Sunday, February 28, 2010

Bringing in the Tiger

February 14 marked the first day of the Chinese New Year and the beginning of the Year of the Tiger. What this has meant for us has been the opportunity to see the city all decked out in red lanterns and tiger depictions (this picture is a replica of a traditional paper cut, from a poster outside the Science and Technology Museum.) It has also meant more than a week straight of fireworks every night. Tradition has it that fireworks help to deter evil spirits and to bring in a prosperous new year. Whether or not that remains the reason people use them, they are definitely still popular. Even as I write this, it sounds a little like a war zone outside my window.

To give you a little feel for what they look (and sound!) like, here's a video that I took from our apartment window last weekend:

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Malaysia Photos

The last stop on our vacation, Malaysia was full of wonderful surprises. We went first to Melaka, a town along the west coast of peninsular Malaysia. Melaka has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage City for its historical architecture and beautifully preserved buildings. It was the perfect town for strolling around, both along the riverfront and through its colorful, winding streets. It has shared Dutch, Portuguese, Indian, Chinese, and Malay history and its people, food, buildings, and religious institutions attribute to that. On one street, nicknamed "Harmony Street," there is a Christian church, Buddhist temple, and mosque all within a couple of blocks of each other.

We were there over Chinese New Year, so were able to watch a lion dance at a local restaurant. Most businesses welcome the lions in to give them prosperity for the coming year. It was interesting to watch. The show started with fireworks, then drumming and dancing. Then, the lions "ate" fruit that had been left out, which took several minutes, as they were actually peeling and rearranging the fruit. When they got back up, they'd made characters representing prosperity.

From Melaka, we took a bus up to Kuala Lumpur, where we headed to the Petronas Towers, until 2004 the world's tallest buildings and still the world's tallest set of towers. We joined the hordes of people taking photos and then found a little curry restaurant from which we could look up at them. Not a bad last night of our trip.

More pictures here:

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Indonesia Photos

Despite the fiasco with immigration, we had a very relaxing Valentine's Day Eve and morning on the small Indonesian island of Bintan, about an hour's bumpy ferry ride from Singapore. We stayed in a very rustic house on stilts (the first picture is looking out our window) and were able to watch the tide come in under us. We had lots of time to enjoy reading, strolling, eating (satay and curries), and drinking (mango and coconut juices.)

More pictures here: And, I promise, I'm almost done with these vacation pictures and will return to less glamorous, real-life updates soon.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Singapore Photos

From Thailand, we flew down to Singapore. The highlight there was staying with our friends Lia and Matt, who are getting ready to welcome a baby in April. Their apartment was right across from the Singapore Botanical Gardens, so strolling through those was a great way to spend a morning. From there, we visited the Raffles Hotel and then did some exploring at the harbor, including the Esplanade performing arts center (first picture) and the Merlion statue (second picture.) Food-wise, this was a memorable stop. From Malaysian roti, prahta, and pulled tea to chili crab along the riverfront (third picture), we ate well!

Monday, February 22, 2010

Let the Games Begin!

In the midst of processing all that we did and saw over break, we've been busy getting ready for the next semester, which started today. We had orientation on Friday and Saturday and our first classes this morning. In our English classes for this coming unit, Jeff will be doing the play version of Anne Frank with his 8th grade class and I'll be reading The Giver with my 9th grade class and A Raisin in the Sun with my 10th grade class. Good stuff!

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Thailand Photos

From Cambodia, we took a somewhat exhausting series of buses across the border into Bangkok on what ended up being our longest day of traveling (close to twelve hours from Siem Reap to Bangkok, largely due to delays at the border.) We spent our first and last nights in Thailand in Bangkok, where we took in the frantic energy, great street food, and organized chaos that defines the city. We walked around Throne Hall, the Grand Palace, and the riverfront. And, we drank Singha beer - on draft - at a makeshift bar set up in front of a 7-Eleven. We even took advantage of the chance to get a Thai massage in Thailand.

The other two nights we spent in Hua Hin, a sleepier beach town on the gulf coast south of Bangkok. (Five hours by train, we learned, on our way down, and two hours by determined minivan on our way up. The first picture above was taken from the train window.) There, we enjoyed the beach and night market. But the highlight was definitely the day-long cooking class we took. The day started at the market (second picture above), where we bought ingredients for the day. We were then taken to a traditional Thai home and spent several hours cooking and eating several Thai dishes. Life will never be quite the same for me again.

More pictures here:

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Cambodia Photos

From Vietnam, we took a riverboat across the border and up to Phnom Penh, Cambodia's capital. We stayed there for a night, enjoying Khmer cuisine, walking along the riverfront, people-watching, and museum going. At times, it was easy to see that it is an international capital, with a diplomatic feel, but it felt quieter and calmer than any city we'd been to recently. There were colorfully-clad monks strolling the streets, kids playing with flocks of pigeons in the huge public square, and tuk-tuk drivers taking afternoon naps. We had time to explore the national museum, (the first picture above), with relics from Angkor, among other parts of Cambodia's history.

The next day, we took a bus up to Siem Reap, home to the temples of Angkor. We spent a lazy first night there enjoying our guesthouse, The Golden Mango Inn, which was a large old house with very friendly staff and a crocodile farm out back! We also took time to check out the Old Market Area (a huge market, full of all sorts of souvenirs and goodies) and "Bar Street" - a pedestrian street of bars and restaurants that has grown up over the last ten years.

We spent all of the next day exploring the temples, starting with Angkor Wat, the largest (the second picture.) We hired a tuk-tuk driver to take us around for the day (the temples are in a massive national park and a whole day is barely enough time to see even the highlights.) The temples were incredible. They had been built over a span of 400 years and varied widely in architecture, building materials, and Hindu and Buddhist design. Each one was more amazing than the last and they have been left fairly open for exploring, giving us the sense that we were Indiana Jones or some similarly exciting explorer. Beyond Angkor Wat, we saw ten more temples, including Banyan (the third picture), known for its hundreds of faces carved into stone, and Ta Prohm (the fourth picture), one of the few temples that has been allowed to keep the trees that had grown up over and around it. Before sunset, we hiked up to the oldest temple in the area, on top of a small mountain. We were soon joined by every tourist in the country - the pictures show the transition from quiet resting place to crowded, sweaty horde of amateur photographers.

More pictures here: There are A LOT, so skim!

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Vietnam Photos

We started our trip in Vietnam. Before going, we heard from family and friends who had traveled there about the incredible warmth and friendliness of the people and, once we arrived, we quickly understood what they meant. That alone would have made the trip worth it, but the sights and food weren't too shabby either.

We spent the first day exploring Ho Chi Minh City (still "Saigon" to some of the people who live there.) Sights included the Ben Thanh Market, where you could buy anything you can imagine, the Reunification Palace, which was once the government seat for South Vietnam, and the War Remnants Museum, which painted a critical and painful picture of the "American War of Aggression." A short walk from those sights took us to the main post office (my personal favorite) and the Notre Dame Cathedral. We broke up sightseeing with lots of food (pho and baguettes), Saigon beer, and Vietnamese coffee. Walking around the city, we also thought often of my cousin Kate, who was adopted there.

The next day, we took a trip out to the Cu Chi Tunnels, where the Viet Cong hid underground for most of the war. The trip included a lot of education about the area and the tunnels themselves, which acted as small cities, complete with hospital areas, kitchens, and long stretches of tunnels to get from one place to another (over 200 km worth!) We were able to see the original tunnels, which have openings of about 14 cm, but went into replica tunnels, which have been made larger to accommodate tourists. Still, we had to crawl through on our hands and knees in total darkness. Amazing to imagine living like that! Lunch there consisted of raw strips of tapioca dipped in ground peanuts. That night, we sought out the Black Cat Cafe for "mind-blowingly good sandwiches" (per Lonely Planet) and were not disappointed. I had a lemongrass tofu sandwich that did, in fact, blow my mind.

The next day, we took a more-exciting-than-we'd-planned-on bus ride through the MeKong Delta and on to Chau Doc, on the border of Cambodia. (Exciting because it turned out that the bus we'd bought tickets for didn't exist. We finally got there after riding along with a tour group for half the trip - the tour guide would narrate what they'd be doing that day and then turn to us and shake his head "no" - and then being driven to a series of bus stops until our driver found a driver to pawn us off to - for a fee.) We made it, though, and found a perfect respite in Chau Doc. We wandered the temples, markets, restaurants, riverfront, and streets of what was a fairly sleepy little town (by Shanghai standards at least.) We saw boys practicing to be the lion for Lunar New Year and were greeted by lots of friendly kids (two of them pictured here.)

Vietnam left me with memories of colorful bike helmets, seas of Vespas, strong - and delicious - coffee, and a warm, welcoming attitude. More pictures here:

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Malaysian Memories

We ended our trip with a couple of days in Malaysia, first in the UNESCO World Heritage Town of Melaka, a twisting maze of colorful buildings showing off its mix of Malay, Indian, Chinese, Dutch, and Portuguese influences, with food to match. From there, we headed to Kuala Lumpur, where we were awed by the Petronas Towers and found a great little curry restaurant to take them in from.
We flew back to Shanghai today, have a load of laundry in, and are working coming back down to reality. Not too quickly, though...
Lots and lots of pictures to come soon!

Monday, February 15, 2010

A Cautionary Tale Served With a Slice of Indonesian Paradise

Jeff and I took a ferry from Singapore to the Indonesian island of Bintan on Saturday. So did my passport, which is due to expire in January and has been my faithful companion over nine years and five continents. Unfortunately, all its recent adventures pushed it to the breaking point - I showed up to the Indonesian border with no totally blank pages (my own fault for not getting pages added before this trip, as Cambodia and Vietnam both required full pages for their visas.) I hoped, though, naively, that it wouldn't be an issue and the Indonesian visa could fit on one of the nearly-blank pages. Denny, the Indonesian immigration official "helping" me, disagreed, though.
This disagreement led from his immigration counter to his colleagues' counters and then to a private back office where he told me that I would need to return to Singapore to get extra pages. However, he also alluded to an "administration penalty" that could be worked out, if he put the visa on top of something else. Seemed clear enough, but this took 15-20 minutes of back and forth, while Jeff had already cleared immigration and our ride was waiting. Not wanting to get right back on what was a fairly bumpy ferry ride, I was finally able to get Denny to tell me what the "penalty" would be... in Singapore dollars. Telling him I was out of those, he quickly changed it to US dollars, though not the same exchange rate (although his error was in my favor.) Finally, I paid the penalty, and, at Jeff's insistence (I'd gotten him into the office at some point during this), he hand-wrote a receipt for me.
Shady dealing or not, it was worth it, though, as our rustic little hut on stilts over the water in Indonesia was unlike anywhere I've been before and was a picture-perfect way to ring in Valentine's Day. And, I will get those pages soon!

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Singapore Sling

We've been in Singapore for two nights now, staying with our friends Lia and Matt. It's been so nice to be in a more home-y setting and to catch up with them. Beyond that, we've taken advantage of beautiful sunny weather to go out and enjoy the city. Yesterday, we started with a walk through the Singapore Botanical Gardens before stopping to eat pratya, a Malay dish of warm, soft bread stuffed with a variety of fillings. From there, we went downtown to see the famous Raffles Hotel, the home of the Singapore Sling cocktail and favorite retreat of the likes of the Queen of England and Charlie Chaplin. It was an easy walk from there to the marina, where we saw the Esplanade, a performing arts center in the shape of a durian fruit that is Singapore's answer to the Sydney Opera House, and the "Merlion" fountain (part mermaid, part lion.) We finished our walk at one of the largest hawker centers in the city. In order to keep things clean and orderly here, Singapore has moved all street food vendors into these centers, which make for great places to try a variety of foods. For dinner last night, we went to the Clark Quay area, along the river, which is lined with restaurants and bars. We feasted on chili crab, one of Singapore's signature dishes. Yum.
Today, we're hopping on a ferry to the small Indonesian island of Bintan.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

A Taste of Thailand

For me, visiting Thailand was all about the food and it hasn't disappointed. From pad thai to mango shakes and Thai iced tea, my taste buds have been happy campers.
We started our time in Thailand with a day-long bus trip from Siem Reap into Bangkok. We spent our first night in a nice hostel in the Sukhumvit area of town. Our street was lined with food vendors and our hostel staff directed us to the award-winning pad thai booth. Yum. The next day, we took a five-hour train ride down to the beach town of Hua Hin. The train was by far the oldest working train I've ever been on and it lumbered along as a leisurely pace (the van ride back up to Bangkok took only two hours.) But, it provided some great countryside views and good reading and relaxing time.
Hua Hin is popular among Scandinavian tourists and is where the king is rumored to spend most of his time (in a highly guarded beach-side estate.) There, we spontaneously signed up for a day-long Thai cooking course, held in a woman's home. It was incredible. We started with a trip to the local market and then were able to make five or six dishes over the course of several hours. That would have been enough to make the trip worth it, but we were also able to sneak in a bit of beach time, too.

Yesterday, we headed back up to Bangkok, this time to the Khao San Road area - a maze of bars, restaurants, and shops. We treated outselves to Thai massages and plenty more food (pad see ew, red curry, and iced coffee among other treats.)

Today, on to Singapore!

Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Kingdom of Cambodia

Since I last wrote, we've been on a five hour bus ride up the Mekong Delta to Phnom Penh, have explored the sights in Cambodia's capital city, have taken a bus to Siem Reap, and have taken in the temples of Angkor. All of it has been wonderful. Phnom Penh is situated on the river and has the buzz of a national capital, but provided some calm moments, too. There, we visited Cambodia's National Museum, ate Khmer cuisine, treated ourselves to massages (at our hotel!), and had drinks with four friends we ran into from Shanghai!
Much of Siem Reap has been built up around tourism because of Angkor's attractions, so here we've enjoyed browsing markets and sipping on 50-cent draft beers in the Old Market district. We spent day today exploring the temples of Angkor, starting with Angkor Wat and working our way around the national park. It's an enormous expanse - we had our own tuk-tuk driver and were still able to just see the main highlights. It was unlike anywhere I've ever been and is difficult to explain how incredible it was. Each temple that we saw was unique and provided surprises around every corner. Suffice it to say we took literally hundreds of pictures and will post them we when get back to Shanghai!
Tomorrow, we're off to Bangkok. It's hard to believe that our trip isn't even half done yet!

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

La Vie in Vietnam

We're now three days into our trip and loving it. We spent the last couple of days exploring Ho Chi Minh and the surrounding area. (First day: highlights of downtown. Second day: Cu Chi Tunnels, where many Viet Cong hid during the war.) Today, we took a series of buses through the MeKong Delta to Chau Doc, where we spent the afternoon exploring and eating (pho, iced coffee, and French bread are all so good.) Tomorrow, we're taking a bus to Phnom Penh. Thinking of you all!