Thursday, June 12, 2014

Look out China here we come!

With my family traveling all the way to China to visit us, I decided a little tour of China was in order.  If you're gonna come all this way you really should see the Warriors and the Great Wall. We flew up to Xian and went directly to the Terra Cotta Warriors, which were built by China's first Emperor to guard his grave.  Over the centuries the tomb was forgotten until a farmer, looking for water, dug up a terra cotta head.  You can imagine his surprise.  The government bought the lands, at a ridiculously low price, and the farmer now signs a book at the gift shop.  After seeing all three pits, we headed back into the city of Xian to get settled in our hotel.  While I stayed back at the hotel with the kids, everyone else explored the Muslim district, which is known for its good food and shopping.

I don't know if it's us, or Xian, but we seemed doomed to see the city in the rain.  However, unlike our first trip, we were prepared with ponchos and umbrellas.  From our hotel we walked to the Drum Tower, which can be seen in the background of the photo. The Drum Tower, which is now a museum of sorts, was originally used to signal the end of the day.  The Bell Tower, where the kids and I are standing, was used to signal the start of the day.  Both towers now give musical performances throughout the day.  The kids were determined to hear the bell performance, so we waited it out, and got to hear what some of the bells sound like.  We met up with our guide at this point and enjoyed a yummy noodle dish for lunch, something Xian is known for.  The kids enjoyed slurping up their noodles, which, thank God, are a favorite.  Next we braved Xian's city wall.  The wall originally enclosed the entire city and you can see the difference between the old and new part of the city in the different styles of buildings.  By the time we got to the top, it was raining and very cold and windy.  We managed to get a quick group shot before booking it back down to the much warmer car!

Beijing, China's capital and, home of The Great Wall and Peking duck.  Our first stop was the Wall, which is about a 1 1/2 hours drive from Beijing, depending on traffic (there is always traffic).   Everyone has heard about the Great Wall of China, we learn about it in school, and saw it on TV during the Olympics. But, being there in person, standing on something that is thousands of years old, was absolutely AMAZING! That I got to share it with my family was the proverbial cherry on top.  I was worried that it would be crowded, especially when I saw the crowds walking down the hill from the cable car. But, when we got to the wall (via cable car) it was actually pretty empty.  We spent an hour exploring the wall and admiring the views, and even got to leave our mark behind in a tower that had it's walls covered with huge canvases for visitors to sign.  On the way down, the guys had the privilege of sitting in the same cable car that former President Bill Clinton sat in :-)  In keeping with the Presidential theme we had lunch at The School House, where President Obama and First Lady Michelle ate after their visit to the Wall.  We ended our day with a Chinese acrobatic show that was absolutely amazing, that had all of us in awe, but...I don't think any Presidents had been.

Day two in Beijing started with a tour of the Temple of Heaven, a religious complex where the Emperor would pray for a good harvest.  Before you get to the buildings you walk through a large garden where locals can be found playing games, singing, or cruising the marriage market in search of a suitable spouse for their child.  Who needs on-line dating when you've got mom or dad checking out the prospects at the park?  Both the kids and Steven tried out the games played by locals, who seem to enjoy teaching the tourists how to play.

After a tour of a local silk factory we visited Tiananmen Square.  Mom and Dad hold up the 100RMB in front of the Great Hall of the People, which is depicted on the back, and is the headquarters for the National Party.  There is also a memorial to Mao Zedong, and a monument to the People's Heroes.  It was a bit strange to stand in a place that has seen so much violence and to know that most of the Chinese visitors are completely unaware of the full history to the square.  But, the Chinese like Americans are proud to visit their nations capital and to see the seat of their governments power.

Our next stop was to the Forbidden City, which truly is a city unto itself.  The city is made up of 980 buildings, covers 180 acres, and was home to 24 Emperors culminating in 500 years of history. It was taken over in 1925 by the Palace Museum, and was declared a World Heritage Site in 1987. Yellow is considered to be the color of the Emperor, so all the roofs of the Forbidden City are done in yellow.  During our visit we walked from the Outer Court, which was used for ceremonial purposes, to the Inner Court, where the Emperor and his family lived and worked.

For lunch we stopped at a restaurant just outside of Tiananmen Square and had some amazing Peking Duck, which our guide Rita showed us (fork people, as they call us) how the locals eat it. Our last stop of the day was a historic Hutong neighborhood.  Here was got to enjoy a ride in a rickshaw and the hospitality of a woman who's family has lived in the Hutong for generations.
Before leaving the Hutong we had the opportunity to meet a with THE #1 cricket fighting champion.  He had to be in his 80s at least, and he spoke almost no English, but his enthusiasm and charm had us all enthralled.  He showed us pictures of interviews he's done for magazines and news shows around the world, and then... we got to see China's #1 fighting cricket.  But, he does not limit himself to crickets.  He also breeds grasshoppers for their sound, and got a laugh out of the kids when he put one on Charlie's hat.

No visit to China is complete without a traditional tea tasting. If China is known for anything aside from silk, it's tea.  On our way from the Hutong we stopped at the Drum Tower to learn more about tea than most would care to.  The Chinese take their tea very seriously and use different pots and different methods of brewing depending on the tea.  As with most tastings, you only get a small sample to try, in what looks a lot like a shot glass.  We tried several types, including Oolong, Green, Black, Lychee, and Fruit tea.  As we tried each our server would explain the benefits the various teas offered.  The fruit tea is very sweet has no caffeine so it is often served to kids. Charlie, proving himself to have a very Chinese palate, by drinking down every last drop of tea served, even finishing off his sisters.  We ended up bringing home some Lychee tea and a beautiful tea set decorated with dragons and phoenix, a representation of male and female or Emperor and Empress, to add to my growing collection of tea sets.

Dinner time, or maybe not.  Our hotel was only a few blocks from the famous Snack Street, where you can find a mind boggling variety of things to munch on.  There are of course some typical snacks, like noodles, veggies, and dumplings, but that is not why you go to Snack Street.  You go to see, and if you're brave, to try some of the more unconventional snacks. Things like snake, spider, beetles, silk worms, sea horse, scorpion, and sea star to name a few.  Most of the vendors are happy to explain what they offer and will assure you, "it is very good".  I'm sorry to say that I was not that brave.  I did enjoyed a potato that had been sliced very thin in a long curl and then fried, and a sweet red bean paste bun that was made up to look like a pig.  Unsurprisingly, considering how much he enjoys watching Andrew Zimmern, my dad gave the fried scorpion a go.  According to him, it was crispy, salty, and actually quite good.  I just took his word for it.  I have a strict policy on eating things with more than four legs.

Having said good bye to Holly and Steven the night before, we headed out to see the Bird's Nest and Water Cube.  Although you can walk through the Olympic Park, we were happy with a view of the park from a pedestrian bridge.  From there we went to the Summer Palace, which is actually more gardens than palace, and was also very crowded. It was known to be Empress Dowager Cixi's favorite place, who is said to have embezzled money from the Navy to restore it. She also ruled China through first her son, and after he died, her nephew, whom she later imprisoned at the Summer Palace.

For our last meal in Beijing, we enjoyed Hot Pot, and popular Chinese style of cooking (think Chinese fondue).  We ordered two broths, a spicy and a non spicy, and then ordered meats, seafood, and veggies to cook in the broth.  There is also a bar of sauces to pick from to add some extra flavor or zip to your food.  We also ordered noodles, which are brought out by a chef who slings them about in a noodle dance before dropping them in your pot.  The kids loved cooking their lunch and almost forgot about eating.  After a delicious and filling meal we headed to the train station for our trip back to Shanghai.  It was an amazing whirl wind trip through China, filled with amazing experiences made even better because we got to experience them with my family this time.  We are so lucky to have this opportunity to live in China and to see Asia, and I'm so glad that we could share a bit of that with my family.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Shanghai Family Reunion!

It's a Krehel family reunion, Shanghai style!  What better way to see Shanghai than from the top of the iconic Oriental Pearl Tower? While this is by far my first trip to the Pearl, I always have fun and see something new every time.  It wasn't the best day weather wise, but there wasn't any rain, or crowds, and the view was as always, amazing. After enjoying Shanghai from over 200 meters up, we headed down to the History Museum, where we walked through the "streets" of Shanghai.  No matter how many times we go, the kids always have a good time.  I think they enjoy walking through the different scenes.  After our abbreviated history lesson we walked over to the Super Brand Mall for lunch before heading to Tian Zi Fang, a funky little collection of alleyways with shops and restaurants.  The guys took the kids and headed to a pub for a drink while Mom, Holly, and I got to do some kid free shopping. Before heading back home I did check to see if anyone was interested in dinner at More Than Toilet, but I didn't haven any takers.  (See previous blog from October)

Next on the Chinese experience... an ancient water village. Since mom and dad had already visited Zhujiajiao they opted to stay home and pick up the kids from school and take Liliane to gymnastics for me.  I've been to three water villages since moving here, Zhujiajiao is by far my favorite.  It's beautiful, clean, has lots to see, and most importantly, is easy to navigate. The shinny new Starbucks set at the edge of the village is a nice touch too.  Holly and Steve got there shopping on and seemed to really enjoy bargaining for their souvenirs.  I think Steven may have enjoyed his candy dragon the most though. I've seen these candies many times, but had never tried one.  It tasted a lot like honey, not bad at all.  We visited a both a Taoist and Buddhist Temple, Qing Dynasty Post Office, Apothecary, and the Kezhi Gardens.  The gardens, which are beautiful, were scene at a very brisk walk as it had started to rain.  Of course we all had umbrellas, we just hadn't brought them with us!  Luckily, it was the end of the day when the rain did decide to start so we were more than happy to call it a day and head back home.

While mom took Charlie to pick strawberries with his class, the rest of us had a quiet morning before we all headed to the Yu Yuan Gardens.  The market outside of the gardens are all modern buildings with the exception of one, that are built to look like typical buildings from the early 20th century.  At the market you can find artists selling portraits or engravings of your name in Chinese, tea sets, silk and many other typical souvenirs.  The gardens though, were built in the mid 16th century and were renovated in the 1950's after being damaged by both the Opium War and the Japanese.  The garden, a private home for Pan Yunduan, a former government official, is extensive and has a lot of history. We had a lot of fun walking around enjoying the gorgeous weather and scenery. Once again the guys waited it out, this time at Starbucks, while we wandered the gardens.

That afternoon we did a guided tour of the Bund with Daniel from Newman Tours.  While I've walked the Bund many times, it was great to hear some of the history behind the buildings and the Bund, which is a hindi word.  We got to see which building the Japanese used when they took over Shanghai, and hear stories about the origins of the Peace Hotel and its owner.  We also got to see many of the ways the Chinese "rebranded" the Bund by removing or replacing images and artwork that were Western.  We finished the day off with a yummy Italian dinner at Good Fellas.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Guilin, China

Over the Qing Ming or Tomb Sweeping holiday we visited Guilin, China.  It was SO worth the trip!  Gorgeous mountains and scenery everywhere.  According to the locals, the mountains are at their best when it is overcast and foggy.  I have to admit they did look pretty spectacular.  The mountain range is huge, everywhere you looked you saw these amazing "piles" of mountains.  Our guide picked us up at our hotel and drove us to the Li River where we took a bamboo boat ride and got an up close look at the mountains.
All along the Li river are breathtaking views of mountains, waterfalls, and bamboo.  Like most, we took one of the smaller boats down the river, which gave us plenty of time to enjoy the views.  As we went along our guide pointed our certain mountains and the names the locals have given them.  As he spoke no English, it was kind of like an impromptu vocabulary quiz.  At the end of our boat ride we got to view the scene painted on the back of the 20RMB.   It was hard to get a good family picture as the dock was very crowded with both locals and tourists both coming and going.

 After our boat ride we got to see a local village by bicycle.  Charlie absolutely loved the bike ride, especially sitting in front and ringing the bell, telling me to go faster, faster!  Easy for him to say, thank God for spin class!  With Lucas and Lily sharing a tandem bike it was a great way to see the area and get a bit of exercise.  At least until we got to the mud road.  We all hoped off the bikes, and Andy our guide, carried the kids across while Lucas and I tippy toed our way carefully across.  I had a vision of us falling face first, ah la Lucile Ball, into the mud.
On our last day we visited Elephant Hill, which has a huge park and elephant carvings everywhere.  We all had a lot of fun posing with the elephant statues along with some of the more unique ones in the park.  We headed to Fubo Hill next, and climbed... a lot of stairs to get to the top.  It did give us a great view of the river and city, so it was worth the climb.  After an amazing lunch at a local restaurant we made a stop at a silk factory.  The kids got to see how the silk worm cocoon is taken and stretched and then turned into silk comforters and other things like scarfs and dresses. Unable to resist the the temptation, and I will admit, it was on my list of things to bring home from China, we got a comforter and two silk covers.  Warm in the winter, cool in the summer, silk doesn't bunch up and will way out last cotton.  Now that we'd spent lots of money, it was on to the Reed Flute Cave.  The cave is huge and has amazing stalactites and stalagmites that have formed over the Milena.  The government put in a tiled floor, steps, and lighting to make it easily accessible.  They even show a movie on the wall to explain how they cave came to be.  We took a ton of pictures, but they don't come close to showing you the awe inspiring beauty of the cave.  Such a great weekend!

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

A Shopping We Will Go!

I recently made my first trip to Marks & Spencer, a British department store that not only carries clothes for adults and kids, it also has a small grocery store and cafe.  To the British expats M&S is like a holy mecca, to me its one more place I can add to my list of places to find frozen peas.  Yes, you read that right, peas.  I've learned the hard way that the local version is not always the same as what I'm used to getting back home, and it is not unusual to go to 3 or 4 different stores to pick up what you might need for a single dinner.  So, having one more store to check for those hard to find things like frozen peas is great!
The Chinese love to shop, the many shopping malls are proof of that, but if you want to shop like a local you need to learn about the markets.  There are markets for crafts, children's clothing and toys, eye glasses, tailors, clothing, and perhaps the most well known, the fake or knock off market.   Last week I went to the Children's Market, a large underground space lined with tiny shops selling everything you need for your kids at a fraction of the price you'd pay at a shopping mall.  Some shops specialize in things like socks and tights, or baby clothes, but most have a variety.  You can often find "name brand" clothes like Polo, or Gap here too.  The quality varies, as does the price, which is dependent on your negotiating skills.   I didn't get any clothes for the kids this trip, but I did find stickers, coloring books, and some other fun crafts to help keep the kids busy next week during their spring break.
In anticipation of spring break I also made a trip to a craft market.  Just across from the Yu Yuan Garden, this large indoor market is filled with stalls selling ribbon, stickers, pencils, beads... you get the idea.  It is incredibly crowded, but worth the trip.  AC Moore ain't got nothin on Shanghai's craft markets.  You may have to hunt a bit, but you can find just about anything here you could possibly want for a busy afternoon with the kids.  There are other craft markets that cater more to the more serious artists with things like oil paints, charcoals, and clay.  If you're in need of paper for a project there is a whole street of shops for that.  They even call it paper street.

The fake market is one of my favorites to visit though.  You can find "designer" purses and sunglasses, silk scarves and robes, and all the typical souvenir chotchkies.  It is never boring and I'm always finding something new.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Sunny Florida, well, sort of...

After much planning and anticipation we finally made it to Florida for our annual trip.  After handing the kids over to Grammy and Papa, Lucas and I crashed, while the kids burned off some of the excitement of seeing everyone.  Holly and I got in our sister day at Downtown Disney, retail therapy and lunch at the Earl of Sandwich!  Magic Kingdom was first on the list this year, but we made a stop at a delicious character breakfast where we all over indulged while the kids got to meet the Mad Hatter, Alice, and Mary Poppins.  We had barely stepped foot in the park when we came across Aladdin and Jasmine.  As always the kids were super excited to be at Disney and happily bounced from one ride to the next.  Luckily for us Steven has connections in Fantasyland, and got us out of all the long lines!  Thank you Steven, you're awesome!  Lily seemed to really love the Peter Pan ride, especially the tick tock croc.

This year when planning our Disney trip I asked Lily if she wanted to be made up as a princess again or a mermaid.  Since she's currently all about Ariel, it was no surprise when she picked to be a mermaid.  Charlie also got made up this year too, and after a bit of discussion over which pirate make-up to get done, we went with a mini version of Jack Sparrow. We got Tobias Swordcutter (can't use your real name when you're a pirate) dressed in his pirate gear and then got him to sit still long enough for the wench to do his make up.  We even got a surprise visit from Jack Sparrow (Hello, yummy).  Charlie was not as impressed and wanted nothing to do with him though.  Holly and I had no such issues and happily posed for a picture with him!  Lily was busy getting turned into a mermaid, complete with frothy skirt, jewelry, hair, and make-up.  Both kids looked amazing, Charlie in particular got a lot of comments as we walked around the park.  Unfortunately, our pirate had had enough and by the time we went to Tony's for dinner he was out cold!

We visited EPCOT the next day and had fun seeing Spaceship Earth, the Land, and of course the Sea, one of the kids favorites since it has a Nemo theme and Turtle talk with Crush. This year Charlie was tall enough to go on Soarin, and after a mad dash from the front of the line to the bathroom, Charlie and I were allowed to go right back to the front and hop on the ride, which he loved. After powering through yet another day without a nap both kids crashed at dinner.  Charlie didn't even make it to the table and once Lily sat down she was done.  Too bad, I think they would have like the food at the Biergarten.

Over the weekend, mom, Holly, the kids and I, all headed to Ft. Lauderdale to visit with family.  We took the kids to the beach, where Lily had a blast looking for shells and both kids played in the sand.  We celebrated birthdays and had so much fun, but as always, it went by way too fast and Monday morning we were headed back to Clermont.  Thank you everyone for a wonderful weekend!

Our first day back to Disney was spent at Hollywood Studios, where we took Lily on the Tower of Terror and Star Tours.  She absolutely loves the scary rides!  We also saw the Little Mermaid show, and the Indian Jones Stunt Spectacular, which the kids absolutely loved.  Charlie in particular loved all the action and was super excited when they brought out the plane.

A highlight of our Disney trip this year was our dinner luau at Ohana.  We had a table right up front for the show, thank you Holly for working your magic.  We got served an awesome dinner of classic Polynesian food and got to watch the kids try to learn to hula dance and then even better, we got to watch Grammy and Lucas get up on stage to celebrate their birthdays with a hula dance.  After the dinner was over we were treated to some seriously good looking men and women wearing very little clothing dance around the stage showing us the different types of traditional Polynesian dances.  The best part, I got a kiss on the cheek from the hottest guy there!  It was an fabulous time.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Christmas in Cambodia

Let's just start with wow, because that is the best word I can think of to describe Cambodia.  We started our tour with a trip to Angkor Thom, a former capital of the Khmer Empire.  The city is surrounded by an 8 meter wall and is known for its 54 towers which represented the 54 provinces of the empire.  We got to see the city from the back of an elephant, which the kids really enjoyed, before we explored the temple itself. The kids enjoyed exploring the ruins and the huge carved faces that grace not only the 54 towers, but can be seen everywhere in the temple.
After having a lunch of some truly amazing local fare we visited Angkor Wat, probably one of the best known ancient temples, and the symbol on Cambodia's flag as it is said to represent the soul of the Khmer people.  The temple was just amazing and I am so glad we got a chance to visit. The bas-reliefs are gorgeous and give a very clear picture of life in 12th century Cambodia.  Images of dancing Apsara, a female spirit in Hindu and Buddhist faiths, are seen throughout the temple. The lake we are standing in front of is a seasonal lake. and by summer it will be dried up only to return next wet season.

Our second day took us to Tonle Sap Lake. Getting there was an adventure itself!  The roads in Cambodia are not the best, most likely because of the heavy rains and the overall lack of money. We traveled a rather sketchy and bumpy road to a boat which ferried us out to a local village that is totally built on stilts and for the most part totally self sufficient.  The kids and I handed out notebooks and pencils to the local children, most of whom were very polite and said "thank you". It was a very sad and rewarding experience.  Poor does not begin to describe these families.  During the wet season boats must be used to get around, and if it's a bad season the water levels can rise higher than the stilts and flood the homes, shops, and school of the village.  Because it's such a necessity children as young as 6 know how to run boats.  The younger children are given a big pot and spoon to paddle around in.

After braving the lumpy, bumpy road a second time we headed to Ta Prohm temple of the Lara Croft movie fame.  The temple is slowly being reclaimed from the jungle, but trees and vines are now a permanent part of the temple.  The kids were super excited to do our very own treasure hunt.  We were given a clue and found a small palm box with a stone turtle in it and a second clue, which lead to another box with a small Buddha head and a clue.  From there we met a religious woman who gave the kids a string bracelet and a blessing, before giving us another clue.  The final clue lead us to a large palm box with a much larger carved stone Buddha head.  The kids had such fun on our treasure hunt and exploring the temple.  After a short break at our hotel so we could rest and refresh we headed out again with our guide on a tuk tuk, the way to travel in most of S.E. Asia.  We headed back to Angkor Thom and took a short boat ride around the man made moat that surrounds the temple.  We were treated to an amazing sunset and the sounds of the monks at prayer.

Our third day we were supposed to start a two night cruise on the Mekong River, but instead of an 11:30 pick up, it was changed to 3:00.  With some extra time on our hands we headed to the Angkor National Museum.  We'd just finished the first floor when our guide found us.  When she'd confirmed our departure a second time she was told that, no 11:30 was the correct time.  So, we high tailed it to the boat and managed to get there in time for lunch.  We spent a relaxing afternoon and evening on the boat and found out that we weren't the only ones with a screw up in the plans.  But, unlike us, they were going to miss our first night on the boat and much of our first days sightseeing.

The next morning we headed out to see Cambodia's largest floating village which is made up mostly of Vietnamese families.  Like the village on stilts, this village is self sufficient and totally mobile. moving around depending on the depths of the lake.  Most in the village work in the fish industry or in support of it in some way.  The locals were all very friendly and seemed to enjoy waving to the funny looking tourists as much a we enjoyed them. Like all small towns, they had shops, gas stations, schools, and religious houses.  The only thing it was missing was a medical facility, but a large and very high tech boat could be seen on the outskirts of the village.  Our captain told us that it is a medical facility owned by a private individual who has the boat make rounds of the villages on the lake so they have access to medical help at least at some of the time.  
After a short trip down the river we stopped at a village known for its pottery and a sugar made from the Thnot tree.  We met with a local farmer who harvests the sugar from the trees and sells it as a spread and a liquor.  The farmer, who is 62 years young, clowned around (easily 60 feet up) for us as he climbed up a bamboo "ladder" to show us how he collects the sugar from the trees.  From there we headed to met another local, a woman who makes a variety of pots in a very old, but tried and true method. She made a pot for us in a matter of minutes, all by hand and amazingly with a consistent thickness throughout giving it strength. We bought a charming tea set from her for just $5.  It makes a great addition to my tea set collection, which now stands at 4, if you count my sake set.  We said our goodbyes and headed to a local market.  Most markets in Asia are all encompassing, meaning it is one stop shopping.  Here you can buy your daily groceries, pick up some shampoo, a new dress, shoes, and matching purse, a shiny new pot to cook dinner in, and even everything you need to set up an alter to worship Buddha.  Asia's version of Walmart!

We spent our second night on the boat, the captain offered a simple pasta dinner served early for the kids as the 7:00 dinner time was a bit late for them. After dinner we got them into Christmas jammies and set them up with the Grinch on the iPad, before heading up to a quiet kid free dinner. Christmas morning the kids found their stockings filled with goodies and two presents each to open (we'd opened gifts before leaving home). After breakfast we caught a village taxi, aka, an ox cart. As we went along in our cart the local children ran after us and practiced their English by asking us questions and pointing out the local flora and fauna.  The little boy chatting me up brought a lotus flower for Lily and I and although he was 12 years old he was Lily's size.  The little girl we talked with was 8 years and Charlie's height and probably half his weight.  They were all so sweet though and happy.  The little boy proudly pointed out his mom, house and baby brother as we went by.  It was for me one of the best parts of the trip. The cart brought us to a local temple where we were given a blessing by a monk and a red bracelet to wear for luck.

After lunch we headed back to the village, this time by van, to see the local artists.  We met a woman who makes her living by making plates of copper with the image of Angkor Wat on them. She does it all by hand with no drawing for reference.  She just uses different nails and strength to get the desired effect she wants. She is amazingly talented, Lucas bought a plate from her for his office, while I bought us a smaller silver plate for our home.  Silver and copper smithing is the specialty of the villagers.  Children walked around with baskets balanced on their heads with bracelets, necklaces, and earrings for sale.  We also went to a shop where we learned how they give copper a silver finish.
Our final stop for the day before heading to Phnom Penh was Cambodia's old capital, Oudong, where the royal Stupas (burial chambers) can be seen from some distance.  We climbed 509 steps, no I did not count, I took the captain's word, and was rewarded with an amazing view.  The funny things was, while we are all huffing and puffing, local children were running up and down the stairs like it was nothing!  At the top we also saw the ruins of the Anthareu Temple which were impressive.  On the way down I carried Charlie on my back, if we'd let him go at his own speed, we'd still be there!  Lucas some how got talked into carrying Lily down.  Needless to say, my calves were a bit sore the next day.  I hate steps, give me a bike any day!  That night we said goodbye to the captain and our new friends before heading to our hotel in Phnom Penh.  Amazingly, I'd had the forethought to make dinner reservations. The kids were each given a small gift and we all enjoyed a fabulous meal of Khmer cuisine.  It was a unique Christmas that will always have a special place in my heart.

We had only one day to spend in Cambodia's capital but we made the most of it.  We started our day with a tour of the Royal Palace which has many buildings open to the public, but because the king does reside there, many areas are closed off.  We did get to see where the king was coronated in 2004 and the gold chair that was used to carry him to the ceremony.  We also got to see the silver pagoda, so named for its silver floor.  The floor is mostly covered up to protect it, but some is left uncovered for you to see. Unfortunately photos were not allowed, you'll just have to take my word that it was amazingly beautiful.  We headed next to the National Museum where we got to see some amazing statues, but the kids were quickly bored so we didn't stay long.  We went to our final temple, Wat Phnom, which is the name sake of the city, and of course at the top of a hill.  Yay, more stairs (said in a sarcastic voice).  Charlie was mostly interested in the birds you could buy for release.  I don't really understand it, someone catches these birds, and then you pay money to have one released as an offering to Buddha.  Does it not offend Buddha to catch them in the first place?  Should have asked the tour guide, but my calves were crying so it slipped my mind... The last stop of the day was the Russian Market, so named because it used to be owned Westerners.  It is a souvenir and tchotchkes mecca.  We picked up a few "must haves" before calling it a day and heading back to our hotel to crash.

The next day we got an early flight to Siem Reap and then flew to Bangkok where our friend Pat picked us up.  We did a quick dinner out at a local place that had both Thai and Western food since the kids seemed to be over rice and noodles.  Our last full day of vacation we went to a local park and let the kids run around and have some fun. The park was beautiful, flowers were in season, and the kids were having so much fun being kids. It was a perfect way to end a busy but fun vacation.  It was a truly amazing trip and so far one of my favorites.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Holiday madness

Dulwich had their Christmas concert the week before Thanksgiving, which really threw me off my game!  I don't know why they did it so early, but they did a fantastic job.  Each class had a song that they sang, with the other kids backing them up.  The costumes were amazing and so adorable.  In previous school productions Lily has been very shy.  Not anymore!  She was front and center and singing her little heart out.  She loves her music teacher and is always singing around the house.  I couldn't have been more proud of her.

Being an expat can be challenging, but we do our best to celebrate all the holidays the way we would back home so the kids don't miss out.  In the spirit of that, we celebrated Thanksgiving on the Saturday after T-Day.  With the kids in school and Lucas working it made the most sense.  We had Jane and Duane (Brits) and Mark and Carmen (Canadian) over along with the kids to celebrate an American Thanksgiving complete with too much food, the Macy's parade, and football.  It was a great day with good food and good friends, can't ask for much more than that!

On Sunday we headed to Mohamed and Warda's for a second Thanksgiving with our BASF family.  There was turkey and two different lamb dishes as well as all the usuals.  We always have fun with our BASF family, swapping relocation stories and vacations ideas and tips.  It's always hard to be away from family during the holidays, but Lucas and I are so lucky to have made so many good friends here in Shanghai.  Without them the holidays would be a depressing thing indeed!  Now, if you'll excuse me I have to go wrap presents, I am determined to have it done before the 24th!