Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Changes in Cambodia

After returning from the 25 month world bike trip with Rick in 2000, Cambodia stood out to me as one of my favourite countries.  As we approached the border of Cambodia from Thailand on this trip with the family now in 2018, I wondered, “Will Cambodia still hold its charm for me?” I had heard from other travelers a not-so-rosy description of modern Cambodia.  I’m happy to say that the genuine goodness of people in Cambodia remains the same. 
In 1999, Siem Reap (the town closest to the temple complexes of Angkor) was a busy little town with mud streets, we felt lucky to find a single guest house.  The national highway from the Thailand border was solid dirt and mud, and had continuous giant round holes filled with water - results of  war that was now in the past.  We visited Angkor Wat, the World Heritage site completely on our own.  We didn’t see another soul there.

Now…2018…Siem Reap is the Las Vegas/Disneyland of Southeast Asia.  Everywhere you look are high rise, high end hotels, eateries, shopping and tourist prices across the board. The national highway is now paved and smooth, though the chaos echoes the roads of India. The Angkor Temples are crawling with tourists –every one of them.  I would say a million tourists are on the vast complex at any one time.

The good…we got off the main road and took the slow rugged one, staying at a tiny village school and buddist temple.  We took a river boat for a day to complete the journey to Siem Reap. The Cambodians we interact with are genuine, kind and seem to value us as people.  The food is still a gamble, there are amazing French baguettes filled with pickled and fresh vegies and what we call “pig face”, it looks like chopped up pig rind…and that’s the best of the choices of the available “meat”.  Don’t think we will be trying the grilled rats that have replaced the grilled chicken we were able to find roadside in Thailand.  And now, the big silver soup pots lined up at the lunch table aren’t even an option in my mind (we’d struggle through the unknown contents in 1999, but now that I know they likely contain rat…hmmmm).  Pineapples are ever so sweet.  Sweet sticky rice riddled with black beans and stuffed into thick bamboo cylinders is a special treat.  We can still find the Asian noodle soup that is a solid (can’t avoid the intestine/tube chunks and chopped organ meat sometimes though.)  It’s a different world here, and the McFerrin boys want to utilize the 30 possible days allotted by our visas. – I guess that’s the magic of Cambodia.

Attire:  awesome, styling hats on Cambodian men and women alike.  Many are made in a thick yarn crochet style with some kind of brim.  Women wear matching floral pajama-style leisure suits for all activities and women in towns usually have on lipstick.

Lots of kids.  Lots of kids riding bikes to school.  Waiting tables.  Helping prepare your dinner. Helping their parents at work.  Kids are always present.

Weather is still hot and sticky but we’ve had a bit more cloud cover and wind.  Nights cool down to the twenties.  Next stop (more than a week away) is Phnom Penh, where we get to visit our friend Maria who works at a school there.
Rick taking a selfie with kids at the school on the temple grounds.  We camped here the night before.

A delicious nutritious (?) sweet sticky rice treat.  Nice to see natural packaging that still exists.

Early morning on the roads of Cambodia. No one is going anywhere fast!

So many kids.  They clearly know how to entertain themselves. These ones spent the day on the school grounds while their older siblings were in class.  We camped here this night and they all slowly returned to their homes as the evening wore on.

Angkor Wat -  carvings on the walls behind the columns surround the inner towers,  an incredible pictorial history of Angkor culture.

An entrance to the Bayan Temple complex.  After a full day of "temple-ing",  including fantastic jungle single track, we arrived at a great time for taking pictures in late afternoon sunshine.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Peaceful Travel in Thailand

Nope, I don't think this monitor lizard is big enough to eat Tarn.  Lumpini Park, Bangkok

Our first request to camp at a Buddhist temple was a positive.  So nice to figure out an easy and peaceful place to lay your head in Thailand.  Later this night Markos joined a group of teens playing soccer on the temple complex  field.  Temples serve as community centres in Thailand.

Tarn has grown a shade headdress.  He hooked it onto the tandem and Rick and he sported the ornament the rest of the day. 

Is this a reality show?  No, it's real life.  Markos, Sampson and Tarn have fun on a raft at a Scout adventure camp, Chanthaburi, Thailand. King Rama 9 made Scouting part of the school curriculum and all Thai youth experience the Scout program. 
The beach at last.  We return to the island of Koh Chang.  The site of some serious R and R eighteen years ago when Rick and I visited this rain forest reserve during our 25 month bike journey around the world. It still holds it's charm.

