Angkor Wat and Cambodia’s Magnificent Ancient Temples

You may have heard of Angkor Wat, but it’s far from the only temple in Cambodia. Located in Siem Reap, the famous monument shares the city with at least 1000 other ancient temples that also attract curious visitors from all over the world. I had the opportunity to explore four of these incredible feats of architecture on my recent trip to Southeast Asia and each is magnificent in its own way.

Ta Prohm

Ta Prohm, constructed in the late 12th century, provided the backdrop for a scene in the film Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and it’s easy to see why. Towering trees border a wide dusty path and form a leafy canopy, providing sweet relief from the blistering heat. Once inside the complex, you’re surrounded by flourishing vegetation, piles of stone blocks, and more massive trees, some with roots so mighty they’ve scaled their way on and through the abandoned structures that still stand.

Ta Prohm was once a Buddhist monastery and university. It took 80,000 workers to build it – according to a Sanskrit inscription found in the temple. There are 39 towers and over 500 former residences where 12,500 people lived across the nearly 650,000-ft2 property.

Siem Reap, Cambodia is home to many majestic ancient temples, including the awe-inspiring Angkor Wat | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black
This was pretty cool to see up close.
Siem Reap, Cambodia is home to many majestic ancient temples, including the awe-inspiring Angkor Wat | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black
This is one gigantic tree. You could probably set up a person-nest in that trunk!

Banteay Srei

Banteay Srei is one of the smaller temple compounds, but it’s still quite impressive. It stands out among the other temples due to the pink sandstone used to build it, waaaay back in the mid-10th century.

Siem Reap, Cambodia is home to many majestic ancient temples, including the awe-inspiring Angkor Wat | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black
At the entrance to the small temple complex, you get a preview of the incredibly detailed carvings and sculptures Banteay Srei is known for.
Siem Reap, Cambodia is home to many majestic ancient temples, including the awe-inspiring Angkor Wat | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black
Guardian monkeys

Angkor Wat

If the temples in Cambodia were a singing ensemble, Angkor Wat would be the Michael Jackson/Beyoncé/Tina Turner/Justin Timberlake/Sting of the group. It truly is stunning.  Angkor Wat (“Temple City”) – which dates back to the mid-12th century – rests atop about 500 acres of land, making it the world’s largest religious structure ever built. As with Banteay Srei, the fine detail of the elaborate carvings and motifs etched into the stone walls of the galleries are awe-inspiring. Imagine how much labor went into constructing such an incredible structure.

Our group visited the temples twice, once in the afternoon, where so much sweat streamed down my face it led one of my tourmates to chuckle and ask: “Did you pour water over your head?” The second time, we got up earlier than anyone should ever have to, so that we could watch the sun rise over the towers. It was all totally worth it.

Siem Reap, Cambodia is home to many majestic ancient temples, including the awe-inspiring Angkor Wat | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black
Angker Wat’s five towers represent the five peaks of Mt. Meru of Hindu lore.
Siem Reap, Cambodia is home to many majestic ancient temples, including the awe-inspiring Angkor Wat | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black
1200m2 of bas relief carvings adorn the walls of the three galleries in Angkor Wat
Siem Reap, Cambodia is home to many majestic ancient temples, including the awe-inspiring Angkor Wat | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black
You had to climb these super steep steps (say that 3 times in a row) to reach the top of the tallest tower and a great view. I hate heights so my heart was definitely doing jumping jacks on the ascent and descent. I wasn’t alone though, some chose to climb up using their hands and knees, and some scooted their way down the narrow stairs.
Siem Reap, Cambodia is home to many majestic ancient temples, including the awe-inspiring Angkor Wat | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black
These are the old stairs. Even scarier!

Watching the sun rise over Angkor Wat is clearly a popular activity.

Siem Reap, Cambodia is home to many majestic ancient temples, including the awe-inspiring Angkor Wat | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black
There must have been hundreds of people around the perimeter of the lake.
Siem Reap, Cambodia is home to many majestic ancient temples, including the awe-inspiring Angkor Wat | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black
Such an incredible sight
Siem Reap, Cambodia is home to many majestic ancient temples, including the awe-inspiring Angkor Wat | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black
Seeing the sunrise over the temples of Angkor Wat was an almost surreal experience.

On the way back to the van, after enjoying a pre-packed breakfast, a monkey accosted me.

Bayon

Bayon holds the title of most “theatrical,” or perhaps, the most “quirky” of the temples I toured. Even the entrance to the complex makes a statement. As you approach the south gate, to the left sit 54 gigantic heads of gods and to the right, a line of 54 demons. Not to be outdone, crowning the towers of the iconic, 75-ft tall, arched entryway are four faces of the bodhisattva, each looking out in all four cardinal directions. Beyond the gates lies the “city” of Angkor Thom (“Big Temple”) – once the capital of King Jayavarman VII’s empire – fortified by a massive 328-ft wide moat which surrounds a 26-ft high laterite wall that protects 360 acres, including Bayon temple. Neighborhood watch on 100.

Siem Reap, Cambodia is home to many majestic ancient temples, including the awe-inspiring Angkor Wat | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black
Face towers at Angkor Thom

Everywhere you turn in the Bayon complex, there are eyes watching. Over 200 faces etched into stone cap the 54 towers at the site. While the identity of the figures decorating the temple is unknown, some speculate they are likenesses of King Jayavarman VII and a reflection of his inflated ego. The mysterious expressions on the stone faces has led some to dub them the “Mona Lisa of Southeast Asia”.

Beautiful, intricate motifs cover the walls of two galleries that surround Bayon’s main temple. The bas-relief carvings reflect the daily lives of the Khmers in the 12th century, as well as tales based in Hindu mythology.

Siem Reap, Cambodia is home to many majestic ancient temples, including the awe-inspiring Angkor Wat | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black
Two monks review the photos they took on a smartphone.
Siem Reap, Cambodia is home to many majestic ancient temples, including the awe-inspiring Angkor Wat | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black
It is considered respectful to cover your shoulders and knees while at a temple.
Siem Reap, Cambodia is home to many majestic ancient temples, including the awe-inspiring Angkor Wat | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black
With my tourmates. Including me there were 3 Americans, 1 Brit, 1 Swiss, and 1 Aussie in our group. Can you guess who’s from where?

More from my Southeast Asia series:

Part I: I Survived Crossing the Street: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam in 36 hours(ish)
Part II: Phnom Penh, Cambodia: An Emotional Visit to S21 & The Killing Fields
Part III: Tarantula Eating, Silk Spinning & Candy Making: A Road Trip through the Cambodian Countryside

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Tarantula Eating, Silk Spinning & Candy Making: A Road Trip through the Cambodian Countryside

I don’t recall seeing “chow down on deep-fried tarantula” on the tour itinerary, but when our local trip guide reviewed the day’s plan – mouth in a wide grin, eyes dancing at the mention of “eating spiders” – there it was. Given I’m willing to try (almost) anything once, I was game. Besides, I’ve already tried beetle, scorpion, and cricket, so what’s a big ass spider?

During the 6.5 hour drive from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap we made brief stopovers in several small towns in the Cambodian countryside. Towns served by the same unpaved and uneven two-lane road from which vehicles zooming by kick up mini-dust storms so intense, that sometimes those closest to the edge wear face masks for protection. One of those places is Skuon, more colloquially known as “Spiderville” because of its proliferation of tarantulas.

In Cambodia you can dine on deep fried tarantulas, float along the river past houses on stilts, and watch silkworms be turned into beautiful silk | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black
Preparations underway for a multi-day wedding celebration in one countryside village. (The grillmaster signaled to me to wait until he loaded the meat skewers so I could get a better picture.)

Spiderville

Eating spiders may seem weird to some, I know, but during the brutal reign of the Khmer Rouge, catching those sizable, eight-legged, hairy insects could mean the difference between starving and starving a little less. Nowadays, deep-fried tarantulas are considered a delicacy and enjoyed as a snack.

Three cute Cambodian children greeted me as I descended the steps of the passenger van once we’d pulled into the parking lot of an outdoor market. The only boy among them – I guessed he was around 9 – said to me: “Sister, you are beautiful.” The oldest girl, standing to his right, shook her head and added, “Your hair is so pretty.”

What is this? Me? My hair? My looks? Who put these kids up to this? People with my dark skin, kinky hair, and African features aren’t exactly held up as paragons of beauty in the US. I wasn’t accustomed to this type of attention.

I didn’t have much time to consider the kids’ comments before they began trying to charm me into buying from them: plastic bags filled with mango or other fruit, colorful origami birds, and various smaller packages of what vendors were selling in the stalls 15-feet away.

In Cambodia you can dine on deep fried tarantulas, float along the river past houses on stilts, and watch silkworms be turned into beautiful silk | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black
Some of the produce sold at the market. Pictured (from top left clockwise): dried banana chips (so tasty), mangoes, grapefruit, what looks like pink grapefruit in the bottom corner is actually pomelo, which they season with salt, lime and chili powder (to me they taste better than grapefruit because they’re sweet with none of the bitterness.), passion fruit, custard apple, and tamarind.

K_, our Cambodian guide, strongly discouraged us from buying from the kids – much to my dismay. It’s hard to say no to a sweet child with a gap-toothed smile who’s pleading with you to buy fruit “so that I can go to school.” However, as K_ explained, if they’re able to make an income by hawking goods to tourists, sometimes parents will pull their children out of school so they can work instead. I knew the kids I met were in school because they told me so when I complimented their great English. We’d arrived during the students’ two hour lunch break.

Despite my refusals to part with my cash, the kids trailed me – like an entourage – as I walked toward the market and the many platters stacked high with an array of fried insects and fruit for sale.

In Cambodia you can dine on deep fried tarantulas, float along the river past houses on stilts, and watch silkworms be turned into beautiful silk | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black
Fried water beetles
In Cambodia you can dine on deep fried tarantulas, float along the river past houses on stilts, and watch silkworms be turned into beautiful silk | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black
Fried grasshoppers
In Cambodia you can dine on deep fried tarantulas, float along the river past houses on stilts, and watch silkworms be turned into beautiful silk | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black
Deep fried tarantulas, known as a-ping, are high in protein.

K_ handed each of us a crispy tarantula leg to try. We giggled and teased each other through the experience. Once I got over the initial disgust at the idea of what I was eating, the tarantula actually tasted decent – not like chicken, more like beetle. The salt, sugar, and oil flavoring no doubt helped. It did take me a while to chew though. Like the hairs from the leg didn’t want to leave my mouth. Ick.

In Cambodia you can dine on deep fried tarantulas, float along the river past houses on stilts, and watch silkworms be turned into beautiful silk | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black

As we were gearing up to leave, K_ tapped my shoulder, pointed toward an aged woman wearing a deep-pink head scarf and clothed in long, floating layers, and told me: “She said she likes your hair.”

This never happens to me. What is this magical place?

I waved goodbye to my adorable, pint-sized entourage from behind the window as our van eased out of the lot.

From Silkworm to Silk Scarf

Santuk Silk Farm in Kampong Thom marked the second stop on our countryside excursion. Run by a US veteran of the Vietnam War and his Cambodian-Laos partner, the modest farm employs 15 women and one man from the local community. The weavers work hard spinning the silk into beautiful, color-rich scarves. We got the opportunity to learn about the process of turning the byproducts of silkworms into soft threads for weaving – a 6-week cycle – from one of the co-owners.

In Cambodia you can dine on deep fried tarantulas, float along the river past houses on stilts, and watch silkworms be turned into beautiful silk | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black
Silkworms feed on the leaves of Mulberry trees and cocoon themselves in silk on the branches.
In Cambodia you can dine on deep fried tarantulas, float along the river past houses on stilts, and watch silkworms be turned into beautiful silk | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black
Once the silkworms have spun themselves into a silk cocoon they are laid in the sun to dry. Some of the silkworms are kept alive to use for mating.
In Cambodia you can dine on deep fried tarantulas, float along the river past houses on stilts, and watch silkworms be turned into beautiful silk | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black
As the co-owner demonstrated, dried cocoons are boiled to loosen the silk, which is then spooled onto the wooden reel. Some of the silk strands were rougher than others.
Dried cocoons are boiled to loosen the silk, which is then spooled onto the wooden reel.
Once the silk is dyed, the weavers smooth and stretch it on the spinning wheel, before transferring it to the loom to be woven into silk fabric.

After getting the lowdown on the world of silk, we sat down to a home-cooked meal for lunch.

Dried cocoons are boiled to loosen the silk, which is then spooled onto the wooden reel.
I don’t know the names of any of the dishes, so I’ll just call it an assortment of meats, veggies, spices, and scrumptious-deliciousness.

The cat family of the farm joined us for the meal, eagerly anticipating fallen morsels and scraps. A small dog resides on the farm, as well. For lunch, he chose to kill one of the clucking chickens. Thankfully, I did not witness this animal act of gallinicide, but a few of my tourmates did.

Dried cocoons are boiled to loosen the silk, which is then spooled onto the wooden reel.
Mom, dad, and baby cat – unbothered by humans.

Sugar Palm Candy

Not too far from the silk farm, we made a pit stop at a roadside sugar palm candy stand. Made from the sap of sugar palm trees, the hardened candy is sweet enough to make your eyes pop. You can also cook with it, boil it into a juice, or melt it into your tea or coffee if a shocking jolt of sugar isn’t your bag.

After making our purchases, we piled back into the van and our driver, Mr. S_, pulled out onto the dirt road. The afternoon had barely settled and already we’d done so much; I couldn’t wait to reach the next stop and adventure.

What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever eaten? Would you eat a deep fried tarantula?

Read Part I and Part II from my Southeast Asia travel series and stay tuned for more from Cambodia!

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Phnom Penh, Cambodia: An Emotional Visit to S21 & The Killing Fields

Warning: This post contains images and content of a sensitive nature

I didn’t really know what I was getting into when I decided on Cambodia as a travel destination. A few years ago, a co-worker’s raves of her visit to the fast-developing country in Southeast Asia sparked the idea. After watching several stunningly-shot Cambodia-centered episodes of The Amazing Race, it rocketed up my travel wish list. I envisioned magnificent ancient temples, vast rice paddy fields, picturesque remote fishing villages, and bumpy thoroughfares teeming with tuk-tuks.

Bordered by Thailand to the west, Laos to the north, and Vietnam to the east, Cambodia’s culture, traditions, and cuisine are a unique amalgamation of the influence of its neighboring nations, as well as India, and the Khmer – a civilization which dates back to the first century. In the past decade, Cambodia’s made tremendous progress recovering from a tumultuous recent history that includes a civil war, genocide, and tyrannical political rule.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia is a city in rebirth with gilded royal palaces and thriving local outdoor markets | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black
Statue of former King of Cambodia, Norodom Sihanouk, erected in 2013. Upon his death in 2012, his throne succeeded to his oldest son, Norodom Sihamoni.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and Choeung Ek “Killing Fields”

Phnom Penh – Cambodia’s capital city and the first stop on our Cambodian tour – is considered the Nation’s cultural, commercial, and political center. In fact, residents of less thriving surrounding towns flock to the city seeking educational and job opportunities, in a country where the average citizen earns less than $80/month.

It is also home to a former high school which was turned into a detention and torture center and renamed “S21“, during the vicious reign of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. Under Pol Pot’s brutal regime – the main goal of which was to rid Cambodia of its intellectuals, the elite, or any sort of hierarchy, and instead carry out a warped vision of a self-sustaining peasant-ville – it’s estimated that over 1.7 million Cambodians (1/4 of the population) died in these years as a result of starvation, disease, or execution by the Khmer Rouge. S21 has since been turned into a genocide museum and renamed Tuol Sleng.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia is a city in rebirth with gilded royal palaces and thriving local outdoor markets | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black
Prison rules and regulations. Prisoners included teachers, doctors, civil servants, military, and anyone else thought to be a traitor or threat to the new regime. Of the over 14,000 people sent to the prison, known then as “S21”, only 7 survived the horrific experience.

Upon arrival at S21, new prisoners – women, men and children – were photographed, given a unique number, stripped of their clothing and possessions, and held captive for several months, before eventually being executed. Several rooms in the museum display victim’s photos. Cambodians made up the majority of victims, though a small number hailed from other countries like Laos, Vietnam, Australia, China, Britain, Thailand, Canada, and the United States.

Throughout the museum, graphic paintings reflect the inhumane conditions under which the prisoners lived. Some of the devices and instruments used during the guards’ Nazi-level torture methods are also exhibited.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia is a city in rebirth with gilded royal palaces and thriving local outdoor markets | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black
It is estimated that close to 2,000 children died at S21; these kids were the few survivors when the prison was discovered in 1979

Initially, those executed at S21 were buried on the property – until they ran out of space. Later on, prisoners were transferred from S21 to a larger site less than 10 miles away, Choeung Ek – one of several mass burial grounds or “killing fields” throughout the country – where they were sometimes forced to dig their own graves.

