June 25, 2008 at 9:35 am | Posted in Cambodia | Leave a comment

Cambodia May 27 – June 2

Cambodia was a surprise. We didn’t know what to expect and, from what we had read, our expectations were very low for this seemingly very uninviting country. Despite this, we maintained our plans to visit because we could not bypass the opportunity to see the world-famous Temples of Angkor while we were in this part of the world.

Our adventure began in Thailand where we disembarked from an overnight train from northern Thailand (no sleep) and jumped in a taxi and circled the city of Bangkok for a two hour scavenger hunt in search of the DHL office where our new Keen shoes were waiting. We successfully tracked them down (Thank you Keen!) and just made it back to the bus terminal in time for a 3 hour bus ride to the Thai-Cambodia border on a nice bus called the Mekong Express. The bus was run like an airline with “stewardess” service and on-board video (violent Asian gangster movies) and friendly commentary at significant sights. We ate the usual for these long bus and train journeys – whatever they were selling at the station. So, we had a well-rounded meal of Pringles, peanuts and Juicy Fruit gum for breakfast and snacks. At least it was more nutritious than the box of Scooter-Pies we had on the train!

We arrived at the border and managed to cram ourselves and our bags into a tuk-tuk who proceeded to take us to the Cambodian “Consulate” for our visas. The books warn you about make-shift offices and overcharging but what do you do when you have two kids, a bunch of bags and no one speaks English! You pay whatever they want, get your visas and go. While the boys raced their cars across the polished floors, we filled out the paperwork and in a few minutes we had our visas. We paid $120 instead of the “official” $60. This was the first indication of an “uninviting” Cambodia. Our defenses were up. Next, the tuk-tuk driver dropped us at the literal border where you must walk across. The handle on our pull-luggage broke so we were pulling it with a lovely rope. Our bags were starting to bulge as we became gun-shy to mail any packages after one of ours became lost enroute to America. The sun was beating down and we were running on fumes in terms of sleep. A couple of Cambodian fellows latched on to us promising a comfortable ride to Siem Reap from the border. We also read about the taxi and bus scams that abound at the border. We dragged our bags while playing the cat and mouse game with these guys. They promised an air-conditioned taxi for $60 to Siem Reap which is about 3 hours away (cheap by American standards but expensive in Cambodian). It was about 3:00pm. We wanted to pay $30. We filled out more paperwork while keeping an eye on the bags, the boys, the taxi guys and trying to read the guidebook at the same time to make sense of this chaotic border crossing. Dust was kicking up from the unpaved road, ox-drawn carts heavy with melons, bricks or textiles passed by to get to the cheap border market. It was getting late. We pretended to reject the taxi guys but, in reality, we didn’t know what alternatives we had. We boarded a “free shuttle” to the central bus and taxi station. We had no idea if this “free shuttle” was really going to take us anywhere legitimate. Lo and behold, the shuttle dropped us at the “only” taxi stand in town run by our taxi leeches. (uninviting) We offered $30 and settled on $45. Our driver didn`t speak a speck of English and he sported very long fingernails and looked about 15. (uninviting) The car was roomy at least and did, in fact, have air-con. Turns out that Siem Reap is not 3 hours away because of distance, it is 3 hours away because of the condition of the road. In other words, barely existent. For the next 3 hours, we felt as though we were in a video game as we swerved and ricocheted along the pot-holed dirt path. We dodged bicycles, ox-carts, motorcycles, oncoming crazy buses, trucks carrying road-building supplies, dogs, chickens, cows and children. Cambodia appears to be lightyears behind India in terms of development and is certainly not geared towards tourists. (uninviting) We wondered what we had gotten ourselves into. The driver made a few stops to make a few “transactions” with friends, brothers, fathers and any other English word he knew. It got dark very quickly which made traversing the road that much more…exciting. Blue fluorescent lights on rough sticks line the road. These lights are in front of every shack, house and then venture out into the uninhabited fields on either side of the road. Each light has a large white bag beneath it. We ascertained that it is a trap for catching some sort of insect. This would be considered clever and an earth-friendly alternative to pesticides had it not been for the small fact that they are not for killing insects but for trapping them to eat them. Crickets. (uninviting).

We arrived in Siem Reap unscathed and were transferred to a couple of tuk-tuks who take us to our guesthouse. We could not believe we made it. The guesthouse was full of friendly faces who scurried around us to serve us in the manner we`d become accustomed to here in Asia. So Cambodia is not only filled with blood-sucking opportunists as we had encountered so far. We crossed our fingers because we booked the guesthouse for the next night but had now arrived one day early because of our success in seamlessly making all of our connections (train-taxi-bus-tuk-tuk-taxi-tuk-tuk) over the past 24 hours (Why didn’t we pay to fly? Because we wouldn’t have this interesting story to tell!). The guesthouse was able to accommodate us (phew!) and our room was absolutely delightful as it is a converted mansion and has elegant details in the plasterwork and has lovely moulding but is also painted a cheery shade of plum to make us feel settled and happy. The place is run by an Australian couple and serves some western-style food and English is well-spoken. We were so relieved.

The first thing we noticed was that the guesthouse runs several down-to-earth tours of the surrounding area that take you into the lives of the local people. This was exactly what we had been looking for but, up until now, had not been able to find. Tours are usually of sights, temples, pagodas, museums, but never to the villages. We jettisoned our plans to only spend one day in Cambodia to tour Angkor Wat and instead extended our stay to 5.

We signed up for three tours: Day 1 – “A Day in the Life” tour of a Cambodian Village. We were very excited. We took a mini bus with our guide to a village that is financially supported by our guesthouse. We arrived and were to meet the village tribe leader but he was not feeling well and was asleep in a hammock. We had learned about how important it is for the village to have a well and a water filter installed for a mere $45 USD to support many families. We proceeded to a home where a teenage girl was busy making leaf shingles for her house’s roof. The leaf roof only lasts 3 years and it was time for a new one. We were there to help. We slipped off our shoes and sat on her bamboo floor as she and the guide showed us how to wrap the palm leaves around the bamboo and then sew the leaves to one another with a strip of bamboo with its end sharpened to become a natural needle. The boys were so happy to be participating in a traditional activity and were successful at it. We took a break from our shingle-making and headed down to the school for some English lessons. Turns out school was not in session on that day due to some administrative technicality but when the village children saw us coming down the dirt path, they jumped on their bikes with siblings dangling on the back and assumed front row seats in the ramshackle outdoor classroom and offered a synchronized, high-pitched “Hello” when we entered. We proceeded to teach this small group of children (ages 5-12) the ABC’s and the days of the week. We passed out some pens and treats and after our short lesson, these small children climbed back up on their adult-sized bicycles and headed home for lunch (maybe crickets were on the menu). We went back to the house to participate in preparing a typical meal and the boys helped our guide pick lemongrass and morning glory from the yard and together with some fermented fish, salt, spices and some other unknowns (no crickets), we made some soup. Luckily, the guide also brought some ham and cheese sandwiches and watermelon! After lunch we visited the local monastery where a group of children (some orphans taken care of by the monks) gathered to observe us. The monastery was decorated with paintings of the life of Buddha. The boys liked how the Buddha had long ears indicating longevity.

Day 2: We had a fascinating trip to a floating village so called because the local people set up their houseboats and shacks on the lake and make a living harvesting fish. Their situation is difficult and conditions are harsh. It is fascinating to see how schools, hospitals and even basketball courts float on the river. Unfortunately, children are often urged to “perform” tricks in order to earn some tips from gawking tourists such as ourselves. We grimaced at the floating crocodile farms in existence for the sole purpose of making bags, pocketbooks and shoes. This is a country struggling to earn a few buck as the countries surrounding it are well ahead economically. It was hard to pass judgement if they are not as eco-friendly as we would like them to be.

Day 3: We finally got to tour Angkor Wat. It is beautiful and has survived many invasions of this vulnerable country. The ancient carvings depict intricate details of battles between heaven and hell and tales of mythical creatures and gods. The boys found this very interesting (and learned what hell was) and were fascinated by people being decapitated and tortured for their misdeeds on earth (this may come in handy in the future). However, we were more impressed with the other-worldly Ta Prohm Temple that is in the midst of being consumed by the rainforest surrounding it. This was what we had come all of this way to see and it was hard to comprehend that so many years of uncompensated toil was now left to be destroyed, yet it was fascinating to watch it happen. It was scorching hot and we were happy to get back to our guesthouse as Henry searched for yet another newly made friend that he met the day before. These friends were usually 20-something girls who would give him unwavering attention like that of a babysitter and would be intrigued by his stories and his company. He proceeded to make dinner arrangements and we all went to dinner together at the Dead Fish Restaurant (a former fish processing warehouse rather than a description of the meals).

The next day we boarded a bus for the 5 hour trip to Phnom Penh where we would figure out how to navigate our way across the border to Vietnam. The bus was another airplane-like situation and we watched out the window mile after mile after mile the monotonous lives of people struggling to grow some crops and live a simple life from a small plot of land, a couple of goats and a bicycle yet having to avoid the surrounding tracts of land still peppered with landmines. It is hard to know where to begin to try to help a country like Cambodia get up on its feet. We were glad to have experienced the few different faces of Cambodia.



June 11, 2008 at 1:07 am | Posted in Thailand | Leave a comment

April 29 – May 26

After wrapping up a week in New Delhi taking care of administrative items such as securing our visa to Vietnam, contemplating whether to visit China, filling up on western fare, and booking hotels, we leave for Thailand. By a stroke of luck (and an error on their end), we are able to negotiate with American Airlines and secure a direct flight from New Delhi to Bangkok without having to take the long train trip south to Mumbai which we frankly didn’t have the energy to take on. We arrive in Bangkok ahead of schedule and snag a great hotel in the middle of the city.

Bangkok is very exciting and everyone is friendly and the men and women are exceptionally beautiful. Bangkok has modern stores, fashion, theaters, food, handicraft – everything! We couldn’t get enough. However, our first business was to book a train to south Thailand to head for the famous beaches. Despite low season, we still had to wait a few days before we could go so we enjoyed the city. We easily navigated the “Skytrain” which is a modern train that takes you high above the roads easily around town. We took the government ferries up the river to visit the 19th century stunning Grand Palace glistening with golden tiles, fierce warriors and religious temples. We watched our shoes very carefully. We visited the famous “Weekend Market” that stretched for miles yet we were melting in the heat but couldn’t resist scarfing up some colorful (and cheap) souvenirs. We heard that the movie theaters were like Carnegie Hall so we headed for the mall and saw a family movie. The theater was top-notch and popcorn was $1.00!

Thailand’s popular drink is fruit shakes! The boys slurped up banana, watermelon, orange and lemon shakes nearly 3 times a day. The overnight train to Koh Samui was fun. We slept in comfortable bunks, caught a bus the next morning towards the coast, took a ferry 2 hours to the island and then a taxi to the quiet north side where we stayed in a lovely bungalow owned by a French couple and which served great food! The area was dotted with authentic Thai fishing village homes turned into simple yet delicious restaurants and shops far away from the busy side of the island. We planned on staying 4 days but heard that the west coast was suffering from an early monsoon so we stayed put for 9 days just relaxing. We enjoyed massages right on the beach for pennies and the boys happily swam and built sandcastles. It was a vacation from our vacation. Everything was easy – we rented a jeep for the day and they simply hand you the key, ask you to put gas in it and say, “See you later!” We explored different beaches and tried to steer away from the rapid commercialism that is out of control on this once secret hideaway.

We reluctantly peeled ourselves away from Koh Samui and caught the overnight train back to Bangkok and then took a minibus 2 hours to Kanchanaburi with the sole intention of visiting the Tiger Temple. We headed straight there and got closeup and personal with a group of 15 or so tigers who are being taken care of by a group of monks. Monks are known for taking care of orphaned people and animals and one day someone left an orphaned tiger at the temple and since then more and more tigers have arrived. You would never be able to interact with tigers like this in America but we were able to here and under the monks’ watchful eye (and some sleepy tigers), we felt safe. We also visited Erawan Falls – gorgeous aquamarine waterfalls that fall from tier to tier each with its own swimming hole. We arrived very early in the morning and had the jungle to ourselves. We went on an elephant ride later in the day which included an elephant “bath”. This involved riding the elephants right into the fast-moving river where we learned that elephants can completely submerge themselves while artfully leaving its passengers above water (barely). We don’t think you would be able to ride elephants while they are completely submerged in a river or touch and walk with tigers anywhere in America! We are fortunate to have had the experience although we know there is a reason you can’t do these things at home. It was scary, yet exhilarating. On our way back to Bangkok, we visited a rare floating market – literally a market where the wares are sold by boat. The boat driver takes you up the meandering canals and pulls up beside different boats whose owners are selling souvenirs, melons, coffee, lunch, hats or coconuts. The market was initially created for all of the villagers who live along the canal and had no other way of transport except boat and the tradition continues (although today its filled with more souvenirs than daily necessities). We also got to see local arts and crafts and the boys got to help make brown sugar candies from coconut palm sugar.

We caught a bus back to Bangkok and hopped on an overnight train to the capital of the north, Chiang Mai. More Thai culture than international Bangkok, we got to relax in a nice hotel with pool and buffet for short money while we visited the Sunday night market (everything happens at night since it is so hot during the day) and the Chiang Mai Zoo to see the pandas that we forfeited with our abandoned China trip. We also made our way to the World of Insects Museum (boy stuff). It was quite cool. We visited a silk making shop – we never had any idea how silk was actually made as we watched the silk cocoons unravel and merge with other strands to form a single strong thread. We visited a monkey school (so called because they train monkeys to harvest coconuts but must also raise money to feed them) and we visited an elephant conservation center. In Thailand, it is all about the elephants – they are are built into the architecture and stitched into the fabric everywhere in Thailand.

We arranged a private van and driver (Mr. Wat) and set our sights on going further northwest into the jungle to visit the hill tribes – centuries-old hill tribes that have preserved their unique and colorful culture by settling far away from the modern world. However, they are not so far away that they don’t understand how to earn money from tourism. There are plenty of handicrafts to be had and we were excited to support these villages in any way we could. Several of the tribes are refugees from Myanmar (Burma). The Karen people have settled close to the border and we took a long-tail boat down a river which was the only way to access the village without a long trek (too hot). It was amazing to interact with these villagers when we had only seen them in picture books before and actually didn’t know that they still existed. Along the way Mr. Wat showed us much of the countryside that is famous for its extensive caves, waterfalls and rich soil as we embarked on a long trip into the hills zigzagging along the way as we had in India (and vowed we would never do again) but we couldn’t help but be drawn to the most authentic parts of Thailand.

Thailand was very friendly, very accessible and had it all – animals, beaches, culture, shopping and fantastic food. It truly was a land of smiles as its motto promises.

(click photo for slideshow)

India Part 2 – Cool Uttaranchal

June 2, 2008 at 12:47 am | Posted in India | 1 Comment

April 7 – April 27

We had travelled for 10 days in India and after looking at the map we realized we only covered a very small portion of the country. We spent a few days in Delhi recuperating and a couple of nights at Pizza Hut while deciding where to venture next. Without a doubt, it would include our driver, Rajeev, and our nice air conditioned truck. Since our plans to Nepal and Tibet had been dashed, we decided to head north in an attempt to get as close as we could to catch a glimpse of the Himalayas and we read that Uttaranchal had some pretty scenery so, we headed north.

The state of Uttaranchal is mostly agricultural and the photo opportunities of life as it always has been were plentiful. Our first stop was Corbett Tiger Reserve. Rajeev had been there just the week before and had seen 10 tigers. He used his connections to successfully get us lodging deep in the middle of the park so we wouldn’t have to travel over an hour in and out of the park each day. We went on safari in the evening and in the morning and saw elephants, deer, birds, pointy-nosed alligators and jackals – but not one tiger. We heard a tiger roar, we saw tiger footprints but didn’t see one. But the boys got to stand up in the jeep while it was moving so that made up for the disappointment. They thought they were getting away with murder in the lawless Indian jungle! We decided that not seeing the tiger was a lesson for us because if we do not do anything to save the endangered tiger, no one will get to see them anymore and now we know what that would feel like (it appeased them at the time).

Next we headed into the hills to Nanital which is the vacation spot for Indians and includes all the typical relaxing activities one would partake if they were in, say, New Hampshire…boatride on the lake, shopping, playing in the arcades and horseback riding. We stayed in a hauntingly empty, old mountain villa in an oversized, chilly (higher altitude) room that Rajeev had arranged because it had plenty of grass for the boys to run around on (and they did). We saw old women carrying 50 lbs of firewood on their back down the mountain road and we saw maimed children begging for food (the boys “sponsored” one of them for the day) while we tried to enjoy the niceties yet really couldn’t as we observed how difficult it was for others. We learned to not notice the condition of the sheets nor whether the toilet was western or squat. We watched as women rolled dried cow dung into bricks to make fuel for the fire and watched as men labored to bicycle dozens of kilometers with heavy supplies piled high on the back. We learned to accept that litter is the last thing on the minds of India and that Indian people are the hardest working people we had ever seen. The food is incredibly fresh and oranges are known as sweet lemons and young men walk hand-in-hand because they are friends. We learned to pronounce our w’s as v’s and v’s as w’s (Oliver was known as Oliwer) and we learned to take pictures from a fast moving vehicle. We learned to appreciate vegetables in this vegan land and look forward to mattresses without lumps. And most importantly, children were regarded as gifts from the gods and treated accordingly.

We continued on the dizzying road northwards for hours and hours, we took time to contemplate life and the difficult questions such as, “Do snails dream?” and “Who invented infinity?”. At our next stop in Kausani we were rewarded during the dawn hours to a front row seat at our guesthouse of the Himalayas laid out before us 180 degrees across our view. Even the boys were impressed and gladly rose for the occasion. Our guesthouse clung to the mountainside surrounded by rice paddies and 15 member families living in one room amongst the rubble and debris of the harsh mountain lifestyle. Once again, for the boys, the grandeur of the Himalayas was eclipsed by the presence of two black labrador puppies. We are always reminded while travelling with our children that the world is full of things, great and small, foreign and familiar. While we tried to converse the boys simply befriended the neighborhood kids by creating a zoo from small plastic animals and cages made from a donated box of wooden toothpicks from our friendly waiter. They could not converse. This was a big deal for the local children who were seen playing with corn husks for entertainment earlier in the day. We took photos and everyone was anxious to see their image on the camera. We were promptly invited to the family “compound” to meet the elders. We climbed down the muddy, rocky “path” down to their string of rooms. The mother offered us tea and everyone was delighted to have us. The boys were excited to meet the brand spanking new calf and the grandfather of the clan who, with disabled legs, hasn’t walked since he was 30 was excited to have company.

We also went for a 6 mile trek through the hills with a local guide and passed through some remote hill towns with local villagers doing laundry in the river, scything the rice, plowing the fields and bringing supplies home by donkey or on their own backs. Children were tending the herds while groups of girls were taking refuge from the sun under a tree. It was a fantastic walk. We saw a lot of weddings on our adventure. April and May are the popular months for weddings. It was still phenomenal to us that the marriages are arranged and we saw many a somber bride having to leave the security of her family to start a new life with her new acquaintance, her husband. However, there were weddings in almost every town with adorned cars, horses and rented spaces with colorful gateways and streamers. The winding roads in the mountains were too much for our fragile stomachs so we changed our itinerary to head towards the lowlands sooner than originally planned and rested in spiritual Rishikesh and Haridwar. Here we observed the rituals upon the sacred Ganges (Ganga) river and witnessed the unfortunate throngs of people who migrate here for unconditional support from the spiritual sects. It was here that the boys studied those without limbs or eyes or food and tried to make sense of their situation. They rarely said a word but just witnessed and assessed. However, we did cancel our intended trip to Varanasi, the capital of spiritualism and poverty, because we felt that we had witnessed our share and didn’t need to have it intensified exponentially. The boys were quite eager to experience the goodness of the Ganges River and its healing powers and we were all drawn to its blue color and supposed purity. The boys were intrigued by the stories of how the river originates from the head of the god Shiva.

We were saddened by the unfortunate experience of having our shoes stolen. It is customary to leave your shoes outside places of worship and while 99% of the time they were tended by paid attendants, this one time we left our shoes unattended in an ashram. An ashram is a sanctuary for spiritual people who engage in daily rituals such as meditation, prayer and simple ways of living focused on the higher beings. Without hesitation we left our shoes while we went to sign up for a yoga class. 7 minutes later, we returned to only 2 pair of shoes belonging to the boys. The shock was overwhelming as the shoes were more valuable as a sentimental piece of our adventure rather than practical. They were the only possession that was with us every “step” of the way. Our only solice was that the boys still had theirs. We walked back almost a mile barefoot along the intimidating streetscape (you can only imagine). For some strange reason, we never had to walk around anything unsightly and it seemed as though the path had been made clear for us. Perhaps it was a lesson to “walk in someone else’s shoes” (or lack thereof as is the case in India) and take a second look at what is most important to oneself. This experience coupled with Peter’s new bout with “Delhi belly” and Oliver coming down with a 12 hour fever left us with mixed feelings. Perhaps our sins of the past were being detected by the conglomeration of spirits or we were just having a bit of bad luck. Either way we bottled some water from the Ganges for future keeping and mailed it home with all of our other treasures for remembrance of a poignant visit.

Rajeev would play classic Indian cd’s and the boys had their favorite songs that usually originate from religious chants but now are played to a catchy beat and sung about Krishna and others. They fell deeply in love with every place we would visit and would soak up the music, the dance, the vibe, the smells and the sounds. They would grow impatient as we sat for an hour or two participating in some ritual but would yell with excitement at a later date when they recognized a song or clothing or a statue that was part of the scene. It was the same as how they felt with all of the attention they got from Indian people – the petting, patting, pinching, ooohs and aaaahs, “Where are you from?”, “What is your name?”, “How old are you?”, “Are you twins?” They grew tired of it and complained on the side but, in the end, they know that the world loved them and wanted to know them and wanted to be with them and was excited because of them. Their experience, without exception, has always been them positive. They also had a positive effect on others and some people who at first glance were indifferent, bored or tired became excited, happy and eager to engage them in a conversation. Travelling with children has yielded a much more friendly, warm and true experience for us and our children.

(click photo for slideshow)

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