|"Tobin's Update" - Sun, 26 May 2002
Hello Family & Friends!
There is some exciting news that I'd like to share. On June 3rd I will fly to Bangkok, Thailand and spend the next 86 days in South East Asia. My 3-month tour will be on bicycle. I will join two other cyclists on this adventure, one American and one Swiss. Although we will plan our exact route as we go, we intend to visit Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and possibly Myanmar (Burma).
The trip will be quite a challenge but promises to be the adventure of a lifetime. I have dreamt of returning to Asia since my trip to India in 1994. I have spent the last few weeks preparing, including buying a new custom-built bike and all the necessary gear, getting immunizations, buying tickets, etc.
I will send out email updates as often as possible from cyber-cafes in the major cities and towns along the way. Some of the places I plan to visit are Angkor Wat and Phnom Penh in Cambodia; the Mekong Delta, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and Halong Bay in Vietnam; and Luang Prabang in Laos. I'm sure we will discover many other lesser-known treasures along the way.
I expect to have some amazing stories to tell when I return!
Bangkok - Farang in a Strange Land - Sat, 8 Jun 2002
Hello again everyone!
Today marks my 5th day in Bangkok. Bangkok is a truly original city - a modern and metropolitan city where anarchy seemingly reigns. Masses of cars, taxis, tuk-tuks, and various motorized two-wheeled vehicles pack the streets 24-7 creating what seems like utter chaos in a cloud of billowing bluish exhaust. Through the pollution, random scents of incense and coconut milk fish curry waft through the air. Every road, mile after mile, is lined with vending stalls and food carts where you can buy anything from a pair of "Levis" for $4 to pad Thai noodles cooked to order (not a stitch of peanut sauce in Bangkok) to fried cockroaches and other various larvae and insects. The "farang" are everywhere. The farang are tourists and foreigners: westerners like myself, Japanese, Indians, Africans, ex-pats, military. One of the biggest industries here appears to be the sex industry. It's a very common scene to see old, fat, bald white men with very young attractive Thai women. And if I walk around in a red-light area (which are practically everywhere -including outside my hotel) the "ladies" in the girlie bars will hassle me like sailors and construction workers. It's actually a pretty humorous scene.
I took one day to escape Bangkok and took a four-hour (round-trip) bus ride to the beach town of Pattaya. It was very relaxing to swim in the sea and drink coconut milk from the shell. We also tried cycling in Bangkok one day. We were nearly the only ones on bikes (surprising for Asia, I thought) and it was a little more hairy than riding in SF, but we managed fairly well until we got turned around and a bit lost. Found our way home eventually though. That experience prompted us to hire a pickup truck to get us out of Bangkok tomorrow morning when we begin our journey. We will start from Ayuthaya and travel North to Chaing Mai, then to Vientiene in Laos. It's very hot and humid but hasn't even rained once since I arrived. Overall, the Thai are a beautiful, friendly joyous people and they are a pleasure to be around and talk to - if they speak English. Tim, one of my traveling companions, has a nice Thai girlfriend who he met here several months ago. She has made life here almost effortless by helping with our arrangements, telling the taxi drivers where to go and showing us which fruit is the best. Mangkosteen (no relation to mango) is my new addiction. We ate 3 kilos yesterday.
Saw a Thai Boxing match yesterday - probably the biggest Thai obsession after World Cup fever, which is rampant. Pretty brutal stuff. Today I plan to see a few more sights in Bangkok, particularly the Wat Pho that features a huge golden Reclining Buddha.
My next transmission will surely be from Chaing Mai in a week or so, unless there's an i-cafe in one of the towns along the way. Then I will report on the first leg of my journey. We will actually have a cell phone with us that we can use in Thailand and Vietnam (borrowed from Tim's girlfriend). The number is +66 1 298 9712. We will probably be able to receive calls in the evening about 5-9pm our time. Until tomorrow morning you may contact me at my hotel, The Manhattan, at +66 2 255 0166 Room 709. If you want to call, feel free.
Until next time, sawadee crab! (I'm sure I spelled that wrong)
Monkeys Everywhere - Tue, 11 Jun 2002
A monkey, who wanted my banana muffin, accosted me while on my way to this Internet cafe in Lopburi full of teenage boys playing computer battle simulations at full-distorted volume. This email might be quite short because the racket is worse than Bangkok traffic!
We just completed our first day of cycling. From Ayuthaya to Lopburi - 108km. It was a very pleasant ride, flat and not much wind. Good for our first day. It is overcast so the sun wasn't beating on us all day. We stopped for two fried rice lunches. During the entire 7-hour trip there were people honking, screaming, waving, smiling, and laughing at us. If I were to wave hello to everyone who greeted us, I would have to have had my hand in the air for the entire ride. We spent yesterday in Ayuthaya - The City of Temples. There are both ancient ruins and modern Wats everywhere. One of the active Wats we visited housed a giant (4-stories) golden Buddha. Many people were worshiping there. A friendly Thai man showed me the Buddhist prayer ritual in which we used a candle, incense, bowing, meditation, a sliver of gold leaf, and holy water. It felt good to participate in the culture instead of merely observing and snapping pictures. We're now in Lopburi, City of Monkeys. This small city is literally overrun by hundreds of monkeys. Some of the local residents swear that the monkeys sometimes board busses and trains to visit other places and return the same way. Well, time to go out and find some ice cream. We're on our way to Chiang Mai, hopefully will be there in a week. This is the last tourist destination before Chiang Mai so I'm not sure about Internet access. I'll write again when we get there, if not before...
Crumbling Buddhas - Sat, 15 Jun 2002
Arrived in Sukhothai, the capital of the first Thai kingdom, yesterday and explored the ruins of the ancient city today. Giant crumbling Buddhas and chedis in dozens of wats scattered over 7+ square kilometers. The day before we were in Kamphaeng Phet and the previous day in Nakhon Sawan. Three more days to Chiang Mai. We've been blessed with good weather; the thunderstorms usually begin soon after we arrive at our hotel or guesthouse. But the heat and humidity are overwhelming at midday!
Tim, one of my two companions, had to drop out after the first day because of a bad infection on his calf. He is on antibiotics and will meet us in Chiang Mai in 3 days.
The Thai people and we continue to amaze each other. They are friendly and joyful and we are spectacles to say the least. In many of the villages we cycle through, I think we may be the first foreigners they've seen in a while.
I think this cafe is closing so I'll have to continue later.
Sawadee Krab, Tobin
First Leg - Thu, 20 Jun 2002
Thanks for all the responses to my updates. Sorry that I can't respond personally but I have limited time in these cafes.
It was very difficult, but Barney and I finally made it to Chiang Mai! When I last wrote we were in Sukhothai. We stayed there for two nights in order to rest and check out the Wats and ruins. The following day we had a short ride (63km) to Si Satchanalai, another ancient religious center. There we met 3 other cyclists! We were very surprised but had heard a rumor of them a few days earlier at a roadside rest area. They were New Zealand fruit farmers. We rode the next day together. That ride to Lampang was by far the most challenging. We had estimated from our map that it would be about 110km. To make a (very) long story short, we ended up riding 160km that day over mountains in awesome heat and humidity! The trip took over 12 hours - more than 7 hours in the saddle! The mountain scenery was spectacular and the kindness of the Thais really shined that day. Several times drivers pulled off the road to give us fruit and soymilk. Of course we got plenty of the usual cheers and thumbs-up signs.
Once in Lampang, we got word from Tim that the infection in his leg was improving but worse than we had thought. It will be at least another 2 weeks before he can ride, unless the infection worsens. In which case he'll go to a hospital in Singapore or go home. With less pressure to reach Chiang Mai, we stayed and extra night in Lampang and visited a Wat whose Chedi contains one of the Buddha's hairs and ashes from his forehead and neck!
Yesterday's ride (again with the 3 kiwis) from Lampang to Chiang Mai was, again, hilly, hot and beautiful but exactly the distance we thought it would be. Chiang Mai is very touristy, like Bangkok, but much smaller and less congested. Trekking is the main attraction here. Barney and I are going to arrange a four day trek, including elephant safari and bamboo rafting. Chiang Mai is also the "New Age" city for tourists. I am looking forward to some yoga, Buddhist vipassana and Hindu "creative" meditations as well as a popular "monk chat", were people ask questions to novice monks and they get to practice their English.
We plan to stay in Chiang Mai for about a week. Then catch a train to Phitsanalok. Stay a couple of nights and cycle to Vientiene, Loas which we expect to take about a week. We'll arrange our Vietnamese visas there.
Lots of Love,
Heading for Laos - Fri, 28 Jun 2002
We have begun the second cycling leg.
Chiang Mai was fun. There were lots of backpackers there and it was definitely geared towards western tourists. The highlight was the 3-day trek we made in the mountains SouthEast of the city. After an uncomfortable 3-hour drive in the back of a pickup, our guides led our group (consisting of a 30-something Dutch couple, eight 19 year-old Brits, Barney & myself) on a 4-hour hilly hike to a Hmong hill-tribe village. The Hmong originally came from Laos and live in North and NorthEastern Thailand at about 3000-4000 feet. There were lots of baby pigs, chickens and humans running around. We had some interaction with the children, but not much with the adults. We all slept on a wooden platform in a big bamboo hut and woke up refreshed (not!) for the next day's trekking. The next day we spent 6 hours walking and 2 hours riding elephants. I rode on the elephant's neck because there's only room for two on the chair strapped to its back. It felt like someone was rubbing steel wool on my inner thighs for 2 hours! We were told that elephants do less damage (in pounds per square inch) to the forest than a deer. But they didn't say anything about when they pull entire trees out of the ground with their trunks (almost jolting me off) and start whacking the roots violently against another tree. Didn't seem like a very efficient method of travel; at a medium walking pace I could have gone twice as far. That night we stayed at a Karen village. The Karen tribeswomen are known for wearing ring-like jewelry around their necks that make their necks appear stretched. We didn't see this in this village. We stayed up late drinking moonshine with the guides and some of the village men. The third day we hiked for a few hours, then boarded bamboo rafts (each 20 feet long and carrying 3 people). You had to stand and use long bamboo poles to push and steer the raft. It was a real blast! On the ride back, we stopped at a waterfall and drove to the top of Thailand's highest peak, where there was a modern temple built in honor of the Thai king and queen.
After a couple more nights in Chiang Mai, Barney and I took a train to Phitsanulok. The plan was to meet Tim in Laos around July 6th. We visited a Wat (temple) there that houses the Cinnarat Buddha, famous for it's dragon-fire halo and considered the second most important Buddha image in Thailand after the Emerald Buddha in Bangkok. The pillars in the Wat were designed to draw your eye to the Buddha and the feeling was very serene.
Yesterday Barney and I set off towards Laos on the scenic Highway 12. We stopped for espresso 3-times in 10 minutes, and I thought I was hallucinating when I saw (3 hours into the ride) Tim standing on the side of the road waving at us. He was on a bus heading for Udon Thani, when he glanced out the window and saw us. He has now rejoined us. Yesterday ended up being a grueling day of climbing hill after hill for 100km -beautiful scenery though! Today we're taking it easy, relaxing till the afternoon at a nice resort, then riding an easy 30km.
I expect to be in Vientiene, Laos in about 5 days.
Gotta run. Love to all!
Made it! - Wed, 3 Jul 2002
The second cycling leg is complete. I'm in Laos! On July 2nd we crossed the Friendship Bridge into Laos -3 days ahead of schedule! The bridge was a gift from Australia and is only the second one to span the Mekong. After riding all the way there, it was a bit disappointing when the border guards made us buy a bus ticket for the 2km ride across the bridge! Oh well, they must have their reasons...
After the first two days of hardcore climbing, the remaining 4 days seemed so easy that we did it in 3. I'm very excited to be here. So far, Laos seems to be a less developed, more laid back version of Thailand. As far as capital cities go, Vientiene has a real small town feel with all the conveniences of the other big smelly ones. The people are equally as friendly and smiles are the norm, not the exception.
Yesterday we visited some of the city's sights. The most important Wat in Laos (and their national symbol) has a huge golden Chedi (a bell-shaped spire) that contains a rib bone from the Buddha. I went to a temple and had an herbal sauna and a 1-hour traditional Lao massage for $1.50. The massage was like a cross between shiatsu and chiropractic. Hands, feet, elbows, arms and knees are used to give the massage. It felt good, most of the time. We also visited the Arch de Triomphe (sp?). A large, but not full sized, replica of the Parisian one that was built with money granted by the US for improving the airport. It's nicknamed "the Vertical Runway".
Tomorrow we are going on a cycling side trip to Northern Laos. It will take 5 days (of cycling) to reach Luang Prabang and we'll take a bus back. Then we'll figure out how and when to get to Vietnam.
Love and smiles!
Next stop: Vietnam... - Wed, 17 Jul 2002
Wow! I was just looking at my emails and noticed that I sent my last update 2 weeks ago. Time is really starting to fly by!
So our trip in Northern Laos to Luang Prabang was stunning beyond words. First of all the people: Laos is one of the poorest countries in the world, it is the most bombed country in the world (suffering more tons of bombs per capita than Vietnam during the US-Vietnam war...they call it the American War), it is a (corrupt) communist landlocked country of 85% mountains. It produces mostly opium and rice. But the Lao greeting, Sabaidy, says so much about the disposition of the people. It means "happy and content" and they say it all the time. Their word for thank you is equally as telling. Cobb Jai means "thank soul". Their constant smiles, easy laugh, strong families and spiritual devotion makes one wonder if the West isn't equally as poor in ways unrelated to the dollar.
The ride to Luang Prabang was beyond description. Towering limestone cliffs covered in dense jungle and caressed by cloudy mists. Peak after peak into the distance. The mountains are not sloped, but rise straight up dramatically, sometimes like Manhattan skyscrapers. For the first few days the road wove a merciful path between the larger peaks. We stopped in a town along the way for a few days called Vang Vieng. Took a day kayaking trip down the river to visit some caves, one of which we had to explore by swimming though some of it. The next day we hired a guide to take us on a hike to another cave through some villages. On the way back, he took us by his (potential) girlfriend's family's house. We were the first westerners to visit their house and we were invited to help them plant rice in the field. It's back breaking work, but the Lao spirit again prevails. Singing while working is expected as are occasional mud-fights. Smiles and laughter are mandatory. The younger children play in the waterways between the rice patties.
Hanging out in Vang Vieng didn't turn out to be very nice. The town has grown rapidly in the past few years into a backpacker "paradise". Mostly overrun by droves of 21 year old Israelis just out of the army and looking to hook up and party, not many into planting rice with the local villagers...
The second half of the rides to Luang Prabang were the most awesome days I've ever spent on my bike. The scenery went from superb to breathtaking and the terrain went from mostly flat to mostly not! There's no better reward to a 15km climb than a 22km decent! Lets just say the ride was challenging and rewarding. Celebrity status the whole way. Whole villages lining the streets and waving as we rode through like it was a parade. Gangs of little, brown, half-naked children tearing down the road after us yelling "Sabaidyyyyyyyy!!!"
Luang Prabang (the ancient capital of Laos) is really amazing. There are 36 of the oldest Wats in Laos there. Monks are everywhere. We stayed for 5 days, which really gave us some time to relax and hang out with other travelers (not something we can do a lot while riding). Went to an awesome waterfall, and, um...hung out by the Mekong a lot. Some friends and I decided to do some yoga on the grass next to a Wat. We quickly caught the attention of the local children, some of whom decided to imitate us. Some monks showed up and watched us for a while then disappeared. A few minutes later they began their afternoon chants. Quite surreal doing yoga at a temple in Laos accompanied by live monk chants!
It took two days and two long bus rides to get to Savanaket where I am now. I won't detail the travel because I'm trying to block it out. I'll just say that the first ride (12 hours) I (really!) didn't fit in the seat and wasn't sure if I'd be able to walk when it was over. The second bus ride was 10 straight hours of blaring Thai Kareoke videos. Renews my appreciation for travel by bicycle.
So tomorrow we head East across Laos and will cross the Vietnamese border on Sunday or Monday. Then South to Saigon. I have the feeling we'll be kicking it on the beaches for a while before we make it to Saigon. Looking forward to scuba and (trying to) surf.
Sabaidy! :-) Tobin
Sensory Overload! - Mon, 22 Jul 2002
We rolled into Hue, Vietnam yesterday.
Leaving Laos was rough! The first day was perfectly smooth asphalt. The next 2 were awful. The road (if you can call it that) was under different stages of construction but mostly dirt and gravel. Then it rained all night. We reached the border exhausted and completely coated in rich, brown mud.
The differences between Laos and Vietnam are blatantly apparent immediately. The road is smooth and the noise deafening. To say that the Vietnamese are overzealous in the use or their horns (many with air-horns), would be a gross understatement. I can't even describe it. I wouldn't be exaggerating if I said that each car, truck and motorbike are honking every 3 seconds. The din is almost unbearable.
We spent the first night at the border. The next in Dong Ha. From there we hired guides on motorbikes and toured the "DMZ" (Demilitarized Zone). This was the area of the most fighting during the US-Vietnam War. We saw the National Cemetery with row after row of the nameless headstones of 15-20 year-old North Vietnamese soldiers. We saw the ruins if military bases on both sides of the Ben Hai River - the former dividing line of North and South Vietnam. In several places we saw the rusting remains of US tanks. Overgrown bomb craters dotted the hillside near the famed Ho Chi Minh Trail - the lifeline of the VC during the war. We also toured the Vinh Moc Tunnels, an is an elaborate maze of tunnels dug by hand by the men and women of the local villages to escape the battles outside. They were really incredible. Hundreds of people lived there for 4 years. Seventeen children were born there. The three levels are the perfect height for the average Vietnamese to walk through (oh, my back!).
On the ride to Hue, I found myself trying to dull my senses. Sunglasses, earplugs, I almost got out my facemask. I'm still trying to adjust to the faster pace of Vietnam. Today we tour the city. In a couple of days we head South and hit the beach at Hoi An.
I'll keep you posted.
Chilling to Thrilling - Sat, 10 Aug 2002
Wow! It's been almost three weeks since my last update. Well, after a hectic start I'm finally acclimated to life in Vietnam...and I love it! This country is experiencing extremely rapid growth and transformation.
Hue was a beautiful city set beside the Perfume River. As the educational capital, it had a sophisticated feel. We spent a couple of days there before heading for the coast and some beach time. Once we reached Danag, Tim & Barney decided they'd had enough of Highway 1 and wanted to head into the mountains to Dalat. I was longing for warm sand between my toes (and some time alone), so I headed for Hoas Place, a guesthouse at China Beach that was recommended to me by a friend I'd met in Laos. I had an early start and showed up a little before noon covered in sweat after climbing Hai Van Pass. The other guests were eating breakfast and looked a little shocked. Hoa, the laid back owner met me and said, "Take it easy, man. Relax. Would you like a drink?" I took it easy and relaxed on the beach for 4 days, although I could have made it 3 months. The water in the South China Sea is so warm, it's almost not even refreshing, but it's fun to swim in (even at night...ask me about the sea-monster I slew!).
On the train to Nha Trang, I met a Danish couple who I would end up traveling with for the next week. They were really cool and funny. We had a great time. They came along snorkeling during my scuba dive trip. We went to a hot springs and had mud baths and massage, and drank "Buckets" at a bar called Crazy Kims. Nha Trang was a comfortable city -not too big, not too small with a pristine municipal beach where you can have fresh lobster and crab cooked, cracked and served at your beach chair (for $2). I could have stayed there for 3 months too.
Leaving the hustle and bustle of the city, my new friends and I (and my bike) hopped on a bus to Mui Ne, the premiere beach resort destination for Saigon's upper crust. Besides many hours of lounging and swimming, we visited Mui Ne's giant sand dunes and Fairy Spring that had some interesting sand and rock formations. My Danish friends left for Saigon after two nights and I stayed another three. The family-run guesthouse where I stayed consisted of four simple bungalows just steps from the beach. Each morning I'd wake up and stumble into to sea. The family was so hospitable I felt like I was a member. I knew it was time to go when I found myself with the family kids in my lap in their living room watching Chinese TV with Vietnamese subtitles and none of us could figure out how many nights I'd been there.
So I went from beach to city to beach to...Ho Chi Minh City -Saigon. Wow! This city is fascinating. There is a buzz in the air, an energy, an electricity. Similar to how it felt the first time I went to Manhattan, but more erratic, more captivating. It's hard to explain. This city has a life of it's own, independent from the rest of Vietnam. It is in a constant state of morph, a city on the edge of chaos but beautiful for it's enigmatic undefinability. The Saigon of today seems unrecognizable to the Saigon of yesterday or tomorrow. There are people everywhere and life happens on the street, not in buildings. Ordinary people eat, sleep, work and hang out on the street and there are very few obviously enforced laws. I hope that description gave you a small glimpse of my experience in Saigon. Oh, and to make my Saigon experience that much more surreal, I'm sharing a hotel room with a French chain-smoking professional juggler named Valantin who speaks little English.
I haven't yet decided if I'm leaving tomorrow or Monday for Phenom Phen, Cambodia. That trip should take about 5 days in the saddle. I won't have much time to spend in Phenom Penh so I hope it's not as infectious as Saigon! Then a bus or boat to the fabled Angkor Wat and another bus to Bangkok, hopefully in time to do ALL of my shopping (haven't bought much due to little room in my panniers).
See you in two weeks!
Coming home... - Fri, 23 Aug 2002
It's been a couple of weeks since I last wrote and I'll be boarding a jet bound for "home" in about 76 hours. "Home" is in quotation there because I don't really have a home to come back to. I'll need to start my dwelling search when I get there. (hint, hint)
The ride from Saigon to Phenom Penh had its ups and downs, so-to-speak. My original plan of 5 days with two side-trips was reduced to 4 days with only one side trip once I experienced the condition of Cambodia's roads; if you can call them roads. They are more like a series of mud-holes. The side trip was in Vietnam where I visited the Caodai Great Temple. Caodaism was an attempt to create the ideal religion by combining aspects of Eastern and Western ideas. It is based primarily on Taoism, Confucianism and Catholicism. The temple and it's compound were like a cross between a Disneyland display, a wax museum and a Hans Christian Anderson fairy-tale. The priests and nuns conduct services four times every day at 6am, noon, 6pm and midnight. I was the only visitor there for the 6pm service I attended.
Leaving the Caodai Temple, on day 2, I took a wrong turn after lunch (the restaurant owner tried to convince me to take her 17 year-old daughter to America with me) and ended up adding an extra 28km to an already long and brutal cycling day (I'm talking scary nighttime, rain, wind, mud riding long day!). Day three was more mud, rain, potholes and headwinds. That night I stayed in Neak Loung whose notoriety comes from being "accidentally" bombed by the US during the US-Vietnam war. The town sees foreign visitors very rarely, and as usual, I was a bit of a spectacle. This time, however, something really cool happened. While eating dinner at one of the food stalls I met (not by chance, I'm sure) a Cambodian who teaches English at public and private schools. He invited me to come help him teach two classes at the private school immediately after dinner. Of course there was quite a commotion when I arrived, but I really felt comfortable in front of the class and the two hours went by in a flash. Must be in the blood - thanks mom! It was really fun for all involved. On the fourth day the road conditions didn't get any better and something had to give. I was getting excited because Phenom Penh was my final cycling destination for my entire 3-month trip and I would soon be there. My bike and I were a little beat up and coated in mud but I was smiling because I was 10km from a shower. Then -BAM!- rear tire explodes. Wasn't fun changing it in the rain and mud but I managed. 2km further -Bam!- rear tire again. Then I noticed the 2-inch tear near the bead of my tire. One of the many tire-fixers along the roadside tried to fix it with a tire-boot but it only got me 4 more km. In the end I had to wave down a passing tractor. Not a very climactic ending (or was it?) but apparently, I wasn't the only one who thought that, me and my bike coated in mud riding into the city on the back of a tractor, was a funny sight.
Phenom Penh is a bustling capital with an active nightlife. I didn't take advantage (much) of the nightlife but I enjoyed hanging out at my lakeside guesthouse listening to music and playing pool. I visited the site of Pol Pot's Killing Fields where his Khmer Rouge executioners bludgeoned their "prisoners" to death (in order to save bullets). At first it looks like a bunch of big holes in a grassy field with many signs indicating "mass grave" and a few stating "534 headless bodies" and " 238 women and children - mostly nude". There's also a monument featuring piles of the victim's sculls. This is powerful stuff but not as powerful as the energy you feel after walking around for a few minutes. Then I started noticing detail I'd missed. Like half buried clothing strewn everywhere. What I had at first thought were white stones were actually bones near the surface. I even saw a human tooth laying in the path. I felt profound sadness.
Siem Reap was the next destination. It's the gateway town to the ruined ancient city of Angkor. Angkor is an enormous Hindu/Buddhist site with many magnificent temples. It is the most famous of all South East Asian ancient sites. Imagine the grandeur of the Pyramids with the grace and beauty of the Taj Mahal and you might have some idea of what Angkor is like. It's breathtaking. Some of the temples have been engulfed by the jungle and purposefully left in the same condition as when they were rediscovered by explorers in the 1920s. It's amazing to see enormous jungle trees surrounding and engulfing these ancient temples - like a scene out of Raiders of the Lost Ark. The magnificent bas-reliefs and carvings were everywhere. I spent three days exploring the site. Angkor is the most fascinating place I've ever seen.
Leaving Cambodia was painful. There is no comfortable way out (save flying) but since I was accompanied by my bicycle I had to take the local's way...by pickup. Imagine being crammed into the back of a small pickup with 15 (yes, fifteen) other people (including an amputee and two nursing babies - so there's a little more room ;-). I was constantly being launched into the air only to have my backside come crashing down on the thin metal bar that was my seat. After 5-6 hours of this my driver sold me to another pickup and we had to drive around the town for 2 hours until it was full. The rest of the trip to the Thai border and the subsequent 9-hour bus to Bangkok was made more pleasant because my second pickup had another Westerner aboard and we had great conversation.
I have a new impression of Bangkok this time. What before seemed very Third World and foreign now seems very modern and metropolitan. I'm planning to see all the tourist sights I missed last time (Emerald Buddha, Imperial Palace) in the next couple days before I head home.
See you all very soon...
WARNING: The following contains graphic text not intended to be read by mothers... For those familiar with my "problem", I'll tell you Saigon had the best stuff! Cheap and great quality. I was in heaven! I'm bringing lots home and hopefully this will be enough for a while. Does anyone know of a 12-step program for music CD shopaholics?