Now a memorial site, the grounds at Choeung Ek are well-manicured with an expansive green field dotted by robust shade and palm trees, and interspersed with large dirt pits – remnants of the mass graves – where fragments of bone and clothing poke out from beneath – even more so after a fresh rain washes away the soil.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia is a city in rebirth with gilded royal palaces and thriving local outdoor markets | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black
In the center of the park stands a Buddhist memorial stupa containing a collection of over 8,000 victims’ skulls.
Phnom Penh, Cambodia is a city in rebirth with gilded royal palaces and thriving local outdoor markets | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black
You can see the display case with the skulls just inside the door. I felt ill looking at them. It was a lot.
Phnom Penh, Cambodia is a city in rebirth with gilded royal palaces and thriving local outdoor markets | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black
In a particularly sick example of the depraved depths of humanity, sometimes the children of prisoners were killed to prevent them from growing up and avenging their parents’ deaths. Nowadays, the tree is decorated with friendship bracelets left by visitors to Choeung Ek as a way to honor those murdered.
Phnom Penh, Cambodia is a city in rebirth with gilded royal palaces and thriving local outdoor markets | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black
Bracelets left by visitors in remembrance of the 450 victims buried in this mass grave

We had an additional guide for our visit to the genocide memorials, a lovely young Cambodian woman whose grandparents were killed by the Khmer Rouge. Without a trace of  bitterness or anger in her voice, she implored us to share our thoughts and experiences from that day with others so that collectively we can actively work to prevent such atrocities in the future.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia is a city in rebirth with gilded royal palaces and thriving local outdoor markets | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black
Chum Mey is one of the handful of adult survivors from S21. The Khmer Rouge arrested him in 1978 without explanation – taking him to S21 and away from his wife and children. I bought a copy of his memoir and the purchase included a photo with him. I couldn’t find words sufficient enough to express my sympathy for all that he and his family suffered, or the immense amount of awe and respect I felt toward him for having the strength to not only survive, but go on to share his harrowing experiences with others. So, I just smiled and said “thank you.”

In 2014, I toured Sachsenhausen, a former concentration camp just outside Berlin, Germany, and I wondered then how humans can be so evil to each other.

It’s the same thought I mulled over in Tanzania while standing on the site where hundreds of years ago people were auctioned off like animals.

Again, I wondered why, as tears streamed down my face at the September 11th museum in New York, listening to the gut-wrenching audio recordings of the terrified who didn’t make it out of the Twin Towers.

It’s a question many have asked and for longer than I’ve been alive. I know there’s no pat answer, nor a quick solution for evil-deflection. What I do know is the importance of acknowledging all of the past, no matter how difficult or upsetting, and doing better! We can be better humans.

There’s a saying in the Khmer language: ‘If a mad dog bites you, don’t bite it back.’ If you do, it means you are mad, too.

– Chum Mey, in Survivor: The Triumph of an Ordinary Man in the Khmer Rouge Genocide

A Royal Palace and a Riverfront View

With a free afternoon to explore Phnom Penh, after an emotionally taxing morning spent swimming in horror and death, I headed straight for the riverfront, Sisowath Quay. I’d already seen it at night, a lively area along the Tonle Sap River, the promenade populated with groups of teenagers; families lounging on the grass in the park; street vendors peddling drinks, snacks, and whatever else they could offload; scores of motorbikes buzzing about; tourists and locals alike filling the restaurants, shops, pubs and hotels lining the boulevard, all with the Royal Palace – where the Royal Family lives – as a backdrop.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia is a city in rebirth with gilded royal palaces and thriving local outdoor markets | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black
Just hanging out with the King of Cambodia (and glistening with sweat)

Walking back to the hotel from the river, I got lost, despite the city being laid out like a grid – a French influence – and having a map. I spent the late afternoon wandering from street to street, down dusty alleys overflowing with small market stalls and throngs of people, with a different man calling out to me “Tuk tuk, lady? Tuk tuk?” every few feet (‘No thanks, I want to walk.”), attracting many curious stares with my “exotic” appearance, dodging vehicles with no intention of stopping for pedestrians, growing more and more disoriented (and agitated), sweat pouring down my face like rain (and this was the “cool” season), as my hearing overstimulated with the noise of dogs barking, roosters crowing, horns honking, and the general din of many voices speaking at once in a language I didn’t understand.

I consider myself an ambivert, but that afternoon, I never felt more introverted. I just wanted to go hide inside my hotel room and away from people! I think the weight of the morning’s visit to S21 and Choeung Ek had caught up with me. Finally, after almost two hours of wandering, and clueless how to get back to the hotel, I made one lucky tuk tuk driver’s day and asked him for a ride. Thank God one of my tourmates had handed me the hotel’s business card with the address before we split up. I showed it to the driver. “Yes, I know; I will take you!” Hallelujah.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia is a city in rebirth with gilded royal palaces and thriving local outdoor markets | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black
This cool clock outside of Wat Phnom temple was a gift from China

Did you know about the Cambodian Genocide? What are your thoughts on it? Have you ever been to Cambodia? 

Read Part I in my Southeast Asia travel series and stay tuned for more from Cambodia!

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I Survived Crossing the Street: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam in 36 hours(ish)

I spent a little less than 36 hours in Vietnam's bustling Ho Chi Minh city and there's a lot to see and do there. | Read more in "I Survived Crossing the Street: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam in 36 hours (ish)
Street action in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Stepping into the bustle of Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), your senses are overtaken by the cacophony of whirring motors from scores of motorbikes zipping by, and car horns blowing at pedestrians and cyclo drivers on the chaotic streets where traffic rules seem nonexistent.

Your skin dampens after mere minutes of exposure to the powerful sun and relentless humidity. In every direction you look, people occupy space, whether it’s working in one of the many retail shops, restaurants, cafes, hotels, street kiosks, businesses, and residential units that flank the roads, or pedestrians – some wearing masks covering their nose and mouth – boldly darting across the hectic roads from one side to the other.

Sidewalks are scant and the few that exist frequently serve as parking space for motorbike riders out eating or shopping.

My first impressions of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) – Vietnam’s largest and most populated – where I spent less than 36 hours this past December, left me a bit dizzy and unsure what to make of it all.

I spent a little less than 36 hours in Vietnam's bustling Ho Chi Minh city and there's a lot to see and do there. | Read more in "I Survived Crossing the Street: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam in 36 hours (ish)
Happy New Year 2016!

Other tidbits about HCMC:

Pho tastes about the same there as it does in California

I had one goal for my short visit to Vietnam: eat a bowl of pho – that delicious noodle soup in a flavorful meat-based broth – in its homeland. Goal: met.

Living in California I’ve had the good fortune of tasting some of the best Vietnamese food outside of Vietnam. After all, outside of Vietnam, more Vietnamese-Americans live in California than any other state.

For lunch on my first (and only) afternoon in HCMC I ordered a traditional bowl of beef pho aaaaaand….it tasted no differently from what I’ve had here. To confirm my unscientific finding, I again chose beef pho for dinner later that evening. Aaaaannnnndd….same result. I guess that’s good? I get good pho at home.

I spent a little less than 36 hours in Vietnam's bustling Ho Chi Minh city and there's a lot to see and do there. | Read more in "I Survived Crossing the Street: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam in 36 hours (ish)
This bowl of beef pho, including the coriander and bean sprouts, along with the 7UP (I like the snazzy can) cost me less than $4 USD! Pho is considered the national dish of Vietnam. It makes a great comfort food, and is eaten for breakfast, lunch and/or dinner depending on the region.

Cyclo drivers deserve major kudos

Having arrived in Ho Chi Minh a day earlier than my tour began, I used the extra time to explore as much of the city as I could. At the recommendation of the hotel concierge, I opted for a cyclo ride around HCMC. What’s a cyclo? Imagine an oversized tricycle with a bucket seat in the front to hold passengers.

My driver spoke very little English – enough to communicate the names of the landmarks we paused to view – which is more than the Vietnamese I knew (“cám ơn” or “thank you”). At various points along the 2.5 hour ride, I’d close my eyes and inhale deeply, while with the ease of a pro, he steered us through the frenetic tide of vehicles careening in all directions  – as I mentally reaffirmed my desire to live a long life.

I spent a little less than 36 hours in Vietnam's bustling Ho Chi Minh city and there's a lot to see and do there. | Read more in "I Survived Crossing the Street: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam in 36 hours (ish)
So much to see in this photo: Of course, the motorbikes (and notice the drivers are wearing helmets), in the background center you see a woman wearing a conical straw hat, known as a “leaf hat”, most likely to protect herself from the fierce heat; the bundles of low-hanging power lines; and background left: a man wearing mask over his face, which could be because he’s sick, scared of getting sick, or is protecting himself from the visible air pollution.

It’s difficult to gauge the age of my cyclo driver – I think he’s at least older than I am. His skin was worn with sun, smoke, and life lines, but he exuded youthful energy. He pedaled that giant bike – with me on it – for nearly 3 hours. Granted we took brief breaks here and there, but still.  Good for you, dude. Just goes to show that you can be fit at any age.

I spent a little less than 36 hours in Vietnam's bustling Ho Chi Minh city and there's a lot to see and do there. | Read more in "I Survived Crossing the Street: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam in 36 hours (ish)
You can see the French Colonial influence in the architecture of the Saigon Opera House, built in 1897 by a French architect.

 

I spent a little less than 36 hours in Vietnam's bustling Ho Chi Minh city and there's a lot to see and do there. | Read more in "I Survived Crossing the Street: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam in 36 hours (ish)
As seen in Ba Thien Hau Temple, a temple in honor of Thien Hau, the “Lady of the Sea.”

 

I spent a little less than 36 hours in Vietnam's bustling Ho Chi Minh city and there's a lot to see and do there. | Read more in "I Survived Crossing the Street: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam in 36 hours (ish)
Bitexco Financial Tower, with a design inspired by the lotus flower, rises to over 860-ft (262m) and is currently the tallest building in Ho Chi Minh City.

Being Black gets you noticed

Did you know that I’m kind of a big deal in Vietnam? The minute I walked out of the airport, I noticed so many eyes fixated on me that had I not been prepared for this, I’d have thought that maybe my blog had taken HCMC by storm. Finally famous in this bitch. Everywhere I went, I attracted attention. They never mention this phenomenon in the travel guides..

None of it was meant to be rude or to cause me discomfort. It’s just that some people have never ever in their whole long lives seen a black person IN REAL LIFE. Generally, when I would smile at the owner of the gawking eyes, they’d return the greeting with a sheepish grin.

I spent a little less than 36 hours in Vietnam's bustling Ho Chi Minh city and there's a lot to see and do there. | Read more in "I Survived Crossing the Street: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam in 36 hours (ish)
Hey! I’m Black and in Vietnam! (This really isn’t my favorite photo, but my cyclo driver insisted on taking it and it’s the only picture I have of a cyclo. I am sitting in front of the Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral.)
I spent a little less than 36 hours in Vietnam's bustling Ho Chi Minh city and there's a lot to see and do there. | Read more in "I Survived Crossing the Street: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam in 36 hours (ish)
Is this man mean-mugging me? Just staring right in the middle of my photo. Anyhow, this is Saigon Square, a large market packed with stalls where everything from jeans to tourist knick knacks are sold. (The guys in the ties are parking attendants.)

Even though Vietnam is one of the least religious nations in the world, Christmas is a thing.

Albeit in a secular sense and no doubt influenced by “Western” culture.

I spent a little less than 36 hours in Vietnam's bustling Ho Chi Minh city and there's a lot to see and do there. | Read more in "I Survived Crossing the Street: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam in 36 hours (ish)
With Christmas less than two weeks away, decorations were up all over the city.

That final evening in the city, I met my tourmates – the 6 other people I’d be spending the next 10 days with. At dinner, the conversation flowed easily as we dined, until it ended abruptly as a scene grew directly in front of the open-air restaurant. When the crowd drifted away, we were shocked to see a terribly disfigured man dragging himself across the pavement.

It’s hard to know how to react or what to say in that moment. My mind reeled with conflicted thoughts and questions. Our group fell silent for several counts as we all processed what we’d just witnessed. The images will be with me for awhile.

—-

The next morning, we said goodbye to Ho Chi Minh City and hit the road shortly after the roosters crowed – I could hear the cocky birds from my hotel room. Within a few hours we’d reach the border of Vietnam and cross into Cambodia.

I’ll have to return to Vietnam. My visit was entirely too short and I hear good things about Hoi An, Halong Bay, and Hanoi.

I spent a little less than 36 hours in Vietnam's bustling Ho Chi Minh city and there's a lot to see and do there. | Read more in "I Survived Crossing the Street: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam in 36 hours (ish)
Exchange rate at the time: 22,130 Vietnamese Dong = $1 USD (approx.)

Stay tuned for more in my series on my travels throughout Southeast Asia!

Have you ever been to Vietnam? If not, is it on your list of countries to visit?

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I Could Have Used More Laughs and Fewer Tears, but 2015 Was Actually Pretty Okay

This post contains affiliate links, which means that if you click on one of the product links, I’ll receive a percentage of the sales which will support running this blog. Be not afraid.

When I considered writing an end of the year retrospective, my face scrunched up in disgust as I reflected on 2015. Not my favorite year by a longshot. So much of it felt like a continuous struggle – like I’m in the middle of a significant lesson which I’ve tired of learning. Part of that may be the depression talking. It’s been one of the roughest years for me in a long while on that front and I know how much it can cloud and distort a person’s view of situations. A year is a fairly arbitrary measure of time and in the space of those bookends much transpired – good, bad and adjectives in between. There are layers to this life thing.

Instead of dwelling on the year’s lows and looking at the year simplistically, I opted to capture the essence of each month – a reflection of what was going during that period in time – including the books I read, TV shows I binged, trips I took and posts I wrote that resonated with people. It turns out that 2015 wasn’t as “garbage” as I initially thought.

2015: Year in Review

January

Highs: Woke up in Prague after a fun New Years Eve. • Designed and ordered my first box of business cards as a writer and blogger. • Was excited to be followed by Taye Diggs on Twitter until I found out he follows practically everyone.

2015, like every other year, had it's highs and lows. It's important not to let the lows overshadow the highs. | Read more from "2015 in Review: I Could Have Used More Laughs and Fewer Tears..." on The Girl Next Door is Black
Just hanging out in Prague on New Year’s Day 2015 | Sculpture: In Utero by David Černý

Lows: Driving 90 miles north to UC Davis’ Veterinary School to see if my beloved, 13-year old cat has cancer (inconclusive, tests are $$$$)
Binge-watched: Frasier (all seasons – there are 11!), The Originals (s1)
Read: The Andy Cohen Diaries: A Deep Look at a Shallow Year ☆☆☆☆☆
Traveled: Prague • Warsaw
Wrote: GoodBye Weave; Hello Curls! (Most viewed post in January and in all of 2015)

February

Highs: Littlest sister visited from Texas!
Lows: Littlest sister went back home.

2015, like every other year, had it's ups and downs. However, it's important not to let the year's lows overshadow the highs. | Read more from "2015 Year in Review: I Could Have Used More Laughs and Fewer Tears, but It Actually Wasn't That Terrible" on The Girl Next Door is Black
Showed my sister one of San Francisco’s favorite ways of spending a sunny afternoon – at Dolores Park: picnicking, drinking, smoking, “smoking”, laughing, celebrating, etc. We ate the best strawberries that day. I scored three baskets of plump berries for $5 from a street vendor in The Mission. I almost felt like I got away with something.

Binge-watched: Frasier cont’d • Arrow (s1-3 )
Read: Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple ☆☆☆☆
Wrote: Essential Blogging Resource Guide (one of the top 3 “pinned” posts in 2015)

March

Highs: A photographer friend profiled me on his site • Heard Talib Kweli speak on race and hip-hop at The Commonwealth Club • A friend sent me surprise flowers for my birthday. I love surprises like that!
Lows: Not being able to fly to Texas to celebrate my (Texas) mom’s milestone birthday
Binge-watched: Arrow cont’d • House of Cards (s1-3)
Read: Disintegration: The Splintering of Black America by Eugene Robinson ☆☆☆☆
Wrote: No, I’m Not a Mommy (most comments of the year)

My dad actually recommended this book to me and mailed me his copy. I’m glad he did because I found it enlightening. I highly recommend this book if you want to learn more about Black Americans of today – the media only gives attention to a small segment – and the socioeconomic factors which underlie our progress and pitfalls in the US.

April

Highs: Being invited as a guest on a radio show. I thought my nerves were going to get the best of me, but I did it and I didn’t make myself look like a fool! • Caught up with a good friend from L.A. who was passing through San Francisco for a blip. We laughed so hard; it was just what I needed.
Lows: The Uprising in Baltimore, Maryland after the death of Freddie Gray – specifically the way many mainstream media outlets distorted events, as well as how excessive policing goaded and further traumatized people already in emotional distress.
Binge-watched: Marvel’s Daredevil • Bones (s5-9)
Wrote: 5 Myths About Black Americans That Need to Disappear (4th most popular post of the year)

May

Highs: My friend’s super fun bachelorette weekend in Palms Springs • Attended my first blog conference (Bloggy Boot Camp in Temecula – Nia Peeples was there!) • Reunited with my Europe travel buddy for a weekend
Binge-watched: Bones cont’d
Traveled: Palm Springs • Temecula / San Diego
Wrote: Not Your Grandparents’ Brand of Racism

2015, like every other year, had it's ups and downs. However, it's important not to let the year's lows overshadow the highs. | Read more from "2015 Year in Review: I Could Have Used More Laughs and Fewer Tears, but It Actually Wasn't That Terrible" on The Girl Next Door is Black
In Palm Springs I had a carefree weekend

June

Highs: Watched two friends who seem made for each other get married • Saw an excellent and poignant one-woman show at The Marsh called Black Virgins Are Not for Hipsters • Danced to tracks spun by Ryan Hemsworth at 1015 Folsom • Saw Kim Kardashian talk about the sexual objectification of women in the media (yes, really) at The Commonwealth Club (While I’ve never been her biggest fan, I have to admit she gives a charming interview and is likely smarter than she’s given credit for). My friend J and I are now technically in an episode of Keeping up with the Kardashians since the cameras were there with Kim and panned over the audience.

