Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Loy Krathong in Sukhothai

Dragon graffiti outside a Chinese temple by the river.
When I first arrived last year, the first Thai/Buddhist festival that I attended was Loy Krathong (and hey, I even blogged about it!). I stayed in Nakhon Sawan for the event, and it was quite small in comparison to what I did this year.

For the 2015 festival, I decided to travel to Sukhothai (about 3 hours away by bus). I've visited before, but this time I stayed in the New City close to the bus station, which has quite a different feel than the Old City. The place I stayed was next to the Yom River, and I greatly enjoyed the bike rides next to the water. The wall next to the river featured graffiti paintings --some were beautiful, some were just plain weird. Look at how beautiful it was!

Beautiful view!
The entire reason that I decided to visit Sukhothai again was to see a big celebration of Loy Krathong. I had heard that this old capital city hosted one of the most beautiful incarnations of the celebration with lanterns, candles, a light show, fireworks, and ancient temples lit up like Christmas. The hype was real.

This was the entranceway arch: "Sukhothai Loy Krathong and Candle Festival." I have already been to Sukhothai and walked around the entire park several times, so I knew exactly which ruins I wanted to visit right away.

The Loy Krathong festival happens every year on the evening of the full moon of the 12th month according to the traditional Thai calendar. This year it fell on Wednesday, November 25th, but Sukhothai celebrated for 5 days (it started on Saturday the 20th and finished the following Wednesday). A krathong is basically a floating decoration, typically made from the trunk of a banana tree and decorated with flowers, candles, and incense. A growing trend includes krathongs made from bread because they can be eaten by the aquatic animals as they float away from shore.

As people launch their krathongs, they make a wish as they leave shore. I've heard that the candle is venerates Buddha with light, and the floating away is meant to symbolize people letting go of all their resentment, anger, and hatred. People also give offerings and "make merit," or accumulate good acts and charity to carry on to their next life by donating money or food. It's a ceremony meant to cleanse the sins of the past year so that you can start new and fresh.

When I walked into the park, the first thing that I saw was a GIANT market. It was filled with fried and grilled food, fruits, barbecued meats, shrimp . . . any Thai food you could possibly imagine was there. In addition to the food market, there was also a huge clothing market where you could buy Thai traditional clothing or "Bike for Dad" shirts (which are blue and yellow and are in celebration of the King's birthday/Father's Day on December 5). I really liked that most of the food was served in banana leaves instead of plastic or styrofoam containers. This is how food used to be prepared, and I liked the fact that this helped keep the park clean.

Market with ALL THE FOOD.
Prawns and grilled fish in banana leaf bowls.
More grilled fish.

This was probably my favorite photo of the night.

Lanterns everywhere!

More lanterns!

I absolutely loved how this Buddha looked lit up.

Side view of all the little tents and markets set up.

One of my favorite parts of festivals in Thailand are the big lanterns that people light up and release into the sky. Granted, they are quite dangerous -- you light a rag that is soaked in something that burns, then wait several minutes as the hot air fills it (like a hot air balloon), then release it and hope it goes straight up instead of at some weird angle right into the big crowd of people you are lighting it in. Lots of people are impatient, and many lanterns are released too early and crash (then burn) on the ground. They are quite lovely to look at though.

Lanterns in the sky!

I was actually really excited for the fireworks show! When I heard the first one go off, I was in the market. I wanted to hurry out from under the canopy that covered it, so I tried to go around the back so I could avoid the big crowd that walked at a zombie pace. It was pretty dark over there, which I started to notice just as I stepped into a giant, mid-calf deep garbage puddle. It was gross--sock ruined, shoe ruined, and I smelled like garbage for the rest of the night. But then a little while later I saw elephants!

