Angkor Wat, New Year’s 2015, part 1

 Cricket trap in daylight at center, burnt field behind. 

We arrived at night in Siem Reap after a three-hour drive from the border. We had driven past fields with glowing tubes of light- they are traps to lure crickets, which are eaten as a part of several dishes here and generally in SE Asia. The land was flat, with an occasional hill in the distance. When we made a brief stop, we could see a sky full of stars. We found a hotel and slept after a long day of traveling. 

Angkor and nearby
 

Angkor at sunrise on New Year’s Day

 
Our first day was fairly long-about 7 hours- and we went to the biggest, most popular ruins. We saw Angkor Wat, Bayon, and Ta Prohm. 

Angkor Wat is the largest, main temple complex and was built as a Hindu temple in the early 12th century by Khmer King Suryavarman. It was his state temple, capital city, and mausoleum. Over the next century, it became a Buddhist temple and over the centuries  endured the fall of the Khmer empire, yet remained an active religious site. It is entered by walking across a long causeway across the large (800′ wide) moat that surrounds the complex.  

   Once inside, the crowds disperse in the enormous complex, and one can find a quiet moment to contemplate. 

    
   The inscriptions and artwork are stunning.

    

   
Though time, wars, weather, and looters have ravaged the place, it’s grandeur endures.

   

  

   
 
We went to Angkor Thom next. It was built about a century after Angkor Wat and is known for Bayon with its large faces on many towers. We started at Bayon, marveling at the serene, gently pleased giants. Bayon has really stayed with me- those faces really impress me still.

   
    The complex is entered through this majestic arch. 

 Next, we went to Baphoun, a temple built to honor Shiva in the 11th century. Cleverly was not allowed in due to her shorts (knees must be covered, though this was rarely enforced) and neither were the twins (no one under 12, possibly due to steep inclines).  The rest of us could climb the structure, but no one was permitted inside.

  

  

Steep steps!

  

 Nearby is the Elephant Terrace, a wall with carvings of elephants, monkeys, and mighty bird creatures. It was built for the viewing of public ceremonies in the large spaces there.
    
   
Another part of Angkor Thom was a wall of beautiful carvings. It had been partly protected with a cement wall to the right below.

    
 Ta Prohm was next. This temple was purposely left in a state similar to which it was found, due to its picturesque entanglement with the jungle. It has been cleared for visitors, and we liked it quite a bit. We had been looking for that ‘Indiana Jones’ experience, and we found it!

    
     

    
    
 
Part 2 to follow!

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Angkor Wat trip-thoughts and logistics

   Truly surrounded by backpacks at the crowded border

The Thai-Cambodia border at Poipet is hot and dusty and it smells like fish. The kids wait in front of me in an excruciating line on the Thai side as we cross our fingers that we can make it back to Bangkok in time for Mr. Fantastic’s new online teaching gig, which we are destined not to do. We are in the first line for about 40 minutes and the second one for nearly two hours. We are returning from a visa run and a trip to the famed ruins of Angkor Wat. 

After being scammed at the border a month ago, and now with this particularly inconvenient border crossing, I am not heartbroken to say goodbye to Cambodia. But we have had a wonderful time! I think it comes down to the fact that I am not a great tourist. I would rather work and live in Cambodia, learn the language, make a friend or two, and measure my time in months or years instead of days. But that will have to wait until I maybe join the peace corps again someday or come up with something else. 

This time I am part of a family of six, and we came because we had to renew our Thai visas and we wanted to see the ruins. We accomplished these things, but perhaps our timing was a bit off. It worked out that we were there during the New Year’s holiday and the crowds were large. It is high season anyway, so I’m not sure how it compares to a few weeks earlier or later. We did have the benefits of dry, relatively cool weather, and some amazing lighting displays in Siem Reap.

