Tokyo

Arriving into Tokyo from my flight in Chicago brought back many memories. For 1995, 20 years ago marked my first visit to Japan, exactly on this same Chicago – Narita flight. Luckily, the plane was a brand new 787, which also shaved off about 3 hours of flight time due to efficiencies that technology has brought to aviation! Arriving in Narita, I was excited about this trip, as every trip to Japan is a fun experience for me.

I arrived in the evening, and it was already dark and rainy. Weather forecasts had said due to typhoons that the weather would be rainy most of my time. I sat on board the train that went straight from Narita to the hotel I had planned to be easy access to both Narita and Haneda for my business partner coming in from St. Petersburg, Russia.

I got checked in, and went to a nearby sushi restaurant. I felt pretty good, a little tired from the journey, but more so excited to be in Japan. As I entered the tiny restaurant, I asked if they were open, and they welcomed me in. Only one other man sat at the counter, and they seemed a little nervous. Once I started speaking, they all laughed in relief to find out that I could speak Japanese, and they joked about how awful it would have been had I only spoken English, as they were too nervous and scared to try.

The sushi was fresh and I ate chef’s recommended. We chatted about why I was back in Japan, my time there as an exchange student, and how Japan has been such a big part of my life. The man at the counter joined in, telling us about his travels to France. He was very fascinated in my stories and the restaurant owner and wife were intrigued as well. By the end of the dinner, we had all laughed and discussed many topics, and while I was feeling quite tired at this point, I was enjoying this serendipitous meeting and engagement with strangers which is always my joy of travel.

As I got my things ready to go, the old gentleman sitting at the bar pulled out a 5 Euro bill and gave it to me as a ‘present’, as he said I would have more likely use of it than he. I bid everyone a gracious farewell for conversing with me, and with that, my trip to Japan officially began.

That night, I texted with Vlad as he arrived at Haneda late at night. I told him exactly how to get to the hotel and which exit was easiest to put him on the street right in front of the hotel. The next morning, we texted again and he set off to arrive at the airport. I estimated when he would arrive, so stood outside the hotel looking for him. After a bit, I went back in to make sure I hadn’t missed him some how and alerted the front desk that he would be checking in just in case I didn’t see him. After a while, he appeared from the underground and we got to finally meet face to face for the first time. He was excited and eager read-t0-go, so we started our day with my plans to see Asakusa, Akihabara, and Ginza.

 

 

 Watching Vlad’s excitement seeing these sights for the first time was allowing me to relive my love of Japan and explain things about Japan to someone who was interested in hearing them. Together, it seemed as though we fueled each others’ adventure and though these are places I’ve seen many times before, it was easy to be excited about them again because they were new to someone else.

The next day we headed to do the Yamanote route where we went to Meiji Jungu, Harajuku, Omotesando, met up with my friend Shoko, went to Shibuya, and Shinjuku. We walked a ton throughout the days so each night was nice to relax at our comfortable Apa Hotel.

The next day we did Odaiba, and took the monorail over to see the sight of Tokyo from a distance. We then toured around Shiodome to get some good evening views of the city atop the Dentsu building.

We then did a day trip to Kamakura, so Vlad could see a bit of outside Tokyo and see another ‘major sight’ for day tripping from Tokyo. The trip down was fun to see the sights from the train, and once we got into Kamakura village, the walk around town was nice to see how most of Japan really is. After exploring a bit, we had a nice ‘German lunch’ at a german cafe and headed back towards Tokyo. When we arrived back, we hit up Shiodome and Ginza again for some great evening and night shots.

The final day in Tokyo was spent walking around Tokyo Station, Ueno, the Imperial Palace, and simply exploring all over the city.

The islands of Thailand

After a trip around Asia, I decided to punctuate the trip with a relaxation visit to the south islands of Thailand. After hearing from various other travelers about how great Ko Tao is, I decided to book a flight down to Ko Samui and head over to Ko Tao. Shani, the Israeli girl l met in Pai had already come down to Ko Phangnan, so since it was on the way to Ko Tao, I figured I would stop at this island as well.

After a long journey from Luang Prabang with an emotional ride with young Sean’s story about volunteering in Laos for a couple of weeks and his trip being interrupted by the unexpected death of his father, followed by trouble in immigration when leaving, I transited through Bangkok to the little plane to go to Ko Samui,

Once in Ko Samui, I met Japanese couple that were living in Bangkok for a couple of years, who were speaking Thai. It through me for a loop! I then got onto a ferry that took me to Ko Phangan, then onward to the beach Shani was staying on, Haad Yuan.

This was definitely not my scene by any means. It was a hippie beach where people were hula hoping, and probably coming down from last night’s high. The vibe of the beach gave me the creeps, and there was no ATM, so I was literally at the whim of what was in my wallet, which was not much. The accommodation was disgusting, where ants were crawling all over the bathroom, the smell, and the cleanliness was just really awful. No AC, and no escape from the wretched stagnant air, made this less of another stop, and more of a layover before my escape to Ko Tao.

20140601-230555-83155719.jpg

The next morning, I was out of there and headed for the nicer, cleaner environment of Ko Tao.

I found a hostel on the main street up from the ferry and decided to call it home for the week. From there, I was able to rent a scooter and have various adventures around the island, beach hopping and deciding which ones were great, and which ones were worth a skip. Throughout my time there, I met people and actually started to feel like an islander where I’d see the same people over and over and be able to greet them here and there.

My favorite beach ended up being Ao Leek, which was the beach I went to on my first day. Funny how that happens. I feel like I started at the top, only trying to find something that at least rivaled its beauty. Ao Leek is tucked away on the eastern side of the island, and faces Shark Island, a small protruding rock. There is a coral nursery here, so the sealife is incredible. I saw a stingray, 2 sharks (one black tipped!), a family of squid, and tons of tropical fish all swimming around caring the least bit about my presence. Under the water, is a nonstop clicking like rain falling on a tin roof, only sharper. I wonder what they’re all saying, or if it’s just their chewing on all sorts of particles in the water that becomes their food.

20140601-230553-83153890.jpg

After snorkeling, jumping off a 30ft rock, scaling said rock with a simple rope to the top, swimming with the sharks, schools of fish, tanning and feeling the sun, I started to notice how damaged my feet were becoming. Standing on a rock with barnacles or corals will just slice your skin without even feeling anything, until the saltwater seeps in and you really notice it. Now, both feet are covered with scratches and battle wounds of experiencing life under the sea.

During my last couple of days, I had a traumatic and tragic event happen. A friend back from Austin was visiting the same island, and literally we bumped into each other at the coffee shop I frequented during my stay. It was quite serendipitous, however, not as shocking as some of my other random meetups around the globe. Carrie joined my day which included scootering to the elusive Mango Bay, located at the top of the island requiring traversing the mountain. Despite a local saying it was paved the whole way and dangerous just because of the steepness of the hills, I warned Carrie that it might be a dangerous ride, especially for an inexperienced scooter driver. Luckily, my scooter riding years have provided me with some pretty good stability, even when driving on the other side of the road!

Long story short, Carrie had quite an upsetting accident that broke her wrist after driving off the road into a ditch. It was a horrifying sequence of events, that amazingly, Carrie had such a positive spirit about the entire thing, she wasn’t going to let a little broken wrist (or even a multi broken/fracture wrist requiring surgery and a metal plate) get in her way of her planned 5 months journey throughout the word. Unfortunately, this was the last taste of Ko Tao for me, as after seeing the vulnerability of having an accident, I put my tail in between my legs and turned in my scooter the next morning :)

20140601-230553-83153059.jpg

All in all, the island was a nice relaxation point, and I even moved my ticket to Jordan up a few days because one can have only so much of beautiful sandy beaches, turquoise blue waters, beautiful pink, orange and red sunsets, right? My mind needs new stimulation, and I’m confident Jordan will have a very unique story simply waiting to unfold.

Lovely Luang Prabang

Arriving into Luang Prabang was such a great surprise. After a propeller flight into the region with no turbulence, despite being told to expect it, the mountainscapes were green with life and jagged with design. The region was absolutely beautiful. We arrived at the airport and upon arrival processed our application for visas, and became friendly with others. Damien, a French guy living in Chiang Mai sat next to me during the flight as he was resetting his Thai Visa by coming here, only to spend one night. I found it odd, if you are a traveler or even visiting long term that you would reset your visa by flying all the way to Laos, to pay for another visa, only to leave the next day without even bothering to stay for at least a few days.

We then talked to Brian, a guy with his arm in a sling. After being in Southeast asia a while, you start seeing similar injuries. Arms in slings, bandages on elbows, gashes on knees. They are all from scooter accidents, tubing incidents, or some other ‘extreme/unusual activity’ that seems to thrive off of inexperience. In Brian’s case, it was a motorcycle accident caused by a drunk woman on a new year’s evening in Cambodia. Too bad all countries do no enforce a zero tolerance for DUI.

We then went to get a ride to the city, and they offered groups of 3, so we decided to wait for Brian. While waiting for Brian we looked back to see that not only had he gained his luggage, he was also taking selfies with some girl, so we figured he would be too busy to join our ride. So instead, we picked up Felix, a guy from Spain, to fill our van out to the city.

When we arrived at the backpacker’s hostel in town, we asked for availability, to which they had none. I was fine with this, as I was wanting to be closer to the night market anyhow. As we were preparing to leave to walk around, Brian showed up in his van, and explained the selfies. A girl on our flight and he randomly saw each other and had gone to college together several years back. What a chance meeting!

That night, we all met up at Café Utopia, and there began our group formation for my time in Luang Prabang.

The next day we decided to meet up to go to the waterfall early in the morning. We met up and started getting a tuk tuk together where we became a group of 8. A girl, Julie, from France and a girl, Selma from Morocco, both studying in Singapore were waiting to fill a tuk tuk, so we joined forces. Brian, Felix, Ariel (the college friend), a guy from Swizerland, and a girl from Austria created our UN trip out to the waterfalls that morning.

