Tag Archives: temples

Lumbini: The Birthplace of the Buddha

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As the birthplace of the Buddha, Nepal is a popular pilgrimage destination for spiritual seekers all over the world. And as an experimental Buddhist, I knew I had to make the trip as well.

Lumbini, the town where the Buddha was born in 623 B.C., is located near the Indian border, and Naren and I planned it as our final destination before returning to India.

As a town, the Buddha complex is Lumbini’s main event, and the city doesn’t really require more than a day’s visit to experience, unless you plan on staying a few days to soak up the spiritual energy.

The complex is broken into several parts and must be entered and exited through specific locations. To start, visitors begin at International Monastic Zone, a growing collection of Buddhist temples from Buddhist communities around the world, meant to promote world peace.

The development zone is split down the middle with temples from the Theravada tradition on the east side and temples from the Mahayana tradition on the west side. The walk through is lovely, with the two sides separated by narrow roads, a long pool of landscaped water and trees dotted with Buddhist sayings. It’s also a great way to experience Buddhist traditions from different parts of the world.

At the end of the International Monastic Zone, you approach the Sacred Garden where the birth took place. The garden includes the Mayadevi temple, which surrounds an underground excavation that holds a rock that marks the spot where the Buddha was born (unfortunately, no photos were allowed on the inside). The garden also includes the Sacred Pool where Buddha’s mother is said to have bathed before giving birth, as well as the Ashokan Pillar, an ancient pillar identifying the spot as the birthplace.

A visit to the complex is a real treasure, and even if you are not into Buddhism or spirituality, you’ll walk away happy and calm. It’s just that kind of place.

Below are some photos of birthplace of the Buddha.

The eternal flame symbolizes world peace and sits in front of a landscaped pool that separates the Theravada and Mahayana Buddhist traditions in the International Monastic Zone.

The eternal flame symbolizes world peace and sits in front of a landscaped pool that separates the Theravada and Mahayana Buddhist traditions in the International Monastic Zone.

Buddhist Sayings 1

Thai Temple in the International Monastic Zone

Thai Temple in the International Monastic Zone

Korean Temple in the International Monastic Zone

Korean Temple in the International Monastic Zone

Buddhist Sayings 2

Lumbini Road 2

Mayadevi Temple that houses that rock that marks the spot of the birth

Mayadevi Temple that houses that rock that marks the spot of the birth

Sunset

Buddhist Sayings 3

Prayer Flags

Prayer Flags

The pool where Buddha's mother is said to have bathed before giving birth

The pool where Buddha’s mother is said to have bathed before giving birth

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Nepal

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“Wait, so what are you going to do in Nepal then?”

This would be the standard response I received from fellow travelers upon hearing that I was going to Nepal and *gasp!* would not be trekking through the Himalayas.

As stated before (and I’m sure numerous times throughout my blog), I have a strict anti-trekking policy. No seriously, I hate trekking. Yes, I appreciate nice views and flowers and all that, but spending hours (and days!) climbing uphill through the heat (often), bugs and trees is just not my cup of tea. Trust me, I’ve tried enough times.

Well, I’m proud to say I spent more than two weeks traveling throughout Nepal and successfully managed to entertain myself with a range of non-trekking activities.

Nepal was a relatively short trip compared with the amount of time I spent in other countries, but during that time my friend Naren and I had a lovely time wandering through the temples of Kathmandu, spotting rhinos in Chitwan National Park, chilling out in Pokhara and visiting the birthplace of Buddha (yeah, Trekkers, that is a pretty significant non-trekking component of Nepal ;)).

And, of course, there were the particularly fun moments, like flying over Mount Everest, jumping off Asia’s highest bungy jump, eating endless momos or shopping constantly for hippie clothes and Tibetan jewelry.

I really loved Nepal. When I first set foot in Kathmandu, a crowded city full of colorful shops, busy streets and beautiful temples, I was instantly reminded of everything I loved about India, plus, with only a fraction of the aggressiveness.

Nepal, of course, had other differences. The country’s unique blend of both Hinduism and Buddhism provides a fascinating array of temples, structures and beliefs that often blur the lines between the two. The Swayambhunath “Monkey Temple,” for example, is a unique Buddhist and Hindu complex that contains representations of both religions throughout.

On one occasion, Naren and I were privileged to have glimpsed at the eight-year-old face of Kathmandu’s current Kumari, a young girl believed to be a living goddess princess. She spends her days living in a large palace in the city, making daily appearances at her window (no photos allowed) and being paraded around town during important religious events. When she gets her period, she no longer gets to be goddess and a new Kumari is found.

