Annapurna Circuit Days 2 & 3: Jagat to Chame. 6,000 ft higher than we started!

Day 2 Stats:

Miles: 13

Starting elevation: 4,480 @ Jagat

Ending elevation: 6,050 @ Dharapani

Net gain: 1,570

Total hiking ascent: 3,270

Total hiking descent: 1,700

Leech bites: 8 (Lacy. Rob zero still) During the morning we were hiking through wet grass and foliage. At one point Rob looked down and saw he had leeches on his shoes and socks, but no bites. I looked down and had several leeches fat with my blood clinging to calves, socks and ankles. It was like a horror movie. I freaked out and made Rob get them all off me. The bites bled for more than 6 hours.

Dal Bhat meals: 1 each

Cost for teahouse (board, dinner, breakfast & teas for 2): 1,140 Nrs ~$10.37

Prayer wheels adorn the entries and centers of villages

Day 3 Stats:

Miles: 11

Starting elevation: 6,050 @ Dharapani

Ending elevation: 8,690 @ Chame

Net gain: 2,640

Total hiking ascent: 3,002

Total hiking descent: 362

Dal Bhat meals: 1 each

Cost for teahouse (board, dinner and breakfast for 2): 1,200 Nrs ~ $11 USD

These cows were blocking the trail and we had to carefully pass them without falling down the steep side of the mountain or bothering them so that they would knock us over! Our dog from day 2 is pictured here.

E7031984-4ABF-4C18-9D02-8D991FDE9BBDLacy: We have developed a really good rhythm in just 3 days. We wake up between 5:30 and 6am, have our oatmeal breakfast with black tea at the teahouse and begin hiking by 7. It hasn’t been raining at all when we start and we arrive at our target village each day by 3 at the latest to avoid the afternoon showers. We ask for our dinner of Dal Baht to be served at 5-5:30 because we are normally starving from lunch at that time and ready to eat and go to bed! Typically, we are asleep by 9. Back to a good sun schedule! Aside from the first day, we have found a teahouse and settled in just in time for the first sprinkles to begin. Our stride is strong as we have gained 6,000 ft in 3 days and 36 miles. We had 2 separate guys wave us ahead of them and say we are fast. We don’t feel we are going very fast, but it’s always nice to hear. This last morning we gained 1,600 ft straight up from the teahouse and I was moving slower than my normal pace. Rob called me “slow poke Rodriguez”. Maybe it’s the altitude, but maybe not because Rob is a beast and moving right along. Our spirits are very high even though Rob has been struggling with an upset stomach for days. That’s a real bummer anytime and especially when hiking. I feel for him.

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Entering Tal and ready for lunch!

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A very picturesque village sitting on the edge of a lake…

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With a waterfall in the middle

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We are developing new little jokes which is always the highlight for us as we travel anywhere new. Surprisingly, every single day we have had a dog join us for part of our hike. The first day we thought it was interesting. The second day, pretty cool and today, the third, we fell in love with the pup. It was pretty sad when he left us. The teahouse situation has been working out really well. We have been the only guests each night even though we see half a dozen other hikers along the path. Since it is low season it’s very easy to negotiate for a free room and pay $500-$600 rupees each for dinner and breakfast. It’s about $10 a night. We imagine prices will go up as we get higher. The next few days we will climb to 12,000 feet and take 2 days to rest and get our lungs prepared for the increased altitude gain ahead. Our highest destination is Thorung La Pass,17,700 ft, the highest mountain pass in the world. We are taking a side trip on the way to Tilicho Lake, the highest lake in the world, which should be nice and full this time of year.

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F8C75BB0-C8F6-4D59-95B5-25477D3D1B51Today our hike began in the lush waterfall landscape we have been in the last 2 days and then we entered a forest covered in moss, ferns and lichen that reminded us of hikes in California. Emerging from the forest, we changed landscapes again into a mountain countryside of evergreens and exposed mountain rock that made us feel as if we were in Colorado. Days like that when you pass through so many environments are really special. This whole experience has been so special. The people are very nice. The Didis at the teahouse make us delicious meals and are kind. Gizmo is enjoying the view and all in all, we are happy as clams.

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The villages have such colorful buildings

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Tonight we are in the village of Chame at 8,690 ft. We can definitely feel it getting colder at night and ate dinner in our jackets. There isn’t any insulation in buildings and we are not high enough and cold enough yet for anyone to make a fire. Especially with precious wood and for just 2 people. But we are comfortable and will be nice and snuggly tonight as we rest and get energy for an even bigger day tomorrow climbing over 2,000 ft net.

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Enjoying the hike with dog #3

Rob: On each one of our days, we have picked up a guide dog buddy who has spent the majority of the day with us. They are naturals and seem to just appear as we are starting to leave each town in the morning. There are dogs that lay and sleep all day and then there are these guys who just love to trot ahead of you and show you the way for miles and miles. They even sit and wait when you stop to drink or rest a minute. They are so happy to please you by showing you the way and encouraging you along. All they want is a head scratch and some positive verbal reinforcement for a job well done. These dogs have been better companions than some people we’ve hiked with in the past! We have never experienced this before and I’m guessing it is the product of dogs being more attached to a particular village or two than a family or owner. We ended our day yesterday waving goodbye to “Little Black Pup” when we came to a long suspension bridge and he was too scared to cross it. He sat at the opposite side as we finished crossing. Our hearts were aching a bit as we waved and called goodby to him. Today, we picked up “Blackfoot Pup” who was really fuzzy black all over and much bigger than a pup. He adopted us for about 10 miles and 2000ft net elevation gain. His feet were much bigger than our first 2 guys so the metal slats of the suspension bridges didn’t bother him. That was good because we crossed 4 or 5 today. His tail wagged when we caught up to him before he hopped on ahead of us up the road. On one long stretch of forest trail, he slotted behind me but in front of Lacy for that whole segment of trail. He certainly helped us turn toward vs away from upcoming towns when the trail wasn’t marked. He was fun and our favorite guide thus far. At one point he was watching a ridge above us and getting excited. We looked but couldn’t see what was getting his attention. A little further on, he did the same thing except this time he climbed up the edge of the cliff a little. We heard the screech calls first then saw a whole family of monkeys bounce from tree to tree so they could get a better look at all of us. They were big as far as monkeys go and all had a perfect ring of fluffy white fur around their black faces. We would have never known they were watching us from above if it hadn’t been for our own big black fuzzy guide. When we reached the town of Chame, Lacy was really hoping that we could have him hang out until morning so we could hike with him again. But, as we entered the village gates, 3 of the Chame village dogs wouldn’t let him follow us in. Once again, we had a little heartache moment as we waved goodbye to our little buddy.

Day 1 of the Annapurna Circuit: Trekking through a waterfall wonderland

 

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The trail is full of vibrant greens and thousands of feet of rice terraces

65BF7933-8AE7-4F3D-B08C-F3496E07467DDay 1 Stats:

Miles: 11.5

Starting elevation: 2,790 at Ngadi

Ending elevation: 4,480 at Jagat

Net gain: 1,690

Total hiking ascent: 2,675

Total hiking descent: 985

Leech bites: 1 (Lacy)

Bee sting: 1 (Rob)

Dal Bhat meals: 2 each

Cost for teahouse (board, dinner breakfast & tea x 2): 1,000 Nrs ~$9.10

Namaste’s and free smiles both given & received: countless

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After 6 hours of bus rides and a fresh plate of momo we had our poles in hand for a short walk to our first teahouse before day 1 of our trek

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First trail Dal Baht

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My grandma Rose passed last year but when our dudh chiya (milk tea) was served in a rose mug on our first night, I knew she is with us on our hike.  Grandma loved nature and was no stranger to travel.

Rob: What we have later decided to call Day Zero was two bus rides totaling 6 hours in the bumpiest, squeakiest busses ever. It was cozy and what other time in my life do I have the chance to have a small Nepalese family snuggled all around me. Our second bus must have had the lowest gearing ever because we crawled up muddy mountain roads at about 5 miles an hour where only Jeeps should have been allowed to go. Our hike was a short one. Basically just enough to get our gear situated, shoes tied the way we want and posture acclimated to a 20lb pack again. The real Day 1 was next.

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Rob loves the exterior decoration of these buses…

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And the inside as well!

Dal Bhat has been and will be our staple meal along the trek. As of this writing, we are 4 for 4. Rice (Bhat), lots of it, a bowl of thin Lentil soup (Dal) accompanied by one or two kinds of stewed vegetables (Tarkari) which may mostly be greens and a yellow curry of mostly potatoes. So far, it has all been nice and satisfying with just a little saltiness to the greens, spice to the curry and white fluffy rice. Yummy, but can I do this for 20+ more days? In one of the bigger villages, a chicken may need to be roasted for us. That will likely cost us far more than $9 total we are paying for the room, dal bhat for dinner and breakfast the last 2 days.

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First few steps on the Annapurna! We had to do a small amount on the road before reaching the trail

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Happy again in my skirt.  At first Rob thought I was a little nuts to buy and carry a yoga mat with me, but now that he sees me using it all the time and thinks I’m a genius

Our accommodations are minimal but perfect for the environment. Our room has 2 walls of windows (front and rear) with unbelievable views of the river valley. It has a full time sound system piping in the sound of a small waterfall behind us and the churning and swollen river below. The 2 small twin beds actually have nice mattresses. 2 heavy blankets will help snuggle us into a good sleep while we are inside of our fleece sleep sacks. There is power to charge our phones and we might get WiFi if we are lucky. Most places you stay overnight here in the mountains are called Tea Houses. That could mean a small simple cabin with a tin roof to a little hotel like ours that clings to the side of the hill. Almost all of them let you stay for free (or $1) as long as you eat dinner and breakfast in their small family restaurant.

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That’s Rob up there as we cross another waterfall!

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That tiny village nestled in the mountains above the river is Jagat where we spent the night after 11.5 mile of great hiking

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A closer look at Jagat

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We cross a lot of suspension bridges

Rain. Last night I woke at 3 am to the sound of a pounding rain outside. After all, it is the Monsoon Season here. We chose to come outside of the peak trekking season so we would have to trails mostly to ourselves. We have only come across a few other hikers so far. I bet we will criss-cross with them quite a bit more. Much of the upper part of the Annapurna Circuit Trail falls in a “rain shadow” once we are above the tree line. Since we also chose to start at a low elevation and enjoy the foothills and river valleys, we will certainly get a little wet. Maybe a lot wet. Today was a good example of hiking in and out of clouds and showers for most of the day. We made it to our target village and Tea House by 3 pm just as the much stronger rains came in for the afternoon. The rain today soaked us through but it was also refreshing and just part of hiking on this part of the trail at this time of year. The pluses are that all through the valley, everything is at its greenest point of the year, uncountable waterfalls cascade down each side of the foothills into the river which is also full to the brim and raging.

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Our first landslide crossing

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Laxmi was so nice to meet and talk with and prepared a delicious Dal Baht lunch for us

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Lacy:  It’s an absolutely wonderful feeling to be hiking again in my skirt, pack on my back and Daddie Gizmo by my side. Ascending through the valley that begins the circuit we are hiking upstream of the Marsyangdi river as we pass through villages and continue to be more amazed at each bend in the trail by the stunning scenery surrounding us. Tall mountains bursting with bright green grasses, ferns, moss, trees with bright green leaves and flowers. Everything is so green because of the monsoon season. We can’t raise our eyes to take in the view without seeing at least 2 waterfalls. In the first day we have already seen a hundred cascading from the mountainside. The sound of the falls, the thunderous river and rain are enveloping us as is the scenery.  I don’t think either of us thought we would be in an environment like this to begin the trek. So full of life.  It makes it very easy to continue putting one foot in front of the other.

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We spent 2 days in Pokhara before taking the bus to start the trek…

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And celebrated Rob’s birthday

 

 

 

Gearing up for the Annapurna Circuit in Kathmandu; Five years later, not much has changed.

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Gizmo & Rob are conspiring to rent a Royal Engield for a few days in Nepal and tour around.  We stopped at a shop in Kathmandu to check them out

Lacy: I have been saying for 5 years that Kathmandu is the wildest and craziest place that I have ever encountered in my life. Returning with Rob, even after exploring other countries in Asia this year, has not changed my opinion of this city in the slightest. If anything, it has further confirmed it since I have even more to compare it to after our travels this year.  Indonesia is a little crazy and backwards and Cambodia was far more modern than we expected, but truly nothing compares to the chaos, poverty and air pollution here in Kathmandu. Rob got a crash course in experiencing what I have been recounting to him ever since I spent 4 months living and teaching here in 2013.  It filled us both with a lot of joy to spend the last 2 days walking around Thamel (the tourist area) to get the necessary gear for what We believe will be our epic trek along the Annapurna Circuit in the Himalayas.  You stumble into a gear shop every 3 feet here because trekking is such big business in Nepal.  We purchased 2 sleeping bag liners to protect from bed bugs and be warm enough at high altitude in the teahouses we will sleep in along the way. Teahouses where we stop each evening will provide blankets and very basic accommodation as well as Dal Bhat for dinner and porridge for breakfast for approx $5 each.  A rain jacket for Rob was critical (he mailed his back home with several other items when we left Kenawa months ago) since we fully expect some rain on trail during monsoon season. Batteries for headlights, power bars and medicine to combat altitude sickness. We will be climbing to 17,770 ft!  There is a method to climbing this elevation – stopping to acclimatise yourself at certain points and never ascending more than 1,650 ft in one day.  Altitude sickness is a concern and we will be careful along the way. The highest we have previously hiked is Mt Whitney last year in California – 14,508 ft.  A second item that can ruin this trip or any trek is our feet. We have hiked enough miles to know that having the right gear on your feet is EVERYTHING.  We scoured Thamel for good new hiking socks and liners. Sure, we have a few pairs with us already, but more is better in this scenario so we can make sure our feet are dry as much as possible with the rain.  Preventing blisters is key. We picked up our permits yesterday at the tourism office and it really excited us both to feel “official”!  Starting to feel real as we approach our anticipated start date of July 26th!!  

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Buddha Park in Swayambhu

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Aside from gearing up for our 2 days in Kathmandu I also wanted to show Rob where I lived for 1 month in Swayambhu and 3 months in Kalimati. Both areas within Kathmandu, but not part of the tourist path. As such, he got a glimpse into the real local living in Nepal that I experienced when I lived here and teaching math classes and volunteering in a preschool 5 years ago.  It’s intense. The dust and smog in the roads still requires me to wear a mask to prevent so much crap from getting in my throat. Even though I have been my throat still hurts. The masses and crowds of people, conditions of roads, trash in the waterways and roads rival Indonesia and Cambodia.  When I returned to Dallas after experiencing what living in, not visiting, a third world country was like it changed me forever. I was so much more aware of all the things we take for granted in America. Without going on a  tangent, I truly believe every person should experience life at this level somewhere other than their home country to truly understand how our actions have global impacts and just simply to be grateful for what you have and protect precious resources.  The exposure to life here that I provided Rob with in such a short timeframe was a lot for him to take in. He said I gave him a bit of whiplash, but he absorbed it and we discussed how he now understood what life was like for me here five years ago and why I came back with a new perspective. A bucket list item for me was to return to Nepal with Rob and do just this, show him where I lived. I just honestly never knew if it would happen, but amazing things continue to transpire this year for us. 

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We ate lunch at the local restaurant by my old home in Kalimati.  I was so glad it was still open and we both enjoyed enjoyed saag paneer and blazing hot naan from the tandoori for $3.30 total 🙂

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On our walk to the Monkey Temple in Swayambhu the second morning in Kathmandu, Rob agreed it was time for him too to don a mask against the smog

Rob: Lacy (Figure 8)* and I (Daddie Gizmo)* have decided to hop from SE Asia deep into Asia and the Himalayas.  *Trail names like these are given to you by your fellow hikers on long distance hikes such as the PCT that we trekked last year. A bucket list hike for Figure 8 has been the Annapurna Circuit, a route in Nepal that encircles the Annapurna Region of the Himalayas and 4 of the tallest mountains in Nepal that are not named Everest or K2.  We will hike from low valley to high mountain passes reaching 17,770 feet. This is well above our pinnacle height of 14,500 ft last year at the top of Mt Whitney, the tallest mountain in the contiguous 48 states. With side trails and a possible climb to Annapurna 1’s base camp we should cover 250-300 miles in 3+ weeks with a serious amount of elevation gain and loss along the way. The weather at this time of year should also give us the extremes of it’s ability. It will be very hot and humid in the lower river valleys with snow and ice in the mountain passes and toward Base Camp. I’ll be starting the hike with  a chest cold, a high ankle strain from our week long Yoga retreat, 8 week old broken foot that is mostly healed well and 1-year-old twin torn meniscus that have only been successfully tested on a 3 day climb of Mt Tambora in Indonesia.  Fingers & toes crossed.

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Our first step was landing in Kathmandu 2 nights ago. We have been traveling in 3rd World countries for about 4 months now, but the impact of Nepal’s capital city has been a bit of a sudden impact.  Just about everything seems to be under construction or reconstruction from the major earthquake 3-ish years ago. Smog is thick in the air.

 

The Bagmati river that runs through Kathmandu is apparently cleaner than it has been in the past, Lacy says, but that still means that banks are solidly built with trash, especially plastic. It doesn’t help that a local trash collection / landfill is located right on the banks with the overflow just cascading down into the river. Everything seems to make its way to the river and it’s banks from daily rubbish to non-running cars that appear to be public parts cars. Lots of stray dogs and large crows live on the river banks in an endless foraging routine along with many local children from the shanty areas who search and play at the same time.

 
One great thing is that we are so glad to be back in an area where street food is the norm and $1.50 can buy a local curry and amazing naan bread for lunch. Gearing up has also been fun to shop through all of the little Outfitters that cater to the climbing and trekking crowd.
 
Buses carry us and the locals from town to town with virtually anything strapped to the roof. Building supplies, tires, scooters, people and sometimes even luggage. Our bus, where I’m writing from now, is a cacophony of engine, traffic, loud phone voice noises topped off with diesel and dust in the air.
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Then (left – 2013) and now (right)

 
You must love, adorn, name and have your truck blessed to help it travel safely. Only pictures can describe.  I really love it!
 
The differences between Buddhism in Cambodia and Nepal seem to be all in the way it is celebrated and represented. There may be many more mini Stupas, modern era Shines and massive ancient Temple cities in Cambodia, but Nepal makes up for it in color. Cars, homes and people wear daily marks of blessings or offerings.  The Golden Temples are covered with bright paintings, banners and long strands of multicolored prayer flags. Followers visit the vibrant Pagodas along their daily routes to spin the many rows of prayer wheels.  Then just add in the 52 color rainbow on most vehicles and the bright fabric and gold laced / sequined saris, dresses and long tunics worn by the women with tikas between their eyes that do their best to offset the dust and dirty air.
Monkeying around at the Monkey Temple in Swayambhu: 
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Roads are gravel and broken brick mixed with recycled concrete dust that is layered onto the dirt / mud and pounded in place by a million truck and bus tires. Pedestrian areas can be 50-90% large pavers but this just invites the motorcycles to use these alleys as shortcuts.  Thankfully, as we exit Kathmandu and get into the countryside the main highway is paved.
 
I’m very much looking forward to leaving the pollution behind and getting into the mountain air and mist on our way to Pokhara this morning, the gateway to the Annapurna region.

 

**Rob and I completed this blog as we rode 8 hours from Kathmandu to Pokhara this morning and afternoon.  It’s possible to see the Himalayas from Kathmandu, but because of the haze and rain clouds during the 2 days we were there I was never able to give Rob the view of these massive mountains looking as if they are suspended in the high sky.  Our bus ride wasn’t complete with a peekaboo view of the tips of the Himalayas and we both got a chill of excitement upon viewing them.  We both said it feels great to be back in the lush mountains.  A few photos from our journey today…

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I couldn’t get a shot of Himalayas from the bus, but this the view from our hotel room!
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A great Nepali lunch where the bus stopped.  I’m so glad Rob enjoys this kind of food as much as I do

Goodbye Cambodia, Hello Himalayas

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Enjoying scallion stuffed rice patties.  This certainly satisfied my undying love for anything in the onion family.

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Rob is considering a new profession as a tuk tuk driver 🤨😆

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Bye Cambodia!

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Flight to Nepal delayed, darn 😕

Today, Friday July 20th, finds us having lunch and “playing office” in Malaysia’s Kuala Lampur airport while we wait for our flight to Nepal.  After spending a really great week at Blue Indigo yoga retreat in Siem Reap, Cambodia we began to ask ourselves, “what next?”   I was beginning to yearn to be immersed in nature again since we had spent so much time in the cities and towns of Cambodia – Phnom Penh to Kep and Kampot and ending in the north in Siem Reap.  During our 3 weeks here we traveled more as tourists as opposed to feeling like locals in Indonesia. Still, we had a really nice time with the different experience as we took buffalo cart rides, endless tuk tuks, enjoyed the influence of the country’s very tasty international cuisine, marveled at the splendor of Angkor Wat and met some incredibly special people along the way.  Rob and I both gained a tremendous amount from our 7 nights and days strengthening our yoga practice spiritually and physically. I really connected with the philosophy and gained a lot of insight in those few days that has made me eager to learn more.  Over a French dinner we rewarded ourselves with the day we checked out of the retreat, Rob even asked me if I may want to pursue a teacher training sometime soon.  As our life unfolds together, anything is possible.  

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We didn’t take many photos during the week of our retreat except for the day we we went to a local pagoda where we practiced yoga and participated in a Buddhist blessing ceremony.

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Before leaving by we spent a marvelous 12 hour day visiting the temples of the Angkor complex. As we visited temple after temple, it became easy to see the unique variations of each. The level of detail that was used to carve the bas reliefs and construct these structures is truly special. Our favorites were Bantey Srei and Bayon. I wanted to find a quiet spot in either to meditate in, but there are just way too many people visiting, even in the low season. Neither of us have any desire to experience how crowded it would be during high season.  

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We woke up at 4:30 to get to Angkor Wat and see the sunrise over it. This picture evidences that our “sunrise luck” isn’t nonexistent. 2 volcanoes and now Angkor Wat means we are 3 for 3 on sunrise fails!

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The rain couldn’t keep us away though 😄

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This temple is where the Tomb Raider movie was filmed. Trees have overtaken the structure and it is a magnificent example of nature’s strength and will.

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Bayon, happy face temple, has over 200 smiling faces watching over you

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Bantey Srei is a much smaller temple and carved with the most intricate detail.  All by women and it is unbelievably stunning.  I could have spent all day looking over the detailed work.

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Kim, our tuk tuk driver for the day shares his touching story with us of how he rose from poverty in the village by learning English as a monk.  Leaving the monastery, he saved his money as a tuk tuk driver and began a school to teach English to over 80 kids from villages.  Big heart, this guy!

We are both very excited to land in Kathmandu, Nepal tonight where we will begin our preparations for a 3 week trek along the Annapurna circuit. This is a dream come true for me. In April, as we sat on the front porch of Kenawa and contemplated what we may do when we left the island at the end of the month, I told Rob I would love to hike the Annapurna, but that monsoon season didn’t end until October and there was no way that we would still be on this part of the world then. Boy, was I wrong on 2 points!  First, we learned that the Annapurna is in a rain shadow and doesn’t experience rain like the rest of the country during monsoon season.  Even better, July is the shoulder season and will have far less people which is a huge plus for us. Traveling Cambodia during the low season turned out be a major benefit for us – cheaper accommodations and far less people to deal with. Second, we are planning to be in this part of the world until at least October now. At the end of August, after completing our Himalayan trek during which Rob will celebrate his birthday and we will enjoy our 3 year wedding anniversary, we will head back to Malaysia and actually leave the airport this time!  Meeting a new friend in Pangkor, we will get an in-depth crash course in his boat and sailing as we embark on a 4-5 week voyage across the sea where we will return to Lombok, Indonesia. Rob has far more experience with sail boats than I do so I will be absorbing a lot very quickly as we help safely bring Chris’s 54ft boat across international waters. It will just be the 3 of us.   

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Feeling in great spirits after our retreat, we tuk tuked to our hotel…

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…where we had the cutest surprise on the bed!

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Enjoying the low season rates we scored a hotel with a great pool for less than $20.

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Great smile 🙂

 

We are both looking forward to being back in Indonesia.  While Cambodia was great we didn’t develope anywhere near the same level of affection and attachment to this country as we did our beloved Indonesia.  One of our amazing yoga teachers had just spent 6 weeks in Indonesia before coming to Cambodia.  The 3 of us shared stories and lamented about what we missed about the country.  Many conversations ended with, “it always comes back to Indonesia.”  Including us this October…even if it is a twisted route across Asia.

Oh, just a few more ☺️

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A hop across the bay for 3 lazy days on Koh Tohnsáy (Rabbit Island)

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En route to the 🐇

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The many ways Rob enjoys a hammock

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Hammocks thoroughly enjoyed by myself as well 😁

Tuesday morning we succeeded in getting our sleepy butts up in time for the early boat to Rabbit Island. This was made slightly more difficult by the “Havana head” we shared from the previous night. Having met Morgan, the Frenchman running the bar by the hotel we stayed in, the previous evening, he was very generous with our Cuba Libre (Havana rum, coke and lime) pours while we got to know Evan and Jessah. Even offered us a shot of tequila while the World Cup game was playing. Clearly, someone we can get along with…and we didn’t realize quite how much we had to drink until we woke up the following morning.  Our game plan before leaving was to check out the island scene, lay in hammocks, listen to the waves, play cards, listen to the new Florence and the Machine album I downloaded!, read and relax.  The accommodations on the island range from $5-$7 so the price point is right on target to stay as long as we like!  If you need constant electricity and luxury, this is not the place for you. The island doesn’t have many people or structures on it so they use a generator for about 4 hours each evening which is plenty of time to charge your phone and and have light to eat by. We brought our headlights and batteries to read by when the power goes out about 10 each evening. Our bungalow is on the water where I enjoyed many afternoons reading and napping in the hammock on the front porch while Rob napped inside.

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Pulling up to Koh Tohnsáy

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Never more than 20 steps from the waves

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As soon as we arrived on the island I changed into this outfit and wore it the entire time…showered once, and threw it right back on. There is no need to overdo it here 😋

There are plenty of hammocks and lounge chairs on the beach that kiss high tide each day.  We have had the perfect mix of sunny, hazy and black skies here. It hasn’t been very warm with the breeze rolling off the ocean as well as the howling winds that accompany the rain each day. I love gray days at the beach. The waves and sounds of the wind are louder. Hearing the constant hum of the waves for three days has been soothing and helped us both sleep better.  Our travels in Asia have not been characterized by good sleep.  Between the heat, sounds of chickens, roosters, calls to prayer, local music at all hours and more it’s often impossible to get a really good nights sleep.  Rob informed me over our second  breakfast of barbecued red snapper, rice and chili sauce (well, maybe afternoon…we didn’t wake up until after 11) that he wants to stay at least another night or 2.  Why would I object?! With good food, cheap beer, and a bungalow that costs the same as a meal for us both (a big snapper that we shared was $6) there didn’t appear any reason to plan our next step too hastily. 

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This is the cutest and most welcome roommate we have had in a while. I just want to snuggle with him! He is easily over a foot head to tail.  At one point we had 3 at once! I love these little guys…💓

 

 

 

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Breakfast and dinner on the beach

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Beachside bungalows!

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We stayed 3 nights in the island before the leaving for Kampot. Arriving back on the mainland I immediately missed the cool breeze constantly blowing off the water on Koh Tohnsáy.  Back to the land of hot and sticky. Kampot is on the river with a backdrop of mountains and palm trees. We decided to stay here 2 nights before heading to Siem Reap where we are going to transition into a different vibe. We both want to soak into a week long meditation and yoga retreat, centering ourselves and learning new skills we can integrate into our daily lives.

This morning I had a strong desire to leave Asia.  I think it’s  a combination of having got sick for 2 days from something I ate recently, experiencing intense neck and shoulder pain for the past 5 days that I can’t get rid of and adjusting to Cambodia. Honestly, it’s weird that my initial thought was that I want to leave Asia because more and more I am losing the desire to go “home.”  Not that we really have a home anymore or place that is ours to return to. My moment of disillusionment passed after a couple of hours and my desire to stay in SE Asia remains. I miss Indonesia – the wild, crazy nature of life there that makes you shake your head in wonder, the taste of sambal, the smell of sate and even the “Hello misters.”  That country feels like home now.  The longer we are gone the more I want to return there. Will we ever come back to the States…?

Cave exploring, jungle trekking & skewers of seafood as the rainy season begins in the quiet of Kep, Cambodia

32586D19-105C-4676-9EB9-EBE786DB57AB.jpegLacy: One of our favorite things about the way we are traveling SE Asia is the flexibility of our schedule. The only thing we have needed to plan around is our VISAs and that’s not difficult at all. We began with a 1 month commitment to be in Indonesia working on ecological housing on the small island of  Kenawa, but entered the country with a  60 day VISA if we decided to stay longer. 3 months later we actually left Indonesia with a day’s notice and wound up here in Cambodia. We really have very little plan for this country except to travel north from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap and explore the cities, villages, mountains and beaches along the way. Every day is a new one and can change at a moments notice. We thought we would leave for Kep the day before we actually did, but upon waking up late (we are really only good at getting up early when we absolutely have to catch a ferry, bus or boat) we opted to stay a day longer in Phnom Penh. After a four hour morning bus ride we arrived in the hub of Kep, a coastal town known for its shoreline, crab and seafood market.  It’s quiet here this time of year and a few shops have already closed due to the beginning of rainy season. We like it quiet.  Our first afternoon we rented a scooter and checked out the crab market. Being the weekend, the market was the busiest place we have seen in town and Rob wasn’t in the mood to have the vendors hawk their goods at him so we quickly left and found a cold beer and excellent view of the water in a quieter scene.  Rob got a huge bonus at the hotel when we realized that he could watch the World Cup in the room. The channel was a little fuzzy, but he was a happy guy!

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Back on 2 wheels!

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Enjoying the waves below our feet on the deck we are eating lunch on and in front of us with the mountains behind

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Rob eating Amok again!

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A green salad is a very very rare treat on our travels – yum!

Rob: It was so nice to have 2 wheels underneath us again as we headed out into the Cambodian countryside. As soon as we turned off the paved road, we drove right into agrarian village life. The first thing you notice here is that the cows are different. They are all large pure white Brahmas. It’s a sharp contrast to the lush green rice fields. We don’t see a lot of goats here like we have been accustomed to seeing. With rivers and the sea having such a dominant influence in this southern part of the country, there is so much fresh fish that it is the staple in your diet here along with rice, of course. I’ve had at least 1 version of Amok, the coconut fish curry, every day since we have been here. #FishCurryObsession🐟🍚❤

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Our lovely view from La Plantantion while having wine for breakfast

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Beautiful countryside

We arrived at La Plantation after about an hour’s ride. It is a massive Pepper Farm in an idyllic setting tucked in-between small coastal mountains overlooking a lake. It is only a few years old but the all wooden open Plantation house is architecturally stunning and beautifully built in the old local style. It overlooks blocks and blocks of trussed pepper plants that stand about 10’ high each. In between these vineyard looking plots, there are rows and smaller plots of Passionfruit, Dragonfruit, Pomegranate, Mango and Papaya trees. As you look down the hillside toward the lake, you see the rice paddies literally growing up and out of the water’s edge. It was a really stunning movie-set-like feeling.

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Pepper trees. I wanted to buy a little bit of everything, but Rob, being the voice of reason didn’t think it realistic to carry peppercorn and pepper mixes around with us for another 2 1/2 months (at least) while we continue to travel

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Fresh peppercorn tasting…

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…that are all picked by hand

As we looked out over the vista, a moment of cool breeze blew through the front of the building. It ruffled a menu that caught my eye. I saw that there are 2 restaurants on the Plantation and you could have a glass of wine at the main house while you waited for your tour to begin if you liked. In true Romero style we ordered a bottle of French Rose’. It wasn’t expensive and was a nice light variety of the type that Lacy calls “Breakfast Wine”. It was a perfect fit for the moment.

We started our tour with a Water Buffalo Cart ride. It was a quiet slow motion ride behind 2 exceptionally big and strong Buffalo. They bumped and plodded us along through the Plantation and down through the rice fields. Our cart driver picked a fresh ripe papaya and cut it up for us to eat along the way. Soon we had to put our feet up on the seats of the cart as we traversed from one rice field to another going through water about 3-4’ deep. It was a very unique view and experience for sure.

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I love when we have “firsts” together and a buffalo cart ride through the Cambodian countryside certainly had not been done before by either of us

 

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Getting a little wet as the buffalos and cart  passed through Secret Lake was fun

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Next we headed into the farm with our guide who spoke both English and French. He was very eager to help us understand as much as we wanted to know about pepper farming. What I didn’t know, but soon learned, was that Green, Black, Red and White Peppercorns all come from the same plant but their maturity and processing are what differentiates their taste and color. We tried some the maturing peppercorns right from the plants in the field. We both appreciated the organic manner they ran such a large farm very much.

Kampot Pepper is one of just 2 regions in the world with an Agriculture Standard and Controls just like Wine from Bordeaux or Napa Valley would have. The owners of such a large operation have also invested in the community by building 2 Elementary Schools and providing scholarships to Secondary Schools as well as subsidies for housing and healthcare for their workers. Pretty great for us to see in person knowing what this region has gone through in the last 40 years.

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Oh, this sky!

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Anyone know what this is?

After spending 4 hours at the Plantation including an amazing lunch, we went about 30 minutes deeper into the countryside. Our destination was a series of ancient caves including a small Temple within them that has been in use for 1200 years. Our 7 and 8 year old guides showed us the landmarks in the main cave that lead to the hidden Temple. It was made of carved stone, ancient brick and definitely showed building, rebuilding and restoring processes spread out over a very long span of time. It made me wonder if it’s natural survival was due to its location and constant use only by generations of local people who maintained it. Our guides showed us one cave trek we could take that would be about an hour through the caverns. We opted for the “easy” route out that still took us 15 minutes of very careful climbing from handhold to foothold through dark bat filled chambers and finally out an unmarked exit. It was a great side trip that let my imagination run wide open thinking about who would have known and kept the secret of the little Temple in their family or village for so many hundreds of years before making it public only recently for people like us to see and appreciate.

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Complete blind faith in kids taking us through caves. It was really cool to be deep in a cave with bats flying all around us

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A lovely sunset to end the day 💜

Lacy: Monday morning we planned to get up early (always a pipe dream for us), hike the National Park and make the 1pm boat to Rabbit Island nearby where we planned to stay a few nights. The 6:30 alarm came and went and when we finally started to walk out the door for our hike at 8:30 it began to rain. Luckily, it passed quickly and we were still able to make our “hiking date” happen. Since we move with the wind, and adapt easily, we quickly decided to take the boat the following day to be able to take advantage of a longer hike and the World Cup game that evening.  Rob had read up on the trail and out hiking options in the park. With an elevated view that overlooked Kep and Kampot we began the ring road of the park. Surrounded by lush foliage, tangles of tree root vines and serenaded by passing birds we settled into our happy place together. The ring road itself is a flat easy trail, but naturally we craved a little more. Rob took us on a traverse trail that cut though the middle of the parks jungle. This part of the trail was very obviously rarely used as it was overgrown and reclaimed by the jungle. We forded through the trees and plants until we reached a very steep rock scramble that would bring us up the final bit of the 200 meter ascent to the summit. Using knotted ropes that hung down to assist in climbing this narrow the gorge, we were both dripping sweat. In area without the rope I lay on my belly in the dirt planning each handhold and foot placement ahead of me so as not to slip down from where I just came. Some of it was slippery and my bun kept getting tangled in the the low lying vines, but our adrenaline was pumping and we were so in our element. There was no one else around us and when we stopped to listen to the jungle around us we could hear monkeys in the trees above. I had hoped to see one, but no such luck. Rob was beaming when we reached the top and his healing foot didn’t seem to be bothering him much. The trail back down the other side was a piece of cake in comparison.  Five miles later and covered in sweat, we hit the outdoor seafood market next for lunch.

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This was about the time I asked Rob if  he was certain that we were on the right trail

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Captured after our windy ascent to the summit

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Dripping sweat as we climb down from the summit

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That’s me in there scrambling up those rocks and probably trying to free my hair from the vines on the ground.

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Rob makes it look easy with those long legs

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Great view from the park

Fortunately, being a weekday, it wasn’t crowded at all and Rob was able to stuff himself with shrimp, octopus, squid, rice and chilis until he felt about to flop over. I loved hearing him say what a great day he was having as we cleaned up our table and paid the lovely lady who fed us. After a nap back at our hotel we found ourselves back at the restaurant down the street. Walking in, we recognized a motorcycle we saw in town the day before that has a luggage rack on the back. Any bike that seems likely to hold us and our backpacks catches our eye. We spent the next few hours inside making friends  with a Canadian couple, Evan & Jessa, who bought the bike in Vietnam and just entered Cambodia after riding for 3 months there.  The four of us shared travel stories and it was readily apparent that we all have a similiar sensibility when it comes to travel. We have said it before, but the people you meet when traveling are really amazing and help make your trip so special. We all plan to meet again here in Cambodia as we are traveling in the same general direction and enjoyed our evening together. 

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The first step at the market is to choose your skewer of delight.  We opted for one squid, an octopus, and 4 shrimp skewers with 5 each on them for a grand total of $8.75

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Heaven for my hubby

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Lunch was followed the perfunctory cocktail at the same place we stopped at our first day in Kep.  We really like the guy who runs it, Kim, and wanted to see him again.  Sitting directly over the same waves you are watching and catching a little spray at high tide is a nice way to enjoy the afternoon

 

 

Phnom Penh, the taste of cricket and a dive into the history of this country welcome us as we begin our travels through Cambodia 🇰🇭

 

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…we were all smiles and excited as we got our first glimpse of Phnom Penh

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Boarding our flight to Phnom Penh

Lacy: Tuesday night we ate our last meal in Indonesia as we enjoyed dinner and 2 towers of Bintang in Kuta before walking ourselves to the airport. It felt a bit odd to walk right into the airport as opposed to driving, but then again this wasn’t the first time we have done that in Indonesia and odd is our new normal. Arriving in Malaysia at 2am we stretched out on some terminal chairs and slept for a few hours before passengers began to pile in around 6am eager for their upcoming journeys. As our flight didn’t leave until 10am we enjoyed a breakfast of rice and chicken in the Malaysian airport. We are both so used to eating rice all the time now that it doesn’t really phase us to consume it at 8am. By 1pm we were getting our Cambodian visas, new SIM cards for our phones and grinning ear to ear as we embarked on our first tuk tuk ride together! Before even leaving Indonesia we decided that a tuk tuk ride seemed the most appropriate way to begin our travels in Cambodia. Oozing excitement, we began to soak in our new surroundings and come to a few early conclusions.

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Cruising down the Mekong river our first evening in Phnom Penh gave us another view of the city

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We both love the juxtaposition of traditional temples and the Royal Palace displayed against the modern architecture

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Rob needs very few things to be happy.  A boat and a beer is a winning combination for him

Another noted contrast is the shanty river town that sits on the banks of the Mekong directly in front of a swanky high rise hotel and residence:

 

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View of Royal Palace, that we later tour, from the river

I don’t think we realized how good we had it in Indonesia with the language using the same alphabet as English. Being able to read the local language and recognize words as we traveled, even if we weren’t sure how to pronounce them correctly, really helped us navigate through the country.  Our ride through the Phnom Penh made it pretty clear that our deciding to come to Cambodia with a days notice didn’t give us much time to prepare a few phrases, key words or knowledge of the language. I say “we” but the language part of traveling usually falls to me while Rob handles other parts he excels at. We actually find ourselves starting to speak Indonesian to Cambodians and having to stop ourselves.  We continue to use between each other though!  Speaking English, and not having some of the local language to throw in every once in a while, at a minimum, in a foreign country takes away the experience so I’ll be brushing up on Khmer. The traffic here is still just as crazy and plentiful. The combination of older rickshaws, modern tuk tuks, motorcycles, scooters, buses, minibuses, cars, bicycles and pedestrians make for a wild and crazy scene. We already witnessed a car backing out of a spot on the sidewalk and barely missing a motorcycle. The guy on the bike dumped it to avoid an accident and flying off went the 2 girls on the back. Everyone seemed fine on the bike and not 1 person stopped to see if they were ok, including the driver of the car.  That’s just what happens apparently. Not unlike Indonesia at all.  Because the of  the abundance of tuk tuks we immediately noticed that there are not motorcycles piled with chairs, chickens and bags of rice whizzing by.  Don’t worry – families of 5 are still piled on the bikes. While there is still street food here it seems to have less of a presence than Indonesia and in our few days here we are still trying to get our bearings. The food here in the carts is different and without really understanding the language and what we are eating we have been a little apprehensive. We did dive into a street cart once and it was great, but we are still weary given sir of the Jen things normally served that we don’t want to find ourselves eating…insects, rats, eels, buffalo intensities (2 of the 4 I already willingly tried but don’t need a repeat performance of).  Buddhist temples and statues are everywhere as well as monks clad in orange and red robes.

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Just to give you an idea of what the alphabet looks like – it’s the line under Singapore.  I chose to include this sign  because I thought it added something by advertising “fresh frog porridge!”

After our first 45 minute crash course as we cruised along in our tuk tuk we arrived at our hotel where we enjoyed a shower and rest before a sunset boat ride on the Mekong river nearby.  The boat was a great way to get another view do the city and relax after traveling.   $17 gets you a pretty decent place here. Hot shower, bottled water for drinking (no, you still can’t drink the water here), daily maid service and even a tv (I think there was a tv in maybe 1 place the entire time we were in Indonesia).  After three months it was nice to find and scroll through the 3 English channels hoping to find something that seemed mildly interesting.  The one thing we both miss is the included breakfast that was standard for every hotel or hostel in Indo.  Wasn’t fancy – usually toast and eggs and coffee, but always so appreciated.  I joked with Rob in Ubud as we laid in bed one morning and I was just beginning to wake up that sometimes the most “stressful” part of my morning is making sure I don’t oversleep and miss our free meal!  The people here are so friendly and kind.  On our first day we already had 4 new local friends whom we shared dinner, drinks and laughs with for 4 hours.

