Freezing Our ***** off in Granada, Spain

How Cute is Granada?!

How Cute is Granada?!

The cute little town of Granada, Spain is perhaps best known for its star attraction, the Alhambra. It’s a huge, impressive Moorish palace that can attract up to 8,000 visitors a day during high season, so we felt pretty smug about our decision to visit in the dead of winter. Little did we know that temperatures would drop down into the 20s (Fahrenheit) overnight and “extreme cold temperature” warnings would be issued during our visit. At one point, it even snowed! We were like human icicles. Let’s just quietly add this onto the list of our huge mistakes…

Granada's Famous Alhambra Is on the Hillside behind Me

Granada’s Famous Alhambra Is on the Hillside behind Me

In spite of the cold, we lucked out and got some sunny weather for exploring the city. We put on our ridiculous-looking puffy coats from a thrift store in Paris, donned our $1 gloves from a hardware store in Thailand, wore our knock-off United Colors of Benetton scarves from Chiang Mai, and ventured our double-socked feet out into the cold. What we found was a lively bar scene where you get free tapas with your drinks, a confusing mish-mash of food terminology, an outrageously politically incorrect Cathedral, and a thriving hippie scene in the hillside Albayzin neighborhood. It was pretty weird.

A Glimpse at Granada, Spain

Granada is an easy 3-hour train ride east of Sevilla, our home base here in Southern Spain. We love train travel in Europe, and while train travel here in Spain seems surprisingly expensive, the beautiful countryside almost makes up for it. We rode past rolling hills covered with olive tree orchards, through cute little Spanish towns with churches poking up over the horizon, and even saw handfuls of palm trees here or there! But our favorite part was the slow approach to the snow-capped Sierra Nevada mountains. It was a beautiful train ride!

Here We Are, Enjoying Our Train Ride Which Came with SO MUCH LEG ROOM.

Here We Are, Enjoying Our Train Ride Which Came with SO MUCH LEG ROOM.

We stayed at the Hotel Molinos, which we later learned holds (or at one point held) the record for the narrowest hotel in the Guinness Book of World Records! What a weird record to seek out.

Hotel Molinos - That's One Narrow Hotel!

Hotel Molinos – That’s One Narrow Hotel!

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m one of Rick Steves’ biggest fans (which makes me sound approximately 75 years old), so we definitely explored Granada with help from his fantastic walking tour:

Here's Kevin in Plaza Nueva, the hub of tourist activities in Granada.

Here’s Kevin in Plaza Nueva, the hub of tourist activities in Granada.

We strolled along Granada's Darro River, a cute little stream that runs between the town's two big hills.

We strolled along Granada’s Darro River, a cute little stream that runs between the town’s two big hills.

One of Granada's cute cobblestone streets. It's a fun town to just wander around.

One of Granada’s cute cobblestone streets. It’s a fun town to just wander around.

The Alhambra

The first thing you need to know about the Alhambra is that they have a giant doorway called the Puerta del Vino, which translates to Wine Gate. Let me put your hopes down right now – there is, in fact, no free wine on tap at the Wine Gate as I had hoped. DREAM CRUSHED.

The Alhambra's Magical Wine Gate

The Alhambra’s Not-as-Magical-as-I-Had-Hoped Wine Gate

My love of wine has deepend here in Spain, due mainly to the endless selection of 1-euro bottles of delicious vino tinto (red wine) available at every market. I’m not sure what I’ll do when I go through I’m-unable-to-have-wine phases in my life. I suspect there will be an uptick in grape juice demand in the greater Seattle metropolitan area.

Back to the Alhambra! This is the last and greatest Moorish palace, and is THE reason most people visit Granada. It was the last Moorish stronghold in Europe as the Christian Reconquista moved south, and didn’t fall until 1492 when the last sitting Sultan in Spain, Boabdil, signed surrender papers. Years later, in the same room where those infamous surrender papers were signed, Christopher Columbus received permission from King Ferdinand and Queen Isabel to go on his infamous journey around the globe!

This is the Alhambra's Justice Gate. I wonder if someone was being clever when they made a key-hole shaped door inside a key-hole shaped stone alcove. It's like a key-hole within a key-hole within a key-hole.

This is the Alhambra’s Justice Gate. I wonder if someone was being clever when they made a key-hole shaped door inside a key-hole shaped stone alcove. It’s like a key-hole within a key-hole within a key-hole.

To visit the Alhambra, it’s necessary to make a reservation days or weeks in advance. In fact, you are required to reserve a specific time slot at the Nazarid Palaces, and will not be admitted if you show up at the wrong time! They do this to keep things from getting too crowded, a move which I support fully. If you’re planning a visit, do your research and book your tickets before you go, or you may be disappointed once you arrive.

The Alhambra is absolutely packed full of history, but we found ourselves enjoying the beautiful buildings, the fantastic views, and the awesome gardens the most. Here’s a peek at some of our favorite sites at The Alhambra:

The Alcazaba

The Alcazaba

The Alcazaba

This part of the Alhambra is the oldest and most ruined part of the whole complex. It was the fort from which soldiers defended the Alhambra, and offered incredible views of the entire town of Granada! The spots with the best views definitely had me hoping that restoration efforts were going flawlessly on this part of the Alhambra…

Here are some of our favorite Alcazaba photos (click to enlarge):

Awesome Views from the Alcazaba!

Awesome Views from the Alcazaba!

The snow-capped Sierra Nevada Mountains!

The snow-capped Sierra Nevada Mountains!

The Palacios Nazaries (Nazarid Palaces)

The opulent Nazarid Palaces, built mostly in the 14th century, are the main attraction here at the Alhambra. They offer an interesting look back into Moorish civilization and culture. Throughout the palaces, there is a striking absence of figural images (forbidden by the Quran), but the rooms are not lacking in ornamentation. The ceilings, tilework, and fountains are amazingly elaborate and detailed.

The room with the most interesting story was the Hall of the Abencerrajes. According to good ol’ Rick Steves, the name of this room comes from a legend of the 16th century. The father of Boabdil (the last Moorish Sultan, whose reign ended in surrender in 1492) took a new wife and wanted to disinherit the children of his first marriage, one of whom was Boabdil. To do this, the sultan killed nearly all of the pre-Boabdil Abencerraje family members, thinking this would pave the way for the son of his new wife to be the next sultan. The legend says that he stacked 36 Abencerraje heads in the fountain shown below. His scheme ultimately failed because Boabdil eventually did assume the throne. According to Rick, “bloody power struggles like this were the norm here in the Alhambra.”  …And I thought it was rough that I had the smallest bedroom growing up. Sheesh!

The fountain in the Hall of the Abencerrajes where the 36 heads were said to have been stacked.

The fountain in the Hall of the Abencerrajes where the 36 heads were said to have been stacked.

The Gardens at the Alhambra

The gardens at the Alhambra are amazing (I imagine they’d be breathtaking in the Summertime). We roamed around the Partal Gardens, which are just next door to the Nazarid Palaces:

The Partal Gardens

The Partal Gardens

Then we made our way to the Generalife Gardens, which were the sultan’s vegetable and fruit orchards and his summer retreat. Let me save you some embarrassment if you ever visit the Alhambra: Generalife is pronounced heh-neh-raw-LEE-fay. I was WAY off.

Eventually, we got tired of all the opulence, and things got weird:

We need to work on our palace stamina.

Charles V’s Palace

While this is probably one of the least interesting buildings at the Alhambra complex, it’s worth a visit because it’s Free and it’s not crowded. The central outdoor area also has great acoustics, so you can make fun of all the random tourists who walk out to the center of the courtyard and clap their hands. (Don’t worry, we did it too.)

The Charles V Palace also has a free little museum with some really old artifacts on display, including some amazing intricately carved doors. You know I can’t resist a beautiful door…

Granada’s Politically Incorrect Cathedral

Granada's Enormous Cathedral

Granada’s Enormous Cathedral

The Granada Cathedral is enormous, the second largest cathedral in Spain after Sevilla’s cathedral. It also has an enormously politically incorrect history. It was built over the remains of a mosque that was destroyed during the Inquisition, when Jews and Muslims were evicted or forced to convert to Catholicism. Even though there was better soil just 500 yards away that would’ve made for an easier spot to build the cathedral, the Christian conquerers refused to build there because they wanted to assert their power by destroying the mosque and building here on the sandy soil. Kind of a dick move, if you ask me.

Inside, there is even a statue of “St. James the Moor-Slayer” with his sword raised high and an armored Moor trampled under his horse’s hooves. Sigh.

Granada's Cathedral

Granada’s Cathedral

In spite of its slightly distasteful history, the Cathedral is still fun to see, if for no other reason than it has a beautiful interior with some badass organ pipes:

The Albayzin

The Albayzin is a cute little neighborhood perched on a hillside in Granada, and is perhaps Spain’s best old Moorish quarter, according to all the tourist books. It’s full of Moroccan tea shops and eateries, fun little cafes, narrow winding lanes, and hippies. There is no shortage here of young adults sporting dreadlocks and harem pants – I almost felt like we had teleported back to Thailand.

It’s a great neighborhood to explore on foot:

Stop for a cup of tea in one of the Albayzin’s many tea shops. We managed to find the weirdest one of them all. The owner was French, but spoke fluent Spanish and English. It was decorated in Moorish style, but french music was playing, and we drank Indian Chai Tea. I think I got cultural whiplash!

The Tapas Scene in Granada

Several towns in Spain are known for free tapas. Order a drink, get a free tapa! It’s magical. We tried a handful of spots around Granada, but knew immediately that Bodegas Casteñeda would be our fave. Aside from delicious drinks and food, they have two things that are essential at a good tapas bar:

They also have a variety of local vermouths on tap in wooden barrels. Kevin fell in love with the house Calicasas cocktail, a concoction of local vermouths, soda water, and magical deliciousness.

Other Food in Granada

Shawarma

One cannot subsist on free tapas alone, especially since you have to drink quite a bit to get enough food to fill you up. Lucky for us, Granada is also a hotbed of kebab, shawarma, and falafel eateries! It was like I had died and gone to heaven. We were only in Granada for 50 hours, but we had Shawarma no less than three times…

We hit the Shawarma shops hard in Granada

We hit the Shawarma shops hard in Granada

It almost lived up to the high expectations set by our favorite kebab spot in Seattle, Aladdin’s Gyrocery in the University District. Almost.

