Mysore: City of Palaces

Oh, I know what you’re thinking,”can’t wait to hear all about the palaces.” I promise you this post will have so much more; Mysore is our first big Indian city and there are lots of interesting things to tell you about.

Such as: There is no shame in pretending you are Indian royalty.

IMG_0007
As much as we have read about the many scams at work in India, didn’t we fall prey to one on our very first day here. We were approached by a tuk-tuk driver who wanted to show us the “old market” for 30 rupees. ( 60 cents). We were tired from hours of walking and gratefully climbed in and rode along for about 10 minutes – into a neighbourhood we might otherwise not have discovered on our own. Much of Mysore’s centre area streets and alleys look like this – at first glance rather sketchy but in fact simply modest.

IMG_0010
We passed by several little structures like this – not much more than lean-tos.

IMG_0015

A quick stop at the “special market” and then the scam unrolled – we, the guileless tourists, were escorted to some shops that will kick back a decent commission to the driver if there are sales. First to  a shop where rosewood was being carved and polished. The tuk-tuk driver assured us the white inlay was wood but when I picked up a small piece of plastic cut from the “wood inlay” off the ground, he said nothing.

IMG_0017
Next up – An aromatherapy shop where we were greeted by three very excited people. Before we knew it, we were being swabbed with sandalwood, black jasmine, ylang-ylang, geranium, etc.  Stephen was laced with some essential oil that promised  (with a wink) to give him “eight hours of manhood”. Tempting, but prices started at $60 for tiny vials so we had to disappoint them. It was awkward.

IMG_0020
Somehow I have managed to reach this stage in life and still be surprised to discover that not all people are honest. Being in India requires constant negotiation and second-guessing –  a big push-pull game of Let’s Make a Deal. We have money and they want it. They will tell you what you want to hear (your laundry will be ready by 5:00) and they will blithely overcharge you on just about anything. We are learning how to haggle without being insulting – not wanting to rip off or be ripped off. You never really know. Stephen developed a deep fondness for these luscious potato buns, filled with onion chutney and served warm. He has paid 10, 15 or 20 rupees, depending upon who was behind the counter. That felt more comical than anything else – a lovely family business with no malice intended.

IMG_0001
I am coming to terms with my situation in India now that we are out of beach-y Goa. Our hotel in Mysore is in a Muslim area (we awaken each morning at 5:30 am to delightful call to prayer) and many women are dressed in black burkas.Our first morning here we ventured out to explore the back streets and soon raced back to our hotel.  I was treated to several disapproving stares as well as that nasty tongue-clucking sound that makes me want to pick up a rock and throw it. My crime was wearing a knee-length, scoop-neck, sleeveless dress. I grabbed a shawl, wrapped it around my shoulders and went out again without a problem. The other issue is legs – they need to be covered or at least mostly covered. I bought these pants which are very fine cotton, incredibly comfortable and cool, and roomy enough for a few more veggie pakoras, but I’m not happy.

img_7746-2
I’m not happy with the bold stares, the open contempt, and my feelings of discomfort. I am a visitor to India and as with any other country I want to respect their culture and customs, but it is such an unpleasant feeling to be judged so harshly. To clarify – most of my encounters with Indian men have been positive and warm. I believe the divide is a fundamentalist religious one as well as an uneducated one. The educated moderate Indians do not hold those views toward women – they are gentle and kind.

I discussed this with a gentleman here who warned me to be very careful, especially up north in smaller towns and villages, where a woman’s smile or gaze is interpreted as an invitation to have sex. With or without consent.  Clothing choices would obviously also be an issue.

Currently,  in many states in India violence has broken out over the release of the movie Padmaavat which has offended the sensibilities of some Indians to the point that cars have been torched, a schoolbus full of children was stoned and several women had to be stopped by police as they were planning to self-immolate. A reward has gone out for the delivery of the nose of the lead actress. 

I may not be happy with my status here but you can bet I’ll be keeping those feelings to myself. So…with that off my chest, on to far more positive things. Like, the palace.

Mysuru Palace is one of the big tourist draws – a staggeringly impressive structure that was home to the maharajas and has interiors worthy of one of India’s premier royal buildings.

The Public Hall

IMG_0032
The Marriage Pavilion, used for royal weddings.

