Study Tour Blogs

Hue and Politics of the Region, July 2, 2017

Hue was a former imperial city and has an impressive citadel and Forbidden City to prove it. The Ngo Mon Gate is the main entrance to the citadel and is an example of Nguyen architecture. We saw the throne room that was very impressive with gilded decorations and lacquered columns. We saw the royal tombs of the emperors and saw the temples where the concubines would spend the remaining days of their lives worshipping the spirits of the deceased emperors. We also had a good lesson on Buddhism from our local guide, who was Buddhist. The pagoda we visited also housed the blue Austin that Thich Quang Duc, the famous monk who immolated himself in the famous picture, had driven to Saigon. This seems like a good time to reflect on the politics of the region.

In World History classes, we teach about how Vietnam has a long history of struggle against its more powerful neighbor, China. The Trung Sisters are still their heroes, embodying the freedom fighter spirit. Despite such figures, Vietnam remained a tributary state of China for hundreds of years. The Hue Imperial Palace reminds me of the Forbidden City in Beijing, and that is probably because of the great cultural and architectural influence China had on Vietnam (whether they want to acknowledge it or not). The religion of Buddhism and political/social thought of Confucianism greatly embedded themselves to become integral to how Vietnam would govern. There are Confucian remnants in the royal graves and temples scattered throughout Hue.

Unlike Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand historically were more influenced by India than China due to their geographical location. Most of the temples we saw were initially Hindu temples that were later converted to Buddhist temples. Even the ethnic make up (mostly in Cambodia) is similar to India due to centuries of intermarrying. Even the founding tale of Cambodia is about an Indian prince who married the offspring of two dragons, who created Cambodia out of the ocean as a dowry for their daughter.

The Khmer Empire (based in Cambodia) was the ruling center for a while, especially during the construction of Angkor Wat and its other temples. They were able to keep out the Siam and Da Viet (Vietnam) and the Malays until the 15th century, when the empire fell, due to many factors, such as invasion, overpopulation, drought and other environmental factors.

The Kingdom of Siam was able to fare better since it was able to modernize and learn from Britain (recall the Broadway musical, The King and I), while France brutally subjugated and extracted resources from Indochine (Cambodia and Vietnam). People in Thailand still drive on the left side of the road due to this British influence. Thailand also had the fortune of not getting embroiled in the Cold War proxy battles that devastated Cambodia and Vietnam. Instead Bangkok became the recreational capital where servicemen went to relax from the Vietnam War. We all know in general terms what happened in Vietnam during the war by the virtue of being Americans. Cambodia also was affected due to US bombings that gave more support for the Communist Khmer Rouge that are now infamous for genocide against their own people, letting their own people starve to death due to their zeal about collective farming and actively killing most of the bourgeoisie (any intellectuals, professionals, mechanics, even people who just wore glasses) in mass graves like the Killing Fields.

All three countries seem now to be ruled by military-backed dictatorships, with Cambodia and Thailand still maintaining their kings as their figurehead and Vietnam being ruled by a Communist one-party state. We saw loudspeakers announcing government propaganda over rice patties and people having to listen and choosing not respond publicly to any of it in fear of repercussions. They all seem to know innately that freedom of speech is not a valued asset since it might wreak havoc in their hard fought battle to freely earn a buck. All three countries rely greatly on tourist dollars and most people want to abandon farming to become English speakers who participate in the lucrative industry of tourism. For them it seems, economics is more important for now than political ideology.

The Thai were still in mourning for their king lining up in the royal palace to pay respects although he died October 13, 2016. There were many benevolent pictures of the queen mother and father in Cambodia everywhere, especially in its capital, Phnom Penh. Every few blocks from the Vietnam border to Phnom Penh, there were pictures of the current prime minister and his son, who will rule the country for years to come. In these countries that believe in the concept of re-incarnation, maybe in the next life things will be better. As we passed by rows and rows of Buddhist monks out on their early morning begging lines, it makes one realize that maybe Westerners are too quick to judge and want changes too fast.

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  • Hue Forbidden City
  • Phnom Penh
  • Temple Visit
  • Standing Buddha, What Pho

The Power of Ideology

One of the main themes of our journey in Vietnam and Cambodia, as was recognized by one of our tour leaders, David Kenley, has been war and reconciliation. Regardless of whether or not this was intentionally done by G Adventures and GEEO tours, the tour group has had discussions at the 'Hanoi Hilton,' the War Remnants Museum in Saigon, the Cu Chi Tunnels, and the Killing Fields about how different countries remember war and how they memorialize it. How should a country deal with traumatic events? How should the 'losing' or 'wrong' side be treated? How should we remember the dead? What does respectful remembrance involve?

I have had a hard time answering these questions on our visits. If anything, my visit has complicated my thinking about both the Vietnam War and the Khmer Rouge. What has come off as respectful and essential to me (for instance the displaying of human skulls of those murdered at the Killing Fields) has come across as grotesque to someone else. What has seemed perverse (like the firing range at the Cu Chi Tunnels, where tourists treat the tunnels like an amusement ride and fire guns at a shooting range for $2 a bullet) came across to someone else as an opportunity to make money and support a family in a developing country or a way to make history come alive. Regardless of my confusion, I feel that my experience at these places has been invaluable. I have failed, however, to ask any Vietnamese or Cambodians what they think about these places, or what they think these monuments and museums do/should represent.

What I have definitely found here (and maybe this is obvious to other people but I often overlook it) is a better understanding of the power of ideology. Of course there are myriad examples in the US but I am so accustomed to them I think I was almost blind to many of them. Seeing ideology in another country, from another perspective, has shown me just how powerful ideas, when taken too literally or with extreme prejudice to other ideas, can be. Democracy, capitalism, Christianity, Buddhism and communism - examples of the power of each can be found in Southeast Asia (just as they can almost anywhere else in the world) and each stop on our tour has forced me to reflect on their influence.

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  • The official position of Vietnam on the war with America becomes obvious quickly
  • Tunnels, I went down but should I have?
  • The skulls of those murdered by the Khmer Rouge

Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom

Angkor was the political and religious center of the Khmer Empire from 802-1432. Angkor Wat, “City which is a Temple,” was built by Suryavarman II (1113-50) as a dedication to the Hindu god Vishnu (Protector of Creation). It is the largest religious structure in the world, measuring 1,626,000 sq meters. The layout is based on a mandala (sacred design of the Hindu cosmos). Unusually among Khmer temples, Angkor Wat faces west and toward the setting sun, a symbol of death, which makes scholars surmise that it was not only a temple, but initially designed as a mausoleum for the king as well. While Suryavarman II may have planned Angkor Wat as his funerary temple or mausoleum, he was never buried there, as he died in battle during a failed expedition to subdue the Dai Viet.

A five-towered temple shaped like a lotus bud represents Mount Meru, the mythical abode of the gods and the center of the universe, and stands in the middle of the complex. The outer walls represent the edge of the world, and the moat is the cosmic ocean. There are 1970 ft. panel of bas-reliefs and around 2,000 engravings of apsaras (celestial dancing girls). Work seems to have ended shortly after the king's death, leaving some bas-relief decoration unfinished. In 1177, approximately 27 years after the death of Suryavarman II, Angkor was sacked by the Chams, traditional enemies of the Khmer. In the late 12th century, it was converted to a Buddhist temple, which shows that like Hinduism, Buddhism was integral to the traders who came seeking spices and deposited not only goods, but their religion in the Khmer Empire. By 17th century, Angkor Wat was not completely abandoned and functioned as a Buddhist temple. Fourteen inscriptions dated from the 17th century discovered in Angkor area, testify that Japanese Buddhist pilgrims that might have established small settlements alongside Khmer locals. At that time, the temple was thought by the Japanese visitors to be the famed Jetavana garden of Buddha in India.

The sandstone blocks from which Angkor Wat was built were quarried from the holy mountain of Phnom Kulen, more than 50km away, and floated down the Siem Reap River on rafts. According to inscriptions, the construction of Angkor Wat involved 300,000 workers and 6,000 elephants. The stones, as smooth as polished marble, were laid without mortar with very tight joints that are sometimes hard to find. The blocks were held together by mortise and tenon joints in some cases, while in others they used dovetails and gravity. The blocks were presumably put in place by a combination of elephants, coir ropes, pulleys and bamboo scaffolding. The Angkor Wat temple consumed about 6 million to 10 million blocks of sandstone with an average weight of 1.5 tons each. In fact, the entire city of Angkor used up far greater amounts of stone than all the Egyptian pyramids combined, and occupied an area significantly greater than modern-day Paris. Moreover, unlike the Egyptian pyramids, which were built of limestone quarried barely a mile away, the entire city of Angkor was built with sandstone quarried 25 miles or more away.

