First Impressions of Cambodia

  • I walk out the doors of the airport and expect the normal rush of people trying to sell me crap and offer me rides. Something seems fishy. No one is trying to sell me anything. I get handed a flyer and a guy who looks official tells me I can save $5 by taking a motorbike instead of a car. Not only are they not selling me stuff, they are trying to save me money. Very odd.
  • The few people I’ve met so far speak English better than most people in Thailand, even those who cater to tourists. Pretty much everyone under 20 can speak English quite well I’m told.
  • The ATM machines dispense US Dollars. Everything is priced in US Dollars. Transportation seems expensive, but rooms are pretty cheap. The local currency (Cambodian Riel – KHR) is one of those incredibly inflated things where you have to have a stack of money. $1 = 4,100KHR. The symbol for the Riel is like a heavy metal half note.
  • Before I leave Cambodia, I’m going to shoot a machine gun.
  • Siem Reap is less developed than anything I’ve seen in Thailand. It seems on a par with the Philippines and Indonesia.
  • There is a huge lake and wetlands nearby, which I wasn’t aware of. You can get from here to Phnom Penh by boat, which I just might do. Much more interesting than a bus.
  • I’m going to look into visiting the Temple of Preah Vihear, which isn’t too far away. It is an ancient Hindu temple which was the focus of a brief border conflict with Thailand about a year ago.
  • Due to its colonial history, Cambodia has French as an official language. Outside of government signs, it is nowhere to be seen. I guess old people know it, but never have reason to speak it. Sort of like how Portuguese was treated in East Timor and Macau.

Into Indochina

I leave Thailand today for Cambodia. I’m flying instead of taking a bus because of heard so many bad stories about the road from Bangkok to Siem Reap. It is sort of expensive for a one hour flight. There are still things I want to see here in Thailand but 1) my visa runs out tomorrow, and 2) I’ll be coming back as I do a big loop into northern Thailand.

The plan is to spend multiple days at Angor Wat and just photograph the hell out of it. It will be one of the more notable thing I’ll have seen on my trip to date. If anyone has suggestions for what to see/do in Cambodia beyond Angor Wat, I’m all ears. There are a few things I have planned, but it isn’t a lot so far.

Between The Blog Posts

You must learn the ways of street food Grasshopper
You must learn the ways of street food Grasshopper
I don’t get a chance to write about everything I do and experience on the website. In fact, the vast vast majority of things never get written about. A lot of the small things I put up on Twitter, and/or Facebook. If you haven’t already, you can follow me on Twitter or friend me on Facebook. (oh, you can become a fan on Facebook too) The Twitter updates are usually more interesting than the blog posts :)

Anyway, if you had been following me on Twitter, you would have read about yet another bout of food poisoning I had yesterday. I decided to be adventurous and ordered a bag of fried grasshoppers from a street vendor. Fast forward about 12 hours later and I’m vomiting and have the runs all day long. This is the second time I’ve consumed insects on my trip, and both times I ended up vomiting soon after.

Now, I know what you are thinking “Gee dumb ass. No kidding you’re going to get sick if you eat insects.” The thing is, neither time do I think it was the insects per se that made me sick. In LA I had just finished a 48 hour Amtrak ride from hell and was sort of sick before I ate anything. In Bangkok, the insect vendor was the only street vendor I’ve seen who didn’t cook the food in front of me. I have no idea how long they may have been sitting there.

I’m close to being back at 100%. It has extended my stay in Bangkok by a few days, but I have to get moving soon because my visa expires on the 30th. I did finally get to watch some sepak takraw, which is the most amazing, crazy sport I’ve ever seen. (think badminton meets hackey sack.)

Bangkok Days and Bangkok Nights

Busy street in Bangkok
Busy street in Bangkok
When I go to big cities, I tend to wind up just being a resident more than a tourist. I’ve done a few of the big things to see here in Bangkok, but there is a lot more I haven’t done. I’ve been sticking close to the area around my hotel, which has plenty to experience.

Once of the things I’ve been doing is making it a habit to eat at as many street vendors as possible. Bangkok is by far the best city for street food I’ve visited. In addition to very pedestrian food (by my standards) like fruit, small sausages and noodles, I’ve also had pig intestine, chicken feet and insects. Not only is the food good and cheap, but the devices the vendors use to get around are amazing feats of engineering. They are mini restaurants mounted to a motorcycle. I’ll be doing a full podcast or post on street vendors soon.

