Widgets A Round-the-World Travel Blog: Devil May Care: January 2011 Archives

January 2011 Archives

One constant that we've noticed throughout our travel: wherever one is in the world, a young boy of about four to six in possession of both a similarly-aged boy and something to beat him with is going to thwack his companion. This was certainly true when we went to the Ramayana Ballet in Yogyakarta and sat in the same audience with a large school group. Audience members were handed an explanatory program the size of a paper placemat. Every audience member between six and ten in possession of an Y chromosome proceeded to roll the program up and use it as a cudgel. (The girls giggled and texted on their cell phones.)

This is as true for two young brothers on a small skiff being rowed by their older sister. Here is what it looks like in a brief intermission between thwackings:

Vietnam Chidren

And this is the not-so-tranquil moment:

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My earlier entry on the Siem Reap temples focused mostly on our morning and evening excursions to Angkor Wat and Ta Prohm (the "Tomb Raider" temple). Those are probably the most famous of the sites around Angkor Wat, but we managed to make it to a few more temples over our three days. My favorite was Banteay Srei.

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Carving over archway at Banteay Srei

I should probably warn you that this is a long post.

Name Dropping

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One of the few differences between the "Don't Leave Home Without..." section early in Lonely Planet's Cambodia and the same section in LP's Vietnam guide is: "Other hand things to bring are business cards, as Vietnamese deal them out like a deck of playing cards."

I had a stack of business cards from my old job, but they wouldn't be of much use while traveling, as all of the contact information was for that office. And anyway, "business cards" didn't seem quite right; I'm not engaged in any particular business at the moment, except that of traveling.

While re-reading Truman Capote's novella Breakfast at Tiffany's, I came across what struck me as a timely suggestion. My talented friend Debbie offered to letter-press the idea into lovely thick card-stock, while adding her own touch by inking the edges red and gold. You can read her design blog for the full story, including the relevant literary citation, but here's the results.


Good Hanoi blogs

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A shout out to a few blogs that we've found while navigating this city:

  • Sticky Rice: A Hanoi food blog, and a great guide if you need to find great places to eat and new things to try. He tweeted us directions to a great streetside pho spot.
  • Our Man in Hanoi: Wry commentary on life in the capital from a training and communications man for hire. He's got a strong voice telling a fascinating story. (One sign that he's good with online communications: he shows up on the first page of a Google search for "Hanoi.")

It did make me a bit homesick, though: this photo of Mr. Stewart often perches above his New York studio, which I would walk past every now and then on the way to a restaurant. (If memory serves, it reminds passersby that if they're looking for the Penthouse Club, it's on the next block.)

I am a bit surprised to see the Daily Show star chosen as a model of sartorial excellence. Then again, the female celeb on the opposite side of the doorway is Lindsay Lohan.

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Despite having spent our first week in Thailand catching up on our to do list, we had time to see a few parts of the city, ride the train, and check out one of the local favorites: trendy rooftop bars.

We decided to take in sunset at the Sky Bar at LeBua and failed because we arrived a few minutes too late. One note when using an iPhone maps function in Thailand: the program will sometimes interpret a street number as a zip code, and deposit you at entirely the wrong end of the street.

While Thailand is generally a low-cost tourist destination, this business district bar swings high market, high-in-the-sky, and high-priced. Waiters in suits and waitresses in long fancy dresses greet you at the bottom of a flight of stone steps, then escort you past the outdoor dining area to the bar. On a weekday evening, it's an interesting mix of afterwork business people, elegant diners on a night out, and tourists in jeans. We ran into a very nice Australian couple who described to us their recent trip to Burma.

The view from the bar is unquestionably superb. On the sixty-fourth floor of the State Tower, the Sky Bar looks down over the bustling city and its neon lights. Bangkok skyscrapers are few and far between, which means that the skyline is mostly uninterrupted, and from here the haze of pollution that nestles over Bangkok is hard to miss. It was impossible to tell if the gibbous moon was red from normal atmospheric conditions or the smog, but either way it was pretty. As you turn away from the balcony, the gold-domed restaurant that caps State Tower is itself an image worth seeing at night.

