Having wrapped up five really great days in Siem Reap, Diane and I headed out to Phnom Pennto 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.
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.
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
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.
Awakening one last time to the smooth motion of gentle waves, Diane and I reflected on four amazing days visiting various locations in The Galapagos Islands where time appeared to stand still. Unlike any place we’d experienced before, the islands are one of a handful of places on the planet where animals coexist with tourists while totally oblivious to human presence. Observing the most northerly penguins on earth, treeless boobies that sit on the ground protecting their young, several endemic bird species, iguanas that swim and colorful ones that prefer land, prehistoric looking giant tortoises and sea turtles that come up to you, the islands proved well worth the hefty price tag.
Clearly everyone’s favorite creatures are the Galapagos Sea Lions, and although we saw them almost every day, the crew saved the best for last with a trip to Mosquera Island, a small sandy island in the channel between Baltra and North Seymour Islands and home to a large colony of sea lions. Completing the recreational part of our annual Expat Destination Research Vacationto Ecuador, we’d visited Sacha Lodge, an awesome Amazonian rainforest lodge and spent the last four days on board the Ocean Spray, a luxury catamaran offering Galapagos cruises from five to fifteen days long. Unaware I’d be writing my blog exactly two years later as an unemployed house husband thanks to an unexpected layoff, visiting Ecuador was an exceptional trip and we both highly recommend it even though we’re choosing Southeast Asia for our early retirement.
Expecting Barney Rubble to emerge with Fred and Wilma, Diane and I visualized a scene from Bedrock on the fourth day of our fascinating cruise around The Galapagos Islands. Already experiencing close up views of adorable fur seals and penguins, large treeless birds staring up at us from the ground and marine lizards emerging from the sea like scaly fish, it all seemed surreal. Imagining a scene from a prehistoric world was easy while viewing North Seymour Island’s beautifully colorful land iguanas and walking among enormous Galapagos tortoises older than both of us on Santa Cruz Island, the main population center of the islands.
Unaware I’d slept through several hours of rather violent seas on the return from an incredible day of bird watching on Genovesa Island, I woke to beautiful calm seas as Diane and I prepared for the third day of our Galapagos Islands Cruise. Part of our annual Expat Destination Research Vacationin Ecuador, we planned to visit Cuenca and discover what made it so attractive to expats. For now, however, it was something completely different and our guide Javier briefed us on the day’s activities featuring close encounters with Marine Iguanasand a rare opportunity to kayak and swim with Galapagos Green Sea Toirtoises, the only species nesting anywhere in the islands. Allowing me to relive the experience, this is the third in a five-part series and I hope the post conveys some of the islands beauty.
Thinking early retirement was still years away and unaware I’d be laid off exactly one year later, we went first class on The Ocean Spray,a beautiful 16 passenger luxury catamaran. Fully satisfied so far, we learned about Santiago island, an island flanked with mangrove forests, pristine beaches and teeming with many creatures only found in The Galapagos Islands. Landing at Espulmilla Beach, the group headed inland for a short walk but before we did, scores of beautiful Galapagos crabs scampered across the beach making the morning’s first photo opportunity a bit tricky, but well worth it. Stunningly colorful. adult crabs are bright orange with pink and yellow spots and grow as large as 20 centimeters.
Waking to the gentle rocking of the catamaran from our comfortable king sized bed, Diane and I hopped out of bed and headed to the balcony. Sleeping soundly after adjusting to the motion, we stepped outside and gazed at the shores of Genovesa Island, a spectacular but rather remote island for the second day of our Galapagos segment of our annual Expat Destination Research Vacation, this time to Ecuador. Having already seen fur seals, iguanas and penguins on day one, anticipation built quickly as we showered and headed for breakfast. Promising incredible bird watching opportunities, the crew briefed us on the morning’s activities that began with a wet landing at a beautiful coral beach in Darwin Bay.
On the beach at Darwin Bay, Genovesa Island
Technically a shield volcano and built almost entirely of fluid lava flows, Genovesa Island is horseshoe-shaped, occupies only 5 square miles, has a salt water filled crater lake and cliffs all around the perimeter. Located eight hours from most other islands, only smaller vessels can visit due to habitat sensitivity and the crew navigated the waters while we slept. Known as Bird Island, wildlife abounds including assorted boobies, swallow-tailed gulls, Darwin’s finches, Galapagos mockingbirds and marine iguanas. Separating this experience from most bird watching expeditions is the unspoiled and unique environment which eliminates the need for binoculars as many birds don’t see humans as predatory and literally sit in front of you. Glancing right at us with googly eyes, scores of amazing big birds were on the trail guarding their eggs while wide-eyed visitors strolled past.
Navigating through the hectic crowd, Diane and I headed for the AeroGal airline counter, eagerly anticipating the next five days of our Expat Destination Research Vacation. Fresh off an incredible three-day, four night expedition to Sacha Lodge, an amazing rainforest lodge in Ecuador’s Amazonian region, we spent one quick night in Quito and continued the journey. Leaving the expat research in Cuenca for later in the trip, we splurged on the Ocean Spray, the newest 16 passenger luxury catamaran in the Galapagos Islands but chose the shortest trip available, a five night journey. Traversing six different islands including a long overnight cruise to Genovesa Island, so distant that hardly any tours go there, it’s home to some of the oddest wildlife ever and was worth the choppy ride that caused most of us to forego a lobster and shrimp dinner due to acute sea-sickness.
Although Malaysia is our destination in 2015 as soon as my 50th birthday rings in an opportunity to file our MM2H visa, my layoff was unforeseen and South America was still high on the list of possible early retirement destinations. Although pricey, missing the Galapagos Islands while visiting Ecuador is akin to ordering lasagna in a Chinese restaurant. (dumb). Although it’s possible to arrange lodging on the largest island and try day-tripping, budget options are not the way to go. Justifying the phrase, “you get what you pay for”, an overnight excursion on a ship is the best way to enjoy the amazing array of incredible sights and many different types of cruises are available from five to sixteen nights on a variety of vessels.
Anticipation was high as we awoke on the third day of the South American leg of our annual Expat Research Destination Vacation. Planning only a single day of sightseeing in Quito, we left the jackets and long sleeve shirts behind and headed for a totally different climatic zone. Realizing Ecuador’s boundaries include a large chunk of untouched Amazonian jungle, we jumped at the chance to experience our third different rainforest adventure. Freshly embedded memories of Borneo’s jungle excursion remained strong and having already visited Costa Rica in 2002, that leaves Madagascar as the only rainforest we have yet to explore. Probably too far and expensive for early retirees in Malaysia, we’ll settle for orangutans over lemurs.
Sunset at Sacha Lodge
Understanding human encroachment remains the biggest threat to the world’s rainforests, there’s a handful of lodges that personify sustainable ecotourism at its best. Not to be missed, Sacha Lodge, in Ecuador’s Napo Valley Region fits the bill. Located on a pristine piece of privately owned land and bordering Yasuni National Park, one of the world’s most biologically diverse regions, the lodge is accessible only by navigating the Napo River for 50 miles, hiking inland on an often muddy boardwalk and crossing a scenic lake. Beginning the journey in Quito, Diane and I boarded a 25 minute flight over snow-covered peaks to the small town of Coca where guides met us for the start of a 4 day, 3 night adventure that exceeded our expectations.