I’ve probably met more Americans in Bangkok than I have in all the other places I’ve been on my trip combined. I have no idea why so many congregate in Bangkok, but they do. I’m not even in the backpacker area.

I’m going to have to get moving soon as my visa expires in a week. That is as good of an excuse as any to head over to Cambodia. I’m sure I’ll end up back here on my way out of SE Asia as it is sort of the hub for the region. As Americans don’t need to apply for a visa to Cambodia anymore, I’ll probably get my Vietnam and Laos visas in Phon Phen. Other than my Kiribati fiasco, these will be the first countries I’ve had to apply to enter.

McThailand (aka would the Hamburgler survive in a Thai prison?)

Ronald in a namaste pose
Ronald in a namaste pose
Like a train wreck you know you shouldn’t look at, yet you dare not turn away, I bring you the next installment of McDonald’s Around The World. Today we visit the land of one of the most popular cuisines in the world: Thailand. What better way to avoid the subject of real Thai food than talking about McDonald’s?

Of all the countries I’ve visited so far, Thailand probably has the most unique McDonald’s menu of all. None of the menu seems particularly Thai, however. Let me list off some of what makes Thailand McDonald’s different:

  • Spinach Pie. I can’t say I’ve seen a lot of spinach in Thailand so i don’t know why spinach pie made the menu cut. Nonetheless, it’s there. I think it is supposed to be a desert.
  • Corn Pie and Pineapple Pie. I’ve found corn is some weird places in Asia. I went to a KFC where they had corn sundaes. (yes, corn and ice cream). The pineapple pie really doesn’t surprise me, but the corn pie was kind of out from left field. They also had a taro pie as I’ve seen all over Asia and in the Pacific.
  • McDonalds sign in Thai
    McDonald's sign in Thai
  • Samurai Pork Burger. This certainly wasn’t going to show itself in Malaysia or Indonesia. The pork burger isn’t anything fancy like a McRib. It is just a pork patty on a hamburger bun. They also have a double pork burger which, as far as I can tell, is basically a pork version of the Big Mac. Given how popular pork is in Asian cooking, I’m amazed I haven’t come across the pork burger sooner. I did give it a try and it was fine. Why it is called the “samurai” pork burger is beyond me.
  • Chicken Wings. Like most every other Asian McDonald’s, chicken is a staple of the menu. They had plain fried chicken, chicken wings, chicken strips, and a lemon chicken wrap. This is in addition to the chicken sandwiches.
  • Cheese Fries. I’ve seen them elsewhere, but it sticks out only because of how non-Thai cheese is.
  • Fish Burger with Salmon Sauce. A Filet-O-Fish that looks more crunchy than a normal one with some special sauce. I didn’t have one, but it looked good.

McDonalds Menu Thailand
McDonald's Menu Thailand
One thing absent on the menu is any sort of quarter pound patty.

If you think of Thai food, the first thing which probably comes to mind is spices. Thai food (usually) is spicy. One thing which I’ve noticed in Thailand and in Indonesia is the use of chili sauce as a condiment. The sauce is really nothing more than a spicy ketchup, but it is always served alongside ketchup everywhere. (Ketchup is usually called tomato sauce. This was also the case in Australia. If anyone from a “tomato sauce” country comes to the US, please note that tomato sauce is totally different.)

The Seven Wonders of Australia

Planning a trip to Australia and have no idea what to see while you’re there? For your entertainment and information, I present to you the Seven Wonders of Australia.

Sunset at KakaduKakadu National Park
Kakadu is the premier national park in Australia and offers some of the most stunning displays of wildlife you can find on the continent. Saltwater crocodiles can be found all over the park, as well as kangaroos and wallabies. In addition to stunning rock outcrops and wildlife, Kakadu some of the oldest aboriginal artwork in Australia. Many of the rock drawings date back over 20,000 years. Kakadu was the location for many of the scenes from the movie Crocodile Dundee

Uluru at SunsetUluru/Kata Tjuta
Uluru (Ayer’s Rock) is probably the best known natural icon in Australia, and no list of the Seven Wonders of Australia could be complete without it. The iron content in the rock makes its colors change through the course of a day from bright to dark red. Sacred to the local aboriginal Pitjantjatjara people, it is also of great cultural significance as well as natural significance. Often overlooked, nearby Kata Tjuta is actually higher than Uluru but has been eroded into several pieces.

Sydney Opera House and Harbor BridgeSydney Harbor
What says “Australia” more than Sydney harbor? Maybe a kangaroo holding a boomerang and beer in the outback, but that’s about it. The center of Australia’s largest city, Sydney Harbor is home to the Sydney Opera House and the Harbor Bridge. You can take a ferry across the harbor, walk across the top of the Harbor Bridge, have tea in the Opera House, and take a stroll in the nearby Royal Botanical Gardens.

Bee Hive Domes. Purnululu National Park. Bungle Bungles/Purnululu National Park
Had this list been created 30 years ago, the Bungle Bungles might not have been listed. Having come to the world’s attention only in the mid-1980’s, the beehive domes of the Bungles make Purnululu National Park the premier attraction in the Kimberly region of Western Australia. Difficult to get to, what makes the Bungles fascinating are the unique erosional features which are unlike anything else in the world.

Heart Reef. Great Barrier Reef Great Barrier Reef
The Great Barrier Reef is so big, the scope of it can really only be appreciated from the air, or even better, from orbit. By far the largest coral reef system in the world, the Great Barrier Reef extends over 2,600km (1,600mi), almost the entire length of the coast of Queensland. It is usually on any short list of the natural wonders of the world. There are plenty of places you can experience the reef, the most common of which are Cairns and the Whitsunday Islands.

commentGiant Eucalyptus Trees of Tasmania
Tasmania is the most unspoiled wilderness in Australia. In addition to its pristine beauty, it is home to many unique species of plant and animal including the threatened Tasmanian Devil. The most dramatic of all the things in Tasmania is the Eucalyptus Regnans, the giant eucalyptus tree. Also known as the Swamp Gum, Mountain Ash or Tasmanian Oak, it is the largest flowering plant and hardwood tree in the world and is second only to the redwood tree in height.

Twelve Apostles, Great Ocean RoadThe Great Ocean Road
One of the greatest drives in the world is the Great Ocean Road on the southern coast of Victoria. Carved by thousands of years of battering by the Great Southern Ocean, the sandstone formations of the Great Ocean Road are truly stunning. The Twelve Apostles, London Bridge, Lord Ard Gorge are just some of the significant erosional features which can be seen on the drive near the town of Port Campbell.

Honorable Mention
Lord Howe’s Island, Fraser Island, Blue Mountains, Coober Pedy, Shark Bay, Mungo National Park, Pinnacles Desert

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 | Seven Wonders of Spain


News From The Ground: Thailand Protests

Protest sign in Phuket
Protest sign in Phuket
If you’ve been paying attention to the news lately, you’ve probably heard about the protests taking place in Thailand. In fact, most of the news I’ve been getting on the story is the same as what you’ve probably been reading. Despite some more indepth coverage in the local English language papers, I really haven’t seen any indication of the troubles you hear about in the news. The only direct effect it had on me was delaying my flight by one day when I came from Penang to Phuket.

In Phuket, one of the guys at the hostel and I went out on purpose to go find protesters. What we saw was pretty disappointing. We were hoping for angry people waving their fists shouting slogans. Instead, we found a small group of people sitting around listening to speeches piped in from Bangkok. Most of the Phuket protesters had gone to Bangkok that morning we had later learned.

PAD protesters
PAD protesters
The protests seem mostly motivated by a small group of PAD (People’s Alliance for Democracy) activists. Supposedly, the protests are against the corruption of the former Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej who is accused of being a puppet of the former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who is one of the richest men in Thailand. Samak was ousted by the Supreme Court because he hosted a cooking show on TV. Thaksin was ousted by a military coup. The current PM is an inlaw of Thaksin.

The PAD protests, at least on the surface, look like many of the people’s movement protests you saw in the 80’s in the Philippines. The difference here is they are protesting against a democratically elected government. The PAD is an urban party and the PPP (People’s Power Party) is more rural. I don’t know how much the protests are a legitimate expression against corruption (which almost never happens anywhere) or just sour grapes over not being the party in power.

I’m secretly hoping for another military coup or some sort of huge protest to take place while I’m here. It might not be good for Thai democracy, but it would be exciting for me.

Final Thoughts on Singapore

Singapore Riverfront
Singapore Riverfront
Before I move much further on in my trip, I should adhere to my “one country away” rule and give my final thoughts on Singapore.

