I Get It…Southern Thailand

November 19th, 2012

There is something to be said for Southern Thailand.  Yes, it is touristy and expensive.  We’re basically talking about being in the islands here, but there is something magical about it.  It is tropical and exotic, laden with raw, uncut beauty; places where the jungle meets the coast, where limestone structures jut upwards out of the deep blue sea, where white beaches cascade as far as the eye can see, where colorful coral reef can be seen from the water’s surface.

I found the limestone structures to be stunning.  Colors of grey and tan, streaked with black and white and red.  My first sight of these structures was from the plane.  I’d flown from Saigon to Phuket, set in the Andaman Islands on Thailand’s west side.  I could see the small islands set into clear aqua blue waters.  The coral reef was visible, too.  It reminded me so much of flying into the Keys, except that the islands were mountainous and concealed in jungle, rather than flat and covered in mangroves.  These islands are much larger than any of the Keys, too.  I was excited to be in this island paradise for some time.   Ready to get my dive on, I hadn’t dove in sooo long.  Ready to experience new things.  Ready to stay in one amazing chill place for some time.  Mission accomplished.

I flew into Phuket to meet Dore at Naiyang beach, just south of the airport.  We spent one night there.  I wouldn’t recommend Phuket for those who want to get away from regular life.  It is crowded and busy, but Naiyang is a nice small town flanked by state parks with quick airport access.  Makes for a lovely stretch of beach with a bay you can snorkel in, really good seafood, fun bars.  From Naiyang, we took a communal taxi south.  I love those things.  Basically they are extended pickup trucks with benches built in.  You jump on and off at the back for a fraction of what a taxi would cost.  We ended up in Phuket Town, where we stayed for one night before catching the ferry to Koh Phi Phi.  Next time, I’ll skip Phuket town and just head to the islands.

We landed in Phi Phi Town, and decided to stay in a guest house on the far side of town.  We’d been warned that it wouldn’t be quiet, but we thought “how loud could it be?”  Well, Phi Phi Town is a party place.  Young kids getting obliviated to booming music and coming home with the sun all loud, and for myself & Dore, not one bar we wanted to hang out it.  The following morning, we took a longtail, to Rantee Beach, the small and tranquil beach on the east side of the island. A longtail is about 30 feet long.  They are the local style of boat propelled by what looks like a weed whacker run by a lawnmower motor.  They’re cool boats, with high sides, and tend to be the style that serves as water taxis.  There were two guesthouses on Rantee, each hosting one of the only 2 restaurants.  We stayed at Sunrise Bungalows, which was run by a very cool Thai man named Momo.  Depending on the tide, the bungalows were right on the beach or water’s edge.  There were some very cool people staying there, too, so it made for a great time.  If one wanted to go to Phi Phi Town, there was a challenging 45 minute hike through the woods, to the Viewpoint, and then down 350 stairs, only to come back up again.  There is a really nice coral reef just off the shore of the guest house, too.  Really beautiful soft coral, nice fish variety, including clown fish and eels.  It was great to get to snorkel in a beautiful place.  One day, a group of 8 of us took a longtail trip to 3 different spots to snorkel.  It was brilliant.

Next stop was Koh Lanta.  We went with this great couple from Hawaii whom we’d met in Phi Phi.  Unfortunately, the day we arrived Tate became really sick from something he ate, so for the three days they were there, he was bed ridden and Sasha had to hang out with us J.  Needless to say, we had a great time.  Rented motos and toured around, stopped at a waterfall, did some shopping, did some eating, watched the sunset, etc…  Lots of beautiful jungle on Koh Lanta, but must go south.

From there, our plan was to head to the Rai Leh Peninsula.  Interesting thing about this location is that the three beaches located here are cut off from the main land by a huge rock wall.  The only way to get there is by longtail, so one feels like it is an island.  What an amazing place it is.  While I’d mentioned that there is limestone everywhere, here in Krabi Provence, it is especially stunning.  Loaded with crags and crevices, holes and holds, it makes sense that this is a destination for rock climbers.  Ao Ton Sai is the northwest beach, located in a bay.  It is the backpacker beach, too.  Very cool, chill atmosphere.  Beautiful surroundings.  A nice place to spend some time.  Relatively cheap, for the islands. Plus, really good food.  Must eat at Mama’s Chicken, and try the tacos at Andaman Nature Restaurant.

The peninsula is rather small.  It was easy to circumnavigate it.  A jungle trail led from Ton Sai to Rai Leh East in about 20 minutes.   East would be considered the “town” of the peninsula; ATM’s, some resorts, some backpacker stuff, only free wifi on peninsula.  There is no beach there, only mangroves, but there is an amazing wall for climbing, and the first place I did my climbs.  Then, head west again, and find yourself in Rai Leh West.  This is where the beautiful beaches and pristine water for swimming are.  There are two bays that make up Rai Leh West, Patong Beach and West.  This side is for the big spenders, really nice resorts costing hundreds a night, so makes sense that the beach is really great, too.  For pictures of the Andaman Islands, click here.

It was here in Ton Sai that we met some amazing people and ended up hanging together for 10 days.  The cool Spaniards from Amsterdam who got me excited to climb, the Swedish ex-Army party guys, and Sasha from Hawaii.  We made for a great crew and I hope our paths cross again.  We all traveled to Koh Phangan together for the full moon party.  You know you’re getting old when drinking huge buckets of alcoholic beverages just doesn’t excite you, getting as fucked up as possible has completely lost its draw, and you’d rather be starting your day, then ending your night, when the sun comes up.  All good though.  It was fun to dance, fun to see people having a good time together, and I made it until about 2am.  I felt like I’d accomplished the full moon party.  Supposedly, there are some really nice beaches on the east side of the island, which we never made it to.  Leaving some things to explore the next time I’m on Koh Phangan, not during the full moon.

Dore and I said farewell to the crew and headed to Koh Tao to do some diving.  People had started seeing whale sharks again, and I was really hoping that we just might.  For me, that is one of the things on the “I really hope to see” list.  We didn’t, but we did do 5 dives, and it was very cool.  I felt really comfortable, we did a night dive, and it was great.  I hadn’t been on a dive vacation in years.  Chumphon Pinnacle, a reef sitting in 90-120 feet of water, was one of the best dives I’ve ever done.  The coral structure, both hard and soft, is just spectacular.  The soft coral, the anemones, and fans, and other plant life were probably the greatest number I’ve seen in one place.  On the night dive were these small plants with long leafy branches that waved in the current.  The fish life was way cool.  Saw cobia, moray eels, and a crocodile fish; blue-spotted sting rays, huge hermit crabs, and red-banded shrimp; big groupers, little groupers, and lots of kinds of parrotfish. Then, add in the clownfish, the angelfish, and all the other tropicals.  It was awesome to be diving again, and not in a mud hole looking for lobster.  Three days after I left Koh Tao, Dore dove with a whale shark.  Freaking awesome.  For pictures of the Gulf of Thailand, click here.

At this point, Dore and I said “goodbye.”  Of course, not for good.  I will see her in Sydney in a couple of months, but there is a good chance that this will be the last time we travel together like this.  What an amazing journey it has been.  Among other things, it has certainly been a testament to mine & Dore’s friendship.  When you travel with a close friend for four months straight, you get to know them really well.  For all the times that were challenging and difficult, that we argued or had to get away from each other, I’ll forever cherish our friendship, and regard our travel compatibility highly.  We did good, D.  I miss you, Sista.

