Categories
Laos

Speaking with Elephants

On our journey to discover elephants, we spent several days in Luang Prabang, Laos. Wedged between two rivers, the quaint town held towering temples and discreet courtyards where monks gathered to talk of the day’s activities. Bamboo bridges provided creaking pathways to the hill towns on the other side of the river and plenty of hikes kept our days filled.

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At night the slow-paced hum of the day was replaced by a bustling marketplace that stretched across the full width of the streets. Local handicrafts covered every inch of the ground and scarves hung from the tubing of every pop-up tent. Buffet tables layered with food lined the alleyways and for $1, we ate our fill of as many noodles and vegetables as we could fit on one plate.

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In homage to the city’s French heritage, we decided to have a full fledged “French Day”. I wore my most frenchie outfit and we of course had to start the day with a French kiss! We rented Parisian-chic bikes and peddled around the city admiring the beautiful French architecture that dots the city. While stopped along the Mekong, a legitimate French woman mistook me for a national and told me “Bonjour!” My elated smile noticeably broadened hers. We then headed to a French-owned cafe and ordered a French baguette with proper cheese and a glass of French wine. From our sidewalk seats we penned postcards and decided to forego the obligatory black coffee and cigarettes. At night we watched a film and ended the day just the way we started it.

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The next morning we left for the elephant populated district of Sayaboury because from my earliest childhood memories, there were always beloved elephants. African art in the form of elephants grazed my living room walls, Babar the French children’s story about an elephant ignited my imagination, and my dad’s own experience of reverence with elephants while on an African safari all instilled a love for the four ton creatures within me.

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I knew I wanted to meet an elephant in person, but it wasn’t until I started looking into my options in Asia that I became aware of how poorly elephants are treated at the hands of far too many humans. Even when used for what people think of as “light” work in the tourism industry, elephants are often abused and mistreated. Most are chained to trees with little to no range of movement when they are not working, are fed on a small portion of the food they need to thrive, forced to carry heavy bamboo tourist seats on the hump of their back, and are not well taken care of if/when they get sick.

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Disgusted and obviously not wanting to perpetuate this type of behavior, we sought out the Elephant Conservation Center in northwestern Laos, which acts as a sanctuary for these elephants. The elephants at the center follow a daily routine that emulates their natural life while including enrichment programs that strengthen their minds, bodies, and connections to their human counterparts, the mahouts.  The center even has a breeding program. Mahouts, or trainers, across the country are encouraged to bring their elephants to the breeding grounds, upon which the center will house the mahout, pay them a monthly salary to make up for lost wages they would be making elsewhere, and provide a hand tractor to the mahout’s family so they are able to have another source of work and income while their elephant is away. This is an important effort as it is estimated that there are only 1,000 elephants remaining in Laos; and the population is currently dwindling with four times more deaths per year than births. To care for the elephants, the center also has a hospital on site with two full time veterinarians.

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Lee and I decided that we would volunteer for 6 days at the Elephant Conservation Center for an even more meaningful experience. We arrived by boat via Nam Tien Lake and glimpsed our first elephant standing at the edge of the hillside, munching greenery amongst bamboo huts. It felt as though we were entering an idyllic version of Jurassic Park.soil and thread

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Just as soon as we arrived, we were acquainted with the elephants and their mahouts. The mahouts did not speak English, but it was clear to us that the elephants understood their every request as they made introductions. After learning the basic rules of working with elephants (do not stand directly in front of one as they may not see you due to their wide spread eyes, do not stand too close behind one as they may hit you with their tail, and do not approach one quickly as they may run in fear), we learned how to climb on and off of the gentle giants. Seated on the elephants’ necks, we were swept through the surrounding jungle. The elephants’ ears overlapped and protected our bare legs from the tall brush while we pet their rough heads and took in the powerful views around us.

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The elephants’ slow pace was ideal for appreciating every moment. When they stopped at a particularly alluring tree for an impromptu snack, we watched in awe at their dexterity. With their trunk, the elephant would yank a branch free of its tree, and then with the help of its feet, would peel the plant into manageable pieces before selecting the juiciest bit to eat first.

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Because the elephants would eat all of the edible plants in any one area by morning, we dropped them off at a different resting spot each night. Morning time meant exercise and baths, so after the elephants’ hike back to the center each morning, they took a bath in the lake with their mahouts while we watched and scrubbed the elephants clean from the dock.

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soil and threadAfter several days of initiation, we started to recognize the unique personalities of each elephant and how he or she acted in different situations. We also learned the Laos commands and were able to communicate with the elephants directly.