Nepal also had incredible food, a mix of both Indian-influenced curries and rice, mixed with Tibetan-style “momo” dumplings, which were the best I found ANYWHERE in Asia.

Here’s a collection of my best photos from Nepal.

Flying over the Himalayas on the way to Nepal, that's Mount Everest on the left!

Flying over the Himalayas on the way to Nepal, that’s Mount Everest on the left!

Kathmandu

Kathmandu

A beautiful view near the water in Pokhara

A beautiful view near the water in Pokhara

A Nepali woman sits outside the Jangchub Choeling Monastery in Pokhara.

A Nepali woman sits outside the Jangchub Choeling Monastery in Pokhara.

Enjoying a beautiful day in Pokhara with Naren and our new monk friend, Tenzin.

Enjoying a beautiful day in Pokhara with Naren and our new monk friend, Tenzin.

Chilling near the water in Pokhara

Chilling near the water in Pokhara

Swayambhunath, a unique temple complex that blends both Buddhism and Hinduism

Swayambhunath, a unique temple complex that blends both Buddhism and Hinduism

Kathmandu

Kathmandu

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The Big Ka-Buddha!

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Giant Buddha

A few years ago I was sitting at a café, when I randomly spotted an image of an enormous Buddha in a travel magazine. I had never seen an image like this before, and I was immediately intrigued. I knew one day I had to see this thing.

I remember glancing at the fine print and reading the Buddha was located in China, but I had never heard of the city before and soon forgot the name. Years later, when I was finally making plans to go to China, I knew I had to find this place. Lucky for me, Leshan, home of officially the world’s largest Buddha, was not too hard to find, and in fact was an easy day trip from Chengdu in Sichuan.

Carved into a cliff face, the Buddha is 233 feet tall, with shoulders 92 feet wide, and toes that are nearly 30 feet long, each! It was constructed between 713-803AD under the instruction of a monk who thought the Buddha’s presence would calm the tempestuous rivers that plagued the shipping vessels that went by. Interestingly enough, the sheer amount of rock that went into the water as a result of the sculpture altered the currents and indeed had a calming effect on the river.

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My trip to the Buddha was lovely, though not quite what I expected. What I didn’t realize was that the giant Buddha is part of an entire Buddhist complex, complete with numerous temples and parks to walk around. What I also didn’t realize is the main part of the complex is level with the Buddha’s enormous head, providing an interesting and relatively close perspective to see just how huge his features are, as well as a bit of a surprise when you enter the grounds. But to see the big picture, you have to line up with the seemingly millions of Chinese people to make the long, slow, crowded descent to the bottom. Luckily, there are enough viewing spots along the way to allow you a good long view of this wonder, which really is pretty amazing. Once at the bottom, you can linger a little (not too long) to take even more photos, before exiting and making the long ascent back to the top.

As a city, Leshan was pleasant enough, but the sweltering temperatures made daytime wandering highly undesirable. I only expected to spend one day there, but since the lone daily bus to reach my next destination in Kanding was booked, I had to spend an extra day. So what to do? See the Buddha again, of course, this time from water :). In addition to (or instead of) battling the crowds on the temple grounds, you can take a pleasant 30-minute boat ride along the side of the cliff instead. Though you don’t get nearly as close to the sculpture or spend as much time viewing it as if you were on the grounds, the boat ride is really relaxing and provides a bigger, more-distant perspective and enables you to see the two flanking sculptures that aren’t visible on land.

Below is a short video of this amazing and striking sculpture and definitely one of the coolest Buddha’s I’ve ever seen.

Breathtaking Bagan

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There are a few times in life when everything just seems to come together to create a truly incredible experience. For me, that was Bagan.

Situated in Western Myanmar, Bagan is THE destination to visit in Myanmar and definitely a highlight of all Southeast Asia. While itself just a small town, Bagan is famous for having possibly the world’s most concentrated collection of temples, pagodas and stupas, most dating from the 11th- 13th centuries. In fact, more than 2,500 temples are scattered among a 13 by 8 km area, leaving endless opportunities for exploration.

