Friday, August 9, 2013


After getting off our flight from Vietnam we were all looking forward to seeing our new digs in Cambodia, and getting some much needed sleep. After a 15 minute drive from the airport we pulled into a very non-descript driveway that would be our home for the next 4 nights. The lobby looked like a beautiful British colonial house. We had finally arrived at Journey's Within Boutique Hotel. We had used Journeys Within to plan our trip through SE Asia and had heard and read so many wonderful reviews about their boutique hotel that we were so excited to of finally arrived. The owner's of the hotel and tour company have truly given back to the community with the creation of several community programs. They have opened up two schools, they fund water Wells for the the villages, and provide a scholarship program to the children of Cambodia, and Laos. Journeys Within is changing lives of the local people and we were honored to help be a part.

The first night we were in Siem Reap we were treated to a traditional Khmer Dance and dinner.

"Angkor Wat is the largest religious temple complex in the world. The temple was built by King Suryavarman ll in the early 12th century. It was built as his state temple and eventual mausoleum."

This place was enormous! It is completely surrounded by a moat, followed by a sandstone wall with multiple entrances ( one for the king and queen, two for the nobility. and two more for the unwashed masses). Once inside the interior wall the temple itself is still a few hundred yards away. Our guide, Sina led us around, providing enough information to keep in interested but not overwhelmed and took us to the best picture taking spots. Sina was a lovely gentleman. He spoke excellent english and had us laughing more time than not at some of his stories. He spent is early years working at a labor camp with his Mother. His Dad was executed  by the Khmer Rouge  because he was educated (more on this later). The kids had fun climbing on the rocks and narrow steps throughout the complex. It was amazing to think that this massive complex was all engineered by hand and just how long it has survived. Especially with major damage in the mid 1970's from a war. I think we were all quite awestruck.

This next complex was Angkor Thom. It was the last and most enduring capital city of the Khmer empire, built in the late 12th century by King Jayavarman Vll. Like Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom is massive in size covering an area of over 9km2. It is again completely surrounded by man-made moat, and giant sandstone wall. Within the wall surrounding this ancient Khmer city, there are several structures and multiple temples, at the exact center of which is the Bayon Temple. The Bayon Temple is one of the most recognizable in due to the enormous stone faces found on every corner of the temple.

Lindsey lightening an incense with a Cambodian lady. I think the lady said a small prayer for our family, or else Lindsey said a small prayer for the Cambodian lady. Either way, good karma was being spread. 

We also explored neighboring temples called Phimeanakas, Terrace of the Elephants, and Banteay Srei.

I love this photo, it reminds us of an old album cover.

This temple is Ta Prohm, which is one of the most well known due to it's role in some of the filming of the Tomb Raider. We saw no Lara Croft, but Lindsey, Skyler and Owen filled in with plenty of climbing and jumping on the rubble. Ta Prohm was built in the late 12th century as a Buddhist monastery and university. It was recognized by UNESCO as a world heritage site in 1992 and has become one of the most famous and visited temples in Siem Reap due to the trees growing in, around, and literally on the temple walls. As a result of these trees, the temple has received limited restoration, as removing the trees will cause the temple to crumble.

After 2 full days of visiting temples we were then taken on a Village tour. Our guide for the village was Sothy. His job was to take us to his village to meet some of his family and to see how they live. This  was an emotional day for all of us, especially me. I cannot hold in emotion. Call it a weakness, call it a strength, but I call it annoying. Thank God for sunglasses. The most emotional part of the trip for me came as we were driving down this dusty, dirt road. I was asking Sothy about the school in his village and he told us that not many kids attended school in his village when he was younger. Not because they did not have a school or couldn't find teachers- rather, because all the previous teachers had been tracked down and murdered by the Khmer Rouge regime. 

What he is referring to took place between 1976 and 1979 (the genocide part, the violence and the fighting lasted many, many more years) when a communist party called the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, drove everyone out of the cities and into country labor camps to work the land basically as slaves.They executed almost all the teachers (95%) and doctors (75%), in fact anyone linked with an education. Even if you wore glasses, you were killed. Anyone linked with law enforcement, the previous government, disables people and minorities were all killed.  Many times entire families would be killed. The only way to survive would be to pretend you were a rice farmer, but no matter your chances were slim. Children were taken from their parents, trained as soldiers and took part in torture and execution. By the end of the reign approx. 2 million Cambodians had died. Did I mention that happened in the 70's? While I was happily playing with my dolls, a quarter of the population of an entire nation was being wiped out by monsters. The world at first mostly denied it was happening, then when it could no longer be denied it was mostly ignored. 
As we started walking to his village we quickly noticed all the happy smiling children. These beautiful babies were half naked, playing with sticks in the dirt. They would stare at us as we walked by, and sometimes run over to greet us and practice what little English they knew.  The families live in open aired wood structures with thatched roofs. People sleep on wood slats or hammocks. There is no electricity, no plumbing, and unfiltered well water to drink. Rice farming is the primary business-rice is grown, it is processed (Sothy owns the only machine in the village and allows others to use it) made into rice wine, rice noodles and other rice products. Sothy's mother lives with him and she makes rice noodles every afternoon, and sells them on the side of the street every morning to help support the family. The people work all day at whatever they can. Livestock are  everywhere and live under the wood structures. They still use oxcarts to plow the land. It is the same way they have been living for hundreds of years, if not thousands. 

A bridge to Sothy's house

A few Stats about the country:   *  80% have no electricity
                                                   *  The child mortality rate is 10%
                                                   *  75% get dysentery every year
                                                   *  40% of children have stunted growth due to malnutrition

With the exception of a few motorbikes in the village, there are few technological advances reminiscent of the modern world. Sothy's family has been sharing a bike for transportation his whole life up until last week. He told us that he took out a $500 loan from the bank to buy his first motorbike. In order to take out a loan the bank requires you to hand over the deed to your property. A big risk just for a small loan. Sothy has a year to pay back his loan or else the bank takes over his land. The average salary for Cambodia is $950 a year, so paying back a $500 loan on such a salary is nearly impossible. He will have to work many extra jobs. He is very nervous. As we heard this story, it made us once again realize how lucky and fortunate we are, in more ways than one.  

Sothy's House

The wooden slat bed where the kids all slept. 

This little boy was too nervous to come and get a toy from us. I don't know if he has ever seen folks with such fair skin and blonde hair before. I could imagine we looked like aliens to him.

The neighbor's house

Skyler showing the kids how to use the jump ropes that we passed out the children.

When in Rome.......

Skyler eating the cricket. It tasted just as you would imagine. Crunchy on the outside and slimy and gooey on the inside. One was enough for our taste buds. I would of much preferred mine dipped in kethcup, but the lady on the side on the road was not offering any condiments. 

ATV rides through the countryside of Cambodia.
This trip was the most eye-opening, jaw dropping, and humbling experience of my life. It was fun, exciting, heart-warming and heart-breaking all rolled up into one. At times we all felt elated (meeting all the beautiful and wonderful people), exhausted (climbing temples in 100 degree heat) and humbled at times by the locals generosity and kindness towards us Westerners. Even though we all had the adventure together, I think that each of us has taken something different from the experience and learned from it. Lindsey, for example came home and decided to write her speech on the Vietnam War and has done all the research herself, and has a genuine interest in the topic. Owen has a new passion in elephants, and Skyler now understands what poverty looks like. And as a result she has a even deeper compassion for children who have less. Brad and I are already thinking and talking about what our next trip may look like, and hoping to incorporate some family volunteer time in another part of the world. Traveling really  opens up the mind and soul, and helps to gain a more complete perspective of how the world works. We saw all this happening with our kids and ourselves on this journey. My kids all saw new things, smelled new odors, tasted new foods, heard new noises, and felt new emotions on this trip. The world is like a very large puzzle, and SE Asia is just one small piece.  We look forward to filling in the rest of the pieces.

Thursday, August 1, 2013


Two things about Vietnam:

1) If it moves and doesn't talk they will eat it

2) There is nothing that cannot be delivered on the back of a 125 cc Honda Motorbike


The traffic in Hanoi was intense. I never knew that there could be so many motorbikes in one city. We quickly learned that traffic lights, crosswalks, and stop signs are just  suggestions to the Vietnamese. People drive pretty much wherever they want, there are no road rules. They would honk their horns when they approached an intersection to let the other 100 + motorbikes know they were coming. When someone wants to make a left hand turn they would just hug the curb turning left into the oncoming traffic. It was insane, they would drive the wrong way on a roundabout.  But the best part was there were no angry words yelled at each, no finger gestures, no tempers. It was controlled chaos.  Crossing the streets was just like the old video game Frogger. Nobody stops to let you cross. You just walk out into the traffic and all the motorbikes keep going, they just drive around you. Keep in mind there are no lanes so you might have 10 motorbikes spread out on the street and they are all heading your way. And behind those 10 are another 10, and it just keep going. If you wait for traffic to clear, you would wait all day. It was scary at first, I mean really scary. Willingly walking out into oncoming traffic defies everything we ever learned. The kids loved it, they thought it was awesome. I am not afraid to admit that a few times when I was by myself, I would use a walking local as a blocker  to get across the hectic streets. I would stealthily walk as close to him/her as possible and just catch a ride on their shoulder.

Both of these shots were taken from the front steps of our hotel. Scenes like this were all over Hanoi and Bangkok. This is how the locals prepared their food everyday.  Pretty sure the FDA would not of approved of the way these ladies were handling their meat. This is one of the reasons we were advised not to eat any of the street food. We were told that our western stomachs would not of been able to handle the extra bacteria that some of these meats may of offered. We are happy to report that not one of us got sick the entire 3 weeks (except for a small incident involving Brad and Owen on the overnight train, and all I have to say about that is THANK GOD Brad was sharing a room with Owen that night and not me).

The food in Vietnam was delicious. It was a balance of sweet and heat. The fresh simple herbs could be tasted in every meal. They use mint, cilantro, lemongrass, ginger, garlic and tear inducing chilies if you dare. They are known for their fish sauces, which change with each region. The most well known dish is Pho, which is homemade rice noodles mixed with french minded meat broths.
A man selling chickens and ducks. Evidently he would kill the bird for you on the spot if needed. We just trusted this  advice and kept walking.

Grubs anyone??

The buffet at the market which included black chicken and intestines. 

Meat aisle

By far the most disturbing food we saw in the market. Dog. I had hoped my kids would not of seen this, but they did, and some tears were shed and some hard facts learned. Our guide told us that they eat anything that moves and does not talk. Needless to say Owen did not shut up the whole time we were in Vietnam! 
Lady selling snakes, eels, snails, and other  fish. 

The Ho Ch Minh Mausoleum. 
Our guide Canh, in the Atlanta Braves Hat. He was excellent, very direct and knowledgeable about Vietnam. He also got onto us whenever we made stupid tourist mistakes, like leaving our camera case in a public place, which we amazingly recovered because of a phone call he made. 

This is the flight suit that John McCain was wearing when his navy airplane was shot down while on a bombing run over Hanoi.
Hanoi Hilton

This is North Vietnam's Hoa Lo Prison, the most infamous P.O.W camp in Hanoi. The American Prisoner's jokingly called it the "Hanoi Hilton". John McCain was held here for more than 5 years. Most of the prison was torn down in 1993 to make way for a luxury hotel but they preserved one corner for the museum. It was fascinating and entertaining to read how the Vietnamese portrayed life inside the prison. They showed pictures of the Americans receiving letters from their families, and sitting down together for Christmas dinner. One of the plaque's says" Though having committed untold crimes on our people, the American pilots suffered no revenge once they were captured and detained. Instead they were treated with adequate food, clothing and shelter."

This was a lovely local couple that prepared us a traditional Vietnamese meal. They were both teachers, but the man fought for the Viet Cong during the war. It was a very humbling experience for us, and just another example of the kindness and forgiveness of the Vietnamese towards American people. They did not speak a word of English, but our guide was able to translate everything for us. 
She gave us all the ingredients for Pho and we made our own  using the noodles, pork, herbs and broth. It was delicious as were the spring rolls. 

                        MOVING MARKET 

This market starts at 4 in the morning and then they have to move all of their bikes around 7 when the traffic starts to get worse. It was beautiful to see and once again so impressed by what  they are able to carry on their bikes.

                                                               HALONG BAY
Located in Vietnam's northeastern seacoast, it is often considered one of the world's most beautiful bays.

This is what they call a Junk boat, and where we got to spend the night. Halong Bay was  a  4 hour drive from Hanoi.

I woke up early on the junk and since there was now where to run, I took some photos of the early morning fisherman. 

                   FLOATING VILLAGE

A village of about 600 inhibitions built on the water. It is a magically calm place away from the hustle and bustle of the streets of Vietnam. The village is a true water world, rising and falling with the tides sheltered amidst limestone towers. These people have no home or land ownership, and their main livelihood is fishing and aquaculture.  They also harvest oysters for pearls.  They take small oyster, pry them open, insert a small round mineral into the oyster for a pearl to develop around and return it to the water for several months.  

Once we arrived back in Hanoi after our night on the Junk we then caught an overnight train to the mountains of northern Vietnam to a beautiful mountain town called Sapa. The valleys and villages that surround Sapa are home to a host of hill tribe people who wander into town to buy, sell and trade. The weather was much cooler, and terraced rice fields were breathtakingly beautiful. We  wanted to experience the colorful hill tribes and go tramping in the valley. It was the most exhausting leg of our trip, as we had to take an overnight train to arrive, we only had one night in Sapa, and then we had to depart on the overnight train the following night. And sleep did not come easy on the public transport. We had our only hiccup of the trip on the train as well. The train was scheduled to arrive at 6 am. So around 5:45 we all woke up and got ready to depart the train. I saw the conductor and ask him how much longer to Sapa. Now keep in mind, he does not speak a word of English, nor do I speak a word of Vietnamese. He looks at me and shows me 5 fingers and says words I do not understand.  So I think, great, 5 minutes till we arrive. Well, he was telling me 5 more hours! It was funny at the time because we had no idea when we were going to arrive, every time we ask someone we got a different answer. So all there was to do was sit back and enjoy the ride. The kids slept, Brad read and I enjoyed looking out the window soaking up all that Northern Vietnam had to offer.

The town of Sapa lies at 1600 m. 

The black Hmong hill tribe women. 
A beautiful lady and her baby working on the side of the trail. 
Skyler and I doing some damage at the market. That afternoon we bought a purse, a skirt, 3 coin purses and we each had a 30 minute foot massage. Our total bill was 525,000 dong which equates to $25 American dollars. 
 Bargaining at the market was expected form the ladies, it is part of their custom. I was lousy at the game. I quickly realized that I was arguing  over $1, maybe $2. That was pocket change to us, but lots of money to the locals.  I happily backed off and would usually give them their asking price. The markets were exciting, thrilling and exhausting. The products were beautiful, all of it. We tried not to make eye contact with the ladies unless we were serious about buying something. And once the ladies realized what you where after, they would quickly hold up all their items, and then all the ladies in the stalls next to them would run over and hold up all of their items. And before we knew it, we had 4 to 5 ladies surrounding us, all holding up their items. It was  sensory overload.  I usually succumbed to the pressure and would just smile and walk away. Hell, I have a hard time deciding what I am going to eat for breakfast so having to make quick decisions in the market with local ladies pleading for your business was quite intense. 
This little girl and her baby sister are trying to sell bracelets to the tourists. 
This little girl stood there throughout our whole lunch trying to sell Skyler some bracelets. She would say "buy from me purleesse", and we would say "no,thanks", and then she would say "yeeesssss". This went on for about an hour. It was a bit annoying and also sad. Our guide would not let us buy from the local tribes who were begging. They were breaking the law by selling to us without having a storefront. It about killed me not too, but it just encourages the behavior and gives the kids an incentive not to go to school. Why go to school when I can sell merchandise and make $10 a day to help my family??

After 6 days in Vietnam we headed to Cambodia.  We realize that we have really just scratched the surface of Vietnam.  It is a wonderful country full of interesting people, tastes and sights.  We hope to return someday to explore it a bit more.