Sunday, January 24, 2016

Treacherous Seas

The storm roared throughout the night, though it never seemed to dump the buckets of rain I expected or provided the light show that I desired. Husband and I hardly slept with the wind whipping nonstop across the island, slamming the shutters open and shut constantly against the hard wood of the bungalow. Even lashing them closed did not stop the racket, and the shutters continued to thump throughout the night.

We woke up to clear skies, but rough waters. The boat was delayed about half an hour, waiting for the chop to die down, allowing us plenty of time to enjoy a last breakfast on the island. Nobody was envious of the trip we had in front of us. We had a late afternoon flight and were "only" a three hour boat ride from the pier and from there a quick jaunt to the airport, so at this point I wasn't worried. The trip on the tender boat to our ferry should have been my “red flag” warning. Even lightly loaded down after splitting the group in two and not carrying the weight of food, moving slowly through the break, and in the relative protection of the cove, we were fighting against the combined strength of the waves and the wind that worked together to do everything it their power to soak us.

We finally boarded the big boat and hunkered down with our travelling companions: seven guests ending their stay on Koh Rong, the co-owner of Lonely Beach, and the captain. After packing up all of our luggage in dry bags and pulling out some life jackets (hopefully only to use as cushions), we were off...

The sea was angry that day, as if mocking our comments from the trip over. No reflections in glass this time, just an endless series of whitecaps. Our handmade boat had to overcome four to six foot seas, with even bigger swells found mixed between. We did our best to keep the water out. Down came the canvas sides to keep out some of the spray, but nothing could stop the full bodies of water that crashed over our bow whenever we fell into the trough of the waves. We were thankful for our luggage being in the dry bags, but after the first few splashes to the face, we were jealous of the protection and warmth they offered. The boat began taking on more and more water with every passing wave, each time the weight of the water causing our boat to ride a little lower in the sea, meaning we would take on a little extra water from the next surge. Our crew began to become concerned when water started splashing up between the floor boards and was sloshing around the engine. When we rocked from side to side, our backs would get wet from the accumulated water sliding up the inner walls of the boat. A glimpse aft showed no water coming out of the bilge pump. Not good. Another large wave broke a 50 gallon jug of water free, adding its fresh contents to the salt water splashing below our feet. Worse. After fiddling with some knobs to no success, our captain scrambled up front with the passengers, handing control of the boat over to the owner. The captain shuffled people around and started to disassemble the boat. Floor boards came up, and the captain went diving below, into the quickly rising pool of water. He pulled out handfuls of debris – leaves, candy wrappers, crushed beer cans, and more undetermined refuse. Slowly the bilge pump came alive and started to spit out water faster than we could take it on, but we were never fully empty for the remainder of our trip.

Fixing the pump did nothing to lessen the waves. I was frightened, panicked. I was shaking terribly. Holding back tears, I was embarrassed. And I felt awful. Total misery. Of all the borderline experiences I have had traveling, this one "ranks" high above the rest. I can honestly say I have never been so terrified. For the duration of this petrifying cruise, I kept forcing Husband to promise he would not give up in the swim to shore when the boat cracked under the pressure of the seas. The other travelers faired only slightly better, with most trying to spread out as much as possible to help their sea sickness and avoid being tossed about by the worst of the waves. Some were more successful than others, with a few having to duck under the canvas coverings for a clear path the ocean below. The lucky ones got spot further back in the boat up on the benches where they could be relatively dry. Some braved laying on the floor, where their stomach dropping was the precursor to the boat falling into a trough between waves before the inevitable deluge that rained down upon them.

After an hour making little to no progress on our approach to the mainland, taking one step back for every two steps forward, the decision was made to pull the boat into the lee of an island to wait for calmer seas. We were warned the turn towards the island might not go well, as it would expose our broadside to the full force of the waves. The turn was as treacherous as it was sold to us. I have zero idea how the captain kept the boat from capsizing. After scurrying back to where we came from, we anchored amongst a few dozen other boats and within shouting distance of some very fancy looking villas where the guests looked on bemusedly at us with their mimosas in hand. I was relieved to be able to get off the boat and the hard earned few minutes of respite on land, only to be crushed when I found out that we would not be getting off the boat and instead would sit there at anchor, bobbing up and down. We waited for about an hour and a half, getting rocked back and forth as the waves rolled off the angry sea and only being slightly deflected by our island protector. Though I was calmer, and felt much better than when we were fighting the sea, I was still un-amused.

