A Travellerspoint blog

Cambodia

I want to go back someday...

semi-overcast 33 °C

Cambodia…

Peace, finally. Am I referring to my own travels or to Cambodia's history with three civil wars in the last century*? Hard to say. Regardless, arriving at night in Siem Reap and riding from the airport to the guesthouse, I was struck, as I was on a tuk-tuk, that this is what a tuk-tuk ride was supposed to be like, along a peaceful countryside and small town, without the noise and crowding of the big city. This was helped by my driver, Mr. Dy, who welcomed me at the airport with the biggest and warmest smile, as well as his taciturn and shy 6 year old son.

Mr. Dy as I was leaving Cambodia:
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So as much as Hanoi in Vietnam grows on you after a while, Cambodia just "felt right" immediately. I was very interested in visiting Cambodia as when I was a child, our church parish welcomed and helped out a Cambodian family escaping from Pol Pot's regime and the aftermath*. I remember as a child going to visit them a few years after they had been established, and them giving us kids packs of asian noodle soups which I really enjoyed. Many years later, we visited them again, and they were well established owning (if I recall) three restaurants and having done very well for themselves (they were very hard working!). I also wanted to see Cambodia as I'd seen wonderful pictures of Angkor Wat and other temples close to Siem Reap.

I stayed at the Bun Kao guest house in Siem Reap. Siem Reap is a rather surprising place as there are cheep guesthouses (mine cost 6.50$ a night for a private room and was really nice) as well as very expensive hotels. It struck me more here than anywhere else, the contrast between the poor locals and the rich tourists (specifically, lots of Japanese living it up in the nice hotels). Of course, it is no different than a nice luxurious hotel in Delhi, but somehow, it struck me more here. Perhaps the difference is that I was less overwhelmed here and let the feeling "come in".

Early the next morning, aboard my tuk-tuk being driven by a cheerful Mr. Dy, I visited Angkor Wat under an overcast sky. The lighting wasn't ideal for photography, but the temple is such a wonder that there really is no way not to be amazed. It is believe to originally have been a temple dedicated to Vishnu, but as the Khmer became buddhist over the years, so did Angkor Wat. Visiting Angkor Wat is a bit like pealing an onion, you start from the outside and work your way in through the outer yards towards the inner yards. The murals on the outer walls depict hindu scenes with Garuda, Naga and some devas, but as you walk through the hallways, you see statues of Buddha placed strategically with a monk offering to bless you.

Of all of the places I've seen, Angkor Wat is the one which I most would have liked to "discover" and explore without the hordes of tourists. It really is fascinating. It is best, though, when visiting, not to have vertigo as many of the climbs (as well as in all of the nearby temples) are very steep. In the 60s, a French woman felt down the stairs to her death. Her husband decided to pay for the installation of a metal guide rail to have something to hold on to. This didn't stop a Korean man from falling and killing himself 3 years ago, prompting the government of Cambodia to close the central and highest part of Angkor Wat until a new staircase could be installed. The site only reopened a few months ago. Though safer, the climb is still very very steep!

Angkor Wat:
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After Angkor Wat, I got to visit several other temples, built at other times (as rather than having small buddha statues around the temples the walls have huge smiling buddhas sculpted into them). My favourite temple Ta Phrom is a temple where trees are growing on top of the structure, the huge roots permeating the rock structure. It gives a somewhat eery feeling of age.

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For lunch, I ran amok of one of the numerous, though local, tourist trap lunch places and had Amok for lunch (sorry, I couldn't really resist). Amok is either fish or chicken with a leafy vegetable cooked in a coconut milk, and chilies (though mild by Thai standards) and served in a freshly cut and opened coconut. It is really delicious. I also sampled the local Angkor beer, which in my mind rates just behind Beer Lao (really good in all varieties) but ahead of Tiger beer, and way ahead of Singha or Chang.

Then came one of the moments where you wonder what to do ethically. Around Angkor Wat are families that sell stuff. I say families as the whole family is there to some extent. So two little girls come up to me trying to sell me bracelets and postcards for "1 dollar - only 1 dollar" (the Cambodian version of - "Massage? Would you like a massage?" of Thailand and the "Camel? Would you like a camel? Cheap camel! Good camel!" of Egypt - ie, you hear it a lot…). I had been wondering what to get my nieces and these extensible bracelets would fit them nicely now. So the question is should I be encouraging mini-hawkers which will keep pestering tourists or not? You do have to wonder, as the biggest of the two girls should have been in school. But then, at the same time, as they are getting money for their family (who feed them) now and are not in school and probably never will be, what more can you do but buy some beads?

