Adventures Abroad: China-Arrival

Adventures Abroad: China-Arrival

Saturday was my last night in Phnom Penh, Cambodia and it was one of the best days of the whole trip. I helped a couple teachers who are in limbo move their stuff to a hostel. And by “helped” I mean I tagged along so I could go to the little coffee shop just down the street from the hostel and get a strawberry chiller. I did carry one suitcase up four flights of stairs, so I earned that chiller, dammit. But we had lunch at great street food place and visited Wat Phnom, one of the oldest temples in Cambodia.

We’d been to Wat Phnom before, it was the first stop on the City Tour we did the first Sunday we arrived. It’s within walking distance which was great because I was so sick that first tour I didn’t recall seeing a lot of the stuff that was there. And it was really nice to walk through with just the four of us instead of a group of twenty. It felt less intrusive to the people who were there praying and making offerings. I thought I’d pick up some things from the little tourist stand but none of it was really Wat Phnom or Phnom Penh. There were a lot of things with Angkor Wat on them, elephants, lions, and a few statues of Brahma.

At five o’clock we added the teacher with the most nicknames: Aquaman/BoBear/Little Bear/Dread Pirate Robert to our number and set off for a boxing match. Entry to these things is free, you just have to pay for the ride there. It was a broadcasted match and we got front row seats.

The kickboxing was great, make no mistake, I’d love to go to another one, but the star of the show was the zebra print clad bookie taking bets. This woman was shameless and managed to get Jay to wager five bucks on a match which he promptly lost.

There were four matches each match lasted five rounds or, in one case, until a KO in the second round. Dude got his bell rung by a beautifully executed roundhouse. It was incredible, had I not been watching his feet I wouldn’t have seen him move it. It was like a snake strike there and back in less than a blink. And he was one of the slow fighters. There was a fighter in the last round whose kicks were absurdly fast and that fight ended in a draw because the other guy still dodged them. A couple more years of experience and that kid will be undefeated. I mean his footwork was incredible. Still needs work on his punches, but had those kicks connected they would’ve dropped the other guy.

I would say far too soon the fight ended and we went our separate ways for the last time. Three went back to the hostel whilst Aquaman and I returned to the Marady Hotel so we could leave the next morning.


Yesterday, Feb 21st, Aquaman and I got up at the ass-crack of dawn and headed to the airport. It was kind of nice being on the streets of Phnom Penh at 530am. Not a lot of traffic and the air was cool and cleaner. It was a nice send off from the city that in ten years will be a bustling destination place. And it was nice to take a Tuk Tuk instead of the taxi I was thinking about. As we’d been talking at lunch the day before, Phnom Penh is leaving the age of Tuk Tuks behind. As the middle class continues to expand and more and more people get cars there’s a very good chance Tuk Tuks will be pushed off the roads for the sake of efficiency. They might keep some for tours of the city for foreigners, but they won’t be the staple of transportation.

Which makes me sad for future visitors. I don’t know how you can actually experience Phnom Penh unless you’ve gone the wrong way down a narrow one way bumping over potholes at fifteen miles an hour dodging stray animals and pedestrians only to come screeching out into the street with only a cursory glance at oncoming traffic. I mean, that’s what makes Phnom Penh fun.

Anyway, I digress.

I still hate flying. Only had two three hour flights and it was still miserable. Aquaman and I had the same initial flight so we got to Guangzhou and picked up our luggage, but what should have been a two and a half hour layover for me and a two hour layover for him, turned into less than an hour for him. So he had to book it. I had just at an hour to get through customs and security which was nerve wracking but we lucked out because the security line was the longest and it only took me about ten or fifteen minutes to get through.

Then there was the hike.

So I got through security and there’s this little thing like a golf cart with eight seats sitting there with a sign that says “To B Departure”. And on my ticket it says I need to be at B. So I climb aboard and before I have my backpack settled on my lap we’re off.

I never wondered what it would be like to ride on an indoor Tuk Tuk, but now I have the answer to that unasked question. It could be a ride at Cedar Point. Pedestrians? They better move. I doubt we were going that fast, but this dude had it floored the entire way. It blew my hair back.

It was great and I was glad for it since I found my gate was, of course, the farthest from arrivals as physically possible. They might as well have just put it on the other side of the city.

By the time I got to my gate I had fifteen minutes before boarding.

And I still hate flying.

But the flight was fine, hardly any turbulence and a smooth landing. The real challenge was grabbing my luggage and trying to find who was picking me up. By a stroke of luck, one of the ladies who was here to get me saw me first. Since our ride hadn’t yet arrived we sat at Starbucks and she asked me about the US and I asked her about China. She was really cool and I wish she was coming with me to Yan’an, but oh well.

These are apartments. This is the fourth block we passed on the way to Xi’an proper from the airport.

I had thought I’d be staying in a hotel or hostel, Jay, the godsend that he is gave me the name of a hostel I could book if I was left to find my own lodgings. Luckily? The son of the lady who owns the school I’ll be teaching at owns a “hostel.” It’s nice, but I’m guessing this is just a place they use for teachers who are doing their training in Xi’an. I think I’d rather stay at the place Jay told me about but how do you kindly ask, “Hey, I know this is free, but I’d like to pay to stay somewhere that looks cooler.”

Anyway, I thought I’d just spend the rest of my night just chilling after all day of traveling, but alas, ‘twas not to be. We went to the house of the guy I’ve been emailing who, while writes English fairly well, can’t speak a word of it. So for an awkward hour and a half I drank delicious green tea and listened to the Chinese conversation going on around me.

Then we went out to eat, this is like 8pm, I’ve been up since 430, because my brain hates me, and I am almost asleep on my feet. You have no idea how exhausting Chinese society is until you’re in it. Every single one of us was performing in one way or another. Always, always, always keep your best face up.

So after a month of somewhat plain Khmer cuisine, I assaulted my body with a variety of spices it didn’t get even in the US. I know I had some kind of fish soup, roasted pig’s feet which were pretty good, some kind of mushroom, potatoes, eggs, and some kind of really rich soup that I really enjoyed.

My stomach is not happy with me.

Then they ordered me some kind of noodle bowl and, seriously guys, I haven’t been eating a lot, like once or twice a day for the last month, this was three times that in one meal and I’d already eaten on the flight. And there was also some kind of mozzarella stick looking thing they told me was rice covered in brown sugar sauce.

I tried a little of each but at that point I just wanted to curl up and go to sleep. Traveling itself is exhausting. Traveling and then preforming for four hours about damn killed me.

Fiiinaaaaalllllyyyy it was time to head to the hostel where I am sharing a room with two of my Chinese teachers. I, according to them, am the only foreign teacher at the school. So it looks like I will have an apartment to myself. Dank Sei Gott.

They’re both really nice, but even with them I feel like I have a face and expectations I have to put on that’s just not there with other Westerners. I may well have to find the ex-pat corner of Yan’an and head down there once a week or so just to relax.

This is the entrance to the Tang Paradise amusement park. It’s an amusement park based on the Tang dynasty.

Adventures Abroad: Cambodia, Teaching Practice

Adventures Abroad: Cambodia, Teaching Practice

Monday morning.

So Friday, we were told that those of us teaching at the school True Vision would have our room assignment by the end of the day. I was okay with that. That meant we’d have the weekend to brainstorm ideas for our very first class.

Friday night still no room assignment.

Saturday night, no room assignment.

Sunday one of my classmates sent an email asking if our room assignment had come in.



Monday morning, seven of us loaded up two Tuk Tuks and started the trek to True Vision without any idea of what age group we were teaching. True Vision has students that range from preschool to sixth grade.

We get to the office and we all started to relax a little. The kids playing in the courtyard are older, about seven and eight, and that was what we had planned for. Excellent.

Then the True Vision staff split us up.

On the other side of the office is another campus and that’s where myself and two others were led.

There in the courtyard, small children. Tiny children. Children significantly younger than the seven and eight year olds we had just left.

I have a class of four year olds. Preschool.

Tiny, tiny children.


Nothing, absolutely nothing, I had on my lesson plan and none of the stuff we had discussed in our teaching course was meant for children this young. I asked them to write their names on a sheet of paper and draw a picture from their favorite story. The TA had to help three of the six spell their names. I had thought it wouldn’t be that bad, six students, I can wing this. I’ll think of something.

8:20, eight more students come through the door. I have fourteen four year olds and nothing on my lesson plan will work.

I tried to modify one of the games I had. “Jungle Survival” What items do you take into the jungle? It didn’t work. Okay. What animals live in the jungle? Elephants, fish, dogs, and cats. Okay, maybe not.

They demanded we sing a song. I don’t know any. I don’t like to sing and I sure as fuck can’t make up some bullshit diddly at the drop of a hat. So I asked them what songs they knew while staring at the clock waiting for it to hit 8:50 when I could release them to the courtyard.

So Monday was a clusterfuck of a different color. The only saving grace being that I was not observed and critiqued when everything fell apart and anarchy ruled no one but the TA had to see it.


Sickness has taken hold of my classmates. Two of them were too sick to teach, three of them probably should have stayed at the hotel, and four more were also green around the gills. I’m still feeling fine. And this time I have a goddamn plan.


This time we’re going to have rules and the students will tell me their names when they walk in.

This time we’re going to write the alphabet on the board in a board race.

This time we’re going to learn new words like “Elbow,” “Ankle,” “Wrist,” “Thigh,” and “Neck.”

This time we’re going to play a game at the end with our new vocabulary.

This time, four students came in at 8am when class starts and when I asked them to write their names on the board they couldn’t make the letters or spell them.

This time, the alphabet board race fell apart before it began. The concept of “teams” and “racing” still too complex in a non-native language so they just wrote letters on the board.

This time, we learned the word “Elbow”. Sort of.

This time, there was an observer watching me watch the clock waiting for it to hit 8:50.

But it wasn’t all bad. The observer said I need to be louder and use the students’ names. She said I need more examples of the words I’m using and I need to do more repetition. I need to put the words in a sentence, something they can use context clues to really figure out the word.


This time I am ready to rock and fucking roll. I have nametags, I have stickers, I have a goddamn plan.

This time I track down an attendance sheet and ask the kids to spell and point to their names while I write down their nametags.

This time we’re reviewing “Elbow” and learning “Ankle”, with pictures. I have examples and I have questions to drill them on understanding.

This time I have a game where they have to point to their elbows and ankles to get the point.

This time they’re going to spell the words.

This time my observer told me I did an excellent job on drilling and class flow and class management. This time the plan fucking worked.


Adventures Abroad: Cambodia, Beng Melea

Adventures Abroad: Cambodia, Beng Melea

We went down to Pub Street for dinner Saturday night. Not many highlights from that, save the banana/pineapple shake I got before dinner and the dragonfruit shake I got for dinner. Those were a little piece of heaven. I thought I would miss shakes while I was overseas again, but Cambodia does fruit shakes and smoothies like no one else. I tried someone’s avocado shake and also a mango shake. These things are delicious.


I also got fried ice cream for the first time. It was…pretty good. I got oreo and if I do it again I’ll get a fruit flavored ice cream because I think it will make the cream more flavorful.

I did get two scarves to wear since I can’t wear my usual bandanas or hats in class. Originally, I was going to get a new hat here and begin filling it with buttons like my other two, but this place, this culture, doesn’t really fit a hat. So I’ve decided I’m going to get scarves. They’re beautiful and I didn’t realize until I already bought the two scarves, they’re both silk.

