A wrap on Cambodia

20130612-133301.jpg

My last day in Siem Reap I spent being sufficiently lazy – a good thing since reception messed up my reservation and I spent several hours fighting with them about it in the middle of the day. All I really wanted was to walk to the night market and have Cambodian curry, which I eventually did and it was by far the best meal of the whole trip. By the time I returned back to the hostel it was witching hour at the sandy upstairs bar, so despite my plan to have one beer I got dragged out to Pub Street with these young guys anyway – Phil I had already met in Phnom Penh, along with two Danish travelers and a muscly English guy.

20130612-133135.jpg

Here’s a clip of a pack of Cambodian kids attacking the guys on a walk to Pub Street. Kids can’t take us down, just take our wallets.

 

Trip midpoint: glass half empty or half full?

20130611-165905.jpg

I’ve been away for over 2 weeks now. I feel like I’ve not wanted to write because I’ve spent so much time trying to figure out where to go after Thailand. Wait and figure out later? Perhaps an option if I had more than a 15 day visa and trains and planes weren’t all booked. I guess if I have to crawl to Malaysia I will.
20130611-165911.jpg
After Chiang Mai I was excited to get to the islands – Thailand has been a challenge for me. Obviously not everyone speaks English, but this is the first time I really had to interact with so many people I couldn’t understand. Most of the problems are trivial and I’m fine, but it’s incredibly frustrating trying to get somewhere and spending hours to do it unsuccessfully. In Cambodia I felt that although people were pushy, they were honest. The tuk tuk driver in Siem Reap wasn’t trying to rip me off – he was forcefully trying to find work. In Thailand, prices are jacked up because you’re foreign and sometimes it feels like no amount of bartering is going to get you the price that is fair. I try to make up for it in other ways – huge rice meals at the guesthouse for 40 baht (about $1.30), large bottles of water at 7-11 for 13 baht (45¢) and walking absolutely anywhere possible. I haven’t so much as had a beer in days as I felt like shit in Bangkok and in Chiang Mai I felt like I’d be chasing after some sort of uncertain amount of fun that may or may not actually occur. Hopefully I’ll feel more alive on the islands – for most of these two weeks, I’ve had absolutely no guilt about going to bed before 11.

20130611-165858.jpg

Siem Reap: Legends of the Sweaty Temple

20130606-092429.jpg

Backpacking Southeast Asia is nothing like backpacking Europe. In Europe you always know where the bus or train station is, but here it seems that I pretty much turn up in any city and have no idea where I am. This was the case for Siem Reap, and after stepping off my bus, before I knew it I was not only in a new city but a tuk tuk driver at the “bus stop” got me to commit to his tour services for the following 36 hours. Being from the New York area it’s usually easy to turn down anything – we are incessantly bombarded with hard sells and it’s something we learn to ignore quickly. Needless to say I really surprised myself when I actually felt bad for the driver after he pulled out a map, started pointing at things and told me it would be $25. I don’t even remember how I finally agreed or what specifically made me unable to say no, but two hours after he originally dropped me off at my hostel he was ready and waiting again – off to Phnom Bakeng he drove me – the perfect hilltop place of all the area temples to watch the sun go down.
20130606-092456.jpg
The following day my driver (he was named Robbie) was waiting for me at 8am. The sun was already scorchingly hot, so although I would have preferred to go riding bikes around the temples instead of riding in a cart, it was easy to feel how actually miserable it would have been and I was happy that Robbie (or Rabi or Robi or who knows) had hard sold me the previous day at the “bus stop”. I spent the next 6 hours temple-traipsing throughout Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and the surrounding ruins, marveling both at the incredible architecture and how much I was sweating compared to the locals (sweat? They don’t.)

20130606-092553.jpg

20130606-092613.jpg

20130606-092619.jpg

20130606-092641.jpg

Some people claim they spend an entire week exploring the temples, but for me two days was enough. Some of the temples have stairs so steep it’s like climbing huge ladders – it’s really quite exhausting. Bruised and broken, I opted to spend the end of my day in Siem Reap in linen elephant-print pants sipping Cambodian drafts on the sandy hostel rooftop.

20130606-094003.jpg

20130606-094159.jpg

I still don’t know if I’m pronouncing ‘Phnom Penh’ correctly

20130602-191312.jpg
Thursday was my only planned full day in Phnom Penh, so thinking I had much to cram in I left the dorms early and grabbed my own tuk tuk to Killing Fields. I hadn’t known anything about it before researching my trip to Cambodia, but I love a good history lesson so it seemed like the right way to go. WTF is Killing Fields? In one sentence: during the 1970’s around 17,000 people were executed here and buried in mass graves. Sounds like a bit of a downer way to spend the day for sure, but the audio tour was probably the only actual informative and touching one I’ve ever listened to. Pieces of bone and clothing still poke from the earth after heavy rains, and shattered skulls bear witness to the fact that many men, women, and children were bludgeoned to death for the sake of saving bullets. A beautiful white stupa serves as the center memorial to those executed here, containing a glass case with thousands of excavated skulls. It’s a sight.
20130602-191347.jpg
20130602-191448.jpg
Not totally knowing what I signed up for, my tuk tuk driver was supposed to take me to “S21”. Upon finding out it was the genocide museum I couldn’t fathom spending an entire day on the matter and instead I asked him to take me to Wat Phmom. Ask and you shall receive, my driver obliged and took me to the city’s highest point. Lonely Planet describes it best: “don’t get too excited, it’s a 27 meter high, tree covered bump” but it does have a stunning temple at the top and wandering gardens. I’ll take beautiful architecture over museums any day.
20130602-191558.jpg
An hour here in the heat was enough – I went back to the hostel and bathed in Cambodian drafts. At a dollar a piece it’s hard to not choose these beers over water most times. I spent the rest of the evening doing the ‘hostel mingle’ at the rooftop bar with the strangest playlist where recording artists such as Daft Punk, Carly Rae Jepsen, and Blackstreet found themselves side by side. With a 7am call time for the bus to Siem Reap the next day I didn’t make it a late night, I walked to Top Banana for one nightcap (a water) and then to the 24-7 mart for bus snacks, curling up in my bed snuggling rice cakes all before 1am. 20130602-191728.jpg

20130602-191736.jpg

What the tuk?: to Cambodia we go

I vowed to start day two with the thing I adore the most in my life – a steaming hot cup of black coffee. The Little India neighborhood in which I was staying in Singapore didn’t have much in the way of Western breakfast, so although Duncan and I canvassed the immediate area we were stuck with our only viable option: Wendy’s. I paired this winning beverage with some sort of a potato curry roll, booked my flight to Cambodia, and by 11am was on my way to the airport.
20130531-194603.jpg
I landed in Phnom Penh around 3 in the afternoon. The directions that the hostel provided only said “jump in a tuk tuk” so despite my original reservations about the local transport I did exactly what they suggested and found myself in a covered cart hooked to the rear of a motor scooter. The ride from the airport took around 25 minutes and I probably cried for most of it – not because I was sad or scared, but because it was one of those moments, the kind that completely overwhelms every brain neuron to the point of “Holy shit, I feel so alive.”
20130531-194647.jpg
Traffic in Phnom Penh seems to have no rhyme or reason to it. Stop signs don’t exist and traffic lights are rare. People drive the wrong way down the street. Somehow it works though, as all the drivers seamlessly merge into lanes and appear to communicate through an indecipherable morse code of honking. It feels much like an amusement park ride with all the jerking and yanking – except its not the Cyclone, and its not Coney Island. Like a true pro, my driver delivered me in one piece, but after the previous night of jet lag-interrupted sleep, I only lasted a few hours before dying on my own, falling asleep for the night at a raucous 6:30pm.

Bert abroad, a blog, returns

“Will you be joining us for dinner? Tonight we have chicken or beef.”

I’m at an altitude of plus 35,000 feet with nowhere else to go except for this seat, so yes, I will be “joining” you for dinner, but give me that vegetarian plate you aren’t telling the other passengers about-I know it’s a rad curry that knocks the socks off of any Trader Joe’s microwaveable meal- why Rajbhog Foods isn’t nationally known I’ll continue to ponder for the remainder of this meal.

I’m on my way to Paris for the first time for what is undoubtedly the least planned trip I’ve ever gone on. Despite my lack of preparedness I’m not nervous – I’m rocking this one with my girl Lia (a seasoned travel companion) in tow, and I’m confident that winging this one together will be what we needed for our year’s end: a casual, yet busy, adventure.

