Monday, December 10, 2012

It's more fun in the Philippines


It has been an amazing couple of weeks (17 days) spent here in the islands. We have seen so many wonderful sights and done so many things, plus met many nice people. In no other country have we been invited for so many homestays. It is hard to pick exactly what the highlight of our trip would be: would it be the first few days spent hopping from island to island on a small sailboat eating the freshest seafood? Or perhaps our final 2 days getting an intimate, personal tour of Philippine life and eating as many mangoes as possible? Or perhaps it would be the amazing underwater sights that we had in the middle part of our journey? Tough to say!  But Julie says she doesn't see me happier as when I'm eating a sweet, ripe mango! :-) Too bad the first part of our trip was desperately lacking in the mango department but fortunately made up for in other local delights.
We start our long journey home today (currently somewhere in the air over Japan) and we're both sad to go home. We felt very welcome in Albert's family and probably could easily have spent a week there soaking up the hospitality of his and his wife's relatives. We were definitely lucky to be in the Philippines at the same time as him and his wife, even if our trips only overlapped by a few days. After travelling on our own and not knowing what everything is and how much it should cost, having Filipinos to guide us and answer our questions was so good. (We were like toddlers; what's that? What's this? Can I try?) Julie and I laughed, as we walked through a hot and crowded market yesterday, that we were cramming as much in as possible and going hard right to the end. Same same as always - we can rest when we get home ;)

Here are the highlights that spring to mind; ask us for the full story and pictures.
- the Palawan river canoeing and sailing adventure through the jungle and islands was stupendous, aside from the crowing roosters and annoying dogs in our humble accommodations - think open air bamboo hut; what it lacked in comfort was more than made up for in atmosphere. Our guide, Gener, is a great guy and fantastic cook. Each morning fisherman would arrive at our "doorstep" offering their catches and Gener would ask us what we would like to eat that day: squid, crab, tilapia fish, eel... then grill it for us on the beach.
- El Nido and the Bacuit Archipelago in northern Palawan are breathtakingly picturesque both above and below the water.  I hopefully won't forget the image of having a school of fish swim around me or the sunset from the bay when our boat broke down on the way back to town.
- meeting new friends and visiting them in a small village north of El Nido, amazingly videoke is priority one, even if generators are the main source of power.
- what they say about the traffic in Manila is true. Oh my gosh! 
- Puerto Galera is home to some great scuba diving and both of us were quite impressed with the abundance and variety of fishes, plus soft and hard coral varieties and the giant clams. We also made the best of a mild typhoon windsurfing!
- Taal volcano and the lake inside a volcano inside the lake inside the volcano makes for a lovely view.
- I saw my first field of pineapples in Tagaytay, where you can get a pineapple for twenty cents! Along with so many other tasty fruits at the big Mahogany Market. Don't forget a hot'n'fresh buko (coconut) pie!
- I became fluent in Tagalog, by which I mean I know how to say "pretty lady", "tasty", "what's your name" and "let's go!", and that got enough laughs out of the boatmen.
- going to the market with Albert was good fun, but standing (or swimming for that matter) idly will get you roped into impromptu group photos.
- the diversity of activities and amount we experienced in such a short time.

Philippines in general:
- I think that the Philippines is the most crowded place we have been. Hong Kong still claims the title as largest crowd but there are just people everywhere here, at nearly all hours of the day (even 4:30am on our way to the airport this morning). Driving here must be exhausting, as there is so much to take in and make instantaneous decisions about: cars, large trucks, motorbikes, tricycles, pedal-powered tricycles, bicycles and people, all moving at different speeds and directions. Fortunately the livestock is off the road, unlike Cambodia.
- it's not quite as cheap as I thought it was going to be. But a beer can be bought for less than a C$1 in the store, slightly over a dollar in a restaurant. And most everything else can be had for about half (or sometimes less) of what it'd be in Canada. Notably, mangoes are about C$2.50/kg.(110 pesos)
- if you're smiling, you're fine. If not they'll likely try hard to make it so that you will be smiling.
- it's hot here, and typhoons pass by faster than storms do back home.
- knock-off Oakley sunglasses can be had for ridiculously cheap here (about a dollar, I think is what I heard the tout say?) - too bad I bought mine in Hong Kong. - the pink/purple eggs for sale are died that way to indicate that they've been boiled in a solution of salt and termite spit. The partially developed ducklings in eggs are less obvious to spot but are worth seeking out for a truly local food experience - ask to see the video of me eating Bulot!
- as mentioned before, they love the karaoke here. At one store in the mall we couldn't figure out where the music was coming from until we walked further in and discovered a staff member singing into a microphone while another flipped through the songbook.
- contrary to other SE Asian countries we've been to, tourism in the Philippines is mostly done by Filipinos.
- also contrary to other places, the internet is not as plentiful or nearly as fast, as say, Vietnam especially.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Bright lights, big city. Times square, HK

11/19/2012 11:50pm
After the long hike on Lamma, Julie definitely wanted a little pampering and had her eye open for a foot massage. They're quite abundant in Hong Kong so it didn't take too long to find one. But they all walk a fine line of your personal comfort level with "sketchiness", as they're frequently located above street level, up a dingy set of stairs and down a hallway. The one we picked walked this line indeed, especially since the lady at the top spoke little English. No matter; all sorted we sat down, WiFi password in hand, to have our feet taken care of.

Times Square in New York is a large gathering place, like, you know, a square. Times Square in Hong Kong is also a gathering place, but it's a mall. Aside from the small plaza in front of the entrance, I think about the only other thing it shares with the more famous version is the large, brightly lit billboards that surround the place. But still, it's pretty neat. Tonight LEGO took over and created a small Lego-Land Christmas scene that was made to be a small village, complete with bakery, restaurant and houses. The bakery's display case was quite impressive with its Lego cakes and pastries. So many people were milling around taking so many pictures of every little Lego figurine; I wonder what happens to all of these photos? Also, seems the new overly-large-to-be-a-phone Samsung Galaxy Note is the phone-du-jour here. I took a lot of people's pictures with theirs.
We had some dim sum in the mall at Crystal Jade whose "xiao long bao" was quite good. We wandered around the streets amongst the shops for a while before things started to shut down around 11. We had been to this area (Causeway Bay) way back in 2008 and it has changed: the bamboo-supported local ads are gone, replaced with new corporate advertisements. It's definitely not the same but there are many other places in HK to find those.
We took the tram (yup, old style electric double-decker tram) home and I got one of the best time lapse videos I've ever done, aside from the one of our drive through New Zealand's Southern Alps. Dunno how to share it...

Monday, November 26, 2012

One night in Puerto

Today was meant to be a down day - recuperating from the sunburn and restless sleeps of the past few days. In that we succeeded. Except we didn't get the laundry done.
We just got back from a bar just down the road from our hotel - so close that the walk home home is barely a memory.  Katabom (pronounced kata-BOOM) is a quaint little spot with live music who will be celebrating their third year anniversary in a couple days. We happened to be walking by the entrance when another couple were walking in. The man said that the live music here is very good and the owner is the best singer in Puerto. A moment's debate by us (I had hoped to go to the Baywalk to see the action) and we went in.
The place was dimly lit, mostly by candlelight and a man was singing cover songs with a guitar. The walls were covered with empty bottles glued together to form a three-dimensional wall paper. We sat down on the heavy metal chairs, trying not to make too much noise as they dragged, screeching along the floor.
The San Miguel beers are still produced in "stubby' format, and here they were served so cold that they were misting in the evening heat (it's still 27°C at 10pm).  I wrote notes in our travel book while Julie took photos. Suddenly two more beers appeared and the server said they were from the couple over there (see over Julie's shoulder in the one image) - the same couple who invited us in.
I thanked them as I passed by to the comfort room and they invited us to join them. A few hours of storytelling ensued with our new friend Marius insisting that we pay him a visit in El Nido when we travel there. "Sleep on a mattress this thick on my balcony and we'll eat fresh fish and watch the stars" he said. Round after round passed through as we discussed scuba diving, tourist traps, engineering, rugby, seafood and Filipino cuisine. He introduced us to a "salad" called kinilaw, which is like a ceviche but larger chunks of raw Spanish mackerel in this case. It was quite tasty! He declared that his girlfriend made the best though, because she made it with coconut milk.
A couple of guys at the next table had a couple of pitchers on their table. Julie wondered what they were so our host asked them. Iced tea apparently. But the smaller one was the local Tanduay rum. Seems the way to drink it is to pour a shot of rum and chase it with the iced tea. (Julie had noted earlier in the day how iced tea is quite popular here.)  Naturally this repatriated Filipino (he moved back from Cali) who was cheerfully wearing his Giants champions T-shirt offered us all a sample. And naturally my Julie was the one in there making it happen! She hopped over to their table after learning that he also had contacts in El Nido whilst I discussed the finer details of Springbok and Allblack rugby.
We collected more contact numbers while sharing our new Filipino cell number and I'm sort of surprised that we outlasted the Cape Town lad, but he did have a 5am bus to catch in order to get his building supplies shipped.
Fortunately we are catching the 11am "Fort Wally" van so we can sleep this off.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Palawan sailing adventure (day 2 to 3) – Snake Island, Honda Bay

This blog is related to the following photo gallery: The adventure took place November 22-25, 2012.

Our second day with Gener on the Tao Philippines jungle tour. (

Today we would finish floating down the Babuyan River and trade boats to start sailing out into Honda Bay.

This tour is typically 3d/2n but we paid for an additional night out in the bay, and we are oh-so-glad that we did because it provided us the chance to experience an island to ourselves.

As we pulled out from the mouth of the river, we could see the white caps on the sea, and admittedly we got a bit nervous about it. So we strapped everything down on to the cargo net of the modified bangka boat. It was a good thing that we did, because it wasn't long before a wave came crashing into the hull and swept right over us! Oh, my, gosh! The water is SO wonderful here! It is the perfect temperature and amazingly clear azure blue. Plus, a few minutes of sitting in that intense sun and both of us were impatiently waiting for another wave to come crashing aboard and cool us down. It was really fun! Unfortunately I didn't have the water camera ready so no pictures of it.

