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We are Peace Corps Volunteers Serving in Indonesia

Final Days: Malaysia

By Amy

Well, we have officially been home now for a month, and we really hit the ground running. But before I get to that, I want to wrap up the end of our amazing six and a half week journey around Southeast Asia.

After Burma, we headed back to Kuala Lumpur, which really became our second home in Asia. As we’ve mentioned before, my friend Jessica lives there and we were able to use her place as a base camp during our travels. We spend our last six days in Malaysia with Jessica, her friend Paul and some members of Paul’s family. It was kind of a random assortment of people, but we really hit it off!

 

After three days in KL, getting some R&R, a haircut, doing laundry and packing our things, we headed to Penang for a day and a night. Penang is an island in Malaysia and is known as sort of a foodie destination. We stayed in George Town which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The town is made up of lots of pre-Second World War houses and shop houses. We stayed in a fantastic hotel called 23 Love Lane. As expected we did plenty of eating in Penang as well as some last minute shopping.

 

After a great night in Penang, we hopped a short flight to Langkawi, another Malaysian island. This time our destination was a fancy beach resort. We spent our last two days on vacation laying on the sand, drinking cocktails and sleeping in the most comfortable bed of our entire trip!

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Even though the resort seemed to want to hold us hostage to their overpriced and less than delicious food, Jessica took matters into her own hands and negotiated with a taxi to break us out the second night and take us into town for a great dinner. On the way back we stopped at a convenience store for snacks and our exuberant multi-generational group felt like a bunch of kids stocking up on junk food!

On our last morning, we said goodbye to our new friends, and Will, Jessica and I flew back to Kuala Lumpur so that Will and I could catch our flight that night to Tokyo where we would have an 11 hour layover. Stay tuned…

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Several Penang photos courtesy of Paul Oliva, our good friend and guide to Malaysia!

Burma/Myanmar

By Will

Last week, we were in Burma/Myanmar. Myanmar is the official name of the country, but the United States and a few other countries still call it Burma due to how the military rule changed the name without the country’s input and their past track-record in human rights. This is also what the pro-democracy groups in the country prefer as well. So, that’s what we’ll call it.

While traveling, a word that you hear thrown around a lot is authentic. “This place is so authentic.” “Ugh, that tour was so inauthentic.” I’m sure everyone has their own exact definition for what this means; but to me it comes down to how much has a place adapted to cater to Western (and the rapidly increasing number of Asian) tourists. By that standard, Burma was, by far, the most authentic place we’ve visited.

Street in Yangon

Street in Yangon

This is largely due to the ruling military junta’s decades of isolating the country from the world. Over the last few years it has started to open up to the world, as well as introduce democracy through baby steps. A New York Times article from 2012 talked about the authenticity of Burma by saying,  “Nobody there knows that they should be selling you a T-shirt.”

While that has changed, slightly, we were blown away by how different the country was from our other experiences. In Indonesia, you would find traditional dress usually just in the villages and smaller towns, or for ceremonies. The cities we frequented were filled with people wearing Western clothes and adhering to Western fashion norms. In Burma, though, the cities were filled with men and women wearing sarongs, men chewing betel nuts and tobacco (and the blood-red spit that accompanies it) and women wearing thanaka – a golden colored powder from ground bark – in place of makeup.

A woman we met. Look closely and you can see the

A woman we met. Click the picture for a closer and you can see the thanaka on her cheeks. For others it was much more prominent on their cheeks and forehead.

Our trip began with two days in Yangon (formerly, and more commonly, known as Rangoon) where we toured the two most famous pagodas in the country and gorged on cheap street food. Our experience was that English wasn’t widespread in Yangon, so there was lots of pointing and miming and sometimes the Burmese person just picking something for us; but it always turned out perfectly. For dinner on our first night there, we saw a street hawker with some delicious looking satay. Through miscommunication we ended up ordering two of everything he was making which included a salad, a soup and some fantastic Indian bread, in addition to the satay. We couldn’t have made a better mistake and it was wonderful. It didn’t hurt that it cost us less than five dollars, too.

The following night, we boarded an overnight bus to Bagan, more centrally located in the country. The bus was…interesting. It was super comfy and felt pretty safe. We made stops for the bathroom and food three times during the eight hour trip. The weird part was the movie they chose to show. I have no idea what it was; but it seemed to be based on zombies. There was nudity, incredibly gory violence and no sound. An odd choice for a bus full of strangers, which included children.

Once we arrived in Bagan we were in awe of what we encountered.

A very abbreviated backstory: about 1,000 years ago there was a king who ordered the construction of thousands of Buddhist temples, stupas and monasteries. Over the course of three centuries more than 10,000 were built in a relatively small area. Today there are still more than 2,000 standing.

As we walked and rode electric bicycles, we would pass them by the dozens and we could stop and explore. The bigger temples had hawkers selling food and souvenirs (like I said, things have changed slightly since that NYTimes article was written); but the vast majority were just open for individual exploration. We would stand in a field and see hundreds of temples without seeing another human. It was incredible and the photos below do it no justice. Make sure to click to see large versions on some of the zoomed out shots, you’ll see many temples dotting the plains.

After two nights in Bagan, we returned to Yangon for a night before returning to Kuala Lumpur. Without debate, we both agreed that Burma was the highlight of our travels. So, if you are looking for a little adventure and a whole lot of authenticity, GO! NOW!

Singapore

By Amy

One good thing that came our of our cancelled trip to Nepal was that we got to spend about two days in Singapore which we hadn’t planned on. My cousin Steve was staying with a childhood friend of his in Singapore while recovering from a broken ankle and we were lucky enough to stay there too.

It was great to stay with someone who lives in Singapore because we really got a great taste of the country that is a city in a short time. Steve and Mike were waiting for us at the airport when we landed and quickly drove us to Mike’s house were we had lunch and dropped off our bags. Staying in a home was a nice break. After a month of travel Will and I were feeling pretty road-weary, I had a cold, and we were dragging.

Despite being tired, we still had things to see! After lunch we went downtown to the marina area and took a boat ride complete with audio to get a quick overview of the city and some of its incredible architecture. After the boat ride we walked down the glitzy shopping area of Orchard Road and then had a beer and burgers for dinner at the American Club where Steve and Mike are members. Obviously, the burgers were great.

The next day we went for a walk around the Singapore Botanic Gardens which has been around for about 150 years and is gorgeous. We spent the rest of the day relaxing and having lunch and dinner at the house.

That night Mike, Steve, Will and I ventured back downtown to have a drink in the rooftop bar of the iconic Marina Bay Sands hotel. The building is made of three towers with a boat-like structure resting at the top. After our $20 beers, we had some late night satay from a food stall area.

Drinks on top of the Marina Bay Sands hotel.

Drinks on top of the Marina Bay Sands hotel.

We really got to see the sights of Singapore in a short time while finding some time to rest as well. Singapore is an interesting place. It’s clean and shiny and rich and expensive. There are so many rich people and so many immigrant workers. The architecture is uber-modern. It feels like the Jetsons without the robots and flying cars. It was unlike any other country we’d been to.

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We were also so grateful to get to see Steve again before heading home. Steve is my Dad’s first cousin, and while we knew each other well, we really bonded as the two family members in Southeast Asia over the last two years. It was great getting to see him so much during our time here and I’m going to miss him.

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Vietnam: Halong Bay and Sapa

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By Amy

When Will and I were researching our trip to Vietnam, we quickly realized how inexpensive it was to purchase tours to get around. As part of our weeklong package via our hotel in Hanoi, we purchased a trip to Halong Bay and to Sapa.

Halong Bay is a UNESCO Wolrd Heritage site and is made of up thousands of limestone karsts and isles. It’s stunningly beautiful and we spent the night there (to our pleasant surprise) on a rather luxurious boat.

That isn't a landmass in the distance, just more of the same formations you see in the foreground

That isn’t a landmass in the distance, just more of the same formations you see in the foreground

Our tour picked us up from our hotel in Hanoi on day one, and, along with our group of about 12 other people who we really enjoyed getting to know, we drove about four hours down to Halong City where we immediately got onto a boat despite the pouring rain.

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Our boat

We checked into our cabin which was very neat and spotless and then proceeded to lunch in the dining room as we zoomed by the limestone karsts outside. The rain let up quickly and we loaded onto our tender and motored out to one of the caves that you can find in the many hollow islands. We visited the “Surprising Cave.” I was a little skeptical about this big “surprise” but the cave was a series of caverns that became bigger and bigger as you kept going. The last one was huge and reminded me a lot of Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. Though the cave was lit up with multi-color lights, and they especially loved highlighting the features that most resembled human genitalia, we still found it impressive. We then went to another island where we were able to climb stairs to get a great view of the Bay. After climbing back down we spent about an hour or so swimming on the beach.

The technicolor caves

The technicolor caves

Other notable events during our time in Halong Bay included kayaking, a couple getting engaged on the boat, an adorable teenager turning 15 and meeting lots of interesting people from all over Europe and Australia.

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Next on the itinerary was a trip to Sapa in Northern Vietnam. We were dropped off at our hotel after Halong Bay, showered, ate dinner and then headed to the train station for an overnight train to Sapa.

Sapa

Sapa

We arrived at Sapa in the morning, checked into our hotel, ate breakfast and were met by our tour guide. Along with 12 other tourists and about eight local Hmong women we started out on a 12 kilometer walk through the terraces of the Sapa area.

Our group hiking through the terraced rice fields.

Our group hiking through the terraced rice fields.

Apparently hoards of Hmong women ride up to Sapa town on motor bikes in the morning and find a tour group to walk with. They help you get through the slippery areas and many of them speak English really well, so we were able to ask a lot of questions about things like their daily lives, education in the villages and agriculture. Of course we were fully aware that once we arrived at their villages they’d want to sell us some of their woven handicrafts, and of course we were more than happy to buy them. In my view, they spent the entire morning hiking with us, and they opened their village and lives to tourists so it was the least we could do.

Some of the Hmong women helping our group down a muddy hill.

Our group with the Hmong women on the left

We really enjoyed the town of Sapa as well and it turned out to be a surprisingly fun little town. It reminded us of a ski village. There were lots of local and Western restaurants, cool coffee shops, stores to buy (knockoff) Northface gear and hiking shoes, cheap massages (we got two foot massages after our hikes!), boutiques and the weather was very pleasant compared to the heat of Hanoi. We would have loved to spend a few more days there, but our tour was almost over. On our second night there, we headed back to the train station for another overnight train to Hanoi.

These tours allowed us to see so much in such a short time, and even though we were worn out at the end we had a blast and met lots of interesting and fun people.

Vietnam: Hanoi and Saigon

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By Will

First, an update on our travels: Before leaving for Vietnam, we received an email from AirAsia telling us that our flight to Nepal was cancelled. We should have been there this past week, but due to issues with rescheduling, we had to scrap it from our trip. We were disappointed, but it gave us a chance to visit Saigon, as well as fly to Singapore to meet Amy’s cousin who lives there and spend a few nights checking out that amazing city. Tomorrow we leave for Myanmar for six days and then we’ll return to Kuala Lumpur for our last week before heading home.

Two weeks ago we arrived in Hanoi. We weren’t sure what to expect, but it was essentially the epitome of chaos. A 1,000 year old city, swamped in motorcycles and cars on streets that were designed well-before the invention of either. It was overwhelming at first, but we really grew to appreciate its character.

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A less crowded street, but you can get an idea of the size of the streets from the two cars trying to pass each other.

We stayed in the Old Quarter of the city where the streets still follow the same layout that they’ve followed throughout the city’s history. Certain streets sell certain things. So, if you are looking for clothes, you head to that street. Fabric? That’s another street. It was cool to walk around a bit lost on those streets and take in the sights, sounds and smells…all of which usually involved delicious pork.

We took a city tour, which was really great. The heat was oppressive in Hanoi, so without the tour, I don’t know that we would have ever gotten out during the mornings or afternoons to see the sights. We saw some of the city’s more famous pagodas, the grounds of what is (arguably) the world’s first university, Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum and the government complex that included the houses he lived in while he served as president of the North Vietnamese. On the note of Ho Chi Minh, obviously the history of Vietnam and the United States was impossible to ignore, and we heard several references to it, but we never had any interactions that were less than friendly. Most people who heard we were Americans would just say something along the lines of, “Oh, we are friends now!”

Aside from our day around the city and roaming around the Old Quarter, the other notable thing about Hanoi was the beer. Everyday, beer is brewed fresh and in the evenings it is sold for 25 cents a glass! The already crowded streets become absolutely packed as stools are taken into the road to accommodate all of the socializing that seemed to take place every night.

Following two nights in Hanoi, we took trips to Halong Bay and Sapa, which will be detailed in the next post. After Sapa we returned to Hanoi for another night before flying to Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City.

Saigon is very different from Hanoi in that it is more of a bustling metropolis with wide streets and tall buildings. Our time there was a bit more relaxed as we enjoyed the more modern city, taking in a movie and drinks at a cool bar on top of the city’s tallest building.

You can see there is actually a sidewalk here in Ho Chi Minh City!

You can see there is actually a sidewalk here in Ho Chi Minh City!

We had so much success with the city tour in Hanoi, we decided to arrange one in Saigon as well. There aren’t quite the same number of sights, but we saw some interesting places like a cathedral that had all of its materials shipped from Europe in the 1800’s and a post office designed by Gustav Eiffel.

Next we saw what definitely ranks highly on the sights of our entire trip, the Reunification Palace. This was the palace of the President of the South Vietnamese and remains in the exact same shape as it was when Ho Chi Minh’s armies busted through the gates in 1975. Other than cleaning and renovation for tourists, nothing else has been updated. Its like a time capsule and we kept expecting to see Don Draper walk through one of the rooms at any moment.

Next we visited the War Remnants museum, which was a tough place to visit. It is about the Vietnam War with a fair amount of bias to the displays. Regardless, it was interesting to learn about the war through that perspective and to revisit many of the sad atrocities that occurred during the war.

On the same day we took this tour, we had a number of interactions with Kentucky! While touring the Reunification Palace, I saw a couple walking in front of us that caught my eye. The man was wearing a t-shirt that had John’s Running Shop on the back and he was carrying a bag imprinted with the word “y’all”. We asked if they were from Kentucky and they said that they had been living in Lexington for the last year. We exchanged email addresses and hope to catch up with them again once we’re all back home. While at the War Remnants museum, there was an exhibit about war photographers that had been donated by the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Later that night, as we were touring a market full of knock-off goods, we came across some UK shirts. As the end of our trip nears, we are becoming more excited about our next move back home!

Angkor Wat, Cambodia: Waiting a Lifetime to See It

Just before "sunrise".

By Will

When I was a kid, I often entertained myself by reading almanacs and thumbing through encyclopedias, usually with a flashlight after I was supposed to be asleep (real cool, I know). Something I saw in one of those books that always amazed me was the Angkor Wat temple in Cambodia. Even if you’ve never heard of it, you’ve seen it. It is a buddhist temple (actually the whole area has more than 100 temples, we all just know the most famous one) that is the world’s largest religious complex.

It isn’t hard to see why this was the stop on our trip I was most anticipating. I had waited a lifetime to see it and finally, nearly 25 years later, I got to. And it was even more amazing in person than I could have imagined.

We arrived in Siem Reap, Cambodia a couple of Fridays ago. Luckily, our travel plans overlapped with some other Peace Corps friends, so we spent a couple of days with those guys before they left for Vietnam (our next stop as well).

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Berselfi! Mike (1st on the left), Sam (3rd from the left), and a friend of Mike’s from home.

The next day, we left the hostel (Siem Reap Hostel – awesome place that is doing great things for its staff and community) and rented bicycles. Mike and Sam had biked all over East Java and Bali, and Amy and I had biked all over our tiny corner of East Java, so we thought it would be fitting to see the sights from bikes first. We knew that it would be impossible to see everything the first day, so we decided to hit the “minor” temples first and see the highlights by ourselves the next day as Mike and Sam had visited them the day prior.

We ended up biking about 25 miles that day in the sweltering heat. The temperature made our village in Indonesia seem downright cold. We visited and explored six temples, had lunch and took numerous breaks for water in what became a nearly eight hour adventure. It was pretty rough, but the sights were priceless.

The next morning, Amy and I were on our own again and we arranged to be picked up at 4:30am to see the sunrise over Angkor Wat. Being the morning person that I am, 4:30am wasn’t too bad, but I could hardly get Amy out of bed. After we were finally up and out, we rode in Cambodia’s version of a tuk-tuk, which is a two wheeled cart pulled by a motorcycle – quite a regal way to see the sights, and much more comfortable than the bike seat we had spent way-too-many hours on the day before.

Back in January we were visited by Jessica and Paul and went to see the sunrise over the volcano, Mt. Bromo. On that trip it was so overcast that the only thing we saw was a grey fog becoming lighter. Unfortunately, at Angkor Wat we also missed the sunrise due to overcast skies, but we still got some great pictures.

We weren’t quite sure where to go once our driver let us out to walk to the temple, so as we stumbled around in the dark, a man directed to the best spot for the best view of the temple. I was waiting for him to ask for a tip, but instead he told us to make sure to come to his food stall for breakfast. So, following the non-sunrise, we did and we ate the best (and first) omelette on a baguette I’ve ever had.

After breakfast, the driver took us to the “major” temples. The first was Bayon, a strange temple that has 216 faces gazing out of the temple’s external structures.

Next we visited Ta Prohm, a temple that lost its battle with nature and now is known for the trees growing in and around the walls of the site.

Lastly, we returned to Angkor Wat, entering from the backside, to tour the massive complex.

While the Angkor Wat complex alone was a life highlight, the town of Siem Reap is a jewel in itself. It is small and is situated around a river that flows through the town. Siem Reap hosts the one million tourists that visit Angkor Wat every year, so it has its fill of bars, restaurants and markets, yet still manages to have a small-town feel to it. Based on the town alone, I think I could have spent a month there.

Granted, Siem Reap isn’t quite like the rest of the country. Cambodia is a struggling country that is still feeling the effects of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge reign in the late 70’s. We saw a number of landmine victims begging on the streets, as well as performing traditional music throughout the town. Cambodia has partnered with several other countries to ensure the preservation and viability of Angkor Wat as a tourist destination and hopefully that can continue to lift the town of Siem Reap and beyond, as well as through the many NGOs and organizations based there.

I don’t know what the next month will hold as we visit Vietnam, Singapore, Myanmar and Malaysia; but, for now, Siem Reap and Angkor Wat have set a pretty high bar for the rest of our trip.