Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Updates on Flickr

Got a big update of shots onto flickr yesterday, here are the links:


Monday, April 28, 2008

The End - Hanoi

And so, my group trip with Intrepid has come to a close today. While I have never been more sure that group trips are not right for me, I have to say that it did provide me with a great overview of the region and a lot of memorable experiences. Even though it was not exactly what I was hoping for, it was something else that I will value just as much. That being said, this photo is long overdue.

That is the group, or rather the group minus Paul and our group leader, Serey, who took this shot with my camera. This was the group that I spent two weeks in Cambodia with. After crossing into Vietnam we lost 6, then gained 6 new group members...

This picture is funny. I was off somewhere else snapping shots of something 50m or so down the road when I was called over for a group shot. It was only after this picture was taken that I realized there was a blue helmet theme...oh well. It was taken during a pit stop on our motobike tour of the Hue countryside--which was a LOT of fun.

All in all, it was a great trip with a great bunch of people. I took a lot of great pictures that I'm very happy with and I have a week left in Hanoi/Bangkok on my own to work on my last project in Asia-more on that in a week...

To speak a bit on what I have been up to this past week...

Street Games - Nha Trang, Vietnam

After Nha Trang, where we were for a day, we traveled to Hoi An, the so called "Ancient City." It should probably be called the "Garment City" as there are endless amounts of tailor, fabric and shoe shops where you can have whatever you like made just to your measurements in a matter of 1 or 2 days. Impressive, but pretty boring for me as I had no interest in a cheap tux or new pair of loafers.

Central Market - Hoi An, Vietnam

Thankfully, there was a good amount of alternative activity, including a great countryside bike ride and an afternoon at the beach (I finally caved and bought some swim trunks).

Friendly Cow - Hoi An, Vietnam

Last Harvest - Hoi An, Vietnam

After Hoi An we moved on to Hue where we took an AWESOME motobike ride through the city and parts of the surrounding countryside. Along the way, we stopped at a 400 year old covered bridge near a local market to take in the surroundings. On the bridge there was a fortune teller who dazzled all the ladies with predictions of good men, marriage and children. 

Fortune Teller - Hue, Vietnam

After a couple days in Hue, we travelled by overnight train to our final city, Hanoi. The small streets of the old city teem with life. Scooters and people are everywhere, vendors and restaurants compete for business--it can be a bit much to take it at once, but a welcome change from the subdued, civilized chaos that was Saigon.

Old Town Vendor - Hanoi, Vietnam

After a night in Hanoi, we cast off on a cruise around Halong Bay--which was absolutely stunning and more than worthy of "Wonder of the World" designation. Along the way we stopped off at one of the bigger caves within the 366 islands that make up Cat Ba National Park.

Caves - Halong Bay, Vietnam

Imperial Junk - Halong Bay, Vietnam

After our cruise, we hiked up a steep trail through dense jungle to the summit of a 300m peak, home to the forest service lookout tower. When we reached the top, the 5 first of us eagerly started up the staircase of the tower. That enthusiasm was quickly replaced by terror. The tower, while solid and stable, was covered in rust. The whole time it felt as if I was climbing a giant rusted tree, on the top of a very high, very remote, mountain. 

It was a battle with my mind all the way to the top and once we reached the platform, it didn't get any easier: the top platform consisted of planks of wood laying, un-fastened, across the metal skeleton of the structure. It was scary as hell for the first 5 minutes I was up there, then I got used to it...just in time to go down. Every corner, like the one below, made your eyes pop out of your head and your stomach churn a little.

Long Way Down - Cat Ba Island, Vietnam

When we finally made it to the bottom, a wave of relief watched over me, the adrenaline subsided and was replaced by a immense feeling of accomplishment and happiness--it was worth the mental battle.

"Solid As A Rock" - Cat Ba Island, Vietnam

After all that and a night on the island, we spent this morning kayaking around the islands of Halong Bay(pics coming soon) before it was back to Hanoi for our last night of the trip. 

Currently, my uploader program for Flickr is giving me all kinds of trouble so I'll have to wait to post the rest of my photos from the past couple weeks--just know that there are many, many more on the way soon.

Tomorrow, its out of the hotels and back to the hostels for 2 nights in Hanoi before heading back to Bangkok and then to Spain and Morocco!

Stay Tuned.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Saigon --> Nha Trang

26 hours after we left Saigon, we arrived at our hotel in Nha Trang. 
While everyone was asleep, a typhoon apparently tore up part of the track ahead of our train, stranding us somewhere in no-mans-land, Vietnam. We sat in the train, stationary, for around 8 hours before finally getting picked up by a bus from Nha Trang that our leader had called for us. After that, it was another 3 hour ride to the city which, as it turns out, is just another tourist beach town. Yay.

I really hope we go somewhere other than the beach. Seeing as how I don't currently own any form of bathing suit and I am not eager to leave my camera, and whatever else I might be carrying with me, unattended on a beach crawling with a bunch of randos, these beaches have little to nothing to offer me. 

Today as I was writing this, one of the 6 new group members asked me if I was doing work. I stopped to think about it for a second, then I realized that yes, yes I am doing work. I am not on vacation, I am not here to go swimming, I don't want to be swimming. I want to be taking photos, and so far this leg of the trip has been coming up slightly short of my personal goals.

Saigon was less than inspiring, to say the least. I rarely ventured more than 10 minutes from the hotel. It was due in part that I had a lot of planning to catch up on, but mostly because of the general atmosphere of the city. It just wasn't inviting or welcoming, it was just there. Everyone seemed like they had somewhere to go, something to do. There was an overwhelming aura of takin-care-of-business surrounding every person who flew by on a scooter or marched down the sidewalk; and there were a lot of those people.

There were, of course, those who decided to take some time to themselves amidst the chaos:

It was a very western city. Lots of English, lots of American and western culture infused into the city. Huge buildings were going up everywhere. I realized that the one thing that bothers me more than America, is countries that try to be like America. 

Now don't get me wrong, America is fine and I am happy to live there, but it is what it is. America is America, no need for Vietnam or anywhere else in the world to attempt an emulation. I think there is something to be said for staying true to your cultural roots, to what YOUR country is, not what you think the world standard wants it to be.

For example, I am sitting now listening to Celine Dion belt out MY HEART WILL GO ON for the third time in 14 hours; keep in mind I was sleeping for 9 or 10 of them. Not only that, but the girl at reception is singing right along with Ms. Dion, similarly to our group leader at dinner last night. 

Am I in Vietnam or am I back in Ms. Thompson's class, back in 5th grade? 

Please, let there be something real around the corner. I am tired of walking down the street and seeing "Italian, French, Indian, Western, Espanol" all with a tiny "and Vietnamese" stuffed underneath. 

Hopefully I'll be able to break away from the beach area and have some more shots to post from my walk this afternoon. 
UPDATE (2:49PM): Celine's heart is going on for the 4th time as I type this....

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Good Morning Vietnam!

So after a couple days in Saigon, here are some observations:
- It is a very clean city, much cleaner than I expected and MUCH MUCH MUCH cleaner than Phnom Pehn in Cambodia--like night and day.

- A little more laid back. Nobody harassing you to buy stuff as soon as you step off the bus.

- NO TUK-TUKS!! what?!

- SCOOTERS EVERYWHERE. I think there is probably a scooter for every person in the city.

- Effects of Vietnam War on people and the land remain present, slightly awkward to be an American.


Today we went to the Cu Chi tunnels about 30 miles outside the city. They were tunnels used by militias in the countryside to defend against American G.I.'s looking to secure the land surrounding Saigon. It was pretty incredible to see.

They had a shooting range there with a variety of exotic fully automatic weapons, it was too much to pass up. How often do you get a chance to shoot an AK-47? In Vietnam. It was something, let me tell you.

There are a bunch of new photos on flickr, check em out!

Friday, April 11, 2008

The Real Sihanoukville

Just when I started to lose hope in breaking free from the “beach holiday” scene, I decided to go for a little walk into a different part of the city--I knew there had to be more here that I wasn’t seeing.

I walked into town and made a right, then ventured off the main road into a sprawling dirt road community. I walked all of 50 feet before bumping into my first group of kids eager to practice their English with the strange westerner who had wandered into their neighborhood. They didn’t want money, only to talk, and even requested that I take their picture. I obliged and then showed it to them on the LCD screen; they were delighted.

Eventually, after countless twists, turns, hellos and goodbyes, I came to the end of the tiny road and realized that I was not where I wanted to be. I wasn’t worried, there were plenty of people around to point me in the right direction, but they all spoke Khmer. I set to work trying to communicate, mostly using the kids as translators for the adults, and eventually got pointed in the right direction. I made it all the way back to the first group of kids I met, who proceeded to draw me a map in the sand of how I was to get to the top of Sihanoukville Mountain, and the Buddhist Wat that sat atop it.

It was a long walk to the top of the mountain, and it was hot. After 30 minutes or so, I made it to the top and wandered into a shady little gathering of huts and Buddhist sculptures. I stayed there for a bit, enjoying the shade and breeze, before moving on down the road to the temple.

On the stairs leading up to the temple, I came across a small group of very friendly children. They spotted me and came running, yelling as they descended the stairs.

“Hello Photo! Hello Photo! Photo! Photo! Hello!”

Something along those lines. The surrounded me, introducing themselves one by one before asking me to take some pictures of them. Again, nothing to sell, no demands for “1 dolla,” nothing at all. They were genuinely interested in playing with me and posing for photos.

I couldn’t stop smiling.

They were so happy, so real, so untouched by the tourism of the rest of the city. They were the real Sihanoukville I had been searching for since arriving here 2 days ago. I spent almost an hour with them, taking pictures, laughing, playing. They spoke very little English so I had to make an effort to communicate without words, it was interaction at a most primal level. I connected with them and they with me, no words needed.

Eventually their parents called them back home for dinner and I headed up the stairs to the temple, waving goodbye to the group. When I made it to the top of the stairs, a pair of young monks greeted me. Smiles across their faces, they took my hand and pulled me towards one of the buildings in the complex. I soon realized that the building was full of other monks, all eating dinner. I motioned for my guides to leave me behind; I didn’t want to intrude. Ignoring my reluctance, they continued to laugh and smile, tugging on my arm—I removed my shoes and followed them inside.

I ate dinner with an entire community of Buddhist monks.

During the meal, one of the younger monks, probably around my age, approached me and began to explain, in English, what was going on. He told me that it wasn’t often that a westerner walked up from the city to visit them and that when someone did come, especially during meal times, they made an effort to be as hospitable as possible.

Today I discovered a part of the real Sihanoukville. I took a step off the beaten path and was rewarded with an experience I will never forget.

Photos from my walk today can be found in the new Sihanoukville, Cambodia set on Flickr.


Thursday, April 10, 2008

Cambodia: Part 2

When you are in the moment, living a life changing experience, you often forget to appreciate the magnitude of it. Fortunately, this blog had given me a rare opportunity to reflect on my daily experiences while I am still living them. Cambodia had been an incredible experience for me--a glimpse into a culture unlike any I have ever seen.

All is not sunshine and roses though. The two phrases that I will take with me from this country are evidence of the dichotomy that exists here. Those phrases are: "1 dolla" and "hello!"

One of the first things our guide said to us in the hotel in Bangkok, was that the Cambodian people were more than happy to share their culture with tourists...for 5 dolla. The tourist attractions are rife with children asking for money and selling's cute at first but soon begins to wear on the nerves. The children were clearly told to never accept NO for an answer.

Even when we went to visit a floating village out in the largest lake in Cambodia, kids in boats would pull up along side our boat and BOARD it trying to sell drinks and bananas. It was really something, I have to say.

We are currently in Sihanoukville, a little beach community just south west of Phnom Pehn(the capital city, where we will be returning in 2 days). This city, or at least the areas of it nearest to the coastline are very VERY much a beach destination for all sorts of westerners. Resort is too strong a word, but lets just say that there is probably more tourists here than locals, which is less than encouraging for my work but atleast I get to enjoy a little break from the action.

I have managed to post a healthy amount of photos in both the Bangkok set and the new Cambodia set (which will later get sorted according to city).

They can be found at the following links:

BANGKOK (just a few new ones at the end)

Comment if you feel so inclined, it's always nice to hear what you guys think.

Coming Attractions: Entering Vietnam on April 14

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Cambodia: Part 1

A few days ago we crossed the border, cleared immigration and entered the Kingdom of Cambodia: it was like traveling back in time 80 years. Suddenly the roads were unpaved and bumpy. Clouds of dust from the wheels of cares ahead obscured my view out of the front windshield. We bounced along for a couple hours, stopped to stretch and drink, then continued on for another two hours before reaching our destination: Siem Reap.

I cannot explain in words what goes through your mind when you first witness a way of life so far removed from your own that you feel as though you have stepped into a movie; that it can't possibly be real, but it is. Naked children swimming in the muddy water along the sides of the dirt road, houses on stilts to beat floods, dried rice patty fields, strange cobbled together vehicles bouncing along the road--it was simply staggering.

When we arrived in the city center at our guest house, it was late in the evening and we all decided to go out for dinner together--which was quite tasty. We hit the sack early that night in preparation for the next day, yesterday--we would be getting up at 5am in order to get to Angkor Wat in time for the sunrise. I was afraid I might have to do this on my own, I wanted to get a few photos, but the rest of the group had the same idea and eagerly suggested it before I could even open my mouth. Great bunch, my group.

We got to the temple before sunrise. So did about 100 other folks looking for the same experience. Even in the dark, this temple was one of the most impressive structures I had ever seen. As the sun rose and the sky began to shift into the soft hues of an Angkor sunrise, I smiled as I heard the shutters snapping away around me. I didn't care if I was there with a ton of other people, or that I might be taking the same shot as the guy next to me. We had all come there to share in the same moment, and that was exactly what happened. It really was something special and I hope that all of you guys can maybe have that same opportunity.

After the sunrise we moved into the temple and began exploring. About 2.5 hours later, I had had my, and my memory card's, fill of the massive temple complex and headed back out to meet up with the rest of the group, who were waiting for me at one of the local restaurants. Angkor Wat is a testament to human achievement and capability. The shear size of the complex and the amount of detail contained within it are something that is lost on words.

I am expecting a very important phone call in a few minutes from a very special girl so I must run, but I will be writing more and hopefully posting photos ASAP.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Hello Bangkok!

Bangkok is a city unlike any I have ever experienced or even imagined. The heat, the people, the air pollution, the endless cars and scooters and buses, the markets, the presence of American culture(however faint), the tangled power lines, the vendors and the animals--all things that have jumped out at me since being here.
First off, I have never been so hot in my entire life.

The World Meteorological Organisation says:
Bangkok, Thailand is the world's hottest city. Other cities like Rio may reach higher temperatures but Bangkok rarely cools down, tending to remain largely above 30 deg C from day to night, summer to winter.
Also, according to almost everything I have read, April is the hottest month to be here...lucky me right? I managed to get over the heat and get out for a walk this afternoon after getting into the coolest clothing I had: rolled up jeans and white T. It wasn't ideal, but it worked.

In addition to being the hottest city on Earth, it is also probably one of the most congested and polluted. The air is thick with car exhaust. Walking down the sidewalk feels as though you are walking through an endless cloud of exhaust. Add a little REAL humidity and you begin to feel as though it is about 10-15 degrees hotter than it actually is (93 degrees). 

The air is marginally better once you get off main streets but still, very bad. I now understand why so many Asians where face masks over their nose and mouth; they aren't paranoid, they are just smart. 

As mentioned before, the traffic here is intense. There are too many cars for the streets to hold and the lights are too long. Add that up and it spells one thing: congestion. It can take hours to move a mile during the peak rush hours of the day. 

Crossing the street is like playing dodge ball, with cars.

Even in the markets, men and women on scooters weave their way through the pedestrian walkways that are barely big enough for 2 people, let alone a scooter AND a person. Just today I witnessed a small child begin to wander into the path of an oncoming scooter only to have his head grabbed by his father--pulled back to safety just in time. The child reached for his mother, crying. As scary as the scene was, I got the feeling that it was an everyday thing; just part of growing up in Bangkok.

I walked over to Prakanong Market today. I had scene the entrance streets from the bus on my way in from the airport and decided it was worth further investigation. It was huge, street after street, alleys and passageways winding around the interior of some of Bangkok's busiest blocks. Fake Rolex watches, cell phones, insane stereo systems with more buttons and knobs than I had ever seen, clothing, vegetables, sweets, meat, LIVE fish, dead fish: all for sale. It was something; to walk along these stalls, browsing with the locals. All of this so new and interesting to me, to them: everyday activities.

Today I was introduced to a world I had never known before. A world I had only heard about from friends, from movies and TV. Every expectation and idea I had about what it was be like to actually BE HERE was shattered within 5 minutes of getting on that bus at the airport.

I have seen a tiny part of an enormous city. A tiny part of the world. 

My experiences have just begun.