While in itself Bagan is a spectacular destination, what really made the experience incredible were the people. For this trip, I was able to meet up with my former India travel buddies, Gloria and Sirisha, as well as a few new friends, Waldo, James and Tom. Together, the six of us spent an incredible three days, cycling around the temples, arguing over what time to get up for sunrise, getting lost and, eventually, cycling back together, four out of six bikes with flat tires (a special thank you to Waldo for cycling back with me in the back seat WHILE carrying my bike when both my tires went flat!). There were also plenty of fun non-temple moments, watching movies, cutting up “80s” t-shirts, and making a strange pact to volunteer to dig up dinosaur bones in Utah with the paleontologists we met at breakfast…

At the end of the day, Bagan is much better seen than described, and below I have the best pictures of the temples, and fun, of Bagan.

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Scenes from Luang Prabang

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Framed by both the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers, Luang Prabang is full of picturesque river views, in addition to its quaint streets and beautiful Buddhist temples. In my five days there I thoroughly enjoyed myself, rising early to watch the monks collecting food alms at 6 a.m. or climbing up 100 meters to the Phu Si temple to catch the sunrise. Just renting a bicycle and cycling around the town was relaxing, while stumbling upon a charming bamboo bridge and discovering the quiet Laos village across the river was one of the highlights of my trip.

Luang Prabang also has some great day sights outside the city, including the cascading, mint-green Tat Kuang Si waterfalls or the Pak Ou caves, where breathtaking limestone cliffs surround a cave full of Buddha statues.

I think Luang Prabang, however, is best described in pictures :).

The temple outside the Royal Palace Museum, a representation of traditional Laos temple architecture

Monks Collecting Alms

Monks collecting alms early in the morning

Tat Kuang Si Waterfalls

A section of the Tat Kuang Si cascading waterfalls

North end of Luang Prabang

View of the north end of Luang Prabang from across the river

Phu Si Sunrise

Sunrise from the Phu Si Temple

Pak Ou Boats

Boats near the Pak Ou caves

Laos Village

Street scene from a small village outside Luang Prabang

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The Good, the Bad, the Bali: Part 2

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Despite the initial difficulty of entering the country and some frustrations of the over commercialization of the island, Bali had some truly incredible moments for me.

Me in my new sarong and sash next to a traditional stone carving at a Balinese temple

Our first day, my remaining travel buddies, Sarah and Michel, and I decided to hire a driver to see some of Ubud’s temples. I must say, compared to Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries, Bali’s temples are not that spectacular. Though situated in one of the world’s largest Muslim countries, Bali is actually Hindu mixed with some of the traditions and customs of its native people. Unlike the vibrant, glittery Buddhist structures in Thailand, or the colorful, heavily-ritualized Indian temples in Malaysia, Bali temples are mostly made of stone and are very basic open air complexes. One interesting feature, however, is that all the temples, storefronts, homes and structures in general have elaborate stone carvings of demons, meant to scare away evil spirits. It is also interesting to note that you can only enter a temple wearing a sarong and an accompanying sash, and women are not allowed to enter at all during menstruation.

Anyway, the first truly incredible moment I had in Bali was when I met Ketut, the medicine man in “Eat, Pray, Love” who inspired Elizabeth Gilbert to make her journey. I met Ketut a bit on a whim. A friend of mine had joked about trying to find him when I went to Bali, but I hadn’t seriously thought that would be a possibility. Imagine my delight when the man at the tourist counter told me that Ketut is still open for business and a mere 20-minute walk outside of Ubud! Seriously???

So the next morning, I giddily woke up, put on my new Bali sundress, and headed out to the home of Ketut Liyer: medicine man, palm reader, healer, painter, world-journey inspirer. When I arrived around 10 a.m., about an hour after he opened, there was already a sizeable line, though not as long as I would have expected.  There was really no one there to receive customers when I walked into his open-air compound, just a group of plastic number tickets nailed to a wooden post and people lazily sitting around. To my surprise, there was almost no mention of “Eat, Pray, Love” anywhere, except for one movie poster attached to the wall. (After chatting with other customers, however, I learned they had all come because of the movie, though sadly, very few had read the book :().

I took number 13 and found a spot in the shade to reread part of “Eat, Pray, Love” while I waited. Though I ended up waiting almost two hours to see him, I didn’t mind at all. There was something about being in the sunshine with a book you love that is just completely relaxing. And there was something extra special about reading a book that takes place in the exact location that you are in right now, especially when you are just feet away from one of the book’s “characters”! (I had a similar experience while reading the last Harry Potter book in London, when the characters escaped to Tottenham Court Road, the exact street I was on when reading the story!) I was completely calm and happy as a clam.

Me and Ketut, the medicine man from "Eat, Pray, Love"

When I finally got to see Ketut, my happiness soared even higher! Ketut was very flattering. To start, he told me I was “very pretty” with “sugar lips” and he could tell I was very smart.  Though I wasn’t planning on taking the palm reading too seriously, I was completely delighted to discover that I would live to be 100, have a long harmonious marriage, three children and be successful in whatever profession I chose, including public relations, “beauty salon”, business and journalism. (“You lucky, you lucky!”) Though I was happy enough just to meet the man, I felt pretty good about myself after I left, even after hearing the beginning of this next customer’s session which started with, “You so pretty, you have sugar lips…”

As the week progressed, I happened to run into three other customers that had been in line with me (mostly random encounters) and soon found out that they too would live to be 100, have a long harmonious marriage and be successful in their careers…What a coincidence! In fact, one lady who did IT told me that Ketut predicted that she would be successful in “IT, beauty salon and business,” and apparently, she had sugar lips too. Hmm…

In addition to my “fortune,” my visit to Ketut’s house brought along one other, though delightfully unexpected, positive experience: my first close encounter with a monkey! (You didn’t really think I could go to Bali and not talk about monkeys, did you?)

Me and Ketut's monkey, my first time "holding" a monkey!

So Ketut likes pets. In his compound (which now includes a homestay if you’re ever interested) he has a fairly extensive collection of exotic animals, though most of them are birds. As I was perusing, I noticed he had a pet monkey that wasn’t completely psychotic, and I got very excited! The monkey was chained to a post and seemed very eager to jump on to me, and after some reassurance from one of the compound’s staff, I let it…  IT WAS INCREDIBLE! The monkey was not violent at all, though very eager to check my hair for bugs… It kept walking around my shoulders and head picking at my hair and my sunglasses, though never scratching or biting. It was so cool! I felt very touched, because I think the monkey liked me too, because he kept trying to jump back onto me every time I shook him off. It was AWESOME! So now I am officially over my fear of touching monkeys and am proud to say that I have let wild monkeys stand on my lap and shoulders on several occasions since my experience at Ketut’s and plan to try to interact with monkeys more frequently in the future.

Cambodia and Vietnam: Part 5

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The last two days of our trip were spent exploring places outside of Saigon. Unfortunately, I was so congested and miserable at this point that I really just wanted to go back to Kuala Lumpur to get some fresh air (that should put the pollution in perspective for you). Luckily for me, the day trips (at least one of them) ended up being worth the less-than-ideal traveling conditions.

Our first day trip was a packaged tour to visit the Cao Dai Temple and the Cu Chi Tunnels, two unrelated, yet equally fascinating destinations I knew very little about. Unfortunately, our guide was terrible. He could barely speak English but insisted on talking incessantly with the high-strung enthusiasm of a small bird (that I wanted to squash). Also unfortunately, neither the temple nor the tunnels had much to read about on location, so we were pretty dependent on our guide for information. (Thank goodness for guidebooks, the Internet and fellow travelers…).

Inside of Cao Dai Temple

The Cao Dai Temple was unlike anything I have ever seen before. Upon walking inside, I felt like I was entering into a Dan Brown novel. The whole building is huge and colorful with bright pink and yellow walls, a ceiling painted to look like a mystical blue sky and columns with bright, cartoonish dragons encircling them. What was most fascinating, albeit creepy, however, was that the whole thing is covered in EYES! Yes, eyes! Specifically, the temple is covered in individual left eyes that seem to be watching over everything and, apparently, represent the all-seeing eye of God. In the back of the temple is also a massive orb with a huge eye in the front of it.

Orb inside the Cao Dai Temple

If the building in itself wasn’t interesting enough, the worshippers themselves definitely were. Nearly all the men and women were dressed in pure white garments, though some of the men had more elaborate outfits in bright blue, yellow or red accompanied by tall hats with eyes on them. The men and women were separated from each other on either side of the temple and entered in straight corresponding lines with the colorful men first followed by everyone else according to rank. They then proceeded to sit down on their knees and perform a combination of chants and bows.

At this point, I was so confused. I had thought this was going to be a Buddhist temple but this was completely different than anything I’d ever seen, and I had been unable to decode the incoherent babbling of our guide. Apparently, Cao Daism is a monotheistic religion that is a mystic COMBINATION of Buddhism, Taoism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Confucianism and Islam and, as far as I know, is the only one of its kind in the world (though it has an international following). Like the Catholic Church, the religion has a hierarchical structure, including priests, bishops and a pope. Like Eastern religions, they believe in reincarnation, karma, ancestor worship and strive for the eventual attainment of nirvana like the Buddha. I found the entire thing unbelievably fascinating and plan to research it a lot more soon.

