The Maharaja’s Palace

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Our Air India flight landed in Jodhpur on a sunny Sunday afternoon, and we were subsequently hustled off the plane by a few pushy Indian passengers. We were greeted at the gate by our new guide, Teetu, a 50-something gentleman with a jet black moustache and a pair of emerald stud earrings. He welcomed us with the traditional Indian greeting, adorned us with fresh flower garlands, and escorted us to the car: a vintage 1940’s Buick belonging to the current maharaja himself (Gaj Singh II). Needless to say, we arrived in style to our hotel, the Umaid Bhawan Palace.

The palace was built as a kind of public works project after the monsoon failed 3 years in a row in the early 20th century. Construction of the palace kept virtually the whole city employed for 14 years, from the late 1920’s until its completion in 1943. The result is an incredible sandstone/art deco monument to the opulence of the maharajas. The palace is divided into 3 functional parts: a luxury Taj Palace Hotel (in existence since 1972), the residence of the erstwhile royal family, and a museum dedicated to the 20th century history of the Jodhpur Royal Family. Pulling up to the palace gates, we were instantly overwhelmed by the magnificence and scale of Umaid Bhawan. In its day, it was the second largest private residence in the world, second only to Buckingham Palace. The doors to the palace opened as if by magic and there stood an army of unfailingly attentive, turbaned butlers. Rose petals fell from the sky as we walked along the red carpet to the domed center of the palace. Our jaws hit the floor as we raised our eyes to the apex of the dome, 105 ft above our heads. The elaborate gardens with a resident peacock/peahen population of at least 50, the seemingly endless corridors… My dad and I had to pinch ourselves to make sure we weren’t dreaming.

That night we explored the palace, had cocktails at the Trophy Bar (decorated with the maharajas’ many hunting prizes), then dined al fresco on a pillared terrace overlooking the royal gardens, enjoying the setting sun over the center of the Jodhpur fortress 3 miles away. Breathtaking view. We especially enjoyed the Indian cuisine with its incredible blend of spices — some of the best food we’ve ever had (particularly the sweet and sour tomatoes, one of the current maharaja’s favorite dishes). Without another hotel guest in sight all evening, we truly felt like royalty!

Fun Fact: We learned that the riding breeches you wear while playing polo (wide through the hips, fitted from knee to ankle) are known as “jodhpurs.” Polo is a very popular sport in India, and its modern version was invented here! They even play elephant polo, designed for women (it’s apparently easier to side saddle an elephant than a horse). My dad and I vowed to try this variant of the game next time we’re in India, which I hope will be sooner rather than later!

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“People Don’t Rush”

Tea time at the Amantaka

Friday, June 24th, the 12th day of our adventure.  With 4 countries and 6 hotels in 11 days already under our belts, Madeleine and I definitely needed a little rest.  As luck would have it, we were in the perfect place. The unofficial motto of Laos is “PDR,” “People Don’t Rush.” A few years ago the Mekong rose to a near-record level and flooded parts of Luang Prabang.  The locals chained their furniture together so it wouldn’t float away, ordered up cases of beer and had a huge party. This place is backpacker heaven, very laid-back.  There is a saying around Indochina that “the Vietnamese plant the rice, the Cambodians watch the rice, and the Lao dream of rice.”

Laotian Tuk-tuks

Confluence of Mekong and Khan rivers

We slept in, made no plans outside of a few spa treatments, took a bike ride through Luang Prabang, had a few Lao Beers, and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.  It was a great day to recharge our batteries.  Next up: India, the country Mark Twain called    “…the cradle of the human race, the birthplace of human speech, the mother of history, the grandmother of legend, and the great grand mother of tradition…”

Construction using bamboo scaffolding

Amantaka by luminaria with real candles

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Monks, Morning Market, and the Mekong

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We arose bright and early at 5:30 am Thursday morning to take part in Luang Prabang’s daily ritual of giving alms to the monks.  Local townspeople and tourists line up along the main roads of the town, kneel on bamboo mats, and reverently hold up baskets of freshly cooked sticky rice.  As the orange ribbon of several hundred monks flows by, the alms givers drop little balls of rice into the monks’ begging bowls.  The strange thing, from our point of view (aside from the thought of eating rice recently handled by hundreds of unidentified fingers), is that the monks intentionally avert their eyes from the alms givers, showing no sign of appreciation, as if they were doing you a favor by accepting your rice.  To the Buddhist way of thinking, of course, this is perfectly natural.  The monks are revered, and the duty to give is deeply ingrained.

