Category Archives: Southeast Asia

Street Life: Living Outside the Box

Xingping, Guangxi Province, China

Xingping, Guangxi Province, China

While watching a video clip from Cuba Feliz (a film of Cuban street musician Miguel Del Morales – known as El Gallo > The Rooster in English) I had a revelation. One of the reasons I absolutely adore countries such as Vietnam and Cambodia (or cities like Paris, Florence and, Montreal) is that people there live in the streets – almost literally. They spend much of their time in public spaces rather than inside their homes. They socialize, play, walk, eat, and drink together on the streets despite the hubbub of automobiles, bicycles, scooters, and other vehicles. The street is where it all happens!

Kunming, Yunnan Province, China

Kunming, Yunnan Province, China

Paris, France

Paris, France

In places like Vietnam and Cambodia, not only are dwelling spaces small, but the kitchens are particularly cramped and often poorly equipped. Additionally, everyday meals are inexpensive and readily available at any number of street vendors, cafes, and small semi-permanent food stalls. So, even though there are those who do have modern conveniences like stove-tops, washing machines, or televisions the tradition remains to gather with friends outside of the home. Western cities like Paris and Florence do not have the same street culture as Southeast Asia but, there too, just about everyone walks along the crowded streets, shops at outdoor markets, and rests or plays in public parks. Food vendors/hawkers are not as a common a sight there but open-air cafes, trattoria, tapas bars, etc. definitely are.

Chau Doc, Mekong Delta, Vietnam

Chau Doc, Mekong Delta, Vietnam

Chau Doc, Mekong Delta, Vietnam

Chau Doc, Mekong Delta, Vietnam

Streets are meant for people. This is eroding worldwide because of the ubiquitous car and streets that are getting wider to make room for these automobiles. Because of car traffic one rarely sees, in North American cities for example, children playing ball hockey, or hide and seek, jumping rope, or simply making up their own games on the street. Stoop or porch sitting is not a common site either. Spending time on our streets is no longer integrated into our daily lives and is rapidly becoming a thing of the past – so it seems to me. The social lives of city dwellers appear to be increasingly isolated. If I did not live directly next door to a community garden and park, or sit on the stoop of my house (which is facing our dead-end street), I would not know the people in my neighbourhood or have impromptu chats with complete strangers who walk by.

My neighbourhood is changing for the better. When I moved here 13 years ago there wasn’t much to do nearby. Today, there are a growing number of shops, restaurants, cultural centres, and parks which are within walking distance. There are even two farmers’ markets. The quality of life is better, street life is beginning to thrive, and there is little need to drive because this community has almost everything I need within walking distance or on the subway lines right nearby. It is a livable locale where neighbours run into each other on the street as they go about their daily business.

As I have mentioned multiple times in this blog, I am from Montreal. Despite it being a Northern city known for its very cold winters it somehow balances the frigid months with a French/Southern European mentality. Street life is substantial during the summer; people sit on their front stoops or balconies and are thus able to see and catch up with their neighbours. They eat in parks with omnipresent wine or beer so that public spaces become an extension of the private. Life, overall, takes to the streets and parks; the city pulsates with energy and activity.

Atwater Market, Montreal, Quebec, Canada

Atwater Market, Montreal, Quebec, Canada

 Vibrant streets call to me. Who wants to be cooped up indoors when there’s food, drink, fun, and people to meet or just watch? Healthy street culture abounds with respect for the other. In many quarters in Montreal or Paris, for instance, children come home from school and almost immediately go outdoors, on their own or with their parents, to play on the streets or on the playgrounds. In Italy, piazzas (squares) are the main gathering areas. During La Passeggiata, which is the time before dinner (around 5:30-8:30), people stroll about the central piazza or main drag of a town (in fact, La Passeggiata comes from the verb ‘to walk’).  This traditional daily ritual is more common in small towns but can also be seen in cities; it is a way for Italians to connect. During passeggiata many people hang-out in the piazzas or surrounding outdoor bars to have an aperitivo. It is a time when you see a mix of age and class. Children flock together yet are within shouting distance of their parents. Likewise, many Asian countries’ city and town residents still work within a block or two of their homes (often, in fact, the front of the home is the place of business). Thus, city blocks are like little villages.

Street life gives one the opportunity for chance encounters. Life outside our boxes and on the street is like being in an outdoor living room where everyone congregates and the community is the pulse of it all. The bottom line, it is good for the heart and soul.

Dancing in a Park, Beijing, China

Dancing in a Park, Beijing, China

Hanoi, Vietnam

Hanoi, Vietnam

Open Street Barber, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Open Street Barber Stall, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Cahors, France

Cahors, France

Mexico City, Mexico

Mexico City, Mexico

Apologies for no photos of the streets of Italy. Our camera was lost…

 

 

Was I Truly There??? China? Vietnam? Cambodia?

Me in Front of Storefront, Dali, Yunnan, China

Here I am in Front of a Storefront in Dali, Yunnan, China

It is hard to believe that only a few weeks have gone by since my return from Asia; I am so completely into the swing of things at home in the Boston area. It is ALMOST as if I never left. I can just barely “touch” China (where I lived and travelled from September 2013 until the end of March 2014) and Vietnam and Cambodia (where I travelled afterwards). They are elusive memories. And yet, profoundly, as I was out and about yesterday a large group of Chinese walked past me. Suddenly, a familiar feeling marked me and tied me to my time in China – I had a pleasantly warm and physical sensation throughout my body. My brain reminded me that I did, in fact, have particular experiences at particular times.

I left China feeling indifferent to the place, or so I thought. Now, I find that I miss it. I never thought I would and yet I do… I cannot figure out what it is that I miss; it is completely intangible – especially since while I was there I had mixed feelings about the country itself. But I realise there is something intangible about life there that I wish I could put my finger on. No matter. China did get under my skin and into my heart. I may not recall all of it, and certainly not necessarily on demand, but my past makes me who I am, now. The reality is, I truly was there.

Below is a small sampling of the photographs I took during my final three weeks in China: Shaxi, Dali, Fujian Province.

Shaxi, Yunnan Province China:

Grandmother and Grandchild out for a Stroll, Shaxi, Yunnan, China

Grandmother and Grandchild out for a Stroll, Shaxi, Yunnan, China

Shaxi Cultural Revolution Maoist Headquarters ("If the country wants to prosper and become strong then follow the birth plan" -- jie hua shen yu : one child one couple)

Shaxi Cultural Revolution Maoist Headquarters (“If the country wants to prosper and become strong then follow the birth plan” — jie hua shen yu : one child one couple)

Doorway (detail), Shaxi, Yunnan, China

Doorway (detail), Shaxi, Yunnan, China

Building a House, Shaxi, Yunnan, China

Building a House, Shaxi, Yunnan, China

Dali, Yunnan Province, China:

Street Scene, Renmin Lu, Dali, Yunnan, China

Street Scene, Renmin Lu, Dali, Yunnan, China

Bai Woman, Dali, Yunnan, China

Bai Woman, Dali, Yunnan, China

Woman, Dali, Yunnan, China

Woman, Dali, Yunnan, China

Alley, Dali, Yunnan, China

Alley, Dali, Yunnan, China

Fujian Province, China:

Fisherman, Fujian, China

Fisherman, Fujian, China

Sansazhen, Fujian, China

Sansazhen, Fujian, China

Fishermen. Near Sanshazhen, Fujian, China

Fishermen. Near Sanshazhen, Fujian, China

Sansazhen, Fujian, China

Sansazhen, Fujian, China

Xiamen, Zhongshan Park, Fujian

Xiamen, Zhongshan Park, Fujian

Xiamen, Nan Putuo Temple, Fujian

Xiamen, Nan Putuo Temple, Fujian

Xiamen, Near Zhongshan Park, Fujian

Xiamen, Near Zhongshan Park, Fujian

Yongding County's Earth Building Cultural Village, Fujian Tulou, Fujian, China

Yongding County’s Earth Building Cultural Village, Fujian Tulou, Fujian, China

Woman, Nanxi, Fujian Tulou, Fujian, China

Woman, Nanxi, Fujian Tulou, Fujian, China

Yongding County's Earth Building Cultural Village, Fujian Tulou, Fujian, China

Yongding County’s Earth Building Cultural Village, Fujian Tulou, Fujian, China

Yongding County's Earth Building Cultural Village, Fujian Tulou, Fujian, China

Yongding County’s Earth Building Cultural Village, Fujian Tulou, Fujian, China

Soursdei Chnam Thmei (“Happy New Year”) to You: Cambodia April 2014

Phnom Phenh

Phnom Phenh, Mother and Son

This year I travelled through Phnom Penh, Koh Kong, Kampot, and Kampong Cham, Cambodia during the festive three-day Cambodian New Year (Chaul Chnam Thmei). As with many cultures around the world, holiday preparations begin a few days in advance. Family and friends visit and wish each other good fortune and health. Every household, restaurant, and store has an offering table covered with fruit, drinks, flowers, snacks, and incense. Traditionally, on the eve of the holiday, people eat lavish meals and burn incense and candles to welcome a new god and say farewell to the old god. Families take food to monks on the first day, children give money or clothing to their parents on the second day, and everyone takes rice offerings to their respective temples. On the third day and night, it is common to go to the temple to douse and bathe Buddha statues and each other; gifts,along with the fragrant water, are also offered to these Buddhas. Many Khmer return to their home provinces to celebrate and it is common for family and friends to gather and play traditional Khmer games. 

Kampot Countryside

Kampot Countryside

I found that Cambodia was fairly tranquil during this period, since most businesses and markets are closed for nearly a week (and sometimes even beyond). On my way to Kampot I experienced first-hand, from the front seat I shared with a driver and two other passengers, the phenomenon of jam-packed vans full of homeward-bound travellers who are squashed into the seats, riding on the roof, or literally hanging out the open back doors.

