48 Hours in India, Chapter III “Sleepless in South India, featuring Rajinikanth the Tuk Tuk Driver”

Where we did go was back through the main part of Trichy, which we had seen from the cab as we barreled through the town. The more modern part of Trichy had two main streets connecting a large train station and a very active bus depot. They two were about a mile and a half apart and in between them lay what I thought of at the time as ‘Mad Max Flea market’ but is actually just what a lot of streets in the smaller Indian cities look like. The roads were paved but potholed and trash filled. Giant buses roared through small streets lined with stalls selling shoes, phone cases and fruit, everything coated with grime and dust. Rubble and thick black mud lined the streets and the entire walk from end to end smelled like urine and diesel exhaust. The crowd was fast moving and pushy and equally beaten down looking. Not exactly the Taj or downtown Mumbai. With our packs on we wandered up and down this stretch looking for accommodations or a restaurant with wifi. We found plenty of places to eat, a few to stay and absolutely no wifi (we later found one hotel that did have it: it cost eight times what the hotel we were staying did, so no dice). We ended up back at the big roundabout in the middle of town. On one side of the roundabout sits the beehive-esque bus station, across from an ancient five story hotel. At the bus station, full size windowless buses would tear through the roundabout, honking the whole way in one long blatting scream as people jumped on and off without the bus stopping. Smaller vehicles and motorbikes flitter between the gaps of the big buses. The whole affair had the look and feel of a very loud ant colony working at full tilt. We’d done some pricing as we walked and settled on the big old hotel because it seemed safe and was 700 rupee a night for a double room. Again, that seemed surprisingly cheap.

The lady at the front desk was cold and matter of fact. We did the normal exchange, passports, paperwork, payment, etc. and we learned an interesting facet of hotels in India: most rent rooms out in 24 increments, meaning that if you check in at say, 5:15 am because your night train got in two hours early, you’re checking out at 5:15 am the next day. This was going to be our experience at our next hotel, two days from when we checked into our second accommodations in India. But for now we checked in just before dark and had the room until 7:30 the following evening. Plenty of time to figure out our next step.

The 700 rupee room was larger than I expected. It was on the third floor, with a small barred window overlooking the roundabout. Two beds, a small TV and a reasonably comfortably mattresses, which is always a plus. It’s amazing how many different mattresses you sleep on when you travel long term. It gives you a connoisseurs’ snobbery regarding cheap accommodations and I’m 100% certain that you could blindfold me, fly me to Thailand, Cambodia or India, plop me on a mattress in a hostel, hotel or guesthouse costing less than $8 a night and I could identify the country just by the mattress. Interesting and unexpected tidbit: Cambodia has the best cheap mattresses by a wide margin. I’ve slept on a more comfortable mattress in an open air jungle loft with a pallet bed frame and mesquito net in Cambodia than in a relatively fancy hotel in India. One of the many reasons I’ll always love Cambodia. The noise outside our room was a constant cacophony of roaring engines and honks, but we had a door that locked and our own bathroom. It’s difficult to describe how comforting that is when you’re overwhelmed on the road, no matter what the condition of your temporary home is: you have a space in which you are in control.

Each floor of the hotel had a staff person 24/7. I’m not sure what their duties were, but our guy seemed to mostly watch TV in a vacant room while pretending to make up the bed. I decided to give the TV a try– we’d spent a little time during our first place in Thailand flipping through the channels and found it fascinating to see how different cultures consume their news and entertainment. We were in Thailand right after the king passed away and almost all channels (there were about twenty five) were devoted to coverage of religious ceremonies revering the king, biopics, specials about his life, and footage of weeping old folks clutching pictures of the monarch. Indian TV was, not surprisingly, a different animal and much like the country itself, it was vast, loud and different enough culturally to be completely baffling to a foreign eye/ear. There were exactly one hundred channels. About a third were what looked and sounded like an Indian telenovela: soap opera plots, low production value and recurring character types (the evil older general/military man and the meddling grandmother seem especially pervasive). Another third was Bollywood/Kollywood music videos, both current and vintage. These were fascinating and, coupled with what I learned from a late night conversation with some stand up comics in Bangalore about film’s role in Indian culture and politics, have ignited an intense curiosity about Indian film culture and convention. My inner film geek will explore this when I get home. The last third was split between news and movie channels. The movies were mostly heavily censored western films and Kollywood classics. The censorship was fascinating. Every time a character onscreen smokes, the words “smoking kills” are superimposed over whatever they’re smoking. Not even Thorin the dwarf in one of the bloated Hobbit films escaped: while he sat in the Prancing Pony discussing the Lonely Mountain with Gandalf (why on middle-earth was that a scene? Why that many movies out of a simple story? Why run over my childhood and leave it in the middle of the road, Peter Jackson?) the words “smoking kills” hung over his pipe in English and Tamil. There is also considerable censorship regarding any kind of amorous activity: I’m not entirely sure characters can kiss on screen. In all of the Bollywood (and Kollywood) I’ve seen so far, the romantic climax of the film is usually a kiss between our hero (a lower class good guy, probably played by Rajinikanth) and the leading lady (of a higher class than our scruffy but lovable leading man) which is generally not shown on screen but shot from an angle that obscures the lips touching or the kiss is just heavily implied by the circumstance. In the film I watched Rajinikanth played a tuk tuk driver who stood up to the local mafioso who was bullying old shopkeepers and, no joke, little old ladies. Punctuated with the expected but startling dance numbers, Rajinikanth sacrificed himself in place of another tuk tuk driver, was subjected to a smash cut heavy passion of the christ-esque beating in the town square, and some how survived and got the girl. I’m fuzzy on the plot because India is of the opinion that subtitles coddle the viewer. But, Rajinikanth wins the girl, has a sizzling early eighties biker themed dance number and kisses the girl– which we see in a medium shot of Rajinikanth’s face, momentarily obscured by the back of the leading lady’s head, and then he has lipstick on his face and a punch drunk expression. All that’s missing is cartoon hearts circling his head. It’s amazing, and was a welcome change of pace from the chaos of Trichy and our misadventures trying to 1) find food; 2) find lodging; 3) find internet and 4) get the hell out of Dodge.

We checked in around seven pm, puzzled through some bollywood (the Rajinikanth adventure was later) and went to sleep hungry. We’d stopped by the train station during our long walk hoping to buy tickets and had been told we’d have to come back in the morning to buy tickets for the night train, so we went to bed early ready to get to the train station first thing.

Around nine thirty we learned why our room was cheap. The constant horn honking outside showed no sign of sloping off. If anything, it had picked up. By midnight I gave up any hope and resigned myself to the roar of Indian traffic for the night. Sofia put it earplugs, but I’m not comfortable doing that in a place I’m not familiar with– what if you sleep through a fire alarm, or sleep through someone sneaking in and walking off with your bags? These seem paranoid now, but they seem the height of prudence when you’re a little stranded on the wrong side of the tracks in a country you don’t understand. So I watched Tamil soap operas, the Rajinikanth tuk tuk driver epic and a Chinese Jackie Chan film I’d never heard of and drifted in and out of sleep. The horns tapered off slightly between 4 and 5 in the morning and then picked back up with gusto after that.
The next morning we were up bright and early and made the trek through the increasingly familiar streets of Trichy. Every morning, businesses would sprinkle lye powder on the mud in front of their stores, giving the illusion both that it was clean and that it had somehow snowed. The night before there had been a young man with one leg passed out drunk in the street, but he was gone in the morning and I worried about what had happened to him until I saw him again later that afternoon. I couldn’t tell if he looked worse for wear or if that was a normal thing for him. 

We worked our way into the ticket building, ready to buy our tickets and move on as soon as possible. But that’s not what happened, and the small part of Trichy we’d seen was nothing compared to what we’d see in the next eight hours.

48 Hours in India: Chapter II “Trichy Business”

This is part of an ongoing story, published in digestible chunks, about our first experiences in India. These were some of the most intense moments on the road so far, and in writing about them, I went way overboard. So, tune in most days for a short, serialized snippet of the two of us struggling through our culture shock. If you’re tuning in partway through, all of the previous parts are on the blog. 

So far, so good, but all we’ve done so far is sit in a plane, something anybody can do. At this point in our travels we’ve gotten very comfortable flying and making it through airport security. The only stress I feel comes from the unknowns of international flights: was the three year old article I read online about the Indian visa process right? Do they take USD, or RM, or can I change money there? Did I parse the strangely translated Indian website correctly? Do I have enough cash on hand? Too much? (the answer I’ve learned after several sketchy border crossings, both air and over land, is that if you’re headed to a tourist friendly country and have done the minimum of research and prep, you’ll be okay). It’s always a bit stressful to change money and during your first few transactions with a new currency you worry that you accidentally overpaid your taxi driver by a few factors of ten (a mistake I recently made in Vietnam where twenty three thousand dong roughly equal a dollar. Forty five pucks makes you a millionaire and it’s tougher than you’d think to keep track of all those zeros). Also, nothing makes your head spin like converting ringit to rupee (about 4.7 and 67 to 1 USD respectively) and then trying to figure out if the taxi driver is ripping you off or not, while he and a flock of auto-rickshaw drivers all vie for your business.

The Trichy airport is small and we were only two of three people getting off the plane who weren’t locals and had to get in line to get our visas approved and passports stamped. To the energized and combat ready traveler, this is a good sign. But for someone not ready to lead the charge into the unknown, it should be a warning. No other foreigners means only locals, which means you’re off the beaten path. Which means you’re about to travel on expert mode. No signs for important things like, bathroom, or bus stop or “do not enter.” You’re about to be a rambunctious and unsupervised toddler, let loose in a world you don’t understand. You can’t do basic things like get food, or lodging or know where you can sit on a bus. You can’t communicate well, you can’t read and you’re likely to wander unknowingly into traffic unless an adult stops you.

But we didn’t know that yet. We got our visas examined, our passports stamped, I bought 600 rupees with the ringits I had left over and we headed outside. We’d read that there was a local bus, but we couldn’t find it. Which was fine because we’d have no idea where to get off if we had. We waded through the flock of aggressive taxi and autorickshaw drivers that congregate outside of every airport. Eventually we settled on a taxi driver that offered to take us into town on the cheap. We didn’t have a destination yet, as part of a bold choice to figure it out once we got on the ground. This strategy works well in places like Thailand and Malaysia, where every pad thai stand and kopitiam has excellent wifi. Not so much in small city in rural India.

The taxi ride was our first exposure to the driving in India, a style that is equal parts red blood cells smashing along in the capillaries of a person with severe hypertension, and  something I’ve come to call “Deathwish hornhonk.” It’d be a white knuckle experience, if there was anything to hang on to. The taxi, a small dusty car with the seat belts cut out, pulled out of the airport parking lot and onto the road, a two lane dustbowl highway with a hip height concrete divider running down the middle. On each side pulsed the now familiar flow of cars, autorickshaws, motorcycles, scooters, pedestrians, cows, pushcarts and giant trucks decorated like hindi christmas trees. We zoomed around them all, close enough to touch through the rolled down windows, our driver laying on the horn and accelerator equally while he made his sales pitch.

All taxi drivers that hang around at airports sell hard on the drive into town. You can hire them for the day to go see temples, and if you don’t have a hotel they will take you to places they have standing arrangements with. We’ve never taken a taxi driver up on these services because they tend to be expensive and I somehow don’t trust a history tour of an eight hundred year old temple complex ruled by three different kingdoms as given by a taxi driver who scams tourists at the airport every day. The only exception to this was in Cambodia, where we hired a tuk tuk driver for the day to see Angkor Wat, which was a great choice. There, the system was clever: the bus “station” was about three kilometers outside of Siem Reap, just a stand in the Cambodian countryside. A group of local tuk tuk drivers would ferry you for free from the bus stand to your hostel (we had reservations there– we weren’t overconfident yet) and they would do their best to sell you tours of Angkor Wat. We’d done the research and that was the best way to get around (you had to buy tickets in a giant government office several miles from the site and then the temples themselves were spread out over a very large area) and our driver, Pha, was a delightful person, spoke terrific english and was a great salesman. We hired him on the spot (I didn’t even haggle, which Sofia made fun of me for afterwards) and he was terrific: picked us up exactly on time (4:30 am) and took us everywhere we wanted to go and then some. I have no regrets about the money spent on Pha and our trip to Angkor Wat. But that was Combodia, we’re now in India and our taxi driver is definitely not Pha.

We politely deflected his offers to drive us to all the temples and asked him to drop us off somewhere in the middle of town. His english wasn’t great, our Tamil was non-existent and he really wanted to take us to some hotels that he almost certainly had a deal with. This is common among taxi drivers and the deal is usually along the lines of: “If you bring any dumb tourists to our hotel, we’ll overcharge them and give you a cut.” The hotel he took us to would have been a great setting for an Indian remake of American Horror Story. It was a five story concrete building, set back from the crowded road in a grove of dead trees. Dark windows, strangely quiet, deserted lobby. The elevator was tiny, the place was eerie and there wasn’t a single guest. We said we it was great we just had to go the ATM to get money and we left.

Before we did, we got scammed a bit by our driver. We’d negotiated the price of 200 rupee to get us to town, which I thought was surprisingly cheap. At the hotel he insisted it was 200 person, not 200 total. We hadn’t discussed this before, and even though it was a common scam (which you avoid by having a very clear conversation before you get in the cab) I paid him 400. We needed to get out there. We thanked him, asked directions to an ATM and hoofed it, never to return. For all I know the next batch of tourists that ended up at that hotel more or less met their end in some kind of Stephen King Tamil short story. 

