A Skip and a Hop to Kampot

After a week of days melting away on the beach in Sihanoukville the Aussies and I decided it was time to stretch our feet again and get out and do something. So, we scheduled a little excursion to the quaint and charming rivertown of Kampot. We left early in the am so we could arrive before noon. It’s just a two-hour taxi drive away. The taxi cost the three of us about $7 each. When we got to Kampot, we picked a guesthouse, threw our bags in our room… and set out to explore. We hired a tuk-tuk that was supposed to take us to a couple caves, pepper plantations, the nearby beach getaway of Kep and some river rapids. We made it to the first cave and that was really cool. The tuk-tuk driver just dropped us off at this trail. And out of nowhere a band of kids came out, ready to lead us to the cave. These kids didn’t start in on the high-pressure sales pitches, luckily. The tiniest girl just struck up a conversation with me and slid her hand in mine as we all hiked toward the cave. They speak English so well. It’s rather baffling. The kids gave us the most official tour we could hope for… pointing out “bigfoot’s footprint” and the “fossilized elephant head.” There were several impressive stalactites and an ancient, brick Hindu temple inside the cave. The little girl was so cute. As we were clambering through the cave, I had one hand tied up with my camera, and the littlest girl took care of me. She climbed ahead, pointing to where I should step and took my camera from me to free both my hands up. Normally, I would get all haughty from such dainty treatment. But she was this innocent little darling who was just too cute!

After the caves, the tuk-tuk driver took us to Kep, a small, oceanside town. Kep is quaint and a bit sleepy. Nice nonetheless. Unfortunately, our tuk-tuk driver disappeared for more than an hour and we were stuck waiting around. That’s not how it’s supposed to work. I mean, we are paying the guy. The wait botched the rest of the little excursion. There wasn’t enough time left to tackle the other sites, so we just headed back. I immediately proceeded to crash out, while the boys went out for dinner. I wound up sleeping straight through until the morning.

The next day we woke up early again ready for the Bokor National Park excursion. But, just about 20 minutes before we were leaving, Jack realized that he and Colin were supposed to be in Phnom Penh for their flight back to Australia the next day. Oops! He had his dates wrong and thought they had a couple more days in Cambodia. So… the boys had to bail on the Bokor National Park trip and book it to Phnom Penh. I stayed around for the trip and piled onto the back of a pick up with 10 other travelers and our guide. It was a long haul up, dodging leaves and branches on the way. But the air was so fresh! That’s one thing about Cambodia. There are weird smells… everywhere. I had started to believe you couldn’t get away from it. Even if you are outside the cities, you still get pungent weird smells. They aren’t good smells. They’re not unbearable either though. They’re just always there.

But yeah, fresh air finally! After half a day of winding up and around mountains canvassed in wild, Cambodian jungle we crested the top… to discover the very hotel used in The Shining. You know, the movie where Jack Nicholson goes all crazy and scary. Oh wait. That doesn’t help. He’s always crazy and scary. It’s the one where he takes his family to this secluded hotel up in the mountains to maintain it during the off-season. The solitude of the hotel and it’s haunted history eventually end up driving Jacky boy off the deep end and he starts trying to murder his family. I crept through the hotel in broad daylight and there were other travelers wandering around somewhere… but, the place was still kinda creepy. It was really windy up on top of the mountain and the wind would gush through, making eerie noises. I wouldn’t want to be up their at night. The hotel has a tremendous view of the valley of the mountains, which lead straight to the beach. You can make out islands in the horizon. There’s talk of a Japanese company refurbishing the hotel. Yet, another instance of foreign countries swooping in and capitalizing on Cambodia’s treasures and leaving none of the profit for the locals.

The trip wasn’t over after getting back down the mountain. We got to hike a little bit and then we got to take a boat back down the river to Kampot during sunset. Too bad it was really a less than spectacular sunset. Too many hazy clouds. I can’t say I would have noticed too much though. There were too other English guys, Rob and Adam, on the whole trip and I started really chatting with them on the boat ride. They turned out to be rather hilariously clever. Their slick one-liners had me laughing quite a bit. When the boat ride was over, I hadn’t had enough of their witty teasing, so I joined them for dinner at a restaurant on the river. Food was okay. Dinner was fantastically funny. We rounded out the night with some drinks at a local bar. I really enjoyed these guys. Too bad they are just on a brief holiday. It would have been really fun to travel with them. I spent that night in Kampot again and early the next morning I took a taxi back to Sihanoukville. That was an experience. I paid $2.75 to share a taxi with 8 other locals. Yeah, that’s right 9 of us were crammed into a your average, medium-sized sedan. Good thing the trip was only 2 hours.

Beach Bummin

The days just seem to melt away in Sihanoukville. I can’t say I did too much while there. I mostly just chilled on the beach, read books, took a several dips in the ocean for long swims, catch up on work, struggle to find a quiet place to record some work, gobble pancakes with banana and chocolate, suck down banana coconut shakes, play futbol with the locals, motorbike it with the Aussies to the local waterfall (which was littered with trash like mostly everything in Cambodia), read some more, and worked some more. Oh yeah. The first night we actually slept in strung up hammocks because the place we wanted to stay was full. That’s when I got literally eaten alive by mosquitoes. My entire body was covered. Even my eyelids had bites. No signs of malaria yet… keep your fingers crossed!!! The bathrooms at this joint were public and they were the same as the shower. An all in one sort of thing. Considering, the place kept it fairly cleanish…er. But, usually our group just opted for a nice salt water bath in the ocean. Colin (one of the Aussies) tried fire dancing with the locals.