Cambodia’s landscape is beautiful, there are many magnificent temples and monuments to visit, and the people are warm and welcoming but it is still a country in the throes of development and recovery from the Khmer Rouge atrocities of the 1970s to 1990s (1999 is officially considered the end of the Khmer Rouge despite the fact that Pol Pot ruled and committed genocide in his country from 1975-1979). In fact, Cambodia is one of the poorest countries in the world which means life is difficult for the majority of Khmer. It can be emotionally difficult for a traveller to witness the level of poverty in this country. Yet tourism and the many foreign expats who live and work here give the country a much-needed boost.

Phnom Phenh

Phnom Phenh

I believe that the money a tourist spends is very important at the individual community level in Cambodia. I can only hope that international aid allocates funding to local NGOs to help empower them to raise their own money and  become self-sufficient. This seems to be the best way to help struggling and impoverished countries dig their way out from under. Sustainability should be the goal of any NGO, but apparently this is not always the case at the local level, where it counts. But there is an alternative – the social enterprise.  According to the Social Enterprise Alliance:

Three characteristics distinguish a social enterprise from other types of businesses, nonprofits and government agencies:

  • It directly addresses an intractable social need and serves the common good, either through its products and services or through the number of disadvantaged people it employs.
  • Its commercial activity is a strong revenue driver, whether a significant earned income stream within a nonprofit’s mixed revenue portfolio, or a for profit enterprise.
  • The common good is its primary purpose, literally “baked into” the organization’s DNA, and trumping all others.

One example of a social enterprise that you can find in a number of places including the Phnom Penh and Siem Reap airports, is the long-established Artisans d’Angkor. Initially, it was was created with the assistance of the European Union. Its goal is to revive and promote into Cambodian craft by providing training to young people thereby improving their lives.

With all this said….

Phnom Penh:

Phnom Phenh

Phnom Phenh

More than two years have passed since I was last Phnom Penh (PP) and it appears that little there has changed. Yes, prices have gone up, so I spent $5 more for the guesthouse I stayed in last time, and perhaps $0.50 -$1.00 more for other things. Wifi is everywhere – no more internet cafe for me. There are new high-rises and corporate buildings and more roads are paved. Despite the many motor bikes, tuk tuks, and bicycles on the streets, cars and trucks are now ubiquitous; there was actually traffic congestion when I left for Koh Kong at 8 a.m. and when I returned to PP after the holiday, midday traffic throughout the city was almost at a standstill.

Phnom Penh, Royal Palace

Phnom Penh, Royal Palace

Despite being the capital city of Cambodia, PP has a frontier feel to it – it has a sense of both old and new. The streets are numbered but not necessarily in order, despite the fact that its roads are arranged predominantly in a grid system. Some buildings on streets lack numbers and others have the same number just half a block away (street names/numbers tend to jump about). PP is grungy in some areas, with just a few unpaved roads. Garbage abounds (in fact there is more on the street than two years ago; apparently, garbage pick-up is now the responsibility of a private company and they are not doing a very good job). The smaller markets are dark, maze-like, and teeming with life. Throngs of people sit on chairs, tables, or on the ground, and sell their produce at markets like the wet market near my hotel. The food literally spills onto the street and buyers and insects alike swarm the stalls. And yet… there are stylish hotels, shops, and restos just around the corner from these grittier areas. Corruption is still rampant in Cambodia as I’ve written in my post on Phnom Penh in 2012. Fortunately, there are many organisations trying to help eliminate this. 

Phnom Phenh

Phnom Phenh

I spent one day with a friend of a friend in PP; she picked me up and gave me a private tour of the city, taking me to some places I had seen before and many others (like Diamond Island, which appeared deserted but, I was told, livens up at night), I had not seen nor would have, had I not met her.

Phnom Phenh

Phnom Phenh

PP is rougher around the edges than neighbouring countries/cities. Vietnam, Laos, China, and elsewhere have also all experienced ugly histories in the recent past. Yet here, like in Laos and Vietnam, people are resolute and are attempting to bounce back. Almost everyone is friendly. They try to eke out their living, although life is not easy. PP is a diamond in the rough. Compared to two years ago, there appears to now be an even richer appreciation, among the people of this city, of its cultural heritage. There is the contemporary dance theatre – New Cambodian Artists – that incorporates traditional aspects into its performances, and Java Arts, which exhibits contemporary visual arts. Theirs is a strong and complex culture that has experienced so much sorrow and yet has survived. It seems that PP is in transition (and has been for a number of years). I enjoy PP very much because it is so multifaceted; the people, for the most part, are amiable and admirable. The city has an intense pace yet is completely laid-back, is both contemporary and traditional, rural and urban.

Accommodation:

  • Fancy Guesthouse: This is a family-run and very simple guesthouse that is central to everything. The price has gone up since I last stayed here but I blame myself for writing such a rave review on Trip Advisor!
  • Tattoo Guesthouse: This is another family-run, simple guesthouse, for those on a tight budget. It is farther away from the centre of town but the prices can’t be beat and the staff are known to be helpful and friendly.

Places to Eat:

  • K’nyay (Suramarit Blvd between Sothearos Blvd. and Street 19)
  • Malis (136 Norodom Blvd.)
  • Sugar Palm (19 Street 240)

Street Food (everywhere):

  • Kuy teav: A noodle soup with pork or beef, and rice vermicelli. It is topped with fried shallots, green onions, greens, and bean sprouts.
  • Bai sach chrouk: This is a typical pork and rice dish eaten for breakfast. The pork – sometimes marinated in garlic or coconut milk is grilled slowly over charcoal. Fried scallion and/or green tomatoes and/or fresh cucumbers and/or a fried egg are served on top, along with a small plate of spicy pickled cucumbers and carrots. The typical way to eat it is with a spoonful of each, at the same time. The best place I have found is at the corner of streets 15 and 136.
  • Nom plae ai: These little glutinous(?) rice dumplings are filled with liquid caramelized palm sugar and covered with fresh coconut shavings. Simply delicious.
  • Cheik chien : Deep fried bananas that are utterly scrumptious.  You often see them flattened and dipped in a batter with black sesame seeds.

Dance:

Tip: As I mention above, there are many NGOs and social enterprises. Check online and in the guide books and support those that have cafes and restaurants, or goods to sell; your money can go a long way to help the people of this country.

Tatai River (Koh Kong)

Koh Kong, Taitai River

Koh Kong, Taitai River

Koh Kong is the southwestern-most province of Cambodia, with a long, mostly undeveloped, coastline. The Cardamom mountains and rain forests cover this province, which makes the interior largely inaccessible. The main town is also named Koh Kong and is situated near the Thai border. It is small, with not much to attract people to it, but there are white sand beaches and opportunities for jungle treks nearby. I did not stay in Koh Kong. Instead, by chance and, as it happens, good fortune, I ended up at a costlier guesthouse than my allotted budget should have allowed, that was aptly named Tatai Riverfront Resort (note: do not consider staying at the Neptune Lodge– you can see my review on Trip Advisor under the title “First Bad Review.”). After one night at this lodge I was hooked. The staff was wonderful, the food excellent, and the world there, peaceful.

The Tatai River is clear and warm. The tidal waterway is a few hundred metres wide in most places and can go as deep as 20 metres. Where I stayed, the water is shallow with a very calm current and there was an island 30 metres or so away. The river alternates between salt and fresh water through the course of each day and season. Among the mangroves are little inlets which lead to the Cardamom mountains.

Koh Kong, Market

Koh Kong, Market

Koh Kong province is less developed than much of the rest of the country. I had the opportunity to visit the Tatai waterfall, where the water is very clear since the source is the Cardamom mountains. At night, fireflies gravitate to the star fruit (caramboia) trees in this area along the river to eat and do their thing – glow in the dark. It was the most beautiful sight as they flashed on and off, almost in unison. It actually felt as if I was watching a Disney movie, though Disney artists may well have gotten their glittery ideas from male fireflies who, according to the Huffington Post:

“show off” for the ladies of their own species. There are more than 2,000 species of firefly. A male firefly will light up its abdomen at a particular rate or wavelength, and when a female firefly sees a male from her own species shining in that particular way, she’ll respond with her own light. Hence baby fireflies are conceived.

Another reason fireflies glow (and this one not quite as romantic) is to lure prey. Some females will glow to lure a male to her and then — chomp! — he becomes dinner.

There was swimming and kayaking on the river, as well as jungle trekking opportunities. Each night at dusk, the sound and sight of fish leaping up out of the water entertained me. The din of frogs and cicadas was the first of many lovely sounds I heard at night. In the morning I woke up to the calls of birds, roosters, and geckos. Paradise, perhaps? Without mosquitoes, yes!

Accommodation:

Kampot:

Kampot, Wall Art

Kampot, Wall Art

Kampot sits on the banks of the broad Preak Kampong Bay River and is surrounded by fishing villages, salt flats (once rice paddies), mountains, and tropical forests. Kampot pepper farms also skirt the town; this was once one of the biggest pepper-growing regions in the world, until the Khmer Rouge arrived. The pepper business is slowly rebuilding itself. Kampot is also the durian capital of Cambodia – a fruit many people are turned off by because of it’s turpentine smell. But oh! How heavenly the taste is – best described as a combination of banana and mango with the consistency of pastry cream.

Kampot is a fairly quiet city – especially during the Khmer New Year – with many run-down French colonial-era buildings, and a charm I cannot explain. There are a few bridges that cross the river including “The Old Bridge,” which is actually built of multiple styles/sections and has a very rusty, hole-y, metal road, so only motor bikes, cyclists, and pedestrians are allowed to cross it. I was told that it was destroyed by the Khmer Rouge and when it was rebuilt, well…. the varying styles came into play for some odd reason. Kampot is a good place to walk, go for coffee, wander through the market (an ordinary, cramped, indoor place for the locals to buy anything from clothing and food, to household goods, beauty products, and more – these markets, like all I have experienced in this part of the world, are an onslaught to the senses), or simply hang out by the river. On the surface, Kampot feels like a place one quickly stops through on the way to elsewhere, but after a few days you realise that it is somewhere you can really relax. The main thing that disquieted me about it was that people are not as friendly here as in other places I have visited in Cambodia. I do not know why this is and if any of you know (or have experienced this impression) – please comment. 

