Glimpse of a Wet Market in Shanghai

A wet market is a market that sells fresh meat, fish, and other perishable goods such as live fish, shellfish, and frogs. These markets are so named because the floor tends to be wet, thanks to the live fish flopping around and the vendors’ habit of throwing water on the ground to keep the area clean.

Wet markets are a major part of the culinary exploration while living in China. Wandering through old Shanghai neighborhoods in the morning, I am sometimes greeted by the very strong smell and the lively noises of wet markets. Venturing into the small local wet markets that are dotted all around Shanghai is one of the most interesting and also shocking things to do here.

Here I have seen eels moving from bucket to bucket, live turtles trying to escape their plastic prisons and live frogs looking resigned to their fates of becoming someone’s dinner. I can never linger too long at these market stalls as the practice of keeping these animals alive in such conditions, and to sell them as food is quite upsetting for me.

Empty streets of Shanghai

There is a certain unique and strange delight about walking down an empty street alone.

Published as part of Wordless Wednesday

Faces of Shanghai

My favourite photos are the ones where you got to make a connection with the place or person. While walking through a park here in Shanghai I was surprised at how many people were willing to let me take their photo once I asked. My favourite group of photos from the day is of the park gardner. Eventhough we could not understand each other he smiled and allowed me to take his photo. After taking his photo he came and asked me to please take a photo of him and his friend.

Faces of Shanghai
Gardner posing for a photo

 Peace begins with a smile. Smile is a simple act, but sometimes takes a lot of effort. A smile can cause boundaries to melt, hearts to warm up, and distances to reduce. (Mother Teresa)

Wordless Wednesday: Streets of Bangkok

Published as part of Wordless Wednesday

Sunrise on the Mekong River

Sunrise on the Mekong River
Mom and I watching the sunrise on the Mekong River

One of my most memorable experiences was watching the sunrise while floating along the Mekong River in Vietnam with my mom. The Mekong River is the 12th longest river in the world. It is about 2,700 miles long and flows through China, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam and Myanmar.

Sunrise on the Mekong River
Floating down the Mekong River

My mom came to visit me in Ho Chi Minh city, Vietnam where I was living and teaching English in 2008. We got to “cruise” along the Mekong Delta from Ho Chi Minh city all the way to Cambodia where we spent most of our holiday together.

One of the highlights of our Mekong Delta trip was getting up at 5am to be on the river at sunrise. We had a guide who rowed us along the river al the way to one of the rural villages along the river.

The Mekong Delta is the region in southwestern Vietnam where the Mekong River approaches and empties into the sea through a network of distributaries. It’s a water world that moves to the rhythms of the mighty Mekong, where boats, houses and markets float upon the innumerable rivers, canals and streams that criss-cross the landscape like arteries.

We had such a peaceful morning, floating past the villages on the bank of the Mekong River and even past the floating houses that are found in certain parts of this river.

Sunrise on the Mekong River
The banks of the Mekong River

This is definitely one of my top 5 travel experiences!

Wordless Wednesday: A Glimpse of China

My mom and I travelled through China for a month and these are some photos that should give you a  glimpse of the China we experienced.

Published as part of Wordless Wednesday

Weekly Photo Challenge: Face

This week, let’s celebrate our many different faces. These are some of the beautiful people I have come across during my travels.

Wordless Wednesday: Tokyo night

Some photos depicting the busy and bright night life of  Shinjuku in Tokyo!

Published as part of Wordless Wednesday

Throwback Thursday: Thousands of Red Torii in Kyoto

  Throwback Thursday, is a weekly reminiscent movement where you re-post past events or photos. They can be from years ago or from just a few days ago. Its a great way to look back fondly on some of your favorite memories…… 

I visited the Fushimi Inari shrine in Kyoto a couple of years ago and it is still one of my favourite shrines up to date. Fushimi Inari Shrine is the most famous of several thousands of shrines dedicated to Inari across Japan and if you ask me, it is also one of the most beautiful. If you only get top visit one shrine during your visit to Kyoto, make sure it is the Torii fulled Fushimi Inari shrine. Inari is the Shinto god of rice, and foxes are thought to be his messengers. 

This shrine had a very peaceful and spiritual atmosphere and was filled with offerings by worshippers.Fushimi Inari Shrine is famous for the thousands of red and orange torii gates. The shrine grounds is said to hold over 10,000 Torii gates. Experiencing these numerous and well-preserved gates at Fushimi Inari Shrine are like touching a piece of human history. Just imagine if we could see all that they have seen over the years. The red and Orange Torii cover the hiking trails of Inarisan, the wooded mountain behind the shrine’s main buildings. A lot of people make the journey to this shrine just to walk through these pathways winding through the mountains.

A very unique thing about the Torii gates at Inari Fushimi, is their background or whats painted on them Each gate has been donated by a company or organization giving thanks for their prosperity and in hope of good fortune in the future. I only wished I could read all of the names engraved on each gate, but it still remains a beautiful artwork representing Japan’s past.

Here the path splits and you have to choose the short or long route!!
Here the path splits and you have to choose the short or long route!!

Essentially you had a choice of two paths, short or long, but there were a couple of different routes for each one. It takes about two hours to walk along the whole trail, if you stop along the way to take thousands of photos like me. These pathways wound through the mountain and you got to walk through tunnels created by thousands of bright orange and red torii gates all the way. Every now and again there would be a fork in the road and I would  just pick and choose an entrance as all of the different routes ended up back at the main shrine in the end.

I didn’t really have a plan and had the whole morning to explore the temple and its grounds. The varying sizes and faded colors surprised me the most. Since pictures don’t do it justice, you have to see all of it for yourself in person.

I had a very leisurely walk and even stopped for a drink and something to eat at a sweet little place next to the road between all the shrines and statues that lined my way. Kitsune Udon (“Fox Udon”), a noodle soup topped with pieces of aburaage (fried tofu), a favorite food of foxes, is served at most of these small restaurants along the hiking trail so I had to try it. It was lovely and very filling.

I enjoyed exploring this shrine and was very reluctant to leave.

Unwanted Night visitor in my room

 I loved the narrow three story house tucked away at the end of the alley where we lived in Ho Chi Minh city,Vietnam. Three of my co-teachers and I shared this house, in one of the Northern Suburbs, far away from the touristy areas of the city. This was the perfect place to experience the culture as I did my shopping at the local fruit and veggie market, spent afternoons at the local coffee shops with my book and tried out all the local dishes sold in the area. Doing this forced me to learn Vietnamese as there weren’t a lot of people in the area who could speak or understand English.

 The house where we lived was huge as each one of us had a massive on suite room and if you were lucky a small balcony. Downstairs we had a kitchen slash TV room and even a small living room which we used as a garage during the rainy season so that our bikes could stay dry. Going up the winding staircase my room was on the first floor with a small balcony, the ideal place to sit and chill on a hot summers night.

At the end of the alley there was a small Cau Dai pagoda so most evenings and even at 4am in the morning we would be greeted by gongs and the ohm-ming of the worshipers. The first night this happened I jumped up and thought someone was attacking us. It took a few weeks for me to got used to these gongs and ohms at 4am and before I could sleep through them.

During the summer months Ho Chi Minh city is hot, humid and even sticky, making having an air-conditioning unit in ones bedroom a necessity. Unfortunately mine broke down and they could only come and fix it later that week, so I had to find other ways of cooling down for the next couple of nights. That first night I had a cold shower and lay down on my bed with balcony doors open to cool down in the breeze. I had every intention of getting dressed and closing the doors before going to sleep, but unfortunately that didn’t happen.

 Something woke me up in the early morning hours and as I sat up there was a small Vietnamese guy crouched next to my bed. As soon as he realized that I was awake he stood up holding my handbag and camera in one hand and my mobile phone in the other.

“You Ba&!?*d” I shouted as I got up and jumped onto this little unwanted night visitor. This caught him totally of guard and he didn’t know what to do.

I started hitting the guy, screaming at him to get out of my room and leave my stuff alone. I was definitely not going to let him get away with my things without putting up a fight. This little guy must have been just as scared as I was as he looked like he was trying to run for his life from this crazy, half naked woman attacking him.

I got him to drop my handbag and camera but he was stronger than me so pushed me off of him. Not one to give up, I jumped back up and continued to hit and scratch at this little Vietnamese visitor as he fought to get to the balcony. Pushing me away one last time, he made his getaway by jumping down from the balcony onto the street.  He must have hurt himself in the landing and I was not one bit sorry about that.

He was hobbling down the alleyway as I stood on my balcony shouting some last departing remarks at him.

I did then realize that this must look quite a sight having this half naked foreigner standing on her balcony shouting in a strange language. So I calmly turned around, closed the balcony doors and got dressed before going down to make myself a cup of tea.

What scary travel story do you have to share?

Tips on Riding a Motorbike through the Chaotic Streets of Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam

Riding a Motorbike through the Streets of Ho Chi Minh
Me on my Yellow motorbike!!
Bikes of Burden from Vietnam
Chaos on the streets of Ho Chi Minh!

Ho Chi Minh City is a world where old and new competes to survive in this dense populated city. It’s a city filled with skyscrapers, ancient temples, motorbikes, people on bicycles and every inch of it covered in tall slim buildings.

The streets are overcrowded with motorbikes, piled with up to 5 people each fighting for way with taxis and even trucks. The streets look like organized chaos with motorbike drivers talking on cell phones, not abiding traffic signals, and not even driving in the same direction as the traffic flow.

Riding a Motorbike through the Streets of Ho Chi Minh
Me driving through the countryside of Vietnam

I dared to brave the streets of Ho Chi Minh City on my bright yellow Honda cup only after about a month of living there. The first couple of weeks just crossing the street felt like a brave life risking thing to do. I have never seen so many people on motorbikes in one place, and they don’t actually stop at the traffic lights. You have a mere 30 second gap in which you have to weave through the motorbikes to the other side before they start moving again.

Riding a Motorbike through the Streets of Ho Chi Minh
Just crossing the road is a dangerous mission!
Riding a Motorbike through the Streets of Ho Chi Minh
My “buttercup”!

I got myself a canary yellow 1969 super cup motorbike. It couldn’t go faster than 60km per hour but in a city as crowded as Ho Chi Minh City you don’t need to go faster. And the up side of this was that when I got into my first accident I wasn’t hurt too bad because I was going at a snails pace. The down side was that my motorbike had no petrol gage so I did get stranded a couple of times without gas. But then you didn’t have to walk far before you saw a brick with a white paper cone in it on a corner. This was where you could quickly buy petrol on the street. The first time this happened and the little Vietnamese dude brought me a bottle of green petrol I thought they were trying to trick me, petrol should be red shouldn’t it? Well in Vietnam you get dirty unrefined green petrol, the cause of all the black fumes in the city.

Riding a Motorbike through the Streets of Ho Chi Minh
I just love my yellow bike!!
Bikes of Burden from Vietnam
Riding a Motorbike through the Streets of Ho Chi Minh

I quickly learnt to never leave the house without my little fog mask…looks like a dentist mask but it helps you from chocking on all the fumes you will be inhaling while driving.

Riding a Motorbike through the Streets of Ho Chi Minh
The streets of Ho Chi Minh City

If you do rent a bike in Saigon, and if you’ve never ridden one I don’t recommend to learn here, remember a few tips here;
1. Traffic will come from all directions, no matter what side of the street you’re on
2. Red lights don’t always mean stop here, so keep you eyes peeled when you go through a green one and don’t try going through an orange one
3. Large trucks often don’t have brakes or don’t use them.
4. Watch out for the boy racer coming towards you, he will likely swerve all over the place to impress mates or the poor girlfriend on the back.
5. Be careful when driving along side busses, especially mini busses, as Vietnamese are notoriously car sick and a face full of vomit is not pleasant
6. I advise wearing a helmet everywhere especially on the Highways
7. As a foreigner in an accident it is more than likely, no matter what happened, you would be in the wrong. If it’s not your fault get the hell out of there as quickly as you can. If you do stop make sure you remove your keys and put them in your pocket.
8. Puddles in the road often hide very deep holes, don’t drive through them, it is not a very enjoyable experience.

Safe driving

Riding a Motorbike through the Streets of Ho Chi Minh
Riding a Motorbike through the Streets of Ho Chi Minh

If you are not renting a motorbike there are a couple of other transport options available, namely, taxis, “xe om” (motorbike taxi) and “cyclos” (bicycle taxi) otherwise known as a rickshaw. Xe means motorbike and Om is cuddle, cuddle bike because you have to hold on for dear life, also check for BO before you get on.

Riding a Motorbike through the Streets of Ho Chi Minh
On the back of a xe om!
Bikes of Burden from Vietnam
Bikes of Burden from Vietnam

General advice on these guys: on the whole they are reliable and safe, I always look for the oldest bike mainly because with a foreigner on the back they can’t go fast. Otherwise they go as fast as they possibly can and you end up holding on for dear life in the hectically busy streets. Late at night is not a good time to use them, especially around Phan Ngu Lao, there are lots of reports of dodgy dealings so either use one you know (used before) or get a taxi.

Taxis services have dramatically improved in the last few years with some professional companies opening up such as Mei Linh and Vinataxi. But still there are a few rouges out there so here are some tips: You don’t need to bargain for a taxi, if the driver tries, get another taxi. The most common trick is for them not to start the meter, if he refuses get out and get another.

Someday cars will overtake the streets in Ho Chi Minh City, but for now, motorbikes rule, and cyclos(tricycle rickshaws) co-exist. The bicycle-like contraptions that are a quick mode of transportation for both tourists and locals are almost a national symbol. They cover the streets, they cover postcards, and they employ about 60,000 people.

Motorbikes in Vietnam
Motorbikes in Vietnam

Enjoy your travels around Ho Chi Minh City.

Throwback Thursday, is a weekly reminiscent movement where you re-post past events or photos. They can be from years ago or from just a few days ago. Its a great way to look back fondly on some of your favorite memories…… 

Surviving My 3 Motorbike Accidents in Ho Chi Minh City

Motorbike Accidents in Ho Chi Minh City
Traffic in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh City is filled with skyscrapers, ancient temples, motorbikes, people on bicycles and more motorbikes. While living in Ho Chi Minh I got myself a canary yellow 1969 super cup motorbike, which I named Buttercup. It couldn’t go faster than 60km per hour but in a city as crowded as Ho Chi Minh City I rarely needed to go faster. The streets are overcrowded with motorbikes, piled with up to 5 people each fighting for way with taxis and even trucks. The streets look like organized chaos with motorbike drivers talking on cell phones, not abiding traffic signals, and not even driving in the same direction as the traffic flow.

The up side of crawling at a snails pace along these crowded streets was that when I got into my first accident I wasn’t actually hurt too bad.

Motorbike Accidents in Ho Chi Minh City
Motorbikes everywhere you look!

My first accident happened while going down the hill towards the house where I lived. As I am driving along another motorbike sped past me and turned left. As he turned left he swiped the front tire of my bike, throwing me of balance. Sending me skidding along the tar road to the bottom of the hill. Luckily I was wearing a helmet but it was summer so I had shorts on and ended up with bad road rash on my leg.

My next “accident” had a driver riding into me sideways and hitting my foot, actually ripping my big toe nail half way out. Like a trooper I tried to clean it but just trying to touch my toe had me in tears. So I gave up and drove over to the hospital which was only a block away from where I lived. It took the hospital staff a while to locate a doctor who could speak or understand English as it was a local hospital. But within half an hour they had found a doctor who gave my toe one look and shook his head.

Motorbike Accidents in Ho Chi Minh City
Driving in Vietnam is a skill on its own

Doctor: Do you have pain tablet?

Me: No, why?

Doctor: That is sorry, bring next time.

Me: Okay?!?

Here I was hoping there wouldn’t be a next time, and still not getting why he asked me this.

Motorbike Accidents in Ho Chi Minh City
I was going to try and clean this myself….

As I got onto the bed in the ward he called three nurses over and they grabbed my arms and legs. It then dawned on me that the public hospitals in Vietnam don’t supply any pain killers and that this was going to hurt.

Doctor: Try and keep still, this will hurt.

Me: I have great pain killers at home, maybe I should come back later!?

The doctor only smiled at me and the nurses tightened their grip on me. Knowing that it was going to hurt just made it worse. As he poured salt water over the open wound I nearly peed my pants. I actually tried to twist my toe away and if the nurses weren’t holding my legs down I am sure that I would have kicked the Doctor.

Me: I think its clean now. I will just go now, please! I am going to die here is what went through my mind at that moment.

Doctor:  Ready, Now try not to cry.

He actually continued to clean the open wound with alcohol, wiping it clean and cutting the toe nail a bit. Okay, I admit, at this point the tears were flowing freely, thinking that losing the toe would have hurt less than this.

Thinking the worst was over I nearly had a heart attack as he pushed the nail back down on the open wound and bandaged it up.

At this point I was swearing at the doctor, cursing him and everyone around me. Trying to kick  my way out of the nurses grip. Luckily I don’t think any of the staff or doctors could understand Afrikaans, as I screamed out curses I didn’t even know that I knew.

Doctor: Its finished. Come back Wednesday so I can clean it.

Me: Okay!?Thinking that there is no way I am coming back here again.

Motorbike Accidents in Ho Chi Minh City
Traffic is crazy!

My last accident took me back to that same hospital and the same little Vietnamese Doctor. I was on my way to the market, minding my own business at the traffic light when the truck behind me didn’t stop in time and came charging into and over me. As he came to a halt I was stuck underneath the truck, not able to move. My helmet took a hell of a hit and actually cracked right trough. Don’t want to think what my head would have looked like without a helmet on.

In the fall, my petrol tank cap came off and as I lay there I had petrol pouring down my leg. There I lay, screaming at everyone with cigarettes to back of, as I could just see this ending badly with me in flames while being trapped under the truck. It took the bystanders quite a while to get the truck driver to reverse a bit so that they could pull me out. There were no sparks and I got out without much hassle.

Motorbike Accidents in Ho Chi Minh City
Ready to go even before the light goes green

Luckily my motorbike was only scratched a bit and I was only missing some skin from my ankle.

Motorbike Accidents in Ho Chi Minh City
Didnt look too bad….

Some of the bystanders helped me get back onto my bike and started it for me so that I could drive myself to the hospital and get my foot cleaned. I was at least prepared this time round and took a couple of painkillers before I even arrived at the hospital.

After cleaning and bandaging my foot the Doctor even gave me a compliment.

Doctor: You did not cry this time!

Me: Thanks?!?!

 

They say you should do something brave at least once a year. I think driving a motorbike in Vietnam covered me for a couple of years worth of brave things.

Motorbike Accidents in Ho Chi Minh City
Proof that they do load their motorbikes with up to 5 people…..

What’s your brave thing for the year so far?

Exploring the interior of Hagia Sophia, Turkeys’ Church-turned-Mosque

Hagia Sophia, Turkeys' Church-turned-Mosque
Hagia Sophia, Turkeys’ Church-turned-Mosque

If you ever get to visit Istanbul you have to make a point of exploring Hagia Sofia, the church-turned-mosque. Not only is it unique in this aspect it is also one of the greatest surviving examples of Byzantine architecture in Turkey. It is one of those places you will have to visit more than once as it is so overwhelming that you cant take everything in during your first visit.

Hagia Sophia, Turkeys' Church-turned-Mosque
Entering Hagia Sophia for the first time!

Although scaffolding cluttered a part of the interior the thrill of  experiencing the extraordinary spaciousness of this famous church-turned-mosque-turned museum is hard to overstate. As I walked in I was greeted by the marble pillars and huge decorated domes.

Hagia Sophia, Turkeys' Church-turned-Mosque
Part of the central dome that was without scaffolding

The central dome (which was unfortunately filled with scaffolding) has a diameter of 31 m, which is just slightly smaller than that of the Pantheon in Rome. The dome looks like it is floating upon four great arches which are decorated with seraphim or six-winged angels and other decorative mosaics. 

Interior view of the Hagia Sophia, showing Islamic elements on the top of the main dome.
Interior view of the Hagia Sophia, showing Islamic elements on the top of the main dome.

I read that Hagia Sophia is famous for the light that reflects everywhere in the interior of the nave, as its is very bright inside without the need for electric lights. This effect was achieved by inserting forty windows around the base of the original structure.

Most of the interior surfaces are covered with marble, even the floor that you walk on. It is a lovely contrast against the walls which are green and yellow with gold mosaics. Huge parts of Hagia Sophia is decorated in a purely decorative geometric pattern mosaics.

The huge Islamic calligraphic roundels suspended from the main dome also make for a fascinating religious contrast with the uncovered Christian mosaics on the upper part of Hagia Sophia. These gigantic circular-framed disks or medallions are inscribed with the names of Allah, the Prophet Muhammad, and the two grandchildren of Mohammed: Hassan and Hussain.

A long ramp from the northern part leads up to the upper gallery.
A long ramp from the northern part leads up to the upper gallery.

As I walked through Hagia Sophia I could see that most of the sights date from the Islamic period. A beautiful marble structure in the apse is the mihrab, a niche found in all mosques that indicates the direction of Mecca

Looking up from this area there is a splendid apse mosaic depicting the Virgin and Child.
Looking up from this area there is a splendid apse mosaic depicting the Virgin and Child.
The mihrab located in the apse where the altar used to stand, pointing towards Mecca
The mihrab located in the apse where the altar used to stand, pointing towards Mecca

I just love these beautiful pendant chandeliers that fill the huge interior. Although they are hardly needed for light during the day as light seeps through the countless windows.

Hagia Sophia, Turkeys' Church-turned-Mosque
The whole place is filled with beautiful chandeliers

The gallery of this magnificent place provides a commanding view of the nave from all sides. It definitely gives the best vantage point from which to view and experience the vastness of this church-mosque.

The Byzantine mosaics are being gradually uncovered, but only those on the higher gallery levels, which can be accessed by stairways. This means that Muslims do not have to confront much Christian imagery in the main chamber of the building, which was a mosque for nearly 500 years and retains all the equipment of a mosque. Unfortunately this part of the gallery was closed due to restoration that day.

Because of its long history as both a church and a mosque, a particular challenge arises in the restoration process. Christian iconographic mosaics can be uncovered, but often at the expense of important and historic Islamic art. Restorers have attempted to maintain a balance between both Christian and Islamic cultures. In particular, much controversy rests upon whether the Islamic calligraphy on the dome of the cathedral should be removed, in order to permit the underlying mosaic of Christ as Master of the World, to be exhibited (assuming the mosaic still exists).

Weekly Photo Challenge:Signs

From the street signs we see on our commute to work each day to the random signs we come across during our travels, signs are functional, but can also be decorative or entertaining. Signs can direct us where to go, but they can be very confusing when translated wrongly or with a sense of humour.

Dont Hurt Me For Your Pretty
Dont Hurt Me For Your Pretty

I have come across a couple of different entertaining signs while travelling through Asia and the above one I found in China in one of the beautiful parks there.

Why can the fire escape not squeeze?
Why can the fire escape not squeeze?

Some signs are just confusing. Like the above one found in a hotel corridor next to the stairs and the one below found on a garbage can?!

Then what should I throw aeay?
Then what should I throw away?

One of my favourite signs is this sign I found along the path I walked through Miyajima Island in Japan. This shrine filled island is very peaceful and people were all strolling around and appreciating the peaceful atmosphere. I couldn’t imagine anybody being in a hurry while exploring this lovely island. But just in case you were, it was good to know that you could reach the ropeway station in 7 minutes if you were pressed for time!

Just in case you were in a hurry, you could reach the rope way station in 7 minutes....if you run a little!!
Just in case you were in a hurry, you could reach the rope way station in 7 minutes….if you run a little!!

Weekly photo Challenge: Humanity

This weeks photo challenge is photographs that capture humanity — of everyday people around the world — and that provoke compassion and an understanding of our differences.

These are some of my favourite captures of people around Asia.

My favorite photos capture the emotions of others and spark a curiosity about their lives. For me, these images reflect humanity and create connections between us.

China’s “Small Venice” or ‘Garden of Clear Ripples’ at the Summer Palace

The Summer Palace in Beijing started out life as the ‘Garden of Clear Ripples’  in 1750. It served as a summer resort for Empress Dowager Cixi, who diverted 30 million taels of silver, originally designated for the Chinese navy, into the reconstruction and enlargement of the Summer Palace. Personally I think it was money well spent for this is such a beautiful part of this palace structure. People come from all over the world to see this “Small Venice” of China. 

The old town with all its canals
My mom waving from the old town with all its canals
The old town with all its canals
The old town with all its canals

This beautiful town with its waterways is situated behind the hill that the main palace buildings are situated on. We reached this tranquil spot after spending hours walking through the crowded palace and it was the perfect way to ens our Palace exploration. This area is called the old town and with all its canals and walkways gives you a glimpse into what it must have looked like here 200 years ago.

The main canal filled street is known as Suzhou Street and it is here that you will still find Chinese artisans busy with their calligraphy or the art of making Chinese lanterns.

Lotus flowers have also found their way into these canals but is part of what creates this peaceful atmosphere.

The Rear Hill area to the North
The Rear Hill area to the North of the Summer Palace
This canal filled street is known as Suzhou Steet.
This canal filled street is known as Suzhou Steet.
Artisan captured at work
Artisan captured at work

In December 1998, UNESCO included the Summer Palace on its World Heritage List so we will not see any modern gadgets around here. I caught a calligraphy artist at work here. This canal filled town is the ideal place for artists to work without much distraction and its such an amazing experience to watch them create these pieces of art.

It declared the Summer Palace “a masterpiece of Chinese landscape garden design. The natural landscape of hills and open water is combined with artificial features such as pavilions, halls, palaces, temples and bridges to form a harmonious ensemble of outstanding aesthetic value.” 

 It was built as an exact copy of Shantang Steet for the Empress Dowager,
It was built as an exact copy of Shantang Steet for the Empress Dowager,

“Weekly Photo Challenge: Silhouette

This weeks photo challenge is Silhouette!! A silhouette is the image of a person, animal, object or scene represented as a solid shape of a single colour, usually black, its edges matching the outline of the subject. The interior of a silhouette is featureless, and the whole is typically presented on a light background,

Silhouette

I took this photo while canoeing in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam.

This week, share a photo with a silhouette. Revisit Wenjie Zhang’s post on the quality of light for quick tips on backlight, or dive into silhouette tutorials byDigital Photography School and PetaPixel for more guidance.

Lake of Sighs or Sorrows, home to Vietnam’s own Romeo and Juliet story

Lake of Sighs
On my way to Lake of Sighs on a rented motorbike

Renting a motorbike and heading off into the Vietnamese countryside was one of my favourite ways of spending a long weekend. My 2 Vietnamese friends and I headed up to Dalat from Ho Chi Minh city for the weekend and spent the weekend enjoying the fresh mountain air. The mountains and lush green forests that surround Dalat offer the ideal getaway from the hectic city.  We spent our weekend driving on winding mountain paths through pine forests and appreciating the fresh air.  We drove past countless small streams and even came upon some waterfalls while on our way to the Lake of Sighs.

Lake of Sighs
My friend Chi clambering down the path leading down to the Lake of Sighs

 One of the things that I love about Asia is that a lot of places have either a myth or a legend attached to it and this makes visiting these obscure places so much more interesting. If it weren’t for my Vietnamese friends I would never have seen half of these strange places as they are not always mentioned in guide books. Most of the legends surrounding the romantic city of Dalat have a love connection and hardly any of them end with a “happily ever after”. 

“According to a legend this is the sight of Vietnam’s own Romeo and Juliet story. ” A young couple met here and fell in love. They sought their parent’s permission to marry. Unfortunately Vietnam was at war with China and the young man was called to arms and left without telling the young lady. She sent word for him to meet her at the lake, and when he didn’t come she was so sad that she threw herself into the lake. Thereafter it was known as the lake of sighs.”

Lake of Sighs
What a beautiful sight. Definitely woth the drive and search
Lake of Sighs
Lake of Sighs is less of a lake now that they have built a damn wall but this is where it used to be

 The lake is not a huge tourist attraction but is frequented by locals especially local couples on a date due to its “romantic” history. The Lake is definitely smaller than what I expected but its peaceful and such a contrast compared to Ho Chi Minh city where I was living at the time. 

There are many walking trails around the lake that lead through the Pine forests and I am sure they are a favourite with couples for a romantic stroll. After driving around on a motorbike all morning it was great to get off and stretch our legs a bit. This walk of ours turned into a photo opportunity with my friends, Chi and The’ posing at varies points along the path. 

Lake of Sighs
What a lovely view as we say goodbye to the Lake of Sighs

Giant water snakes and crocodiles at Siem Reap’s Floating Villages

Floating Villages of Siem Reap
Ready for our adventure on the river to the Floating Villages of Siem Reap

This is a trip that is definitely for the adventurous traveler! It started with a dusty tuk-tuk ride down a pot hole filled road to a long open boat on the Tonle Sap lake. One of the things that make Asia so unique and special are the floating villages and markets you find on most lakes and rivers. Each floating village is quite unique with its own character and atmosphere created by the people. 

The boats we were travelling in were very basic, the small pillow didn’t quite cushion the hard seat but who needed luxury when on an adventure. 

The Floating Villages of Siem Reap
On our way to the Floating Villages we passed some fisherman taking a midday nap

My mom and I were super excited about visiting the floating village on the lake as we have heard a lot about it and it was mentioned to us by our fabulous tuk-tuk driver. He drove us out to Tonle Sap lake and helped us arrange this Floating Village tour.

Floating Villages of Siem Reap
On our way to the floating village

This was very tranquil on the lake and we were getting a glimpse of a unique lifestyle. As we floated past people would wave and some would even pose for a photo ot two. To think they spend most of their time on the water, fishing or living in a floating house. Even their shops and schools are built to float around on the lake.

Floating Villages of Siem Reap
I love that these floating houses even have their own little “gardens”

As we approached the village we were again reminded that we were outsiders observing this  unique way of living.  There were floating pigpens, flower markets and villagers going about their everyday life. On the river bank all the homes were built on stilts, and most had decks outfitted with container gardens with Lemon grass, herbs, vegetables and ornamental flowers. 

and we had soft drinks at a small floating restaurant.
The Floating houses even have their own gardens
Chong Kneas floating village
Arriving at the busy Chong Kneas floating village

Chong Kneas floating village
Woman selling bananas at Chong Kneas floating village

Our first stop was Chong Kneas floating village which featured absurdities such as small kids sporting huge water snakes and so-called crocodile farms which in reality are small ponds where dozens of crocodiles are crammed together.  

Young children in small canoe like boats paddled past us and smiled broadly for photos, posing with their snakes. Women with small boats filled with fruits and vegetables docked next to the floating restaurant trying to sell their produce.

 

Chong Kneas floating village
A little boy posing with his snake at Chong Kneas floating village

Chong Kneas floating village
A girl trying to sell some fresh bananas to the tourists

Not only was there a floating restaurant but also a local temple and schoolhouse that one could visit. The floating restaurant was very basic, it had drinks and cooked shrimps for sale for very little money so this is where we had our lunch before continuing our adventure.

 

Chong Kneas floating village
The snake is even bigger than the little girl holding it!

There were no postcard pushers as in the city and all the other usual tourist sites, just village people going about their daily life in this tranquil setting.

Kompong Phluk
The quiet floating village of Kompong Phluk

We floated past Kompong Phluk a small village which is truly authentic. Thanks to its low number of visitors. It felt genuinely untouched and peaceful.

Kompong Phluk
The fisherman at Kompong Phluk busy with boat 

maintenance 

I’d recommend this as a nice restful break between temple visits if you ever have the opportunity to visit Siem Reap. 

Kompong Phluk
Kompong Phluk floating village

Wordless Wednesday : Snake Wine

While travelling around in Asia I found Snake Wine almost everywhere. I still cant believe that people actually drink this stuff!!!

Snake Wine

Watching the making of Edible Rice Paper

While travelling through Vietnam I had the opportunity not only to taste fresh edible rice paper but also to watch how it is made. In Vietnam edible rice paper is used for making fresh or fried spring rolls and is called bánh tráng  I couldn’t believe the ingredients for rice paper is only white rice flour, tapioca flour, salt, and water. It shouldn’t be hard to make then should it? But I found out that for something that is made out of so few products it is quite a complicated process. I got to watch an artisan banh trang producer in Phan Thiet, just outside of Ho Chi Minh City.

This woman had been practicing her craft for decades  and as their rice paper is made by hand and are bigger than normal they can sell them at a higher price than the factory-made ones.

Edible Rice Paper
Carefully she spreads the rice and water batter

First she ground soaked raw rice with water into a pulp before spreading the batter onto a cloth that’s stretched over a wide pot of boiling water. After the batter had been thinly spread (note the wide tool that she uses below), a bamboo lid covers the rice sheet and it’s steamed for probably about 30 to 45 seconds. 

Edible Rice Paper
She makes sure it is thin and evenly spread

Next she used a long narrow stick to lift and transfer the cooked rice sheet to a cooling “rack”. The cooling rack is a very wide slightly domed round bamboo rack with a cloth covering it. The rack spins around and by the time the rack completes a full spin, the rice paper is cool enough to handle. 

Another woman then picked up the cooled rice paper and placed it on a bamboo drying rack that resembles a narrow 6-foot-long stretcher. To dry the cooked rice sheets  into rice paper, the racks are placed outside under the hot sun for a day.

Edible Rice Paper
Rice paper drying outside in the sun

It is the woven pattern of the racks that gives the rice papers their distinctive appearance, which factory-made ones only mimic. The dried, finished rice papers are stacked up, then tied into smaller stacks and taken to market. These rice papers, which were about 14-inches wide, are sold for a premium because they’re made by hand.

After watching this whole process  we got to taste some of the fresh, hot rice sheets with a fish dipping sauce, which was fabulous. Fresh rice paper tastes completely different from the dried ones that you have to wet with a bit of water to get them supple again.

Root shrouded Ta Prohm Temple

Ta Prohm Temple
Ta Prohm Temple

The ancient city of Angkor used to be a capital of the ancient Khmer Empire of Cambodia and one of the largest cities in the world. This huge complex of buildings, covering about 600 square kilometers, was known far beyond the Khmer Empire until it was destroyed by Siamese troops in 1431.

Ta Prohm Temple
Exploring overgrown Ta Prohm Temple

Till the end of the XIXth century, more than 100 palaces and temples were concealed under the shadow of lush tropical forest, when a French naturalist Henri Mouhot rediscovered it for humanity. In year 1992 the whole territory of Angkor was taken under the protection of UNESCO.

Ta Prohm Temple
Overgrown Ta Prohm Temple

Unlike most of the temples of Angkor, Ta Prohm has been largely left to the clutches of the living jungle. This atmospheric temple ended up being my favourite Angkor Wat temple and probably the reason I ended up trying to capture every inch on film.

Ta Prohm Temple
Ta Prohm, also known as the “Tomb raider” Temple

Shrouded in dense jungle the temple of Ta Prohm conjures up an eerie yet also romantic aura. Fig, banyan and kapok trees spreading their gigantic roots over stones, probing between the walls, intertwining to form a roof over the structures. There are tree trunks twisting up amongst the stone pillars. The temple is held in a stranglehold of trees where stone and wood are clasped together by tree roots.

Ta Prohm Temple
Ta Prohm Temple

Wordless Wednesday: Morning coffee

Perfect way to start your day with an ice coffee
Perfect way to start your day with an ice coffee

Published as part of Wordless Wednesday.

Overgrown Ta Prohm, the “Tomb Raider” Temple

Ta Prohm
The overgrown Temple of Ta Prohm
Ta Prohm
Ta Prohm Temple

The overgrown Ta Prohm temple is maybe best known for the part it played in the movie “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider”. And yes, this is where I first learnt about this beautiful temple so I was quite excited at getting to explore this temple for myself.  Although it is known that the film took visual liberties with other Angkor temples, its scenes of Ta Prohm were quite faithful to the temple’s actual appearance. Only afterwards did I think that I should have dressed “Tomb Raider” for photos at this temple. Hopefully there will be a next time and then I will be prepared.

 

Ta Prohm
Thick roots crawl all over Ta Prohm temple

Ta Prohm  is a bit more than one kilometre from Angkor Thom but this time my mom and I made use of our trusted tuk-tuk driver instead of walking. I think both of us were still recovering from our adventure through the jungle in search of Ta Nei temple the previous day.

Ta Prohm
Ta Prohm
Ta Prohm
Ta Prohm

This beautiful temple was founded by the Khmer King Jayavarman VII as a Mahayana Buddhist monastery and university. What a magnificent structure to have learnt and studied in. Although if you want to enter it now you should bring a torch with as its quite dark inside with all the narrow passages. Mom and I opted for exploring the outside of the temple as I don’t like tight spaces and mom is scared of any dark spaces so together we probably would have freaked out within a minute of trying to find our way inside this huge temple.

 

Ta Prohm
Ta Prohm
Ta Prohm
Ta Prohm

Ta Prohm  itself is a quiet, sprawling monastic complex and only partially cleared of jungle overgrowth and intentionally left partially unrestored. Unlike most Angkor temples, Ta Prohm has been left in much the same condition in which it was found. After the fall of the Khmer Empire in the 17th century, the temple of Ta Prohm was abandoned and neglected for centuries. When the effort to conserve and restore the temples of Angkor began in the early 21st century, Ta Prohm was left largely as it had been found, as a “concession to the general taste for the picturesque.” It is said that Ta Prohm was singled out because it was “one of the most imposing temples and the one which had best merged with the jungle, but not yet to the point of becoming a part of it”. Although they have left it unrestored a lot of  work has been done to stabilize the ruins, to permit access, and to maintain “this condition of apparent neglect.”

 

Ta Prohm
Ta Prohm

There are massive fig and silk-cotton trees that grow from the towers and corridors offering some of the best ‘tree-in-temple’ photo opportunities ever. The combination of trees growing out of the ruins and the jungle surroundings gives this temple a very eerie quality. We had a great adventure climbing over the fallen walls and rubble everywhere to get close to the overgrown ruins.

Ta Prohm
Ta Prohm

The trees growing out of the ruins are perhaps the most distinctive and definitely most striking feature of Ta Prohm, and the one feature that sets it apart from all the other temples in Angkor Wat.  All over the place there are endless roots coiling more like reptiles than plants over the ruins.

 

Ta Prohm
Ta Prohm

Some roots are as wide as oak trees, the vines at Ta Prohm cleave massive stones in two and spill over the top of temple ramparts. The effect is striking, especially where the roots form an enclosure around entrances to the temple. I couldnt help but feel a little like Indiana Jones or Lara Croft as we picked our way through the rubble and over the fallen blocks.

Ta Prohm
Ta Prohm

Another popular site is the “Tomb Raider tree” in the central sanctuary, where Angelina Jolie picked a jasmine flower and was sucked beneath the earth. There were no jasmine around but other than that the place looked exactly like in the movie!! This was the perfect way to end our Ta Prohm adventure.

Ta Prohm
Ta Prohm

The Crumbling Walls of Ta Nei Temple

Ta Nei Temple
We found Ta Nei Temple

Ta Nei Temple
The crumbling Ta Nei Temple

Veering of the usual tourist path my mom and I entered the jungle in search of Ta nei temple which is known for its fallen and crumbling walls. To get there my mom and I had to walk along a dirt path for about 1km from the Victory Gate of Angkor Thom until we reached the ‘French Dam.’ This ‘ French Dam’ is actually a holy reservoir dedicated to the Buddha and not very big but we were so glad that we actually found it and didn’t get lost in the dense forest. We crossed the dam and after another 200 meters through the forest we reached Ta Nei Temple.

Ta Nei Temple
I just love the fallen walls of Ta Nei Temple

Ta Nei Temple
The walls surrounding Ta Nei Temple

What a beautiful sight! We were greeted by fallen blocks and trees covering what was left of this temple. Most of the fallen blocks or walls are being reclaimed by the jungle with trees growing over them and half burying them. The temple itself is very small, only 55meter x 47meter. I think that is a big reason this semi-ruined jungle temple is not part of the main tourist route.

Ta Nei Temple
One of the few remaining structures inside Ta Nei Temple

Some of the apsara and lintel carvings are in pretty good condition but the temple itself is in much rougher shape than most of the temples on the main circuit. Some scholars believe that this temple was constructed as a hospital and that this is why there aren’t many carvings inside the building. Whatever the reason for its construction, it is such a beautiful temple.

Ta Nei Temple
Ta Nei Temple is nearly all in ruins

I had loads of fun clambering over the fallen rocks without any other tourists in the area.

Ta Nei Temple
Most of Ta Nei Temple has already crumbled

By this time my mom had decided that we were on a hiking tour rather than a temple exploration so we called it a day and headed back towards Siem Reap for dinner and an evening show. 

The Jungle is Reclaiming Beng Melea Temple

Beng Melea Temple
Entering Beng Melea Temple
Statues of Ta Phrom temple
Statues of Beng Melea Temple

Nestled in the jungles of Angkor Wat lies Beng Melea a sprawling temple covering over one square kilometer. This temple is hidden away and not very touristy, giving it an adventurous, ‘lost temple’ feel. Luckily for us our “guide” or rather tuc-tuc driver knew where we could see the best temples even if they weren’t on the tour map.

We really appreciated the services of our local guide, and by the end of the visit we were very  happy to pay extra for being taken around the tortuous route. This involved squeezing through the thick forest, clambering through small spaces, over fallen rocks and even being guided along fallen roof tops.

Beng Melea Temple
Exploring the inside of Beng Melea Temple
Beng Melea Temple
Beng Melea Temple is left in ruins at the back

There are trees growing from the broken towers and crawling over the fallen walls and statues scattered around. The galleries offer some of the best ‘tree in temple’ shots aside from Ta Prohm which was used in the Tomb Raider. The most damage was done by the wear and tear of eight and a half centuries in a tropical climate, with the spread of vegetation, including the silk-cotton tree and strangler fig, going to work on some ambitious vaulting which was being tried out here and at Angkor Wat for the first time.

Beng Melea Temple
Parts of Beng Melea Temple had to be reinforced otherwise the tree roots would have destroyed it by now

Though there are some lintel and doorway carvings, there are no bas-reliefs and the carvings are comparatively sparse, probably the main reason this temple is not part of the usual tourist path.

Beng Melea Temple
One of the surviving Bas-reliefs of Beng Melea Temple

 Beng Meleais largely unrestored and for years it was difficult to reach, but a road recently built to the temple complex of Koh Ker passes Beng Mealea and more visitors are coming to the out of way site.

Beng Melea Temple
Beng Melea Temple

The history of the temple is unknown and it can be dated only by its architectural style which is identical to Angkor Wat, so scholars assumed it was built during the reign of king Suryavarman II in the early 12th century. Whoever built it must have been a figure of some importance, but he remains unknown, as no inscriptions have been found here, and no other that mentions it. 

Beng Melea Temple
Nature reclaiming Beng Melea Temple

The Giant Smiling stone Faces of Bayon

Giant stone Faces of Bayon
The beautiful Bayon Temple

The giant stone faces of Bayon have become one of the most recognizable images connected to classic Khmer art and architecture. The state-temple, Bayon is set at the center of the city Angkot Wat.

Giant stone Faces of Bayon
These Giant stone Faces of Bayon are massive!
Giant stone Faces of Bayon
Bayon temple is one of the few that still has levels intact

As we approached Bayon my mom and I stopped and stood stunned before it. It was like nothing else I had ever seen before. The Bayon was built nearly 100 years after Angkor Wat in late 12th century to early 13th century, by the King Jayavarman VII.

Bayon remains one of the most enigmatic temples of the Angkor group. Its symbolism, original form and subsequent changes and constructions have not yet been untangled making it a magical place to explore.

 The architectural scale and composition of the Bayon exudes grandness and creates balance and harmony.

Giant stone Faces of Bayon
The grand entrance of Bayon temple

Despite this seemingly simple plan, the arrangement of the Bayon is complex, with a maze of galleries, passages and steps connected in a way that make the levels practically indistinguishable and creates dim lighting, narrow walkways, and low ceilings. 

The surrounding jungle makes Bayon a bit dark so its best to visit it during the day. This dense jungle camouflages this temples position in relation to other structures at Angkor. Because of this it was not known for some time that the Bayon stands in the exact center of the city of Angkor Thom.

 The best of Bayons bas-reliefs are on the exterior walls of the lower level The bas-reliefs on the southern wall contain real-life scenes from the historical sea battle between the Khmer and the Cham. Even more interesting are extensive carvings of unique and revealing scenes of everyday life that are interspersed among the battle scenes, including market scenes, cockfighting, chess games and childbirth.

Giant stone Faces of Bayon
Giant stone Faces of Bayon

The best part of Bayon for me was the upper level where the stone faces are.

Giant stone Faces of Bayon
Giant stone Faces of Bayon

There are 54 standing towers, most but not all sporting four carved faces oriented toward the cardinal points North, East, South and West. Over 200 large faces give this temple its majestic character.

Giant stone Faces of Bayon
Giant stone Faces of Bayon

Walking amongst these larger-than-life carved stone smiling faces is truly an experience that everyone must have when in Cambodia. Being next to all these smiling 13-foot tall faces, with all 432 eyes closed, was quite intriguing.

The faces of Bayon temple
The faces of Bayon temple

The faces with slightly curving lips, eyes placed in shadow by the lowered lids utter not a word and yet force you to think. It is generally accepted that four faces on each of the tower are images of the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara and that they signify the omnipresence of the king. The characteristics of this faces – a broad forehead, downcast eyes, wild nostrils, thick lips that curl upwards slightly at the ends-combine to reflect the famous ‘Smile of Angkor’.

Giant stone Faces of Bayon
The smiling Giant stone Faces of Bayon

I read that the smiles and closed eyes possibly represent “an all-knowing state of inner peace, and perhaps a state of Nirvana.” I also read that, “according to Mahayana doctrine, Avalokiteshvara is the bodhisattva who has made a great vow to assist sentient beings in times of difficulty, and to postpone his own Buddhahood until he has assisted every sentient being in achieving Nirvana.” No wonder I was intrigued with the smiling faces.