Biking Around the Angkor Wat Temples

(this post will be short — the keyboard at this cafe is miserable at best)

We started the day off by switching hotels, and dropping our stuff off at the Golden Banana. We rented bikes from the owner (2usd/day) and started biking to the Angor complex. After about an hour of biking, we made it to the first group of temples (names escape me now), and then did about another 4 groups of temples culminating at Angkor Thom. Like all the temples so far they are all incredible and beautiful. Some are restored to perfection while others have trees growing out of them.

Doing the day by bicycle was both rewarding and punishing. The former obviously since we set our own pace and were able to take the detours we wanted and see all the temples up close. We spent a lot of time hiking thru the temple grounds and walking up the steep steps to the their top hights. The punishing part without a doubt was the incredible heat. I was constantly soaked and round trip we probably did around 22km on our bikes, plus the walking. We’d started around 8:30am and didn’t get back to Siem Reap until 3:30pm, the whole time spent hiking and biking around. What I really enjoyed of being on our own was the ability to take time to relax in the shade of the complexes and take in the enormaty of it all.

Spending more time in the temples today really drove home the point of how Hindu the temples are. I was able to recognize various images and deities carved in the stones. At times, it was only the more modern Buddha image that was placed inside that made it clear what the temple was used for. When I have my notes on me, I’ll post what exact temples I saw, since my pad is back at the room.

Tomorrow, it’s more temples, probably the more distant ones. The plan is to hire a tuk-tuk since I might die if we do another day of biking. Looks like we may end up in Bangkok for the last few days of the trip.

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The Ride to Siem Reap and Angkor Wat

Another day, another early bus ride. This mornnig we left Phnom Penh at 7:30am to head to Siem Reap, the basecamp for our visits to the temple complex of Angkor Wat. The ride was uneventful. We stopped a bit more often than I would have liked, at times taking on and letting off passengers.

We arrived at Siem Reap around 2pm and made our way via tuk-tuk (imagine a motorcycle with a covered riksha back, or something) to the Golden Banana. We had reservations for three nights there, but apparently that doesn’t mean anything and the hotel/guesthouse was sold out. We went up the street to the Golden Village or Palace or something (not sure where all the ‘golden’ references come from). We’re camping out there for a night and then moving for the Banana.

Soon after we’d put our stuff down we went out of the hotel looking for a tuk-tuk to take us to Angkor Wat. We found a guy who spent the rest of the afternoon with us for $7 USD. When we got to the ticket booth, around 3:30pm, we had the option of paying for a 3 day pass that started today or waiting until 4:45pm for a 3 day pass that started the next day and get in free this evening. So, of course, we waited and our tuk-tuk driver took us to a litle shrine/temple complex with bones of people who were killed during the reign of the Khmer Rouge. A bit depressed but quite real.

After getting in, we made our way to Angkor Wat and walked thru and around the temple. It’s a sight to behold, nothing like what I’ve ever seen before. Physically imposing, beautifully carved and masked with its battle against time it’s a humbling experience. All throughout the complex are beautiful carvings in the stone bricks, steep sets of stairs that lead higher and higher until you reach the center of the complex. In the middle (and all throughout) are active parishioners (if that’s what you call them), praying to the various statues and shrines that exist. Once at the top of that central complex, you have an amazing view of the rest of the complex including the walls, the moats and the pools. It’s simply stunning. The Hindu heritage of the sight is omnipresent as well, with carvings of Vishu visible and bas-reliefs of scenes from the Mahabharath.

We had dinner at a place near Bar Street in Siem Reap called “Khemer Kitchen”, which served up an incredible curry dish, possibly the best curry evar. And now I’m blogging in an outdoor internet cafe on Bar Street (appropriatly so named after all the bars here and closed off to traffic) where there are hundreds of bugs wanting to make dinner of me.

Before I forget, I want to mention how pretty much the only currency here is the US Dollar. I’ve paid for everything in USD and gotten change back in USD. The only exception is the sub whole dollar portion of the change, which comes back in Cambodian riel. Everybody, including street vendors take and return USD. It’s a de facto currency. Tomorrow, more temples and hotel change. I think we’re going to rent bikes for the day and power ourselves.

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Want a Postcard from Cambodia?

If you’re interested in getting a postcard from Cambodia (or Vietnam for that matter) and I know who you are, send me a email at hyperionab at hotmail dot com with your address and I’ll fire one your way.

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The Ride to Phnom Penh

The day started early as we emarked on our journey to Cambodia. At 8:15 we were picked up from our hotel to go to the meeting point for our bus. The first bus, a three hours ride, took us to the Moc Bai-Bavet border between Vietnam and Cambodia. After waiting to exit Vietnam for over an hour (to get our passports stamped), we walked through the no-mans land to a temple-styled immigration center for Cambodia.

At the border, we bought visas to Cambodia for $20 USD/pax, walked over to another counter to get the passport stamped, then over to another to clear immigration. All this was out in the open, any intrepid soul could have walked through it and not caught the attention of an offical. We, on the other hand, went thru the whole process and emerged in Cambodia in Bavet. We had been instructed to look for another bus on the Cambodia side, and for a moment thought we’d lost the bus since we couldn’t find any that fit the description. It turns out it was just hiding, so after walking around lost is the middle of 95F, 85% humidity, deforested Cambodia we found shelter in the bus.

The ride from Bavet to Phnom Penh was another 5 hours or so. We stopped for a little at a ferry crossing in order to get over a river (not sure which, perhaps the Tonle Sap?). The little area in which the cars and motos queued was full of poor beggar children asking for alms, women selling sodas and water, men selling dried birds and shrimp, etc, etc. I handed off a bunch of the spare food that we had packed to the beggars. While we crossed the river, a downpour started, so I’m not sure where they ended up.

The road on the other side of the river was even more bumpy, chaotic and pot-hole-full than the others I’ve been on in this trip. We made it to Phnom Penh around 6pm and found a moto(rcycle guy) to take us to our hotel, the Flamingo. He tried to pull the now-standard trick in the area. “Oh, that hotel? It’s full, my friend say so. I’ll take you to other place.” The hotel is fine and it has one of those showers that are in the same room as the sink and toilet (e.g. no shower over tub). Reminds me of India.

On that point, a lot of Cambodia reminds me of India. The facial features of the Khmer are a lot closer to Indian features than to north-Asian (e.g. Chinese or Japanese). It’s stands out even compared to the Vietnamese. I’ve had a few people think I was Cambodian. The streets also remind me quite a bit of India, with random folks hanging out in metal-roofed lean-tos, piles of garbage sitting around with kids playing in it and adults collecting, etc. It feels a bit like a cross of what I remember of Nagpur and Bombay, but of course it’s been a while since I’ve been in either.

Tomorrow we head to Siem Reap to start three nights in the Angor Wat region. The bus departs at 7:30am for another six hour treck.

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Cu Chi Tunnels and War Museum

In it’s whole, today was spent learning how awful America (et. al.) were during the Vietnam War (or the American Agression as it’s called here).

In the morning we joined a tour group for the Cu Chi Tunnels, and started by seeing a workshop where people with deformaties from Agent Orange are given jobs to help make egg shell/mother-of-pearl inlay desks and things. Quite a way to begin. We then drove for 1.5 hours to the tunnels themselves and walked through a section of the actual tunnels. They’re impossibly small, with the littlest amount of room to walk on all fours thru (even as they’ve been expanded for tourists sake). We spent some time in the area also looking at various reproductions of the different types of stations/etc that the Viet Cong had mantained and setup to prevent detection as well getting nearly deafened by a non-sound-isolated live-fire AK-47 range. It was interesting (tragic?) to note that as we walked around, the remains of the war (defoliated jungles, bomb craters, etc) were everywhere to be seen.

After the bus came back to HCMC, we went to the War Reminants Musuem, which was incredibly enlightening yet horrifying. Seeing the things that happened on both sides of the war (and esp. getting the Vietnamese side of the story) was incredibly unique. Undoubtedly there was quite a bit of propaganda being thrown around but some of the images, stories and facts really make you question what we call our “American morals.” Even worse, a lot of the quotes and facts and situations are not unlike our America of today. From the war crimes that we’re committing in Iraq to the stories of the Vietnam past, they sound exactly the same. Some of the quotes they had listed you could just place them in today’s politicans (replace “Communism” with “Terrorism”) mouths and they’d fit.

Later in the evening, we tried to find the Jade Buddha Pagoda but were totally unable to, so we ended up grabbing dinner near our hotel and then went to the “fabled” Rex Hotel rooftop bar. For all it’s fabled-ness, it was a bit (okay, a lot) underwhelming, themed with a garden-green lights and a hanging potted plants mess. I much prefered the rooftop bar of the Majestic.

The tickets for the 8-hour bus ride to Phomn Penh are booked for tomorrow, departing here at 8:15am. From the best of my understanding we should be able to get Cambodian visas at the border crossing. The plan is to spend the rest of the day tomorrow in Phomn Penh and then head to Siem Reap the next day. If the visas don’t pan out, we’ll be stuck in the middle of Vietnam until it’s sorted out.

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The Day in Ho Chi Minh City

For whatever reason, I got almost absolutly no sleep last night. It had probably something to do with all the episodes of Scrubs I watched on the TV (I heart Rupert Murdoch’s networks).

In the morning, I had breakfast at the hotel and then went to the airport to pick up Ami. The taxi driver was a friendly guy who kept trying to sell me more rides (“yes, I can give you tour of Ho Chi Minh City tomorrow!” and “here is my name-card, call me tomorrow!”). After waiting the sweltering heat for her to clear customs/etc, we made it to the Hotel Magestic right in the middle of district one.

We settled down and set off on a walking tour of the buildings in the area, including the colonial style “Hotel d’Ville” among others. All along the streets are vendors who are selling all sorts of tasty-looking things. I’m still a bit fearful of getting sick, so I’m going to wait a day or two to build up my courage to pick up a sandwich or other treat off of a street (vendor).

HCMC is a nice, quaint little town where you can really feel the “soul” of the city. It’s not as fast paced as say Shanghai (but then again, what is?), but you feel like there are people living and having normal lives all around you and I felt much more of them then the bustling Vietnamese economy. There were people squatting playing card games, folks taking naps in the blistering heat next to their soda cart, women moving their food carts across the crazy traffic.

Speaking of traffic, this place is nuts. There are about a billion (if not more) motorcycles criss-crossing the streets in a never ending traffic jam of epic proportions. It makes Xujiahui look tame! There are almost no foot powered bicycles, they’re all gas powered and it seems like most are made by Honda. Crossing the street at rush hour is pretty much a game of chicken: you walk on to the road and force the car/bus/motorcycle/etc to dodge you. If you fear them, they’ll own you.

Our dinner was a little resturant in the backpacker’s part of town, a vegetarian resturant where I had a “Mexican Burrito.” It was hardly Mexican, but it was still pretty good (total cost 2 entrees, plus 2 drinks: 49,000 VND, or about 3.5 USD). Every store, salon, shop and resturant has a sign up “Room for Rent” in the area, regardless of what the store front is doing, they’ll all be hotels if you have some money. The whole part of town is geared to the backpacker.

We cruised thru the area some more and bought tickets to go see Co Coi (sic?), the tunnels of the Vietcong tomorrow. It’s a 1/2 day trip (2 hours in a bus each way, 4 USD per person) and should prove to be pretty interesting. We’ll probably spend the afternoon tomorrow checking out some of the sights we missed (including the War Museum, I think it’s called). I also need to arrange some transportation to Cambodia for the day after, as we have to be in Phonm Penh on Sunday.

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Arrived in Ho Chi Minh City

I’ve arrived in Ho Chi Minh City, after a 4 hour flight from Shanghai (on Shanghai Air). The airport was small and nothing special except that just about everybody outside the airport was trying to rip me off.

Once I’d gotten outside, a swarm of taxi drivers came over to me and asked if I needed a ride. I tried to look for an offical taxi queue, but none existed so I picked a random guy and asked him to use a meter. Of course, he said yes. That was until we started walking over to his car (which was in the middle of nowhere), at which point he asked for $10 USD (which would be 160,000 VND) for the drive. Agast, I started to walk away saying I don’t have any USD (which was true), and that I’d pay him in either dong that I’d gotten at the ATM or leave. He asked for 150,000 VND, also an outragous price. I haggled with him down to 100,000 VND not really wanting to argue any more. The whole time he maintained that he’d run the meter.

And true to his word, he did run the meter, until about half way thru the ride at which time he turned it off and complained how I was cheating him (him: “America so much money, Vietnam no money!”, me: “I work in China!”). During the ride, he asked me if I had a hotel room reserved (I did) and he said I should try this other place and he tried to hand me a brochure. I nearly lost my cool and told me to take me to my hotel or drop me off. I think sensing the threat (or being used to this type of exchange), he became quite and drove me to my hotel (Libery 4 at 265 Pham Ngu Lao Street).

And now I’m at an internet cafe (100vnd/minute) right next to the hotel. The street is a backpackers area, full of internet cafes and street vendors selling stuff I have yet to explore. I’m about to head out, get some water and pass out since I need to pick up Ami tomorrow (today) from the airport.