Kampot

Kampot, City Outskirts

Kampot Dogs at Rest: A Rare Site (Photograph courtesy of Stefan Baldesberger)

Kampot Dogs at Rest: A Rare Site (Photograph courtesy of Stefan Baldesberger)

Kampot seems to have an inordinate number of foreign expats – particularly males, many who appeared to be in a stoned haze. Yet I did meet two lovely expat women – one teaches art at the Epic Arts Centre and the other is a psychiatrist and administrator at the Sonja Kill Memorial Hospital for Children. It was good to meet these two women since my feelings about the expats I saw hanging out were not positive.

I spent three days in Kampot. I wandered the area, taking photographs of some of the architectural “ruins;” wandering the outskirts of the city, along the railway and through countryside (warding off the notorious dog packs that initially made me freeze, until I found the courage to ignore them and just keep walking with conviction); visited the market, and more.

Kampot, Market

Kampot, Market

On one of these days I went up the winding, foggy road in Bokor Mountain National Park by motorbike, with a fellow traveller staying at my guesthouse. We wanted to see the new casino/hotel and the c1920 French ruins. Bokor Hill Station is a vestige of the past. It was originally built by the French, as a holiday resort, but was abandoned in the 1940s during the Indochine War. This building still stands empty (with many Khmer picnicking on the grounds and children running about inside). Solimex Group, the largest Cambodian real estate company, built the new casino and hotel nearby and is in the process of constructing luxury housing as well. They have also cleaned the exterior and interior of Bokor Hill Station so this once completely abandoned place no longer shows signs of the lichen and moss that covered it not long ago. I have read Somilex is planning to turn this building into a museum but that remains to be seen.

File:Bokor casino.jpg

Kampot, The Old Bokor Hill Casino  (Photograph courtesy of Nicolas Pascarel)

Kampot, Bokor Hill

Kampot, The Old Bokor Hill Casino

Kampot, Bokor Hill

Kampot, Bokor Hill

On this same road there is an abandoned, lichen covered, Romanesque-style Catholic church with its rusty cross standing tall. The inside is covered with both Khmer and English graffiti and religious artifacts have been added recently. Bullet holes are also visible (the story goes that the Vietnamese fought with the Khmer Rouge at this spot).

Kampot, Bokor Hill

Kampot, Bokor Hill

Kampot, Bokor Hill

Kampot, Bokor Hill

The road up/down the mountain gives you a chance to see the grand vista of the plateau and the Gulf of Thailand below. This park is a popular place among the Khmer, who often visit during the New Year to picnic, go to the temple at the top, to give their offerings, and listen to Buddhist sermons, and to just get away from the high temperatures and breathe cooler, moving air.

One morning I visited the salt flats just outside of Kampot but was not lucky enough to see anyone at work, since it was the holiday season. The flats were completely devoid of people and quite serene.

Kampot, Salt Flats

Kampot, Salt Flats

What I particularly liked about Kampot – what turned me on the most – was the run-down facade of the citys colonial architecture left by the French. The photos below say it all. This city of many decaying, formerly grand, buildings gives visitors a small window into what once must have been a flourishing colonial power. Kampot was one of the last regions for Khmer Rouge forces to take over because the Bokor Mountain stood in its way. And as it so happens, the Khmer Rouge did not leave Kampot until the late 1990s, after the rest of the country had already moved on.

Kampot

Kampot

Kampot

Kampot

Accommodation:

  • Auberge du Soleil: This is a new guesthouse, only open a couple of months, and run by a Swiss man who is in the process of turning the place around. He hopes it will be up to snuff by the next high season. He is very accommodating and is really trying to keep his handful of guesthouse clients, happy, as he does his resto/bar clients. At the moment he is juggling a lot but if his vision comes to fruition it will be a fantastic place.
  • Les Manguiers: I did not stay here because I wanted to be in the town of Kampot but this place was recommended and is not far outside the town.

Places to Eat:

  • Auberge du Soleil (at the corner of streets 728 and 710)
  • Sisters II Bakery and Cafe (Street 726 near 2000 Roundabout )
  • Epic Arts Centre (at the corner of streets 731 and 724)
  • Ta Oav (JUST south of the New Bridge)
  • Street Food – everywhere

Epic Arts Dance Videos:

Kampong Cham

Kampong Cham, Boy

Kampong Cham (I noticed this boy sitting in the hammock in the distance. I walked up to him and fell in love with his face. Here he looks so sad. I was so busy concentrating on getting a good shot of his face and the angles of the walls/hammock/floor that I did not notice his missing foot. After taking the photographs and showing them to him he became a happy kid. Every time I passed by his home, which was about 10-15 metre away from the road, he would jump up and down with such pleasure at seeing me and yell “hellooooooooo!!!!!” I would echo the same hello back and blow him a kiss with my hands. He responded accordingly. I had made a friend.)

Kampong Cham is a relatively small place that most visitors to this country tend to overlook. It is a fairly well-kept, tranquil town with few large, new, buildings. It houses a couple of markets, a few hotels, a small derelict fairground, and some restos, food stalls, and stands along the Mekong where locals gather in droves at night. There are many French colonial buildings and is a lovely place to explore as is the surrounding area. It is a large Buddhist centre as well as a Muslim one (the largest Muslim community in Cambodia lives here and the word “Cham” is the name of Cambodia’s Muslim minority group).

Kampong Cham, Woman

Kampong Cham, Woman

What I did in my 1.5 days in Kampong Cham:

  • Wandered the streets enjoying the town in 37C heat that finally got to me after three weeks of similar temperatures.
  • Traversed the Bamboo Bridge and explored Koh Paen Island: The bridge crosses the Mekong river to an island where there are many small Cham and Khmer villages with houses, typical of Cambodian countryside architecture, mounted on stilts. Crossing the bridge is thrilling because it gives the impression of being rickety and wobbly yet is sturdy enough to endure throngs of people, tuk tuks, and large motor vehicles. I can only imagine the rush of experience going over the bridge by bicycle…  Every year this bridge is washed away during the rainy season and is rebuilt during the dry one.
Kampong Cham, Bamboo Bridge to Koh Paen Island

Kampong Cham, Bamboo Bridge to Koh Paen Island

  • Nokor Wat: Remnants of this 11th century temple has Angkorian-like architecture. The more recent shrine is a Theravada Buddhist pagoda that is squeezed in between the oldest shrines. The original killing field in this area was between Phnom Proh and Phnom Sray (see below), just beyond Nokor Wat. Monks collected the bones after the Khmer Rouge regime and placed them in a building here. I read that there are wall paintings depicting torture and executions and, on another series of walls, scenes of the afterlife. Unfortunately I could not get into this building. There were no monks around and I barely saw a soul while I was there.
Kampong Cham, Nokor Wat

Kampong Cham, Nokor Wat

  • Phnom Pros and Phnom Sray: The names of these two temples translate to: “Man Hill’” and “Woman Hill.” Each has a pagoda and panoramic views of the countryside. Phnom Pros is filled with monkeys who, unfortunately, eat much of the garbage left by visitors. There is a memorial site for the victims of the Pol Pot regime, at Phnom Sray. A legend was recounted to me : A man and a woman were in a competition to build the tallest mountain at night before sunrise. They were doing this because, as is the Khmer custom, men must ask the parents for the hand in marriage of the woman he loves. Apparently one particular man wanted to challenge this tradition so suggested that he gather a team of men to build a mountain. The woman gathered together to build another. Whichever team built the tallest mountain would win. If the men won, he would not have to ask her parents for their daughter; if he lost, he would. While they worked into the night, the women built a fire with flames high enough for the men to see. Since these flames reached the sky the men thought it was sunrise and put their tools down to rest. While they stopped working the women continued working and won the competition. To this day, a man must still ask a woman’s parents for permission to marry her.
Kampong Cham, Phnom Pros

Kampong Cham, Phnom Pros

Kampong Cham, Phnom Sray

Kampong Cham, Phnom Sray

Kampong Cham, Phnom Pros (Baby on Board)

Kampong Cham, Phnom Pros (Baby on Board)

Except for the dogs that tend to know I am afraid of them (I was bitten by one in Laos), Kampong Cham is full of charm with seemingly very happy people who neither hassle nor ignore you. It was a very good way to end my travels in Cambodia.

Accommodation:

  • Leap Mong Kol Hotel (Kampuchea Krom Street. Very basic rooms and off the radar because it is “out of town” which means it is all of five minutes to the centre. Staff do not speak English.

Places to Eat:

  • Street Food everywhere
  • Smile Cafe (along the Mekong – this resto is run by a local NGO, Buddhism and Society Development Association (BSDA), and is “a training restaurant for orphans and vulnerable youth”)
  • Samaki Restaurant (right next to the Mekong and opened up by two graduates of the Smile Program. This resto supports local vocational training.
Kampong Cham, Phnom Pros (Monkey See, Monkey Do)

Kampong Cham, Phnom Pros (Monkey See, Monkey Do)

A Short Jaunt in Vietnam in March/April 2014

Hanoi (woman on street)

Hanoi (woman on street)

One day in Hanoi (and an unexpected overnight stay in Kowloon):

Unfortunately, because of a missed flight and some other factors beyond my control, my hoped-for week in Hanoi turned into a one-day trip.

My flight from Xiamen, China to Hanoi, via Hong Kong (HKG) was 5.5 hours behind schedule, due to poor weather conditions in HKG, and five of those hours were spent sitting in the airplane before it finally took off. I therefore missed my connecting flight and any opportunity to get to Hanoi that night. When we finally did arrive at the HKG airport my luggage was lost/misplaced – and found only 3 hours later. Dragon Air arranged an overnight stay for me in a five star hotel. I discovered, the following morning, that my room had one of the “stunning” views advertised on the website. I had the luxury of enjoying an all-you-can-eat breakfast (congee, dim sum, fresh fruit, and pain au chocolat) and then spent the rest of my time in my room, catching up with family and friends online before leaving at 11am for the airport and, finally, Hanoi. My long, tiring day of not getting where I was going did have a bit of a pay-off in the end!!

