All the Kopings

Well, actually only a small subset of them, and a lot of the nearby countryside, as shown with the stars on the map below.

Screen Shot 2017-03-31 at 11.48.52 PM

Michael did all the planning for our time in Sweden (thanks, Michael!) so when he told me that we were going to take the train to Nykoping and explore for a few hours before continuing to Norrkoping where we’d rent a car and drive to Linkoping, I had to laugh. Why so many Kopings?

It turns out that koping is pronounced “shooping” and is analogous to the English place name “chipping,” meaning market town, and that cities not big enough to be officially designated as cities were all called something koping for a long time in Swedish history.

So we spent three days in rural Sweden making our way from one koping to the next (and enjoying Sweden’s comprehensive, reliable, and relatively inexpensive train network). We also discovered that minigolf courses are a standard fixture of small towns in Sweden, but that unfortunately they don’t typically open in March! Michael was very disappointed.

We stayed in an Airbnb outside Linköping, where we cooked ourselves meals (a welcome change, and easier on the wallet, with added vegetables) and drove around the surprisingly beautiful countryside. We stumbled onto a designated scenic route with Sweden’s largest runestone, the ruins of a Cistercian abbey, a one-lane road high above a misty lakeshore, a Renaissance castle, two old cloisters, canal locks dropping as much as 50 feet, an excavated palisade from the 900s, and a ruined chateau as well as a dozen tiny towns with gorgeous old churches of their own. In addition, the countryside, scattered with red houses and barns, was starting to sprout in green and was just beautiful in the low angle of the sun.

P1070450

Linkoping had preserved its old buildings in a heritage area as well as several dozen old airplanes in the Air Force Museum (complete with flight simulators), so we had a great day exploring town, and Michael spent 5 hours at the airplane museum doing various flight simulators and admiring old aircraft while I caught up on work, and then biked over to meet him!

Our three-hour layover in Nykoping gave us a chance to wander the historic streets, including old churches, a castle, and several bell towers with great views over town itself.

Meanwhile, Norrkoping, where we only had a half hour to walk around before our train, turns out to have been the Manchester of Sweden, producing 70% of Sweden’s textiles in the middle of the 19th century. The industrial landscape has been preserved and is now a bustling area of museums, universities, and businesses.

It was interesting to see how busy each of the towns were; even in the middle of a weekday, there were a lot of people shopping on the pedestrian-only downtown streets, and the farms and historic homes were invariably well maintained. Sweden is definitely doing something right!

Data summit in Stockholm

Back when we were first planning this trip, Michael spent an afternoon as my booking agent, looking up all of the software and data conferences that might conceivably want me to speak. Among his finds was a Stockholm conference in October with a gap in its agenda for “AB testing at internet scale,” which is basically what I like to talk about. A few emails later, it turned out the October conference was now all set but the Data Innovation Summit on March 23 suddenly had a new speaker from Pinterest.

Only after committing to speak did I look up the typical weather in Stockholm in March: plenty of hours of sunlight, thankfully, but also temperatures hovering around freezing.

We’ve been incredibly lucky with the weather so far, though: long sunny days with temperatures as high as the mid-50s. Stockholm is a beautiful old city spread across dozens of small and large islands and chock full of interesting museums, many of which are completely free. We had three lovely days to explore its nooks and crannies. After I got the conference out of the way, that is.

It was a one-day conference with 15-minute talks back to back, plus a meet and greet on the preceding evening. I found two of the talks especially interesting: one on the challenges of attribution and measurement in a multidevice world (which I’m very familiar with from Pinterest ads work!), and another on K means clustering, with both an excellent description of how it works and a practical application where the clusters actually revealed a process in the factory they hadn’t been aware of. Oh, and I enjoyed one speaker’s comment that Pi Day really ought to be the 22nd of July if you’re European. Took me a minute.

Proof that I did my talk:

Michael, meanwhile, spent the evening and day of the conference exploring the city and visiting the Nordic museum on Swedish culture, the economy museum on coins and finance, and the Nobel museum with profiles of various prize winners. I told you there are a lot of museums!

We ended up unintentionally theming our days, spending Friday at the Maritime Museum (full of models of ships) and then the Vasa Museum (home to a preserved ship from 1628 that sank a few thousand feet into its maiden voyage, in water so shallow its masts still were visible from downtown Stockholm, but left on the bottom of the Baltic Sea until 2004, where the brackish water preserved the ship largely intact). The boat itself was amazing, with 64 cannons and hundreds of carvings, and we had an excellent tour guide who regaled us with tales of the boat and her irritation at the inaccuracies in Pirates of the Caribbean. (“You don’t just decide where to go and then sail there! You may have to wait months before the wind blows in the right direction! And you never sail with all your sails up!”)

On the following day we took the commuter train (Pendeltåg) and bus to Sigtuna, the town that had been home to Sweden’s first mint and still scattered with ruined 12th-century churches, runestones, and old houses lining cobblestone streets. A lot of the history around the runestones turned out to be Viking-related, which meant that our afternoon at the Swedish History Museum, with extensive exhibits on the Vikings, fit right in. We spent the end of the day wandering around first Ostermalm, an upscale neighborhood modeled after Paris, with wide boulevards and elegant six-story buildings, and then Sodermalm, a formerly working class neighborhood now full of hip bars and throbbing with people sharing a Saturday evening drink. I loved watching the chunks of ice float down the river and still lingering in the lake next to Sigtuna.

One of my favorite things about Stockholm was its food halls: a cross between a mall food court, a farmers’ market, and IMG_0366a traditional European covered market, with a dozen or more vendors selling everything from fresh fish and cheese to pizza, kebabs, and fish soup, all at reasonable prices. We had three delicious meals in the food halls, including in one laid out like a theater with a live pianist performing in the middle next to an array of eight food stands run by famous (and in some cases Michelin-starred) chefs. Surprisingly, my favorite item was a flatbread filled with mashed potatoes, mâche, pickled vegetables, and a Swedish sausage called Isterband that turns out to be incredibly delicious.

On our last day in Stockholm, Michael trekked out to a UNESCO world heritage site that was, of all things, a cemetery. Its design had emerged from a competition among architects and the desire to make the cemetery harmonious with nature. Meanwhile, I spent a few hours in the Nordic Museum, which Michael had visited on Wednesday and really enjoyed. We met up on a free ferry across the harbor and spent the afternoon wandering less touristed neighborhoods and enjoying the afternoon sun. Which turned out to last an hour later, as we learned belatedly that the time change had taken place that morning!

We had a lovely time in Stockholm, starting each day off with an amazing breakfast buffet at our hotel, ranging from Swedish pancakes and smoked salmon to croissants, cheese, pâté, ham, pickles, caviar, cinnamon bulle, muesli, lemon curd, and bacon and spending the day wandering the streets and visiting museums. I’m pretty sure we visited more museums in Stockholm than during the preceding six months of our trip! (And probably spent more money too, on everything else. Sweden is expensive!)

Copenhagen!

After six months in Asia and Australia, the last of which was spent in the steaming hot temperatures of Southeast Asia, we sweated through one last day in Kuala Lampur (you tiao! kaya toast! parathas! cheap Ubers! amazing museum of Islamic art!) and then boarded a plane to Copenhagen by way of Istanbul.

(The Islamic arts museum in KL, by the way, was gorgeous: stunning tiled domes, Arabic calligraphy, scale models of mosques around the world, and huge collections of textiles, ceramics, jewelry, and beautiful inlaid furniture and chests.)

We made the most of our short stopover in Istanbul: the Turkish Airlines lounge had not only freshly made gozleme and simit (the Turkish equivalent of savory crepes and bagels) but also an olive bar, fresh honeycomb, Turkish delight, fresh butter from Trabzon, and bathrooms lined with mirrors, marble, and red roses. I could get used to flying business class!

It was quite a shock to the system to get off the plane in Copenhagen to temperatures that were closer to 35 degrees Fahrenheit rather than 35 degrees Celsius. Our scarves, gloves, hats, and jackets long in hiding were once again useful, and as we took a 12-minute metro ride into town for $5 apiece, we marveled at the contrasts with our 40-minute Malaysian Uber rides for $3. Ah, Scandinavia.

Copenhagen is a stunner. Cobblestone streets, gorgeous churches, red rooftops, old palaces, tulips just starting to emerge, and hundreds of beautiful old buildings. We spent our two days just wandering the streets, discovering quirks from a set of outdoor saunas and hot tubs on the waterfront that can be rented hourly to the Freetown of Christiania covered in graffiti and street art. We dodged a cloudburst in a cafe, purchased an umbrella, and mostly found sunshine as we walked across the city.

The cold temperatures meant that we also popped into a museum called the Glyptotek (free on Tuesdays!) to explore a mind bogglingly huge collection of Roman statuary, Egyptian tombs, and 19th century French and Danish painting. I have never seen so many statues, with the possible exception of the Vatican. I loved the winter garden, a covered courtyard with palm trees and benches, and we had fun trying to guess which artist had painted each of the works in front of us, which got progressively harder as we traveled back in time and their distinctive styles had yet to develop.

Now we are on the train to Stockholm, where I speak at a conference tomorrow about AB testing at Pinterest. The countryside is wintry but most of the snow has melted. Let’s hope it stays that way and that spring has truly sprung – we are already wearing all of our warm layers!

Until next time,

Andrea

Penang, Malaysia

We hadn’t originally planned much time in Malaysia, but when we found out the friends we met up with in Hanoi were going to be in Penang just a few days before our flight from Kuala Lampur, we added a few days in Penang to our schedule. It’s a beautiful old World Heritage town with a warren of preserved streets in Chinese architecture, not to mention a great food scene and some awesome street art. We loved it, and Michael declared it one of his favorite destinations. (Unfortunately, not favorite enough for him to write a blog post about it, so you’re stuck with me again.)

It was really great to meet up with Jeff and Jaynie again, and we adventured together from facing down aggressive monkeys in the Botanic Gardens to wading across a small river at Ferringhi beach and listening to guided tours of the Blue Mansion and of the old town itself.

IMG_0141

Street art in Penang:

Old storefronts:

Temples and mosques

Monkeys at the botanic gardens

And a few last images of Penang:

Ending our time at Angkor

After two days of cycling, we switched to an air-conditioned car with driver for our last two days of exploring the temples in the region, first traveling about 90 minutes out of town to Beng Mealea, a temple overrun by jungle and only partially reconstructed, and then starting the next day with sunrise at Angkor Wat followed by a grand tour of outlying temples, from Banteay Srei to Banteay Samre and the Roluos Group.

Beng Mealea was AMAZING.

IMG_9945IMG_9954

We had a great time exploring, clambering over broken walls and through piles of carved rock.

Sunrise at Angkor Wat was super crowded. We hadn’t been especially attached to seeing sunrise, but we figured it was a good excuse for an early start and would let us explore more before the sun got too hot. I always enjoy going in without sky-high expectations because it means we’re usually happy. Here are our views of sunrise. Not bad at all.

We made a quick stop at Ta Keo, one of the few temples in the main Angkor complex we hadn’t yet seen, and where we were the only visitors. It was left uncarved, so you can focus more on the architecture.

It was only 7:30am, but the sun was starting to get hot, and it was a lovely ride in the air-conditioned car to Banteay Srei, the “citadel of women,” a miniature-size temple with amazingly detailed carvings. Seriously, zoom in on some of the below photos – you won’t be disappointed.

P1070272

Banteay Samre was nearly as impressive and much less visited.

P1070306

After lunch at a touristy but tasty restaurant (fish amok – yum!) we visited the Roluos Group, the first temples in the Angkor area, dating to around 870 AD. They used brick instead of or in addition to sandstone, and had detailed inscriptions on several of the temples.

P1070350

Just one stop on the way back into town to pick up chocolate pastries at Paris Bakery, and we had completed our tour of Angkor!

Impressions of Siem Reap

Siem Reap is a study in contrasts, shiny new hotels rising next to grazing water buffalo and dusty dirt roads leading to boutique hotels and prix fixe restaurants. Even at Angkor itself, small villages abut many of the minor temples; we biked among cows and water buffalo and chickens as we meandered our way through the ruins.

