The Number One Thing To Do In Siem Reap That’s NOT Angkor Wat

Don’t get me wrong; Angkor Wat is unbelievable. But if traveling has taught me anything, it is that if you really want to experience a place, you’ve got to go behind the scenes. And for our time in Siem Reap, that meant…

Quad-bike riding.

Yes, you read that right. Dirty, smelly quad-bike riding.

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Arriving in Cambodia earlier that afternoon, I hadn’t known what to expect from the country. Having traveled around Thailand and Vietnam for the previous three weeks, I had borrowed ideas from the more rural provinces and improvised somewhat, but there were still a lot of blank spaces left to my imagination. As we drove from the airport to our hotel, it quickly became apparent that Siem Reap — a resort town in northwestern Cambodia — was no Bangkok. Siem Reap was rustic and relaxed; a breath of fresh air after the commotion of it’s Southeast Asian siblings.

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Cambodia also saw a friendly return of the tuk-tuk. We had farewelled the tuk-tuk culture in Thailand earlier in the journey, and had been less than satisfied with the cyclo experience of Vietnam. We were picked up in a tuk-tuk from our hotel and arrived at the Quad Adventure base five minutes later with wind-swept hair and knuckles whitened around the edges of our seats. If I had thought Vietnamese traffic got the adrenaline pumping, then I was in for a surprise.

You know something is going to be good when the first thing you do is sign a form stating that the company is not to be held responsible in the event of any injury acquired as a result of the activity. After signing our liabilities away, my travel companion Poppy and I were each assigned a guide to teach us how to operate our quad bikes. Having spent a considerable amount of time on farms as a child, the controls felt natural to me. After donning a motorbike helmet and face mask to scare away any potential Insta-worthy snaps, we were unleashed into the countryside of Siem Reap.

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With our guide in the lead on a motorbike and Poppy bringing up the rear, we were off! My butt three feet off the seat as we bounced over potholes and puddles, we streaked along the red pathway out of the township and into the provinces. The village life was an experience in itself; you’d pass open shacks furnished with the bare necessities, and yet the inhabitants would be sitting there, playing on an iPhone. It was the most bizarre, juxtaposed thing.

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And then there’s the temples. I’m not talking about the commercialised temples you’ll queue behind a hundred other tourists to see in Thailand. I’m talking about the quietly resplendent works of art you’ll find nestled in thickets in the Siem Reap countryside. Their  modest nature drew me to them, and I found myself wanting to learn more about their history. Unfortunately, my burning questions went unanswered. That’s the difference between a quad bike guide and a tour guide; the former is merely concerned with getting you from point A to B.

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The Siem Reap locals were one of the unexpected focal points of the trip – especially the children. On every leg of our journey, kids would be running alongside us, waving fanatically as we passed. Every time you waved back, their faces split into enormous, gleeful smiles. At one point, Poppy strayed from the track and I had to pull over and wait while our guide circled back to find her again. I amused myself with a posse of kids who ran over and decided to make friends. Their English wasn’t perfect and my Khmer was non-existent (to demonstrate the embarrassing extent of my knowledge, let me confess that I just had to google what the official language spoken in Cambodia is called), but we still managed to introduce ourselves.

Between them, the temples and the cattle – seriously, if I had a dollar (or Cambodian riel) for every time I stopped to take a picture of a cow, I could probably afford to take the quad bike tour all over again – I was falling in love with this lesser-known side to Siem Reap.

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Last but not least… the sunset.

Now, there’s a reason why the tagline for The Ginger Passports is ‘honest travel blogging’. I don’t want to propagate any illusions here. When we embarked on this tour where experiencing a highly-acclaimed Cambodian sunset was the anticipated highlight, I had my expectations. I imagined psychedelic hues painted across a sun-kissed sky like something out of a Baz Luhrmann film… but alas, was disappointed. Maybe I take our gorgeous New Zealand sunsets for granted, but the close of day in Siem Reap – or at least the one we experienced – fell slightly short of it’s mark.

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Expectations aside, when we finally pulled back into the Quad Adventure base an hour and a half later with aching backsides and stiff knuckles, we couldn’t wipe the smiles off our faces. Or the red dirt from every crack and crevasse in our bodies. But that’s another story.