The elephants were my FAVORITE thing I saw in Sukhothai. There was a big show they put on in a sectioned off area (I didn't pay for a ticket), and elephants were part of it. To my surprise, when wandering toward one of the gates so that I could leave, I found the elephants again! They were just hanging out in the middle of a crowd, taking money from the hands of people that held it out. The mahouts (elephant trainers) just sat up there, looking bored, and I couldn't help but be jealous of how close they got to be to such amazing animals every day. I would never ride an elephant because it hurts them and I think it's a bit undignified for them, but I love the chance to get up close to an elephant!

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Photo of the Week: Halong Bay

This is one of my favorite photos captured from my recent trip to Vietnam. It was taken in Halong Bay, which has been on my bucket list since I first heard about it. The place was stunning, and exceeded the expectations I had for it.

This photo shows, in just a little bit of space, how amazing the place is. It's filled with limestone karsts and mountains. The ones you can see in the background are shrouded in mist and ghost-like. The whole place felt a little unreal, but I would be content to just sit on a deck and cruise around that harbor for ages.

This photo was taken on a stormy morning with the wind whipping around and gray skies everywhere. Luckily, it was the morning we headed back from Cat Ba Island to the mainland, so I had already experienced two full days with amazing skies and didn't have to worry about being caught in the storm.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Vietnamese Food Highlight: Egg Coffee

This is a Vietnamese specialty called egg coffee. It's basically exactly what it sounds like -- coffee mixed with raw egg. It's a little bit more complicated than that though: egg yolks are beaten with sugar, butter, and coffee until stiff, then served on top of the remaining cup of coffee. According to Buzzfeed, this stuff tastes like "liquid tiramisu." 

When I first heard about this, I was a little bit scared. Who drinks raw egg in coffee?! But I also knew that I had to try it, so I ordered one at my favorite coffee shop in Hanoi, The Hanoi Social Club

After I received mine, I stirred it all together and took a gulp. It was incredibly delicious -- thick, creamy, and rich. Coffee in general in Vietnam is the most delightful I have ever tasted, so I could only expect that this would be just as amazing. And it was! If you are ever in Hanoi, be sure to check out this special coffee item. As far as I can tell, it is only served in the north, but I wouldn't be surprised if the recipe floated down to Ho Chi Minh because it is so popular.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Hanoi: Traffic You Have to Pray In

Don't get me wrong, I'm enjoying Hanoi. I really am.
The only thing that is, um, not so enjoyable, is the feeling of risking my life every time I cross the street. There are a few intersections governed by lights, but for the most part the roads seem to basically be a free for all. There are very few stop lights or stop signs, which means that there is never a pause in the mass of traffic. This is true even in side streets where there is two-way traffic on a narrow, essentially one-lane road.

To cross the street, you just have to step out into traffic (there are no breaks), keep a steady pace as you walk across, and hope for the best. Sometimes I utter a little prayer under my breath and try to keep myself from getting too worried. I think that crossing the street would be better blindfolded because you wouldn't be able to see all of the cars, cyclos, and motorbikes coming at you!

All of the motorbike drivers are used to driving around pedestrians, so they magically part around you so you can cross safely. It's like walking through a swarm of bees, and it kind of sounds like one too. If you stop or slow down, you are much more likely to get hit. Drivers are also constantly honking, so if they fear you might change pace or something they will honk so that you know they are there. I really dig Hanoi, but I couldn't live here simply because of the noise of everyone constantly honking their horns.

Seriously, the traffic is crazy. But I'm used to it now.

If you think the video I took was a fluke, watch this compilation:

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Vietnamese Food Highlight: Banh Mi

One of the things I love about Vietnam is the fact that they have an amazing array of delicious, flavorful foods. Perhaps the most famous and known around the world is the banh mi. It might look like a simple sandwich, but it is so much more than that. The banh mi is one of the most ubiquitous food items to be found in Hanoi, and that is because it is quick, tasty, and cheap (you can usually get one for about 20,000 dong, which roughly translates to 1 USD). For someone on a budget, this is a perfect lunch item that can be found incredibly easily around the city.

 After a bit of research, I decided to check out Banh Mi 25. It's gotten amazing reviews online, and I can completely understand why. It's a small little food stall, and it features the typical tiny tables and stools to sit at while you eat. They offer a free glass of iced tea with your sandwich, as well as a free banana for dessert. When you get to the stall, they'll ask you what kind of sandwich you would like. I opted for jambon (ham), but there are four options that range from 20,000 to 25,000 dong. The owner kindly asked about every ingredient to make sure I got exactly what I wanted. What you see in the picture below is everything they have to offer -- meats, carrots, cucumber, cilantro (coriander for the non-Americans), pate, and chili sauce.

The entire Banh Mi 25 restaurant.

Finished banh mi. Doesn't necessarily look that impressive, but it was fantastic.


This was BY FAR the best $1 lunch I have ever eaten.
If you are looking for the restaurant, it's located at 25 Hang Ca (between Thuoc Bac and Cha Ca). 
It's small, so be sure to be on the lookout for the small cart!
Great eats, super cheap -- this is just one reason why I am loving Hanoi!

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Photo of the Week: Bird Nest Soda

This is one thing I will absolutely NOT be drinking any time soon: Bird's Nest Soda. 
If you can't see the picture, it is advertised as a "white fungus drink" that is 20.5 g/L white fungus, and 1 mg/L bird's nest.

Edible bird's nests are kind of a thing here in Asia because they are very rare. 
It's called "the caviar of the East."
Andrew Zimmerman, a man known for trying strange foods, is apparently a fan: "I love nests harvested near the ocean. They offer a sea-salty, briny flavor (the birds eat primarily saltwater fish, the nests are full of their saliva, spewdom, and droppings. It only makes sense that the nests would taste of the sea!)

You can find little jars of them in many grocery stores, and it is seen as a luxury item.  It is usually served as a thick soup in countries like Hong Kong, and this is the first I have ever heard of it being available in liquid form. Apparently the cost of just one bowl of bird's nest soup costs anywhere from $30-100 in Hong Kong.

Not every kind of bird's nest is edible -- the ones sold for consumption are created by swiftlets using solidified saliva. That's right people, some pay big bucks to ingest bird spit. According to those that regularly ingest this product, they do so because it has a high nutritional value and great taste. I've tried some weird things in my day, but I think I'll pass on this one despite the rave reviews. 

Would any of you be brave enough to try it?

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Hanoi, Vietnam: Hoàn Kiêm Lake

One of the first things I like to do in a new city is find a place to relax. In Hanoi, this would have to be Hoàn Kiêm Lake. It's in the center of the Old Quarter and is a cultural hotspot in the city. It's a beautiful place: the park features a walking path around a large lake that is always green, lots of shade and benches, and bush sculptures around. Although I haven't seen any yet, apparently the lake is filled with tortoises (which is an unusual feature of lakes in Vietnam). In the mornings it is filled with older citizens practicing Tai Chi and exercising. By night it's filled with couples and groups of friends socializing.

Hoàn Kiêm Lake can roughly be translated to "Lake of the Returned Sword." Apparently, Emperor Le Loi had once been given a magic sword named "Heaven's Will" when he was leading a revolt against the Chinese Ming Dynasty. He named it this because it was a gift from heaven, specifically the Dragon King. After he used the sword to win the revolt, he was confronted by a Golden Turtle God asking for it back. Without hesitation, the Emperor threw his sword back into the lake to return it to the local god that had given it to him. In the center of the lake is a tiny island which is home to Turtle Tower. It actually kind of looks like a turtle, and everything is gorgeous when lit up at night.

For me, it's a central point. I spend a little bit of time here each day, and before I head back to the hotel I just sit and relax in the park. Just a warning if you're planning on a visit -- on weekends it is swarmed by college students and English clubs filled with people that stop every foreigner they see so that they can practice their English. I like the idea of it, but it got a little annoying that I couldn't take five steps without someone trying to get my attention. It's much more calm during the week!

Deer bushes!

Lots of deer bushes!

Beautiful gardens are constantly tended by ladies in conical hats.

