Khmer BBQ in Siem Reap

Image of Cambodian Crocodile Farm

A last-minute stop on our jouney, Siem Reap and Angkor Wat impressed me as a tourism destination that really has its act together. Cambodia is a very poor country whose people too recently suffered brutal violence and torture by the Khmer Rouge.

In light of this, it seemed almost disrespectful to want to have a good time there and enjoy the Khmer culture and ruins. But one thing I believe is that tourism can lift a country up as well as give its people international visibility. Recent floods in Thailand were all over the news in the U.S. because so many people vacation there.

With this in mind, Eric and I headed out on our daily food hunt to “Pub Street.” Pub Street was obviously set up just for tourists, but doesn’t feel like a tourist ghetto in the same way as Khao San Road in Bangkok. Several friendly looking places offered “Khmer BBQ” so we decided to try it.

We ordered the BBQ and a flurry of activity commenced. A waiter brought a giant silver vessel to the table that looked a lot like a hubcap. The center had several perforated tiers rising up over a small flame; the bottom was a deep ring.

Waiters came with several dishes and pointed: “Crocodile … snake … beef … frog’s legs.” A few dishes of vegetables and eggs were also set out. Our waiter then began to build a soup in the ring with vegetables, hot water, a lightly beaten egg and frog’s legs. Next, the meats — all cut into thin strips about two inches long — were stuck onto the tiers.

The waiter left us to watch our meat sizzle. It quickly set in that we had no idea the safe cooking time for crocodile over sterno. I poked at the pieces and turned them: not done. The waiter came to our rescue pulling frog’s legs out of the soup and throwing them on the grill, then ladling the soup and pulling off some snake.

I have a feeling this setup is idiot-proof. I just kept peeling meats off the cooker and chewing them down. Everything was cooked perfectly. Frog’s legs were delicious. Crocodile had a nice flavor. Snake was very chewy and not the favorite. The egg-flower-frog soup was slightly sweet and delicious. We washed it down with some Angkor beers.

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Just a Bhat Bus from Big World

According to other travellers, there was nothing to like about Pattaya, Thailand. I told Eric we needed to go there as an approach to the Cambodia border and Angkor Wat. Really, it was because I read it had a Ripley’s Believe It or Not museum and a “miniature world.” The mention of casinos didn’t hurt either.

Pattaya can be a rough town for a girl like me.

Getting there wasn’t much fun. We had a lot of trouble finding the right bus station in Bangkok, despite its being clearly marked and directly across from a Metro exit that we descended … I guess we just like wandering the sweltering streets of Bangkok.

On our belated arrival in Pattaya, we caught a “songathew,” or bhat bus to the hotel. These are little mini trucks where you crowd into the back with 10 other people and then jump out where you want and toss the driver a few baht. I thought they were a great alternative to tuk-tuks because there’s no explaining to the driver where you want to go; the baht buses just go up and down one road.

Our hotel on the famous Walking Street was a real dive. The owner had a parrot with several perches around the reception area. He didn’t speak any English — the parrot, of course. Our room had a window with a stunning view of a concrete wall about 4 inches from the glass.

Pattaya City neon sign

The Ripley’s musuem was all I had hoped. Everything in it was collected by Ripley on his travels in the early 20th century — much of which matched things Eric and I had recently seen. Of course, I’m extremely jealous that Ripley was able to purchase a shrunken head in Ecuador and I could only view them in a museum in Cuenca. He also had an etching of the Seattle Skyline on the head of a pin which, when viewed under a microscope, made me a bit homesick. Ripley himself, as a life-sized hologram who spins a globe on his desk, introduces the museum. Eric and I watched it over and over in wonder.

We got lost again trying to find Mini Siam, the miniature world. We would have given up if not for two things which reinvigorated me: 1) We happened upon a store with ample shade and cold fizzy drinks, and 2) A drag queen mounting the back of a motorcyle across the street threw me a kiss. Minutes later, Mini Siam appeared from out of nowhere. Eric and I slipped in (after a rare lunch at McDonald’s) and were soon wandering the wonders of the world.

Why travel the world when you can see all its wonders here?

A bhat bus back to Pattaya town and the scene was heating up. Blaring rock bands competed with hip-hop DJsin every other bar on Walking Street. We listened to a band do a few pretty good ACDC covers and tried not to watch the balding fat men at every table canoodle tiny Thai women.

Over the music, we hear a short Russian guy yelling into his cellphone, “I don’t care. You just get it on plane and then you get here!” Pattaya really is a town of shrunken pleasures and pleasure-seekers. Where dirty deeds are done dirt cheap.