IMG_0028
One of the interior courtyards

IMG_0025 (1)
The side entrance to the Palace

IMG_0023
St. Philomena’s Church is another Mysore attraction – a Neo-Gothic Catholic cathedral that is currently under restoration and was covered with scaffolding and tarps. I didn’t take any photos but while we were inside the crypt we spent a few minutes checking out the names. “Captain and Mrs. Ross”; “Federico Coelho” – mostly Portuguese and English names, with a smattering of Indian. I noticed a couple – Barbara Gordon and Tony Gardon – and wondered at the obvious typo engraved in marble for perpetuity. It would make me so upset to imagine a similar fate would befall me when my time comes and I would be laid to rest as Ginny Muller.

And on to the marvellous Devaraja Market of Mysore – a photographer’s delight.

This scene repeated itself dozens of times – we loved the elegance and strength of these women.

img_7775-3
For all the squalor and disorder outside the market, the stalls are a study in geometric perfection.

img_7777-6
I love red onions, but back home they are often too big or a bit mushy. These were just perfect.

IMG_0059
The heaping cones of kumkum, which are the coloured powders used for bindi dots.

IMG_0052
Flower garlands everywhere

IMG_0049

Incense, especially sandalwood, is quite particular to Mysore, as are many essential oils.

IMG_0055
This scene could make a vegetarian out of me. The chickens were being slaughtered, plucked and cleaned right on the counter, in the heat, with the flies swarming. As much as I love meat, I will try to stick to vegetarian dishes for our stay, as FoodSafe is not a thing here.

IMG_0047
And Gandhi – his skinny, bespectacled golden figure standing guard over the madness of roundabout traffic.

IMG_0047 (1)
Traffic – how does it work? In India you drive on the left side of the road, unless you prefer to drive on the right. In that case, you cut across three lanes of traffic and go wherever you please. Cars, trucks, buses, motorbikes and tuk-tuks zoom along with inches to spare and no-one hesitates – as in SE Asia, it flows. One of our new friends in Hampi advised us not to drive in India. “Too stressful for foreigners.” We wouldn’t know where to begin.

The van you see on the left? He will simply drive through the line of motorbikes. The concept of  “After you. No please, I insist – you go first.” does not exist here – either on the road or on the sidewalk, or lining up at the ATM.

IMG_0029

We kept seeing black and yellow cows and finally asked someone. There was a festival last week and the cows were coloured yellow as part of the celebration.

IMG_0034
I stopped these young women to ask them about their tops – it is not easy to find tops that don’t go to the knee or longer. While the clothes here are exquisite, I’m trying to find things I will wear again in Canada. We had a nice chat, followed by the inevitable selfie.

img_7751-4
We hired a tuk-tuk again to take us to Chamundi Hill where there is a sacred temple and the usual complement of monkeys.

img_7798
Today is Republic Day (representing India’s freedom from British rule) and a national holiday. There were dozens upon dozens of busloads of tourists and the queues to enter the temple were terrifying. We stayed outside and watched as the crowds arrived; many passed holy men for blessings and bindis.

img_7792
We were quickly surrounded by a very friendly Indian family who wanted our photos. The funny thing we have noticed about many of these group photos is that once the selfie-stick or camera is in place, everyone assumes a very serious demeanour, even the little kids.  I felt very much like a smiling white-haired lady towering over everyone.

img_7824
A view of Mysore taken from a lookout on the road up to Chamundi Hill. We have not had a lot of bright blue skies since we’ve been here. There is a haze over the city with smoke coming from hundreds of small fires that are set daily (people burn their garbage). Both Stephen and I have sore throats and cold symptoms.

img_7781
I was not as captivated with Mysore as I thought I would be. It is a smallish city (just under 1 million) with many historic buildings and monuments, but with the exception of the Palace, many of the attractions were in disrepair.

This was a good introduction to an Indian city, as it sharpened our travelling wits a whole lot.  We are not planning to visit any of India’s huge cities, except for Delhi in April. There are so many places to visit that don’t demand such stamina and perhaps offer more reward – tea plantations, bird sanctuaries, backwaters, tiger reserves, elephant reserves, the desert cities with their forts and palaces and the Himalayas.

We fly down to Cochi tomorrow and then we will be firmly in Kerala State for a few weeks.  We’re still very much in the early days of being in India and still being swamped by new impressions and emotions to sort through.

One final note on our hotel: Unlike the horror show in Hampi, our Mysore hotel is a dream. Polite, professional staff on the front desk and in the dining room. Huge spotless room, with tiled floors, comfy bed and modern bathroom. Air-conditioning and wifi  – both of them in good working order.  Big breakfast included. And…we paid almost the same as we did in Hampi – just under $50 a night. We have made a decision not to skimp on our hotels in India – the $25 room beckons and is often just fine, but we really want to have a sanctuary to come back to after our sightseeing each day. We’re staying at Casa Mia Homestay in Cochi  – we’ll see you again in a few days.

