Monday, August 22, 2011

Week 12 - Angkor Wat and Angry Bums - THE END!

Siem Reap – the mighty ANGKOR WAT

  Once in Siem Reap, we found a great hotel, showered, stuffed ourselves with BBQ and passed out. We're still not really sure what happened during the conflict back at the border near O'Smach. Some of the locals here say Cambodian villages were hit by rockets or bombs from the Thai side, others say only soldiers were killed and reports online say 2 soldiers were killed. In the end, we are safe and weren't ever actually in real danger. 

  Siem Reap (pronounced See-EM Ree-AHP) is actually a great town - a huge difference from the little desolate bit of Cambodia we saw between the border and here. Of course, a lot has to do with the tourism in the area for the Angkor temples and palaces, but they've got great city planning, an awesome concentrated zone of good restaurants and bars, and all the locals speak impeccable English and are incredibly friendly. This is not what we expected from a country that was ravaged by war, genocide and poverty less than 40 years ago.

  Anyway, the main reason for our visit was the Angkor temples and palaces. These ancient wonders of the world were built between the 10th and 13th centuries by a succession of kings who created some of the most intricate and large stone buildings of their time, most of which are still in great condition. The name of the empire and culture that rule this area during the time of construction is known as Angkor and the word Wat means temple. The area that contains these buildings is located just north of the city of Siem Reap and covers a huge area that needs a week to be visited in its entirety. Until recently, the whole compound was overgrown by weeds and jungle, leading it to be known as the Indiana Jones and Tomb Raider hidden temples. Now all teh weeds (except for a few) and the area is a major tourist attraction. Most people visit all the temples and apalaces by taxi or tuk-tuk, but Em and I chose to go by bike. Since the area is so spread out, it is still possible to feel completely secluded and to imagine what it must have been like to be there in it's glory days.

Indian Jones escaping a jungle-y temple in Raiders of the Lost Ark
Research shows that the temple is actually located in Peru, but whatever

Lara Croft in the temple of Ta Prohm
Angkor Wat from across the moat

Overgrown trees in the temple of Ta Prohm

Em and I experimenting with other couples

   It was impossible not to dream of being an amazingly inspired artist and photographer after visiting these sights, so we spent a lot of our other free time visitng galleries, markets, and shops to pick out gifts that would capture the beauty of this area for our family and friends. One place that we really liked was the Artisans D'Angkor shop and school which offers deaf and other impaired locals a chance to learn new skills and produce some fine reproduction pieces for sale. At the school we toured the different workshops and even spoke to some of the artisans in sign language while we watched them expertly craft their pieces. Then we visited the shop and bought up a ton of stuff - we're sucker for that kind of stuff.

Time to Go

   A few days into visiting Siem Reap, Dan started feeling a pain in his underside. Within a few hours it became unbearable to the point that Dan had it looked at in a clinic for foreigners, which was oddly staffed by Chinese doctors who could not speak a word of English - maybe they should add "...Foreigners Who Can Speak Chinese" to the sign. They confirmed the suspicions, Dan had gotten his first hemmorhoid, and they recommended a $150 injection or surgery!!

   Being used to taking chances and making mistakes, we decided to go for the cheap solution of ointments and change of diet while waiting for it to subsude (which we were told could take up to a month).

   Dan also recently got news that his grandfather in Israel was not doing well, so all signs pointed to wrapping up the trip.

   We tried one last time to finish the trip by bike, so we cycled 160km over two days to the westernmost border between cambodia and Thailand. This stretch of road was so flat, and hot, we actually came close to dehydration and heat exhaustion. Emily also gave her self a nice three layered tan/burn. By the time we reached the border, which was another casino-ridden, armpit-of-the-earth, Dan's butt hurt so bad that he had to cycle standing up which then transferred the pain to his knees and wrists.

Em's neopolitan thigh tan

   By a stroke of luck, there was a train heading for Bangkok leaving the first Thai town across the border in an hour. We used our bikes as an excuse to cut the border crossing line (a move that was actually encouraged by the local officials) and we rode like hell to the train. Having gone through the fiasco in Vietnam we knew we would have to demand and shove our bikes onto the train. Actually, at the train station they had a separate car and ticket just for bikes and they even helped us get the bikes up from the platform - one of the reasons we love Thailand.

   Within 6 hours, we arrived in Bangkok train station and knew the trip was over. Just like that. it was both relieving and incredibly sad, to know that real life was about to start, and despite the bum pain, family health, and money issues, we were the only ones who were to blame.

The happiest saddest people on earth

   What exactly was our "huge little mistake"?
  • Was it the fact that we left our lives, jobs, adoptive family, dogs, and friends in Moganshan China?
  • Was it the fact that we went to the coldest and hottest places on earth for a vacation?
  • Was it that we decided to spend the better part of 4 years of savings on one long trip?
  • Was it that we were end our 4.5 year Asian Adventure to start "real life" in America?
  After 3 months of being back with old family and friends, we still don't know. We wish we could stay kids, exploring the world and having new adventures everyday, forever. But if we're going to be adults who make changes in the world, changes like the ones we saw in all the wonderful non-profits across our trip, and who will have enough money to raise children, pay off loans, eat good food and continue to travel, we're gonna have to get serious at some point. Then again, we've never seen smiles and families as happy in America as we did pouring from the impoverished villages to greet us with beer, water or hugs along our ride.

   The grass is always greener on the other side. But if we appreciate the moment, wherever we are, whatever we are doing, or whoever we are with, Then everything is exactly as it's meant to be and nothing could be a mistake.


Week 11 pt. 2 - The Fast Route from Laos to Cambodia

Thai Border to Cambodia
From Vientiane, we cycled 20km to the Friendship Bridge where we crossed the Mekong into Northeastern Thailand

In short, the border crossing was huge, modern and efficient with lots of other foreigners and bikers. Once we crossed into thailand, we felt like we were in America. the roads were wide and well paved, poeple were driving nice cars and there were no thatched-roof huts. Immediately we realized that if we continued straight to Bangkok, we'd just be following the boring highway all the way. Again we changed our plans and decided to take public transport to Siem Reap so that we could visit Angkor Wat. We figured we would spend as much time visiting the ancient temple grounds as we would cycling through Thailand to Bangkok - and we have a much better time doing the former.

The long boring road in Northeastern Thailand

Needing a place to stay and figure out our onward travel, we rode another 53 km or so to the nearest big city named Udon Thani. At first "Udon" looked like a normal third tier Thai city, but then, out of nowhere, we turn a corner and the street is crawling with older white men! Apparently, about 15 percent of marriages in the northeast are between Thai women and Foreign men - of which many are Americans who were stationed there during the Vietnam war and never left.... Anyway, they have a shopping mall, movie theater and even Dairy Queen, making it one of the fanciest cities we've been to in awhile!

   The next morning we took 2 buses, a total of 9 hours, to Surin, a small city located about 60km from the Cambodian border. We found a hotel near the bus station and began to plan our entry to Cambodia. and route to Siem Reap. We've read that the border crossing we are planning to use sometimes does not offer visa's on arrival and can sometimes require you to have one from an embassy in advance. We also read that there can sometimes be armed conflict in the area due to a disagreement between Cambodia and Thailand about the ownership of certain ancient holy sites. Finally, the area on the Cambodian side of the border used to be the hiding ground for the Khmer Rouge and has been reported by other cyclists as a desolate, unpaved road with no hotels or food for over 160 kms.

   We figure, we'll just get on the bikes and figure it out when we're there. With the name O'Smach, the Cambodian border crossing town will surely be an experience to remember.

Cambodia border crossing

  From Surin the ride to O'Smach, the border town, was about 70km or so. We spent the day cycling there only to be stopped at a road block by Thais soldiers. Apparently fighting had erupted earlier that day with Cambodia regarding the holy sites we talked abotu above. We turned around to find a hotel and try again the next day.

  The town outside the border is a very, very small town - basically the highway with 2 hotels and a giant marketplace just before the border. We asked an older woman about a room and she took us across the street, grabbing a screwdriver and hammer just before. The room was locked on the outside with a padlock and the older woman began using her tools to try and break the lock off! A bit surprised, we said, "Whoa, whoa whoa!" and tried to ask what she was doing. Apparently she didn't have the key to the lock and this was the only way in. Scared of what may or may not be in this locked room, we apologized profusely for the inconvenience and cycled back towards the marketplace to formulate a new plan.

  New Plan #1: try and find a bus/car to take us to another open border crossing 70km to the east.

  Result #1: Failed. We asked around and the best offer we found was 2,000 Baht for a car. Forget it.

  New Plan #2: Hitch a ride with a van/bus already full of people.

We cycled back to the road blockade, where the highway separates to cross the border or drive on to the next crossing. Only this time, which was about 15 minutes after we tried crossing, the blockade was gone. A bit confused we stopped and asked a soldier who said, öh yeah, you can cross the border. What? We looked at each other and decided to cycle the 3 or 5km to the actual crossing.

  New Plan #3: Cross the border and find a bus directly to Siem Reap.

  Result: Failed. 

  Once we got to the actual border, another set of soldiers told us the border was closed. We tried to ask what exactly was the situation, but the language barrier proved troublesome. We were told to wait near the barracks. While standing there, we saw a tanned foreigner with a Hawaiian shirt stroll through across the border. Dan jumped at the chance to speak with a native English speaker and said, ''Excuse me sir." The man kept walking and after a few more "excuse me's" he begrudgingly stopped. He didn't really know what was going on with the border and had only been gambling at the casino that fill O'Smach, the "international" strip of land between Thailand and Cambodia. He had bribed the officials about 1,500 Baht to do so and was heading back home because his wife was worried. He said this happens every couple of months and we should talk directly with the immigration officials.

  Thoroughly confused, a Thai man who spoke English approached us. He made a few phone calls and found out for us that all the borders in this area were now closed, but that this happened quite frequently. He too suggested we speak directly with the immigration officials. Apparently the soldiers may say no, while immigration officials say differently and vice versa. We decided to go see the wizards at immigration.
  New Plan #4: Try cross the border again, for the 4th time.
  Result: Success . . . ?

  Yes, the border was open. Was there fighting? They didn't know. Is it safe to cross? Yes, of course. Is the Cambodian side open? Yes. Do they issue visas on arrival? Of course.

A "fancy" casino in O'Smach

Looking back at Thailand, reconsidering why we left in the first place

  We were stamped out of Thailand and entered no-man's land - the strip of land just before applying for the Cambodian visa. The Cambodian visa officer assured us that everything was fine and getting a visa would be no problem. We were a bit skeptical, so Dan went on a solo mission to find out how much a room at the casino hotels would cost. In the meantime, we asked about a car to Siem Reap, which would take about 4 hours and cost about 2,500 Baht. (about $85 dollars). Not cheap, but it would be fast. The visas would cost us another 1,000 Baht each ($33 dollars), about 400 Baht more than it should be, but we didn't think it was the best time to argue.

  While Dan was in the casino hotel, I started to complete our visa application forms. I heard the visa office window slide open and someone called out, "Are you readyyyyyyyyy?" I said no and the window shut. Two minutes later the window slid open again, with the same call. I responded accordingly. One minute later the window opened, call came accompanied by waving arm, I responded in the negative. Thirty seconds later the window opened and a head appeared saying, "You girl. Come over here. I'm a police officer trying to tell you something. You have to listen." OH SHIT. I nervously walked over and tried to be as calm and polite as possible.

  The officer, who introduced himself as Vy, smiled and only wanted to warn me about over-charging by the taxi drivers, insisting that I was his foreigner and he would take care of me in his Cambodia. Great. I noticed an odor emanating from the small window that smelled a bit like rice wine. I tried to nonchalantly look around the office, but didn't see any evidence. I also noticed that Vy was not in uniform and either had a speech impediment or was wasted. Praying for Dan's speedy return, I stood crouched over making small talk with Vy through the window.

  Dan returned and the casino rooms were about 1,000 - 1,500 Baht. At this rate, we could spend the same and get all the way to Siem Reap. We handed over our passports and waited for our visas. Vy kept assuring us everything was fine and his Cambodia is a great place. Then he invited us into the visa office. Dan and I stopped breathing. This was unheard of in our past border crossing experiences. We were used to casual dress by visa officials, but were never invited anywhere near the other side of the glass. Dan gave me a look and I knew it meant; let's stay calm, sit down and see what happens.

  The office had a small table in front of the window, a filing cabinet, desk with comfy chair and a hammock. Another official came in and started making our visas. Vy assured us that he is the chief and hands the small paper work off to his workers, but it is HIS signature on the visa. He then asked for a slip of paper to write his number on so that if we ever had any problems, we could call him. All he did was sign it, but the way he was talking, this was gold.

  After a bit of small talk, Vy asked if we wanted a beer. He was wasted. We politely declined, but Vy was already sending a young boy to get beers and ice. Luckily we're used to drinking in China and had no problem chugging a class of dark Cambodian beer. It actually tasted quite like cold drinking chocolate and eased our nerves a bit. Next came a delivery of dumplings. We began to loosen up as Vy continued to high-five us, call Dan his brother, refer to us as "his foreigners', and tell us about his wife. Apparently she often yelled at him for getting drunk, so he slept in his office, hence the hammock. Other topics discussed included tattoos, foreigners, and Vy's role as chief.

  With our visas completed and passports stamped, we quickly finished our beers and started trying to leave. Vy insisted we spend one night at his home. We declined and insisted we needed to cycle on. At this point another foreigner appeared on a motor bike and we used him as a diversion. Vy came out with his scooter keys and said the least he could do was escort us to the marketplace. We tried to dissuade him, but he was adamant and started chanting, "Go! Go! Let's go! Come on!" At this point we realized he was pretty tipsy and probably wasn't going to follow us. We felt sorry for the guy who just arrived, but it was every man for himself. Dan managed to say hi and found out he was also from Detroit. I felt bad, but wanted to get the hell out of there.

  Just down the road we began negotiating for a car. In the end we managed to find a guy who would take us and the bikes for 1,500 Baht ($50 dollars). He drove like the wind, dodging dogs, chickens, and potholes allowing us to make it to Siem Reap in 3 hours. Even though we cheated, it was a relief to be far from the border with other tourists. It didn't look like there was much in-between the border and Siem Reap besides vast fields of jungle with a scattering of wooden huts on stilts. We're glad we decided not to read the books about Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge before arriving - we probably wouldn't have slept much.

A motorcyclist on the road from O'smach to Siem Reap via Anlong Veng (old Khmer Rouge stronghold)
taken from

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Week 11 pt. 1 - Vientiane: Prosthethics and Plan-changes

Vientiane is the Capital city of Laos. There is a lot of French architecture still remaining but mostly it is a modern communist city with concrete buildings and wide boulevards. The communist group, the Pathet Lao, took control of the country and made it communist in 1975 – around the same time that the Communist Northern Vietnamese took control of Southern Vietnam.

The pleasant views, alleys, smells and cuisine of Luang Prabang are pretty much non-existent in Vientiane. This was disappointing at first, but we were excited to discover the city’s hidden gems. At first we planned to give ourselves two days to get a taste for Vientiane... this soon turned into 5.

Dan, being the planner and worrier that he is, decided that Vientiane would be a good place to start applying for jobs back in the USA! To his defense, we were at a crossroads. 

Option #1: head east out of Vientiane to visit South Eastern Laos, the Mekong Delta in Southern Vietnam, and then cycle all the way across Cambodia passing through Phnom Penh and Siem Reap (home of the famous Angkor Wat temples) before heading on to Bangkok and then south to Bali.
  • Pros: Travel the road less travelled; visit places we may never see again; make the trip last as long as possible; end the trip with a bang on the beach!
  • Cons: Potentially spend all our money; potentially drag the trip on longer than it needs.

Option #2: head south out of Vientiane into North Eastern Thailand and head straight to Bangkok. If we have time an money left over, potentially stop in Siem Reap, Cambodia along the way and/or head to Bali for a limited visit.
  • Pros: Save some money for our transition to life in America; save some places to visit for next time; keep the trip short but sweet.
  • Cons: Miss out on a lot of places we may never see again; rush getting back to America and putting an end to the fun and adventure;
Of course, the point of the trip is to see as much of Asia as possible and do whatever we want in the case that this would be our last chance to visit the region. But at the same time, we did not want to make a huge little mistake by leaving ourselves with no money to start our lives in the USA.

In the end we decided we could continue the adventure in the states by working seasonal summer jobs somewhere - which would mean we could save and even make money while still having fun. Dan has a friend who lives on the island of Nantucket, Masschusets and we both applied to jobs in our respective fields - adventure travel (Dan) and pastry (Em). While we waited for responses, we decided to check out some of the more off-the beaten path places around town.

Of these, the most incredible as the mind-blowing exhibit at COPE (Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise ). The center is dedicated to providing free or cheap medical assistance to underprivileged Laotians in need of prosthetics, orthotics, or physical therapy due to missing or deformed limbs. In Laos, while some of these cases are due to disease or small accidents, most of the people affected with this problem are victims of Unexploded Ordnance (UXO) dropped by the Americans during the Vietnam war. What is UXO? UXO are the 80 million unexploded bombs and mines still existing in Laos dropped by the American Army between 1964 and 1973 to prevent Viet Cong from travelling to South Vietnam via the jungles in Eastern Laos. There are tons of exhibits movies and demonstration areas to learn about the UXO, whats being done to clean it up, who is affected by it, and how COPE helps make people's lives normal again. One can't help but feel incredibly sad and guilty for the lasting harmful effects resulting from the actions of our Army over 40 years ago.

  • If you would like to donate to help fund the rehabilitation of a UXO victim, please click here
  • To learn more about what is being done to disarm and remove the existing UXO around Laos and the rest of the world, please check out the MAG website
  • To learn more about what is being done to ban the use of cluster bombs in the future, click here
While at the COPE center, we found out about an author named Colin Cotterill who writes mystery crime novels based in 1970's Laos, when the communists first took over. A portion of the proceeds of each book sale goes to support COPE and other important non-profit organizations. The book we picked up, called The Coroner's Lunch was nothing short of an amazing read - incredibily witty, funny, suspenseful, and clever. We also found out that Colin illustrates the cartoons and logos for COPE and other initiatives. To check out more info about The Coroners's Lunch, click here. For more info on where the proceeds go, click here. you can look through his website to see some examples of his cartoons.

By the end of the 5 days, we had gotten enough responses from our job applications to convince ourselves that the best idea was to head for Bangkok as soon as possible and try to get back to America.
Below are some photos of our time at COPE and around Vientiane.
UXO hanging mobile

The inside and mechanics of a UXO (bombie)
Check out the little metal balls that flyout the bomb explodes

Parents of a 9-year-old boy who died from accidently stepping on a UXO


logo made out of prosthetic legs

The Laos Arc d'Triumphe
Built from concrete originally donated by the USA to build and airport runway

The Jew claw

Trying to walk with a prosthetic leg
Harder than it looks!

Dan made it - obviously having way too much fun in a museum about bombs