Battambang: Cambodia’s kinder, gentler city

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Regarded as a smaller, sleepier version of Siem Reap, Battambang is same-but-different: beautifully preserved French architecture, a river running through it, a young and growing arts scene, NGOs and social enterprises galore. It is also all about the kids.

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This is a collection from a local photographer that captures the spirit of Cambodia’s children. They are precious, open and curious about foreigners. “Hello”, they call out, waving and giggling. These little faces are everywhere; many of the kids  are with their parents or on their way home from school. These are the lucky ones.

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We’ve also seen kids whose childhoods may have already flickered out, and they break our hearts.  We were on the bamboo train ride which deposits tourists in a small village for 20 minutes before the return trip back.  Upon arrival, one young girl grabbed Stephen, the other one got me, and so it began: “hello, what’s your name, please buy a bracelet.” I immediately forgot the rules (don’t buy from children, as it discourages them from going to school ), and bought two bracelets.

These girls were cagey about school when we asked, but they spoke some English and seemed bright, so we hoped they were still attending. We bought their bracelets, took our souvenir photo and felt a little uneasy, about them and ourselves. Their lives revolve around tourists and money – when the bamboo train stops running next year, they have no Plan B. Actually, they have no plan at all.

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Which brings us to our tuk-tuk driver, Peter. He met us at the bus station and brought us to our hotel. He is bright, charming and sold us one of his  tours for the next day that showcase “the real Cambodia.”

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He was quite open with us and over a few hours, his story came out. He is 25, comes from a large family in rural northern Cambodia and left home at 19 to go to Phnom Penh to look for work, where he missed his family and “cried a lot.” He moved to Battambang to live with his brother; they are both tuk-tuk drivers, but want more for themselves. It is hard to find work in Cambodia that pays a reasonable wage – at the low end, many people earn a dollar or two a day. His English is okay, but he knows it needs work if he is to become a licensed tour guide or improve his lot in life.

He took us on a tour of the countryside and as promised, we saw the rural Cambodia.  The trip began with a ride on the bamboo train, called a norry. After the Khmer Rouge left the transport system in complete disrepair, Cambodians developed this rudimentary system for transporting people and goods. At first, they operated by using poles and muscle but now they have small motors, and the trains are largely used for the tourists.

Bride & Groom departing on the Bamboo Train
With a proper railway due to come back in the next year, this quirky little ride’s days seem numbered. It’s 20 minutes to the village, 20 minutes there and 20 minutes back.

Decidedly bumpy (some mismatched rails), it felt speedier than it probably was – this is a train ride we are unlikely to experience ever again.

Luckily the track is arrow-straight, because when trains coming from opposite directions meet up, both drivers stop and choose one train’s passengers to disembark. The drivers lift the train to one side (seating area, motor and wheels), allow the other train to go by, and then reassemble the other train. It all takes about a minute, and is typically done 5-6 times during one journey.

Peter then took us out into the countryside to meet a few families and watch their food production. At our first stop everyone in the family works, from teenagers to grandmothers, making sweet cakes to sell to the markets. They are up early in the morning and work very hard all day. Their cakes are baked, convection-style, stacked in underneath a roaring fire.

Next, we stopped by a home that makes rice papers  for spring rolls. These girls had a system down – two papers at a time on the grill, which were flipped onto the wooden rods and flipped over onto the drying rack. They typically  make 2000 a day!

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The next enterprise was a little more borderline. The owner ran a cockfighting operation until the police shut that down. He still runs fish-fighting – we saw big jars of fish, but Peter’s English was not good enough to explain how fish actually fight. A rice wine distillery is his other revenue stream, and I was tempted to try a taste from the big sample jar, but saner heads (Stephen’s) prevailed. There were a number of scorpions steeping in the wine, reputedly for “strong blood” (virility), but the odds of being poisoned was not worth the risk.

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I loved this lady. She makes sticky rice and black bean confections which are stuffed into bamboo tubes and cooked over a fire. Once cooled, they are stacked on a table for sale. We bought one, and Peter showed us how to peel it back to reveal the rice. This lady swung in a hammock the entire time, chatting on her phone – seen one foreigner too many, probably.

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We crossed over this extremely dodgy bamboo bridge. As you can see, the river is very low, but in the rainy season, this bridge is swept away, as the water floods the banks. If ever I felt like an old lady, it was then, holding on for dear life to the main pole while trying to balance myself. There are days when blind faith  is all we’re going on.

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Then, then gut-wrenching part of this tour – Wat Sarong Knong and the Well of Sorrows. When Peter first told us the Killing Fields would be part of the tour, I was puzzled. I thought the Killing Fields were near Phnom Penh. Peter’s turn to be puzzled, ” The killing fields are in many places.”

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The wat was seized during the Pol Pot regime and turned into a prison. The stupa holds some of the skulls and bones of the estimated 10,000 victims who were interrogated, tortured and murdered here.  All four sides are engraved with torture scenes, including spearing babies in front of their parents and gang-raping women – each scene more brutal than the last.

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How do you read about this and look at these depictions of torture and see the piles of skulls and even begin to understand the scale of it all? I just finished reading First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung, a Cambodian survivor who was five years old when the Khmer Rouge forced her and her family out of Phnom Penh. Angelina Jolie produced the movie and was recently in Cambodia for its premiere.  It is a harrowing read; all the more so for being in the country and seeing the after-effects all these years later.

Peter frequently mentioned the Khmer Rouge and the effects that are being felt to this day. He was a little more circumspect when talking about the current government – he looked around and lowered his voice,”you don’t know who is listening.” Pol Pot terrorized and slaughtered its citizens. The current government does not appear to have the best interest of all its citizens at heart. Poor Cambodians – they have such a lot to deal with and while we don’t know their internal struggles, they are outwardly calm, sweet-natured and patient.

Switching from a time of starvation to present-day Cambodian markets.

Outdoor cooking over charcoal fires

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No secret that the storage and handling of meat, chicken and fish leaves a lot to be desired, but there were a few food items for sale that had me rethinking my meat habit.

This is the “chicken with flies” special.

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Frog’s legs are a delicacy, but not after we saw these guys alive and hopping in the street.

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I defy Anthony Bourdain to endorse these – chicken embryos cooked and ready to eat.

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Moving from the deeply sad and the seriously gross, we will take you to the magic of the circus.
Phare Ponleau Selpak, meaning The Brightness of the Arts are so much more than a circus. Sprung out of Thai refugee camps in 1986,  a foundation was formed to help young people express their recent traumas through the arts.

The organization provides training in dance, visual art, circus, theatre, music, graphic design and animation to vulnerable young people; over 1000 students currently attend the school for free. Many of them go on to perform around the world.

Phare circus

The circus performances, both in Battambang and Siem Reap, tell stories through live music, dance, juggling, aerial arts, fire twirling and overall goofiness. We watched the show under the Big Top – it was an enthralling show.

 

We could have stayed another day or two in this area – Battambang is a city that sneaks up on you. On to Phnom Penh…

Siem Reap – cafes, art galleries and NGOs

While Siem Reap provides food, water and shelter for the temple hordes, it is very much a stand-alone city that deserves its own attention. It has a naturally pretty setting with a mopey tree-lined river that runs through the city and leafy streets filled with stately old buildings.

