Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Day 9 - Siem Reap back to Bangkok

Another Travel Day - Took a taxi from Siem Reap to Poipet to cross the border to Thailand. The process was painless since we were there pretty early in the morning. There weren't as many foreigners as when we arrived from Thailand to enter Cambodia.

When we got to the Thai side, people were trying to sell us bus tickets to Bangkok on the government buses that we intended on using. We couldn't understand what the catch was, but were cautious and refused to purchase them from these people just in case these tickets were fake. We took a tuk-tuk to the bus station and purchased our tickets ourselves. In hindsight, I think the tickets they were selling were legitimate, but they were just trying to sell them to make a little profit, even if it's pocket change...

We're staying at a hotel in Bangkok in Sukhumvit, which is a heavily touristy area. Again, lots of foreigners were walking around. The crowd seems the most diverse of all the cities I've traveled to so far. I see Indians, Middle Easterners, Asians, Europeans, Australians, and lots of older white men who are probably "sexpats" defined by wikitravel as:
fifty-plus, bald, beer belly, stained shirt, lovestruck expression and a hairy arm wrapped around a girl too young to be his daughter He's found what he's looking for.

At the end of the night we stopped by Pratunum market, which is a large outside market selling anything and everything. The selection here was much greater than in Siem Reap, where there were maybe 10 different types of products being sold in the hundreds of stalls in the tourist area.

More street food in Bangkok

Monday, May 30, 2011

Day 8 - Angkor and the Land Mine Museum

New Travel Tip - When traveling to different countries, be sure to separate the different currencies you will be using so that you don't get them mixed up. My mom learned the hard way when she paid $1000 Thai Baht instead of $1000 Cambodian Riel to use a restroom, which is equivalent to $33 USD as opposed to $0.25...

Heading back to Angkor, we visited the Preah Khan temple at around 7 in the morning. This complex was similar to Ta Prohm, which we visited yesterday. Giant trees covered the grounds and the roots grew under and through the stone walls. Not too many people were here when we visited, which could be explained by the extensive restoration of the complex.

The second temple we visited was Ta Keo, which was a small structure, but tall with very steep steps. It took a while to get up to the top, but was definitely worth it. Again, one of my favorites to visit because of all the climbing involved.

Taking a break from Angkor, we headed to the Cambodian Land Mine Museum, which is a small museum that also serves as a relief center for children who have been affected by the land mines. The museum and relief center are funded by the donations of tourists, gift shop sales, as well as the admission fee of $2 USD. The museum and center were developed by a man named Aki Ra, who was a top ten CNN Heroes of the Year in 2010. His parents were killed when he was little by the Khmer Rouge and by the age of 10, he was recruited into the Khmer Rouge Army, before deflecting to the Vietnamese Army. After the war, he worked with the UN to deactivate mines and bombs. He has been doing this for over 18 years and has deactivated more than 50,000 of them.

There was a lot of useful information about the history of Cambodia and the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge. What was interesting to learn was that many believe that the Khmer Rouge might never have taken hold of power, thus leaving 2 million Cambodians dead, had the U.S. not supported a right-wing coup in 1970 by supplying military aid.

What was also interesting about mines was that they were used to maim, but not kill. During war, it was meant to leave soldiers injured so that resources would have to be spent caring for these injured soldiers. For them, it was more expensive to have an injured soldier than a dead one.

The millions of mines still scattered throughout Cambodia can be attributed dominantly to the U.S., Vietnam, and the Khmer Rouge during the wars in the 60s and 70s.

After the museum visit and a little rest back at the hotel, we headed back to Angkor to catch the sunset at Phnom Bakheng, which is probably the highest point in all of Angkor. Climbing up the mountain and on top of the temple provides panoramic views of the entire area and sunset views. We got there at around 4:30, which was a little too early to watch the sunset, even though our taxi driver said to come at that time. We waited for about an hour, but knew the sun wouldn't set until much later in the night.