Pie = Go

Meplong = Sit Down

Toi = Back

Saie = Right

Qua = Left

The elephant I worked with most, Mae Comeun, had golden eyes and a high arching back. The tallest of all of the elephants at the center, she also possessed a unique gracefulness. She loved bath time and would submerge herself completely, peaking above the water with just a sparkling eye and spray of her trunk. Lee’s elephant, Tonkun, had majestic, long tusks and was ever ready to learn and please, always following his mahout’s directions.

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We formed close bonds with the staff in the center too. Alongside them we cleaned the breeding grounds, shovelled elephant dung, and cleared around an electric fence with a machete. We made a garden fertilized with freshly collected elephant dung and then planted it with long beans, cucumbers, broccoli rabe, squash, and rocket.

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Lee was even invited to go on a bamboo rat hunt, the bounty of which is considered a delicacy by Laos city folk and a staple item by very rural communities. After several hours of digging holes in the ground through the bamboo rats’ tunnels, Lee and fellow hunter Ung came home blistered and empty handed. But several of the other mahouts had also gone into the jungle on a search and brought back two bamboo rats to share. The fuzzy guinea pig look-alikes arrived back to camp alive but were soon singed hairless, chopped to pieces, and tossed into a soup broth. We watched, drank homemade lao-lao rice whiskey, and had expressive translated conversations with the mahouts, thanks to Mr. Sac, our awesome guide.

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Thirty minutes later we sat down to a meal of bamboo rat stew around a single pot on the floor of the mahouts’ wooden porch with one spoon shared amongst the 12 of us. It was delicious, mainly due to the strong lemongrass flavouring, but I could have done without all of the bones and feet. Lee showed his usual hearty appreciation and from then on the mahouts regarded him with a noble warrior status.

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By the end of our six day stay, we had broken down language divisions with people whose intentions could only be felt, and formed bonds with animals seventy five times our size. This ability for humans and animals to connect across all cultures, borders, and barriers, is something we hope to carry with us for a long time.

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soil and thread

Categories
Cambodia

Reflections on the Mekong

I am excited to share a guest post from my sister, Alexis, who turned 30 while traveling with us. See her story below and enjoy!

A quick snapshot of my latest stats:
6 days of travel
5 street food samples
4 guest houses
3 traveling friends
2 public group exercise sessions
1 spectacular birthday

I found myself entranced with the whizzing and choking of the engine, the light spray of water, and the constant wake as our river boat broke through the seemingly calm surface of the Mekong.  It was as ideal a setting to reflect on thirty years and cast thoughts on what lies ahead as one could imagine. In this serene atmosphere, I was ready to recap the events of the day before, which was the Eve of Christmas Eve, also known to some as my birthday.

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We awoke to yet more glorious sunshine in Phnom Penh, sauntered up to our third floor deck and started flipping through The Word, the local events newspaper we picked up the day before.  We decided to start off with a little adventure to build up our appetite, and off we went in search of a hidden lunch spot in the arts district.

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Lee was at the helm with his map and compass, Dominique was armed with the camera, and I had the day bag and an eye open for ancillary adventures. Mind you, the maps from Lonely Planet are not true maps, as Lee taught me, as north does not always point towards the top of the page and not all the streets are named or even included.  Despite this, we found a winding alley that looked like it might lead us to our designated lunch spot. We turned down, past some open living rooms (indeed so open that it seemed as though the front exterior wall of the house had been left out of the building process), snaked by moto-bike parking and landed at our quaint oasis in the alleyway.  It looked like a Grecian cottage with turquoise shutters and white washed walls, not the typical Cambodian style we had grown to recognize.  Inside, the husband-wife duo had created an art gallery, clothing boutique and café with delicious juices and fresh sandwiches.

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We had our fill and started our hunt for live music.  We consulted The Word again, and picked out a few spots to stop by throughout the day. To our surprise, a wedding reception had gathered in the twisting alley, complete with banquet tables, centerpieces and Cambodian cuisine. We were greeted with big smiles as we delicately dodged the tables and families gathering; it was decided it was a good omen. soil and thread

Out on the main street, we didn’t make it too far until we found a chocolatier (the Donoghoes do love chocolate).  We stopped in for some birthday treats, and I was given a chocolate birthday lotus on the house, all of which was devoured immediately.

At this point, it was about time for a birthday toast, so we headed to the first spot for live music. Not only did the bar not have the band listed on the music bill, they didn’t even host live bands! We liked the spot regardless and made ourselves at home in the outdoor seating with a cold round of beers complete with a koozie!

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Dominique then presented me with the sweetest hand-made card, filled with thirty memories, one for each year. There were even illustrations for each one! We laughed and cried while going down memory lane, and toasted to another thirty.

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For dinner we went to a jazz club on the Mekong river front.  We continued the toasting revelry at dinner and moved inside right before the jazz band came on.  I had a chance to talk with the lead singer / saxophonist before they started and let him know that it was not only my birthday, but that I was born in 20 minutes (luckily my parents had sent me a reminder earlier that day). At 8:50pm, the band dedicated the next song to me, which was an off-the-cuff birthday melody. Mind you this wasn’t just another rendition of the birthday song, it was a ten minute jazzy serenade and made the birthday girl oh-so-happy! We continued dancing and enjoying the music for the next couple of hours, then made our way out to negotiate the tuktuk fare back to our room.

It was certainly a birthday for the books, and I owe it all to Dominique and Lee for so graciously taking me in and sharing their adventures.

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Categories
Vietnam

10° 45′ N, 106° 40′ E

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam delivered its promised big city vibe. Cars, tuk tuks, and motorcycles crowded the streets and neighborhoods sprawled across the map. Four and five people piled on a single motorcycle weaving in and out of traffic. Women sashayed down the streets with sunbrellas, hiding from the sun’s rays at all times. The 5th Ave of Saigon spilled out onto the streets designer names at designer prices.

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We initiated oursleves with streetside drinks where we sat in child size seats amongst rows and rows of other night owls. The chairs and crowds became so plentiful that we were six deep for five blocks on both sides and two rows were in the actual street, leaving just a small strip for cars and cart vendors selling dried squid and sausages to wheel past. We took in the scene and toasted to the holidays.

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Though we spent Christmas worlds away from home, we managed to continue several big holiday traditions. Lee, Alexis, and I skyped with my parents and brother back home in Connecticut and were virtually transported to their living room, glowing with heat from the fireplace, while my dad read Clement C. Moore’s The Night Before Christmas, as he has every year since he received the book as a small boy. We opened presents thoughtfully selected by Santa’s helpers (aka Mom, Dad, and Nicholas), and decked ourselves out in the ribbons and decorations from the presents. For a bit of local culture, Lee surprised us with a taste of Vietnam’s most exotic fruits. We tried rombutons, languns, mangosteens, and custard apples. We all waivered between loving the mangosteen and the custard apple most and continued the debate by tasting them at every stop along Vietnam’s coast.

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While still in the frenetic capital we visited the War Remnants Musuem and paid tribute to the men and women in service across the globe. Wandering the street markets, we stumbled upon a concert in the making. A big star strutted up and down the stage intermittenly singing his heart out and giving cues to the light directors while onlookers snapped his photo. But the real show stoppers that night were the backup dancers who managed to be out of sync for every move and fell into several frustrated meltdowns on stage. With three days to go until the major production went live for New Year’s Eve, we wished them our best.

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We found a retreat from the busy streets in the heart of pulsating Saigon where several high design restobars shared a garden courtyard. From there we ordered a fancy evening meal and conducted a blind taste test of Saigon’s most favored beers, Saigon Green Label vs. Saigon Red Label. There was no clear victor, but we all agreed that the garden escape was a winner and the perfect place to bid Saigon farewell.

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Delightful Hoi An charmed us from the moment we stepped foot on her lantern lit streets. Softly decaying buildings lined each block with their matching butter-yellow facades and hanging wooden bird cages that swayed in the crisp warm breezes. Vietnamese women strolled the riverside markets in their traditional conical bamboo hats and artisans carved Buddha sculptures from locally grown bamboo roots.

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Keen to check out the booming industry of custom made clothes that makes Hoi An a favorite of many a sartorialist, we researched, scouted out, and settled upon our favorite tailor, Yaly Couture. The fun of deciding exactly what clothes in exactly what styles we wanted ensued. Inspired by many designer duds but wanting something original, I set out to sketch my own floor length ballgown. After several dozen iterations, I selected my absolute favorite, brought it to life with watercolors, marked my specific tailoring requests, and handed it over to our slighlty overwhelmed saleswoman. Alexis went through a similar process, selecting a sketch of mine and outlining her must haves. We then picked out our fabrics and patterns, perusing aisle after aisle of silks, chiffons, and cottons in every color and design imaginable. We finally found our perfect matches. After five days and seven fittings, the gowns fit like gloves. (Pictures to be posted as soon as the dresses are worn to a proper occassion!)

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Lee was by no means left out of this extravaganza. In fact, he approached it like a fastidious scientist. He had two suits and two dress shirts made. Sample images were provided for each, and every last detail was noted on a horizontally labeled diagram. Lined inner collar, notched lapel, hand stitching on lapel, double vent, working button cuffs, accent thread color, wild silk patterned liner, surgeon cuffs, embroidered initials, ticket pocket, lipstick pocket, and matching pocket squares. By the time Lee’s clothes were made, tailored, and completed, all the women in the store were swooning over him. He must have set a record for customizations requested. Not to let the fun and games of customwear end too soon, we also each had a pair of shoes made, and even got a few presents for family back home. It certainly wasn’t the typical backpackers’ splurge, but it sure was worth it!

We spent New Years Eve dazzling under the stars at The Secret Garden, a lovely lush hideaway. We listened to live music and discussed New Years resolutions before heading to Q Bar where we met up with new found Aussie friends and danced the night away. Complimentary champagne, chocolate, masks, and plastic instruments were handed out for a midnight toast to ring in the new year. By 4 a.m. when we started home, the streets were beginning to clear and we lit sparklers as a last hoorah before waking up in 2013. What a year it had been!

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We bid Hoi An goodbye with a scenic half-hour bike ride to the beach along the South China Sea. The sand was warm, the sea was cool, and the banana chocolate chip pancakes hit the spot.

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Fourteen hours and a night train ride later and we were in Hanoi, in northern Vietnam. A damp cold permeated the city and a constant drizzle kept us hopping from one indoor activity to the next. Art became our fuel, the gas that kept us going. Every few yards held a promising artist’s shop or high end gallery with hundreds of oil paintings at an eye-poppingly low price. Though many pieces were knock-offs or recreations of other work, for the keen eye, there were beautiful original gems to find; and we each found one.

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We also went to see the famous water puppet show at Thang Long Puppet Theatre. It depicted many aspects of traditional Vietnamese culture and life and was accompanied by live music. The show was very different from anything I’d seen before, originating from storytelling over the country’s flooded rice paddies in the 11th century as a way to entertain the spirits. Today’s versions of the puppet show use lacquered wooden dolls that move over a waist-deep pool controlled by pupeteers from long poles behind a curtain. Unfortunately, the less-than-coordinated choreography often made the scenes more humorous than serious, but it was an incredible experience nonetheless and one we wouldn’t have wanted to miss.

Serial cafe enthusiasts, we found several spots that warmed our hearts and our toes. From the top floor of one cafe we could see Hoen Kiem Lake, or Lake of the Restored Sword, where it is legend that emporer Le Loi lost his magical sword to a turtle who was reclaiming it for the Golden Turtle God. People still look for large turtles and possible signs of the lost sword in the lake today. Nearby Radio Cafe was tucked behind an art stall and up a creaky sloping set of stairs that led to a closed wooden door. Through the door awaited a true locals’ scene with kids intermittenly starting impromptu acoustic jam sessions while others gossipped over their tea and coffee sweetened with condensed milk. We returned several times for their divine custard apple shakes and were happily surprised each time that the acoustic sessions were in full swing.

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Departing the city for a day, we went on an excursion through Halong Bay. The bay itself sits in the Tonkun Gulf of the South China Sea and consists of over 2,000 islands and karsts, along with several native floating communities. It is estimated that the karsts have evolved over 20 million years in the wet tropical climate. The day we visited, the air was chilled but we were fortunate to have clear skies. Karsts defiantly rose from the frigid waters and provided dramatic cliff views for miles.

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soil and thread Halong Bay

After lunch on the boat, we came upon a small floating village where children wore winter jackets and hats while learning in open floating classrooms. We hopped on a small row boat with one of the locals and ducked as we passed through a stalagtite tunnel into a milky green lagoon colored with eons of calcium carbonate dissolving into the sea from the limestone karsts. Halong Bay, or Bay of the Descending Dragons is said to have been formed with the help of a family of dragons who descended to protect the area from invaders. The dragons spit jewels and jade which then turned into all of the islands dotting the bay which kept warring ships from entering. Wrapped in the lore of it all, we certainly saw dragons formed in the surrounding stone. Walking through an immense set of caves further into the bay, we were asked to use our imagination to see turtles, jelly fish, rabbits, goats, Buddha, and even Romeo + Juliet in the stalagtites and stalagmites.

