Blog update – “Where have you been lately, Leilani?”
I hope everyone is doing well and after returning to LA after my 2-month trip to SE Asia, I was busy settling back in and lining up audio work to make some money. 🙂 It was nice to be home and to catch up with family and friends. It was also nice to get back into audio too despite my love for travel and photography. It’s been about 6 months since I’ve been back home and I couldn’t stay put in LA long enough without venturing to the east coast for a bit.
I admit that part of the reason for traveling there was not only to visit family but to help out my cousin’s husband with some photographs. I just recently sold him a few of my photographs (several that I’ve posted here) and they will be on display at his Annapolis office. Mahalo SILA Solutions Group – most especially to Rohit. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to showcase my work. It means a ton!
You might be wondering where these photos were taken. I discovered the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge park and was amazed by it’s natural beauty. It’s stunning here and I was also very surprised and how empty the park was that I basically had it to myself. Though with this trip out to the Eastern Shore I felt that I was always a step behind with the light so I was worried about how my pictures would turn out. As usual, I end up surprising myself once I sit down and pull them into my mac. Needless to say I’m very happy with the results. I look forward to returning but on another note, I don’t miss the bugs that I encountered there. I kind of wish I had my GoPro mounted in the car as I was jumping in and out to the locations along with fighting all the nasty insects. Ick! But I survived and the results were better than I expected. 🙂
I also gifted a photo to my friend and colleague Chip Beamon who has graciously been promoting my photographs via FB and getting people to check out my website. Below is the picture that was taken at Leo Carillo Beach in Malibu in December of last year. It’s one of the few times in the year where the sun rises over the ocean. I know… weird right for many of us living on the west coast?! Well, I took a photography class and the instructor shared with us that from October to about February, the sun “rises” off the south facing beaches. So I woke up bright and early on a chilly December morning at 4am to check this out and see if it was true, this was also the time that I fell in love with the Nikon wide-angle 14-24mm f/2.8 lens. Amazing and it was so worth it to capture the vibrant colors and also luck out with the pelicans flying in formation as if coming out from the sun. I actually was planning to leave the beach then because I felt the best light was done for the morning, but the clouds that I saw forming pulled me back and I decided to stay a little longer which I’m happy I did. This photo below was just recently purchased which I was very excited about.
Aside from audio work and getting my pictures shipped off, I also acquired a new puppy. Many thanks to my sister, Cindy for that one. It’s been over a year since Koa went to doggie heaven and my nephew and I drove up to Washington state last month to grab my new dog, Frodo! He’s a sweetheart and definitely great to have around. I hope to head off on a road trip or two before the end of the year but there are a few audio projects that I must attend to first. In the meantime, I’ll be continuing to go through my many photos from my SE Asia trip earlier this year. Yes, I have a ton more to get through and post. I’m planning to do a newsletter/blog update 1 or twice a month to keep my photography side busy along with doing some local excursions. Until then I hope everyone is well and have a great weekend!
Mahalo nui loa for reading and following!
Penang and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
I’m getting ready to head back tomorrow afternoon to LA. It’s been an amazing 7 weeks here in SE Asia and I hope to return sooner rather than later. This part of the world has opened my eyes even further and I can’t wait to explore more. I was telling my tour guide Melissa yesterday that I realized that I didn’t explore too many beaches here and when I return I have to go and checkout the coastal areas more. But Betty and I talked about this being a highlight tour of SE Asia and it certainly was.
Many people asked me as I was planning my travels why I would go to Malaysia and I say, “Why not?” This country is filled with an eclectic vibe of a vast array of cultures, from the Malays, to Chinese, Indian and even a Western influence. It is a Muslim country but regardless of that, the people, culture and overall feeling here is very modernized and to see the different ethnicities and religions fused together here is quite fascinating.
I started my excursions in Malaysia in Penang. It’s an island off the coast of mainland Malaysia specifically known for it’s food. Mostly Chinese settled here and it’s referred to as the ‘Pearl of the Orient.’ Though the mixture of cultures are still strongly prevalent especially on the well-known Street of Harmony where it begins or ends with the Anglican Church of St. George, then the Chinese Goddess of Mercy Temple, to the Hindu temple of Mahamariamman, next the Teochew Temple to end or start with the Kapitan Keling Mosque. Quite a site to see all of these places of worship on one street, but what perfectly describes the culture and people of Malaysia.
I had the pleasure of doing a food tour in Penang with Mark Ng, who runs Simply Enak in Penang. He and a friend originally began this in Kuala Lumpur but he decided to move back home to Penang and establish his food tour here. I was lucky enough to get a personalized tour with Mark as I was his only guest and so he brought me around to places where he grew up. We started off eating char kway teow which is a noodle dish with egg, veggies, and shrimp – really yummy stuff and he also got us a dish of fried pork and deep fried shrimp. All quite delicious and this was for breakfast. 😉 Mark said what’s great about Asia in general is that you basically can eat whatever you want. You want noodle soup? You’ll find a stall for that. Pancakes? Yep you find that to or how about some spring rolls. There are no rules when it comes to food here.
Mark if you’re reading this, my apologies for not remembering the names of the foods you got me. Ha! Oy!
We then walked through Little Armenian street that was filled with some great street art. Reminded me of Banksy in many ways. At times there were queue’s of people waiting to take pictures with them.
We then walked to a morning market filled with more food, fresh veggies, iphone covers to underwear. Ha! You need it, it was there. As we walked through, Mark got me a few more goodies to try along the way. He bought me a yummy custard pastery, to a pancake filled with peanuts and corn (yes an odd combination but it was really sweet), then another peanut snack like peanut brittle wrapped in a fresh lumpia like wrap, and then I can’t forget another bite that reminded me a little bit like malasadas except it was sprinkled with sesame seeds. I was getting full so Mark was holding them in a bag for me as we toured more. Needless to say I had a lot of good snacks for the rest of the day.
Before we went to lunch we walked through the Street of Harmony along with exploring the Clan Jetties, which are homes to families of fisherman, traders and dock workers. The homes are built on stilts and are all connected by wooden walkways.
We then finally made our way to Little India for some authentic Indian food. We ended up eating a banana leaf rice meal which was really delicious. It was served on a banana leaf with rice and 3 different types of curries and he also ordered chicken masala. It was accompanied by a thirst quenching lemon tea and I also tried a yummy ginger chai tea.
