Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Long Way Through Laos

Before heading to Laos I made a quick detour to Bangkok, Thailand to take care of some business-- basically getting my hair done, mailing Christmas presents, replacing the phone and prescription sunglasses I lost in Nepal and getting a visa for Myanmar (preview of the upcoming post).

It's always nice to be back in semi civilization for a bit with all the comforts of a big city. In the case of Bangkok, that means malls and good food (and now a Krispy Kream which the Thai people were obviously very excited about-- will they still be when they are all chub chub??).

Sure I was staying next to the (free) art museum that I really wanted to visit, but I just ran out of time with all sorts of beautifying.

With my new robins egg blue toenails (a mistake, yes), proper color hair, Thai massaged muscles (or beating more like it) and eyesight I was ready for the overnight train to Nong Khai, only 22km from Vientiane, the capital of Laos, via the "International Train" over the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge.

Sounds great except the train was sold out!!! Oops, who knew? AND it was sold out the following day as well. :-( The nice ticket agent told me to hang around in case there was a cancellation (picture me sitting on my backpack in the middle of the not so nice train station). Again luck was on my side and I was off on the 13 hour journey with some enjoyable Brits and Dutch (those Dutch are everywhere!!!!!!)

I loved this train- I was in 2nd class so didn't have a private compartment, but the curtained off cubby was excellent. I'm sure the locals (who seem to be able to fall asleep at 7pm) were less than thrilled by the westerns playing cards and drinking in the aisles. They got us back by getting up at the crack of dawn!
I arrived in Vientiene before lunch at the most adorable Hotel Khamvongsa, where two Americans were also checking in. Despite how adorable the hotel, I couldn't stay the planned two days since there is really nothing in Vientiene.

We were able to visit the major sites in a couple hours, including Pha That Luane, the most important national monument in Laos, a symbol of both Buddhism and Laos sovereignty (it appears on their national seal). They have been doing a lot of restoration work as you can see by the before and after shot below--- things get dirty in this tropical environment.

I was also quite amused to see the Patuxai, a pseudo, asiany Arc de Triomphe. It was super ugly, but the funny part is that it was built using American donated concrete intended for the building of a new airport. Airport or Arc de Triomphe?? They chose Arc- hahahaha!

While eating my traditional Laos dinner of pizza I met a lovely family traveling for a year. The two teen/pre teen girls were chock full of info on what I should and shouldn't do with the rest of my time in Laos. I totally listened and booked all the same guesthouses based on their breakfast reviews (they didn't over hype the breakfast at Guesthouse Manichan in Luang Prabang either- yum! Former French colonies are the best- they have good bread.)

Per the title, nothing in Laos is very easy to get to, even though it looks so close on a map. The Lonely Planet also warns that the buses are made of cardboard and break down all the time. Well, they were right-- we left the station and broke down after our first turn around the corner--- too funny!!!! Another 1 hour breakdown in the middle of nowhere and finally we arrived in Vang Vieng nearly 6 hours later.

I hadn't intended on visiting Vang Vieng, but the Dutch guys on the train insisted! The town is bazaaro!

Tourist basically go there to get really drunk and/or high and float down the Nam Song River on an innertube--- with an occasional stop at the riverside bars to jump off a giant swing or slide. Then they return to town and watch "Friends" and "Family Guy" playing on all the restaurant TVs.

Okay, when in Rome, but first I joined Laura and Marika (who I met on the bus) for some rock climbing. I have never actually climbed anything but an indoor rock wall, so this was going to be interesting. I actually ended up loving it, and apparently I have a knack for climbing. It was really fun and I didn't kill our instructor while belaying him, which was also a plus. ;-)

The country is beautiful, walking through rice paddies and over shaky bamboo bridges to make our way to the climbing site while our instructor sang us some Lionel Richie and cracked himself up.

After the climb it was finally time for an afternoon float down the river, but little did we know the sun would be behind the mountains--- needless to say we froze! That shot of free whisky and bondfire at the sling shot bar did a little to warm us, but mostly I just shivered on the raft while a bunch of Aussies pulled my tube into their tube cluster.

Like everywhere, Asian hospitality is so nice! Adam, the owner of a rock climbing company who we met earlier in the day invited all of us to his place for dinner that night. We all sat on the floor Laos style and ate some yummy noodles and drank Lao Beer- the best of the SE Asian beers in my opinion (plus they appear to be the only ones that make a dark). Was a really good night!

The next morning's drive to Luang Prabang was not so good. Despite the motion sickness patch, we all felt really sick on the 7 hour journey. After wandering around looking for Guesthouse Manichan, Peter gave me all the tips on what to do in this UNESCO world heritage town. First stop was a walk through the charming Hmong Night Market on the way to Utopia, a lovely riverside restaurant with a hospitable Canadian manager.

The next morning, what else but more wats (aka temples). Among them was Wat Xieng Thong from 1560, plus the Royal Palace Museum built in 1904 (they had the king's old American cars on display).

It was then the temples atop Phu Si for sunset and dinner at Three Nagas, a gourmet restaurant with food and service (but not a tab) that reminded me of home. Ahhhh!

I had to get up early my last day for the 6am alms giving to the monks. Luckily a temple was just a block away, so I went Gidget style in my pajamas (they don't look like PJ's). I didn't exactly get it, basically lines of monks accepting donations all over (saw it a lot more in Myanmar). Since it only took 15 minutes to gawk, I walked through the morning market on my way back to bed.

The rest of the day was spent at Tat Kuang Si, a multi tiered waterfall about 32 km from town in a pristine park. On the tuk tuk drive there we encountered elephant in the road which you don't see everyday.

Off to Huay Xia on another paper mache bus for 14 hours. This time I could thank Ambien for getting me though since the bus was sub zero and pitch black thanks to the locals. I had a scarf wrapped around my head, used my microfiber towel as a blanket and had my legs in the arms of a spare fleece and was still cold- ugh! At least Ambien knocked me out so I don't even remember the 1 hr. flat tire stop complete with bond fire.
There really is nothing to say about Huay Xia other than that it is a border town with Thailand and starting point for The Gibbon Experience!

Yes, two nights spent living in a tree house like a Gibbon. No, you don't really see any Gibbons while living like one- that is the ironic part.

Inside the Bokeo Nature Reserve, Animo, a conservation-based group, has set up a series of ziplines crisscrossing the canopy, some of which lead to the tree houses perched about 200ft up.

The proceeds go to protect the forest and the animals from poachers-- five years ago poaching was threatening the extinction of the black crested gibbon.
After the 2-3 hour drive to the forest, the days consisted of hiking and ziplineing- it was a blast!

Tree house life was also very relaxing and cushier than you would expect. The first night I shared #3 with three others for the best view and sunset, but then we moved into #7 since it was 2 story and was reported to have an amazing shower.
It did!!! You were showing hundreds of feet in the air looking out on undisturbed forest with water fresh from the mountains (it was cold, but you were also pretty hot and gross from trekking and zipping).

I didn't think it could get much more exciting, but the transportation back was a fiasco.

After an hour on a dirt, bumpy road (sitting in the back of what is basically a pickup truck with a roof) we get to the road and happen to pick up a woman in labor (in orange). We drop her at the hospital about 2 hours later, after one of our guides jumps out of the moving vehicle (his landing was not a 10.00).

Fine. We cross the river by longtail boat to enter Thailand at Chiang Khong on our way to Chiang Rai. What happens, our maniac driver hits one of the stray dogs. Bring one life in this world and end another ;-(

The next two days in Chiang Rai were fairly uneventful since we didn't feel like any more temples, hilltribes or trekking, and the winery and tea plantation was too far.
We just kicked back, ate, drank, got a massage (one place we checked out had bored looking women in lingerie behind a glass wall- oops, wrong kind of massage parlour!), watched the best light show ever (so amazingly tacky!!!!), drank more and got a rickshaw ride (for which we paid extravagantly after all the previously mentioned drinks) before heading for our next destinations.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Lady, Need a......

Kathmandu to Phnom Penh- not the obvious route. It was a multi-day journey through Delhi (where they still use carbon paper!) and Bangkok, but finally I arrived in Cambodia.

Since it took a day and a half to get here, I was pretty spent and dirty so took in all the comforts of Hotel 252--- wow, what a step up from the tea houses of Nepal. I loved it here- modern architecture, a good shower, pool, restaurant, helpful French owners, and best of all, a flushing toilet!!! ;-)

Go figure, the hotel was on 252nd St. Cambodia is clever in that very few streets have names--- everything is just a number (ah, reminded me of home!)

After a good night sleep I felt ready for the sidewalks of Phnom Penh, they just weren't ready for me. NO one walks here! I had one tuk tuk driver ask "lady, why you walking? tuk tuk cheap!" Haha!

The capital city is pretty small, so it seemed silly to take a tuk tuk until some random guy on a bike tried to grab me on the main street right outside the palace. He was obviously crazy and maybe just wanted a hug (Dad- was not threatening or scary), but opted to cross the street and ask a teenager selling counterfeit DVD's for help. He nicely put me on the back of his moped and whisked me to the National Museum unscathed (and he didn't even want a tip, but thought maybe it was best I didn't walk- so nice!)

The National Museum had a lovely courtyard and all sorts of Khmer sculptures, including a room full of Buddhas, some of which were rescued from Angkor Wat when the civil war broke out.

I had lunch at Friends, a restaurant run by former street children (and probably the best service I have had in a long time). Unlike the other countries I have been, Cambodia has all sorts of shops and restaurants to benefit their most needy citizens- women, children and land mine victims (of which there are unfortunately a ton, an estimated 40,000!). I now have all sorts of random crafts since I felt bad not buying anything at these shops.

Due to limited opening hours, I had to wait until after lunch to go to the Royal Palace, the official residence of King Sihamoni, and the Silver Pagoda. Throne Hall was nice and the Silver Pagoda, named for the 5,000 silver floor tiles, had a good Emerald Buddha made from Baccarat crystal and another Buddha bejeweled with 9,584 diamonds. It was no Grand Palace in Bangkok, but still nice.

One think I did learn there is that the Queen and the upper class women used to dress in a different color for each day of the week--- that is taking day of the week panties to a whole new level! ;-)

So much for opulence, the next day was devoted to the crimes of the Khmer Rouge, a topic I've been interested in for years. I first took a tuk tuk out to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, where prisoners were sent for execution. At this site about 17,000 men, women AND children were bludgeoned to death (to avoid wasting bullets) and buried in 129 mass graves. Unbelievably, the Killing Tree still stands marking where children were murdered by smashing their skulls against the tree. By law, the sites of mass graves must have a memorial to honor Buddhist beliefs. The memorial stupa at Choenung Ek displays over 8,000 skulls arranged by sex and age.

Many of the victims of the Killing Fields had been transported from Tuol Sleng prison, known as Security 21 (S-21). This former high school became the largest detention and torture center in the country. Currently the museum houses room after room of pictures of the murdered, as well as vivid pictures of how they were tortured. Still amazes what people are capable of doing!

After the depressing morning I needed a nice long 2 hour/$10 Thai massage to make myself feel better (and the lemon tart from the patisserie down the street- the French have left one good thing behind!). I love the cheap spa treatments, which is why I get one almost every day. :-)

As I mentioned, the French owners of Hotel 252 were very helpful- they arranged my next hotel reservation and made sure I got on a bus to Battambang (in fact, they kinda picked Battambang as my next destination since there was no point going to the beach due to the typhoon in the Philippines). A tuk tuk driver was sent to buy me a bus ticket and then take me to the bus station- what service!

However, service plummeted at the bus station where they never announced my bus had arrived and it left without me. ANNOYED! But what can you do, but wait til the 3:30 bus and head to the nearby British pub for some comforting fish and chips?

Would you believe that upon my return at 3:04 the 3:30 bus had already come and gone? Yes, it's true! We all couldn't help but laugh since this was my second missed bus of the day! Oh, but those Cambodians are helpful- they put me on the back of the owner's motorcycle (with my backpack between his legs) and chased after the bus for 25 minutes. It was the best part of Phnom Penh--- still makes me laugh (the next 6 hours on the bus were less amusing).

In Battambang I was the only guest at a new eco-resort, which is a very strange feeling. I didn't spend much time in Battambang which is probably good since there isn't really anything to see there, just some old colonial architecture and what they think is the best rice in Cambodia (tasted like rice to me?).

The highlight was the 30 minute ride on the bamboo train, a 3m long wood frame covered lengthwise with bamboo and dis- assembled when a train is approaching on the single track from the opposite direction. The train took me through the rice paddies to a small village with friendly locals (and unfortunately a brick factory where kids seemed to work--- a fact that Human Rights Watch isn't pleased about per my driver).

There were a bunch of boys swimming in the nearby swimming/ mud hole who were super cute! Plus I got to try grass jelly drink, which is really very odd- tasted like honey, with gelatinous cubes- I recommend skipping it next time you ride the bamboo train (hurry, they are going to shut it down next year when they plan to upgrade the country's rail line).

