Land of Unscented Soaps and Curry

After two (or three) long years of business school, we are embarking on a 48 day journey to India, Singapore, Vietnam, Thailand, and Cambodia. We'll be bathing with unscented soaps and shampoos to keep the mosquitoes away (and therefore malaria and other fun viruses), and eating all sorts of delicious and aromatic foods.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Pictures are Sorted, Titled, and Ready to be Seen

Despite almost losing over 400 of our pictures (mishap with the camera-computer transfer, but Jeremy fixed it with some software so we recovered all except a few photos), the best of our pictures are finally ready.

We sorted through over 1,300 photos we took over the course of 7 weeks to pick out the ones we most enjoyed so that you can get a sense of our trip and the things we experienced. We also made sure to apply captions to all of the pictures so you know what you're looking at. Instead of doing a public posting on our blog, we are emailing the picture website link to everyone. Our apologies if we forgot anyone - just send either of us an email and we'll be sure to send them to you.

We hope you enjoyed our blog, as we certainly enjoyed sharing our trip with you.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Back in the U.S. of A.

We returned to D.C. on July 4th; how fitting. It is good to be home. Since we're back, we'll be winding down the blog. A few closing items will include some thoughts on our itinerary, the rest of the photos, reviews of the hotels we stayed in, and perhaps a few other items.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Wrapping Up the Trip

Using our 3 day Angkor pass (they create an official ID card for you), we headed out to some of the farther away temples. Because we were traveling farther distances, we used a car/driver instead of our tuk tuk. We first went to Banteay Srei, a temple that is built largely with sandstone, so the current colors of the temple make it a beautiful site to see.

We then stopped at Banteay Samre, before heading to East Mebon, Ta Som, Neak Pean, and Preah Khan. Unfortunately, after the number of temples we have seen, many of them start blurring together and many are not as magnificent as Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, and Ta Prohm. Preah Khan was somewhat different than many of the other temples; instead of simply a surrounding wall and the temple in the center, Preah Khan had 4 enclosed passages (although only the walls are currently remaining) coming from the east, west, north, and south to the temple in the center. Neak Pean was also unique in that it is a small temple built with a very wide moat completely surrounding on it, creating an island effect. Although today the moat is dry, during heavy rains it will actually flood.

Throughout our two days looking at temples, we were often approached by children (usually little girls) trying to sell us all sorts of trinkets and guide books. Their sales approach was often entertaining. It would start with "What's your name?" "Where you from?"- once you answer this question, they tell you the population of the capital. At one point I said I was from Djibouti, which produced just a smile. Unlike India, here, the kids would know to leave you alone after one or two "No thank you's." Our other favorite phrases were, "Ïf you buy, you buy from me, okay?" or "When you see temples, you buy when you come back?"

Surprisingly, we were able to get everything done before lunch. We headed to the Old Market area, which is considered the center of Siem Reap. We are bummed that we are not staying in this area, as it has the most options in terms of restaurants and activities. If the roads were better (most are dirt/mud roads that have large holes filled with rain water) we could probably walk to this area.

After a mid-afternoon nap, we headed back to the Old Market area for a good Khmer dinner - our last night on the trip. It has been an amazing 7 weeks, but as Jeremy said, we're looking forward to heading back to the States.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Woman: Hear Me Roar

For the past seven weeks we have been traveling to countries where women are not given a very strong position in society (with the exception of Singapore). It has sometimes been difficult for me, as I have had to change some of my behaviors.

In India I was very good - I covered up with my shawl every day for 16 days straight. In Vietnam, Thailand, and Cambodia, I have not covered up for day-to-day walking around, but would almost always carry a shawl or long sleeve shirt with me in case we were going somewhere religious/sacred. I am happy to respect the local culture. The thing that gets me, is when I, as a woman, am required to cover myself up because my sex is seen as too sexual, but shirtless men walk the grounds of a sacred place.

In all the guide books we have, each one has a section for women travellers, telling me what to do and what not to do. Again, I'll abide by what is said, but that doesn't mean I have to be happy about it!

It has been interesting to see what positions women work in throughout the different countries. In India, rarely did you encounter a woman at work - in restaurants, men waited on us, in hotels, men cleaned our rooms - men filled most service positions. The only place we regularly saw women were as flight attendants (but sometimes still outnumbered by male flight attendants). In India, their place seemed to be more as private maid or cook, or staying home to raise and take care of the family. This surprises me, as the country has at least one very powerful female politician. We often saw signs on the back of tuk tuks saying "Women Empowerment." I doubt the drivers fully understood this concept.

In Vietnam and Thailand we saw women playing a larger role in society. They filled stereotypically female roles, and were also included in other roles such as construction. I was also really surprised (and delighted) to have a female tuk tuk driver in Sukhothai, Thailand - the first and only woman we've seen driving a form of transportation. Cambodia has also been similar, with women cooking meals in street side restaurants, while men filled more "important" roles like tour guide or front desk help.