The day was nearing 11:00 am as we set out on calmer seas - although still not sufficiently calm for my liking. I turned on a podcast - not actually listening and instead repeatedly counting my blessings - to pass the time while water splashed into the boat from all angles and my body slammed against the wooden bench that I had laid down on. The hour was getting late and we had a plane to catch. If we were going to make it, we would have arrive at port soon and then not walk, but run across whatever series of planks were between us and the pier. The clock was now our enemy. The boat puttered slowly, but steadily towards the mainland which gradually grew from a mirage on the horizon, to a dark mass, to a green strip populated by ever expanding buildings. We finally arrived at the pier around 3:00 pm. Hallelujah. Our taxi was waiting on the pier ready to take us away, but there was one last bit of drama for us to undertake. An extra 20 minutes to find a “parking” space for our boat, or at the very least an accommodating boat to allow us to double park and scramble across. After an approximately 57 point turn, our boat got along side another, allowing us to jump on board and cross our final plank to be once again safe on land. The total boating time returning was more than double our ride to Koh Rong.

We jumped in the waiting taxi for a ride to the airport and because the boat ride wasn't enough drama: We had a flight to catch and time was getting short. There would not be another flight until the next day, a connection to make, and our bicycle tour was leaving – with or without us – at 7am sharp the next morning. We sacrificed the tranquility and quaintness of a final Cambodian tuk tuk ride on this leg of our journey for the speed a car. As we were pulling into the airport, our taxi driver pointed to the runway and laughingly said, "Do you see all those birds? Yesterday they made a plane crash and had to come back down." Husband did not react. It was only later I confirmed I had heard the driver correctly. He clearly was not on the edge I was.

At the airport, our bags were marked priority to make the connection and we received red "Transit" stickers to display on our persons to let airport personnel know we had a connecting flight in Siem Reap, making us feel very special. We made our first flight with some (very little) time to spare! During our layover, I even had time to get Dairy Queen because it presented itself and I was in no mood to combat any cravings.
(Not so ironically, given a choice, Dairy Queen is what I would choose for my last meal (with a side of bagels, donuts, M&Ms, and popcorn. (Please and thank you.)))

We arrived in Ho Chi Minh City and had another thrilling ride to the hotel through rush hour traffic. Our taxi driver was the happiest, old Vietnamese man. He welcomed us to his city with open arms and for our 45 minute, heavily trafficked trip, chanted the only English he knew in his high pitched voice at the thousands of mopeds as they narrowly avoided each other and catastrophe: "oh my gaaawd!" He mocked the city to our delight, pointing here and there for our viewing pleasure at all the crazy sights to be seen on a Saigon night.

Another overly friendly Vietnamese gentleman greeted us at the hotel. Our arrival was eagerly awaited with cold-ish drinks and fresh-ish fruits and all of the arrangements for our morning departure made. After being escorted to our room in a very tight, very slow, very humid, and very un-air-conditioned elevator, we hit the streets for a street food dinner. We struck gold just around the corner from our hotel where several vendors had set up a mini outdoor food court with their carts surrounding a small square filled with picnic tables where they delivered your hot food. We gorged on delicious pork noodle soup, bahn mi, fish with quail eggs, and some meat stuffed steam dumplings. Then it was time for our first, much needed real shower after a few sandy days on the beach, a salty boat journey to Sihanoukville, and a smoggy night on the town in Saigon, followed shortly after by bed, much past our normal sundown bedtime. Our time relaxing was over, adventure time started in the morning.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Koh Rong, Cambodia