Mark successfully made me full for the rest of the day that I actually opted to return back to my B&B and take a nap. Ha! It was a great tour and should you find yourself in Penang, please contact Mark for a tour. (www.simplyenak.com) They also do tours in Kuala Lumpur as well.
They next day I ventured back to Georgetown to check out a few of the main sites. I started off by visiting the Pinang Peranakan Mansion. It’s been used for film locations but more importantly it’s a wonderful showcase of the melding of culture and success that the Chinese obtained in Penang. The details in this home is stunning. Many things painted in gold leaf to intricate carvings, as well as Scottish ironwork.
I then walked over to the Khoo (ku) Kongsi, which is the temple that belongs to the Khoo Kongsi clan. This too is very well-detailed in design and it’s probably the most well-restored and maintained clan house in Penang.
Next on the list was The Blue Mansion, formally known as Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion. He was known as the ‘Rockefeller of the East,’ and rightly so as he built a prosperous business empire. This was a home that was thankfully saved and restored to it’s original grandeur by 2 architects. You’re also able to stay here as a guest. On the tour we were able to view the main living areas and even that is quite stunning.
I wasn’t done yet for the day as I decided to take a taxi and head up to Kek Lok Si Temple. It’s the largest Buddhist temple in Malaysia. There is a 7-story pagoda and a huge bronze statue of Kuan Yin. I decided to climb the 7-stories and was greeted with a great view of Penang.
I then ended the day at Penang Hill to catch another view of the city. I think I was spoiled at the temple because even though the view is nice I thought the temple provided the best one. Perhaps I was tired and hot too but the best thing of my time in Penang Hill was the funicular train ride coming down. ha!
The next day I was heading back to Kuala Lumpur and I decided to stay at Aloft Hotel right next door to KL Sentral Station. It was an easy train ride from the airport KLIA to here, simply take the KLIA Express and it’s a direct route to KL Sentral which is a hub for their public transportation.
I scheduled a tour with Melissa Lua through Tours by Locals. We did a heritage walk that covered various religious landmarks, wet markets, Chinatown and Independence square to name a few. Melissa is a great guide with a lot of knowledge of her country and city. She provided me a wonderful background of how Kuala Lumpur came to be and where it’s moving now and to the future.
We started our tour by visiting the Hindu temple, Sri Mahamariamman, which is the oldest in Malaysia. I thoroughly enjoyed her description of the history and stories that the Hindu religion is based on. Many things that I never knew and I still would love to learn more. There are many similarities amongst our religions, I just wish we learned to blur the lines amongst one another despite our beliefs.
We then walked through a wet market, where chickens and fresh meats are usually sold. It was technically closed for the day but the chickens were in their cages alive ready to be sold fresh the next day. We then walked out to an open market selling all types of goods, the usual souvenirs to local snacks and fruits. Melissa had me try a warm yummy chestnut and a masos teen. It looked like a plum but it had the skin of a thick orange but depending on how you open it it could turn you hands purple. Inside was a sweet, white core.
From there we walked through the Central Market and headed to the Sze Ya Temple which is a Chinese Taoist temple. It was closed so we weren’t able to go inside but it’s nestled between modern buildings.
We continued our tour to Independence Square where Malaysia claimed their independence in 1957. It’s situated in the side of the river where the British settled and you can clearly see it though the architecture. Though there is a mix of Islamic influence in the buildings.
Melissa took me through the gallery and explained and showed me in depth the history and progress of Kuala Lumpur. There are great pictures and maps of the city from the past to present and there is a cool model of the city that they do a fancy light show on. We eventually made our way around into Old Chinatown and to the Old Market Square. In between we stop at the Jamek Mosque.
Our tour ended with a stop at a cafe and chatting about our travels. I really enjoyed this tour and hearing an intimate perspective of Malaysia. If you’re not in the mood to join a bigger group and having a more personal experience than definitely look into sites like Tours by Locals and Vayable.
Today I relaxed a bit at the pool and then took the LRT to KL Tower and the Petronas towers. The skyline of this city is really beautiful and when lit at night, it’s stunning. Their malls here are also massive but I was happy to find a Uniqlo. 🙂
The pictures will give you the inside details but this is my last entry for SE Asia. I fly back tomorrow to LA and as much as I love to travel, it’s time to check back in to home. Thanks all for following and reading. It’s been another great trip of a lifetime for me. Mahalo!
The Temples in Angkor – Part II and Bangkok
It’s early morning for most of you but it’s a warm, balmy evening here in Penang, Malaysia. I’m staying at a really cute guesthouse called Mango Tree Place about 20-30 walking minutes from Georgetown, which is another UNESCO World Heritage Site. (I see what my theme has been this trip) 😉
I just got back from exploring some of the famous hawker stalls tonight which features street foods from all the various cultures that have settled here, dominated by the Chinese. I visited Gurney Drive which features a good variety of foods. Per my Lonely Planet guide, I ate at stall 11 to eat some Asam Laksa. It’s a noodle dish that was ranked 7th on CNN’s “World’s Most Delicious Foods,” in 2011 and it has a fish-based broth. They add it with garnishes of ginger flower buds, onions, lettuce, chilis, mint leaves and mine had slices of pineapple in it, along with fish balls – fish cake balls that is. 😉 It was quite delicious. I’ll be going on a food tour tomorrow morning and get introduced to more foods.
Anyway, I’m here to finish up blogging about the temples at Angkor and my stay in Bangkok.
As I stated in my last entry we woke up really early for sunrise at Angkor Wat. The temples of all temples at Angkor. I brought my tripod in hopes of some cool shots as the sun rose, unfortunately the clouds covered most of it and I wasn’t the only one with a tripod. Plus there were the annoying tourists that would stand in front of your position and then knock your tripod, of course many not apologizing. AARGH! Needless to say I had to really practice my patience without wanting to trip a tourist or two. 😉
The shots I have here of Angkor Wat aren’t HDR, but hopefully it’ll give you a gist of our morning at one of the most amazing and oldest temples in the world. If you only have 1 day to visit the temples than this is definitely the one to see. (Correction: We bought a 3-day pass and there’s also a 1-week pass. You don’t have to use it consecutively, there is a timeframe that you can enter within. If you only have 1-day than then the single day pass is $20)
By 7:30am many tourists were already passing through and part of the reason is because it’s a tad bit cooler. I would highly suggest either coming early and then leaving mid-day for lunch or explore elsewhere and then return later in the day.
