Category Archives: Travel

The Hills are Alive!

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Now that school has started (at a comfortable 9 am this week only), I can only go on to describe our quick vacation in the depths Bavaria…  We have seen plenty of picturesque places – the cliffs and rolling hills of Andalusia, Spain, the sunrise over a glowing Venice, the warm and ancient temples of Angkor Wat. But I have never appreciated a landscape so close to the one of “The Sound of Music.”

We arrived in Munich to awaiting family, and the next few days were ones filled with talk, coffee, cake, and more talk with various family, friends, and friends of family. We visited lakes, went sailing, shopping, and generally relaxed in our allotted vacation time. The weather held out just for us, and it was a beautiful 75 degrees Fahrenheit with blue skies and a gentle breeze. I never will get used to Celsius.

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After the city of Munich and all of the acquaintances were crossed off the list, we rolled in our borrowed Fiat 500 through the Bavarian countryside… We passed through countless towns in which the “Welcome” and “Goodbye!” signs came after another with such quick succession that soon they all blended together and we forgot we were in the town in the first place. Then, if you wanted to get even smaller (which was quite possible), there was the little sign with a convoluted name on it, pointing to 2-5 houses max. All of this is, of course, surrounded in a sea of deep green corn fields, with the rolling hills like waves and little red barns scattered throughout this ocean like white caps. The Alps provided the holy sight of land in the far off distance. More country-side amenities such as horses, sheep, and church spires were also available on the horizon.

Woehr and Munich 5 (4)

Then came Woehr. If you haven’t heard of it, I am disappointed but not exactly surprised. It is a destination by invitation only… Woehr was one of these little villages, that comprised of, well, one house. This house was a recent addition of some close family that normally lives in Munich, and now also have a retreat in the countryside, where they welcomed us with open arms. We would have missed it had it not been for both the little yellow sign peeping “I’m here!” and our eyes glued to those handy Google Maps directions. This is a tiny exaggeration, as we did see one other house at the end of the dirt road, but then the story wouldn’t be as good. As we got used to the splendor and comfort of Woehr, we also indulged in plenty of “the Sound of Music”.

Woehr and Munich 10

Woehr and Munich 1 (1)

This is Woehr.

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When my sisters watch a movie, especially a musical, they tend to spend the next couple of days singing the songs of that particular musical with the vigor and dedication of lifetime fans. Then the phase passes. But for our time in Woehr,  the particular musical and following phase was, of course, “The Sound of Music”. It seemed that all of a sudden, everything was Maria, the nun – Josephine started having a hilarious time pointing to various objects or people and singing, “How do you solve a problem like Maria??” and then breaking into peals of hysterical laughter. My other sisters, on the contrary, enjoyed the song, “My Favorite Things” to the point where even I had it stuck in my head, and of course, “The Hills are Alive… with the Sound of Music.” They naturally infected our third cousins with the singing bug, and soon the house was ringing.

When we walked down to the magnificent house and adjacent barn from bathing in our pristine little lake, over the grass with the church spire, corn fields, and mountains behind us, it felt almost surreal. As we went riding at sunset in blissfully quiet surroundings and the sky was colored pink and orange and the mountains were the clearest I’ve ever seen them, the hills had never been more alive. Oh, and all of the kids were singing too.

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Woehr and Munich 6 (3)

Ridiculous.

Ridiculous.

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The Lies have Landed!

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I have to make a quick apology… this post has been written for quite a while now (actually an entire month), but we were a little busy… actually very busy. I promise I will be better with posting from now on!

We are officially back in Chicago; our trip around the world is over…

After 238 days of traveling in 14 different countries on a trip around the world with a family of 6, we touched down in the familiar O’Hare airport on Monday, April 30. I ask myself now, what was going through my head? Quite frankly, nothing at all. I don’t really think my mind could wrap itself around the fact that I was coming home. In the days counting down it was so surreal; the way one counts down to Christmas or anything else anticipated… Can I believe it? Everything has gone by so fast, but yet, every day, every place seemed like it was yesterday. A very long yesterday. When the anticipated, the beginning or the end, is actually happening, you have no idea what to think… I think we were all a little numb, probably from exhaustion.

Having fun at the block party!

But anyhow, we have arrived. We were thrown back into school – seeing my friends and teachers was so interesting. Walking those same halls I have for 8 years now is the same it always was. Everything is the same – the same rooms, posters, people. I thought it would feel like I never left. But I think I was wrong – I’ve changed a lot and having been gone so long I appreciate and marvel at everything that is so normal and every second I have with the people I’ve missed for so long. A part of me still thinks I’m leaving tomorrow. Although this feeling sounds funny, it really doesn’t when you are sleeping 4 kids to a tiny room on mattresses, as if we were still traveling.

Mama and her girlfriends!

Back with friends!

Now that we are back and moved into our 2-bedroom basement apartment (without dishwasher or beds), the next step of this trip is staring us in the face. Although our trip around the world is over, our trip of a lifetime is not. From the start of this trip, we knew we weren’t going to stay in Chicago long-term, so we have to find our next place in the world. We do have our eyes on a certain city… Now comes the job part, the school part, the apartment part, the over-seas moving container, and selling everything electronic part. We’ve already had yelling matches over what to do with our beloved vacuum cleaner…

We are back to normal, or closer to it than we were before – jet-lag is long gone and we’ve weeded out the photos into somewhat presentable slideshows. We’ve already started the next portion… I guess life never slows down.

Audrey turns 11!

Back in our own car…

Josephine learns to ride her bike!

Night and Day: Beijing and Shanghai

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We are now in Chicago! Back in a free country, I can blog as long and frequently as I want. The last bit of China before I get into the next step of the journey…

We experienced a rough start to China. In the first week we were all sick, tired, and travel-weary. The enormity of China did not help, nor its difficulty in getting around and communicating. Traveling was just harder. It was like being in a massive hall, unprepared, small, and weak, faced with thousands of people  milling around, shouting chaotically and you had no idea what was going on and were completely lost but you couldn’t stop because everyone was pushing and you didn’t even know why you were there! (I know that was a run-on sentence, but that is China in a nutshell.) It is all so enormously large – we were tiny fish in a massive ocean.

The waiting room you have to stand in before everyone pushes themselves to the front to get onto the platform first. Apparently, no one can wait a few seconds.

Finally recharged and ready, we tackled Beijing. And frankly, we didn’t like it one bit. Our first taste was the air. Sitting in the cab we wondered – was it fog? It has to be fog right? That massive gray soup hovering over the buildings and covering every thing in that ugly, monotonous tone of gray can’t all be smog? Or is it the windows? We were also arriving on a breezy day in pollen season, so as we got out of the cab the little ones remarked, “It looks like it’s snowing!” Puffballs of dandelion seeds (how the dandelions actually live and survive is beyond me) slowly sauntered through the air, pushed by an imaginary breeze. The air was an entire different density, thinker with soot and pollution. It was extremely strange.

You have to imagine being one of 1.3 billion, (billion!), people. And the feeling that comes with this is, no one really cares. The people are aggressive, everyone is out for themselves and there is no real feeling of generosity to each other. I think we felt this most of all in Beijing where the government keeps an iron fist on all things influencing the people’s lives. Aggressiveness in the people doesn’t only make the feelings apprehensive, but also causes major traffic problems. No one is willing to let anyone go first, ever. Our hotel was located in an old hutong district, the old style of houses and streets. They aren’t very wide, and the main road in the hutong, laden with boutiques, satay stalls, and bubble tea shops, was very clearly a pedestrian-dominated zone. Yet, some people think they can just drive through and make hundreds of people move aside –  the trouble appears when they meet another car who happens to be turning around and stops perpendicular to them, then another drives from behind and suddenly no one can move anywhere and you have 6 drivers honking and shouting at each other to make it work… I never thought I’d see a real-life version of the plastic game “traffic jam” (where you shove cars of varying length back and forth to try and get a specific one off the board), but this was an exact replica. I believe it took us an agonizing 1 and ½ hours to make it to the train station. We spent more than half that time waiting for the people ahead of us to sort themselves out.

Beijing was tough. To make everyone out there happy – we saw the Forbidden City, or whatever you could see of it beneath the hordes of tourists. I didn’t even see the Hall of Supreme Harmony because people elbowed me in the ribs, stepped on me, and squished me to the extent that I was scared I wouldn’t be able to breathe. So much for harmony. But we saw it, as we did the Great Wall of China. There is a story behind this too (order a private car at 7:30 am, it comes when all tours come (which is 8 – 8:15 am), and when we say “No jade factory, no silk factory, no foot massage, no shopping!” our guide disembarks, making it obvious that the purpose of herself is only to make you spend more money. Then it turns out we have to pay for tolls etc.) However, it was a pleasant experience. We climbed hundreds of steps leading up to the wall itself, making our calves burn as we watched people hurtle down the steep incline via a toboggan. Once we reached the wall we strolled along, stopping for Snicker breaks and picture-taking once the fog started to lift. It was nothing life-changing, but definitely cool to be on such a known and coveted landmark in China.

