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

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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

Lemme give you the Lao down on Lao PDR!

Sawbaydee friends!

So I left you last time on a slow boat down the Mekong river.  Since that post took me three days to upload, a lot has happened.  Even though you just got to read that yesterday!  There goes that time traveling again! 😉

I know you have likely heard of the Mekong River and can possibly picture it from  movies you have seen about Vietnam.  It has been mentioned in many books, movies, and news stories throughout the world for many decades.  It plays a vital role to many SE Asian countries because it is a major trading route linking China’s southwestern province of Yunnan to the South China Sea via Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, and provides locals with an invaluable outlet to the sea and international trading.

Look at the lines indicating the old water level…yikes!

The Mekong is the lifeblood of this country and many others in this region.  You get a sense of its importance as we float past fishing nets, villages, and water buffalo bathing in the waters.  But just as many other areas in the world, there is an underlying battle between technological progress and the environment.  The biggest topic of concern on the Mekong is dam building.  When a dam is built to produce much needed hydroelectric power, the flow downstream is reduced.  That reduced flow causes multiple problems.  The river is used to irrigate crops in what would otherwise be a dry dusty climate in Cambodia.  China is engaged in an extensive program of dam-building on the river: it has already completed three and another twelve are under consideration.

Inside of our Loooong boat!!

A panel of the region’s nations has accused China of blatantly disregarding the downstream nations in an effort to stop the dams, but to no avail. Since the building of the first Chinese dam, many species have become endangered, including the Mekong Dolphin and dugong.  Water levels have dropped, ferries get stuck, fish caught are small and in lower quantities, and crossings to isolated Luang Prabang have lengthened from 8 hours to 2 days due to inadequate water levels.  Which is why I find myself on a two day trip down the Mekong – Luang Prabang is our final destination.

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Here in Lao PDR, navigation is a major issue.  So on our 16 hour boat ride (split into two days) down the Mekong the captain earned every penny of his pay by dodging rapids, rocks, and sandbars.  We were constantly changing direction and the further we got down the river the rockier the terrain became and there were a few times we passed mere feet from a large rock formation.  To his credit, we never once touched bottom or scraped a single rock.

One of the many villages along the river

The boat was a family affair.  Dad and the oldest son were at the helm.  Dad would do the most difficult navigation, and his son would take over when it was clear.  Mom and the younger son would cook and clean.  We had the option to bring our own lunches onto the boat with us or have the family make our lunch for us onboard.  Of course we all opted to have lunch on the boat!  We were not dissappointed.

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We had a very authentic and delicious Lao meal of chicken soup, vegetables, and sticky rice!

I have to say that cruising down the river surrounded by some of the most natural beauty I have ever had the privilege to see, was incredibly relaxing.  I did a lot of reading and found myself periodically looking up, snapping a few pictures, and thinking about how lucky I am to be where I am.  After about eight hours on the boat, I was half happy and half sad to see the shore.

We arrived into a village called Pakbeng. Pakbeng is a very small village that has become an overnight destination for tourists and locals making the two day trip between Luang Prabang and Huay Xai.

Making sticky rice

It was a nice blend of locals living as they always have on one side of the village and an area they have modernized in order to add electricity, guesthouses, and restaurants to cater to their overnight guests.  We put our bags down in the guesthouse where we were staying and headed out for a walking tour with our local guide.  We had arrived there before any of the other boats for the day, so we were able to see a nice slice of life as we walked toward their local temple.

One of the things we were fortunate to see was a group of local women preparing offerings to take up to the temple.  They were making small structures out of flowers and leaves and placing them on a platter with various food items like chicken, rice, and Laolao (a local booze made from fermented sticky rice),etc.  They typically bring it up to the temple when the monks are done chanting after the sun sets.

We kept walking through the city and arrived at the local temple and monastery right at sunset.  We were treated to some amazing views over the Mekong and the small village.  It was another one of those supremely happy moments that have happened frequently on this trip.  As we arrived, the local monk started chanting his prayers in the temple, furthering the beauty of the moment.

After taking in the sights at the temple we headed over to a local restaurant for some dinner and then retired for the night.  There wasn’t much going on in this cute little town after about 9:00, so a good book and a comfortable bed looked quite appealling.

We arose early the next day for another day cruising down the Mekong.  This day proved to be much more exciting than the previous as we made a few stops along the way.

Our first stop was in another small village where we were able to see an authentic slice of life.  They have welcomed tourists in to take pictures of them and their villages in exchange for a chance to sell us their wares.

This little girl was showing me a scarf she had for sale.

But we caught them unannounced and it was almost comical to see them catch sight of us and frantically start setting out blankets to display what they were selling before we could walk by.  What we saw in the village was extreme poverty, but most seemed happy.  There were a lot of children and women around the village and we were told that most of the men go away from the villages to work for the day.

There was a small houses where the monks lived at the beginning of the village near a small temple.  The monks were very friendly and seemed happy to see us there.

The children were climbing trees, playing around, chasing each other and laughing a lot.  Meanwhile, the mothers were making thatch for roofing or weaving items to sell to tourists.  There were animals running around like chickens, pigs, dogs, and even an occasional cat.  One of my fellow travelers wondered how often the dogs try to eat on of the baby pigs!  You could see they were given only the most basic of sustenance, so they had to be quite hungry, but they were very interested in playing with the children.  Overall the animals seemed happy too, which is contrary to some of the animals I have seen in rural settings recently.

We piled back on the boat and were told we would be stopping in another hour or so at the Pak Ou caves before arriving into Luang Prabang for a three night stay.

Entrance to the Pak Ou caves

The Pak Ou caves are located just North of Luang Prabang and are known for having thousands of small Buddha statues.  There are two main caves.  A lower one and the upper one which is high up on the hill, but worth the climb.  The upper caves were completely dark.  While my headlamp was able to help me get around, it did not help me to take pictures.  It was a very crowded experience and I was happy to get back on the boat for our short ride into Luang Prabang.  I was a little bit sad to be leaving the boat.  I had really enjoyed our cruise.  It qualifies as one of my top ten most relaxed moments in my life.  It was nice to have some place to go, but the R & R was a nice reprieve after moving to a new location almost every day!  Luang Prabang was our stopping point for three nights which allowed us time to get some laundry done and settle in more than our previous one night stays.

We arrived in Luang Prabang just before sunset

Luang Prabang has played a major role in Lao history.  Until the communist takeover in 1975, it was the royal capital and seat of government of the Kingdom of Laos. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Seriously – the whole city.  It is known for having French Colonial buildings mixed in with traditional Lao buildings and many temples.  The city is well known for its numerous Buddhist temples and monasteries. Every morning, hundreds of monks from the various monasteries walk through the streets collecting alms. One of the major landmarks in the city is a large steep hill on which sits Wat Chom Si.  But more on that later, I am getting ahead of myself!

My bungalow!

We got to our bungalows and were all surprised by how nice they were  We have typically been staying in very basic accomodations, but this place was a true gem with a garden surrounded by bungalows and a trail down to the river.  While it did not have air conditioning, they provided a nice mosquito net and both a ceiling and a floor fan to keep us cool at night.  The beds were comfortable and I experienced a level of service that would put a few five star hotels I have stayed in to shame.  The staff was always polite, eager to accommodate, and never intrusive.  When we left, they all gathered together and gave us a blessing for safe travels.  I feel privileged to have stayed there and would love to come back some day.  So despite having a great place to stay we wasted no time in leaving to explore!

