Archive | October, 2011

A Day in Phnom Penh

30 Oct

*Sorry to my dear subscribers who were sent this blog post too early – below is the completed version!*

Leaving Luang Prabang was harder than G & I expected, mostly because we totally fell in love with Laos and partially because our flight back to Cambodia kept on getting delayed & delayed & delaaaaaayed.

Yes, we made some friends at the 2-room airport… yes, I was able to find the time to embarrass myself by slipping and falling directly on my tailbone (partially breaking it for the 3rd time)… and yes, I did get to eat chocolate chip cookies for lunch because nothing else looked as delicious and nutritious (a highlight, indeed)…but overall, it just kinda sucked.

When we finally made it back to Siem Reap, we missed our deluxe bus to Phnom Penh and ended up taking a local night bus, which was a 5-hour Cambodian karaoke joy ride and, therefore, a 5-hour test of our love and my will.  (The only thing I can liken the experience to is the test my sanity is currently undergoing, in an attempt to ignore the Korean man sitting next to me at a cafe, who sounds as if he is trying to suck-in his front tooth & failing only badly enough to try it again every 15 seconds.  AGH!)

By the time G & I arrived in Phnom Penh, we were so grateful for basic amenities like air and ice-cream that we didn’t care about the dirt or the chaos.  We were simply content with roaming the streets,

checking out the beautifully delapadated French Colonial architecture,

and stopping at every coffee shop that tickled our fancy.

For a minute, we felt bad about being tres lazy, so we waddled over to the Royal Palace in hopes of infusing our mushy brains with history and culture…but alas, the Palace was closed for a special ceremony -c’est la vie- no smarts for us.

But who needs brains when there is shopping to be done?! (Story of my life.)  Right around the corner from the Royal Palace, on St. 240 between 19th St. and Norodom Blvd, we discovered the coolest row of boutiques with unique and locally produced goods, including clothing, jewelry, and some awesome home accessories.   There were also a few modern and great restaurants scattered between the shops, where we took some long yummy breaks between spending all our money (honey).

After futzing around for an embarrassing amount of time, both G and I were finally ready to face one of the real reasons we came to Phnom Penh – to visit the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.

Once a local high school, these 5 buildings were converted into a security prison by the Khmer Rouge, who during their regime, exterminated nearly 2 million Cambodians in an attempt to transform the Country into a socialist agricultural state.  (If you are interested in reading a little more about Cambodia’s history, please see one of my previous posts.)

From 1975 to 1979, an estimated 17,000 people were imprisoned in Tuol Sleng, almost all of which were tortured and executed (there are only 7 known survivors of Tuol Sleng).  Most victims were soldiers, government officials of the previous regime, academics, doctors, teachers, students, factory workers monks and engineers.  And sometimes their families. (Source)

Walking through the classrooms that were converted into torture chambers, I was disgusted by the blood stains still visible on the floor.  Even more disturbing, however, were the hundreds of photographs of the prisoners, taken by the guards to catalog their victims.  It was almost unbearable to see the portraits of children and babies killed at the merciless hands of the Khmer Rouge.

I will not go into too much detail because, quite honestly, a part of me is trying to suppress what I learned on the tour that day…but as haunting as the experience was/is, Tuol Sleng is an extremely important museum to visit in order to understand Cambodia today.

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Not Long in Luang Prabang

19 Oct

The last stop of our jungle tour was a Khmu & Hmong village, located on the shores of the Nam Khan River.

As we approached the village by boat, we were greeted with many smiling and curious faces.

We visited homes, talked to the villagers, played with kids, and just allowed this new/old and foreign world to unfold and seep into our souls.

It was one of the shortest experiences that I’ll always remember.

***

Only a 30 minute boat ride and 1 hour bus away from the jungle, we found ourselves in, what seemed to be, another planet – Luang Prabang – a perfect riverside city with majestic golden temples, old French architecture, lantern-lit streets, delicious Asian cuisine, and an intoxicatingly relaxed pace.  In short, Luang Prabang is a traveler’s dream.