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soil and thread Halong Bay

soil and thread Halong Bay

soil and thread Halong Bay

As a birthday present to Alexis on our last day in Hanoi, we took a cooking class at one of the most revered places in the city, Old Hanoi. Along with our chef teacher and two cooking class mates, we went to the chef’s favorite produce market and bought fresh herbs, vegetables, and rice paper. We were told the market was not government regulated and the quality of meat could not be guaranteed so we did not buy beef, chicken, or shrimp for our dishes there. I was quite glad too, because organs were splayed out in every direction dripping blood onto the floor and one woman was using a flat blade razor to shave the hair off her pig’s feet while flies swarmed above. Once back in the restaurant, we began making sauces and dips for our various dishes. After hand rolling our own shrimp spring rolls, we used small parafin burners to cook lime leaf chicken kebabs and caramel pork braised in clay pots. We finished off our meal with sweet potato pudding. The food was the best we had in all of Vietnam and we even got the recipes to bring home. It was a delicious end to a phenomenal journey with Alexis. I know so many memories will come flooding back once we make these dishes in our own kitchens.

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Categories
Cambodia

Living Ruins

After a late night bus breakdown, Lee and I arrived to Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, and took a short night’s rest before awaking to greet my sister at the international airport. The festivities of having Alexis with us for the next three weeks while we traveled through Asia started from the moment we saw her. She arrived to much fanfare, a handmade welcome card, and the sounds of Wilson Phillips (a childhood classic), blasting from our speakers.

Walking the metropolitan streets, Alexis dove right into the street food culture with sundried grilled bananas and chicken liver.

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In the city’s central park we were whisked into a free public exercise group, but finding it not quite our speed, we opted for a small yoga session instead. Limbered up and ready to soak in more cultural experiences, we headed to Meta House where there was a small gallery supporting local artists, documentaries played nightly, and a good music scene. The film viewing that night was a documentary on the ex-Cambodian Head of State, Khieu Samphan, and his involvement with the Khmer Rouge. The devastating history of the Khmer Rouge rule in Cambodia from 1975 to 1979 when the nation was forced into backbreaking agrarian work, starved, tortured, and over 1.7 million people murdered is chilling. The Cambodian people are now marching towards a much brighter future while still honoring the victims with museums and monuments throughout the nation.

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An open country once again, people flood the region to see Angkor, the largest religious complex in the world. Just 20 minutes from Siem Reap in central Cambodia, the ruins are far stretching and include hundreds of temples and shrines. Seeing Angkor Wat was time warping. Five main towers rise triumphantly from their dark aged stone base and give even more weight to the sprawling complex. Built in the 12th century by King Suryavarman, Angkor Wat, meaning City of Temples, was built with sandstone in classical Khmer architectural style. Intricate carvings give dimension to the complex and even the windows support bulbous stone carved pillars. Religious imagery from Hindu epics is everywhere, as are depictions of sacred plants and animals. Before leaving we bought palm juice fresh from a palm tree growing on the temple grounds and sipped the sweet liquid from a straw in its plastic bag.

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Another five minutes down the road held Angkor Thom and the ancient ruins of Bayon. Bayon was built under the rule of another king in the late 12th century, King Jayavarman VII, and outfitted with over 200 faces depicting his likeness. Each enormous stone face seems heavenly serene and happily peaceful, making it one of my favorite temples.

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Perhaps most impressive of all was Ta Prohm, where tree roots draped the ancient structures, moss seeped from every crevice, and lichen breathed new life into crumbling walls. The jungle had clearly spoken and claimed its grounds; we were merely obliging visitors.

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Back in Siem Reap, we lunched in the lap of luxury on beds at an all-white restaurant that delivered scrumptious bites on angular white-washed trays. The cool airy space stood in sharp contrast to the enveloping heat of the jungle and we were happy for the repose. After lunch I spotted a pedicure parlor that specialized in fish pedicures and decided to surprise Lee with a visit to “Dr.Fish”. Telling him we had a surprise for him, we made him close his eyes while we guided him down the street. In front of the big tank of four-inch long fish he opened his eyes and was immediately excited to sit along the bench above the tank and have his feet eaten by hundreds of fish. Alexis and I were less sure as we sat down, hovered our feet over the tank, and the starving fish swarmed our direction. Thankfully, the $3 fish pedicure price included a complimentary beer to calm the nerves! The fish nibbles were much more forceful than I expected and it was nearly impossible to keep my feet in the water for longer than a few seconds as the fish slipped in between toes and the big ones tried to eat my whole toe. Since Lee easily stayed stone still, the fish loved him and ate his dead skin voraciously. Alexis and I went through laughing fits and tried to see who could keep their feet in longer. It was a surprisingly intense 30 minutes, after which we had the softest, cleanest feet of our adult lives.

Worn out from a full day of adventuring, we headed back to our hotel room, glanced out of the window, and discovered that there was a crocodile farm next door. Two pools surrounded by strips of concrete teemed with hundreds of adult crocodiles piled on top of each other lazing in the sun in the middle of the city.

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Cambodia held more surprises for us than we expected and we embraced each one with due serendipity.