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After the temple, we headed out to the trip’s main destination: the Cu Chi Tunnels. The Cu Chi Tunnels were part of a massive tunnel network throughout Vietnam used by the Viet Cong to win the Vietnam War. The whole system was quite complex, consisting of several layers of tunnels on top of one another full of trap doors, booby traps and airtight seals that allowed them to go undetected by the South and the Americans for a long time. Some of the tunnels were built right underneath American military bases, leaving them puzzled how the Viet Cong could so easily attack them. Apparently, the tunnels were like mini-cities, full of hospitals, schools and dormitories that allowed the Viet Cong to stay under for days (though the conditions were miserable).

Me inside a foxhole at the Cu Chi Tunnels

Unfortunately, the site had very little information available to read, and we were, again, woefully dependent on the “expertise” of our guide. The site is also full of more anti-American propaganda, and I distinctly remember hearing the words “those crazy American devils” in the introductory video. However, the cool thing about the site is that you actually get to go into some of the tunnels and explore. Like most of my group, I decided I would walk through the long tunnel open for tourists that ran throughout the site. It wasn’t until two minutes in when we were crouching underground in the dim light with increasingly thick air that I realized how claustrophobic I was and started to panic. All I kept thinking and saying was, “Where is the exit? I have to get out!” Luckily, there were escape stairs available periodically throughout the tunnel, and I ran out the first chance I could. I’m glad I did, because you apparently have to crawl on your stomach at one point, because the space is so small. What boggles me is that some of these tunnels have been EXPANDED to accommodate tourists, who, I guess, are mostly bigger than the Vietnamese. At any size, I can’t imagine anyone staying down in those tunnels for more than a few minutes, let alone a few days. The tunnels we saw were paved and lit, but when they were actually used they were full of insects and snakes. I also read that the Viet Cong would often put dead bodies in the tunnels to deceive the Americans and, therefore, they often smelled like rotting flesh. I cringe at the thought…

As interesting as our first day trip was, our second day trip to the Mekong Delta was unremarkable, mostly involving a boat ride along the river and a bunch of super-tourist destinations where you watch them make honey and coconut candy. Nothing life-changing there.

Thus concluded my Chinese New Year trip :).

Cambodia and Vietnam: Part 2

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After much deliberation, Karri and I decided not to pursue more temples on day two. It was a really tough decision to make, but we were a bit “templed-out” after having spent an entire day looking at ruins, and there were a few other things in Siem Reap that I wanted to see.

The main event on day two was the Cambodia Landmine Museum, what would become the first of a series of heart-wrenching museums that made up the majority of our trip to Cambodia. The museum was quite a ways outside the city and near Banteay Srei, another temple that was described in my guidebook, so Karri and I decided to do both. It wasn’t until our tuk tuk driver took us to the lone ticket counter for the archeological park that we realized Banteay Srei was part of the whole ruins complex and required another $20 full-day ticket. Reluctantly, Karri and I decided to pass on the second ticket, convincing ourselves that we had seen enough temples and would now have more time to see the city.

People fishing off the side of the road in Cambodia.

Our driver, however, didn’t get the memo and somehow Karri and I found ourselves at Banteay Srei anyway, and I quickly began regret not purchasing that second ticket… Banteay Srei, from a distance, looked really incredible, and unlike other temples in the area, had information available to read about the temple’s history and architecture before going in. At this point, we’d already driven more than a half hour to get there and going back to the original ticket counter was not an option. Unfortunately, we soon found out that individual temples don’t sell their own tickets. It’s all or nothing, and if you want it all, you have to go to the lone temple ticket counter just outside Siem Reap.

But after such a long drive I was determined not to give up, so I decided to approach the guards and see if there was anything I could do to change their minds… At first I just played dumb and asked politely if there was any way we could buy just one ticket to get into this one temple. I tried to explain to the officer that we had already seen the main circuit the day before and had traveled a long way just to see this one temple today. He said he couldn’t but referred me to his supervisor, where I repeated my story. Again, I was told to go back to the ticket counter. At this point, I asked the guard if maybe we could pay him to see the temple. At first I offered $5 (well more than one temple is worth comparatively) but went all the way to the full $20 just to see this damn temple. But what do you know, a guard in a country where corruption is rampant still REFUSED to let me in! In fact, he made sure to tell me that people found at the temples without tickets get a $100 fine, despite the fact that he and his comrades were the only point of defense for the ruins and letting us in would be easily unnoticed.

(For the record, I do not support bribes and corruption and all that, but seriously, accepting a few dollars to let some tourists into a temple far away from the city center is not that big a deal, and he could have put that money to back into some preservation fund for all I cared, the whole thing was just ridiculous. Furthermore, the whole system seems like a bad business move. You could make a lot more money off the temples by charging for entrance at individual sites in addition to offering the all-inclusive ticket to accommodate the stupid tourists who find themselves stranded far away from the ticket counter and regretting not buying a second ticket…)

Anyway, with our tails between our legs, Karri and I left the temple site and headed off our original destination, the Cambodian Landmine Museum. Like it sounds, the museum is full of information regarding land mines, especially their presence and history in Cambodia. It also contains an orphanage/school for victims of landmines and other disadvantaged children. The founder was a child soldier under the Khmer Rouge and was forced to lay landmines as a child, watching many of his friends get blown away in the process. He eventually realized the harm he was causing and dedicated his life to removing landmines throughout the world and educating people about their danger.

Close-up of a painting on display at the Cambodian Landmine Museum

Though small, the museum is really powerful. There is a large collection of landmines and weapons on display, but what is more interesting is actually reading about the history of landmines and their presence throughout the world. There is also a really interesting documentary video on just how they work and how powerful they are. What is most impactful, however, are the stories of the child landmine victims who now live at the museum’s orphanage. An entire wall is covered with their little biographies, and you find yourself addicted to reading each one, never ceasing to be shocked by their stories. There is also an art therapy project on display where the kids were asked to take a box and paint their aspirations on the outside of it while painting what happened to them on the inside. Today visitors can find four boxes hanging from the ceiling, all with pictures such as teachers, doctors and office workers on the outside, with colorful visions of smoke, fire and missing limbs on the inside. Sadly, there are an estimated 6 million unexploded landmines remaining throughout Cambodia :(.

After that emotional rush, Karri and I decided to relax a bit and just enjoy the streets of Siem Reap during our remaining time there. Next stop: Phnom Penh!

Cambodia and Vietnam: Part 1

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As I sit here, just a couple weeks after returning from my one-week trip to Cambodia and Vietnam, all I can say is that this trip was one of the most eye-opening experiences of my life. Cambodia, a country that has been through so much political unrest, genocide and famine, was one of the most fascinating yet heartbreaking places I have ever been to. Likewise, Vietnam, the first communist country I have visited, also proved to be a reality check, as I saw firsthand how much control the government exerts on information. Additionally, both of these countries were the two most polluted I have ever been to (especially Ho Chi Min City), and I’m still recovering  from the cough I picked up from the three straight days of congestion I suffered as a result of the pollution aggravating my allergies.

So the trip came about after I found myself with nearly an entire week off work with the celebration of both Federal Territory Day and Chinese New Year in one week (gotta love the many cultures of Malaysia)! Since it was only a few weeks after the massive preparations for Thailand, I decided to join my Finnish friend Karri on his pre-planned trip, which included four days in Cambodia and four days in Vietnam, with my friend Danielle joining us for the second half.

I must say, in the (rushed) weeks planning my trip to Cambodia, I was pretty terrified and extremely anxious of what was to come. After receiving a typhoid vaccine and accumulating a mini-pharmacy including anti-malaria pills, anti-diarrhea pills, stomach medicine, anti-histamines and rehydration salts, I turned my worries more to the country’s lack of infrastructure, unsafe traffic and crime. Plus the image of the nasty scars on the legs of a New Zealand girl I met in Thailand due to a sink and mirror falling on her in her guest house in Cambodia left quite an impression on me.

But as we arrived at the Siem Reap airport and headed to the city, my fears mostly began to melt away. Cambodia is fascinating! To start with, it’s a lot like Thailand, except poorer and “Frencher.” Like Thailand, we rode around in tuk tuks, though the ones in Cambodia are simply motorbikes dragging the carriage as opposed to one, connected (stable) vehicle. Similarly, the food in Cambodia is like that of Thailand, though less spicy and with more French influence, like baguettes and croissants. Additionally, the country has a history of Buddhism and Hinduism with beautiful palaces and temples built with architecture similar to those of Thailand.

