Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Finding the Meaning of Life in the Waitomo Caves of New Zealand:

Me on The Black Abyss Tour with The Legendary Blackwater Rafting Co
 In our 8 months of adventure trotting around the entire globe, it is hard to decide what would make our top ten experiences. But without a doubt, caving in Waitomo, New Zealand is in the top three. New Zealand was a perfectly climactic end to our travels that was everything we loved about travel rolled into one tiny country. From meeting warm and friendly people to delicious food to naturally beautiful landscapes comprised of black sand beaches and acres of farmland to adventure that reminded us just how small we really are in the scope of things to awe and inspiration at how precious life is, we left our hearts in New Zealand.

This was my second trip to New Zealand and Mike and I decided to stick strictly to the North Island. Many people choose the adventureland of the South Island, but what I love about the North Island is all of the secret gems it has to offer and the more laid back atmosphere. I can't lie, we also have some amazing friends in the North Island with three gorgeous children that made it impossible for us to stray too far. But compared with my first trip to New Zealand, I can now say that I prefer the North Island.

We based ourselves with our friends in Te Awamutu and took trips to Rotorua for the Polynesian Spa, Raglan Beach where we watched a surf heat and then enjoyed a black sand beach all to ourselves, Marikopa Beach where we also had an entire black sand beach to ourselves, Mt. Maugnanui where we hiked up to a breathtaking view, Hot Water Beach where we dug a thermal pool in the sand, visited the geysers and hot springs of Hell's Gate, drove the Coromandel Peninsula where we saw Hobbiton and found one of the most romantic spots in the world - Cathedral Cove. But in between the beaches and spas and volcanic activity, Mike and I descended into the depths of the earth with three caving trips, a Kiwi pastime.

We went with The Legendary Blackwater Rafting Co. and all three trip were amazing experiences. The guides are experts in their fields, very professional and extremely patient, not to mention entertaining and all of them had that irresistible Kiwi charm. We kicked it off with The Black Labyrinth Tour, one of their classics- a 3 hour tubing, climbing and breathtaking tour through Ruakuri Cave. We suited up in wet suits and helmets and lept into the dark river running through the cave. We floated along the cave lit by glowworms dotting the belly of the cave and crawled through holes and jumped off waterfalls and took in the awe and silence that an experience like this inspires. We learned about the cycle of life of a glowworm and it struck me just how quickly it all goes. The glowworm actually only gets about 1-3 days of life as a gnat once it cocoons. I have been filled with gratitude many times on this trip but never as much as I was while cruising down a river on my back looking into a few lights above me in the darkness of a cave. It's a beautiful world and damn, I love it.

We enjoyed Ruakuri Cave so much we decided to also do a dry walking tour to learn more about the stalagmites and stalagtites and of course, to see more glowworms. The crazy thing about these huge stalagtites and stalagmites is that one centimeter takes 100 years to grow. Talk about humbling, we saw fossilized seashells in this cave because 35 million years ago, New Zealand was once beneath the sea. To stare at something so incredibly old was more than mindblowing. It inspired a sense of urgency in me - the urgency to not waste one single second of my life. I suddenly did not want to hold onto anything I didn't need including negative energy, past grudges, the stories of my past, the stories we all hold onto and tell ourselves over and over again. I am only 32 years old and my life will one day come to an end, and the sea will keep on being the sea and the sky will keep being blue and glowworms will keep glowing. There is no "but" in there, only "and." I am a part of this thing, this living breathing world until I'm not. For a moment I felt the complete absence of fear which for someone who can worry quite a lot, was a liberation unlike any other.

But to top it all off was the Black Abyss Tour - a five hour tour including repelling, tubing, a zip line, climbing up waterfalls, jumping off waterfalls, and a silent cruise through the cave lit up by millions of glowworms. The Black Abyss Tour was my favorite because there was a flirty dangerous element to it. To descend 35 meters into darkness and to zip line through complete darkness gets your heart pumping in all the right ways. I felt both like a bad ass and completely alive and present. The glowworm cruise inspired the same feelings it did on the first two tours - the feeling of absolute gratitude for my life and this world.

Mike, who grew up a huge Goonies fan, is an experienced explorer and a lover of life also said to me that caving in the Waitomo Caves was by far one of his favorite experiences on the trip.

To the guides who helped make these trips so memorable - Nicole (Black Labyrinth), Chris (Walking Tour of Ruakuri Cave) and Matt and the ever charming and reassuring Scuba (Black Abyss) - a giant THANK YOU!! I can't stress enough how much we loved these experiences and how they helped conclude an amazing adventure for us in the most positive and inspiring way.

In short, when you go to New Zealand, which you should, go to The Legendary Blackwater Rafting Co, the OG of New Zealand caving expeditions, and let yourself go.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Strange Days Have Found Us in the San Fernando Valley

Cafe Donuts, The Valley, California

We landed in California last Tuesday with bittersweetness and relief. The three-plane trek to come home crossing an ocean for over fifteen hours after three weeks of news splaying Missing Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 all over the front pages did not make for an easy journey. We were sleep deprived, dehydrated and completely upside down. No cell phone service, no American coins to make a payphone call, just a limited free wifi signal where we tried to use Facebook messenger to get in touch with my future sister-in-law to pick us up.

Preparing for Engagement Party with Bride-to-Be!

We met up with my brother and my Dad and went out to Bob's Big Boy to eat hamburgers and drink root beer. I ran into an old friend from high school who had gone around the world the opposite way we did it. She looked at me and said, "Fucking awesome." And for a moment we both wore our miles like badges of honor, inductees to a club with one direction- whatever the "other" is.

We then headed to the grocery store where I ran into an old teammate that I had not seen in many, many years. She introduced me to her seven year old and all I could manage to acknowledge was how tall she was which was probably another way of me trying to believe that in seven years she created and was raising children while I was not. I was in flip flops and a tee shirt and suddenly became very aware of it. I twiddled with a necklace and hoped I made sense with the heaviness of jetlag pushing complete thoughts further and further away from each other.

The 101 Freeway, Northbound

After lots of catching up with family and chit chat with old friends I played soccer with, I found myself alone in a grocery aisle with the small task of choosing a bread for a sandwich I would eventually make. For the life of me, I couldn't even think of what I would have in this sandwich. But first things first: the bread. I felt like a character out of a Hunter Thompson novel. Organic, seven grain, white, wheat, spelt, sourdough, pumpernickel and many more all blinked their googly eyes back at me as I tried to figure out what the hell was the difference in any of them. I couldn't remember what kind of bread I used to like. I put out my hand and just grabbed a bag, still not knowing what kind of bread it is and we are down to the last four slices.

At the deli, my dad asked me what I wanted in my sandwich and I couldn't think of that core "thing." The adjective/noun before the word "sandwich." He suggested turkey. Of course! Turkey! He then asked if I wanted cracked pepper, oven gold, mesquite. I asked him to choose and I decided I would find mustard. I turned to corner and instead found three shelves of pickles. Pickles, pickles, pickles, pickles....Isn't it all the same thing?

Popped and unpopped, microwaveable

So many options, choices and most of them seemed so ridiculously unnecessary. But I suppose this is freedom. The paradox of choice. But after 8 months of travel, these choices left me paralyzed, undeniably dumbstruck, abandoned in a grocery store aisle with a bag of bread and a brain trying to make sense of three shelves worth of pickles. My dad coached us through the grocery store with simple questions and suggestions. Chips?

"Organic" strawberries

We hit the produce section and I felt like I'd never seen such good-looking fruit. My dad asked the young man stocking the produce which batch of strawberries was organic. He pointed to the strawberries on the left which looked exactly like the strawberries on the right and all I could think was Organic does not look like this. We still have yet to crack into them and the strawberries are still plump, bright red, without the slightest hint of spoil. I thought of Vietnam, Monsanto, Dow Chemical...adjusting has been weird to say the least.

I threw myself into my brother's engagement party, a welcomed focus. An anchor in my very fragmented mind right now. I can do flowers. And I can do wedding.

I signed up for a free week of heated yoga classes and felt myself sobbing in one, on the verge of puking in another, and towing the line between both feelings in the next two.The heated yoga is a bit punishing and at the same time so purging and releasing that it has become the one thing I can actually focus on here without feeling like I'm completely spinning.

Untethered. Unsure. Buttered microwave popcorn and high heels and toasts. Freeways and sitcoms and pickles. I look forward to the tap water only to be reminded that I can have even better water, cold, filtered water, if I open the refrigerator. Running into old teammates and shaking off anxiety as I get behind the wheel of a car and hugging family that it is so, so good to see. Babies and beers. Cable and couches. Yoga and yogurt. The valley I grew up in, the valley I know so inside and out is foreign right now and yet is beautiful in the strangest of ways.

So many more posts to write, but I have to write this one now, because I know one day the spinning will stop and while I'll be relieved, I will miss it and all of this strangeness so dearly.


The Valley at Dusk


Friday, March 28, 2014

Babes in Bondi: Sydney and Her Beaches

Bondi Beach, Australia

Katy Perry was right when she sang "Nothing comes close to the Golden Coast," although, I do think the beaches of Sydney and the Gold Coast of Australia gives California a real run for its money. Sydney was another awesome Airbnb experience and we decided to park ourselves in Bondi Beach for five days. The beaches in Sydney were truly breathtaking and the babes and bods were also a bit breathtaking. Sun kissed skin, muscles and tattoos, and so many, many blondes. There is a culture on the beach that we enjoyed watching with no false hopes of truly cracking it. However, being a California girl, I'd say the culture in Sydney is not too far off from the culture in LA.

Proper Fish n' Chips, Aussie Style

Exhausted and totally culture shocked, admittedly and unregrettfully, we did not do much in Sydney. We mostly hung out at the beach, enjoyed a couple hamburgers and fish and chips and strolling along trendy Hall Street. We went for a swim, acquired a sunburn, did the coastal walk from Bondi Beach to Bronte Beach, enjoyed magnificent sunsets and made fast friends with our Airbnb host, Oliver, who offered to take us snorkeling at his favorite spot and take us to the Gap where we gazed out at stunning cliffs.

Our final day we decided to tour the Sydney Opera house and take the Ferry out to Manly Beach where we got more fish n' chips and enjoyed the mellow smaller beach. I also enjoyed my much missed flat white coffees, an Australian/New Zealand specialty.

We finished our time with a lovely dinner at Jamie Oliver's new restaurant in downtown Sydney with my friend that we stayed with in Myanmar!

Sydney was more expensive than we expected and five days, while short, was sweet because we couldn't really stretch it much further. Sydney is a place I plan to visit again along with a more thorough tour of Australia. Much to see and enjoy here. And while Singapore was a bit of a culture shock after coming from Cambodia, Sydney was a culture shock I was familiar with. When we got on the ferry to Manly Beach, I was surprised to see so many open seats on the deck and then geared myself up to be crammed in tight with very full benches. But the benches never filled. Maybe 2- 3 people on a 4-5 seater bench. Personal space is a privilege and while I was happy to scoot close to Mike to make more room on the bench, I secretly really enjoyed the first public seat in 8 months where I was not rubbing elbows, knees and butts with a stranger.

Surfers at Tamarama Beach


The people were friendly and helpful, the food was good, public transportation easy and the beaches divine.

Loving Australia THIS much at Manly Beach


Big Money in a Lil' City: 30 Hours in Singapore

We left Cambodia with heavy hearts and an open mind seeing as neither of us had any real idea what to do in Singapore. When booking tickets it was cheaper to stop through this city/state port nation and I remember a friend telling me many years ago that along her world travels Singapore had been one of the coolest cities she experienced. But looking up accommodation in Singapore was outrageously different to the rest of Southeast Asia. We went from $8 a room to $45 for two beds in an 8-shared dorm room. At 32 and 33 years old, you can guess what that makes us in a youth hostel - dinosaurs. Never was this more apparent when the 80s pop icon Tiffany came on the radio and I was the only one in the hostel singing along to "I Think We're Alone Now." On the flip side, unlike traveling in a hostel when I was 20 and terrified of using a coed bathroom often forcing myself to "hold it" if there was a cute guy in the facilities, as a 32 year old married woman I had no problem walking into a bathroom full of 18 year old dudes and destroying any shred of mystery of a ladies morning routine.

Mike, Doris, and me in Singapore

Another plus to being the dinosaurs, you naturally click with the older folks. Case in point: meet Doris. At first, we thought her name was Taurus which we actually though suited her better because she was such a pistol. She was in her 50s but had the energy of a 25 year old. She was working the front desk when we asked her where to get a bite to eat. She said if we waited ten minutes she could take us to where she will be getting her dinner. She took us to a little Chinese restaurant which the locals would refer to as a coffee shop and ordered for us in Chinese. If there was one thing we knew we had to do in SIngapore it was eat and sample all of the fine Singapore fusion cuisine that the country is known for. We both got noodle bowls and amazingly, Doris ALSO had a shellfish allergy. My fear of ordering something in Asia with shellfish never materialized and thanks to Doris this continued to be the trend. On top of a delicious dinner and great company, Doris suggested a few things to check out including the night mall - Mustafa. For all things perfume, electronics, cosmetics or gold, Mustafa was an interesting place to walk through at night.

Once morning came, we hit the town starting with the National Orchid Garden, a section of the Botanic Gardens, which was a peaceful way to start the day before thrusting ourselves into the hustle and bustle of the city. Singapore's national flower is the orchid and if ever there was a place to see exotic orchids, it is here.

After the gardens we took the subway to Orchard Street and dove into the food court at one of the many malls where we sampled chicken skin skewers, curry chicken samosas and gelato.

We then went to the Esplanade along the water front, answered several student surveys, and walked through the mall which was basically Rodeo drive with a roof. In Singapore, you can rent a boat and paddle inside the mall. The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf had a hostess. After that, we checked out a pretty rettible student interactive art exhibit at the Art Museum. What was more impressive was the design of the Art Museum - a lotus. Behind the art museum is a hotel designed to look like a ship stretched across the top of two buildings. When we had drinks from the 72bd floor of a bar across the way, we realized the design of the building is to look as if it is out there on the water along with the many other freighter ships docked outside the port.

We finished Singapore with a stop at one of their infamous Hawker Centres (the Lavender Food Square) where we stuffed our faces with duck rice, curry chicken, wet and dry beef noodles, and Mike had some prawn dumplings. Singapore delivered in every way but with such high prices, we were grateful to be in and out and onto the next. Next...Sydney!!!

Shoes outside of the Green Kiwi Hostel, Singapore


Monday, March 17, 2014

The Dead Kennedys Were Right: Holiday in Cambodia


Skulls at the Killing Fields in Choeung Ek, Cambodia

This is a post I have been avoiding writing. I have had plenty of excuses - I had freelance work, we were doing lots of quick travel, it was too hot. But in truth, my experience at the Killing Fields in Choeung Ek, Cambodia and the former high school turned torture chamber and prison of Tuol Sleng in Phnom Penh, Cambodia were the most disturbing experiences of this trip. In Vietnam, friends of ours asked if we were going to the Killing Fields when we got to Cambodia. I didn't want to admit it, but I wasn't even sure what that meant. I assumed it had to do with the genocide, but that was how little I knew. Before traveling, my only real exposure to the Cambodian Genocide was from the Dead Kennedy's song, "Holiday in Cambodia" which I listened to in 8th and 9th grade. I had heard of it and knew it was bad, but just like when a song ends, my attention flipped and I didn't think to go back and actually investigate what I was singing along to.

Tree where speakers hung playing music to cover the screams

While the DKs were ripping apart the bored middle class suburban hippies of their beloved San Francisco bitching about wanting a revolution and a society where we all could be "one," there were also telling them there was a revolution happening in communist Cambodia where people were "one" or else. Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge came into power in 1975, and stormed Phenom Penh, something the locals were, at first, excited about. They welcomed the rebels only to find the same soldiers they were waving at waving guns at them forcing all urbanites to pack up and evacuate the city. Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge wanted an agrarian society, a throwback to the old country life. They refused foreign aid which they deemed "corrupt" and "influencing." They saw the farmer as the ideal Cambodian and forced people into hard labor in the fields. It wasnt long before Pol Pot's idealogy morphed into a murderous genocidal one- anyone who did not agree with "the mission" was quickly exterminated and soon anyone that the Khmer Rouge deemed suspicious or guilty was exterminated. The paranoia was so rampant that even members of the party ended up in the prisons and mass graves.

The Khmer Rouge took over buildings, turning them into prisons for all those who opposed Pol Pot's idealogy (like the Tuol Sleng prison -formerly a high school), but really it was anyone who was deemed a threat. Students, journalists, professors, monks...People were rounded up, beatedn, toturterd, forced to sign fraudeulent confessions about their work with the CIA or KGB and forced to give names of those working with them- neighbors, friends, families. Some of the torture included water boarding, ripping off fingernails and then pouring alcohol on the raw nail beds. Beatings, rape, electrocution. Some were even skinned alive. Many prisoners also died of starvation and disease.

The Killing Tree at Choeung Ek's Killing Field, Cambodia

The Khmer Rouge created a system where prisoners who "confessed" were then loaded into trucks and told they were moving homes. They would then drive out to one of the Killing Fields and be lined up along a ditch, or a mass grave, usually blindfolded. They would play propoganda music blaring from speakers that hung from a tree to cover the screams of the first batch. To save bullets, which were expensice, they beat people to death or hacked at their skulls and necks with machetes, or pierced skulls with iron rods - men, women and children. But perhaps the most upsetting was the Killing Tree. Mothers and babies taken to the fields were torn apart and then swiftly, a soldier would swing the baby by the legs and smash their skull against the Killing Tree. The idea was that it was better to wipe out a lineage so no one could come back for revenge.

The Cambodian genocide lasted from 1975-1979, just two years before I was born. It wiped out over 20% of the Cambodian population, a population that also included many Vietnamese who had fled American bombs during the Vietnam War. It struck me that these babies would be my age had circumstances been different. I walked around Phenom Penh looking through a different lens after that. All of the people over my age had experienced this genocide, first hand. Some of the people I saw hailing tuk tuks or crossing the street or selling fruit had lost family members, perhaps sons and daughters, parents. Some of them may have even been on the otherside. Maybe one or two of them were soldiers. Still crazier, the UN recognized the Khmer Rouge as Cambodia's oficial political party until the late 90s. The party wasn't dissolved until December 1999 and it wasn't until 2009 when some of the party's leaders were put on trial for war crimes. Pol Pot committed suicide in 1998, but all but one of the leaders have denied any wrongdoing. However, the man who ran Tuol Sleng (S-21) prison admitted to his crimes. During his trial he was taken to the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek and wept when he saw the Killing Tree. Unfortunately, the trials for the Cambodian gencoide have been a huge failure with only five indictments, one conviction, and trials still proceeding.

Bracelets left at a mass grave

The effects of the Cambodian Genocide can be found in the current everyday life of the Cambodian people. As a traumatized nation stunted by staggering poverty, much of what keeps the country in third world conditions are the haunting experiences of what happened a little more than 30 years ago. PTSD, grief, mental illness, alcoholism, and a palpable hopelessness can make for a debilitating plague of epic proportions. There is no God in Cambodia, having been eradicated by Pol Pot. No temples, no religious ceremonies. No incense burning. At least not from what we could see. Sex trafficking is abundant while opportunities are infrequent. It is a dog eat dog society, which any tuk tuk driver can illuminate. It is a land still riddled with an estimated 4-6 million hidden landmines that were placed during three decades of war including the Khmer Rouge's reign. It is a society of amputees and blind citizens and disenfranchised youth.

The graves are still so shallow, the devastation still so fresh, that every monsoon season more bones and teeth and clothing rise to the surface in the fields. Mass graves are still being discovered. On the tour, the audio guide said, "It's as if the spirits of those who lie here will not rest."

Cambodia is unrested.


Choeung Ek Killing Fields, Cambodia


Sunday, March 9, 2014

A Temple of Our Own: Siem Reap, Cambodia

Angkor Wat, Siem Reap, Cambodia
When planning this trip, there was a kitchen sink list of places Mike and I both wanted to see. Along the way, there were compromises that had to be made, deals that were struck, and promises to be upheld in the future. Mike really wanted to go to China, but forfeited that in order for us to tour Tibet. I really wanted to end in South America, but gave that up and added places like Southern Spain and the Amalfi Coast to our European leg, and Myanmar and Sydney. I gave up touring Southern India in order to stay longer in Southeast Asia and to make it to Siem Reap, Cambodia and to see the temples of Angkor. What I did not realize is how blazing hot Cambodia would be by early March. As someone who prides herself on being able to stand a lot of heat, Cambodia's dry season had me licked. But having looked so forward to this portion of the trip as our sort of "Temple Climax" we pushed through the overwhelming humidity and blazing sun and climbed the ancient ruins and temples of the mighty Khmers.
We flew from Luang Prabang, Laos and landed in Siem Reap where we hired a taxi to our hotel. Here's a tip for anyone planning a trip here, know that if you don not have a tour guide set or your hotel picking you up, these taxi drivers expect to make a sale on you. The whole ride was a semi-aggressive interrogation of how long we were staying, what we planned to see, have we hired a driver, etc...Used to these sales pitches, we stayed vague and said we had a guide arranged which then seemed to tick the driver off. "Why isn't he picking you up then?" He asked. He went on to explain that it's no good for him to make these airport runs unless he can get further business from it, so we should be warned the next time we come to Cambodia. The taxis cost $7 from the airport and it's about a 10-15 minute ride. My guess is they pocket $4-5 for the ride and for the going rate around town, that is fair. If you want to skip the awkward sales pitch (or the refusal to turn up the car's air-conditioner once they learn they can't make more money from you), walk outside the tiny airport and hire a tuk tuk for $2.
We stayed at a guesthouse in a room for $8 with the idea that a fan would do...WRONG! Unless you have grown up experiencing South East Asian dry seasons, a fan will do nothing for you. And when the power inevitably cuts out at different points in the night, be prepared to wake up instantly from the little sleep you have accumulated and jump directly into a cold shower. The heat aside, two days exploring the temples of Angkor was a spectacular experience.
Angkor Wat
We hired a tuk tuk driver for two days and tried our best to wake up early and see as much as we could before the heat caught up to us. The first day, we started off with Ta Prohm Temple, which became my favorite temple. (You may have seen this in Lara Croft Tomb Raider and Indiana Jones.) What struck me as we toured this temple and many others is that we were not so much on a temple tour, as a nature walk. It is quite humbling to see the roots of a tree growing over huge temples and stone ruins, reclaiming the land. In the end, nature always wins. It made me think about when the temples were built. Were the trees here before? When did the trees take over? Were they always in charge? As humans we try so hard to leave a legacy. We hope for permanency even though we know we are anything but. And now with social media and camera phones and the incessant documenting of our lives, we cling to the fleeting now more than ever. And in the end, what will be left? What will be the temple ruins of our society? Will tourists with camera chips inside their brains tour the grounds of our ruins and witness ficus trees wrapped around a landfill of smartphones? Redwoods dotting the lands of our plastic bag pits and mounds of our styrofoam take-out containers? What will they make of our Facebook movies and Instagram accounts? What will a thumbs up symbol mean to them? Will it be a sign of approval as we see it, or will it be interpreted as some sort of god-like symbol, a symbol used so frequently with so many of our communications, that it will seem like a sort of blessing we wished upon each other with every thing we did. Maybe it's kind of both, anyhow.
Preah Khan Temple
On day two we started off with the biggie - Angkor Wat. This is the temple people come to see. It was the temple I had looked forward to for a very long time. It was the temple I had expectations for. The funny thing about expectations, a lesson I learn time and time again, is that they are more often then not disappointing. Now, I'm not saying Angkor Wat was disappointing. But my experience was fraught with disappointing moments.
Ta Prohm Temple
For one, after walking all the way through the massive entrance, and up the steep vertigo-inducing steps to the top of the temple, I was struck with what has become an all too-familiar feeling on this journey - gut wrenching cramps telling me that if I don't find a toilet in a matter of minutes, I am going to learn the true meaning of humiliation for the very first time. In a panic, I had to climb down the steps, and race around the temples to see if there was a toilet somewhere near the ruins. Hell, I would have taken a tall-grass field, but everything was out in the open as far as the eye could see. I'll save you all of the details and just say that we found a bathroom in time and I was spared any major humiliations. After that, we went back to Angkor Wat and Mike climbed back up the steps and I decided to just sit in the space and enjoy the moment. Which I did! However, it did not blow me away as much as Ta Prohm or Preah Khan or later when we saw the faces of Avalokiteshvara (or King Jayavarman VII) at Bayon, and with so many mind-blowing experiences under our belts, I realized that there was a part of me that was "full-" (a term a new friend we made used.) While I would not change a thing about this adventure, there is something to be said for short travel, too. You can devote curiosity and energy to a new place with a refreshed spirit where with long travel it sometimes is difficult to find that spirit when all you really want is a good shower or relief from the heat you have been schlepping through for weeks or a toilet that is near by.
Bayon Temple
Nevertheless, we saw some amazing temples and sitting on some stone ruins inside Angkor Wat looking up at these temples that were just a Google image in my mind from a couple years ago, I felt like I had accomplished something. This in many ways was the climax. We did it. We made it through all the countries we wanted to see in Southeast Asia. We survived India. We saw the desert night sky in Morocco. We ate our way through Europe. We walked through Tibetan villages struggling to hang onto their culture and eager to share it. We sailed with the birds in Nepal and this little idea, this joke text message we started a few months before we got married, had become this thing. This adventure has become our own temple where we have deemed what is sacred to us in our marriage. And no matter what happens from here, somewhere this temple will always be standing somewhere. Maybe with trees and moss and some garbage and also flowers. But if the temples of Angkor proved anything it was that time can make it all the more beautiful.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Lovely Laos: Romance in Luang Prabang

Since last year, I have heard from friends who traveled through Southeast Asia that Luang Prabang was their favorite place. We did not think we would make it to Laos this trip. In order to meet up with friends, a priority for us after so long on the road, we have flown back and forth, up and around Southeast Asia, and making a trip to the northern tip of Laos seemed like another impossibly backwards excursion. But I could not let go of the idea that this was a place to see, and like Myanmar, will have a very different landscape in another ten years.
Luang Prabang was everything I hoped it would be and a little bit more. After seven months of travel, we are a bit travel weary. At a certain point all of the temples begin to blend together. Like the cathedrals in Europe, the golden Buddhas in Asia have come with the kind of awe that eventually, sadly, inspires burn out. We had nothing booked when landed at the airport and were lucky enough to share a taxi with two Aussies. We basically asked to be dropped in the center of town, but after striking up a conversation with them, decided to check out the guesthouse the young woman had booked since she had done her research and seemed to be on a similar budget as us. We lucked out with this amazing little guest house, a bit far from the touristy area, but an unbeatable price - $10 a night for an impeccably clean guesthouse and a friendly owner. The only drawback was the rooster outside of our window. But the fan was powerful, the shower was hot, and the area was safe and a bit off the beaten path.
In Luang Prabang we skipped the temples and instead opted for the pampering the little town is known for along with the best pastries and pain au chocolat we have had since Europe, a culinary tradition left over from the French. We got foot massages, and for me a full body traditional massage, as well! We tried the Laap and enjoyed the beer and a game of pool with a couple of French guys. (Naturally, we kicked their ass. Or rather, Mike kicked their ass.)
Ta Bat in Luang Prabang, Laos
After tooling around town for a few days, complete with good food, long scenic walks past the Nam River and delicious food, we decided to rent a motobike and drive about 30 kilometers outside of town to check out the Kuang Si Waterfall. In took a a few kilometers for me to relax into the ride, but as soon as we got on the open road, I was a zen road master! (Okay maybe not a master, but I had a blast!) The trip to the waterfalls past rice patty fields and small villages gave us a glimpse of rural Laos life. There were games of soccer everywhere and gaggles of children always fully invested in whatever game of chase or tag they had most likely been playing for hours.
We finished our trip off with a sunrise walk along the main road to watch the Alms giving for the monks that line the street in their bright orange robes. Watching the monks receive donations of food and fruit from the local people has become a major attraction for the town. There are signs everywhere asking tourists to respect the "Ta Bat." And there is certainly good reason for the signs. Tourists often follow the monks and get uncomfortably close to snap pictures, which is unfortunate for the monks but also unfortunate for the tourists. One of the most serene and peaceful experiences I've had on this trip was sitting across the road on the wooden steps of some closed shop (too early to be open!) and watching this tradition take place in absolute silence. While some tourists are inappropriate, for the most part there is a collective reverence that the event demands. Afterwards, we had pan au chocolats and cappuccinos, a true delight.

Kuang Si Waterfall, Laos

Laos gave us a kind of vacation from traveling. A much needed break from the constant moving, the sight seeing, the everyday stresses and just let us cut loose for a short week. Luang Prabang is definitely a place I would like to visit again and maybe next time, a motorbike trip through the country!