Desayunos

We also had our first traditional desayunos, or Spanish Breakfast. I already mentioned the confusion that is the Spanish Tortilla (see the tapas section above). Now I’m going to blow your mind. Think you know what a tostada is? Think again – in Spain it’s a breakfast food! A Tostada here is a long toasted sandwich roll that can come with butter and jam, olive oil and tomato, honey, or a number of other things.

For about 3 euros, you can get a tostada, cafe con leche (coffee with milk), and fresh squeezed orange juice!

To continue our food terminology confusion, we also ordered the Tortilla Española Bocadillo, which is essentially the potato quiche on a sandwich loaf. Because nothing says “healthy morning” like putting a starchy dish between two slices of bread, AMIRITE.

Our Biggest Mistake Yet: Chocolate and Churros

If you love greasy fried things dipped in fattening low quality chocolate, have I got something for you. Spain’s famous “Chocolate con Churros” dish.

Chocolate con Churros in Granada

Chocolate con Churros in Granada

Honestly, churros just belong in a theme park. I’m not sure who let them out into mainstream cafe culture here in Spain, but I am not a fan. The waiter was sure we would each want our own order but we insisted on sharing. We couldn’t even finish it between the two of us – I was afraid I’d soak up enough grease and slip off of my chair. Try them if you must, but set the bar low. I’m mentally adding churros into our big mistakes column.

A Week in Paris: A Cheese, Bread, and Wine Extravaganza

We Love Paris

We Love Paris

Three hours into our week in Paris, we realized that our trip would be completely centered around several things we were completely deprived of in Chiang Mai: Cheese, Bread, Wine, and Sidewalks. Luckily, we walked enough on sidewalks to compensate for the obscene amount of cheese, bread and wine we were consuming each day. Nothing says “time to move back home” like “outgrowing” all the clothes you have with you…

So why did we go to Paris? In a nutshell, my dad is a Rotary fanatic and is super involved in the youth exchange programs. Recently they became good friends with the Barbé family, because Zoé did a yearlong exchange in the town where my parents live. Because of my parents involvement Rotary Youth Exchange, I have “siblings” all over the world, people who have stayed with or have become very close with my family during their year in the USA. The Barbé family is one of those wonderful families, and they have an apartment in Paris where they very generously let us stay for a week! It. Was. Amazing.

Here we are with Zoé at the Paris Airport!

Here we are with Zoé at the Paris Airport!

Enough with the background, let’s talk about the food!

Cheese

Anyone who has ever traveled to Southeast Asia can back me up when I say that the cheese there is just so, so sad. I ordered a ham and cheese panini at a cafe in Chiang Mai once, and I am 99% sure they used Easy Cheese to make it. Even the American Cheese slices are expensive and just melt into a gooey mess the moment you take them out of the wrapper. The fancy import grocery store stocks great imported cheeses, but they’re absurdly expensive. That didn’t keep me from window shopping, though. Whenever we visited the Rimping Market, I would lust over the fancy cheese while Kevin stood drooling over the imported beers. Sigh. That was a big event for us on weekends.

Enter Paris. The Barbé Family gave us SUCH an awesome welcome the night we arrived. Check out the spread they laid out:

There are no less than TWELVE types of cheese in this photo. TWELVE.

There are no less than TWELVE types of cheese in this photo. TWELVE.

There are so many things in that photo that make me so happy. Aside from 12 types of cheese (obviously, we tried every single type), there is a wonderful bottle of bordeaux, delicious foie gras (where have you been all my life, foie gras…), and two types of bread.

We also went out for a lot of cheesey dishes. One day we got French Onion Soup, which we learned is just called “Onion Soup” when you’re in France:

Onion Soup, Topped with Cheesey Goodness

Onion Soup, Topped with Cheesey Goodness

We also got a Croque Madame. If you’ve never heard of one of those before, it’s basically a Grilled Cheese sandwich on steroids (it even has ham!), topped with a fried egg. Are you salivating? I am too:

Croque Madame. Highgly Recommend.

Croque Madame. Highgly Recommend.

Bread

Here's Kevin with a baguette and a chocolate croissant. The bakery was just a 5-minute walk from the apartment, but we definitely ate the croissant before we got home...

Here’s Kevin with a baguette and a chocolate croissant. This bakery was just a 5-minute walk from the apartment, but we definitely ate the croissant before we got home…

I don’t even know how to describe the bread culture in France in a way that does it justice. It is probably the best thing I have ever encountered in any culture I have ever experienced, ever. There are Boulangeries located all over the city, and locals tend to go out every morning to get fresh bread for the day. (Sidenote: Boulangerie is the French word for bakery.) Bakers typically go to school for three years before opening up a boulangerie. THREE YEARS!

When we were in Paris, we adhered to our do-as-the-locals-do mantra, and went to a boulangerie each morning. We tried croissants, croissants with butter, chocolate croissants, baguettes, “traditional” (more rustic) baguettes, bread with dried fruit and nuts in it, and the Barbés introduced us to the best type of bread known to human beings: viennoise. It’s a hybrid between brioche and a typical baguette, and it is the best thing since, well, sliced bread. The kicker? There is also a viennoise variety with chocolate chips baked into it!

Each morning, we enjoyed a traditional French breakfast of fresh baguettes with butter and jam. The best part is that you dip your buttered and jammed bread in milk before each bite! Try that at home, readers, it’s a little piece of paradise.

French Breakfast! The Viennoise bread is 2nd from the bottom.

French Breakfast! The Viennoise bread is 2nd from the bottom.

If jam isn’t sweet enough for you, there are also macaroons:

Delicious Wonderful Macaroons. So Buttery and Wonderful...

Delicious Wonderful Macaroons. So Buttery and Wonderful…

If you’re not into macaroons (you might not enjoy them if you don’t like butter, in which case we should not be friends), there’s definitely a dessert for you. Look at this madness:

Wine

We did our best in Paris to drink all the wine we could get our hands on, focusing on bordeaux, which typically costs north of $25/bottle in the US. In France, it’s easy to find a great bottle for just five bucks. We were only in Paris for 6 nights, but we took down 5 bottles of wine. We are champs.

Finally, a delicious red wine. (Wine's pretty spendy in Chiang Mai, and they sometimes serve red wine chilled! NOOOO!)

Finally, a delicious red wine. (Wine’s pretty spendy in Chiang Mai, and they sometimes serve red wine chilled! NOOOO!)

We made dinner one night in Paris. The star of the show was another bordeaux. This one cost us just north of 2 euro. I love a good bargain, especially on wine!

We made dinner one night in Paris. The star of the show was another bordeaux. This one cost us just north of 2 euro. I love a good bargain, especially on wine!

Don’t worry, we weren’t just drunk the whole time we were in Paris. We drank other things too, like incredibly adorable tiny cups of espresso:

I felt like a giant holding such an adorably tiny cup of espresso.

I felt like a giant holding such an adorably tiny cup of espresso.

Sidewalks

In Thailand, sidewalks are not sacred pedestrian areas. I’m not sure I’d even call them “pedestrian areas” at all, actually. Most “sidewalks” in Chiang Mai are riddled with uneven pavers that turn into what we call “gushers” after a rain storm. If you step on a gusher after it rains, then warm, muddy, gritty water might shoot up your leg. Fun, right? If you’re not worrying about gushers, you’re trying not to trip on random uneven sidewalk edges, or you’re avoiding advertising signs that have been erected in such a way that it blocks 98% of the sidewalk. I’ve seen loose electrical wires dangling in pedestrian paths, as well as random wires sticking out at eye-level from telephone poles. And the very best part is that it’s actually not at all uncommon for motorbikes to park and drive on the sidewalks. For months, I’ve been saying that I’m going to walk so hard on sidewalks once we move back to a more pedestrian-friendly culture. Here’s Kevin basking in the glory of a wide, wonderful sidewalk:

WE LOVE SIDEWALKS. Here's Kevin, taking up as much room on a sidewalk as humanly possible.

WE LOVE SIDEWALKS. Here’s Kevin, taking up as much room on a sidewalk as humanly possible.

We did a lot of walking in Paris, which is our favorite way to experience a city, even if it’s the middle of winter. Here’s a run-down of some of the sights we saw while we were exploring:

We Visited Notre Dame

A fun view of Notre Dame from jus down the Seine River.

A fun view of Notre Dame from just down the Seine River.

Kevin and Notre Dame.

Kevin and Notre Dame.

Can you find me in this photo with Notre Dame?

Can you find me in this photo with Notre Dame?

At Notre Dame, you can feed the birds! Put a piece of bread in your hand and they'll fly right up for it! There is so much joy in this photo - look at all those smiles, especially on the kid!

At Notre Dame, you can feed the birds! Put a piece of bread in your hand and they’ll fly right up for it! There is so much joy in this photo – look at all those smiles, especially on the kid!

Kevin dressed in colors to match the Notre Dame Christmas Tree.

Kevin dressed in colors to match the Notre Dame Christmas Tree.

I sneakily took one photo inside Notre Dame. Who can resist with beautiful stained glass like this?!

I sneakily took one photo inside Notre Dame. Who can resist with beautiful stained glass like this?!

Beautiful Notre Dame

Beautiful Notre Dame

Montmartre and Sacre Cœur

We visited Sacre Cœur.

We visited Sacre Cœur, a Catholic Church located on top of Montmartre Hill.

The wonderful view from the steps of Sacre Cœur.

The wonderful view from the steps of Sacre Cœur.

A harpist was playing on the steps!

A harpist was playing on the steps!

There was also a band playing near a Sacre Cœur side door. I loved the impromptu music all over Paris!

There was also a band playing near a Sacre Cœur side door. I loved the impromptu music all over Paris!

Another view of Sacre Cœur.

Another view of Sacre Cœur.

Montmartre is one of the most fun neighborhoods to explore in Paris. Here's Kevin, at the very top.

Montmartre is one of the most fun neighborhoods to explore in Paris. Here’s Kevin, at the very top.

Look how cute Montmartre is! I could live here.

Look how cute Montmartre is! I could live here.

