Saturday, March 26, 2011

Loving Laos

We are here in Si Phan Don on the peaceful island of Don Det.  Our stilted rustic bungalow faces the Mekong River with hammocks on the balcony deck.

The restaurant attached to the guest house is run by a gregarious woman affectionately called "Mama" by everyone who stays with her.  The food is delicious and the iced coffee and coconut shakes with honey are enough to make us want to stay here for weeks.

It's a shame to waste the daylight since electricity is not always accessble, so this has to be a short one.  Another update will come soon! 

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Cambodia in a (coco)nut shell

Early Saturday at midnight we boarded a night bus from Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh.  It was somehow almost worse than our original night bus experience.  We arrived six hours later than the time we'd been told, and were forced to access the downstairs bathroom by crawling over multiple boxes of cargo.  But we made it.  After bargaining with our prospective tuk-tuk driver we were off on a mini-tour of Cambodia's capital.  First we visited Choeung Ek, also known as the Killing Fields.  Now a memorial to those who died during the extreme Khmer Rouge  rule, it was once a place of forced labor, torture and murder.  We spent a sobering hour there, where the reality of the recent events made our hearts break.  We couldn't bring ourselves to visit S-21.

Next we went on to see the magnificent Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda.  The temples and other buildings within were different from anything we've seen in Asia.  The architecture and design borrowed more from Hindu culture than others we've seen.  For dinner we tried our first Cambodian curry, flavored with heat and a hint of sweet coconut milk.

After another shorter, but more bumpy night bus ride, we arrived in Siem Reap.  We spent our first day here walking around the quaint river area near our guest house.  We visited a great market and tried some more of the local food.  Close to sunset we purchased our three day pass to the temples of Angkor, inclusive of a free sunset viewing at one of the oldest temples.  We climbed the steep stairs and watched the sun glow red and orange among the ruins.

Monday morning we awoke at 4:15 am to visit Angkor Wat by sunrise.  Unfortunately the clouds made a colorful sky impossible.  We waited expectantly, but without result.  However it was nice to have an early start on the day.  We saw the gorgeous pink sandstone carvings of Bantaey Srei and dodged a bullet when our tuk-tuk went off the road into a ditch backing a barbed-wire fence.  The views at Banteay Samré were also amazing and more remote in a beautiful jungle setting.  The rest of the afternoon was spent lazing around, catching some yummy Mexican food and a traditional Apsara dance show in the evening.  A downpour during dinner also provided entertainment, especially when three kids were pulled by a tuk-tuk up and down "pub street" as we looked on.

Tuesday we looped around to visit the notable Preah Khan and the smaller but still amazing wats of East Mebon, Pre Rup, Neak Pean and Tasom.  We dined outside at a lovely restaurant in old town.  Part of their platter for two was a delicious Khmer specialty, Amok.

We saved the best for last today, visiting Angkor Wat again at sunrise with a better result and a wonderful tour giude.  Angkor Thom and Bayon were astounding.  We were told in detail about the history and design of the many magnificent buildings and their carvings.  Ta Prohm was amazing as well, with massive Ficus trees both destroying and protecting the ancient temples.  Ta Prohm's claim to fame is that Tomb Raider was filmed there.  We saw Banteay Kdei, Ta Keo, Sras Srang, and Prasat Kravan in the afternoon.  Our day was amazing.

A local dinner, a much needed pedicure, and a walk through the bustling night market were the perfect way to end our stay in Cambodia.  Next.... Si Phan Don in Laos!

Friday, March 18, 2011

Native history in a foreign land

Yesterday morning we arrived in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam's most populated city.  Our stay in Hanoi prepared us somewhat for the blur of motorbikes cruising in packs here down the busy streets.  The motorized scooters are people's main form of trasport.  It's estimated that there are 8 million people and 4 million motorbikes in the city.  Crossing the street is a leap of faith.  If you wait for a clearing and carefully look both directions as you've been told to do since learning to walk, you'd be waiting forever.  After Hanoi we learned to walk slowly and steadily so that the drivers can swerve around us.  It works best to keep the same pace and resist the tempation to run which would be counterproductive. 

The overnight train from Nha Trang was decent (so much better than the bus!), although neither or us slept much.  Bleary eyed and amazed at the scooter traffic, we found a taxi to take us to "budget alley" where we found a room, dropped off our stuff, and headed out in search of some Vietnamese coffee.  It's amazing.  A personal steel filter sits atop a small mug where the grounds brew coffee on the spot.  The drink is thick and rich, with a glob of sweet condensed milk to take some of the edge off.  We began our day feeling energized.

Taking directions from the Ho Chi Minh City walking tour, we started at an indoor market.  We we were amazed at all of the beautiful crafts and fresh foods for sale.  We made our way past the Opera House, the beautiful Hotel De Ville and stopped to look around at the Ho Chi Minh City Museum.  There were artifacts from various periods throughout history and information on the customs and traditions of Southern Vietnam.

Taking advantage of the midday break during which most museums and buildings are closed, we stopped for lunch and refreshing frozen yogurt.

Next was the War Remnants Museum, proving very hard to digest.  The first floor walls were covered with protest stories and photos.  Communist propaganda was heavily present.  The next floors gruesomely detailed America's part in the war.  There were disturbing blurbs, images and statistics about its events and aftermath.

The whole museum was understandably one-sided considering our location.  Most of the foreign tourists we've encountered are French, Russian, Australian and British.  Americans traveling here is much more rare.  We continued to the Reunification Palace.  This is the former White House of the South, housing an underground bomb shelter for the president.  The building was called the Independence Palace until it was taken over by the North and "reunified" hence the new name.

Today we took a tour an hour outside of the city to the Củ Chi Tunnels. It was fascinating to see where so many people lived underground during the war.  The entrance to the living spaces were impossible to notice.  They were tiny openings covered with leaves and debris.  A kitchen stove's smoke went through three underground chambers before emitting into an area ten feet away under the jungle floor to remain undetected.

Ryan and I climbed into the tunnels, nine feet underground.  They have since been slightly widened for Westerners, but are still so narrow it's only possible to get through them by hunching over almost in a crawl.  Needless to say they're not for the clausterphobic.  The mere 40 yards we scooted along were difficult, but priceless in beginning to understand how the "Củ Chi Guerillas" lived.  Various intricate and deadly traps and weaponry were on display.  For a snack we tried what our guide called "Củ Chi Hamburger," dense tapioca root dipped in a mixture of salt, sugar, sesame and peanuts.

The tour finished with a documentary on the area.  It named US soldiers "crazy devils" and portrayed them as soulless human beings intending to kill civilians.  Hard to take.

Tonight we enjoyed one last glimpse of scooter traffic and our final Vietnamese meal.  We tried Bánh xèo.  The manager gave us a lesson on how to wrap lettuce and various flavorful greens around pieces of the thin and flaky crepe filled with meat and veggies, then dip the wrap into a tangy fish sauce.  All of the staff were extremely friendly and most spoke English.  One went as far as reciting our area code when we told him we were from Oregon.  We couldn't pass up a small sampling of dessert from the buffet.  A floating cake with coconut milk and a banana cake stood out from the rest.

In a few hours we'll be on our way to Cambodia.  We'll spend a brief day in the capital Pnohm Penh, then we're on to Siem Reap and the amazing Angkor.

We'll miss you Vietnam!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Lounging around a beach town

So far our time in Nha Trang has been amazing.  The weather has been idyllic, with a cool ocean breeze relieving the sometimes heavy heat.  Ryan scuba dived Monday morning, where he spotted Lion Fish, Moray Eel and many other small fish.  We spent the afternoon visiting the famous Long Son Pagoda.  A tall white buddha stands over 300 meters there, and another equally as giant  buddha lies down on its side to rest nearby.  Later we spent some time at a beautiful cathedral and took numerous pictures of the gorgeous tropical flowers that surrounded it.  For dinner we stopped into an inviting Tex-Mex joint run by a former resident of Tennessee.  I had a yummy enchilada with pinto beans and Mexican rice (things we never had access to in Korea) and Ryan opted for a pulled pork sandwich with french fries and homemade BBQ sauce for dipping.  Our meal was complete with homemade apple pie and sweet vanilla ice cream.  Such a sweet taste of the America we've been away from for so long.

Yesterday we were beach bums.  After a traditional Vietnamese breakfast of phở, we parked ourselves on padded chairs under a straw umbrella and took in the turquoise waves.  We played our favorite game and enjoyed happy hour cocktails and fresh fruit in the sun.  Later we enjoyed 
more happy cocktails and dined at a delicious Indian restaurant for the second time in three days.

It began to rain this morning, and by the time we reached the breathtaking Po Nagar Cham Towers the sky had unleashed a torrential downpour.  Luckily we had gotten to the large local market before the rain.  A sea of women in conical hats wove their way through endless stalls of more women selling fresh fish, recently butchered meat, and loads of shiny fruits and vegetables.  It was quite the sight.  The pictures will come soon, I promise.  On our way to the towers we quickily found ourselves on a quiet neighborhood side street.  Locals sat in groups enjoying tea, soup and conversation.  Further down the street we came upon a circle of men spurring on a cockfight.  Once we found The Towers we were already drenched.  Water rushed down the stairs leading to the site and came down in sheets from the sky, making it rather unpleasant.  Such a shame, because the ancient buildings estimated to be built between the 7th and 12th centuries were amazing to look at.  Inside many of the smaller ones were beautiful shrines honoring buddha.  Some statues were completely decked out with head dresses and jewels.

Soaked, we returned back to our hotel and onto lunch and ice cream inside homemade waffle cones.  Here we are preparing for a train ride tonight to Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon).  Hopefully it won't be as unpleasant as our bus trip....

We'll keep you updated as we go!

Saturday, March 12, 2011

The night bus from hell that proved to be worth it

Last night we boarded a night bus to the beautiful beach city of Nha Trang.  As our hotel was the last on the sleeper bus pick-up route, we didn't have many options for seats.  We made our way to the back of the bus and climbed into our narrow sleeper beds.  Out of necessity, we  made fast friends with the three (yes three) other people already packed into the tiny space, and all had a good laugh at the situation.  We made stops every few hours for bathroom breaks, trying to sleep through the heat and the aggressive horn of the massive bus.  Eleven hours later we arrived.

We took inventory of our surroundings and toured some rooms for the evening.  We settled on one just a stone's throw from the picturesque municipal beach.  Breakfast was baguettes with laughing cow and fried eggs, fresh coffee and a banana milkshake.  We look forward to spending the day at the beach and Ryan will get a dive in tomorrow.  

We hope everyone is safe and happy.  We're counting our blessings in light of the recent events in Japan.  

More updates and possibly pictures to come!

Friday, March 11, 2011

Vietnam so far

Wow, the first leg of our trip is complete! 

We left Korea on March 7th and arrived in Vietnam later that night.  We're already on to our second city in Vietnam, and are happy to have some sunshine and warm weather today for the first time since the fall!  We spent three days in Hanoi (Northern Vietnam) where we saw the sights, the crazy scooter traffic, and a traditional water puppet show.  We've also been eating lots of yummy food, most notably the fresh fruit.  Women patrol the streets wearing large cone shaped bamboo hats, ready to sell and slice anything they can carry in their baskets.  There are fresh mangos, juicy pineapples, and exotic dragonfruit and custard apples.  Other choices include spicy noodles, papaya salad with lemongrass and peanuts, and lots of cheap beer!  It's less than a quarter in some places.  

The weather in Hanoi was colder than we expected, and our room was crappier, but what do you want for $10 a night?  The city itself was nice, centered around a lake and with lots of French influenes.  We enjoyed baguettes for breakfast, with deliciously rich Vietnamese coffee sweetened with thick condensed milk.
A day trip from Hanoi took us to Ha Long Bay, an immaculate scene with islands of cliffs jutting out in every direction.  We cruised around to enjoy the gorgeous sights and Ryan took me for a kayak ride. 

Yesterday we arrived in Hoi An, a quaint and much smaller riverside town.  Very nice.  We like it here a lot better.  It's much more peaceful and pretty, but there a lot more tourists.  The city is famous for all its tailors, where hundreds have set up shop in the small city.  They will replicate or create anything for a great price.  Shoes, bags, and any clothing you can think of.  The turnaround time is almost nothing.

We spent our day touring the river area, enjoying banana pancakes for breakfast, and walking the maze of Hoi An's streets.  Tomorrow we'll head to a nearby beach, then get on a night bus to Nha Trang, our next stop in Vietnam.  I'm not sure how often we'll be checking in, but I'll try to update in chunks as we go.  You'll have to wait for the pictures until we get home, but it will be worth it!

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Graduates

Our six-year old students graduated from the kindergarten program on Friday.  They walked the stage, received their diplomas and took their bows.   Each child had their adorable photos displayed within a velvet diploma case.

In closing, all of the foreign teachers were forced to sing ABBA’s "Dancing Queen," which wasn’t too bad in the end.

On Monday we said our goodbyes to our four and five year olds as well.  Most had prepared cards with priceless messages and illustrations.

We hugged each student and wished them luck.  It was hard to let some students go.

We will truly miss seeing these little faces everyday!


Thursday was our last official day, meaning another round of goodbyes with our older students.  They gave us more letters, candy, and several pleas to stay in Korea.  I got quite a kick out of one class's response to their most recent writing prompt, a letter to me about the past year.  My favorite paragraph was from one of my eight year-olds:

Dear Norah Teacher,
Thank you.  Because you teach me many words.  You teach everyone.  So you are tired.  Aren't you?  Now you don't need to worry.  I wanted to study with you more.  But it has come to this.  

It was complete with a drawing of a girl waving.  It made my day.   A bittersweet one.  

Later tonight we'll have dinner with co-workers and ship our final items home before our trip.  Reality is starting to set in!

Underground Excursions

A surprising amount of businesses are housed within Busan's subway stations.  There are the standard convenience stores and newspaper vendors, but the larger stations offer much more than that.  Numerous owners of small restaurants, coffee shops and clothing boutiques wait for customers below ground.  

Last rainy Sunday, Ryan and I shopped around at Seomyeon, Busan’s downtown area which is famous for its particularly large underground shopping.  Two long narrow hallways parallel each other, with four total rows of stores to entice subway passengers and shoppers.  Some shops are too small to enter if other patrons beat you inside. 

We spent a couple hours browsing through racks of funny cartoon and English shirts, accessory stores and beauty shops.  Many American university knockoff shirts and some funny slogans stood out.

Although we didn’t buy much, we kept out of the rain and I somehow got Ryan to agree to shopping!  Tomorrow we’ll try our luck at Nampo-dong, so let's hope the weather cooperates.  Although the underground shopping is great there too...

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Donut Dessert

What a yummy surprise we found stationed outside our apartment over the weekend.  At just about fifty cents each, these donuts were a delicious deal.

They were the perfect Friday night munchies!