My one-night stand with Tokyo

As I was making my way to France with a stopover in Atlanta to visit family and attend Erin’s wedding, my flight from Singapore to Tokyo was delayed. This made me miss my flight from Tokyo to the States.  An ordeal such as this usual comes with a great amount of frustration, instead I was […]

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I left my heart in Asia.

I have had a very hard time writing this post.  Presently, I have gone on to experience some amazing adventures in Europe and North Africa, but I seem to have left my heart in Asia.  I cannot even begin to express what it was like to live in Singapore and explore other parts of Asia […]

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I have waited 3 years for you…

I put on my nice short black skirt, gold heels, a bright blue top that I purchased from Düsseldorf. I curled my hair, slap on some dangly earrings. I was ready for my date tonight! I first saw him on Anthony Bourdain or some other travel show about Singapore on the Travel Channel and that’s […]

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The Floating Village

When I first arrived in the United States at the age of 9, I was mesmerized by how things were so different from Paris.  There is one particular memory that I usually bring up at parties and get a good laugh at it. My family had friends that lived in a trailer (mobile home or […]

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The Killing Fields of Phnom Penh

The girls and I had a lovely time in Siem Reap.  Anna and Irit parted ways while Eva and I took a 6-hour bus ride to Phnom Penh.  We saw a lot of poverty in Siem Reap, but the city does get good business through tourism.  Our shock really came when we arrived in Phnom Penh.  We knew that the city could be dangerous especially for 2 girls so we decided to splurge a little more on a nice hotel near the embassies and NGOs.  The next day we took a tuk tuk ride to Choeung Ek, the killing fields of Phnom Pengh.  On our way there we saw just how much poverty this country has.  I think the poverty in India is a little nastier but at least Indians have an advantage through opportunities and economic growth.  They can get educated and work very hard to make something for themselves.  It seemed a bit depressing in Phnom Pengh.  The country is very slowly trying to recover over the tragic events that happened during the Khmer Rouge days.  Most people have heard of the holocaust, but very few have heard of the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot’s rule in Cambodia; probably because it was of no real interest or importance to anyone… at least politically or economically for nations that would have helped Cambodia before it was too late. You can feel that the people do not have a lot of direction and are afraid to make decisions on their own. I don’t blame them at all especially since they have to start life again from scratch.

So here is a very brief summary of what happened (I really urge you to read more about this as it is so unfathomable that this tragedy happened so recently):

KR ruled from 1975 to 1979.  It was a communist party and it later committed genocide of about 3 million of their own people.

After the fall of KR,  it took 10 years to set up a UN court to try the people responsible… it took another 10 years to get a verdict.  All the while these perpetrators (most of them educated in Paris) lived lavish lives with lucrative professions (some where even professors teaching at universities) and now many have died of natural causes before brought to justice.  Only one remained.

At this killing field… one of many in Cambodia  about 17,000 women and children were decapitated and their bodies were dumped in holes.  We saw the below monument which have all the clothes, and bones from the victims that were later dug up.  We were actually walking on teeth, bones and clothes that had surfaced to the ground after a heavy night of rainfall. You can even see the tree used by KR to smash babies heads on before dumping their bodies into these mass graves.

Thirty years later, the Cambodians with broken families, many look and seem to feel lost but ironically they seem absolutely appreciative of their freedom and have by far the biggest smiles I have ever seen in my life.

Here monk, there monk… everywhere monk monk

I’m totally obsessed, not sure if I should talk to someone.  I have gone so far as stalking one for about 30 minutes through the streets of Bangkok.

My problem: I am obsessed with Buddhist monks.  I am not sure why.  I love to stare at them, photograph them and just listen to them chant.  There is something peaceful and serene about them.  I feel at peace when I am around them.

Throughout my travels, I have always been pleased with my visits to Buddhist temples.  Everyone is always quiet at churches and cathedrals, the synagogue in Budapest is always closed for some reason, Hindu temples can be quite strict and often do not let my non-Indian friends in, but Buddhist temples have always welcomed people (even monkeys), laughter, questions… all with no rules or restrictions.  Best of all, the monks let you take pictures of everything even themselves.

