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Travel Guide: Salzburg, Vienna, Leoben

Before dawn on New Year’s Day after a week in Switzerland, my parents and I took the train from Zurich to Salzburg. The trip itself was beautiful and everything I had hoped train travel through Europe would be. We journeyed through mountains, hills, trees and through increasing amounts of snow, but there was sunshine and blue skies the whole way.

Salzburg

I really, really enjoyed our afternoon in Salzburg and would have loved more time there to walk up to the Hohensalzburg Fortress, or drive to Schloss Hellbrunn in the countryside. But now I have a reason to go back!

Salzburg was surrounded by water and, surprisingly to me, great stone cliffs that seemed to come up out of nowhere when we were walking through the old town.

As before, the walk through the old town took us past beautifully painted buildings and intricate architecture that just don’t exist anymore. I know that real people don’t live in these old towns, but they certainly are pretty. The narrow streets leading to large open squares in Salzburg are hilly, which means that church towers and other buildings just sort of peek out at you around corners.

But there are other parts of Salzburg that remind you that this is a real place where people live and I was glad to see that, too.

Mozart made his home in Salzburg and we visited Mozart Geburtshaus, Mozart’s birthplace, which is considered the more informative of the two Mozart houses. We learned a great deal about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, his family (including a very talented sister!), and Austrian musical tradition and I was really impressed with the collection of artifacts and family papers. Music is a really important part of heritage here and classical music was playing through speakers throughout the old town in Salzburg, prompting a surprising amount of waltzing in the streets and in the squares. I kept expecting to see a live orchestra around each corner!

Like we’d seen across Switzerland, there were little Christmas markets and stands set up across the city.

We also stopped by the university church . . .

. . . and the Dom zu Salzburg, where we stopped to visit the church and to drink glühwein.

Vienna

The next morning was equally bright and sunny and we left fairly early for Vienna. We could have easily stayed another day in Salzburg and left for Vienna that night but something told me I’d want the time in Vienna. This turned out to be accurate and again, I really need to go back!

Vienna is beautiful. It’s beautiful and grand and opulent with wide streets and specially painted bike lanes. As soon as we saw the bike lanes next to the opera house, I knew that I would like Vienna very, very much. It was pretty at night, too.

The first thing we did, however, was walk a little ways out of the old town to the Naschmarkt, Vienna’s largest food market. It’s part restaurants . . .

. . . and part food stalls . . .

. . . and part other goods.

My family loves markets and food, and we ate and drank and tasted and smelled for a good couple hours. I can only imagine how much busier it would have been on the weekend when the flea market is open, but I was really glad to have the chance to see some of the art painted on the closed stall fronts.

From there, we basically followed the streets brightly lit by Christmas lights. We wandered into a couple of Christmas markets and did some window shopping before stopping at the Austrian National Library. To warm up, we joined the long queue waiting to get inside. We were greeted by everything that creates the idea of a library – wooden bookshelves with the upper levels accessible by ladders, old books, vaulted painted ceilings. It was still cold inside, likely to keep the books in good condition, but so pretty that it didn’t matter.

We were also lucky to see an exhibit of Beethoven’s personal papers, including the program and score of Beethoven’s only opera, Fidelio, which I have actually seen!

The next morning we followed a guided walk around Old Vienna and it took us down narrow, quiet streets to tiny squares with old, quiet churches.

There were also busy shopping streets and grand squares with opulent buildings and statues.

My dad and I climbed one of the towers of St. Stephen’s Cathedral and although it was cloudy, I was glad to see the view of Vienna from above. My spatial skills are mediocre so I appreciate actually being able to see the expanse of a city.

Fun fact: Vienna used to be a walled city! Our walking tour took us past the remnants of the old city walls.

This was the coldest day we’d had (it had actually snowed!) and we decided to spend the afternoon indoors. Along with many other visitors, we took shelter in the Leopold Museum to learn about Viennese art of the 1900s. The exhibition included painting, sculpture, furniture, and jewellery and I enjoyed learning about artists who were completely new to me. I also didn’t know anything about the impact World War I had had on Vienna; I think it’s important to understand the place where you are and I was glad for the opportunity to learn more about it. The importance of art was clear outside of the museum, as well.

That evening we went to a concert in St. Charles Church in which we were treated to a performance of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and what I can only assume were other works by Vivaldi because nothing was actually explained. An opera singer featured for certain parts of the performance, too. The church was beautiful but one thing that didn’t occur to me when I bought tickets is that churches are not heated. I learned an important lesson when the ushers passed out blankets at the door!

Leoben

Mum and Dad flew back to Toronto the next day and I left Vienna to pick up the car I’d be driving for the next week. This was the point at which I had no plans. I knew where I’d be staying for the first two nights but the rest of the week was wide open and I was really excited for the adventure.

For example, I thought it might be fun to try cross-country skiing for the first time and planned to stay near a national park. The lack of snow meant I would hike instead, after getting over the initial delightful surprise of finding myself at a bed-and-breakfast up a goat track run by an elderly couple in what I think is their farmhouse. My German was almost as good as their English but everything went just fine.

Going from grand Vienna to the country was a drastic change but I was so glad to experience a small Austrian town.

I’ve been in a number of odd towns over time and Leoben certainly fit. It appeared that part of the old town had been torn down and a multiplex had been built instead to comprise the town’s entertainment. It contains a kebab shop, pizzeria that doubles as a bar, sushi restaurant, and movie theatre. Other than that, the town has five different grocery chains, a euro shop, three discount clothing stores, a couple furniture stores, a café/bar that did not sell food, and a sex shop. Gösser beer operations are located in Leoben, too. An adventure indeed!

The drizzle let up by the next morning, perfect weather for a drive to Slovenia!

Travel Guide: Vang Vieng

The beautiful party town of Vang Vieng was the second city that my friend and I visited during our week-long sojourn in Laos. You can read about our first few days in Vientiane, the Laotian capital city, here. You can also read about our experience in Luang Prabang, definitely my favorite, here.

We traveled from Vientiane to Vang Vieng in a very air-conditioned bus. The ride took about four and a half hours. It rained for the majority of the trip and I enjoyed watching the clouds move outside the window. The landscape didn’t change too much as we climbed into the beautiful, misty mountains. We passed rice paddies, cows, some goats, and lots of dogs and chickens.

Like Vientiane, Vang Vieng is situated along the Mekong River. The town is quite small, beautifully located in the midst of mountains, and very easy to walk around. We spent both afternoons alternating between food, drinks, and walking and I do believe we saw everything there was to see.

As usual, we wandered past some beautiful Buddhist temples. No matter how much travelling I do in Southeast Asia, they never get old.

For our first night in Vang Vieng, we found a neat bar located along the Mekong River where the best available seats were hammocks! We stayed there for a while and watched the sun go down over the water. It was a very serene experience, despite the mosquitos.

We spent the next morning with a guide we booked through Green Discovery who took us on a short trek first through rice paddies and then through several caves, which were really neat. I’ve explored caves before, but never caves as dark and deep as these. We wore headlamps that the guide had us turn off at one point so we could experience complete darkness. Bats were the primary inhabitants of at least one cave, and another extended so far through the mountain that we had to turn back because we ran out of time to go through it. At the end of the trek, we loaded ourselves into inner tubes to float through yet another cave while clinging to a rope for dear life. Very cool experience!

While walking through town, we saw a number of signs in Hebrew (fun for me) and Korean! Low tourist season meant that it was relatively quiet, even considering the drinking, drugs, and partying culture that has given Vang Vieng a certain reputation. Unsurprisingly, the town was full of backpackers looking to have a good time. If our own experiences out and about are any indication, I can assure you that they did! If you’re ever in Vang Vieng, I highly recommend a trip to Sakura Bar, even if you’re going just for the top-notch people watching. We spent a few hours and very little money there and were highly entertained.

Neither of us were completely prepared for the seven and some hours on a rather poorly air-conditioned, much more crowded bus the next morning, but it was completely worth it to reach the UNESCO World Heritage city of Luang Prabang. Stay tuned!

Travel Guide: Battambang

This week-long adventure was different from any I have ever experienced. This was my first time in Cambodia and my first traveling internationally with students. I visited Battambang with the entire grade 10 class of my school (about 90 students) along with the seven other teachers. Upon arrival, we joined JUMP!, a very wonderful experiential education social enterprise with which school is currently working to plan the annual field studies trips for all secondary school students. I am in awe of what JUMP! planned and how their plans came to fruition.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The focus of the grade 10 week in Battambang, Cambodia’s second largest city, was to get students thinking about community development, both as communities of advisories (groups of about 15 students that meet daily) and global communities. We spent the week learning from and working with different social enterprises that aim to make Cambodia a better place. All the restaurants where we ate were social enterprises, as well. As part of the program, we explored privilege, voluntourism, sustainable development, Cambodia’s history, and how to bring about positive social change. Throughout the week, I saw my students’ hearts and minds open up, not only to these ideas but also to each other as individuals and as friends. I can say without a doubt that every student returned to Singapore wiser, humbled, empowered, and with new friends.

This post will chronicle my week in Battambang as best as I can based on the photos that I can share. Most of my photos for the week were of and with students, and there are a variety of reasons (i.e. privacy, confidentiality, just plain propriety) why I won’t share them in an unprotected online space. Heartfelt thanks both to JUMP! for their incredible work and to John, the extraordinary JUMP! facilitator assigned to my advisory for the week.

To get oriented, here is a very helpful map from Lonely Planet:

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We flew into Siem Reap on Saturday and drove the 3+ hours to Battambang the next morning

One of our first activities was a tuk tuk ride to visit Phnom Sampow. We took a difficult climb up a steep hill, pausing along the  way to see Buddhist temples and learn about Cambodian agriculture from our guide. We could see farms for miles from various lookout points.

 

 

The temples were exquisite, as well. I have a few Buddhist students who stopped to pray along the way.

 

 

We also encountered a number of monkeys and actually had to alter our route at one point to get away from them. Monkeys are vicious and will grab any food item or even backpack in site. My favorite monkey was this one:

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The highlight of this trip, though not photographed because I felt weird about that, was the killing caves, a site of Khmer Rouge slaughter. The caves contained a memorial to victims, including skulls of those who died there and a Buddha statue for those who wished to pay respects.

Probably my favorite morning of the trip started with a trip to a local market to pick up ingredients for the Cambodian lunch we would learn to prepare! The market was wonderful (and sold more than vegetables, though my photos might have you believe otherwise) and the cooking school was incredibly accommodating to my vegetarian needs. Even better: We received cookbooks to take home!

 

 

Another really transformative experience was our visit to COMPED, a social enterprise that collects organic material, turns it into compost, sells it to farmers for fertilizer, and uses the money to run enrichment programs for children. To learn about what they do, we visited a market, collected rotten produce, and shoveled it onto the compost pile at a local dump. While there, we also learned that the families who live on the dump are paid more than they would be in other jobs. Despite health risks from being around burning trash, they choose this life to feed their children.

 

 

Another social enterprise, Coconut Water Foundation, also runs after school and summer enrichment programs for students. We joined them at a school for about an hour one morning to play games with some of the students. Rather than sharing pictures of children, here are a few artsy shots:

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Our last full day found my group on a bike ride with Soksabike, a social enterprise that pays families to produce traditional products, therefore putting money into the economy, and brings tourists to see these products. Soksabike’s tour guides are local university students who are working to enhance their English skills as they do their jobs.

Among other things, we learned how rice paper is made . . .

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. . . and sampled some delicious dried and fried bananas.

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The final stop on the tour was a very moving memorial to another killing fields site across the street from a Buddhist temple that the Khmer Rouge turned into a prison and interrogation facility. I didn’t have the heart to take pictures of the memorial, mostly because it broke my heart. The 1970s weren’t that long ago, and the Khmer Rouge existed in Battambang until 1991. 25 years ago is not very many years. The detachment with which Cambodians speak about the Khmer Rouge genocide is painful to witness.

I don’t have photos to share, but other social enterprises that we visited and worked with were Phare, FEDA, and Cambodian Children’s Trust. All of these organizations work with and for community development, specifically targeted at children. CCT was the most moving for me because they taught us about orphanages and orphanage tourism. We learned that 80% of children in Cambodian orphanages have living family and are in orphanages (and often exploited and abused as a result) because their families were tricked into thinking their children would have better lives and a better chance at education.

It was a week of growth, that’s for sure. I’ll be back in Cambodia in March to spend a weekend in Siem Reap to visit Angkor Wat. I’m so grateful for the opportunity to travel with my students to Battambang to learn how real Cambodians live. The trip we took and experiences we had would not have been possible for me to orchestrate. JUMP!, thank you for opening my eyes to this beautiful country and its proud, hopeful citizens.

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At the old abandoned airport one night