SE Asia Day 3: Bus to Laos and the best guesthouse on the planet

December 28th, 2016

We woke up early (I’m getting up naturally at the crack of dawn every day when I normally struggle to roll out of bed by 8am) and ate free hotel breakfast before heading to the bus station. There were six other travelers on our bus: two Aussies, three Germans, and an American.  We were the only ones who didn’t smoke, including the driver!


We were a little nervous heading to the Cambodian side of the border because Ted was holding our passports in a waist pouch as we explored Angkor Wat and he sweat right through my Cambodia exit form. But turns out that if you’re willing to pay $2 for expedited service (i.e., bribe the border agents) all your problems go away.

We used Asia Van Transfer to get from Siem Reap to Nakasong, and we mostly recommend it. We had three drivers by the end of the day, and all drove fast and crazy. We had all of these unexpected bus changes, and the last bus we were supposed to use broke down on its way to pick us up from the Laos border, which made us over an hour late getting in, which meant we missed our ride to our guesthouse 20k away, so we had to pay for a ride (it was after dark and we didn’t have Internet so we didn’t know how to get there by bike). Ted bought a sim card as soon as we got into town so we could call the guesthouse, but it turns out that his phone only took micro-sim cards.

We ended up cutting down the sim card with leatherman scissors, using a cell phone flashlight while in the back of the van heading to our guesthouse. We got it down to the correct size and called up the guesthouse, and we were dismayed to learn that our host, a lovely Chinese-Canadian woman named Mali, had waited for us for an hour and a half!

Anyway, the rest of this post is going to be about Mali and her husband Athalo because they’re two truly wonderful people who brightened our trip. Mali is a gregarious bundle of joy who moved to Canada from China 37 years ago with a sixth grade education, phenomenal cooking skills, zero English language skills, and an insane work ethic. At some point in Canada, she met her husband, Athalo, a quiet, kind Laotian man who also immigrated to Canada. Carp, Ontario, to be exact. They got married, had 9 kids (7 boys and 2 girls), put them all through college, and now spend 6 months in Canada and 6 months in Laos every year in their retirement. Athalo inherited some land right on the Mekong from his father in the early aughts, and they decided to tear down the dilapidated wooden home in which Athalo grew up and build a small guesthouse on the land. Just 4-5 rooms to occasionally rent out to have some extra income while in Laos. But they don’t really need the money, so Mali reserves the right to send away any snotty people because, she says, her value and happiness are worth more than what they can pay her. If someone makes a booking online she can’t send them away, but she refuses to cook for people she doesn’t like. actually asked Athalo why they don’t say breakfast is included on their page, and he responded that Mali wants to be able to decide whether people are worth cooking for. Ha! We’re happy to report that she cooked us both breakfast and dinner, so we made the cut. Anyway, Athalo designed the guesthouse and one of their sons, an architect, drew up the plans, then they built this lovely guesthouse.

Mali and Athalo are very much in love, even after 35 or so years of marriage. Athalo’s calm energy perfectly balances out Mali’s brash gregariousness. She can ask him for something from across the compound and he will come running to do her bidding, with an adoring smile on his face.

Mali and Athalo now have three homes: two in Canada and this guesthouse. How did they do this, you ask? Hard work! The ultimate bootstraps story! Like I said, they didn’t have a fancy education, but Mali opened a restaurant in Carp and worked 20 hours a day for 13 years! Athalo did most of the child rearing and opened up his own business, too.

Mali is hilarious and full of wisdom. She shared so many great stories, so I’ll just recap our favorites here.

1. Mali buys a private island for $30,000 with less than $1,000 in her bank account. Mali is the type of person who decides she wants something and makes it happen. Sometime in the 80s, she saw an ad for a private island for sale in the middle of a river in Ontario, so she decided to go check it out. The island was small, was only accessible by boat, and had a small cottage with electricity. The moment she stepped foot on the island, she knew it was hers. The man selling the house was eager to get rid of it, so he was willing to sell for $30,000. Problem was, she didn’t have any money, not even $1,000 in the bank. But she wanted to secure the place, so she wrote out a check for $1,000 and asked if he would accept this as a down payment. He agreed, and Mali ran back home to call the bank manager, who happened to be her friend, and asked him to cover the check until she had the money. He agreed! In order to afford the island, she’d have to get a mortgage. She needed a 25% down payment because it was a second home, plus all of the fees associated with buying a place – at the end of the day, she needed $10,000 cash. So she worked crazy hours at her restaurant, then moonlighted at a fancier restaurant, and made $10,000 in one month. In the 80s! And just like that, she had an island. The island is now valued at over $200,000, but no one can convince her to sell (people have tried).

2. Athalo is the boss; Mali’s just an assistant. While we ate some phenomenal plates of Lao Laap Mali made, she sat down to chat. She told us that her husband was the boss, and she was the assistant. From what we saw of Mali and Athalo’s relationship, this did not appear to be the case, but she explained that in a business, the assistant takes care of all of the little problems, and when a problem is too big for the assistant to handle, she brings it to the boss. She said that in 35 years of marriage, there has never been a big problem. Ha! I think you had to be there to appreciate Mali’s delivery. Take it from me, it was hilarious.

3. Mali’s words of wisdom:

  • Mali told her kids that if they wake up and don’t want to go to work every day for two weeks straight, they should quit their jobs and look for something else because it’s not fair to yourself or your employer to do a job you don’t love. She said she has always worked very hard — she’ll out-work anyone — because she has always loved her jobs.
  • “You take the good and the bad, and you make lemonade. And then you sell it, and you make money.”
  • When each of her kids got married, Mali gave them a down payment for a house for admittedly selfish reasons. She said that the best way to get your kids out of your house and to have them leave you alone and be self-sufficient is to help them buy a house because then they have to get a job to make the mortgage payments.

We wish we could have stayed for another day or two, but we have hotels and flights booked and things to do! Mali told us we were doing “buffet style” travel, where we stop over at different places and get a small taste of many things, “but you don’t even know what you’re tasting!” She’s right, and I wish we had unlimited time, but if anyone reading this comes to the 4,000 islands region of Laos, you should skip the touristy party islands and come straight to Mali’s guesthouse, preferably while she’s here between December and May, and plan to stay a while to explore the island of Don Khong. Learn from our mistake!

In any case, it may seem odd that I spent almost this entire post writing about two people that we met, but that’s half the reason we travel. The world is a big and crazy place full of injustice and inequality, but outside of these systemic problems, the people who make up the world are good and kind. And it’s important to keep that in mind.

Besides, this blog is also our personal journal, and we definitely don’t want to forget Mali.

SE Asia Day 2: Angkor Wat by bike

December 27th, 2016

Well, it turns out that jet lag is a real thing.

Danielle had heard that the way to avoid jet lag is to survive the first day and go to sleep at a normal time the first night. We did that (we went to bed at 9:45p), so I thought I was fine. But then I woke up at 2:45a clear eyed and wide awake.

So that was a bummer.

It wasn’t actually all that bad though, because our alarm was set for 4:45a; we were waking up early so we could watch the sun rise at Angkor Wat.

Many (most?) people pay someone to take them around the various temples, either in a tuk tuk or in a van, but we’re here on a bike tour, so we rode our bikes!

We were on our way by about 5a, and we joined the stream of traffic heading north out of Siem Reap. And I mean it was a stream. Lots and lots of people.

The ticket office for Angkor Wat used to be right off the main road, but apparently it was recently moved to a new location 3K east of said road. In a fit of logic and common sense, we decided to listen to the giant sign on the side of the road and not what we read on the internet. We (mostly I) don’t always make smart decisions, but we got this one right.

After the 6K detour to buy tickets, we rode the rest of the way up to Angkor Wat, arriving right as the sky was starting to lighten. We walked into the temple complex and found a place to stand among the hundreds of other people.

This paragraph might overstate things a bit. I think that sunrise at Angkor Wat used to be a peaceful, spiritual experience. It wasn’t very crowded (it became a national monument relatively recently; it was for quite some time just sitting, ignored, in the Cambodian countryside), and I can see how watching a sunrise here could be magical. I mean, there wasn’t even a spectacular multicolored sunrise on the day we were there, but the sillouette of the temple and palm trees against the rising sun was stunning.

But it is hard to find the magic in the midst of all of this:

It was still beautiful, don’t get me wrong, but I’m getting old and grumpy, and I don’t like being around this many people.

This was a theme for much of the day: too many stinking people. But here are a few pictures of Angkor Wat without people in them.




After exploring the Angkor Wat temple for a bit and choking down some horrid, overpriced egg sandwiches, we set off to the next big temple area: Angkor Thom. Here’s Dani about to enter the city (you can see the gates ahead) alongside an elephant.

Bayon Temple was originally built as a Buddhist temple, but was used by later kings to suit their own religious preferences. It is known for the many large, smiling faces looking out in all directions from the temple towers.

Baphoun might have been my favorite temple, and maybe that was because it was so much less crowded. It is currently being restored, but we were able to climb all the way up to the top and were rewarded with some amazing views.


After climbing back down, we walked through the woods to see a few other ruins, and then came upon the elephant terrace. This was where the great Khmer kings received important visitors to the capitol city.

Then we got back on our bikes and rode east. By this time, it was getting very hot, and since I hadn’t slept a lot the night before, I was starting to struggle.

We stopped on the way and has passion fruit smoothies and a fresh pineapple. I love passion fruit. Love it enough to occasionally spend $3 on one tiny little guy at our co-op. So you can imagine my delight at getting a large cup of essentially passion fruit juice blended with ice for fifty cents.

As we sipped this sweet nectar of the gods, we decided to go to one last temple before heading home: Ta Phrom of Tombraider fame (full disclosure: I haven’t actually seen Tombraider. But the temple is referred to as the Tombraider temple, so I guess it was a location in that movie).

This temple was REALLY cool but oh my goodness was it crowded. Walls of people being directed along tight temple corridors like cows headed to the slaughter. When we found a spare moment with a little breathing room, we were able to appreciate the awesomeness of an ancient temple being slowly taken over by nature, with silk-cotton and strangler-fig trees growing over the walls and around the buildings. But then the moment passed, and we were surrounded once again. (Although you’ll notice that Danielle did a fabulous job of finding ways to take pictures that made it look like were alone. Looking at these pictures, I’m starting to second guess my own memory.)

After Ta Phrom, we headed back toward our hotel. The ride could have been very pleasant, but the traffic was insane. Motorbikes, tuk tuk, vans, buses…. We were always being passed by something, and ended up spending almost the entire ride home sucking down exhaust fumes.

We made it back to the hotel around 1p and decided that we were done with the traffic, the noise, and the exhaust-and-burning-plastic smell of Siem Reap. So we spent the rest of our last day at the hotel. We swam, ate some delicious red curry by the pool for lunch, enjoyed some out of this world passion fruit smoothies (we each ended up having two and a half smoothies today; the ones at the hotel were so delicious!), took a little nap, prepared for our trip out of Cambodia, and went to bed early. It was a lovely, relaxing way to spend the second half of the day.

Next up: Laos!

