a blog about the cultural experiences my husband and I have because of our work abroad...what's delightful and beautiful about different countries and cultures...what we have learned from living and working in countries other than our home country...and how those experiences have changed us

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

For a holiday trip Stephen suggested Ha Long Bay in northern Vietnam. While we are living in Cambodia, we plan to visit and tour as many of the other Asian countries as we can. Ha Long Bay has been a Unesco World Heritage Site for a number of years but this November it also received the distinction as one of the "New 7 Natural Wonders of the World".
The tour included two nights on a modern "junk" and kayaking around the bay. The water was absolutely beautiful! And smooth. Kayaking was a blast.
Two person sea kayaks are much faster than the individual recreational kayaks we had in the states. And the junk was much more pleasant than a huge cruise ship.
To get to Ha Long Bay we first flew to Hanoi, the capital city of Vietnam. The flight route has a short layover in Laos so I can add two more countries to my list of countries visited. After a couple of nights in Hanoi we took a 5 hour bus ride to get to the bay harbor. In our group of 16 there were tourists from Japan, Canada, France, Australia, and the US. Sharing meals at large tables allowed for several opportunities to visit with our fellow travelers, an unexpected bonus to the trip. The family from France made me laugh. When we all went out kayaking, the dad wanted to trade life jackets with his son because his was small. The whole family alternated between speaking English and French. When he spoke to his son he spoke French but he used a word we also have in English "minuscule". That struck me as very funny because in English that means tiny. The dad was wearing the jacket that he wanted to trade, it wasn't as if it was made for a mouse.

It was interesting to me the wide range of languages and culture mixed into our small tour group. One guy was from Australia but spoke fluent Taiwanese and English. The Canadians spoke some French and could therefore understand some of the dialogue the French family had with each other. The Japanese women spoke some English. And one of the other Americans was living in Vietnam and learning the language like Stephen and I are doing in Cambodia.
Hanoi and Ha Long Bay are much further north than Phnom Penh so the temperatures were much cooler and Stephen and I needed jackets for the first time in six months. The cooler air was so pleasant after months of heat and humidity. Also nice was the quiet calm of the bay. Such a nice reprieve from noisy city life.
Hanoi felt more developed than Phnom Penh. There were freeways with guard rails and drivers obeyed traffic rules more consistently. However, driving is much more aggressive and fast-paced than in Phnom Penh; much more honking and at night people flash their brights repeatedly to get slower traffic to move out of the way.
Though we didn't stay in the fanciest hotels we still noticed a significant difference in the workmanship of the construction. There must be a more highly skilled workforce in Vietnam compared to Cambodia. From the development aspect, Hanoi is more comfortable for foreign travelers like us. But one advantage Cambodia has is the friendliness of its people. Cambodians are very quick to smile. The Thai share this quality. Perhaps this comes from the type of Buddhism practiced in both Cambodia and Thailand that's different from the type practiced in Vietnam. And Cambodians have a unique graciousness they bring to their hospitality.
As of this year Stephen and I have now spent the Christmas holidays on three different continents. And we've also visited two of the 7 Wonders of Nature. Maybe next Christmas will be in Argentina where the Iguazu Falls are located. One more wonder of nature and another new continent. :)

Friday, December 9, 2011

Siem Reap

Angkor Wat, an 8th wonder of the world (there are other wonders beyond the official 7 that compete for 8th wonder status), is located in Siem Reap, Cambodia. These ancient ruins are incredible, built 860 years ago! Stephen and I spent three full days driving to different sites and walking around and through the ruins, and still we did not see everything. Stephen's favorite is Bayon. I plan to do a painting (or several) of these towers with carved faces on each of the cardinal points.
Sunrise at Angkor Wat is stunning! Well worth getting up before dawn for. That's saying a lot coming from a person who would much much rather sleep in most mornings. The advantages of the early morning are the picturesque sun rising over the temple (of course), but also cooler temperatures, and (away from the main temple) fewer people. Exploring under these conditions is quiet and serene, magical even.
To save time in the morning, we skipped breakfast at the hotel and instead asked a Khmer woman cooking over coals if we could buy "ansome chake" from her. It's sticky rice mixed with coconut milk laid out on a banana leaf and then rolled around a grilled banana. The whole thing is warmed over the coals in its banana leaf cover. So yummy. Our Khmer language tutor brought some to us to try one day and we have since become fans of this Cambodian dessert.
Siem Reap is my favorite place in Cambodia now. It may even be my favorite place in the world, at least at this moment. As soon as we drove into town, I started to fall in love with this little city in Southeast Asia. Actually the attraction started a few kilometers out, where the road is tree lined and smoothly paved.  Phnom Penh has recently hung banners calling it "the charming city" but I think that title more appropriately goes to Siem Reap. The streets feel less cluttered and chaotic and many of the store fronts are inviting. In Phnom Penh and in Sihanouk Ville, two of the other big cities in Cambodia, it's often difficult to tell what is inside until you actually go in.
Our "boutique guesthouse" was a sanctuary with a most pleasant salt pool that we swam in every night after trekking through the ruins. To accommodate the tourists, there are many restaurants with tasty food. Even Mexican. But I find the Asians really make Asian food the best. :) Loc Lac is a Cambodian dish with cubed beef over fresh tomatoes served with rice. The pepper lime sauce that comes with this dish make it crazy delicious.
The informal economy supports the majority of Cambodians and Siem Reap has an abundance of informal workers:  tuk tuk drivers, night market sellers, people walking around with baskets of goods. I bought paintings from a man in a wheelchair, cards from a seventeen year old boy on crutches, more cards from a man who lost his leg because of a landmine. Stephen and I also bought clothes, seat cushions, and coasters at the night markets. I feel like I've become a decent bargainer, generally getting the price I have in mind. My most effective technique is to say, "I'll have to think about it," and then start to walk away.
The drive to Siem Reap from Phnom Penh is 6 hours, mostly because roads are narrow and rough and cannot support the high volume of traffic. Because of the intense flooding in recent months, the roads are even rougher. Also because of the floods there were make-shift shelters along the roads. People and their animals were temporarily displaced to higher ground, which is next to the roadway, until the flood waters abate. As we passed these temporary structures sheltering people and their animals, my predominant thought was "what a lot of work".
I look forward to our next trip to Siem Reap. Stephen is designing a project for a province just north of Siem Reap so it's likely we will have ample opportunity to enjoy this little gem of a city in Southeast Asia.