Monthly Archives: October 2008

Step Away From the Lonely Planet: A Requiem for Travel Guidebooks

Posted by on October 30, 2008

This addresses is something which I’ve touched on before, the need for guidebooks when traveling. The impetus for this was spurred on by a Twitter discussion with Leif Pettersen who declared:

I declare that smugly claiming to be too cool or savvy to travel with a guidebook is officially passé and open for ridicule.

Leif is a guidebook writer. I’ve met other guidebook writers while traveling. I have nothing against guidebook writers. After a 19 months on the road, however, I can say with 100% certainty…

You don’t need a guidebook to travel, and getting information online is better, cheaper, and more convenient than what you will find in a book.

Here is why:

Timeliness

I have used one guidebook on my trip. Prior to leaving, I purchased the Moon’s Guide to the South Pacific. The author, David Stanley, is probably one of the foremost authorities on travel in the South Pacific. He’s been traveling the region for decades and knows the area very well. I subscribe to his website to get news of the region.

Nonetheless, for reasons which were totally beyond his control, much of the information in the book regarding flights was out of date. Pacific Blue had canceled their flights to Tonga. Air Nauru no longer existed. Several other transportation issues made me have to change my plans based on information I got online or on the ground. The problem wasn’t with the author, it was with the medium. He is very diligent about providing updates to airlines on his website, but that same information might take years to make it to print.

The publication cycle for guidebooks means that the moment a new guidebook hits the shelf, the information is probably a year out of date. The schedule for putting out new editions can range from 1-5 years and for little visited places, perhaps even longer.

Sites such as Hostelworld.com will have much more timely information. You can usually find reviews from people who have stayed at the hostel within the last two weeks.

Transportation schedules are the things most likely to change. You can find up to date train information at Seat61.com. You can find up to date flight information at any number of flight sites like Expedia, Orbitz or Kayak. You can get bus schedules from most places you stay. I know here in SE Asia, bus schedules are easy to find at any hotel or hostel, and they will have the latest information.

Most places you will have an entire industry built around tourism. Most guidebook authors get their information about attractions by picking up brochures, and you can do the exact same thing when you are there. If attractions have been closed for any reason, you can more readily find that out online than in a guidebook.

Quality

To address the quality of the information you get from a guidebook, I will not even address the controversy surrounding guidebook author Thomas Kohnstamm and the allegations of fraud (because there really was no fraud). It isn’t necessary.

Leif’s main contention is that you don’t know what your source is online, but you do in a guidebook. I contend the exact opposite. I have no idea who most guidebook authors are and I have no idea what went into the research of the guidebook. I’m sure most guidebook authors are honest, but I’m equally sure that some aren’t. They might have fudged some information or taken freebies from hotel/restaurant owners. I have no way of knowing.

There is huge demand to be a guidebook writer, because of the glamor associated with travel writing. Most guidebook authors are paid very little, and are required to cover a lot of places in a short period of time. I met one guy who was working on the Australia book for Let’ Go. We were both in Coober Peady, SA. He was there for a day, and I was there for four days. We both had access to the same information. He was gathering up everything he could before he had to take off and go to the next place. I probably experienced more of Coober Peady, but I wasn’t trying to catalog as much information as I could.

Guidebooks are not reviews. Guidebook authors do not visit the vast majority of restaurants, hotels, and attractions they write about. They can’t tell if you if a place is good, just that it exists and contact info. If you want reviews of place, you have to go online. Do I trust the collective wisdom of hundreds and thousands of people, or a single person? I’ll take the mob. If a hotel is consistently getting rated poorly online, that is level of information you’ll never get from a book.

The mob also does a good job with sites like Wikitravel. I have personally updated some of the entries on the Solomon Island and East Timor, which I found to be out of date. You have no way of knowing that I was the person providing the information of course. Can wikis have incorrect information? Yes. So far, however, I’ve found them to be reliable. (Prediction, Lonely Planet or someone else will eventually use these user created information banks to gather information and publish books using this content, bypassing individual authors completely. This will totally remove biggest cost associated with information gathering.)

Most importantly, it really isn’t that hard to get information once you are at a location. The more popular the place is, the easier it is to get information. In somewhere like Bali, you will have people falling all over themselves give you brochures, which is the exact same information which goes into a guidebook.

Finally, all guidebooks are second hand information. Online you can get primary information. Via the web can you get hotel, park, or airline information directly from the source.

Cost and Weight

Guidebooks are expensive and heavy. If you buy in a bookstore, you can easily spend $20-40 on a book. (much less at Amazon). Some of the thicker books can weight over a kilogram (2.2 pounds). That is not trivial when you are traveling. If you are going to many different places, that can all add up. Given the amount of money you spend on a book, you could spend hours at an internet cafe getting the same information (and of course, it will cost nothing if you get it before you leave).

Ultimately, guidebooks sell because of fear and uncertainty. When you go someplace you’ve never been, you want to have some certainty about where to go and what to do before you show up. I still feel the same thing before I go somewhere new. However, I have come to learn that I can get by just fine by asking questions on the ground and doing some research online. I’ve arrived in many places with no accommodations booked ahead of time and had no problem finding a place to stay.

Smugness has nothing to do with it. Guidebooks may have made sense back when Lonely Planet was founded in the 70’s. Today, they are a vestigial reminder of a pre-internet era.

Be the author of your own guidebook and leave the Lonely Planet at home.

Still in Saigon

Posted by on October 29, 2008

I’m still in Saigon. I said I wasn’t going to leave until I have all my Cambodia photos processed and I plan on sticking by that. I wasn’t aware of just how many photos I had taken between Angkor, Preah Vihear, Tonle Sap and Phnom Penh. I still have 500 left to process. Taking photos is fun. Processing them isn’t so great.

I was especially upset with a lot of my photos because it was an overcast day when I visited Angkor Wat and Bayon Temple. When you have a bright gray sky, it tends to really wash out photos. When shooting landscapes or buildings, I like a blue sky with moderate amounts of fluffy clouds. I probably get more hung up on the sky than I should, but I hate having a solid white background.

I’m enjoying Saigon. It is a much better city than I thought it would be. I don’t think it is on a level with Kuala Lumpur or Bangkok, but it can be within ten years. There is a vibrancy here. It may not be on a par with Hong Kong yet, but it is here.

I’ve become a regular at a local cafe with wifi. I am amazed at how waitresses in this part of the world go out of their way to point out my dimples in a matter of seconds. The woman who runs the guesthouse I’m staying at mentions them every time she sees me. I wonder if there is some cultural things in SE Asia surrounding dimples I don’t know about. If there is, perhaps I should stay longer :)

Preah Vihear: My Trip To A War Zone, Part 3

Posted by on October 27, 2008

Read part 1 and part 2 first.

xxx

Made it! Note how totally dirty I am. It was even worse driving back. I still have a layer of Cambodia on my camera bag.

The Temple

We paid the dirt bike drivers $18 to take us round trip up the mountain. I don’t think they get much business lately. On the way up we saw periodic small groups of soldiers sleeping or bathing. They didn’t appear to be at Defcon 5. We also saw various propaganda posters by the Cambodian government along the road. As they were written in English as well as Cambodian, I don’t think they were made for domestic consumption. Several of the soldiers cheered and waved to me. I think they must have thought be to be a reporter.

The temple itself was almost a letdown given the efforts required to get there. The first thing you notice is stuck right in the middle of the ruins closest to Thailand is a highly unnatural looking flagpole with a Cambodian flag. It looked like it was giving the finger to Thailand.

The temple is very long with three major sections. The temple is designed such that you walk up a long flight of stairs (which terminate near the Thai border), go down a paved path through several buildings, leading to a final temple building overlooking the plains of Cambodia. During its prime, it must have been quite dramatic.

Lest there be any confusion

Lest there be any confusion...

In addition to soldiers, there were also women and children near the temple area. Why they were there is beyond me. They were not visiting. Some appeared to work there. One girl tried to sell me a CD, which I thought was very odd given the circumstances. I think they non-soldiers are there either to support the soldiers (food, cleaning, etc) or to solidify the claims to the temple by having civilians.

My total time at the temple was about an hour, which was really more than enough to explore all of it. I would like to have taken some more photos of the soldiers and talked to more of them, but we were on a schedule. If we were to make it back to Siem Reap at a reasonable hour. We pulled away from Preah Vihear at about 1:30pm.

The Road Back

View from Preah Vihear Temple

View from Preah Vihear Temple

So far, the experience hadn’t been a physical challenge. My legs and butt were sore from being on the bike for so long and I had burned my right calf on the tail pipe getting off the bike, and I had one of my left toes hit with a rock from a passing car. As we took the same road back, the pains of sitting in place for so long started to become worse. Image getting stuck on the middle seat of an airplane for a flight across the ocean, the seat is above the engine, has no padding, the flight is nothing but turbulence, your legs are locked into a position you can’t move from, and you have to straddle some other dude.

