is: a lot. We each ended up paying about $12, because all of Trung’s friends left early, and we didn’t want him to pay. I had one Red Bull and a lychee soda. It was horrifying. But the karaoke memories will remain unscathed. It was an hilarious night. The French-Canadian rendition of “Roxanne” had me crying with laughter, and Emilie and I can really duet an ABBA song. To our very great surprise, Trung had the voice of an angel, or a J-Pop star. I have never heard anyone karaoke like that.

Karaoke.

Odds and Ends: you can buy a new set of prescription glasses here, ready in half an hour, for $18. I wanted some, but I’d hemorrhaged enough cash. The beach is beautiful, but you’re only allowed to enter the water at specific points, demarcated by floating flag lines, and if you go in other places, you’ll be chased down by a life guard. Don’t try to send a package here, the rates are disgusting. On Saturday and Sunday, the Dragon Bridge (you can’t miss it) shoots flame and water vapor at 9PM. Also, almost every bridge in Da Nang is decorated in some way with rainbow lights. Truly a beautiful sight at night.

Dragon Bridge.

There is a gorgeous temple, called a pagoda by our friend Trung, dedicated to Guanyin, with an enormous statue to the same overlooking the city. There are statues of the Chinese Zodiac in the facing garden, and the entire thing is perched atop a high hill. We went by night, and the soft sound of the shore and the crickets drifted on the breeze with the dark smell of incense and closing flowers. It would be hard not to be quiet and respectful in such a place.

Hidden Statue.