One thing I love about Paris? Even though it's winter, people still eat outside in the sunshine.

One thing I love about Paris? Even though it’s winter, people still eat outside in the sunshine.

Someone put a clown nose on this statue in Montmartre!

Someone put a clown nose on this statue in Montmartre. Hooligans.

The La Marais Neighborhood

This quickly became our favorite neighborhood in Paris! These photos show why:

We stood in a crazy line to get food from L'As du Falafel, which translates to The Ace of Falafel.

We stood in a crazy line to get food from L’As du Fallafel, which translates to The Ace of Falafel.

It was worth it. The Falafel was incredible.

It was worth it. The Falafel was incredible.

Great music on Sundays in the La Marais neighborhood!

Great music on Sundays in the La Marais neighborhood!

I Became Obsessed with Doors

Paris just has the most beautiful doors ever. Period. I quickly became obsessed with them, which I know is a bit weird…

This one was my favorite.

This one was my favorite.

And here's Kevin making fun of my obsession.

And here’s Kevin making fun of my obsession.

This one still had up its Christmas decorations!

This one still had up its Christmas decorations!

So so beautiful.

So so beautiful.

The Louvre

Confession time. We looked at the outside of the Louvre, but didn’t go in. I mean, check out these lines:

Crazy lines at the Louvre!

Crazy lines at the Louvre!

A plaza at the Louvre.

A plaza at the Louvre.

I took this door photo at the Louvre, and Kevin made me zoom out and re-take it because he felt that the nude statues really gave the photo some extra oomph.

I took this door photo at the Louvre, and Kevin made me zoom out and re-take it because he felt that the nude statues really gave the photo some extra oomph. That guy on the right is totally naked, but he’s being so casual about it.

The Louvre pyramids.

The Louvre pyramids.

And here is Kevin walking on water at the Louvre.

And here is Kevin walking on water at the Louvre, because he can do that now.

L’Arc de Triomphe

Here's Kevin making his triumphant pose at the Arch of Triumph.

Here’s Kevin making his triumphant pose at the Arch of Triumph.

It's free on the first Sunday of each month! We climbed all of these stairs to get some fun night views from the top.

It’s free on the first Sunday of each month! We climbed all of these stairs to get some fun night views from the top.

The night view from the top of L'Arc de Triomphe.

The night view from the top of L’Arc de Triomphe.

L'Arc de Triomphe

L’Arc de Triomphe

The Local Market

There was a morning market on Saturday near the apartment. We are suckers for local farmers markets, so we made sure to go!

 

Beautiful flowers at the market.

Beautiful flowers at the market.

Did we get crepes? You Betcha! We had a delicious caramel one at the market. We also tried a sugar and lemon crepe, and a butter, cinnamon and sugar crepe. The Cinnamon one won, hands down.

Did we get crepes? You Betcha! We had a delicious caramel one at the market. We also tried a sugar and lemon crepe, and a butter, cinnamon and sugar crepe. The Cinnamon one won, hands down.

Other Paris Sights

Hôtel de Ville, Paris' City Hall, has an ice skating rink out front during the winter!

Hôtel de Ville, Paris’ City Hall, has an ice skating rink out front during the winter!

We saw this once in Seattle. Apparently parents in Paris let their kids play inside giant plastic bubbles, too. This was at a pop-up carnival near the Bastille.

We saw this once in Seattle. Apparently parents in Paris let their kids play inside giant plastic bubbles, too. This was at a pop-up carnival near the Bastille.

Here I am at the square near the Bastille. This was right near the carnival.

Here I am at the square near the Bastille. This was right near the carnival.

After walking down Montmartre hill, we found ourselves in a seedy neighborhood with lots of adult shops. I realized, "Hey, we must be near the Moulin Rouge!" Sure enough, we were just 2 blocks away. Here I am, practicing my kicks for the burlesque show. Nailed it.

After walking down Montmartre hill, we found ourselves in a seedy neighborhood with lots of adult shops. I realized, “Hey, we must be near the Moulin Rouge!” Sure enough, we were just 2 blocks away. Here I am, practicing my kicks for the burlesque show. Nailed it.

We stumbled upon the lock bridge near the Louvre. Couples get a padlock, write their names and the date on it, and lock it on the bridge as a symbol of their love. We figured we'd skip it - who needs a symbol of love when you already have a mortgage together, AMIRITE?!

We stumbled upon the lock bridge near the Louvre. Couples get a padlock, write their names and the date on it, and lock it on the bridge as a symbol of their love. We figured we’d skip it – who needs a symbol of love when you already have a mortgage together, AMIRITE?!

We walked over lots of Siene River Bridges.

We walked over lots of Siene River Bridges.

Sunset in Paris.

Sunset in Paris

We accidentally saved our Eiffel Tower daytime visit for a day with a low cloud cover. Oops. As consolation, here's a nude statue with the Eiffel Tower.

We accidentally saved our Eiffel Tower daytime visit for a day with a low cloud cover. Oops. As consolation, here’s a nude statue with the Eiffel Tower.

The Beautiful Eiffel Tower

The Beautiful Eiffel Tower

A New Years Celebration

We went with Zoé and her friends to the Eiffel Tower to count down the seconds until 2015!

The last photo we took in 2014.

The last photo we took in 2014.

We were so glad the Barbés loaned us coats for our week in Paris! Otherwise we would’ve rung in the new year with frostbite. At midnight, the Eiffel Tower sparkled with strobe lights, and unofficial fireworks were set off all over the city. It was a fun way to ring in the new year, but I’m not sure I’d recommend it to everyone. The crowds at the Metro (Paris’ Subway System) afterwards were the closest thing I’ve ever experienced to a riot:

This picture doesn't even come close to conveying the crowded craziness after midnight!

This picture doesn’t even come close to conveying the crowded craziness after midnight! I only took my phone out once we were on the platform, out of the biggest crowds. It was a lot better up here, because policemen were only letting a certain number of people through the subway station entrance at a time.

Our advice? Get a hotel in the city so you don’t need to use public transit after the clock strikes midnight!

We Want to Hear From You!

We’re going to be here in Europe for the next 4 months. Do you have any cold-weather destination suggestions? We’re all ears.

Our Guide to Koh Lanta, the Happiest Place on Earth

Koh Lanta is Beautiful

A Beautiful Koh Lanta Sunset

We did it! We found the happiest place on earth. After visiting Koh Samui, Koh Tao, Koh Phangan and Ko Chang, we found the island that will forever hold the torch with us as the best beach destination in Thailand: Koh Lanta. It’s a small island in the Andaman Sea south of Krabi, and it’s a bit of a challenge to get to, which I think keeps the crowds at bay. Koh Lanta has a low-key vibe, not a ton of tourists (even in the high season), amazing food (see my post from last week) and beautiful beaches. It truly is an island paradise – seriously, go book your tickets to visit now!

Enjoying Some Solitude in Koh Lanta.

Enjoying Some Solitude in Koh Lanta.

Koh Lanta is unique because it hasn’t been overdeveloped like so many of Thailand’s other islands. There are building codes that prevent properties on the beach from being more than 1 story tall, which helps avoid the overly resorty feeling. The lush green hills cascading down the center of the island are mostly undeveloped, and whole sections of the island’s coastline are just wild forested areas. It’s amazing!

Don't Worry, Even Though Koh Lanta Hasn't Been Overdeveloped, There Is Still a Beachside Tree Swing!

Don’t Worry, Even Though Koh Lanta Hasn’t Been Overdeveloped, There Is Still a Beachside Tree Swing!

We spent a lot of time motorbiking around the island, devoting an entire day to beach hopping. There were times when we had entire beaches all to ourselves! Even the more touristy “Lanta Old Town” wasn’t crowded. The island has a National Park on its southern tip, and as you get closer and closer to it, it becomes more common to see monkeys running around in the road!

Welcome to Lanta Old Town! The Motorbike Trip to Get There Is at Least Half the Fun of Going!

Welcome to Lanta Old Town! The Motorbike Trip to Get There Is at Least Half the Fun of Going.

Because it hasn’t yet been overdeveloped, Koh Lanta’s waters seemed clearer, and the beaches seemed cleaner than others we’ve seen around Thailand. There was far less trash littering the roads and walking paths than we’ve gotten used to, which was such a breath of fresh air. It also seemed like fewer people were burning garbage than on Koh Tao and Koh Phangan.

Beachcombing at Long Beach on a Rainy Day.

Beach Combing at Long Beach on a Rainy Day.

The very best thing about Koh Lanta, however, is the people who live there. Thailand is often called the “Land of Smiles”, and no place lives up to that nickname like Koh Lanta. People on the island are incredibly warm and friendly, are always willing to help you out, and want nothing more than to meet you and say hello. Sadly, this isn’t the case at some of the other more heavily visited islands in Thailand. I’m not certain why this is, but I have a hunch it has to do with the fact that Koh Lanta is a bit lower on the tourist radar. Maybe the locals haven’t had a chance to get tired of all of us tourists yet?

Or maybe they’re all so friendly because it’s so easy to find a Magic Mushroom Shake, or because you can buy a joint at your friendly neighborhood beach bar.

Koh Lanta, the Island with a Relaxed Mushroom and Weed Culture.

Koh Lanta, the Island with a Relaxed Mushroom and Weed Culture.

Whatever the reason, we loved our week on Koh Lanta, and highly recommend it to anyone headed to Thailand. We put together this little Guide to Koh Lanta to try to convince you to visit the island we’ve dubbed the Happiest Place on Earth.

Some of Our Favorite Koh Lanta Experiences

Blue Moon Bar

Be sure you visit Blue Moon Bar on Klong Nin beach. You can use their beach mats and lounge chairs as long as you order food or drinks. The Fried Glass Noodles dish is delicious, as is their Papaya Curry!

Blue Moon Bar, Where You Can Sit at a Table and Have a Meal with Your Toes in the Sand!

Blue Moon Bar, Where You Can Sit at a Table and Have a Meal with Your Toes in the Sand!

Sunset Drinks at Blue Moon Bar

Sunset Drinks at Blue Moon Bar.

Order a Beer, Smoothie, or Fresh Coconut and Settle down for an Afternoon of Sunshine!

Order a Beer, Smoothie, or Fresh Coconut and Settle Down for an Afternoon of Sunshine!

Blue Moon Bar, One of the Best Spots in Koh Lanta to Lay on the Beach.

Blue Moon Bar, One of the Best Spots in Koh Lanta to Lay on the Beach.

Visit the local market

The local market is in a different place each day, so you’re bound to be near it at least once during your stay:

Veggies at the Local Market

Veggies at the Local Market

I Never Got the Courage to Buy Fresh Meet at the Local Markets in Thailand, Do You See Why?

I Never Got the Courage to Buy Fresh Meet at the Local Markets in Thailand, Do You See Why?

Big Bags of Chilis at the Local Market

Big Bags of Chilis at the Local Market

The Shrimp Looked so Good I Almost Wanted to Eat It Raw!

The Shrimp Looked so Good I Almost Wanted to Eat It Raw!

Sunset Cocktails

All of Koh Lanta’s beaches are on the west coast. Find yourself a bar, order up a cocktail, and enjoy the beautiful sunset:

Picasso on Klong Dao Has Happy Hour Cocktails until 6pm, Perfect Timing to Catch the Sunset.

Picasso on Klong Dao Has Happy Hour Cocktails until 6pm, Perfect Timing to Catch the Sunset.

If You're Lucky, You'll See Some Sunset Acrobatics on the Beach.

If You’re Lucky, You’ll See Some Sunset Acrobatics on the Beach.

Hammock House

Hammock House Is in Lanta Old Town

Hammock House Is in Lanta Old Town

If you have lots of time, motorbike on over to the Hammock House in Lanta Old Town. We had fun trying out all the hammocks:

Hammocks Make Great Souvenirs!

Hammocks Make Great Souvenirs!

Do You See Kevin in This Photo? We Were Excited They Had a Huskies Colors Hammock!

Do you see Kevin in this photo? We were excited they had a Purple and Gold Huskies colors hammock! This one is made out of parachute material.

If you’re lucky, you might just catch the cat napping in a hammock of his own:

A Cat Hammock!

A Cat Hammock!

Relax and Enjoy the Sun and the Sand

There are some talented people lurking around Koh Lanta. Check out some of these sand creations:

There Are Some Seriously Talented Sand Masters Lurking around Koh Lanta.

There Are Some Seriously Talented Sand Masters Lurking around Koh Lanta.

Who Built This?! The Sand Whisperer?

Who Built This?! The Sand Whisperer? The text in the background says “Merry Christmas”.

Beach combing is exciting here, where tourists are probably outnumbered by hermit crabs:

Hermit Crab Tracks Are Everywhere on Koh Lanta's Beaches!

Hermit Crab Tracks Are Everywhere on Koh Lanta’s Beaches!

We Enjoyed Bamboo Bay, Where We Were the ONLY People on the Entire Beach.

We Enjoyed Bamboo Bay, Where We Were the ONLY People on the Entire Beach.

Two Words: Fresh Coconut

I have a two-coconut-per-day quota on beach vacations, and did my best to meet it in Koh Lanta. Almost everyone sells them (for just 40 Baht!), but the best one I had was at the Indian Bar on Klong Dao. YUM.

A Delicious Coconut at the Indian Bar

A Delicious Coconut at the Indian Bar

Getting Around

Motorbike is the most efficient (and most fun!) way to get around Koh Lanta. Thailand must be one of the only countries in the world where you can rent a motor vehicle without proving you have a drivers license and without having any car insurance. If you have the cash, they’ll give you the keys. (They’ll also hold your passport hostage while you have the motorbike, and won’t give it back unless you pay for any damages you might incur during your rental period. This is pretty much standard practice all over Thailand.)

Everyone in Koh Lanta seems to rent out motorbikes, from the barber to the restaurant owners to all the hotels and resorts, and the going rate everywhere is 250 Baht per day. Make sure you’re safe, and be sure you get a helmet when they give you a bike!

We used the Koh Lanta Biker Map to find our way around the island:

The Lanta Biker Map

Out Guide to Koh Lanta, the Lanta Biker Map

When you need gas, it’s cheapest to find a petrol station, but you can buy fuel sold in used whiskey bottles from almost any roadside establishment. The bottle-style purchasing is also a fun way to meet some of the locals – we met a nice guy and his family in a hillside stilt home on our way to Lanta Old Town, and he gave us some fun tips on places to see around the island.

If you don’t want to rent a motorbike, you can always use the local taxis:

Tuk Tuks Are a Fun Way to Get around Koh Lanta, but Are Definitely More Expensive than Motorbiking.

Tuk Tuks Are a Fun Way to Get around Koh Lanta, too.

It’ll be more expensive, but if you’re not confident motorbiking or if you have luggage with you, it’s well worth the money.

Where to Stay

We spent a few nights at the Ananda Lanta Resort and loved it. At over $50/night, it was definitely a splurge, but who wouldn’t splurge for a balcony with an ocean view:

Our Ocean View Room in the Ananda Lanta Resort

Our Ocean View Room in the Ananda Lanta Resort

It’s located very close to the beautiful Klong Dao Beach, is within walking distance of Long Beach, and is near tons of shops and restaurants. Every single staff member we encountered was super friendly, and the front desk folks are happy to help you book tours at very fair prices. They also have a great pool area we used a lot:

I Love Me an Infinity Pool!

I Love Me an Infinity Pool!

Getting There

If I’ve convinced you to visit Koh Lanta, you first need to get to Bangkok. From there, we recommend booking the flight + island transfer with Nok Air. Nok has some great rates if you watch for hot deals, and you get free checked bags! (PRO TIP: checked baggage is definitely necessary, because you should bring a LOT of sunscreen in with you. It costs an arm and a leg everywhere in Thailand!) Nok flies you from DMK to Trang, busses you to the nearby ferry terminal, then transfer you to Koh Lanta via high speed ferry.

If you’re more adventurous, you can fly into Krabi (Air Asia has some really low fares on the Bangkok to Krabi route, but you have to pay to check your bag) and take a 3+ hour minibus to Koh Lanta. While this option is pretty cheap (the minibus will only run you 300-400 Baht), we’ve grown to hate minibusses. They are always cramped, the aircon never seems to work, and carsickness is almost guaranteed unless you’re in the front of the van.

We Want to Hear From You!

What’s your favorite island? Leave us a comment and let us know!

Have I Convinced You to Move to Koh Lanta? Here's a House for Rent Just a Few Minutes Walk from Long Beach!

Have I Convinced You to Move to Koh Lanta? Here’s a House for Rent Just a Few Minutes Walk from Long Beach!

A Saga to Find Good, Cheap Food in Koh Lanta

For the most part, the food scene on Thailand’s islands is a barren wasteland full of overpriced and under-flavored foods that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. I don’t know what causes this phenomenon, but I think it has something to do with the fact that a lot of Thai people keep trying to feed us spaghetti. Yes, spaghetti! We stayed for two nights with a Thai Woman in Chiang Rai, and she cooked us macaroni with meat sauce on the first night. Only after spending a lot of time convincing her that we wanted to eat what she likes to eat did she relent and make a delicious stir fry for our second dinner.

The food in most of Thailand’s most touristy areas just tends to taste subpar to me. I’m not sure who to blame, the locals or the tourists. Is it the tourists fault for always asking for “Mai Ped” (Thai for not spicy)? Or do Thai people water down the food because they think all we want to eat is spaghetti? I think the answer lies in the latest crackpot theory Kevin and I cooked up: The TripAdvisor One Third Rule.

In this post, I’ll explain our TripAdvisor One Third Rule, our Golden Rule for eating in Thailand, and I’ll tell you where to find the absolute BEST cheap food in Koh Lanta. We found a gem that serves up some of the best curries we’ve had in Thailand, at prices that rival the ones we’re used to in Chiang Mai.

The TripAdvisor One Third Rule

We came up with The TripAdvisor One Third Rule when we were in Koh Lanta for a week, and it states that “When traveling in countries where the locals do not use TripAdvisor, one should automatically disregard the top one third of TripAdvisor Ranked Restaurants, and take all reviews with a grain of salt.”

I don’t want to offend my fellow tourists out there, but I think some tourists might have a skewed idea of what Thai food is supposed to taste like. I blame Thai food restaurants in our home countries. Let’s face it, there are a lot of bad Thai food restaurants in countries where TripAdvisor is popular. I can vouch for a handful of bad Thai places in Seattle alone, and I know there are a lot of less than stellar spots in Europe. I think this sets the bar for Thai food really low with a lot of people, so when they come to Thailand, even a mediocre restaurant seems fantastic.

This is the problem with TripAdvisor – people making the ratings may have this skewed idea of what Thai food tastes like. Also, some of the best places I’ve eaten don’t have an English name, so they’re less likely to be on TripAdvisor. That’s why we like to disregard the top third restaurants and focus on those in the middle of the pack.

As a specific example, we tried Jai-Dee’s, the #16 ranked restaurant in Koh Lanta (out of 203 total restaurants). The staff was really nice and we met the lovely owner, but the Pad Thai was just awful and their Panang curry was not good. Several doors down, Blue Moon Bar (Ranked #96) serves up far superior noodle dishes and had a really delicious Papaya curry. The One Third Rule in action, people! (Blue moon is beach front, so it has fairly high prices; 80 Baht for noodles, 120 Baht for curries, and a whopping 40 Baht per serving of rice, ouch! But the view is probably worth it, and the waiter Ken is awesome!)

The Fried Glass Noodles at Blue Moon Bar were Delicious (80 Baht)

The Fried Glass Noodles at Blue Moon Bar were Delicious (80 Baht)

Blue Moon also has a delicious Papaya Curry (120 Baht), but white rice will run you an extra 40 Baht!

Blue Moon also has a delicious Papaya Curry (120 Baht), but white rice will run you an extra 40 Baht!

The Golden Rule for Eating in Thailand

Stop looking on the internet for good restaurants! Most spots with a good internet presence will be more expensive, more crowded, and often times if they get more popular the food quality gets watered down. I suggest completely ignoring Trip Advisor. Instead, search for good food with your eyes! Walk around and look for restaurants that are packed with locals. Go outside of the touristy areas. The number of motorbikes parked outside the food stall directly correlates with how good the food will taste!

