Sunday, August 29, 2010

Cambodia, Malaysia & Singapore...a continuation of our epic trip!

So perhaps that last blog blogged me out for awhile, sorry it's been so long! Between making our album, talking about it with everyone and blogging about it, I sort of burned out on our experiences! However since we are about to head up to Japan this weekend, I better get this trip covered!

I left off at Cambodia. Wow. This is certainly not a country I ever imagined I'd ever visit. I remember going to school with kids from there when I was little, remembering stories about them and their parents escaping the country so I never had great assumptions for the country.

We crossed into Cambodia by boat. We went on a Mekong River cruise that started in the Mekong Delta (Vietnam) and traveled north to Siem Reap, Cambodia. For 8 days Colin and I explored fishing villages, towns, pagodas, palaces and factories, what a fantastic way to explore a country! It was so neat to see whole villages on the river...literally on the river. The houses were built as small barges so they could float  on the water. This is helps them avoid major flooding that ensues after the river swells in the winter.

Some gorgeous pagodas (temples)

We had the pleasure of visiting an orphanage and elementary school as well as fair trade and weaving villages and rice paper and puffed rice factories.

Very hungry...

They even let me try my hand at rice paper, all I can say is I better keep looking for a job. :)

At the end of the cruise we were dropped off in Siem Reap. Siem Reap is home to Angkor Wat. Angkor What?? Haha, a few people have said that. Angkor Wat is a tenth century temple in the ancient city of Angkor. The city, about 60 square miles big was once home to over a million people back in the 900's. It literally outgrew itself and eventually gave into disease. The jungle took it over and was hidden until the late 19th century. Since then various projects have been conducted to restore this incredible city. Angkor Wat is the main temple of the city and is absolutely amazing. If this place were in the West it would be roped off and preserved to the nth degree. However here, for $40 you have three days of full access. We spent three days climbing in, out, up, down and around the structures. Just standing at the top of a building that was once a "city hall" over a thousand years ago is truly a privilege.
Angkor Wat

Angkor Thom
Terrace of the Elephants...and me.

I think this is Bayon

We climbed to the top of this puppy, whew! 

Still however, amongst all that amazing, gorgeous history it was painful to watch how some of the country's people spend their days.  I don't know what brought me more tears, the children peddling postcards and scarves ("Pretty scarf for pretty lady?" "10 postcards! 10 for one dolla!") when they should have been in school or the young father crawling like a gorilla on his hands and knees because his two legs were blown off by a land mine. Colin and I stopped at a bar for lunch and sat up on the deck while we watched foot traffic below. I couldn't help but stare at this man who wore a basket full of postcards around his neck as sat against a wall hoping to make a sale. I was in tears when I saw him crawl by our restaurant, soaking wet during dinner in a massive thunderstorm. No raincoat, no jacket. Never had I seen such hopeless poverty. This is a country that has suffered for a long time. Earlier in the trip we stopped at the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh:

and got to see some amazing ornate buildings, jewels and artifacts. It baffles me to see a five foot Budda made out of pure gold, a pagoda's interior floor made out of pure silver or millions of dollars in precious jewels sitting in glass cases when there are people who fight to make less than a dollar a day. More tears but hope for progress came on when we visited the Tuol Sleng Prison and Killing Fields as well. It was incredible to witness a place that played host to such mass murder 35 years ago. I cannot even BEGIN to describe the nausea brought on by such a sight. Seeing bones, skulls, clothing matted into the dirt all while learning that some of the mass graves we were looking at had yet to be excavated, was overwhelming. You can still see the sadness in people's eyes, they will never forget (nor let their offspring forget) what happened to their parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, and friends.

Thousands of skulls preserved in a memorial Stupa

Mass grave sites at the Killing Fields


While Malaysia brought some similar experiences, it certainly didn't have the poverty rate of Cambodia. Malaysia seems to be on the rise, we checked out Kuala Lumpur and Penang. KL is a rising metropolis. A crazy one at that! They failed to build the city on a standard grid so a map of the downtown area sort of resembles a three year old's sketch of his spaghetti dinner. None of the bus or subway lines connected (they're all owned by separate companies) so we spent a lot of time getting lost. A LOT. We did however hit Chinatown, a shopper's mecca. Even Colin enjoyed the shopping here so I think that says a lot!

Penang was pretty cool. It took us two cabs and 2.5 hours to make it from the airport to our hotel (plus the hotel lost our reservation) but the ambiance of the island made up for it. What a beautiful, quaint island! We shared our hotel with a good portion of the Saudi Arabian population. Apparently this is where they vacation! I had never seen a burqa in real life before and I was met by a sea of them! It was most certainly a culture shock. I no longer felt all that comfortable walking around in my tank top and shorts when these women only dared to bare their eyes. Some of the more liberal women chose to don swim burqas. The gift shop even sold them! I wanted a picture but it just didn't feel proper to snap photos of these women donning hot pink spandex. We did enjoy seeing the town, celebrating our 1 year anniversary (oddly enough, on our 1 1/2 year anniversary) at an unbelievable restaurant and hanging out by the pool in Penang. A great segway to Singapore!


Singapore was flat out amazing. After all the chaos of our trip Singapore was like a breath of fresh air! Our hotel sent a mercedes to pick us up and we felt like a honeymooning couple all over again! We stayed in an amazing hotel, ate some incredible food and just took in the orderly amazingness of this city. We could cross the street without fearing for our lives, purchase a meal knowing it's fully cooked and we're getting a fair price and enjoying clean streets and sidewalks! It didn't take long for us to figure out why Singapore takes order to the extreme. Surrounded by poverty, corruption and struggling economies, this country has done everything to ensure they do not end up that way. We loved everything here. The zoo, the Singapore Flyer, malls, everything. It was a great way to wrap up such a big trip.

Some people have asked if we felt this was a relaxing vacation. I have to say that it wasn't necessarily a relaxing one. And I don't think we really intended for it to be. Purposely cramming five countries into four weeks is enough to make a traveler dizzy but we wanted to experience as much as we could in the time we had. I almost think I would have left with an excess of guilt if I chose to relax in some of these places. Knowing what poverty and pain we walked amongst everyday is a real wake up to the realities of much of this world. This is definitely a part of the world our history books did not focus on nearly enough, a shame really.

Not to try and depress you my friends, I just want you have an idea of what our trip was all about. Our church is planning a mission trip to Cambodia this fall and we had the honor of sharing our trip with the congregation. I'm excited for more people to learn about this part of the world, it certainly deserves the recognition.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

I'm Back with tales of my travels!

Woowhee! I suppose I've been on a blog sabbatical for a couple of months. I admit it was partially no fault unto my own. It looks like my Gmail account got hacked into and as a result, my account was "disabled" blogging for me! Fortunately Gmail is not my primary account so it did not hinder my daily email but it did cause me to be a little lazy in reaching big ole giant Google to get my problem solved. SO, with a little help from my trusty hubby, I'm back! I have soooo much to catch up on. I am trying to figure out how to condense 4 weeks of fabulous Southeast Asian travel into an easy to read and hopefully entertaining read. So here goes....

So in effort to take advantage of every little bit of time out here in the middle of the Pacific, Colin and I decided to plan a trip to Southeast Asia. I have always wanted to see Vietnam and he has been dying to see Angkor Wat (Angkor What?) in Cambodia. So this trip became a hobby of ours while Colin was in Iraq. It helped us keep our eyes on the future, a trip to celebrate his homecoming. Of course like any trip people like us plan, the trip grew from two weeks to four weeks and two countries to five. Time to celebrate!

Hong Kong 

The adventure began in the wonderful Antonio Won Pat Airport in Guam. As we got in line with 100 Chinese folks for a flight to Hong Kong we discovered the seats on our tickets did not exist. Hmm. So we got in line at the desk and got a new row. Got back in line. Nope, those seats don't work either. Neither did the next set they tried to give us. Apparently this Boeing 737 does not have a Row 8, 9, 13 or 14. That's a first.

So we finally got some seats and settled in for the flight. We arrived on time in Hong Kong and settled into our teeny little hotel room for the night. The next morning we had the pleasure of meeting up with a friend we met at church in Guam. Greg oversees several Lutheran churches all over Asia, including the one he has been preaching at for over 9 years now. Let me tell you this. If you only have seven hours of daylight to explore a massive Asian city, Greg is the way to go! He took out half of his busy day to give a whirlwind tour of almost the entire city. We rode up to Victoria Peak, rode the ferry, had lunch at a sweet local dim sum joint in Stanley and even a pint at an Irish bar for a break to watch the World Cup. By the time we boarded our plane to Hanoi we were wiped out but so excited to have had such a great friend show us such a cool city. We hope to be able to return one day to see a little more!
At the top of Victoria Peak

With our fabulous tour guide and friend, Greg!


So we flew to Hanoi and wow, the trip only got better. We were dropped off at the AMAZING five star Sofitel Metropole. This place knocked our socks off. Reflecting the French influence of the area, you would have thought the Eiffel Tower was right outside. I loved it. The next couple of days were spent trotting around crazy Hanoi. We walked the Old Quarter where vendors sold everything from knockoff purses and shoes to buttons and motorbike seat covers. You could find anything! We bought a couple of tea sets and silk shirts, awesome! We felt it was mandatory to take a mid afternoon break at Fanny's Ice Cream Parlour each day. After walking the hot humid 95+ degrees streets and dodging the ever present traffic of motorbikes, it was very necessary.

Hanoians get up around 5 or 6am to workout, before the heat kicks in. All around the lake we found people doing tai chi, aerobics (by the hundreds!), badminton, and even singing!

Ahh, ice cream! It sure was delicious!

Like many tourists we knew we needed to stay on our toes to prevent ourselves from getting ripped off. We assumed this would come in the way of pick-pocketers and cab drivers. Not two little 85 pound ladies carrying pineapple. Of course they target Colin by trying to put a hat on his head and give him their pineapple baskets to carry. They motioned for me to take a picture and after two polite refusals I finally snapped the picture in hopes of continuing on back to our hotel. Weeelll, that didn't go so well. As I turned around to leave, they surrounded me, shoved pineapple in my hands and demanded 110,000 Vietnamese dong (VND). Whaaat? So Colin takes out his wallet and pulls 150,000 VND out and asked for change. Before either of us could blink they snatched the bills out of his hand and scurried off. As Michelle Tanner from Full House would say, "HOW RUDE!". Since we knew very well that police in this part of the world are not there to "serve and protect", we knew chasing them or trying to find a cop would be absolutely useless. Fuming we marched back to the hotel, bickering at each other. Essentially we were both mad at ourselves for falling for the stupid trick. When we finally got back to the hotel and calculated the math, we realized we lost a whopping 7 bucks. We're laughing now but I can't quite say we did then. Still it was an interesting start to our trip and when those same ladies tried to target us again the very next day (seriously they did), we were on our game!
The 150,000VND picture

Overall Hanoi was pretty neat. We were only able to see the Hoa Lo prison (a.k.a "Hanoi Hilton") during our time (the Mausoleum was closed, Uncle Ho's body was up in Russia for maintenance) but I'm glad it was the one we got to see. I loved studying the Vietnam War in school, and to see such a famous place in person, was pretty cool. We got to see John McCain's flight gear and pictures of the American pilots during their time as POW's. I had the pleasure of having a family friend of ours, Dave Carey come to my freshman history class in college, to speak about his 5 1/2 years as a POW in Hanoi. His story and book are just amazing and what's more amazing is I found his picture and biography in the museum! It sure was an experience to learn about the war from Vietnam's perspective, compared to what I was taught. Somehow I just don't think those pilots spent their days playing basketball and eating gourmet dinners. I also don't think they were utterly grateful for the treatment they received. That's pretty much what the museum shared, with the typical staged pictures to back it up. Needless to say my Navy pilot husband and I came out of there just as we expected, speechless. I highly recommend a visit to this museum if you find yourself in Hanoi some day. You can't beat the price either. 50 cents admission, not too shabby.

My that stuff looks familiar...

Dave's bio on the lower right of the left page.

Our next stop in Vietnam was Hoi An, on the central coast of the South China Sea. We stayed at a beach resort just 15 minutes outside of town. It wasn't what we expected (pictures and biased reviews can be deceiving) and we quickly learned it was a government owned hotel (they own the national airline and banks too) when they insist they hold onto our passports during our stay. Word to the wise, insist you get them back, they will unwillingly oblige!) Hoi An itself was a fascinating town. Covered in storefronts and markets, it's a feast for the eyes. Like Hanoi, we had to remind ourselves to look up at the old French architecture as we cruised along the dirt streets. We enjoyed some great food, checked out the fish markets and even had silk suits custom made for us, for about a quarter of the price we'd pay in the US, gooo sweat shops. :/ Noticing the large staff and and long hours they seemed to put in we asked them how much they worked. 11 hours a day, 7 days a week with a whopping two days off a month. Wow.

Hoi An had a lot of charm

Studly getting fitted

After spending some time on the beach and thanking our Gracious Lord for such a privileged life, we flew to Saigon. We stayed at another amazing Sofitel and enjoyed some great sights. My favorite sight? The Central Market. Bargain shopping at its finest. In a place that rivals the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul we weaved our way through the tiny aisles packed with vendors selling fabrics, clothing, fish, produce, knockoffs and pottery. I was in heaven. In this part of the world you are expected to haggle for a good price. So I played the game, and I must say I played it well. Even when the power went out, I managed to haggle in the dark! As you can see below I did alright! Colin and I also had the opportunity to see the War Remnants Museum (ironically it was formerly called the War Crimes Museum). Just as we expected, everything shown from the Vietnamese viewpoint. We say tons of American aircraft (with the North Vietnamese flag painted on them) and machinery as well as various artifacts from the war. The museum carried a heavy emphasis of the effects of Agent Orange had on the population of Vietnam. It was a sobering experience to say the least. Another place I recommend seeing, it really makes you realize the Vietnamese aren't completely over the war.


An American Huey at the War Remnants Museum

Nice view through the anti-aircraft artillery (yes, also belonged to the US)

That's it for Vietnam, I'll have another post on Cambodia shortly!