We make our way to the city to see the night market and go to a local restaurant.  We had a nice meal and retired for the night ready for a big following day!  The night market was noticeably neater than the other we had encountered, but featured much less variety in products.

The next morning we went over to a natural area that housed a Bear Reserve.  At the reserve that rehabilitate Asian Black Bears and Sun Bears in preparation to release them back into the wild.  They had quite the life with more enrichment toys and activities than most zoos.  While most of them don’t get to stay too long, they didn’t seem unhappy!

We continued up the hill to Kuang Si Falls.  They are hands down the most beautiful natural waterfalls I have ever seen.  They were a series of multilevel falls with natural bathing areas.  I think I will let the pictures tell the story…

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It was truly breathtaking.  We spent a few hours cruising around the falls and had a snack along the side of the falls.

Traditional Hilltribe skirts

Afterwards we went back to the city of Luang Prabang to make a brief stop at the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Center where we were able to see some traditional clothing and watch a video about traditional Lao wedding ceremonies.

It was a long hot day and we were all ready for a little R & R that evening so while some of the most hearty of travelers went out for drinks, the rest of us stayed in and recovered!

Rest assured we got up early the next morning for more sights.  A few of the guys went up to ride some elephants and the rest of us went into the city to explore.  The first thing we did was hike up the 300+ stairs to the top of Mt Phousi to see the temple at the top of the hill and observe the views.

 

The views were great, but I managed to get separated from the rest of the folks, so after I waited to see if we would connect, I carried on to see some of the hot spots in Luang Prabang.

At the base of Mt Phousi is the National Museum.  It was once the Royal Palace when Luang Prabang was still the capital, and they had left several rooms set up as they once were used when the royal family was there.  They had many of the gifts given to them by various countries and some amazing paintings and sculptures.

On the grounds there was a beautiful royal temple as well that I was able to grab some pictures of before I moved away from the huge packs of Chinese and Israeli tourists that were covering the grounds of the royal palace.

I decided that I wanted to see a temple on the far end of the city called Wat Xieng Thong.  It was built in the mid-1500s and remained after many sackings of the city.  It was actively being restored and was neat to see such an old temple. It was also interesting to see the monks climbing up on the roof of the temple and doing the actual construction.  I think when I was told it was being restored I pictured a construction company.  I just can’t picture a bunch of Catholic priests working on their own chapel.  But they were getting it done!

I decided to walk back to our bungalows and enjoy the city a bit more before retiring for the night.

The next morning we had a mini-van trip to Vang Vieng.  I really enjoyed Luang Prabang and wished that we had had more time there to explore.

After receiving a blessing and a kind farewell from all the staff at Thong Bay Bungalows we piled into a minivan for a 7-8 road trip to Vang Vieng.

On our way we stopped a few times and were lucky enough to catch a temple festival.  It was being filmed by a major company, but I snuck in a few seconds of video before they shooed us out of there (who wants a bunch of white people in the background?!?) so I could share it with you.

Vang Vieng was settled as a stopping point between Luang Prabang and Vientiane, but has become another animal altogether.  It has become known for it’s partying.  Walking through the streets you saw a sea of 20 somethings from all over the world.  Most had a cocktail and a cigarette in their hands.  It reminded me a LOT of spring break.  There were bars flashing their drink specials and playing old episodes of Family Guy and Friends to lure the partiers in for a very cheap drink.  We wove our way through the crowds over to a river-facing bar to watch the sun set between two huge limestone mountains.

The views made it worth it.  The other big thing to do in this area is to rent a floating tube, take a tuk tuk upstream, and then float down the river going from bar to bar doing shots.  We all know how much fun that would be!  Unfortunately, I am not 25 any longer and knew I would be getting on a public bus to ride to Vientiane the next morning.

Tim & Conor model their fab new glasses!

So I chose to pass on the river floating, but the guys that went came back with a few scrapes, bruises, and stories of lost sunglasses and watches.  But what would you expect from guys like this?!?  I was able to enjoy the views and walk around the city.  I was glad I went into the bus ride with a fresh perspective because the bus ride was the closest to hell I would ever like to encounter.  Ugh, I couldn’t get off that bus fast enough!  That was mere hours ago, which means that I have caught you up with me.

Tomorrow we will be leaving Lao PDR and heading over to Vietnam.  I will keep you posted on what happens from there.  In the meantime, take care and I am thinking about you!

-Lisa

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

Up to the temples, down to the river in Thailand!

Hi there!

I am writing this post from a slow boat on the Mekong River. I thought I should share my latest adventures while the beautiful scenery floats past me.  It has been a very busy few days and I have a lot to share with you! As a side note, I have received a lot of positive feedback on the videos, so I am going to try to include more of them! Please let me know if you like them or not in the comments.  I know it can make the page load slower for you (and the upload time longer for me), so don’t be afraid to tell me if it’s too much!

So during my time here in SE Asia I decided to take an organized tour through a company called Intrepid Travel. They are known for being an ecofriendly company that is conscientious about respecting the local people, environment, and cultures throughout the world. They offer low cost trips with basic accommodations and experiences. I felt good about supporting their company, and am very happy to have some additional people with whom to travel.

On Saturday I met up with the group for the first time and after a brief orientation meeting we all grabbed a traditional Thai dinner at a restaurant down the street. We shared a few local beers, and lots of laughs getting to know each other.  We total ten consisting of other travelers from Canada, Australia, England, Ireland, Scotland, three of us from the US, and our Cambodian trip leader. It is a fun group and I have been enjoying the company so far. We have a range of ages from 27 to over 60, both couples and singles.

Our first day of adventure started early the next morning at 8:00 AM. We walked over to the pier to catch a Thai longtail boat and head down the Klong river through the center of Bangkok. It was a great way to see part of this huge city and quite enjoyable to observe the diversity of lifestyles on the river. We cruised past women rowing boats on their way to the markets, several temples, and riverfront homes perching precariously on stilts. Others had concrete foundations and looked quite solid. You quickly get an idea of the damage that high waters can do to this city.

We made a brief stop near one of the temples to feed the abundant fish. The fish flock (do fish flock? Or is school also a verb?) to this area because the waters in front of the temple are protected and they won’t be netted. I think the tourists feeding them has a little something to do with it as well. They were nearly jumping into the boat to get the small pieces of bread we were throwing them.

We continued down the river and stopped near Wat Po. Wat Po is a university and temple dedicated to the healing arts including traditional Thai massage. Inside the main temple there is a massive gold plated reclining Buddha with beautiful mother of pearl inlay covering his massive feet. As we were admiring the beautiful paintings on the walls and the bright colored Buddha I noticed a rapid “tinging” sound throughout the temple. I was wondering what it was when I rounded the corner and saw a series of metal bowls lining the wall behind the Buddha.