The details and carvings of Angkor Wat are astounding. The artwork and the architecture blows your mind for the time period that it was built. This temple is the Khmer’s national symbol and they have a right to take such pride in it. This temple was built by Suryavarman II, who according to the words of the LP Guide was ‘the key person to unify the Cambodian and Khmer influence across much of SE Asia. He was also different from other kings as he worshipped the Hindu diety, Vishnu.’ This is a must see and should be on your bucket list if you haven’t already seen it. You can wander around here for some time finding new things you didn’t see before. As the sun eventually peeked out behind the clouds there was some great light that came through parts of the temple.
To have seen it in it’s full splendor would have been awesome, but even though it has aged there is still a timeless beauty about it. No doubt it’ll forever be etched in my mind.
After exploring Angkor Wat for almost 3 hours, we headed to a few more temples before we ended our tour. The next temple was Ta Prohm, which is nicknamed the Tomb Raider temple but it is a little more Indiana Jones. 😉 There are huge tree roots that have established themselves in this temple and literally are holding things up or smothering them. This is a 12th-century Buddhist temple built by Jayavarman VII. Nature has taken hold of this temple but it was certainly one of my favorites. As some of you saw the video my friend Betty took, we got a little carried away with trying to be action stars in the temple. I know so wrong! But the surroundings are hard to not do a few action shots. 😉 It’s nicknamed Tomb Raider because the movie was actually shot on a few locations in Angkor. Regardless of that, the temple is still impressive amidst the towering trees and roots, with moss covering many parts and still many fallen stones or those being unearthered.
Our last stop was Banteay Kdei that then leads out to Sra Srang, the Royal Baths. The name of this temple means “A Citadel of Chambers,” but is also known as “Citadel of Monks’ Cells.” This temple was also built during the reign of Jayavarman VII and is just outside of Ta Prohm. Still just as equally impressive as Ta Prohm despite it’s smaller size.
We walked out to Sra Srang and were immediately hounded by the young women at the stalls trying to sell you drinks and food. They have no problem with asking you questions, telling you the capitol of your country and then trying to give you bracelets and telling you to visit their stall. Both me and and Betty were accosted by two separate girls. There really was no way to avoid them on our way back to our tuk-tuk. You tell them, ‘Maybe, I’ll stop by,’ ‘No I’m not thirsty,’ etc. On our walk back, mine ran out when I was already more than half way and her stall was at the back. She said, “Come back to my stall,” I replied with silence, to which I’m sure she cursed me in Khmer. The tone of one’s voice is very universal when you’re pissed. I then gladly left her bracelet she gave me on the side as I didn’t want her bad juju. 😉
We successfully made it back to our tuk-tuk and ended the day of temple touring. We ventured off to the famed Pub Street and got a foot massage and some good ‘ol Western food of potato skins and beer. Later that evening after relaxing at the pool we tried some Cambodian BBQ and then went to a bar called “Angkor What?” LOL We just had to. We opted to stick with beer rather than the buckets of alcohol they were serving that would really make you ask that question, “Angkor what?” Just think of Sharkey’s when I say bucket as I’m sure many of you have encountered that drink back in the day.
It was then off to Bangkok. We took a direct bus from Siem Reap to Bangkok through a company called Nattakan. It’s a Thai-based company and the perk with this one was that you didn’t have to change from one bus to the other once you crossed the border. It wasn’t as organized as the Mekong Express but we got there in one piece and on the same bus. It’s a little more than the average bus ride at $28/person but it was nice to be in a bigger bus with AC and not have to switch to a mini-bus after being in a bigger one. They do serve you refreshments and some snacks and lunch, but be sure to bring your own goodies too. The total travel time for us that day was about 8-9 hours as there were a few kids that held us up as we crossed the border, along with traffic. Also note that you have to take your luggage out and cross them over the border on your own. It wasn’t fluid like crossing from Vietnam to Cambodia and part of the reason I think is because you have to pay for your visa on arrival in Cambodia, so the ME has a system down pat. Whereas with this crossing, since you don’t have to pay and depending on what country you’re from things vary as you enter Thailand. The bus will only stay and wait for a max of 2 hours. We probably got through within an hour and that includes departing Cambodia, walking through to the Thailand border and getting through immigration and having your bags scanned. Yay for backpacks because rolling luggage would be a pain in the ass going through those streets, as several of our passengers realized.
We were dropped off at Mo Chi Station and took a cab that couldn’t bring us to our hotel. LOL Thankfully he dropped us off at the BTS or skytrain. With the little English he spoke, he apologized for not being able to drive us to our destination, which we’re still not sure why. Ha! Though with the help of our map we were able to figure our way around and after a couple hops on the very efficient public transportation system and taking out a few locals in the train while we exited with our big packs, we made it to our hotel via the hotel boat that traveled back and forth on the Chao Phraya River. We were welcomed with luxury for a mere $80/night with a room at the Chatrium Riverside Hotel, that was the biggest of our travels in the last 3 weeks. We soaked it in. 😉
The following day we took it easy with our touring. We took a boat up to the Grand Palace that the royal family still uses to this day. They don’t reside here but it’s used for important functions. The complex is well-maintained and the gold plated stupas shine brightly as you come off the boats. Within this complex is also Wat Phra Kaew which houses the Emerald Buddha. We weren’t allowed to take photos inside but I was able to snatch a distant one. The inside was just as opulent as the outside. Extremely fine details and very ornate decorations adorned this complex. It’s a site to behold for sure.
We wandered around here for a good 2 hours, each turn our jaws-dropped at some of the grandeur you encountered. From there, we walked through the amulet market to Wat Pho. This is the oldest and largest temple in Bangkok and of which holds the awesome ‘Reclining Buddha.’ I’ve seen pictures of this but to see it in person is mind-boggling. As you walk through you hear people giving coin offerings in the bowls. I took my recorder as I walked through and as I gave my own offering. It sounds pretty cool. 😉 There are 108 bronze bowls in total.
