Monthly Archives: August 2015

Holiday in Cambodia

Picture of family.

A typical sight in Cambodia.

February 13, 2015
Day 211

I looked out of my taxi's window and took in the city. There were few cars and thousands of motorcycles. Lane markers meant nothing, but there was so much traffic, it was impossible to drive quickly or aggressively. Filth and poverty were all around me. Many foreigners, too. Like the locals, they drove motorcycles, and squeezed between other bikes whenever a tiny space opened. They wore shorts, muscle shirts and flip-flops in the sweltering heat. One motorcycle passenger leaned back and clenched the seat behind him. His hair was pulled into a bun behind his head. His driver wore a helmet, but he didn't. He looked happy as the breeze whipped against his unprotected face. This was Phnom Penh, the sprawling capital of Cambodia. It was my first day in Southeast Asia.

My taxi dropped me off at my hotel. The desk worker led me across the street to their “expansion building.” My room was on the top floor; I almost had to turn sideways to fit in the narrow staircase. On the second floor I cracked my head on the low ceiling. When we reached my room, the worker dropped a padlock into my hand and left me alone. I took a look at the room: ancient 12-inch TV set, filthy walls, shower that sprayed water all over the toilet and bathroom floor, rock-hard bed, screen window with no glass leading into the corridor, no windows to the outside world. Not that I minded any of this. It all simply served as a reminder that I was back in a developing country.

I left my stuff in my room, padlocked the door and took a walk around the city. The downtown streets were even more crowded than those near the airport. Shops where vendors hawked everything from food to bathroom cleaning supplies spilled onto the sidewalk and into the road. Motorcycles parked across the entirety of the sidewalk space that wasn't already taken up by the shops. The only place left to walk was on the streets, which of course were already filled with traffic.

Picture of Tom Selek.

Tom Selek.

After walking down the middle of the road for a few blocks, I reached the last street before the Mekong Riverfront. There were no traffic lights, stop signs or police officers directing traffic. The motorcycles came at me in a constant stream at about ten miles per hour, never speeding up or slowing down, and almost never with more than a few feet between them. The road was wide enough to fit ten motorcycles side by side, and it was nearly at capacity. If this were a game of Frogger, I would be on the last level before the machine ran out of memory and froze.

I looked at the other pedestrians, trying to figure out how to cross this thing. Appropriately, one man was wearing a t-shirt that explained how the country's sparse traffic lights worked: Green light: I can go, Yellow light: I can go, Red light: I still can go. That's when I realized the secret: In Cambodia, there are no rules. Whether you're in a car, on a motorcycle or on foot, you have to muscle your way across streets and into intersections, and count on everyone else to avoid you. I followed this plan, stepping into traffic and hoping it would part around me like the Read Sea. Miraculously, it worked.

I walked across the palm-lined grassy strip on the other side of the street and emerged on a wide pedestrian walkway. Surprisingly, only a few motorcycles were driving on it. Of course, there was still the horrible sound of ten thousand revving engines on the street next to me. Even so, this walkway was slightly more relaxed than the streets, with kids kicking a soccer ball and adults admiring the Mekong River from the comfort of plastic chairs. One huge, gaudy hotel was on the other side of the river, but otherwise, the far shore was undeveloped. I turned around and saw the sun setting behind the Veal Preah Man Temple and the Royal Palace, in a sky hazy from what I assumed was pollution. It was, dare I say, serene.

After walking around the riverfront for a bit, I successfully navigated the busiest street in town once again, and felt more at ease in this new environment. It was quite the change from Australia. For example, in Cambodia they drove on the right.

As I walked, a man sitting on the driver's seat of his three-wheeled motorcycle taxi called out to me. “Tuk tuk?” I ignored him and kept walking. He tried again: “Lady?” I was almost next to him now, and he made one last attempt at a sale: “Wanna get high?” As I continued onward, the men on the streets of Phnom Penh acquired a certain rhythm in their solicitations, always with some variant of the tuk-tuk-prostitute-marijuana theme. In fact, on the rare occasion I didn't get offered these three things, in precisely that order, I was tempted to belt out, “Hey, you forgot to offer me a lady!”

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Picture of t-shirts.

Which do you prefer, “I heart Cambodia” or “No money, no honey”?

My German friend Martin was in town. We met at a street-side stall outside of my hotel for a couple of fifty-cent beers. Since leaving Wisconsin, Martin had done a lot of traveling through the US, South Africa, Australia and now Southeast Asia. We talked about his travels in more detail in a podcast that you can find here. After dinner we met up with David, another German who was staying at Martin's hostel, and walked to the night market. Angkor Wat t-shirts, elephant pants, necklaces and other cheap souvenirs were on sale from individual stalls. Bargaining was done like a zero-sum game. A dance performance was happening on a stage behind us. A mixture of locals and tourists looked on in delight, while everyone else ignored the show and shopped.