Turtle Tower!

The park is gorgeous.

The Huc Bridge, which leads to a temple named Den Ngoc Sun. I didn't go into the temple -- it was crowded
and I have seen so many temples that I didn't feeling I was missing out.

Entrance to the temple.

A pagoda outside the temple.

The bridge at night -- stunning.

The bridge and temple.

The entire path around the lake is lit up like this night.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

I'm in Hanoi, Vietnam!

Hey guys, I'm in Vietnam! I've been here before -- I visited Ho Chi Minh (in the southern part of the country) November 2013. I'm back again to visit the older northern part. I plan to be here for the next two weeks, and in that time I hope to visit Ha Long Bay (filled with amazing limestone formations, beaches, caves, and kayaking opportunities) as well as Sapa (a city in the mountains largely populated by hill tribes, Sapa is also known for its beauty and practice of rice terracing). I was supposed to check out Ha Long bay tomorrow, but seeing as a tropical storm is on its way, I'll have to wait out the bad weather before I can go.

I spent my first full day wandering around the city. I'm staying at a great little place called Hanoi Merci Hotel. Normally I book hostels in an effort to save money, but this place was in my price range and it's located near Hoan Kiem Lake, which is in the Old Quarter. If anyone is searching for a hotel in which to stay in Hanoi, I definitely recommend this place. The staff has been incredibly helpful, you get to choose your complimentary breakfast off an actual menu, and it's very conveniently located. Almost everything I want to see is in walking distance, so I decided to splurge a bit and stay in a proper hotel (with a bathtub! -- sadly, this feature quite rare in Asia).

I did not plan to see much today because I will be here for a full two weeks. I think that this is the longest I have dedicated to any city that I haven't lived in, so I'm trying to stretch out my time so I can do just a little every day.

While I have absolutely enjoyed my time here so far, I can say that I was a bit shocked by how overbearing some of the vendors trying to sell things can be. I've only been here a day, and about 10 ladies have tried to shove a donut in my hand so I will sample it and buy from them. And last night I was walking in search of a restaurant when a lady stopped me, shoved one of those double baskets on a pole on my shoulder, stuck a rice hat on my head, took a picture (with her own phone) and then handed me a couple bags pineapple and demanded money from me. It was so unexpected I could not stop the picture from happening, and I can admit that I guiltily bought a single bag of the fruit (but I did haggle the price down). Walking through the park this morning, I was stopped every five minutes by strangers that wanted to practice their English. I appreciated the effort they were making and enjoyed meeting new people, but after a bit it became frustrating because I just wanted to get to my destination.

Life is good though! I walked around all day, ate some Indian food, drank the most amazing cup of coffee I have ever had, and finished reading a book. Here are some pictures from my wander:

Men in military uniforms are everywhere!
The stereotypical rice hat, for sale at pretty much every tourist shop.
These are cyclos, one of the most common forms of transportation here.
You sit in the front, and the person taking you around sits on the back and pedals.
They're typically rented out for hours at a time rather than a one-way ride like a taxi.
Always agree on the price BEFORE sitting down in one of these!
Vietnam is well known for its amazing coffee.
This cup features the best tasting coffee I have ever had.
It was strong, yet chocolatey, and I can assure you that it packed a punch of
caffeine despite its small size (yes, this is the full cup as it was served to me.)
Indira Gandhi park. It was filled with kids playing (many were attempting to rollerskate)and families just hanging out. 
This statue is dedicated to the founder and first king of the Lu Dynasty, which ruled from 1009 to 1225 AD.
He is the one responsible for moving the capital to Thang Long, which is very close to Hanoi.
The move led to Hanoi being found and becoming the present-day capital city.

Typical restaurant -- a tiny kitchen and outdoor tables with tiny stools.
And oh yeah, the chickens that are eventually on your plate wander the sidewalks.

Bikes serve as makeshift shops. I saw many, many bikes that had platters of fruit on the back that was for sale.