Cambodian hospitality

I left Cambodia after only a short visit, with a good impression of the people and their customs. We hired our tuk-tuk driver, Som, for a second excursion to the temples, which included our new joint favourite, Preah Khan. This more than any other of the temples on our itinerary was like stepping into a video game, if you ignore all the other tourists and warning signs.

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We visited no less than twelve temples over the course of two days – Som was doing a lot of driving for us in his trusty tuk-tuk. After the second day he invited us to his home for drinks and snacks, which we gladly accepted. We got to meet his whole family, most of whom didn’t speak English, but that didn’t matter – we learnt the Khmer word for cheers and that saw us through! It’s always a pleasure to meet locals when you travel, and we came away with strong feelings of hospitality from our new Cambodian friends. Incidentally, should you happen to be planning an Angkor tour yourself, give him a call on +855 969872792!

We explored Siem Reap during our off day between temple treks. It’s a town with a lot of atmosphere that’s retained some local charm despite the tourist magnet of Angkor Wat. We stayed a little out of the centre, in an area that feels more like a village than a city. We often stopped at the fruit stall just outside our hostel when making our way to and from town, and there are plenty of great food options just down the street.

The town centre lights up after dark with the night market and the appropriately named Pub Street soaking up most of the tourist dollars. And when I say dollars, I mean it, because Cambodia uses a strange mix of US and local currency. The official currency is the riel, but they use dollars for most things. But only dollars, not cents. Since the exchange rate is almost exactly 4000 riel to the dollar, if you order a $2.50 dinner (yes, it’s that cheap), with a $5 bill, you’ll get $2 and 2000 riel in change. This takes some getting used to, but it keeps your wallet getting weighted down with coins!

I’m struck by how chaotic the traffic is here, yet no-one seems to crash or have any incidents on the road. I’ve seen vehicles overtaking two levels deep on a one-lane road. I started to wonder why there aren’t more accidents, and I think I might have figured it out. It occurs to me that people here aren’t bad drivers; on the contrary, they are more attentive and aware of what’s going on around them. In safety-conscious Europe with our crumple zones and anti-lock brakes perhaps we take safety for granted. Cocooned in our metal shells we feel invincible, and this false sense of security leads to carelessness. Here in urban Asia, were most of the traffic comprises of mopeds and tuk-tuks, people don’t crash, because the stakes are higher. At least, that’s my take on things in the short time I’ve been here.

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Exploring the ancient city of Angkor

I’m in Cambodia with my brother, where we’ve holed up at the cheapest hostel I’ve ever stayed at – just US$2.50 per night – but with plenty of charm and run by a big-hearted Turk named Ufuk. We’re in Siem Reap, whose literal translation is ‘Defeat of Siam’; legend has it the town got it’s name after the king of Siam failed to invade Cambodia in the 16th century.

Siem Reap’s history goes back way further than that, though: This is the capital of the ancient Khmer empire, which ruled much of Southeast Asia over a thousand years ago. The city of Angkor was a sprawling metropolis festooned with magnificent temples. Today, the temples are all that remain, and these bring in tourists in their millions each year. We were two of them.

Our tour began by hiring an eager local with a tuk-tuk to show us the main sights of Angkor. The Cambodian tuk-tuks are comprised simply of a motorbike with a covered four-seater trailer bolted to the back, as opposed to the all-in-one designs found in other Asian countries. The first port of call was the world wonder itself, Angkor Wat. This temple was the heart of the ancient city, and is truly impressive in its scale and former grandeur. Pictures simply don’t do it justice, but here are some of mine anyway.

The smaller but no less impressive Angkor Thom was next on the itinerary. We both preferred this temple. With its nooks and crannies and its twisty passages, the Indiana Jones feeling was strong with this one.

The temples at Angkor are still being used as religious sites by Buddhist monks, which is odd because the temples were originally built as Hindu places of worship, a heritage traced back to the Indian roots of the Khmer people. Many Hindu statues can be seen with bright orange robes draped over them, now deemed Buddhist icons.

There were no less than six temples on our tour, but our favourite was Ta Phrom, a ruin currently losing its battle to nature as it gets torn apart by tree roots. It’s a testament both to the engineering skill of the builders and the powerful forces of nature, but of course nature will win in the end.

Walking around (and climbing up) all these temples in the 35° heat of the day was tiring work, but it was good to have our own driver to cart us around in his breezy tuk-tuk. It was a moving experience to be so close to ancient history, especially in a part of the world I knew nothing about. The history of the Khmer empire speaks through these ancient stones.

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Stir fried vegetables in Bangkok

We decided to check out one of Bangkok’s famous markets, but decided the legendary ‘floating markets’ were a little too hard to reach. Instead we went to Chatuchak weekend market. They say you can buy anything sold in Thailand here, and I can believe it. It’s easy to get lost in the endless corridors of this mostly indoor bazaar. Despite having a specific goal in mind – a pair of sandals with ankle straps – I couldn’t help get distracted by the various wares on display.

We spent the rest of the afternoon lazing in Chatuchak Park – an expansive green space in the heart of the city. The most surprising thing to me about Bangkok is how laid back it can be – I was expecting constant noise and hustle and bustle, but my two day introduction to Thailand has mostly been spent sipping mango yoghurt smoothies in a riverside cafe, wondering the streets and markets with quiet fascination, and resting my tired feet in the park.

After taking a lungful of green air we headed to one of Bangkok’s many large shopping malls, were we exchanged Thai Baht for US dollars, apparently a necessity in the neighbouring kingdom of Cambodia, but more on that later!

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One of the things that had put me off going to Asia was the food. Not because I don’t like Asian food – I love it! – but because as a vegetarian I worried about finding food I was willing to eat. I put that theory to the test in Bangkok when I dove into my first Thai street food experience. Following the impeccable directions provided by my hostel, I found myself on bustling Rama IV Road with its collection of stalls and eateries, all in Thai with no Latin alphabet in sight. In at the deep end, so to speak!

I managed to procure a simple plate of stir fried vegetables, the best I’ve ever eaten. It occurs to me that maybe it’s not so hard to be veggie here – simply ask for ‘vegatables, no meat’, or in this case get handed a menu with English translations. I look forward to sampling more local food. Although in future maybe I won’t opt for the spicy version.

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A whole new continent

I’ve never been to Asia. The closest I came was Istanbul in 2012, but I never ventured beyond the European side of that continent-striding city. I did fly over on my way to New Zealand, setting foot briefly in Dubai and Bangkok airports. Of course, you can’t claim to have visited a place if you’ve never left the airport. So this morning when I touched down in Suvarnabhumi Airport for the second time, it felt different. My path took me, bleary-eyed, through immigration and baggage reclaim, into the balmy outdoor air of Bangkok. At last, I was in Asia!

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I feel like all my travels so far have been ‘easy mode’, sticking with Europe and English-speaking countries. However, I keep hearing that South East Asia, and Thailand in particular, is very welcoming to westerners. That’s one of the reasons I decided to start with Bangkok, the other being to spend some time with my brother, who’s also travelling in the region.

After packing myself onto first the sky train and then the metro, I arrived at my hostel where my room was mercifully ready. I tried and failed to ward off sleep, and then decided to hit the city.

I haven’t had much chance to explore, but I’m staying the midst of a complex maze of streets and alleyways, where the pavements seem primarily for displaying wares and storing scooters, and the streets themselves are negotiated between foot and motor traffic. The Thai call these side-streets ‘soi’ and you can never quite tell if they’re going anywhere unless you venture down them to find out. Crossing the busier streets seems to be a matter of ‘wait for the gaps and try not to die’.

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There’s a strange mix of old and new here, of local and international. A traditional-looking street market will sit right next door to an air-conditioned shopping mall with English-signed coffee shops and fashion stores. I decide between the suspicious-looking street vendor noodles and the coffee house pretzel. I opt for the safer option. It’s my first day, after all.

I’m sure I’ll have a lot more to say in the coming days. Right now I have to go lay my jet-lag addled brain to rest.

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My quest is at an end!

So, I’ve been busy. This blog post has been sitting, half-written, in my drafts for over a month now. I guess I’d better get it out!

I’m back home after an incredible trip around North America. My last port of call was in Vancouver, where I was on business. Don’t worry, I had plenty of time for pleasure as well.

What can I say about Vancouver? I’d been looking forward to arriving at this final stop on my West Coast adventure, and was not disappointed. There’s something for everyone here, whether you’re into outdoor sports, nightlife or relaxing at the park or beach. Vancouver has it all, and doesn’t compromise on anything.

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I arrived at an appropriate time. As Americans were gearing up for their 4th of July celebrations, their usually more reserved neighbours to the north were already in party mode. The first of July is Canada day, and I was welcomed into the country by a parade, fireworks, and more maple leaves than I could count.

The waterfront was thronging with people of all race, age, and colour to celebrate the nation’s birthday. The parade highlighted the diversity of the country, with many different cultures represented.

Vancouver is a beautiful city bordered to the north by mountains, which I managed to catch an occasional glimpse of through the clouds. But of course, I wasn’t content to observe them from afar, I had to get up there in the clouded peaks!

Fortunately, I had a friend in town with a Landrover and a passion for hiking, and he took us on a day hike along the Howe Sound Crest Trail, passing through St. Marks Summit. The trail was steep and muddy, and in a fairly poor state higher up. We met some park rangers on the way back who told us how the trail’s popularity meant was causing it to deteriorate faster than they could repair with their limited resources. I could see why the trail was so popular, once the mists had cleared at the summit, revealing a vista to remember.

I was staying in an apartment right downtown, not too far from one of Vancouver’s best features: Stanley Park. This huge urban park is an oasis of nature just a short walk from downtown, and I spent many hours hiking, running and cycling along its seawall and through its inland trails. Most of the coastline of Vancouver is picturesque, with beautiful beaches and serene parks.

Of course, I was here at the best time of year. I’m sure it’s different in the winter, but then on the other hand, with so many ski resorts a short drive away, maybe winter here isn’t be so bad. I certainly wouldn’t mind seeing those mountains capped with snow.

My last night was spent in the best way possible: with an epic bike ride around the city, sampling the local beer and returning home after midnight. My three weeks here weren’t enough. I will definitely return.

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Crazy, but in a good way: Welcome to Portland!

I’ve done things in Portland I never thought I’d ever do. Maybe it’s something about this place – the blend of bohemianism and hedonism that gives the city it’s reputation for being, well, a little bit weird. Whatever it is, I’ve been drinking it all in. The younger crowd here skews hipster, and the colourful Pearl district is rammed with trendy themed bars and way-too-hoppy beers. One place I kept returning to was Powell’s, a labyrinthine bookstore worth visiting just for its café. It’s hard to pin down the city’s weirdness by just listing examples, but it seems like everything has to be a bit different here. As one person on the train put it: Portland, Oregon is ‘crazy, but in a good way.”

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I became a proper Couchsurfer here by staying with my first host. It was an awesome experience to meet up with some strangers in a bar and later go back to their house to stay as if we were old friends. Couchsurfing has really changed the way I travel; I used to rely on hostels to meet people, but they can be very hit and miss. When you’re staying at someone’s house, then not only have you already met someone, but they’re a local who knows a bit about the area. My hosts had another guest, a traveller like me, so it was a very sociable experience. We stayed up late drinking beer by the back yard fire, and they took as to some great brunch spots in their leafy neighbourhood.

It was far to warm for museums, but I passed the Portland Maritime Museum and couldn’t resist: it’s on a boat! The Portland is an old steam tug boat that’s still operational, and a volunteer tour guide led me and some German tourists around the boat to see how things used to operate in the days of steam. One thing I learnt is: even the backups have backups!

For an American city, Portland is surprisingly cycle-friendly. At no time of year is this more apparent than the annual World Naked Bike Ride, a global phenomenon that Portland has very much taken to heart. Every year, thousands of cyclists gather in the park with their bikes, take off as much clothing as they are willing (the dress code is ‘as bare as you dare’), and take to the streets en masse to protest the global fossil fuel industry. It just so happened that this year’s ride coincided with my visit to Portland.

Well, I couldn’t not, could I?

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My new friend and I rode to the park in the early evening filled with trepidation. Neither of us had done anything like this before. At first it was extremely awkward, with just a few nudists confidently striding around the park, but gradually more riders began to arrive. As the park filled the atmosphere turned to that of a festival, with loudspeakers blaring and revellers dancing. Eventually a critical mass was reached and the shy among us shed our inhibitions and our clothes and joined the fray.

The ride began at 9pm but there were so many thousands of riders it took a good half an hour to get out of the park. At the exit the street was lined with people watching and cheering on the participants. Surprisingly, I felt no embarrassment, just adrenaline and eagerness to set off. Once we were on the road it was a great feeling. People waved and whooped from their houses and the roadside, I high-fived a few people as I soared past, a guy on a skateboard boldly rode the sidewalk waving at passers-by, loudspeakers towed behind bikes gave us an ever-changing soundtrack as we progressed. There were cyclists, skaters and runners in various states of undress, some with body paint, some in costume; but the one thing we all had in common was that every single person was having the time of their life. The ride was over far to quickly as we arrived at an undisclosed location, chaotically converging on another park in the darkness.

So why did I do this? Three reasons. I believe in the ride’s cause protesting the dominance of fossil fuels and gas-hungry cars; I used to be extremely self-conscious and have been trying to change that for many years; and most importantly, I thought it would be a great laugh. And I was right – this was one of the highlights of the trip. I would urge anyone to give it a try at least once, remember it’s ‘as bare as you dare’ – you don’t have to go completely nude if you don’t want to. So I’m sure you’re all wondering if I bared all, or retained some modesty? Well, I’ll just have to leave that up to your imagination!

Even without that excitement, Portland left an impression on me. I love it’s laid-back atmosphere and it’s quirky charm, and I want to go back some time. Maybe I’ll do the bike ride again next year. Who wants to join me?

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Exploring the Oregon coast

IMG_5640.JPGI had wanted to visit some smaller towns on my US trip, and the northern coast of Oregon seemed like a good place to do just that. Getting there without a car might have been difficult – though buses do exist – but fortunately I had a travel buddy so we rented a car for a few days, loaded up on supplies, and took off west from Portland.

We began in the small town of Tillamook, just off the coast, and camped nearby only to be rained on the next day. Tillamook has kind of a one-horse town feel, with most of the shops and cafe’s lining a single main street, with a cute cinema thrown in for good measure.

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Despite the weather, we headed north following the coastal road, encountering many more small towns and villages with a similar feel, including Garibaldi, where an old steam train still operates up and down the coast. Oregon in general feels like a very laid-back state, and the wet weather lends it a lush environment. Some of the views we encountered were beautiful, tarnished only slightly by the showers, which seemed to follow us as we moved north.

My favourite spot was probably Rockaway Beach, which had the perfect blend of small-town charm and scenic shoreline.

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We ended up in Astoria, a larger city though still much smaller than Portland. Again, the place had a good vibe and we had dinner here in a cosy diner cafe, where I tucked into some very good grilled mac and cheese, American-style. I’m glad I got to the chance to experience this quieter side of Oregonian life.

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