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Vietnam’s Golden Bridge, Ba Na Hills

The ticket to enter the park runs $33. If you opt for a driver to take you there that’s another $33 per person. If you stay the entire day you will likely spend another $15 on lunch, drinks, and snacks. If you stay for the entire day you can double that.

I preface with cost as it is not cheap. I was fortunate to have a motorbike and Raheem was a chance encounter I had as we were both returning our bikes the night before. He was American but living in South Korea teaching English and in Da Nang for vacation. I mentioned wanting to visit Ba Na Hills and he was game. It was a longer ride and further out of town than I had ridden my first day so I was planning to take a professional bus company but Raheem stated the obvious: let’s ride the bikes out there!

My second exciting challenge on motorbike just arrived. We agreed to meet at 7am to get a jump on the day. Tragically for me I couldn’t fall asleep until past midnight so I woke up feeling like I did back home before work wanting to stay in bed forever.

We grabbed the bikes. One tip is to have your motorbike company install a phone holder on the handlebars so you can see exactly when your next turn is coming. Excellent investment as you don’t need to ride risky holding your phone or stopping periodically to check your location.

The ride out of Da Nang was crowded which took my bike game up a notch. After the crowds disapated we hit a long stretch of 4 lane open road which only we were on. That was fun. That feeling of being on a wide nicely paved straightaway on a motorbike is a special feeling.

If you put directions into Google Maps it will tell you it’s 2 hours from Da Nang. The truth is it’s about an hour. The reason being is you arrive at the bottom of a mountain and take a 15 minute gondola ride to the top. If you actually drove all the way up the mountain it probably would be another hour incline. I was happy we arrived after 1 hour!

We went straight for the Golden Bridge. If you like taking photos and videos this place is heaven. The Golden Bridge is less impressive in person yet more impressive behind the lens.

Ba Na Hills is building out an entire theme park that’s made to feel like a posh Swiss town on top of a mountain. They also have actors which go around like characters during the day taking photos with guests and they put on an impressive dance performance to modern music. It’s a fun little big show.

The food they serve caught us off guard. They had skewers of crocodile and ostrich! Be prepared to spend some good coin there as you are the walking definition of a captive audience.

Like many activities in the SE Asia most ambitious people show up early and fight the crowds then find a hideaway during the sun scorching 11-2PM hours then get after it to close out the day.

We took so many damn photos by the time the sunset we some final shots. Raheem spotted a drone flying overhead so I whipped mine out for one last flight and boy am I glad because it turned out to be the best shot of the day.

I left feeling what every photographer after long long day of shooting must feel: exhausted. But I also knew the feeling of capturing that perfect moment at the end of a long day. That felt amazing.

The ride home was fun. We hopped on our mopeds and blasted down the straightaway and out of the town in the dark of night. I know what my french friend Mark was trying to communicate to me when he mentioned he liked riding at night. It’s something different. Daytime riding is scenic and exhilerating but nighttime riding is spiritually peaceful in nature.

What an amazing day. Raheem ended it with a seafood dinner to cap off an incredible day end to end. I’ll remember this day for so many reasons, many due to the fact that we took so many damn pictures to remember the place by 🙂

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Hacks & Hazards: Tonle Sap, Cambodia

Hacks

After a long tuk tuk ride (45 min) we arrived at the ticket counter. I read many stories stating the entry fee is $20. They asked for $30 and I thought he was overcharging us. I insisted and pulled up articles stating $20 but he showed me the price sheet at $30 which is steep. We hymed and hawed, seriously considering turning back and heading home. They guy suddenly broke said “ok $20”

If you have a drone and its quiet season you may be lucky enough to have a private boat sailing the length of the river to the mouth of the ocean. Don’t hesitate to ask the driver to slow down in certain areas.

Once at the ocean you are dropped off at a floating restaurant. It’s fun for about 15 minutes but there’s no where to go! Ask your driver to take you further out to watch the sun set.

If you have a drone this is a perfect place to fly it! Here’s my footage and it wouldn’t be nearly as spectacular without it.

A drone POV is actually amazing because you cannot tell how dense the forest is nor how isolates you truly are until you see from above.

HAZARDS

If you have a drone be mindful of the homepoint as your homepoint will be wherever your boat/controller are. I got lucky!

It’s quite a poor community so tip the folks that give good service or are genuinely helpful. The smiles or gratitude are worth every penny.

Don’t forget to actually enjoy the sunset! I was so fixated on getting the perfect drone videos and photographs that I realized I barely took the time to enjoy the moment! It’s very special but it’s really only a 1 day experience so don’t get too caught up trying to capture the moment, let it sink in!