The bike trip calls for treats along the way.  This beach side bungalow is a dream.  Rick has made pancakes this morning and we look out onto the aquamarine waters and white sand as we enjoy our breakfast.
I sit in front of a fan in shorts and a swim top having taken two cold showers already today.  No complaints, just a different world.  The front door is open, mosquitoes fly about and a motorbike whirs by off and on.  The wind tunnel I’ve created by opening the back door too is effective at the moment.  We have cycled 6 days straight without a break to land in Chanthaburi and are about to take a family holiday and some downtime on a protected, forested, yet tourist friendly island of Koh Chang.  My life is being available to my family, making sure they stay healthy body wise (sun effects from exposure all day, safe water and plenty of it to stay hydrated, healthy energy food) all the time in an environment that is completely Thai.  No English. No words written that we can comprehend. A new place to stay every night (we camp at National Parks, Buddhist temples, and find economic hotels that have fans.)  The still air at night can be stifling in a tent, but some nights camping is a dream with forest bird sound and clapping palms.  Every day is a new day and I feel like the luckiest girl in the world to have this “in” on my three teenage boys’ lives before they are off and away in a few years’ time, to say nothing of having my husband man the single burner stove and be ever present in the multitude of decisions that are part of all of our days.  Sampson will have just one year left at home when we return to Calgary in August, then off to University.  Markos and Tarn will follow in the next couple years.  This bicycle expedition has been many years in the planning and I appreciate fully the impacts it is making on our family – communication, learning, confidence.  We are 6 months in, we have 6 months still ahead of us.  

Treats of Thailand, they appear along the road we ride each day
  • spicy green papaya salad as well as green mango salad with tiny crispy fried fish
  • giving each boy 100 baht (approx $3)  for dinner and seeing what they choose at the night market (a mango shake, bbq pork on rice with clear soup, a banana pancake and fresh mango was last night's choice for me)
  • purchasing grilled chicken, spicy/sweet chili sauce and sticky rice on the road in the morning for later lunch biking break
  • finding a cold drink stand and relishing a ice coffee made with sweetened condensed and evaporated milk, brewed coffee and a bag full of ice
  • receiving smiles and thumbs up, and no more of the constant request for "selfie-selfie!" that occurred continuously as motorbikes slowed next to us in India
  • Buddhist wats (temples) that offer a peaceful, shady break, clean drinking water and a wash down option if we ask to camp there that night

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Chennai to Bangkok

Sampson performs at an annual colony community celebration, Chennai, India.
Mr. Varadan, myself and Amelu.  These are my in-laws in Chennai, India, who planned numerous events for us in our final two weeks in India.  Mr. Varadan led us by motorbike the 14 km to the airport on our final bike day in India, allowing us to savour our last kilometers of Indian streets and safely navigate the potholes, cows, speed bumps and traffic without worrying about the route to the airport.

End of a long day lining up visas in downtown Bangkok.  Pop in a bag - the perfect extreme cool-down.  Take a bag, fill it with a big scoop of ice, pour in the bottle of pop and stick a straw in it.  The shirts Sampson, Markos and Tarn are wearing were tailor-made for them in Chennai, India, a gift from Mr. Varadan.  Perfect for our visits to the China and Vietnam embassies today.

This is an interesting one, don't know what it's called!
Helliconia - We are surrounded by amazing tropical plants and trees, as well as interesting birdsong here in Nachida Thani, a planned community that houses the international school where our friends work.  Colleen is supervising Sampson, Markos and Tarn's semester one final exams for their distance learning school courses.
Rick and Markos build up their bikes after the flight to Bangkok.  A trip to a bike shop landed us several needed bike parts.  We have bought new, stronger front racks for three of our bikes.

A farewell to India and a welcome to Southeast Asia.  Our transit went smoothly and we were passed from the care of our relatives in Chennai to our friends in Bangkok.  Pretty wonderful.  Colleen Coady is a friend from my last years working as a camp counselor in northern Minnesota.  For the last 20 years she has taught and worked in the administration at international schools.  It was our luck that Bangkok is her current home.  We've looked forward to this point in our trip and Colleen has pulled out all the stops.  Apple crisp, fresh brownies, and her daughter Kate (16 years) organizing the teen scene - tonight it's the swimming pool and going to a movie at the mall with 7 other teens.  Graeme, Colleen's husband, is a retired teacher and has been helping us with our various supply and business needs.  We are housed in an available teacher-housing townhouse, more than accommodating!  We'll head out Tuesday morning, back on the road and beginning our Jan-Feb-March tour of Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos.  The jury is still out if China can be included.  The requirements of an approved travel itinerary with agency-made accommodation each night make the visa a bit of a challenge.  Riding across the border as an independent bicycle tourist is not allowed.

What am I excited for?  Getting back into the rhythm of the road.  It's been a couple weeks of RnR and  all of us are ready to explore a new country.  The food - Thailand is known for it's tasty and ever-present street food.  We can't wait! Seeing the green-green of the countryside.  When I cycled in Thailand in 1999 I remember being sad to leave the lime-green hue of the rice-paddies and jungles behind, after that three month tour of full green immersion.  Stay tuned!  Adventure is ahead.