South by Southeast: 5 tips for Angkor Wat

I was alone, deep in the Cambodian jungle, flanked by the scattered ruins of ancient Khmer temples. My ears tickled with the cackle distant bird calls and buzzing cicadas. My shirt clung to my skin with a thick layer of sweat and ocher-hued dust. Suddenly, I heard movement to my right behind a wall. What was it? An ancient spirit of temples? A fearsome jungle cat waiting to pounce? My muscles tensed and I stood waiting for the apparition to appear – until a flag-waving tour group emerged from around the corner. It turns out I wasn’t as alone in the jungle as I previously thought.

Angkor Wat is less a place than an idea burned in our subconscious. These famous ruins float in our dreams like Indiana Jones fantasy, cloaked in thick layers of vines and overgrown jungle trees. Yet the reality of this ancient wonder of the world doesn’t always align with our visions. Angkor Wat today is among the most popular tourist destinations in Southeast Asia, with nearly two million visitors annually. The abandoned ruins of your dreams are positively overrun with tour groups, brandishing their gigantic SLR’s like a camera-toting guerilla army. Yet despite its enduring popularity, a visit through Angkor can still be thoroughly enjoyable – you just need to know the right way to do it.

To truly enjoy the wonders of Angkor, you need to come armed with a few simple strategies. Ready to make your own adventure through Angkor Wat? Keep reading below for our five tips.Tip #1 – Do Your Research
Before arriving in Angkor, I had assumed the site was just one big temple – it’s not. In reality it’s a series of massive complexes including Angkor Thom and the Roluos Temples, covering more than 3000 square kilometers and 72 major temples, many of which were built during different eras of the Khmer Empire. It pays to come to Angkor with at least some idea of what you want to see. Otherwise it’s easy to get lost and overwhelmed.

There’s some easy ways to arm yourself with the right information. Consider grabbing an Angkor-specific guide like this book by Dawn Rooney, which will provide historical background, itinerary plans and descriptions of key architectural features. The tech-savvy should also check out the Angkor iPhone app by the Asia travel experts at Travelfish. Need even more? Consider hiring a guide.

Tip #2 – Leave Enough Time
Tip two falls right in line with tip one. Considering the immense size of Angkor, you want to leave enough time to explore the site’s many ruins. Though individual interest in the ruins varies, many travelers recommend at least three days for a proper visit. This ensures you can check out all the main sights while also leaving time for some of the lesser-known gems, many of which are far less crowded than the “biggies” like Angkor Wat. Any less than this and you’re likely to spend a lot of time queuing behind other tourists at the big ruins. And if you’re really into archeology, consider grabbing a week-long pass.

Tip #3 – Beat the Heat
Even during the cooler winter months, Cambodia is positively sweltering. Daytime temperatures hover anywhere from the 80’s to over 100 degrees. Spending all day walking around in the baking heat is a bad idea. Plan a mid-day break for lunch into your itinerary if you’re doing it on your own.

Another great way to escape the crazy temperatures is a side trip out to Kbal Spean, a series of riverbed carvings with a refreshing waterfall pool at the end. And wherever you go, make sure to bring lots of water. Enterprising kids sell bottles outside most temples for next to nothing.

Tip #4 – Explore the Lesser-Known
No matter when you visit, expect Angkor Wat to be busy. But despite all the moaning about the crowds, there are still plenty of places you can find yourself all alone. Temples like Preah Kahn, the Banteay Srei/Kbal Spean combo and the Roluos Group, especially when visited early/late in the day, can make for delightfully deserted experiences. For the ultimate do-it-yourself experience, consider renting a bike to explore. You’ll find you can linger more easily at sites once the tour buses have departed.

Tip #5 – Choose Your Sun Carefully
Before my trip to Angkor, people kept raving about the sunsets. With considerable anticipation, I climbed to the top of Phnom Bakheng on my first day, ready to be wowed by the awesome sight of the sun setting over the temple complexes. Except it wasn’t that great. It was wildly crowded and gave very little view of the surrounding temples. Every “sunset spot” I visited during my three day tour was similarly poor. I’m sure there are good sunsets/sunrise to be had in Angkor, but they don’t come easy. If you’re dead-set on seeing the sunset or sunrise, don’t expect to be alone and make sure to get there early.

Yes, there are lots of visitors at Angkor. But with a little preparation and planning, there’s still plenty of adventure to be had. You just have to look a little harder to find it.

Gadling writer Jeremy Kressmann is spending the next few months in Southeast Asia. You can read other posts on his adventures “South by Southeast” HERE.

South by Southeast: Eating in Saigon

Amniotic fluid tastes like chicken soup. At least, that is, the amniotic fluid that comes from Hot Vit Lon, a Vietnamese delicacy consisting of an duck egg with a half-formed baby chick nested inside. As I squatted on a flimsy plastic chair in one of Saigon’s labyrinth of steamy back-alleys, with a cracked-open Hot Vit Lon in one hand, sweaty bottle of Saigon beer in the other, I had to wonder – just what exactly was I about to put in my mouth? Like so many of the favored foods of this rapidly changing Vietnamese metropolis, it was a question with many answers. Saigon’s top notch food scene is much like the city itself – a range of conflicting identities shouting to be heard – a place where the traditional, the sensuous and the social merge as one.

Understanding Saigon in 2010 means juggling these different personalities. It’s a place that’s modernizing rapidly, a mish-mash of high-rises and wooden houseboats, Gucci stores and low-budget guesthouses. Cao Dai, a religious sect based near Saigon, counts Jesus, Buddha and Victor Hugo among its deities. Even the city’s official name, Ho Chi Minh City (adopted in 1975), is up for debate, often rejected in favor of the historic moniker “Saigon.” Yet somehow these conflicting traits manage to work together, particularly when it comes to the town’s legendary culinary diversity. Saigon eating is much discussed in food circles, not only for the quality of the ingredients but also for the mind-bending variety of cuisines on offer. Everything from Western Haute cuisine to street food can be sampled.

This past January, I visited Saigon in order to see for myself why everyone has been talking about Vietnamese cuisine. I found a world-class food city with many different facets, each more tantalizing and top-notch than the next. Curious to get a taste of Saigon eating? Keep reading below.

%Gallery-85632%The Traditional
For hundreds of years, the hallmark of Saigon food has been its simplicity and wealth of high quality ingredients. The city sits along the edge of the Mekong Delta, a fertile agricultural breadbasket that provides a fresh-from-the-garden array of produce, locally produced meats and a mouth-watering array of flavorings. Perhaps no dish better epitomizes this blending of simplicity and freshness than Pho, a simple noodle soup made with beef, bean sprouts and a farmers’ market-worth of fresh veggies and herbs.

I arrived in Saigon fresh off an arduous 10 hour bus ride, exhausted, hungry and looking for comfort. I found my salvation just blocks from my guesthouse at Pho Quyhn, one of Saigon’s many top-notch Pho restaurants. Soon a steaming bowl of broth was before me teasing my nostrils with its beefy aroma. Beside me a whole plate was piled high with fresh mint, cilantro and salad greens, ready to be added. It was a “hug from mom in a bowl” – warm, comforting and familiar.

The Sensuous
According to a traditional Vietnamese food proverb, “To eat you must first feast with your eyes.” It’s a statement that rings true for much of Saigon cuisine, says Vietnam food expert and “Indiana Jones of Gastronomy” Richard Sterling one day over lunch. Richard has volunteered his expertise to help me experience a totally different side of Saigon, one that will expose me to the riotous colors, textures and sounds that are just as important as taste to the enjoyment of Saigon cuisine.

We convene that night for a “seafood feed” at Quan Ba Chi, where we devour whole soft-shell crabs cooked in a sticky-sweet tamarind sauce. We grab at huge plates of pinkish-orange crustacean that yield their sweet meat with a satisfying CRACK and shower of juice. I’m overwhelmed by not just the delicious taste, but the sloppy tamarind goo and bits of crab shell that work their way between my fingers and onto my shirt. It’s a feast not only for my tastebuds, but for my eyes, ears and fingers as well.

The Social
Daily life in Saigon doesn’t happen at home. It’s best experienced out on the street. The neat line that divides public and private life in the West is blurred in Vietnam, a fact that is frequently on display here. Everything from shopping at food markets, to locksmiths carving keys, to barbers cutting hair happens on the pavement, open to view. It leads to an environment where a meal is something to be shared, discussed and displayed: eaten in the open at communal tables.

To get a taste of this communal atmosphere, I make my way towards Saigon’s District 3 to a Quan Nhau restaurant – open-air Vietnamese beer halls where locals gather each evening to trade gossip, drink beer and enjoy plenty of tasty treats. I sit down at a shared table at Lucky Quan, kick back a glass of Bia Hoi and some grilled mussels with garlic and within minutes I’m trading stories with the Saigon locals sitting next to me. In Saigon, food is clearly a conversation starter.

Traditional. Sensuous. Social. Saigon cuisine is all of these things and none of them. Ultimately in place that claims so many identities, travelers have an opportunity to pick what they want the city to be. Much like choosing from among the city’s dizzying range of delicious foods, it’s something you must experience and settle upon for yourself.

Gadling writer Jeremy Kressmann is spending the next few months in Southeast Asia. You can read other posts on his adventures “South by Southeast” HERE.

South by Southeast: Avoiding the hordes

I had high hopes for my arrival in Hoi An. This historic city, set along Vietnam’s Central Coast, has all the ingredients to be the perfect destination: a charming downtown lined with ancient Chinese buildings, a picturesque waterfront setting and a unique culinary history. So it was a shock when I stepped off my bus to find the city the epitome of a tourist trap, stuffed to the gills with tour groups, souvenir hawkers and pushy tailor shops. Hoi An, in my eyes, sucked. What happens then when travelers come to Southeast Asia with visions of the exotic and come away with a bad taste in their mouth? And how can we manage our expectations to best experience this fascinating destination?

As it turns out, increasingly we have to share the deserted beaches and charming historic quarters of our dreams with other visitors – and there are a lot of us these days. According to Vietnam’s Tourist board, the country received 3.7 million foreign visitors in 2009. Thailand is even higher, welcoming almost 14 million tourists. These travelers have left an unmistakable footprint, altering the places we love, the food we eat and the way we’re seen by locals. This influx of visitors (and their resulting impact) will only increase in the years ahead.

Yet despite the rise in tourists, Southeast Asia can be and still is the exotic destination of our dreams. You just need to come armed with a few simple strategies to maximize your enjoyment. Keep reading below to see how.Leave your expectations at home
Our idea of places we’ve never visited rarely matches with what we find when we get there. For Southeast Asia in particular, a steady diet of movies, books and glossy travel magazines have conditioned us to hold unreasonably high expectations. We come in thinking we’ll walk out the airport doors in Bangkok and plant ourselves on the beach beside a row of postcard-worthy palm trees. Instead we find superhighways and rows of 7-11’s.

Remember that people live in our fantasy destinations and they have everyday lives just like you and me. Revise your idea of what is and is not worth seeing. Sometimes watching Thais hang out at the mall can be just as interesting as a Buddhist temple.

Reconsider the “must-sees”
Hoi An is truly one of Southeast Asia’s most unique, one-of-a-kind destinations. But with that “wow factor” comes huge crowds and overwhelming popularity. To beat the tour buses you need to be flexible. Can you schedule your trip during an off-peak time of the year? Maybe you could get up early in the morning before the tourist hordes have descended? You can even consider alternate destinations that provide a similar atmosphere but with less fuss. Don’t be the guy that’s “too cool” to see Angkor Wat, but a little creative planning will make your visit far more enjoyable.

Get out of your guidebook
Guidebooks rule. I love the background information, the helpful maps and the suggested sleeping, eating and activities sections. But when you follow Lonely Planet to the letter, you’re following a well worn trail. It’s not a bad trail, mind you, it’s simply a path followed by thousands of other travelers each year. The prices you pay will be higher, there will be more travelers around you, and merchants will often view you as just another backpack with a giant dollar sign on it.

Don’t be afraid to skip the guidebook suggestions and follow your own instincts. You’ll often find some of the best adventures (and lower prices) off on your own. Not to mention less tourists.

Gadling writer Jeremy Kressmann is spending the next few months in Southeast Asia. You can read other posts on his adventures “South by Southeast” HERE.

South by Southeast: Five reasons to eat more street food

Welcome back to Gadling’s series on backpacking Southeast Asia, South by Southeast. In Southeast Asia, the center of daily life is the street. In Hanoi, pedestrians stop for a trim at sidewalk barber stands. In Bangkok, co-workers gather for steaming street-side bowls of noodle soup. And in Mandalay, men huddle at curbside tea shops, sipping milky-sweet chai while trading stories and gossip. You cannot claim to have visited Southeast Asia without soaking up this unique sidewalk atmosphere. And if you truly want to partake in this daily carnival of the street, you need to be eating the street food. Frequently.

I can already hear the objections. “I can’t eat street food, it’s going to make me sick. Isn’t all that greasy stuff unhealthy? I have no idea what I’m eating – it could be goat testicles or something!” All these fears harbor a grain of truth. But if you’ve ever had concerns about eating street food during your travels, Southeast Asia is the place to shove those fears down the disposal. Compare plates from your average restaurant in Southeast Asia against a street vendor around the corner and the vendor will win every time. Nowhere on earth will you eat such fresh, well-prepared and innovative meals – all for pennies on the dollar.

Still squeamish? Wondering what all the street food fuss is about? Keep reading for five reasons you should be eating more street food when you come to Southeast Asia.

%Gallery-83608%Because it’s cleaner than you think
The fear with street food is that it’s often unclean. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Many vendors wake up while you’re still snoozing to grab the freshest, most tasty ingredients at the local market. In addition, the vast majority of street food is cooked over an open flame or simmered in a boiling pot. This high heat kills any organism that’s likely to make you ill. Not to mention you get to watch with your own eyes as your food is prepared. Compare this to a restaurant, where an invisible chef prepares your meal away from view. Yes, people do get sick from food in Asia. But if you take care to eat food that is properly grilled, boiled or peeled…you’ll be fine. Relax and enjoy it!

Because it’s the best on earth
Lots of countries have street food. But Southeast Asia has the best. The region’s unique blend of European, Indian and Chinese ingredients is unlike anything you’ve ever tasted: year-round supplies of straight-from-the-ocean seafood, colorful exotic produce and dizzying selection of spices combine to ensure a mouth-watering array of meals, snacks and desserts. Eating the street food of Asia is literally a tourist attraction in and of itself.

Because it’s a great way to meet locals
You don’t eat street food in Southeast Asia by yourself. Typically you’re sitting on a low-slung plastic stool, seated around a communal table. Even when you order, you’ll be chatting with your chosen vendor, offering a chance to practice some local language. The closeness of street food encourages conversation. If you’re traveling the region on your own, it’s a great way to strike up a conversation with your dinner companions and make new friends.

Because it’s good for you
When you think of street food, we often think of greasy snacks from deep-friers. But Southeast Asian street food is much more than deep-fried cuisine. Juicy ripe produce and top-notch ingredients ensure you’ll be getting plenty of vitamins and nutrients. Shockingly, “eating fresh” isn’t just a slogan invented by a fast-food chain – in Southeast Asia it’s a way of life. Cooks have been using healthy ingredients like “organic produce” and “locally-sourced” foodstuffs since the dawn of time.

Because it’s cheap
Each time I pay for my street food meal in Southeast Asia, I feel like I’ve won the lottery. After gorging myself on fresh, delicious food – meals which would set me back $20 or more at home – the bill is never more than $2-3 dollars. If you’re coming to Southeast Asia on a budget, street food is your secret weapon. You can use the savings to pay for nicer accommodations, extra activities or maybe a few souvenirs and still keep within a small budget.

Whether you’re already eating congealed pig’s blood for breakfast or you’re just beginning to explore Southeast Asian cuisine, we could all benefit from eating more street food. Have any street food (mis)adventures you’d like to share? Tell us what you think in the comments.

Gadling writer Jeremy Kressmann is spending the next few months in Southeast Asia. You can read other posts on his adventures “South by Southeast” HERE.

South by Southeast: Hit and run Hanoi

You don’t just visit Hanoi. Hanoi visits you. Take a walk down any street of this fast-paced Vietnamese capital of commerce and communism and prepare to be overwhelmed by sensory delights (and annoyances). Motorbikes buzz around intersections like nests of angry hornets. Your feet trip over small plastic stools at street-side noodle shops. Vendors chase you down the street like used car salesmen, endlessly peddling a mish-mash of boat trips, tropical fruits and Lonely Planet guidebooks. It’s enough to make a Southeast Asian traveler go mad. But beneath this cacophony of life and movement lies an emerging must-see destination of achingly beautiful architecture, vibrant street life and cutting-edge culture. Get out of the way – we’re taking a “hit and run” tour of Hanoi.

For many years, getting to Hanoi was more of a roadblock than a green light. Situated in Vietnam’s furthest northern reaches, it was a capital both hard to get to and literally hard to enter. Veiled behind a curtain of communism and painful memories from decades of war, it was a destination most American travelers couldn’t and didn’t visit. But with the normalization of relations in 1994 and Vietnam’s admission to the WTO in 2007, tourism has been on the move. Nowhere is the “new Vietnam” more evident than in rapidly changing Hanoi. Where infamous prisons once stood, there are now luxury high rises. And in place of guns and grenades, you’ll find fashion boutiques and trendy coffee shops.

Ready to take another look at this on-the-move Vietnamese capital? Keep reading below for the ins and outs of a proper Hanoi visit.Getting In
Getting to the furthest northern reaches of Vietnam has never been easier or more inexpensive. Thanks to cheap budget airlines like Air Asia and Jetstar, flying into Hanoi from other Southeast Asia capitals is a snap. If you’re coming direct from the U.S., consider United Airlines and Delta, both of which now fly to Vietnam (with a layover in Asia) from the United States. For those arriving from points south in Vietnam, the country’s competent rail system offers sleeper trains for around $30-40 depending on the point of origin.

What to See
Hanoi is a city with a rich history. Anyone interested in the history of the Cold War will find lots to explore at the city’s many war monuments and museums, covering Vietnam’s struggle for independence as well as the conflict between North and South. In addition, Hanoi is increasingly home to a thriving arts, food and nightlife scene.

  • Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum – The body of “Uncle Ho,” architect of modern Vietnam, is entombed at this vast complex. There’s no more surreal (and creepy) sight in Hanoi than paying a visit to Ho’s preserved body. Surrounding the mausoleum visitors can investigate a large museum and complex of buildings where Ho Chi Minh lived and worked.
  • Old Quarter – To see where old and new Hanoi collide, head to the city’s Old Quarter. Just north of Hoan Kiem Lake, the area is home to a growing collection of trendy art galleries, bohemian coffee shops and happening bars. These businesses mix effortlessly with the area’s chaotic array of merchants, selling everything from textiles to fruit shakes to motorbike parts.
  • Beer, Ahoy! – Hanoi’s street food is legendary. Stumble down any street and you’re likely to find delicious local specialties like Bun Cha and savory bowls of Pho noodle soup all accompanied by Vietnam’s infamous brew, Bia Hoi (draught beer). And for 25 cents a glass, you can afford to buy a few rounds for your pals.
  • Temple of Literature – Take a trip back in time to ancient Vietnam at this well-preserved monument to the teachings of Confucius and Vietnamese scholarly works. The Temple of Literature represents an oasis of serene Chinese-style pagodas in the city’s chaotic traffic-choked center.

Where to Stay
A stay in Hanoi is incredibly friendly on the wallet. Considering the range of amenities like free WiFi and satellite TV available at most hotels and guest houses, a budget traveler will find themselves spoiled for choice starting at around $15 per night. Great options include the Especen Hotel situated just west of Hanoi’s Hoan Kiem Lake. Shoestring travelers should check out Hanoi Backpackers, which attracts a happening crowd for its daily happy hours and is a great bargain at $7.50/night for a dorm bed. High rollers frequent the Sofitel Metropole, a grand dame of Asian colonial elegance, with rooms starting at just over $200/night.

Gadling writer Jeremy Kressmann is spending the next few months in Southeast Asia. You can read other posts on his adventures “South by Southeast” HERE.