It is a place in transition – only twenty years since opening to tourism, and with 5 million tourists arriving in Cambodia last year compared with 1 million in 2004 and 100,000 in 1994. Our guidebooks are quickly out of date, whether reporting that we might be followed around by children or asked to buy powdered milk for babies, or informing us about which temples are open to the public and how we can find a no-fee ATM. One of the guides to Angkor, published around 2000, says that the clothing depicted in the murals at Bayon is identical to that worn now in Cambodia: a 2-yard long piece of cloth worn wrapped around one’s body. Times have changed quickly: other than monks, everyone wears t-shirts and pants now, not a sarong.

The temples of Angkor no longer thrum with touts offering tours; the tour guides all wear an official outfit, and are hired ahead of time. Vendors are neatly aligned in approved locations, and only one small child has made an attempt to sell us postcards.

Amid all the tourists, the locals use Angkor as their own, setting up hammocks and having a picnic on the grand lawn facing Angkor Wat, with street vendors selling chicken satay and fresh young coconuts. As we biked by the Terrace of the Elephants yesterday, we were passed by a moto pulling six pigs in a cage, just another local doing business who happened to be in one of the wonders of the world.

We took a break from temple-hopping today and spent a day in town, visiting the Angkor National Museum (which was disappointing, providing little context for the temples) and then biking out of town to a mini golf course based on miniature versions of the temples and built by a man who had never seen a miniature golf course before but nonetheless built a reasonably fun one (complete with spray misters to cool off). On one side of the mini golf was a wood and thatch house where children ran naked in the yard alongside the chickens; across the street, water buffalo grazed and a ditch was full of lotus plants. Locals sold gasoline by the used 2-liter bottle.

And yet when we were in town we’d stopped for a snack and enjoyed delicious pain au chocolat and chocolate tarts from an authentic French bakery, and this evening again feasted on amazing Khmer food from Mahob, where in the past two nights we’ve enjoyed chicken larb, ribeye salad, pumpkin curry, a soup of quail eggs and young papaya, smoky roasted eggplant, beef with red ants, warm chocolate cake, chili coconut ice cream, and a delicious basil lime sorbet.

At our hotel, owned by a Briton and his Cambodian wife, some member of her extended family is always around to help us with bicycles, breakfast, towels, or the front gate. The hotel’s personal tuk-tuk driver is available for trips into town or to the temples, and the road out front is full of motorbikes and bicycles and cars heading along the river. The temperatures are high – 98 degrees in the shade – but not humid; when you’re in the shade and a breeze is blowing, it’s all but bearable.

Tomorrow we may venture to some temples farther afield before one last day at Angkor. I leave you with one of my favorite images of the past few days:

P1070061

For more on Angkor, see our chronicles of biking (day 1) (day 2).

Bicycling the temples of Angkor: day 2

After 41 km of biking on our first day of exploration, stopping at lots of the minor temples, today was dedicated to the heart of the Angkor complex: Angkor Thom and Angkor Wat. Angkor Thom was the capital of the empire, 10 square kilometers of now-long-gone wooden palaces studded by stone monuments that survived to tell the tale of the nation.

Its heart is Bayon, a compact but dense monument with 45 towers each faced on all four sides by huge faces and circled at two different levels by incredibly detailed bas reliefs depicting both major battles and everyday life.

P1070072

We started our day at Bayon (along with the riders of about eighteen tour buses) – yet we had most of the area to ourselves, as the tour groups stuck to a direct route up to the top and didn’t explore the astounding bas relief images all around the edges. First, the towers (plus a glimpse of the crowds at the top, in contrast to the solitude elsewhere!):

And the reliefs! We borrowed a book on Angkor from our hotel, which walked us through the contents of each gallery, and spotted circus jugglers, chess players, ascetics being eaten by tigers, palaces of supplicants in prayer, and many scenes of battle both on elephants and in boats. Some highlights:

P1070088

I loved Bayon, and we spent a good two hours there before walking north to explore Baphuon and Phimeanakas, the Bronze Temple and royal temple of the former city. We called my parents, climbed to the top of Baphuon, and then ate peanut butter sandwiches in the shade between temple visits rather than finding another overpriced tourist restaurant.

P1070104

 

After lunch we saw a number of unlabeled temples on the map and wandered on our own around six different small temples. It’s amazing to find such solitude smack in the middle of the tourist throng!

