Monthly Archives: November 2019

Phi Phi Islands

I liked, but did not love Koh Phi Phi, where Judith and I spent three days relaxing and exploring neighboring islands. Paradise has been tarnished by thousands of tourists and the endless sound of motor boats.

23 November, 2019 – Arrive on Phi Phi

Another early start. We ate breakfast at our hotel and caught a 7:00 taxi to Rassada Pier in Phuket where we caught a speedboat to Koh Phi Phi. In hindsight we should have sat further back in the boat or taken the ferry; it was a rough ride. A longboat shuttled us to our hotel, Phi Phi Bayview, nicely placed a ten-minute walk from the crowded pier area and far enough to not be bothered by the party crowd. There are no cars on the island, though we saw a handful of pickup trucks and motorcycles.

After getting settled we walked to aptly named Long Beach. The rolling path is clearly marked, much of it on nice concrete blocks decorated with leaves, the rest a mixture of pavement, beach, and sandbags. We swam a bit, and read books on the beach. I got my first Thai massage, fully clothed without oil. It involves more pressure and twisting than in Cambodia, but equally satisfying. We have a lovely early dinner, broccoli with chicken and a berry slush.

24 November – longboat tour

 After a hearty Thai breakfast, included with our room, we took a longboat tour of neighboring islands. We paid extra to get a private boat with an English-speaking skipper who would tailor our tour for us. We got neither, but we did get an earlier start then the group tours and had a good time anyway. Our first and furthest stop was Bamboo Island (Ko Mai Phai). A fee is charged to go ashore, which is probably a good thing otherwise this idyllic spot would be covered with people. We spent an hour or so strolling the white sand beach and snorkeling a bit, then continued on to other spots, including Maya Bay. The shore of this tiny cove is now closed to allow it to recover from the hordes of people who descended on it after the movie, The Beach. At Monkey Beach, the monkeys clearly recognized water bottles; they grabbed them off shored kayaks, pulled of the tops, and guzzled down the contents. We were also entertained by a very active baby monkey, the first I’ve ever seen. We stopped at several places to snorkel, our favorite being near Viking Cave, where swifts’ nests are harvested for Chinese bird’s nest soup. I missed a section while applying sunblock and came back with two bright red crescents just below my bathing suit on the back of my legs.

It was early afternoon when we go back and I don’t recall doing much of anything for several hours. Later we walked into town, had an early dinner at a combo Indian/Thai restaurant, got a very nice Thai massage, and stopped for a cup of rolled ice cream, created in front of us on an icy slab.

25 November – Phi Phi Viewpoint

We started the day with a hike, taking a long circuitous route up the mountain, through the jungle, past an oversized mega resort under construction, complete with a manmade lake, to two of the three viewpoints. From there the shape of the island is clearly visible. Our route back  was shorter, down a few hundred steps and through the town. There are lots of happy looking cats on this island, with regular tails. They wander in and out of restaurants and shops, getting plenty of food.

After breakfast, Judith headed over to lounge at Long Beach, while I lounged in our nice hotel room overlooking the bay and finished my Angkor Wat blog post, a strikingly different location. When I joined her at Long Beach, we had another massage and early dinner.

26 November – goodbye Phi Phi

I didn’t get back to sleep after the 5:00 a.m. call to prayers; the singing sounded nice. Thailand may be primarily Buddhist, but this island has many Muslins. I took a short stroll on the beach, had one last yummy breakfast, then waded into the water to take the longboat shuttle to the pier where Judith and I parted. She’s heading to Koh Lanta, where she is meeting up with Jolene for a week of island hopping, while I’m headed to the mainland for a dive trip.


Angkor Wat

We spent four days in Siem Reap, primarily touring temples, and could have easily stayed longer. There are a couple hundred temples in the complex, but most tourists focus on three. We saw each of these twice and several others. Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world, was built in the early 12th century and originally dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu. Later kings converted it to Buddhism and vice versa. Carvings depict battles, mainly hand-to-hand combat, between the Khmers and their enemies. The Bayon Temple, within Angkor Thom, is covered with smiling faces.  It was built in the late 12th or early 13th century by a Mahayana Buddhist king. He tried to make peace between the Hindus and Buddhists by incorporating symbols from both religions, however after his death Hindus removed most of the Buddha images. There is no official state religion today, guaranteeing religions freedom, but the king is required to be a Theravada Buddhist and most Thai follow this religion. When rediscovered in the late 1800’s all of the temples were covered with vegetation and organic debris. Much has been cleared away, and temples partially restored, except at Ta Prohm, a.k.a. the Tomb Raider temple, which is overgrown with trees.

19, November, 2019 – a floating village

We used the Grab App to get a taxi to the airport in Phnom Penh for half what it cost when arrived. Our 45-minute flight to Siem Reap was uneventful until Judith realized she was missing her new cell phone. After much angst, Find-My-Phone pinpointed it to the restaurant at which we had breakfast. Kind staff at the airport retrieved it and arranged to have it flown to Siem Reap where we picked it up then next day.

A tuk tuk driver took us to our hotel, oddly named and perfectly located Uncle Sam Villa. It’s a short walk to the shops and restaurants on Pub Street, but just out of range of the noisy bar scene. I immediately liked the feel of being in a smaller town. We met Jodie, a tour guide we’ve travelled with before and were introduced to Vanna, a tuk tuk driver she uses regularly. We spent much of several days being shuttled around by this very pleasant young man whose English is quite good.

We checked in and headed out for our first adventure through the countryside, stopping to buy our Angkor Wat passes, and visited a couple small temples and Vanna’s village before taking a long dusty drive to Kombong Phluk. This floating village is built on tall pillars to accommodate the rise and fall of the river. Some people live on houseboats tethered to trees. Traveling by riverboat we could see people repairing nets and catching fish. When we got close to the Tonlé Sap Lake, we transferred to a small pole boat for a magical ride through the Mangrove trees as the sun was setting.

We got back after dark and walked over to Pub Street for a light meal. Once again, our lights were out by 9:00.

20, November – Angkor Wat

Vanna met us out front at 5:00 a.m. and took us to Angkor Wat. There we joined hundreds of people waiting to watch the sunrise. I watched from outside overlooking the moat while Judith went inside the temple walls. While I’ve seen pictures of more spectacular sunrises, this one was lovely. I then spent a couple hours wandering around the many buildings, up and down stairs, exploring what must have been stunningly beautiful before the carving and colors were removed or weathered away. I ran into Judith just as I ready to leave, which is fortunate since our local sim cards have failed us. While we get bars indicating service coverage and can access the internet, phone calls and texts rarely work.

Our next stop was Bayon Temple where Vanna took dozens of pictures of us amongst the smiling faces. There were nice reliefs here too, depicting historical events and scenes from the everyday life of the Angkorian Khmer. Ta Prohm was the smallest of the three, but interesting to see tree roots everywhere. We treated Vanna to a late lunch, including two popular Cambodian dishes, fish amok and beef lok lak, I like the former more than the later and it was much tastier than the one we tried in Phnom Penh.

Vanna was ready to keep on going, but we were wiped out so we had him return us to our hotel in the mid-afternoon. We rested a bit, then headed out for our almost daily massage. It was nice until the construction sounds that started up half way through. Judith’s friend Jolene joined us for dinner at a restaurant across the river that Judith found online. They tried adventuresome dishes such as chicken with red ants and roast honeycomb. I didn’t care for any of the food. On the way back, Jolene and I took a short detour to photograph the colorful lights along the river. By the time I got back to the hotel, Judith’s eyes were closed and the lights off.

21, November – cycling through temples

Yikes, my earliest wake up yet, just as I’m finally ready to sleep in a bit. We got picked 4:40 for a bicycle tour to the same temples we saw yesterday. There were only two other people in our group, men from America each traveling alone. We started with sunrise at Angkor Wat. This time I went into the temple hoping to get a picture from the lily pond inside, but with a smattering of clouds it wasn’t colorful. We were grateful for the cloud cover later as it kept the temperature down a bit. We were taken by van to a tent structure in the jungle where we had a hot breakfast before mounting our bicycles and heading out along a dirt path. It was narrow at times, forcing me to focus on the ground and confirming that I’m not cut out for mountain biking. We followed a path along one of the Angkor Wat moats, no longer filled with alligators, through rice fields and a village, before reaching Wat Thom with its arched entryways. We road on top of the wall from the south to the west entrance, then headed into the center of what was once a city to the Bayon temple. I gratefully wiped the sweat off my face with the small wet towels provided and took a quick walk through and around the temple. From there it was a short bicycle ride along roads to a restaurant where we were served tasty Cambodian food.

If Vanna had been available the next morning, I would have loved to do nothing in the afternoon. Instead we showered and got picked up at 3:00 to visit a few smaller temples in the northern part of the complex. Presh Khan was very long and interesting except for the loud high-pitched insects; at first, I thought I was hearing a siren in the jungle. Neak Poan was small, but the view from the boardwalk made the stop worthwhile. We watched the sunset from on top of another temple then headed back to town, stopping briefly at silver and silk stores on the way. I bought a scarf.

We had our worst massage yet, followed by a short foot massage at a different place. My masseuse there was cute, friendly and chatty. She bicycles an hour each way and works six days a week. (Legal working hours here are 8 hours per day, 48 hours a week. Employees can work up to 6 days per week). We ate dinner at the Red Tomato and surprise, surprise, were asleep by 9:00.

22, November – Farewell Cambodia

 Ahh, I slept past 6:00. I then spent hours puttering in our room. I finally had a chance to post my Phnom Penh blog entry, a challenge given the slow internet and technical glitches with Word Press. Judith headed back to the Bayon temple with Jolene. I had a late breakfast, took a short walk, discovering cages of birds along the river, and met her at the Lemongrass spa for our best Khmer massage yet, this time with lemongrass oil. Vanna met us at our hotel and took us to the airport, where we hugged him goodbye. We flew to Bangkok, then to Phuket, reaching our hotel at 23:00, late for us.

Phnom Penh

I’ve started my Southeast Asia adventure in Cambodia. Judith, who I met four years ago on a trip to Cuba, will be traveling with me about half the time. We spent our first three days in the capital city, exploring a few sites and adjusting to the time change. It’s warm, humid, and smoggy here.

15, November, 2019 – a long travel day

I got a ride to the airport at 9 pm on the 14th, arriving early for our just-after-midnight takeoff. Our first flight, to Taipei, took almost 14 hours. I watched two movies and one documentary, and slept for a few hours here and there. The seats don’t tilt much, so when dozing off it’s easy to flop forward or onto a neighbor. We easily found our next departure gate, then sat on the runway for almost an hour. By the time we arrived in Phnom Penh, it was almost noon the next day.

16, November – an afternoon stroll 

It didn’t take long to get our visas and go through customs. We also got local sim cards for our old phones and a few Cambodia Riel from the ATM, which turned out not to be necessary since dollars are readily accepted everywhere (4000 riel = $1). Our taxi driver helped us find our riverside Airbnb sandwiched between a sports shirt store and a massage shop in what might be a red-light district. Door-to-door it took 24 hours to get here. Though spacious, our apartment is long and narrow and we quickly abandoned the bedroom furthest from the window since it smelled musty. Judith slept in the front room which on some nights was quite noisy with what appeared to be drunken revealers.

After settling in, we visited Wat Phnom, a Buddhist temple built in 1372. At 27 meters (88.5 ft), it is the tallest religious structure in the city. Surrounded by a small park it felt like a mini-oasis after our walk over, darting in between cars, tuk tuks, and motorcycles to cross streets. Though not as intense as in India or Nepal, drivers have the same disregard for traffic lanes and the very few signals that exist. 

