Monthly Archives: December 2013

Cambodia (old notes)

For some years before I started a blog, I took notes on trips.  Sometimes friends ask for these notes to help with trip planning.  To organize everything in one place, I’m adding my old trip notes to my blog.  These were written shorthand and probably not too enjoyable to read but hopefully useful to plan a trip.

I do not have access while traveling to my old photos, but I think through the link below you can see Jenni’s Facebook album from this trip even if you do not have a Facebook account.

https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.832103361035.2478054.414086&type=1&l=a00c0128e7

We spent a week in Cambodia over Thanksgiving 2010, visiting Siem Reap and Phnom Penh.  It was a phenomenal trip.  So much so that I cannot but wonder whether Cambodia is that terrific or was there an element of this being one of those trips that just clicks…as I discussed in my Sri Lanka post.  But now that I’ve reread all my notes, I think Cambodia is just awesome.

11/19-21

Airport in PP small but very smooth, easy visa ($20) etc. Take 4 pm flight to Siem Reap on turbo prop, about 40 minutes.

Met at airport by driver with V12 Benz (which ended up being about the nicest car we saw the whole trip, only two seats in the back), usually charge but hotel got us free because had told me could send car to pick us up in Phnom Penh then said no because of boat festival.

Terrasse des Elephants Hotel is nice. Room is $65 and has sitting area where first enter with a day-bed type thing, big balcony off to the right that connects to back staircase which could take to the pool or dining area, to the left is bed with mosquito net and then beyond that a step or two up with a cool carved fountain and on either side a shower and a sink, rooftop edgeless pool. Right at old market and pub street etc.

After a swim, we saw fireworks from the roof, then we ate dinner at Khmer Kitchen across from old market. J had Khmer Curry with pumpkin and tofu and I had amok with fish. That, big water and two Angkor beers for $10.

Then walked down to river where boat festival going on. Awesome. Tons of people, band on a stage, almost walked into a little boy peeing. Saw cars with long wooden boats on the roof, like 8 ft hanging over the car on each side. Then just walked around a bit more before returning. Area is great, lots of alleys with bars and restaurants. Very happening. Weather is hot and humid but not super oppressive.

11/22

Breakfast at hotel around 7:30. Pancakes with homemade pineapple jam and honey, eggs with hash brown and grilled tomato, delish coffee, fresh oj, dragon fruit. Then met our guide thai and driver yan ($30 and $40 for day because went farther away) and drove to Angkor entrance and bought 3 of 7 day passes for $40 each. Crowded. Drove through villages and past temples. Houses mainly on stilts for water and to keep out snakes, scorpions, etc. Saw people making palm sugar, water buffalo, cows, etc.

Got to Kbal Splean maybe around 10 and walked about 1.5 km on trail through light jungle. Quite a few others around. J with flip flops, oops. It’s the River of 1000 Lingas which is the phallic symbol. To represent water flowing off mtn (like Mt Meru), all is Hindu, holy water. Hike not too tough but rocks etc so tough for oldies, lots of butterflies. Saw a cave, waterfall, some sanskrit writing on the rocks. At start a bunch of puppies and kids and peeps trying to sell t-shirts and scarves and books. A little pushy but not too bad and rather sweet.

Drove maybe 15 minutes back to Banteay Srei, saw water buffalo in water and taking mud bath. Ox cart. Road is two lanes, pretty wide and nice. Driving not too crazy.

Banteay Srei is temple with very intricate carvings, lots of Hindu mythology representations. Surrounded by a little moat. Saw big chameleon and a snake winding through the stones. Big trees all around. Sampled some fresh jack fruit.  After walk through area with stalls selling things and then lunch. J got fried noodles with veggies and egg and I got fried pork with garlic and pepper (as in tons of both, green peppercorns on the vine). Cans of lychee and soursop. Finished lunch about 1:45.

See a lot of people with medical masks. Still are Khmer Rouge around but I guess nobody fights. But guide said in the 90s it was still dangerous.

After lunch stopped where making palm sugar which sell in little brown discs, yummy. Make by boiling palm juice in wok type thing over little oven made of cow dung, clay, rice stalk…burning wood. Said 80% of country perhaps still cooks with wood. Where got sugar also grow bananas, tamarind, mango, lime. There’s poverty but not much hunger it seems because have lots of rice, fish, fruit etc. Maybe more in Phnom Penh .

Our car has driver on right side even though country drives on right side.

Next up was Banteay Samre. Legend is that it’s the farmer’s temple because was a king who loved sweet cucumbers and he gave the farmer a spear to protect his farm if anyone but the king tried to take cukes. Then one day the king wanted to test him so he went and farmer didn’t recognize him so killed him at once and then buried king under his house. And tradition is if they don’t know who is king then have elephant walk around and whomever elephant kneels before is the king. So elephant went to farmer’s house and knelt and everyone thought he was kneeling for the farmer but really was paying respects to the king.

We liked this temple, not so crowded.

Then went to Pre Rup, has 5 towers, much higher than others we saw. Big and steep stairs. From top nice views, green all around. Can see in distance one of towers of Angkor Wat.

Next was Banteay Kdei which is Buddhist temple. Not restored as well as others.  Long day, glad we got car with A/C for today.

Back to hotel around 5:15. Volleyball is popular here. Our hotel great but room has shower that’s just elevated by the fountain in the room, so wouldn’t be good to share other than with s/o!

Swam again, pool is one of those flush with ground, looks nice. There are rooms on pool/roof level. I had an ABC Stout, 8% alc and tasty. Then signed up for cooking class at Le Tigre de Papier and had dinner Angkor Palm. Sat outside on sidewalk, comfy wicker chairs. J got sambor curry with chicken and a Tiger beer, I had 7 plate sampler with a Beer Lao. Both lagers, solid. Then some sweet banana dessert that came with my meal and then we got ice cream at Blue Pumpkin (jackfruit with coconut/pistachio). Walked down Pub Street and over by food market and then across Sivatha St to Angkor night market. Couple places saw groups playing music that said mine victims. Night market has jewelry, t-shirts, carvings, etc. Fish foot and regular massages all over.

Exhausted, back to hotel around 8:40. Shorts with short sleeves at night and still hot.

11/23

Woke before 6 am and went to roof for sunrise but already had risen. Then walked through old market and saw food vendors setting up. Cutting meat, chickens, fish, fruit, etc. And a few places that serve food. Crossed river and walked around, went into tour office to inquire about getting to Phnom Penh and heard over 300 people died in Phnom Penh . Called J’s rents and found out it was a stampede from the boat festival. Lucky we planned trip in this order and smart we didn’t change it once knew about the festival. Walked around a bit more, that side of river is less touristy. Then back to hotel around 7:30 for breakfast. American again but also French toast instead of pancakes, which was delish. And really good coffee. We both agree we like this part of the world. Exotic feel, cheap, people seem peaceful and very deferential. Yesterday our guide sat in the front seat and had his seat so far forward to maximize J’s leg room, even though she didn’t need it.

Hotel dining area has that Indochina colonial feel.

Guide said our hotel used to be a nightclub/karaoke.

Today we’re taking a cooking class at Le Tigre de Papier ($12/p) at 10 am, which is in the alley.

About 8 in our class, teacher was Jenni. Started with walk through the market to show us things. J made mango salad then chicken curry, I made banana flower salad and Samlor Kteas (pork, coconut milk, winter melon, pineapple, broth, tamarind liquid, lemongrass paste which think had lemongrass, turmeric, lime kaffir leaves, red chili). A little tough to understand teacher but was fun and good value. Then sticky rice with mango for dessert. Ended around 1:30 pm.

There are lizards everywhere here. After lunch went to pool and got crappy piña coladas and read.

Afternoon went to Bodia Spa which is on side street near Blue Pumpkin. Got 90 min aromatherapy massages in one “room” with little wall type thing in between. $38 each is very steep for Cambodia , but place was nice and worth it. Nicer than eg Touch in BH where 60 min is $57 and you have to tip.

Then walked around a bit more and back to hotel to shower. Oh, after lunch also went to book store with illegit but cheap. I bought Kitchen Confidential and also The Lonely Planet Story for $11.

Had a glass of wine in room then went outside and got fried noodles with beef from street cart right in front of hotel. Bought water (about 50-60c for 1.5 litres) and looked for some pancakes without luck. Ate noodles in room, $1 fed us both dinner. Siem Reap definitely has some backpacker vibe but perhaps not quite as much as I expected, which makes sense given it’s a world famous cultural attraction. Not the same vibe as Thailand , at least in the islands or Khao San Rd.

11/24

Woke around 5:15 and got tuk tuk to Angkor Wat, arrived around 6:30. Beautiful weather on ride, ticket station empty where Monday was packed. Main entrance is on West so sun rises behind temple. Pretty clouds reflecting in the moat. Very crowded right inside gate but walked through and over to East entrance where not crowded and pretty. Saw some cows by the moat. Romped around for a while, went up steep wood steps to upper level once opened (think 8 am). Nice views. Scaffolding in many places which a bit of a bummer but oh well. Also saw tons of monkeys playing on East side of temple, very fun. Around 9:30 had breakie at Matthieu next to Chez Sophaea outside the temple (think Mathieu and Chez Sophaea are same). Great scrambled eggs, baguettes with jams and butter, latte and espresso. Peaceful spot, pricier than most but very civilized meal. Kenny just texted me that Thursday has been declared National Day of Mourning so we’ll see what that means.

Our tuk tuk driver is Naro (?), $13 for the day, didn’t bargain at all.

After late breakie we drove through Angkor Thom to Ta Prohm. The jungle temple, was fairly crowded but neat and liked it with trees growing all in and around. Feels more natural though is maintained whereas hear Beng Melea (sp?) farther away is more truly wild. Then around 12:15 went to Bayon (54 faces) and walked around a while. Hot and not ideal light but also less crowded than usual. Then walked back along rd to Bauphon and Elephant Terrace etc and got ice cream before meeting our driver. More restoration work and closed areas than I expected, in general. J was bummed 😉 she didn’t get to ride an elephant because have em in morning at Bayon but we kept on to Ta Prohm and when returned…

People use bikes and mopeds for a lot, eg sell sunglasses out of big case attached to back or grill food on a built in. Back to hotel around 2:30 pm.

Went to internet cafe around corner from our place. Good connection for $.75/hr. A number of work peeps, Cubell, Sharath, Cheech emailed to check in after stampede (reports now say 378 dead). Then went across street to Cafe Central which is open air (big windows with plantation shutters, kind of colonial vibe with the potted plants and wicker chairs) caddy corner from old market on Northwest. Got mango daiquiris and margarita pizza. Western menu with some local as well, slightly more expensive than some but seems nice. The pizza was ok, sweet potato pakora (like fritter with corn etc) with mint dip I loved. Around here, not that many Americans. Lots of Europeans and Asians and of course quite a few tour buses.

Back to hotel and washed a few clothes then up to pool where I read and J napped. Really nice on roof in evening when cooler and lights on. J slept a while and I read, back in room.

Dinner at Socheata on market. More authentic, J got fried noodles with beef and a jackfruit shake, and I got khmer chicken (with palm sugar), quite tasty. But also got green papaya salad which was awful. Think has some kind of fermented paste or something which to me tastes rotten. And reminds that on Monday at start of 1000 lingas hike our guide had me taste some liquid from a cut branch which was like sour glue tasting. Guess it’s supposed to help ease pain…hopefully more than it causes in the mouth. Later for us tonight, finished dinner around (gasp) 9:30.

There are other parts to Siem Reap we didn’t see, we really just did temples and stayed around old market area except a brief foray across the river yesterday morning. Didn’t do FCC or Hotel de la Paix or National Museum or any bars or restaurants on airport rd…

11/25

Breakie at hotel then check out and get in car with our driver, $85 to Phnom Penh with stop at Kompong Plukh to see flooded forest. Drove about 1 hour, nice to see more of Siem Reap and countryside. Driver used to work for UN and NGOs, think as…driver. KP about 6 km off rd, dirt with villagers around and a little market etc. Then stop at station and paid $20/each for entrance and boat tour on long wooden boat that has maybe 24 seats on wooden benches, two rows of 6 doubles. Just us and car and boat driver on our boat, each seems to depart with only a few tourists…not efficient but guess more full employment. Boat driver is orphan, maybe 16 years old and think paid about $85/month by government and boats til about 1 pm then goes to school. Driver says men get married usually 25 and up, women 17 and up. Often live with her family a few years to save money. He says KP is much better and less crowded than Chong Kneas floating village. He said no mosquitoes on lake now, only at night. Hope he’s right!

On drive to KP also pass turnoffs for the Roluos temples I think.

No mosquitoes confirmed. KP very cool and unique experience. Boat through narrow low tree-lined water lane maybe 20 minutes and then pass government buildings and then get to village, with wooden houses raised maybe 20 ft above water. Lots of kids. People live here to fish. Also saw some pigs in little floating pens, a couple little wooden dug outs with fruit. You pass a monastery on the way too, which is on land. Could get onto smaller boat without motor and go more inside the trees but we didn’t. Get out to open lake and just chill for a bit. Could swim but I was afraid of sickness. Then returned to land around 11:30 am. Funny how everyone is always hustling, but in pretty mellow way. Like our driver telling us can do Phnom Penh in one day and then one day go to Kep and islands and he could drive us and cheaper than if arrange through hotel…something about 35%.

KP has some other tourists but quite few, does not at all feel crowded or touristy.

Always fascinating to see a way of life without materiality. Really all you need is food and water, so if you can get that you just hang out and do odds and ends. And hope you don’t need much in the way of healthcare. See some hospitals and clinics around. Think guide first day said government provides care for everyone up to 15.

Boat has fine looking life jackets but nobody uses. Not a ton but of course see trash in water, and driver throws in his cigarette after a few puffs.

Saw a wedding at market by KP and then many more on the drive. Says they last 2.5 days. Real aggressive driver, no margin for error. And again wheel on right side (another Camry from Japan ). Road to Phnom Penh in pretty good shape. Speed limit 90kmh, sometime he goes about 100-110.

Our Monday tour guide asked a lot about how many lanes we have on our highways. And he laughed a lot at things we wouldn’t necessarily laugh at. And of course they’re amazed at the money we have. The top tax rate, hard to fathom someone can make $250k in a year. Seemed to have a negative view of Obama of late.

Lunch today at some place on the way. Looks like tourist stop but at same time pretty bare bones. Like big place with lots of big tree tabletops and stools but authentic menu and lunch with two sodas was $6 and bathrooms have hole in the ground.

Everywhere takes $ and quotes in $ but often give small change in riel and use interchangeably at 4000 riel per $…think now official exchange rate is about 4050. But at ATMs I’ve tried/used they only dispense $, so you can’t arb for the extra 1.25% 😉 Outside more populous areas and even some within you can buy petrol in plastic or whiskey type bottles.

Almost everyone seems looks healthy, at least where we’ve been very little evidence of war, and nobody is fat nor looks malnourished.

Pass through Kampong Thom which looks like decent sized city/town. River runs through.

At lunch J had fried noodles with veggies and I had spicy soup with fish. So so, fish had bones. I got spicy but was easily tolerated. Chili sauce generally hasn’t been that hot either. Either light for tourists or food not THAT spicy here or a bit of both.

Every Lexus SUV I’ve seen has big Lexus writing and logo on driver side. And some (all?) Land Cruisers as well. Not much military or police presence that I’ve noted. And granted we stayed in touristy areas pretty much and never out past 9:30 but Siem Reap felt very safe.

J noticed some houses are very plain looking with weathered wood but had brightly colored staircase.

Lots of monasteries in the country.

I’ve been reading Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know about/by Ranulph Fiennes, crazy badass explorer/endurance guy. J reading law school outline and Let the Great World Spin. She read I Don’t Remember Anything already, didn’t love it.

Most signs are in English and Khmer (Sanskrit derived I think).

Drive is pretty long, arrived at Blue Lime hotel in Phnom Penh around 5:15 pm, would say at least 5+ hours of driving. Phnom Penh is a real city. Bustling, a little intense.

Saw one KFC in Siem Reap and nothing else. Blue Lime is hip, little bit of Viceroy feel to me. Off alley near National Museum, lobby with couple couches and free computers then walk through pool area (infinity edge, like last place) with several little cabana types and our Room was 21 (last was 201) which is good sized with king bed and private plunge pool in back. $75/nite, but tomorrow we have to switch rooms. Took a dip and left around 6 pm, walked toward riverfront, got some eye drops in pharmacy and went to FCC for drink and ended up getting dinner. Happy hour 5-7, got Mai Tai and Passion fruit drink and strawberry mojito and Angkor Sunset, and 3 small plates. All in $22, pretty good, not amazing. Good spot, on corner on river with 2nd floor (as everywhere, what we call 3rd floor) bar and tables and open air and then rooftop terrace. Lots of white peeps there. After dinner walked a few blocks up riverfront then came back and turned in at Amanjaya. At next corner was spot called Derk Wang which had great looking beef bbq out front. Headed back to room and got home about 8:30. Still warm but nice breeze and a little cooler than Siem Reap. Phnom Penh seems cool, lots of activity, lots of street food. Nice big riverfront area with little park between street and river.

Were planning to do Friends for dinner and passed on walk home (right near hotel) and was closed so guess good decision.

Been taking 4-6 pepto/day and so far, knock wood, no stomach problems.

Rooms here are pretty spacious, concrete bed and grey tile floor. Funny because much more modern looking and has old tube TV where last place had Sony flat screen (maybe 37″ or so) with DVD player.

11/26

Woke around 6:45, ate included breakie out by pool. Coffee, passion fruit juice, bread with jam, scrambled eggs, fruit (banana, pineapple, watermelon, mango). Had to switch to a smaller room (#5, on 2nd floor) so ate then packed up and left bags in room and took tuk tuk to Russian market. Walked around a while, bought some t-shirts and J a top and wicker stuff and little lights to hang, and I got a $3 digi watch. Market has lots of clothes and scarves/throws, prepared and raw food, jewelry, auto/gardening/mechanical stuff. Stayed til about 11:30 then to Tuol Sleng (S-21), the genocide museum. In old high school right in city, pretty depressing. Spent about an hour then same tuk tuk back to hotel. $10 for the roundtrip.

Each place has outlets that take a regular plug. Saw some big houses, of course in middle of all and behind big gates.

Balance must be great because lots sit sideways on the back of mopeds. And sometimes see 3 or 4 peeps on a moped, some kids. Very non-aggressive or confrontational culture as far as I can tell.

Tried to go to Friends for lunch but sign says closed Nov 19-29. Bummer! Then were gonna go to where saw bbq last night but think they grill/roast all day and then serve at night. So walked back to river front and ate at Anjali, with seats side by side right on edge of sidewalk so can watch traffic and river. J got seafood fried rice didn’t like much, I got pan fried fish with kampot pepper and herbs and fries, liked it a lot. Also got shakes and my ice coffee were tasty. Maybe a little cooler / less humid here than in Siem Reap.

Saw a couple gay bars in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, good to see it’s tolerated at least somewhat, not sure extent.

Have barbers on side of street, think cut is about $1.25. And guy had a trimmer device but instead of electric power it’s connected to scissors handle looking things and he just opens and closes scissors over and over!

Toyota seems to dominate car market here, lots of Lexus, Land Cruiser, Camry, some Corolla and RAV4, think one sports car looking thing we saw was like a MR2.

Far bank of river has some truly enormous billboards.

After lunch walked and saw Wat Onaloum (sp?) but can’t go inside, then to National Museum . $3 entrance, liked it. History on country and Angkor , lots of old statues and carvings, lots of bronze and sandstone. Nice courtyard area. Then back to hotel to swim. Refreshing and sat in cabana but mosquitoes. Bites starting to add up. Each night until now our bed had netting around so am a little worried for these next two nights. From museum I wrote: Someone should make a movie about The Reamker, Indian story.

BlackBerry data hasn’t worked whole trip, phone and text work. Saw weekly newspaper at lunch, has listing of activities including music and art and pilates etc. Probably neat to be expat place like this.

Went to Chow/Quay on the river front for 7 Eleven at 7 pm (on Friday? only). Hotel, looks cool. Great rooftop with chill lounge DJ and chairs and tables etc and great cocktail menu. Happy hour so grapefruit basil martinis for $2.75! Dinner menu as well but didn’t eat here. And weather is great.

Talking about how mellow a culture. Serious city but never beef between tuk tuk drivers over customer, and no road rage at all. At most you see someone look at another driver as pass, but no cursing or gesturing or even muttering under breath. Not much begging. Lots of peeps trying to sell you stuff or give you ride but minimal begging.

Country blessed with almost no natural disasters. Minimal monsoon I think and not really anything else. GDP per capita isn’t necessarily a good measure of quality of life since only measures commercial transactions. If you grow fruit and catch fish and collect rain water and have no disasters or violence, your income and GDP contribution might be zero but your life aint so bad. Granted we saw areas close to lake and rivers and I’m sure some in countryside are “poorer” and in city it’s tougher life, but…think may also be an element of after Khmer Rouge peeps stick together and are so averse to conflict so…

Dinner at Van’s in old Indochina Bank building, just off the river. Fairly empty, nice space. Had smoked duck breast and scallops with passion fruit to start, then duck ravioli in sauce and boneless pork shank. Not bad, not blown away at all but pretty good. About $100 all in with bottle of Cotes du Rhone and water. Took tuk tuk here for $3, could probably bargain more and in general than we did.

After dinner went to Riverhouse Lounge. Fair number of bars etc right there. RL was two stories, paper said hip hop but more like top 40. Kind of cheesy yet young and attractive crowd. Were there about 5-10 minutes at 11:15. Many tables with bottles, all black label. Tuk tuk so easy to get when need one, standard rate around town seems to be $3. Hotel location seems really good, most places on/around river front are quite close.

11/27

Didn’t sleep so well, dogs howling and noise etc. Woke around 7:45, at breakie I had fried eggs. Coffee has been good everywhere. Took tuk tuk to Wat Phnom, the buddhist temple on a little hill paid $1 each to go in but seemed like if you came from different side it was free?? Nice decorations inside. Some monkeys around. J devastated that no elephants there that day, guess he was hurt. Then walked past US embassy and to Raffles hotel le royal. Nice place, cute cafe and shops, think elephant bar supposed to be nice place for happy hour. Right next to National Library which is closed on weekends, and across from biz school that’s in conjunction with Malaysian school. Walked South along Monivong past train station and tall Canadia building, then to Psar Thmei, the central market. Has big dome and then many arms shooting off, kind of more of the same. We bought quick dry shirts, scarf, table runner, bed decoration, t-shirt gifts. Got a coconut to drink, surprised how much liquid inside. Then walked over to Sorya shopping centre, a 7-8 story mall. Walked through Lucky supermarket, quite nice. Have these packaged meals to cook with meat, veggies, seasoning etc, for about $1.90. One store we went into (BS Fashion, haha) was not at all cheap. Then got ice cream cones at Swenson’s in the mall, solid if pricey for Cambodia. Can sit down and they’ll take your order. J got macadamia, I got this vanilla with pb thing and blueberry cobbler.  Then walked down St 63 several blocks, saw Dept of Plastic Arts and Handicrafts, and went East back towards river on St 240.

Some nice little shops, thought about lunch at Freebird (bar with Western menu) but went to The Shop which is great little cafe/bakery etc. Almost like an Urthh Cafe, but better. Seemed to be spot for either tourists or expats or both. Attractive crowd. J got baked brie sammy, I got roast pumpkin and goat cheese salad. Finished up about 2:15.

Really enjoying Phnom Penh , very much has the third world big city feel but manageable and pretty safe feeling and some hip spots / oases.

Went into some more nice stores…housewares, beads, women’s clothes. At corner of St 19 (?) is Red Apron wine shop and bar and then Rubies wine bar as well. Walked down to Royal Palace but didn’t go in, and tuk tuk guy tried to get us to go to some orphanage but we didn’t because unsure of truth and he said it was 20 minutes each way and tired etc. Walked back to hotel up St 178 and got home at 3:40…drained.  Pool.

Earlier today walking we passed used car dealer, prices crazy! Was like $40k+ for a 2004 Lexus SUV. Think an ’09 Camry was about $32k. Went out around 6 pm, grabbed some chicken on a skewer by hotel. Crappy part of wing, cost $.25 and not worth that. Then went into clothes store but didn’t buy anything and then finally the holy grail of Derk Wang bbq! On the same street as Friends but a little North, on a corner. Have cow roasting all day. I got small plate of meat, they serve it with sauces…one is like bbq, one like a lemon pepper with lime juice, another has lemongrass and chilis and lime juice…latter two they put together at the table. We each got a bottle of Angkor beer. They also serve cow innards, braised ox penis, and other things…we refrained. Solid.

Love how no stop signs or lights at all but a few major intersections, yet everyone just gets through. Quote of trip is definitely “hello, tuk tuk”.

Took one to Equinox on St 278 by St 51 (cool little area with bars, shops etc.). Close to Independence Monument . Right across from Elsewhere Bar where have big expat party think first friday of the month. Looks like cool spot with a couple pools and little beds/lounges jutting into them.

Equinox is 3 stories, we sat at bar on 2nd level which is open air and got pizza margarita and mojitos and then a bunch of Angkor drafts. Mekong Pirates is this reggae/funk band with almost a bit of Israeli sound and they went on around 8:30. Maybe 10 or so mainly white dudes and a Cambodian (?) female singer (but some guys sing too), music is in French. Lots of peeps there, seemed to be expats and maybe longer-stay backpackers. Great band and great vibe. Were a couple little kids there with parents, noted how you’d never see that in US but do see it abroad sometimes. Then went up on 3rd floor roof, beautiful night.

Around maybe 10 or 10 :30 walked across street and up to top level (3rd/4th floor) of Top Banana guesthouse and hung out at the bar. That was mainly longer stay backpackers, had bartender Todd from Albany who was very nice. We talked for a while with this guy from Seattle . Really fun. They had happy chocolate truffles on the menu but had run out, and when we left around 11:30 we had tuk tuk driver take us to river front to check out Happy Pizza, and everything was DEAD. FCC maybe was open, but every place else was closed, streets were pretty much abandoned, we were shocked since it was not even midnight on a Saturday. Not sure if most places just shut down early or if there was some effect from the stampede earlier in the week. Guy at our hotel desk suggested was the latter.

11/28

Nobody seems to tip, but I’ve generally been leaving change and maybe touch more at times.

Recalling our driver from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh when telling us about baby pigs we saw said that people buy them and “sponsor” them while they grow up before going to market. Sponsor, to become bacon…haha.

At breakie met a couple from CO (he grew up in Studio City, live Colorado Springs with place in Breckenridge), here a couple days before meeting up with small group for photo safari in Siem Reap then Myanmar.

Asia Life magazine seems good, helpful listing of events etc. That’s how we heard of the Mekong Pirates show last night.

After breakie went to Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda. Pay $6.25 to enter, need to cover knees and shoulders. Pretty crowded. Nice buildings and architecture, not incredible but worth doing. Finished around 10, I bought the shirt I’d tried on last night (looks like button down with pullover, all one piece, $16) and back to hotel to shower and pack. It’s hot today.

Brought raincoat and zip off pants and pull over, aside from plane ride never wore anything but shorts and short sleeves.

Cab to airport was $10, takes maybe half hour. Ate sandwiches after security. Drinks there expensive, and have to pay $25 departure tax each.

 

Seattle (old notes)

For some years before I started a blog, I took notes on trips.  Sometimes friends ask for these notes to help with trip planning.  To organize everything in one place, I’m adding my old trip notes to my blog.  These were written shorthand and probably not too enjoyable to read but hopefully useful to plan a trip.

I do not have access while traveling to my old photos, but I think through the link below you can see Jenni’s Facebook album from this trip even if you do not have a Facebook account.

https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.779966219285.2396349.414086&type=1&l=3a7bd49431

We visited Seatlle July 1-5, 2010 and had a great time.  The weather wasn’t so good but the food was outstanding, and Olympic National Park was beautiful.

7/1 – arrive around 9 pm, maybe 15-20 min drive in to city, no traffic; check in to Hotel Andra, then had drink each and split lamb carpaccio at Dahlia Lounge across way, was delish.

7/2 – went to pike place around 8:30 am then had brunch at cafe campagne which was pretty good and then we went back to the market.  After, we went to the Seattle Art Museum which was pretty cool with Cobain exhibit and some sculpture and Warhol exhibit…not a lot of big name artists that I saw.  Left there maybe 1:30 pm or so and walked down to pioneer square and to Salumi (Mario Batali’s family place) with 30 min wait but worth it…we split grilled copa with fontina and hot peppers and agrumi salami which has cardamom.  Then we walked to little park with waterfall in it and back through Pioneer Square and to Purple Café and wine bar where we each got a flight of WA white wines which were not very good ( purple has high ceiling, great menu) then W for drinks and then Zoe for dinner. Was very solid, lots of food and two drinks each (no dessert) for $128 all in. Walked few blocks back through Belltown and seems cool.

7/3 – woke about 6:30 and got to ferry about 7:15 got sandwiches and coffee there, plenty of time for 7:55 ferry to Bainbridge. Cold. 35 min ride then drive across island and over to 101 to Olympic National Park. Go to hurricane ridge about 17 miles in from hwy. Cloudy but clear at times. At top we parked the car around 5200′ and see lots of snow covered mtns across valley. Beautiful. Hike hurricane hill 1.6 miles each way and about 650’ gain. Saw little birds, black tail deer, marmot, goat, black bear in distance, chipmunks. Very pretty spot, chilly but fine when working. Drove back down and headed west again on 101 few minutes to lunch at kokopelli in port angeles . Had Dungeness crab (seems to be from here, crossed Dungeness river) club sandwiches with fries. Drove 101W another 20-30 minutes to lake crescent but pressed for time seemed so just couple pics then about 2+ hour drive back to Bainbridge. Olympic park and peninsula very green and reminiscent to me of Maine or Vermont and of course much lusher than SoCal. Got on 5:30 pm ferry back to Seattle (was about $14 while morning was $21) and nice and sunny but still cold on deck. Water kind of brown, see lots of jellies in the ocean.  That night we had a 8:30 reservation at Crush restaurant in Madison Valley .  I heard about it b/c believe Jason Wilson is the chef and he won a James Beard award.  We got the 6 course tasting menu with paired wines.

Salmon roe with bacon whipped creme fraiche with parsnip base and maple syrup; hamachi crudo with meyer lemon and mint; tagliatelle with morels, peas, truffle and parm; sparkling loire; Italian pinot grigio; chardonnay; salmon with peas etc oregon dundee hills pinot; split foie with cherries and almond financier with muscat; orange and yeast sorbet palate cleanse; cabernet with short rib; port for me and mousse with peanut and some ice cream and j had pinot gris and blueberry thing with mascarpone ice cream. So full and tired!

In Madison Valley area, pretty hilly around there. Reminds of Cambridge . Crush in a little house with wood floors, enter and there’s host stand and some stairs and to right is bar with about 8 seats and open kitchen and a few tables or to left is little room with big window and seating for about 16. J and I had four top, she on bench side and I in a low plastic mod white chair. Service quite good and food great. All in was $394 and about 2.5 hours. Planned to go out but too full and tired.  Excellent meal and worth it.

7/4 – Slept in and drove down and over West Seattle bridge to Salty’s on Alki Beach . Big place and way crowded. All you can eat brunch with crab legs, shrimp, oysters, omelets, mac n cheese, smoked salmon hash, chocolate fountain, waffles, dessert, bloody mary bar, etc. $40++ each. Awesome. Big windows with views of bay and city. Stuffed we drove up to Green Lake . No traffic ever and get around quickly and parking easy. Walked 2.8 miles round lake with lots of peeps and dogs and bikes etc and little pitch n putt course. Drove back to hotel.

Relax in room then down to lobby for comfy chairs in front of window looking on 4th ave with NY times. Hip but cozy lobby with good music. Got glasses of wine. Then ate at Lola which is another Tom Douglas spot in our hotel. Greek, had few apps. Tasty. The man has great menus. Took carafes of house red up to our room and watched fireworks on TV. Yeah, it’s true. Seattle almost canceled all due to budget but had biz sponsor I guess and only did em on Lake Union .

7/5 – morning went back to pike place and pastries and lattes at le panier. Jenni bought a little purse thing for phone etc while biking. We got dungeness crab rolls to go and clam chowder to split at pike place chowder. The chowder was great, the crab rolls OK (too much bread). Walked up 1st Ave to Broad and then went to experience music project at seattle center. Pretty cool, had hendrix exhibit and room where hear artists etc talk and then mary wilson of the supremes dress display and section with lots of rooms where can play instruments etc. Then walked up queen anne rd (fairly steep hill) and over on highland to kerry park with views of city and ate our crab rolls. Weather overcast again so see downtown and bay but never saw mt rainier at all. The area at queen anne and mercer had some cool looking shops/bars and 1st ave in Belltown has a bunch of bars and food etc.

Hotel location was great, think you want to be around there and pike place. Lobby nice and restaurant good, guess worth the $ but of course could go cheaper. Food in city was great..

On plane ride home saw Mt Rainier and several snow capped mtns to the West. Didn’t realize so many. Also interesting how in Olympic there are so many snow capped mtns and even on our hike there was snow in several places on the trail, at just 5500′ or so elevation and in July. Off our trail there were some long hikes with several thousand verts down then back up but some hard to do because of snow.

Temple and Thali

Madurai is an ancient south Indian city whose main attraction is the massive and bustling Meenakshi temple.  We drove here from Munnar to spend a day and a half and two nights.  If you are considering staying longer, please reconsider.  The temple is remarkable but otherwise the city has little to commend it.  Except for the thali lunch at Aarathy.

Check out the temple gopuras (towers) from a distance for some perspective and then the up close shots to appreciate the detail of each gopura.

We stayed at Hotel Padmam which sports a fine location but I don’t recommend it.  We had to ask twice to get toilet paper, soap and towels (at all, not like refills or anything), and if you want a top sheet walk down the street and buy one for a few bucks.  There is no WiFi in the room and the manager told us it takes 40 minutes to complete the 15 minute trip to the airport and charged us Rs 450 (paid to him not the driver, who he probably paid half that at most) which is nearly the same as the hour and a half journey from the Mumbai airport to our Mumbai hotel costs.  Even for $23/night I expected more.  Like a bathroom that didn’t smell like vomit.  We decided this is slightly below the accommodation level we’re aiming for.

Lunch at Emperor on the roof of Hotel Chentoor was so-so but there is a nice view of the temple gopuras.  Afterwards we walked around the temple to enjoy up-close views and the constant buzz of activity encircling this holy site.  There are women selling jewelry, busy food stands, kids asking for pens and carts packed with dates and large blocks of some jelly-like substance.

In this area you will be approached repeatedly by men suggesting you can go to the top of some building for a view and do not need to buy anything.

While clearly a commission pitch, we figured we had nothing to lose.  So we entered The Museum Company on the west side of the temple, marched straight to the top and then had a peaceful view where Miya offered us some tea with cardamom and cinnamon.

He proffered a long view of business, i.e. it didn’t matter if we bought anything but we could come back someday or tell our friends.  He was soft-spoken and true to his word, granting us leave with minimal earful.  Our true story of “sorry, you have lovely stuff but we have no room in our luggage and no home” has convinced many.

The rooftop rest was welcome.  Our first nine days in India were uber relaxing and Madurai marked a sharp contrast.  This is the kind of place you need to pay attention or you’ll get hit by a moped or goat.  Jenni was carrying a water bottle that took a moto-handlebar beating.  Nobody covers their mouth to cough and we saw multiple men urinating on the side of the road.

And the noise.  Constant.  Auto-rickshaw motors, horns, the rhythmic hand-pumping of water, chanting, negotiation.  If I were a music producer I think I would spend a little time in India for inspiration.

Surprisingly another calm corner in Madurai was this little vegetable alleyway which also had some birds located by the southeast corner of the square where our hotel sits.  We ate dinner at Dhivya Mahal where my aloo mutter masala was quite tasty.  Guess what Jenni got?  Paratha!

Thursday we visited the temple.  It took some effort to figure out the rules and setup (more in Practical Info but NOTE only mobile phone cameras are allowed inside, so if you can tell a difference in the photos that’s why), but alas we entered and the sensorial stimulation did not disappoint.  Aside from the prodigious and intricate gopuras, inside the temple there are vivid paintings, statues of deities, carved columns, tiered candle stands and a whole mess of humanity.  Offerings here, clink-clanking of donated change there, folks prostrating themselves or whispering in the ear of stone creatures.  Only Hindus are allowed in to the shrines, and these all had very long lines.

One section is dedicated to an art museum from where we viewed an elephant in the area between the inner and outer temple walls.  The elephant was trained to extend his trunk and take money, then tap the giver on the noggin and pass the cash back to its master.

On our way out we rested in the shade a bit and I lay down gazing up at clouds drifting over a gopura, listening to Indian music and watching the birds circle.  It is always nice to find moments of serenity amidst the madness.  A little boy walking past pointed at Jenni and laughed, then his mother told him to go say hello.  Which opened the floodgate and soon she had a little greeting line.

By the way, unrelated to Madurai but while I’m writing this Jenni just got a message from an Indian friend she studied with in Melbourne.  He recommends the kite festival in Ahmedabad in mid-January.  We will be in Thailand or Laos but…

After visiting the temple we were hungry, and more so after a long search for Aarathy.  When you approach on the side street and it looks like a dump, do not be alarmed.  Push onward, for the reward is a superb, all you can eat thali veg lunch.  Our man doles out the rice then ghee-ifies it with some powder and liquid butter.  Plus there are ten different bowls of yumminess, papadum, etc.  All for Rs 100.

Madurai is on the south India itinerary of many well-known tour companies.  If you visit alone, my advice is spend one day, do not stay at Hotel Padmam and do have lunch at Aarathy.

Practical Info

Accommodation: We stayed at Hotel Padmam which I pretty much covered above.  It seems the city is somewhat divided between the old town south of the river where the temple and action are, and the less exciting but likely nicer area north of the river.  I believe there are a couple nicer hotels there, and since being in the action in Madurai isn’t that great and you really just need to visit the temple, you might want to stay in one of those nicer hotels.

Temple: Modest dress is required.  Full pants for men, no hats.  You cannot wear shoes but can check them for free at each entrance.  There is an outside wall where you would check shoes, etc. and then you can enter the space in between for free.  To enter the actual temple, foreigners have to pay Rs 100.  You may not bring a camera inside.  However, you can bring a mobile phone inside, and for Rs 50 you can take pictures with your phone.  This all seems odd and is contrary to what I had thought, so you might double check for yourself even though we asked several people.  When you see the really long line of Indians waiting to enter the temple, walk around it, pay the Rs 100 and walk right in.  Unless you are Hindu, then maybe that line is where the shrine line begins.

Shopping: We went to the roof at The Museum Company at #26, West Chitrai Street, Ph: 0452 2346043, fortroyalmadurai@yahoo.com and our man was Gowhar aka Miya.  I cannot speak to the quality of the product nor how it compares to other stores, but it appeared to have nice wooden art and jewelry.  And he said we could leave our footwear there when we visited the temple.

December 25-27, 2013 (Wednesday-Friday)

Tea with Celine Dion

After Kerala’s backwaters we headed east for the hill country.  Munnar is set in the mountains surrounded by waterfalls and tea and cardamom plantations with cool, fresh air.  It was most pleasant and turned out to be a perfect place to spend Christmas in India.

Munnar is a small town in Kerala, though the surrounding area is generally all referred to as Munnar.  After nearly five hours of driving from the backwaters, much of it rather jarring, we checked into Casa del Fauno, our home for the next four nights.  I have included pictures below and details on the property in the Practical Info section.

Sidebar: near Kochi there was a cop going up to every driver with a little brown box and asking them to blow into it.  Random, low-tech breathalyzer, at 9:15 am.

As I write this we have already visited Madurai and I am now in Mumbai, thus confirming how comparatively relaxing were our first nine nights in India!  In Munnar, we did two half-day activities and spent the rest of the time reading (I finished 4-Hour Workweek and put a nice dent in The Kite Runner), writing, mellowing out and listening to Christmas carols.

Sunday morning we were picked up by a jeep for a half-day tour up to the Kolukkumalai tea estate.  The scenery was gorgeous but the ride was brutal.  Bring Advil, and I think Jenni would advise doubling up on bras.  We rode in a Mahindra, Land-Cruiser style jeep up into the mountains on some path that was a mix of dirt and large stones.  You could not drive this route without a jeep or truck.

Our driver was from the area and knew everybody.  While most conversations I have observed seem to take three times as long as I’d expect, with our man it was the opposite.  He would just quickly shout things out at pretty much every person we passed.  And he LOVED the camera.  He would offer to take a picture of us and then take five more of our surroundings, fidgeting always with the zoom.  He was about making things happen, and I liked him.

After climbing more than an hour, we arrived at a ridge with views across the cloud-covered valleys below.  It looked like we were in an airplane, or Jurassic Park.  Just beyond here is the aptly named Echo Point.  The simple pleasure of a great echo is ageless.

We passed by a few women working the tea plantation seated on the roadside for a food break, and they pointed out a couple nilgiri tahr at the top of the hill above us.  The nilgiri tahr is a rare mountain goat found in these parts (see more in Practical Info, below).  A sprinkling of back damage and touch of sore bum later, and we arrived at the tea factory.

Kolukkumalai claims the title of the highest organic tea estate in the world.  We took a tour of the small factory where the process still involves much manual work supplementing English-built machines dating back 50-100+ years.  Converting tea leaves to tea is a seven-step process.  I won’t bore you with all the details, but these steps are withering, rolling, sieving, fermenting (oxidation), drying, fibre extraction and grading.  The withering takes place in long troughs upstairs where hot and cool air blows the leaves alternatively, after which they are fed into chutes and the remaining steps occur downstairs.

On the way home we stopped for lunch for our umpteenth paratha (I’m sure you’ll read “paratha” many more times) and a little curry sauce.  This cost Rs 75 for two!

The whole tour we did not see any other white folks.  Munnar is a popular destination for middle class Indians looking to escape the heat and enjoy the hills.

After we returned it came up that Jenni and I had each taken a liking to this song but hadn’t said anything because we didn’t think the other would understand.  Jenni did a little internet sleuthing and found a link.  Kind of corny but so soothing…enjoy!  Jenni was ecstatic playing this over and over that afternoon.

That night we made new friends (a man from Thrivandrum living in Beijing, and two of his friends) and a group of locals regaled us with Christmas carols, Indian style.  I knew that Kerala had more Christians than most of the country, but I did not appreciate the extent.  On our backwaters boats were pictures of Jesus, ditto the jeep’s mirror ornament and we have seen many churches.  Casa del Fauno constructed a manger for Christmas Eve.

We also heard “So This is Christmas” by Celine Dion the first few times on Casa’s stereo.  Casa had maybe eight different holiday songs that they kept playing, but none more so than Celine.

Monday we walked the cardamom plantation with Anoop, the kind and soft-spoken property manager.  Cardamom grows in bunches of plants which themselves produce bunches of pods close to the ground.  After harvest the pods are dried before being sold at wholesale.  The property and surrounding area also include bananas, mangos, coconuts, hibiscus, jackfruit, coffee and several flowers.  It is most lush and beautiful.

While on the tour we also saw their lily-graced reservoir, Anoop pointed out a recent elephant footprint that was about the size of four basketballs, and we met some ladies breaking for food who were so warm and friendly.

Anoop told us the workers get paid Rs 250/day plus food, accommodation and school for the children.

We continued down the road and passed a man with his goats speaking on his mobile.  Then we left the pavement and crossed a hillside with ancient pygmy rock houses before ascending some steep rocks to reconnect with a different road.

A handful of smiling kids and kittens later, we returned to the Casa and later enjoyed a perfect sunset over the hills.

I enjoyed the food at our hotel and fell in love with this spicy pickled mango sauce.  Also, there was an endless supply of crisp papadums each lunch and dinner.

Tuesday we relaxed and had a bottle of mediocre Four Seasons shiraz before/with our Christmas Eve dinner.  We met a fun family from England and the mood was jovial with a warm fire (wood and a coconut shell towards the end) and many fireworks.  One of the staff threw those loud poppers until the whole bag was gone.  Jenni had the honor of cutting the fruit cake, and the stars were excellent.

But the highlight was definitely good ole Celine.  After Anoop had played So This is Christmas twice in the span of three or four songs, we eyed him going back to fiddle with the stereo.  I gave Jenni the fist clenched, elbow tucked “yessssss!!!!!” sign and he saw me, then proceeded to play Celine again.  Caught red-handed he came over and smiled and said sheepishly “I like this song very much.”  It was adorable and we had perhaps our best laugh of the trip.

We departed on Christmas and the staff insisted on taking pictures with us.  The drive down to Madurai was beautiful and spirited, on a rough mountain road with many hairpin turns and areas where landslides had covered half the road with rock or simply made half the road disappear.  Plus, an elephant crossing sign.

Munnar was beautiful, lush and relaxing.  Often I had to remind myself I was in India.  If you are looking for a stereotypical Indian cultural experience this is probably not the place, but to see a calm and peaceful side of this amazing country it is a good choice.

Practical Info

Transport: From our backwaters stay a bit south of Kochi, it took four hours by car to reach the town of Munnar and another 45 minutes to Casa del Fauno.  We paid Rs 3,400.  The last 1/3+ of the drive is on winding and often rough roads.  There are buses to Munnar but I do not think a train, and you will need private transportation to get around the area.  As all over India, your hotel or guesthouse can likely arrange tours and local and onward transport.  If given the option, it might be worth having your destination arrange the transport as that increases the likelihood your driver can find the place.

Accommodation: Your first key decision is whether to stay in the town of Munnar or the surrounding areas.  Munnar itself did not appear particularly charming but may have more budget options and offer a convenient base for exploration.  If you want more attractive environs, I recommend staying outside of Munnar.

We stayed at Casa del Fauno which is about 25 km beyond Munnar (coming from Kochi), closer to the town of Chinnakanal.  It was a (modest) splurge as we wanted a comfortable, peaceful environment for the holiday.  Casa del Fauno is a restored bungalow on the Peak Gardens cardamom plantation.  There are three rooms in the main house and some cottages just downhill.  The main house is lovely and cozy with nice hardwood floors and high wood ceilings and a wood-burning fireplace.  It felt like being in a friend’s home.  Our first three nights we stayed in the Deluxe Room in the main house which was spacious and opened to a common patio overlooking the small lawn and valley and mountains beyond.  This had already been booked for our fourth night and we were promised the Elegant Room also in the house but instead (for the same price) we got the honeymoon bungalow.  This was similar to our Deluxe Room but slightly larger, more private and with a large terrace overlooking the hills.  WiFi is only available in the main house, and may only work effectively in the Deluxe Room which is next to the router.  Breakfast is included and freshly made tea or coffee is available throughout the day.  Tasty Keralan lunch is served for Rs 250 and dinner costs Rs 500.  If you want alcohol you need to request it in advance and someone will go to the store to purchase it.  Casa del Fauno does not take credit cards.

We also considered staying at Windermere Estate, Anearangal Camp at Suryanelli, Siena Village and British County (run by the Tourist Desk with offices in Kochi).  Siena Village is well-reviewed though we passed the property and it is more in a town vs. Casa del Fauno which was really set in the forest.  Nearby our hotel are The Wind and Spice Tree.  Our driver also mentioned Club Mahindra.  Stanley Wilson (tour operator out of Kochi who booked our backwaters trip) runs a 3 day / 2 night tour for Rs 11,000 that might be a good option if you want to be efficient and economical with your time.

Activities: Popular activities include tea and spice plantation visits, the tea museum in town, scenic tours (e.g. to Top Station), trekking and visiting one or more of the region’s national parks and wildlife sanctuaries.  The famed Neelakurunji plant grows on the mountainside here and flowers once every 12 years.  My book says that late 2018 is the next bloom.

Our jeep tour to Kolukkumalai cost Rs 1700.  We had the jeep to ourselves and it could have seated more, though I do not know if the price would differ.  We had to pay Rs 100 for a road maintenance fee on the way, and one can only imagine what the “roads” would be like without maintenance.  At Kolukkumalai, it costs Rs 100 each to tour the factory.

Eravikulam National Park is considered the place to see the nilgiri tahr.  Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary is also in the area.  We read and heard that Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary may be disappointing.  Attukad Waterfalls look impressive, though I think pictures you will see were probably taken in the rainy season.

Books

One of the many enjoyable aspects of long-term travel is I get to read a lot more…for pleasure.  I am starting a new post that I will update periodically to list the books that I have read (or am reading) since our journey began.  Note that many of these authors have corresponding blogs where you can get a taste for the concept without buying/reading a whole book.  And if you have suggestions for books you think I would enjoy, please do let me know!
The Lean Startup – a very popular book relevant for both new entrepreneurs and established companies launching new products, among others…as the title suggests, the goal is to figure out if your business is viable and if so start and grow it without betting the farm…advocates practices like continual testing of assumptions, metrics that are both measurable (of course) but also meaningful, etc.

Investment Biker – older book by Jim Rogers, partner of George Soros at the Quantum Fund with legendary returns…as Amazon says, it is “the fascinating story of his 1990 investing trip around the world by motorcycle, with many tidbits of hard-headed advice for investing in foreign markets.” while not infallible, he is quite prescient and it is a good read.
Delivering Happiness – the Zappos story, a book about building the best customer service business and having fun in the process.  Tony offers some neat ideas for managing employees and creating the right culture.  I enjoyed it a lot and many of his philosophies align with my own.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers – book about the Mumbai slums.  Bill Gates said, “It reads like a novel by Dickens, but is a real-life depiction of the challenges hundreds of millions of people face every day in urban slums. It’s also a reminder of the humanity that connects us all.”  The tales of corruption are truly horrifying.

Business Stripped Bare – Richard Branson book about how he got started with Virgin and his relentless focus on brand.  If you do not define your brand, someone else will.

Long Walk to Freedom – Nelson Mandela’s autobiography.  His patience, tolerance, sacrifice and humility are quite the inspiration.

The 4-Hour Workweek – another very popular book, Tim aims not only to inspire you to examine your professional and personal lives but he gives step by step instructions for freeing your time and generating income.  At first I was lukewarm because it seemed like another book heavy on philosophy (which I don’t really need since I already made the decision!), but then Tim proceeds to offer a wealth of resources for starting businesses and using outsourcing both professionally and personally.

The Kite Runner – per Amazon, Khaled Hosseini offers “an educational and eye-opening account of a country’s political turmoil–in this case, Afghanistan–while also developing characters whose heartbreaking struggles and emotional triumphs resonate with readers long after the last page has been turned over.”  I thoroughly enjoyed it, and great fiction is just what Madurai called for.  I think I particularly like historical fiction for the simultaneous escape/repose and learning.

Going Home!

We left White Sands National Monument and passed the sharp, dramatic Organ Mountains.  In this area the traffic lights are all horizontal, I guess due to the wind?

Tucson is backed by nice mountains and here we saw our first In-N-Out since leaving California nearly three months ago.  Despite the temptation, we held out for our traditional coming home meal.  La Quinta hotel in Phoenix was a splurge that even had internal hallways!

Friday was the last day of the trip and the excitement was palpable.  Will we make it all the way back with no accidents or traffic tickets?!  In Phoenix we saw our first signs for Los Angeles, confirming the final stretch.  Jenni did a great job deejaying several California-themed songs…of course starting with Biggie’s Going Back to Cali and followed by tunes like Phantom Planet’s California, California Love by 2Pac, Hotel California, etc.

Much of the drive between Phoenix and Palm Springs is very pretty, and south of the 10 near Tonopah is a nice mountain.  I have driven to the Palm Springs area many times but never approached from this direction.  We descended quite a hill down to Indio.

We made it back to Los Angeles at 1 pm, having driven just under 12k miles.  And it was literally 75 and sunny.  We closed with a bottle of Moët, just as we began our first night camping at San Simeon.  For some fun stats summarizing our three-month road trip, see the post here that we wrote at that time.

November 8, 2013 (Friday)

White Sands National Monument

This is a magical place in southeast New Mexico where gypsum dunes backed by southwestern-looking mountains give an otherworldly feel.

After Carlsbad and Guadalupe earlier in the day we skirted El Paso and then drove north on highway 54 with good mountain views.  There are various military installations around here, including the White Sands Missile Testing Area which forces the closure of the Monument and roads periodically, so be sure to investigate.

I was shocked when we had to pass through a border patrol road block.  I never realized I could be stopped and my car searched when I was not trying to cross the border.  We encountered this again on the 10 Freeway driving back to Los Angeles.  Each time, the officers looked at us, asked if we are US citizens and then said go ahead.  I have often lamented my pale skin because I cannot blend in as much while traveling.  Some have that “Mediterranean” look where they might be from South America or Europe or the Middle East…not me.  But at these border patrol stops I was mighty happy to be pale whitey.

Visitors to White Sands usually stay in Las Cruces or Alamogordo, we chose the latter which is closer to the Monument.  It is packed with chains.  Our Days Inn was another hotel lacking internal hallways, and had some pretty shady characters with bloodshot eyes hanging about.  Nobody showed any disrespect, and I admired Jenni for being willing to stay places like this with no complaints.

Thursday was another cool, crystal clear day.  Shortly after leaving the hotel we passed a sign warning not to pick up hitchhikers because there are detention facilities in the area.  Jenni wanted to try anyway but I held firm.  We stopped in at the visitor center for information and a great orientation video.

These are the largest gypsum dunes in the world.  Some of the nearby mountains are rich in gypsum and the rain and snow melt dissolves it into water that flows into this basin which creates a lake.  The water then evaporates leaving behind big, soft crystals which the wind scatters and breaks down until it is fine, powdery gypsum.

In the desert there is much fascinating flora and fauna, often not visible to the casual observer.  For instance, the video told us that after rains brine shrimp can emerge and lay eggs which might lie dormant as long as 100 years before hatching with new water.

Jenni was thrilled at the opportunity to sled on the dunes so we bought a sled at the gift shop and a little wax.  Even though it was 45 degrees out we just had to drop Sven’s top.  It feels like a winter wonderland, with the paved road turning to sand necessitating plows.  It took great restraint not to pull an EB in the wide-open parking lots.

We walked in a bit on the Alkali Flats Trail for some sledding and ski-jump practice.  Jenni was giddy.  Then over at the backcountry camping parking area we walked up on the dunes and Jenni found a million dollar bill plastered with Jesus praise.  Odd, we thought.  Then we saw an older man with a camel, a pair of dogs and some film makers.

It turns out he spreads the million dollar bills all around and they were making some kind of documentary.  I find it a little strange to both proselytize and litter in a national monument, but what do I know.

If you get the chance, I recommend spending at least a couple hours in this unique and stunning environment.

Practical Info

The Days Inn at Alamogordo was fine but a little dodgy.  There are nicer hotels up the road.  If you are coming from the west, you would probably want to stay at Las Cruces.

The sled at the visitor center cost $17 and then you can return it for $5 back.  The refund is priced brilliantly, just like wedding rentals.  Ranger-led walks take place around sunset but we were long gone before then.

Entrance to the dunes is $3/person and our National Parks pass worked.  Of course you should bring water, sunglasses and perhaps a compass if you want to get too far off the road.

November 6-7, 2013 (Wednesday-Thursday)