On the way back to the hotel for breakfast, we walked through the town’s remarkable morning market. The market was filled with the products of local fields and fisheries, with varieties of fruits, vegetables, fish, and spices that we had never even heard of. The most remarkable thing about this market, to us at least, was how the local women pull this enterprise together every single morning of the year, in time for people to visit the market to buy rice to cook for the monks.  True, women around Luang Prabang never see the inside of a rice field and probably don’t do much fishing.  That’s man’s work. The women get to stay at home in the shade and mind the children, clean house, do a little laundry, cook the meals, and, oh yeah, get up in the middle of the night, heft onto their shoulders a long pole holding baskets of the farm’s bounty on either end, and walk an hour or two into town, where they display their goods for sale in their usual spot for several hours, then pack the remains back onto their shoulders and walk back to the farm, to begin their regular chores. Repeat. Sorry guys, but enjoy this deal while it lasts, because the trend is not your friend.

After a fantastic traditional Lao breakfast, we made a quick stop by the Royal Palace, a beautiful example of French Colonial architecture.  It’s now a museum displaying artifacts from Laos’ history as a monarchy, including the sacred Pra Bang Golden Buddha from which the town gets its name, wonderful portraits of the last of the royal line, and even the last King’s favorite cars, 2 old Lincoln Continentals and an Edsel from the 50s.  When we asked Doua what had become of the Royal family, he finally owned up in a whisper that when the Communist Pathet Lao took over in 1975 the royals were sent to “re-education camp.” Unlike deposed royals in many other countries, this Royal Family did not flee into exile when the Communists rolled into town. Instead, they honorably chose to stay and help their people adjust to their new masters. I later learned that the “camp” was deep in the jungle and the family was never heard from again. The Pathet Lao was taking no chances. Even now, the people of Laos are careful of what they say – the Government listens into all phone calls and Internet communications.  The economy may be free, but the Communists are still the only Party in town.

At about 10am we boarded a long thin passenger boat for a cruise up the Mekong to the famous Pak Ou caves and several villages.  The boat could have easily seated 30 people, so the 2 of us had plenty of elbowroom.  The muddy Mekong meandered slowly through the jungle during this stretch.  Our pilot seemed to have the serpentine path of the channel memorized because he navigated us through the hidden sandbars and the bamboo poles tethered to sunken fish traps with ease, while he chatted with his girlfriend, who was along for the ride. We passed a few villages that peeked out of the jungle at the edge of the steep banks of the river.  Monsoon season had just begun, so the river was running at about halfway between its normal high and low levels.  We could see the flood point along the top of the bank, about 6-8 meters higher than our boat.  We could only imagine what this river looked like at the peak of the rainy season. For the most part, we had the river to ourselves, and we enjoyed the beautiful, if steamy, day and the views of the nearby jungle and mountains in the distance.  Madeleine and I drifted in and out of sleep over the next 2 hours until the boat’s engine was cut as we reached our destination.  The locals have considered the Pak Ou caves to be holy for at least the past 1000 years.  The animist deity shrines were cleared out by the king about 500 years ago and replaced with thousands of—yes, you guessed it—Buddhas. Pilgrims and tourists are still adding to the trove. On the way back we made several stops: first, for a wonderful Lao lunch of Mekong fish along the river bank; next, for a visit to a village specializing in local rice moonshine (delicious, by the way) complete with bottles of the stuff stuffed with King Cobras and scorpions the size of your hand (didn’t try this version); then to a village vertically integrated to produce silk textiles, all the way from the gooey little silkworm to the finished scarf; and, finally, to see the process of making Lao paper out of the bark of mulberry trees.  The whole afternoon was delightful and very instructional, although it was sobering to think that the beautiful scarves we purchased, which had taken a single woman 2 to 3 days to weave, only cost $3.

