Friday, January 30, 2015

Photo Friday: Indiana Sand Dunes

Indiana Sand Dunes
September 2013

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Indiana Sand Dunes

Just a couple of hours drive from Chicago is the Indiana Sand Dunes National Park. It's a lovely place to pack a picnic and explore. There are miles of hiking paths along the shore of Lake Michigan. From several of the viewing platforms you can even make out the Chicago city skyline across the lake on a clear day. 

I visited in September 2013 as part of our anniversary getaway weekend. After labor day the crowds disperse and you can have the park mostly to yourself. I've heard the summers are quite busy with families wanting to spend some outdoor time. 

We packed a picnic lunch that we enjoyed on the park benches before hiking around the dunes for awhile. We were on our way to Michigan to spend the weekend so we only stayed at the dunes for about two hours. However, it was a lovely place to stop for lunch and stretch our legs a bit during our trip. During road trips I prefer to pack a lunch and stop at a park or scenic spot along the way if possible. It's so much more enjoyable than stopping for fast food. Plus we get to enjoy the beautiful sunshine and stretch our legs in a scenic location.   

What do you enjoy about road trips?

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Cambodian Countryside Tour

During my first full day in Siem Reap I took a motorbike tour through the Cambodian countryside. I am a huge fan of Trip Advisor and always check out recommendations for a destination prior to my trip. If you've never used the site it's worth a look. The site is completely free to use and relies on the advice from travelers. I learned of the Motor Mystery Tour that way. They call it the mystery tour because they don't give you an itinerary of the stops you'll visit. Each tour may be different, but this is what I experienced on my trip. 

Initially I was going to sign up for the bicycle tour, but the reviews on Trip Advisor said to go for the motorbikes. I'm really glad I did! The tour groups are small and give you a unique experience in the countryside away from the throngs of tourists. Plus I learned a lot more about the lives of most Cambodians. 

I was picked up at my hotel in this jeep: 

This was my first time driving a motorbike, but it was pretty easy once you get the hang of it. I learned quickly the best practice is to not hesitate or you'll lose control. Rather than riding on asphalt or concrete roads, most of the driving we did was on dirt paths and loose sand. Let me tell you, the loose sand is really difficult to drive on.

The guide stopped many times throughout the trip so we could pull over and take photographs while he explained a little bit about life in the country. Each household has a garden to grow vegetables and sometimes one of the family members will also have a job in town.  

The cows in Cambodia are not grown for food, they are used for work. They are all really thin and malnourished from being fed poorly, probably because there isn't a lot to eat and they're not being fattened up for slaughter. They're used to help as farm labor instead.

The green fields are not grass, but rice fields. This patch is almost ready. Surprisingly the rice grows better in the dry season as the fields are completely flooded in rainy season. 

We got off our bikes to walk around and check out the rice fields up close. As we were crossing the path back to our bikes I stepped on an ant hill and had my foot swarming with red fire ants. Side note: fire ants sting when they bite and the stinging lasts long after the ants are gone.

We crossed this tiny little bridge during our trip. I can honestly say it was terrifying and I thought I would drive the bike into the water. Remember I said this was my first time? Thankfully I made it across without incident, but I definitely looked less than graceful with my legs hanging out either side with a fearful look on my face. I'm not sure why I kicked my legs out, but hey just in case the bike tips and I need to catch myself I guess.

We passed through dozens of villages during our five hour ride through the countryside. The houses looked different depending on where they were located but many of them were on stilts so the house doesn't flood with the rain. The photo above is one of the nicer homes we saw.

The children in some of the villages came out to wave at us as we drove through town and came out to see us especially when we stopped for a break. It's very sad that when you're in the city, children are used to sell goods to tourists. I think the strategy is that tourists are more likely to buy souvenirs from cute children than grown adults. However, in the countryside the children aren't rushing up to you for money they just want to wave and say hello. This little boy is one of the many children who came out to greet us and interact with us during one of our stops. 

We also stopped at a monastery that houses monks and nuns. We learned that people enter the religious life in Cambodia for various reasons. Sometimes it's because of the desire to be closer to God, but many times it has to do with parents being unable to feed their children. There is not an age requirement to become a monk and we saw several young boys walking around in the orange robes during our visit. 

The houses below are close to the water now, but during rainy season the entire area will flood. So each house has to be lifted and moved uphill behind where we were standing. Apparently it only takes about ten grown men to move the homes. It's a little hard to believe the whole village will move such a short distance, but I imagine it's easier to move once or twice a year than to walk a further distance to the water everyday. 

One disappointing part of the trip is that I wasn't able to take more photos! I took a lot, but we passed through so many interesting areas, I would have loved to photograph more. We had to stop at this crossing to wait for the animals to cross and clear a path in the road. The countryside version of waiting in traffic!

This was the start of the path down the sand road. Mind you, much of the road to this point was either dirt or sand, but this path was almost like driving on the beach. I may have lost control at one point and shrieked a few times as I smashed into a bush and almost tipped over. Just a few scratches and something to laugh to myself about for the rest of the trip.

Our last stop of the day was at the crocodile farm. There were hundreds of crocodiles in separate concrete barriers. We walked from one to the next on a concrete plank above the pits. As it was sunset, the crocodiles were barely moving. Which was actually a blessing after our initial greeting. The four of us walked onto the plank. Sensing our arrival, one of the giant crocodiles jumped up out of the water and chomped his teeth at us. It all happened so fast and was completely terrifying that we all jumped, even our tour guide who's visited the farm many times. 

The crocodiles are farmed for their skins to make products like handbags, belts and shoes. The first pits we walked over held the old crocodiles that are kept around for breeding. The younger ones have the softer skins used for the goods. There were probably more than a dozen pits. Each held different age groups from the small, less than a year old crocodiles all the way to the older crocodiles.

This is actually my third time visiting a crocodile farm. I've visited before in the states. I think it was in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina that I witnessed feeding time. It's quite a horrifying sight to see them climb all over each other trying to be the first to get the meat. It's not hard to picture them doing that in the wild attacking food. 

I probably should feel bad that these animals are kept and grown for the sole purpose of making products from their hide. However, they are so terrifying that it doesn't bother me a bit. I almost feel like they deserve it for being so vicious, but then that makes me feel bad about myself for thinking that. They are after all wild creatures doing what they were made to do. Overall, I feel very conflicted. Though not so conflicted that I might consider purchasing a crocodile clutch. When I'm carrying it I can just pretend it was made from the crocodile that jumped out to attack us and this is my sweet revenge. Anyways...        

The sun was setting during our visit at the crocodile farm, yet we were about 45 minutes away from the city of Siem Reap by bike. So we rode back to drop off the bikes in the dark. I ended up driving back with my sunglasses on. There were so many bugs leaving the countryside and they kept flying into my eyes which stung. There are few lights so there wasn't much to see anyway. As long as I could still see the brake lights of the bike in front of me leading us home I was fine. 

I think the tour was fantastic and it was such a new experience for me. From learning to ride the motorbike to seeing life in various villages around Cambodia it was a really unique experience. I would absolutely take this tour again!  

What's the most interesting tour you've ever taken on vacation?


Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Ta Keo

Ta Keo was built prior to Angkor Wat but it was never finished. Angkor Wat has the same structue as Ta Keo with the three platforms, four peaks at the corners of the second tier with a fifth peak rising from the center on the third tier. The temple is made of sandstone and has very few carvings compared to some of the others. 

Ancient Sanskrit Carving

Tourists can climb all the way to the top of the center tower but it's very steep and the steps are huge! I of course went all the way to the top, dress and all. My guide, aka my personal photographer, documented it all for me. I didn't even realize he was taking my photo until two days later when I was going through the photos on my computer. Going up is easy, coming back down is the tricky part.      

What's your take on hiring a tour guide? Do you like to go it alone or pay for the added info?