Singapore is the second country in which I have previously spent time prior to the start of my trip (the other being Taiwan). After my first trip to Singapore in 1999, I became fascinated with the country. I read up on the history of Singapore, I read at least two books on Lee Kuan Yew, and always sort of paid extra attention when something about Singapore came up on the news. I was fascinated by the size of Singapore, coupled with the fact that Singapore has basically gone from a third world country to a first world county (and one of the richest at that), in the span of a generation. Having visited Penang which, along with Singapore, was one of the British straights colonies, I am even more impressed with what Singapore has done.

Chinatown, Singapore
Chinatown, Singapore
If the nations of the world were a high school class, Singapore is the kid who studies hard, follows all the rules, gets straight A’s, gets into a very good college, gets a very good job, then wakes up one day when he’s in his 40s and says “where the hell did my life go?” This time I came away with less than I did my first time. Singapore works and works well in one sense, but in another, it seems to be lacking something.

Several times while I was roaming around Singapore, I would find myself in some sort of mall or shopping center and wind up in another completely different mall or shopping center. At time, in certain parts of the city, the entire thing seems like a giant mall. By any international standard, and certainly by regional standards, Singapore is a clean, wealthy, safe, and very green country. The problems of Singapore are the problems of prosperity. (which in the big scheme of things, are good problems to have).

I was able to talk with many Singaporeans during my stay.
One of the things I came away with was how Singapore, while a country, is run almost like a corporation. Unlike many countries in the region, Singapore has very low rates of corruption. In fact, it is the least corrupt country on Earth. They do this by paying civil servants very high wages comparable to that in the private sector, and there is often a lot of shuffling between the two. There is also a lot of targeted investment in certain industries. The current big push is in biotechnology.

Sir Stamford Raffels
Sir Stamford Raffels
One problem Singapore has is creativity. It isn’t a very open country. By this, I don’t mean to imply it is closed in a Cuba or North Korea sense. There is no police state or gestapo. The lack of openness comes from conformity and an unwillingness to stick out. Singapore might be the only modern developed country I’ve visited where I didn’t see any kids with freaky hair hanging out in a public area. The openness which lets crazies do crazy things is the same thing which lets companies like Google develop. This is a problem which Singapore is going to have to deal with in the 21st Century, and it will be very challenging for them, because you can’t “plan” for creativity. It will mean letting go of some control, and that is always hard for governments to do.

One way they have addressed the issue of creativity is funding science. My friend Dave, who I stayed with in Singapore, is a professor at the National University of Singapore. NUS has quickly become the best university in SE Asia, and next to Tokyo University, probably the best in all of Asia. Just walking around the campus, you could tell that Singapore is serious about funding science. In addition to the NUS, there are also several technology centers located around the country.

I still like Singapore, but I didn’t come away this time with the same sort of awe as I did before. My guess is that is mostly a function of having seen a lot more of the world since then. If you were visiting SE Asia, I’d strongly consider going to Singapore for a few days. It isn’t a big country, so you can easily explore the highlights in a few days. If nothing else, Singapore is a great model for how clean and green a major city can be.

Bangkok, Oriental City

I’ve been here for 24 hours now, so I’ve managed to get a flavor for the place.

I think I’ve developed a bit of a blase attitude about going to new places. I’ve been traveling so long that I’m no longer surprised by new things anymore. I think Bangkok might have jolted me out of that a bit.

The first thing I normally do when I arrive somewhere new takes a shower and go outside and walk around (assuming it isn’t dark). With in five minutes of walking out of the door of my room, I saw a guy with an elephant on the sidewalk. This is certainly not Kansas.

I’m in a pretty nice area on Sukhumvit Road. There are nice, high rise hotels not far from me and a high-end mall a few blocks away. Yet every single block has massage parlors (probably because it’s a tourist area) and people selling stuff on the sidewalk. Bangkok is probably the best city for street food I’ve encountered on my trip, surpassing Seoul. I had two skewers of chicken hearts and gizzards for under $0.50 from a street vendor last night.

Bangkok is significantly more developed than anything I saw in Phuket. Maybe slightly less developed than Kuala Lumpur, but not by a lot. The internet here is fast and free, and there are tons of eating options within easy walking distance. The western population here is probably the largest I’ve seen in Asia, save for perhaps Hong Kong.

I have a bunch of things I’d like to do before I leave here, including going to a Muay Thai boxing match and meeting up with some local bloggers. I’ve been getting a lot of suggestions from readers, and I am investigating all of them. Some of them, however, *ahem* I don’t think I’ll be pursuing.