Siem Reap, Cambodia: Save the Best for Last

Sorry for the delay in posting, my 32-hour travel day and my health got in the way, but I will get to that later!

After our arrival in Siem Reap, we met our tour guide, Sophak (which we remembered since it rhymes with Tupac the rapper, but he did not find this amusing nor did he have any idea what we were talking about). On our way to the hotel, we pulled over to see the beautiful sunset. Cambodia probably had the clearest sky of all the countries we have been to so far!

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Our hotel, the Victoria Angkor Resort, had gorgeous grounds and an amazing patio and swimming pool. Sophak told us this was a 5-star hotel but once we saw our room, we realized that this was probably not the case. Not to say the hotel wasn’t very nice but the rooms were definitely not 5-star but the hotel pool and surroundings were amazing.

The next morning on January 2nd, we spent the majority of our day looking at the amazing temples around Siem Reap. There is of course a ton of history I could go into but the remarkable part of the temples of Angkor are their beauty and intricate detail so I will leave most of the further research for you to Google on your own time!

We began our day exploring the ancient city of Angkor Thom, which translates to Great City. The city was established by King Jayavarman VII during the late 12th Century of the Khmer empire. Before we entered the city, we once again saw some more elephants! These elephants looked darker and a bit different than the ones we saw in Thailand. We asked Sophak why that was and he told us that they were actually painted darker for the tourists. So strange! We also got to see our first monkey in Cambodia. Although many people were petting the small monkey, that is a quick way to get some strange diseases so I held back my urges.

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The walk up to the city Angkor Thom was spectacular. The pathway to the ancient city was lined with statues. Some of which had been restored but others which were still decapitated.

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The center of Angkor Thom featured a very famous temple, Bayon. Bayon is known for its massive stone faces on each of the towers of the Buddhist temple. This is one of the sites I was looking forward to when going to SE Asia. The detail and the size of the faces were truly amazing especially since they were made in the late 12th century.

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As we were walking around the grounds, I kept noticing such beautiful children trying to sell us souvenirs or just playing around the temples while their mothers sold the goods. The children of Cambodia were beautiful but we learned that they were only in school for half of a day and the other half some children tried to come sell goods to tourists to earn money. Sophak told us that we should ignore the children trying to sell us to us because by giving them money, we were teaching them that they could make a living without school and by just coming to the tourist areas everyday. That made sense to us but it was still so difficult to ignore these beautiful children. It reminded me of my time working at a school in Guatemala and made me want to do something to help children in other countries that can barely afford to go to school. Here is one image that really struck me while we were walking around. Throughout the rest of this post I will continue to post a few image of children that I found particularly touching.

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Here are some more images from Angkor Thom from the temple of Baphuon, which was built in the 11th century and dedicated to the Hindu God Shiva, as well as the Terrace of Elephants, which was used by King Jayavarman VII as a platform address the public and his army.

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We left Angkor Thom and went to have lunch to escape the heat of the Cambodian sun. I ordered the traditional Cambodian dish, Fish Amok, which was served in a coconut and tasted similar to curry. It was delicious! I also ordered fresh coconut juice to go along with it. This was definitely one of my favorite lunches on the trip!

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That afternoon, we went to the largest religious temple in the entire world, Angkor Wat. Angkor Wat was built by the Khmer King Suryavarman II in the early 12th century first as a Hindu temple and then transferred into a Buddhist complex. The temple was extraordinary and a highlight of the entire trip. Every detail and bas-relief on the temple walls must have taken hundreds of people years to build. With that said, our tour guide loved to talk about each tiny detail of the temple walls. We got over that fairly quickly since we are the fast-paced, not detail-oriented type of travelers. We had to teach him to hurry along so we could just enjoy the beauty of the temple.

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What an incredible site to see! We also got to see more wild monkey but these monkeys were adults. These two idiot boys were chasing this one monkey around and we saw the animal get very angry and clench its teeth and then actually chase after them. It was pretty freaky. Eventually as we were walking down the path leaving Angkor Wat, there was a woman drinking a can of Coca Cola. A monkey actually leaped up to jump and grab the can out of her hand. I would have screamed at the top of my lungs and freaked out but this woman was very smart and just threw the can onto the ground. That smart little monkey was very happy with himself.

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We were done around 3pm and got to lay by our hotel pool until we sat down for dinner at our hotel. Our strict rule-following tour guide told us we had to eat the buffet dinner at the restaurant, Koulen, where we were seeing a show that evening but we made the executive decision that the $12 was cheap enough for us to just see the show and not also eat the crappy buffet, and that getting our tan on sounded a lot more appealing! Well, we should have realized earlier that in general, we just do not appreciate things like cultural dance (especially from our tribal experience in Kuranda, Australia a few years back). The show was a cultural Cambodian dance of the female spirit, Aspara. Some people may have enjoyed it but we would have preferred more time shopping or lying by the pool.

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After our disappointing show, we went to another night market in another city. I got these amazing charcoal rubs from the walls of Angkor Wat that I absolutely love. I can’t wait to hang them up in my room. We decided that we should actually live a little and stay up past our bedtime since it was our last night in Southeast Asia so we went to a bar to hear some fun live music. It was a blast! After about two beers, we of course ended up stopping for hour-long $5 foot massages before heading to the hotel to go to bed. We had to end our trip with another foot massage, right?!

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Our last day in Siem Reap finally came, I could not believe the trip was finally coming to an end! We began our trip with a drive to the temple Banteay Srei which was built in the10th century and dedicated to the Hindu god, Shiva. The intricacy in the carvings was unlike any other temple we have seen.

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After this temple, we went on to the “Tomb Raider” temple or as Auntie Missy thought Sophak was saying the “Terminator” temple. I told her he meant the movie with Angelina Jolie not the Arnold movie! This temple called Ta Prohm was unbelievable cool because the trees from the jungle surrounding the temple are actually growing out of the ruins, creating a very Indiana Jones feel to the temple.

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After our visit to Ta Prohm, we headed back to the hotel to lay out at the pool again for a few hours before heading to the airport. The next flight was another short flight on Cambodian Angkor Air to Bangkok to begin my 32-hour journey home. I started sneezing and feeling sick before we even got to the airport

Once we arrived in Bangkok, I felt even worse than before. I am very lucky that my cold did not come on until the final day of the trip but I knew the long trip home would be even longer now that I was feeling under the weather. The second we got to the Bangkok airport hotel, I went straight to sleep. By the way, the Novotel hotel near the airport was so nice. We were both joking about how this hotel had a nicer bathroom, bed and more outlets than some of the hotels we stayed in, and this was just an airport hotel! Pretty ironic!

The next morning, we got up early and go on our flight to Hong Kong and then to Los Angeles. After lots of broken sleep, I made it home to my bed. Peter picked me up from the airport in LA with beautiful flowers, what an amazing boyfriend I have! Since then, I have been pretty much sleeping the entire time. I have to go back to work tomorrow but will post a final trip summary when I am feeling a bit better.

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Ho Chi Minh City aka Saigon

Tuesday morning, we woke up and we were ready to start our first full day exploring Saigon. It began with breakfast at the Intercontinental where they had coconuts at the buffet that they cut open for guests to drink the juice out of. I love coconut so I decided to have one. It was a very sweet way to start off the last day of 2013.

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After breakfast, we met our tour guide, Phong, and started our drive to the Mekong Delta, just South of Saigon. Since we got on an earlier flight to Ho Chi Min City, Phong did not come to the airport to get us the night before like most guides do. Auntie Missy did talk to him on the phone and thought he was a girl! It was certainly a surprise when a man came to get us in the morning. The two-hour drive to the Mekong Delta was greener and lusher than any area we have been thus far. The Mekong Delta was very rural and tropical. We were finally able to wear shorts since it is much warmer in Ho Chi Minh City than in Hanoi. We then got onto a large gondola type boat and went down the river. There were actually people living on the river in boats and in tiny shacks along the riverbank. It was beautiful and heartbreaking to see all the same time.

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We then got off the boat to go see some local shops where the locals produced rice paper, coconut candy (similar to taffy), coconut crackers, rice whiskey and puffed rice. This was like a food tour of the Mekong Delta because I got to try everything! I was obsessed with all the coconut crackers and coconut candy. It was so delicious. For the first time, it really felt like the goods were made completely from local products and that they actually made the goods right there in the shop. It was a very fun and filling day! They served us tea and let us try all of the food as well as test the Queen honeybee lotion they use on their skin.

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After my filling tour of the food of the Mekong Delta, we got to explore some local art galleries. The art was beautiful; I wish we could take home some of the large pieces! One part that really touched me were these adorable little girls that were selling postcards as their mothers picked fruit to make raisins. It was so sad seeing such little girls trying to sell the cards. It really reminds me of my time in Guatemala and makes me realize that I should spend my vacation time and do something similar to that again because it is truly such a rewarding experience.

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After the shops, we loaded back onto the boat to head to another part of the Delta. On the boat, I was able to taste a ton of different local fruit. My favorite was this pink prickly looking fruit that was very similar to lychee. I was certainly full after this trip and we hadn’t even had lunch yet!

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The next part of our tour, we walked through this little town in the Mekong Delta. The area seemed very local with few tourists. We were walking along a riverbank and were able to see the actual houses of many local Vietnamese farmers.

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Eventually, we got to an antique Vietnamese house called Mr. Kiet’s that they preserved as a museum. The home still featured old antique furniture that had gorgeous detail. The back of the house had a restaurant where we ate for lunch. We were told we were going to have elephant ear fish. When they told us that, I was excited until they brought the entire fish out to the table! Luckily, the waitress showed us how to get the meat from the fish, prepare the rice paper and roll our own spring rolls. Of course, I was already a pro from my cooking demonstration on the cruise in Ha Long Bay. The meal was so delicious! We then got back in the car to head back to Saigon for our city tour.

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Next, we went to the American War Remnants Museum. I was very excited about this part of the trip since I am very interested in the history of the Vietnam War. (Maybe I should listened more attentively in my American War in Vietnam class at USC, because I don’t remember much about it!) The museum made me feel horrible about the atrocities of the war, even though I wasn’t even alive at the time. One standout part of the museum was this photo of a young boy protecting his younger brother from being shot by an American solider. It was horrible that even children lost their lives during the war. They showed horrible images of people after the Americans dropped napalm and phosphorus bombs. The photos showed their skin literally rotting away from the bombs. By far the most horrifying part of the entire museum was the portion on Agent Orange. Agent Orange is still affecting generations being born today with horrible birth defects due to the chemicals in the bombs the United States dropped on Vietnam. One young girl without some of her limbs wrote a letter to President Obama asking him to help the people of Vietnam who are still suffering from the effects of the war. It was heartbreaking to see.

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After the museum, we saw the Reunification Palace where the government holds meetings as well as the Notre Dame Cathedral and the post office building that were built by the French when they occupied Vietnam. These are some of the main highlights of the city but was definitely nothing to write home about!

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That evening was New Years Eve and Auntie Missy was not feeling well enough to go out. Luckily, my good friend Nathalia has introduced me to her boyfriend’s cousin, Danielle, who lives in Saigon. She invited me to go out with her friends and to dinner. We went to his amazing restaurant for authentic Vietnamese and enjoyed guava juice and soft shell crab. It was delicious! It was so great being able to talk to her about her country and her life. She is currently finishing her masters in fashion design from a school in Taiwan and hopes to spend a year or two in America working in fashion. She helped explain a lot about the reasons why our tour guides said certain things about the country, such as pollution. She said that they probably all lie about the reasons why Vietnamese wear the masks on the bikes so they do not get in trouble with the communist government. Any opposition against the government or any protests is not allowed so tour guides tend to bend the truth to prevent any negative feelings towards the nation. It is so sad how poorly the government treats its citizens here. It seems like they rarely do anything for the good of the people. Even Phong mentioned today that he and many others look at South Korea and wish that South Vietnam had just split from the North to form the same great relationship with the United States that South Korea has, instead of becoming the unified socialist, communist republic of Vietnam.

After dinner, we met some of Danielle’s friends at her house. She lives in the city and her house is pretty modern but had a traditional Vietnamese style. Her parents own an apartment building next door that has 10 rooms for foreigners coming to live in Vietnam for an extended period of time. Since her family lives in both America and Australia, they have many guests from both countries come and stay with her family while they work or study in Saigon. Danielle’s friends were very sweet. They did not speak English fluently like Danielle but they tried their best to communicate with me and make me feel welcome. Then I got to do the one of the most exciting, cultural things I have done thus far, put on a mask and get on the back of a motorbike! It was scary at first but then it was kind of fun and clearly the easiest way to travel around the country.

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After a thirty-minute journey on the back of the motorbike, we arrived in New Saigon, an area just outside the city that the government recently created to try and spread people out from the city center. The New Year’s celebration looked similar to one in America, except I was the only white person! Heineken sponsored a big show with the biggest Vietnamese pop star and a few DJ’s. Luckily, I knew all the songs since they listen to a lot of American music. At one point, a DJ was talking in Vietnamese and I asked Danielle what he said and he said, “I am the best DJ in the world.” Then, Danielle turned to me and said, “What world? The Third World?!” I thought that was pretty hilarious but definitely wouldn’t have been funny if I said it! Shortly after the countdown party was over, Danielle’s friend took me back to the hotel on the back of his motorbike. I did not get home until 2:30am because of traffic so I was pretty exhausted. The evening was pretty amazing. I am so lucky to have met Danielle and have an experience like that. I can’t wait to see all the new adventures that 2014 has to bring!

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This morning, I was exhausted when our alarms went off but we had to pack up to leave Saigon. Before we left the city, we headed to the Cho Ben Thanh Market to go look at more crap in a new city! We only spent 30 minutes there before heading to Cu Chi.

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Originally, the Cu Chi Tunnels were not a part of our itinerary but I was very interested in seeing the network of tunnels that were used during the American War so we were able to fit it into our schedule. It was fascinating to see the tiny holes the soldiers hid in and the intricate maze of rooms and traps they had set up to trick Americans. We were able to get into some of the tunnels but it was so small I got a little scared and opted out of crawling through the tunnels. I can’t imagine how soldiers lived in those tunnels during the war.

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After we saw the tunnels, they had a shooting range available to allow people to shoot AK-47s and other weapons. Auntie Missy and I both wanted to cross shooting a gun off our bucket list so we purchased 10 bullets, 5 each, and got to shoot the guns! We had no idea we were going to be shooting guns during our time in Vietnam, that’s for sure. They were so much louder than I expected and also way harder to shoot. I was WAY off target. What an exciting way to end our trip to Vietnam! Please excuse the awkward stance I have while shooting the gun below. Clearly I need to learn some proper form and how to actually look intimidating while shooting a gun. Perhaps putting my Marc by Marc Jacobs bag down beforehand would be a good start.

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After another fun 3-hour wait time at the airport in Saigon, we finally landed in Siem Reap, Cambodia. The airport was gorgeous and the hotel is even more beautiful. Looking forward to explore the final stop on our itinerary. Happy New Year to everyone!

Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

Our trip to Ha Long Bay began with a 4-hour long car ride. Vin made the car ride enjoyable at first by telling us many riddles. He also taught us a bit about the Vietnamese language and explained that it was very difficult to learn, like English. Vietnamese has words that are the same but have different vowels and pronunciations. Be careful when you order Pho to be sure you are getting the noodle soup and not a hooker!

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He was a very fun tour guide to have around. Half way through our trip, we stopped by this store where women were sewing these woven art pieces. Auntie Missy and I loved them and got some to bring home with us. It will be a great memory of our trip!

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We finally got to the cruise and checked into our room, which was very nice. We had a balcony and a bathroom that was way nicer than I expected. I couldn’t wait to set sail and explore the beautiful bay.

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The rest of our trip to Ha Long Bay did not go so well for Auntie Missy. The bumpy car ride made her very sick so she didn’t get to enjoy the overnight cruise at all. It was a huge bummer and I felt very badly for her. I had to go along to all the stops on the cruise and enjoy dinner and happy hour by myself.

Our first stop on the boat was the Surprise Cave or Hang Sung Sot. This trip, Auntie Missy probably would not have joined in on even if she were feeling well! We got to walk up and mountain and through these massive caves on one of the islands in Ha Long Bay. The cave was not as tiny and scary as I had imagined as some of the parts could have fit hundreds of people they were so wide. I did freak out walking alone a bit when I saw a bat, yuck! I made friends with two people on our cruise that were both originally from Vancouver, went to Harvard Business School and now work in finance in Hong Kong. They were very sweet to me the rest of the day and were very interesting to talk to.

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After the cave, we took the cruise back to another island, Ti Top Island, for a spectacular view of the sunset over the bay. I climbed up around 400 steps all the way to the top of the mountain to see amazing 360-degree views of all of Ha Long Bay. It was worth the trek even though I was huffing and puffing and trying to hide it from my fellow cruise mates!

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Next, we went back onboard the boat for happy hour and a Vietnamese spring roll cooking demonstration. I learned how to make my own spring roll with rice paper. The trick is using egg and painting it all over the paper so it doesn’t break when you roll it up. I got to eat the spring roll I made after and it was delicious!

Auntie Missy still was not feeling well for dinner so I was a bit nervous I was going to have to eat alone. My nice friends from Hong Kong invited me to join them, which was very sweet. We talked about American television shows and movies they wanted to catch up on. It was a great time. After dinner, I didn’t have much else to do since everyone went off to do their own thing so I got another massage at the spa on the ship. This made me sleepy and helped me fall asleep.

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The next morning after not great boat sleep, I woke up and got ready for the last Ha Long Bay excursion. Auntie Missy wanted to still rest and shower even though she was feeling a bit better. This trip was to Luon Cave. We boarded a rowboat and were taken under a natural rock passage to this opening among the mountains. It was gorgeous especially so early in the morning.

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After the cave, we had a buffet breakfast and got on our way back to Hanoi to the airport. We ended up being very early for our flight so we got on an earlier flight to Ho Chi Minh City. It was very nice not to have to wait for three hours at the airport!

Once we arrived at our amazing hotel in Saigon, the Intercontinental, we decided to eat something familiar that would settle well in our stomachs. We went for Italian and I ordered pizza and Auntie Missy ordered spaghetti. I have never been so happy to eat crappy pizza in my life!

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Tomorrow is New Years Eve and we are off to the Mekong Delta before a city tour. Goodnight Saigon!

LAX – Hong Kong: Welcome to Asia

I cannot believe the trip is finally here.  I am seated in the extended legroom premium economy cabin on Cathay Pacific,  thanks to my amazing Auntie Missy.  It was it’s own class and the seats reclined more than any other airline I have ever been on.  I got a bit nervous when I young boy took the aisle seat next to be but he ended up being quiet and enjoying his video games the entire time,  a perfect airplane companion,  especially since he was half the size of a  normal person.  They even served premium economy champagne and free wine… Night night world!

I did stay up for the lunch service,  as you all know I am never one to miss a meal,  even a crappy airline one!  Then I watched my first screener of the trip, The Butler,  which I thought was a great  movie,  but very strange to see Oprah acting.  Then went to sleep for 4 hours until they served dinner. Thank God for being a vegetarian because the quinoa they served me was far better looking than the beef my seat neighbor was eating. After dinner,  I slept for the remaining of the flight so it went by pretty quickly!

Once I got off my flight,  I found Auntie Missy’s gate to greet her when she walked off the plane.  It felt like the good old days when Gaga or my mom would come to my gate to greet me,  instead of having to stand after security.

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After anxiously waiting with no one to text, she finally walked off the plane.  At least she was the first one off since fancy Auntie Miss flew first class.  Needless to say she certainly got a bit more beauty sleep than I!

Since Auntie Missy got me a new pair of sunglasses for my birthday which I had yet to pick out,  we ventured over to the tax free sunglass hut and found me  a new pair of shades!!  Although the $1,000+ price tags where at first alarming,  have no fear, they were in Hong Kong Dollars! Check em out (ignore the greasy hair and extremely pale post-17 hour flight skin?)
And yes,  of course I am having another glass of pinot at the lounge!
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Disclamer: I only put the sunglasses on at 9:40pm in the Hong Kong airport to show all you lovely people.  I do not think I am that cool to be able to rock sunglasses at night.

Now we are both sitting in the Cathay Pacific Airport lounge for the next two hours… At least this lounge is way nicer than any American lounge.  Not the worst place to be stuck. I am very sleepy and just want to get to Bangkok already,  but our flight is delayed 50 minutes!

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Looking forward to getting to the hotel around 2am and passing out before our first day of adventure in Bangkok.  Goodnight!  Or should I say good morning since you are all waking up! Xo