The Wonderful Land of Angkor

For many backpackers traveling through Southeast Asia, Cambodia is the country they most look forward to. It may be small in size, but it is rich in culture and history, and home to one of the Seven Wonders of the World, Angkor Wat. It is hard to say which country was my favorite part of my Southeast Asia adventure, but unofficially, Cambodia was the country that got me excited to visit.

 

Traveling from Bangkok, Thailand to Siem Reap, Cambodia can be not only a little stressful, but also expensive if you don’t know how. Many travelers pay a tour company anywhere from an equivalent of $75 to $100 to be bussed from Bangkok to Siem Reap in an air-conditioned, comfortable bus. Tourist trap is all I have to say. While it takes more time and you have to switch transportation methods a few times, if you make accommodations yourself you can get to Siem Riep just an hour or two after those tour buses drop off their clientele and for a fraction of the price and you get to experience local transportation.

 

The first step is the train from Bangkok to Aranyaprathet, the major city just off the border. You travel by passenger train, where seats are first come, first serve and there is no food or air conditioning, but for $1.50 you can’t really complain. There are two trains, the morning and afternoon. Check local listings for exact time and changes. While I did not take the later, I would recommend taking the early morning train. Given the condition the train is and the potential for break downs and delays, there is a good chance you could miss the border and be forced to stay overnight because the borders are closed until the next morning. A tuktuk will transport you from the “train station” –or more like, a small patch of sidewalk– to the border for just $1, and after waiting in line and confirming you have your passport visa correct and valid, you walk across the border of Thailand and through a small stretch of ‘No Mans Land’ before entering Cambodia. If you’re lucky, there might be a local bus that will transport you to Siem Reap, but from other blogs and travel websites, that bus ‘conveniently’ leaves right before the train arrives. Because I prefer to be safe than sorry, my friends and I booked a private car through the hostel we were staying at to wait for us at the border and transport us there. The positives about this option, is regardless if the train is late arriving and there is a delay at the border, which is what we encountered, the car will still be there waiting for you. Especially if you are traveling with a few other people, this option ends up being very inexpensive. I believe all in all, in a group of four, each person paid $15. A fraction of the price. 

Siem Reap is an absolutely amazing, relaxing town. Everyone is so eager to assist and talk, and it was one of the most welcome towns I visited during my trip. Angkor Wat is not within walking distance, unless you want to practice your marathon skills, but you can easily take a bike tuktuk to shuttle you not only two and from the site, but between each temple.

 

My one piece of advice is this: Angkor is made up of many different temples, and just like Chiang Mai, you can get templed out very fast. Put some research into the first one you want to see. It will be the one that leaves the largest impression on you; the one you will remember for the rest of your life. After a day or two, they meld together and it will lose the enchanting feel.  Rather than being in awe by the beauty of each temple, you start to just check them off. We decided on Ta Prom, not just for its earthy appeal, but also because as a nerd myself, I was excited to see where part of Tomb Raider had been filmed.

 

Given the amount of time you decide to spend wandering around and how many days you allot to exploring Angkor, you can see two to three temples a morning before the humidity and heat gets too unbearable. A three day pass gives you enough time to solidly explore the places you want to see, experience both a sunrise and a sunset on the grounds, and spend the afternoons enjoying the small town of Siem Reap before moving on to your next destination.

 

I have and will always be a mainstream tourist, and while I knew that Angkor Wat is what everyone, including myself would come for, but I also believe the smaller temples deserved as much recognition. Besides Angkor Wat, if I was to choose three temples that are a must see, they would be as follows:

 

1. Ta Prom – Not just because this was the first temple that we visited, but because of it’s overall beauty. Trees growing through the structure and left. This temple has been preserved/reconstructed, but overall, it remains as is.
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2. Bayon – I think the pictures are self explanatory, but with roughly 300 large stone heads, it is absolutely breathtaking. You can climb right up next to the faces and marvel at the skill it took to create each one.
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3. Preah Khan – To see a temple as it is after this many years. Unrestored. Stones where they have fallen and remain untouched. I am a fan of restoring history and allowing people to see what it once looked like and was, but at the same time, I love raw tourism. Sites that haven’t been touched and are as they are, regardless of the destruction that we may have caused them over the years. That’s what I feel gives it history.
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If you have extra days or time, take a moment to visit the Night Market and relax. There are massage parlors all over the place. While trying to escape the rain, my friends and I got a 30 minute foot massage, and it was spectacular. You can get a fish pedicure–although I will warn you, there might be embarrassing videos taken of you freaking out. Attend a cultural event and watch the native dances be preformed. The options are endless in Siem Reap. They have truly embraced tourism with open arms and created a very welcoming and relaxing destination for all, and they made my trip through northern Cambodia very enjoyable.
  