As we headed out of Angkor, the taxi driver took us to a temple that had a casing of some of the skulls of the victims of the genocide and the "Killing Fields." Such a tragic event in history... I only hope the people of Cambodia can fully recover and redevelop after all that has occurred. So far, the tourism industry is thriving. Next is to educate the people and care for all the children, since they represent the future.

Preah Khan - As you can see, much of the temple is in the process of restoration

I met this young Cambodian student in the Preah Khan temple. He was about to practice his sketching. He has been in school for 5 years, and is in his first year studying art, which takes 2 years. He plans to sell his artwork to tourists once he finishes with school.

Preah Khan - Enormous Trees tower over the temple

The steep steps of Ta Keo

At the Summit of Ta Keo

Ta Keo - Luckily, we got there before all the other tourists came.

Cambodian Land Mine Museum - Next Project - New Toilet Block

Different types of Mine Casings

A picture of Aki Ra deactivating a landmine

Elephants near the base of Phnom Bakheng. $20 to ride up to the top. $15 to ride back down. Although, I'm not sure if the elephants are treated humanely

Monks at the base of Phnom Bakheng

Monks climbing Phnom Bakheng

Monks at the top of Phnom Bakheng, waiting for the sunset

Waiting for the sunset at the top of Phnom Bakheng

Some skulls of Khmer Rouge victims - such a terrible thing to witness

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Day 7 - Touring Angkor

Woke up around 4am to head to Angkor to see the sunrise across the lake at the Angkor Wat entrance. We thought we were going to be the first ones there but a ton of other people decided to come around the same time to catch the first light of the day. The moment was slightly marred due to the overcast weather, but still an incredible moment to see the reflection of the trees and temples on the waters.

Angkor refers to the political and religious center of the Khmer Empire, which ruled from the 9th to 15th century. The region houses many temples that are considered architectural wonders, and are still standing today. Some of these temples were built following Hinduism (where the main entrance to the temple is on the west side), while others were built following Buddhism (where main entrance is approached from the east), depending on when they were built and what the religion was at the time. Many of these temples are currently being restored, so access to some of the areas is restricted. There are many temples to visit, but it would take a while since each site is so grand, and you have a limited amount of time each day, unless you can tolerate walking in the extreme heat around noon. Tickets to all the temples in Angkor cost $20/day, $40 for 3 days in a week, or $60 for 7 days in a month.

Angkor Wat, which was built and dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu, was smaller than I had imagined. I guess seeing as this was the most popular tourist site, I assumed it would be more grand since it is considered to be the world's largest single religious monument. I was thinking it would be similar to the size of the Forbidden City in Beijing, but it is dwarfed in comparison. Nonetheless, it was incredible to see the architecture of the temple and the surrounding grounds. You could only imagine how life was like when the temple and city was actually inhabited during the Khmer Empire.

We moved on to Angkor Thom after touring Angkor Wat. The type of rock used for this structure was different than Angkor Wat. AngWat was mostly built using sandstone while AngThom was built using laterite. It took quite a while to walk through the entire Angkor Thom "city", which housed many different temples, including the most recognizable, the "Bayon." The entire area was nearly 4 square miles. The towers of the "Bayon" are all decorated with faces, consisting of many large pieces of stones. In fact, the entire structure is made of individual stones piled on top of each other and carved different shapes. Each piece of stone fits like a piece of a puzzle. Pretty incredible to think about how long it took to build such a structure.

The last of the temples we visited on this first day around Angkor was Ta Prohm. This temple was under major construction when we visited. The most memorable attribute of this temple were the trees growing through many parts of the temple walls. Giant trees towered over the temple, its roots taking a hold of the pieces of stones used to build the structire.

It was only around 10am by the time we decided we needed to take a break from touring Angkor since the heat was starting to get to us. We did start at 5am, so we got a good 5 hours in. Tomorrow we will tour 2 or 3 additional temples within the region, hopefully catching the sunset.

We went back to the touristy restaurant area to have lunch, and I decided to try the "fish" massage, which really wasn't a massage, but an exfoliating service where the fish ate the dead skin off your feet. The first 2 minutes were spent squirming and giggling because my feet were ticklish, but after that, I got used to it.

The rain came pouring down at night before we had dinner, but it only lasted for about 30 minutes. I heard from many people that the monsoon season rainfall in S.E. Asia produces a lot of rain, but in short periods. Let's hope it doesn't get too wet wherever I go.

Sunrise across the lake at the western entrance to Angkor Wat

Just outside the entrance to Angkor Wat

Inside Angkor Wat

Carvings of Apsaras (celestial dancing girls) line the walls of Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat

Just outside the Angkor Wat temple were monkeys playing around. The girl pictured above decided to purchase a loaf of bread to feed to them. She fed the alpha male monkey, who then proceeded to snarl angrily at her and scratch at her. She threw the bread in the air in defeat and he ended up hogging the whole loaf!

Entrance to Angkor Thom

The Bayon

The Bayon, and some of the pieces that still need to be restored
The Bayon - Smiling Faces made up of many pieces of carved stone

Angkor Thom

Angkor Thom

A tree growing through Ta Prohm

Restoring Ta Prohm

This little girl was selling bracelets, repeating "3 for one dollar" as we walked towards our taxi. We decided to give here some money for her troubles. It's sad to see so many little kids working like this to help their families. It's ever sadder seeing how many orphans there are.

"Dr. Fish Massage"

Friday, May 27, 2011

Day 6 - Bangkok to Siem Reap, Cambodia by bus/tuk-tuk

Spent another full day travelling from Bangkok, Thailand to Siem Reap, Cambodia. We woke up early in the morning to catch our 8AM bus to the border of Thailand and Cambodia. There was a lot less traffic and congestion on the roads at 6:30 in the morning. We got there early and were able to take the 7:30 bus headed to Aranyaprathet. The entire bus trip took over 4 hours to get us to the border, with stops along the route to pick up and drop off other people. Good thing there was air conditioning! When we got to Aranyaprathet, we took $2 tuk-tuk rides to get us to the border, where we saw a bunch of other foreigners so we knew we were at the right place.

Again, we were overly cautious during this process because of the scams we heard where tuk-tuk drivers would take you to shops to obtain your Cambodian Visa on the Thai side, only to find out that these were fake. Luckily we got our Visas online and printed them out before arriving.

After leaving Thailand and before enter Cambodia where you technically aren't in any country, there is an area where there are plenty of Casinos, which I though was pretty random. After entering Cambodia in the city Poipet, everyone is shuttled to a tourist terminal, which took about 5 minutes. At this terminal, you can request a taxi for $12/pp or a shuttle bus for $9/pp to take you to Siem Reap, the city where Angkor Wat is located. Our taxi driver told us that the rates are a lot cheaper if you hail a taxi outside of the tourist terminal or even opt out of taking the shuttle to the terminal and find a taxi yourself.

Cambodia uses the US dollar more than their own money, perhaps because of the stability of our currency. Most of the larger purchases should be made with dollars, while small purchases for drinks and small snacks can be made with the Cambodian Riel.

The taxi ride took another 2 hours before reaching Siem Reap. Along the way, I saw numerous billboards about "protecting the Cambodian children," which I think was in reference to the significant problem of sex trafficking in the country.

After getting settled in our hotel, which had a resort-like feeling like most of the other hotels in the area, we took tuk-tuks to the street markets. The feeling was different compared to Thailand and Vietnam because it was so touristy. So many tourists were walking around the area, and many of the restaurants didn't look very authentic. One of them boasted that they had the best Mexican food in Asia... We settled on a dingier restaurant that looked like it served real Khmer Food. Again, small plates, but everything was delicious.

