Chocolate Spicy Cake
Chocolate Spicy Cake
Acacia (also known as camelthorn)
Acacia (also known as camelthorn)
Westin Macau - a little classier than our hut in Sabang
Westin Macau - a little classier than our hut in Sabang
The facilities
The facilities

My unfortunately timed bout with food poisoning (it started on day 1) continued into the third day but I was feeling much better overall. Making bathroom runs to the outhouse some 100 yards out into the steppe at 3AM when it is below freezing is quite the experience. Especially on breezy nights like the one we had last night.  That said, there is an upside. Combine a door/roofless outhouse with a stiff breeze and you have got yourself a smell-free bathroom trip with one heck of a view!

Main street Dalanzadgad
Main street Dalanzadgad

Around 1:30 today we stopped in the town of ДАЛАНЗАДГАД (Dalanzadgad) for shopping, lunch and, most importantly, showers! This time the shopping facilities were much more western we even got to partake in a form of transportation that I didn’t think we would see for many days: an escalator! Dalanzadgad is the capital of the Gobi aimag (province) and has a whopping 14,000 residents!

Dust. This has been one of the biggest hardships thus far on the tour. Shortly after we loaded up in the minivan on day one I noticed that most of the interior seams as well as the rear windows were sealed with either duct tape or packing tape. As it turns out, the tape had been put there to curb the amount of dust constantly trying to invade the back of the vehicle. I’d hate to see how bad it is without the tape because it is pretty horrendous as is. Here is an example of what our bags looks like at the end of a day’s driving.

This photo shows how dusty it was inside the van after a day on the steppe. That is my blue backpack in the center.
This photo shows how dusty it was inside the van after a day on the steppe. That is my blue backpack in the center.

The dust was actually making it pretty hard to breathe and most of spent some time hacking and coughing each day so far. Thanks to the Chinese population it is actually quite easy to find face masks in the towns so we picked some of those up during the lunch stop. I’m sure we look like right idiots but it was certainly an upgrade from my underwear bandit look from earlier in the day (undershirt wrapped around the face!).

One solution to the dust problem
One solution to the dust problem

Anyhow, the shower stalls at the public bathhouse were squeaky clean and the hot water was plentiful. Washing off what felt like a pound of dust/dung, shaving, and quickly doing some laundry in the running water was unbelievably indulgent. This is what happens when you haven’t seen running water in 3 days!

A short 90 minute drive from the town took us to the entrance gate to Yolyn Am, a park that has a valley with ice year-round. Well, it is supposed to be year-round but it recent years most of it has melted away by mid-summer. There were still small patches of ice to be found but it wasn’t the meter-thick slab that we were expecting. It was about a 6km roundtrip hike into the valley and we were a bit disappointed that we arrived so late in the day. The sun was setting (and the temperature plummeting) when we were on the walk in. Wildlife spotted inside the canyon included some vultures, thousands of small rodent looking creatures, a lone bat and a few smaller birds.

Minivan odometer: 752km (251km today)

Mongolia Tour Days 1-3
Walking around a ovoo (cairn) for good luck.  Three times around with it on your right.
Walking around a ovoo (cairn) for good luck. Three times around with it on your right.
All sorts of interesting offerings on the ovoo: skulls, cash and vodka bottles to name a few.
All sorts of interesting offerings on the ovoo: skulls, cash and vodka bottles to name a few.
We found camels!
We found camels!
The first camels of our RTW trip
The first camels of our RTW trip
High five!
High five!
Ultzi fishing some water out of the magic rock
Ultzi fishing some water out of the magic rock
This is supposed to make your eyesight better
This is supposed to make your eyesight better
Home sweet home
Home sweet home
This ger came with a guard dog
This ger came with a guard dog
Hospital, orphanage, or shopping mall?
Hospital, orphanage, or shopping mall?
Lunch on day 2: our first ger cafe
Lunch on day 2: our first ger cafe
Mongolian truck stop
Mongolian truck stop
This photo shows how dusty it was inside the van after a day on the steppe. That is my blue backpack in the center.
This photo shows how dusty it was inside the van after a day on the steppe. That is my blue backpack in the center.
Camels like to shake their lips
Camels like to shake their lips
and wag their tails (nonstop)
and wag their tails (nonstop)
and roll in the dust
and roll in the dust
The facilities
The facilities
Watching for the herd to come home.
Watching for the herd to come home.
I'm not quite sure why this young camel was so shaggy.
I’m not quite sure why this young camel was so shaggy.
A very playful kid at the ger camp
A very playful kid at the ger camp
Herding home the goats and sheep by motorcycle
Herding home the goats and sheep by motorcycle
Our driver in his never-ending battle against the dust
Our driver in his never-ending battle against the dust
Quality Mongolian bed
Quality Mongolian bed
One solution to the dust problem
One solution to the dust problem
Main street Dalanzadgad
Main street Dalanzadgad
Why look, it is a stein of lipton tea!
Why look, it is a stein of lipton tea!
Public baths in Dalanzadgad
Public baths in Dalanzadgad
A welcome change of scene - mountains!
A welcome change of scene – mountains!
Just a little ice
Just a little ice

We drove and drove and drove today. Endless expanses of nothingness. The only discernible change in the scenery was that the vegetation slowly got smaller and smaller.  Surely we must be getting closer to the Gobi!

Hospital, orphanage, or shopping mall?
Hospital, orphanage, or shopping mall?

Around midday we crested a hill and caught our first glimpse of a rural Mongolian town (Mandalgovi, I think). We stopped briefly for a bathroom break and refueling. The building we stopped at looked like a rundown Soviet hospital but it had been converted into a makeshift shopping mall. Each of the small rooms had a shop and we found one with a nice selection of wool socks. After the cold last night we gladly purchased some new socks.

Late in the afternoon we arrived at an area known as the White Cliffs.  Seeing them was a bit unexpected because most of the terrain leading up to them was pancake flat.  We drove up to the top and had an hour or so to look around.  The scenery was certainly spectacular but I think we were too exhausted from the day of driving to actually enjoy it.

Watching for the herd to come home.
Watching for the herd to come home.

In the evening we stayed at another ger camp. The family kept camels, goats and sheep so we had some good fun looking at the animals. Around sunset the the daughter and child returned to the camp with their large herd of goats and sheep. They were herding them with a motorcycle – a technique that seems to be quite popular here in Mongolia!

Herding home the goats and sheep by motorcycle
Herding home the goats and sheep by motorcycle

The ger had all the amenities that one would expect of a ger.  There was a dung-fueled stove was installed smack in the middle.  The doorway was guarded by a very tough looking Mongolian dog but he did nothing to stop one of the baby goats from repeatedly invading our ger.  As for sleeping arrangements, we had some quality Mongolian beds to enjoy.

Quality Mongolian bed
Quality Mongolian bed

Minivan odometer: 501km (230km today)

This ger came with a guard dog
This ger came with a guard dog
Hospital, orphanage, or shopping mall?
Hospital, orphanage, or shopping mall?
Lunch on day 2: our first ger cafe
Lunch on day 2: our first ger cafe
Mongolian truck stop
Mongolian truck stop
Camels like to shake their lips
Camels like to shake their lips
and wag their tails (nonstop)
and wag their tails (nonstop)
and roll in the dust
and roll in the dust
Watching for the herd to come home.
Watching for the herd to come home.
I'm not quite sure why this young camel was so shaggy.
I’m not quite sure why this young camel was so shaggy.
A very playful kid at the ger camp
A very playful kid at the ger camp
Herding home the goats and sheep by motorcycle
Herding home the goats and sheep by motorcycle
Our driver in his never-ending battle against the dust
Our driver in his never-ending battle against the dust

We found camels!
We found camels!

What a wake up call today has been. I knew that the Mongolian steppe would be desolate but what we crossed today was a shock. Heading south from UB the roads, if you can call them that, were horrendously bumpy. Our Russian-built minivan handled them with ease but it was readily apparent that a large portion of the vehicles in UB never leave the city, at least not in this direction. Once we broke out into the open plains the driving surfaces got a little smoother but we still had to be constantly vigilant of being thrown from our seats by the surprise bump.

Walking around a ovoo (cairn) for good luck.  Three times around with it on your right.
Walking around a ovoo (cairn) for good luck. Three times around with it on your right.

Some more about the vehicle. We are traveling in a year 2000 Russian minivan that has been outfitted with five seats in the back. It looks like the seats are from a Japanese or Korean car but they have been welded to a sturdy steel frame which has been bolted to the floor. The rest of the interior appears to be mostly stock with the exception of a few pieces of angle-iron that have been bolted to the interior columns for added strength. There are no seatbelts which is a pity because they would be excellent countermeasures for the incessant bumps in the “road.”

We stopped for lunch at a small shack someplace in the middle of of nowhere. The fare was vegetable soup for Amy and I (we are both eating vegetarian on the tour) and for the others it was a big bowl of mutton soup, heavy on the fat. I suspect we will become very familiar with these dishes over the coming days.

The first camels of our RTW trip
The first camels of our RTW trip

Seemingly endless hills and grasslands were finally interrupted with something very exciting. Camels! I’ve been on the lookout for camels almost the entire trip and I am happy to report we finally sighted some of the bactrian variety on September 21 at 4:06pm.

In the evening, we visited the ruins of a monastery and a rock with magic water. We rolled into our first ger camp around sunset and our tour assistant got to work preparing dinner. As soon as the sun set the temperature plummeted and the old lady who ran the camp helped us light up our ger’s stove. The camp had six gers all of which were vacant so Amy and I got our own while our two tour companions took another. The driver and our tour assistant stayed in the family’s ger.

Shortly after dinner our stove went out and I received my first lesson in ger stove operation from our driver. There was a large plastic sack filled with dried dung that we were to feed the stove from time to time. Much to our surprise, the dung really doesn’t smell all that much when it burns.

Home sweet home
Home sweet home

Overnight we were both very cold. We only had enough dung for about an hour worth of fuel and we did our best to compensate with some extra blankets from the owner. I wore all my clothes to bed that night, including my new down parka, and I was still cold!

Minivan odometer: 271km

Walking around a ovoo (cairn) for good luck.  Three times around with it on your right.
Walking around a ovoo (cairn) for good luck. Three times around with it on your right.
All sorts of interesting offerings on the ovoo: skulls, cash and vodka bottles to name a few.
All sorts of interesting offerings on the ovoo: skulls, cash and vodka bottles to name a few.
We found camels!
We found camels!
The first camels of our RTW trip
The first camels of our RTW trip
High five!
High five!
Ultzi fishing some water out of the magic rock
Ultzi fishing some water out of the magic rock
This is supposed to make your eyesight better
This is supposed to make your eyesight better
Home sweet home
Home sweet home

Thai Airways took us from Bangkok to Beijing on their daily red-eye. The flight was way too short to have a meaningful amount of sleep but that didn’t matter, I was very excited to be on the way to Mongolia! We landed in Beijing just before dawn on a beautiful autumn morning.