I remain frustrated that I don’t know how much things cost in Cambodia! I know you’re supposed to bargain in most cases but it gets confusing when I don’t want to be unfairly frugal or spend too much. And I’m always working in three currencies- Cambodian riel (4,000 to $1), US dollars (preferred), and since we are staying in Thailand, Thai baht (36 to $1). As far as scams go, though, we’ll call it even. Last month I was bamboozled into buying Cambodian visas through a service- expensive and unnecessary- as I staggered out of the four hour minivan ride from Bangkok on my own with the kids. This time, I had Mr. Fantastic by my side and a printout in my hand. The printout was from the Cambodian government website and their free-visas-for-kids-under-12 policy was highlighted in neon yellow. Yes! The twins got in for free. I bargained for a taxi to Siem Reap for $45, I’m still not sure if we overpaid but it was dark out and we are six people (seven with driver) in a car for five, and we felt OK about the price. (It only cost us $30 in the return trip, but that was in a minivan that seats 14). Three hours later, we arrived in SR and the taxi driver took us to a budget hotel as we requested. They quoted me $30 for a three-bed room, and as I walked out to consider, they changed it to $20. We took it and ended up there for four nights. It was perfect for us and when we walked around to compare, nothing came close: no vacancies or much higher prices. Cleverly bought four t-shirts for $6 after an original price of $20. I agonized over a rice-paper rubbing of a stone carving at a temple- original price $45, I paid $20. The tuk tuk driver who took us to the ruins charged anywhere from $13- $30 per day over three days of varying time and distance. We are sure $30 was too much and we complained to the hotel for that one. And it feels petty now, since it was only $5-$10 too much to a hard-working man in an impoverished country while we privileged Americans travel the world. 

It was all confusing but I think it turned out ok. I am especially proud that we found a way to avoid buying too many disposable plastic water bottles. Trash is a problem everywhere we have been, yet drinking water clearly is a necessity. We were able to buy a returnable 15-liter water jug for $6 including deposit, fill our bottles for two days, and return the jug, retrieving the $5 deposit. So just $1 for the water and no extra plastic bottles in the trash! That was a success. 

Another success was our scheduling. We stayed four nights and had three full days for the ruins. I am satisfied with what we saw, though it was far from seeing everything. That would take much more time. The first day was about 7 hours of seeing ruins. The second day we watched the sunrise over the Angkor Wat temples then, after a nap, let the kids swim all day while we parents rented a motorcycle and saw some of the further away ruins on our own. The third day we were out for about five hours then the kids swam again. 

Our hotel location was great. We could walk to the night market and Pub Street across a short bridge, but out street was quieter than those areas. We were able to swim at a nearby hotel for $3 per person, which included a can of soda, and the kids were thrilled. We checked at a few hotel pools and chose our favorite; all allowed non-guests to use the pool for $3-$5 per person. We ate at the night market or a restaurant near our hotel. We had smoothies, Indian food, baguette sandwiches, Thai food, and local noodle dishes. Eating was easy with low prices and plenty of western/backpacker crowd food.

I think that’s all I wanted to say about our non-ruins experience at Siem Reap. I hope it helps other budget-travel families as they negotiate this amazing, sometimes overwhelming, magical place with its history, beauty, and mystery.

Battambang, Cambodia, November 2015

  We had been in Thailand almost a month already and our 30 day visas were expiring soon. Mr. Fantastic had to work, and the kids and I decided to go to Cambodia to the town of Battambang. It looked budget-traveler-friendly, it’s closer than Siem Reap (Angkor Wat town, which we plan to visit later), and I was curious about it because I had actually scouted it out online from the US last year as a potential place for us to settle. We took a minivan to the border, unfortunately got a little scammed there by a visa company instead of buying visas on our own, then took a taxi to the town. A word on the scam: I allowed a guy to take us to “the place where you get your visa”, but of course it was a travel company that arranges visas just a few yards from the actual border crossing where I would have done it myself. It was a $12 mistake times five, ouch! That hurt on our backpacker budget but I was determined not to let it ruin my time. I did yell at the guys and try to get my money back when I noticed, but it was too late. Don’t let it happen to you! Anyway, then we had a nice taxi ride (with 5 of us it was cheaper than the bus!) to a reasonable hotel room and set out to check out the town. There was a market, a river, some non-Asian food places. We watched a man making noodles by hand and tried some, they were delicious!  

