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Archive for September, 2008

On bringing home more than souvenirs: the scourge of bedbugs

Those of us with an itch to travel the world are increasingly at risk for an itch of a different kind: a bedbug bite. And if you’ve got one, chances are you’re going to end up with a lot more. Like boogers and bad habits, bedbugs easy to pick up but hard to get rid of. Which is why, when Whitney and I awoke one morning a couple weeks ago with several new, itchy bites scattered around our bodies, we went into panic mode.

If you’re like me, prior to the past couple years the only reference you ever heard to bedbugs was in a sleep-time rhyme. But recently that’s changed; countless stories in the media have bullhorned the fact that bedbugs are on the rise again. Why, you ask? Well, flashpackers, there are a number of factors contributing to their resurgence, but people like us are owed much of the blame.

Back in the heyday of indiscriminate DDT spraying, bedbugs (and bald eagles and brown pelicans and peregrine falcons and so on…) were begging for mercy; in fact, they were nearly DDT’d into extinction. Unfortunately, due to its similarly deleterious effects on human development and cognition (and bald eagles and brown pelicans and peregrine falcons and so on…), DDT was summarily banned for domestic use by the U.S. government on the last day of 1972, and much of the developed world followed suit. Bird populations thankfully rebounded, but so did those dastardly bedbugs. The increasing ease of international travel seems to be one of the main culprits.

Bedbugs are expert hitchhikers; they travel the world on our dimes, comfortably stashed away inside our luggage until they get hungry and decide to stretch their legs. The ninjas of the insect world, they go completely unnoticed until it’s too late. By the time you’re aware of them, they’re everywhere and they’re peckish and they’re notoriously hard to kill.

The bites bedbugs leave behind are easy to confuse with mosquito bites, so many bedbug victims are tardy in suspecting an infestation. Although they’re not so tiny as to be invisible — about half a centimeter in length full grown, they resemble ticks with stubby legs — bedbugs tend to feed at night, so your best chance of spotting one is by flashlight. During the daytime, while they’re plotting nightly terror raids around your sleeping body, they occupy tough-to-examine nooks and crannies: the narrow crevasses in hardwood floors and furniture frames, the gaps between couch cushions, and the lips and folds of mattresses, box springs, carpeting, and wallpaper. So on and so forth.

Once identified, bedbugs can be astonishingly difficult to eradicate. Various websites we’ve consulted have recommended everything short of salting our floor with plutonium particles to kill them. Pesticide fumigations aren’t always effective; bedbugs have grown resistant to certain chemicals, so a treatment might merely scatter them to new areas, worsening the infestation. You can try to starve them, but adults can survive for up to two months without eating, so staying in a hotel for a few days or weeks will only try their patience.

So we’ve spent the past couple weeks committing acts of lunacy to get rid of them: boiling our clothes, storing our books in the freezer and then stuffing them into plastic bags to bake in the sun, shuttling daily back and forth to the dry cleaners with garbage bags full of garments and luggage, and spraying enough insecticide around the apartment to cause permanently bloodshot eyes and frqeuent and unintetnional misplelings.

The real lingering effects of a bedbug assault are clearly psychological as much as physical. If they’ve spread throughout a dwelling, a successful treatment can cost tens of thousands of dollars. Just the thought of that is enough to keep me awake at night. Since we discovered our bites, I’ve been jolted awake several times by the merest inkling that something is scurrying around on a part of my body, only to comb the area manically by cell-phone light and find nothing at all. As if I needed a new mental disorder, I’m becoming a paranoid insomniac.

On the spectrum of things you want to host in your home, bedbugs are definitely on the undesirable end, somewhere between a Kiss concert and a conflagration.

A few travel tips to avoid picking up pestilential passengers while you’re away:

Inspect hotel rooms before you settle in. Check mattress seams and carpet edges for signs of bedbug activity: the bugs themselves, of course, but also their dried blood-speck droppings or collections of tiny, sticky, white eggs.

Always carry a flashlight with you to examine your room at night if you suspect an infestation.

Try not to leave your luggage or clothes lying around on a hotel bed or floor. Hang up your clothes whenever possible and keep your luggage zipped shut and lifted off the floor, perhaps on a chair or desk.

And tell the hotel staff and fellow travelers about any bedbugs you discover.

By the way, insect repellants are ineffective against them (naturally), so if there are hungry bedbugs where you stay, you’ll only end up itching and smelling funny.

Think you might have an infestation but aren’t sure? Here are a few things to look for:

Orion’s welts? — Creepily enough, bedbugs often leave a trail of three bites arrayed in a line, usually on your lower extremities. Why they do this isn’t clear, but I have a feeling it’s just to mess with your head.

Set a trap — If you think you might have bedbugs but haven’t actually caught sight of one, try setting one of those mouse-miring glue traps near your bed or around the furniture you suspect is harboring them. Then try not to step in it. Laying down a perimeter of double-sided carpet tape around your bed will work, too.

Man’s best friend/bedbugs’ worst enemy? — Some pest control companies employ dogs that are trained to sniff out bedbug infestations, but they’re quite expensive. Come to think of it, if they could train the airport security dogs to sniff for drugs and bedbugs, many a nasty episode might be avoided.