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It is undergoing a renaissance right now – you can feel the buzz of that perfect blend of historical charm and fresh energy. However, old and new and rich and poor exist side by side; Siem Reap is a long way from being gentrified.

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As we were driving down a desolate, garbage-strewn lane toward our hotel, my heart sank. Is this where we would be staying for the next six nights?

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But no, we stepped out of the heat and dirt and into a frangipani-scented oasis. We were greeted with cold facecloths and glasses of pineapple juice by Ratanak, Ban Rang and Sopheak. They were the first Cambodians we met and they’re quite typical of everyone we’ve encountered since – gracious, helpful and genuine.

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Straight ahead lay the pool.

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Our room – spacious, cool, white linens, dark wood, a balcony. Our bathroom – a separate shower, quality toiletries and a first on the trip so far – a huge, stone tub. Hot water, excellent wifi, breakfast included – just 8 units – very quiet – all for less than $40 a night. Bingo! Sometimes we win the hotel lottery and in Siem Reap it is easy – high-quality boutique guesthouses are in abundance and very affordable.

If you want to splash out a bit, there are a growing number of very high-end properties, including Sofitel, Le Meridien, the famous Raffles, and my favourite, Victoria Angkor.

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We walked through a couple of these dream hotels (Stephen a little reluctantly), and the staff were exceptionally kind. I rather needlessly pointed out that we were not hotel guests and they maintained their poised and professional demeanor and were positively welcoming.  We even got cold scented facecloths! This property is fashioned after the French Indochina period, and there is not one detail they haven’t looked after. Room rates run about $200 a night, which would be worth every penny. This is their pool area.

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Siem Reap is very walkable, but considering the extreme heat, we took each day slowly, and found reasons to go into air-conditioned stores just to cool off. Grabbing a tuk-tuk is another option, as they are just $2 a ride to most places. While there are nice residential pockets in Siem Reap, we didn’t see any gated communities or enclaves – opposite ends of the economic spectrum can be found on one street. I stepped inside the front yard to take a photo of this stately building, and then realized it was a private home.

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Just down the same street, we found this colourful scene. Almost no-one uses dryers here. When you drop off your laundry, you want to be sure your undies are in good shape – they will be hanging out on a clothesline for all the world to see.

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Going to the market is an endurance test as I found out while trying to buy my Angkor Wat top. First of all, we walked about 15 or 20 minutes to cross the river and get to the market. By then, we were “glowing.” We stepped inside the tented market and were besieged by vendors. “Hello Madam, I have nice dress for you. What colour you like? I have all sizes. Special morning discount for you, madam. I have t-shirts, I have scarves.” When I tried to protest that I really just needed to have a look first, they were absolutely undaunted. “Over here, madam, I have jewellery, special price. You need shoes?” If I so much as looked at anything, the onslaught ramped up. They were calling out from half a dozen stalls. By then, I was sweating profusely.

Cambodia uses U.S. dollars as their preferred currency – any transaction larger than a popsicle will be quoted in US dollars.Their riel are 4000 to $1US, and you will receive riel back as small change.

We managed to work our way through one stall long enough to buy Stephen a pair of nylon Colombia convertible pants for $30 and were working on an Underarmour shirt for $8US, but the sales pressure was so great, that we stuck with the pants only. The vendor reverted back to Khmer (I’m quite sure she was swearing at us).  This is not our game – it’s exhausting. We keep imagining our son Dan here – he’d be in heaven.

The rest of the market area (known as Pub Street) is where the majority of tourists find themselves for shopping, cafes, restaurants and bars. There is a mix of same-same vendors with a few nicer stores – well worth a visit.

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The traffic is hectic – although nowhere near on a par with bigger cities – we’re waiting to see how we fare in Phnom Penh. We still have not been able to figure out the right-of-way.  As you watch this video, let us know if you see a pattern emerging.

We walked past this construction site this morning – another old building undergoing a complete re-do. “Safety First” signs are prominent all over town, including here, where we figured perhaps the foreman had yet to make his rounds.

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The restaurant and cafe scene is robust and feel-good – many places in town are tied to a particular cause (almost all child-related), and percentages of sales go toward their charity. In many cases, the restaurants serve as training centres for young people who are disadvantaged, and would otherwise be vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. We stopped by for coffee and/or food at a number of them, but the one that made the biggest impression on us was New Hope Cambodia. It is set in one of the poorest slums in Siem Reap, and serves a number of purposes – a training centre for youth, a school for children to learn English, music and computer skills, in addition to their regular education. They also offer family counselling, emergency shelter, medical treatment and food and support for over 300 families. It was at their on-site restaurant where we met two of the staff, Rani and Genda.

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They spent a lot of time explaining the programs and the neighbourhood situation to us. Genda is in charge of volunteers – she has people coming from all over the world to spend time helping out in many capacities. We met an Australian couple who take three weeks of their vacation time each year to work in the school.

Cambodia is filled with stories like that and with young people who are determined to bring their city and country around. The ravages of the Khmer Rouge slaughter have taken decades to recover from and the number of amputees (from the land mines) and street kids and desperately poor people need such a staggering amount of ongoing care, money and expertise.

Twenty percent of Cambodians earn $1-$2 per day and the NGOs make the difference between life and death for many of them.

Sex tourism is another blight. While it is not as overt here as in Thailand, it is a social ill that Cambodians want fixed.

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Fighting the sexual exploitation of children is another big challenge. Many hotel rooms in SEAsia have signs posted advising guests that having children (not their own) in their room is illegal.  Brochures outline ways to avoid harming children (no 1-hour orphanage visits, don’t buy from begging children, etc.) They are trying to break the cycle, but when poverty is so dire, families often feel they have little choice.

On the other end of the social scale, we had two beautiful people and a small gaggle of photographers land in on our hotel property the other day. We had just come back and were keen for a swim, so headed down to see what was going on. Not a big fashion shoot as we thought – it was a pre-wedding photo session. The couple will marry in May.

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They picked their day wisely – the next day the sky clouded over by mid-afternoon and got very dark and threatening. Again, we had just gotten back home and the skies opened, the winds howled and there was thunder. We got a humdinger of a tropical storm – watched safely and with great enjoyment from our balcony. Within half an hour it was over and the sun came out.

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We had a sneak peak at the famous Phare Circus. Artists put on a 15-minute street performance to entice the crowds to buy tickets for their nightly show. Since it originated in Battambang (where we are going tomorrow), we decided to catch the show there, but this was a terrific warm-up.

Tonight, we finished our stay in Siem Reap with a thoughtful cello concert, talk and film. Dr. Beat Richner, a Swiss national who has lived in Cambodia before and after the Khmer Rouge invasion, performs once a week. He is a much-loved pediatrician whom the locals refer to as “Beatocello”. Through his fund-raising efforts and tireless promotion of Cambodia’s great need for help he has created a foundation that has opened and operated five hospitals.

Our first impression of Cambodia has been to witness hope and forward-thinking action on the part of  both locals and foreigners to bring them out of darkness.

