A Travellerspoint blog

INDIA: Beaches and Temples of the South, Part 2

Tamil Nadu state: Pondicherry, Tanjore, Madurai; Kerala state: Cochin January 7 - 28, 2009

sunny 90 °F
View RTW Trip - Part II on jhongny's travel map.

The beaches I wrote about last time provided a nice break from visiting the temple towns, which are not places where one wants to stay any longer than necessary. They have all the noise, filth, and crowds typical of India cities, but non of the charm. The temples, however, make it worthwhile to spend at least a night.

The South Indian temples reflect Indians' love for ornate decoration and bright colors. All the buildings, including the entrances, have high towers that are completely covered with ornate sculptures and carvings of the presiding deity, and are oftentimes painted with bright colors.
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The inside of the temples vary, depending on the level of maintenance. Regardless, shoes and socks are not allowed once inside the courtyard. Cows, on the other hand, are sacred to the Hindus, and thus are free to roam inside, as are bats in some of the more ancient ones. So, in some cases we found ourselves walking barefoot around the courtyard carefully sidestepping holy shit, literally.

Elephants, on the other hand, have the honor of giving blessing to anyone willing to pay a tip (either in cash or bananas):
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We also went to a temple to see the Pongal (new year) celebrations. For this auspicious occasion, the horns of the cows are painted bright red and yellow. Then at some point in the night, there was an Indian version of the running of the (very unhappy looking) bulls through the courtyard, without any barriers for people to hide behind (I read in the papers that, in another town, one person was killed and several injured during one of these bull races).
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Kids joining the revelry on the back of a tractor-converted truck:
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The temple we really wanted to see was the iconic Meenakshi temple in Madurai. Of course, given our luck, we were there just in time for the once-every-12-year-repainting of the temple so everything was covered up.
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A small tower that's not covered up to give an idea of what's under the brown bamboo and leaf covers:
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Being inside, though, was quite an experience... seeing the devout Hindus stand in jam-packed lines for hours just to get a distant glimpse of the Goddess shrouded in incense smoke, hearing the chants of the Brahmins (the priests) as they perform puja (ceremony for the God/ Goddess). The Brahmins are the only ones that can access the inner sanctum where the sacred idols sit, but anyone who has money can pay for them to perform the puja (it felt like a big money making scheme for them). We got pulled into doing a few pujas. In one temple in Chidanbaram, Ashok even had to take his shirt off and follow the Brahmin around (sorry no pictures allowed).

Besides temples & beaches, we also went to a couple of unique cities. One of them, Pondicherry (about 4 hrs south of Chennai) ended up being our place to meet up with friends. Josh traveled with us there where we hung out for a few days. We then extended our stay so we can meet up with Ashok's childhood friend, JoJo, and his family. Pondicherry was a French colony for a brief period in history, long enough to leave behind a nicely planned out, clean and relatively quiet French quarter that's unlike the rest of India. And good coffee. In fact, Tamil Nadu is the only state in India where one can find a good cup of Indian coffee.
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Besides wandering around the streets, we also spent a lot of time in the charming, breezy courtyard of the Hotel du Pondicherry where the decor makes one feel transported back in time to the 1920's, and where one can just sit back and relax for hours (yes, it's the exact same spot in both pictures).
Hanging out with Josh:
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JoJo, Deepa, and Kabir sleeping soundly in his stroller:
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Our last stop in South India was in Cochin, Kerala, known for its “backwaters”. This is another place where people go to get away from the noise and chaos of India, and a boat ride through its various tributaries was indeed very peaceful.
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Cochin, a Portuguese influenced city, is also known for the Chinese fishing nets right off of the harbor, which have been used for centuries to catch fish. There are plenty of stalls selling fresh, “you buy, we cook” seafood next to the nets. However, one look at the trash on those beaches, and we decided to pass.
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Not to worry - we did find good food in Cochin - but were too busy enjoying it to take pictures. Here is a picture of the colorful & tempting spices for sale on the streets... just think of the possibilities:
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Posted by jhongny 13:07 Archived in India Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

INDIA: Beaches and Temples of the South, Part 1

Chennai, Mahaballipuram (in Tamil Nadu state); Varkala (in Kerala state) January 7 - 27, 2009

sunny 85 °F
View RTW Trip - Part II on jhongny's travel map.

