Reflecting on 2 years in Cambodia

// I love milestones because they give me a chance to reflect and disrupt my day-to-day routine and forward-oriented thinking.

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Sihanoukville, Kampot and Kep: 7 days and 6 nights

Cambodia’s provinces. (Credit to wikimedia. Click on image.)

I’ve been avoiding Sihanoukville because: a) I’m from Hawaii, therefore a beach snob (okay, I have high standards), b) it’s either a 12-14 hour bus ride (no, thank you) or an expensive plane ticket, and c) I’ve heard that it’s a seedy beach town that caters to male travellers (yeahhh).

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Beyond Pub Street: where to eat in Siem Reap

Short noodles at Malis. So Khmer.

 

Pub Street can be overwhelming and crowded and once you’ve taken a turn around there, it’s nice to go somewhere else to eat. Now, don’t get me wrong. There are some good restaurants in that area, and we occasionally stop by, but since living here, we’ve found a whole other world of eats beyond Pub Street.

Continue reading “Beyond Pub Street: where to eat in Siem Reap”

What to do + what to buy when you get sick in SE Asia

Hey, I’m on holiday! I don’t want to get sick! [Angkor Heart Bungalows, Siem Reap, Cambodia 2017]

I was quite ignorant about sickness and health when I first moved to SE Asia back in 2009. Yes, I had gotten a nasty bout of food poisoning when I traveled to Thailand when I was 16, but I didn’t know that getting sick is a regular thing for explorers and expats here. Yes, a regular thing.

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Chiang Mai versus Siem Reap: an expat weighs in

Chiang Mai ,Thailand (L) versus Siem Reap, Cambodia (R) roads.

Folks have been asking for this one for a long time, but I never felt ready until my latest Thailand visit. Originally, I was going to do a Thailand versus Cambodia post, but then I realized both countries can be quite varied depending on where you are at. So, it made more sense to compare cities rather than countries.

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Living with lizards: a love story

Cambodian Tokay gecko
A Tokay gecko with its classic rust spots and blue coloring outside our apartment (Siem Reap, 2016)

If you ask SE Asians what they are afraid of, they will most likely say: ghosts, snakes and lizards. Since I grew up in Hawaii, I can certainly understand why ghosts would be a legitimate concern. Ghost stories are very much part of Hawaiian culture, whether this be a modern development or something that spans back into earlier times, I wouldn’t know, but Hawaii people love a good ghost story and we’ve got them in plenty.

And snakes, of course, they seemed to be universally feared. Farmers often come across them in the fields. They are common and let’s face it, kind of scary. I’ve had them sneak in to my house in Thailand, too. Heck, I’ve got a couple of ‘snake in the house stories’ from back in the States, as well. We might even instinctively fear snakes.

But lizards and geckos? Why would Thais and Khmers fear them? It took a little sleuthing, but I eventually figured out through talking to many students over the years, and discovering why on my own. But I must confess, I still don’t get it. I like lizards. I suppose it goes back to being raised in Hawaii where geckos are common, not feared and part of the everyday landscape.

As children, we used to go lizard hunting. We never hurt them, but catching them can be quite difficult. My younger brother was great at it. We did this outside as I cannot imagine trying to catch them in the house as they scale walls. So, while I never enjoyed a childhood winter, I was lucky to have played outside all year around, climbing trees, running, bicycling, and thriving in a tropical climate (free of snakes I might add, Hawaii does not have them).

After we caught them, we held the lizards gently, but firmly between our thumb and index finger just below their necks so they can’t bite you. We knew how to open their mouths and we pretended they talked when we held them up. Then we let them go.

I watched one hatch from its egg once. I noticed that a mom had put them in one of the holes of a volcanic rock. Curious, I poked at it and in surprise saw that it was opening. I was afraid that I had hurt the little guy, but after he was free from his shell, he scurried off. Just one of those kid moments, I guess, where you are in-tune with your environment.

Chiang Rai house gecko
We rescued this sprout from our fridge! So glad we found him in time! (Chiang Rai, 2014)

So, it turns out that these little buggers sometimes fall on you and that’s why SE Asians don’t like them. It can be startling. I had it happened when I was washing the dishes, but I didn’t scream. I did recognize after that moment how that might scare people though.

The mating noises (that sound like kissing/chirping sounds) they make are also peculiar. Especially in a dark house, I could see how it might seem a bit spooky or even bothersome. But honestly, I think it’s the large Tokay geckos that most SE Asians fear. They are mighty defenders and have a way of getting into your house. Did I mention lizards are ubiquitous?

When I first moved into my cat cave (aka wooden house in the bamboo woods) in Chiang Mai, I couldn’t believe how much nature got into my house. When I squeezed a mop, a frog jumped out, mosquitos hungrily dined on my flesh, cicadas buzzed so loudly in the trees I thought there could not be a louder insect in the whole wide world until I heard the frogs (I know, not insects) in the nearby pond – now they were a force to be reckon with!

Cambodian tree frog
Beautiful and not noisy when he is not with his friends, in a pond, having a party. (Siem Reap, 2016)

Unfortunately, my cats liked to ‘play with them’ and by ‘play with them’ I mean, claw and kill. They were however, proficient at killing little field mice so I suppose they earned their keep. Although, I really needed them to do their work when a hearty Tokay found its way into my upstairs bathroom. And here, dear readers, is when I discovered why they are so feared.

I should mention that I did have one in the cat cave bedroom when I first moved in, and it was a little scary to know that it lived behind the wardrobe, but I also knew it had to go out on its own time. Eventually, I coaxed him out. (We don’t have Tokays in Hawaii and I’m not used to large lizards!)

BKK monitor lizard
These monitor lizards live in Lumphini Park and if you call someone a monitor lizard in Thai, it’s extremely insulting. And yeah, THESE guys are beasts. [Bangkok, 2007]
Right. So, the one in the bathroom would not get out. This I found terrifying because he opened his mouth in defense, was large and looked freaky scary and I used this toilet often. I wanted the cats to be useful and chase him out, so I threw the first cat into the bathroom. He nonchalantly sauntered back out. Then I tossed the second cat in there. He, too, promptly left.

Next, I tried holding Romeo as close as possible to the Tokay. But Romeo, my fighter, would have nothing to do with the lizard that knew better and stood still with his jaws wide open. I fetched Pippin, and by this time was sweating in stress and nerves, plus the cats were on the generous side, so I was getting quite the workout. I held him to eye level with the Tokay, but Pippin simply left, again.

I grabbed a broom and tried to shoo the Tokay out. Luckily, he snapped on to the broom bristles allowing me to carry him out while he clamped on snapdragon tight. The distance from the toilet to the outside patio never seemed father. I’m glad he never let go. Who knows what would have happened. Okay, I got it. Tokays are terrifying when backed up in defense and in your house…and on the other end of a broom that you are holding.

Interestingly, my now-boyfriend, but then new coworker, loves lizards, fish and frogs. He had them as pets. (Okay, he raised and bred them. He’s hardcore.) But I didn’t know this about him yet.

Well, one day, he decided to have a little fun with me and he stuck a toy rubber Tokay lizard on my work locker. I guess he wanted to see me scream or something, as those toys are made exactly for that purpose and you can get them at the market. Instead, I saw it, laughed then stuck it on my back shoulder and taught my following classes with the dang thing on me.

The rest you might say is history, heh, heh. We eventually moved in together and when we lived in Chiang Rai, our first house was a kind of Tokay haven. We lived in a traditional wooden house and I remember at one point we had about 4 or 5 coming into the kitchen. I have to admit that was enough for me. I don’t mind an occasional one, but they were outnumbering the humans. The bf, on the other hand, was delighted.

I’m not sure if you know this, but geckos are unique in that they make noises. (Lizards don’t, maybe the big ones hiss.) So, not just the house gecko, but the fearsome Tokay talk. Tokays are known to make a noise like, “toh-kay!” hence the name. The bf likes to make this noise in public places like grocery stores, much to my embarassment.

Okay, now obviously these are not the rubber Tokay toys, but crocheted ones we found at the market in Thailand. So cute!
Okay, now obviously these are not the rubber Tokay toys, but crocheted ones we found at the market in Thailand. So cute!

Anyway, when we were in Chiang Rai, our neighbors found one in their house (they had a 2 year old), and they came over to fetch the bf because they knew he loved them and they didn’t want to hurt it. Good people! Eventually, the men-folk got it out safely.

The sad thing is the Chinese want Tokays for their bullshit medicine. Here:

“the consumption of [the] gecko works like a charm on helping deliver baby boy only and curing ED (erectile dysfunction).”

I know, right? I’m so wrong in believing its crap. Ugh.

Okay, something else you might not know, we name our geckos. One of them we call Cornelius (a house gecko) because we caught him in the toaster with a dried corn kernel in his mouth. They normally eat bugs, so this is highly unusual, but we’re thinking they are adapting to human food as they often go in our trash to forage. The Tokays around the apartment are called Gladys and Georgina. And our Asian painted frog we call Frethel. How our frogs get up to the second floor, I’ll never know. The stairs?

On Friday, during my 6am class, we were in the computer room, so I decided to run up to the loo. There I saw a baby Tokay in the stall. And I knew that the little guy would not last in there. The front door is heavy and always is shut. He would most likely get screamed at or smashed in the door and there are no windows, just an evil fan that runs into the men’s restroom.

I went back to my class and told them about the Tokay. They looked at me like I was mad, but I was used to this as I like the very thing so many of them fear. After a short time, I decided I needed to rescue it. So I went back up and tried to catch it with a towel. And because it was so tiny, I was able to do it! Then I tried to get the little guy to go out the slats in the hallway. One of the cleaners asked what I was doing, then a coworker, but eventually, I was successful.

When I returned to class with a photo of my rescued friend, one of my students flinched away from the picture and covered her face with her hair. The rest of the class was slightly amused, I think. It doesn’t matter. I hope he’s okay. I know he didn’t want to be outside that cold morning, but the ladies WC is no safe place.

Rescued! Poor thing was terrified. I hope he's okay!
Rescued! Poor thing was terrified. I hope he’s okay!

Do you like lizards?

Day trip to Kulen Mountain!

looking-down-from-the-kulen-mt
Looking down from Kulen Mountain, really, really lovely.

Just like Tonle Sap, I’ve wanted to check out Kulen Mountain for some time. But it can be expensive, so I’ve been waiting for the right opportunity. And said opportunity finally came a’knockin’ on my front door this month when my friend’s sister was visiting. Gotta love visitors!

Kulen Mountain or Phnom Kulen (Mountain of the Lychees) is considered a sacred site, as well as the birthplace to the Khmer Empire. It’s most known though for its lovely waterfall and archaeological ruins, such as the River of One Thousand Lingas, and a 16th century Buddhist monastery, boasting the country’s largest reclining Buddha.

Located about 2 hours from Siem Reap, Kulen Mountain, in my opinion, can be worth the planning and the cost if you have both the money and the time. However, there’s conflicting information regarding the cost. Some claim the $20 entrance fee is a scam, others say you can get in the park at $12 if a Khmer purchases the tickets, and lastly, you can attempt to hike up the mountain to avoid any cost whatsoever.

Now, we did try our darndest to get out of the $20 fee by asking around, you know to sleuth out the truth, but in the end, we ended up purchasing our tickets in advance through one of the hotels. (I think most foreigners would feel better paying the $20 if it was actually going towards preservation, but alas, we all know how these things work.) Regardless, I’m sure you could purchase your tickets on the same day you are going depending on when the ticket office opens up, as you will drive by it.

You could also make it worth your dollar by spending more time and visiting more sites than we did. Anyway…

On weekends and holidays, Kulen is particularly crowded, but if you leave early you can avoid the crowds. We left at 7 am and returned around 3 pm. And let me tell you, after we got to enjoy the waterfall mostly to ourselves, it got waaaay crowded with tourists and locals alike. This probably happened around lunchtime. I was glad to get out of the water by then.

There were 9 of us so we split the cost of a van which was $70. We hadn’t bothered asking for a discount since we got the driver through a friend. But as you can already tell, this isn’t a budget trip (at least for English teachers, eh?!). In any case, if you are interested in using Ra, who speaks good English and is a safe driver, and as far as we could tell a reliable one, too, his number is: 095.585.885.

ra-and-me
Funnily, Ra recognized me from Mia and I’s “learn to speak Thai” YouTube videos. This also happened last year at Angkor Wat when a guide came up to me…so maybe this will be a once a year occurance 😉
steps-to-preah-ang-thom
After the relatively smooth drive up to the top of Kulen, our first stop was Preah Ang Thom. I was surprised to see that the steps leading up to the big Buddha were lined with grandmas, goat heads (okay, I saw two, too many for me!) and money exchangers.
preh-ang-thom-offerings
The grounds were dotted with areas of worship, snacks (got to have ’em), monks awaiting to exchange with you and…
musicians!
Musicians! It was actually quite loud, I’m not sure how they got such good accoustics, must be the natural surroundings.
musician
Even when we moved away from the crowds, there was still the sound of music playing. This man (whose ‘third eye tattoo’ fascinated me) was beautifully playing the “tro ou” , a kind of fiddle.
It was up more stairs to the reclining Buddha and his many friends...just kidding, these smaller carvings were at the base of the statue.
It was up more stairs to the reclining Buddha and his many friends…just kidding, these smaller carvings were at the base of the statue.
It was challenging to try to photograph the entire reclining Buddha, so I opted for his head. I rather liked how it came out, too!
It was challenging to try to photograph the entire reclining Buddha, so I opted for his head. I rather liked how it came out, too!
He was fast asleep, until he woke up to see me taking a picture of him. I know, I'm terrible, but if you follow me on Instagram, you know how I love to take pics of people sleeping.
He was fast asleep, until he woke up to see me taking a picture of him. I know, I’m terrible, but if you follow me on Instagram, you know how I love to take pics of people sleeping.
On the way down from the Buddha, we were greeted with a spectacular view! [some of the van gang pictured here]
On the way down from the Buddha, we were greeted with a spectacular view!
Our next stop was the River of One Thousand Lingas (and yonis). It's the rainy season so I don't know if you can see very well, but the river bottom is entirely covered with male and female anatomy.
Our next stop was the River of One Thousand Lingas (and yonis). It’s the rainy season so I don’t know if you can see it very well, but the river bottom is entirely covered with male and female anatomy carvings. No doubt, a man’s idea…
Two boys were playing with their bows and arrows! It was so adorable.
Two boys were playing with their bows and arrows! It was so adorable.

waterfall-one-kulen-mt
The waterfall area was way more developed with outdoor restaurants and snacks than I expected, but this is a popular destination, so what was I thinking? [waterfall area 1]
I should mention here that once we got to the waterfall, I changed cameras, to my waterproof one. It doesn’t take the best pics, and let’s face it, water photography is it’s own genre. I’m not going to pretend I’m any good at it.

OMG. The water was freezing. So shocking after walking around in the heat. And so.much.fun.

There are changing stalls at the bottom of the metal stairs (50 cents per person), although folks get real creative. Like the Chinese guy who sat on our rented footlocker with his girlfriend standing in front of him, as he wiggled off his underroos. Sure, he was wearing a modestly-sized scarf his gf had wrapped around his waist, but as his bare bottom sat on the footlocker as he tried to discreetly change into his swimming trunks, I tried not to think about his package resting on the cold metal and me having to touch it again in order to open up the locker.

Damn it. I should have taken a picture, would have been easier to explain.

Innertubes, footlockers to keep your stuff, modest coverups for the ladies (no Khmers dare swim in bikinis) can be rented for $1.
Innertubes, footlockers to keep your stuff in, modest coverups for the ladies (no Khmers dare swim in bikinis) can be rented for $1.

By the way, how tall do you think this waterfall is? It’s 10-15 meters or 33-50 feet tall!

Of course, there are trinkets and such to buy on Kulen. While we didn't buy anything, we did get a few snacks along the way.
Of course, there are trinkets and such to buy on Kulen. While we didn’t buy anything, we did get a few snacks along the way. Most folks bring their own food. So we packed a little picnic and brought plenty of water.

Did I miss anything?

When’s the last time you swam in a waterfall? Wooooweeee!