The golden rule of traveling is to eat where the locals eat. Someone once explained it to me like this – if you eat like the locals, it will be tastier (obviously), but it will also reduce your chances of getting food poisoning. Why? Because local people know the right way to cook local food, and might not be as good with foreign food. I’ve heard multiple stories about people getting food poisoning in Thailand from deli meat. We think it’s because refrigeration isn’t as important here since most food here is so fresh. Lack of refrigeration with fresh food is fine, but with deli meat it can be dangerous.

If you MUST look on the internet before you go, I don’t blame you. I am one of those people who like to plan ahead, too. The very best source of info in Thailand for us has been travel blogs! Sometimes you have to dig deep into the interwebs (page 4 or 5 on Google search results, PHEW) to find the best posts, but it’s worth the effort to get a blogger’s perspective. Some of our favorite spots in Chiang Mai were found that way.

Finally, the Good Cheap Food in Koh Lanta!

We found it. The holy grail. Delicious food on one of Thailand’s Islands. We’ve been to Koh Samui, Koh Tao, Koh Phangan, and Ko Chang, and never found anything that even comes close to this place. The best part?! Prices are similar to the ones you’d find in Chiang Mai, and the portions are big!

This is Part, the guy behind the magic at Pad Thai Like. SO much good food comes out of this kitchen!

This is Part, the guy behind the magic at Pad Thai Like. SO much good food comes out of this kitchen!

Located near Klong Dao beach, this awesome little food stall nearly blends into the noise around it. The restaurant doesn’t have a name, but loyal customers have nicknamed it “Pad Thai Like”. It’s run by a wonderful couple (The husband, Part, and his wife, Oou) that serves up some of the best curries I’ve had in our entire 8-month stay in Thailand.

Here we are, enjoying our first meal at Pad Thai Like:

Pad Thai Like - So Delicious!

Pad Thai Like – So Delicious!

It even impressed my brother-in-law Albert, who probably loves eating more than anyone I’ve ever met:

Here's Albert, Enjoying the Best Food in Koh Lanta.

Here’s Albert, Enjoying the Best Food in Koh Lanta.

Here's Albert with Chef Part.

And here’s Albert with Chef Part at Pad Thai Like.

They served the best Green Curry I’ve ever had in Thailand (50 Baht), and also the best Tom Kha Kai (coconut soup with chicken) I’ve had in the 8 months we’ve been here:

Tom Kha Gai, which is Coconut Soup with Chicken. Just 50 Baht!

Tom Kha Kai, which is Coconut Soup with Chicken. Just 50 Baht!

The Muslim-style curry (50 baht) was stellar:

Muslim-Style Curry with Chicken

Muslim-Style Curry with Chicken

The Savory Curry (50 baht) was even better:

Savory Curry from Pad Thai Like

Savory Curry from Pad Thai Like

Becca and Albert enjoyed the Pad Thai with Shrimp (50 Baht):

Pad Thai with Shrimp

Pad Thai with Shrimp

And don’t miss the shakes. I would swim across the ocean to reach Koh Lanta if it meant I could have their pineapple shake (30 Baht) one more time. The Mango shake with yogurt (60 Baht) was also delicious:

Delicious Shakes at Pad Thai Like!

Delicious Shakes at Pad Thai Like!

So how do you find this mythical, magical, wonderful restaurant? It’s on the main road near Klong Dao beach, across the road from the Ananda Lanta Resort where we stayed. It’s just south of Salad House:

IMG_1556

Here’s a view of the storefront:

The Pad Thai Like Restaurant

The Pad Thai Like Restaurant

Once you see this sign, your saga to find delicious, cheap Thai food in Koh Lanta is over:

Look for this Sign!

Look for this Sign!

Be warned that if you go after 7pm, they might be starting to run out of food. It’s a small place with only a handful of tables, so do yourself a solid and just go early.

We Want to Hear From You!

Have you ever discovered a little known gem of a restaurant during your travels? If you have, leave us a comment and let us know! Who knows, maybe we’ll travel there and give it a try. Stranger things have happened!

Our Guide to Angkor Wat

Our Epic Journey to Angkor Wat

Our Wonderful Journey to Angkor Wat

Finally, the epic finale to my 3-part series about our trip to Cambodia – our Guide to Angkor Wat. This one’s going to be heavy on the photos and light on the words, perfect for coming off of the Christmas food hangover, right? I always appreciate a bit of light reading when I’m trying to work my way out of a dinner roll coma.

I already wrote about our time in Phnom Penh, and posted a little bit about things we did in and around Siem Reap, and this week I’m posting about the time we spent at Angkor Wat.

Angkor Wat, located just north of Siem Reap in Cambodia, is the largest religious monument in the world. It was first a Hundu Complex, later turned to Buddhist complex, and has an incredibly rich history full of occupations, wars, devastation, and restoration. Angkor Wat is probably the biggest draw for tourists who visit Cambodia; it’s so important, in fact, that it appears on the Cambodian flag!

Angkor vs. Angkor Wat (Or, Angkor WHAT?!)

Ok let me embarrass myself here for a moment. Before researching Angkor Wat, I didn’t realize that “Angkor” refers to the larger area north of Siem Reap that encompasses MANY temples, not just Angkor Wat. (Reminder: Wat means Temple.) Based on our visit, I was under the impression that there were about a gazillion temples in the Angkor Complex. (Yes, a gazillion. That’s a lot of temples.) I found out on the interwebs, though, that there are merely 1,000+ temples – still a lot, but a bit lower than I estimated.

Here’s a map of the Angkor complex, just to give you an idea of its enormousness:

Map of the Angkor Complex

Map of the Angkor Complex

Some Tips to Make Your Visit More Pleasant

Tip #1: Visit Early in the Day

Nearly 2 million people visit the temples of the Angkor Complex each year. During peak season (Nov-Feb), that means huge crowds. For proof, check out all these tour busses! PHEW.

SO MANY TOUR BUSSES NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!

SO MANY TOUR BUSSES NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!

Because of the crowds and because of the hot humid weather, we recommend leaving your hotel around 6am for Angkor, returning back to your hotel before lunch. You’ll beat a lot of the crowds, and you can spend your afternoon lounging by your hotel pool! Trust us, the temples are MUCH more enjoyable when some random woman isn’t knocking you in the head with her umbrella.

Tip #2: Spend Half Days at the Angkor Temples

Have you heard of snow blindness? (Official medical term: photokeratitis.) If you haven’t heard of it, it’s blindness caused by too much of a good thing: sunlight. It can happen to people who don’t have eye protection in snowy areas where light reflects so strongly off of the snow.

I’d like to present the world with a new, similar disease: temple blindness. (Official medical term: phototempleatitis.) Temple blindness is caused when you visit too many temples in a short period of time. Everything starts to look the same, you stop appreciating unique features of each temple, a general crankiness may set in and you might even begin craving chocolate. It’s a dire situation, people.

Temple Blindness in full force - check out the look on Kevin's face!

Temple Blindness in full force – check out the look on Kevin’s face!

Luckily, this can be easily avoided. We recommend spending just half-days at the temples, visiting no more than 4 spots per day.

Tip #3: Get a 3-Day Pass

As of December 2014, it costs $20 for a 1-day pass to Angkor and $40 for a 3-day pass. I wouldn’t wish a whirlwind marathon 1-day tour of the Angkor temples on my worst enemy – it would be absurd to try to cover enough ground to feel like you’ve seen enough to make your trip to Cambodia worth it. So you should definitely spring for the 3-day pass.

PRO TIP: If you purchase your pass after 5pm, you can enter Angkor on “Day 0″ to view sunset. When you leave after sunset, you still have all 3 days left on your pass!

Tip #4: Don’t Try To “Do It All”

With over 1,000 temples to choose from, it’s absolutely insane to try to see everything. Decide what you want to see: are you into intricate carvings? Do you prefer temples that are being eaten up by nature? Or are you more interested in the restoration projects? Do your research before visiting, and create your own customized itinerary.

On the other hand, you could just show up and let your Tuk Tuk driver take you on their standard tour. They tend to run two types of tours – a “big loop” or “small loop”. We recommend the “big loop” on the first day to get a taste for the size of the grounds (you may need to cut a few temples from the list if you want to keep things down to a half day!). If you’re into cycling, rent a bicycle and do the “small loop” yourself on Day 2. Then if you have anything left you want to see, book a tuk tuk driver for Day 3. Easy peezy.

The Big Loop and Small Loop at Angkor.

The Big Loop (green) and Small Loop (red) at Angkor.

Tip #5: Hire a Tuk Tuk Driver

The Angkor complex is huge! Clocking in at about 400 square miles, you can bet your bottom dollar that I did not want to explore on foot. The size, combined with the 95+ degree Fahrenheit temperatures and hellacious humidity convinced me that we should hire a Tuk Tuk driver for each of our temple exploration days. Plus, you can get a driver for just $15 all day, or a bargain basement price of just $7.50 for a half day! (We booked ours through our hotel.)

Tuk Tuks in Cambodia Are Cheap and Fun!

Tuk Tuks in Cambodia Are Cheap and Fun!

This is Mr. Kim, our Tuk Tuk Driver for 2 Days.

This is Mr. Kim, our Tuk Tuk Driver for 2 Days.

Our Favorite Temples

Angkor Wat: The Big Daddy of the Angkor Temples

At the top of Angkor Wat!

At the top of Angkor Wat!

The stairs to climb to the top of Angkor Wat. They open at 7:30am, and close sometime in the afternoon. Worth the climb!

The stairs to climb to the top of Angkor Wat. They open at 7:30am, and close sometime in the afternoon. Worth the climb!

We visited Angkor Wat immediately after sunrise, and it was practically empty!

We visited Angkor Wat immediately after sunrise, and it was practically empty!

Angkor Wat: A Statue Missing its Head

Angkor Wat: A Statue Missing its Head

Intricate Carvings at Angkor Wat

Intricate Carvings at Angkor Wat

Monkies at Angkor Wat

Monkies at Angkor Wat. Mr. Monkey is just picking at his wife monkey’s tushie. No big deal.

Monkies Playing at Angkor Wat.

Monkies Playing at Angkor Wat.