As we sailed along on our little boat, Gener mentioned that he wasn’t sure where we’d stay tonight, as it would depend who was at this one island and how friendly they were feeling. We didn’t sail for long (and we sort of wished that we did a loop around the island just to be on the boat some more) until we coasted in towards a long narrow beach. There was a man there in a bamboo shelter on the beach, and after a bit of conversation, Gener pulled down his sail and happily announced that we were staying here on Snake Island! (I had to ease Julie’s fears that the island was named because of its shape, not because of a plethora of snakes living on it.)

It didn’t take long for our presence to be noticed by other boats going by and one enterprising fellow hauled his catch of day to shore for us to view. He proudly hoisted up an eel writhing on the end of his spear gun, to which Gener asked us if we wanted to eat eel tonight. Sure, why not? When else does one get to have super fresh eel? A bag of mussels was also exchanged, and I think Julie was a bigger fan of that purchase than the eel.

Snake Island was once a very popular tourist spot, but it has been shut down to save its ecosystem. There’s a guard who keeps watch, and with that a large rain barrel that Gener said we could use to bathe ourselves. So we did that. And only when you take off all your clothes on a desolate island does somebody suddenly pop around the corner.

We took a sunset stroll down the long strip of sand, maybe making it half way before we got tired and turned around.  And then look at that sight!  Awe-inspiring, really.  I cannot adequately describe it, other than to say that we could not believe we were here in the Philippines, on a trip that’s turning out to be a lot different than just going to a resort.

12-11-23 Snake Island 030

Gener’s cooking has been fabulous on this trip, and we’re becoming big fans of the calamansi limes that are used in almost everything here. The calamansi-onion-garlic-soy sauce-tomato salsa is great as a universal sauce on seafood. Tonight we learned that with a dash of sprite and a shot of local rum, it’s a tasty mixer too! After a couple glasses of that, it was bedtime in our tent on the beach.

There’s something about camping, and that moment when you unzip the door and there lies before you a view like no other, with sun streaming down from a blue sky shining onto clear blue water, and you think to yourself that this is truly amazing. Today was one of those mornings.

To make it better, a pot of coffee on the fire and then we learn a new word – bananacue! Gener explains that there are many varieties of bananas and some are good for eating raw, while others are best eaten cooked. These ones, called “saba”, are best eaten as bananacue; deep fried, and sprinkled with sugar.

After breakfast we grabbed our snorkel gear from the boat and ventured off down the beach to see what we could see.  It did not take long to see something as Julie stuck her head underwater and immediately came back up waving and pointing and trying to yell through her snorkel. grouper?Something with a large head was poking out of a hole in the sand.  It didn’t look like an eel, but we sure weren’t about to test it. Further along we were pleasantly surprised by the abundance and colour of fishes swimming amongst the sea grass and corals.  Also saw a pipe fish, and a number of large starfish, plus a new thing called a feather star that wisped along in the water.

Before we knew it we were being called back to the camp for lunch. Today it was fresh squid marinated in olive oil with black pepper and salt, breaded and stir fried. Tasty…

We snorkelled a bit more in the afternoon before loading up the boat and sailing away from our little strip of sand.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Rural experience in HK - Lamma Island

One of the goals of this trip to Hong Kong was to explore the further reaches of the territory. So today we got onto a ferry and went to Lamma Island, a small island about a 30min boat ride SW of HK. Cruising west out of Victoria Harbour it is interesting how the dense concrete jungle suddenly ends at a steep hill at the sea's edge and is replaced by thick green vegetation. You're reminded that you are in fact close to the tropics.
Leaving the rows upon rows of 40-storey apartment buildings behind, we pull into Yung Shue Wan that has just a smattering of 3-storey buildings.  Disembarking and walking along the quiet main street (you can actually hear birds chirping!) it feels as though we went from downtown Toronto to small-town Manitou. Except here there are large tanks of fish, abalone, scampi, clams and prawns at the side of the small street and there are no vehicles, aside from these neat little lawnmower engine-powered trucks.
Our purpose here is to do a walk from one end of the island to the other. Julie got the info from and it said it would take about 4hrs. We got a little bit lost at first trying to get out of the village (having a GPS-enabled tablet is pretty handy!) but we found it, and armed with a waffle slathered in peanut butter and condensed milk, we wandered off down the sidewalk in the shade of the large trees.
Shortly a beach comes into view and with the sun trying to burn through the clouds, it's almost tempting to take a dip, but the sign that says "stay within shark net" makes one think twice. After the beach the path goes upwards out of the trees and into the drier grasslands. We stop for a snack at one of the half-dozen pavilions (rest shelters) that dot the route.
Coming down out of the hills a final pavilion offers a grand view of the bay and the village of Sok Kwu Wan. Walking through the village, seafood restaurants hawk their catch with the catch phrase that the ferry doesn't leave for over an hour - enough time for lunch! We take the bait (pardon the pun?) and sit down at a seaside place after the lady convinced us of her set menu lunch and julie bargained for some sweet'n'sour. HK$198 got us a plate of clams (slathered in a tasty spicy black bean sauce), shrimp, calamary [sic] and our first taste of abalone, served in the shell.  We actually had to get the server to get the meat out of the shell for us since we'd never done it before.  The sun came out and it was quite nice sitting there next to the boats bobbing in the water. Couldn't enjoy it for too long as we had to chug the final bites and dash to the ferry.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Lan Kwai Fong - we love this place!

5:20pm on Sunday, touchdown in HK!
We're getting to be pros at this now - I even remembered the bank machine at the airport that lets you withdraw a higher limit. And with our experience from last time with the airport-hotel shuttles, we easily sailed into the city (which was surprisingly dark already) gazing at the lights of the skyscrapers. Stepping out of the shuttle bus I immediately smell the familiar scent of the place - something like humid fried noodles, followed shortly by that sweet lemongrass scent that Holiday Inns in Asia manage to all smell like.
We're located in Sheung Wan and only a 10 minute walk to our favourite party place Lan Kwai, a concentrated block of restaurants and bars.  This weekend they were hosting their own version of Carnival.  The narrow streets were even more crowded with tourists and locals crammed in between small booths on the side of the street selling beers, sangria and rum punch, plus an assortment of food.  Suddenly we spotted a dense crowd blocking the street. Getting there all we could see was what we could view on people's camera/phone screens in front of us.  But then the drums started and feathers bobbed above the crowd and there we were - in the midst of a Carnival parade!
Guessing that they'd be coming round the block in a while, we ventured off the other way and got a nice big glass of sangria in time to see the parade come by.  Drums banging, whistles blowing! It was pretty fun!  For some reason, after the parade passed by, we became photo subjects - must be Julie's Latino looks?

We capped off the night with some tapas at a Spanish restaurant Boqueria high above the street. Amusingly they described their wines as "earthy, crisp, rich and elegant".  Since Julie couldn't decipher the wine descriptions and didn't want a sweet cocktail, she tried making her own from Campari.  Fail.  But my beer was good.  Oh, and they had bacon-wrapped dates. :-)

I love HK

If in doubt, add more wine

We just finished watching the movie "Hemingway and Gellhorn" and you could say I've been inspired to start writing! That and we're 12.5 hours into a 14-hour flight from Vancouver to Hong Kong.  It's such a long flight that you can't really comprehend it; nothing else takes 14 hours to compare with it.  For example, we're about to eat for the third time - do I really need another meal? Especially after I've essentially been eating Julie's as well? (It baffles us that they don't know the ingredients of the meals they're serving us.)   Did Julie really need four mini-bottles of shiraz-grenache? The answer to all questions is likely no, but hey, we're on vacation!
Overall it's been an enjoyable flight; one that may reinstill my faith in Air Canada. Our stewardesses have been very nice ladies, even snagging Julie a meal from first class that was dairy-free. The one french woman was quick to dole out disciplinary advice to a young mom ahead of us - apparently there were no fights in her house and her boys did their chores.
For the record, sitting in the very last row of a Boeing 777 is actually quite good: there's nobody behind you kicking your seat, you're in a row of just two seats, you're close to the galley (more wine please!) and the toilets (maybe too much wine?) and since it's a big plane there are multiple lavatories so there's no queue of people standing beside you. 
Also for the record, it's almost worth the flight to Vancouver for the sushi. The fresh, thick-cut slabs of wild salmon were sumptuous, and cheap too!  Need to thank our hosts last night, the Jamans (old university friend and former roommate from the hey days of 369) who made us feel welcome and suggested the sushi from a strip-mall restaurant. His cute three-year-old daughter gave us a glimpse of the princess fixation that Julie's two-year-old niece will possibly soon develop. (Oh, I've just been informed that that fixation has already developed.)

Well, the drink cart's coming round again. I'm almost surprised that this flight's almost over.  Time to sign off.

Why do we do this?

<p>Trip planning can go two ways; on one hand you're super excited to read about the places you want to go and see and experience. On the other, it's a test of negotiation and time management when you realize you cannot possibly do it all within your given time frame.<br>
There are over 7000 islands in the Philippines - you try picking the idyllic palm-fringed one that you want to go to! How to choose? Well, we both want to do some scuba-diving, and windsurfing and I've got the plethora of suggestions from the Filipinos at work. So we're trying to evaluate the islands on their merits of satisfying those two activities. Not easy. <br>
We're definitely going to a place called Palawan that I've had my eye on for years. It's purported to be one of those "frontier" places, where everything's a bit more natural and rustic. The big tourist draw here is the underground river; an 8km long cave with a river in it that flows out to the sea. Beyond that, there are numerous tiny little islands with their own quaint, white sand beaches that you can lay claim to all on your own. <br>
Aside from Palawan, we don't know where we'll go. Boracay ("bor-ACK-ay", not "bora-kay") is PHP's version of Cancun, with loads of nightlife and some of the best windsurfing around. A small place closer to Manila is Puerto Galera. Not much of a town, or beach, but better diving.  Finally there's Bohol, which I'm thinking is the best combo of beach, diving and hopefully windsurfing. It's also much touted by my Phils friends.</p>
<p>The drawbacks of travelling, especially the self-tour style that we do, is the scheduling and research.  A couple weeks ago Air Asia decided to move our connecting flight ahead by 3 hours, which essentially mucked up the entire flight from HKG to Palawan. At times like these we we sort of wish we just booked a tour and someone else could deal with this.  It took a while but they eventually refunded our fare. It's too bad since we scored one of their great $25 seat sales. <br>
A few last-minute cram sessions in the evenings before our departure will certainly be a test of negotiations.
In the meantime, we almost totally forgot about planning Hong Kong! But fortunately that is quite easy by simply visiting and checking out the events.  It's food and wine month! :-)