After a brief visit to the Air China lounge we boarded our connecting flight on an Air China operated Boeing 737. It was my first time on Air China and I have to say that I wasn’t impressed. The meal service included some terribly bland rice porridge and the entertainment consisted of a lively argument between two of the flight attendants midway through the meal service. In the end, I concluded that the best thing about Air China is that they are in the Star Alliance (my miles work for booking their flights) and that they go to Mongolia. Other than that, I wasn’t too impressed.

Nice mix of livery in the early light at PEK
Nice mix of livery in the early light at PEK

We had booked a room with the Khongor Guest with the intent of also booking one of their tours. This got us a free transfer from Chenggis Khaan International Airport into the center of Ulaanbaatar (UB), a drive which took nearly an hour to cover the 10 or so miles. Traffic, even at 10:30AM on a weekday, is horrendous in UB. I was glad that we had the ride because the location, or at least the entrance, of our hostel was hard to find.

The non-descript entrance to our guesthouse
The non-descript entrance to our guesthouse

We spent the majority of our first day in UB recovering from the redeye and working on a tour plan with the owner at Khongor. They offer a wide range of itineraries spanning from simple day trips to 30-day tours of the whole country. We wanted to visit both the Gobi Desert (in the south) and some of the lakes in the west/north of the country. We eventually converged on a 14-day itinerary that would allow us to visit these areas.

Our room at the Khongor guesthouse was a bit on the small side.
Our room at the Khongor guesthouse was a bit on the small side.

Another aspect to planning to the tour was finding companions to lower the per person cost. Luckily two other travelers had arrived the day prior and had similar destinations in mind for their tour of the steppe. The four of us were to travel together for the first 8 days of the tour and then Amy and I would continue on our own for the remaining days. We opted for an all-inclusive tour which included the minivan, fuel, driver, tour assistant, accommodation, all food, and admission fees along the way. This type of tour priced out to $48 per person per day when we were splitting it four ways, and then $82 per person when it was just Amy and I. Pretty expensive, but it is not an easy place to travel independently.

Sükhbaatar Square
Sükhbaatar Square

With the tour scheduled for departure the next day, we set out and explored a little of UB. Near the guesthouse was the State Department Store whose slogan reads ‘all needs fulfilled.’ It dates back to ‘Red Russia’ times but nowadays serves as an outlet for all sorts of high-end brands. Just a little further down the main drag is Sükhbaatar Square, the center of UB which was a reasonably impressive sight.

UB's State Department Store: "All needs fulfilled"
UB’s State Department Store: "All needs fulfilled"

Foodwise, UB treated us much better than expected. We found a vegetarian restaurant (Gerel Ayalguu, directions here) just a couple blocks from where we were staying. On our first visit we sat down and had a good long stare at the Mongolian menu. I could positively identify one word “кофе” (coffee) but nothing else. Eventually one of the waitresses brought over an English menu – phew, what a relief. Ordering still took some guesswork (the translations were iffy) but Amy ended up with a nice soup and I got a big hearty serving of noodles.

One of our first challenges in Mongolia: ordering food
One of our first challenges in Mongolia: ordering food

The next morning we were met by our driver and tour assistant, Ultzi, who would be taking care of us for the next 13 days. We loaded our bags into a tough-as-nails looking Russian minivan and set out for the grocery store. Ultzi shopped for the food that we would need for the next few days and we found some supplemental snacks before setting out on the steppe.

Who's hungry?
Who’s hungry?
Off to Mongolia
Nice mix of livery in the early light at PEK
Nice mix of livery in the early light at PEK
This flight brought to you by Boeing and Air China
This flight brought to you by Boeing and Air China
The non-descript entrance to our guesthouse
The non-descript entrance to our guesthouse
Our room at the Khongor guesthouse was a bit on the small side.
Our room at the Khongor guesthouse was a bit on the small side.
Sükhbaatar Square
Sükhbaatar Square
UB's State Department Store: "All needs fulfilled"
UB’s State Department Store: "All needs fulfilled"
One of our first challenges in Mongolia: ordering food
One of our first challenges in Mongolia: ordering food
Amy enjoying her 'kimchi soup' and (soy) milk tea
Amy enjoying her ‘kimchi soup’ and (soy) milk tea
Noodles, the first of many I think I'll be having in Mongolia
Noodles, the first of many I think I’ll be having in Mongolia
Noodles.  The first of many I will consume in Mongolia
Noodles. The first of many I will consume in Mongolia
Who's hungry?
Who’s hungry?

Nov 072011
Are those donuts?
Are those donuts?

We decided to only make two major stops in Cambodia since our visit was a mere ten days in length. Battambang, Cambodia’s second largest city at 140,000 was our second destination. The city has some nice colonial buildings but the main attractions lie a short tuktuk ride outside of town.

The fastest way to Battambang from Siem Reap is to take the bus. A more interesting but slower and more expensive way of making the trip is by boat. The trip started with a van transfer from our guesthouse in Siem Reap to the boat docks on the shore of Tonlé Sap Lake. I think this part of the trip is usually pretty fast but we had to forge some pretty deep door-seal-testing flood waters along the way. Ironically, the flood waters also cut our boat journey short at the other end of the trip as our boat was unable to pass under some of the bridges near Battambang.

At some point on the river, we broke down. I think this is par for the course on this ride; the guidebooks warn about it. This time one of the steering cables broke but our crew fashioned a splice out of a pair of knock-off vice grips. The breakdown was actually nice because for once we could enjoy the peace and quiet of the river. Best I could tell, our boat had a very minimal exhaust system – straight pipes seem likely. All I know is that it was really loud whenever the engine was running!

