Gyeongju, South Korea

Gyeongju, South Korea
April 3rd – 4th 2011

So the next stop for me in South Korea was Gyeongju, former capital of the Silla dynasty. I read that the city is famous for its style of tombs, literally a giant mound/small hill, and I had to see it for myself.

I arrived after a 3.5 hour bus-ride from Seoul. It was chilly, getting late, and I didn’t have accomodation so I walked around the bus-station area which had many motels and their bright neon signs. They were quite pricey (averaging 50000 Won/night) but I happened upon one which had a nice lady who agreed to lower the asking price of 40000 Won/night to 30000/night. It’s still high-end (by my standards, it’s about right for Korean motel standards) and I don’t usually pay this much for accomodation but I figured, it’s 2 nights. I had read that there was a hostel in the area but the reviews made it sound like the dirtiest place on earth and I would’ve had to pay 20000 Won for a dorm bed/shared bathroom/nothing else so why not 10000 Won more for a really nice room all to myself along with a bunch of fancy amenities.

(Motels and neon signs.)

(Gyeongju locals eating dinner.)

Had bibimbap for dinner (no need for point-and-pick method, just straight up saw a picture, walked in, asked for “bi bim bap” thanks to my recognition of it). I then happened upon a wonderful thing called “Gyeongju bread” which is basically red-bean paste-filled pastries. There were two kinds. I bought a box of one kind that night, and another box of the second kind the next day. They were both great and I even got to see the motherload of motherloads of red-bean paste as they were making the bread. (My family knows this is a big deal to me.)

(Dolsot BBB.)

(No idea what this is called…I did the Point-and-Pick.)

(The 1st kind of Gyeongju bread.)

(The 2nd kind.)

(The motherload of red-bean paste. Mouth-watering…)

I signed up for a city tour that would take me around to all the major Gyeongju city sights. The Bulguksa Temple and hill-tombs were the major attractions although we went to check out several smaller attractions including the world’s smallest (and most worthless) observatory. As all the hill-tombs are closed up, there was one which was opened to allow people to see what it looks like inside. If I didn’t know they were tombs that held royal Silla kings, I would’ve mistaken them for regular hills. But it was cool to see how it was constructed deep inside.

(Front of Bulguksa Temple.)

(A hill-tomb, the only one in Gyeongju where ppl can enter.)

(Cheomseongdae Observatory, oldest in Far East, built 634 AD. No Hubble telescope then.)

Off to Andong next.

Gyeongju, South Korea Pics.

Seoul (Part 1), South Korea

March 31st – April 2nd 2011

The entry many Korean fan boys and girls have been waiting for…come on ppl, South Korea’s more than just Seoul. 😉

So the flight from Hanoi to Incheon took a good 3 hours. From Incheon (which is a city just outside of Seoul), I took a limo-bus into Seoul. I had booked a cheap hostel that was situated near Hongdae (did not realize it at the time of booking) which I later found out was the night-life central part of Seoul, as well as situated one subway stop from Josh, my friend.

South Korea is cold. Spring just began. The trees are bare, the grass is brown. But flowers are beginning to bloom. Nights are bone-chilling. All I have is my 100-rated fleece and whatever layers of shirts I have. Seoul itself is bustling, full of people. The area which I’m staying at, near Hongdae, is filled with young people, mostly university students. There are a couple of universities located around Seoul and all the students love hanging around here, especially at night. That’s EVERY night, not just Friday/Saturdays although those nights get even busier. More on night life later.

I met up with Josh that same evening I arrived. We had dinner of “galbi”, basically Korean bbq. They don’t have Sprite here but they have their own version, which is called “DK” and the Koreans refer to it as cider but it really tastes like Sprite. We walked around Sinchon (another night-life area, just next to Hongdae) that night, stopping to have a coffee and chat that night.


The next day, I spent visiting the National Museum. Even with museum burn-out, this place was quite impressive, and even free. They had several “National Treasures” on exhibit and I’ve read they rotate these on display seasonally so you never see all of them at once. I had some special tea at the Korean teahouse there while I read my Korea guidebook, trying to plan my next few days. I picked up the Rough Guide at a used book store (What-A-Book in Itaewon) and I even found a copy of GRRM’s “Feast for Crows”, the only one there, and I NEVER EVER find GRRM at used book stores.

