Monthly Archives: April 2011

Must-do things in Southeast Asia

Food Have a noodle soup or a spicy kebab for breakfast. Learn to distinguish at least ten types of rice and fifteen kinds of bananas. Drink beer with ice. Identify the quality and popularity of a restaurant by the number of paper napkins on the floor and the number of dogs around. Have your rice soup with an egg cracked into it.

Now this leads us directly to the Bum Gun … Use this great invention, it makes the true paperless office possible in countries without toilet paper. Its uses are manyfold and reach from the intended purpose to ant control or mosquito killing.

Customs & Culture Greet with a wâi, a prayer-like palms-together gesture. Take off your shoes when entering a home or a temple. Tap your feet to karaoke music. Let your pleasure in slapstick comedy be revived. Play volleyball with your feet only. Go to see a Thai boxing event. Get a Thai massage and have your eyeballs pushed into your head.

Street life Take a torch with you; don’t expect any street lighting. Aspire to Lexus ownership, heavy SUVs have built-in right of way. Try to walk amidst the cramped swirl of buses, trucks, motorbikes, cars, taxis, tuktuks, people, sometimes cows and dogs, wagons and handcarts delivering sacks of rice, piles of clothes, ice blocks, watermelons, animals, whatever. Accept the fact that the maximum passenger load means there is always space for one more. Caution on a zebra crossing; these are favourite areas to be run down. Joking apart, what we noticed is that the locals really watch out for each other on the streets (except for SUV drivers).

Animals Careful with cows on the roadside, they make unpredictable moves! The same applies for dogs, which at night form street gangs, protecting their territory. Barking across town in the middle of the night, they transfer the message of approaching strangers to each other. Get used to see cats with cutoff tails: Apparently they are not mutilated, but born that way. Accept the fact that geckos defy the laws of gravity. Count the Tokay Gecko’s cries and hope it will be seven – that brings good luck! Don’t put hamsters into prayer wheels. It will not optimize your kharma, nor help the hamster to be reincarnated as a tiger!

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Cycling Angkor

At its peak, Angkor was the biggest urban agglomeration on Earth, a royal city accommodating one million people, and it was the heart of an empire that commanded a major part of Southeast Asia. Today, the vast area around the city of Siem Reap is probably the reason most people visit Cambodia.

Most of the roughly 1000 (!) temples were built between the years 900 and 1200, spanning from a rubble of stones to the huge Angkor Wat. The temple-mausoleum of king Suryavarman is apparently the world’s largest religious monument ever built, figuring even on the Cambodian flag.

Despite its size, we were more impressed with the fascinating diversity of the smaller temples than with Angkor Wat itself. One of them was Bayon, whose towers supported two, three or four huge coldly smiling faces that exuded power and control. We explored Ta Prohm with its trees, which over the centuries have put their roots like claws into its walls. This temple is also famous today for being a movie set for Tomb Raider and Two Brothers. We also climbed the impressive Ta Keo with its five temples that represent the five peaks of Mount Meru.

Despite the heat, the exploration by bike was a good idea, as it gave a feeling not only of the sheer size of the area of over 1000 sqkm, but also of how nicely it is embedded in its natural surroundings. The whole site has a complex system of infrastructure, including canals, basins, and roads, on which we did at least 100 km with our rented bikes.

While two of the three days of our visit were extremely hot and busy due to the Khmer New Year and the weekend thereafter, the last day was calm and much cooler after a rainy night. We recommend going there in the early morning or the late afternoon, not only because of the heat, but also for better light. On the pictures you will notice the big differences of colours and shadows. Enjoy.

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Happy Khmer New Year!

It’s the year 2555 and on the 14th of April we just celebrated New Year’s Eve in Kampot, a small city in southern Cambodia! Honestly, we had expected some celebrations right across the city, a lot of water throwing or at least some fireworks, as it is one of the year’s most important festivals that lasts for three days.

It was rather a religious and reflective holiday, celebrated within the families: locals visited pagodas, many made their offerings to the monks and got their fortunes told for the coming year – the year of the Rabbit. They offered food and drink to bring good fortune; we didn’t fail to notice that the spirits seem to drink a lot of Coke and Fanta.

We witnessed the most famous Cambodian folk dance called Robam Trot, which features a hunter chasing a deer, performed by children to remind of culture and heritage and chase away bad luck. We checked, you can download it as mp3 for your iPod!

The quiet riverside town with plenty of old villas had us for a few relaxing days. We kept looking for pepper plantations, as Kampot is best known for its truly excellent black pepper. We discovered the beautiful Ocheteaul Beach of Sihanoukville and caught first-degree burns. Then we took the wrong way back and extended our motorcycle ride far into the night. With animals and locals crossing in the darkness, it was an adventurous trip, but the male driver did a very good job!

Tired of tapping our feet to karaoke music, one night we enjoyed live music in a bar and the company of a few expats, among them Les, who has a great raspy voice he surely got after having swallowed a pack of razor blades :-) Each year he works six months in North America and then lives the other six in Cambodia. We liked the model but wondered if you can simultaneously enjoy work and life.

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You want tuk tuk? Sir? SIR?

Driving alongside Phnom Penh’s riverside at night we thought: Wow, finally a real city! However, our fascination considerably weakened once we found ourselves amidst the turmoil of the hot and crowded capital.

The immense traffic, heat, dust and smog made a walk in the city unbearable. The city is clearly not made for pedestrians, consequently there is no space for walking at all: the pavement is crowded with parked SUVs and local shops open their stands there as well, so you have to walk on the roadside competing with motorbikes, cars and busses honking their horns and heading at you from all directions.

There is literally nothing that you cannot transport on a motorbike: up to 5 people and all their baggage, an entire grilled pork wrapped in newspaper, ice blocks, living chicken tied upside down, a TV set, a kitchen table, or a big basket with watermelons. Tuk tuk- and motorbike taxi drivers shout from every corner trying to grab your attention and to sell you their service, being extremely difficult to get rid of. We were wondering if there are other professions in Phnom Penh apart from these two.

On our walking tour we visited the Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda, the latter named in honour of the floor, which is supposed to be covered with over 5000 silver tiles. We climbed the 27m-high hill to the summit to see Wat Phnom. Locals pray here for good luck, success, protection or healing. When a wish is granted, the faithful return to deliver the offering they promised to the spirits, such as jasmine flowers or a bunch of bananas.

On the Wat Phnom site, you could also take short elephant rides, get your bag snatched by monkeys (one even adopted a kitten) and pay to free birds caught in tiny cages. Apparently they are trained to return to their cage afterwards!

Contrary to all this fuss, we also made some real experience that used to happen when getting in touch with Khmer people. They love to chat and practise English with you, which enabled more in-depth conversations, like the one led with Im Sarann. Half Khmer, half Vietnamese, he has eight brothers and sisters and is the only one in the family to have a master’s degree. He told me that he was one of 125 students admissed for a scholarship among the 8000 who applied and we had a chat about some of the Khmer customs and traditions.

We took half a day to visit the Tuol Sleng Museum. In 1975, a High School was taken over by Pol Pot’s security force and turned into Security Prison 21 (S-21). It soon became the largest such centre of detention and torture in the country. Over 17,000 men, women and children held at S-21 were taken to the extermination camp (killing field) at Choeung Ek to be executed; detainees who died during a shocking variety of forms of torture were buried in mass graves in the prison grounds. All of this was part of the Khmer Rouge idea of social engineering into an agrarian-based communist society, which however translated into genocide and killing – by torture, execution or starvation – of more than two million people. We spare you the worst pictures from S-21, from which only seven people could be freed alive.

Phnom Penh definitely left us in a thoughtful mood.

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Leaving Laos or the goat on the roof

It’s time to say goodbye to Laos. We stayed three days in Savannakhet’s  laid back  old town that looks like a scenery from a historic movie.  We gently touched one-hundred-million-year-old bones in the local Dinosaur Museum. There we got an excellent tour by the Lao expert who was part of the team excavating one of the major dinosaur skeletons in Laos.

We continued our journey to Pakse and just want to spare one sentence. We were there. Early morning we moved on to Si Phan Don, which means “4000 islands”. We travelled on a local bus, which, as usual, was a lot of fun. Apart from fans fixed on the ceiling, local people sitting on plastic chairs in the middle of the narrow aisle, this time there was no motorbike in the bus, but a goat on rooftop. We thought the poor thing would fall off with the first movement of the bus, but it held its ground in all the curves for three hours. A shame that during the journey it had to pee through the open roof window.

Cycling on Don Khone and Don Det islands, we avoided the tourist road toll booth by taking adventurous off-road paths. We were surprised by the impressive waterfalls, and felt Don Khone was quite relaxed, despite the fact that everything (guesthouses, restaurants, bicycle renting) is set up for the visitors.  The days ended with a beautiful sunset and a cool Beerlao.

To sum it up, we loved Laos. In general, people were really very welcoming and friendly, and we very much enjoyed staying there. It is quite a inexpensive destination and you can have a very good time.

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