From there we took a costly tuk-tuk ride to the Gold Buddha in Chinatown. My negotiating skills weren’t great. Ha! I was only able to get him down 50 Baht from 250 for a 15-20 minute ride. But we got there safely and got to see the Gold Buddha at Wat Traimit. We only paid to see the Buddha itself and it’s was worth it. This Buddha is solid gold weighing 5.5 tons and is 3m tall. It certainly shines and is housed in a very nice temple.
We only had 1 full day in Bangkok and kind of regret not staying another 1 or 2 as there is still much to see in the city. Thailand in general is a country I’ll certainly plan on returning to. The people, food and culture I really enjoyed and I could see why people would want to live here. Anyone hiring in Thailand? 😉
Alright all it’s time for bed here but thanks again for reading and I hope to post again hopefully tomorrow evening.
The Temples of Angkor in Siem Reap – Part 1
I’m relaxing in a swanky high end electronic hotel here Kuala Lumpur as I write this latest entry. I’m staying at the Sama Sama KL Hotel connected to the airport as I’ll be flying out tomorrow morning to Penang. I thought I’d treat myself to some extra comforts during my last leg of my 7-week SE Asia trip. It’s a little eerie as all the news vans are parked outside as they continue to find out more news on MH370. This hotel seems to be the media hub as more news is discovered. My continued thoughts and prayers to the families and friends affected by this.
As you see in the title, I’ll be posting some info on our visit to the temples in Angkor. I’m going to split these up since we saw a lot of temples. 😉 So look out for more tomorrow.
Since I was recovering from a stomach bug in Phnom Penh, I didn’t tour but Betty did go to tour the Royal Palace along with the the Tuol Sieng Museum and the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. She said it was a pretty heavy visit that it was probably best that I didn’t tour with me feeling the way I was as there were many parts during her visit that she herself got a bit quesy. I’ll have to return here sometime and hopefully not have any funky ailments.
The next day we were back on the Mekong Express to Siem Reap. It was a 7-hour bus ride on some pretty bumpy roads but both of us made sure not to eat anything too suspicious for either of our tummies at our lunch stop. Much of the reason that the bus ride is a trek is simply because much of the infrastructure in the country is still being formalized and constructed. There was a lot of road construction and there aren’t any freeways or highways to really get you to cities any faster. Though that’s the perks of traveling as you venture through unknown territory right?
Once we arrived we took a tuk-tuk to our hotel and we also ended up hiring the driver, Gia to be our driver for the next 2 days to the temples.
We stayed at The Villa Siem Reap, centered in the heart of Siem Reap near the city centre and it had a pool. 🙂 With 31-35 C, or 90+ degree weather, it was awesome to have a pool here after a long day of touring and walking through the temples.
The next day, Gia (sp?) picked us up around 9:30am and we headed to Angkor. We bought a 2-day pass for $40/person. (A note for those that might want to travel to Cambodia – they gladly accept US dollars and many if not all ATMs spit out US moolah. The Riel is kind of non-existent there and many of the merchants prefer US monies, but you can also pay in both Riel and US dollars. Just a handy tip for you.)
We started touring when the sun was at it’s highest and hottest. My bandana became my best friend this day as I kept dousing it in water and placing it on my head to cool down. Regardless, the temples we visited were amazing and even though we felt our electrolytes depleting each time we took another step up the temple stairs we had to remind ourselves where we were.
That first day we visited many of the smaller temples starting with Pre Rup.
The name of this temple means “turn the body,” it’s here that many Cambodians believe that funerals were conducted here and the ashes of the body were rotated during the service. It was built as the state temple for Kind Rajendravarman around 961-962.
We were in awe and this is a small temple. I took many photos through both days but I can’t inundate you with all of them, so I’ll do my best to give you the highlight photos.
The next one was Eastern Mebon. This is a 10th century temple built during the reign of King Rajendravarman. It was dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva and honors the parents of the king (thanks Wikipedia for the info ;))
This then was the start of our continuous coconut water consumption as we perspired profusely. LOL But no matter what, it was amazing to know the age of these temples and we continued to think at how cool it would have been to see them in their full glory. It’s quite a site to take in and seeing these smaller temples really got us excited for what was to come with Angkor Thom and Angkor Wat.
Our next temple was a site of relief as it was surrounded by shade and trees. Phew! Ta Som was built at the end of the 12th century for King Jayavarman VII. This was built in dedication to the king’s father. It’s not restored as the two earlier temples we visited but I found that it was cooler to see it in it’s natural dilapidated state. There is a spot in the back of the temple that is held up by a tree which is a site to see. There were trees so tall that they made you look like a speck. They are continuing to restore these temples to a point so that it’s safe for visitors.
We then visited Neak Poan, which is a water temple. They are still doing excavations and so we weren’t able to walk around the entire temple, but the way to the temple had a very Indiana Jones feel with murky and creepy swamps. Once inside there is a large square pool and 4 smaller ones with an ‘island’ in the middle.
Preah Khan was next, this also was built by Jayavarman VII that may have been a Buddhist university. It’s much bigger than we expected and there are many vaulted ceilings, beautiful stonework and we came across one vaulted area with many bats. Eww!
Our last visit during the sunset hour was Angkor Thom. We certainly were getting templed out and we were dragging our feet but the reward at the end for me was worth it.
Angkor Thom’s area is bigger than Angkor Wat, as it encompasses multiple structures. The gates are the same on all four sides and they certainly pull you in. Angkor Thom is known as Great Angkor or Great City and great it is. The faces you are greeted with are the faces of Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara (this is the enlightenment being that embodies the compassion of all Buddhas) looking out over the kingdom. This was the last great capital of the Khmer empire.
In the center of Angkor Thom is Bayon, which was a welcome site of beauty as we ended the day. There are 54 towers that are decorated with Avalokiteshvara’s faces. These towers contain 4 faces on each of them which the same one and no matter where you turn, you can’t hide from a face.
Even though our bodies felt defeated it was a great day of touring the temples. It’s definitely a place I would return to as I’m sure you find new details that you never caught before. Our next day would start at dawn at Angkor Wat. Stay tuned for that blog tomorrow. It’s time for me to clean up and crash out for night as I head to Penang.
Many thanks again for reading and following.
My Son & Ho Chi Minh City
I’m writing from Phnom Penh, Cambodia and catching up on my blog. I caught a stomach bug from a lunch stop on our bus ride into Cambodia, so unfortunately I wasn’t able to tour the capitol city today. My friend Betty went out to tour while I recovered so hopefully she’s having a fun time.
I’m thankfully feeling much better but yesterday afternoon was no fun for sure. Today’s blog will cover our visit to My Son and our time in Ho Chi Minh City aka Saigon.
On our second day in Hoi An, we took a tour out to a place called My Son. These are ruins from from the ancient Cham empire and is another Unesco World Heritage Site.
It kind of gave us a glimmer into what Angkor Wat will be like. Unfortunately much of this was heavily bombed by US forces during the war and many craters still remain on this sacred site. The architecture and artwork is amazing and it’s so sad to see much of it destroyed. They are doing much to restore some of it to what it once was.
We then left Hoi An flew into Saigon on Sunday night and our hotel was smack dab in the middle of a bustling District 1. When we arrived there were numerous food stands and people sitting on the sidewalk having a beer and grabbing some food. It’s a bustling city for sure and we started to really dig the vibe there.
The next day we ventured out in the heat to walk around and see some of the sights. That first day we went to the War Remembrance Museum which focuses on the victims of war, with a strong focus on the American/Vietnam war. They have collections of US military vehicles and artillery used and a very powerful collection of photographs, one in particular that I found very impressive and heart-rendering were those that they featured from war correspondents and photographers. Many of whom were also killed in action during the Vietnam war. It was a heavy experience but I’m glad we visited here to see the affects war had on the country and in which they are still recovering from.
We then walked over to see the Notre Dame Cathedral. It’s quite impressive and one of our tour guides said there are about 7 million Catholics here in Vietnam.
We didn’t have the chance to go inside as they were closed during the time we got there but we saw many couples getting photographed for their wedding and even in the middle of the chaotic traffic. I thought Hanoi had a significant amount of motorbikes but try crossing the traffic circles with cars and bikes that are double that amount. Betty and I crossed a traffic circle and purposely followed a local couple as they braved the crossing. We took the idea of sticky rice from our food guide in Hanoi. 🙂
After the cathedral, across the way is the post office which is another impressive piece of architecture. It still had old school phone booths that were filled with phones that didn’t work – ha, and the other side were filled with ATMs. It wasn’t only a post office but they also had gift shops in there.
We then ended our day by finding a local bahn mi stand and also had a dinner at a great place called Five Oysters near our hotel.
The next day we decided to tour the Cao Dai temple and the Cu Chi Tunnels. It was a long day but it was well worth it. The Cao Dai Temple is quite unique and we got there during their noontime prayer ritual. It’s a combination of secular and religious philosophies from both the east and west and they have a weird affinity to Victor Hugo. It’s a beautiful temple and I was able to record some of the music and singing. It’s was an interesting ritual and they apparently pray 4 times a day. It’s a very elaborately decorated building with the left eye being a pinnacle symbol that is represented all around the temple.
We then made our way to the Cu Chi Tunnels after lunch. This was a fascinating place and I’m bummed that I didn’t have my GoPro camera with me this day. This is an elaborate tunnel network that the Viet Cong used famously during the American war. Our guide Ne was very good at describing the use of these tunnels and was also very proud of his people in using these networks to try and outsmart the enemy. You gathered a new found respect for those that lived down here. We had the ability to go through 2 of them in which they’ve been widened. I could only imagine how narrow the actual tunnels were as the widened ones are not that much bigger. I unfortunately don’t have pictures of us going through as it was so narrow and points where you needed to be on all fours and use your hands to get through. Again bummed that I didn’t have my GoPro as it would have been a perfect way to capture our experience.
There are still a number of secret doors that are in the area and they are extremely small. We had the chance to go into a tourist secret door and that’s small enough, they actual ones are smaller than the average man’s shoe size. If you’re in Ho Chi Minh City, this is definitely a worthy visit if you’re into this.
A diagram of what some of the tunnels contained
Our guide Ne and him showing us the tools they used to dig the tunnels.
I won’t be able to share much of Phnom Penh since it was mostly spent in the room recovering but tomorrow were heading off to Siem Reap to finally explore Angkor Wat. I’ll be sticking to bread, crackers and some bananas tomorrow. Thankfully I’m on the mend so that’s a good sign. I’ll catch you all later and thanks again for reading.
Drive from Hue down to the charming city of Hoi An
Betty and I didn’t realize till too late that we actually could’ve taken motorbikes down from Hue to Hoi An. 🙁 Guides would have picked us up from our hotel, strapped our backpacks to the bikes and off we would go. Apparently you can customize it to where you’re going – bummer! Something to note for the next visit to Vietnam.
Instead of taking the bus or train, we did decide to split a private car with a guide that stopped at various places on our way down south to Hoi An. Our guide and driver’s name was Thu that our hotel, Jade Hotel, booked for us. BTW Jade Hotel is awesome, great customer service, really hospitable and also helped me a ton by helping me get proper meds for my sinus infection.
(http://jadehotelhue.com) We worked with Sarah and Lisa. Breakfast was served each morning and everytime we would return to the hotel, they always offered us fresh juices, teas, and fruit. They’re located near the part of the city with many restaurants and shops but not in the heart of it which is also nice. I would definitely return here to stay just for their customer service.
Our private car/tour with Thu was $32.50/each and we stopped at Vedana Lagoon which is where I took the fishing boat photo below:
We left about 10:30am and took our time down, which was kind of nice. We then stopped at Lang Co Bay which has a lot of oyster farming. It cost about 50,000 VND for 1kg of fresh oysters, which is about $2.35. Not bad.
From there, we headed into Denang via the Hai Van Pass, which is also known as the “ocean cloud pass.” It was proven true through our drive as we went from sun down in Lang Co Bay to dense thick fog up into the mountains. I’m sure it’s very beautiful when the clouds disperse and you can see down into the South China Sea, but unfortunately it was so socked in that we passed the opportunity to check out the American bunkers that still remained at the top. It’s a pretty windy road that really only motorbikes and cars can pass through. As we descended down into Denang, we made a small stop onto China Beach, which was a popular hangout for the US troops during the war and it’s only a section of a number of beaches that stretches between Denang and Hoi An. And yes China Beach was also the name of the show with Dana Delaney. 🙂
Denang is a growing city that is booming with high-end resorts. The Hyatt and Crowne Plaza already have their footprint here. It seems as though ex-pats are heading here and it’s a lot more westernized than some of the other cities we’ve visited here. Otherwise it’s probably filed mostly with rich tourists that just want to golf, beach and relax. 😉 You can buy a decent sized villa for $500k or you can stay a night at one of these resorts for $1000/night. It’s amazing how much development is happening on this one particular stretch of road hogging up all the prime beach real estate. We were glad to have just drove through it and not stayed here.