Cambodian Child

The country is, however, EXTREMELY poor. I’m not kidding, as we looked at all the children running around, some naked, nearly all barefoot, playing in the dirt and the dirty water in the ditches, I felt like I was looking at a Sally Struthers infomercial to adopt a child. Beggars are everywhere, especially in the city’s capital, Phnom Penh, where one child followed me for two blocks, begging me to buy a pirated book, while another waited for more than 15 minutes next to my dinner table at a restaurant to try to get me to buy one. In addition to the children, the country is full of land mine victims, some who beg on the streets and others who have formed a musical band where they play at tourist places and collect money in a basket.

Landmine Victim Band

Though I normally don’t give money to beggars, it was especially hard to refuse in Cambodia after seeing and reading about all the hardship these people  have endured during the past few decades,  especially under the Khmer Rouge communist government from 1975-79 where between 20 and 25 percent of the population died or was executed under the brutal regime. I found myself, instead, doing quite a bit of shopping, including buying two skirts, two books, earrings, a painting and a t-shirt, always justifying my spending that I was supporting this NGO or the local economy. (Plus, some of the stuff was really cool).

So the whole trip started in Siem Reap, Cambodia home of Angkor Wat, one of the most spectacular temples in the world, and an entire complex of ruins spread out outside the city. As some of the ruins are quite far away from each other, many guidebooks recommend spending at least three days to view everything, but since we only had two days, Karri and I decided to hit the ground running on day one and try to see as much as possible.

Angkor Wat

Our first stop was Angkor Wat, the crown jewel of the entire archeological park. The temple and its surrounding complex were built in the early 12th century for King Suryavarman II. Though now a Buddhist temple, it was originally a Hindu temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu and built to resemble Mount Meru in Hindu mythology, including a massive moat that surrounds the whole thing. Though under some reconstruction at the moment, Angkor Wat was beautiful. The complex is quite large and contains several buildings including a few large entryways, two libraries and the temple itself (side note: make sure to cover your shoulders and legs before you visit, otherwise you will be forced to wait to borrow the temple’s lone scarf for visitors).

Ta Prohm

After Angkor Wat, Karri and I managed to see the rest of the park’s main circuit, and though exhausting, is quite incredible. Actually, despite the national icon that is Angkor Wat, I think I prefer some of the other ruins we saw that day. Ta Phrom, another 12th century temple nearby, was amazing. Most of the temple has already fallen apart and what remains doesn’t look like it will last much longer. What is really beautiful, though, is that the temple is full of huge, old trees which have grown around the ruins, sometimes framing them with their roots.

Karri, Me and the Bayon

Perhaps my favorite ruins, however, were those of the Bayon temple, which were definitely the most unique of all the buildings we saw. The entire thing is covered in FACES! I mean, really, it’s COVERED in actual faces carved into the stone, and they’re all the same face! There are 216 of them, which face all four directions of the building’s 54 towers. Some say the face is of King Jayavarman VII, who commissioned the building in the late 12th or early 13th century, while others say it is supposed to be the Buddhist essence of compassion, the Avalokiteshvara, while others say it is a combination of the two. Whatever the case, the faces are really interesting, albeit, a bit creepy. I’d hate to be stuck there at night…

After more than seven solid hours of ancient ruins, thus ended day one in Cambodia.

Thailand Part 3: Kanchanaburi

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So Kanchanaburi was one of those off-the-beaten-track places I found in my guidebook that caught my eye. It’s a couple hours away from Bangkok and Ayutthaya, but is unfortunately not on the main train route to Chiang Mai. But after reading about the city’s little gems and history, I was determined to go! Luckily for us, our guest house from Ayutthaya was offering a 9 a.m. minivan ride to Kanchanaburi, which would arrive by noon and give us a good day and a half to explore.

For those of you who enjoy World War II history, Kanchanaburi  is famous for its part of the “Death Railway” or “Burma Railway,” a 415km railway between Thailand and Burma (now Myanmar) built by Allied POWs and local conscripts under the harsh hands of the Japanese. The Japanese nearly starved the workers and forced them to work all day long in unsanitary conditions with regular beatings, and more than 100,000 men died in the process. Specifically, Kanchanaburi is famous for its Kwai River Bridge, part of the Death Railway and also the basis of the 1957 Oscar-winning film “The Bridge on the River Kwai” that tells the story of the bridge’s construction. (I still need to see it).

Petting tigers at the Tiger Temple

As interesting as all that was, the real draw to Kanchanaburi  for me was its Tiger Temple, a temple a little ways outside the city that lets visitors get up close to and pet tigers.  The “temple” (I didn’t actually see any Buddhas anywhere) claims to be a sanctuary for orphaned or displaced tigers and now also breeds its own cubs from birth. Others, however, say they are operating an illegal breeding program and say the tigers are abused.