Chang Mai is Perfectly Pleasant

Image of Night Market in Chang Mai

Chang Mai is a difficult destination to write about, I’ve decided, because I was so comfortable there. Other places have obvious stories — like when a rat unwrapped my chocolate bar and dragged it across the room in Puerto Lopez (I blamed Eric for leaving it half finished on the floor in front of a hole in the wall). Or when we were dumped out of a boat in open ocean in Fiji for snorkelling. It’s easy to write about these times, and it’s really not fair to places like Chang Mai.

In January, the weather in Chang Mai was perfect. 72 degrees and sunny. Not hot and humid like Bangkok. We’re on a Stray Asia tour and just getting to know our fellow tourmates. A great couple — Amy and Todd — got to know us first. We hit it off right away because Todd, though being frim Adelaide Australia, had lived in Seattle in the Grunge years. So we found him to be a real kimdred spirit. On mentioning places like “Greenwood” or “Ballard” he would throw his head back and shout “Yes!!”

Stray booked us into a very nice place where we had to remove our shoes in the foyer. This was a first for us. I was perplexed and consumed with the thought, “but I NEED my shoes.” They also gave us a tennis racket with which to electrocute all the mosquitoes in our room ala “The Green Mile.” Like in the movie, most bugs didn’t die right away and lay stuck to the racket burning and twitching for an uncomfortably long time. And without even a last meal.

Day one — I want to rush out and see all the sites listed on a hand-drawn map of Chang Mai that I bought on Ko San Road in Bangkok. Unfortunately, I have just started taking doxyclycline and Eric and I have become what he calls “doxy vampires.” Four minutes in the sun — with SPF 50 and we begin to sizzle like Angel on Buffy the Vampire Slayer (season 3 when he tried to commit suicide by sunrise on Christmas Eve).

In addition to burning skin, I also have constant naseau. But we still decide to venture out and see a few wats. All are covered in gold and flowers and butterlies and are something out of a Persian dream. One temple is rigged with wires to its highest points and what I’m sure are New Year’s explosives on the wires. They’re set to come out of the mouth of the dragon.

On wat three or four, I come out of a public bathroom (feeling naseaous) and a very perky woman approaches me and asks if I would like to see the local sites. I’m still pretending not to be sick at this point and agree to a modestly priced van tour of Chang Mai.

Our first stop is Umbrella Village where they make, paint and display tons of lovely umbrellas. We had seen these umbrellas all over the city in front of cafes. Then we went to a lacquer store, where they showed us the many steps involved in making lacquered plates, vases, etc. Lastly, a stop at a rug store, because our driver admitted she would get a gas coupon. The rug store was interesting, though, because it was run by Indians from Kashmir. We told them we were soon heading for India and they gave us a chai and we had a nice chat.

We then requested a trip to the big attraction in Chang Mai: Wat Doi Suthep. A striking golden temple atop a mountain. I had fully intended to climb the stairs to the top, but the doxy just wouldn’t allow it. Instead we took the cramped “elevator” to the top. From there we saw the lovely temple and a great view of Chang Mai.

That night I was able to fet down a burrito at a nearby Mexican restaurant. We felt obliged to visit as, of all the folks in Chang Mai, we had seen Mexico the most recently. It was pretty authentic, with even muertos on a shelf next to our table. Like going anywhere in Thailand, we were handed a flier for a Muy Thai fight tonight. First men, then women, then children.

The other kids from our tou started reporting in. Shane and a friend had had massages done by female convicts (being rehabilitated). He had a thief, but his friend had a murderer. The murderer was better. Amy and Todd had ridden elephants.

We went with the group to the night market and we all found the same stall with crispy noodle soup. The staffers were completely overwhelmed. Eric found a stall selling fried bananas but he refused to eat any but fresh ones and waited patiently as they fried new ones.

Overall, Chang Mai was extremely pleasant. Maybe it’s OK nothing memorable happened.

The Path of Polynesia

Image of Maori Carving in Rotorua

I thought I knew New Zealand.

Having taken an early interest in the country’s pop music — specifically Crowded House — and knowing how to pronounce words like “Te Awamutu” and “Kare Kare,” I felt like a Kiwi myself. But our first hangi changed all that.

We had picked up our magical Spaceship campervan from the Spaceport (where else?) in Auckland that afternoon. By evening our Spaceship was hugging the slippery and curvacious roads of the North Island while I tightly closed my eyes and sunk my fingernails into the dashboard. The road to Russell, in the Bay of Islands was an endless maze of one-lane winding roads, which we found out later you could bypass with a quick ferry ride (thanks for nothing, GPS!)

Just outside of Russell we found a cute holiday park from the 1950s — a decade that is still alive and well in New Zealand. The proprietor confided to us in a hushed tone that she is originally Australian, but has lived in Russell for 20 years. She gave us a detailed map and advised us to be sure to attend the hangi tonight in town.