That said, don't come for the drinks: what we tried ranged from disappointing to an outright titanic disaster. Pallavi's spicy gin and tonic wasn't horrible, but overdid the pepper to the exclusion of all other taste. "Earth," another Sky Bar specialty, claimed to be a mix of whiskey, a few other spirits, and lime juice, but was drained over crushed ice that watered it down to a thoroughly forgettable concoction: all that sticks in the mind is a sugary flavor of syrup. I moved to classics, but while the mojito was merely so-so, the Manhattan introduced me to the unpleasant concept of a fifty-fifty bourbon/vermouth split. It's a horrible potion that I hope never to suffer again, and I can't understand why any bartender would offer it to a customer, unless she wanted that customer never to return. By the way, all of these drinks are at New York prices (upwards of $12), and certainly not worth it.

We'll probably try another rooftop when we're back in Thailand, but while the Sky Bar is an architectural wonder, save yourself some money by buying a soft drink, watching the sunset, and heading for some other bar.

For instance, walk up the block to Jameson's Irish Pub Bangkok, where you can buy a relatively inexpensive glass of Hoegaarden that's about as big as your head.

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Greetings from Hanoi. We've arrived as the city prepares for Tet, the celebration of the lunar new year.

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There's much to catch up on since our last entry.

Facebook silence

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Incidentally, Vietnam is the first country in which we're experiencing difficulties accessing a website due to what appears to be government policy (although the government has not confirmed this). Facebook is blocked.

The Facebook ban seems to be a bit hit or miss. On the one hand, Vietnamese cellphone companies advertise that their new phones are perfect for updating Facebook. Likewise, many restaurants and shops ask that their customers "friend" them. A few internet reports suggest that the block is easy to get around, but I'm not very fond of the idea of circumventing a restriction imposed by my host country. So if you aren't able to contact us on Facebook, it's not that we're ignoring you: we just can't log on.

This trip has taught me the value of a good camera. We made our way through the Galapagos photographically outclassed by our fellow travelers, our little Canon Powershot the plucky younger brothers of the digital SLRs carried by our shipmates. By the time we got to New Zealand, we figured that it was time to invest in a better camera. We snagged a Canon Rebel XS, as Amazon was having a sale that scored us a free telephoto lens. It's an older model, but we felt that there was no sense in paying top dollar for something that we didn't know how to use.

Indeed, despite the plethora of features, buttons, knobs and dials, I hadn't taken the camera out of automatic until I got to Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples of Siem Reap. These locations overflow with beautiful imagery, but much of it eludes capture by our SLRs automatic settings. More detail after the break.

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A carving at Ta Prohm, the "Tomb Raider" temple

Another fine product from TripAdvisor: SeatGuru. Simply input your airline and flight number, and it happily shows you which seats have more (or less) legroom, the location of power sockets, and other details. (via Lifehacker)

It's been a bit more than six months since we left our apartment and hit the road. More importantly, we've flipped over to a new tax year, which drops us from a high tax bracket to the bottom. I'd always planned to shift gears at this point: traveling a little less, focusing into things that I wanted to finish while on the road, and picking up some projects here and there to make money. Of course, there's also the minor matter of finding a job for our return, and figuring out to which city we'll return.

Thus, we're likely to slow down some over the next few months, spending more time in front of a computer screen getting job applications prepared. The good news is that the new schedule is likely to make us more productive authors, and allow us to fill this blog with some of our earlier adventures. As I think I've said a few times, it's hard to live life and write about it at the same time.

As a celebration of my ability to escape the hotel, yesterday evening we dined at Nest, a well-reviewed establishment in the heart of Siem Reap. I was genuinely impressed by the layout: the dining area sprawls underneath a series of interlinked canopies such that it feels outdoors without being open-air. A curved stone walkway meanders through the middle of the restaurant, dividing the lounge area and bar on the left from the dining area on the right.

We didn't sit in the lounge, but I'd like to go back and try it: some of the seats are practically beds made from wicker frames, and couples were cuddled up on them drinking. It looked like a cozy, comfortable place to have a cocktail.

On the other side of the stone path, dark wood dining tables are covered in white linen, while dark-stained wicker decorations carry over the motif from the bar. The overall effect is one of relative luxury and comfort.

And for Siem Reap, this is certainly luxury: even the set menu will run you $20 or upwards, which sounds like a good snack to a Manhattanite, but extravagant for a meal here. The food is fantastic, however, and I highly recommend the set menu. The salads were fresh, well-presented and spicy. The meat dishes--Pallavi had a finely flavored pork shank, while I had a nicely peppered cubed-steak dish--show signs of a French/Cambodian influence.