There were a few monks selling coins and I was told that if you put a coin in each bowl you will guarantee yourself good health. I grabbed a quick video, and learned that you can only tilt the camera for pictures and not video. So don’t be deceived by the what you see on video, the law of gravity is a universal one and does indeed apply here in Thailand…

We wandered around the temple grounds and then some of the group decided to call it a day and head back to the hotel (it was about 96 degrees F and extremely humid – blech!) and four of us decided to head over to something called the Golden Mound. After a harrowing tuk-tuk ride through the city, we got to the base of a huge hill in the middle of the city.

The video below does not properly express the crazy experience of taking a Motorcycle mounted taxi through the streets of a busy city severely lacking in traffic laws.  During the scariest moments, filming was not on my mind, so this example is rather tame comparatively speaking. Let’s just say that in this situation you must always keep your hands and feet inside the vehicle at all times. If you don’t, you are likely to lose them on a car or motorcycle that we tear past like a bat out of hell.

Back to the sights. The Golden Mound is a gold painted temple built high on a hill (aka Mound). It was heavily forested on the way up and there were a series of bells lining the stairs. People were ringing them one by one as they went past and occasionally there would be a platform with a large gong.

It was quite the noise, but made for a very interesting atmosphere. Adding to the overall ambiance of the temple there were many monks coming and going.

Once we made the long hike to the top, the views were breathtaking! You could see nearly the entire city of Bangkok! It had been a long hot day, and we took a cab back to the hotel to get our stuff packed for a train ride that night. We left the hotel at about 4:30 in the afternoon and headed for the train station.

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The plan is to spend the night on a 14 hour sleeper train trip up to Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand. I was expecting some pretty rough conditions, but was pleasantly surprised. Other than being quite dirty initially, the train was nice and comfortable while we were hanging out during the evening. Nothing a few antibacterial wipes couldn’t fix, well, except the bathroom, which was pretty gross after about three hours into the train ride.

We had dinner on the train, which was about what you would expect to get on an airplane. When we first arrived on the train we placed our order and specified the time we wanted to eat. They were there with our meal promptly at the time indicated and the food was hot! After a few beers and some laughs, we started to wonder how to turn these booths we were sitting in into a set of bunk beds.

Luckily, one of the train attendants came by and made them up for us. They had curtains, sheets, blankets and pillows all ready for us. The bed itself was not uncomfortable, but the train was less than stable. It was swaying, clicking, and once in a while the driver would slow down rapidly. It made it hard to sleep, but we all managed to get at least a couple of hours worth. We didn’t have much time to lament about our tired selves before we launched into a really busy day again!

The Chiang Mai region of Thailand has a rich history. Because of it’s prime location and surrounding fertile lands, the valley was settled by several different ethnic groups including some hill tribes that still live traditional lives to this day. We took a minibus up to the hills around Chiang Mai to see some of the local hill tribes.

As we wound our way through some rice paddies you started to get a vivid picture of rural life. Once we made our way into the village there were several people working on handicrafts to sell to tourists. There were very distinct tribes in the area, each with their own little villages.

One tribe you might recognize is the Caren tribe that uses metal rings to elongate their necks. They were all very friendly, and of course welcomed the tourist dollars. At the end of the main area of one of the towns there was a large catholic church and we were told that they learned how to make many of the items by the missionaries and most people in this particular village were Christians.

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We walked down small streets and over precarious bridges to see all of the various hill tribes. One of the tribes had decorated gates located on either end of their village. The gates are believed to be protected by a spirit and if it is touched by any humans it has to be cleansed by the sacrifice of a black cat or black pig. Yikes. Won’t be touching that one.

After a long hot walk we hopped back into the minivan for a short ride over to a Tiger conservation center. The tigers were trained and tamed since birth to be friendly to humans so that tourists could pay to have their pictures taken hugging, petting, and lying on them. I chose not to because I have strong feelings about wild animals needing to be wild, and Siegfried and Roy taught me a valuable lesson about tamed Tigers. I watched from afar as the guys in the group took pictures with the massive tiger!

While I was waiting, I decided to get a fish pedicure. The fish are supposed to eat all the dead skin off of your feet leaving them refreshed and like new. I decided to give it a try because after many weeks of traveling I was in desperate need of some pedicuring. It tickled like crazy as they pecked at my feet (this is not for you ticklish feet types, Tracy), but after about 40 minutes, my feet didn’t look much different. Oh well – it was only a couple bucks! Still something fun and new!

We all loaded back into the minivan to meet up with the rest of the group for a trip to a local temple to watch the sunset. We got caught in traffic so what should have taken 30 minutes actually took about 2 hours, so we arrived at the temple just in time to watch the sunset and hear the monks doing their evening chanting. This was one of my favorite temple experiences this far.  It was mostly the active worship and chanting that made it special. But it also provided beautiful sunset views of Chiang Mai.

The temple and monastery is called Doi Suthep. It is situated on a tall mountain in the Northwest of the city.

I thought the story of how it’s location was chosen was quite interesting. A relic of Buddha was placed on a sacred white elephant’s back. The elephant was allowed to roam freely until it came across a place where it trumpeted and circled before laying down. That was taken as a signal that it had chosen an auspicious place for the temple to be built. So they built one!  Supposedly the relic and original stupa is still located under the newer golden stupa.

I would have enjoyed having additional time to spend in Chiang Mai as it was much mellower and easy to navigate compared to Bangkok. We went out for dinner and drinks after and had a lovely time. That night we stayed at a small guesthouse and I fell asleep almost immediately after a long exhausting day.

We woke up early again the next day and took a long minivan ride to Lao. It was about a seven hour trip, but we made a few stops along the way to break up the time. One was a pecan farm where we learned about how pecans are processed and grown.

The second stop was one of the most beautiful and unusual temples I have ever seen. It is called the white temple by most and was designed and created by a classically trained Thai artist who has set out to build the most beautiful temple in the world.

It was extremely intricate and was meant to highlight the balance between good and evil. The grounds were covered with macabre images of suffering and intended to represent the depths of hell. Then you crossed over a bridge and entered a temple which represented the pathway to leave hell behind and subsequently arrive in heaven. You couldn’t take pictures inside of the temple, but on the main wall is a fairly traditional shrine of buddha images. On the opposing wall facing the Buddha was a mural of a detailed and unusual demonic face.

This building housed the bathrooms…

Throughout the demon painting there were representations of well known movie heros and villians including several comic book characters such as Spiderman, movie icons like the aliens from Avatar, and in the center of each of the demons eyes was another image – George W. Bush in one eye and Osama Bin Laden in the other. Creepy!! It was really strange to say the least and was actually being painted when we were in there. I walked away a little confused, but appreciative of the beauty and hard work that went into building this ongoing project.

Back on the minivan to go to the river crossing between Thailand and Laos. The Thailand side is Chiang Khong. There we got stamped out of the country and were sent down to the shores of the river to catch a boat over to Huay Xai, Laos. It was not the steadiest boat in the world. Crazy to think this is the only border crossing in the North of Thailand. Once we arrived on the Lao side we were shuttled from one line to the next to get our Lao visa. One line for turning in the paperwork, one line for paying the visa fee, and another line to exchange money, and one line to get the heck out of there!

 We walked up a steep hill to our guesthouses and settled in for a few minutes. We headed back out to dinner at a traditional Thai hot pot restaurant overlooking the river.

Everyone was in good spirits and you could tell our leader was much happier being in Laos than in Thailand because he had a few beers with us for the first time. We all went out and had some drinks before retiring for the night.

 The next morning we hopped aboard a slow boat down the Mekong River for a two day trip to Luang Prabang, Laos. I am writing to you from the boat, but I will have to leave you hanging as to what happened during and after the boat ride until my next post!  I wish you could all be here with me, I am having the time of my life!

Take care! Love and miss you all!

Lisa

Posted in Career Break, Great Indochina Loop, Lao PDR, RTW, Thailand | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Sayounara, Japan, Sawatdee Kah, Thailand!!

Sawadee everyone!!

Well I should have done this post a few days ago, but once I got to Thailand I turned into a giddy little kid. Responsibility was put promptly on the backburner for a minute. I will tell you a bit about Thailand at the end of this post, but I need to share my last few days in Japan with you!

I used my Japan Rail Pass for a couple more side trips after Nara and Uji (mentioned in my last post). I would have liked to use it more, but the weather and my health did not cooperate. It snowed hard one day with some really strong winds and with a high below freezing, it did not seem to be a good day to spend all day outside. Another day it decided to wash the streets with a torrential downpour. It was slightly warmer, but with the wind, there was no hope of staying dry. I woke up that morning with a cold, so I didn’t think it was a good idea to spend the day cold and wet. So there is my full list of excuses, but I will get to the places I did visit.

The first was Himeji. Himeji is famous for its huge castle complex. It is a mostly intact castle complete with a moat!

Map of Himeji Castle Grounds

While I was able to see the grounds and many of the buildings in the complex, the main building of the castle was undergoing restorations so it was under a huge scaffolding. Disappointing, but the grounds were impressive unto themselves.

The building in the background is actually the scaffolding hiding the main building.

One bonus was a lookout from the top of the scaffolding where you could get a view of the whole city called the “Egret’s Eye View”. I couldn’t help but thinking that if it were in the US it would be the Eagle Eye View. I wonder if Egrets have really great vision like Eagles? I digress…

Once I got off the elevator to the lookout, there was a “Host” there. I am not sure what his official capacity was, but he was wearing a bright yellow “I Speak English” shirt and lit up like Christmas when I walked in. He approached with some level of apprehension, “Excue me lady, can I talk to you?” I was curious how many people told him no… He gave me what I assume was a good description of the castle’s history in very heavily accented English. I caught about 20% of what he was saying. There was a whole lot of nodding and smiling going on. One thing I did catch and laughed out loud at was his description of the castle walls. He told me that the castle grounds were originally surrounded by three moats and a stone wall about 60 feet tall. The wall was originally plastered to make it smooth. He told me, “Only the sneakiest ninjas could make it up there.” Immediately my mind was filled with sneaky ninjas.

The Egret's Eye View

One of the things I liked the most about this castle was a multi-level long corridor lined with small rooms. As you walked along the corridor they had plaques outlining a tragic yet beautiful story of Senhime, who once lived in this corridor that was built for her. The small rooms were places for her ladies in waiting. I wanted to share her story with you while I share the castle pictures.

Senhime was born on April 11th, 1597. Her father was the second Shogun and she was married off to Toyotomi Hideyori in Osaka when she was 7 and he was 11. It was purely a political marriage and she was regarded as a hostage. There was a lot of political struggles for supremacy in the family and she grew up to be a beautiful woman in a difficult position. On May of 1615, Osaka Castle burst into flames caused by an attack. Her husband and his mother both killed themselves, but Senhime was barely rescued and survived. Sakazaki Naomori dashed into the flames to rescue her, but he was burned in the process.

View from the corridor

Full of grief and depression, Senhime made her way Edo (now Tokyo). On the way there she met a handsome and dignified man by the name of Honda Tadayoki. He welcomed her to stay on behalf of his father during her long journey. After she left and made her way to Edo, she could not get Tadayoki off of her mind. But once she got to Edo she was told by her family that she was only alive because they had bribed someone to rescue her from the fire by promising her hand in marriage to her rescuer, Sakazaki. Even though he saved her life, she refused the arranged marriage. “I will not do as I am told anymore, I wish to marry Tadatoki.” She defied her family for the first time in her life.

Marriage for love was extremely exceptional in those days, but her grandfather was touched and consented to Senhime’s marriage to Tadatoki. She married him and they moved to Himeji castle in 1617. A mansion was built for her husband and another one was built for Senhime including this long corridor of 600 feet, lined with more than 20 small rooms for her ladies.

Senhime and Tadatoki had a girl first and then a boy, but their happiness did not last long. Their sone died at the age of three and they were not blessed with any more children after that. People said that it was the curse of Hideyori, Senhimes first husband, who killed himself in Osaka. Senhime built a shrine on a hill near Himeji Castle and prayed to it every day from the very corridor where I was standing. However, her prayers were not answered. Tadatoki died of an illness at the age of 31 in 1626, followed closely by his mother, and then Senhime received news of her own mothers death back in Edo. Crushed with grief, she took her only daughter and left Himeji. She became a nun and lived out her years at Edo Castle until she dies in 1666 at the age of 70.

I walked back to the train station and caught a train back to Kyoto with Senhime’s story on my mind. I found it vastly more interesting than just seeing a castle with the dates like many others I have seen. It puts it into context and allows you to envision how life would have been for a princess in that period of Japanese history. I would love to go back and see the castle after the restorations are done. The other thing the host told me (that I understood) was how beautiful the grounds are when the cherry blossoms are in bloom. I can only imagine how peaceful and lovely the castle would have been (when not under siege, that is…)

My next destination was Miyajima. Miyajima is an island about an hour outside of Hiroshima. Getting there was quite the process. I had to take a train to Osaka, switch to the Shinkansen (high speed) train to Hiroshima, and then transfer again to Miyajima. Once I was at the Miyajima train station, I took a ferry over to the island. You have seen pictures of ths island before. How do I know? The bright red Torii gates in Miyajima are the most commonly used images when advertising tourism in Japan. They sit in the open water and greet visitors to the island.

In addition to taking about 20 pictures of the exact same subject matter, there was a lot of activity here on the island. One of the things I enjoyed seeing was all of the street vendors. They were my favorite in South Korea, so I was happy to see some of them in Japan. However, and this is a big however, I was not really interested in bacon wrapped fish cake (a compressed fish paste similar to hot dog consistency), nor did I have an interest in eating seared oysters. They did make a good photography subject though!

Worlds Largest Rice Scoop!!

The island also had a fairly large population of deer like Nara. These deer were everywhere in the temples and shops throughout the area. Also found on the island were several pagodas and shrines. AND, stop the presses, the worlds largest rice scoop.

I am pretty sure it is just a typical tourist trap similar to the worlds largest ball of twine, but I still thought it was funny. Many of the souvenirs were little rice scoops with the Torii gates.

This was called "Five Story Pagoda" , pretty creative...

I walked around the crowded streets for an hour or so and then got back on the ferry to start my journey home. Overall, very touristy, but still extremely picturesque and worth the trip.

