Friday, December 28, 2012

Top 9 Things To Do In Siem Reap

It's pretty safe to say I love the town of Siem Reap. After spending two months there it really began to feel like home to me. But whether you're staying for a few months or just a few days, the city has plenty of activities to keep you busy!

1. Explore Angkor Wat.
This one is a no-brainer; you should at least spend one day seeing the temples. A one, three and seven day pass cost $20, $40 and $60, respectively. Dress conservatively (cover your knees and shoulders) because there are certain parts of the temples you will not be permitted to visit if you don't. It's a good idea to bring water and snacks; you can get food and drinks around the temples but it will be more expensive. Don't forget to charge your camera battery!

2. See Tonle Sap Lake.
This is the largest lake in all of Southeast Asia and it has a lot to offer. You can go birdwatching to see some very rare breeds of birds, or take a trip to the Vietnamese floating villages. I personally didn't do any of these tours as I didn't hear amazing things about them (they've become very popular in the last few years and as a result you will likely be pressured into buying tacky souvenirs or giving money to a charity) but I really enjoyed just going to the lake to meander around the little town and see all of the houses that are built on stilts over the water.

3. Visit the Landmine Museum.
Located about 30km outside of Siem Reap, this museum is well worth a visit for anyone wanting to learn more about landmines and the impact they have on Cambodia. The museum was founded by a man named Aki Ra, director of the NGO Cambodian Self Help Demining and one of the leading de-miners in the country. Most of museum's proceeds go towards the orphanage that Aki Ra runs for about 50 children, many of whom have been impacted by landmines in one way or another. I was lucky enough to get the chance to meet Aki Ra and visit an active landmine field - click here to read about my experience.

4. Go roller skating at the Angkor Trade Center. 
At the top of the ATC mall there is a roller rink where, for $1.25, you can skate around to your heart's content. The rental skates were the smelliest and most uncomfortable I'd ever worn but I had such a good time. The best part was all the locals there; families, groups of friends, teenagers on dates... I really felt like I was getting a glimpse of a tourist free activity, a rarity in a town like Siem Reap. Don't forget socks. To see more of my photos click here.

5. Get a Fish Massage.
It would be impossible to visit Siem Reap without being asked if you want to try a fish massage. It gets annoying, and is a great motivation to learn "no thank you" in Khmer (otay awkun!) but having hungry fish nibble away at the dead skin on your feet is definitely worth trying. Plus it actually works! My feet had never felt so soft.

6. Go INSIDE the Old Market.
If you spend any time in Siem Reap you will undoubtedly pass the Old Market, located pretty much right in the middle of town. The perimeter of the market is lined with stall after stall selling the same tacky souvenirs. Once you're inside however, you'll find more local goods, produce and food - much more interesting!

7. Dance the night away at Angkor What.
If you're planning on going out at all in Siem Reap you should at least stop by Angkor What, a Pub Street institution. Buy any two buckets and you'll get a complimentary Angkor What t-shirt!

8. Go for a tuk-tuk ride in the countryside.
The town of Siem Reap is lovely but so is the countryside surrounding it. Hiring a tuk-tuk for a few hours to go exploring should cost you no more than $10 or $15 and you are guaranteed to see some stunning scenery and authentic villages.

9. Volunteer.
Obviously not everyone is able to do this, but Siem Reap is an amazing place to volunteer. That being said you do have to be careful about where you choose to volunteer, especially when it comes to orphanages (a topic I wrote about here). It's best if you are able to stay a few weeks or a month, but the longer the better! Consistency is key, especially if you are teaching as you are able to develop better relationships and build more trust with your students.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

What $5/Night Will Get You On Koh Phangan

Compared to other places in Southeast Asia the Thai islands really aren't that cheap, especially around the holidays. Here on Koh Phangan, most budget accommodation starts at about 300 baht* and can double or even triple around Christmas and New Years. You can imagine my surprise when I found accommodation for a mere 150 baht/$5 US, which is pretty unheard of here. Although it's cheap I'm definitely getting what I'm paying for. This is what $5 gets you on Koh Phangan:

My own little bungalow

Shared bathrooms

Again, I'm getting what I'm paying for

A pretty decent common area!

It's nothing fancy but I really don't need fancy. It's cheap, clean, close to the beach - it does the job.
Plus when I save money by staying somewhere inexpensive I can justify spending a little more on other things, like the occasional massage! It kinda feels like camping but I'm enjoying my little bungalow, and the price is definitely right.

* 30 baht = $1 US

Monday, December 24, 2012

Merry Christmas!

Being away from home at Christmas is a concept I'm pretty familiar with. I spent Christmas of 2009 in Italy, albeit with my family plus a hoard of Italian cousins I had never met. Last Christmas I was somewhere in the middle of the Pacific Ocean working on a cruise ship and partying with people from all over the world that I'd met only a few days prior. This year I am in Thailand on the island of Koh Phangan where I had planned on celebrating Christmas by attending a Full Moon Party. Unfortunately, I have been sick as a dog the last couple of days (high fever, unbelievably painful aches all over my body, etc.) which left me stuck in bed last night (Christmas Eve) and will likely keep me there tonight (Christmas Day) as well. It's not exactly how I envisioned spending Christmas but as everyone knows, traveling (and life in general) rarely goes as planned.