When we arrived, the hike was not long before you reach the first of many light turquoise pools for swimming. They were terraced where one pool falls into another. After several pools up, you see a beautiful pouring waterfall, putting the Kbal Spean waterfall in Cambodia to absolute shame.

We did our full hike up, and I was glad I had brought my tennis shoes for the journey up the mountain. After a good hike, we reached the top and had a beautiful vista to look out which reminded me of Kauai, the lush jungles below, with sweeping mountains in front. The top had a few pools as well, but nothing really deep to swim in. A man was hanging around there with his bamboo raft (which we thought was just a pile of sticks until he stepped onto, picked one of the sticks up and offered a ride for a price). Ariel and Ellie were the only takers, and despite the shadiness of this waterfall man with a bamboo raft, we let the girls explore their trip into the jungle. We told them that if we didn’t see them in an hour, we would come looking.

We then headed back down to enjoy the crystal waters of the Kwangsi Waterfalls. It was perfect. I wanted to stay the whole day, but others felt we should get back to the tuk tuk because we’d said we’d only be a few hours, and those few turned into about five after we had lunch and another swim. After a few show off moves off the tree into the water, we dried off and headed back to the lot where our tuk tuk was. We then met Mary and Adrienne, two girls that joined us in the evening as well.

We stopped for some ice cream MAGNUMS! And I literally dropped everything to try the Magnum Gold. We then got back in our tuk tuk and headed back. As I was finishing my icecream bar, I realized that when I dropped everything for dessert (a consistent weakness/habit), I too dropped my tennis shoes, and simply left them as a donation for providing me this delicious dessert.

That night, we enjoyed an amazing sunset at the Phousi Temple which provided one of the most magnificent 360 views of a town or city I’ve seen. Seeing the mountains encapsulate and hug his own with the Mekong creating a beautiful wind around is truly a geographic masterpiece. The colors as the sun went down were stunning, and we all enjoyed taking photos with each other. We then spent the evening together at Café Utopia.

20140525-213205.jpg

The next day, our group decided to get bikes and explore the town. We went around everywhere, and found one of the bamboo crossings where we crossed over this bridge built every year to cross over to the other side. The day was hot, and after a while of biking, we stopped for a delicious lunch of buffalo cheeks as sought after quite hard by Ariel. Thank goodness for that, it was a delicious meal. That evening, we got a boat organized to take us for an hour up and down the Mekong to watch the sunset. It was incredible as well, and the views, just as sweeping as from above. The colors of the boats on the river, the backdrop of the setting sun, the greens of the mountains, and the colors of bathing shorts of men casting nets to catch fish, or children playing and bathing in the river, all dotted the canvas of this beautiful picturesque memory of Laos.

That evening, we lost some of our troops by simple MIA. Walking in a big group can sometimes be tedious when everyone’s a single traveler, as people will stop to look at something or talk or what not. We were searching for a specific restaurant, but happened upon another, one that offered a dance during dinner. When the man explaining to us about the show spoke, he sounded Japanese, so I asked if he was Laotian, and he said no, Japanese. So obviously, I continued in Japanese, wowing all my new friends of my level of fluency, including the restaurant owner, Shingo. We spoke for a few minutes about why he was in Laos, and how long, etc, and then agreed to have dinner there. I did the Japanese version of the menu, and had a great Tonkatsu meal.

After dinner however, I got the weirdest sick feeling and immediately had to go to the restroom, followed by making my way home and getting to bed. A fever feeling quickly came over me, and I couldn’t get cool or warm enough. As the hours went on, I felt like a burning bomb ready to explode with pressure, and finally got sick which gave my body the weirdest sense of relief. It’s like the fever and everything broke immediately after.

The next day, I took it easy and relaxed and focused on getting better. I also figured I should book my plans for leaving, as our group was heading elsewhere over the next day. I also booked my day at the Elephant Village, an elephant rescue park. Here they take in elephants that would otherwise be worked to death and use the funds to help heal, feed, and maintain the elephants. I booked a half day at first with the option to extend if I felt ok.

Luckily, the day of, I felt 100% better. I was happy whatever sickness I’d encountered, was short lived, and I was picked up at my hotel to be brought to the Elephant Village.

Only 2 others joined our van, and we were on our way. At the park, we only saw a total of 4 other people (maybe 6), but they did a good job of rotating activities where we really were only just us 3. The park can process about 160 visitors for one day, so to think that we had the flexibility of only having about 6 of us in the park on this given day, it was a glorious day with the elephants.

We learned about the history of the park, a little bit about the Lao culture and people, and our guide Lei, told us about his life, his divorce, his 3 kids, and traditions surrounding marriage in Laos. It was interesting, but maybe he was just using up time before we got to ride the elephants…

elephant
We then made our way to the feeding area where we could buy bunches of bananas to give to the elephants. It was fun how accessible they were. We could walk all around them, touch them, feed them, pet them, and do whatever. We then learned the Lao commands for go, stop, left, right, thank you etc for how to properly mount and dismount the elephants. We then got our try at riding them.

After getting the elephant to curtsy and let me use it’s leg to prop myself over her neck and head, I was onboard. I fed her bananas from her head where I would tap her forehead, and she would reach back knowing I had a treat. The trunk came at me as if to sniff where the bananas were, and I put a couple of bananas with each sniff. We then walked over to the hospital station which had a trough of water, and she brought up a bunch in her trunk and sprayed herself (and me) to cool off. Luckily I had been told to bring a change of clothes, because that was the simple beginning of a dirty day!

After a quick loop around the park, we then met our Mahouts and got on other elephants (2) and rode down to the river. I was lucky because I got my own elephant and rode on her head again. We then continued into the river and she dunked herself lower to cool off. It was quite an exciting ride, as it was hard to hold on.. you definitely had to keep paying attention.

After a long ride through the river and back up around the nearby village, we made our way back to the camp and got to clean up before lunch. We had lunch overlooking the river. It was so peaceful and beautiful with the mountain backdrop, elephants hanging around, and beautiful maintained hotel/resort style lodging on the site as well.

It was then time to go give our elephants their baths, so we got back on them, headed down to the river, and were given scrub brushes to brush the elephants. As fun as this sounds, the river does not look great—it’s brown with mud, but also the elephants completely relieve themselves in the water as well, and it’s as though a UPS plane crashed and all these parcels are floating around the river.

I wasn’t too keen on getting in, so I held onto my elephant as well as I could, and I escaped the fate of having to be dunked, or swim in this ‘river’. My two new friends weren’t as lucky, especially Danielle. She wasn’t keen on being in either, but before I knew it, she had let go, and was wading in the pool beside her elephant.

I continued scrubbing and hoping we were almost done, and then we were up and back to our walk. Holding on to the head like a Mahout was actually really tiring. I thought I was doing it wrong, looking for that sweet spot behind the ears that would actually prop up my legs, but my thighs and butt were both tired from squeezing hanging on. The hair on her head was coarse, and with the riding, my legs were sweating and left sweat marks on her head. I noticed butt marks too after I dismounted!

At this point, we had finished working with the elephants for the day, and they were ‘out from school’, and headed off to the jungle where they get 75% of their food intake. We took a boat over across the river to the jungle as well to go meet Maxi, who was turning 1 year old that day. When we walked up to their pin, Maxi was excited and knew we’d be giving him bananas. He stuck his trunk out and I shook it like a hand, and he pulled me in, so I tugged back. He was playful, and soft. We gave him and the mother bananas, and we saw him devour the bananas, and go to his mother for milk. He’s the first baby born in the camp, so the community is very excited to have Maxi. What his fate will be at the camp, we don’t know, as they do not keep males because of their aggression. The entire camp is females, all starting with the name Mae.

The day ended with a retreat to the resort on site and a soak at the pool. It was a welcomed relaxation in the sun and it was the perfect ending to the fun filled day. We met Caroline, a German girl who also did the half day tour and hung out at the pool.

That night we got together again at café utopia for an evening out, but an early one as I had my flight early the next morning.

As I got in my tuk tuk early this morning for the airport, the air was fresh and a little cool. It was definitely a nice break from the heat that Luang Prabang had been sharing with its visitors for the past week. We wound through the backroads from the hostel, and bid farewell to the Mekong river floating in our same direction out of the city. The air actually gave me a chill surprisingly, because it couldn’t have been less than 25C outside, but it was such a change.

20140525-213150.jpg

During out departure of the city, it may have been how early I was up or simply a moving recognition, but seeing the Alms procession of all the town’s monks walking along the streets, in a duck-like formation painting the city orange with their robes, I watched the people waiting in anticipation to provide their home-made food offering for the monks. It was truly a moving sight, to think of the sense of community that is among these people who day after day, provide food every morning to their community’s monks, to keep them fed, in exchange for a feeding of their soul in a blessing.

The tuk tuk sped by as monks bowed their heads in prayer, all facing the ones who provided them food, whose hands were all pressed together tightly in a prayer form to receive their blessing for the day.

What a way to start a day. I’m envious of their sense and effort of community.

Life of Pai

After a few days of Chiang Mai, I felt I wanted to explore somewhere else, and my two options from here were Chiang Rai or Pai. After doing research, both seemed like an interesting option, so I went to see how I could do both because they were both in the north.

What I found is Chiang Rai had just suffered an earthquake and had damaged roads, along with the main white temple being damaged as well. They were also experiencing aftershocks, so I figured it was best I stay away. Pai sounded just perfect. A village in the north of Thailand’s mountainous region where I could reset, relax, and just be for a bit.

So I paid my $5 and booked my seat on a minivan that would drive me for almost 4 hours and 762 curves through the mountainous terrain to get to my new adventure, Pai, Thailand.

The curves in the minivan just about made me sick, and I was sitting at the window, and unfortunately was seeing a great amount of sun come in which was giving me that heated feeling while having the cool feeling of the AC on me as well. Luckily, I didn’t get to nauseated, but I was definitely glad the ride was over.

We were let off at the bus station in the middle of town, and it was really quaint. There were two main roads and I headed to find the place I had found out about called the Baan Tawan Bungalows, located near the river. It took me through the town which was filled with restaurants and street food, along with all sorts of Pai souvenir shops.

That evening I had a nice quiet dinner and watched the sunset as the village lights started to dim down like a candle. When walking home, it started to rain, and I got to sleep in the little bungalow with the sound of rain falling on the rooftop.

The next day, I went to rent a scooter to go see the local sights. When checking out the prices of two different scooter shops, I met a girl named Shania, from Israel. She and I hit it off and decided to scoot together and find the places like the Waterfalls, canyon and big Buddha. We used the map to head out and get gas to start our scooter journey.

And a journey it was. Super fun, but with the lack of English speaking natives, and inability to read I guess English letters of specific places, we were pointed in one direction to a waterfall until we finally saw a sign for a waterfall. Winding through the tiny paths through the countryside, we soon saw after about an hour that we were not getting nearer to our sought for destination. We decided to turn around and on our way back, we found shelter from the scorching sun in a little thatched roof hut. Here we had water, snacks, and talked about our backgrounds.

We then headed back to town feeling a little defeated from not being able to find what we had been looking for, but enjoyed the adventure together anyway.

The next day was a better success with a better map that did not have North pointing to the left of the page :( We made our round to see the canyon, then on to the hot spring, elephant park, up to the Buddha which we skipped as we were coming back for sunset that night.

We then headed for the waterfalls, and when we arrived, we saw a lot of people enjoying the water and sliding down the rocks to the pools below. It was fun to meet everyone, and we ended up spending the entire afternoon there. We were finally hungry and went back into town for a late lunch. After lunch we got ready for sunset at the Buddha temple on the hillside.

At the hillside we saw our friends from the afternoon and shared a beautiful sunset over the Pai valley. Suddenly after the sunset, this beautiful orange glow came out from behind the Buddha, which surprised us because the sun was in front of us.

In the evening, we hung out with our new friends and enjoyed another dinner–my type of eating schedule :)

Overall Paid was a great little excursion with beautiful scenery, nice people, nice food, and a cool spot to recharge for a few days.

Chiang Mai Cooking Class

Today, we met up early with the girls and started our full day of cooking with ScenicAsia Cooking School. The van took us to meet up with some other students, and we then split up for the people who were doing the full day farm class, and a half day class on the spot near the markets.

After a quick introduction, we were provided menus to select what foods we wanted to prepare and I was glad we were able to choose individually. That gave us a range of things to try and see each other cook. As most cuisines go, it seems as though you can simply have the foundation, and then change some last minute ingredients and you have another meal.

We then went to the markets to look at special ingredients that we would be using for the day, and learned about how each grow, and what we can use for substitutes if we cannot find the same ingredients back home. Our guide, A, was about 5′ tall, and had a very sarcastic dry sense of humor which was a little confusing at first, because of the accent and lack of emotion. But as we got to know him and his humor, he was witty, funny, clever and definitely cheeky.

We had a quick juice, and headed back to the cooking area where we boarded the bus with Yinyue, a girl from China who was joining the class with her father. We all watched out the windows as we drove through the pathways out of town, and soon found ourselves surrounded by nature and vegetables in a little oasis of a garden, complete with vegetables that we would be cooking with for the day.

20140513-222835.jpg

We sat down for an introduction again and saw an appetizer that was so refreshing and delicious. It was a beetle nut leaf that we would take, and put a small amount of peanut, lime, ginger, and palm sugar syrup on top and eat it as a one bite serving. It was so delicious.

20140513-222806.jpg

I chose Pad Thai (how original), Tom Yum Soup, Spring Rolls, a traditional northern Thai curry (Mok Soi? check) and Coconut Bananas for dessert. As we started to learn about the ingredients for the first dish of stir fry, we all got behind our woks after an initial demonstration, and were stressed as this little 5′ commander yelled out the instructions, always following it with faster, don’t burn your dish! Oh your dish look so ugly! Faster!

While trying to keep up, we all laughed at our dishes as we tried to keep up and fortunately there were no accidents. We then got to sit down and eat our dishes and try each other’s to see how we did. I was pretty happy with mine, yet it could have used a little more fish sauce :)

20140513-222751.jpg

We then started our prep for our main dish of the curries, which was pretty physical. After grinding up ingredients and creating our curry paste, we were able to relax a little bit and start prepping our desserts. I chose the coconut Banana which was really interesting. After boiling bananas, and then creating the coconut milk soup that the bananas would soak in, we let it boil and steep for a bit before pouring in this beautiful purple liquid called Butterfly Pea Flower.

20140513-222826.jpg

We then went and started our soups, and continued on to our curry. Finally it was time to enjoy our feast and it was incredibly delicious. I couldn’t believe the dishes had come from something I created (with hand holding, but still).

At night, we relaxed and walked through the night market with the girls and then headed for some drinks before bed.

Emotional Phnom Penh

After what turned out to be one of the most incredible places I have been to, Siem Reap came to a close and we headed to Phnom Penh to visit the Killing Fields and S-21, the prison where so many were captured and held before being taken to their final resting place of the Killing Fields which so many were killed with no reason but fear, paranoia, and ignorance–the fuel of war and crime.

We started our day by going by Tuk Tuk to the Killing Fields to learn about the crimes that went on during 1975-1979 when the Khmer Rouge came into power after a 17 century monarchy rule. This new regime promised to stop the corruption that had been going on in the government, so at the beginning, the people were happy. But that quickly came to a close when the regime tried to cleanse their society of culture, currency, and family to instill a strict communist regime. What that required is far from imaginable, especially in being so close in history to my birth.

After quite a ride in the tuk tuk with dust so bad our driver stopped to get us masks, we arrived at the memorial of the Killing fields that was a tower commemorating the 10th anniversary of the liberation. The memorial is enshrined in glass, which encases skulls, bones, and remains of the ones who were killed unjustly in this barbaric place.

We were provided audio guides which were so informative, and truly laid out the sequence of events of what happened here, and while it’s not a joyous memory, it was one of the most fascinating history lessons I’ve had in a long while. One of the many reasons my love of travel is the fact of being able to learn things in true perspective, locality, and in reality that etches the events moreso than reading in a history book, or sitting in a lecture ever did.

We continued around the marked path seeing the ditches that still remain, along with bones that still arise during heavy rains. A movie told us more about the events, and provided even more information to understand the horror of what 40% of the population of Cambodia at that time were facing. Over 3 million were killed in this tirade of power which was quickly overthrown, but the devastation of the population can still be felt behind their amazing openness and kindness to even foreigners in their country.

We then headed towards the city again by our driver, and stopped by the Russian Markets, a huge marketplace selling everything. While the markets tend to sell the same thing over and over, it is fun to see what they have, and sometimes you do find unique items that require a bargaining to win.

We then had lunch and continued shopping around before we were brought to the S-21 Prison camps where we met our tour guide for another emotional journey back in time to the actual torture rooms that people were held in. Her information was so real, so raw, and so moving, especially when it got personal for her to tell how her mom miraculously survived the imprisonment, working in the fields nonstop with only 2 meals a day, with literally only the clothes on her back. Half way through the tour, she kept mentioning the 4 survivors who were still alive from the torture, and that one was on site selling his book because he is getting old and he wants his story to be told.

We walked over to his little stand in the middle of the yards where just 35 years prior, was the scene of his barbaric torture, a nightmare that I cannot imagine how he could ever forgive, survive, much less return to. After meeting, we were able to take a picture with him, and you could feel his kindness, and it broke my heart to know someone had endured such a tragedy, and was still alive to talk about it. While people at war have horrible stories of seeing death and killing, this man saw a holocaust that one never even hears about, yet it was nearly half the people that were killed in the Jewish Holocaust, all fueled by the same ignorance.

After this museum, we headed back to clean up and go out for dinner and walk the Mekong River that winds through the downtown riverfront. It was a beautiful day, educational, and timely in encouraging a reflection upon what’s truly important in life, how nondiscriminatory our birthright is, and how lucky I feel to have been born on free soil.

3 Days at Angkor Wat

This morning we decided to get up way early to see the sunrise at Angkor Wat. During our flight last night, we met up two US girls (one from Nepal and one from Colombia) who were med students at Stanford on a vacation before they move to do their residencies. They had already booked a driver and tour guide for the next day to do this, so we decided to tag along and split the price.

20140512-231743.jpg

It was a little hard to get up that early in the morning to make sure we were on time, but we did it, and had a great breakfast from our beautiful hotel, the Golden Butterfly. The people here were amazing, and were a beautiful welcome to Cambodia. We got picked up by the driver, and headed out to Angkor to join the crowds who were all awaiting the same sunrise.

Coming into the grounds of Angkor, you can see through the tree lined street the walls that create the outer wall of Angkor, and I knew we were close to getting a glimpse of the marvel of the 7th wonder of the world. My tire subsided with the excitement of seeing this 7th world wonder.

20140512-231730.jpg

We got out of the car and headed to the front and you could see the formation of the stunning Angkor Wat sitting there peacefully. As we walked towards the water area where most of the people tend to take their pictures, I started to wonder if we would see a great sunrise or not with the amount of clouds that were creating a drowned light. Unfortunately, those famous pink skies and blues were hidden and  I didn’t really get any great pictures (that I think) of the sight.

We then went in and got started with our description from our tourguide about the history of Angkor Wat. I quickly realized that the tour guide, while very knowledgeable about the topic, was extremely slow in his delivery of everything. It made it a bit trying to listen to, and I quickly faded in and out of interest, picture taking, hunger, tiredness, back to trying to listen to see if I’d missed something. I remembered about my trip to the D-Day beaches and felt if only I had had a similar tour guide, that it would have really changed my understanding of the site.

We then continued through the gates of Angkor to behold the interior walls, walkways, stairs, and statues, and it was interesting, because we seemed to have the place to ourselves often. Most of my pictures will not have anyone in them, which is great. The rain that quickly poured and caused everyone to scatter may have been to blame, however, I was glad this was the case. We walked around for a while until we went to lunch.

20140512-231636.jpg

We then continued on making our rounds to various temples around the area. They all started to look alike after a bit, and after the early, early morning, we were starting to fade fast. After a brief rest, we met up with the girls again for dinner and headed to the night markets to check it out.

The next day, we decided to do a different driver, and we went to do a hike up to a waterfall that we had read about. It was on the way to another temple that we wanted to see, so it worked out perfectly.

After a hefty hike up a mountain, we were a bit disappointed as to what was ahead at Kbal Spean. We had grandious expectations of a huge waterfall, with some craved Buddha hiding behind, but instead, we found about a 12 foot tall waterfall pushing out some water with some carvings of turtles in the creek bed, along with lying Buddhas. We left with a bit of a chuckle, and headed onward to the next temple.

Banteay Srei, is a beautiful temple that was my favorite. The intricate details that are still so visible made this such a beautiful temple, albeit small, it was a great display of what artistic ability the people had a thousand years ago. Walking atop the same dirt land that so many generations before walked atop is a really incredible thought. The ruins help you realize what life could have been like.

20140512-231716.jpg

After a few more temples, the heat had taken its toll, and we just needed to go back and get some rest and a massage :) That night we headed back to Angkor to watch the sunset. Seeing the same temple in a different light was really cool. The grounds were literally desolate as everyone was outside watching from different vantage points. We then met Daniel, an Aussie traveling for 7 months now on just $1000. After our fun evening at the ruins watching the sunset, we headed back to grab some dinner. We met up with Daniel again, and had a fun dinner which ended with great entertainment.

All of a sudden, a little 12 year old girl came up trying to sell us bracelets. What caught us off guard was her fluency in Valley Girl English. We were captivated by her and her personality, and of course everyone bought a bracelet, but the more we spoke to her, the more we all fell in love with her. She was a bright light full of hopes and dreams, and an amazing intellect that we are all hoping is used properly and will provide her opportunities. Linda was one of our favorite experiences in this beautiful town.

We then went back to the hotel and all watched the movie, the Killing Fields, which gave us an education of what we were about to see in Phnom Penh in the next couple of days.

The following day, we went to check out Beng Malea, one of the coolest temples that were overgrown with trees and roots. The cool thing about here was you could climb all over the ruins. We were taken through by a guide that took some great pics of us as well swung on roots, posed in doorways and on rubble. It was definitely worth a small trip outside the city.

Bangkok Round 2

My flight to Bangkok was easy, however, I was pretty annoyed at the lounge because usually they will tell you info about your flight. I sat in the lounge to eat, which was a really great airline lounge (as it was Cathay Pacific’s Lounge at their main hub, Hong Kong), so when it was about 30 minutes before the flight, I headed out only to see I was at gate 1, and my gate was gate 70.

When seeing this, I started to hustle, and found I had to take a train to the next terminal for gates. After getting off the gate, it dropped me at gate 60, and I looked up, and ‘FINAL BOARDING’ was flashing. Not a great thing I want to see when I have all my backpacks on making me have to huff and puff it to the gate. I made it, and it was a relief to be able to be on board and relax.

When I arrived in Bangkok, I didn’t really recognize the airport. I took a taxi to the hotel, and was immediately impressed with the accommodations. (again, they were free from my credit card signups) :)

After checking in, I went to get some lunch, and decided to head to shop for a bathing suit so I could enjoy the pool some. I found a nearby spot called Above 11 from a friend’s recommendation, and headed there for dinner. I had sushi, but it was a fusion style that I didn’t really enjoy–the fish was fine, but the flavoring coupled with the heat of the air didn’t quite make me interested in eating. Lesson learned, no sushi in the heat :)

The next day, I headed out to the Chatacheuk markets which were only going on in the weekend. I met a guy from Brazil who was living in Sydney, traveling in Bangkok, as you do, and we went around the markets together and experienced the market’s many alleyways, ice creams, snacks, paella, fried fish, icees etc. Luciano was willing to try anything and everything from the street. Again, after my terrible Colombian adventure, I felt a bit more reserved to protect my stomach at all costs.

That evening, my friend David from Boston arrived. Amazingly after a flight from Boston to NYC to Hong Kong to Bangkok, he was able to quickly shower and head out for dinner with us. We had a fun filled night exploring Bangkok’s nightlife and went back to the hotel for a great sleep.

We then spent some time the next morning to plan out the next few days of the trip until David leaves because my original plan had taken me to Vietnam after Cambodia, however from various feedback from people, I’ve opted to pass on Vietnam on this time, and explore more of Thailand and pass over to Laos as well before coming back to island hop in the South of Thailand before heading over to Jordan.

The next day, we did some exploration around the town and headed to see the grand palace. We were lucky because not only was it a rare free day, it was also not so crowded. I was surprised that in most of my pictures, it was pretty empty and there were plenty of photo ops where people didn’t enter the scene.

After our afternoon at the palace, we headed to the pier to check out a boat tour of the canals of Bangkok. Here we boarded a long boat for just the two of us and went around Bangkok’s main canal system to see basically the stilted houses that lined the narrow canals. Our boat driver was a chubby boy who kept opening the motor door to do something to the motor. I kept trying to figure out what I would do if the boat started to take on water and how to salvage my camera–which basically I came up with the plan to have someone throw it to me on land, or simply me throw it into the bushes on land somewhere. Thankfully I never had to employ this contingency plan.

After a really great hour tour of the canals, we went to find a place for dinner. We happened upon a café that sat along the banks of the river looking out at Wat Arun. As we watched the sunset, we enjoyed a great meal.

 

Tsim Sha Tsui with Ben and again with Coralie.

Ben is a buddy of mine from my university days and thanks to facebook, one of the many connections that I’m able to randomly message and say, hey I’ll be in Hong Kong, let’s meet up :) So in the morning, I walked down to the train station to meet up with Ben. We didn’t really have an agenda other than to meet up and walk around. And that we did. We walked all over Hong Kong island catching up together and finding our way through the streets of Hong Kong while talking about what we’ve been doing since University.

We went over to the Kowloon side for lunch and had an amazing buffet lunch, and then continued walking around the Kowloon side. By early evening, he needed to get back and we parted ways and I wandered around more before heading back to my place to rest from a full day of walking and looking around.

20140501-193708.jpg
The next day, I went by ferry across to the Kowloon side to meet another old friend from university, Coralie. She was a French exchange student at UT during my senior year and again, thanks to Facebook were able to stay in contact for when an opportunity like this comes up! I got to meet a couple of her friends, and her beautiful family. It was a happy reminder of my niece, Olivia. When her daughter walked up to be introduced to me, I went to shake her little hand, but being French, she was expecting to go for my cheek for a kiss. She was so well mannered, fluent in French and English, and learning Chinese in school. Now that’s the new age of children prepping for a global workforce.

Spending time catching up with Coralie was great as we went through each of our careers. I felt so happy for her success in her career path, as whenever I see truly successful people and see their career paths, I love and automatically become impressed and happy for their work getting recognized. After an amazing lunch looking out to the Hong Kong cityline across the harbor, we headed for a drive to drop me off at a place that isn’t normally seen by tourists to Hong Kong. It was a little fishing village in the New Territories, and it was really fun to walk along the water and see the lively fisherman offering their fish to onlookers above on the piers. Once an order was received, they would use a pole to reach it up to the purchaser. After the rest of the afternoon, I headed back by minibus to Hong Kong, and stopped by the Jordan street markets for some browsing before heading back to Hong Kong.

At night, I used the tram to get all the way up to the top of Victoria’s Peak for another great view of Hong Kong from above. Hong Kong is a great city, with great restaurants, night life, and people!

French concession and Lost Heaven

Today I had no real plan other than to stroll along the streets of the French Concession. This area of Shanghai is a really nice, quaint area due to its boulevards lined with trees. These trees are full, shapely, and create a really green space within the confines of such a bustling city. It seems to dampen out the sounds of horns and the typical noise pollution of the bustling city.

The weather continued its wet, damp mistiness and didn’t lend itself to providing a nice backdrop to any photos. I stumbled upon a nice little café and went in for lunch. I was so hungry at this point so I was looking forward to something filling. Luckily, the sign on the front showed that a daily special was there—Cordon Blue? Sure!

After a hearty meal, I continued my walk all the way to where I had previously ended the night with Branden and Katherine, our Colorado friend from the artist painting. I weaved through the alleyways of this shopping area filled with people from all over the world, and shops carrying everything from around the world as well.

The weather continued its murky look, and started drizzling some, but I continued to make my way to the famous Hyatt on the Bund, to check out the much touted lookout from the top bar, called Vue.

After quite a hike, I made it, and went to the top and could barely even see anything it was so misty and foggy. It did make the city skyline look pretty cool because the buildings simply faded away to nothing into the clouds, though I knew that there was half a city not being seen.

After here, I decided to try another top restaurant called ElWilly, and made my way there to find that it was closed on Sunday. Which is odd, because I’m sure the site said open Monday through Sunday, to which I thought, why don’t they just say everyday. Anyhow, Maybe they mean Monday until Sunday at 12:01am?

I then luckily saw that Lost Heaven, another popular restaurant was just around the corner, so made my way over there where I dined on a feast of great Chinese food including vegetable spring rolls, Cambodian Chicken Curry, Hunan Spicy Beef, and an Eggplant dish served with tomato sauce. It was delicious and I cleaned my plate.

I then headed back home to pack and relax for my train trip back to Beijing tomorrow.