Eventually we entered the delta of the Stung Sangker river and passed a number of floating villages. They are quite a remarkable sight. Pretty much everything: houses, gas stations, stores and schools are floating. Some of the houses even had floating pigpens and chicken coups. The only permanent structures I could spot were the numerous cellular phone towers anchored to cement pylons.

Once we arrived in Battambang we tuktuked into town (an extra 8 kilometers thanks to the flooding) and found a nice room at the Lux Guesthouse for $18 per night. Surprisingly enough, we heard that Battambang had some good vegetarian restaurants. Starving from the boat ride we immediately went and checked one of them out (Mercy House).  Faux meat dishes aplenty on the menu and those proved to be one of my favorite things to eat during our three night stay in Battambang. Lunch or dinner for two people came to $5 on average. Great food at a cheap price.

Loaded up in the tuk tuk and ready for a day of touring
Loaded up in the tuk tuk and ready for a day of touring

The big thing to do when visiting Battambang is a tuktuk tour of the surrounding countryside. The tuktuk driver who picked us up at the boat seemed like a nice guy but despite emailing and calling I couldn’t reach him to scheduled a tour. Instead, we ended up with one of the guys who works for our guesthouse.

When you come across another train, one of them has to be dismantled.
When you come across another train, one of them has to be dismantled.

One of the first stops on our day tour was the bamboo train. Although there are plans to revitalize it, the Cambodia railroad system is currently defunct. This hasn’t stopped the locals from continuing to make use of the tracks. Makeshift bamboo carts with small engines are used to transport people, goods and tourist along the tracks in this part of the country. The carts are easy to disassemble so anytime another “train” is encountered the one with the lighter load must yield the way. Apparently these were also used when real trains were plying the tracks!

We blasted a few kilometers down the tracks at what felt like a very high rate of speed. The train tends to scare the insects living in the grass around the rails so you are constantly pelted with grasshoppers and the like along the way. Amy wasn’t too fond of this!

The steps leading to Phnom Banan
The steps leading to Phnom Banan

Next we drove to Phnom Banan, a temple perched nicely on a hill surrounded in pancake-flat brilliantly green rice fields. From the dropoff point it is a 358-step climb to the temple which was a good way to work up a sweat in the Cambodian heat.

The final stop of the tour was at the killing caves of Phnom Sampeau. The Khmer Rogue dumped hundreds of bodies in these caves and nowadays the site has been converted into a memorial. After the climb to Phnom Banan we weren’t too keen on climbing another mountain so we hopped on the back of a couple of motorcycles.

I spent quite some time chatting with one of the motorcycle drivers. He was a young kid, maybe in his late teens and his goal was to become a tuktuk driver like the one who was showing us around that day. He explained that it is a very highly paying job – they earn approximately $15 for a day tour. They usually spend one day searching for a customer and then spend the next touring with them; at least that is the way it can be in high season. It doesn’t sound like much money but in Cambodia it is way above the average.

He told me that he had to leave school prematurely in order to help his parents run their restaurant near the killing caves. He takes tourists up the mountains as a side job to help support the family and to save for a tuktuk. What struck me about this guy was his mastery of English – much better than most Cambodians we met during our visit. I complimented him on it and we left him a nice tip for showing us around the caves. I really hope things work out for him.

On our third morning in Battambang we rose early and schlepped our bags over to the bus station to catch a Bangkok-bound bus. Actually, there was no direct bus to Bangkok but we didn’t know that until we were dumped in some obscure town along the road to Poipet. Watching the morning “rush hour” while we waited for our second bus of the day was good entertainment.

A textbook example of proper horsecart weight-and-balance technique.
A textbook example of proper horsecart weight-and-balance technique.

At the border things moved very smoothly for us but some of our fellow backpackers apparently had issues leaving Cambodia. Something about their entry visas not being legit – shocking. I think we were waiting on the Thai side of the border for a good hour before they found their way to the minivan.  Then we had to wait longer for them to get food because they were starving.  Classic.  In retrospect, we should have just bought a bus ticket to the border and then a second ticket from the border to Bangkok. Less wait and less hassle!

Spicy green papaya salad
Spicy green papaya salad

We had no idea if it would be problematic to get out of Cambodia so we had padded our schedule with an extra day. This left us time to gorge ourselves on more Thai food and run an important errand: buying winter clothing. Next stop, Mongolia.

Battambang, Cambodia
Floating gas station
Floating gas station
A floating flood vendor
A floating flood vendor
Sunset with a thunderstorm
Sunset with a thunderstorm
Battambang's central market
Battambang’s central market
Three kids on a bike in a torrential rainstorm.
Three kids on a bike in a torrential rainstorm.
Loaded up in the tuk tuk and ready for a day of touring
Loaded up in the tuk tuk and ready for a day of touring
Are those donuts?
Are those donuts?
Riding the bamboo train
Riding the bamboo train
When you come across another train, one of them has to be dismantled.
When you come across another train, one of them has to be dismantled.
I hope this bridge had a few more wooden ties back when real trains came through.
I hope this bridge had a few more wooden ties back when real trains came through.
Bamboo lever is used to slide the engine and make the belt taught.
Bamboo lever is used to slide the engine and make the belt taught.
Cane juice! One of my favorites.
Cane juice! One of my favorites.
The steps leading to Phnom Banan
The steps leading to Phnom Banan
A good reason to stay on the path.
A good reason to stay on the path.
One of the killing caves where the Khmer Rouge disposed of countless people.
One of the killing caves where the Khmer Rouge disposed of countless people.
Checking out some abandoned German and Russian built tanks.
Checking out some abandoned German and Russian built tanks.
Cambodian gas station (soda bottles filled with gas)
Cambodian gas station (soda bottles filled with gas)
Old Pepsi factory that wa abandoned when the Khmer Rouge took over.  Oddly, the lawn is still maintained.
Old Pepsi factory that wa abandoned when the Khmer Rouge took over. Oddly, the lawn is still maintained.
Chicken is always on the menu in SE Asia
Chicken is always on the menu in SE Asia
The horse quite nearly took to the air as the trailer was loaded. I'm glad this guy isn't loading cargo into the jumbos at BKK.
The horse quite nearly took to the air as the trailer was loaded. I’m glad this guy isn’t loading cargo into the jumbos at BKK.
A textbook example of proper horsecart weight-and-balance technique.
A textbook example of proper horsecart weight-and-balance technique.
Thailand has some great vegetarian options
Thailand has some great vegetarian options
Sweet dessert made of sticky rice, coconut milk and sweet beans.
Sweet dessert made of sticky rice, coconut milk and sweet beans.
Spicy green papaya salad
Spicy green papaya salad

