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Angkor Wat

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This past summer, Halie and I and our friend Morgan visited Siem Reap, Cambodia to see the wonders of Angkor Wat. I never wrote a blog about it because I struggled to put into words what I saw. Recently, while reading Anthony’s Bourdain second book A Cook’s Tour, I came across the following passage about his visit there. He said it better than I ever  could so I’ll just let his words speak for me. After the quote, I’ll have a link to an album of some of my pictures.

I stopped taking photographs at Angkor Wat. No camera is adequate to the task. it’s too big, too magnificent to be captured in any frame. There’s no way to convey through simple images the sense of wonder when you encounter the cities of Angkor looming up out of the thick jungle. Mile after mile of mammoth, intricately detailed, multileveled temples, bas-reliefs, jumbo Dean Tavoularis-style heads, crumbling stone structures choked in the root systems of hundred-year-old trees. This was the center of the mighty Cham empire, which once extended as far as Nha Trang and the sea to the east, all of what is now South Vietnam to the south, to occasional sections of Thailand and the Indian subcontinent. The work, the time, the number of artists, craftsmen, and laborers it must have taken to construct even one of the hundreds of structures is unimaginable. Looking at the densely populated reliefs, you are utterly intimidated by the impossibility of ever taking it all in. The KR did its best to ruin Angkor for all time, laying mines all over the grounds, destroying statues and shrines. Looters and unscrupulous antiquities dealers knocked off as many heads as they could, stripped the temples of what they could carry, and sold them on the black market in Thailand and elsewhere. But the UNESCO people are there now, painstakingly restoring what they can. The mines have, for the most part, been removed, and you can wander the interior of the dark stone piles, a waiflike Khmer kid by your side, telling you what it all means, pointing out the two-tongued figures in dark corners, urging you to give the saffron-robed bonzes tending to small Buddhist shrines a few riel. The dark, clammy interiors smell of burning incense and go on and on forever. Standing at the foot of a great stone head, I could only imagine what the first Frenchmen who’d stumbled onto the place must have felt like.

-Anthony Bourdain, A Cook’s Tour

Pictures.

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Posted by on November 14, 2018 in History, Life, Quotes, travel

 

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Lovely Dichotomy of Luang Prabang

Lovely Dichotomy of Luang Prabang

Last week Halie had Thursday and Friday off for Makhabucha Day. We decided to use the long weekend to travel to Luang Prabang, Laos. Not knowing much of anything about the city but only hearing great things from friends who’ve been, we we’re excited to see what the mountains and hills of northern Laos had to offer.

As we descended through the surrounding mountains, we could already tell this ancient city bordered by rivers would be different. During the taxi ride to the homestay, a hodgepodge of architecture passed by us. French colonial buildings, wooden homes, temple ruins and thriving monasteries. We quickly checked into our hotel and decided to go explore the city. Right around the corner was the night market so no better place to start.

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So if you notice the title of this post, I called Luang Prabang a “dichotomy”. Before I continue with our trip, let me introduce the first part of the dichotomy since it was the first night there that I was confronted with it. Tourist. So many of them. Half the city is 22 year old backpackers. The other half is wealthy, retired Europeans. Initially, it was somewhat of a turn-off to me. Most cities awash with tourists are structured cultural experiences. There’s a facade put in place to appease the masses and hide the authentic nature of the location. This is common across the world and at first glance, I thought Luang Prabang was another casualty.

Until the second day. Using Backstreet Academy, we were picked up by a translator and brought to a Hmong village to learn the art of embroidery with a lady and her daughter. Backstreet Academy is a company that connects travelers with local craftsmen and women to learn traditional techniques of all kinds of things: embroidery, bow making, brewing beer and wine, cooking and woodworking. The list goes on.

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Halie and I spent the afternoon embroidering with two Hmong women. They begin learning this craft at the age of 7 or 8 and spend their lives making beautiful clothes and accessories to sell at the night market or use in local ceremonies. After finishing, we walked around meeting some of the other men and women of the tribe and learning about their lives and language and culture.

Let me get back to the dichotomy I was speaking of. I’ve never been to a city that had so many tourist but was so integrated into its own history and culture and local tribes. The night market wasn’t a tourist trap to get our money but a life-line for the Hmong and Khmer tribes surrounding the city to continue the crafts and traditions that they’ve been doing for hundreds of years. The well-kept French colonial structures weren’t a facade but an example of a city that appreciates its architecture and history whether it represents colonization by a foreign power, a powerful tribal king and kingdom or the current communist government.

Okay, back to our trip. Getting back to the city, we began exploring around a bit more.

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The city is on a peninsula surrounded by two rivers coming together (Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers). The Nam Khan has a bamboo bridge that is only up 6 months of the year (they take it down for the rainy season). So of course we had to cross it. Who knew on the other side was going to be the greatest meal in my life!?

We were recommended a restaurant named Dyen Sabai by a friend. With benches, chairs and ground level seating all facing the Nam Khan, this place had atmosphere. Reading through the menu, we decided on what the menu called “Lao Fondue,” learning afterwards that this is a popular dish in Luang Prabang called “sindad.” The best way of describing this incredible food experience is a mix between Chinese hot pot and Korean barbecue. You have a pile of hot coals with a grill above. The grill is rounded with a moat for the broth. The meat, vegetables, noodles and eggs all come raw and it’s your job to cook them. Don’t forget to start with the spicy chilis and garlic before adding everything to the broth. Then use the grill to cook the meat (after adding a chunk of fat on top to grease the grill). The broth was the best broth I’ve ever tasted and everything coming out of it was just as good. IMG_9210.jpg

Okay, this is getting too long. Next day, beautiful waterfalls. Afterwards, we walked around to see a few temples and the mountain in the middle of the city. The views were stunning:

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Last day, UXO Museum. This intense museum chronicles the 2 million tons of bombs dropped on Laos between 1964 and 1973 and the heroic efforts to locate, dismantle and remove the 80 million unexploded bombs left over from the war. A sobering end to an incredibly enjoyable weekend.

Then flight home. Luang Prabang, when can I return?


To see a few more pictures, check out this Google photos album. Thanks!

 
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Posted by on March 6, 2018 in Life, travel

 

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Our Week in Vietnam, Part 2

Last week I started telling you about our week in Vietnam. I had to stop because it was getting somewhat long so here’s the second part!

Find Part 1 Here

After the two day tour with Hoi An Express, they dropped us off at another homestay in Hoi An. This one wasn’t along the beach but on a small island named An Hoi opposite of the old city area. As soon as we dropped our backpacks off, we headed back into Hoi An to walk around and find something to eat. Since it was a weekday the city was a little less calm but no less beautiful.

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The next morning, we walked around the daytime version of Hoi An for the first time. The old city isn’t blocked off from traffic during the day so there were a few more cars and motorcycles to dodge as we headed down to pick up some tailored clothes we had made. Halie was picking up 3 dresses and I a blazer. We ate lunch at what Anthony Bourdain has dubbed the best banh mi in Vietnam (it was really, really good but the only banh mi I had in Vietnam so not sure if I can make the claim). Then we grabbed a taxi to head back into Da Nang.

So Da Nang is an interesting city to visit. It’s fairly large. The third largest in Vietnam at 1.5 million people or so. But in the world of tourism, it’s not a hot destination. If you look up things to do in Da Nang, everything listed is outside the city (Hoi An, Hue, Ba Na Hills, etc.). After dropping our backpacks off at our AirBnb (down a quiet alley where an old man screamed “xin chao” at Halie so she screamed it back [the old man responded with a giant smile]), we started to walk through the city. If you read anything about Da Nang, rule number one is to not walk around. It’s hot, nothing is close together, sidewalks are sparse, motorcycles are crazy and cars are even crazier. Sounds like a perfect time to walk. We ended up at the beautiful Dragon Bridge, Cau Rong. My picture doesn’t do it justice for multiple reasons but mainly because I’m behind the dragon and the dragon is almost too big for the pic:

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We were walking across the bridge as it became dark. Suddenly, the dragon was illuminated! Then it changed colors! Then again! We looked like little children as we walked across the bridge awe struck at a few lights on a dragon.

A few kilometers of walking (and being looked at like purple aliens) and a few drinks later, we met up with some friends who work at Halie’s school. After dinner, we found a bar next to the beach and spent the rest of the night drinking to the alternating sounds of waves, a singer-songwriter performing, hip-hop and dance music, an incredibly drunk party and a small girl that sang “Let it Go” for some reason.

Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

Next morning we hit up a few markets around Da Nang, ate lunch and had a few more drinks along the beach with our friends. Then it was time for our flight to Ho Chi Minh City. As I talk about this city, I didn’t want to go through a chronology of events like I’ve been doing but wanted to focus on a few cultural takeaways.

First off, Ho Chi Minh City has one of the coolest vibes of any major city I’ve ever been to. It’s young and active and communal. There’s coffee shops, tea shops and bars everywhere you look and at all hours of the day you’ll find crowds sitting inside and out. If they’re sitting outside, the patrons will grab one of the short stools stacked by the door and use that as a perching place to enjoy their beverage. And side note, the coffee I had in Vietnam was some of the strongest and tastiest coffee I’ve ever had. If the sidewalks weren’t covered by people sitting on small stools, they were used as parking for the millions (and millions) of motorcycles. Our AirBnb was actually above a coffee shop (behind the torn sign):

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Morning Coffee in Ho Chi Minh City

Quick story about our AirBnb. The place was watched over and taken care of by the owner’s uncle. He was an old Vietnamese man that lived next door. Had absolutely no English skills but was incredibly welcoming and happy. So welcoming that each morning, as Halie and I were leaving the apartment, he insisted we take a shot of his moonshine from a clear plastic bottle. We couldn’t say no! The second morning, as we had drinks at the coffee shop and after our now customary shot of moonshine, he also offered us some fruit to eat. It complimented the shots well!

While we walked around Ho Chi Minh City, we saw the footprint of French colonialism, American intervention into war and politics and Vietnamese communism. We visited the War Remnants Museum, which consisted of gut-wrenching photography and military tools of destruction leftover from the Vietnam War. Although I was well aware of the propaganda-driven nature of the story the museum was trying to tell, it was still emotionally moving and heartbreaking to see the destruction the war cause in Vietnam. Whether it was photos and stories of citizens still dealing with the affects of Agent Orange dropped by American planes or the heroic stories of journalist who lost their lives to make sure people back in the states knew the horrors of war, it was all difficult to take in.

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War Remnants Museum

Alright, I guess that’s about everything I wanted to talk about. We had a great trip, we’re ready to go back. Next time we plan on hitting Hanoi and Ha Long Bay in northern Vietnam. As last time, check out a few more pictures:

Google Photos album for Part 2

 
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Posted by on November 8, 2017 in History, Life, travel

 

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Our Week in Vietnam, Part 1

Hey everyone, sorry it’s been a while. We’ve been active but it hasn’t reflected in my blog. We had a long weekend in Kanchanaburi that I should have written about. Oh, well, what’s past is past. Let’s get to our trip to Vietnam.

So we planned a 6-day trip to Vietnam, starting in Central Vietnam and ending in the south. We had accommodations for the first two nights but left the second two open depending on what we liked about the few cities we’d visit and then we had two nights in Ho Chi Minh City.

Day One

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Lido Homestay. Hoi An, Vietnam

Flying in to Da Nang International Airport on midday Sunday, we wanted to go straight to the beach (more to get it out of the way than anything [I don’t really like beaches]). Our AirBnb scheduled us a private car to drive us the 30 minutes or so to the beaches outside Hoi An. Getting there, we were welcomed to the cutest little bungalow by the sweetest host I’ve ever met. The name was Lido Homestay and it was a one minute walk from the beach and incredibly affordable. After settling in, we headed to the beach. After lunch and a bit of time on the beach, we headed back to the homestay, had a shower then called a taxi to go to Hoi An Ancient Town.

As soon as we were dropped off, we fell in love with Hoi An. The old town is a beautiful blend of Southeast Asian and foreign architecture that was a major port from the 15th to 19th centuries. A large portion of the old town does not allow cars at certain times so it’s an incredibly enjoyable stroll through the city. Especially at night. Because of lanterns. Paper lanterns. Everywhere. Every. Where. I also found a Dr Pepper, so there’s that.

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Two-Day Tour

So we’re usually not the type to book fancy tours, especially not ones that cover multiple days. We travel at our own pace and spontaneity and don’t want anybody messing with that. That said, sometimes it’s just too difficult to figure out the logistics and a tour is the best option. This was us when I was trying to figure out how to fit in all the history in Central Vietnam (especially Vietnam War stuff). The traveling between locations was difficult enough. So we found and booked a two-day historical tour of Hue and the surrounding areas. It was a group tour that could have been as large as ten people but somehow it ended up being just Halie and I. Private tour for the win.

We were picked up early on our second day in Hoi An. We had a multiple-hour drive ahead of us through the mountains towards Hue. Our tour guide, Key, informed us we’d be taking the long route there up and over the mountains along the sea and then lagoon. Sounds good to us. And the sights were incredible:

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After the breathtaking drive through the mountain, our first stop was the tomb of the 12th Emperor of the Nguyen Dynasty, Khai Dinh.  He was a hated king that forced 10,000 people to build his tomb. During the construction, around half of the workers died! Unfortunately, his tomb is still an impressive sight to behold. I’ll add an album at the end of the blog that’ll have many more photos.

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Leaving the Emperor where he lies, we visited a serene pagoda on the edge of the Perfume River then took a short cruise down to the entrance of the Imperial City, which was the nation’s capitol and the seat of the Nguyen Dynasty from 1802 to 1045. Most of the city was destroyed during American bombing in the Vietnam War but the buildings that still stand and the bit of reconstruction that has been completed shows the splendor (and excess) of the Nguyen emperors.

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Back to the hotel, Halie and I indulged in a spa package (treat yo’ self). Then the tour guide picked us back up for dinner.

Day two was another early pick up by the tour guide because we had to head even farther north towards the old border between North and South Vietnam and the Demilitarization Zone (DMZ). We were first brought to an out of the way museum about the residual horrors leftover from the war, mainly in the form of land mines. Since the end of the war, unexploded bombs and landmines have caused more than 100,000 injuries and fatalities. But there are numerous organizations working their butts off locating and dismantling the bombs. We then headed towards the actual border, the Ben Hai River, that divided north and south and experiences the brunt of the violence.

After walking around the area and across the river, we then headed even farther north to see the Vinh Moc Tunnels. I first learned about these tunnels watching Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown. For 6 years, the villagers in this area lived in tunnels while the insistent bombing from American planes made it impossible to be at the ground level. As America build better bombs that would penetrate deeper, the villages kept digging deeper. By the third level, they were 30 meters deep (almost 100 feet). Not a single villager died and even 17 children were born during these 6 years!!

Okay,  realized this blog is getting kinda long so I’m going to cut it off here. Link to Part 2 of our trip to Vietnam.

Here’s more photos from the days I’ve spoken of so far.

 
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Posted by on November 1, 2017 in Life, travel

 

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