Sunday, August 10, 2008

SE Asian Adventure--Laos

My view from my hammock in Vang Vieng, Laos
Aaron and Heather emerging from the river after their first tubing trip.

The last country on my trip for me was Laos. Heather and I flew from Siem Reap to Vientiane, Laos. I'd been to Vientiane twice before, but probably had spent less than 24 hours total there, so I was looking forward to spending a little more time there (even though it was only one night). Lonely Planet says that Vientiane may be the most laid back capital city out there and I think it's definitely the most relaxed one I've ever been to. It feels like a very small city and the pace is definitely very slow there. After checking into our guest house, we went out for lunch and then went for a facial at the Papaya Spa. Then we ate some dinner at a restaurant right on the Mekong River, looking across to Thailand. I had eaten at a restaurant right next door to that place when I was in Vientiane in January and it was amazing how much more water was in the river now than then. We also got to see an outdoor aerobics class taking place right by the river!

The next morning we met Aaron and then took a taxi on the 3 hour trip to Vang Vieng, Laos. Vang Vieng is a little town (about 30,000 people) right next to the Nam Song river in a beautiful setting that, for some reason, got on the tourist circuit and has pretty much been taken over. There are lots of outdoor activities to do there, the main one being tubing down the river. There aren't any cultural or historic sights in Vang Vieng, so if you're not doing something outdoorsy, the other options are eating. Quite a few of the restaurants there show US TV shows pretty much all the time and have raised tables set up that you can lay at and be pretty much completely useless! The first full day we were there it was rainy and none of us felt 100% healthy, so we spent quite a few hours watching Friends and eating pasta. The next day Heather and Aaron went tubing down the river, but I decided I didn't want to risk catching Lao Beaver Fever, so spent the day checking my e-mail and reading The Thornbirds in a hammock by the river. The day after that, I had to head back to Korea, so I caught a mini-van for the drive back to Vientiane. After a little lunch, I went to the airport, flew to Hanoi, and then had a late night flight back to Seoul. I got back Sunday, August 3rd, and started getting ready for the next school year!

Friday, August 8, 2008

SE Asian Adventure--Siem Reap

Banteay Srei
Getting ready to climb Ta Keo.
Abby and Heather heading down one of the temples.
Abby and me at with a couple of the faces at Bayon.
Abby and I in front of Angkor Wat.

We flew to Siem Reap, which is known for the temple complexes there, the most famous of which is Angkor Wat. During the reign of King Suryavarman II (1112-52), he built Angkor Wat as a holy ca pital city. Most of the temples have scenes from Hinduism, so I learned a lot about Brahma and Vishnu as well as the story of the churning of the ocean of milk, all of which play a big part in Hinduism. Over the centuries as Cambodia became more Buddhist, some of the Hindu carvings were scratched out or Buddhas were added to the carvings. In some cases, the way that the Hindu gods were sitting as they meditated was changed so it looked more like the way Buddhists sit when they meditate.

We had a guide and a driver with an air-conditioned van for 3 of our days there, which was really nice since it can take a little while to get to the different temples and would have been a hot and dusty ride in a tuk-tuk, on a motorcycle, or on a bike.

The first temple we went to was Banteay Srei, known as the Citadel of Women and dedicated to Shiva. It's smaller than most of the other temples, but has really intricate carvings and, according to Lonely Planet, may have been the instigator of the Khmer art movement. Next we went to the temples of East Mebon, Pre Rup, Banteay Kdei, and Ta Prohm. Ta Prohm is pretty famous because it's so picturesque. It still has a lot of the jungle trees and vines holding it together (and it was used in the Tomb Raider movie with Angelina Jolie!). We also went to Ta Keo, which I climbed to the top of, and Preah Kahn. Preah Kahn was originally a Buddhist complex housing over 1000 Buddhist teachers and is another temple that's still being reclaimed from the jungle, which makes it very cool to wander around in (and it makes me feel like Indiana Jones!).

The next day was a shorter trip to the temples. We went to a group of temples knows as the Roluos group. The temples there were built during the reign of King Indravarman I (877-89). First we went to Preah Ko, which means Sacred Bull. Then we went to Bakong and then Lo Lei. That afternoon we went to a fishing village on Tonle Sap, a huge lake in Cambodia that provides over 80% of the Cambodian population's protein.