I love the style of this local bamboo bicycle and helmet:

 

 

The weather is noticeably warm here. Stepping out of the Phnom Penh airport reminded me of walking out of the Jakarta airport for our very first impression of Indonesia over 3 months ago.  Hot and sticky! Nothing we haven’t encountered already, but it’s still warm and we have both found ourselves getting a little overheated the past couple days and needing to sit down and cool off. Currently I am sitting on the pier behind our hotel in Kep, a sleepy little beach town 4 hours from Phnom Penh that we took a bus to this morning. The sun is setting, the waves lapping and breeze blowing and it feels refreshing after a hot day. It’s quiet here in the off season as the rain is beginning for monsoon season. We have experienced very little so far, but the one day we got a glimpse was like seeing a flash flood. Just solidified our decision not to rent a motorcycle for 3 weeks here, but rather on an as needed basis.  When we arrived in town this afternoon we picked one up for $5 and I LOVED being on the back again with Rob. Having our freedom to cruise and explore around is great. I’m intrigued by Cambodia’s recent tragic history with the genocide in the 70s which is actually why I rallied to come here when we were uncertain as to what country to explore next. Having a quarter of your population gruesomely disappear only 40 years is not that long ago and seeing a country recover from that and how it has it impacted the development and morality is something I want to experience. We both do and are right now.

Rob’s first impressions and highlights:

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The electrical wiring in the city has us floored. These tangled messes are everywhere!

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Rob and Giz walking through the city while more tangled electrical wire hangs low

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The French influences in Phnom Penh are about equal to the Dutch influences we saw in Indonesia. Bread, real bread, being one of the best and welcoming to me. Classic French cooking techniques make some of the local dishes a lot more than just street food. Amok is already my favorite by far. It is a light coconut curry with lemon grass and banana leaf infusions that features fresh white fish poached in the hot creamy broth or, here in Kep Province on the coast, lump crabmeat is the center of attention. All it needs is white rice and a cold beer to be my new death row meal.

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The Central Market in Phnom Penh has everything from earrings to underwear.  You can have a dress made while you get your nails done and buy toothpaste all before grabbing lunch and a bouquet of flowers

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Street food

The S21 – Genocide Museum is located right in Phnom Penh proper. In the 4 year reign of the Khmer Rouge from 1975-1979, 25% of all Cambodians were killed by the Pol Pot regime. Outside of the main city, the Killing Fields were where much of this was carried out away from outsider scrutiny, but within the heart of the city a secret location housed the torture rooms for so many of the country’s intellectuals, artists, scientists and politicians. A small High School was converted to house up to 1000 prisoners at a time while they were “processed” methodically with unrelenting torture through their confessions and to their deaths. Lacy and I spent about 3 somber hours listening to the history, recordings, looking through 100s of photographs and walking through the buildings of the atrocities that occurred only 40 years ago. Much of it was still kept exactly as it was found. It definitely gives you pause and helps you understand how the country has struggled to recover ever since. Since this happened in SE Asia, which is much more physically and mentally removed from America and Europe, it has only been in the last 15 or so years that investment in education, infrastructure and commerce has begun to be felt by the people. Children and young adults are forming the future of the country and still only go to school 1/2 days because they are needed to work in the family businesses. It’s the one place in the world that I’ve come to understand why someone cooking at a lunch cart or working in a small shop can often be a very young teenager. The population gap here is obvious with the very old and very young citizenry. As we have traveled south out of P. P. I’ve also had a hard time driving by any High School without seeing S-21 in the shadows of the buildings. These schools all fundamentally look the same down to the type of cement blocks used to build them in the exact same size, shape and formation of 3, Four-story buildings laid out in a C shape creating a central courtyard. I truly hope that my traveler’s dollars help the recovery in the right way so we will try to spend them correctly and generously without harm.

While in P. P. we also checked out the Cambodian National History Museum. It was mainly filled with sculpture from several Buddhist Renaissance periods around 500, 700 and 1000 AD that corresponded with strong Kings and Buddhist leaders that inspired / ordered massive Temple building projects. I’m hoping it was a good primer for our Temple treks and explorations to come in the next several weeks.

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History museum

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Royal Palace

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Escaping a flash afternoon monsoon wasn’t really on our to-do list when we arrived in P. P. We weren’t too far from our hotel when we stopped under a big leafy tree for a quick rain shower to pass. It decided not to pass and we ducked for cover in a very small local restaurant. The type of place that uses much more sidewalk than interior space for everything from seating to the charcoal grill. After standing under the awning for a moment or two, we joined a table and were asked if we would like to share a beer. The guys there were on a 1 Day leave from their Military Academy. The rain grew stronger and began to move everyone further and further under cover. The beers were good and cold. The conversation was spirited and warm. We were offered to share in their dinner as well but we just participated in a few tastes. Lacy was the braver of our duo and learned to peel off the wings of a giant cricket before eating the Twix sized fried bug in 2 bites. We both used large amounts of beverage to wash down the whole grilled baby frogs but declined the Snicker bar sized cockroaches that the rest of the guys expertly de-winged and downed. The rain at this point had been pouring for 2 hours and the street was quickly becoming a river. Even more of the restaurant and patrons retracted into a cozier space as we watched brave motorbike drivers try to use the highest point in the center of the road to barely swim past. The water at the edges was at least a foot deep and churning right to left toward the larger streets and into the Mekong river. The deluge didn’t seem to slow the beers, conversation or laughs at all. After about 3 hours, the rain stopped as quickly as it started, the street cleared, tables moved back onto the sidewalk and we hugged our new friends goodbye for now.

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New friends and great times in Phnom Penh

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I ate one of the little guys.  I like how the local Cambodian beer is pull tab and the inside says thank you.  Thank you for my first insect eating experience.  Honestly, they don’t taste bad.

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