Christmas dinner
It's been a good year.

An unexpectedly disorganized yet somehow over-organized fun and crazy, hard-traveling, emotional, financially risky, life-changing year.

As Dan remarked recently, we have “the curse of living in interesting times.”

While our memories of this year will probably be dominated by The Big Trip—our workless, fun-filled, money-spending travelathon—we've done a lot of other things this year.

In January I was promoted to director of the Foreign Department at our school in Zunyi. The pay rise allowed me to get corrective laser surgery on my eyes—life changingly fantastic and fantastically life-changing.

We did a two week-traipse through the minority villages of Guizhou—seeing a part of China that even our most well-traveled China-hand friends hadn't managed to see. There we saw people who still wear minority dress daily, took part in a name-giving ceremony to a village child (this involved drinking beer out of bowls to quench the fire from eating large slabs of local salt-and chili-cured pork), and stumbled upon the most amazing New Year's procession we had ever seen.

A few months later and we were on our way to Kashgar and Urumqi in far-flung Xinjiang province—the dusty, high-elevation corner of China that really puts the rest of that giant country in perspective. We were there just weeks before the rioting that broke out and effectively cloistered the whole province from Western view for the remainder of the year.

And last summer we packed up, sold or threw away everything in our little one-bedroom school-supplied home—all the books and clothes and doodads and things that seem so important and yet, we discovered, just weren't--and, overladen but shiningly excited departed Zunyi to take a final look at China. We traveled for four weeks, first with my parents and Dan's mother and stepfather down the Yangtze, and then on with my mom and dad up to Inner Mongolia and down back to one of the most beautiful spots in China--Yangshuo. On September 13 we finally left China on our voyage of discovery through Southeast Asia.

Interesting times are not always happy ones though. Sadly, Dan's father passed away in September, as we were getting ready to fly to Bali before Dan's brother's wedding. He was missed at the wedding, and, just last week, at the brothers' Christmas celebrations.

Between the funeral and Christmas, Dan and I kept the Big Trip going—a five-week jaunt to Malaysia, Thailand and Cambodia rounding out our SE Asia experiences.

And now, the new year is here. In January we go back to Malaysia and then to India. Where in India and for how long we have not yet decided. 2010 is completely unplanned. Beautifully, excitingly unplanned.

Any suggestions?

Happy New Year from Dan and Beth.

* * *

May your train transfers be speedy, your flights on time and the hostel not have bedbugs.

...and into SCUBA diving
By Dan

“Did you see the barracudas?” someone says. Another person replies, “ No, but I saw a turtle. How about you Dan?” I reply, “ Sorry, I don't dive?”

Silence fills a large area. I'm looked down upon. Some leave the table while others look away. I've been found out as a landlubber, and made to feel like a second class citizen.

The world of divers is highly competitive where respect and hierarchy are mete out by where you have dived, what you have seen, the gear you use and oddly enough, by the misadventures that were overcome. Divers form a kind of cult. To become a member of this cult usually takes some bucks and an initiation period of four days through the temple of PADI.

So I did it.

During this time you are bombarded with many facts. A couple of factoids that I remember are “Divers have more fun and divers are great under pressure.”

The most difficult part for me was controlling buoyancy and it really wasn't too difficult. I guess you can liken this to learning to fly. Equalized buoyancy can be balanced by the BCD air vest and also by breathing.

Being a veteran of six dives I can honestly say that down below is the way to go. For me every dive is new, exciting and pretty special.

Now I'm a PADI member and I have stories to tell. “ Well, back in '09 I was diving off Koh Tao - Thailand, and...”

**Click here to see photos of Koh Tao**

** Photos below courtesy Golden Divers, our choice of the friendly Koh Tao dive centers. **

Look! Beth CAN cook!
Our cooking teacher rubbed a slice of turmeric on Dan's thumbnail, leaving a yellow smear.

“That's how you know it's not carrot,” he corrected me with a smile.

We were at the Smoking Pot, a cleverly-named restaurant and cooking school run out of our teacher's home by him and his various nieces and nephews. We were taking their $8 cooking class to learn how to make three Cambodian dishes— coconutty amok, fiery beef curry and a hot-and-sour soup. The turmeric is important in the first two dishes—we took it, dried red pepper, garlic, thinly sliced lemongrass and some salt, and mashed them together with a heavy stone mortar and pestle. The result was a beautiful, orange curry paste that adds flavor and color.

Now, before I go on, I know what my family and friends who have ever suffered through a Beth-cooked meal are chortling as they read this—something along the lines of, “about time she had a cooking class!.” And, it was a little scary for me, remembering all of the spaghettis burned because I got involved reading the newspaper and forgot about it and all of the “oh I don't want to go shopping so let's see what we can do with soy sauce, cous cous, canned tuna and various alcohols” meals.

But it wasn't like a graded thing, this class, and the only punishment would have to eat my own cooking at the end of the morning. So, we tried it. And it was fun!

First off we went to the wet market, which wasn't that big of a deal for us since it was basically like the ones in China we had been shopping at for the last three years. But one thing there that we never saw in China was how to make coconut milk—a woman hacks open a green nut with two deft swipes of a cleaver, drains the juice into a plastic tub and then shaves off the jelly-like meat of the green coco with a huge machine. We got a plastic bag of the shavings, put them in a cheesecloth back at the restaurant, and kneaded them into water until we had our own, hand-squeezed coconut milk.

Next, we pounded up our curry paste and then prepared the amok—fish for me, chicken for Dan. A few vegetables, meat and the curry along with the fatty coconut milk all boiled down in a wok until the teacher gave us the OK to eat it. Delicious!

The second dish, lok lak, was to be spicy. The teacher and assistants handed out some chili peppers and I took a (I thought) cautious amount—three green ones. Then we remembered that the green ones are hotter than the red ones and I made Dan switch with me. We had to slice the beef for this as thin as paper, and then fry it together with more paste and some other ingredients. Fantastic.

Third, we made a hot and sour soup, using lime juice for the sour and one pepper (really cautious now!) for the hot. We boiled some chicken bones and vegetables together for the stock.

And so, amazingly, the best meal we had in Cambodia was the one we cooked ourselves.

Then, full from our cooked meal, we hired an enthusiastic man and his friend to take us on the backs of their motorcycles on a trip to Phnom Sampeau, the site of limestone caves used as execution zones by the Khmer Rouge.

While I didn't expect the site of a mass grave to be a good time, it was fun to go there on the motorcycle (“Slow! Slow!” we told them, and they did). Walking on the street in Battambang it seems that everyone has a motorcycle—nine-year-old kids and all. We drove out through the rice fields and small villages and my driver gave a non-stop tour on the way:

“These kids, they are finding fish. The rice comes three times every year. When no water, the fish stay there. The kids can find the fish. These men they are waiting for the rice. Everyone has the rice. No rice, no happy!” And so on. Dan's driver, meanwhile, used up his English vocabulary pointing out interesting things too--one word: “Cow.”

The caves, also known as the 'killing caves' are half-way up a limestone hill about a half-hour from Battambang city center. The rest of the countryside is completely pancake-like, so the hill was impressive as we drove up to it.

People who fell afoul of the local Khmer Rouge bigwigs were taken to the top of the caves and dropped a hundred feet or more down to the dark, bat-infested caverns. I read later on the internet that perhaps as many as 10,000 people had died this way--they're still not sure. Now, there are wire cages full of old bones near the new Buddhist statues and a general, creepy feeling that things aren't right in an otherwise pretty spot.

The next day we would head out for Bangkok and then the diving paradise of Koh Tao, thinking to ourselves that Cambodia might be worth a second look in 2010.

**Click here to see photos of our stay in Battambang**
Girls row themselves to their floating school.
Our slow 'speed boat' plowed through the flat, glassy water of Tonle Sap, making the carpet of water lilies that extended to the horizon undulate in its wake.

We started out at a nondescript pier, built by a cluster of stilt houses occupied by fishermen and women who try to sell water and bananas to tourists like us. We settled in to our straight-backed wooden seats and ate bread and butter while the boat set off into the dawn.

The lake, the largest in Southeast Asia, was busy at first, but then our boat turned into a narrow path cut through the choking purple-flowered surface plants and soon we were snapping pictures through the floating villages.

Small houses, usually just a center room, a porch and a back deck, floated on oil barrels and car tires or balanced above the water level on thin stilts. They were brightly colored: blue and purple, pink and orange. Women and men crouched on the very front of their long thin boats, paddling beside us and bringing in their nets or washing clothes. A few boats of children in the same immaculate white and blue uniforms as the city kids in Siem Reap paddled by shouting “hello!” They were on their way to a floating school, where more kids poured out onto the deck and waved at our boat going by.

We stopped for lunch at a floating convenience store and Dan bought us Styrofoam boxes of sticky rice and honey barbecued pork for a few dollars. The locals seemed happy to smile for our boatload of sunburned, camera-happy backpackers. Small kids either stared at us, mouths hanging open, or waved so hard I worried they'd fall in the water.

In mid-morning we turned again, going straight into a mangrove swamp. A channel had been cut for boat traffic, but it was barely wide enough for our thin ferry, and in places the springy branches of mangrove raked the sides of the boat and into the open-sided cabin like giant grasping fingers. They scraped the sun-lovers who'd chosen to ride topside with the luggage.

Gradually the mangroves subsided and we started seeing shallower areas and finally the yellow and russet clay banks of the river that would take us to Battambang. We saw shrimp nets suspended by small fishing platforms and the occasional tree, branches often stacked with cut logs—keeping the firewood dry.

Later, we came to small communities built on the riverbanks. As we got closer to Battambang, the houses got nicer. They started as cooking lean-tos built temporarily by docked boats, then progressed up to houses with bamboo roofs and palm-frond thatched walls and finally to concrete and paint and glass, the ones closest to the city with proud blue pipes extending to the water—indoor plumbing.

**Click here to see pictures of our trip to Battambang!**

Banteay Srei
Our tuk tuk driver pulled to a stop in a dusty lot shaded by huge canopy trees. A dozen small children rushed to meet us, waving postcards, silk and cotton scarves and bottles of Coca Cola.

“Here, then back home,” the driver said, ignoring the calls of “Hey lady, postcard! You want postcard?”

Back home? Dan and I were thinking. It was barely 11 o'clock! We still had hours of temple seeing in us.

We struggled our way through the sellers as politely as possible:

“No thank you. No, no I don't want any cold drinks. Yes, your scarves are beautiful but I don't want one. Thank you. Yes, that is cheap, but I don't need any wooden wind instruments right now. No thank you. I'm from America. Yes, the capital is Washington, D.C. No, he's from Australia. That's right, Canberra. No, he doesn't speak Japanese. You speak Japanese? How old are you? Well, you're a very clever 9-year-old. No, I don't want a tee-shirt. I'm wearing a tee-shirt, see? I have no money to give you to go to school. Sorry. Sorry, no. Yes, OK, if I want a cold drink, I'll look for you. Okay. Thank you! Bye!”

Eventually, at the blue-shirted ticket checker, the gaggle of underage touts diverted to another pair of tourists and we were able to look around. We were at the Rolous Group, Angkor Wat's oldest temples.

Ninth century Lolei was in disrepair—some wooden scaffolding indicated an attempt to keep its bricks from falling apart altogether. However, it was a nice visit because it is still a working temple—a modern Buddhist temple and a school for monks have been built around it, so the site is still used for worship. We noticed little piles of rocks and a few offerings around most of the temples and contemporary Buddha statues in the big ones, but this was the first one that looked like it was in everyday use as a religious site.

Preah Ko was in a better state, though still more rubble than standing bits. Its carvings were good, and it showed the origins of the later Angkor temples. This was the last temple, our driver had informed us, so we took our time in the grassy bits between the reddish rocks that had once been pillars and doorways a millennium ago.

And then, back home.


Then, Bakong.

Both of us had misunderstood the driver—we weren't going back to the guesthouse, not yet! Instead, to the crown of the Rolous Group, the temple-mountain of Bakong. While Lolei and Preah Ko had been smaller than the other Angkorian temples we'd seen, the towering Bakong, surrounded by a large moat, was built to impress. From here, it was easy to see how the ancient Khmer kings had worked their way up to building ginormous Angkor Wat.

* * *

For this, the last day of our three day ticket to the Angkor Wat Archaeological Park, we had chosen to go to some of the outlying temples. That morning, we had gotten a different tuk tuk driver, one with a more genuine smile, and set off for Banteay Srei, 37 kilometers away.

We rode through little spread-out villages, along rice paddies and under coconut palms, past white, grazing brahmin cows and speeding boys on bicycles. Every few hundred yards we saw a small store selling drinks for tourists, rattan baskets, or gasoline in glass Pepsi and Sprite bottles.

Then, we arrived at Banteay Srei, or as I started to call it, DisneyWat.

Throngs of tourists wearing identical brightly-colored hats pushed past us, on their way to the bathroom, the exposition hall, the temple entrance. I heard tours go by in a dozen languages and tried to pick pieces up. It sounded like this: En cet porta zai xiamian you peut ver oden hou zi. Okay, using five languages, I got that there was a monkey carved somewhere by the door. But why? I listened further but Japanese, Korean and Polish threw me off.

Angkor Wat is a huge, huge complex, made up of perhaps 70 or more temples. While there were a lot of people out to watch the sunrise at the main Angkor temple, we were always able to have a quiet visit in the other temples. But not at Banteay Srei that morning. This temple, from the late 900s, is notable in the Angkor group because of it's exquisite carvings, particularly around the doorways, but we hadn't realized just how famous it was.

Because Banteay Srei is farther from the main groups of temples, it's a more expensive tuk tuk ride, so I had surmised the opposite--that there would be a few less people. I had underestimated the power of the tour bus.

However, the temple's fame has brought it one thing that made it a better visiting experience than the other temples—it has an interpretive center with pictures and explanations describing what the different carvings represent, comparing it to other temples and time periods, and giving some history about the excavation of the site. This is something the other temples could use, but, with ongoing excavation and projects overseen by a dozen different governments through UNESCO, the realization of that is probably a long way off.

Unlike the tourists being herded back and forth from the buses, though, we had all day to look at Banteay Srei if we wished, so we walked through it twice, once to eavesdrop on the tours and once to look at the carvings we missed when the crowds pushed us through.

Because we had a long time before we had to go back home.

Happy Birthday!
The biggest, clearest full moon I've ever seen lights our passage up the three staircases on the east face of Pre Rup temple-mountain.

I clamber, hand and foot like a monkey, up the uneven and worn stone steps, wondering at the stillness of the night. Can we really be the only people here? Wouldn't everyone want to watch the sunrise from the top altar of a 1,100-year-old mossy temple?

There's a coolish breeze but the stone isn't cold beneath my hands or knees while climbing. I pull off my scarf at the second level of the temple and use it as an impromptu tripod, trying to catch the moonlit shadowy profiles of the temple towers.

The temple is probably 5 stories tall, if you were using a modern building to gauge the height. From this altitude we can see over the trees of the jungle that has consumed Angkor Wat, but we can't make out any other temples' towers from the darkness of the other trees.

Eventually another couple and their guide come, but we stay in peaceable silence with them, watching the eastern horizon, brighten, flame up and then pale to cornflower blue as the throbbing sun rises on my birthday morning.

Since it was my birthday we had a less hectic sightseeing plan than our first day at Angkor Wat. We spent the photographic “golden hour” after the sun rose at tall, weedy Pre Rup, then examined elephant statues and our picnic breakfast of orange juice and chocolate cookies at nearby Eastern Mebon.

Rundown Ta Som was next, and a favorite. This small temple had root-overtaken walls, mossy blocks of worn-down carvings, miniscule frogs jumping by our feet, the cleverest soldier in the army of children selling postcards (we only succumbed twice to their sales pitches), and a tour group of monks showing a Californian brother around.

By 11:30 it was time for lunch, we decided, and treated ourselves to another picnic, at Preah Khan, one of the largest Angkor temples. We'd discovered that the French influence on Cambodia had brought them cheap European wines, reasonable cheeses and nice fluffy bread—so we bought a bag of these goodies and some foie gras for a real feast in the shade, sitting on stone rubble by the eastern gate. After the bottle of red wine, we weren't very good at taking pictures, but I have to say my somewhat fuzzy recollections of Preah Khan make it my favorite temple that day. It's another of the temples that got caught in the middle when the Angkorian empire switched faiths from Hinduism to Buddhism. The result are carvings of the Buddha along with bas reliefs of Hindu celestial dancers, lotus flowers in the doorways and linga (stones worshiped as the god Shiva) stands in the passageways.

We let our driver off early and got ready to go out in the evening—to a different kind of sightseeing. Siem Reap is becoming famous on the backpacker circuit as being a good night out. The most notorious of the bars is called Angkor What? --serving a literal bucket of rum and coke for $5. If you buy two buckets, they give you a free shirt. I got a shirt, Dan got a shirt, our new friends got shirts...that's not counting the free shirts from the margarita pitchers at the Mexican bar either!

After that kind of hilarity, we were ready to lay low for a few days before checking out the oldest temples at Angkor Wat, the Rolous Group.

**Click here to see photos of our second day at Angkor Wat**

Angkor Wat

Our motorcycle-pulled wagon, or tuk tuk, raced through the pre-dawn dimness just a tad too fast for comfort.

I wondered what the hurry was—it was 5 a.m and our goal was a 6:15 sunrise, after all.

Then I turned around, and saw behind us a line of headlights. Tuk tuks, motorcycles, buses. So that's who we were racing.

We were on our way to Cambodia's biggest tourist attraction, Angkor Wat. It's a holy place with the ungodly early ritual of watching the sun rise from behind the three pine-cone shaped towers of the biggest temple, the one the whole park takes its name from.

Our driver pulled up in a dusty parking lot where tuk tuks, cars and buses were releasing their sleepy crowds. “I'll be there,” he says, pointing in the opposite direction, a pitch black area.

“Sure,” we say groggily, brushing the dust from our ride off of our faces, and with that join the other tourist-zombies carefully making their way over the ancient, uneven paving stones to the moonlit silhouette of famous Angkor Wat.

The wat is a mammoth edifice, or series of them, with a giant moat around it and a small lotus-strewn pond on the west side, perfect for catching the reflection of the temple and the dawn sky behind it.

We vie with the other tourists for plastic chairs to sit by the pond bank and take photos of the sun: the newest kind of worship at this temple that has been Hindu and Buddhist. Later, we wander through the still-deserted hallways and past the shallow engravings on the sandstone walls, worn away by time and love. We exit on the east side and watch a very money-conscious couple take their own wedding photos with a tripod. The woman is in a full, frothy bridal dress, the bustier of which she hitches up while her groom adjusts the camera. Then, pushing the self-timer button, he kicks off his crocs and runs to pose with her.

Our driver, on a $12 all-day agreement through our guesthouse in Siem Reap, has planned a marathon of temple-seeing for us today, so before too long we are back in the tuk tuk and zooming through the vast Ankgor Wat Historical Park, made up of dozens of temples and ancient, holy sites.

Angkor Wat is the remains of a mostly Hindu (sometimes Buddhist) empire that had trade links with China and cultural links as far south as Indonesia. Today's ruins were started in the 800s with a series of smaller temples known as the Rulous Group and then extended a few kilometers west to the huge, walled royal city of Angkor Thom, just north of Ankgor Wat. In its heyday, the city probably had more than a million residents.

Angkor Thom has the second most famous temple there, Bayon temple. People who watched Angelina Jolie's Tomb Raider movie will know Bayon as the gate of the temple that gets pulled down by the bad guys. Angkor Wat is breathtaking for the sunrise, for the immense proportions of it. Bayon, though, is as astounding as something from a comic book come to life—huge, blue-gray omniscient faces peer down from the four sides of each jutting tower on this temple built to remind the viewer of a Hindu holy mountain.

We climbed to the top story up steep new ladders and sloping, rounded old stairs and tried to catch portraits of the weathered stone faces. What fun to be able to climb a temple! Tactile tourism.

Then, there were the grounds of the ancient Royal Palace to be explored. The palace and the other buildings of this 800-year-old city were wooden and long since disintegrated, but we could stand under the trees and among the rubble of the holy buildings and imagine.

Later in the day we climbed another temple-mountain, Ta Keo and visited another Tomb Raider set—the overgrown Ta Prohm. In this scene, Angelina Jolie looks for a jasmine bush in an abandoned temple to find the secret entrance to the underground temple the dumb bad guys are pulling down Bayon temple to get to. (Our guesthouse kindly lent us the DVD to refresh our memories about this film.) Ta Prohm isn't as tall or large as Angkor Wat, and doesn't have the spooky faces of Bayon, but its moss-covered, lost-in-the-jungle feel is peaceful. Motorcycle-width trees grow out of the sandstone blocks of the temple, their root systems draping over doorways and crushing statues. Looking at the massive trees on top of the walls is a clear reminder of just how old the temples are.

And, since there's nothing like being in an ancient place to make you feel young, we decided to start the next day, my 29th birthday, on top of another temple-mountain.

**Click here to see our photos from the first day of visiting Angkor Wat**