Nov 032011

Thai Airways took us from Colombo to Bangkok on their way-too-short 3 hour red-eye – certainly a terrible night of sleep. We stayed in Bangkok for two nights to enjoy some of the food but our intended destination was actually the ruins of Angkor near Siem Reap, Cambodia. The most direct land route to Siem Reap is through the border crossing at Poipet. Citizens of most countries must obtain a visa to enter Cambodia and while this can be done in advance, we opted to do it right at the border.

The border crossing at Poipet has a pretty bad reputation in terms of corrupt officials and transportation scams but if you read up on it in advance it really isn’t that bad. We had one tuk tuk driver try to take us to a visa agency that likely would have overcharged for the visas. After we were past the Thai side of the border we found the official Cambodian visa office. There is a large sign hanging in the office that plainly states “Tourist Visa $20″ but this wasn’t enough to deter the official, who was standing right below it, from telling us that the visa would be $20 and 100 Thai baht (about 3USD). We chuckled at his request and handed over $20 per person – our passports were given back a few minutes later. Visas in hand, we passed through immigration and into the hands of a transportation mafia that gets $9 for the 2 hour bus ride to Siem Reap – horrendously expensive by local standards but it was a decent enough bus. In reality, the transportation mafia gets $9 to take you not to Siem Reap but rather a place a few miles short of town where the tuk tuk drivers pick the crowd over like vultures.

Nice digs on the cheap in Siem Reap
Nice digs on the cheap in Siem Reap

Safely in Siem Reap, we started planning out our visit to the enormous Angkor ruins. The planning process is quite intimidating since there seem to be as many opinions on itineraries as there are stones in the temples. We settled on a three-day approach. On the first, we hired a Cambodian tuk tuk driver to take us to some of the more remote attractions. On the second and third days we borrowed bikes from our guesthouse and hit the closer sights.

I’m not going to babble on and on about the history of all the temples because, honestly, I can’t remember most of it. What I can say is that they are all quite old (800AD – 1400AD) and are in various states of being consumed by the jungle. Many are being actively maintained and refurbished (like Angkor Wat itself) but others are left as is. The ones with jumbles of rocks all over the place and trees growing out of them have an eerie atmosphere about them.

Bike riding on the second and third days was hard work. The weather was hot and humid, just as one would expect in Cambodia, but at least the terrain is flat and traffic was minimal. The one bit of excitement was seeing something green fall from above onto the back of my bike. I saw it just from the corner of my eye and thought it was a tree branch. Amy, who was riding just behind me, pointed out that it was a bright green snake!

My favorite temple at Angkor was Bayon. It is well-known because of the dozens of giant stone faces that decorate its towers. The 12th century temple also has a huge variety of meticulously carved reliefs that show different historic events and scenes from everyday life. I also noticed a labyrinth of hallways and tunnels in the lower levels that left me wishing that I had brought my flashlight.

The biggest nuisance we faced while visiting Siem Reap was flooding. Not only did it prevent us from visiting one of the main temple complexes (Ta Phrom) it greatly limited what we could do in town. The old section of Siem Reap is right next to the river and many blocks of it were under water – sadly, this was the same area of town where most of the restaurants and nightlife are to be found. Amy and I did manage to find a cheap local vegetarian place which was outside of town but even going there required peddling through knee-deep water on our bikes. What a mess.

All in all, we enjoyed Angkor and Siem Reap but we certainly found ourselves “templed out” after three days of touring. The ruins are unquestionably impressive but just about any metric and I can definitely see where someone with a keen interest in ancient civilizations could spend a week visiting.

Siem Reap and Angkor Wat
Nice digs on the cheap in Siem Reap
Nice digs on the cheap in Siem Reap
Vegetarian noodle soup at Vitking House
Vegetarian noodle soup at Vitking House
Just another day trimming the weeds off an ancient temple
Just another day trimming the weeds off an ancient temple
Crowded streets of Siem Reap
Crowded streets of Siem Reap
Climbing Angkor Wat, note the slight repairs needed on my camera bag.
Climbing Angkor Wat, note the slight repairs needed on my camera bag.

Oct 222011
1st Class Observation car is at the back of the train
1st Class Observation car is at the back of the train

As you can tell from the recent blog posts, the trains were one of my favorite things about Sri Lanka. At the very end of our stay we finally managed to score some tickets for the ’1st class observation’ car that I had heard people rave about. They have a special car at the end of the car with huge glass windows that face down the tracks. The $7 fare for the all-day journey makes this a very attractive option for tourists and locals alike. As an added bonus the fare includes assigned seats – yes, assigned seats on a form of Sri Lankan public transport!

Starting from Ella the route crosses through some of the very best scenery that the hill country has to offer. Tons of tea plantations, the occasional temple, some forests and many many tunnels. The weather was constantly on the change. Sunny one moment, dense fog the next moment with maybe with a little drizzle and then even more sun. The observation car was about half full that day so we were able to rotate seats with the others to have some time in the ‘front row’ near the windows. Such a great way to travel.

We spent our last full day exploring Colombo. The city isn’t exactly the crown jewel in the Sri Lankan tourist circuit but it does have a few worthwhile diversions. We dropped by the National History Museum for a couple of hours and got a nice recap of places we had visited while we sweated like crazy (the museum could use a few more fans, I know AC is asking too much). After that we found one of Sri Lanka’s highest end shopping malls (Odel) and mooched some of their air conditioning while perusing a bookstore. The mall is tiny but it is built into what looks to be an old colonial-era building. Pretty nicely executed if you ask me.

The National Museum
The National Museum

Back in the heat, we stopped by the Gangaramaya Temple on our way to Galle Face Green – a lively park right along the coast. The well-known Galle Face Hotel is just at the south end of the green so we popped in for some drinks at sunset. Our perfectly timed arrival got us seats at the front just before the place the place filled up! I don’t remember exactly what was in our cocktails but mine was nicely executed with some of the local spices (like real cinnamon!) and, of course, gin.

After happy hour, we bussed it back towards the Kollupitiya neighborhood where we were staying. One big turn-off about Colombo is the lack of budget accommodations in the center – there is next to nothing! The few budget options we could find were fully-booked and we ended up spending an astronomical $96 for our one night stay. In retrospect, it would have been much better to drop $140 to stay at the Galle Face Hotel. At least that hotel has a nice pool and quirky colonial architecture.

Drinks at the Galle Face Hotel
Drinks at the Galle Face Hotel

Despite our splurge on accommodations on the last night, Sri Lanka was exceptionally friendly to our budget. When it was all said and done, we spent about $25 per person per day over the course of our 25-day visit. This included a few splurges (like our elephant safari and the visit to Pigeon Island) as well. If we had visited more of the national parks we would have ended up a little higher but all in all, it is a very cheap destination.

So that’s that. What an incredible country and I am very glad we devoted almost a month to it. I am sure it will stand out as being one of the highlights of our RTW trip and I would gladly come back for another visit. In closing, Amy and I thought it would be good to list out some of the best parts of our Sri Lanka experience.

  • Elephant House brand ginger beer: burn-your-nostrils refreshing
  • Rice and curry: it’s not as simple as it sounds
  • Train travel (also hanging out of over-crowded trains)
  • Tuskers!
  • Fun interactions with the many English-speaking locals
  • Finally learning to eat with our hands
  • Clothes drying racks in just about every hotel room
  • Leftover British formalities (“Would the madame like some more ginger beer?”)
  • The rolling green hills of the tea plantations
Train to Colombo
We finally managed to buy some first class tickets!
We finally managed to buy some first class tickets!
Black-hooded Oriole
Black-hooded Oriole
1st Class Observation car is at the back of the train
1st Class Observation car is at the back of the train
Some locals were keen to have their photos taken with Amy
Some locals were keen to have their photos taken with Amy
The National Museum
The National Museum
Galle Face Promenade in Colombo
Galle Face Promenade in Colombo
Drinks at the Galle Face Hotel
Drinks at the Galle Face Hotel
A nice Indian thali to close out our Sri Lanka food adventures
A nice Indian thali to close out our Sri Lanka food adventures
One final bus ride in our favorite seats - last row!
One final bus ride in our favorite seats – last row!
Kuwait, Male, Sharjah and London are some of the fun destinations from CMB
Kuwait, Male, Sharjah and London are some of the fun destinations from CMB

Here is a little something I typed up after a much-needed haircut in Ella:

Well I just got back to the guesthouse after a lengthy absence.  I left about two hours ago on a mission to get my hair cut here in the tiny village of Ella and it turned out to be a bit of an adventure.  You see, I happened to pick September 4th for my haircut which just so happens to be the last day of school holidays.  Business was brisk that day according to the barber but my 400 rupee (US$ 4) bid, over 4X the price locals pay, rapidly secured me a seat in the chair.

It started off a bit shaky.  I did my best to convey that it had been nearly two months since my last cut and that the barber shouldn’t be bashful about letting those sheers rip.  ”Short, even shorter, please.” I pleaded over and over.  Eventually he figured it out and removed an appropriate amount of hair.

After the haircut he put a bunch of oil in my hair and went to town with a head massage.  I learned that this is a common part of your standard haircut in Sri Lanka and to say it was intense would be an understatement.  More than a few times I was certain that I was soon to hear the cracking of my skull.

Once the massage was over, my barber/masseuse excused himself and darted out the door of the ramshackle shop.  He returned a short while later with nice frosty mango smoothie on a platter.  Maybe he was feeling guilty about charging me so much over the local rate and he decided to give a little back?

So that was my cheap afternoon of entertainment on our last day in Ella.  Definitely a  good use of $4!  For those keeping track, this was the fourth haircut of the trip:

  1. Random hole-in-the-wall – Palermo, Buenos Aires, Argentina
  2. Peluqueria Chino Veloz (great name, isn’t it?!) – Rurrenabaque, Bolivia
  3. Steve’s Barbershop – Helena, Montana, U.S.A.
  4. Janaka Saloon (yep, double-o is how they spell there!) – Ella, Uva Province, Sri Lanka

Ella is just about at the end of the line. It’s a small village in the middle of tea country almost at the end of Sri Lanka’s hill country train line. It is very popular among tourists and has a good variety of accommodations, restaurants and activities but without being too developed. It just has a nice laid-back feel about it.

Drongo
Drongo

After all of our dashing around the country we decided to camp out in Ella for a full four days at the end of our time in Sri Lanka. It was the perfect place to unwind for a few days, catch up on postcards and generally enjoy Sri Lanka at its best.

On our first full day we rose early and completed the Little Adam’s Peak hike. It’s not much of a hike, two hours round trip, but the final push to the summit is a steep slog up some makeshift concrete steps. The views from the top are magnificent. In one direction you can see all the way to the ocean (provided it is clear enough!) and in the other direction its mountains and tea plantations.

The vista from Little Adam's Peak
The vista from Little Adam’s Peak

Following the advice of a friend, we booked the Sun Top Inn for a long stop in Ella. The family that run Sun Top were very kind and the food was excellent. One of our favorite things about Sun Top was the breakfast that was included with the room. There was a choice between western and Sri Lankan and we always went with the latter. Hoppers, roti, coconut rice, string hoppers, fresh fruit, you name it – they would make it.

String hoppers for breakfast
String hoppers for breakfast

Since we were going on short hikes just about every day of our stay in Ella, we fell into a routine of rising early, going for a walk, then returning for a late breakfast/brunch. This way we avoided the heat and landed a massive tide-us-over-til-dinner brunch each day. Did I mention the food was excellent?

Dogs make much better time than I do on the tracks
Dogs make much better time than I do on the tracks

On day two we climbed Ella Rock, a much more substantial hike than the day prior. Starting off at 6:30 we had to walk a few kilometers down the railroad tracks then hunted for the trailhead. Eventually I asked a local man and after some pointing he took off at fast pace across the fields and rice patties. Amy and I did our best to keep up with him in hopes that he would show us the real trail. In the end, he took us all the way to the top of Ella Rock without saying a word. Once again, great views from the top.

The man who led us to the top of Ella Rock
The man who led us to the top of Ella Rock

He led us back down the mountain along a different trail that wound its way through a maze of 10ft high grass. It would have required some trial and error to make it through this part on our own! We stopped at Rawana Falls which is apparently much more impressive during the wet season but it was nice enough. After that he took us to the tracks, tipped him a few bucks and then made it back to town to gorge ourselves on brunch.

Day three was another walk along the railroad tracks. This time we headed the opposite direction of Ella Rock to a village called Demodara. The plan was the walk there in time to catch the morning trail back to Ella. Along the way we crossed the Demodara Nine Arches Bridge which is a pretty famous engineering feat in Sri Lanka.

Demodara Nine Arch Bridge (also featured on the 50 rupee note)
Demodara Nine Arch Bridge (also featured on the 50 rupee note)

Another highlight of the walk is train tracks just beyond Demodara. Because of the steep descent through the mountains, the tracks actually trace out a circular path around the valley and then tunnel back under themselves on the way to Badulla. I wanted to see this part of the track but we were running late. Just as we rounded the corner and could see Demodara station, the train was blowing its horn and pulling out. We took off running and soon one of the engineers was waving us up into the locomotive. They stopped the train, we hopped in the locomotive and off we went.

Both the engineers were real nice guys and they answered all the questions we had about the trains. The particular locomotive we were in was a diesel-electric from Germany that was about 30 years old and, aside from the two passenger carriages at the end, the main cargo was fuel. When we got to the Nine Arches bridge they even slowed the train so that we could get some more pictures. Quite a fun experience in the real first class on a Sri Lankan train!

Day four was another visit to a tea factory. The owner of Sun Top gave us a lift to the Halpewaththa Tea Factory and we took a short thirty minute tour. Unfortunately, we struck out again as the day prior was a holiday so the factory wasn’t running. They wouldn’t let us take photos in the factory and the best part of the excursion was the walk back to Ella. We took a shortcut that led us through small farms and tea plantations.

We layed low on the last day. I spotted a number giant squirrels and birds from Sun Top as I filled out some postcards. In the afternoon we made one last trip to the local bakery to get the short eats when they were still oven-hot. The sugary breads were my favorite whereas Amy preferred the curry rolls which were decidedly of the burn-your-face-off variety. Late in the day I went into town to visit the post office and get a haircut. More on the haircut adventure in the next post.

Hill Country Part 2 (Ella)
One of the region's many tea factories
One of the region’s many tea factories
The vista from Little Adam's Peak
The vista from Little Adam’s Peak
Some welcome shade at the top of Little Adam's Peak
Some welcome shade at the top of Little Adam’s Peak
Sri Lankan breakfast: coconut rice, roti and a variety of curries
Sri Lankan breakfast: coconut rice, roti and a variety of curries
Afternoon snack of short eats
Afternoon snack of short eats
Ella Rock just after sunrise
Ella Rock just after sunrise
Dogs make much better time than I do on the tracks
Dogs make much better time than I do on the tracks
The man who led us to the top of Ella Rock
The man who led us to the top of Ella Rock
Drongo
Drongo
The view from our room.
The view from our room.
Hoppers with curry for breakfast
Hoppers with curry for breakfast
Small palm squirrels, like this one, make an incredibly shrill chirp.
Small palm squirrels, like this one, make an incredibly shrill chirp.
Giant Squirrel (Ratufa macroura)
Giant Squirrel (Ratufa macroura)
Demodara Nine Arch Bridge (also featured on the 50 rupee note)
Demodara Nine Arch Bridge (also featured on the 50 rupee note)
169.75 miles from Colombo, in the hill country
169.75 miles from Colombo, in the hill country
The engineer slowed the train so that we could get a better photo.
The engineer slowed the train so that we could get a better photo.
A big plate of kottu roti after the hike
A big plate of kottu roti after the hike
String hoppers for breakfast
String hoppers for breakfast
Another visit to a tea factory where photos aren't allowed inside - sorry!
Another visit to a tea factory where photos aren’t allowed inside – sorry!
Wood for the leaf drying ovens
Wood for the leaf drying ovens
Tea pluckers
Tea pluckers
A huge spread of curries tonight - out favorite was the garlic curry with whole cloves
A huge spread of curries tonight – out favorite was the garlic curry with whole cloves

