Tag Archives: travel

Buyer Beware; a cautionary Asian tale

Barely settled back into our simplified life in the developing world, Diane and I looked at the calendar and realized there’s only a few months left until our lease expires. Hoping to qualify for a reasonable visa to live in Thailand other than the infamous 90 day tourist visa, it seemed like early April might be a great time for a quick mini jaunt to Bali. Living in a “beach resort town” that features one of Southeast Asia’s dirtiest and grimiest beaches, we’re also longing for a nice place to soak up the sun, catch up on some books and remind ourselves that heat and humidity beats the frigid Canadian winters and minus twenty degrees anytime. Also thinking we’ll probably not venture south once we move further north, I did a quick search on flights and almost immediately changed my mind thanks once again to Penang’s horribly inconvenient, underutilized and ridiculously small airport. With no direct flights, everything runs through connections in one of KL’s two enormous shiny airports which literally means jacking up the price to over $425.

AirAsiaGo is NOT part of Air Asia

AirAsiaGo is NOT part of Air Asia

Always more patient than me, Diane decided to check AirAsiaGo.com, a website cleverly disguised as an Air Asia subsidiary that offers bundled packages including airfare, hotel, rental cars and various other services for one price. Normally, I always avoid package deals at all costs on this side of the world because unlike in North America, there’s no such thing as “all-inclusive resorts” like in Cancun or Cabo. Virtually every hotel room comes with free breakfast, free wifi and other amenities that they group together and call a “resort fee” in North America while tacking on $25 a night or more. Besides that, there’s a little thing called “consumer protection laws” that anyone raised in the USA or Canada takes for granted. Quickly learning that you get what you pay for in the developing world, things work quite differently here and if something looks too good to be true, it probably is. Initially pricing out five nights using Booking.com or a similar company, we found a highly rated hotel for less than $130 and I love the flexible payment options given to hotels in Asia like “pay later”, “pay at the hotel” or “pay now”. But adding in the airfare jolted the total cost over the top end of our travel budget and after an expensive trip to Canada, I probably should have just given up.

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Rescue Me

Having wrapped up five really great days in Siem Reap, Diane and I headed out to Phnom Penn to explore one of Southeast Asia’s newest up and coming capital cities. Way out in front of Yangon in terms of development, we saw large-scale residential projects as the bus approached from a northwestern direction. Slated for future construction of suburban communities like Chiang Mai, I’d give it there to five years before the expat community swarms to another developing nation’s capital city and changes its look for better or worse. Becoming relatively popular, a moderate expat community is taking shape and you’ll find lots of trendy restaurants, shops and modest condos stretched in five or six-mile area stretching from the central tourist area near the national museum to the embassies lying fifteen to twenty minutes away by tuk tuk. And of course, the children of Cambodia are the shining stars of the nations’ future.

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Starkly contrasting the modern looking trendy streets, a large block of the city limits is made up of sprawling working class neighborhoods that are every bit as “developing” looking as you’d expect from Southeast Asia. Clearly visible on a trip to The Killing Fields, much of the city remains mired in poverty despite major infrastructure improvements and a surging tourism industry previously limited to archaeological wonders and off-road adventures in the jungle. Without a doubt, the main attraction in the area is one of the saddest experiences you’ll encounter anywhere in Southeast Asia.

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Parental Guidance Suggested

There’s nothing better than a little historical religious debate between scholars to liven up a cultural day trip and Kbal Spean is an archaeological site not far from Siem Reap that fits the bill. Looking at the featured image above this paragraph, you might have noticed the little sculpture and thought it looks like a phallic symbol. And you’d be correct. Kind of. Known as a Lingam, the object is an aniconic representation of the Hindu deity Shiva which means it’s symbolic or suggestive and not literally representative. In Sanskrit, lingam is loosely defined as phallus and more specifically, “the genital organ of Shiva worshipped in the form of a Phallus”. Often found at the center of Shaivite Hindu Temples (one of the major branches of Hinduism that reveres Shiva as the Supreme Being), it acts as a symbol of generative power.

At Kbal Spean

At Kbal Spean

So what’s up with Hindus revering male genitalia and why is it so misunderstood? Unlike “locker room talk”, there’s symbolism and not sexual innuendo involved and we learned that the lingams seen in temples are usually also associated with a Yoni, a Sanskrit word meaning the female counterpart of the phallic symbol that represents the creative power of nature. Collectively, the symbol represents the creation of life. There’s an interpretation associated with every story, character and symbol in Hinduism because it’s a religion that’s inherently non-literal. Immensely complicated, researching  who started the sexual part of the story is dicey but it seems that scholars began trying to debunk the British notion that the lingam represented a human organ that aroused erotic sensations in the early 1800’s.

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Watch your step, please

One of the saddest realizations of becoming an overseas expats is learning how little Americans know about the rest of the globe. In defense of my countrymen (and women), it’s not entirely our fault since we’re controlled by a mainstream media that’s a “for-profit” élite industry caring only about reporting profits at the next shareholder meeting. With greats like Dan Rather and Walter Cronkite long gone, the memories and knowledge of some of history’s greatest tragedies disappeared and with social media replacing networks as the main source of “news” for most Americans, the November election results aren’t really any great surprise. Thankfully, eight million or more Americans live outside the homeland and those of us lucky enough to retire abroad are among the citizens that benefit from the plethora of great educational tools available from little known historical sites to amazing archeological monuments.

imageFinding small and relatively unknown museums that teach me something ranks high on my list of priorities while living overseas and The Cambodian Landmine Museum fits the bill perfectly. Included on a day trip from Siem Reap along with one of the area’s most fascinating temples (Banteay Srei), we spent two hours or so at this gem of an attraction and came away with a wealth of information barely mentioned in any American history book. Innocently shielding our schoolkids from some of the worst unspeakable acts the nation’s ever participated in, few people even know that America engaged in a relentless five-year bombing campaign that literally destroyed the Cambodian people. Dropping tons of landmines all over the nation, the stated goal of the mission was to destroy the supply chain between the North Vietnamese Communists and Thailand. Victimized by one of America’s most deplorable foreign policy decisions in its history. the result is a nation literally littered with landmines designed exclusively to maim and not kill. Thanks to the efforts of some brave Cambodians, the nation is finally almost free from landmines. Too bad it’s taken almost 45 years to make thinks right.

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Girl Power; Khmer Style

Given how the future of women’s rights in America probably took an enormous step backwards this month, I thought I’d start this post about our last day trip in the Siem Reap area with an empowering historical fact. Combining three fascinating sights into a complete day, my personal favorite was Banteay Srei, an architectural jewel of Angkorian art and one of the most popular HIndu Temples of the Khmer Empire. Aside from its beautiful layout of three rectangular enclosures separated by a causeway, they built the entire structure from red sandstone which can be carved almost like wood. Earning the nickname The Pink Temple, it’s also one of the only temples commissioned by a brahman and not a king.

imageConstructed in 967 A.D., the foundational stele tells us that its creator was a scholar and philanthropist who helped those suffering from illness, injustice or poverty. Known for its pediments (the triangular space above a rectangular doorway) and lintels (horizontal beams spanning the gap between two posts that can be decorative or structural), you’ll find entire scenes of Hindu mythology depicted. But that’s not the interesting part. Its modern name translates into “Citadel of The Women” and there’s several interpretations. The first refers to the intricate carvings found on the walls. Characters from Indian mythology, Aspiras are divine nymphs or dancing-girls and the widespread use of them as a motif for decorating walls is a unique Khmer feature. Also called Devatas, or minor female deities, they’re usually seen standing around and not dancing. More specifically, the second theory revolves around the intricacy of the carvings themselves. Said to be too fine for the hand of a man, decorative carvings cover every available inch of space which leads me to the third and most interesting theory.

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The Main Attraction

Undeniably beautiful, the Temples of Angkor Wat are easily the main reason to visit Cambodia. As the world’s largest religious monument, it’s every bit as amazing as you’ve heard and all the accolades, reviews and compliments are not exaggerated. Even if temples, culture and history aren’t your thing, you’d be crazy to visit Cambodia without devoting at least a full day to this incredible architectural wonder. With thousands of great informational sources and countless travel blogs devoted to the area, attempting to describe either a complete detailed description of what to see or a travelogue explaining the fascinating historical significance of the area is best left for the experts. Instead, I’ll describe our second day trip of three in Siem Reap. Featuring the “must-see” temples, and mostly mimicking the “short-circuit” that’s a suggested itinerary for those with limited time or minimal patience, it started out before daybreak with a visit to see the sunrise at Angkor Wat.

Our take-away breakfast fromour sunrise excursion to Angkor wat

Having read the entire chapter on Angkor Wat and environs in Lonely Planet, trust me when I say it’s best to find a qualified guide and customize your day trips according to personal interests and time allotted. With a cornucopia of options from walking to hiring a tuk-tuk for the day, the best strategy is visiting places when everyone is somewhere else. Not always the easiest task given the millions of visitors that flock there all year, I’d recommend avoiding peak season (mid November through March) but also not choosing monsoon months unless you enjoy sightseeing in a torrential downpour. Finding a guide is easy but reserving ahead of your stay makes sense given how many of them are dying for your business. Ours came highly recommended from one of our friends in Penang and since he runs his own business, a website made it easy to break down all the options and customize three guided day trips according to our interests. Hotels specialize in take-away breakfasts for sunrise trips to Angkor Wat so you won’t go hungry. Possibly the only time you’ll ever see a picture of Diane awake before the sunrise, our second day began at the ungodly hour of 4:30 AM.

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Cambodian Cormorants and Flooded Forests

Visiting Cambodia for the first time, Diane and I spent some time researching what to do in the immediate area besides touring the overwhelmingly beautiful temples. As one of the most touristy areas in all Southeast Asia, Siem Reap has something for almost everyone and wildlife is no exception. Although a multitude of off the beaten path excursions involving rafting, hiking and wildlife treks permeate much of the remote Northeastern corner of the country, we chose the relative ease and comfort of the main drag this time around. Fortunately, there’s enjoyable, educational and beautiful scenery as well as some great wildlife viewing that’s easily doable as day trips not far from Angkor Wat. Always eager for birding opportunities, we decided to visit the Prek Toal Bird Sanctuary and combine it with a day trip through the famous flooded forests of Tonle Sap, a seasonally inundated freshwater lake that’s Southeast Asia’s largest.

On the way to the flooded forest

On the way to the flooded forest

Venturing out at around 8:30 AM our guide picked us up in the comfort of his air-conditioned Honda and we headed out-of-town. With countless options for touring the area, we prefer private personalized guides when possible but living as early retirees on a fixed income makes this a bit harder. In our working days we generally used most of our vacation time on combination trips that offered both amazing wildlife opportunities and a chance to explore the local expat community in some of the world’s most popular retirement zones. Lucky enough to visit places like The Galapagos Islands while staying at beautiful eco-lodges in places like The Ecuadorian Amazon or Borneo’s Danum Valley, we’ve entered a new stage of life where money doesn’t come easily so now we choose less expensive guides.

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Inglorious Expats

Usually marking anniversaries with celebratory posts, I’ll start this post by stating that today is exactly one year since Diane and I handed over our passports and received our MM2H stamps. Arriving only six weeks earlier, everything went according to plan and despite never having visited Penang, we established ourselves quickly. Before receiving our approval notifications and traveling back to Kuala Lumpur for the last steps, we secured a lease, bought new phones, established service and set up all relevant utilities like electric and internet. Since that time, I’ve written many posts about our expat experiences other than travel and they’ve usually been well received. Given I’m not part of today’s young generation deriving a paycheck from “online income“, I’ve tried to write fairly entertaining stories with my own slightly sarcastic but relatively realistic slant. But noticing a decline in the number of likes despite an increase in readership, it appears I’m beating a dead horse and my post the other day about our first negative infrastructure experience took dubious honors as my first post with no likes two days after writing it.

Out with friends

Out with friends

Having written about topics like establishing ourselves in a foreign nation, learning about the local cuisine, taking off the beaten path day trips and living through the annual haze season, I’ve shared a bit of expat life as seen through the eyes of two average middle class people (one American and one Canadian) that chose an experimental early retirement over daily cubicle life after an unexpected layoff. Also including detailed stories about the Malaysia My Second Home Program (MM2H), I’ve received lots of comments and emails thanking me for providing valuable information about Southeast Asia’s best retirement program. Retiring at a rather awkward age, it’s not always thrilling, often financially challenging and sometimes downright unexciting. Unable to always churn out really exciting content, I’d be lying if I said each day is filled with a new adventure so perhaps the blog’s almost run its course. The pictures on this post feature scenes from our life in Penang and part of the blog was to illustrate all parts of expat life, not just the best days.

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Tough Guys

While sweating away in the gym yesterday I was listening to Sheryl Crow on my Spotify playlist when “Leaving Las Vegas” came on. There’s a line in the song that goes Used to be I could I could go up to Barstow for the night; Find some crossroad trucker to demonstrate his might”. Having recently attended our first live Muay Thai match in Bangkok, it struck me that maybe the line “crossroad trucker” would be more realistic by substituting “Little Thai guy”. Thailand’s national sport is a martial arts version of kick boxing unlike any traditional boxing match you’d see in western culture. Needing to be seen live to be appreciated, we considered attending a match in Chiang Mai but the general consensus on most internet circles was that it’s scripted for tourists and Bangkok is the only place to see the real thing. Too busy with major tourist attractions to attend a match way back on our first trip to Thailand, we made sure not to miss it this time around.

Based on the idea that hand to hand combat substitutes for weapons, Muay Thai was a mandatory part of Thai military training during the long period when they were mortal enemies with neighboring kingdoms in Cambodia and Burma. During World War II, westerners got their first look at the sport and dubbed it “Siam Boxing” as soldiers would practice their sport while Europeans and Americans looked on curiously. After the war, they added formal rules including five round matches and time limits. Unique to Southeast Asia, many Muay Thai fighters spend years practicing and start training as young as age six. Using the sport’s paltry payouts to support their families. prizes of only 4000 Baht ($150 USD) are common and their careers are usually short because this sport ain’t for the weak. Lacerations, concussions and heavy bruising are common and when seen up close, it’s obvious what a toll the sport takes on the body. Becoming popular around the world, Muay Thai is now practiced in many countries and professional martial arts fighters agree that it’s an essential part of learning how to be a skilled fighter. And best of all, it’s exciting to watch.

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Home Away From Home

Although the traffic’s gotten even more horrendous and the prices are not like they used to be, my favorite hotel view from any city never changes and the Chao Phraya River looks as beautiful as ever from the 30th floor. Here to escape Hari Raya’s annual crowd surge in Penang, we’re spending eight days hitting the city we first visited in 2009 when my job was secure, the economy was just beginning to tank and our first glance of Thailand made us realize we’d be back here some day. Given the annoyances of posting on an IPad, I’ll hold off on daily stories and post a few pictures of the things we’ve done so far. Radically different from Chiang Mai, we’d still never live here but Bangkok remains an awesome sprawling city with a unique combination of old and new (although the old is fading fast) and even in rainy season, it’s always worth visiting. Since we did all the must-do tourist stuff back in our pathetic three-week American vacation working days, we focused on secondary attractions and started off with a journey down Yaoawrat Road.

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Possibly the biggest and best Chinatown anywhere, we also ventured into a sparsely visited but excellent museum known as The Chinese Heritage Center.

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Sticking to street food, I found an amazing bowl of fish maw soup. As one of the most Asian white boys around, I’m not even sure why I like Chinese food so much but if that’s your thing, Bangkok is the place for you with an enormous Thai Chinese community that enjoys one of the most symbiotic relationships between China and another nation anywhere on the planet.

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Although the rain pounded down for hours the first day we arrived, we booked a trip to Khao Yai National Park and lucked out with a perfectly overcast and comfortable day and the rain held out until the late afternoon. As Thailand’s first national park, it’s a long two  and a half hour day trip from Bangkok but it’s well worth it. Maintaining well signed and beautiful national parks, Thailand does nature very well and I look forward to seeing many more in the future.

Having recently watched lots of travel documentaries featuring cooking in Southeast Asia, we wanted to visit Thailand’s largest wet market to see what it feels like in person and Khlong Toei Market didn’t disappoint. Ten square blocks long and totally off the main tourist track, it’s one of the world’s most amazing markets with so many stalls, vendors and people it’s staggering.

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Taking notes while watching those TV shows, we splurged at Samboon, one of Bangkok’s busiest and most amazing seafood restaurants where we ordered curry duck, mantis prawns and oysters in stir fry sauce

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And last night we ventured out to the new boxing stadium for some live Muay Thai. Lumpinee Stadium is a new and very modern comfortable arena up there with any western stadium and although the ringside seats where they make foreigners sit are not cheap, the excitement and noise level is highly contagious. Watching the Thais using the cheaper balcony seats to engage in never ending rounds of strange betting by screaming and waving fingers, you understand quickly why they don’t let foreigner’s sit up there. But you also get to take pictures with the winner of each round making for a very enjoyable evening.

With three more days to go until we return, I’ll cut it off here because it’s time to hit the breakfast buffet before throngs of never ending visitors overwhelm the way too small restaurant of the Chatrium Riverside Hotel. Today we plan on visiting the Bank of Thailand Museum, another little known gem that becomes a pain in the ass to reserve except on Saturdays when they let people walk in without advance notice. After that it’s a revisit of Khao San Road to see how the backpacker neighborhood’s changed into a trendy version of Asian SoHo (or so says the guidebooks anyway). Please check back next week when I’ll detail each day with in-depth and post lots of great pictures.

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Cheers from cloudy and wet Bangkok.