We were in China for Rick’s birthday, and had been talking about how we wanted to celebrate for a while. As a going away gift, our friends Will and Angie Jacobus gave us “a night out Jacobus-Style” – for those of you that know them, you know what that means! For those that don’t, let’s just say it’s “go big or go home” style.
We knew Beijing would be a great place to go Jacobus-Style, and what better occasion than Rick’s birthday. I found the perfect place – a 600 year old Buddhist temple. No seriously.
It’s one of the top restaurants in Beijing and it’s in a 600 year old Buddhist temple. It’s also an art gallery. And it’s known for it’s over the top service.
I called for a reservation and told them it was Rick’s birthday. When we arrived we were greeted with two glasses of champagne and offered a private viewing of the grounds and gallery. It was beautiful! The pictures don’t begin to capture it.
We were seated in the gorgeous interior and ordered the tasting menu. Each course was French twists on traditional Asian cuisine, and all delicious!
Rick got four different birthday desserts. And his very own cheese cart. Yep – his own cheese cart!
We spent the entire night there, and didn’t even realize it was well into the morning when we were finishing up. It was such a special and incredible evening that we’ll never forget. Thank you Will and Angie for such an amazing experience!!
I promised Liz I would write the post on Dalat, Vietnam and since it’s been over a month and 2 (going on 3) countries ago I thought I better get this up before I forget how awesome it was.
Dalat, sits in the mountainous western part of Vietnam between Danang and HCMC so the weather is not the hot humid jungle you expect in Vietnam but pleasantly cool.
We only had 2 nights to spend in Dalat so we started with a little hiking.
On our way back from the hike we finally learned why it’s important to have your “ducks in a row” apparently that’s how you market them to sell (hint: it helps if you tie up their feet).
The true highlight of our time was our easyrider trip. Motorbikes are in intricate part of the culture in Vietnam and no trip is complete without letting a local that knows the area like the back of his hand show you around. We’d done our fair share of adventures on a moto in Vietnam but I was looking to having someone that actually knew where we were going directing us. Our easyrider trip was arranged by the owner of the Wolfpack Hostel (seriously that’s the name and it is AWESOME!). I thought it’d be more fun if I drove a bike too (instead of sitting 3 deep all day). We meet our guide, Hung, first thing in the morning and we were off.
Our first stop was to see the amazing dragon sculptures at a temple in town. It was HUGE! And we learned about Chinese unicorns, the don’t have horns and look kinda like dragon/lion hybrids.
Then we were on our way into the countryside to visit a flower farm.
Then it was more riding (i really liked driving through the country side!) and a stop in a little tribal village with a really friendly family that showed us their home and let us take a few photos.
From there we rode to a place that makes civet coffee. That’s coffee made by weasels (the civet cats to be specific). I won’t go into details of how the weasels make it …
As part of the tour we got to see their homemade rice “wine” still… AKA Moonshine. I imagine the civet coffee business isn’t that profitable, but if you can make some rice wine, and in true vietnamese fashion, throw some dead things in it, you can sell it as an elixir. We tried it, sans dead things, and it wasn’t too bad. Our guide lit some on fire to show us how strong it was.
Our next stop was to a silk production farm. It’s was amazing seeing little worms go from devouring leaves to crazy machines and hot water unraveling their cocoons to machines weaving silk fabric like a player piano. The whole process was pretty neat, and Liz really like the boil silk worms, she said it tasted like a mix between pecorino and ricotta cheese, I think she hasn’t tasted cheese in a while then.
From the silk farm we went to Elephant Falls. A little waterfall that we were able to hike around and under.
We rode to another temple with a GIANT Buddha and some more dragons.
We stopped on the side of the rode and watch some farmers harvesting a plant that’s used in curry we’re were told it was sometimes used as lipstick, I made Liz try it.
More riding to another little waterfall, a mushroom farm, an orcid farm and a visit to a village that is named “Chicken” after giant statue of a roster with 9 spurs and a story of forbidden love.
We got a little rain on the way back so we suited up and then we ended the evening with a “family dinner” at the hostel sitting around the dining room floor.
After hot and sweaty Bangkok and spending a few nights in a brothel (unknown to us until we put all of the pieces together), we landed in Chiang Mai and immediately loved the weather. It was cool and dry in the mountainous north of Thailand…. Okay, mountainous seems like an exaggeration, after going to the Himalayas in Nepal my standards for “mountainous” have been elevated a bit. But it was still really nice.
We booked the hostel next door to Alvin and Jennifer’s hotel, which turned out to be quite nice (especially compared to the brothel in Bangkok! … “hmm, why is there this random green light bulb over our door?”)
Our first day we rented bicycles to explore the city. And of course the four of us managed to find a bar with beer pong! Rick and I got sounded beat in both matches.
The next day we decided to expand our exploration and rent a motorbike. We came across Tiger Kingdom, and were skeptical about actually going to play with tigers… were they drugged? Mistreated? We did an elephant trekking activity in Chitwan Park, Nepal and were so saddened by how the animals were treated that we couldn’t even finish it. We did not want to support something like that again. But we went by the Tiger place, and they invited us in to just look around and see if we liked it before we bought tickets or anything. We were really relieved to see that the cats were actually playing and running around. I’m not going to say it was the best conditions ever, or an ideal thing, but they looked a heck of a lot happier than most tigers you see in a zoo. So we decided to go in and play with the tigers and it was pretty cool!! Yeah, so we played with tigers – what else can you say about that?!
After the tigers, we went on to explore the countryside around Chiang Mai. It was so fun to drive the curvy roads through the mountains. We visited a hill tribe village, where there were no westerns tourists. Beautiful views and the best strawberries we’ve ever had! They had really cool terraced gardens all around.
We wound our way back with our jackets on – it got quite cold on the bike!
Our next day was even better, thanks to Alvin and Jennifer for booking a whitewater rafting trip for us! But first Alvin cashed in on a bet he won against Rick… Rick’s lack of accuracy in the carnival shooting game cost him – Alvin got to pick one thing that Rick had to eat. Alvin was pretty kind, all things considered that he had to choose from at the roadside market. That’s a deep fried chicken head. Rick said it was surprisingly delicious.
We had so much fun. And how often is it that you get to raft by elephants in the river?! We also got a special surprise at the end of the trip. As we were pulling up to the side of the river to get out, a random guy was there bathing… well, we’ll say bathing, but really it seemed like he was just hanging out naked on the shore of the river right where the rafts were coming in. We named him Steve. And inviting “Steve” to our activity for the day became a running joke.
While in Chiang Mai we explored some of the many waterfalls. We found one river that had 10 “levels” of waterfalls over the course of a couple of kilometers.
We spent or last day in Chiang Mai hiking the trail up the back way to the Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. Which also passes another smaller Buddhist temple. It was a fun little hike that ends in the little neighborhood the monks live in. Both temples had a bunch of awesome statues.
Our first day, we biked around a bit. Then went to see sunset at the temples – unfortunately we weren’t the only ones with that idea!
Then out to Pub Street, but we didn’t last long.
We enjoy good local food much more than cheesy tourist drinks, so off to the market we went to get Amuk Fish (win!!) served in a banana leaf bowl and Lok Lak Beef (so-so). We had to be up early for our sunrise tour of the temples. Totally worth it, sunrise was awesome!
The Temples of Angkor Wat were really impressive and beautiful. It’s a HUGE area – like probably 10 square miles of jungle with temples throughout. Our favorites were the ones that had been taken over by the jungle.
The fascinating thing about it is the duplicity of the jungle that has taken over the temples. The roots that grow over and through the stone temples in some ways destroys them, as you would imagine, as it grows pushing stone blocks aside. But we learned that it also preserves them in some ways, acting like ropes that hold the stone in place and prevent it from breaking apart and falling over. There’s also a great debate about how much to let the jungle take over and when to stop it. Archeologists realize that the thing that makes these temples really special is how they were “forgotten” for decades and the jungle took them over… but how much more do you let nature take over? Nature vs. Preservation.
We had a pretty crazy experience with our tuk tuk driver…
Here is the story as Rick tells it:
He was our driver from the bus station to the hotel, and as most of the drivers that take you anywhere do in this part of the world, they really want you’re “drive you around; full-day” business. He seemed nice enough and his price seemed reasonable for a full day of driving us around so we agreed and made plans for the next day as he’s dropping us off at our hotel; pick up at 5:00am for sunrise.
The next morning, on our way to the temples, we asked about going to Ta Prohm temple as we had heard it was less crowded than Angkor Wat for sunrise, he told us it was closed and Angkor Wat was the only option for sunrise. Ok, no problem. When we arrive at Angkor Wat, about 5:30 (along with 5 million other people) he tells us he’s going to the bus station to pickup someone else and take them into town then he’ll be back at 8:30. We were a little shocked but he insisted he’d be back by the time we were ready to go to the next temple. We said we moved pretty fast. He said he’d be waiting.
We watch the sunrise beautifully, then wonder around the temple with the other 5 million people and it’s now 6:30 am and we’re ready to move on. We walk to where he said he’d meet us and he’s not there, we ask a few other tuk tuk drivers, no luck. We wander around looking for him for 30 minutes, no luck. So we decided we’ll try and walk to the next temple and look for him later. We start walking after the bunch of tuk tuk drivers pass us asking us if we need a ride, one informs us that it’s more than 4 kilometers to the next temple, so much for that plan. At this point the new tuk tuk driver offers us a full day tour (promises us he won’t leave us and agrees it was weird of the other guy to ditch us like that) at about 60% of what the other guy was charging us. Done deal!
We enjoyed the rest of our day, found out a number of the temples really do open at 5:30am for sunrise and saw everything we wanted to before noon, and never saw our old driver again.
Later that night we’re out in the night markets and all of a sudden Rick gets tapped on the shoulder and in a super creepy voices hears “Remember me?!?” – it was our original tuk tuk guy. And he starts shaking me down for a full days fare. I said “No way you left us.” He said he was waiting right there the whole time. I said no way we looked for you for 20 minutes and all the other tuk tuk drivers said you left. I give him $5 for the sunrise ride out there (which was the standard rate for a sunrise tour) and said I wasn’t going to give him anymore than that for leaving us out there. Liz and I were both annoyed – are we really being shook-down by a tuk tuk driver who ditched us?! And more than a little creeped out – how’d this guy find us?!
On the bright side, we snagged ourselves a really great deal, thanks to Rick’s negotiating skills, and stayed at really cool hotel our first night in Siem Reap. It even included a welcome drink and cool towels!
The next night they were fully booked, so we went exploring for new accommodations. We accidently walked into a boutique hotel that was still being built, we apologized, but they insisted we look at the one room that was done. It was SO cool, very modern and nice looking. We knew it would be way out of our budget… but they insisted on knowing what our budget was. And a few minutes later we were the first people to stay in this adorable boutique hotel! – for $15/night!
We totally lucked out on the lodging in Siem Reap!! (good thing, too, because we had spent two nights on sleeper buses before that!)
Throughout Southeast Asia we’ve seen all of these “mini markets” of offerings to either Buddha, monks or ancestor spirits. Including live birds, flowers, fruit. In Siem Reap it was lotuses and hawks and swallows.
So that’s whirlwind Cambodia – oh, don’t forget the 3 hours in immigration leaving the country… surrounded by a giant Russian tour group. Whah whah whah.
We left India for Southeast Asia with our first stop being a little layover in Bangkok, Thailand. We decided two nights would be a good intro trip to Thailand without too much of a delay in our itinerary and who wouldn’t want to see Bangkok on Halloween? So, how did we spend our 72 hours in Bangkok?
We didn’t do a ton of research before we arrived just found a nice reasonably priced hostel close to some of the main tourist areas. What I didn’t realize from my glancing at the guidebook map was how huge of a city Bangkok is… And while the hostel I picked Lub*d Silom, was right in the middle of everything, that actually made it about 2km away from anything. Not a huge deal as Bangkok has a great metro, taxis are prevalent, and tuk-tuks abound.
We arrived via a red-eye from Kolkata, India and after jumping in a taxi we made it to the hostel about 5:30am. They were friendly and let us crash in the theater room until our room was ready. Our first order of business after sleep for a few hours was Breakfast!
We were told a street right around the corner from our hostel has great food stalls. We found some kind of great coconut lime chicken soup to start the day. It was outstanding – Liz said it was her favorite food of the trip so far!! The flavor was light and complex and exotic and completely addictive. Unfortunately we were still out of it and didn’t think to take a picture… but we are definitely planning to find more of it when we get back to Thailand in a few weeks.
From there we decided we needed to see Bangkok from the water; after all, it is known as the “Venice of the East.” We found our way to the waters edge where we were quickly talked into a boat tour that would end by the Grand Palace and walking distance to a lot of other attractions.
We got a lovely tour via the water then the captain dropped us off at Wat Arun, an imposing temple on the west bank of the Mae Nam Chao Phraya (the river). We made it up to the top just in time to get absolutely poured on! Gotta love rainy season.
Our captain then ferried us over to the other side of the river where our tour ended at we went into see Wat Pho and the giant “Reclining Buddha.” We wondered around the grounds there for a while before making our way to a rooftop for sunset.
From there we grabbed a tuk-tuk to Khao San Road the backpacker home of Bangkok. Khao San is a crazy street light with neon, vendors, food carts and anything else you can imagine. We found a ton of great food, got a foot massage to heal our tired feet, and just wondered around Khao San people watching and enjoying the energy of the city.
There is, of course, tons of live music along Khao San and it didn’t take us long to find something right up our alley. A place jam packed with young locals and a 8 piece live band playing ska versions of Frank Sinatra, as well as a number of songs we didn’t recognize.
It was easy to stay up late on Khao San and we headed home about midnight; extremely early by Bangkok standards.
The next morning it was more neighborhood food, and I was thrilled that marshmallows were on the breakfast menu.
It was Friday and the big Chatuchak Weekend Market was open on but not as crowded as it normally is on Saturday and Sunday. So we took the metro to the market. If you know Liz you know how much she loves markets so we spend a few hours roaming round looking at all the crazy foods for sale.
From the market it was back to Khao San to see it in the day light a little and visit the fish spa. It doesn’t hurt but it’s definitely a shocking experience when you first stick you’re feet in.
That evening the hostel was having a costume contest before going out to the total madness that was the Khao San Road Halloween festivities. We were limited to what we brought with us or was in the “free” bin at the hostel. Liz tied for 3rd with her “blue horns she found in the free bin and some make-up from friend.” And I took second as Steve Irwin. There wasn’t a lot of competition.
Khao San road was absolute madness wall to wall people everywhere. After about an hour we had had enough and decided we needed to move to a quieter street and get some pad thai then head home.
We slept in the next day, did some laundry then head to the airport to catch our flight.
Well day 2 in Kathmandu was pretty amazing – we definitely got to experience some of the religious and cultural aspects… and Rick continued to be haunted by monkeys. We also decided for sure that 2 days was enough for us in the big city. It’s really polluted and both of us noticed it in our nose and throat, so we headed off to Pokhara yesterday. But first, I have to share the really amazing ceremonies we saw at Pashupatinath …and Boudha (separate post).
Pashupatinath is considered a very holy place for the Hindu people, it’s is a holy riverbank were the dead are cremated in the open, in a ceremony where their families wash them, dress them with flowers and oils, and eventually… well, I can’t think of a more eloquent way to say it… set them on fire.
sorry, couldn’t help myself 🙂 A little Monty Python humor
There are a ton of booths outside the area selling things to sacrifice to the gods. Including tikka powder (I’m probably not calling that the right thing) and flowers… the colors are so incredibly vibrant!! Tikka puts Lisa Frank and American Apparel’s neons to shame!
On one side of the bridge are the poor families, with much more basic ceremonies (the first one shown below). The sons of the deceased have their heads shaved except one little piece on the back. It was beautiful and sad at the same time.
On the other side of the bridge, the rich are cremated. We happened to be there when someone very famous and important was being cremated – still no idea who – but there was a lotta military, news cameras, and a bunch of people. The Nepali paparazzi are crazy – I mean right up in the dead lady’s face, and telling family to move to get a better shot of her! But no one seemed to mind. The religions here are very laid back it seems in terms of what’s tolerated.
There were holy men around…. and there were monkeys. I mean Rick has some serious paranoia going on about monkeys now… which I thought was unwarranted, but later that day I discovered they did indeed have it out for him. I will have to let him tell that story in another post, but even before “the incident” as he calls it, we did have a little bit of a run in. There were monkeys all around where we sat, but fortunately, we had a protector – who quickly became Rick’s hero!! We’ll call him David, because he was the little boy with the slingshot that kept the big herds of monkeys away, and he kinda took a liking to us, so he protected us the whole time we were there. Here’s a pic of Rick and the monkeys, and of our friend protecting us!
Our first day in Kathmandu was exciting, challenging and really beautiful. I have to admit I woke up a bit freaked out, realizing I wasn’t sure how I was going to get and figure out the most basic stuff – like the shower/toilet combo that was in the bathroom, or where to get water from, or where exactly we were since we arrived after dark and during the power shutdown (every day for two 4-hour blocks power is shut off).
Our host is great though. And we made it – got water, got a shower, feeling good!
Off to see the city… we wandered through some crazy traffic. This is a BIG city – good thing I’ve practiced my pedestrian fearlessness in Manhattan, although Kathmandu has it beat!
We made it to Durbar Square – where there are over 30 temples in one area, a combination of Hindu and Buddhist. We planned on just walking around figuring it out ourselves, but Raam befriended us and after talking to us for 20 minutes, and cutting his price in half, we had a guide. Since we had managed to come in the back way, we avoided the tourist fee, so figured we could splurge for a guide. Lots of beautiful architecture. Learned they view Buddhism as more of a philosophy here, and Hinduism as a religion – which allows them to coexist. Basically every temple, statue, etc. has them combined.
Lunch was a rooftop view, from there we could see the Monkey Temple, and that was our ambitious plan for the afternoon. We had MoMo for lunch – these delicious little dumplings.
We set off for the Monkey Temple. As we got close to the river, we smelled a familiar smell… it smelled just like the Trinity River in Dallas, I guess polluted rivers all smell the same. Mental note to use the Steripen AND the filter on the water!
Monkey Temple was the most beautiful yet. Walking up to it was saw a baby monkey do acrobatics on some prayer flags. The temple sits a top a huge hill and the golden roof gleams. Once at the top there’s a huge area to explore – we watched monks meditating, got “treated” with a healing bowl (it made this incredible sound, it was made of 7 different kinds of metal, handmade… and when it vibrated against your bad it felt like it was really healing, or at least a good massage)
Rick thought he would get up close to a monkey to get a picture. Monkey was not a fan and hissed at him and took a swing… let’s just say Rick retreated quickly… there was a high pitched squeal involved, Rick says it was the monkey….
That was just his first monkey encounter. As we were heading down the hill, we stopped to get something out of the backpack – and a monkey comes out of no where and bites into the outside pocket of the backpack (where there’s a protein bar stored), Rick grabs the backpack and pulls it up in the air… monkey is still attached. Now dangling in the air, but not even close to letting go. So I grab a rainjacket and start hitting the monkey with it, while Rick is shaking the monkey… finally he lets go. Later we find a perfectly shaped monkey bite mark out of the bar, but thankfully limited damage to the backpack. That’s rick’s favorite story of the day… and he now has slight paranoia about monkeys. You can read Rick’s side of the story as well.
For the next few days I’ll be sneaking up behind him and grabbing at the back of his arm with my most monkey-hand-like impression.
Tomorrow we go to what is known as a holy site on the river where they cremate the dead in the open, and a small town on the outskirts of Kathmandu that hasn’t been as taken over by the modern world. I think it’ll be good to get a little time outside the craziness of big city Kathmandu. Oh and we have to figure out how to get bus tickets to Pokhara! I can’t wait to see the Himalayas — can’t see them from the city due to clouds and pollution.