At the end of the night we walked the night markets, where you could dip your feet in fish tanks where fish ate at the dead skin on your feet. $2 for 20 minutes with a free beer included. There were also $1 foot massages everywhere. There were so many stalls selling the same things, and supply was extremely greater than demand, that you could easily bargain down the price of anything. If you don't get the price you want, walk away hoping they change their mind, or find another stall that sells the same items. I made my first purchase with my own money on the whole trip, which was like opening Pandoras box because I bought more than I should have. I told myself that I wasn't going to buy many souvenirs because I didn't want to carry them throughout my trip, but I ended up purchasing some tanks, South East Asian style traditional wrap around pants, and a traditional button up shirt. The total was no more than $20. I figure I'm going to trash some of my clothes anyways, since it's becoming a pain to hand wash my own clothing every couple of days and dry them in the hotel rooms...

The weather was nice and cool at night, again, different compared to Thailand and Vietnam. I am already falling in love with this country! Initially, I was a little cautious and uncomfortable, but I think it all goes away once you familiarize yourself with where you are. Anyone and everyone feels uneasy when they think they are lost or are in new surroundings, but that goes away once you just walk around and immerse yourself in the culture and life of the people. I think it usually takes a day or even less.

I hope to learn more about the history of Cambodia. There are many pictures of the King and the father and mother of the King around the city. Both Thailand and Cambodia have a monarchy. Makes me wonder how one country has a monarchy while another has a president... Does it have anything to do with the dominant religion in the country?

I've read little about the genocide that occurred during the Khmer Rouge rule. Around 2 million of the Cambodian people were killed in the span of only four years. And what were other countries doing about this genocide? The street markets were selling many of the books that were written about the atrocities that occurred during those four years. Hopefully the tour guide will have more information to share with us in our 3 days here, although I hear that many people don't even know much about what happened during those years because they are too young to remember. There is a museum dedicated to the genocide, but it is located in Phnom Penh...

Tomorrow, we head to Angkor Wat to sightsee and hopefully catch the sunrise around 5am. We hired a taxi driver to take us around the whole day for $25.

A welcome sign prior to entry into Poipet, Cambodia

Khmer Food - Fried Spicy Tomatoes with Beef

Khmer Food - Lok Lak Chicken with Steamed Rice

Khmer Food - Shrimp Lotus Root Salad

Night Market in Siem Reap - The kids are so adorable here!

Night Market in Siem Reap

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Day 5 - HCMC to Bangkok, Thailand

Today was basically a transportation day, getting from Vietnam to Thailand and getting acclimated to the city of Bangkok. The rain started pouring last night and this morning in Vietnam. Looks like we left at the right time!

On the way to the airport, our taxi driver rear-ended a young girl riding a motorcycle. Luckily, there didn't appear to be any damages since he was driving pretty slowly, and she just drove away. It made me wonder if there was any auto insurance in Vietnam, or even health care for the matter? I don't think there are any health and safety code standards since anyone could open up shop at the ground level of their homes (which many people already do). In some of the poorer areas, where there isn't as much tourist traffic, it seems like these shops cater just to the neighbors in the area, who also have their own little shops. It all becomes a sort of barter system between them all, where the money just gets constantly passed around...

The flight to Thailand took about 1.5 hours, and once we arrived at the airport, we went directly to immigration. As a US citizen, we didn't have to apply for a Visa, but just filled out an arrival and departure card. It took us about 1 hour at the airport to try any figure out how to get to our hotel, though, since we were trying to use the rail line.

Thailand has a very clean and new transit system. It kind of reminded me of New York, but with fewer routes. I am excited to come back to this country on my own and just randomly stop wherever to discover new parts of the city. The traffic is HORRIBLE here compared to Vietnam. At least in Vietnam, the traffic moves, albeit at a slow pace. In Thailand, sometimes you are at a stand-still for a long time... There are definitely less motorcycles in Thailand, and many more cars. The pollution isn't as bad since there aren't as much exhaust fumes lingering in the air.

One thing I was worried about was the weather. Since Thailand is even closer to the equator compared to Vietnam, the temperature was higher. But even with higher temperatures, walking the city was a lot more tolerable because it is less humid than Vietnam.

Another thing I worried about were the plethora of scams that I heard about in Thailand. Check out this thread on lonelyplanet: http://www.lonelyplanet.com/thorntree/thread.jspa?threadID=633590 Hopefully I'm not moronic enough to fall for any of these traps...

We spent the whole day in Bangkok trying to figure out how to take a bus to the border of Cambodia/Thailand, which we will do tomorrow at 8am in the morning. A good thing was that many of the people in Thailand spoke some English, and many of them seem very friendly and eager to help. I also spent the day reading up on Thai culture, customs, and history, which I will highlight in a future post.

We went to the largest market in Bangkok - the Chatuchak Weekend Market, which covers over 35 acres, but many of the booths were closed by the time we got there around 6PM. We were able to try some street food, which was exceptional! One thing that I noticed was that all the dishes you ordered at a food stall or restaurant came in very small portions, but I guess it gives you the opportunity to try many different dishes.

At the end of the night, my mom and I got foot massages for about $6/hr. Quite an incredible deal, and the massage was tough and hurt my body, but that's what makes it good right?

First Meal in Thailand - Garlic Fried Rice with Chicken

Street Food - I didn't try the food in the first picture, although it was something with corn kernals, The second one looked like a taco with sour cream and cheese/carrots, but was actually a crepe-like dessert filled with what tasted like melted marshmellows and coconut (orange substance). I am uncertain what the yellow substance is.

The transit system in Bangkok

Chatuchak Weekend Market

Various juices sold at the Chatuchak Weekend Market

Day 4 - Vietnam War History (Underground Tunnels and a Museum)

*Warning: Pictures below are graphic*

A must see while in HCMC are the Cu Chi Tunnels, which were underground tunnels used by the Vietcong (South Vietnamese who supported the North during the Vietnam War) to attack American soldiers and ensure easy access to Ho Chi Minh City (through the Saigon River). It was such a fascinating historic site to witness and unbelievable to hear about some of the war stories associated with these tunnels.

We booked a tour of the tunnels through a company and were greeted by Mr. Nguyen Van Nghia, or "Jackie" as he was nicknamed by the American soldiers when he fought with the Navy for America and the South Vietnamese (Republic of Vietnam). He told us he "survived twice" during the wartimes. He spent 6 years in the US Navy, and 3 years in prison when the war finally ended.

He proceeded to tell us a bit of the history of Vietnam, and how he loved being a tour guide because he was able to share these stories with tourists so that they could spread the knowledge back in their home countries. Tourism in Vietnam was only opened up in 1990, and the development of many parts of the country only occurred in the 21 years that tourist revenue was generated. He stated that in 1990, there were only 135 hotels in the city. Now, there are over 8,000.

It was hard to decipher what his position in the war was. Even though he fought for the South, he emphasized that he loved the VC and his Northern comrads as well. For 2,000 years, the Vietnamese were constantly in battle with the Chinese, French, Japanese, and lastly, the U.S. The end of the Vietnam war symbolized for the country the first time it was actually ever truly free from outside rule, and this appeared to be a greater triumph for him than the possibility of ending Communism in the country.

Around 3 million Vietnamese were killed during the war, 2 million of which were innocent civilians, which is why the Vietnam War was called a "civilian war." Around 58,000 US soldiers were also killed during the years 1986 through 1973. I think history from the perspective of both America and Vietnam both agree that the U.S. never should have entered the war because it was a war that could never be won by a superpower country that didn't know anything about the Vietnamese people or Vietnam as a country. Jackie stated that most Vietnamese do not look at Americans negatively due to the war, but rather look forward to building better relations with them for the future.

Arriving at the tunnels, we watched a short, black and white video about the Cu Chi tunnels, narrated and created by the Vietnamese. It was humorous to see their side of the story, and listen to their description of the American troops. They called the troops "ruthless" and at one point a "crazy bunch of devils that shot at women, children, chickens, and even pots and pans." Everyone in the room laughed at this statement. The video also documented some of the brave Vietnamese soldiers who were successful in "killing Americans," thus earning themselves "American killer hero awards."