Hanoi is as I remember it from 2009 except that there are billboards all along the road from the airport to the city centre, and in the distance you can now see a few high-rises.  It seems as if the city has grown exponentially over these few years; even a new airport is being built. I was glad to see though, that the motor bike still rules the road, although there are now, more cars as well. I guess this is to be expected, in a “developing” country.  It also seems that there are more karaoke bars than there used to be. I learned that in Vietnam, karaoke is a favourite, family, after-dinner pastime.

Hanoi (one of many food stands on the streets of Hanoi)

Hanoi (one of many food stands on the streets of Hanoi)

The old quarter is the compact centre of the city and is where I stayed. It is still the same crowded, disorderly place but now seems to have a more self-assured air about it. The wafting smell of meat cooking hasn’t changed, the streets abound with people and motorbikes, and it retains the vibrancy I remember. I love it! The old part of the city is still full of winding, narrow alleys, and the boulevards are tree-lined. The lake in the middle of town is still a place for locals to hang out and French colonial architecture makes its presence felt; both new and old buildings envelope you. All of these elements, combined with the proud and resilient spirit of the Vietnamese people, produce a lively city. After spending seven months in China, I had almost forgotten how amazingly friendly, open, spirited, and determined the people of Southeast Asia are. I was reminded of this both in Hanoi and in the Mekong Delta, on this trip.

Hanoi (woman selling flowers)

Hanoi (woman selling flowers)

Hanoi is a fantastically frenetic city where people work hard but know how to relax. I quickly discovered that I had not lost the knack for crossing the busy streets – even Dinh Tien Hoang Boulevard. I was in Hanoi for a little over 39 hours, so this time I was just wandering through, but I sat on small plastic chairs, ate street food, and felt comfortable and at home. The first night, I wandered into a resto stall – Bun Bi Nam Bo (for bun bo) – and, as I was eating, I suddenly realised that it had been my daily go-to breakfast place when I was here  with my friend LP, in 2009. Talk about weird. I had no idea when I first entered but it looked strangely familiar. I later checked my  photos from that trip and my hunch was proven right.

Hanoi (woman sorting through rice)

Hanoi (woman sorting through rice)

Eating Pho in Hanoi was a must, as was drinking ca phe sua da, and a mango shake (made of pure mango juice and nothing else). This is a city with a passion for food; the sound of people cooking and getting ready for a day of selling food starts early in the morning – before 6 a.m. – and ends late at night. Anywhere you stroll you will pass vendors on the side of road, in storefronts, or on their bicycles, offering fruit and vegetables, soups, baguettes, and more. Hanoi is also a cafe culture, whether you sit in a coffee shop or enjoy a cup with others, sitting on low, plastic seats on the sidewalk. I will never be able to do Vietnamese/Hanoi food justice so I urge you to look at the websites below to get a sense of what and where to eat.

Hanoi (mannequin shops are a common site)

Hanoi (mannequin shops are a common site)

Of course if you want to, you may also eat at one of the many KFC’s, or MacDonald’s. You may also buy shoes at well-known Western stores such as Aldo and Bata. There is probably more of America here now than when I last visited and that, to me, is a shame. Nonetheless, Hanoi, once again, left only a good taste in my mouth and I cannot wait to return.

Accommodations:

  • Hanoi Elegance. This little (but growing)  chain of boutique hotels in Hanoi is very comfortable. The staff is marvellous, and I have no complaints. My stay was at the cheapest of the properties and was a real treat for me. A friend from Montreal told me it was a great stay and I’m glad he did!! I highly recommend it.

Places to Eat:

  • Pho Gia Truyen (49P Bat Dan)
  • Bun Bo Nam Bo (67P Hang Dieu)

Check Out:

Less than 24 Hours in Saigon / Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC):

Saigon

Saigon

Saigon

Saigon

After another delayed flight, this time with 1.5 hours waiting on the plane at the gate, I finally arrived in HCMC  (commonly known as Saigon by locals) at 4:30 p.m., in time to meet my friend Nuc, a fellow CouchSurfer, for supper. My hotel received good reviews on Trip Advisor but I stayed in a windowless room (not for the first time in Vietnam) and, though it was comparatively clean, it was also more expensive than other places.

Nuc and I went for supper at Quan Dat –  a restaurant that specializes in south central Vietnamese food. We ate Banh Can (rice cakes with eggs, pork, shrimp and squid, that you wrap in fresh greens, then add cucumbers and green papaya, and dip in a variety of sauces (fermented fish; peanut; or fish and chili). Here is how you make Banh Can:

Accommodation:

Places to Eat:

  • Quan Dat – (106 Truong Dinh, P.9, Q3, District 10)

Mekong Delta:

Mekong Delta (woman roasting glutinous rice covered bananas)

Mekong Delta (woman roasting glutinous rice covered bananas)

Why did the chicken cross the road? The real answer is – to get out of the way of motorbikes and bicycles. Apparently chickens do not care which side of the street they are on. They like to hang out wherever they feel like it  – even on the narrow concrete or dirt pathways all along the Mekong Delta. This is what I discovered after a few days of cycling these back routes with Vietnam Backroads.

Mekong Delta (one of the many bridges we went over on our trip)

Mekong Delta (one of the many bridges we went over on our trip)

This small company runs various cycling trips across the delta. Our group consisted of me, two brothers, originally from the UK, (who hadn’t seen each other for five years), and our tour leader. We cycled mostly back roads, passing coconut groves, fruit trees of all sorts (pomelo, banana, mango, guava, sapota, and more),  palm trees, and rice paddies.  We rode up and then down, over many short, steep bridges that cross the myriad of waterways in this area, and rode on some small ferries as well, to travel across the water.  The three of us had the opportunity to speak with a monk at a Buddhist Theravada temple, and went to the Cai Rang floating market outside of Ca Tho. We visited the Bang Lang stork sanctuary, where we saw what must have been thousands of both black and white storks, as well as the spectacular Tra Su Melaleuca Forest Nature Reserve.  Each day, as we cycled, we were greeted, seemingly out of nowhere, with a chorus of loud, happy “hellos” from hundreds of people we passed. Our guide, Dat, was stupendous; he is originally from a farm in the Mekong Delta, but because he is the youngest in his family, he got to go to school rather than work on the farm. He had studied tourism and because of his education and connection to this area, he was able to provide us with an abundance of interesting and detailed information.

Mekong Delta (ka phe sua da in the making)

Mekong Delta (ka phe sua da in the making)

All along the way, we saw men drinking coffee or tea together under the corrugated rooves of little shops. I asked Dat about this and he said that men in Vietnam tend to drink together, to talk about business and exchange farming tips. After I prodded and joked with him a bit, he admitted that business probably accounts for only about 60% of the conversations.

Mekong Delta (drying rice along the rice paddies_

Mekong Delta (drying rice along the rice paddies_

On one of the days, we passed by a home that was preparing for a funeral. We were invited to sit down for tea and pay our respects by burning incense at the alter. Typically, people are not invited to visit a house of mourning; they just drop by. In Vietnam, when someone dies, the surviving family stays at home for five or six days.  The body is washed and dressed, a chopstick is laid between the teeth, and rice and three coins are placed in the mouth to show that the person did not die of hunger or want. The whole body is covered with white cloth. The Khmer, who predominantly occupy the Mekong Delta, practice the tradition of cremation, whereas the Vietnamese bury family members who have died.

Mekong Delta (picking hot peppers)

Mekong Delta (picking hot peppers)

Mekong Delta (woman in Can Tho who was at first very sheepish about having her photograph taken and then let me take MANY)

Mekong Delta (woman in Can Tho who was at first very sheepish about having her photograph taken and then let me take MANY)

Mekong Delta (selling soup in Can Tho)

Mekong Delta (selling soup in Can Tho)

This trip did not afford me the time to take many photographs since I was too busy biking but I will end here by saying that the scenery was absolutely spectacular and I would both recommend and repeat this trip in a heartbeat.

Bicycle Tours:

 

Thailand 2012

From Vientiane to Bangkok on a night train in a 2nd class car… Berths are not compartments as we know then in North America but arranged in an ‘open plan’ on each side of a central aisle.  During the earlier evening and later morning portions of the journey, pairs of seats face each other on each side of the aisle where you face your berth mate.  At night, each pair of seats pull together to form the bottom bunk and an upper bunk folds out from the wall.  An attendant makes up your bed with a proper mattress and fresh, crisp, clean bedding, and hooks curtains which are provided for each bunk to give you privacy. All bedding is stored on the upper bunk and comes down and turned into a bed for the person sleeping on top. Essentially, it is one whole train car that sleeps in the open, together, (save these “privacy curtains”). It was very comfortable and 12 hours later I arrived in Bangkok. I loved the train ride and the egalitarianism of the berths.

Bangkok

Bangkok

Bangkok was the largest city I’d been in, in a while. The traffic was seemingly non-stop. The “sky train” (MRT subway) is efficient and takes you everywhere you need to go. The Sunday I arrived I went to the Chatuchak weekend market. Stall after stall is filled with clothing, jewellery, trinkets, shoes, belts, or just about anything else you could want. There are food stalls by the dozen and I drank my first of several Thai iced teas at this market. I also ate the best coconut ice cream ever — in a coconut shell with shaved coconut on the bottom. No complaints!!!

Bangkok

Bangkok

My friend Michelle arrived in Bangkok from the U.S. the same day as I arrived from Vientiane — for a two-day business trip. We went out for supper the two nights she was there – for some of the best food I ate on this trip. It was soooooooooooooo nice to meet up with a friend. While she was at work on the Monday I toured the Jim Thompson House with two Canadian women who were staying at my guesthouse. The three of us had lunch then went our separate ways. That afternoon I went for a 2.5 hour massage (complete heaven)  then went to Michelle’s hotel to just hang out in her room and relax until she returned from work. We actually ate dinner at the Jim Thomspson House.

Bangkok

Bangkok

Bangkok

Bangkok

Bangkok

Bangkok

A funny thing happened to me on the way to Singapore… I went to the MBK Centre, a mall across the way from where I was staying, to get my legs waxed. The woman doing my legs wanted to give me a Brazilian bikini wax (i.e., wax away all of my pubic hairs) and I insisted that she not do this. All I wanted was a small bikini wax in anticipation of my beach trip in a few days, in Malaysia. The woman insisted I needed that Brazilian wax: “So sexy. So sexy.”  I mentioned that my husband wouldn’t agree and EVEN SHE admitted that her husband feels the same way.  No matter, she went ahead and a bit too far over my protestations. So there you have some nitty gritty and perhaps too much personal information but it is such funny story and cultural interchange.

One week later…. I returned from visiting friends in Singapore and a few days in Pulau Tioman in Malaysia. I couchsurfed during the second part of my trip in Bangkok where I stayed with a very lovely, warm, and intelligent woman of 36. Unlike Patrick, in Vientiane, Nuch and I clicked and spent our evenings together. During the day I wandered the streets of Bangkok’s old city centre. I did not go into any wats or the Grand Palace but did go to the Museum of Siam to see “The Two Planets Series.” I was told that exhibition was not open to the public until the next day; I explained it was advertised as opening that day and I had gone to the museum especially to see the videos. After a phone call I was let me in for free (i.e., waived the $10USD) and was able to see the whole museum as well as the four videos that were still closed to the public.  The videos are a humorous illustration of cultural differences between East and West, showing how  a group of villagers and farmers react to Western paintings of villagers and farmers in Europe. These “unsophisticated” villagers expressed their feelings with such extraordinary freedom that I could not help but smile. The artist was clearly not making fun of them but demonstrating the vast cultural differences and the fact that Westerners, or anyone with a higher education, may have lost innocence and spontaneity when it comes to art.

Bangkok

Bangkok

That afternoon I plan went to Galerie N, a contemporary art gallery, to see the show “Dwelling in a Space: Patoong Collage & Installation” by Gi-ok Jeon.  Following this excellent exhibition I explored Chinatown before meeting Nuch for supper.

Ayutthaya

I arrived by train (3rd class — 15 baht! — that’s 50 US cents — open windows and very hot) in the early afternoon. A German woman and American woman who were staying at the same guesthouse as me in Ayutthaya joined me for lunch at the day market and we then spent the afternoon and evening, including supper at the night market, with each other.  Ayutthaya is not a very beautiful area however the Historic City of Ayutthaya makes the visit worthwhile. Julie (the German woman) and I rented bikes and cycled the city and went to many wats and visited a market beside one of them. We had a wonderful day riding about, stopping and taking in the sites, and just enjoying the day.

So…. not to toot my own horn too… I have to admit that because I try so hard to speak in my pidgin Thai (or any other language, depending on the country I am in) I tend to have people open up to me. This was the case when I bought coffee and tea for the three of us one morning at the market and then later that day when I walked up to workers by a canal. One was resting so I asked him if he was the boss. He laughed so I proceeded to ask him if he was just resting. Yes! He then told me he and his friends were cutting weeds along the water (which was very clear to me but I was just trying to make conversation). They then all stopped to rest and one of them took out something that was clearly alcoholic and potent and put it in his gator-aide like bottle. Anyway, they let me take photos of them and we continued to talk about nothing in particular since none of us could truly communicate with each other. All of this with my very crappy Lonely Planet phrase book that never has the phrases you want but luckily has a dictionary in the back and some words in the phrase areas that helps me cobble stupid sentences together. I love this!! The people and food REALLY make travel. So does good scenery and the odd wat or two…

Sukhothai

I stayed at TR Guesthouse. Toh (the owner of the guesthouse) is so real, friendly, and helpful. At the market, close by, supper was 45B. Breakfast 30B. You can’t beat those prices. At breakfast at the market a man was curious about me so we talked about early retirement and working in a library. At lunch, men were laughing at my Thai. When cycling the route by one of the wats a man selling water was also very impressed and tickled by my Thai. In any case, I was having a great time trying… I spent the day riding a rented bicycle through the historical sites and the countryside and finally became watted out. In the countryside of Sukhothai – I partook in a wonderful cycling tour which was something I would not have easily figured out on my own two wheels. The tour consisted of six hours of cycling with a German couple who also took the tour. We cycled along rice paddy pathways and back country roads. We passed by a tobacco farm where a boy came running in costume, greeting us as we cycled by. Upon my return to the guesthouse I spent the rest of the day reading and drinking watermelon juice, ginger tea, and resting. A perfect day.

Sukhothai, Tobacco Boy!

Sukhothai, Tobacco Boy!

Chiang Mai

Three days in the small city Chiang Mai! My first impression was surprise that I did not fall in love with it — perhaps because the guesthouse is in a backpacking district, which I had been successful in avoiding thus far. In general, Thailand is not my favourite place in Southeast Asia. Perhaps if I travelled further north in Thailand I’d have felt differently. People ask me which country is my favourite. It is not easy to answer since I seem to adore Vietnam, Cambodia, and Lao — particularly the first two countries, But, I do know that Thailand is my least favourite. it just never got under my skin despite really liking the people and the food.

My first day in Chiang Mai I drifted in and out of the alleys after visiting the morning market and then ate a fantastic vegetarian breakfast and drank a very strong and excellent Thai coffee. Since I stayed in the old city – this is where I spent the day. I found a place for a full-body Thai and a foot massage. I then happened to bump into Liliane, the German woman, who I met in Sukhothai. We strolled together and went to SP Chicken  – a resto that we stumbled upon and where they roast lemongrass- and garlic-stuffed chickens out front on a vertical spit beside a wall of glowing charcoal. We sat beneath the restaurant’s aluminum awning on plastic chairs and ate sticky rice, papaya salad, and those flavour-packed birds, hacked into pieces and served with a sweet, spicy dipping sauce along with Singha beer with ice. Another perfect meal. In fact, it may have been the simplest and best meal I ate in Thailand.

One of my days in Chiang Mai I was picked up by bus and taken to The Chiang Mai Thai Farm Cooking School where I learned how to make:  green curry and chicken, pad thai, chicken and basil, papaya salad, tom yum soup, sticky rice and mangoes (my favourite dessert in Thailand and Laos). For your quick perusal, here are a few photos of the preparation and final products as well as our enthusiastic instructor:

Some factoids:

  • Thailand is an emerging economy and considered a newly industrialized country. It had a high growth rate from 1985 to 1996 – averaging 12.4% annually
  • 85%  of pineapples in the world are exported from Thailand
  • 75% of rice exported throughout the world comes from Thailand
    • rice is Thailand’s most important crop
  • Many of the hard drives in computers come from Thailand
  • Exports account for more than two-thirds of Thailand’s GDP
  • 50% of the labour force is in agriculture
  • 1100B is the typical annual pay for a tobacco farmer and the whole family — all who usually work on the farm
  • Thai chilies are hottest when they are orange and less so when they are red or green
  • Finally, not a factoid, per se — but I’ve never seen so many 7-Eleven stores as I have in this country and most are overly air-conditioned and keep their doors open so that the air-conditioners have to work even harder!

Conclusions… I think if I went travelling north of here and into the countryside I’d enjoy Thailand more. Just being on a farm outside of Chiang Mai, for the cooking lessons, and having cycled in the countryside of Sukhothai and Ayutthaya proved to me that I could really enjoy myself in Thailand. I liked Bangkok very much but had enough after 5 days. And I just did not fall for Chiang Mai  – but so it goes. Travelling from Bangkok up to Chiang Mai the land was flat with lots of rice paddies, and factories on the side of the main roads. When I got closer to Chiang Mai the landscape slowly changed to small hills/mountains. When I left Chiang Mai to go to northeastern Laos the landscape changed again to more mountains and valleys filled with agriculture.

Cambodia

2010

Siem Reap

After a few long flights Steve and I made it to Siem Reap — home of Angkor Wat and Angkor beer. Immediately we discovered that the people are wonderful but the place is tourist central. We were lucky enough (and this was pure luck) to end up in a relatively quiet neighbourhood (Wat Bo) on a fairly quiet street. There were many guest houses but quiet, nonetheless. Siem Reap is filled with smoke from fires — we were being prepared for even more smoke, from slash and burn of brush in Laos in preparation of planting rice crops.

Tuk Tuk

Tuk Tuk

Gate

Gate

The first of our two days we rented bicycles and rode the grand tour of Angkor Wat – about 20km. Steve kept repeating that it was hot. Steve said the food can be pretty good. Steve said the ruins are cool. But, believe it or not, we missed the actual Angkor Wat completely. We planned on touring it at the end of the day but after meandering through wats (temples) off the beaten path it was very difficult to even look toward Angkor Wat – all we could see were busloads of tourists (droves and droves). What we did see was: Ta Prohm, Tam So and a few of others a well.

Ta Phrom

Ta Phrom

Ta Som

Ta Som

The day after our ring tour we took a tuk tuk (a motor bike with an attached carriage for people to sit in) to Bung Mealea (60km away). It is a striking place of mostly ruins. In fact every historical site we saw in the greater Angkor Wat complex was ruins and un-restored (natch!). The ride there was a good (though fast) way of seeing rural Cambodian life. We passed many shacks with people selling corn, petrol, or baguettes. Cows were utterly skin and bones. As in Vietnam, everyone works very hard; the Cambodian way of life is not easy and the people are very poor. However, they are very friendly, in a reserved kind of way.

Selling  Petrol

Selling Petrol

Children at Bung Melea

Children at Bung Melea

Bung Melea

Bung Melea

Bung Melea

Bung Melea

We discovered that there are a lot of cleared landmine signs throughout the countryside.

A good friend of mine who travelled Cambodia once said that everything in Cambodia is $1. Truer words could not have been spoken (almost). Everything, practically, costs a dollar. Water? $1. Caphe ta kwa (ice coffee)? $1. Children following you around? $1. Ten post cards? $1. Laundry? $1. The list goes on.

Our best meal in Cambodia was outside of Ta Prohm. We were the only falang (foreigners) there and had a great conversation with a tuk tuk driver eating there, too. We ate Khmer rice noodle and coconut soup with lots of chili peppers, green beans, and some unidentifiable green leaves. We had the most wonderful mango and coconut shakes to drink as well as coconut milk — a very common beverage in these parts. In contrast, in Siem Reap, itself, we had crappy Americanized fruit shakes that are watery and over-sweetened. And of course, in close to 100F heat we drank lots and lots of bottled water.