We then made our last main stop at the Marble Mountains, in between Denang and Hoi An. These are 5 marble outcrops that have natural caves that contain small Hindu and Buddhist sanctuaries. We explored this place for about an hour or so. Betty and I didn’t know what to expect on our drive down in terms of the types of stops so we both ended up dressing in flat shoes and skirts that day. Well we didn’t realize that we probably should have dressed more appropriately after scaling some of the slippery marble outcrops and caves. LOL
For many of you that know me and Betty, we can be a bit klutzy, so it was pretty comical as we climbed up out of the Van Thong cave, but we made it through with flying colors and our shoes and skirts still intact. Kids were actually rappelling down into the caves which looked pretty fun and their laughter and giggles were proof they were having a fun time.
After we scaled marble rock and limestone in skirts
When we took the elevator down we walked through an alley full of merchants selling various marble items. Earlier we stopped at a huge family owned store with great marble sculptures. Quite impressive.
We finally made our way to Hoi An and stayed at a really cute and stylish homestay called Hoi An Greenlife Homestay. Really big rooms and it’s situated just outside of the Old City of Hoi An that is easily accessible by bike and walking. (http://www.hoiangreenlife.com) Great staff, delicious breakfast and comfy beds. They provide bikes free of charge and even when we “lost” a bike they were so relaxed and calm about the situation. Thank goodness it was found. Phew!
Our first night there, we just walked around the Old City. It’s a really quaint, relaxed and charming city. It grew on me for sure and I would love coming back. The Old Town is a mixture of Japanese merchant houses and Chinese temples that have now been converted to boutique shops and restaurants. It’s certainly not short of tailor shops and restaurants that offer cooking classes. Hoi An is the only place you can get a certain type of noodle used in their Cao Lau dish. It’s thicker and they’re topped with crispy croutons mixed with pork slices, a broth and many herbs.
On our evening walk we came across a bustling nightlife with locals and tourists. Many of the locals were trying to sell you candles to place in the river. I had the chance to capture these two brothers that I’m so happy it came out.
After a filling dinner with more Hoi An specialties we headed back to our homestay to crash and get ready for a relaxing day at the beach. We rode bikes down to An Bang beach and after being hassled to relax under an umbrella and chair, we were able to haggle a good deal without having to buy lunch. While we chilled with a few beers on the beach there were some unexpected visitors. LOL
Yes that is a herd of goats passing the european dude basking in the sun. 🙂 Gotta love it.
My next blog will cover our visit to My Son (pronounced mi-son) which were ruins of the ancient Cham empire and is also another UNESCO site. It was a nice intro to what we’ll see in Angkor Wat.
Well, off to grab some dinner here in Ho Chi Minh City. Mahalo and aloha!
Caves, Stalagmites and Stalactites Oh My!
On our second day in Hue, we decided to venture out of the main city and head northeast to Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park. It’s another UNESCO World Heritage site and when you first enter these caves you can see why.
It was an early start for us at a 6:45am pickup time. After a few stops, our tour guide got on. There were about 5-6 of us that were non-Vietnamese tourists, but this guide just starting speaking Vietnamese for about 15-20 minutes into our journey. Those of us that didn’t understand were looking at each other wondering if the travel company forgot to tell him that many of us didn’t speak the native language. LOL There was a tourist from Belarus that put up his hand while our guide was speaking and said, “Excuse me,” to let him take a small break to inform us that he could at least speak English. Well that didn’t work as the guide just stared at him and kept on talking. Ha!
After another 10 minutes, he finally broke into English and introduced himself and gave us a breakdown of our tour. We were grateful to know that we were at least going to the same national park. The ride to the Phong Nha is a 3-4 hour journey but we made a few toilet stops and a lunch break before we finally arrived.
We did actually stop at a Catholic Church named Our Lady of La Vang. This too unfortunately was destroyed by US bombing and what stands today is just the steeple. The rest of the church is literally just simple steel framing and glass windows. At one end is the shrine and reverence to the Holy Mother.
After our visit we continued on for another 2-3 hours. We ate at a local restaurant once we arrived in the central city of the park. Already I could tell this was a place I’d want to return to and trek around further. As we drove through, I saw various places to stay upon my return. We finally arrived and boarded a boat that had two drivers and we slowly went down the Son River. On the sides were these beautiful, lush mountains peppered with small villages of the locals.
It was a 30-minute boat ride until we reached the mouth of the cave. Many of you have seen the photo I posted on FB or Instagram.
They then took the tarp off the top of the boat and we entered this amazing marvel of natural beauty. My photos posted here can’t really describe how wide and big this cave is. I have a few GoPro videos that I need to edit that kind of gives you the scope of this one cave but this is something I’ve only seen in shows on National Geographic or Discovery; to see it in person is priceless. This cave, the Phong Nha is only one of 150 that have been discovered here in this park. Some people in our group visited the Paradise Cave, which is another one to come back to and there’s another visitors can now visit that was recently discovered called Son Doong which was founded by the British in 2009 but it apparently costs about $1000-$3000/US dollars to visit this cave as it has been marked as the world’s largest and you can camp here.
Phong Nha Cave is 7,729km long but tourists are only allowed to view 1500km. Regardless we were transported into a different world and yes Betty and I being the dorks we are felt like we were in Lord of the Rings. 🙂 Once we were in the cave, they shut the engine of the boat off and paddled us into and around the various grottos in this karst. The gravity and size of the stalagmites and stalactites were obvious indicators of how old this natural wonder was. These karsts were created 465 to 250 million years ago and entering this cave through the underground river is absolutely captivating. It’s beautifully lit and each time you turn around your mouth just drops.
Towards the end, we were able to get out of the boat and walk around to the mouth of the cave that we entered. I can’t wait to come back here and discover the other amazing caves out here. I think it’s a must see for anyone that visits Vietnam.
Till then enjoy some of the pics I was able to capture. I’m so glad I brought a wide-angle lens and I hope that it gives you some insight to the size of this amazing place.
We safely arrived in Hoi An today after a cool drive down from Hue. I’ll post another entry hopefully in the morning, if not definitely in the evening.
Till then, “Good night from Hoi An, Vietnam!
Bai Tu Long Bay and First Day in Hue
Hi Friends and Family,
It’s my last night in Hue before we head down to Hoi An tomorrow. Here’s a post of our time in Halong Bay, particularly Bai Tu Long Bay or Baby Dragon to the locals. It’s located northeast of the famed Halong Bay. Betty and I decided to head up here as it’s not as crowded with other tourist junks (boats) that Halong is and I’m glad we did.
Since we’ve arrived in Vietnam we’ve had overcast and rainy weather and when we looked at the forecast we thought it was going to be sunny, turns out it was overcast – ha! But regardless this part of the world is breathtaking.
Betty squared away the arrangements with a company called Indochina Junk (http://www.indochina-junk.com/?page_id=1763) , who are one of the few companies that can travel through this bay.
Bai Tu Long Bay is definitely more laid back and we heard from our guide, Happy that in Halong as many as 100 boats can be near each other and it can be loud and even more touristy. We were blessed with absolute peacefulness and serenity and I would return here in a heartbeat especially when the sun is shining. Our boat the Dragon Pearl III could bring 20 passengers and the funny thing is that me and Betty were the only English-speaking tourists, everyone else was French. LOL They were a nice group and our guide spoke Vietnamese, French and English well. Though we got stuck on the French senior citizen boat. Ha!
We had great accommodations and the food served was delicious. They served really yummy seafood and had good service. Our first day we stopped at one of the karsts that had a cave with stalagmites and stalagtites, called Thien Cahn Son Cave. Since this bay is younger the formations within the cave aren’t as dramatic yet but it’s still impressive, plus it was nice not having to fight another 200-300 people in the few caves of Halong Bay.
Betty and I then kayaked around the bay that I have GoPro footage of which I’ll try to post later on. It was awesome and the echoes were really cool too. 🙂 Pictures are hard to describe the magnitude of these karsts as you see them from the boat and up-close. I was definitely bummed that it was so overcast but it gives me all the more reason to return here. Below are a few pics to share. For the night, we were docked in an area where we were completely surrounded and it was quite amazing to wake up to.
The next morning started early with breakfast and a visit to a fishing village named Vong Vieng. Not only do they fish but the people here in particular also are employed by a private company in Japan to grow pearls. We visited a few of the schools and it’s awesome because this whole village is floating on the emerald green water of the bay and the kids that go to school have their little boats to row themselves to class. Sweet! 😉 It’s a simple life and the surroundings are so peaceful. I could sleep in this bay for many nights, with the constantly calm waters and sounds of peace.
Sooner rather than later, it was time for us to return and head back to Hanoi for us to catch our flight out to Hue in Central Vietnam.
We arrived in the evening and Wednesday was our day of touring Hue City. Hue is known for being the heart of Vietnam, spiritually, culturally and intellectually. Hue is filled with royal tombs and the Citadel.
The latter was once the former Imperial City on the Perfume River (Song Huong) and it’s expanse is huge. Unfortunately, the US heavily bombed it during the war and there is much to be restored. Betty and I ventured here last after touring the tombs and we were a bit disappointed because there was still much to be fixed and it was a lot of empty space. It could’ve been too that we were getting tired and it was starting to drizzle more and more. We began looking like the stupid American tourists who didn’t bother taking the umbrellas offered us. 😉 But it’s one of those places that you have to return to because you know that in 5 years there will be more improvements made here. I think we were both expecting too much.
Prior to the Citadel, we visited 3 Royal Tombs, Tomb of Tu Doc, the Tomb of Minh Mang, and our favorite was the Tomb of Khai Dinh. It’s situated on a hilltop with a wonderful view and it has a more elaborate design. It’s also the most recent and the last of the tombs ever made for an emperor here in Vietnam.
You should definitely visit Hue for at least 1-2 days. The traffic isn’t nearly as hectic as Hanoi and the food here is also a bit different. We continue to eat great food and the hospitality of the people here continues to be wonderful. Though I think we’re confusing the Asian’s here because they ask me and Betty where we’re from and when we say, California USA they all give us this funny look. LOL
My next post will be about our visit to Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, another UNESCO World Heritage site. This is just another place I have to return to to explore longer as there are lush landscapes and amazing caves, with more stalagmites and stalactites.
We’re off to Hoi An tomorrow and we’re hoping we’ll finally get some sun. Till then good night from Hue!
Some new foods and sights in Hanoi
Hey all —
My friend Betty got in safely last Saturday and we had another 2 full days in Hanoi. We spent it walking around the Old Quarter and the French Quarter along with tasting a bunch of delicious food here in Vietnam. Here are a few highlights:
If you are a foodie like me and Betty than definitely go on the Hanoi Street Food Tour (http://www.hanoistreetfoodtour.com) We had two guides, Phuoc and Linh, and we were part of a group of 9. We visited a total of 10 places, 8 food and 2 drink spots. We went through the Old Quarter which is where all the best food seems to reside and right they were. Because Hanoi traffic is so crazy I made sure not to walk and take pictures upon risk of being hit by a motorbike or car. 🙂 Our guide, Phuoc had a great way of keeping us all together by referring to us as “Sticky Rice,” so that we would remain close especially when crossing streets.
Off we went on our tour and I’ll just write about our favorite dishes. Despite the number of places we visited all the portions were just right. We started off with a delicious noodle soup called Bun Cha – it’s comprised of noodles of course, fresh veggies and pork.
So flavorful and it’s something you should add fresh mint to and of course some hot sauce. Next up was some dessert. 🙂 We had seen a line earlier at this place when walking around Hoan Kiem Lake and turns out it was one of our stops. The ice cream company’s name is Thuy Ta Kem and they make an ice cream called Sticky Green Rice. It might sound weird but it’s really sweet and tasty.
Next was something like a spring roll but the wrap wasn’t fried. It’s made of rice and the contents inside was chopped up mushroom. The garnish on top was like fried onions. They called this Bahn Coun. This was my favorite dipped in a bit of fish sauce and chili sauce. Ono!
