Guys, this title is no joke. Basically we ate in Thailand and found things to do between meals. And sometimes the thing to do between eating meals was eat snacks.
Despite purchasing a 3-day pass to Angkor Wat and initially coming to Cambodia for the sole purpose of seeing the temples, Katie and I immediately agreed we needed to see and do more. Five days here, two of which aren't full days, is not enough. So on our final day we opted to do a countryside and floating village tour with our favorite, Mr. Sak. I can already tell you that what I will write in this blog post will not even come close to what Katie and I saw, heard, smelled, and experienced, but I will do my best.
At 9:30am we climbed into Mr. Sak's tuk tuk and started down the road. We almost immediately stopped at a roadside stand where Mr. Sak purchased three medical face masks, one for each of us, and instructed us to put them on. Another quick stop for gas and we were really on our way!
Let me first give you an idea of what driving in Cambodia is like. Take all of the common sense and laws that you have from driving and erase them. Now, imagine motorbikes, motorbikes pulling tuk tuks, bicycles, cars, vans, and buses all going as though it's a free for all. You're turning onto another street? You don't look, you just go. And the street you want to turn on to is one-way? It's not anymore if you honk your horn. Add in cattle on the sides of the road, a beautiful but dusty red dirt coating your face, the smell of exhaust, a bunch of bumps and holes, and you should get the picture.
Once we were out of Siem Reap, it got better in the sense that there weren't as many cars on the road. But the dust picked up as the roads became strictly red dirt roads, and we were glad to have our "SARS" masks. The further we moved from the city, the more we were blown away by what we were seeing. It was all beautiful and heart-wrenching at the same time: the brilliant red dirt made the greens of the rice fields with cattle and palm trees even greener, which ricocheted off the bright blue sky. But then this beauty was interlaced with hay huts that families live in, children as young as five walking and biking home from school alone, and older men and women working the fields.
As we got further from town and closer to water we took a turn at the 2-story, turquoise fisheries building, and the road became less of a road and more of bumpy, sandy, red pathway along a canal. Mr. Sak even yelled back to us to apologize for all the bumps, and my bladder yelled even louder that I needed a bathroom.
At least forty minutes later (I lost track of time) we arrived at a set of roadside shacks with boats in the water. Mr. Sak said he'd be coming with us and introduced us to our captain, a boy of maybe 20 years old. I said I needed a restroom and was instructed to go onto another boat to the bathroom at the back. My expectations weren't high, and I was right. I entered a small box, smaller than any linen closet I've seen in the US and found a toilet bowl (no seat, no tank) about waist height. I looked down and saw a wooden stair to step on with a water bucket next to it for rinsing. I was happy to find a small light switch that turned on the bulb and fan. As I climbed up, I noticed that I could see straight out to where everyone else was, and looking down I could see the dirt-colored water. I had no choice though, so I used it.
Then we started off on our boat ride. Our boat was a decent size, with water in the hull, and 6 wicker chairs for seats. Our captain was pretty good at maneuvering the boat, but it was tough with the shallow water (it's the dry season). As we went down the canal, past children playing and men and women working, we started to run into boats coming in the other direction. Due to the low water levels, we would glide past them with only inches between us, and then we'd get sprayed with muddy water from their outboard engine that was churning the bottom of the stream bed. We'd then get stuck in shallow water and have to use a long pole to push ourselves to deeper water.
We finally made it into the lake and saw children paddling home from school, people lounging in their floating homes on hammocks, younger adults cleaning fish, and elders washing themselves in the muddy water. We floated past the school that the children had come from - 4 floating structures, each with two classrooms. Mr. Sak told us that children go to school from 7am to 11am then they go home for lunch, and go back to school from 1pm to 5pm. While school is free, it is often a financial burden on families. For instance, Mr. Sak has three kids, his oldest is nine and is currently the only one in school. He told us that with the cost of two uniforms (which are required) and books, it costs about $100/year for one child so once his two other children are old enough, Mr. Sak will be paying $300/year for his kids to go to school. The poverty line is $32/month so you can imagine that there are kids that do not go to school. Some children don't go to school because their family cannot afford it, others work or do household chores instead. It was very clear that there are kids in this floating village that will not receive an education.
On our way back from the village we got to experience more excitement. As we'd skirt past oncoming boats, we started to notice a horrible smell emanating from the engine and when we turned back there was a lot of black smoke, too. We joked that if we sunk it was so shallow that we'd be able to stand at least. The captain shut the engine off, reached in his little toolbox, and instructed Mr. Sak to try to keep the boat pointed in the right direction and out of the way. After an hour of off and on stopping and going and fixing, we made it back to land - with a new propeller blade, a new rubber belt (timing belt maybe?), and a pile of debris pulled from the propeller.
Back on the bumpy road, my need to pee once again didn't fail me so I got another fun experience. Mr. Sak pulled off on the side of the road and walked over to an area where he said I should be able to get into the woods. Clad in flip flops and luon, I turned and asked if there were snakes. Mr. Sak's response, "maybe". The lesson I learned? Dehydrate yourself on countryside tours.
Our next stop was the silk farm, where we were hoping we'd be able to feed our growling bellies. Apparently Mr. Sak was on the same page because he pulled over to a market full of only locals and was going to buy his lunch as he expected that we'd eat at the restaurant at the silk farm. But how could we turn down an opportunity to eat street food where the locals eat? We hopped out of the tuk tuk and followed our leader directly to an older woman sitting with whole grilled chickens flattened between to sticks. He held one up for us to smell - you couldn't almost taste the sweetness of the marinade. It didn't even cross our minds that we were told not to eat street chicken in Cambodia due to bird flu, our noses did the thinking. We got the chicken, 4 bags of sticky rice, and 10 spring rolls for a total of $8, and hopped back in the tuk tuk.
Once at the silk farm we maneuvered some benches in the shade so we could sit on one and use the other as a table. Hands rinsed with our drinking water, Mr. Sak passed out the bags of rice and chicken and we chowed down, using only our hands to eat as we had no utensils (and many locals don't use utensils anyways). We learned more from Mr. Sak about his family and how he works very hard, and how when he comes home his oldest (his son) lights up with excitement. We were pleased to hear he hadn't lived in refugee camps growing up, as our bike tour guide had.
After our delicious lunch we headed into the silk farm where we learned about the silk making process and witnessed women working on everything from processing the raw silk to dyeing it and winding it onto spools. We also got to see women working on looms making beautiful intricate patterns out of the silk - all of it was manual labor, and I can 100% assure you that if I had to do the weaving I would for sure screw it up.
Beyond exhausted from our long day and from witnessing the heartbreaking conditions we saw people living in, we headed back to the hotel to rest a bit before dinner. But we didn't get far before Mr. Sak noticed he had a flat tire, and we had to stop at a local mechanic. An hour and a half later, fumes inhaled, and we finally made it back to the hotel. When dinner time came around we asked for a tuk tuk to town and it was Mr. Sak again! He came out of a little garden area where he had been drinking a few beers with the other tuk tuk drivers, so naturally we asked if we could join him for a beer and that's exactly what we did.
We followed Mr. Sak back into the wooded area, sat down on rocks and were handed beers. I can't recall the names of all the guys but everyone was friendly and open. We learned that in their free time they play volleyball and had won a tournament earlier in the afternoon. After a of couple beers Mr. Sak took us to Pub Street, with a quick stop where we bought a case of beer for the guys. We invited Mr. Sak to join us for dinner and took him to our favorite local spot, where we ordered beers, Khmer BBQ, fried morning glory, sticky rice, and BBQ shrimp. We ate it all while he showed us pictures of his kids and told us about his wedding. As we strolled back to the tuk tuk, we grabbed ice cream and made a few last Cambodia purchases, which Mr. Sak, being the gentleman he is, carried for us.
When we got back to the hotel we were coaxed into staying for more beer. And this time the guys brought out some green mango and salt for us to snack on while we talked and laughed into the night.
I'll be honest, I'm a bit hungover now but it was 100% worth it to spend the day with Mr. Sak and to see what is probably the closest thing to the "real" Cambodia that we could.
The entire experience moved me, and made me want to do something to help. As some of you may know, a big passion of mine is education - I believe that it is a right for everyone, and that I would not be where I am today had I not had the opportunities I've gotten with regards to my education (from Loomis Chaffee to Villanova, Duke, and my teacher training at BIG). With the help of my brother I found and donated to the following:
"World Assistance for Cambodia (WAfC) / Japan Relief for Cambodia (JRfC) are independent nonprofit organizations dedicated to providing opportunities for the youth and rural poor in Cambodia. World Assistance for Cambodia is registered in the United States as a 501(c) (3) tax-deductible nonprofit organization. Within Cambodia, WAfC / JRfC is recognized by the Cambodian government as one nonprofit organization." The Federal Tax EIN ID number for WAfC is 51-0350058. Several of the programs they run offer educational assistance, such as providing incentives for girls to go to school, building rural schools, and investing in talented children to provide them with more opportunities. For more information, or to donate and give Cambodian children the opportunity to go to school, check out www.cambodiaschools.com
The day truly could not have been better, from the broken down boat and tuk tuk to the late night beers, and I look forward to returning to Cambodia in the future - it now holds a special place in my heart.
Last full day in Ubud, and boy are we sad to go. There is no question in my mind that I will be coming back to Bali.
We had our delicious Balinese breakfast (which I will surely miss) and headed into town to the Monkey Sanctuary. We had heard that the monkeys could bite, and to definitely not bring in any food; naturally, we were a little apprehensive. The monkeys here are long-tailed macaques. The minute we bought our tickets we saw a monkey sitting in the pathway, just chilling with his balls out. I was beyond shocked that the monkeys literally own this area - they go where they please, and the entire area is open (when we left we saw several monkeys outside of the sanctuary). When you added in the massive trees with sunlight shining through and the old temples, it really was a sanctuary in the middle of Ubud (which is a sanctuary of its own sorts). We walked around the forest in awe of every monkey we saw and how human-like they were. We saw them fight, eat, defecate, play, screw, nurse; we saw elders, teenagers, moms, dads, and babies (which were Benjamin Button like) - it was the whole spectrum of being a human. At one point we were walking and one of the monkeys came up to me and started to reach up my shorts and then tried to take my flip flop off. It was amazing how soft his hands were and how gentle he was. When he realized he wasn't winning anything from me, he moved on to Katie and tried to reach into her bag to see if she had any goodies. Once again, he realized he wouldn't win, but we ended up in a lot of foreigner's photographs.
We left the monkey sanctuary ravenous and sweaty, but after a quick lunch we headed to the spa! We had signed up for a 5 hour spa day, which included a massage, body scrub, yogurt bath, facial, hair treatment, mani/pedi, and dinner. All for a whopping $95. Turns out, it was a couple's treatment - sorry, Aaron.
It was the perfect end to our time in Ubud. Now onto the beach to relax some more!
Thanks to recommendations from two grad school friends (Emily and Jaime!), we spent our day on a fabulous bike tour (Bali Eco Cycling). I highly recommend it.
When our 8am pickup arrived, we were happy to find 4 other energetic girls in the van - Jenna from Canada, Harriet from England, Yoska from Holland, and Chelsea from Oz. We really couldn't have asked for a better group!
That said, we were all quite hangry. Luckily the first stop was breakfast with an amazing view of Batur Volcano and Lake Batur. Batur Volcano is active, and we could see areas where lava had previously been flowing. Filled with eggs, rice, Balinese pancakes, fresh fruit, and coffee, we piled back into the van and drove to a coffee farm where we (once again) learned about luwak coffee and got to taste a myriad of coffees and teas. This time, however, we also got to taste various fruits (guava, tamarind, and snakeskin fruit), as well as Balinese chocolate.
Then it was off to our bike ride! We got our mountain bikes, grabbed helmets, and headed downhill! The first stop was at a traditional Balinese family compound. Here we learned the following:
• One of the buildings in the family compound is used for the oldest family members (grandparents, typically). It is actually higher than all of the other buildings (which is humorous since stairs can be difficult for older people).
• The first building is the kitchen. We got to look inside this family's kitchen - it was very simple, but had the necessities and some well-seasoned pans!
• There was another, completely open, building (except for a roof) that had a bed on it. We were told that this building is used for ceremonies - weddings, births, funerals. There are 3 types of Balinese weddings, and the one that stuck out the most to me happens to be the most common. Our guide referred to it as the MBA marriage, or Marriage By Accident. This is what happens when the girl gets pregnant first, and it's relatively common because "you gotta test the goods before you buy them" (yes, direct quote). It's really because the family wants to know that there is someone to continue the lineage and stay within the family compound, so if you can't get pregnant you get to live with mom and dad forever. We also learned about Balinese funerals (or really, the Cremation Ceremony, since the Balinese believe in reincarnation). When someone in a Balinese family dies, they are placed on the bed in the wall-less building as though they are simply sleeping. When it is time, the body is placed in a sarcophagus often resembling a lion (though there are two other animals it could resemble that I don't remember now). The body, in the sarcophagus is then processed to the temple, where it is burned. The ashes are collected, placed inside a coconut, and released to sea. This is a very expensive process, so lower classes will often bury the body and wait for the village's mass cremation, which occurs every 5 years.
• One of the most prominent structures within the family compound is the temple. Depending on where on the island the compound is, the temple is in the corner of the property that faces the sunrise and the highest mountain. These family temples are beautifully elaborate, with multiple shrines, and only members of the family are allowed to enter.
(If you have questions about Balinese culture, feel free to ask, as we learned quite a bit more than this. I've found that the history and culture here is so deep, and their religion so complex, that you can never stop learning about it).
Once we finished our tour of the family compound we rode downhill some more to rice paddies, where we got off to see men planting rice. We were given the opportunity to try it, and I decided why the hell not, took my shoes off and climbed down with them. Boy was it surprising! I sunk in up to my mid-shins as the mud squeezed between my toes. (Hope the water and mud were cleanish since I have a bunch of mosquito bites)! I was handed a bunch of rice and told to place them in the grid system that was marked out. An older Balinese man quickly informed me that I wasn't putting them in deep enough when he shoved my hand even deeper into the mud.
And that's when the rain really started...it started as a drizzle but as it got harder we nestled under a small shelter in the rice field with the men. They took out cigarettes and lit up while we unsuccessfully tried to get our belongings out of the rain. Once it seemed to stop we rinsed our feet and hopped back on our bikes.
A little freakier now as the dirt path was now mud, and several times my back tire skidded out. As we continued biking it started to POUR. My initial thought was that we would be forced off our bikes and into the van. Boy was I wrong; we just kept going. The rain pelted my skin and the front tire of the bike sent a stream of water straight into my face as we continued downhill past lush greenery and small villages. And then the thunder and lightning (and a yelp from me) came, but we kept going. After a quick stop at a massive Banyan tree, we were drenched but finished (with the downhill portion).
At this point we were given the option of getting in the car and heading to lunch, or continuing on with the uphill portion of the ride. Jenna, Katie, and I opted to continue - North America, represent.
The uphill portion was NOT easy, and made me realize I need to get back to spin when I return to TX. The rain continued to pelt our skin, and at times it was so heavy that it seemed like we were biking through rivers in the road. The gears on my bike were loose, making it so I could not stand to peddle uphill, and my back tire kept skidding out - definitely not easy to keep moving uphill. That said, we eventually made it, looked like wet dogs, and celebrated with lunch (and beer) with the rest of the group.
The entire time, through the rain, the back tire issues, all of it, I couldn't help but smile. Balinese on the sides of the road (in their covered shops) smiled and always said hello as we rode by, and it was so nice to be caught outside in a storm and just stick with it.
Our first full day in Ubud! We woke up and Ketut's wife made us the most delicious breakfast ever - an omelette, a Balinese pancake (think banana, coconut goodness), fresh fruit, and Balinese coffee. All served to us on our front porch, surrounded by lush greenery and the family temple.
In traditional Balinese culture, an extended family lives together. When each son marries, his new wife moves into the family compound (which means sisters move out of the compound). Twenty-six people live within Ketut's compound - we've met his wife and two sons, seen some of his brothers and their families. But I do know that his family built every structure on this compound, including their magnificent temple, and they've lived here for at least 150 years. When Ketut was explaining all of this to us over breakfast he put it this way: "What's more important than your family? We go live our lives and then we come back home and have dinner and talk with family every night - they will always be there". We also learned that if anyone in the family were to stop practicing their religion (Hindu), or stop participating in traditional Balinese culture, they would be kicked out and not allowed to live on the property.
During our amazing breakfast we met two other women staying with Ketut and fam - Angela who is from Arizona, and Amani who is Canadian but currently living and working in Doha, Qatar. We opted to spend our day with Amani and had a fabulous tour of rice fields and a coffee plantation by Medhe (Ketut's second son). The rice fields are simply stunning with the vibrant green terraces interlaces with durian, papaya, and Palm trees set against a beautiful blue sky. We learned that it takes about 6 months for the rice to grow to a point where it can be harvested. We also saw some beautiful lotus flowers and got to meet a local and very talented artist.
After the rice fields we went to a coffee farm where we got to see many different plants - cinnamon, ginger, coffee, cacao, pineapple, and more. We also got to see and feed coffee to luwaks. Luwaks are Asian Palm civets (look it up). The luwak eats the coffee but is unable to digest the coffee bean so it poops it out and then the coffee beans are taken from their shell, roasted, and ground. We naturally had to try the poop coffee (and others, too, including ginger coffee, lemongrass tea, ginseng coffee, and more). The luwak coffee was quite delicious, and you could taste the difference when you drank it side by side with regular Balinese coffee.
Katie, Amani, and I then headed into downtown Ubud for some food and a little shopping before yoga. Indonesian food has yet to disappoint - their ingredients are so fresh and everything is delicious and has a light feeling to it. We wandered our way through shops and made it to Yoga Barn for a vinyasa class. Practicing outside in the upstairs studio was lovely, with the sounds of birds, the breeze, occasionally a motorbike; there were even lizards "practicing" on the ceiling with us.
Sweaty practice done, we grabbed coconuts and juices for more shop meandering before making our way to the Ubud Palace for a traditional Legong and Barong Dance. The dancing included music played on drums, and an instrument similar to a xylophone. The first thing I noticed was how much eye movement and hand movement were an integral part to the entire dance; at some points, the dancers were completely still except for their arms, hands, head, and eyes. The dance we saw told the story of the battle between the virtue and the vice.
We departed the dance a little bit early to make it back home for a BBQ with Amani, Angela, and Ketut's family. Ketut's wife is an amazing cook - we ate traditional Balinese food and a lot of it! There was tofu and tempeh in peanut sauce, Balinese rice, vegetables, and skewered and grilled coconut chicken and pork satay. We were stuffed, but still had dessert - a delicious black rice pudding.
From rice fields to catpoocinos to yoga and a family BBQ, we definitely can't complain about our first full day in Ubud!