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Sushi-A-Go-Go

Friday, March 22nd, 2013

 

I am just a couple of days away from Auckland, which also means just a couple days from my return to the US.  It is coming incredibly fast, this imminent moment.  I know I’ve spent a year away, but going home means having to get back to reality, and that is something I’m not sure I’m ready for yet.  You see, my first title for this blog post was going to be “Heaven IS a Place on Earth” because New Zealand is just that; paradise, ethereal, surreal; nature’s utopia.  Easily one of my favorite places I’ve ever been.  Yet, I decided that this blog must be dedicated to the one who has made the last four weeks possible, the one who has moved me around this amazing country, who has provided shelter and been home base.  Her name is Sushi and she is a 1993 Subaru Legacy that Dore and I bought for $300NZD (approx. $255USD) in Christchurch upon Dore’s arrival.

Now, everyone knows the saying “you get what you pay for” and we knew that we were buying an old car, our girl has almost 300,000 km (180,000 miles) on her; a car which has problems, her prior Japanese owner told us in his broken English what might be wrong with her; and a car which might not get us to the end of the road.  But at that price, these were all things we were willing to deal with, to see what just might happen.  And we did.

We drove her hard for the first two weeks on the south island: across the huge Alps of Arthur’s Pass, up the windy roads of the West Coast, through the mountainous terrain of Abel Tasman and Golden Bay.  That’s when we had to have a repair done, which has made her a $725 car, and one we knew we needed to be gentler with.  So, as we hit the north Letting Sushi Cool Downisland this meant taking our time, making planned stops in beautiful riverside picnic areas or taking nature walks through Kauri forests to let her cool down and catch her breath (Kauri are ancient trees which grow huge, but have been endangered by disease and humans.  Not a similar tree, but similar concept to our Redwoods.).  All this worked out just right, allowing us to see things we may not have otherwise.  We have definitely gotten our monies worth from her in transport and accommodation as we’ve spent many nights camping in her.

Following is a quick rundown of what’s been done in the last month, all in a couple liners; 90%  has been camping and hiking, and most of the other 10% has been visiting vineyards and craft breweries, in lieu of cities and towns.  There is no way that words or pictures can do justice to the sheer beauty of this country.  To truly get it, one must see it for themselves.  Every road traveled, every forest traversed, every beach walked, every river swam, every bay spotted will take one’s breath away.  It’s almost unfathomable.  And the people are genuinely friendly, helpful, and full of pride for their amazing country.

Christchurch: devastated by four earthquakes from Sept. 2010 to Dec. 2011, CC looks like a war zone, so we bought Sushi and left.

Arthur’s Pass: the crossing from east coast to west coast.  Started at Castle Hill Boulder Field and ended with a full day climb to Avalanche Peak, 1833 meters (5500 feet) up sheer rock on a narrow trail for views of several glaciers, including Crow’s On way to Avalanche PeakGlacier.  Lord of the Rings fans, this is Mordor.

Hokitika: west coast artist colony, a beautiful beach covered in driftwood art; fun and groovy.

Fox and Franz Joseph Glaciers: south end of the West Coast region, the worlds only glaciers nestled within tropical rainforest.

Greymouth: depressed mining town midway up West Coast.  The place we decided to start camping in Sushi.  Perfectly sized for the two of us to stretch out comfortably, paying a lot of money for petrol, and then we could stay wherever we wanted.  It was decided.

Pancake Rocks:  Incredibly unique geological formations.  Just a quick stop, but worth a mention.

Karamea: remote northern tip of the West Coast, on the western border of the Kaharangi National Forest.  Starting point of the Heaphy Track.  The beaches here are vast and empty, we hiked to Scott’s Beach, through rainforest to a white sand beach that ran as far as the eye could see.At Pancake Rocks

Upper Moutere/Ruby Bay: east of Abel Tasman, reunited with a couple we’d met in Thailand; attended music festival headlining New Zealand’s Fat Freddy’s Drop, talented and energetic, love them horns.  Delicious local craft beers on draft at The Moutere Inn.  If you like beer, this is a must stop.

Abel Tasman:  One of the Great Walks; dazzling bays every hour to two of walking.  Stayed three nights at Totaranui Campsite.  Solo hike south through beautiful Goat’s Bay, returning to a gourmet Italian dinner made by Dore; incredible what can be cooked up in one pot.  Then, big hike together north to Separation Point, home to a seal colony, and on to crystal clear tropical blue waters of Whariwharangi Beach.  Feasted for dinner on 40 of the biggest, most scrumptious New Zealand Green Shell Mussels which we harvested ourselves.

Farewell Spit: the largest natural sandbar in the world, 21 miles long and possibly a mile wide.  Breathtaking sight of rolling white sand dunes to the horizon.

Wharariki Beach:  just another beautiful beach (sense the sarcasm), different than all the others.  New Zealand just kept Beautiful Abel Tasmanastonishing me.

Onekaka/Golden Bay:  Shambhala Guest House, for a couple nights in a real bed, is also a yoga center and organic farm run off solar power and rainwater.  The Mussel Inn, the best bar/restaurant of the whole trip, brewed their own beer and cider, had delicious fresh food, a great staff, and an inviting and comfortable atmosphere in which we played a game of Scrabble.  Another must stop.

Te Waikoropupu “Pupu” Springs: quick stop to view what is literally the clearest water in the world, like nothing I’d ever seen.

Break here with bout of car trouble, an incredibly odd night at a backpacker’s that was housing Tongan fruit pickers, and a tow to Nelson the next day.

Blenheim: a series of vineyards, starting with George Michels, and then discovering MANA, an org whose farmers are all organic and biodynamic, so from there we hit three members vineyards: Fromm, Highfields, and Rock Ferry.  Each specialized in different varietals, and Rock Ferry has a remarkably good restaurant where we had a fantastic meal.Pupu Springs

Queen Charlotte Sound:  meeting up with our friends again, totally by surprise; we kayaked the sound, enjoyed a night with friends, and a morning playing mini-golf before catching the ferry to the north island.

Waiohine Gorge in the Tararua Forest Park:  fantastic walk through tropical forest along the banks of crystal clear rivers; met a fellow camper who had been deer hunting and gave us a generous portion of venison.

Hastings/Havelock: more vineyards, where the south island is most well-known for its Sauvignon Blancs and Pinot Noirs, the north island is most well-known for its Chardonnays and Merlots.  Those worth mentioning, Trinity Hill, Te Awa which also labels Leftfield, Black Barn, and Crab Farm.  Delightful lunch at Black Barn, dining under vines dripping with grapes.

Napier: Art-Deco city.  Funky architecture, historic in nature.  Yummy Turkish food.

Break for second bout of car troubles trying to make it over mountainous terrain to Tongariro National Park.  Assisted by a couple of local guys we were successful in making a quick fix (stop leak stuff can work wonders) and we changed our

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route.  We really wanted Sushi to make it to Auckland.

Kaingaroa Forest:  the largest forested area on the north island, home to the placid and picturesque Lake Waikaremoana.  It was here that we cooked the venison and drank the perfect wine that we’d bought at Te Awa.

Rotorua: met a local who turned us on to Waiotapo Springs and Kerosene Creek, both sacred hot spring pools; Waiotapo at night was amazing, a sky full of stars and the pool surrounded by candles.  It was like nothing else.

Lake Taupo:  the largest lake in New Zealand and the one that feeds the powerful Huka Falls.

Karangahake Gorge: Dickey Flat campground, in the center of what used to be a flourishing gold mining town.  Hiked to Karangahake Peak, 544 meters (1632 feet), a big difference from the peaks of the south island; views of the Coromandel Peninsula, swims in Waitawheta River.

Lake Waikaremoana

 

Coromandel Peninsula: known for its beaches; some very touristy like Hot Water Beach and Cathedral Cove; we took the more treacherous remote road to Fletcher Bay.  Gifted with fresh fish and garden grown veggies.  Hiked the Coromandel Coastal Walkway, up the mountain biking trail for spectacular views returning via Stony Bay on the more level coastal trail.

Clevedon Farmer’s Market: if you are ever driving from the Coromandel to Auckland on a Saturday this is a must stop, absolutely the best farmer’s market I’ve ever been too.  Every single stand offers samples of their fare and it is amazing.  Oh, and don’t eat before.

Final stop, Auckland: stayed with Dore’s family friends, wonderful people, and were welcomed with an earthquake just after arriving, trippy.  Wonderful collection at Auckland Art Gallery.  Final meal, fantastic Malaysian food and incredible ice cream before heading to the airport to fly back to the US.

Time to give thanks.  Thank you, Sushi, for all you offered and making it all the way to Auckland.  Thank you, Dore, for being our official driver and my travel buddy…full circle.  And thank you, New Zealand, for being so absurdly beautiful and a Coromandel Peninsulamost memorable last stop.  I know I’ve written quite a lot here, so thank you, too, for reading all of this.  Truth is, it doesn’t even tell it all.

It is now several days from when I started to write this blog and I am in New Jersey.  Almost 48 hours back on US soil and while it is wonderful to see my family, it is strange and surreal, natural yet unnatural all at the same time.  There will be time to contemplate, ruminate, and reflect, and I’m sure that will loan itself to the next blog post.  Until then, thank you for taking this most amazing, life expanding journey with me.  It’s been one extraordinarily incredibly phenomenal year.  Namaste.

PS.  Photo albums will be posted soon.  Will let you know.

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Posted in Food, history, nature, travel, Yoga | 7 Comments »

12,000 Feet Above Sea Level

Thursday, February 28th, 2013

As I was flying over the Fiordlands on my way to Queenstown I said to myself, “this is someplace I will want to return one day,” and when I left Queenstown I said the same thing.  The southwestern part of the south island is a place of vast beauty; a scenic paradise.  On a clear day all one can see for miles around are Over Fiordlands glacier covered Alps, pristine-crystal clear blue lakes, and flowing waterfalls surrounded by rugged landscape.

Queenstown is a wonderful place, although it is clearly a tourist town.  It consists of many bars, restaurants, souvenir shops, and tour operators, but it is quaint in its size, and offers a myriad of activities to do.  Queenstown Gardens is a gorgeous park with both manicured lawns and rugged lakeside trails, as well as a Frisbee golf course, tennis, ice skating, and a bowling club.  This type of bowling is similar to bocce, not like our version with pins.  The trail around the lake goes for miles to neighboring towns, and is very pleasing to walk.  There are several other day hikes available at all different levels.  My favorites were the Queenstown Hill Trail and the Ben Lomond Summit Trail.  The Queenstown Hill was less difficult, through forest to a lookout of the lake where there sits a sculpture called The Basket of Dreams.  One can literally sprawl in it and let it absorb their dreams so that they may come to fruition.Wahoo, made it!

The Ben Lomond was a much more strenuous hike, eight hours return up steep inclines to 5375 feet, and it was well worth the effort.  The 360⁰ panoramic views were outrageously gorgeous from the highest peak in Queenstown.  From there you can see to the horizon and are surrounded by picturesque snow covered mountains (oh yeah, it had snowed the night before I did this hike), deep forested valleys, and a couple of lakes.  Absolutely breathtaking.

And then there is Fiordlands National Park and Milford Sound.  I went out there on a day tour from QT, but it is on my list of places to return to.  This area is huge, so vast there is no way to explain, and there are several different treks one can do, varying from 3-12 days, including the famous four day Milford Track, supposedly one of the most beautiful in the world.  The topography Fiordlands National Parkdiffers greatly here, too, from tropical forest with gushing rivers and falls to barren snow covered Alps.  The contrast is incredible to see.  This is one of those places that everyone should try to see in their lives, on scale with the Grand Canyon.  For pictures of Queenstown and Fiordlands, click here (no pics of Milford Sound because my camera conveniently stopped working).

From QT I headed to Wanaka, a smaller town about 1 ½ hours north, and the place I had chosen to skydive.  Why skydive?  Well, it is something I’ve always been scared to do, but also had a desire to try, to become the master of my fears.  When I began to plan this trip, I promised myself that if I’d made it to New Zealand I was going to skydive.  Why New Zealand versus anywhere else on my trip?  That’s easy…because of the vast beauty it offers.  And then, why Wanaka?  I knew I wanted to do my jump on the south island, mostly because it is sparsely developed and offers such diverse landscape to view.  Lake Wanaka is fed by Clutha River, the longest river in southern NZ, and is next to Lake Hawea, surrounded by the Pisa Mountain range and farmland.  Basically, it’s Free Fallingjust f-ing beautiful.

The skydive was amazing, unexplainable to anyone who has never done it, but one of the best feelings I’ve ever had.  I was really nervous until we jumped out of the plane from 12,000 feet, and then it was this overwhelmingly fun feeling of flying and taking in the beauty all around.  To me, it didn’t even feel like I was falling.  I was so relieved that I wasn’t scared anymore; I was just laughing and screaming with joy.  This is one activity I will do again.  For pictures of my skydive, click here.

In Wanaka, I also visited Rippon Vineyard, well known for its Pinot Noir and Rieslings, although I really liked their Sauvignon Blanc and it fit better into my budget.  It is situated just beside the lake so from the tasting room there are spectacular views of the area.  Another day I rented a bicycle to ride a trail along the lake to the next town.  This was additionally as stunning, for few people take this trail through the forest bordering the lake, the lake is pristine Rippon Winery(as all the water features are crystal clear snow fed waters), and it is incredibly quiet and peaceful.  In addition, there are several varities of wildflowers all over the countryside, in colors of yellow, red, orange, purple, blue, pink, and white.  I love them.  Riding back into Wanaka one passes the famous museum Puzzle World.  I didn’t want to spend a beautiful day inside this attraction, even though puzzles are my thing, but I did make a short stop to rest and test my skills at some of the free puzzles available to pass time with.  Some of them were incredibly hard, seemingly impossible, so I was happy when I was successful at a couple, less challenging ones.  For pictures of Wanaka, click here.

My next stop was Dunedin, on the southeast side of the island.  Dunedin is a city of 110,000 people, yet also home to New Zealand’s oldest university, University of Otago (Otago being the region), and the population swells to 140,000 when school is in session.  This is a very beautiful city, settled by the Scottish in the late 1800’s, which is noticeable in the architecture of the P1040127churches and cathedrals, railway station, and other various government buildings.  Apparently, 60% of Dunedin’s residents are of Scottish dissent.  There are a number of free attractions, including a National Art Gallery with a lovely collection; the railway station which was recently rated one of the most beautiful in the world; a large diverse Botanical Garden near the city center; and The Otago Museum which reminded me of a NZ version of The Museum of Natural History, and which was hosting an excellent exhibit on the earthquakes which have devastated Christchurch in recent years.  I hadn’t realized that CC experienced 4 earthquakes from Sept 2010-Dec 2011, and have had more than 13,200 aftershocks since the first quake.  It must be a scary place to live.  There are also plenty of to-pay-for attractions, such as the Cadbury chocolate factory, Brewery tours, The Settler’s Museum, and tours to Otago Peninsula to see albatross and penguins.  I didn’t do any of these, but I did hook up with a couple of backpackers who had a car and went out to the peninsula one day.

The Otago Peninsula is sparsely populated farmland with raw coastline.  The sand is soft and white, the dunes are huge and covered with different dune grass and wildflowers, and the beaches are often visited by seals, sea lioAt Tunnel Beachns and penguins.  We did see several seals and sea lions, and while we hoped to see albatross and penguins, we were not successful in that feat.  Oh well, hopefully  next time.  Regardless, we did incredible beach walks on Tunnel Beach and at Sandymount, which had some of the steepest dunes I’ve ever had to walk. For photos of Dunedin and Otago Peninsula, click here.

From Dunedin I headed north to Christchurch, where I met up with Dore.  We have been exploring the north of the south island for the last two weeks.  That will be in the next post.  Til then…

 

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G’Day Mates

Friday, February 8th, 2013

I had pretty much convinced myself that I was going to completely bypass Australia, and go straight to New Zealand.  This was all for financial reasons; Mom & I at the Opera HouseAustralia is one of the most expensive countries in the world, and Sydney just recently beat out Tokyo as the most expensive city.  I figured my money would go further elsewhere, and I had a strong desire to spend more time in New Zealand.  But my mother convinced me otherwise.  See, Mom had planned to travel to New Zealand and Australia on a tour to meet up with me, and the way the tour was going to time out, I would have missed her in New Zealand, so I conceded.  It actually worked out quite well because Mom’s free time on her tour was in Sydney, and Dore was living in Sydney, so that seemed to make it more plausible.

When in Sydney, you could really be in any city in the world, albeit a very beautiful city, it is big and international, like so many others.  Aside from the picturesque and well known Opera House, to me it is just another coastal town with harbors alive with restaurants, shops, and galleries.  Taking the ferry from one port to another offers fantastic views of the city, the coast, and the surrounding area, in addition to giving one the opportunity to get up close to Luna Park, the early 20th century style amusement park.  One evening we ferried to Darling Harbor for dinner, and another afternoon around the coast to Manley Harbor for a few hours.

The Opera House has several small theaters within it.  Mom and I did enjoy a On the Ferry to Manleycabaret style show there, which was loaded with young men sporting very fine hard bodies.  The acrobatics were incredibly impressive and could inspire one who wants to improve their own physical fitness.  We also enjoyed an afternoon walk across the Sydney Harbor Bridge, and a day walking through St. James Park into the King’s Cross neighborhood to visit the Jewish Museum.  Australia has a very interesting Jewish history, and was one of the only countries after WWII that allowed Jews to immigrate with no problem.  Add in some very nice meals, and that was 2 ½ days with Mom.

Dore and I had another week until I flew to New Zealand.  She took off of work so we could enjoy a little time.  She was living in Maroubra, but the beach town next door, Coogee, offered a lot of great things.  The beach was beautiful and lively, there was a great yoga studio, and lots of nice food.  I had dinner at my first sushi train.  It was fun and yummy.   From Maroubra to Bondi Beach there is an excellent coastal walk with gorgeous scenery and views.  For pictures of Sydney, click here.

The next stop was Kurnell, a beach suburb of Sydney on the southern peninsula.  In the Philippines, I had met a very nice couple from here Walk to Coogeeand they invited us to come stay at their house, even though they weren’t going to be there.  Their nephew took great care of us the first night, and then he left for the weekend, so we had the house to ourselves for two days.  It was nice to be able to indulge in all the things a proper home has; wifi, laundry, stocked kitchen, cable, and comfortable beds, even if only for a couple of days.  It did happen to be Australia Day while we were there, and there was a big family-style celebration in Cronulla, the next beach over, which is where Captain Cooke arrived when he discovered Australia.  While it wasn’t a big deal for us, it was a pretty big deal for the Aussies.

From there we took the train to Katoomba, one of the main towns in the Blue Mountains.  This is a fantastic place.  There is a huge beautiful valley here, covered in tropical rainforest, with lots of gorgeous formations (including the famous Three Sisters), breathtaking waterfalls, and loads of hiking trails.  This was certainly the highlight of my time in Australia.  We did two days of serious hiking, both days arriving at amazing waterfalls.  Katoomba is a very inviting small town with many healthy coffee shops and cafes, including the Common Ground Café which is run by a cult called The Twelve Tribes.  They grow the majority of the produce they use on a farm near town, and bake all the bread they serve.  Dore figured it Katoomba Fallswas a cult after noticing how matronly all the women were dressed and all the stares she was receiving due to her low cut shirt, and she was right.  For pictures of Katoomba, click here.

One thing that is very different in Australia and New Zealand in comparison to Asia is that eating out is very expensive, so all the hostels have fully equipped kitchens.  There were two things I really wanted to try in Australia, Barramundi and Kangaroo, and succeeded in trying both.  Barramundi is a delicious firm, but flaky whitefish, which I had on a sandwich at the Common Ground.  Kangaroo we cooked up ourselves at the hostel one night, and it was some of the best meat I’ve ever had; mild, but flavorful, tender, yet lean.

In the end, I was glad that I had stopped in Oz, even if just for a brief visit to a very small area of this vast country.  My next trip there will be longer and I hope will encompass the north and west of the country.

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Coral Gardens and Thresher Sharks

Saturday, January 26th, 2013

The Philippines were an afterthought for me.  I was trying to figure out where I was going from Malaysia, and I wanted to do some good diving.  Several people had suggested the Philippines for its beautiful beaches and pristine diving, so I headed there after my short visit to Sumatra.  There are over 7000 islands in the Filipino archipelago, so it took some research to decide where to go.  When I discovered Apo Island in the south, I decided to concentrate on that area, flying into Dumaguete on Negros, and flying out of Cebu City on Cebu.

My first stop was the coastal town of Dauin, 25 minutes south of Dumaguete.  Here I stayed at Liquid Dumaguete, a dive resort I would recommend to anyone heading to the area, and with whom I dove Apo Island.  Apo is an amazing experience, diving the most beautiful coral gardens I’ve ever seen.  Coming from Key West where we are having problems with our corStormy day at Liquid Dumagueteal, this was a great treat.  Nature is an incredible thing.   The varieties of both hard and soft coral were countless, and encompassed all the colors of the rainbow in shade and vibrancy.  It is amazing how each variety of clownfish resided in an anemone of a similar color; how the coral resembled land vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, and lettuce; how certain tropicals camouflaged to their surroundings and others paraded their differences.  If all the reefs of the world were as healthy as this one, there would be no question to why we have to protect them to share with future generations.  They are inspiring.   I wanted to dive here a second time, but several days of windy weather due to a tropical depression kept me from getting there a second time.  This was a little disappointing, but just means I’ll have to try to get back there again.

From here, I took the ferry to Panglao, a small island off the southwest coast of the island of Bohol.   The island to dive here is called Balicasag and is known for green turtles.  On one dive I saw no less then 12 turtles.  There are also several species of frogfish here, large black ones, large white ones, and small yellow ones with brown splotches.  Frogfish have really funny faces, fCrystal Clear at Balicasagat bodies, and short fins for their size.  There are many species of nudibranches here, too, which are one of the primary small things people look for when diving in this part of the world.  I’d never heard of them back home, but I think they must exist in the Caribbean, as well.  While the diving here was very good, I was not a fan of Alona Beach, where I stayed.  It was very touristy, with few backpackers and lots of Germans and Russians.  So, I didn’t stay for long.  Did the dives one day, and then the next toured the main island of Bohol, famous for the Chocolate Hills, a geological formation of rolling hills which are unique and beautiful, and for Tarsiers, the smallest primate in the world which only reside here.  These little monkeys are tiny and cute and can sit in the palm of one’s hand.  They have huge eyes which assist them in finding food at night and they sleep most of the day.   Being territorial, they return to the same tree each night after eating and spend the day there.

From here I spent the day traveling, two ferries and one bus, to the island of Malapascua off the northern coast of Cebu.  I am a fan of Malapascua.  It is a small island of 8000 residents, with no cars, and little tourist build up.  The A Colorful Home people of the Philippines are known for their friendliness, and the small town feel of Malapascua makes it apparent.  I really liked that I could walk from the southernmost part of the island to the northernmost in around 30 minutes.  One thing that I noticed all throughout the Philippines was that even the smallest hovel of a house had a pristine yard and beautiful garden.  Filipinos are very proud of their property and it shows as they are adorned with a variety of flowering plants and orchids.  This made walking through the villages very pleasant, in addition to the fact that the children wanted to talk and most people said hello with smiling faces.  And it wasn’t only the locals who were friendly here, but the tourists were, too.  It was very easy to meet people to pass the time with.

As for the diving in Malapascua, this is one of two places in the world wherWall Arte Thresher sharks reside.  These sharks are known for their long tails which they thrash through schools of fish to stun them before feeding.  Their other physical characteristics include small mouths and big black eyes.  They are very graceful in the water.  The reef here is also known for manta rays, white-tip sharks, and nudibranches, but by far one of the most impressive things I saw was a pair of Spanish dancers mating.  They are a large species of sea slug with ruffled edges, and they look like they are dancing when they swim.  Other sea critters were sea snakes, squid, and lots of fish.

My blog wouldn’t be complete without a paragraph on food.  While lots of people told me the food was not good in the Philippines, this was not my experience.  The fish was outstanding, so incredibly fresh and the main ingredient in kinilaw (filipino ceviche) and sinigang (a flavorful soup loaded with fish and veggies); the curries were fantastic, made from fresh graThe Best Fish Curry Everted coconut; and because of the Spanish and American influence, the cookies and breads were almost like home.

While I had an amazing time in the Philippines, I wished I’d had an endless budget for diving.  I certainly could have dove a lot more than I did, and would love to return to do that in the future.  The one thing that made it easier to leave was that my next stop was Sydney, where Dore is currently residing and my mom was coming through on a tour.  I was really looking forward to seeing both of them, to being in the presence of people I love for a short time.   For pictures of the Philippines, click here.

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New Photo Albums

Friday, January 11th, 2013

These have just been uploaded:

London (2 visits, one when I arrived in Europe and the other just before leaving for India)

Paris, where I celebrated my 40th birthday

Antwerp, Belgium, famous for diamonds and seafood

Amsterdam, I love this beautiful city, its canals, and its artsy  funkiness

Linhemm/Copenhagen, visit with my lifelong friend and her family, Michelle, Morton and Luna

Sihanoukville, Cambodia, a beach town

 

 

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I Get It…Southern Thailand

Monday, 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

Tuesday, 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?

Friday, 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

Tuesday, 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

Sunday, 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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