Thursday, February 26, 2009

[I took the first fast boat to China // and Jimmy there's still so much to be done]

So, hi! I'm back from China! I climbed the Great Wall of China and stood in Tiananmen Square and wandered through the Forbidden City for like, five hours, and got MIND BOGGLINGLY lost trying to get back to my hotel one night. And now I'm back in Korea, where I can figure out how to communicate with people (even if I can't speak much of the language) and read the street signs and all is good. :)

I still don't have a working computer, but I should pick it up tomorrow. I did find an Apple repair center in Seoul, and on Saturday Christine helped me drop it off. My hard drive is mostly likely busted, probably as a result of being HIT BY A CAR. Yeah, I got hit by a car. Korean drivers are CRAZY and a guy running a red light hit me when I was crossing a cross walk. It's at least part my fault, since I've been here long enough to know that a walk light doesn't mean it's actually safe to walk. Luckily, the driver was able to almost come to a stop and while I went sprawling, I was able to stand up and walk away. Unluckily, my computer was on me when it happened, and I doubt it's a coincidence that two days later it stopped working.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Temples of Angkor

Angkor Wat

The Bayon Life Is Just a Tire Swing - Cambodian Children Playing at Angkor Thom

Trees at Preah Khan

More than anywhere else on this trip, a picture's worth a thousand words, which means I have 126,000 words about Cambodia uploaded over at Flickr. I ended up being quite detailed in the description (which alone took three days to write), so if you're really interested in reading (and seeing) about my trip, go here and work your way though the pictures chronologically. The descriptions are meant to read in order. (Beware; I do reprise my role as the world's most pedantic tour guide.) For the rest of you, the set is here. (Scroll past the Bangkok pictures.)

A few more words that didn't make it onto Flickr. Cambodia was a very last minute addition to my trip. I booked my flight to Siem Reap the day before I left for Bangkok. I wasn't originally going to go because, you know, it's a poverty stricken, politically unstable country where maybe traveling alone as a 23 year old, white female wasn't the safest thing to do. I still think that holds true for most of the country, but two million people visit Angkor Wat a year. It can't be *that* dangerous. And I don't know if I could have dealt being that close to Angkor Wat and not going. Cambodia's the country I've wanted to visit since I was just a kid and Angkor's city I'll never see enough of, and I'm so, so glad I went.

To clarify, Angkor refers to the area north of modern day Siem Reap that was the heart of the Khmer empire. Angkor Wat is the temple with the five towers shown above. Angkor is a city of superlatives. Angkor Wat, the best known of its temples, is the largest single religious monument in the world. The ancient city of Angkor was the largest pre-industrial city, with a million residents during the 15th century. (For the record, it would take another two hundred years and an industrial revolution for London to reach that size.) The Khmer empire it supported was the largest empire in South East Asia. Everything about Angkor is big. (It's a little like Texas. Maybe that's why I liked it. *g*)

I spent almost my entire trip at the ruins. I don't have any pictures of Siem Reap because I was hardly there during daylight. I did explore the town some at night: my roommate and I had some truly excellent Khmer curry at a little shack on the side of the road and I bought many many silk scarves at the night market, but I didn't have enough time at Angkor as it was. Two days just isn't enough time to see the site, and both days by the time I made it back to my hostel I was suffering from a wicked case of temple fatigue.

Cambodia is a shockingly poor country. Even in Siem Reap, which is the most affluent part of Cambodia (white washed for tourism), it's clear how very poor this country is. I paid $15 (they use US dollars) to hire a private tuk-tuk for the day. None of my meals cost more than $2. And, oh, the children at the temples. The temples are swarming with children selling water, postcards, homemade flutes and scarves. I'd get out of the tuk-tuk at a temple and was instantly mobbed by a swarm of children calling out, "Madame, you want water. You want postcard. You want flute." It was annoying, but also heartbreaking. (An interesting side note is how many languages these children could speak. They understood everything I said to them in English, and when I told them I lived in Korea, they would instantly start speaking Korean. My roommate was a German girl and she said they spoke to her in German. And sure, it was all broken, but how many languages can you speak, broken or otherwise.) I didn't have the heart to really bargain for anything while I was in Cambodia. I know I was being ripped off, but if that's their idea of ripping me off, they need my money more than I do.

Cambodia was a fantastic experience and worth every penny it cost and every gray hair it gave my mom.

Monday, February 16, 2009

[what the hell did Marco Polo think // when he ran into the wall]

How to book a trip to China in five quick steps:

Step 1: Last Thursday I sent Sarah an email saying:
PPS. I kinda want to go to China next week, but I feel like that's ridiculous, since I've only been back for like two weeks. But, but. China.
I don't have class the last two weeks of February (end of term break) and I was dreading two weeks of sitting in my office and reading lolcats. Plus, China! It's practically next door. It has a Great Wall! Of course I want to go to China.

Step 2: I happened to see Tony on the bus that afternoon and I mentioned that I wanted to do something during the break. He told me he and Christine, his girlfriend, were going to China the last week of February. They had found a good deal at a travel agency near their home. I asked if anyone at the agency spoke English (Christine is Korean American, is fluent in Korean and thus has some options open to her than I do not), but alas, it was Korean only. I said bummer and went along my merry way thinking clearly, it wasn't meant to be.

Step 3: That evening, as I was getting ready to meet some friends for dinner, Christine called and offered to translate for me at the travel agency. Christine is quite awesome.

Step 4: I went to the travel agency with Tony and Christine on Saturday. We (and by we, I mean Christine and the travel agency woman, with a little input from me) discussed prices, hotel locations and visas. The good news: for 570,000 won ($400) I can get my plane tickets, a swanky four star hotel and my visa. The bad news: the visa alone is 150,000 won ($100). The good news: dude, a trip to China for $400. That's a really good deal. Two goods to one bad. The goods have it! I'm going to China.

Step 5: Today, I went back to the travel agency to pay and hand over my passport for visa processing. It's always fun to hand over a large bag of money. (The largest bill in Korean currency is a 10,000 won note, so 600,000 won in cash is quite a large stack of money.) I leave next Monday. I'll being in Beijing from February 23 to February 26 and I'm staying near Tiananmen Square. I'm not sure what I'm going to do yet; obviously I want to see the Forbidden City and the Great Wall, but if anyone has any suggestions, that would be great

(And in less joyous news, my father's having hip surgery right about now. It's nothing major, just replacing part of his already artificial hip, but the last time he had a hip surgery, it was life threatening and really, it just sucks beyond measure to be 7,000 miles and 14 hours away from home right now. I'll wake up tomorrow to an email from my mom telling me everything is fine, but any spare prayers or good vibes for my family would be much appreciated right now.)

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

[this grips me more than would a // muddy old river or reclining Buddha]

I'm back at work, which kind of sucks because it means I'm in my cold, cold classroom and not on vacation. Lucky for me, I have no students today, so I have plenty of time to start writing my vacation recap. I'm not planning on doing this by day, but rather by location. However, I was only in Bangkok for one day before I left for Cambodia, so this is a short one.

Bangkok, the Venice of the East

I started my trip in Bangkok. For some reason I was slightly overwhelmed by being in a strange new country where I could neither speak the language nor read the writing (you'd think I'd be use to that by now), so when my roommates, three middle aged flight attendants, asked if I wanted to spend the day with them, I jumped at the opportunity. We started the day by taking the Chao Phraya River Taxi (the second coolest named mass transit system in Bangkok, right after the Sky Train) to the aptly named Grand Palace (it's both grand AND palatial) and Wat Phra Kaew.

The Grand Palace

The Grand Palace was built by King Rama 1 in 1782 and it's one of the most ostentatious displays of wealth I've ever seen. It's just, wow, all gold and glitter and statues and very large gilded buildings and, like I said, wow. Within the same complex as the Grand Palace is Wat Phra Kaew, or the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. The Emerald Buddha, which is actually jade, was discovered in 1434 incased in stucco. It's one of Thailand's most sacred Buddhas and is housed in a gilded temple covered in red, blue, gold and silver mirrors. It's quite obviously a very sacred place to the Thais; the temple was full of kneeling Buddhists, including quite a few saffron clad monks.

Wat Pho Wat Pho

After the Grand Palace, we went to Wat Pho, the Temple of the Reclining Buddha. Wat Pho is one of the oldest and largest temples in Bangkok, and home to an enormous reclining Buddha. As we walked out of the temple and to gather our shoes (you never wear shoes in a Buddhist temple), I wondered aloud what would happen if someone stole your shoes while you were in a temple. I mean, you would be stuck in the middle of the city without shoes, and Bangkok is not a place one wants to walk around barefoot. Of course, when we got to the shoes, one my companions (whose name I never did catch) couldn't find her shoes. Luckily, there were only pushed underneath a planter, not stolen, but it's still a worthy question.

Wai Not?

I would like to have spend more time at Wat Pho, but my companions, who weren't really history people, were tired and ready to go shopping. I was willing to split up with them at that point, but we did the whole "Oh, if it's okay with you we'd like to leave now" thing were they weren't going to leave me and were willing to wait for a little bit, but were also obviously ready to leave. I was a bit tired myself (jet lag woke up me up after four hours of sleep), so I gave in without fight, but determined to do things on my own for the rest of the trip.

We rode the river taxi (heee!) to Chinatown, where we walked for an hour or so, looking at stalls, before heading back to the hostel. The hostel, Lub-d, was hands down the cleanest and nicest hostel I've ever stayed in. I shared the bathroom with 39 other women and that place was spotless. There was free internet in lobby, all sorts of quirky decorations and it was a very laid back, friendly place. Plus, there was a stall selling fresh pineapple just down the street from it, and oh man, do I ever love fresh pineapple. I spent the evening at the bar, drinking a beer and talking with a couple who had just moved to Thailand to teach English. It was a lovely day, and a nice way to start my trip.

The rest of the photos are here. Coming up next, Cambodia!