I bid adieu to Dore and the islands of the Gulf of Thailand.  It was an all-day ferry and bus excursion from Koh Tao to Phuket, so that I could fly north to Chiang Mai.  Next blog, Chiang Mai, Visa Run, and Pai.

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Good Morning Vietnam…or…Watch out for Purse Snatchers

November 6th, 2012

I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City, aka Saigon, full of excitement, in anticipation of having an amazing time in Vietnam.  After Cambodia, I was really excited to be in a more modern city, and had hopes that Vietnam would be significantly different.  Cambodia had been a great visit.  I loved the sightseeing and the beach, but like Sri Lanka, I felt that as a tourist I was a target, that Cambodians got dollar signs in their eyes upon seeing me, to the point that I felt uncomfortable at times.  So, I wanted to see what else SE Asia had to offer, and I’d heard so many great things about Vietnam that were inviting.  Fellow travelers boasted about the beautiful countryside and jungles, the amazing beaches, and the food.

First impressions of Saigon were positive, all the energy of a big modern city, influenced by the French, and convenient for travelers.  As Dore & I headed out our first night there, the proprietor of our guest house gave us a warning to watch our bags, keep them in front, and hold onto them.  Tourists were targets of a different kind in Vietnam, still in hopes of big money, but in a different ruse.  We wandered through District 1, an area that caters to travelers with lots of outdoor eateries and bars, t-shirt and book stores, and massage spas.  Feeling the vitality of the city, we returned that night excited for the prospect of the next few days.

We spent the entire first day walking the city, taking in this Eur-Asian mecca.  The city is spotted with pocket parks; it has its own Cathedral Notre Dame, and an interesting combination of Asian and French architecture, both colonial and modern.  After dinner at a street side eatery, we wandered, doing some window shopping and perusing the area.  And then it happened, just like that.  We were standing on the side of the road looking at a spa massage menu, and in the blink of an eye, a scooter pulled up beside us, cut the strap on Dore’s bag, and was down the street with it in hand.  When you are told to beware of purse snatchers, take that advice seriously, because within a short time after that we met several other people who had been victims of the same kind, including a guy who had his iPhone grabbed right out of his hand.  Thankfully, Dore was not hurt, but now camera with pics that hadn’t been downloaded and phone are gone, as well as our enthusiastic feelings for Ho Chi Minh City.

We tried to stay positive for our time there, but needless to say, that had become difficult.  Regardless, we made the best of it.  We did end up going back for those massages the following day, which helped some.  And then there is always food.  One thing the French did for Saigon was leave them with a taste for really great food.  You cannot turn a corner in HCMC without passing a Banh Mi cart, this is the amazing baguette sandwich that starts with pate and then conforms to the desires of the customer dependent on the ingredients available.  There are cheese and wine shops, as well as patisseries everywhere.  One morning we had crepes, one night we had a fine French meal.  And speckled in there were lots of stops for Vietnamese coffee, which is now my favorite coffee ever.  It is rich and delicious with chocolate undertones.  Hot or iced, it is amazing.  This year, Vietnam actually became the largest exporter of coffee in the world, beating out Brazil and Colombia.  Well deserved.

We did manage to see some sights, too.  One afternoon we visited Reunification Palace, where Ho Chi Minh lived and worked during the Vietnam War.  It is comprised of living quarters, conference rooms, meeting rooms, and underground bunkers.  Having been built in the 1960’s, the style is art deco, decorated with fine pieces of Asian art, furniture, and rugs.  Afterwards, we visited the Museum of Fine Arts, which had one level of Ancient pieces, but mostly displayed contemporary paintings, drawings, etchings, and sculpture.  It was really great to see modern art from an Asian perspective, and I was happy to learn that there are lots of impressive Vietnamese artists.

The next stop was Mui Ne, a surf beach (i.e. ex-pat community) almost directly east of HCMC.  As I shared in my last blog, it was on this journey that I decided that no matter how beautiful Vietnam is, I wouldn’t be able to see it like I want to this time around.  Still though, Mui Ne is a nice little fishing village, fun ocean and waves, stand-up paddleboards, kite surfing, and an amazing Indian restaurant called Ganesh (we ate there twice).   It was a wonderful relaxing time, allowing for time to unwind after so many cities and the drama of Saigon.  There is a fantastic night market along the beach consisting of dozens of seafood restaurants displaying live seafood in tanks, allowing you to pick exactly what you want to eat.  The lobster was amazing; razor clams were great, too.   The one downside to Mui Ne, I was coming in on a paddleboard and was knocked off by the surf in really shallow water, the board hit the sand and popped back up to jar me in my ribs, 5 weeks later I’m still healing what has to be a cracked rib.

From Mui Ne, Dore & I parted ways again.  I headed to Da Lat, in Vietnam’s Central Highlands.  This city is considered by many to be Vietnam’s Little Switzerland or Paris, and when you are there you do feel like you are in the Alps rather than Asia.  Surrounded by farm country, this area supplies most of Southern Vietnam, including HCMC, with produce.  They grow everything from vegetables to flowers to fruit to coffee.  It is beautiful hilly green country, covered in jungle where it has not been cleared for crops.  I took a moto tour one day with an amazing guide, Viet.  We hit a flower farm, coffee plantation, silk farm, Elephant Falls, the big smiling Buddha, and the Crazy House.  The Crazy House is this wacky guest house in Da Lat designed by a Vietnamese woman who studied architecture in Russia.  It reminded me of an Asian art deco version of something Gaudi would have designed in Barcelona.  Bizarre, interesting, and oddly beautiful all at the same time.

Aside from the French influence to Vietnamese cuisine, they have done pretty well on their own.  Noodles are the thing in Vietnam, whether in soup, or fried or steamed and served as the main part of a delicious dish.  Pho, the rice noodle soup which is a breakfast staple, became one of my favorites.  In my opinion, when a person is served soup accompanied by a side plate piled high with greens, herbs, and sprouts to add to the soup as you eat, one cannot go wrong.  I quickly learned to watch out for the soups containing random organs and this blood pudding sort of stuff.  I realize some people may like that, but not me.  I tried it once, and didn’t even finish it.  For those of you who know me well, you know that that is out of character, but in my opinion, it’s an acquired taste, and my taste buds said “yuck.”   The Vietnamese have a couple of different desserts that they make out of beans, and I liked those a lot.  Some were served with coconut milk, others just boiled with sugar water, but somehow they came out as a satisfying dessert.  Like beer, beans are not just for breakfast anymore.  For more pictures of Vietnam, click here.

One quick night back in Saigon, and then I caught a flight to meet Dore in Phuket, Thailand.  The last 4 weeks have been spent island hopping, and it has been amazing.  My favorite part of SE Asia so far, yet that story is to come…

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Hey, Lady…Need Tuk-Tuk?

October 19th, 2012

“Hey, Lady…Need Tuk-Tuk?”  These five words are ubiquitous with my stay in Cambodia, and while I was there, I felt like if I heard them one more time I might smack someone, but everyone needs to make a living, so I took it all with a grain of salt, would say “no thanks, not today,” and continue on my way.  But the tuk-tuk is the primary tourist vehicle in Cambodia, and it’s funny how they vary bit-by-bit from country to country.  In India they were a little smaller, painted black-red-and yellow, and were personally decorated with photos, pictures of the area or of the driver’s interests, had Ganesh or Shiva figurines on the dash, sometimes massive sound systems and tassels hanging from the windshield.  In Cambodia they were larger, more open-aired, colorful, but not as decked out and decorative as in India, and they served as advertising billboards.   In Vietnam, it’s all about the motorbike.  I don’t even recall seeing a tuk-tuk there.  The moto driver will throw you and your 20 kilo (that’s 44 pounds) pack on his bike without even thinking about it.   But the phrase starting with “Hey Lady” will remain in my mind forever.