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Heading to Vietnam and Cambodia

I’m taking off tonight for a week and a few days to Southeast Asia, namely Vietnam and Cambodia (in that order). I land in Ho Chi Minh City Friday at 12:30am, and we’re staying in the city for two nights, then traveling by bus or boat to Phnom Penh, were we’ll be for one night. After staying in Phnom Penh, we’re heading for Angor Wat, the centerpiece of our trip and staying in Siem Reap for three nights.

After that, it’s a bit undecided. We’ll likely head back to Vietnam and I want to go to Hue and/or Hoi An, but it’ll depend on transportation since it’s some 15 hours by bus from Ho Chi Minh City. Trip wraps up back in Ho Chi Minh City, with me flying out at 1AM next Sunday, getting back to Shanghai at some awfully early hour.

Given any available internet access, I’ll blog while on the route.

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Visit to Zhexi Daxiagu in Zhejiang Provence

Over the last weekend Richard, Johnny and I joined a bunch of students from Shanghai Jiaotong University for a weekend trip to some of the sights in the neighboring Zhejiang Provence, namely the big canyon in the region.

The trip started with the three of us meeting up in Xujiahui at 6:15am in order to take a taxi out to the University, which is about an hour away. After piling on a bus (which I did not really expect), and driving for about three hours, we arrived at our first destination, a set of limestone caves in a much more provincial part of China. The place wasn’t bad, but it, like much of the first day, seemed a bit artificial:


We then got back in the bus in the afternoon and drove for a little while to ShenLongchuan, a mountain where you hike up to the top. One of the guys we met there pointed out that this is a favorite pastime of the the domestic tourist Chinese: to find a mountain and climb up it. The mountain itself and the walk up to the top was quite pretty, with lots of scenery (some of the I’m sure was generated), but it made for a very pleasant walk/hike.


The best part of being out in the mountains was for sure the clean air and the clean water that ran through the streams. Compared to Shanghai and the Huangpu, it’s incomparable.


After finishing the hike at this mountain, we made our way to the town of Lin’An (临安市), a small city where our very plain and a bit sketchy hotel was. Our rooms cost 100 RMB, which is about $12. Sadly, there wasn’t much to do in the town in the evening, so some people went singing and a few of us went to get foot massages.

The next morning was another early one, with a 7AM departure time for the main attraction (whose name I cannot find for the life of me). We drove for a few hours to the site of the valley, got off of our tour buses and waited for a local bus to continue up the mountain to the starting point for the trail/hike/walk at White Horse Cliff. This place was far more inspiring than day one: the air was clearer, the walks were more pretty and more natural and I even heard birds chirping.


On the left is the name of the mountain, I think. If you can read it, leave a comment and let me know where I went.


It was a nice little trip to see another part of China. More time spent in a bus than I would like to, but I got to meet a couple new people and get out of the craziness of Shanghai. It’s stunning to see how robust the domestic tourism market is here: the whole weekend, I was the only non-Chinese person to be seen. There were hundreds, if not thousands of people at each site seeing their own country. It’s very admirable.

Interestingly, in the smaller towns we walked and drove through was more propaganda than I’ve seen anywhere in Shanghai. Signs everywhere saying “respect the rules of family planning”, or “obey the one child policy to make a strong civilization” or “respect the legal rights of women”, and on and on like that. I’m not even kidding, it’s totally crazy.

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Local Pricing Structure

While living in or visiting Shanghai, it won’t take you much time to realize there is a multiple tiered pricing structure on just about every thing that you can pay money for. From DVDs, to apartments, to food, to car rentals, just about anything. It breaks down as follows, starting with most expensive first:

  1. Expat Price – this is the price you pay if you get your services and goods through agencies that specialize in expats. Typically, prices are quoted in US dollars.
  2. Foreigner Price – if you do it on your own, but you’re not Chinese, this is what you’ll pay. Your bargaining power is severely limited by this factor.
  3. Chinese Price – most people play down at this level. You normally get good prices assuming you haggle. If Mandarin wasn’t your mother-tongue, people can tell and may set a higher floor.
  4. Shanghainese Price – the cheapest of them all. If you can talk the local language, the prices will likely start cheaper and can be bargained even lower.

To give you an example, ads for satellite TV in brackets 1 – 3 are two times higher than the starting price for a Shanghainese person. I also heard a story over the weekend of somebody who was renting a car, and the sales person started the price at half of what we offered the non-Shanghainese person standing next to the two. An ayi (maid) will cost 2x as you move from the bottom to the top of the price ladder.

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