Later, we walked around a portion of the tunnel system. 75% of the tunnels were destroyed by bombs during the war, but we were lucky to see a portion that was still intact. These tunnels had three levels underground - the first level 3 meters below ground, 2nd level 6 meters below ground, and 3rd level 10 meters below ground. It was incredible to hear of the intelligent and creative ways they made the systems work and the ways they defended themselves.  For example, they used bamboo shoots as ventilation for the system. Pepper and Chili Peppers were sprinkled near the entrances to detract dogs from the area. They slept in hammocks to protect themselves from the bombing that occurred above ground. They cooked underground and had 4 separate chambers to keep the smoke from seeping to the surface. They also developed very interesting (and painful) booby traps against the American soldiers, as well as dead-ends for American "tunnel rats" that tried to enter the tunnels. There was just so much on this tour that you learn that you really have to see it for yourself!

Overall, 18,000 people could have lived in those tunnels. Some people lived in them for up to 26 years, which is hard to imagine, to live in such a tight, enclosed, and dark space for so long.

On the tour, we actually were able to crawl in the tunnels. There was one tunnel system that was modified to cater to tourists. The passageways were widened, booby traps were removed, and lights were installed inside. A second tunnel system was an actual system used by the VC. Crawling in the first tunnel was exciting and safe... We could see everything when we crawled through the space, and were able to walk through (while crouching down). The second one was a little scarier. The space was very tight and the tunnel was pitch dark! I actually had to crawl on my hands and knees and I had absolutely no clue where I was going, but luckily, I went with 2 other people in our tour group and they had a camera that they periodically flashed to get an idea where to go. I had to follow their voices most of the time. I don't think I would have crawled under there on my own - bats and millipedes crawl in those tunnels now. Reminded me of my favorite scary movie - Descent. It was definitely memorable and fun! I love outdoorsy activities where I can crawl or climb terrain.

After that, we continued with our Vietnam War tour by visiting the War Remnants museum. Again, it was very valuable to hear the perspective of the war from the Vietnamese side, although biased. The first floor was dedicated to the many anti-war movements across the entire globe. Propaganda posters were shown from many different countries denouncing the American occupation in Vietnam. There was also a section outside that showed some of the war atrocities that occurred in prison, as well as the torture that was used against prisoners held by the U.S. The second floor showcased pictures of some of the effects of the war, as well as the aftereffects of the U.S. use of "Agent Orange," a chemical defoliant used to destroy the landscape in Vietnam. Because the chemicals had high levels of an extremely toxic type of dioxin, many people were maimed, killed, and/or also gave birth to a new generation with extreme birth defect and deformities. There were numerous graphic pictures and stories of children born deformed, and the hardships they face everyday. It was very depressing to see... There was even a display of preserved fetuses that were affected by the chemicals. Quite a shocking exhibit, but still something everyone should be educated and aware of.

At the end of the day, we went to the Green Jade Pagoda and also decided to get massages and eat some street food near our hotel. I was finally able to try the balut (fertilized duck) eggs, but I was surprised that they also had fertilized quail eggs! I've tried balut eggs in the States, but never quail eggs! They pretty much tasted the same as the balut. Very delicious, but I was unable to finish the whole plate.

We leave tomorrow for Thailand, before heading to Cambodia to see Ankor Wat...

Our tour guide "Jackie" showing us a model of the Cu Chi Tunnels

An example of some of the camouflaged traps used by the VC. American soldiers who fell in the trap probably wouldn't die from the fall, but would probably be trapped there, thus bleeding to death or shot by the VC.

An example of some of the hideouts used by the VC to attack unknowing American soldiers.

Different booby traps created by the VC

Jackie demonstrating for us the "Sticking Trap"

Firing an AK16 at the shooting range - Notice how natural it is for me to hold it, so don't trust me with one.

Crawling through the first set of "tourist" tunnels. I wish I had some pictures of the actual tunnels...

A photograph of a prisoner after being released.

Photographs of deformed children due to the use of chemical warfare.

Preserved and deformed fetuses due to the effects of Agent Orange

Street Food! (Sorry for the juxtaposition of this photo with the one above)

Balut and Quail Eggs