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It’s Angkor Wat Week! Day One…

Hey there, flashpackers! It’s Angkor Wat Week here on, for no other reason than that’s where I just spent four wonderful days. And since Angkor Wat is also one of the most consistently astonishing places on this glorious planet, it gets its own week. Whit and I are in transit today through Malaysia, so we’ll start small with a short post on some of the area’s less imposing sights: its monkeys.

Nearing noon on my first day of exploring, the sun was withering, and I, having been up and at ‘em since 4:30 that morning, decided to head back to Siem Reap for lunch. Returning through the enormous southern gate of Angkor Thom, I noticed a few tourists shuttling around to take photos in earnest. The gate is pretty photogenic, but not that photogenic, so I stopped and to see what the spectacle was. Turns out a huge group of monkeys were camped out around the gate, playing together and scrambling up rocks, logs, and, as it turned out, the limbs of tourists.

As I wandered over to a triangle of downed trees, I was greeted by a bemused-looking European couple under siege. The gentleman had a monkey perched on his right shoulder, tugging absent-mindedly at the skin of his cheek like a massage therapist with an attention deficit. Another one dangled from his upper arm, slapping his string-suspended lens cap around like a piñata. I thought the young lady with him had managed to avoid his fate, when a third monkey emerged mischievously from the cascade of her red curls. She gave a shout as the little guy grabbed a handful of locks and yanked.

Sensing my amusement, the gentleman-cum-jungle-gym offered to transfer one or both of the scoundrels to me, but I politely declined. I’m told I share more than nine-tenths of my DNA with the little guys, but that’s all I want to share with them.

Frankly, monkeys are just about all I need to see to make a trip worthwhile. But I promise, there’s a bit more to Angkor Wat than monkeys. Tomorrow I’ll share some of it with you… Thanks for reading!

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Where to eat Khmer cooking in Phnom Penh

Cook something in a clay pot and I’m pretty much sold. That’s how Khmer cooking first hooked me, but I have to admit it’s the highbrow authentic and fusion restaurants in Cambodia that keep me coming back.

Malis is an all-around favorite — from locals to the New York Times Travel section to Lonely Planet’s food blog, everyone loves this place. It offers a range of dishes, most of which would fall into the tapas category, so you best bring along some buddies to share. Bonus points: the digs are gorgeous (reflecting pools, silk cushions, Khmer statues, etc.) and it’s not even expensive.

Romdeng’s tag line is “a taste of Cambodia’s provinces.” Now, you might ask, “Why not eat provincial food in the province? Or in the street for that matter? Why a fancy restaurant in a French colonial house?”

Well, the thing about traditional foods is that they often come cooked in 3 inches of pig grease. Or the “authentic” experience now includes a recipe with half a can of condensed milk. That’s the real province these days, so don’t look down on fusion cooking. Embrace the flavors and enjoy the lovely villa. You can get an authentic experience with a bus ride alone. And, truth be told, eating fried tarantulas takes guts anywhere, posh ambiance or not.

Romdeng is also part of the “Friends” empire, which runs training programs for street youth to work in restaurants, handicraft stores and even a salon.

“K” is a newcomer. Serving Khmer and Vegan cuisine in a renovated house, you might be tempted to raise one eyebrow and walk on by, but stop by instead. The food is really, really good, if slightly odd. It does serve meat (while I thought they meant Khmer vegan, they meant Khmer and vegan) and a great selection of creative vegan food. The sweet potato, pepper, and peanut stew was a nice change up from the normal pan-Asian bistro fare. The juices, cocktails, and desserts are worth mentioning too. Also, if you like your fish amok in a super sleek setting, this is the place for you. Just watch out for the music selection. They like Thriller. A lot.

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Luxe among the cockroaches

Sometimes flashpacking isn’t an option. Perhaps the economy’s got you down and you can only afford budget accommodations for this year’s vacation. Maybe you’re planning on going far off the beaten track and there’re slim pickings. The question du jour is can you fake flashpacking?

In my line of work you often have to stay in some pretty wretched places, including where I was last week – a $7 a night guest house, away from the usual tourist haunts somewhere in Laos. The general idea with faking flashpacking is to trick your brain into thinking you’re “in the wild” à la Meryl Streep in Out of Africa . As opposed to “in the wild” à la Lord of the Flies. Speaking of flies…

Meet the Mombasa Defender – Mosquito nets are good for more than just mosquitos. Roaches, lizards, and even rats are deterred by them, which means sounder sleep for you. So try to forget the roaches and pretend you’re actually in Mombasa…

Linens and things – Ditch the sure-to-be-disgusting bed sheets (if there are any) and bring along your own. Up the luxury with a nice, compact, silk sleeping bag. You can find these quite cheap all over Asia, but if you’re headed elsewhere, try making your own or score one online.

Avoid that mildew smell – The best way to trick your brain is through scent. You will not be able to pretend you are anywhere but a dingy, dirty place if that’s what it smells like. Even decent dwellings can smell damp and dank during the rainy season, so I always try to pack scented travel candles. Now crawl under your net in your silk sheets, light some candles, and grab a good book. Pretend it’s luxury and a relief to be staying in a place without internet…

Avoid a gross shower and cold water – Dr. Bronner’s is a fantastic organic/fair trade line of soaps and shampoos. At some eco retreats you might even be asked only use Dr. Bronner’s since it’s completely biodegradable and only vegetable based. The downside? You’ll need substantial waterflow for a good lather and rinse. I tend to travel with wet wipes because you can avoid gross guesthouse showers (or freezing cold water) for a few days and stay perfectly clean. And now I’ve found this ezine article, which explains how to make your own Dr. Bronner’s wet wipes with tea tree and lavender oils! You can make the disposable kind or put the solution in a spray bottle and use it with a quick-dry travel towel. If it’s warm where you’re traveling and there’s some privacy, try washing your hair outside and pretend it’s Robert Redford lathering up your hair with those minty suds on your very own high-altitude coffee plantation in Kenya…

Keep your daily buzz -I love these small french press solutions! Death to Nescafe! There’s no reason to drink that horror or do without your daily fix just because you’re far from café culture. Pick your roast, grind your beans, and pack your tiny caffeine savior. Pretend you’re Meryl Streep’s next door neighbor in Out of Africa and that waking up to a rooster crowing before dawn is worth it because you live right next to a high-altitude coffee plantation in Kenya….

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Get your nose out of that book – Using your ipod to travel

I’m directionally challenged. I managed to get lost for an hour this week while driving home from the airport in my hometown. When I should have been driving north, I ended up driving south — not just once, either, but twice. It was an impressive feat.

So I have a real hard time remembering directions to a restaurant or the hotel without whipping out my guide book, which is so uncool. If you’re like me and want to avoid looking like a doofus, there are a few options these days.

Podscrolls from Rough Guide:

Rough Guides are now providing free eating and drinking guides that come with directions, pictures, etc., and can be downloaded on your ipod. Best of all, they’re free! They only have 8 European cities and 2 American cities right now, but hopefully there’ll be more to come.

ijourneys: A fellow flashpacker turned me on to these downloadable podcasts that do a city tour and tell you where to go while you listen. So you look like a normal person strolling and listening to music, but you’re actually geeking out on tourist info. Other sites, like National Geographic, do audio city tours as well.

Tourcaster & PodAsia: Tourcaster and PodAsia are more general podcastesque downloads for interesting cultural information. Amateur Traveler is a site where travel enthusiasts post their own podcasts on a variety of travel topics.

It’s definitely worth getting out there and googling what’s available as the market is just going to keep growing.

Another option is exploring tips for using your über-tricked-out mp3 player. For instance, here’ s a popular tutorial on turning a google map into an ipod photo. Also, Lonely Planet sells its guidebooks as a “pick and mix,” where you can buy pdf chapters and save them to your portable file-viewing device of choice.

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Safari for less?

This just in from one of our readers -

“I want to go on a safari trip in Tanzania, with it ending on the white beaches of Zanzibar. The ideal is to go during the water hole migration season in 2009. My ideal max budget per person, including airfare, is $2,000. Is that even realistic? Flashpacker, please help!”

Well, after doing some searching it seems that budget rates for safaris in Tanzania are around $60-$150 per person per day.

Mike at Vagabonding says that you can better deals if you book your tour from Arusha (as opposed to online), but you have to be ready to bargain and deal with the touts (plus schedule a few extra days to arrange the trip). On the other hand, I was able to find budget tours for the same price ($145 per day) that Mike found in Arusha.

The cheapest I’m finding airfare for April to Dar es Salaam is $1584 (including tax) on Airline Consolidator, one of my favorite sites for occasionally beating the fares Kayak finds (it’s not nearly as user friendly, however). April/May 2009 is pretty far out, so you probably won’t get too much cheaper than that unless you find a great airline sale.

So, unfortunately, it looks like $2000 is undershooting somewhat.

One possible idea is to keep an eye out on Sky Auctions, which auctions off vacations, including safaris, ebay-style. I’d also keep an eye out on package tours that go on clearance. Package isn’t usually the first choice for flashpackers that prefer not to be babysat, but those tour operators sure can get the deals sometimes (and you have to be on a package tour for the safari portions anyway).

And here’s one last option for researching safaris online: African Safari Journals, a low-key site where people write about their experiences with safari tour operators.

Sorry to disappoint dear reader, but never fear – the flashpackers will remain on the case!

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Stick with the right kind of “adventure”

So our historic neighborhood was hit by a tornado last night and that got me thinking about how bad weather can really ruin your travel plans – whether it’s hurricane season in the Caribbean or just a 10 degrees colder than you were expecting… If you’re high on the adventure quotient and want to make find the perfect place for the perfect time of year, check out Lonely Planet’s book, A Year of Adventures, and companion website.

I love this concept! You pick your travel month and they tell what’s at its peak. There’s a wide variety of activities, from trekking to see gorillas, to traveling the trans-Siberia railway – the suggestions have something for everyone and cover all corners of the globe. I bought this book in the Bangkok airport with my last remaining baht and have been using it to day dream ever since! We did hit up Patagonia per their suggestions – hopefully we’ll keep being able to check some of these amazing trips off the list…

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Where to travel on a weak dollar

Now that Europe is astronomically expensive and previously amazing bargains like Argentina are strengthening against the dollar, is there anywhere that’s still a steal for the American tourist?

There are indeed a few enclaves where the dollar is faring well. For starters, Costa Rica. While it wasn’t an overly expensive destination to begin with, the dollar has increased in value there a whopping 37% compared to the colon over the last 5 years! In Egypt you’re looking at 19% and Malaysia is 16% .

Southeast Asia looks like a good bet – just skip Thailand, where the baht has strengthened a lot in just a year. The dollar has strengthened in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. Looks like 2008 is the year to cruise down the Mekong….

For more help navigating on a weak dollar, check out Condé Nast’s Dollar Power.

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