As promised, here is a recap of the second half of my mid-term break when my family traveled the world to spend it with me.
Phase 1: Ricky Ross arrives in Kuala Lumpur
Sadly, the Ruhl girls had to leave the paradise that is Langkawi Island. It wasn’t too hard to leave, however, considering I was about to see my Dad for the first time in 5 months! We arrived in the hotel lobby where my Dad already was, and I had to control myself not to run up to the first bald man I laid eyes on. After giving him a call, we were reunited in front of the elevators where I received one of the best hugs I’ve had (literally) all year. I wish I had taken a video to commemorate this moment! Now we were only missing 2 very important members of our family 🙂
The following day, I showed the gang my favorite spots around Kuala Lumpur. The main players were Little India and the Batu Caves. I was a little nervous about taking my family to both of these places for various reasons.
Reason #1: My family is Irish and German… So we don’t really “do” spicy foods. After living in Asia for the past year, my tolerance for spicy foods has definitely skyrocketed. However, my students still find it hilarious to watch me sweat through a plate of ikan (fish) with sambal (a chili-based sauce). Anyways, I LOVE Indian food, and wanted to share that with my family, so it was a risk I was willing to take.
Reason #2: My mother hates caves. The mention of the word send shivers down her spine and implants images of her middle daughter getting lost in some random cave in Malaysia that she wandered into alone (I’m pretty sure she actually thinks I would do that). Again, I felt strongly that my family should see this religious site, so we went with little resistance from momma (ah, the perks of a parent who would do anything for their long-lost child).
Both visits turned out to be very enjoyable! We feasted on banana leaf vegetables, briyani rice, coconuts, and beer in Little India, and marveled at the vast expanse of the Batu Caves. Not to mention our run-in’s with the cave monkeys. They are all fun and games until they start throwing bottles at you.
Phase 2: Jean departs back to the Motherland; Rick and girls embrace Siem Reap
The next day, my Mom had to return home for work (who does that anymore?). We were all sad to see her go, but so excited for our next adventure: Siem Reap, Cambodia.
After landing, we were transported to our guesthouse where we would be living for the next 3 days. The streets of Siem Reap were all dirt and crowded with cars, tuk-tuks, and countless motorbikes. There was a sort of coordinated chaos to the whole scene: nobody obeyed any sort of traffic laws, yet everyone seemed completely composed and knew exactly what to do. It was as if they had no fear of being run over by the giant tour bus that was turning (without a signal) right in front of a person riding a motorbike without a helmet and a baby sitting in front. Oy vey.
We stayed at a beautiful guesthouse with a groupcalled Journeys Within Our Community (JWOC). JWOC is a non-profit organization that runs projects aimed to improve living conditions, provide educational opportunities, and advance the economic status of people in Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar. If you ever travel to one of these countries, WHICH YOU SHOULD, check them out! Lovely staff, incredible grass-roots initiatives, superb moral compasses, and cute dogs named Tuna.
Our time in Siem Reap was filled with lounging by the pool, taking tuk-tuk rides, eating Mexican food, and playing with Tuna. Oh, and we also saw some temples!
Over 2 days, we visited 6 Angkor temples, the largest and most popular of which being Angkor Wat. Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument in the world and was constructed in the late 12th century to honor the Hindu God Vishnu. The sandstone architecture is absolutely amazing, and exhibits the engineering virtuosity of the age’s professionals.
We had a sweaty good time stomping around the courtyards, climbing the extremely narrow and treacherous stairs, and trying to get artsy photos of the visiting monks. Angkor Wat is no longer actively used as a place of worship, but many people still come to light incense and pray at the feet of Buddhas that still have heads. Yes, many of the heads of the Buddha statues were missing. Much of this vandalism occurred during the looting of the Angkor temples when the Khmer Rouge communist party came to power.
My favorite temple was definitely Lady Temple, named for its small stature and pink sandstone it was constructed from. While I don’t appreciate the reasoning behind the name, I thought this temple was so beautiful. Everything about it was miniature! Our guide said one reason for this was so that even citizens who did not agree with the King had to bow before him in respect as they came through the door, or else they would hit their head.
The highlight of the trip for me was our second visit to Angkor Wat, which occurred at approximately 5:30 AM the day we were to fly out. I was told that seeing sunrise over the temple was spectacular, and I was definitely not disappointed.
Phase 3: Onward to the Land of the Dong
Our time in Cambodia was short, but well spent. Next up on the agenda: Hanoi, Vietnam.
Truthfully, I wasn’t super keen on Hanoi. It was terribly crowded, kind of boring, and full of locals ready to bite into gullible tourists. Some of them didn’t even wait until they found someone gullible, they just provided a service without question or giving the tourist an option to say no. This is exactly what happened to me. Molly, Dad and I were walking to find some lunch when a man came up to me and started pointing at my foot. I was concerned that there was something on it, so I stopped for a second to investigate. The next thing I knew, this small man was on the ground with his hands on my leg, and began removing my shoe from my foot… leaving me standing on the gross sidewalk with 50% of my walking devices kidnapped. Before I could say anything, this man was gluing new soles onto the bottom of my shoe. He’s a tricky guy, because now he had to do my other shoe so that my legs would reach the ground in the same amount of distance. Luckily, ole Ricky Ross saw through this man’s tactics, and went into a nearby store to question how much would be an appropriate amount to pay this scammer. The women told my Dad to watch out for him, and to not give any more than 2 USD. When the man asked for 25 DOLLARS, my Dad wasn’t having that. We gave him $7 and then booked it away from him and his knife that cuts through rubber.
On our first full day, we trekked to Hạ Long Bay for lunch and a beautiful tour. Hạ Long Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that consists of hundreds of limestone karst formations, islands, and multiple limestone caves. Fun fact: Hạ Long means “descending dragon” in Sino-Vietnamese. Around 1,600 people live in floating houses in the bay, making money through fishing and aquaculture. Merchants will then boat to these floating houses to purchase their seafare to sell at local markets.
And now, onto the last bit of our alternative family vacation: Sa Pa, Vietnam.
I don’t even think I can begin to accurately or adequately describe how beautiful Sa Pa is, so I will just put a bunch of pictures here.
Although getting to Sa Pa was a bit of a nuisance on the overnight train, it was worth every bump, hard mattress, and fellow train-goer playing the piccolo for far too long. Sa Pa is located in northwestern Vietnam, and is one of the greenest places I have ever seen. It reminded me of Eureka, Montana where my Uncle Bob lives! Our treks with Beng, a member of the Black Hmong tribe, taught us about the local textiles, past-times, and how rice padi is planted and harvested. Sa Pa is primarily known for the massive amount of rice padi terraces and fields. These terraces are split up among the families of the villages and are passed down to the sons of the families. It rained the entire time we were there, making everything green absolutely radiate with life. Our lunches consisted of hot pot soup with rice noodles, where we were accompanied by many overly-friendly felines. Beng was hilarious and so welcoming. She is only 29 years old and already has 4 children. Her marriage, like most in her culture, was arranged. However, she told us she couldn’t be happier! Beng has also never attended school and is illiterate; she learned all of the English she knows (which was a lot) from talking with tourists. Meeting people like Beng always helps to reassure me that I am exactly where I am supposed to be, and am doing good things for my students and Kuching community.
After Sa Pa, our trip had to come to an end. It was not fun having to say goodbye to my family (again), but I am now over 50% completed with my grant period! Although I do not know the exact date yet, I will be coming home sometime shortly after November 1. While that day still seems far away on paper, I know it will be here before I’m ready for it.
P.S. The Vietnamese currency is the dong. I am 23, and I will never stop thinking that is funny.