4 feet 2 mouths

walking and eating our way around the world

Archive for the tag “Towns”

Eating Pain Au Chocolat in Luang Prabang (by Carmen)

Monks enjoying a walk in the sun

Monks enjoying a walk in the sun

I’m pedaling furiously, with a scooter in front and a scooter behind me. I’m on a simple wood and iron bridge with two sets of narrow planks for scooters and bicycles to use single file. The river below peeks out through gaps in the decking. As I ride, brow furrowed in concentration, it hits me. I’m in Laos, cycling across a wooden bridge with scooters and this feels somehow normal. I have now been traveling so long that the unfamiliar has become standard. The thought brought a smile to my face.

Nathan enjoying a coffee at Le Cafe Ban Vat Sene

Nathan enjoying a coffee at Le Cafe Ban Vat Sene

Our crusty baguette and warm pain au chocolat

Our crusty baguette and warm pain au chocolat

Crossing the bridge occurred on our last day in Luang Prabang but from the beginning the town offered a mix of the familiar and unfamiliar. For example, I woke up our first morning craving some comfort. We had survived a 27 hour bus journey and I wanted a reward! So we headed over to Le Cafe Ban Vat Sene for some coffee and pastries. I bit into the warm-from-the-oven pain au chocolat and realized how very long it’s been since I’ve had such a buttery, rich delicacy. Taking our time at the cafe was a wonderfully slow introduction to Luang Prabang.

Wat Xieng Thong stencil

Wat Xieng Thong stencil

Me modeling proper wat attire - shoulders and knees covered

Me modeling proper wat attire – shoulders and knees covered

Mirror mosaics

Mirror mosaics

Nearby the cafe was Wat Xieng Thong. The beautiful stencil work at the wat inspired Nathan and I with decor ideas for our future home. I also loved the pretty mosaics that adorned the outer walls. In the main shrine, they had the life size figure of a wise looking monk in a meditation pose. These statues are sometimes metal and sometimes wax. The wax ones always make me look twice, thinking its an actual person.

Monk mentorship

Monk mentorship

Within the wat complex we saw many monks working on the grounds. Monks in Southeast Asia are not necessarily ordained for life. Instead, some are only participating for a few months or years to bring honor to themselves and their families. That’s partially why a significant portion of the monks are young boys.

Monks performing their morning alms walk

Monks performing their morning alms walk

Luang Prabang is a center of spirituality for Laos and therefore has a greater monk population. This is part of its mystique and also part of the tourist draw. One morning we awoke before sunrise to watch the morning alms procession. It is supposed to be a fulfilling experience to see people giving freely to the monks so that they may eat that day. However, it has become something of a tourist circus with big cameras being stuck in monks’ faces. But the monks handle it with grace and, hey, everyone has got to eat.

Wat rooftop

Wat rooftop

Street side noodle soup

Street side noodle soup

Speaking of eating, we made our way to a street stall for lunch after our wat visits. It was a simple noodle soup; not as complex as some the ones we were enjoying in Vietnam. But it was still full of comforting vegetables and a toothless cook bidding us “merci beaucoup” as we waved goodbye.

Mekong sunset cruise

Mekong sunset cruise

Later in the day, we were able to meet up with Julia and Jonathan again! Like us, they are fans of trying new, unfamiliar foods. Unfortunately, one of their meals did not quite agree with them. Therefore we took a nice and easy sunset cruise along the Mekong River.

Beautiful mineral rich water

Beautiful mineral rich water

Kuang Si Waterfall

Kuang Si Waterfall

The Mekong is not the only popular water body in Luang Prabang. We also visited the Kuang Si Waterfall. I had expected a pretty little waterfall but I was surprised to find such beautiful, bright turquoise waters. We used a side trail to reach the waterfall so it felt like our own little discovery…at least until another group of tourists showed up to our photo op space to take their pictures.

Further downstream

Further downstream

Nathan can't get enough cliff jumps in

Nathan can’t get enough cliff jumps in

The weather was absolutely perfect. Not hot, not cold, not humid, not dry. It was such a pleasant walk as we made our way downstream. Before long we found the swimming section and within seconds Nathan was jumping into the cold water. Julia and Jonathan joined in but I was content just sticking my feet in.

Farming along the road to Kuang Si Waterfall

Tad Sae Waterfall

Tad Sae Waterfall

Thailand has some big spiders

Thailand has some big spiders

We could have enjoyed the swimming hole a bit longer but there was another waterfall on our itinerary. Tad Sae Waterfall is accessed via an easy, stone path winding its way through the jungle. Or so I was told. I had stubbed my toe at the Kuang Si Waterfall and did not feel up to visiting the second one. While I recovered, Nathan, Julia and Jonathan enjoyed the natural beauty of Tad Sae.

Huge moss covered tree overlooking Big Tree Cafe

Huge moss covered tree overlooking Big Tree Cafe

Before we knew it, our final dinner with Julia and Jonathan was upon us. It had been awesome to visit Hoi An, Hanoi, Halong Bay and Luang Prabang with them! Together we toasted all the good times over Korean food at Big Tree Cafe.

BBQ lunch

BBQ lunch

Biking with scooters on the wooden bridge

Biking with scooters on the wooden bridge

Which brings me back to the wooden bridge I mentioned earlier. Nathan and I decided to rent bikes and ride to the bus station for tickets. This took us out of the normal tourist zone pretty quickly. On our way back we noticed a smoking hot BBQ and decided to stop for lunch. We ordered what we thought was a pork chop on the grill, which turned out to be a slab of pork fat. Whoops! Not bad with some beer and tamarind hot sauce.

Example of hillside tribe clothing (photo credit: TAEC)

Example of hillside tribe clothing (photo credit: TAEC)

One of our last sights of Luang Prabang was the excellent Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre which clearly outlined the various ethnic hill tribes of Laos. They each have distinct languages, customs and dress. Fortunately we were going to see some of these tribes first hand since our next stop would be a three day jungle trek to visit mountainous villages. We bid goodbye to the cosy comforts of Luang Prabang and boarded a bus to Luang Namtha.

Enchanting Halong Bay (by Carmen)

Lone fishing boat in Halong Bay

Lone fishing boat in Halong Bay

The extreme heat of Saigon had started to cool off a bit by the time we reached Dalat and Hoi An.  Now that we were in northern Vietnam it was actually cold.  A thick fog covered the horizon upon our arrival at Halong Bay.  This was not a good thing. We were here for the famous views of limestone islands jutting out of the bright blue water.  If we wanted fog Julia, Jonathan, Nathan and I could have stayed in SF where it is plentiful.  But we had no choice but to go with the flow as our tour guide ushered us to the port.

Our Halong Bay boat for sleeping, eating and sightseeing

Our Halong Bay boat for sleeping, eating and sightseeing

Choosing a tour operator was tricky since each one seems to have just as many bad reviews as they do good ones.  We finally opted for Ethnic Travels and hoped for the best.  I breathed a sigh of relief when our little white boat pulled up to the port. It had a spacious deck above and a cosy dining space below.  Our rooms were clean and comfortable and even had private bathrooms!  It was better than plenty of hotels we’ve stayed in.

Layers of islands

Layers of islands

Small limestone island

Small limestone island

As we embarked on our journey the islands were still shrouded in a thick mist.  But towards the end of the day the sun began to break out, illuminating the beautiful islands that surrounded us.