Following the hippie trail to Hampi

For many visitors to India, the road from Goa to Hampi is a well-trodden path, a rite of passage for the seekers and pilgrims who flock to this “unearthly landscape that has captivated travellers for centuries.” (Lonely Planet).

IMG_0107
Hampi is a UNESCO World Heritage Site which encompasses the ruins of one of India’s largest 14th century empires with kilometres of giant boulders, softened by emerald green rice paddies and banana plantations. In addition to being a holy site, Hampi is also the bouldering capital of India. Throw in yoga classes, ayurvedic treatments, and cheap guesthouses and the throngs of young tourists with their hennaed hands, baggy harem pants and bindi dots will follow.  We saw the odd grey head wandering about, but we were older than most of our fellow travellers by at least 30 years. So far, no henna, but I have succumbed to purchasing a pair of harem pants. Photo to  follow at some point.

The path to Hampi is not a straight one. All trains and buses arrive in Hospet – a dusty town about 15 km. from Hampi. This was our first glimpse of real India – and yes, those stories about cows (or in this case, water buffalos) holding up traffic are true.

IMG_0017

Our tuk-tuk dropped us at the “ferry” – a small boat that transports passengers back and forth to the main guesthouse area in Hampi.

IMG_0027
We had to remove our shoes to walk through five inches of water to board the boat and then again on the other side. The boat is filled to well beyond capacity; we loved that there was a single life jacket hung over the railing. Up the hill we trudged, past women washing laundry – a captivating first impression.

IMG_0109 (1)

We then walked about a kilometre down the road until we arrived at our guesthouse – a less captivating experience. Our guesthouse had very mixed reviews on TripAdvisor, as did all the guesthouses  – people like us are not their target market. There are areas in India where finding reasonable mid-range accommodation is challenging, and Hampi is one of them. Our room was dirty, we had no hot water, wifi disappeared after our first day, never to return – and no-one cared. We heard highly entertaining excuses for everything, with no solutions. Since the rest of our fellow travellers seemed unfazed, we tried to go with the flow, but my vivid imagination would not let go of the images of those who had slept before us on the stained sheets stretched over our hard, lumpy mattresses.  Still, our guesthouse was in a gorgeous setting overlooking rice fields and this was the sunset on the first night.

img_7659

After much deliberating, we decided to rent a scooter the next day to see some of the sites that were close by. I was the one doing the deliberating because of a) the condition of the roads and b) my memory of the fatal accident last year in Laos. Stephen was raring to go, so we hopped on a  scooter and took off with the rest of the helmet-less hordes.

Apparently I am a bad passenger, as I squirm around too much, so I was under strict orders to hang on and not move. Unlike the blasé Indian ladies riding sidesaddle and talking on their phones, I never entirely lost my nerves.

IMG_0054
Still, it is the best way to get around and see the countryside. Stephen’s biggest challenge was dodging crater-like potholes and avoiding marauding trucks, so it wasn’t relaxing for him either. Along the way, we stopped a number of times for photos.  I couldn’t resist this sweet little baby water buffalo.

IMG_0061
Stephen couldn’t resist taking a brief video of me waving at a truckload of kids.


Our first stop was Hanuman Temple. We were met at the bottom by this crew of kids, who swarmed us for photos. This is very common in India – everyone wants a selfie with you and we have obliged dozens of times already.

IMG_0071
Climbing the 575 steps up to Hanuman Temple is a pilgrimage for some; most devotees climbed the entire way in their bare feet.

IMG_0080
We kept our shoes on until we reached the summit, and then removed them to walk around the outer perimeters. There are a number of monkeys up there and as long as you don’t feed them, they keep their distance. I’m not entirely comfortable around monkeys, so I was content to take photos from several feet away.

IMG_0083
This view is the reward – a simply stunning panorama.

IMG_0091
We were intrigued by this purified water stand, especially since our water bottle was almost empty. The Indians lined up to drink clean water, and they all drank from a single stainless steel cup! We shied away from this petri dish of communicable diseases.

IMG_0099
The climb down was much easier, and we were treated to the sight of this woman arranging scarves and colourful clothes on nearby rocks. There were surprisingly few vendors and the ones we saw were quiet and respectful.

IMG_0066
As we drove along, we noticed a young man on his motorbike who had stopped to take a photo and we pulled in behind him. There was a woman in the field tending to three cows, and as I noted to this young man, the image was like “something out of National Geographic”.  Coincidently, he used to be a photographer for Nat Geo and has now been living in Bangalore for the past three years, working as a freelancer. He travels India looking for shots like this. I would love to see how his photos turned out.

IMG_0120 (1)
We drove by women working in the rice fields, planting rice to be harvested in a few months.

img_7637

We were so struck by how hard so many Indians work, and for so little. Collecting and moving materials about – firewood, rice plants and hay.

img_7610
Many children don’t go to school. We passed by this sad-eyed young boy, hauling his load of snacks and drinks on a heavy cart.

IMG_0111
We arrived back to our guesthouse to see the resident Doberman in an absolute froth over the monkeys who were perched up on the rooftop, taunting him.

IMG_0002
The next day we met up with Raghu, who took us out for a full day tour of the ruins on his tuk-tuk. Raghu was charming, knowledgeable and spoke perfect English, so we had a memorable time.

IMG_0075
He is from Hampi and began by giving us an interesting overview of the town, before launching into the history of both the geology and the 14th century ruins. The ruins cover 26 square km. and it would take three more blog postings to cover it, so I’ll spare us all and just treat you to some photos.

img_7673
More monkeys. Cute baby being cradled by a very protective mama.

IMG_0026

We were the only ones visiting this temple and came across this woman who was camped out in the cool shade with her basket and some food and drink. She didn’t pay us any attention, but we were curious as to why she was there.

IMG_0042
The military were out in full force, right up to ranked officers. They were happy to have their photos taken.

IMG_0048
Three women heading into the fields in front of The Elephant Stable.

IMG_0055
There were a number of women working the fields, turning the soil and pulling out dead grass with pickaxes. The stables in front of them used to house elephants.

IMG_0062
The Stone Chariot used to actually move – hard to imagine that now, and even harder to grab a pic without crowds of people in front. The elephants had been piled with kids all morning; this was a rare child-free moment.

IMG_0079
I got almost as excited seeing this parrot as I did seeing the ruins.

IMG_0096
A school trip was in full swing just in front of me and as I was watching the parrot, I was being watched by young Indian boys, who demanded a photo.

IMG_0093
The next thing I knew, their classmates had joined them.

IMG_0095
Hampi is a magical, mystical place. I felt the beginning of a sense of India’s deep spirituality and symbolism there.

Now we’re in Mysore and will be back again in a few days.

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.

image

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.

image

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.

image

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.

image
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.”

image

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.

image

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

image

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

image

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.

image

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.

image

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.

image

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.

image

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

image

image

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.

 

image

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.

image

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.

image

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.
image

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.

image

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.

image

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.

image

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.

image

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

image

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

image

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.

image

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.

image

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.

image

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.
image

The view from just around the corner from our hotel.

image

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.

image

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.

image

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.

image
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.

image

Back on dry land!

image

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.

image

 

The beauty and the beast of Bangkok

We’ve been in Thailand for three days and are just surfacing from our fog of jet lag, culture shock and temperature change. On the advice of friends who have been to Thailand many times, we booked a hotel close to the Bangkok airport for two nights before tackling the city. It was a sound plan – after 20 hours of travel, we weren’t able to do much more than wander up the street in time to see the New Year’s Eve fireworks. The next day we bobbed in and out of a slightly woolly-headed state of disorientation. Rather than try to sightsee, we opted to hang out by the pool, read and have naps.

Thai masseuseAlthough I did have my first Thai massage – this lovely lady pounded the living daylights out of me for an hour.

She poked, pressed and pummelled my body until every last bit of airplane tension was gone. The traditional Thai massage is not exactly relaxing, but it is very effective.

Our arrival in the city was pure Miller-Burr – we got lost. We took the SkyTrain from the airport to our stop, and then trudged down to the street, loaded up with our backpacks and gasping from the heat – only to discover we had no idea where to go from there. We grabbed a tuk-tuk, which was an exhilarating experience. The photo below is not our tuk-tuk, but will give you an idea of what car and driver look like while waiting for business.

waiting for business

The driver of our tuk-tuk (an unstable-looking vehicle which is a cross between a motorized rickshaw and a utility trailer), propelled us into heavy traffic, merrily changing lanes and cutting off tour buses. We hurtled along for about 20 minutes before our driver realized he was lost. After a number of consultations with other drivers and traffic cops, we finally arrived at our hotel. We were warned that it was “a bit difficult to find, but you can imagine our chagrin as we entered this alleyway.

entrance to our hotel

Once we got past the hanging clothes, piles of garbage and makeshift cooking stands, it was a great relief to discover our hotel was everything it had been promised online – clean, secure, air-conditioned, with friendly staff and a welcoming lobby. We are staying in the old section of Bangkok, and narrow alleyways are part of the landscape. So are smells. You are assaulted at every turn by an odiferous cloud of sewage, garbage, cooking and cleaning smells.

Our first afternoon in the big city was both an exploration of our area and a crash course on surviving the streets. Warning signs are everywhere.

img_6082While Thailand is quite safe for tourists, the biggest threats are crimes of opportunity. A common crime is having one’s bag grabbed by thieves on motorcycles, whose modus operandi is to pull up beside someone, slash the strap of their bag and drive off. Duly noted – I bought my PacSafe bag with cut-proof straps and now confidently stride with bag firmly strapped across my chest. Major tourist attractions and temples all have signs warning of pickpockets. Typical scams to beware of are touts approaching tourists with offers to take them on tours, or taxis that offer fixed rates; both tend to involve being led on an annoying tour to friends’ stores for high-pressure selling. Almost without fail, they pick me out of the crowd – my excited, smiling face is their clue to move in. So far, so good – I have resisted the urge to buy fake gems or discuss their cousins in Montreal.

One of our first stops was the famous (infamous) Khao San Road, which is backpacker heaven and hell for anyone else who might want quiet and/or hygiene. We saw this sign pleading with people to be a bit more respectful.

don't pee

Packed to the rafters with hostels, guesthouses, massage parlours, noodle houses and tourist shops selling incense, jewellery and rayon schmatta, Khao San is the Bourbon Street of Bangkok. And, as we have discovered in our short time here, Bangkok is a city of massive contrasts and contradictions. Just around the corner from Khao San we discovered this little oasis of trees, tidy restaurants and relative calm.

pretty street

Thai people eat all the time – mealtimes just seem to blend into a 24-hour orgy of snacking and drinking fresh smoothies, and eating delicious fruit, punctuated by sit-down meals. While I admire that spirit, I haven’t quite caught up with those appetites – too hot, too busy guzzling water. There must be thousands of restaurants in this city but we’ve been concentrating on the street food, and have hit the motherlode a couple of times. Last night we discovered a place called “Jok”; an outdoor grill serving about 20 tables non-stop. Simply delicious – we ordered pad thai and chicken with cashews – so fresh and perfect – exactly what we wanted. We’ve decided that we won’t notice the pans of dirty dishes sitting in tubs on the ground and we won’t notice them being swabbed indifferently with a dirty cloth before being used again. Actually, we will notice them, we will just change our perspective and not get too fussed, or else we may as well pack up now and go back home.

joke street food

We shared a table with a young Dutch woman from Gouda (pronounced how-da, as I discovered, not goo-da, as I have been mispronouncing all these years). Most of the people we’ve been meeting are European – we have yet to meet a fellow Canadian. Tonight we sat beside three men from France who are in Thailand on a buying trip for their clothing store back home. These encounters are a big part of the travels – they are so enriching.

Traffic in Bangkok is famous. To begin with, Thailand has left-side drive, which means we are at a disadvantage as we peer down in one direction and forget to look the other way -our orientation is all wrong. Chaotic does not begin to describe the scene of dozens upon dozens  of motorcycles and scooters dodging around trucks and buses and cars; creating their very own rules of the road, and taking no prisoners. All vehicles change lanes and cut one another off, and play fast and loose with traffic lights. Accidents are frequent and deadly – in the 3-day period between December 29-31, there were 1700 road accidents in the country, with 199 road deaths. Pedestrians take their very lives into their hands as they cross the road – so far, I have been reduced to clinging to Stephen’s hand, and mincing along in little bunny hops to get to the other side. My personal goal is to walk the roads like I own them, as is the Thai way.

So…our first impressions of Bangkok are exactly what we anticipated they would be. We knew we would feel overwhelmed, we knew we would experience culture shock and we knew we would suffer from the heat and humidity. But there is so much to see here, so much to learn about and so much of ourselves that needs a reboot, that being here for a few days is very welcome. We went to a magnificent temple today – Wat Pho. I will tell you about it in a posting in a couple of days, but I’d like to leave you with a final impression of grace and benediction. While we were at the temple, we came upon an extraordinary scene of a  monk applying great lashings of icy water upon the heads of willing supplicants. We both underwent this treatment – supposedly to bring us good luck. Possibly the monk was having fun at our expense, but it was worth the insurance for a bright and positive 2017.

Stephen being anointed