We then visited a place that just made spring rolls and what they called pillow cakes, which were kind of like empenadas.
We enjoyed the last few stops at that were just drinks. Hanoi’s Old Quarter literally has streets that just sell specific things like a shoe street, fish sauce street and in the evening there is a place called Bia Alley (Beer Alley) This place was packed and people were spilling onto the street even with traffic passing through. Our group literally sat in the street while having a glass of Bia Hoi. By day the place we had our beer is a photolab – ha! We ended the night with some coffee or technically it’s egg coffee. It’s coffee mixed with an egg custard which when first described to us, they said it’s coffee mixed with egg and we all made this funny face and adverse reaction. LOL but when it arrived it was one of the most delicious cups of coffee I had and I’m not a coffee drinker. They also make egg chocolate which is equally good.
The next day we walked around the French Quarter which has much wider streets and traffic isn’t nearly as busy. Nearby is where the Hoa Lo Prison is, the place where many US Pilots that were shot down during the Vietnam War were kept including John McCain. It’s usually referred to as the Hanoi Hilton. They’ve kept part of it as a museum and the other part are now the Hanoi Towers. It was an interesting walkthrough and the prison was used by the French in Vietnam for political prisoners. There were definitely parts that were a bit eerie to go through.
Main Entrance of Hoa Lo Prison
After our walk through we then met our tour guides Rose and Duc from Hanoi Kids (www.hanoikids.org) This is a great organization of kids that want to practice their English. There are fixed itineraries but you can also modify it per your wants and tastes. We did a half day but the kids say that if they are having fun they usually go longer and we had a great time with them both. Also the only costs you have to incur are any transportation or entrance fees for places you visit, along with taking care of meals should that be something you decide to do as well.
We started off our tour at the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex. This is a very holy place for the Vietnamese as this is the final resting place of Ho Chi Minh. The actual building that holds his body was closed at the time but the complex itself is massive. He was the liberator of the Vietnamese people from colonialism and is often referred to as Uncle Ho. It’s quite impressive. Behind the mausoleum is the Presidential Palace and also his stilt house that is beautifully made. He was a modest man that lived very simply for having such a great role.
After we toured the complex, Betty and I were pretty hungry so we asked Duc and Rose for a great place to eat. They took us to a restaurant called New Day and we enjoyed a great meal and conversation. Along with discovering that there is something called egg beer, which many of you saw pics of me on FB. We had a fun time with them and I would highly suggest doing a tour with Hanoi Kids whenever you visit here.
The next morning we were off to Bai Tu Long Bay which is a little further north of the famed Halong Bay. It’s not as crowded and it’s just as beautiful.
That’ll be my next entry. Still much to catch up on! Thanks again for following!
Hanoi, Vietnam – First Impression – Awesome!
While I’m waiting for Betty to arrive, I’m sitting on the steps in my cozy homestay (Hanoi Family Homestay) run by Huong and her family. She also goes by Perfume. 🙂 It’s smack dab in the middle of the Old Quarter here and the sounds are a cacophony of horns, motorbikes, people gathering around at the corner shop or eatery, cars, and yells from vendors. I love it!
I arrived in the afternoon yesterday and got to my homestay in a funny way. I had arranged for someone to pick me up but there was a mix-up from Huong. While I was waiting many of the guys at the arrival area were asking if I needed a taxi, I kept telling them no that I had a ride. Well, after about 30 minutes after getting out, I see a sign for a “Melanie,” knowing that my name gets misspelled many times I tried to ask him if he was picking up for Huong from Family Homestay. Yep that was a funny conversation. I was definitely not the Melanie he was looking for but another guy approached and I think he was a taxi dispatcher. He asked where I was staying I gave him the number to my homestay and he “apparently” called her. I had to “trust” this guy and asked him many questions. He spoke better English and I kept telling him, “I’m not paying you for your service.” LOL He replied, “Ok, don’t worry I will get you to where you need to go.” I followed him out and he told me to wait a few minutes. He then ventured to a foreign couple I saw in the visa line and turns out we were going to share a taxi.
The awesome thing about traveling are the situations that you land in. As a traveler, you just need to roll with it. I met Michael and Jana from Australia and they didn’t realize that they needed a visa before landing in Vietnam, because of that they ended up paying a substantial amount of money for just 24 hours. So remember, get your visa prior to flying here or what Betty and I did, we got a formal letter from a travel agency and when you arrive you can pay then. (Thanks for the tip Jeff Wilson) Though the process in Hanoi can be a bit slow. Once you turn your papers in, you have to wait for your picture to show up on the other side and your name is announced by a funky computer voice. It pronounced my name pretty well.
We were finally in the taxi and driving into the center of Hanoi. I’ve never seen such a high concentration of motorbikes in one city. We were laughing and also freaking out together at the driving with the near misses and the amount of passengers they would fit on one bike. We saw a guy driving with a live chicken in one hand and because it was raining, they had special covers they would place on their bike while driving. The guy driving with the chicken was pretty good but in my travels here, there have been 2 things on motorbikes I was most amazed at: 1) In Manila, I saw a dog on the back of a bike sitting on the regular seat totally balancing himself on it like it was a normal thing. I laughed with the driver and said,”That is one talented dog!” There is no way Koa boy would have been able to do that. 2) Yesterday while recording sounds in front of our homestay, there is a vendor that sells bamboo sticks and ladders. A couple was on their bike picking up two bamboo trunks that were literally 2 to 3x the size of them and they rode off with me fearing that someone was gonna get decapitated. Amazing!
It was about a 40 minute ride in and I finally arrived safely and at the proper homestay. I wasn’t dropped off randomly, we’ll see how Betty fares out today. I think she’ll be fine as I guaranteed that someone will be there… I hope. LOL
I’ve met a great amount of people here at Hanoi Family Homestay. Last night I shared dinner made by Huong with 5 other travelers, 3 from Canada and 2 from France. We had homemade spring rolls, tofu with tomato and vegetables along with some beer. It was delicious. They have a saying painted on their wall, “You are a family friend, not just a tourist.” Last night proved to be true along with making new travel friends. The best part of traveling for sure.
This morning I went around and was able to snap a few pictures of the life here in the Old Quarter of Hanoi. I’ll walk around more once Betty arrives and tonight we’ll be doing a street food tour. Yummy!
Till then here are a few pics from my morning walk here: