My Indonesian adventure from active volcanoes to lazy beaches.

It’s been longer than normal since my last post and I would love to give you a great excuse but honestly I think I have hit that point of being a bit travel-weary. The good news is that I am currently relaxing and just watching the world go by for a few days before I start the next leg of my trip. So I find myself in a much better place to give you the blow by blow of my trip! It’s been a very active trip with lots of long travel days, so I have a lot to share.

Indonesia is a large country in pure distance so to get from city to city within the island of Java we spent a good portion of our time in minivans and various other forms of transportation. Once we have arrived in a new town though, wonderful things have awaited and you quickly forgive the long road there.

When I finished my blog last time we had just arrived in Pangandaran. The next morning we started our city tour with a trip to the locals market. It was rows and rows of open air “shops” selling local produce, meats, and dried fish.

The smell was a bit overwhelming and we were a novelty in this area as we were being stared at everywhere we walked. Most of the people we had encountered thus far spoke a little bit of english, but not here! They just stared at us blankly when we tried to ask questions about their products.

After a few of us managed to buy some things like nuts and fruits to snack on that day we hopped back on the bus for a trip to a local wooden puppet maker.

Puppet in progress

Puppetry is a traditional art form throughout Indonesia. In this part of Java the puppets were made of wood, but in central Java they made them out of dried leather. It was impressive to see the incredible amount of detail that go into the puppets. There was also a color coding system to help people distinguish the puppets characters in plays. Blue faces were for heros, white for honesty, and red for aggression. The faces were very expressive and the costumes were intricate. The puppeteer gave us a brief demonstration of the puppet shows and then we hopped back aboard the bus to head to our next stop.

Our next stop was something that I wasn’t expecting! Rather than showing us more of the typical tourist stuff they took us to an area where coconuts are sorted, shucked, and processed for coconut oil. It was huge lot with piles of new coconuts surrounding men who were energetically removing the fibrous outer layer of the coconuts using only a nail on the end of a long board between their legs. They were amazingly fast and we were told that they maintain that pace for 10-12 hours a day, six days a week, for about $200 a month. There were both men and women working hard side by side and several children were running around and staring at the strange westerners.

After a tour of the process we took a short trip to take a boat ride down the Green Canyon.

I think you will probably agree that it is not hard to see why they call it the green river. The high level of limestone in the area results in beautiful emerald green water. As we floated past waterfalls and lush jungle on our little boats you had to appreciate the beauty of this area. We stopped briefly at the end for a few people to jump in for a swim before heading back towards the ocean. Our tour leader arranged for us to spend a few hours at the beach watching surfers and swimming in the crystal blue waters. We had lunch right there on the beach of fresh fish and chicken while listening the sounds of the waves breaking a few feet away.

We started to make our way back to the city taking a small detour to take a short walk through the jungle and back across the Green River. When we made the crossing it was on a bamboo suspension bridge. We all started down it apprehensively while locals came roaring across it on motorcycles as it bounced and swayed. I took the leap and started the walk across and while I was a little unsteady, I enjoyed the view!

I am NOT letting go!

It was a busy and long day so we were all happy to return home for a nice mellow evening. We had a long travel day the next day to get to our next stop in the journey – Yogyacarta or “Yogya” (pronounced Jog-Jah) as the locals call it. We only had time to grab dinner at a nearby restaurant before going to bed since we had a very early morning the next day.

We left early to go to Borobudur Temple which is the largest Buddhist monument in the world. It is a multilevel stupa carved with intricate carvings of Buddhist stories. It is a little out of place in predominantly Muslim Java, but remains a popular tourist destination. A few years ago one of the many nearby volcanos erupted and blanketed Borobudur in a thick layer of ashes. The locals all banded together to uncover the temple and used very challenging techniques to ensure the reservation of the carvings. Yogya is in a very hot part of Java and after spending a few hours walking the grounds we were all happy to go back to the hotel for a relaxing swim and shopping.

 

Final Product

We were given a choice of several optional activities for the next day and Linda, a new friend from Australia, and I decided to learn one of the many art forms that Indonesia is famous for – Batik! We took a short ride over to local art studio where we met Susie. Susie has been a Batik artist and teacher for 30 years in Yogya and sponsors students from all over the world. We were handed a 50 cm square piece of cotton fabric and a pile of designs to choose from. I am not very artistically talented, so most of them looked way out of my league, but Susie kept reassuring me that I could do it! I chose an abstract design with two fish because I thought that an abstract design would prove to be more forgiving, and I was right. After a long process of painting dyes and coating parts of the design with wax, I ended up having a great new piece of art to put on my wall when I get home!

That night we went to go see the Indonesian Ballet and their performance of Ramayana. It’s a Hindu story of a the god Rama and the woman of his desires. It was a bit hard to follow, but we had a written synopsis so that helped. At one point they actually set the whole back of the stage on fire. Fire is always cool. Beavis taught me that.

The next day we had a long travel day to get to a Natural Reserve area in Soleiliman. We got up and started our walk where they showed us their natural farming techniques and extensive gardens filled with herbal remedies and flowers. We spent some time just enjoying the natural flora and fauna and then walked over to the adjacent village to find some of the most friendly people I have encountered on my travels. It reminded me a bit of my time in Chanderi where the children were friendly and the adults happy to see us.

Our destination within the village was at the small house of Mbona, the oldest woman in the village at the ripe age of 93 years young. You wouldn’t know she was that old by watching her move around preparing coffee for us. She roasts and grinds locally grown coffee beans by hand and then sells the coffee from her small house to support herself.

The coffee was strong and delicious, but watching her grind the coffee in a stone mortar and pestle was the most entertaining part of our visit. She was very friendly and nearly all of us purchased coffee from her for the low price of 3000 rupiah for 5 spoonfuls (about 35 cents) to take with us. When we have Indonesian Night at my house, we will have some coffee direct from a 93 year old Javanese woman to you in my living room in Utah!

That afternoon we headed over to Probolinggo, East Java for one night. We arrived in the dark after climbing up through jungle filled hillsides and were told that we would need to get out of the hotel by about 4:30 AM the next morning to hike up a mountain near Mount Bromo to watch the sunrise over the volcano. Mt Bromo became suddenly active and erupted as recently as 2010 which changed the face of the region by becoming more of a crater than a mountain.

We sleepily poured ourselves into a couple of late 70s Toyota Land cruisers and started up through the rough mountain terrain to the trailhead. I started the pitch black hike by strapping on my headlamp and making my way past the hoards of locals trying to talk me into taking a horse up the mountain.

I was enjoying the cool mountain air after having been in remarkably warm climates for months. The crisp, mountain air reminded me of home! We hiked for about 45 minutes up steep switchbacks to get high enough to see the sun starting to rise behind the mountains. As the sky lit up I got my first glimpse of the Mt Bromo crater. The views were enough to make my heart skip a beat. We made our way back down and then went over to hike up the volcanic cone to see into the crater. It was a vast sandy field at the base of the mountain and the locals were there with horses which made for some great photos in the early morning light.

We all piled back into the Cruisers and went back to the hotel to clean up and head out for the next leg of our trip. After a long drive we arrived at our stopping point for the night. It was a beautiful bungalow hotel with amazing gardens. We spent a relaxing day hanging around the pool.

The next morning we got up and went to visit a coffee plantation and rubber factory. I had seen the rubber harvesting when I was in Malaysia, but they showed us how the rubber was processed, packaged, and shipped around the world. It was fascinating, but a bit stinky due to the fact that they use Ammonia in the rubber processing.

The next morning we headed to the port to take a ferry from Java over to Bali. We arrived in Bali towards the end of the day and our long day on the road was rewarded by a breathtaking sunset over the ocean.

We drove to Tanah Lot, a small beach and tourist community famous for the beautiful sunsets behind their coastal Hindu temple. Unlike Muslim Java, Bali is primarily Hindu and the temple at Tanah Lot is particularly sacred and the site of many pilgrimages.

We enjoyed a couple days of laying by the pool and relaxing after a long 10 days of busy travel. I wandered over to a seaside restaurant to watch the sunset and ran into a group of women from Utah of all places. We had a lively discussion about their tours in Bali and I quickly came to the conclusion that Bali does live up to the hype! I will be back here someday to explore more of this beautiful island.

Our two days there were too short but we were heading just about 2 hours inland to Ubud. Ubud has gained notoriety recently because of the book & movie “Eat. Pray. Love.” The “Love” portion of the movie takes place in Ubud. It is a haven for ex-pats from around the world and while it is very westernized and growing a bit too fast for it’s own good, you could still see a lot of the surrounding natural areas filled with rice paddies.

I spent my last night with my tour group friends and we all exchanged information. The next morning Katherine and I decided to go whitewater rafting. I was planning on staying in Ubud for five extra days and she had one more day to play before going back to San Francisco. We took a short drive out of town and got geared up for the rapids. I have done a decent amount of whitewater running at home, so I was excited about seeing what Indonesia had to offer. We hiked down around 400 feet in elevation on steep stairs to the shore and hopped aboard small boats with four people in each one.

As we started down the river we were a bit disappointed by the small rapids. They claimed to be Cat II and III, but I am skeptical that there were any Cat IIIs. Fortunately (or unfortunately depending on your perspective) our guide was either messing with us or he is quite possibly the worst guide I’ve ever seen. We spent half of our time going down rapids sideways, backwards, and wonky. The rest of the time we bounced off rocks, ran into other rafts, or got lodged on rocks where the raft threatened to overturn. I was missing my favorite guides Ray & Ho from home, but we still had a good time!

We got back to town and I moved over to my new accommodations for the remainder of my stay in Bali. After spending time moving from place to place and having stayed at over 74 different lodges, homes, hotels, and bungalows in the last 120 days, I was ready for a little bit of luxury. Bali is reasonably inexpensive, so I treated myself to a bungalow overlooking rice paddies outside of town. It was gorgeous and complete with a tub on the patio. Not a bad way to spend a few days! I met up with Katherine and Lawrence for a farewell dinner since both of them were leaving the next day. After dinner I went over to the only bar that stays open past 10 and was lucky enough to make some new friends there that I could spend time with for the rest of my stay. The following day was my birthday so we made plans to meet for dinner and drinks the next night.

I woke up on my birthday morning and stayed in bed reading until breakfast was served at 9:30 on my patio, I then took a bike ride into town for some shopping and then met up with Norma Jean, one of my new friends, for dinner. We ate at a great Cuban restaurant and went over to the club for drinks. Norma Jean is quite a talented singer and was asked to sing a few songs with the live band there.

I took a few minutes at the end of my birthday to be thankful for all the wonderful things in my life. I am so thankful that in my 35 years on this earth I have been blessed with having so many wonderful people and opportunities. I can only hope that they next 35 are anywhere close to as amazing as the last 35 have been! I am truly blessed and can’t wait to find out what the future holds!

For now, I only know that today I will be leaving Southeast Asia and flying to Perth, Australia to start the next leg of my trip. I have many cool things in store for you and I in Australia and I appreciate you joining me on the journey!

A very special thank you to all of you that emailed/face-booked/texted/and called me to wish me a happy birthday! It meant a lot to know you all thought of me on my birthday!

‘Til next time! Cheers!

Lisa

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Through Malaysia and Singapore then on to Indonesia – life is good!