Once you’ve identified it, here are a few suggested courses of action for dealing with an infestation:

Heat — Bedbugs can nest and lay eggs inside your clothes and luggage. The eggs are the real danger, because in only a couple weeks, the number of active bedbugs crashing at your place can explode from a few to a few dozen. Ten to twenty minutes in a medium-high heat (160°F or 71°C) electric dryer or several hours in temperatures above 120°F (49°C) will eliminate them. A surefire way to get rid of the critters is to boil your clothes for several minutes, though if you own a lot of clothes, this is extremely labor intensive and you might, as I did, end up accidentally tie-dying half your wardrobe if you’re not careful.

Cold – Bedbugs cannot survive sustained exposure to subzero temperatures, but the exposure has to be continuous for several days.

Dry cleaning — The chemicals used in dry cleaning processes will kill the bedbugs and their eggs, but keep in mind that the pre-treated, contaminated items might ferry the infestation to the dry cleaning facility.

Pesticide treatment — A recent report on London’s resurgent bedbug population stated that they’re now resistant to most of the insecticides allowed in the UK. If you decide to hire a pest control company, make sure they’ve got plenty of experience dealing with bedbugs, because to kill a bedbug you’ve got to be able to think like a bedbug.

Suck ‘em up — A thorough vacuuming of mattresses, hardwood floors, carpets, and drapes can be effective, but remember to transfer the vacuum bag into another sealed waste bag and get it outside immediately.

Food-grade diatomaceous earth (DE) – A sprinkling of this chalky, pet-safe stuff around potential bedbug hiding places will dehydrate and kill the suckers.

The “Sweep the bed, Johnny!” technique — My personal favorite approach (because it’s the most vengeful) calls for you to wake just before dawn when bedbugs are most active, throw on the lights in your bedroom, sweep the scattering bedbugs into a dustpan, and immediately dump them into a pot of water to drown. Sometimes you’ve just got unleash your inner-Cobra-Kai on them.

Jedi mind tricks — Bedbugs are impervious to them, unless they’re applied in conjunction with any of the above treatments.

Good luck and safe travels! Thanks for reading…

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Cheap air travel in Southeast Asia

I’ve just returned to Hanoi after about four weeks of crisscrossing Southeast Asia by air, and I’d like to take a moment to extol the virtues of Air Asia. I boarded nine Air Asia flights in twenty-six days: eight of the nine arrived early or on time (one was an hour late due to weather); check-ins were quick and hassle-free; gate agents and flight attendants were uniformly courteous and friendly; and most importantly, the average fare for those nine flights was a mere US$68.

I have to admit I’m always a bit wary of low-cost carriers. The term conjures images in my mind of sputtering prop-planes, terrified passengers clinging to chicken coops with blanched knuckles, carry-on luggage being devoured by goats come untethered, and gobs of freshly chewed gum smooshed over the holes in the fuselage. But Air Asia’s fleet consists of relatively young and spotless Airbus A320s — the majority of the fleet, and of which the average age is 1.2 years — A330s, and Boeing 737s.

What are Air Asia’s drawbacks? Well, the concept is no-frills air travel, so if you want frills — weighty checked baggage, insurance to change or cancel your booking, refreshments on the plane, et al — you pay for them. But even with these additional charges thrown in it’s probably still cheaper to fly Air Asia than a major carrier. Also, there’s no assigned seating on Air Asia flights, so passengers tend to be annoyingly hypercompetitive about being first in line to board and leave the plane (you can avoid this hassle, however, by paying extra for “Xpress boarding” as well). There’s plenty of attempted line cutting and jostling for advantage, but if you’re in Asia, you’re probably accustomed to that.

There are of course other options for low-cost air travel in Southeast Asia, but Air Asia never gave me a reason to switch carriers, so I can’t comment on them from personal experience. You might try Jetstar in Vietnam, Tiger Airways in Singapore, or NokAir in Thailand, whose “We Fly Smile” motto is a wonderful example of the glorious Englibberish for which the Thai have an unmistakable genius. The list goes on.

Asia’s low-cost carriers are also economical way to reach Australia — if you book far in advance. A quick search on Tiger Airways turned up a Singapore-Perth flight in March 2009 for $146. On Air Asia X, a similar flight from Kuala Lumpur to Perth or Melbourne can be had for $222. Just something to keep in your back pocket.

Another option is to take advantage of Bangkok Airways’ Discovery Airpass, which prices most domestic routes in Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia at $60, and most international routes at $100 (long-haul flights at $150). In order to qualify for the Discovery Airpass, you have to book between three and six individual legs. However, the quoted fares exclude airport charges and other fees, so in the end you’ll probably still save money booking in bulk on a low-cost carrier.

Safe travels and thanks for reading!

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Phuket, Thailand

Ah, Phuket, I had such high hopes for thee. Hearing the word Phuket — at least since I learned it was a place name, pronounced “poo-ket”, and not an expression of frustration with a different pronunciation — has always brought to mind calm, teal waters, crispy sunbathers strewn across bone-colored beaches, and palm crowns shimmying in the salty breeze. And on these fronts Phuket did not disappoint. Unfortunately, on most other fronts it did.

There are three major qualifiers I should mention before I proceed. One, I am not a spread-a-towel-on-the-sand-and-sunbathe kind of guy — in fact, I’m nearly translucent — so I’m looking for more than the kind of experience that can be had in any given desert. Two, my trip to Phuket fell squarely during the low season, so surely I wasn’t catching it in peak form. And three, I spent just two and a half days there, and perhaps with a bit more time my esteem of the island would have improved. It’s telling, though, that after only two and a half days I was ready to kiss the carpet of the plane that carried me off.

Phuket suffers from a mild case of Cruise Ship Syndrome, in that once you’re there, you’re forced to pay inflated prices for things simply because you have no alternative: food, lodging, transport, internet access, and so on. This is a common phenomenon on islands. Easter Island, for instance, is similarly expensive, except that it bears the excuse of being separated from its nearest neighbor by 2,000 kilometers of ocean, and just about everything consumable has to be shipped or flown in. The distance between mainland Thailand and Phuket, on the other hand, is all of 600 meters, and it’s spanned by a four-lane highway. Hmmm.

Then there’s the omnipresent prostitution. Clearly it wouldn’t be so prevalent if tourists didn’t avail themselves of it, but I rather prefer to be able to walk down the street without having to politely decline the catcalls — if not the groping hands — of batteries of sex workers. It’s tragic that, even with so much tourist money pumping into other sectors of the island’s economy, so many young women are funneled into the sex trade. Again, this was the middle of the low season, but the prostitutes seemed to outnumber the tourists. That’s a bad ratio for everyone.

I’d been forewarned about Patong, the rowdy heart of Phuket’s tourist scene that’s chock-full of western restaurants, bars, and nightclubs heralded by neon signs and pulsating speakers — it hosts three Starbucks franchises grouped so closely that, if you neglect to trim your nails for a few weeks, you can almost touch them all simultaneously — so I steered clear. I pre-booked a room in Karon, just a few kilometers and decibels south of Patong.

I generally like to explore new places by bicycle, but Phuket’s size and hilly terrain don’t lend themselves to cycling. And tuk-tuk drivers wanted outlandish amounts to ferry people around — 250 Baht just to make the short trip from Karon to Patong — so I opted for another mode of transportation: a rented motorbike. I think it’s the ideal way to get around Phuket. Renting one for the day costs just 200 Baht, plus whatever fuel you consume, and of course allows you to go wherever you please. The roads are sinuous, the views stunning.

Atop my little, burgundy Honda Dream, I weaved through the mobs in Patong and headed up the west coast, stopping at beach after beach to take in the scenery. Faded red flags were posted all along the backshore to warn visitors about the low season’s dangerously strong currents. The beaches are undoubtedly beautiful, but it was strange to see almost no one in the water.

I rode an arc through northern Phuket and came back down the east coast, stopping for a couple hours at the Bang Pae waterfall (not much to see) and the adjacent Gibbon Rehabilitation Project (200 Baht entrance fee), a non-profit rescue and breeding facility for the adorable and highly intelligent apes. Because gibbons can fetch a lot of money — tourists buy them as pets or pay to have pictures taken with them — poachers seek them in the wild, slaughtering gibbon mothers to capture their young and exploit them on the streets. The project rescues such gibbons and, if possible, rehabilitates and returns them to the protection of a wilderness sanctuary. A very worthy cause.

Next, I checked out the very well organized and informative Butterfly Garden and Insect World near Phuket town (300 Baht, a bit pricey, but worth it if you’re a nerd like me). I was the only visitor there, having arrived near the end of the day, and I got the distinct impression that the employees wanted to shut down a bit early. “There are more butterflies to see this way, sir,” one would urge, motioning me coyly into the next room. As I wandered dumbly into it, another unseen employee would slam and lock the door behind me. In this way, as if by peristalsis, I was cajoled through several exhibits and out the front door in under 30 minutes. These people were good.

The following day I decided to book an all-day, all-inclusive snorkeling trip to Ko Phi Phi, a picturesque island 40 kilometers east of Phuket, about which I’d read nothing but raves prior to the trip. According to Lonely Planet, “Ko Phi Phi is so beautiful it will evoke tears.” All the photos I’d seen of Phi Phi, and I’ll add to them the above two that I took, corroborate that statement. The picture you don’t see, however, is the one below at left, depicting what I was standing in when I took the other two. The island seems to have dived headfirst into tourism’s flush pockets, with a ravenous appetite for its economic benefits but little concern for its environmental consequences. Everywhere I walked on the island, I had to step around discarded building materials, old shoes and clothes, plastic bottles, and other detritus of development. Phi Phi, incidentally, is pronounced “pee-pee”, but it’s turning into number two.

The “all-day” snorkeling trip was similarly deceptive, breaking down like this: two hours of shuttling back and forth to the Phuket harbor in a minivan, seven hours of transit and waiting around on two different boats, one hour exploring Phi Phi on foot, a thirty-minute lunch, and ten minutes of snorkeling. The snorkeling was amazing, if criminally brief, but I was put in a sour mood when the tour operator doled out our masks and snorkels but tried to extort another 100 Baht out of us for the use of flippers.

