Beautiful Ruins: A Day Exploring the Great Temples of Angkor Wat

Sunrise, 6/15 — Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Arnold Joseph Toynbee once said, “Angkor is perhaps the greatest of Man’s essays in rectangular architecture that has yet been brought to life.” This is my attempt to bring it to life through the thousand word story that each picture tells.

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The Heart of Humanity: Huge Lessons from a Small Vietnamese Village

Halfway between Hanoi and Halong Bay is a little Vietnamese haven called Yen Duc Village (“Yen” meaning peace, and “Duc” meaning virtue). Home to 5,000 people, the village weaves through rice fields, rivers, lush greenery, hand-built homes, and the most welcoming and loving people I’ve ever met. In my far-too-brief stay here, it was as if I traveled back in time and forward again, experiencing firsthand the most eye-opening lessons of humanity I’ve ever known.

. . .

But first…

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After a short and luxurious stay aboard the Dragon Legend Cruise exploring one of the world’s most stunning natural wonders, known as Halong Bay, you can imagine how reluctant I felt going in when I discovered my next night would be spent alone in a local homestay with strangers, in a village no one’s heard of, in a country that just decades earlier had been in one of the bloodiest wars with the place I call home.

Yet miracles happen when you least expect them… And how silly I was about to feel for just how mistaken I was…

That that “local homestay” was a charming home built by the hands of a loving husband to house his generously caring wife, Ms. Tâm, their three daughters and adorable grandchildren; that those “strangers” would welcome me with open arms and even more open hearts and make me feel like family; that that “unknown village” in that country that at one point in time regarded people like me as enemies, gave way  to some of the most poetic landscapes I’ve ever seen, and accepted me as one of their own, saying, “The war belongs to the past. We know that now and in the future, we are all friends; and we do nothing but welcome you.”

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I received endless love like this from the locals, including some love advice from a 96-year-old Vietnamese woman. With soft gray hair tucked beneath a bamboo hat, she told me, above all, “to find a man with a good heart,” and that “her only regret was not being able to go back in time and fix me up with one of her relatives.” When I told a group of volunteers helping to rebuild the village’s main temple that I wanted to be a writer, they said they hope I become famous like the authors they’ve read about, and that someday I might write a book about them. Others called me “beautiful” and “brave like Superwoman” for traveling on my own. And no matter how strong the language barrier, I could always communicate through smiles and the universal language of laughter. It’s no wonder that with every encounter, I began to feel more and more at home.

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I spent the days biking around the village in a bamboo hat of my own, with my kindhearted guide (and unofficial translator) by my side, winding through dirt roads and abundant rice paddies, stopping to chat with the locals and getting a chance to learn their daily handicrafts. I was one of the natives by day; and by night, I was part of the family. Ms. Tâm prepared the most delicious and copious Vietnamese meal I’ve ever had as we all gathered on a bamboo mat atop their front steps around bowls filled to the brim with fresh spring rolls, pumpkin soup, grilled fish, rice from their own harvest, and steamed vegetables from their own garden. I was in heaven. After dinner we all sat around and made Vietnamese “donuts,” consisting of fresh cane sugar and “green beans” rolled in rice dough and dipped in sesame seeds. By the time the donuts were ready a couple of their neighbors had come to join Ms. Tâm’s husband for an after-dinner smoke, tea, and chess game. One of their neighbors brought over his flute and played me a song of his own calling it “a gift to my soul” and saying that he hoped even after I return to America that I look back on that night and remember that moment with them. I told him I’d never forget it.

