Sunday, August 31, 2014

More Travel!

I've been struggling with making vacation plans for my Christmas break.  3 weeks, limited funds and so many options.  I worried that I'd become too jaded.  Nothing seemed to really catch my interest.  At least nothing that I could afford.

Cooking class?  Yeah, swell.  The description "You'll experience exotic ingredients like lemon grass and tamarind..."  Really?  That's everyday stuff when you live in SE Asia.

And the promise of seeing rows of monks?  The novelty of seeing monks wore off about 11 months ago.  Not that I'm not still amused seeing 3 monks on a motorbike or taking tourist photos, but the idea of flying to see more of the same just didn't get me excited.

And pagodas?  I've seen pagodas.  And monasteries.  A lot of them.  In multiple countries.  Not that I won't visit more but again, the idea of paying to fly to visit more?  Not really excited.

I sat down and thought about what I really want from this vacation.  I want culture.  Shopping for local crafts and antiques.  I want options for dining.  I want a nice hotel room with all the amenities and I don't want to pay much for it.

After days on the internet, I've finally booked what I think will be a great vacation.  Plus, I'll be adding two more countries to my list, bring me to 70.

From Mandalay, I'll fly to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, with a 2 hour layover in Bangkok (where I plan to eat either a Big Mac or Subway).  After a week enjoying the urban life, I'll fly to Vientiane, Laos for a couple of days and then fly on to Luang Prabang, Laos, where I'll spend a week.  From there, back to Bangkok for a few days and then back to Mandalay.  It should be a good combo of new sites and relaxation, developing world and luxury.

I promise there will be photos.

Catching Up

I can't believe it's been a month since I last posted.  The first weeks of school have been good, but busy.  Lots of changes.  A lot of new teachers in the apartment, a new class of kids who don't know the routine yet and just going about every day stuff has kept me busy and distracted.

I continue to enjoy living in Mandalay.  It is changing so rapidly here.  A new Ocean Superstore opened.  It's a mall with the grocery store (and more) as the largest tenant.  It is modeled after a western style store and is large, clean and wonderful.  The products are pretty much the same but the shopping experience is so much nicer than the old, crowded store.

The new store is in an area that is undergoing a transformation.  Across the street from the new stadium which was built for last year's SEA games, there are new luxury homes and condos going up, along with more stores.  It is totally different in "feel" than the rest of Mandalay.

A week ago a friend and I sat and watched people pour into the store.  It was a nonstop stream of mostly very well dressed, very wealthy people of a variety of ages.  Unlike an American mall, where sweats, flip flops and gym shoes prevail, the new Ocean customers are dressed to impress.  More like they're going to a nightclub than a grocery store.

I reconnected with a local friend I hadn't seen for quite awhile.  That was excellent - he's terrific and lived in the US for ten years and speaks fluent English.  He has the perspectives of both cultures and is able to communicate what's going on so it makes hanging out really interesting.

I promise to try to do a better job of posting.  In the meantime, here are some recent photos:
I taught the kids "Slap It" - a card game to help them learn odd and even numbers.  They love it.

We studied maps all week and on Friday they read a map to find a treasure.  All four teams were successful!

Happy times playing "Slap it"

Sunday morning view from my apartment.  The rainy season has finally begun.

I love the green and the view of all the pagodas.

The water buffalo strolling home after grazing behind my apartment.  There were also goats and cows today.  Water buffalos rule, though.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Orientation - Day One

Today was Day One for a week-long orientation session for new and existing teachers.  I put the first draft of the orientation schedule together so really wanted it to go well.

I did two sessions today, one a tour of the campus and the other on resources (personal and professional) for teachers.  They went ok.

The new group of 24 is eclectic and seem like they'll be a good addition to the school.  I must confess it was a bit disconcerting to have several of them say they'd read every word I'd written in this blog.  They were complementary and expressed thanks for giving them insights into living in Mandalay.  I hope they don't think they were hornswoggled.

I'm struggling with a technical problem this evening...it seems my electric cord for charging the battery isn't working properly.  Hopefully, I'll be able to buy a replacement cord as inexpensively here as I did in Malawi.

We were also told a new Ocean Superstore opened yesterday and is much larger and has more variety in products.  The school sent a bus for teachers to experience it but I was too lazy to go.  I'm hoping the reports are that it is as good as first reported.

Have to go.  Internet is out.  Charging my laptop is not working.  I don't seem to have great technology karma.  Admin keeps saying how much better the internet it but I have yet to see it, either in my apartment or classroom.  Arrggh.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

I'm Glad I Don't Live in Bangkok

I spent a very relaxing day, sequestered in my hotel room in Bangkok.  I'd planned to hit Chatuachak  Market and then some grocery shopping.  But it was grey and overcast and I just wanted to stay in, read and relax.  So I did.

But, a woman needs her food.  I had McDonalds deliver.  For about $1.25, they showed up in 15 minutes with my order.  I could also have ordered from KFC or a number of other restaurants, for about the same price.

Why don't we do more delivery in the US?  Why don't restaurants in Mandalay deliver?  They have motorbikes. It would be cheap.  It would also be bad for my diet.

For my last official day of vacation, it was perfect.  I'm playing with my new smart phone and charging my batteries.  I'll be flying home tomorrow to Mandalay.  I'm sorry vacation will be ending but am looking forward to being back home.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

True!

I'd like to dedicate this to fellow travelers and PCVs/RPCVs around the world.  Any toilet (or tree) will do, but if it's a Western style flush toilet in a clean, private bathroom, there is no better feeling.

A Few Days in Siem Reap and Angkor

Downtown Siem Reap.  Quick, how many Cambodians can you see in this photo?  1, waiting in his tuktuk to give the tourists a ride.
This vacation has been good and relaxing so far but I've felt a bit off center the whole time.  I've been trying to figure out why.  It started well, with an easy, short (50 min.) flight from Bangkok.  Visa on arrival was also easy and there was a nice guy with my name on a sign waiting to take me to my hotel.

Siem Reap was prettier than I expected - greener and lusher than Mandalay for sure.  The town is also smaller than I expected.  It seems to be comprised primarily of hotels, restaurants, banks and stores for souvenirs.

Check in at the Bayon Boutique hotel was easy and the staff very friendly.  We arranged for me to get a massage in my room an hour after I arrived.  Perfect.

Then my stomach started gurgling.  I've been having issues off and on for the last couple of weeks.  I have kept trying to blame it on nerves, diet, etc. but it is keeps up will have to assume it's giardia or some other type of bug.

Even with the gurgling belly, I was excited about the massage.   The massage therapist arrived an hour late, but who cares? It went well for a bit.  Then there was a knock at the door.  One of the hotel staff.  A few minutes later, as I was getting back in the relaxation zone, there was another knock at the door.  I appreciate that they were trying to be helpful but they'd booked the damn massage in my room for me.  Ten minutes later, my phone rang.  I answered, there was no one there.  Five minutes later, it rang again.  And again, it was someone from the front desk.  A few minutes later, the massage therapist stopped massaging and started packing up her stuff.  What?  We were 1 hr. and 15 minutes into a 2 1/2 hr. massage.  Seems there was a miscommunication.  She didn't speak English, the guy at the front desk couldn't help because he'd just come on duty and didn't know what was happening, so I called it a day.

That night, I was up every 15 minutes trying a new weight loss program.  Damn.  I wasn't really feeling like goig to a cooking class but had really been looking forward to it.  I really did enjoy the class, although had a fever by then and was feeling very puny.  Luckily, they found a chair for me and I did a combo of cooking and sitting.

I spent the afternoon meditating in the toilet and napping in between.  On Wednesday, I'd booked a guide and tuktuk driver to head to Angkor.  I was feeling better, although still shaky.  I'd eaten virtually nothing for two days.

The day was overcast and more humid than hot.  The temples were larger and more spectacular than I'd expected but I was disappointed at the hordes of tourists.  My favorite times were when we just sat on the large, fallen stones and I pretended there weren't tour groups and tried to imagine what it was like 1,000 years ago.  My tour guide was informative and had a good sense of humor.

I spent the evening in my hotel room, Skyping, 'net surfing and watching tv.  I also enjoyed a long, hot bath and a good book.

On Thursday, I spent the morning with the same guide and driver.  We drove around town, went to the Old Market, which stocked items imported from China and India and readily available for less money in Bangkok and I quickly tired of somewhat aggressive sales ladies.  Friendly, but not inclined to take no for answer until I'd said it for the 10th time and hadn't slowed my pace.

We headed along the Siem Reap river out of town and I felt a bit more optimistic.  Every thing looked "same same but different".  Architectural styles are similar to Thailand and Myanmar but not exactly.  The same for shops and tea shops.
We'd headed out of town to place that sells ceramics.  You can also learn to throw pots from the charming owner.

Her daughter is on school vacation this week and loves to use the potter's wheel to make her own stuff.

The owner made some beautiful stuff.  I especially loved one elephant pitcher but was afraid it wouldn't make all the travel to get back to the USA with me.

When we headed back into town my guide and driver seemed a bit flummoxed about what to do with me.  I didn't want to spend my time buying souvenirs or checking out high end hotels.  I was feeling very jaded and thinking that perhaps my sense of curiosity and adventure have begun to wane.  I haven't really explored SE Asia that much.  Even so, was my attitude too "been there, done that"? Perhaps.

I had my tour guide friends drop me off in the center of town and started wandering around on my own.  I perked up when I got to the part of the market where the locals shop.  No one was trying to wrap me up in a "hand made" silk scarf or insist I admire their genuine rubies.  It was just Cambodian people selling stuff to other Cambodian people.  It made me smile.
Not a single one of these hardworking vendors cared where I was from or tried to sell me anything.  It was lunchtime and they were taking care of business.

When I stepped out of the market, back onto the street, I was back in tourist land and that's when it hit me.  I was feeling off kilter because Siem Reap and even Angkor, to some extent, had a bit of an Orlando feel.  Tourists and everything created to make them happy.  Restaurants selling Italian, Chinese, Mexican, French, Swedish, Japanese and other cuisines.  With an occasional Khmer restaurant tossed in, but a sanitized "tourist" version.

I'm not knocking it and don't mean to sound like I'm above a good tourist experience.  And Siem Reap is that.  Once I realized what was bothering me I decided to go with the flow.  I said "No, thank you." politely to a dozen tuk tuk drivers as I walked a block to find a massage place.  I left the heat and humidity outside and sank into a comfy chair for a 2 hour massage in a blissfully cold room.

When I finished I strolled across the street to Viva, a Mexican restaurant.  I got take out and then smiled at a tuk tuk driver who came running.  He'd never heard of my hotel but gave it a game effort trying to find it.  We both kept apologizing that neither of us knew exactly where it was.  We stopped several times for directions.  We were laughing out loud by then and I assured him I was having a great time, exploring the small roads with him.  We made it to the hotel and said goodbye.

My brief time here gave me an insight into why I love Mandalay.  It doesn't have a Hard Rock.  Transportation is expensive and hard to find.  People look at me as a novelty, not just another damn tourist.  The main tourist sites are pagodas and monasteries rather than shops set up by NGOs to help support locals.  It gave me a glimpse of what places like Bagan and Inle Lake in Myanmar may like in a few years.  I'm glad I'm there now.

Postscript:  This post isn't meant to discourage you from visiting Siem Reap.  People were friendly and there are great hotels and amenities to make it a "low culture shock" vacation.  Hopefully, UNESCO and the Cambodian government will continue to keep water parks and other tourist stuff from encroaching on the wonders of Angkor.


Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Now at 68 Countries

I'm happy to be in my 68th country, although right now, I'm pooped.  I'll be adding a lot more photos tomorrow of this beautiful place, Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Here are just a few...
Dinner when I arrived in Bangkok?  Oysters, smoked salmon, salad and garlic toast from Gourmet Market.  Deelicious!

Cooking class in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

First course, green mango salad.  Delicious but because I'd started having belly issues the night before, I only had a small taste of everything.

Fish amok - Cambodia's national dish.  Sort of a curry, made with turmeric and coconut cream.  A winner.

Dessert was rice flour mixed with water and formed into balls, with a piece of jaggery in the center.  Not sure I'd make it again.

We visited a local house in the village where the cooking class was.  This is their kitchen.  Looks VERY much like a Samoan uma kuka!

Angkor wat.  Just one of the many temples, buidlings in the huge Angkor complex.

Me, standing in the passageway that the king who built Angkor Wat used.  The passage for commoners is in the background.  Over 1,000 years old.

Love the look.  Local kids.

Angkor Thom.

My transport.  Few things make me happier than a day spent riding around in a tuk tuk.


Icy cold niu or whatever they call a young coconut in Cambodia.

Looks like a root waterfall.  This tree is over 300 years old.

Just one of the myriad of carving in the sandstone temples.

The temples are large.

Can you feel the humidity?

A well deserved lunch from Viva Cafe, back in Siem Reap.