I noticed that no matter where you go… you really can’t escape the odors of Cambodia. There are several distinct ones and they’re not pleasant. Usually it’s either rotting trash, burning trash or the smell of pee and feces all mixing in with the smell of food cooking. Yummm… Actually, right on the beach it wasn’t too bad. Everywhere else though…

There was a big private island party for New Year’s. We took a slow fisherman’s boat out to the island… about an hour boat ride. I watched the bright coastline, glittering with lights and an endless stream of small to medium sized fireworks fade away to nothing in the darkness. I watched the stars emerge from the darkness. I recognized that the sky here is just as foreign as the land and its people. I don’t know these stars. I watched the islands slowly take shape and emerge from the dark waters that stretched before me. Then, it was back to bright lights and excitement… as Western foreigners rang in the New Year in Cambodia on the private island.

Shortly after, Russell had to leave us. He’s now back in Thailand soaking up the sun on those world-class beaches with his girlfriend who is visiting for a month. We might try to meet up again when he’s back on the backpacking trail.

Lakeside in Phnom Penh

There’s more to do in Siem Reap. But, we were on a mission to get to the beach sooner than later, so on Christmas day we made an early go of it and took off for Phnom Penh. You can go by bus for about $8 or by boat for $25. Rumors of floating forests and floating villages enticed us to take the boat trip. It was well worth it. The rumors were every bit of true and that meant the entire trip was just stunning. You could sit up on the bow of the boat, which was cruising at a speed of 50 mph… at least. Probably their wooden boats were stunning. Russell and I managed to make friends with a crew of other travelers too. A Spanish guy, two Australians, and a Greek guy. When we arrived 6 hours later in Phnom Penh, Russell and I kind of corralled our group and took charge because we knew of a specific guesthouse on Lakeside. That was a big task because everywhere you go in Cambodia (well, SE Asia for that matter) taxi drivers and moto drivers throng you demanding that you use their transportation to get wherever it is you wa more. The views of the Tonlé Sop lake and the river and the people who lived in stilted shacks or simply just lived onnt to go. Except, they often try to tell you where to go so they can get a commission. They can really be a pain in the you know what. Always trying to rip you off. Always insisting to take them even when you’ve said no a thousand times over. Anyways, a guy that was on the bus with us from the Cambodian border to Siem Reap had been in the country 4 times prior and he had some good places scoped out. So we were following Dave’s advice. In fact, we were meeting him at the joint he recommended. He had opted to take the bus to Phnom Penh.

We arrived at the lakeside guesthouse and we were greeted by Dave and a lush lake view from a huge wooden and shaded deck area with hammocks and a pool table and a big screen tv for watching movies. It was Happy #11. Stay there if you ever make it to Phnom Penh. It was just chill and perfect. When we got there Dave informed us of plans for a Christmas dinner with some other foreigners who had more or less planted themselves in Phnom Penh. Sweet! Dinner turned out to be delicious! About 15 of us travelers together, at an all you-can-eat feast of chicken, beef, pork, veggies, prawns and beer. We paid just $6 each. The best part was you cooked your food on these small table grills. They provided the duck fat, the food, the spices and the seasonings. You just threw it all on the small grill and cooked it how you wanted it. It was fun battling for your piece. You would throw a nice slab on, spice it up really well, get it frying in that juicy duck fat… and then snatch! Someone would come in with their chopsticks and whisk away that culinary masterpiece. What a crazy, random and unforgettable Christmas dinner!

Russell, the Aussies (the Aussies decided to join up with us and we were officially a fousome now) and I just took the next day to just chill out. We had made plans with Dave and another guy Martin and a bunch of others to go go-carting in the afternoon, so we just lazed around until then. We watched the Killing Fields, which was perfect because it was all about the mass genocide in Cambodia that occurred just 30 years ago. Great movie that enabled us to get a handle on the recent horrible history of this country. Not to mention we were in the heart of where much of the torturing went on. The Khmer Rouge was a rebel group that gained power and then attacked anyone of middle and upper class forcing them to leave their homes in the city and suddenly become the countries poorest and most oppressed. Anyone politically affiliated with the government that had been toppled would be a target, most of them were tortured and killed. Their families too. I could go on and on about this horrible history… but instead, I’ll just tell you to read “First They Killed My Father.” It’s short. But, it’s incredibly moving and paints the picture of what went on in this country all too clearly. Seriously, if you want to know exactly what I’m witnessing here, I’m witnessing a country that is slowly emerging from its horrible and all too recent past. But it is emerging with smiles and little devil children that make you buy their trinkets. Anyways, read the book.

After the movie we took off for the go-carts. Tons of fun. We all got nice, big bruises on our hips from screeching around turns at full speed. Man it was fun! I want to get into it more… get better at racing!!!

After the go-carting, Russell and the Aussies wanted to take advantage of the fact that you can shoot AK-47s and toss a few grenades at a military base outside of Phnom Penh… that is, if you drop about a $150. I’m not going to lie, I was really, really enticed to bust out the guns too, but I just couldn’t. This country is run mostly by drug lords still and this cash just to get some quick bang would be going straight to the drug lords’ pockets. Russell even offered to pay for me… another “Christmas present,” but I couldn’t. It would still be money being spent for me that would ultimately end up in the pockets of people I don’t want to be supporting. It was so hard for me to fight the temptation though. I mean, I do want to be THE female version of Jason Bourne!!! Of course, I caved a little. If the boys were going regardless, then I was going to get some pics. I ended up posing in a few pics with the boys as well. Man, it would have been cool to let one of those grenades rip!! Morals!! Oh well, I saw it all up close and personal…

That night was just typical backpacker style. Drinks and laughs and finally sleep!

The next day it was time to face more of the grim realities of Cambodia’s recent history. Russell, the Aussies Jack and Colin, and I headed to S-21. S-21 is the main prison the Khumer Rouge used to torture its victims. The prison was actually a school, where rooms were turned into holding cells and torture chambers and hallways were crammed with wooden and brick partitions, which were all smaller than a broom closet… more holding cells. The most affecting thing about going to S-21 is the fact that you get to walk through pretty much all of it. You’re walking through the rooms where people were starved and tortured and executed. You’re walking on the tiles where people bled to death. In fact, you’re walking on their blood. There are blood splatters everywhere, still dark red and black stains on the tiles… and you’re walking on them. It’s jolting… and revolting.

Next it was off to the Killing Fields. This is where the Khumer Rouge took victims by the tens and hundreds to slaughter them. They didn’t want to waist ammo so the militants bashed them in the heads to kill them. You walk among the pits of former mass graves. You tread on bits of clothing peaking through the dirt; the remnants of these people who were slaughtered here. One mass grave was all infants and young children. Another was all women with no heads. You got your fair share of heads though. Or skulls rather. The Buddhist monks built a temple for the slaughtered victims of the Khumer Rouge. Inside the temple is a glass case of shelves where bones and skulls are just haphazardly piled upon each other. The glass casing is open in many areas and if you were disrespectful enough you could easily reach in and fondle the skulls and bones of these massacred people. Apparently, and I’m not positive if this is why but, the Buddhists believe the spirits need to be free to move on or something, so they can’t fully seal up the skulls and bones. They have to leave openings for the spirits to get out. It was all so… disturbing… and enraging.

That afternoon we left for less affecting and troubling scenery. We took off for Sihanoukville… aka the beach.

Bangkok to Angkor Wat

So suddenly on my own… but not really! The Kiwi, Carl, and the French guy, Franc, were off to New Zealand and were leaving the English guy, Russell, behind. So, Russell and I decided we would travel together for a while. We got back from the trek and Chiang Mai with all options before us. Christmas was coming soon… where were we to go?? The beach sounded nice. But, it’s the thick of the high season for the beautiful, world-class Thai beaches, so we decided to hit the beaches next door in Cambodia. So after a night’s rest in Chiang Mai it was back on the 12-hour overnight train… this time kicking it with Russell and a local Thai guy who kept trying to rope me into going on a “special week-long trek” with him that was much better. Yeah right.

We arrived in Bangkok at about six in the morning. Russell’s mates Carl and Franc were actually still there. They were supposed to fly out that day, so we crashed their guesthouse room. They had just gone to bed… about an hour before. Hehehehe. They were troopers though and got up to have breakfast with us. Then, Russell and I went in search of a tourist agency that might be open that early. We eventually found one and explained we wanted to go to Cambodia. We barely got the words out when the lady was like “Okay. You leave in 5 minute. We take care of visa.” What?!?! So we rushed back to the guesthouse room to grab our bags and rushed back. The bus showed up shortly after and suddenly we were on our way to Cambodia. Where in Cambodia… we didn’t know. The road to the border was an easy ride. Then we got dropped off at a little joint to grab a bite to eat, while the organizers took our passports and disappeared to get our visas. Oh geez. But, that’s the normal procedure and they came back with our passports and shiny new Cambodian visas. Yeah! We found out by that time we were headed to Siem Reap, home to the ancient ruins of Angkor Wat. Little did we know what we had in store for the remainder of the ride there though.

We walked through a border market, went through customs, changed money for a ridiculously rip-off price and then waited in this empty room for a bus (there were other travelers). Finally, it was time to take off… and yeah, as I wrote before, it was nearly a 9-hour bus ride along a cracked and cragged dirt rode. We were bumping and bouncing like those silly gangstas in the U.S. with their cars tricked out with hydraulics. The landscape was just stunning though. We bumped past acres upon acres of wet marshland. The locals lived in stilted shacks with trash littered everywhere, clothes hanging off posts, pigs wallowing in mud. There were tons of little shack shops too that served as the local version of 7-11 or QT … snacks, cigs, batteries, etc. It’s just a different world. It is one major dry and dirty dustbowl though. The palms are all coated in thick, red dust and about half of the locals all wear cloth masks around their faces and noses.

We finally ended up in Siem Reap late that evening. At this point Russell and I had been traveling for a solid 30+ hours straight (with that brief breakfast in Bangkok). Whew! We made it! Sort of… we weren’t at the beach. But, at that point we gave up trying to make it to the beach by Christmas. We had to stay and check out the temples! Angkor Wat is actually just one of the temples. There are about a dozen ruins concentrated in the same area. It’s recommended that you take 3-days to explore them all properly. But, Russell and I opted to just go out and see what we could get in with just one day. We managed to tackle the three main attractions: Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and Ta Prohm.

Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument in the world and was built in the early 12th century. The detail on the temple was… well, you really couldn’t get your mind around it really. There are more than 2,000 asparas, or goddesses carved into the rocks. Not to mention the tiny lotus flower carvings. Those would have to number in the hundreds of thousands at least. The detail of this temple really can’t and shouldn’t be downplayed. But, I can’t help but come out of it thinking that Angkor Wat, from a distance, resembles a drizzly sand castle. You know the ones I’m talking about? Where you made sand castles at the beach by just grabbing a handful of sand and slowly letting it drizzle from your fingers, allowing it to build into drizzly, peaked piles? Yeah. I always loved drizzly sandcastles. And I think it’s cool that the world’s largest religious monument reminds me of my childhood. Russell and I spent four hours just at this one temple. (The monkey pictured randomly showed up just as we were leaving Angkor Wat. I hopped up on the ledge of the temple where the monkey was walking and began snapping pics. He just kept coming towards me, and I kept snapping away until he literally just strolled on right around me as if I were some lump of rock in his way. It was funny. I then stalked him paparazzi style and he posed for a couple pics for me before getting annoyed and turning away from the camera every time I pointed it at him. He seemed pretty darn used to, and bored with, humans.)

Angkor Thom is the temple with all the huge face carved into it. It’s just cool. Faces staring at you from every direction.

Ta Prohm should be recognizable to most. It’s the Tomb Raider temple. I didn’t realize at first that they actually did shoot bits of the film at Ta Prohm and I kept commenting that it looked like something out of Tomb Raider. Well, dur, it is… Apparently, some French colonialists found these ruins pretty much as they are today… totally taken over by the jungle. The roots of these huge strangler figs and silk-cotton trees. I mean really, these trees have completely taken over. Wrapping themselves around the ruined stones and springing up from them as if they were nothing but mere soil. It’s really cool. Too bad it’s all touristy. It would be so cool if you just stumbled upon that in the jungle like the French guys did!

The only thing not so cool about these temples is that, as far as I’ve been informed, they’re not owned by Cambodia. It’s a bit unclear if it’s Japanese or Korean owned… but either way, only 10 percent of the entrance fee to see these ruins are used for any sort of upkeep. The rest of the money goes straight to a foreigner’s pocket. So much for using the ruined treasures of a country to help fund the rehabilitation of that country.

After three of those temples, it was time for a break. Especially after being haggled by relentless, high-pressure salesmen trying to hawk their goods off you the whole time. They were cunning. They were clever. They were mostly ages 4-15. That’s something I would like to explore further: these young kids that are learning the cunning savvy of high-pressure salesmen at such a young age. Learning that tourists are dopey targets for money, giving up so much of their normal childhood pastimes to sell, sell, sell. Russell and I tried to get some of the kids to forget their wares for just ten minutes and goof around and play with us. The best we could do is get a momentary crack of a broad smile, but then they were back to “You buy. One dollar. You buy. One dollar. You don’t buy, I cry. You buy, so I have money for school. You buy. One dollar.” More than once I just wanted to turn around and scream, “give it up already!!!” You say no, but they just follow and repeat themselves like only kids know how to do… you know, the old broken record routine. We did stumble upon some kids that were “salesman” but were actually taking a break to play. So we joined them. When they’re not selling, the kids are great. When they’re selling, they’re robots… or more like devils.

So, yeah, anyway, Russell and I headed back towards town, our hired Tuk-tuk navigating the streets. Along the way back, we saw this rather posh restaurant with a beautiful big terrace and decided to go for it. We’d been eating on a budget from local street vendors and markets for so long that we just craved some finer dining. It’s custom for the Tuk-tuk driver to just wait around for their customers. That’s what our driver did at the temples. But, I just couldn’t eat at this posh place leaving our tuk-tuk driver waiting outside. Plus, it was Christmas Eve. So Russell and I invited him to join us. He came and that was cool! It was Russell who actually did the treating though. He paid for all of it… Christmas present he said. He had quite a few of those “Christmas presents” though. Russell is an incredibly generous guy. Incredibly gracious too. He thoroughly enjoyed that he was in a 3rd world country with another random traveler… just living it up. His companionship and the timing of it was priceless.

Prickly Elephant Hair… and Confronting That Big Prickly Elephant in the Room… or in the Stilted Hut Rather

Trekking started off with a bang. Ben and I piled into the back of this tiny, covered pick-up… squeezing in with 8 or 10 other trekkers (can’t remember how many of us squeezed in there really)… and we were off. While the pick-up bumbled out beyond the outskirts of Chiang Mai, Ben and I enjoyed chit chatting with our fellow, squashed travelers. Eventually Ben climbed onto the roof to ride and I ended up on the tailgate hanging onto the back. It was just too cramped and we had pics to snap of the stunning countryside! Then, we arrived at the elephant camp! It certainly wasn’t my first time seeing an elephant, even seeing one up close… but nonetheless my close encounters are few enough that I still get excited around these strange looking creatures with two big, side-by-side hoses for trunks. The trek guides herded us onto platforms and we mounted the elephants, sitting on these seats strapped to them. For a while, I rode the elephant’s head bareback… and it was really like riding a moving bundle of brillow pads bareback with a trunk that seemed to have a mind of it’s own, swinging up and back from time to time, groping for the bananas stashed on our seat. Elephants aren’t that clean of creatures by the way. The trunks seemed to be covered in muddy snot. The prickly, brillow-pad hair gave my legs a rash that lasted a couple hours. Their skin is as tough as leather.

Next, we hiked a bit along the mountain-fed stream. Then, it was time to cross over some mild rapids it in a cage that slid along a cable strung up between trees on either side of the gurgling stream. A total tourist ploy… but fun nonetheless.

Lunchtime was followed by more hiking… hiking through pristine Thai jungle. Beautiful. Breathtaking. Pinch-me-please so I know I’m not dreaming amazingness. Cooling off in wild waterfalls. Hiking up, up, up… through bamboo forests, palm-fringed cliff sides and gullies of ferns. Sweet, fresh air. A bit touristy or no… I was trekking in the jungle in some foreign land on the opposite side of the world!!!! This has always been my fantasy… and I was living it out! That night we arrived at a local village perched on top of one of the mountains we had been hiking up all day. Chickens, pigs and cattle roamed among the stilted bamboo huts, small gardens and clusters of villagers. It was all just so awesome! That night we all circled around a bon fire on our own stilted bamboo hut and sang and laughed and had a good time. Some partook in the cheap, and fresh local grass. Pure marijuana and opium were easily bought if you wanted it. Obviously I passed. I’ve never been too attracted to drugs. Besides, I was already way to high on life… trekking through the Thai jungle baby!!! Finally, push came to shove between Ben and I. After our series of “travel hang-ups” as I like to dub them… it seemed Ben and I just weren’t clicking anymore. I’m not of fan of games or confusion, so it was I who had to pop that pimple so to speak… on the first day. That night, it was decided that a week and a half of traveling together would be enough. Of course, the timing to address that was perfect on my part… with two full days still trekking “together.” So yeah, the next two days were a mix of stunning amazingness, awkwardness, hurting and the budding of new friendships that couldn’t have come at a better time.

So speaking of friendships, our group was turning out to be pretty cool. I hit it off right away with a local Thai… who on retrospect we suspect was doing a drug run… and a group of guys from London, though only one was actually English, the other two a Kiwi and a French guy. Some of our group though was only doing the two-day trek and some were doing the three, so in the morning we split up. There were 6 of us three-dayers. The local Thai drug-runner was obviously a two-dayer. He was really cool. Taking care of everybody on the trek… making everyone laugh. He claimed he’d never been on one before. But he seemed to know all the routes and the locals just a little too well. Anyways, the English guy, the Kiwi and the French guy were three-dayers and just plain great blokes. They made it their mission to keep me laughing and remind me of the amazing experience we were having whenever I seemed a bit down. I’m so grateful they guys were on the trek and so easy-going. I don’t know… I’m just the type of person that, when I encounter something just utterly incredible, I want to share it. For me, an experience isn’t maximized until you’ve shared it with someone. I’m glad I had those guys around to delight with in the raw beauty of our surroundings and joke with about the raw reality of living with minimal facilities for awhile… haha. The rest of the three-day trek was more hiking through pristine jungle… more village visits, more camping out in bamboo huts, more interacting with the local tots and… a grand finale of white water rafting and bamboo rafting!!! Incredible. Life is good.

Chugging Up to Chiang Mai

After a few days of chilling and prep and a few stories from travelers, Ben and I decided that the trekking we heard about in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand sounded fun. Elephants, mountain villages and bamboo rafting? Awesome! So, we took off for Chiang Mai in an overnight train. On the train we met a great Dutch couple (hey! I was just in Holland!) that made the 12-hour trek go by like a breeze. A few beers and few poker games, a sleep… and we were ready to go when we arrived in the wee hours of the a.m. We decided to stick together with the Dutch couple and we all snagged some nice rooms at a relaxing and calm little guesthouse in Chiang Mai. Chiang Mai is Thailand’s second largest city, but it is waaaaay more calm and relaxed than Bangkok. I used to think I loved big cities, but found that Bangkok was just way too much for me. Chiang Mai, on the other hand, had big city hustle and bustle, but it wasn’t too big and overwhelming and you could find plenty of calmer side streets. In other words, I really like Chiang Mai. I don’t like Bangkok so much.

The first few days Ben and I just chilled, got more work done with WiFi access at Peppermint Cafe, and explored Chiang Mai a little bit… markets with amazing street vendor food, more golden Buddhas and temples, motorbike rides to the outlying mountain to see the impressive temple at the top, chatting with monks… and, of course, we booked our trip! But, lo and behold, I got sick the night before we were supposed to take off. We had gone out to dinner with Ben’s dad’s friend actually… this time eating at an actual fully Westernized restaurant instead of street vendor food or little local joints. The dinner was fun… I believe Ben really enjoyed getting to hear more about his family… his dad and his uncles. But after, as Ben was browsing the nearby market for watches, I started feeling a bit funny. I stuck out the market though, because I knew Ben wanted to get a good deal on some knock-offs for his friends back home. When we got back to our little corner and began preparing for bed… my stomach really started feeling funky. I decided to just try and sleep…. Sometime in the early morning I woke up and… it wasn’t pretty… I was sick… I’m talking lying on the floor head inside the bathroom door sick. Aching. Chills. No fun. Ben woke up… discovered my less than charming state… slapped on some ear plugs, and pretended to sleep through it all. Even less charming.

By the time the sun came up I was feeling a bit better and I began to believe I had gotten through most of it. We both decided it probably wouldn’t be a good idea to go on the trek though… so I was the one who dragged my sick self out the door and walked to the travel agency to ask if we could leave for the trek the next day. When I got back we both wanted to sleep more since neither of us got much sleep… huh, go figure. But, it turns out I didn’t sleep much more. I got sick all over again. Still no fun. I finally asked Ben to take me to the hospital. (He had the rented motorbike still). Ben obliged… barely. Apparently, he has a phobia for sickness and hospitals. Shrug.

So yeah, an on the spot doctor’s visit, a diagnosis of food poisoning, two prescriptions for antibiotics and a prescription for Dramamine (for the nausea) cost less than $50. Total. That’s the equivalent to my co-pay for an E.R. visit in the U.S. Crazy.

We hung around Chiang Mai for most of the rest of day while I recuperated. By evening, I was filled with antibiotics and feeling just about right as rain. But, by then there was no question that the luster of traveling with Ben was getting a bit dull. Looking back though, that’s kind of expected when you greet someone you really don’t know all that well in a foreign country and you greet him already being exhausted with a bit of a cough and a head cold. Then, in just a couple of days you both get royally scammed. Then, in just a couple more, one of you gets food poisoning. My travels in Europe were worry-free and to put it simply… enchanting. Ben’s southeast Asian adventures up until my arrival were raw and exciting without many hang-ups. We meet in Bangkok… and suddenly we’re both battling a series of typical, but nonetheless draining and disenchanting, travel hang-ups in less then a week. But hey, trekking was on for the next day!

Bewildered in Bangkok

I was going. Nothing was stopping me. But when I earnestly planted myself on that plane… that is, after I had to drop another $450 for a return flight home because they wouldn’t let me board the plane to Thailand without proof of a way of exiting the country… I couldn’t help but think, ‘What am I doing? I’m on a plane… with a bunch of Germans on my way to Bangkok.’ I can’t help but wonder… ‘Am I crazy?’ There you have it. Bold and sassy Laura gets scared. Gasp. Secret’s out. All my life I’ve been asking for an adventure like this. Dreaming of it. But again, I think, ‘Ahhh! I’m on a plane to Bangkok with a bunch of Germans!!!’ I shiver… and I can’t believe it. So yeah… am I crazy? I can’t help but think of the nickname my dear old friends from Madrid Lane affectionately christened me with not too long ago: “Pluto.” They say I’m just “too far out there.” I’m beginning to believe they’re assessment is dead on. And as I fly over foreign lands with foreign Germans I think of Jonathon and Ryan… and I miss them. I miss the comforts of Madrid Lane… homemade hummus… strawberry milk… and Rupert… (cringe) I guess. ; )

I love the way Ben described how us travelers looked when I arrived in Bangkok… because that’s just how I felt… ” their gaze slowly drifted up to the top of the terminal, leaving their chin hanging slack below, and their eyes took on an unfocused ‘I’m so lost right now, help me God’ look. ” I wondered how in the world was I supposed to find Ben in the jumble of people holding name signs and calling out to us dazed and confused travelers. But then, suddenly there was Ben striding confidently towards me, slowly materializing out of the mad throng of people… and I smiled a sigh of relief. Ben led me through the hustle bustle in the airport, I changed my remaining euros to Thai baht and then we took off in a bus headed for Kao San Road, the tourist district of Bangkok. It was the start of a new kind of traveling for me. I was no longer traveling as a couchsurfer, but as a backpacker. No longer holing up with a local, but sharing a guesthouse with fellow foreigners… from every part of the globe.

On the bus ride I could see that Bangkok stretched on forever. Literally, the city, the skyscrapers, the high rises, the factories, the web of streets, the people like colonies upon colonies of ants… they just didn’t seem to ever stop. This city is massive. But, then again, it is the third largest city in the world. And if you don’t gather that from the sheer size of the city… you most certainly will get the hint from the thick, smog-filled air. It’s hard to breathe in Bangkok plain and simple… and you don’t really get used to it.

Kao San Road was no different. We had to weave our way through throngs of people, except now they were mostly all Westerners… of course there were swarms of Thai tuk-tuk drivers trying to tell you that you really did need a ride versus asking if you needed one. There were also plenty of Thai street vendors selling everything from fresh pineapple and watermelon, to crepes stuffed with banana and chocolate that where drizzled with more chocolate and condensed milk to fried crickets and other bugs I couldn’t identify. There were vendors selling T-shirts and sunglasses galore… and every other Asian and Western trinket you could think of. It was a tourist madhouse. Both intriguing and repelling all at the same time. It was definitely a bit overwhelming. Especially since I was already a bit dazed, a bit tired from the long flight and to be honest, already a bit rundown from my blitz-like travels in Europe. I felt really relieved to have a travel companion… someone to kind of hand over the reigns to for a little bit. Pretty much, whatever Ben threw at me I was game for… thinking more or less, ‘if you plan it, I will come.’

The guesthouse Ben showed me helped clear the bedazzled fog for me a bit. It was near crazy Kao San Road but it wasn’t on top of it. It was nestled in a little corner just behind it… close enough to the action, but far enough to find some reprieve from the madness. It was perfect really… and immaculately clean for that matter. There were always young girls scrubbing the floors and walls with toothbrushes. You almost felt bad walking through the place. You did have community bathrooms. But the toothbrush queens kept them pretty clean for the most part.

Though I was a bit tired because it felt as if it should be time for bed in Europe… it was mid-morning in Thailand, so there was no sense in sleeping. Thus, Ben and I took off to find me some proper backpacking gear. Another road not too far from Kao San was the place to find authentic goods… though they were being hawked… whether they were old bags sold off… or simply stolen… one has no way of knowing. Either way, I ended up with a steal, getting a huge backpacker-style bag with all kinds of pockets, straps and pads for about $60. It’s easily a $180-$200 bag new. So yeah, a steal either way you look at it. I also picked up some ‘fishermans’ pants.’ They’re one size fits all loose-fitting pants with huge wastes. You just tie the two cloth strings and fold over any extra material. Cool and comfy for the heat.

Though I was not couchsurfing anymore, there are actually a ton of couchsurfers in Bankok and Ben had already met a handful of them. There was a cs gathering that night in Bangkok, so after a bit of afternoon relaxation, Ben and another traveler he knew and I took off to navigate our way to another part of the massive city that evening. That meant taking a water taxi… and that was a rather new and exciting experience for me. You clamber on to this oversized rickety, rusty bucket of boats that has rows of wooden planks for seats, rusty metal sheets for roofs, and blue tarp for splash guards. You speed through the water, winding on the river through Bangkok. At least, it supposed to be a river. It’s more like a sewage dump that’s surrounded by some of Bangkok’s poorest… the poor people’s excuses for shacks litter the river’s banks just as the cities endless trash and sewage litter the water. On a different water taxi ride, Ben and I spied the all too familiar street vendor preparing fruit amid the poor, filthy riverside shacks… and we thought maybe eating that fresh looking fruit wasn’t such a good idea. But, in the end. You still eat from the vendors. Though, maybe that’s why I got sick later. But, I’m getting ahead of myself…

The cs gathering was great fun. There were about 30 of us… mostly Thai… but a fair amount of travelers… all dining at a lovely restaurant with colorful lights and green, flowery foliage… with the occasional rat scampering through the leaves. The people were all great. Everyone had their own travel stories to retell and travel plans to delight over. After dinner a handful of us trekked back to a open-air bar a few floors up near Khao San Road. I had so much fun sharing more travel stories and good ol laughs and a few dance moves here and there. Finally, Ben and I decided to head back to our guesthouse.

The rest of my time in Bangkok was spent eating coconut shakes, coconut porridge, pad thai and banana flower salad, glimpsing a few golden buddhas, zipping around on Tuk-tuks (wheeled carts with seats attached to the back of a moto), getting scammed like an idiot, sneaking into swimming pools, getting ahead on some work, chatting with fellow travelers and chilling out to some movies here and there with Ben. Oh, I musn’t forget the ginormous techno mega mall… I snagged a great deal on a 2-gig SD card I needed for my camera. I also bout some knock off Final Cut software (for vid editing) for my MAC… I still haven’t gotten the program to load though… ah, well. It was a $15 trial and error for a program that costs hundreds. We also hit up the massive and I mean massive market in Bangkok. It took us an hour just to get to that part of the city where the market was located. You can buy nearly anything there…. Including a few puppies and birds and rabbits and whatever. Ultimately, Ben and I were gearing up for a long bout of travel. The goal: to get to Nepal by March to trek to base camp on Mt. Everest. The plan… to get there by land… traveling through Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, China and India…

Cambodia

So… need to write more about the amazing jungle greens and deep blue skies and amazing waterfalls and elephant rides and bamboo rafting and white water rafting… all a part of the trek I did just outside of Chiang Mai, Thailand. Need to post pics too…

But, first I’ll catch up on where I am now. I’m making this brief because I just wrote this and lost it once already. Anyways, I’m in Siem Reap, Cambodia where you can find the stunning ruins of Angkor Wat. Just got in tonight after taking a12-hour overnight train from Chiang Mai to Bangkok, then taking an early morning bus from Bangkok to the border and finally taking a bus from the border of Cambodia to Siem Reap. But, that last bus ride was more than 8 hours for just 150 km. The road in Cambodia is dirt, full of pits, crags and gashes. We bounced all over the place for nearly 9 hours straight. Crazy. Dry dusty roads. Wet soggy marshlands. People living in stilted shacks. Then… bam. Paved roads and five star hotels that cost $1000 a night (simply outrageous… I’m staying at a place for $6 a night). I’m traveling with an English bloke I met on the trek. We were planning on “jogging over to the Cambodian beachs,” since it’s the high season and the Thai beaches are insanely busy. Jog… ha. Anyway. We’re finally in Siem Reap. Will check out the ruins. Then head down to Phnom Penh and finally to the beach at Sihanoukville.

I guess my plans are still to do what I came to do… get to everest. But, instead of hiking to base camp (which i’ve heard is just the world’s highest dump), I’ll do a trek to Goa. It’s higher than base camp and gives an absolutely fantastic and unobstructed view of Mt. Everest. Fellow American clued me in to all this during the Cambodia travels…

Trading Bells and Chimes for Gongs and Bongs.

I need to get more pics up for this one… but this is a pic of Moritz, Peter and I.

This Christmas market in Graz, Austria is bigger than the one in Saarbrucken, Germany. A little more ornate… more bells chiming… the same cozy, comfy feel of bringing the people together.

That’s where I spent my third and last night in Graz with Claudia and Lisa (last night at least for awhile). We had spent the afternoon in the city… Claudia introducing me to all the sites. Graz is a rather artistic city with a floating boat sculpture in the river and an art museum that looks like futuristic bubbles. The building is made from dark blue glass and no two pieces are alike in size. The Austrian clock tower on the hill is Graz’s distinguishing landmark… and to get there we walked through the inner courtyard of a monastery. My brief tour of it all really made me curious to discover more… but, that will have to wait. Right now, I’m on a train to Munich… hoping that my reservation for a plane ticket to Bangkok will be finalized by the time I arrive in Munich. I am planning to be in the air tomorrow evening… on my way to more wild adventures… in Asia with Ben!

Remember Ben? I met him in Atlanta in October and we spent a fantastically fun couple of days together … all just before he was taking off to rough it an Asia on his own. I’ve since directed you to check out his blog about his journey. The things he’s doing and seeing are incredible. It’s fun to read Ben’s blogs… getting glimpses of his Asian adventures through his stories and pictures. But then a post came about an opportunity that I did NOT just want to read about… I had to be in on it! ; ) So, I beseeched Ben to hold off on his trek to base camp on Mt. Everest, until I came to Europe and we could rendezvous and take on the mountain together. Ben is so great… he was up for it from the start! So… it was settled. We’d go together!! But, the when part was still being worked out. Originally, Ben and I were going to meet up after he finished a two-week gig teaching English. That meant I could then keep plans to visit other friends around Christmas and New Year’s and I’d be making my way to Asia just a few days after the new year.

BUT, Ben’s teaching gig fell through because of a mixup with paperwork… and, his email suggesting we could bump up our rendezvous and get a head start on Nepal came, literally, just as Claudia was feeding me all her stories of strange and exciting adventures. Thus, I was enticed by Ben’s offer like a bee is attracted to honey. Of course, I bought the next reasonably-priced ticket to Bangkok. I’m ridiculously excited about meeting Ben and going with him on this trip. Every time I think about it I want to do a little dorky dance! ; ) The plan is to meet in Bangkok and then make our way over land to Nepal. That’s actually quite a ways. We’ll be traveling through India and China… perhaps Cambodia and Vietnam. Ahhhhhh! Really, I’m so crazy excited! I’m really looking forward to this trip… and I’m really looking forward to seeing Ben again!

First, I have one night in Munich though… and, funny enough… my host Moritz from Saarbrucken is in Munich for the weekend. So, I’ll have a familiar and friendly face to kick it with during my last night in Europe! I love cs… I love how it brings so many cool people into my life!

***update: Met up with Peter, my host in Munich, and after dropping my bag off at his place (yeah! one bag! Claudia let me leave a lot of my stuff with her…) we headed to Tollwood. It´s like a gigantic Christmas Market… but also more of a festival. You can find food from every corner of the world… but there´s tons of typical Bavarian food and beer of course! Peter was great and let me ramble on about all my adventures. We also plunged into some hefty topics of discussion within like 30 minutes. Really, couchsurfers are just amazing people! Moritz (my host from Saarbrucken) then met up with us and we all had a blast just goofing off and drinking too much Feuerzangenbowle, Gluehwein, hot Caipirinha and Almrausch (a hot rum punch)! Peter and Moritz definitely gave me a great send off for my last night in Europe! Can´t wait to come back and see more of this city though!!******