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This made it all the more heartbreaking to picture people like them suffering during the war, especially at the hands of the country I come from. I know war exists for reasons I’ll never understand, but I couldn’t help but think that if the people that wanted to fight saw how the other side lived, sat down with their families and watched how they interacted with one another — the smiles, the laughter, and the pure love that encircled them like oxygen — then maybe, just maybe, things would be different. In a perfect world, I suppose…

It appears once again, that it all comes down to perspective, putting yourself directly in the place of another. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned throughout my travels, and one thing that so many people are missing,  it’s that. All those superfluous and superficial things I used to regard as “problems” and “necessities” seem a whole lot different after experiencing the highs and lows of how these people live, and what they’ve been through. Perhaps that’s why they live their lives with the very joy and lightness that they do; why their eyes seem to glow just a little bit brighter; why their smiles seem to stretch just a little bit farther; why their laughter seems to sound just a little bit louder. They know just how blessed they are. They’ve lived through the dark days when hope was dim, the times of ration cards and sacrificing their crops, saying goodbye to loved ones with the fear of never seeing them again, and watching their beautiful country burned and destroyed by invaders. Yet in spite of it all, they got through it; and all they can really do now is be grateful, and continue working for a better tomorrow. And the day after that; and the day after that; and the day after that…

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While on the other hand, our side of the world views things like a dead phone battery, running out of toilet paper, and One Direction losing a band member as the end of the world. Some people just don’t get it. Then again, maybe that’s all they really know, and may ever know; and that might just be the most heartbreaking thing of all.

After experiencing things from the other side, my only wish is that one day people start to wake up; that they put down the beauty magazines and switch off the E! Network; that they power down to power up, and go out into the world (even their own town) and see it for what it really is, see the people for who they really are: beautiful. I hope they explore a place they didn’t just pin on Pinterest as some far off dream, but a place they’re ready to dive into head first. I hope they experience a world of language barriers and getting lost, cold showers and bug bites, missing home but being open to exploring a temporary one with full abandon. I hope they see firsthand what it’s like to be vulnerable, to step outside of their comfort zone and have things not go their way, to have their patience tried and their morals questioned, and come out the other side with a newfound confidence and sense of self.

Even if just for a short while, I wish these things more than anything. Then, who knows, maybe they’ll go right back to where they left things, beauty magazine earmarked and celebrity gossip shows recorded and awaiting their return. Or maybe they won’t. Whatever the case, I guarantee a light will switch on, slowly and gradually or perhaps all at once. And no matter how small, something in them will change.

They’ll see more beauty in the little things, more enjoyment in simplicity; they’ll be more present in their day-to-day, say thank you and mean it, and they’ll treat people better. And sure, they might still make mistakes, jump to conclusions and judgments, complain, and grow impatient at times — hell, we all will — but this I promise… something will click, our eyes will be opened and our hearts will begin to yearn for something more. And no matter what happens next, one thing is certain: we’ll never be the same again.

What Great Movies Are Made Of…

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a hopeless romantic at heart. I just thrived off the stories where everything came together in one sweeping act of serendipity. Even the lows eventually turned to highs, the lessons however challenging were learned, and, as fate (and much-too-predictable yet lovable rom-com’s) would have it, the girl may even get the guy, and vice versa. Like we didn’t see that one coming… 

Everything works out in the end — or doesn’t — perhaps as you least expected, but just as it was meant to be. Sounds a bit like this thing we call life, huh? There may not be any riding off into the sunset (at least not right now anyways), but eventually, all the loose ends get tied. The i’s are dotted, the t’s are crossed, and the hero moves onto the next chapter of her journey, poised and ready for whatever comes her way. And while in the movies, she may be one step closer to getting the guy, as a traveler, she’s one step closer to getting the world. And that’s the greatest love there is.

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In my past few days in Laos, I’ve felt this love like never before. While the rest of the group went off to an overnight elephant safari, I took it as a chance to delve right into the incredible province of Luang Prabang and do what I do best: exploring and getting beautifully lost. Within hours of my first solo adventure day, I had already begun to feel those serendipitous movie moments piecing together. It was like Julia Roberts in Eat, Pray, Love, one gentle moment of fate and clarity after the next.