We’d successfully made it into town, were now homeless without phones or internet, had no idea where to go or what to pay. Not bad for only three hours into being in the country. In terms of comfort and stress, things were terrible. But measured in adventure and road stories, we were doing great.

48 hours in India: Chapter I: The Housecats Buy Tickets to the Outside

This is part of an ongoing story, published in digestible chunks, about our first experiences in India. These were some of the most intense moments on the road so far, and in writing about them, I went way overboard. So, tune in most days for a short, serialized snippet of the two of us struggling through our culture shock. If you’re tuning in partway through, all of the previous parts are on the blog. 

We decided to go to India while sitting on a rooftop. This is something we try to do as often as possible on the road and we’re pretty good at making it happen. This particular rooftop is in Kuala Lumpur, the capital city of Malaysia, and we’d been on the rooftop a lot in the past month. The rooftop felt like home and it made India seem like a distant challenge, something difficult, a little scary and likely rewarding, but so far away that it wasn’t threatening. Like signing up for a marathon six months in the future– you’ll get in shape in time, don’t worry. We applied for visas online, bought a cheap flight to a place we’d never heard of and said goodbyes. We’d made KL our home for almost a month and walking to the train station had many of the travel jitters that we experienced several months prior, when we embarked on our first chunk of travel: a night bus from New Mexico to California.

I felt those jitters, but pushed them down. After all, we were experienced travelers at that point. We’d been to several countries, navigated tiny villages and big cities alike, no problem. Well heeled and gung-ho, we knew what we were doing.

False.

The Dunning-Kruger effect is real and India delighted in proving how little we actually knew about travel. More on that below.

It was and it wasn’t our fault. Kuala Lumpur had made us fat housecats, confident that if we we’re just let outside, we could tear that alley cat apart. Or catch that pigeon taunting us on the ledge. Or just live forever outside, a feline Jeremiah Johnson conquering the rugged outdoors in this extended metaphor. In KL we had a little home: a room at the end of the hall in a loft style hostel. We had neighbors that we knew. We worked regular hours. We had friends we saw everyday, a coffee shop we frequented after work and we were even regulars at a local restaurant. Life was great and grand and easy. I whistled as I walked the bustling Chinatown streets, feeling just at home sashaying past camera toting tourists outside of temples as I would  walking past crowds in downtown Albuquerque. More so, actually– I never felt unsafe in KL, which is not something I can say for the Burque and, unless you’re half brother is a strangely quaffed dictator, it seems extremely unlikely you’re going to get hurt/abducted/harrassed/mugged or killed in Malaysia. The place is safe and we felt safe, which made us comfortable, which made us think we had this whole travel thing licked. Travellers extraordinaire, glamorously jetsetting on a shoestring budget and hopping from country to country with the greatest of ease.

Enter Tiruchirappalli, India. And enter hard earned travel lesson #1, which is, tickets are cheap for many reasons. Before you buy, make sure you know your ticket is cheap.

The tickets to Trichy were cheap for the wrong reasons, but we didn’t know that yet. We bought them without much fanfare or research, the same method we used to get to Malaysia (another previously unplanned stop) and that worked out great. Before making that decision we toyed with the idea of returning to Cambodia, but it felt too much like moving back in with your parents, retreating to the known and comfortable. We didn’t travel just to sit on a beach somewhere the whole time (only part of the time, we’re reasonable people), we traveled to see the world, to have some adventure, and to interact with cultures we weren’t familiar with. Travel is supposed to be uncomfortable and strange and a little scary; a voyage into the unknown.

In this instance the unknown began with a familiar trip on KL public transit, something we were smug about mastering during our time in Malaysia. It’s a modern public transit system with regular trains and buses and signs in English. In retrospect it shouldn’t have been a source of pride to not get lost in a place bedecked with signs pointing you the right way. After that (which we did navigate like locals, for what it’s worth) a standard flight with our old friend Air Asia, who always feeds you, even on flights less than an hour and is always on time. A few hours later we were  walking across the tarmac of the dust and smog filled Trichy airport. Trichy is located in the south of India and our plan was to start in the south and head north via long trains, traversing the whole country in our visa-allotted 30 days. This plan, made by fat cats sizing up the mangy alley cat through the safety of a plate of glass, drastically underestimated the task at hand and overestimated our ability to get it done.

Trichy was waiting, looming just outside the airport, waiting to give us our first taste of India, ready to remind us that fat house cats need to reevaluate their decisions and harden their resolve when they decide to leave the comforts of home and go outside.

Same Same but Different

17155330_10101400697124021_166080162702755590_nFewa Lake, Pokhara, Nepal

 

I’m sitting in a Pokhara kopitiam, sipping masala tea and looking out at the crisp, calm edge of Fewa Lake. Chinese and European backpackers, hippies, and Northface clad tourists pass by in flocks. Traffic slows as a Buddhist monk ambles across the street. As the morning settles and warms I alternate between getting some work done, reading Johnny Cash’s autobiography and attempting to write about the road we’ve traveled so far.

 

As with most of our travels, Nepal was not in my original travel plan. Funny thing is, at this point, I can’t even fully remember what my original travel plan was but I know for certain it never involved bargain shopping cashmere shawls in the dusty traveler markets of Kathmandu. Nevertheless, once you are where you are, it’s hard to imagine ever being anywhere else.

It also occurs to me that, if things had gone according to an earlier draft of the plan, we would still be in India. Welcome to life on the road where your guess is as good as mine.

As my time in Asia comes to a very bitter-sweet close I spend a lot of time trying to parse and process the different cultures I’ve walked through in the last five months. The hustling but polite inhabitants of metropolitan Bangkok and the cut throat tuk tuk drivers prowling Chiang Mai. The locals on a tiny Cambodian Island, hustling to get their businesses up and running. The multi-cultural mishmash of Kuala Lumpur where you eat at an Indian restaurant in Chinatown and sip coffee in the shadow of a famous Hindu gopuram while Mercedes roll by on their way to the mega-mall. The colorful, vibrant, and intimidating crush of India, burying you with the crowd, the smells, the unscrupulous autorickshaw drivers and the sheer size of the country. And now the quiet peace of the foothills of the Himalayas and a plate of delicious mo mo.

 

Even though we’ve spent about a month in each country, it seems we are moving at a terrible pace. Each country becomes familiar and a home, just in time to start over new. You’ve just finished making all the rookie mistakes and you’ve really got this thing figured out and then you start over with a new country, new set of rookie mistakes. I suspect this feeling would persist, even if we spent two or six months in each country before moving on. But this pattern, of uncomfortable novelty, cozy familiarity, back to uncomfortable novelty has given us a unique opportunity to have rich experiences with a variety of related but very distinct cultures and to compare what sets them apart and, just as importantly, what they have in common.

In Southeast Asia they have a saying that I have a growing appreciation for: “Same Same but Different.”

When I first encountered this cheeky slogan slapped across every piece of clothing on Khao San Road in Bangkok, I thought that this phrase was primarily a playful jab at the lazy tourists who showed up in Thailand, and claimed they had “traveled” SEA by getting wasted in the Phi Phi islands for 10 days. You’re doing the same thing as at home but against a different backdrop; Same people, same drinks, same stories, but this time on an island. Maybe it was just something that didn’t translate well but someone made a lot of shirts, and it somehow caught on. (Like some of the other head scratching slogan t-shirts we’ve seen on the road such as: “I May Not be Perfect but I am 100% Original,” which we saw maybe two dozen times a day in Thailand and Cambodia. There are dozens of strange english phrases plastered on t-shirts, most of which, like a strange dream, lack any sort of logic and slip from memory as soon as you see them.)But when I think back across our path through Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia, India and Nepal, this phrase has stuck with me.

“Same Same but Different”

A young bracelet tout in Cambodia tried to explain the phrase to us once in Sihanoukville. His name was Nic, he was 17 and aspired to become a tour guide. He was earnest and sassy. He took a fist full of my dangling curls and held them up to his face and made an expression that I can only describe as a “Diva pout”. We liked him immediately. Among his various brief explanations I remember he said, “Like Cambodia like Thailand. Same Same but Different.”

At the time I understood what he meant, that Thailand and Cambodia have a lot of shared culture but are very different countries.  But, sitting in this coffee shop, I can’t help but turn the slogan over again in my mind and extend that thought to all the countries we’ve visited.

Because, yes indeed, Thailand, like Cambodia, like Malaysia, like India and Nepal. Different countries (and different, certainly, from my home in the heart of New Mexico, USA) but, in all the best ways I can think of, the same.

All 5 countries have met us with the same outstanding kindness, generosity, and love to the point that anytime I think back to someone at home encouraging me,  “you’re so brave for traveling asia”, I find myself laughing. The people in Asia are the same as at home: They are good people who work hard and love their families. They’re hustling, working jobs, getting married, buying, selling, learning and occasionally helping lost foreigners. Are there bad apples in the bunch? People who would take advantage of your disorientation? Sure, Same-Same as at home.

We have had our share of unpleasant encounters, scams, and rip-offs, but our experience in this part of the world has been overwhelmingly positive. We’ve found kindness every place we’ve been, from people who are helping us simply because they’re decent people and we’re dumb foreigners who may wander into traffic if left to our own devices. The examples of kindness are numerous and occur frequently:  a Thai food cart owner kindly offering us some free thai sweets after we showed up too late in the morning to get any food our third day on the road; a Cambodian landlord teaching me broken bits of power tool related Khmer in his downtime; an Indian railway worker taking us under her wing because we were so clearly stuck and lost and scared; a former monk showing us his favorite soup spot in the city and talking with us for hours about Thai culture and surfing; a middle aged man telling us yes, this is the right train and then explaining how night trains work.

 

Good people and experiences exist in every part of the world.

 

I genuinely feel that traveling in Asia and SEA does not HAVE to be terrifying and if, like me, you have ever desired to see the sunrise over Angkor Wat, have an impromptu ukulele jam session with an Indian entrepreneur or talk politics with a Canadian on a rooftop in Malaysia over the beautifully haunting evening call to prayer, I hope you don’t let fear of these seemingly wildly foreign cultures and places hold you back. Yes, they are different from your home but, in the way of kindness and compassion, I promise you, they are very much Same Same.

 

A Day in the Life of a Hostel Handyman

 

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Willi and Teague on the rooftop talkin’ about stuff’n thangs

This post is a continuation and conclusion of a two part series on our daily lives while volunteering at a hostel in Kuala Lumpur. For the proper introduction please go back and read Sofia’s post.

 

You work the 10-3 shift and your day starts a little later.  You have trouble waking up. The room has a window, but faces out to the larger warehouse and there’s almost no light. You’re little disoriented: in this environment it could be anywhere between two to eleven am. You check your phone, see that you’ve got a few minutes and try to get the internet to work enough to read the news. It doesn’t and after turning your wifi off and then back on a few times, you give up. You brush your teeth and try not to make eye contact with the iguanas. At this point, hungover backpackers are starting to rise and you jockey for bathroom space. You think about taking a shower, but you don’t because in less than an hour you’re going to be covered in sweat.

You leave your room, careful to walk as quietly as possible on the worn and beautiful hardwood floors. The lobby is half full with lounging travelers, reading, facebooking, sleeping on the couches. You find your flip flops in the piles and stacks of shoes at the top of the stairs, step over the ever present sleeping cat and make your way outside. You fill up yesterday’s water bottle at the refill station on the street just outside. It looks like a perpetually wet cross between a vending machine and an ATM and you pay 20 sen for a liter and a half of water. You worry about the green mold growing on and around the machine but you’ve been drinking water from this machine for weeks now without keeling over. If it was going to kill you, it would have done it by now.

You make the quick walk over. The dead rat in the alley you saw last night is gone. You don’t know if it was taken by cleaners or a street cat. You won’t see either at this hectic morning hour. The city bustles in full swing and you take a calculated risk darting across the street between buses, land rovers and scooters. You turn a corner at the Chinese music shop, where they’re just setting up the ancient, wood paneled speaker that’s going to blast Chinese pop music all day, and you head towards work. In the narrow alley Hindi men are directing drivers on where to park and cars zip by. It’s not a problem because at this point you’re used to cars passing with inches of you. You used to worry about getting hit by cars, now you worry about getting hit by their mirrors. You frog hop along the side of the alley on the concrete drainage system, careful not to misstep. In a tropical city (and most of asia) streets are lined with two meter deep concrete moats, partially covered in broken and decaying concrete. Water, sewage and waste is flowing in the moat and a misstep would probably result in a broken leg and a terrible infection. Raw concrete, rusted rebar and uneven ledges make up your sidewalk, but at this point you only need to devote a small part of your attention to avoid getting nailed by a passing minivan or ending up waste deep in a concrete hole. To your left the wet market is in full swing. Entire pigs are being disassembled for parts like a junkyard car, right next to small soup restaurants, full of Chinese tourists in town for the new year. You’ll pick up extra eggs from the wet market,  where a little old lady a few stalls down sells them for 4.50 RM for ten. She doesn’t speak any English, you don’t speak any Chinese, but pointing, gestures and finger counting get the job done just as quick as a conversation would. You make it the hostel, give a quick wave to Moon Piou, the man who owns the camera shop on the ground floor. He’s a sixth degree black belt and when you buy a camera from him he’s going to insist on buying you dinner and you’re going to watch fifteen minutes of a bar prep course on criminal law in his shop, sit  in a hectic Chinese diner and listen as he waxes poetic on Malay politics, Singapore and asks shrewd questions about the distinction between assault and battery. But that’s later, after you shift and so for now you ring the bell to be let into work.

If it’s a busy day, Willi will be waiting with a project. If it’s not you head upstairs, snag a cheese toastie and a coffee and wait, helping out with breakfast but mostly staying out of the way. Willi will come find you and give you a handyman task (The result of saying you have construction experience on your resume) and then it’s off to the races.

All hostels suffer from a trifecta of problems: poor initial construction, lack of upkeep and haphazard repairs. Your job is to try to remedy these issues with minimal materials, tools and know how, resulting in an improvised, jazzy construction style. The tasks are varied; replacing tile, trying and failing to figure out an electrical problem, rehanging doors, hanging trash bins on tiled concrete walls. The tools you have vary wildly from hostel to hostel in terms of availability and quality, but you make do. You might spend a morning hand drilling a single hole in a metal electrical box, or breaking up four square feet of concrete with an old crowbar. You mix concrete by hand, straighten rusty old nails because you don’t have any extra, and McGyver your way through anything you don’t have or know. The work fluctuates on the availability of rooms to work on; as a result you spend some days breaking concrete until you’ve got too many blisters to button your pants and other days you have lunch beers with Willi and the other workers. Somedays, both.

All work is done without safety equipment. You’re wearing shorts and a tank top and using power tools– at one point this bothered you, but now you use it to your advantage. Your flip-flops have gone from footwear to essential tools of the trade and you use them as doorstops, kneepads and, in conjunction with a hammer, as a replacement for a rubber mallet. When pulling up old tiles you perfect the technique of closing your eyes and looking away instead of wearing safety glasses as shards of broken tile go flying. This is par for the course, and honestly tamer than other work experiences. While worrying about using an electric drill with a sketchy power chord in a bathroom with standing water on the floor, you recall the time you and a debilitatingly stoned turkish DJ cut hardwood with a circular saw to make shelves on a Cambodian island. You were wearing less then, and he was wearing only a dingy pair of swim trunks and yellow crocs. You made it out of that okay, this will be fine. You squeegee as much water into the drain as you can, build an island out of floor mats, plastic bags and your flip flops and get to work. You make it through that just fine too.

Occasionally, there’s no viable McGyver option and you have to make a trip to the Chinatown hardware store, crammed into a colonial building in the middle of the market. You edge your way past the rows of fake watches and tank-tops and make it into the store, where a single narrow walkway along the long wooden counter has been kept clear. The rest of the building is floor to ceiling shelving crammed with tools, hardware and supplies. Used to the wide, suburban avenues of a Home Depot or a Lowes, you’re not sure how to peruse the goods. You’re lucky Willi is with you and he engages in a rapid fire conversation in Chinese with the owner. You use hand signals and the owner’s hardware based english vocabulary to make sure you’re buying the right items. You have a different opinion on the best way to fix a poorly hung door, but are unable to convince the store owner that his proposed solution might not work with the available shared vocabulary. The owner barks orders to one of the three or four guys standing idly around the shop. The guy scales the shelves and with well practiced efficiency delivers the items you need to the bar. On the way back to the Hostel, Willi buys you a soy milk drink from a corner stand. You’ve been working for several hours by now, are sweaty and tired and it’s the best thing you’ve ever tasted.

Sometimes you work well past your shift; when there are no guests you can get work done, so you make hay while the sun is shining. Other days, every room is full and you putter about. You take stock of your tools: two screw drivers, a drill, a small cardboard box of rusted nails, screws, a rivet gun, tiny hand saws, one extension cord, a crowbar, a hodgepodge collection of drill bits, hinges, a hammer and your own determination to get things done. You repurpose old hardware, stretch material as far as you can and build your own tools. You’ll wake up unbelievably sore from hand drilling and concrete busting, but you got the hole drilled and the tile replaced. You’re thankful for the tools you do have; other places have been worse and here you’ve got enough available that you can tackle most tasks that come your way. Sometimes you have every tool you need to properly do a job and you realize how lucky you’ve got it at home.

During your shift you also engage in a lot of non-handyman duties. When you first arrive, you help cook breakfast if things are busy. This means cutting fruit, making cheese toasties and plating. You do the dishes, clean up, answer questions on how to get to various temples. From eleven to one, depending on the day, you help clean rooms, which means replacing and washing all bedding, scrubbing the bathroom, sweeping and mopping. You help check reservations, get guests checked in and give out the wifi password. If the doorbell rings, unless you know Willi or another worker is around, you drop your tools and see who’s at the door.
By the end of your shift you’re usually filthy, sweat soaked and exhausted. If it’s raining outside (as it often is) you walk home slowly, letting the rain soak you. The street vendors are starting to set up shop– the rain doesn’t slow them down. You make it back to the hostel, take a shower as cold as you can make it, and realize you’re starving. It’s a five minute walk from the hostel to the best naan and noodles you ever had. But first you’ll probably wander back to the hostel, back to the rooftop, where your fellow workers and compatriots are gathering around a table drinking 3 for 10RM beers and swapping travel stories. Willi pops in and out– he’s always on call. On a quiet night he’ll be able to sit down and deliver dollops of travel philosophy and wisdom. You’ll discuss the ongoing projects, life on the road, life at home, what you’ve learned, where you’re going to next and when you’re going home. You realize that travel and road life very directly demonstrates a very basic truth about life: that you can’t go everywhere, that every decision made and path taken means you can’t take the other path. There are thousands of cities, tens of thousands of hostel rooftops, hundreds of thousands of travelers. But this is the city you are in now, this is the hostel rooftop you are on now, these are the people you are with now. And you love it all. You take a moment to appreciate that obvious fact. Then you realize it’s well after midnight, you’ve been sitting on this rooftop for six hours and you’ve got finish hanging those bins in the morning. 

A day in Chinatown from Sofia

Introduction

I have on my phone 782 pictures. Most of them are too mundane to post on the internet but too personal for me to delete. What follows is one of those snapshots. It is an example of a day in Kuala Lumpur where we didn’t leave Chinatown to seek national monuments, meet Jackie Chan, or get free drinks in a posh uptown skybar. It is simply a commonplace work day complete with a commute to and from work and while it may not be a day of great note in the grand scheme of travel adventure, it is very important to me.

Teague and I have written two post. Both cover more or less our daily lives dwelling in the Chinatown of Kuala Lumpur (or KL as any well learned local calls it). It is good to note when reading the two posts that Teague and I worked varying shifts during our month stay in the city. I generally worked 8 to 1 and Teague worked 10 to 3. The difference seems minute to the outside eye but the ever changing city of KL is in constant flux and we hope you will view each of the two posts from these varying perspective.