January turned out to be a whirlwind tour of Southern India (the states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala), and a mixture of temple towns and beaches. It was also the month to meet up with friends. I'm splitting it into a couple posts, and will jump around in terms of the places we visited, but here's a map of the route we took:

We started out in Chennai (formerly known as Madras) where Josh met up with us. There's not much in Chennai – even the guidebooks say to get out as quickly as possible – but we did spend an interesting afternoon at one of it's beaches. Everything happens here: horseback riding, photo studios, mini hand-cranked merry-go-rounds, fresh (I think) grilled fish, fishermen mending their nets, kids jumping into the waves (near naked), families wading in the water (fully clothed)..... talk about life is a beach!
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Take a picture with a Bollywood star or the Royal Bengal Tiger... your choice:
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Hand-cranked merry-go-round:
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However, our first real beach time (since we arrived in Asia) wasn't until we arrived in Mahaballipuram (about 2 hrs away from Chennai) the next day. The waves were pretty rough but Ashok & Josh liked it, and the beach was quiet and nobody bothered us.
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Of all the beaches we went to in India, the best one is in Varkala, on the western coast in Kerala. Here, the sand was soft and the beach was clean (a rarity in India). One look at the blue waters of the Arabian Sea and you can't help but be relaxed.
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In the early mornings, the water is the smoothest I've ever seen with gentle rolling waves. By late morning, the wind picks up but just enough to offset the heat from the sun. Perfect hammock weather, especially with the addition of a glass of ice cold beer. There must be some weird law with regards to serving alcohol in restaurants because they can't do it openly. Instead, beer comes in a teapot (chilled), and shows up as a dish called Mallabar Fish on the check.
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Varkala was just what we needed after a very long 9 hour train ride in 2nd class (no AC). Normally I like train rides, but in this case we had to put up with people with no reserved seats trying to squeeze into our bench, and getting indignant because there are only 3 people sitting when clearly you can fit in another 1-2 people. At night the train really fills up, with people sleeping anywhere they can: in the aisles, under the seat, and up on the small luggage rack above the seats which is probably the cleanest part of the train.
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Traveling around on a budget in India gives you a completely different experience and view of India. Going one step up doesn't even require a lot more money (the train ticket would have been $20 for 1st class AC sleeper vs. the $2 we paid), but the experience is almost like seeing 2 different countries. One is not more authentic or real than the other. Rather, it just provides a glimpse into the lives of the different classes of people. On this trip, I realized that the Indian governmen may make it affordable for everyone to travel. However, there's no thought given to how the people are treated during the trip... it's literally "cattle class". The bar is set extremely low when it comes to the quality of the goods/services.

Next up: the temples of South India

Posted by jhongny 10:28 Archived in India Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Family Time in Kolkata

Kolkata, India and Sikkim, India December 2008


View RTW Trip - Part II on jhongny's travel map.

Happy New Year, and Happy Chinese New Year! Can't believe I'm more than 2 months behind on my blog... just got busy spending time with family. Read on for my posts from the last couple of months of 2008, on Vietnam and Laos.

The rest of December was basically hanging out with family & friends in Kolkata and eating good local snacks. It was nice to have another break and not be in travel mode. Of all the pampering we get in Kolkata, my favorite is the ginger chai tea that is brought up as soon as we wake up in the morning. Ahhhh... what a nice way to wake up in the morning.