I spent my evening at Phare Ponleu Selpak, an arts center for disadvantaged children. There I met Sampath who nicely gave me a tour and showed me his art (which I am now a proud owner, he was very shy about showing me). Once a week the center puts on a circus show which actually made me really nervous that someone was going to get hurt, but all ended well.

Battambang isn't the most touristy stop, in fact I didn't even know there were any others until the boat ride to Siem Reap the next morning. When I went to the dock (if you can call a steep flight of steps to the river a dock) I ended up having a long chat with a local teacher who was explaining to be about morality class--- hum, interesting subject.

"Cambodia's most spectacular boat journey" the next morning was needless to say a bit of a disappoint- ment. It took 7 hours on a tiny, questionably seaworthy boat, through narrow waterways where you occasionally had to dodge the shrubs scrapping the boat. Since this was the tail end of rainy season, it was interesting to see trees almost fully submerged and villages atop water. Our rest stop was an experience when the WC became submerged since too many people were weighing down the house.

The best part about the ride was meeting a charming British couple, Jonathan and Jenny, and an accident prone Dutch couple, Ton and Jessica--- my dinner partners for my entire time in Siem Reap, including our first night at the very post Abacus where we nearly toppled over (as we were doubled over laughing) in the tuk tuk on the super bumpy dirt road.

I joined Jenny and Jonathan (my social director) on the first day of temple touring to the far away temple of Banteay Srei, a 10th C. Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva, cut from stone of a pinkish hue with deep, ornate carvings. The name means 'Citadel of the Women', believed to have been built by a woman since the carvings are too fine for the hand of a man. Gotta like that!

Banteay Samre was not too far away, so we paid a visit and met an elder who wished us all good luck, read a prayer for each of us (where again we had good luck) and gave us a red string bracelet for, you guessed it, good luck (I worry I lost my bracelet during another massage the next day).

We also met these very bright girls who listened to our tour guide and then addressed us by name, reciting our nations' capitals and presidents. Lynn wanted a guarantee that if I were to buy, I would only buy from her-- how could I resist her 50 cent dragonfly thingy? People accost you at every temple (Lady, lady, lady...) and don't take no for an answer very easily, which does get annoying, but these girls really won me over.

The other temples we visited the first day included the pyramid shaped Pre Rup and Ta Prohm, the temple made famous by "Tomb Raider." Ta Prohm was amongst my favorites since the jungle has totally taking over with trees growing all around the stone- amazing!

After leaving Jonathon and Jenny to a day without me, I headed to Angkor Thom where I ended up crashing the tour of a couple from Denver. The best part about the Angkor Thom area is Bayon, complete with 54 towers decorated with 216 enormous faces. Other temples were Baphuon, with a hard to find Buddha along the rear wall), the Terrace of the Leper King and the Terrace of Elephants, all covered with beautiful carvings.

I wanted to hit one more temple quickly, but ended up staying at Preah Khan much longer after meeting T, a teenager looking to make a few bucks by showing tourists the hard to find spots shown in the tour book. He was chock full of information and had me climbing all over the temple, including the roof to get a good photo- I am fairly certain this should not be allowed!

After two temple days it was time for a break, so I took Artisans d'Angkor up on their offer to tour their silk farm. This is again another organization helping train the disadvantaged. They are reported to produce some of the best silk in the country and it was very cool to see how it is done, from silk worm to scarf in the shop. Who knew?!

As I mentioned, the kids here are pretty savvy salespeople, selling books, bracelets, scarves and whatnot. We ran across one 14-year-old one night who proposed a game of tic-tac-toe, with rock-paper-scissors for the tie breaker. He didn't just want our money, he wanted to earn it by having us buy one of his books. Sadly he lost, and was very upset since it had been a bad selling day (they all appeared to be bad selling days).

Saving the best (reportedly) for last, I spent my last day at the famed Angkor Wat, likely built as a funerary temple of Suryavarman II in honor of Vishnu. Honestly, it was not my favorite, not sure why it is the most famous-- perhaps because it is largest? or because it was never abandoned to the elements?-- but it is certainly very impressive with its three tiers, intricate bas reliefs and beautiful grounds.

Overall my time in Cambodia was fabulous! The people are amazing, the food is delicious, beer is 50 cents and the massages are SO cheap- what a great combo. Definitely one of the highlights of my trip so far! Although I won't miss all the "Lady....."