Angkor Wat at Sunrise

Many tourists who visit Angkor Wat choose to make the early morning pilgrimage to view the sun rising behind Angkor Wat. We did it, and thought it was great! The only bad thing? You need to leave your hotel by 5am. Because you have to arrive so early, it works best if you already have your Angkor Pass purchased.

Angkor Wat Sunrise

Angkor Wat Sunrise

Beware: Sunrise is Ridiculously Crowded!

Beware: Sunrise is Ridiculously Crowded!

PRO TIP: Be sure you stay at a hotel that will pack you a to-go breakfast! We stayed at the Villa Um Theara, and they were happy to have a to-go breakfast all ready for our 5am departure.

My To-Go Breakfast of Pancakes and Fruit! YUM.

My To-Go Breakfast of Pancakes and Fruit! YUM.

Word of warning - never order a sandwich in Southeast Asia. Kevin got the "Club Sandwich" for breakfast, and it was pureed meat with a ton of mayo on white bread. BOO.

Word of warning – never order a sandwich in Southeast Asia. Kevin got the “Club Sandwich” for breakfast, and it was pureed meat with a ton of mayo on white bread. BOO.

Ta Prohm: The One Being Eaten by Trees

Ta Prohm is the temple where part of Tomb Raider was filmed. Here we are, in front of the tree that was shown in the movie!

Ta Prohm is the temple where part of Tomb Raider was filmed. Here we are, in front of the tree that was shown in the movie!

Ta Prohm. Those are some ginormous tree roots!

Ta Prohm. Those are some ginormous tree roots!

We loved Ta Prohm because nature is swallowing it ever so slowly.

We loved Ta Prohm because nature is swallowing it ever so slowly.

GIANT Tree Roots at Ta Prohm.

GIANT Tree Roots at Ta Prohm.

When we pulled up to Ta Prohm, the kids were out in full force to sell trinkets, souvenirs, and tour books.

When we pulled up to Ta Prohm, the kids were out in full force to sell trinkets, souvenirs, and tour books.

Ta Prohm is Crumbling.

Ta Prohm is Crumbling.

Ta Prohm Peek-a-boo.

Ta Prohm Peek-a-boo.

Ta Prohm

Ta Prohm

Ta Prohm

Ta Prohm

Ta Prohm. When I see this picture, all I can think of is that the tree must be thinking "OMNOMNOM!"

Ta Prohm. When I see this picture, all I can think of is that the tree must be saying “OMNOMNOM!”

And here's Kevin, holding up the doorway at Ta Prohm.

And here’s Kevin, holding up a doorway at Ta Prohm.

Exterior of Ta Prohm

Exterior of Ta Prohm. This is Kevin’s “Let’s Rock this Temple” move.

Bantaey Kdei: The One with No Crowds

Bantaey Kdei wasn’t really on our radar until our friends Liz and Chris recommended it. We were delighted when we arrived to find hardly any other people there. Like Ta Prohm, this temple has been heavily impacted by nature, which is one of the most fascinating things to look at, for us. We highly recommend this one to anyone else who visits!

The front of Bantaey Kdei. See? No Crowds!  Sidenote: would YOU feel comfortable walking under this archway?!

The front of Bantaey Kdei. See? No Crowds! Sidenote: would YOU feel comfortable walking under this archway?!

The leaning walls of Bantaey Kdei.

The leaning walls of Bantaey Kdei.

Bantaey Kdei is falling apart. I feel like at one point there was a conversation where someone said, "It won't fall apart, I duct taped it!"

Bantaey Kdei is falling apart. I feel like at one point there was a conversation where someone said, “It won’t fall apart, I duct taped it!”

Bantaey Kdei Peek-a-boo.

Bantaey Kdei Peek-a-boo.

I couldn't believe they let us go into this room at Bantaey Kdei.

The look on Kevin’s face means “I can’t believe they let us go into this room!”

Inside the leaning room. Here, Kevin is saying "Don't push on THAT WALL."

Inside the leaning room. Here, Kevin is saying “Don’t push on THAT WALL.”

In previous decades, theft of pieces of the temples has been a huge problem. This statue at Bantaey Kdei is missing its head, possibly because someone took it! It's actually fairly rare to see a fully intact statue anywhere at Angkor.

In previous decades, theft of pieces of the temples has been a huge problem. This statue at Bantaey Kdei is missing its head, possibly because someone took it! It’s actually fairly rare to see a fully intact statue anywhere at Angkor.

Bantaey Kdei also has some really great stone carvings.

Bantaey Kdei also has some really great stone carvings.

Leaning doorway and walls at Bantaey Kdei.

Leaning doorway and walls at Bantaey Kdei.

Ta Som: A Mini Ta Prohm

Ta Som is a pretty small temple compared to the rest of the ones we visited. We stopped by mostly because of the archway at the far back of the Ta Som grounds is almost entirely swallowed up by a tree. This archway is easy to miss if you’re in a hurry, but worth the stop.

The Iconic Photo Spot at Ta Som

The Iconic Photo Spot at Ta Som

Preah Khan: A Giant Temple with a Lot Going On

Preah Khan may have been my favorite temple we visited. It is huge, has many lesser known passageways leading to things you might not see if you don’t hear about them from others. (Hint: follow a group with a guide! They may lead you to some of these fun places.)

One of the bridges leading into Preah Khan.

One of the bridges leading into Preah Khan.

Preah Khan

Preah Khan

And here's Kevin, busting down walls at Preah Khan.

And here’s Kevin, busting down walls at Preah Khan. HULK SMASH.

Preah Khan also has some hungry trees that decided to eat on its walls!

Preah Khan also has some hungry trees that decided to eat on its walls!

We liked to play a game called "pose like the carvings or statues." Here I am, imitating the dancing ladies in the carving above me. NAILED IT.

We liked to play a game called “pose like the carvings or statues.” Here I am, imitating the dancing ladies in the carving above me. NAILED IT.

One of my favorite things about Preah Khan is the mysterious Grecian building on its Northern grounds. Does anyone know what it is, why it’s so different, or why it might even be there? Nope. What a fun mystery!

The mysterious Grecian-style building that is nothing like any of Preah Khan's other structures!

The mysterious Grecian-style building that is nothing like any of Preah Khan’s other structures!

Bayon: The One with All the Faces

Bayon is probably the 2nd most popular temple behind Angkor Wat, and is completely overrun with crowds by 9am. In spite of the crowds, it’s still worth the visit. I think I would’ve loved this one if we arrived by 7am!

The Faces of Bayon Temple

The Faces of Bayon Temple

Bayon Temple

Bayon Temple

Hanging out at Bayon Temple.

Hanging out at Bayon Temple.

At Bayon Temple, you can climb to the top of the library in the Northeast corner to get a good view of it all.

At Bayon Temple, you can climb to the top of the library in the Northeast corner to get a good view of it all.

And here's Kevin, knocking down pillars at Bayon. (JUST KIDDING!)

And here’s Kevin, knocking down pillars at Bayon. (JUST KIDDING!)

Bayon has some of the most intricate carvings we saw, and they all tell a story about history. If you visit, grab a copy of Lonely Planet Cambodia for your Kindle so you can read all about the bas reliefs!

Bayon has some of the most intricate carvings we saw, and they all tell a story about history. If you visit, grab a copy of Lonely Planet Cambodia for your Kindle so you can read all about the bas reliefs!

Baphuon: The One with the Archway That Makes Me Think of Harry Potter

Kevin and I have an annual holiday tradition of re-watching the Harry Potter series around Christmas time. I know what you’re thinking – it’s hard to believe we’re about to enter our 30s. I’m not sure how to explain our obsession, other than to say that there is almost ALWAYS a Christmas scene in each HP movie where someone says “Happy Christmas.” And I love that.

Anyway, I had harry potter on my mind when we visited Baphuon. These arches remind me of the scene where Sirius dies and goes through the archway. (In hindsight, I also may have been delirious by the time we visited Baphuon.)

The Harry Potter Arches at Baphuon

The Harry Potter Arches at Baphuon

All kid-movie references aside, Baphuon is pretty interesting. It was smack dab in the midst of restorations when the Cambodia Civil War began. The temple was mostly disassembled when fighting began and the Khmer Rouge came to power, and all records of how the temple was supposed to be put back together were lost in the war. So when there was peace in Cambodia again, restoration teams were faced with a giant temple-sized puzzle that needed to put back together. I’m an amateur, but it looked like they did a good job to me!

Baphuon

Baphuon

The view from the top of Baphuon. Lots of stairs!

The view from the top of Baphuon. Lots of stairs! Go when it’s cool out!

Baphuon

Baphuon

The Terraces and Gates of Angkor Thom

Angkor Thom is the “walled temple city” area which contains Bayon, Baphuon, and the Elephant and Leper Terraces. Each of its four sides has roads entering and leaving from one of its huge stone “gates”.

Angkor Thom's North Gate

Angkor Thom’s North Gate. Check out the faces in the stone, so awesome!

Angkor Thom's South Gate

Angkor Thom’s famous South Gate

The Terrace of Elephants gets all the attention when it comes to Angkor Thom’s terraces. I didn’t think it was awesome enough to even warrant putting a photo into this blog post. But I really loved the Terrace of the Leper King! A false wall was put up in front of the original terrace wall, which means that the original carvings have been sheltered from wind and rain, and are in remarkably good shape.

Checking out the Terrace of the Leper King

Checking out the Terrace of the Leper King

Terrace of the Leper King. Aren't these stone carvings incredible?!

Terrace of the Leper King. Aren’t these stone carvings incredible?!

Pre Rup for Sunset

If you’re going to catch a sunset at Angkor Wat, Pre Rup is probably the best place to do it. We read on blog posts and heard from our Tuk Tuk driver that over a thousand people gather each night to watch the sunset from the hill temple Phnom Bakheng. At Pre Rup, the crowds are smaller and you watch the sun set over a more natural setting. The view isn’t as spectacular, the the lack of crowds probably makes up it. We didn’t get a very good sunset, though. BOO.

Waiting for sunset at the top of Pre Rup.

Waiting for sunset at the top of Pre Rup.

Photos That Make Us Chuckle

If you made it this far, you deserve a good laugh. We captured some photos that just make me chuckle – I hope they’ll make you laugh too.