Back to my obsession… I really like the monks in Asia mainly because of their beautiful bright orange attire.  The color is absolutely stunning.  I once followed a very old monk through the streets of Bangkok for about 30 minutes.  He kept stopping to talk to people and I honestly think he noticed me trying to take pictures of him, but he just kept walking.  After 30 minutes, he led me to a Buddhist temple where I heard the most beautiful chants.  That tricky little old monk =).  I sat there for about half an hour just listening.

My goal some day is to get a good picture of monks using technology… like cell phones.  I know it sounds so weird, but they lead such simple lives that I can’t help but find it cute when I see them using phones, DSLRs and such.

While the girls and I were in Cambodia, we woke very early in the morning to catch the most talked about sunrise at Angkor Wat.  I can definitely say that it was a beautiful surprise even though I only enjoyed it for all but 5 minutes.

Just a few minutes before the sunrise, I saw two long rows of bright orange fabric descending from Angkor Wat.  My friends who were fully aware of my obsession throughout the trip called out my name and pointed towards the temple.  There were hundreds of monks slowly walking to the front of Angkor Wat and taking a seat on the grass.  Of course, I ran over there and didn’t even care about the sunset.

The monks ranged from maybe ages 7 to probably 80.  They were sitting from youngest to oldest.  They were smiley, joyful and very happy to let you take their pictures.  The smaller ones were laughing and fidgety while the older ones where a little more serious but still with a smile.

And then they started.  In deep concentration, all the monks began to meditate together in front of Angkor Wat as the sun was rising.  There was a “senior monk” that would go around adjusting the postures of the meditating monks to make them more comfortable. The younger monks kept going in and out of mediation and found it a little hard to focus, but no one said anything to them.  I guess this comes with practice and listening to our body. I don’t think I have ever seen something so beautiful and so peaceful.  I just wanted to sit there right next to them and never leave.

We stress about so many things in our lives and have a hard time finding peace.  We spend money on shrinks, self-help books, alcohol, shopping, vacations, etc. when sometimes we just need something so simple to ground us to this earth again.

The monks were at peace, and so was I.

Girls gone wild

When you think of girls’ weekend, girls’ trip, or girls’ night out, you probably imagine martinis, dancing, chick flicks, going to Vegas, New York, pillow fights (for some of you) or what not.  At least that’s what Sex and the City has taught us. Anna, Irit, Eva and I decided to have our girls’ outing in Cambodia… Vegas did not make the cut.

Irit flew in from Hanoi, Anna from Singapore, Eva from Phnom Pengh, while I flew in from Ho Chi Mingh City to meet everyone in Siem Reap.

The four of us had heard so much about the breathtaking temples of Angkor. Some were as old as the 9th century. When we got there, we were absolutely marveled by what we saw.

Our first stop was the temple of Ta Prohm aka the “Tomb Raider” temple built in the 12th century.  This temple has such an air of mystery.  It is situated in the middle of the jungle and the surrounding natural elements are slowly taking over the temple. I still cannot put it through my head how people back in the 12th century had the ability to create such a marvelous and beautiful monument with such intricate details. Little did I realized that this was just my first stop…

We hired a tuk tuk driver for the week.  It’s better that way… you tend to build a good relationship with the driver, as he knows he will get steady money coming in for at least a week. Therefore, he goes out of his way to take care of you.  There are many tuk tuk drivers in Cambodia… most often go MONTHS without getting a passenger. We were lucky as ours turned out amazing!  He really watched out for us and gave us good advice on which temples to visit to avoid crowds and etc. He even managed to call the hotel to wake us up in time for the sunrise at Angkor Wat!

