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- Places to go in Thailand: Chiang Mai night market, Chingsen elephant camp, Phuket, Potung beach.
- Bangkok Food: Try the street vendors, but choose the ones which are busy/healthy/clean.
- Places to go in Cambodia: Siem Reap, Angkor Wat, Killing Fields & Museum of Genocide
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.Male Announcer: Welcome to the Frommers.com travel podcast. For more information for playing your trip to any one of thousands of destinations, please visit www.frommers.com.
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Kelly: Hi, welcome to the Frommers.com podcast, the latest in our continuing conversions about all things travel. I am Kelly Regan, editorial director of the Frommer's Travel Guides. I'll be your host. My guest today is Mark Nado, an editor here at Frommer's, who has just come back from a fascinating trip to Southeast Asia. And, so he is here to tell us a little bit about what he saw while he was there. Mark, welcome, and thanks for being here.
Mark Nado: Yeah, thanks for having me.
Kelly: Well, first tell us where you went when you were there.
Mark: I was in Thailand and Cambodia. I started out in northern Thailand, in Changbi, and I went to the Golden Triangle. And from there I went over to Cambodia. I saw Angkor Wat and Siem Reap. And then I went down to Phnom Pen, and from there over to Thailand for some beach time in Perket, and then back to Bangkok.
Kelly: I wanted to start with Bangkok and talk to you a little bit about that. You have been to Bangkok years before and, I think, coming back to the city, how did you think it had changed since the last time you were there.
Mark: Well, I was really surprised actually by how a market it has become, when I was there seven years ago, the sky train had just opened, which is their public transportation system. And people weren't really taking it because it was, just, simply too expensive for the average person that...
Kelly: Relative to what people where earning.
Mark: Precisely. And so you have the train to yourself and it was kind of surreal. And this time it was completely packed and you have luxury boutiques popping up everywhere. There's a Lexus dealership once you come through a road. And I feel like seven years ago it would have been completely unimaginable.
Mark: So it is really kind of fascinating. Seeing the changes and how the, kind of, high end the city is becoming. Which has also made the lower end a bit more expensive than I remember it being.
Kelly: Really? Interesting. You know, you also said there is a really diverse food scene in Bangkok. There is interesting street food to have; there are lots of good, inexpensive restaurants. So can you talk about the food scene for a minute?
Mark: Yeah, I mean, Bangkok has got great food. You can have anything from French down to just ethnic food from the north. Which is kind of interesting because ethnic from the north relies heavily for protein on insects.
Kelly: Wait, what kind of insects?
Mark: All manner of insects, actually. They have these cockroach looking things and crickets and, so yeah, you can actually buy them on the street fried.
Kelly: Friend, fried insects, did you try that?
Mark: No, I didn't actually.
Kelly: OK. I have to say I have, not in Thailand, but I have eaten crickets before. They are very crunchy.
Mark: Yeah, I hear like they taste like popcorn.
Kelly: They don't taste like popcorn. Is the street food in general pretty safe to eat?
Mark: Yeah, it is. I mean you have to be careful no matter where you go. You want to make sure you go to a vendor who is busy, who looks healthy, and who looks like they're keeping their stall clean. But, actually some of my favorite food in Bangkok has been from street vendors.
Mark: And I have no idea what most of it was called.
Mark: It was really delicious.
Kelly: OK, all right. I am particularly curious in your visit to Cambodia because it is a destination that is starting to really come into its own as a travel destination. And Siem Reap is the gateway to Angkor Wat. Is that right?
Mark: That's right.
Kelly: So you started there, and talk a little bit about Angkor Wat, and what your experience was there. I mean, I think you were a little surprised that the Temples you were seeing were slightly more contemporary than you thought that they might be.
Mark: Well yeah. I mean, just a passing interest, I guess previous. You imagine these Temples to be quite ancient but in reality they are more contemporary with the construction of Notre Dame, in Paris.
Kelly: In Paris. Yeah.
Mark: So, a lot of the construction starting in 900 and it went to, maybe like 1400. And they are still absolutely amazing, it sounds a bit trite.
Mark: They really are. They are just incredible. I mean you have these towers that are taller than the high spires of Notre Dame actually. And every surface is covered with carvings on high bosra leaves. So, you have this incredible richness and texture that you are seeing when you are there.
Kelly: But there is a wildness too, right. Because it can get very overgrown in places with the jungle.
Mark: Oh, completely.
Mark: And they actually left a few temples in kind of a wild state to preserved, kind of, that kind of magic that you have when you stumbled across a temple in the middle of a jungle. And so you get this sense of what some of the European explorers would have seen a century or two ago. I thought that was just completely fascinating.
One of the big temples was Tophrong, which has trees growing out of it. This is where they filmed part of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.
Kelly: Oh, OK.
Mark: So you got these kind of magical looking scenes. Which is really interesting but it is hard to strike a balance because a lot of these trees are obviously destroying the...
Kelly: The architecture. Sure.
Mark: So there is not too many of them that are overgrown. At least in the Angkor complex.
Kelly: OK, speaking of things destroying the temples. I think one of the conversations that you and I had upon your return was just this kind of, the impact of tourism on sites like Angkor Wat and how it really gives rise to this, kind of, tourism giveth and tourism taketh away kind of scenario where there's so many more people coming to the temples. Which is causing a level of damage and decay, from the traffic, but as you were saying there is a flipside to that where the increased number of visitors are actually doing some pretty amazing things for the area.
Mark: Right, they are really kind of taking some great steps. There are some NGOs in Cambodia that are really...
Kelly: Which are non-governmental organizations?
Mark: So you have a lot of places that are really catering to tourists that are mindful of a positive impact in Cambodia. So you have restaurants that are NGO run, that take in street children and train them in the restaurant trade and service industry.
Mark: So a lot of these kids eventually end up with great jobs in hotels. Which would not be possible without tourist support.
And also in Angkor you also have, just one example is, you have Artisans of Angkor, which is a workshop foundation. Where they have artisans and craftsmen, who they train, they take from the country, a lot of them are from very poor families or are amputees from landmines. They just become virtuosos and carving and making lacorware. And they make amazing art and they sell it at fair market prices. And so when you buy a souvenir there, you come back with something really exquisitely crafted and you're supporting a really excellent cause.
Kelly: The government is taking steps to kind of preserve Angkor from the destruction that might be caused by tourisms clambering over the temples and the ruins.
Mark: Yeah, I think you would have to classify it as baby steps.
Mark: I mean, have you seen, you have to remember that less than 20 years ago the ruins were basically inaccessible because of landmines and the political situation. So taking in that perspective, they are improving, but it is going to take time.
Right now there is a lot of attention from Japan. They are supporting a lot of initiatives to bring fresh water from a distance, so they are not actually depleting the ground water. Which is destabilizing the temples in the area. There seems to be less corruption in the taking of ticket money. A lot of, before, I think close to 70% of the money actually left the area.
Mark: But now a lot more money is apparently staying there and is going toward the preservation of temples. And they are starting to restrict access to some. These are all good steps; hopefully in the future more will be taking to really preserve it and to keep it for the generation.
Kelly: Well, speaking from the political situation, you also went to Phnom Pen, and while you were there, you were able to experience the Killing Fields and the Museum of Genocide. Which of course speaks to the really horrific history of 20th century Cambodia. Can you talk a little bit about that, and what that was like?
Mark: I mean this is really a sobering experience. Especially after having, you know, an amazing, lighthearted time in Angkor Wat, just amazing parts of Cambodian culture...
Mark: Then a day later being in a totally different kind of mindset and seeing, really, the depths to which humanity can descend. So I mean, it was pretty grim. The thing that really struck me was when you are in the Killing Fields, you are...
Kelly: Which you are in the city proper.
Mark: Which, well, they are just outside the city. Maybe like half an hour away. They have a big monument full of skulls and clothes and bones from a lot of the genocide victims. But, where as in the West you would have, tend to have a separation between history and the present.
If you walk around the monument you are walking around the mass graves. And a lot of these are still not excavated. So you have bones and teeth and clothes still sticking out of the ground.
Mark: Which is, really like, just a powerful reminder of really how recent and how horrific Cambodian history was.
Mark: Not more than 30 years ago.
Kelly: So, you don't really feel like you have the, "luxury of the distance", to look back on what's happening because it feels very immediate.
Mark: Precisely. And the same is true for the Museum of Genocide. They employ a lot of guides that will take you around for about five dollars and they will show you the grounds and explain a lot of history of what happened.
It is actually a school that had been converted by the Khmer Rouge into a holding camp. They would question and torture victims before they would send them up to the Killing Fields.
So you hire a guide to take you around and in most cases the guides are people who had first hand experience with Khmer Rouge. My guide, she was woman who had been a child during those years and she had been evacuated from the city. And had actually escaped over the border to Vietnam after weeks of trekking. But she lost her whole family. And the thing that really surprised me with her, is that people are really forthright about their experiences.
Mark: And really open with sharing them, which is at first very shocking, but it kind of gives you a handle on what has happened there.
Kelly: And it just gives you as I said, a more immediate perspective, you know, with how people are grappling with this issue everyday.
Let's switch back to when you were in Thailand. You started the trip in northern Thailand, and you visited Chiang Mai, and you also visited the Golden Triangle, which is slightly north of Chiang Mai. So, actually let us a little bit about, you went to an elephant camp. So, tell us about what is an elephant camp, and what were you doing when you were there?
Mark: Yeah, I went to the elephant camp Chingsen. Which is actually on the grounds of the Anantara Resort. And this was a really, kind of, great program. They have an elephant camp setup for tourist, where you can go and could actually take a mahout class for a day. A mahout is an elephant trainer.
Mark: So you can take a mahout class for the day and learn some of the commands for the elephants.
Mark: And they do things like bend down and let you get up on their backs and you can ride around. Or sort of somersault over their heads [laughing] and get on their backs which is quite entertaining actually.
Kelly: Did you find that the elephants obeyed the commands?
Mark: Generally. I don't know if it was my poor pronunciation of Thai, but a lot of times the trainer had to jump in and kind of re-say the things I had said. But I actually had the chance to be there with a gentleman from France who had been there for three days. He was just about to get his mahout certificate. He was actually alone with the elephant and it was obeying his commands and it was really interesting seeing how well they can actually listen.
Kelly: Yeah, and these are elephants that have been rescued for the most part, right?
Mark: Right, right. Thailand actually outlawed logging about a decade ago, a bit more though, actually. Then a lot of the elephants were out of their traditional jobs.
Kelly: Because the elephants were used in the logging industry.
Mark: Precisely. So, they are trying to find a new niche for them. And this camp provides a great opportunity for that. So they can, they can still gainful work...
Kelly: The elephants are on the unemployment line. [laughs] They have been downsized. [laughs]
Mark: Yeah, unfortunately they are victims. So yeah, a lot of the times elephants wind up on the streets of Bangkok and it's horrific. You walk on the street and you see an elephant with a red-light blinking on its tail as it is weaving through traffic.
Mark: Which is not a place for an elephant.
Mark: So the camp is working hard to give them a job and a purpose and, you know, in addition to taking care of them elephant they support the mahout. They are usually paired for quite some time. And they have a nice emotional bond usually. So it is good that it benefits both of them.
Kelly: Right, Right.
Mark: So the [indecipherable] rescue program for the [indecipherable] babies that have been abandoned or separated from their mothers prematurely. And those elephants don't work there. Their job is to hang out and enjoy the lush Golden Triangle.
Kelly: Nice work if you can get it.
Kelly: Well, I know you have a sound file to play for us, which I think should be really interesting. Before we play the clip, can you set it up? Just let us know what is this a recording of?
Mark: Yeah, sure. When I was on an elephant, back in the Golden Triangle...
Kelly: You were on the back of an elephant?
Mark: That's right. And when you are jumping around the elephant and doing commands, and stuff. It is pretty entertaining, but just, trekking through the jungle can get sort of monotonous. So I actually chatted up my mahout and I got him to sing some traditional Thai songs about elephants.
Kelly: About elephants.
Mark: Right, so this is a clip of a little song that he was singing, praising the beautiful qualities of elegant elephants.
Kelly: OK, all right, great. Well let's take a listen and see what he said.
Kelly: That was fantastic. I love that song. [laughs] I also wanted to touch briefly on your visit to Chiang Mai because you went to the night market in Chiang Mai. And I understand that's quite a scene, so can you tell a little bit about that?
Mark: Yeah. The night market in Chiang Mai is pretty legendary. And, it's legendary for good reason. It stretches for blocks and blocks and you could buy anything thing that you want. I mean, silks, carvings, paintings, knockoff clothes, I mean, just an incredible array of stuff. It is really kind of atmospheric. You walk around, there's street vendors...
Kelly: How late does it go at night?
Mark: It goes pretty late. I was just getting over my jetlag then so I was a baby. I was in bed by eleven every night. And it was still going strong when I was going to sleep.
Mark: So it seems like it is a pretty late night affair.
Kelly: And then one last thing that I wanted to touch up with you. I mean you did go to some of the beaches in Thailand and clearly people still remember the devastation caused by the tsunamis but it sounds to me like some of the places that you went to like Phi Phi, which were really devastated by the tsunami have really rebounded quite well.
Mark: I was amazed because Phi Phi is an island, it is kind of iconic, where you have these two mountains and there is kind of a gap of sand between them. And during the tsunami it was just devastated. The waves just went over the sand and it resulted in an amazing loss of life and property.
And within just two years it has grown back at a phenomenal rate. You would be hard pressed to really know that something of that magnitude had happened there. The hotels are open, the restaurants are open, and building is just going on nonstop.
Kelly: Well, that sounds great. I mean, Phuket didn't get too damaged by the tsunami, I don't believe.
Mark: Right, just a portion of Potung beach apparently got badly hit, but they rebuilt really quickly.
Kelly: OK, so that's probably all we have time for today. I have been talking of Mark Nudo, who is one of our editors here at Frommer's, who just got back from a fascinating trip to Thailand and Cambodia. Mark, thank you so much for being here. This was a great conversation.
Mark: Yeah, thank you.
Kelly: And join us next week for another conversation about all things travel. I am Kelly Regan, and we will talk again soon.
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