First Impressions: Chiang Mai

Alright, I’m going to be a little biased here.  I arrived to Chiang Mai when it is at its best, the New Year’s Festival called Songkran.  If you’re in Thailand for this holiday, it is said that Chiang Mai is the place to be.

And I believe it.

The old city of Chiang Mai is surrounded by a moat.  This moat is then used to refill countless and countless buckets and waterguns, which are then used to soak and re-soak every single person in the city.  And I mean every single person.  Businessmen, shopkeepers, mothers, infants, monks, even policemen are dripping water by 10 o’clock in the morning.  I can’t imagine being anywhere else for this holiday! 

It was an endless supply of water.

But more about the holiday later.  I want to talk a little bit about the city.  Or at least what I saw of it.

Most of the shops were closed.  And by most, I mean at least 95% of them.  Everyone was out “playing Songkran.”  But I liked the way the city was structured.  It was definitely walkable and I got to stroll down the Sunday Market (which was going on a Friday because of the massive amounts of people inundating the city, and I mean literally inundating) and was tempted to buy anything and everything once again.

It seemed like a pretty laid back place with a lot of character.  My couchsurfing host showed me all of his favorite restaurants.  And yes, he could only show me them, because their owners were out spraying people with hoses, but needless to say, I heard there were some good restaurants.  And I’m sure there are a lot of great temples and museums to see there, but I was a little caught up.

So my first impressions of Chiang Mai are a little skewed.  I thought the city was the greatest place on Earth, but I might have to revisit it away from all the mayhem. 

Instead of exploring the city, I was captivated by the Thai culture on this amazing holiday!

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First Impressions: Kuta

The last popular beach I’ve been to was Patong Beach on Phuket.  It was jam packed with crazy backpackers, expensive lounge chairs, and barely any beach space.    I have always tried to avoid “the place to be” on an island.  I like to get off the beaten path and find a nice quiet place to just chill out and enjoy the beach.

But I get a different feel from Kuta.  Yes, there are tons of people.  Yes, its crowded and yes, it has a McDonalds.  But its not as crowded as I expected.  The beach is long and spread out and I don’t feel claustrophobic while soaking up the sun in the sand.

Although, its quite hard to take a quick cat nap.  “Sarong, Sarong,” “Ice Cream,” and “Anana, Mango, Cold Drink” are heard every other minute and their sellers like to linger, just in case you change your mind.

There are plenty of restaurants to choose from, with a hawker center right on the beach that is delicious and has nasi goreng to pizza to falafel, surfboards line the sand, the sun is always shining (well almost always, I got stuck in a juice bar for an hour trying to wait out a freak storm) and a Bintang beer is always easily attainable.

The streets of Kuta - A far cry from the streets of Ko Tao or Ko Jum!

First Impressions: Ubud

I have never heard someone say they didn’t like Bali.  I’ve heard people rave and rave about how amazing it is.  And when I ask them specific places to see, they immediately without fail shout out Ubud.  You must see Ubud.  It is the cultural capital of Bali, known for its artistic flair and creative spirit.  Its the hub for famous photographers, writers, painters, musicians, and dancers.  There was no question that I wanted to go there! So Ubud it is!

I arrived in Bali around noontime and my friend Matt, from Nomadic Matt’s Travel Site, met me at the airport and we were on our way to Ubud in no time.  He whipped out his guidebook and started showing me all the places we were going to go and all the things we were going to see.  He traced our future route through the island telling me interesting tidbits about each place and why we’re going to go there.  It was so amazing not having to plan a trip for once!

A couple hours we made our way into Ubud.  The streets were lined with paintings of rice terraces, Balinese dancers, and beautiful beaches.  Photography galleries could be found on every street.  Balinese women were furiously beading away in their shops.  Wood carvings were strewn about the roads.  I was surrounded by art and being that photography is pretty much my life these days, I was in heaven. 

Walking through each shop, we talked about everything we wished we could by for homes that we don’t even have.  Paintings that we wanted to buy.  Statues that belonged in a front yard somewhere.  Vases that belonged in a future foyer one day.  We were surrounded  by so much beauty and talent.

What a wonderful place to become inspired!

A view from our dinner spot - I'd say that's pretty nice

First Impressions: Siem Reap

Upon entering Siem Reap, I didn’t have any prior expectations.  The only thing I really knew about the town was that the Temples of Angkor were close by. And that’s just what the town was.  A settlement that developed because of the World Wonder six kilometers down the road. 

But that’s not a bad thing.

I loved the slowness of Siem Reap.  Or I guess a better word would be sleepiness.  It did not have the urgency of Bangkok.  It did not have the traffic of Phnom Penh.   It did not have the strict rules of Singapore or an extensive railway system like Kuala Lumpur.  The roads were quite bumpy and worn, the people appeared the same and the town seemed to know its very significant role in Cambodia and more importantly the world: the gateway to the Temples of Angkor Wat, one of the Wonders of the Ancient World. 

Moto drivers still hounded me, but with a more blasé attitude.  The shops were all set further off the road and walking down the street, I didn’t feel like something was constantly being sold to me (of course, this all drastically changed when I visited the Temples of Angkor). 

I didn’t explore downtown Siem Reap until later in the day and it was definitely a little busier than Airport Road, or National Highway 6, the street that I first encountered when entering the city.  There were cute shops selling knick knacks and souvenirs extremely similar to those found in Thailand (although, naturally, the “Thailand” was now changed to “Cambodia”), small guesthouses and of course, cheap beer everywhere. 

My kind of town!

First Impressions: Phnom Penh

If you don’t want to or can’t get a job, be a moto driver.

That seems to be the motto of Phnom Penh.  I couldn’t walk two steps without someone trying to flag me down asking if I want a moto or a tuk tuk.  Let’s make a deal here.  If I want a ride, I’ll summon you over.  Not the other way around.  My first experience with the Phnom Penh moto drivers was the second I stepped off the bus at the bus station.  One decided that he was going to cling to me, despite my pleas to back off.  I told him I needed to call someone (my couchsurfing host) and that I did not need a ride as of now.  He took this cue to follow me around and standing so close to me that if I moved I would brush up against him.  This is exactly what I did not need after a 4-5 hour bus ride, where my seat did not recline a centimeter (I also had to deal with the guy in front of me who decided to recline his chair all the way giving me about an inch to deal with) and the child behind me kicked my chair the entire time.  I ended up not needing his services and had to shoo the man away.

My first thoughts when entering the bustling city were once again overwhelming ones.  I have a feeling that I tend to get overwhelmed a lot, especially since 1) this is my first time traveling and 2) I’m doing it alone, but I’m proud to say that those feelings do not last long anymore.  There seemed to be market stalls galore (there also seemed to be mobile phone shops every other shop), motorcycles inundating the streets creating chaos at every turn, and people everywhere.  There were barely any stop lights and if there were, they were ignored. 

Bicycles, Tuk tuks, Cars and Motorbikes all trying to get through this crazy intersection!

Well, this is Southeast Asia, so I guess that’s to be expected, but I had not seen anything like this yet.  Intersections were absolute mayhem, with moto drivers, cars, tuk tuks, bicycles and even pedestrians all shooting across at alarming speeds and somehow just missing each other.    Moto bikes were somehow made into makeshift trucks (I wish I had pictures of a few of them, but maybe I’ll get one by the end of my trip) and trucks were piled high with cows, fruit, furniture, or people on furniture (I spotted a truck with about a hundred conference style chairs on it with boys sitting in those chairs). 

Despite the turmoil and sense of urgency on the streets, the city had a laid back vibe and I was eager to become a part of it even if it was for a short while!

First Impressions: Cambodia

Well after my annoying trip through the border, I landed in Krong Koh Kong and was back to that oh so familiar feeling of being overwhelmed. I didn’t know a word Khemer. I really had no idea where I was. I really had no idea where I was going. I honestly really had no idea what to do. I wondered around aimlessly for awhile, first looking for a Sim card (apparently they won’t sell to a non-Cambodian, I’ll try again in Sihanoukville) then trying to find something to eat. I must’ve walked to wrong way because I could not find a place to eat! I sat down at one place where people were lounging in lawn chairs and drinking and as soon as I tried to ask the girl if they had food, all the while motioning that I wanted to eat, her blank stare and the laughs of the surrounding men drove me right out of that place.

The anxiety of the old me started building up, but I fought to stifle it. I sauntered into a place that looked like a restaurant were three teenage girls were eating so I assumed there was food, but they could not understand the fact that I wanted to eat. I must be terrible at Charades. Finally, a guy next door who spoke English acted as an interpreter and I was served some fried rice. Always a safe bet.
I sat in the restaurant observing everything around me. It didn’t look too different than a smaller town in Thailand, just a tad bit dirtier. I also know that this town isn’t a huge tourist destination so I’m eager to see what Sihanoukville, Siem Reap, and Phnom Penh are like. I felt lost, but I knew it wouldn’t last too long. I’ve grown up a lot since those first nights on Khao San road and I had faith in myself that I would adapt.
On my way back to the guesthouse I ran into a tuk tuk/moto driver who convinced me to go out to the waterfalls with him for $10. I had read about the waterfalls and I decided that I shouldn’t just sit on my butt and I that I needed to embrace that I was in Cambodia and explore.

A view from the road on my motorcycle ride

The moto ride was phenomenal. It was about 20 km to the waterfalls and it was up and down the Cambodian hills with beautiful views, checkered with forests and lakes, around every corner. I just breathed in the air and kept repeating to myself, in my head of course, “I can’t believe I’m in freakin Cambodia!” I was so excited.

One of the many waterfalls at the Tatai Waterfalls

The Tatai waterfalls were so incredibly peaceful and I could have stayed there for hours. I’m only going to be in Krong Koh Kong one day and I’m extremely glad I didn’t spend it sleeping and resting from my long day’s journey like I had wanted to. I also grabbed a couple Angkor beers and watched the sunset.
What a perfect first day in Cambodia

Oh, and I still can’t believe I’m in freakin Cambodia!

First Impressions: Singapore

Flying into Singapore was the way to go (at least I think so because that’s what I did).  Passing over little islands, bright blue sea, and a bay full of barges, the flight into the Changi  Airport was unlike any other.  The moment I stepped into the airport I was rushed with a feeling that Singapore was much different than the rest of Southeast Asia.  The customs agent smiled at every single traveler as she glanced from the passport to their faces, which is a bit odd because most customs agents blankly stare at your face as if you weren’t a real person, and the airport was the cleanest I have seen.  For the first time, I experienced the art of disinfecting a toilet seat before I used it, something I now firmly believe every airport should have.

To meet my next couchsurfing host, I had to jump on the MRT towards Joo Koon to the Jurong East station.  This gave me the chance to get a quick look at Singapore as it whizzed by.  The houses and streets were nothing like Thailand or Malaysia.  There didn’t seem to be any slums, run-down houses, or piles of trash on the streets.  No sign of poverty anywhere.  The buildings looked sharp and new and no sign of mold on the housing complexes.

On the train, I experienced the same diversity that I had encountered in Malaysia: Chinese, Caucasians, Indians, and I’m guessing some Malays were thrown in there as well (I never took the time to observe the distinct characteristics of a Malaysian because I was surrounded by Chinese my entire trip in the country) and wearing my fisherman’s pants, t-shirt and sweatshirt (yes, I know its extremely hot in Singapore, I was just too lazy to take it off after the freezing cold plane ride), I seemed to be a bit underdressed.

After settling in a little bit at my host’s, we set out to dinner in Orchard Street area, the shopping Mecca of Singapore.  I soon discovered that shopping is one of the main staples of life in Singapore and the malls were modern and very appealing (also a dangerous area for me).

Walking along the streets, I noticed that traffic wasn’t as crazy as I was used to.  Driver’s were actually following the rules, staying on their side of the street and stopping for red lights, and I didn’t get the sense of chaos that resounded from Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok.  It just seemed orderly here.

Singapore is a small island with a lot of people.  Everything is built up, up and up and extremely compact.  Unless you are very rich, you do not own a house, which was a concept that was brand new to me.  I’ve lived in houses all my life ranging from big to small and I could not imagine having to take an elevator up to the 9th floor growing up.

I really like the modern feel of Singapore.  Its a little different and new, but that’s what traveling is all about, seeing what’s mundane to the natives in a whole new light.