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Archive for August, 2009

Since we had so much trouble making up our mind, we picked out around 100 of our favorite pictures from our three days at Angkor Wat.   It’s kind of a feat considering that we took close to one THOUSAND.  Since it would be a pain to upload the 100 to the blog, we then whittled it down to about 25, which I will post below.  We uploaded the rest to our flickr account which will be linked after all the photos.

By the time this posts, we will be in Rishikesh, India where Megan is staying at an ashram for a week or so doing yoga, and I am on a 6 day trek in the Himalayas.  This will be our first time apart for longer than a few hours since we have left, which should be interesting, and frankly, really weird.  But we’re both excited about what we’re doing.  It could be a little while before we get some posts up about India, but we’ll have plenty to share when we post next (including waking up to a monkey going through our stuff in our room one morning).  This place is absolutely bonkers, but in a good way (as evidenced by the monkey).  It’s definitely the most intense place we’ve been, by FAR.  And by the time it’s all said and done, I have a feeling the people and the food will be near the top of our the list for our entire journey.

Enjoy the pictures.

The following pics are some of our favorites from temples other than Angkor Wat.

Rules for the bathroom

Rules for the bathroom

Crumbling columns at Banteay Kdei

Crumbling columns at Banteay Kdei

Bayon at Angkor Thom--these faces were everywhere at this temple, all with subtely different expressions

Bayon at Angkor Thom--these faces were everywhere at this temple, all with subtely different expressions

Preah Khan--the fist temple we visited

Preah Khan--the fist temple we visited

Preah Khan

Preah Khan

Terrace of the Elephants

Terrace of the Elephants

Preah Khan

Preah Khan

Preah Khan

Preah Khan

Sras Srang

Sras Srang

Those are steps that Megan is climbing, although it's more like a big, stone ladder; Ta Keo

Those are steps that Megan is climbing, although it's more like a big, stone ladder; Ta Keo

Ta Prohm

Ta Prohm

Next are our favorite carvings and other detail shots that we haven’t posted in other threads.

Angkor Wat carving from "Heaven and Hell"--this one is from the Hell portion

Angkor Wat carving from "Heaven and Hell"--this one is from the Hell portion

Inside Angkor Wat

Inside Angkor Wat

Lintel carving at Banteay Srei

Lintel carving at Banteay Srei

Pig  Roast

Pig Roast

Terrace of the Leper King

Terrace of the Leper King

In the first Angkor post I wrote about the huge trees overtaking doorways and walls.

Tree at Preah Khan

Tree at Preah Khan

Tree at Ta Prohm (make sure you check out another picture of the same tree on our Flickr acccount)

Tree at Ta Prohm (make sure you check out another picture of the same tree on our Flickr acccount)

Tree at Ta Prohm

Tree at Ta Prohm

Ta Prohm was filled with these

Ta Prohm was filled with these

And of course, more of our favorites from Angkor Wat.

Angkor Wat from the back-this was taken as we were exploring it right before sunset-one of our favorites

Angkor Wat from the back-this was taken as we were exploring it right before sunset-one of our favorites

Angkor Wat from the side

Angkor Wat from the side

Megan ran across this little guy when wandering around

Megan ran across this little guy when wandering around

Sun starting to set while we're on the inside of Angkor Wat

Sun starting to set while we're on the inside of Angkor Wat

Sunset by ourselves in front of Angkor Wat

Sunset by ourselves in front of Angkor Wat

Sun getting ready to come up the following  morning

Sun getting ready to come up the following morning

And finally, below is the link to our flickr page for Angkor Wat.  I hope everyone enjoys them all, and we’ll be back soon enough with some India updates.

Here you go

Until next time…

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When arriving in Siem Reap, tourists are greeted with tons of options for exploring the temples.  We decided before we arrived that we were going to purchase the three day pass and  take our time exploring the many temples around the area.  I loved the way we did it and have no regrets, but we easily could have gotten the week long pass and had no problem filling the time.

We decided to hire a tuk tuk for the three days.  Basically, we paid a tuk tuk driver a certain amount of money to drive us around from temple to temple all day long.  If going to Angkor, you can do it any way you want.  We didn’t want to see the biggest, Angkor Wat itself, until we had explored some of the smaller surrounding temples, so we read and researched and talked to our driver and got a plan together.

The temples were spread out across a huge distance (if you take a look at the map, you can see the many temples around–sometimes it was several kilometers in between each, plus close to 20 kilometers from Siem Reap to the entrance), and I’m really glad we decided against renting bikes one of the days.  It would have been a long, hot, and tiring day.

The first day we spent exploring many of the smaller temples around Angkor Wat.  We set off a little after 8am and returned about 3:30 after visiting seven different temples.  One has to remember that the temples are in the middle of a jungle in SE Asia.  That means it’s incredibly hot and humid.  We were thoroughly exhausted by the end of the first day (a night out with Dave and Tina the previous night didn’t help matters any), and we were quite glad we decided to take a day off before going at it again (when purchasing the 3 day pass, you have the option of going three days in a row or 3 days in one week; curiously they are both the same price, making one wonder why anyone would bother with the three consecutive days pass).

East Mebon

East Mebon

Preah Khan

Preah Khan

So after an off day of relaxing and resting, we went back out for  day two, this time leaving at 7am.  There are more temples not on this map, and in the morning we decided to check out Banteay Srei, which was about 40 kilometers away before going back to our guest house in the afternoon.  It was a nice hour drive, and we thought that since we were venturing out further, we would miss some of the ridiculous crowds.  Boy were we wrong.  This was probably the most crowded temple we visited.  It was spectacular (as they all were, really), and I am glad we went,  but the crowds took a bit away from it.  Damn tourbuses.

Banteay Srei

Banteay Srei

We split the day up and went back to Siem Reap to eat lunch and rest for a few hours before heading back out to watch the sun set at Angkor Wat.  We went back out again at around 4:30 and headed to the big one, Angkor Wat itself.  We had driven past it and saw it from a distance first thing on our first day, but it was pretty exhilerating driving up to it again knowing we were going to see it up close.  We expected tons of people everywhere, and that’s what greeted us as we arrived (along with the hordes of children relentlessly trying to sell anything one can imagine-which is just part of visiting Angkor and something that has to be dealt with-just put on a smile and be ready to say “No Thank you” about four thousand times, and that’s not an exaggeration).

We went through the main gates to see Angkor a little closer, and we were greeted with throngs of people unsurprisingly.  We decided to go into the temple itself and explore a little bit, and when we got to the tall towers themselves, we were quite disappointed to learn that you can no longer climb to the top of them (for conservation purposes, I suppose).  There weren’t nearly as many people inside, so we decided to explore more around the sides of the temple.  We found several spots for some fantastic pictures, and we walked around the outside of it in what used to be the residential areas.

We were enjoying the fact that there was no one around, so explored some more until the sun was starting to set.  We had walked down a road away from the temple itself, and when we approached the side of Angkor Wat we were greeted by a guard hurrying us out as it was closing time.  As we walked back through, we noticed we were the only ones around, and when we walked out the main door, we noticed that we were literally the last ones inside Angkor Wat.  There were still a handful of people on the long walkway out to the surrounding walls of the temple, but as we turned around, we realized that we were able to get pictures of Angkor itself with no one else in it.  Our wanderlust provided us with a fantastic opportunity that not many people get, and we took full advantage of it, much to the chagrin of the guards shooing us away so they could go home.

Our thoughts of not being able to climb the steps to the tower at Angkor

Our thoughts of not being able to climb the steps to the tower at Angkor

Angkor Wat when walking in

Angkor Wat when walking in

Angkor Wat when walking out

Angkor Wat when walking out

We were giddy upon leaving Angkor Wat, despite the fact that the day was very long and the plan was to get up really early the following day for sunrise at Angkor.  Since we have been gone for so long and travel has become our lives over this past year, I sometimes take what we’re doing for granted.  But this time I was able to take a step back and realize how fortunate and how absolutely incredible these past ten months have been, and I was ecstatic after being one of the last ones to leave Angkor Wat and get some great photos before arising and doing it all over again the following day.

As you can imagine, it was not difficult to wake up the next day.  Sure, we were tired, but we were heading out to watch the sun come up behind one of the most spectacular sites on Earth.  We left our guesthouse in the dark at 5am and were at Angkor at the perfect time to get a great spot for sunrise.  Again, we were blessed with good weather, and the morning was quite magical.

After watching the sun come up, most people got back in their tuk tuks or buses and left for some strange reason.  We decided to go to the second biggest complex, Angkor Thom, and we found ourselves completely alone there for about an hour.  Amazing considering the absurd amounts of people everywhere the previous two days.  As it got later, it got more and more crowded as we explored Angkor Thom.  We spent several hours there and at a few more temples (including Ta Prohm, where Angelina Jolie filmed Tomb Raider) before heading back to Angkor Wat one more time to check out the vast and intricate carvings on the inner walls of the temple.  After that, it was time to head back.  We were thoroughly exhausted yet felt like kids at an amusement park who didn’t want to leave.

Sunrise at Angkor Wat (possibly one of my favorite pictures of this trip--good job, Megan!!)

Sunrise at Angkor Wat (possibly one of my favorite pictures of this trip--good job, Megan!!)

Bayon (in Angkor Thom)

Bayon (in Angkor Thom)

There are many ways to tackle Angkor Wat, one day, three days, a week, tuk tuk, tour bus, bicycle, some even walk.  While I’m not  going to say ours was the best, I am very satisfied with how we spent our time at the temples.  We saw tons of temples, took our time, and never felt rushed.  For any traveler who ever plans on coming to Angkor  Wat, I have three main tips:

1.  See both the sunset and sunrise at Angkor Wat itself.  Words can’t begin to describe the magic and elation we felt afterwards.

2.  Get up early to beat the heat.  It’s a killer.

3.  Stay after the sunrise because inexplicably everyone leaves.  You’ll have the place to yourself, which is awesome because once 8am rolls around, there are people everywhere.

We will have one more post that will be mainly a picture post.  We took about 950 pictures in our three days there and have managed to narrow them down to about 100, so we’ll have many more to post in a few days.

Until then…

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Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat

Machu Picchu.  Iguazu Falls.  Patagonia.  Angkor Wat.  The Taj Mahal.

Five cornerstones of our trip.  Five must-sees.  Five can’t misses.  After our time last week at Angkor Wat, we have only one remaining.  The first three were absolutely incredible and lived up to the hype.  Angkor Wat was no different.

Three of the above five were man made things.  And while I love me some natural beauty, there’s just something damn impressive about what our fellow human beings have been able to build over the course of history.  And Angkor Wat is one of the most impressive sites I have ever laid eyes on.  Add in that the temples we spent three days seeing were all built in the 9th to 12th centuries, and it’s ridiculous to fathom.

Before we started planning this trip, I admittedly knew close to nothing about Angkor Wat.  When I first saw pictures of it, I was obviously impressed and wanted to see it.  What I didn’t know was that Angkor Wat is just one temple.  There are loads more temples and structures to see around the Siem Reap area, so much so that we had absolutely no problem filling three days of exploration there.  And to be honest, we probably could have gotten the one week pass and had no problems at all.

While Angkor Wat itself was spectacular, the surrounding temples were nothing to scoff at.  In fact, even though Angkor was the highlight, we were thoroughly impressed at many other ones.  While we didn’t have a guide, we did pick up a book about all the temples that was chock full of information and was very helpful in getting around the various temples and understanding what it was we were looking at.

Many interesting tidbits stuck out during our time at the temples.  The fact the Angkor Empire and temples dated back to the 9th century was quite impressive.  The young king Jayavarman II declared himself supreme sovereign and established his capital outside what is now Siem Reap at a temple complex called Roluos (which we did not make it to, but the ruins of which are still standing).

For the next 300 years the Angkors ruled parts of SE Asia (while constantly at war) and established what can best be described as their headquarters around what is now the Angkor complex.  It seems as though each successive king bult a new temple and surrounding village. What remains standing are the temples themselves, which were built out of a combination of brick, sandstone, and laterite.  The villages and homes were mostly built of wood and other perishable materials, which is why nothing remains after more than a millenium.

East Mebon (my favorite temple other than Angkor)

East Mebon (my favorite temple other than Angkor)

Preah Khan

Preah Khan

Phimeanakas

Phimeanakas

Bayon

Bayon

Pre Rup

Pre Rup

Ta Prohm

Ta Prohm

Ta Som

Ta Som

Another really cool thing about the temples were these enormous trees that were taking over doorways and walls.

Another really cool thing about the temples were these enormous trees that were taking over doorways and walls.

Because of their religious beliefs (which were either Buddhist or Hindu), each king built new temples to acquire merit and as a tribute to their god(s).  Obviously showing might and wealth was also a determining factor, which explains why many seemed to get bigger and more impressive.  Angkor Wat itself was built under the rule of Suryavarman II, who was in charge from 1112 to 1150 and marked the peak of Angkor’s power and influence.

Angkor Wat (from the side)

Angkor Wat (from the side)

Angkor Wat (from the side as the sun is starting to set)

Angkor Wat (from the side as the sun is starting to set)

Side of Angkor Complex

Side of Angkor Complex

Inside of Angkor Wat

Inside of Angkor Wat

Obviously the temples and architecture impressed us, especially considering when they were built and the fact that we are still able to see so many ruins.  But something that was even more impressive was the intricate carvings that adorned so many parts of the temples.  Some of the carvings were decorative, but a good portion of them were religious depictions and scenes of every day life.  There was a certain amount of restoration to these carvings, but the intricacy of them and the fact that the fine carvings are still so visible to us today is simply amazing and a great attribute to the Angkor’s talent.  As you’ll be able to tell from the pictures, you can easily see what’s going on in so many scenes.  It was quite awe inspiring to realize that these were all done around a thousand years ago.

Bas relief (Carving) of battle scene (inside Angkor Wat)

Bas relief (Carving) of battle scene (inside Angkor Wat)

Wall Carving

Wall Carving

Detail Shots (2)

Carving on lintel

Carving on lintel

Wall carving

Wall carving

We have the remaining two posts about Angkor Wat written and scheduled to post in two day increments after this one.  By the time this posts, we’ll be in Delhi, India.  India is our last  country before we return to the United States at a still to be determined date.  It will most likely be sometime in mid-October.  No matter what happens, we’ll be back in St. Louis on November 2 at the absolute latest.  Enjoy the next two posts.  The next one has to do with our itinerary and tips for people who want to visit Angkor  Wat, complete with a few pictures.  The final post will be primarily a picture post.

So until next time…

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PURE! for kids

DSC_0099What you are reading is draft four hundred fifty nine thousand of this post.  I thought it would write itself, but it’s become clear to me that I’m having trouble putting my thoughts to paper (to keyboard??) because I’m scared that I won’t be able to do this experience justice.

We spent a couple of days visiting an orphanage in Phnom Penh, Cambodia and met some of the most wonderful little people I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting.  I absolutely fell in love with them, even when they were running me ragged.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

In yet another instance of serendipity on this trip, during our visit to Cambodia we happened to cross paths with a friend of mine from way back, Nicoline.  Nicoline and I met when she was an exchange student at my high school, and she very graciously tour-guided Adam and me around Amsterdam a few years back (and ferried us around on her bicycle, the poor thing!).  When I found out that Nicoline was running an orphanage in Cambodia, I immediately began to hope that we’d be able to meet up with her in our travels.  I wasn’t hoping too strongly, though–our schedule was unsure, and Nicoline splits her time between Cambodia and Netherlands.  Moreover, when she is in Cambodia, she also spends time in Siem Reap, working on other projects her NGO supports.

Nicoline, doing what she does best

Nicoline, doing what she does best

The travel gods were smiling on us yet again because our arrival in Cambodia coincided with Nicoline’s return to Phnom Penh, where the Pure for Kids orphanage is located.  Nicoline invited us to visit the orphanage and we jumped at the chance.  We arrived that first day to find thirty four kids, ranging from eighteen months to sixteen years, studying away.  They greeted us warmly and kept on with their lessons while Nicoline showed us around.  The orphanage is simple, but clean and safe.  The younger children sleep in teeny wooden bunk beds in large dorms and the older kids share smaller rooms upstairs.  There are three full-time live-in staffers and usually three Pure Volunteers to teach classes.

Boys bunk room

Boys bunk room

After the children ate lunch, they had some free time, during which we were free to play with them.  Some were more shy than others, but some were braver and promptly decided that we should join in the fun.

This little girl, Srei Hong, was the bravest among the little ones, and was the first to approach us.

This little girl, Srei Hong, was the bravest among the little ones, and was the first to approach us.

Srei Hong and one of the boys leading Adam off to play.

Srei Hong and one of the boys leading Adam off to play.

They were so proud to show off the songs they knew in English and eagerly soaked up anything new we could show them, which resulted in me singing “The itsy bitsy spider” approximately eleventy gajillion times.  Sorry, Nicoline 🙂 The real fun started, however, when I pulled out the camera.  There was something about being able to ham it up for the camera and then being able to look at the pictures immediately that broke down any remaining barriers.  They bounced between Adam and I, shouting to get my attention, “Picture, picture, one more, one more!!” and climbed on Adam like a jungle gym, then fanned him with their coloring books when he sat down for a moment.

piggyback

group

This little group was always running around together

This little group was always running around together

Too cool for school

Too cool for school

3 hug

Little Nita was the darling of the place--constantly being held or spoiled by someone!

Little Nita was the darling of the place--constantly being held or spoiled by someone!

5 group 2

I have about thirty photos like this--it was a favorite pose :-)

I have about thirty photos like this--it was a favorite pose 🙂

Miss Nita

Miss Nita

Kindred spirits

Kindred spirits

Clowning around

Clowning around

Holding up the sun

Holding up the sun

10 peace14 climbing

Adam is just as good as any jungle gym

Adam is just as good as any jungle gym

These kids were so sweet--they just started fanning Adam with their coloring books!

These kids were so sweet--they just started fanning Adam with their coloring books!

They finally got to the point that they couldn't even stand still!

They finally got to the point that they couldn't even stand still!

I had such fun laughing and playing with them, but the impromptu photo shoot had sent them into a full-on frenzy, so we put the camera away and sat down with them for some calmer activities.  That’s when the cuddling started.  I was absolutely charmed when the eighteen-month-old, Diem, toddled over, pulled himself up on my knee and motioned for me to pick him up.  It made me melt when my little friend, Srei Hong, wrapped her arms around my legs anytime I stopped moving long enough, and always wanted to sit on my lap.  I have to admit though, to being surprised when I noticed that one of the teenage boys was shadowing Adam’s every move, and every time Adam would sit, the boy would rest his head on Adam’s shoulder or throw an arm around him.

Cuddling

Cuddling

So sweet

So sweet

Any time was time for hugs

Any time was time for hugs

What?  An affectionate teenage boy?  At that moment it hit me.  These kids have so little, there’s no room for distance, no time for pretending to be tough or too macho for physical contact.  I began to watch them in a new light, and was so moved by the joy that seemed to bubble out of them when they played, by the way that they formed a great big family–the older ones carrying the little ones around, by the way that sometimes you had to coax a smile out of one of the shy little ones, but once it was out, it was given so freely, with such trust and innocence, there was no hiding it.

These children don’t have a lot, but it is clear that they do have good family.  They may not have parents anymore, but they have each other and the Pure for Kids staff, and they are happy and healthy and loved.

My appreciation for Nicoline, her volunteers and the Pure for Kids staff only grew through the rest of our visits to the orphanage.  On the second day, the staff was preparing for a rededication ceremony and asked me to keep an eye on the youngest class–basically all kids under 6 or so.  Adam was helping the volunteer in the high school classroom, so I was on my own.  The teacher  got them set up with their workbooks and then left me with 12 little ones, all sitting at benches, diligently studying.  “Piece of cake,” I thought.  And then I promptly pulled those words out of the thought bubble over my head and ate them.

Holy sweet mother of mercy, those kids have loads of energy.  (That sound you hear is the hysterical laughter of all of my teacher friends who I’m sure, are screaming, “TOLD YOU SO!!”)  I was wholly unprepared for the “what next?” when they lost interest in their workbooks, and at one point, after retrieving two of the older ones from the middle school class on the other side of building, I realized that my best hope was to keep them in the room, even if we weren’t doing anything educational, per se.  Yes, that’s right, I resigned myself to herding them, not teaching them.  I managed to keep their attention, for the most part, with about a million more rousing renditions of The Itsy Bitsy Spider and enough Ring Around the Rosy that we were all so dizzy that the falling down part at the end was involuntary.  Sidenote: games involving children hurling themselves down onto concrete floors?  Not necessarily a good idea.

Thankfully, soon it was time for lunch and after lunch it was all playtime (they would normally have more classes, but the schedule was a little unusual that day), which did also involve a certain amount of playing in the pouring rain–such fun.

This little boy is new to the orphanage and was very timid when we first arrived, but once he came out of his shell, I could barely restrain myself from bringing him home with us.  (Also, that's clay on his head.  It was craft time :-))

This little boy is new to the orphanage and was very timid when we first arrived, but once he came out of his shell, I could barely restrain myself from bringing him home with us. (Also, that's clay on his head. It was craft time :-))

Chanti and Srei Hong playing in the rain

Chanti and Srei Hong playing in the rain

When it was time for us to bid the orphanage adieu, I was exhausted but so sad to be going.  I still get the warm fuzzies when I think about those children and everything that Pure for Kids is doing for them.  If you’d like to know more about the orphanage, please click through to the website: PURE! for Kids Orphanage.  If you click on any of the links on the right hand side of that page, you can see the monthly budget of the orphanage (for instance, the salary of the live-in director of the orphanage is $50 per month, and they spend $120 per month on 300 Kg of rice to feed all those children!) and information on how to sponsor one of the children at the orphanage, amongst other info.  It’s worth having a look–if you are in the position to make a donation, it’s such a worthy organization.  If not, it’s certainly worth the time to check out just to see some more of the photographs of the children and hear the latest news .

~Meg

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A Tale of Two Countries

Even though this is our first post about it, we have been in Cambodia for a week and a half and are actually getting ready to leave to go back to Thailand.  We were planning on making a quick jaunt through Cambodia, to the point that we were almost overlooking it, before going back to the Thai beaches and off to our final and most intriguing destination of India in about a week and a half.

Since we’ve been on the road now for TEN MONTHS, sometimes complacency sets in and we just don’t get excited for every single new place we go to and see.  This is our life at the current moment, which explains why we’ve had so many conversations in the last month or so about how excited we are to come home and see everyone and get back to “a normal life”.  We’re at the point where the thought of actually getting in our car and driving to the grocery store, cooking dinner in our own kitchen with all our stuff, going to (gasp!), work, and sleeping in the same bed every night sounds really exotic and exciting.

So when we got on the slow boat a little over a week ago in Vietnam to cross the border into Cambodia, that’s what we were doing, just crossing another border to go to a new city in a new country.  But this time we did it by boat, which is a first for us as we entered our tenth country of the trip.  As we slowly made our way up the Mekong, we realized that this trip was going to be a little different.

We spent about eight hours on the river, and the boat was not very comfortable, but it turned out to be just what we needed to get our juiced flowing and remember that we are still on our trip of a lifetime, doing amazing things and seeing amazing cultures.  We passed little villages along the way, with the young children of the village running up to the river banks to wave and shout “HELLO!” and do flips into the water and show off and welcome us to their country.  It was the perfect way to be introduced to this very interesting and contrasting country.  And if there’s any way to describe Cambodia, it’s a country of vast differences.

After the boat ride, we all piled into a minibus to drive the last hour to the capital of Phnom Penh.

This is a minibus, about as wide as a minivan but a tad longer.  I am taking the picture, with a person sitting on each side of me, facing the back of the van.  Then there is a front seat that has the driver and two other people in it.  Welcome to SE Asia!!!

This is a minibus, about as wide as a minivan but a tad longer. I am taking the picture, with a person sitting on each side of me, facing the back of the van. Then there is a front seat that has the driver and two other people in it, putting total capacity at SEVENTEEN!! Welcome to SE Asia!!!

As we got closer to the city, we started noticing lots of cars and suv’s, which is not a normal sight in Asia.  Most people drive motorbikes or mopeds of some sort, and if we see a car it’s either a taxi or something really small and compact.  But all of a sudden, in one of the poorest countries in the world, we’re surrounded by Lexus SUV’s.

The bus let us off and we hopped in a tuk tuk to find a place to stay.  As we navigated our way through the city, we noticed huge, beautiful green spaces, nice, well kept monuments, and mammoth, boulevard sized sidewalks in the brightly colored, very well manicured parks.

Victory Monument

Victory Monument

Park in the middle of Phnom Penh

Park in the middle of Phnom Penh

Park 2

Park 3

Park 4

Park 5

After just a mere minutes after being in the city, we were quite impressed.  Then we turned a corner.  And it was like we passed through a portal to a completely different place.  Gone were the nice cars, huge sidewalks, and nice parks.  All of a sudden there were run down buildings, garbage strewn literally everywhere, and large contingencies of people who were clearly without homes.

Such is life in Cambodia.  While there certainly is some wealth here, there is obviously a large amount of poverty.  Which is not difficult to understand with what the Cambodian people have gone through over their history, from the war in Vietnam that spilled over to the Cambodian countryside to the short, but ferocious reign of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge from 1975-1979.  The Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror on their own people is one of the most atrocious acts against humanity that I have ever read about, no less horrific than the what Hitler and the Nazi’s did.

Honestly, until we started planning this trip, I did not know anything about the Khmer Rouge or the country of Cambodia, and I’m willing to guess that many other Americans don’t either.  While I will spare you the history lesson today, if you are interested, I strongly encourage you to read up on it (I hesitate to use Wikipedia as a source, but it does have tons of information, but as always with Wikipedia, don’t take everything as fact, they aren’t an encyclopedia).  Also, First They Killed My Father is a great book that Megan and I both read before we left.  It’s a memoir of a woman who lived through the Khmer Rouge regime and lost the majority of her family to the genocide.  Difficult at times to read, but a very worthwhile and interesting read (sorry, the teacher in me will now try to exit the post).

(Quick warning:  The following descriptions are a bit graphic, so read on with caution if you are a bit squeamish or just don’t like that kind of stuff)

Many things to do in Phnom Penh revolve around the Khmer Rouge.  One of those things is the Tuol Sleng Museum (or S-21 Museum).  Tuol Sleng was a high school  before the fateful takeover of the country by the Khmer Rouge on April 17, 1975.  It was shortly transformed into a prison, where it claimed countless lives in its few short years of existence as a prison.  Many of the people killed were women and children, and many were killed using blunt force, so bullets weren’t “wasted”.

Like the War Remnants Museum in Saigon, this was difficult to be at, but we both felt it was quite important in helping us understand more about Cambodia and what the people have gone through.  One of the most solemn moments was an entire floor of “mugshots” of the “prisoners” (who had done nothing more than be educated, succesful, part of the previous regime’s army, or  related to any of the aforementioned).  When each prisoner was brought to S-21, they were set up in a chair to have their picture taken.  Most of these mugshots were recovered and on display.  It was haunting seeing the faces of these normal people who had done nothing wrong, just as they were brought to this horrible place to inevitably die at the hands of their own countrymen (out of the estimated 17,000 people brought to Tuol Sleng, there were only 12 known survivors).

Many of the cells are as they were back in the 70’s, and some rooms only have a small, metal bed frame and a sole picture on the wall depicting the gruesome death of a person in that room.  There are still blood stains on the floor, ceilings, and walls of some of the rooms, which creates quite an eery feeling.

Inside the Prison

Inside the Prison

Tuol Sleng Museum (5)

Rules for Prisoners at Tuol Sleng

Rules for Prisoners at Tuol Sleng

Barbed wire everywhere

Barbed wire everywhere

Cell

Cell

There were parts that were very educational, and we learned a ton about what happened.  It seemed to me though the more we learned, the more infuriated we became.  The whole thing just didn’t make any sense to me.  I know there are bigots and closed-minded people everywhere, but to slaughter a fifth of our your own population just seems ludicrous to me.  That and the fact that their plan was completely ridiculous guaranteed to fail.  It’s difficult to see so many people still suffering as a result of such idiocy 30 years ago.

Despite what they have gone through, the Cambodian people are just lovely.  It’s pretty intense here, not like Vietnam where there’s just people and traffic literally everywhere, but the tuk tuks, kids trying to sell you everything, and beggars are everywhere, always vying for your money.  For the most part they are quite friendly.  We’ve gotten so many huge smiles from the tuk tuk drivers and random kids who are trying to sell you anything possible (“Mister, mister, only one dollar”–that’s another weird thing here, the dollar is the unofficial currency of Cambodia, ATM’s dispense them, everything’s quoted in them, and you get change mostly in them, except for small stuff, that’s done in Cambodian Riel’s).

The everyday people we came across in both Phnom Penh and Siem Reap (where we are now) have been great, the children at Nicoline’s orphanage officially stole our hearts (the subject of our next post), and the temples at Angkor Wat are some of the most stunning things we’ve seen in our ten months gone.  We wish we had more time for this great little country whose gone through hell and back.

Until next time, I leave you with a picture of something that is so normal here in SE Asia that we usually don’t bat an eye at anymore; bicycles carrying a ridiculous amount of stuff, and yes, he does ride it with all that stuff on there.

I'm really going to miss this kind of stuff when we get home.

I'm really going to miss this kind of stuff when we get home.

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Life on the water

The Thinker

The Thinker

I love markets.  I mean, I really love markets.  I could wander around the local markets for hours, just soaking it all in.  On the second or third day of this trip, way back in October, we wandered into the central market in Lima.  As with most markets we’ve visited since, we saw everything from whole butchered cows to kitchen sinks to food stalls–it was noisy and chaotic and exciting and we were entirely too terrified to try any of the food.  I remember it clearly as the moment that I thought, “Wow.  We are really not in Kansas anymore.”  One of my best memories of our most recent stop in Bangkok was the labyrinth weekend market, an enormous set-up with thousands of stalls that completely dwarfed that first market, and where we ate all of the food.  Progress?

So, as I have a tendency to make waaaaaay more out of a market than is probably sane, it will be no surprise that visiting the floating markets of the Mekong Delta was towards the top of my list of to-do in Vietnam.  We initially planned on blazing through Vietnam in no more than three weeks, but quickly found that to be unrealistic.  By the time we made it down to the furthest southern reaches of the country, we only had three days left to visit the Mekong Delta before our visas expired.  In the interest of saving time, we checked out some of the tours on offer.  However, the idea of organized visits to brick factories and tours of floating markets in big groups was less than appealing, so we passed on the tour option.  We planned on recreating our own version off the highlights of the tours–some bike riding through the countryside, a homestay, a day of visiting the bigger floating markets, then off to Cambodia by boat.

We left Saigon with high hopes.  Then the sky turned black.  By the time we arrived at our first stop, the town of Vinh Long, where we planned  to book a homestay for that night, it was pouring rain and showing no signs of stopping.  As most of the ideas in the plan for that day were outdoor activities–bike riding,  boat tours with our homestay hosts, wandering the orchards around the homestay–we knew we needed a change of plans.  After a whopping 30 minutes in Vinh Long, we hopped on another bus and headed for Can Tho, the biggest city in the Mekong Delta and the nearest city to remaining floating markets.

You’ll notice I said “remaining” floating markets.  With the improvement of the road system in the Delta and the construction of numerous massive bridges, the land based markets are flourishing to the detriment of the floating markets.  Modernization, while it does have its benefits, is killing the floating markets of Southeast Asia.  For instance, we have heard over and over that the floating markets outside Bangkok now exist solely for the benefit of tourists, selling souvenirs and not much else (disclaimer: that is all hearsay–we didn’t go ourselves.)

That made me all the more grateful for the opportunity to visit two thriving floating markets in the Delta.  We hired a long tail boat in Can Tho and set off for the Cai Rang and Phong Dien markets.  Both are primarily produce markets.  The first is a wholesale market–sellers show up in huge boats just bursting with produce.  Sometimes you can see the goods spilling out onto the top of the boat.  In other cases, you can determine what’s on offer by checking out the long poles hoisting an example of that vendor’s goods high above the boat.  So clever!

Banana boat

Banana boat

This boat was selling a wide variety of veggies--squash, carrots, potatoes, lettuce--everything you see tied to the pole!

This boat was selling a wide variety of veggies--squash, carrots, potatoes, lettuce--everything you see tied to the pole!

Catching up on the latest gossip

Catching up on the latest gossip

Potatoes galore

Potatoes galore

Of course there were also vendors selling baskets to carry all the produce.

Of course there were also vendors selling baskets to carry all the produce.

The second market was a retail market, still primarily produce.  However, instead of the huge boats of the Cai Rang market, Phong Dien was a crowd of smaller boats maneuvering through and around each other, all buying and selling.  It was crowded with locals and much more personal.

Happy vendor

Happy vendor

Pomelo vendor, selling pomelos to our very sweet driver (on the far right)

Pomelo vendor, selling pomelos to our very sweet driver (on the far right)

Bustle

Bustle

Fruit vendors

Fruit vendors

More fruit boats

More fruit boats

One of the fantastic things about heading out on our own was that we ended up hiring a small boat, rather than the larger boats we saw carrying tours around.  That meant we were able to spend a couple of hours just motoring through the small canals, watching life go on in the Mekong Delta.  The people were remarkably friendly, which makes  any experience better.  It was also so interesting to actually observe how important the water is to the people who live in the rural areas here–they live on it, drink it, use it to wash, get food from it, use it as a primary means of transport, use it to water their crops, and unfortunately, they also throw their garbage in it.

Local boatman

Local boatman

Typical covered boat

Typical covered boat

Fishing/house boat

Fishing/house boat

These boats on the Hau Giang River were big enough to head down the river and out into the ocean.

These boats on the Hau Giang River were big enough to head down the river and out into the ocean.

Roving vendor selling jars along the narrow canals

Roving vendor selling jars along the narrow canals

A little bit different than the mermaid on the front of a pirate ship...

A little bit different than the mermaid on the front of a pirate ship...

Mekong carport

Mekong carport

Rice field

Rice field

Turns out teenagers are sullen everywhere :-)

Turns out teenagers are sullen everywhere 🙂

The boats have eyes

The boats have eyes

Our guide suggested that Adam might want to look for a Vietnamese woman as they really love washing.  I told him that I didn't believe for one minute that they did all that washing because they looooooved it.

Our guide suggested that Adam might want to look for a Vietnamese woman as they really love washing and I, admittedly, do not. I told him that I didn't believe for one minute that they did all that washing because they looooooved it.

A moment before I snapped thie picture, the women in the back of the boat were leaning out scooping water out of the river and washing dishes with it.  I also loved the man driving with his feet.

A moment before I snapped this picture, the women in the back of the boat were leaning out scooping water out of the river and washing dishes with it. I also loved the man driving with his feet.

After our day exploring the Mekong Delta by boat, we headed off to the border town of Chau Doc where we caught a boat into Cambodia.  For anyone who is traveling from Vietnam to Cambodia, I would highly recommend the slow boat from Chau Doc to Phnom Penh.  It was a very scenic trip and for my money, there’s no better way to be introduced to a country than by crowds of children playing along the riverbanks shouting greetings and waving frantically from the shore.

We’re now in Siem Reap exploring the ancient temples of the Khmers, including Angkor Wat.  It’s absolutely spectacular, and at the rate we’re going on the blog, we should be able to tell you all about by 2015 or so.  🙂

~Meg

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After leaving our springtime  oasis in Dalat, we headed for Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) as our time in Vietnam was winding down.  As you might have gathered from our posts over the last month, we have been a big fan.  We have met some great new friends, seen some wonderful and beautiful scenery, experienced an interesting and new culture, and been greeted by some great people.

Although we have loved our time here, we couldn’t ignore the history between our two countries, and that history became more evident than ever when we were in the southern capital of Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon (and still called Saigon by most Vietnamese).

Saigon is home to many different war museums that we visited during our time there.  It was quite interesting to get the other perspective of the war, especially from the Communist point of view and “winners” of the war.

One of the places we visited was the Reunification Palace, which was the former Presidential  Palace that became famous when tanks from the North Vietnamese army crashed through the front gates in 1975 to officially put an  end to the war.  From the moment we walked in, we got a glimpse of the perspective of the other side.

Our generation has only learned about the war in school and books and the media, so it’s quite different obviously not having that personal perspective of having lived through something so controversial (though it’s easier to imagine now given what’s gone on in the Middle East over the last seven years).  We obviously know that the War was quite controversial, but it one thing that we wanted to do was “liberate” the South Vietnamese from the Communist-backed party who took hold in the north.  Since Vietnam is still run by the same party, their army is the one referred to as the “Liberation Army” trying to liberate the Vietnamese from the puppet control of the United States.

It was very interesting to see everything from their perspective, and though I’m glad we saw it, the War Remnants Museum the following day was quite graphic and difficult to get through.  It had tons of information (obviously with much bias), but it was an important thing to see, in my opinion.  It was a bit over the top at times with its photos of dead soldiers and rooms of photos of disabled  people as a result of the Agent Orange.  Again, I do think it was important to see and it did portray the atrocities of war well, but the four of us walked out after several hours mentally exhausted.

After several days of sightseeing, hanging out, and another proper night out with Dave and Tina, we moved on to the south of Vietnam to spend a few days in Mekong Delta.  Megan will be back soon with a post and a bunch of pictures of our boat trip through the floating markets.

We are currently in  Phnom Penh, Cambodia and enjoying our time here so far in this country of vast contrast.  We were lucky enough to meet up with Megan’s friend Nicoline, whom she has known since her high school days.  Nicoline is from Holland, and she runs an orphanage here in Phnom Penh called Pure for Kids.  It is an absolutely wonderful organization, and Nicoline was nice enough to invite us there today.  We fell in love with the kids and the things they’re doing, so when Nicoline invited us to help out again later this week, we decided to stay here a few more days before moving on to Siem Reap and the temples of Angkor Wat.  We’ll devote an entire post to that soon enough to talk more about what she’s doing and post some pics (and maybe some video of Megan doing the Hokey Pokey with all the kids).

So until next time, here’s a photo gallery of some of the sites in Saigon along with the insane traffic.

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