The view from the top of Angkor Wat. Someone is napping in this photo - can you find him?

The view from the top of Angkor Wat. Someone is napping in this photo – can you find him?

This monkey was hanging out in front of Angkor Wat and WOULD NOT move off of the boardwalk. Then he started peeing. Silly monkey!

This monkey was hanging out in front of Angkor Wat and WOULD NOT move off of the boardwalk. Then he started peeing. Silly monkey!

Elephants ROLL OUT. Snapped this photo of the massive elephant exodus for their lunch break.

Elephants ROLL OUT. Snapped this photo of the massive elephant exodus for their lunch break.

This is at Bayon. I'm not sure why, but there is a LOT of lipstick on this statue. I'm not sure if someone put it there on purpose, or if women wearing red lipstick kiss the statue. Either way, I chuckled.

This is at Bayon. I’m not sure why, but there is a LOT of lipstick on this statue. I’m not sure if someone put it there on purpose, or if women wearing red lipstick kiss the statue. Either way, I chuckled.

Can you find the tour guide sneaking in a nap in this photo?

Can you find the tour guide sneaking in a nap in this photo?

At the South Gate of Angkor Thom, some statues are missing their heads. Naturally, we made sure to replace it for our photo.

At the South Gate of Angkor Thom, some statues are missing their heads. Naturally, we made sure to replace it for our photo.

Kevin is somewhere in this photo. Do you see him?

Kevin is somewhere in this photo. Do you see him?

We Want to Hear From You!

What’s the most amazing religious site you’ve ever visited? For us, Angkor Wat holds that torch now. We’d love any tips/suggestions on other places to travel, especially those located in Europe (we’re headed there next week!).

A Trip to Siem Reap, Cambodia

Because our time here in Southeast Asia is running out, we only were able to visit two cities on our recent weeklong trip to Cambodia. Last week, I wrote about our time in Phnom Penh where we stayed for 3 nights. We spent a little more time in Siem Reap (4 nights), and we were so glad we did! Most people visit Siem Reap to see neighboring Angkor Wat, but this small city has so much to offer travelers. It has great (cheap!) food, good nightlife, tons of inexpensive hotels, and even a circus!

I’ll be posting next week about Angkor Wat, but Kevin and I both thought Siem Reap deserved its own blog post. So what did we do in Siem Reap, anyway?!

We Enjoyed Getting There from Phnom Penh

I’ve read HORROR STORIES about the highway between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. The trip is just 200 miles (320 km) long, but it can take anywhere from 6-8 hours to make the journey! Long stretches of the highway are just dirt roads with no asphault in sight. The dust billowed up around us and settled down on everyone and everything near the road. Even in sections where the road was paved, it was usually riddled with potholes, so cars were swerving wildly left and right all over the road to miss them. Though you’re supposed to drive on the right side of the road here in Cambodia, we were regularly all the way over on the left side!

If you’re willing to rough it and have a high tolerance for dust and heat, the trip can be made for as cheap as five bucks. However, we learned long ago that if you’re willing to fork out just a few extra dollars in Southeast Asia, the extra comfort is worth WAAAAAAAAAAYYYYY more than that extra money you spend. We were very comfortable, and managed to enjoy the trip! How could we NOT enjoy it, with things like this constantly rolling past our window:

Oh you know, just napping on top of a van on one of Cambodia's most major roadways.

Oh you know, just napping on top of a van on one of Cambodia’s most major roadways. There also appears to be a pirate in the back seat.

We booked seats with a fairly new company called Giant Ibis for $15/ticket. They have a big focus on safety (working seat belts are always a surprise in SE Asia!), and the bus had fantastic air conditioning and free wifi that worked occasionally. But the thing that sealed the deal was the promise of a free Croissant from Blue Pumpkin, a popular bakery chain in Cambodia. I’m such a sucker for a free pastry! Check out these photos of the Giant Ibis bus:

A Nice, New Giant Ibis Bus!

A Nice, New Giant Ibis Bus!

The Inside of our Giant Ibis Bus.

The Inside of our Giant Ibis Bus.

We even stopped at a nice little spot for lunch:

The Food Was Delicious!

The Food Was Delicious!

We reserved our seats online way ahead of time, so we had a great view from the first row. Here’s a short video I made of road trip:

 

We Stayed at a Hotel with a Pool

There’s no denying that the main draw to Siem Reap is Angkor Wat, but there’s not a person on this planet who can explore Angkor Wat’s temples for several days straight in the hot sunny weather without getting a little bit temple fatigued. We recommend spending the mornings touring Angkor Wat (leave by 6am to beat the crowds!) and spending the afternoons at your hotel pool. That means it’s important to splurge just a little bit to stay somewhere nice.

The Villa Um Theara Pool

The Villa Um Theara Pool

We picked the Villa Um Theara, which was wonderful! At just $31/night (including taxes and fees!), it felt like such a steal, especially for high season! We spent our mornings at the temples, and our afternoons by the small but spotless pool. An added bonus: the breakfast (included in our room rate) was AMAZING, and the coffee was stellar. I don’t think there’s another hotel in the world that could possibly have coffee as good as the Villa Um Theara. If there is, you must tell me.

"Western Breakfast" at most Southeast Asia hotels is usually white bread toast, a hot dog, and a bland egg scramble. But this... this magical breakfast... such a treat!

“Western Breakfast” at most Southeast Asia hotels is usually white bread toast, a hot dog, and a bland egg scramble. But this… this magical breakfast… such a treat!

Plus, who can resist a hotel where the towels are folded up so that it looks like two elephants high fiving:

How Adorable is This? Elephant High Five!!

How Adorable is This? Elephant High Five!!

We Drank a Lot More than Normal

Like I said in my post last week about Phnom Penh, we enjoyed Cambodia’s beer variety… a lot. Like this one – Kingdom Dark. A DARK BEER. IN SOUTHEAST ASIA. We were pumped:

Most beer in Southeast Asia gets a "Mediocre" rating from us. This beer gets more of a "Not Bad" rating.

Most beer in Southeast Asia gets a “Mediocre” rating from us. This beer gets a solid “Not Bad” rating.

How could we not drink a lot, there’s an area called Pub Street!

Pub Street in Downtown Siem Reap

Pub Street in Downtown Siem Reap

We also made a dangerous discovery on our last night in town. Viva Mexican Cafe sells margaritas for just $1.50. A DOLLAR FIFTY! ALL DAY! The margs were delicious and fairly strong, so it’s possible that I only remember the first half of the first one.

Mmmmmm... Tequila...

Mmmmmm… Tequila…

We Ate a Lot of Indian Food

For some reason, there is a TON of delicious Indian food in Siem Reap. I don’t know why, and I don’t care, I’m just hopping on the bandwagon. We only went out for eight meals in Siem Reap, and three of them were at Indian food restaurants.

Our top pick? Curry Walla. So good that we went twice. I might even say it was better than anything we found during our food escapades in Singapore’s Little India.

Curry Walla - A Thali plate with chicken costs just $5. Drinking water is free!

Curry Walla – A Thali plate with chicken costs just $5. Drinking water is free!

We also enjoyed India Gate, which was cheaper but not quite as tasty:

India Gate Restaurant in Siem Reap

India Gate Restaurant in Siem Reap

Here’s a peek at their Thali plate, just $3 for all of this!

$3 Vegetarian Thali Plate at India Gate.

$3 Vegetarian Thali Plate at India Gate.

We Ate Cupcakes

You caught me. I love cake. I especially love adorable miniature cakes. Whoever invented the cupcake was an absolute genius, and I would like to hug him/her. We stumbled across Blossom Cafe, a bakery that not only serves up tasty cakes, but also serves up a greater purpose. (Pun totally intended.) Their goal is to train Cambodians in baking and barista skills to help them find work.

Blossom Cafe in Siem Reap. Good Cupcakes for a Good Cause.

Blossom Cafe in Siem Reap. Good Cupcakes for a Good Cause.

Walking into their store was like walking into a little slice of heaven – the staff had on Christmas hats, and there was holiday music playing!

Holiday Hats in Blossom Cafe!

Holiday Hats in Blossom Cafe!

This spot has tasty cakes and good service – we were handed cold towels when we sat down and they gave us free drinking water with our cakes. Free drinking water in Southeast Asia is a big deal to me.

Our Tasty Cupcakes at Blossom Cafe.

Our Tasty Cupcakes at Blossom Cafe.

We Drank $1 Fruit Shakes

There’s something about the Mango fruit shakes in Cambodia that makes them taste amazing. I have a hunch it has something to do with the syrup and sweetened condensed milk they add, but I’d rather pretend it’s because the gal making them was so friendly. Here’s our favorite shake lady – seek her out if you’re ever in Siem Reap!

The Most Wonderful Fruit Shakes in Siem Reap

The Most Wonderful Fruit Shakes in Siem Reap

We Got Caught in a Huge Rainstorm

A lot of areas over here have inadequate drainage. Check out this rainstorm we got caught in, and how much water flooded the streets!

We Want to Hear From You!

We’re getting tired of the heat and humidity here in Southeast Asia. What’s the weather like right now in your neck of the woods?

Our Phnomenal Guide to Phnom Penh

We weren’t sure how excited to be for our recent trip to Cambodia. We spent 7 nights there (3 in Phnom Penh and 4 in Siem Reap), and were seriously questioning our decision to go to Phnom Penh based on a few blog posts we read before arriving.

We read through various accounts of purse snatching in Phnom Penh and one story about a woman having to shell out $200 to get her dropped iPhone back from a stranger. We even read one account of a French woman who was killed when a thief attempted to grab her bag, dragging her into oncoming traffic.

From what I gather, Cambodia has changed in the last few years. After an initial upswing in tourism while the country recovered from decades of violence, it now seems to be getting a little rough around the edges. While it’s not our top choice destination in Southeast Asia (Thailand will always hold that title with us!), it was definitely worth the trip.

When you visit Cambodia, you’ll learn about its years of violence and civil war, you’ll be warned repeatedly about the active land mines still scattered across the countryside, and you will likely see poverty almost everywhere you go. But you’ll also meet tons of wonderfully friendly Cambodian people who are making the most of life, especially considering they’ve been to hell and back in the last few decades.

