I think I may have to begin writing a travel blog.
Every time we take a trip, we wonder how we will be able to top it. We have been to some amazing places and have seen some incredible things. However, our last trip lived up to expectations and surpassed them all. We just returned from an adventurous trip to Cambodia and Vietnam. If you ever have the opportunity to take a trip like ours, jump at the chance. You will not regret a moment!
Perhaps the best part of our trip was the fact that Autumn was able to join us. She was tired of missing all the fun we have on our trips and flew to Shanghai in order to take the journey with us. As with many of our trips, we arrived in Siem Reap, Cambodia long after the sun set. We drove in the dark to our hotel and climbed wearily into bed eager for a bit of sleep before our first day’s tour began. In the morning we ate a quick breakfast and met our tour guide for a full day tour. Our first stop was Banteay Srei, a sandstone temple built in 900 AD. The bright blue skies were a bold backdrop to the intricately carved temple. From there we visited another ancient temple, Banteay Sambre. I was struck by the fact that we could walk through the majority of the temples, touching anything we pleased. Some preservation attempts have been made to the crumbling buildings, but much of what we see still stands on its own.
After our temple visits, we were taken to Tonle Sap Lake. This lake offers the most unique way of life we have ever experienced. Its shores were lined with houses on tall stilts. We were told the height of the stilts is measured for monsoon season when the water will rise all the way up to the height of the houses, perhaps three stories above the current water level. We boarded a small boat for a closer tour of the lake. The water was brown and obviously very dirty. As we traveled out onto open sea we couldn’t believe our eyes. A floating village lay at the mouth of the river. Houseboats were home to families. A small store for supplies and two donated schools were tucked among the houses that had no electricity or running water. The people used the lake as a valuable resource for fishing, sanitation (yes, they dumped their waste into the water), and drinking water. I was horrified when our guide told us the villagers typically drink the water right from the dirty river. Sometimes they boil it, but usually, do not make an effort to do so as making a fire takes time and precious resources. Living conditions are hard, making the life expectancy around 55. Despite the extreme poverty and harsh living conditions, the villagers appeared happy. Children paddled by on boats. Some frolicked on a nearby island. Many of the adults we passed waved and smiled. When we arrived back on land, some small children approached us selling their wares. Brett just couldn’t say no. Sending adorable children to sell things to soft-hearted tourists was a genius move on behalf of the locals.
We found this welcoming and happy spirit across the land in Cambodia. Many people do not have electricity, running water, or enough food. Our guide told us of his childhood with his eight siblings. When food would run low, he would go with his father into the woods to search for wild potatoes and tarantulas to serve the family for dinner. Throughout his lifetime war ravaged the land at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. Many able-bodied adults were forced to fight throughout the country. Genocide spread like a dark, heavy blanket across the land. His father told our guide if anyone ever came looking for him to “never tell” where he was out of fear of being forced to leave his family and fight in the war. To this day, over one million landmines still remain undetected across Cambodia continuing to cause loss of limb and life. Life is hard, and the country is continuing to recover, but you will never find a more friendly or content culture.
Our second day began literally before the crack of dawn. At 5 am we walked through the pitch black tail end of the night to watch the sunrise over the ancient temple of Angkor Wat. The rising sun behind the temple cast a glow outlining the tall peaks that were constructed in 1100 AD. Although we sacrificed sleep, we agreed the opportunity to witness such a fantastic site was worth the early wake-up call. Unfortunately, Elijah woke up not feeling well. We were all unaware that he would be the first victim of what I can only guess was the flu. Little did we know the nasty virus would strike each of us, one after another until we were all knocked down like bowling ball pins. We had our driver take Elijah back to the hotel to recuperate and proceeded onto yet another temple. Bayon is called the temple of many faces for a good reason. Massive sandstone faces look down at you from every angle of the temple. Each one unique and designed after the soldiers in the Cambodian army. Our final temple visit of the day was to Ta Prohm or the temple of the trees. It is the location in the movie Lara Croft where Angelina Jolie was filmed trying to recover an ancient artifact. Massive trees have grown in and around the temple, encompassing it with their octopus-like root system. Although they look destructive, they actually act to preserve the temple by holding it together. It was incredible. We felt like Indiana Jones exploring ancient ruins. Each temple was unique and beautiful.
Day three began with a leisurely morning. Jack and I enjoyed the pool, Elijah continued to rest, and Brett and Autumn took advantage of the hotel spa. In the evening, we were transported to a nearby location for a sunset quad ride. It is difficult to decide what which activity was the best, but I may have to vote for the quad ride. We paired up and followed our guide across roads and through fields in order to watch the sunset over a local rice field. After our fear of tipping over while traversing across the fields subsided, we all had a great time “tearing it up” across the Cambodian countryside. When we reached our destination I took in the vibrant colors of the yellow-green rice that seemed to glow beneath the last rays of sunlight. I never thought rice could be so pretty.
Our final day in Siem Reap was a free day. We decided to schedule a few hours zip lining. After all, how many people can say they zip-lined through the Cambodian jungle? It was so much fun! We all enjoyed sailing through the trees and tried not to look down as we climbed higher and higher. The highlight was when we arrived on a platform with another group. We were told they were filming a promotional movie for the zipline company and needed a group to be in the movie. Of course, we jumped at the chance and performed our small roles with enthusiasm. We can’t wait to see when it is posted on their website (angkorzipline.com)! Feeling like movie stars, we finished our awesome morning and returned to the hotel. We walked around town, enjoyed a tuk-tuk ride, some ice cream and shopping, and boarded our plane to our next destination: Hanoi. Again arriving at night and getting a short night’s sleep, we awoke to a cloudy, cool morning. Today would take us three hours outside Hanoi to a two-night cruise of Halong Bay.
When we arrived, we excitedly boarded our private boat with another family of friends from Shanghai. We looked forward to some down time after an already busy trip. After introductions and room selections we were on our way. The looming mountainous rocks that dotted the bay made it feel as if we were on the set of a movie. I had to keep telling myself it was real. It was stunning! Although it was cloudy, the water shone a milky green. We cruised for a while then stopped for a kayak trip through some caves. This is when Jack was struck with the “plague”. As we were kayaking he sat in front of me shivering with fever. When we returned to the boat the vomiting began. He threw up throughout the night and burned with fever. I could picture having to figure out how to arrange some sort of Medi-Vac to come and take us to the hospital if that was even possible.
After a very long night, his fever broke and the vomiting subsided. However, he would not begin to feel himself until the cruise ended. Tucking him into his bed for recuperation, we proceeded with the day’s agenda. Our first stop was to a pearl farm. In and of itself the backdrop of the mountains and the rows of oyster cages was beautiful. We learned how pearls are made (quite a disgusting process in my opinion), and had some time to shop for treasures. Sleep deprived and feeling the effects of sleeping in a room with a vomiting child, I stayed on the boat and missed the second activity. However, upon the group’s return, I was filled in on the exciting destination. A visit to Surprise Cave revealed quite a surprise indeed. Lit up by a bright red light on the inside of the cave was what appeared to be an erect penis. After Koh Samui, we should have been expecting a sight of this sort. Still, there is always a giggly sense of childish amusement at a sight such as this. After surprises were over and our sightseeing crew returned, I collected myself and headed to a nearby island where a 15-minute hike took us up to the top, revealing panoramic views of Halong Bay. It was spectacular! The blue-green water twinkled in the sunlight. Again I had to tell myself I was not on the set of a movie (although we were told the upcoming King Kong movie was filmed in the area). As if these two activities weren’t enough, we were scheduled to go on another kayak expedition. This one took us through three caves which led to three separate lakes. All I can say is wow! Just when I thought the scenery couldn’t get more beautiful I was proved wrong. Words cannot describe the tranquility felt in each lake. We were all by ourselves and when we reached the last lake, had some time to just stop and take it all in. My kayak drifted, taking me off by myself. As I looked up at the surrounding cliffs, I saw a whitewashed area that strongly resembled a cross. I was struck by a sense of awe of God’s hand in creating such beauty and felt His presence like I never have before. I said a prayer of humility and gratefulness for such an opportunity. When it was time to leave the lake I looked back at the cross on the side of the cliff. From the angle where I was now, the whitewashed area no longer resembled a cross. I turned forward and began rowing towards the cave that would take us out of the lake. Again I was touched that God made himself know to me in such a personal way.
Our last morning on the cruise went quickly. We packed, ate breakfast and enjoyed the last views of Halong Bay. It was my turn to officially be sick. Thankfully I didn’t throw up but my stomach turned over and over for three days as I went in and out of light fever. I said a lot of prayers for strength and was able to participate in most of the final activities. We returned to the hotel and had a restful evening. Our last day was a tour of Hanoi. Our tour guide gave us a history of Hanoi. He showed us where John McCain landed and was captured as well as the Hanoi Hilton where he was kept as a POW for five long years. Seeing these locations firsthand gave us a greater sense of understanding and appreciation for those that sacrificed so much in the Vietnam War. Next, we went to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum where we quietly followed a line past the preserved body of the former Vietnamese leader (Eww!). Next, we went to visit a couple temples. We quickly figured out we were templed out after Siem Reap so we asked if we could spend more time exploring the Old Quarter, an area of markets and shopping. As we dodged ridiculously aggressive drivers on both motorcycles and in cars, we perked up as we wandered through stalls selling souvenirs, food, and delicious coffee. Finally, we went to a water puppet performance which Jack loved. Still fighting my crud, I nodded off through most of the show. That night we all enjoyed one final dinner together and recapped what a special trip it had been. Unfortunately, that’s when the illness hit Brett. He feverishly coughed his way through the night, awoke in the early morning, took lots of Motrin, and we headed to the airport for our journey back home.
When we arrived back in Shanghai, I held my breath as Brett passed through the temperature detectors at the Pudong Airport. Thankfully he made it. Autumn flew home the next day and unfortunately brought the illness with her. Now I can see how epidemics begin! I think we would all agree it was an amazing but exhausting trip. If we could do it again, I would break it up into two trips, and avoid being sick ;). But the things we got to see and do were far more than I could have ever imagined. This world is a big, beautiful place. I still have to pinch myself each time we are on a trip. I never would have imagined we would be: first, living in China, and second, taking the trips we have taken. We are all growing in our understanding and appreciation of our world. I hope you will have the opportunity to get out there and explore. Even if it isn’t far from where you live. Get out there and live in the world. It gives you a new appreciation for God’s artistic hand. Even a painter as talented as Monet or Rembrandt could not capture the beauty we have seen with our own eyes.
I hope after this amazing trip we will be home for a while. As wonderful as traveling is, it is exhausting. Now I am ready to be still and simply dream about our wonderful trip. Oh wait, we are picking up a new puppy. New excitement (and lack of sleep) await. At least I already have a topic for my next blog!