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Snow's flyin'... we best be flyin' soon too

Winnipeg showcased its multi-climate capabilities in fine form this week.  A short 5 days ago we were all out in shorts and singlets playing in the park eating pumpkin pie ice cream.  Then we had a couple days of autumn, before BAM! a winter storm gusts into town forcing us to scramble for coats and gloves and consider installing the snow tires.
Makes me think I may not bother trying to find a replacement for my stolen mountain bike (I may still be in mourning over that loss), but the long-term forecast sees temps back into the 'teens a week from now. {Kona vs Specialized? ...a 29er for sure.}

Aside from that, we have other things to consider - another trip! Only 6 weeks to go until we are jetting off to another set of islands in the Pacific.  First we'll visit one of our favourite islands - Hong Kong - for a few days.  Every time that skyline flashes up on my screen saver I cannot wait to see it again.  Our last visit there seemed so short, but then again, we're using HK as a jet-lag buffer so it'll likely be the same way again.
Our true destination this time is the Philippines.  We've never been there before, yet having been within spitting distance at the Tip of Borneo. Why the Philippines?  We were debating a couple of locations (especially with a friend of mine relocating to Peru) but I think an article I spotted in the NY Times sealed the deal after I sent it to Julie. We immediately contacted the folks at Tao Philippines to see what they had to offer. (If you look at their website, you'll likely be drawn in as well. Spectacular!) It took a few months (waited out the rainy season) but we've booked a cruise! We're not actually with Tao, but with another outfit that does a combo river/ocean tour. Pretty stoked either way.

With two weddings, a social or two plus a Rotary Group Study Exchange to India to consider, the time between now and Nov.16 will fly by.  I should probably start reading that PHP Lonely Planet book soon.  I've quizzed a number of Filipino co-workers about where to go, and they all say Boracay, Palawan, Cebu and maybe Bohol.  We're definitely touring Palawan, and likely Boracay as well to test our newly-learning wind-surfing skills (yes, we've had a busy summer).

[I can't believe this trip is here already.  I honestly have not even sorted through the photos from our last tour.  Time flies when you're having fun I suppose.]

Monday, January 23, 2012

back home in the ‘Peg

We made it back to Canada after definitely taking the long way home from Bangkok.  By taking consecutive red-eyes we managed to squeeze in a brief tour of Tokyo on Sunday. And then repeated Sunday in Vancouver, but were too tired to do any touring.
It’s Monday now, and we’re back in our house. Our wonderful house-sitter (Julie’s friend Heather) picked us up as we dashed out from the airport with only rain jackets to shield ourselves from the cold wind. Fortunately for us the cold-snap ended just in time for us to arrive!
I probably have a thousand photos to sort through and pages of notes jotted down from the last 26 days.  Updates will likely follow as it’s all processed.
It was a fantastic trip, and I think just the right length: long enough to feel like we’ve been away for a long time, and also long enough to make us yearn to come home.
Now to get over the post-vacation blues and plan the next one! Smile


Saturday, January 21, 2012


When we arrived here in Siem Reap Julie made it clear that she didn't want to stay long in a tourist town. And after experiencing the heat while at Angkor it was decided that we must escape to the southern coast - my dreams of Kep could come true!
Fortunately there flights direct from Siem Reap to Sihanoukville. Too bad the flight just left and it's not every day. So plans changed. Our driver Mooney had mentioned the floating village and a floating forest that he thought we should go see. So we did some investigating after dinner (at Angkor Palm, a worthwhile Lonely Planet trap) and found out that we could formulate our own tour to the village without spending $32pp and a whole day. Rather it worked out to about $15pp and took only 3 hours.
The village of Kampung Phluk is on the edge of the large Tonle Sap lake and it experiences water levels that fluctuate by about 6m. To cope with it, all buildings are built on stilts or truly do float up and down. Our man told us that there was about 4m of water here in the waterway and it could reach up to 10m. Spread out across this vast area that's a staggering amount of water. (For reference, Tonle Sap lake appears to be a bit smaller in size to Lake Manitoba, and when it flooded badly in 2011 it only went up about 2m.)
We were here at just about the peak of dry season so most everything was in the air. Our taxi driver turned into our guide as he could speak English while our boat driver could not. He seemed to have done this tour thing before as he was doing a fine job showing us around and answering our questions. The floating forest is basically the flooded forest, through which you could rent a small paddle boat and go through. For lack of time, and disinterest from all but Julie, we skipped it.
We disembarked onto land at the local Buddhist temple, and were quickly spotted by a number of girls and ladies selling snacks, drinks and school supplies.  The temple looked brand new but the rest of the village was a study in poverty. Smoke from grills and piles of burning trash wafted through the main drag. Moving from the temple towards the houses, school children were suddenly running around us and the sales ladies strengthened their sales pitches on the school supplies.  Julie and Blaine took the bait and were promptly led up the stairs into a classroom of the school. Honestly I was expecting more of a response from the kids when Julie and Blaine handed out the scribblers and pencils, but then I realized that if this happens with most tourists then this likely compares with getting socks and a sweater for Christmas. The kids were very polite though. We wondered why some children were in school whilst others were not. Turns out that the school operates in shifts.
It was a neat experience and I'm glad we went but I doubt you'd ever need to take advantage of the Guesthouse here.

Following a failed attempt at getting our taxi driver to show us street food, we flew away to PP on Cambodia-Angkor Air - a pleasant experience. 
Back on the ground our man Siy was at work for us finding a car to take us to the southern coast. On the plane we'd decided upon going to Kep. Too bad Siy's buddy wasn't warm to the idea. Agh! Dreams dashed!
It cost us $70 for the ride, plus the $10 "deposit" we'd given Bondal in Siem Reap. I assume that was simply Bondal's cut for drumming up business.  Ask Blaine to prove the math.

Thur, 05/January

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Sorry no pictures

Having some technical difficulties. And we're simply moving too fast to keep everything up-to-date.
Only one week left in our little holiday! Looking forward to camping out on little Koh Phayam for a few days. Might be able to shake this cold.


Thursday, January 12, 2012

Angkor Watever

Wake up at 4:30am and meet the tuktuk driver outside the hotel at 5am. Rattle along through the quiet streets all groggy and squinty-eyed. Get to the entrance gate, smile for the camera and hand over a wad of cash ($20pp and FYI, day passes are on the backside of the building). Buy a cup of coffee (surprisingly good for $1.25) at the roadside stand. Make your way across the road dodging tour vans to cross the moat into Angkor Wat as the rising sun lightens the sky.
And so begins your day of sightseeing at the vast temple complex that was built to worship the Hindu god Vishnu.

It seems that everyone knows to go to Angkor Wat super early to see the sunrise over the temple so I should not have been surprised to see a crowd of a couple thousand around the best vantage points to get the photo that you can easily download off Google (I checked last night). Yet go early to beat the crowds and more importantly beat the heat. By 10am it's freakin' hot. And the Asian tour buses have arrived.
The temple itself is downright amazing. The incredible detail and the volume of it is enough to render you speechless. Phenomenal. But then you walk into a corridor and it is suddenly apparent that something/somebody peed in it. We didn't see all of it and didn't try to get to the upper levels, but we'd seen enough after an hour and a half,  plus I was hungry.
Earlier on our way in, Angelina Jolie (not her real name I'm sure) spotted us and gave us some hints where we should go for the best views, provided we went to stall #3 for "brekfah". She was cute and Julie says she was hitting on me and thus we went to eat there. I should mention now that on the way to the strip of food stalls to the north of the main walkway, the girls snuck off to use the toilet. Leah said it was just slightly better than the one on the bus. The chicken & pineapple fried rice at Jolie's stall was good, but it's likely the same as one would have received if you sat 4ft away at the Batman cafe. After eating our noodles, Blaine, Leah & I thought we should hit the toilet before going to the next site. Seems that by this time the "orphan" kid had taken his post at the gate to the toilet and demanded 1000 Riel to use the sh*tty facilities. When Leah tried to walk past him the kid quickly brandished a stick and started trying to herd Leah away from the door. Not feeling like being caned by a 6yr old, we walked to the next toilet area. Same thing, except no stick. Blaine & I hung back (we balked at the price to pee) while Leah and another lady tried to get in to the outhouses with this scrawny kid trying to block the door all the while yelling "one thousand!". With the other lady taking the kid's attention Leah managed to get in. When she exited I gave a sign to go to the right, anticipating the the kid will be expecting her to return to us. Eye contact was made and she was off! Running past the palm tree, around the flower garden meeting us on the path back to the cafes, with screams of "one thousand! One thousand!!" fading into the distance. For some reason I was expecting the kid to put some sort of Khmer curse on us, or at least spread the word and have a coconut conveniently fall onto us.
Crossing the moat back to the road, it was surprisingly easy to find our tuktuk driver Mooney inthe sea of tuktuks and mini buses. Next stop, Angkor Thom. (Reminder to Julie: we've left Angkor Wat. It is but one temple of the many Temples of Angkor.)
Angkor Thom is perhaps more impressive since it is so large, once housing nearly one million people within its walls (at a time when London was merely a large town). Bayon is super cool with its many faces staring down at you. Baphuon is big and grand and you can climb up it for a great view back across the raised walkway. The Terrace of the Elephants is also impressive but the "possibility of visit" signs don't let you see it. You can walk on it, but not see the carvings of elephants that stretch 100 metres along its side.
By this time it's hot and we're getting a big tired. Many guides and online postings will say that you need a week to take it all in. We say different - 8hrs is plenty to get the gist of it. The lunch area at Thom is good and busy. Each tuktuk driver has a friend who operates a cantina so the decision of where to eat has been made for you. No matter since it's all the same. While Blaine & I were waiting for the girls we had a couple beers and a dragon fruit shake to cool off. Not to be outdone, the girls showed up with 6 beers and a T-shirt for $6. It all depends on how hard you barter.

I'll wrap this up with some final comments. The toilets at the lunch area are free to use when you show your park pass and they're quite nice. It's beyond us why such decrepid facilities exist at the famous Wat, and it's also beyond me how you'd get in this far without having a park pass.
Before leaving the lunch area, we bartered once again for beers for the road and a shirt for Blaine.
Our final stop was Ta Prom - the Tomb Raider temple if you've seen the movie. Apparently lots of people have since there's a built-up photo-op stage in front of it.
Oh, and if we're energetic when we get home we might try to calculate our carbon footprint of this trip. Today I'm sure was bad: tuktuk motorbike around all day and then each of the 40 food stalls has a generator a few yards away out back providing power for stoves and blenders.


Saturday, January 7, 2012

Angkory Birds

Ever ridden in the back of a pickup truck down a rough gravel road? Of course you have. But have you done it for six and a half hours? That was what our bus ride from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap was like. Except that we had seats and air con. And the air con was blasting through the broken vents that I shoved Maclean's inserts into to save us from frost bite. And I'm not going to describe in detail the condition of the onboard toilet. But I do respect Leah for making use of it. Twice. Must've been the Angkor beers. I purposely dehydrated myself to avoid such fate.
Aside from the facilities, we took this $10 VIP bus ride to see the Cambodian countryside.  As you leave PP the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers dominate the land: flooding into rice paddies and stretching across the floodplain as far as you can see. About an hour out of the city it becomes more arid and large piles of hay (in yards and on trucks) dot the fields and cattle appear at the roadside.  But it's still flat, aside from two large hills (think Pilot Mound in Manitoba).
I've noticed that people of similar skill sets tend to congregate - if there's one bakery on a block then there'll likely be more bakeries on the next block. And so it was along #2 highway. We'd see one guy carving stone statues and 30s later there'd be 4 more doing the same. Same for tiles, woodwork, etc.

Siy, who gave us all hugs when he dropped us off at the bus, had arranged for an old high school friend of his to pick us up in Siem Reap. He even texted our names ahead so that we would know which tuktuk guy was ours. Sure enough when we pulled into the dusty, dimly lit compound after dark, we quickly spotted the sign "Julie Andrews McBannister III Winnipeg" being held up to the window. We were glad we had the ride waiting since it felt pretty sketchy there.
Bondal was an amicable young fellow with a big smile and obviously very appreciative of our business.  We polished off the case of beer on the tuktuk ride in to town and noted the stark contrast between the area where the bus stop was and the bright, glitzy tourist area. And we hadn't even yet seen Pub Street that reminded us of Chaweng or Patong. As we neared our hotel, both Blaine and i were taken by surprise at the largesse of it, glowing across the river. It once again firmly placed us in the flash-packer demographic.  I hope got us a good price at the Angkor Riviera.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Sigh, there's Siy again

Phnom Penh is chaotic compared to Hong Kong, but relative to Vietnam we think it's not quite as busy. For example, when crossing the street here you can wait for a break in traffic and make your move, whereas in Hanoi you'd be standing there all day waiting for a break,
We started our day by meeting a fellow named Siy. He'd a tuk tuk driver and he seemed to have claimed the spot outside our hotel. He's definitely a friendly dude but we passed him off in order to make our way to the Grand Palace since it was only a block away.
The Golden Palace of PP [ ] is very ornate by any standard and has lovely grounds filled with flowers and shrubs. But it'll cost you $6.50 and a $3 T-shirt if you're not appropriately covered up. Plus, the place shuts down at 11 (not 10am like Mr. Siy said as we walked past him) so we had to be quick. Fortunately none of us do a lot of research and the significance of most places are lost on us so we could easily breeze through the complex of temples in just over an hour before being asked to leave.  The main building, the Throne Hall, is an impressive structure but the good stuff is off limits and not really visible at all. Probably because the King still uses this as a residence.  One passes through a doorway in the surrounding wall to get to the Silver Pagoda that is nestled in another garden filled with bird baths of lilies, 2 large stupas and a statue of King Norodom on a horse. Strangely there is a large replica of Angkor Wat on the grounds as well - no need for that bus trip tomorrow!
Upon exiting the palace grounds we were immediately spotted by Siy. I'm sure this has nothing to do with the comment made by Blaine & Leah's taxi driver when they were dropped off at the hotel: "wow this place expensive, like 40 or 50 dollars a night". So obviously we're now targetted as the rich tourists. After some debate we decided to let Siy drive us around for the day for $25. First stop was lunch at a Khmer restaurant by the river. We were all taken by surprise how big and wide the Mekong river was here and it's hard to fathom the fact that during rainy season the river fills up and forces the Tonle Sap river backwards. Consider the Red River pushing the Assiniboine river backwards at the Forks in Winipeg.
Allow me to introduce you to my new friend Amok - he's a wonderfully tasty Khmer dish of curried fish smothered in thick coconut milk served in a banana leaf bowl. Variations abound but the one we had at this restaurant was the best we had. Too bad I can't recall the name of the place.

After lunch we took a siesta by the hotel pool to prepare ourselves for the brutality we would learn about at the "killing fields" of Choeung Ek. It was a heckuva tuktuk ride out there (40min?) but it did provide a glimpse of Camobian life - incredibly poor, corrugated metal shacks on stilts beside a garbage-filled ditch interspersed with new multi-story apartments covered in blue-tinted glass. Also the massages get cheaper the further out of town you go, $3 in PP dropping to 9000 Riel ($2.25).

I'm not going to say much about the Killing Fields. It's a tad sickening although I haven't been to Auschwitz and Rwanda might be worse. Just Google it yourself:  But I will mention the jaw bones sticking up out of the ground and the tree where they smashed little ones' heads against to save bullets. Strangely enough I'm not thrown by the commander who said to do that, but wonder about the man whose job it was to do it and how his sleep was tortured by nightmares. We might try to buy the movie at the market once we return to PP.

The ride home was made much more pleasant by grabbing a case of Angkor beer ($11.50 for 24) and using it to wash the road dust out of our mouths.


Thursday, January 5, 2012


Phnom Penh, not Koh Pi Pi. The airport is like Brandon compared to the massive structure of BKK. Our e-visas were supposed to breeze us through security but the stewardess on the plane skipped us when handing out the landing forms. So we had a bit of reversing in the customs queue and were the last ones out. And then a security dude at the exit asked for another form that we didn't have. But our blank looks caused him to wave us through of exasperation.
Toyota has what appears to be 90% market share here, judging by the number of Camrys swarming the roads. Many have extra chrome trim around the taillights, or blinking lights on the hood or mirrors or stainless steel gas cap doors. Also can't ignore the plethora of Lexus RX300 SUVs, many of which have "Lexus" plastered across the side just in case you missed the fact that the owner is richer than you.
The King Grande Boutique Hotel greeted us enthusiastically and informed us that our friends were up by the rooftop pool. We quickly dropped off our luggage in our lovely, well-appointed room and navigated the overly complex security system in the elevator.
"Cambodia. Wow." Said Leah.
It was exciting to meet with friends and stories from the past few days were fervently exchanged. Alighting Thai balloons were contrasted with HK fireworks, then compared to the parties that the hotel staff here told of NYE. (For the record, it sounded pretty good.)
The view up here was great. A water and light show was going on the park on one side. A carnival with a large ferris wheel was on the other. Street noise echoed up from in between. Fantastic!

New Year's Day is a nice day to fly...

The roads are clear and the airport is barren. No lines. After the crowds of last night it was weird to see the place so quiet.

Since we missed having the good HK dim sum, we had the famous HK airport dim sum. It's good and all, but I think the Chinese lady at work has made better dumplings.

To get to Pnhom Penh we connected in Bangkok. And coincidentally our friends Blaine and Leah were connecting at around the same time we were. Since we had time to kill we thought we'd try and see them at their gate. But Suvarnabhumi airport is huge and I'm fairly confident that we walked nearly 2km to get from our gate to theirs. And since the airport is built so that incoming and outgoing passengers are separated, we had to avoid security (and a cleaning lady) to get there. Upon arriving at the gate we could not see them. We knew they had a tight connection and were beginning to wonder if they'd made it. Suddenly Julie started banging on the glass partition and yelling Leah's name. But those two had just sprinted the distance we had just casually walked and were borderline delirious so it took them a moment to see us and then recognize us.

Using frenzied sign language and doodles on our tablets we managed to determine that we'd see them at our hotel in Phnom Penh.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Julie leads us down the rabbit hole for breakfast

One of the challenges of travelling is determining what to eat, where to eat and how to eat. Fortunately Asia makes it easy – the answer is noodles. Noodles for breakfast, noodles for lunch and supper is also often noodles.  I had thought that I’d start the day with a Hong Kong waffle, but no, those aren’t for eating until midday.

Walking further down the street Julie abruptly turned into what looked like a warehousing area for the local florists and produce stands.  She reckoned that at least we could possibly get ourselves a banana or something to tide us over and satisfy my grumbling belly.  I asked the lady who sold us the token banana where we should go for a Hong Kong breakfast. She pointed further down the dim hallway crowded with pallets, boxes and industrial fridges. So we went, and popped out into an open space surrounded with stalls with large pots of boiling broth that filled the nose.

Would you go down here to find breakfast? we did.

A smiling lady caught our eye and sat us down. I naively thought that this meant she could speak english since we’re obviously foreigners. But on the flip side, how many foreigners venture into this industrial diner? So maybe she thinks we’re living here and can speak Chinese!

Commence ordering by pointing! Take one didn’t work out so well when I received a plate with one runny egg on it. Julie’s noodles looked good though. Julie tried again and this time I got the full meal deal: a few slices of ham, more eggs and a wiener.  The tea in the little plastic glass was super lemony and super sweet – just the way I like it! I think it was HKD46 for us both, about 6 Canadian loonies.

After brekky we wandered through Kowloon Park, which is a lovely park in the middle of this metropolis that can make you forget that you’re even in a city of millions of people.

the beauty and serenity of Kowloon park, surrounded by towering skyscrapers.

photos on smugmug -