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Luang Prabang

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After meeting our guide, Doua, at the Luang Prabang airport Wednesday afternoon, we transferred to our amazing hotel, the Amantaka, in the center of town, and then set out on a quick tour of some of the town’s main attractions.

Luang Prabang is nestled in the mountains of north-central Laos, on a raised tongue of land at the confluence of the Mekong and Khan rivers. Buddhism reigns supreme here. The small town of 100,000 is packed with Buddhist wats (temples), stupas (mound-like structures containing Buddhist relics), and monks (saffron robed fellows with shaved heads who rise promptly at 4 in the morning every day and vow never to so much as touch a girl.  Madeleine nearly caused a diplomatic crisis in Cambodia when she reflexively stretched out her arm to encircle the shoulders of a novice monk for a snapshot. You should have seen the look of terror and disgust on his face as he squirmed away. You would have thought she had the wet kind of leprosy!).

Doua was the perfect guide for our temple tour. Like many men of his generation (he is 28), Doua had spent 3 years as a novice monk when he was a boy, studying Buddhist scripture and doing odd jobs around the monastery. Doua hails from a Hmong mountain village and, until recently, when primary education became more accessible in the countryside, the only practicable way for a boy from the sticks to get any kind of education was to train as a novice monk.  Girls were really out of luck.

We started with Wat Visoun, a mere stone-throw’s away from the hotel. This one boasts a beautiful, large seated Buddha, dozens of standing Buddhas in the “Calling for Rain” position with their hands pointed to the earth, and a large, squat stupa known as the Watermelon Stupa, whose treasure of gems and gold buried inside had regrettably been looted by Chinese invaders in the late 19th century. Our next stop, right next door, was Wat Aham, featuring interior walls completely covered with “instructional” scenes from Buddhist theology painted by the local monks.  The gruesome depictions of what awaits some people in hell put to rest any thoughts that I had been entertaining of converting to Buddhism. The final stop on our temple tour, the beautiful Wat Xiengthog, dates from 1560 (one of the lucky few to escape ravage by the Chinese), and is known for its sweeping Luang Prabang style roof and richly decorated columns. At the first hints of sunset, we mounted steep steps to the summit of Mount Phousi, in the center of town, to admire the wonderful panoramic views of Luang Prabang, the rivers, and encircling mountains.  The town has retained the charm of French Indochina, with red tiled roofs sprinkled among beautiful tropical trees, flashes of gold from the dozens of temples, and the civilized flow of pedestrians, bicycles, tuk-tuks, scooters, and vans.  It’s easy to see why UNESCO declared Luang Prabang a World Heritage Site.

That night, Madeleine and I strolled through the colorful night market, down a few dimly lit alleys and streets (only getting lost once), carefully past several stray dogs of questionable parentage and sanity, and found our destination, L’ Elephant, where we finished off another amazing and exhausting day with a wonderful Lao-French meal.

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Tonle Sap

Ray Ban monk

Our balloon ride, which had promised panoramic views of the Angkor site, was canceled the next morning due to impending rain. So we decided to make a short drive south to see Tonle Sap and one of its many floating villages. But before that, we received a blessing at a Buddhist monastery from a monk in Ray Bans. We knelt before him, and he chanted in an auctioneer-like cadence and threw water on us, as in buckets of water. It was hilarious.

Forgot to add to last post, we ran into Nick Gruy (eating crickets) in Siem Reap!

Tonle Sap is the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia, and is one of the most productive inland fisheries in the world, supporting over 3 million people, 2 million of whom actually live in floating villages around the lake. We saw one of these villages, and it was… a huge dose of the real world. To think that 2 million of Cambodia’s population of 14 million live in such conditions is deplorable. Luckily, privately-funded groups have steadily been making progress over the years, building canal and port facilities to help the fishing and tourism, and providing water purification systems for clean drinking water.

Tonle Sap

We left Tonle Sap behind with heavy hearts, and at about 11 am we pulled into the airport to begin the next leg of our adventure: Laos.

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Siem Reap: The Khmer Empire

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We arrived in Siem Reap the night of June 20th, around 8pm (our flight from Hanoi was a bit delayed). We walked off the plane and met our Cambodian guide, Mr. Ta, which literally means “old man” in Khmer. As you can probably imagine, the name quickly stuck as a nickname for my own old man (who are we kidding, he has like 3 gray hairs). We loaded up the car and began the 20-min drive to the Hotel de la Paix, a stylish, modern hotel decorated with a combination of art deco and traditional Khmer design. The hotel is located centrally in Siem Reap, directly across from a KFC. Weary from a full day of traveling, the old man and I decided to turn in early.

At 7:30am the next morning, a few hours after sunrise (literally — they don’t have daylight savings time), we met Mr. Ta in the lobby, bright eyed and bushy tailed for our first day in Cambodia. I wasn’t as up-to-date as my dad on the Indochina National Geographic articles so I really had no clue what to expect. Our first stop: Ta Prohm. If you’ve watched Angelina Jolie deliver a roundhouse kick to the face in Tomb Raider then you’ll definitely recognize Ta Prohm. Tomb Raider was shot there, and so were a few scenes from the movie Troy… Interestingly enough. Ta Prohm was a Mahayana Buddhist monastery built in 1186 by the Khmer King Jayavarman VII, the last of the great kings of Angkor, as a gift to his mother. Unlike most Angkorian temples of its time, Ta Prohm has been left pretty much just as it was found — overgrown and, for lack of a better descriptive adjective, jungle-y. Giant silk-cotton trees (some 400 years old!) devour the ruins, their massive roots spiraling downwards, in most cases breaking through the stone. Navigating through the dark, moss-covered corridors, I imagined I was Lara Croft, ready to kick butt and take names.

Before I describe the other Angkorian temples we visited, I should probably mention that they were discovered in 1860 by a French botanist, Henri Mahout. Mahout was studying butterflies, and in the process accidentally stumbled across the temples tucked away in the jungle. I tried to imagine how he must’ve felt… One second chasing around a butterfly, the next uncovering an entire ancient civilization. Mind blowing, I’m sure. While we’re talking backstory, here’s a little more about the Khmer Empire…

Khmer Empire: One of the most powerful empires in Southeast Asia (802-1431). The empire grew out of the former kingdom of Chenla, and at times ruled over parts of modern-day Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar, and Malaysia. Its greatest legacy is Angkor, the site of the capital city during the empire’s zenith. (Want to learn more? Consult the 2nd paragraph of Wikipedia’s “Khmer Empire”… guilty.)

After Ta Prohm, we visited Angkor Thom, literally meaning “Great City.” Angkor Thom was established as the capital of Jayavarman VII’s empire, and it was the center of his massive building program. We visited Bayon, Jayavarman’s official state temple and the centerpiece of Angkor Thom. I was delighted to discover we’d be taking an elephant ride to Bayon (which, might I add, was also built for his mother. Mothers everywhere should expect nothing less). I’d never ridden an elephant before, but I figured it’s got to be something like riding a horse, right? Not so much. We had a much better view, but boy was it rocky. The man steering our elephant entertained us during the ride by playing music on his flute. He played “Happy Birthday” and “Jingle Bells,” and we happily sang along, gripping our legs against the seat to keep from falling off. But wait a minute, that’s not a flute. It’s a leaf! What a renaissance man. Next stop: meeting a Khmer scholar at Angkor Wat.

Angkor Wat (literally meaning “City Temple”): temple built in the early 12th century under King Suryavarman II as the state temple and capital city, dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu. It is the world’s largest religious building, and it has become a symbol of Cambodia (appears on its national flag). The temple is admired for the grandeur and harmony of its architecture (noted for its use of different Khmer styles), and for its extensive bas-reliefs… Definition aside, that place is un-be-lie-va-ble. The symbolism, the detail, the stories on the walls… I’ll let the pictures do the talking for this one.

Our stomachs began to growl as we left Angkor Wat, and the Khmer scholar who toured us around the temple made an offhand comment about how it smelled like rain. Sure enough, 2 minutes later, buckets. We ate like kings at a nearby Cambodian restaurant — spring rolls, sticky rice, and chicken stir fry served in a coconut. Perfect timing too, because the rain began to let up just as my dad took his last sip of Angkor beer.

Last but not (eh…) least, we stopped by the Angkor National Museum. We walked from room to room, admiring statues taken from Angkor Thom, Angkor Wat… Even a room full of 1,000 Buddhas. I joked with my dad how creepy it would be if the lights shut off and all the Buddhas’ heads turned toward us, like in a scene from a horror film. The lights did shut off while we were there, but thankfully we weren’t in the Buddha room.

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Moonshine with Mrs. Han

Drying rice on the main road

Rice fields

On the drive back from Ha Long bay, about an hour or so outside of Hanoi, our car unexpectedly rolled to a stop along the highway. We rubbed our tired eyes and took in the landscape, miles and miles of little rectangular rice paddies. My dad instinctively reached for his camera. We got out, and Thuan led us along the highway toward a small village of houses, the Tu Phong village in the Bac Ninh Province. We passed a woman wearing a conical paddy hat (“non la” — leaf hat) drying rice on the asphalt. We stopped to snap a picture and then raced after Thuan, who was clearly leading us somewhere. It soon became clear that this wasn’t just another quick picture stop. We turned onto a dike, skirting the edge of the rice fields to the right, farmhouses to the left. The small, one-room houses had equally modest backyards, decorated with hanging laundry and littered with drying rice. We passed hens, roosters, and ducks along the way, including a family of chicks that attempted to fall in line behind us.

More rice on the highway

Mrs. Han's backyard

Shrine to the Hans' ancestors and symbols of Christianity, above her table

Mrs. Han's granddaughter, so cute!

Next, we turned up the hill on a rocky path and found ourselves in the courtyard of a typical village farmhouse. Much to our surprise, Thuan walked right up to the front door. We exchanged confused glances and timidly followed. We heaved a sigh of relief as the woman at the door held out her arms to embrace Thuan. Full of surprises, that Thuan. The woman, who looked about 50, flashed us a gold-toothed grin and motioned enthusiastically for us to come inside. Her name was Mrs. Han, and she he had a hearty laugh and a vivacious personality. Although she didn’t speak a word of English, she made us feel instantly at home. We left our sandals at the door and entered the tiny room, decorated with two mattress-less beds, a small TV set, and a child-size dinner table. We sat down and Mrs. Han’s 4-year-old granddaughter jumped up to wipe the tabletop clean. The little girl was thin and covered in dirt, but she was quite the social butterfly. She proudly showed off her hot pink hair clips and introduced us to her favorite doll. Mrs. Han’s daughter-in-law was also there, along with her two sons (ages 1 and 2) and nephew (age 6). Every day the men go to work in the fields and the women stay at home to watch over the children.

Mrs. Han and her moonshine

Han family, Note: passed out older brother, never met him

Hall family meets Han family

After we sat down, Mrs. Han served us a jar of home-made moonshine and a bowl of peanuts from her peanut field. After undergoing rigorous training from my dad and avoiding all fresh produce and water, I waited for him to make the first move. He happily took the glass of rice wine and took a sip. I should’ve known he wouldn’t turn down moonshine. It was delicious, although I couldn’t have more than 2 glasses. I took a mental step back and realized I never once in my life thought I’d be sitting in a Vietnamese farmhouse, laughing and getting to know a Vietnamese family over moonshine. Amazing. I really got a kick out of watching the kids — the rambunctious little girl jumping up and down and performing for us, the little boys squealing and waddling around the room. As my dad said, kids are the same everywhere. When my dad told the woman that he had 4 daughters, she started laughing. Since I would be worth about 8 or 9 water buffalo (I’ll take that as a compliment?), she told him having so many daughters was going to be very expensive. When it was time to go, we thanked Mrs. Han for her hospitality and gave a big hug to the kids. We also got to meet their chickens, fighting roosters, ducklings, and big potbellied pig on the way out. Meeting the Han family was definitely one of the coolest things I’ve ever done. We made sure to get their address so we can send the little girl a new doll, and hopefully go back to visit one day.

The Hans' potbellied pig


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