I've chaired Women in Leadership Conferences and am part of councils for MBA women, so it's hard for me to swallow my pride and know my place is these countries. It also reminds me that I do have it pretty good in the States. We certainly have our own problems (don't get me started), but they still don't compare to where Southeast Asia is in terms of women advancement.

The Mother of All Temples

From the Mosques in India to the Pagodas in Vietnam to the Wats in Thailand, we've seen a lot of temples on this trip, so I guess it's fitting that our last stop is Angkor Wat, the so-called "mother of all temples." We've heard the temples of Angkor are supposed to be quite spectacular at sunrise and sunset, so we got got up at 4:30am to head out to Angkor Wat. (This was not an original idea of ours at all - it's mentioned in our guide book, a few of our friends did it, and tour buses shuttle their groups out as well.) Unfortunately, since it's been raining the past few days, the sky was not at all clear and the sunrise was less then spectacular. That said, there was a big advantage to getting that early of a start: the first two sites we saw (Angkor Wat and Bayon) where not at all crowded.

The lack of crowds could also be due to the fact that getting to the inner parts of the temples requires a lot of climbing on narrow, steep staircases, which probably does not appeal to many people on group tours.

Angkor Wat itself was quite impressive. The scale of the structure is amazing (though not quite as amazing as the Taj Mahal, as Danielle pointed out), and there are incredibly detailed carvings and bas reliefs all over the walls, corridors and columns of the temple. Our next stop was Bayon (part of the Angkor Thom complex), which is famous for having 200+ stone carvings of an unknown smiling face on 50+ stone towers. Climbing the temple allows you to get quite close to these faces, which was striking. Next we looked around Angkor Thom a little more, though there was not too much to see. Our last stop was Ta Prohm, which is impressive because the temple has been overrun by the jungle - there are literally trees growing on top of the temple structures, with their roots climbing down the walls of the temples. Today, the jungle has been cut back so you can visit the site, but you can still see the effects of the jungle over growth.

Yesterday, we stopped by the Land Mine "Musuem," which was recommended by some friends of ours. I used the quotation marks because it is more a hut than a museum. Nonetheless, it was an interesting experience - the museum talks about how its founder has made it his mission to de-mine Cambodia with nothing more than a stick (one of the exhibits explains that because the mines don't contain a lot of metal, it's hard to use a metal detector), and the museum displays the different types of mines he's found (there are hundreds of them).

Tomorrow we will tackle some of the temples that are a little further a field. Just a week ago, Danielle and I were amazed that we have been traveling for six weeks, and we felt we could go another six (okay, maybe not six, but a least a little longer), but now we are both looking foward to getting back to the States.

Taking Off the Rose-Colored Glasses

We arrived in Siem Reap, and the 6 hour drive through the country as well as Siem Reap itself has given us a better feel for the poverty level in Cambodia. When you think of a developing or 3rd world country, Cambodia definitely comes to mind. It is how you might expect a poor country to be. Unfortunately, Cambodia also has the reality that their "history" is still very recent, with Pol Pot dying less than a decade ago and the Khmer Rouge's affects still evident on the country (careful not to stray off the well-trodden path as you may step on a landmine) - all of this provides for a poor and tragic country (you can sometimes see landmine victims around town, in addition to the very poor children and adults).

Jeremy and I had an interesting conversation last night on the tuk tuk about Cambodia versus India. While the poverty levels of both countries seem to be on par, India comes across as much worse in part because the country is so filthy (people don't make an effort to pick up trash or urinate in bathrooms) and because there are so many people which the economy cannot currently support. It is also more surprising because we think India should be a lot further along than it is (because many international companies operate there and it has a larger presence on the international political and business scene), but yet Cambodia seems to be ahead of India (they even have small things like garbage pick-up which we never once saw in India).

We don't want to give the impression that Cambodia is doing really well, because it is clearly not. But they seem to have their act together a lot more than India, and will hopefully continue to thrive in the post-Khmer Rouge era.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

US Dollar: National Currency of Cambodia

As Jeremy talked about in an earlier post, friends of ours had said how awful Cambodia was in terms of poverty. From their descriptions, we anticipated something close to what we experienced in India. Having arrived in Phnom Penh this morning, we have been pleasantly surprised (if you can call it that). While the country surely is poor, and poverty can easily be seen, it is not on the same scale as in India.

We walked around a bit today - went to see the Royal Palace, Silver Pagoda, National Museum - and were aggressively approached by children, some begging for money and others selling items such as books or water. As a rule, we have not given to anyone begging in any of the countries we have gone to. While the begging can sometimes be hard to handle, we believe that money given to children doesn't always stay with the children and by giving money, foreigners help to keep children on the street because that is how they learn to make a living. It has also been clear to us that some amount of begging is dramatized (women pretending to breast feed babies when we come closer). While the government is unable to currently provide social service support, NGOs exist to help out (even in terms of restaurants that employ street children).

Compared to India, Cambodia on the outside appears to be in a better state - trash is not laying everywhere, people are not urinating wherever they please, emaciated people do not seem to be as common of a sight. Given the sheer number of people in India, the current economy does not seem to be able to support the number of people trying to eeck out a living.

The other interesting thing is that the most expensive parts of our travels will actually be in the poorest countries. Whether it is because of increased competition in richer countries or because the lack of a local middle class in India/Cambodia wanting similar goods as foreigners, we are charged higher prices for things like drinks, hotels, and even souvenirs than in countries like Thailand and Vietnam. In Cambodia, the US dollar functions pretty much as the main currency (with the Cambodian Riel provided as change for small amounts); it is very difficult to determine the value of items you are buying. It sort of makes it hard to swallow paying US prices for things with US dollars, but not receiving US quality in return.

Airport Aggravation

It should be obvious to us (especially by now) that things do not always run as smoothly on this side of the world. Still, it's hard not to get angry / annoyed at some of little things, that while not so bad on an individual basis, can be quite aggravating in sum. For example, here is run-down of events that happened at the Bangkok Airport this morning that got our ire:

  1. 4am wake up call. Of course, in every city you have to get up at an ungodly hour everyone in a while to catch an early flight. We can only blame ourselves for booking a 7am flight. Nonetheless, after less than five hours of sleep, we're not likely going to have a lot of patience.
  2. Excess baggage charge. We know Air Asia had a weight limit on checked baggage; and we knew were were going to go over this limit. We pretty much have been over weight limits for most of the trip, but no one has cared (or even mentioned it for that matter), until this morning. Of course Air Asia is perfectly within their rights to enforce their stated weight limits. It was a little annoying, however, that the flight was a little over half full, so the baggage area could not have been anywhere near capacity. What was more annoying is that at the Check-In counter you can only pay the ''excess weight'' fee with cash. To pay with a credit card, you have to get out the check in line, wait in another line, and then go back to the check-in line to get your boarding pass. Thankfully, by the time we got back to the check-in desk, no one else was in line.
  3. The ubiquitous ''airport departure tax.'' We've had these at pretty much every airport in S.E. Asia, and, aside from feeling nickled and dimed (why can't they just build the tax into the ticket price, as they do in the U.S.?) it is not too annoying. What was really annoying, however, is that you can only pay the tax in Thai Baht. We, like most international travelers, I believe, made an effort to spend most of our Baht before leaving Thailand. We were surprised that they only accepted Baht at airport - no credit cards, no other currency (in Vietnam, you can pay the airport tax with U.S. dollars). So, we had to go cash a traveler's check to get enough money pay the airport tax. But cashing the travelers check left us with a lot more Baht than we needed.
  4. The currency exchange we went to first couldn't accept traveler's checks because their machine was broken, so we had to hunt around for another currency exchange booth.
  5. The ubiquitous airport bus. Of the 15+ flights we have taken with Asia, I think we've used a jetway only once or twice. Instead when they board the plane, you get on a bus which takes you to the aircraft. This extra step adds more annoyances because everyone rushes to line up at the gate, then they rush on the bus, then they rush off the bus to get on the plane. We're both looking forward to being able to board a plane directly from the gate.
Individually, each of these is not a big deal, but when they all happen within an hour and a half, it can be a little irksome.

Living Within Our Tax Bracket

Travelling for 7 weeks has made us keep a close eye on how much we spend for things. In general we have stayed at moderately priced hotels, and have eaten meals that generally top out at $5 for the two of us. Even though we eat cheaply, we don't skimp on the taste. We eat at recommended restaurants, but for the price we are not getting things like ambience or air conditioning.

Early on, we made a point to try to have one nice meal in each country we have been in. But while we were splurging in Ko Samui, we thought it would be appropriate to have a couple nice meals (both in taste and ambience), especially since many nice meals are closer to $10-$15/person in Thailand compared to $30-$50/person in the States.

Our first nice meal was at the Italian restaurant at the hotel. While we didn't go all out (only had one course and didn't order wine), we had a lovely meal (with the chef taking our order). Unfortunately our second meal didn't treat us as well. Supposedly the best restaurant on the island, Betelnut was a fusion of Asian and Western food. The chef/owner came out to answer any questions we had (there were only three tables occupied - about 1/4 full). I orderd deep friend soft shell crabs - didn't quite realize that I was supposed to eat the entire thing (shell/claws/eyes and all - no thanks). I did eat most of it, but it just tasted deep fried - no real flavor. Jeremy ordered beef, and was underwhelmed by the tastes and quality of the cut. However, we both did enjoy our appetizers (chicken wontons and prawn spring roll), and a nice glass of wine. While we are happy we did a fancy night out, we didn't feel that the meal was worth quite what we paid.

Despite the one bad experience, we are still going to try having nicer meals interspersed with our cheap ones. Spending a fair amount of effort choosing inexpensive places, we have sometimes forgotten the income bracket we actually exist in. In the remaining days of our trip, we're going to try to remember that it is worth paying extra (while not sacrificing things like taste), especially since the little extra here goes a very long way.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Are We Still in Thailand?

Yes, we are still in Thailand, though you might not know it given our surroundings. Here on Chaweng Beach in Ko Samui, it feels like there are more foreigners than there are Thais, and just as many restaurants have spaghetti as pad thai. All this makes for a strange experience - even though we are on the other side of the world, this place seems more European than Asian at times. That said, we don't regret staying on Chaweng, which although more developed than some of the beaches on the Island, provides easy access to restaurants, travel agencies, internet cafes and convenience stores.

And tailors. Much like Hoi An, every other store here is a tailor. It seems as though the basic laws of economics have been suspended to allow such a glut of tailor shops. Or maybe they haven't been: almost of these stores offer what seem to be impossible good deals: one suit, one sport coat, two shirts and one pair of slacks custom cut, all for $80 (or something like). This sounds cheap because it is cheap. Although we haven't ventured into any of these shops, with a price that low, the quality (of both the material and the tailoring) is suspect. (It's also really funny that almost every shop incorporates the 'Armani' name into its store name - Armani Collection, Armani Tailors. The best example was a Bangkok tailor shop called 'A.R.Mani.')

Nonetheless, Ko Samui has been very enjoyable and relaxing. Although other beaches on the island are probably more idealic, both of us appreciate being able to walk pretty much wherever we need to go.

Two days ago, we took a day trip to Ko Tao, a neighboring island, to go snorkling. Both of us were impressed with the number and variety of fish and coral we saw. Although getting out there entailed a bumpy hour and a half speed boat ride, it was definately worth it.

Yesterday, we decided to try kayaking Gulf of Thailand. We both though it would be a fun way to explore other parts of the island, but unfortunately, it was a lot less fun than we anticipated. Because the water is often quite shallow, we frequently found ourselves getting stuck on sand bars and rock formations. We were also a little disappointed that there given the rocks and the currents, there was not really anywhere interesting to go. We rented the kayaks for two hours but returned them after an hour and twenty minutes.

This afternoon we hop on a plane to Bangkok, where we'll spend one night before heading to Phnom Penh early (very early!) tomorrow morning. Interestingly, this trip seems to be bookended by the poorest nations on our itinerary. Friends of ours who have already been to Cambodia have warned that the poverty is shocking. Perhaps somewhat sadly, we think our travels through India have better prepared us.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Much Needed Break

On the morning of the 24th we left the great north for the islands in the south. We headed to Koh Samui, one of the islands on the eastern side of Thailand in the Gulf of Siam. We have been looking forward to this part of the vacation since we left for India on the 15th of May.

To insure we really enjoyed this part of the trip, we decided to splurge on our hotel. We are staying at the Amari Palm Reef, second highest rated (by Trip Advisor) hotel on the island (although we didn't know that when we reserved the hotel). The Amari has some nice touches that we have not seen in awhile: multiple towels, large bars of soaps, quiet & working a/c, really nice breakfast spread, and very attentive hotel staff (there are even two men stationed at the street at all times to help you cross to the other side).

After arriving at our hotel we headed straight to the beach. The beach itself is quite nice - fine white sand that is soft under the feet. The water is also amazing - the clearest body of water either Jeremy or I have seen. And the water is easy to walk in - a good temperature, quite shallow for a long distance, and no waves/currents to worry about. While we like the beach, it has its moments of grossness - where the water hits the beach it can feel very muddy underneath your feet since the sand is so fine; this is particularly unpleasant during low tide. The beach also caters to an older crowd so it can be very quiet at times making it very peaceful. The hotel also has two pool areas which are nice, but we were spoiled by JW Marriott in Mumbai, India which was an infinity pool with built-in chairs/loungers inside the pool.

For dinner, we ate at a small place on the beach where we were literally two feet away from the water. Today we spent more time in the water, where small colorful fish swam all around us. Tomorrow we are going snorkling to a nearby island, Ko Tao, which has world reknowned snorkling and diving.

This morning, both of us woke up and decided that we were officially tired of Thai food (yes, Jeremy even admitted to being tired of Phad Thai). So we had nachos for lunch and are headed to a nearby Italian restaurant for some gourmet pizza. Yum.

Unfortunately the time here already seems to be flying by. We both wish we had additional time to do more (like go to the Marine Park, where the movie The Beach takes place) in addition to relaxing on the beach.