 

Overwhelmed in Angkor Wat

We were on a don’t-miss-it pilgrimage to one of the world’s greatest (and most-visited) sites, armed with some preconceived notions that had been reinforced by fellow travellers.   Many tourists skip the rest of Cambodia entirely, and hop over from Thailand or Vietnam to fit in their requisite one-to-three-day visit to Angkor Wat.

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In 1993 there were 7,650 visitors to Angkor Wat. Numbers for 2016 came in at just under 2.2 million visitors. The 400-sq.km. Angkor Wat Archaeological Park has become so saturated with tourists that many articles have been written advising on “best times to beat the crowds.” (Hint: at lunchtime, when everyone else is eating, but the noonday heat is enough to drive you mad).

There are many factors having a negative impact on this “bucket list” site. The structures are being weakened by the millions of footsteps that climb their sandstone steps and run their hands over their bas-relief carvings. The government is in discussion as to how to protect this priceless national treasure and control tourist visits in a sustainable way. It’s complicated.

We began our day at 8:00 a.m. and carried through to 3:30 p.m. We were picked up at our hotel by our tuk-tuk driver, Totiha (s?) He was with us for the entire day, taking us from temple to temple. All the tuk-tuks look like this – like little chariots – pulled on two wheels behind a motorcycle. They feel tippy but are remarkably maneuverable, and the biggest bonus for us was the fabulous cooling breeze we experienced after each scorching temple visit.

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Angkor Wat is just outside Siem Reap. After our hectic ride through the city, we landed on a long stretch of road leading to the temple complex. It was our first glimpse of the immense scope of the park.


The surrounding acreage is peaceful and atmospheric – jungle coming right up to the sites and wide lakes to cool things down a bit.

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On the advice of our hotel manager, we went for a 1-day pass, which made for a very long, very tiring day, but worked for us. In a move that was considered controversial for its potential impact on ticket sales, prices jumped dramatically on February 1.  A 1-day pass rose from $20US to $37 US, and a 3-day pass rose from $40 US to $67 US. Our first stop was the ticket booth, situated beside the tour bus parking lot.

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There were easily 100 tour buses – maybe 150, each with a capacity of 50 passengers. There were dozens of mini-vans. Tuk-tuks – too many to count. Motorcycles and scooters – well, you know already how many;  a few die-hard souls even rode bicycles.

I’m not a big fan of crowds and as we made our way through the throngs at the ticket booth, I felt quite crestfallen. We had skipped the sunrise start – were we already too late?  However, they’ve got the system down pat – we had our photos taken, passes printed and were back on our tuk-tuk within 10 minutes.

Before I go any further, may I tell you about the newly strict dress code at Angkor Wat. Since a percentage of the population does not understand the meaning of “skimpy attire”, and since another percentage of the population thought taking topless selfies of themselves in temples was a good idea (???), administration cracked down. Code of Conducts sheets are posted everywhere, and on many temples, women must cover their shoulders and their legs to be admitted.

For my temple visit I had chosen a light airy dress that hits below my knees, and planned on bringing a shawl to cover my shoulders when necessary. Our hotel manager told me that dresses and skirts were not allowed – I must wear pants, and a top with sleeves. While this information did not match with my research, I complied and went to the market to find a comfortable top. If you promise not to laugh, I will show you the result of my cobbled together outfit. We call the look “Travels with my fashion-victim aunt.”

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I bought the top in a hurry. This is what happens when one walks through a hot, sweaty market and harassed by market vendors to the point of distraction.

But the crushing blow is this – Angkor Wat was awash in tank tops, shorts, dresses, bra straps – I could have worn my respectable little dress and felt a lot more presentable.

Anyway…on to the main event. We began with the most important, most iconic temple, Angkor Wat.The entrance is as dramatic as every  photo you’ve ever seen, but the size and scope has to be seen in person. It is staggering and deeply moving.The outer walls stretch for 1.5 kilometres and are encircled by a moat. You cross a long bridge and walkway to approach the temple; as is fitting for a temple of its importance. It stands back and gives you plenty of lead time to admire.

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The distinctive lotus-shaped spires set Angkor Wat apart from the others.

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As we walked through the main entrance and came out the other side, a balloon was just rising over the structure.

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I won’t go into great detail about the history of Angkor Wat – that is all easily and comprehensively available elsewhere. But of all the temples, Angkor Wat was never entirely abandoned and forgotten – it has always functioned as a place of Buddhist worship.

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We expected the greatest crowds at Angkor Wat and there were times when things got a bit congested, but the site is so enormous that we frequently found ourselves all alone.
Visiting important ruins always elicits the same response with us – we are flummoxed by the effort required to build such spectacular structures, in ancient times, before modern tools were available. In this case, sandstone was quarried 50 kilometres away and floated downriver on rafts. It took 300,000 workers and 6000 elephants to complete. It was a pleasure to sit and take it all in.

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It is a reality check to be a tiny human speck, surrounded by massive stone structures. So many people walked this way before us, and so many will follow when we’re gone. What was this room? We’re imagining a giant swimming pool.
One disappointment about Angkor Wat was the dearth of signage. It would have been so helpful to have information to digest as we went along. I would highly recommend hiring a guide for the day – we “poached” a few times – pretending to take photos as we stopped to listen.

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Our next stop was Ta Prohm, the temples that are being slowly and photogenically swallowed up by the vast octopus arms of massive trees –  silk cotton trees and the aptly named strangler figs. Much of the complex has been propped with steel supports, but the jungle appears to be winning. This was my favourite of all the complexes.

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Stephen propped up at the roots of one of the trees.

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We fell into a sly vendor trap when we landed at a nearby temple where Tomb Raider was filmed. As we walked through, a friendly young man offered to show us the “exact  spot where the Tomb Raider poster was photographed.” We followed through and got our money shot.

 

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He kept following us, pointing out various things and it became awkward and apparent that he was after money. After 10 or 15 minutes, we thanked him and he asked for money in Thai baht! We gave him $5US, and he asked for $10, and at that point we politely parted company, feeling both naive and bit annoyed.

We visited a number of other temples, but as you are probably already feeling it – we were experiencing temple fatigue. Our last big temple – Bayon, in the middle of huge Angkor Thom – was the most surreal in every way.

The main feature of Bayon is 216 massive smiling faces that stare at you from every angle – they are strangely lifelike and powerful.

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We would have spent a lot more time wandering through, and examining the bas-reliefs that cover the outer walls, but for this obstacle course.

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Busloads of tourists had arrived, and there was nothing to do but follow the queue, and hope for a breather somewhere. Alas, it was not to be found.

I have to come to terms with selfies, they are here to stay. But there is a uniquely Asian twist to selfies that I’ve never seen anywhere else – they are choreographed and posed endlessly.

We watched this woman strike this pose in front of a statue, and hold it for numerous takes. Then… just as we were about to try and grab our own shot, another woman took her place, and struck the exact pose. It became apparent that we were unable to get our shot, so we left.
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Our final thoughts of our day at Angkor Wat and surrounding temples? Yes, it is crowded a lot of the time, but it is also possible to find your own quiet place to take it all in.

Trying to do it all in one day might have been a mistake, but we didn’t have the stamina to spread it out over two or three days.

The vendors are relentless – selling everything from guide books to scarves to elephant pants to artifacts, they are in your face in a really unpleasant and aggressive way.