Ashok and I traveled up to the northern state of Sikkim, in the Himalayas, for New Years. Somehow we ended up in a club with the locals for New Years Eve, and the hard-rocker tough guy who invited us to the club ended up cranking out Bollywood favorites with his band in traditional garb.... all this in a small town in the middle of the Himalayas. We sure know how to party!
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Mount Kangchenjunga, at 28,169ft, is the 3rd highest mountain in the world (after Mount Everest and K2). The view of the mountain range from Pelling, Sikkim, where we were, is really amazing. Most of the time it's so overcast that you wouldn't know the peaks were there. The best chance to get a clear view is at sunrise.
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That little bit of cloud above the peak covered the sky by lunch time so it went from sunny blue skies to gray and gloomy in a matter of hours. Makes you really appreciate nature.

January was spent mostly around southern India. More on that later. For now, happy reading!

Posted by jhongny 23:59 Comments (0)

Luang Prabang, Laos

November 30 - December 7, 2008

sunny 65 °F
View RTW Trip - Part II on jhongny's travel map.

I read somewhere that Luang Prabang is the prettiest town in Asia, and I'd have to agree. The streets are clean and the buildings are nice French colonial style buildings that are well maintained and well lit (not fluorescent lighting!), and no shacks that are crammed into every possible open space. We were pleasantly surprised by the peaceful, calm and serene atmosphere. The Laotians are very laid back too so there are no touts or tuk-tuk drivers constantly badgering you to buy stuff. It's just such a nice break from the constant assault on your senses that happens in all the other Asian towns.

My camera's really gone by now and only 1 in 10 are coming out so here's all I have of LP:
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We didn't do any research on LP, so we didn't realize that it's set in the midst of mountains and that it gets chilly at night. I know it's pretty silly of me, but I just never thought it got cold anywhere in Southeast Asia. I ended up catching a cold but it's such a laid back town, it was a good place to rest and recover. We did catch the early morning procession of monks receiving alms from the locals. That's the main tourist attraction, and is what made Luang Prabang so popular.
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A psychedelic version (thanks to the broken camera):
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Mist on the Mekong River in the early morning after the procession:
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However, it's gotten so popular that some tourists forget that it is a religious event which should be respected, and instead will walk right up to the monks (you're supposed to only observe from across the street), sometimes even getting in their way, to take pictures. It's like walking into a church during a service and getting right up to the minister to take pictures. We saw more ugly tourist behavior around town – at a Buddhist monument people were climbing up onto the stupa just to get a better sunset picture, backpackers brought beer and were treating the place like a bar during happy hour. The lack of respect for the locals is just so wrong! It makes you wonder if ugly tourists are the ones that teach the locals to become rude and cunning, and ruin it for the rest of us.

A local village nearby was celebrating their new year so we went to check it out. It's like a very simple, local fair. As we strolled around we saw locals forming 2 lines facing each other, tossing tennis balls back-and-forth. I found out later that it's a way for guys to court girls, so he can get a chance to talk to the girl while the ball is tossed back and forth.
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Other than that, we didn't do much else. We had local Laotian BBQ by the river which is a combo grill & hot pot so you can grill your own meat AND cook veggies in the soup, but the dipping sauce is the best part. We also met up with our friends Tim & Anna, whom we met in Mongolia, for the 3rd time and found out they got engaged! It's a nice coincidence that our paths kept crossing and we happened to be in the same place at the same time.

The trip back to Bangkok was an adventure in itself, and involved almost every mode of ground transportation: 11-hour bus ride to Vientiane where they played Casino Royale but every time we hit a bump the video would go out and only the sound stayed on, but we did get to see the beautiful Laotian mountains; taxi-autorickshaw-bus-autorickshaw to cross the border into Thailand; 6 hour wait for the train where we filled up on good Thai food at the Tesco foodcourt; and then an overnight train to Bangkok. 48 hours total travel time. The flight would have taken 1.5 hours. Not sure it was worth the $200 savings. At least we got to see the beautiful Laotian landscape.

And so ended the Southeast Asia portion of our travels....

Posted by jhongny 09:16 Archived in Laos Tagged round_the_world Comments (2)

Hanoi & Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

November 24 - 30, 2008

sunny 70 °F
View RTW Trip - Part II on jhongny's travel map.

It's hard to decide which country has the better food – Thailand or Vietnam. Compared to Saigon, Hanoi is slightly less crazy, more charming with the French-influenced architecture,
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but the touts are everywhere trying to sell you things (we found the best way to get them to stop is to completely ignore them)... but no matter, it is worth going just for the food. In fact, we did not have a bad meal in Hanoi... well, except the Vietnamese sandwiches which were no comparison to the ones in Saigon, but that's more like a snack.

This is Bunh Cuon, a thin rice crepe that is popular for breakfast (but really it's good anytime):
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And here's the woman making it at a well known place (Bánh Cuốn Thanh Vân):
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I didn't know this before, but the Vietnamese food we have in the US is more southern style, from Saigon. The food in Hanoi is slightly different – instead of fish sauce, they use a dipping sauce that is more soup-like. Pho and summer rolls are more specialties of Saigon but Hanoi has its own delicious versions.

This is Bun Cha (rice noodles with grilled pork & dipping sauce):
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I'm missing the food as I look at these pictures.

We were walking around Hanoi, and saw the infamous Hanoi Hilton, the POW prison during the Vietnamese war. It's weird to see this nondescript building right in the middle of the city, next to all these modern high-rises. Not a great shot but my camera's not working properly by now:
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Thanksgiving was spent cruising around Ha Long Bay, famous for all the limestone karsts that jut out from the water. We had a nice fresh seafood dinner instead of the big turkey meal. After much searching and reading a lot of horror stories about bad cruises, we found one where we can get our own boat and be on our own schedule instead of going with a large group cruise (CatBa Ventures). The boat was on the rustic side, and the “western toilet” used the “eastern” method of flushing (i.e. pour water from a pail into the toilet to flush it), but the captain was extremely nice and bent over backwards to make sure we were happy. And it was definitely worth it to be able to relax on our lounge chairs all day and enjoy the beautiful scenery without being disturbed by other tourist boats. The captain also took us kayaking into these caves that lead to hidden lagoons.
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Pictures of Ha Long Bay karsts:
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This is one of the fishing villages that dot Ha Long Bay. Imagine living your daily life on the water:
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Our boat (the deck on top is where we hung out all day):
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and Ashok relaxing on our boat:
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At night we would dock in these quiet coves where there's maybe a fishing family or another boat, that's all, and all you see are the karsts and the stars. One of the nights was a bit harrowing as the captain miscalculated the time it would take to get to the docking place so we had to cross the bay in the dark. Our boat didn't have any lights (no life jackets either, I noticed), and it was a moonless night. You know something's wrong when the captain gives you free beers. There were, luckily, 2 very bright stars that lit up the water and provided us with direction. We were never so happy to get to the cove that night.

Incidentally, we saw the same 2 stars a few nights later side by side with an upward new moon underneath.... looking like a smiley face! We found out later that the 2 stars were actually Jupiter and Venus, and I think you can only see it in the southern hemisphere (but don't quote me on that). If I had know, I would've tried to take a picture of it... but here're a couple of links if you're curious:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/75974977@N00/3128441229/
http://in.youtube.com/watch?v=7-HkgmRKmDs

We would have liked to stay in Vietnam longer to enjoy the food, but our visa was running out so we had to move on to Laos. I did not hear anything positive about the 30+ hour bus ride to Luang Prabang, Laos, so we bit the bullet and paid for the 1-hour flight instead. It was a good decision.

Posted by jhongny 09:15 Archived in Vietnam Tagged round_the_world Comments (1)

From the south to the north

Nha Trang and Hoi An, Vietnam November 18 - 23, 2008

all seasons in one day 77 °F
View RTW Trip - Part II on jhongny's travel map.

To save money we decided to buy an open tour bus ticket to go from HCMC to Hanoi – only $41 plus we got to stop in a couple of cities in between.... ok so it wasn't the most comfortable... but then it makes for such good stories afterwards.

Our first stop, after 8 hours on the bus, is Nha Trang, a pretty popular beach town. It was late by the time we got there so we went in search of good Vietnamese food for dinner. We found this very local eating place (doesn't quite qualify as a restaurant, just an open courtyard with a few low plastic tables and stools). After much pointing and charades (at one point the guy moo'd and pointed to his butt to explain which cut of beef we were getting) we finally got our tasty dinner.

NT's supposed to have a nice beach, but since the remnants of a hurricane just passed by, the beach was littered with trash and not too enticing. This is one of the few pictures I took in NT because I thought the red star flags on the boats at the harbor make an interesting picture:
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We had planned our schedule so we would be in Hoi An for our wedding anniversary (4 years!). Turned out to be a great decision. Hoi An has a charming, characteristic old town that makes it interesting to walk around. Of course it's also got the touristy part - the streets are packed with tailor shops (big thing to do but I personally think a bit over-hyped since you can do the same in Hanoi or Bangkok) but it's not too hard to avoid them. It's also pleasant to explore outside of old town on bike.
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Northern Vietnam had the worst flooding in 20 years just a few weeks prior, and half of Hoi An old town was still under water when we got there. The locals made the most of it by offering boat tours through the flooded streets, proving once again how ingenuous they can be.
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One of the highlights of our stay is our hotel, the Ha An Hotel. It's the ideal place: the decor has local flavors but done in a tasteful way (a rare thing in Asia especially in the mid-budget range), the amenities meet the needs of western travelers, the staff is super friendly, and the grounds are nice to relax in, but all at a reasonable rate. It was so nice to be at this place, especially after a very long, 11-hour, overnight bus ride with the bus driver's Vietnamese pop music blaring all night. If only there is a place like this everywhere we went... sigh.
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We also had a memorable meal for our anniversary. The decor in this seaside restaurant is very basic, but the crab in tamarind sauce was the best we've ever had. In fact, you can put anything in that tamarind sauce and it'd taste good.
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A few relaxing days and it's time to get on the bus again to go to Hanoi. It's our longest ride yet (18 hours total!), but 2 things helped us keep our sanity: Hanoi is our last stop, and the silk sleeping bags we bought in Hoi An. They are one of our best purchases because you can wrap yourself inside the sleeping bag and not worry about touching anything around you in your sleep, and they are thin so you don't get too hot.

Tourism is very well developed in Vietnam. There is a tour package for every place one may want to visit from the Cuchi tunnel and the Mekong Delta in HCMC to Ha Long Bay in Hanoi, and many tour agencies that offer them. The fierce competition has not lead to quality tours at a reasonable price, but has instead sprouted many operators that over promise and under deliver, making it tough to ensure one has a good experience. For that reason I've posted my notes for anyone thinking about going to that area and/or doing the open tour. For everyone else, stay tuned for the next post!

Notes on Nga Trang and Open Tour buses:
The 2 companies that seemed to have the best buses from HCMC were Hahn Cafe and Sinh Cafe. The people at Hahn Cafe in HCMC were very nice so we booked with them, but the ones in the other cities were a different matter. Either way I definitely recommend spending the extra $5 for the better (sleeper) bus. The buses were as promised all the way to Hoi An, but from Hoi An to Hanoi we got stuck with older buses. It costs a little more, but the better way may be to buy the ticket separately from one city to the next so you can make sure you get the bus as promised, and the tour operators have a little more incentive to provide better service.

We didn't like Nha Trang as much although I read good things on the web about it. It may be more for people looking for a night life in addition to the beach. On the other hand, we passed by a town called Mui Ne on the way to NT which looked much nicer. It's basically one main road with a string of resorts right on the beach and looked a lot quieter and more relaxing. Just before Mui Ne was a fishing village with the most amazing mass of fishing boats all tied up together.

Posted by jhongny 09:13 Archived in Vietnam Tagged tips_and_tricks Comments (0)

Who wants to be a Millionaire? Dong Millionaires, that is.

Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon), Vietnam; November 15 – 18, 2008

sunny 82 °F
View RTW Trip - Part II on jhongny's travel map.

We're big spenders! Upon arrival in Vietnam we withdrew 3 Million(!) Dongs from the ATM. Of course, with an exchange rate of 17,000 Dongs to $1, that's only about $180. It takes some getting used to to spend such high amounts - once I thought we were spending too much money in one day, then I realized that 180,000 Dongs is only about $11.

The first impression I have of Saigon (as does everyone, I'm sure) is the never ending stream of motorcycles (and the noise) on the streets - they just swarm around the cars like ants! Crossing the street is literally like playing Frogger – one step at a time. The trick is to cross slowly so that the vehicles can see you and go around you, and definitely follow the “small yields to big” rule.
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The main reason Ashok and I wanted to go to Vietnam was for the food, so as soon as we got settled, we went out in search of real Vietnamese cooking. Unfortunately, because we were staying in the backpacker/ touristy area around Pham Ngu Lau, the food is also “westernized”, so I'm sad to report that our first meal in Vietnam was not very good. We learned to avoid restaurants in Pham Ngu Lau area or touristy areas in general, especially those that offer western and Vietnamese food. We found authentic (and better!) stuff just a few blocks away: amazing Pho (beef noodle soup which HCMC is known for), really good Vietnamese baguette sandwich from a guy on the street, and freshly made thin rice crepe from a woman at the morning market (the one for locals, not the touristy Cho Ben Thang market). Not to mention the Vietnamese coffee: strong, rich coffee (one good influence from the French) balanced with the sweetness of condensed milk, then poured over ice... perfect for the hot, humid weather. If you haven't figured it out already, there will be a lot on food in my Vietnam posts. :)

It's amazing, too, how little space the Vietnamese needs to set up a food stall.
Everything they need is set up all around them so there's no need to get up from their little plastic stool.
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This woman had everything she needed on her bike, down to the tin container with hot coals to keep her food hot:
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Getting away from food for a minute, we did do some sight-seeing as well. One of the must-see's in HCMC has to be the Cuchi Tunnels. It's a network of underground tunnels used against the French at first, then expanded by the Vietcongs to fight the Americans. It really gives you a sense for how resourceful & cunnning the Vietnamese are, and therefore, why the Americans could not win the war on their turf. The tunnels are just big enough for the smaller Vietnamese to fit in, but for most people today you'd have to bend over, and in some cases, crawl to get thru the dimly lit tunnel (back in the days it would be pitch black). I was getting claustrophobic in there and couldn't finish.
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Here's one of the holes the Vietcongs snipers would hide in. Once again, it's amazing how small a space they'd squeeze into:
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It was surreal to see these places, especially since Vietnam today is so geared towards foreign tourism and does not feel like a communist country at all.

Our tour guide, Mr. Bean (Binh), was also one interesting character. Having fought in the Vietnam war on the US side, he was not trusted by the government to pursue a professional career in law so he became a tour guide to earn a living.... and that's just one of his stories.
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Three days was about the right time in HCMC so we made our way north along the coast towards Hanoi.

Posted by jhongny 09:11 Archived in Vietnam Tagged round_the_world Comments (2)

Bangkok and Sukhothai, Thailand

November 5 - 14, 2008

sunny 82 °F
View RTW Trip - Part II on jhongny's travel map.

Here's the first of my posts picking up where I left off in China.

From Guangzhou, China where we were treated to a delicious seafood lunch courtesy of my mom's friend, we flew an uneventful flight on Kenya Airways to Bangkok. My mom and sister spend a lot of time in Bangkok so it worked out well for us to meet up with them there. After a month in China it was great to have a comfy place as a rest stop. It was nice to be pampered by mom – home cooked meals, delicious Thai snacks & various tropical fruits all ready for us to eat all day, laundry done for us, etc. - mom's are the best! We also got a chance to get caught up on bills, etc. Oh, and of course it was nice to spend some time with them too! :)

View of Chao Phraya River near mom's apartment in Bangkok:
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We've both been to Bangkok before, so there was no pressure to do any sightseeing. Instead, we focused on the food (what else). Thailand is one of the best places for really good, yet cheap, street food. For those worried about the sanitary conditions of street food stalls, the same food can be found in food courts of shopping centers. For $1.5 for a dish you get great Pad Thai, fried rice, papaya salad, noodle soups, etc. etc. Our meals here are averaging $5 for both of us. Love it! The other thing to love about Bangkok is the cheap massage – a 2 hour massage... 120 minutes... for $10! Of course, Bangkok is also great for people not on a budget. For very little money one can live a very luxurious life – eat at nice restaurants, stay at top hotels, and shop till you drop. No wonder there are so many foreigners in Bangkok.

It's nice when things work out without planning for it. We found out that one of Thailand's big holidays, Loi Krathong (floating lantern festival, aka festival of lights), is only a couple of days away. It's celebrated everywhere, but we decided to see it in Sukhothai, the ancient capital, where Loi Krathong started. This time around we traveled in luxury - the 4 of us went in a nice 9-passenger minivan complete with entertainment center. What a difference compared to the bus trips we've been on.
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On the day of the festival, one is supposed to light a candle on a Krathong (a lotus-shaped float usually made with banana leaf and decorated with flowers), make a wish, and release it into the river or a body of water and let it drift.
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If the candle doesn't go out the wish will come true. When a couple makes a wish together they'll be together in the future. There's also another way to test the strength of a relationship: each person gets a krathong and puts them in the river at the same time, and if the kratongs float down the river together that means the couple will be together, but if the kratongs separate then the relationship won't last. We chose not to trust our future to the flow of the current and instead made a wish together. Here's Ashok & I floating our krathong at the end of the night:
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The Loi Krathong festival was held in the historic park of Sukhothai. All the events - krathong floating, parades, fireworks, etc. - took place with the old temples and monuments as backdrop which was very cool. Here are some pics of the various events:

One of the temples in Sukhothai Historic Park:
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Loi Krathong parade with floats from each of the 9 provinces:
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One of the floats used chips & other snacks as decoration:
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Light & Sound Show in front of the temples, complete with fireworks:
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People also launched Khom Fai, or hot air lanterns, into the sky. They're not environmentally friendly, but the sight of the tiny flames floating up into the night sky was quite mystical.
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On the way back to Bangkok we tried to make it to the River Kwai (as in the movie The Bridge on the River Kwai) for sunset but didn't quite get there in time so this is all we got to see of the bridge:
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Lastly, an interesting thing we saw during the road trip was this innovative (but probably very old) way of crossing the river which almost looked like the monks were flying over the river. We got on to check it out, and the monk controlling the cables probably thought it was weird that we didn't want to get off when we got to the other side and instead just rode it back.
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Once back in Bangkok we decided it was time to hit the road again, so off we went to Vietnam and Laos. More on those next time.

Posted by jhongny 10:48 Archived in Thailand Tagged events Comments (3)

Quick Update

Short post on what we've been up to since China

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Wow! I can't believe it's been a month since we left China.... which means I'm seriously behind on my posts. We have since gone through Bangkok, Thailand, Vietnam (south to north), and are now in Luang Prabang, Laos. In Bangkok we got to rest, catch up on things, and get taken care of by my mom.... and of course enjoy the tasty Thai food. Actually the food has been amazingly good in Thailand, Vietnam, and even Laos so we've been feasting everyday. We considered staying longer in Vietnam just for the food but sadly our visa ran out. :)

Of course we have done more than just eat: we caught the water lantern festival (Loi Kratang) in Thailand, spent our 4th wedding anniversary in charming Hoi An, Vietnam, and Thanksgiving on a boat in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam. Now we're enjoying the peace & quiet of Luang Prabang (one of the few touristy places in Asia where you're not harassed by the vendors every 5 seconds). We're supposed to make our way south back to Bangkok (by land), and then fly to Kolkata, India, from there but that will depend on whether or not the Bangkok airport opens up in time.

I will backtrack and post more details of our experiences & photos of all these places in the coming weeks so stay tuned.

Posted by jhongny 20:41 Archived in Laos Comments (1)

Huang Shan, China's most picturesque mountain

Tunxi and Huang Shan, Anhui Province October 31 - November 4, 2008

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View RTW Trip - Part II on jhongny's travel map.

Huang Shan (yellow mountain) has the reputation of being the most picturesque mountain in China. The highlights, so we're told, are the sunrise and the sea of clouds that float between cliffs. Our good luck with the weather ran out when we reached Tunxi near the base of Huang Shan, so we made the best of it by going to the old Chinese villages around Tunxi. There are several old villages that have been preserved so they still look the way they did hundreds of years ago. The most popular one is Hongcun, where the movie “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon” was filmed. However, we followed our driver's recommendation and went to Chengkan and Tangmo, two other old villages that are not as touristy (we liked Chengkan better). Walking around the empty narrow alleyways void of big tour groups, one really feels transported back in time. The misty rain only added to the melancholy feeling.
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Of course the impact of the past 50 years can be seen here and there. The sign over this old woman's head says “Long Live Marxism and Leninism”
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In another village, the owner of a building with intricate wood carvings were forced to scrape off the all the faces on the carvings during the Cultural Revolution because they represented old capitalist ideas. The only exception were faces of any servants, farmers, etc.... because they represented the workers.

The sky started clearing up so we headed up to the summit of Huang Shan. I always thought traditional Chinese landscape paintings are abstract expressions, but after Huang Shan I realized that they are actually very realistic and that the mountains in China really do look like that. The first day the heavy rain clouds were so thick we barely saw anything but the weather is so unpredictable that all of a sudden the fog would lift and then the sea of clouds would be before your eyes. The weather continued to improve during our 3 day stay so we got to see the many faces of Huang Shan, and even a decent sunrise:
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As much as we dislike rain, Huang Shan is at its best right after it rains in order to get the clouds.

There are no roads for any vehicles with wheels, motorized or not at the summit. Everything that's used (food, bed linen, water, etc.) are all carried up from the bottom of the mountain by the local workers.... a 3+ hour hike uphill!
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Our hike was not anywhere near as tough as the workers' since the cable car took us most of the way up, but we did have to carry a pretty heavy load to our hotel. All because we didn't heed the advice of the hotel staff in Tunxi who told us to leave most of our luggage with them. Next time we will definitely remember to bring as little as possible up! Ashok's going down in this picture, but we had an equal (or more) number of steps up... and by the way, I had my share of heavy bags as well:
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One last story of a very interesting encounter: On one of our hikes, Ashok saw an old man doing some sketches who looked interesting so we approached him to ask to take his picture. It turns out he's an art professor at an university in JianXi and comes every year at the invitation of one of the hotels to paint for them. After talking for a while, he asked if Ashok would sit for a portrait for him because he doesn't normally get a chance to do portraits of foreigners. How funny is that! Usually it's Ashok that's doing the asking. Of course we had to oblige... and that's how Ashok got his first portrait.
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And so ended our tour of China. On to Southeast Asia with Bangkok as our first stop.

Posted by jhongny 02:24 Archived in China Tagged tips_and_tricks Comments (3)

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