Malaysia: Travel Day Nightmare

Anyone who has ever passed through an airport knows that travel days are, at the very least, exhausting. After a good travel day, the excitement of arriving allows people to overcome their fatigue and hit the ground running. On the other hand, after a particularly rough travel day, the phrase “Never again!” is mostly likely to be on the tip of one’s tongue.

This is a story about a horrific travel day experience where we went through the emotional wringer and learned a few valuable lessons along the way.

We began the day in Siem Reap, Cambodia. It was hot and humid, our backpacks pressing our clothing into our sweat-soaked skin, but we were in good spirits after touring the Angkor Temple Complex for the past three days. We were looking forward to the next portion of our trip in Bali, Indonesia. But first we had to get there…

We entered the terminal at Siem Reap-Angkor International Airport and proceeded to Air Asia’s check-in counter. We presented our passports and handed over our checked luggage: one large wheelie suitcase and a duffle bag. Little did we know that Air Asia is a budget airline that has excessively strict baggage policies.

The lady behind the ticketing counter kindly told us that our bags were too heavy and that we would have to pay about $400 to take them with us. This sum was outrageous given that the total cost for both our tickets was less than $200. When we balked at the price, she suggested we rearrange our bags to make the heaviest a little lighter. If we could accomplish that, the price to check our bags would drop to $200. Not having much of a choice, we turned into “those people” – the suckers you occasionally see with all of their belongings strewn about the floor in front of the check-in counter.

We did manage to rearrange everything and paid the astronomical fee for our two bags, but the Air Asia agent wasn’t finished with us. Since we had transferred some of our belongings from our checked bags into our carry-on bags, she insisted that she weigh our carry-on bags as well, something we have never experienced in all our years of travelling. Surprise! Aaron’s carry-on was too heavy now too. After round two of being “those people” and shuffling items between our carry-on bags, we were finally handed our tickets and allowed to proceed through security.

Once we reached the gates, Aaron headed straight for the nearest bar and ordered an 8:00am scotch. It was not the best start to our travel day. We couldn’t imagine that it was about to get much worse.

Lesson One of the Day: Always check the baggage requirements for each airline before you depart on your trip.

We flew from Siem Reap to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia without incident. However, when we inspected our tickets from Kuala Lumpur to Bali, we noticed they had completely switched our flights without informing us. Our arrival time in Bali was now five hours later than originally scheduled.

By now I had had it up to here with Air Asia and was determined to give them a piece of my mind. I marched us up to a customer service agent and, with great restraint, politely inquired why they would change our flight without telling us. The agent was exceedingly nice and told us she could rebook us on an earlier flight that would depart in four hours instead of seven. The only catch was that we had to go get our checked bags and re-check them in. Aaron suggested we just wait in the terminal for the later flight, but I was determined to get to Bali as fast as possible. So, against Aaron’s better judgment, we re-booked our flights and went to get our luggage.

What I had forgotten was that customs lay between us and our checked bags. The line at customs was huge. People slowly shuffled forward in lines that snaked around the over-heated room multiple times. I began to suspect that trying to catch the earlier flight was a colossal mistake.

After an hour of waiting, we got through customs and headed to the customer service area to pick up our bags. Upon arrival, we were told that they couldn’t find our bags and that we should return in an hour. At this point I burst into tears, fully realizing the disaster I had unwittingly brought upon us. Aaron came to my rescue and vehemently told them that we were not leaving without our bags. Apparently, that combination of emotions worked on Air Asia’s customer service team because within five minutes our bags were at our feet.

By now it was around noon in Kuala Lumpur’s bustling main departures terminal. The space had lofted, opaque ceilings allowing natural light to illuminate another series of endless lines as people checked in for their flights.

As we navigated the crowds toward yet another customer service line, my phone started ringing off the hook. When I finally dug it out of my bag and answered, my mother’s distress on the other end of the line was palpable. She had been using an online flight tracker to make sure our flight arrived safely when suddenly, according to the map, our flight disappeared mid-route between Kuala Lumpur and Bali. I reassured her that we were still safe, if not particularly happy, on the ground in Malaysia and explained that Air Asia had cancelled our original flight without warning. Her fears assuaged, I turned back to our current predicament: re-checking our luggage.