It is hot – really, really hot, and there is very little shade. You need a broad hat, sunscreen and buckets of water to get through a day here.

There are lots of uneven stairs to climb, which require a  level of  attention and determination. I took a pass on two of them – I was so overheated at the time, but Stephen took them all on.

We wholeheartedly enjoyed our day, in spite of the discomforts and annoyances. We are at least a decade too late to see Angkor Wat the way it could be properly visited, but that is the way of many of the world’s top sites. That is not a reason not to go.

We left the park with this final serene memory.

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Serenity in Don Khon

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I’ll begin with a heartfelt thank-you for everyone’s comments and e-mails regarding the accident. Normally, I respond personally, but this time I would be saying almost exactly the same thing. So…to save all of you (and me) from hearing my voice over and over again: Thank you all so very much for your concern and advice and caring sentiments. It means a great deal to us.

The experience and the images still linger, but we’re left with a fresh appreciation for how lucky we are.

We could not have arrived in a better place to calm down and rest. Don Khon is one of the 4000 islands of the Mekong archipelago that sits just north of the Cambodian border. Four thousand is an approximate number, and that includes tiny sandbars and islets big enough for nesting ground birds. Tributaries wind their way through, as do fishing boats and longboats, making this part of Laos deliciously serene and sleepy. Of the few islands that are inhabited, just three cater to tourists, and of the twin islands, Don Det and Don Khon – we took a pass on the former for its hippy, happy-snack crowd and chose the latter for its peacefulness and rice paddy landscape.

 

We have discovered we need regular breaks from travelling. We need the recharge of staying put for a few days with no agenda. Don Khon has given us exactly that – relaxation bordering on downright laziness.

The boat landed at Don Det, where the vast majority of visitors stay.

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We could not find a boat to carry us on to neighbouring Don Khon. As luck would have it, a young man called out to us that he could take us by “tuk-tuk” down the island and across the bridge. His tuk-tuk turned out to be a utility truck with two milk cartons for seats, and he demanded the money up front (he had to refill with gas first). Away we went – bumping down the back roads (we suspect he didn’t want the legit tuk-tuk drivers to see him on the main road), and eventually arrived at our destination.

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We were excited to see that our hotel resembled its online photos – clean and bright, with wooden bannisters and shiny tile floors and best of all – our huge room and balcony overlooking the Mekong. We’re the third room in from the left on the second floor.

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Hot showers (rarer than you might think), followed by lunch and beer on the patio – we were starting to feel human again.

There is a boat dock right by our hotel, and we’ve amused ourselves by watching the various and inventive craft transporting tourists.

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This premium boat offers seats and life jackets.

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We are most definitely in the south again – the comfy days and cool evenings of Vientiane have been replaced with sweltering, sweaty temps – only mad dogs and white-skinned Englishmen are out in the midday sun.

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Don Khon has three main roads – one that skirts the west coast, one that follows the east coast, and one straight down the middle. Water features are the big attraction – waterfalls, a broad port and a pool that is home to the endangered Irrawaddy river dolphins.

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According to one of our lunch table mates, the pod has shrunk to four dolphins, and chasing after them by boat seems designed to put another peg in their “near-extinction,” so we decided to stick to cycling as our main form of entertainment.

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While the rental bikes are rough and ready, they come with a basket and a bell and the price is right – about $1.50 a day. For each of the past three days, we’ve set out in the morning to explore, and what a glorious time it has been. We’ve seen heritage homes turned into fancy hotels.

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We’ve seen modest, welcoming homes out on dusty roads.

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There are few island vehicles –  utility tuk-tuks, motorcycles, scooters and bicycles. This makes cycling a dream, and getting lost a pleasure. We rode across rice paddies, through temple grounds, past homes and small settlements, beside the river and through bamboo stands. We watched kids play soccer, and dodged cows, dogs and chickens in the road. Life on Don Khon feels quite untouched by civilization.

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There is no ATM, police, or medical services here, wifi is spotty and refreshingly, cellphone sightings are less common than elsewhere.  It is poor here, but without pathos. As is similar to life on many small islands everywhere, the sense of community is strong. People are relaxed and friendly and you can spot the characters after being here for a while. There is no gas station on the island, so bottles of gasoline are dispensed at stand like this one.

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Waterfalls are a common feature everywhere we have been so far, but since it is well into the dry season, many of them are but a trickle. Not so the waterfalls of Don Khon – they are impressive and majestic. If they are mighty now, what they must be like in November?

As we approached Khone Pa Soi waterfalls, we were warned by a couple of women, in that understated way that Brits are famous for, that the wooden bridges were a bit “perilous.”

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The suspension bridge was a little sketchy, but looked as though it might hold up. Up a path we went to get to the top of the falls.

We headed over to the smaller waterfall, and came face-to-face with the “perilous” bridges – we took our chances on the thin layers of bamboo and lath and made it safely across.

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The second falls we visited – the Li Phi Falls – were massive. They are one of Asia’s largest waterfalls by volume – so named as they are meant to catch bad spirits as they wash down the river. We paid heed to the dozens of “Dangerous” signs, not wanting to join the bad spirits.

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Our photos cannot capture the scope and volume of water in this waterfall – what must this look like in the rainy season?

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At the end of our hike, Stephen stopped to cool off his feet in the pool – still the Mekong, but clean, clear, fast water.

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On our way home, we rode through one of the temples to discover a small herd of cows all cozied up together.

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Further along, three young novices were busy making bricks. They greeted us with a smile and allowed us to take photos.

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A perfect break in the travels, and a memorable way to end our time in Laos. Tomorrow we are in for an early start and a trip by boat, minibus, and bus to get us across the border into Cambodia and to our first destination, Siem Reap.

Life and Death in Laos

There have been many a time while travelling over the  past few years when a situation felt a little dodgy or unsafe or uncomfortable, and I coped by repeating a silent mantra to myself,”Nothing bad will happen today.” Since bad things happen every day, my mantra was more a delusional self-soothe than a fact-based reality, but it worked for me.

Yesterday, my mantra was shattered, but I will get to that later.  I want to tell you about the life we have been experiencing in Laos, and how varied it has been as we’ve travelled the country from north to south.

We spent two days in Vientiane, the country’s capitol, referred to by some as a dustier, less charming version of Luang Prabang. We were advised to give it a miss, but since it was a hub for our travels, and also Laos’ capital city, we wanted to see for ourselves.

It has its own Arc de Triomphe, unkindly referred to as a “concrete landing pad.”

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Vientiane lacks the polish and lustre of Luang Prabang – the word “crumbling” comes to mind. The French colonial style of architecture is still evident, but not as well-maintained and not in as great numbers – you have to wander the streets a bit to find the charm.

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The French influence on food is strongly felt – patisseries are authentic, and the butter croissants make a great change from white bread toast in the morning.

The promenade along the Mekong is a huge draw for tourists and locals alike. People start to gather around 4:30 or 5:00, to walk along the river, check out the night market or take in some exercise. We watched a zumba class, but the music was boring, and so were the moves. The aerobics class was quite spirited – I was (almost) tempted to join in.

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We ran into this curiosity – the travelling manicure ladies. At least three or four women called out to me,” Manicure, madam?”  I might have taken them up on the offer if it hadn’t felt so strange to perch on a tiny plastic stool out in public, and have my nails done under questionable hygienic circumstances.

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We actually enjoyed our time in Vientiane very much – it felt more Laotian and less touristy.  We were tripping over temples, and wandered through a few of them. This sign caught our attention, and I was curious as to how many people had smoked on the grounds of a sacred place.

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There are definite signs of affluence here – we saw a mint-condition vintage white Jaguar parked outside a hotel, and a Rolls-Royce tucked on the grounds of an exclusive art gallery. There are bangin’ big Toyota trucks, and Lexus SUVs, and many, many Range Rovers. Cranes dominate parts of the city – foreign investment has hit.

The riches are not available to everyone. This is the first place in Laos where we encountered begging. These women and children passed us and asked for money, and then one of the women squatted down on the city street, hoisted her skirt and peed; a thick stream of urine running down the sidewalk. It was shocking to see the utter absence of basic decorum; her rules (and life) so different from mine.

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A highlight was a visit to the COPE Visitor Centre – part of the rehabilitation centre for people who have lost limbs with UXOs (unexploded ordinances). Laos was the most heavily bombed country in the world: between 1964 and 1973, the U.S. dropped over 270 million bombs and 80 million of them failed to explode. Forty-four years later, at least one person every day is killed or injured by unexploded ordinances – many of them children. There is a market for scrap metal, and dealers will send out kids to retrieve metal for a small profit to them – and the risk is all theirs. The COPE centre is excellent – very well laid-out, with many displays and short videos. All donations go to prosthetics and ongoing treatment.

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This sculpture was made of 500 kg. of UXO, including cluster bombs, “in memory of those who have been injured, killed or lost loves ones from UXO.” – Anousone Vong Aphay – local artist – 2008.

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Among the many excellent displays is the list of countries who have signed the CCM (Convention on Cluster Munitions) International Treaty. Among countries notably absent from the list is the United States.

Moving on to the slightly absurd – we visited the Buddha Park, a monument to concrete craziness, about an hour out of town. It is far from being a sacred site – more of an Asian theme park – with themes of lust, sex, domination and excess – all enjoyed with flute music wafting over the bamboo fence.

The Big Giant Pumpkin greeted us first –  we had to squat down and squeeze through the gaping mouth to climb inside, walk around three levels and finally reach the top. Safety was at no time a consideration in the building of this monstrosity, but…it made a grand spot for endless selfies.

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Lots of fun wandering around the park for about an hour.

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And then…our reality took a bit of a shift. We wanted to head south from Vientiane to Pakse,  enroute to the 4000 islands. The only affordable travel option was a sleeper bus leaving Vientiane at 8:00 pm, arriving in Pakse at 7:00 am. The bus consists of two levels of bunks, and if you are not intimately associated with your sleeping partner before the ride, you will be after, as the bunks are cozy. We got a lower bunk, two pillows and two blankets. I tried not to think about bed bugs, head lice and long-living bacteria. Armed with our sandwiches and water, we settled in, and surprisingly, we slept quite well.

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The next morning, we transferred to a regular bus for our three-hour ride to the 4000 islands, and that is when tragedy struck.  Our bus driver had been driving carefully and we were about 10 km. away from our final destination. Suddenly the driver hit the horn, hit the brakes and swerved, but could not avoid the motorcycle that pulled out in front of him.

Our bus slid sideways down the hillside, but came to a stop at quite an angle without tipping over. One of the passengers broke the back window and climbed out, followed by two or three others. The front door was jammed so it was a bit intense, but they managed to pry it open. Slowly we made our way out.  Our first reaction was relief  at being off the bus safely, but then we began to realize how serious the accident was.

A man carried the body of a small child, and three men carried the lifeless and bleeding body of a woman and put both of them in the back of a truck. Apparently the motorcycle came up from a side road and just drove across the highway without looking.The driver was pinned under the front of the bus – one of his feet was severed. A couple of passengers were trying to administer CPR, but it was pointless. Someone brought a blanket and put it over his head.

There was a house with several people standing outside, and we felt they must have been related. One of the women was shrieking with the most raw grief and anguish – I will never forget that sound.

We were all in shock  as we began to understand the severity of the accident. It will take a  long time to process.  I will remember the cracked windshield, the pools of blood, the little hat on the road. There is no sense to be made of this – no lesson learned.

 

The Laos work-around

We left Luang Prabang with very good memories, but for one small detail: on our last day  Stephen exchanged $200US to Laos Kip (currently trading at about 5700 k to $1 CAD). The lady counted out 1 million, 600,000 kip, Stephen made a joke about being a millionaire, she laughed, and that was the end of it. About 8:30 that night, Stephen re-counted the  money and realized he had been short-changed about $20 US. He kicked himself for not counting it at the counter, but it seemed right at the time and…lesson learned. Except he couldn’t let it go. So he headed back up to the main street and another lady was just closing up. Stephen explained there had been a mistake, and after a bit of conversation, she believed him and handed over the missing cash! Amazingly, this very thing happened to another person who was staying at our hotel, and he also got his money back. It’s a nice little scam – when confronted, they simply hand back the money – it must be a profitable side business. Aside from being astounded that we got our money back, we have no hard feelings. It falls to us to be aware.

The next day, we headed out on our six-hour mountain bus trip from Luang Prabang south
to Vang Vieng. Almost immediately, the scenery grabbed us.

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The switchbacks were a little hairy, but our driver was (mainly) safe, and the road was (mainly) in good condition, so we just enjoyed the view.

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Laos is struggling to pull itself out of a state of truly dire poverty, and we saw some desperately poor houses in some of the mountain villages.  I was struck by the message on this house, on so many levels.

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In other villages, we would see a little more prosperity and comfort.

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A ball game of some sort was in full swing as we drove by.

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And then this happened. We came around a corner to find a tanker stuck in the middle of the road; its axle broken and the brakes gone. The driver had positioned rocks behind the wheels and could not be persuaded to let the truck roll back enough to allow other vehicles to get by (which may have been a spectacularly bad idea anyway). Much consultation ensued – our bus driver and the tanker driver walked back and forth and measured out the distance. Several other men joined in the discussion, and the decision was made: Our guy would try and squeeze through. He inched along, inched along and then stopped.

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The guardrail would have to be removed, which we’re quite sure is not legal. At first one piece came off, then two, then one of the posts, and again, each time our driver attempted to come forward, he was encouraged by a half dozen swampers, waving this way and that, yelling out encouragement.

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This entire endeavour took about two hours, but we all got to know each other a bit better, shared our banana chips, and generally took it in good humour. When all else fails, there are sun salutations.

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Stephen captured it on film – this will give you a better idea of how little wiggle room our driver had to get through. The big trucks in line behind us may still be stuck up there.

We were a pretty giddy lot by the time we got going, and when we arrived in Vang Vieng, it was almost dark. A short story about the hotel we booked – the Green View Resort. We saw it online, it was a tiny bit more than we wanted to pay, but situated on a lake, with swimming and kayaking and we were sold. After we had booked our non-refundable room, we realized too late that it was not even in Vang Vieng – it was 20 km. south. We would have to pay a $30 tuk-tuk fare to get there, and once there, we would be trapped. We were annoyed with ourselves, but decided to make the best of it.  A couple of days of R&R would be perfect.
Then…the fun began.  At the bus station, we told the tuk-tuk driver our hotel’s name and that it was far out of town, but that seemed okay to him, so we hopped in. After an hour of dropping off all the other passengers, our driver suddenly realized he did  not have the foggiest idea where we were going. He returned to the bus depot to settle the day and consult with his fellow drivers. He then went looking for a car (instead of driving all that distance in a tuk-tuk). The car was nowhere to be found, and after watching him on his cellphone, we pleaded to just get out there in the tuk-tuk.   He phoned our hotel owner for directions and set off, stopping at one point at a creek to pour water over his overheating radiator. He then almost ran out of gas. Stephen insisted that we stop to buy beer before we got to the hotel. Once there, he called our hotel again, and within a few minutes we had left the highway and bumped along a narrow rocky road in the pitch black for another ten minutes. We could see steep embankments on either side.

Finally, we arrived -we saw our hotel owner coming down the hill with a flashlight – I could have wept. He took us to our beautiful bungalow, we had showers and came back up to join a few loquacious French tourists for a delicious dinner. All was right again.

The view from our dining room. In the rainy season, all those islands are underwater.
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The view from just around the corner from our hotel.

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We spent yesterday in total relaxation mode. First we walked back up the road to the small village – about 30 minutes – to pick up some beer and snacks. We were a big hit with these little girls, who called out “hello”, then burst out giggling, then “what is your name?”, then more giggles. The driver of this contraption, Natalie, could not have been more than 10 or 11.

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We waved at a woman fishing from the banks on the way back. In the rainy season, the water rises almost to the top of the banks.

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We took out a two-man heavy plastic kayak for a spin around the islands. We were trying to find Monkey Island, although we were advised by the owner not to get out of the kayak, as the monkeys are very aggressive, and we didn’t want to get bitten. Duly noted – but we didn’t see any sign of monkeys on any of the islands we paddled past. We met up with lots of fishing boats and several fishing nets.

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We turned the corner and saw our very first water buffalo – a small herd of them were grazing on one of the islands. As we approached, they started to come down the hill toward the water’s edge, so we moved in as close as possible. This big male was giving us the hard stare, and started to paw the ground a little, so we conceded his territory and moved on.

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Back on dry land!

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Time to head back to our cabin and enjoy the view from our balcony, with a nice cold Beerlao – Laos’ fabulous homebrew, apparently courtesy of a German brewmaster.

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Finding the heart of Laos in Luang Prabang

Since Luang Prabang was our first stop, referring to it as Lao’s “heart” may not be accurate – who knows what lies ahead as we travel through the country. But honestly, if we didn’t see another thing, we would leave Laos with rich and heartwarming images. Luang Prabang has a command post on the banks of the Mekong and the Nam Khan rivers, with postcard views at every corner. This is a city made for sunrises and sunsets.

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It is also a city made for walking. Leafy streets, river vistas and French colonial buildings make it really easy to lose a few hours wandering around.

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Our hotel is across the street from the Mekong – this is one of our views.

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Luang Prabang delivers on its promise of fabulous food (French croissants and Laotian barbecue), Indochinese mansions, positively lush tropical gardens, and curving streets and alleys for biking or walking. Here, a high-end hotel with automobile to match.

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An older building receiving a facelift. You see the odd crumbling home, but mainly, these French colonial treasures are being restored and beautifully maintained.

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Luang Prabang is a UNESCO city, so named in part because of the 33 temples here. It may feel like a sacrilege, but we did not visit one temple our entire time. We passed by them, walked through the grounds, and took a few photos, but for the time being, we have become temple-saturated. I think when one begins to think, “Oh, another golden Buddha. Meh!”, it is time to concentrate on other attractions. So, for now and possibly until Cambodia’s Angkor Wat, we are taking a temple rest. The monks are a very large part of life here, and their 6:00 a.m. procession to receive alms has become a huge tourist attraction and in some cases, a disrespectful photo-op. We did not take part in the ritual, but we did snap own version of the “monk walk.”

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Speaking of respect, we are finding that Laotians are conservative and quietly insistent about their cultural norms being adhered to. We removed our shoes at the front door of our hotel, and many stores and restaurants appreciate the same thing – there will be signs or proprietors will point to your feet if they want you to remove footwear. Equally important is the wearing of appropriate attire – we have seen this sign at a number of locations – the waterfall we visited, the bus station and outside a park. Seeing a woman in a bikini or cropped top (away from the beach) is akin to seeing her in her underwear – it is offensive to Laotians.  I have never understood why  men  walk shirtless on any city street. Keep Luang Prabang beautiful, I say.

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We had the opportunity to watch the 1925 documentary movie, Chang, by the directors of King Kong. They lived with a Laotian family in their jungle home for 18 months to film their challenges as they battled encroaching vegetation, monsoons, crop loss and livestock loss from tigers and leopards. The final straw was a rampaging mother elephant, come to rescue her captured baby…and she brought back-up. The film was jerky and a bit hokey, as you might expect, but lots of fun to sit at an outdoor theatre, and be entertained by the soundtrack of Laotian drums.

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There is a price tag attached to all this grace and beauty. Luang Prabang is solidly on the map for older ($$$) travellers, and the restaurants, cafes and boutique hotels that are catering to that market have driven up the $15 guesthouses and the $4 noodle dishes. We have overshot our daily budget by at least 20%, but it will all even out in the end. For those with a bit more to spend, Luang Prabang is still an incredible deal for the quality of food and accommodation. This luxury hotel would cost well under $100 a night.

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Since our Internet connectivity at our hotel was only dependable for five-minute intervals, we discovered Saffron, a fantastic coffeehouse and fair trade enterprise. Laotian coffee is really delicious (no Nescafe), and we got our fix (caffeine and daily news) courtesy of an Australian manager and his thoughtful crew. One of the coffees available is civet coffee – beans that have been ingested (and yes, harvested and cleaned) after they have passed through the civet (a cat/weasel-like creature). Since only a couple of kilograms are collected, this unique coffee is offered at $15 a brewed cup, or $50 for under a 3 oz. bag.

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One of the must-do walks here is to trek out to the end of the peninsula, cross over on a bamboo bridge (that washes out every rainy season and is rebuilt each year), then walk a couple of kilometres on the other side and cross back again – this time on a motorcycle and pedestrian-only bridge. The view looking down to the bamboo bridge:

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After a hot, dusty walk on the other side, we came to the motorcycle and pedestrian only bridge. The two are mercifully separated, but the pedestrian lane feels none too safe – thin, wobbly dry boards, with great gaping views of the river below.

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Meanwhile, streams of bikes flew by beside us – schoolgirls riding sidesaddle, workers carrying materials, little families – a parade of daily life blasting by.