 The next day we hired a tuk tuk driver who recommended two places the kids might like. We started by going southeast of town to the bamboo railroad, a 7km railroad track that goes through rural villages and rice fields. I wasn’t too excited about this- it seemed very contrived and touristy- but I ended up loving the ride as much as the kids.  

  

  

 It was kind of like a rickety roller coaster ride. It was a flat car with a woven mat and pillows for us to sit on. A loud engine powered the car, and a local man controlled the engine and brakes.   

 It turns out that these railroads were not built for tourists but for transportation between villages. They are not used as much these days, save for the one we were on, maintained for tourists. I read that about 100 exist.

 The beautiful landscape of rice fields and rivers flew by.  

  

  

 Every so often was a big bump. Several times another car headed towards us, and one car would stop, empty and dissemble so the other could pass on the single set of tracks.  

  

 At the other end was a village with tourist shops in the rural shacks- yes, you could buy backpacker staples like elephant patterned pants and t-shirts here! We stayed a little while, mostly talking with one of the shop owners who was quite friendly even after she knew we weren’t buying anything. After a little while, we went back the way we had come. We got back in the tuk tuk and headed to our next stop.  Below are views from the tuk tuk, and us inside:

    
   
Our next stop was a crocodile farm! This family raises them to be sold for meat and for crocodile skin, used like leather for belts, shoes, etc. We were invited to hold a baby but I declined for myself. The kids held the little snappers gingerly.

  

  

  

 I’m not sure how I feel about the animal welfare angle, but I was glad to be separated from the larger creatures in the pools. At one point I asked if I would be eaten if I fell in. “Yes” our guide answered indifferently. Yikes! 

    
 Crocs in their pools, crocs sunning themselves, crocs with wide open mouths, waiting for something perhaps. “They like to do that when they come out of the water” explained our guide helpfully. This place had hundreds of the big green reptiles. We weren’t there for breeding season, but they breed them here, too. We saw the different areas for mamas, eggs, and the newly hatched. 

After a little while, we headed back to town to rest and get ready for the evening. It was another tuk tuk ride, this time west of town to Phnom Sampov, or Sampov Hill. I was glad the bicycle tour company had discouraged us from taking their bike tour; the road was flat but it was very hot and the trip back would be after dark. When we arrived, there were many huts selling tourist items and things to eat and drink. We went to a small park office building and paid to enter the temple. It was $3 each for myself and Cleverly, while the other three were free. We ascended a lot of steps: 

    

The monkeys were cute but they followed us a little too closely. We had heard they could be aggressive so we tried to keep our distance. We didn’t have any problems in the end. 
The views up there were nice! 

    
  

The temple was beautiful! 

    
    
    
 

   

 We went back down all those steps and got ready to watch the bats at dusk. They fly out of a cave in the hill. We could see them flitting about the mouth of the cave earlier. 

 It wasn’t quite dusk yet so I climbed the steps up to a Buddha head on the hill. It was a massive, serene figure considering the land below. The kids went up later. I was trying to get a shot that gives perspective to show the size of the sculpture.

    
   
All of a sudden as we were watching Truly and Cleverly up by the Buddha head, the bats started flying out of the cave. There were thousands, maybe tens of thousands! 

    
 

They just kept streaming out of the cave for 20 minutes or more. We didn’t see the end. Eventually, our tuk tuk driver took us back towards town and we could follow the river of bats in the sky. They are the faint smudge of a line that seems to come from the temple roof below the electrical lines:

    
Below, they are in a curved line above and below lowest electrical line:

It was really amazing to see them. They dispersed out there over the fields, eating insects, socializing I guess, doing whatever it is bats do at night. 

There were more temples to see, and also places to mark the horrible time of the Khmer Rouge. I decided not to tackle the history or more temples this trip since we were without Mr. Fantastic and we had mainly come for the visas. It was a short trip and we headed back to Bangkok.

** A note on Cambodian history for kids: we watched The Missing Picture, an intriguing film by Rithy Panh, a survivor of Pol Pot and Khmer Rouge. Mr. Panh carved figures from his memories of his village before and during the evacuation of the capital, the work camps and the mass genocide that took place under the regime. The figures are interspersed with film from that time, and it is a very sad story but perhaps a good way to introduce the topic to older children.

planning the first few months of RTW, part 1

It’s getting closer, friends! Exciting and terrifying, the Global Fantastic Adventure gets closer every day.

Warning: this post is long and a bit confusing as I consider different routes and expenses.  I am mostly doing this to preserve links and thought processes as we try to figure things out.

We have been looking at logistics lately and, sadly, it looks like India may be out. Surprisingly, the infrastructure for getting from one peninsula- southeast Asia- to the one next door- India- is daunting. We were hoping for a ferry or interesting travel by land however it looks bleak. It looks like going to India would involve 2 extra flights – a serious consideration for our budget for the six of us. We have been planning after Asia to go West to eastern Europe by train. The trains appear to go through northern China, not from India.  Getting on the Transiberian Railroad seems to require us getting back north to Beijing, possible by rail compared unlike going from Thailand to India since we are trying to avoid airfare x 6. Anyway, that is an overview, a little confusing and I apologize for that. Here is some more budget planning.

Budget prediction time!  East Coast to Vancouver to China

We are planning about 20 days to Vancouver, with several days in San Francisco. Total planned budget:  $2300 – a little over $100/day.  This is a maximum, I hope to save on food and emergency numbers.  Here’s the breakdown:

Driving to San Francisco is about 2800 mi/30 MPG x $4/gallon gas = $375 for gas

Food: $30-$40/day x 20 days = Max $800 (hopefully less!!)

Housing: maybe 15 of the 20 days will be camping. We prefer state parks, but may have to resort to private campgrounds in a pinch. Example of a state park in Iowa is Wildcat Den, near Davenport Iowa off rt. 80. It is $9/night for primitive camping with water but no showers. A private campground near rt 80 in Grand Island, Nebraska near is $32/night including showers and a pool and wifi. Let’s average that to $25/night for camping x 15 nights = $375. We should assume at least 1 hotel stay for $150, just in case.  So, total = $525

Emergency: car repair, extra hotel stay, etc : I’d like to allot $500. Let’s face it, the car may break down entirely and then we are on the bus! But also: the car may make it and we can sell it, at least for scrap: $200?

After San Francisco, we have to get to Vancouver and I’d like to stay two nights there. San Fran to Seattle is 800 miles/30 MPG x $4/gal gas = $107  We will probably stay a night in Portland with friends or maybe camp along the beautiful way. Sell car in Seattle, get rid of all our camping gear 😦 greyhound to Vancouver is $75 for all 6 of us, but I believe we have to buy the tickets in advance or it is much more. The trip is 4 hours. I found this Vancouver airbnb place that sleeps six for $124/ night. Planning for 2 nights = $260

That ends the first 20 days.

Then we just have to get to the port sometime before 1pm so we don’t miss the boat! We are paying for this repositioning cruise in advance (it’s about $6500 incl. taxes + gratuities + insurance. It is a splurge at over $430 per day but we have mostly decided we want to do it. As a comparison, flying from NYC to Bangkok would be about $3000 + approx 14 days room+board, added since they are included in cruise price). 15 nights onboard including a day we lose due to crossing the international date line. We have to be careful not to spend money here for things not included in our cruise price such as: Wifi, alcohol, spa treatments, excursions, special restaurants.  We get to explore Alaska (1 night) and Japan (3 nights) as the boat docks, one big reason for choosing the cruise. Then we are in Shanghai.

Shanghai and China

Big shock with China: the visas.  Per the Chinese Embassy, it appears to cost $140 per person plus what sounds like an excruciating beaurocratic process in both NYC and Washington, DC.  Minimum just for us to enter the country = $840.  We will do this in the next few months.

In Shanghai, we would stay at an Airbnb or a regular hotel for a night or two to figure out our next move. This airbnb place would set us back about $450 for their 3-night minimum. Here is a youth hostel, it appears we would have a 3-night minimum for $260 total. This place, another airbnb, is $293 for 3 nights. Here is a budget hotel for Y359 (Chinese Yuan)/night, which is US $57.44. We may have to commit to a place to stay in the process to get a visa, which wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.  From there we would spend time in Shanghai, we could go to see the terra cotta warriors as we have looked at, and eventually we would head down to SE Asia.  If we could find a cheap, interesting place to stay in China, especially if we could learn some of the language, I’d stay a month or so, but I am more excited, at least for now, to get to SE Asia.

China to Bangkok

Yeah, ok we could fly, but where’s the fun in that?  I want to see the area, travel with locals, and check out the train system.  But just for comparison, I did a quick check and got:

Flight for 6 Shanghai to Bangkok: $1372

We may fly the opposite way after a few months in SE Asia as we head to Beijing for the 6-day Beijing-to-Moscow train.  Then again, we may do the train/bus trip the opposite way to check out other things we may have missed.  I love this flexibility and the option to avoid planes!  We may try to do the whole trip without planes!  It is partly the cost, but I feel we would miss out on local sights and opportunities if we always jetted from place to place.

So, for this Shanghai to Bangkok portion of the trip, here we go.  I think there are child discounts that I am not seeing online, and even without those, it looks to be an affordable option. There are issues of connecting at different points, and it may not be the most comfortable option, but after the cruise we have to keep expenses down.  If we are sleeping on a bus or train, that saves us lodging costs as well.

We plan to go to Bangkok to get vaccines as I have looked into. Train to Hong Kong:hard sleeper overnight is $62 pp, likely with discounts for kids. So less than $62x 6=$372 total. From there, we could fly to Bangkok or go overland.  Flight looks to be about $180 per person ($1080 for us). Overland is 3 days, max $150 per person per Rome2rio ($900). The same site has a range, minimum for which, not including kid discounts, same trip, is $714

So: train to Hong Kong and fly to Bangkok for 6: $1452

train to Hong Kong and flight to Kuala Lumpur then train to Bangkok for 6: $1374

train to Hong Kong then trains/busses to Bangkok for 6: $1849 (incl visas)

Here is an option I have to look into. I am not sure of route…  looks like train to Hanoi, bus to Vientiane, train to Bangkok. Train (as recommended by seat61) to Hanoi is 2 night sleeper trains with a day in Nanning in between. This is $68/person x 6 = $408, then Hanoi 24-hr trip by bus to Vientiane $30pp = $180, then train from there to Bangkok is $11 for 2nd class sleeper = $55 since the twins each pay 1/2 price.

Two considerations here: visas and itinerary.  Right now, Vietnam requires a visa in advance which we would get in China if possible.  It looks to cost $312 for 6 of us, I’m hoping for a child discount.  Laos costs $35 per person payable at border x 6 = $210, again, hoping for a child discount!  Thailand no charge for visas right now.

The price is looking steeper for this overland travel, but it includes some nights sleeping on train, also we would get to see these countries.  I look at it as a tour of the countries and a slow travel way to see the area. We may even decide to stay awhile in Vietnam or Laos, though I have my eye on Cambodia for a place to live for a month/months.  The visas seem to allow for 30 days, so we could stay a week or more in Laos and Vietnam if we want to. No visa fee in Thailand, BTW. But I plan to stay in Cambodia for access to Thailand, and I have assumed we will want to spend time there.

Thinking about flying part way: what about going by air from Shanghai to Singapore and using the highly recommended train from Singapore to Bangkok?  It may actually be cheaper than overlanding, about $340pp x 6 for us = $2040, ugh. Kuala Lumpur, on the same train route, is also an option. $320 ($1920, still a lot) appears to get you from Shanghai to Kuala Lumpur. All of this is to say, we may boat to Shanghai, fly to Kuala Lumpur, then take a train to Bangkok before settling in Cambodia.

fly to Singapore, train to Bangkok: $2382

fly to KL, train to Bangkok: $2202

Train from KL to Bangkok: this appears fairly straightforward according to Mr. Seat 61. KL to Butterworth, apparently, is how the trip is done. This seems to be a 6-hour trip, however there is a time change so I believe it is longer. Anyway, $13 per person is the 2nd class (recommended) fare. Then Butterworth to Bangkok is the next leg, 20.5 hrs and only one fare option, $34 per person. That makes it $282 to get my family to Bangkok from KL.  If we do not choose this option, we may make the trip anyway since it sounds great and I have a friend in Singapore.

In Bangkok, we would stay a few days and get vaccines. If we were to stay in Bangkok for a week, there are a few options. Here is an airbnb place for $209 a week.

It would be around late November if we were to spend a month in China and a month getting to Bangkok. Three months of the trip gone!  But wonderful so far.

That ends this planning part for now, I’m working on a part 2 where we live in Cambodia for a month/months, then go to Beijing for the train to Moscow.

Cambodia Sept. 2015?

One of the places I have had my eyes on in SE Asia is Cambodia.  If we do start our trip on the cruise to Tokyo, we will quickly be aiming south from there to the more affordable areas in this part of the world.  I thought today I would consider Cambodia.

To enter, it looks like $20 fee for a 1-month visa, renewable for another month for $35, 3 months for $65.  I guess this will add up for the 6 of us but the living looks cheap and interesting so likely worth it.  Recommended vaccines are Hep A+B, Japanese B encephalitis, TB and Typhoid in addition to the standard polio/rabies/DTP/etc.  I guess we’ll have to suck it up and get all of these before we leave, sigh.

Now on to the biggest Cambodian city.  This blogger, a female 20-something writer from the USA,  has a lot of good information about Phnom Penh, the capital city.  She recommends the BKK 1 or Wat Phnom neighborhoods there, so I began by pricing rentals.

Initial searches are promising!  This site had many 2BR in the $450-$550 range that look great- furnished, modern/Western kitchen, wifi, pool, etc.  They purport to be near the Russian Market, cited by this blogger who lives there (an expat, might be American) as an excellent market and a great place to live.  Not sure how long is the minimum time to rent but we would want maximum 1-2 months.  BTW, the same blogger had a wonderful map of the neighborhoods in Phenom Penh, entertainingly pointing out the “dodgy white men” and “tuk-tuk mafia” areas, information I’m sure will come in handy.  She did not seem overly excited about the BKK neighborhood- “ex-pat/NGO/whitey land” – not what I am looking for either.

From Phenom Penh, it is a 5-hour bus ride to Angor Wat (L), a must-see for our trip.  Look at that temple!!  I can’t wait to check out the place.

This  seems like a good time to mention The Man in Seat 61,on whom I am quickly developing an inappropriate crush.  He is an advocate for and wealth of information on non-airplane travel worldwide.  Thank you Mark Smith!!!!  Wherever you find yourself in the world, this guy can give you the down-low on bus, rail, and ferry travel.  Here is his page on getting to Angor Wat from PP.  Apparently there is a speedboat at $35 per person, and the deluxe bus is only $12.

What else to do in Cambodia?  This blog post has a list of good ideas in Phenom Penh, though the kids look a lot younger than mine.  The National Museum especially interests me.  The Russian market certainly bears some exploring, as does the Art Deco style Central Market.  Outside of PP, this ecotourist floating village near Siem Reap where Angor Wat is located northwest of PP looks cool.

I am not a beach person, but ok, CNN, tell me about the 5 best Cambodian beaches.  The phosphorescent plankton in Long Set Beach, seashells at Kho Thmei , and snorkling at Southwestern Beach and Lazy Beach are all draws for me.  They all look pretty good except for the last (Sokha), where it appears the beaches are privatized parts of hotels.

Basically, I think once we get there we can figure out the fun stuff, for now I have to focus on housing, so a brief look at options outside of PP.  Siem Reap looks too touristy and expensive due to its proximity to Angor Wat.  Sihuanoukville looks to be a party beach town, not what I am looking for.  Battambang, now that looks pretty good.  Lonely planet says it has nice archetecture, a mix of modern and historic qualities, and a scenic river trip to Angor Wat.  Tell me more.  Oooh- bike trips!  This place might merit a week or more for the Fantastics.  Ganesha guest house looks decent, the price is right, I have to say Battambang might be a place for us!

So there is my first foray into Cambodia.  I have a few emails out to friends-of-friends, so I may post again about the area.