A Comparative Study of Tuk-Tuks Across South East Asia

Although Tuk-tuks are a popular form of transportation across Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia (Singapore not so much, they prefer taxis – booooring), riding one in each location is very much a “same same but different” experience:

 Indonesia:

Travvel Sized giant

Travvel Sized giant

(Before I start talking about Tuk-tuks in Indonesia, I would first like to point out that all of my experiences with them are from Sumatra, not Bali or any other major tourist location.)

The first thing I did when I landed in the airport in Medan was bolt straight for a Tuk-tuk. Fortunately, I had done my research in advance and discovered that the taxis and Tuk-tuks waiting immediately outside the arrivals gate will charge you a significantly higher fare than those about 50m down the road (vehicles have to pay a fee to enter the airport pickup area). Even with the “cheaper” fare, my 15minute ride from the airport to the bus terminal was still more expensive than my 2.5hour bus ride to Berastagi.

At the time, I was travelling with 2 other girls and in all of our combined past experiences, three girls (with carry-on sized baggage) had been an easy fit. The Tuk-tuk we hired in Indonesia came nowhere near this. Since my girls had squished into the front-facing seats while I was in the washroom, I was stuck with the mini back-facing seat. Now, I’m not a very big person (if you couldn’t tell from the name of the blog), but I felt like a giant in that seat, it was so puny! I’m guessing Tuk-tuk was designed to fit only one person with some baggage and our driver just didn’t want to pass up our business and tried to squish us in regardless.

Thailand:

Who doesn't love hot pink seats?

Who doesn’t love hot pink seats?

My friends and I hired 2 Tuk-tuks to give us a tour around Bangkok. Apparently, it was “Buddha day”, so gas was free to all government-run Tuk-tuks (which are cheaper on a regular day and marked with a Thai flag, but are much less in number). This meant our half-day ride was only about 25baht (about 1SGD)!

For some reason though, one of our drivers took off before taking us back to our hostel without any explanation. We returned to the location we specified we would meet him in at the time we agreed on, but he just didn’t turn up. We hadn’t paid him yet, but after waiting around, we just called on another Tuk-tuk to take us back.

 Vietnam:

So.Many.Motorcycles. So.Many.Electrical wires.

So.Many.Motorcycles. So.Many.Electrical wires.

Vietnam was the one place I visited in South East Asia where Tuk-tuks were outnumbered by motorcycles. For this reason, the Tuk-tuk felt much larger than it usually would because you tower over all of the motorcylists! This is important if you’re even a little bit afraid of getting hit by a speeding vehicle on a road that seems to have no rules or directional system.

Cambodia:

So.Much.Space!! (also collapsable seats!!)

So.Much.Space!! (also collapsable seats!!)

As far as Tuk-tuks go, the ones you find in Cambodia couldn’t be more luxurious if you had painted them gold. The seats are spacious and wide and the roofs provide refreshing shade between temples when you’re touring the Angkor temples.

A friend and I got a Tuk-tuk to pick us up from the bus depot and bring us to our hostel. Before leaving, our driver asked if we needed a ride anywhere else during our time in Siem Reap. We told him about our plans to tour the Angkor temples, and he agreed to pick us up at 5am the next morning and give us a full tour. Knowing better than we did how hot it was going to be, he even gave us some complimentary water bottles throughout the day in a cooler in the Tuk-tuks trunk (I didn’t even know Tuk-tuks had trunks at that point)!

The only issue I had with the experience was the lack of speed. Even when I told the drive I had left my wallet at the last temple we had visited and urged him to take me back as fast as possible, he drove at the same leisurely pace. Apparently the only pace in the country.

 All Together Now:

To give you a little comparison of what to expect in terms of Tuk-tuk size, speed, service, availability and price, here’s a handy little chart:

  Size Speed Service Availability Cheapness Overall
Indonesia 1 6 4 5 7 4.6
Thailand 6 7 2 3 10 5.6
Vietnam 7 6 5 4 5 5.4
Cambodia 10 1 9 10 5 7.0
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A Walk Through the Cambodian Genocide: Killing Fields and S-21 Museum

If coming to Saigon taught me that my knowledge of the Vietnam War was lacking, my time in Phnom Penh revealed my complete ignorance towards the Cambodian Genocide.

Two of the city’s main tourist destinations include the S-21 Museum and the Killing Fields. Both reflect the communist Khmer Rouge ruling over the country from 1975 -1979. In a nutshell, the party, lead by Pol Pot (who came from a wealthy family and was educated in Paris,) aimed to create a classless rural nation of farmers. Realising that educated upperclassmen would most likely oppose being forced into manual farming labour, Pol Pot ordered the execution of anyone in a professional field, who spoke a foreign language or who wore glasses, along with their entire extended family. This was done under the slogan “to spare you is no profit, to destroy you is no loss”. Aside from the fact that the saying is absolutely disgusting, the fact that a communist leader created a slogan that mentions “profit” also reeks with irony.

Anyone cursed with this fate underwent their sentence in 2 sections: first, a trip to Security Office 21 (S-21), then on to Choeung Ek (the killing fields).

S-21 was a former high school, which, under the Khmer Rouge, became transformed into a prison as schools of any type were banned. Here, prisoners were held and tortured on school gym equipment with lashes, partial drownings and electric shocks.  Prisoners underwent this on a regular basis until they were moved to their final destination of Choeung Ek.

One of the prison rooms at S-21

One of the prison rooms at S-21

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Prisoners were then loaded onto trucks in the middle of the night and sent to Choeung Ek where they were beat and bludgeoned to death (bullets were too expensive to be a viable alternative) and thrown into a mass grave. The free available audio tour (which comes in several languages) leads you around a series of these gravesites, the largest one containing over 450 bodies. Teeth, bones and rags of clothing are still being found today, many washing up to the surface after the rainy season.

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Each of the ditches is a separate mass grave

Each of the ditches is a separate mass grave

The mass graves are commemorated with bracelets. Since I'd accumulated quite a few during my travels, I decided to leave one.

The mass graves are commemorated with bracelets. Since I’d accumulated quite a few during my travels, I decided to leave one.

The full experience was a lot to take in on a single day, and helped put some of my own issues into perspective. It may not have been the most fun part of my trip, but it’s not something I would have missed, providing a deeper insight into the past culture and history of now such friendly and proud people.

"Bringing Peace To The World" By Khat Kanchanak (Grade 12)

“Bringing Peace To The World” By Khat Kanchanak (Grade 12)

 

Khmer Chicken Bok Choy

By this point in my semester, I had heard enough about Cambodia from other travel-addicted exchange students to know that there were 2 things I had to do in Cambodia: take an Angkor excursion and treat my taste buds to some delectable cuisine. Since I had done the whole Angkor thing, it was chow time and since I’m a “go big or go home” kind of girl, I decided that just going for dinner wasn’t going to cut it (I’d already eaten dinner before, I needed something new and exciting). So, I looked into cooking classes.

After refusing to accept the fact that the first 5 classes I found put the average price at around 50USD, I eventually came across Le Tigre de Papier – an exquisite restaurant in downtown Siem Reap that offered classes for only 15USD.

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At 10am, my buddy and I made our way to the restaurant, where we were given menus and told to place our orders. Sceptical because the class consisted of a group of 6 of us and I assumed we would all be making the same thing, I put in my order for spring rolls and chicken bok choy regardless.

After a few minutes, we left the restaurant for a local market down the street where we were introduced to some local fruits and veggies and an entire wall of shoes.

Loving the vendor's "Yes, I know these are the most delicious fruits ever" face

Loving the vendor’s “Yes, I know these are the most delicious fruits ever” face

Shoes. Omg, Shoes!

Shoes. Omg, Shoes!

Then it was back to the kitchen, we were each given a plate of veggies and told to start chopping. Our teacher made this look extremely easy, taking the knife and slicing the knife up and down faster than seemed humanly possible while simultaneously warning us something about kaffir I was too amazed to pay attention to.

When I tried the chopping myself, the blade didn’t magically take on a life of its own and chop the veggies faster than the speed of sound like I hoped, it awkwardly hacked them into large chunks. Thankfully, this was basically happening to everyone, so the teacher explained that the proper technique was “same same but different” (a common saying which is usually used as a response to questions like “is this a real channel purse?”). As it turned out, using the tip of the knife gave you more control over the direction of your hacking, and allowed you to manoeuvre much faster, so we were eventually able to complete our chopping.

(Definitely not just taking pictures because my hands are getting tired of chopping)

(Definitely not just taking pictures because my hands are getting tired of chopping)

Then, everything was placed in 2 drums and we were given large mallets to mash them into a paste. After getting the recipe, I learned you can just use a blender, which would have been far less tiring, but also far less legit.

It adds a smashingly-good flavour!

It adds a smashingly-good flavour!

While waiting for our concoctions to finish frying, it was spring roll assembly time, plus a bonus lesson in how to create pretty plate-ings using banana leaves (the secret is stapling the leaves into box-shapes). Soon enough, our meals were set and it was time to dig in:

Spring rolls in 3, 2, 1!

Spring rolls in 3, 2, 1!

Since I’m not completely evil, I can’t put a post that’s (fully) about food and not give out a recipe, so here’s how to make some yummy chicken bok choy:

OM NOM NOM

OM NOM NOM

Khmer Chicken Bok Choy

To serve yourself and 1 other person awesome enough to deserve to eat something so amazing, you will need:

2 Chicken legs (de-boned)

1 Head of bok choy

4 pieces of lemon grass

2 Kaffir lime leaf

8 Slices Galangal

1 Tumeric root

1 Tablespoon roasted peanuts

1 Teaspoon brown sugar

3 tablespoon Oyster sauce

4 Tablespoons Coconut cream

4 Pieces of Garlic

4 Shallots

4 Tablespoons coconut milk

3 Tablespoons olive oil

Extra notes:

  • Like with pretty much any recipe, just change the proportions if you’re serving more / less people
  • If you’re picky and there’s something you want to take out of the recipe (or there’s something you just don’t want to go to the store and buy), leave it out, you’re the one who’ll be eating it, not me
  • If you choose to leave out the chicken or the bok choy, you might want to change the name though
  • The recipe works well served with rice

Preparing the deliciousness:

1) Finely chop the lemon grass, kaffir, turmeric, galangal, garlic and shallot

2) Blend your mix (minus the garlic and shallot) until it forms an appealingly-scented paste

3) Add half the garlic and shallots and blend some more

4) Work the paste into the chicken along with the coconut milk, peanuts and 2 tablespoons of oyster sauce, then let it all soak in for about 5 minutes

5) Fry that baby up in 2 tablespoons of olive oil a covered pan for 20 minutes, flipping it halfway through

6) Continue your frying spree for another 5 minutes with the bok choy, brown sugar and remaining garlic, shallots, oyster sauce and olive oil

7) Plate the chicken and cover it with the bok choy

8) Send your taste buds on an epic adventure

Raiding the “Tomb Raider” Tombs of Ta Prohm (Angkor Temples Part 3)

As someone who loves travel and the Internet and has seen Lara Croft Tomb Raider, I had seen about 1,000,000,000 photos of Ta Prohm before getting there, and to be honest, wanted to visit Angkor more for these temples than Angkor Wat itself and since the Grand Tour I was taking is a tease like that, Ta Phrohm was the last stop of the tour.

If these Cambodian temples are enough to inspire an Angelina adoption spree, they're worth a visit!

If these Cambodian temples are enough to inspire an Angelina adoption spree, clearly they’re worth a visit!

At first, this only required that I ensure I had ample camera battery and space on my memory card remaining when I arrived. Now, although this is a staple task during virtually all of my travel outings, this time it was easier said than done. My camera began looming over the menacing 1/3 charge level dangerously early in the day and my card only holds 500 photos, the majority of which I had already used, and the remainder I needed to save for the rest of my excursions. Nonetheless, with (a lot of) self-control, I was able to curb my trigger-finger and maintain a reasonable photo-taking pace (comparatively, for being at the most opulent temples I have ever seen).

However, this little happening doesn’t involve any tomb raiding like the title mentions, so the plot only thickens from here. First, a little explanation about temple-viewing procedures: at the gates to each temple complex, you have to show your Angkor-pass to the Angkor-authorities. Although the whole circuit only has one entrance, and it would be significantly more convenient just to check passes once there, you nonetheless have to show it at each individual temple.  Not the most exciting bit of information, I know, so it was far from my mind as I ran-skipped towards the entrance to Ta Prohm in an excited fever (yes, a fever, it was mid day, sunny and over 30C). As I approached the gate, I reached in my bag to pull out my wallet, only to react in terror as I realized that neither my wallet nor my Angkor-pass was there.

Realizing the horror of not being able to see Ta Prohm, I dashed back to the Tuk Tuk I was touring in, and instructed the driver to return to the last temple I had visited, Ta Som. Time was of the essence and I stressed this urgency to the driver, but Cambodia is infamous for being full of slow drivers, and although there was a bit of notable change in speed, the ride back to Ta Som still felt like the longest one of my life (which is say a lot, as I has just taken a 12 hour ride from Saigon to Siem Reap). The Angkor-authorities at Ta Som fortunately recognised me and let me back in without my pass. Upon entering before, they had looked sceptically at my friend, claiming she and the girl on her Angkor-pass were “same-same but different”, as she had recently switched her glasses for contact lenses. Now, this “same-same but different” saying is a weakness for all tourists in Southeast Asia, (its just so hilarious to hear) and is often used to make them buy silly shirts, or to distract them while haggling at a market. This being said, my friend was able to prove her identity by showing the guard her glasses (she didn’t even need to put them on, just prove she owned a pair). I, on the other hand, had been disarmed, laughing distractedly as I put my wallet and Angkor-pass away.

Upon returning and scouring the entire temple multiple times over, I had to admit that someone had taken it.

Not the easiest place to search, to say the least!

Not the easiest place to search, to say the least!

While I had money and my student pass in my wallet, the main concern of the moment was the lack of ability to get into Ta Prohm. I begged the guard to explain my situation to the Angkor-authorities there, but he stubbornly refused to leave his post. Not willing to give up that easily, I nonetheless instructed the driver to return to Ta Prohm, claiming I wanted to search the area for my missing pass. After a quick scan of the area (namely the trash bin I had thrown my water bottle in – recycling isn’t a big thing in Cambodia), I “accidentally” veered off the main path, past a restoration site, along another trail and towards a back entrance to Ta Prohm, which, “strangely enough” wasn’t host to any Angkor-authorities.

Come in, come in!

Come in, come in! 

While the Ta Prohm I finally made it to was built as a school and monastery, not as the home of the Triangle of Light, and didn’t even have any Jasmine growing around it, as Lara Croft would have you believe, it was still an awe-inspiring fusion of nature and ancient architecture, definitely the highlight of the Angkor tour.

So maybe I'm a better explorer than raider..!

So maybe I’m a better explorer than raider..!

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EEEEE!! Pretty Temples!! (Angkor Temples Part 2)

So although Angkor Wat is the most famous Khmer Temple, even with just a one-day pass, it’s possible to see a whole circuit of temples.

(Grand tour is highlighted in red)

(Grand tour is highlighted in red)

We opted for the Grand Tour, wanting to see Angkor Wat, Bayon, and Ta Prohm, along with anything else interesting in between.

These “in between” temples were nonetheless stunning and we began with Preah Khan, or the Temple of the Sacred Sword (as the temple was built at the site of a famous victory over Cham invaders).

Now, its also the site of the trees' victory over to oppression of having to grow in the ground

Now, its also the site of the trees’ victory over the oppression of having to grow in the ground

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Basically, this one Khmer ruler, Jayavarman VII, was kind of obsessed with building temples (he ordered over 20 different complexes to be built, earning him the nickname “builder king”). While many of his projects were probably a bit over-elaborate, he paid builders well enough to significantly stimulate the Khmer economy, allowing it to expand.

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Because I think I'm a temple carving

Because I think I’m a temple carving

The next stop, Neak Pean, is known as the island temple. While it and the four surrounding ponds are completely man-made, by eavesdropping on a French tour (putting my French education to use, aw yeah), I found out each of the four ponds was said to have different healing properties. Now, the waters are filled with highly infectious leeches and parasites.

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Ta Som is then another temple the builder king made for his daddy.

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There was tons of restoration evidence around the temples..!

There was tons of restoration evidence around the temples..!

(My first attempt at layering photos..!)

(My first attempt at layering photos..!)

Bayon Shootouts and the Anti-Sunrise (Angkor Temples Part 1)

After literally spending an entire 12-hour day on a bus with Mekong Express, I had made it from Saigon, Vietnam to Siem Reap, Cambodia. I have to say, although the bus had air conditioning, free snacks and water, played movies and helped everyone with their visas when we got to the border (and only cost 11USD), 12 hours is still a long time to spend on a bus.

However, I had no time to be bus-lagged (I don’t think that should be an actual thing because I didn’t cross any time zones, but it still seems to happen quite often), I had the Angkor Temples to look forward the next day!

When I said “the next day”, I use the term very lightly, as we had planned to get to Angkor Wat in time to see the sun rise (5:30am). After dragging myself out of bed (and opening a coffee can I was start enough to buy the night before, knowing I’d be out before anywhere was open), onto a tuk tuk (sponsored by a local knife store) and into a giant crowd of tourists eager to see the sun rise, a system of passing clouds decided to join the crowd and ended up blocking out the sun’s first rays. However, a passing herd of horses didn’t seem to think they were missing out on anything and proceeded to strike a few poses if front of the temples.

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Built in the 12th century as a series of Hindu temples and mausoleums, it was later converted to a Buddhist complex when the Khmer rulers changed religion. Today, it’s the largest religious complex in the world, the main feature of the Cambodian flag, and the inspiration behind Angkor Beer.

Also, every hotel, giftshop and restaurant in the country!

Also about half the hotels, giftshops and restaurants in the country!

Once we had to fully admit that the sunrise just wasn’t going to happen, it was back in the tuk tuk (which, despite being parked in a large lot, was easy to find, thanks to the giant advertisement for knives on the back) and onto the Bayon Temples. The last temples to be built in Angkor, Bayon temples are famous for the intricate faces carved into its towers BUT their impossibly narrow and steep stairs are just as noteworthy – and quite a workout!

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After walking around the temples for a while, I got spied by a small Cambodian boy who began pretending to shoot at me. Not wanting to get killed by a kid (I still had more temples to see, I couldn’t die yet), I quickly started firing back, and we quickly turned the religious temples into a battlefield. After realizing we were pretty evenly matched, we decided to agree upon a peace treaty, and he took my friend and I on a tour, up an (impossibly narrow and steep) flight of stairs to a hidden lookout area.

Who needs a stairmaster workout machine when you have master stairs!?

Who needs a stairmaster workout machine when you have master stairs!?

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After we took our photos, the boy expressed that he wanted a tip for his services. While Cambodian riel and American dollars are both legal currency in the country, the only small bills I had were in riel and when I tried to offer them to the boy, he simply pouted at me, asking for American. While the Riel isn’t the strongest currency (the exchange rate is 4000 riel to 1USD), it seemed strange that the boy would rather take nothing than riel. I’m guessing it was just another case of kids relying on tourists for income and facing acculturation in the process, something that seems to be an unfortunate trend in developing nations.