Oct 092011
The view on the hike to Single Tree Hill
The view on the hike to Single Tree Hill

With our big train adventure behind us, Amy and I were keen to relax a bit in the hill country. Hot weather was one of the bigger annoyances we faced over the past few weeks and we left that behind on the crazy train ride the day before. Generally speaking, the weather is much cooler in the hill country as compared to the flat lands of the north.

Nuwara Eliya, one of the larger cities in the Hill Country was our first stop. The town has a decidedly British flair about it and the centerpiece is probably Victoria Park which runs right down the center of town. We were particularly entertained by the signs that were scattered around the park.

There are a variety of hikes that start from Nuwara Eliya and we opted to hike to the top of Single Tree Hill after visiting Victoria Park. A small dirt road leads from the valley up through tea plantations all the way to the summit.

The only photo we were allowed to take during the tea factory tour.
The only photo we were allowed to take during the tea factory tour.

In the afternoon we jumped on a local bus that took us to the Pedro Tea Plantation. We had hoped to see the tea factory in operation but it was closed for some major overhauls. We still took the tour but none of the machines were operating and on top of that we still weren’t allowed to take photos. In the final stockroom we saw floor-to-ceiling stacks of 55kg (121 lbs) bags of tea. I bet I won’t drink one of those in my lifespan!

Later that evening we had one if our best meals of our entire visit to Sri Lanka. We walked into town and ended up in a decidedly local “hotel” (they use the term to describe restaurants, not places to sleep).  The place was packed so we shared a table with some locals. One guy at our table didn’t seem to speak English, the other did and told us he was a local tour guide for Arab tourists. He was chowing down on some string hoppers, a local dish we hadn’t yet sampled, so we decided to go with the same.

String hoppers are noodle-like things that reminded me of spaghetti. They come in small little piles and you are meant to mix them with curry. The curries are already on the table in big buckets so you just scoop them out as desired. The fun part is eating these things without utensils. Using your right hand you mix, scoop and attempt to place a bite in your mouth without making a huge mess. Locals are very proficient at this but I am decidedly a beginner. Eventually, I made it through all my hoppers and even managed to do so without burning my face off on a spicy curry. The meal was excellent as was the price – dinner for two, including drinks for $2.30.  Unfortunately we forgot to document the experience with photos – too bad because I’m sure we were quite the sight.

A very typical (chaotic) bus station in Sri Lanka
A very typical (chaotic) bus station in Sri Lanka

The next day we completed another rough-and-tumble bus ride from Nuwara Eliya to Haputale. Haputale is a much smaller town and while the vistas are great (it is perched on a ridge) the food options were pretty limited. We ended up eating at the guesthouse restaurant both nights – more rice and curry, of course.

Another nice vista near Haputale
Another nice vista near Haputale

A walk along the train tracks from the nearby village of Idalgashinna back to Haputale is one of the recommended activities so we caught the morning train made the 5km walk back to town. The views of the surrounding tea plantations were spectacular.

Spectacular view to the south from our hotel in Haputale
Spectacular view to the south from our hotel in Haputale

Late in the day we just relaxed at the guesthouse and enjoyed the nice views from our room. Haputale was nice but there wasn’t much to keep us there for more than a day so early on day 2 we headed for Ella.

The fog rolls in to Haputale most evenings.
The fog rolls in to Haputale most evenings.
Hill Country Part 1
A visit to the post office, one of my favorite errands abroad.
A visit to the post office, one of my favorite errands abroad.
Quality signs in park as well!
Quality signs in park as well!
Victoria Park
Victoria Park
People playing in Victoria Park
People playing in Victoria Park
Tea, tea and more tea
Tea, tea and more tea
The view on the hike to Single Tree Hill
The view on the hike to Single Tree Hill
Masala dosai is finger-lickin good
Masala dosai is finger-lickin good
The only photo we were allowed to take during the tea factory tour.
The only photo we were allowed to take during the tea factory tour.
Splashing out on afternoon tea and coffee at one of the fancy colonial hotels
Splashing out on afternoon tea and coffee at one of the fancy colonial hotels
A very typical (chaotic) bus station in Sri Lanka
A very typical (chaotic) bus station in Sri Lanka
Haputale sits on a ridge which yields good views north and south
Haputale sits on a ridge which yields good views north and south
The people of Haputale remind you to always eat your carrots!
The people of Haputale remind you to always eat your carrots!
Spectacular view to the south from our hotel in Haputale
Spectacular view to the south from our hotel in Haputale
Hike from Idalgashinna to Haputale
Hike from Idalgashinna to Haputale
Another nice vista near Haputale
Another nice vista near Haputale
The fog rolls in to Haputale most evenings.
The fog rolls in to Haputale most evenings.
The crescent moon marking the end of Ramadan
The crescent moon marking the end of Ramadan

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