From the Angkor Temples, I headed to Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital city.  I was planning to take in some of the Khmer Rouge history, visit the memorial sites of S21 and the Killing Fields, until I had the worst night I have had on my entire trip so far.  I’d met a brother and sister traveling together from Holland on the bus.  We decided to have dinner and some drinks together.  When we arrived back to the hostel it was late, the area was quiet, it was time for bed.  Well, time for bed for the humans, but not for the bed bugs.  Yes, disgusting nasty horrible bed bugs.  I had never experienced anything like them before, and it was miserable.  As soon as the lights went out, they came out.  I noticed that I was being bitten right away, flipped the lights on, and there were lots of them.  The bed was infested.  I immediately freaked out, ran out to the manager, and upon seeing them, even he said “oh my god.”  He apologized profusely, but then tried to blame the infestation on a woman who had been there the night before, saying she had just come from Laos.  While that bit may have been true, I am no fool, and that infestation did not happen overnight.  Being that it was past 1:00am, I was promptly moved into the dorm, and told they would have a bed for me at their other location the next day, for $5 more a night.  Well, needless to say, I didn’t have a great night’s sleep, and being that I was totally grossed out and unimpressed with the customer service, I left at 7:30am for a hotel I’d found on Booking.com that had received very high cleanliness ratings.  Granted, it was a bit more expensive, but still, it was better.  Even so, I decided that the next day I’d be leaving for the coast.  I knew Dore & I would be coming back through Phnom Penh together, and I’d wait to do the tourist thing then.

So, after getting some sleep, I just wandered around PP, not a bad city, and decided to check out a location for our return.  This hostel had very high ratings on all the websites, and literally, The Mad Monkey saved my life on that very down day.  I wandered in just as the rain began to fall, it is still monsoon season, and it poured for hours on end.  The reception/restaurant area was loungey, comfortable, and inviting.  The staff was great, all Cambodian, but English owned, so well trained for the industry.  The music was relaxing, but modern.  The restaurant menu and the food, varied and yummy.  And the rooms were clean, so yes, that is where D&I stayed upon our return. For photos of Phnom Penh, link here.

From there, I headed southwest to the coastal town of Sihanoukville, and more precisely, Serendipity Beach.  I stayed at a place that was recommended by a friend I’d made in Siem Reap, and ended up rooming with a woman we had both met from Pittsburgh.  It is nice to have someone to share expenses with, as well as having the company.  I ended up staying there for 9 days.  Dore was arriving 5 days later, and we ended up chilling there for a bit.  The weather fluctuated, but it was the beach, and rain or shine, I love it.  A few days it rained continually, but thankfully wifi was available in most places, fellow travelers were friendly and fun, and there was a movie theatre there.  Gotta love these theatres, we had experienced one like it in Bagsu, India.  This one was owned by two British men.  They’d built it 6 years earlier, and it was 6 small private screening rooms and one large theatre.  For $4/person, $3 for each film after the first, you could pick from a huge library of illegally downloaded digital films.  They had classics and new releases, and everything in between.  It was a great way to whittle away a rainy afternoon, and would be an amazing concept in the US, except there it could never be done so cheap because it could never be done illegally like that.

And we had sunny beach days, as well.  The water was beautiful and tropical, crystal clear and warm, there were waves to play in, but they were not strong.  Lovely.  The beach was lined with cafes featuring local seafood and Western favorites, as well as cheap beer and fruit shakes.  Local vendors wandered the beach selling all sorts of seafood, fruit, soup, etc…and also touting various services (threading and massage) and wares.  It was laid back, and the perfect way to recoup from lots of travel (at this point I really hadn’t stopped since I’d landed in Sri Lanka) and to let the horrible experience of Phnom Penh drift away.  I didn’t visit any of them, but there are several offshore islands one can stay at, too, and the diving is supposed to be good there, but because of the rain the visibility was about 4 meters (12 feet) max, so I decided to pass.

We decided to check out another coastal town, Kep.  The beach there was not as inviting, but we did have the best meal in all of Cambodia there.  The area, Kampot especially, is known for it’s pepper, and here they are famous for Crab with Green Peppercorns.  It was one of the best crab dishes I’ve had in my life, and if I can find fresh green peppercorns at home, I will most definitely try to recreate it.  For photos of Sihanoukville and Kep, link here.

Rested and recharged, we headed back to Phnom Penh for a few days.  Mostly, we chilled at the hostel with other travelers, wrote, read, that sort of thing; explored some of the local markets (if you are traveling through several countries of SE Asia, do not plan to do your shopping in Cambodia, it is expensive); and visited S21.  So, S21 and the Killing Fields, these are not nice pleasant tourist sites.  They are the places of genocide from the time of the Khmer Rouge’s rule, 1975-1979.  S21 had been a school in Phnom Penh, and ended up being a prison/torture center/and death camp for 20,000 Cambodians.  We hired a guide, a man who was 15 when the Khmer Rouge came to power, and he had an amazing story to tell.  He was put to work outside the city, and after being injured he was lucky he wasn’t killed, but relocated as a fisherman.  He did defy death twice, and you can read this account on Dore’s blog.  Thankfully, we followed up this melancholy afternoon by meeting up with Dore’s friend’s brother who has been living in Phnom Penh, and saw a comedy show with him and his friends.

Interestingly, there is a huge expat community in all of Cambodia.   I think it is really easy to acquire long term visas, and to extend them, as well as to find work or start businesses.  We met several people from all over the Western world, who had been there for many years and weren’t making plans to move on anytime soon.   From Cambodia, we decided to cross the border into Vietnam, another country with a huge expat community.  That blog is to come…

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Angkor Wat, Angkor Wonder

October 9th, 2012

From Bangkok, I took the 10 hour trip by train and taxi to Siem Reap, the city located outside Angkor Wat, the most beautiful and largest temple complex in the world.  Siem Reap is a city that was literally built for tourists, comprised of hotels and guest houses, restaurants and bars, markets and food carts, and souvenir shops and art galleries.  The only reason to visit Siem Reap is because you are visiting Angkor Wat, and what can I say…I loved Angkor Wat.  I dig this sort of stuff, ancient ruins, especially if I can rent a bicycle and ride around all day. 

The temples of Angkor Wat were influential at various times during the rule of the Khmer Empire, from the 9th-13th centuries, when the Khmers ruled the majority of SE Asia, before being overthrown by the Kingdom of Siam.  The temples were important not only for their religious significance, but also for being central to daily Khmer life.  Angkor Wat was initially built as a Hindu temple dedicated to the creator, Vishnu, and eventually became a holy place for Buddhists, as well.  The influence of both these religions is displayed in the intricate carvings found throughout several of the temples, as well as many shrines dedicated to Vishnu, Shiva, and Buddha.

Day one was spent with a guide visiting the three most famous temples of the complex: Angkor Wat, the largest and most important of the temples, and the national symbol of Cambodia with its three distinct towers;  Ta Prohm which was abandoned in the 15th century, allowing for the jungle to encroach and is well known for the number of huge trees growing out of it, as well as the fact the it was featured in the film Tomb Raider starring Angelina Jolie; and Bayon, located at the center of Angkor Thom, featuring 37 towers, each carved with four faces of Buddha, or it’s been said four faces of King Jayavarman VII who identified himself with Buddha and the bodhisattva of compassion.  This was one of my favorites.  I loved the calm and kindness which the faces emanated, and the intricate carvings on the temple walls which depicted daily Khmer life.

