Monks at Angkor Archeological Site
The Angkor Archeological Site in Cambodia is one of the 7 Wonders of The world. Built in the 1100-1200’s, the temples were lost in the jungle for centuries – until the early 1900’s. Since that time, the temples have been slowly recovered by archeological teams who are meticulously rebuilding them stone by stone.
The temples have only been open to the public for about 20 years and draw about 4 million visitors each year. I first became aware of the site a few years ago. I was overwhelmed with the raw beauty and mystery of the ruins – why they were abandoned and how they were re-discovered.
I finally visited the ruins in September and it was more than I expected. Not only was it awe-inspiring and fascinating, it was also very serene and full of palpable energy that is difficult to explain.
Adding to the architecture and energy were these monks wondering around the ruins in their bright orange and mustard colored robes. The monks were from nearby pagodas and roam amongst the ruins at their leisure. The opportunity to photograph the monks in this environment immensely added to the experience. It truly was a sensory overload in every sense of the word – both internally and externally.
I must thank Jewel Tours (www.jeweltours.com) for their coordination and providing the very best guide for this experience. The number of people who visit the site each day is astounding. My guide was so helpful in guiding me to the right locations at the right time so I could get the shots without tourists. There is definitely an art to seeing the ruins and I strongly recommend utilizing a tour guide for maximum enjoyment.
Vietnam’s Ethnic Groups – Fascinating, Colorful, and Memorable
Vietnam is rich in ethnic groups that have lived in the northern and central regions of the country for centuries. There are more than 50 unique ethnic tribes. On my recent visit, I was fortunate to travel extensively throughout the northern mountains near the China and Laos border. I encountered a few of the many ethnic groups, the Black Mong, Red Dao, and the Flower Mong. The photo collection features the Flower Mong and the Red Dao groups.
First of all, you have to really want to see these indigenous ethic tribes of people. They’re out in the rural villages far from the big cities of Hanoi and Lao Cai. We left early in the morning and drove for hours on 2-lane and sometimes 1-lane primitive roads to reach the small villages they inhabit. As usual, the journey was just as exciting and interesting as the destination!
I saw stunning rice terraces, cloud-shrouded mountains, small roadside vendors selling exotic fruits and vegetables, and overall, a unique culture and simple way of life in the rural countryside. It was well worth the bumpy and often harrowing experience of sharing the road with scooters flying around us carrying pigs, tires, familis-of-four and everything else, oversize trucks transporting crops, and other folks carrying on their daily routine…often in the middle of the road. (More about that in a later blogpost!)
The two main towns, Bac Ha, and SaPa, and the central gathering points for tourists venturing into the small villages. There are numerous low, medium, and high quality accommodations in each town. I strongly recommend working with a tour and travel agency to supervise and conduct the tour. In my case, I worked with Jewel Tours (www.jeweltours.com). They were outstanding. They provided me a dedicated guide and driver to visit each of community and served as translator, confidante, and host during my stay.
As you’ll see in the images, the identifying mark of the tribe members are their clothing. The Red Dao wear red headwear and are adorned with lots of red in all their clothes. I visited a very small village with a single dirt road to enter and exit. While the Red Dao live and farm as they’ve done for centuries, there is an increasing dependency upon tourists for “gifts”. As soon as I got out of the vehicle, I was swarmed with villagers wanting to sell me trinkets, scarves, bracelets and other handicrafts. While that is entrepreneurial and admirable, there seemed to be a general dissatisfaction if you didn’t buy something. They were not really hostile, but somewhat unwelcoming. I know we created this environment…
The more robust and larger tribe, the Flower Mong also wear very colorful clothing – mostly unmatched – but beautiful in its own way. The central meeting point is the daily market where goods and services are bought and traded. It’s our version of the small-town Walmart or the local grocery store! It’s where you go to meet and mingle with people you haven’t seen lately. It is as much a social gathering as it is a place of commerce. Lucky me – the photo ops were abundant! I was able to observe them in their daily life. Although they were aware of my being there and photographing, they didn’t seem to care. They were more interested in chatting, eating, and generally socializing.
Visiting the ethnic tribes was one of the highlights of my trip to Vietnam. I could have easily skipped this part of my expedition to spend more time in the major tourist regions. I am SO happy I experienced this. Along with the elementary school visit (previous blog post), I have probably thought and talked about this highlight more than most others. Thanks Jewel Tours!
Regarding Jewel Tours and other tour companies, I have always been the type of adventure traveler that “I can do it myself”. I’m sure I could have set up the tour; however, I could never have seen and experienced the quality and depth of immersive experiences on my own. Plus, in a foreign country with little to no language skills, a tour company is almost essential. In the case of Jewel tours, they were exceptional from the start. I told them the areas I wanted to see, the experiences I wanted to enjoy, and the type of places I wanted to stay. They put together a far better experience than I could ever do. I very strongly recommend them – they are top-notch, professional and above all, want every person to have a memorable vacation.
Glimpse Inside a Vietnam Elementary School Classroom
On my recent trip to Vietnam, I wanted to capture the daily life of the Vietnamese in a way people elsewhere could relate and understand. I sought out people working, shopping, dining…people conducting their normal day to day chores. One of the things at the top of my list was to visit a school and observe children in a classroom.
In the rural mountainous region northwest of Hanoi, there are several indigenous tribes of Vietnamese. The tribesmen live, work, and socialize with their own members. Until recently, members only married people from their own tribe as well. One of the most interesting things is that the majority of the tribe members only speak their own language – not even Vietnamese.
The first grade class I visited was in an elementary school with a couple hundred students. The class had about 20 students and much like the USA, they learn different courses of study from the same teacher. While I was there, the instructor was teaching the children the Vietnamese alphabet and later, Math. Soon after, they took a recess and joined all the other classes for exercises exercises in the school courtyard!
I spent about 20 minutes in the classroom and a few more minutes during recess and took as many images as I could without totally being disruptive. Six and 7 year olds, an unknown Caucasian with a large camera…well, you probably know the rest of the story!
You decide how different or similar it is to first grade students in the USA. I’m eager to hear your comments!
Many thanks to Jewel Tours (www.jeweltours.com) who organized and planned my trip to Vietnam. Many of the unique experiences, including visiting this elementary school, would not have been possible without their planning and assistance. I highly recommend Jew Tours if you’re planning a visit to Vietnam. They made a great trip an unbelievable experience!
Cuba: A Country of Contrasts
I must admit, I had preconceived ideas about what Cuba may look like and how “oppressed” the people there must be under the communist regime. After all, I had read and heard all my life how destitute and hopeless the people of Cuba must be without our support and the sanctions our government had placed upon the country. What a misconception! While Americans’ travel to Cuba has been limited, citizens from other countries have been traveling there freely for many years thus creating a thriving and successful tourism economy. Likewise, most of the images and reports I have seen and read paint a picture of decay, despair, and doom. It is simply not true! There are many beautifully restored buildings. Many international hotel companies operate luxury hotels, there are wonderful museums, retail boutiques, and much more.
On the other hand, there is an equal or greater amount of dilapidated buildings and squalid living conditions for many. In reality, it is very similar to many other countries I have visited and unfortunately, like many cities in the USA. While many people there live in sub-standard conditions in comparison to here in the USA, I was pleasantly surprised how comfortable and content many Cubans seemed to be. I did not detect a sense of hopelessness or despair. Perhaps they don’t know what they’re missing; and perhaps, they feel like their needs are met and thus don’t require all the trappings of “American success”.
After spending almost a week in Cuba, I am reminded that happiness and contentment do not come from obtaining more stuff. More does not equal better. Hope, happiness, and contentment originates and resides “inside” and is not based on how much I have. Sometimes, I have to go out of my way to find my way! Ahhh, the wonders of travel…
Travel: Savor the Experience
Why do I love to travel and experience new adventures? Why do I find myself looking at photos of faraway places with lust in my eyes and yearning in my heart? On the other hand, why are other members of my family content with staying near home? Why me?! Why not me?!
I remember as a child growing up in Alabama, our family had a globe. They were very popular in the 60’s and 70’s. Most families had them along with a set of Encyclopedias. The globe sat on a table in the den, the encyclopedias on the bookshelf nearby. I often read from the Encyclopedias but the globe, rotating on its axis, captured my attention more. It was just a little bigger than a basketball but, for me, it was “the world”.
I would spend hours spinning that globe while lightly touching my finger to the side. I would fantasize that one day I would visit the spot where the globe stopped. Never mind that it was often in the middle of the Indian Ocean! Spinning that globe taught me a great deal about our world. I learned national capitals, mountain ranges, and the locations of countries worldwide. But most of all, I cultivated an interest and desire to travel and experience places see far beyond Tallapoosa County.
We didn’t travel far as a family. We once drove to Pennsylvania to visit relatives but most vacations were spent in the Great Smoky Mountains or the Florida panhandle. We stayed at the same motel in Gatlinburg, Tennessee for many years in a row. It was comfortable, familiar, and safe; much the same for Florida too.
As early as the 7th grade in school, I vividly recall proclaiming that I was going to leave my small hometown and see the world. It was just as much the desire to run from home as it was running to new and exciting places.
I’ve been blessed to travel and experience many places in the world – Europe, Africa, the Caribbean, Canada, Mexico, and most of the USA. I love planning the trip almost as much as the actual experience. I thoroughly enjoy learning about new places, a town’s hidden gems, local dining favorites – especially the best place for dessert.
I enjoy sitting in the local diner listening in on conversations of the local town folks. It’s important to me to know what their life is like, what they’re concerned with, talking about, excited about. That’s travel for me. It is so much more than seeing the sights and checking them off the list before moving on.
For me, travelling is an immersive experience to savor the sights, sounds, and flavor. It’s an occasion to explore, learn, and identify with the people. Traveling has not only enlarged my world but also my heart, allowed me to accept other cultures, and embrace other points of view.
There are far more places to see and experience. I’ll continue to chronicle and share images along the way. Perhaps one day, I’ll even post images from Seychelles…located in the middle of the Indian Ocean!