We spent a couple hours in comfy chairs at the Elephant Bar, a throwback to colonial times. While getting refreshed by expensive beverages and a yummy pad thai, we tried one last time to reach AirAsia and change an upcoming flights. Without notice they cancelled the one we had booked and moved us to the next day. We finally gave up, bought another ticket, rebooked two hotel rooms, and sent emails requesting a refund for the flight we won’t be taking.

The sun was setting as we walked back to our lodging. We visited the nearby night market where I purchased my first souvenir, a pair of cotton pants festooned with elephants, a popular decorative theme here. To help us recover from our sardine-packed plane ride, we treated ourselves to a full-body massage, only $11. We felt so good afterwards that we walked around the corner and had an hour of reflexology.

17, November – Royal Palace

After all that relaxation, I slept until 4:00 am, waking only two hours earlier than usual, not bad for the first day in a new time zone. When Judith arose, we headed to the Royal Palace, discovering Wat Ounalom on our way. This Buddhist temple compound was deserted except for monks heading to prayer. It felt peaceful and spiritual in the early morning quiet. The Royal Palace wasn’t open when we arrived, so we ate breakfast before entering the compound. From our guide we learned that the yellow color of the buildings represents Buddhism, the official religion of Cambodia, and the white Hindu, one of the earlier religions; most Cambodians now practice a melding of both. A flying blue flag let us know that King Norodom Sihamoni was in residence. This symbolic figurehead is elected for life from members of royal bloodlines. We visited the National Museum, a collection of decaying artifacts from antiquity housed in a red building inspired by Khmer temple architecture. Throughout the day we saw several small cats, many with short stubby tails, apparently a common genetic occurrence in Cambodia.

We wandered through upscale shops on 240 Street (Oknha Chhun), most of the cute cotton clothing was too small for me to be tempted. We continued through a more modern part of town, with bigger streets, and yet more vehicles, to Eleven One Kitchen, where we had a delicious chicken and broccoli salad. We took a tuk tuk back to our lodging, puttered a bit, then got another massage. Afterwards, we wandered around looking for, and not finding, groceries, though we came across a street market filled with good looking produce and dead animals covered with flies. We stopped at one of the dozens of bars in our neighborhood and I enjoyed a glass of wine while watching the flow of humanity. It already feels as if I’ve been gone for a week as my everyday world recedes and I’m immersed in new experiences. We had time to shower, with a little hot water, then walked over to Romdeng, a recommended restaurant, not as yummy as our lunch. Most of the tuk tuks here are carts pulled by a motorcycle. We took one back, letting our driver figure out to navigate the crazy traffic in the dark. 

18, November – a painful history­

We found a tuk tuk driver who took us to several places throughout the morning. First stop, after a refreshing cup of chai tea, was the Russian market – lots of stalls selling clothing, food, and household goods. We picked up a couple souvenirs then stopped at the Thai embassy to clarify what I’ll need to do since our flight change to that country will cause me to overstay my 30-day visa in that country. Ahh, the joys of international travel. I’ll only have to pay a one-day penalty upon exit.

After much hesitation, we visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, the former high school which became Security Prison 21 (S-21) in 1976 under the Khmer Rouge. During their five-year regime, millions of people were tortured, executed, and starved, about 25% of the population. I couldn’t stay inside the buildings for long, but sat on benches outside listening to audio stories told by survivors, my eyes filling with tears. It’s hard to contemplate how much post-conflict PTSD this country has suffered.

To help clear our bodies from that experience, we treated ourselves to a three-hour spa treatment. Every cell in my body was content and I had no desire to move when it was over. Judith headed to a dance class while I took a sweaty walk back to our lodging to download and sort pictures. We reconvened for dinner followed by a dance show. Ninety percent of artists died during the Khmer Rouge régime and surviving dancers have worked to train youth in Cambodian arts. I appreciated the traditional dances more after Judith’s brief explanation of the movements, especially the hand gestures with curved fingers. Though not far from our lodging, we took a tuk tuk back and were both sound asleep before 9:00.