The day after that, another SIS teacher, Aaron, came to Siem Reap, so we finally hit the big temples. We started out at Angkor Thom, which is a walled compound with lots of temples inside its walls. It was built during the reign of King Jayavarman VII (1181-1219). After starting at the South Gate, we went to The Bayon, which was the king's state temple. This temple is famous for its 54 towers with 216 carved faces. There are also lots of carvings showing daily life in the king's court and battles. Next we went to The Baphuon, which was built between 1049-65. At the end of the 15th century, it was turned from a Hindu to a Buddhist temple and one of the walls was made out of dismantled towers to create a 70 meter long reclining Buddha. Next we walked around what had been the Royal Palace (the palace was made of wood, so all that remains today is the walls and pools) and then went to the Terrace of the Leper King, (it may be named that because a statue on it may represent a king who died of leprosy). After that we went to the Terrace of Elephants, which has, not surprisingly, lots of statues of elephants.

After lunch, we went to Angkor Wat, the largest religious complex in the world. It was built during the reign of King Suryavarman II (1112-1152). It has moats and walls and carvings showing various Hindu stories. It's absolutely beautiful and wasn't very crowded when we were there, which was nice. We were there during the low season, so it was nice to be able to walk around Angkor Wat without a ton of other people there. That evening we went to a hill nearby Angkor Wat to watch the sun set.

The next day, Abby left for Bangkok, so it was just Heather, Aaron, and me. We went to Kbal Spean, a site about 50 kilometers away from Siem Reap. It's an river bed that had been carved with Buddhas and lingas, which are Hindu fertility symbols. The carvings were fine, but it was cool to get to hike through the jungle a bit to get there. Then we went back to Banteay Srei so Aaron could see it.

The next day Heather and I got on a plane for Laos, which Aaron spent one more day in Siem Reap. He met up with us in Laos the next day.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

SE Asian Adventure--On to Cambodia!

The monument built at the killing fields of 8000 skulls from people murdered by the Khmer Rouge (the skulls are inside the building).
At the National Museum in Phnom Penh.
Some Buddhist monks on their way to school. The woman in the picture on the right is the Queen of Cambodia (although she's actually from Vietnam!).
Independence Monument, celebrating Cambodian independence from France. Those big gray clouds burst about 30 minutes after I took this picture and there was a lot of rain!

Abby and I spent the morning in Saigon going to the cathedral and old Post Office before flying to Phnom Penh. After checking into our hotel, we went out for dinner at a restaurant specializing in North African and French cuisine. One thing that amazed me about every place I went in SE Asia was the huge variety of food available! Things like hummus and good baked goods, which are next to impossible to find in Seoul, were everywhere.

The next morning we met our guide and headed out to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, where around 17,000 people were killed during the Khmer Rouge time of the 1970s. It's certainly not an uplifting site, but I think it's important to remember what happened during that time period. It's just incredible to look at the older Cambodian people and think about what they went through not all that long ago. Today the killing fields are grass covered, but there are mass graves that are still dug up and are marked with how many skeletons were found there. There's also a big monument to the dead made out of 8000 skulls of the victims and some of their discarded clothes, found in the mass graves.

After that, we headed back to the city and Abby and Heather went to the Tuol Sleng Museum (I'd gone there when I went to Cambodia before and it's a very powerful place that I felt like I only needed to see once). This building had been a school, but then was taken over by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge forces and turned into a prison and torture chamber. Up to 100 people were killed a day. Pretty much everyone held at this prison who didn't die there went to Choeung Ek to be killed.

After those two depressing places, we were ready for something different, so we went to the National Museum, Wat Phnom (built on the only hill in Phnom Penh), and the Royal Palace. Being at the Royal Palace was surreal after going to the Khmer Rouge stuff in the morning. It's a beautiful complex with amazing buildings, including the Silver Pagoda, which has a floor made with 5000 silver tiles. There are also all sorts of Buddhas made of gold and decorated with diamonds and other gems at the palace. We asked our guide why none of that stuff was taken by the Khmer Rouge and he said that Pol Pot had been planning on moving into the palace eventually (the royal family was in exile during that 1970s, but they're back now, although they have basically no power).

One thing that was interesting about being in Cambodia when we were is that an election happened during that week. The ruling party of Cambodia is communist, the same as in Vietnam, but the differences were obvious very soon after we arrived. Vietnam certainly has its problems with poverty and corruption, but it seemed to me to be not so bad compared to Cambodia. Driving out to Choeung Ek, I saw the worst poverty I think I've ever seen. Our guide told us about the various factories that employ child labor. On the way to the killing fields, we saw groups of 100 or so Cambodians squatting or sitting in the dirt, listening to people speak into megaphones. Our guide told us that the communists paid (either with money or with food or clothing) the poor people to come to these rallies and to vote for the communists. He took quite a risk by telling us about the corruption he has to face every day. He told us that teachers only make $35 dollars a month or so, so they accept bribes from families and if a family doesn't bribe the teacher, their child may not be able to continue in school. He said that education isn't valued by the Cambodian government because "they don't want anyone smarter than they are." I saw a lot of street kids begging for money too, which was tough because I had heard and read that giving money to kids really only benefits the adults who are in charge of those kids. But it's hard to say no when a young girl holding an even younger naked baby is begging for a dollar, or a little boy comes up to your car window when you're stopped at a red light and taps on the glass, asking for the money.

Because of all the problems Cambodia faces, there are tons of NGOs in the country, especially in Phnom Penh. The expat community is quite large for such a small country, largely because of the NGOs. I'm sure that some of the NGOs aren't doing much good, but some of them seem to be doing really good work, helping to get kids off the street, training them in various jobs, etc.

The next morning wen went to 2 markets, the Central Market and the Russian Market, for some souvenir shopping. The rest of the day was spent wandering around the city a bit and taking advantage of our hotel's pool. Unfortunately, our hotel, which quite lovely, also didn't have sealed doors, so we had 5 big cockroaches in the room at various points that night, which didn't make for the most restful sleep!

Monday, August 4, 2008

SE Asian Adventure--Central & Southern Vietnam

Inside the Tan Ky House in Hoi An. This house is from the 19th century and was once owned by a Vietnamese merchant.
At My Son, outside Hoi An.
In front of the Presidential Palace in Saigon.
Ho Chi Minh sandals (in a variety of sizes!) made out of old tires. These were the footwear of choice for Viet Cong.
The hotel room at the Bi-Saigon in HCMC. The weird little building in the room is the bathroom (with 2 showers!).

On the 5th day of the trip, we flew to Danang and then drove 30 minutes or so to Hoi An, in central Vietnam. Hoi An is known for its architecture and in fact, it's a Unesco world heritage site. It's also near China Beach, of Vietnam War R&R fame. The first thing that hit us about Hoi An was how hot it was, especially considering that we had a really early flight and got there about 8 AM! After checking in to our hotel, we went out and looked around the town, including a pretty lame museum and a music show. We also had the Hoi An specility, cao lau, for lunch that day. It's this delicious noodle dish with pork, croutons, bean sprouts and greens, and a savory sauce. For it to be authentic, it has to come from Hoi An because the water must come from one specific well in the area. After a swim and a nap at the hotel, we went out for dinner at the Cargo Club.

The next morning, we got up at 4:30 to take a trip to My Son, a group of ruins about 35 km away from Hoi An. My Son was a religious center during the 4th-13th centuries. Today the ruins are in a jungle valley. It was a good thing we went as early as we did because it was pretty hot once the sun rose. After getting up so early 2 days in a row, I felt perfectly justified in taking the rest of the day off and doing nothing more than swimming, napping, and eating more cao lau!

The next day, Abby and I flew to Saigon (technically it's called Ho Chi Minh City, but pretty much everyone calls it Saigon. In fact, the airport code is still SGN). I was thinking that Saigon would be as overwhelming as Hanoi had been, or even more so, but instead it was so much easier to get around in. The streets were in more of a grid pattern, so it seemed easier to find our way around, and the traffic wasn't quite as crazy as it had been in Hanoi. After getting to our hotel, Abby and I went to the Reunification Palace and War Remnants Mueseum, both of which I'd been to before and had enjoyed. The Palace was originally built in 1966 and on April 30th, 1975, the Viet Cong crashed tanks through the gates when Saigon surrendered. The building has been left looking pretty much like it was that day, so it's got a very 70's feel, which I love! The War Remnants Mueseum is really interesting, not only for its exhibits and artifacts. It also has a lot of anti-US propaganda, which is interesting to see first-hand. It has different artillery pieces, photos of victims of the war, and preserved babies who were born with birth defects caused by Agent Orange (at least that's what the mueseum says caused the birth defects and it's probably true).

The next morning we went to the Cu Chi Tunnels. These tunnels stretched from Saigon to the Cambodian border during the war and were quite successful for the Viet Cong. The tunnels have been reconstructed for visitors, so you can go see bomb craters, shoot an AK-47, and crawl through the tunnels (part of the reconstruction has been making the tunnels bigger for the heftier western tourists!).

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Ha Long Bay Pictures

Our boat on the Bay.
Heading out amongst the islands.
The floating village. On the very far right, you can see a little boy getting a shower.
My money shot of the bay, the boats, and the islands!
Abby and me on top of the hill we climbed (pre-jelly-fish-sting!)

SE Asian Adventure--Northern Vietnam

Garderners working in front of Uncle Ho's Mausoleum
Vietnamese people getting their picture taken in front of a statue of Ho.
Abby and me on the bridge to Ngoc Son Temple, founded in the 18th century, on an island in Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi.
Rice paddies on the way to Ha Long Bay.

After spending 3 and a half weeks in the US visiting family and friends in Seattle, Oregon, and LA, my friend Abby and I flew to Korea and spent 5 days exploring Seoul. Then on July 13th, we headed south to Vietnam to begin a trip we'd been planning for over a year. Our first stop was Hanoi. I had been to Hanoi about 10 years before, but remembered very little of it. I was struck by all the motorbikes and the general decay of the city. Someone said that Hanoi is like a big city that is still a village and that definitely seemed to be the case to me. One thing that amazed me was how much living happens outside on the sidewalks in Hanoi. I saw people washing their hair, washing their clothes, bathing, eating, getting haircuts, getting medical exams, and all sorts of other things on the sidewalk during the 3 days I was there.

The first day we were there, we walked around the Old Quarter of Hanoi and visited an old Chinese house. The next day we went to the Ho Chi Minh museum and house. Unfortunately the mausoleum was closed, which is where his body is. I'd seen it before, but I was disappointed that Abby didn't get to see it. I was interested to see how many Vietnamese were at the different sights dedicated to Uncle Ho. I think it was the least ironic I had ever seen anyone be about a Communist leader...they really seemed to admire him! There were lots of people getting formal pictures taken in front of a statue of Ho.

We ate an early lunch at a restaurant called Koto, which stands for Know One, Teach One. It's a restaurant that trains former street kids as cooks and waiters and provides them with a job, health care, and a bike, among other things. The food was really good and it's always nice to support a worthy cause by eating! After lunch, we went to the Temple of Literature, which has been around since 1070 when it was dedicated to Confucius. Then we took a stroll around the Cathedral of Hanoi, which is decaying in a very picturesque tropical way. That night we had an early dinner at La Salsa, a great Spanish restaurant, and then went to watch the water puppet show. Water puppets were originally used on the rice paddies for entertainment.

The next day we got up and headed to Ha Long Bay, 4 hours away by bus. We had sprung for the fancy boat, which was a very good was well worth it! We went to see a fishing village and hiked up a hill on one of the islands for a great, if sweaty, view. I cooled off afterwards by taking a dip in the ocean, which was great until the very end when I was stung on the leg by a jellyfish! That night was spent on the boat.

The next morning we went to Surprise Cave, which was incredibly humid, and then took the 4 hour bus ride back to Hanoi. That afternoon we went into the Cathedral (it had been closed the first time we walked by) and had delicious Indian food for dinner.