Monastery Tour – Armenia

IMG_4030

Armenia was the first country to adopt Christianity as a national religion back in 301 AD, making it the oldest Christian nation in the world. Adding to the religious significance of this region is the resting place of Noah’s Ark, which is in the Ararat mountains. One of the best ways to gain an appreciation for the Christian influence in Yerevan is to take a Monastery Tour. During the warmer months group tours run throughout the week, but since I was visiting in the winter the only option available was to rent a private driver through Hyur Tours. Since I was traveling with a friend this was still very affordable ($20 per person). The Monastery Tour took us to several of the oldest and most well known monasteries in and around Yerevan and thankfully we had a warm car to drive us around because we chose a snowy cold day.

Saint Hripsime Church
IMG_3960

Built in 618 AD, Saint Hripsime Church was built on the site of the martyred Saint Hripsme. When she refused to marry the Roman emperor Diocletian, she was toturted and martyred. There is a small room to the side of the alter that houses her tombstone, along with stones supposedly used to kill her. The traditional Armenian architeture is especially striking since this church stands alone. The staff is welcoming and friendly but don’t speak any English so we were unable to get a lot of information about the church. There is a small giftshop with various souvenirs and some interesting texts.

IMG_3964
IMG_3965

Saint Gayane Church
IMG_3976

Built 630 AD, Saint Gayane Church is built for another martyred saint, Saint Gayane. The church is hidden behind surrounding buildings and includes an expansive graveyard. This was especially ominous since the above ground tombs were covered with a light layer of snow.

IMG_3983
IMG_3994
IMG_3995

Zvartnots
IMG_4014

Zvartnots Cathedral was built during the 7th century only to collapse in the 10th. According to the informational plaque written by The Agency for Conservation of Historical and Cultural Monuments, the church collapsed “either by an earthquake or the Arabs.” Even though the truth may never be told, Zvartnots is a truly amazing place to explore and the highlight of the tour. You are able to wander around the ruins freely, walking pathways created by the partially remaining walls.

IMG_4019
IMG_4028
IMG_4038

Advertisements
Published in: on March 22, 2013 at 8:15 am  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Yerevan, Armenia

IMG_3781

Armenian people have endured perhaps one of the longest struggles for self-preservation and independence in the world. Throughout history the country has been part of the Byzantine, Seljuk, Mongol, and Ottoman Empires, and most recently the former Soviet Union. But despite the presence of all these invasive empires, the people of Armenia have held onto their cultural identity. This is true too of the Armenia diaspora, which is approximately three times the size of the home country’s population. People are proud to be Armenian. As they should be, especially given the struggles generations past and present have endured.

There are reminders throughout Yerevan of the country’s history. The Genocide Memorial is a striking display built to honor those killed by the Ottoman Empire, present day Turkey, during and after WWI. Armenia claims over 1,000,000 Armenian people were murdered in what they refer to today as the Great Crime. Turkey upholds less than half this number suffered. Armenia not only lost people during the genocide but a significant portion of land, including Mt. Ararat, the official symbol of the country. This event resulted in a tense border dispute that continues to this day and prevents travel across the Armenia-Turkey border. The memorial itself is simple in design but still powerfully moving. An eternal flame burns in the center in memory of all those who died and a small museum gives more information on the genocide.
IMG_3917
IMG_3922

First impressions of Yerevan is that it isn’t the my most beautiful city I’ve ever seen. The buildings are all boxes painted varying shades of beige, which look especially dreary during the winter when the sky is a constant grey. This is thanks to the Soviet Union who built most of the buildings. The government has invested in beautifying its city center but little money goes elsewhere. My favorite building was the train station which looks like it hasn’t changed since the end of the Cold War. Its most distinguishing feature would have to be the larger-than-life, Soviet-esque statue of a man riding a horse as he reaches for his sword.
IMG_3912
IMG_3961
IMG_4068

An old bus fueled by propane tanks strapped to the roof

An old bus fueled by propane tanks strapped to the roof


IMG_3931
The Museum of Armenian History located in downtown Yerevan

The Museum of Armenian History located in downtown Yerevan


The train station

The train station


One of the best things about Yerevan though has the to the abundance of themed bars. These little hole-in-the-wall spots don’t seem like much from the outside and can easily be missed since they are located under ground level of other buildings. But be sure not to miss out places with themes like Pirates of the Caribbean, Wild Wild West, and my own personal favorite, The Troll Pub. The name doesn’t do this place justice. The Troll Pub is an homage to Swedish heavy metal and Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Words cannot describe the atmosphere in The Troll Pub, it truly is one of Yerevan’s hidden gems.
395465_10200295114770451_28932481_n
Map of Middle Earth

Map of Middle Earth


When in the Troll Pub, you must drink from a tree stump mug

When in the Troll Pub, you must drink from a tree stump mug

I’m Off To Eurasia!

Eurasia_and_eurasianism

 

The travels haven’t been so weary lately, but that is all going to change tomorrow when I leave for a 3 week adventure in parts of Eurasia. Or the Caucasus. Or whatever. All I know is I am meeting one of my best friends in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia where it all begin. We will spend about 5 days in Armenia before moving on to Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia. This is mostly a detour so we can then cross the border into Turkey, since their border with Armenia is closed. From there we will spend 2 weeks travels East to Istanbul where my trip will end.

This will be my first time visiting this part of the world and I can’t wait to see somewhere new…

Published in: on December 7, 2012 at 11:07 pm  Leave a Comment  

Kecak Performance – Bali, Indonesia

The Kecak is a traditional Balinese story telling dance that is performed throughout the island of Bali. IT incorporates a chorus of 100 men, who sit in a large circle on the stage chanting while performers act out the story of a princess being captured and then rescued by her prince charming. I originally learned about Kecak from the documentary Baraka, which highlights people and culture throughout the world.

There were a few distinct differences between this and the performance I saw, but the feeling was the same. At the beginning of the show, the men walk onstage, already chanting and don’t stop until the show ends, which is about an hour long. They also act as part of the performance, sometimes representing walls shielding the princess from her rescuer. Once the princess has been rescued, there is another element to the show, where a man lights a pile of coconut shells on fire and then proceeds to stomp on the flames continuously until the fire has been extingushed. Before he begins his fire dance, he sits and gets himself into a trance like state. This is done because he is not wearing any protective covering on his feet, it is only the power within that keeps his feet from burning, so I was told.

 

Published in: on December 6, 2012 at 2:32 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , , ,

The Circus Is Coming! – HCMC, Vietnam

“Come one! Come all! To the Saigon Circus!” At least I think that’s what the sign said, hanging in front of the circus tent that is permanently erected in Pham Ngu Lau, the notorious “backpackers district”. For weeks banners advertising the new show hung in the streets so the time seemed right to see what the circus in Vietnam entailed. Tickets ranged from 200,000 – 300,000 VND (aprox. $10 – $15 USD), but the tent is much smaller than the big name shows in the US so there isn’t a bad seat in the house. And despite being so close to one of the heavily touristed areas, there were only a handful of foreigners in attendance.

The show started with all of the performers parading around the ring and lining up behind signs that I presumed noted where there troupe came from. Many of the telltale circus acts were included in the show; a juggler, magician, clowns, different acrobatics, even tightrope walkers.

       

As I expected, there were a few acts involving animals that are a little hard to watch. The small dogs jumping through hoops are not out of the ordinary, though their lack luster performance is a bit regrettable. Sadly the monkeys and bears are chained to bicycles or other props and clearly are not interested in performing for the audience. This can be expected in Vietnam though, the treatment of animals is not up to the same standards as many places in the rest of the world.

In an act of defiance though, one of the dogs had the last laugh. While the trainer tried to call him to the other side of the ring, this pooch sat idly, staring at her. Despite her persistent beckoning, this furry performer wasn’t going to move until he was good and ready. After about a minute of awkward laughing from the audience, the dog decided to reveal that he had actually not been trying to derail the entire performance, just merely depositing a little something special behind for his caretakers to clean up. The tent filled with raucous laughter and this little innocent act instantly became my favorite part of the whole show.

Peaceful Tranquility – Bali, Indonesia

Bali usually brings to mind images of wild late night parties and tourists flooding the beaches. Tourism had taken over and seeing any semblance of local culture was hard to come by. At least that’s what I heard before leaving on a week long trip to the island. But I wasn’t convinced and certainly not disappointed when I arrived in Ubud. About a 1 hour taxi ride from the airport in Denpasar, Ubud is known for its iconic rice fields. Knowing this, I wanted to stay somewhere that highlighted this beauty and that’s exactly what I found at the Agung Raka Bungalows. About a ten minute walk from all the shopping and restaurants on the main street, the bungalows are set back from the road and surrounded by rice fields. For about $90 a night, you can stay in a 2-story bungalow. This includes 2 beds, an open air bathroom, and downstairs lounge area. But the best part of the room has to be the balcony over looking the fields, the perfect atmosphere for a glass of wine and a book.

  

On our first full day in Ubud, my friend and I decided to take a bicycle tour in order to see as much as possible. The tour started early in morning with a van driving us up to a restaurant at the top of the mountain. Indonesia is made up of a series of volcanoes, many of which are still very active. The panoramic view from the restaurant’s windows make it very clear that what I thought was a mountain coming up is actually the outside of a volcano crater with 2 more smaller volcanoes protruding from the center. Our guide informs us one of these erupted not too many years ago, destroying everything below it except a temple that had been built on an elevated piece of land. This spot stands out as it is the only patch of bright green vegetation around the base of the volcano.

 

From the restaurant we set off down the mountain. Our first stop comes early on and provides an opportunity to purchase some Luwak coffee, which for those who don’t know is also referred to as cat poop coffee. This name is slightly misleading because the Luwak is not a cat but more like a cross between a weasel and a possum. The process is pretty self explanatory, the Luwak eats the coffee beans as they fall on the ground, digests them, and then expels them along with the rest of their waste. The Luwak droppings are collected and the coffee beans thoroughly cleaned before they being brewed. This is some of the most expensive coffee in the world so I couldn’t resist to try a pot for only $6. The digestive process means the beans have less caffeine but their taste is much stronger and quite delicious, if you can get past the idea of drinking coffee that has traveled through the digestive system of a wild animal. The Luwaks themselves are caught in the wild and kept on the property for about 3 – 6 months before they are re-released into the forest. Balinese people have  a great respect for animals and understand the stress captivity can have on these creatures.

   

The rest of the ride we found ourselves surrounded by rice fields, traditional neighborhoods, and even stumbled upon a festive ceremony at one of the local temples. Our guide informed us people celebrate the “birthdays” of the major Hindu temples within their community, prompting everyone one to come together, play music, and pray. It was beautiful being weave through the crowd of people and feel like we were a part of the festivities.

     

 

John Drinks Snake Blood – Tra Vinh, Vietnam

During a recent trip to Tra Vinh, in the Mekong Delta, my friends and I decided to indulge in some exotic foods for breakfast, including frog curry, sauteed eel, snake stew, and minced snake. My friend John was particularly adamant about eating snake, but we were all excited to try these local delicacies. We chose the Cuu Long Hotel and settled into a large round table under a thatched roof.

Frog Curry

Sauteed Eel

Minced Snake

Snake Stew

It is common in many Asian cultures for people to drink snake blood in an effort to improve their strength, stamina, and masculinity. Knowing this, John decided he wanted to drink the blood of the snake we would be eating. In order to get this message across, we had to draw a picture depicting him being served the snake’s blood. Once this was accomplished, he then had to decide which liquor to drink the blood with. Something we all learned was that when drinking snake blood you mix it in a shot glass with rice wine, whiskey, or vodka. John chose vodka, not for the taste but for the fact that it was the cheapest option.

Bottoms Up!

Luang Prabang, Laos

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Luang Prabang is the cultural center of Laos and one of the most popular tourist stops. The river is the main vein of the city and a good place to start exploring. Several restaurants line the street overlooking the river and are a pleasant place to stop for lunch or dinner. It’s also the part of town you will find most guesthouses, shops, travel agencies, and the night market, which is quite large. Prices here are much higher than in the rest of Laos, the average price for a room being almost double compared to Vang Vieng or Vientiane. But there is still plenty to do without breaking the bank.

It is fairly inexpensive to rent a boat for an hour or two and enjoy a ride up and down the river. The more people in your group, the cheaper the price per person will be too. Also, don’t be afraid to barter, the initial asking price is always too high and the driver should be willing to negotiate. You can always walk away if you feel like you aren’t being offered a fair price, there is probably someone 10 yards down the road willing to do it for less. Renting bicycles is also very inexpensive, about 10,000 kip a day (approximately $1.25), while the cost of renting a motorbike is around 150,000 kip (about $18). It is extremely hot and humid in Luang Prabang so I would recommend renting bicycles earlier in the morning to avoid some of the heat.

    

Everything in Luang Prabang is geared towards tourists; countless of English speaking tuk-tuk drivers, a travel agency company on every corner booking kayaking trips and treks to small villages, and prices much higher than other regions in the country. But despite the obvious presence of foreigners, the city has maintained its traditional charm that made it so popular to begin with. Restaurants and bars close at 10 pm, the only place left serving alcohol after this time is a bowling alley about 20 minutes outside of town, making the streets quiet and peaceful at night.

One of the things I wanted to see in particular was the monks collecting food donations from the community early in the morning. This involved waking up at 5 am in order to be dressed and out the door by 5:30. The streets at this time are empty of tourists, with only the local people out setting up their restaurants or driving to work. I didn’t know where to go to see the monks, so I just started wandering around. I had only walked down a couple streets before I saw the line of bright orange garments walking towards me. In the line were men of all ages, most men in Laos are monks for a period of time during their lives and are very well respected within their communities. People donate food because they believe it will improve their karma, benefiting their spirit in their next life. I followed, at a distance, for a short time and watched them collect rice in their silver bowls as they do every morning. After a few blocks I watched them turn a corner and I continued in the other direction. It was nice walking around the empty streets and discovering things around my guesthouse I would not have noticed normally. Like the bowl of tiny crabs that would most likely be served during lunch later or the beautiful view from a bridge over the river.

      

A Provincial Boat Ride – Tra Vinh, Vietnam

Tra Vinh is a small provincial town in the Mekong Delta, perfect for a relaxing weekend away from the noise and chaos in Ho Chi Minh City. Even though it is only takes 4 hours to get there by bus from HCMC, most foreigners tend to visit the larger cities in the Delta, like Vinh Long or Ben Tre, making Tra Vinh almost foreigner free. Early one morning, my friends and I decided to take a boat ride to Ben Tre, which according to the hotel owner was only an hour and a half trip. We woke up at 6 am because we were told the boats head out by 7 so we wanted to make sure we had plenty of time to find a ride.

We headed down to the market and started asking boat captains if they were headed to Ben Tre. It didn’t take long before we found someone willing to let us on board. Since these are just cargo boats transporting goods back and forth along the Mekong, the cost was very low for us to hitch a ride. The captain’s starting price was 100,000 dong per person ($5), which we knew was too high. After some negotiating in our broken Vietnamese, we got the price down to 70,000 dong ($3.50), however the boat wasn’t leaving until 9 am, so we had some time to kill in the market.

* An early provincial morning

*Banh Tet – a traditional food from this region, glutinous rice rolled in a banana leaf and stuffed with savory meat

The boat finally departed around 10 am and we were on our way to enjoying a relaxing river cruise of sorts. What was supposed to be an hour and a half turned into a 4 hour journey. No one seemed too bothered though, we had plenty of snacks, hammocks, and a bathroom, which was actually just  a hole cut into the floor that went directly into the river. Soon after we set out, we noticed dark clouds ahead and prepared for the rain to come. The wind picked up and we had to retreat inside as the rain pelted the deck.

Once the rain stopped we moved back outside and as we got closer to Ben Tre, the site of towering piles of coconut shells became ever more prevalent. Ben Tre is known for its production of coconut goods, like candy and oils, so there are farms all along the delta. Most of the farms we passed had mounds of coconut shells stacked as high as a two story building and people hard at work collecting even more. All the people we passed would wave and smile as they loaded coconuts onto boats to be transported. Our own boat made a few stops along the way, dropping of goods to homes and local businesses.

Once we finally reached Ben Tre there was only enough time to have a few beers and some street snacks before heading back to Tra Vinh. This involved racing across town on the backs of some very speedy provincial xe oms, just barely catching the city bus to the ferry, then finding a bus that would take us the last 20 odd kilometers back to city at night.

Published in: on September 17, 2012 at 9:03 pm  Comments (4)  
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Suoi Tien Amusement Park – Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

As a Westerner, my idea of an amusement park is one that includes stomach churning roller coasters and endlessly long lines wrapped around every corner. However, Vietnam’s parks are a little less desirable so it’s best to not expect too much. Suoi Tien is about an hour and a half outside of the city and was the destination for my school’s first field trip this year. The kids informed us this park is usually only visited by people in the countryside and is not as much fun as the parks within the city. I decided it would be best to see for myself though and try not to let their input deter me.

When we arrived, the first activity was a tram ride around the park to help get our bearings. The first thing I noticed was how empty the place was. Even on a weekday, major amusement parks I have been to elsewhere still have lots of people around, but we appeared to be almost the only people there. This isn’t a big deal though, it means shorter lines and the chance to see more of the park. Our school had pre-paid tickets for everyone so I was determined to ride these first. We got off the tram at the High Speed Roller Coaster so it was the perfect place to start. I was a little apprehensive when I got on because the shoulder harnesses didn’t actually lock in place. so the only thing keeping me in the coaster was a rusty seat belt fastened diagonally across my chest. I had watched several cars go through already and no one went missing so the odds were in my favor. Also, there were no loops or any sharp turns for that matter so the seatbelt would hopefully be enough. Needless to say I was successful in keeping myself on the ride.

*You may be smiling now but you better hold on tight!

The next ride was Escape From Witch Castle, a “very scary ride” , according to the students. I was skeptical, mainly because it doesn’t take much to scare these kids, 10 seconds from any American horror film would give them nightmares for years. So I joined the group of students walking in and was met by an animatronic zombie with glowing eyes and flailing arms, which had been set off by the motion sensor at the entrance. This sent the kids into a frenzy, which only made me laugh. I slowly made my way down the dark hall with a 6th grader latched to my arm for dear life. We passed some more zombies but mostly it was just a pitch black hallway with some spooky music playing. At the end there was a haunted train ride, which zooms in circles inside a small room filled with spooky trees, zombies, and laser lights.

*The hauntingly misleading entrance.

Next was the Ferris Wheel, a classic amusement park ride. Upon close inspection, the ride seemed sturdy and unlikely to fall apart so we got on. My favorite part about Ferris Wheels is the view from the top and from this one you could see the whole park and out into the countryside.

Walking through the park, I often found myself by towering statues of stereotypical Asian figures, though they often appeared to serve no purpose. Often times they were awkwardly placed to fill space and add the to mystery of the park.

In the afternoon we attended the sea lion and dolphin show. I was hesitant at first, Vietnam does not have the highest standards for taking care of animals so I was afraid I might see something disheartening. Thankfully the opposite was true and the animals looked happy and well taken care of. The show included the usual, jumping through hoops, spinning in circles and such. It was when the dolphin jumped through a ring of fire that I started to question the trainer’s ethics, but it was still impressive none the less.

But my two favorite oddities had to be Ring The Golden Bell and The Ice House Palace. At Ring The Golden Bell, you ring a golden bell next to a pool filled with large fish. The fish, having heard the bell, begin to gather. At this point you buy a bag of fish food for 10,000 VND ($0.50 USD) and pour it in the water, causing the fish to pile on top of each other in an attempt to eat. At every amusement park I’ve been to in Vietnam there has been some variation of an “ice house” or “ice palace”, but the one at Suoi Tien is by far my favorite. Not only is there sledding, but techno music blasts from the speakers while neon laser lights flash all around the room.

%d bloggers like this: