Angkor Wat, 2013

The crown jewel of my first trip to SE Asia: Angkor Wat. I assumed it would be some long, arduous journey on the bus to reach the sacred city, but it took us a mere 20 minutes to roll out from the hotel into a parking space. Traffic was already starting to get heavy starting a few miles out from the entrance. Tour bus after tour bus queued up, shuttling the hundreds of photo-snapping, sunglasses-wearing, backpack-toting tourists that would soon flood the gates.

Angkor from beyond the moat

It was high noon. And hot. Monkeys stood guard atop wooden posts outlining the parking lot. Their eyes twinkled at every jostle of our backpacks, in anticipation of a tasty handout.

From the entrance looking backAngkor Wat is the largest religious monument in the world. It was built in the early 12th century as a tribute to Vishnu, a Hindu deity, but the temple gradually transformed into a Buddhist temple near the end of the 12th century. Its architecture is based on Mount Meru, home of the devas in Hindu mythology, with extensive bas-reliefs. The central quincunx of towers symbolizes the 5 peaks of Mount Meru, and the walls and moat symbolize the surrounding moungain ranges and ocean.

Angkor means “city” and Wat means “temple grounds” in Khmer. Interestingly enough, wat can also mean “small”. Thom, conversely, means “big”.

We crossed the moat, 190m (or 623 feet) wide, to reach the main entrance. The head of a naga peered down at us as we walked the causeway. Steven explained to us that the West door represents death (where those who pass must exit and funnily enough through which we were entering); the East door represents life; the South door is for commoners/civilians; the North door is for the “brainwashed” (can’t remember context anymore).

Tapping palm trees

Women in straw hats tapping palm trees for their sugar in bamboo tubes waved to us cheerfully as we walked down the city promenade.

Angkor Wat is built mostly out of blocks of sandstone. Elephants would haul giant stones from the quarries of Li Shi Shan, 50km (or 31 miles) away, to Angkor Wat. Engineers would drill holes into the stones for wooden piles to stand in. The stones would expand from water and the piles would get securely locked in as a result. Genius!

One of the most amazing details about Angkor Wat was that it never suffered damage from any sort of natural disaster. The sewage and piping was engineered so efficiently, that no matter the length or intensity of a downpour, all the rainwater would drain out of the temples within 15 minutes. Astounding!

Another testimonial to the architectural voodoo mastery of its designers and engineers was that the columns were completely in line with each other. As in, 500m of columns spanning the length of each side of the temple were so meticulously constructed that there is only .05cm difference at most in deviation from the center line.

perfectly aligned columnsEven more fascinating is that the column weights were calculated so precisely–i.e. each column was so identical–that they even crack in the exact same places. No more, no less. That level of accuracy and precision is mind-blowing to me. I can barely pin a ruler down hard enough to draw a proper straight line.

vendors and monkeys hanging around

Left: the drainage basin; middle: vendors; top-right: deity relief; bottom-right: monkey hoo ha ha

Running parallel to the promenade was an avenue of shacks topped by tarps, with vendors selling quintessential tourist tchotchkes–keychains, postcards, magnets–, fresh coconut, small bites, and beautiful linens embroidered with elephants.

the towersThe towers at Angkor Wat were used as a seasonal clock: the sun rises to the right of the complex in summer, and to the left in winter. Spring and autumn equinoxes rise directly above the center tower. This center tower was the symbolic center of Cambodia, the intersection of sacred and secular.

windows at sunset

Soft, sepia hues descended on the towers as dusk grew closer.

Our experience culminated in a steep ascension up the stairs of the central tower to greet Vishnu’s statue. Keep in mind that your clothing needs to be respectful if you want to go up the towers! I wore shorts that day and had to buy a skirt to cover myself up.

walking up the steps to the towerWe were given half an hour to pay our respects and tour the towers before queuing up in a line so long that it wrapped the perimeter of the towers, to begin our descent. The slope of the staircase is not for the faint of heart or those with acrophobia (me) — you couldn’t even see the next step when going down! It was terrifying.

angkor wat in 4 images

From left to right: pineapple shucking; flower reliefs; Vishnu; my group and I having some fun imitating 千手觀音 [qian shou guan yin], or Thousand Hand Guan Yin

The sun set behind the clouds and our visit came to a close. We returned to our bus via the causeway. Women skinned fresh pineapples by the water with unmatched efficiency and precision, skewering them before exchanging with a thirsty visitor for several thousand Cambodian riels.

Siem Reap, 2013: Amok Restaurant

Day 2, 12.26.2013

street of restaurantsOur first Khmer lunch of the trip was at Amok Restaurant on Street 9, near the Old French Quarter. The entrance is down a glass terraced corridor, with old neon sign for “Air Cond ->”. Amok is a delightfully colored, lilac building with blue chairs and cute, lacy, red tablecloths. The restaurant’s namesake arises from a Cambodian delicacy, amok fish. A curried stew made from coconut cream and milk, and a base of traditional Khmer spice-herb paste–lemongrass, kaffir limes and leaves, galangal (similar to ginger), garlic, nhor leaves (like kale), turmeric, shallots, and dried red chilies. The fish in amok fish are sourced locally in Tonle Sap, the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia. Snakehead, carp, and catfish are most frequently used in the stew–I believe we were served carp that day.

coconut waterWe were shown up to the second floor and seated. Everyone was provided the option of having one free glass of fresh, cold coconut water, which I gladly gulped down in the heat of noon. Too bad about no free refills!

My mom and I were served individual party platters of different curries, grilled vegetable kebabs, green papaya salad, and spring rolls. Each dish was served in a bowl made of banana leaves, and the platter itself was also lined with banana leaves.

Every dish was so delicious! The red curry in the center was paired with perfectly al dente jasmine rice. Creamy and rich but not heavy, laden with bell peppers, onions, scallions, tomatoes and other veggies.

Vegetable kebabs and a banana leaf boat of stir-fried veggies had just the perfect amount of char. The vegetables came with a small bowl of what I would guess is the Cambodian equivalent of BBQ sauce. Spring roll wrappers were thin and expertly fried to a golden crisp, bubbling with fresh cabbage and vermicelli on the inside. And of course, you can’t have spring rolls without sweet chili sauce!

khmer degustation

The green papaya salad was bright and fresh–tangy with from several squeezes of kaffir lime and the hint of anise/pepper from fresh leaves of basil. Also in a banana leaf bowl was a green curry paste with blended veggies and flaming red chilis. They also drizzled a spoonful of coconut cream on top. Mmm.

Dessert was 芭蕉 [ba jiao], the short, fat bananas you typically see in Southeast Asia. They’re apparently called “Lady Finger Banana” (just looked this up).The bananas are grilled in banana leaves and served in a sweet coconut sauce. Our dish was served with warm, tender, and deliciously caramelized bananas that were delicately arranged, alternating with fresh, pink banana flower petals, around a dipping bowl of palm sugar syrup in the center. Tasty! I think the dish is called chet ang nung tirk doung, but please correct me if I’m wrong. :)

chet ang nung tirk doung

Siem Reap, 2013: Angkor National Museum

Day 2, 12.26.2013

sofitel angkor breakfastSofitel has the best breakfast buffets. That’s all I have to say. Highlights included amazing butter croissants (consistent with the perfect ones we found at Sofitel Wanda Beijing) and a fantastic assortment of fresh, local fruits. I had never seen fresh jackfruit cut open before! Nor have I ever tasted it. Now I’m in love with the stuff, but it is nigh impossible finding it on the East Coast.

sofitel angkor fruitJackfruit has a fascinating texture–crispy but also chewy at the same time (?). I would’ve unashamedly taken the entire platter had my mom not told me that eating too much will cause me to 上火 [shang huo]. In Chinese medicine, this indicates foods that are “inflammatory”, which personally means poor sleep and lots of acne for me.

Other fruits available were the largest green dates [奶棗 nai zao in Chinese] ever, sweet pineapple, red papaya, dragonfruit, and my favorite, mango. I could write a paragraph for each fruit, but I will refrain. I definitely recommend getting your hands on some fresh, green jujube if you ever come across it! Good ones are crisp like a Granny Smith apple without the tartness (just sweet), and the juice almost has a sort of milkiness to it. Hence the 奶 [nai or “milk”] part of its name in Chinese.

After a lazy breakfast, our tour group gathered and filed onto the bus to visit our first sight of the trip–the Angkor National Museum. Cambodia has over 2000 years of history, making it one of the oldest cultures in Southeast Asia. The written language of Cambodia originated from West India, Brahmi; it sounds like Sanskrit when spoken, which makes sense given that 95% of Cambodians practice Theravada Buddhism. Even more interestingly, Hindu and Cambodian can’t be read by the opposite party, but when read out loud, both Hindus and Cambodians can understand completely! Furthermore, most of Cambodian history is passed down through oral tradition. Not sure if that resulted from the fact that 60% of text on Cambodia’s history was written by China (and thereby heavily biased).

sofitel dining area

A taste of old-world luxury.

Our tour guide stopped us outside of the museum to point out the palm trees growing by the entrance. Sugar palms are the national tree of Cambodia and provides income to many Khmer. None of the tree is wasted: timber is used for construction and utensils; leaves are used for roofs, baskets, fans; branches can be used for fencing or thongs; and the juice and fruit are harvested for eating, cooking and making palm sugar.

IMG_0801The juices of the tree’s flowers are used for drinking, and any excess is brewed into sugar. Khmer unsurprisingly don’t use white sugar at all. Don’t blame them–palm sugar is much tastier!

Our tour guide, Steven, explained to us how the Khmer Rouge lay waste to the country during their rule. Over 3 million were murdered in the several-years’ reign, 1 million of which were Chinese. (Also interesting is that the name “Ong” comes from the Chinese surname “Wang”). Men and women who had undergone proper brainwashing would be separated into lines and whomever they stood across from was whom they were forced to marry. This was to ensure that brainwashing was passed down to their children.

Educated people were actively executed and institutions were torn down. It was really admirable how bubbly and enthusiastic, Steven was in spite of his family’s history with the Khmer Rouge. His aunt was a teacher and was thus sought out to be eliminated. However, none of her students nor her children were willing to rat her out in school, so the Khmer Rouge raided her home and killed all her children in front of her. One of the babies were thrown and smashed against the trees. Absolutely horrifying to listen to, to think about, to even begin to fathom. I forget how his aunt escaped, but I’m glad she was able to. And unfortunately, that’s the most helpful thing I can do or say.

driving through siem reapWhile it has one of the fastest growing economies today, Cambodians are struggling. The government is riddled with corruption and bribery. The longevity of an average Cambodia peaks around 60-65 years of age, due to the lack of education regarding hygiene and access to proper medical care. In fact, doctors kill more people than they save.  Land mines yet to be uncovered, dangerously pockmark the country. There is at least one land mine for every person in Cambodia, and many civilians die each year from mistakenly stepping on one.

The average Cambodian family has about 7-8 kids, to increase opportunities for income. A typical laborer makes around $60 USD/month. That’s about how much white-collar Americans spend on drinks on a thirsty Thursday night. Ironically, Cambodia used to be a very rich country because a ton of gold mines. This was heavily exploited by nearly every Western nation, as well as India and China, and left nothing for Cambodia. There is a rather dark joke in Chinese, that plays on Cambodia’s name in Chinese, 柬埔寨 [jian pu zai]. Instead of calling it 柬埔寨 [jian pu zai], Cambodia is instead nicknamed to 錢不在 [qian bu zai], or “no money here”, because all the gold was stolen.

siem reap streets

Waiting for the bus.

We began our museum tour with a statue of an Asura, a demon that represents the sinful nature of man. You’ll find as you explore the history and culture of Cambodia that much of it originates from Hinduism and Hindu culture. Many of the same gods such as Naga and Ganesh (to name a few) have a strong presence in the artworks we saw.



It was also empowering to learn that King Jayavarman II–who founded the Khmer Empire–delegated his kingdom to his two wives whenever he was away. Jayarajadevi and Indradevi implemented social systems that provided their people, both men and women alike, the right to education, property ownership, political power, and public healthcare. They distributed property to the poor, focused on developing public infrastructure, and both were actually professors who taught and educated Khmer women. In fact-checking my notes from my trip, I came across this detailed article on the contributions of Jayarajadevi and Indradevi (if you’d like to read more) here.

We also visited an exhibit that follows the journey of Siddhartha and his path to Enlightenment. If you’ve ever looked at a statue of Buddha, you’ll notice that the right hand always sits on top: this represents removal from temptation, as the left hand is considered “dirty” and the right “pure”. I’m not sure if this is why in Indian culture you only eat with your right hand? Anyone care to enlighten me :P ?


This beautiful sandstone piece has 1700 faeries carved into it, “cheerleaders of the deities”. Women were believed to have been borne from the sea: from the bursting bubbles of the foam and mist.

There’s also a popular statue of Siddhartha with Naga the serpent protectively wrapped around him. Naga shielded Siddhartha from the rains on his 47th of the 49 days he spend in meditation, out of respect and in return for Siddhartha protecting him from an eagle that was eating Naga’s 6 other heads in the early days of Siddhartha’s journey.

ganeshaThe last story from the day was about Ganesha: the god of fortune and money. There are many different takes on the mythology of Ganesha, but the one following is perhaps a Cambodian take on it. He ran from home as a child and brought demons back with him. His mother took him in, but kept him facing the front of the house to ward off the other demons coming towards them. His father mistook him as a demon and cut his head off. Out of devastation, the parents prayed to another god for help, who told them that Ganesha’s head must be replaced within 25 steps to live. On the 24th step, they found an elephant head. And that is why Ganesha has an elephant head.

Siem Reap, 2013: a first dinner

I started my series on Cambodia all the way back in January of this year, only to flip flop to writing about other trips. It’s always nagged at me how lonely my one post on Cambodia was–so now it’s finally time to revive this series!

Day 1: Arrival at the Sofitel Angkor Phokeethra

sofitel roomThe Sofitel Angkor Phokeethra is a travel guide, textbook case of what you would imagine a luxury hotel in Southeast Asia to be like. It is, in the long line of luxury hotels off of Charles De Gaulle Road, a glorious bubble for the fortunate traveler to disconnect from the hustle and bustle of the outside. There was none of that New York impatience: “is my room ready?”, “why is the line so long?” “when will my bags be brought in?”. No, this world moved at 0.6x fewer frames per second. French colonial elegance with Cambodian influence. A zephyr would peek under the legs of sheer, white curtains shyly covering poolside villas. The soft tinkling of a roneat ek–a xylophone used in Khmer classical music–danced through the air. Plump coconuts jostled jollily under the shade of glimmering, verdant fronds.

sofitel cookies

Complimentary butter cookies!

I could go on forever, but I won’t. There are more aspects of this day to fond over: dinner. After settling down, meandering through the grounds of the resort, our tour group reassembled in the lobby to head to dinner. We were shuttled down the main road through Siem Reap, Charles De Gaulle, for no more than 1/4-mile before our bus driver masterfully backed into the cozy parking lot of our restaurant. Stepping stones led the way over a small pond, past baby palms, into the warmly-lit accommodations.

As always, the carnivores and omnivores of our group were lovingly lavished with a banquet of fresh seafood plated in carved boats, and colorful arrays of satay and skewered meats. Not to say that we vegetarians were forgotten (completely)! My mom and I were treated to a few pretty tasty dishes that had surprisingly Chinese flavors, rather than Cambodian.

dinner day 1First up was a piping-hot vegetable soup with seaweed, cabbage, tomato, silken tofu, and deep-fried tofu skin. Perfect for the highly air-conditioned room we were sitting in.

Next up was deep-fried tofu strips stir-fried with bean sprouts and some sort of lily plant (?) that looked like chives or string beans. The veggies were fresh, crisp, and sweet like all vegetables should be. Not too oily either.

Dessert–which we unfortunately had to share with everyone else ;) — was nom plai aiGlutinous rice balls filled with palm sugar and topped with copious amounts of shredded unsweetened coconut. Freshly-cut pineapple slices served on the side. Out of this world. I’ve had my fair share of glutinous rice balls [湯圓 tang yuan in Chinese], usually filled with black sesame paste, but there’s something special to be said about coconut. Anyway, I’ve linked to a recipe for nom plai ai above and may be trying it out soon myself.

I was also able to catch a glimpse of the Robam Preah Reach Trop, or Khmer classical dance, that was happening for those who decided to dine at the Sofitel. Such beauty in small movements.

khmer classical dance

Nürnberg: auf wiedersehen, Deustchland!

Day 23, 07.17.2009

off to frankfurt int'l

A solemn car ride to Frankfurt Int’l Airport

I wrote this journal entry at 4:40pm–a mere 7 hours and 20 minutes before my last day in Germany ends. It was indescribable how devastating the reality was that I was heading home. I woke up and went to school, like I had done for the past month. I met up with Abby, Kelvin, Jon, and Cory by the Schwarze Box, and all of us went up to the music room to rehearse for our performances. Not really having learned much from my choir days, I just sang a few practice songs to get warmed up. Sounded horrible.

Cory, Jon, and I decided to translate “I Feel Pretty” from West Side Story into German, since that had been our group’s theme song (of sorts). I felt like I was coughing up legos or something, with all the long, German words to cram into the same rhythm. Cory and I kept messing up the same parts over and over. But probably an hour or so in, we actually sounded pretty decent. Jon was on piano, Cory sang alto and I soprano. Jon wanted the three of us to harmonize, which was hard to adjust to in such short notice. If there was anything I learned about myself from choir, was that I had no reason being in choir. Haha! No understanding of music theory/unable to follow harmonies.

Tschüß Nürnberg Hauptbahnhof! Goodbye, Nuremberg train station!

We went snooping around the music room and found a bass, violas, and a bunch of other cool instruments. Abby and Kelvin left to go swimming with the others sometime around noon. The acoustics in the room are amazing; granted, it is a music room, but we sounded so perfect in there. I really doubt the Schwarze Box, where we would be having our Abschiedsfest [“der Abschied” = a farewell, “das Fest” = celebration, “Abschiedsfest” = goodbye party], would have the same sound. We rehearsed for 4 hours, nonstop.

Amateur mistake. My throat was sore, strained, and scratchy. This did not bode well. Jon played a couple of Coldplay pieces, which was pretty on point, and A Whole New World, to which all three of us failed miserably to sing. None of us knew all the words. It went something like, “I can show you the wooooooorld~ nananana lalalala splendid!”.

Sometime in the middle of rehearsal the fire alarm went off. Everyone had to evacuate. It took about 20-30 minutes before we allowed to go back to the school. The music room was locked. So the three of us just sat on this huge pile of gym mats sitting outside the music room. We got bored, so we decided to go out and get some stuff from the supermarket. Cory got some goldfish (crackers) and Jon stole some gummy bears that were lying around on a chair at the school. They looked stale, but hey, free gummy bears [der Gummibären].

After returning to our gym mats, Jon got bored and started taking Cory’s goldfish and acting out scripts with them. Then, this woman with a ginormous growth on her body walked past. It was undeniably fascinating–all of us tried to avert our gaze from her to avoid awkward eye contact. Once she left Cory and Jon started cracking jokes about it. Really terrible jokes…(but also kind of funny). Hey, don’t judge us: you know you’d be staring too. Seriously, that growth was like the size of another, tiny human being. Cory called it a “twin”.

I think I climbed maybe 40 flights of stairs that day.


Ohmygod do I miss my host mother’s cooking. Best couscous salad ever.

I went home around 1:30pm and apparently Clara was looking for me. I had no idea they got off early today! She was home sometime around 12:00. I felt so bad about letting them worry. I had lugged several pounds of boba and milk tea from LA to Germany, specifically for the Abschiedsfest. Before we had left the US, our assignment was to bring something that represented “us”. This was mine. What I didn’t know was that you really didn’t have to bring anything to the Abschiedsfest because we were already expected to present. Well then–I guess I’ll just chug 7 pounds’ worth of boba and milk tea all by myself…no shame.

No way I was dragging all those goods through the airport again; I made about half of what I had and my host family promised to bring them when they went. I had no idea one small package of boba could make so much. It was almost enough to fill a 120 quart pot!

Clara and I had to leave early to the Schwarze Box to help set up. We had to carry out these giant folding tables and chairs from the basement of the school. Great arm work out. There wasn’t any tape at first, so we really had to improvise when we were trying to get the table covers to not fly off the table (it was windy). When the rest of the people in my group came, they were all neatly dressed in dress shirts and ties and sundresses with heels. I felt so under-dressed because all I had was a white shirt with a bit of collar, and jeans. Mir’s egal [“it’s all the same to me”]. I don’t own any dresses. Then Jon came in what looked like golf clothes and Cory just dressed as she usually did. Whew.

the best of the USAThe presentations started. Dan, Lorenzo, and Leo went first with a powerpoint called “The Best from the US”. There was a map of the US with stereotypes for each state; e.g., California was “Gays and Indian Casinos”; Wisconsin was “Cheese”; and Nevada was “Casinos, Booze, and Hookers”. It was awesome. Everyone was insulted equally–from the recently-deceased Michael Jackson (too soon) to Sarah Palin.

We were the second group to go. And it all went downhill from here. Cory came late and the rest of us were so busy helping to set up that we had no time to warm up or practice one last time. And my throat was still sore from morning rehearsals. But we were like “hell, let’s just get it over with”…so we did. It was horrifying how awful we sounded, but also damn freakin’ hilarious.

Our opening was to have Jon start out with a totally random piece, to which we would go along with until we’d “realize” that it was the wrong song, and then we’d go “JON?! WAS MACHST DU DENN?!” [what are you doing?]. Then he’d snap his fingers and shake his head and go “Ach Sheisse!” [ah, shoot!]. So over-the-top cheesy, but it worked like a charm. People were already laughing. Little did they know what they were in for…

We started singing “I Feel Pretty” and I gotta tell you, I was so off-key that I may as well just have let an elk bugle in my place. My voice had given out. Cory and I missed several notes, were out of sync, and our voices cracked. Like pre-pubescent boys, except we are not. Hell, I had no Idea why we bothered rehearsing at all. The “LALALALALALALALALALA”‘s and the “WER, WELCHE WO?” [which, what, where, who?] bits left all of us gasping for air because Jon angrily screamed them like we were a death metal band on Broadway, and it was pretty hysterical.

the stars of the show

The next platinum-record cover band right here.

Finally, Cory and I sang the last note of “I Feel Pretty” and we were expecting Jon to transition into the last few measures of “Defying Gravity”–as we had planned–but he didn’t. He just kept playing and Cory and I just stood there, nearly breathless from holding this super high note for what felt like a century. We tried to give him signals by waving our hands frantically; instead, he thought we wanted him to sing along too so he screeched like some owl-banshee-nails-on-chalk-board-thing. And that concluded our performance. The room collapsed into a paroxysm of laughter and everyone’s enjoyment was palpable. We got the loudest applause. :P

Greylin, Meghan, Ellie and Joyce were next and they sang this German song called “Kuessen ist verboten” [kissing is forbidden] and they had small dance moves to go with it. It was really cute. Mariet and Meghan then played pieces on their flutes. They were both really good! Mariet later did a performance all by herself; she sang “For Good” to a powerpoint that she had made for her host family. It was really very sweet and nostalgic, despite the fact that all of this was happening in the “present” still.

After everyone had finished performing, we all went to get dinner! It was basically a pot luck full of amazing homemade food. Cory, Jon, and I, however, decided to grab a place to sit first so we went to the ping pong table. When we came back, almost everything was gone already. Astounding. I got some Kartoffelsalat, which I forever dream about, and some salad. For dessert I got some tiramisu, but there was a little bit too much alcohol in it for me, so I dumped it on Jon. He really enjoyed it and his eyes lit up when I told him there was alcohol in it. We’ve got a budding alcoholic here.


Our fearless and fabulous leaders with their Geschenke [presents]

All of us got together after most people were finished eating, and presented H. Birkelbach with this poster that we had bought: an enlarged photo of all of us on a jungle gym in Berlin. It was pretty cool. Then Lorenzo walked out with a towel over his waist…and dropped it. Underneath was this hideous pair of lime green pants that we had all signed earlier in the day. It was for H. Reynolds. Long story short, in the first week we were in Germany, we all passed this store called “Mister Lady” and H. Reynolds saw the pants and said “Now that just screams  I like men!” So we all decided to get him the pants because he knew he’d hate it/secretly love it. And he did. :)

Everyone packed up and cleaned everything; our host families went home. The rest of us, however, wanted to go to das DISKOTHEK. An absolute must in Germany. Jon, Cory, and Joyce forgot to bring their IDs with them, so Fabien’s (Cory’s host sister) mother had to “chaperone” them to get them into the disko. She did it on the condition that none of them could drink alcohol. Unsurprisingly, no one followed the rules, as was a silent rule in itself within our group. Fabien tried to stop them, but not really. Greylin was sneaking Jon her bottles that she couldn’t finish.

the diskothekThe disko itself was out of this world amazing. The theme of the month was classic rock. There was a huge electric guitar just hanging on the back wall. The music selection was fun–didn’t stick to just classic rock–and there was a good variety of genres. I sweated so much! The disko was empty at first, but by 10:30 it was packed with people, inside and out. We all shuffled out into the cool air for drinks by the bar. All 9 of us huddled together on a single sofa and just chatted. It was a great way to end the night. They played YMCA and Cory and I, like all cool kids do, did the dance.

Clara and I got home at 2am. Holy pardon-my-callousness-not-really-shit was I tired. The best kind of tired: nothing’s better than good company, good conversation, and epic proportions of fun.

my host fam and group

The amazing people of this month-long chronicle.

Bis später, Germany! Ich will dich vermissen, aber zweifellos, wird ich zurückkommen! So long, Germany! I will miss you, but without a doubt, I’ll be back! Thanks for the memories. <3

Würzburg: a palace visit with wine

Day 22, 07.16.2015

Second to last full day in Germany. Was not looking forward to going back to the US at all. There was so much left to learn, to do, to see, and to eat.

view from the river cruise

View from our river cruise.

I woke up half an hour earlier than I needed to because I got the meeting time wrong. So unfortunate. I arrived at the Hauptbahnhof pretty early and wandered up and down the halls, soaking up all the last bits of German I could. Side: it really bothers me how seat covers are rarely used in Germany…do people just sit down with their bare bottoms? Do they not worry what may have splashed on or who may have thrown up/bled/stepped on it?!


The sun broke through!

We rode the train to Würzburg, which is a little over an hour of a ride. We played President and I absolutely demolished everyone. Everyone told me that they didn’t “get” my strategy and wondered if I even had any, but that’s the beauty of it: I don’t. I run with my gut and win. When we finally arrived in Würzburg, the first thing we did was go on a river cruise. It was a mostly cloudy day, but the lush waves of vineyards ripe with bounty could not be tempered.

potato pancakes with cream sauce

Genuinely salivating just looking at this photo.

After walking around a bit (and holding my pee for literally the longest time), we finally went to eat lunch. And I was finally able to relieve myself. There is hardly a better feeling in this world. I ordered a dish called Kartoffelkuchen [“potato pancakes”]. Like Jewish latkes. Shallow-fried, thin, crispy grated potatoes smashed into pancake form. Mine came with a gravy boat of Champignonsoße [“mushroom sauce”]. It was cream of mushroom soup, but more condensed and thick. I drowned my Kartoffelkuchen in it. Absolutely phenomenal: I’ve never forgotten this dish and reminisce every so often about it.

We played more cards as we ate. And for some reason, we all started speaking in random accents: from Russian to Australian to British. My friends approved of my (terrible) English accent, and one tried to take a video of me. Except I hate being photographed in any form. So. Awkward. None of the other three were able to finish their lunches, so they shared–more like dumped onto–food with Herr Reynolds and the Gastgeschwistern [“host siblings”]. Clara and Laura were like locusts and ravaged the leftovers. It was astounding.

white wine

Wurzburger white wine [der weiß Wein].

All aboard! We continued to sail down the river [der Fluß] to reach our next destination. Before we began boarding, there was a small window of 5 minutes’ time. So Jon bolted back to this ice cream shop we had walked past earlier, with a special of 6 scoops for €5. A fool’s errand. It was 15-20 minutes from the dock to that shop. We weren’t expecting him to make it back.

Just as we started boarding, the lunatic returned with 6 scoops of straight chocolate. No other flavors. The games of cards continued–this time accompanied with the classiness of white wine. I was not accustomed to the taste of any alcohol at this point, so I sort of gagged on it. It was cheap wine too; yet Würzburg is supposed to have some of the best wine in Europe. I ended up giving it to Clara. Jon and Cory finished their glasses. Jon looked like that red balloon on Airheads candy wrappers. Apparently he’s allergic to white wine, but not red wine.

residenz gardens

The gardens of the Residenz.

The Residenz was our last stop of the day and it was amazing. We all stopped to buy Spaghettieis on the way. I’m going to miss that stuff so much. Jon got an additional 5 scoops of straight up chocolate ice cream. A total of 11 scoops of chocolate ice cream in a single day. Gross.

walking through wurzburg

A relaxed stroll through the town before we realized we were late for the train.

Pictures weren’t allowed at the Residenz, which was a total bummer. There was a stunning fresco on the ceiling by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, called Apollo and the Continents. Pictures don’t do it justice–so much more expansive and vibrant in person. Every room in that museum is breahtaking. Nearly every inch of the palace is adorned with marble and gold; it sounds gaudy, but it was in fact very tasteful.

Each room had its own color theme. Even the details in the wooden floorboards were astounding: mosaics, except with wood, of complex geometrical shapes. One room contained the bed that Napoleon slept in. The signs clearly stated no touching was allowed, but my spiteful high school self wanted vengeance for not being able to take photos, so I touched Napoleon’s bed. Hah! Jon snuck in his camera by putting it in his pants pocket. We all had to check in our bags and jackets before entering the museum, and girl pants have the most impractical pockets. I had no chance. The guards would’ve seen me.

The Residenz

A shot of the Residenz, my delightful Spaghetti Eis, and cards on the train afterwards.

After maybe about 1-2 hours, we left the Residenz and collectively realized that we were really late for our train. There was so much adrenaline pumping through all of us as we booked it to the bus stop; ran to the next bus stop; jumped off the bus; sprinted through the city and across S-Bahn tracks; hurtled through the entirety of the Würzburg Hauptbahnhof; high-jumped two flights of stairs; and stumbled onto the platform, where they were just blowing the whistles for departure. I felt like I was some high-speed chase suspect. Totally deadbeat. But there was still energy to play more card games on the way home.

Finally made it home to Roßtal. It was such an exhausting day and the ratatouille that my host mother made was everything that I needed. Comfort food. Zucchini, tomato, and onions left to simmer for an hour or so in vegetable broth, cooked until tender. Served over rice. Mmmmm.


This was so good. My last homemade dinner [das Abendessen] in Germany.

As I rolled into bed, I was forcefully hit with the realization that my dreams lately had become so…boring. Sort of an odd thing to introspect on, but I’m used to incredibly wild, nonsensical dreams, every night–everything from being chased by the CIA to fighting dragons to running over alligators on the bayou with a car. Not even exaggerating–the mind is a mysterious jungle.

Point is, for the month that I was in Germany, most nights I had nary a dream, let alone a fantastical one. And what I realized was that my life in Germany was my fantastical dream. Sure, it wasn’t filled with fantasy or mythology and blockbuster-worthy adventure; but it was so much more exciting because it was so physically tangible how much my world had expanded and how much I had grown up.

Not even the conjures of my mind could compete with the wonder and technicolor that my life was. So to say that I was “not looking forward” to returning to the US is a severe understatement–I don’t even know if I can still properly express the emptiness that thought filled me with. It meant a return to the daily grind, the norm, the expected. I lulled myself to sleep with the bittersweet content of having known adventure, and then having to leave it behind.

Nürnberg: Nazi Party Rally Grounds

Day 21, 07.14.2009

lunch of beans and rice

A hearty lunch of bell peppers, onion, and sting beans in a cream sauce, coupled with rice.

Our only class for the day: die Geschichte [History]. The students gave presentations on the history and background of the Dokuzentrum, a museum about the rise and fall of the Nazi Regime and pieces of the Holocaust. The full name of the museum is Dokumentationszentrum Reichsparteitagsgelände, or the Documentation Center Nazi Party Rallying Grounds. We went to the Dokuzentrum after the erste Pause [first break]. I recommend a visit if you’re in Nürnberg. The building looks like a giant metal ship split diagonally, from the tip of the bow to the bottom of the ship.


It was appalling and disturbing how resonant George Orwell’s 1984 was as I read about the founding and structure of the Nazi Regime. You know how you have one of those ironic moments where you’re somewhere really beautiful and think to yourself, “oh wow it looks just like a painting!”–only to realize that the paintings themselves are based on the landscape you’re admiring? This was like that. Spending time in the Dokuzentrum and learning about the Nazi Party was like, “wow this is so Orwellian”, except Orwell wrote 1984 based partly on Nazi Germany. Kind of meta when you think about it, actually.

the dokuzentrumDokuzentrum’s architecture is merged with the old Congress Hall that Hitler never finished. Apparently there are 100 searchlights on the outermost ring of the Hall for the wow effect at night. It’s also big enough so that the Coliseum can fit inside! We climbed some 200 steps to reach the rooftop, but it felt more like 1000. I was exhausted.

IMG_2946My friend and I were panting, looking at each other with sweat blurring our visions, wondering why we did this. Clearly we both needed more exercise. We could see the Nürnberg skyline, and it’s a much larger city than it feels when you’re walking through it. I think we were about 40m high (which is about 131 feet). The climb down was even worse because I have the most irrational fear of stairs and slipped multiple times.

H. Reynolds took us to see the Zeppelinfeld [Zeppelin Field]. We walked around the Congress Hall and my friends and I sang “I feel Pretty” the entire way. It was amusing to hear one of them scream “I feel pretty and witty and GAAAAAAAAAAY!” because he was so ridiculously, genuinely homophobic. H. Reynolds snorted and told Jon he must be if he kept yelling “gay” like that. Some 15 minutes later, one of the girls in our group suddenly decides that she wants to go back home. So she does. Such a sweet girl, and yet, never seems to want to stick around with our group. The rest of us played rock soccer, which is literally what it sounds.

zeppelin field gymnastics

One of the girls in our group being cool.

We finally got to the Zepplinfeld and everyone climbed up the steps to where Hitler supposedly stood to address all the Nazi soldiers. We took our last group photo there. In preparation for our Abschiedsfest, Abby and Kelvin wanted to learn how to waltz, so I taught them.

the train ride home

View from the train.

After leaving the Zepplinfeld, we all got lost on finding our way back to the Hauptbahnhof. I thought it was hilarious, given that H. Reynolds has been to Germany more times than you can count on his fingers and toes (but maybe he has fewer than the rest of us ;) ). All of us nearly boarded the train at the wrong station, which would’ve taken us completely in the wrong direction. The station we were supposed to be at was another 20-minute walk away.

You could say that we, collectively, were kind of a hot mess at times. But I loved my group. Finally, we made it back to the Hauptbahnhof. Because I lost my host family’s umbrella (I forgot it in the coatroom at the Dokuzentrum), I bought them a new one at the convenience store in the Hauptbahnhof. The guy at the cash register told me that “You look Asian, but you speak Danglish!”. That kind of hurt. I was hoping my German was better. Whatever, cash register guy.

spinach potatoes dinner

For dinner: creamed spinach, scrambled eggs, potatoes, and a giant slab of ice cream cake.

I got home and Clara and I decided to watch Sailor Moon in German. It honestly may have been the funniest thing on the trip. Absolutely amazing. We watched the series finale and Sailor Moon was naked for like, 2/3 of the show. Is this really a kid’s show? I don’t remember so much nudity watching it in the States. Then in the evening, we watched this old kid’s classic called “Wir Kinder aus Bullerbü” without subtitles (go me!). It was an adorable movie set in Sweden about this little girl’s life and adventures in the tiny town of Bullerbü. Relaxing and idyllic; the cinematography was also stunning.

Nürnberg: Art and Falafel

Day 20, 07.13.2009

Today my group and I had to take a “Sports” class. I was expecting a game of soccer or something physically active, but instead we sat in a classroom for 2 hours, learning about German sports classes instead. We learned and sang this German soccer-chant-song, which turned out to be kind of fun. Otherwise, I didn’t feel like it was productive use of our time.

The next class was Art. I wish the art classes at my high school were more like this! They tend to spend the first week or two just teaching you how to shade properly… Here, though, we got our hands dirty right away. Our Lehrerin [“teacher”, female] was awesome! First exercise was staring at Starry Night for about a minute and then drawing it from memory. After about 10-15 minutes of sketching, we got to see the original again, compare it to our own, and discuss details that slipped from our memory and a bit about how our brain remembers things. I found this reflective portion of the class quite interessant [interesting].

Then, we partnered up. We needed to describe a picture, ganz auf deutsch [completely in German], to our partners, who could only base their drawing off the things we told them. It was fun, but I was l unfathomably awful. So terrible that I wondered how I even managed to win this scholarship in the first place. One of the girls in the group was spectacular; she was so descriptive, almost like she could’ve written a scientific paper on the picture. On the plus side,  the art teacher told me that I had a lot of potential in art and encouraged me to continue taking classes. Definitely helped alleviate some of the embarrassment from speaking German.

The fun died when we had Herr Besmens. Film analysis could have been fascinating. Could. It was worse than watching paint dry. We were forced to sit through over an hour of powerpoints. Needless to say, i caught up on some beauty sleep.

During the erste Pause [first break], I went with two of the girls on a walk through the Gymnasium’s neighborhood. We didn’t get far. We passed by a hospital and a cafe, in which we stopped to buy drinks and some snacks. After school, a bunch of us went into the city to look for a present for H. Reynolds and H. Birkelbach. No luck. I did, however, discover a Döner Falafel place for lunch and damn. The pita was piping hot and soft; the falafel ingredients so fresh that when you broke through the crunchy shell, it was like opening the door to the Narnia of herb gardens; then you have homemade tahini sauce and pickled vegetables slathered all over.

All of us split up eventually–my friend and I wanted to walk around a bit more instead of going to the Lochgefängnisse [prison] with the others. Spent a dozen Euros on some gingerbread. In a failed attempt to return to the Hauptbahnhof [main train station], we took the wrong U-Bahn and we were several stops into arriving at a completely different city before we were like, oh crap. Eventually (thankfully) we did get back to the Hauptbahnhof and I saw that my train was leaving in 2 minutes so (regrettably) I had to ditch my friend. Otherwise I’d have to wait another 90 minutes for the next train. I channeled my inner Usain Bolt and bolted down the underpass and up to the platform.

The rest of my day was pretty relaxed. I made some boba for my host family to give them a taste of Asia. Lotte and my host mum liked it, but Clara thought it was the most bizarre thing she had ever eaten. In other words, “ew”. I also finished Grapes of Wrath from my summer reading list. Whew. My Gastfamilie [host family] and I then spent the rest of the evening watching a really cheesy, 50’s German film that apparently was like Germany’s Titanic when it came out. Lots of cute guys in that film–too bad I can’t remember the name of it ;).


Day 19, 07.12.2009

a hearty breakfast of potato salad with parsley and buttered string beans after a late night

It had been a long night. I woke up at 11:15 and was still exhausted. Sleeping late and waking up late just doesn’t work for me. I showered at 12:00pm, which felt so bizarre. My Gastmutter [host mum], Clara, and I went to Ansbach to kill some time while my Gastvater [host dad] visited his mum. We walked around the city, went to a Kirchweih, which is basically a carnival hosted by a church, and ate “gebrannte Mandeln”. Caramelized almonds–crunchy and sweet. After a giant Tüte [bag or cone] full of almonds, my jaws began to lock up from all the chewing.

kirchweihMy host father picked us up and we went to Colmburg. I fell asleep on the way there, still exhausted from the night before. And woke up to the most stunning landscape–a breadth of dense woods, a serene lake in the center, a small island of baby firs floating on the surface. A sheer veil of fog cradled the face of the lake. Then came a lonely white swan, drifting across, downcast and leaving dimples on the water. We zipped past this breathtaking scene, as i fumbled to get my camera to no avail. Beauty is only in passing.

Colmburg is an ancient fortress that sits atop a huge hill and from where you get a fantastic view of the German countryside. There was also a medieval toilet jutting out from the side of the wall of the fortress. You can look up the hole where the people of ye olden days discharged…stuff. What if someone crapped on you while you were walking? I shudder to think.

My Gastvater gave me a break down of the different names for puddle, pond, lake…well, there was an endless number of classifications for bodies of water! My mom finds the English language silly with all the classifications used for big cats (leopards, panthers, cougars, cheetahs, jaguars…etc.). In Chinese they just say 豹 [bao]. She’d have a hoot with German. I also got to see deer everywhere! So exciting! I’d never seen deer in the wild before. They peacefully nibbled on the grassy tufts sprouting along the fortress.colmburgcolmburg fortress

Our next stop was the quaintest town–you could get through all of it in 15 minutes. It’s called Dinkelsbühl. Dinkel + bühl = “spelt hills”. Hills of spelt, roughly? Dinkelsbühl is one of the only remaining walled medieval towns in Germany and one of the many stops along the Romantische Straße [Romantic Road].

dinkelsbuhlRed-tiled roofs bob up and down along the hills, cobblestones pave the way to pointed Gasthäuser [inns] with potted flowers hung over window sills. Because my host father is a huge history buff, he told me about how Dinkelsbühl was saved from destruction during the 30 Year’s War.

There was a woman who gathered all the children of the town and ordered them to stand guard at the front of the fortress, for when the enemy came. And when the enemy reached the city walls, they were met with singing children at the city walls. The commander’s heart softened, and so Dinkelsbühl was spared. Talk about a really gutsy move.


Kinderzeche is an annual children’s and folklore festival that takes place in July in Dinkelsbühl. The festival celebrates the children of Dinkelsbühl and how they rescued the city during the Thirty Years’ War. Townspeople reenact the story and all participating children are given Schultüte, paper cones filled with goodies.

Rothenburg has an equally fascinating 30 Year’s War story that stays true to the seriousness with which Germans approach their beer. The Bürgermeister [mayor] challenged the leader of the opposing army to a drinking contest. The Burgermeister won, and Rothenburg was spared. Hooray!

Dinkelsbühl has the most delicious strawberry ice cream I have EVER had. It was creamy and thick like gelato, but didn’t have the “milkiness” to it: I could have sworn I was sucking on the juices of the plumpest, perfectly-ripe strawberry.

Before we went home, my Gastfamilie [host family] and I hiked up a rather steep hill, some 600m up. Panoramic view of Bavaria; I could see for kilometers. The plush, verdant landscape of Germany is something that I’ll never tire of.

strawberry ice cream

some afternoon tea and people watching

We passed the American military base on the way home, which made me think of the drunk Americans we ran into my first week in Germany. We got home around 19:30. For dinner we ate German burritos. Germans call them “tacos”. We used tortillas. Whatever you call it, it was delicious! We stuffed them with mushrooms, peppers, tomatoes…and essentially everything you could find in the produce section of a Whole Foods. I awkwardly asked for seconds, even though everyone was full after the first…not that i was actually ashamed at all ;).more german countryside

Nürnberg: A Wild Housewarming

Day 18, 07.11.2009

Die Einweihungsparty (house-warming party)

We left Berlin today, which was devastating given how much of a blast it was. I was really looking 19forward to playing some more President or Palace, but my friends just wouldn’t shut up about politics. It snowballed from gay marriage to the 2008 election, and eventually spoiled children. I stayed silent for the most part because I felt pretty insecure about my grasp on current events…(shamefully so). The train ride went by pretty quickly train home

Once we were back in Nürnberg, Abby said her sister was planning on taking her to the Disko, which I super duper über excited about! Yet when I called Abby about it, she couldn’t give me any details because, well, not even her host sister knew which Disko she wanted to go to! My Gastschwester [host sister], told me that Abby’s host sister can be rather indecisive. So we ended up not going. :(


cute house, right?

Everything turned out alright though, because Conrad, my Gastbrüder [host brother], and his friends picked me and Clara up to go to his house-warming party. They lived in Würzburg. Such a beautiful city! His house was situated on the side of this huge hill, where a fortress sat on the tippity top! Too cool. The hills were decked in miles of vineyards.

It was surprisingly and ridiculously cold that night: around 48F. I was totally unprepared and spent the first hour or so shivering. I was puffing out clouds of condensation. Even after Conrad had given me his jacket and this huge wool blanket, it still felt chilly. Everyone else at the party just sort of smirked at me the way everyone in the world smirks at a Californian who says it’s cold.

I spent time talking to a girlfriend of Conrad’s friend (who drove us to the party). She is a ballroom dancer and is also vegetarian! It was so fun talking to her because we were basically the same person. She and her boyfriend are dance partners, apparently. So cute!

house indoors

I hid in here for about an hour because I was so cold…I think the house was actually colder than outside.

The selection of music at the party was on point. Germans have such great taste in American music–which is kind of a funny sentence now that I read it. They had classics like The Clash and The Who, and newer bands like We Are Scientists (which I adore) and Kings of Leon. There were so many artists to choose from. I’m sure people living at the edge of the hills could hear us with how loudly the music was blasted. Everyone just rocked out around the bonfire. The flames licked the cool air at a height of 7 feet.

And boy do Germans know their bread [das Brot]. Conrad and his friends made phenomenal garlic bread. Oh my god. Crispy baguette, fresh out of the oven, with butter and garlic sauce dripping off the sides. Crunching on a steamy slab of garlic bread in the freezing cold was just perfection.

At one point, Goldfrapp’s “Strict Machine” came on–which is…full of sexual innuendo. One of the guys at the party, who was completely and utterly drunk, started grinding…with a wall. Totally uninhibited and probably unaware his dance partner was made of drywall. Nearly everyone at the party was drunk. The guys were hyperactive monkeys: happily rocking out to music one second, and faux-fighting the next. They kicked poor Miri in the face. There was also some pot-smokin’ going on. People were just rolling up joints like the pretzel dogs getting rolled up at Auntie Anne’s. I never thought of myself as conservative, but the dancing, drinking, and smoking with such wild abandon came as culture shock to me.bonfire

We got home at 3:15am. I dropped dead on the bed. Back at home, I would never go to bed without showering. My mom would flip out and have my entire bedroom quarantined for disinfection. But boy was it liberating to…just…fall…….asleep.