Day two, Cora (a woman I hung with from Portland, OR) and I rented bicycles and rode through the complex.  We started at Phnom Bakhong, a small temple with very steep stairs and a temple dedicated to Buddha at the top.  It is also the oldest known temple in this group, which is apparent in the way the sandstone has corroded.  Then, we returned to Angkor Thom, the last capital of the Khmer Empire, to explore the several temples there aside from Bayon.  Among these is Baphuon, which is one of the largest temples, and was a section of the royal palace.  Initially dedicated to Shiva, it eventually becoming a Buddhist temple, at which time a 27 foot high 210 foot long reclining Buddha was added to the west wall.  It takes a discernable eye to see the Buddha, but it is possible.  Here you will also find the Palace of Phimeanakas and the Terrace of Elephants, which was used for public ceremonies.  We finished the day at Preah Khan, just north of Angkor Thom.  It was central to Khmer religious life as it was a large Buddhist temple surrounded by several Hindu temples.  Today, like several of Angkor’s structures, it is in a state of major disrepair.  Several foreign countries and organizations are doing restoration work on many of the temples, yet the World Monument Fund, who is in charge of Preah Khan, has only done some minor repairs in wanting to stay true to nature and history, thus they have left much of the temple walls in the piles of rubble to which they have fallen.  They say that there would be too much guess work in rebuilding it.  This is in contrast to say the French who have been working on the restoration of Baphuon, or the Indians who have been working on Ta Prohm, and have had to use complex analysis to make sense of it all.

Day three I hired a motorbike to travel a bit further to the Roluos Temple group, the first capital of the Khmer Empire.  It was wonderful to ride through the Cambodian countryside and small villages surrounded by canals and rice paddies.  The most interesting of these three temples is Bakong, the very first temple to be built.  There is evidence to support that Bakong remained an important temple even as the capital moved to Angkor Thom.  It was constructed as three levels, each one a bit smaller, like a pyramid.  At each corner there is an elephant sculpture for protection, most of which no longer have tusks or ears, and for some no faces.  Like so many of the Angkor temples, this structure is surrounded by jungle and a moat, allowing for a beautiful natural setting.  Also on the property is a modern day Buddhist temple, with an active monk population.

So, if you have the opportunity to visit Angkor Wat, it is well worth it, even if you make the trip for just a few days from Thailand.  It is rich in history and natural beauty, and we are all lucky that the Khmer Rouge did not destroy and loot it all when they were in power (side note: there are several pieces missing believed to have been destroyed by the KR, or to have been stolen by local people to sell or trade just to be able to have food to feed their families).

Link here for pictures of Angkor Wat.

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Bangkok…Kingdom of Siam

October 7th, 2012

Have you ever been at a place in your life where you’ve felt like you’ve had enough?  Things have been going along well, but you just need to stop, settle down, and not do for a while.  Well, I’ve been in SE Asia for a month now, and that’s how I’m feeling.  Not because it hasn’t been a wonderful adventure, but because each “short” bit of travel is in actuality a long trip, and I’m ready to stay still and not get on a bus for some time.  I made this decision on the 130 mile, yet 5 hour bus ride from Saigon to Mui Ne, a small, quiet surf resort on Vietnam’s southern coast.  I’m tired of bus rides, and ready to fly.  In saying that, I am preparing myself for two more bus rides in Vietnam.  I will spend a week here at the beach in Mui Ne, then Dore and I will part ways again, I take a “short” bus ride to Da Lat to explore jungle and waterfalls, and then a bus to Saigon to catch my flight, meeting up with Dore again in Phuket, Southern Thailand.

This decision came from the fact that I was starting to feel like I was rushing from place to place, and I never wanted to be the traveler who went just to say that I’ve been.  I know that when one has a year to travel, it seems like rushing wouldn’t be possible, but travel itself is not always quick and easy, and there is so much to see.  I’ve had a desire to travel throughout Vietnam, yet Hanoi, the main city in the north, is over 1000 miles away, and I realized that I will just have to come back to Vietnam.  I have my priorities, and right now Thailand happens to be one of them.  Thailand warrants the six weeks I have before flying from Bangkok to meet Matt in LA for 5 days at Thanksgiving.

Another thing which has had an influence is that I’ve been trying to figure out why India had such a profound effect on me, and while I’ve been struggling to find that feeling with everywhere I’ve been since.  For one, India is so itself.  It is not westernized, there is no “tourist circuit” created to make it easy for travelers to get from place to place.  One is forced to be a part of India, just as the Indians are.  You have to fight for your bus seat along with the throngs of people who have been doing it their whole lives.  Here in SE Asia, one could literally travel from city to city, and even country to country, without ever entering a bus station.  There are tourist buses which pick you up at your hotel or guest house and drop you in the town center at your destination.  It almost feels as if they want to protect tourists from experiencing the “real” thing.  The other thing is that I spent four months in India, and while it is a huge country, incredibly diverse from north to south in culture, language, and tradition, there is still an underlying thread that connects it all.  When in India, you know you are in India.  It gets into one in a way that can be felt.  For me, it entered my thoughts, my spirit, my soul.  So, I have to give Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Vietnam all a break.  Three weeks is just not enough time to get to know a place.

I arrived into Bangkok, from Sri Lanka, one month ago today.  Bangkok is a pulsing city; it is alive and energized, day and night.  It also offers so much of what great International cities offer; historic sites, interesting museums, eclectic and local cuisine, shopping, and live entertainment.  While there is the backpacker circuit found on Khao San Road, it is easy to avoid and immerse yourself with the local Bangkok culture.  The “must see” when visiting is the Grand Palace, the official residence of the Kings of Siam (now Thailand) from the late 1700’s til the early 1900’s.  It is still used for state business, but no longer the residence of the royal family.  The structures themselves are incredibly ornate, adorned in gold and lots of glittery glass mosaic.  Most famous for The Temple of the Emerald Buddha, carved from a single jade stone, it sits on a pedestal high above the ground, surrounded by all sorts of religious and decorative pieces.  The walls of this temple are a mural depicting Buddha’s life, his journey, his work; metaphorically representing honesty, faith, and devotion.  It is quite impressive.   There are several museums on the grounds and included in the ticket, such as the Armory and a textile museum.  The Queen, Queen Sirikit,  has long been a supporter of women’s independence in Thailand, and one of her projects is called Support.  She has helped underprivileged women all over Thailand to produce silk fabrics and textiles, and to tailor items.  Very noble.

I also visited Dusit Palace, which is home to 13 royal residences.  One of them, the Vimanmek Mansion, built in 1900, is assembled entirely of teak from a deconstructed palace from northern Thailand.  No nails or other hardware were used in the building of this Victorian structure which houses all sorts of family heirlooms. Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall now serves as a museum, which of courses displays several thrones, but more impressive to me were the screens carved from teak and woven from silk.  It is apparent that they were created by very skilled craftsmen as they are incredibly ornate and beautiful, depicting scenes of nature and creation.  The current king, Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX) happens to be an accomplished musician and photographer.  One of the smaller museums exhibits photos he took of his family, as well as photos of him playing music with the likes of Louis Armstrong and Benny Goodman. I really enjoyed viewing this because they indicate warmth and emotion within the family, and it’s cool that the King got to jam with Satchmo.

Read my last blog post, “Food,,,Glorious Food,” for more on Bangkok.

Link here for pictures of Bangkok.  Know that several of Bangkok’s sights do not allow for pictures to be taken inside, reason for no pictures of the Emerald Buddha, inside Vimanmek Mansion, and Throne Hall.

