Happy New Year from Cambodia! J and I have been here playing tourist for just a quick week and we’ll be heading to Hong Kong tomorrow. It’s unbelievable that the holiday season is over and another year is already on the clock. This year, I had the hardest time wrapping my mind around the concept of the holidays, what with the 90-degree temperatures and the comparatively tame decor and retail tie-ins in this part of the world. Generally, I am fully immersed in festivities and preparations. I love the holidays. But this year, every time I was reminded that it was holiday season- when I saw a string of lights, an update on Facebook- I would be surprised all over again because my mind was far, far away from that schedule, life and place. Funny, because this year we actually had more holidays to celebrate and consider- those we generally celebrate back home and then annual festivals celebrated in whatever country we were visiting.
Technically speaking, we kicked off the holiday season in October in Nepal. After a month trying to circumvent Mongolia’s meat-centric diet, Nepal was veggie heaven. Everywhere we went, there were plenty of vegetarian options and the Nepalese, as a whole, did not seem to be big meat eaters. That is, until our second-to-last day in Nepal when the country kicked off their fifteen-day annual festival, Dashain, and celebrated by erecting large bamboo swing sets in their villages (aww) and sacrificing animals (what.). Hundreds of thousands of animals all across the country. Nepal is not a large country. So while the first signs of the holidays back home are usually Christmas items for sale in September, this year, our holidays kicked off with animals being led to slaughter and others being brought back home, dead and hanging from motorbikes or carried backpack-style. We did not partake in the festivities.
A live sheep being hauled up to the roof of a bus to be brought to its place of sacrifice
Moving on. The first holiday we actually celebrated was in our next destination, India. We had the great fortune of being invited to celebrate Diwali with J’s friend, Shrikant, who was visiting his family in Bhopal during that time. Diwali is an annual Hindu festival- and perhaps the most important- celebrated over five days.
For the duration of the festival, Shrikant and his family welcomed us into their home, engaging us in the preparations, rituals and traditions of the festival, cooking for us, taking us on tours around town and otherwise spoiling us to death. Moreover, our friend Tara also arrived in India during that time to travel with us for a couple of weeks, so for those few days, we were overwhelmed with friendship and gratitude.
Doing some last-minute Diwali shopping at the local market
Colorful sand to create Rangoli (see below)
Shrikant and his son buying henna cones so the ladies could have their hands decorated
Having our hands adorned with henna designs at a local salon
Tara’s decorated hands. The henna goes on like raised puffy paint but after it dries, it flakes off and leaves the design stained onto the skin. It usually lasts about two weeks.
A rangoli created in front of the home. Some of the designs were extremely detailed and others were less traditional, like the family who dedicated their rangoli to Angry Birds
Shrikant’s wife and mother graciously lent me and Tara their gorgeous saris and jewelry for the evening
Dressed in our Diwali regalia
A close-up of my bling
Diwali celebrates the triumph of good over evil. It’s known as the Festival of Lights and in this case, lights are candles and fireworks, which people set off for days before, during and after Diwali, trying to outdo one another. On the main day, the lights and sounds continue for hours. On the streets and high up in the air, they erupt and flare like an elaborate fireworks spectacular.
Another rangoli in front of the home, made with Marigold petals
Lighting oil lamps, which were placed around the exterior of the home
J and Tara, playing with sparklers
Firecrackers lighting up the street
Neighbors celebrating Diwali
Cows are considered sacred so they’re decorated as part of the Diwali festivities
More decorated cows
For Thanksgiving, Tara continued with us on our journey and that journey took us to Pushkar, India for the annual Pushkar Camel Fair. The fair was actually the primary reason we initially decided to head to India for what was supposed to be a two week trip. Who knew then that two weeks would turn into seven and we would have a hundred other experiences that would trump the fair? As it turns out, it was all a bit of a disappointment. Rather than a vibrant event showcasing local rituals associated with the camel trade, the fair is now essentially a local camel market coupled with separate hokie and animal-debasing events for tourists.
Pilgrims from far and wide, camping and convening to trade their camels and horses
A religious ceremony by sacred Pushkar Lake
Pushkar Lake at night
A camel-decorating contest put on for tourists
A decorated camel and the man that loves him
Tourists sitting on rented camels so that they can see above the crowd
So for Thanksgiving in Pushkar, after a very half-hearted attempt to think about trying to find groceries to make a Thanksgiving meal, we settled for dinner at a restaurant I’ve already forgotten, and then bought slices of pie off of a street cart to top it all off. Thanksgiving was uneventful, or as uneventful as things can be when you are spending the day at the Pushkar Camel Fair.
Pie and coffee back at our guesthouse
After an incredible seven weeks in India, J and I then met up with my parents in Vietnam in December. We remained together in Vietnam until the day after Christmas.
Christmas Eve was spent at a beach resort in Vung Tau, Vietnam. Christmas evening was spent having dinner with my parents and their long lost friends at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant in Saigon serving delicious central Vietnamese cuisine before heading to a fancy wine bar for drinks and dessert to cap off the night.
Saigon is nothing like I remember from my visit ten years ago. It’s clean, cosmopolitan and the city- particularly in the ritzier sections ($600 shirt anyone?)- was decked out in Christmas decorations not unlike those in New York. It amused me to see the lights, Christmas trees, and faux snow throughout the city as I was trying not to erupt into flames under the burning sun. The locals attacked the Christmas decorations with vigor and everywhere we went, there were people taking photos next to them like they were in professional modeling shoots, complete with large cameras and interesting poses.
Unfortunately, I was extremely lazy about taking photos during this time (or lethargic from the heat and humidity), so I share with you this one photo from our Christmas dinner. If this doesn’t scream “festive,” I don’t know what does.
Two days after Christmas, J and I headed to Cambodia where we remained to ring in the New Year. For the actual celebrations, we were in Siem Reap, which is home to the famous Angkor Wat temple (and many, many other temples) and what I now consider to be my favorite tourist area in the world. J and I generally avoid spending too much time in tourist areas and their artificial environments, inauthentic food and inflated prices. However, when we set foot in the Psar Chaa area, that all changed. Like other tourist areas, the Psar Chaa area is flooded with restaurants, bars and shops. But unlike many other tourist areas, the streets are wide and relatively clean, many of the restaurants are gorgeous and serve great food, there are plenty of cute boutiques in addition to the usual souvenir markets, and all tourists are in the same place- backpackers, families, tour groups, everyone. Most importantly, there are establishments offering five dollar massages galore. It’s a great time.
So for New Year’s Eve, we spent the day exactly as we did the three other days we were in Siem Reap: sightseeing, massage, dinner, shopping. Go to bed, wake-up and repeat.
Our ride for a day of sightseeing. I was trying to hold up fingers to represent 2013. J had no idea what I was doing but took the photo anyway.
The tuk-tuk rides were a great way to cool off and observe the landscape rushing by
Another day, another temple
Artificial limbs displayed at the Landmine Museum. The museum educates the public and supports those effected by landmines in Cambodia.
Quick stop at a street-side stand to try sugar made from palm leaves
Whether you get a massage in a street-side chair or inside a spa, it’s only $5-$7 an hour
Amok Restaurant, where we had our New Year’s Eve meal
Dinner at Amok Restaurant
A tasting of Cambodian dishes
The only difference between New Year’s Eve and our other days in Siem Reap was that the area, although generally busy, was completely packed with people and the locals outnumbered even the tourists. While there weren’t any funny glasses, hats, confetti, or noisemakers, there was plenty of dancing in the street and some whooping and fireworks when the clock struck midnight.
Tourists and locals out to celebrate (some more enthusiastically than others)
A street dog, presumably wondering what all of the commotion was about
Drinking to the new year
Happy 2013 and may this be another wonderful and eventful year in a life filled with adventures!