Ahhh…sweet Malaysia. I have spent the last week or so in beautiful Malaysia and have really enjoyed this gracious country. Not only are the people warm and friendly, but the cities are modern and full of sights. The Malay people have a lot to be proud of and it was so much more than I expected!

Petronas Twin Towers at Night

After a nice historical journey of Penang, arriving in Kuala Lampur (or “KL” as the locals call it) was a total change. We were staying in a hotel smack in the middle of China Town. I literally mean in the middle – you had to walk through a booth selling “Designer” handbags in order to get to the entrance. We were told it was a night market, but had recently started popping up earlier and earlier!

It was about 1:00 when we arrived after one of the nicest bus rides I have ever taken in my life! Seriously – when you consider taking a local bus in Malaysia, hop on! The seats were like recliners and the coach glided along smoothly on the well-maintained roads. I would prefer to spend hours on a bus like that than fly most places. After some of the buses I have taken in my journey, this was a nice change.

I was excited to start exploring so after a quick lunch we hopped on board a metro train to go see the Petronas Towers lit up in the night sky. We were not dissappointed my the view! What you may not know is that the base of the Malaysian twin towers are set firmly in a shopping mall. The mall is full of high end designer stores. The real stuff – not the China Town versions. We walked around the area to get some good shots of the beautiful towers as locals came jogging past us on the jogging track in the adjacent park area. I was really starting to like this city. The people were courteous and the city seemed modern and clean. We left the downtown area to return to China town to celebrate Anna’s birthday with a meal of chinese food and a local cake. I had big plans for the next day, so I heded off to bed after that.

The next morning began with a guided tour of the more prominent sites. It was pouring rain so our guide, Stevie, customized it for us so we would have the least opportunity to get soaked. Our first stop was KL’s National Mosque. In order to visit the mosque you were expected to cover up in traditional Malaysian style. So we were fitted with bright purple gowns and a head piece that covered everything but our faces. The head cover they gave me was comically small, but we still enjoyed seeing the beautiful Islamic architecture.

This wall featured the hand prints of any pewter artist who worked there longer than 5 years.

Still avoiding the torrential downpour we went over to Malaysia largest pewter factory, the Royal Selancor. The tour started with a large beer tankard out in front of the building. A good start in my opinion! I walked around to get a closer look at the tankard and discovered that it is a Guinness Book of World Record winner for the worlds largest tankard! Cheers! So why is pewter significant? Pewter is what brought many immigrants to KL and was a major industry here for hundreds of years. We went through a small museum showing some of the historical uses for pewter and then went to a work area where they showed us how the pewter is shaped and polished. We had an opportunity to try it ourselves. I had no idea how much work went into making a simple tankard!

As we went into the main factory area it was hard not to notice that the place was completely deserted. Turned out that we were in Malaysia on a historical day – the 11th King was being installed that day and it was a national holiday.

Formula One Racing trophy

Royal Selancor is known for providing many famous trophies for major events – especially Formula 1 racing. We walked through a row of trophies that had been provided by this Malaysian company over the years. I spent a few minutes in the gift shop looking at the beautiful craftsmanship and designs and then we loaded back on the bus.

The rain had let up a bit, which I was thankful for, because our next stop required some outdoor time. We were heading to the famous Batu Cave Hindu temple. There were a long series of steps leading up to a cavern housing a temple. The steps and the views were the highlights for me. I have seen my fair share of Hindu temples having just come from India. Going up the stairs it was really fun to watch the monkeys stealing stuff from tourists and playing around.

The day went from rainy to hot and humid so we stopped for a cold drink and then proceeded over to our next stop, the National Monument. It was completed in 1966 to commemorate the soldiers that died to protect the sovereignty of Malaysia. The monument embodying seven bronze statues is meant to represent “the triumph of the forces of democracy over the forces of evil.”

Stevie, our tour guide, earned his moniker of “Stevie the Wonder Host” by offering to take us over to the botanical gardens after our tours ended. That was perfect for me since thats what I had planned on doing anyway. The KL Botanical Gardens are a large green area not far from the city center that houses a large bird park, a deer park, and several gardens dedicated to butterflies and orchids. It is a huge complex and we couldn’t hope to see it all in one afternoon, so we decided to focus on the most highly recommended part – the bird park.

This part was not like the bird part of a local zoo, it was set up into zones and most of the birds (large predatory birds excepted) we allowed to fly freely about. There were lots of tropical birds chirping and we got a chance to see a few talking parrots during a short bird show. It was now really hot and humid, so we went back to the hotel and relaxed before dinner.

Our full day started early the next day. We got up at 6:45 and started our walk over to the Petronas Towers to buy our tickets to go up. They begin selling them at 8:30 and only sell a few hundred a day, so we had to get there early. Unfortunately, a taxi driver sent us about 20 minutes in the wrong direction so when we arrived there was already a significant line. Our biggest concern was that we needed to be back at the hotel at 1:30 to depart for Melaka. Luckily, one of our fellow tour friends was in line already, having taken the metro train there. She was kind enough to buy me a ticket and when she came out with the tickets they were for 12:00. Wow – thats going to be tight! So we went back to the hotel, showered , and checked out. We were waiting to go up right at 12:00 and a little nervous about making it to the hotel in time we boarded the elevator to the skybridge.

What did the right tower say to the left tower?

Wow – what a view! After 15 minutes of staring out the windows, we returned to the elevators to go to the top level. One we were at the top we were greeted by the adjacent tower and the huge cityscape behind it. I walked away feeling good about the high ticket price and we hurriedly grab a taxi back to the hotel.

The rest of the day was spent on a nice bus to Melaka. Melaka is a very charming port town that has become a popular tourist hub for the sights and shopping. We started our stay there with a walk from China Town where our hotel was located to the river side area filled with UNESCO preserved historical buildings and riverside restaurants. This town is so charming!!  We walked past several museums, churches, and Dutch cemetaries.

We started the next morning with a trishaw tour down the historical streets and stopped by a few examples of the living museums that Malaka has to offer.

We stopped by a Chinese buddhist temple and snapped a few pictures before continuing on throughout the city.  After an hour or so of riding we arrived back at our hotel and Jess, my new friend from Australia, and I decided that we wanted to take a Segway tour of the city.

We had seen the Segways the night before and later found out that it was US sponsored program to promote tourism.  We first received a lesson on riding, then we followed the tour guide throughout the small historical area.  After our tour he took us to the adjacent Segway Race Track where we took a lap before hopping off the Segways.  Those things are fun!!  I want one!!

We walked around the city for a few hours and then made a stop at a revolving tower that resemples the Seattle Space Needle.  We took a short ride to the top and it spun around a couple times to give us 360 degree views of the small port town.  After going down we met up with the rest of our group for a river cruise.  The river cruise gave us a unique perspective on the town.  It was lined by historical buildings covered with beautiful murals showing life in Malaysia and addressing some cultural issues like energy usage and pollution.

On our way back to the docks we saw a HUGE Monitor Lizard clinging to a branch at the side of the river.  Sometimes it’s easy to forget about the animals that are out there…it was a good reminder!  I found out that these large lizards are also eaten in Malaysia because they are thought to be an aphrodisiac.  I personally prefer chocolate…

After dinner we took a jaunt down “Jonker Street” which a major night market area.  The end of the street is closed to vehicles and a large dragon greets you before you cruise down rows and rows of vendors selling everything from wind up roosters to hand painted high heels.  It was a nice way to finish off a pleasant stay in this cute town.

The next morning we took a bus to Singapore that took up most of the day.  When we arrived it was a rainy afternoon but you could see how clean and pretty the city was despite the cloudy sky.  It is times like this that I was sad to be on a formal tour because I would have loved to spend additional time in Singapore.  As it stood I only had a few hours that afternoon and then I had to get up early to catch a flight to Jakarta.

We took a rainy walk through part of the city to see the Merlion, the icon of Singapore, and the huge Marina Bay Sands shopping and casino complex.  We passed a great looking art museum and the Long Bar at the Raffles Hotel where the original Singapore Sling was invented – and is now sold for $26 – ouch!

The next morning I boarded a plane and arrived in Jakarta, Indonesia.  Jakarta was a shock after being in clean and orderly Singapore.  It reminded me a little of being back in Vietnam.  Horns blaring, motorbikes dodging through traffic, and stores and houses built out of found objects lining the streets.  I got checked into the hotel and met up with a few of the people from the past two weeks and got some new travel companions as well.  We had a quick dinner of Indonesian food and called it a night.

Since we haven’t had a dose of wikipedia in a while, let me tell you about Indonesia for a minute!  Indonesia is an archipelago comprising approximately 17,508 islands.  It has 33 provinces with over 238 million people, and is the world’s fourth most populous country. Across its many islands, Indonesia consists of distinct ethnic, linguistic, and religious groups. The Javanese are the largest—and the politically dominant—ethnic group. Indonesia has developed a shared identity defined by a national language, ethnic diversity, religious pluralism within a majority Muslim population, and a history of colonialism and rebellion against it. Despite its large population and densely populated regions, Indonesia has vast areas of wilderness that support the world’s second highest level of biodiversity. The country is richly endowed with natural resources, yet poverty remains widespread.

The next morning we boarded a (day!) train to Bandung.  Bandung was an overnight stopover point for our trip to Panandarang.  The ground we covered from Jakarta to Bandung was lush green jungle interspersed with vast rice paddies and deep rivines.  It was incredibly beautiful and a good reminder of this islands volcanic history.

When I was told Bandung was a stopover point, I was envisioning a small town, but I was very wrong.  Bandung is the second largest metropolitan area in Malaysia with over 7.5 million residents.  We took a short walking tour of the bustling city to see some of the prominent landmarks and, of course, a coffee roasting and retail shop.  Java in Java!!  The smell was amazing!

Our next stop was to a placed called Saung Angklung Udjo. It was one–stop cultural workshop, consists of : performance venue where were able to see the traditional instruments in use, bamboo handicraft centre, and bamboo instrument workshop.  We browsed the grounds where they were making the traditional Angklungs and then watched a performance featuring all of the angklung students.  It was a lot of fun and the last part of the show featured the audience learning how to play a few basics on the instrument.

The walking tour was followed by a very un-culturally rich trip to a shopping mall complete with Pizza Hut, KFC, and Wendys in the food court.  After finding the one indonesian restaurant in the mall and grabbing dinner we headed home to rest up for our long road trip to the beach city of Pangandaran.

We just arrived an hour or so ago into Pangandaran and I will share more about Indonesia in a few days after I have had a chance to explore.

Till next time!

Lisa

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From Thailand’s beaches to Malaysia’s Temples – it’s been another busy week!

Hi everyone!

I’m in the very very back with the cowboy hat on…

We started the trip out with my least favorite part of traveling – an overnight train. The good news was that it actually wasn’t too bad. After being on Indian overnight trains it seemed like a luxury to be able to sit up in bed and not worry about our little insect friends crawling all over me. I slept for a few hours and we arrived in Surathanni at around 7:30 the next morning.

Songtaew

We hopped straight onto a covered open bed truck with two benches along the side of the bed called a Songtaew and drove for a couple more hours to get to Khao Sok.

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What was remarkable about that drive was the beautiful scenery along the way. We had transported from the concrete jungle of Bangkok to majestic limestone mountains and lush jungle overnight. We all craned our necks to see out both sides of the truck and snap a few pictures of the greenery flying by us.

We turned off the main road and took a short drive into a small thoroughfare where we arrived at our bungalow resort called Morning Mist. It looked like something out of a movie with lush gardens and tiny fan cooled bungalows. We explored the quiet little town surrounding the bungalows and found only a few small hotels, a few internet cafe’s and a minimart. Right down the middle of the town was a bridge over a shallow river full of fish. It felt surreal as the cicadas hummed and birds chirped in the tall forest around us.

How about that garnish!?!?

The next morning we left early to catch a ride over to Khao Sok national park, which is located in Surat Thani province in Thailand. It includes the Chiao Lan reservoir dammed by the Ratchaprapha dam. The park comprises the largest area of virgin forest in Southern Thailand and is a remnant of rainforest which is older and more diverse than the Amazon Rainforest. The wild mammals include, Malayan Tapir, Asian Elephant, Tiger, Sambar Deer, Bear, Guar, Banteng, Serow, Wild Boar, Pig Tailed Macaque, Langur, White handed Gibbon, Squirrel, Muntjak and Mouse Deer. Thank you wikipedia!

Trekking!

Visually it reminded me of how Halong Bay in Vietnam was supposed to look (it was covered in fog when we went). There were jungle covered limestone mountains and islands jutting straight out of the perfectly turquoise water. We hopped about a boat to take us over to one of the islands on the far side of the lake for a hike and cave explorations. Thinking about hiking in the oppressively humid heat was a daunting feeling but the scenery kept me motivated and positive. We clambered up a steep hill for about five minutes at the beginning of the hike and then it leveled off into around 40 minutes of an easy path along heavily jungled forest. You could hear gibbons calling out each other, birds and lizards chirping, and the rustle of leaves as I happily ventured through the forest.

We turned off the main trail and arrived at the surface of a small body of water where there were a row of bamboo flat boats. We delicately climbed aboard the boats and took a short ride over to some ancient caves to see stalactites and stalagmites. It was also reminiscent of the caves at Halong Bay, but much, much smaller. We walked around for a while and then followed our same path to get back to our boat on the other end of the island.

We boarded the boat again and took a quick ride over to a Bunkhouse for lunch. A bunkhouse is a floating building with attached bungalows. We were only day time visitors, but several tourists called the bungalows home for a few days. I happily jumped into the beautiful turquoise waters for a cool down swim for a few hours. It was a refreshing afternoon and then we hopped back on the boat to see some sights and go back to our hotel.

The next morning we got on another minibus to head over to the Ao Nang, Krabi area of Thailand. As usual, I will allow wikipedia to explain a little about Krabi. Krabi is a southern province on Thailand’s Andaman seaboard with perhaps the country’s oldest history of continued settlement. After dating stone tools, ancient colored pictures, beads, pottery and skeletal remains found in the province’s many cliffs and caves, it is thought that Krabi has been home to Homo Sapiens since the period 25,000 – 35,000 B.C.

What wikipedia doesn’t mention, however, is that this whole area was devastated by the 2004 tsunami that made land fall in this region. While Indonesia is known for being hit the worst, areas of Thailand and Malaysia were heavily affected by the deadly wave that killed somewhere between 220-280 thousand people in a matter of minutes as it swept across the land. About one year ago Japan was hit by a horrible tsunami that killed about 15-20 thousand people. So imagine losing 15-20 times that many people – the equivalent of every man, woman, and child in Daytona Beach, Florida. It’s simply terrible to imagine, but the recovery and attitude of the Thai people is a testament to their sense of community and ability to recover from tragedy.

We arrived fairly late in the day on our first day in the area for a homestay. If you have been following this blog since the beginning, you will recall my homestay in Cambodia. This one was similar, but the accommodations were in a dorm style room.

We dropped off our bags and Mr. Ae took us on a walk through his rubber and pineapple plantation. He showed us how the rubber is harvested from the trees and gave us some crazy statistics. His entire farm produced about 2 kilos of rubber per day. It takes 30 kilos of rubber to make one tire. So these rows and rows of trees surrounding me only made about two tires a month, or 24 tires a year. Do the math. Last year, we hit 1 billion cars on the road, they each need four tires…wow…thats a lot of rubber trees!! After our walk we helped cook dinner and prepared our breakfast for the next morning.

We had a warm nights sleep and then left early in the morning to go about 20 minutes to our hotel. We drove through the cute town of Ao Nang and saw streets lined with your typical tourist food and shopping. While I am not usually a fan of heavily tourist filled areas, sometimes it’s nice to see shops that cater to tourists. We didn’t linger long and went right back out after dropping off our bags.

Our day’s tour started aboard a large power boat. It was an undenyably beautiful area, but painfully overcrowded. Our first stop was at a beautiful beach at Koh Mai Pai where I did a bit of snorkling.

This was my first time snorkling since I learned to scuba dive in 1998, so I was hoping it would be cooler than I remembered. Unfortunately this was not the best area to be snorkling. It was pretty bland and I only saw a handful of small parrot fish before returning to shore. We got back on the boat and stopped by Viking Cave. Of course there have never been Vikings here, but the cave has numerous cave paintings of vessels, resembling Viking longboats. There are pictures of elephants and also of various boats: European, Arab and Chinese sailing ships, baroques, motorboats, and steamships. They were probably drawn by pirates, who paused in the cave on their travels from west to east, sheltering from the monsoon winds, transfering cargo, or making repairs.

The cave is revered by the local people. They come here to collect the swift’s nests, used to make Bird’s Nest Soup, a Chinese delicacy. The season for the nests is between February and April. A bids’ nest company has the concession for the cave, and they must be asked if you want to visit the cave. We did not have their permission so we only go to float by on our boat like the rest of the hoards of tourists.

We went for lunch on Phi Phi Don which was completely destroyed during the tsunami. It has since been rebuilt and everything is shiny and new including rows and rows of tourist driven shops, restaurants, and hostels. It was also very touristty and I was ready to go after a short time.

We made one last stop at the beach made famous by the movie “The Beach”. It bore little resemblance in my opinion because it was absolutely FULL of tourists. In fact there isn’t enough shoreline for boats to drop anchor. They pull up, drop their pack of tourists and then back out to make room for the rest of the waiting boats to drop theirs. After all of the lawsuits about the damage that Hollywood caused to the beach while filming the movie, it’s sad to see the Thai people not promote sustainable tourism in these beautiful islands. I felt like I was betraying my eco-tourism beliefs by being there at all. If beaches could talk, I am sure this one would tell you it wished it wasn’t so beautiful.

Our last stop was for more snorkling, but I was so put out by the hoards of boats and tourists at each place we went that I opted not to participate further. I enjoyed the day overall, but was left a little sad about the fact that my nephews will not likely be able to see these islands in their current condition. But enough about that. Krabi is beautiful and worth a visit, but you may want to find some areas a little off the beaten track if you want a taste of the pristine and untouched beauty for which Thailand was once known.

Careful – you might get drunk and try to make out with a fish!

We went back to our hotel, cleaned up and a few of us went out on the town for the night. I knew we had a free day the next day, so a few drinks were in order. We found a few lame bars, and a couple of fun bars. It turned into a really fun night! The next day – not so much fun – but at least it was a day when nothing was planned. I needed to spend a day in to finish my Australia plans anyway! I was able to book a few flights and a trip to swim with whale sharks…but thats a whole new chapter in May…

Malay Food Court

Back to Thailand…but wait…it’s time to say goodbye to Thailand! We drove a long drive from Krabi to Penang and made the border crossing into Malaysia, which is where I am now. It was a very long day in a van, but I was happy to see beautiful Georgetown on famous Penang Island. We had arrived late in the day so we went over to a local “food court” for dinner. It was a large group of street vendor booths in an area about the size of a large 7-11. There was a small dining room adjacent to the vendors. You went up to the vendors, ordered what you wanted and then they delivered it to you. We all tried a sampling of delicious traditional Malay food and then I went to bed for the night.

The next morning we met up with a local tour guide and took a whirl around the sights of Georgetown. George Town was founded in 1786 by Captain Francis Light, a trader for the British East India Company, as base for the company in the Malay States. He obtained the island of Penang from the Sultan of Kedah and built Fort Cornwallis on the north-eastern corner of the island. The fort became the nexus of a growing trading post and the island’s population reached 12,000 by 1804. The fort was our first stop of the day. It wasn’t much to look at, but it was an interesting site to see a british fort in the middle of a large Malaysian city.

Our next stop was a small chinese buddhist temple adjacent to one of the Clan Jetties of George Town. They are the traditional settlements created by Chinese immigrants who share common historical, geographical and lineage origin. The one we walked down was called Chew Jetty and was lined with shops and homestays for tourists. At the end was a small temple overlooking the bay.

We took a stop by a Thai Buddhist temple and across the street was a Burmese Buddhist temple. Both had their own characteristics and I was lucky enough to receive a blessing from one of the monks in the Burmese temple. Feeling a little bit elated and even more blessed than before, we went back to the minivan for our last stop of the day.

Kek Lok Si is one of the best known temples on the island. It is the largest Buddhist temple in Southeast Asia. The temple is heavily commercialized with shops at every level and inside the main temple complexes. Generous donations from the affluent Chinese community allow the construction of additional buildings. It was modern and beautiful with lush gardens and intricate buildings. We enjoyed an hour or so walking the grounds and returned to our hotel to recover from a hot day of sightseeing in the air conditioning.

And that brings you current! Tomorrow we are going to take a local bus from Penang to Kuala Lampur (or “KL” as most people call it.)

I will keep you posted on all the new things I see and do! Hope you all had a great Easter!

Cheers!  Lisa

P.S. I have no idea why the fonts on this post are all messed up…sorry if it creates any viewing issues for anyone!  -L-

Posted in Career Break, Intrepid Travel, Malaysia, RTW, Thailand | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

From temples to tigers – India truly is an adventure!

Namaste!

I have been in India for nearly two weeks and I can honestly say that this trip has been a nice sampler of what India has to offer. I have seen Muslim Mosques, Buddhist, Jain, Singh, and Hindu temples, tigers, peacocks, monkeys, opulence, poverty, smiles, leers, injustices, and great kindnesses. All this after two weeks. When my friend described India as challenging I thought it was a strange adjective to use. At the time, I further inquired what he meant and was told that he couldn’t put his finger on it, but just that it was “challenging”. I think I understand now, inasmuch as a person could feign understanding of a country after only a couple of weeks.

I don’t think it would be fair for me to paint too vivid a picture using only my weak understanding of India, but if asked, I think “challenging” is the perfect word. There have been times in this two weeks where I was absolutely blown away and awed by India, but during the same two weeks I have seen rudenesses and filth that made me want to get on a plane immediately. So I would encourage everyone that has the opportunity to visit India to do so with an open heart and mind and no preconceived expectations. I suspect that every person has a very different journey through India depending on what baggage they are bringing – and I am not referring to the baggage with your clothes in it…

Regardless of who you are, India has a lot to love, but just like any of our human loved ones, it is not perfect and you have to take the good with the bad. For me, the good far outweighed the bad! I am so glad that I came on this leg of my trip!

So let’s get down to business! I left off last time in the fantastic town of Chanderi where the sights were equally matched by the wonderful people. It is a tough act to follow, but I think that Orchha was a good town to transition into after Chanderi! We took a private car and arrived at our next accomodation – a tent! Having done a fair amount of camping in my life, I would hardly call anything with a proper porch and AC a “tent”, but it was a very different experience!

Orchha is a medieval town whose name means “hidden”. It was founded in the 16th century as the capital of the Bundela kingdom and is home to a beautiful palace and fort that overlook the city.

We set out for our city orientation late in the day and visited the Chatturbuj Mandir. It is a Vishnu temple that was built as a shrine to the Hindu god Rama.  The Rama statue that was intended to be moved there was never installed.  Legend says that it could not physically be moved from it’s place in the palace, so the palace was converted to a temple. It gave us a nice viewpoint from which to view the city as it sits higher than most other structures in the small town. We took a quick walk over to a restaurant at the base of the palace and were told that we would be visiting the palace and fort complex the following day.

After dinner we took a short walk over to Ram Raja Mandir which was built as a palace and later converted into a temple like I mentioned above. There we were invited in to watch a Hindu puja (prayer) ceremony. It was surreal and beautiful to listen to the devotees chanting and hoping for a blessing from the high priest as he splashed holy water on the crowd of people flowing past him. No cameras allowed, sorry!

Intricate paintings of Hindu stories covered the interior of the fort and palace.

The next morning we took a walk over to the palace. The palace had two distinct architectural structures. The first area was obviously very old and covered with beautiful paintings and carvings. When we made the short walk over to the second area we were told that it was only ever used for one night after spending 22 years building it. It was built to commemorate the visit from Emperor Jehangir by Raja Bir Singh Deo. After only one night he told Emperor Jehangir that he could stay there anytime, effictively giving it to him. Neither of them ever returned to Orchha and the palace was left vacant because custom is that if something is given to another person, it will always be theirs, no matter what! It it a really beautiful palace and we all climbed to the top for the beautiful views of the outside area and the area inside the castle.  We were told that recently a Hollywood film called Singularity was filmed in part in this palace last year, so I can’t wait to see that!

That night we went to a local family home where we received an authentic and delicious cooking lesson!  I learned about the differences between winter and summer spices, how to properly use garam masala, and how to make the most amazing chai tea! That is one thing I will miss when I leave India is the chai! It is so delicious! Anyway, we had a nice vegetarian meal. If I were to become a vegetarian, Indian food is where it’s at!  I walked away eager to try some of the new things I learned. Indian food night – here we come!!

We woke up the next morning and took a car over to Alipura. The highlight in Alipura for me was the accomodation. We stayed in a palace that has been converted into a guesthouse. It is still run by the original royal family so the walls were covered with memorabilia from the early 1900s showing the Singh princes and royal families. I lucked out and got the best room! It overlooked the courtyard, has a raised platform for the bed, and a nice patio off of the seating area. It was pretty plush!!

Going through the city we encountered a hoarde of children beggng for money or candy. They were not doing this because the needed it, they were doing it because other tourists had given them money and who doesn’t like free money or candy?! It was a shocking contrast after Chanderi.

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Not much to see for sights in Alipura, but the market was busy and crowded. After walking with my guard up (John had someone reach into his pockets, but nothing was taken thank goodness), we were thankful to return to the palace for some cocktails on the roof to watch the sunset.

Right outside the palace door there was a small hindu temple that had several paintings on the outside. Most of them were illustrating the day to day life of the people – plowing fields, herding animals, etc. But some of them were pretty explicit and taken from the Kama Sutra. Unfortunately, I have to keep my blog G rated, so no pictures will be posted of that. Tee hee!

The next morning we hopped back in our taxi to take a trip to nearby Khajuraho. It is famous for it’s many temples that were built between 950-1050 AD by the Chandela Rajput kings. They were lost to the vegetation until they were rediscovered by a British man passing through the city in 1838. After some restoration, they achieved UNESCO World Heritage Status. In the late 1980s the temple areas were surrounded by beautiful gardens.

What struck me first about these temples was their resemblance to the temples of Angkor Wat in Cambodia. I had been told that there was a strong Indian influence in Cambodia, but wow, the resemblance in the carving styles and shapes of the temples was remarkable.

What the temples are really known for, however, is the erotic Kama Sutra carvings on the outside of the temples. They only make up about 5-10% of the total carvings, but some of them were quite explicit, and a few I am pretty sure are illegal. Sorry – no pictures of that stuff on a public blog. We took a short walk around the gardens and headed back to our hotel for the night.

And now for something completely different! We drove several hours to get to Bandhavgarh National Park. We were all excited to get to the park and explore after checking into our jungle lodge. They told us not to expect to see a tiger because they are not seen every day, but we were still hopeful knowing that this park has a relative abundance of tigers when compared to other national parks.

So we piled in the jeep and set out to explore. While our guide waited to hear about a tiger sighting we saw many other types of wildlife including beautiful birds, monkeys, spotted deer, peacocks, and government owned “tiger lookout” elephants. But unfortunately, no tigers! We had driven around the park for close to three hours and we were starting to lose the sun so we left the park area to head back to the resort.

Right as we pulled out of the park there was a tiger across the street! All of the jeeps in the area flocked to catch a glimpse and we all strained to zoom our cameras close enough to get a decent picture! While my picture came out a bit grainy, I was able to get one. It was a truly remarkable experience to see a tiger in the wild and I was elated to have experienced that!

It also brought up another thought when we realized that there aren’t any fences around the reserve to keep the tigers in the area. We were told that they roam freely, but stay close because of the protection from poachers. What I thought was a bit morbid was the fact that there is a system of compensation if one of the villagers in the areas adjacent to the park are…ahem…eaten by a tiger. If they are eaten inside the park – no money, but if the tiger ventures out and your loved one gets eaten there – you get a payday. I am hoping it is a rare occurrence, but it obviously happens frequently enough for them to have a system…

We took another safari early the next morning starting at about 5:45 AM when the sun was just coming up. The drive around the park was beautiful but no tigers. I felt lucky to have seen one at all, so I left there feeling pretty good about my visit.

That night we boarded the dreaded overnight train to Varanasi. Ugh…overnight trains…the bane of my existence on this adventure so far. Indian trains are hands down the worst out of the three countries in which I have taken sleeper trains. Instead of the standard two bunks per wall in Thailand and Vietnam, in India they have three. There isn’t enough space to sit upright, let alone get comfortable. Even if you could get comfortable, who can sleep when you can actually see the filth on the floor and an occasional cockroach goes running by…ugh…longest 9 hours of my life.

I have one more overnight train in India and another in Thailand left on my trip. The one in India will take me from Varanasi (where I am now) back to Delhi. After a 13 hour (13 freaking hours!!!) I have to go straight to the airport to catch a four hour flight back to Bangkok. I bet I will sleep good that night…

Anyway, enough complaining, I know your sympathy levels for me are pretty low these days. Varanasi is known as one of the worlds oldest living cities with a history going back to 1400 BC!! What makes the city especially sacred to Hindus is the Ganges river. It normally follows a southeastern course, but in Varanasi it takes a turn and flows north through the city. That northerly movement is considered particularly auspicious. In fact, Buddha gave his first sermon just outside of the city. To die in Varanasi is said to give you an instant passport to heaven and a release from the cycle of reincarnation. Consider it a spiritual “Get Out of Jail Free” card.

View of the ghats along the Ganges

We started our journey a little weary from the train ride, so we rested at our hotel until the afternoon where we took a tuk tuk to the Ganges river and walked along the ghats.  A ghat is a series of stairs leading up to the river.  The first ghat we came to was a solemn one. It is one of the many cremation ghats. According to the Hindu religion a body should be cremated after death. Since Varanasi is an auspicious place to die, many elderly and ill people flock here to finally go to rest at a local ashram. Almost immediately after death the bodies are cleansed in the river, covered in white cloth and placed atop a cremation pyre on the shore. After the body is fully burned, the ashes are spread in the river. For those that are not fortunate enough to go to rest here in Varanasi they are locally cremated and their ashes are brought to Varanasi to be spread on the Ganges. We quietly watched as families gathered around the pyres and said prayers for the deceased. For obvious reasons we did not take pictures of the solemn event.

We continued our walk along the Ganges and saw many holy men, tourists, and hindus relaxing or praying by the river. The shores were full of people bathing, doing laundry, and praying. I spoke with our guide about the feelings towards tourism because I was feeling a little like an intruder. He told me that it is a holy place for many religions so all are welcome. He said that many foreign tourists come to Varanasi on spiritual journeys and stay for six months or more.

At sundown a huge crowd began to gather near a certain ghat. We were told that we were going to go out on a boat to participate in a flower ceremony and watch the nightly rituals on the river. We fought our way through the crowd to get to our boat and sailed away from the crowded shore. After we were a sufficient distance to create a certain peaceful atmosphere our boat host began to light candles and hand them to us.

It is common to give offerings to the river while making wishes and so we gently placed them on the river with our most sacred of wishes. As the candles floated behind our boat it created a very peaceful and beautiful scene aganist the backdrop of the ceremony starting on the shore.

We rowed back over to the shore to watch the ceremony. It started much like previous Hindu ceremonies with bells and horns and came to a crescendo with singing, chanting, and clapping. The crowds were mixed. Hindus made up the majority of the crowd on the shore and the rest in the boats were mostly foreigners. I sat soaking up the electric atmosphere and took a minute to appreciate how blessed I truly am to be on this great journey. We rowed down the river a bit and then walked over to a restaurant for dinner and a tuk tuk ride back to the hotel.

The next morning was an early one! We met up in the lobby at 5:15 so we could watch the sunrise over the river on another boat tour. Riding down the river in the morning light was like riding down a completely different river from the night before. The colors were vibrant, and there was activity everywhere.

A lot of people were sitting on the shore meditating, bathing, or doing laundry. Occasionally you would see a lone figure doing yoga poses and soaking up the morning sunlight. The ghats shone in the orange sunlight and we all snapped up pictures and videos trying to capture the unique atmosphere. I enjoyed the peaceful start to the day and then took a tuk tuk ride back to the hotel.

That afternoon we decided to catch a Bollywood film called Agent Vinod. When we first had the discussion about going to see a Bollywood film I had envisioned lots of vibrant costumes, singing and dancing. Despite the fact that this film had very little of any of that, it was a great action film about an Indian James Bond style agent trying to thwart a nuclear bomb from being detonated in Delhi. It was interesting to see how much you could ascertain about the plot of a movie without it being in English. It was technically in Hindi, but there was actually quite a bit of English in it. I think the common language you hear people speaking is called “Hinglish” and is really part Hindi and part English. It reminds me a lot of the “Spanglish” you hear at home. Regardless I was entertained throughout the movie! It is a big part of modern Indian culture that I felt was a nice addition to the trip.

Tonight we take one last overnight sleeper train here in India and then I go straight to the airport to catch a flight back to Bangkok. From there I will making my way through Southern Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia over the next 30 days.

I hope you all have a great week and I will write again soon!

Cheers!

Lisa

Posted in Career Break, India, Intrepid Travel, RTW, Uncategorized, Unforgettable India | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Unforgettable India!

Namaste!

I have only been in India for a handful of days – but they have been full! I arrived in Delhi on a relatively short 4 and a half hour flight from Bangkok with a lot of excited apprehension. A nice man from Ireland had told me the day before that India can be described as “challenging” and rattled off a list of precautions that should be taken during my stay.

Like many of you I suspect, my actual expectations of India have been taken primarily from the silver screen and novels. Slumdog Millionaire, Eat, Pray, Love, and Ghandi being the most profound of stories used to shape my minds picture of India. So when I arrived into a modern and clean airport in Delhi I was a little taken aback. Wait a minute…this airport is nicer than most of the airports I have encountered in many modern cities…better keep my guard up just in case. I was waiting for the other shoe to drop and find out I was going to be asked for a bribe at customs or have to pay to have someone carry my luggage 12 feet. Instead I breezed through customs, grabbed my luggage and found a smiling man holding a sign with my name on it waiting to drive me to the hotel. Hmm…where is all of this craziness called India hiding?

He let me know that he needed to grab a couple other passengers from the domestic terminal. Mere minutes later I met the first two other members of my tour group for the India leg of my trip. Jac (short for Jacqueline) & Chris had just flown in from Mumbai and we had a nice chat as we walked out to the curb to catch our ride to the hotel. They were a dynamic mother & daughter duo from New Zealand and I knew they would be a fun addition to the tour.

It was then that the quirky petticoat of India first peeked out. Three of us stood there, but they told us we would be taking separate cars. I hopped in mine first, and when he was told where I was going he seemed a bit confused, but took off swiftly anyway.

Wow…have you ever been on “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride” at Disneyland? Its about seven minutes of crazy stopping-starting-jumping-thrusting-dodging. That amusement park ride is significantly easier to handle than this introductory ride to get from the airport to my hotel. On our way we passed cows, large carts being pulled by small men on bikes, begging children, and had many close calls to hitting people, animals, and stone walls. It was madness and it did not have the invisible rhythm of agreement between drivers that many other bustling cities seem to possess. People were constantly jockeying for position, passing using a few inches as a buffer and using their horn for warning.

Lodhi Gardens

I was happy to get to the hotel and took some time to relax before walking around the market for a few minutes. After only a few minutes on the street you can feel the eyes on you. People, mostly men, stare in India. Some of it is just a curious – “Hey look, westerners!” type of staring, but other staring bordered on leering. After what should have been a very short and easy walk through the market I was exhausted from having my guard up and started to question whether I should have come to India. I think the contrast of having spent the last week relaxing at a beach resort to plunging into the heart of one of the largest cities in India was a lot to handle.

Our guide for the day

My first group meeting wasn’t until the following night so I spoke with Jac & Chris and we decided to go sight seeing around the city the next morning. We asked the hotelier downstairs to arrange a ride to see a few sights and he was happy to help. We were in a taxi a few minutes later and our whirlwind “tour” of the city began. Our primary goal was to get to Lodhi gardens but we quickly drove past a few other sights. Our driver was really friendly and kept making mention of our last stop, but I could not quite catch the name of it in his heavily accented english. Chris was the brains behind the tour, so I was fine just going with the flow.

Our last stop, was a stop by his “uncle’s” rug store. Abby and Tracy will remember this pitch from Morocco, but we were brought into a large back room of the store, served tea, and had the rug making process described to us in painful detail. This description, while interesting, was merely done in order to justify the rug prices when they switched to the hard sell. Since I don’t have a house right now I had an easy excuse.  I do have to admit that they were reasonably priced and some of the silk rugs were gorgeous. Chris bought a small rug and I escaped with only a nice pashmina.

We went back to the hotel and met up with the rest of our group. The group totals seven – my two new Kiwi friends, a nice girl from England named Suzy, a father & daughter duo from Canada named Caitlin and John, and our leader from India, Mohsin. Mohsin gave us the run down about the trip including a short lecture about not having expectations for the trip and how things may go wrong or run late, people get sick, and accommodations are rough, etc. Yikes! I was starting to get reinforcements for the small infantry of doubts forming in my head. Like my Dad always told me, “The difference between an adventure and an ordeal is attitude!”, so I decided to put on my good adventurous attitude to quiet the doubts.

We started our sight seeing as a group the next morning with a short metro ride (where they are nice enough to have women only cars to avoid “groping”) followed by a walking tour of Old Delhi. As soon as you step off the remarkable modern metro you see telephone poles with a crazy amount of wires woven around them alongside the dirty and dusty streets. We were there early in the morning, so many of the shops were still closed. We walked over to a Muslim Mosque and walked around for a bit taking pictures.

After about 30 minutes we continued our walk through the shops until we came to a traditional Paratha vendor. Parathas are a traditional Indian snack that consists of whole grain dough filled with a thin layer of various items and dipped in spicy curries. I ordered the paneer (a common Indian cheese similar to cottage cheese) paratha. It was delicious! Afterward the cooks were nice enough to let me film them for a few minutes.

The heat started to get strong and we were relieved to go back to the hotel and relax during the peak heat of the day. We all got back together for an early dinner and Mohsin let us know we needed to be in the lobby of the hotel the next morning to catch a train to Agra at 5:15 AM. Ugh..early!

Balcony where the builder of the Taj Mahal was held prisoner by his son.

Agra, wow, where to even begin. Agra is home to the most photographed structure in India (and possibly the world) – the Taj Mahal. After our four hour train ride and a quick taxi ride to the hotel we turned right back around to go sight seeing. The Taj Mahal gets crowded and we wanted to see it during sunset, so we started our sight seeing with the Agra Fort. We were there for about 2 and a half hours, but still only saw about 50% of it. It is huge!!

Colorful crowds at the Taj Mahal

We rested a bit after lunch while it was still very hot and then we went over to the Taj Mahal. As you round the corner to see the structure in person it takes your breath away. I don’t know if it is the symmetry, the story, or just the way the light falls on this magnificent creation, but it’s beauty truly is unmatched when compared to other man made structures. We stayed there for another few hours with the rest of the crowds and watched as the sun went down and the light changed the colors of the dome. It houses the tombs of the builder and his wife that he made the structure for, but doesn’t hold a candle to the outside when it comes to beauty.

We boarded another early train the next day to get out of the touristy area and head to a small village called Chanderi. I was very happy to get out of the bustle of the cities as I usually am. The sound of a small village was very appealling. The train ride was about 5 hours and we were told when we arrived at the train station we would be taking Jeeps to the village.

When we arrived we were brought over to two of the most compact of compact cars. Think Geo Metro. We crammed ourselves into the car and I was lucky enough to get the front seat. What was funny, and I never did get an explanation for this, was the fact that “Police” was printed in large letters at the top of the windshield. After a very rough ride on some really bad rural roads for about an hour or so we arrived at our accommodation. Shortly after we arrived the second car arrived with a tale of getting a flat tire. So if they got a flat tire and caught up to us, they must have had a REALLY wild ride! Ha!

What was very apparent quickly was that westerners are not common here. We were told that there is virtually no tourist activity in the area because of it’s remote location. Intrepid Travel (my tour company) is the only company that comes to Chanderi. So what that means is that we felt like celebrities everywhere we went. Children would run up to us in groups just trying to get us to take their picture or wanting to say “Namaste!” and run away. Everyone was so friendly and welcoming! I was expecting a nice “slice of life” tour of a small city and it’s surrounding villages but it turned out to be so much more!

Our wonderful city host Kalle Bhai

We were introduced to our host in the town named Kalle Bhai. All you have to do to start to really like him is have a few minute conversation with him. He is full of life, warmth, and stories about the city he so obviously loves. He is effectively the ambassador, historian, and tourism host for the city of Chanderi and I felt blessed to have met him. He invited all of us over to his house for dinner that night. As he escorted us to his house people would run up to him and greet him warmly and with great respect. We walked behind him like baby ducklings as he pointed out the sights all around us.

The first we came to was a tall set of gates at sunset where he explained that the entire old part of the city was unique in that it had been designated a UNESCO site of historical importance. As recently as 2008 discoveries have been made and dug out. I felt very lucky to be seeing a part of history that was so rarely viewed by other tourists.

We headed over to his house where he lives with his brothers and their families. It was a large set of buildings with a common courtyard. His two sons and niece introduced themselves and welcomed us to their home. I immediately felt welcome and we were brought up to a large open area on the roof of the buildings for dinner. I had the best Indian meal of my life on that roof. Kalle Bhai’s wife cooked the meal for us right next to the table over an open fire. We had Cashew Curry, Pakoras, and so much more. He offered to email us the recipes if we left him our email addresses, which I gladly did!  We will have to have Indian night when I get home!

Henna Hands!!

After dinner he told us about his extensive coin collection dating to thousands of years ago.  He then told us his daughter is very famous in the community for her henna hand painting. He offered to have her paint our hands in traditional Indian style and we all jumped at the chance. What a talented woman! We all walked away with the most beautiful and unique designs painted on our hands in Henna. It would leave brown staining that lasts a few weeks. With a skip in our step and full bellies we went back to our hotel to rest up for a day of sightseeing the next day.

The next day was one of my favorites on this trip so far.  It was filled with lovely people, beautiful sights and a wonderful guide.  We saw palaces, temples, crocodiles, and so much more!  I think it is easier for me to explain through pictures than it would be to tell you about each and every sight we saw.

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Samosas from a street vendor – so delicious!!

Ancient Rock Paintings

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What was so special about Chanderi is the atmosphere of being welcomed and not being viewed as a walking wallet like many of the other towns we visited.  The things that were absent had just as big of an influence as the beauty of the people and the monuments.

The absent (but mot missed) parts of Chanderi were the people trying to drag you into their shops, children soliciting candy or money, people demanding you take their picture and then asking for payment, and most of all, other tourists.  Tourists can quickly ruin a rural community by doing what they perceive to be charitable and innocent.

By giving sweets, stickers, and money to children or beggars it encourages that behavior and soon they will be begging rather than working.  By buying items from children it encourages parents to take their kids out of school and start selling things on the street.  I know they are cute – but they should be learning and not selling bracelets or postcards to tourists!  Having now seen the contrast of a community with healthy and conscientious tourism, I will never participate in that behavior again.  I would encourage you to refrain as well no matter where you are.  Just because it’s already spoiled doesn’t mean you should contribute to the problem!  The world will be better for it.  If you want to be charitable, there are many organizations that work to help people in rural communities gain access to education and fresh water that would LOVE your donations!

I am continuing down my path here in India and have been nothing short of amazed by the things I have seen and heard so far.  I wish I could try to paint a true picture of India in a short blog post but I don’t think it is possible!

I hope you all had a great St. Patricks day – I think about all of you often!!

Cheers!

Lisa

Posted in Career Break, India, Intrepid Travel, RTW, Unforgettable India | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Whew…finally relaxing a bit after a wonderful time in Cambodia!

Hi all!

I know its been a little longer than normal since my last post.  In fact I have been in two countries since then!  I have about a week to relax until I head back out for a 15 day tour of Northern India.  I decided to get out of the city and landed here in Bang Saray Beach at a small family owned hotel called Willkris Resort.  I don’t intend to do much while I am here other than this blog post, a little reading, some swimming, possibly a scuba dive or two and maybe even some time for introspection.  I have seen a lot – both good and bad – on this trip so far and I haven’t taken much time to process it.  I am really glad to have some downtime after constantly moving for the past 35 days straight.

My favorite Australian, Craig, on his cyclo ahead of me!

My last blog post left you in lovely Hoi An where I thoroughly enjoyed my time.  After Hoi An we took a short flight to bustling Saigon, now known as Ho Chi Minh city.  After relaxing in a small town it was a brash shock to the senses.  More honking, crazy scooter drivers, and constant movement were there to greet us.  Ho Chi Minh City is now the most populated city in Vietnam and you could tell.  The streets were even more wild than in Hanoi!

We threw our things into the hotel room and went out for a tour of the city on a cyclo bike.  It was a nice slow way to see the city and we cruised past a handful of sights including reunification palace, Notre Dame cathedral, the city post office, and a walk through the Ben Thanh market on our way back to the hotel.

Everything and everyone here seems to be in a hurry so being on a slow bike was almost stressful as people went flying past us rushing to their next destination.

We arrived back at the hotel and after a quick shower we grabbed some dinner and I headed back to do a bit of laundry!  I took a quick picture of my clothes line so you could get a chance to see what it’s like to do your own laundry by hand in a hotel room!  I have a rubber clothes line that seems to have unlimited stretching power.  Here I had attached one end to the security chain on the door and the other to the handle of the closet door.  It’s not fancy, but it works!

Conor standing in one of the tunnel entrances.

The next morning we were up bright and early to take a mini-bus to see the Cu Chi Tunnels.  I will once again borrow from wikipedia for the description:  The tunnels of Củ Chi are an immense network of connecting underground tunnels located in the Củ Chi district of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam, and are part of a much larger network of tunnels that underlie much of the country. The Củ Chi tunnels were the location of several military campaigns during the Vietnam War, and were the Viet Cong’s base of operations for the Tết Offensive in 1968. The tunnels were used by Viet Cong guerrillas as hiding spots during combat, as well as serving as communication and supply routes, hospitals, food and weapon caches and living quarters for numerous guerrilla fighters. The tunnel systems were of great importance to the Viet Cong in their resistance to American forces, and helped achieve ultimate military success.

Let’s just say they are very proud of these tunnels and I really struggled as they talked with pride about killing the enemy soldiers.  Knowing these enemies were often 18 and 19 year old Americans, many unwillingly drafted into service, left me feeling a little teary eyed.  I kept a stiff upper lip by reminding myself that I was in their country.  The jungle around the tunnels was riddled with B52 Bomb Craters and many of the trees were new having all been grown in the last 30 years.  We all loaded back on the bus and went back to the city.  I was feeling a bit melancholy so I just laid low and after dinner with the group made it an early night.

Our Cambodian Tour Leader, Limny

The next day we took a long drive during which we crossed over into Cambodia.  Border crossings by land are interesting, I think I prefer the airport variety…

Let’s talk about Cambodia.  If you are of a certain age you associate it with genocide, Pol Pot, and the killing fields.  The younger generations will likely associate it with Angkor Wat and the beautiful temples seen in movies.  After spending the last three weeks with Limny, our Cambodian tour guide, and hearing about various things that were “Better in Cambodia” I had high expectations. For example, when we had asked about seeing Thai fighting in Chiang Mai, he replied with a “You can see it here, but its better in Cambodia and it’s free.”  When we asked about buying souvenirs in Vietnam, he replied with, “They have the same in Cambodia and they are better because it’s cheaper.”   It became a standing joke that “Everything is better in Cambodia” but I do have to admit that he was right on several accounts.

The red indicates the Khmer territories around the 9th century

I can’t even hope to begin to give you a full understanding of Cambodian history in this blog.  What I can tell you is that their high points have been sky high and their low points have involved some of the worst human atrocities in modern history.  I have taken a few points from Wikipedia and added a few things I learned to keep it short and simple, but here are the cliff notes.  If you don’t know the basics of it, you should take note because it is something that we have a responsibility to make sure never happens again.

First let’s start with some of the high points.  The people of Cambodia refer to themselves as Khmer and not Cambodian because the golden age was during the Khmer civilization.  It was the period from the 9th to the 13th centuries, when the Khmer Empire, which gave Kampuchea, or Cambodia, its name, ruled large territories from its capital in the region of Angkor in western Cambodia.  This is the period when the majestic temples of Angkor Wat were built.  Soon after that, a slow decline started from the 15th to 19th centuries where they lost a lot of territory to Thailand and Vietnam.  There was a period of French and another of Japanese rule, but the next most notable step was during the Vietnam/American War.

Neutrality was the central element of Cambodian foreign policy during the 1950s and 1960s. But by the mid-1960s, parts of Cambodia’s eastern provinces were serving as bases for North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong.  As NVA/VC activity grew, the United States and South Vietnam became concerned, and in 1969, the United States began a 14 month long series of bombing raids targeted at NVA/VC elements, contributing to destabilization. Prince Sihanouk, the current leader of Cambodia, fearing that the conflict between communist North Vietnam and South Vietnam might spill over to Cambodia, steadfastly opposed the bombing campaign by the United States inside Cambodian territory. Prince Sihanouk wanted Cambodia to stay out of the North Vietnam-South Vietnam conflict and was very critical of the United States government and its allies.

Bill Clinton revealed in a statement when he was in office stating “From October 4, 1965, to August 15, 1973, the United States dropped far more ordnance on Cambodia than was previously believed: 2,756,941 tons’ worth, dropped in 230,516 sorties on 113,716 sites. Just over 10 percent of this bombing was indiscriminate, with 3,580 of the sites listed as having “unknown” targets and another 8,238 sites having no target listed at all. . . . [T]he total payload dropped during these years to be nearly five times greater than the generally accepted figure. To put the revised total of 2,756,941 tons into perspective, the Allies dropped just over 2 million tons of bombs during all of World War II, including the bombs that struck Hiroshima and Nagasaki: 15,000 and 20,000 tons, respectively. Cambodia may well be the most heavily bombed country in history…[T]he bombing forced the Vietnamese Communists deeper and deeper into Cambodia, bringing them into greater contact with Khmer Rouge insurgents . . . [and] drove ordinary Cambodians into the arms of the Khmer Rouge, a group that seemed initially to have slim prospects of revolutionary success.”

Simultaneously, throughout the 1960s, domestic Cambodian politics became polarized. Opposition to the government grew within the middle class and leftists including Paris-educated leaders like Pol Pot, who led an insurgency under the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK). Sihanouk called these insurgents the Khmer Rouge, literally the “Red Khmer.”  Prince Sihanouk went abroad for medical reasons in January 1970.  In March 1970, while Prince Sihanouk was absent, General Lon Nol deposed Prince Sihanouk in a coup d’état in the early hours of March 18, 1970.

Which brings us to what I believe is one of the darkest periods of modern history.  On New Year’s Day 1975, Communist troops launched an offensive which, in 117 days of the hardest fighting of the war, collapsed the Khmer Republic.  Immediately after its victory, the CPK ordered the evacuation of all cities and towns, sending the entire urban population into the countryside to work as farmers, as the CPK was trying to reshape society into a model that Pol Pot had conceived.

Prison building at S-21

So this is where I ask you to please take a minute to look at your life and appreciate your freedom, comforts, and safety.  I will spare you the worst details of the horrible things that this political regime put the Cambodian people through, but I can tell you that walking through the prison camps and seeing the killing fields was one of the most heartbreaking things I have done in my life.

The first stop on our tours around Phnom Penh was the Tuol Sleng Prison, also called S-21, or the Cambodian Genocide Museum, and it is one of the largest tourist attractions, after Angkor Wat. Under the French, the building had housed Public School 21.  Imagine for a minute living in a country where the second most popular tourist attraction was a museum dedicated to the slaughter of your people with intact cells and still visible blood stains on the floor.

Interrogation Room

After the Khmer Rouge outlawed education, the school was converted to a torture and confession center for Khmer Rouge members accused of treason. Prisoners were subjected to the most inhumane torture until they finally broke, at which point they would sign erroneous confessions.

S21 Prisoner cells

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One of the more common confessions was to being a member of the CIA or KGB. The fact that many of the agents were between 12-15 years old and had no idea what CIA or KGB were, was of little consequence. The confession was all that mattered. After the confession, the prisoner was executed.  They were taken out to the killing fields where they were routinely executed and dumped into a mass grave.

The rest of the people in the cities were driven out  to work the rice fields despite the fact that most of them had little to no experience working in an agricultural environment.  They were allowed to eat once and maybe twice a day and were given an extremely small portion of rice after working in the fields for 12-16 hours a day.  Many people starved to death.  Gathering your own food from fruit trees or fishing was considered private enterprise and there was only one real punishment for violating the communist rules, regardless of the severity, and that punishment was the death penalty.

Modern research has located thousands of mass graves from the Khmer Rouge era all over Cambodia. Various studies have estimated the death toll at between 1.4 and 2.2 million, with perhaps half of those deaths being due to executions, and the rest from starvation and disease.

By 1979, the Khmer Rouge had fled the country, due to the Vietnamese removing them from office.  Since 1990 Cambodia has gradually recovered, demographically and economically, from the Khmer Rouge regime, although the psychological scars affect many Cambodian families and communities. It is noteworthy that Cambodia has a very young population and by 2003 three-quarters of Cambodians were too young to remember the Khmer Rouge era.

Very few people were ever prosecuted for the genocide and many of them have died safely in their beds of old age.  Limny, our team leader personally lost his father and two of his brothers that he never knew.  His father was a diamond trader and businessman.  He is not sure how old he is as he was born during the regime, sometime around 1977-1978, but his family has shared the stories in remembrance of his father and you could see the scars were deep as he told us the story over lunch.

Hungry for some deep fried Tarantulas?

One of the things you may have heard of or seen on TV is the bizarre things that some Cambodians eat.  Crickets, Tarantulas, Dogs, Cats, Frogs, Rats, baby chickens and just about anything that moves are all on the menu here.  Rat is a delicacy in Lao and has been for a long time, Dog and Cat are rarely eaten, but are considered a delicacy by some of the Vietnamese immigrants that brought the idea of eating them here to Cambodia.  Frogs are commonly seen on menus, likely a habit left over from the French rule of the country.

The eating of insects on the other hand is a direct result to the starvation during the Khmer Rouge regime and it stuck after the regime ended.  Apparently deep fried insects are “munchies” here and they eat them like we eat potato chips.  Limny was happy to let us film him eating some of these gross little critters and a few of the braver people on the tour tried them.  Others fled to the other end of the table just in case they were not sufficiently fried…

That night Limny arranged for us to take a tuk-tuk over to a local arena to watch some local kickboxing matches.  After a day of depressing sights I was happy to go to anything that wasn’t about death.  Cambodian fighting is known as Pradal serey. In Khmer the word pradal means fighting or boxing and serey means free. Originally used for warfare, pradal serey is now one of Cambodia’s national sports. Its moves have been slightly altered to comply with the modern rules.  Cambodia is making an attempt to market their style of boxing at the same caliber as Muay Thai even though its status as a fourth world country renders a lack of financial funding. Numerous gyms have opened and large masses of students, local and foreign, have come to train in Cambodia.

There are weekly matches held, the majority televised live, and many of Cambodia’s best have traveled internationally to compete. There are currently approximately 70 boxing clubs nationwide.

The arena was thriving and everything was being filmed live.  A match consists of five three-minute rounds and takes place in a 6.1 meter square boxing ring. A one-and-a-half or two minute break occurs between each round. At the beginning of each match the boxers practice the praying rituals known as the kun kru. Traditional Cambodian music performed with the instruments skor yaul (a type of drum), the sralai (reed flute) and the chhing, is played during the match. Modern boxers wear leather gloves and nylon shorts.

After an emotional couple of days in Phnom Penh I was ready for a brighter part of Cambodian life.  I was in luck because we had a homestay scheduled for the next night.  We took a bus to a rural Cambodian village where we met up with the family that ran the homestay house and saw our accommodations.  In order to bring tourism to this rural area they have built five room traditional houses for tourists to stay in the area.  We split into two of these houses and immediately went out to explore the area.  We started with a visit to one of the temple ruins in the area.

They were actively being reconstructed and worth a visit.  Many of them were crumbling under the weight of the huge trees in the area.   None of the temples really held a candle to the temples near Angkor Wat when it comes to details and condition, but it was nice to not have to fight crowds in retrospect.  We walked around the temple complex while being escorted by a small pack of local kids selling scarves and books.  We had been asked not to purchase anything from them since that encourages them to not go to school.  It was really hard to refrain because they were sweet and cute, but in the end we walked away empty handed.

We then headed back to the homestay for a quick turnaround to go see some of the locals making rice noodles and rice milk.  You could see the extreme poverty in the rural areas of Cambodia.  Most of the nicer houses were made up of woven bamboo walls and they were all lifted up on stilts to keep them safe during the wet season and give them a place to hang out under the house during the day.  At night they would tie their livestock under the house and either use smoke or mosquito nets to keep the bugs away from them.

Most of the households only make enough food for their own families, but if they have any excess they will sell it at the market.  The making of various things like noodles and rice milk is a longer process than I previously had thought.  I am sure in the modern world we have some magnificent machine dedicated to these tasks, but here they only get their electricity from car batteries as there is no public utility service in these communities.  To make rice noodles or rice paper they first make a slurry out of the rice by using a pounding device as shown in the video below.  They then press it through a strainer for the noodles or they paint it onto a mat for rice paper and let it dry in the sun.

Another major resource here in Cambodia is the palm trees.  They drink the palm juice, eat the coconuts, and eat the palm fruits as well.  They climb the trees twice a day to harvest the palm juice and it is a great source of hydration in a land where nearly all of the water is contaminated.

They were kind enough to climb the tree to show us how it was done and you couldn’t help but be impressed by the man’s agility in climbing!  We thanked them for their hospitality and walked back over to our homestay house where Limny treated us to a home cooked meal of traditional Cambodian food.

Limny, our leader and chef for the night!

Limny hopes to have his own restaurant some day so he was full of pride when he recited how to make Beef and Lemongrass and Chicken Soup.  It started to get dark and there was very little lighting around the camp so the last part of the cooking was hard to see.  All of the cooking was done over the wood coals outside.  There was not a gas or electric burner to be seen for miles!

We enjoyed the meal together and around 7 PM some loud music and singing were heard next door.  We thought at first it was a wedding, but found out that it was actually a celebration of an old woman who had died three years prior.  It was all about loud music, dancing, and drinking in memorial.  A few people went over to watch, but ended up being the spectacle rather than the spectator.  Westerners were not common here and we were stared at everywhere we went.

Several of us went to bed, but sleep was hard to find with the loud music, thin walls, and very little air movement in 95 degree weather.  So I spent a night listening to my ipod and hoping sleep would come.  The rooster started up around 4:00 so I gave up on sleeping and got up for a walk.  After a nice walk others started to rise and we had a simple but nice meal of bread and some eggs with veggies.  When we went to leave everyone lined up for a photo.

 

We took a ride down to Siem Reap and wasted no time heading back out to see the local sights!  We headed by boat to see what is called “The Floating Village”, and actually named Chong Khneas.  The catch is that it wasn’t floating because it was the dry season.

It sits on the shore of Tonle Sap which is the largest freshwater lake in SE Asia and absolutely crucial to Cambodia’s survival.  When the lake backs up during the monsoon season it can raise its level from 1 meter to around 9 meters – thats a 24 foot difference, which is why these villages were built on stilts.

We went back to town and caught a traditional Apsara dance show before getting a good rest.  In 2003, UNESCO named the Apsara dance a “Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Culture”.  We all enjoyed the show much better than the last one we went to in Vietnam.  It was very entertaining to watch the graceful men and women and their well choreographed moves.  When you take into consideration that most of the traditional dancers were some of the first to die during the Khmer Rouge it is amazing that they have been able to perfect the dance based on the last few survivors that were able to continue the tradition.

After the show most of us headed back to the hotel and a handful went out to explore the town.  We were all pretty excited to start exploring the temples in Angkor Wat the next day and I was no exception!

The ruins of Angkor are located amid forests and farmland to the north of the Great Lake of Tonlé Sap and are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The temples of the Angkor area number over one thousand, ranging in scale from nondescript piles of brick rubble scattered through rice fields to the magnificent Angkor Wat, said to be the world’s largest single religious monument. Many of the temples at Angkor have been restored, and together, they comprise the most significant site of Khmer architecture. Visitor numbers approach two million annually.

In 2007, an international team of researchers using satellite photographs and other modern techniques concluded that Angkor had been the largest preindustrial city in the world, with an elaborate system of infrastructure connecting an urban sprawl of at least 1,000 square kilometres (390 sq mi) to the well-known temples at its core.  Although its population remains a topic of research and debate, newly identified agricultural systems in the Angkor area may have supported up to one million people.

The day was  a whirlwind of temples and beautiful areas throughout the Siem Reap area and without another three pages of writing, I would not be able to tell you all about them!  On the first day we visited five temples.  I could post a thousand pictures and you would still not have a good feel for what we saw in the temples, so I will try to let a handfull of pictures tell the story.  So here goes…

DAY ONE:

Bayon Temple at Angkor Thom

Baphuon temple at Angkor Thom

Preah Khan Temple at Angkor Thom

Ta Prohm Temple – made famous by the Tomb Raider movie

We went to the top of Pre Rup Temple to watch the sunset along with dozens of other tourists. The sun responded by going behind a cloud. I responded by getting a drink at the base of the temple.

Day two of temple visits started early with the sunrise over Angkor Wat, the most famous of the ancient temples.  It was pitch black when we first walked down the long pathway to situate ourselves in front of the water lily covered pond in front of the temple.

We fought the crowds for our great vantage point and were witness to poor behavior from several nationalities – including what I suspect was an American who yelled, “Down in front!” when a woman stood up.  Regardless of the harsh interactions by some of the other observers, the beauty could not be denied.

Angkor Wat just before the sun made it’s appearance

Good morning sunshine!!

Banteay Srei – known for it’s use of the pink sandstone and high level of restoration.

After running around the temples for a couple of days straight we had a fun night out visiting the night market, having a drink on pub street with a Mexican food dinner that was actually really good.

Raw Silk Fibers

We got on board a minibus for the cambodian border the next morning and stopped at a silk cultivating and dyeing facility along the way.   There we had the opportunity to see how they went about processing it here in Cambodia, which is pretty much the same as in other countries, minus a few machines.  After what has to be one of the longest, most painful border crossings from Cambodia into Thailand we arrived right back where we started at the Vieng Thai hotel in Bangkok.  We all got together for a final dinner before we all went our separate ways the next day.  A few people were staying in Thailand, but most everyone was headed home soon.

I headed to Bangsaray Beach and have been recovering from a long month of rapid fire touring throughout Indochina.  Overall it was a enjoyable tour where I was lucky enough to have met a wonderful group of people from all over the world and see some incredible sights.  I am glad to have a few days off to relax a bit before the whirlwind of India begins next week.  I won’t be blogging until I get to India which is only in a few days as I don’t plan on doing anything blog worthy this week.

Take care and know that I miss you all and have really enjoyed the voicemails, emails, and facebook messages.  It means the world to me to stay in touch with my nearest and dearest!  Love you all!

Cheers!

Lisa

Posted in Cambodia, Career Break, Great Indochina Loop, RTW | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Xin chào from Vietnam!

It’s been a few days since my last blog post and as usual, I have been busy!

We took a short flight on the lovely Lao airlines over to Hanoi, Vietnam.  There we were greeted by a cacophony of horns honking, lights flashing, and vendors pushing to cross paths with us.  It was a total shock for me after laid back Laos.  On our shuttle bus from the airport to the hotel in Hanoi, our guide Limny gave us a run down of various security measures we should be taking now that we were in Vietnam.  They included wearing our packs on our front side, not pulling out all of our cash at once, carrying only what was necessary, locking our luggage in our rooms, and making sure our cameras were attached to us at all times.

I appreciated knowing, but I was pretty apprehensive the first time I stepped out of the hotel.  I reduced my load down to the bare essentials of some cash and my camera and stepped out the door.

We were only staying in Hanoi overnight this time, but I knew I would be back in a few days after a brief overnight stay in Halong Bay.  We all went together and had a nice meal in a narrow and crowded local restaurant.

One thing of note throughout Vietnam is that all of the buildings are really tall and skinny.  After a little research, I discovered that street-facing property has traditionally been sought after so that a small storefront can be created at street level, with the family living in the stories above. As a result, the proximity to the street increases the cost of the property to the point where plots are only a few meters wide.  The solution to these small plots of land is to build upwards. It’s a common sight to see an exceptionally narrow, ten-story building.

After dinner a few of us decided to grab a beer on the local curb.  No, I didn’t mistype “Pub”, literally we had a beer on the curb. One of the things that could be considered traditional or, at the very least, common here in Vietnam is drinking beers with friends on short little chairs covering the sidewalks and streets.  Apparently it is not legal, but only loosely enforced.

Our motley crew is on the left.

At one point when we were sitting there, the police wagon showed up with a siren (which really wasn’t that noticeable over the din of the city anyway) and the business owners scrambled to move everyone out of their seats on the street and cram us all up on the sidewalk.  Once the police left, the seats were put back out and we were invited to sit back down in the street.  They told us the cops wouldn’t be back for a few hours, but they were wrong, they came roaring back about 20 minutes later and the game of musical chairs began anew.

I was on complete sensory overload.  If you weren’t dodging a vendor, you were dodging a motorbike flying by.  Where I come from the horn on a bike or car is a rarely used tool to say, “You’re a %$&#ing jerk” when driving.  Here in Hanoi, I am pretty sure it makes up about 30% of the communication on Hanoi’s streets. From my brief study there, I believe it can mean any of the following:

  1. “Move!”
  2. “Watch out!”
  3. “Hurry up!”
  4. “I’m bigger than you!”
  5. “I’m faster than you!”
  6. “I like making noise!”
  7. “Hello!”
  8. “How are you?  I’m fine!”
  9. “Have a nice day!”

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What it is supposed to look like…

The next morning we got up and took a minibus over to Halong Bay.  You have seen the pictures of this beautiful place before I am sure.  Per wikipedia:  The bay consists of a dense cluster of over 3,000 limestone monolithic islands (although locals claim there are only 1,969 as this is the year of Ho Chi Minh’s death), each topped with thick jungle vegetation, rising spectacularly from the ocean. Several of the islands are hollow, with enormous caves.

What it actually looked like. Poo.

I was really looking forward to the spectacular views and monumental islands.  But when we arrived, we saw a whole lot of fog.  Boring old run of the mill fog with an occasional silhouette of a mountain in the background.  The fog lightened up a few times long enough to grab a few pictures, but they were mediocre at best.  We sailed around for a short time and arrived at some caves that we were told are “the most spectacular” of the caves.  They were actually pretty magnificent, I have to admit!

These ancient caves were carved out by water and striking rock structures and stalagmites were left behind.  I have been in many caves filled with stalagmites prior to this one, but never one of this size.  It was HUGE.  It’s a really good thing that it is so big because otherwise they would not have been able to fit the slew of tourists running through there.  It took some patience and maneuvering to get good pictures.  After the dissappointment of not being able to snap pictures of the mountain islands outside, I was determined but only partially rewarded.

Tim & Mike venture out!

We got back onboard the boat and were offered an opportunity to kayak for the sale price of only $7 per person for a double kayak.  It was raining and a little cold to go kayaking (besides the fact you couldn’t see anything  15 feet in front of your face). So most of us decided to stay back, but the four guys and our fearless leader Limny decided they wanted to go explore.

We watched the local guide bailing water out of the bottom of each of the kayaks as they lowered each passenger.   After a quick picture, they all set out for a short trip.  The rest of us found comfy places to read, write postcards, and chat while they were gone.  After a while without any sign of the kayakers, I started to worry.  The sun (the small amount you could see) was starting to get low in the sky and they weren’t back yet.  My inner mama bear was concerned but didn’t have anyone to ask since the boat crew spoke no english and our local guide and Limny were all with them on the water.

Floating convenience store…very…um…convenient.

Turns out that they had gotten lost in the fog, so I was right to be concerned.  They did make it back finally just before the sun went down, but were pretty tired by the time they got back and dried off.  The local guide had lost his way and could not find the boat but refused to admit it and kept insisting that he knew the way.  Ha!  Something about saving face…but silly in my opinion.  Still was glad to have them all back on board safe and sound.

We had a lovely dinner back on the boat and shared several bottles of wine.  After several rowdy games of UNO and some really, really bad charades, we went to bed.

We woke up the next morning to more fog, but it had lifted just enough to glimpse the sun through the fog.  We snapped a couple of pictures and headed back to port for our minibus trip back to Hanoi.

We got back mid-day, grabbed a bite to eat and then set out to catch a few sights around the city.  This city is somewhat of an enigma to me.  Less than two blocks from small shops selling “Gucci” watches for about $50 was a actual Gucci store.  It felt like a blend of the crazed asian pace (think of about a thousand motorbikes per minute) with the cosmopolitan underbelly of San Francisco.  Generally many cities of Hanoi’s size could be said to have a seedy underbelly of commerce.  Hanoi puts it right out there for all to see and the legit businesses almost seem to be an aside to the main show.  It gave it a strange atmosphere, but after you got the rhythm of it the streets became less intimidating and it started to grow on you.

We took a brief walk over to a picturesque lake called Ho Tay.  As we walked around the lake, there were dozens of couples taking engagement photos.   Talk about great people watching!  It was a nice slice of life in Hanoi with workers eating lunch, tourists wandering around, businessmen and women hustling to cut through the park, and a few old women gossiping on a park bench.

Once we reached the far end of the park we took a brief detour over to a beautiful French colonial style 1911 Opera House located in a posh area of town.  The only one of us brave enough to cross the street to get to the opera house was Tim and I am pretty sure he took his life into his hands trying. It was great entertainment for the rest of us, and he got a good laugh out of it!  This city was much like Tim’s personality –  slightly crazy and constantly moving around.  But seriously he fit right in and almost seemed to thrive in the chaos of the city.  Although, I have to admit, he wandered off frequently.  “Oooh…shiny!”  and poof – he’s gone.  “Where’s Tim?” was a constant theme of the afternooon.

After tracking down Tim, we continued on our walking tour over to the Catholic Cathedral on the other side of the lake.  There we found lots of tourists and people sitting in the streets drinking beers in the hot afternoon.

We stopped for a beer and then went back to the hotel to get ready for the evening.  We had tickets to a traditional Vietnamese water puppet show.  It sounded really cool, and started out fairly interesting.  As the show wore on the shrill sound of the music wore me down to the point where I was ready to bolt out the door.  Taking a survey of the whole group you would hear reviews ranging from “Excellent” to “Pure Torture”.  I fell somewhere in between those two responses, but I wouldn’t say its something that just has to be seen if you ever visit Hanoi.

The water puppets were mostly choreographed and moved around in a pool of water.  On stage right there were a group of traditional musicians playing music in time with the puppets.  Seeing the unique instruments was very entertaining, but after about an hour it ceased to be entertaining and I felt like I was being forced to sit through a Celine Dion concert (sorry Jennie…).  Either way, I was a little relieved when it was over.

The next morning we got up early and went on a whirl wind tour of the Ho Chi Minh complex which features his embalmed and preserved body, his house, cars, and a museum.  He is viewed as a hero and is very revered within Vietnam.  A picture of his face is hung above most people’s mantles only to be flanked by pictures of their family and is described as being the father of all of the children of Vietnam.  He wanted to be cremated when he died, but instead was embalmed and placed on display so that all of the vietnamese could come visit him.  It bears a large resemblance to Lenin’s tomb in Moscow.

There were huge lines of people waiting to take a walk through his tomb in silence and most of them were locals.  They had separate lines for the Vietnamese and foreigners so that the locals could get priority.  Only foreigners have to buy tickets.  After a brief walk around his previous home we continued on to see the one pillar pagoda and some of the group went through the Ho Chi Minh museum.  We then went to a nice restaurant for a traditional vietnamese lunch and then headed back to the hotel to get ready for our overnight train.

Ugh.  The overnight train was not my fondest memory to recall on this trip.  This train didn’t hold a candle to the one that we took in Thailand.  It was FILTHY.  The walls were brownish – but not because they were supposed to be, but because they had probably never been cleaned.  I used as many antibacterial sheets as I could, went through an entire bottle of hand sanitizer, and still felt skeezy just being there.  I threw away the sleep sack that I used in the train.

The quarters were much tighter and I was sharing a small cabin with Tim, Mike, and Craig.  To lessen the annoyance of the train and hopefully to help us sleep, Conor joined us and we played some drinking games.   We all had more than our fair share of beers, but it didn’t overcome the noise, heat, and general filth of the train when it came time to sleep.  I passed the time trying my hardest to fall asleep, but was never quite successful, so I departed the train a little grumpy in Hue.  We headed straight for the hotel where I took a shower and used an entire bar of soap trying to overcome the disgusting feeling of the train.  Blech.

No rest for the wicked!  After a quick breakfast and a shower we went right back out to see the city of Hue.  I would have liked to have had more time there as it was a great little city.  I felt awful having to trudge through it after not getting any sleep the night before, but the sights were amazing.

Hue was once the capital of the entire country.  The jewel of the city is a walled fortress and palace called the Imperial city.  Most of it was destroyed during the Vietnam War (or the American war as it is called here) by US bombings.  The city was made a UNESCO site in 1993. The buildings that still remain are being restored and preserved. They are rebuilding the destroyed buildings as time and money allow.

We took a brief bus ride over to Thien Mu Pagoda where we saw the car once owned by “The Venerable Thich Quang Duc”.  This car was driven into a busy downtown Saigon intersection by this Vietnamese Mahayana Buddhist monk.  There he set himself on fire and burned himself to death June 11th 1963. Duc was protesting the persecution of Buddhists by South Vietnam’s Roman Catholic government. Photos of his self-immolation were circulated widely across the world and brought attention to the policies of the regime. Malcolm Browne won a Pulitzer Prize for his renowned photograph of the monk’s death.

It was a shocking thought that someone would burn themselves in protest, and I was a little overwhelmed by the gesture.  I needed a little bit lighter moment when we boarded a boat on the Perfume River to go to our next site.

We shortly arrived at the tomb of Tu Duc.  Wow – how much more death monuments can I see here in Vietnam?  At least the grounds were pretty.  The tomb of Tu Duc, the ‘poet Emperor’, is set in an elegant garden with a magnificent lake and pavilion complex. The centerpiece of the tomb is really simple despite the lavish opulence of his reign (it’s really just a monument – he was buried elsewhere to thwart grave robbers).  My camera died while we were walking around, so I only have a few pictures of this place.  It was huge and I found it very ironic that he spent most of his time there while he was still living and wasn’t actually even buried there.  We headed back to the hotel and I went to sleep almost immediately after a long two days without any rest.  Finally…rest for the wicked!

I woke up the next morning wishing that we had more time in Hue, but thats the curse of being on a pre-planned tour like this.  I would have liked to explore for at least a couple of more days, but it was not in the cards.  We boarded a bus to Hue that morning and took a short drive over to this wonderful port city called Hoi An.

I immediately fell in love with Hoi An and wasted no time going to explore.  One of the most prevalent things Hoi An is known for is their tailors.  Show them a picture of any item of clothing you can find on the internet or in one of their catalogs and they will make it for you.  This includes suits, shoes, handbags, and just about anything you can come up with.

There are over 300 tailors in this small town and the biggest difference between them is their fabrics.  The more selection they have, the more expensive it is.  I was (in a very small way) wishing I was headed home after this trip because I would have had about a dozen pairs of shoes made, but alas, I have another 10 months of traveling ahead of me and didn’t want to ship everything home.

I did decide to have a few skirts and casual t-shirts made in a non-wrinkling fabric they had so they took my measurements and told me to return the next day.

The whole group got together and had a wonderful dinner that night.  We all excitedly talked about the clothes we were having made for us and what we had planned to do during our three days in Hoi An.

The next morning Mike and I rented a couple of bikes and set out with no real plan to explore the city a bit more in depth.  We rode around for a few hours.  We explored the islet adjacent to the main drag of buildings in Hoi An and then found ourselves in the local Market filled with good looking produce.

There we joined up briefly with Conor, Tim, and Craig but found out that we had explored the exact opposite areas and so we parted ways again.  We made a plan to meet up for lunch and then continued to ride into the rural areas surrounding Hoi An.  We were able to see people carving beautiful doors and windows, catching fish, and just enjoying the morning.  One thing that was a little unique was the loudspeakers scattered throughout the area playing vietnamese music and occasionally making an announcement.  You can hear a bit of it in this video.

After a few more visits to the tailor shop and some quick R&R at the hotel, Conor, Tim, Craig, Mike and I met up for the evening.  Hoi An is so beautiful at night!  There were lantern vendors on every corner and all the bridges were lit up with more lanterns and light sculptures.  We landed for dinner at an absolutely lovely restaurant called the Bamboo Buddha.  They had a decent selection of wine and a menu filled with creative culinary delights.  It was one of the best meals I have had since leaving the US in January.   They had a set menu and I chose to have gorgonzola and prosciutto bruschetta for a starter, followed by Australian beef skewers, and a brownie and vanilla ice cream for dessert.  We had a nice French Cab and a Chilean Merlot (still not a Merlot fan, but it was alright).  The atmosphere was also pleasant as we were on a second floor room overlooking the street filled with vendors.

 

It is now my last day in Hoi An.  I went and picked up the last of my clothes from the tailor and found a riverside cafe from which to write this post.  So thats all I have to share for now!  I will write more in a few days.  Tomorrow morning we head to Saigon for a two night stay before passing over into Cambodia.  I am having an absolute blast and look forward to the rest of the adventures!

Cheers!

Lisa

Posted in Career Break, Great Indochina Loop, RTW, Vietnam | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments