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Cambodian countryside

Phnom Penh and surroundings

sunny 33 °C
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Having seen a fair share of city life, we felt the urge to get out of town and to discover more of the countryside. So we booked a tour to check it out.
The first part of the tour brought us to the ‘killing fields’ genocide museum in Choeung Ek, one of the more than 300 Cambodian sites of mass murder during the reign of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge. An audio guide provided us with much more background on the subject. It is already hard to imagine how the Khmer Rouge managed to kill roughly a quarter of the population in their five years of ruling – half actively the other half indirectly by letting the agriculture and food production go down. But it is much harder to understand that their leader Pol Pot got to live another 20 year in peace without being put in prison. Hearing that he was able to marry again and see his grandchildren grow up, was harder to believe than the fact that the Khmer Rouge continued to hold the official UN seat for Cambodia for years after having been overthrown.

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After that excursion into the brutal history of Cambodia, it was time to clear our minds. We headed out together with our guide Det into the countryside. Sam and I were riding on 330 Polaris ATVs and Max on a small kid’s ATV with the guide riding behind him.

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After a kilometer on tarmac, we headed off onto small dirt roads leading along the river Prek Thnot. We got to see little isolated villages, nice pagodas, mango and banana plantations and rice fields. Our first break was at a small store to quench our thirst. We were very happy about the dust masks we had been given. The roads were very dusty.

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Even though we were mostly riding along, we were able to get a good impression of village life. There were the youths playing soccer or volleyball on village squares, there were the kids taking a bath in murky waters of the canals leading to the rice fields, the huge and thin white cows dotting the fields, the huge containers next to the houses filled with rain water from the roof, the omnipresent signs advertising the merits of the Cambodian People’s Party, kids running up to us and waving, the setup of a wedding pavilion on the dirt road leading through a village and much more…

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Our second stop at a pagoda was very nice as well. We had a look around, and even got to see some monks.

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We were lucky to see all of this on a Sunday, being able to see people enjoying life. We had tremendous fun our tour. But it was a long trip and eventually we were happy to have the last stop for watching the sunset over the rice fields.

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We were exhausted by the time we arrived at the hotel. It had been a long and exciting day. We had dinner and fell asleep.
The next couple of days we took it very easy. We spent much of our time at the pool, enjoying life and planning for the days to come. One of those days, we realized that the pool really helped us to balance the exploring in the heat with relaxation. Realizing that the place we had booked in Bangkok did not have a pool, we cancelled that booking and found another place that did have a pool.
We read much, caught up on sleep and were happy just to be in one place without having to rush around to tick boxes in whatever sights should be ticked off by the avid tourist. While we’re often enough behaving like tourists in our travels, long term traveling is different.
So our key highlights of the next couple of days did not include the National Museum or one of the many temples. Instead, we went for another excursion with Sopha. After picking up her son Pong Pong at his school, we headed to the ferry and crossed to the other side of the Mekong.

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After another couple of kilometers passing along small markets, miniature stores, pagodas, family houses and animal paddocks, we reached the mango garden of Sopha’s brother. It was nice and peaceful there. The boys had a great picnic that Sopha had brought along, we picked some mango and had great conversations. There were many working cows passing by. It’s hard to believe that these cows are fit for doing heavy work in the rice fields – as they look so thin. From one of the nearby rice paddies we had a nice view of the sunset. What a great outing!

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On the way back, we passed a wedding ceremony in a decorated pavilion erected on the main road. Life in the dark was mellowing the scenery. The omnipresent garbage is not visible anymore, the atmosphere looks cozy, making even the poorest living conditions look romantic and homey.

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After our ferry ride back home, we concluded the evening with a typical Khmer BBQ. We were probably the only foreigners in the huge place. Sopha ordered for us a full set containing meat, various entrails (we suppose it was heart, liver, kidney, but also something else unidentifiable), shrimp and octopus. In addition, there was onion, bell pepper, mushroom, green tomato, cucumber, cabbage and water mimosa. What a feast! We were very full at the end of our meal and happy that we had to walk only two blocks back to our hotel.

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While we enjoyed life in Phnom Penh, there are also bad news that we heard from home. It’s strange being so far away and still affected by such far away decisions. While shocking indeed, the distance makes it probably more easily digestible. After all, we’ve been surviving many surprises lately and traveling certainly taught us that there’s a way out of every situation.
For lunch, we wanted to follow a recommendation of the Lonely Planet for a change. Unfortunately the nice restaurant with the view from the top floor of the Sorya Shopping Center was closed. We still enjoyed the view. Heading to the food court further down, was not a very smart decision. With all the building works in the shopping center, it was not very full and lacked through put. Luckily just Sam and I took a slight fit from the food and were happy to stay in and around the hotel for a day. It could have been worse. Other travelers had told us much worse stories.

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There was also good news that week: on Thursday, we headed to the Russian consulate right at 8am when it opens. There was no line and within a couple of minutes we held our passports with nice Russian visa in our hands.
The celebrations took place in the nearby Aeon Mall. Due to the early hour, we toasted with hot tea and hot chocolate. When the mall opened a bit later, we checked it out. Quite frankly, it could have been located anywhere in Europe just as well. Apart from a couple of stores exclusively appealing to the taste of locals (such as the store full with Korean smiling animated figures), big malls seem to get globalized and exchangeable. The only way to distinguish the location of a Starbucks or KFC is to check out the menu where in addition to English, the local language might give away where you are. But latest when exiting the mall, haggling with a tik tuk driver about the price of the journey and being back on the road, it becomes pretty obvious that we're still in South-East Asia and not Europe.

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Having received our Russian visa, our mission of the trip to Cambodia and specifically Phnom Penh had been successfully accomplished. Consequently, we were ready to head off. Anyhow, with our eight nights in the same (great!) hotel, we had spent much more time there than all other guests. Most people left after two or maximum three nights.
After a very personal good bye ceremony from hotel staff, we boarded our bus to Siem Reap. We were seated comfortably in the big bus, being able to enjoy the vistas of the Cambodian countryside passing by. Two stops and six hours later, we reached Siem Reap, the main tourist destination of Cambodia due to its proximity to the World Heritage listed temples of Angkor Wat.

Posted by dreiumdiewelt 21:00 Archived in Cambodia Tagged cow river rice museum pool visa mall bbq ferry news quad Comments (0)

On spring break

Seoul

sunny 22 °C
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An arrival time of 5:55 in the morning is never really pleasant. That is even more true when you have not really slept on the plane and when flying east. In other words: it felt rather like 3am in the morning when we headed towards Korean immigration. It was no problem to get our passports stamped and before too long we were in possession of all our belongings again.
We quickly found the airport train and headed towards ‘Digital Media City’ where we were picked up by the manager of our guest house in his Jaguar. Wow – that is a first!
The best news of the day was the fact that our room was already available for us. We were delighted to finally get some sleep and around noon time felt recovered enough to have a look around.
It was excellent weather. The sun was shining, the air was crisp and clear (no comparison to the humid and dusty air we had in Kathmandu) and the temperatures were very pleasant. It felt like a really nice day in European spring – with the obvious difference that people around us did not look European at all and that everything written was illegible to us. Even though we had gotten used to that already in Cambodia, Thailand and Nepal, it continued to intimidate us a bit not being able to figure out where e.g. a bus was going.

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But we were fortunate to get help in our first steps to use public transport: someone from the guesthouse took us to the convenience store to get bus tickets and showed us where to catch the bus to Hongik University.

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In this lively and young neighborhood we explored the pedestrian zones around there until we got hungry and headed for Korean BBQ. It was fun to observe how the food was prepared right in front of our eyes at the table. Eating itself turned out to be a bit of a challenge, as the food was significantly hotter than what we had realized. Still, it was a great experience and once we had gotten over the initial shock in regards to the pungency of flavor, we really liked it.

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After a bit of strolling, we headed home – but not before stopping at a confectionery to get some strawberry cake to take home.
What followed was a perfect evening: We used the Wii with big screen at the guesthouse and while watching Kung Fu Panda on a big TV once Max was in bed, we helped ourselves to the German Benediktiner beer that the guesthouse offered for free (just like soft drinks, round the clock breakfast, instant noodles, etc).

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Our visit of Seoul had been intended as a break from more serious sightseeing in Nepal and in Mongolia. It was the cheapest flight connection between the two countries and we felt like a stopover would do all of us good.
Even though we had no intention to systematically check out all of Seoul’s many sights, we figured that we might as well go to explore a bit. So after a very relaxed and late breakfast, we headed off by bus to Bukchon Village. This area of Seoul is nicely built on sloping hills and features many old traditional Korean houses, called ‘hanoks’. At a tiny eatery, we had soup. This time we were not quite so surprised as the day before to find out that it was almost too hot for our taste buds.

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Exploring the older parts of the village proved to be interesting. In the narrow streets, there were lots of tourists – like us – trying to get the perfect shot of the old houses with the Seoul skyline in the backdrop.

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But there were also lots of local Koreans there. Many of them were dressed in the traditional Korean attire, the ‘hanbok’. We had passed already lots of places that rented hanboks out by the hour and suddenly realized that this must be a very viable business.

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By the end of our tour, Max was so hungry and we were so helpless to come up with local non-spicy food options, that he simply got a portion of French fries at the local McDonalds. Sam and I got ourselves some dumplings called ‘bibigo’ that we prepared ourselves in the kitchen of our guesthouse.
Some Taiwanese guests of the guest house treated us to some excellent fruit: they let us share their crates of strawberries and oranges. Well, the ‘oranges’ were very special: the ‘hallabongs’ are a specialty of Jeju Island. And indeed: they were excellent!
After all of us had survived Nepal without getting a ‘Delhi belly’, Sam’s luck was fading and he spent a sleepless night. Luckily Max and I were not affected. While Sam finally managed to catch up some of his lost sleep on the next day, both of us had a nice day in the guest house. We played, read and did what we enjoyed most. And not very surprisingly: I had no chance to beat Max when playing various Wii games.
That day, the first floor of the guest house was filled with a group of 15-year-old boys who were celebrating a birthday. They had their moms with them who prepared food and did what 15-year-old's do: they played on their mobile phones, they used the computers in the guest house to play and the fought their fights. But no matter what they did: they were extremely loud. Not just as loud as what I would have expected of 15-year-old boys, but significantly louder than that. While this might not be surprising, I did wonder a bit that their moms did not intervene in any way. After all, there were a couple of other guests around as well.
Eventually our Taiwanese neighbor took the initiative to yell at them around 2am at the morning that it’s time to shut up and that others are trying to get some sleep. Talking with her in the morning, she said that such behavior seems to be acceptable in Korea – and she should know being married with a Korean husband for more than 10 years.
We slept very long the next morning – still living on Nepali time 3 ¼ hours behind Korea – but after our quiet day yesterday, headed out again today. Taking the train to Seoul Station was super easy. Contrary to the buses, the trains and subways are signposted and announced in English such that we understood where we have to go. Once more we agreed that Seoul features an excellent and affordable public transport system.
From the station, we walked to Namdaemun Gate, one of the old entry points of the enormous city wall dating back to the 14th century. We had a quick photo stop.

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From there we headed on to Namdaemun Market. We had street food – excellent steamed and fried dumplings. Standing there, we met some very friendly locals who even let us have a try of what they were eating.

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Along the previous city wall, we headed to Namsan Park. There were lots of locals enjoying that warm spring weekend hiking up the hill.

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At the photo view point, they admired the cherry blossoms and took lots of pictures of themselves and the beautiful view of the city. To note: Koreans do not say ‘cheese’ when trying to get a shot of smiling people, they say ‘kimchi’ (which is their version of hot marinated cabbage).

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Once we passed the upper station of the cable car, it got really crowded for the remaining couple of hundred meters to Seoul Tower. Many people seemed to be there to fix their love locks on the many fences foreseen for that purpose.

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We had walked enough for today and decided to take the cable car down the hill. From there it was just a short distance to the next subway station.

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In the bus from Hongik Station to our guest house, we met our Taiwanese neighbor again. She had spent another day shopping and we finally found out why she is spending most of her week in Korea shopping: seemingly Korean cosmetics are renown in Asia for their excellent quality and great value. We were not interested in any shopping efforts and rather concentrated our efforts on the good Korean food and treated ourselves to kimbap (a kind of sushi rolls), Soup and dumplings.
The next day, Sam took a tour to the demilitarized zone (DMZ), i.e. the area around the border line towards North Korea.

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He was reminded very much of the inner German border which over years had been setup in a very similar way. In today's Germany, not much of that remains, except some remaining watchtowers and a green band in which wildlife and rare plants thrive. Let’s see if this will happen to the Korean DMZ as well at some stage. For sure, the South Koreans are dreaming of a re-unification. The future will show how realistic that is - considering that China probably prefers having North Korea as a buffer towards the South.

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Just like the former German border line, the DMZ also serves as a refuge to rare wildlife and plants, but is fully active. There are mines, the watchtowers are manned and there is a very tense atmosphere – specifically nowadays that Mr. Trump is rattling against the North Korea's Kim Jong-un. Being in the border zone you can listen to loud propaganda played from both sides - trying to convince the respective other side of the benefits of the own system.

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There are even a couple of North Korean infiltration tunnels. One of them is open to the public and can be visited as part of the DMZ tour. Since the tunnels have been discovered, they have been blocked off. And supposedly there are now sensor systems in place to detect any further underground blasts. And there are some remains of the Korea War on display - such one of the last locomotives that moved freely between the two countries.

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In the tour bus, the same thing happened to Sam that happened since he had arrived in Korea: everyone deducted that being ‘Austrian’ means coming from ‘Australia’. But there were also lots of other misconceptions present: his neighbor in the bus suspected that Korea's main export products are rice and ginseng. Seemingly he had forgotten about Korean companies such as Samsung, LG, Hyundai Motors, Kia cars or the fact that Korean cargo ships dominate the world market.

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That’s probably one of the big frustrations for Koreans: living in the shadow of their better known neighbors China and Japan and despite being the 5th largest export economy of the world being virtually unnoticed internationally. Let’s see if Korea will be able to make use of the upcoming winter Olympics 2018 in PyeongChang to share some facts about it with the world.
When Sam was back in the afternoon, we took a hike up the hill behind our guest house. Surprisingly enough, we even managed to discover a small playground – the first one since we had arrived in Korea. The lack of playgrounds in Nepal had not surprised us at all, but considering what a well-developed country South Korea is, this came as an unexpected shock.
The trail around the top of the hill was very beautiful. There were nice flowers blooming all over the place and there were hardly any people around. It was an excellent escape from the bustling city around us which we truly enjoyed.

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Our last day of the break we had taken in South Korea, was not very exciting. We had to pack our stuff, had a late breakfast at the guest house, went shopping (thanks, to the staff of the guest house and to Google Translate for the excellent help – otherwise it would be much more difficult to get around without speaking and reading any Korean!) and ended up at Burger King.
In the late afternoon, the manager of the guest house drove us to the airport train in his personal BMW 7 series (which probably cost him more than our year of traveling as a family of three).
As we headed to the check in, we could not resist comparing Incheon airport with its counterpart in Munich. It was very clean, well laid out and perfectly organized. And indeed, in the most recent airport rankings it had ranked #3 just before Munich which landed on place 4.
Korean check in super correct: wants to see tickets out of Mongolia, does not want our sleeping pads next to the backpacks. Good flight.
We recapped that it had been five very pleasant days in Korea – a country that we’d be happy to return to one day (well, if it wasn’t for so many other places we’d still love to explore as well!).

Posted by dreiumdiewelt 10:54 Archived in South Korea Tagged park airport spring bbq orange dmz wii Comments (0)

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