I want to wish my family and friends around the world a very Merry Christmas from Thailand! I miss and love you all and will be thinking of you lots today.

Merry Christmas from the Thai islands!

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Nothing At All

The last few weeks have kept me pretty busy. From researching and planning the next leg of my trip to wrapping things up in Cambodia followed by five straight days of diving in Koh Tao... I couldn’t remember the last time I just had a “chill” day which, no matter if you’re at home or on the road, everybody needs from time to time. Yesterday however, that day came.

We had all attended the Half Moon Party on Friday night which meant that nobody was in great shape come Saturday. The day was spent largely on the couch eating, going on the computer and watching “Love Actually”. The fact that nothing significant happened that day is exactly what made it so significant; it felt incredible to have a day with no plans, no agenda, no teaching and no lugging a heavy backpack around but just hanging out. On an actual couch. It was a good day.


Thursday, December 20, 2012

Under The Sea (Part II)

As per my last post, I completed my open water diver certification on the island of Koh Tao. I enjoyed it so much that I decided to stay an extra couple of days and complete the "advanced adventurer" course, which allows me to dive down to 30m and do night dives as well. I stuck with Big Blue Diving, the same company I did my open water course with, which meant another two nights free accommodation and a 10% discount on the advanced course which ended up costing me about $255.

Andreas (the guy who took all these pictures) and I

The course consisted of 5 dives where we practiced skills such as buoyancy (trying to float at the proper level is much harder than it looks!) and navigation (which, unsurprisingly, I am lousy at). We also got to do a night dive which was unlike anything I had done before; our only source of light was from flashlights!

The diving equivalent of a thumbs up!

 My favourite dive was the deep dive, where we went down to 30m. At that depth some of us felt the effects of nitrogen narcosis (also known as "getting narc'd" in diver speak) which happens when you breathe air that has become super compressed. Effects can include disorientation, feelings of anxiety or giddiness. I didn't experience any of these but one guy in my group kept trying to offer his spare regulator (the device you breathe out of - every diver has two) to our instructor even though she didn't need it! It was pretty funny.

The group!

Suffice to say I've become a fan of diving. I'm now on the island of Koh Phagnan where I plan on doing a couple more dives on Christmas Eve. In addition to spending some more time under water and relaxing on the beach I also plan on attending a
Full Moon Party on Christmas Day, an event that has made Koh Phagnan famous around the world. It's shaping up to be a pretty memorable holiday!

*All of these pictures were taken by a guy in my diving course, not by me!*

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Under The Sea

When Sebastien told Ariel that life was better under the sea I think he was right. This week I completed my open water diver certification course on the island of Koh Tao, one of the most well-known and cheapest places to dive in the world. Many people come to learn how to dive but end up loving it so much that they become instructors and never leave; now I can understand why.

6:30 AM dive

I got my certification at Big Blue Diving Resort. It cost $300 (which included four nights accommodation), took three days and included four dives. There were 6 of us in the class from all over the world: the Netherlands, Belgium, Brazil and Spain, plus a Finnish instructor.

Big Blue Diving

We started off in the pool to learn the basics skills and get a feel for the equipment, then into the ocean we went. I had no idea how cool it would feel to get to spend an extended amount of time underwater seeing all kinds of exotic marine life. Divers aren't able to speak to one another using words (they use hand signals instead) which creates and incredibly calm and peaceful environment (unless you get told off by the instructor's hands for doing something wrong!) It was definitely one of the most extraordinary experiences I have had in my travels thus far.

'Twins' dive site

So I now have my open water diver certification, which means I am qualified to dive up to 18m pretty much anywhere in the world. I liked diving so much that I actually decided to stay on Koh Tao an extra two days and do my advanced open water certification which will allow me to dive down to 30m and include more interesting dives, such as ship wrecks and night dives. Not a bad way to spend the week before Christmas if you ask me!

Off on our early morning dive

On the boat

The whole crew

"Just look at the world around you
Right here on the ocean floor
Such wonderful things surround you
What more is you lookin' for?
Under the sea
Darling it's better
Down where it's wetter
Take it from me
Up on the shore they work all day
Out in the sun they slave away
While we devotin'
Full time to floatin'
Under the sea"

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Markets of Bangkok

To be blunt I wasn't a huge fan of Bangkok. I didn't find the people to be friendly, I felt like almost everyone was trying (and in some cases succeeding) to rip me off and it was just too much for me in general. But having just left Cambodia, a country that I loved and felt comfortable in, I realize that I wasn't in the best frame of mind to be in a city as lively and intense as Bangkok. On top of that I only stayed two days, which really isn't enough time to form a proper opinion on a place. Rather than go on and on about why I didn't care too much for Bangkok I thought I'd focus on what I did like: two of its markets.

The Flower Market
I spent a very pleasant few hours meandering around The Flower Market, a local market with everything your standard market would have (produce, meat, etc.) but that specializes in amazing floral arrangements. I didn't see many tourists which was a nice change from the crazy Khao San Road and encountered some pretty friendly Thais, including a lady who actually gave me a flower she made out of rose petals after I admired her work.

The Damnoen Saduak Floating Market
As the name suggests this market "floats", meaning that almost everything from bowls of noodles to bananas is sold from ladies in boats in narrow little canals. It actually reminded me of an Asian Venice.  My favourite part of the day was wandering away from the market and into the residential area where people actually live in wooden houses right on top of the river. I came across locals lounging, praying, even brushing their teeth. Because I saw no other tourists in this area it felt a little like I was "trespassing" but almost every one of my smiles was returned. Albeit touristy, this floating market was really picturesque and I'm glad I took the time to visit it.

Bangkok wasn't for me but I'm not ready to give up on Thailand just yet. I'm now on the island of Koh Tao and am loving the relaxed atmosphere and my beachfront guesthouse. Looking forward to starting my open water diving course!

Monday, December 10, 2012

See You When You See Me

I'm about to go to sleep for the last time in my bed, my room, my guesthouse and what now feels like my city. It seems as though I've said this a million times already but I love Cambodia and am incredibly sad to be leaving. The goodbyes are by far the worst part. Saying goodbye to my students, friends around town and the other teachers was bad enough but I'm actually dreading saying goodbye to the guesthouse staff in the morning, who have become like my family.

All of that being said I feel confident that it's time for me to move on. Siem Reap is definitely a place I can picture myself living at some point but not just yet. There is still so much more I want to see and do before I commit to staying in one place for an extended period of time. Now is the time to get out of my comfort zone and into a new country with a new language, different customs and unfamiliar faces.

As the Khmers say, "see you when you see me" Cambodia - I'll be back! Next up: Thailand, Malaysia and Japan, stay tuned!

Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Last Week

The time has come for me to leave Siem Reap. My last week here has been wonderful but also extremely busy (which is why I haven't posted anything lately!) Here is a recap of what I've been up to:

Teaching English in a village
I have a Khmer friend named Soupoan who works at a guesthouse in town where I like to eat breakfast (that's how I met her). We got to talking one day and after telling her that I was teaching English in Siem Reap, she invited me out to her village (which is about 30 minutes outside of the city by moto) to see the English class she teaches to local kids. This week I finally went and was amazed. Keep in mind that Soupoan is not a teacher, she already works six days a week and takes English classes of her own but somehow she manages to spend two hours every night teaching English to about 30 kids. Needless to say she is an incredibly hard worker and has so many great ideas of how to improve life in her village.

The kids she teaches are amazing as well. Their 'classroom' consists of a single white board propped up against a tree and a tarp to sit on but if they're unhappy you'd never know it. They were friendly, outgoing and eager to learn. I actually ended up teaching the class both Monday and Wednesday night and thoroughly enjoyed it.

Soupoan and I

The students!

Trying not to cry on my last day at school

I have been teaching at SHAC for almost two months now and have gotten to know a lot of the kids pretty well. Leaving was, obviously, not fun or easy. The kids were incredibly sweet and showered me with gifts consisting of drawings and notes, hair clips, flowers, pens and even a necklace (made out of a brastrap, I think! Very creative). I am really going to miss them.

Note the clips in my hair and my necklace..

Kids saying goodbye to Teacher Alex

Reaksa presenting me with my certificate

One last high five

Cooking an Italian feast for the guesthouse staff
On Friday night a couple of the teachers and I decided to cook a dinner for our guesthouse staff to say thank you for how kind and welcoming they've been. Since one of the teachers is from Rome and a very proficient cook we decided on pasta. The guesthouse kitchen is pretty limited which made cooking slightly stressful and I don't think any of the Cambodians loved the pasta (a pretty crazy looking meal when all you eat is rice) but everybody had a good time.

Amanda (the head chef) with some of the staff

Margarida and I chopping with our favourite guesthouse kids

Iveta and I slicing bread

Setting the table

The finished product!

They ate some pasta but the rice was also being eaten...

Helping throw a party at an orphanage

This one may sound a bit strange seeing as I just wrote a post about the negative side of orphanages but this one is really well organized. It's run by a man named Bel, who lost his leg due to a landmine at age seven, his wife and a small group of other people. Some of the other teachers have been volunteering there on the side and when they told me they wanted to throw a party (something not many Cambodian kids get to experience) I opted to help out. There was loads of food (both Western and Khmer), cake, music, games, balloons, party hats and gift bags. The kids (who are unbelievably sweet and well-behaved) had a ball. I think my favourite moment of the day was when a boy pulled out a pair of sunglasses from his gift bag and asked what they were. I showed him by putting them on and his face broke out into the biggest smile. These kids are so deserving and I'm glad they got to experience something I always took for granted growing up.

Playing duck duck goose

The beautiful party guests

Party hats and balloons

Going out three nights in a row

No pictures to show for it but it was a good few nights.

Like I said it's been a busy but incredible week. Saying I'm sad to leave is an understatement but I'm looking forward to what's ahead.