I had planned to go to Hikone to see the castle there before I left, but unfortunately as I mentioned above, the weather and my health did not cooperate. I was a little bummed by that, but honestly was ready to move on to warmer weather. I had an enjoyable time in Japan, but it was not as cool as South Korea in my opinion. The people were not as hospitable and remarkably few people spoke any english. I definitely saw some beautiful temples and shrines. My final take on Japan: Visit, but come during the Spring. It was too bitingly cold on many days to enjoy myself. On one day I wore thermal underwear, three long sleeve shirts, a sweatshirt, and a fleece jacket and I was still frigid cold. Another overarching theme on my trip was, “It’s beautiful here when the Cherry Blossoms bloom.” Great, thanks, but I’m here now and they are not blooming. I almost felt like people were pitying me for missing it. It would be extremely hard to time it though because they only bloom for 10-14 days and it varies each year in a two month window of time. You would have to be ready to fly at the drop of a hat to catch them.

Khao San Road

Ready to hit some warmer pastures, I happily jumped on my plane to Bangkok. Those of you that follow my Tweets or Facebook know that my love affair with Bangkok started right when I got here. I am staying on Rambuttri Road which is one street over from Khao San Road, a worldwide renowned backpackers haven.

The streets are lined with bars, vendors, and cheap souvenirs. I bought two tank tops and two blouses for $8, got an hour long massage for $5, and walked down the street and had a couple of beers for $2. Seriously, I love this place. It is shockingly hot and sticky here after being in frigid Japan, but I am sure I will adjust.

30 baht = $1

I woke up this morning and walked around for a bit before hitting a street vendor for some freshly made Pad Thai for 30 baht (about a dollar). Delicious!

Here is your dose of Daily Zen:

I will update the blog as often as I can, but internet access will be spotty for a while as I make my way through more rural areas of Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia over the next month or so. If you need to get in touch with me, email is still probably the best because I will be checking it as often as I can!

Love to all!

Lisa

Posted in Career Break, Great Indochina Loop, Japan, RTW, Thailand | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Shrines and Temples and Snow…Oh My!

Location:  Kyoto, Japan

Weather: Snowing and 30 F

Hello again from Japan!

I’ve been busy over here seeing as much as I can so I thought it was a good time to share with you!  I spent some additional time exploring Kyoto and have seen quite a bit!

Here in Kyoto, the temples and shrines are virtually everywhere.  Part of that is due to each neighborhood needing access to shrines and temples and they other part of it is that Kyoto has not been as affected by the numerous wars resulting in the destruction of temples throughout Japan.

I meandered over to Shosei-en Garden here in Kyoto.  Shosei-en was originally was constructed as a retreat of the chief priest Sen’nyo (1602-1658). The garden is  what is called a Chisen-Kaiyu-Shiki teien (pond stroll garden) with buildings such as tea-ceremony houses arranged here and there. The garden has somewhat different atmosphere than usual Japanese gardens. The gardener for Shosei-en says that the garden looks like a park more than a garden probably because of the large lawn and the pond next to it.

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The gardens are large and it was truly peaceful to walk around the pond.  Virtually everything was picturesque here, but I chose a couple of pictures that I liked to share with you.  I also decided to bring you your moment of Zen a little early because this particular garden was so Zen-like!

Just a brief walk from Shosei-en Gardens was the biggest wooden structure I had seen (up to this point) in the form of Higashi Hongon-ji Temple Complex’s Founders Hall.  This is where the image of the founder Shinran is enshrined. It is the center of worship for the Shinshu Otani-ha branch of Shin Buddhism.

Pleeplius says Hello!

This hall is one of the largest wooden structures in the world, being 76 m (250 ft.) in length, 58 m (190 ft.) in width, 38 m (125 ft.) in height.  The most recent construction of this hall began in 1879 with its completion in 1895.  I don’t think my pictures can do the scale of this place any justice, but it was a MASSIVE structure.

The grounds were spread out and a big area of the complex was under a large restoration tent.  I can’t capture this place in its entirety, but I can show you the details of it.  That’s what really made me stop and appreciate the amount of time and effort that went into building this huge structure.

All of the pillars were incredibly detailed

On the main courtyard there was a beautiful dragon fountain

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The grounds were quite large and I walked around for quite a while before deciding it was time to call it a day and headed back to the subway to go home.

One of the toughest things here in Japan has not been finding things to see, it has been deciding what things I won’t be able to see.  There are more temples, shrines, gardens in this country than one person could see probably in a lifetime!  So I hit the most prominent sites here in Kyoto and picked a handful of cities around the area to take train day trips.  Keep in mind that I need to be sure to make it back to Kyoto every evening so that I can take care of the kitties, so I have to stay somewhat regional.

I decided to start small and head to nearby Uji, which is located between the two ancient capitals of Nara and Kyoto.  Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (1358–1408) promoted cultivation of green tea in the Uji area. Since that time Uji has been an important production and distribution center of superior quality green tea.  Just a short walk from the subway stop you start to see that Uji is a beautiful little city.  The city is split by the Uji river giving it a serene feel and several beautiful bridges. I happily strolled across the river to see some of the historical sites in the area.

Phoenix Hall

One of the major sites that brings me to Uji is Byodo-in temple.  This temple was originally built in 998 as a rural villa and changed to a Buddhist temple in 1052. The most famous building in the temple is the Phoenix Hall constructed in 1053. It is the only remaining original building, surrounded by a scenic pond; additional buildings making up the compound were burnt down during a civil war in 1336.

The Phoenix Hall consists of a main rectangular structure flanked by two L-shaped wing corridors and a tail corridor, set at the edge of a large artificial pond. Though its official name is Amida-do, it began to be called Phoenix Hall, in the beginning of the Edo period. This name is considered to derive both from the building’s likeness to a phoenix with outstretched wings and a tail, and the pair of phoenixes adorning the roof.

Inside the Phoenix Hall, a single image of the Amitābha Buddha (c. 1053) is installed on a high platform. The sculpture is made of Japanese cypress and is covered with gold leaf. I paid a few hundred Yen extra to get the tour of the inside of Phoenix Hall so I would be able to see the Buddha.  It was breathtaking, but alas, they did not allow pictures to be taken.  The main statue measures about three meters high from its face to its knees, and is seated. Applied to the walls of the hall are small relief carvings of 52 Bodhisattvas riding clouds.  Right next door, the Byodo-in museum stores and displays most the temple’s national treasures, including the wooden Bodhisattvas, the temple bell, the south end Phoenix, and other historically noteworthy items.  Again, no pictures allowed. Poo.

The 10 Yen coin showing Phoenix Hall

I should note that Japan commemorates Phoenix Hall’s longevity and cultural significance by displaying its image on the 10 yen coin.

Just walking around the city you get a feel for how beautiful it was before modern-day. Not to say that it wasn’t beautiful now, but much like Kyoto, all around each of the most historic sites there are constant reminders of modern living like convenience stores, apartment houses, or cars.  I took a few minutes to sit by the river and picture what it would have been like a thousand years ago.   While I would have probably been killed or enslaved if I actually showed up, I would have loved to have a time machine.  After letting my mind drift to all the places I’d go and things I would go see, I decided it was probably time to catch a train back to Kyoto.

On my way back across the river I was reminded about something I read in a guide book. I recalled reading that one thing listed as a “can’t miss” in Uji is the green tea ice cream. So I decided to stop by a cafe on the water to try it out.  I know I haven’t treated you loyal blog readers to many Japanese culinary delights, so here is one that I felt was worth trying.  Now to further my argument that eating out is not the best value here in Japan, this little bowl of love was 950 Yen, which equals $12.50 in USD.  Ouch, this stuff better be good.  It didn’t disappoint.  I was greeted by delicious flavors and some interesting textures.  One of the cubes in the bowl was like a really thick jello.  Not sure what it was, but it was covered in what tasted like powdered peanuts!  The take home message is that green tea ice cream is delicious (but expensive) and I am glad I decided to splurge on the treat.  My full belly and I headed back to the train station for the quick ride back home to Kyoto.

The next morning was COLD.  But I decide to put on my big girl pants and head out for more sight-seeing.  I was glad that I did for the majority of the day until it came to walking home after dark in the frigid cold, but that’s a story for another day.   My target destination this time was Nara.  Nara is home to many important scenic and historical sites, and today preserves its main sights much more attractively than Kyoto within Nara Park.

Well hello, Mr. Deer!

Nara Park is a large nature area known for the tame deer that roam there. According to legend, the god of the Kasuga Taisha came to Nara riding on a white deer, so the deer enjoy protected status as envoys of the god.  Based on their current behavior their new job is to take an extremely passionate interest in eating biscuits from tourists and harassing shopkeepers.   But they certainly weren’t shy!

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I started my sightseeing in Nara with the Kofuku-ji Temple.  It is known for it’s tall pagodas and octagonal halls.  It was quite beautiful, but this is where I realized that I have become a little blasé about Japanese temples.  It didn’t seem remarkable despite being as picturesque as many of the other temples I had seen previously.  I know, poor baby.

My next stop was the Nara National Museum where I was treated to some amazing Buddhist sculptures and artifacts.  No pictures allowed, but there were Buddhas from throughout history including some from China, Korea, and India.  I spent a couple of hours wandering through all of the historical artifacts.  Many of them were take from nearby Todai-ji Temple, which was my next stop.

Entry gates to Todai-ji Temple

Todai-ji Temple is the jewel of Nara as far as I am concerned.  The grounds were well groomed and clean despite what is obviously a heavy volume of tourists.  Just adjacent to the entrance of the temple grounds was a parking lot full of tour buses.

The sheer magnitude of the temple is what first grabs your to attention when you first enter the grounds.  Just like the Higashi Hongon-ji Temple in Kyoto, pictures will not do justice to this temple’s size.

After you put the camera down long enough to actually go inside of the temple, you are given a second blow of awe when you are greeted by the largest Buddha statue in the country.  It sits around 70 feet tall seated.

I snapped about two dozen pictures of the Buddha, and then I was politely told that it was closing time by one of the monks there.  He politely bowed and shooed me towards the doors.  I took that as my cue and made my way back to the train station to return to Kyoto.

So thats all for now!  I took another R&R day to get caught up on blogging and laundry, but tomorrow I plan to head back out to see more!  I am tentatively planning on going to Himeji, Matsumoto, Mayajima/Hiroshima, and Hikone.  I have four days left on my Japan Rail pass, so that should keep me busy!

Take care friends!

Miss you all!

-Lisa

Posted in Career Break, Japan, RTW | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

今日は (Konnichiwa) from Japan!

Location:  Kyoto, Japan

Weather: Sunny and 32 F

今日は (konnichi-wa = hello)!!

Japan

I have now had a few days here in Japan where I am happily housesitting and seeing the sites around Kyoto. Seeing as this is my first post from Japan, it’s time for your geography lesson!  Japan is an archipelago of 6,852 islands.  The four largest islands are Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu and Shikoku, together accounting for ninety-seven percent of Japan’s land area.  Kyoto is in the central part of the island of Honshu, Japan. And it was once the imperial capital of Japan.  It has a population close to 1.5 million.

My furry wards

So why did I choose to come to Kyoto out of all the places in Japan?  There are two reasons.  The first relates to practicality.  I stumbled across an opportunity to house-sit for a couple here in Kyoto who were going on a family vacation.  They were going on a two week family vacation and have three cats in need of food and attention.  So in exchange for watching their cats, I get a free place to stay in an expensive country.  Sounds like a good deal to me!  The second reason is based on the fact that Kyoto is home to over 2000 temples and shrines.  It is central to Japan allowing me to take a few day trips to other cities.  I am not a huge fan of big cities, so not having to stay in Tokyo was appealing as well.

The house I am staying in is a traditional Japanese house that is large by Japanese standards.  Sounds cool, right?  Lots of shoji screens and open spaces!  It is pretty cool looking, but there are some challenges as well.  The main one is temperature.  They do not use any kind of insulation and all of the big glass windows that make up at least one wall of each room are single pane and poorly sealed.  So…that means that without heating, the room quick returns to the outside temperature of about 35 F/1 C.  Brr!!  I should now add in that they do not have central heating in Japan.  So all of the heating is done by way of space heaters.  The heaters in this house are kerosene heaters.  They are amazing at heating the room quickly. In about 10 minutes, the room will heat up to 70 F/20 C, but if you don’t keep it turned on, it will very quickly return to a very chilly room!  So that means that you pick a room, heat it up, and stay there!  It took me a day or so to get used to the flow, but now I have the hang of it!  I also now know why Ninjas move so quick and are so covered up.

So let’s get to the good stuff – the sights!  Of course!  That’s why you are here!  When I first get to a new place, I like to walk around and get the “feel” of the city. I started my walking tour is what is arguably the most famous temple here in Kyoto.  It was about a 45 minute walk from where I am staying.   It is called Kinkaku-ji and is also known as “The Golden Temple”.

Yup…it’s real gold!

It is a Zen Buddhist temple on a man-made lake surrounded by a beautiful garden.  It was definitely the most crowded of the temples I went to on this day.  On July 2, 1950 the pavilion was burned down by a 22-year-old monk, Hayashi Yoken.  The present pavilion structure dates from 1955, when it was rebuilt.    The reconstruction is said to be a copy close to the original, although some doubt such an extensive gold-leaf coating was used on the original structure.  Yup, it’s really coated in gold.  Imagine what one of those “Cash for Gold” places could get for that thing!!

After finding a bench in the forest, I ate my packed lunch and enjoyed the beautiful scenery and listened to the peaceful sound of birds chirping.  Just a short walk away was Daitoku-ji Temple.  Daitoku-ji originated as a small monastery founded in 1315 or 1319.  Like many other temples in Kyoto during that time, the temple’s buildings were destroyed by fire and then rebuilt.  Many of the temples around the city are hidden.  You will be walking down a narrow alley and then BAM! Temple!

One of the gated entryways to a sub-temple in Daitoku-ji

Daitoku-ji is closely linked to the Japanese tea ceremony.  For a fee you can watch the ceremony, but I chose not to because the price didn’t seem worth it.  This was really more of a complex of temples and sub-temples.  Each one had a separate fee to get in, and they all pretty much looked alike.  I am sure there were many differences, but the signs and guides were in Japanese, so I have no idea what they were.

Inside the temples there were Buddhist altars

I meandered on down the road to the next temple on my agenda for the day, Toji-in temple.  It was a neat walk as I had to go through a little more hilly area and a university.   I was enjoying the walking as much as I was enjoying the temples.  I had no idea what a treat that Toji-in was going to be for me!  From the outside it didn’t seem much different than the last temple, but once I started walking around, I saw so many differences!

To start off with, there was a HUGE painting at the end of the hallway in the main building greeting me on my tour.

Well Hello!

The painting was literally about 8 feet square.  It looks like something you would see on Adult Swim!  I looked around the building and then walked through an archway over to a room called Reikō-den where there were 16 Shogun statues.  As I was attepmting to snap a picture, my camera died. Seriously bad timing.  Luckily I realized that I had my iPod so while the picture quality might suffer a bit, I will still be able to capture my day.  Okay, back to the temple…The sixteen statues are lined up in two rows on the sides of the room, each sitting and carrying a shaku symbolizing their shogunal power. The room was a bit dark, but you could see that it was an active place of worship because there were live flowers and incense burning.  I got the best picture I could with my iPod and moved on.

Thats when I was blown away.  I walked around the back of the temple and saw the most amazing pond and garden I have ever seen.  I know that my pictures will not do this justice, but it was so incredibly peaceful and calming to be walking around the gardens.  I just wanted to spend the rest of my afternoon just enjoying the sights and sounds!

I could have stayed there for days, but alas, they closed at 4:30 and I had to move on.

Hirano Shrine

As I  made my way back home, I passed by the Hirano Shrine and grabbed a few more pictures.  They were not open for visitors, so I just took some pictures from the outside and walked on home!  Overall, it was a great day and I enjoyed all of my walking and the sights.  I went home, and while I was making dinner, made a list of a handful more spots I wanted to check out.

Just a side note about my time here in Japan.  With the dollar exchange rate being what it is, Japan is really expensive.  I have been told that a can of Coke is a good way to put it in perspective, so that runs about 150 Yen which equals a little over $2 a can.  A bowl of noodles is 900 Yen which is about $12.  Call me cheap if you want, but I am not going to spend $12 on a bowl of noodles!  Sushi dinner?  At least $90!!  Ack!!  So I will not be providing you with a lot of food descriptions on this leg of the trip.  I knew how expensive it was here, so I brought a bunch of food over from Korea with me and went to the grocery store for the fruit and other perishables.

Some of you may think that it’s a crime to travel and not sample the food, but this is a long trip and I have to keep expenses in mind.  For example, lets say that I got an egg and toast for breakfast $8, noodles for lunch $12, and sushi for dinner $90.  Thats $110 in one day and that would feed me for at least a week in some of the other countries I will be visiting.  So…there you go!  I will pack my lunch and go home for dinner and save myself a ton of money that I can use later to try out Thai, Vietnamese, Indian, Laotian, or even Cambodian food.  Besides, you can get Japanese food at home!

As John Stuart would say, I will now leave you with this moment of Zen:

Thats all the time I have for blogging today, but I will continue to keep you updated on what I’m up to over here!

それでは (SOH-reh deh-wah) Bye for now!

Lisa

Posted in Career Break, Japan, RTW | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Farewell South Korea, I will miss you!

Location:  Kyoto, Japan

Weather: Sunny and 32 F

Hello from beautiful Japan!  But don’t expect a bunch of info about Japan, I pretty much got here last night, went to the grocery store, and then crashed for the night.  So I am writing this blog to inform you of the last few days I spent in Korea.  They were so wonderful and I was able to see the sights with some really fun people.  It was a great send off to what has been one of my favorite countries to visit.

There were a lot of long rows of fish vendors in Nampadong, but they were all closed up for the night! 😦

So the night after my last blog, I went down to the Nampadong International Market.  It was the strangest mix of shops.  On one half of the street there were an assortment of every high end store you can imagine – from a Doc Martens to Prada.  If there is a blatent observation I can make about South Korea is that many people here seem to be label obsessed.  Everything from purses to shoes have whatever brand name they are emblazoned on the side of the product.   Seeing as I am trying to be frugal and did not want to be tempted, we decided to go to the other side of the street that was filled with street vendors and fishmongers.  Unfortunately we got there around closing time, so we missed a lot of the fishy action, but I grabbed a couple pictures before we were shooed out…

Kathleen and her new sea spider friends!

The streets were filled with food vendors and since it was a friday night there were more than a few people running around after drinking too much Soju(a Korean distilled rice drink).  I can understand why – it is actually cheaper than water.  A bottle of water is about a $1.25 USD, the same size bottle of Soju is about $1.00.  I didn’t drink much of it, but it tastes like a sweet vodka and it always consumed neat. I hear people in the US are starting to use it in cocktails…let me know if you come across it!

Street food! Yum!

Which plastic meal would you like to eat today?

I should also mention that outside of most restaurants here they have prepared “plastic” food.  I am not sure what the stuff is actually made of, but they are supposed to be examples of the food inside.  It was pretty funny to see food you don’t recognize in 3D and then try to decide if you wanted to eat it.  It did however make the restaurant choices easier and by the time I left I was starting to get good at picking out what each meat looked like.

After a fun night out we had a few beers at a coffee shop (yup, coffee shops are also places to drink beer here, it is not unusual to see a sign saying “Coffee, Waffles, Beer” – more on the waffles later!), and headed home to rest up for our trip to Gyeong-ju for the weekend.

View from the back of the van

Gyeong-ju is a city literally filled with cultural relics that date back to the 1st century BC.  While I didn’t get a full sense of the history there just because of time constraints, I did get a surface level understanding and had a great time!

What really made this trip fun was the fact that I can now say I have been on a Korean road trip!  If you know me, then you know how much I love a good road trip!  The seven of us (Kathleen, Candice, Taehoon, Kim, Miru, Songmin and I) loaded up in the family minivan and headed out for the drive.  About 45 minutes into the drive we stopped at a rest stop for lunch.  I should mention that a Korean rest stop is nothing like the stops in Europe or the US.  It is a pretty happening place!  There are stores, street vendors making food, coffee shops, a mechanic, full restaurants, and various other amenities.  When you think of a truck stop in the US, multiply it by 10 in amenities, and picture that in about half the space.  It was fun and I wanted to get a picture, but unfortunately my camera was not accessible at the time.

Brightly colored condo!

We arrived in Gyeong-ju and went straight to our condo there.  It was a one bedroom with a loft.  In Korea, beds are not required, you get a floor pad and a blanket.  It’s not as uncomfortable as it sounds because the floors are the main source of heat in Korea.

After we unloaded the van we headed over to the museum where we were able to see thousand year old relics that were removed a royal tomb locally.

The Gyeong-ju Museum

There were crowns, statues, and jewelry.  Everything you would expect from a royal tomb, but they were different than what I have seen before.  They were all so intricate and beautiful!  Again, I found myself at a Korean museum that did not disappoint.  Now going to a museum with a five year old in tow is a little different than the hours I spend going through a museum on my own, so I spent most of the time seeing things rather than reading about them.  The result is that I can’t tell you a lot about the history there, but came away with an appreciation for the beautiful relics!

The early history of Gyeongju is closely tied to that of the Silla kingdom, of which it was the capital. The city was home to the Silla court, and the great majority of the kingdom’s elite. Its prosperity became legendary, and was reported as far away as Persia.  In the early 20th century many archaeological excavations took place, mostly on the many tombs which survived the centuries fairly well.  The excavations of this period, largely carried out by Japanese archaeologists, are often accused of recklessness and plunder, although others take a more positive view.  Few excavation reports were ever published.

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It was starting to get late and we decided to head back to the condo to start working on dinner. I was excited to learn that we were having a cookout/BBQ.  Wow – a road trip and a cookout in Korea! I can safely say that I was privileged to experience things that most tourists don’t get to do!

The veggies served only as a meat delivery device.

Korean cookouts are similar to American cookouts, but with a few differences.  They both involve obsene amounts of food cooked over a flame, just in a different manner!

Mmmmm…pork belly and Korean bacon!!

There were 6-8 BBQs in a long tent structure with a stove in the middle.  They pulled charcoal bricks from the stove, put them in a half barrel BBQ, and covered the barrel with a grate.  When the flames were about 3-4 feet high, they put a thick cast iron lid on top of the grate. I found out later that this pot lid comes from the huge pots they cook rice in for large families.  There were an assortment of veggies on the table and we made lettuce wraps like I mentioned in my last post. I was so happy and full of good food!  They cooked pork bacon, pork belly, and pork shoulder in addition to roasting full garlic cloves.  So delicious!!

Songmin, shrimp-master!

As if that wasn’t enough, Songmin (sorry if I am spelling that wrong…) said that he had some shrimp to cook once we got back to the condo.  He cooked them in a salt filled pan over a ceramic lined pot that held a large brick of charcoal.  I love shrimp, but have a hard time when they are staring at me right before I eat them.  And the whole ripping off the head thing isn’t my favorite either. Luckily, Candice is a shrimp peeling master so she peeled my shrimp for me, but I was so full from dinner that I could only eat two!  But the two I had were amazing and I wished I had room for more.

Kathleen busts out a tune for us!

After we decided to head over to the common building to do some authentic Korean karaoke! They had a handful of rooms about the size of a bedroom with one full wall of speakers and a TV.  The opposite walls are lined with couches for the observers.   No big crowd of strangers, just friends and beer!  The nice part about it was that they turn on the echo on the mic, so bad singing isn’t as bad as it could be.  Overall it was a really fun night!

We got up the next morning and went to a woman’s house up the road to do some wheel turning pottery.  Seriously, how fun!!  I have done pottery in the past, but this was more fun because of the fact that I was in a barn in a very rural area of Korea.  Everyone made various things from vases to bowls, but I decided that a nice ramen bowl was the best design for me.

We built up the bowls by hand before taking turns going over to the wheel where she helped us turn our lump of clay into a really cool bowl.  I asked Kim to write my name in Korean in the bottom of the bowl and then we left them in the potter’s hands to be glazed and fired.  Once they are done they are going to be shipped to Kim & Taehoon’s house in Busan.  I intend to get back there to get my bowl or have it shipped.  What an amazing souvenir!

Each one of these mounds is an intact tomb. They have only excavated one of them.

We thanked her and walked back down to the car for a quick trip over to one of the mound tombs in town.  We could not take pictures inside the tomb, but most of the contents were just replicas of what we had seen in the museum the day before.  The area around the tombs was what I am sure is a breathtaking park when the trees have leaves.  There were a bunch of Magnolia and Cherry trees lining all of the walkways.  I just might have to come back to Busan when it’s a little greener!

We were concerned about traffic because this was the end of a holiday weekend so we went back to Busan.  If I ever get back here, I would like to spend a few days in Gyeong-ju as it seems there is a lot that I missed, but I had such a great time with my new Korean friends, that I truly didn’t mind!

Kathleen had the next couple days off so we decided to go to a few sights around Busan.  Our efforts were somewhat thwarted by the fact that it was the Lunar New Year (aka Chinese New Year) weekend and just about everything was closed for the holiday on Monday.  So we just hung out at the Wolfhound and managed to have a blast down in Haeundae beach.  I had one of the most amazing Italian meals in my life – I know it sounds strange – but we split some risotto and a porcini pizza.  It was a restaurant called Il Massimo and if you ever find yourself there, I highly recommend you stop in for a bite!

The next morning we figured we had a better chance of seeing some sights, so we met up to take a taxi up to Haedong Yonggungsa which a temple famous for it’s seaside location.  It was truly breathtaking!

However, it was incredibly crowded.  During the holiday weekends, these temples are popular for two reasons: 1. Tourism and 2. They are active places of worship.

There were entire families there to say a few prayers for a great new year and it was tough to even get around the temple.  Each one of the shrines within the temple had dozens of worshipers around them.  I felt like an intruder, so we snapped a few pictures and stayed out of the way.  It was really beautiful and the people actively using the temple for it’s intended purpose made it that much more special. I grabbed a quick video of a few people at one of the shrines.

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With the assistance of an 8 year old who spoke english, we grabbed black bean noodles for lunch and headed back to town.  We did some shopping and then went on a mission to find a few last minute foods that Kathleen wanted me to try.  I was not dissappointed!  The first was a red bean soup.  It was more like a stew or chili, but was really quite tasty.  That picture is of the black bean noodles, and not the red bean soup because I forgot to take a picture of the soup.

Holy waffle – I’m in heaven!

We finished off the trip with one of the most delicious desserts of my life!  We split a few waffles, but these weren’t your average waffles, these were super mega Korean waffles!  They can be covered in pistacios, berries, chocolate, cream, or just about anything that tastes like heaven!  It was a great way to finish off my trip of tasting some of the most amazing foods Korea has to offer!

With a sad goodbye, Kathleen and I went our separate ways at the end of the day.  I had to get packed to head to Japan the next day.

So my final take on Korea?  Not to be missed!  Many people thought it was strange that I decided to come to South Korea, but if you love history, food, art, culture, or shopping, you really can’t miss a trip there.  I am by no means a “foodie”, but this country turned me into one.  I ate things I would have never touched at home simply because I learned to trust the Korean palate.  With one BIG exception: Kimchi.  Blech. Kathleen likes it, but it’s not for me.  I have never liked anything pickled though, so it’s no big shocker there.

During my stay here I fell in love with the people.  While I stuck out like a sore thumb, I can’t think of a single person that was malicious or negative towards me.  One guy kicked Kathleen and I out of a bar, but we had no right to go into an upscale bar looking rain drenched and slobby, so I don’t blame him!  If you have the chance to go – please do – you will not regret it!

So now I am sitting in Kyoto deciding on what I want to see first.  There is more here than I can see in two weeks, so I have to be selective!  For those of you that don’t know, I am housesitting for a young couple and their three cats here in Kyoto.  They left this morning to head to Barbados and now I am sitting here with one of their cats, Mimu, writing this blog!

I will get you all updated with Kyoto once I venture out.  I hope you are all doing good at home!  Take care!

XOXO!

Lisa

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