Friday, June 18, 2010

Summer Update!

I made it back alive from the Great Southeast Asia Tour!  I am now in the process of going through some 600+ pictures, as well as moving out to Salt Lake City for the summer.  I plan on posting a series of blog entries with travel pics and some commentary for each place that I visited, and these will be posted over the course of the summer.  Stay tuned for the first post: Hanoi!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Great Southeast Asia Tour - Revised Version

Today, RIGHT NOW, was supposed to be the start of my Great Southeast Asian Tour.  For those of you not in the know, I finished up work here in Singapore yesterday and am taking three weeks to travel around SEA before returning to the US.  I literally have spent months planning this trip and have been looking forward to it immensely.  Out of my three weeks, I had planned to spend a week in Thailand, a week in Laos, and a week in Burma* (see end of post).  In Thailand, I wanted to visit Bangkok and then Chiang Mai in the north before moving on to Laos.  Bangkok went out the window about last weekend due to the continuing violence there.  I revised my travel schedule to include a quick transit out of Bangkok without ever coming close to the city center, and stays in Chiang Mai and Chaing Rai (another city in the north).  Unfortunately, things took a turn for the worse yesterday afternoon.  Although the Red Shirt leaders surrendered to the police and asked the protesters to go home, rioting and looting broke out in central Bangkok.  Even worse, riots also broke out in several cities in the north/northeast of Thailand, including Chiang Mai.  About half the country is currently under curfew (8 PM - 6 AM until Saturday) and most of the banks and stores in the bigger cities are closed.  So, 24 hours before I was supposed to be leaving Singapore for Bangkok, I decided to scratch that part of my trip.  Hours of internet searches and about $300 extra later, I now have a revised itinerary that includes KL and Hanoi, and then continues on to Laos and Burma as planned.  However, I'm still really incredibly upset that I'm missing out on seeing Thailand, not to mention the extra money I had to spend.  I'm still planning to fly through Bangkok on my way to Burma in two weeks from now, and I'm hoping that the city will have calmed down by then.  If you want to follow the news in Bangkok,  some good (read: not sensationalized or over-simplified) sources are the Bangkok Post for pure news, and Bangkok Pundit for analysis.

So, now for the revised schedule for the Great SEA Tour:
Train to KL from Singapore (this is the main part I'm unhappy about.  I don't like KL.  It's just like Singapore, only dirtier)
Hanoi (thank you, Vietnamese government, for giving me a visa in less than a day!)
Luang Prabang, Laos
Vientiane, Laos
Transit through Bangkok airport (hopefully the airport stays OK)
Rangoon, Burma
Mandalay, Burma
Back to Rangoon
Fly back to Singapore via Bangkok (again, fingers crossed)

Aaaaand, then I fly home on June 11th! 

For the geography challenged among you (no judgment, I'm definitely geography challenged), I've created a little map of my journey.  For bonus points, I put the land travel legs (bus/train) in blue and the air travel legs in red.  Mandalay, Burma, isn't marked on the map, so it's location is a bit approximate (again, geography challenged here).

There probably won't be a lot of entries in the next few weeks until I make it home to the US, so please be patient with me until then!

*Here's the [star] about Burma.  Most people have probably heard about Burma and about Aung San Suu Kyi, who is the most vocal Burmese democracy advocate and gets quite a bit of coverage in the foreign press.  She has asked people to avoid traveling to Burma because she believes that it gives tacit approval of the dictatorial military government.  However, what the foreign press fails to convey is that Aung San Suu Kyi is not the only democracy advocate in Burma.  Many Burmese actively encourage tourists to come to Burma, because the presence of foreign observers limits the human rights offenses that can be committed by the government (at least in plain sight).  Additionally, even though the Burmese government does benefit somewhat from my $30 visa fee, there are many many other Burmese people (guesthouse owners, taxi drivers, food sellers, tour guides) that are going to benefit much more from the money that I pay them directly.  I'll probably write a lot more on this issue later after my trip, but for I'll just say that I've done massive amounts of research about how to travel ethically in Burma, and I'm confident in my ability to do so.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Even More Siem Reap

OK, time to finish up my posts about my recent trip to Siem Reap.  On our third and final day there, we woke up super early to see the sun rise over Angkor Wat.  Unfortunately, it turned out to be cloudy that day, so no sunrise.  The upside to this was that it was much cooler, which in my opinion was an OK trade!  We decided to head out to a temple called Banteay Srei, which was about 30 km away from the main temples.  On our way, we stopped at the Pre Rup temple.  Pre Rup means "turning the body", which probably references a traditional cremation method. Thus, it is believed that Pre Rup was used for cremations and funerals.  Here's a view from the top:

After that, we continued on our way to Banteay Srei, which is one of the most beautiful temples in the entire complex.  The temple is built out of pink sandstone, and features many intricate carvings.  Banteay Srei means "Citadel of Women", and some people speculate that the incredibly detailed carvings were done by women. 