2012

Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh

I headed up the river to the Cambodian/Vietnamese border via slow boat; once in Cambodia I took a bus to Phnom Penh. Just as the first time in Cambodia, two years prior, it was amazing for me to see the countryside and the way people live.

My first impressions of Phnom Penh (PP) — I wanted out.

Why? I first landed at the wrong youth hostel which was not bad but was already full so I had to go to the one I booked which was very bad – for me. This second hostel was full of hipsters, mostly, and the room and bathroom they put me in I (50-something in age) was shared with 7 young men each somewhere between the ages of 25-30. I went to bed at 11pm but, slowly and surely, one after the other came in to take a shower, go out, and party. The last one left just as I lay down to sleep.

Then: That night I realised that my stomach was a little off and the next morning I still did not feel well and needed to stay close to a bed and bathroom. After much angst (since I was trying to travel frugally) Steve convinced me to treat myself to the Fancy Guest House where Elton John stayed the first week it was open! The stay here proved necessary the first few days and was a lovely splurge, afterwards. This guesthouse is splendidly situated and the owner and his brother are sweet, helpful, and accommodating (no pun intended!!).

Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh

The next day I felt a bit better but kept to rice for breakfast and baguette for lunch. I wandered the area and took photos for the first time since arriving in the city. I actually discovered a Bank of China and exchanged some US money into Chinese yuan. This was a fortuitous find since as I commented in my Vietnam (2012) post it is hard to cash for traveller’s cheques and I suspected that it might be even more difficult to exchange money at the small border crossing between rural Laos and rural China. Besides this bit of business I went to the National Museum, the Phnom Wat, and wandered into a few other wats – essentially walked in and out of wherever my feet and eyes took me.

The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields: This was a sobering day, recalling (my very vague memory of) Cambodia’s fairly recent war-torn history. It is impossible to imagine the reality Cambodians lived through while under the four-year rule (1975-1979) of Pol Pot (nearly two million Cambodians  – about a fourth of the country’s population – were exterminated). S21 is a multi-building, three-story, compound that became one of the most notorious torture chamber before people were slaughtered in the Killing Fields. S21 was not the only facility of this sort but part of a larger organized system for killing. Approximately 17,000 prisoners were tortured at Tuol Sleng and died (or were executed in the Killing Fields). As it turned out many of those tortured and who died were actually Khmer Rouge themselves who were accused of betrayal. Most were ordinary Khmer citizens required to confess to crimes they did not know existed. Like the Nazis the Khmer Rouge documented everything. This similarity reminds us that we keep repeating history, not just Nazi Germany and Khmer Rouge Cambodia but more recently Rwanda, etc….

I can’t do justice trying to describe the horrific history so take a look at: Killing Fields Museum (in Seattle) and Tuol Sleng Photographs.

I haven’t mentioned it but PP is full of contradictions. There is incredible poverty here and yet you see people being driven and let out of their fancy SUV Lexus’ by guards. Apparently in the mid-2000s PP was one of the most corrupt cities in the world (perhaps the most corrupt? I cannot recall). There is a great deal of prostitution, many, if not most, children. Supposedly this is illegal but because of the corruption it is not surprising that it has not been eradicated. Women consist of 65% of the work force in all areas including construction but only 20% of women are literate. And there is lots of trafficking of women and children even though this, too, is now illegal. Perhaps of Interest: Banteay Srei.

Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh

Yet, despite all of this, the residents seem to put on happy faces and appear eager to talk to you (not just accost you – as do many very young children in the countryside who hang on to you trying to get money from you). The PP population is out and about and it appears as if everyone eats out rather than at home. But I don’t know if that is true; this was just an impression.

That same day I needed some relief, so I also went to the Russian Market and enjoyed just wandering around.

The next day my cooking class was cancelled due to the teacher/chef being sick. Instead, I wandered PP and spread my American wealth by buying presents for family and friends in the various NGOs that help street children, disabled persons, and children and girls who exposed to human trafficking.

Having walked through the old french quarter it was easy to imagine PP as it once was in its grander days, under colonization. Today, of course, the huge homes are behind locked (and incredibly gorgeous) gates. Some buildings, though, have become quite derelict.  In general, the city is dust-blown and except for the main roads, all roads are dirt and full of holes. There are throngs of motor bikes and some bicycles and certainly a fair share of cars trying to manoeuvre around. Yet the city works. I liked PP more than I cared for Ho Chi Minh City. In fact I actually learned to really like Phnom Penh.

But here is some sobering information on Cambodia – three excerpts from articles in Camnews.org:

  • Take Cambodia, which ranked at the bottom of a recent regional Transparency International corruption survey. Its government workers pad their paltry, sporadic pay by demanding bribes for everything from birth certificates to school grades. One oft-cited International Monetary Fund working paper argues that paying civil servants twice the wages of manufacturing workers is associated with a reduction in corruption. In Cambodia, civil servants make less than half what a garment worker makes.
  • Human rights in Cambodia have gone from bad to worse in January, prompting Human Rights Watch to issue a damning report on the Southeast Asian nation’s rights slide. The company eventually provided some former villagers with plots of land at relocation sites, but the desolate sites were 50 km from the capital, without bathrooms, schools, hygiene provisions or even buildings… The Borei Keila residents aren’t the only Cambodians who have felt the government’s wrath this month. Four protesters were shot and injured last week in the small town of Snoul, located on the way to Siem Reap during a land grab dispute.
  • The United Nations voiced concern Wednesday over Cambodia’s delay in appointing a foreign judge to the Khmer Rouge tribunal, paralyzing probes into two cases strongly opposed by the government. Swiss judge Laurent Kasper-Ansermet arrived in Phnom Penh last month as the UN’s choice to replace a German judge who abruptly quit in October over government opposition to further prosecutions linked to the 1975-1979 regime.

Siem Reap Revisited (2012)
I took the 7:30 boat up the Mekong River to Siem reap (a nice 6 hour trip) from Phnom Penh; at one point the river is so wide you cannot see anything but water

Boat Ride to Siem Reap

Boat Ride to Siem Reap

Siem Reap

Siem Reap

To quote from Unesco: Angkor Wat “is one of the most important archaeological sites in South-East Asia. It contains the magnificent remains of the different capitals of the Khmer Empire, from the 9th to the 15th centuries. The influence of Khmer art, as developed at Angkor, was a profound one over much of South-East Asia and played a fundamental role in its distinctive evolution. Khmer architecture evolved largely from that of the Indian subcontinent, from which it soon became clearly distinct as it developed its own special characteristics, some independently evolved and others acquired from neighbouring cultural traditions. The result was a new artistic horizon in oriental art and architecture.”

Siem Reap was as I recalled from my first trip: it has some beautiful areas, especially walking along the treed boulevard by the Siem Reap River. It also has some terribly poor areas on the outskirts of town. The people are friendly, especially the tuk tuk drivers who want your business, of course.  Siem Reap still has some charm, and like Phnom Penh you can tell it once had its hey day. Siem Reap is expanding quickly — already obviously more built up since my previous visit, two years earlier, so who knows as I write this post in 2013! There was construction everywhere — new houses and apartments, hotels and resorts sprouting like mushrooms in the surrounding countryside. The tourists are everywhere and I can only imagine that it will get worse over time. It’s good for the locals who have suffered so much over the years but of course many foreigners are taking advantage of the boom, too. As an example, the owners of the guest house I stayed in on this visit are Canadian and I went for dinner at a Khmer resto owned by a French couple.  But, for most visitors – I think they think that this is a pulsating place. But like Steve and I did two years ago, I cursed the fact that there were so may tourists; more than 1,000,000 tourists visit this area for Angkor Wat, each year!

BBQ in Siem Reap

BBQ in Siem Reap

My third morning in Siem Reap I heard music in the distance which played all day long. I tried to see what was going on (my guesthouse hosts thought it was probably a wedding) but didn’t find much in the morning. However I stopped by in the late afternoon because clearly some type of event was taking place. I shyly took a couple of photos outside of a tent and then a young woman (30?) invited me to go in and take more. After a conversation with her I discovered that her uncle (age 55) had died and 100 days after the death there is a two-day supper celebration at the person’s home. This woman, Ekbanthida, introduced me to her mother, aunts, and cousins, and insisted that I continue to take photos. I gladly agreed. The celebration was in front of the uncle’s house. At the entrance a man was busy saying something on the microphone, and the tradition is that people donate money and get a little present in exchange. The money goes to the family/relatives of the deceased. I was invited to stay for supper and politely agreed to eat some soup but was actually not feeling well so I ate a bit, and then bowed out. Ekbanthida has her own business selling tourist trinkets at the market and said she is doing well for herself.

100 day celebration in hon

100 day celebration in honour of the dead

100 day celebration in honour of the dead

100 day celebration in honour of the dead

The following day I took a tuk tuk and did the outer reaches of Angkor Wat – areas that Steve and I did not make when we were there two years earlier. I went to Kbal Spean, Banteay Sreay, and Banteay Samre.

Kbal Spean

Kbal Spean

Banteay Srea

Banteay Srea

Banteay Samre

Banteay Samre

The last day in Siem Reap I cycled to Angkor Wat. I learned that the trick to avoiding the throngs of visitors is to go at breakfast time when all the bus tours have taken people back to their hotels for breakfast – this is after the tourists have seen their obligatory sunrise scene over Angkor Wat. I cycled to the wat, wandered for an hour and had the place almost completely to myself. As I left the crowds were beginning to arrive.

Kratie

Munney, one of the young men who worked at the guesthouse I stayed at, took me on a 7-hour long tour of the surrounding area of Kratie (he made more money this way – and I gave him a decent tip when I found out the guesthouse takes money from the $30 he/they charge; I treated him to lunch as well). I saw the fresh water Irrawaddy dolphins, a temple that was destroyed during the Khmer Rouge days and rebuilt in concrete rather than wood (the name has escaped me). I was taken to this ‘resort”– not the case at all but they call it that — where there are small white water rapids and is good for swimming (which I did not do). What really made this trip worthwhile was just driving through the countryside. It was a typical tour but Munney was SO sweet; he treated me to a fruit that is a relative to the coconut but has the texture of a lychee, is the size of a flat plum, and does not seem to have a pit. Best of all, this fruit is not too sweet and there is a lovely juice that you suck out first before eating the flesh. What the fruit is called is beyond me. I seemed to not write names down in my notebook…

Outside Kratie

Outside Kratie

Outside Kratie

Outside Kratie (the “resort”)

Outside Kratie

Outside Kratie

Munney promised to teach me how to drive a motor bike but 1.5 hours later after our return he was still napping. Instead, I walked through the town (full of colonial French-era architecture), spent time at the wet market, and met people on the street who gave me permission to photograph them. This was the beginning of my braving it and asking people directly if they would mind if I snapped some shots. I discovered that it was a nice way to start some conversations with the “locals.”

Kratie

Kratie

Kratie

Kratie

Kratie

Kratie

Kratie

Kratie

Kratie, I found, is a lively town (for being nowhere, really). It has a long riverfront with food stalls all along. The market is small but active. Too bad it seemed that Kratie was just a stop over for tourists who want to see the dolphins or are heading to/from Laos. I was tempted to stay another day and cycle on the island, Koh Trong, across the water from Kratie but the temperatures were very high as was the humidity and there was no expectation of it cooling down in the near future. I did not have energy for cycling. Unfortunately, in retrospect, I missed that opportunity since I was told that Koh Trong is extremely lush with vegetation and rice paddies, easy to cycle, and not developed – with only a few villages. So, in the end I was like all the other tourists who stay for one or two nights, only.

I was on my way from Cambodia to Laos, next.

Laos 2010 and 2012

2010

Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang, located on a peninsula, lies between the Nam Khan (nam means river and water in Lao) and the Mekong River. It is a charming, but touristy town and is a Heritage site filled with monks dressed in orange robes, golden wats (temples), and French influenced buildings from when the city was colonized. In March, the time of our visit, the city is surrounded by a smokey haze from slash and burn agriculture. Farmers burn brush off their land so that they can then plant rice and other crops at the start of May.

Steve and I walked the city our first day in Luang Prabang doing the tourist thing (taking photographs of monks, markets, and many other sites). We had two and a half days before our planned trip to Nong Kiau via slow boat up the Nam Ou.

A few observations:
— There is the smell of burning flesh (lots of meat grilling) in Luang Prabang
— Monks don’t stick around their respective wats for life. They come from poor or troubled families, typically, and leave after a few years to get married and go into the world again
— Our neighbour at our guest house in Luang Prabang bought a hard-boiled egg as part of her lunch, one day. She discovered after her first bite that eggs have three ratings: 1, 2, and 3. Number 1 (or 3?) has a little chicken in it, is commonly eaten by locals, and is considered the best egg to consume.

Monks

Monks

I steal the following from my friend LP’s walkabout in SE Asia:

Laos opened for tourism in 1989 and Luang Prabang was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage city in 1995. Although it’s definitely a stop on the tourist circuit, it hasn’t been scrubbed up too much, but has wonderful French colonial architecture with a sort of tropical touch to it. True, there are some chic chic restaurants with a lot of garden and sidewalk seating on the main street. But the city is still organized as villages around temples and there are SO many temples (wats) and monks! One of the first things you notice is all the orange from the robes. Most of them are young novice monks who come from rural areas, as the wats provide free education. There’s definitely a different energy to a place where so many people are meditating and praying.

Hazy Sisavangvong Rd. - the main drag

Hazy Sisavangvong Rd. – the Main Drag

Food:  We ate at: the night market food stalls where we found cheap and tasty food. One can find anything from noodle dishes to bbq pork and just about anything else the Lao cook; the Tamarind Restaurant (we discovered this resto through PBS’ and Gourmet Magazine’s “Diary of a Foodie”); and Cafe Lao (a hole in the wall that makes terrific Vietnamese pho, Chinese bread sticks, and cafe Lao for breakfast around the corner from our guesthouse). We also drank MANY fruit shakes. The local Starbucks equivalent, Joma Bakery, while highly rated in the guidebooks, held no appeal for us. We also walked to the river for a delicious Lao-style hot-pot at an open air restaurant overlooking the Mekong river, sharing the a picnic table with others and drinking Beer Lao.

Cafe Lao

Cafe Lao

Beer Lao

Beer Lao

I have found that tourists who try to speak a word or two in the language of the country they visit are a real exception. It drives me crazy and gives tourists a bad name on tourism that more people do not attempt to do this. Both Steve and I have tried to learn basic vocabulary and phrases when we visit a place where English is not spoken. It is very easy to have conversations with almost anyone we have sat next to, done business with, etc., and is one of travelling’s pleasures. The people of Luang Prabang are lovely.

Cooking Lessons and the Morning  Market:  You want ant eggs? We got ’em. You want bee larvae, fresh and wriggling out of the honey comb? Got ya covered. Want a live, gasping fish in a half-inch of water, living out its last in a plastic bag? Nooooooo problem. Fresh lichen? Also not a problem. Steve and I went shopping at the local foods market with Madame Wandarra, our host and owner of the Vanvisa Guesthouse where we stayed. She showed us the ins and outs of buying local and in season vegetables at the morning wet market. That afternoon we cooked: ant egg soup; a dish called “soup” (really a cooked herb salad); stir fried wild morning glories and river spinach; kangaroo meat stir fried with lemon grass, garlic, chili peppers, mint, shallots, fish sauce, lime juice, and more!; sticky rice; coconut milk with apple meal and grass jelly. The kangaroo meat was brought home from Australia the previous week; Madame Wandarra was on vacation visiting a daughter who lives there.

Sukhothai, Market (Ant Eggs)

Ant Eggs

We took the slow boat up the Nam Ou toward Nong Kiau.  Because it was dry season the water was low with rocks jutting out and the captain navigated the river with great dexterity and knowledge of every rock position. At one point the men (not the dis-empowered women, sadly, myself included) got out to lift/push the boat past one particular dry spot. Shortly after, back on “the road” we hit a rock and the rudder broke. It was fixed by banging it with a stone (rock clearly beats steel).  Along the way children played in the water and waved and yelled to get our attention. This boat ride made it clear that people really live on the river. They fish, wash, swim, and travel in it. We entered Nong Kiau just before the sun went down.

Pushing the boat

Pushing the boat

Fixing the rudder

Fixing the rudder with Steve’s help

Nong Kiau ( and Ban Saphong) consists of a VERY small market, boat landing, and a few businesses and restaurants. It lies on the Nam Ou and is surrounded by blue-green limestone mountains that are climbed by those so inclined (no pun intended!). Both villages are laid back, though. Most visitors tend to leave the village during the day so it was a perfect place to spend our time watching the river from our private balconies. A large bridge between the river banks links the two villages: locals and falang (foreigners/Westerners) spend much time crossing from one side to the other. Nong Kiau is a small town where children ride bicycles everywhere. Girls carry their parasols to keep the sun off of them (and keep themselves pale???). Many houses dry river “seaweed.”

Seaweed, Nong Kiaow

Photo credit: The above image is from Travelfish.org’s photo gallery.

We stayed two nights at the fancy Nong Kiau Riverside Resort (with an ant colony below our bungalow that showed up in the bathroom at night along with a giant, fat, 4 inch spider). The view of the mountain across the water was spectacular and the food at the restaurant provided two of our best meals in Laos. The third night we stayed in the cheap, rustic, but lovely Sunrise Guesthouse on the other side of the river – also with an excellent restaurant attached to it and where we ate breakfasts, lunches and one supper. At each stay we had the end bungalow and did not see our neighbours. They were the perfect places to lay low and chill (or sweat/boil, as the case may be).

Phonsavan

We had an uneventful 8 hour local bus ride from Luang Prabang to Phonsavan where we were the only falang – everyone else was a local and seemed fascinated that we chose to take this mode of transportation. Bathroom stops were off the road and in the bushes – men run to one side and the woman to the other. It was kind of nice. The road up and over the mountains was bumpy, VERY windy, and with razor backs. Along the way we passed villages with thatched huts right on the side of the road. There were deep drops down the mountain. At every turn I expected us to hit a vehicle that the driver could not see coming from the other direction. Plastic bags are given to the locals in case anyone needed to vomit (and they did). I took Gravol; Steve is made of stern stuff and was fine.

Unlike the other quaint villages and towns we had experienced, Phonsavan seemed derelict. Except for the history (and what a history  – war ravaged and still full of unexploded ordinances/UXOs – cluster bombs – by which people are maimed by the hundreds, yearly) and the enigmatic Plain of Jars, there is no reason to go there. The town centre, though has an interesting exhibition at the local Mines Advisory Group (MAG) which carries out critical work deactivating the UXOs and educating and farmers, children, and those involved in the scrap metal trade about the risks of UXOs and mines and how to recognize a potential dangerous item, what to do in an emergency, and more.

Phonsavan is in the Xieng Khouang Province and was one of the most heavily bombed areas in Lao during the 1960s-1970s. Lao was the most heavily bombed country per capita in the world. The U.S. really did quite a number here which is nothing to be proud of.

Unfortunately, after a few short hours in Phonsavan our trip was aborted and we spent a hectic and whirlwind 45 hours travelling back to Boston — a week earlier than expected. After leaving Phonsavan to head home we made a quick stop-over in Nong Kai, Thailand, for a rabies shot. I had been bitten by a dog and all the guidebooks and the U.S embassy say to leave Laos if you need anything but very minor medical attention.

We tried the Phonsavan hospital first, despite the above advice, but they only had enough serum for a child; the hospital did not have the necessary immune globulin or antibiotics, either. We actually entered through the emergency room (as one does in North America) but quickly left to enter via the main entrance after we saw a family in a small room crying over a family member who had clearly just been hit by an exploded cluster bomb. My small bite no longer seemed emergency room worthy. Not in the least.

Phonsavan airstip - waiting for the first of many airplanes to take us back to Boston

Phonsavan airstip – waiting for the first of many airplanes to take us back to Boston

It was a shame to leave Lao early — the part of the trip we most looked forward to was this exploration around Phonsavan as well as a few days in Sam Nuea, the Hintang Archaeological Park , and Vieng Xai.

We had a fantastic time anyway, loved the people, the food, and the landscape. It is a very poor country — the poorest in the world – but the people are very, very sweet and do the most with what they have.

2012

Don Khong

Don Khong is a lovely and quiet island – the largest island in the Si Phan Don area. It is quiet and there are not too many tourists. It is also good place to learn how to ride a motorbike; once you leave the main drag in town (one dusty street long) the roads are open and sparsely populated with just a few small villages and temples around the island. All in all it is good place to walk, cycle, motor around, and rest and chill. Don Khong’s main agricultural growth is rice.

One day, while wandering on foot, I met some local people who were practicing music. I sat down to listen and they allowed me to take photos. It turns out they were to play for Laos during a boat festival in Cambodia. This is a yearly event toward the end of February – alternating between the two countries. The festival occurs along the Mekong.

Dong Khong

Dong Khong

Dong Khong

Dong Khong

Dong Khong

Dong Khong

Champasak and Tad Lo

I rode in my first sawngthaew (similar to pick-up truck with a top cover, benches on both sides and a third in the middle). I travelled from Don Khong with Steve (an Aussie) and Toru (from Japan) to spend a day and night in Champasak. We planned to cycle and see Wat Phou (pre-Angkor Wat). Two hours later we were at the ferry and crossed the Mekong to get to Champasak.

Champasak was clearly once a very lovely French colonial town where royalty once resided. The town is now run down but charming, nonetheless. Steve, Toru, and I took bikes (Toru’s chain came off every 10 minutes or so and my brakes did not work at all. Seriously.) and cycled the 8 km to Wat Phou.  We arrived at the VERY LARGE parking lot (which was clearly constructed to fit hundreds of cars). However, all that occupied it was a bus, 4 or 5 motorbikes, and our 3 bicycles!!

Champasak

Champasak

Champasak

Champasak

As I mentioned above, the main Wat Phou site predates the Angkor-period and was built in the 5th and 6th centuries; it was added onto in the 10th and 11th centuries. There is a ruined walkway that goes up the Phou Pasak mountain range. The site, so it is thought, was designed as a physical imitation of heaven and it was part of a larger city. The country is restoring this site which, while we were there, was not crowded. This provided us the opportunity to sit and contemplate the amazingly beautiful view of the valley.

What Phou - stairs toward the top

What Phou – stairs toward the top

Wat Phou - view from the top

Wat Phou – view from the top

What Phou - detail

What Phou – detail

The next morning, Steve, Toru, and I took another sawngthaew to Pakse (an hour’s drive). We treated Toru to breakfast at the market for his 25th birthday and then each went our separate ways. I grabbed a tuk tuk the 8 km to the “southern” bus station and made it there in time to take the local bus to Tad Lo. There were two seats available and I sat next to a young woman. Martina is from Norway (she is very beautiful– her dad is from Ethiopia and her mom is Norwegian) and we spent the next week or so travelling together). The aisle of the bus was filled with two sacks high of rice from the front to the back and to get to a seat you had to walk over these sacks. As we continued on our way we picked up more people and eventually the whole aisle was full with people one against the other sitting on the rice. Disembarking basically meant climbing over bodies.

Tad Lo is a fairly sleepy town filled with tourists; some passing by and others who stay for weeks or longer. Tad Lo is nestled in the Bolaven Plateau (famous for its coffee). In the centre of the village is a great waterfall where children jump 3 meters in the water to swim, play, and cool off. Others sit in the falls for hours with the water running over their bodies. With temperatures close to 40C the waterfalls are the best place to cool off. While I did exactly that, one day, there were young Thai tourists who took an interest in me and plopped themselves next to me in the water, one at a time, to have their photos taken with yours truly. Then there were three Lao girls who wanted to eat my mango that I left cooling in the water beside me; I let them eat it. They were surprised when I asked them, in Lao, if it was tasty. They were even more surprised when I asked them their names. After that they kept on giving me the thumbs up and giving me high-fives!!

Tad Lo -cooling off and washing in river

Tad Lo – Cooling Off and Washing in the River

In the hills outside of Tad Lo - coffee beans

In the Hills Outside of Tad Lo – Coffee Beans

Tad Lo - man picking coffee beans

Tad Lo – Man Picking Coffee Beans

One of our three days in Tad Lo we hiked on a day long trek with a guide. We stopped at a few local tribal villages, walked through a coffee plantation, and saw more waterfalls at the top of our mountain hike.

Mornings in Tad Lo –  5am: first the sound of the roosters, then cows, then the cicadas, then the children and geckos by 6… a lovely way to wake up. Around sundown, the cows (dozens and dozens of them) run into the field behind the hut Martina and I stayed in. They just run in, hang out, moo for 5 minutes, then run out.

Tad Lo - cows running amuck

Tad Lo – cows running amuck

Martina and I took a 9.5 hour bus ride to Thakhek and slept in a dingy guesthouse right by the bus station since we arrived there at 12:30am.  The following day we conducted some business and then hopped on another bus to Ban Nahin so that we could go to the Kong Lor Cave, 16km from that town.

Thakek bus station

Thakek bus station

We bumped into some friendly people who recommended their guesthouse in Ban Nahin which was perfect for us. The next day we went to the Kong Lor Cave. The main cavern reaches up to 90 meters wide and 100 meters high in places and the boat stopped along the way so that we could observe stalactites and other limestone formations as well as bats. In places the water is so shallow that we had to disembark while the two boatmen pushed the the boat to where they could put the motor back on and continue. The whole trip took about 3 hours and surprisingly there were not many boats with tourists – although there were many with men carrying many sacks of tobacco in and out of the cave. When we returned to the entry point they were loading a large truck with the tobacco.

Toward Kong Lor Cave

Toward Kong Lor Cave

Ban Nahin market

Ban Nahin market

Vientiane:

Martina and I took the bus from Ban Nahin to  the capital of Laos, Vientiane. Patrick (a New Zealander who teaches math at a private English high school in), picked us up at the bus station since we were couchsurfing with him. He took us  to a bar along the Mekong to watch the sun set then went to his favourite hang-out, Sticky Fingers (owned by two Australian women), for supper and more drinks. He ordered the Tom Yum martini for us which was fantastic!! I begged for the recipe and, being the stubborn person I am, continued asking all night. The co-owner, Marny, finally cracked and told one of the bartenders to give me the list of ingredients, only! He proceeded to give me the whole recipe and when she found out…..!!!!! Anyway, I have it and promised never to give it a to soul!!

The next morning Martina and I separated and Patrick dropped me off at Le Bananeton, a French bakery, where I ate two croissants, drank cafe au lait, and a freshly squeezed lemon juice. It was a sweet change from noodle soup which I had been eating regularly since the beginning of my 2012 Asia trip in January. I returned daily while in Vientiane.

When Steve and I were in Vientiane in 2010 the city was in the process of tearing the riverfront down (i.e., the land along the Mekong). There is now a walkway/promenade and park where the locals run, stroll, and exercise. The “old” riverfront drinking spots and cheap sidewalk restos disappeared and that, apparently, was part of what made the city quaint. Today, along the river, there is a greater wealth of hotels, bars, and restaurants. But it is still a slow-paced, lazy, “city” that is easily enjoyed.

During my stay in Vientiane I went to the wat Haw Phra Kaew  which now houses a museum and a small shop. I also visited the lovely Wat Sisaket that is the only wat not to have been destroyed during the Thai invasion in the early 1800s. It is the oldest surviving monastery and was built in 1818 in the Siamese style which could be why it was saved from the destruction. This wat was constructed with niches in the walls that are home to over 6000 Buddhas and was restored in the mid-1930s. That same afternoon I walked to the Thong Khan Kham Market.

Vientiane

Vientiane

Vientiane

Vientiane

Vientiane - Wat Sisaket

Vientiane – Wat Sisaket

On my final day in Vientiane I walked to the COPE centre. Like at MAG in Phonsvan, there was a display about the UXO problem in Lao PDR and the work undertaken by COPE and the PMRC to provide disability services for people affected by UXOs. Aside from that I meandered in and out of the streets, drank fresh lime, mango, and watermelon juices to cool off in the heat. That night I travelled by night train to Bangkok (please see my posting on Thailand).

Muang Sing

After a few weeks in Thailand I returned to the northeast of Laos as my entry way to China. I took advantage of my return and had a lay over in what was once a lazy village called Muang Sing. The Chinese have moved in and paved many of the dirt roads and started new construction in the village. They have their feet firmly planted in Muang SIng with a very obvious presence. Chinese tractors and trucks transport goods and are seen throughout the village. There are two border crossings between Laos and China; one crossing is for independent travellers between Boten and Mengla and the other is for Chinese and Lao people and used for local border trading only. Muang SIng is no longer the quaint, quiet place I was told it had been and that the guidebooks claim it is. And, unfortunately, there is garbage strewn everywhere.

Muang Sing

Muang Sing

Muang Sing - the outskirts

Muang Sing – the outskirts

Nonetheless, I spent a few days in the area. I took a tour with a British woman, Brenda, to tribal (Akha, Tai Dam, Yao, Tai Lo) villages. The women in these villages are persistent and try to sell their wares to tourists. Brenda and I considered cycling and walking but decided to give the local economy some business. We did, however, explore the area by bicycle the second day starting with the morning market opposite the bus station and then explored the quieter roads away from the main drag as well as visited a woman who makes noodles for the locals.

Muang Sing - Akha village

Muang Sing – Akha village

Muang Sing - Akha village

Muang Sing – Akha village

Muang Sing - Akha village

Muang Sing – Akha village

Muang Sing - Yao village

Muang Sing – Yao village

Muang Sing - Yao village

Muang Sing – Yao village