The moon was full while we were visiting Koh Rong. As a Peace Corps Volunteer, I loved full moons since that meant having a natural night light in a world of very limited electricity. The moonlight by itself would be bright enough to cast your shadow alongside you while you walked outside. BUT on Koh Rong, the ocean was full of bioluminescent plankton that when disturbed by waves or a swimmer, would light up the water. We learned that clear, dark, calm nights were the best for seeing the plankton and were told our best chances to see them during our stay was likely early, early morning – 3:00 am early morning – when the moon was down. On our first morning, Husband woke at 4:00 am to go check the plankton. This should have been my job as I spent a restless night waiting for plankton like a kid on Christmas morning. It turned out to be not a good viewing night, so we were both back to sleep. I was not terribly worried as we would have two more chances over the course of our stay.
Sometime later that morning, at a slightly more reasonable hour, we rose and enjoyed some time reading on our front porch prior to breakfast. The morning was super muggy and we were in sluggish, total vacation mode. A little before lunch, we decided to hike to a local village for exploring. The trail threaded through the jungle, between cashew and mango groves, and past herds of grazing water buffalo. At the end was a clearing with the semi-official entrance to the village: a sturdy bamboo bridge whose high arch allowed boats to pass through the river underneath on their way to their marine fishing grounds. On the other side was Preksway Village. The village ended up being larger than we expected, with a semi-established eco-tourism business. The business was run by a one man show, Johnny. He could arrange guides and boat trips all over the island, ran an English and service industry school for the locals, and could set you up with a great meal. We ordered lunch from him and not so patiently awaited our feast. Another incredibly successful meal of fried red snapper, calamari, and a vegetable salad with rice was worth way more than the cost and wait. And just when we thought we couldn’t eat anymore, we were delivered a “welcome coconut” to drink and eat. It was a monster – easily the largest coconut either of us had ever seen – a Siamese twin sized coconut.
Afterwards, I encouraged Husband to walk further through the jungle with me. Up over the crest of the island we went and down onto the other side where we found an isolated beach that had so much potential, if you could just look past the discarded garbage that had washed up from the sea. There was orange sand, large rocks, and palm trees encroaching upon the ocean. Another location as isolated and beautiful as Lonely Beach, just truly deserted except for two lone souls visiting on their honeymoon. After taking some time to explore and snap a few photos, we headed back through the village, over the bridge, and towards our bungalow. After getting a bit turned around in the labyrinth of water buffalo paths before asking for directions from a sweet old lady wielding some large iron weapon meant for chopping down coconuts, we were able to find our way safely back before dark.

We went for another evening swim, skipped dinner due to our massive lunch, and ended the night in bean bags working on crossword puzzles. Another full mooned night passed without a plankton sighting.
We started our third day much the same as our prior beach days: slow. For our activity, we rented snorkel gear from the bar and swam to the nearby reef that was just around the corner in the next cove. This was my first time snorkeling. There were so many firsts on this vacation, and we were not even one week in! The viewing highlights were tons of black spindly sea urchins and a school of brightly colored parrot fish. There was also lots of dead coral and tons of non-picturesque fish.

All the activity worked up an appetite, so naturally lunch was next followed by a lounge in the hammocks. As the afternoon progressed, we watched a storm roll in. The clouds brought a steep drop the temperatures, blew away all the mosquitoes, and captivated me. I was more than willing to sacrifice a sunset for a storm. Though sunsets are the reason I travel to the beach, storms – above all – are my favorite; quality storms roll in off the ocean. This storm would not disappoint.

The gray storm clouds were also able to block out the moon, leaving the night pitch dark – perfect for viewing the plankton. We waded out into the ocean, braving the growing waves and rain to try to stir up some life. All around our ankles there were sparks of activity. The plankton would light our feet as we splashed through the water, trying to coax the algae into action. The plankton were tired after getting worked over by the waves, but they gave us a very cool, although short-lived light show.
As if this rustic stay hadn't already won me over, getting to see the plankton was the icing on the cake. I thought I had experienced the best of both worlds...

Until the following day...

Friday, January 22, 2016

Travel Day, From Coast to Island

The day started with the gluttonous buffet at the resort, again. Husband and I then spent the morning on the beach before we packed for our next destination. Though our sleep schedules align with the elderly, I felt entirely out of our element throughout our stay at Sohka Beach Resort, where the guests were mostly early retirees happy to spend their days by the pool and nights at the casino, eschewing the beach and culture in favor of the safety and ease of the resort. I was ready to move onto our next adventure: Koh Rong Island, famous as the home to both the 31st and 32nd season of Survivor, for those remaining diehard fans (of which Husband and I are now two).
We experienced the rest of Sihanoukville by day on our long tuk tuk ride, away from the tourist trap main strip towards Royal Pier, the local fishing port where we were to meet our “ferry”. On either side of the pier was a series of handmade boats tied together and double parked, all inter-connected by rickety wooden (i.e., death) planks. Our tuk tuk driver directed us to our boat and after Husband made several trips back and forth the death planks to drop off our bags on boat, we headed to the nearby stalls to stock up on cheap bottled water for the next few days. The local stalls smelled strongly of banana flavoring, yet there were no bananas in sight, but we were successful in finding two cases of water. When we returned, we were told that the first boat had unknown mechanical problems and would not be moving that day. Instead we were transferred to a second boat, Husband again making several harrowing journeys with our luggage and newly purchased cases of water across the plank. We departed soon after aboard Boat No. 2.
The ride lasted between two and three hours on the calmest seas – flat as a lake. On the boat, we met some of our travelers – including a group of young Australians who were stopping at the resort before ours, a family of four from Texas who were taking the year off to travel, and other assorted folks traveling in ones and twos who were to be the only other guests at Lonely Beach. For the last part of the journey, we rode up on the top deck of the boat, which was little more than the roof with an extra awning that helped keep the most intense part of the sun off of you. We skirted along the coast of Koh Rong, trying to spy the Lonely Beach bungalows around each bend. After dropping off the first group of Australians, our boat traveled the final 45 minutes up along the coast of Koh Rong before anchoring where if you knew where to look, you could just catch a glimpse of the bungalows that were hidden back amongst the palms. Two small tenders puttered out from the beach to greet us – one to take the people and the other to take the luggage. Upon getting to shore, we were greeted with delicious iced tea, an explanation of the place, and shown our private bungalow. We lucked out with our open view from Bungalow No. 8, which was set back about 100 yards from the beach and where we could look out over the water through a few sparse palm trees. The bungalow was equipped with three big windows and an attached porch with a hammock and rocking chair. Inside there was a queen sized bed with a simple mattress, blanket, pillows and mosquito net, a desk, and hooks to hang all of your beach clothes on. While there were solar powered lights in the bedroom, bathroom, and deck, there was no running water and the toilet and shower were bucket-based. Simple, but everything you need for a few days at the beach. We were about 200 yards from the common area of Lonely Beach which acted as front desk, restaurant, library, bar, and game room. It was a cozy open air place with large tables and bean bags galore to have your dinner, play jenga, or just sit and read.

We settled in for an early-ish dinner on our first night and confirmed the food was delicious. After my success in choosing the yummy vegetable curry with tofu, I wanted to try everything offered during our short stay. As an aside, finding vegetables was difficult throughout our trip. There was fruit galore to be found nearly everywhere we went, but vegetables seemed an afterthought most times, so this meal won bonus points for its high veggie density. More bonus points because all the food had to be boated in from the mainland. Bonus, bonus, bonus points for the very reasonable prices, when they could have charged you anything they wanted since this restaurant provide the only available. Maybe I was just famished? I have strong positive memories associated with this particular meal.

Then it was time for my favorite part of any day: sunset. The tide was way out and there was thousands of crabs scampering up and down the beach. We swam out into the warm, shallow water to watch the sun go down and escape the “mosquito hour”, which prior to then I had never done. I was always told that sharks were most active at sunset and that was enough to keep me out of the water at feeding time, but at Koh Rong we were promised that there were no hungry sharks prowling.
We survived for another day.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Sihanoukville, Cambodia

This day started off with an incredible breakfast buffet. The buffet was composed of a huge spread featuring tons of Asian and European inspired choices. I stuffed myself in order to avoid the need to leave the beach for food prior to dinner. I needed to take full advantage of the limited number of beach days embedded in our itinerary. After our 6:00 am indulgence, we rushed to the beach to claim chairs. This wasn't necessary as we had the beach almost to ourselves until late morning.
This day was all about some rest and relaxation. We read. We slept. We walked up and down the beach. The resort itself was massive and still expanding. We moved to the gorgeous pool in late afternoon. The pool had a swim up bar, so naturally we treated ourselves during happy hour. As lame as it sounds, I've always wanted to experience a pool bar; dreams do come true!

Husband and I dressed up for dinner... and walked to the Chinese Restaurant as the sunset. The food was low on my favorites list.
We walked back along the beach before calling this a day.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Siem Reap, Day 3

The day started with a hotel breakfast of fried rice, bread, and fruit. Husband and I opened the restaurant, surprise! This was hands-down one of my favorite meals on our trip.

We then hired our favorite tuk tuk driver, having come to know him in our short stay, to take us to Tonle Sap Lake. While the lake experience was not what we imagined, I loved riding through the country by tuk tuk. This ride took us a ways outside the city and provided a glimpse of what life was life for the local Cambodians. If I had the power to stop the tuk tuk, I would have a million pictures... and for better or worse we might never have made it our destination. The rising sun over the brightly colored houses lined with full, lush gardens had me captivated. There were also several picturesque hammock bars overlooking the neon green rice paddy fields and budding pink lotus flowers plots.
After purchasing tickets, we were excitedly off on our private boat. Things quickly went down hill as we realized we were scammed with the ticket price. We were then told to buy rice for the local school at the outrageous price of one dollar per kilogram. We might have been lured further, had we not been asked to buy the "school rice" in fifty dollar increments. The boat ride proceeded to a restaurant for more price gouging. The views and floating life were fascinating and I would have relished in the experience more, but the entire ride we were being hounded for money. This being our only negative experience throughout the entirely of our trip, it hardly damped our spirits. Though I would not recommend this to those traveling to the area, I delighted in having more tuk tuk time and getting a glimpse of the floating village.
We headed back to Old Town for a bit more shopping and lunch. Our tuk tuk driver took us back to the hotel after lunch for a bit of relaxing, postcard writing, and packing before our afternoon departure.
We were dropped at the wrong terminal of the airport, but given that we were picked up on tuk tuk, the walk to the domestic terminal was short. The plane was delayed about an hour, which lent itself to much confusion; we had no idea what was going on. Once we finally arrived at the hotel, exhausted and after dark, we realized someone had walked off with our bag. This ended up being no big deal. The driver simply tracked down the prior drop off and made the switch.
We were greeted with super sweet juice and tiny chocolates. We had arrived at the fancy portion of our travel. A bit sticker shocked by prices, we opted to walk down the street for a not so good Khmer barbecue dinner. Our first impression: Sihanoukville is a nasty tourist town of bars, casinos, and pizzerias, built largely in part by the two sizable ports.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Temples of Angkor