Safir, Our Tuk Tuk Driver. One of the Friendliest People You'll Meet in Phnom Penh

Safir, Our Tuk Tuk Driver. One of the Friendliest People You’ll Meet in Phnom Penh!

Fortunately for us, we had a great trip to Cambodia. We were borderline paranoid about our safety, but I think it was for good reason. Our taxi driver that drove us from Phnom Penh airport warned us about purse snatchings after dark, as did our hotel staff, as did all the travel books. We managed to escape without any safety scares, though we did meet an Expat from Sydney in Siem Reap who had just been mugged! We enjoyed our time in Phnom Penh, though we think anything more than 3 nights would have been too much time there.

Alright, on to the interesting stuff – what did we do in Phnom Penh, anyway?!

We Drank a Lot More than Normal

We Have a Lot of Love for Cambodian Beer

We Have a Lot of Love for Cambodian Beer

Beer in Cambodia costs about half as much as beer here in Chiang Mai. They also have WAAAAAAYYYY more variety – most stores have locally brewed stouts or other dark beers! Naturally, we drank a lot on this trip, because seriously WHO can resist a fifty cent beer, AMIRITE?

We Went to the Russian Market (Toul Tom Poung Market)

The View from our Tuk Tuk in Phnom Penh

The View from our Tuk Tuk to the Russian Market in Phnom Penh

The Russian Market is named as it is because it was mostly frequented by Russian Expats in the years following the Khmer Rouge rule. Now, it is THE place to go to find almost anything. Stalls here sell everything from counterfeit money to peppercorns to raw meat to name brand clothing to noodle dishes.

Raw Meats in the Russian Market

Raw Meats in the Russian Market

The Bulk Foods Section!

The Bulk Foods Section! I Am a Sucker for Bulk Foods!

The Russian Market

The Russian Market

The Russian Market

The Russian Market

Oh You Know, Just Motorbikes Riding Through the Market...

Oh You Know, Just Motorbikes Riding Through the Market…

We read that most of the clothes on sale here are indeed genuine, and are from the various clothing factories around Cambodia. I needed a new bikini, which I easily found for just $8, and Kevin got a couple t-shirts for a couple bucks apiece. Fun fact: if you need to try something on, you either do it over the clothes you’re wearing, or you wrap yourself up in a sarong and try not to moon anyone!

We Visited the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum

S-21 Prison

S-21 Prison

Our day turned in a very somber direction when we visited the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum, sometimes referred to as the S-21 prison. The building was a former high school which was taken over by the Khmer Rouge in the mid 70s, and was used to imprison and torture people opposed (or even suspected of being opposed) to the Khmer Rouge rule. It’s reported that as many as 20,000 of the people imprisoned at S-21 were later murdered, including 2 Americans.

The Rules of S-21 Prison

The Strict Rules of S-21 Prison

If you don’t know much about the Khmer Rouge period in Cambodia’s history, I recommend picking up a book my friend Sarah recommended to me called When Broken Glass Floats by Chanrithy Him. Written by a woman who was a young girl when the Khmer Rouge came to power and started their harrowing rule, this book gives insight into what it was like to live under such a cruel regime.

S-21 Prison

S-21 Prison

A visit to S-21 will undoubtedly leave you emotionally raw, but we think it’s absolutely a must see. We walked down the quiet hallways, past windows covered with barbed wire, and through cells where prisoners were tortured and beaten. What really got to me, though, were the photos that were taken of each prisoner when they arrived to S-21. The Khmer Rouge was meticulous about record keeping, and the hundreds and hundreds of photos are a haunting visual of the emotions people were feeling when they were brought here.

We Saw the Royal Palace

The Royal Palace in Phnom Penh

The Royal Palace in Phnom Penh

After a glimpse into such a dark time in Cambodia’s history at S-21, the opulence of the Royal Palace can be a bit hard to take. It’s a complex of buildings used as the royal residence of the Cambodian King, and is the very picture of riches and luxury. The grounds are immaculate and beautifully landscaped. The buildings are covered in jewels, gold, silver, frankincense and myrrh. (Oops, Christmas slip there, ignore those last two.)

The Beautiful Grounds of the Royal Palace

The Beautiful Grounds of the Royal Palace

Normally, I would’ve been pretty impressed by the gilded buildings and sparkly things, but it’s hard to feel excited to see such extravagance when poverty is so apparent just yards away, or when you spent the morning learning about the regime that killed millions of its own people. In stark contrast to the well kept grounds of the palace, many of Phnom Penh’s streets are absolutely littered with garbage. Just one block north of the Royal Palace, entire families are sleeping in the streets. It’s rare to walk anywhere without encountering someone begging for food or money.

Nonetheless, the Royal Palace is a must-see sight in Phnom Penh, and we recommend making a visit. If nothing else, the stark contrast between what goes on inside and outside of the royal walls will open your eyes to how hard so many people’s lives here still are.

Phnom Penh's Royal Palace

Phnom Penh’s Royal Palace

Pagodas at the Royal Palace

Pagodas at the Royal Palace

The Royal Palace Even Had a Miniature Replica of Angkor Wat

The Royal Palace Even Had a Miniature Replica of Angkor Wat

And Here's Kevin, Pretending to Be an Elephant at the Royal Palace. Because That's How We Roll.

And Here’s Kevin, Pretending to Be an Elephant at the Royal Palace. Because That’s How We Roll.

We Hit the Rooftop Pool, a Lot

On a lighter note, we did manage to spend a lot of time relaxing at one of the TWO rooftop pools at our hotel. I’m not sure how Cambodia is SO HOT AND HUMID, even in late November when it’s supposed to be “cool season”. If you ever make the trip, Aircon and a pool are a must.

The Rooftop Bar Next to the Rooftop Pool

The Rooftop Bar Next to the Rooftop Pool

Added bonus? We had a view of the Royal Palace:

Here's Kevin Relaxing, and the Grand Palace in the Background

Here’s Kevin Relaxing, and the Grand Palace in the Background

We Went on a Self-Guided Walking Tour

I am absolutely a sucker for Self-Guided Walking Tours. Nothing makes me happier as a traveler than being able to roam around and read about the sights on my own time. My idea of Heaven is endless self-guided tours in cities all over Europe. (In unrelated news, I have the soul of an 80-year-old woman.)

We got a hold of the Lonely Planet walking tour of Phnom Penh and spent a morning seeing the sights. Aside from all the men yelling “TUK TUK?!” and the shop owners yelling “YOU BUY SOMETHING!”, we really enjoyed our tour. Here are a few photos from around Phnom Penh:

Our Tour Started with a Stroll up the River Promenade

Our Tour Started with a Stroll up the River Promenade

First Stop: Wat Phnom, a Buddhist Temple in the Center of Phnom Penh.

First Stop: Wat Phnom, a Buddhist Temple in the Center of the City. It Sits Atop the Only Hill in Phnom Penh!

The Chedi at Wat Phnom. I Loved How the Lions Look Pink!

The Chedi at Wat Phnom. I Love How the Lions Look Pink in the Morning Sunlight!

We Strolled past the U.S. Embassy, Where Christmas Lights Were Being Put Up!

We Strolled past the U.S. Embassy, Where Christmas Lights Were Going Up!

Last Stop, the Central Market. Here's an Arial View from the Neighboring Sorya Shopping Center.

Last Stop, the Central Market. Here’s an Aerial View from the Neighboring Sorya Shopping Center.

The Materials and Shape Reportedly Make the Central Market Feel Air Conditioned. I Might Disagree.

The Materials and Shape Reportedly Make the Central Market Feel Air Conditioned. I Might Disagree… It Was Hot!

Central Market Vendors

Central Market Vendors

I Love How This Gal Is Just Hanging out in Her Hammock.

I Love How This Gal Is Just Hanging out in Her Hammock at Her Seafood Stall.

Beautiful Flowers at the Central Market in Phnom Penh.

Beautiful Flowers at the Central Market in Phnom Penh.

We Celebrated Thanksgiving

Knowing we would be in Phnom Penh on Thanksgiving, I searched far and wide on the interwebs to find a spot where we could have a Turkey Dinner. Last year, we were in Vietnam for Thanksgiving. And while fish that’s grilled in a banana leaf is indeed delicious, it does not scream traditional Thanksgiving to me. So this year, we got a reservation at Alley Cat, an expat-owned restaurant in downtown Phnom Penh.

Look! A Table for Me! Turkey Awaits...

Look! A Table for Me! Turkey Awaits…

Alley Cat was not what we expected. It’s best described as a dive bar, and it definitely smelled like weed. Lynrd Skynrd was blasting over the speakers, the bar had its own dog, and the owner put soccer on the TV (he said that’s the closest thing to American Football he could find!). We felt as though we had teleported to Capitol Hill in Seattle! They even had bottles of Sierra Nevada Torpedo IPA!! (For $4.50 a pop, ouch!)

Like I Said, It Was a Dive Bar. Hence the Dark, Terrible Photo of the Wonderful, Delicious Beer.

Like I Said, It Was a Dive Bar. Hence the Dark, Terrible Photo of the Wonderful, Delicious Beer.

It turns out that the head cook’s mom is from Kentucky, so the man knew a thing or two about ample butter usage. We paid $12.50 each for a delicious, enormous dinner of turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, ham, mashed potatoes and gravy, sweet baked apples, roasted vegetables, green bean casserole, a roll (with ample butter on it), candied sweet potatoes, pickles, and a devilled egg. I was so excited, I was shaking, as evidenced by this terrible photo I took of the food:

An Awful, Blurry Photo of our Delicious Thanksgiving Dinner

An Awful, Blurry Photo of our Delicious Thanksgiving Dinner

And, of course, it came with pumpkin pie for dessert!

PUMPKIN PIE YESSSSSSSSS!

PUMPKIN PIE YESSSSSSSSS!

We Want to Hear from You! What Are You Thankful for This Holiday Season?

After the emotional roller coaster of visiting S-21, seeing the Royal Palace, and witnessing so much poverty on the streets of Phnom Penh, we were walking home from Thanksgiving dinner thinking about how lucky we are. We’re lucky to have such wonderful families and great friends, but we’re also lucky to be born somewhere with so much opportunity. What are you thankful for this Holiday Season?