Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Epic Month that Was December 2009

December was an epic month of travel, holidays, meeting up with friends both old and new, and exploring the world. I know that posts with long lists of things seen and places visited can be tiring or even boring if you weren't there also. Therefore, I will try to include lots of pictures and interesting info. Feel free to just look at the pictures if you're feeling antsy. So, let me share a few highlights from my journey...
The month started with a trip to Manado, Sulawesi and Bunaken [a small island off the coast of Manado]. As you can see from the photo above, Bunaken is something of a tropical paradise. In my opinion, it is 100% honeymoon destination worthy. We spent the weekend eating fresh grilled fish on the beach, swimming, snorkeling, and relaxing in the sun. One night we went swimming after dark. As we were wading out into the ocean, we noticed lights in the water that swirled around us when we moved. It was bioluminescent plankton! They were everywhere in the water. The plankton made the water look like a mirror reflection of the stars in the sky above...a mirror reflection that moved to incorporate us into the picture. Pretty amazing! The next day I spent about 4 hours snorkeling. It was the best snorkeling of my life, I could have stayed out there all day long! I don't think I stopped smiling the whole day. The water was a clear blue that gave a perfect view of the coral reef, fish, and sea creatures below. I found myself repeatedly wishing my father was there to identify all the beautiful things I was seeing. Some of the highlight spottings included: a tiger fish, an eel, a black and silver sea snake, finding Nemo [clown fish], huge blue starfish, giant clams, and so much more! I felt just like Ariel diving down to touch the sea anemones! I would recommend Bunaken to anyone with a love of the ocean.
The mountain is Manado Tua, a volcanic island just off the coast of Manado and next to Bunaken.
I returned to Magelang just in time for my 23rd birthday. My fellow ETA Alexa met me at the airport and came back to school with me. We were greeted by my students who came to celebrate with me. My students are truly the sweetest, kindest kids. They gave me the most thoughtful presents. First, they gave me a stuffed Santa in a heart that said 'Merry Christmas!' to add to my Christmas window decorations. Then, they gave me a photo album filled with pictures of me with them and photos of them posing around the campus [see photo below of me opening the presents]. I can't wait to show you all the album when I get home. It is pretty funny because in many of the photos they look extremely happy and I look sweaty, confused, and bemused. A picture is worth a thousand words...
Alexa and I had a perfect birthday lunch thanks to my Mum! We started out with some Vermont Cabot cheddar cheese and garden veggie Wheat Thins courtesy of my mother's amazing holiday package. We rounded out our meal with some organic pesto and pasta from Milas, my favorite restaurant in Yogya. All in all, I don't think I could possibly have asked for a better meal.
On the night of my birthday, Alexa and I went to my Principal's house for another celebration. Some of the teachers and the Principal's family gathered for dinner in my honor. It was very sweet of them. They sang karaoke for me and even had a cake. This is Rio and I cutting the looks a little like a disturbing wedding photo.On my birthday I finally had the chance to give Rio the cars from Emma! They made an absolutely perfect Christmas gift [the Principal's family is one of the only Christian Indonesian families that I know]. Rio was thrilled! We played with the cars for, no exaggeration, hours. We spent a lot of time trying to figure out which cars were our favorites and finally came to the conclusion that they were just all too cool to pick just one! Thanks again Emma for your great present!
The day after my birthday Alexa and I headed out to meet up with Thom and Anna and leave for our two week grace period in Thailand and Cambodia. What a crazy wonderful two weeks we had! Alexa and I knew that the trip was going to be amazing when we found peppermint mochas at the Starbucks in the Singapore airport. To me, peppermint mochas mean two things: hockey season and Christmas. Steve and I often got them before hockey games on the road (well, Steve got hot chocolate). They were exactly what we needed to remind us that it was actually the holiday season.
Our first stop was Bangkok. Bangkok was overwhelming and honestly not my favorite city in the world. I'm sure that there are lovely parts, but we didn't have the chance to go explore them. We hightailed it out of the city at the first opportunity. We did stick around long enough to discover that we hate "sex-pats" and to explore Wat Pho [above], which boasts a huge golden reclining Buddha. If you are ever kicking around Bangkok, go see this Buddha. He is incredibly impressive and awing.
Our next stop in Thailand was Koh Chang, an island off the Eastern coast of the country. The island is supposed to be slightly less touristy than the other beach island that Thailand has in ample supply. Well, after months in Indonesia, Koh Chang seemed pretty touristy to us; which is not to say that we didn't have a wonderful time. We relaxed on the beach, treated ourselves to Thai massages, and ate our way through as much Thai food as we could. The highlight of our time in Thailand, in my opinion, was an excellent private cooking class that we took one night. Two great Thai sisters taught us how to cook spring rolls, red curry, and pad thai. I must admit that I was impressed at how well our food turned out. If anyone wants some recipes, let me know!
After Thailand, we shipped off to Cambodia. I admit, Cambodia shocked and surprised me. It was a beautiful country full of interesting and thought-provoking sites and people. Our trip to Cambodia started at the consulate in Thailand where we got completely ripped off for our visas. In the end it didn't matter, but it did serve to remind us of the problems that Cambodia is still dealing with--namely corruption, poverty, and recovering from a genocide. We spent 3 days in Siem Reap taking in the views of Angkor Wat and the other temples in the Angkor complex. I am something of a temple-snob and I admit that the Angkor complex of temples is incredibly impressive. Some of my favorite temples were the the ones in Angkor Thom including the one pictured above which features huge heads of the ruler at the time that it was built.
We received blessings from this giant Buddha via some monks. They prayed over us and gave us red prayer bracelets. There are many, many temples around Siem Reap. Some of them are Buddhist and some are Hindu. Some of them even started out as Hindu and were later converted to Buddhist when different rulers came to power. It was interesting for me to see how the temple art was altered to become more Buddhist. I had a lot of fun guessing which temples were which religion and then checking my accuracy in Alexa's guidebook.
Cambodia was surprisingly beautiful and full of pretty scenes. I happily stumbled upon this man fishing.
We got up early on our second day in Siem Reap in order to see sunrise over Angkor Wat. Unfortunately, the sunrise really wasn't that impressive. But, it was still a special moment.Here are Alexa and I at the entrance to Angkor Wat. We look tired but happy; which is a theme I think you will find in almost all of the photos from this trip.
Angkor Thom is a fortified temple complex. At each of the four entrances there are huge sculptures of men fighting a giant snake. I loved those sculptures. On our last day, I had our rickshaw driver stop so that I could have my picture taken with them.
We all agreed that our favorite temples were the ones that were the least kept-up and touristy. There was something so romantic and profound about seeing nature reclaim the temples. It just seemed right. The way that the trees were emerging from and encompassing the stone reminded us of how powerful nature is.
Christmas in Cambodia does not compare to Christmas in Vermont. I'm sorry, but I'm a white Christmas kind of girl. We did our best to make the holiday happy and not sad. I think we did a great job considering what we were working with [90 degrees, sunny, no family, etc.]. We bought each other little surprise presents and opened them together. Thom bought Alexa and I very necessary pedicures! We had a delicious fancy dinner and a bottle of wine at an Italian restaurant. It was not a bad day, in fact, it was a great day! It just wasn't what I was used to. But, most importantly, it taught me that next Christmas I want to be home with my family.

After Siem Reap we headed to Phnom Penh. Phnom Penh was a great city. Our enjoyment was heightened by Thom's college friend Jesse who now works at the Phnom Penh Post and who gave us an awesome introduction to the city.

The day that we visited the Tuol Sleng genocide museum and the killing fields at Choeung Ek was extremely emotional. With perhaps the exception of the missions in Western Australia, I have never been to places with such bad energy. I don't want to depress you, so I won't go into details. If you'd ever like to talk about what I saw and felt, please ask. One of the major issues that I encountered was feeling angry about the lack of archaeological integrity of the killing fields. Above is a monument to the victims. Inside are victims' skulls. The monument is open to the air. This means that the skulls 1. are not being preserved 2. are not being protected from visitors. In the photo below, you can see a pile of bones at the foot of the tree. The entire area was strewn with bones and scraps of clothing. There were teeth and leg bones in the pathway. Visitors are walking on human remains. This makes me sick. Choeung Ek is supposed to be a place where people can come to pay respect to the victims of genocide and also learn about what happened. Is it a respectful place? Is it honoring the memory of genocide victims? How can a place be honorific if visiting it requires literally treading on victims' remains? I have no easy answers for you.Jesse introduced us to a great Cambodian woman named Rina. Rina owns an awesome restaurant and store that sells her handmade clothes and jewelry. She gives 40% of her profits to different charities around Phnom Penh. She is incredibly talented. We all bought some of her jewelry and wished that we were there long enough for her to make us some clothes! We decided that we would just have to go back to visit.

During our long trip we all got a little crazy. It helped us bond. And now we are all really close.

This is essentially what I saw of Malaysia. We camped out on the floor of the airport for the night because it turns out that the airport in Kuala Lumpur is actually 70 km outside of the city. It is really not worth the trip in for only 10 hours.

The month ended with us getting dressed up to say goodbye to 2009 and welcome 2010! All the jewelry in the picture above is courtesy of Rina. We celebrated in style thanks to champagne from Cambodia. It was a month full of adventure, happiness, learning, and fun! I hope that you feel like you came along for a little piece of the adventure. Lots of love!

1 comment:

  1. Sas,
    It was great to read your post and see the beautiful pictures... It sounds like a wonderful adventure with great friends... We are happy to hear you'll be celebrating the holidays with us next year, it wasn't the same without you...
    Love and miss you,
    Mum xoxo