My knees were beginning to hurt from not moving for hours at a stretch and my ass hurt from the bumpiness of the road and not moving. Dirt and dust has crept into everything. Weeks after, my camera bag is still dirty from the trip. The only good thing was that we had avoided rain. There were storm clouds ahead of us that we just missed. We got back to Anlong Veng before sunset and I was hoping to be in Siem Reap by 7-7:30pm.

Then it started to rain…

We drove through the rain for about 30 minutes. We had no rain gear and it was dark. I had put my camera bag in my backpack, so all my gear was safe, but we slowed to about 20km/hr. We were on graded road at this point, but there were still potholes. Just went it looked like the raid would never end, it did and we managed to avoid it for the rest of the trip home.

xxx

Part of the reason for the dispute is Cambodia's claim to the legacy of the Khmer Empire.

My shirt and everything else dried quickly from driving in the open air. My shorts however, didn’t dry as I was sitting on them. I assume you have seen what happens to skin when it is exposed to water for long periods of time. If you’ve been in the bathtub or swimming for too long, your skin starts to get really wrinkly. This was happening to all the skin on my butt because it was in contact with water for several hours.

About two hours out from Siem Reap, things were really starting to get painful. The backseat of the motorbike was starting take its toll. It was really narrow and wasn’t as padded as the part where the driver sits. The constant pounding and the wet clothes began to make sitting extremely painful. I had to adjust my position every 30 seconds or so else it become unbearable. This is very difficult to do on the back of a bike. My knees also began to ache from being locked into position for so many hours.

I eventually told Bhin that we needed to pull over to take a break and let me walk around to stretch. He didn’t want to because there might be gangsters out at night. At one point we did pull over after we went over a particularly bad pothole and a car pulled up as we were on the side of the road. I had no idea what was going on, but I felt if Bhin had been alone, they wouldn’t have stopped. I had no idea what they were saying as they were speaking Cambodian, but at one point Bhin lifted up the seat where I knew the gun was stored. I began to mentally prepare myself for whatever may happen, but thankfully nothing did. I still don’t know why he lifted the seat.

By the time we rolled into Siem Reap it was 9:30pm. It was in so much pain, had we not been back I would have suggested stopping somewhere for the night. I was cursing Bhin under my breath for the last two hours. He really didn’t do anything wrong, but I needed to vent at someone, and he was the only available target. He actually did a helluva job all things considering. I paid him his fee, a decent tip, and painfully stumbled to get something to eat.

15 seconds after I leave Bhin, the first words anyone says to me are “Sir, you want motorbike?”

No thanks.

A paved road never looked so good

A paved road never looked so good

Aftermath

My butt is still not 100% healed from that trip. Because of the wet clothes and the bouncing, I developed some sort of rash which hasn’t totally cleared up. The scabs from the burn I got from the tail pipe are mostly gone, but a bit still remains. My hat is still dirty as are my backpack and camera bag.

Would I do it again? No. This is the first time I can honestly say I wouldn’t do something again which I experienced on my trip. If Preah Vihear is really something you want to see, don’t do it how I did. Take a car, take your own motorbike, stay over night, or best of all, wait for the current issues with Thailand to settle down and visit from the Thai side of the border. There was a very nice paved road over the border with lines down the middle which taunted me while I was there.

The irony of the conflict between Cambodia and Thailand is that the infrastructure for visiting Preah Vihear is all on the Thai side of the border. I saw signs touting Preah Vihear in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, but there is no real infrastructure to actually visit it from Cambodia.

While I wouldn’t do it again, I did do it, and visiting a “war zone” is definitely something I’m going to brag about over drinks for the rest of my life. I’m sure the story will morph to have me dodging bullets in a few years and and sores on my ass will be from shrapnel, not a motorbike seat.

Preah Vihear: My Trip To A War Zone, Part 2

Posted by on October 26, 2008

Please read part 1 first.

The view from the back of a tuk tuk. The driver is Bhin

The view from the back of a tuk tuk. The driver is Bhin

Getting to Preah Vihear from Siem Reap isn’t easy. In the future, I fully expect there to be day trips by bus. Currently, however, it requires a great deal of will and much more cash than you’ll spend going to temples around Siem Reap. If I had to guess, there are probably only a handful of non-Cambodian visitors to Siem Reap each week. Since the conflict with Thailand started, there are probably a lot less. The day I was there I was told they had 10 visitors that day. I was the only non-Cambodian I could see. The border with Thailand was closed.

My tuk tuk driver for my tour of the Angkor temples was Bhin. He was 21 years old, could speak reasonably fluent English and had a wife four months pregnant. I told Bhin that I wanted to go to Preah Vihear and he quickly offered to drive me. He told me that you can’t take a tuk tuk to Preah Vihear. We’d have to take a bike and I’d have to sit on the back. “No problem”, I said. I clearly didn’t think through the implications of sitting on the back of a bike.

My my estimates looking at the map, I figured Preah Vihear was about 200km from Siem Reap. Given the speed at which the motorbikes went, I figured about 4-5 hours each way. We’d leave early in the morning, get there about 9-10am and have plenty of time to get back before sunset.

Village at the base of Preah Vihear Temple

Village at the base of Preah Vihear Temple

Bhin claimed to have been there before (a claim which I now doubt in hindsight) and said it would cost $200 for the trip. $200 seemed really expensive for a day on a bike, especially when a day in a tuk tuk was $15. We negotiated back and forth for two days and I eventually settled on $120 and I’d pay for gas. Looking back, he earned it.

Early on October 6th we met at my guesthouse at 5am for the trip. I didn’t take my tripod (thank God). I just had my camera bag and a backpack an umbrella and some food. Bhin then tells me he didn’t get any sleep the night before because he was up convincing his father, who is a senior police officer in Siem Reap, to let him go. His father eventually agreed, but gave him a gun which Bhin put under the seat of the bike. He described it in very Nancy Reagan-esque terms, “it’s just a little one”.

Hitting The Road

So, camera and gun in tow, we head out. First stop is to get gas. Bhin’s mother runs a small roadside gas stand where gas is sold out of old bottles of Johnny Walker (you can see them all over in Cambodia). We filled up, I give his mom $5, he kneels before his mother for a blessing, and we hit the road.

Bhin likes to talk. Before the sun even rose, we had been on the road an hour and he had been talking up a storm. We had two helmets, but didn’t bother wearing them yet. That would get in the way of talking. There is little traffic on the roads at night and nothing moves very fast. The real reason for the helmets, as Bhin pointed out, is to block the dust and stones which fly at your head when a truck passes you.

Soldiers on a motorbike

Soldiers on a motorbike

The beginning of the trip was fine. The roads out of Siem Reap are paved and when we finally hit an unpaved road, it was still in good shape having been recently graded. I saw a lot of pseudo road construction. Most of it did not involve the use of big machines. Road crews would create small bridges by hand pouring cement into molds, then moving the large pieces of cement into place. It looked as if they were given rebar and bags of cement by the government and told “There you go. Make a bridge.”

We had no real map for getting to Preah Vihear. Bhin’s father drew one for him, and that was it. There are also no road signs to be found anywhere in the country side. That being said, it is difficult to get lost as there really aren’t many roads. The totally number of intersections I saw were one road met another was probably less than 10. I had no idea, and neither did Bhin, just how close we were to Preah Vihear.

The only “city” we drove through was Anlong Veng, approximately half way between Siem Reap and Preah Vihear. Anlong Veng was the last city controlled by the Khmer Rouge and is where Pol Pot was cremated. Had I known where his ashes were buried, I’d have gladly pissed on them.

The Rocky Road

Once out of Anlong Veng, the road got worse and our progress slowed considerably. The bike we were on wasn’t a dirt bike designed for off road use. Several times we had to stop and I would get off and walk because the mud was so deep. The only real thing we had to deal with before Anlong Veng was a stretch of thick fog. The fog made us wet, but the road was still dry and dusty, so the dust would kick up and stick to our wet bodies. Fun.

xxx

The Cambodian People's Party is the ruling party in Cambodia. I saw these signs everywhere on the ride. This is the sign in the village at Preah Vihear.

With only a few brief rest stops, we pull into the village below Preah Vihear at about 11:30am, six and a half hours after we left Siem Reap. As we neared the village, we had an escort of several guys on motorcycles who rode with us. These guys have off road bikes and take people up and down the mountain, as the road it too steep, rough and wet for normal cars or motorbikes. The village is mostly catering to soldiers, which we saw on the road once we entered Preah Vihear province an hour earlier. We’d see small outposts of soldiers in tents or hammocks sleeping or hanging out on the side of the road.

The Cambodian military contingent in Preah Vihear didn’t really seem very menacing. There weren’t many of them, they seemed very unorganized, and had nothing beyond AK-47s, RPGs and pickup trucks It is amazing how many of the conflicts in the world today are fought with nothing more than those things. The Cambodians seemed to be there just to establish a presence in the area and to serve as a check to any small movements by Thailand (which is all that the conflict has been to this point).

With a half a day of hard driving, I’d seen more of Cambodia than I’d seen in the previous week, and we still hadn’t actually been to the temple.

Read part 3.

Preah Vihear: My Trip To A War Zone, Part 1

Posted by on October 24, 2008

Preah Vihear Temple, Cambodia

Preah Vihear Temple, Cambodia

My day traveling to Preah Vihear is one of the most interesting and grueling of my trip, and so my description of the events is going to be a lot longer than most posts. I’ll be splitting this up into two parts. Today will be a general overview of the temple, its history, location and a summary of the events in the area as of today (yes, things are unfolding there as I write this). Tomorrow I’ll describe what I experienced and what my day was like. It is important to get a background to understand what is happening and exactly what I was getting myself into.

History of Preah Vihear

If you are like me, you probably never heard of Preah Vihear until recently, either from the news or from my blog. It isn’t one of the big sexy ancient sites like Angkor. It is difficult to get to and few tourists, especially from the Cambodia side, make the trip. Preah Vihear came to my attention when it was listed at a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2008. When I was in Siem Reap, I knew I had to try and make the trip there.

Preah Vihear temple was contemporary to many of the temples of Angkor. Built in the 11th and 12th centuries during the reigns of Suryavarman I & II in the Khmer Empire, it was dedicated to the god Shiva. (Buddhism is a recent importation to SE Asia, having been adopted around the 15th century. Prior to that Hinduism was the dominant religion.)

Soldiers at Preah Vihear Temple

Soldiers at Preah Vihear Temple

Preah Vihear is on a hill overlooking the plains of Cambodia to one side, and Thailand on the other. It is a location with a stunning view. From the temple you can see Cambodia unfold below you. You can easily see why it was chosen as a location for a temple. It was an important temple in the Khmer Empire, but never quite on a par with the temple of Angkor. Architectural styles are similar to what you will find in Angkor. The temple is aligned north-south rather than the normal east-west due to the alignment of the mountain.

Modern Conflict over Preah Vihear

The modern conflict over Preah Vihear began in 1962 when the International Court of Justice awarded possession to Cambodia. Unfortunately, it never resolved the status of several square kilometers of land in the area around the temple. Thailand considers the issue of the area around Preah Vihear unresolved and claims it. From what I’ve seen, there is nothing special about the land in question. It is forested with no particular resources. The conflict seems to be one of national pride and territorial grabs. (I should note that the US and Canada still have five outstanding territorial issues. I’d put the conflict between Thailand and Cambodia to be like the US and Canada fighting over the Machias Seal Island)

Thai flag across the border

Thai flag across the border

The Thai didn’t take the ruling too well. Rather than lower the Thai flag which flew over Preah Vihear, they dug up the entire flagpole and moved it to the Thai side of the border, where it currently still sits.

Since 1962, Preah Vihear was the scene for several important events in Cambodian history:

  • When the Khmer Rouge took power in 1975, the last holdouts from the Lon Nol government took refuge at Preah Vihear. On May 22, the Khmer Rouge stormed the temple, making it the last piece of Cambodia to come under their control.
  • After the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia in 1978, the Khmer Rouge were pushed back to the border and took shelter at Preah Vihear.
  • The invasion by Vietnam caused a flood of refugees into Thailand. When they were forcibly pushed back into Cambodia, most were sent over the border near Preah Vihear.
  • In 1998, the last vestiges of the Khmer Rouge surrendered and negotiated at Preah Vihear.

Land mine waring sign

Land mine waring sign


As a result of all this, the area around Preah Vihear is one of the most heavily land mined areas in a heavily mined country.

2008 Conflict with Thailand

The dispute with Thailand was put on the back burner for years and never resolved. In July, 2008 things came to a head with Preah Vihear’s listing as a World Heritage Site. Cambodians celebrated, Thais got upset, and troops were sent. The full time line of events can be seen here. It is too long to go over in detail here. Here are some of the relevant events surrounding my visit:

  • October 3rd A small three minute fight between troops. Two Thai and one Cambodian were injured.
  • October 6th Two Thai soldiers are injured by land mines after they wander over 1km into Cambodia.
  • October 14 A large firefight breaks out. Seven Thai are wounded with three Cambodians wounded and two killed. Cambodia claims to have captured 13 men, which Thailand denies

I went to Preah Vihear on October 6…..