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One more destination down, five more to go. Next stop, Phnom Penh.

 

 

Chiang Mai – The Home of Elephants and Temple Overload

Surprisingly, with all the chaos around the missing flight of MH370, Kuala Lumpur’s airport was very calm and operating normally. The flight from Kuala Lumpur to Chiang Mai, Thailand was a little over three hours, and very comfortable. This may be associated with the fact that the flight attendant asked me to move to another row, one with no passengers in it. Immediately after takeoff, I proceeded to enjoy the space until I heard the “please prepare for landing” speech from the captain and the flight attendants.

It really is hard to say what part of my trip was my favorite, but my time in Chiang Mai was right up there. For being an international destination, Chiang Mai is a very quant town that is bustling with attractions to keep you entertained. Chiang Mai is divided into two parts, the city within the river, what was previously a mote and runs as a square around the central part, and the city outside of it. Inside the river is what I like to call Temple City. It seems like on every corner there is a temple to go into, explore, and be amazed by its beauty. Two things to note about the temples of Chiang Mai: don’t forget to abide by the rules of respect when visiting them. This means no shoulders showing, and no knees showing. Dress moderately. Just wear what you would to a conservative church. The other thing is don’t feel you have to visit every single one. You can very easily be overloaded by temples and not want to visit any more as your backpacking travels continue. My friends and I unfortunately fell victim to that. We were so excited to be in Chiang Mai that we visited too many temples too fast and found ourselves “templed out” by the time we reached Bangkok.

If I had to choose three temples to recommend in Chiang Mai, here’s what I would say. Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep is a must. It is a half day or day trip outside of Chiang Mai, and make sure you take your motion sickness pills before leaving because that road is rough. I would know. I had to stop the car because I couldn’t handle all of its curves. Just beware. Besides that, this temple is breathtaking, its spire in particular. Completely plated by gold, it can actually make your eyes advert from staring straight at it because it is reflects the sun so much. Wat Chiang Man is the next. This is a less visited temple, but if you happen to stumble upon it, it is worth the visit. It is preserved nicely and doesn’t have the normal glitz and glam of the other temples around the city. That’s what I like the most about this temple. It’s beautiful and small without really trying. My final recommendation is Wat Chedi Luang. Unfortunately, my friends and I never made it to the spire, but the temple and alter within it are both jaw dropping and after seeing pictures of the spire, I know that would have been too. It is on a large property which makes it very popular with tourists, but it doesn’t take away from the experience.

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 The spire at Doi Suthep

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Wat Chiang Man

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Wat Chedi Luang

 

Another reason people come to Chiang Mai is for the elephants. There are so many different options for elephant experiences. It’s hard to make a choice on which one to do. My friends and I tried to sit down and pick a company that did not mistreat their elephants. Baan Chang Elephant Park is what we decided. It cannot be for certain that the elephants are not mistreated, but it was our best option, and while we were there, we did not see anything that was outright hurting to the elephants. They will pick you up at your hotel, hostel, or wherever you are staying and transport you to the park. (on a side note, if you’re looking to splurge and sleep in some of the most comfortable beds ever, Raming Lodge is the one for you while in Chiang Mai.) Jimmie was our ‘handler’ and he was one of the funniest and most enjoyable tour guides we had the entire trip.

For the first hour, we walked around and fed the elephants sugarcane. We were allowed to pet them and interact with them. Jimmie had one of the baby elephants give us kisses which feels like a vacuum getting stuck on your neck. We then spent the next two hours training on commands for when we ride the elephants. The commands escape my mind right now, but they were the traditional commands you would teach your dog—stop, go, left, right, down, up. We practiced getting on and off the training elephant before we ventured onto the trails with our elephants. Amy and I were elephant buddies, each taking turns being the rider and the passenger. Elephants are really not that comfortable. Being such large animals, it becomes uncomfortable to sit on them. Not to mention their hair, while it looks soft and puppylike, is actually very rough and scratchy. But they’re really gentle creatures and riding them was an experience I will always remember. You end the experience by bathing your elephant in the pond, and they are not shy elephants. They have as much fun as their riders.

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Five days in Chiang Mai was enough to really experience this small city and everything it has to offer. It’s spectacular night market, the upscale market of jade, silver, and silk, and the many many massage parlors that offer traditional Thai massages and on the sidewalk fish pedicures.

Our next stop was Bangkok, the capital of Thailand. We took the overnight train down, and woke up to the sound of the train horn as we entered Bangkok. It was my birthday weekend and I had some fun times in store.

Sepilok’s Orangutans and Kuala Lumpur’s Batu Caves. An End to Malaysia Travels.

When planning our trip across Southeast Asia on our way home to the United States, Amy and I sat down and looked through the guide books to see what we would want to do. The entire point to making the voyage out to the Borneo Island for us was Sandakan. Sandakan is small oceanside city on the Malaysian side of the island that is the transit point to Sepilok, the home of the Sun Bear Sanctuary and Orangutan Rehabilitation Center.

I remember the moment that Amy and I got off the plane and were waiting in the taxi line and an elderly tourist stopped me.

“Excuse me miss? Can you tell me why there are so many young individuals flying to here?” he asked me.

“There’s an Orangutan Center thirty minutes away from here,” I responded back.

“Oh….I thought it was something more exciting,” and with that he turned and walked away.

More exciting? What can be more exciting than visiting a center that is only one of four in the world? The world, people!

Sepilok is an easy taxi ride from the airport. We discovered early on in our travels, that when having to take public transportation, it was typically easier to take a taxi, then local buses. Not only in efficiency, but because with local buses, you have to change buses to get almost anywhere. It is also really convenient, and overall, not that expensive. At any airport, you go to the taxi window, tell the attendant where you are going, they charge you a cost, you pay, and then you give the ticket to taxi driver when you go outside. It prevents greatly from the taxi drivers scamming you by running up the meter, if it even has a meter.

There is no dirt cheap place to stay in Sepilok. The luxury hotels monopolize the area, but the Long House offers a somewhat inexpensive accommodation. Food however, good luck. Look to be spending US prices eating the simplest meals on the menu. That’s just the way it is. The hotels are the only option for eating.

The Orangutan Rehabilitation Center is open all day for hiking, but there are only two feedings to see the orangutans, 10am and 3pm. If you want the best value for the ticket price, go to watch both feedings. If you have two days in Sepilok and you won’t make the first feeding for the first day, put it off and go to the Sun Bear Sanctuary instead. Right across the street, and pushed out of the limelight because of the orangutans is the sanctuary where the world’s smallest bear lives, and they are worth the visit. They are some of the cutest animals I have ever seen, and they climb trees! We spent three hours without even knowing it watching them climb up and down trees.

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Apart from the Sun Bears and Orangutans, Sepilok is also home to the Rainforest Education Center, a great place to take a hike and bird watch if you have extra time, and learn about the plants that call Malaysia home. But beware of the humidity and the leeches! They’ll get you every time.

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 Amy and I spent a total of two nights in Sepilok, and left the morning of the third day to our final Malaysian destination, Kuala Lumpur. We had intentions to make the trip to Kuala Selangor to experience the fireflies, but with traffic getting back into Kuala Lumpur from the airport, we missed the last bus out, meaning an extra night in Kuala Lumpur, doubling our time in there. We ended up staying at The Pod Hostel, one of the coolest hostels I stayed in the entire trip. The dorm rooms were the same, but the individual room we slept in the first night since nothing in the dorms were available was very “pod”esc, something I enjoyed.

The reason we only allotted two days to Kuala Lumpur was mainly because it was just a stopping point on the way to Thailand. We did want to visit the Batu Caves and two friends from our Peace Corps group were in town as well, so our days were planned, and only two were needed.

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Everyone that travels through Malaysia has heard of the Batu Caves. It is a religious sight, known for its tall statue guarding the stairs and the entrance of the cave. It too can be easily reached by the local metro system, costing roughly $4 round trip, dropping you off right at the entrance. It would be beneficial to do some cardio in the days leading up because those steps will definitely cause you to be winded by the time your reach the top. You can be blessed at any one of the temples, giving a dollar or two donation in return. I have never liked when people make a religious site a tourist trap by ‘selling’ the experience, but Batu Caves does it in a very classy way. Monks are walking about, using the grounds to further their faiths, and overall, tourists are very respectful of what areas are designated tourist and what remain for their original purpose.

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Petronas Twin Towers, also in KL

Malaysia was a whirlwind of 7 days and a lot was accomplished in that time. There was little time to relax, but rather take in the sights, and the rest of our trip would be the same as well. On to Thailand, starting with a flight into Chiang Mai.

Navigating Airports Through Malaysia to Kota Kinabalu

When you join Peace Corps, you are bitten by the travel bug. You want to go everywhere, see everything, and experience it all. I traveled through four different countries on my way home after finishing my service. First stop was Malaysia. It was a bit unfortunate that I visited the country a mere month after the Malaysia Air flight went missing after takeoff. That was all anyone could converse about. I was even a little hesitant myself to get on a plane when more than 5 countries and 13 military ships couldn’t find the wreckage of the plane that supposedly went down. With that being said, I tried to not let the conspiracy bring down the expectations I had for traveling. A little easier said than done. The nearly two months of traveling involved 9 flights. I took one flight at a time, and enjoyed the each destination reminding myself nothing ever comes from being worried.

If you know me, you know I have everything planned out. I want to know where I’m going, and when I’m going to get there. Something I didn’t research, that now I look back and realize I should have, was airports. I assumed that when you arrived into one airport and you have a connecting flight in the same city, you just need to walk to the gate…wrong. Note to any backpackers who might be traveling through Southeast Asia, or more importantly Kuala Lumpur, and happens to stumble across this post, there are TWO airports. One for any international flight and one for regional transportation/Air Asia. They are not in the same airport, and more detrimental, they are not close to each other. I allowed two hours in between arriving in Kuala Lumpur and catching a flight to Kota Kinabalu. I believe a little over one hour before our flight was supposed to take off, a nice gentleman told us that we needed to get to another airport, 30 minutes away. Queue panic mode.

Air Asia terminals are laid out strangely. They screen your bag before you get to the counter. You check in online, preferably twenty four hours prior to your flight, which is when your seat is assigned unless you pay the extra few dollars to pick your own seat. I have also noticed that when you fly with Air Asia, the first seat they assign you tends to be the seat whereabouts you are assigned for the rest of your travels. I never sat in a row less than 22 which my friend always seemed to be sitting around row 9. When we arrived, t-minus 30 minutes to the terminal, we rushed through the lines trying to get through security before our plane took off. Success!
After a short three hour flight to the island of Borneo, we landed at our first destination, Kota Kinabalu. After checking into our hostel, we went searching for food, and our first meal outside of Madagascar ended up being chicken livers and rice. We found some small hole in the wall place right around the corner from our hostel, and the cravings for rice lead us into this little establishment. Filled with Malay individuals who all gave us a puzzle luck as to why two Americans were eating there, we ate our meal, discussing that although we may have left Madagascar, we never really left our picked up habits.

The entire reason for visiting Kota Kinabalu is to climb Mt. Kinabalu and visit Tunku Abdul Rahman Park second. In order to climb Mt. Kinabalu you need a climbing permit and reservation, something we didn’t get, so that was out. Second choice, Tunku Abdul Rahman Park. A national park of four islands, it is a relaxing place to snorkel and enjoy the ocean. Tour companies will try to sell you a package tour for nearly triple the price of what you would to walk down to the port and buy the boat hopper ticket and snorkels yourself. Backpackers are all about pinching pennies, so walking and figuring out the program yourself means adding a nice meal to your schedule later on. When visiting islands however, make sure you mind the hundreds and hundreds of jelly fish that hang out on the shoreline.

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Kota Kinabalu also has an amazing food night market, one of the best I saw in the two months traveling. Descriptions can’t even do it justice. Just look at the photos. Fresh fish and seafood, coconuts, and very hospitable people working the stations.
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(photo creds to Amy Wallace)

There are so many tours taking off from Kota Kinabalu to other locations. We opted to see the summit of Mt. Kinabalu and the Poring Hot Springs for our last day in town. The massive size of Mt. Kinabalu alone was worth the trip, but personally, I felt Poring Hot Springs was completely overrated. It had been commercialized to the point that it lost its raw tourism aspect and felt more like a water park than anything. For those that want to really “experience” the island, I don’t think I would ever recommend it as a destination. For a family outing, it would be perfect. But if you do end up venturing out that direction, you can get a free pedicure in the waterfall behind the rope bridge at Poring from the little fishes that eat dead skin.

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Kota Kinabalu was a fast first stop on the two month adventure, stay tuned for part two: Sepilok and Kuala Lumpur.