G and I wasted no time (please read: I pushed G out the door) and headed straight to the Hmong Night Market.  There, we strolled around for hours, trying to pick out the perfect scarf/braclet/shirt from the hundreds of options.

At one point, G was so tired of shopping that he left to get a massage. I, on the other hand, was happy to continue hunting solita. What can I say? I just love me a market.  BTW, Lu, that scarf is for you!  Don’t mind the strained smile, that’s the best I could do while modeling scarves in 100 degree heat.

While night marketing, restauranting, and massaging were all highlights of our time in Luang Prabang, my favorite moment, BY FAR, was waking up at 5:30 am to give alms to the Buddhist monks.  G & I were extremely lucky because we were the only tourists (among many locals) waiting for the hundreds of monks to appear during their morning procession.

It was a quiet and beautiful moment for me, kneeling on the wet street, handing out steaming sticky rice to the colorful monks.  I wondered if I could do this on a daily basis, like most of the residents of Luang Prabang do.  I also hoped that I could find something in my own everyday life, that could make me feel as good as handing out rice in the rain….

Here is a quick clip I found on YouTube of a typical Luang Prabang morning:

If you are interested in giving alms to the monks during their morning procession, please be respectful of the ritual.   I was told, as a girl, to look modest (cover those arms and legs) and make little eye-contact with the monks.  Ask your hotel to prepare a good few containers of sticky rice the night before, to ensure that you will be able to give the monks high-quality rice, instead of the cheap rice often sold to tourists along the main road.  Also, if you want to take photos, make sure not to use flash and stand on the opposite side of the street.  It’s important to preserve and uphold this Buddhist tradition in Luang Prabang, and many article’s I’ve read (like THIS NYT article) make it seem like some tourists are acting more like invasive paparazzi than respectful participants.

Oh, and if you are like me, and have no idea what to actually DO once the monks arrive, simply scoop-up a handful of rice with a clean hand, and place it in their bowls as they walk by.

I may or may not have accidentally dumped an entire bag-full of rice into the first monk’s bowl… The puzzled look on his face was priceless (and SO embarrassing for me)!!!

Even though our time in Laos was way too short, G & I left Luang Prabang knowing that we’d be back for more (Soon! Please!).  Not many places in the world can steal your heart as quickly as Laos.

Welcome to the Jungle – I mean, Laos

13 Oct

 After a perfect morning of falling in love with elephants,

As my dad says, “The only thing cuter than an elephant is a baby elephant.”

G, Ko, and I headed deeper into the marvelously muddy and mosquito-y Laotian jungle.

During our hike, Ko showed us how the local farmers use plant leaves to dye cloth and silk.  (Notice the red stains that stayed on my fingers for days after crumpling-up a seemingly normal green leaf.)

Along the way, Ko also spotted some WILD sesame.

It was wild, baby, yeah!

Small confession – after the whole sesame discovery thing (no, seriously, have you ever just found sesame in a jungle before?), G and I realized that Ko was a true tour-guide gem (perfect English + wealth of knowledge + sesame spotter = gem), so, we proceeded to behave like 2 year-olds and asked him every Laos-related question under the sun.  Luckily, Ko didn’t mind sharing his wisdom.

For the rest of the trek, Ko taught us about the three main ethnic groups living in Laos- the Laotian, Hmong, and Khmu people.  We learned about their different traditions, cultures, and religions (even the important distinctions between their home and village construction). Ko also shared some personal stories about the Hmong, his people, who believe in spiritualism, shamanism, and animism.

When asked if he believes in spirits, Ko answered, “Sometimes.”  

I guess I feel the same way.

After a couple hours of educational hiking, we stopped for lunch at Hue Fei, a Khmu hillside village of farmers and fisherman.

We walked through the village school, where all the children share 2 classrooms.  There, Ko told us that the next time we come to Laos, we should bring paper, pens, and notebooks for the kids, instead of other gifts.  Even though schooling is free in most villages, many students don’t have enough money to pay for supplies and therefore can’t attend classes.

So, if you are headed to Laos, do as Ko says and bring some school supplies to these children in need.  Instead of distributing the supplies yourself, speak to the head of the village, who will know which families need the help most.

I couldn’t stop taking photos of these beautiful children…

even though it sometimes didn’t lead to the best results.

Still cute though, right?

The pet monkey was a little bit more sympathetic to my photographic needs…

as were the unknowing villagers who didn’t notice me creeping outside their doors.

***

After a long rest and stroll through Hue Fei, we continued our hike to the waterfalls of Tad Sae.

It was the muddiest of journeys (still trying to scrape that Laotian mud off my boots), but the most gorgeous of destinations.

We chillaxed in the Tad Sae waterfalls for a few hours, with big beers and even bigger smiles… enjoying our time in the cool powerful water as we washed off the sweat and mud earned on the hike.

Unfortunately. we couldn’t get too lazy (tipsy) because there was still one more destination on our jungle tour.

More pictures to come…

LAO.M.F.A.O: Everyday I’m Jungle-ing

9 Oct

One cancelled flight and two long delays later, G & I finally made it to Luang Prabang in Laos.

And my-oh-my was it worth the wait.

Our first stop was Lao Spirit, a stunning eco-resort hidden in the depths of the Laotian Jungle.  The resort came highly recommended by my lovely friend, A, but even her praise didn’t capture the magic of this beautiful location.  When you coupled the ambiance of the Laos jungle with our elegant little bungalow, you had the best of both worlds: a Laotian Jungalow.

Because it was the rainy season in Laos (meaning, the season when only dumb kids who ignore the weather -like us- decide to travel), G & I were the ONLY guests at the resort!  Initially, we had big dreams of exploring the vacant lodge, walking to a nearby town and then strolling by the river to see the water buffalo, but the rain was relentless, so we opted to stay lazy and happy in the confines of our charming jungalow…

which, of course, required massages…

and chilled red wine (the only way to serve a glass in 100% humidity) over a competitive game of Mastermind.

Little did we know how much we needed a night of relaxation… because the next day was chock full of more-than-we-asked-for-exactly-what-we-needed activity.

***

We woke up with the sunrise (a much easier task when your eco-resort is so eco-friendly that it doesn’t have air con or fans) and got ready for the 1-day jungle tour that we booked through the hotel.

Okay, so getting ready for the tour really only required eating breakfast… but still it was worth a mention & a couple of pictures.  Check out the view from the restaurant!

Our personal (phenomenal) guide, Ko, met us at the resort & took us to our first & most exciting destination of the day- the elephant camp.

Holy Buddha are these creatures amazing!

For the first time in my life, I was able to touch, feed, and walk around these grand creatures…I even got to ride on the back of an elephant’s neck!

Such sweet and beautiful animals.  I couldn’t get enough.

Once Ko & G were finally able to drag me away from my elephant, we set off on a gorgeous trek to a Khmu village.

And into the jungle we went… (to be continued)

Siem Reap, I Liked…

6 Oct

Instead of my usual, “This Week I Liked…” post, I wanted to share some of my favorite locations and memorable moments in Siem Reap with you, in no particular order.

Our gorgeous hotel, The Golden Temple, which I can’t say enough good things about- it was perfection and beyond.  The staff was generous and informative, the rooms were beautiful and quiet, and WOAH MOMMA was that breakfast delicious.

***

WARNING: Sad Story

The Golden Temple Hotel helped us organize our first trip to the Angkor Temples with Mr. S, a kind and reliable tuk-tuk driver.  During our initial ride, I began to wonder about Mr. S and his life in Cambodia.  Since he looked older than 39 years old, I assumed he had survived the Khmer Rouge regime and I was both curious and scared to hear about his experiences (click here for my short post about Cambodia & the Khmer Rouge).

Finally, around hour 5 of temple hopping, I worked up the nerve to ask Mr. S about his past.  His response was short and solemn, “I worked in the rice fields under the Khmer Rouge for 8 months and 11 days.  I know for you, it doesn’t seem like a very long time, but for me… those were the longest days of my life.”

Cue the waterworks.  I was a mess.

***

I was able to sweat out my sadness with the crazy temple workout – going up and down hundreds of extremely steep stairs.

For real, it was nasty sweaty.

According to Lonely Planet, these narrow and tall steps were designed to ensure that pilgrims would prostrate themselves in the presence of their gods.  In my case, it just helped justify the amount of food that I later stuffed into my aching body…

***

Lok Lak, Cambodian Curry, and Thai Tom Yum soup at the Red Piano restaurant.

Angkor beer (tastes deliciously and exactly like all the other Southeast Asian beers), Khmer dumplings (not recommended), and spring rolls (yum!) at Khmer Kitchen.

Khmer Soup from Khmer Kitchen restaurant & a combination platter from Angkor Palm restaurant (happiness).

***

An educational tour through Artisans d’Angkor, a school that trains impoverished youth in traditional Cambodian handicrafts, like silk weaving and stone carving.  G and I spent over $300 in the school’s store, where profits help fund the school & its students. (Guilt-free shopping!)

An excessively luxurious 3-hour massage at Bodia Spa on Tuesday, and then a 2-hour massage at Frangipani on Wednesday (Frangipani photographed above).

Damn, life is beautiful…and so is Siem Reap – So, GO!

Knee-Deep in Siem Reap

4 Oct

Cambodia Day 1:

G & I flew into Siem Reap at 8:00 am, ready to take on the temples of Angkor Wat (& then the world), but upon arrival, we noticed something a little strange…

SURPRISE! The town was completely flooded.

Apparently, once every few years, the Siem Reap River overflows into the town, causing minor damage and slight discomfort.  This year, however, the flooding was worse than ever before, and according to a recent article in the Phnom Penh Post, Siem Reap is still under water today- 3 full weeks after our visit!  Unbelievable.

I can’t speak to the current situation in Siem Reap (which I am sure is extremely uncomfortable and unsanitary), but when G & I were there, the locals seemed to deal with the knee-deep water with a “keep calm and carry on” approach.  It was business as usual in this watery town.

Some Cambodians were even enjoying the floods.

Only the foreigners looked a little bit perturbed.  (Perhaps not the best day to rent a bike.)

I could have easily spent the entire day walking/swimming down the streets, snapping photos of the beautiful Khmer (Cambodian) children playing in the muddy water, but alas, there were temples to be seen and G & I wanted to reach Angkor Wat before the flood did.

So, we were off like a herd of turtles to visit the temples in our little tuk-tuk.

Our first stop was the spectacular Angkor Wat, the heart and soul of Cambodia.

 Built during the early 12th century for King Suryavarman II in honor of Vishnu, the Hindu deity, Angkor Wat is believed to be the world’s largest religious structure- first Hindu then Buddhist.  The temple towers above the surrounding lush and noisy jungle, making its scale even more dramatic & breathtaking.

I was especially magnetized by the detailed sandstone carvings & sculptures on the outer walls of the temple, which span 1 kilometer in length.  Most of the bas-reliefs depict epic events in Hinduism, like victorious battles, heavens & hells, as well as over 3,000 enchanting and unique apsaras (celestial nymphs).

After marveling at Angkor Wat’s grandness (and it is grand), we headed to the neighboring city of Angkor Thom- made famous by Angelina Jolie’s film, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.  Angkor Thom was the last great capital of the Khmer empire, built by King Jayavarman VII and protected by 8 meter high walls and a 100 meter wide moat (rumored to have been inhabited by crocodiles back in the day).

 In the exact center of Angkor Thom is the temple of Bayon, a 3-level structure decorated with 216 enormous faces with sardonic grins.  The faces of Bayon are supposed to be images of Avalokiteshvara, but in fact, they are said to resemble the King Jayavarman VII even more.

From Bayon we went off to explore 5-6 other temples, the most famous being Ta Prohm, one of the locations for the movie, Tomb Raider.  Unlike other Angkorian temples, Ta Prohm has been left in almost the same condition as it was found- swallowed by the Cambodian jungle.

Even though it was POURING rain as we walked through Ta Prohm (hence the bad photos), G & I were awestruck by the power of the jungle- emerging & climbing throughout the temple.  The amazing coexistence between nature and temple is what makes Ta Prohm truly magical & a perfect ending to a day among the great Angkor Temples.