Guard patrolling the propaganda screen in Ti’anemen Square… You are always being watched…

Shanghai was so different; truly like night and day compared to Beijing. We arrived in Shanghai pretty positive we would hate it. When you name the large cities in China you always list Beijing and Shanghai next to each other as if they were similar. However, we ended up liking Shanghai enough to say, “I could do 1-2 years short-term here!” The entire city layout was very much like Chicago; there was an architecturally interesting and modern skyline cut through by a river lined with old colonial buildings, great museums, commercial shopping streets, financial districts, and many public parks. Shanghai is a very futuristic city; everything screams modern! Steel, glass, shininess, and video screens on the sides of buildings (something yet to catch on in America) bear down upon you, contrasting with the blue sky (blue?), and the river. They actively work on green spaces (apparently it helps with the pollution), keeping everything clean, orderly, and running efficiently and modern. However, they also add little touches to the steel and glass landscape, like planting colorful flowers in 3-D designs along the highway or around the fountains. The people are more pleasant in general as well (we did not get into any screaming matches with tuk tuk drivers as we did in Beijing).

I think this satay shop is popular…

We counted down the days and suddenly we found ourselves touching down in O’Hare… More to come about our homecoming…

Good-Bye Vietnam

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The Old Quarter
Our last stop in Vietnam, Hanoi was a busy ending. It was a strange mixture between Ho Chi Minh City and something like Hoi An, little streets and crazy intersections. During our time in Hanoi, we stuck to the Old Quarter, a neighborhood that was once known for its older buildings and local life. Unfortunately, extreme tourism is slowly emerging: boutiques are popping up, hotels grow like weeds, and the old lifestyle is slowly being squeezed out of the tiny streets, far too small for the amount of motorbikes and cars that are traversing them. You get a little bit of both: a taste of what it used to be and what it is becoming.

old…

…and new.

Typically Vietnamese…

Typically Josephine!

Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum.

The Old Quarter is situated around a mini-lake or huge pond, depending on how you see it. There are nice paths around it, with many benches and some coffee shops. It was amazing to see how much the limited greenspace was being used (even if the trees are a little dusty). All of the benches were always occupied with people, regardless of what time or what day. People are jogging, strolling, walking their dogs, spending time winding down. I think we’ve really missed that: the local feeling of a park, used by all to calm down and relax – if you can over the roar of the traffic. Because it was so full, I have come to realize that the locals can also get a little tired of the massive chaos in the streets and the constant noisiness of the big city.

Water Puppet Show
One of the cultural specialties in Hanoi is water puppetry. They say this kind of puppet show was invented when there was a massive flood and the farmers had to find a different way to put on their puppet shows. The stage is the surface of the water: all of the puppeteers are behind the background (a rather wet job if you ask me), and control the puppets with sticks under the water. So instead of a 2-D experience, we can see the little figures from all angles as they hop around, harvest rice, fish for the massive goldfish that keep popping up, collect coconuts, and perform dances with burning candles on their heads. It was quite funny, a good length (only 45 min), and they had a great group of musicians (complete with women to shout out what the puppets were saying, of course in Vietnamese).


Traveling is exhausting. I’ve often wondered why. You’re sitting on a seat for 8 hours, so why are you so tired at the end of the day? At that point it hardly matters to you though. I also think it has something to do with packing up, dragging your bags into a cab, navigating the train/bus station, getting on, stowing them, etc… then doing all of that again when the ride is over, and if, for instance, you are crossing a border.
Traveling can also be exhausting when nothing fazes you anymore… Hanoi was a bit like that. The same constant traffic, smog, and “un-navigatable” sidewalks, overloaded bicycles (the one I will remember had pig carcasses on it), stores you know you couldn’t buy anything in, ladies asking you to buy something. And always, always feeling a little taken advantage of as tourists (same same goods but different prices). I think we are ready for something new – so here comes China!

Our cozy little hotel.

Friends of Friends of Friends and People We would’nt have Met Otherwise

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For the first time since being in Munich, we have experienced a real neighborhood feeling – going to dinner with friends and enjoying summer nights, sharing experiences and discussing issues, even going to gym class with other children! Any traveler knows it’s good to have friends around the world; they will give you tips, tours, and possibly even a couch to crash on! We have now learned it’s also good to have friends of friends of friends. The entire story is that my father got into touch with a friend from college, and she lived in Hoi An. Unfortunately, her plans have changed, but she put us in touch with her friends, also ex-pats. So during our time in Hoi An, we visited Dingo Deli, their little restaurant, and their unofficial school upstairs, which has a mini-classroom of expat children. We met, talked, learned about each other’s stories, and ended up making plans to join their basketball class and eat dinner together.

And I think this is one of the funniest things that has happened on this trip – we attended a stranger’s wedding! On the day of the dinner at the beach, we received an impromptu wedding invitation. Michelle and Gordon (our newly made friends) have a good friend who is marrying 2 people at the beach, and we are invited. We arrived, feeling a bit strange among the guests, whom we thought to be at least friends of the couple – but no one knew them! After we heard that we didn’t feel so strange about being in a stranger’s wedding picture… it was quite a fun experience. It was an informal wedding (let’s see where should the bride stand? – Oh there she is, get out of the way!), but very sweet and on the beach with a huge, frothing surf and a beautiful, stormy gray sky. Definitely an experience to remember!

I think the most idiotic question you could ask yourself in Hoi An is “Where is a tailor??” Because they’re everywhere. When I say everywhere I don’t mean on every second corner, like Starbucks – I mean one after the other after the next. Almost every single storefront is occupied by a tailor. We are, unfortunately, very confined when it comes to shopping because of the size of our bags, but we did allow ourselves to indulge in buying au dais, the elegant, traditional Vietnamese dresses. We only went back to the tailor 4 times for fitting and readjustments – but they ended up looking great!

During our time in Hoi An we attended a cooking class with Green Bamboo Cooking School and visited the local (and only) market. The women who teaches has been frequenting this market since a little girl, and the old women remember her and have known her since then – adding to that little-town, special-bond feeling you get between people who have been parts of each other’s lives forever. In a large city the person who works at the register in your local supermarket isn’t always the same – and so you never really get that relationship that builds over time. We cooked cau lau, a specialty to Hoi An and only Hoi An. These special noodles are flavored with the ash of a special tree and is rumoured to be cooked in special water from the ancient Cham well nearby. Anyway, they are unbelievably good – smoky and sweet! And since we can only get them in Hoi An, we ate as much of them as we could!

Hoi An is a quaint little town, and the entire feeling we had there was one of the closest to home in a while. It’s such a small town that we came to know its streets, visualize particular corners (in big cities you can only the visualize the street your hotel is on – everything else is a blur!), and walk around knowledgeably and comfortably without a map. Our tailor ladies know us, so does the coconut lady in the market, and the staff at our favorite restaurant Blue Dragon. Having friends (and talking to other people for once!), spending time together at the beach and having dinner together was really special since we haven’t done that in so long. We took walks by the riverside and biked through the rice paddies. It was the first feeling of… being locals.

He would fit right in!

Papa's new little boy!

Stepping off the curb in Ho Chi Minh City

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We have heard a lot about Ho Chi Minh City – and its traffic. Any traveller consulting any other traveller about Vietnam, and in particular, Ho Chi Minh City, will hear it: “When crossing the street, just pray and step off the curb, regardless of how many vehicles are streaming your way.” So naturally, and given that we are 6 (mostly small) people, we approached this with caution. And we found it to be true. Roundabouts are an insanity – everyone is going a different direction, crisscrossing and weaving between people and carts and trucks, speeding up and slowing down, and most of all: honking. It’s a secret language. People don’t honk here to express their anger or frustration; they honk to either say “I’m going to speed up and swerve around you” or “Right behind you” or “I’m here!” This can be expressed and understood depending on how long the honk was, how many, and the time between them. We, on the other hand, have not caught up yet, and so we have no idea what they are saying to each other.  But back to the real problem at hand – crossing the street. As you step off the curb you’re suddenly in a swarm of dangerous fish, all coming at you, narrowly missing you, almost hitting you, blinding you with their lights, and of course, honking. It’s all about the timing and when you decide to take those 2 steps that will bring you further to the curb. And don’t ever, ever stop. After crossing successfully we celebrated…

Ready, set, go! - one of the few street lights.

Crossing...

What do you notice about this picture?
Study it closely and you will find that almost everyone is driving in a different direction!

Reunification Palace

As I have said in previous posts, the history of a country is important to learn and understand, so we had to visit the Reunification Palace. This palace was built in the era of the French colonialisation, and during the Vietnam War the “President” (who didn’t act very democratic) Ngo Die Diem lived here. A pilot was ordered to drop bombs on the North, but as he was secretly on the Northern side, he decided to turn around and drop a bomb on the palace. It did not kill Diem, and afterwards Diem decided to flatten the palace and build a new one, this time with a bomb shelter. The pilot is a hero among Vietnamese people (given that the Northern side won) and he still lives in Ho Chi Minh City today. At the fall of Saigon 2 tanks ran over the fence, the poor President (the 3rd in the line of resignments that month and who had only been President for 2 days) immediately surrendered. And, as the video stated, the entire city was jubilant that it was liberated.

So we viewed the Palace and its 50s style rooms, each decorated with prevalent Asian influence. Banquet halls and receptions and strategic war rooms… and its extensive bomb shelter. Explaining the entire war in a nutshell is difficult in itself, but then you add the fact that the person you are explaining to is 8, and it gets… repetitive. But, not unexpectedly, after having it explained in different ways about 9 times, Emilia understood.

Cu Chi Tunnels

Ho Chi Minh City itself is just crazy. First, it’s massive. Second, it’s loud (we were glad to be on the 7th floor). Third, it’s an always-going, never-ending, constant stream of traffic. We wandered around (the exact definition is wandered since it isn’t ever structured with a goal in mind) and bumped into the cloth section of town. If you are by chance a fashion designer, or a DIY crazy parent, or in charge of a large garment company, this is the place for you. I am not joking when I say that there is every single different type of cloth, print, color, or other fabric that exists under the sun. The bolts sit upright, with women sitting on top of the mountains, shouting and cutting and pulling out bolts and climbing around. People are spreading out the cloth in the middle of the street, cutting, measuring, bargaining, packaging… Then you visit (in our case, accidentally walk into) the accessories, and you get every ribbon, glitter, sequin, button, zipper, thread, the list goes on… The herb section of town smells heavenly, and we saw many different types of herbs or plants, like smashed daffodil or birds nest.

Textile Mania!

Someone went shopping...

As Emilia has said, “How come all the women work and the men sit around?” And I do not mean to be mean to men, but we have observed that an unproportionate amount of young men sit around on the street, content with eating, playing majong, and smoking. And when we visit the market, who is chopping the fish up? Well, first of all the old people, who have been doing this since they were 6, and the women. Most sales are done by women, and it is the women who carry the extroardinarily heavy baskets on their shoulders. But the men sit in their business wear (white button-down and trousers) and do nothing! I am sure that many work and that we just didn’t see them, as they were working, but an unproportionate amount do not. Friends, also ex-pats, of ours have said Vietnam is breeding a lazy generation without ambition and it’s not good for the economy.

Taking the midday break

The pancake lady, with hot coals and pancake griddles in one basket and packages of sweets on the other.

It’s so fascinating how the way of life works. After being in SE Asia for 3 months now, we are so used to bargaining, eating street food, being asked a million times “Where you from? You like __ miss??”, roosters running around in the middle of a metropolitan area, and the entirely different level of hygiene expectation. To us it is almost normal, and so I often forget to convey the simplicity and beauty of the normal life here. It’s just so… simple. The question more people should ask themselves in the western countries is, “Why not?”. Why not fix your boat motor in the middle of the sidewalk? Why shouldn’t you transport your pigs on your motorbike? (I realize this one is not entirely fair, as no one really keeps pigs at home in America, at least not in the city.) Why not keep chickens for eggs and why not let them run around? It’s not like anybody cares if they do.

Why not?

Markets... as crazy as usual

I don’t think I will remember how to walk on a sidewalk that isn’t being obstructed by a tree, telephone booth, parked motorbike, or random pole.

Dusk and Dawn in Cambodia

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Firstly, I must describe our trip to Phnom Penh. We booked a minibus to take us there, and were charged 8$ a person. Somewhere else we could get a ticket for 7$, but it would take one extra hour. For us, the 6$ were worth it. And now we know how they managed an hour less than all other tour agencies. Simply step on the gas. All driving rules (like driving on a side of the road, not in the middle) and all sensible speeds (115 km/hr in 40 km/hr areas?) flew out the window as we tore through the countryside, narrowly missing everything from tuk tuks to huge coach buses to a couple of cows trying to cross the highway (we almost hit one). We arrived windswept and with weak knees – and then we started our stay in Phnom Penh.

Over the course of this trip we have visited many historical places. It’s part of every country’s culture and self-identity, and of course, history. And so, we could not visit Phnom Penh without seeing S-21 and the Killing Fields, a large and tragic part of Cambodian history. For those who do not know what happened in Cambodia during the 1970s, a crazy man named Pol Pot took over with his Khmer Rouge regime. His goal was to make a land of farmers, or “equals”, creating a country completely self-sufficient. There was no currency or education, and all people were forced work the land, to slave away in the “prison without walls”. He called it “Year Zero”. The regime reminded me of crazy Sci-fi books, but to know this was reality is much worse. He was an awfully paranoid man as well, killing people with glasses or the slightest bit of intelligence, like lawyers, doctors, and teachers in his Killing Fields. S-21 was a torture / interrogation center for his enemies. Needless to say, Cambodia is still reeling from this awful time, not so long ago.

S-21

We walked into the prison cells in the S-21 and, to use a fairly juvenile word, it was really creepy. The air was heavy with memories and knowledge. Memories that weren’t mine, but were made there all the same. The weight of knowing what happened seemed to penetrate the room, haunting you and hanging there like, “Yes, this is where all of that happened. Right here.”

The walls inside the prison show faces, of the victims and of the instigators, young men and women brainwashed, scared, and threatened into killing their own people. And, as my mother aptly put it, the tragic thing is that you couldn’t tell them apart.

Old photographs, S-21

The Killing Fields were next.  Since this was not long ago, so much is still there – the tree where they hung loudspeakers to muffle the dying, the mass graves, and the pieces of the victim’s clothing half-buried in the ground, revealed by the last rainfall. You can see the depressions in the earth where mass graves were excavated. You can pray in the stupa where they house the skulls, though not nearly large enough for the 17,000 victims.  You can listen to a remembrance song while walking around a quiet lake – and it’s peaceful. The complete opposite of what it was 35 years ago.

Mass grave depressions

The entire atmosphere is sad and lost in the remembering of the dead and the tragedies – but the birds still chirp, the chickens continue to run around, and the grass still grows that vibrant shade of green. And it is with this in mind that Cambodia is rebuilding itself. Phnom Penh is busily growing, sustaining a new generation as they test out life without war.

Dining for a cause

At first I thought it was just us and our “oh look, it’s for a good cause!”, but we found it to be true that Cambodia has more charity businesses, such as “training restaurants” where the food is cooked and served by former street youth, or boutiques such as Daughters of Cambodia, which rescues women from the sex-trade and gives them a job making accessories upstairs. With the Lonely Planet “Lend a helping hand” section’s help, we dined at what felt like as many charity restaurants as we could possibly find, feeling very good about ourselves. “It’s for a good cause” – truly the best excuse possible when the bill comes (although the food was never exorbitantly expensive).

Slight addition:

I was too wrapped up in Angkor Wat to squeeze in anything else, so here is a description of the market in Siem Reap – one of the more crazy ones! We explored it early in the morning, always the best time because the fish haven’t started to stink and there is always a lot going on. The middle strip is dominated by women sitting on the ground, wielding cleavers as they descale and hack away at either the fish or the lettuce. Many fish/turtles/eels/etc are still alive, wriggling and making their way across the aisles until they are thrown back into the pile. You can get any type of food, from snails (they love them with chili flavoring) to pastries to durian. It’s mass chaos and there’s no rhyme or reason to anything, which is part of the fun. Oh, and next door you can get your pedicure. Or buy a ring!

Our time in Phnom Penh came to a close really quickly and we found we enjoyed Cambodia more than we thought we would. The people were always so friendly, the markets were amazingly crazy, and the streets and architecture were so similar to Paris. And the baguettes!

Fluffy stuff on the back of the motorcycle; everyone was covered in fluff as he whizzed by

"Planting" fake flowers in the Royal Palace

The barber shop

Monks blessing civilians

Exploring this country further will have to wait for another trip!

The City of Temples – Angkor Wat

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Some things you encounter while traveling just have to actually be experienced – seen and smelled and touched and felt to be understood; an account just won’t be the same. Angkor Wat is one of those things. It doesn’t compare to anything else, you can describe and explain all you want, but the entire experience is so unique and unlike anything else, that telling the story will always feel insufficient. Of course, I can try. That is the whole point of writing.

The first time we visited Angkor Wat was at sunset, after an uneventful, recovering day. That was my favorite part of it all. It was peaceful, not an insane amount of people, that warm breeze brushing your face as the red light that only happens at sunset slowly warms you, inside and out. The feeling like the world is right underneath your feet. And that the rest of everything is spread out under your gaze.

All of these temples are so amazing – they are beautiful up close and just as beautiful far away. Up close they are detailed down to the embroidery in the elephant’s blanket: lightly brushed and faded by the elements of nature and time, rounding out their sharp angles, creating a softness in the entire scene. The weather has created its own pallet of colors, ranging from deep red to light green and an entire world of blacks, whites, and creams. From far away you can stare in awe at the craftsmanship, the work and the labor and the years. You observe the extremes – the height and the vastness and the intricately carved, never-ending stone – the entire view of the master piece is awe-inspiring. And there were so many.

When people hear Angkor Wat, they think of the main temple. But there is also Angkor Thom meaning “Big City”, with the famous Bayon temple. It has 54 towers, each with 4 large faces of the high priest. We walked around with the help of our guide (between the throngs of people and the identical looking towers it’s easy to get lost), prayed in the shrines and received braided bracelets, symbolising long life and good health for the family, from smiling women. The guide explained which king of the Khmer Empire built the temple; between the strong accent and the numerous long names, I couldn’t remember. I liked the faces built in; at first you wouldn’t notice, but once you do, you notice them everywhere, carved in and almost hidden by all of the colors.

We visited Ta Prohm, the temple that starred in Tomb Rider and where Angelina Jolie filmed, as the tour guide proudly explained to us, even though we’ve never watched the movie. This temple was built in the forest and over time the forest has taken it back. Massive old spung trees grow out of the passageways and temples, embracing, or is it strangling?, and growing right through the stone. Still, the reliefs of the apsara dancers (which are prominent in every temple) are still visible and admirable. I can’t imagine what everything looked like as it was discovered; in order to show us the temples we see today, different countries volunteer to restore / piece together the heap of rubble and still actively restore today. Temples hidden in the  jungle are still being discovered…

Apsara dancers, Angkor Wat

Restoration still in progress

The world's largest puzzle pieces...

One more thing that is difficult to explain accurately – the heat. The heat index was 100 degrees and up. The searing sun glared at us with such intensity you would have thought we would melt. It was truly like being in an oven. If you’ve ever been on a boat or where there is extremely strong wind, you know how you can almost reach out and touch the wind, as if it were a solid object. It was the same with the heat – I could almost grab it as it enveloped and surrounded us, never letting us go! After about 3 temples, our guide showed us another minor temple with little traffic. All we could do was sit there, too put out to climb more steep stairs. Thankfully he brought us to lunch then, which delivered a much-needed energy boost, carrying us through the rest of the day. Still, I don’t think there is a single video clip without Josephine peeping, “Mama? Mama? It’s so hot. Can we go? When are we going? Mama!“. At least until they started scraping the moss off of the piles of rock playing archeologist – now Emilia’s future career wish.

Tired out

Angkor Wat was visited again last. Our tour guide explained the reliefs, detailing the fights between the Khmers, Chinese, and Arabs, the reliefs depicitng the hells and the heavens (the hells are more intricately carved to scare people into being good), and the mythical legend of Queen Sirta who was kidnapped by the demon gods. This follows with the fight of good vs evil, symbolising the same fight that rages within each person today.

Reliefs, Angkor Wat

Reliefs, Bayon Temple

One of the most beautiful things about Angkor Wat is its size. The vastness allows you to wander away from the tourist masses and walk along the quiet passageways alone, enjoying the peaceful serenity among the soft stone and smiling figures. That was the experience I cherished most. I could’ve explored forever.

Washing away the bad spirits

Everything you need and more – the Chatuchak Weekend Market in Bangkok

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The very first time we were in Bangkok, we hit about all of the sites we wanted to, except for the Chatuchak weekend market. Now, our visit is complete – this market has been checked off with extravagance, befitting of its size and insanity!

While this entire market feels like an over boiling pot of chaos, it’s actually laid out well, according to the wares and in block sections, so that when you get lost in the maze, you will at least have a large selection of the same stuff. There is, of course, a massive “Miscellaneous” section.

Let the chaos begin! - nearing the market entrance

In search of an antique Buddha, we plunged into the heart of the weekend market, walking into store after store after store. We started by singling out a couple, enquiring after a price, trying to remember what price goes to what piece, promising to come back although we might not, tearing our heads away from the ones that are far too expensive, remembering where the store even was! – a feat when you consider that all of the antique stores and the corridors look the same. It was a long process, and by the end of the 10th store or so, we forgot what the first one even looked like, much less what was in it or where it was. After making a couple of purchases, we walked along the main road, with open mouths still sweet from the coconut ice cream (which is amazing with roasted peanuts and sticky rice), and just stared and stopped and bought and then did it all over again.

To give you an idea of the amazing variety there was to offer, here are some stalls dedicated to their specialties. There was a stall for fake fruits and vegetables (for home decoration), for fake flowers in every type, size, and color, a shop for  glass pens and only glass pens, one for plastic bags of all shapes, sizes, and colors. The spirit houses or house temples, placed outside the house to ward off bad spirits, need incense and offerings. There are mini meals of all variety, glued to mini plates, and sold in a specialty stand. And of course, there were hundreds and hundreds of stands selling the same exact things – clothing, shoes, food, touristy coasters, coin purses (who still uses those?), pencil cases, little plastic buddhas. The table cloths, scarves, and bed covers are all the same everywhere!

Papa - can we have a puppy?

Aaah!

We thought we’d do it for half a day, but it turned out to be a 9 hour excursion. Unfortunately, we failed to purchase a Buddha, but we did get an antique spirit house, temple necessities, old, beautifully painted window shutters, and a statue of a princess who was missing an arm. There was something about her face though, that we pleaded with my father and took her home, rescuing her from the dusty shelf where she was hiding behind an assortment of other things. We left with the wish to come back – so many corners went unexplored!

For the rest of our time in Bangkok, we visited the Jim Thompson House and frequented our favorite hawker center as often as we could.

Our favorite hawker center, The Pink Garden

Breakfast - fried rice and bubble tea

We had a long day of traveling in our quest to make it to Cambodia – changing vehicles so often it was absurd! 4am wakeup, cab, train station at 6am. We got into our train, which was windowless, enabling you to fall out of the train if you feel like it, and rode through the fields just burned by the farmers after harvest, covering us in soot with the whipping wind. After 5 hours we arrived in a town close to the border, where we took a tuk tuk which took us to the “border”, which, of course, was not the border, and we accidentally got out because it looked official. By that time, he was gone (with his payment for bringing in tourists) so we walked to the border, stood in line to get out of Thailand, walked across no-mans-land, stood in line for a Cambodian visa, then again for the arrival/departure card, and finally ended up at the shuttle station taking you to the bus. It was a tedious process, not made easier by the dry, withering heat, the heavy bags, and the 6 hours of sleep. But finally, after another 2 buses and 3 hours, we arrived in Siem Reap, ready to start our adventure in Cambodia and visit Angkor Wat!

I have a feeling we will visit Bangkok again; I really enjoyed the city, the culture and atmosphere was so vibrant and bustling. It’s large enough to explore the different neighborhoods and I would love to see more one day, but that’s for another trip!

Resort Impossible

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One of the few shows we occasionally watched, and now less than ever with our shaky, unplugged status, was Restaurant Impossible. We would watch as the host came in, disrupting the restaurant’s lousy atmosphere, and start ordering everyone around. I am a big fan of identifying the problem, exposing it out in the open, brainstorming solutions, ruthlessly executing them, ultimately turning the world upside down in chaos, and finally seeing everything come out the way it was planned. This was exactly what he did, everywhere and to everyone. And this was exactly what our resort needed.

After Penang we decided to visit the south islands of Thailand, and as we aren’t big fans of beaches completely overrun by tourists, we decided on a little island not very known to the world, not even on the map at times – Koh Ngai. No cars, streets or anything really, only a couple of resorts, snorkelers, and longtail boats. To get there we had to get to Trang, a town of working locals, a market, train station and that’s all. We arrived in time to almost get run over by an elephant (a little exaggeratted, but it’s true we were in a tuk tuk and an elephant came stomping through the streets, much to our surprise and locals’ indifference). After talking to a tour office (who ranted on about the “bad food bad food!” in our future resort), we arranged a car to bring us to the pier, a one-street town with a few bleak, tired-looking buildings and no people to be seen. They dropped us off at possibly the strangest hotel/guesthouse I’ve ever stayed in. A long driveway, flanked by plastic animals and blinking lights, led to a huge, manmade pond (complete with swan-shaped paddle boats), surrounded by rows of empty rooms. We stayed in 2 rooms for a night, reaching a grand total of 32 Euros, the cheapest (and strangest) place to date. The next morning, after 2 days of buses, cars, elephants, tuktuks, longtail boats and more, we finally, finally, ended up in our resort. Let the troubles begin.

Elephant in traffic (out the back of our tuk tuk)

Getting where you need to be can include anything from big-name airlines to the back of some person's pickup truck.

Or a longtail boat

By far the largest problem was the food. We are completely spoiled when it comes to this: after eating hawker stand food, which has far too much competition to be bad, and eating food so fresh that it was probably running around yesterday, it’s hard to accept the fact that you are paying 30 Euros (remember, the cost of about 5 meals somewhere else) for the worst food you have ever tasted. Part of the problem was the freshness (it was all who-knows-how-old), the price, the lack of being what it said it was (wait, this is fried rice?), and more. We basically starved ourselves. We ate french fries (believe it or not, you actually can mess up frying frozen potato pieces) for lunch, and ate rice for dinner.  After a late lunch one day we ate ice cream for dinner – down to 2 meals a day. Needless to say, we lost weight.

The treacherous path next door... where there was more choice to speak of

Other problems: slow internet you had to pay for, broken, old, and moldy snorkeling gear (we felt lucky our kayaks didn’t sink), an abundance of staff who didn’t really do anything but play hackisack, smoke, and watch my parents get mad, etc etc. Of course, it wasn’t all bad. We fed the fish, learned to snorkel, took a tour and snorkeled in a reef for the first time, climbed over rocks and trekked through the jungle (remember, no roads), read books in the sun, and had an interesting time, cut short by 2 days because of our need to get out of there.

It's nice to meet you too!

At the end of our 4 days, we went through the entire spiel again, getting into a longboat to the pier (on a stormy, gray day without life vests), getting a car in the rain, arriving in Trang and buying food at a stall without any English translation (which are the best ones), and finally getting to our VIP bus, where we spent the next 12 hours. They played Cowboys and Aliens, a strange spectacle when played in Thai, and we arrived in Bangkok at 5:30 in the morning, glad to have that experience behind us.

But it has to happen at one point – the best thing you can do is cut your bad luck short by getting out of there, and not completely losing an attempt at anger management, especially when bad luck is costly. To accomplish this task we enjoyed playing out what would happen should Restaurant Impossible ever change to Resort Impossible – he would take over and change everything, if we failed to do it first.

I must end on a happy note though, given that with these pictures, no one will believe me . The view was truly beautiful and I felt very lucky to have it. I miss the ocean already and will have to wait for Vietnam to see it again.