SE Asia Days 0-1: Travel day + staving off jet lag

Day 0: Travel day
Ted checked in for our flight online and we had a series of serendipitous events (skipping the line because Ted checked in early; K-9 team so we didn’t have to use the scanner, take off shoes, or take out laptops at security; a security line opening up right as we got in line) which we needed because a bunch of frustrating things also happened (second flight had a last-minute airline switch which meant we couldn’t check in for it and they had trouble checking our bags all the way through, Ted said the word “bicycle” and the airline employee checking us in had a coniption about how our bags were oversized and needed a box even though they were well under the size and weight restrictions, our bike locks in our carry on luggage were considered possible weapons by the TSA so Ted had to go back to the counter to check them and come back through security). But we made it with time to spare.

Our flight (on a cool double-decker plane) took us through Seoul, SK before heading to Siem Reap. The flight was 14 hours long and uneventful. Neither of us slept, which we both decided was a good thing for jet lag reasons, but which meant we were up for a good 30 hours straight. Ted worked for most of the flight while I read a book and watched several movies. The food was pretty good – they had bibimbap!
At the Incheon airport in South Korea there was some confusion at the transfer security station about why we didn’t have boarding passes yet, but they eventually let us through. Then it inexplicably took ~20 minutes to print our boarding passes at the gate, and we never really relaxed until we had them in hand. But we eventually got those too, and boarded a 5-hour flight to Cambodia. We both slept a bit on this flight, although every time Ted fell asleep, a flight attendant came by to wake him up for something. 

Which brings us to the Siem Reap airport, where we anxiously waited for our three checked bags (after the airline employee struggled to check them through, we were skeptical they’d be there). They all arrived, and our Bromptons did not suffer any damage! So it seems like all you have to do is put your Brompton in an IKEA Dimpa bag with some light foam around the sensitive parts, have the airline put a “Fragile” tag on it, and they can travel halfway across the world without a scratch!

Our hotel sent a tuk tuk to pick us up, which was a lovely way to get into town. We arrived Christmas night and apparently some Cambodians party pretty hard on Christmas, so there was lots of merrymaking to observe. Ted instantly got nostalgic for Zambia due to the smell of the town, which I pointed out to him was the smell of burning plastic. We were exhausted, so we basically collapsed into bed at the beautiful Bopha Pollen guesthouse (which I would highly recommend if you can get a good rate like we did from 


Day 1: Angkor National Museum and Wat Thmei

We decided to take it easy today to recuperate from traveling (neither of us have ever traveled this far and we were both a little nervous about jet lag). We woke up and got free breakfast from our amazing hotel, then set out for a walk to the Angkor National Museum. There are a few good museums in Siem Reap (land mine museum, war museum, this Angkor museum), and we decided to come to this one to give ourselves some context for our trip to Angkor Wat tomorrow. The museum was lovely and we learned some helpful things about the great Khmer kings, the history of the Angkor temples, and the deities that were the focus of the Angkor carvings. 

We then ventured to the Peace Café, an undeniably western vegetarian restaurant / community yoga space that came highly recommended by a coworker. This place had a beautiful setting with lots of shade trees and comfy chairs. We got some delicious curry dishes, a smoothie, and coffee, all of which were super. 


Then we headed to Wat Thmei, which is a temple and memorial for the approximately 25 percent of the Cambodian population that was killed during the Khmer Rouge regime in the 70s. The signs said that between 8,000 and 10,000 people were killed at this very site. 

Pol Pot never had to face justice for his crimes. Just like America never had to face justice for the millions of civilians we killed in this region of the world (not to mention the fact that we likely gave covert support to the mass-murdering KR regime).

Moving on….
We then headed back to the hotel and took a dip in the pool because it was a hot day (and because pool), then headed out to the night market and dinner. The night market was a little too much for us, so we left pretty quickly, and we were so tired that we just stumbled into some random place for dinner and it was just okay. We went to bed pretty early because we needed to be ready for sunrise at Angkor Wat the next day!

BTW, Siem Reap is not very walker friendly. No sidewalks in most of the town and everyone drives a motorbike or rides in a tuk tuk so you’re sort of an outcast if you walk. The locals don’t even walk. Therefore, this smells like exhaust and burning plastic.