We decided to make the Wat Phou Si pilgrimage, which  is set on a mid-city mountain. It is accessible by  climbing hundreds of steps up to the top where the faithful gather to watch the sunset every night. At the base, it is possible to purchase bamboo cages with two tiny birds inside – the idea being to carry them to the top and set them free as the sun sets. We declined, but there were a few takers.  We walked up with a healthy crowd, with more people pouring up every minute until we reached critical mass. Girlfriends were climbing on boyfriends’ shoulders for better views, and people were climbing up on the stupa ledges. As the sun began to descend behind the mountains, a flurry of cameras and cellphones took over.

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It was so hilarious – the sunset took a back seat to the crowd, which had become its own show. We’ve never seen anything like it. Good sunset though.

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One of the big attractions outside of Luang Prabang is the many-tiered waterfall with its menthol-green/blue pools. We were skeptical – waterfalls this time of year can be underwhelming, and the convoy of minibuses and tuk-tuks meant it would be a crowd scene with nothing to do but take photos and buy food. (We did both in abundance.) However, the waterfall far exceeded our expectations. It cascades down over four  distinct pool areas – two are safe for swimming – and while the crowds were substantial, we were alone on the paths climbing up and had plenty of space in the pools.
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That water is every bit as cold as it looks, although we both agreed that if it was Clark Bay, it would be “a 3.” (Insider knowledge for those of us who swam in the ocean off Gabriola Island.)

On the way up to the waterfall, we passed by a bear enclosure. These smallish moon bears have been rescued from the fate of poachers who capture them, keep them in tiny cages, and intubate them for their bile, for use in medicines. They have freedom to roam through a number of large enclosures, and they were all very playful and active while we were there.

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We could have spent a lot longer in Luang Prubang – it would be an ideal holiday if time was limited, and you wanted everything to be perfect.

Sorry for the late posting on this one – internet was an issue.  We will check in again soon.

Slow Boat to Laos

As with many things in life, you tell yourself what you want to hear. The idea of a two-day, 15-hour boat trip down the Mekong could be mind-numbingly boring or darkly romantic, so we chose to go with the latter. Two long days, one night and many, many emotions later we arrived in Luang Prabang, the French colonial crown jewel of Laos, and our first few glimpses of this UNESCO city melted the boat trip away.

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We began our trip armed with a few survival tips. One can stay the night either in Thailand or Laos – the twin border towns face off across the river, and the boats do not depart until 11 a.m. each morning, ostensibly giving all travellers plenty of time. We decided to take the bus from Thailand straight over the river to Laos and spend the night there; thereby getting all border stuff out of the way the day before, and leaving plenty of time to get to the boat line-up early.

We had heard horror stories of chaotic Laos border crossings – officials tossing about mitt-fuls of passports and documents, with mobs of backpackers queuing up and fervently hoping to be reunited with their correct papers again. Ours was a sedate experience – our bus pulled in on the Thai side – we relinquished our departure cards, had our passports stamped, jumped back on the bus, drove over the bridge to the Lao border crossing, handed in our papers, and voila – in less than 15 minutes all 25 of us were processed and through. We spent the night in Huay Xai, and watched the sun set behind the Thai mountains.

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The next morning, armed with our baguette lunches, we hit the pier by 9:30 (for an 11:30 departure). The configuration of the boat is thus: the front of the boat is lined with seats facing sideways, and then the next several rows face frontwards. We bought our tickets the night before, and were assured our seats were front-facing (I told the English-speaking ticket seller about Stephen’s motion sickness issues – he was suitably concerned).

We arrived to discover our assigned seats were in fact side-facing, and since the numbering was done with pieces of paper laid out on each seat, and we were among the very first to arrive, we merely changed a few of the numbers, and chose the second row back. Some confusion ensued as the boat started to fill up, but we kept our eyes averted and an uncomprehending smile on our faces.

This, the unruly front section. A few hours later, OD’d on potato chips, the kids were quietly reading.

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The Mekong is the arterial highway that connects hundreds of small communities and slow boats were designed to move Laotians and cargo with a minimum of fuss. Comfort and safety are not priorities (we counted two lifejackets), and seats are reclaimed automobile bench seats. The influx of tourists who have set upon these boats with such enthusiasm pay for their authentic experience with sore backsides and carb overloads. Anyone taller than six feet cannot stand up straight. A two-day passage costs just $30 US, to cram 150 people into such small quarters. The luxury cruise, with plush seating, food and drink provided, and a select guest list of just 30, costs $130 US pp. Since we are on a fairly tight budget, the cattle car it was.

This slow boat ride has wildly varying reviews – some love it, others less so.  One woman described it as being, “an unchanging scene of green with brown in the middle.” While I was hoping for more dramatic views over those many hours, we did enjoy a serene and subtly-changing landscape.

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Cattle, pigs, goats, dogs and kids cooling off in the river – river life takes on many forms.

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The Mekong, like so many big important rivers, has a strong personality and can be quite tumultuous – with whirlpools, waves, rapids and a treacherous current  in the middle. The water closest to shore, by contrast, is often as calm as a millpond.

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As we made our way along, people would often wave and call to us from shore, or from other boats. This boatload of people stared back at us; we didn’t even get a wave from one of the kids.

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We stopped a number of times, to let people off, or to pick up cargo. At one of the stops, there was a pile of very heavy bags filled with food, waiting to be boarded. We watched two men grimace and struggle to bring them to the door, and then watched in awe as one of our crew members singlehandedly lifted each bag, hoisted it up to his shoulders and humped it all the way to the back; returning for each bag and repeating the same feats of strength.
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We approached our overnight stop – the small town of Pak Beng, to grab a bite to eat, sleep for the night, and do it all over again the next day. The crew began to unload backpacks, and the crowd thinned, until not one bag was left. Where was my bag – my anxiety levels were going through the roof. I insisted my bag was still in the hold and they insisted just as strongly that they were done and wanted to put the planks back down. Finally, the young man went down again – this time with a flashlight – and emerged with my bag.  We walked up the gangplank as a sunset on the water ushered us in.

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Next morning, we were at the ferry dock by 8:00 for a 9:00 launch, and this time, it was a different boat.

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Our new friends Sylvie and Michel from France, had saved us good seats. They were fortunate enough to see two wild elephants drinking from the river at 7:00 am, from their hotel balcony, and they were still so excited about the rare chance to have such a sighting. Plus, we were surrounded by a group of very funny Germans who kept us all well entertained for the first couple of hours. Once we were settled in, Stephen went back up the hill for snack reinforcements – coffee and chips!

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Many Laotians gather around the boats, seemingly just to watch the activities.

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We noticed a young man, his wife and small child on their motorbike, which had incredibly been brought down the steep hill, over the rocks and onto the pier. Amazingly, this bike went onto the front of the boat; no big deal to the crew who are accustomed to loading all sorts of cargo.

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As our boat loaded up, a long lineup of backpackers was making its way down the hill. For some strange reason, they waited for at least a half hour before loading them onto the adjacent boat ; possibly they were hoping they could all fit on with us.

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We discovered that your boat mates can be crucial to your enjoyment of the trip. There were a couple of groups that could have derailed the trip. Four men who were old enough to know better began drinking before the boat ride even started,  but they stayed to the back of the boat, with the bar and the smoking section. Another couple made their presence felt – he of the wiry body, ropy arms, thin grey braids, and non-stop cigarettes; she of the hard face and swastika sticker on her phone. They were not people to be messed with, but it was very shocking to see the Nazi symbol so aggressively displayed.We’re all a little sensitive these days, and it had quite a chilling effect on us and others.  Luckily, they also stayed in the back of the boat the entire time.

On the first boat, our luggage had been put in a hold; this time, all our bags were tossed onto a platform at the back, beside the engine. People then sat, walked on or slept on the pile – our bags emerged unscathed at the end.

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I must tell you about the toilet. One toilet for 140 people.  Bucket of water to one side to flush contents (I’m assuming right into the river). Wet floor. Big bag to hold used toilet paper. A woman I met in Mexico last year said to me, “When I can no longer squat, I can no longer travel.”  This room to be used for emergencies only.

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If you haven’t already equipped yourself with hand sanitizer and wet wipes, this experience would do it for you. (I’m imagining my mother gagging as she reads this.)

But not to leave you with a filthy toilet as your last impression. We landed in Luang Prabang – about 10 km. from town. Since we were all a bit confused, the boat captain snapped us back to reality and yelled, “Get Off!” Dutifully, we trooped off, up the hill and into the arms of the waiting tuk-tuk drivers. Apparently a few years ago, an arrangement was made to switch piers, to create jobs for the taxis and tuk-tuks. No matter – it added one last and funny element to our travels.
The folks just ahead of us – a mirror of us and our luggage.

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We arrived at our lovely hotel, had quick showers and headed down the street for dinner and a cold Beerlao. Finally, the two-day ride was over.

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So…would we recommend this trip? With reservations – yes. It is quite the experience, and if you want to get a feel for what it is like to travel in Lao – this would be a good bet. Not clean, not comfortable, and probably not safe, but we’re glad we did it.

Would we do this again? NEVER!!!

From hell to heaven: benediction at Chiang Rai.

If I told you that I thought I might have come down with dengue fever, you could be forgiven for considering that diagnosis over-the-top. Still, since we are so far away from home, and I just spent three days and nights alternating between sweats and chills, and drifting in and out of sleep for 20 out of 24 hours, the thought crossed my mind. I was able to  reassure myself, as apparently the dengue headache is mindblowingly painful, (mine was medium, but constant) and the fever is referred to as “bone break” for a reason. As much as I love a good story, it would appear that so far I have escaped a tropical ailment; just caught the good old-fashioned flu. Woke up this morning, “It’s a miracle! I’m alive!”

It began four days ago, on our travel day from Pai to Chiang Rai. First the three-hour mountain road (762 curves – someone has counted) to Chiang Mai. Then a three-hour wait in the bus station, where we both fell asleep upstairs in the waiting room on bus seats that were so dirty I normally would not have sat on them. Then, a three-hour bus ride to Chiang Rai with no air-conditioning. At one point, I was sweating and shaking and feeling so sick, I didn’t know how I was going to last. I asked our hostess to please turn on the air-conditioning and she walked down the bus, reaching for the vents and frowning; a small sea of hands began waving in front of their vents. She appeared encouraged to find the faintest little “pfff” coming from our vents, but nothing improved. I believe it was either faulty or deliberately turned very low to save on fuel. We finally rolled into Chiang Rai, grabbed a songtaew and made it to our hotel, where I have spent most of the last 48 hours in bed.
Briefly, I did get outside for short walks with Stephen, but until today, he has been on his own. Yesterday, he ventured into town for a bit of sightseeing and first came upon came upon this portly golden Buddha.

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A bit further down the street, he discovered Wat Phra Kaew, unbeknownst to him, but the more important temple in Chiang Rai; site of the original Emerald Buddha.
In 1434, a bolt of lightning struck the chedi to reveal the original Buddha hidden inside (made of jade, not emerald, as was first thought). This treasure was moved about until it found its final place in Bangkok’s Grand Palace. Over 500 years later, A new Buddha was commissioned for Thailand’s Princess Mother’s 90th birthday in 1990, using jade imported from Canada (maybe Jade City, BC?)

Our country’s contribution to Thailand’s history:

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The city of Chiang Rai has been described as being more liveable than touristy and that is an accurate assessment. Although it is packed with temples, it is more a launching spot for hill treks, trips to the Golden Triangle, and in our case, the last stop before we leave for Laos.
We’re staying at the Chiang Rai Condotel, which offers large condo studio suites with kitchenette, seating, a balcony and use of a very large and welcome pool – for $25 a night. We were originally booked for just two nights, but extended our stay by another two, to let me get better before we took on our two-day boat trip down the Mekong.

We found these very curious mannequins in a local shop two nights ago. I have seen laughing mannequins just once before – in a hat shop in New Orleans – and now here they were in all their garish glory in a nondescript dress store in Chiang Rai. I have Googled them, would love to know if there is any significance to them – let me know if you’ve heard of them.  Stephen grabbed this shot with the proprietor proudly sitting beside them.

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There are a number of innovative motorcycle-driven vehicles to travel around Thailand, but we thought the old-fashioned rickshaw had largely disappeared.  Stephen grabbed a photo of this driver, asleep. I could not imagine how we would feel sitting in the cab, watching his frail back as he cycled us along in the heat.

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They say if you do one thing in Chiang Rai you should visit the White Temple, so we headed out this morning, hoping to beat the heat and the crowds. We were largely successful on both counts; by the time we left, tourists were being herded across the bridge by bullhorn-ed directions,”Keep moving, please. Don’t stop on the bridge, please.” Ours was a far more leisurely and zen-like experience.

The White Temple has to be seen to be believed – our pictures cannot capture the excess,the sugar-froth confection, and the forces of good battling evil, that is the brainchild of visual artist Chalermchai Kositpipat.

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Self-described as a devout Buddhist, the Buddhist church would have kicked him out but for the support and admiration of the late King, who bought a number of his paintings. That patronage has helped to make the artist a very wealthy man, and his themes of moving from hell and damnation to nirvana by means of eschewing all earthly desires may be suspect. Cardboard cutouts of the artist portray a more bon vivant pitchman than humble holy man.

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Walking up the bridge toward the temple, one must first pass by hundreds of hands, reaching and begging for help; a reflection of human suffering.

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Other frightening symbols from the dark side.

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The Gate of Heaven is guarded by monstrous creatures, who will decide our fate. This one does not show one speck of benevolence.

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And then…over the bridge, and we have crossed to nirvana. We entered the temple (no photos allowed) – rather simple, but for the pop culture and superhero images inside. Apparently Keanu Reeves’ image is in there somewhere – I did not notice it.

The rest of the park is all about the details – surreal and outlandish as they may be. The artist covered the temple in pure white plaster to reflect the purity of Buddha and in embedded mirrors to reflect His glory.

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I loved this tree and its gnarly vines – there were a number of big, older trees like this on the property, as well as bromeliad orchids.

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Everyone was lining up to have their photo taken with this fellow, so I did as well.

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We leave Thailand by sending out good wishes to all of you. Seriously – we bought a silver leaf for 30 baht (just over $1), and wrote on one side “Health and happiness to our families”and on the other side “Health and happiness to our friends.” That silver leaf hangs on the tree, preceded by thousands of others on other trees and rafters. We are confident it will work. See you again in a few days.

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