Great Video of traffic in Vietnam

Back in February, when we were in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), I wrote about how crazy the traffic was. Despite my best efforts, I don’t think that my description or the still pictures captured the craziness.

Fortunately, there are more skilled people out there including Rob Whitworth who created this video.

Traffic in Frenetic HCMC, Vietnam from Rob Whitworth on Vimeo.

Better than my description but, if you haven’t been, it’s worth experiencing for yourself. There’s nothing quite like taking a deep breath and stepping off the curb.

Small steps towards big change.

We’ve been back from Southeast Asia for a month and a half now, though it feels like much longer. It turns out that it’s much harder to keep a blog updated when you aren’t having exciting new experiences in exotic new places on a daily basis. Fortunately, sitting on a plane to the much less exciting and exotic City of Arlington, Texas gives me some time to get something posted.

If you’ve read the previous posts from our recent trip, you’ll know that one of the highlights from our time in Cambodia was the opportunity to meet Rady and spend an afternoon visiting the floating village of Kongpong Pluk with him. Not only was it interesting to see a part of Cambodia that many tourists don’t get to visit, it reminded us just how fortunate we are to have been born in Canada and all of the privileges that we take for granted.

As weird as it is to say, we’ve been lucky enough to see this disparity before. We’ve seen it in the mountains of Peru, the Masai villages of Tanzania, and a number of other places we had the chance to visit. Each time, I’m reminded of just how lucky I am and tell myself that I need to do something more when we get home. Sadly, while each time I come home with the best of intentions, the realities of work and life quickly take over and “something” never seems to happen. Well, once again we’re back and life is as hectic as usual, but this time there is some good news to report.

When we got home we emailed Neil from Gap Adventures who had put us in touch with Rady. Neil told us about another traveller who had also met Rady a month before us while in Cambodia. Having heard Rady’s story she was raising money to help Rady build a new school house for his English Language School. We got in touch with Karen just in time to add our little contribution before she sent it over to Rady. Altogether she was able to raise $3,600.  This may not sound like a lot of money. However, as you can see in the pictures below, in Siem Reap it’s enough to help build a new school house that will allow another 90 children to learn English.

Putting the roof on the School of English for the Disadvantaged
Putting the roof on the School of English for the Disadvantaged
School of English for the Disadvantaged - Siem Reap
School of English for the Disadvantaged - Siem Reap
School of English for the Disadvantaged - Siem Reap
School of English for the Disadvantaged - Siem Reap

It’s impossible to say just what the eventual impact of what Karen has done will be, but if Rady’s story is any indication, it’s possible that one of the kids that benefits now will help a hundred more in the future. The knock-on effect of a small act can be huge.

Since we’ve been back, both Katy and I have been looking at little ways we can help from here. Yes, it’s been a month and we have little to show, but maybe the most important thing is that we are thinking about it and trying to take steps in the right direction, however small they might be.

Speaking of lessons learned while travelling, this is actually like climbing Kilimanjaro; if you add enough small steps together, eventually you can get to places you didn’t think possible.

A close up look at Dr. Fish…

As promised in an earlier post, here’s a look at our visit to Dr. Fish in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Eddie, thanks for joining us.

We’re home and the pictures are up.

As usual, it’s a bit of a shock to be home, and not just because we left +35 C to arrive to -12 C. One minute you’re sitting on a beach trying to remember a few words of Thai and the next you’re back at your desk in your office wondering whether you were really ever gone at all.

Fortunately, we have proof. On a very short two and a half weeks, we took over 3,000 pictures between the two of us. Digital is a curse and a blessing. Luckily for you, we’ve narrowed that down to a top 600 or so. Seriously, we liked so many of them, we didn’t want to cut it any further. To see the pictures, just visit the gallery section of this site or click on these links:

If you’ve read any of the previous posts, you’ve probably gathered already that we had a great trip. Southeast Asia is a really easy place to travel and it’s a trip both Katy and I would highly recommend to anyone. The people we met along the way were all very interesting, warm and welcoming.

Some of the lessons we learned along the way:

If you tend to stick to Western countries when you travel, or don’t travel much at all and are thinking about branching out a bit, Southeast Asia is a great place to start. While the languages aren’t that easy, you can get along fine with English. All three countries we visited on this trip offer a range of activities, from cultural to sitting on the beach, and they’re all really inexpensive once you take care of the international flights. Surprisingly, you can even find Western style washroom facilities everywhere and rarely have to pay to use them; Katy didn’t have to squat over a hole or carry her own stash of toilet paper with her during the entire two and half weeks. For those who travel like we do, you’ll understand how much of a luxury this is.

If you’re really adventurous you can take 2 months and travel around Southeast Asia finding lodging as you go, like Kevin and Vanessa. If you’re pressed for time, or want a little help, I’d highly recommend Gap Adventures. (I swear, I don’t get any money. They’re just good.)

Thanks to everyone that read along with us and especially those who posted comments. I’ve enjoyed writing these posts, it helps me remember everything we do and take the time to consider and appreciate it.

If you’re a glutton for punishment, I’m going to keep writing as we get ready for our next trip so feel free to keep visiting. Or, you can subscribe to receive email notifications of new posts in the top right corner of this page. Just click on the “sign me up” button.

Last day, time for a masssaaa.

It’s the last day of our trip and, as usual, it’s gone by far too quickly. We’ve packed a lot into the last two and a half weeks, but it still feels like we just left.

Our 7:00 pm flight from Krabi to Bangkok meant we had to leave for the airport around 4:00. While we considered another private hire boat tour we decided to opt for hanging out near the hotel, in part because we had to be checked out by noon.

After trying to sleep in a bit and having some breakfast we went to get massages, a.k.a. “massssaaaaaa”. The hotel had a promo that included an hour of Thai/oil massage and an additional service, e.g. a pedicure or a head and neck massage all for $10. Katy opted for the pedicure and I went for the head and neck.

Once rubbed and stretched into relaxation we dropped our bags off at the front desk and headed to the beach. Realizing that it wouldn’t take long before the sun started to get the better of us we walked down to have lunch at the last cafe on the beach, conveniently called, “The Last Cafe”. Katy even had time to pop over to see the vicious monkeys again while our order was being processed.

After lunch we split our remaining time in Ao Nang wandering the stores and lounging by the pool. The latter was a bit tricky because the people at our hotel seemed to think that it was ok to simply leave a towel on a chair by the pool all day, even if they weren’t actually around. It was so bad that people seemed to drop off towels at the pool before going to breakfast to reserve their seats for the day. This made it harder when we were trying to figure out if a towel on a chair was for someone in the pool and taken, or someone being selfish so we could move it. In the end we managed to figure it out and didn’t even get into any fights.

Ao Nang Villas.
Katy enjoying the last few minutes of pool time.

Needless to say, we were sad to see the end of the day and reluctant to leave the sun and water for the airport. In the end, common sense prevailed and we got on the shuttle to the airport.

The flight to Bangkok was uneventful and we were pleasantly surprised that our $30 per night airport hotel included a free shuttle. The hotel itself was clean, we only had to kill one bug, but other than that it was pretty much what you would expect for the price. Given that we arrived close to 10:00 pm and had to be back on the shuttle to the airport at 5:30 am, it did the job just fine.

A chance for some sleep before the marathon travel from Bangkok to Toronto begins.

Dangling from a rope on Railay Beach.

After a very relaxing first day in Ao Nang, our second day promised to be more adventurous.

Before we started the trip we had agreed to meet up with Kevin and Vanessa in Krabi. (The fact that we had already seen them in Hoi An was actually just the result of fortuitous timing as we passed through the same town.)

Railay Beach is a 10 minute longtail ride from Ao Nang and is world famous for rock climbing. We arranged to spend the afternoon climbing with Kevin and Vanessa who were staying in Railay.

They didn’t actually arrive at Railay until around noon, they were coming from another island, so Katy and I headed over early to laze about on the beach. It wasn’t quite as nice as our private patch of sand on Poda but we managed to enjoy ourselves nonetheless.

Standing on Railay Beach.

After some lunch we walked over to meet Kevin and Vanessa at King Climbers. We had booked a four hour beginner climbing trip and it turned out to be just the four of us with our two guides. Well, us and the dozen other climbers of various levels who were all climbing at the same location.

Kevin, Vanessa, Katy and me at Railay Beach

After getting set up with our gear, we walked over to see just exactly what we would be climbing. The spot they took us to could hardly have been more picturesque and I will readily admit that the first route they chose looked a little more advanced than “beginner”. After a quick rope tying and belaying lesson, we were off.

Now, Katy had never been climbing before and my only try was a decade ago indoors. Somehow doing it on real rocks makes it seem more…real. Maybe it’s the fact that there aren’t any holds designed for that purpose, or the fact that the ground isn’t padded, but I definitely experienced a little trepidation as we got started. Actually, belaying Katy made me far more nervous than climbing myself. As Kevin put it, having just been in a similar situation with Vanessa, “there is something nerve wracking about literally holding your wife’s life at the end of a rope”.

Katy climbing at Railay Beach.
Katy reaching for a hold.

If it were a couples competition, I would have to admit that Kevin and Vanessa definitely won. I take some solace in the fact that they have more experience than Katy and I. Competition aside, I can safely say that we all had a great time and left talking about doing it again at home, even if only indoors. Everyone did really well and probably climbed higher than anticipated. I definitely got higher than I expected and my forearms are not used to that kind of exercise, it still hurts a bit to type this post. If there was one thing I might be able to claim I was best at, it was descending. It seems I’m good at being lowered down like a limp rag doll.

Climbing at Railay Beach, Thailand.
I'm getting higher...

Some credit for our success definitely goes to our guide who had an excellent ability to instruct and motivate from the ground. Conveniently, he also had a peculiar hearing problem that seemed to kick in anytime someone said they felt they had done well enough and were ready to quit and come down. Oddly it cleared right up as soon as one reached the top of the chosen route.

Climbing at Railay Beach.
Believe it or not, that's what we were climbing. If you look closely you can see someone on the face.

After climbing we definitely needed to clean up, so we left Kevin and Vanessa to head to their hotel while we took a boat back to our hotel. Feeling fairly proud of ourselves, I rewarded myself with a beer on the beach and Katy and I hit the pool for the first time.

Later in the evening Kevin and Vanessa came over to Ao Nang to meet up for dinner. As you would expect from a tourist beach town, Ao Nang has lots of restaurants to choose between. The thing I noticed was the weird combinations of food styles, e.g. Swiss & Thai, or Swedish & Thai. The only explanation is that people from these countries came to Thailand and couldn’t bring themselves to leave. Eventually the money ran out so they opened restaurants with a little of their home country flavour. All that to say that when Vanessa said she felt like Indian or Thai for dinner, the obvious choice was the Indian/Thai restaurant.

It was great to be able to meet up with Vanessa and Kevin, not once but twice on this trip. I’m definitely jealous of their two month adventure and hope we can pull off something similar someday.

I can see what led all of those restaurant owners to settle down on the beach. It would be great to be able to have days like this one permanently. Unfortunately for us we only have one more day on the beach and then it’s back to cold reality.

Taking a longtail to paradise.

(I have to admit, I haven’t quite been able to keep up with these posts as we go, the more detail oriented reader may have noticed my struggles with past vs. present tense. Anyway, the last few posts will be written in transit from Bangkok to Toronto and posted as internet connection permits, likely not until we get home.)
We made it to the beach! After an early morning flight from Bangkok we arrived at our hotel on the beach in Ao Nang around 10:30 in the morning.
The only exciting part of the trip was choosing the land transfer to the hotel upon arrival. There are signs all over the Krabi airport telling you to sort your taxi out at a counter, not outside the airport. I like this, it makes me feel like it’s less likely that I’m going to get screwed. As we walked towards the counter a chorus of what sounded  distinctly like hens clucking erupted in front of us. Krabi’s airport isn’t huge, so I wouldn’t have been totally shocked if there were birds, but it was actually the women sitting at competing taxi counters trying to get our attention. After a quick laugh, and some concentration to drown out the clucking while we read the various signs, we found a shuttle bus that cost half of what a taxi would have. I figure the mad clucking is a distraction/intimidation technique designed to try and mask the existence of the shuttle.
Our hotel Ao Nang Villa Resort was pretty nice, though it doesn’t come close to the Tara Angkor in Siem Reap. Situated on the beach it offered great views from all rooms.
Our room wasn’t ready when we arrived so we dropped our bags in the luggage room and headed out right away to get a lay of the land. Though our hotel is on a relatively quiet beach front walkway, it’s only a couple of minutes on foot into town. We quickly found a tourist information booth and, after some research and competitive shopping, booked a half day rock climbing package for the following day.
With that taken care of, we could relax for the rest of the afternoon. As a past visitor Katy took me on a tour of the beach. The beach is beautiful and is lined with a few bars and about 50,000 women saying, “you wanna massaaaa”, which translates roughly to, “excuse me, would you like a massage here on the beach”. At the end of the beach there is a monkey walkway. Just to be clear you see monkeys, you don’t walk on them. One kid ignored the giant “don’t feed the monkeys for your own safety” sign. We last saw him backing slowly into the sea as his bag of monkey treats quickly emptied.
Monkey on Ao Nang.
Don't worry. That's not the kid's finger he's eating. At least I don't think so.
After getting checked into our room we decided to take a longtail boat out to some of the islands. It was too late for a group tour so we hired a private longtail to take us to Tup and Poda islands, two of Katy’s favourites from her last visit. On Poda, a short walk along the beach meant we had a spot all to ourselves.
Hanging out on Poda island.
Our next stop was Tup island. Well, sometimes it’s an island and sometimes it’s islands. As the tide rises and falls, a sandbar joins the two twice a day. Actually, I’m not even sure, they may have separate names. While we were there, the tide was at a point where you could walk across, but the water would be up to your chest. I went out about halfway before turning around, but some diligent Germans, each with a beer in hand held above their heads, walked all the way across.
Tub Island
Crossing at Tup.
As we left Tup for the return trip to Ao Nang beach, the sunset was just getting started and a group of people were setting up for a beach barbecue. We enjoyed the sunset from our boat as our driver struggled against the waves to keep us headed in the right direction.
Sunset from Ao Nang.
As an aside, the life of a longtail driver isn’t all bad. Our driver Soleil (probably not the right spelling), would take us to the requested beach, drop anchor and then stretch out his hammock for a nap, rocking in the surf under the shade of his boat.
Parking at Poda Island.
Parking at Poda Island.
That evening we strolled along the road browsing the stores before a ladyboy convinced us to stop and have dinner at his restaurant.

Racing through Bangkok… Taxi free.

Our second Day in Bangkok was my only full day, Katy having been before. So, we decided to tick off most of the Bangkok highlights in one high speed tour.

In the morning we headed out on a tour with a local guide and a few others from our group. Fortunately, given the previous evening’s adventures, our tour leader, Wen Pen (she told us pronunciation not spelling, so I could be way off on that) took us around by train and boat, not taxi.

Our little tour took us to see the Grand Palace and Wat Pho, which houses the Reclining Budha. Surprisingly, the Reclining Budha is only the third largest in Thailand, but it is the “most beautiful”.

Despite the third place ranking, it is pretty impressive at 15 meters high and 45 long.

Katy at Wat Pho.

The Grand Palace was also nice, but would have been better without the thousands of people. If I’m being picky, a few degrees cooler would have been nice. In the Grand Palace we had to wear shoes and cover our legs to the ankles, so we were way over dressed for the weather. There is a lot to see at the Grand Palace, but one thing that struck me was a building that blended European (French) and Thai architecture.

Grand Palace architecture.

After lunch at a local restaurant that Wen Pen recommended, most people went back to the hotel to rest. As we were leaving Bangkok early the next morning, we were off to the races instead. In a couple of hours we visited the Golden Mount, less golden and moutainous than I expected; the Giant Swing which doesn’t have a swing connected; Democracy Monument, twice; and a return to Khao San Road. Khao San Road is backpacker central which makes for some cheap shopping and good people watching.

