Saturday, March 17, 2012

smiles, everyone, smiles

readers of a certain age will remember ricardo montalban's reminder to his employees on fantasy island. that's exactly how it felt to us as we rounded the headland on the west side of koh rong saloem, an island off the shore of south cambodia in the gulf of thailand, a two hour boat ride away from sihanoukville.

here's a little video of our arrival.

pier at sunset, koh rong saloem, cambodia.
the golden sand of "lazy beach" came into view complete with a jungled shoreline, basic wooden bungalows popping out of the greenery, a rickety old wooden pier jutting into the blue water and smiling employees making their way from the breezy bar down to the boat to welcome us ashore.

our first thought was "THIS is the southeast asia beach we'd been looking for." aside from the four other boat passengers, the driver and the staff approaching us on shore, it was our beach. and one of those wooden bungalows popping out of the jungle was ours, too, complete with a hammock for each of us.

not one, but TWO hammocks at our bungalow, "lazy beach,"
koh rong saloem, cambodia.

as we carried our packs up to the open-air bar/reception/restaurant/hangout space, someone approached with ice cold glasses of some fruit drink and said "drop the bags, have a drink, carry on to your bungalow when you're good and ready. i suggest a swim first, however."

well, this was off to a good start. and it only got better.

koh rong saloem quickly became our favorite beach in all of southeast asia. it filled that fantasy, deserted island idea of empty stretches of beach set in clear blue waters we've all dreamed of. directly out our front door, a mere 30 second walk led us down to a stunning beach with gentle waves, an endless blue horizon during the day and, it facing west, some mind-blowing sunsets.

a 30 minute hike through the jungle to the other, east-facing, side of the island brings you to this.
a completely different type of sand along with stunningly clear, blue water. koh rong saloem, cambodia.

a sad fact of life in southeast asia is the sheer amount of trash that washes up along beaches all across the southern coast. not here, though, it was clean. occasionally an old net would wash ashore from the fish and squid boats constantly bobbing offshore. this bay was framed by rocks at either end of the beach which provided some pretty good snorkeling. no effort. just rent a mask and fins for $1 and float a few feet into the water... FISH! and sea urchins, and coral.

our bungalow came with a pair of  charming, and LARGE, geckos who helped to keep other critters to a minimum. we named them nick and nora. they were charming most of the time, until they found our bag of muesli at 3:45am.

and these were no ordinary geckos, these were geckos on steroids called "tokays." they sit completely still, too, like statues. when michelle first spotted one, she thought it was a decoration. i thought "there is no way i would have opened that door and NOT noticed that thing before." i poked it with a broom, it jumped, it yelled and skittered away. so did michelle. :) and when you hear them chirp, you understand the onomatopoeic name. apparently they're territorial and consider your cabin as their "turf." we watched a high-speed chase around the bungalow when an interloper appeared. these things went from dead-stillness to the speed of light up the walls, across the ceiling, under the beds... we didn't know where to stand.

pretty much says it all. koh rong saloem, cambodia.

back to that ricardo montalban comment earlier. i asked the young dude behind the bar "come on, be honest, do you feel like ricardo montalban from fantasy island each day that boat pulls around the headland and in to view?" <blank stare> "too young to know the reference?" <nod> "give me a beer, please."
it's now been a few weeks since we spent these days doing absolutely nothing at lazy beach but i'm certain it will continue to stand out among all the beautiful beaches, cities, villages and towns which we've been lucky to visit. if only lazy beach would give commissions for blog posts like these, we'd write one every day.

"our" beach at sunset, koh rong saloem, cambodia

an indulgent photo but this pretty much captures the vibe. this may be the
most relaxed russ has ever been.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

they told us this would happen

before we left home, back in july 2011, we read a ton of travel blogs and talked to as many people as we could to answer the millions of questions we had. one recurring theme was "you're going to get tired. you're going to reach a point where you need to take a break. when that happens, forget the budget, find a nice hotel and enjoy it for a few days." essentially, take a break from your break.

our view from breakfast this morning where we're writing this post.
villa paradiso, phnom penh, cambodia.
we thought "no way, how could travel fatigue ever set in? travel is awesome and you're literally on vacation every single day." now, this is in no way a complaint but truth be told, travel is a lot of work. well, we seem to have hit that moment.

we wouldn't necessarily call it fatigue as much as "this city is freakin' hot and we're covered in sweat five seconds after we step out the door. perhaps it's time for some creature comforts, like an a/c unit that functions for the full 24 hours promised?"

after weeks through the serene countryside of northern laos, then through the quiet southlands of cambodia we arrived in phnom penh, the chaotic capital of cambodia. as i type this at 10:00am it's already 88 degrees. when we arrived on the bus the other day at 1:00pm, it was 97 degrees. being budget-conscious, we duly checked into our cheap but well-reviewed guesthouse and were happy to find ourselves in a cool, quiet room. but after a couple of times walking through the bar at the front of the guesthouse, we started to feel a little queasy when it dawned on us that the only people there were pasty, middle-aged white guys with young, beautiful cambodian girls. as a german woman described them to us back in thailand, "transactional relationships."

welcome to phnom penh. bus station upon our arrival from kep.
just LOOK at all those people. 
then 6:30am the next day, BBBBBBBZZZZZZZZZZZ! outside our window! turns out, we checked in on a sunday, all was quiet, but on monday morning a coffin production workshop (yes, coffins!) was a few feet from where we were sleeping and the grinding and sanding and pounding and yelling sounded as if they were in our room. michelle popped her head up, looked at me and asked "we should move, yes?" i nodded, now wide awake. we step out of the room and a rat goes shooting down the hallway. strike three. i mean, it's a big city in southeast asia, rats happen, we get that but it was enough.

view from the 'foreign correspondent's club' on the
river front, our happy hour location for four nights running.
the serenity of the riverside belies the hot chaos behind us.

we scoured the town for another place, got a reservation from a highly-rated little guesthouse, returned to get our stuff from the first place (BBBBBZZZZZ still going on in full force) and upon arriving again were told, "i'm sorry, while you were gone someone booked your room online, now we have no place for you." wait, what? well, awkwardness followed (he was french, after all :)) and i suggested he just say no to the online booking. he grunted and relented. that kicked off an awkward couple of days in a dark room with an anemic a/c unit.

SCREW IT! we're moving across town, we're blowing our budget and finding a pool. done. we're now at the villa paradiso, a green, lush, quiet oasis in the middle of a loud, dusty, chaotic city with the temperature quickly rising and we love it.

we have had nothing but wonderful luck with our accommodations. we are not complaining in any way, travel really is as awesome and fulfilling as we ever dreamed it would be. but you know what? others were right, it's good to blow some cash and remind yourself what a great shower, a nice pool, working appliances, fantastic staff and an oasis to return to each day feels like. listen to your elders.

if EVER there was a worthy world cause. phnom penh, cambodia

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

our $12.50 bungalow

our bungalow, with wifi!, nong khiaw, laos.

here's the thing about southeast asia, it's cheap. no news flash, i know, but it's still mind-boggling.

that bungalow over there on the right, the one in front, cost us $12.50 a night. what you can't see: from that porch is an amazing view of the nam ou river in northern laos. this is their "top-end" accommodation at nam houn bungalows in nong khiaw. for us, it was one of the best places to pass hours in the hammock doing nothing but watch the boats go by and the sun set behind the mountains. incredible.

we'd just floated downriver to nong khiaw from an even smaller town called muang ngoi, which will forever hold a very, very affectionate spot in our hearts. it's a village only accessible by boat and there we had a bungalow for $11.50. think about what you would get in the u.s. for that much money. you couldn't get anything, could you? maybe $60 will get you a room at a motel 6 along a freeway off-ramp somewhere.

nam houn riverside guesthouse, nong khiaw, laos.
any bus ride through laos will illustrate why things are cheap, i mean there are people living with not a whole hell of a lot. this didn't seem to affect their outlook on life, as we met some of the most wonderful people on our travels in that country, but it's clearly evident there's not a lot of cash flying around.

now, thailand's a different story: i had a conversation with a friend in chiang mai about world currency, something i thought i once almost understood. or maybe value is more accurate a word. now i definitely understand a whole lot less about how the world works. in chiang mai, where we stayed for $20 a night in a very fine room for a few weeks, where said friend was also staying, we ate some incredible food, had massages nearly every day, cheap transportation wherever we needed to go, and these things barely cost us a couple of dollars each time. life in chiang mai is really, really good. infrastructure is there for pretty much anything you need. people aren't living hard lives as you would expect in a place with prices like that. i talked to a guy from the u.s. who, with his thai girlfriend, bought a home in a nice neighborhood of chiang mai, completely gutted it, and rebuilt it from the inside out for a total of $60,000. all this with a view of the ping river. i sat open-jawed with my beer halfway to my face when he uttered the total.

medications, too. we purchased tylenol for $1.50, cold medication for $1, an entire course of antibiotics for $4-$5, and these weren't asian brands, either, they were companies like phizer, glaxo-smith-kline, merck... american companies we all know, at a fraction of the price. why is that? another friend was in town and needed a visit to the emergency room. he's a retired doctor who reported "that was one of the best medical experiences i have ever had. top-notch doctors, outstanding diagnosis and prescription filled, all for $25. i was in and out in under an hour."

our $10 bungalow, koh lanta, thailand.
on koh lanta, an island in the andaman sea, we paid $10 a night for a bamboo bungalow a few minutes walk from the beach. $10! we'd walk out in the morning to be shaded by palm trees in the breeze and eat breakfast of fresh papaya and mango and, i might add emphatically, really good coffee.

we're now in cambodia and have been here for nearly a month. so far we've stayed in a guesthouse in siem reap for $16 a night, a bungalow on otres beach for $10 a night, a bungalow on a nearly deserted island for $40 (this was a splurge! but worth every bit of it.), and a guesthouse in kep for $20 a night.

what you get for the cost spans everything from air conditioning to just a fan, a cold water shower or sometimes even a hot water shower and surprisingly, more often than not, comfortable beds. i remember only one very uncomfortable bed and it was basically a futon seemingly gone flat back in the 90s. a word about the bathrooms, too. typically they're tiled rooms with a toilet, a sink and a shower head. no shower stall or curtain, just a shower head. if you think about it, where else could you take a pee, brush your teeth, have a shower and clean the bathroom all at the same time? it's win-win-win-win.

almost every one of these rooms has had a mosquito net, and thank god. for the entrepreneurs out there, here's a suggestion. if you care to start an import business to bring window screens to this part of the world, you know, the part of the world with ALL THE MOSQUITOES? you'll be rich. there are none to be found, it's truly astounding. you're welcome.

hammock rentals, $2 for all day, along the sea.
they would even make you fried rice or noodles and
bring it to you while you swayed. kep, cambodia.
if our cambodian visas weren't about to run out, we'd still be in kep. if you're thinking of traveling to cambodia, and if you aren't, you should be, find your way to kep. seriously, now. kep has been a sleepy backwater on the south coast of the country, "the little sister" to kampot, as they're fond of saying. well, kampot is cool, but kep is on the water with some of the freshest crab in the world. that's their major claim, fresh crab. i would add an ever-present breeze, lush greenery, a tremendous national park with the best-marked system of trails in all of southeast asia and the most laid back population we've ever met. we sat in our restaurant and ordered the "kampot pepper crab." then we watched the woman wade out into the waves, retrieve a crab from the basket floating in front of us, take out a crab and walk back. minutes later, that poor sap was on our table and wow, was he tasty. if you aren't a big crab fan when you arrive, you will be when you leave. but things are changing, the money is pouring in, you can see it all over town. the people aren't here yet, but the hotels and roads to support them are going up as i type. oh, and that crab meal? $4. see what i'm saying?

our bus on the road between kep and phnom penh.
it's a beauty, no?

we took a bus from kep to phnom penh this week, a distance of 90 miles. ticket price? $4.50 per person. granted, not business class on british airways or anything, but a fine bus with full size seats and air conditioning. the funny thing is, the longer you're in this part of the world, the more skewed your expectations become. upon arriving in phnom penh, michelle noticed a sign for the bus in the opposite direction but here it was priced $7. "my god! $7? that's insane." let's be honest, we're talking the price of a large latte at starbucks.

being in phnom penh, the prices of things reflect "city" living. what we're talking about here is that entrees are now $4-$6 and tonight with dinner we purchased a "jar of beer," a pitcher really, for $3. and it was happy hour so we got another for free!

as i was typing this post, sitting in our $25 a night guesthouse (city prices) in phnom penh, the power went out. did we mention it was hot? no? well, it's nearly 10:30pm and it's 86 degrees. so long air conditioning. when the power goes out, they shrug their shoulders and say "we get our power from vietnam," like that explains everything.

here's a parting shot: a scooter ride along the south coast of cambodia.

no one else around to take our picture, so we did it ourselves. that there is the
gulf of thailand in the background. believe us, although we've been traveling for
seven months we are still astounded by the places in which we find ourselves.
and by how goofy humans look in helmets.
kep, cambodia. 

Thursday, March 1, 2012

cambodian life as seen from the back of a scooter

they say travel changes people and it's true. take my wife, for instance, who from the back of a scooter across several southeast asian countries now has morphed from holding on like the responsible woman i used to know to something akin to buffalo-freaking-bill leaning out to the side with a camera in her hand.

road from kampot, on the way to market, kep, cambodia.

these were all shot from behind my head over the last couple of days as we've driven around kep and kampot, cambodia, on the very southern end of the country. it's the former vacation hang out of the french before being run out of the country in the 50s. 

luckily, we rarely exceed 35mph on these roads, otherwise said wife may have been long gone.

muslim girls on mopeds, kep, cambodia.

lunch can be had at 30mph... that's a huge vat of
steamed rice on the back there. kampot, cambodia.

holy monks in a minvan, batman!

about these roadside restaurants, reality hits home regarding the food you're eating when you take a stroll through a market like what this little video reveals.  but talk about fresh!

"restaurant," where typically we've found some of the best food.
side of the road, emissions and all. kampot, cambodia.

just chillin' after school, kampot, cambodia.

that's right. that there is a HUGE bronze durian, a.k.a. the worst smelling fruit in the world. it's right smack in the middle of the main traffic circle in kampot, which bills itself as the durian capital of cambodia.

life on the side of the road, near kampot, cambodia.

it's always a surprise when they actually drive near the shoulder and not in the middle of the road.

cambodian people's "pRaty."

cambodian people's "praty": maybe you'd think this party would start promising more money for schools, huh? just a thought.
road from kampot, and this is the "good" road!

we rode behind this dude for a few miles on a potholed, dusty road. he's on the back holding a five gallon water jug in one hand and a bag of paint cans in the other. his arms have got to be several inches longer today.

ok, not from the back of a scooter but this is a typical gas station stop in cambodia. $1.25 per liter. he hand cranks the gas from the 55 gallon drums up into the glass containers on top. then points his finger so i can watch a liter drain out. when i speak even one word in khmer he lights up and starts babbling on like i know what he's saying. it's total entertainment every time. i'm sure my reply to him, in khmer, meant something like "elephant poo, nice sunset." my khmer's not that good.