Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Nyepi birthday - a day of silence

As I type this entry, fireworks are crackling in the distance with the melodic sounds of chimes from a metallophone (long instrument consisting of many metal bars).... these are the celebratory sounds, in preparation for silence. Tomorrow morning at 6am - is the beginning of Bali's Hindu, Lunar New Year, a day of contemplation, reflection and fasting for some. No one on the island is allowed to leave their house for 24 hours, not even to buy water because all stores, restaurants and airports close. There will be security patrolling the streets to politely, but sternly, direct people home if they're found wandering outside (most likely will be uninformed tourists). According to Balinese folklore, we stay indoors as a way of tricking the evil spirits into thinking the island is uninhabited. This way they will fly off and leave Bali safe for another year. Isn't that convenient?!

Luckily for me, I currently reside at Hibiscus Cottages, a safe guesthouse far far away from evil spirits, right in the middle of rice paddy fields. My room looks onto a lush garden setting, where I'll spend the day practicing yoga, reading, writing and meditating. Since it is also my birthday on the 26th, I will not be fasting... but rather enjoying such luxuries as homemade gado-gado (traditional dish of boiled veggies with spicy peanut sauce), tropical fruit juices, special raw organic mulberry pie, and local rice wine. When in Bali... do as the Balinesians do.... sort of :)

In two days, for my Balinese-American birthday celebration, I'll attend a Michael Franti & Friends benefit concert in Ubud!!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Monday, March 16, 2009

Arrival in Legian, Bali!!

After flying from Hanoi to Bangkok, going back to Khao San Road for one night (staying up until 4am to hail a taxi to BKK airport and catch the 6am flight to Depensar airport- I arrived in paradise. When stepping off the plane, "the sun was shinning, the weather was sweet... makes you wanna move....." greeted with smiling faces, deep blue sea on the horizon and clove cigarette smoke wafting through the air.

The Balinese are profoundly spiritual people. Every morning and several times throughout the day men and women in traditional garb lay small basket offerings onto sidewalks and alters (you literally have to step over them while walking down the street). These are filled with fresh flowers and pungent incense. Every neighborhood has a temple, which holds many shrines and statues. Each of these are thoughtfully clothed in Balinese tapestry. I've never seen anything like it before. When I think it won't get any better.... I arrive in Bali.

It's going to take some getting use to the intense humidity. This cooled off some when it started raining yesterday and continued on into the night. The storm, of booming thunder and heavy downpours, woke me many times throughout the night.

Tomorrow is a Hindu holiday celebrated in temples, all over the island. Many stores will be closed for special ceremonies. I look forward to waking up early and hopefully see some of the festivities.

Local street art.

Cruising through Halong Bay

Three hours on bus from Hanoi to docking point, where a large group of twenty loaded onto the overnight ship. During the day we worked ourselves sore while kayaking through dramatic limestone islands. At night, the atmosphere turned into more of a booze cruise than anticipated. I was by far the oldest on the boat, with the exception of captain and crew. Fun times though.
My kayak partner happened to be a professional rower in England- lucky me!
These pictures don't even come close to showing the absolute beauty of these wondrous formations. Nor do they capture the peace and tranquility I felt while paddling though the cliffs.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Hanoi - capital of Vietnam

The picture below is of me standing in front of the old cathedral. Looks more like Europe eh? The rest of the city was a reminder that I was actually in Vietnam - jam packed with people, shops and of course noisy motorbikes . Numerous street side cafes, with small plastic picnic chairs and tables line the sidewalks. On adjacent streets in the Old Quarter, many high end boutiques and French-fusion restaurants.
Maybe the best experience in Hanoi was jogging in the rain around Hoam Kiem Lake, location of the red Huc bridge. Also, the Backpacker's Hostel. Great place for meeting other travelers- mainly Aussies, Brits and Canadians during happy hour on roof-top deck.
Hanoi is famous for water puppetry. 1,000 year old art form, a unique and slightly bizarre cultural experience. Paired with traditional Vietnamese music, live musicians, green water and puppets of all sorts - buffaloes, swans, dragons...
Hand painted drums used in water puppet performance.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Long journey to lovely Hoi An, Vietnam

After spending four nights in Saigon, I was more than ready to move on from the hustle and bustle. So, Jesse and I hoped a bus to Mui Ne, a quiet little fishing village on the China Sea. This was a perfect place to rest for a couple days and watch kite-boarders fly across the waves, before getting on the next bus heading north.

Mui Ne Sunset.
Once in Nha Trang, I knew immediately that I wouldn't stay long. Sleeping there for only one night, I booked an overnight sleeper train to Hoi An. Not so bad, just that my bunk-mates decided to chow down on a stinky durian in the cramped space! This trip took about 10 hours to Tam Ky, then another 45 mins. to Hoi An by moto taxi. This stretch of scenery was absolutely breathtaking. Halfway into the ride, rain began pouring down against the back-drop of flourescent green rice-paddy fields, truly magical.

Yesterday morning I checked into my hotel room - only $10/night, outrageously cheap for all that's included in the price: swimming pool, tv, queen bed, large bathtub, balcony, free internet, clean, tasteful interior etc. etc. Hoi An is a cultural heritage site, unaffected by American bombs, truly picturesque. Think I'll stay a few extra days!

Monday, March 2, 2009

Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City)

Bien View district. Street lined with budget hotels (my room was on the right side on the 6th floor and of course no elevator), delicious cuisine, silk shops, noisy motorbikes, cheap beer....Hanging with my new friend Jesse, we met on the bus from Phnom Penh to Saigon, who is also from San Fran. On this evening, we discovered a live Philipino cover band - best live music I've heard during my whole trip so far!! Everyone in the venue was dancing and singing along to Pearl Jam, Beatles and Dire Straits covers. Street-side food venders.
Visit to the Chu-Chi tunnels. Site where Viet Cong hid in intricate pathways underground, while fighting against American soldiers during Vietnam War. Walking through the tunnel was quite a claustrophobic experience. This is one of their teeny tiny hiding places. That's me inside!
Artists in Saigon, creating replicas of famous paintings - impressive. Yes that's Obama on the right, he's a big deal in SE Asia:)

Phnom Penh's dark past

There's so much to say about Cambodia as a whole.... My experience differing drastically between one town to the next. For the most part, I found the Cambodian people to be friendly, kind and especially beautiful. Their exoticism spans widely through music, food, art, language etc. Unfortunately they are still very much haunted by recent history.

I've just begun reading a book called, "Off the rails in Phnom Penh: Into the dark heart of guns, girls and ganja." This is an excerpt that I found very fitting of my experience, "There is an overwhelming rawness that confronts the visitor: the trash on the streets, the little children running around naked (and begging), the dust, the unpaved roads, and the shacks. And amongst all of this one regularly chances upon a beautiful wat [or a private mansion] rising up into the sky. While stunning in its own right, the sight is even more amazing in the middle of all the shit that surrounds it."

I'm shocked that nothing in my school was taught about the massive genocide which took place only 30 years ago. The number of lives taken by Pol Pots regime, during Khmer Rough rule is believed to be a higher number than all those killed during the holocaust. Pol Pot and his men killed around two million intellectuals and artists; doctors, lawyers, engineers etc. As a result, many Cambodians are are still afraid of education.

Rice paddies just outside the city on the way to the Killing FieldsThousands of sculls on display, excavated from the grounds along with bones, teeth and clothing of the victims.Quite eerie walking through these corridors, knowing they were once high school classrooms, turned into S-21 prison cells and torture chambers.Ghostly photograph of an S-21 prisoner, from the viewing rooms of the old school - sparing you the graphic, disturbing images that were also on display. Small children taking an afternoon snooze, right in the middle of a central market.The stunning National Museum in the city center, near Royal Palace.