A friend sent me an email out of the blue saying “write a book please” – it meant a lot. • Bree Newsome climbed a flagpole and took down the anachronistic Confederate Flag waving in front of South Carolina’s capitol building!
Lows: A delusional white supremacist befriended and then murdered 9 black parishioners in a Charleston, South Carolina church. Being in the office – where I was one of very few black employees – feeling alone in mourning the lives lost, because no one else seemed care about what had happened – at least not to the degree I did.
Binge-watched: Orange is the New Black (s2-3)
Read: Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie ☆☆☆☆
Wrote: Don’t Call Me “Girl”

July

Highs: First BlogHer conference •  Spent time with my (New York) mom and my grandparents • Took in another one woman show, this time by Anna Deavere Smith called Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education at Berkeley Rep – disquieting commentary on the US educational system and the “school-to-prison” pipeline. • BlogHer.com picked up my post What Emotions Am I Allowed to Have as a Black Woman for syndication!

BlogHer 2015 is hands down the best conference I’ve ever attended. Among many highlights: I learned  more than I probably am even aware; shared an inspiring moment of solidarity led by the co-founders of the Black Lives Matter movement; met one of the bloggers I admire, Awesomely Luvvie (and acted like a fool incapable of forming proper sentences); listened with great interest as the talented film director Ava DuVernay imparted words of wisdom; and engaged in refreshingly honest discussion on sexual harassment, intersectional feminism, and domestic violence helmed by three formidable women behind a few of the most powerful “hashtag activism” movements on Twitter in recent years.

I also met some wonderful new people, and to wrap it all up we celebrated with a party where Boyz II Men performed, Nick Cannon DJed, we “whip and nae nae”d, and dined on all the McDonald’s we could eat!

Lows: My friend died from cancer  • In a case of police abuse that hit frighteningly close to home, a 28-year old black woman named Sandra Bland was found dead in her jail cell under extremely suspicious circumstances – after a questionable arrest. This just weeks after the murders in Charleston. Again, working in the office – trying to get through the day coherently and without breaking into tears – seemed like a form of self-flagellation.
Binge-watched: Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt • Veep
Read: The Plum Tree by Ellen Marie Wiseman ☆☆☆☆
Traveled: New York
Wrote: What Emotions Am I Allowed to Have as a Black Woman? (3rd most popular post of the year)

August

Highs: Reunited with my friends/favorite ex-coworkers to celebrate the life of our friend E- who died in July • Caught up other good friends in Los Angeles for Mexican food • Went to a San Francisco Giants game with a friend in town from L.A. • Surprised and honored to be included in Quirky, Brown Love’s 200 Amazing Black Bloggers (among great company).
Lows: The reason for the reunion • Took an unscheduled break from blogging to recharge

2015, like every other year, had it's ups and downs. However, it's important not to let the year's lows overshadow the highs. | Read more from "2015 Year in Review: I Could Have Used More Laughs and Fewer Tears, but It Actually Wasn't That Terrible" on The Girl Next Door is Black
My friend E’s brother is on the far right; along with E, the rest of us worked at the same company for several years and became good friends. We dined in Koreatown in honor of some of E’s favorite things – good food, good drink and lots of meat.

Read: The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins ☆☆☆☆☆ • Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates ☆☆☆☆☆ • The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl by Issa Rae ☆☆☆☆
Traveled: Los Angeles
Wrote: White Supremacy: I Don’t Know How Much More of It I Can Handle

September

Highs: Visited my Vegas grandmother, got her signed up for seniors’ internet classes at her local library, helped her secure her membership at the ‘Y’ where she now enjoys taking chair yoga, and took her shopping because as I told her, just because you’re working out doesn’t mean you should dress any ol’ way and she was going to be a “fly granny.” 79 and still going strong. Get it granny! • Second youngest sister visited from Texas! • Danced my butt off at the Oakland Music Festival with said sister. • Invited onto The Unconventional Woman Podcast as a guest.
Lows: Had a mammogram to check out a lump (everything’s fine). • Second youngest sister returned home.
Binge-watched: Sliders (re-watched series) • Power
Traveled: Las Vegas
Wrote: San Francisco, I Think I’m Over You

2015, like every other year, had it's ups and downs. However, it's important not to let the year's lows overshadow the highs. | Read more from "2015 Year in Review: I Could Have Used More Laughs and Fewer Tears, but It Actually Wasn't That Terrible" on The Girl Next Door is Black
Sister selfie at The Palace of Fine Arts

https://www.instagram.com/p/8Mjn-qKrjh/

October

Highs: Saw the hilarious duo, Tracy Clayton and Heben Nigatu, from one of my favorite podcasts Another Round at Popup Magazine’s inventive evening of live storytelling • Took Mattieologie’s Full Time Formula webinar on making real income as a blogger that got me all fired up • Caught up with two former co-workers • For Harriet published my piece Growing Up “Keisha” in a World of Ashleys and Joshes! • Did an urban hike on Halloween with the Outdoor Afro Club and my friend K (black people like the outdoors too!).
Binge-watched: Person of Interest (s1-4) • Charmed (re-watched from the beginning)
Wrote: Growing Up “Keisha” in a World of Ashleys and Joshes

November

Highs: With my second youngest sister, I spent my first Thanksgiving in over 20 years with my (New York) mom and her side of the family. Met a bunch of new-to-me and new-to-this-earth cousins. • Saw a live taping of The View and softened toward Raven; DJ Tanner was there!; left with a $100 gift card to Lulu’s and an Alessia Cara CD (the musical guest on the show).
Lows: A job I wanted that would have allowed me to work remotely didn’t pan out
Binge-watched Chicago Fire (whole series) • The Fosters (s3) • Being Mary Jane (whole series)
Read: We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie ☆☆☆☆☆ • Syrup: A Novel by Max Barry ☆☆☆☆☆
Traveled: New York
Wrote: Quit Talking about the Lack of Diversity and Do Something

2015, like every other year, had it's ups and downs. However, it's important not to let the year's lows overshadow the highs. | Read more from "2015 Year in Review: I Could Have Used More Laughs and Fewer Tears, but It Actually Wasn't That Terrible" on The Girl Next Door is Black
My sister and I walked across the Brooklyn Bridge to Manhattan for the first time

December

Highs: Hung out with a high school classmate I haven’t seen since we graduated almost 20 years ago • Traveled to my 5th continent – Asia • Came in 2nd in my fantasy football league (I started playing again; I’m a hypocrite.) • Checked out a cat café in Oakland. So cute.
Binge-watched: Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce • Casual 
Read: The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League by Jeff Hobbs ☆☆☆☆☆
Traveled: Ho Chi Minh City, all over Cambodia, Bangkok, Shanghai

2015, like every other year, had it's ups and downs. However, it's important not to let the year's lows overshadow the highs. | Read more from "2015 Year in Review: I Could Have Used More Laughs and Fewer Tears, but It Actually Wasn't That Terrible" on The Girl Next Door is Black
Oh, I also tried fried tarantula in Cambodia (just a leg). It was…crunchy.

Once I put it all down, it’s clear that I have a lot to be grateful for this year. It’s far too easy to focus on what you don’t have, haven’t accomplished, who’s not with you, or how much money you didn’t make. It’s important not to let the year’s lows overshadow its’ memorable highlights.

I am healthy, I have a safe place to live, I don’t have to search for food, my family is safe and generally healthy, I have friends and people who love me. So take that depression!

With all that said, 2016 I hope you are planning to bring it.

2015, like every other year, had it's ups and downs. However, it's important not to let the year's lows overshadow the highs. | Read more from "2015 Year in Review: I Could Have Used More Laughs and Fewer Tears, but It Actually Wasn't That Terrible" on The Girl Next Door is Black
According to Spotify I pretty much listened to Drake this year with breaks for Kanye and A$AP Rocky.

How did you feel about 2015? What were your highs and lows? What did you watch/listen to/read/create? Travel anywhere interesting?

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Roaring ’20s-Style Bachelorette Weekend in Palm Springs

The first time I met my friend V’s fiancé KJ, he joined us and another friend for hiking yoga.

I knew KJ was smitten with V when I sensed how important it seemed to him that her friends like him. I took to him immediately: he’s genuine, kind, quirky funny and treats her so well. He fit in with us like an old friend.

V and KJ graduated from the same university and are even in photos together, but didn’t really know each other in college. They re-entered each others’ lives five years later when they met at a run club in Los Angeles. Few who know them were surprised when, four years after their reconnection, V and KJ announced their engagement.

To celebrate her upcoming nuptials, I joined V and nine of her college friends (she and I met at work) who drove or flew in from Los Angeles, Hawaii and Virginia for a three and a half day “roaring ’20s”-themed bachelorette party in Palm Springs.

The bridal party booked a four-bedroom mid-century home, including a heated pool and hot tub, just a few minutes from downtown Palm Springs.

Though my flight from San Francisco was only a little over an hour to Palm Springs, turbulence plagued the last 15 minutes. As I gripped both arm rests, wondering if this might be where it all ends, I scolded myself for not having made friends with the guy next to me. He might be the last person I see. I should at least know his name. I silently protested: “I’m not ready to go yet. It’s not time!” I heard a small child cry: “Mooom, I don’t like this!” Kid, we are on the same page.

Thankfully we landed without incident, other than my heart palpitations and someone’s potentially traumatized child.

The bride also flew down from San Francisco, but on a later flight. Unfortunately, after two rocky attempts to land in Palm Springs, her flight was diverted to Ontario Airport, about an hour northwest of Palm Springs. Understandably shaken, V and 12 others passengers exited the plane, opting to find their own way to their destination. Happily, she arrived that night after catching a ride with a friend – her former roommate – driving in from Los Angeles. Bachelorette party nightmare averted.

We welcomed her by hiding in the dark, pretending not to be home when she arrived.

The festivities officially kicked off the following morning with a ride on the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, the world’s largest rotating aerial tram. In just over 10 minutes, the massive pod ascended more than 8500 feet above the canyon.

From poolside underneath palm trees in the bright California sun, to fine dining at an award-winning restaurant, to a snowy nature to walk: Inside a fun-filled "roaring 20s" themed bachelorette weekend in Palm Springs.
The aerial tram
source

We exited the tram to find the temperature dramatically lower at  25 °F, low visibility and the ground covered in fresh snow.

Both V and I showed up inappropriately dressed for the climate – who expects winter in the California desert in May? – so we purchased snazzy new lounge pants from the gift shop to cover our legs.

From poolside underneath palm trees in the bright California sun, to fine dining at an award-winning restaurant, to a snowy nature to walk: Inside a fun-filled "roaring 20s" themed bachelorette weekend in Palm Springs, read more in "Bachelorette Weekend in Palm Springs " on The Girl Next Door is Black
Photo Courtesy of A

We speed-walked, lunged and jumped our way through a 1.5 mile nature walk, trying to generate heat with each movement. High in Chino Canyon we found giant pine cones fallen from towering, fragrant pine trees, lush fir trees, the homes of crayon-colored birds and chittering creatures, as our footsteps left imprints on drying powder.

After an outdoor barbecue lunch (burgers, pasta salad, grilled corn, summer salad and fresh fruit), it was pool time for some, while others napped to power up for our evening of dinner and dancing.

That evening, each of us dressed to the gills in our best approximation of 20’s style garb for a night on the town sure to be the bee’s knees.

Following an appetizing meal at The Tropicale, our group headed next door to the Miami-themed Copa Lounge, where we danced our way to sore feet.

From poolside underneath palm trees in the bright California sun, to fine dining at an award-winning restaurant, to a snowy nature to walk: Inside a fun-filled "roaring 20s" themed bachelorette weekend in Palm Springs - read more on The Girl Next Door is Black
This is only ONE of the photos a very drunk woman took for us outside of The Tropicale. As she slurred her words and showered us with compliments and overtures of of friendship, she directed our poses: “look happy,” “Ok, now be crazy silly, fun, fun!!, until we finally cut her off.

We started the next day strong with an in-home modified Barre class led by one of the bridesmaids J, who teaches at a studio in Texas. Though we’re a pretty fit group and everyone has their preferred workout of choice (cross-fit, hot yoga, Pilates, SoulCycle, etc.) the class challenged us. We giggled through our pain. J gives good Barre.

From poolside underneath palm trees in the bright California sun, to fine dining at an award-winning restaurant, to a snowy nature to walk: Inside a fun-filled "roaring 20s" themed bachelorette weekend in Palm Springs - read more on The Girl Next Door is Black
“Embrace the shakes & quakes!” J encouraged us as our muscles burned.

Post Barre class and breakfast, the tenth member of the group, a 7-months pregnant TO, joined us just in time for a photo session by the pool.

Later that evening we regrouped for a three-course dinner at The Workshop Kitchen + Bar, recent winner of the James Beard award for best restaurant design.

A bachelorette party in your 30s is a different animal than that of a twenty-something. Instead of a second night out, we opted to play games (Dirty Minds, Catchphrase) and each made a commemorative scrapbook of our weekend using Instax pics we’d taken that weekend.

From poolside underneath palm trees in the bright California sun, to fine dining at an award-winning restaurant, to a snowy nature to walk: Inside a fun-filled "roaring 20s" themed bachelorette weekend in Palm Springs - read more on The Girl Next Door is Black

The night culminated with s’mores around the outdoor fire pit.

From poolside underneath palm trees in the bright California sun, to fine dining at an award-winning restaurant, to a snowy nature to walk: Inside a fun-filled "roaring 20s" themed bachelorette weekend in Palm Springs - read more on The Girl Next Door is Black

On our last morning together, we enjoyed a breakfast of waffles at the house and made friendship bracelets. It felt like being back at summer camp. The perfect bookend to a fun-packed extended weekend in Palm Springs.

Of course, we couldn’t leave the house without taking one last photo.

From poolside underneath palm trees in the bright California sun, to fine dining at an award-winning restaurant, to a snowy nature to walk: Inside a fun-filled "roaring 20s" themed bachelorette weekend in Palm Springs - read more on The Girl Next Door is Black
Congratulations V and KJ!

 

Four Days in Historic Warsaw

Things to do, see and eat with 4 days in historic Warsaw, Poland. See more on The Girl Next Door is Black

When the bellhop left the hotel room after depositing our luggage, I broke into a touchdown dance.

“This room!”

I dove onto the bed, a European double, spaced at least 3-feet away from a second bed. Larger beds and no tripping over luggage, boots and each other? Minimal upgrades that seemed positively luxe when compared to our accommodations in the past 15 days.

Things to do, see and eat with 4 days in historic Warsaw, Poland. See more on The Girl Next Door is Black| Polonia Palace Lobby at Christmastime Warsaw
Polonia Palace Lobby festively decorated for the Christmas holidays.

In Copenhagen and Berlin, we stayed in hostels. in small rooms reminiscent of my college dorm days. There was the budget hotel in Prague with an Internet connection so slow it literally made me cry (I blame travel fatigue). We reveled in the amenities of the 4-star hotel we’d booked in Warsaw, the last stop on our 3-, turned 4-city, self-directed tour of European capitals. Thanks to Warsaw’s inexpensive cost, four nights at the Polonia Palace Hotel cost just a tad more than one night at the hostel in Copenhagen.

“Keisha! We have a real tub!” Z exclaimed from the bathroom. I danced some more. The queen life.

The train ride from Prague to Warsaw was a long 7.5 hours, so we took it easy that night and enjoyed dinner in our hotel’s restaurant, Strauss.

Like Prague, Warsaw has its own historic town center – the Old Town Market Place  our first sightseeing destination the next morning. Everywhere you turn in the massive square you’re treated to enchanting view after view, bordered on one side by, what else? A Royal Castle. The beautiful square had to be rebuilt in the mid-20th century after being destroyed by Germany in WWII.

 

We found a giant panda on skates.

Beyond the square, in Old Town, are shops, cathedrals, landmarks, schools, restaurants and a touch of merriment courtesy of the lingering holiday decorations.

These are no ordinary light displays!

And a McFit? Yes, it’s what it sounds like: a McDonald’s gym. McDonald’s.

Things to do, see and eat with 4 days in historic Warsaw, Poland. See more on The Girl Next Door is Black| McFit Display Ad Warsaw

It’s just as charming at night.

For dinner we chose Dwie, a Mediterranean fusion restaurant. “Fusion” restaurants bring out the skeptic in me, but I went for it.

In the end, the food presentation delighted me more than the actual meal. The dishes seemed to be trying too hard to be something.

The next day – a particularly chilly and dreary one – we visited the Warsaw Zoo. I love animals, but I’m not necessarily a fan of zoos. In the winter months, zoo admission is half off. The zoo is small, quite a few of the animals sheltered themselves from the cold in hidden places, and the big cats paced creepily. We left not feeling any better about zoos.

Things to do, see and eat with 4 days in historic Warsaw, Poland. See more on The Girl Next Door is Black | Animals at the Warsaw Zoo

Things to do, see and eat with 4 days in historic Warsaw, Poland. See more on The Girl Next Door is Black | Warsaw Pygmy Marmoset
This adorable pygmy marmoset was the highlight of the zoo for me. I imagine he’s saying, “Da hell YOU lookin’ at?”

Poland is known for pierogis, the ravioli-like dumplings served boiled or fried, with a variety of fillings that may include meat, cabbage, potatoes, or even fruit. We decided on an early dinner of pierogis at Zapiecek, which at 5pm already looked filled to capacity. Luckily we quickly snagged one of the last tables and were soon rewarded with delicious, real-deal pierogis.