4 Tips for the Quintessential Quad Bike Experience

  • Only go as fast as you find comfortable. In saying that, don’t sit on your guide’s tail the whole way. Don’t insist on passing them either; it’s not a race to the finish line! It is remarkably easy to take a wrong turn (see Poppy), and your guide knows what is a safe yet adrenalised pace.
  • Don’t wear your Sunday best. It will get caked in red dust, and you are not going to receive any sympathy when you complain that your $100 boutique top now needs dry-cleaned.
  • Don’t feel like you have to wear the visor on the helmet or the face mask. Both are purely designed to shield you from any unwanted dust on the road, but depending on factors such as the weather and/or traffic, this may not be an issue. Aside from the fact that the face mask makes you look as though you are entering a quarantined area, you’ll probably find them redundant. I personally found the visor to impair my vision, and tolerated the little dust that there was so that I could see clearly.
  • Be prepared. If you intend to bring a camera, make sure you have somewhere to store it when you need both hands on the handlebars. I had to get creative when I realised I had no pockets to keep my camera in when I got on the bike; and believe me, it’s not a pretty sight to have to fish it out the front of your pants when your guide offers to take a photo of you *insert eye-roll emoji here*

Stay tuned for my upcoming Cambodia vlog, which will showcase footage from the quad biking experience. To ensure you don’t miss out, follow The Ginger Passports to get email notifications when new posts are published. Or alternatively, subscribe to my Youtube Channel to receive updates when new videos are uploaded. I’ll see you there!

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The Beach Review #1: Saint Kilda

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Something you may not know about me is that I have a bizarre obsession with rating things. Books, films, you name it. So when I was trying to devise an innovative way to blog about beaches I visit, the logical answer was to start a segment where I would review different ones around the world and see how they stack up against one another.

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After much deliberation, I formulated a system for rating them. Each beach has the potential for 10 stars (★) and is assessed on many different aspects.

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#1

Beach: Saint Kilda

Location: Dunedin, Otago, New Zealand

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Water

Whilst the water is not crystal clear, the sandy bottom does compensate. There’s nothing worse than when you’re in the water and scared to put your feet down for fear of cutting yourself on jagged rocks or coral.

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Due to the Otago coastline’s dangerous rips, there are often lifeguards on patrol who indicate the safest areas. So as long as you use your head, this isn’t something you need to worry about.

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Sand

The sand is a gorgeous palette of white and gold. It’s velvety and fine with a delicate sprinkling of shells down the northern end. You won’t find any complaints from me here.

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Temperature

I’m not going to sugarcoat it; the water is freezing. This is the biggest drawback to the beach. While (arguably crazy) people do break out the bikinis, you won’t see me in anything less than a double-layered winter wetsuit.

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Regarding the weather, Dunedin isn’t exactly a go-to summer destination. The average temperature in the warmer months is 20°C, and even that’s generous. You’re more likely to encounter 15°C with wretched winds. Nevertheless, slap that sunscreen on; a Kiwi sunburn is no laughing matter.

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Wildlife

One of the attractions of Otago is its vast array of wildlife. Our coastline hosts little blue penguins, fur seals, and just up the peninsula, you’ll find one of the world’s largest albatross colonies on Taiaroa Head.

Saint Kilda is but a playground for these incredible animals. Whilst it’s not as popular as the surrounding shores, it’s not unheard of to spot dolphins and whales frolicking in the waves. It also has history with a certain sea lion.

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Facilities

This is a tricky one to comment on. Saint Kilda is the northern end of the beach, whilst the southern morphs into Saint Clair. Whilst Saint Clair has a lavish scope of restaurants, shops and salt water pool, Saint Kilda is somewhat more remote. In saying that, it’s a mere fifteen minute drive from the hub of Dunedin.

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Recreation

As an avid surfer myself, I would recommend Saint Kilda without a beat. New Zealand beaches are famous for it’s surf breaks, and Saint Kilda is no exception. The waves are great for beginners and experts alike, with a fluctuating tide and long stretches to avoid swimmers.

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Saint Kilda is also popular for swimmers. The choppy breakers make for superb body surfing, although make sure you keep within the flags. As I mentioned above, the rips are not a matter to be taken lightly.

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Congestion

As Saint Kilda spans approximately three kilometres, it’s quite easy to find an isolated stretch of beach without any company.

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What with Dunedin’s measly population, this isn’t the sort of place where you have to weave through throngs of people to find a square meter of sand. If that’s not a plus, then I don’t know what is.

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The Verdict

6.5/10

★★★★★★

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Guest Post: 84 Days in Japan

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All throughout high school I studied Japanese language.  Each year my class got smaller but I really enjoyed it, and by the time I was in my senior year, I was the only person left in the class.  I stuck at it for five years, but when I began university, I just stopped.  What a waste!

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Then one day, while sitting in the library in between lectures, an old friend from high school bumped into me. He asked if I would be interested in a job at a ski resort hotel in Japan over the New Zealand summer, as his cousin was one of the managers there.  I’m super into snowboarding and thought this would be a great opportunity to continue my study of Japanese.  About three months later, I was on a flight direct from Christchurch International to Narita Airport where I would spend 4 nights in Tokyo before moving to Hakuba in Nagano for the next two and half months.

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My First Impressions

Japan is clean.  Flying into Tokyo – a city of 13 million people – I expected a lot of litter and graffiti, but there was none.  Between giant high rise buildings, a massive subway system and countless poorly lit alleyways, I didn’t see any graffiti the whole time. For a country with such a complicated litter system (rubbish must be separated into burnables and non-burnables, and non-burnables need to be organised into glass, cans, and plastic bottles with the labels and caps removed, plus only certain types of cardboard are accepted for recycling) there was no litter.  When trains stopped in at stations, workers would even jump in with a backpack vacuum cleaner and give the carriages a once over.

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Japanese people are so nice.  They are so trusting and honest. People will be sitting in a packed café in a train station and they’ll just stand up and leave their laptop/bag/wallet unattended at a table as they walk up to order.  They are so patient, they’ll wait as you stumble through a sentence in Japanese and let you practice, even if they speak English.

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For example, during my time in Tokyo, I was trying to go to an aquarium but got off at the wrong station and had to ask for directions.  I found a man sitting out on the riverbed I was walking around having his lunch break, and asked “魚の動物園は どこですか”, which translates to “Where is the fish zoo?”  He didn’t know, but he googled it for me and showed me how to get there on his phone, then taught me the word for aquarium.

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Japan is efficient.  The subway system and bus system run to the minute.  If the timetable says a bus will leave Shinjuku at 8:15am and arrives in Hakuba at 1:16pm, it will hit those times perfectly.  Once I wrapped my head around the rail system, it was so easy.  Originally I was trying to work out where I was going, how much it costs, and buying a paper ticket every time I wanted to train somewhere (which was multiple times a day), but once I bought a suica card, everything was so much easier. I would just top it up, scan as I entered a station, and scan as I exited the next station where it would deduct the fair automatically.

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Where I Stayed in Tokyo

In Tokyo, I stayed in an art gallery/youth hostel called ArtnShelter.  It was super cheap and a really cool atmosphere.  I slept in a box about 130cm tall and wide and 220cm deep. It was right beside a train station which made life super easy, and downstairs they had a bar, which was completely angled towards getting people talking to strangers and meeting new people.  One of the ways they did this was by making shots 50% off if you bought one for a stranger.

What I Did in Tokyo

I was painfully aware of how little time I had in Tokyo so I had to get straight into my touristy sightseeing.

I arrived on the 29th of November at about 4:45pm, but because I had to get a residency card to be able to work here, I didn’t get through customs and out of the airport until around 6pm.  I went straight to my hotel in Narita (about 1.5 hours by train north of Tokyo central) to drop my bags and then went out for dinner. After 15 hours of travelling, I wasn’t up to much else!

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On the 30th, I made my way from Narita down to Shinagawa, where I would be staying for the rest of my time.  Instead of going direct, I caught my first train underneath the airport to Ueno, where I was able to walk around the famous Ueno Park and visit Ueno Zoo.

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On the 1st, I caught a train up to Jimbocho, a full district in Tokyo purely dedicated to ski and snowboard shops.  Literally hundreds of snow sport shops all right next to each other, including department stores of up to 8 stories tall selling goggles, clothes, boards, skis, bindings, boots and everything else you could possibly need.

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On the 2nd was my trip to the Shinagawa Aquarium, where I discovered that Japan goes crazy for Christmas. All of the fish tanks were fully decorated, inside and out, where scuba divers conducting shows and feeding the fish were dressed up as Santa Claus.

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On the 3rd I did my final site seeing, visiting Zojo-ji (a massive Buddhist temple built at its site in Tokyo in 1598) and taking the elevator up Tokyo tower where I could see out over the whole city and more, as far as Mount Fuji.  Later, I went to Shinjuku to catch the 6:15pm bus to Hakuba, where I would live for the next two months.

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I arrived in Hakuba expecting layers of snow, but it was just cold with no snow in site.  On the 4th, I walked around the town and settled in to my new home.  I share a room with 3 other guys; it is split into an upstairs bit and a downstairs bit, with two beds in each.  There was very little space and no storage at all. The only heater in the room was downstairs, and the window in the upstairs bit had no curtains, so me and my roomie set out to make some renovations; covering the window in bubble wrap and making a spider web of wire between the walls and roof to hang stuff from.

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The Work

We started work on the 5th of December, and for the first 10 days I wasn’t enjoying life. The hotel I work at closes for 6 months over summer and is just locked and left on the last day of the ski season, so it requires a lot of TLC when it needs to open up again.  I spent 10 days shovelling snow, chopping firewood, changing lights bulbs, moving furniture, dusting, vacuuming, cleaning bathrooms, removing bee hives, and other fun stuff like that.

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But then I got to start my proper job as a concierge.  A standard work day for me is waking up at 6am to negative double digit temperatures, walking downstairs to sit in front of a heater and eat breakfast before layering up and walking 10 minutes to work at 7am.  The first hour I spend shovelling snow out of the driveway and clearing it off the vans, filling up the kerosene heater in the hotel drying room, filling up the firewood in the hotel restaurant and sweeping the entrance way.  From 8am to around 10:30am I load skis and people in and out of the vans and drive them to the various resorts in the valley.  From 10:30ish to 1pm, I take the hotel and staff accommodation rubbish to the dump, shovel the carpark, driveway, pathways and roof, shop at the supermarket for the kitchen and answer phone calls in the office.  I get a break from 1-3pm which if I’m quick is enough time to run up to the nearest chairlift and get some runs in.  Then from 3-5pm I’m picking guests up from the ski resorts. 5-6pm is spent filling the vans, shovelling more snow and closing up the shuttle service for the night.

My Days Off

I get two days off per week (usually) which I normally spend up at Hakuba Goryu ski field where I have a season pass.  I wish I could get out to other resorts in the valley too, but because pay is monthly, I have to be pretty strict with my budgeting.

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If I’m not out snowboarding on my day off, I’m trying to explore various places. One week I switched my days off around to get 3 in a row, and was able to visit a mate in Tokyo. We spent a few days site-seeing, including a full day hiking around various temples in Kamakura. This week, another friend of mine came to Hakuba for two days and we trekked out to see the Jigokudani Snow Monkey Hot Springs. We went up for his first day snowboarding the next.  Some nights, I am able to head up the mountain after work for night skiing, but as only one slope is open, I usually head home to shower, eat and sleep after my 11 hour work day.

The Best Parts

This working holiday has been great for my Japanese language skills. With constant exposure to Japanese writing, I’ve become a much faster reader and have learnt so many more kanji characters.  Hearing the language daily has made me a much better listener, but working at an English speaking hotel where all the other staff are Australian has meant I haven’t had as much conversation practice as I would like. However, my trips to the supermarket and interacting with locals has given me a lot of opportunities to speak anyway.  I am now much more enthusiastic and motivated to continue my Japanese study when I return home.

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The Worst Parts

Working 7am to 6pm, 5 days a week has been really tough. This was especially the case during big dumps of snow, as all of the shovelling can make me completely exhausted and super moody.  The amount of time I have to commit to work means I don’t get as many opportunities to snowboard and explore Japan as I would like, and it means I have to prioritise what I want to do with my time off.

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My Final Thoughts

Overall, I have really enjoyed this experience.  For someone who has no summer job and really wants to study the culture and language, I think it is an amazing opportunity!

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However, would I do it again?  No.  I will definitely come back to Japan, but I think my plan for next time will be to work in New Zealand, then travel here for 4 weeks on a budget backpacking holiday. While I won’t have the constant exposure to the language that I have had for the last 2 months, I will be able to do much more travelling, and hopefully backpack from the southern tip all the way up to the north.

About the Author

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Tom Maslin is a second-year Mechatronics Engineering and German Language student, at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand.

He is an avid snowboarder, track and field athlete, and works as a private tutor for NCEA high school students in Mathematics and Science.

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Postcards from Ha Long Bay

Perhaps one of the most recognisable sights in Southeast Asia is Ha Long Bay. Located on the northeast coast of Vietnam, the bay is a bumpy 3.5 hour drive from the capital city of Hanoi. The vastness of the UNESCO heritage site quite literally took my breath away. With a name that translates to ‘Bay of the Descending Dragon’, Ha Long Bay spans an impressive area of 334km² and is populated by 1,600 monolithic islands made of limestones and hollowed by beautiful grottos. Some of these islands are even believed to be over 20,000,000 years old. Upon the glassy water, junk boats spread their sails like amber wings and fisherman cast their neats over floating villages.

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If you liked these photos, you might also be interested in checking out my 2016 Vietnam Travel Vlog on my Youtube Channel. 0:43 is where the Ha Long Bay magic happens!

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Vlog: Vietnam Edition

It’s that time of the day again, when I’m scrambling to my laptop to write and publish the day’s blog post before midnight. I always swear I’m going to be prepared and proactive and draft my posts before it gets to crunch time, but something always gets in the way. That ‘something’ is usually ‘excuses’. Sigh.

Anyhow. Time for round two of the vlogs! This time, I have condensed two weeks of my Vietnamese adventures into two and a half minutes of highly-edited, explosive footage. Okay, so maybe it’s not as Spielberg-esque as I’m making it out to be, but the sentiment is there.

Out of all of the countries in Southeast Asia that I visited on my last trip, Vietnam was unquestionably my favourite. I guess there’s just something about crawling on your stomach through war-torn tunnels, and trying to cross a five-way intersection whilst motorbikes hurtle full-speed at your small, defenceless body that leaves a lasting impression on you. Obviously the Vietnam experience extends beyond that, but those were definitely some of the things I think every tourist should prioritise when they book their tickets.

The five places within Vietnam featured in this vlog are (in order of appearance): Hanoi, Ha Long Bay, Hoi An and Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). Note all the H’s. Hanoi was my absolute highlight of the trip; I can’t way to share my experience of staying in the Old Quarter in a future blog post. Hoi An takes out the award for the prettiest town, with streets decked with lanterns and fabrics that create a kaleidoscopic explosion of colour. I doubt I have to convince you of the beauty of Ha Long Bay, and Ho Chi Minh City was quite possibly the best history lesson I have ever had in my life. More on all of these enchanting places later, but if I’ve peaked your interests, then I invite you to view my 2016 Travel Vlog for Vietnam on my YouTube channel.

What was your favourite part of Vietnam? I found myself drawn to the north, but maybe that’s because I thrive in colder weather (cheers, New Zealand). Would love to hear your thoughts!

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Vlog: Thailand Edition

I wish I had the luxury to say, ‘you may have noticed that I have been absent from posting for the past month or so’ like most bloggers, but that would have required me to make regular updates in the first place. As this is only my third post, I’m going to let that slide, but worry not! My goal is to create new content every MONDAY, WEDNESDAY and FRIDAY! Now, let’s see how long that lasts for…

One of the perks of having my own blog is that I have complete creative freedom over what I create and produce. For me, this means that I am not limited to sharing my experiences in just one format. So I have decided to experiment with my cinematic side, and have put together a vlog (or ‘video log’ for the less informed – looking at you, mother) to document my adventures in Thailand this past November.

Without further ado, please enjoy my Thailand vlog! And feel free to stop by my new Youtube Channel and give it a cheeky subscribe (and a thumbs up if you’re feeling extra spicy).

Comment with your own Youtube channel and/or videos – I’d love to check them out!

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