I booked this trip entirely last minute using a backlog of airline award miles (I luuuve you MileagePlus) so the only way I could make this trip work given the surplus of holiday travelers, I was scheduled to have a wacky connection in Toronto instead of a direct flight. At first to my horror and later on to my delight, Mama Nature threw me a bone and delayed my initial flight so much that I was able to switch at no cost to a direct flight out of Newark – and they even put me in one of those fancy “extra leg room” aisles and let me board first. For an essentially free flight, I really can’t complain.

As I mentioned, I really have nothing planned so there isn’t much to brief anyone about. I do intend to instagram the fuck out of the Eiffel Tower and maybe a Mona Lisa or two, and well, the rest of the cards are just going to have to fall into place.

Anonymous asked….

Oops! Radio silence! I could explain, but the truth is I have here the draft of a post I just never got around to clicking “Publish” on. I’ve been meaning to respond to some of the questions I’ve been asked since my return, but I’ve been busy writing incognito on the side,   thus letting this collection of expedition-related words fall by the wayside.

What was your favorite part of the trip?

To me, this is a pretty general question because it can be broken down into so many different categories. Favorite city? Favorite sight? Favorite experience? There are innumerable highlights, but I’ll try to divulge a few.

Hands down, Munich was the city I enjoyed most. I regret that I only had two nights to spend there because I kind of only added it onto my itinerary as a city to fly into and didn’t really know that I’d love it so much. Overall it was the city that I had the most straightforward fun in, the city where I felt most comfortable, and felt like there was a ton to do and see and keep busy. Had I known, I definitely would have arranged to stay here an extra day or two, but hindsight is always 20/20 and my motto when these things happen is “If I really want, I can always go back…”

Salzburg Castle topped the charts for favorite site. Not so much the interior of the castle, but really the walk up to the top and the views once we made it there. Pictures can never do justice for scenery, but getting to the castle and looking down at Salzburg below was one of the moments of the trip that always stands out in my memory. Going to the castle was fairly time-consuming, but it was so worth it that at the end of the day I didn’t reflect and think that we didn’t get much else done. I loved Salzburg.

I could get a little sappy and bring back the moving moments I had in Bratislava all by my lonesome, or Christmas day in front of the Colosseum, but easily my favorite story to tell is the one of me racing through the airport and ending up in first class. I’m sure I’ll continue to be moved by many worldly sights in my lifetime, but being treated like a diplomat aboard a transatlantic flight after a whirlwind three weeks abroad is definitely a feeling that resonates still several months after the fact. I loved being away, but being whisked back to the homeland in comfort and style allowed me to return feeling rested and deliriously content.

Hot towel, anyone?

Favorite travel quote

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” – Henry David Thoreau

I doubt most people in the 21st century would desire to stake out a camp at Walden Pond and live bare-bones in a cabin for two years, but Thoreau’s spiritual journal towards self-discovery and independence is a profound one that easily translates into the experience of traveling, and even more so to one who is traveling on their own.

I realized early on in life that there were things beyond the Maryland suburbs that I wanted to experience. As early as 3rd grade I would spend countless weekends going to the library and checking out National Geographic documentaries about Egypt and Greece on VHS, oftentimes re-renting the same ones I’d already seen and watching them again. I felt like I was born with an infinite wanderlust, and when I could finally drive it was all I could do to coax my friends into taking the weekend road trip to some random podunk town, or absolutely anywhere, seeking adventure. I guess I could say that the idea of travel is something I always felt was part of my blood, something that was uniquely me, regardless of if I was ever old enough or financially sufficient enough to be able to express it.

I love this quote from Thoreau for so many reasons. I connect to it mostly because Thoreau is acknowledging two paths in life: one path where he keeps living as he has been, and another path where he believes that going to Walden Pond will make him feel more whole, and it acknowledges the idea of regret and living life to the fullest. When I decided to take my first solo trip, I replayed his words in my head so much that they were practically memorized. Our whole lives we’re taught how to work well with others, how to listen to others, and how to compromise, but Americans don’t really seem to value independence. People who spend time alone are often thought to be strange or recluse, and traveling alone is thought to be unsafe and unexciting, but I couldn’t accept this as my own path. I felt like getting to know myself wasn’t going to happen through hobbies or work, it was going to happen by completely removing myself from everything and everyone I already know, seeing what the world gives me, and finding out how I handle it. Regardless of waking up everyday and doing things, making goals and accomplishing them, the idea of never seeing much beyond the Eastern seaboard ate at me constantly. Every journey begins with a single step. I didn’t want to die having discovered I had not lived.