My flight the next morning was scheduled to depart at eight a.m., which meant that I’d have to leave for the airport around six. No minibus shuttles operate that early, and the cheapest taxi I could find would cost 700 Baht — more than twice the amount I’d paid to go the same distance in Bangkok — which seemed a fitting, wallet-cleansing way to end my stay in Phuket.

I don’t know to what extent prices have inflated since the devastating tsunami struck in December 2004 — and I am more than happy to subsidize the rebuilding effort by paying a premium for food, lodging, etc. — but I can’t help feeling that, given plenty of other gorgeous, affordable, and less trafficked beach destinations sprinkled through Thailand and Malaysia, Phuket’s just not worth it.

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On the road to physical fitness

I am a firm believer in the notion that travel is good for the soul. Unfortunately, it isn’t always good for the body. You’ve got disrupted sleep patterns, you dine out nearly every meal, and you’re seated for long periods during transit. And depending on your destination, it can be very difficult to find a way to exercise when you get there. Case in point: Hanoi, Vietnam — where Whitney and I have been living between trips for the past few months — is a city of inexpensive but delicious food, prevalent motorbike transportation, stifling summer heat and humidity, and $15-a-day gyms. That’s basically the recipe for an inertia cocktail. Circumstances like these require a person to find creative ways to tone up while traveling. So let’s explore a few, shall we?

Shoulders — Certain movements become mindless mechanics to seasoned travelers, and it’s easy to forget that these movements, as part of a dedicated travel-fitness regimen, are gateway exercises to a more chiseled figure. Take stowing your carry-on luggage in the overhead bin, for example. This simple action, which you’ve no doubt performed in countless boarding rituals, is your key to deltoid deliverance. Perform repetitions until fatigue sets in, or until the person exhaling audibly in the aisle behind you moves to punch you in the kidney.

Back – Marathon travels by plane, train, and automobile can provide more than just a pain in the neck. Throw the weight-equivalent of a labradoodle across your shoulders, and your back will surely join in with some barking of its own. If you’re like me, a summer trip to a tropical locale is the perfect occasion to stretch and strengthen your lower back with some forward hip bends. There’s nothing quite like the constant threat of malaria, dengue fever, or encephalitis to motivate you to keep slapping away the mosquitoes that refuse to quit your lower extremities.

Arms — I’ve found that in nearly any major city, the optimal time to work out your arms is during rush hour on the subway. Awkwardly sardined amid a mass of strangers, you’ll find that your tenuous handhold is the only thing keeping your body from succumbing to gravity or the throng’s crush as the train stops and starts. Switching arms every few minutes will help to stave off fatigue, improve your muscle symmetry, and give you an excuse to throw an elbow or two to clear out some space around you.

Legs – Long before there were stairmasters, humans ascended actual stairs. And when they mastered them, they really went places, by Jove! In fact you can still find them around today, rendered moot by youthful escalators and elevators, and lying silently in wait behind emergency exit doors, hoping for a power outage or wastebasket fire to set off the alarms. They now have a certain ‘ghost town’ feel, blanketed in eerie silence and skittering dust bunnies, but I assure you, they still work. When was the last time you heard an Incan fat joke? Exactly.

Abs – Although trotting along on horseback or churning up road on the back of a motorbike a seems like a pretty sedentary activity, merely trying not to spill off the back turns out to be a pretty good abdominal workout. Give yourself extra credit for staying upright with the added resistance of a backpack strapped on. Don’t forget: That next-morning agony you’re bound to wake up to is something to be savored, not lamented! That’s the secret to getting back on the horse.

Cardio – Travel affords no dearth of heart-quickening situations. A panicked sprint through an airport terminal to make a departing connection; a speed-and-weave cab ride through the avenidas of Buenos Aires; finding yourself lost on an unfamiliar mountain trail near sundown; liaising with drab olive military police to discuss a plastic baggy you swear you’ve never seen before. Many experts recommend that you get 30 minutes of cardiovascular exercise at least three times a week. But I think it’s best to deprioritize this one until you get back home.

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Angkor Wat Week! Final day…

After three straight days of being roused from sleep when only bats and meth addicts remain awake, it felt indulgent to wake up Thursday to my cell phone’s jingle at 7:30 a.m. I showered merrily, prepared a daypack, and found Cico waiting in his tuk-tuk outside my guesthouse at 8 a.m. as planned.

We were headed to Kompong Phhluk, a floating village about 90 minutes from the town of Siem Reap, at the northern end of Tonlé Sap, the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia. To get there, we’d take a tuk-tuk as far as the boggy dirt road would allow, then hop on a longboat to make the rest of the way by canal.

Our boat captain couldn’t have been much older than sixteen, but he wore the look of ease and experience, as if he’d been born in the boat and never crawled out. He nonchalantly steered us down the canal, turning the wheel with his left forearm, maneuvering the stickshift right-handed without glancing down, and controlling the throttle with his bare left foot on the pedal below. Every now and then he would switch feet, letting the unoccupied one rest on the steering panel so the wind could tickle his toes.

For most of the year, the waters of Tonlé Sap Lake funnel down and join the Mekong River in eastern Cambodia before spilling into the South China Sea in southern Vietnam. During the dry season the lake covers an area of about 2,700 square kilometers and is just one meter deep. But during the rainy season, from June to September, the water level of the Mekong rises so dramatically that the flow of water actually reverses back into Tonlé Sap. Its area nearly sextuples, to 16,000 square kilometers, and it reaches depths of eight or nine meters. Outlying villages whose abodes spend the dry season towering above the ground on seven-meter stilts are brought within a toe-dip of the water at the lake’s midsummer peak.

These unique seasonal flows drag sediments up from the Mekong and enrich the floodplain with nutrients, so that during the rainy season the fish stock goes bonkers, making Tonlé Sap one of the most fertile lakes in the world. More than 3 million Cambodians live in countless tiny fishing villages like Kompong Phhluk and are sustained by their catch. And the nation as a whole gets 60% of its protein intake from Tonlé Sap. If the lake weren’t there, Cambodians would all be two-and-a-half feet tall and Angkor Wat would be in miniature. Tonlé Sap’s important, is what I’m saying.

Twenty minutes after our longboat hove into the narrow canal, the dense mangroves lining either side of the waterway finally receded, opening up into the heart of Kompong Phhluk. We were suddenly loomed over by stilt houses, where whole families sat on their front porches, weaving baskets, their infant children clinging to the railing and staring out at us as we passed. One or two boats were tethered to the ladder of each house and filled with reels of fishing line and stacks of handmade, bamboo fish traps.

To our left a woman crouched to slide a tray of rotten vegetables into a floating pen, stirring the lolling pigs inside it to attention. To our right a fence of vertical, tightly bound bamboo rose two meters out of the water, inside which the villagers raised their own fish.

A woman and her child rowed out in a flat boat with a cooler full of cold water and soft drinks for sale. Kompong Phhluk, because of its relative inaccessibility and distance from Siem Reap, is less frequented by tourists than Chong Kneas, but tourism is still an important source of income for the villagers. Although I was the lone tourist in our boat, I got plenty of attention from paddling peddlers. Several boats zoomed alongside ours, the women and children laying down their oars to latch onto our rails, offering me refreshments, colorful children’s books, and even pencils and pens.

The village itself is fairly small, perhaps thirty stilt houses altogether, and in a couple minutes we passed beyond it and into the flooded forest. The forest was too dense for the longboat to pass through, so Cico and I climbed onto a smaller flatboat piloted by a local mother and her son. She sat at the bow, pulling us deftly between gaps in the trees only an arm’s length across with strokes of her thin oar, while her little boy manned the rudder in the back of the boat, dragging his oar on either side during particularly tricky maneuvers.

The only sounds in the forest were the burble of the long, thin oars agitating the water, the chirping of birds and crickets, and the plopping of frogs into the lake. Fist-sized tree frogs leapt constantly from positions of concealment on limbs, alarmed by our passing. The little boy pointed out several camouflaged ones that crouched in wait only a short distance from our boat, but I was hopeless at spotting them unless they jumped. Luckily I was equally hopeless at spying snakes. The mother said that there were plenty of them in the area, and that it wasn’t uncommon to pass beneath one coiled on a branch or to have one swim right up to the boat. It’s better not to think about what might have happened had we been approached by a snake, though it probably would have involved my “accidentally” falling into the water later on to hide the wet spot.

We piled back into the longboat and reversed back down the route we’d come, through Kompong Phhluk and down the tight canal to the waiting tuk-tuk.

Cico dropped me off at the guesthouse in mid-afternoon, and I spent that evening walking around Siem Reap. After a fantastic dinner of amok fish at Khmer Kitchen, I got an iced coffee from Joe-to-Go — 100% of whose profits go to the Global Child, an organization that sets up schools and safe houses for Cambodian street children — and buzzedly perused the night market and a few nearby handicraft shops before retiring to my room to pack. I was sad to be leaving Siem Reap after an unforgettable week, but the next day Whitney and I would reunite in Malaysia to begin a new adventure together.

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Angkor Wat Week! Day four…

I had a long Wednesday ahead of me, and I wanted to get the earliest possible start, so I left the guesthouse at 5 a.m. to find a tuk-tuk driver. Still smarting from nine hours spent on a bike seat the day before, I was really looking forward to the sweet, forgiving padding of a tuk-tuk carriage. I hadn’t walked thirty feet when a driver zoomed up to me. I told him all the places I’d plotted to go, most of which were quite a distance from Siem Reap. There was no way a tuk-tuk could navigate some of the roads we’d have to travel to fit them all in, he told me, so I’d have to go by motorbike or scratch some of the stops. Against the protest of my hind end, I opted for the motorbike. We agreed on a price ($32), borrowed a second helmet from another driver, and tore off into the darkness, leaving the tuk-tuk trailer and its oh-so-sweet, oh-so-soft seat to languish at the side of the road.

[One point of interest: Lonely Planet sorely understates the price of a hiring a driver. You can expect to pay $10-15 for a day’s worth of shuttling around in the vicinity of Angkor Wat by motorbike, $20-25 by tuk-tuk, depending on the distance. As is the way, when gas prices increase, so will these.]

Our first destination was Beng Mealea, an Angkor Wat-era palace more than 70 kilometers from Siem Reap. The first 40 km of the ride saw us speeding down the well-paved and relatively boring National Road 6, until we broke off to the north shortly after sunrise, heading down a cratered, mixed-surface road that connects several tiny villages, where the residents were just beginning to stir. Cico, my driver, had spent his entire life in Siem Reap but had never seen Beng Mealea, and he seemed as eager as I did to tromp around the ruins. Amazingly, on arriving we found we had the place completely to ourselves.

Abandoned for centuries to the closing maw of the forest, Beng Mealea is one of the most ruined of the ruins. Most of the former construction has been reduced to an enormous pile of rubble within the decaying palace walls. What remains standing is grown over with groping tree roots and a brilliant layer of moss. The early morning sunlight slicing through the foliage gave the scene a romantic quality; were there not a long, wooden walkway coursing around the grounds (or a man selling $5 admission tickets at the entrance), it would be easy to trick yourself into believing you had discovered this marvel for yourself. Due to its distance from the main circuit around Angkor Wat, it’s probably the least visited of the ancient sites, but one that’s definitely worth a stop if you have time.

Next we rumbled down rough and muddy roads between Beng Mealea and our second stop, the enchanting river carvings at Kbal Spean. A night of heavy rains had left the last half of the way in awful shape, but Cico managed somehow to keep the tires churning on the four-inch tendons of dry dirt and rock between prodigious pools of sludge. After 90 minutes of repetitive trauma to my hind end, the mile-long hike required to reach the carvings was therapeutic.

The river rocks are engraved with wonderful images of Hindu deities and animals, and Sanskrit inscriptions. Somehow they remain well defined and vivid despite being run over by wind, rain, and river water, not to mention the sediment it carries with it, for hundreds of years. The area isn’t very well marked, and I would have missed most of the carvings had not a guard volunteered to show a few of us around, offering what information he could in broken English. Thanks to him, Kbal Spean was one of the highlights of my trip.

Nearing midday now, the air was as humid as a cloud and the sun oppressively hot, even beneath the forest canopy, so before heading back I stopped for a few minutes at the riverside for some swigs from my water bottle and to shake the crumby remnants of an addled bag of sugar crackers into my mouth. Lunched and refreshed, I rejoined Cico at the trailhead and we motored onward.

Banteay Srei is simply incredible, but I don’t recommend going there in the late morning or early afternoon. It features the most ornate and beautiful relief work of any of the temples I visited, but provides little in the way of shade, and its character gets washed out by the potent midday sun. It’s certainly the calmest time to visit, as most of the tourist groups disappear to Siem Reap during the lunch hours, but there is a reason they do so.

Finally, after failing to make it through the gate the prior day, I rounded this day out with a stop at Ta Prohm. Just in case I ran out of time before I got a chance to go back and see it, I had belittled Ta Prohm in my head as “nothing special, just more crumbling stone blocks and some gnarly trees.” And I was right, except for the “nothing special” part. The place is instantly memorable. The trees are not merely gnarly, but the gnarliest – their gargantuan roots cascade like dam-bursts over the sides of meter-thick sandstone walls, which buckle and crack beneath their weight. If these trees could spring to life and do battle like J.R.R. Tolkein’s Ents, we’d all be doomed.

As Wednesday afternoon expired into darkness, likewise did my visitor’s pass pass, so to speak. I was OK with it, though. After three days and more than a dozen temples, I was finally ruined for ruins. Thursday morning would see me to the floating village and flooded forest of Kompong Phhluk. This was feeling more like Lord of the Rings all the time.

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Angkor Wat Week! Day three…

Sorry for the infrequent posting. Angkor Wat Week is turning into Angkor Wat Fortnight due a lack of internet access. Without further ado…

Finding myself to be pretty worthless after a thorough sun-soaking and a stomach full of lunch on my first full day in Siem Reap, I planned an ambitious itinerary for day two, fittingly called Tuesday. I was going to bike what’s known as the Big Circuit, a 26-km loop that starts at the south end of Angkor Wat and connects a dozen or so other major places of interest before returning to the same spot. The last stop on the circuit, and the one I was most excited to see, would be Ta Prohm, a setting so remarkable it was featured prominently in the movie Tomb Raider. Alas, neither the brilliant set location nor Angelina Jolie could redeem the film, which offered less mental nourishment than your average coma.

I won’t bore you by describing all the temples I visited. Seeing temples, even those as astonishing and varied as those around Siem Reap, illustrates a classic Econ-101 concept: diminishing marginal utility. The first temple you see (particularly if, like most people, you begin at Angkor Wat) is revelatory. You are wowed by its vastness, its detail, and the fact that it predates John McCain. You want to spend hours examining every nook and cranny, appreciating its miles of carvings, photographing it from every angle and in every possible light. (These temples give amateur photographers, myself included, a false sense of confidence in their abilities.) But after absorbing the first one, each additional temple you visit, though impressive for all the aforementioned reasons, drops your jaw a little less. Your utility gradually slopes downward, until you’ve reached temple number eight or fifteen or twenty-three and you’re content to give a perfunctory “Wow, that’s really old… and quite ruined,” and simply snap an off-kilter and blurry photo from the seat of your tuk-tuk as you rumble by.

Reading about them one after another, I would imagine, descends a much steeper slope.

[But if you’re going to be in the area, check out Preah Khan (pictured above: look for carved images changed from Buddhist to Hindu when a Hindu devotee became king, and the inscription carved by North Vietnamese soldiers, who hid out here in the early 1970’s), Neak Khan (left: formerly pools where purification rites were performed, check out the ornamental spouts in the shape of an elephant, lion, human, and rhino(?)), Tam So (below left: the tree enveloping the eastern entrance is amazing), and Pre Rup (below right: fabulous complex of stupas that looks stunning in the late afternoon).]

I’d nearly managed to complete the circuit by 2 pm, leaving only the famous Ta Prohm left to see. That’s when I made the regrettable decision to save Ta Prohm for sunset and instead head over to Bakong, a ninth-century temple that’s one of the earliest Khmer constructions, which lay a full twenty kilometers away. It was a decision at which only a drunk or a sunstroke victim would have arrived. I won’t say which I was, but off I went.

Halfway to Bakong a noncommittal shower blew over the area, and I took the meager sprinkle as a sign to stop to fuel up. I hadn’t eaten all day and was dead tired. I bought a pack of imitation-Oreos and a Fanta Orange from a pharmacy – easily the best part of traveling by bicycle is the guiltless justification to eat like a loosed three-year old during the ride and for a few meals afterward – and downed them both in a flash, expecting a reaction in my stomach that would send out a fizzy cataract whence they came in. Disappointingly, one never came.

The rain ceased and I started again toward Bakong, which the pharmacy cashier had told me was a mere five kilometers to the east. In fact it was probably twice that distance. The energy spike from the carbonated-drink-and-cookie porridge didn’t last very long, as it turned out. The kilometers piled up grudgingly on my churning legs, and I began to entertain those thoughts that sprout in your brain when you’re exhausted and not at all sure where you are. Had I missed a sign somewhere? Surely I’ve gone more than five kilometers by now, right? These people don’t even look Cambodian anymore. I must look ready to collapse; these ribby stray dogs keep licking their lips as I pass. Why do these dogs have lips?

At last I saw a sign for Bakong and turned down a narrow, paved road that soon gave way to a smooth, dirt path. I rounded a bend and the tiered figure of Bakong mercifully came into view. In a few moments I was staggering up its steps like Rocky Balboa gone to seed. Unfortunately there was little time for a victory dance upon reaching the top; ominous, charcoal-hued clouds were collecting to the east, and they looked ready to spill their contents as they drifted westward.

After a bit of exploring I abridged my visit to Bakong and got back on the bike, but I was beginning to dread the 20-km ride back to Ta Prohm, especially with a succession of lightning bolts slashing the sky in the distance, when I had the good fortune to meet a couple backpackers willing to let me hop in their tuk-tuk to hitch a ride back to Siem Reap. We made it back to town at about 4:45 p.m.

It appeared that the rain would hold off after all, so, ignoring the discomfort in my haunches, I mounted my metal steed to pedal to Ta Prohm for sunset. Again the rain came; though not sufficiently strong to make me turn back, it was dampening enough to make me doubt my judgment. I should have doubted harder.

I pulled up to Ta Prohm’s gate shortly after 5:30 p.m., which left me about 45 minutes to wander the ruins until sunset. Or so I thought.

Lonely Planet neglects to mention the rather important fact that visitors are not admitted entry into Ta Prohm (et al) after 5:30 p.m., which I found, after unsuccessfully lobbying the security guard to please bend the rule for someone who’d cycled 14 km only to arrive a few minutes late, to be non-negotiable. I had no choice but to climb back on the bike and ride, dispirited and suddenly doubly exhausted, back to town.

On a positive note, being rebuffed at Ta Prohm meant that I was passing by the southern end of Angkor Wat’s lovely moat as the sun sank into the horizon. I stopped for a few moments to take let the scene replenish my spirits – it was nearly as remarkable as the previous day’s sunrise had been – before returning to the road.

Arriving at the guesthouse at dark, I went upstairs and sprawled across the bed, taking stock of the day. My body was completely drained and aching from 80 km of pedaling in Cambodian heat, the last 28 of which were maddeningly for naught. I decided that wherever I was headed the next day, I’d be traveling on a well-padded seat.

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Angkor Wat Week! Day two…

I arrived in Siem Reap, Cambodia, on Sunday afternoon, and after consulting the maps and advice of my Lonely Planet guidebook, I opted to rent a mountain bike for the next couple days to motor myself around the sights. In retrospect I won’t say it’s the optimal way to make the rounds in Cambodian August, but I really enjoyed the freedom to explore areas inaccessible to tuk-tuks and cars, not to mention the exercise. And there is something undeniably magical in approaching one of the vast, crumbling relics with little but your thoughts, the breeze, and the whirring of bike wheels scoring the scene.

Everyone who’s seen it says the sunrise at Angkor Wat is something to behold, a must during a visit to Siem Reap. That’s why, subduing the pull of my sluggish brain to fall back asleep, I tugged myself upright on Monday morning at 4:30, showered and tossed a couple bottles of water and some cookies into my backpack, and cycled across the river bridge and down the linear temple road, its chewed pavement lit only occasionally by the headlights of a passing car or tuk-tuk. Six-plus kilometers (and a $40 three-day pass) later, I pulled up to the entrance as first sunlight began to dissolve the predawn darkness. Across the moat, the looming towers and eight-meter high stone wall were silhouetted black against the sky, offering no glimpse of the immense temple behind them.

It wasn’t until I got beyond the wall that I saw it. At a distance of a few hundred meters, I could make out three jagged bullets rising up from the horizon. The sun was still submerged, but it shone a warm, orange light on the swirling clouds above the towers. I felt my way down the long, uneven, cobbled path, only looking down every few steps when I’d stumble over a proud stone. I paused for a few moments at the lotus pond on the north side of the walkway, where a couple dozen other gawkers were already camped out, some of them staring out from plastic chairs that lined the bank at the water’s edge. The view was mesmerizing: the striking figure of Angkor Wat, still in shadow and bathing in fluorescent sky, married to its perfect, inverted reflection on the serene surface of the pond. It’s one of those rare visions that, even as you experience it, you’re aware of its being indelibly etched into your memory.

As I traced my way around the halls at the perimeter, the accumulating sunlight began to wash over the epic works in bas-relief on the walls. Starting at the eastern entrance and walking clockwise around the palace, the elegant carvings relate the story of the gods creating heaven and earth by churning a sea of milk and follow with depictions of Khmer history, featuring frenetic scenes of war with the rival Chams and of a later civil war among themselves. Most of the carvings, now well into their ninth century in the open air, are remarkably well preserved.

At the interior of the palace, the five conical towers make a quincunx pattern – four towers form a square with the fifth tower, the tallest, at the center of the square. The size and complexity of their design and the intricacy of their detail are even more impressive viewed from up close. Each of the corner towers is accessible by a couple of narrow, worn staircases, but all the entry points were roped off on this particular day. Also, renovations were being undertaken on the middle tower, evidenced by scaffolding left in place on its south side.

After more than three hours at Angkor Wat, and with the sun now beginning to assert itself, I decided to push on toward Bayon, the spectacular and decaying ruins at the southern end of Angkor Thom, just a few kilometers up the road. Bayon is one of the more photogenic sites you’ll ever visit. Everywhere you stand inside its walls, sanguine-looking stone faces peer out at you from contoured towers. Each of the 59 towers features four Buddha images (said to resemble Jayavarman VII, the Khmer king who ordered Bayon’s construction) facing north, south, east, and west. The stonework of has been for centuries completely exposed to the elements, and the erosion of the towers and reliefs has given them a kind of grotesque charm. Gaudí would have loved Bayon, pictured below.

A couple hundred meters north lies Baphuon, an enormous temple that will be extremely impressive when it’s put back together, but which is currently scurried over by men in hard hats and overseen by a crane. Whether it will be rebuilt to its former glory is another issue altogether. A restoration project undertaken decades ago saw Baphuon deconstructed and its building blocks carefully catalogued for later re-assemblage, but then the Khmer Rouge came to power and laid waste to the plans. Of course, during the reign of the Khmer Rouge, the Cambodian people had bigger fish to fry than reworking some ruins. Among the items on the their to-do lists were avoiding starvation, escaping the arbitrary terror of the ruling party, and burying the millions of their countrymen who hadn’t been able to accomplish the first two.

You could spend an entire day visiting the various temples, terraces, and walkways within the walls of Angkor Thom – it’s nine square kilometers of fascinating history –- but it was nearing lunchtime, and I wanted to make just one last stop before

heading back to Siem Reap for some vittles. I was looking for Preah Palilay, a stupa at the northwest corner of Angkor Thom whose base has been shot through by the growth of several immense trees. On the way I met a wheelchair-bound painter who beckoned me to browse his work.

His name was Kim Leung, he said, and he sells his hand-painted canvases and postcards to support himself and his family. Besides having a personal story that makes you want to fork over your cash, his paintings were quite good, and I left with a sleeve full of postcards.

[Slightly off subject, there are an appalling number of people in Siem Reap – and the rest of Cambodia, I’m sure – whose missing limbs and appendages attest to the existence of leftover landmines in the Cambodian countryside. To learn more about it, visit the Cambodian Landmine Museum or its website.]

Over at Preah Palilay, I tromped up and down the ruins for a few minutes – one of the wonderful things about the Angkor Wat experience is the ability to interact with history, to climb over and run your fingers along it, rather than just stand before it and squint at a placard from ten paces – until my empty stomach gave a loud growl, signaling the end of the morning’s activities. Riding back by Kim Leung again, my front wheel caught on a stubborn tree root and I was flung awkwardly over the handlebars. I got up, mystified and mildly embarrassed, and began to brush myself off. His reaction was polite, even concerned, unlike that of a nearby worker, who’d fallen to his knees, weak with heaving laughter. I pulled the bike upright, climbed on, and hurried off, giggling to myself. It seemed like a good time for a lunch break.

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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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