It was 3 pm, I was hungry, and I decided to be adventurous and walk into a random restaurant near my hostel. There was a picture of a friendly pig on the sign but everything else was in Hangul (Korean alphabet), even the menu. So I looked at some pictures on the wall and pointed at something that looked like a bowl of soup filled with sausage and meat. What came later scared the hell out of me. The sausage was really filled with mince noodles/pig innards and the “meat” was other “unwanted” parts of the pig. But being a quasi-foodie, I soldiered on and ate everything because hell, I’m paying 7000 Won for it. Lesson learned : Look at the picture CLOSELY next time.

(Good or not good looking?)

I met a Korean girl, Alex, at my Tanzanian safari and she said she wanted to meet up if I was ever in Seoul so we met up for dinner. Josh joined us. She took us to a restaurant she heard of in Hongdae which served traditional Korean food. It seemed like a fancy joint. They served a 9-course meal for 25000 Won and I thought it was killer. Alex said she’d pick up the bill so that was nice of her but on one condition; She’s taking cooking courses and wants to cook for me and I would have to buy groceries and help her make the food. Coming back to the fancy food, true enough, I have never had any of the foods in my life…unique food and experience.

We went to visit Dongdaemun Market that night. It’s located near Dongdaemun Gate (which is one of Korea’s National Treasures). It’s a 24-hour market place which sold everything you can think of. Alex told me that many Korean shopkeepers would come here to buy things cheap to re-sell at their stores elsewhere. We walked past what I thought was a big drain until Alex told me to take a closer look. There were nice lights and a nice walkway located to a small river. Apparently, a former Korean president built the place. Now, couples take romantic walks in this “drain”.

(Fast and Furious taxis.)

(Random street, evening time, Hongdae.)

(Romantic “drain”.)

(A random street in Dongdaemun market.)

(Street food tents. Lots of these around. Great for after drinking.)

The next day, I visited Gyeongbokgung Palace with Josh. Nothing super-extraordinary here, just an old Korean palace which looked very Chinese. Koreans used Chinese writing before Hangul was created so it was everywhere on old signs and walls. I’m coming to the conclusion that all of us orientals originated from the same place, China. After that, we went to walk around Insadong-gil, a popular tourist street filled with all kinds of cool artsy shops and snack joints. A popular one was a Korean traditional court cake called “kkultarae“. I bought a box to sample, not too bad.

(Entrance to Gyeongbokgung Palace. Note the Chinese influence.)

(Changing of the guard at Gyeongbokgung Palace.)

(Some place on the Gyeongbokgung Palace compound.)



(Some kind of show on Insadong-gil. Guy on horse in traditional Korean wear. Guy in cap carrying light-saber.)

(Some delicious Korean pastry. Hot, oily, salty, sweet.)

(Silk worm coccoon soup.)

Later that night, we met up with another Alex, another friend from back in the States, who’s a Korean citizen and now doing his service in the Korean army. I hadn’t seen the guy since 2007 or 2008 playing football so it was nice to meet up. We ate “galbi” again, drank plum wine, ate some rice from the Korean version of a “bento” box. We then went to a bar called “Ho Bar 2” (there were many Ho Bars in Seoul) to get some beers. After refusing to pay 20000 Won to enter a club, we went to another one which had Alex’s friend DJ-ing so we stayed a while. But the most fun we had that night, despite the cold, was at a crowded open-space at a concrete park. We saw a bunch of people wearing head-phones and dancing. There was no music blasting so it was funny to see them dancing like in a club in the silence. We later got a hold of some headphones and sure enough, some good tunes were being played by 2 DJs there. They called this the “Silent Disco”. There was also a free-style rap competition where some white guy tried to battle against some Koreans. The Koreans could flow but the white boy tried his best to keep up. I am not much of a rap guy but free-style battles are always fun to watch. Despite not knowing what the hell the Koreans were rapping about (even Alex and Josh couldn’t keep up with the rapid fluency of a native Korean speaker), we threw in a “OH SNAP!” just to make the white boy think he was being dissed.

(Bento box before you shake it violently.)

(And after shaking it…)

(“Topokki.” Found in many places. Spicy!)

(Random street on Hongdae.)

(Silent disco.)

The subways close at 1 am and we were out way past then so there was no way for Alex or Josh to go home until 5:37 am when it opens again. We went to an all-night coffee shop and crashed there for a bit to wait until the subways opened. I am not much of a night-life guy by nature but I found the events that night to be quite refreshing. Maybe the inner partyboy in me stirred. I don’t dance at clubs but I found my groove the whole night, both at the club and “Silent Disco”. I drank some but didn’t feel drunk nor buzzed.

Maybe it’s just Seoul but I have to mention that Koreans dress very well and are very stylish, especially the young adults and lower. I saw some girls wear shorts in the bone-chilling cold. Crazy stuff. Everyone had nice “Korean” hairstyles, much like what you would find in a K-pop or K-drama video. The streets weren’t filled with pretty faces but there were a few lookers here and there. People seem very concious about their looks here. It’s easy to look stylish during winters (fancy jeans/coats/jackets) but wonder what they wear during the hot summers.

That’s it for Part #1. I will leave Seoul to visit other Korean towns and will be back for a few days at the end before flying out to L.A.

More Seoul, South Korea Pics.

Hanoi, Vietnam

Hanoi, Vietnam
March 28th – 30th 2011

Another long 12-hour overnight bus ride brought me to Hanoi. At least it wasn’t raining when I got here but the air was cool and crisp, expected being so far up north.

I had been recommended a guesthouse by some people I ran into in Hue, the same people I met in Luang Prabang. I decided to stay there but was surprised at the price, higher than what I thought it would be ($14/night). After staying in the room for 10 minutes, I changed my mind and left the guesthouse. I found another one, much cheaper, at $7/night. It was a bit old but the room had an altar in it with a Taoist god and incense sticks burnt to their base. It had character and I liked it. Too bad they kicked me out after the first night after realizing the room had been reserved. The guesthouse promised me a replacement room but since the guests in that room decided not to check out on schedule, I was left to find another guesthouse. That was ok with me since the street was littered with guesthouses anyway.

(I really liked this $7 room too, there’s a prayer place next to it and the room smelled faintly of incense.)

So I find another one just opposite. Got me a nice room that had heat for $11/night. Except after one night, they called me during my Halong Bay tour and told me while cleaning the room, the shower head busted and water overflowed from the bathroom into the room itself so they had to move all my things. They didn’t have a replacement room so I was shipped off to yet another guesthouse down the street. Sorry to bore you all with all this but I guess it was a bit funny.

I don’t have much to say about Hanoi. It’s a city with people living their lives. There’s a big lake in the middle which draws couples every night around 9 pm. There are plenty of motorcycles around, just like anywhere else in Vietnam. There are a few Western brand shops around the lake but mostly Vietnamese shops selling clothes, souvenirs, tours, and all kinds of food ranging from typical Vietnamese noodles/rice to fancy pastries.

(Line of fancy “cyclos”.)

I visited the Ho Chi Minh Masaoleum and it was kinda cool to see his preserved body. It looked a lot like a wax figure lying down with its eyes closed. No pictures because cameras weren’t allowed in. Outside, we got to see his living quarters and work office space, which were beautiful yellow French-inspired buildings.

(HCM’s “House on stilts” where he lived for many years.)

(Lotus Pagoda.)

The water puppet show was one of the highlights of my stay. It was so entertaining I went to watch it again the following night (it was only $2 a ticket) but they sold out for the time slot I wanted. But definitely one of the highlights of my travels in Vietnam. I’ll be posting a video clip of it some time in the future so look out for it.

My day trip to Halong Bay was a bit disappointing as the cloudy and misty surrounding hindered the view. It might’ve been much better had the skies been clear and the sun out. We did stop by a massive cave that was full of stalactites and stalagmites that were beautifully lit from different angles with lights of different colors. I was really expecting to be blown away by Halong Bay but all it looked like were some big islands in water.

(Our boat.)

(Halong Bay.)

(Another view of Halong Bay.)

(Little girl taking her family around.)

(Inside the cave.)

Food-wise, I had a bunch of unique food I’ve never eaten before. The first meal I ate was at one of the oldest restaurants in Vietnam, “Cha Ca La Vong”, which spans 5 generations. They serve only one thing, “cha ca”, a grilled fish dish. It was also very pricey by Vietnamese standards at $7.50 for a small amount and when I asked them why it was so expensive (but in a friendly manner) they gave me a dirty look without an answer. The street it’s located on is named after them. Right after that, I ate some “che”, which are doughy balls soaked in sweet syrup. I also had “bun cha” which was a massive meal in itself, consisting of a big serving of “bun” (rice noodles) and a bowl of soup filled with meat and some other things. I’ve had other things to eat but the above are the ones I can remember the names of.