Read part 2

Tonlé Sap

Posted by on October 22, 2008

Map of Cambodia

The majority of the population of Cambodia lives in the area around Tonlé Sap and its drainage areas

If you had to condense the essence of Cambodia down to one thing, it wouldn’t be the temples of Angkor. They are famous and draw the tourists, but they are nothing more than crumbling stones. The reason why those temples were built where they were, and the reason why much of the population lives where they do, is Tonlé Sap.
Technically a river (hereby referred to as a lake), Tonlé Sap is the body of water which is the heart of the country. It is a remarkable lake for many reasons.

  • It is easily the largest body of freshwater in South East Asia.
  • The size of the lake varies dramatically over the course of the year. During the monsoon it is over 16,000 sq/km and during the dry season is shrinks to 2,700 sq/km. The depth of the water can vary by over 10m as well.
  • The direction of flow changes throughout the course of the year as well. During the dry season it drains into the Mekong. During the wet season, it floods the surrounding plains.
  • When the water is high, the flooding into the forests and plains makes for an excellent breeding environment for fish. I was at Tonle Sap during the high water season, and fishing was restricted during this period. Once the dry season starts and breeding has stopped, fishing can start again.

Kids playing in the front yard

Kids playing in the front yard

All the nature trivia aside, the most interesting thing about Tonlé Sap are the people who live there. Thousands of people live in floating villages, living most of their lives on the water. Many of the hospitals, schools, temples and newspapers are floating and move with the water. Where you live in October might be many kilometers away from where you might live in March.

The people who live on Tonlé Sap are poor. Among the poorest in Cambodia. They livelihood is almost entirely dependent on fishing, which was not in season while I was there. Oddly enough, I watched a National Geographic show on Tonlé Sap last night which confirmed something one of my guides told me when I was there: when they can’t fish, they hunt and eat snakes. The ethnic make up of Tonlé Sap is also different than most of Cambodia. There are many ethnic Thai, Vietnamese and Cham (Cambodian Muslims) people who live there.

The family that fishes together, stays together

The family that fishes together, stays together

I was able to visit Tonlé Sap on two separate occasions during my time in Cambodia: once as part of a normal tuk tuk tour of the Siem Reap area, and the second time was a boat trip down the length of Tonlé Sap from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh. It is a remarkable life the people lead. Other than taking their fish to market, they can’t ever really be on dry land that often. I saw school kids coming home from school by boat, kids playing in boats, and entire families in some parts of the lake fishing together (I don’t think schools are available everywhere on the lake).

During my tour I visited a Vietnamese floating school. I was so moved by everything I saw during my day up until that point, I went to the local floating village store and purchased notebooks and pencils for the whole school. (At first I wasn’t thinking and just got notebooks. My guide then pointed out “they need to write with something”.)

Siamese Crocodiles are farmed in Tonle Sap

Siamese Crocodiles are farmed in Tonle Sap

Some of the villages I saw down river seems a bit more elaborate than the floating villages to the north. They were on stilts for starters, not floating, and you could see a forest of TV antennas sprouting from the rooftops of the houses.

Other than fishing, the big source of income for people on the lake is raising Siamese Crocodiles. Many houses will have a pen where the crocodiles are raised for their hide, which is the softest crocodile hide on Earth. The Siamese Crocodile has mostly disappeared from the wild in Tonle Sap, but are abundant in captivity. The feeding of snakes to the crocodiles are threatening native snakes who live in the lake. The snakes are fed due to the restrictions on fishing during the wet season.

I knew next to nothing about Tonle Sap before I visited Cambodia and it ended up being one of the high point of my time there. It is a place and a way of life which can’t be found anywhere else on Earth.

My Future Travels

Posted by on October 20, 2008

I have been pretty much playing things by ear for most of my trip. I’d sort of know the general direction I was moving and where I was going next, but getting the next ticket or next room was about as far as I’d plan.

I’ve decided to return to the US for a few months in March or April. By then I will have been on the road for two years and there are certain things I just can’t take care of while I’m traveling. I also will not have seen my family or my friends in two years by that point.

From where I am now, the plan is to go up Vietnam to Hanoi, cut over into Laos, and down into Thailand. From there, I’ll somehow go to India/Nepal. After India I’m going to pick up the pace a bit. If you look at my map, I haven’t taken a lot of giant leaps on my trip (islands in the Pacific excluded). I think I’m going to jump all the way to Dubai, then fly to Cairo. From Cairo I’ll go to Rome and work my way over land to either London or Amsterdam. Depending on ticket prices I may fly to Iceland on the way back to the US.

When all is said and done, the 2007-8 trip should cover about 60 countries and about 80 World Heritage sites.

My current thinking is to stay in the US for 3-4 months then start out a new leg of the trip, this time focusing on the Americas. I’ll start in the Caribbean sometime in the North American summer and island hop to South America and try to work my way down to Argentinean Patagonia for their summer, then go up the west coast into Central America with a stop in the Galapagos Island along the way. If I can weasel a way to get to Antarctica, I’ll do that. I should hit every country in South American and most in the Caribbean.

During my time in the US I don’t plan on being idle. I’m going to be working on a book. I have a rough outline already and I’ll start writing in January. I’ll be getting a new laptop, as my current one is near death. I’m also going to get a real pro video camera. I know what the problems are with podcasting on the road now, so I think I can solve all those issues next time and put more energy into making a quality video podcast.

Oh, I also don’t plan on doing the next trip alone.

While I’m in the US I hope to do some speaking engagements and meet with readers and other bloggers. I will also be shooting some podcast episodes in the US and will be looking for readers/bloggers who’d be interested in showing me their town. More on that later. When it gets to that time and I’m in your neck of the woods, feel free to contact me for a beer. I will show you slides from my vacation :)

I will also be running a contest in November. My last contest was the post card contest from Bali which, thanks to the Indonesian Postal Service, was a total disaster. This time I’m going to be buying items from SE Asia and sending them to five lucky readers. FYI, you’ll have to be an RSS subscriber to enter, so you might as well just do it now if you haven’t already.

First Thoughts on the Socialist Republic of Vietnam

Posted by on October 19, 2008

I made it to Saigon with little trouble (FYI, I’m going to call it Saigon, as most of the locals still do. It is my belief that at some point, it will revert back from Ho Chi Min City just like Lenningrad changed back to St. Petersburg). We took about a half hour to cross the Mekong on a ferry, which really was a stretch that could be easily spanned with a bridge. It also took about 45 minutes to get past immigration at the border, just because of the system they have for processing an entire bus.

As we went into Vietnam I began playing a mental game I always play when I enter a new country, trying to compare it to other places I’ve been. The first obvious comparison I tried to make was with Cambodia. I very quickly realized that that wasn’t fair to Vietnam. Vietnam is nothing like Cambodia. It is much more developed. The roads are nicer, they have actual traffic rules and signs, the electrical infrastructure seems much better, there evidence of industry which I never saw in Cambodia, shacks and corrugated tin shelters exist, but are the exception not the rule. Vietnam has much more in common with Thailand than Cambodia.

Saigon has a buzz which was completely lacking in Cambodia. Things are happening. Lots more activity on the streets, more construction, lights on storefronts, no beggars or tuk tuks. Saigon is a big city and has a population larger than Los Angles.

The place I’m staying is pretty nice. I got a bath tub, hot water, satellite TV, A/C and wireless…..all for $17/day. Even has a makeshift minibar in the room with $0.75 beers.

Lots of places to eat. I like Vietnamese food, so I’ll be taking full advantage of that in the coming days. I’m looking forward to seeing the difference between North and South Vietnam.

While Vietnam is technically a communist country, you’d never guess it. I’ve need a few Ho Chi Min posters and a few hammer and sickle flags on government buildings, but that’s about it.

The currency here is the dong, which has shown the worst inflation of any currency I’ve seen on my trip. It is about 16,000 dong to the US Dollar, beating out the Indonesian Rupiah which was about 10,000 to the dollar. I have yet to convert my dollars from Cambodia. It was humbling to realize I was walking around on the street with no dong.

Next Stop Is Vietnam

Posted by on October 18, 2008

This is my last night in Cambodia. Tomorrow I’m off to Saigon at 9am. I’m not looking forward to the bus ride, but is only $12 so I think I’ll survive. Sadly, the ear buds stopped working today so no music.

Phnom Penh isn’t my favorite city . I dare say it is on the lower half of my list of favorite cities. It isn’t so much that there is anything wrong with it as there isn’t much very exciting about it. When your top tourist attraction revolves around genocide, I don’t think you are going to making many “greatest city” lists. I’d like to visit again in 10 years and see how it has fared.

I went to the shooting range in Phnom Penh yesterday (one of the listed attractions here) and fired an M16. I got to unload a full clip, half of which was on automatic. Honestly, the gun was really a rusted out piece of crap which was probably a left over from the war. Nonetheless, I did quite well considering I didn’t get to sight in the gun and I had never fired an automatic weapon before. 28/30 rounds hit the target.

Other than that, I haven’t done too much. I visited the Killing Fields and Tuel Seng museum as well as Wat Phnom and a bit of the Royal Palace. I’ve been told that Saigon is more dynamic than Phnom Pehn, and I hope so. I still have a ton of photos from Angkor to go through, so I am hoping the internet in Vietnam is somewhat better than here so I can get some uploaded.

The Seven Wonders of New Zealand

Posted by on October 15, 2008

Ladies, gentlemen and Kiwis of all ages. With the assistance of New Zealand native son Craig Martin, author of the Travelling Europe ebook, I present to you the Seven Wonders of New Zealand!


White Island

White Island

White Island
Known as Whakaari in the local Maori dialect, the name “White Island” came from Captain Cook who thought it was always in a cloud of white steam. Located in the Bay of Plenty near the North Island, it is an active volcano and was the former location of a sulfur mining operation which ended in disaster. Helicopter and boat trips to the island leave daily from Whakatane.



White Island

Milford Sound


Milford Sound
Perhaps the most magnificent location in all of New Zealand, Milford Sound is technically a fijord. Viewing the sound is done via many boat tour operators which operate from the harbor. Day trips leave from Queenstown, which is the closest major city to Milford Sound. The Milford Track is also one of the most popular hiking trails in the country. The number of hikers on the track is limited to 40 per day. If you visit during a rain storm, you can witness hundreds of waterfalls which will appear on the walls of the sound.



Fox Glacier

Fox Glacier


Fox and Franz Joseph Glaciers
The only glaciers in the Pacific, Fox and Franz Joseph glaciers have the unique distinction of being the only glaciers in the world which flow into tropical forests. Only a 30 min drive from each other, the glaciers can be accessed from the town of Franz Joseph Glacier. Both glaciers are very accessible by walking, though it is not recommended to get to close because of dangers from falling ice. Also unlike many glaciers around the world, both glaciers have been advancing since the mid 1980s.



Poor Knight Islands

Poor Knight Islands by David Galvan

Poor Kinights Islands
The Poor Knights were named by Jacques Cousteau as one of the 10 best dive locations in the world. He probably knew what he was talking about. Located in the north end of the North Island, the Poor Knights shows the diversity of the geography of New Zealand, as you can go diving in tropical waters one day and visit fjords and glaciers the next. The Poor Knights are a protected marine reserve. The Poor Knights are best accessed from Whangarei or Tutukaka, north of Auckland.



Rotorua Hot Spring

Rotorua Hot Spring

Rotorua
Rotorua is one of the most active geothermal areas in the world. You can find boiling mud and pools of scalding water in the city parks. There are also geysers and geothermal spas nearby. You will know when you are close to Rotorua because of the strong sulfur smell in the city. In addition to the geothermal attractions, Rotorua is also a hub for adventure tourism as well as water sports on Lake Rotorua. Rotorua can be reached in a days driving from Auckland.



Tongariro National Park

Tongariro National Park

Tongariro National Park
Home of the real Mount Doom and many of the landscapes from The Lord of the Rings, Tongariro National Park is home to three active volcanoes: Ruapehu, Ngauruhoe, and Tongariro. The park has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Tongariro Track is one of the most popular hiking destinations for backpackers in New Zealand, and Tongariro also has one of the most popular ski slopes in the country.



All Blacks

All Blacks by Darren Waters

All Blacks
While not a traditional type of selection, the All Blacks are perhaps the sports team which is most closely associated with a single country. The three most popular sports in New Zealand are rugby, rugby and rugby. The All Blacks are the New Zealand national rugby union team and have been playing for over 100 years. The team name is believed to have come from a typo in a British newspaper who wanted to describe the Kiwis as all backs. Always ranked near top of world standings, they have sadly only won a single world cup. They are famous for the haka, a Maori war dance, which they perform before every match. Watch a video of the haka.


Other articles in Gary’s Wonders of the World series:
Seven Wonders of the Philippines | Seven Wonders of Australia | Seven Wonders of New Zealand | Seven Wonders of Japan | Seven Wonders of Egypt