For a minute I thought it was the 1850s — but a hangi turns out not to involve a noose, sheriff and sheep rustler, but a bunch of food buried in the ground for a few days. A short walk to town and we saw the large white tent. The tent housed the ticket seller, a band, and five or six wine booths. Outside, hungry people surrounded the hangi pit and the local Maori chief blessed the food in two languages. All elbows, I made my way in for a paper plate heaping with smoked mussels, chicken, stuffing, yams and other treats. Fantastic!

That evening, I Skype my mom and describe the hangi. “Oh, that’s a luau.” My mom lived in Hawaii for several years as a child. The next day at the Russell museum, the connection was confirmed. Photos showed the Maori people wearing grass skirts. They are Polynesian! We had just come from Fiji and I suddenly saw the commonalities. I had always thought that, like Australia, the Maori had been in New Zealand 30,000 years. Turns out it’s just 700 years. Europeans have been in the New World almost as long.

The Maori call their homeland of legend, Hawaiki. Hawaii, anyone?Recent evidence, however, suggests Hawaiki was actually Taiwan.

In Voyage of the Beagle, Charles Darwin gives a savage indictment of the Maori (they would start a war because they had extra shot; missionaries would give them soap and beg them to use it) and of New Zealand. Saying of the land that there is nothing of interest for a naturalist. Probably because most of the unique bird species on the island are extinct and the country has only two land mammals — both bat species. (A friend we made on our Laos tour, Renee from New Zealand, told me she’d never seen a squirrel.)

The Polynesian connection also interested me because we had recently visited the Galapagos. Another of Darwin’s stop offs, its most conspicuous feature is the absence of Polynesians. Somehow, colonizing every island around the Galapagos, and missing no other Pacific Island chain, they missed or ignored the Galapagos. Very strange.

As it would be nice to see a bear or deer posing amidst the Kaori trees, this thought would give a shudder to any current resident. At the airport I was thouroughly examined for invasive species. Thankfully, none were found.

Further evidence of Polynesia was found in Rotorua, the stinkiest town in the world. There we visited the Maori theme park of Te Puia and saw some early dwellings and even a live kiwibird! The park had bubbling mud pools and a sulfurous geyser to rival Old Faithful. Every employee was Mauri. Much better work than casinos it looked like.

Back at the holiday park, our host said New Zealand is an example of race relations for the rest of the world and I would agree. It was obvious the two cultures live together and include each other in most aspects of their lives: sports, work, celebration.

I’m now planning a trip I call “The Path of Polynesia.” It starts in Taiwan and hits every island. All in a handmade canoe. Stay tuned.

Waylaid at Wayaleilei in Fiji

Two things I’ve had a difficult time with on this odyssey: humidity and boats. After the hours I spent heaving in the Galapagos, I was not exactly keen on spending long humid days aboard another small rocking boat. One look at the tiny islands of Fiji made it all worth it.

Sunset Hill in the Yasawas

We had booked the backpacker option of a ‘Bula Pass’, which allows you to travel freely between many islands in the Mamanucas and Yasawas. It also includes basic accommodations and three meals a day. We were told, however, that we may not book resorts in advance, and must speak to the travel desk on board the (packed and yawwing) ferry while on-route to book.

Eric then spent much of our ferry time at the travel desk, often hours, looking for any rooms available. But it’s high season and slim pickens. We were finally booked into single nights at several resorts, having to ferry each day. Not our favorite way to travel, but we saw a lot more of Fiji than most people!

Our third stop — Wayaleilei Resort left the biggest impression. From far out to sea you could see its dramatic cliffs rising high above the island. One of our oarsmen had red hair and freckles, but spoke Fijian. I wondered how an Irishman ended up being raised out here. We soon realized he was part of the Fijian family who ran the resort, but with a pigmentation condition. Eric noted very sweetly, “When I first saw him, I thought he was butt ugly, almost monstrous to be honest. And then it dawned on me. I think he has vitiligo. He is Fijian after all and I was judging his facial features off of a European norm. Now I think he’s beautiful, like a crazy leopard spotted fish in a coral reef.”

The beach at Wayaleilei was covered with giant piles of seashells. Gorgeous shells of all colors that you might find in a tiny mesh plastic bag at Pier One Imports for five dollars. Here they were stacked like maple leaves in a New England yard. Some of the shells were still moving — powered by a little hermit crab. I picked through the shells for at least an hour and displayed my favorites on a stone wall. Then it was dinner time.

Most resort dinners were just what my mom would serve us kids: spaghetti, green beans, garlic bread. Maybe fruit salad from a can. We made conversation with an Australian couple from Adelaide as the freckled boy serenades with “You Are My Sunshine.” The Aussie man was very excited that his favorite beer, VB, was available at Wayaleilei. The woman had seen too much of the Southern Hemisphere sun and was quite thin and leathery. She knew a lot about jewelry.

After dinner we headed to our room — situated in the back of the resort in a row of domiciles on a common porch. We were sandwiched between the rooms of elderly Fijian family members, who I assume were no longer of use as resort workers and so sat in rocking chairs all day in front of their respective room door. Our room had no power, no fan, and one window with no screen. We kept the window closed to keep out swarms of mosquitoes. Neither of us slept. At first, we both lay awake in terror for hours hearing a man shouting and groaning like he was trying to break in. Turned out to be a sleepwalking (possibly homocidal) geriatric next door. Later, I woke up several times in a sea of sweat and would take a cold shower and go back to bed soaking.

On waking from a sleepless night, of course we wanted to snorkel. We headed to the dive office after breakfast to ask about the advertised daily snorkel trip and shark feeding. The freckled guy said 10 minutes, so we go to pick over some shells. Ten minutes later we return and he says the trip had just left. I guess they couldn’t see us three yards away down the beach… But, he said, some people are going for a village visit later and the can take us snorkeling in that boat.

We get our masks and fins squared away and the Australian couple comes down ready for their village visit. They are in a large and lovely burre and look fresh and well-rested. The four of us get in the boat and the driver motors us out to open ocean; another island is barely visible in the distance. He says, “Reef starts here. Get out.” We both ask a few follow-up questions about which way to snorkel and would the boat ever return and when, maybe? The Australians promised they would make the boat return and had a fix on our position, so we donned our gear and jumped backwards into the sea.

Another world waited for us just below the surface. A towering coral reef of the vibrant colors rose from the sea floor to just under the water’s surface — like a three-story underwater building covered in life. The water was perfectly clear, showcasing all of Fiji’s marine life: clownfish in anenomes, sargaent majors up in your face, angelfish, schools of neon tetras.

We resurfaced, exhausted, and were in the open water. This is when it set in that we may have made our first big error. Soon enough, though, the boat came around and two guys pulled us forcefully out of the water. I flopped on deck like a fresh tuna as the Aussie couple laughed. (Later we saw a trailer for a movie about two divers who were left at sea and eaten by sharks. Once again dodged a bullet, I thought.)

After Wayaleilei, we snorkeled at many other larger and more poular resorts where the other guests were stunned and wowed. But we both thought the reefs looked grey and dead compared to the great reefs at Wayaleilei.

— Rachel

Hanging Loose in Montanita

We’ve arrived at the little beach town on the coast of Ecuador, Montanita. The surf is up and surfers are wandering the streets with their boards.

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Sadly, we have yet to hit the surf. We’re looking around for some boogie boards to rent. Also thinking we might go for a hike on the nearby Little Mountain. Surf lessons here are $20 for the half day and the surf is right outside our door.

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Or we might just walk up and down the beach chasing crabs!

– Rachel

Paseo de Montejo in Merida

Paseo de Montejo in Merida

The Paseo de Montejo is Merida’s Champs Élysées. Built at the turn of the century, this wide tree-lined street is a fun place to take a stroll. We saw lots of old houses — some restored and some in pretty bad shape.

About halfway down the block is the Anthrpologia y Historia Museo. It has a lot of well-preserved Mayan artifacts that you won’t see at the ruins (because they’ve been moved here for safety). The museum is also in a fully restored giant colonial house.

At the end of Paseo Montejo is the Monument of the Motherland — a gorgeous sculpture telling the history of Mexico. Eric, Chad, Megan and I ate dinner across the street from the statue while the sun went down.

Two awesome things we saw while eating dinner: 1) The monument is in the middle of a traffic circle. We saw a bicycle enter the circle that was carrying at least 8 small cages with one chihuahua in each. The cages were built onto the front of the bike so it could serve as a mobile pet store. 2) A Mayan man approached us selling corn husks that had been dried and made into giant grasshoppers. Eric said no out of reflex to vendors who come up to a table while you’re eating (and that he wouldn’t know how to pack it in a backpack), but we didn’t see anything like that again and he says he now wishes he had bought a grasshopper.

In between, we visited Merida’s only Irish pub where I had a Guiness (in a can) for 70 pesos. There wasn’t much Irish about it. More noteworthy was a little coffee shop called Cafe La Boheme that really made you feel like you were on a quieter (and muggier) Champs Élysées.

I also saw some signs of modernism. Maybe Frank Lloyd Wright was here in the 50s?

– Rachel