Saturday, September 28, 2013

Cambodia Preview

You guys, I'm gonna be honest: I am experiencing a bit of writer's block tonight, and apart from that I am EXHAUSTED!  We are over seven months into our trip, and roughing it (even more than usual!) here on the island of Sumatra, Indonesia.  As I am interested in surviving our upcoming excursions, I need my sleep.....  

Tomorrow we are headed into the jungles of the Gunung Leuser National Park, where it is highly unlikely that I will be able to update this blog.  Therefore, as I just can't wait to share a bit about the intriguing country we left behind yesterday, I present to you a sampling of moments in Cambodia.  Unfortunately, I currently lack the capacity to intelligently present the rest of our amazing Cambodia photos, so stay tuned for the next time we have Internet access :)

We took the bus from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam all the way to Siem Reap, Cambodia; about a 14-hour ride, which seemed like nothing compared to the 31-hour train trip through southern China that remains seared in our memories....  To get to our transfer point of Phnom Penh, we had to cross the Mekong River on a ferry, as the only bridge is currently under construction by the Japanese government until 2015 or so.  I am covering my eyes due to the strong white light.

Siem Reap has a polished, quaint area near the river to stroll, featuring some of that beautiful Khmer architecture.  As a tourism-centered town in an otherwise impoverished area, it is a study of contrasts in standard of living.

The market near our hotel where we ate nearly all our delicious Cambodian meals at local food stalls.  We rarely eat at official restaurants, instead opting for street food, and (knock on wood!) have so far had no serious consequences.....

We opted for the day pass to visit the world-renowned ruins of Angkor Wat, which is about 10 km outside of Siem Reap.  Even in the rainy season downpours, the site was just as otherworldly as we had seen in the media, and I have hundreds of photos of the temples and surroundings that I will soon share :)

We rode our rental bicycles (for $1 a day!) out to the temple complex and squeezed in as many of the far-flung ancient Khmer temples as we could.

At the Bayon Temple; the one with all of the faces turned in different directions.  This is an example of a "temple mountain" constructed on the otherwise flat landscape to resemble scenes from Hindu scripture.

We decided that, even though it was the rainy season, we would explore the coastal resort of Sihanoukville for a couple days.  It was dreary, but still warm and filled with lovely Cambodian people, who are much friendlier than they need to be towards two crazy foreigners traipsing around their territory, speaking barely a word of their language :)  

The beach was the cleanest we had seen in months!  Plenty of locals and a few tourists were swimming fully clothed, as beachwear is not commonly worn in this modest culture.

We spent the last few days of our stay in Phnom Penh, a city we enjoyed, mainly due to the lively riverfront area and delicious food, as well as the intangible sense that this was a place of change and rapid, yet unique, development that has resulted in significant economic change in recent years.

I understand that this knotted revolver statue has several cousins in cities around the world; given Cambodia's horrendously violent recent history, it seems particularly fitting to include this symbol of nonviolence in the landscape of a city that we couldn't help but feel is in for a bright future.

A happy weekend to all, and thanks for reading!

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Checking in from Vietnam

We are now wrapping up a lovely, if poorly documented, stay among the delightful people of Vietnam.   Reviewing the photos of the past two weeks, I realize how our cameras have missed the drizzly strolls through less foreigner-frequented alleyways where folks greet tourists with an enthusiastic "hello", the crowded bus and train rides through the countryside dotted with cranes and water buffalo, and our relaxing afternoons sampling Vietnamese coffees, but I guess that shows that we are in chillin' territory.  Oops, forgot to get out the camera.  Oh, well.  There is a soothing calmness, perhaps accentuated by the somber rainy season weather, that pervades the atmosphere here, which has greatly assisted us in unwinding from an overstimulating visit to China and regrouping for our upcoming destinations.

As my latest round of sunscreen and hair gel begins to run out, and we purchase our last set of plane tickets, I am reminded of the limited time we have to enjoy this round-the-world Eurasian adventure, and find myself riding an emotional roller coaster (Harold is excluded from this commentary, as his perspective is considerably less dramatic:) ).  Have we traveled correctly?  Have we seen enough?  Enough depth?  Enough surface area covered?  Have we learned/experienced enough?  Did we do enough research?  Did we plan enough?  And after some thought, I have concluded that the answer to all of these questions is "no".  I suppose, in the end, I can live with that.  

Our travel style is a reflection of each of our personalities, with quirks and nuances impossible to justify with logic.  Why have we visited 24 countries for one to two weeks each instead of six countries for one month each?  Why are we traveling for so long instead of making separate trips to visit all these countries?  Why didn't we go to Australia, Africa or South America on this trip?  Why don't we do all the activities/excursions in each country?  Why do we wander around comparing electronic/mechanical equipment prices between countries and looking at the industrial areas?  The simple answer is that we travel in the way that we feel like traveling, following our curiosity, energy level, motivation to explore, budgetary constraints....  Though it may sound odd, we have yet to purchase a single travel guide on this trip, instead relying on what we think looks interesting in the areas we visit, what we have heard from other travelers, and the results of some Google searches.  This has resulted in a haphazard, offbeat travel rhythm from time to time, but has suited us quite well overall, and resulted in a high degree of travel fulfillment for the both of us.

Moving on from the travel philosophizing.....  For the first time on this trip, we have an end date: December 23, 2013, when we will return to our home base of Vancouver, British Columbia and undergo our next set of chaotic pursuits.  This leaves us with 102 days in which to explore Cambodia, Sumatra (Indonesia), Hong Kong, Japan and South Korea.  Can't wait!  However, I need to get my rear in gear, as we are leaving for Siem Reap, Cambodia in less than five hours!  Here are some photos of Vietnam.  Enjoy!

Leaving our hotel to explore Hanoi, our first stop coming in from Nanning, China.  In our tiredness, we were relieved to meet a friendly local woman while standing in line for the public bus, who was one of the first to demonstrate the warm Vietnamese hospitality by showing us to our hotel.

The cathedral across the street from our hotel; part of the Catholic legacy in this majority Buddhist country.

A monument showcases the heavy Chinese influence in Vietnam's past.  Hanoi, Vietnam.

Local motorbike drivers gracefully weave through the streets, dodging pedestrians and other traffic, all the while impeccably dressed and not breaking a sweat in the tropical humidity.

Streets of Hanoi.

A monument near a food market in Hanoi.

Some electrical wiring on display in Hanoi.

Some of the many examples of impressive artwork and clothing design, many of which I failed to capture on camera....

One of my favorite facades.  Hanoi.

Crossing the Long Bien Bridge, designed by Parisian architects in the early 20th century, heavily bombed during the war with the U.S., and recently reopened for use by passenger trains, pedestrians and motorbikes.

It is 2.4 km (1.5 miles) long and connects Hanoi to Haiphong, the main port of Vietnam.

Rickety as it may be, it is an ideal vantage point from which a traveler can observe local commercial and social activity.

The railroad to the port of Haiphong.

The bridge forms an important part of the cultural identity of Hanoians, and is a common subject of poetry and song.

An outdoor kitchen exhibiting the simple lifestyle of many Vietnamese, particularly in the north.

Fruit for sale.

A path winds along the river, connecting villages visible from the Long Bien bridge.

After a long walk, we stop at one of the popular streetside establishments and knock back a couple of brewskies for about a dollar total :)

An elegantly ageing monument in the center of a man-made lake built by the French during their stint as a colonial power in Vietnam.  Hanoi.

We leave Hanoi for Cat Ba island, where we observe some of the world-famous jungle covered limestone rock formations.  The weather unfortunately prevents us from doing any trekking and provides a great excuse to lazily stroll around the quiet town and observe the happenings.

The view from Cat Ba town on the island, which is a part of the famous Ha Long Bay.

Exploring Cat Ba town.

Some of the many tiny houseboats in the area, which contain incredibly space-efficient and simple sleeping, cooking and laundry facilities.

These two little boys demanded I take a photo of them, and shrieked with laughter upon viewing it :)

A temple nestled in the verdant limestone hills.  Wish we could have explored those hills in search of one of the world's rarest primates: the golden-headed langur.  In the end, we preferred to stay comfortable and dry, drinking coffee and imagining the animals chilling in one of the island's large caves.

Another temple on the island.

On to the central coastal town of Hue, enjoying a sunny day.

The river near Hue, the former capital of Vietnam.

Items for sale on the streets of Hue.

So many brilliantly colored aquarium fish, which made me nostalgic for the days when I had three fish tanks at once....

A military museum in Hue.

The entrance to the citadel in Hue.

Part of the citadel, which encloses the historic center of the Nguyen dynasty, the last dynasty of Vietnam, which ended in 1945, when the modern state of Vietnam was formed.

Old French canons.  Their colonial rule ended in 1949.

The citadel, with some locals passing by, covered in long sleeves and hoods to prevent sun exposure.



Hue by night, near where we dined on delicious water buffalo soup in a simple neighborhood kitchen.

Dining with the "lunch lady" today in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), a YouTube-famous neighborhood soup vendor featured on several food programs such as Anthony Bourdain.  Yummers!