Sunday, September 30, 2012

Shalom Israel! - Part 1: A Glimpse of Israel

Shalom everyone!

Although Israel has been in the spotlight for its religious significance and political climate, it was only when I worked at a travel company that I got interested in the country. The numerous brochures that contained tours to Israel showed amazing photos and the itineraries contained several amazing sites and experiences. The more I looked at the brochures, the more I felt the urge to visit this unique country. I never knew much about Judaism or Christianity and with Israel being the birthplace of these religions, I thought that traveling there would be a great way to learn about these different faiths and the distinct cultures of the country.

It was a last minute decision to go there and David and I bought our tickets merely a few days before departure. We were warned by friends and many websites that the security procedures at the Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv would be excessive and sometimes not very pleasant. And we had to make sure we planned every single detail of the trip to show the authorities we knew what we were doing. So this was our 12-day itinerary:

Tel Aviv - Jerusalem - Ein Gedi - Masada - Nazareth - Zefat - Haifa - Tel Aviv

We skipped the desert and Eilat as we'd already done a desert trek in neighboring Jordan and felt it wouldn't be necessary this time.

Entering Israel was actually quite a breeze! We were just asked basic questions and could then finally start our adventure! Although we landed in Tel Aviv, we headed straight to Jerusalem with a shared taxi that we booked at the airport directly.

There's a lot to cover about Israel in different segments so for now, here's a video that gives you a quick glimpse of the country! Up next, historic Jerusalem!

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Charming Cambodia - Part 4: The Capital

After spending two lovely days in and around Siem Reap, we hired a car and a chauffeur to drive us to Phnom Penh. Although we had initially thought about taking a flight, the 5-hour drive was much cheaper at only USD $70 and was a great way to explore the true Cambodia

We left Siem Reap around 7.00am and on the way we spotted a beautiful temple. The architecture looked great but it seemed like it was abandoned. It was dirty and dusty with many dead insects lying around. Nonetheless, we admired the temple's colorful decor and Gods. I don't know the name of the temple but I believe there is only one route to Phnom Penh and we saw a few other similar temples, so you should be able to visit something!

I love these doors! I wish we had one like that at home!

Each statue was so unique and I loved pretty much everything about this temple - including the pillars!

We finally reached Phnom Penh around 1pm and checked in to the Juliana Hotel. After some rest, we first headed to the magnificent Royal Palace The Royal Palace is where the king of Cambodia resides and it is divided into three main compounds: the Silver Pagoda, the Khemarin Palace and the Throne Hall. The palace is surrounded by beautiful well maintained gardens and the architecture of the building is typically Khmer. It takes about an hour to explore the palace grounds and certain areas that are open to the public and it is definitely the biggest highlight of any trip to Phnom Penh. 

Although Cambodia has many wonderful things to see and experience, there is also a very dark and haunting past behind it - the deadly Khmer Rouge. Known around the world as one of the most horrific periods in modern history, millions of Cambodians have suffered under their very own people. The Khmer Rouge was a communist party formed in 1968 and ruled Cambodia from 1975 - 1979. It was led by Pol Pot whose objective was for Cambodians to mainly work in agriculture. Anyone suspected of engaging in the free market was tortured and killed. The Khmer Rouge was extremely brutal in their regime - they controlled everything in the locals' lifestyle including who they could talk to and what they wore. Many intellectuals, children, minority groups and anyone suspected of being a traitor was severely dealt with. The worst part of it all was that it was Cambodians killing Cambodians. 

Near Phnom Penh, in the village of Choeung Ek, there is a place known as the Killing Fields, which is where mass executions of the local Cambodian people were carried out by the Khmer Rouge. In the middle of the fields is a big monument with about 8,000 skulls of the people who died. People can offer prayers there if they wish. At first glance, the fields look plain and bare and one wouldn't even think that millions died here. We were given audio headsets to listen to which guided us to each spot to explain what happened there. The spot which was most terrifying for me was the Chankiri Tree, also known as the Killing Tree. Here is where the Khmer Rouge smashed little children against the tree for "crimes" that their parents had committed. They wanted to get rid of these children so that they wouldn't grow up to seek revenge. As they killed the kids, the heartless Khmer Rouge laughed as if they didn't, it would mean that they were sympathetic and could in turn become a target as well.  It was really sad to hear about how cruel humans could be to one another, that too to innocent children. 

Our time in Cambodia came to an end with one of the best massages we have ever had in Juliana Hotel. It was a Khmer massage which does not use any oil. We bravely signed up for the 2-hour massage for just USD $15 and boy, were we in for a real treat! We were given pyjamas to wear and then started all the action! Never have I had my body twisted and turned in every possible way! Beats yoga any day! After two wonderful hours, we couldn't feel our bodies anymore but it was so good to get rid of all the tensed muscles!

We left Cambodia with our hearts filled with special memories of a truly beautiful place. The humility and simplicity of the locals was heartwarming and we felt very welcome in their country. It was great to experience the unique Khmer culture and learn about its vibrant history and turbulent past and also get in touch with the locals. A must-see destination for anyone interested in culture, religion and beautiful architecture!

