Tuesday, February 15, 2011

A post of convenience

Just because I like you all SO MUCH, I have decided to combine for you here, in link format, all my posts from the vacation in chronological format. So have fun! Click around! Relive the magic! You won't be sorry! Though you might be! Especially if it makes you sad you missed the trip!

The layover in Shanghai

The terrifying LCCT in Kuala Lumpur

I'm on a beach!

GERMANS! Cover your shame!

A near death experience

Cambodia (here I started to get lazy)

Malaysia is an...interesting country

Travel tips

Photo dump

Also, in case any of you are interested in recreating the journey (or at least looking for places to stay), here's what we did:

First night in Kuala Lumpur: The Burger King in KLIA
First night in Bangkok: Convenient Resort (near Suvarnobhumi Airport)
Phuket: Two Chefs Bungalows - Kata Beach
Bangkok: Soi 1 Guesthouse Bangkok
Cambodia: Borann Hotel, Siem Reap
Kuala Lumpur: Swiss Inn Hotel Kuala Lumpur

Flights to/from Kuala Lumpur via China Eastern Airlines; Flight to Bangkok, Phuket, and Siem Reap to KL on Air Asia. Phuket to Bangkok: minibus to Surat Thani, overnight sleeper train to Bangkok. Bangkok to Siem Reap: train Bangkok to Aranyaprathet (Thai border), tuk-tuk to the border crossing (Poipet, Cambodia). Taxi from Poipet to Siem Reap.

Photo dump!

And now for some photos from the vacay...(WARNING: These may be largely boring landscape shots. DEAL.)

Finally! A real beer.
And delicious pad thai, natch...
Beautiful, warm, Kata beach in Phuket
Our lovely island hotel/restaurant
Photos of photos with beautiful scenery (Ko Phi Phi)
Beware of Train!
Bangkok: ancient meets modern.
Great city. Probably my favorite in Asia so far.
Monopoly money (clockwise from dollars): US Dollars, Malaysian Ringgit, Thai Baht, Japanese Yen, Korean Won, Cambodian Riel
Angkor Wat (as well as the next few photos)

Our fixies to ride around the grounds.
Our driver, Mr. Ya. He's the best.
Oh noes! Sharia law has infect McDonald's! RUN!!!
Happy Lunar New Year!
Golden Lion dance. For the New Year/Luck/whatever.
Petronas Towers: They're really big.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Final thoughts on travel

A few final thoughts on travelling, bulletted out for you. Hooray listicles!

  • Hotels in SE Asia can be fantastically cheap. The hotels we stayed at in Phuket and Siem Reap, in particular, were AMAZING and still dirt cheap. I think the most we ever paid per night per person was $25. So if you're going to this area of the world, don't feel like you have to cheap out and stay in a hostel. You can, but nice hotels are out there and are very affordable.
  • Don't try to pack to much in a vacation. Especially one as long as mine was. It was great, and I don't regret seeing any of the things I got to see, but having done so much and gone to so many places, by the time I got to Kuala Lumpur - I was just exhausted. Honestly, if that hotel had had a pool, I am not sure I would have ever left. And I would have been just fine with that. Too much travel is tiring, physically and mentally. Pick one or two places and stick with those.
  • Choice of travelling companions is so very important. You really do need to take along people who have similar styles to you, otherwise you might spend your entire time bickering about what to do next. Fortunately, we were generally okay enough to go it alone if we wanted to do something a little different, or if we were getting slowed up by the stragglers in the posse. It worked out well for us...make sure it will work out for you!
  • There's this bizarre notion of "cultural authenticity" that a lot of people have. For example, when I mentioned that I would be visiting Bangkok, someone told me that it was "just like any other city" and "not authentically Thai." Which kind of took me aback a little bit - there are 9.1 million people in the city itself, of whom about 8.7 million are ethnically Thai. I'm sorry, did they somehow lose their citizenship or culture by moving to/being born in a city? This way of thinking - that something in Thailand can be somehow "inauthentic" - is pretty problematic. It's kind of a colonialist notion, really, demanding a sort of disney-esque "noble savage" caricature of what life in some Foreign Land is like. But here's the dirty secret: Thais drink Starbucks. Malaysians go to the mall. Koreans eat at McDonald's. And none of these people are any less products of their homelands for it. They are probably different than the generation before who did not do these things, but it is pretty belittling to them and to their countries' economic successes to tell them that by going to Starbucks or McDonald's or buying Apple products they are somehow betraying their cultural heritage. We live in a globalized world. Some things are everywhere. Deal with it.
  • In that vein, if you want to go to McDonald's or Starbucks while on vacation, don't feel like you can't because you can do that at home or because of some notion that you should completely any American-based company while on vacation. One of the most fascinating things that I find when traveling anywhere is just how different we all still are, despite being the same. And the places where these differences are most apparent tend to be the places most indicative of globalization, i.e., the ubiquitous fast-food chains. But go in them! Look at the menu! See how the franchise has adapted its menu to suit the location and be reminded that yes, we all are different, but yes, we all love to consume things. It's quite amazing.
  • As much as it pains me to say this, English is really the most important language you could know while traveling. On this trip, just about everyone we encountered, from the service professionals to the airline staff to cab drivers and street vendors and even other tourists spoke English to one degree or another. As important as it is to learn other languages (and it IS very important to learn other languages), it's not the end of the world if the only language you speak is English. Especially in Southeast Asia, you're pretty much guaranteed to find people who also speak English and can help you.
  • Most importantly, have fun! Experience your trip. Don't hide behind the camera, don't hide in your hotel room. Say yes to new experiences. Hugs not drugs. Hit the books because they don't hit back. Other cliches. Mostly, enjoy. Vacations are about giving you a break, so do things that will make you happy. Don't feel obliged to do something you don't want to do, unless you are a child, in which case please listen to your parent and generally don't act like an ass. Remember, there are other people on vacation too. Don't ruin theirs.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Malaysia: Truly Asia

Or something. Malaysia is indeed pretty awesome, though.

Perhaps because it was the first place where I stepped off the plane and felt warm, but I knew the second I arrived in Malaysia in the early morning of January 20 that I loved it. Though the feeling was tempered when we finally returned, two and a half weeks later, I still feel a great deal of fondness for that country.

First, a few words about traveling: you guyses, it is EXHAUSTING to take a two-and-a-half week vacation and pack it with as much stuff to do as we did. KL, Bangkok, Phuket, Bangkok, Siem Reap, KL again - not to mention the tiring and stressful travel to get to and from all of these places - it just sort of takes a lot out of you. So when we did get to our last destination, I was pretty well vacationed out, and ready to take it easy in Kuala Lumpur.

Fortunately, the weather was more than willing to cooperate with those plans of mine. Hot, humid, threatening rain in the afternoon - it was like a Houston summer, only in February (which sometimes happens in Houston, too). It was, however, perfect weather for hanging out in airconditioned monorails, malls, temples (both Hindu and Buddhist), mosques, and museums. The nice thing about the Malaysian capital (and its largest city) is how very compact the central city is. The suburbs sprawl out all across the Klang (it's a river AND an onomatopoeia!), but the central city is not only very walkable, but well-connected by a monorail and a light rail. Our hotel in Chinatown served as a great jumping off point for not only Lunar New Year's festivities, but also for light city exploration.(Though this turned out to be a double-edged sword: centrally located in Chinatown during the New Year means also centrally located to what sounds like a Mongol invasion when they set off the firecrackers every night)

What struck me the most about KL, though, was the staggering diversity of it. Living in Korea for a year, which is a traditional nation (ethnic/state boundaries are generally coterminous), has kind of warped my expectations of what to see in other countries. China, Thailand, and Cambodia really only reinforced this. In each of these countries, the state is generally associated with one ethnic group - China with Han Chinese, Thailand with Thais, and Cambodia with Khmers - and any minority populations tend to either be very small or shunted off to the hinterlands. This is true even of the big cities. In Kuala Lumpur, however, you have ethnic Malays, Chinese, and Indians of all shapes, sizes and colors walking around the streets. Add to that the legions of tourists and business travelers passing through the city and it makes for some very interesting walks.

My particular favorite scene was one I found myself in on the first afternoon in KL. I was standing on a street corner in an area that looks like a less-crowded version of Mayor Bloomberg's Times Square in NYC. Standing next to me was a woman in a full burqa, and the both of us were watching a street performer sing a cover of Bob Marley's "No Woman, No Cry". It was one of those very surreal moments that seems so far out of the realm of possibility; yet here you are, and there she is, and there he is singing Bob Marley. Odd.

Another fairly remarkable thing about the city: it exists, holding sizable populations of Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus (with other minorities) side-by-side in relatively little conflict with one another. Partly I think this is because of the history of the place - these religions and ethnicities have been in peninsular Malaysia for centuries - and partly I think it is because of the heady wealth flowing into KL over the last thirty years that seems to have done pretty well for the entirety of the city, rather than just the already-wealthy.

An interesting parallel to this city could be seen in Sarajevo. For centuries, Bosniak Muslims, Serbian Orthodox Christians and the generally Roman Catholic Croat population lived together in what was arguably the most cosmopolitan city on the European Continent. Then, during the collapse of Yugoslavia and the rise of Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic, Serbian Nationalism was stirred up in response to the breakaway republic of Croatia and the attempts of Bosnia-Herzegovina to leave the union, leading to a horrifically bloody war (complete with genocide in the east and the stunningly awful siege of Sarajevo).

Malaysia in the latter half of the 20th century, in contrast, saw incredible growth in its economy thanks to increased oil reserves and other natural resource extraction - not exactly ideal conditions to incite nationalist zealotry. So the country has done fairly well for itself, and indeed has become a fairly important conflict moderator in the region. As well, its approach to religion has been a fairly liberal (in the classical sense) one - the strictures associated in the West with Islam seem far more flexible in Malaysia. Yes, some women wear burqas. But standing with their daughters who are dressed in a more western style, one wonders whose choice it was to wear the burqa.

I was fascinated by KL, and I was exhausted by it. I think I'd like to go back some day with more energy to really see the city, but the thought of any more travel just at the moment (aside from going back to Houston and then spending some time in DC and then moving to China) just makes me want to crawl under my desk and hide in terror.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Cambodia all together

So it's our last day in Siem Reap, and I think I'm going to try to sum up the last few days all in this one singular blog post. COME ON THIS JOURNEY WITH ME.

First, a little background: Siem Reap is a perfectly nice small tourist town that would be little more than a few huts had not the ruins of the largest religious structure in the world been discovered there in the 19th century. As it is, Siem Reap serves as the touristy jumping off point for visits to Angkor Wat, and that's exactly what my friends and I were going to do.

First, though, we had to get there. Some redheaded guy had the bright idea to make a land crossing from Thailand, so we climbed aboard the 5:55am train to the border a few days ago. Let me tell you: crowded third class is a FAR cry from first class sleeper accommodations. But we lived, and about 6 hours later we arrived in Arantaprathet and hoped in a tuk tuk to the border.

But not before our driver took us to a rando roadside cafe with what amounted to a hand-painted sign reading "BORDER" with backwards R's.

It was a cute try, and he knew it. Once at the real border, he tried to rip me off of an additional 20 baht, and we mostly genially parted ways.

We had no idea that would be the EASY one. Protip: don't ignore the "something here isn't right" feeling. Ever.

Like when we were ushered into a "quarantine" area and told to fill out a "customs form" and given a sales pitch for a cab ride to wherever we were going. After a few highly stressful minutes, we hightailed it out of there and made it to the real Cambodian customs house. The thing about experiences like that is they tend to set you on super high alert, suspicious even of the real Cambodian tourist officials showing you where to hire a cab to your hotel and how to change money. It also makes the ensuing two hour cab ride an intense one, on which you are convinced that you are about to murdered.

Fortunately, we arrived at out hotel safe and sound, albeit very hot, dusty, and in need of a shower. The hotel, however, was amazing - an oasis in the savannah of Western Cambodia. It served as a wonderful place to relax and cool off after a long, hot day of touring the ruins at Angkor.

Which themselves were amazing. It is a particular passion of mine, old ruins. Ancient Rome, ancient Greece, Liza Minelli...so you can imagine how much fun I had traipsing about these thousand-year-old temples in Cambodia. But my favorite memories have to be the people we met, from our driver, Mr. Ya, to the plethora if Canadians, to the General Contractir in charge of the reconstruction of the Baphuon Temple. Simply incredible. What's even better, though, is that to get to Malaysia, we get to take a plane! Hooray for simplicity!

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone (but not really, it's an iPod touch)

Location:National Highway 6,Siem Reap,Cambodia