START

To be able to explain a day in KL to you, I have to properly explain our apartment and for that I will need your patience and imagination. In truth, calling it an apartment is generous but it was where we slept, showered, cooked breakfast and retreated after our shifts for almost a month. It is, at best, a large warehouse that shelters an apartment complex, complete with an open air courtyard. In that court yard there is a kitchen, 4 bathrooms, 3 sitting areas, 2 iguanas and one meditation space. Each room has a front door and a window that faces the warehouse hallway, where guests and backpackers tromp back and forth on the well worn hardwood floors.

 

The chances are good that your day begins much like it ended. Your Romanian neighbor, a sweet but hard woman, is yelling at someone on the phone. She told you once that she had her wallet stolen in Penang and later in the afternoon she will ask you if you have a paypal account. You say no, which is the truth, but are not entirely sure you would offer up your account even if you had one. She has been yelling at someone on the phone for hours at a time over the last week and you pity her but also are not sure what to make of it.

It is 7:15 and you make your way to the pallet board landing on the roof where you stretch, run through your favorite yoga flow and follow through with your daily meditation practice. There is a gong going off somewhere in the distance, as there is every morning, at the ancient Hindu temple down the street. The gong sounds for a half hour every morning starting at 7. Where it used to annoy you, foreign and nonsensical, you now appreciate it as a call to worship as you start your mediation.

At ten to 8 you brush your teeth at the sink that sits next to a large floor to ceiling cage in the courtyard. In the cage are two four foot long bright orange iguanas. You and they engage in your ritual morning staring contest. They don’t move. You wonder if they are plastic.

At 8 you make your way to the guesthouse that currently employs you. It is a two minute walk and you have learned to take the back alleys of Chinatown directly to work. The sky is cloudy and the streets are loud. The city woke up long before you did. As you pass out of your first alley you look down and notice a dead, bloated rat on the side of the road. He is soaked from last night’s rain and his eyes are already being devoured by ants swarming out of the sewer. You look up. There, across the street, is a brightly colored Hindu temple, still and beautiful and holy. You look down. Dead rat. Lookup. Beautiful temple. Your heart smiles because this is so perfectly Kuala Lumpur.

 

You get to work and relieve the night employee, Joe. He is a kind Malay-chinese man who works each night from 10 p.m to 8 a.m. He has mentioned to Teague that he also runs his own photography business during the day. A true hustler. He is always happy to see you. You take stock of the kitchen and then run to the adjacent wet market and 7/11 to purchase whatever breakfast necessities you are running low on. You know that this is technically a chore of your employment but you delight in it as you have now become a regular in these places and the grocers almost always have your items ready and waiting for you.

8:30 brings guest to the rooftop kitchen and dining area. These guest range from hung over backpackers who drink the terrible instant coffee that is free to whole Swedish family units who immediately pull out a map and start grilling you about how to get to the Batu Caves, the Botanical garden, or the Bukit Bintang mall. By this time you have been to all of these places and are happy go into too much detail about the trains, free buses and walking routes they can take.

At some point your employer has arisen and come to the roof to check on you. His name is Willi and he is wonderful. As you cut fruit and make eggs he does his morning stretches in the kitchen and, if it is raining outside as it almost always is at this time in the morning, sings “Have You Ever Seen the Rain” to you . Sometimes Willi talks to you about politics and you love this. You have learned he has a fascination with the Illuminati in America and, as you make cheese toasties and cut papaya for well traveled guests, the two of you exchange information and insight. Eventually he will disappear back downstairs and, even though he is a just a staircase away, you will miss him and his singing in your kitchen.

By 1 p.m it has stopped raining, everyone is well fed, rooms have fresh sheets and clean floors, guests are checked in,  bookings are updated, kitchen has been thoroughly cleaned, dishes put away  and you are shockingly tired. You hang the last bits of clean white laundry over the rooftop clothes lines (drying machines are largely non-existent in South East Asia where even the winter feels like summer). Your shift is done.

You start your walk back to your apartment around 2 p.m.

The sun is high and whatever evidence there was of rain is now mostly gone. Make no mistake, Kuala Lumpur is hot.

You turn down your first ally and walk by a Chinese record shop (this is Chinatown after all), blasting the most jingle-encrusted pop music in a language you can’t understand. It is the kind of kitschy, easily digestible music that puts Justin Bieber to shame. The store has a large, wood paneled speaker that it sets up on the street that blares so loudly you can’t hear your thoughts as you walk by. Like most things, this used to exasperate you but now you adore this ridiculous smorgasbord of sounds and voices. You bop your head in approval as you pass out of the ally.

Once you are home you strip down for a shower. Now I have to describe to you bathrooms in South East Asia and, again, I will need your imagination. Unless you are staying at a place that caters to western comfort, shower stalls do not exist in SEA. What you have is a room with a toilet, a trashcan and a shower hose. The bathroom floor is always wet. Occasionally, at really budget accommodations, we have seen the shower hoses placed directly above the toilet but in our bathroom the hose is positioned in front of the shower. If you wanted to look at this with a silver-lining mindset, you now have a seat in your shower. There is rarely hot water but you’re okay with that because all you want at this point in the day is to cool down.

After you shower, nap, read (currently No Country For Old Men) or catch up on US headlines for a few hours, you go back to the guesthouse roof where you work because the sun may be setting and you don’t want to miss the light.

 

As you sit on the roof, at your usual table, you look out over the city. Kuala Lumpur is an incredibly modern jungle: there is an area outside of Chinatown called Bukit Bintang where there is a mall complex that is literally called “The Rise Of Opulence” and it is filled with high end movie theaters and Prada retailers. The juxtaposition between the crumbling colonial buildings that house the dirty alleys of Chinatown and the ultra modern air conditioned luxury of high rise malls is startling.The glittering skyline covered with ground to sky windows reflects the evening light in a way that fills your heart with an indescribable gratitude.

I am not a writer, but I wish I was so that I could find the perfect combination of words to allow you to feel how beautiful the evening sun is in Kuala Lumpur. The red and purple light reflects off the buildings just as the evening call to prayer starts at the national mosque. Reader, I highly suggest you google these songs and listen to their other worldly sounds. These prayer songs are so beautiful and foreign and the reason you came traveling.

The resplendent city dances with the unearthly melody as cars whiz by and somewhere down on the streets a rat is taking his final breath; off to join his friend in the great rat heaven in the sky.

Epilogue

After the sunset and some rooftop beers with you friends (Teague, who you all know by now, Kaite, a sassy Canadian with a fantastic laugh, Kim, a stunningly beautiful British traveler, and Willi) you walk back to your apartment to turn in for the night. You feel safe as you make your ways through the alleys and streets in a way you don’t at home.

You stand in the courtyard brushing your teeth. The iguanas have moved from the lower branch of their cage to the floor. They are not plastic.

As you spit for the last time into the sink you are approached by a rambunctious Australian kid, Adam, who is engaging in a drunken courtyard debate with a young american girl about world politics. You thought you were going to bed early but you don’t put your head on the pillow until 1 a.m

Cambodia, Cambodia!

INTRODUCTION  AND CAVEATS

What follows is a rambling overview of three things that have left a strong impression on me while travelling in Cambodia. Our experience barely dips into what the country has to offer and my attempts to summarize what we’ve seen and done covers only a small portion of the adventures we’ve had. You’re getting a blurry view of a few dim stars in a tiny corner of a moonless night sky, but it’s the best I can do, the equivalent of the first human emerging from his cave into the first truly magnificent summer night, looking up at the star studded beauty and infinite velvet depth of the milky way and then returning to his cave to report his to those still inside with pointing and grunts. Stars, good! Stars bright! With those disclaimers, here’s my attempt to give our time in Cambodia the broad stroke treatment.

Before travelling to Cambodia my knowledge of the country was embarrassingly limited. I knew they suffered heavy casualties during (but not in) the Vietnam war, that they were the most land mined country in history and that there’d been a horrific genocide in the 70’s. None of these depressing bits of information (which are all true) give any indication whether Cambodia would be an interesting or even hospitable place to travel. We’ve now spent a month in the country and the substantial gaps in my knowledge have been (slightly) filled.  I can cheerfully report back that Cambodia is a delightful country, with beautiful natural attractions, impressive food and friendly people.

SAFETY AND CAMBODIA

Cambodia has been a very safe place to travel. With the exception of the border crossing, we’ve encountered very few scams and never had a concern for personal safety. Mind you, we always practice basic safety precautions and try to avoid risky situations, but overall Cambodians seem completely honest and upfront about money. As a result a lot of the concerns that dominated my mindset when we first started have been assuaged and I have no problem relaxing and enjoying myself. We have enjoyed tremendous hospitality and honesty at the hands of Cambodia hosts with the exception of one experience:

CROSSING INTO NO-MAN’S LAND

Our first and only significant scam experience was at the Cambodian border crossing. We crossed the border via a bus from Bangkok, a process that involves getting off the bus, getting through the Thai border exit office, through the Cambodian visa office (where we paid our first bribes) and then through the Cambodian border. Once you are ‘stamped out’ of Thailand, you’re in no man’s land where you aren’t legally in either country. This grey area of immigration between two countries occurs on a post-apocalyptic strip of dirt road, half finished construction projects and a host of beggars and scam artists. Women with unconscious and naked children beg on either side of the dirt path leading out of the Thai office. They often drug the children to make them appear ill so they can use them to beg. Men without uniforms (or with partial uniforms) will try to beckon you over, tell you something is wrong with your paperwork, fill out new paperwork for you and try to charge you outrageous sums of money. Some will demand to see your passport and then extort you to get it back. These scams and dangers are all easily avoided by a few Google searches and common sense, but I saw more than one group of travellers follow a man into an alley simply because he’d waved them down. Several tried to stand in front of me, making hand gestures indicating they needed to see my paperwork. If I’d cooperated at best I’d be out twenty dollars and at worst I’d be stuck between countries without a passport, with the description of the scam artist as the hopelessly unspecific “Thai or Cambodian man with a hat and an old army uniform shirt”. Instead I politely said no and stepped around them. They give up right away because the next bus is arriving any minute, with the promise of unprepared tourists and easy money.

Once we ran the gauntlet of scam artists and con men inhabiting the broken concrete and dirt no man’s land, we were herded into the Cambodian visa office, which is a large decrepit building with a single teller style window. Seven or eight paunchy men in newer military uniforms milled around the counter, taking passports, visa paperwork, and most importantly, the 100 baht “fee” that was our first bribe. Once we made it out of the Visa office, it was across another dirt street post-apocalyptic border town stretch, this time populated with extremely aggressive child beggars. (quick aside, it’s never a good idea to give to child beggars. By paying them you are not feeding hungry children, you are continuing to enable a system that encourages children to drop out of school to beg. Additionally, child beggars are often working for larger, shady organisations that take advantage of them). Once we made it through that heart wrenching crucible, we stood in line, got our visas stamped and made it back on the bus and were ready to go. It was a shocking experience, but the unsafe portions were entirely avoidable by a half savvy traveler.

CAMBODIA OTHERWISE

Since this border crossing, we’ve had no bad experiences and I’ve never felt concerned for our safety. This general feeling of safety is daily encouraged by the decency, compassion and honesty of the Cambodian people. If you negotiate a price for a tuk tuk ride or an item, that’s what you pay. I’ve had Cambodians chase me down in the street to give me the change when I’ve miscounted my riel (Cambodian currency is 4000 riel to 1 USD with notes from 100-20,000 riel which all look more or less the same) and overpaid. Shops leave their wares outside on the street and seem to trust in the common decency that they won’t be stolen. Everyone leaves their shoes outside restaurants and shops and they’re always where you left them. Bicycles on kick stands are parked in the street without being locked to anything and helmets hang from scooter handles or tuk tuks all day without any fear of them being lost. Deliveries of goods are left on doorsteps for the owners who’ve stepped out for a few minutes. For a society with almost zero police or military presence after crossing the border, there is a general order and trust that seems absolutely impossible and foreign to an Albuquerquean.

This sense of safety and trust has allowed us to really relax and enjoy the country. You don’t worry that the person approaching you in the street is trying to scam you. You don’t worry that the guy walking behind you is an opportunistic pick pocket and I’ve never worried that our tuk tuk ride is going to end somewhere we don’t want to go. In Bangkok we spent several hours with an ex-monk who attributed the decency of the people to their Buddhist beliefs, specifically the  karmic idea that harm done to others will come back to them in a very real way. I don’t know enough to say one way or another with any authority, but it doesn’t seem to me that people are motivated to decency by fear of future punishment. Rather, they seem contented with what they have. They have a strong family structure and a sense of belonging in their world. They seem invested in their communities. They seem mindful and happier than most people I see everyday at home. This isn’t to say Cambodia doesn’t have problems; the entire host of third world problems afflict the country and we have a series of posts about our encounters on the poverty and suffering here. But in spite of all those problems the Cambodian people maintained a culture that brings out some of the best traits in humanity and I can’t help but think that if everyone at home could live like this for a little while, or at least see how these people live, we’d all be a little better off.

ANGKOR WAT

In addition to the delightful people, Cambodia sports some of the most impressive temples and ruins in the world. The largest and most important site is Angkor Wat, (it’s recognizable towers adorn the national flag and Angkor brand beer is to Cambodia what Coca Cola and Budweiser combined are to American culture) a giant temple complex outside Siem Reap. Watching the sun rise over giant, thousand year old temples, built with craggy sandstone by an ancient and largely unknown culture forces you to acknowledge that your worldview is small. Angkor Wat was built in the 12th century, around the same time as the Third crusade and just before Genghis Khan was born. It’s stood in the jungle every day since, largely unchanged by time, an ozymandian monument to the vast swaths of history and culture that I’ve only recently been exposed to. As you watch the sky slowly lighten while you stand in the darkness below the looming quincunx of black and craggy towers you realize you’re small and your time is short. Angkor Wat has been standing for centuries before I was born and will continue to stand long after I’m gone.

But it isn’t just the age of Angkor Wat that leaves the impression of staring down a dark well of unknown depth. It’s the sheer alienness of it to western eyes. The bizarre geometry and knuckle-like spires look vaguely menacing in the early morning darkness. The bas relief devatas, stare inscrutably from the interior walls, minor deities from a vanished culture that I don’t understand. Long halls are guarded by numerous headless buddhas and naga, worn smooth and broken by time. Intricate detail work preserves the faces and machinations of eastern gods whose histories and names I’ve never encountered. Bas relief murals almost seventy meters long and containing tens of thousands of hand carved figures recount the the battles and kings otherwise completely unknown to history. These kings and battles occupy that grey unknown between mythology and a destruction so complete only their greatest monuments remain, alien and inscrutable without the rosetta stone of any other contemporaneous accounts.  

Standing in the predawn mist you feel temporarily unmoored from the modern world. The curtain of time slips aside temporarily and for a brief moment you can see the ancient world of dark jungles, kings, bloody wars, now extinct societies, all under the silent watch of the ancient, looming spires of Angkor Wat. After my visit, I understand why Angkor Wat is on the Cambodian Flag, on t-shirts, paintings and beer cans. It hovers on the horizon of the Cambodian cultural consciousness and visitors can’t help but feel its weighty shadow.

In addition to Angkor Wat there are other iconic temple ruins in Cambodia. We visited several but three stand out in my mind: Angkor Thom, Ta Prohm, and the Baphuon. Each temple is awe inspiring in it’s own right and if they were not in the figurative and literal shadow of Angkor Wat, they would each deserve their own historic and national fame. However, their cumulative impact only strengthens the sense that you are wandering in an ancient and unknown world.

Angkor Thom is a magnificent pile of blackened sandstone, partially reclaimed by the jungle. Time and aggressive undergrowth have toppled large portions of the temple, but the main wat still stands six or so stories tall. Giant stone faces, eight feet tall and built of sandstone slabs the size of suitcases stare out at the thousands of tourists who scurry across the ruins like ants.

Ta Prohm, located a few kilometers away, is completely overrun by the sweeping roots of banyan trees. The temple, swathed in mists, is the mind’s eye version of ruins as first seen by western explorers. Dark, abandoned and mostly reclaimed by the jungle. Ta Prohm was featured in the first Tomb Raider film (as was Angkor Wat) for this very reason. So, if you need an excuse to rewatch that 2001 piece of cinema gold, you now have one. Just know that we’ve stood where Lara Croft falls through the floor in the jungle temple and that the village around Angkor Wat was built entirely for the movie.

The Baphuon is several kilometers from Angkor Wat and is reached by a hundred yard walkway raised about eight feet from the jungle floor. A tall, multistoried block pyramid design has helped the temple stand and visitors are allowed to climb to the top via a series of incredibly steep stairs. The back side of the temple features a seventy meter reclining buddha built emerging like a relief carving from the black limestone bricks. Each of these temples alone would be worth the trip to Cambodia but taking them all in at once leaves you in a punchdrunk awe, standing in the shadows of forgotten ancients, trying vainly to get a sense of perspective and scale.

FOOD FOOD FOOD!

One practical concern of travelling, especially budget travelling is food and accommodations and when you make the trip to a new country you can’t help but worry that the food will be unappetizing, expensive and gastroenteritis inducing. I can happily report that this concern is unnecessary in Cambodia. Khmer cuisine is delicious and inexpensive and their western style foods are often better than they are at home. Traditional Khmer food is typical asian dishes, but with a european flair due to French colonialism. This means lots of fresh baguettes and savory dishes. Khmer curries, noodle and rice based dishes,  fresh seafood and lok-lak (thin sliced beef pan seared and served with veggies and hot spices) are available at any restaurant. One afternoon we scootered to the small coastal town of Kep and worked our way through six kilos of fresh crab for eight people. We were able to see the crabs before they cooked them as they’d been caught that day and were in large buckets right at the edge of the market, overlooking the Chhak Kep Bay. Sofia ate whole fried fish on coconut rice for breakfast in Siem Reap and every curry dish was accompanied with fresh baguettes. I’ve become a soup aficionado, sampling the sumptuous and inexpensive soups available everywhere. In addition to traditional khmer food, almost every place offers western food and it is surprisingly good. We ate genuinely delicious mexican food in Sihanoukville and in Kampot. Their salsa was different but still spicy, their meat and beans were good and their chips were amazing. We’ve had great sushi and burgers. We ate six times at a wood fired pizzeria on the island of Koh Rong Samloem. In Kampot we had some of the best pork ribs and mash potatoes I’ve ever tasted. At first I felt I should try to stick to local foods, but when an expat who’s been living here for years recommends a pizza place, you’ve got to try it. You’re also going to eat in relative comfort because, unlike Thailand, Cambodia doesn’t have much in the way of streetfood. Instead there are countless small restaurants and every guesthouse has a full kitchen and, due to lack of any kind of alcohol regulation, a bar. So instead of eating at a food cart while sitting on a plastic chair literally in the road as trucks roar by (which I did and loved in Chinatown, Bangkok) you’re inside, usually with fans and tablecloths. Even though you’re in a resturant food is cheap, with meals starting around two dollars and getting up to eight or nine in fancier places. So, whether you want something from home or want to try something new and local, good food isn’t more than a short walk and a few dollars away.

BRIGHT STARS

In my mind Cambodia has gone from a stop on the way to bigger things to one of the highlights of travel so far. The amazing sights and experiences, the delicious and diverse food and Cambodian culture have opened up a world of experiences that I’m going to reflect on for a long time. I hope to take some of that home with us and let it inform how we choose to live our lives. That is the true value of travel and Cambodia has a lot of value to impart. So book a flight to Phnom Penh, buy a sleeper bus ticket to Sihanoukville, take a long tail boat to Koh Rong and back and ride a motorbike to the top of Bokor national forest. It’ll make you a better person and you’ll have a great time. The stars are good and they are bright and you’ve got to see them for yourself.