Cambodia blog coming soon…

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Food…Glorious Food

September 23rd, 2012

I had started this blog as a travel log, like most of my past blog entries, but then I was inspired by my cousin Adam to write a blog just about the amazing food I experienced in Bangkok and Cambodia.  Adam, this blog is dedicated to you and Hector, and to all the other foodies in my life.

If you live your life scared of street food, change your attitude before visiting Bangkok, known to have the best street food in the world.  If you think you will never eat an insect on purpose, wait until you’re walking Khao San Rd at midnight with a beer buzz.  If you don’t like spicy, never tell anyone in SE Asia, seems that that’s when they spice it up.  If you like curry, know that here red and green and tom yum are just the beginning.

The streets of Bangkok are lined with food vendors, selling everything from fried dumplings and spring rolls, to curries and noodle soup, to all sorts of barbequed meat and seafood on sticks.  You can find papaya or mango salad, any type of Asian fruit you may desire, and even ice cream served in a sweet bun, in addition to lots of other sweet pastries.  Then, hit Cambodia and add into the mix fresh spring rolls, sticky buns, and Banh Mi, the baguette sandwich inspired by the French.   You can sit and eat at the makeshift cafés, a table or two and some plastic chairs set up on the sidewalk, or take to go.  Depending on the dish it will come in a to go container as we know, or in a plastic bag, or in a banana leaf.

My first night in Bangkok I was to be meeting up with some fellow travelers for dinner.  I had an hour to spare, and my appetite grew as I walked past the several food stalls lining the streets.  I had to sample some of the food before I met up with them.  My first stop was for some vegetarian noodle soup, which I tell you, is hard for them to understand here.  There is meat in almost everything, but I was successful, and the veggies were fresh and delicious, bean sprouts and greens, spring onion and carrots.  Then, I met up with Nico and Lara and we found a restaurant on Rambutri Street where mostly Thai people were eating in this tourist part of town, so we settled in there for many Chang beers and some food.  My first course was Som Tum, Spicy Papaya Salad, and they were not kidding.  In Thailand, everything is made spicy.  Do not make the mistake of asking for “not” spicy, because according to my friends, the request does not translate and things are made spicier.  I had made no request, and it made my eyes water and nose run, but the small red chili peppers have such great flavor, it was spicy in a good way.  This is one of my favorite dishes at home and I’m happy to say that Thai Life in Key West does it justice.  Fresh green papaya, juicy tomatoes, green beans, carrot, bean sprouts, peanuts, and baby prawns in a flavorful fish sauce.  The next course was Tom Yum soup with Prawns.  So flavorful and delicious with thick slices of fresh ginger and pieces of lemongrass, roasted chilies, lots of coconut flavor, beautiful prawns, and fresh baby corn and Thai basil.  Doing it right.

Afterwards, we wandered from Rambutri Street to the well-known tourist street Khao San.  This is the Bourbon or Duval Street of Bangkok.  Lined with bars, restaurants, souvenir shops, and tourists, Khao San is a site to be seen, yet not my cup of tea as a place to spend lots of time, still fun for the visit.  The most interesting thing to me was the cart selling all sorts of fried and sautéed insects…yes, like bugs.  I’m sure lots of you have seen footage of this sort of thing on the travel channel or the food network, but seeing it in real life, the variety is pretty impressive.   So, you’re in a foreign country, have had several beers, and the insect cart is rolling by…what do you do?  Well, sample some bugs, of course.  I did not go for the large and expensive grasshopper or scorpion (they were $3 each), but went for the more simple grub and some sort of smaller cricket.  The grub, not so good, but the cricket was actually tasty.  And these were about 30 cents each.  My friend Jenny had asked me if I was going to eat any weird foods, and I guess now I can say, “Yes, I am.”  It’s part of the adventure.

The following morning I was extremely pleased with the breakfast at my guest house.  They offered the traditional continental breakfast of Asian guesthouses for Westerners: eggs, toast and fruit, boring.  Much more exciting to me, they also offered Asian breakfast of rice, sautéed pork with ginger and veggies, and fresh salad, including the best lettuce since I left the states.   The following mornings featured something very similar.  A really great way to start the day, especially before heading out to walk, and walk, and walk around Bangkok.

So, the best food in Bangkok is on the street and in the markets, which makes it very easy to sample many things while wandering the city.  I sampled several dumplings while there, and my favorite came from a woman near the Amulet Market.  Most often there were three kinds of dumplings: bamboo, kale, and shrimp, very lightly fried.  Tradition here is to cut them up and put them in a plastic bag with a soy-chili-ginger sauce.   This is also tradition with fried spring rolls, which are served with lettuce and basil leaves, sweet & spicy sauce on the side.  I don’t know if it was tradition to wrap the roll in the lettuce with basil, but that’s what I did.  So good.   I also tried fish that was steamed with spices in a banana leaf.  The fish was so fresh and delicious, and just lightly cooked, so almost like sushi.   The spices gave it really nice flavor, and the texture reminded me of tartar.   For a meal, there is a woman who whips up Pad Thai, as well as other noodle dishes, on Rambutri Street, and it was the best Pad Thai I’ve ever had.  Another traditional dish that you will find anywhere is noodle soup.  There are lots of different versions made with a variety of noodles, as well as a variety of meat and fish.  I had one of these noodle soups my last night in Bangkok, at a stall down the street from my hotel.   Flavorful rice noodles (my favorite) loaded with fresh herbs, ginger and veggies.

On the sweeter side, there were grilled bananas served in a sweet coconut milk; ice cream in a sweet bun with or without fruit sauce; and then there are khanom bueang, thin mini crispy pancakes covered with a sweet cream and fresh spiced coconut.  These were a personal fav, especially at 10 bhat, about 30 cents each.

The one other meal I ate in a restaurant was on Nico and Lara’s last night.   We shared some prawn rolls to start, prawns in pastry and fried, served with a sweet and spicy chili sauce.  And then I had another of my favorites, Green Curry with veggies and tofu.  It was delectable.  They made it with a couple of types of eggplant, one of which was small, green, and round like a grape, but firm in texture.  Really flavorful and different than any eggplant I’d had before.

While there are some similarities, the food in Cambodia is very different.   For one, it is not spicy.  It can be, but on request.  Seafood is a staple here, as is the dish Amok, made with any type of meat or veggies, but fish amok is the very popular and traditional staple.   The fish is wrapped in a banana leaf with a coconut based curry paste, accented with fresh lemongrass, kaffir lime, galangal, turmeric, ginger, garlic, shallots, and dried red chilies.  If you eat it at the right place, it is absolutely delicious.

The best and the cheapest foods are found on the street here, too, or in food stalls found in the markets.  Again, noodle soup is a traditional dish, made similarly to in Bangkok.  Aside from Amok, the dishes which set Cambodia apart are sticky buns, a doughy bun stuffed with a pork and fermented cabbage, and Banh Mi, the traditional baguette sandwich inspired by the French colonization of the region.  Made slightly different depending where you get it, these are stuffed with cucumber, pate, spring onion, cilantro, and a cucumber-carrot sort of slaw, add chile paste, pork, or cheese, if you like.  These sandwiches are awesome, and cost anywhere from $.75-$1.25.  A solid meal for little money.

The beach in Sihanoukville is a constant barrage of people selling things, including lots of food, seafood especially.  The sellers will cook you fresh squid or octopus right at your table, they carry trays of crawfish (which they call lobster) lightly spiced, and all the restaurants serve fresh fish and prawns.  You can also find all types of tropical fruit, including durian, which is infamous for its odor.  You can smell it from quite a way off, even if not opened.  It definitely has an acquired taste, but not as bad as I thought it was going to be, since the smell is so off-putting.

One more new dish for me, and absolutely delicious, was Som Lo Machuyun soup.  A Cambodian version of egg drop soup, and perfect for those who do not like spicy.  Just slightly on the sweet side, made with pineapple and tamarind, it also contains tomato, bitter melon, egg, fresh basil, and possibly a squeeze of kefir lime, too.  This is the dish to try.

What else to do in Bangkok and Cambodia, besides eat, and according to what I have seen so far: get massaged, it’s cheap and good; The Golden Palace in Bangkok, and of course, Angkor Wat, the awe inspiring temples of the Khmer people near Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Link here for more pictures of food, including market photos.  The meat in the markets here can make even the biggest of meat eaters a little unsettled.

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Ancient & Tropical Sri Lanka

September 2nd, 2012

India must have won my heart.  While I would return there in a heartbeat, Sri Lanka, eh…probably not.  Not to say that I didn’t enjoy my visit, or that the country is not interesting or beautiful.  It is, yet in my perception it just didn’t have the soul of India.  Now granted, I was in India for 4 months and Sri Lanka for a rushed 9 days, but still, for those who have travelled a lot, when you get somewhere you just know.  Regardless of those feelings, I did have a great time, saw noteworthy sites and met many people.

I started to write this blog while I was sitting in a beachside café in Uppuveli, taking in the second to last day of my stay and a bit of peace for a short time (next stop is Bangkok, which I do not expect to be tranquil in the least).  I’m really glad I made the long bus ride to Uppuveli, the beach there is beautiful, tropical, serene, and romantic (if only my man were with me).  Through my eyes, Uppuveli is much nicer than Negombo Beach, where I spent my first two nights a short distance from the airport, but a good place to get my bearings and figure out “a plan.”  The northeast area of Sri Lanka, where Uppuveli is located outside the city of Trincomalle, was hit hard by the tsunami, as well as being one of the last places the civil war ended only a few years ago.  They seem to be recovering well though.  There are lots of tourists, both Sri Lankan and Western, on the picturesque white sand beaches.   The village is poor and simple, there are lots of concrete structures that appear to have been bombed out, but the people are happy and grateful and always smiling.  Perhaps this is because they are on the other side of things, life is getting better.  I heard from a few locals of my generation of how hard life used to be, and how it has been improving in the last several years.

This area is also the best place for diving.  I didn’t go diving, but I did snorkel the reef at Pigeon Island National Park.  More and more I realize how spoiled we are in the Keys.  (Oh, tropical beaches and sultry ocean breezes, how could I have thought I didn’t love you anymore?)  The coral structure is very different then what I’ve experienced before, there was a lot of diversity in the variety of tropical fish, saw some small reef sharks, and it was very beautiful on many levels, but not quite the variety of the Keys, known for the large number of fish.

In between beaches, I spent four days exploring the cultural ruins of the ancient Sinhalese civilization, which dates back to the 4th century BC, but peaked in the 12th century.  The government is doing a fair bit of restoration to some of the sites, and some are preserved better than others, allowing for a good feel of what these ancient cities may have been like.   My travels took me to the city of Kandy, not an ancient city, but it is green and temperate with scenic views, set in the foothills of the tea country.  Sri Lanka is 70% Buddhist, and Kandy is home to the largest Buddhist temple in the country, the “Temple of the Tooth,” which houses a tooth of Buddha’s.  What I really enjoyed was the fairly new Museum of Buddhism, which takes us through Buddhism as it spread through 18 countries in Asia.  It offers a really interesting history and some gorgeous statues and artwork.

From Kandy I took the bus to Sigiriya, with a stop at the Dambulla Caves on the way.  These five caves, on the top of a hill, are adorned with numerous Buddha statues, and the walls and cave ceilings are painted with colorful murals depicting religious life.  I really enjoyed the scenic walk up a stairway that was built in between huge boulders and is lined with many beautiful trees, in addition to the amazing views of the surrounding area.  On to Sigiriya, a World Heritage Site, which is known for the palace built atop Sigiriya Rock.  The esplanade which leads to the rock is lined with a water garden, supposedly a very intricate system, but bone dry at the moment because Sri Lanka is experiencing a major water shortage.  Some areas have not had a drop of rain in eight months.  Here, too, the stairs up were built into the boulders and mountainside.  They have put in stairs for tourists to use because to climb the stairs that exist one would literally be scaling the rocks.  Not much is left of the palace, but there are some impressive cave paintings and they have done restoration on lion’s feet which flank the stairway up.  And, once again, the view is stunning.

Next stop, Polonnaruwa, the second largest of the ancient cities in Sri Lanka.  This site is incredibly well preserved considering how old it is.  Supposedly, this is due in part to the fact that it was hidden in the jungle until discovered by the British in the mid-nineteenth century.  Many walls, pillars, and statues survive, while all the roofs, which are believed to have been made of wood, are gone.  Polonnaruwa covers over four square kilometers, so I rented a bike and explored for about 6 hours.  Influenced by Buddhist and Hindu religions, there were temples, monasteries, and stupas.  There were signs of an advanced civilization with a hospital and town center lined with vendor stalls.  This is also the site of three of the most beautiful well preserved Buddha statues carved from stone, in addition to the countless statues which now stand headless throughout the site.  And it is from Polonnaruwa that I ended up in Uppuveli.

Some of the ways in which Sri Lanka has been an incredibly different experience to India: it is obviously more developed, which is most noticeable in the prices.  SL is way more expensive and Western in things like clothing and music, and as a tourist you do feel like you are being taken advantage of with the prices of entry fees and the like.  It was odd in that almost every tourist I met mentioned how much more expensive it was than they had expected, and how much it cost to see the historic sites;  The food is spicier, yes spicier, the seafood is incredible, and then there are the two traditional dishes of rice and curry, the heaping plate of rice accompanied by 6-12 vegetable dishes and sambol (the Sri Lankan version of chutney), and Kottu Roti which is their version of stir fry;  Then there are the people.  They are very friendly, super nice, and inquisitive, although with many of them once you get past “which country?” and “how long stay Sri Lanka?” they understand minimal bits and pieces.  It’s funny in that in India the children were incredibly curious and asking lots of questions where in SL the children seem to be a little more timid while the adults will engage you in conversation.   And let’s not forget the tourists.  I met many really terrific people from Australia, Germany, Greece, The Netherlands, and Israel.  They each had a part in making Sri Lanka a wonderful experience for me.  For more pictures of Sri Lanka, click here.

Now, on to Southeast Asia, and I am ready.  Super excited for Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Burma, and Thailand.  Til the next blog… sà-wàtdii kà.


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Up in the Mountains

August 21st, 2012

I’m back in McLeod Gang, the Tibetan enclave which is a suburb of Dharamsala, as well as the place where the Dalai Lama and thousands of Tibetan refugees reside.  I’m sitting on my hotel room balcony, watching the rain fall; it’s been raining for 24 hours straight.  Actually, it’s pretty much been raining since my arrival 6 days ago.  I was lucky to have a couple short breaks, and actually saw the sun for a few hours one afternoon, but it brings me back to Kundapura and the arrival of the monsoon.  It’s a shame because it really is beautiful up here in the mountains of Himachal Pradesh.  The view here in McLeod is lined with Tibetan prayer flags.  If only I could see them, naught for the fog.

