Archive | January, 2017

Cambodia: 2 Weeks on a Motorcyle

14 Jan



Ah, glorious, sunny Cambodia.



Cambodian; a beautiful written language.

I had a bit of a fever *cough Noah cough* crossing the border from Vietnam, and Ben and I were mildly worried that I’d get quarantined.
“Be cool”, said Ben.
“Cool?!”, I exclaimed! “Cool?!!!!?!” I went on with the air of someone trying waaaay too hard to be cool.  “You’re talking to the Queen of Cool.  You should have said cool before.”


View from the bus at the Cambodia/Vietnam border.


I didn’t get quarantined, but we did end up in mild trouble (not fever related) exiting Vietnam.  A customs official at the airport had apparently written something wrong on our visas.  Neither Ben nor I saw where the mistake had been made, but then again, we don’t speak Vietnamese.  The bus driver suggested we pay off the customs officials with two hundred thousand dong ($4.50USD each — as I alluded to, we were dong millionaires) in “coffee money”, which included an actual hot coffee that our bus driver delivered to border patrol with the rest of the monies hidden underneath.

Boom, problem solved. Less than one minute later we were handed back our passports, documents in order, and allowed to continue on our way.  And the most surprising part was, we didn’t have any problems returning into Vietnam from Cambodia several weeks later.

As we crossed into Cambodia, the person checking our passports was a woman, which felt like a nice change of pace from the very male dominated border crossing we had just experienced in Vietnam.  This trip was happening at the same time Improv 201 in Pittsburgh, was starting and I was sad to miss my friends but I knew, even before I got here, that I was going to want to stay in this country.


Gorgeous Cambodia.


Some initial observations:
— Cambodia is less developed and more rural than Vietnam; the highways often abruptly turn into dirt roads.
— The main currency in Cambodia is the US dollar.  Some of the grossest US dollar bills I’ve ever seen in my entire life call Cambodia ‘home’.
— Cambodia also has it’s own currency — which, like Vietnam, doesn’t use coins.
— There are lots of outdoor volleyball nets in Cambodia.
— The English spoken is surprisingly better than in Vietnam, and the Cambodians themselves come across as kinder, sweeter and somehow less harsh.
— In general, the food is tastier.  Except for the fruit, which seemes to be the same.  In both Vietnam and Cambodia, they enjoy their fruit at a different level of ripeness (less ripe) than I’ve been raised to prefer.


Panda ears and puppy hearts.  You never know in Asia, it could be.


A photo of the generically Asian cuisine I found here.  The instant noodles were my favorite.




The urban third world: A family of 6’s mode of transportation.


According to Lonely Planet, “Cambodia has some of the best roads (read worst roads) in the world for dirt biking…. If you have never ridden a motorcycle before, Cambodia is not the ideal place to start.”  Bridges are made of treacherous, wooden slats.  Entire highways turn into dirt roads.  Off-roading is unavoidable.

Ben and I decided, again, to rent bikes.   Bigger ones, dirt bikes, 350cc’s.  I was confident that this kind of challenge was exactly how I’d get to be a good rider.  After a few false starts with sufficient time spent checking the brakes (important), we were on our way up the dirty Mekong Delta, which starts in the Himalayas and is home to the elusive, endangered river dolphin.



Sammi, modeling the safer helmet style which they sport in Cambodia.



A house on stilts. One room for everybody.



Cambodian style temples, closer to Thailand’s style and nothing like Vietnam’s.


As we traveled, I received a welcome history lesson:
During 1975-1979, Pol Pot and the Khmer rouge came to power.  Twenty percent of the population — specifically educated people with glasses — were executed or, more likely, starved.  Families were separated and forced to remarry.  No one but Pol Pot’s army was allowed to eat protein, grow their own food (despite being a farming society) and “you could count the number of rice grains in your bowl.”  Almost every village we passed had a Killing Field (exactly what it sounds like), and I visited an eerily serene torture museum at an old high school that had been converted into a communist prison. Shudder.  The interrogation techniques there were horrific, and involved chemicals and it didn’t matter whether you confessed or not, they killed you slowly.  It was unsettling to say the least and reminded me of what’s happening in modern day Syria.  I cried, of course.  And from then on we looked at everyone we saw over the age of 40 — they’d lived through it — with a new lens.

Ben and I discovered a local movie playing at a nearby hotel called The Killing Fields, based on Pulitzer Prize winning journalism.  We continued our education in the air-conditioning (which I’ll admit, made it enjoyable).   The movie clarified how Pol Pot came to power (brute force and violence) but I’m still unsure why the Khmer Rouge would want to starve their people in pursuit of a communist, farming society.



In the interest of learning more about Cambodia as well as shaping our trip logistically, Ben and I purchased a guidebook written by Matt Jacobson.  It felt like Matt was with us on our trip but we teased him because one of his favorite lines was “zero your odometer” and neither Ben nor I had a working odometer, so we had to make some guesses.  Also, Matt had an uncanny ability to spell everything wrong which is fair enough because this was Cambodian translated into English, but also not fair because it was impossible to find these places on Google Maps  We didn’t have an odometer to “zero” and thus every day we got lost.  One memorable time was on the way to “How Waterfall” — spelled “Ka Tieng Waterfall” on Google.  You see how we got confused.  We persevered, though, and when we finally made it there we were rewarded with a local family celebrating a Cambodian holiday with home cooked chicken, rice, and fish and inviting the exhausted two of us to dine with them.  Of the dozen family members hanging around, only one sweet college-aged daughter spoke any English  (for which we were super appreciative). We filled our stomachs and expressed our gratitude as best we could.



A modern, camera weary Cambodian family.


Matt, our guidebook leader, was a hardcore dirt biker and we learned to take his advice seriously.  Forty kilometers of dirt road meant not to go that route.  Hindsight.  I fell twice on this trip.  I’m okay, but the second time I ripped my pants and cried.  Ben helped me to upright my bike and walked me into the shade.  A Cambodian family whose house we were in front of rushed over to take care of us, bringing me into their yard and rubbing tiger balm on my wounds.  Ben urged a tear-streaked Sammi to “get it together”.  Queen of Cool was super uncool.  After 30 minutes I felt steady enough to continue but only because I didn’t have a choice.  I did not want to be outside after dark.  And the forecast called for rain.  Gulp.  I insisted we find paved roads.  “Exclusively paved roads”, I said.  But I was out of luck because, unfortunately, we still had a *four hour drive in front of us before we reached any hard surface.  Ben said it might have taken *two hours if I’d been willing to drive faster but fear prevented me.


Sometimes it’s a little better to travel than arrive. But when we’re talking about dirt biking, sometimes it’s a little better to arrive than to travel.



The blue dot was my location in middle-of-nowhere Northern Cambodia.


Not very much shade.




There are an estimated 800 landmines in Northern Cambodia that have yet to be disarmed, and we’d seen dozens of people with amputations and scars over the past weeks reminding us of this very real danger.  I was in a part of the world where, if you take a casual walk through the countryside, you might explode a bomb.  Yeesh.


“Danger!!” with two exclamation points.  Landmines were a legitimate fear.


And I got sick.  So sick.  Like, “I need to stop right now, I’m sick.”  We pulled over, but I wasn’t allowed to go hide in the bushes to relieve myself because…landmines.  Like a miserable animal, I lay on the side of the road writhing and moaning, unable to have privacy.  There was no denying that the “Queen of Cool” had fallen off of her throne.  We made slow progress as I wasn’t able to keep anything down and three hours later when we got into town Ben found us a hotel room with air-conditioning!!!!!!!!!  And then, because he’s a gentleman, promptly left the cool air to allow me much needed privacy.  I was a sick, noisy puddle.  He came back with medicine and that night we watched our favorite show, Firefly, with Kaylee and The Alliance.

Luckily, it was a 24 hour bug and the next day I felt better.  Alas, not well enough to go and visit Ben’s favorite temple first thing in the morning.  I slept in, and then back on my bike.  I made some slow progress towards Siem Reap and the iconic Angkor Wat.  I’m not sure what made me sick, but I do have a theory:  In Cambodia, at every roadside restaurant, chopsticks are placed in a cup of where-did-that-come-from-water.  I reckon that I didn’t shake the chopsticks dry enough and inadvertently drank some of that mystery water.




Siem Reap felt more touristy than Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital.

It was hot and humid in this part of Cambodia; the kind of heat where you sweat when you’re sitting.  Hen would have been fried.


Awake before the sun to beat the crowds at Angkor Wat.



Not much to look at. (Practicing my sarcasm.)



Doesn’t look to be a day over one thousand years old.


Ben and I saw as much as possible; climbed endless stairs to see temples, visited a hundred pillar pagoda (vs. the one pillar pagoda back in ‘nam), and ate crunchy, expensive pizza potato chips walking across sacred ground, leaving a trail of laughter as we went.  We also visited a worthwhile turtle rehabilitation center attached to a monastery and witnessed Pick, the skilled, brave, religious mechanic, tow Ben’s motorbike through the street-river with his feet.


The beauty continues.



The exploration continues.



Taking the long way home; that’s my bike through that doorway.



Adorable monkeys.  They love cloth items and bananas.


One of our last days in Cambodia, after we returned the bikes, Ben and I subjected ourselves to an excruciatingly long bus ride where I got motion sick (I won’t travel by bus without Dramamine ever again) as a violent torture movie played on the television screen.  From then on when I became uncomfortable, Ben reminded me, “at least they’re not playing a torture movie”.

We arrived in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, for one final night before Ben had to head back to the States for school.  I remained in-country and took several days to rest and recover from Cambodia.  During that time I read, researched, and planned an entirely different Southeast Asian trip.  A friend of mine, Rachel, was landing three days after Ben departed and I was gathering my energy in order to be vibrant for the adventures that still lay ahead.


Not all who wander are lost.


Ice cream, if you can find it, to beat the heat,

Northern Vietnam

1 Jan

I’d been preparing for this winter’s trip for a month.  My friend and I started in Northern Vietnam, Hanoi, with intentions of heading even farther north to iconic landscapes; three weeks of remote mountainous motorcycling through rice paddies.  And yes, to answer a question that you didn’t ask, the Vietnamese currency is named “dong”.  😂

The Vietnam government required us to have all of our documents in order before we arrived so weeks before our flight I applied for a visa online and printed out our letter of invitation.  Four months earlier, Vietnam had changed this process for US citizens making the visas year-long, multiple entry and more expensive, $155USD each.   For comparison, both Cambodia and Laos are 30 day $30USD, visa on arrival, and Thailand is 30 days free.  As an added feature, our Vietnam visa came with the custom officers not recognizing the new format and requiring a bribe payment for “coffee money” at one of our border crossings.


Welcome to Vietnam!  — An ornate temple in Hanoi.


An artistic photo of a student.


A photo of other people’s children.


I had to filter Ben this colour to make my under-eyes less dark.  Travel is all about compromise.

We spent time exploring Hanoi, drinking Weasel coffee (beans that have been partially digested by a mongoose relative, fermented, excreted by the animal, and then roasted. Ben said it was delicious, I had trouble getting past the facts.), visited a one pillar pagoda, made observations about Vietnamese money (they don’t have any coins in Vietnam), and laughed about how every single bed we slept in felt like a slab of sheet rock.



I have this idea that if you learn to do something in a harsh environment you become good at it.  It’s a working theory, but I thought that by learning to ride a motorcycle in the mountains of Vietnam — plus that one lesson from Dey —  I’d be able to ride anywhere.  No matter that it was going to be winding, cold and isolated!  Adventure and a new skill awaited!


We rented our bikes and checked the brakes at least four times.

After getting comically separated in the first 5 minutes, spending hours familiarizing ourselves with a manual bike in a sea of Asians on mopeds, and finally getting out of a hectic Asian city, it was time for lunch.  We picked a roadside stop that looked delicious.  As soon as we pulled over the owner pointed out a nail in my tire. — Uh-oh!
Turns out, it was literally no big deal.  I had conveniently broken down in front of a restaurant/skilled mechanic.  Ten minutes later, lunch and my bike were ready simultaneously.  For 80,000dong (less than $4USD) we’d eaten and gotten my bike fixed. We felt like real big spenders handing over 80,000 clams to our waiter/mechanic. Dong dong bills, ya’ll!


The best restaurant we found in Northern Vietnam.  Unfortunately, most of the other cuisine was disappointing and bland.


A misty outhouse.

We quickly realized that almost every other man in Vietnam is a seasoned motorcycle repairer.  Any problem we had with the bike was fixed cheaply and (literally) meters from where we had broken down.  It was very impressive.


Posing, when what I should have been doing was looking at the weather forecast.



It wasn’t supposed to rain.  Everything we had read said it was cold, sure, but also dry.  January isn’t the wet season in Northern Vietnam.


A hint of gorgeous scenery that alas wasn’t to be.

It poured!
We pulled up at a street-side restaurant to find shelter, talk about what to do and as always, eat. I gestured for some water to drink. The cook seemed to understand and brought over a plastic water bottle.  I took a big gulp…. and immediately ran outside to spit it out.  What I’d mistaken for water was actually rice wine, whoops.  In hindsight, I realized that it was not sealed and accompanied by a tiny glass.  Eventually I got regular water but not before the incident brought smiles all around.


Rainy day activities involved taking photos with the locals. Even in rural Vietnam, the women seemed to dress better than I do.

As the rain lightened up we continued back on our bikes but even gentle rain feels like hail at 50 kilometers per hour.  The conditions were dangerous; water filled up potholes and we could no longer see how deep they were.  And then another deluge.  We pulled over again.


Not pictured: Crazy locals speeding through on mopeds wearing flip flops.


Reexamining his vacation decisions.

Days and days of endless rain forecast; a change of plans was in order.  So, armed with a dry lunch spot, google maps,, and SkyScanner (a hit to our budget we hadn’t been expecting), we bought a plane/bus ticket to Vietnam’s neighbor, Cambodia. Forecasts for sunny skies and debilitating heat!

We stashed our bikes onto a bus and paid for a ride back to Hanoi where we had a flight to Ho Chi Minh the next day and, because we felt like we deserved it, got a massage.  I chose an adorable spot on Bui Vien.  The room was perfect with soft tables but Ben’s masseuse had a different idea of what we were looking for. While I was getting the stress rubbed out of my neck and back, he was violently flung around the table. The finale we dubbed the “airplane” where the masseuse held Ben in a wrestler’s hold and shook him while his spine cracked.  It wasn’t relaxing for either of us but I did get to laugh so hard I cried, making it one of the best massages I’ve ever had.

Early the next morning we said goodbye Northern Vietnam and hellooooooooo Cambodia.

Eager for adventure,