Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Southeast Asia, Part 2

After leaving Cambodia, we jumped a very short flight to Luang Prabang, Laos.  I had no idea what to expect from Laos, but I was pleasantly surprised with the beauty of the city and the tastiness of the food.  Luang Prabang was a typical Southeast Asian city but with a unique European feel due to French colonialism.  The entire town is a UNESCO World Heritage site!

Really sketchy bamboo bridge across the Mekong River.  This bamboo bridge is only constructed for half a year; during the rainy season, it's way too dangerous to cross so they dismantle it.

It's literally only made of bamboo.  Terrifying!
Wat Ho Pha Bang, a newer and incredibly beautiful Buddhist temple in the center of town.

Some of the ornamental dragons outside the temple.

It's not a trip to Southeast Asia unless you get a Pepsi n a plastic bag!

One of the more popular things to do is hike to the top of Mount Phou Si and watch the sunset.

Some people were so intent on catching the sunset that they were actually climbing on the temple structures... so disrespectful!  

Main street in Luang Prabang

Every morning before sunrise, the monks walk the streets of Luang Prabang collecting alms.  We gave them some sticky rice at the beginning of their route.  What should have been very peaceful was ruined by tourists running after them, cameras flashing in their faces.  We just happened to catch up with them again at the end of their route, pictured above, when the sun had fully risen and the tourists had gone about with their day.

The monks go into their respective temples and place offerings around the buildings.  This is Wat Xieng Thong, one of the oldest temples, built around 1560!
My favorite activity we did in Luang Prabang was a Lao cooking class!  We started at the restaurant for a welcome, traveled to the local market, and then went to a lovely location where we all had individual places to cook our dishes for the day.  No pictures of the market... I have been to several Southeast Asian markets during our travels, but this one definitely had the most stomach-turning goods for sale (including bags of stomach bile and fetal animals), in addition to the normal gross stuff like animal intestines and fermented seafood.  I had a near death experience when I slipped and nearly fell into a table full of blood and pig parts!  Enough about the market, here are pics from the cooking class!

Our teacher chef, and some of the fresh food from the market. 
Brian cooking at his individual station, grilling some veggies for a dip.

What I preferred to do instead of cook.  Gin and tonic with fresh basil... A+.

Steaming our herb marinated fish in banana leaves.

Cutting open lemongrass stalks to stuff with chicken!

Our group for the day!

Left:  ground water buffalo with herbs and bean sprouts (spicy!); middle:  chicken and herbs stuffed inside a lemongrass basket, then fried; right:  banana leaf pouch with my fish inside of it; top:  grilled tomato and onion dip to go with sticky rice

My favorite!  Dessert was purple rice with coconut milk and fruit topping with sesame seeds

Brian's favorite activity in Luang Prabang was rice farming.  We went out to a local rice farm and were taught the 13 steps of farming rice, starting from plowing the land all the way to eating it!  It was a really fun experience, made even better by the beautiful weather and the two 6th grade student helpers who were on school holiday that day.  Those two boys were hilarious!  They loved to cheer on the tourists as we planted the seeds ("Good job!"), beat the stalks to release the rice ("A little harder!"), and ground the rice to make rice flour ("Way to go!").

We started by using the plow, pulled by a huge water buffalo named Rudolph.

Rudolph went a little quick for my taste!

We planted some seeds!

One of the boys who was out to help that day, showing us how to use the sickle.
With the other boy, beating the rice.

Beautiful location!

All of the rice goodies we got to try in step 13!

Our most interesting experience (but certainly not our favorite--especially mine!) was an overnight stay with a hill tribe village.  We road mountain bikes up and down hills for around 7 miles (no pictures because no one wants to see my angry "I hate this" face) and then hiked for about an hour and a half to get to the village.  This was unlike anything I had ever seen.  Brian called it rustic, but that was being kind.  There was no electricity, barely running water, and they had just gotten a dirt road about 6 months prior.  The bucket shower with frigid water is not something I really want to do again.  We slept on a blanket under a mosquito net in a room about 6 feet wide, listening to loud partying all night to celebrate the life of someone who had recently passed away.  Around 4 am, the roosters started to crow.  Then we had to hike an hour and kayak for another hour to get back.  But we were able to see how these people lived their daily lives, and this allowed us to be really grateful for the comforts of home.  What I most took away from this experience was seeing the kids of the village, and how happy they were with the most basic of toys.  I mean, literally one kid was playing with a plastic water bottle at the end of a stick.  And he was having the best time!

Smiling because biking was finished!

Rows and rows of rubber trees

The village three-room schoolhouse 

One of the school classrooms

One of the piglets in the village!  They had so many animals!

Sweet baby playing with an old tire.
Rolling a bamboo ring with the kids.  We must have played with them for an hour, just rolling the ring back and forth, and they never got tired!  Brian took one for the team and stood next to the giant pit covered only by bamboo.

This one just loved me.  She only ever rolled the ring to me.  :)

Another kid playing with a car on a string.

These littles had fun drawing pictures in the dirt.

Our accommodation for the night.

The bathroom with a bucket for the shower and squatty potty.

Kayaking back to civilization!

We headed to northern Thailand to finish up our trip, to a city called Chiang Mai.  We didn't spend too much time there, and really only went there because it was MUCH cheaper to fly back to Saudi Arabia from Thailand than from Laos.  But we were able to see a few unique temples and go on a zipline adventure in the rainforest, so we made the most of our few days!

A temple made out of carved aluminum!

This handicraft is very unique, and very time-consuming!  This is all out of one piece of metal.

Signs in Asia are endlessly entertaining

Gorgeous temple across from our hotel

Zipline time!

Gibbons in the rainforest!

Tandem zipline

Monday, March 6, 2017

Southeast Asia, Part 1

In January, we took an amazing two week trip to Southeast Asia, visiting the countries of Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand, where we ate... basically everything.  In between meals, we saw lots of temples and other cultural sites, but the food!!!  It's the best!!!

We first went to Vietnam.  We visited northern Vietnam back in 2014, so this time we went to the south, to Ho Chi Minh City.  We had a slightly eventful cab ride to our hotel (we got rear ended!) but the rest of our days in Vietnam were relaxing and wonderful.

Our hotel offered breakfast for $4 a person; in America that would be pretty cheap, but not in Southeast Asia!  Instead, we wandered to the street corner a block away and found this stand, where we got delicious soup for $0.60 a bowl.

This was an excellent start to our stay in Vietnam!

Ho Chi Minh City was all decorated for the upcoming Lunar New Year, which was the week after we visited (which ended up being lucky for us, since apparently everything closes for about a week during the New Year celebrations!).

2017 is the Year of the Rooster

It's always interesting to see random propaganda while walking around the city.  I often forget that Vietnam is a communist country! 

We took a day trip from HCMC to the Cu Chi Tunnels, which is where the Viet Cong hid, lived, and worked during the Vietnam War.
We could only visit the first (of three!) layers of tunnels, but it was cool to see.
They also had a lot of different types of booby traps that the Viet Cong would use during the war, like this one with spikes in the hole!

They also had very realistic looking mannequins showing how people lived and worked during the war.  The ones inside the tunnels always startled me!
Our last night in HCMC, we took a food tour with two early-twenties Vietnamese students, who drove us around on the backs of their motorbikes to their favorite food spots.  They promised the best banh mi, and definitely delivered!

We left HCMC and headed for the Mekong Delta, for a few days on the river in the countryside.  What a difference from the hectic pace of the city!

After a long car ride to the country, we boarded our boat and were welcomed with fresh coconut juice and sliced tropical fruit (including the BEST bananas we've ever had!).  The next few days we cruised up and down the river, exploring the area and learning about their way of living.

A boat similar to the one we were on!  Most places in the delta are only accessible by boat.

We went to a lady's house and learned how to make rice paper, which is much harder than it looks!  
Of course we had to visit the traditional market, where Vietnamese shop for veggies, meat, and pretty much anything else you could possibly need.
While cruising, we passed many smaller boats of fishermen.  This one had rigged up a hammock!  Smart!
We did some biking which was fun, especially since they gave us these hats to wear to protect us from the sun.  Even though it was January, the sun was quite bright and warm.
We got a ride through some smaller canals from two ladies.  They paddled the whole way until we jumped onto our bigger boat, then they busted out the electric motor to go back upstream.

We relaxed at the riverside pool for a few hours before heading to the airport and departing for our next stop:  Cambodia.

In Cambodia, we only had one goal--to see the world famous Khmer temple of Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world!  We got a guide (which was crucial; there were almost no signs in English!) and a 3 day pass and we explored not just the Angkor Wat temple, but lots of other temples in this huge complex.

Us at the Angkor Wat temple!

Buddhist monks are the stars of Cambodia!

Front side

Scary face guys on a bridge

The Buddha faces in this temple were awesome!

Tomb Raider and Indiana Jones were both filmed in this temple complex

Those roots are so neat!

A temple that has not been restored
Early wake up to watch the sun rise over Angkor Wat...

Along with all the other tourists and their cell phones

Cambodia was awesome but after 3 days of temples it was time to leave.  We headed back to the airport, and boarded the plane bound for Luang Prabang, Laos.

Part Two (Laos and Thailand) coming soon!