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In my two days I happened upon village after village both by long boat and by means of a rusty old bicycle, stopping to take in golden temples and breathtaking mountain and rainforest views, all while getting a chance to observe the beautiful Lao natives, monks, and artisans in their simple and daily ways of life.

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There’s just something about being on your own and taking in all the majesty surrounding you without a care in the world — all by the single guidance of your soul and your senses. Turning left when you want to turn left, stopping to chat with fellow tourists when you feel like it and briefly taking a step into their stories, and maybe even popping in some oldies in one ear and listening to the world around you in the other. It’s an unparalleled sense of freedom and the most incredible awakening a person can have, all simply by stepping out of one world into another — eventually recognizing it all as the movie of your life. Better make it worth watching, right?

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As Laos comes to an amazing and bittersweet close, it’s off to my final and solo chapters of the trip in Vietnam and Cambodia. Can’t wait to see what they bring. Love at first sight, perhaps? (Told you I was a hopeless romantic…)

Ready?… And… ACTION!

A Country Told Through Pictures: Thailand

For this blog, I’m letting the pictures do the talking, sharing all the wonderful stories that made Thailand one for the books. From the turquoise beaches, narrow streets and nights spent dancing under the stars of Koh Phi Phi, to the breathtaking sunsets, full moon parties, and scuba adventures of Ko Phangan, and finally on to the sleepy tigers, beautiful temples, and bustling night markets of Chiang Mai, you’ll always be in my heart. Thanks for all the memories, adventures, and, yes, even the bug bites. Missing you already.

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Until next time, Thailand!

Rebellion in its Purest Form

5/26 — Somewhere over India

Travel is rebellion in its purest form. 

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When I first heard this quote, I wasn’t quite sure what to think of it. “Rebellion: an act of violent or open resistance. See also: uprising, revolt, mutiny, unrest.” Yikes… sounds a little too intense if you ask me. It was only when I looked past the negative connotations of the definition and its aggressive synonyms, that I started to fathom the real truth behind these words.

Open resistance.” Now that is something I could get on board with. It was just the other day, that it all started to come together. While gazing out the window as a new and foreign land passed right before my eyes, I began to think of that very moment in the context of my journey, and then in the greater context of my life. Suddenly it made perfect sense.

Travel is rebellion in its purest form. 

In other words, at the heart of travel is the courageous act of going against the norm, choosing the road less travelled, and owning every single bit of it. It’s saying yes — letting go of expectations, judgments, and obligations, and doing instead what your heart and soul yearn for. Travel is about being present, and seeing poetry in everything — from the highest peak of the Himalayas to a single drop of rain in your window seat view. It’s about recognizing how precious our time here is on earth and choosing to live up every moment. It’s tossing out the rulebook and making your own rules for a change. It’s trusting your heart, going in completely blind, and coming out on the other side with an unparalleled appreciation for this thing we call life. Travel is about exploring unchartered paths, learning things you can’t pick up from a book, movie, or someone else’s tale, and writing your own story — highs, lows, and all — so that one day you might inspire someone else to go out and do the same. Travel is electrifying your senses, and awakening the very depths of your soul, allowing it to guide you every step of the way.

They say travel is the only thing you can buy that makes you richer; and I stand by that wholeheartedly. It makes you richer in knowledge, experience, culture; in adventure, empathy, and character. It dares you to step outside of your comfort zone, and jump into the thrill of the unknown.

This is the kind of rebellion to strive for, the sort of “open resistance” to implement in your own life. For when all is said and done, there’s a certain beauty in reminiscing on a world you once embarked on long ago like it was just yesterday, in remembering a time where wanderlust pumped through your veins and your most prized possessions were your passport, camera, and journal, in knowing that through it all — and I mean all — you lived every moment with everything you could, and can honestly say you had no regrets.

Channeling Our Inner Tigress: Our Hike up to Tiger’s Nest

5/25 — Tiger’s Nest, Paro, Bhutan

Legend has it that Guru Rinpoche, founder of Tibetan Buddhism flew all the way from Eastern Bhutan to the famous site on the back of a tigress. While that sounded pretty epic and easily doable… we decided to be old school and hike it, channeling our own inner tigress. 10,000 feet and 5 hours later, and we think it was well worth the trek!

Here’s our trek through pictures . . .

BEFORE. Excitement is strong and legs are ready. (We think…) See that teeny tiny white blob at the top of the mountain? Yup. That’s our destination: Tiger’s Nest.

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The views were AMAZING on the way up overlooking Paro Valley.

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Halfway there! Bring it on.

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The Everest-like majesty herself:

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Mama we made it! We had a good laugh recruiting some of the locals to make the final steps up to the temple in slow motion to the Chariots of Fire theme song. (Americans…) Here we are (the only picture we were allowed to take at the top). The exhaustion is real, but well worth it!

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Now for the descent. Piece of cake!

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Stepping into a Storybook…

5/23/15 — Punakha, Bhutan

Traveling to a new place is like stepping into a storybook. You’re immediately surrounded by a new plot, new characters, and a brand new world to temporarily play a part in. While you may not be the protagonist of the story, you have a unique role: getting to observe and explore things from the outside in. Lucky for you, what you assimilate in this story will enrich your own narrative in ways you never thought possible.

This certainly has held true for the first few “pages” of a little country called Bhutan. Nicknamed the “Gem of the Himalayas,” this beautiful and little known kingdom is unlike anything I’ver ever experienced. For one thing, as our plane prepared for its descent, the land appeared almost out of thin air, gently emerging from clouds of white mist unveiling the greenest and most elegant mountains decorated in towering firs and juniper trees. After landing in Paro, it was off to the capital city of Thimpu, the only capital in the world without a stoplight. The drive there was stunning, winding above miles and miles of valley with humble villages strewn about.

Our next few days consisted of various sightseeing, visiting the second largest Buddha statue in the world as well as several dzongs, temples, and monasteries home to Buddhist monks of all ages who have devoted their life to prayer. One monastery in particular was perched up high in the foothills of the Himalayas. Here we were fortunate to meet the lama and his 40 students, and be a part of a blessing ceremony by the head monk. After a delicious and spicy meal of traditional Bhutanese foods and tea, we grabbed our hiking poles and shoes and began a 10,000-foot trek to another monastery up the ridge. When we finally reached the top, it was honestly what I imagine walking through the gates of heaven would be like. The building practically floated on the clouds surrounding it, and the only sounds you could hear were chirping birds and a soft wind whistling through the trees below. Peeking through the clouds were the majesties themselves, the Himalayas. Come to think of it, maybe the whole thing was a dream… After a nice tea picnic following our descent, it was off to the charming countryside of Punakha.

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Arriving late at night, we had no idea what to expect. Then in the morning we opened our curtains to this…

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We were absolutely blown away. While we could have stayed in bed all day blissing out to the view, we had a big day of exploring ahead of us. It started at the most beautiful dzong we had seen so far on our trip, where our guide shared various Buddhist teachings and real-life stories of reincarnations that had taken place in recent years. Later on, we took a hike through emerald rice paddies stopping to witness the locals in their day-to-day, and after a visit to Bhutan’s famous fertility temple and a delicious lunch, we began our biggest hike of the day up to a temple that was built to honor the current king. The views were breathtaking, overlooking the entire valley of rice paddies, overlapping mountains, and a large, glowing river meandering at the base of it all. At one point, the sky opened up giving way to the most brilliant rays of gold beaming down. It was then that I had the most overwhelming feeling that it was the work of my favorite, mountain-loving angel. Thanks Jakers.

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All in all this chapter so far has opened my eyes to some amazing things, all in a storybook world I’m still not entirely convinced actually exists here on earth. And to think we haven’t even reached the finale…