Sometime after midnight, six new guests arrived at the hostel. My girlfriend Katie, along with fellow teachers Randi, Morgan, Lori, Haisam and Natasha had just arrived in Cambodia, on their two-week holiday for Chinese New Year. It was great to see everyone again after spending the last two months in Australia. All of us, Martin included, already had our plans set for the next few days, starting with a bus to Siem Reap in the morning.

Perth or Bust!

Picture of folks.

With Terry and Di.

February 7 - 12, 2015
Days 205 - 210

At last, after spending one night on a bus and two more on a train, I had crossed the continent of Australia, from Melbourne to Perth. The train had stopped; my journey was over. While searching for my backpack, Chris, one of my fellow passengers, introduced me to his parents. Chris had just completed a three-month trip around the continent on his motorcycle. Now that he was home, his family was filled with joy to see him.

I grabbed my backpack from the pile of luggage that had made the cross-continental trip. My plan was to organize my stuff, then make some phone calls to campgrounds in the area. But before I even took my phone out of my pocket, Chris' mom Di invited me to stay with them. I was not expecting this generous offer of hospitality, but I was happy to take her up on it.

We drove north, into the suburbs. When we got to the family's house, many people were waiting to welcome Chris home. Chris was busy – besides sharing stories of his trip, soon he would go back to school. But for now, he was off to play basketball. When I asked about things to do in the area, Chris' dad Terry suggested that I check out Fremantle, a coastal town, south of Perth.

It was a sunny Saturday afternoon, and the streets of Fremantle were packed. I ducked into a market of fruits, vegetables and cheap souvenirs. I also bought a few gifts (one difference from China: no haggling).

Next I went to a shipwreck museum and saw the reconstructed remains of the Batavia, a Dutch ship that ran aground and was destroyed near Fremantle in 1629. The display was huge and impressive; the story of mutiny and murder connected to the Batavia was tragic.

I also checked out the Fremantle prison, which housed prisoners from 1855 till 1991. The conditions looked horrible, though I think they had improved substantially in the twentieth century. But during the mid-nineteenth century, prison life must have been pure hell. No wonder over fifty people attempted to escape, despite the prospect of being executed upon recapture.

I ended my day with a walk along the coast, taking in the salty air of the Indian Ocean. The sun set over the water, finally proving that I had indeed crossed the continent of Australia.

Picture of me.

Ah, sunset!

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One of the biggest attractions near Perth was Rottnest Island. The island isn't far from the mainland – normally, it's clearly visible on the horizon. But on my second day in Perth, the sky was hazy due to bush fires south of the city, and I could barely see the island. Many people just go to Rottnest for the day, but I wanted to do a bit more exploration, so I decided to bring my camping gear. Terry and Di also loaned me a set of snorkeling gear and an old bicycle, so I could explore the island. The Rottnest Express was big, comfy and fast. The trip took less than an hour.

After landing on the island, I picked up my camping permit and set up my tent. Large groups of people were roaming about the island's main settlement, buying sub sandwiches and ice cream for lunch. A large number of hotels and cottages were in this village, and apparently they were booked solid for the next several weeks. The campground, on the other hand, was nearly empty. I set up my tent in a secluded section, less than 100 meters from the beach, and went exploring.

I rode my borrowed bicycle clockwise, past the main town, to Little Salmon Bay. It was a beautiful and peaceful place, with water in all shades of blue, and a natural rocky protection from the strong waves of the open sea. I donned my snorkel gear and spent the next hour swimming around the bay. A wide array of colorful fish were lurking amidst pink coral and green seaweed. To my surprise, around a dozen TVs were sitting at the bottom of the bay. They acted as underwater tour guides, with information displayed about the area.

A wild quokka on the attack! from Dan Perry on Vimeo.

Dutch Captain Willem de Vlamingh named the island “Rotte Nest” (rat nest) in 1696, when he mistook the native quokkas for rats. On my way back to my bike, I spotted my first quokka, basking in the sunlight. It held its front paws in the air and hopped like a kangaroo, so I could see that it was a marsupial. But with its long tail and pointy ears, I understood why someone would mistake it for a rat.

I biked to the top of a hill, then pedaled full speed ahead down the other side. Suddenly, something caught my eye in the road. It was a snake! I barely swerved in time to avoid it, and that was a good thing for both of us – this snake was a venomous dugite. There were no cars and few bicycles, so it wasn't a surprise that the reptile could sunbathe without being turned into expensive boots.

Next I pedaled to the highest part of the island, where there was a lighthouse. It was closed, but even from its base, I could see almost the entire island, including my campsite and the nearby brackish lagoons. Continuing my bike ride, I sped downhill to the westernmost point of Rottnest and watched the sun descend over the Indian Ocean. I completed my circuit by riding past a few fishing villages and resorts. I was back at my campsite with a bit of daylight to spare.

As I cooked dinner and dusk descended upon the island, an army of quokkas came out of the bush. They hopped around and anxiously waited for me to drop any morsels. Of course, there were strict regulations against feeding them, so I left them alone. But their presence at dusk was obvious, and a bit frightening, given how many there were.

The next day's weather was perfect, other than the hazy sky from the distant forest fires. I spent the morning biking around the island and finding good places to snorkel. On one beach in particular there were no other people, just a school of fish and one jellyfish in the water, and a lizard sunning itself on the rocks.

After taking down camp, I caught the afternoon ferry back to the mainland. I sat next to two English ladies who lived in Australia. One of them was a part-time dogsled racer. She showed me a picture of her training – two huskies pulled her in a sled-on-wheels along a remote road during the Australian summer. Another picture showed her in a wintry mountain scene that looked like Alaska, but she swore it was from the mountains of Victoria. Just when you think you've seen it all...

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Picture of Chris.

The beach is an important part of Perth's culture.

For my last day in Australia, I walked around Kings Park, home of the Gija Jumulu, a giant baobab tree transported 2000 miles from Warmun, in the far north of Western Australia. No tree of its size (36 metric tons) had ever been transported such a distance. I was told that the tree was about 750 years old. This was the first baobab tree I had ever seen, but I swore, this one didn't look a day over 730.

Later I walked through downtown Perth. There was plenty of hustle and bustle, exactly what I had been avoiding since moving to Beijing. But the Fringe Festival was happening, and I had a chance to meet up with Craig, one of my fellow hikers on the Overland Track in Tasmania. It was good to catch up over a few beers. His dad and brother were doing well, back to their old lives, spread around the continent. As for me, I was gearing up for my first trip to a new region: Southeast Asia.

I recorded an interesting podcast interview with Chris, then had one last fantastic meal with the family. I was extremely grateful for their hospitality. Making connections with locals is one of my favorite things to do while traveling, and Australia delivered. In fact, when I analyzed my choices of lodging in Australia, I noticed an interesting trend.

Nights I slept in a...

Tent: 15
Random person's house: 11
Van: 9
Couchsurfing host's house: 7
Hut: 5
Car: 2
Swag: 2
Train: 2
Shed: 1
Bus: 1
Airport: 1
Hotel: 0
Motel: 0
Hostel: 0

Total nights: 56

If you're looking for hotel or hostel recommendations in Australia, sorry, I can't help you. I did find a few spots to camp for free, though. I only flew once, from Hobart to Melbourne (because it was the cheapest option), but I did take three ferry rides. Plus eleven hours on a bus and 42 on a train. In the end, the experience was worth every penny (or lack thereof, in some cases).

I only saw a small part of Australia, but it ranks among my favorite countries. The unique and diverse wildlife, beautiful scenery and friendly people make it a world-class destination. My only regret was that I didn't stay longer. Someday I'd love to come back and “do” Australia right: buy a camper van and drive around the continent for a year. But for now, I have a few other adventures on my list.

More photos from Perth

More photos from Rottnest

AtW Podcast, Episode 5: Liese Alsen

Picture of wall.

The Berlin Wall

I have a special podcast for you today. Liese Alsen is a high school history teacher from Berlin, Germany. We sat down in her kitchen for a long chat. She starts with a great summary of Germany's separation after World War II and the Berlin Wall's construction 1961. Then she tells the story of where she was when the wall fell. Later, we discuss how she spent part of her childhood in Lesotho, her years living in the United States and her recent teaching stint in Guatemala. I learned a lot during our talk. Let me know what you think.

[Download] [iTunes] [Stitcher]

Show Notes:

This article gives a good summary of the Berlin Blockade, which was partly caused by the new currency introduced in 1948.

On August 13, 1961, US President John F. Kennedy said that a wall was “a hell of a lot better than a war.” Here's a book about Kennedy's involvement in Berlin.

Lesotho has been independent since 1966, and it has a complicated history. You can read more about it here.

Lesotho indeed does have the highest lowest point in the world, at 1400 meters. Bhutan doesn't even make the top 15. You can read more about it here.

This article has more info about Thaba Bosiu and its legendary history.