The next morning we had to be up kind of early again, not 4am, but 8am so we could leave at 9. We had one more temple to stop in before starting the long trek back to Phnom Penh. As we were leaving several people said they wished we were doing out classes in Siem Reap instead of Phnom Penh. I have to disagree. Siem Reap is a really nice city. The streets are swept clean, there are sidewalks, the traffic has a much more familiar Western flow to it. And that I think is why they liked Siem Reap. Siem Reap is a tourist town and drowning in Western influences. People rarely ride into oncoming traffic, there were more cars that scooters. This city has molded itself to make happy the Westerners that come to visit Angkor Wat. Phnom Penh is a Cambodian city. This city is Cambodia. People drive on the roads without any real discernible pattern, there aren’t really sidewalks, store fronts are right on the street, cars are a rarity and scooters rule the road. Siem Reap was a very nice vacation destination, but if I’m going to live in a country for a month, I want to live in that country, not some offbrand Westernized version.



Two hours in to our drive we reached the last temple, Beng Melea. This temple isn’t as well known as the ones in the immediate vicinity of Siem Reap and it’s really out of the way from the main road. I loved it. You walk down this really long causeway that somewhere beneath the shifting sands has a stone walkway just like the others. This temple is in more disrepair than even the jungle temple. I didn’t get to explore the entire temple because we only had a forty-five minutes to run around.


The stones are tumbled pretty much how they’ve fallen over the years. It’s clear in places they were moved out of the walkway and piled up but for the most part it’s in the same condition it was found in after a thousand years of being lost.

I’m pretty sure I got into a section I shouldn’t have been in. It was really a dangerous place to be, but I wanted to get into the inner courtyard. So I jumped and climbed all around these crumbling stones and found a place where the wall was tumbled and I could see it. It was amazing, all these stones from walls and roof that have collapsed in to the courtyard. I did hesitate before ducking in through a doorway to explore further. Really sure I wasn’t supposed to actually be in the temple, since, you know, it’s falling apart at the seams, but I figured it’s stood this long it’ll make it another five minutes. So I went in as far as I dared walking across these broken, fallen, pieces of the ceiling looking out windows and trying to find a way to get into the courtyard proper. That’s when I ran out of time and had to head back.

Should I have been climbing on these? Probably most definitely not.

As I was clambering over the roof one of the Khmer in a security outfit followed a pair of Japanese tourists close to where I’d been poking around and kept them from climbing on the rocks I had just been on. Anyway. I was late again, only ten minutes, but really, I think we should have had at least an hour and a half.

Although, to be fair, if I’d been given an hour and a half there’s a good chance I would have made it to the top of this.

We stopped for lunch at another tourist trap and this time it was the only place to go so several people opted to skip lunch and hang out in the hammocks outside. I thought about it, but hunger won out so I got some fried spring rolls. It was really expensive, and by expensive I mean I paid $5.15 for the spring rolls and $1.00 for water. For context: In Phnom Penh I could have eaten six meals for the price I paid for that one.

The ride back was much quieter than the ride there, most everyone slept or listened to music with headphones. The bus had a TV/DVD player and Dara, the guy in charge of us for the weekend, put on Premium Rush. We made it back to Phnom Penh by six-thirty. Pretty well everyone got dinner at the hotel and then we scattered to our rooms to either sleep or lesson plan.

All and all, I wish the trip to Angkor would have been another day longer, but I’m so, so glad I got to see the temples and learn about not only the ancient history of Cambodia but the more recent history as well.


Adventures Abroad: Cambodia, Bayon & Banety Kdei

Adventures Abroad: Cambodia, Bayon & Banety Kdei

After we got breakfast and collected the rest of the group we went to another temple to start the day. Our tour guide, Hour (Ohh-ray), was awesome. The first temple we went to was Bayon in Angkor Thom, which, 1100 years ago would have been the dead center of the capital city. The temple is exactly 1.5 kilometers from each of the four entrances that would have led to the city.

Hour told us on the way in; we had to cross a long causeway, that the statues on either side of us were divided as gods and demons. They were holding the long body of the Naga and looked like they were playing tug-o-war.

Except almost all of them were missing their heads.

During the Khmer Rouge and toward the end of the Rouge’s reign, higher ups would go to these ancient temples and lop the heads off the statues. The statues themselves were too old, too heavy to be moved, so they just took their heads and sold them to the highest Western bidder. Hour told us a lot of stories of the Khmer Rouge. He was probably around ten or twelve when they came in to power and he can clearly remember them executing his 8 month old brother. They tossed the baby up in the air and caught him on bayonets. Hour’s grandfather was killed by having his throat slit with a palm spike. It took him seven hours to bleed out and die. He told us that for the really small babies they would swing them against trees and crush their skulls. He said it was rare anyone was executed with a bullet since bullets cost money. The Khmer Rouge killed people with water. They’d let water drip on their foreheads until the water wore through their skulls and drilled a hole through their brains. Any skulls you find on the killing fields that have a hole in the forehead are people who were killed with water.

He told us that before we visited this temple.

Originally Bayon had 37 towers, each tour has four faces that point in the cardinal directions. They stand for Compassion, Peace, Serenity, and Mercy. Now, only about half the towers remain standing, a lot of them fell from a thousand years of wear and tear and others were struck by lightning. The irony of this temple with its faces of love being looted by people who spent years soaked in blood and violence is painful.


Again, lots of restoration has been done but you can still climb all over it. The relief sculptures on the first floor of the temple are incredible. Hour told us they depict a great sea battle between the Khmer and Cham who were Vietnamese. There are also depictions of just everyday life and dangers such as the man being mauled by a tiger and his buddy running like hell. There’re pictures of people going to market loaded with goods or with meat from hunting. I could’ve stared at them for hours, but it was hot as hell, crowded as fuck, and only about two people were really paying attention to what he was saying so we breezed through there pretty quick. We went up to the second level and Hour cut us loose to explore on our own.


It was amazing, the small rooms where statues of Buddha had once stood were all over the place and there were tiny rooms that I’m certain belonged to monks also tucked away. It was so amazing to stand in those windows and look out at the jungle knowing that a thousand years ago monks would have looked out on a bustling city, crowded and dusty, loud with people selling their wares, loud with the sound of carts and livestock. I loved it. I love that you can clamber over these stones the way people a thousand years ago did. If something like this was in the US every part of it would be roped off, you wouldn’t be able to touch anything. But here? You wanna go up to the top tower and look out over the jungle? Just watch your step the stairs are steep.


We didn’t spend enough time there. This temple easily could have taken half a day just wandering around it, around the grounds. Hell, there was even and elephant riding thing you could do. I wouldn’t. You can’t ride elephants. Their spines are made to carry heavy weight on their underside, not on top. You can cause them a lot of pain riding them. That’s why you so often see people riding elephants up on their necks and not on their humps.

Anyway. I really loved this temple.



The next temple we went to is called Banety Kdei and don’t ask me to pronounce it because I for the life of me cannot remember how. This is better known as the Jungle Temple. This is the temple the set of Tomb Raider was based on. We walked through the jungle to get to it passing trees that could give Redwoods a run for their money. We saw monkeys and heard some strange bird calls. If not for the occasional passing cyclist and motorbike it was easy to believe we were explorers about to stumble on an incredible archeological find.


While we were walking, Hour told us that landmines were often left around temples particularly by the entrance to not only kill anyone coming in but to also damage these ancient wonders.

People really, really, fucking suck.

But we got to the temple and Ohhhhh Myyyyy Goddds! I loved it. I could spend an entire day at this temple. It wasn’t that crowded, not like Bayon, it seems it’s a kind of out of the way temple so we really had a free run of the place. This temple has only limited restoration, just enough to keep it standing. And it’s being left like that so that others, like us, can see what All of these temples looked like when they were rediscovered. Places like Bayon and Angkor, they’ve been painstakingly cleared of the jungle and you don’t really think about four hundred year old trees growing out of the roof. But here you can see the tree roots wrapped around stone slowly pulling them apart. It’s a really magical place. And since there was hardly anyone else there it was easy to flit off down one corridor and not see anyone for ten minutes.


The weathering of the stone is remarkable, but what’s amazing is that you can still see the details. These stones have been covered in trees, rained on, been whipped by wind and dust, for 900 years and still you can see individual leaves on vines, you can see the faces of Buddhas.

I was late getting back to the bus from this one. I spent so much time roaming the grounds the forty-five minutes just wasn’t enough. I could spend from sun up to sun down at this temple, it was amazing.



We stopped for lunch at a really expensive tourist trap. So, since we didn’t want to pay five dollars for a plate of fries, several of us got up and started to walk back to the small market we passed. We found a little family run place not far down the road and settled in to eat noodle soup for a dollar. I got a coconut. I know coconut milk is a huge thing in the States, but here, they give you a whole coconut that they lop the top off of and stick a straw in. So the coconut milk here is super fresh. I’ve gotta say, though. I didn’t really like the coconut milk. It looks like water but it’s a lot thicker than water. It’s weird.

But after our lunch we finally got to return to Angkor Wat for the rest of the day, which was like two hours.


I pity the people who didn’t come to the Sunrise Tour and get to spend an extra hour and a half at this temple. There’s no way they saw even half of the temple. I didn’t see that much. I went in and walked down that long causeway again thinking of the kings and monks that had trod there and off to the right spotted a horse. Because nothing gets my attention like an animal, I skipped down the steps and went over to see what this was about.

The horse was a lovely buckskin named Bon May, his mane was cut short but his tail was long and black that faded to grey and white at the tips. He had a really decorative red halter that he didn’t seem to enjoy but he was a sweetie. The man standing with him asked if I wanted a picture, one dollar, but nah, I don’t need a picture with a horse. So I thanked him for letting me pet Bon May and before I could walk away the guy asked if I wanted to go around the small temple once.

Dude, I was on that horse so fast I almost fell off the other side. English saddle. That was an experience in and of itself. I don’t ride horses often, hardly ever, and when I do I have a sturdy western saddle with a horn to hold. Not this time! So as I’m taking a stroll around the temple—the guy leading Bon May, thank the gods—I got a crash course on how to ride an English saddle and I freaking got to ride a horse around one of the small temples.

That was the best five dollars I’ve spent in a very long time.

So I went back to exploring and decided I would start on the left side and work my way to the right. I had no idea how far back the temple went. It goes on for a couple acres. I got into the inner temple and started running around darting in and out of corridors, dodging tourists and snapping pictures of pretty much everything.


Then, I found this small courtyard in the back. It had a small temple in the middle of it that rose probably two stories off the ground. One of my fellow teachers had already climbed to the top of the shady side and was sitting watching the birds and tourists. There seemed to be an invisible line separating this temple from the rest of Angkor Wat. No one wanted to pass the threshold and go out.


I did.

I clambered up those stairs, a little nerve wracking since they weren’t the tourist friendly wooden stairs that were built in other parts of the temple, but the original four inch ledges that are crumbling and loose and broken down to nothing but a tiny lip in some places.

I made it to the top and just sat there for a couple minutes. It was so nice. No other tourists came out to follow me and the heavy stone walls of the rest of the temple blocked most of the noise. There were thousands of people there but I couldn’t hear any of them. All I could hear were birds and wind. It was wonderful and it was probably the truest experience of any of the temple. Just the quiet and the peace. I slept for about ten minutes, just a quick little nap in the sun. It felt amazing and I probably would have stayed a little groggy for the rest of the time had I not had to climb down those eighty degree stairs again. Seriously, these things were built at a near ninety degree angle I wouldn’t be surprised if more than one person broke their necks back in Angkor’s heyday.

I made it all the way inside to the inner temple and found the Stairs to Eternity. They’re stairs that lead to the highest point of the temple and I really wanted to climb them. There was kind of a line so I figured I’d do a lap around the top and see what else was up there before jumping in and climbing up. I only had like fifteen minutes before I was supposed to meet the group so I wouldn’t be able to linger once I reached the top.


I circled around to the backside of the tower and was on my way to the stairs when another tour guide says to his group, “Line is very long, we can’t do this today.” And he pointed at these clumps of people sitting and standing around and I realized I was at the end of the line for the Stairs to Eternity.

Much like the Eiffel Tower, I’m a little put out I didn’t get to go to the top and see what there is too see, but I had to get back. I was already past the time I was supposed to meet them and I didn’t really have a clear idea of how I was supposed to get to our meeting spot since I had been in and out of courtyards and temples for two hours.

I made it out of the temple proper and started my way back to the causeway. Along the way I stopped to love on a little temple kitten that was wobbling its way across the stones. Adorable little Tuxedo kitty with little white paws. Really considered putting him in my bag but since he’d have to stay in quarantine in China for six months that’s not really a fair thing to put the little guy through.

So I was half an hour late getting to the bus and didn’t care one little bit. I really wish the trip could have been two full days instead of one. I would have loved to spend a full day at Angkor and a half day at Bayon and Kdei each. I think, after my contract in China, I might come back to Cambodia for a few days and explore the temples on my own time. They have three day passes that give you access to all the temples—there’s like a dozen—and that would very much be worth the trip back.


Adventures Abroad: Cambodia, Angkor Wat

Adventures Abroad: Cambodia, Angkor Wat

This last weekend we took our first trip out of Phnom Penh. We went to Siam Reap which was a really eventful seven hour bus ride. I stayed awake for the entire trip. It was amazing seeing the countryside. Cambodia doesn’t have the long stretches of landscape like the US. It has places where the landscape stretches out flat with long golden grasses and a smattering of palm trees but I doubt we went more than twenty minutes without driving past a home.

I thought it was really neat to drive past and see these quick glimpses into life. A couple times we got to linger and look because there were cows in the road. Cambodian houses have very similar architectural style. I would say they all look alike but there were a couple houses with slight differences. Generally, and I would say at least 90%, of homes were on stilts. The open ground floor looked to be like the kitchen/work room. That’s where I saw the most people cooking, doing laundry, and where the cows were tied up at night. The second level, what I consider the main level, has a staircase leading up to it, either simple or ornate, and that’s where I saw beds and TVs.

I know the drive was long and hot for a lot of people but like I said, I really loved looking out the window and thinking, wow this is Cambodia. We stopped about two hours into the trip in a place called Spider Village. It’s famous because the local delicacy is roasted tarantula and scorpion. I didn’t eat anything, but I think everyone else tried at least the scorpion. I might have tried something but they were really pushy about getting money. It was definitely a tourist trap and as far as Cambodia goes, kind of expensive.

So we get back on the bus and one of the girls gets on with a spider.

A live spider.

She bought a living, breathing, tarantula.

And brought it on the bus.


Oh no. Oh no, no. No, no, no.

Thankfully, the thing was pretty much dead from the manhandling it’d had at the village so it wasn’t scurrying about or unmanageable. She and several others took turns keeping it on their shoulders like the most terrifying brooch ever made. I don’t remember much about the next two hours except that every couple of minutes someone would shout, “Where the fuck’s that fucking spider?” and whoever had it would point to it.

At our next stop, we stopped at a rest stop and the spider was “set free” and by that we left it on a rock next to a tree to be eaten or survive.

And then she didn’t tell anyone, but she went back and picked the spider up again. So, unbeknownst to the rest of us, there was a spider on the dark bus to Siem Reap there and on the way back. She flushed the damn thing yesterday, apparently, because she had her room cleaned and didn’t want to scare the maids.

We were allowed to drink on the bus so after the rest stop it was about six o’ clock and the people that had rum and vodka and whiskey broke their seals and started passing the drinks around. I didn’t have anything, I was still preoccupied with watching the landscape and the rest of the trip passed with a lot of noise. Someone had a Beats Pill and they started playing Spice Girls and Backstreet Boys and other stuff but I had my headphones so I put those in and watched the countryside get ready for bed.

It gets dark in Cambodia. People have electricity out in the country, but they don’t light up their houses like the US. Most houses were lit with cooking fires down below or with a single light up in the living space. So when you hit those stretches of open landscape there’s not weird orangish glow on the horizon from light pollution. It’s just…dark. It really feels wild at night. I don’t know if there are still tigers in Cambodia, I doubt it, but when the sun goes down it’s not hard to imagine they’re still out there stalking prey.


We got to Siem Reap and our hotel, Freedom Hotel, about eight-thirty. It was a pretty nice hotel. I’d say it was on par with a Holiday Inn. There was a nice pool, and the room doors were carved with goddess relief sculptures. We had roommates and I roomed with another girl who, after a long rowdy trip, wanted to sit in bed and read. Since we were both doing Sunrise at Angkor and had to be up at 4:15am, that’s exactly what we did. We were both out cold by nine-thirty.

For whatever reason, I think this makes this hotel pretty classy.

Four in the morning comes quick. But we both got up and headed downstairs. Only about half of the group made it down in time to get on the bus and head to Angkor Wat to watch the sun rise over the temple. And, aside from myself and my roommate, everyone was coming down off a late night of drinking.

Until we got to Angkor I thought the sunrise tour would be a really quiet moment in an otherwise busy day, but the entrance was packed with other buses, cars, and Tuk Tuks full of other people there to see the sunrise.

I think the amount of people there made the sunrise feel anticlimactic, but it was still a really wonderful morning. There was no bright disc coming up over the spires, it was just a gradual lightening of the sky from black to periwinkle. I thought it was pretty but I know a lot of people were disappointed by it just from the snatches of conversation I heard. I would have enjoyed the sunrise tour more had I had a hot cup of tea or coffee and a comfy chair and silence. It’s really not something that can be enjoyed in a packed group of several hundred with people pushing and yelling and laughing. It really is more suited for quiet reflection on the fact that you’re watching the sun rise over a temple that was built 1100 years ago.

No dramatic flare from the sun, still stunning

We got about an hour and a half after the sun was up to explore the temple before we had to get back on the bus and head back to pick up the rest of the group. I wish I could’ve stayed at Angkor. We roamed over the temple touching sandstone worn shiny and smooth by a million other small touches both from recent tourists and from monks a thousand years dead. That’s an incredible feeling.

I never go anywhere without my sister.

When you walk down those shallow steps and think of the kings and monks that walked down those same steps you have to wonder what they were thinking as they walked through those halls. What were they worried about? What was their To Do list for that particular day? Going back even further to the two million people it took to build that temple over the span of thirty-seven years, was it love or obligation that made them put those stones in place? When they made their relief sculptures of the great battles fought did they do so with pride? Were they poor or master craftsmen in the employ of the king? What stories did they think of when they carved their gods?

We had to head back to the hotel far too soon. I really could have cried walking down the causeway that leads to the entry gate. There has been a great deal of restoration done to the temple but those stones are the same stones kings walked down for weddings, for funerals, for coronations, for holidays. They’re the same stones monks walked down on their way out to market on their way out to visit other temples, on their way in to begin their studies. 1100 years of history, some of it happy and some of it bloody, but it’s all there in those stones.


Adventures Abroad: China School Selected

Adventures Abroad: China School Selected

Oh my gods, I’m so sorry! I got busy trying to catch up my NaNo and completely forgot to update what’s going on with my China trip.

So I got my city list a couple weeks ago and while none of the three cities I was hoping for were on there, there were a couple that I played tug of war with for a few days. My initial choice was Yinchuan which was founded in 678 and has freaking camelback riding listed as a daily activity.

But the reason Yinchuan was open was the teacher who is there now wasn’t certain if she was going to stay. When she found out the school was offering the position to others she decided she’d like to stay on.



I did get my second choice which is Yan’an and it was settled almost 1400 years ago. And claims it is the birthplace of Chinese civilization. Seriously, there’s a mausoleum about a two hour trip outside of the city of someone named Huangdi? I haven’t put a lot of research into that yet, but from what I’ve read he’s often referred to as the First Ancestor.


Yan’an was also the Communist capital for about 13 years and they are really proud of that. Which is neat, because I feel like in US schools we get a lot of “Communism is super bad, stay away from it!” and when I get to China I’ll get a log of “Communism is super great, come get some!” So between the two viewpoints I should be able to formulate a well-rounded opinion.

Yan’an is located on the Loess plateau and is actually in the middle of the freaking Yellow River.


So it’s got really cool bridges all over the place just so you can get from one side of the city to the other. And with that it has a lot of scenic natural beauty, like:

Hukou Waterfall


The largest natural habitat of natural peonies, Wanhua Mountain


Will frolicking be permitted? ASKING FOR A FRIEND

Not to mention within the city there are over Eight Hundred (800) historic monuments. There’s also a great deal of folk customs that are still practiced there and I’m super excited about that. Most of the articles I read also mention the food and the “Eat Street” which is downtown. Local vendors start setting up about 7pm and it’s like a street long buffet. Pretty much barbecued everything, including donkey meat (?).

Let’s be real, I’ll have to try it at least once.

You’re adorable. And I’ll bet with enough sauce, delicious as well.



And it’s a day trip away from the Terracotta Warriors and Xi’an. There’s also an airport within the city that the bus goes to, which is awesome, because I can fly to Xi’an in the morning and get there in three hours, stay all day, and then hop on a bus or train and overnight it back to Yan’an.

I am getting a bit ahead of myself on that.

But I’m so excited and the school where I’ll be working is only a half hour walk from my apartment or I can catch a bus and be there in fifteen.

I also got a packing list when I was put in contact with the owner of the school. It’s a compilation of things like food, medicine, clothes and miscellaneous things that they list from “Everywhere, easy to find” to “Impossible to find, bring from home.” This thing is helpful and hilarious. I don’t know who wrote it, but I want to be their friend.

In regards to swimsuits: “Swimsuits are plentiful and easy to find, though most Chinese men prefer a speedo-type swimsuit which leave little to the imagination, you may want to bring your own.”

And…bagels: “We have received unconfirmed reports of a Taiwanese bakery in the southern district that sells bagels.”

Now I’m in the process of applying for my visa and getting my welcome letter and then, at least legally, I’ll have everything I need. Now I just have to figure out what to pack.


Well. That was easy.


Adventures Abroad: China Confirmation

Probably should’ve skipped the coffee this morning. I am bouncing off the walls.

So yesterday I got my official start date for my Cambodia adventure, January 25th. (squeee!) Which I am totally still flailing about, but this morning I woke up and found an e-mail from the staffing agency that is in charge of placing me in China. (SQUEEEE!)

So I have over 100 locations to choose from, thankfully, I already figured out about which city I want to be in, Xi’an—the city with the terracotta warriors—so it only took my about an hour and a half to narrow down my top three choices.

First up, Yanliang which, according to the staffing site, is a “small” town of about 200,000.


Yeah, not in Kansas anymore.

Actually, that might be the population of Kansas.

But it’s about an hour away from downtown Xi’an and busses head that way every fifteen minutes. And it’s only an hour and five minutes away from the terracotta army. And it seems to be far enough from Xi’an that residents don’t have the heavy amounts of smog and pollution to contend with. Double points. I’d post some pictures, but it seems Miss China 2014 is from Yanliang and no matter what search I put in I just wind up with a thousand pictures of her in a bikini.



Second choice is Xingping, which was very close to being first choice, again, another “small” “rural” city of 120,000. But this one is in a mountain valley surrounded by farmland. The perks listed on the school site are that a short bike ride gets you out into the countryside.

Seriously, people, look at this.

A beautiful sunset view from the top of Karst Peak in Xingping China.

The only reason it didn’t get first choice is because I can’t afford my Japanese Encephalitis vaccine and it’s listed as being an issue only in rural areas. I mean, I’ll take my chances and go first chance I get, but I figure I better at least pretend to do some preventative measures.

And third choice is Weinan. A “small” city of 900,000 *falls over laughing*

This place has the Hyde Park of China, though. It’s surrounded by mountains and rivers, one of which is HuaShan Mountain, one of the sacred peaks of China. 56 emperors made a pilgrimage to this mountain.

Look. At. This.


So I’m just running around screaming right now. Like, I’m stressed trying to make sure I’ll have my stateside business taken care of before I go, but SERIOUSLY, LOOK AT THIS


Book Review: Wanderlust and Lipstick: The Essential Guide for Women Traveling Solo


Last month I read a really wonderful book by Beth Whitman called Wanderlust and Lipstick: The Essential Guide for Women Traveling Solo. I picked this up a couple years ago at Half Price on a whim. So glad I did. I read it for the first time last month as I really started kicking my preparation for Cambodia and China into gear. It’s a really smooth, easy read. Even if you’re only looking to visit another city in you state or country, I think it would still be beneficial not only for solo women travelers, but for anyone traveling alone.

This is of course aimed at women, so if you’re a guy and want to pick this up there are some parts that won’t apply, such as the section discussing tampons, birth control, and interrupted cycles. But other than that, I’d say the advice in this book applies to all solo travelers.

My favorite section of the book is the “Idea Generator” chapter. There’s even a helpful chart you can copy down or write directly in the book. It’s a really simple way to make that dream vacation a reality. I used it to chart the logistics and costs of three trips I want to make: An Antarctic cruise, a road trip visiting a couple National Parks out west, and a two week Egyptian antiquity tour.

Let me tell you, dream trips aren’t cheap.

But, now that I have a ballpark estimate of what kind of expenses I’m looking at I can start saving now. So maybe it’ll be five years before I get to take an Antarctic cruise via the Chilean fjords, but, if I keep up with my savings then in five years I’ll be writing to you with a penguin looking over my shoulder. So if you’re serious about traveling, even if it’s to visit NYC for a week or see the lighthouses of Maine or fly to Europe for a month, map it out. Start saving. It might take a little time and you might have set backs, but start saving and you’ll get there.

Another two chapters that are really helpful is “Let’s get Booking” and “This Bed is Juuuuust Right”. They go over the different travel and accommodation options you have. In chp. 5 (Booking) some of this information is a bit outdated—it was published in 2007—and you’ll be disappointed to find that you can’t readily book cheap flights on courier flights anymore. I spent a week trying to find a way to do it, but post 9/11 a lot of companies now only hire professional couriers and won’t accept anyone off the street to hang out in their planes. The explanations on a lot of things are also a little outdated, she spends a great deal of time discussing e-tickets versus paper tickets, sites like Priceline and Hotwire and how they work. But some of the cheap fare sites are still active and if you’re looking to book last minute on the cheap they’re a really good source.

Chp. 6 discusses accommodations ranging from resorts to campgrounds and gives the pros and cons of all depending on your preference and budget. We’d all like to stay at five star resorts, but for most of us the budget won’t allow it. That doesn’t mean you have to sleep in your car. Whitman mentions the often overlooked family owned Bed and Breakfasts that can add a really unique twist to a vacation and are often cheaper than the local Fairfield. There are also tips on booking European lodgings such as Hostels and Pensions. Did you know that women can overnight at YMCAs? I didn’t, so there’s a handy fact if you need somewhere to rest for a night.

The chapter I’ve been rereading the last couple of weeks is “Pack it Up”. There’s a list in there of handy first aid supplies, and honestly, I 100% forgot about a first aid kit. I don’t usually bother with band-aids and antibacterial stuff. But I got hellaciously ill for a week while in London and if taking a dose of Nyquil and eating a cough drop will keep even half of that kind of sickness at bay I’ll fucking take it. I know I’m going to get sick, it’s inevitable as I’m being introduced to radically new environment with new bacteria and whatnot, so anything I pack to keep me ahead of the game is a win. There’s also a general packing list for clothes, toiletries, and accessories/documents. Again, really helpful if you need a jumping point on what to pack or just a list of reminders for obvious everyday things. I almost forgot to throw deodorant in my packing box.

I thought this book was pretty thorough on dealing with language barrier and culture shock and ways to work through it. The language barrier, of course, is to purchase a phrase book beforehand and practice a little so you’re used to the language. Or, you can do like I did and download a language learning app and practice a couple hours a day. Memrise is the app I have and of the free apps it has the most languages ranging from French to Icelandic. As for culture shock, you just have to know it’s coming. I didn’t get it too bad on my trip to Europe, but I wasn’t dealing with an unknown language and I had a professor who from day one explained some of the differences in culture. This time I’m a bit more anxious because I’m heading into two unknown languages and two very different cultures both from each other and from my home culture. So I’m certain the “shock” will hit me this time, but Whitman gives a list of common culture shock symptoms and the best ways to ease yourself through them.

In one of the final chapters “Coming Home” she also deals with reverse culture shock. That I can attest to experiencing. I spent three months in London and after a couple weeks of being back on US soil I was patently irritated with the “odd” way people spoke, the way people drove—although that could be my road rage—and I was irritated with how far away everything was. I could walk everywhere in London or catch a bus. Here? Maybe if you live in a big enough city. So I’m glad this book mentions reverse culture shock because I feel like a lot of travel books forget to mention that part of coming home. Yes, it’s nice to see your pets and sleep in your own bed or eat your favorite food, but there will still be an adjustment period where you have to reorient yourself to home culture.

Another great chapter that I don’t think a lot of general travel advice books mention is “Responsible Travel”. It gives tips and sites that help you do low impact travel both on the flora and fauna but also on the native cultures you might be going into. Remember, if you’re going to visit a little town or village no matter where it is, these are people you’re meeting, they’re not zoo animals for you to gawk at. Also avoid taking pictures with exotic animals such as monkeys, tiger cubs, etc. Often these animals are taken from their parents—or their parents are killed—and their teeth and claws are removed so that when they try to snap and bite when frightened they don’t harm the paying tourists. They’re often not kept in humane conditions and once they’re too big or wild to be cute they’re sold or killed.

The only chapter that’s a real bust is “Gadgets and Gizmos”. Technology has come a long way in eight years and when this book was written it would have been prudent to choose between phone and laptop if you were backpacking across Europe. But now, we have smartphones, tablets, and featherweight laptops. All of which you can download a compass onto or already have one installed. Buying an international phone isn’t really worth it when you can just upgrade your phone plan to an international one. And packing a camera is up to you since the phones you can get now take excellent pictures.

Overall, this is a quick read with a lot of great information streamlined in the chapters to make it easy for you to either read cover to cover or to pick and choose the sections you want/need at that moment. If you’ve ever wanted to travel, I highly recommend Beth Whitman’s book Wanderlust and Lipstick.

Adventures Abroad: Athens, Greece

This blog has been a bit of a downer lately. With Halloween a month away–eep!—I thought we could all use a good snicker.

In the spring of 2009 I did a semester abroad in London, England. While I have so many amazing memories and wonderful experiences and a lasting love for Europe there is one trip in particular that always comes to mind when people ask about those three months.

Spring Break. I and one of my flat mates are going to Athens, Greece and Rome, Italy for three and four days respectively. That morning, we’re up earlier than usual and bustling around doing final checks on passports and cash and itineraries. Running only a few minutes late, the infamous tube system was in full jack-up-you-plans swing that day and those ten minutes turned into almost half an hour.

We missed our flight check-in.

By five minutes.

Thankfully, the wonderful woman working the ticket desk managed to transfer us to a red eye flight to Athens at no charge. So we had eight hours to piddle around the airport before our flight was scheduled to leave at eight-thirty that night.

Have you ever had the experience of sitting in an airport for more than an hour or two? I can still feel the boredom making my eyes roll back.

Anyway, our red eye had ten passengers on it and once we were at cruising altitude we were allowed to move to different seats.

A window seat while descending towards Athens, Greece at midnight isn’t something I will ever forget. Cities look like cities no matter where you go. Tall buildings of steel and concrete, streetlights, power lines, cars; but then you see the Acropolis. This huge hill with landscape lights just bright enough you have to squint your eyes and do a double take before thinking, “Holy shit, there it is.” It’s kind of like seeing the Eiffel Tower when you take the chunnel to Paris.

Now, things to know about Greece that we didn’t think of when we booked our trip; A) There are grad students with more money than the Greek government, and B) Because they are broke as hell people have been going on strikes and walk outs demanding better wages.

After a long day of sitting in an airport, we get to Athens and find out their public transportation closes down at midnight—it’s now one—and their taxi cab drivers are on strike. Our hostel is on the other side of Athens, a quick twenty minute ride on the subway, but not something either of us wants to navigate at one in the morning in a country we’ve never been to.

After some debating, we opt to get a hotel for the night. Yet another wonderful woman gave us some options ranging from the $300 a night Hilton across the street to a small $80 hotel that would pick us up and then bring us back to the airport in the morning so we could hop the train to our hostel.

Half an hour later, an older gentleman, maybe mid-forties, finds us playing checkers with change and asks if we’re the ones going to the hotel. He smiles a lot and his accent is heavy but he speaks English well enough we strike up a conversation on why we’re in Athens.

I want to take a moment to tell you, if you ever go to a foreign country the odds of you doing things you couldn’t be coerced into doing in the states goes up dramatically.

Walking out of the airport with the man excitedly telling us how much we’re going to love Athens, I did pause when I saw the beat-to-hell, rusted out, tinted window van but that was about it.

Tossing our bags in the back we got in and set off on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. As friends and family can attest, I’m a road raging speed demon but this man was a master of his craft. I don’t know if the brakes were broken or if he didn’t know where they were. All the while he’s still chatting away almost as fast as he was driving telling us about his son who was planning to do a study abroad program in New York City in a year or two. My traveling buddy carried the conversation while I watched the dark landscape pass. We were heading out of town, away from the Acropolis, and the street lights were becoming fewer and farther apart.

I don’t know how we got there, but one moment we were on a highway and the next we were on a Hollywood set. I don’t know what to call it. A suburb? It wasn’t a town, there was a cluster four and five story apartment buildings that looked like they had been crafted from the dusty earth itself. There were no discernible streets, no cars parked. Black windows stared back at us with a few with gauzy curtains blowing gently in the wind. It was a clear night and without any streetlights we could have gone through a time warp to five hundred years ago and I don’t think we would have known.

I’ve been keeping track of turns and direction of travel because I’m a little paranoid like that. But now we’re in this…suburb or complex, whatever, the driver starts turning down all these narrow alleys and now I can’t remember if we’ve taken two lefts and three rights or if we’ve gone in a circle. My friend is also starting to slow down on her answers to the man’s animated conversation as the van whips around corners and down alleys I didn’t think a bicycle could fit through. If the driver noticed our quiet he didn’t let on. I think he was telling us about his sister or his niece or cousin that visited America in the eighties.

From out of nowhere he makes a turn and suddenly we’re not on a road anymore. The buildings are gone and we are in the middle of a field.

An open, grassy field circled by trees probably as old as the continent.

There’s a full moon out and it’s the only light we have as we bounce through this field in the middle of nowhere in a strange country.

It was like a movie scene. My friend and I looked at each other with matching expressions of open mouthed horror and incredulity. The driver is still motoring away, telling us about the different foods we have to try, which, honestly, I wish I could remember what he told us so we could have tried it all.

But I digress

Here we are, bouncing through a field, not a soul in sight, I’m primed and ready to go over the seat and put him in a choke hold if I even think the van is starting to slow and just like that, we’re out of the field. Now we are in a suburb of sorts; the houses have driveways with cars in them, there are fences, and a few streetlights, and the beat to hell van pulls up in front of the hotel; a converted two story house with a well lit sign out front and two cars in the driveway. The driver booked us and put us in a small room with a two locks on the door, we used a chair as well, and told us with a sunny smile breakfast would be served at nine.

I went to three different countries by myself, wandered the streets of London at night and to this day that moment when we hit that field can still get my adrenaline going. Athens was an amazing experience all around and I will certainly never forget that city or our crazy driver.