I wish in hindsight I had parlayed the trip into staying with a local. That would’ve been a truly local experience well worth it. How many people can say they stayed overnight in a remote floating village to watch the sunrise, sunset with a local family! Homestays are super underrated and many locals are more than happy to have you.

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Hacks & Hazards: Saigon, Vietnam

HACKS

There are super attractive girls here.

If you want a local vibe I enjoyed District 4 the most. Spend a full day there roaming the streets and wandering into new stretches of the neighborhood you will find many hidden treasures.

If you miss home (and you’re Western like me) check out District 2 for the food, people and drinks.

It takes a full 3 days to get into the swing of things. It’s a fast moving city with tons of people.

Use Grab never trust the taxi meters. Added benefit Grab tells you your fare before the ride starts.

Count your change slowly and carefully. It’s common for the taxi drivers to short you especially when you first arrive and are still getting used to the currency conversion 4000:1

Great city if you have at least a week to kill there and don’t like to be a tourist. It’s a city that’s made for it’s people and it can be a lot fun.

HAZARDS

A lot of hustling and scamming. Trust your instincts.

Vietnamese are polarizing in personality. Most of the women are super sweet and friendly. Many of the men think they’re gangsters: smoking cigarettes, tattoos, drinking at all hours of the day, and willing to fight you. I got into it with some of the locals. You may get an occasional angry glare from some of them if you are recording a video and they’re in it unexpectedly.

For a big city there’s almost no parks or green spaces. District 1 is a giant tourist trap. It wasn’t for me but I already booked a hotel.

Brace yourself for non stop cigarette smoking and beer. The smoking is 24/7. Coffee is for 8-10am. Theres plenty of locals hanging out at the cafes having a drink by 10am.

All the major tourist attractions are well outside the city limits so be ready to go in longer bus rides if you plan to sight see.

Drones are illegal here. Allegedly it’s a militarized city.

Taxi cars are often not available unless you’re willing to wait. Be prepared to hop on the back on a scooter via Grab. Nothing can prepare you for your first ride. Hold on for dear life and be ready for a combination of shock, terror, and we as your grab motorbike driver drives the opposites way down a 4 lane road!

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Hacks & Hazards: Phnom Penh, Cambodia

HACKS

Go to the Genocide Museum. It’s somber but they did a very good job storytelling. Get the audio guide for the extra $3, it’s pointless without it.

Visit the marketplaces. There are various ones around town with Central Market being the crowned jewel.

There are many expats living in Phnom Penh due to its affordability as well as it’s culture. Talk to them. You’ll learn so much from them.

Get a massage! It’s cheap like Thailand and all the massages I got were fantastic and far less transactional. I had many memorable conversations with some very down nice masseuses. Perfect place to practice bridging the communiction chasm in a fun way. Lots of laughs and honing your charades skills.

Go to the Olympic Stadium just before work let’s off. Watch the athletes working out, students arrive in cliches, and working class show up. It’s where everyone goes to hang out plus it’s a magnificent place to catch a sunset.

HAZARDS

At no point did I feel at risk but there are signs and the locals tell you to be careful with phones and bags which apparently get stolen by people on motorbikes.

Go to Romdeng if you are an fearless eater. Try the tarantula if you dare!

It can be a bit boring there if you’re unwilling to explore and mix it up with the locals.

Fresh juice is hard to come by in Cambodia. They prefer to mix juice with milk for a creamier sweeter sugary palette. It’s not as thirst quenching as just plain squeezed juice. Odd decision since it’s always baking hot.

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2020 Decade Predictions

A month abroad will start to rewire many thoughts. The biggest changes are from being exposed to so many other cultures and daily living. Most importantly, it gives relative position to my +30 years in San Francisco, USA. Here are some thoughts…

CLIMATE CHANGE

Climate change will win believers with time. We’ve done too much damage to our environment for the reprecussions to not continue surfacing over the next decade. We also don’t have the know how to reverse or affect the climate holistically for the better.

The climate change disaster may bring people back from feelings/emotions to science/facts. America has been devoid of logic for too long and it will come to bite us. I digress but at the moment the USA is on a fantasy float. I fear the crash because hitting reality will be like getting knocked unconscious by Mike Tyson and hitting the earth face first.

Climate change will destroy large chunks of biodiversity leading to more restrictive gene pool with missing links in the circle of life and life as we know it will be more susceptible to disease without the diversity.

Lack of biodiversity will not remerge naturally but can be frankensteined back with science. We will bring back species but it will lead to as many issues and will not happen at the right pace nor scale to solve issues in the decade to come.

Extinction events occur regularly without front page news. It takes years of research to know all the parts of the circle of life major mammals have on the ecosystem. We do not have enough time to understand what impact in the circle of life these insects play before they go extinct. The circle of life is far too complex for us to piece together because we think linearly. Our brains are designed to compartmentalize, they not designed to understand the whole.

TECHNOLOGY

The rich and intelligent will continue to take a greater percentage of wealth as technology is a winner take all game. This will be accelerated with AI and machine learning.

The blockchain will be one of the few tools to rebalance power back to the individual. It accomplishes this by restructuring control fundamentally from a pyramid shape to a circle.

Space race will come back to the forefront. Young kids will once again dream of growing up to be an astronaut over say an athlete. This is telling because life on Earth from a quality of life may continue to ride but beyond the measured metrics I believe true quality of life to be decreasing in the 1st world.

Virtual Reality will begin to take mind share from physical reality. It’s too powerful and inticing. It will be especially interesting to those less mobile: elderly and the young. It’s a portal device which teleports to user into a different world. While it will never replace the sensory depth of the real world it will quicky exceed the real world in novelty, choice, and accessibility. Note if minecraft style virtual reality spaces are community built upon blockchain type technologies Bitcoin will rise as a universally accepted form of payment.

DISEASE

Coronavirus going around right now in Asia but it’s already spread to nearly every country I’ve looked up. People often ask can we scale? I think the answer is yes but at the cost is heavy. When it comes to infectious disease it’s terrifying.

There are only a few isolated cases in SE Asia but thinking about the density of people in China and India alone make you shiver over the thought of how fast a disease like this can spread give it’s characteristics of being transferrable before symptoms show.

I’d diseases with pandemic capabilities become more of a normal occurance in this next decade. Like the weather extremes which suddenly beecome the norm within a decade, I believe this decade to become a time where new terrifying diseases become far more frequent. This will also prevent freedom of movement as countries will lock down far more often and people will be more fearful of travel.

DRUGS

People will start using psychedelics more for understanding, creativity, and humanity. Science is now discovering what many “bad people” have known for decades. It started with pot. It will soon be mushrooms, LSD, and other forms of mind opening substances.

If ever the “music stops” people will take pause to ask the really important life questions. Fun may be overtaken by purpose. The importance of self acceptance (from within) will be more desirable than acceptance from peers.

SOCIAL MEDIA

It’s already permeated society. It’s effectiveness and mind control and time consumption is undisputed. The question is what comes next? I believe this era of social media will be looked back on as a dark time in the history of this tech. Much like cigarettes as Benioff states.

That said I think there is a second act for social media which will resemble something much healthier. Much more of a utility than an obsession. This will be a golden era for social media. As of now, folks are simply trying to experiment with it without fully grasping the consequences.

THE CHINA CHALLENGE

The dream for upward mobility lives is in full force within China. We had an American Dream which has all but faded for those born in the states. That mentality is an immigrant mentality in the states and it’s sad but true as the deck is stacked high and hard against normal people. The American Dream is rarely found in America but when it is it gets promoted widely so everyone still believes it’s true regardless of the statical improbability. The irony is the American Dream has moved and now lives in China.

America has way too much dead weight. The strong much pull the weak but we’re reaching a point were the benefits of being productive are not that much greater than being unproductive. The spoils of having it good for too long. We lost our fangs. Too many systems are broken including social security, medicare, welfare, homelessness, depression, and addiction.

FREEDOM

There’s a thread I love r/latestagecapitalism which I couldn’t agree more with but I think the same ethos is true of freedom. We’ve reached some strange form of late stage freedom where it’s run amok.

Freedom without logic and reason is a wild west. The term anything is possible used to be used a positive. Now it has become a circus. Logic need not apply in 2020. The wild thing is it used to be that freedom was more black and white. Todays world seems to be generating additional linkages of freedom but in my opinion like many American endeavors we’re placing our fight energy in all the wrong places. Our wins are all about feeling good yet don’t fundmantally change much and are always narrow minded.

Seeing Americans running wild with freedom is American to its core but should be ask if there is such things too much freedom? Food for thought: the homeless people on the streets (many with mental illnesses) have more rights than I do. I can’t take a shit on the street and not end up in handcuffs. I can’t bite local store owners without meeting a policemen. I can walk down the street with a small axe swinging it indiscriminately at nearby objects without getting institutionalized. Yet this is the norm in San Francsico.

Freedom’s limits will be severely tested in this decade as people pushing it’s limits are also taxing the hell out of the system. The differing ends of freedom also create a type of freedom inequality which is rarely discussed. If you think income ineqaulity is bad wait until freedom inequality arrives. It’s far more complex are it’s not linear as freedom has far more dimension than money which is quantitative.

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Rick & Bonnie: Digital Nomad Grandparents

Rick is a remote worker that’s a designer at an engineering firm. He’s been remote traveling for the past 3 years with his wife Bonnie. What a cool couple. These two nailed the digital nomad life in a way most of my peers have yet to perfect. You don’t always meet grandparents with more Instagrammable lives than their kids!

Rick grew up on a remote farm in Canada. The closest city was 40k people and that was “big time”. He spent much of his adult life in Texas and started his family in North Carolina.

I was very impressed with how modern he was. Our conversation kicked off as he admired my digital nomad setup with my bluetooth keyboard and phone stand.

His wife Bonnie was an absolute sweetheart. I hope to grow old together with a woman that emanates her style of quiet optimism and such a sharp listener asking me about tiny details I barely recalled mentioning. Hell, I could benefit a lot from being more like her!

Rick and I shared our techie job patterns and lamented the analytical future obsessed direction our brains tend to drift towards. But that’s the brilliance of traveling. It allows even a hard wired neurotic brain like mine to settle in on the present physical space and time.

We talked so much about the different places we’ve been…

How long does it take for you to feel immersed in a place? 3 days for me. Day 5 tells me if I want more or I’m ready to leave.

What places have we been that come to mind first? For Rick & Bonnie the Camino de Santiago; Tsibili, Georgia; Turkey river where Europe meets Asia. For me, Cambodia takes the cake.

We shared how much goodness we’ve found on the road. The part I liked most about our discussions is how traveling to other parts of the world – especially those with current or recent hardships – gave us the most perspective.

For Rick and Bonnie being immersed with people from Georgia which is currrently 20% Russia occupied and fighting daily for their independence yet remaining strong and perservering was inspiring. For me it was being in Cambodia which less than 50 years ago underwent a massive genocide. These hardships are etched into the people’s faces permanently and whilst as humans we shy away from hardship where possible it is so instructive and so humbling when reflecting on one’s own privileged, stress free, comfortable lifestyle.

Such a nice conversation with a couple that couldn’t be nicer. I wish we took a photo together or exchanged info as it’s always great to connect with the good people you meet even if the chances of further communication are slim to none. Maybe I should make it a habit moving forward. Like so many intersections in your travel “decision tree”, you never know how one little email exchange may alter your path down the road.

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Hacks & Hazards: Bangkok, Thailand

HACKS

Everything is an incredible value. Enjoy it. Take advantage of it.

Drink lots of fresh squeezed juice. It costs a dollar on the sidewalk. It’s fresh and thirst quenching. In San Francisco would cost me closer to $10.

Bangkok as a whole is incredibly safe.

The rail system is fantastic. Use it. It’s easy to figure out, on time, and clean.

HAZARDS

There’s a plethora of choices for any given activity so try to fight the FOMO because you won’t see it all!

It’s a city which caters heavily to tourism so you get the sense much of it is structured for you which likely comes at the expense of authenticity.

There’s not a single beach in Bangkok proper. Whoops!

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Letters from Phnom Penh, Cambodia

WHY SHOULD YOU GO?

Phnom Penh is a real look at current Cambodian life. As most visitors to Cambodia target the ancient wonder Angkor Wat I don’t believe a visitor would leave understanding Cambodian culture seeing as the entire city of Siem Reap is dedicated to tourism.

So why make a stop in Phnom Penh? The understand the recent history as well as part take in writing its present story. The past consists of a genocide linked to WW2. There’s a very heavy and moving Genocide Museum which is a preserved high school turned death camp in the middle of the the city. The stories range from hopeful to devastating but ultimately understanding this recent history (1970’s) gives context to not only how much pain was here not too long ago gives perspective on how far things have come.

Here’s a video of my time there including a bit where I ate a tarantula. And althought it’s not nearly as Instagrammable as other things I’ve done I would say Phnom Penh is not an obvious place like Bangkok but for the individual who is willing to wander to discover your soul will be handsomely rewarded.

ROUGH START

When I first arrived in Phnom Penh it was uncomfortable. The driving was a shit show. It was unnerving walking down the streets feeling like I always had to look over my shoulder. People were literally driving motorcycles on the sidewalk during rush hour.

Then there’s the signs at the hostel warning me not to take any bags outside for fear of theft. The local shop keepers reinforced that as they saw me walk around, telling me people on motorbikes will snatch your phone or bag if they see an opening whether you’re walking on the street or sitting in the comfort of a tuk tuk in transit.

That level of paranoia and feeling of being targeted doesn’t exactly make you feel welcome from the start. The chaotic driving made walking the city streets sketchy. Personally I didn’t find the city to be that bad but I heeded the warnings.

It sounds pretty bad right now, and frankly, after my first day I couldn’t wait to leave. I checked my VISA approval process to Vietnam every few hours hoping to book my ticket ASAP.

What I didn’t yet know was I was about to be stuck in Phnom Penh for an unknown amount of time. You see I submitted my e-VISA late on a Friday and it takes 3 business days to process. Today was Saturday. I had yet to feel the sinking feeling of being stuck in a city I wanted to leave.

But when you’re forced to stay in a city you start digging under the surface. Finding the places which aren’t clearly labelled on a map.

The second day I went to the local Russian Market. Here’s a link to that experience. I badly wanted to use my gimball to capture the experience. It felt mildly safe but still I didn’t want my stuff to get gaffed. I saw some genuinely amazing artwork that I wish I could carry home. A 3D woodworked piece of Angkor Wat as well a rice paper pressed artwork.

When I walked out I walked a block out and saw a Pizza shop. When you are somewhere that you’re not sure you belong there is nothing like finding something that reminds you of the comforts of home. In my case that came in the form of Andreas from South Africa, the owner of said pizza shop. I ordered a piece of eggplant lasagna with a orange soda and plopped down in my seat. Across from me a guy about my age from Johannasburg gave me a warm greeting that I couldn’t quite make out but freindliness crosses all language barriers. This was Greg. We started talking as he was in the midst of working on a healthy food service business with Andreas. He was so bright when we started discussing my trip, there’s something so positive about the South African tone of voice. Made me a bit envious of how flat my American accent comes across.

All of a sudden, Cambodia started to feel a touch more welcoming, even if through the hands of expats rather than locals.

In walked Joe from New Orleans. Now I was feeling alive and I struck up conversation with him. Joe had been on travel for 1.5 years and today was coincidentally his last day before heading back to the states. I asked him about his philosophy on how to travel. For him it was all about doing all the things you never got around to doing. That meant reading a giant book he always wanted to tackle as well as start a book of haikus. He shared some of his struggles as well as some of his favorite peaceful secluded hidden gems where he spent a week on a beach or small village without a tourist in sight. Exchanging these stories for me is what travel is all about.

It’s a funny thing when you bump into a fellow english speaker. In the majority of cases they saw goodbye with “I hope you find whatever it is you’re seeking.” For me I don’t feel I’m actively seeking anything in particular but I am aware change is on the horizon.

Traveling for me began as a way to better understand the world through its cultures. But two weeks in and one week solo I find myself undergoing more of a self rediscovery than anything.

GENOCIDE MUSEUM

The genocide museum was a wake up call. Realizing that the USA was bombing the hell out of Cambodia for being neighbors of Vietnam during the war then having these Cambodian’s step in perceived to be savior’s but ultimately plunging the people deeper into hell. This is the history of Cambodia, a tremendous amount of misfortune and much of it unwarranted.

Seeing the thousands of photos hung throughout the prison puts opportunity and freedom into clarity. There are many losers in war. This type of genocide meant many spent their entire lives in a hellscape.

Doing something with my life has been a bit of a wandering experience devoid of the typical coercion, rather full of options. I’ve hen I first arrived in Phnom Penh it was uncomfortable. The driving was a shit show. It whad the polar opposite of these victims and I can only imagine how lucky, and spoiled, they would consider me to be.

The symbol of a high school being turned into a death camp is sick. The rooms which are stained with dark colors of sickness, death, and misery. There were several rooms intact with the tiny cinder block cells that measured no more than 4 feet wide by 5 feet long with a tiny gap which i had to turn sideways to walk through. Standing in that space and trying to even contemplate what was going through the mind of a prisoner is a ticket straight to being grateful for any type of life today.

The number of stories that are told from the few survivors as well as the family members of the few that were identified is a stark reminder of how much good or bad luck plays a part in life.

It’s a lost generation. Seeing Angkor Wat amazes you and explains Cambodia’s past kingdom in its undisputable glory. The Genocide Museum takes us much closer to the present and when you walk around the streets of Phnom Penh and see the hardship on people’s faces it’s apparent that it comes from a very distant past that everyone is trying to escape.

Smiles are harder to come by in Cambodia than in Thailand. But when you get a smile back or a thumbs up returned in Cambodia it feels earned in the best of ways.

Phnom Penh is a bustling city where the people are resilient and hungry to opportunities. They are in need of much infrastructure but they have an incredibly scrappy pull yourself up from your bootstrap mentality. A friend I met in Siem Reap described it as “a special dust” that only Cambodians have.

Note: Jasmine tea over ice on a hot day is the asian equivalent to American sweet iced tea.

I like the fact that breakfast here looks a lot like lunch and dinner. BBQ pork over rice, beef noodle soup, the only thing they add to the morning is the concept of an omelette of egg

Brandon from Cal Poly Pomona who studied chemical engineering but moved back home to help his parents run their corner restaurant.

EATING TARATUNLAS

In my hunt for true Cambodian food, the only restaurant I found which branded itself remotely closely was Romdeng. I walked in and the place was beautiful. When I looked at the menu I was in for a shocker. The first item on the menu was tarantula for appetizer. Down below that under main courses I spotted red tree ants with beef. I picked them both as this was one of those “you’re never gonna believe what I did in Cambodia” crossroads.

Just after I ordered a group walked in with a guide and sat down just across from me. The waiter brought out a live tarantula followed by a cooked one and I felt my stomac get tight and my heart began to race in fear.

When the tarantula showed up there were 3 of them on and they were giant! I poked them with my fork and the whole thing freaked me out. I don’t like spiders to begin with let alone the idea of consuming one. It has a soft shell to the touch. It kept it’s shape. It is crunchy to the bite and once you hit the body it just tastes like insect guts. It’s not sweet or sour or savory. It’s like a very mild indescribable mushy pudding. Let’s be honest, never again. Bear in mind it’s 100% a mental issue. If you didn’t know it was tarantula you’d like it was just a bit unpleasant. But once you brain starts thinking “tarantula” all the alarm bells start going off.

The rent ants with beef was a no brainer after the tarantula. After tarantula nothing fazes you.

I tried watching the footage directly after my meal but had to turn it off. Couldn’t stomach it.

CURRENCY

The exchange rate is 4000:1 so it’s pretty tore up here. I’ve never been anywhere with a standard practice of using two currencies simultaneously. Meaning you use whole US dollars mixed with Cambodian riel dollars for change. So something that’s a $1.50 is 1 US dollar with 2000 Cambodian riels. It’s second nature to locals and takes a second to get used to.

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Letters from Siem Reap, Cambodia

Siem Reap is famous for one thing: Angkor Wat. It’s the lifeblood of the entire community and while it’s not cheap to go ($60 for 3 day pass) it’s worth it and I’ll explain why. The other thing that’s highly underrated and not discussed often is Tonle Sap (must go).

THE BANH MI GHOST VENDOR

Our first day we checked into our hostel. It was actually a sweet room and in actuality felt closer to a hotel than a hostel as the room was adorned with beautiful ceiling moldings and rich wood throughout the space. It must’ve been a really nice mcmansion in a past life which got converted into a high end hostel in its current state.

The very first day we walked out and bought Banh Mi sandwiches from the first vendor to quell the hangry belly. Turns out I’d be chasing the dragon ever since that first Banh Mi. Since then I’ve never had such a tasty sandwich. This old man was a ghost after that never to be found. He used a light sweet sauce that was so delicate and brought the whole sandwich together. Damn I can still taste that Banh Mi right now.

FIRST IMPRESSIONS

The hostel was in a great part of town close to the main street and a 5 minute ride to Pub Street where all the tourists get loose. Cambodia is an odd place from a cost perspective because it’s feels cheap like Thailand but after tabulating a week’s expenses suddenly looks more expensive. This is because it is hyper affordable on the surface. Most everyday items are $1-2. The irony is that while that sounds cheap it’s actually a pretty sweet deal for locals because I’m almost certain if they priced in their own local currency (4000:1) many things would actually be priced closer to $0.50 IMO. So hats off to them for using the USD as a primary payment option. The George Washington $1 is king there. So much so that the ATM’s don’t dispense Cambodian Riel only US Dollars.

When we landed we drew $100 each but soon realized how far that would take us. The SIM card at the airport cost $6 for a month followed by a $7 cab ride to our hostel. $100 suddenly felt like a lot of money for 5 days. One thing to note, the locals are very quick to turn down money that is worn out or thin.

Life in Siem Reap seemed dull for the locals. Everyone is essentially selling a service associated with Angkor Wat or just chilling out in a hammock. It was a place where Angkor Wat was the only opportunity and I’m sure for anyone in the area with big dreams it all feels a bit limiting. Most of the locals I encountered actually spoke decent english or chinese which was surprising at first until I realized that that is the “coding” of a city that’s filled with tourists that speak English and Mandarin.

In a parrallel existence back home in San Francisco, Javascript and Python rule supreme. In Siem reap the ticket to financial gains came from fluency with language to connect with foreigners. Here’s a bit of perspective on life from California to Cambodia. Everyone in the states has been to a different state. Most have traveled just out of the country to somewhere like Mexico. Fewer have traveled internationally. In Siem Reap, most of the people in the main part of the town have never left Siem Reap. Never been to the capital city of Phnom Penh just 6 hours away by car. That was a shocker to me. Then we went to Tonle Sap, the floating village which is a massive lake but a tiny community. And when you realize most of those people never left the lake – that was real perspective for me.

It would be like growing up in San Francisco and never going to Los Angeles. And for the folks in Tonle Sap their world was even smaller like living in Lake Tahoe and never leaving the lake! For me it’s unimaginable, for them the world beyond a 10 mile radius is touched only through their cell phone. I feel grossly privileged when I consider how many trips I’ve been on in bad spirits as a child. Sitting on a tour bus through Europe just wishing I could be back home playing video games instead. These are hard lessons to recognize in my 30’s but I don’t believe it could have happened any other way. This is life.

THE MAIN ATTRACTION

Angkor Wat is the #1, #2, #3 reasons people come to Cambodia and boy is it incredible. What’s both amazing and sad about the place is that they basically let you walk and touch everything there. There’s almost no ropes blocking things off. This is incredible in terms of having the opportunity to physically touch such a special wonder of the world yet it does make one nervous about erosion (so I stopped after the 1st day, my bad it felt natural!). Go to Angkor Wat you will be breathless it is truly walking the ruins of a former Buddhist empire and it’s a space where you feel the power of the ancients as you walk around.

It’s one of those places that is so large it does becoming exhausting by the third day. Day 1 you are amazed. Day 2 you have a lay of the land so you’re trying to capture all the right angles as it’s a massive place. Day 3 you are “templed out”.

I had a tour guide but he was so bad that I just ditched the tour after the first hour. He kept going on about how fewer and fewer people visit and really had nothing of value to add to what or why Angkor Wat exists. His English was also not very understandable which doesn’t help. So I bailed and the one tip I’d have is go after the afternoon sun burns off. People flock there in the mornings to catch the famous sunrise but it’s overcrowded and there’s only a few good spots to capture the moment right and a million things that can go wrong. In my case the sun never broke through the clouds! I did see a very cool sunrise with colors starting from a deep purpose to a burnt orange – that was worth something.

Pro Tip: my personal experience was best from 3PM onwards. The majority of people show up for the morning or afternoon and get scorched by the sun and want to find shade or go home by 3pm. If you arrive around 3pm it is so much more temperate and less crowded so you can take great photos. By the time 5pm rolled around it felt almost to myself in many parts.

TONLE SAP

It’s a one of a kind experience. A lot of the locals have a permanent grumpy look on their face but I think it’s more just because life ain’t easy there. It’s a tough life but Tonle Sap is a photographer/videographer’s dream. I’d surmise as a local it is a black hole with the most incredible sunset.

The folks who worked on the floating boat we docked at were the optimists. Playing pranks on one another. Laughing, smiling, chasing each other around the boat. If you’re gonna be stuck on a boat with the same people got life, they certainly had it nailed.

The Cambodia I liked most was unpaved.

I missed all the juice in Thailand. Cambodia its all fruit milkshakes. Ironic bc it’s so much hotter.

OUR DRIVER

We met our driver on the second day and took a liking to him so he ended up driving us around for our entire stay. He spoke great English and we are glad we built that relationship because it ended in a trip to his hometown to spend an afternoon in hammocks, pounding rice noodles, and eating lunch with him family. It doesn’t get more authentic than this afternoon.

To provide some insight into our driver’s existence, he was a jolly guy with a pot belly from drinking beer but he also explained that drinking was really just something to do because there is in fact so little to do. In terms of money, when we met him he had a phone but the next day he didn’t have a phone. He had to sell it to make ends meet but he told us he’d try to get another phone so we could communicate. Yet another reality check on the fact that people truly are living not paycheck to paycheck but rather gig to gig.

He did have a lot of fun playing with my gimball, Galaxy Note 10 Plus, and drone. As someone from the birthplace of modern technoloy it’s always nice to see the childlike excitment people get from playing with new technology they’ve never touched.

The truth about life is that when you don’t have money it’s all that seems to matter and drinking seems to help distract from that reality. And when you have money, time becomes money. Cambodia is a place that is young and regaining it’s footing. The people are hard working but there’s just no opportunties in Siem Reap and I’m not sure there will be big opportunities down the road if they don’t better preserve Angkor Wat. If I was born there I’d imagine it would be near impossible to even imagine a life beyond Siem Reap as there really nothing for hours and Angkor Wat doesn’t seem like a bad proposition for money within a 6 hour radius.

LOCAL GRIND

It would take an incredible amount of courage and savings to pick up and move to the capital city blindly. For someone from the outside it seems like the obvious choice for anyone looking for more opportnities but from the ground level in Siem Reap it would equate to asking me to go live on the Moon.

People sell hard in Siem Reap. There’s a lot of negotiation and bargaining. I work in sales so I’m intimately familiar with the power the buyer has and frankly I wasn’t really interested in souvenirs. Seeing the looks of frustration on people’s faces was hard to take, it’s looking at folks who are facing constant rejection and I know the feeling from a sales point of view but in a different dimension so to speak. It doesn’t help that their currency is weak against the USD. When it rains it pours. But those who weather the storm all become stronger and perserverence is a strong quality to possess in the coming decade.

Cambodia also has flashes of outstanding artwork. I saw a few pieces of woodworking and rice paper art that I would’ve bought and taken home had I had the space and wasn’t on such a longer journey.

NICE SURPRISE

The surprise of the trip was going to a WWE wrestling – the Angkor warriors. It was WWE Shaolin Fighting fusion. I’d never been to one of these events but it was actually a ton of fun with Johnny who was super into it.

NOTES:

January 8th was the first day since I can remember that I had no clue what day of the week it was.

I still had the neurotic calendar filling OCD that San Francisco curses everyone with. That would not be alleviated until weeks later.

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Letters from Thailand

After about 1.5 months of planning my trip I left on NYE on a 60 hours flight to Thailand. I went for the cheapest flight ($280) I could find and it was quite a way to kick off a year long journey as it was a journey in and of itself. This video kicks off my journey across the world starting with California to Bangkok over NYE!

When I landed I was meeting my friend Johnny at One of Us Hostel. If you want to see what that part of Bangkok looks like here’s a review I did of the neighborhood and hostel.

Our first few days it was all fun and games. We ate all the street food we could get our hands on, we knocked out the top tourist must sees, and even caught a muay thai fight.

First impressions of Thailand: it lives up to it’s reputation. Everyone is incredibly kind. The pace of life is fantastic. It has a little bit of everything so it’s hard to find fault. It feels like Shanghai and Taipei had a love child. It’s bustling and has big city options like Shanghai but still retains the street level feel of Taipei. It’s also incredibly walkable and safe. We had plenty of late nights cruising aimlessly around city streets as we were getting familiar with the various neighborhoods and frankly did not always know where we were heading just looking to stumble into a hidden gem.

The driving in Thailand is super zen considering how many cars are sharing all the lanes. There is very little honking and I attribute it to the peace and love buddhist vibes that permeate the culture. I’m sure if I took a drone video from above a crowded street corner it would look like one of those spectacular bird flying patterns, a sort of coordination improv.

If the States allowed Thailand’s style of driving there would probably be accidents and car wrecks everywhere. Call it a cultural challenge as our individualism costs us efficiency on the roads. There are lanes but no one is driving based on the lines on the ground, rather it is based on one another.

They say Thailand is the land of smiles. When I first arrived I expected everyone to be smiling at me but it wasn’t the case (maybe my expectations were too high!). But by Day 3 I was well relaxed and began smiling at everyone and noticed almost everyone smiled back. In Silicon Valley terms it’s a great flywheel for humanity. Genuine smiles feeding back more smiles generates a lot of free natural seratonin. Beecause when you think about it, when you smile and another person who does not smile back it actually can make you a bit sad inside. Maybe this fear of rejection is why a lot of Americans don’t smile more at perfect strangers. Come to think of it there must be a lot of lost opportunity in all of our non smiling. A returned smile opens a door to “hello”.

It seems like life in Thailand is quite simple yet satisfying for the locals. It’s a country that teeters well between buddhist zen foundations and capitalistic endeavors, it strikes a very refreshing balance. You don’t get the sense that everyone is out to hustle or hard sell you. Everything is a fantastic value and it all sells itself with fantastic service.

If everyone in Silicon Valley falls into: Engineering, Sales, Product, Operations, and VC’s it equated to Grab driver, food vendors, mechanic, and masseuse.

The Thai Bhat is the local currency and of this writing stood at around 33:1 USD. In very general terms most street food lived between 25-60 bhat (for the record the most expensive street food I ate I ordered was a plate of 5 BBQ’d jumbo shrimp costing 280 bhat or around $8.50), you will end up taking a lot of taxis and and the fare usually runs between 100-300 bhat. And if you’re spending 1000’s of Thai Bhat you’re likely doing something fairly exceptional as it equates to around $30USD.

The truth is the most expensive things we did were pay for cover to get into the famous temples. That ran us around 500 bhat for the Grand Palace and 200 bhat for Wat Pho.

We stayed in a hostel and splurged for a private room with two twin beds and AC. It ran us around $30 a night or $15 per person. If you are looking for accommodations they can be easily found for $6-$8 per person in common dorms.

The one thing that came as a complete shocker was the fact that there is not a single beach in Bangkok. I presumed there must be beaches everywhere along the shore. To my surprise the first week in Thailand I did not get to use my board shorts once. As you can see I planned absolutely nothing going into the trip as anyone who looked for 5 minutes would’ve know this to be the case.

Would I go back? Yes absolutely. I totally get why so many people come to Bangkok from all around the world. From the food, to the nightlife, the to cultural sites, and most importantly the incredibly optimistic people. It’s a place with great “spectrum” for lack of a better word. It seems to offer an abundance of options for everyone.