Sunday, October 26, 2008

Pondicherry Peek

So just when I thought my last trip while living in India would be the big 9-day long whirlwind tour of Asia, Curly and Pamelita (Michael & Pam) asked me if I'd like a short hop over to Pondicherry (also known as Puducherry) --a cozy French-Indian city on the east coast of India. Of course I went! Another Target teammate, Gail--who was visiting from corporate HQ--joined us, and the four of us had a fantastic weekend in this quaint little Indian town.

We decided to endure the 6-hour road trip and had Pam's driver, Prakash, take us in the Innova. During the journey we watched movies on Curly's laptop, relaxed to songs on the iPod, talked, laughed, and (of course) napped :o) It felt good to take a short break from the buzz of Bangalore and hit the open road. Along the way through Tamil Nadu (the state we traveled into from Karnataka), we saw all sorts of typical sights--animals of every size and color, temples, mountains, amazing rock formations (Tamil Nadu is known for it's amazing rocks and hills), and several cities beginning to set-up for the upcoming Divali holiday--lots of colors, lights, and flowers everywhere.

In Pondicherry we had a wonderful time walking along the beach (I still have a huge heart for the ocean!), visiting the local markets, receiving blessings from elephants (!) and running to avoid the rain. We ended up staying in an amazing hotel, the Hotel Le Dupleix--appropriately named after the 18th century French Governor, Joseph Francois Dupleix. This colonial villa has now been converted into 14 suites complete with many pieces of the original woodwork and furniture. Beautiful, indeed. The hotel had an amazing restaurant and the food was delicious. The French left behind a great legacy, especially in the area of culinary delights :o)

Besides lots of walking and shopping Pondicherry, we headed up to Auroville--a spiritual city and meditation center located just about 20 minutes north of the town--stunning! We learned all about the projects undertaken in Auroville and learned more about this amazing vision that's been carried on for years. A visit to Auroville wouldn't be complete without seeing the Matrimandir--a brilliant spiritual meditation center consisting of a golden dome with a special interior... read the link to learn more. We walked around the city, had a fantastic lunch and shopped for homemade incense, candles, and oils at the many boutiques. A great afternoon!

On the roadtrip back to Bangalore we stopped at Tiruvannamalai, the largest temple complex in India reflecting the glory of late Dravidian Style of the Pandya period. The temple city was full of people praying, children singing, and a host of mischievous monkeys (see the gallery). We got a full tour of a few temples, received our blessings from the priests (with a tikka, or spot of ash and red turmeric powder, on the forehead), and had a chance to explore the rich history of Hindu philosophy. This was another site not to miss! Needless to say we were all bushed after another 6-hour road trip, but the weekend was so well worth it--plus I got to take another 200+ snaps.

So now here comes the time to "wind down"... as I write this note I only have 4 days left in India (*sigh*) and what an amazing adventure it has been. I will continue to blog as I travel around the world so stay tuned. Also, I will try to post another blog note before I leave on Thursday, but it looks like the chapter in my India book is coming to a close. Wow. I can't believe that 12 months have passed so quickly! It's true what they say, "Time flies when you're having fun." I've been having the time of my life--and it's been worth every day and every moment.


Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Holiday in Cambodia

After exploring the excitement of Bangkok and experiencing the beauty of Vietnam, it was time for the third and final country on our whirlwind tour--Cambodia. Our main objective was to visit the city of Siem Reap--the home of an amazing archeological discovery, Angkor Wat. We flew from Danang, Vietnam, to Siem Reap, got through customs and passport control (don't worry, Pam--they'll let you in! :o), and met our driver. We ended up with a rockin hotel, the Angkor Terrace, a bungalow-styled tropical oasis (which reminded me of Hawaii), got ourselves settled, and decided to make an afternoon of it.

Now one of our group, Will, lived with expat parents in Singapore growing up so we had the inside scoop on what to do, where to go, and who to take us--our trusted guide, SolSok Som (Som, for short)--the same guide who had taken Will's parents through Angkor Wat years ago. In fact, Som was one of the very first tour guides for Angkor city and now only leads tours for VIPs (including President Clinton!), so we were in for the VIP treatment. Cool :o)

I can best describe Cambodia in one word: HOT (or to my expat travel buds, 3 words: H.A.B.) I can only compare the weather to being in New Orleans in August... you sweat constantly; your clothes are always wet; you take as many showers as you can and change into dry clothes only to soak them; and you need to stay out of the sun as much as possible. Can you see how wet we all were in the snaps? Oi. A walking spa. However, despite the sweltering heat, a visit to Cambodia is well worth the trip.

Our first afternoon we were greeted by torrential rains which you would think clear some of the humidity, but not so. That didn't deter us from seeing the main temple in Angkor--Angkor Wat--one of the most well-preserved discoveries of the 20th century. Som knew exactly where to take us, where to get the right snaps, and how to avoid the thousands of other tourists. It's great having a guide with the inside scoop! We spent the afternoon and evening at Angkor Wat and explored a few more of the 52 temples (one temple was built by each of the 52 kings that reigned beginning in the 12th century). By the time we got back to the hotel we were ready to jump in the pool and stay!

The next day we arose at 4:30am to journey back to Angkor and see the sunrise over Angkor Thom. The reason Som took us there instead of Angkor Wat is because there were no tourists at that temple so early in the morning--in fact, we were the only ones for two hours! We got to explore the temple as the sun rose, revealing the many faces carved into the stones--each facing North, South, East, and West. Som told us the history of the temple and its significance as kings converted from Buddhism to Hinduism and back... interesting! We also visited several other Wots (temples)--Wot's that you say? (that joke got old veeeeerrry quickly), several shopping sites and villages, a floating village that moves with the waters of the season, and had the opportunity to enjoy several fantastic meals at our hotel/bungalow. In fact, Angkor Terrace just won the award for "best chicken curry ever" in my book, just nudging past the current champion, MeKong of Honolulu. Congratulations! Never a bad meal in Cambodia :o)

Well, check out the snaps in all of the galleries (the slide shows are only samples, btw) and let me know what you think. It was an amazing trip--it's been an amazing year... and now it's all coming to a close; well, at least this chapter of it. I will blog about my last trip, Pondicherry, this weekend. Until then, check out my galleries and keep thinking about your next trip somewhere!


Sunday, October 12, 2008

Good Morning, Vietnam

After Bangkok, Pam and I hopped on a quick 2 hour flight to Danang, Vietnam--a city located in the center portion of Vietnam. Will had been up in Hanoi and Paul down in Ho Chi Min City (Saigon) while we were in Thailand, so it was time to rendezvous in the middle. Luckily, Pam and I were prepared to enter Vietnam--in fact, we had to apply for visas weeks in advance, pay for them online, have the visas emailed to us, print and sign them, and then bring the approved documents giving us permission to enter the country on that specific day, passport photos, and our second part of payment in USD, the only currency they would accept for the application. Even though the Socialist Republic of Vietnam may be quite strict about who enters their country, once you're through the gate it's a beautiful and peaceful place.

We got through the entry process, got a car, and headed up to the city of Hue (pronouned "Hway") where we were to meet up with Paul & Will. I couldn't help but notice all of the bikes, motorcycles and scooters everywhere--hardly any cars! And so many people wore face masks for the pollution, but I gotta tell ya--they don't know what real pollution is like compared to some of the other places I've visited this year... I thought the air smelled clean! Plus, the landscape up the coast looks just like Hawaii--green and lush. Vietnam is absolutely beautiful.

Hue has a lot of history from the Vietnam war, especially an hour or so north in the demilitarized zone (DMZ) where former North and South Vietnam were separated. During our two days we visited the area including the Khe Sanh Combat Base, historic landmarks, and the famous tunnels at Vinh Moc where an entire village hid beneath the ground during the war. Very powerful and moving for all of us (and hot in the tunnels!)

After Hue we headed back down to Danang for a couple of days, one of which was spend in Hoi An--an amazing city known for its markets and renowned tailors... and let me tell you about how we didn't let that pass us by! Within 15 minutes of being in the city center and heart of the shopping district all four of us were in one of the many tailor shops selecting suit styles, picking out materials, and ordering clothes. We each had suits and shirts custom made--Pam even had skirts, blouses, and a dress custom made--and all the clothes were delivered to our hotel the next morning!! And talk about price? Custom made clothing for about 1/4 the price that we would pay in the U.S.--we all went to town (I had a blue nero suit with a fantastic orange asian silk print lining made for $70!)

After staying in Danang that night, we all packed up and made way to the airport to embark on chapter three of the East Asian journey--Cambodia. More about that later this week, so stay tuned...

(Countdown: 18 days to departure)


Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Bangkok Rocks!

Last week I had the opportunity to travel on an amazing journey through three countries that have been on my "list" for years--Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia. In short, Thailand for the temples and food (mmmm...); Vietnam for the history; and Cambodia for the legendary Angkor Wat. As opposed to my usual "weekend trips", this time I took 3 days in each country and made a whole week of it. I will highlight each country with its own blog and photo gallery over the next couple of weeks so I can give each location its due diligence. But I can already tell you (in summary), that these places are AMAZING!

First, let me start with Bangkok, Thailand. I think that many of my initial impressions of what Bangkok would be like were skewed by rumors, stories, and old movies--I expected it to be dirty, seedy, rundown, and very "raw"... but what I found was a fantastic city that has instantly catapulted into my Top 5 Favorite Cities of all time!! Yes, Bangkok rocks. (BTW: my top five cities are currently London, New York, Zermatt, Barcelona, and now Bangkok :o)

Since this trip was about meeting up with fellow Target expats throughout the various countries, I spent this first weekend in Bangkok with Pam and Jess. Will started the journey with us and after a short red eye flight from Bangalore (only 3 hours--short hop), he went on to Vietnam to meet a friend in Hanoi. Pam, Jess and I jumped in a cab and it didn't take us long to spring onto the Bangkok scene. Before you could say "check in the hotel" we were at the local Starbucks having breakfast and spending day and night of shopping, eating, dancing, site seeing, and soaking up the city. Bangkok has a wonderful array of tourist areas, shopping malls, restaurants, and things to see and do. It was quite a bit more international than I had expected, and most of the areas were very clean, organized, and efficient--which was also not what I had expected. I loved the vibe--Bangkok was a comfortable city.

Between the three of us we were able to visit temples and monuments, take in the exciting nightlife, and have dinner at the top of the State Tower 65th floor. Our highlight that night was visiting the world famous Sirocco sky bar and Breeze restaurants at the Dome Bangkok (see the photo gallery). The whole rooftop is a work of art with sculpture and lights--truly classy and slick. I loved it--we felt like we were on top of the world!

On Monday, Jess headed back to Bangalore and Pam and I stayed until Tuesday morning before leaving for Vietnam to meet up with Paul and Will (two more Target expats). I really thought that Bangkok would have been great to visit for a few more days, so it now goes back on my list of places to revisit. Bangkok, I will return!

I will blog about Vietnam in my next entry so stay tuned :o)