The early wakeup call was a theme that we established early on. Today, we were up at 4:30 am to catch sunrise at Angkor Wat. We took a tuk tuk to go watch the sun s-l-o-w-l-y rise from the outer moat of the complex. Due to the humidity, we didn't see the best sunrise. It was definitely worth the try!
When the sun had fully risen, we sat at one of the many restaurants surrounding Angkor Wat and munched on our four types of bread and an equal number of bananas provided by our hotel. Then it was at last time to go inside. I was real antsy by this point. Visitors littered the grounds, but as a result of the vastness of the temple, it didn't feel overly crowded.
We spent about three hours touring Angkor Wat and learned a wealth of information (very little of which I remember). Our tour guide, Mr. Ti, was a walking fact book. Husband listened while I frustrated myself trying to capture the scope of it all. The position of the sun (and my aging camera) greatly compromised my artistic ability.
This is a little about what I do remember, specifically regarding Angkor Wat: This UNESCO World Heritage Site is the largest religious monument in the world. (This marks my second 'seven world wonders' after visiting the Great Pyramids in Spring 2008.) The modern name, Angkor Wat, means Temple City in Khmer. Angkor Wat was built in the first half of the 12th century. The estimated construction time of the temple is 30 years and was commissioned by King Suryavarman II. The temple was originally constructed as a temple to the Hindu gods, but was transformed into a Buddist temple at the end of the 12th century, which continues to present day.
On our visit, we walked in through the west gate and out the east where our tuk tuk driver was waiting to transport us to Ta Prohm, the Jungle Temple. Ta Prohm was particularly crowded during our time. The "jungle" has likely made this temple popular with tourist like ourselves (not to mention it being featured in the Tomb Raider movie). The temple was much smaller than Angkor Wat, with lots of tight spaces between the crumbling corridors and large tour groups posing for pictures. Unlike most Angkor-ian temples, Ta Prohm has been left largely un-restored with the trees slowly pushing their way between temple walls to reclaim the jungle as their own.
The temperatures as we toured were incredibly hot and humid, only made worse by the beating sun. Wearing the temple-appropriate clothing - covered knees and shoulders - was pretty miserable. There were plenty of ill-dressed Tourasians, loud Americans, and Eurotrash. The disrespect these people displayed was disappointing!

Though Ta Prohm was largely untouched, it was an exception and throughout the Temples of Angkor, there are constant preservation and restoration efforts. Given the age and the ornate detail of all the temples, the need for continuous conservation is easily understandable.
Lunch was next of the docket. We dined at a slightly nicer restaurant because Mr. Ti highly discouraged our street food habits. We had chicken amok and fat noodles - both were good, though continued the trend of overly-sweet-should-be-savory-food. The fans and restrooms, part of the upscale dining experience, made the prices of this meal quite a bit more than the standard we'd been paying.
With full stomach, we were back to temple-ing. We closed out the afternoon as part of the Small Circuit tour visiting Angkor Thom, literally "Great City," which is comprised of multiple temples. We visited the Terrace of Elephants, Phimeanakas, Baphuon, and Bayon.

The Terrace of Elephants was used by Angkor's King Jayavarman VII as a platform from which to view his victorious returning army and welcome visiting dignitaries.
Phimeanakas is a Hindu temple in the shape of a three tiered pyramid. The colors of the stones on this temple were beautiful. This was also one of the more evident examples of the steep stairs leading to the top on two of the sides. The steep staircases facing east and west and were ceremonial and only meant for the use by the gods. The north and south facing stairs were to be used by the kings and the people.
Baphuon is a three tiered mountain temple. And it sounds crazy, but the higher up we climbed, the hotter it got. The extreme temperatures were almost unbearable but the views were incredible! We learned about quite a bit about the custom of converting between Buddist and Hindu temples over the centuries depending on the preference of the current king. This particular temple had a Buddist face carved in the walls when it was converted in the late 15th century. The statue is huge - sitting nine meters tall by 70 meters long on the west side's second level. In other temples the desecration of the former religious idols were more evident in the removal of Budda heads or conversion of Hindu goddess to something more Buddist appropriate.
Bayon temple's distinctive feature was the 216 serene and smiling stone faces on the towers which jut out from the upper terrace and cluster around its central peak. These stone carvings depict the face of the king and a message of spiritual worship. This is a place where the teachings of Buddhism and Hinduism co-exist in a unique spiritual balance.
Mr. Ti was also a big fan of pictures and had us posing in several of his favorite, very specific places.
And with that, our 17 kilometer temple tour was complete! In much need of decompression and downtime, I convinced Husband we were due for a walk around the dusty roads near our hotel. We grabbed iced coffee with milk, a meat pie from a bakery, more crispy pork belly - our snack of choice - from a roadside stall, and toured a more authentic local shopping center.
Do I even need to say it? After all this activity and the early rise, we were off to bed at sundown.