Monday, January 30, 2012

Indochine Adventure pt.2 - Cambodia

Emily visits Angkor Wat at sunrise
            Over the past few days, my family and I have been exploring the ancient city of Angkor (and surrounding area) near the modern city of Siem Reap in Cambodia.  I have experienced true awe walking through the remnants of the now jungle-infested 1000 year-old ruins, thinking about the advanced civilization that once existed here, and contemplating the reasons that forced them to eventually abandon their capitol city.
Claira at Angkor Wat

            On our first day in Siem Reap, we awoke at 4:45am so we could arrive at Angkor Wat, the largest temple complex, before the sunrise. Unfortunately, the time-corridor between Christmas and New Years are some of Angkor Wat’s busiest days of the year, with crowds of up to 15,000 passing through the gates each day. But then again, I would much rather deal with the crowds than be here much of the rest of the year, when the heat is simply unbearable -  it can be so bad in April and May that the local tour company we're using is reluctant to book tours during those months. After arriving at the temple, our guide showed us to a secret spot on the wall of the moat to watch the sunrise over Angkor Wat, as we watched the thousands of tourists march quietly over the bridge into the grounds like lemming-soldiers in the early morning light, it was quite beautiful.

This temple has been completely reclaimed by the surrounding jungle
Temple at Angkor Thom

There was a bit of a letdown as low clouds formed before our eyes, partially obstructing the beautiful sunrise (but not to worry as my Dad and sister Emily were back at 5:00am a few days later and were rewarded with the sunrise pictured above - carpe diem!). But the lack of direct sun was ok, because now we could tour the complex in the pleasant early morning temp before the noon heat hit. The temple was breathtaking. Just thinking about how much work went into all of the small minutia of details is staggering. They built giant towers, but didn’t have cranes or other modern conveniences. Stone was cut from queries over 40 miles away. After several  hours tour of the main temple, we broke for lunch, then continued in a different area of the complex called Angkor Thom. Here we visited a few smaller temples (but equally as crowded), and got to walk around inside them. By then it had become quite hot, so when we had visited our last temple of the day, we were happy to get out of the winter heat. But, we weren’t finished yet! At 4:30, we arrived at the base of a hill, which we were going to climb up so we could see the sun setting over Angkor Wat from a different temple on top of the hill. The catch was that only 300 people are allowed on top of the temple at one time, and first we had to climb the hill just to see if we were amount the lucky 300. Fortunately, we got there before the biggest crowds showed up, but we still had to wait for some people to depart - as we stood in line waiting for about 45 minutes to enter the temple.
it was great to see my two sisters (for a little while)

Fun with perspective!
          For our entertainment during the wait, we got to look on as street justice was dealt out to a European line cutter gang of 4-5 middle aged men. First, they  walked by us and passed through the front of the line as it made a 90 degree turn towards the temple. But, while passing through the line, one of them slipped quietly out of the middle of the group and stayed behind, while the others kept walking another 30 meters away. After a few seconds, the group turned around and walked back to join their friend at the front of the line, as he called out to them as if he had been saving their place all along. At first it looked like the swarthy Euro-tourists were going to get away with it, but not with America on watch. A few moments later, two loud, but completely correct American tourists stormed up and confronted them, which got the attention of others around them; the cutter-gang's cover had been blown! For a few moments they tried to maintain the facade and stubbornly held their ground, but then the people who confronted them began clapping at them, and soon the whole section of the line around them joined in as well. Now with everyone looking at them, they obviously couldn’t stay, and they retreated in shame from the line and back down the hill. Victory went to the two brave tourists who dared to stand up against the line cutter’s trickery. Oh, and the sunset was beautiful too.

Lots of climbing in the heat
            The following day we explored 3 more temples which, thankfully, were well off the beaten tourist track. The first temple was still a bit crowded one, but was still amazing to see, because we could climb up to the very top and get an amazing few of the forest below. The next was much more special -  we had to walk about a mile or so out into the depths of the jungle, but once we reached our destination, it justified the walk. Here, in the middle of this vast jungle, was a massive, but completely empty temple. We had it all to ourselves, because all the rest of the tourists were still crowding around the more famous buildings. We found a comfortable spot in the inner courtyard of the temple where we then sat in complete silence for 15 minutes, listening to the sounds of the jungle and the wind.  I reflected on this giant empty complex, and the amazing complexes of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom. Back in its prime, the population here was around 1,000,000 people, now, it is zero. I thought about what it would be like if an entire city in the US was simply abandoned.

Where does land end and the floating village begin?
A "floating village" on Tonle Sap lake

kayaking through the mangroves
A familiar friend!
At this point, we only had one full day left in Cambodia. Early in the morning, we met our guide and drove around an hour or so to the shores of Tonle Sap Lake. We boarded a small boat, and drove another half an hour to a village built entirely on stilts! It wasn't out in the middle of the lake (which I think would have been much cooler), but was in and among the mangroves. We eventually stopped at a house with Kayaks stored underneath. We spent the next hour out in the lake, going through mangroves, and eventually reached the open waters. It was a great paddle, and we saw and heard many things we wouldn't have if we had been in a larger boat. Upon our return to the house, we were greeted by the people, who served us a great lunch! It was spectacular. It was a fairly simple meal that consisted of fish, rice and assorted greens. AND, we drank water from the exact same model of (easily sustainable) bio-sand water filter that I had helped install in remote Amazon villages in Bolivia several summers ago! The next day, new years eve day, we visited a village on land. This one was around 30 minutes away from our hotel. We were taken there by a guide who was actually from that village. He took us to his family's land, and showed us what it was like living in the traditional village way. He even climbed up a coconut tree for us, and gathered some coconuts for us to drink! After visiting the village, we drove back to our hotel, had lunch, and left on a 2 o’clock flight to Luang Prabang, Laos.

A fish-monger makes a deal
This little village had recently suffered a devastating flood

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Tet 2012

Well its that time of year again: Tet! Or for those of you who may not know what it means, it's the lunar New Year. Tet is a very big deal here in Vietnam, aa it’s their major holiday for the year. One of the better descriptions I’ve heard of it is “it’s like Christmas, New Years and Fourth of July all wrapped into one!” And it really is, they take it very seriously here. Many people had this entire week off to go and visit family out in the countryside (the blog for my countryside adventure will come soon), so Hanoi was much less crowded this week (of course to the untrained eye it would still look like a chaotic mess). Now Tet is well known to most Americans because of the infamous Tet Offensive of '68, but I can assure you that it is now strictly peaceful and non-violent, as long as you count massive amounts of explosives as non-violent...

            On Monday at exactly 12 am, a fireworks show began all around the country. My host family took me to one of the many fireworks locations around the city to watch the show. Now the Vietnamese know how to put on a good ol’ heavy ordnance show! There was a sustained 15 minute long, full-scale bombing operation going on! And with the “relaxed” safety regulations here, it was pretty much ‘anything goes’ in regards to where you could stand. I was almost directly beneath them! Check out the video below!  

Stay tuned for more stories!

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

10,000 and counting!

        Wow. A few days ago it was brought to my attention that Andrew Abroad had received its 10,000th view! I first would just like to thank all of my readers back home and abroad, for without you I would have no one to vent to about my life. I am honored that so many care about what I am doing over here, and are actually interested enough to come back, because it takes more then a few people to get to 10,000. There have been many ups and downs this year, and it’s nice to know people care about those. Lets look at the numbers shall we? My blog has been active for 169 days at the point it reached 10,000, so that means the site averaged about 59 views per day. And that adds up (to 10,000 to be exact). So, once again, I want to thank you loyal readers, and be prepared for more great stories in the coming days and months. 

to my top ten countries by number of views:
Thank You!
Cảm ơn!
Thank you, eh!
Khawp jai!
Ar jun!
Thanks mate!
Gum xia!

Sunday, January 8, 2012

SYA Go Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) - The Video Trailer

Here's a sneak-peak at the major motion picture, SYA Go Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), currently in production at Andrew Sanborn Studios, a division of Andrew Abroad, LLC:

If all goes well, the film will open sometime in February.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Indochine Adventure pt.1 - Hoi An to Phnom Penh

          Beginning several days ago and for most of the next two weeks, I'll be traveling in Southeast Asia with my family during their Christmas and New Years visit.

Claira has fresh lotus seeds at the side of the road in central Vietnam
          On December 24th, after spending four days showing my family my adopted city of Hanoi, I awoke early from my slumber. We had originally planned on taking the train from Ha Noi down to the city of Da Nang on the central coast of Vietnam, but that plan didn’t pan out as the train was full and we would have had to split the five of us into three different rooms. So instead we were decided to fly early that next morning. My parents and sisters were staying at a hotel in Hoan Kiem (near the lake) and I was at my house. The airport taxi got there a little after six, and I said goodbye to my host family for the next two weeks or so. I was now on my way to an Indochinese adventure that would take me first to the ancient trading village of Hoi An in central Vietnam, then briefly to Saigon before flying across the boarder to the still exotic capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh (where I am now). Next, I'll travel by car to central Cambodia and the ruins at Ankor Wat to spend four days visiting the temples and other sites in the area around Siem Reap. Following Cambodia, I'll travel to a third Indochinese country, Laos, where I'll spend five days in Luang Prabang visiting remote villages along the Mekong river, learning about their culture, and will likely be forced to consider the lasting legacy of the bombing carried out by the United States during the war in Vietnam.  Following Laos, it'll be just a quick plane ride back to home-sweet-home in Hanoi.

Hoi An, Vietnam
            But back to the 24th...  After an hour or so in the cab, I arrived at the airport, and met up with the rest of my family, who had driven in just a minute or two ahead of me. We checked in and went to wait for the plane. While in the waiting area, my sister Emily wasn’t feeling too well, so we had to deal with that before boarding, but during the flight she started feeling better, so it must have been something she ate. The flight was very short, only an hour in the air, and it was about noon when we arrived at Da Nang international airport, which used to be one of the main US bases during the Vietnam War. Now the airport is much more peaceful - the only fighting happening now is the cab drivers arguing about stealing customers from each other. After about 45 minutes on the road to Hoi An, it became apparent that the driver had no idea where he was going, as first he slowed the cab before eventually calling someone on his phone. Shortly after that, a woman drove up, walked over, and asked us which hotel we were staying at - then launching into a marketing campaign for us to visit her clothing store in Hoi An. After about 5 minutes of sales talk, she finally led us to the hotel.

Christmas dinner treats
            The hotel was located right in the town, an easy 5 minute walk from the tourist infested market. It was Christmas eve, and the town was bursting at the seams with tourists here for the holidays. Most were Australian, but there were other nationalities present as well. After a walk about that afternoon in the town, famous for its tailors, we prepared for Christmas eve dinner at the hotel. There was a big celebration at the hotel, with music and performances and a massive buffet with everything under the sun. After enjoying our Christmas eve banquet, we retired to the rooms, and fell asleep.

Emily visits the market in Hoi An
            This year’s Christmas was anything but traditional for us. Usually, we have big family gatherings either in Santa Barbara or in Salt Lake City, but this year, since we were in Vietnam, that kinda limited our tree options as well as the presents. I only received a few smaller presents (the ones my mom could fit in her bag) because shipping things is super expensive from the USA (but all that said, my parents paying the school tuition for me to spend a year abroad is one huge Christmas present!). For the rest of the morning, my sister Emily worked on her applications for Cate and Thacher schools, and my mom and Claira and I went out for a walk around the town. It was a bit chilly as it had been raining off and on throughout the morning so we brought umbrellas and jackets with us on the walk. Of course the weather was nothing like New York or Boston, but for me, after four months in the tropics, it was a bit on the chilly side. We saw some of the sites around Hoi An, including the famous Hoi An bridge (I don’t know if it’s actually famous, but it was really pretty), the town market, where Mom and Claira got their nails painted, and the all the boats parked at the dock - where were asked numerous times if we wanted to take a boat ride. As I already mentioned, Hoi An is famous for its tailors and custom made clothing, and my mom and Emily were happy to have some dresses and skirts made to order. We had Christmas dinner that night at a restaurant near our hotel. While we were eating, a group of people who were in their late 20s walked it, and they were dressed in the most ridiculous suits any of us had ever seen! One had a floral suit with giant shoulder pads, matching pants, and a lime green shirt - another had a flowing bright green suit with coat tails and a hat - and still another had one half of the suit in plaid, and the other half in a totally different fabric. After taking a picture and talking to one of them, we found out that they only cost 60 USD, which is very cheap for any kind of suit.

Hoi An, well known for its fine tailoring?

This little piggy goes to market...
            The next day, we boarded a plane very early bound for Saigon. It was only about an hour or so down the coast. We originally thought that we would have a two-hour layover, but that turned out to be false. Right before boarding, there was an announcement saying that the flight would be delayed due to a mechanical problem. A few minutes later we saw being towed by the gate to the maintenance area. That’s never good. So it turns out we have to wait another 3 and a half hours, and get on an entirely different airplane, and we ended up missing our tour covering the recent history of the Khmer Rouge and the atrocities they committed against the Cambodian people, including a visit to the Killing Fields. We all were disappointed, but we still got to hear our guide’s amazing story of survival against all odds on the ride from the airport.

            He was only 3 years old when the Khmer Rouge invaded Phnom Penh. After his family was chased out of the city with the 3 million other residents, he was separated from his parents and family. The soldiers told the citizens of Phnom Penh that they had to leave immediately, and that the US was going to begin bombing any minute, which was entirely false, and they were driven into the countryside, where they were put to work on prison-like farms. After the evacuation was complete, the population of the city fell from 3,000,000 to under 100 individuals. Our guide was too young to work for the first two years of the Khmer Rouge, but when he turned 6, he was put to work in the fields. The ultimate goal of the Khmer Rouge was to turn Cambodia into an agrarian utopia, in order to do that, they had to kill every educated person in the country, leaving only the poor, uneducated peasants, who could be more easily manipulated. Every doctor, lawyer, teacher, office worker, was summerly killed. Even people who simply wore glasses were killed, as it was reasoned that if they wore glasses, they must be educated. The Khmer Rouge targeted young, poor farmers to be their soldiers, anywhere from ages 10-18. They would brainwash the children, and tell them that they no longer had a family, and that everyone was their brothers and sisters. They were told to report parents if they did anything wrong, like own a book. Eventually though, after just over 3 years, the Khmer Rouge were defeated by the Vietnamese, and the people could return to the city. Our guide was reunited with his mother and most of his siblings; he never did find his father or one of his brothers. They were most likely killed by the soldiers. So after 3 years of Khmer Rouge rule, they were toppled from power, but there was a civil war that didn’t end until 1998. During the height of power of the Khmer Rouge, from 1975 to 1979, about one in five Cambodians, 1.5 million people, were killed by them.

            I hate to end this episode with that sad story, but that's where I am right now - sitting in a hotel in Phnom Penh thinking about the life of the man I just met...  Next up, it's on to the ancient Khmer civilization and the massive temple complex they built at Ankor.

Andrew and the Communists - Baby, I'm Back!!

Our last gathering of the 1st semester (I'm sad to have to say goodbye to half my classmates)

          Well, the lockout appears to be over! After more than a few tense weeks over here at Andrew Abroad’s Ha Noi bureau office, we are happy to report that the negotiations between the writers and the owner have been resolved. The communist Vietnamese government has once again approved my access to the world at large (or at least temporarily failed to deny my access!).

Uncle Aaron and May arrive for a visit from Qatar
           So, there's a lot to catch up on....  At the beginning of the month of December, I went south with my SYA classmates to visit Saigon and the Mekong delta; then, immediately upon our return, we went into finals mode - so that next week was packed with studying and tests. The following week (this week), my family came to town and we had to say goodbye to the semester students. This semester has gone by so fast, it still seems like I only left a week or two ago! Also in town for the week was my godfather, Aaron, and his girlfriend May. He was visiting from his current home in Qatar and I haven’t seen him in three years, so it was great that he was here.  Of course, I will go into all of this in greater detail in the next few posts, as this was but a preview of things to look forward to. Since the Saigon posts are longer and still being reclaimed from the blogosphere void (or I may have to rewrite them...), I will cover this current week now, so you will have something good to read while you wait.

My three dads - godfather, host, real
            Monday was the last day of classes for us this semester. It should have been a joyous occasion, but we were taking finals that day, so as you can imagine that can be quite the mood killer. But after they were over, it felt like a massive load had been taken off my shoulders, and it was finally winter break. After finishing on Monday, it was a mixture of excitement and sadness. I was excited because my family was arriving in Ha Noi the next day! But I was also sad because later that week I would have to return to the airport to say goodbye to many of the great friends I had made over the course of the semester. On Tuesday, we had our final class trip to a village near Hanoi that specializes in silk. While there, many of us finished our holiday shopping. After, it was almost time to see my dad and sister, who were in the air on their final flight to Hanoi. I went to the Hoan Kiem district with some friends and got some lunch. At around 2 or so, I drove to my dad's hotel, and reunited after nearly 4 months. The last time that I saw him was at the airport in San Francisco, of course I had seen my family many times on Skype though. It was great to finally be with at least some of my family (my mom and other sister were going to arrive that night). After a few hours of catching up, I took my dad and sister to my host parents house in Ha Noi, and even though we have traveled to many busy cities and other crazy places in the world, the traffic here still surprised them. But then again, seeing a motorcycle run a red light at speed across 6 perpendicular lanes of busy traffic would hopefully surprise anyone (a common occurrence here - made even more exciting when truck or bus goes with them) . The dinner that night was much more casual than the formal dinner we had planned at my house for Wednesday night, when my two families would officially meet for the first time, because, as I said, only two of my family were there on Tuesday. For the main course, we had Phô, the go-to dish for all occasions in Vietnam. My host mom cooked it and my dad and sister said it was absolutely delicious. After some great conversation around the table for an hour or so after dinner, and some video sharing (my dad brought my host parents some DVDs of me when I was a cute little kid), I walked my dad and sister out and got a cab for them and they drove back to their hotel in Hoan Kiem. About an hour later, I got my own cab and drove up to the airport to meet my mom and other sister Emily. Their flight arrived at about 10:30, so as you can imagine there was hardly any traffic on the way up to the airport. As we were driving along, we were able to go pretty fast through the empty roads north of Ha Noi. At one point, I realized that this was the fastest that I had moved in a car in over 4 months, then I looked at the speedometer and realized that we were only going 80 K/h (50 m/h). I felt like I was going so much faster, but then again the mind starts to play tricks on you when you’ve been in Vietnam as long as I have…

My family was hosted to a wonderful dinner by my Vietnamese family
            After a bit of a wait in the arrivals hall at the Ha Noi airport, the Japan Airlines flight finally arrived. I saw my mom and sister waiting for their bags at the baggage claim, but they couldn’t see me through the doorway. Then, they walked through the door and out into the massive sea of people waiting for other passengers. I tried to get their attention but they couldn’t see me still. Then, while they were turned around talking to the hotel driver, I snuck up on them and surprised them! They were really happy to see me (I hope!). A car from the hotel then took us into the city. Now this next part that I’m about to tell you might get me in trouble with officials, so don’t be surprised if my blog access is blocked again. When we were entering central Ha Noi, we drove by 4 stopped motorcycles on the side of the road, as we passed them, I saw that there were eight policemen with them, and that they all had machine guns out and ready. Then, after we passed them, the motorcycles started up and flew by us, two police on each bike. They passed us and then at the next intersection swerved in four different directions, stopped abruptly, and cut off a motorbike rider. They jumped off their bikes and grabbed the rider throwing him to the ground and pointing the guns in his face. At this point a building blocked my view and I couldn’t see what happened next, but whatever happened, it probably didn’t end well for the rider.

My host Dad and Mom and SYA Vietnam Director Thay Vuong
            The next day, I woke up early and headed over to my family's hotel. I was able to spend the morning with them, but at noon I had to head over to school for a wrap-up and reception for visiting families. After breakfast we went to the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, but to our disappointment, he wasn’t there. Then, while my parents went to lunch, I headed over to the school with my sister Emily. After the wrap-up, my parents arrived at the school. They got to look around and meet some of the students. Also, Emily is applying to Thacher and Cate schools, so she was able to talk to Nan, a student on the trip, who goes to Thacher. After the reception we all went to the hotel and then, my mom and I set out to find my godfather Uncle Aaron. We knew what hotel he and his girlfriend were staying at but we didn’t have a phone number for him and he didn’t have a computer. To add to this confusion, the hotel didn’t have a phone number either. Luckily, he was there when we showed up, he and his girlfriend May had just returned from Ha Long bay half an hour before. They are currently teachers in Doha, Qatar. But at the end of the school year they are moving to Yokohama, Japan. I haven’t seen him since winter break in 8th grade, three years ago.  I invited them to my host family’s house that night for dinner. So we then met up with my dad and two sisters and got a cab to drive us to my house, about 15 minutes away with minimal traffic, but with traffic it can take up to an hour. There was light traffic so the drive wasn’t long. At the dinner we had the 5 of us, plus Aaron and his girlfriend, and also joining us was the director of my school, Thay Vuong. And of course my 3 host family members, my mom, dad, and sixteen-year-old sister, Linh. Dinner was outstanding, and took a lot of preparation! Both my Aunt and our household maid were busy in the kitchen helping my mom cook the incredible meal, and everything turned out great. We had all sorts of different Vietnamese dishes: different meats, shrimp, bamboo, assorted greens from our rooftop garden, soups and much more. Just as dinner was being served, the doorbell rang, and it was the house band! This was a total surprise. My host dad had contacted some of the best musicians in Vietnam for playing a traditional instrument (a 2 stringed bango-guitar thing) to play and sing traditional songs for us that night. And it just so happened that they were our next door neighbors, coincidence? I think not.

I'll miss you guys  :(


Monday, January 2, 2012

Emily v. Ha Noi Traffic

          For some reason (maybe because I live in a socialist country??), I have not been able to access/upload to this blog for the past month in Hanoi.  I am now traveling with my family on christmas break and here in Hoi An, in central Vietnam, everything seems to be working fine. I have lots to catch you up on..., but meanwhile, you can enjoy a video that I made with my sister Emily just after she arrived in Hanoi several days ago:

          I'll try to get more up soon, but I'll be traveling in Cambodia and Laos for the next few weeks, so most things will have to wait until I get things working in Hanoi again when I get back in early January.