Next up, travel with me to another enchanting place - I have yet to decide but it will definitely be a fascinating one!

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Charming Cambodia - Part 3: Thousand Lingas, Preah Ang Thom & Chong Kneas

After a fun but hectic day visiting the temples, we decided to explore other sites in the area. We first headed to Phnom Kulen, a river bed that is fully carved with 1,000 Shiva lingams. Locals refer it to Thousand Lingas. These carvings represent fertility and the water is considered holy for Hindus. There is also a stone carving on the river bed of Lord Vishnu lying on his serpent with Goddess Lakshmi at his feet. A lotus emerges from his navel and bears the Lord Brahma. The river leads to a magnificent waterfall which is a popular hangout spot for Cambodian families.

Phnom Kulen holds strong significance to Cambodians as it was the birth place of the Khmer Empire. This is where King Jayavarman II proclaimed independence from Java. He started the Shiva lingam cult in the area and used to bathe regularly in the river. 

As soon as we got there, a little girl came running to us and beckoned us to follow her. Although she could not speak much English, she was very excited in showing us the Thousand Lingas. She repeatedly kept saying, "Linga, Linga, Lingaaaaaaaaa!" and easily navigated through the area and brought us to all the right places. It was such a delightful experience and we touched the holy water for blessings. 

 We then continued on to Preah Ang Thom, a place that is considered holy for Buddhists. Here, there is a large statue of a reclining Buddha reaching nirvana, apparently carved out of just one sandstone. The walk up to this temple was lovely and another little girl guided us there. Upon seeing the giant Buddha, my mother and I joked that his face had a striking resemblance to Indian actor, Prakashraj! There were some priests conducting prayers for devotees and we had a good taking in the ambience.

At the entrance of this temple is a big Shiva lingam where we could pour water over it and pray. It was here that a lady with a little baby girl approached us and gave me the baby in her arms. It was a very beautiful and special moment for me, especially since the baby came quite willingly to me. She was only 5 months old and wore a tiny purple skirt. So adorable! The lady blessed us to have a good future and we then continued on.
We then crossed a very wobbly bridge to get to the massive waterfall. My mom would probably say that this was the highlight of her trip. She loves water and when she saw the number of people gleefully prancing around under the waterfall, she was tempted to join them. Given how hot it was, she found it so refreshing to be there. She was soaked wet in an instant but thoroughly enjoyed it. My hubby too joined her while I assumed my role of the cameraman and security guard:).

Our final stop was the Chong Kneas Floating Village. This floating village is situated at the end of the Tonlé Sap lake and is inhabited by the Cham people, some Vietnamese and Cambodians. As soon as we saw the water we knew that it was not even remotely clean. The place had a very fishy and sewage type smell and the water looked so brown and opaque. 

This floating village left a lasting impression on all three of us. It showed us how these poor people struggle every single day to survive and that they don't even have the basic supplies to lead an ordinary life. Most people there live on fishing but as the water often floods, many adults drown and lose their lives. The young children are then left without parents and have to grow up on their own. Our guide for this trip told us that the people actually drink the lake's polluted water - it is not even boiled to get rid of the impurities. We were sickened to hear that. And recently a couple went fishing in the night and drowned, leaving behind their 15 children. These children now live in the school there under the care of the teachers. Our experience there showed us just how pathetic these people's, especially the children's lives are and how cruel and unfair life is. 

We were brought to a crocodile farm where we observed some of these deadly creatures. We got to see the tiny houses where families huddled together to cook, eat and sleep all in one place. We even saw kids boldly holding pythons around their necks with absolutely no fear! Finally, we were brought to a shop where we were told that we could buy some food or water for the children in the school. As we were very disturbed by the children drinking the dirty lake water, we bought them some bottles of mineral water. We were then taken to the school where young children between 3 - 15 were studying or living.

This was the part that affected me the most. As soon as we entered, the kids started to sing and clap their hands for us - sort of in gratitude for the water we brought them. One little girl in particular just kept staring and smiling at me. She had the most soulful looking eyes I have ever seen. Her face was so pure and innocent and although she was smiling at us, I like she had been through very tough times in life. In fact I just felt like taking her with me to give her a better life. Even now I think about her every day and wonder how she is. 

Of all the 4-5 days we spent in Cambodia, this day was the one that was most special and left a strong impact on me, especially the poor children. I think ever since Angelina Jolie adopted a kid from Cambodia, there's been growing interest for people to adopt children from there. There are also many organizations whose purpose is to give a better life to these children and my experience in the country has got me interested in trying to help these children in some way or another. Every one of us can help them in our own little way and spread the word to create awareness!

Next up, our journey to Phnom Penh!
Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Charming Cambodia - Part 2: Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat - a place that's been on my travel to-do list for a long, long time. Especially since I grew up in Singapore and given its close proximity to Cambodia (only 2 hours by flight), one would have thought that I'd have visited it way back. But it somehow never happened and luckily this year, we had the chance to visit it.

Angkor Wat takes pride in itself for biggest the world's largest temple structure. As I have travelled to India numerous times and praying in all kinds of Hindu temples has always been a big part of my trips there, I am familiar with different temple architectures and styles. Hindu temples in southern India are tall colorful towers with different statues all over them; In the north, they are not as tall or colorful but have mono or dual tones but the statues of the gods are usually bigger and more expressive - almost doll like. In Bali, which is predominantly Hindu, the culture is very different and the religion is practised in a very unique way. The temples there are very different from those in India, where Hinduism originated, and it was interesting to explore another facet of the religion. 

As Cambodia used to be largely Hindu before embracing Buddhism, it was interesting for me to see how Hinduism was portrayed there. Built by the ruler of the Khmer empire, Suryavarman II, in the 12th century, Angkor Wat is where Lord Vishnu is believed to have been worshipped. While I found the area to be vast, I didn't find the actual temple structure of Angkor Wat to be as huge as I had imagined. As the temples are spread out several kilometers apart, it is important to do some research before going so that you target only the sites that are of most interest to you. 

This was what we had in our itinerary as must-see places:

- Sunrise at Angkor Wat
- Bayon
- Preah Khan 
- Bantay Srei

We stayed at the Ree Hotel in Siem Reap where we had a wonderful spacious room. We engaged a taxi driver for our entire stay in the region and we were lucky that he was a proactive, friendly and trustworthy man. He picked us up very early in the morning (around 5.30am) so that we'd make it on time to see the sunrise. It was very calm and refreshing to be up so early and not to have to worry about traffic. We first had to stop at a counter to purchase tickets which included photos of ourselves before proceeding on to the main entrance. As we were nearing, we found ourselves amongst tourists from all over the world who had flocked to see this beautiful moment in all its glory. We rushed to find the perfect spot to set our camera up and waited patiently for the sun to rise. And there it was! What a breathtaking sight! That too with the reflection of the temple towers!

We even went up in a balloon to catch a bird's eye view of Angkor Wat.

I love the carving of the beautiful apsaras!

Angkor Thom which includes Bayon was my favorite part of discovering the Angkor Archaeological Park. Coming literally face to face with the 216 Buddha heads was simply incredible. If you look at the tower architecture, you will notice Buddha heads on each side!

Whenever I see a statue of Buddha, there is a feeling of peace and calm that takes over me. So seeing so many of them was just so great and made this place feel like heaven!

Look at these magnificent carvings and statues!

When it's more than 40 degrees hot, the best thing to do is to get a chilled natural coconut! Healthy, tasty and filling!

As always, it's time for posing with the statues!

And why not go all out and do what the statues are doing ;)!

Look at the wonderful temple structure of Bayon with all the Budhha heads!

Preah Khan is known for its larger than life tree roots as you can see! It was really nice to walk around these massive structures.
Our taxi driver strongly recommended Bantay Srei for its very intricate carvings and statues and boy are we glad that we went there. It is a little further from the rest of the temple complex but well worth the visit. 

We managed to cover all of these sites within a day, so that's why if you carefully choose the places you want to visit beforehand, it makes it a lot easier to get things covered. Overall, I really enjoyed visiting the Angkor Wat temple complex. It was great to see all of these old monuments and I feel blessed and privileged to have had the opportunity to make own of my dreams come true. The only thing I felt disappointed with is that the whole site gave me the vibe that it was abandoned. It was not active and the place was not alive. Unlike Hindu and Buddhist sites in India and Bali, it seemed as though the whole religious feel of the place had vanished, which I found sad. It would have been great to see the place remain connected to its religions in a stronger way!

Next up, our adventures in the areas near Siem Reap!

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Charming Cambodia - Part 1

Cambodia - a dream destination. Mostly known for its magnificent Angkor Wat temple structure and its brutal Khmer Rouge, Cambodia is a country of extremes - the richness of its architectural wonders vs. the simplicity of its poor people, the warm and humble locals vs. the harsh and bloody regime of Pol Pot,  the culture and traditions of the natives vs. the French colonization. Throughout its history, Cambodia has gone through highs and lows. About a thousand years ago, the mighty Khmer empire was a major power in the region and stretched to include parts of modern day Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar and Laos. Today, however, the country is one of the smallest in South East Asia.

The Angkor Wat is the main purpose of most people's visit to the country and it's quite obvious why. The temple was built by the Hindu king Suryavarman II of India in the 12th century and was later expanded by his successor. As Hindus, the site was of particular importance to me and my mother and along with David, we planned a 5 day trip to Cambodia. We spent most of our time in Siem Reap, Angkor Wat and the surrounding areas before taking a private car to the capital, Phnom Penh.

Siem Reap itself is a beautiful little city - clean and easy to get around. As it is the gateway to the temples, it is very touristy and so hotels and restaurants are well established. There is a lovely night bazaar where all kinds of souvenirs and fruits are sold. But the best part of it was the inexpensive massages that were just ubiquitous! I mean, USD $2.00 for a 30 minute foot massage! You wouldn't find that anywhere else in the world! And it was good and the service was great! As you can see, we had a great time exploring Siem Reap by night:

Watch this video to have a glimpse of the country:

I'll write about Angkor Wat in more detail in the next post!


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