As we explored the area, we had to be sure to always stay on a marked path because to this day there are still many land mines still active just steps away from trails.  So we weren’t about to explore the off the beaten paths of Cambodia but as tourists, we had many things to see in the few days that we were there.   If you have some time, please check out my friend Carrie’s blog on a very different experience in Cambodia.  She went to Cambodia to work at an orphanage over the summer.

 

Hoi An, Vietnam

Beaches, bikes, food, lanterns.

Hop on a bike; it’s the best way to explore Hoi An.  This sleepy quaint town is quite pedestrian friendly. Below is a description of Hoi An from the Vietnamese Tourist board:

“Hoi An was one of the major trading centers of Southeast Asia in the 16th century. Hoi An has a distinct Chinese atmosphere with low, tile-roofed houses and narrow streets; the original structure of some of these streets still remains almost intact. All the houses were made of rare wood, decorated with lacquered boards and panels engraved with Chinese characters. Pillars were also carved with ornamental designs”.

The evenings are the most beautiful. Every 14th of the month, Hoi An has a Lunar festival.  I was there just a few days before it and in the evening all the streets, bridges, and restaurants were lit up by colorful lanterns.

They even have large lantern displays on the water.

To me, it was one of the most beautiful and romantic parts of Vietnam.  The traffic almost comes to a standstill here compared to Hanoi. The Old Town is pedestrian/bikes only, so you do not have to fight for your life when crossing the street.  It was such a peaceful setting.

In the mornings, I would bike 3 km to the nearby beach of An Bang  With its crystal clear blue water and miles of clean sand, I was the only one on the beach.  I later saw a small fisherman going out to sea in a circular boat.

People are quite friendly there.  After spending a day at cooking school, I took a boat back to the Old Town.  On my way back to the Old Town, I stopped next to an old Vietnamese fisherman and watched him cast a net with his bare hands old school style.  It was almost as though he had created his own dance using his whole body.  He then asked me if I wanted to try it.  It definitely looked easier when he did it.  To my disappointment, my net did not go far and I did not catch anything.

My stay at a small bed and breakfast was equally pleasant. Every morning started with a big breakfast of whatever I wanted from the restaurant menu. The staff greeted me with avocado shakes and plates of fruits upon my return to the hotel after wandering around under the hot sun. The day I left, they even gave me a small parting gift (a purple hand-made wallet).

I definitely hope to come back someday and maybe even experience the lunar festival in Hoi An. FYI the food is equally amazing!

The Tailor of Hoi An

I took a short flight from Hanoi to Hoi An (central coast of Vietnam) for one main reason only: tailored suits. I arrived late night and ran straight to Kimmy Tailor on a recommendation.  I had a few designs in mind and carried a couple of sketches with me.  Kimmy had a corner store with an inviting open-air shop with thousands of colored fabrics neatly organized throughout the store.  I sat down with Kimmy herself and we discussed my ideas.  She then helped me sketch out a 3-piece suite, a winter coat and a dress then proceeded to take precise measurements of my body for the next 20 minutes.

I was told to come back 2 days later for my second fitting.

Two days later, I went b back to the shop and Kimmy assigned a personal tailor who would work with me until I was satisfied with the end products.  I tried on my outfits and noticed that everything was a bit loose.  “Not to worry” said the tailor… After some more measurements, chalk marks, placement needles and more dialogue, I was told to come back the next day for my third fitting.

On the third fitting, things looked sharper and I was definitely satisfied. I then proceeded to pick out buttons to my liking, asked to widen the belt on my jacket and move its collar farther to the right. Kimmy’s team made sure that every request met my satisfaction.

Pick up day:  I tried on my outfits one last time and after my approval, my tailor put them in custom suit bags for me.

The best part is that Kimmy’s shop has my measurements on record and from now on, I can order anything I want with whatever fabric.  All I have to do is shoot her an email with the details and she will ship it over.

Many of my friends have their own tailors in Thailand, but to be honest, after speaking to a few people who live in SE Asia, I was told that Hoi An offers the best deals.  So if you happen to be in Vietnam, stop by Hoi An and find a tailor that will stay with you for life.  I recommend Kimmy’s and Yali’s (although slightly more expensive). Keep in mind that you should make time for at least 3 fittings.  Many tailors say that they can make you anything overnight but for a quality suit you need to have several fittings.

My goal was to have nice suits made in Hoi An but the best surprise was that I fell completely in love with the town itself.

Perfume Pagoda & Ha Long Bay

I parted ways with Irit and made my way back to Hanoi where I took two trips; one to the Perfume Pagoda and another to Ha Long Bay.

The Perfume Pagoda houses Buddhist temples in the mountains and can only be reached by taking an hour-long row-boat on the Yen River.

The next day I went to Ha Long Bay which consists of close to 2,000 islets. I dined on a Chinese junk boat and enjoyed the view of the mysterious limestones that popped out of the water.

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Boy likes girl; boy kidnaps girl

On our second day in Sapa, we decided to take a half-day tour of a Red Dao village of Taphin.  Another tribal person led this tour.

Our guide told us a very interesting story about how marriage works in his culture.

Irit and I first asked him about the love market in Sapa.  A few years ago, boys and girls would go to this market to “check” each other out and find a potential mate.  Our guide gave us further insight into this practice, which is still common with tribes that live far away in the mountains.  He told us that when a boy sees a girl that he likes, he would follow her around for a few days to see if she is a good person (good to the people, parents, etc…). He then calls all his male friends for a gathering, and they all get drunk. He then reveals his love for this particular girl that he wants.  The friends now discuss the situation among themselves and once the boy gets approval he asks his male friends to help “get” her.  Note: This is not a typical wingman situation.

The guys get up from their gathering and go find this girl.  They take her away (whether she is willing or not… maybe kicking and screaming)… and basically kidnap her. (At this very moment in the story, Irit and I are horrified, but our guide… a male… finds this practice hilarious).

The guys drop her off to the boy’s parents’ house so she can meet the parents and drink with them. She then must live there for 3 days with his mother and sister(s). All the while the parents of the girl have no idea where she is.

After 3 days, the boy’s parents, the boy, and the girl gather again and the boy asks the girl if she wants to marry him.  If she says no, then the boy can be a gentleman and let her go back home to her family, OR he can force her to marry him.

And they lived happily ever after…

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Sapa, Vietnam

Sapa (the region) reminds me of Sapna (the word for dream in Hindi).  Yes, this was a beautiful dream.

Irit and I took an overnight sleeper train from Hanoi to Sapa (north of Vietnam) to trek through the beautiful rice terraces of the region.

Once we arrived, we went to the tourist office and booked our daylong trek through the Cat Cat valley to visit some of the villages of the local tribes people.

Our guide was a very energetic 16-year-old girl from the Black H’mong tribe named Zao. She was adorned in her tribal outfit and jewelry.  Later, she told us how much she hated wearing it because she gets so hot and it literally turned her blue (the H’mong use indigo plants to die their costumes blue).

We learned a lot about the different tribes and their way of living.  Zao seemed quite different from the rest.  While most H’Mong girls hope to get married before 18, Zao wants to be independent until the age of 24.  She wants to travel the world and learn perfect English so she can return to Sapa and teach the children of the village proper English in order for them to earn a better living some day.

On our way down the mountain, we could see an endless landscape of rice terraces stretching for miles. It had rained the night before so we could not take some of the designated trails.  Zao kindly asked some of the farmers if we could walk on their fields as they were working on it.  With a big toothy smile they said yes.

Later, we encountered a little girl sitting on the side of the trail carrying a basket full of branches.  Irit and I thought that this girl was so young to do such manual labor.  Zao explained that at the age of 5 she carried her siblings on her back while her parents worked in the fields and at the age of 8 she worked in the fields and/ or carried baskets of branches such as the girl pictures below.  Quite normal for a H’mong.

After some more trekking, we rested a bit.  We started talking to (or rather, Zao was translating)…) 3 boys shyly covered underneath blankets. Another boy played the flute and was serenading Zao.  She called them lazy and the boys said they were working in the fields all day and now sleeping.  Zao didn’t believe them and the flute player told her that he is trying to make enough money to marry her.  I think they were a bit intimidated that she was earning a “decent” living.

I cannot even begin to describe how beautiful, serene, meditative and mysterious the rice terraces looked.  All the villagers we passed along the way always had a smile on their face when you looked at them.

Halfway through the trek, Zao cooked lunch for us.  The place we ate was a shack but had one of the best views of the rice terraces.

At the end of our tour, while Irit and I were covered in mud, we noticed that Zao did not even have a speck of mud on her little pink shoes shoes.  Apparently the H’Mongs trek for 3 hours each way to get to the Sapa to sell their homemade goods to tourists.  If it’s a lucky day then they can afford to pay for a ride home on the back of a motorcycle.

And of course, we ended the day with a delicious meal at a Red Dao tribal restaurant.

I really hope to come back here someday.  It is such a special place and I highly recommend it should you visit Vietnam.

DON’T look both ways before crossing the street!

Instead, close your eyes and just walk when crossing the streets of Hanoi, Vietnam.

Yes, my friends warned me many times that the traffic in Vietnam is terrible and no one stops for pedestrians.  I was told (and I read) to just slowing start walking across the street (DO NOT RUN) and everything will be alright.  Yet On my first day in Vietnam when I got out of the cab at a major intersection in Hanoi, I completely froze and was terrified to cross the street to get to my hotel. I had to stop my cab driver and ask him to help me cross the street.  He of course laughed as I held on tight to his arm. I think I didn’t breath for all 7 seconds that it took me to cross the road.   Ah…. Sigh of relief when I got to the other end…

Later, I became very comfortable with this… as long as you just walk slowly and look straight ahead (not both ways)… even close your eyes, you can cross the streets of Vietnam with no harm. I still managed to no breath during the process.

There are so many motorcycles in Vietnam especially in the major cities of Hanoi and Ho Chi Ming City (aka Saigon). I think of them as a school of fish. Have you ever been scuba diving or snorkeling and see a school of fish in perfect formation? …and when you try to swim through it or when it comes at you, the fish just spread all around you without touching you and once the fish pass you, the school goes back into its formation? The very same thing happens with the traffic in Hanoi. It’s quite amazing once you get used to it.

I traveled the first leg of my journey through Vietnam with Irit, a friend who was introduced to me via email by Anna who is my friend from Singapore and was my travel companion in Agra, India.

I was so excited to be in Vietnam, I have dreamt for years of coming here to explore the country and I could not believe that I was ACTUALLY here!

Irit and I spent a day in Hanoi and walked around Hoan Kiem Lake.  We later decided to be adventurous and sat in one of the many plastic chairs in Hanoi to be served the below delicious meal (about $1).

There are many little plastic chairs and tables in Vietnam where the establishment only serves one dish.  If you seat in one then you will be immediately served whatever dish the establishment specializes in whether it is pho or some other type of meat and noodle.

I kid you not… this place offers photocopies and pho all at the same time!  My friends back in DC would definitely get a kick out of this.

Overall this was a great start to my trip through Vietnam!

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Before Hangover Part Two…

… there was my birthday!

Balazs decided to join me in Bangkok for 2 days and took me to Sirocco at the Lebua Hotel for dinner, drinks and a little jazz music. This place was LATER made famous by the movie Hangover Part 2. Do you remember when they are on top of the building trying to negotiate the brother-in-law back?  Same place!

We later went to the not so fancy but equally fun night market to haggle for designer watches, bags, and clothes.  The night came to a conclusion with a tuk tuk ride through the quiet streets of Bangkok.

FYI: In France “Hangover Part 2” is called “Very Bad Trip two.”

Also, big THANK YOU to Greg for being such an amazing host in Bangkok!

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