Things to do, see and eat with 4 days in historic Warsaw, Poland. See more on The Girl Next Door is Black| Palace of Culture and Science at Night Warsaw
The night skyline in Warsaw includes the tallest structure in Poland: Palace of Culture and Science which we walked by on our way home.

While indulging in late night desserts at a restaurant with an extensive sweets selection, Smaki Warszawy, fresh fat snow flakes started falling from the sky coating the city with white powder in minutes, making it seem more romantic – for other people. We saw a couple engaged in a flirty snowball fight on the short stroll back to our hotel.

Łazienki Park, a gigantic park in the center or Warsaw, is one of the most visited spots in Warsaw. To visit the day after fresh snowfall was a treat. The park’s full name translates to “royal baths park” and fresh snow also meant all the water in the park sat frozen or empty. Similar to Central Park in New York, visitors to the park are a collection of tourists and locals, families and friends, and couples taken by the magnificent parkscape.

Within the park is a museum, a white-tablecloth restaurant, sculptures, statues, and a palace. One of the most famous statues of of Polish composer, Frédéric Chopin, resides in the park. We witnessed a young guy use his footsteps to draw a heart in the snow around the perimeter of the empty pool in front of the statue. His adoring girlfriend watched at the base of the monument.

We picked our lunch spot by default that day. As it turns out, January 6 is a holiday in Poland, Three King’s Day, and as such, nearly everything was closed. Happily, Być Może, an airy cafe with high ceilings, served up tasty sandwiches on freshly-baked bread.

Our sightseeing adventures ended earlier than planned due to the holiday closures, which gave us more time to enjoy the comforts of our hotel and watch music videos on Eska tv, a Polish music channel. Their video lineup included the usual Top 40 suspects interspersed with local artists, like a rapper who looked and kinda sounded like a Polish Eminem. I couldn’t understand a word of what he said, but the beat and flow worked; I liked it. Notably, every commercial break contained at least one pharmaceutical commercial.

The next morning, I arose at a bleary hour, way before the birds, first to depart back to the United States. Bittersweet best describes what leaving felt like. For three weeks, Z and I were lucky enough to travel around Europe soaking in cultures, learning history, trying new foods, meeting interesting people and forming unforgettable memories. What a trip! Nevertheless, back in San Francisco awaited the comforts that only a place called “home” can provide.

Things to do, see and eat with 4 days in historic Warsaw, Poland. See more on The Girl Next Door is Black

Celebrating the New Year in Prague

Prague at Night | The Girl Next Door is BlackPrague is known as the “Paris of the East” and though I hear several other cities also lay claim to this title, it’s easy to see why Prague (known locally as “Praha“) is a serious contender.

As we walked toward the historic Old Town Square our first night in the city – also New Year’s Eve – scenes straight from the illustrated pages of a fairy tale dazzled our senses. Our double-socked, insulated boots tread on cobblestone roads and sidewalks slick from evaporating snow. We strode past vibrantly-colored edifices, red tiled-roofs and magnificent Gothic cathedrals – a city oozing with charm.

As I experienced in Paris, I wondered if city officials flooded the air with happy molecules. You can’t help but feel more buoyant; shielded from life’s little worries for a moment as you absorb it all.

When we reached the picturesque square, we knew we’d made the right decision to skip out on the rest of our Berlin trip and take a detour to Prague. Within minutes of integrating ourselves into the large crowd of merry faces – young, old and in between – the last of the gloomy essence of Berlin fled from our psyches.

A massive, beautifully-trimmed Christmas tree dominated the square; an enthusiastic Czech rock band on a stage with “2015” brandished in roman numerals on a bright yellow awning, entertained the gathered, some of whom blared noisemakers, others who relied on their own vocal cords to make noise; while others drank from cans of Pilsner Urquell because drinking on the street in Prague? No worries there.

Christmas Tree in Prague Old Town Square | The Girl Next Door is Black

Prague knows how to throw a New Year’s Eve party! Minutes before midnight, we filed out the Irish pub we’d settled in earlier, and with the rest of the new year celebrants converged on the town square for the countdown to midnight. The magical fireworks show began the second the clock struck “12” and seemed to continue for hours, never wavering in its power to delight. The party really didn’t stop ’til (at least) “6 in the morning.”

 

Friends in Prague NYE | The Girl Next Door is Black
Photo courtesy of my friend Z

Prague’s French influence is also evident in its many brasseries, bistros and patisseries, a handful of which are Michelin-starred or Michelin-recommended. Just when we thought our Europe trip would be light on food memories. Z and I were brunch buddies when we both lived in Los Angeles, so it’s fitting that we welcomed 2015 with a late-morning meal at a darling French restaurant and patisserie, Au Gourmand, whose  window display of pastries beckon the sweet-toothers and the savory-seekers alike.

After a satisfying brunch we revisited the Old Town Square to take it in during the light of day.

Astronomical Clock Prague | The Girl Next Door is Black
The famous Astronomical Clock at the Old Town Hall Tower. People gather to watch a procession of the of the 12 (wooden-figured) Apostles of Christ, at the top of each hour. Each of the intricately detailed dials represent different astronomical events. The only thing I didn’t see on the clock tower was the actual current time!

For someone like me who hates being among huge crowds of people wandering aimlessly, visiting the Charles Bridge – probably one of Prague’s most spectacular and most visited sites – should have been a nightmare. Everyone in Prague seemed to have descended upon the bridge that day. Yet, as we slowly traversed the bridge with the throng of others, noticing an over-abundance of selfie-sticks rising above the mass, I was so taken by the wondrous view all around me, I felt temporarily insulated from annoyance. Is this place for real?

 The centuries old Charles Bridge connects Prague’s Old Town (or Stare Miasto) to Lesser Town (Malá Strana) across the Vltava River. Along the nearly 1/2 mile long bridge, in addition to stunning views of the city, you’ll find local artists and craftspeople selling their work as souvenirs, musicians entertaining for tips, striking religious imagery, as well as two imposing Gothic towers flanking each end of the pedestrian thoroughfare.

 

Deposition of Christ + Couple making out on Charles Bridge | The Girl Next Door is Black
An interesting choice for a makeout spot…

For the first dinner of 2015, we kept the French theme going and enjoyed a fantastic meal at Chez Marcel that had me happy dancing in my seat with each course.

Wanting a view of Prague from above, we returned to the Charles Bridge the next day and to our delight, found the number of people greatly reduced from the New Year’s Day horde and much easier to navigate. Ascending the narrow steps to the top of the Lessor Town Bridge Tower – one of the two towers that stand on each end of the Charles Bridge – led us to views so magnificent, I know why the term “breathtaking” became such a writing cliché.

On the other side of the tower exists the incongruously named Lessor Town, home of the grand and architecturally-striking Prague Castle, where the President of the Czech Republic resides.


The night landscape lit romantic views on the way back into Old Town.

Dinner that night, our last in the city, delivered another solid dining experience courtesy of GamberoRosso serving up Italian cuisine like the black risotto with prawns I ordered.

Prague charmed me to the core and ranks highly on my mental list of favorite world cities. I couldn’t have asked for a better place to ring in the New Year!

Getting the Cold Shoulder in Berlin

I liked Berlin when my friend and I arrived in the sprawling German capital a week ago. Our hostel was in Friedrichshain, where our cab driver told us – in heavily German-accented English – is a “good area with lots of clubs. If you come to Berlin to party, you are in the right place!” In fact, the hostel is directly across the street from a club, as well as the S-Bahn – one of the two main railways in Berlin. Not only that, the infamous Berlin Wall that divided East and West Berlin for nearly 30 years until 1989, was just a five-minute walk away.

The East Side Gallery of what remains of the Berlin Wall displays the work of artists from across the world.

Hungarian Santa Claus Berlin
Ran across a Santa Claus from Budapest at the Berlin Wall. When we told him we are from America he said, “Amereecah! I love Amereecah! Caleeforneeya. New Yorkh! Flooreeda! Hahahaha!” He was amusing, but a little much.
Pork knuckle dinner Berlin
For dinner one evening, I tried the popular German dish of picked pork knuckle at Zum Alten Tor, served with sauerkraut and boiled potatoes. The pork was tender and fatty, sauerkraut sour and potatoes were standard. It was good, but I don’t need to have it again.

In search of breakfast one morning – I hadn’t seen an egg in almost two weeks; plenty of beef, pork and pastries though – we stumbled into the Kreuzberg neighborhood. A gritty enclave which, in appearance, reminds me of Queens, New York with the train rattling on rails up above, graffiti-painted apartment buildings and restaurants serving up cuisine from different nations. Sadly, we didn’t consume any eggs that day. December 26th is a holiday in Germany and as we discovered, many businesses closed up shop.

On a 2.5 hour walking tour our second day in Berlin – on the coldest day we experienced on our trip so far; Z worried her frozen pinky toes would die and fall off – we consumed what our New Zealander turned Berliner guide, Stephanie, told us amounted to “800 years of German history in one afternoon.”

After the walking tour we sought warmth at the charming Christmas market, or Gendarmenmarkt, in a beautiful square between two impressive cathedrals.

The next day, in search of an eggy breakfast once again, we ventured to the adorable Café im Literaturhaus near Kurfürstendamm (Ku’damm). If Kruezberg is Queens, Ku’damm, Berlin’s glitzy shopping avenue – like a Champs-Élysées sister – is the Upper East Side in Manhattan. Boutiques, shops, restaurants and cafes line the over two-mile long destination, along with seasonal Christmas pop-up stands shilling roasted chestnuts, crepes, Glühwein and sausage wursts, among other goodies. People packed the shops and the “queues” for dressing rooms and cash registers wound through doors and around corners.

On the train ride to Ku’daam we witnessed an old couple go off on young Arab woman because the old woman tripped over the woman’s foot.

View from U-Bahn Berlin
Brandenburg Gate decals on the U-Bahn

The woman and her husband berated the bewildered young woman for minutes in harsh German tones. We have no idea what they were going on about, but that would not have been me sitting there. No sir. Not gonna yell at me with some nonsense. We shared sentimental looks with the woman. That couple was out of line.

Unfortunately, we arrived at Literaturhaus minutes too late for breakfast. Foiled again! As we were waiting for our server to clear the table she led us to, a tall dirty-blond haired man moved my friend with a slight push to her back and said tersely, “you have to get out of the way.” I looked askance at his back as he exited the restaurant, shocked at his rudeness.

People behaving like jackholes aside, we enjoyed lunch instead and followed it up with a bit of shopping on the avenue.

I finally saw eggs of the scrambled form the day before we left Berlin when we returned to Literaturhaus the following day. Yippee!

Berlin’s reputation as a party city, with one of the world’s largest New Year’s Eve celebrations, is why we chose it for NYE festivities. To get a taste of the Berlin nightlife in prep for the over-hyped holiday eve, one night we piled on our multiple layers of clothing – sexy – and headed out tor Clärchens Ballhaus in Mitte, because who doesn’t want to go dance it up with Germans in a ballhaus/biergarten/dance club/restaurant?

Clärchen's Ballhaus Berlin
Clärchen’s Ballhaus exterior. The outdoor biergarten was closed due to the cold

The clientele was a mix of people I couldn’t figure out: a tall white-haired couple knocked back Berliners (the local beer) like pros; a female couple dance seductively nearby; assertive to the point of nearly-aggressive men stared lasciviously at women whose gaze met theirs and tried to find ladies to bump and grind; other couples – both straight and gay – danced and sang to American songs sung by a fun German cover band. They performed “Hey Ya” by Outkast among other popular former American Top 40 hits.

The kitsch of the place made the evening fun, but if I lived in the area I am not sure it’d be a regular haunt.

Like Copenhagen, smoking in bars is legal, which for this non-smoking Californian is tough to endure for too long.

On another night we joined a pub crawl which Z and I both agree was a boring mess. I’ve had more fun at the dentist. At least my dentist tries to make conversation with me, unlike the surprisingly unfriendly Australians on the crawl with whom I attempted to make conversation. Also unlike the three crawl hosts who spent more time socializing with each other than the group. Two French women we talked to betrayed the French reputation for rudeness and were polite and conversational. Unfortunately between their somewhat limited English and our limited French (a few years of French as a kid only gets you so far), conversation grew stilted. We chatted up an American couple from Texas and New Jersey who commented multiple times about how unfriendly they found Germans.

Mixed sausage plate Berlin
Another dinner – more meat. Mixed wursts plate. I miss vegetables.

As thankful as we were to meet the outgoing American couple, we were so put off by the group’s lack of cohesion or attempts to remedy it, along with the hosts’ subpar socializing job, we left the pub crawl at the second bar and set off on our own. I wasted a cute outfit and risked a hangover on a lame evening – I doubly resent the pub crawl.

We alternated between walking (an average of 4.5 miles a day), taxis and the U-Bahn and S-Bahn to get around. Buying tickets at the train station amounted to playing a live action “hurt as many people as possible” video game of which you are the main character. Your goal is to buy a train ticket without getting shoved, pushed, hovered over or yelled at. To be fair, whenever someone spoke to me in German I felt like I was being lectured even if they were saying “I like ponies.”

A woman shoved me out of the way at the train station one morning as I was waiting in line for the ticket machine. It left me feeling which left me feeling disrespected. After not quite five days in Berlin, during which both our moods drifted toward “blah,” we realized the overarching sense of misery and general sense of displeasure in the Berlin atmosphere was bringing us down. I tired of either being stared at or ignored. I even had nightmares every night!

A couple of hours later we agreed to a detour in our travel plans and decided to leave Berlin early and spend New Year’s Eve somewhere more pleasant. First though, we visited a place of historical importance, even though it certainly wouldn’t boost our spirits: Sachsenhausen concentration camp.

Oranienburg Berlin
Town of Oranienburg. I wonder what it would be like to live there, so close to a former concentration camp.

The train ride to Oranienburg, where the Sachsenhausen former concentration camp exists as a museum and memorial, is about 50 minutes from the center of Berlin. The number of passengers aboard dwindled the further north we traveled, with only a smattering of riders remaining at the train’s last stop. As Z commented to me, “they really did ship people out to the furthest place they could.” Every muscle in my body suddenly seemed to weigh double.

As sunlight gave way to moonlight, we arrived at the snow-covered entrance to one of the most depressing places my mind and body have ever been.

Sachsenhausen operated as a prison, work camp and extermination center from 1936 to 1945. The camp housed close to 200,000 prisoners including criminals (murderers, rapists), Jehovah’s Witnesses, gay people, Jewish people and communists.

We didn’t stay long. I feel nauseated the deeper we trekked into the recesses of the grounds. The remaining empty barracks, lit from within, served as a spooky reminder of the purpose they once served. The invisible stench of human depravity leading to human misery hung in the already cold air. Z felt the hairs on the nape of her neck stand at attention. No amount of thought-wangling will make me understand how people can be so disgustingly cruel to each other.

And yet…some people still managed to take photos of themselves smiling in front of the memorials.

The next morning, we boarded a train for the 4.5 hour ride to Prague, Czech Republic in search of warmer people and lifted spirits.

On train to Prague
Goodbye Berlin, Prague see you soon!

Christmas in Copenhagen

Nisse elf for sale Det Gamle Apotek CopenhagenChristmas is kind of a big deal in Denmark. In Copenhagen giant wreaths adorn formidable wooden doors, twinkly lights border shop and restaurant facades and add sparkle to trees and foliage; wishes of “God jul” (Merry Christmas) in ornamental fonts cover storefront windows, and the requisite Christmas fir trees dot the town. On Strøget, a man with an accordion plays melodies that would make the perfect musical backdrop to a romantic comedy.

Every Christmas season, Tivoli, the second oldest amusement park in the world, transform their grounds into a majestic Christmas wonderland making it a perfect destination for families, friends, dates and tourists alike.

Copenhagen begins to quiet down during the week of Christmas. We took advantage of the calm and boarded a train for a 45-minute ride to the city of Helsingør. The city’s most famous attraction is Kronberg Palace, known also as the setting for Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The expansive grounds are magnificent and the atmosphere serene (aside from the occasional piped-in recorded sounds of incoming Calvary). The surrounding town offered its own bright charm.

Keisha on train to Helsingør

Had we done a bit more advanced planning we might have joined the ranks of the Danish and tourists filling the city’s restaurants for Christmas Eve dinner. Every restaurant we contacted was booked for the evening.

We stumbled around the nearly soulless streets of Indre By looking for signs of restaurant life. We found our oasis in the form of Sultan Palace and soon other hungry, reservation-less diners joined us for the Turkish buffet.

Christmas morning we awoke to a super gift: snow! A fun treat on our last full day in Copenhagen, especially after endless rain.

This city and its people showed us a great time and we’ll miss the more relaxed pace of life and sense of calm. Now it’s on to the next country’s adventures!
Friends in snow Kongsten Have Copenhagen

Exploring Copenhagen’s Beauty & Culture

Despite the cloudy skies and ever-present rain, Copenhagen is still quite beautiful. We spent our third day in the city exploring stunning views of the city and some of the art culture it offers.

Just around the block from our hostel we found plenty of architecture and design to marvel over.

Almost everywhere you look the scenery is beautiful.

Seeing Copenhagen from above was a must-do, so we visited the 110ft+ high Rundetaarn (“round tower”) and climbed the unusual spiral passage to the observatory.

 

After seeing the magnificent Copenhagen cityscape we ambled over to the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, an impressive museum filled with paintings, sculptures and ancient artifacts.

Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek