Intriguing debacles

Our time with Dan and Christy brought about some interesting scenarios. Maybe we had just the same type of things happening to us before they arrived and we did not know it. With them here, maybe we can see that in fact some of these things are interesting. Or maybe their arrival actually sparked some funny, interesting, and bizarre events.

First, let’s look at number one. Touring Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia, we were awestruck by the vastness of the complex. Built around 1000 years ago, the massive temples still remain erect. Trees have taken to the stone, vandals have taken relics, wars have been fought nearby.

Angkor Wat overtaken by tourists

Sunrise over the main temple, Angkor Wat

As Brooke blogged before, the monkeys were not so happy about her crowding their space. One charged for her, well, her water bottle, and made off with a fresh liter of water.

The day continued to get interesting. We booked ourselves for a tour to Tonle Sap lake, just south of Siem Reap. During the dry season, the lake is about 2500 sq km; the wet season, it swells to over 10,000 sq km. On this excursion, we checked out a floating village. Huddled into the boat, the four of us and our guide motored our way to the Vietnamese floating village.

Floating Village entrance

We thought we were in a safety zone from the locals selling their goods as we were in the middle of a lake. We were wrong. We pass a canoe of sorts that is just sitting there. As we pass by, we notice the father pull the crank on the engine, gaining speed to get near us. They get right next to the boat and this young naked boy is holding a snake, advertising something to get $1. We were unsure. What was the sale? Was it to hold the monster snake, take a picture of the snake, buy the snake?!

The snake sale?!

Unfortunately, words cannot describe our emotions or feelings. The average life expectancy is 54 on such a floating village. 12% of children die before the age of 5.

The approach by child was something we had not seen before. Koreans/Japanese/Chinese are the top tourists to this area. Our theory: after watching several Asians freak out over small bugs (including a centipede and a school of fish), we suspect that the child’s object is to scare these tourists. In turn, they will do anything to get the snake (and the boy) away.

On our way back, our boat breaks a belt. No problem, we will just get tugged by another boat. Wait, that one breaks down too. Now, there is one boat tugging two boats along. We make it back safely though with assurance from Ly, our guide, that everything is ‘okay.’

To mark the end of our time in Siem Reap, Suzanne (my sister), gave me her friend’s contact information. Den helped her and James tour Angkor Wat three years ago. But Den has since moved, but his brother, Tola, lives in SR. Tola invited us over for dinner on our last night. We gladly accepted. Upon arrival, Tola lets us know that he has arranged a special performance for us. Great!

His troupe of 10 performers put on a powerful production. The actors have disabilities ranging from incorrect injections (rendering certain limbs useless or contorted), polio, or land mine injuries. The play featured a man wondering into the forest, only to step on a landmine. He was initially an outcast to the community and after much desolation, he is accepted widely by his friends. The performance was breathtaking, moving, powerful, and so emotional. It is one thing to see actors, but it is much more to see that these people live with this day in and day out.

With the performance finished, Tola fed us a grand family style meal. Cold beers and great conversation followed. The night quickly flew by. With an early morning departure, we had to wrap up the evening. We gathered out belongings to head out. Except for one belonging: Brooke’s one Birkenstock sandal. Yes, she had her right foot sandal, but during the course of the meal, the dog slipped around us, grabbed her shoe and made off with it. The rescue search was called off due to darkness; we resumed in the morning. Unfortunately, the search and recovery the next morning ended without a recovery. Brooke’s one sandal was somewhere in the middle of the field (with the rest of the shoes scattered about–I never noticed the number of odd shoes lying about until we actually had to look for one). Looks like Brooke’s was not the first theft!

Between the charging monkeys, the snake and the boy, and the missing sandal, our time in Cambodia brought about some stories to tell.

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Uncle Chang The World

Don’t know what I mean by this title? That’s okay, neither do I. And there were a lot of happenings this week that I didn’t *quite* understand, but definitely appreciate. One of the great joys of travel is the element of surprise – and Uncle Chang surprised us with a live band every night, bottles of rum all around, and arguably the best dive sites on the planet.

The best surprise of all, though, was when the band cranked out their rendition of my home state’s unofficial but widely recognized anthem, “Country Roads.” They sure know how to make a girl feel at home! Other highlights of our stay with Uncle Chang include:

-Diving visibility of over 40 meters. My first dive was not ideal, as my equipment was throwing seawater down my throat with each breath, but once I got rid of the leaking regulator it was smooth sailing. One of our Sipadan dives was crystal clear, absolutely unbeatable in my book. Swimming along a rainbow of coral, we turned a corner to see the sunshine streaming in from behind an underwater cliff; easily, this was the most breathtaking image I’ve ever seen. It was, in a word, otherworldly.

-Michael has become a world-class critter spotter! In the 20+ dives we’ve had in the last several weeks, he has trained his eyes to find even the most well-camouflaged marine animal or plant. He’s identified tiny sea horses, hidden scorpion fish, and spindly lion fish. Diving with him is great, all I have to do is swim and remember to breathe.

-We were visited by what our guidebook described as Uncle Chang’s “charming family of rats.”  Although the place was clean enough, our rations were just too tempting for the resident vermin. They chewed into our peanuts, may or may not have eaten half a slice of wheat bread, and gnawed a chunk out of a mango. I will admit I was more than a little unnerved when one of them ran across my chest in the middle of the night. But hey, I didn’t say all these surprises were good! And who can blame them for stealing our food in the middle of the night … If I think I’m tired of rice, just imagine how they feel!

-Did I mention they handed out free rum every night the band played? Shouldn’t they know better than to drink and dive?

The empty bottles are definitely not ours. And I take no responsibility for the Coke, either.

-We found out that Uncle Chang does more than his share to keep the island’s kids out of trouble. The band is a collection of locals he’s taken under his wing. They have no formal training and play entirely by ear, but these kids blew me away. The girl singer knocked out Alicia Keys, Lady Gaga, and gave Taylor Swift a run for her money. Uncle Chang also sponsors a basketball team, who happen to be the champions (and yes, the band played Queen in their honor), all in the name of keeping kids occupied and off drugs. He employs a slew of locals and handed out cash bonuses for them each time the band played. He is something of a local legend, from what I can tell. Once I understood what Uncle Chang was all about, I felt pretty good that we are supporting his empire.

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An Important Decision

After exchanging emails and calls via Skype with Dan constantly over the last 6 weeks, the time had come for the in-person meeting. Walking through the airport at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, I remarked to Brooke how neat it was to be waiting for our friends outside a terminal 24 hours away on the other side of the world. Granted, I would have said the same remark during the last five years, during which I lived in West Virginia, if I had a friend visit me there, as this would have been the same feeling.

Whether it is WV or KL when you have friends visit, you plan. First and most importantly, where and what do you want to eat? Other questions would be: Where do you want to go? What do you want to do? How do you want to get there?

Nestled in my DNA, the “what’s for dinner?” question is supreme. And it is not different when Dan and Christy come. If they were coming to Huntington, West Virginia, the answer would be our one and own Indian: Nawab Indian Cuisine.

Little did Dan know that I was crossing my fingers when I emailed him and asked him where he wanted to stay when they arrived into KL. We arrived a day before them in KL and we were responsible for setting up camp, but I wanted to make sure they were comfortable. Via email, here are your choices Dan: 1) Chinatown, 2) Golden Triangle (Bukit Bintang), 3) Little India.

Pick the right one, Dan. Actually, this is not a choice. Luckily, Dan was trying to appease me or he thinks just as similarly. The email returns, “Little India.”

Thank you Naan Supreme Beings, thank you.

Now that Dan and Christy have arrived, the first order of business is to find the food. Just when you think you have hit the end of Little India with the street life dwindling, we turned the corner to find this mecca of taste bud heaven. Five or six restaurants, overflowing with patrons, find our attention.

If I thought we had it good with Nawab in Huntington, I had never seen Little India or could even comprehend it. I had never seen a tandoori oven. In Little India, you need to watch your step on the sidewalk or you might be burnt by a tandoori oven. Yes, tandoori ovens on the sidewalk. Lined up. Take your pick.

And if I thought Nawab had garlic naan, I was mistaken. After four orders of garlic naan and one order of plain naan (stop, I know, I have already heard enough chastising from the other three in the group), we were in heaven. With the recommendations from the orange-haired Indian chef (owner, maybe?) we picked the tandoori chicken and lentils.

We devoured it quickly. Without the use of utensils, we scarfed the chicken and lentils with the  five blazing hot naans. We could have eaten 10 naans. The freshness of the food was incredible. You didn’t have to chew the entire meal, as the chicken, lentils, and naan just seemed to melt in your mouth.

In a huge stupor, we waddle back to our Little India hotel, talking about how good that meal was. Full and happy and my DNA was satisfied.

And I thought we had it good with Nawab.

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And then there were four

After several weeks of traveling exclusively with me, Michael was probably pretty excited to welcome his friends Dan and Christy to our adventures. And adventures we’ve had . . . what an unforgettable few days. We met in Kuala Lumpur, which is the capital of Malaysia. We’ve been pretty impressed with the tourism efforts in this country. We’ve sampled nasi lemak, a Malaysian staple starring little dried fish, gotten a bird’s eye view of KL from the Petronas towers, and re-discovered the beach as we’ve made it now to Malaysian Borneo. In between times, though, we took a side trip over to Cambodia.

View from the 40-somethingth floor of Petronas building, KL

 How could we describe Cambodia? This country has an amazingly rich and heartbreaking history which includes exchanges of power, genocide, landmines – and more tragedy than I could ever begin to fathom. So it’s even more heartbreaking, then, when the little children of this only recently stabilized country are begging in the streets and on the water. When the first landmine victim approached us, selling books without the luxury of having hands, I couldn’t imagine saying no. And the tiny children hawking scarves, jewelry, water, and beer absolutely broke our hearts. On the other hand, Cambodia’s wonder – the temples – were absolutely unfathomable. My initial impression of Cambodia is one part heartbreak and two parts hope.

Brooke and Christy survey the ruins

We spent our first day in Siem Reap discovering what aimless tourism gets you. Our findings? Hot, tired, and temple-weary. Buying a three-day tour pass (I know, what is this – Disney World?) and starting at noon, we made a major rookie mistake. All of us were pooped by 3:00 pm. Temples sans explanations were tough! We bought a book that ended up being not terribly helpful and also a rip-off, as we saw it much cheaper later. Bamboozled again. The next day we wised up and hired a guide, started at sunrise, and had a much more positive learning experience. And did I mention I experienced my first close encounter with wild Cambodian monkeys?

Angkor Wat at dawn

That’s right, amid our beautiful day of appreciating architecture from bygone eras, I rather didn’t appreciate being charged by a primate. This monkey had a serious entitlement issue, and it decided it was entitled to remove my water bottle from my possession. So it did. As we approached our last temple of the afternoon, Michael, Dan, Christy, Ly (our guide) and I strolled, hot and tired to say the least, past a family of monkeys. Our guide said we could feed them if we had any bananas. We did actually have bananas, but I have mixed feelings about feeding wild animals, for two reasons. For one, it’s not always responsible to introduce this habit of relying on humans for food; for two, they’re wild. As in have really sharp teeth and scary claws. (And for three, hey! That’s my food!) Instead we enjoyed them from afar, taking pictures on zoom and keeping a safe distance.

Cute, right?

And it was a safe distance, until one little monkey started running. Michael jumped out of its way, but no worries, love, that monkey isn’t a threat to you. That’s because it’s running straight for me! At first, I thought he would run right past, but this wasn’t to be the case. He was staring intently at me. I thought about those How to Survive Anything books and wondered if this was in there. I’d always made fun of those obscure situationals they provided. Not so obscure now, right Brooke?

I knew that this monkey was unlikely to attack me unprovoked, and it certainly wasn’t smelling the bananas because they were tucked safely in Michael’s bag. Then I noticed its eyes weren’t fixed on me, they were squarely on my water bottle! This monkey just wants something to drink! I thought about a robbery situation, which this essentially was, and remembered you’re supposed to throw your wallet and run the other way. So I parted ways with the bottle and ran toward my somewhat startled friends.

Not actually the robber, but this monkey enjoyed some water too

 Dan almost got all this on video, which would’ve been hysterical. The monkey grabbed the water bottle and untwisted the cap. Who knew those little hands had so much dexterity? I’ve not been giving them enough credit. Then it sat down, held the bottle with its hands, and tipped it up with its feet. Glug, glug, goodbye, sweet hydration! It wasn’t able to drink more than just a little, as it struggled to hold the big bottle. I’d say more water ended up on the ground than in the monkey mouths, but it was quite hilarious to see the little guy drag the bottle off when the attack monkey finished. 

And thankfully, we all survived unscathed

This would be just the beginning of a wild and weird Cambodian adventure. Next up: more on the temples, a floating village, and kiss a Birkenstock goodbye.  Dan and Christy, welcome to Southeast Asia!

A well-deserved Angkor beer!

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