(“Cha ca”.)


(“Bun cha”.)

Hanoi, Vietnam Pics.

Hue, Vietnam

Hue, Vietnam
March 25th – 26th 2011

Former home of the Nguyen emperors. Sounded tempting so I had to stop by Hue. It was wet and rainy as usual so that always dampens a trip. Took a boat trip on the first day to visit several tombs of Nguyen emperors (Minh Mang, Khai Dinh, and To Duc. Minh Mang’ had a massive and beautifully landscaped compound, Khai Dinh’s was a feat of interior design that was jaw-dropping, but To Duc’s wasn’t quite as eye-catching.

On another rainy day, I went to visit Vietnam’s version of the Forbidden City. It was a citadel, enclosed by high walls and moats. But sadly, a lot of the place was bombed during the Vietnam war so there wasn’t much else that remained of the emperor’s residence. There was an animated video that showed what it may have looked like based on old pictures and architectural research. A lot of it looks Chinese and so did all the letters engraved all over the citadel.

Hue, Vietnam Pics.

Ahoy, Hoi An

Hoi An, Vietnam
March 24th 2011

Small town about 4 hours north of Nha Trang. It maintains a very old traditional feel to it thanks to its location beside a river and the old Chinese-esque homes and shops that line the streets. The more I see Vietnam, the more I think of China. Prior to sometime in the 1940s, Chinese writing and architecture was used.

(Random street in Hoi An.)

(People traveling up and down the river with their motorcycles and bicycles.)

(Friendship Bridge.)

(Traditional Vietnamese dance performance.)

There are *plenty* of tailors around here, ready to make anything you want at good prices.

(My new business in Hoi An. I’m the next Vera Wang.)

Also, Hoi An has a specialty noodles called ‘cao lau’ which can only be authentic here because the water used to make the noodles has to come from a particular well here in Hoi An. There’s also “white rose” (ban bao vac ) which is wanton skins topped with shrimp. Stuff I hadn’t eaten before so it was good experience trying them out.

(Cao lau.)

(Ban bao vac.)

After walking around the historic Old Town, there wasn’t much else to do so I left after one night.

More Hoi An Pics.

Sea, sun, mud

Nha Trang, Vietnam
March 21st – 23rd 2011

(Sunrise at Nha Trang.)

I had originally wanted to go straight to Hoi An from Saigon thinking I would skip Nha Trang because I didn’t think there was much else there besides a beach but the lady at my guesthouse who helped me book my ticket told me Hoi An is WAY farther than I thought it was. I would have to take an 8 pm night-bus for 11 hours to reach Nha Trang where I would have to wait another 12 hours for the 7 pm night-bus to Hoi An (the only one), which would take me another 11 hours. So much for Saigon to Hoi An. And thank goodness because I found out Nha Trang was awesome.

(The inside of a typical sleeping bus in Vietnam. Take off shoes first.)

The moment the bus got there, I could feel that I would like the place. It had a very relaxed non-chaotic feel. I had arrived at 6 am but got accommodation secured pretty quickly and on top of that, decided to start off my day immediately with an 8:30 am boat-tour of the islands on the coast. I didn’t realize I should’ve brought my swimming trunks along because people had the opportunity to go snorkeling at some locations where the boat stopped. The trip ended with a fun performance by the boat crew members when they formed a make-shift band (with make-shift drums) and played various international songs. The tour guide would ask where everyone was from, and then invite various nationalities to come up on stage one by one where the band would play a song from their respective countries. We had a Russian, Japanese, British, and even a Polish song.

(Red Hot Chilli who?)

(Floating bar.)

I spent the following day bathing in mud and relaxing at the beach. I took a motorcycle ride to the Thap Ba Hot Springs and it was an interesting experience to feel like a pig bathing in a pool of fragrant mud that’s poured in from pipes on request. After the mud bath, I headed back to the beach to enjoy the sand, views, and my book.

I did some diving the next day. Sadly, visibility was quite poor at this time, about 2-3 meters, so it wasn’t the best conditions to capture the full beauty of down under. Our dive-master did bring an underwater camera so he snagged on pictures and videos of us diving. I’ve never had a picture of myself diving so it was nice to have one.

(Nha Trang is A-ok!)

I found a good joint for “bun bo hue” so I was eating it almost each night. Sometimes I would eat at a “com” (rice) joint where you pick what you want from several home-cooked dishes laid out. I would eat a “banh mi” (Viet sandwich) for breakfast each morning.

(Bun bo hue.)

I had heard in Saigon that it was raining in Nha Trang and was lucky to enjoy 3 days of sun because on the last day I was there, it was cold, windy, and wet. The beach was near empty. I had to wait out the entire day until my 7 pm bus to Hoi An and had little choice. Would’ve been better if I had scheduled to leave the night before and saved myself a night’s stay.

Nha Trang Pics.

Dog, it’s what’s for dinner

Saigon, Vietnam
March 15th – 18th 2011

I used to call this place “Ho Chi Minh City” but “Saigon” just rolls off the tongue much better.

It was relatively painless getting here. Caught a shared van to the border, got stamped by both Cambodian and Vietnamese immigration, then saw one of many tourist buses waiting for their clients to board so I paid $5 to go from the border to Saigon.

Saigon is a modern looking Asian city sans skyscrapers but they do have the odd high-rise here and there. After all, this is the economic capital of Vietnam. The backpacker area of Pha Ngu Lam is packed with places to stay, travel agencies, bars, restaurants, and many kinds of shops selling everything from clothes to bootleg DVDs. The place is constantly buzzing. There’s a piece of open space nearby which always has people jogging or people loitering around their motorcycles and watching people play “Jianzi” (


The first thing that struck me about Vietnam is, almost everybody and their mothers are on motorcycles. Each time there’s a red light, they start clogging up the roads and once green hits, it’s like a dam bursting. Crossing traffic is really as suicidal as they say it is but the trick is to have no fear. If you wait and wait for the roads to clear up, you will never cross. Just step onto the road and walk, keeping your eye on both sides of the roads of course. Cars, buses, and motorcycles WILL be coming at you but they try to avoid you.

(Horde the road.)

I was really interested in visiting the Reunification Palace and War Remnants Museum so I started with a motor-ride to the palace. It was here that Saigon fell to the Communists, when tanks ran over the gates. The palace was quite modern and not a traditional looking palace. The rooms were well-decorated and one can imagine the leaders of countries meeting here. Unfortunately, I forgot to charge my camera and couldn’t take many pictures.

The War Remnants Museum really moved me. It was told with an anti-American voice. There was a floor with many pictures of the soldiers and victims of the Vietnam War and it was brutal to go through each one. I did not realize the USA used chemical weapons during the war. Dioxin, nicknamed “Agent Orange” (, left a lasting mark on many people, then and now. So many kids borne after the war were deformed and mutated and the pictures of them were just brutal to look at but I went through each one, reading all the descriptions or stories. I would recommend everyone to make a trip here when they visit Saigon. It has been one of the best museums I’ve been to in 10 months of travel, maybe because the material interested me.

Another day, I took a tour to visit the Cu Chi Tunnels used by the Vietcong during the war. It was pretty cool to see how the tunnels were made and how small they were. Only small and skinny Vietcong could use them. There were 3 levels, each one serving a purpose, from living quarters to escape route into the Saigon River. There was a bigger version of the tunnels created for tourists to crawl through for the experience. It was very hot down there and it was exhausting to crawl through and I can’t imagine crawling through the real thing. Not only that, the Vietcong made some nasty looking traps to be used on the enemy. Let’s just say if you fell into one of their traps, you would have been stabbed by at least a dozen foot-long metal spikes.

(Typical tunnel entrance. No fatties allowed.)

Another day, I took a day-trip to visit the Mekong Delta. The bus took us to My Tho where we boarded a boat to visit several islands on the Mekong River, the main one being Ban Tre. We tried some famous Vietnamese coconut candy and visited several small towns on the islands but it was all set up for tourists and not very authentic. I did enjoy wearing the wide Asian straw hat all the boaters wore though. I held a bee honeycomb and I even held a python around my neck. They are such beautiful creatures.

(Packaging coconut candy.)

(She was only a few year’s old.)