Angkor Thom, “Great City,” was built by Jayavarman VII in the late 12th century. The largest city in the Khmer Empire at one time, it is protected by a 26 ft. high wall, about 8 miles long, and surrounded by a wide moat. On the five gates, there are four giant stone faces. Within the city, the most celebrated ruin is the Bayon. The temple’s central towers are decorated with four huge, mysteriously smiling faces gazing out in the cardinal directions. These are believed to represent the all-seeing and all-knowing Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, as personified by Jayavarman VII himself. The Bayon features 54 towers bearing more than 200 huge and enigmatic stone faces. The Bayon's plan can be divided into three levels — the first two are bas-reliefs and the uppermost consists of the central sanctuary. The outer gallery depicts scenes from everyday life and historical events, while the second inner gallery depicts mythical figures, battles, and stories. In total, there are more than 1km of bas-reliefs to be viewed in the Bayon. After Jayavarman’s death, both Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom lay forgotten as Thai invaders ravaged the land.

The artistic legacy of Angkor led directly to France adopting Cambodia as a protectorate in 1863 and invading Siam to take control of the ruins. Cambodia gained independence from France in 1953. The restoration of Angkor Wat in the modern era began with the establishment of Conservation d'Angkor by Ecole Francaise D’Extreme Orient (EFEO) in 1908 with its major restoration of Angkor undertaken in the 1960s. However, work on Angkor was abandoned during the Khmer Rouge era and Conservation d'Angkor was disbanded in 1975. Between 1986 and 1992, the Archaeological Survey of India carried out restoration work on the temple, as France did not recognize the Cambodian government at the time. In 1992, UNESCO listed it as a World Heritage Site and many countries such as France, Japan and China has been involved in numerous conservation projects. Angkor Wat appears on the national flag as a symbol of Cambodia and remains its prime attraction for visitors.

Eleanor Mannikka explains in her book Angkor Wat: Time, Space and Kingship that the spatial dimensions of Angkor Wat parallel the lengths of the four ages of classical Hindu thought. Thus the visitor to Angkor Wat who walks the causeway to the main entrance and through the courtyards to the final main tower, which once contained a statue of Vishnu, is metaphorically traveling back to the first age of the creation of the universe. Like the other temple-mountains of Angkor, Angkor Wat also replicates the spatial universe in miniature. The central tower is Mt Meru, with its surrounding smaller peaks, bounded in turn by continents (the lower courtyards) and the oceans (the moat). The seven-headed naga (mythical serpent) becomes a symbolic rainbow bridge for man to reach the abode of the gods. These are some important facts one should keep in mind as one travels through the complex.

Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm, Ankor Thom (Bayon) July 9, 2017 and Pre Rup, East Mebon, Preah Khan and Neak Pean on July 10, 2017

We all got on the bus at 4:30 am and saw the sun rise above Angkor Wat this morning. The peace and tranquility of the hundreds of tourists all focusing on this one single event was a sight to see. Since we started the day so early, we were able to visit Ta Prohm, the temple of "Tomb Raider" fame, at a leisurely pace with few tourists. The beautiful smiles of Bayon at Angkor Thom also beckoned. Bas reliefs and Sanskrit texts were surprisingly well-preserved. The roots of a banyan tree going through the temple walls showed the power of nature to overcome any man-made edifice. People try to see nature in the way that is familiar to us so we were able to see elephant trunks and butt cracks in the tree roots. Many of us marveled at how incredibly hot and humid it was with sweat dripping down our bodies all day under the merciless sun. How anyone was able to transport, stack, carve and paint in such oppressive heat was an accomplishment in and of itself. The unique beauty of the design that was supposed to represent the whole cosmos shows the power of religion and the coercive power of rulers.

The second day of temples introduced varied designs with more orange tones and almost Aztec-like features at Pre Rup and East Mebon. The pools of water that forces one to take a boat to the shrine at Neak Pean gave us a glimpse of how many of these temples looked initially surrounded by water that has now dried up. The reflection of the temples on water produces a double image and more mystery to the already other-worldly surroundings. Preah Khan had several arches, each one getting lower at the center so that one is forced to bow in respect and reverence. Two storeys of Greek-like columns on one side made it seem more familiar to Western aesthetic sensibilities. We saw seven temples in all but what is amazing is that we had only scratched the surface of the country's hundreds of temples.

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  • Bayon
  • Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm, Ankor Thom (Bayon) July 9, 2017 and Pre Rup, East Mebon, Preah Khan and Neak Pean on July 10, 2017
  • Preah Khan
  • Neak Pean

From Lazy Eating to Food Nirvana: A SE Asian Odyssey

With our trip to SE Asia nearly over, it’s finally time to address some of most intense and controversial issues that haven't been discussed yet. Clearly, I'm talking about food. When planning a trip anywhere, you should always be excited about the food (otherwise you shouldn't be going where you're going) and I was very much anticipating some amazing food in both Vietnam and Cambodia. After two weeks of eating out for two meals a day, I have not been disappointed. For those wary of eating new and street foods, Vietnam and Cambodia will test your willpower. The smells wafting across my path from food carts and roadside restaurants were enticing, but not because they reminded me of something from back home. Instead, I encountered original takes on familiar dishes and some things altogether new. This may not be too out of the ordinary, but I consumed multiple fish whose heads were still attached to their bodies. Back in America, I live a life where I order fish and it is brought to me as a nicely cooked filet with no bones and no trace of it ever having been a living creature. I think this speakis more about my own privilege than it is about America being more sophisticated than SE Asia. My eating experiences in SE Asia were delightful and forced me to be a little less lazy when eating. Especially when it came to eating fruits that have pits in them. Back home, I avoid any fruit with pits because it prevents me from enjoying my fruit as quickly as I would like. However, the smells and tastes of some of these fruits compelled me to overcome my deep seated hatred for pits and to try something unique and wonderful. In addition to fighting laziness, another aspect of eating in SE Asia that fascinated me was that I played a significant role in the taste of my entrée. With many of my meals, different supplements were placed on the table so that you could refine the taste of the entrée to meet your preferences. Various herbs and spices were available to modify the taste as well as peppers. It went well beyond the salt and pepper found at every American restaurant.

If you’re growing weary with lack of specifics, let me hit you with some truth. Order anything that ends with the phrase “…in a clay pot.” Albeit chicken, pork, or seafood, do it! I don't know what kind of magic happens in the clay pot, but I don't care. Eat it and accept the sumptuous results. In fact, at one restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City I ordered pork in a clay pot and it came out in a metal pot. It didn't matter. It was still delicious. If you see those magical words, say yes. Also, every curry I’ve had in Cambodia has been superb so try them all (go spicy…don't fear the intestinal repercussions). The most interesting dish I tried was elephant ear fish in the Mekong Delta. We were shown them earlier in the day and I thought “why not!” I split the fish with two other members of the group and we were taken aback as it was placed on the table in front of us, its eyes peering into my soul. Then, the waitress proceeded to tear into the fish for meat and using rice paper, construct spring rolls for us. We dipped the rolls in an incredible tamarind sauce and I knew I was in love…with the elephant ear fish.

One of the most interesting things I've learned while eating in Vietnam and Cambodia is that you east as son as your food is on the table and you don't feel bad about it. In America, most often every one’s meal is brought out simultaneously or if one or two are late, you wait patiently for the last few meals to arrive. In SE Asia, just eat. The food is fresh and you're only letting it get cold. Why diminish your food satisfaction in the name of forced politeness. This also got me thinking about how long my food waits underneath heat lamps before the rest of my party’s meals are ready. So eat away and don't feel bad about it.

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From Lazy Eating to Food Nirvana: A SE Asian Odyssey

You're Never Really Too Far From Home

I was a little concerned about booking this trip in the beginning since I've never been away from home for longer than fifteen days. Fortunately, the days have passed by quickly and each has been busy. I hadn't really thought much about missing home because we've had opportunities for wi fi connections along the way and we've been able to get messages to and from home as well as FaceTime. I did falter a bit the other night though when I stopped in a small bar in Saigon and the Tom Cruise movie "Jack Reacher" was playing. The film was shot in Pittsburgh and the opening scenes feature much of the skyline and city...and I felt homesick...
As fate would have it, the next place I entered was not very crowded, but there was a group of young Vietnamese "twenty-somethings" sitting across the room. One of the boys was wearing a backwards baseball cap. That in itself was not so notable, but this was not your run of the mill Yankees cap - It was a Pittsburgh Pirates' cap! The owner of the restaurant was a Vietnamese woman who was married to an Austrialian man and she had lived in Austrialia, so she spoke English. She translated for us and told me that the boy got the cap as a gift from his cousin who -you guessed it!- now lives in Pittsburgh!

A Language Beyond Words

Having taught ESL for most of my career, I always try to start off the year by placing myself in the position of my new non-English speaking students and the trials and frustrations they face when first arriving. Changing schools in itself can be incredibly stressful for kids let alone changing cultures, language, dress, food, smells, social norms, and school expectations all at once. One experience I was expecting to encounter along this tour was to also find myself facing some of these same frustrations. I have to say for the most part I have not as so far it has been fairly easy to find people who speak at least a little English and many signs posted with English and often accompanied by pictures. This being said, what I did find pleasantly surprising is the international language of "the selfie" let alone picture taking in general.
Regardless of whether I was walking along the street, in a museum, or even in a cave, I was able to witness the manners, gestures, smiles, and willingness of one person towards another person who was totally absorbed in his or her own self taking a "selfie." I find hope in this simple kindness towards others that despite differences in skin, language, and likely some times religion, that a total stranger would just patiently wait while another person works at getting that perfect shot to post on Facebook. Considering in addition to the amazing scenery, art, and culture we've had the opportunity to discover here so far, we've also seen evidence of the cruelest of autrocities one human being could ever inflict on another. At least with "the selfie" we all find not only some commonality, but some humanity and not only tolerance, but respect for one another.

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A Language Beyond Words

Journey from Hué to Hoi An

As we find ourselves back in the bus, we eagerly await this nation's next splendor. The mountain pass national highway, HaiVan- sea and cloud, does not disappoint. Our ascent is slow and we are able to take in the breathtaking views of the East Sea.
At the summit we are greeted by eager shop keepers hoping to score a sale of their trinkets, crafts, or snacks.
A Russian and an American bunker straddle the top but to this romantic, I notice how love and union prevail with a beautiful bride and handsome groom posing on the dais for their pre-wedding photos.
While descending the peak and ambling towards Hoi An,a family vacation hot spot, I think of the laborers and engineers who constructed and designed the switch-back roadway. It is made to accommodate large construction vehicles and wide and lengthy freight haulers.
This brings me to reflect on my recurrent thoughts, complementary contrasts. Vietnam is a bustling quiet, a calm chaotic cadence of motorbike traffic, a sweet ginger and jasmine stench and a menu of simplistic exquisite delicacies.
My attention is immediately drawn to what I hear in the voice and the melody of the language. Vietnamese is very musical. They have drawn out vowels and hook catching endings to their words. The consonants are clearly pronounced and discernible. In short, my limited experience in Asian languages affords me the simple conclusion that Vietnamese has a lilt and lightness to it like their humor and spirit.
It is 42 years since the American departure from war. The spirit of the people is as mesmerizing as their voices. They have committed to self-improvement in roadways, tourism and national pride.
Hoi An is a tourist-town flowing with multi-national spenders looking for their new look at half-price, trendy shoes, and glamorous handbags. It is, however, much more than fashion to this town. The art galleries draw you in with poignant and dramatic photography of the local culture and population. The handcrafted sculptures and masks entertain the traveler whilst you stroll the tourist car-free zone. A tariff or entrance fee of 120,000 dong will grant you entrance to the assembly halls and the ancestral family homes, complete with alters, photographs of their distinguished and beloved family, and displays of coin collections, porcelain treasures and religious relics. The family greets you, offers you a tour, shares their lineage and explains the detail of their homes. They also will answer any questions you have about the blended architecture of the Chinese, Japanese, and French. Some nudge and encourage you to buy a coin trinket, make a wish with the two coins in a dish or light a stick or three of incense.
The gentle patience of their explanation and care in language accuracy are equally comforting and impressive.
The group met at Oodles of Noodles for a lively demonstration of their most impressive program and internship selection process. It is a wonderful opportunity for anyone in the country to apply for the extensive 18 month all inclusive in- house boarding cooking training program. This non-profit organization originated with the idea of training the less fortunate in highly relevant and employable skills such as food service, restaurant management and bilingual English and Vietnamese language classes.
We were entertained with humor, skills and teaching of the five kinds of rice available in the region. We made rice noodles and enjoyed rice crackers with three sauces. The fish sauce was a favorite by many.
Several group members took advantage of the better-known tailors at Yaly. Personally I purchased two dresses and a blouse. The process was nearly as impressive as the finished product. After 10 minutes of accurate measurement and photograph taking, I made my follow-up appointment for later that same day.
Once the final fitting is done, you may either wait for your garments or have them delivered to your hotel.
Evening comes early here in Vietnam, 6 pm sunset. It is that time of day when the travelers see the floating lanterns and the dragon boats on the Thu Bon river.
So much to see and do in this booming tourist town. Once again there is the contrast between the latest fashion trends and the steadfast family tradition that gives the visitor a warm experience of all in between.

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  • River boats in Hoi An
  • Solitary burial site for ancient royalty in Hue.
  • Love between the bunkers.
  • A new chef in town, David.
  • Lantern Class
  • Tran family proudly welcomes us into their home.
  • Thuy, our guide

Rubber trees at Ho Chi Minh City on route to Cu Chi tunnels

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Rubber trees outside Saigon

New friends at Hoi An

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New friends at Hoi An