The textures and colors of our row boat

The textures and colors of our row boat

A floating village home

A floating village home

After cruising a couple hours we made a stop for a floating village.  I expected this to be a sort of tourist trap in which you float around a bit then spend most of the visit at a shop.  But I was surprised instead by an actual, functioning floating village.  It was kind of like a squatter settlement where people do not have to pay any rents.  They just build their little abode and anchor down.  Simple bridges connected the structures, which are more like floating houses than boats.  I liked that the convenience store was a boat filled to the brim, carrying toiletries and snacks, was making its rounds as we rowed by.

Sunset Halong Bay

Sunset Halong Bay

Nathan leaps into still waters

Nathan leaps into still waters

By sunset, we pulled into a protected cove.  I had expected many other boats to surround us since Halong Bay has a reputation for being crowded.  But we were the only ones.  I saw a few boat clusters in the distance but I think our captain was taking us off the beaten track a bit, which I appreciated.  Fewer boats also meant it was easier for Nathan, Jonathan and some of the other hearty souls on the boat to jump off the deck into the water 15 feet below.

Fried fish dinner

Fried fish dinner

Julia, Jonathan and Carmen post-feast

Julia, Jonathan and Carmen post-feast

The food was surprisingly good.  There was generally a fried fish, meat dish, and a couple veggie stir fries at every meal. Dessert consisted of cut bananas, pomelo, pineapple and/or watermelon.

Carmen impersonating a professional kayaker

Carmen impersonating a professional kayaker

In the morning we had the opportunity to kayak around the cove and explore two caves.  Both caves were large and actually went all the way through the island.  In one, they had built a type of banquet hall with chairs and tables ready to be set out.  It would be so awesome to have a party there!

The port at Bai Tu Long Bay

The port at Bai Tu Long Bay

Walking the plank

Walking the plank

Before we knew it our time in Halong was up and we were headed to our next destination, Bai Tu Long Bay.  This is a much less visited area and the simple harbor was much smaller than that of Halong.  This time we boarded a smaller boat because we were on our way to a small island to stay the night.  This boat crew was not exactly as experienced as the first one.  For one, they all looked to be under 25.  And as we pulled up to the island they managed to get stuck on a mud bank. After waiting for the water level to rise a bit we did make it to the harbor, but promptly crashed into a sitting boat.  From there, we walked a series of narrow planks hopping between boats to make it to the dock.  Did I mention that it was dark and we all had our backpacks on? I would not say it was particularly safe but all of us did make it.  We piled into tuk tuks for the bumpy ride to our lodgings. That night the group toasted our successful and safe arrival with beers and rice liquor.

Village market

Village market

By morning only Nathan rose early enough to catch the morning market.  He reported that people sold very small quantities compared to the markets we’ve been to in towns and cities.  For example, a woman might only be selling a bowl full of clams or bag full of shucked oysters or bunches of lettuce greens.  He indulged in s couple corn filled dough nuts and brought me back a peanut bun. What a sweetie.

Horseshoe Crab

Horseshoe Crab

Bai Tu Long beach

Bai Tu Long beach

Shells and sand in close up

Shells and sand in close up

Instead of taking a tuk tuk back to the harbor we took a leisurely bike ride.  We stopped for a walk on a deserted feeling beach.  Now I was really wishing for the heat of Saigon.  As we walked along the shore we found a funky looking horseshoe crab and a series of beautiful shells.

Biking our way to the boat

Biking our way to the boat

All hands on deck

All hands on deck

For only lasting three days we fit a lot into our tour.  Thankfully, the sun came out for us at just the right times.  The limestone islands were as enchanting as I’d hoped.  And as always, it was great to share the experience with friends.

Limestone cliff close up

Limestone cliff close up

Christmas in Hoi An (by Carmen)

Street vendors in Hoi An

Street vendors in Hoi An

Lanterns in the night

Lanterns in the night

Hoi An is one extremely adorable town. Once an important port, it now contains enough 18th and 19th century architecture that one can easily imagine life a couple hundred years ago. These days, Chinese and Japanese tradesmen have been replaced with tourists, ships have been replaced by motor boats offering tours and tailor shops have proliferated.

New tailored clothes and our new friend Ha

New tailored clothes and our new friend Ha

Yes, tailoring. In addition to the historic atmosphere it has become Hoi An’s claim to fame. In fact, it was a major reason for our visit. A friend of a friend had her wedding dress made here for less than $100. In the wedding world, that’s the stuff of legend since dresses can easily go for thousands of dollars. I hoped to get my own wedding dress made but my prospects weren’t promising at first. I wasn’t liking the fabric choices nor the prices, which were well above $100 for a rather simple dress. Finally, we found Kimmy’s who made me a beautiful lace dress for a very reasonable sum. Score! Nathan and I soon discovered that getting custom clothing is addicting. In the end we each got a suit and some dress shirts. I also got a skirt and a trench coat. All in the span of 4 days!

Streetside coffee with friends Julia and Jonathan

Streetside coffee with friends Julia and Jonathan

Carmen, Jonathan and Julia in front of the Japanee bridge

Carmen, Jonathan and Julia in front of the Japanee bridge

Incense at a Chinese temple

Incense at a Chinese temple

Besides getting our wedding attire made, we had been looking forward to Hoi An for another reason. Our friends Julia and Jonathan were taking an extended honeymoon in southeast Asia and invited us to join them for part of it. It was so great to see old friends, especially since we would be spending Christmas and new year together. We started our first day together with some thick Vietnamese coffee at a sidewalk stall, catching up on life. Thoroughly energized, we wandered around the Old Town sights.

Hoi An roof tiles

Hoi An roof tiles

Caged rooster

Caged rooster

Hoi An old town has a charmingly weathered look to it. We popped in and out of old merchant homes turned into museums and shops. Eventually, the old town bleeds into the vibrant market area where all manner of fruit, veg and meat are sold.

Banh bao vac (Hoi An's white rose)

Banh bao vac (Hoi An’s white rose)

Mì quang lunch

Mì quảng lunch

Like us, Julia and Jonathan love to eat well and were just as eager as we were to sample the local specialties on offer. One, elegantly called white rose, is a delicate shrimp dumpling topped with lots of fried garlic. Another was mì quảng, a noodle dish using turmeric, pork broth and herbs topped with peanuts and a savory rice cracker.

Bún chá at market

Bún chá at market

Bún thịt nướng rice cakes with quail eggs

Bún thịt nướng rice cakes with quail eggs

Another street eat was a delicious bún cha, egg cups we had already tasted in a restaurant in Ho Chi Minh. I liked them even more streetside as you could see and smell the wood fire used to cook them. In the market we waited for a spot to eat bún thịt nướng, rice noodles with herbs, chili and roasted pork on top. It hit all the right salty, sweet, spicy and sour notes.

Three piggies on a scooter

Three piggies on a scooter

A curious water buffalo

A curious water buffalo

Hoi An canal and jungle

Hoi An canal and jungle

After one of our bigger meals, we rented bikes and rode out to the surrounding countryside. This is where you get to see everyday Vietnamese life. For example, how do you transport your three live pigs on one scooter? As we pedaled further out of town we found ourselves surrounded by canals and rice paddies. In the middle of one set of paddies we noticed a cemetery that we simply had to go check out. As we explored the tombstones we discovered a water buffalo surprised by our presence. Fortunately, he stood perfectly still for his photo opp.

Basket of crabs at market

Basket of crabs at market

Traditional row boat

Traditional row boat

Front of our row boat

Front of our row boat

When cycling became too much we let someone else do the work by boarding a motorboat for a leisurely one hour ride. We passed stilted riverside homes, row boats and the lively fish market.

Santa balloons galore

Santa balloons galore

Then it was Christmas! So far away from home and family, it didn’t feel quite like Christmas was actually happening. Having Julia and Jonathan there helped and together we decided to make a special night of it. That’s how we ended up at Mermaid Restaurant for a thoroughly enjoyable meal. After some white roses, hot pot and a few strong cocktails we were definitely feeling merry and bright.

Vietnamese omelette

Vietnamese omelette

Our last morning in Hoi An we headed to our favorite street food street, Tran Cao Van. We ate some fantastic fried eggs topped with tomatoes, a bit of pork broth and cilantro alongside a roll of fluffy bread.

Pho restaurant

Pho restaurant

My Son Champa ruins

My Son Champa ruins

My Son in the rain

My Son in the rain

A quick pho for lunch and we then embarked on yet another scooter adventure, this time to the ruins of My Son. These ruins were supposedly once as grand as those at Angkor Wat but were heavily damaged in war bombings. During our ride there it began to rain, then it began to pour. Of course, just as we were leaving the rain softened up a bit and the as we scooted back to Hoi An we air dried. But before we made it to town we were held up by thousands of school children on bikes, making their way home. It was an incredible sight.

Delicate flower

Delicate flower

I’m so happy I was able to spend Christmas in Hoi An with people I cared about. And I have to say, trying on my wedding dress and loving it instantly was the best Christmas present I could hope for on this trip. Until next time, Hoi An. I’ve got a good feeling we will see you again some day.

Finding Our Viet Moms and Waterfalls in Dalat (by Nathan)

Pongour Waterfall

Pongour Waterfall

Our travel thus far in Southeast Asia has been stifling hot.  Supposedly this has been the cool season, but the sweat constantly dripping from my forehead says otherwise.  We needed a change of pace, somewhere cool, somewhere with forests and waterfalls and clean air; that place was the mountain town in central Vietnam named Dalat.  To our surprise we found welcoming people and a sincere hospitality in the form of several Viet moms that made it difficult to leave.  The city appears more at home in the Swiss alps than it does in Vietnam, but with bowls of pho and numerous scooter cyclists we were easily reminded of our whereabouts.

Dalat breakfast pho

Dalat breakfast pho

Our overnight bus from Ho Chi Minh City crawled and jolted up the mountainside.  We were dropped off a few kilometers outside of town where we grabbed a taxi to bring us to the center.  We settled into our $10 hotel and went in search of some pho for breakfast.  We found a little shop serving steaming bowls that cut through the brisk cool mountain air warming us from the inside.

Drying coffee beans

Drying coffee beans

Cafe Nôi

Cafe Nôi

Our thick coffee and tea

Our thick coffee and tea

The mountainsides surrounding Dalat are covered in coffee plantations.  The red berries are picked and spread onto the concrete surfaces of driveways and plazas.  The berries turn brown and flaky and are then broken and sifted to retrieve the actual green coffee bean.  This bean is then roasted and ground to make coffee.  The Vietnamese make serious coffee, more or less like jet fuel with the consistency of syrup.  We found this wonderful cafe, named Cafe Nôi that was crowded with people gambling over a board game.  Our two coffees were stronger than any espresso I have drank and they were served with a pot of tea as a chaser or more subtle accompanying drink.

Trays of silk worm cocoons

Trays of silk worm cocoons

Rendering the silk threads onto spools

Rendering the silk threads onto spools

Amped up on coffee, it was difficult for me to sit still.  I wanted to explore and see the town and mountains.  We rented a scooter and in no time the wind was in our hair once again.  Our scooter putted through the pine forests and around the coffee plantations until we reached our first destination: a silk factory.  We were both oblivious to the processes of rendering this soft fabric.  Silk worms create these dense cocoons.  These cocoons are collected and soaked in hot water.  A thread is grabbed from the cocoon and spun onto a wheel.  We watched as fifteen women each maintained eighteen spools of thread on an enormous machine.  We bought a scarf for Carmen and a tie for me to use during our future wedding and we hopped back on the scooter.

My silhouette beneath Elephant Falls

My silhouette beneath Elephant Falls

Elephant Waterfall

Elephant Waterfall

A little further down the road was the access road to our intended destination, Elephant Waterfalls.  We climbed down the adjacent slope and through a small cavern get a closer look.  In seconds I was drenched, but it was hot out.  We wrapped around the base of the waterfall to get a better view.  The water thundered down over the rocks and moss.  We admired the scenery for a few minutes and we continued our exploration of the area.

Temple dragon

Temple dragon

One big and happy Buddha

One big and happy Buddha

We crossed a rickety bridge where all the planks were rotted through, but the main steel girders were stable and in good shape.  We discovered a tranquil temple with chanting monks, dragon statues and an enormous 9m (30ft) statue of a happy Buddha.  We wondered through the peaceful gardens and wooden buildings before returning to the main city of Dalat.

Carmen on Crazy House stairway

Carmen on Crazy House stairway

The craziest house in Vietnam

The craziest house in Vietnam

We had a beautiful ride through the mountains back into Dalat.  As the sun began to set we visited the Crazy House.  This radical design of one Vietnamese architect is Gaudiesque and combines free-form architecture with dripping and flowing three-dimensional art.  On one growing stairway we found ourselves flying between and around buildings admiring the boganvilla flowers and recreated stalactites.  The buildings have rooms for lodging making this one exceptionally cool guesthouse.

Night market dessert

Night market dessert

Baked goods and a carton of Dalat milk

Baked goods and a carton of Dalat milk

We returned the scooter and walked around the small downtown.  Dalat was frigid like we wanted. The nights dropped below 10C (50F), but everyone still roamed the streets slurping noodles and soups.  We sat down at a small table with hot soy milk and Vietnamese cookies.  Later we discovered that the best sweet breads and cakes are better washed own with Dalat’s local sweetened fresh milk.

Bún Cha

Bún Cha

Pork noodle breakfast

Pork noodle breakfast

In the morning we found the local market and made a B-line for the food court.  Carmen ordered bun cha, BBQ pork and vegetables over cold rice noodles and I pointed at something orange with pork and peanuts that was being eaten on the table next to ours.  The flavors of Vietnam are immensely rich: sweet and savory with a blast of fresh mint, basil and chili.

Pongour waterfalls from below

Pongour waterfalls from below

We were enjoying this cute mountain town so much that we extended our stay one night.  With an open day we thought about relaxing, catching up on trip planning or the blog, but what fun would that be?  We hopped on our trusty scooter and we were off to search for the Pongour waterfalls.  The route to get there was surprisingly easy, south on 120 towards HCMC about 40km where we took a marked right turn.  The access road traversed banana groves and sugarcane alongside a wide river.  We hiked down to the base to find a 300ft wide cascading waterfall.  The water gently splashed along steps in the cliff face creating a misty wall of white and blue.  We explored the waterfall and pools, but we paused to sit and take in the extravagant scenery.

Carmen and some Viet moms

Carmen and some Viet moms

Our little picnic with new friends

Our little picnic with new friends

We were not the only group enjoying the waterfalls; there were a handful of tourists that would trickle about and there was one particularly joyous family enjoying a picnic on the rocks.  A rather scrawny man stood up from this group and walked over to us carrying big wedges of watermelon.  We took a few bites, waved at the family and we yelled “Com ermn!” (thank you).  They grinned at us and emphatically began waving for us to come and join them.  They widened their circle and we sat down facing them.  We gnawed on our melon with all of them watching, and then we realized that this was not no ordinary picnic.  The most friendly woman had a slender and slightly gaunt face that she counteracted with almost constant laughter and cheeky banter.  She enticed me to dip my watermelon into a spicy salt mixture, I gained approval, then she leaned over once more and dipped a tiny glass into a 2 liter bottle turned into make-shift container and passed me the glass.  I took the shot and everyone cheered.  Then Carmen and there were more cheers, then me, then Carmen, then each of them, then me and then Carmen.

The watermelon was actually just a prop, a chaser, for the already smooth rice moonshine liquor that they bought in plastic bags.  With absolutely no shared language we communicated with this group of people and any anomaly was circumstance for another shot.  They made me severely pay for not wearing a ring, but a few shots were enough to justify my love for Carmen.  We ate hard-boiled eggs and shrimp-flavored potato chips alongside more watermelon.  The ten of us seemed to be in constant laughter and everyone’s face began to take on a reddish hue.  The women of the group particularly liked Carmen and each insisted on an individual photo alongside her.  In a couple hours we had found a Vietnamese family, our “Viet moms,” who cared for us, entertained us and welcomed us to their local hangout.

Nathan walking across waterfall

Nathan walking across waterfall

Flowers blooming in the park above the waterfall

Flowers blooming in the park above the waterfall

We had to excuse ourselves,  it is so difficult to remove yourself from fun, but with another hour drinking we would have been crawling into their huts to share another meal and some blankets on the floor.  We parted ways with many hugs and scribbling of phone numbers on napkins.  They watched as I climbed up to the waterfall ledge and inched my way across.  The water was cool and refreshing. I dunked my head under the falling torrent, we waved goodbye and we hiked out out of the small canyon.  After a small pause in the colorful park we gained our wits and began the journey back to Dalat.

Cute Dalat canal

Cute Dalat canal

Breakfast stall

Breakfast stall

Bún rieu breakfast

Bún rieu breakfast

In the morning we explored more of the town.  We stopped for another coffee at Cafe Nôi and then set out for local street cuisine.  There was cute European looking canal and across the street groups of people hoarding around a pot of bun rieu.  Two bowls of rice noodle and beef stew landed in front of us and we began chowing down.   We picked the leaves from another bowl filled with several Vietnamese herbs, we twisted and pinched off the torn leaves into our bowl and the savory aroma hot soup, mint and basil was at our nostrils once again.

Overnight bus from the inside

Overnight bus from the inside

That afternoon we boarded a 14 hour bus to Hoi An.  We crawled onto our upper cots, our shoes were carefully tied into a plastic bag and our feet tucked into a cubby beneath the seat in front of ours.  The night was bumpy, but our dreams were pleasant with memories of scootering through mountain roads, market noodles, waterfalls, and the rice liquor shots and laughs with our Viet moms.

Goodbye Dalat

Goodbye Dalat

Badda Bing Battambang (by Carmen)

Market veggies

Market veggies

The only reason I had heard of Battambang is that a restaurant of the same name was near my office. I thought the name sounded exotic but was completely ignorant to the fact that it was an actual place. As I glanced through the guidebook to plan our Cambodia itinerary I had hoped to find a laid back town to break up our visits to the more tourist-ready Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. Battambang (BB) seemed like just the ticket so off we went!

Vegetarian rice soup

Vegetarian rice soup

Rice with savory "meats"

Rice with savory “meats”

At a whopping 140,000 residents, BB is Cambodia’s 2nd largest city. But really it’s more of a town, easily traversed by foot or bike. One of the first places we walked was Vegetarian Foods. In meat crazy Asia even the veg restaurant specialized in imitation meats. They were indeed delicious, served over steamed rice or in a bowl of savory congee.

Bao-licious

Bao-licious

Later, we were walking around the town soaking in the French colonial architecture. But of course we kept an eye open for good street eats and luckily we spied two. One was a huge steamed bun filled with peppery pork.

Nom krok

Nom krok

The other was nom krok, a type of gooey rice ebelskiver. As we walked past this one, I wasn’t entirely sure if the cakes the old woman was cooking were for sale or just for her family. Fortunately, the woman’s granddaughter, who was visiting from the US, was sitting nearby and helped us out. Soon enough we were sitting on our little plastic stools munching away happily. The cakes are a simple mixture of rice flour, coconut milk and green onions. They were served in a broth of more coconut milk, vinegar, fish sauce, and sweet chilies. The sweet savory combo was supremely satisfying. We waved goodbye to the grandma and her family and continued our walk with a big smile.

Sorry, I just had to share this temple statue

Sorry, I just had to share this temple statue

Along the way we stepped into a temple and encountered this. I’m not exactly sure what to say. It no doubt represents an important Buddhist story…in an extremely graphic way. But really, I guess it’s not too different from some Catholic paintings I’ve encountered that depict how the saints were martyred through decapitation, being prodded with hot irons, etc.

BB circus

Battambang circus

That night we did something unexpected – we went to the circus. The Phare Ponleu Selpak group trains impoverished kids to become acrobatic performers good enough to tour the world. I liked the fact that this venue provided opportunities for children to have better futures. In fact many shops, and even cafes in Cambodia seem to be connected to an NGO that somehow assists the disadvantaged. As we sat waiting for the show to start, staff members of some of these NGOs sat behind us chatting about their everyday lives. It was nice to see so many people who were actively trying to improve other communities. As for the show itself, it was greatly entertaining with all the flips and feats of strength one could hope for.

Spring rolls with noodles

Spring rolls with noodles

For an after circus snack we enjoyed a fried spring roll served over rice noodles. It was a little taste of the vietnamese flavors soon to come our way.

Central market building

Central market building

Fish vendors

Fish vendors

In the morning it was back to Cambodian cuisine, not just eating it but cooking it. We chose a cooking class at the Smokin’ Pot restaurant. Because of this Nathan insisted on calling the post “We (Went To) Bought-A-Bong and Spent Time (at) Smoking Pot,” but I thought badda bing came with more bang. Anyway, the classes have been taught for 12 years by the very knowledgeable and insightful owner. The first step was a visit to the market housed in an art deco creation left by the French. Our instructor pointed out what to look for in coconut, lemongrass, long beans, banana flowers and more.

Me cooking up some amok

Me cooking up some amok

Loklak close up

Loklak close up

Back at the kitchen we sliced and diced garlic, lemongrass, chilies, and galangal to make a tasty paste. We squeezed fresh shaved coconut with water to make our very own coconut milk. Then we mixed these flavors with fish sauce, salt, sugar and chunks of fish to make amok, the national dish of Cambodia. It was delightfully rich and definitely tasted better since I made it myself. We went on to cook loklak, a simple peppery stir fry, and sautéed morning glory. I was very happy to get back in the kitchen after months of eating out.

Wat Ek Phnom

Wat Ek Phnom

Buddhas Buddhas everywhere

Buddhas Buddhas everywhere

With some extra time we decided to rent some bikes and cruise over to Wat Ek Phnom. It was built in a similar timeframe as Angkor Wat but was definitely left in a more rustic setting. I wonder if the cow appreciates the significance of the ruins it grazes on :) Nearby was a giant Buddha with a set of smaller Buddhas housed within its base.

BBQ'd eggs

BBQ’d eggs

We cycled over to the night market because we had to try something crazy we had seen – barbecued eggs! They were literally skewered and placed over hot coals. Once we cracked them open it seemed like they had been shaken since the yolk and whites had combined into a single delicious mass. I wondered why I had never thought of this before. Nathan ordered four brown eggs and one white egg from a different stack. It turns out the white one was very special, containing a partially formed chick inside. This delicacy is fairly common in Asian cuisines so we half expected it. But that night I wasn’t up for tasting it. Nathan reported that it was a mix of textures, a sort of soft and hard boiled egg rolled into one. But no strange tastes, just egg flavor.

Old window with scooter

Old window with scooter

I truly enjoyed Battambang . Our stopover provided insight into a less visited Cambodia. One where you can still bike past stilted houses and people wave hello. Yet, in the center, the colonial legacy and expat community results in cozy cafes and creative art galleries. It is the kind of place to spend an afternoon on a cafe patio watching the world go by. Battambang is a place to linger.

An Adventure In Siem Reap & Angkor (by Nathan)

Sunrise Angkor Wat

Sunrise Angkor Wat

Does it get more beautiful than that? A visit to Angkor Wat requires a journey, a good story to tell and some real adventure. We tried our best and this is what happened:

Here I am in my upper berth bed on the way to Bangkok

Here I am in my upper berth bed on the way to Bangkok

Crossing borders into developing countries is always an adventure.   We had expected something along the lines of the Bolivian guns and egos that we experienced in April, but crossing into Cambodia was surprisingly smooth and safe.  Go us!  The challenge was that we decided to take transit from the middle of Thailand to the middle of Cambodia.  And thirty hours later with six modes of transit, the trip was a success.  Starting on Koh Tao Island we hopped in the back of a truck to taxi to the port, then a ferry boat to the mainland, then we took a regional bus to Chumphon and, crap, a three hour delay of our overnight train.  Eventually we climbed onto our tiny upper bunks and we slept until morning when we arrived in Bangkok.  We grabbed a local city bus to the edge of town, then a regional bus to the Cambodian border.  With luck we could walk to the border, acquire visas and cross where we bargained for six of us (we met 3 new friends) to pile into a 90’s Honda accord. Another two and a half hours and we arrived in Siem Reap with spending only $46 each for 650 miles (1040km) of travel.

Bantaray Srei

Bantaray Srei

Carving at Bantaray Srei

Carving at Bantaray Srei

Bantaray Srei reflection pool

Bantaray Srei reflection pool

Siem Reap is the adjacent city to one of the most renown collection of temples and relics of an ancient empire.  The historic city of Angkor was huge in the 1100’s with over one million people.  Today all that remains are the temples and palaces that were built from stone.  The most known building, Angkor Wat, is just one of twenty ornately carved and grandly built structures.  On our first day we decided to ease into Angkor so we visited a temple further out called Banteay Srei.  We walked in and out of doorways and around domed temples admiring the detailed carvings.  Many of the figures address Hindu gods and stories as well as Buddhist elements because the king that built much of Angkor liked aspects of both religions.

Scootering family

Scootering family

Rice noodles, curries and coconut

Rice noodles, curries and coconut

Our mode of transit was a tuk tuk because some of the temples are 20 miles from Siem Reap.  We hired a friendly man that carted us around for the day. Families would pass us on their scooters and the standing toddlers would wave to us shouting “hallo!”. For lunch we had to repeatedly tell “Smee,” our drivers name, to not take us to one of the tour bus restaurants.  He undoubtedly wanted a commission, but we insisted on a little village center that had a few stands.  We found a place that piled a heap of rice noodles onto a plate and scooped intense curry over the top of it.  A basket filled with local greens sat on the table for us to add as we wished.  We washed it down with a fresh coconut and we were off to see more temples.

Banteay Samré

Banteay Samré

Banteay Samré doorway

Banteay Samré doorway

Banteay Samré was another beautiful temple.  This one sits a little off the beaten tourist track, but we enjoyed exploring the nearly vacant complex imagining thousands of people living around and using this building daily.

Ta Som temple

Ta Som temple

Neak Pean walkway

Neak Pean walkway

Mid-way along our tuk tuk ride we decided that we should organize the places to visit a little better.  We have to admit that we like to be better planned when we travel, but constant movement has made it difficult to know what we want to even do each day.  Most of the Angkor sights are divided among a big circuit and a small circuit.  We talked it over with Smee and then we were chugging along the road to more ancient ruins along the big circuit.  Ta Som had a beautiful tree that took over a wall and Neak Pean was difficult to see because it was fenced off.  The walk to Neak Pean was really special; wood planks along an elaborate man-made moat and a traditional band playing music made visiting the sacred pool feel pleasantly tranquil.

Carmen and the march of rainbow umbrellas

Carmen and the march of rainbow umbrellas

It is possible to feel both overcrowded and alone in these temples. Travelers riding bicycles and tuk tuks intermix with the busses of tour groups.  We were amused, and originally frustrated, but eventually delighted when a group of Chinese women took over our photo with their umbrellas.  In the end I liked the photo with the variety of color more than the one without the bus group.

Preah Khan

Preah Khan

Preah Khan carved wall

Preah Khan carved wall

Preah Khan is one of the most beautiful and elaborate of the temples.  Many of the walls and domes have collapsed, but it is possible to meander and weave around the rubble to find beautiful splashes of red and green on the black stone.  A security guard even showed us a place where we could climb to the top of the wall to admire the buildings.

Angkor Wat from Phnom Bakheng

Angkor Wat from Phnom Bakheng

Angkor Wat from west

Angkor Wat from west

The main attraction is Angkor Wat, and let’s face it, few know more about Cambodia other than Angkor Wat.  We were still building up the suspense, so we climbed up the small mountain to reach Phnom Bakheng and view the setting sun on Angkor Wat.  At the top we then waited an hour to be able to climb to the top of temple.  There were several hundred people already there, but not looking at Angkor Wat, they were freaking out at the rather plain and hazy sunset.  I love sunsets, but this one was meh, and did not deserve the intense shoulder bumping and screams of delight when it hit the horizon.  A little disappointed, we returned to Siem Reap to ready ourselves for another temple day.

Wall frieze at Angkor Wat

Wall frieze at Angkor Wat

The temple is dedicated to Vishnu

The temple is dedicated to Vishnu

Carved window pillars

Carved window pillars

Exploring Angkor Wat takes several hours.  The approach is a wide bridge that crosses a moat that is a big as a small lake.  Through the main gate we have our first view of the temple from the ground.  Huge fields flank the walkway with two smaller temples at about midway.  Beyond the temples the elevated walkway sits above two large ponds that are used for the notorious reflection shots of Angkor Wat.  We then entered the main gate and were memorized by the elaborate carvings.  It appears that the temple was etched throughout.  Room after room were carved stories of Brama, or the monkey king, or battles long since forgotten.

Angkor Wat East

Angkor Wat East

Angkor Wat South

Angkor Wat South

The Wat sits in its own shadow for most of the day, so we walked around the back and the side to get a better look enormous building  There is a mountainous hierarchy of domes that symmetrically towers overhead.  This a truly magnificent 800 year old building.

Angkor Thom South Gate

Angkor Thom South Gate

The faces of Bayon

The faces of Bayon

We had rented some ancient bikes that appeared to have been operational for the last fifty years. But they worked great and we explored big portions of the Angkor small circuit.  Angkor Thom is a huge walled complex that housed the palace buildings of the former king.  At each entrance there is a huge gate with the carved face of King Jayavarman VII, look closely and you can see Carmen on a bike.  One of our favorite temples was Bayon.  This elaborate building contains 216 carved faces.  The beautiful carved contours of each has stood the weathering of time, but like real humans each has aged uniquely.

The elephant terraces

The elephant terraces

The Leper King Terrace carved wall

The Leper King Terrace carved wall

A huge field in Angkor Thom has elaborately carved elephants into the retaining walls.  This elephant terrace allowed for the king and companions to board their elephants when traveling throughout the region.  The terrace of the Leper King also has an elaborate retaining wall with detailed carvings that meander around the hillside.

Carmen Croft, Tomb Raider

Carmen Croft, Tomb Raider

Thom Prohm dome

Thom Prohm dome

Thom Prohm tree take over

Thom Prohm tree take over

Thom Prohm is most known for being highlighted on Tombraider.  Carmen showed us her guns.  The abundance of trees that have taken over and destroyed Thom Prohm is amazing.  Huge 80ft trees tower above while wrapping themselves around a wall or small dome.  Streams of people and tour groups admire the beauty these ancient buildings being intertwined with a forest of trees.

Crazy sunrise photographers

Crazy sunrise photographers

The sun rises over Angkor Wat

The sun rises over Angkor Wat

I did not realize the hoards of people that were possible at a sight until I went to see Angkor Wat at sunrise.  We have seen crazy tourists wielding cameras at the Cristo,   Iguazú, and Taj Mahal, but this was all out war of photography. On the third day I woke in the dark and I left Carmen sleeping to begin my bicycle ride to the temple.  The 12km seemed endless as a pumped the peddles to get there before sunrise.  When I arrived, the scene was horrendous- thousands of people all trying to get the perfect shot.  I believe in “camera karma,” but I had finding trouble peaking over the ten person deep crowd.  Eventually after wading into the slimy muck I waited patiently.  I watched a Chinese man take his 200th photo and I asked if I could squeeze it.  The look I received from him and his wife was as if I was asking to go in on a threesome, cameras left aside, unfortunately they did not budge.  The colors faded from reds to pinks and surprisingly all the tour groups deserted the banks. Apparently tour groups have a schedule because I remained, now with elbow room to admire the oranges and yellows and the sun cresting over the top of the temple.  For a micro-moment I felt alone and peace with this beautiful sight. Angkor Wat is stunningly magnificent.

Sunset Angkor Wat moat

Sunset Angkor Wat moat

Pond lily

Pond lily

Some of the most beautiful and wonderful aspects of Siem Reap were not even the temples.  A sunset on a reflection pool or the lily flowers blooming in the pond at Ankor Wat were as amazing as all the beautiful temples.  I biked back to the hotel after the sunrise, but I decided to stop at a small market for breakfast.  I pointed my way to get a bowl of rice porridge and a glass of iced coffee.  We packed our bags and scheduled a regional bus.  Siem Reap was short and eventful, but something was missing from the experience- good Cambodian food.  Battambang here we come, and we’re hungry.

Phuket, Get Me Some Dirty Noodles, Extra Spicy (by Nathan)

Dry noodles with pork and dumplings

Dry noodles with pork and dumplings

Enter paradise and you will find that thousands arrived before you and will continuously arrive throughout your stay.  Sometimes we just have to throw up our hands and say “Phuket” and have a good time anyway.  The hoards of tourists make it challenging to get amazing authentic Thai food, thus it became our motto to search for the “dirty noodles.” On side streets and alleyways, market stalls and hilltops we were going to enjoy Phuket and eat well too.  Who cares if your restaurant has a peppy australian or ladyboy serving bolognaise, burgers and beer, we want noodles and curries over rice and make that shit spicy.  4feet2mouths had doubled in proportion with our friends Nalat and Tim.  With scooters and sandals we were determined to explore and conquer Phuket.

Scooty Booty Biker Gang

Scooty Booty Biker Gang

Pork fried rice

Pork fried rice

Phuket is an island, a rather large island with multiple cities.  We desperately needed wheels and it was hard to resist almost new scooters at $7 per day.  It seemed rather funny that so many blondes and beach bebops rode around in just skimpy bathing suits.  Instead we wore clothes, Tim and I fashioned bandannas on our heads, our ladies grabbed on tight and the birth of a new biker gang emerged from the depths of Kata Beach: Scooty Booty.  The first stop was dirty noodles of course!  We had egg noodles, rice noodles and crispy noodles with clear, spicy and red broths and pork balls, fish balls, shrimp and wontons.  The second lunch of the day was a fried rice stand.  Up and down the island we rode and not even a late monsoon rain storm could stop us.

Fluorescent sunset

Fluorescent sunset

Feast at Khao Rung Tung Ka Cafe

Feast at Khao Rung Tung Ka Cafe

The evening approached with a sunset that made the eighties look dull.  The pinks were so bright that I started to miss “A Flock Of Seagulls.”  Back on our scooters hogs we putted roared into the night.  We snaked through the jungle and up a small mountain to treat ourselves to a fabulous Thai meal looking over the city.  Go to Khao Rung Tung Ka Cafe if you are in Phuket. We ordered spicy shrimp “dip” with fresh veggies, local greens pak good, satol beans with pork, coconut crab curry with rice noodles and a whole fish roasted with lemongrass. It was another Thai feast and oh was it good.

Phuket school of fish

Phuket school of fish (Photo credit: Nalat)

Tim and I snorkeling

Tim and I snorkeling (Photo credit: Nalat)

Floating leaf

Floating leaf

We needed the fuel because the next day we scuba dove into the crystal clear depths of the Indian Ocean.  Schools of fish fluttered around us of every color.  Lion fish, eels, and cuttlefish entertained us with each artificial breath.  We were able to do some snorkeling with a waterproof camera.

Three paper lanterns ready to take flight

Three paper lanterns ready to take flight

That night was special across Thailand.  The first full moon of the dry season, called Loi Krathong, enables a time of hope for the months ahead.  Woven boats carry candles and wishes into the tide and paper lanterns float away with promises and dreams.  We each released a lantern into the sky.  The light frame and tissue encasing are carefully expanded with the ocean breeze then the coil is lit on fire.  The hot air fills the cubic balloon and with a hopeful holding of our breath we each in turn made a wish and let go…  They climb higher and higher into the night transforming to a tiny orange speck among the stars.  The flame either silently fades out of existence or lights the entire lantern ablaze as a last glorified hoorah.

Phi Phi Island

Phi Phi Island

Colorful boat taxi on Phi Phi island

Colorful boat taxi on Phi Phi island

Our next day ws another stuffed with beautiful sights.  We positioned ourselves on a sardine can of a boat set out for Phi Phi island.  The scenery was magical with black cliffs climbing sharply from the sea and topped with tropical jungles.  White sugar-like beaches, coral formations and a variety of fish all welcomed us to this paradise.  We snorkeled, avoided the crowds and snorkeled some more.  The sun was intense and the water slightly cooler and refreshing.

Hermit crab (photo credit: Nalat)

Hermit crab (photo credit: Nalat)

At night we wondered along Kata Beach in search of food.  We opted for the ocean view atmosphere over the “locals eat here.”  Nalat must have told them to rock our world because this meal was the spiciest thing we have consumed in Thailand.  At one point Carmen had tears dripping down her cheeks between bites.  And all of us dripped with sweat to deal with the Thai heat.  That night Nalat found this wonderful helmet crab on the prowl along the shore.

Grilled chicken with spicy, tangy sweet dipping sauce

Grilled chicken with spicy, tangy sweet dipping sauce

Pad Krapow!

Pad Krapow!

A morning at the beach and we were ready for more food.  We trekked our way up to the busy main road in search of other Thais eating lunch.  We found a guy grilling some chicken and the attached cafe tucked away.  I had been craving pad ka prow, ground pork, chillies and a more medicinal tasting Thai holy basil.  Again we ate more than our fair share, but real Thai food is so good!

Phuket waterfall

Phuket waterfall

Lantern street in Phuket Town

Lantern street in Phuket Town

With an afternoon free we rented some more scooters and unleashed terror on the streets.  We visited and hiked to a small waterfall.  We cruised the streets in search of restaurants, markets and whatever had people and food.  Again we found ourselves sharing bowls of slimy and rich pork noodles.  For dessert we grabbed a bag of rambutans and mangosteens to be eaten at the hotel.

Phuket sunset silhouette

Phuket sunset silhouette

Want to know the sign of good friends?  Friends will join us anywhere in the world just to tell us that we are missed.  Great friends realize that we might be missing good wine by now.  Nalat and Tim brought us not one, but two bottles (a Bordeaux and Turley at that!).  The laughs and conversation continued late into the night.  In the morning they left us, the room felt empty and the reality of it being only 4feet2mouths was once again.

Boat noodles in a bookstore

Boat noodles in a bookstore

Delectable boat noodles

Delectable boat noodles

Carmen and I packed our bags and made way for Phuket Town.  We wondered aimlessly without our Thai guide Nalat.  There was still hope for us as we did discover this wonderful Blog.  There was only one thing that could sooth us from missing our friends…dirty noodles.  Coffee shop in a bookstore: BORING, boat noodles in a bookstore? That’s AWESOME!  A touch of sugar, a little vinegar and chillies, a dabble of fish sauce and a spoonful of dried red peppers and we were on our way to feeling much better. Noodles doctored to perfection!

Kanom jee spread

Kanom jee spread

In the morning we were in higher spirits.  The rain crashed in buckets overhead, but with our ponchos we stayed mostly dry.  Breakfast had one goal- Kanom jee at Pa Mai.  We doused a plateful of rice noodles with several curries and sat down at a table.  A tray  of crisp and pickled vegetables awaited our consumption.  There was a renewed sense of strength within us, “we can do this, we can travel within Thailand.”

Bags packed full and buckles cinched tight we were on the move.  Local bus to the bus terminal, then a five hour regional bus to the ferry terminal.  A meal from several streetside carts  delivered us more boat noodles, fried rice and spicy long beans.  Sandals off, we crawled onto our mat beds for the night.  The rumble and rocking of the boat was almost enough for a peaceful night’s rest. Goodnight Phuket, goodnight to our friends and family (and readers).  In the morning we will be in Koh Tao.

Finding Peace In The Past In Hampi (by Nathan)

Enormous oxen pulling a sugarcane cart

Our progression through India has moved from big city Bangalore , to the smaller Hubli and now the village of Hampi. We came to this area to view the numerous delicately carved buildings and experience the more peaceful side of India. The city was once the capital of the Hindu empire. At its height the city contained over 500,000 people. The city has been reduced significantly and the few residents that stay survive on tourists and agriculture. Away from the hustle and craziness, we were surrounded by banana groves, sugarcane and five hundred year old ruins of the past empire.

Cow silhouette in the Virupaksha Temple

Virupaksha temple at dusk

Three monkeys sitting in a building

The most prominent of the ruins is the enormous 50m Virupaksha Temple from 1442 that protrudes from the edge of the city. Exploring the temple we were startled by a horned bull that roamed freely in the complex. He posed for a silhouette. Outside the temple we walked up the rock hillside to see the temple and town at night. Every surface of the temple is coverd with ornamentations and figurines of gods and animals. There were real monkeys too! They climbed up and down the the tower, relaxed and watched over everyone in the bazaar.

Delicious idli and gunta ponganalu breakfast

Delicious idli and gunta ponganalu breakfast

Colorful Hampi Bazaar ruins

In the morning we ate some of the best food so far in India. We ordered two plates filled with idli (rice flour cakes), fried green chiles and gundpangala (rice porridge ebleskivers) served with coconut chutney and sambar. The dumplings we firm and moist with perfect little pores to soak up the rich sauces. We stepped away from the cozy outdoor shack; we washed our hands from the adjacent spigot and began our trek along the old Hampi bazaar. These buildings are centuries old, but through use as a modern bazaar it became a bit dilapidated. The colors were vibrant on either side of the road providing a rainbow-like entry to the temples.

Carmen and Achyutaraya Temple ruins

Sule Bazaar with goats

Various ruined hallways of Hampi bazaars

Our first sacred sight was enormous monolithic bull (Nandi) carved from the hillside. We clambered up some rocky steps to another small temple. We leaned towards the gate to view the statute inside when a small bony woman jumped out and dotted our heads with a bright pink fingerprint. We gave her some rupees that immediately caused a scowl to her face (we don’t know the going rate for these things). We hurried off trying to dodge the bad karma insults. The Achyutaraya Temple sits in a small valley that was nearly tourist free. We explored the temple, several gates and auxiliary buildings that led to a vast grass filled plaza. We weave our way through the herd of goats that had taken over the Sule Bazaar. Both sides of the plaza were lined with simple stone buildings that once served as a great shopping center.

Reflection pool near Sule Bazaar

Vittala Temple

Stone chariot of Vittala Temple

Next to the bazaar was a beautiful reservoir that provided great reflections of the ruins. The heat was excruciating, but the water looked a little to slimy even for me to swim. Sweating in the midday heat we arrived at the Vittala temple. This temple is about 3km from Hampi with amazing carvings and engravings nestled into every surface. The building columns were beautiful single pieces of marble that elegantly tapered and separated into four filigree posts. Outside the temple is a stone chariot that supposedly was operational at one time. We walked along the river and found some boys operating a sugarcane press, a perfect spot for a refreshing drink.

Elephant carving on side of temple

Ornate wall of Hazararama Temple

Park map of Hampi Ruins

We continued to be awestruck by the glamorous carvings throughout each set of ruins. There were elephants, monkey gods (who supposedly originated in Hampi) and thousands of stories to document their religious history. The ruins in Hampi are exquisite, but they are spread throughout a large area. We walked most of it, but if you are going to Hampi print this map because it will be the best guide you will have.

The Queen’s Bath

Colorful cow

Hazararama Temple

The walk to the historic Royal Center turned out to be longer than expected. We expected to find a trail to the south of Achyutaraya temple. We walked through the mud and grass until the dead silence of the banana plantation informed us that we probably should not be there. We backtracked, and spotted a temple in the distance. Carmen jumped on my back and together we made it through a bog, then a carefully laid out steps of rocks to hop and in no time we found the Krishna Temple. With a landmark we could then make our way on the road to our real destination. The Royal Center was basically the Forbidden City or (Topkapi Palace) of Hampi – an enormous complex of buildings, servants and concubines for the emperor. We first visited the Queen’s Bath with elaborate lattice marches. Walking through the walled city we passed cows that were colorfully decorated from a recent festival. Further on we explored the Hazararama Temple then continued north to the jewels of the Hampi Ruins.

Lotus Mahal in Royal City

Lotus Mahal hall

Elephant Stables of the Royal City

The Lotus Mahal is one of the more spectacular and fundamentally beautiful buildings that I have seen in a long time. It feels very natural and simple like the flower it mimics. The building glows with an elegance that would be valued in any modern building today, but this one is five centuries old. The Elephant Stables nearby are also grand with many repeating arches and domes. The empire that ruled in Hampi was grand, an now these buildings quietly bake away in the sun. It was very calming to wonder through the Royal Center imagining the city that once lived and the people that one walked and seeing these exact buildings.

Carmen and “an elephant pose”

We had a wonderful time in Hampi. It was an exhilarating and exhausting two night hop from Hubli. We were transferred into a whole other world of curved stone architecture, grand abandoned bazaars, and a small village. The people were nice, the animals cooperative even though a bit invasive, but the magic of the place and the scenery will remain with us forever. And those gundpangala…I will be dreaming about those for some time.

“Hampi is my house” water tank

Visiting Ancient Rome In Selçuk (by Carmen)

Welcome to Turkey!

Nathan in the lounge at Pension Homeros

The sun was setting over rolling hills.  I had a wine glass in one hand.  The calls to prayer began emanating from minarets throughout the town.  It was a perfect moment at our sweet guesthouse in Selçuk.  This was our first stop in Turkey and we had received a warm welcome of wine on the hotel’s terrace.  I was immediately enchanted with the Turkish decor of thick carpets, a mix of patterned fabrics and comfy pillows.

Walking up to the Roman theater at Ephesus

Inside the theater

Selçuk is best known for one magnificent, very special sight – the ruins of the ancient Roman city of Ephesus which peaked in the 2nd century AD.  This archeological site is up there with the likes of Pompeii in terms of intactness.  As we walked in I was immediately blown away by the huge theater built into the hillside.  It could hold an astonishing 25,000 spectators.  This generous capacity hints at the city’s large size, which is estimated at a quarter of a million people.

Library of Celsus

One amazing porch

Beautiful carving on the library exterior

The true star of Ephesus lies just beyond the theater.  Up a marble path, past the old agora (market) is the Library of Celsus.  Based on the intricately carved exterior, I can l  only imagine how grand and elegant this three story structure must have been.

Main Street Ephesus

Yes that would be the communal latrine

From the library the main street leads up hill revealing more and more incredible buildings with each step.  We even found evidence of more mundane spaces, such as the latrine.  Advanced plumbing meant waste was swept away quickly. The Romans understood cleanliness thousands of years ago. It amazes me how far down Europe sank in the dark ages after the fall of Rome, when hygiene was practically nonexistent.

Roman mansions

Intact Roman mosaics

Also on the main street is a collection of lavish homes of the rich.  They were large complexes with every inch of wall space frescoed or covered in marble.  And the mosaics were spectacular, depicting animals or mythical characters such as Medusa or Poseidon.  

Chicken shish and köfte

Turkish salad mix plate

All that scrambling over ruins got us hungry, so our first stop back in town a plate of chicken shish and juicy köfte (meatballs).  After relaxing at the hotel, we headed out for a simple dinner of Turkish salads.  These included stuffed peppers, sautéed eggplant, tangy thin green veggies, tomatoes with green beans and yogurt. With each new Turkish dish I tried, I was hungry for more.

Delicious cacık

Saturday market in Selçuk

Yogurt is a staple of Turkish cuisine and I love the traditional way to serve it.  Cacık is a thinned yogurt mixed with cucumber, garlic, dill and lemon. Used to dip thick, spongy bread it makes for a delicious snack.  We enjoyed some as we made our way through the lively Saturday market.

The god Artemis

For the rest of the day we headed back to antiquity.  First we visited the one remaining column of the Temple of Artemis.  Once one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the temple once had 127 columns. Inside, the giant statue of Artemis a symbol of fertility towered over worshipers.  The temple eventually fell into disrepair and the marble harvested for other uses.  But the footprint of the structure is still visible and impressive.

Virgin Mary’s house

We rented a scooter to visit one more historical site.  Virgin Mary’s believed final residence is outside Selçuk in a pretty mountain valley.  We had expected a spiritual place but it turned out to be a rather simple chapel with one wooden, handless statue of Mary.    The government charged to get into the park and it just felt like people went in, lit a quick candle, and left.  Definitely not our favorite visit in Selçuk.

Crescent moon rises over Turkey

Another sunset on the terrace made up for it.  We were welcomed with another glass of wine and the hotel owners even fixed up Nathan’s shoe that had broken that day.  We relaxed, watched the moon rise and got ready for our bus to Cappadocia.

Crossroads Rhodes (by Ναθεν)

Essential theme to life

He leaned over the table for what felt like the thirtieth time that night to fill my wine glass; he looks at me straight in the eye and says “Se kalo.” Then he downs his entire glass of wine. Then I choose someone, “Se kalo” and again my glass is empty. We are at a Cretan tavern in Rhodes. Our table is a battleground of Greek and Cretan specialties: dakas, feta, fritters and fries have been landing endlessly on our table all night. The jug of wine always seems full and the traditional music from Crete can be subtly heard over the constant clinking of glasses and loud conversation in the room. This was the conclusion to our time in Rhodes, a celebration of Greece and new friends. We were at crossroads of Europe and Asia and tomorrow we would be going to Turkey. At 2am we stagger walk with dignity through old town to grab a few hours rest.

Our new friends in Rhodes

Meet my friend Mike, who is actually from Crete, and his lovely girlfriend Alexandra. We met them in Rhodes and our three days have been filled with nonstop adventures and good food. They are university students here in Rhodes, studying to become teachers. I am always impressed by the seemingly instant friendship that is possible with people. There is a little bit of circumstance, some willingness and a whole bunch of letting down guards, but we quickly became friends.

Local eatery with stewed meats, veggies and village salad

I should have recognized how the weekend was going to turn out. In our first hours of arriving to Rhodes, Mike pulled out a 5L jug of clear liquid from the back room. “Want to try Cretan Tsikoudi.” Mike’s dad distills his own moonshine in Crete and sends it with his son to keep him company while at school. It only takes a few minutes before we are all talking about hunger. They take us to lunch at this local restaurant around the corner. The waiter ushers us to the glass case in the back; we are shown an array of stews and specialties of the day. Everything looked and smelled fantastic. It only takes a few minutes before steaming plates occupy every free space on the table.

Cosmopolitan buildings for the Knights Hospitaller from the crusades

Sunlit arches

There is substantial history in Rhodes. It has been inhabited for millennia, but the most prominent occupation was during the first crusades. The Knights of St. John established a fortress in the fight for Christianity. The most impressive part of old town is the street that the knights lived, the hospitalier. Each nation had their own building for meetings, organization, dining and lodging. Walking along the cobblestones we saw the Spanish, English and German headquarters for the crusades, each over a thousand years old.

The Colossus of Rhodes (Credit: WikiCommons)

For centuries Rhodes was a stronghold. After defending themselves against Cyprus, they built an enormous statue, The Colossus of Rhodes, to symbolize their victory. This 107ft (32m) wonder of the ancient world no longer exists, but the entrance to the harbor where he once stood is still there.

Old town Rhodes typical street

Walking through old town in Rhodes is wonderful. The stone buildings and cobblestones reflect a time hundreds of years ago, but most everything is still in use. Carmen and I walked ancient alleyways and underneath buttresses bracing buildings. It is easy to get lost meandering around Rhodes, but that is the fun of exploring these cities. Eventually we would run into the enormous wall that surrounds the city. Beyond it is a moat that is great for walks and runs.

Medieval town wall of the Knights Hospitaller

Our time in Rhodes was filled with new friendship and the history of an old city. We soaked up the atmosphere, snorkeled one last time in the Mediterranean and wondered through the stone streets. Rhodes is a crossroads between the old and new, but also between Greece and Turkey. We were excited to head east, to a place we’ve never been before. We boarded onto our last ferry boat and said goodbye to Greece.

Post Navigation