While the tigers seemed to be treated well enough while I was there, it was quite an expensive outing for Thailand and the temple seems to be milking its attraction for every cent its worth. For 600baht, about $20, you go into the grounds individually with a guide (the temple is actually run by a mixture of monks and international volunteers) who walks you to about 20 different tigers, tells you where to pet it and takes your picture with your camera. The tigers are all “napping” at this point, and most don’t seem to notice you (and dozens of other tourists) are touching them. Most of them are also chained to a pole in the ground. The temple claims tigers naturally sleep during the afternoon, though others think they’re sedated, who knows…

I’ve got to say, it was pretty cool. Even though the grounds were full of volunteers/tourists and the tigers were chained up and “sleeping,” there’s definitely an adrenaline rush being that close to a wild animal that could potentially rip you to pieces. At one point, there were two tigers lying on a rock and one of them had just woken up. The guide kept telling me to grab their tails to take a picture, but I swear to you, the awake tiger looked back at me with this “touch it and see what happens” look. Let’s just say I moved on quickly :). What was more interesting than the little photo session was that you could actually go and visit the younger tigers and spend more time with them actually petting them, awake! The ones I found were chained up, and though they were only about six months old, were already the size of a large dog! And sadly, I found out later that if you get to the temple early enough in the afternoon, you can pay to hold, feed and play with baby cubs for 45 minutes! When I found out I missed the opportunity I was completely crushed, that would have been my dream! My only condolence was I got to pay to watch the evening exercises for the adult tigers where they put you in this fenced in area where you get to watch the volunteers play with the tigers as if they were big cats. It was kind of fun, but I would have preferred the babies :(.

The next day, Josh and I joined one of those packaged tours that would allow us to see lots of different parts of Kanchanaburi in one day. Many of the packages offered elephant rides or bamboo rafting, but since we were planning on doing that later in Chiang Mai, we opted to visit the seven-tiered Erawan waterfalls, which also happened to include a visit to the Hellfire Pass or Konyu Cutting, a particularly sad point in the history of the Death Railway. Honestly, I had no interested in seeing this Hellfire Pass and just wanted to play in the waterfalls, but in an interesting twist, the Hellfire Pass ended up being one of the most memorable parts of my visit to the city.

Me and Josh in front of one of the tiers of the Erawan Waterfalls

The day started with a morning trip to the falls, which I will admit, were quite stunning. There are seven main, large waterfalls throughout the grounds, and you have to hike a ways to get to each one of them. Each one has its own unique design and each was full of clear, light green water. Unfortunately for me, the pools were also full of something else: fish, and lots of them. For those of you that know me pretty well, I am extremely grossed out by fish and will not go into water if I see them around. So while Josh and most of the other tourists were splashing around, playing in all the pools, I was sitting on the rocks admiring the scenery and cursing those nasty little things who had the nerve to infringe upon my vacation. Hmpf!

Hellfire Pass

I actually found the second part of the day much more interesting. After the waterfalls, our guide took us to the Hellfire Pass, a part of the Death Railway through solid mountain that has a particularly brutal history. Before viewing the Pass, you go to this little museum full of information on the Death Railway, and it was fascinating! It talks all about the lead up to World War II, the details of the conditions of the POWs, the process of making the railway, the importance of the link to Burma and why it was so hard to make the railway because of the rough terrain. I could have spent an hour or more reading everything, and tried to, but our guide said we were pressed for time so I didn’t get to finish the story :(.

Anyway, viewing the actual Hellfire Pass is quite breathtaking, especially after reading the history. To start, you’re in the mountains, surrounded by bamboo trees and the scenery is absolutely gorgeous. But then you look up and see this solid wall of rock that has been cleared away to make room for this railway (which has since been dismantled) and you realize all the backbreaking labor that went into it. The men had to work 18 hours a day with rudimentary tools and clear through a 17 by 110 meter section of solid rock. It is called the Hellfire Pass because, at one point, the Japanese rushed the project’s deadline and forced the men to work through the night, with only the light of torch fires to guide them, suggesting a scene from Hell. Today, the Pass is remembered through several memorials and parts of the railway that have been left to preserve history. Of everything I saw in Kanchanaburi, I think that afternoon might be the thing that sticks with me most. In the end, I was definitely glad we took our detour!