Biking Back in Time

My reason for visiting and spending the bulk of my time in Vietnam is two-fold: (1) Vietnamese food is the bomb; (2) my father fought in the Vietnam War. Per usual, I will save the food post for later, once I have eaten my way through the country. 

Saigon and southern Vietnam is an area full of history - museums upon museums about the war, the Unification Palace (South Vietnam's presidential palace back before the war), memories etched into the minds of locals, injuries and defects all around from the use of various poisons and bombs, and the Cu Chi tunnels. I knew this was where I'd get the most regarding the war. 

First, a brief history: The Vietnam War (or in Vietnam, the American War) began after French withdrawal in 1954, and was fought on the American front as an attempt to stop the spread of communism. North Vietnam, a communist country, was supported by China and the Soviet Union; South Vietnam was supported by the U.S., Australia, Thailand and other countries. The North also had additional support from the Viet Cong, a communist front within South Vietnam. As you likely know from history classes, U.S. involvement in the war wavered, escalating in the 1960s. The Tet Offensive, launched in 1968 by the communist side, was a turning point where Americans began to distrust government assurances about the war, and the U.S. began to pull troops. Direct U.S. involvement ended August 15, 1973, and on April 30, 1975 the North captured Saigon, ending the war. 

During the war, the U.S. used various herbicides to remove foliage providing enemy cover; the most common of the herbicides was Agent Orange, which is a combination of herbicides that resulted in a byproduct called TCDD, a classified dioxin considered carcinogenic by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). 

Now for the personal side. My father fought in the Vietnam War during 1969-1970. He was deployed once, and was very likely exposed to Agent Orange. In fact, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs considers that veterans who were on land or in inland waterways of Vietnam between January 9, 1962 and May 7, 1975 to have been exposed to Agent Orange and other herbicides. On May 19, 1992 my father passed away from brain cancer at the age of 42. His doctors at Yale said that the tumors had been developing for about 20 years, putting the initial development of the tumors around the time that he was exposed to Agent Orange. 

All of this considered, it was only natural that my interest in Vietnam was high. And my first full day in Saigon did not disappoint. 

Having had such a wonderful time on the Grasshopper bike tour of Angkor Wat, I booked another bike tour with the group, this time to the Cu Chi tunnels, and it happened to be a private tour! 

The day started with my pickup and a boat ride up the Saigon River. As the boat weaved through the water hyacinth, I ate breakfast, drank delicious Vietnamese iced coffee (without the condensed milk), and took in the sights. An hour later and off the boat, I met my guide, Nguyen, and we hopped on our bikes. If the Vietnamese coffee didn't wake me up, the first slap in the face by a banana tree did as we winded through small farm pathways. Before I knew it, we stopped at a rubber plantation and Nguyen was explaining how the farmer's tap the trees every few days to collect the latex, which then gets sent away and is used for everything from tires to balloons. The trees produce latex from when they are about 5 years old until they are 25, at which point they are chopped down and new ones are planted. The farmers make approximately 150 USD per month. As we pedaled side by side along dirt roadways between the carefully and perfectly planted rubber trees, Nguyen and I chatted about everything from what his parents did (they own a coffee shop 400km from Saigon) to the school system in Vietnam to the war. 

I had been a little unsure of whether I should tell locals that my father fought in the war - I didn't know how U.S. involvement in the war was perceived. But, per usual Dana, as we biked along I just blurted it out...and I was glad I did. Nguyen told me that both of his grandfathers had fought for the South and had died in the war. His father was young during the war, but Nguyen said he loved American soldiers - I like to think one of them was my dad.  

Our next stop was at a local market where I was was the only non-Vietnamese person. Nguyen explained that many women come to the market and spend 10 minutes buying what they need, and the rest of the time socializing. (Sometimes my work day is similar). He then purchased coconut and green bean sticky rice wrapped in a banana leaf, a common snack in Vietnam. It was delicious 

Our next stop was a rice paper factory. As a big fan of spring rolls, I was excited to see the process of making rice paper. The factory we visited can produce over one ton of rice paper per day, and 80% of what they produce is exported to the U.S. Until recently the entire process was done manually, but now they have machines to mix the rice and tapioca powder, to pour a thin layer on bamboo mats, and to cut out the circular sheets we're used to seeing in the U.S. However, parts of the process still use manual labor, and it's not an easy job. The men and women in the factory work from sunrise to sunset, 7 days a week, with one week off during the Lunar New Year. The men make $150/month; the women make less. 

Back on our bikes after a quick stop for fruit, water, and fresh sugar cane juice, we arrived at the Cu Chi Tunnels. (I very quickly learned that there are two places where you can visit the tunnels - one which is closer to the Saigon River, and the one I was visiting. From speaking with people, the place I went is the place to go). 

From the minute we arrived, I was in awe. We winded through dirt paths in the jungle that I imagine was non-existent in the 60s and 70s from the U.S. herbicides. As we walked, Nguyen explained the history of the tunnels and the war. The tunnels, which are 250km long, were constructed in Cu Chi due to the hard ground, and the location near the end of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. They were dug by hand with the equivalent of a small garden shovel. The tunnels consist of three levels, one at 3 meters underground, one at 7 meters underground, and one at 10 meters underground, and all of the tunnels are connected to the Saigon River as a means of escape if they were gassed. 

Level one consists of square bunkers and kitchens, all easily collapsed by bombs. The kitchens had chimneys that brought smoke far from the tunnels, and meals were only cooked in the early morning to prevent the South and the U.S. from determining tunnel locations. Levels two and three required air holes to the surface, which were cleverly disguised as ant mounds, and these levels had many traps in case enemy soldiers got in.  

As we walked the dirt paths, Nguyen pointed out a small, disguised mound of dirt that had 4 holes in it - each hole for the barrel of a gun. My task was then to find the entrance, and wow was it hard. I pointed to various locations and just got laughs. Then, in a perfectly inconspicuous spot, Nguyen wiped away leaves to reveal the tiniest trap door. And once another guide demoed how to get in, both he and the door were gone again, underground and covered with leaves. Fifteen meters away, he popped out of yet another opening. I cannot imagine having been an American soldier looking for the Viet Cong, and having them literally just disappear right before you.

It was then my turn to try dropping down into a tunnel and exploring. I didn't even attempt to disguise the area, and slowly lowered myself in. It was dark and damp except for a small amount of lighting. But the light was enough for me to see the two bats flying directly at my face! I put my bag up in front of me, hoping for the best...and then they were gone. The tunnels are small - I had to squat and bend at the waist to get through them. (I would not recommend going in them if you're claustrophobic). I opted to take the longest route through them, seeing everything from a kitchen and a meeting room to turns that went off to who knows where, and traps meant to injure but not kill American and South Vietnamese soldiers. All of it made me not at all surprised that the North won the war. The tunnels are simply genius. 

Once we finished exploring the tunnels, I got to try tapioca root, the staple food of the Viet Cong. It was pretty good, but if I had to eat it for every meal for multiple years, I would not be a happy camper. The Viet Cong were unable to eat rice due to the herbicides sprayed, so they relied on the tapioca root since it grew quickly and the roots weren't directly exposed to the sprayed poisons. 

As we ate the tapioca root and then moved onto a delicious lunch (complete with snake wine), Nguyen shared more staggering facts and information about the war. During the war approximately 2 million North Vietnamese and Viet Cong soldiers died, 1 million Vietnamese civilians died, 300-400,000 South Vietnamese soldiers died, and 58,000 Americans died. These numbers are simply from during the war, and do not account for the 40,000 people (mostly children) who have died since 1973 from unexploded bombs in the ground, or the children who have gotten lost in the tunnel system. It does not account for the birth defects of children born to parents exposed to Agent Orange, or the parents who died due to their exposure. 

As we rode back to Saigon, with Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, and Whitney Houston serenading us, it was clear that the effects of the Vietnam War are still being felt - by U.S. Veterans, by many of the Vietnamese, by people, such as myself and my brother, who were not even alive during the war, and by children born with birth defects, or those unable to play in their backyard because of explosives. And I know as I travel up through Vietnam, I will see and feel many of these effects, and I can't help but think my father is by my side through this entire country (and really, always). 

Two American Girls Cause Food Shortage in Thailand

Guys, this title is no joke. Basically we ate in Thailand and found things to do between meals. And sometimes the thing to do between eating meals was eat snacks. 

Our first meal was a place we'd go back to multiple times. As we had walked in the wrong direction to our hotel we passed a little open-air shop that was emanating a delicious smell out into the street; when we saw it was full of only locals we knew that would be our first meal in Thailand. And it did not disappoint. After returning from dropping our bags off we were whisked to a metal table with a fan overhead and were very quickly brought what is quite possibly the best beef noodle soup I've ever had. The broth had been cooking all day and then simply tossed in some beef, a handful of veggies, and vermicelli noodles. As we are the smell continued to waft into our noses and the heat of the soup combined with the scorching outside temperature and humidity made us sweat. In the four times that we went back for this soup, we did not see any westerners, and the only thing that changed each time was the type of noodles we got. I'm salivating just reminiscing about it, and hope I can figure out what it was and how to make it.

Later that night did not disappoint either, as we walked out from our favorite lady-man massage place and found the street full of food options that had popped up as the sun went down. I found a woman cooking pad thai and Katie found some basil chicken, and we chopstick-shoveled our food in our mouths and walked down the street. As we continued to walk down the street we started to compile a list of things we needed to try: the fried chicken, the chicken and pork satay, the whole fried fish. Basically, we used our noses and saw where the locals were eating to determine where and what we'd eat. 

Per the suggestion of a friend, we tried the food court at one of the many high-end malls in Bangkok: Siam Paragon. First we were taken back by the sheer size of the mall, then by the stores in it. We did not expect a mall full of Valentino, Pucci, Prada and other high end designers, not to mention the car floor which had the likes of Porsche and Maserati. But we were really there to eat, and that we did. We found the food court, deposited money on food court cards, and went to town. Between the two of us we ordered at least four full meals. While some of them were tasty, others disappointed a little. And none of them compared to what we had found on the street, though a brief reprieve from the heat was nice. We also tried durian ice cream (the only way I'd suggest trying durian, though I wouldn't even recommend that), and found a gourmet supermarket that we knew we'd be back to. 

Another memorable meal happened the night before we left for Bali, when we met an expat and Thai at an outdoor restaurant. Besides drinking a bit too much, we also are quite a lot because Tick, the Thai guy, kept ordering more food for us to try. First we had a spicy lemongrass and chicken soup that was delicious and HOT. That was followed by some deliciously marinated meat and rice. This was a pivotal meal, as we learned to eat the way locals do: grab some rice in your hand, roll it into a tight ball, and then use that to soak up the delicious sauce that was used in cooking. 

After Bali and before Cambodia we had more eating time in Bangkok and that's just what we did. The last two memorable dishes were once again street food. We finally tried the fried chicken from the guy outside of our massage place and wow was it tasty - definitely gives the south a run for its money! And the final wow came from a snack when we weren't even hungry. We were strolling through our neighborhood market, both tired and not hungry, when we walked passed a cart that had the most delicious smell wafting into the air. It literally stopped us in our tracks. Once we went over we looked and saw what looked like fried green tofu - we didn't care what it was, we were trying it. She put some in a bowl, poured a soy sauce with chilis over it, and handed it to us with two toothpicks. We went to town, no breathing, just eating. It wasn't until later that we learned that these were choice dumplings, and our attempts at finding chive dumpling lady again proved futile. 

Needless to say, Katie and I did a good job of eating all the Thai food, and I can't say either of us regret it even if it causes us to gain a few pounds. 

The "Real" Cambodia

Despite purchasing a 3-day pass to Angkor Wat and initially coming to Cambodia for the sole purpose of seeing the temples, Katie and I immediately agreed we needed to see and do more. Five days here, two of which aren't full days, is not enough. So on our final day we opted to do a countryside and floating village tour with our favorite, Mr. Sak. I can already tell you that what I will write in this blog post will not even come close to what Katie and I saw, heard, smelled, and experienced, but I will do my best.

At 9:30am we climbed into Mr. Sak's tuk tuk and started down the road. We almost immediately stopped at a roadside stand where Mr. Sak purchased three medical face masks, one for each of us, and instructed us to put them on. Another quick stop for gas and we were really on our way!

Let me first give you an idea of what driving in Cambodia is like. Take all of the common sense and laws that you have from driving and erase them. Now, imagine motorbikes, motorbikes pulling tuk tuks, bicycles, cars, vans, and buses all going as though it's a free for all. You're turning onto another street? You don't look, you just go. And the street you want to turn on to is one-way? It's not anymore if you honk your horn. Add in cattle on the sides of the road, a beautiful but dusty red dirt coating your face, the smell of exhaust, a bunch of bumps and holes, and you should get the picture. 

Once we were out of Siem Reap, it got better in the sense that there weren't as many cars on the road. But the dust picked up as the roads became strictly red dirt roads, and we were glad to have our "SARS" masks. The further we moved from the city, the more we were blown away by what we were seeing. It was all beautiful and heart-wrenching at the same time: the brilliant red dirt made the greens of the rice fields with cattle and palm trees even greener, which ricocheted off the bright blue sky. But then this beauty was interlaced with hay huts that families live in, children as young as five walking and biking home from school alone, and older men and women working the fields. 

As we got further from town and closer to water we took a turn at the 2-story, turquoise fisheries building, and the road became less of a road and more of bumpy, sandy, red pathway along a canal. Mr. Sak even yelled back to us to apologize for all the bumps, and my bladder yelled even louder that I needed a bathroom. 

At least forty minutes later (I lost track of time) we arrived at a set of roadside shacks with boats in the water. Mr. Sak said he'd be coming with us and introduced us to our captain, a boy of maybe 20 years old. I said I needed a restroom and was instructed to go onto another boat to the bathroom at the back. My expectations weren't high, and I was right. I entered a small box, smaller than any linen closet I've seen in the US and found a toilet bowl (no seat, no tank) about waist height. I looked down and saw a wooden stair to step on with a water bucket next to it for rinsing. I was happy to find a small light switch that turned on the bulb and fan. As I climbed up, I noticed that I could see straight out to where everyone else was, and looking down I could see the dirt-colored water. I had no choice though, so I used it. 

Then we started off on our boat ride. Our boat was a decent size, with water in the hull, and 6 wicker chairs for seats. Our captain was pretty good at maneuvering the boat, but it was tough with the shallow water (it's the dry season). As we went down the canal, past children playing and men and women working, we started to run into boats coming in the other direction. Due to the low water levels, we would glide past them with only inches between us, and then we'd get sprayed with muddy water from their outboard engine that was churning the bottom of the stream bed. We'd then get stuck in shallow water and have to use a long pole to push ourselves to deeper water. 

We finally made it into the lake and saw children paddling home from school, people lounging in their floating homes on hammocks, younger adults cleaning fish, and elders washing themselves in the muddy water. We floated past the school that the children had come from - 4 floating structures, each with two classrooms. Mr. Sak told us that children go to school from 7am to 11am then they go home for lunch, and go back to school from 1pm to 5pm. While school is free, it is often a financial burden on families. For instance, Mr. Sak has three kids, his oldest is nine and is currently the only one in school. He told us that with the cost of two uniforms (which are required) and books, it costs about $100/year for one child so once his two other children are old enough, Mr. Sak will be paying $300/year for his kids to go to school. The poverty line is $32/month so you can imagine that there are kids that do not go to school. Some children don't go to school because their family cannot afford it, others work or do household chores instead. It was very clear that there are kids in this floating village that will not receive an education. 

On our way back from the village we got to experience more excitement. As we'd skirt past oncoming boats, we started to notice a horrible smell emanating from the engine and when we turned back there was a lot of black smoke, too. We joked that if we sunk it was so shallow that we'd be able to stand at least. The captain shut the engine off, reached in his little toolbox, and instructed Mr. Sak to try to keep the boat pointed in the right direction and out of the way. After an hour of off and on stopping and going and fixing, we made it back to land - with a new propeller blade, a new rubber belt (timing belt maybe?), and a pile of debris pulled from the propeller. 

Back on the bumpy road, my need to pee once again didn't fail me so I got another fun experience. Mr. Sak pulled off on the side of the road and walked over to an area where he said I should be able to get into the woods. Clad in flip flops and luon, I turned and asked if there were snakes. Mr. Sak's response, "maybe". The lesson I learned? Dehydrate yourself on countryside tours.

Our next stop was the silk farm, where we were hoping we'd be able to feed our growling bellies. Apparently Mr. Sak was on the same page because he pulled over to a market full of only locals and was going to buy his lunch as he expected that we'd eat at the restaurant at the silk farm. But how could we turn down an opportunity to eat street food where the locals eat? We hopped out of the tuk tuk and followed our leader directly to an older woman sitting with whole grilled chickens flattened between to sticks. He held one up for us to smell - you couldn't almost taste the sweetness of the marinade. It didn't even cross our minds that we were told not to eat street chicken in Cambodia due to bird flu, our noses did the thinking. We got the chicken, 4 bags of sticky rice, and 10 spring rolls for a total of $8, and hopped back in the tuk tuk.

Once at the silk farm we maneuvered some benches in the shade so we could sit on one and use the other as a table. Hands rinsed with our drinking water, Mr. Sak passed out the bags of rice and chicken and we chowed down, using only our hands to eat as we had no utensils (and many locals don't use utensils anyways). We learned more from Mr. Sak about his family and how he works very hard, and how when he comes home his oldest (his son) lights up with excitement. We were pleased to hear he hadn't lived in refugee camps growing up, as our bike tour guide had. 

After our delicious lunch we headed into the silk farm where we learned about the silk making process and witnessed women working on everything from processing the raw silk to dyeing it and winding it onto spools. We also got to see women working on looms making beautiful intricate patterns out of the silk - all of it was manual labor, and I can 100% assure you that if I had to do the weaving I would for sure screw it up. 

Beyond exhausted from our long day and from witnessing the heartbreaking conditions we saw people living in, we headed back to the hotel to rest a bit before dinner. But we didn't get far before Mr. Sak noticed he had a flat tire, and we had to stop at a local mechanic. An hour and a half later, fumes inhaled, and we finally made it back to the hotel. When dinner time came around we asked for a tuk tuk to town and it was Mr. Sak again! He came out of a little garden area where he had been drinking a few beers with the other tuk tuk drivers, so naturally we asked if we could join him for a beer and that's exactly what we did.

We followed Mr. Sak back into the wooded area, sat down on rocks and were handed beers. I can't recall the names of all the guys but everyone was friendly and open. We learned that in their free time they play volleyball and had won a tournament earlier in the afternoon. After a of couple beers Mr. Sak took us to Pub Street, with a quick stop where we bought a case of beer for the guys.  We invited Mr. Sak to join us for dinner and took him to our favorite local spot, where we ordered beers, Khmer BBQ, fried morning glory, sticky rice, and BBQ shrimp. We ate it all while he showed us pictures of his kids and told us about his wedding. As we strolled back to the tuk tuk, we grabbed ice cream and made a few last Cambodia purchases, which Mr. Sak, being the gentleman he is, carried for us. 

When we got back to the hotel we were coaxed into staying for more beer. And this time the guys brought out some green mango and salt for us to snack on while we talked and laughed into the night.

I'll be honest, I'm a bit hungover now but it was 100% worth it to spend the day with Mr. Sak and to see what is probably the closest thing to the "real" Cambodia that we could. 

The entire experience moved me, and made me want to do something to help. As some of you may know, a big passion of mine is education - I believe that it is a right for everyone, and that I would not be where I am today had I not had the opportunities I've gotten with regards to my education (from Loomis Chaffee to Villanova, Duke, and my teacher training at BIG). With the help of my brother I found and donated to the following:

"World Assistance for Cambodia (WAfC) / Japan Relief for Cambodia (JRfC) are independent nonprofit organizations dedicated to providing opportunities for the youth and rural poor in Cambodia. World Assistance for Cambodia is registered in the United States as a 501(c) (3) tax-deductible nonprofit organization.  Within Cambodia, WAfC / JRfC is recognized by the Cambodian government as one nonprofit organization." The Federal Tax EIN ID number for WAfC is 51-0350058. Several of the programs they run offer educational assistance, such as providing incentives for girls to go to school, building rural schools, and investing in talented children to provide them with more opportunities. For more information, or to donate and give Cambodian children the opportunity to go to school, check out

The day truly could not have been better, from the broken down boat and tuk tuk to the late night beers, and I look forward to returning to Cambodia in the future - it now holds a special place in my heart.

Bikes, Beer, Temples, and Bugs

Are you noticing a trend here? Bikes and beer have become a common thing...

For our first full day in Cambodia we took the advice from some travelers we met in Bali and booked a sunrise and bike tour of Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples with Grasshopper Tours (highly recommend them). I'm a morning person, so the 5am pickup was no issue, but I've got to hand it to Katie for getting up AND functioning without coffee for 4-5 hours. 

We were picked up at our hotel by a van that had our guide, our bikes, and three other travelers - a Brit, and two Americans. It sure is a small world - one of the Americans, Bridget, has a background in environmental science and works for Conservation International; the other American recently retired from the World Bank where he worked as a forester, and is a Duke (Nic School back before it was the Nic School) alum. We haven't seen many Americans on our trip, and I definitely didn't expect to run into two people who have similar backgrounds to mine. 

That aside, we arrived at the temples and our guide set us up with a view over the 190 meter wide moat separating us from the towers of Angkor Wat. We sat, we ate croissants, and we waited for the sun - it seemed to take forever and we thought it was too overcast. Then suddenly, just above the highest tower of Angkor Wat, there was a fluorescent orange-red glow. 

Once some of the crowds had cleared from sunrise, we walked across the roadway that traverses the moat and entered Angkor Wat, the world's largest religious monument. Our guide was unbelievably knowledgeable and told us the meanings of all the etchings in the stone, as well as the history of the temple. Angkor Wat was built by the Khmer king, Suryavarman II and was built in the early 12th century. The temple was originally dedicated to the Hindu god, Vishnu, and later became a Buddhist temple. What differentiates Angkor Wat from other temples in the area is that is has been in almost constant use since it was built, and therefore was not overcome by nature. (I highly suggest researching more on both the history of Angkor Wat and of the Khmer empire - I plan to, as it has been extremely interesting to learn about).

Once we were all appropriately covered (shoulders and knees), we climbed up the 70 degree angle wooden stairs to the highest tower of Angkor Wat. It was nice to have the wooden stairs, as the originals were at an 85 degree angle and each stair would fit a 5 year old's foot. The view from up here was amazing - we could see every corner of Angkor Wat and the surrounding moat, as well as other temples in the area. The intricacies of the etchings and the shrines were simply stunning. After 20 minutes (the limit) we climbed down the treacherous stairs, managing to not fall and cause a domino effect, and made our way out the backside of the temple where we were whisked away to breakfast.

Our van pulled up in a wooded area where there was a breakfast picnic set up on the Siem Reap River. After a delicious meal, we grabbed our bikes (which were much better than any of the bikes we've had previously on this trip with working brakes and all!) and started on the trail.

One thing that was so great about tis tour is the mountain biking - we were going through small trails in the forest, over roots and ducking under tree branches. After a bit of this we turned to bike along the Angkor Wat moat where patches of sand would make you really work to keep your bike steady and moving. Before we knew it, we had arrived at the next stop - Angkor Thom. Angkor Thom, also known as the Great City, is just that. Angkor Thom was built in the late 12th century by King Jayavarman VII, when Angkor Wat was attacked, and was the last capital of the Khmer empire. It covers 9 square kilometers, and is surrounded by stone walls and a large moat. The entrance to Angkor Thom is simply breathtaking - a causeway with 54 demons and 54 gods representing the Churning of the Ocean of Milk, and a massive gate with faces staring out in every direction. 

For this portion of the tour, we biked through the gates and up a forested path to travel along the walls of the city, with the moat to our left and the ruins to our right. We stopped at one of the guard stands on a corner of the wall to learn more about the city and the Khmer empire.

A short bike ride along roads in the city then brought us to Prasat Bayon, a stunning temple that I actually preferred over Angkor Wat. Bayon was the state temple for King Jayavarman VII. It is in more of a state of ruin than Angkor Wat, but the faces (216 of them!) glaring down on you from all 54 towers, and the stories depicting everyday life carved in the stone walls are impeccable. These 11,000 figures included those of war, fishing, feasts, king processions, and markets.

Just outside of Bayon we sat for water and fresh fruit. Our picnic table was situated directly next to a monastery where monks were praying, washing, and blessing those who had come with ailments or bad luck. Refreshments inhaled, we hopped back on our bikes for more biking in the Cambodian forests. These forest trails took us directly to our next stop - Ta Prohm, or the Lara Croft Temple. This Buddhist temple was built in 1186 by King Jayavarman VII. Compared to the previous temples we saw, the uniqueness here lied in the power of nature to adapt and overtake what was man-made. The Cambodian forest has literally started to take over the temple, with moss on walls, doorways blocked, and trees growing out of and around the temple. 

A quick bike ride from here, past several Cambodian weddings, and we were at our late lunch of traditional Khmer dishes - chicken amok, beef amok, fried noodles, fish, and a vegetarian stir fry. It was all delicious, especially with a cold Cambodian beer! 

A quick post-ride shower to remove the layer of sweat and red dust, and a relaxing, pool-side margarita gave us the energy to grab a tuk-tuk to Pub Street. We walked around, went to the Night Market where we made several bargains, and got a quick foot massage to work up our appetites. Side note: I do not know how I will survive without $6 massages. 

Lucky for us, just around the corner from the massage place was a sidewalk restaurant, and as we walked by and smelled the food be cooked right there we knew where we'd have dinner. Two beers each, fried morning glory, two pieces of amazing grilled chicken, and two BBQ skewers later, we paid a whopping $7.50 total and headed to the street for the dessert that we weren't looking forward to: bugs. 

Just outside this "restaurant", was a street cart selling fried delicacies such as crickets, spiders, and water beetles. We both decided the only thing we could do would be the crickets, as the other options looked slimy, and the spiders apparently "pop" in your thank you. One dollar for a 2-cup sized scoop of crickets - we opted to give her $1 for 4 crickets, and as quickly as possible popped one in our mouths. Surprisingly, not bad - the spices she had used to fry them were delicious and they were crunchy with no "popping" or gooeyness. We both actually chose to eat our second one, though I think two cups would've been pushing it. 

A couple of beers to wash down the crickets at the aptly named bar, Angkor What?, and we were ready to call it a (15+ hour) day.

Overcoming Fear and Trusting Others

One thing I didn't mention about our time in Lembongan is the fact that on our last night there I realized I had left my bank card at Dream Beach. It was too dark (and far) to bike or walk, and too late to rent a motorbike. Luckily, one of the guys working at our hotel was willing to take me to get it.

A bit anxious, I hopped on the back of his motorbike, placed my feet on the pegs, and grabbed his arms with my hands. I'm pretty sure he could feel my nerves, but off we went (on the wrong side of the road). It wasn't too bad through town, despite his weaving in and out around potholes, but then we reached the big hill (that also had curves). Surely we would fall and then I'd have road burn to deal with and Cambodian water to wash said cuts least those were the thoughts running through my mind. I gripped his arms tighter, he added more gas, and up we went. He continued to weave in and out of potholes, honking as a warning as we went around turns. At one point we passed a truck and had I just slightly kicked my leg out, it would've been gone, but had my driver (or knight in shining armor?) moved over anymore we would've been off the road. 

Once we got my card and started to head back downhill I loosened up a bit - I started to feel the breeze in my hair, notice the beautiful views down over the ocean and the rest of the island, and let up my grip on my driver. He could feel me relax and started to point out various things in the panoramic view; I even got my phone out and took a short video (that hopefully shows up on this post). I had realized that by hopping on the back of his bike, I had conquered that fear. Sure, I didn't know if I could personally do the driving, but I now knew that I could ride on a motorbike without dying (my mind makes up some really great stories), and that I could trust someone that I didn't know in the least bit. 

Bali Belly

Besides the questionable food we ate our last night in Indonesia, food on Bali and Lembongan has not disappointed. 

Our first night in Ubud, after mildly recovering from our hangovers, set the bar high with Indonesian fried chicken and a delicious and light coconut curry. However, our best meals were without a doubt those cooked at our homestay with Ketut and his family. Each morning our breakfast consisted of fresh cut fruit (papaya, banana, and watermelon), delicious Balinese coffee, the best omelette I've ever had (tomato, onion, and spices), and a Balinese pancake, served to us on our front porch. I wish I had learned how to make a Balinese pancake, as they are thin and light, and beyond delicious. Ketut's family also offered to cook us a traditional Balinese BBQ, and we took him up on the offer. Our feast included tofu in peanut sauce, delicious veggies, and chicken and pork satay that his son's carefully grilled on a little fire. The chicken satay was blended with coconut, giving it a slightly sweet flavor, and the pork satay had a fabulous glaze on it. Dinner was followed with a sweet black rice pudding topped with shaved coconut. We ate and ate, and then ate some more. Ubud was also full of fresh fruits, veggies, and juices - after our feasting in Bangkok on everything but veggies, we happily ordered green juices most everywhere we went. 

Outside of Ubud, our favorite meal was our first in Lembongan. We both ordered the grilled snapper. When the entire fish came out we both cleaned those bones off while drinking our beers. 

Despite the delicious seafood and the food from Ketut's, I'd say that our two favorite Indonesian dishes (they happen to also be the most common) were Nasi Goreng and Mie Goreng - fried rice and fried noodles, two things you can never go wrong with.

Beer, Bikes, Beaches.

The past few days Katie and I have been beachin' it on Nusa Lembongan, an island that is just a 30 minute boat ride from Sanur, Bali. After our time in Ubud, we were ready for some relaxation on the beach!

Our first night on Lembongan we met some Canadians and after eating a delicious meal of fresh fish, we had Bintangs (Indonesia's beer) and a breathtaking sunset. 

Early to bed, early to rise for beach time! We ate breakfast at our hotel and walked to find an ATM and to rent either bicycles or motorbikes. Well, we failed at the ATM and we failed at the motorbikes (because I was a chicken with the whole opposite side of the road thing coupled with the horrific condition of the island roads). So with my Rupiah in hand to last us the next few days, and bicycles rented, we headed towards Mushroom Beach. 

Pedaling through town proved easy, as long as one could avoid the potholes and the drivers. However, once we reached the edge of town we hit a hill that was simply not possible to bike up in flip flops and with our less than optimal mountain bikes. Silly me for thinking that only a 90 minute class at BIG could get me so sweaty...

Eventually, covered in sweat and a bit annoyed with life (it was a brief annoyance, as it's hard to be unhappy in Indonesia), we made it to Mushroom Beach. We had seen absolutely no other bicyclists along the way, just people zooming by on their scooters. Oh well, we earned our beach beers! 

Mushroom Beach was a beautiful and relatively long beach, with various boats in the bay that took tourists snorkeling, diving, and on banana boat rides. We paid $5 each and set up camp on some lounge chairs where we enjoyed Bintangs, the crashing waves, and a local Balinese guy strumming his guitar. We also got the privilege of playing with the happiest little girl!

After our 4pm happy hour cocktail, we rode back, showered, and watched another great sunset before chowing down on more fresh seafood followed by fried bananas with ice cream, and bed.

Our last full day in Indonesia consisted of one of the prettiest beaches I've ever seen, a fabulous pool, beer, girly cocktails, and more bike riding. Dream Beach was a fitting name - white sand, crashing waves against cliffs that had lush greenery up to their edges, and every shade of blue, from the light blue of the sky to the darker blues and turquoises of the water. It was simply stunning. Our $5 once again got us lounge chairs, but also gave us access to the infinity pool overlooking the beach. We set up camp underneath an umbrella, and went to town reading books, ordering drinks, snacks, and lunch, and relaxing. Before leaving we opted to have some beachy drinks - a piña colada for Katie, and a banana daiquiri for me. We should've stopped here, given the bike ride we had back to our hotel, but happy hour had just we opted for one more drink, which happened to be the one with 4 types of alcohol and a splash of juice. Needless to say, we didn't finish our drinks, and we hopped on our bikes happily drunk. Our bike ride went a little like this: stop for pant rolling, a little wobble here and there, successful and failed attempts at missing pothole ax a broken flip flop, and walking downhill with said flip flop in one hand. It was quite the sobering adventure. 

After a shower, our initial attempt at dinner failed. Katie's chicken was a dark grey inside, and we aren't even sure what came out on my plate. We very quickly paid and went to the restaurant next door where we ordered the safest thing - pizza, beer, and french fries. We're leaving our time in Bali unsure of that last meal, with mildly sore "treasures" (as Madonna at BIG would say) from the bikes and potholes, slightly sunburnt from the strong Indonesian sun, and blissfully happy. 

Stop Monkeying Around

Last full day in Ubud, and boy are we sad to go. There is no question in my mind that I will be coming back to Bali.

We had our delicious Balinese breakfast (which I will surely miss) and headed into town to the Monkey Sanctuary. We had heard that the monkeys could bite, and to definitely not bring in any food; naturally, we were a little apprehensive. The monkeys here are long-tailed macaques. The minute we bought our tickets we saw a monkey sitting in the pathway, just chilling with his balls out. I was beyond shocked that the monkeys literally own this area - they go where they please, and the entire area is open (when we left we saw several monkeys outside of the sanctuary). When you added in the massive trees with sunlight shining through and the old temples, it really was a sanctuary in the middle of Ubud (which is a sanctuary of its own sorts). We walked around the forest in awe of every monkey we saw and how human-like they were. We saw them fight, eat, defecate, play, screw, nurse; we saw elders, teenagers, moms, dads, and babies (which were Benjamin Button like) - it was the whole spectrum of being a human. At one point we were walking and one of the monkeys came up to me and started to reach up my shorts and then tried to take my flip flop off. It was amazing how soft his hands were and how gentle he was. When he realized he wasn't winning anything from me, he moved on to Katie and tried to reach into her bag to see if she had any goodies. Once again, he realized he wouldn't win, but we ended up in a lot of foreigner's photographs. 

We left the monkey sanctuary ravenous and sweaty, but after a quick lunch we headed to the spa! We had signed up for a 5 hour spa day, which included a massage, body scrub, yogurt bath, facial, hair treatment, mani/pedi, and dinner. All for a whopping $95. Turns out, it was a couple's treatment - sorry, Aaron. 

It was the perfect end to our time in Ubud. Now onto the beach to relax some more! 

When It Rains, It Pours

Thanks to recommendations from two grad school friends (Emily and Jaime!), we spent our day on a fabulous bike tour (Bali Eco Cycling). I highly recommend it. 

When our 8am pickup arrived, we were happy to find 4 other energetic girls in the van - Jenna from Canada, Harriet from England, Yoska from Holland, and Chelsea from Oz. We really couldn't have asked for a better group!

That said, we were all quite hangry. Luckily the first stop was breakfast with an amazing view of Batur Volcano and Lake Batur. Batur Volcano is active, and we could see areas where lava had previously been flowing. Filled with eggs, rice, Balinese pancakes, fresh fruit, and coffee, we piled back into the van and drove to a coffee farm where we (once again) learned about luwak coffee and got to taste a myriad of coffees and teas. This time, however, we also got to taste various fruits (guava, tamarind, and snakeskin fruit), as well as Balinese chocolate. 

Then it was off to our bike ride! We got our mountain bikes, grabbed helmets, and headed downhill! The first stop was at a traditional Balinese family compound. Here we learned the following:

• One of the buildings in the family compound is used for the oldest family members (grandparents, typically). It is actually higher than all of the other buildings (which is humorous since stairs can be difficult for older people).

• The first building is the kitchen. We got to look inside this family's kitchen - it was very simple, but had the necessities and some well-seasoned pans!

• There was another, completely open, building (except for a roof) that had a bed on it. We were told that this building is used for ceremonies - weddings, births, funerals. There are 3 types of Balinese weddings, and the one that stuck out the most to me happens to be the most common. Our guide referred to it as the MBA marriage, or Marriage By Accident. This is what happens when the girl gets pregnant first, and it's relatively common because "you gotta test the goods before you buy them" (yes, direct quote). It's really because the family wants to know that there is someone to continue the lineage and stay within the family compound, so if you can't get pregnant you get to live with mom and dad forever. We also learned about Balinese funerals (or really, the Cremation Ceremony, since the Balinese believe in reincarnation). When someone in a Balinese family dies, they are placed on the bed in the wall-less building as though they are simply sleeping. When it is time, the body is placed in a sarcophagus often resembling a lion (though there are two other animals it could resemble that I don't remember now). The body, in the sarcophagus is then processed to the temple, where it is burned. The ashes are collected, placed inside a coconut, and released to sea. This is a very expensive process, so lower classes will often bury the body and wait for the village's mass cremation, which occurs every 5 years. 

• One of the most prominent structures within the family compound is the temple. Depending on where on the island the compound is, the temple is in the corner of the property that faces the sunrise and the highest mountain. These family temples are beautifully elaborate, with multiple shrines, and only members of the family are allowed to enter.

(If you have questions about Balinese culture, feel free to ask, as we learned quite a bit more than this. I've found that the history and culture here is so deep, and their religion so complex, that you can never stop learning about it).

Once we finished our tour of the family compound we rode downhill some more to rice paddies, where we got off to see men planting rice. We were given the opportunity to try it, and I decided why the hell not, took my shoes off and climbed down with them. Boy was it surprising! I sunk in up to my mid-shins as the mud squeezed between my toes. (Hope the water and mud were cleanish since I have a bunch of mosquito bites)! I was handed a bunch of rice and told to place them in the grid system that was marked out. An older Balinese man quickly informed me that I wasn't putting them in deep enough when he shoved my hand even deeper into the mud. 

And that's when the rain really started as a drizzle but as it got harder we nestled under a small shelter in the rice field with the men. They took out cigarettes and lit up while we unsuccessfully tried to get our belongings out of the rain. Once it seemed to stop we rinsed our feet and hopped back on our bikes.

A little freakier now as the dirt path was now mud, and several times my back tire skidded out. As we continued biking it started to POUR. My initial thought was that we would be forced off our bikes and into the van. Boy was I wrong; we just kept going. The rain pelted my skin and the front tire of the bike sent a stream of water straight into my face as we continued downhill past lush greenery and small villages. And then the thunder and lightning (and a yelp from me) came, but we kept going. After a quick stop at a massive Banyan tree, we were drenched but finished (with the downhill portion). 

At this point we were given the option of getting in the car and heading to lunch, or continuing on with the uphill portion of the ride. Jenna, Katie, and I opted to continue - North America, represent. 

The uphill portion was NOT easy, and made me realize I need to get back to spin when I return to TX. The rain continued to pelt our skin, and at times it was so heavy that it seemed like we were biking through rivers in the road. The gears on my bike were loose, making it so I could not stand to peddle uphill, and my back tire kept skidding out - definitely not easy to keep moving uphill. That said, we eventually made it, looked like wet dogs, and celebrated with lunch (and beer) with the rest of the group. 

The entire time, through the rain, the back tire issues, all of it, I couldn't help but smile. Balinese on the sides of the road (in their covered shops) smiled and always said hello as we rode by, and it was so nice to be caught outside in a storm and just stick with it. 

Adventures in Catpoocino

Our first full day in Ubud! We woke up and Ketut's wife made us the most delicious breakfast ever - an omelette, a Balinese pancake (think banana, coconut goodness), fresh fruit, and Balinese coffee. All served to us on our front porch, surrounded by lush greenery and the family temple. 

In traditional Balinese culture, an extended family lives together. When each son marries, his new wife moves into the family compound (which means sisters move out of the compound). Twenty-six people live within Ketut's compound - we've met his wife and two sons, seen some of his brothers and their families. But I do know that his family built every structure on this compound, including their magnificent temple, and they've lived here for at least 150 years. When Ketut was explaining all of this to us over breakfast he put it this way: "What's more important than your family? We go live our lives and then we come back home and have dinner and talk with family every night - they will always be there". We also learned that if anyone in the family were to stop practicing their religion (Hindu), or stop participating in traditional Balinese culture, they would be kicked out and not allowed to live on the property. 

During our amazing breakfast we met two other women staying with Ketut and fam - Angela who is from Arizona, and Amani who is Canadian but currently living and working in Doha, Qatar. We opted to spend our day with Amani and had a fabulous tour of rice fields and a coffee plantation by Medhe (Ketut's second son). The rice fields are simply stunning with the vibrant green terraces interlaces with durian, papaya, and Palm trees set against a beautiful blue sky. We learned that it takes about 6 months for the rice to grow to a point where it can be harvested. We also saw some beautiful lotus flowers and got to meet a local and very talented artist. 

After the rice fields we went to a coffee farm where we got to see many different plants - cinnamon, ginger, coffee, cacao, pineapple, and more. We also got to see and feed coffee to luwaks. Luwaks are Asian Palm civets (look it up). The luwak eats the coffee but is unable to digest the coffee bean so it poops it out and then the coffee beans are taken from their shell, roasted, and ground. We naturally had to try the poop coffee (and others, too, including ginger coffee, lemongrass tea, ginseng coffee, and more). The luwak coffee was quite delicious, and you could taste the difference when you drank it side by side with regular Balinese coffee. 

Katie, Amani, and I then headed into downtown Ubud for some food and a little shopping before yoga. Indonesian food has yet to disappoint - their ingredients are so fresh and everything is delicious and has a light feeling to it. We wandered our way through shops and made it to Yoga Barn for a vinyasa class. Practicing outside in the upstairs studio was lovely, with the sounds of birds, the breeze, occasionally a motorbike; there were even lizards "practicing" on the ceiling with us. 

Sweaty practice done, we grabbed coconuts and juices for more shop meandering before making our way to the Ubud Palace for a traditional Legong and Barong Dance. The dancing included music played on drums, and an instrument similar to a xylophone. The first thing I noticed was how much eye movement and hand movement were an integral part to the entire dance; at some points, the dancers were completely still except for their arms, hands, head, and eyes. The dance we saw told the story of the battle between the virtue and the vice. 

We departed the dance a little bit early to make it back home for a BBQ with Amani, Angela, and Ketut's family. Ketut's wife is an amazing cook - we ate traditional Balinese food and a lot of it! There was tofu and tempeh in peanut sauce, Balinese rice, vegetables, and skewered and grilled coconut chicken and pork satay. We were stuffed, but still had dessert - a delicious black rice pudding. 

From rice fields to catpoocinos to yoga and a family BBQ, we definitely can't complain about our first full day in Ubud!