Thankfully, when I was here almost a month ago, it was different.  There was some rain and fog, but the monsoon had not yet fully hit.  Like all of India, HP is short on its rainfall, having a 30% deficit this monsoon season.  Yet, that made for a drier visit for Dore and I, and allowed for us to be able to walk around, see sights such as the Tsuglagkhang Temple Complex (the main Buddhist Temple and home of the Dalai Lama) and embark on a stunning hike through lush forest loaded with rhododendron trees (unfortunately not flowering, but this is their native habitat) and more shades of green than I even knew existed, to a boulder strewn waterfall of crystal clear freezing cold water.

McLeod is an interesting place.  For the most part, you would not know you were in India, until the horns start honking, but you could be in Tibet or other parts of Asia.  There are always monks dressed in red and gold robes walking the streets and sitting in cafes , some sort of organized talk about the refugees or Buddhism to attend, and then the tourist aspect which adds a bit of Western flavor.  There is a huge Asian influence to the food here, and it is amazing.  There is a fantastic vegetarian Japanese restaurant which has delicious sushi, I’ve found a wonderful veggie Tibetan restaurant with hands down the best momos ever, and there is a superb Chinese restaurant which you know makes all its sauces from scratch.  I’ve been doing a lot of eating since the rain doesn’t allow for much else, or that’s my excuse anyway.

Actually, regardless of the rain, I’ve made a few visits to the Tsuglagkhang Complex, just to be in the atmosphere.   When Dore and I visited last time, we were lucky to arrive towards the end of Sangha and witness the monks in prayer, chanting and playing their myriad of musical instruments: drums, horns, bells, cymbals.  This visit, I haven’t made it for that, but there seems to always be a gathering of monks, there are always devotees engaged in their personal prayer practice (which honestly seems like a form of exercise where they move from a standing position to a prostrated position and then back up again with a push up), and of course there are the prayer wheels.  I haven’t counted them.  Possibly a hundred of them surrounding the Tsuglagkhang Temple, adorned with the Tibetan mantra “Om Mani Padme Hum,” The Jewel in the Lotus.  I have spun many of them sending prayers out in several directions, although always spinning in a clockwise direction, even though I’m not sure why this is the rule.  For pictures of McLeod Gang, link here.

When Dore and I left last time, we headed next to Manali, a short distance as a crow flies, but a 9 hour bus ride through curving mountain roads.  This was a warm-up to the 18 hour bus ride from Manali to Leh.  We stayed in Old Manali; a town which seems to have been built for tourists, yet still has some charm, set next to a rushing river in the mountains.  Here, I mostly relaxed, practiced yoga, shopped, ate.  One day did a hike up to have a look at the beautiful view, and another day the 3km walk to Vashisht, another tourist enclave on the opposite bank of the Beas River.  I made a connection in Manali for when I return to study Ayurvedic massage.  It really is a beautiful relaxed place, one I would like to visit again.  Link here for more pictures of Old Manali.

Next destination Leh, which I have already shared a little about in my last blog, but which had another special aspect for me.  The Dalai Lama was not in McLeod Gang when we were there, he was touring Ladakh, and happened to be in Leh at the same time we were.  We were lodging at a homestay and the family was going to see the Dalai address his audience, which was open to the public.  I asked if I could tag along.  There were probably 10,000 people there to hear him speak.  It felt a little like being at a music festival; the excitement in the air, people camped out on blankets, the anticipation of what one might witness.  There were several sections partitioned off; some for monks and nuns, another for old age, and then one for foreigners directly next to the podium.  Here one had a perfect side view of the Dalai Lama, and English translation over a speaker about one sentence behind what his holiness was saying.

It was really amazing to see this great leader, who is known to be a very charismatic speaker, address an audience.  At times, serious and profound, at others light-hearted and comical.  And then, of course, compassionate.  He stopped the Ladakhi translator at one point to ask if someone would assist an elderly woman attempting to navigate through the crowd.  Always present, always aware.  Something special to have witnessed.  He spoke of compassion, to bring more of it into the world.  Of evil and why it exists.  He made a joke that if there’s a hell, there has to be people to go there.  He spoke of the self, that it exists not on its own, but as a part of something greater, without beginning or end.  And he spoke about Tibetan Buddhism, that some say it is not really Buddhism, he says that those people must not know Buddhism.  It was a very thought-provoking and meaningful morning for me.  For pictures of Leh and His Holiness, link here.

So, my main observation about my time in Himachal Pradesh and Ladakh is that the Tibetan influence on this part of India gives it a distinctive feel and flavor, unlike anywhere else I’ve been in India.  Being a white woman is no longer a spectacle, possibly because the Tibetans don’t care, or because there are many more Western tourists here.  Regardless, it feels really nice to not be on display anymore.  And the whole atmosphere is different.  Much more chill and laid back.  Smaller towns, higher altitudes, fresher air, cleaner water, cooler temperatures, pine laden mountains, yaks and sheep, apples and pears and apricots…oh, the apricots.  Just different.  There is something to be said for mountain living.  Not that I have ever done it.  I haven’t, but I am certainly intrigued after my most recent experiences.

Well, this will be my last blog from India.  I’ve been taking a Thai Massage class which commences today.  Tomorrow, I embark on the 12 hour bus ride to Delhi, and in three days, I will find myself in Sri Lanka.  After four months here, I am looking forward to the excitement and adventure of a new place.  I’m also looking forward to being where it is sunny and warm again, maybe relaxing on a beach for a few days.  And I’ll be easing myself into SE Asia, since Sri Lanka has lots of Buddhist and Southern Indian influence.

So, with a Namaste, Namaskar, Hadi Om, Julley (whatever your flavor isJ), I bid you farewell from India, and look forward to greeting you with Sai Ram or Ayubowen from Sri Lanka.

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Snow in August…Who Would’ve Thunk

August 12th, 2012

If I’d been told that I was going to see snow in August, in humid tropical India, or arid desert India, I would have thought I was being lied to.  But here I am, in the city of Leh, in the state of Ladakh, looking at snow topped peaks of the Himalayas.  Those of you who are mountain people, who know altitude, you would have known.   Yet, this is something that I don’t have much experience with, this is all new to me.

So, I have just returned from one of the best times of my life, a 6 day trek in the Himalayan range.  I had never seen mountains like this in my life.  My experience is with the small mountains of the East Coast, the Smokies and the Blue Ridge.  I’ve never even been out to the Rockies.  Once, I’d hiked to the peak of Jabal Katarina in the Sinai, peaking around 3500 meters.   This time here in the Himalayas was a very special experience.

We trekked from Tso Kar to Tso Moriri (Tso meaning “lake” in Ladakhi), 4 days of serious walking, we figure somewhere around 45 miles.   The hiking was strenuous and arduous, the air thin and difficult to breathe.  I can say one of the most challenging feats I’ve ever undertaken, yet also one of the most rewarding, both physically and mentally.  It feels like an amazing triumph.  At one point when I could hardly catch my breath, Dore said to me, “Gail, it’s not supposed to be fun.  It is hard; everyone is breathing heavy, even our guide.  The reward is once we get to the top.”  And, this was so true.

We started at about 4500 meters above sea level, in mountains of red, gold and green.  Even though it is very arid here, the snow melt allows for lots of growth along the mountain sides and in the valleys.  When you come over a pass, it’s like seeing an oasis; a valley of green pasture studded with grazing Nomad herds of yak, sheep, and goat.   As we got higher, the mountains transformed in color and contour.  The smooth sandy hills of red and gold converted to more rocky mountains of purples and blues.  Our first pass, Horlan Kongka La, was 4950 meters and gave me lots of confidence for the following day, when we would climb our two highest passes.  The achievement of each pass is acknowledged by a shrine of Tibetan prayer flags, usually adorned with the horns of an animal, Tibetan carvings, or the words of another trekker written in sharpie pen on rock.  Our second, and most difficult pass, was Kyamayur La, 5450 meters, at a very steep angle.   When we crested our third and highest pass, Gama La, 5850 meters, we were greeted with snow flurries and blustery northeast winds.   This felt like a remarkable accomplishment.  In our final pass, Yalang Nyau La, 5440 meters, we followed a babbling brook for miles, lined with walls of slate, and the river itself, laden with huge chunks of quartz and other mineral and gem stones.  It is stunning.  Gama and Yalang Nyau were more gradual climbs, not as steep as Kyamayur, allowing us to enjoy a little more, and work slightly less.  Each pass was so beautiful, offering different views of the glacier peaked mountains, different vantage of the valleys, and depending on where the sun laid, very different shadows and colors.

Our team was led by a wonderful 19 year old man, Tsultim.  He was a fantastic guide.  He’s from Leh and has been spending his summer’s guiding since he was 14.  He is currently an art student in Jammu, a city further west, and spends almost every day of his summer leading treks.  He is knowledgeable, fun, and sweet.  We really enjoyed him, and him us.  Our cook was a Nepali man named Pudna.  He has been cooking on treks for 7 years.  He works the earlier season in Nepal, and then finishes the trekking season in India.  And our pony man, Paldin, who is from Karzok, the town we ended at at Tso Moriri.  Six ponies for the two of us and the crew.  They carry all the camping gear, food, and fuel (20 liters).  We camped near a water source every night, so water is boiled daily.  The food was really good, a combination of Indian and Nepali, and all vegetarian.  After a couple of days, we finally convinced Tsultim and Pudna to start eating with us, none of this client-staff stuff.  I can imagine that they have clients who expect this, but not us.  We wanted them to be a complete part of our experience, which included eating together.  It wasn’t until the second to last morning that I discovered they were eating a totally different breakfast than us.  We were being given a “Western” version, eggs, toast, and cereal.  They were having curried rice and potatoes, something both Dore & I preferred, so the final morning we all ate the same thing.  Now we know for future treks.

So, future treks…I would come back and do the Indian Himalayas again.  We covered a very small area of a very vast range.  I am grateful that this was my first trek, and not the Annapurna circuit in Nepal, which we had originally considered.  That trek is much higher in altitude, and much longer in days.  I felt that for my experience and physical ability, this was perfect.  I have been very interested in a trek in the state of Uttarakhand, also in the Himalayan Range, to the Valley of the Flowers.  It sounds stunning and amazing, and is a part of the country I did not venture to.  All in the return trip I am planning back to India.

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Shiva Festival

July 22nd, 2012

At some point India had to become difficult.  Everyone I know who has ever been here has had their stories of some sort of challenge.  Dore & I had been cruising along, wondering if this was true, if it all really had to do with the people themselves, their personalities and outlooks on life, the way they handle themselves in any challenging situation.  Well, welcome to North India, to the Shiva festival, and thousands of male pilgrims on the same path as you.  Add in a rickshaw driver who won’t take you where you want to go, but will take your money; a bicycle rickshaw driver who takes you 20m, tells you he can go no further, and takes your money; and a long walk through narrow unknown old city streets, following and trusting a complete stranger, who gets you where you need to go, and will take your money.  For that moment, it had become difficult.

Little did we know that our journey to Varanasi and Rishikesh, two of the holiest cities along the Ganga River, would be coinciding with the Shiva Festival.  Had we known, would we have changed our plans?  Probably not, especially since we had no idea what it meant, but also because these are two spiritual cities that we really wanted to visit.  The challenge comes from the fact that we are a spectacle here in India; white women walking with our rucksacks on,  surrounded by hundreds of juvenile Indian boys; well, not really boys, young adults and men, but they act like children.  “Hello. How are you?” followed by something in Hindi which we can only perceive to be in some way sinister by the way they snigger.  Cell phones pointed at us without the sometimes polite “Photo please, Madam.”  This can become extremely tiring, annoying, and challenging.  Dore had finally let an “F…Off” come out, while I found myself holding up my hand to block my face from their cameras like some Hollywood starlet.  It’s not so much that I have a problem with being in their photos; it’s more the sheer disrespect of them not even asking, yet being incredibly blatant.  Starts to make one feel like a caged animal on exhibition, yet without the bars.  And while this uncomfortableness came to being in Varanasi, it came to its pinnacle in Rishikesh, and in some ways tainted the spirituality of these mystical cities.  Thankfully, we have had a full week in Rishi post-festival, and been able to get more of a feel for the place.

Once past the initial shock of being ripped off by not one, but two drivers in Varanasi, the city itself grew on us.  Dore more so than myself; being a very religious city, there are cows everywhere, and I found it arduous to constantly dodge piles of cow dung.  Yet, regardless, the soul of Varanasi is apparent in the overall ambiance.  The holiness of the city leaches into you.  In walking the Ghats (the stairs that lead down to the river) it is impossible to ignore that the Ganga is where people gather to pray, pay homage to departed souls (famous for the cremations which take place in public along the rivers edge), as well as cleanse their bodies and souls (dipping oneself in the Ganga is a baptism of sorts, washing away ones sins).  The evening puja ceremony is beautiful.  Even nonHindus can sense how special it is, watching 7 Hindu men cloaked in white perform their spiritual fire dance along the river’s edge, giving thanks for the day.  We spent two days there walking the Ghats and people watching, witnessing a funeral and puja ceremony, and experiencing sunrise and sunset on the river, the main attractions in Varanasi.  Having done all that, and because the city was so crowded due to the festival, we decided it was time to move on.  Our time in India is rapidly coming towards completion, and there is still much to see in the north; plus, we are looking forward to getting more yoga time in.

On to Rishikesh, a city known for its yogic soul and sheer natural beauty, situated along the Ganga, enveloped by green mountains.   There are dozens of ashrams in Rishi, countless places to practice yoga, and where we made our home for 12 nights.  We found a room with a kitchen, and a flat mate for the first six nights, Adeline from Paris, who we traveled with on the train.  Within our first day, we ran into a woman we’d met at Sivananda, and she turned us onto a great yoga teacher who holds classes in a hotel right next to our guest house.

At last, we have found our guru.  His name is Sirander, and it is apparent that he loves to share his yogic knowledge and culture.  He is a teacher who deserves the guru label; a patient and peaceful soul who has an amazing ability to read his student’s needs.  He is able to lead each one of us individually, on both a physical and spiritual level, even as each of us is one of several students.  While the physical practice has been rewarding, challenging, and expansive, I feel like I have finally found the yoga I had come to India for: the Dharma talks, the spiritual explanations of this path and journey, yoga with a soul and the soul of yoga.  On more than one occasion, his Dharma talk went in the direction of something I had thought about earlier in the day or practice, and his explanations and analogies are simple to understand, as life should be.   I am incredibly grateful to have had the opportunity to practice with him for over a week, and have contemplated a return visit.

Ready to leave Rishikesh, yet sadly leaving this specific practice behind, I look forward to one last class with Sirander tomorrow morning before we head off to witness another powerful soul, the Dalai Lama.  Our next stop is Dharamsala, where the Dalai Lama has resided in exile since 1959, and if we are lucky, he will be addressing an audience while we are there.  Hadi Om.

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