For the past few weeks we've been enjoying the comforts of Western life in Greece and Turkey. Jennifer had a birthday and our friend, Kim, met us in Istanbul. After being vegetarians in India for a couple of weeks, we've really enjoyed the spicy meats that this part of the world has to offer.
Enjoying First Kebab in Greece
We took a great walking tour around Athens with a fun and really smart archaeologist named Ãéþñãïò (George in english). Ãéþñãïò was extremely informative and we learned so much. At one point when we were near the Acropolis, he pointed and said, "do you see that rock over there, that's where democracy was invented." Wow. He also told us of the legend of Pheidippides who ran from Marathon to Athens to announce that the Persians had been defeated. The story explains that it was this Greek victory that was responsible for the creation of Western civilization. It's an inspiring place to be.
Greek tomb of the Unknown Soldier--looks like Robert's High School Mascot
The acropolis featuring the Parthenon on top
Remains of the Temple of Zeus
These partially restored pillars show how brilliant the temples must have appeared when they were first built and the marble was new. Also, what happens to the marble after a couple of millenia.
Taking a break from our walking tour near the Acropolis.
Theater at the Acropolis, made famous by Yanni recording an album here.
Passing a baton (our map) in front of the Marble Olympic Stadium in Athens. It was built for the first modern Olympic Games in 1896.
As you know, the financial situation in Greece is not good. We were surprised to see so many well-dressed people (who look just like us) begging for change in the streets. Public employees have taken a 40% paycut in the last year, while taxes on everything have increased. They're really suffering. We couldn't help but think that our own country, while much better off at the moment, is headed in this direction.
Syntagma Square--location of the Finance Ministry and the place to be if you feel like getting your Riot on.
Charred Bank near Syntagma Square in downtown Athens
Athens Backpackers Hostel provided us this handy phrase guide with all of the basics: "Hello", "Thank-you", and "Are there riots?"
We met some great people and came to understand the kindness of Greek hospitality during our 2-week visit. We found Athens a tranquil and safe place to spend a few days.
Tasty Pork Kebab
Another great Kebab at the Plaka in Athens.
After a fun and educational time in Athens we took a massive ferry (it was the size of a cruise ship) to the Greek Island of Santorini.
Thira, Santorini Island, Greece
Traditional white buildings on Santorini
Greek Salad with some excellent Feta
The sign says it all
Oia, Santorini, Greece
We would like to return to this very spot in the middle of summer
Jennifer on the hike from Oia to Thira on Santorini Island
Picturesque Pathway in Oia
Windmill in Oia
We enjoyed a couple dinners at the wonderful Naoussa Tavern. We were treated so well there and the food was AMAZING. We made promises to the chef and staff that we would return someday.
Tirokafteri made with five different types of cheese! Briam (oven-baked veggies), a very special pork souvlaki-type dish and Baklava with a bottomless carafe of house red. We ate dinner Greek-style, spending about 3.5 hours at the restaurant.
After a weather delay in Santorini, we made it to Istanbul where we met our friend, Kim. After 5.5 months traveling it was great to see a familiar face from home. We really enjoyed the chance to explore this beautiful city together.
To quote Kim: Reunited and it feels so good!
Jennifer and Kim looking out of the huge window in our room at Metropolis Hostel
Jennifer and Kim being approached by a man selling Simit (sesame encrusted bread rings)
Jennifer at Jennifer's Haman
Egyptian Spice Bazaar, Istanbul
Floating Fish Market, Istanbul
Robert and Jennifer chowing down a fish sandwich from the floating fish market on the Bosphorus
Jennifer with a Shisha at the famous Palatium Cafe, Istanbul
Topkapi Palace, Istanbul
Sultan Ahmed (Blue Mosque), Istanbul
Stain glass windows at the Blue Mosque
Hagia Sophia, Istanbul
Painted cups for sale at the Grand Bazaar
Painting of Ottoman Empire Sultan -- Topkapi Palace
Jennifer and Robert at Topkapi Palace, Istanbul
On St. Patrick's Day we went to Taksim Square, the place to be for pubs and nightlife in Istanbul. While we were there, we met some Turkish guys who invited us to watch 'The biggest football match of the year for Turks' with them. In fact, the only reason we were able to get into a bar to watch the game was because we were with them--every single table had been reserved. It was a lot of fun listening to the passion in their chants and songs during the game, which, thankfully, ended in a 2-2 tie.
Chairs and table spray-painted on the ground near Taksim Square, Istanbul
Jennifer and Kim enjoying some beers in the Beyoglu District, Istanbul
Robert and his new Turkish friends cheering on Galatasaray S.K. football team
According to Wikipedia, Baklava is a rich, sweet pastry made of layers of filo pastry filled with chopped nuts and sweetened with syrup or honey. It is characteristic of the cuisines of the former Ottoman Empire and much of central and southwest Asia. According to us, it's the best dessert on Earth:
Our new best friend, Baklava
The 3 of us decided to get out of the city for a few days so we booked a cheap flight to Cappadocia; a region in Southeast Turkey that is characterized by presence of fairy chimneys, ancient underground cities and for being a stop on the Old Silk Road.
What was especially interesting for us was our visit to Derinkuyu Underground City. This unique city is carved out of soft volcanic rock; it's 11 stories deep, about 85 meters (279 feet) in total. The Turkish Department of Culture estimates the city to have been built in the 8th-7th centuries B.C. There is a church down there as this city was used by early Christians escaping persecution. Also, there are many other underground cities in the area, several miles apart, which are connected with each other by underground tunnels! It can be a very tight squeeze down there!
Cartoon map of Derinkuyu Underground City, Cappadocia
Jennifer entering a living space in Derinkuyu
Robert playing in the Underground City's children's playground (not fun)
Robert crouching into the tunnel desending to the next level at Derinkuyu Underground City
Jennifer playing in the Underground City's children's playground (not fun)
Robert pretending to push the protective wheel to close off tunnel access for invaders
Kim playing in the Underground City's children's playground (not fun)
Robert (with a green orb) laying in the tomb of Patron Saint of Derinkuyu
Fairy chimneys are spires of rock that rise up from the bottom of badlands. They were created by the erosion of different types of volcanic rock and ash. They are all over Cappadocia. For thousands of years people have been carving homes and churches out of them.
Jennifer and Kim near the Selime Monastery, Cappadocia
Robert in an archway near Selime Monastery
Fairy Chimneys in Cappadocia
Fairy Chimney with Roman Castle in Cappadocia
Pottery tree overlooking fairy chimneys in Cappadocia
Robert at Esentepe Panoramic View Point, Cappadocia
George Lucas wanted to film the orginal Star Wars movie here but was denied permission by the Turkish Government so they used a photo instead. Way to think that one through, Turkish Government
View from inside a structure near the Selime Monastery
Jennifer and Robert resting near the old silk road
Robert and Kim taking a water break during hike around Rose Valley, Cappadocia
The World's Best Lentil Soup, Safak Cafe, Goreme, Cappadocia
Playing Jungle Speed with the Gang at Cafe Safak in Goreme, Cappadocia
Turkish Flag with Cappadocian Sky
We have discovered that part of being with someone 24/7 for months on end means you have to agree to disagree sometimes
We had a blast in Turkey. After a long night of bus/train travel, including a 4 hour wait at the train station and a customs officer stamping our passports in our train cabin, we arrived in Sofia, Bulgaria this morning. Robert's good friend and roommate from college, Phil, and his wife Erin live here in town. They teach US History and Literature at a local high school. We're excited to meet them for dinner in a couple of hours!
If you've never independently budget travelled in a foreign country, you probably shouldn't start in India. Latin America or Asia would be a better choice to get your feet wet. The reason we say this is because it's unusually challenging to be a Westerner in India, mainly due to having people in your face at all times (we calculate that we said "no thank you" or some variation of that about 2,000 times in 15 days in India). But when you look past that and other frustrations, you see the immense beauty of this one-of-a-kind country. It's every bit the Incredible India dubbed by the government's tourism campaign. Overall, we had a positive, jaw-dropping experience during the past couple of weeks, with images that will be forever seared into our memory.
Our first pot of Darjeeling Tea accompanied by an excellent sweet cake!
Our journey through India began in the hill station of Darjeeling, which is very unlike the rest of the country. Darjeeling is famous for its tea, of course, and it's also a gateway to the province of Sikkim and the Himalayas. Most of the citizenry is ethnic Tibetan and life seems pretty laid back. In fact, we were there for the Tibetan New Year. As you might guess, they don't have a lot to celebrate these days; one local man explained to us that Tibetans use the holiday to quietly spend time with their family and pray.
View of the Chowrasta in Darjeeling from the roof of our hotel
Getting to Darjeeling was an adventure in itself. The 41-mile ride on small seats, in the cramped rear of a jeep, was rough. The jeep was designed to comfortably seat seven but at times we had up to ten people sharing our ride. The tight hair-pin turns required every muscle to tense up just to remain in your seat. It was a long 3.5 hour journey. We were happy to get out of that vehicle!
Jennifer resting half-way through our ride up to Darjeeling
The relief we felt as we finally reached the town and stood on our own two feet was short-lived; we realized our guesthouse was another steep mile upward, only accessible by foot! We stopped at a little cafe on our upward climb for an emergency bathroom break (we took a wrong turn and ended up in a non-touristy area) and enjoyed a tasty chai tea with some locals who must not have seen foreigners walk through their door in quite a while. It was fun.
There is an art to smelling the overwhelmingly variety of Darjeeling teas. Hold and rub the tea leaves in your hand, then cup your hand around the leaves and blow warm air into your hand.
Robert standing in a field of Darjeeling Tea.
One night we went for a beer at a little bar and met a really nice man who was born in Nepal but now lives and works in Darjeeling. He said that it was easy for him to recognize where his patrons have just come from. If they have just arrived from Nepal, they are typically relaxed and engaging. On the other hand, if they just traveled from any where else in India (which they refer to in Darjeeling as "the bad-lands") they are reserved, jumpy and skeptical of any salutation or smile. Only eleven days later, when we departed from Dehli, did we fully understand what he was talking about.
Jennifer breaking in our $4 blanket, cheaper than spending $5/day on firewood.
We stayed in a nice old hotel near the town square and relaxed for a few days, walking around, drinking tea and eating some great food. We went to the zoo to see the Himalayan fauna (lots of big cats!) and see the old-school mountaineering equipment at the museum. Unfortunately, the weather was cloudy everyday so we decided not to do any hiking. We did get a lot of good exercise, however, since the town is basically vertical.
About to check out the Himalayan Zoo/Mountaineering Institue in Darjeeling
Indian Fire Hydrant at the train station in Darjeeling (6 buckets full of water)
Our favorite activity was taking a ride on the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (nicknamed "The Toy Train") to another hill town called Ghoom. The train itself is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is the only remaining train of its kind in the Himalayan Range. Its construction was completed in 1881. The track is only 2 1/2 feet wide and goes for 53 miles along the winding mountain passes. The ride from Darjeeling to Ghoom took about an hour, not because of distance but because the train only goes about six miles/hour.
The Toy Train:
Finally, after several days, we saw the Himalayas on our last morning! Here's a pic we took of Mt. Kangchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world with an elevation of 8,586 m (28,169 ft):
Kangchenjunga towering over Darjeeling
We had such a difficult time trying to get a train ticket in India. Usually you have to book 3 months in advance. Or you could take your chances for a standby ticket--which we could have done--but the lady at the train station said there was no direct train to our desired destination of Varanasi anyhow. We decided the easiest option to get out of Darjeeling was to take a jeep down to the airport and fly to Kolkata. So that's what we did. We ended up spending 2 nights there so we could take a look at the city.
Kolkata was our first taste of the real India. We started our day taking in the memorial to Queen Victoria, a beautiful and gigantic relic from the British Raj. Then we walked through a big park called the Maidan and watched endless games of cricket being played.
Jennifer with the Victoria Memorial
Robert studying the map of Kolkata outside of the Victoria Memorial
Coca-cola's Indian cousin. Thumbs Up!
The Maidan in Kolkata. It would be easier to count the number of people in India who don't play cricket, than to count the number of people who do.
After that we took a cab ride to the Howrah Bridge (it's the busiest bridge on earth) to check out the flower market.
Kolkata's Malik Ghat flower market -- for a market in India, this is a low turnout.
We could have spent all day people watching at this place and not even come close to being bored.
We took a short video of what it's like at the flower market:
From there we took a long walk to the tourist area of Park St. Walking through a city is the best way to get to know it. It's the perfect speed for observing what's going on around you. We saw some more cricket being played, but overall, the 3-hour walk was painful; we bore witness to a lot of poverty. There were groups of people bathing together in public. People were grabbing our arms and begging for money. Countless homeless were sleeping in the streets. We saw a man urinating in public nearly every other block. There was garbage everywhere and half-naked children lying on the pavement outside of shops and restaurants begging for change. It was our first glimpse of how desperate life can be here. Nothing we saw in SE Asia comes close to this. El Alto, in Bolivia, is the closest we've come to seeing this kind of poverty, but even that was on a much smaller scale. Combine all of that with the afternoon sun, heat and humidity; the latter half of the day really took its toll on us. We ducked into a restaurant for a fancy yet inexpensive dinner and afterward we gave our leftovers to an old woman around the corner. We hopped on a flight to Varanasi the next morning.
Veggie Chelo Kabab, a regional West Bengal dish and amazingly delicious. Peter Cat Restaurant, Kolkata
The holy city of Varanasi sits on the banks of the Ganges River. Varanasi is thought to be the oldest city in the world (7,000 yrs) with continuous human occupation. The Ganges River is sacred to all people in India, no matter what religious sect they follow. Hindus make pilgrimages to the river to bathe in the holy water which results in a washing away of sins. To die in Varanasi and be cremated at the Ganges is the highest honor for a Hindu. After a few days, we got used to seeing men carrying corpses through the streets of Varanasi, heading to the burning ghat.
Sunrise over the Ganges
Corpses being burned at the burning ghat of Manikarnika
Ceremony to worship the Ganges
Jennifer taking in the ceremony
Ceremony at Dasashwamedha Ghat
The millions of people who live along the Ganges rely on the river for their basic needs such as bathing, washing clothes, drinking and teeth brushing. The city of Varanasi and all the cities along the Ganges deposit their untreated sewage directly into the water each day. There is also the industrial waste and human corpses wrapped in non-biodegradable plastics. There are certain people who do not get cremated and some who do not have money for enough wood to adequately burn their body--they still end up in the river. The water is septic which means there is zero oxygen in it and it has extremely high levels of faecal coliform. Although a kind sikh man we met assured us that there is zero bacteria in this holiest of rivers, we're not convinced.
Laundry, Ganges style. We opted out of getting our laundry done in Varanasi
Morning bathing in the Ganges
Our hostel was located in the old quarter which is made up of hundreds of narrow lanes and pathways laid out in an incomprehensible maze. We arrived by taxi from the airport. Unbeknownst to us, cars do not go into the Old Quarter so upon arrival to the vicinity of the Old Quarter, our taxi stopped and we were instructed to "Get out." Here is a video we filmed from the taxi immediately before we were informed that we were on our own:
It took about 90 minutes to work our way through the densely packed maze of people, motorbikes and cows. As we maneuvered ourselves and bags through the narrow streets (and over a cow resting in a narrow alley), we remained diligent to not step in or slip on the huge freshly steaming cow patties that speckled the cobblestone sidewalk.
Cow in the Old Quarter
Goats and street signs on a ghat
Laundry drying on the Ghat steps along the Ganges
Narrow alleyway in the Old Quarter of Varanasi
Young flower vendors
Upon arrival to our guesthouse, we found the proprietor, Prabu (who we later came to know and really like), standing on the rooftop using a sling-shot with little ceramic pieces to fire at the dozen or so monkeys jumping and playing all around. When he saw us he was like "yeah, hi, your room is over there" and then he turned back around and continued firing at the monkeys.
Jennifer and expert monkey sling-shot professional, Prabu
Varanasi Monkeys in action:
We spent our last few days in India in the capital city of New Delhi. A couple of famous sights that we saw were the Red Fort and we also visited Humayun's Tomb.
Humayun's Tomb, New Delhi (predecessor to the Taj Mahal)
On the stairs at Humayun's Tomb
Tower at the Red Fort
We had limited time in Delhi, but we found it more active and a little less depressing than Kolkata. Maybe that's because we stuck to the tourist areas.
Couple buying oranges in Pahar Ganj, New Delhi
Fantastic Nepali food at Nirvana Cafe in New Delhi
Tuk-tuks at a red light in New Delhi
Jennifer getting a henna tattoo
After spending 2 hours at the train station, we had some more headaches trying to acquire train tickets, so we just went back to our hostel and booked 2 train tickets for a day trip to Agra. The travel agent said, "yeah, there not going to give you tickets there." But it's the train station. We give up.
For our last day in India, we went to the Taj Mahal, Baby Taj and Agra Fort. It's easy to see why the Taj is one of the 7 wonders of the world. The beautiful marble and semi-precious stones used to build it are captivating. According to Wikipedia: The Taj Mahal is a white Marble mausoleum located in Agra, India. It was built by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal. The Taj Mahal is widely recognized as "the jewel of Muslim art in India and one of the universally admired masterpieces of the world's heritage. Also, it was built in the 17th century, and his wife died while in labor with their 14th child. So he built this massive tomb in her honor.
An Indian guy took our camera and basically forced us to pose for pics, expecting a tip. Seemed bummed about only getting 10 rupees. We were dissatisfied with the photo quality. Pay for what you get?
Jennifer providing scale for the NE tower
Close-up of the Taj
Palace just to the East of the Taj; accomodation for the laborers who built it.
Sitting in a sliver of sunlight
A few minutes later...the sun moves fast around the angles of the Taj
Jennifer is really excited to be here
Looking north alongside the Taj
Check out the detail work
Jennifer with the Taj Mahal
Indians love taking photos with Westerners at tourist sites
Escaping the sun
Close-up of craftsmanship
Semi-precious stone inlay
Marble and sandstone flooring
View from East
Robert and the Taj
A few pics of the Baby Taj and Agra Fort:
Tree depiction inside the baby Taj
Jennifer giving the Buddha sign for peace with her Henna hand
Pillar at the Agra Fort
Fountain/bath at the Agra Fort
Stepping through a doorway at the Agra Fort
So that's our take on India. Amazing, colorful, maddening, hot, dusty, different, frustrating, fascinating, backwards, magical, infuriating, mesmorizing and exciting all at the same time. Incredible India. That's the best way to put it.
And now, we're in Europe! Jennifer was one of only 3 women out of 100 passengers on our connecting flight from Delhi to Bahrain. The differences between SE Asia/India and where we are now are stunning. Everything seems so clean to us in Athens. Toilet paper in the bathroom. Good public transit. Water from the faucet is drinkable. You can take a breath of fresh air. Deafening horns don't accompany the traffic. Pedestrians don't have to scatter like rats when vehicles come storming through. It's like we're on a different planet.
Also, how is it already March 7th? If our trip were a play, this would be the beginning of the third act. It's strange for us to realize that we've crossed the halfway point, both in terms of time and lines of longitude. If we turned around, it would take longer to get home than to just keep following the sun.
We're happy to be back in the 1st world, but we've also seen our cost of living quadruple overnight. So much for living like Kings. Back to the hostel kitchen for us. Greece, however, seems like a fitting place to cope with our new financial reality.
We think of our friends and family a lot and hope you're doing well.
Oh man, we are so sad to be leaving SE Asia. We've been here since November; it seems like only yesterday that we were fresh off the plane in Bangkok. It was better than we expected, by far. The people, food, animals, weather, history, scenery, temples, traffic and beaches were unforgettable; we really hope to be able to return someday.
After leaving Cambodia, we spent 10 days in the popular northern Thai city of Chiang Mai. It was a hot sun everyday. We did the Lonely Planet suggested walking tour and checked out the Wats.
Elephant statues used to surround this entire temple! Wat Chediluang in Chiang Mai.
Buddha with tulips at Wat Phan Tao in Chiang Mai
Fasting Buddha at the forest wat -- Wat U Mong, Chiang Mai
Buddhas in the forest - Wag U Mong
Everyone is welcome to ring the bells for luck
One of Buddha's hairs is buried under this pagota
We rented bicycles and went to an international flower festival--on the way back it was so hot that we had to rest in the shade at an oasis-like 7-11.
Royal Flora Ratchaphruek - International Horticultural Exposition
The Royal Pavillion - International Horticultural Exposition - view from top of the Ferris Wheel
His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej, a pink elephant made of flowers and Robert McGraw
Jennifer in the Royal Flora Garden of Imagination
Hot and happy bikers
We took a cooking class:
Selecting ingredients at the local market for our cooking class
Proud Chefs with Green Curry
Robert grinding ingredients for green curry paste
Paypaya salad, hot and sour prawn soup, coconut chicken soup and fish cakes -- Created by Jennifer and Robert
Jennifer and our teacher, Quan, messing around with a huge papaya
We enjoyed the Sunday night walking market where Jennifer bought some souvenirs and Robert got a new shirt. And we also found a good, affordable restaurant nearby that served up the spiciest food we've ever eaten-- imagine burning lips, tongue, mouth, esophogus and stomach, all at the same time.
About to enjoy the spiciest food we have ever eaten!
How is it possible that this huge dinner, plus 1 beer each, only came to $14?
Most importantly, after hitting road blocks in Bangkok, Hanoi and Phnom Penh, we finally got our visas for India at the consulate in Chiang Mai.
Finally! The much sought-after Indian Visas!
Chiang Mai sunset from our balcony
While in Chiang Mai we read an article on CNN about how the island of Koh Lipe is supposed to be the next Koh Phi Phi, so we decided to change our itinerary and check it out. It was interesting--there is no pier, so you have to take a long-tail boat from the ferry to the shore, throw your sandals on the beach and jump into the water. Then you have to carry your bags to a guesthouse. Our black bags were covered with a dusting of white sand when we arrived to our room. It's a strange place; the island is just beginning to explode with tourism. It's surrounded by a national park, but there were sea-gypsy people living on this particular island when the park was established, so there is a loophole that allows for putting up infastructure.
Arriving on Koh Lipe on the water taxi
Sunset at Koh Lipe
We decided it was definitely worth going because the reef and aquatic life at the nearby islands were simply stunning. In 2 full days of snorkelling we saw some amazing sights under the sea; clownfish popping in and out of anemonies, many different colors of fish and multi-colored fish. The coral was all kinds of hues of red, purple, blue and orange. We saw blue starfish, seahorses and eels that flashed their teeth to show their disapproval of our presence. Our guide at one point said: "look, a stonefish," then proceeded to dive down a few meters and put his hand a few inches from it. It's the deadliest fish in the sea. It pounced at him then dove under a rock. We were like, "whoa, you're crazy." He just laughed. Really wish we had an underwater camera. Next time.
How did that rock get there?
Our mode of transportation for snorkeling - Longtail boat, Koh Lipe
Monkey sitting on our boat
Hanging out in the water
The turquoise water, reef and white sand of Koh Lipe, Thailand
Koh Phi Phi was our last stop in Thailand. Famous for being the location of The Beach, the 2000 film starring Leonardo Di Caprio. We found it beautiful, but different from the digitally enhanced idea that we got from the movie. Praia do Gunga in Brazil is still our favorite beach in the world, but we were definitely mesmorized by the limestone behemoths surrounding this place.
On the ferry heading to Koh Phi Phi
Limestone karst, Maya Bay, Thailand
Hello from Maya Bay ("The Beach"
Here's a short video we took of The Beach (minus any fancy Hollywood special effects):
Today, our trip changes course dramatically. We're moving on to India. One thing we've read is that 35% of India's population lives on $1/day. That's 400 million people. For those of you doing the math, India has more people living on a dollar a day than the entire population of the United States. Also, when we were in Laos, we met a British ex-pat who was warning us of the aggressiveness of the Vietnamese people. He told us to be careful, that they would physically grab us and try to get us to buy something off of them, or try to rob us. We told him: "well, thanks for the advice, but we're also going to India soon, so we're thinking of Vietnam as a warm-up." He erupted in laughter. Knowing that, like countless other travellers have told us, nothing can prepare you for India. We leave in a few short hours.
Nevertheless, our barganing skills have been sharpened in SE Asia. Our stomachs are accustomed to street food. Our tolerance for and ability to recognize locals trying to deceive us is high. We feel seasoned. We are excited. If we're not ready now, we never will be. India, here we come!
The following video is retribution for Robert's actions that will become clear once you have viewed the video at the end of this post. The lesson from this first video is: every action has a consequence. Enjoy!
So, yeah, that was the Elephant song that Robert learned in his 4th grade French class. Embarrassment achieved. (Jennifer is giggling in the beginning of the video because she couldn't get the date and times correct for the respective countries -- we tried a couple times and it still ended up being incorrect -- it was Sunday morning in the U.S. not Monday).
Our day at the Elephant Nature Park was quite possibly the best day we've had on this trip. Wow. There are many options to choose from to see an elephant in Thailand. We chose this place based on the fact that it is a sanctuary for rescued elephants where you can simply observe them up-close; there was no show and no riding.
These guys can eat bundles of bananas (with peels) in one chomp!
Happy Elephant enjoying a snack
The park is high up in the mountains and the 36 elephants can freely roam around the grounds. We had the privilege to feed, bathe and interact with these smart and friendly animals:
Robert and Jennifer with a rescued elephant
Trunks looking for more bananas
Elephants can pick up the smallest things, like one banana, it is almost like their trunk has an opposable thumb.
The end of the trunk sounds like a powerful vacuum
An elephant's kiss feels like a giant wet suction cup
The itinerary for the day began with visitors feeding massive quantities of fruit to the elephants. Then it was time to jump in the riiver for the 1st bath. After that they went to the mud pit, followed by another huge helping of pineapple, bananas, pumpkin and squash. Then it was time to jump back in the river for the 2nd bath. We loved being in the river so much! Shockingly, we were in the minority of visitors who joined the elephants for both bathing sessions. How could you get tired of giving an elephant a bath in a river?
A very excited Robert about to splash this guy with a bucket full of water
Bathing elephants in the river
Can you identify which 2 elephants aren't finished bathing yet?
Finished with first bath, heading to the mud pit
Cooling off in the mud pit
The babies of the herd playing in the mud
As you might expect, this experience of getting up close and hands-on with the elephants was amazing. We wish we had the time and money to volunteer for a week at the Park. Maybe next time.
Also, the image of the elephant is everywhere in this country, yet it doesn't seem like the majority of Thais actually care about elephants beyond their ability to generate income for their owners (which is primarily through tourism since logging was banned in the late 80s).
Moreover, the process through which an elephant is domesticated is brutal. The only way to classify it is to call it torture. We highly doubt that people would pay to ride an elephant or see a performance if they knew the whole story. Lek, the founder of the Elephant Nature Park, is doing a great job of educating people about the largest animal that walks among us, and its plight. We could go on and on about this, but we'll restrain ourselves and simply point you to these websites to learn more:
We're leaving Chiang Mai shortly for a 14 hour train ride to Bangkok, then a 2 hour flight to Hat Yai. After that should be a 3 hour bus to the coast for a 2 hour ferry for Koh Lipe. We're definitely earning our way to the beach.
Warning: Some of the photos and text on this post are unpleasant--we thought about it and we decided that we are going to describe everything as we saw it; we're not going to omit anything or give you the Disney version of our experience.
We have had some hot weather since we left Hanoi--it has been in the 90s F pretty much everday! We spent the Lunar New Year (Tet) on the beach in the southern coastal city of Nha Trang, Vietnam. It's a relatively quiet place that put on a good fireworks show on the eve of the 4-day holiday. The feeling in the air, with children running around filled with excitement reminded us of the 4th of July in the US. It's a popular vacation destination for Australians, Russians and Vietnamese people. Robert also had his first-ever straight-razor shave at a barbershop! Here are a few pics of us chillin' out while we were there:
Enjoying cocktails on the beach in Nha Trang
Jennifer lounging on the beach in Nha Trang
Robert with the South China Sea in Nha Trang
Fireworks for Tet in Nha Trang
Sunrise in Nha Trang
Jennifer starting the packing process--she's getting pretty good at it!
After a decidedly less comfortable overnight train ride than on a Thai train, we arrived in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). The city has a reputation for some of the craziest traffic in Asia--our experience was not too bad since the city seemed to be half-empty due to the Tet holiday. We only spent 2 days there as we were ready to move on to Cambodia.
Adorable baby riding on cart in Ho Chi Minh City
Year of the Dragon Flower Celebration in Ho Chi Minh City
Jennifer at Lunar New Year Flower Festival in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
We stopped by the Reunification Palace in HCMC. It is the location of the symbolic end to the Vietnam War, when communist tanks crashed through its gates. It was built in 1966 and was abandoned in 1975 when Saigon surrendered to the North (and was renamed HCMC). Everything at the palace is in mint condition; it's a really neat time capsule of 1960s decor.
Reunification Palace, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
1960s Dector at the Royal Palace, Ho Chi Minh City
Next we visited the War Remnants Museum which was a gut-wrenching experience, especially for Americans. There are tanks and helicopters on the front lawn of the museum that were left behind by the US military; the inside is several floors of air-conditioned rooms filled with images from the war.
One of several U.S. Military machines outside of the War Remnants Museum, HCMC, Vietnam
Artillery left behind
The first floor is basically photographs of protests against the war in the US and around the world, which we found to be pretty cool.
Protest sign, War Remnants Museum
On the 2nd and 3rd floors were photos of victims of the war. Some killed by US troops, some deformed victims due to the use of Agent Orange--even people born in the 80s had these awful defects. There are photos of destroyed vegetation caused by Agent Orange and photos from the My-Lai massacre. Any human being with a conscience would be devastated by these images. We couldn't bring ourselves to take photos of the worst of it. It was overwhelming. Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia are still suffering in a big way from mines leftover from the war. Quite a legacy to leave, right?
Cages used by South Vietnam to house POWs from North Vietnam--usually 3-4 people per cage
Camera, bastion of truth, with bullet hole
Gas masks used by U.S. Soliders, War Remnance Museum, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Results of Agent Orange on vegetation, War Remnance Museum, Ho Chi City, Vietnam
As much as we enjoyed Vietnam, we were happy to be on our way to Cambodia. On the bus to Phnom Penh we met a nice guy from London named Simi, who told us that he heard about bus companies overcharging Western passengers for Cambodian Visas. We teamed up with him to take care of all of the border formalities independent of our mafia-esque handlers on the bus. It was an interesting experience, to say the least:
We first had to wait in line behind the bus-mafia people to get stamped out of Vietnam--which caused a big delay. Then we had to walk across the border to the Cambodian side where we had to pay for our visas ($20--not the $25 the bus handlers were charging) and wait in line again. Then we had to get back in line because the border guys neglected to give us our incoming/outgoing papers for the visas. Our bus drivers were clearly upset at our independence, and left us at the border and proceded to a rest stop 5 kilometers up the road. Our bus attendant came up to us and gave us the name of the restaurant and ran away before we could ask what was happening. And when we say ran, he literally ran full speed through customs in order to ditch us. We finally got through the checkpoint, pleaded with another bus driver for a ride to the restaurant and were reunited with our bags for the ride to Phnom Penh. We approached the Usain Bolt wannabe about what happend at the border; he pretended to not understand us and walked away. We guess that's what happens when you don't play by their rules and don't give them their undeserved commisions. Those were some tense moments when our bags were in Cambodia and we were still in Vietnam. We've concluded that this debacle should make for a good story about self-reliance at a job interview!
Jennifer and Simi on the cusp of Cambodia
We finally got to our hotel in Phnom Penh late in the evening and fell fast asleep after our long day. The next morning at breakfast we had a very eye-opening experience. A beautiful, young Cambodian girl (between 14 and 17 years old, perhaps) and an older Western man were eating breakfast at a table across the way from us. After they had finished eating, he basically just nodded his head and got up and went back to his room. Meanwhile, a man was yelling at her through vegitation-covered the fence from the street, who she was ignoring. She ordered a glass of water. Then, several of the hotel staff approached her table and were speaking loudly and harshly in Cambodian, presumably telling her that her presence was creating a scene and it was time for her to leave. Eventually she stood up, went to the door, started to cry, and left, sandwiched between the motorbike driver and what one can only assume is her employer/pimp. We left that nice hotel for a dirty backpackers hostel ASAP.
We thought the plight of young Cambodian girls would be the worst thing we would see in this country; it is. It's difficult to bear witness to the poverty of a country where the average household brings in less than $1,000 per year. However, the next day we went to witness one of the locations used for genocide--The Killing Fields--that also evokes the feeling of taking a hard punch to the stomach:
Here's a little backround info that we only really understood just a week ago: In 1975, partly due to the end of the Vietnam war, the Khmer Rouge rose to power in Cambodia. Within 3 days of taking Phnom Penh, Pol Pot had all of the cities evacuated and everyone was forced to work on agricultural projects for his regime. The conditions were like a death-camp. Many were taken to prisions where they were tortured until they admitted to commiting a crime that they never commited, then they were executed. The motto of the Khmer Rouge was "To keep you is no benefit. To destroy you is no loss".
Mass Grave Sites at the Killing Fields
Skulls of Genocide Victims at the Killing Fields
Seven story memorial stupa displaying over 8,000 skulls of victims, Killing Fields, Cambodia
Mass Graves with Memorial Stupa at Killing Fields
Teeth and clothing emerging from the soil at the Killing Fields
The regime's policy was to kill all family members of victims to decrease the chances of vengance--this included babies. Bullets were considered too expensive to use on victims; people were beaten to death, and babies were killed on one particular tree at the site we went to (The Killing Tree), next to which is a mass grave that was found to be for only women and children. In 1975 Cambodia had 8 million citizens. Pol Pot killed approximately 2.2 million of them by 1979.
Depiction of the Killing Tree
The Killing Tree at the Killing Fields
This is what genocide looks like. We've read about it in books, even seen images on TV--but to actually see the skulls and mass graves up close really has an impact. Bones, teeth and clothing rise to the surface to this day after a hard rain. The outdoor museum was very well done. They gave headsets and had a well-organized tour with stories from survivors. They also pointed out instances in history when genocide has happened in other parts of the world--The Former Yugoslavia, Nazi Germany, Native Americans in the US--and how the world should never permit this to happen again. Indeed, the US supported and UN recognized the Khmer Rouge even as the genocide was unfolding--how could that be? The Vietnamese army toppled Pol Pot's government and he lived in quasi-exile on the Thai border until he died at age 82, able to enjoy a long life and his grandchildren.
At long last we arrived in Siem Reap to check out the famous temples of Angkor Wat. They are amazing. Most of them were built about 700 years before Columbus stumbled upon the New World. It was really cool to rent bicycles and ride around to different temples. The terrain is basically flat--what makes riding a bike difficult is the low-quality bike, humidity, heat, sun, dust, less-than-great roads and traffic--Robert survived a minor collision with a Tuk-tuk! But it was definitely the best way to check out the ruins. They are far apart--we probably biked 60 kilometers in the past 3 days!
Park Entry--we biked about 30 kilometers on the 1st day!
Sunrise over Angkor Wat
Moat surrounding Angkor Wat at sunset
Inside Angkor Wat Temple
Jennifer biking by Bayon Temple at Angkor Comlex
Elephant made out of stone at East Mebon
Ruins held in place at East Mebon Temple
Jennifer taking in sunset at Pre Rup Temple
Our favorite temple was Ta Prohm, which is covered by centuries-old trees and has been used in multiple movies, including Tomb Raider starring Angelina Jolie.
Ta Phrom, Ankgor Cambodia
Ta Phrom, Ankgor Cambodia
Ta Phrom, Ankgor Cambodia
Ta Phrom, Ankgor Cambodia
Ta Phrom, Ankgor Cambodia
Ta Phrom, Ankgor Cambodia
Ta Phrom, Ankgor Cambodia
Tree at Ta Phrom
Ta Prohm Temple--Angkor Wat
Monks walking along causeway into Angkor Wat after Sunset
Despite the hardships we witnessed, we really enjoyed our time in Cambodia. After 16 hrs of travel, we arrived in Chiang Mai, Thailand last night! We'll be here for as long as it takes to get a visa for India (10 days?), then down to Krabi for a week on the beach. After that we're moving on to the Subcontinent! We can't believe that we're almost halfway through this trip! We think of our time in New Zealand as some long-ago adventure that's only faint in our imagination, but we were there only 3 months ago! How is it that time can go by both quickly and slowly at the same time?
We miss you guys! Are the lakes even frozen in Madison?