Tag Archives: holidays

Cambodia and Vietnam: Part 4

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After four days in Cambodia, Karri and I headed over to Vietnam for four days in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon). I must say, Saigon was…interesting. Despite being neighbors, Vietnam was really different than Cambodia. The food, the culture and the whole atmosphere were completely different. Cambodia seemed a lot more like Thailand to me, whereas Vietnam is sort of what I imagine China to be like…

We happened to arrive during the eve of Tet, Vietnam’s biggest holiday of the year when they celebrate Lunar New Year. It was a pretty exciting time. The whole city was covered in festive New Year’s signs with red decorations and cat images, since 2011 is the Year of the Cat (however, according to China, 2011 is the Year of the Rabbit…). To our luck, Karri’s Vietnamese friend Michelle was home for the holidays and offered to show us around on her motorbike. I gotta say, at first I was scared. Traffic in Southeast Asia is crazy as it is, but Ho Chi Minh City was especially bad. The city in itself is crowded but in the streets motorbikes are SWARMING! I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many motorbikes in my life, it seemed as if nearly no one had a car.  Anyway, not wanting to be rude, Karri and I hopped on and off we went on our Saigon adventure!

Michelle showing us how to eat Vietnamese food with rice paper

The whole evening was really fun. Aside from the rush of the motorbike ride (only a few near misses :)), we joined the rest of the city in an evening Tet promenade in the city center. The whole street had been blocked off and decorated, and people from all over got dressed up in their finest to stroll down it and meet each other. The atmosphere, though crowded, was extremely happy and festive, it was hard not to enjoy the positive energy. Afterward, Michelle invited us to her house for an authentic Vietnamese dinner. In front of us we found a spread of rice, sauces, meat and vegetables as well as this transparent paper-like food called rice paper. Michelle showed us how to dip the rice paper in water to make it clear and soft then wrap all the food inside of it to make a roll. Her rolls were definitely much tidier than mine, but in the end, they were still fun and yummy :).

Me and the Tet babies

Later that night, Karri and I decided to go to bed early, since he wasn’t feeling well and we wanted to be refreshed the next day. However, the spontaneous Lion Dance outside my window at midnight accompanied by a stream of never-ending firecracker sounds kept me awake well into the morning. Part of me felt bad for missing out on the fun, so at 1 a.m. I changed my clothes and decided to head out on my own only to find we had been locked in! Yes, as if it were a shop, our hotel had closed its doors with a big metal gate over the entrance. As I headed back to my room, stepping over the biggest cockroach I’d ever seen in my life, I just hoped there wouldn’t be a fire…

On the morning of day two, my friend Danielle flew in to join us for the remainder of the trip. Since we were planning on taking day trips outside the city the last two days, we decided to see as much of Saigon as possible while we could. Though many of the shops and restaurants were closed for the holidays, the three of us were actually able to see quite a bit. We walked all over, taking in the French colonial architecture, Notre Dame Cathedral, the Tet market and a cockfight on a sidewalk in broad daylight. By far the most interesting event, however, was the War Remnants Museum, where we spent most of the afternoon.

I must admit, before heading to Vietnam, I knew very little about the Vietnam War. I knew it was a very controversial war where many bad things happened that messed a lot of people up. I was really hoping to learn a lot at the museum. Boy was I wrong…

This was the most un-objective, propaganda-laden place I have ever been to! To start, the entire first floor is full of images of Vietnam War protests throughout the world and letters from American soldiers and political figures expressing their regret and sympathy to Vietnam. The second floor was basically a large exhibit on Agent Orange followed by dozens of pictures of deformed adults and children and their stories. I honestly can’t remember all that was on the last floor, I just remember seeing a lot of pictures of dead bodies and stories about the atrocities the “imperialist” Americans committed.

I know a lot of bad things went down in Vietnam and that history has a different perspective from the other side, but come on! From this museum, you’d think North Vietnam was some sort of angelic victim who was only defending its country. There was virtually no mention of the Cold War, the Communism/Capitalism struggle or anything else that led up to the war, nor was there any mention of the atrocities the North or the Viet Cong committed. The only real positive thing that I got from that museum was a desire to learn more about the war (objectively), and I am now reading up on it.

The whole experience was a real wake-up call for me. It scares me to think how much control a government can have over information and the power this control of knowledge has over its citizens. Though most of the people I met in Ho Chi Minh City were super nice and didn’t seem to have any anti-American feelings, it makes me nervous to think that this information is being shared with hundreds of people every day and spreading more hatred against us. The whole thing reminded me of “1984” which, if you’re read it, you know does not end very well…

Thaipusam

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I know I am getting very behind in my blogs here, but there are so many things I want to write about, and with all my recent travels, I have hardly had any time to catch up!

That being said, there was one holiday in January I got to experience that I would really like to share here: Thaipusam. Since my first visit to the Batu Caves in August, I have been looking forward to this event to witness first-hand the more than one million Tamil Hindu devotees who flock to the caves to pay homage to the deity Lord Murugan, to whom the cave’s shrine is dedicated.

What makes the event interesting is that the pilgrims show their devotion by carrying burdens called “kavadi” on their bodies, which generally include carrying large, heavy decorations on their shoulders and/or attaching small fruits and flowers to their bodies with hooks as they climb the 272 steps to the top of the cave. Others, especially women, carry jugs of milk. Each devotee has an entourage who accompanies him or her on the journey, and those who are especially hard core get a small band who help them get into and stay in a trance.

I gotta say, the whole experience was AWESOME! But I must admit, Thaipusam, for both the devotee and the gawking tourist, is not easy. First, it is hot! Since I work in air conditioning all day long, sometimes I forget how hot Malaysia really is (last time I checked the temperature it was 95°F, “feels like 106°F”), but being out in the open sun in a crowd (plus a sunburn) is a quick reminder that I am only 3° above the equator.

Second, it is crowded! More than a million people came out to the Batu Caves that day and within an hour, I had lost everyone in my 30-person group. At one point, the police were fighting to keep the non-participant crowds from going up the stairs into the caves, and I found myself constantly squished up next tons of sweaty, stinky strangers.

Usually, I hate crowds but for some reason, I actually didn’t mind them during Thaipusam. There was a really exciting energy in the crowds, and though I obviously wasn’t participating, I definitely felt like I was right in the event. At one point, exhausted, sweaty and dehydrated, I decided to head home, but then I found out they had opened up the stairs to the caves to the non-participants. Though part of me wanted to crash, my curiosity got the best of me and I managed to haul my butt up the steps to see what I could find.

All around, people were removing their kavadi and many of the devotees were passed out or lying down with their attendants rushing to cool them down and take care of them. Though all I saw was the actual carrying of the kavadi, these people undergo weeks of purification rituals to prepare, including fasting, where they eat only one simple meal a day. Though I know the act is gruelling, I was still surprised to see how strong of a physical toll it took on some of these people. Many perform it as a form of thanksgiving or penance to Lord Murugan to receive blessings from him, especially if there is an impending crisis like a severely ill family member.  I suppose people can do anything with the right motivation!

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Festivities and Saris!

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It’s one of Malaysia’s many holiday seasons this month, and let me just say, things have been crazy busy! After several weeks of fasting, Ramadan is coming to an end this week, which means lots of preparations and excitement in Malaysia. It’s almost like Christmas season here, with people sending gift baskets and greeting cards to each other and getting ready for Hari Raya, the Malaysian version of Eid ul-Fitr, to celebrate the end of Ramadan.

It’s really interesting being in a Muslim country during Ramadan. Though I usually noticed when it occurred when I was in the U.S., here the whole country changes for the month to accommodate the Malays, all of whom are Muslim and who make up the largest majority in the country. At work, Malays come in early and leave early to make up for the shortened “lunch” break and allow them time to go home and prepare for “buka puasa,” when they break the fast after dark. More than just a suggestion, all Malays are REQUIRED to observe Ramadan by Sharia Law. In fact, when I went out to lunch with some co-workers a couple weeks ago, my Malay friend (who was sick and therefore not fasting) had to hide behind us when we ate out in public for fear of getting fined by Sharia police. While the Chinese, Indians and other “obvious” non-Muslims have no problem during Ramadan, people who are half Indian half Chinese, known as “Chindians,” sometimes get into trouble, because they physically look Malay and Sharia Law is enforced through racial profiling. Definitely not in Kansas anymore…

Aside from Ramadan, last week Malaysia also celebrated Merdeka Day to recognize the day it gained its independence from British colonial rule. I’m still not exactly sure what Malaysians do to celebrate, but it seemed to me everyone just enjoyed an extra day off from work. I decided to use my day off to go hiking with a friend in a local park called Bukit Gasing which, though not exactly the deep jungle, was still pretty cool.

Me holding a Malaysian flag on Merdeka Day while hiking in Bukit Gasing

Let me tell you, hiking on the equator is like hiking in a sauna! Though the park was relatively tame, after just a short distance I was completed soaked in sweat and my face was bright red. The huge rainstorm that poured down half-way through the hike was more than welcome and felt amazing after all the heat and humidity. All was fun and games until I realized that the rain had soaked through the backpack, destroying my phone and severely damaging my camera…yeah…not cool…

In addition to the national festivities, I have also been getting ready to go to my first Indian wedding later this week. The guy getting married, Prakash, was one of my cab drivers when I first got here who I made friends with. Though I don’t know him well, he was very excited that I come to the wedding, and there is no way I am going to pass up this opportunity!

Being an Indian wedding, I want to dress appropriately, so of course that means I had to get a sari! Unfortunately, I don’t know any Indian women here very well, so my Indian Malaysian friend Jullian offered to take me sari shopping, which, as a guy, he had never done either…

Jullian took me to an area in KL called Brickfields, also known as Little India, to shop. Though I didn’t exactly know what to expect, I was hoping to meet a nice, English-speaking Indian female at the shop who could help me pick out a sari and show me how to tie it. Unfortunately for me, the shopkeeper was a man, who though very nice, only spoke Tamil…

Somehow between me awkwardly pointing at things, Jullian translating and the shopkeeper wrapping me up like a doll (like I’m going to be able to repeat this!), I managed to find this beautiful dark pink and gold sari as well as matching bangles and jewelry. Then it was off to the tailor’s (another man) where I was measured for a custom-made sari shirt to wear under my new sari (fun conversation moment: tailor: “Do you want cups sewn in?” me: “I have no idea. This is awkward…”). After pointing out pictures in a book, some translating from Jullian and advice from the tailor’s wife (“Yes, get the cups…”) I think I picked out a really pretty design that I can’t wait to see when I pick it up on Wednesday!

Along with getting Indian dress, I also learned how to properly eat Indian food, with my hands! A couple weeks ago my co-workers and I were interviewing an Indian Malaysian family for a university ad and afterward took them out for an Indian banana leaf lunch. Though I had done this before, I have always used a fork, but this time, I had proper tutors :).

To start, a banana leaf is placed in front of everyone and the server comes around and puts rice and different ladles of curry and other sauces around it. You then use your hand to mix things together and put it in your mouth. Sounds simple enough, right? Wrong!

Turns out, eating with your hands is hard!  You only use your right hand and you’re not supposed to get messy past your second knuckle. Much easier said than done…  After several awkward, elbow-raising attempts with very little food getting into my mouth and much taunting from certain co-workers, Saha, the Indian Malaysian student we interviewed, told me the rule of thumb is not to use your thumb, except to push food into your mouth. Apparently the key is to scoop up the food with the tips of your fingers then use the back of your thumb to push it in your mouth.

In the end, I left with a full stomach and a sense of accomplishment. Next step, learning to use chopsticks!