Khoa San Road

After all that we made it back to the hotel just in time to have a quick shower before joining the rest of the Gap Adventures travellers for a final dinner together. For dinner we took a cruise down the Chao Phraya River. While it was fine, it’s not what I would pick for a final dinner. It’s a bit cheesy and the music and entertainment made it difficult to speak to most of our group. Fortunately, after dinner we all reconvened in the lobby for a drink to say our goodbyes.

It’s been another great trip and, as we’ve come to expect, those travelling with us were half the fun. It was another diverse, but relaxed group that was up for different experiences and easy to travel with. It’s a safe bet that we will continue to be regular Gap Adventures travelers in the future.

Our merry band. From left to right. Back row: Katy, me, Eddie, Russell. Front row: Mary, Trisha, Marjorie, Maggi, and Shanta.

The end of the tour means were off to the beach in Ao Nang for some sun and relaxation.

Bangkok taxi drivers make bid for world’s worst.

After a last taste of the relative tranquility of Siem Reap by the pool in the morning, it was time to head to the buzz of Bangkok.

I’ll say it up front, Bangkok is not my favourite city in the world. It is massive, not that clean or organized, and i find it lacks much redeeming charm. Still, it’s worth a visit all the same.

Our first day in Bangkok wasn’t a busy one. After our flight and transfer to the hotel we were somewhat tired, due in part I think to the heat and humidity (35 C). After checking-in we had a drink by the pool on the roof of the hotel. I went the safe route and had a beer. Maggi and Mary were a little more adventurous putting unwarranted faith in the hotel staff. Apparently a Pims No. 1 in Thailand is just a shot of Pims and a Campari was similarly botched. Not exactly the refreshing fruit-filled drinks they were hoping for.

We went to dinner at a restaurant on the river, the name of which I never did figure out, as it was only in Thai. The food was good and it was pleasant to sit by the river on such a hot evening.

Getting there, however, was another matter. There we five us going to dinner, Russell and Trisha, Katy and me, and Shane. We decided to take a taxi to get to the restaurant rather than the train and boat. This seemed like reasonable idea. Shane estimated that it would cost us about 85 baht (around $3) per taxi on the meter and that we would need two taxis for the five of us. So, just over $1 per person and we’d be there in 30 minutes.

Russell and Trisha got in the first taxi to come along and all seemed to be going according to plan. Then we ran into a problem. It turns out that taxi drivers in Bangkok are assholes. When we stopped a taxi for the three of us to follow, as soon as we told him where we wanted to go, he waved his hand and said he wouldn’t take us. Despite the fact that this is actually illegal, let alone a bit rude, this was repeated about ten more times over the next 20 minutes. Shane explained that the problem was their ability to get a fare coming back out of the area we were going to. While somewhat understandable, it didn’t do much to reduce the frustration.

Eventually, fearing that Russell and Trisha would be left standing alone in front of the restaurant, we agreed to pay a taxi driver 200 baht off meter for the trip, more than double what it should cost. A bit ironic as Shane told us all when we arrived in Bangkok to make sure the meter was always on if we got in a taxi.

Once in the taxi we we’re immediately caught in traffic, at one point sitting still for 15 minutes. For his part our taxi driver did little to inspire confidence, repeatedly banging his forehead as if punishing himself for agreeing to take us. Then, when we did find some open road, he flew through downtown Bangkok at 100 km/hr.

Meanwhile, Russell and Trisha were having their own adventures. Their driver didn’t really seem to know the way. Despite their 20 minute head start they caught us from behind at one point.

In the end we all made it to the restaurant safely. (Russell and Trisha arrived 15 minutes after us.)

The unknown restaurant.

For the taxi ride home, we decided it was best not to split up and crammed into one taxi. The cost, 85 baht.

The lesson: If you want a Bangkok experience, take a taxi. If you want to reach your destination quickly and without hassle, stick to the sky train and boats.

A humbling day with Rady.

Fortunately, our last full day in Siem Reap started a little later than the previous day, giving us a chance to sleep in just a bit and have a nice big breakfast.

We spent the morning visiting a few more temples: Preah Khan, Neak Pean, Pre Rup, and East Mebon. At Neak Pean we met a little girl who was very happy with the bananas our local guide Kerry gave her.

The joy of a banana.

While all interesting, I have to admit that we just didn’t know enough to appreciate the smaller differences. We get things like transitions from brick to sandstone, but eventually a bit of temple fatigue set in and we were ready for lunch.

In the afternoon we had the opportunity to visit one of the floating villages, Kongpong Pluk, and to see a more “authentic” side of Cambodia, away from the tourists and their money. We were particularly fortunate to have been taken on our journey by Rady Rure in his tuk tuk. We were connected with Rady by Neil H., a Gap Adventures employee we had met in Toronto at the Ignite the Night fundraiser for a Cambodian eye centre that Gap held in the fall.

On the road with Rady.

Rady’s story is a great one that illustrates the huge impact that one act of kindness can have. I won’t do it justice here so please watch the video below that Neil put together. My short version is that while traveling in Siem Reap, Neil and his wife were taken aback by all of the poverty. When they met Rady, the decided to do something. Initially this was helping to pay his tuition fees for university and eventually raising money among their friends back in Toronto to help Rady by a tuk tuk so he could be self-sustaining.

Today, Rady not only drives his tuk tuk, he also teaches English at a school and even started his own School of English for the disadvantaged that currently has 160 students enrolled and four Australian volunteers on staff to help.

The village he took us to is a little further away, about an hour by tuk tuk. One thing that caught us off guard on the ride out was when Rady pulled over to the side of the road. We had seen stands with old bottles of Johnnie Walker, mostly red label, with what I thought was moonshine in them. When Rady pulled over we found out that they were actually filled with petrol. For those thinking about going into the business, a tuk tuk takes about two Johnnie Walker bottles of petrol to fill.

A JW top up for the tuk tuk.

Because the village was a little further away from town there weren’t a lot of tourists, I think we saw four all afternoon, so it felt like we were getting a glimpse into real life in rural Cambodia.

The first thing that struck me was that with water levels at a historic low, the floating village was actually more of a village in the sky with houses towering over us on stilts as we went down the river to the lake and back. As we went down the river there were men, all usually up to their necks in water, fishing. Rady told us they were fishing primarily for catfish. They would throw the large weighted nets into the water and then swim in and pull them back to shore. the fishermen are all farmers who fish during the dry season to feed their families.

Getting an early start on fishing.

Rady himself is an incredibly kind and warm person, so we were really lucky to have him show us around. He said that he came from a village a lot like the one we visited, though even further from Siem Reap. He said that without the help from Neil and his family, he would be one of these fisherman. He would be working with his body rather than his mind, the thing he likes most about his life today.

As we came back down the river, we hopped off the boat to walk through the village. With no water there was a main “street” running between two rows of houses, all with long ladders where we have walkways. The village children were very hospitable, greeting us with a chorus of “bye”s both coming and going.

The bye bye gang.

As luck had it, we were in town on a wedding day. There was a massive tent running down a large section of the central street and as we passed through a loud speaker was calling members of the grooms family to come out. As we were getting ready to get back on our boat, the groom and what I think were his groomsmen, were walking down the street in bright pink. Unfortunately they weren’t that close so I didn’t get a better picture.

Wedding Day Kongpong Pluk.
Wedding day in Kongpong Pluk.

It was really eye opening to walk through the village and reminded us how much stuff we have and how much we take for granted. The afternoon was a great experience, if a little overwhelming. It felt a bit wrong as we said our goodbyes to Rady only to go sit by the pool at our hotel and venture into town for dinner.

Rady may not be tall, but he’s doing big things.

We finished the day feeling that we need to follow Neil’s example and look for ways that we can be more than just observers when we travel. Personally, having seen what a difference a little money (relatively speaking) can make, I want to take a closer look at things like Kiva micro financing.

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