Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Siem Reap Day Four: Silk Worms, Quad Adventures, and Planes that Leave Early

Today is our last day in Siem Reap.  So what better way to start the day off than with a couples massage.  After breakfast Bill and I leave the kids in the room and go just down the hall to the spa at the hotel.  And when I say spa, I mean an air conditioned room with two tables and curtain dividers.  An hour later we are refreshed and ready to go.

We had decided take a tuk tuk to the silk worm farm to experience the entire process of making silk.  It was about a thirty minute ride by tuk tuk.  I love riding in the tuk tuk.  It's such a fun way to get around with the wind blowing your hair and really seeing the people and landscape as you pass by.   Once at the factory/farm a tour guide shows us around.  First we see the silk worms, their cocoons,  and then the process of drying them out.  I didn't realize that they don't let the moths hatch because then the silk will be broken.  Once the cocoons are dried out, they are put in a pot of boiling water and the outer layer is unwound creating the raw silk.  The finer silk is from the inner layer of the cocoon.  We are shown how the silk is dyed and then we walk through the area where the weaving happens.  It is incredible.  So much time and work involved to make some of the intricate patterns.  I have a whole new apprentice for silk making.  Even the kids were impressed by this tour.

On the way back to town the rain started, so our tuk tuk driver pulled over to put the plastic sides up on our ride.  He asked Bill to hold his phone so it didn't get wet.  We asked for a recommendation for food and he took us some where I'm sure he was getting a kick back because the prices were double what we'd been paying.  We decided not to eat there and had him take us to the shopping area.  We found somewhere else to eat and then did a little shopping.

At 4:20 we returned to our hotel since we were getting picked up at 4:30 for our quad adventure.  The rain had been coming down for the last couple hours and it was still raining.  We were supposed to ride quads for about an hour through the countryside of Cambodia, but we weren't sure if it would be any fun in the rain, plus we were getting on a plane as soon as we were done.  Being wet and dirty on a plane late at night didn't sound like fun.  We talked to the driver from QuadAdventures who was there to pick is up, what he thought.  He said we could cancel if we wanted, but he couldn't give us a recommendation either way.  Ava thought we should do it.  She said who cares about the rain and it will be an adventure.  I love my girl!  So we went for it!

Riding in the open bed of a small truck down the tiny dirt roads to QuadAdventures was an exciting way to begin.  We had only booked two quads and we weren't sure how this would work.  Apparently our guide rides a motorcycle to lead us and I didn't want my kids on a  motorcycle.  They put plastic bags around our shoes, and were getting the quads ready.  It was decided that Bill was going to take the girls with him, one in front and one in back.  They gave us helmets, which was a pleasant surprise, and took me on little mini test drive.  The owner decided Ava looked nervous and decided to give his guide a quad to use so he could take Carter with him and Ava wouldn't be squished with Bill and Mia, she would ride with me.  So much better!

With shoes covered, helmets on, and training completed, we were off!  The rain had stopped and although it was muddy, it was beautiful.  We got out of town quickly and drove through the rice paddies and small dirt roads with houses.  Kids would wave at the side of the road to my kids.  We stopped to take pictures and learn some more about farming and history.  The hour flew by!  We were supposed to watch the sun set in the rice paddies, but with all the clouds in the sky we were not going to be able to see a sunset, which was perfectly fine since what we had seen was so peaceful and beautiful.

The owner printed out certificates for the kids commemorating their first quad ride.  Then we were returned to our hotel where we quickly gathered our things.  Much of the staff was out in the rain, because the rain had of course started again just as we finished our ride, to see us off.  Bill exchanged email with a couple of his new friends and goodbyes were said.  They all stood and waved as our van pulled away to take us to the airport.  I don't think I've ever had a send off like that.

Here's where it gets interesting, everyone had said we needed to be at the airport two hours early.  Okay no problem, we show up early.  We think there must be lines for checking in, no that's not the casement we sail though check in, well security musty take awhile, um no that is even easier.  Okay , okay it must be immigration, I mean getting into Cambodia was tricky so maybe leaving is too.  Nope, not even a line to wait in, they scan our passports and stamp them and we are through.  Wow, now we have over an hour and a half to wait around.  Our flight is scheduled to leave at 9:25pm.  It's 7:45 so we decide to eat some dinner at a restaurant.  We are just about done eating when we hear over the load speaker that our flight has begun boarding.  It's only 8:00, that's weird, I guess they like to start early.  We had just finished paying when we then hear Last Call for flight VN 814, wait thats our flight!!!  How can it be last call it's not even 8:15yet?  We grab our things and rush to the gate.  The screen above our gate that has flight by umber and departure time says 21:25 still.  We give them our boarding passes and climb onto the plane.  We are the last ones on.  The flight is taxing on the runway at 8:25!!!!  We are in the air before 8:30!!!!!  What?!  Our plane took off an HOUR early.  Now we know why everyone kept telling us to arrive early at the airport.

We made it to Ho Chi Minh City!  Since we left an hour early we arrived an hour early too.  Our friend Jacob was meeting us so we had a bit of waiting to do.  It all worked out though, we found Jacob, took a cab, and ended up at this beautiful house our friends had rented.  We made it!

Siem Reap Day Three: Hanging With the Locals

Today was an early day, really early!  We were going to Angor Wat to watch the sunrise.  Up at 4:30, we grabbed our breakfast which the hotel was nice enough to pack for us, and we left with Jet at 5am.  Did I mention that I set an alarm for 3am so I could wake Bill so he could watch the World Cup U.S. game.  Turns out Bill had the day wrong and the U.S. game was tomorrow, but he watched whatever game was on anyway.  So we were starting today extra tired.

We arrived at Angor Wat and walked to a reflection pool inside that is a great spot for watching the sunrise.  We are not visiting at a great time of year since the skies are cloudy since it is monsoon season.  We did catch a little of the sun, peeking behind the clouds.  Regardless it was beautiful seeing the temple in a different light.

We left after we had our fill of pictures since we had already explored Angor Wat the day before.  We headed to Banteay Srey, Jet's favorite temple, next.  We were the only ones there when we arrived.  It was smaller than most of the temples we had seen, but the carvings are very detailed and cut very deep so they are almost three dimensional.  Most of the temple is roped off so you can look but you can't get very close to the major parts and its hard to really see.  Jet told us since it was so early we could basically bribe the police guard to let us past the ropes.  Really?!  I thought you got arrested for bribing a cop?  But this is Cambodia and, well, Jet said it was okay so we agreed.  Jet did the talking and a small fee of $5 was agreed upon.  We paid the bribe and the guard lowered the rope for us to cross and even showed us some things himself.  It was amazing getting to see the carvings up close.  We were able to see many that would have been hidden from our view.  It turned out to be my favorite temple too.

It was another scorcher of a day.  We visited about five more temples, feed some monkeys, and after 7 hours of sight seeing, were dropped back off at our hotel at noon.  Our private three day guided tour was over.  We had a great time and my girls loved Jet!  They were a bit sad to see him go.  Now we were on our own!

The kids and Bill played in the pool while I had a 90 minute $13 massage at the hotel.  I
LOVE this place!  Bill had been talking to a few guys who worked there about soccer and World Cup, they said they were going to play in a couple hours and Bill and Carter should come and play with them.  By this point it's dinner time, but this sounds like fun.  At 5pm we meet the guys in the lobby, they have their motorbikes and we hope in the tuktuk. They have said they have rented a field, we have no idea what we are getting into.  We are all very curuios about what a soccer field in Cambodia will look like.  As our driver is navigating the narrow, crowded, dirt roads weaving in and around traffic, it already feels like a real adventure.  We pull up to an outdoor sports complex and are pleasantly surprised.  There are three small soccer fields, as well as volleyball and a few other things.  Bill and Carter are playing in tennis shoes, a few of the guys have cleats, but many play with bare feet!  After a little while the girls want to play as well so they go on the field.  After an hour the team that Bill and Carter are on loses, but not by much.  Carter has now been nicknamed Neymar, the Brazilian soccer player, by the locals.  They had a blast!

We decided to take the hotel's tuk tuk to a restrarant Jet had recommended called Khmer Kitchen.  It was amazing!!  I had the Amok, a traditional Cambodian dish that I had been eating quite a bit, and it was fantastic here.  After dinner we walked around the night market and did a little shopping.  I met a girl whose name was Happy and we talked for awhile since she wanted to practice her English.  She is twelve and works in her mothers store.  She also is in the ninth grade since she skipped two grades.  We talked about school, holidays, and her desire to be a fashion designer.  The locals are what make Cambodia so wonderful.  They are so friendly.

We are just about done shopping, when Mia starts crying.  She said a bug landed on her face and she swatted it off, but now it hurts badly.  I don't see any marks, but Mia doesn't cry from pain.  We head
back to the hotel and I look again, no one sees any mark.  We wash her face and put her to bed.  It's been another long, exhausting, fun filled day.

Monday, July 07, 2014

Siem Reap Day Two: Angkor Wat

The breakfast may be one of my favorite things about this hotel, and by breakfast I mean the chef who will make a fresh noodle soup with whatever you want.  There were so many different options and favors to add, I just asked her to add what she thought.  Everyday it was amazing!  My kids loved it as well.  Besides the hot soup to order there was also a table of fresh fruit that included mango, watermelon, papaya, and a few things I've never seen before, but they were excellent as well.  There were chocolate croissants, pancakes with honey, fried rice, potatoes, bacon and sausage, plus eggs made to order as well.  A great way to start every morning!

Today we were going to see Angkor Wat, the reason we came to Siem Reap.  Jet picked us up at 8:30 and we were off.  It was a short drive to this temple.   The first thing you notice is the giant man made moat that surrounds the temple.  It is massive and hard to believe it was made over 900 years ago.  Once we  turned the corner and came closer you could see the entrance of the temple, but it doesn't really prepare ou for how massive it really is once you enter.  Besides the sheer size, what's so incredible is how well it has withstood time.  It is not in ruins like some of the other temples we had seen.  It still had most of it's stone ceilings and carvings.  It truly is an impressive sight.  We walked around and Jet showed us the best places to take pictures and when we came to the stairs that you had to be 12 years old to climb, Jet sat with our girls so Bill, Carter, and I could go and explore.  This actually happened at a few of the temples.  Another great perk about having a tour guide.  

It was a day FILLED with temples.  We saw eight different temples that day, including the one where Tomb Raider was filmed.  We finished our day at Phnom Backeng watching the sunset.  Well, they actually closed before the sun set, but we watched it go behind the clouds.  It was a cloudy day so we were lucky to see a bit of the sun setting at all really.

It was extremely hot and humid and everyone was  constantly dripping with sweat.  The kids did complain a little at the end, but I was surprised how well they did.  It helped that the van was air conditioned and that they had cold bottled water waiting for us as well.  Overall it was a fun day.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Siem Reap, Cambodia: Day One

Siem Reap is famous for Angor Wat, which is why we came, but there are over 500 temples in the Siem Reap area alone.  For this reason we booked a three day private tour package with Kris ahead of time.  There are two options:  one, you hire a driver to take you to the sites, but they are not allowed to enter any of the sites with you, for that you need an official tour guide.  Which brings us to option two, hire both a driver and a guide.  I felt to really see the city, understand its history, and appreciate all we would be seeing we needed a tour guide.  I was not wrong, best decision ever!

Jet, our tour guide met us at our hotel at 8:30 am.  The waiting van, like the ones we came in was very clean and air conditioned, a huge plus I this crazy humid heat.  Our driver was Sveit.  He didn't speak much English , but compared to the driver we had last night he was amazing!!!!  We did not go to Angor Wat on the first day, but instead went to Beng Melea, about an hour away.  It was beautiful, big, and crumbling, due to the trees that were growing through it.  Beng Melea is over 900 years old.  We walked and climbed around and then went back to the city for some lunch.  We went to a nice restaurant where a lunch entree was about $4-$6 drinks around $2.  What I found so interesting about this country is that not only do they take american dollars, every menu only has the price in dollars.  Even people from other countries use american dollars when traveling here.  They will give you change in american dollars except coins they convert to riel.  

The best part about having Jet as our tour guide was learning about Cambodia history from his perspective and hearing stories about his life.  As we were driving out to the floating village I asked Jet where he grew up.  It turns out that Jet is from a town that borders the jungle where the Kmehr Rouge  was pushed too.  Every night after dinner around 4pm his family would get in their foxhole, because that's when the fighting would start.  He said with the bullets and grenades and constant 
fighting you could not hear the person next to you talking, it was so loud.  Every night he did not think he would live, but he would fall asleep and the next day he was fine.  As a child he and his
friends would pick up the bullets and walk past dead bodies and this was normal life for him.  This is 
one of many stories that Jet told us during our three days with him.  

He also told us how he wanted to be a tour guide and learn to speak English.  It used to be against the law to learn but after the defeat of the Kmher Rouge things changed.  His father had been a doctor and spoke French, but he died in 1997.  One of his brothers also spoke French, but he was killed by the Kmehr Rouge as well.  Because of them he said he had a passion to speak another language.  He told the story about how he went to school to learn English and they learned lessons 1-5.  Then classes ended, but his teacher opened a new class so Jet followed him since he was the only teacher who taught English.  Again he learned lessons 1-5 and then classes ended.  A third time Jet took lessons for. Him and again the lessons ended at level 5.  Jet finally asked him why they didn't learn lesson six, he was bored with lessons one through five.  His teacher pulled him aside and said he was sorry, but he didn't know lesson six, only one through five.  Jet is laughing when telling this story.  So he ends up moving to a different town where they have a very good school for learning languages.  

We arrive at the floating village and we must pay a fee $12 a person to take a rickety boat to and around the floating village which sits on Tonle Sap Lake, the largest lake in Southeast Asia.  We have our own boat along with Jet and we cruise down the river and see people living in tiny house boats, which apparently they have done for hundreds of years.  We see mothers cooking, babies crawling, children playing and swimming, men fishing and just glimpses of everyday life.  We ask Jet if the people mind all the tour boats that cruise by their homes daily, but he says they love it because the money we pay helps them when they need it.  Not sure what that means exactly.  We got off the boat for a pit stop and saw the crocadiles that they raise.  We also climbed to the top of this boat store and had a great view of the river and lake.  We cruised around for about an hour and then parked the boat
 up on the land, we jumped off the front of the boat into some mud and walked up the steep wooden 
steps to where we started.  

We returned to our hotel around 4:30, just enough time to play in the pool, shower off and meet our driver at 6:30 so he could take us to watch traditional Aspara dancers and eat a buffet dinner.  The
dancing was interesting, but most people didn't seem to be watching the show.  There were many food options and it was fun to try new things.  Even the kids got into the spirit.  They've actually been doing grat with eating new dishes.  We try to stick to noodles, chicken and shrimp for them, which is not too hard.  Plus they love all the fruit!!!

Our driver was waiting for us when the show ended and drove us back to our hotel where once again lizards roam the outside corridors otherwise known as our hallways.  We wrapped our mosquito nets around us and drifted off to sleep.  Okay, so maybe drifted isn't the right word, more like sweat dripping, air conditioner barely working, exhaustion taking over kind of sleep.  Whatever. 

Cambodia Border Crossing

I thought today would be a relitevly easy and uneventful day, since it was a travel day.  Wow, was I ever wrong.   Our day included traveling 13 1/2 hours, 3 different drivers, an act of faith,  blind night driving, lost camera, and more.

We met our taxi at 9 am and headed to the airport.  Our taxi driver was Joseph's friend, since Joseph's "taxi" was not allowed to take us to the airport, he arranged for someone else to give us a ride.  We check in, eat a little breakfast and proceed to get a little lost.  It's fine, we find our gate.  No big deal.  The flight to Bangkok takes about an hour and after we land and get our luggage we look for the driver who is supposed to meet us.  He is no where to be found.  This is our day's first dilemma.  We look around the meeting point   He's not here.  I sit down with the kids while Bill scours the airport.  I'm supposed to find free wifi to look up Kris's, the man we booked with, phone number.

After 15 minutes Bill returns.  No luck, but I'm connected to the Internet and find the emails that were sent.  That morning Kris had also sent us a "hot" number for the driver, his words not mine.  The number did not work, apparently it's not that hot.  I emailed Kris and told him we couldn't find his driver and had been looking.  Bill started looking into alternative ways to get to Cambodia.  Kris emailed back.  His driver was on the first floor, arrivals are on the second floor, and he was waiting at door eight, we are all the way on the opposite side.  After an hour and a half we finally meet our driver who does not speak any English and follow him to our van.  Not what I was expecting.  I'm pretty sure I saw ants crawling around.  I'm sure it will be fine though.

We drive three hours towards Cambodia.  We are almost there when he needs to get gas.  Right next to the highway there are two gas stations, literally right next to each other.  One is empty, the other
has a line of about fifty cars and they are not moving.  It seems only one pump is working.  Of course that's the line we get in.  Seriously?!  After sitting in this line for 15 minutes and not even inching
forward Bill asks why we don't go to the gas station next door.  It turns out the other station is twice
the cost.  Bill says he'll pay the difference.  Our driver gets on the phone then hands it to Bill.  Bill talks to someone at Kris's office and gets the okay for our driver to go to the other station as long as
we pay the difference.  To save at least an hour of our time, no problem.  We are quickly back on the road.

We come to the border and our driver pulls in a big dirt parking lot.  As soon as we park someone is opening our door.  He speaks English and tells us we must leave the van.  He says Mr. Kris sent him to help us cross the border, and then we will get a new van.  Um, okay.  We gather our things quickly and then sit down outside at a plastic table so he can fill out the necessary forms to get our visas.
Then he says, "Follow me."  So of course, we do.  It is so hot and humid and dirty and congested with cars, motorbikes, and tons of people.  We dodge traffic as we cross the street and walk along the road, (there are no side walks).  He tells us we must go through Thailand checkpoint by ourselves and he
will meet us on the other side.  So we follow the crowd of people and go through immigration.  The officer is not friendly but it goes well.  We find our guide on the other side.   Following him over a river that is filled with trash, children begging, people selling food that appears to have been sitting our for days, people honking, it's crowded, it's busy, its chaos.  He then helps us navigate to an outside restaurant, if you can call it that.  He tells us we need to give him the money for our Cambodian visas, plus our passports and he will go through the VIP line.  It is much faster, thirty minutes, and we won't have to wait in line, sometimes an hour.  I had read about this, so I felt it was legit, plus we had set it up with Kris, a man we meet on the internet, that someone would help us with the border crossing so we gave him about 6000 baht and all our passports.  I mean really, what could go wrong?  Bill asked if he should come to, but was told, no just wait here, I'll be back.  Talk about a leap of faith.  We were now standing in Cambodia, alone, and passport less.  Ava was worried and said she did not like this place.  She was felling very unsafe she said since a few people had come up and touched her face and hair.   I reassured her that it was fine and hoped I wasn't lying.

Thankfully thirty minutes later our guide came back with passports that now had Cambodian visas
inside.  Phew!!!  We weren't going to be stranded after all.  We followed our new friend through the
Cambodian checkpoint, which consisted of 2 soldiers sitting in plastic chairs.  A few words were
exchanged,  and we just walked by.  Very strange.  It was night now.  We were originally supposed to take a bus to our waiting van, but things had changed and our van was going to pick us up right there.  I almost get run over by a motorbike, but somehow we make it to the van.  They load our luggage, we pile in, say goodbye to our friend who helped us cross the border and take off on the scariest drive of our lives.  I'm not kidding!

The road that leads to Siem Reap is a main road, but this is Cambodia so all this means is that some of it is paved.  It is two lanes, but that means nothing to these drivers who constantly pass and and create a "third" lane in the middle of the road.  As if having multiple head on collisions isn't scary enough, our driver is speeding, and on at least one of his two cell phones at all times.  Oh and did I mention it is a stick shift, and no, he doesn't have a blue tooth.  It gets better, about 30 minutes from the border the road becomes an obstacle course with potholes easily 5 feet wide and 5 feet long.  Also there appears to be no road maintenance because some sections are literally dirt.  But wait, it gets  EVEN better, many vehicles don't have rear lights, even the big rigs, so as our driver is weaving in and out of traffic at 70mph we come up fast on these slow moving vehicles while creating a third passing lane and trying to avoid hitting the motorbikes as well.  The icing on the cake, there are NO SEATBELTS!!!!!   This went on for about three hours until we finally made it to Siem Reap by some miracle.

Can't wait to see what else Cambodia has in store for us!