There were lots of monkey and lion statues, who were supposed to be the guardians of the temple.  They looked fake and I later read that there were replicas, and that the real ones were in a museum somewhere.
On our way back from Banteay Srei, we stopped at a museum about landmines.  The museum was built by a local man who has worked as a de-miner for many years.  He started the museum to educate visitors about landmines in Cambodia, since Cambodia has one of the highest concentrations of unexploded ordinances, which are left over from the civil war years.  Many of them are still active today, and the founder of the museum also runs a school for children that have been crippled by the landmines.  I found the museum to be super interesting, because it exhibited many different kinds of landmines and explained how they work and how to defuse them.  Here are just a few of the many landmines that the founder has disabled over the years:

On our way back into town, we visited several other smaller temples.  One of these was Eastern Mebon, which was originally built on an island in the middle of a baray, or reservoir.  These barays were huge - around 8 km on a side!  This temple was interesting because it originally had plaster facades attached to many of the walls.  Of course, these are all gone today, but you can still see the holes that were used to attach the plaster.
Another interesting one was the Neak Pean, which was also originally built on an island.  This temple had a central shrine surrounded by a pond.  The temple also featured fountains in the shapes of elephant, horse, lion and human heads.  These fountains were supposed to spout holy water that could cure pilgrims of their ills.  Here's the central shrine, which depicts two naga serpents from Hindu and Buddhist mythologies.

The final temple we visited was called Preah Khan, which means "sacred sword".  Like Ta Prohm temple, Preah Khan is held together by trees growing inside the temple.  I especially though that this decapitated Buddha was a neat example of the power of the jungle:

After a refreshing dip in our hotel's pool, we ate some great tacos at a Mexican restaurant.  Normally, I'm pretty dubious of Mexican restaurants in Asia and prefer to avoid them so that I'm not disappointed, but I had heard lots of great reviews of this one from fellow travelers, so we decided to take a chance.  It was actually pretty good!  Not Antojitos Mexicanos, which is going to be my first stop when I get home to Yakima in a month(!), but not utterly disappointing either.  After dinner, we went to an interesting show at a children's hospital in Siem Reap.  Every Saturday night, the doctor in charge of the hospital, who is Austrian, plays classical music on his cello and talks about his hospital in hopes of bringing in donations.  The music was very nice and I thought it was interesting to hear how he runs the hospital so that all care can be provided for free. 

Finally, one last picture, of a packet of banana chips that I bought at the local grocery store:
Future food! 

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

More Siem Reap

Picking up where I last left off, Elizabeth and I spent our second day in the town of Siem Reap rather than visiting the temples.  In the morning, we took a Khmer cooking class.  I learned how to cook mango salad and chicken amok.  Mango salad is made from unripe mangoes that are grated together with carrots and bean sprouts.  It's pretty spicy due to the large amount of chilies that are added, and is topped off with a peanut/fish sauce.  The chicken amok is a traditional Khmer dish made with chicken cooked in a banana leaf with a delicious coconut sauce.  The most fun part of cooking the chicken was preparing all the spices - we had to chop up all sorts of different spices like ginger and turmeric and then pound them all together in a huge wooden mortar and pestle!  Overall the class was really fun and we got to eat our work at the end.  We also got to wear fun cooking hats that looked kind of like pioneer bonnets.  I didn't take pictures, but I'll post some if Elizabeth sends them to me (if you're reading this, Elizabeth, can you please send me your pics?  The world needs more pictures of me in dorky hats!).

After lunch we took a (free!) shuttle bus out to visit a working silk farm.  They took us on a very good tour, which showed us the silk process from beginning to end.  We started with the silk worms:
Then we saw how the silk worm cocoons are collected before they are unraveled.
Once the silkworms have spun their cocoons, they are boiled to kill the worm inside, and the cocoons are unraveled.
At this point, our tour guide plucked a dead silk worm out of the pot of boiling water and challenged someone on the tour to eat it.  I didn't, but one of the other guys on the tour did.  He said that it tasted "like an almond".  Once the thread was unraveled from the cocoon, it goes through a series of machines designed to spin several threads together.  These machines were so cool!  They were huge and old-timey and used smart engineering instead of the digital tricks used by most modern technology.
Finally, the silk threads are dyed and woven together to form things like scarves and ties.
Then, the finished products are sold to tourists at extremely high prices!  We successfully resisted the guilt that comes with a free tour and didn't buy anything at the end.  I appreciated the very well done tour, but that wasn't worth the price of a $25 scarf.

Later that evening, we watched a free traditional Khmer dancing show at the restaurant where we ate dinner.  The schedule for the night's entertainment was very strict:
First, we heard some traditional Khmer music.
Then came the dancing.  The coconut dance was a Khmer folk dance in which the dancers clicked together coconut half-shells to accompany their dance.  All I could think of during this number was Monty Python and the Holy Grail.  Next was the Apsara dance, a typical example of classical Khmer dancing:
I learned about this dance from a Fulbrighter at the conference I attended in Manila in March.  She lives in Phnom Penh and studies classical Khmer dance as part of her Fulbright project.  She told me that the apsaras are heavenly nymphs.  All the movements in the dance are very slow and deliberate and are supposed to mimic the movement of the apsaras.  The most important is to "look like you have detached your ribcage from your spine", as she put it.  This is supposed to give the impression of a heavenly/otherworldly being.  The dancers also do the cool thing where they are able to bend their fingers waaaaay back towards the back of their hand.

So, that was day two.  Again, it's late, so day three will wait for another time.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Siem Reap - Day One

Finally, it's time for some blogging about my trip to Siem Reap to see the Angkor temples.  In order to make it on our 6 AM flight out of Singapore, my friend Elizabeth and I left her apartment at 4 in the morning.  This was the earliest we got up during the trip, but not by much.  After an uneventful flight, we landed in Siem Reap and headed into town on a tuk-tuk.  What is a tuk-tuk, you ask?  The usage of the term varies widely, but in this part of Cambodia, a tuk-tuk is a small, three-wheeled carriage that is pulled behind a motorbike.  They normally have a roof for shade and space for 2-3 people.  Here's a picture, courtesy of wikipedia.
After arriving at our hotel, we hired a tuk-tuk for the day and headed out to the temples.  First we had to buy an admission ticket - $40 for three days!  Quite steep, but I guess if it goes towards preserving the temples, it's ok.  The first temple was saw, of course, was Angkor Wat.  Angkor Wat is HUGE!  The outer walls measure about 1.5 km on each side.  In addition, outside the walls is a 200 m wide moat.  It's also the single largest religious monument in the world.  Construction started in 1113 and took over 30 years to complete.  It seems strange, but the temple is actually dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu (the Angkorian kingdom was originally Hindu, but Buddhism took over in the late 12th century).  Here's me in front of the main temple!
You can maybe see that I'm a bit sweaty.  That's because it was about 100 F and 70% humidity outside.  I think it's actually some of the worst heat I've dealt with while in Southeast Asia.  It was seriously hot!  One of the first things that we saw was crowds of Khmer people taking wedding photos with the temple as a backdrop.  They all had on elaborate matching outfits.  We sneakily took several pictures:
Around the inner walls of the temple were lots of amazing carvings.  They were based on the history of the Khmer kingdom, and also on the Hindu epic of Ramayana.  My favorite was called "The Churning of the Ocean of Milk", which is the Hindu creation myth.  In this myth, the gods and the demons agreed to work together to churn the ocean of milk for 1000 years.  This would create an immortality elixir, which both the gods and the demons were supposed to share.  However, at the end of the 1000 years, the gods stole the elixir and didn't give any to the demons. After walking around the inner walls to view the carvings, we went into the very center of the temple, where the highest tower stands.  It's quite a climb to the top:
However, we did climb all the way up to the top, from which we had quite a nice view.

After Angkor Wat, we headed to Angkor Thom, which was one of the largest Khmer cities and served as the state capitol in the late 1100s.  Apparently it used to house over 1 million people!  I thought Angkor Wat was huge, but Angkor Thom was actually bigger.  The 8m high outer walls measure 3km on each side!  However, the temples inside Angkor Thom are much more spread out than in Angkor Wat.  The most famous temple is Bayon.  The craziest feature of Bayon are these faces, of which there are 216 of throughout the temple:
The faces probably represent the king who built the temple, Jayavarman VII.  As the faces look in all directions, they were supposed to show that the king could watch over all of the kingdom simultaneously.  Slightly creepy.  After seeing a couple more of the temples within Angkor Thom, we abandoned this temple in favor of a breezy tuk-tuk ride to another location.

 Next, we headed to Ta Prohm, one of the most photographed temples.  This is because many of the trees growing within the temple have been allowed to remain, making for some very picturesque scenes.  It was really interesting to see how the trees had grown in among the stones of the temple.
The trees were enormous!  You can see the scale of things in the next picture.
After Ta Prohm, we were too tired to see any more temples.  We headed back to our hotel and took full advantage of the hotel's swimming pool.  Later that night, we ate some delicious Khmer food for dinner, including a dish called "pumpkin in oven".  It was sort of a casserole dish involving pumpkin, egg, shrimps, and some other vegetables.  It tasted a lot better than it sounds.  After some nighttime shopping, we called it a night (given that we had woken up at 4 AM) and slept for about 12 hours.  Speaking of sleeping, time for me to go do some of that right now, so I'll leave this post as just day one.  Days two and three coming soon!

PS: exciting news!  I just bought my tickets for the Grand Southeast Asia Tour, which commences in three weeks!

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Angkor Wat pictures!

Here's a link to my pictures from my visit to Siem Reap, Cambodia, to see the Angkor temples.  Real blog posts to follow! 

Wednesday, April 21, 2010


A couple weekends ago (I know, it's been a long time), I paid a visit to Chinatown to buy a set of chopsticks for myself as a souvenir.  I found a very nice pair with pretty blue designs on the ends.  Unfortunately for you, chopsticks are very hard to take up-close pictures of, so no pictures here.

However, while in Chinatown, I also paid a visit to the Chinatown Heritage Centre, which is a very well done museum about the history of Chinatown.  Back in the day (early 1900s), Chinatown used to be quite sketchy - gambling houses, brothels, and opium dens galore!  Here's a recreation of a night gone wrong in a gambling den.

Not to worry, it has since cleaned up it's act.  Chinatown still exists today because, under British rule, different ethnic groups were only allowed to live in certain areas of the city.  Since the ethnic groups were so concentrated for such a long time, several ethnic neighborhoods have retained their character to this day.  However, what I didn't know was that Chinatown itself was segregated into separate neighborhoods for immigrants from different parts of China.  Most of the Chinese immigrants to Singapore came from Southern China, but they spoke a variety of different languages like Hokkien, Hakka, and Cantonese.  So, these groups tended to keep to themselves in different blocks of the Chinatown.  Here is a recreation of a clan hall, which were kind of like clubs for the different clans.

The Heritage Centre itself was in an old shophouse that used to house various shops on the ground floor, in addition to living spaces on the upper stories.  Many of these shops and living spaces had been recreated, and I thought that this was the most interesting part of the museum.  Here is a room where a family of five or six would have lived:
 And an outdoor kitchen:
And an old-timey tailor shop!

Another very interesting exhibit in the museum was about the "death houses" that existed during the early 1900s in Chinatown.  Since families were packed into such small spaces (see above picture!), it was considered a health hazard to make extra space for sick and dying old people in the family dwelling.  So, families would instead send their dying elderly members off to "death houses", where they could lay around with other old people and wait to die.  Pretty gruesome!  Here's an example of one person's area in a death house.

And one final picture:

You may be wondering what "Bullock Cart Water" is.  Well, the name of Chinatown in Mandarin is  牛车水 (niu che shui), which literally means "cow car water".  Turns out, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the water in the Chinatown area was so bad that drinking water had to be brought in from other places on the island.  This water was brought in daily on large carts pulled by cows.  I learned this in my Chinese class a few months ago after I realized that I knew what  牛车水 meant, but was completely confused as to why the Chinatown MRT stop was called as such, and asked my Chinese teacher.  Mystery solved!