We made it to the correct customer service counter and got in line. Thirty minutes passed. Forty minutes passed. An hour passed, and there were still two families in front of us. This day had without doubt turned into the most horrible travel experience, and I knew that this portion of it was all my fault. The tears started to flow silently down my cheeks again. It didn’t help that Aaron was silently fuming and shooting me “I told you so…” glares every few minutes.

After an hour and a half, we made it to the front of the line, got our new boarding passes, and re-checked our luggage. Relief washed over us as the customs agent placed a second stamp in our passports, proving that we had indeed spent one day in Malaysia.

Lesson Two of the Day: Unless absolutely necessary, never rebook your flight mid-trip if it means you have to go through customs to collect and re-check your bags.

We were hungry and irritable, but back in the right section of the airport. We found a restaurant that appeared to be serving local cuisine and ordered a late lunch. We were sipping on fresh mango juice waiting for our meal when a rank odor reached our nostrils. We turned around to identify the source of the smell when the cook caught our eye and pointed at the two bowls on the counter. Aaron got up to retrieve our lunch and brought the unpleasant smell back with him. It turned out that we had both ordered the same dish, and whatever was in it did not have the most appetizing aroma.

Not wanting to offend anyone, we hesitantly took a few bites. From what we could tell, the bowl contained noodles, some sort of fermented fish, and a plethora of fiery hot peppers. It was a stretch too far for our Western taste palates.

Lesson Three of the Day: When ordering meals in a foreign country, especially when you can’t read the menu, make sure you each order a different dish in case one does not suit your taste buds.

We did finally arrive in Bali despite the chaos of our travel day. In hindsight, all of these troubles could have been avoided. The fact that all of them happened on the same day…Well, it makes for one heck of a story!

Ulun Danu Bratan Temple in Bali Indonesia
Ulun Danu Bratan Temple, Bali

Tell us about some of your travel day woes…

-Annie, Your Friend at Orange Backpack Travel

Cambodia: Mysteries of Forgotten Temples and Fallen Empires

“Why Cambodia?” – We were asked this question multiple times before our trip. The short answer is that we wanted to visit Angkor Wat, the mysterious temple and mausoleum built by the Khmer King Suryavarman II from 1112 A.D. to 1152 A.D.

The long answer is that we wanted to go on an archaeological adventure to uncover the history of the forgotten Khmer Empire (802 A.D. to 1432 A.D.) and the monumental temples they left behind. As we researched Cambodia before the trip, we couldn’t believe we knew so little about the rich history of the Khmer Empire and that modern Southeast Asia owes much of its development to the Khmers.

At its height, the Khmer Empire covered modern day Cambodia, and much of Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. The Khmer were master builders, capable of taming the jungle and corralling the mighty rivers into vast irrigation systems. They constructed magnificent highway networks and impressive religious structures in honor of their deities. The Khmers, in essence, formed the Roman Empire of their time.

The Angkor temples and the people who built them fascinated us and sparked our desire to explore the ruins of this great civilization.

On our first morning in Siem Reap, the city adjacent to Angkor Wat, we awoke long before sunrise thanks to severe jetlag. We decided to take advantage of the early hour and begin our exploration of the temples by witnessing sunrise over Angkor Wat. We left the hotel and immediately hailed a tuk-tuk driver, despite the early hour, who agreed to drive us around for the day. As we rushed through the dark streets, accosted by mingling scents of heady jungle and dense air pollution, we couldn’t help but be intoxicated with anticipation of the archaeological wonders that awaited us.

We arrived at Angkor Wat and joined hordes of tourists stumbling through the pre-dawn inky blackness. We waited, cameras poised, for the sun to rise above the temple. As the sky lightened to a pale pink hue, we were finally able to make out the magnificent complex around us. The remnants of the Khmer Empire seen up close were more impressive than we could have imagined.

Huge towers rose above the temple, drawing the eye skyward over impossibly steep stairs with no hand railings to be found. Our shoulders brushed the walls as we ducked beneath arches that were built by stacking stone blocks closer and closer together until they met in the middle. The great Khmer architects had not discovered the structural advantages of a keystone at the top of the arch, which made their construction feats all the more impressive. Intricate statues and bas-relief stone carvings decorated the temple depicting famous battles and religious stories revered throughout the Khmer Empire. A large, perfectly square, man-made canal surrounded the temple, adding to the mystery of how these structures could have been built within such thick jungle centuries before the dawn of modern industrialization.

Angkor Wat at Sunrise in Cambodia
Angkor Wat at Sunrise

Next, we visited Bayon, a mysterious temple at the heart of Angkor Thom decorated with over two hundred giant faces, all closely resembling the king who commissioned the temple.

Faces at Bayon Temple in Angkor Thom Cambodia
Bayon Temple – Angkor Thom

Our final stop was Ta Prohm, the famous “Tomb Raider” temple that appears to have been swallowed by the jungle. Enormous trees shoot toward the sky, their roots crushing the temple walls. The beauty here served as a blunt reminder of the power of nature. Not even formidable stone temples, marvels of engineering at the time of their construction, could withstand the jungle’s encroachment over the centuries.

Ta Prohm Temple Tomb Raider Temple Cambodia

Our trip was in November, just on the cusp of monsoon season, and boy, was it hot! The temperatures hovered around 100°F and the sky remained stubbornly cloudless. The stifling humidity had us sweating through our tee shirts in minutes. We were hot and sticky, but thrilled to be exploring such exotic temples, half forgotten and reclaimed by the jungle.

It quickly dawned on us that Cambodia’s climate was not conducive to a non-stop itinerary. Built-in rest between sight-seeing was necessary here.

By mid-afternoon of our first day at the Angkor complex, we were exhausted. We asked our tuk-tuk driver to bring us back to the hotel where we lounged the afternoon away by the pool sipping ice cold mojitos. Life was blissful.

That evening, after the temperature dropped considerably, we jumped into another tuk-tuk and swerved in and out of traffic until we reached the downtown. Siem Reap’s center is relatively compact, with many restaurants and markets within walking distance of the Siem Reap River. We selected a small restaurant serving traditional Cambodian cuisine, mostly flavorful, curry-based soups with rice, vegetables, and either chicken or fish. Our table had a lovely view of the bustling street, where vendors and tourists alike provided us with free entertainment. The highlight of the evening was observing tourists’ reactions to the trays of scorpions, snakes, and tarantulas on a stick for sale as delectable snacks. Locals do in fact eat these delicacies, but we were not brave enough to try them.

Cambodian Cuisine in Siem Reap, Cambodia
Food Street Vendor Selling Snakes Scorpions and Tarantulas in Siem Reap Cambodia

After dinner we meandered through the local market, browsing stalls piled high with colorful produce and bargaining with shrewd business owners for souvenirs. The pungent smell of freshly gutted fish permeated the enclosed space. Back out on the street, the nightlife of Siem Reap picked up after dark. Night clubs blared their music over the constant din of cars, tuk-tuks, and motorbikes on the streets below.

Psar Chaa Old Market Downtown Siem Reap Cambodia
Psar Chaa – Old Market – Downtown Siem Reap

On our second and third days, we repeated the pattern of the first day’s adventuring: sightseeing in the early morning, relaxing by the pool in the heat of the afternoon, and dinner out on the town.

The second morning of exploring consisted of the “big” loop temples: Preah Khan, Neak Pean, Ta Som, East Mebon and Pre Rup. These temples were more impressive than Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom in the sense that they were more rugged and wild, with less of a manicured feel than the those on the main tourist track. We felt as though we were part of Henri Mouhot’s team in 1860 “discovering” these ruins for the first time in modern history.

Preah Khan Temple in Siem Reap Cambodia
Preah Khan

Archaeologists still battle the jungle today to keep it from overgrowing the excavated stone. Much of the Angkor complex has yet to be uncovered due to limited resources which must be divided between holding the jungle at bay in the excavated temples and uncovering new ones.

The third morning we hired a boat to take us on a tour of the floating villages on the edge of the Tonle Sap Lake, the largest fresh water lake in Southeast Asia. Inhabitants of these floating villages and the rural communities on the edge of the lake have depended on its natural resources for thousands of years.

At the lake’s outskirts, we boarded a large boat which deftly navigated the swamps to reach the area’s famed floating villages. From here we jumped on a small canoe piloted by a local guide. Time slowed as our canoe drifted out over the water. The shade of the freshwater mangrove trees cooled the air, bringing a stillness of contentment and peace.

It was not difficult to imagine why the Khmer ruled their empire from this lush, abundant region. We loved it here too.

Floating Villages on Tonle Sap Lake Cambodia
Floating Villages – Tonle Sap Lake

Our takeaway from our time in Cambodia: It is rare in the world of tourism to feel like you are discovering something for the first time. That sense of excitement at discovery and the yearning to uncover the mystery before you are gifts that Cambodia has remarkably preserved.

-Annie, Your Friend at Orange Backpack Travel

Woman Paddling Boat on Tonle Sap Lake Cambodia
Boat Tour on Tonle Sap Lake

Bali: The Art of Capturing Authentic Cultural Experiences

Often people travel to carefully chosen destinations because they boast a monument, museum, or view that has been dubbed a “must see” by travel guides and tour operators world-wide. Almost all of these highlights have become tourist traps for a reason – they’re worth it!

That being said, many guidebooks and tour companies are shifting their focus to incorporate more authentic experiences, such as cooking classes or traditional dance lessons, to allow travelers to dive deeper into the local culture.

While finding these authentic experiences may seem like the obvious thing to do, our experience in Bali, Indonesia taught us that where you decide to vacation can single-handedly determine whether you partake in authentic local culture or just skim the surface with the well-rehearsed tourist package.

We decided to spend the first week of our vacation in Ubud, a small city in the center of the island known as the cultural heart of Bali.

We were lucky to be in Ubud during the Balinese holiday of Galungan, a time when the island’s rich cultural heritage is on full display. Galungan is a joyous festival where families invite their gods and ancestors to return to earth to celebrate the triumph of good over evil. To celebrate, the island is decorated with thousands of elaborately decorated bamboo poles, called penjor, which sway gently in the breeze accentuating the island’s mystical allure. The streets themselves became places of worship, hosting lively parades starring colorfully-dressed devotees hoisting beloved images of their gods high into the air or nimbly balancing headdresses piled high with offerings of fruit and flowers.

Offering Platter in Ubud Bali

Motorcycles on the street in Ubud Bali

We spent our days enjoying the island’s relaxed ambiance while taking in some of the “must see” sites around the island: the Tanah Lot Sea Temple, the Tegallalang Rice Terrace, Goa Gajah (the Elephant Cave), the GitGit Waterfall, and the Sacred Monkey Forest in Ubud, to name a few.

Hilly Rice Fields Near Ubud Bali

One of our most memorable experiences was a foot journey into rural Bali through the rice fields. The beauty of the verdant fields, each displaying the crop at a different growth stage, was beyond captivating. The peaceful magic of this tropical paradise seeped into our souls.

We were so enraptured by our surroundings that we failed to notice a massive thunderstorm quickly approaching. Within minutes, we were engulfed by a torrential downpour. We ran up the mud path between rice fields as fast as we could to take shelter in a small hut where the proprietor sold his paintings. He graciously invited us in and kept us company as we waited for the storm to pass.

Half an hour later, there was no sign of the rain abating. We decided to embrace our fate of getting caught in the elements, wrapped our camera and new painting in plastic bags, and stepped into the rain. We were soaked within seconds, which gave us a lovely excuse to jump in puddles, giggling like carefree children, as we made our way back to our hotel.

Rain Storm with Dark Clouds over Rice Paddy in Ubud Bali

We also ventured off the tourist track for a beach day on Lovina Beach, a quiet stretch of black sand on the north shore of the island. We swam in the deliciously warm water and took a long walk along the beach, during which we were privileged to witness a cremation ceremony. The family of the deceased gathered to honor their loved one by laying offerings at the shoreline and releasing the ashes into the water.

Children Playing on Lovina Beach in Northern Bali

For the last four nights of the trip, we decided to spoil ourselves and stay at a luxury resort in Nusa Dua, on the southern tip of the island. We thought a couple of beach days at the end of the trip would be perfect to shake off any stresses from travel and prepare us for the lengthy plane ride over the Pacific to get home.

The resort was spectacular! It was a beachfront property covered with swimmable lagoons that casually snaked throughout the property. The lawn chairs and free towels were abundant, as were the fragrant plumeria flowers drifting down from the trees into the pools. The resort had everything we needed: food, drinks, extra sunscreen, snorkeling gear, surf lessons, dance performances in the evenings, and street peddlers selling souvenirs on the beach. The prices were reasonable too, allowing us to splurge on fruity drinks and a private beach cabana with enticing views of the ocean.

Nusa Dua Beach View at The Laguna Luxury Collection Resort
Beach Cabana at The Laguna Luxury Collection Resort in Nusa Dua Bali Indonesia

It quickly dawned on us that we could have easily spent our entire vacation inside the resort. We never would have seen the real Bali that locals experience every day. It was not hard to imagine how often this happens to tourists all over the world.

Our takeaway from our contrasting experiences in Bali: Although our touristy, beach resort experience in Nusa Dua was spectacular, we were most thankful for the authentic cultural experiences we had in Ubud.

-Annie, Your Friend at Orange Backpack Travel

India: Diving Into the Heart of a Culture

Traveling can often be a mixture of exhilarating and overwhelming sensations. The farther from home you go, the more out of your element you will be. But that is the beauty of traveling! We long to visit exotic places that are nothing like our own home. We want to see and experience something radically different, something awe-inspiring, that will make us say “Wow!”.

This need for diversity and a different perspective on beauty drove us to visit the sub-continent of India. We desired a travel experience that would both challenge us and open our eyes to the vibrancy of a culture that lay in such contrast to our own. We were not disappointed!

We flew into Delhi for a whirlwind day tour of the city, complete with snake charmers, gorgeous marble mosques, richly decorated mausoleums to distant emperors, and a terrifying bicycle rickshaw ride through the narrow, bustling streets of Old Delhi.

We ate our first authentic thali, a meal featuring a large tray decorated with either rice or naan and an assortment of spicy curries, creamy dill sauces, and sweet concoctions all on one plate! The thali was the first of many examples of India’s extremes: insane spice to unbearable sweetness, tremendous wealth to rampant poverty, and wondrous natural beauty to extreme pollution, to name a few.

The drive between Delhi and Jaipur, the capital city of Rajasthan, a desert state in the north-western part of the country, illustrated the extent of the diversity within India’s borders. The millions of motorcycles and rickshaws that zoomed over Delhi’s streets were replaced by camels pulling carts laden with farming supplies over dirt roads that connected rural communities. Industrious city jobs faded into the slower pace of families making a living by subsistence farming. Western clothing styles of the city became less common. Locals instead chose to adorn themselves with more traditional kurtas and vibrantly colored saris.

Jaipur is a tourist hot-spot in northern India, and rightly so. On our first day in Jaipur, we rode an elephant to the top of the formidable Amber Fort, visited a handicrafts market that supported local artists, and learned to tell time and determine horoscopes using phenomenally accurate sundials and astronomical instruments constructed in the 18th century.

Amber Fort - Jaipur, India

The overwhelming bustle of New Delhi and the desert majesty of Jaipur made our first 48 hours in India fly by in an intense cultural blur.

However, the reality of daily life in a large, overcrowded Indian city didn’t strike home for us until we ventured into an open-air marketplace late in the evening in Jaipur’s old city. The market was formed by two rows of shops on either side of a narrow alley, barely wide enough to fit one car or three motorcycles side-by-side.

The store owners competed with street vendors who either set up out on the sidewalk or meandered through the crowd carrying their wares in their arms. The atmosphere was vibrant, lively, fragrant, and loud. People were everywhere!

To say we were overwhelmed is an understatement! The sensory overload was almost paralyzing as we stumbled along the street.

Street Market - India

Fortunately, a kindly shopkeeper saw our bewilderment, took pity on us, and asked if we would like to step into his shop. We accepted, grateful to have direction, and found ourselves staring at a white wall 15ft long by 6ft tall bedecked with every color and style of arm bangles imaginable. Reds, golds, pinks, purples, blues, silvers all jumped out at us, competing for our gaze.

We took a few deep breaths, relieved by the soothing atmosphere inside the shop. We gladly bartered for a set of beautiful white bangles, thanked the shop owner profusely, and stepped back into the street, no longer affronted by the chaos but ready to embrace the flurry of activity.

We entered nearly every shop on the block, learning about the proprietors’ trade, bartering with a shrewd business sense, and gently fending off salesmen eager for our rupees.

We had begun the evening wary of our surroundings, but ended it by forging real connections and laughing with the locals.

The takeaway for us is that sometimes you have to plunge right in to an uncomfortable situation to truly see and experience the beauty and vibrancy of a foreign culture.

-Annie, Your Friend at Orange Backpack Travel