After three weeks in the lap of luxury in Penang, Malaysia, we were ready to shake things up a bit and get back on the road. It didn’t take long to remind us that traveling isn’t always rainbows and unicorns. Sometimes the unicorn drops a turd, like it did when we found out at the Penang airport that our flight to Jakarta had been inexplicably cancelled. Luckily we were able to squeeze onto a flight to Kuala Lumpur and then just barely catch our connecting flight to Jakarta, which still left us in transit on our way to Yogyakarta. And just about the time we were expecting to start boarding, it was announced that the flight was delayed by 90 minutes. I decided to make a rainbow soft cream out of a turd and search the airport for an ATM to get some local currency in my pocket. That turned out to be about as easy as finding a metalhead at a Kenny G concert, but eventually I found 10 ATMs, all from different banks, clustered together in a tiny room outside the airport, a 15 minute walk from our gate without a single sign showing the way there. Fortunately, Indonesians are very friendly and helpful with directions, even in a massive city like Jakarta.
People talk about the proverbial ‘vacation from their vacation’ a lot, and I’d say we took one of those in earnest during the month of January in Penang, Malaysia. For three and a half weeks, we comfortably nested in a 17th floor apartment overlooking the Georgetown seaside and skyline. After 11 months of pretty solid travel we were ready for a bit of a hiatus to rest our bones and recharge our batteries. A number of factors brought us to Penang at that time, with the most influential one being that some good friends of ours, Tom and Keiko had offered their gorgeous apartment to us, and in return we agreed to pay the basic maintenance fees for the time we spent there. In short, it was the deal of the century, and went a long way toward preserving our budget for future travels. Our friends are currently living in Japan, so this huge apartment was basically empty except for another Japanese woman also staying there.
Initially our plan was to spend a full month in Thailand, but that all changed when forces started pulling us toward Malaysia sooner than planned, but more on that in the next blog. It was my fifth time in Thailand, a country that Haruka and I have both traveled extensively, and also one of those places that I feel like I’ll keep coming back to as long as I live, so our 9 day sweep through the country didn’t feel too slight. Crossing overland by bus from Cambodia wasn’t nearly as smooth as our border crossing from Vietnam into Cambodia. Everything was fine on the Cambodia side of things, but once we got to the Thai immigration building, life kinda came to a standstill. It took over 2 hours to get through the massive line to the counters where only 3 and sometimes 2 agents were nonchalantly processing the crowd. Another hour and a half of disorganized hijinx from the bus company, and we were finally on our way to the traffic jams of Bangkok that got us in only 5 hours behind schedule.
Siem Reap is a town that owes it’s existence as a thriving tourist center to Angkor Wat and the many other ancient temple complexes in the region. In fact, those temples are without a doubt the single biggest reason why Cambodia is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Asia these days. When Haruka visited in 1998, it was Angkor Wat that drew her in, and again this time around, it was these dynamically iconic temples that were luring her back. Having never been there, I was onboard all the way, but she was a bit reluctant knowing how massive a tourist trap it has become in recent years. There were over 5 million international visitors in 2016, compared with 286,000 in 1998, so needless to say, it was going to be a completely different experience. As most of you who read this blog know, we go out of our way to get out of the way of the tourist hordes wherever we go, so we agreed that we needed a calculated plan to dodge the masses around Siem Reap.
For starters, we chose a small hotel off the beaten path, but still walking distance to pub street, with all of it’s restaurants, pubs and throngs of tourists. Golden Takeo Guesthouse was a gem of an accommodation experience from start to finish. Our host, Prom arranged to have a tuk tuk driver pick us up at the bus station for free. He was such a smiley, happy guy with good knowledge of the area, decent English and excellent driving skills, that we hired him to be our driver for the week. We let him know straight away that we wanted to see as many temples as possible with the least amount of crowd interactions as possible. This was key, as having a driver who understands this and is willing to go the extra mile to make this happen is far from a slam dunk in Siem Reap. Many drivers don’t have a lot of local knowledge, and are just on auto-pilot, driving their customers to the sites in the same patterns as everyone else. The fact that there are these patterns that most of the tourists are caught up in, makes it entirely possible to plan routes that are contrary to the patterns and allow us to avoid the huge crowds while still seeing all of the major sites. Our driver, Nim understood these patterns much better than us, so he was instrumental in planning out where to go and when, and I’d say he nailed it.
Back in the summer of ’98, Haruka and I went to Thailand for a few weeks. At the end of that little adventure I needed to return to my job in Japan, but she was in between jobs and had some free time, so she decided to tack on a trip to Cambodia. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a tad envious of her being able to visit that country at a time when it had just recently opened its doors to foreign travelers. The government, desperate to revitalize the economy after decades of war and one of the most senseless genocides in human history, had deemed the country “safe” for tourism, but those were still tumultuous times in Cambodia. Click here for a synopsis on Cambodian history.
While the cavernous underground world of Phong Na was truly wondrous, the above-ground reality was positively bone chilling. With temperatures in the mid teens (celsius) each day, marked by constant drizzle occasionally interrupted by periods of downpouring rain, we aborted mission and left a day earlier than planned. Depending on who we talked to, most Vietnamese either told us that November was the end of the rainy season or the beginning of the dry season. I myself am a glass-half-full guy, but regardless of that, the glass was undeniably still tilted at such an angle that it was soaking the entire country with the liquid of life. I’m actually a big fan of moderate rain, but relentless cold, driving rain can take it’s toll on even the most optimistic souls, so we headed south for the lower elevations of Hue.
After taking a Wizz all the way from Agadir, Morocco to Budapest, Hungary, where we caught some half-baked zzzzs on the cold, hard floor of the airport, we hopped a plush flight on Qatar Airlines to Doha, Qatar. After a brief stopover on our third continent within a day, we were airborn again for Yangon, Myanmar. Here we had a 14 hour stopover which gave us a chance to sleep for several hours in a backpacker’s hostel, have lunch with an old friend who’s actually quite young, as well as visit the colorful temple complex of Shewdagon. Our brief encounter with this intriguing Buddhist nation left us yearning to return again soon, but for the time being, our journey east was continuing on to Vietnam. After four flights over a 43 hour stretch, we waited two more hours for our visas to be processed in the Hanoi airport and settled into our hotel just after midnight. A grueling travel schedule to be certain, but that’s the price we pay for paying just $470 each to get from Morocco to Vietnam. These days there is a plethora of airfare search engines that piece together flights to get you the best possible deal, and often those best deals require multiple stops for some reason unknown to me. Kiwi.com is my go-to search engine as it’s very easy to use, always finds the best fares and it has never blundered our tickets.