Monday, December 31, 2012

Happy New Year!

Well, we made it - we circumnavigated the globe. I've been meaning to post for over a week now.  Actually, I have at least three blog posts already started, but I thought that since its New Year's Eve I should write something a little more on point.

We returned from our trip stopping first in Dallas to see my family then heading on to Florida to spend some time with Charles' family.  I think it's fitting that we are ending this amazing year with our families. This year in many ways has revolved around families. We became our own family, surrounded by everyone who loves us in March of this year. We set out on an adventure together this summer, which allowed us to grow in our relationship and made me realize that traveling with your spouse and best friend alleviates a lot of homesickness.  We also learned the importance of family in cultures throughout the world, by interacting with families as we traveled.

As the end of 2012 draws near, I am grateful for the wonderful man I married, the life changing adventure we shared, and the family and friends that surround us. I am excited about what 2013 has to offer, and I can't wait to make more memories with the people I love.

Happy New Year!!!

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Magical Sapa

We arrived in Lao Cai at about 4:50 a.m. on the train, we had slept a little on our first overnight train, but it was bumpy and every time we stopped I woke up to see if it was time to get off.  We had arranged a shuttle through our hotel from Lao Cai to Sapa and were happy to see a man holding a sign waiting for us when we exited the train station.  He led us to a van and we put or back packs inside and sat and waited while he went to collect more passengers.  Little did we know we would be waiting for over an hour.  Finally, once they had a full van load of people we headed to Sapa.  It was a cold, foggy morning and we couldn't see anything out the window except white wispy fog moving through the bamboo and masking the mountains that I knew we were climbing only because my ears kept popping. 

The van dropped us at our hotel and we were offered some coffee and breakfast until our room was ready.  After a short morning nap, a skype chat with Paul and Meredith, and much needed showers we set out to explore the town of Sapa. 

We wandered down the foggy streets and caught glimpses of the mountains surrounding us and the buildings lining the narrow streets.  The first thing we had to do was find an ATM so we could get some money for lunch as we were standing in the middle of the market street looking at our map a girl dressed in traditional tribal clothes approached us and asked us to buy something.  We told her no and continued our search for the ATM, she followed us.  I asked her name, she replied "Mae" and then she said "I follow you."  Mae is 15 years old and lives in a village about 12km from the town of Sapa and she rides a motorbike into town every day to sell the crafts that she makes to the tourists who come here.  She showed us where the ATM was and we thanked her and kept on our way, and then I turned around, she was still following.  I decided to buy something from her, a gift for someone back home.  We thanked her and said goodbye and she said "see you tomorrow."  After lunch we wandered down the foggy streets and found a coffee shop with a second floor over looking the street below and Charles worked on a painting and I sat and read and we enjoyed hot, sweet Vietnamese coffee.  A little later, while Charles continued to paint the foggy view out the cafe window, I went for a walk down the street and stopped into one of the dozens of massage store fronts and got a Red Dzao foot soak and reflexology massage.  In the evening fog we walked back to our hotel to drop Charles' painting supplies back at the hotel before finding a place for dinner.  As we walked down the street we were approached by women dressed in the different garb from each village, each one smiled and said "buy from me," and we smiled in return and said "no thank you." 

We had dinner at a restaurant called Viet Emotion, which advertises itself as a Spanish tapas restaurant, but actually serves delicious authentic Vietnamese food - we didn't try the Spanish tapas.  The restaurant was playing Mexican music, which was so familiar sounding to us, that it took us a few minutes to notice how out of place it was in Sapa, Vietnam.  When the food came out Charles' chicken with mountain herbs was served on a steaming hot skillet, we joked that maybe it is the Vietnamese version of fajitas, which made the Mexican music seem a little less out of place, in a very odd sort of way.  My stir fried mountain vegetables and herbs were with noodles were my favorite Vietnamese dish of the trip, so far at least. 

Delicious dinner at Viet Emotion

I woke up the next morning excited to go trekking to the tribal villages surrounding the town of Sapa.  We arranged our tour through a company called Sapa Sisters, which is company run by the women in the villages and therefore the profits from the business go entirely to benefit the communities you visit.  We met our guide Mao at 9:00 a.m. in front of our hotel, I was surprised when I walked out to meet her that she had her 3 month old baby strapped to her back - he is precious!  She explained that we would go to three villages today, one of them being her own.  When Charles walked out of the hotel he was just as surprised as I was that Mao had her baby strapped to her back and that he would be joining us on the trek.  So, the four of us set off down the street and made our way towards the villages, but it didn't remain four of us for very long.  As we were taking the main road out of Sapa two other women that Mao knows joined us on the trek.  We walked down the muddy road into the fog together, it was awesome. 

Beginning our trek
We came to a small shop and Mao stopped and told us she wanted to buy some sugarcane.  I asked her what it was for and she responded as though it was the only possible use, that it was for eating.  So, as we continued on our way she handed us each a stick of freshly cut sugar cane to chew on as we walked.  And so, we walked through the fog and off the main road and onto a muddy trail.  The trail took us through the terraced rice paddies, still enshrouded in fog, and we hopped over fences and made our way closer to the first village.  The mud was slippery and sucked and pulled at your shoes as you walked through it.  The women who walked with us were wearing rubber boots and trudged through the mud as though it was nothing.  One of the women who joined us on the trek insisted on holding my hand as we descended on the really slippery parts of the trail.  Any time she thought that the terrain was getting a little too difficult she would grab my wrist and say "careful, eh" and then would look up at me and grin.  I just wanted to squeeze her in a big hug. 

Buying sugar cane.
Walking the rice terrace
After two and a half hours of walking through the mud down into the valley the fog began to lift and the magical of this place exposed itself, it was truly amazing.  The stair stepped terraces surrounded us and sloped down the mountains into a river in the valley below us, and we just had to stop and stare and what appeared below the fog.
The fog lifting

Me with Mao and her friends
After about three hours of walking we came to the second village, which was where we would have lunch, prepared by Mao's husband.  We crossed this bridge and made our way down into the village where we had a wonderful lunch of chicken fried rice and I had the chance to hold Mao's baby.  This was also where our other hiking companions said goodbye, of course not without trying to sell us some of their hand spun, woven, dyed, and embroidered goods.  We ended up buying one item from each woman, which made them both very happy.  Once we were finished eating we sat enjoying the beautiful view and talking about how special this experience has been, when we were surrounded by several precious faces - children of the village asking us to buy something from them.  As I've said before in my blog posts, I don't like to buy from the kids peddling, because it only encourages the trend and only benefits the parents, not the children.  Most of all it makes me sad that the children aren't in school.  One girl asked me if I wanted to buy something and I answered "no, thank you."  She stared up at me with her sweet face and replied back "yes, thank you," I couldn't help but smile, but I replied by asking her name.  She was surprised at the question but then told me her name was Sue and she was nine years old.  She was insistent that we buy something, anything, from her.  But I explained to her that we weren't buying anything and she turned to go.  She continued to watch us as we sat there and would smile and wave from the top of the stairs or glance our direction as she walked past, she was a smart sweet kid and we were immediately enchanted by her.  Before we left we met Mao's sister, who also is a guide for Sapa Sisters, she had the best laugh - it kind of burst out of her and made everyone around her smile.

Crossing the bridge to the second village
Saying goodbye to our trekking companions
The last half of our trek took us to one more village where we met more of Mao's family.  The sun came out and the sky turned bright blue and we could see the green expanse of terraced rice paddies in every direction.  Mao took us back up the mountain where we crisscrossed through the rice paddies and past small houses built into the slopes.  We met her aunt and her brother along the road.  We came across her mom helping to lay gravel into a new road.  We stopped in to see if we could find her father where he worked.  Mao took us to their family's shop where her father sells knives and her mother dyes fabric with indigo and she gave Charles a handful of the indigo paste so that he can try painting with it.

Rice terraces near Sapa

Vat of indigo dye
Stopping to chat with Mao's mother on the road.

Muddy shoes

Our trek lasted from about 9:00 a.m. until about 3:00 p.m. and covered around 10km, we think.  It was one of the most incredible experiences we have had, and we cherished having a local guide who could take us off the beaten path and allow us to interact with her family. At the end of our hike Mao called her uncle and her brother to take us back to Sapa on their motorbikes.  While we waited I took this picture of Mao and her baby while Charles played with the family dog.  Thank you Mao for your wonderful hospitality, we loved our day trekking with you. 


Charles petting the family dog.
We got off of the motorbikes in Sapa feeling very satisfied with our day.  As we sat at a cafe perched on the side of the mountain overlooking the rest of the town we felt very lucky to have spent the day trekking in this amazing place.  Then as we sat the clouds and fog that make Sapa so mysterious and magical began to roll back into the valley to shroud the villages again until tomorrow.  Oh, Sapa - what a place!

Fog rolling in

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Ha Long Bay

We took a two day one night cruise on Ha Long Bay, one of the most well known tourist attractions in Vietnam and an UNESCO world heritage sight. I had heard many mixed reviews about whether it was worth it to go - some people said it was wonderful and others that it was over crowded, polluted, and depressing. So, I started to research and came across a company called Darian Culbert on TripAdvisor.  There were numerous good reviews about their booking service in Ha Long Bay, so I sent them an email. We received a recommendation to take the Dragon Pearl cruise through a company called Indochina Junk (the boats are called junks). This company operates in a different part of the bay than the other tour operators, which means it is less crowded and therefore more pristine.  I took the advice and booked the Dragon Pearl for our Halong Bay excursion.  I was also very happy to learn that Darien Culbert could book our train tickets to Sapa - thanks again, we are very grateful we found a good company to help us with our bookings.

We were picked up at our hotel in Hanoi and shuttled to the bay, which is about 3 hours away.  It was about 12:30 when we were taken out to our junk boat, the Dragon Pearl 3. We had lunch and got to know some of the other passengers. We ended up sitting next to two girls from Berlin at lunch, Isabel and Paulina, they were really fun to get to know. The food at lunch was fantastic and as soon as we thought it was nearing the end another dish was brought out. After lunch we spent the afternoon visiting a cave on one of the limestone islands and going kayaking in the bay. It was a great way to spend the afternoon and gave us a different perspective of our surroundings than we had on the junk boat.

Welcome drink on the boat - warm pineapple juice - interesting

From the cave with junk boats in the background

Post kayaking
Our itinerary gave us the evening to hang out on the top deck of the boat and we ended up visiting more with Isabel and Paulina. They served dinner around 7:00 - another meal with dish after dish of delicious food. After dinner the crew was fishing and invited guests to fish as well. We didn't end up participating, but we watched and visited with a woman named Jennifer from Singapore whose two boys were fishing.  She shared so much information about Singapore, now we can't wait to visit some day. Everyone turned in pretty early because breakfast was being served the next morning at 7:00 a.m. so that we could visit a floating fishing village at 8:30.

The fishing village was very interesting, the families live on floating houses and earn their living farming fish, cultivating pearls, and participating in Eco-tourism. We visited the local school where children from ages 3-11 all sat in one room having lessons.  Then we watched as a young girl from the village did a demonstration on inserting the necessary matter and seed into the oyster to create the pearl.  It was really cool.

School in the floating village in Ha Long Bay
The floating village

Cultivating pearls in oysters
We had lunch on the junk as we made our way back to the port. All in all we really enjoyed our quick trip on the Dragon Pearl 3. It is a very fast trip and you are kept on a tight itinerary, but worth it to see the beautiful scenery. I highly recommend Indochina Junk- they did a fantastic job!

We rode back to Hanoi with the family from Singapore and enjoyed visiting with them a little more. We had so much fun making new friends on our trip to Ha Long Bay. Jennifer, Isabel, and Paulina - if you are reading, don't forget to send us an email so we can stay in touch! It was a pleasure meeting you all (or y'all as we say in Texas).

We spent the afternoon in Hanoi just hanging out before we got on our night train to Sapa. Luckily the train was on time and although there was some confusion about our tickets, overall it was a good experience albeit rather bumpy.

Tomorrow we are going trekking with a guide from one of the local hill tribes near Sapa - I can't wait! I'm hoping for good weather - today its so foggy you can hardly see 10 feet in front of you. No matter what we should meet some interesting people and learn about the unique culture in this part of Vietnam.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

travel days

Note:  I wrote this on Sunday December 9th.

I’m kind of grouchy today, and tired (maybe I’m grouchy because I’m tired).  We are currently on a flight from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi.  I like to use flight time to write because usually it’s a long enough span of time to get some good work done and it distracts me from the travel time.  Today’s travel day seems a little more difficult than some of the previous ones, it’s probably because we are nearing the end of our trip, and they (travel days) have been a little more frequent in this part of the world. 

On December 5th (also known to me as my sister’s birthday – Happy Birthday Marisa!) we took a bus from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh.  The bus ride was a long and bumpy one – it took us a little over 6 hours, with one 20 minute break, to make the journey between the two cities, but we made it in one piece and were relieved to find that there were easy to arrange tuk-tuks waiting at the bus stop.  I was very happy to have one 6 hour bus ride and another travel day behind me, and was dreading the one from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh City a little less.  

Some of the snacks for sale at our rest stop (we didn't partake).
We arrived at our hotel after dark and had to find a restaurant for dinner, we walked toward the busy riverside area of Phnom Penh in hopes of finding a restaurant.  We saw one across from the park near our hotel and decided to stop in, it was one of our least favorite meals of the trip, but at least we had eaten.  On our way home we discussed our poor restaurant choice and vowed to find a better spot the next night.  Our plan for the next day was to visit the two museums in the city that provide the sad history of the Cambodian people under the Khmer Rouge.  We knew that it would be a heart wrenching and difficult day, but we felt that it was important to visit the museums while we are here, in order to better understand the history of the country and the suffering of the Cambodian people. 

The museums were terribly hard and sad to see.  My heart sank over and over again as I read stories from the war and learned about the genocide that occurred here.  All of it was so hard to see and hear and read about.  I am glad we went to the museums though and I think we both had an easier time with the information in the museums since we had read books written by survivors in the weeks leading up to our visits.  After our draining morning of learning about the painful past we didn’t have much energy for any more sightseeing.  Instead, we spent the afternoon just hanging out around our hotel, something we both definitely needed.  That evening we succeeded in finding a better restaurant option for dinner, we had a delicious Cambodian dish called Amok at a restaurant near the river. On our way home Charles was invited to play soccer in the park, see the "team" picture below.

Amok - delicious
Pickup soccer in Phnom Penh
The next morning we had just enough time for a visit to the Central Market in Phnom Penh before we got on our bus to Ho Chi Minh City.  I especially enjoyed walking through the food stalls in the market and seeing the various types of fish and produce available.  The variety was like none that we have seen anywhere.  
Central Market, Phnom Penh

Seafood for sale in the market
That afternoon we got on the bus to head to Vietnam, another travel day.  We lucked out on this bus trip, we had seats 1a and 1b on the bus, and it was awesome.  Well, as awesome as riding on a bus for almost 7 hours can be.  In the early evening we arrived at the border.  After the ordeal that we underwent getting out of Thailand and into Cambodia, we weren’t really sure what to expect.  Relief waved over us when we got off the bus to see there were no lines to be stamped out of Cambodia.  We each gave our fingerprints, had our photo taken, and were stamped on our way.  We got back on the bus and then drove few minutes to the customs for Vietnam.  This was a little less organized and there was a little waiting involved.  We met a really cool couple from Colorado while we were in line and really enjoyed chatting with them – they are crazy fast travelers like us!  Once we were stamped into Vietnam we were on our way, back on the bus and headed to Ho Chi Minh City.  A few hours later we were nearing the city.  Charles had chatted a little more with Chris (our new friend from Colorado) during the second half of our bus ride and had been warned about scams and thieves in Vietnam.  We braced ourselves for the possibility of getting ripped off as we got off the bus. 
The place where they let you off the bus in Ho Chi Minh isn’t really a bus station, it’s just a street.  They let you off the bus and start unloading your bags onto the sidewalk, where you are surrounded by pestering taxi drivers and peddlers.  Charles and I assembled all of our belongings and before we knew it we were being assured by one of the cab drivers that he knew our hotel and could take us there.  Wanting to get out of the madness on the street as soon as possible, we agreed to let him take us to our hotel.  After Charles put his last bag into the back of the taxi he turned to get into the back seat, while the taxi driver began rearranging the bags in the back of the van.  Charles noticed the cab driver had his hands on his backpack.  Charles got into the back seat and immediately turned around to lift his backpack over the backseat into his lap, the zippers had been pried apart.  Since our incident in Jerusalem we have started keeping locks on our bags, and this time the lock prevented the bag from being opened, but we were bothered by the fact that our cab driver had just tried to open our bag and steal from us.  We were already in the car with all of our stuff and the car was moving, we weren’t sure what to do.  We made sure nothing had been taken from the bag and I pulled my daypack bag into my lap to check the zipper and lock, it seemed untouched.  We rode muttering to each other in the back seat, at this point I was worried when he dropped us off he would try to drive off with our bags in the back of the van.  After winding the long way through the city we arrived near our hotel, but the driver said he couldn’t pull up in front of the hotel.  I pulled as many of our items into my lap from the back of the van ready to get out, in case he tried to take off.  He charged us $20 for the cab ride and did not turn off the engine or get out of the car to help us get our bags from the back of the van.  Charles wanted to yell at the guy for trying to get into his bag, but we were also worried about him taking off with our stuff.  As soon as we pulled our bags out of the van the guy took off.  Charles was walking toward the driver's side door to talk to him about tampering with our bag but the guy was speeding forward and all Charles could do was point towards the backpack that had been tampered with.  Needless to say, we didn’t feel we had the best welcome into Vietnam or Ho Chi Minh City.  We were tired and hungry and discouraged.  After venting about the ordeal in our room and making sure none of our belongings had been tampered with we went to find some dinner.  The hotel front desk warned us to be careful of pick pockets while walking around, for that reason we picked the first restaurant we saw.  The food was good and the staff was friendly and helpful and best of all, they all sang along to the various American songs playing over the sound system in the restaurant – it definitely brightened my mood. 

The next morning we took it slow and didn’t head out for sightseeing until about 11:00.  Our plan was to visit a few museums in Ho Chi Minh and maybe check out the well-known Ben Than market in town.  We enjoyed walking through the city parks and the Notre Dame Cathedral on our way to the War Remnants Museum.  We both were prepared for another emotional day, but had heard from several people that the museum was worth visiting.  It was, but it was very sad and it definitely made us see the Vietnam War in a new light.  It left me feeling sad for both sides, so many people died in such horrific ways.  I also learned how the war continues to affect the people of Vietnam – Agent Orange.  I had heard the term, but I really had no idea the ramifications it had on the human body.  I didn’t know that it continues to mutilate the genes of children born in Vietnam today.  It’s so sad. 

When we left the museum we were both quiet, and we walked in silence in the heat and decided it was time for lunch.  We stopped into the first restaurant we saw and ordered Pho Bo – beef noodle soup.  It took us a few minutes to get our heads in the right frame of mind to discuss the things we had seen in the museum.  As we sat in the restaurant eating our soup the restaurant owner began putting up Christmas decorations and a few minutes later started playing Christmas music.  It was just the thing we needed to move us out of our somber thoughts and into the present. 

We braved the streets of Ho Chi Minh City and darted across the street, grateful for every near miss we had with a motorcycle.  Eventually we made our way to the art museum.  Looking at art in a beautiful old building was the perfect way to end the afternoon.  That night we visited the historic Rex Hotel, which is where the press corps held their daily “Five O’Clock Follies” conference with the American military command.  The hotel has an interesting history and a great view of the city, which is full of Christmas light displays.  It was a day full of history, and while it was somewhat difficult to swallow at times, we are happy with our time in Ho Chi Minh and the information we learned while there. 

Christmas decorations in Ho Chi Minh

Art Museum in Ho Chi Minh

Rooftop Bar at the Rex Hotel in Ho Chi Minh

Which brings us to today, our most recent travel day from Ho Chi Minh to Hanoi, I had to stop writing this post about half way through because we were landing at the airport and I had to turn off the computer.  So, the last portion of this was written in Hanoi.  My mood got better once we landed in Hanoi and my grouchiness totally dissipated when on the ride to our hotel from the airport our driver honked happily in rhythm with the dance techno music playing on the radio – it was awesome. 

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Another border crossing into an amazing country

Note:  I wrote this blog post a few days ago while we were still in Siem Reap visiting some of the temples in Angkor Wat.  I often will write some while Charles is painting, it allows him to produce art work that documents our travels and me to absorb what's around me and reflect on our travels. 

Today is our second day in Angkor Wat. The temples are beautiful, the people are so happy and friendly, and the food is delicious - we really like Cambodia.  Sitting in the jungle surrounded by ancient temples is pretty incredible.  This place in many ways reminds me of Petra, I guess in that they are both amazing wonders of architecture built so long ago, but still withstanding the tests of time and in this case jungle.

When we were deciding on how to get to Siem Reap we debated whether to take a bus, to fly (what almost everyone recommended to us), or to take private cars/taxis.  Since we have had good luck with private cars and taxis, we decided to go that route, it was cheaper than the plane (by a lot) but meant we wouldn't have to wait on a bus once we got to the Cambodia border.  The ride to the border of Thailand was fast and easy. We obtained our visas and filled out our Cambodian entry card  in a restaurant before we were taken to the Thailand departure terminal. That is where we found an extremely long line.  It was only once we were in this line that Charles and I wondered whether the visas sold to us at the restaurant for a total of $84 were actually legitimate, guess we were going to find out.  The guide who was escorting us through the border led us half way up the line to a group wearing stickers similar to ours, he said "you are with this group," and he walked away. We tried to smile and not make anyone angry as we seemingly cut in front of a couple hundred people. Then came the waiting in the hot humid 90 degree Thailand sun. It was so hot, and since we had no idea the wait would be like this, we had no water. We went from one line to another line lugging our backpacks and getting stamped out of one country and into another. The entire process took about 3 hours, which must be why most people pay the extra money to fly.
Filling out the forms for our Cambodian Visa at a restaurant near the border

The very long line to get stamped out of Thailand

Walking across the border into Cambodia (we didn't know at this point we had another long line ahead of us)

We finally arrived in Siem Reap after another 2.5 hours in the car, and we spent the evening enjoying our first Khmer dinner and cheap $0.75 beer.

I have been looking forward to visiting Angkor Wat our entire trip. I had heard from so many people that it was such a special and beautiful place. All of those things I read and heard do not do this place justice. To see such magnificent architecture tucked into the jungle and surrounded by villages where people still live without electricity is truly special.

The people here, especially the children, make me smile. The stories of their past make me want to cry, and yet they seem so happy, I can only smile in return.  Yesterday two Cambodian girls, who were touring the temples with their family, followed me through the temple of Banteay Srei asking me questions in English. Eventually they tried to ask me to take a photo with them, but they were asking in Khmer. A tour guide overheard them and told me that was what they wanted. I agreed of course! I took a picture with each little girl, then their mother, then their father, then their grandmother, then their grandfather.  Finally, after they had taken all the necessary pictures with their camera, I asked them to take one with mine.  Charles was watching all this unfold behind me, I was wondering where in the world he had gone.  (I posted the picture in my other Cambodia post which you can find here.) 

10 crammed full days

Between November 22nd and December 1st we became determined fast travel road warriors, we went from Kochi, India to Bandos Island, Maldives to Yala National Park, Sri Lanka to Bangkok, Thailand to Siem Reap, Cambodia.  I knew when we were creating this itinerary that this part would be crammed with activity and would fly by. Charles and I discussed whether it was wise to cram all this in, but we had to land in Colombo, Sri Lanka and Bangkok, Thailand in order to get to our next destination and so, we decided to lengthen the stopovers and spend a few nights.  We have learned that when traveling for this long any stop under 3-4 nights is hard and tiring.  But, we approached the Maldives, Sri Lanka and Bangkok with a little bit of a different attitude - these were bonus stopovers, not exploring destinations and when given the chance to spend three days or none, we decided we would take the three days.  Inevitably we wish we had more time in them, but it seems better to have spent a few days than to not see them at all. 

The Maldives was a once in a lifetime stop, it is a destination worthy of a honeymoon or anniversary because it is so far away and so expensive to visit.  The flight to get here didn't increase our flight cost in our package with Air Treks, so it was basically a free stopover on the way to our next destination.  The fact that the Maldives is made up of hundreds of small islands means that you have to take a boat or a plane to your hotel from the airport. We chose an island pretty close to the airport to keep the costs and travel distance lower. We stayed at Bandos resort for three nights - it was awesome. It reminded us a little of the Caribbean, but was much more rustic and felt less touristy. We spent most of our time relaxing on the beach, snorkeling, reading, painting (Charles, not me), and just enjoying the beautiful scenery around us.  The snorkeling was the best I have ever experienced.  We saw tons of bright colored fish, a puffer fish, and two pretty good sized black tip sharks. We really loved the Maldives and can see why it is such a famous destination. I doubt we will ever make it back there, but I am so glad we visited while we were so close. 

Charles' painting spot in the Maldives

Snorkeling - feeding frenzy
Early morning boat ride to the airport

Our three day stop over in Sri Lanka turned into something completely unexpected. We initially planned to spend a couple of days exploring Colombo, maybe taking a day trip to an elephant orphanage or visiting the Buddhist temples in Kandy. We completely strayed from that plan when I came across a national park in Sri Lanka called Yala. This park has one of the highest densities of leopards in the world. A little more research led me to a hotel called Chaaya Wild Yala, which is located within the park. The problem, it was about 300km from Colombo, and as we had learned in India, that meant about a 6 hour drive. We discussed it, slept on it, then booked a two night stay at Chaaya.  Yes, we have completely lost our minds at this point. 

If you ever make it to Sri Lanka you must go to Chaaya Wild Yala and do a safari in Yala National Park.  This three day stopover in Sri Lanka has turned into one of the highlights of our trip.  The people in Sri Lanka are so kind and the country is beautiful and full of incredible animals. On our drive from Colombo to the national park we drove through the hill country (the middle part of the island), we saw elephants and peacocks along the side of the road. The drive was slow, but the scenery was pretty, and the roads were much calmer than those in India, which we were happy about.  We arrived at our hotel after about 20 minutes on a rutted out red dirt road.  The hotel itself feels a little like camp, all the guests gather around chatting at the end of the day about what they saw on that days safari.  Everyone stays in cabins on the property and you have to have a guide walk you to and from your cabin after dark, in case there are elephants or wild boar on the trail.  After dropping off our stuff in our room we went to book our safaris for the next day.  We debated for a bit whether to do a half day or a full day, morning or afternoon, two mornings, or just one morning.  We ended up deciding to go out both morning and afternoon the next day. 

We woke up at 5:00 a.m. and stumbled out of bed to go meet our safari guide and driver.  This hotel was already awesome in my book, but it jumped even higher when I found that they had hot coffee and croissants waiting for those of us getting up before dawn to go on safari.  Our safari guide said that a line forms to enter the park just before six, so we met him at 5:30 to beat the crowd.  We were one of the first groups to enter the park that morning.  Getting out early ended up paying off.  Our first animal sighting of the day was a leopard!!!!

Our safari vehicle

First animal sighting of the day - a leopard

We waited for almost an hour to see if we could catch another glimpse of this leopard, but he was napping in the brush, so we moved on.  Our next animal sighting was a  sloth bear, which was more exciting to our driver and guide, as they are much more rare in this park.

Sloth Bear (aka Baloo from the Jungle Book)

We went back to check on the leopard, but he was still napping.  We waited a few minutes longer and saw him jump up into a tree, but I didn't get any more pictures.  The rest of our morning safari we saw several elephants, numerous birds - the most colorful being the peacocks and Indian bee-eaters, some spotted deer, and crocodiles feasting on something in the lake.  We went back to our hotel for a late breakfast/lunch and spent the middle part of the day, when it's hottest, hanging out at the hotel.  Charles attempted to paint on the terrace of the main building, until he had an altercation with some grey langur monkeys who surrounded him and began knocking over chairs and hovering above him seemingly ready to pounce.  He decided to relocate his painting to the pool.  I was heading to the pool when I was warned by a hotel employee that there was an elephant eating on the trail and that I would have to wait a few minutes.  Not wanting to interrupt a wild elephant from eating, I waited and ended up visiting with two lovely women from England.  Seriously - this place is awesome.  I finally made it to the pool and went for a swim and had just enough time to get back to the room and change for our afternoon safari. 
On the afternoon safari we saw two more leopards, several elephants, a few peacocks, spotted deer, sambal deer, water buffalo, several mongoose (or is it mongeese?), monitor lizards, crocodiles, and tons of colorful migrating birds.  It was a great afternoon!  We got back to the hotel just after dusk and were happy to eat dinner and get some sleep.  

Peacock and spotted deer
Mongoose (aka Rikki Tikki Tavi)
Third leopard of the day

Safari Sunset
The next morning we left Yala National Park, very satisfied with our animal sightings and loving our time at Chaaya.  We took the ocean road back to Colombo so we could visit the historic city of Galle, which has a history of both Portuguese and Dutch colonies.  

Charles on the fortress wall of Galle

Dutch church in Galle

We arrived in Colombo after dark, but we still had a few hours to kill before we went to the airport, so we did what all the guidebooks say people do in Colombo, we went shopping. We were surprised and rather happy to see Christmas decorations in the mall and hear that they were playing English Christmas music.  It was kind of nice to get a little touch of the holidays while we are so far from home.  That night at about 1:30 a.m. we boarded a plane to Bangkok. 

We had to fly through Bangkok to get to Cambodia since it has the largest international airport in the region. Since we had to fly in here we figured we would spend a few days exploring the city.  We arrived at 6:25 a.m. after a red eye flight from Colombo, exhausted. We spent a couple hours resting in our hotel and then decided to check out the sights around us. Turns out, we are staying in the major shopping area. We went to a mall called MBK, which is 7 stories tall and is filled with shops and stalls.  It appears you can find anything - you can bargain for watches, shoes, bags, or clothes, you can get a massage, a facial, or have your teeth whitened, you can buy televisions or camera equipment, eat at dozens of restaurants, sing karaoke,  the options were endless and we didn't even visit every floor.  We went across the street to Siam Center, which is another mall that reminded us more of the malls we have at home. Then we walked next door into another mall, this one puts the Houston Galleria and North Park to shame - it was full of every designer store you can imagine. There was a hall of mirrors, an aquarium, and a huge movie theater. The movie theater was playing Skyfall in English on the IMAX screen later that evening and we jumped at the chance to sit and do something mindless in strong air conditioning.  The movie was great and the theater was fantastic.The only thing that made us realize we were watching a movie in Thailand and not at home in Houston was this - before the movie started a song and film started playing, everyone in the theater stood (we stood too, even though we weren't sure what was going on). Of course I had to google this tradition, here is what I found - it was the royal hymn and a video of the king, and it is played before every movie.  Interesting.

Our second day in Bangkok we went to the Grand Palace.  This place is so full of color and pattern and sparkles it is hard to believe.  We made our way through the complex of temples, visited the famous Emerald Buddha, and then sat for a while to take it all in.  Charles worked on a painting and I wandered around taking pictures and enjoying the colors and watching the hundreds of people visiting the temples. 

Grand Palace, Bangkok

Temple of the Emerald Buddha

Charles painting inside the Grand Palace
After the Grand Palace we went to check on the suit Charles was having made, something he was really looking forward to doing while we were in Southeast Asia.  We stopped into the tailor to do a preliminary measure of everything.  It's rather shocking you can have a suit and a sports coat made in about 36 hours here for about 1/3 of the cost of a suit in the U.S.  We were both pretty hungry after our morning of sight seeing and mid-day fitting, so we decided we would head to the famous Khaosan Road for lunch, mainly because I felt like I couldn't leave Bangkok without at least seeing what it's like.  We had fun wandering down the street looking at silly t-shirts and random gadgets sold by street vendors, smelling the various scents wafting from the food carts, we even stopped at one of the many spas on the street and got foot massages. 

Exploring Khaosan Road

Charles on Khaosan Road
Later that evening we walked along the river, then went to find the Bamboo Bar and have a drink and enjoy their live jazz music.  The Bamboo Bar is in one of the oldest hotels in Bangkok (the Mandarin Oriental) and is famous for being visited by Duke Ellington, Roger Moore, Audrey Hepburn, Ray Charles, Mick Jagger, Elizabeth Taylor, and David Bowie.  The place was really cool, tucked away inside the hotel, we found a table among the many visitors from around the world.  Our last stop of the evening was the night market off of Silom Street.  We figured we would walk - it didn't look that far on the map, after about 30 minutes of walking in the sticky 90 degree evening, we found it!  You can buy pretty much anything at the night market, this particular market seems to specialize in knock-offs.  It was lots of fun browsing and even doing a little bargaining. 

I had to get a photo with the Texas plate at the night market

Our pimped out VIP tuk-tuk back to the hotel
The next morning we headed for the Thailand / Cambodia border.  More on that to come.