Hopefully Pallavi will say a little more about the food--I'm not much of a gourmet [1], and so I lack the vocabulary to really do Nest justice. I'll stick to my strengths and note that I'm very impressed by their cocktail list, which shows a delicacy that I haven't seen since we left Hong Kong. Most Cambodian bars have your standard fare--mojitos, caiparinhas, cosmos--and a few "tropical specialities" that are mainly fruit juices and spirits. These don't take much skill to mix and aren't very ambitious. Ordering a Manhattan will show the weakness of such places: the result will be pedestrian, usually poorly mixed and with a too-strong flavor of vermouth.

Nest's menu, on the other hand, respects the classics while holding some true modern gems. One sign of sophistication: the menu asks you to "please order your Manhattan dry, sweet, or perfect," and has similar instructions for variations of martinis and other classics. On the other hand, the bartender challenges you to try modern innovations like the Occidental Blazer (see the last page of the PDF, the only recipe I could find online), a strongly aromatic rye-and-brandy mix. Served warm in brandy snifter, this cocktails doesn't so much tickle the nose as assault it prior to the first sip, but then settles to a spicy thick syrup as it cools. They have a few more drinks (including a curious stout/vanilla ice cream mix) that I hope to try before we hit the road. Preferably in one of those lounge beds.

[1] My sibling has informed me that he hates the word "foodie," so I'm avoiding it, but I'm not much of one of those, either.

We're in Siem Reap, probably the most tourist-friendly city in Cambodia, and I think we're going to be here for a week more. We arrived on the fourth, but we have had no chance to get to the temples yet as I've been ill ever since we arrived. Indeed, I didn't even leave our initial hotel until last night.

Any extended travel plans need to have enough slack to account for getting ill, so that if you end up bedridden for a day or two you don't feel like you're missing out on a great cultural experience. Face it: if you spend a year going through countless airports and staying in hotel after hotel, you're going to pick up a germ or two. We have flexibility at the moment, so in all honesty I'm kind of glad that it happened here rather than Phnom Penh. For one thing our hotel, while as nice as our Phnom Penh abode, was much cheaper: three nights with every meal that I was able to eat (and all of Pallavi's food) came to less than $65.

Nor am I feeling much time pressure, because Southeast Asia is probably the least-scheduled part of our international trip thus far. Our last ticket was from Hong Kong to Phnom Penh, but our next ticket is from Bangkok to Dehli. How we get from here to Bangkok is up to us, meandering at our own schedule. So a day or two doesn't matter much: we'll still see the temple.

We've now changed hotels into something only slightly more expensive, but much nicer and more central. Now that I'm finally able to leave the hotel, I think I'm going to like Siem Reap.

I've mostly wandered around the Old Market area downtown, which is a hodgepodge of tourist restaurants, bars and massage parlors, each surrounding several marketplaces. These sell everything from gaudy t-shirts and flashy dresses to an IP litigator's paradise of knock-off watches, sunglasses and fashion items. Bargain hard: dealers will relent to far less than their original offer, and the knockoffs are normally such poor quality that they're not worth the discounted price. (I ruined the "waterproof" Wal-Mart watch I purchased before we left Texas while diving in Gili Trawangan, and tried to replace it with a "Vacheron Constantin" [1] here. It ceased to work overnight, though the vendor did replace it when I came back. The replacement "Patek Phillipe" has already broken.)

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This is not a Patek. Nor anywhere near the correct time.

In any event, Siem Reap is tropically warm, the weather has favored us so far, and I look forward to three to five days of viewing Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples.

[1] Yes, the watch almost certainly violates VC's intellectual property rights, and given that I love what VC makes, I don't take that lightly. That said, if there ever was an argument for a parody exception to trademark, this watch was it. A glance at the metal casing, the asymmetrical bezel, and the poor work on the watch face suggested that the strap, which appeared to be authentically leather, was the most expensive part of the entire contraption. Anyone vaguely familiar with the VC brand would not suspect for a minute that this watch had been on the same continent as a Swiss watchmaker. Besides, since arriving in Cambodia and trying to purchase a watch, I've found it impossible to find anything that isn't impinging on someone's IP.

Dollar Dollar Bills Y'all

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When you hear that the majority of U.S. currency in circulation is held outside the United States, you may be envisioning piles of dollars in a Beijing treasury or under a Russian billionaire's mattress. But I've been discovering during this trip how much the U.S. dollar has become either the actual or de facto currency of various developing countries.

For example, if you've ever puzzled over the rarity of the Sacagawea coins, wonder no more: they mostly seem to have ended up in Ecuador, which retired its sucre several years ago and now uses U.S. dollars as official currency. Ecuador still mints some centavo coins for amounts less than $1, and the $1 bill is far less common than $1 coins. This change aroused the contempt of other South American countries, which at various times may have pegged their currency to that of the U.S. to minimize inflation, but hung onto their power to print bills. When we excused our clumsiness in dealing with Peruvian money to a guide by explaining that we'd been spoiled by our home currency in Ecuador, he laughed and said that the Ecuadoreans were the joke of the continent for giving up their own money and having foreigners' faces on all their bills and most of their coins.

And indeed in Peru and Argentina, people generally expect travelers to use the local currency. The one time I saw something denominated solely in dollars in Argentina was the $140 visa fee charged only to Americans. (The small town of Colonia, Uruguay, which gets hordes of day-tripping tourists on the boat from Buenos Aires, is less picky and accepts Argentinean pesos.) The same is true in Indonesia -- even when you were given a price in dollars, you were expected to pay in rupiah -- and of course in Hong Kong, Australia and New Zealand. Until recently, the only country we'd visited that wasn't on the U.S. dollar but where vendors were willing to accept it in lieu of local currency was Canada.

Cambodia is the first instance we've encountered of a country that nominally retains its own currency (riels), but operates almost entirely on American money. When we arrived at Phnom Penh airport on December 29 with only Hong Kong dollars in hand, the airport taxi tout directed us to an exchange service that listed various currencies, including Hong Kong's, but seemed to have bizarre prices for them. The Hong Kong dollar was at almost 8 to the U.S. dollar, and the U.S. dollar was worth more than 4000 riel, so I expected to see Hong Kong at something like 500. Yet HKD was listed as 7 and change. It took me a moment to realize that the exchange was of various foreign currencies not to riels, but to U.S. dollars.

Travel advisories on making the trip to Cambodia by crossing overland from Thailand all emphasize that one should not be fooled into exchanging money for riels at the border, despite the scam artists insisting that you'll need riels once you enter Cambodia. Visa fees and everything else can be paid in dollars.

Maybe if you aren't a tourist, you can get someone to deal with you in riels, but everything we've done in Cambodia thus far -- riding tuk-tuks and buses, visiting the Royal Palace and National Museum, buying a book in a foreign-language bookstore, getting a massage, even ordering tickets to a New Year's celebration where 95% of those attending were Khmer -- has been denominated and transacted in dollars. Occasionally a vendor will give us riels in change, because they don't have U.S. coins in circulation, so anything less than $1 will involve Cambodian bills. However, I haven't seen Sacagawea here yet.

A comment on my curious lawyer advertising post led me to FirmSpy. If for some reason you were ever looking for an Australian version of Above the Law, now you've found it.

Search engine optimizers have made life difficult for those doing travel research. Often when I am looking for advice on places to stay or methods of travel, hundreds of similar hotel booking sites will fill the first three pages of results. Some of these are actually the same site using different URLs, and none of them meet my needs.

I really want to read personal experiences. TripAdvisor is good for this, but like any popular site, its recommendations are somewhat self-enforcing, in that the top-ten hotels will tend to get a lot of TripAdvisor visitors. Best of all, I find, are travel blogs.

Thus, I stumbled across Stop Having A Boring Life when we were trying to decide whether to take the night train from Yogyakarta to Jakarta. In the end we took a flight simply because we wanted to stay an extra day, but his travel stories were nonetheless useful and entertaining, and I keep returning to the site. Rob, the author, is a bit more of a backpacker/traveler than we are, and he posts more about why he is on his journey than we do. He's been through quite a few countries, however, including many that we will be visiting in the future, which makes it a good site to watch.

As you can see, I've added him to the blogroll.

Things Undone in Australia

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Aside from the shady neighborhoods like King's Cross in which we stayed, Sydney is the sort of city my mother, a partisan of Singapore and Dubai, would like: clean and pretty.


With the help of a pay-what-you-will tour, we saw a reasonable amount of it; we walked the Harbor and CBD, and I took the subway out to the suburb of Davidson in order to make a delivery from the original Galapagos post office. No doubt that a guidebook could find many more "must-do" holes than these, but the following are a few idiosyncratic regrets I have about our stay.

Things We've Seen

Things We Like