I’ve had plenty of Vietnamese food in the USA, considering I’m pretty much 1/8th Vietnamese due to friendships and family relationships. But when my Cu Chi Tunnel tour guide told us that she knew of a place that served dog, I jumped at the chance to try it out. After the tour, I asked the guide to show me where it was and she took me through random streets and alleyways until we reached a small obscure place with several Vietnamese men sitting outside, eating and drinking. There weren’t any skinless dogs strung up though. The shop buys their meat from villages and chops them up. Thi (the guide’s name) ordered a plate of dog and it came roasted, looking a lot like roast pork pieces. I was more excited than afraid to try it. It also tasted a lot like roast pork. The proper way to eat it was to wrap it up in some minty-tasting leaves they provided, then dipping it into some special sauce, which might’ve been octopus or squid ink, I wasn’t sure what Thi told me. Anyway, Thi said she ate it all the time so she only ate a little bit, leaving me to finish most of it. As dog wasn’t a filling food, Thi told me of her favorite pho place nearby so I downed a big bowl of delicious pho, with all the different cuts of meat in it.

(If you didn’t know that was dog, would you eat it?)

Saigon, Vietnam Pics.

Wedding crashing in Cambodia

Svay Rieng, Cambodia
March 14th 2011

It was an opportunity to experience something new and unique on my travels so I had to finally say yes to an invitation to check out a Cambodian wedding. The girl sitting beside me on the bus, Li Na, asked me once or twice and each time I said I wasn’t too sure about crashing a wedding. She said it was ok and before she got off, she asked one more time and I thought why not and hopped off as well instead of continuing another 4 hours to Saigon.

We arrived mid-afternoon and got picked up at the side of the road by one of the bride’s cousins. While I sat behind the cousin, Li Na rode with a hired moto. We were 10 minutes into the countryside when we finally pulled up at the residence of the bride/groom (I really don’t want to butcher their names by trying to spell them out, it’s not easy) who greeted us warmly and assured me it was no problem to attend. They had gotten married the day before and today was the reception where all the family, friends, and neighbors were invited to eat, dance, sing, and generally just party Cambodian style.

Since the festivities weren’t going to start until the evening, I followed one of the groom’s cousins back to his place to wash up and hang out. All the homes in the village were extremely simple, wooden, and built high above ground with all the space beneath used for lounging and motorcycle storage. The bathroom was a shed outside that was mixed parts storage facility for some kind of oil and a shower + squat toilet. Very primitive and what you would expect from a rural village. It was a bit scary to use it when I took a shower. In fact, it’s not a shower per say. I scooped water from a pool of water that didn’t look that clean but at least it was cold and refreshing.

Sohpeap, the cousin, took me around to run some errands and also have some coffee along with a game of Cambodian chess at a local coffee-shop. Cambodian chess is like normal chess but the movements of the pieces are different and confused me immensely as a result.

That night, the music played so loudly and continuously that it was deafening. The bride/groom stood at the gate of their residence for picture-taking and greeting guests, dressed in traditional Cambodian attire. I stood in some of the pictures and since I did not have anything nice and formal to wear, I stood out. Everything was outdoors. When I say residence, I mean a compound with three village homes housing several family members of the groom’s. There was an area behind which had several cows and chickens and shit everywhere that it seemed like a minefield at night for any person who wanted to take a piss out back. There weren’t any toilet facilities that I saw. I guess there might’ve been an all-in-one shed somewhere but it was best to hold your business while you were there.

The food was traditional Cambodian fare. To be honest, I didn’t know what I was eating. There was meat, there was rice, there were vegetables, there were soft drinks (no hard liquor, just beer) and that’s all I noticed. The music could be heard in Phnom Penh, I was sure of it, as it was so deafening but the real problem was that it was continuous. There wasn’t a DJ, just a CD or DVD player set up with many tunes playing on several massive junky-looking speakers. At times, I took a walk away from everything and my ears thanked me. The Cambodians seemed to love dancing. They have their own brand of dance and it was difficult for me to learn it. I seem to have no coordination with my hands and feet when trying to keep up with the rhythm of the Cambodian tunes.

The party didn’t end until 11 pm or so. Before I left, I decided to leave a wedding gift for the family because of their hospitality. It was a nice experience that I will not forget.

Some pictures from the wedding.

Sihanoukville, Cambodia

Sihanoukville, Cambodia
March 8th – 10th 2011

Sihanoukville is a beach-side town about 4-5 hours bus-ride South-West of Phnom Penh. (I have never fit this many hyphenated words into a sentence before.) I’d like to point out almost every bus-ride I’ve been on has been pleasant in SE Asia, unlike India/Nepal or Africa. When you’re in a city, most people get around in motos, tuk-tuks, cars, walking, or bicycles. I have not seen local buses and very few taxis. Most locals take the same travel-agency buses as foreigners when going between cities and these buses are usually well-built, well-maintained, spits on cool air, stops mid-way usually for lunch/piss breaks, and sometimes play on-board movies.

Upon reaching Sihanoukville, I was swarmed by waiting moto-drivers. Knowing how much moto-mileage $1 bought in Phnom Penh, I wasn’t easily conned into paying $2, the average asking price. It always helps to know the distance between the bus/train station and your guesthouse. I have been conned many times in the past when I didn’t. Moto-drivers were constantly telling me it’s a 7-km journey and very far from my guesthouse and I refused to believe them. (Thank you Lonely Planet maps.)

Sihanoukville has several beaches. There are some on its west-side (but it’s also where the shipping ports are so expect a little dirt) but the most popular and beautiful ones are located in the southern part of town. The first day I was there, I walked down to Ochheuteal Beach, one of the more popular beaches, along with Serendipity right next to it, and observed the masses there, ranging from backpackers lounging on beach chairs and ex-pats sipping beer at the bars, to Cambodians walking around, selling fruits, fried prawns, sunglasses, bracelets, and massages. I haven’t had a pair of sunglasses since I lost mine in Turkey but with so many fake sunglass sellers walking around, I decided to pick a pair up for $4. Probably overpaid but his initial starting price was $7 and I figured it would help with the glare. But does anything fake really help? More on fake stuff later, as I eventually paid the price with pain.

The next day, I took a moto-ride to Otres Beach, about 5 km south of Ochheuteal. Because it was a bit out of the way, the crowds were much smaller and the atmosphere more relaxed. I applied my Banana Boat SPF-30 sunscreen which I purchased in India for cheap. I spent most of my time reading my ‘Clash of Kings’ book, under the sun to get my tan on and then later under the shade, while taking the occasional dip in the water. The sand was so fine and white, the beach so clean, the water nice and luke-warm, and nothing else in sight but a few islands in the distance. It was a sunny day but I drowned myself in lots of sunscreen so I would be ok.

Or so I thought.

After that day, I had sun-burn on my entire body. I have purchased sun-block in the USA before and I’ve seen prices throughout my travels. And when I was in India, I thought I was fortunate enough to pick up a very (exceptionally) cheap tube of Banana Boat from an Indian pharmacy. I knew it must’ve been too good to be true. It even smelled NICE, like baby powder, when most sunscreens smell sour and unpleasant. I suspected it was fake then but I didn’t have much of a chance to use it until now. Now I know it’s fake. Thank you India, for messing with me long after I’ve left you. You’re like that crazy-bitch ex-girlfriend that haunts a man for life.

Picking up my Vietnamese visa was so painless. I showed up at the office, filled out an application, paid $45 and got the visa within 5 minutes.

I dined at several places while in Sihanoukville. Some were outdoor street-food stalls but my favorite was a restaurant located just down the road from me, which drew me in when I saw many cars and many locals eating in it. I didn’t eat anything unique, just typical food like fried fish and beef stir-fry but the food was good, the portions massive, and price cheap. The entertainers singing to the diners on stage were terrible but compared to me, they were like the Cambodian Celine Dion and Frank Sinatra.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Phnom Penh, Cambodia
March 4th – 7th 2011

I had bought a ticket for Battambang. I was waiting for my pick-up to arrive but it was late so I decided to walk to the bus ticket office, which was nearby. I saw a van with the travel agency’s name on it coming down the street and I naturally thought, hey, this must be my pick-up. So I hailed it, got in, and off we went. It dropped me off at a big bus along the side of a street. I boarded that bus and off I went to Battambang. Six hours later, I looked out my window and wondered what was taking a supposed 4-5 journey so long. I spotted an address on the top of a shop saying “Phnom Penh”. I then realized I must’ve boarded the wrong bus. I confirmed this later with several people when I got off. I had wanted to visit Phnom Penh more than Battambang anyway so I guess it worked out ok.

The guesthouse I was staying at was not located near the “backpacker-tourist-friendly” area near the river. I enjoyed relative quiet all night, other than the Khmer music being played in the restaurant across the street. I experienced a new mode of transport while in Phnom Penh; motos, short for motorcycles. Everywhere I go, moto-drivers would honk at me and ask if I needed a lift. A trip across town would typically cost $1. I took a few of these moto-rides as it was very convenient and enjoyable to sit on the back of an Asian motorcycle, weaving in and out of chaotic traffic. Tuk-tuks were available as well but typically cost $2-3 per trip.

(The family mini-van, just as Russell Peters said.)

(One of my favorite images.)

There are a few must-sees in Phnom Penh: The Tuol Sleng genocide center and the Choeung Ek Killing Fields. At Tuol Sleng, formerly a school, I got to learn a little about the Khmer Rouge and see their cruelty toward their own people in their efforts to transform their country into an agrarian society. This was their version of a death-camp. People were taken, tortured, and murdered here without mercy. There were rooms with a single bed and a picture of the murdered on the beds which spoke loudly to me. “Why?” was the constant question on my mind. After visiting the Nazi death-camps, I remember being interested in the thoughts of Hitler. Now, I am interested in the thoughts of the Khmer Rouge. What goes on in the heads of killers? Do they justify murdering 2 million of their own in the name of a better Cambodia? I’ve read that a lot of times, when human beings do something bad, they try to justify their actions so it looks noble in the end, and they brainwash themselves into believing this until the very end. It’s not just them, it’s everyone. This is the darkness in the human mind.

(One of the rooms in Tuol Sleng.)

(A closer look at the picture on the wall…)

(Crude brick cells.)

(Barb-wired so that prisoners don’t commit suicide by jumping off.)

Choeung Ek is located about 15 km outside of Phnom Penh so I hired a moto to take me there. It was great fun riding past small towns surrounded by massive fields of vegetables. Choeung Ek is one of many mass-graves in Cambodia. As I entered, I saw a tower sitting prominently for all to see. It contained many levels of human skulls, the evidence of the Khmer Rouge’s actions. Behind the tower were the killing fields, multitudes of shallow graves and even a tree which was used to kill babies or little kids against. The Khmer Rouge would bring unsuspecting blind-folded victims to the edge of the graves, use farmers tools, such as hoes, to kill the victim, then kick them over into their graves. (Bullets were precious commodity and the Khmer Rouge did not want to waste them so they used a variety of hand-held tools as murder weapons instead.)

(Skulls of the victims from the graves.)

(Mass graves.)

Anyone ever saw the movie “Law Abiding Citizen”? It explored the flaws in the justice system. It points out how it takes forever for justice to be served to mass-murderers and how they get to die before being executed for their crimes. Pol Pot escaped his fate. And there are many Khmer Rouge leaders STILL on trial, as they grow old and will probably end up living to a nice age before dying a natural death, all the while thinking “I am justified in my actions, I do not regret them. I am a patriot and it was all for a greater Cambodia.”

I did make a trip to the National Museum, which I regretted paying $3 entry-fee for. It was a nice looking museum but inside, it was filled with sculptures and statues, and you all know how much I despise them at this point. The Royal Palace was charging $6.25 so I decided to not go. These days, just being in a city, walking the streets (or viewing them from a moto as we zip through traffic) is enough for me. No more temples, no more museums. Give me landscapes, give me nature, give me people, give me food and I’m happy.

There is a dark side to Phnom Penh (and most of SE Asia really). There are many single old white men around these parts. Some of them have young Asian girls by their side. No judgment but I have a feeling these girls aren’t attracted to these foreigners because of their charming personalities and good looks. Grown men and grown women are ok but there are villages on the outskirts of Phnom Penh (like the infamous Svay Pak) that have child sex slaves. It’s quite sick to think about it but that is the world we live in. Here (click on this) is a good article to read about child sex-slavery. I hope you take the time to read it.

I was walking around O’Russey Market one day and I came across a popular noodle shop filled with Cambodians. (One thing nice about being away from the backpacker scene is that restaurants are filled with locals instead of backpackers eating at their favorite Lonely Planet ‘Our Pick’ restaurant, which of course, I’m guilty of in the past as well). The beef-ball noodles were so good I went there for dinner each night I was in Phnom Penh.

(I’ve eaten this for almost every single dinner.)

(Outstanding ‘pau’ with minced pork, sausage, and egg.)

I ran out of visa pages in my passport so one day, I went to the US Embassy and wanted to renew it. It would cost $110 for a 52-page book and 2 WEEKS to renew it but luckily, I could just add 24 visa pages for $80 (it used to be free!) and get it back within 30 minutes. I decided to apply for my Vietnamese visa in Sihanoukville because I read the Vietnamese embassy in PP send it that way anyway.

Off to Sihanoukville for the sand and ocean. As long as I get on the right bus!

More Phnom Penh Pics.