P1070110

We retrieved our bikes and checked out the impressive Terrace of the Leper Kings and Terrace of the Elephants, huge carved walls of animals and warriors.

IMG_9858

We ended our day at Angkor Wat, the only temple whose entrance is from the west and thus sunlit in the late afternoon. Its scale was impressive, but it wasn’t as awe-inspiring as we had expected after having spent two days exploring the “minor” (and yet incredibly impressive) temples of Angkor. The reliefs stretched for a hundred yards along each outer wall, and we skipped the hour-long line to climb to the top of the towers for sunset, but enjoyed the golden light on the classic monument.

P1070118

The bas reliefs were 150m on each side, one continuous carving that ran the length of the entire outer gallery, and in a markedly different style from Bayon. Unfortunately, they were also harder to photograph, but perhaps the below photos will give an idea:

A few more images of our day of exploration:

A second fabulous day exploring the temples of Angkor! For more of our impressions of Cambodia so far, see here.

Bicycling the temples of Angkor: day 1

We landed in Siem Reap at 4pm, and by 5:30 we had checked into our hotel, borrowed their rusty bicycles, and purchased 3-day passes to the temples of Angkor. It turns out the first thing you learn when planning a trip to Angkor Wat is that only one of the many temples is actually called Angkor Wat; the dozens of others are collectively referred to the temples of Angkor, and lovely as Angkor Wat itself is, the pure density of amazing architectural ruins is itself a big draw.

By 7:30 we had eaten dinner at Marum, the (sadly inferior but perfectly adequate) sister restaurant to Khaiphaen in Luang Prabang, and rented actually functional bicycles with which to explore the temples, and perhaps the surrounding countryside, over the next few days. We decided against trekking out to Angkor Wat for sunrise the following morning, not least to avoid biking in the dark on unknown roads, and instead biked there after a leisurely 7:30 breakfast of sausage, bacon, eggs, and a croissant at our hotel. (Breakfast included! With a pool! For $23!)

It was a long, hot ride up to the park, and the route Google suggested took us on an incredibly bumpy dirt road through shacks of children excited to see visitors, but our first sight when we arrived made it all worthwhile:

P1060874
The gate of Banteay Kdei

Have you heard of Banteay Kdei? Me neither, but it was pretty amazing, and the lack of name recognition meant not very many tourists with whom to share the towers, carvings, and lions. The amazing dancers are called apsaras and reappeared at almost every temple we visited.

We took advantage of being on bicycles to follow some dirt paths to smaller and little-visited temples like Bat Chum and watched children swimming and splashing in Sras Srang.

IMG_9830

From there, we headed to one of the “big three” temples: Ta Prohm, described by Lonely Planet as “the ultimate Indiana Jones fantasy.” It was more crowded but, except for the queue to take photos of oneself with the iconic tree roots, not too busy, and full of atmosphere: crumbled blocks, towering trees, and impressive carvings galore!

One mediocre and overpriced lunch later, and it wasScreen Shot 2017-03-11 at 9.31.42 PM more temple hopping (and a lot more biking) as we visited all the temples on the outskirts of Angkor. We loved Prea Rup, said to be a good spot to watch the sunset and thus barely visited in the middle of the day, but striking with tall towers, flanked by lions on the sides of the terraces, and – as always – impressive carvings covering almost every surface.

Our map showed several smaller temples off to the east, so we followed a narrow dirt road and found … some farms and water buffalo, but no temples in sight. One hot detour later and we were back in Angkor’s main area, where we stopped in at East Mebon, formerly an island in the middle of an artificial lake, just a single tower with elephants on the corners and cool doorways.

By this time, the hours of heat (90-plus degrees and little shade) were starting to take their toll, but we were also at the farthest point in our circuit, so there was not much to be gained by turning back rather than continuing onward. We continued to Ta Som, a beautiful temple with faces at the gates and a tree taking over part of its back wall.

We walked across a long jetty to Neak Pean, a water temple with a central pool whose flow into four outer pools was controlled by priests based on their assessment of your spiritual and physical needs, but which now is mostly impressive for its central tower.