On the topic of school, after my tour of the temples, which Mr. Dy does part time, he took me to an orphanage where he works. The organization is responsible for taking care of kids that were reclaimed from the child trafficking problems in Cambodia. Kids are frequently bought (from their parents) or kidnapped in Cambodia and sold to slavery in foreign countries including the sex trade in Thailand. As the government has tightened security at the border, they are able to save some of these kids, which sometimes can't be identified and returned to their parents or who shouldn't be returned to parents who sold them.

Here's a little wood elf I ran into at Ta Phrom temple... She should have been in school, but her family were busy trying to survive by selling stuff to the people that visit the temples. Rather sad as she didn't have anything to do and was just staying there...
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This orphanage is specialized in helping the blind and the deaf kids that are reclaimed. It seemed to be a nice school and I got to look around. I then asked Mr. Dy about the situation in schools in Cambodia. He said that the education is basically free by law, but in reality isn't and is of poor quality. The government doesn't pay the teachers enough, such that it is common for the family with kids in school to give the teacher either food or money. These conditions obviously don't attract the best type of teachers. Also, kids frequently don't have school gear, ie pens, paper, books etc… Furthermore, the economy is such that many people have to travel to the neighbouring countries to get a decent job.

While taking a cooking class in Bangkok, I met a person who was an airline pilot but who spent a month of his time off teaching English in Cambodia. That is starting to be very tempting for me as well.

That night, I had my first Khmer massage. It is basically like a Thai massage, but with more focus on the upper back, neck, scalp and face. Not to mention they walk on your thighs… No need to be concerned here about the type of offers you get in Thailand, at least not in Siem Reap.

The next day, I decided to take it easy, fight with super slow internet connection and go and visit the floating village in the afternoon.

For lunch, I had banana blossom salad and lok lak.

The floating village is composed of boat houses and houses built on bamboo that float. They can be relocated fairly easily and usually are as Lake Tonlé Sap changes size considerably between the dry and the wet season. The people live on Lake Tonlé Sap as there is an abundance of fish, both large and small available in the its waters. The communities have churches, schools and I even saw a floating basketball court! Then, on my tour, I was offered the possibility to buy food for the local school, where kids stay if they have lost their parents. Something felt wrong, and in a part of the world where scams abound, I backed out, as there was no oversight at all as to whether the food ever really made it to the kids. I figured I would be better off contributing to the orphanage mentioned above as it is recognized by three western european governments as an authentic charity. It is a pain, though, as I'd like to help the boat people as well, but something just didn't feel right.

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This girl is demonstrating her skill at snake charming...
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For lunch, I decided I would try another local specialty which is a beef salad. What I didn't realize is that the beef is raw. Surprise! 8-| Fortunately, I didn't get sick!

All in all, I really enjoyed Cambodia, and probably should have stayed longer and visited more of it. It is certainly on my to do list for when I return to Asia.

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  • Pol Pot's regime… Pol Pot was a dictator in the mid to late 70s who decided to completely restructure cambodian society by forcing at gunpoint the population to return to farming in dire conditions. Over a period from 1975 to 1979 or specifically 3 years, 8 months and 20 days, he killed 3 million of his fellow cambodians.

Posted by CVMB2010 04:41 Archived in Cambodia Tagged temple cambodia siem_reap angkor wat Comments (0)

Hanoi, Vietnam

sunny 24 °C

Vietnam - it's different…

Arriving in Vietnam, I noticed pretty much immediately, that it was different from Thailand. Economically, they seem quite a bit poorer and certainly less tourism oriented. There is also a lot of green - ie agriculture land right next to Hanoi.

The other thing I noticed in Vietnam is the traffic. It is not that the roads are so heavily laden with vehicles, it is that so many of those vehicles are motorbikes or scooters. Proportionally, I assume that there are about 10-20 motorbikes for each car. The other difference is that they don't have all that much for traffic regulations at intersections or roundabouts. People just try to go through without hitting anything.

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As taxis are so corrupt in Vietnam, it is very highly recommended to organize transportation to your accommodations with the accommodations which is what I did. The airport is fairly far, being about 1.5 hours from downtown Hanoi.

After checking in to my hostel close to the Old Quarters of Hanoi, I decided to go to the Gecko Café in Hanoi to sample their food and hoping that I will be able to take cooking classes there if the food is good. So I walked at night, following a map through the relatively dark streets of Hanoi at night, getting the impression on occasion, due to the trees in the alleyways and some of the architecture, that I was in France.

Anyhow, I find the street that the restaurant is supposed to be on, and find a small sign for it that points to a dark entryway. I go into the entry way, climb two flights of ordinary steps and then two floors of a small circular staircase made of wood that is shaking under my weight. I didn't see anything that looked particularly convincing and suddenly see the most beautiful café. I sit down, order a mango-coconut milk, an order of spring rolls, and the local dish of fried trout, onions, chilies and dill that you roll into rolls of rice paper (like making fajitas) with sliced cucumbers, carrots, noodles. Absolutely delicious! It was the first time in memory that I'd tasted cooked dill. For desert, I noticed, of all things… Hokey Pokey ice-cream imported from New Zealand. I normally try to eat local, but if you've ever tasted Hokey Pokey ice-cream, you'd understand… So I order it, but unfortunately, they are out of that one flavour… I'll just have to go to New Zealand to get some on my next trip!

The next morning, I left for a 3 day trip of Halong Bay. Pictures of Halong Bay were my main inspiration to come to Vietnam. It was what I most wanted to see. A three day tour, all included except drinks and tips was 88$.

We got piled into a bus and took the three hour ride through the countryside to Halong City. On the way, we stopped at the Ruby Emperor, a stop for tourists where the prices are high and lots of local stuff is sold. The architecture is interesting in the country side. Ornate three story houses that are high but very thin. Sort of like in Holland, oddly enough.

We made it to Halong Bay. The bay is magnificent! Unfortunately, there was a permanent and rather thick haze which has made the pictures not turn out too well. Once there, and after a copious meal of dragon, snake and tiger (our hosts had quite the sense of humour when describing the dishes…), we got to visit "surprise cave" which, though sizeable, didn't really surprise me all that much. This was followed by 30 minutes if kayaking that I skipped deciding that I'd prefer to sit on the deck and enjoy the view followed by a choice of swimming or climbing to the top of a lookout with a wonderful view. I originally decided to take the swim, so I didn't take my camera, but ultimately, went for the climb which was worth it; it was a wonderful view of Halong Bay. The only down side to the cruise was that we were carted from place to place on a tight schedule and didn't really have the time to stop and chill in a place.

After supper, the crew started a karaoke session. I went up to the top deck to enjoy some (relative) peace and it was interesting to see the bay, full of several dozen junks and hearing karaoke coming from all of those boats around ours…

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Next morning, the boat left for Cat Ba island, which is a little island to the south. To be honest, I didn't really see the point of visiting Cat Ba island as there really isn't anything to see there. In the morning, we climbed a nice hill (about 500m up) in a national park to get a good view of the surrounding hills and land. During the day, we went for a quick visit of Monkey Island which had a small but nice beach that monkeys visit at the end of the day. One of the tourists got bit (they can be unpredictable). I hope the monkey didn't have rabies!! My evening was spent with a foot massage and as I was waiting for a fellow travel mate who was getting a body massage, I got my first ever pedicure (my toe nails were rather long and the clippers were in Hanoi…). It went well till the woman cut my toe off (slight exaggeration) but I wasn't thrilled to have a cut toe…

I saw this monkey steal a beach towel... He seems to enjoy the soft downy feel...
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The next day was the return to Hanoi. As a whole, the trip was nice, the food was good, the accommodations were ok, but I felt that we were rushed from place to place which was a bit unfortunate. Apparently they have about 500 junks (boats) in Halong Bay, so that gives you an idea of the industry...

Next morning, I visited Hanoi. There is a lake to the south of the Old Quarters that I visited. It was nice. On one side, about a half dozen couples were getting their marriage pictures taken which was interesting.

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I then visited a house in the traditional style (it survived the bombings of the Vietnam war) which was very interesting. Originally it had one family, but several years later, they fit 5 families in there. Not sure how they managed!

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Lunch consisted of taste-testing 4 kinds of spring rolls.

I then got a Vietnamese massage (not the same as the Thai massage, with lots of emphasize put on massaging the back of the neck). It was good, but I prefer the Thai variety. I then headed off to visit the Hanoi Hilton. This was the old "Maison Centrale" that the French had built when they had colonized Indochina. When visiting it, you get to see the atrocities the French committed to the Vietnamese and the wonderful treatment the Vietnamese gave to the American POW pilots shot down over Hanoi. Who said history is written by the victors?

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I decided to leave Vietnam, not because I wasn't having a good time, but rather because the weather is really bad down the coast at this point and though I would like to visit the rural areas, it would be better to visit them with the Japanese Encephalitis vaccine that I didn't get unfortunately. But on the bright side, it will give me more to see should I return some day to Vietnam.

The following day, I got to visit the Ethnographic Museum which had lots of interesting details about the different ethnicities in Vietnam. It was very detailed, almost too detailed, unless you are doing a research project on these ethnicities. But at least I can say they were thorough. The part I enjoyed the most was visiting the area behind the museum where they had recreated several houses from the different ethnicities that you could visit. They were invariably fascinating! I loved the tall house on stilts…

This was followed by having a sandwich on the street with some of the best bread I've had since the nan bread in India and then a quick visit of the Ho Chi Minh museum. It was rather interesting with a temporary exhibit on education in Vietnam and Asia as a whole (over a period of 15 years, for example, the number of university students has increased by a factor of 10!), and then a large section mostly presenting the correspondence that Ho Chi Minh had had during his struggle for Vietnam. Fascinating, but after visiting Hanoi Hilton, I quickly reached a level of saturation in regards to pro-communism philosophy which was also painfully detailed where the heart of the display was the correspondence.

Tomorrow morning, the plan is to take a cooking course to learn the traditional Pho soup and also the local Ca Cha fish dish mentioned earlier in this entry.

Vietnam is an inexpensive place to visit. I'm currently staying in a hostel for 6.5$ a night and the meals vary from 75cents to 10$ if you really splurge. As an average, a good meal can be had for about 3$.

Posted by CVMB2010 16:07 Archived in Vietnam Tagged vietnam hanoi halong_bay Comments (0)

Bangkok!

After India, this really is paradise, and I haven't even seen one of the beautiful beaches of Thailand yet!

semi-overcast 32 °C

Thailand - Bangkok - First stay

Before anything else, I must point out how blessed I feel to have had this opportunity to travel. And once again, take this opportunity to mention the wonderful people I have met. Really, it is the people that make the trip just as much or more so than the sights. Some great moments I have had lately was staying up late with 3 dorm mates from Malaysia and taking about the differences of our respective countries and customs; meeting a very kind Filipino woman and her family or the pleasure of hearing the Swiss French accent again after having been away a few months. But back to Bangkok...

Where to start? It was so nice to arrive in Thailand, get a ride from a taxi driver on decent roads, where traffic drove following road regulations, where the driver did not try to scam me and where the air quality was good.

I checked in to the Lub D hostel in Silom, in a business district (I didn't want to stay on Khao San Road which is fairly crowded and noisy), which was certainly the cleanest place that I'd been in since I left the Arch-Ist hostel in Istanbul. And it was so nice to not have paneer on the menu… Thai food is excellent and quite varied as well.

Some interesting things I noticed about Thailand… People do admittedly smile a lot, which probably explains why it is referred to as the land of smiles. Thais are also a lot less aggressive when it comes to trying to sell you something or offer you a ride (tuk-tuk or taxi). If you smile and say "no", they will leave you alone pretty much immediately. Another completely unrelated oddity, is the traffic lights. An orange light lasts less than 5 seconds. Shortest orange lights I've ever seen (and a bit of a surprise when as a pedestrian you have just started to cross a street, it turns orange and 4 steps later it switches red and the cars start to drive...

Neighbourhood - Indian and Hindu festival Navaratri

I discovered on my first day that I had inadvertently selected a neighbourhood that has lots of Indians in it. I figured this out by stumbling upon one of the largest Hindu temples in Bangkok, just about 150m from my hotel just as they were celebrating the end of Navaratri. It was a huge street party, though it felt odd to be seeing this outside of India. I was also a little taken aback by the number of Indian restaurants - by then I'd had my fill of Indian food and didn't yet know where to find good Thai food, so it was a little disconcerting. After having considered it, it appears that Indian food is fairly expensive in Thailand such that there really is no point in sampling it here rather than the Thai food (which is so good anyway).

Another thing I noticed regarding the food is despite how extraordinarily good both Indian and Thai food can be, eating any "foreign" food non-stop for two weeks or more does get to be a little tiring. Don't get me wrong, I love shah paneer, tom yam soup etc… but I long for some simple good bread and cheese… (I seem to never be content as when I was in India, I was craving raw vegetables… :-) Anyhow, still loving the variety of food, just which I could have Swiss food on Monday, Italian on Tuesday, German on Wednesday, British on Thursday, Turkish on Friday, Indian on Saturday and Thai on Sunday (and the odd foul sandwich and koshary top foil).

Weekend market

On my second day in Bangkok, I went to a market with a girl I met at the hostel named Nicole. It was the last day of her year long round-the-world trip and she had some shopping to do. I figured why not start with the weekend market as I didn't think, at the time, that I'd be staying as long as I did in Bangkok and didn't think I'd be there for the next weekend. To get to the market, we took the Skytrain from the Chong Nonsi stop a short 5 minute walk from the hostel. The Skytrain is very modern and even nicer than the already very nice Delhi metro. The market was huge! I didn't buy anything, as my goal was more to visit the market than end up having more to carry in my backpack. Upon returning to the hostel, I finally found a street with decent restaurants, lots of variety as well as good prices. Yay, Thailand!

Rattanakosin

Next morning, I set off to visit the main sites of Bangkok in the neighbourhood of Rattanakosin, which is to say the Grand Palace, Wat Phra Kaew, Wat Pho and Wat Arun (Wat is a temple, in case you were wondering…). I got there by taking the Skytrain to the Chao Phraya, and then taking a boat up the Chao Phraya 9 stops. The Grand Palace grounds are very nice and fairly crowded with lots of foreigners as well as domestic tourists. The architecture is rather fascinating, really, including as part of Wat Phra Kaew, a miniature of Angkor Wat (of Cambodia). The main focal point of Wat Phra Kaew is the Emerald Buddha (made out of jade, actually) which is nice, but smaller than expected. The Grand Palace is also nice, but honestly, you don't get to visit much of it as it is still in function, as far as I know.

Wat Phra Kaew:
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Grand Palace:
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After that I had my first "street vendor" meal in Thailand which was a good pad thai (not particularly original, I know…) followed by squid on a stick. I then investigated the amulet market, which was fascinating, not so much because of the amulets, but rather because of the people's fascination with those amulets (for me, at least…). I was also amused to notice a cat on a lap - on the lap of a stone buddha, that is…

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Visiting Wat Pho was also interesting. It houses the large reclining buddha statue which unlike the Emerald Buddha, is actually way larger than expected. Wat Pho also houses the national Thai Massage school.

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I then crossed the Chao Phraya to have a quick look at Wat Arun, which is a completely different style. It is also free to visit, which is another appealing change.

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There are fish in the Chao Phraya... This is what you see when you throw food into the Chao Phraya next to Wat Arun!
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Floating markets

A couple of days later, I went for a tour of the floating markets at Damnoen Saduak as well as a boat trip on what are, I guess, backwaters. The market is rather nice and it is an original way to do business. You hop on a little person powered boat, and then go from stall to stall. These stalls are by the water. There are also mobile stalls, ie stalls on boats going around as well. I bought my first coconut from a woman on a little boat. Admittedly, in this day and age, most of the stuff sold in the market is for the tourists (souvenirs) that visit the market, so you wonder if they would still exist without the tourists visiting them.

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Bought a coconut from this lady...
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Massage

Massage… Thai massage. I love Thai massage. Had two Thai (yoga) massages before leaving Canada and they were great to the point that I'm most likely going to do a Thai Yoga Massage course in the Bahamas in the not too distant future. For those who are not familiar with Thai Massage, Thai Massage is a massage where you remain clothed and get pummelled, bent and folded oh so many ways. With Thai Yoga Massage, a lot of the ways you are folded are similar to yoga postures - hence Thai Yoga Massage.

But then, having read up about massage and "massage" places in Thailand, I'd read that any place that offers "oil massage" should be considered a place where the massages are typically more of the "sexy" kind (the term here is "massage with a happy ending"). Whereas a place where (I'm citing Lonely Planet) you have a "big farmer's girl out front massaging someone's feet" is more likely an authentic massage parlour. So, I spot a few places where there are some people getting foot massages (though I'm unable to tell if the practitioners are "big farmers girls" - but yes, they also advertised oil massages) and decide to have one. I had a wonderful foot massage. I was one of four in the massage parlour, between two elderly western women and an older German man also getting a foot massage. Ok, so I figure that this place must be fairly decent.

Next day, I figure that I should try a Thai massage while I'm in Thailand so I ask for a Thai massage at the same place I had the foot massage. So sure enough, I end up, still dressed, on a mat on the floor and the massage starts. I start by getting my feet massaged, then my calves and then my thighs. I get my legs folded this way and that and the muscles properly massaged. Accupressure points are pressed on my feet that I recognize from other massages and a relaxation course that I took when younger that included some reflexology and it is a really great massage… One of the best I've ever had! But after a while, I start noticing that her hands and feet seem occasionally to be… "slipping". Or… not too… accurate when massaging my thighs close to my groin. Ok, that's more than a little odd, but when in Rome or should I say Bangkok… Then she starts working on my arms and after about 10 minutes, stops and asks me if I'm interested in… other services.

Sigh!… So here I'd found the perfect place for the perfect massage to then discover that I was dealing with a "massage" parlour and not a massage parlour. Part of me wants to go back to that massage and masseuse because I've had several thai massages in authentic massage parlours, and she was the best by far yet a big part of me does not want to encourage what is ultimately an establishment providing prostitution.

So I caught a bad flu. Not quite as bad as when I caught H1N1, but bad enough. Because the symptoms of malaria and dengue fever at the start are similar to those of a flu and as my flu started the day before I was supposed to leave for Hanoi, I decided to postpone my trip to Hanoi as healthcare in Thailand is decent. Healthcare in Vietnam is not quite the same level. Anyhow, it ended up being a simple flu, but in a way, it was nice to be stuck in Bangkok as it was the first time in a few months where I'd spent more than 2 weeks in the same place.

Kanchanaburi

I decided to book a trip up to Kanchanaburi, which is about 2 hours north west of Bangkok. I got to visit the famous bridge over the river Kwai. Now I know that it was built at the cost of many lives during war time, and though I should probably see it as such, I keep coming back to the Wayne and Schuster sketch entitled "Kwai me a River"… Anyhow, as I said, the bridge and the whole railway cost many lives and I know I should think of it in more sombre tones. Crossing the bridge itself is interesting as the bridge is thin, the river is deep and far (enough) below and if you are even slightly afraid of heights, it ends up being somewhat more exciting. I met a friendly Swiss nurse and it was a nice opportunity to practice my swiss-french accent for a few minutes.

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After that, I was carted off in a separate bus with a Filipino family that was very friendly. The mother introduced herself then introduced her three kids and two nieces and struck up a conversation, twenty minutes into which, I got a firm invitation to visit the Philippines. Charming people, really! We got to ride elephants and this elephant was quite a bit bigger than the elephant in India. It was also more comfortable a ride as it wasn't uphill but in the jungle. I saw a few things that make me wonder how well the elephants are treated, but my elephant driver said the elephant was 30 years old and he took over the care of it from his father 5 years ago. I can only imagine the responsibility of taking care of an animal spread over several generations as an elephant can reach 100 years of age.

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The next stop was to visit the Tiger Temple. I haven't taken the time to read up much about the Tiger temple and I wonder firstly how much of a temple it really is (seeing a monk smoke somehow puts me off) and there is a little bit of question as to why the tigers are so relaxed. But then, the actual interaction with the tigers, though fascinating, is a little similar to the dolphin swim experience I had in the Bahamas. Nice and fascinating, yet not exactly what I'm looking for and not particularly spontaneous. Now that may not be a bad thing as a spontaneous interaction with a tiger probably doesn't end well in most cases for the human, but anyhow.

So basically, they have about 16-20 tigers in the end of a ravine. They are all chained with a relatively short chain. You then get taken by the hand by a handler of the opposite sex and taken around and placed behind the tigers that you can then pet while your picture is being taken. If a tiger starts to get a little excited, that tiger is not approached until it calms down. There was a big one that paced for about 10 minutes that nobody dared go close to, but after a while, he settled and was part of the loop again. So it isn't a perfect interaction but I doubt I'll ever get closer to a tiger in my life. And I do like big cats!

This tiger does not seem to be in a good mood... :-)
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So that is it. In less than two days, I leave for Hanoi (…). Loving Thailand in the meantime!

Posted by CVMB2010 04:23 Archived in Thailand Tagged elephant thailand bangkok tiger floating_market kanchanaburi chao_phraya damnoen saduak Comments (0)

Kerala, Southern India

"Welcome to God's Own Country"

all seasons in one day 30 °C

==Kerala, Southern India==
"Welcome to God's Own Country"

No journey is 100% easy and fun… It always has ups and downs...

Hmm… My stay in Kerala was rather mixed. On the one hand, I got to spend some time in the two most relaxing places I'd seen yet in India, namely the Sivananda ashram in Neyyar Dam and the Cochin/Cherai Beach area, which was great, but on the other hand, following my birthday which occurred while I was at the ashram, I managed to develop, over three days, three different health problems which made my stay less that ideal. Add to that that for some unknown reason, Kerala was the only indian state that hadn't understood yet that monsoon was supposed to be over and we pretty much had rain every day at the ashram… Pretty much? Well, every day, really for a full week! I only saw blue sky once for about 15 minutes the whole time I was there. Also, I spent the first 3-4 nights of my stay in a mouldy, "mildewy" room filled with mosquitoes (I averaged 18 kills per evening trying to clear the room out, as we are, after all, in dengue fever and japanese encephalitis zones) which was far from ideal… before changing rooms a few days later… Sigh!

On the plus side, when I left the ashram, the weather took a turn for the much better and in the process of producing my own vitamin D, I managed to get my first sunburn in India (Ooops!). My stay at Cherai Beach was extremely relaxing as the resort was 25km out of Cochin/Ernakulam which translates to about an hour away, in India… It was a great place to recover and to rest, rest, rest…

So… Neyyar Dam. The arrival into Trivandrum (Thiruvananthapuram, officially) was rather entertaining as they wouldn't let us exit the airplane for 30 minutes as the rain was too strong. They then managed to find umbrellas and would escort us from the plane to the buses waiting 20 minutes away, but somehow the sheet rain still managed to get everyone soaked. Followed by a taxi ride to the ashram, about 25km away (yet another hour) through flooded streets with the taxi driver alternating full air-conditioning to clear the windows to none to avoid getting cold. Why he didn't try to balance a constant lower flow, I have no clue. Also, most of the drivers I've found in Kerala (ok I only got to see 2) seem to think that 1000rpm is the place to be, all the time. Both on the trip over and the trip back from the ashram, the two different drivers pretty much never exceeded 1500rpm and spent most of their times with the engines at full load at about 1000rpm… Poor engines!

The ashram is located near a wildlife reserve (you get to hear lions roaring in the morning) in Neyyar Dam which is peaceful. Unlike the ashram in the Bahamas, there is no Starbucks, no Atlantis, and no sea (and no sun, while I was there). This makes the place very (in yogic speak) sattvic, but also a little tamasic (or perhaps that was the combination of the weather and my health colouring my perception?)… The buildings are fairly nice, and the staff function at the "Indian Rhythm" (makes you think a little of "Island Time" in the Bahamas). Met some wonderful people there as well, though I found that in contrast to the Bahamas, the proportion of returning yogis, vs, let's call them "hopefully new or future yogis" is not the same. At Neyyar Dam, you get quite a few people that have never stayed in an ashram or never really done yoga. Some are on Round-the-World trips taking a break or trying the "India Ashram" thing, (or should it be called the "Eat Pray Love" thing now?!?) which really doesn't give it the same vibe as in the Bahamas. Lots of strong egos… (of course I recognize this thanks to my own rather inflated ego… :-). In the Bahamas, there are a lot more returning yogis or people that have done the TTC which changes the vibe a lot.

So here are the main differences between, say, the Bahamas and Val Morin and the Neyyar Dam ashram (I admit to being prejudiced, so take it with a grain of salt):

Location: In the middle of nowhere, sort of like Val Morin. Very lush and green area, just to be avoided during monsoon… Frequent power failures, but lions roaring in the morning… You really get that middle of nowhere vibe.

Discipline: Unlike in the Bahamas, they insist that you participate in the morning and evening satsang sessions as well as the afternoon lectures. Somebody will come knocking on your door if you don't show up. The lectures are sort of mini ttc info as they don't get many guest speakers like they do in the Bahamas.

Eating: You eat on the floor in silence, being served by karma yogis. As for food selection, there are typically 4-5 things. If you can't eat or don't like cumin, stay away! :-D The food isn't really all that great compared to say, the Bahamas in particular where it is excellent (though you don't usually come to an ashram for the food). But I do admit to having missed Pranava and Shankar's cooking from the Bahamas!

People: As I said, more hopefully "new or future yogis and yoginis" and less people having done the TTC. Not the same vibe, yet as everywhere, I did meet some great people!

So as a whole, I wouldn't make a detour to return to the Neyyar Dam ashram, but if I were in southern India and it wasn't monsoon, I would return to the ashram for a stay.

Sivananda Ashram at Neyyar Dam
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Upon leaving the ashram, the weather greatly improved. I got to see that southern India, or Kerala in particular, is more relaxed and less hectic (though still rather chaotic) than the north. Lots or very tall palm trees with coconuts.

Took a train ride from Trivandrum (Thiruvananthapuram - I love this name!) up to Ernakulam (got on the wrong train, with the wrong ticket, in the wrong class but made it anyway…). From there, an hour long taxi ride to Cherai Beach for a few days of R&R and to get ride of a nasty cold/cough/sore throat that had been plaguing me for weeks.

Cherai Beach (Resort) is on one of the several islands composing Cochin or Kochi. It is towards the northern tip of Vyppen Island which is about 75m wide between the Arabian sea and Kerala backwaters. The villas, at about 2500 rupees were the most expensive I'd paid for in India, but the calibre was something quite different as well. The meals were buffet, but I never saw the same dish twice during my 4 days there and had the most wonderful fish curry - Kerala style - I'd ever had (coconut, ginger, pineapple, spices…). I spent the days either reading, swimming in the Arabian sea, or visiting the backwaters and Fort Cochin.

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My villa... Note the private hammock to the left...
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Backwaters
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Arabian Sea
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The backwaters are still fished by traditional fishers and you see them working throughout the day. I got to see my first bald eagle in flight as well as colourful birds. It wasn't a real backwater tour in the sense that most backwater tours take you up canals whereas I was on an open lake, but I didn't want the hassle of having to go into Ernakulam in the morning (hour over, hour back) to book a half day tour. It is on my list of things to do the next time I'm in Kerala, though… And probably from Alleyppey in a house boat.

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A Kingfisher...
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Fort Cochin. Cochin is the name of one of my all time favourite fonts when writing a document, so it only made sense that I would visit the city that inspired the name of the font. Yes, crazy, I know… It didn't disappoint. It was peaceful and rather beautiful and also very relaxed with its old Portuguese and Dutch colonial houses. Another place I could have spent a week chilling (and debated doing) but decided that it would be a rest place for my next visit to India.

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Chinese Fishing Nets:
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Jew Town
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Santa Cruz Basilica
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St-Francis Church, the oldest Christian church in India
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So this is it. I'm leaving India after about a 5 week stay. I loved it and hated it at the same time. Great food, great sites but lots and lots of hassle and chaos (hard to imagine this is where yoga comes from when you look at it today…).

Posted by CVMB2010 03:26 Archived in India Tagged india kerala cherai cochin kochi fort_cochin southern_india vyppin ernakulam neyyar_dam Comments (0)

Odds and ends...

I just found out that travellerspoint doesn't manage posts of more than 32000 characters, so here is a bit more...

Odds and ends…

Funny think about India, is that people use a head wobble (side to side) to show consent. I'm really not sure what the difference is between the head wobble and a nod as I've seen one person use both at different circumstances. I'll have to look into it, but you get use to it after a while.

The food… What can I say about the food? Well, I'm still suffering from a raw vegetable craving, as I don't dare have raw vegetables here for fear of getting Delhi Belly (traveller's diarrhoea), but as a whole, I've enjoyed being vegetarian in India. I love the paneer dishes, which are cottage cheese in various sauces, anything from spinach sauce to pea sauce, mushroom sauce, ginger sauce, tomato sauce… My favourites are Shahi paneer, palak (spinach) paneer and the butter paneer. These are best served with naan bread. I really enjoy the garlic naans but also the butter naan. Dal (lentils) are great! Bukhara dal being my favourite, but makhani dal with the tomato sauce is also really nice. From southern India, I also like uttapams which are like a pizza crust into which onions or a selection of vegetables (and occasionally coconut) is baked. You dip it into various sauces. The dosas are also very nice. The chai lasso are great as are the mango and/or banana lassis. Loving the food! Also amusing is that in the middle to upper class restaurants, they serve a form of breathmint (at least in Delhi and in Rajasthan) which is basically a bowl containing a spoon and aniseed or a variety (sugar coated or on stack of aniseed and one of sugar etc…) that you pour into your hand then into your mouth and chew. It is an effective breathmint and also cooling after the hot meals.

So far, I believe I've mostly avoided Delhi Belly, though one morning, things were a little off, but that might have been from having drunk a whole litre of Tropicana orange juice in one sitting. I was so craving a 100% fruit juice (a lot of the juice are fairly diluted here) that I drank the whole think within about 10 minutes. Probably not a good idea… But otherwise, I don't have any horror stories to relate at this point (not that I would on this blog anyway…).

Driving in India… Well, it is quite the experience, not so much with respect to danger like in Cairo, but rather because everything is so… crowded. As often as not, there are whole families on one same motorbike. This can be the first child in the front, the father driving, the younger child in the middle and the mother sitting side-saddle in the back. Typically, only the father or driver wears a helmet (probably because it is required by law…?). Rickshaws can be so full, people are standing on the ledge in the back and there are frequently people on the roofs of buses… Safety first really isn't the motto...

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This is the first country in the world where I have seen women labour in road work, construction and pretty much everything of that nature at such a high ratio (say 50%).

Spitting and urinals… Pretty much most of the men spit. I couldn't figure it out, but a large percentage chew paan (tobacco) and others just do it because of the dust/dirt in the air. Some of the women do to, but then when it is dusty, they tend to walk around with a veil covering their mouths… Not a bad idea, really. If you come to India and specifically Delhi, bring a surgical mask…

Regarding dusk in Delhi, or should I say dust… You can actually stare straight at the sun in Delhi when it is about 8 sun diameters above the horizon and do so without sun glasses as it is barely brighter than the moon. When it is about 5 diameters above the horizon, it disappears completely in the dust… Yum! So that is the grit that I'm feeling in my teeth even though I've mostly been breathing through my nose… Cough, cough...

A final interesting tidbit is that it seems that for any job that would require one person in Canada, there are 3 people doing it here. You notice it everywhere, be it the service in restaurants, in buses where there is a driver and an attendant and so on and so forth. But then, the wealth is spread thinner, but on the positive side, unemployment doesn't seem to be a big issue in India. I would also assume that work stress wouldn't be either compared to some places where through price rationalization people are let go, teams shrink, but the amount of work remains the same or increases leading to burnout… Interesting!

Posted by CVMB2010 22:19 Archived in India Comments (0)

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