Sunday, June 30, 2013

Railay, Thailand

Good Ol' Fun in the Sun

 Where the Streets Have No Name


Saturday, June 29, 2013

Siem Reap, Cambodia

The Temples of Angkor 
Where to begin? We arrived in Cambodia, the temple capital of Asia, a little pooped from the hustle and bustle of Ho Chi Minh City. But like Lara Croft of Tomb Raider, we had a mission: temple-hopping!

We visited the big three: Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm, Angkor Thom/Bayon. When London was a wee little town of 50,000, Angkor was a buzzing hive of activity with a population of 1 million. The first Western visitor, a Portugese monk said it all when he described the temples of Angkor by saying, "...they are of such extraordinary construction that is not possible to describe with a pen." He's right. Perhaps these pictures can help a bit, but they still fall short of capturing the splendor.

Angkor Wat

The picturesque genious of the Khemers culminates in Angkor Wat, an engineering marvel built in the 12th cenury that took a mere 37 years to build. Red and orange lava rock at the core support five million tons of sandstone. Modern day engineers estimate it would take 300 years to build Angkor Wat today. Dang. We don't believe in little green aliens, but this makes us wonder!

Making Monk Friends
Peter's beard was quite the celebrity in SE Asia! Everywhere we went, kids giggled, pointed, and then asked to take a picture with him. Now I know how Mrs. Clause felt. This was a group of rowdy monks that were especially fascinated with the beard.

Taking Time to Be

In the Details
Virtually every surface is carved in exquisite detail like this. Some of the images document wars while others depict everyday life at the time. One of the walls in the main gallery depicts heaven and hell in great detail. Imagine a stone version of the Sistine Chapel It is amazing to know other cultures literally worlds away were depicting those same images of heaven and hell. The consistency makes you wonder.

Considered the eighth wonder of the world, Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument in the world and Cambodia's national symbol. A sacred skeleton of the vast political, religious, and social reach of the ancient Khemer empire, its mystical magic and splendor is still felt to this very day.

Ta Prohm
Indiana Jones would feel right at home in Ta Prohm! Green carpet moss covers the sacred structures that live in the shadowy embrace of muscular centuries-old trees. Spectacular beyond belief! Lara Croft Tom Raider was filmed here. Pretty groovy.

The Last Great City: Angkor Thom 
It is hard to imagine anything rivaling the magnificence of Angkor Wat, but the sum of Angkor Thom's parts adds up to a greater whole.  This was the last capital city of Angkor.

The Faces of Bayon
Bayon is found at the heart of Angkor Thom. 54 gothic towers decorated with 216 smiling faces watch the kingdom's every move.

Last Week of Honeymooning
We're off to Thailand next, for our last week of honeymooning. Minji, we miss you like crazy!

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Southern Vietnam

Good Morning Vietnam
Perhaps we're just moving slow enough to notice them, but I swear the sunrises and sunsets are prettier in Vietnam. Grabbed this pic on an early morning flight to Saigon (renamed Ho Chi Minh City after the war), the commercial center of Vietnam that is driving the growth of country. The political grip is less tight than in the north and the people we spoke to were very well informed. We learned that the majority of people make around $200 per month. Public school is only half-day, so those who can't afford private school ($1,000 per month and full-day) often sit idle. We learned that people can't speak out against the government, that people have the right to vote but there is only one political party, and that if you don't show your support for the government you won't be eligible for any good jobs. We learned that corruption is built into every societal system; though Vietnamese have the right to start businesses, the government expects bribes on a continuing basis, making this prohibitive for most people; and usually only high ranking government officials have enough money to do anything. Officials often send their children to school in the U.S., then when they come back to Vietnam, they inherit money, assume power, and perpetuate the cycle. It's unlikely this is what Ho Chi Minh had intended. Regardless, it was uplifting to hear perspectives that voiced such thorough understanding of Vietnam's situation and that many Vietnamese do desire to live in a democracy. For now, with all the political power vested in Hanoi, Saigon seems to be doing a darn good job working with what it's got.

A Self-made Man in Vietnam
Yes, unbelievably, the massive elephant tusks are real. After the war, rebuilding in Southern Vietnam was difficult. The majority of U.S. bombing had occurred around Saigon and those that had opposed communism during the war were essentially left behind. For ten years nothing happened in the south. Finally, legislation passed that allowed private enterprises to operate. The man in the photo is Than Phan who envisioned Vietnam as a travel destination before there was a tourist industry. He runs the only 100% privately owned travel agency in Vietnam (the rest are owned by foreigners or international travel conglomerates) and our trip would not have been the same without him. Heck of a guy.

Remnants of the American War
The American War Remnant Museum is a horrifying place to visit. As an American, it would be difficult to walk out of here not feeling ashamed. Anti-U.S. propaganda aside, it's difficult to deny the overt belligerence of the U.S. government before and during the war. The unfortunate reality is that most people were opposed to the U.S. aggression but were not in favor of a communist government. Pro-Vietnam, anti-communist. Pro-independence, anti the U.S. decimating the population with chemical weapons (dioxin/Agent Orange). An estimated two million Vietnamese were killed between 1965 - 1975. But attitude is everything. No one we spoke to showed an ounce of resentment or held a grudge. One man, whose family was literally split in half during the war, told us in his newly acquired American aphorism "it's water under the bridge," and he wished the Vietnam government would loosen control and ally itself closer to the U.S. He said this was the majority opinion in Vietnam. This sentiment was echoed by others we spoke to. At this point in each conversation, people brought up the threat they feel from China. We learned that Chinese regularly kill Vietnamese fisherman, abduct women (to compensate for the 50/50 male/female offset), are rude and agressive tourists (our tour guides refused to even serve Chinese), produce cheap copies of goods, and sell poisonous milk and plastic rice. The Chinese also dammed the Mekong River for hydroelectric power and salt water has backed up 100km into the delta destroying agriculture and fish populations. The Vietnamese government is complacent.

Partners (on Paper)
I don't think either country is able to provide significant assistance to the other.

Motorbike Mania
Just as in Hanoi, there are motorbikes everywhere. Hundreds of thousands of them. This is just one intersection after hours.

Welcome to the "Rice Bowl" of Vietnam
Straight east of Saigon is the Mekong River Delta which is responsible for feeding the majority the country. Busy canals spider like arteries through the green mazes of rice paddies, palm tree farms, and dragon fruit orchards. It is undoubtedly gorgeous, but like Vietnam in general, the Delta is complicated. It is intensively farmed and home to the most densely populated area in the country. Floating by, you can't help but notice the huge 1980s television set you used to watch Nick at Nite reruns on in your living room, the burned out light bulb you threw away in the trash, the shoes you donated after the fad came and went, the old tires that disappear at the corner GoodYear, and the plastic bags from the grocery store. They also call this river home. The huge agricultural expansion and population pressures are definitely taking its toll here. Despite this, beauty and a sense of community can be found everywhere you look.

Homes back up to countless small tributary canals. Until several years ago, the houses were only accessible by boat and bicycle. The old-school monkey bridges (usually a felled palm tree with a solo rickety support banister) are mostly gone and have been replaced with concrete bridges that can support a motorbike.
The crane barges to do the heavy lifting.
Every boat has eyes to scare the river monsters away.
Bridge on the Mekong. Ivo Andric's sequel.

Zen Bonsai Garden
A good place to get some thinking done.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Central Vietnam: Part II

Hoi An by the Sea
What's in a Name? To the locals, everything! A view from above the South Vietnam (China) Sea.

This enchanted little town stole our hearts. A thriving port city from the 15th-19th centuries, Hoi An is comfortably nestled on the south central coast of what Google Maps calls the South China Sea, but to set the record straight, we were informed by locals it is technically the South Vietnam Sea (since it is in fact southern Vietnam, not southern China). More about the Vietnamese/Chinese relationship to come. Hoi An Ancient Town is recognized as an UNESCO World Heritage Site and its charm has been perfectly preserved. The cobblestone streets, colorful lanterns, busy fishing boats, ancient pagodas, temples and churches, and even the nose-scrunching smells share in the amazing and unique tapestry of Japanese, Chinese, Indian, Champa, French, and Vietnamese culture that is Hoi An.

The Japanese Covered Bridge connects the Chinese and Japanese areas of town. Twas constructed once upon a time in 1593, the year of the dog. 

After two weeks of hustling from place to place, Hoi An's easy-going nature is a much-welcomed treat. The 21st-century traffic and pollution that plagues most other cities has thankfully skipped Hoi An. We loved strolling around the old city and people watching.

Will Work for Food
Water Wheel is a happy little herb farm that is family-operated and part of a thriving 150-hectare farming commune that has been feeding Hoi An for hundreds of years. Water Wheel's specialty is growing lemon basil. The smell and taste are unforgettable. We spent an evening at the farm with Lilly and Hien and tried our luck with the land. Our lack of Vietnamese was no hinderance thanks to our excellent charade skills. We laughed so hard we cried! Here are our 5 easy steps to a real happy meal :)

1.) Fertilize the soil with river sea weed. Smelly!
2.) Add a little water here and little water there.
3.) Harvest and prepare. This is Peter making rice paper the good ol' fashion way.
4.) Aprons on, let's get cookin'.
5.) Kiss the chef and enjoy!

We cooked up some tam huu (three-friends spring rolls), banh xeo (a Hoi An specialty pancake), sticky rice, veggie soup, fresh mackerel in a banana leaf, and an array of dipping sauces. Ngon! That means delicious in Vietnamese.

Tam Tam and Cargo Cuisine
Daily life revolves around food in SE Asia and it's no exception in Hoi An, where a meal is nothing short of a religious experience. Food is locally grown, carefully prepared, and always served with a flair. Vu, a local chef we met at Tam Tam, passionately described Vietnamese cuisine and explained the fragile balance of yin and yang in everything -- including food. He said a meal is not a meal if it does not have yin AND yang: sweet & salty, spicy & bland, hot & cold, crunchy & smooth. To that we say, Amen!

Relaxation Station

We spent four nights here and it was the best home away from home. EVER. This was truly paradise!

We Will See You Later
There was definitely a lot to do and see in this little town by the sea. We only scratched the surface and already dream of going back. One of the things we looked forward to the most prior to visiting was the world famous tailors of Hoi An, and boy did the fun exceed every expectation! This is us collecting our back-to-school-shopping loot from our friends Dong and Chen on a ghetto-fabulous motorbike we borrowed from our new friend Mr. Thuong. By the end of our 5-day stay we felt so connected to this quaint community. Shortly after speeding off on our motorbike, we bumped into Chef Vu (remember him from above?) at a stop light down the street. Friends everywhere. He wished us well and off we went!