P1070017

Then we just had time for one more temple, or so we thought. Unbeknownst to us, Preah Khan was about eight times bigger than the temples we’d been visiting, so an hour was barely enough time to appreciate its glory in the late afternoon light. The entrance causeway had statues every ten feet, followed by a bridge flanked by demons and gods playing tug-of-war with a giant serpent as the rope. The temple itself had another tree wreaking havoc on the masonry, beautifully carved lintels, and piles of tumbledown stones from earlier buildings.

Exhausted and very hot, we biked back 7 miles – right past Angkor Wat itself – to arrive back in town just as it started to get dark. After a quick dip in the pool, we had a lovely Italian dinner at a nearby restaurant: gnocchi al pesto, pappardelle in a duck ragu, grissini with marinara sauce, and a chocolate mousse, all just a few hundred feet down the road. There are advantages to being in the tourist capital of Cambodia …

 

Three days in Luang Prabang

We flew direct from Hanoi to Luang Prabang on Vietnam Airways, marveling at the legroom in our $120 flight after several legs on discount carriers at $20-30 per ticket. (I’d still forego legroom for a cheap ticket, but in this case the only alternative was a 24-hour bus ride. No thanks.) When we landed, we also marveled at the wave of heat: 90 degrees in the shade and substantially hotter in the sun. We took a mid-afternoon siesta in our hotel before braving the temperatures to wander the sleepy streets of Luang Prabang.

img_9805.jpg

 

The old town of Luang Prabang sits on a narrow peninsula in a bend of the river, the streets lined with historic buildings turned into boutique hotels, restaurants, and handicrafts stores along with dozens of temples, but still with whispers of local life here and there: morning noodle stands that close down by noon when the broth runs out; a bustling morning market selling rice, vegetables, and fruits as well as dead rats, frogs, and pigeons, live baby chicks, and a deep fried item I tried that turned out to be some sort of rice cake. On the whole though, the old town is very quiet and calm for much of the day – the heat makes the tourists sleepy, or they’re out of town on one of many available elephant treks or boat rides.

This being us, however, we were mostly neither sleepy nor on organized tours. After getting our bearings in town the first afternoon, we rented bicycles the next morning and headed 30km south of town to the Kruang Si waterfalls. The ride itself was nothing to write home about (haha! yet here I am!): a fairly quiet, paved, rolling road, through incredibly dry and dusty terrain, punctuated by small villages and the occasional larger hill. Our bikes were mediocre at best and made us truly appreciate the high-quality bikes we’d ridden on our tours in Vietnam.

But when we arrived at the waterfall, it was all worth it. The terraces were spectacular, the shade of the water unbelievable, and to our surprise we discovered a huge waterfall at the top of it all! Here we had thought the cascading water impressive enough.

We walked up to the top of the falls and then did a 4-mile hike to the spring that feeds the stream and to a remarkably large and dark cave studded with small Buddhas. We took a different path down, directly into the village at the base of the falls, where we regained our energy with a Nutella crepe, a liter and a half of cold mineral water, and a beer. You can guess whose was whose.

Michael’s bike was lousy enough that he opted for a tuk-tuk ride back to town, so I headed out on my own for a peaceful ride that was more pleasant than expected, with the sun hidden behind clouds and the hills less steep than I had remembered. He had to wait a while for a ride, so his tuk-tuk passed me just as I arrived in town, and we could return the bikes together before showering and heading to dinner.

Luang Prabang is filled with good food options, from French bakeries to Korean barbecue and even a Mexican restaurant we steered well clear of. After sampling the pastries at four different bakeries, I can confidently endorse the chausson aux pommes et chocolat at Banneton as the best treat in town. I should know; I ate three. (Hey, we were there for three days, three is a perfectly reasonable number.)

For dinner, though, we ended up returning on two different nights to the same restaurant, Khaiphaen, that is part of an international network of training programs to teach disadvantaged youth both cooking and service skills. (As it turns out, its sibling in Siem Reap had already been recommended to me by a family friend, but we didn’t know of their link yet.)

Over the two nights, we had a veritable feast of flavors: grilled duck in tamarind sauce with pickled vegetables (three of Michael’s favorite things!); green curry with eggplant and pumpkin; laab salad with mint and chilies; or lam, a Lao pork stew with eggplant and pepperwood; crispy pork belly with cinnamon and a pumpkin purée; and a Lao khao soi more similar to fettuccine bolognese than the Thai dish of the same name, with a rich pork broth and sauce of minced pork and tomatoes. Oh, plus a chocolate banana milkshake, sangria, and cashew-crusted banana fritters accompanied by coconut ice cream, all for $20-25 each night. I could get used to this.

With sore muscles from slightly awkward bicycling the day before, we spent the last day and a half wandering the streets and temples of Luang Prabang: rising at sunrise for the monks’ procession for alms and the morning market, then hiking up Mt Phousi before the heat of the day became too intense. After a siesta, we went for a long walk around town, well beyond the tourist perimeter, and stopped in at various temples as well as the royal palace, now converted to a museum. The temples were varied and impressive, with gold engravings, painted interiors, and intricate designs both inside and out.

The morning tradition of monks receiving img_9751.jpgalms from the townspeople – offerings of sticky rice that serve as the monks’ food for the day – had been said to be very moving to observe. Perhaps we picked a bad spot or perhaps it’s just too late; the ritual we saw consisted largely of tourists snapping photos and very little of the real tradition itself. Nonetheless, we were glad to have had a reason to get ourselves out of bed early, as the relative cool made our exploration quite delightful, and the morning market was quite a sight.

All in all, visiting Luang Prabang at the tail end of the dry season didn’t afford it the best opportunity to show its beauty. We had considered doing some long-distance bicycling or taking the bus ride to Vientiane (said to be very scenic), but it was so hazy and dusty and the trees and fields so brown that we decided against it after looking at air tickets, which were much more straightforward (and cheaper) from Luang Prabang to Siem Reap than from Vientiane to Phnom Penh. That said, it was a lovely place to spend a few days, relaxing after the hustle and bustle of Hanoi, and full of beautiful temples and delicious food. Not a bad spot to while away a few days, or longer …

Farewell, Vietnam! Ha Long Bay and Hanoi

For our last stop in Vietnam, we headed to Hanoi, where the big draw was not Hanoi itself (lovely as it is) but the prospect of meeting up with some friends from home who are just embarking on their own round-the-world adventure. They – unlike us – have it all planned out in advance (!), so when we looked at their day-by-day spreadsheet of where they’d spend each day from now until October (!!), we realized that we’d be in Hanoi at the same time, and managed to book a room in the same (“Splendid Boutique”) hotel for three nights, sandwiching a two-day, one-night trip to the famed Ha Long Bay, land of karst islands.

Hanoi is a huge city, so we only explored a tiny fraction of it, but enjoyed several museums (The Imperial Citadel! Fine Arts Museum! Ethnology Museum, complete with reconstructions of various tribes’ traditional houses! Women’s Museum!) and wandered the old quarter extensively. I really liked the Temple of Literature, which was also swarming with children posing for class photos and toddler graduation celebrations; at one point we formed a receiving line to wave Hello to every seven-year-old traipsing through! The Fine Arts museum was impressive as well, with lots of Vietnamese art forms and some distinctive Buddhas with elongated fingers. To my great delight, we also found a delicious dessert place (Wannawaffle) with amazingly tasty chocolate desserts for $1-3. We went back twice, and watched the crowds strolling the lake on a warm Sunday evening.

In between, we signed up for a cruise to Ha Long Bay, organized through our hotel. Google Ha Long Bay (or find it on Pinterest!) and you’ll find dozens of photos of clear turquoise waters and striking karst formations stretching to the horizon:

halong_bay

Ah, lovely. Unfortunately, it turns out that it’s generally pretty hazy from February to April, so our views were more like this:

That said, the boat was luxurious, the meals pretty tasty, and the whole trip was very relaxing – with a soporific four-hour bus ride on each end! Luckily, we hadn’t gone in with high expectations or with months of anticipation; although we’d expected a lot more cruising between islands, rather than stopping in to visit a random cave and an overcrowded beach, we had a perfectly good time. The cave was actually pretty impressive:

Returning to Hanoi, we met up with Jeff and Jaynie for one last dinner (and waffles), then bade them farewell and flew to Luang Prabang! Farewell, Vietnam!