Archive for January 2009

Home Sweet Home

January 17, 2009 - 11:39 pm 2 Comments

Home. Got in yesterday afternoon at about 1pm. Took a marvelous shower, unpacked, and started doing laundry.

As far as the jet lag goes, I am completely wrecked. I was OK going out there, but now I feel horrible. Last night at 7pm, I had a burger and almost threw up, maybe because my body thought it was 7am and it can’t handle a Front Page burger for breakfast. And I am exhausted.

Do I have any regrets about the trip? Well, we were always on the move, and there were times when our stops felt a bit rushed. It would have been nice to have an additional one or two days at each stop to have some relaxation time. It would have been nice to see Vietnam. It would have been nice to spend more time on the beaches of Thailand, maybe going to Phuket. And it would have been nice if one of the legs of our journey were an overland route, just to mix it up a bit. But I keep coming back to the fact that we only had three weeks. You have to make trade-offs, and I think we did OK.

On one hand, I wonder if we should have relaxed a bit more and seen less, but on the other, I feel like we’ve only grazed the surface of Southeast Asia. Even though we’ve seen and done more than most backpackers we met, I feel like we just grazed the surface. There is so much to see and do in Southeast Asia that I wonder if a thorough tour is even doable in six months.

I wish there was away around the flight cancellation fees and the numerous trips to the airport we had to make to sort out our itinerary. It’s too bad Kayak and other international travel web sites doesn’t keep an accurate database of Asian airline flight schedules. It would have made all of my booking a lot easier and probably cheaper than going through travel agents. The only other thing we could have done is not book anything and wing the entire trip once we got out there, but I was scared about doing that around New Year’s, thinking some of the flights would book up quickly.

I guess the only thing I really regret is not having one of the magic mushroom shakes served on the beach during the New Year’s Party on Koh Phangan. I only heard about them the next day, so I can’t say it’s really a regret, but I think that would have pushed the already surreal experience off the charts.

Doug was a really great travel companion. Low-maintenance, flexible, and active, he was always very organized with paperwork and receipts, his clothes were always neatly rolled, and he could find anything in his bag in about three seconds. When first planning the trip, Doug was a bit hands off, but in the end, he came through by arranging our travel visas and took responsibility for navigating each city we visited.

Doug and I made things fun by playing little games along the way, like coming up with odds that the fat girl climbing up to the waterfall was American or that he would be served his noodles before I was served my rice or that my bag would come down the conveyor belt first. There were over/unders for people’s ages and for meal checks and for the cost for boom-boom in Cambodia (US$40).

In the next few days/weeks/months, I’ll be sorting through all of my photos. I’ll go back and add them to my old posts.

So weird to think that 24 hours ago, I was on the other side of the planet.

No Regrets!

Going Home

January 17, 2009 - 9:30 am No Comments

From Khao San, we grabbed a taxi to the airport. Forcing the driver to use the meter, it cost us half as much as what we’ve been paying. Finally, we’re getting this down.

We took off from Bangkok in an enormous 747-400, biggest plane in the Air France fleet. It really took some effort to gain some altitude, though, almost like the plane weighed too much. I went right to sleep. Woke up for dinner served with METAL forks and knives. WTF?

The coach seating on these international flights is uncomfortable. No leg room, and you sit so upright that you’re almost leaning forward, making it impossible to sleep since your head is bobbing around like a carnival toy. And those inflatable, U-shaped neck supports that Doug and I have don’t help, since the gap of the U is in front of you and, because you are sitting so upright, your head keeps falling forward. Wearing the neck support backwards prevents your head from falling, but if you have an Adam’s apple like me, you are choked while you sleep. Still not sure if it’s worth the several hundred dollar upgrade to first class, though.

Sitting next to Doug was a young girl from Virginia. They struck up a conversation about the usual stuff like her reason for travel, what she saw, and school. Inevitably, she asked Doug when he graduated. Doug looked at me. We knew that this would be where the conversation ends. When Doug answered “1998,” the girl put her head down and went to sleep. 32 is the new 52.

The flight took us back on roughly the same route, only this time I was awake for a different part of it. Looking out the window, we flew by Odessa, Vienna, and Prague, each a spider of sulfur lights in the blackness.

By the time we got to France, I couldn’t see anything. We descended all the way into Paris without seeing any lights. Heavy fog blanketed the city. Saw the runway lights whizzing by just a moment before touching down.

We’re in Paris for about five hours, not really enough time to really do anything in Paris since a) there’s not really enough time to commute back and forth, b) it’s the middle of the night, and c) I feel like crap.

What I think was probably just a cold intensified by the air pollution of Siem Reap now plagues me with a pounding headache, coldness, and a general malaise (points for using French in France?).

I walked in slow motion to our gate, and we plopped our stuff down. I walked around trying to figure out what I could do to keep warm. My jacket and hat were packed, and it felt drafty wherever I walked. I discovered that the grill on the floor and lining the windows throughout the terminal was producing heat, so I laid down on it, rotating a few times to make sure I was cooked evenly. It was glorious. I just woke up and feel much better.

We’re about to board our last leg home to Washington. Sitting on the grill are two “arroy ma” flight attendants waiting to board the same flight. Air France knows how to recruit.

Our Last Hurrah on Khao San Road

January 16, 2009 - 7:16 pm 1 Comment

Checked out of our guest house in Siem Reap this morning, and Voy was waiting for us. Pretty interesting set-up at Bouvasy. Voy pretty much acted as our maitre d’ for our entire stay. I hardly had any interaction with the staff and never even met the owners.

Driving out to the airport, the air got noticeably better, which was one of the things that struck me about Cambodia when we first landed here. On the west side of the city and around the airport, the air seems a lot cleaner.

Our Bangkok Airways Plane to Thailand

On our Bangkok Airways flight back to Bangkok, Doug and I sat in an emergency exit row, which is nice because it gives you get a bit of extra legroom. After we took our seats, a tall and borderline goofy Thai fellow came over and gave us some safety instructions.

“Just want to tell you that you are sitting in an emergency exit row. Want to tell you how to use door. Pull the cover off the top, and there is handle. Hold handle on top and handle at bottom and pull door. It come off. When you have door, throw it away. Then go out and run as fast as you can.”

A refreshing towel and sketchy sandwich later, and we were back in Bangkok.

Bangkok Traffic

We were there for a full day before our flight home, and we had our whole day planned out. First, Doug and I took a taxi to Central World, a ridiculously huge shopping complex in the center of town. While the size of the structure was impressive, the prices were not, with most retail stores charging about the same as the stores at home. The only deals in Thailand, it seems, are the knock-offs sold on the street.

Central World

We were hungry, so we decided to grab a meal at Central World before leaving. We browsed the restaurants until Doug found one he liked, called Kum Poon. Pretty yummy, but the service was unsurprisingly not wonderful.

Kum Poon

From there, we headed to Khao San Road, the tourist mecca that we somehow missed our first time through Bangkok. Of course, part of the reason we may have missed it was because our tuk-tuk drivers “didn’t know” about it despite our constant pleas to take us to a place where all the tourists hung out. Guess they don’t make a lot of commissions there.

Khao San is filled with mostly hippies, and the stands lining both sides of the street sell mostly hippie clothes. Lots of souvenir stands sell mostly the same crap we’ve seen everywhere else, but something I don’t get tired of seeing are the stands with fresh-squeezed orange juice on ice. I love that stuff.

Khao San Road

We were standing at a table selling international fake IDs when, in a quick burst of craziness, the table was whisked away and the people who were manning it put their innocent faces on. Just then, a couple of cops on motorcycles drove by and started shutting down other people’s stands. Are the fake IDs really illegal here? Or is setting up a table in the street illegal? I was just about to get a fake AP photographer pass, too. Oh well.

Doug and I wanted one more massage before going home, so we scoped out the scene and found one on the main strip that didn’t look too sketchy. Rather than an oil massage, we opted for a Thai massage. As it turns out, a Thai massage is more squeezing than rubbing. Not as good. When we emerged, the sky was dark, and the neon signs of Khao San were lighting the street.

Khao San Road at Night

We are now at a restaurant called Silk Bar, sitting outside and soaking it all in. Hippies come and go in the street in front of us, hauling backpacks and suitcases and body hair to guest houses and taxis. The bar across the street is blaring music, overpowering the poor lady in the middle of the street with a cane and a microphone and a karaoke box strapped to her back.

We’ve watched our last sunset, enjoyed our last massage, turned down our last souvenir bracelet. Doug’s tasted his last pork soup, I’ve chewed on my last spring roll, and we’ve sipped our last manly pina colada. It’s time to go home.

Siem Reap: Pretty but Gross

January 16, 2009 - 1:20 am No Comments

I woke up this morning feeling pretty lousy, with my sore throat joined by a headache and weakness. I really hope it’s not malaria or Dengue fever or something like that. Whatever it is, I’m pretty sure it’s aggravated by the disgusting air of Siem Reap.

I’m not at all a morning person, but I psyched myself up for sunrise at Angkor Wat, and it was worth it. Voy took us out there in the darkness. Walking to the wat, the moon was so bright that it cast a shadow in front of us. Not sure I’ve ever seen a moon shadow before.

A small crowd was already gathering in front of the wat, with a few photographers picking their spots for the best angle and holding their ground. Most of them didn’t have a tripod, so I was able to start knocking out pictures way before the sun came up. The sunrise was truly amazing.

Angkor Wat

Sunrise at Angkor Wat

Sunrise at Angkor Wat

Sunrise at Angkor Wat

Sunrise at Angkor Wat

Sunrise at Angkor Wat

Sunrise at Angkor Wat

Sunrise at Angkor Wat

Sunrise at Angkor Wat

Sunrise at Angkor Wat

Sunrise at Angkor Wat

Cold Dog

Angkor Wat, Rhesus Macaque

On the Ruins

Angkor Wat

From Angkor Wat, Voy took us for a ride way outside of town. Paved roads became dirt roads, souvenir stands disappeared. Working or chatting in front of their houses were the expressive, weathered faces of Cambodian mothers and fathers. Playing in the mud and riding bicycles were their cute and vibrant children. Walking alongside the road were toddlers with shirts but no pants. Makeshift houses of corrugated metal and straw. Fields of cows and water buffaloes. Lots of poverty, but with it, lots of natural beauty.

Family on a Bike

Coconuts on Bikes

And then there were the piles of burning trash. Seems like that’s what everyone does here. And I don’t think there’s a vehicle in the country that’s ever had an emissions check. The air isn’t quite as bad away from the city, but the lingering smell of burnt plastic and vehicle exhaust still lingers. And all the dust from trucks and cars and motorcycles zooming by on the dirt roads made things even worse.

It’s no surprise to me that the life expectancy in Cambodia is 59 years. These people are literally poisoning themselves. Emissions checks, mass transit, and organized garbage collection would go a long way in this country. But I guess being a third-world country means not having any of that stuff.

Shoveling Dirt

After driving away from the city for what seemed like hours, we turned off the main dirt road and onto a tiny dirt road. Thinking that this might be the place where Voy takes our money and hacks us to pieces, Doug was relieved to find a big “National Park” sign next to the road.

After a moderate hike through the jungle and over some rocks, we got to a nice, little waterfall called Kbal Spean. Nearby, workers burned piles of leaves that they had raked, filling the area with smoke.

Burning Leaves

Boulders on the Stung Kbal Spean

Kbal Spean Waterfall

On the way back into town, we stopped at a couple more wats and then the Land Mine Museum. Founded by mine-clearer named Aki Ra, donations to the museum go directly to children who have been injured by land mines. After watching a poorly made but nonetheless touching video about Aki Ra’s life and the kids he helps, I made a small donation.

Banteay Srei

Angkor Wat for Sale

Morbid Painting

Sandstone Columns at Banteay Samre?

Cambodian Girl and her Baby Brother at

Doug & Friends

I bought myself a surgical mask as a gag gift, but I probably should have worn it today. Breathing all of that grossness and bouncing around in the back of the tuk-tuk all day long has not made me feel any better.

Doug Shops for Pirated Software

For dinner, we went out for some Cambodian BBQ, which consisted of raw beef, chicken, crocodile, snake, and squid. A metal dome sits on top of hot coals, and you cook your own meal at the table. Was pretty good.

FCC Angkor

Graffiti in Angkor What

No Regrets!!

Before going to bed, I flipped on the TV in our room to see what was on in Cambodia. After flipping through a bunch of English language cable channels, I stopped at what appeared to be a Cambodian movie. A young guy wearing a red leather jacket was fighting some other less attractive dudes in an awfully well-lit pool hall. His stick-fighting was not quite kung fu-calibre, but it was good enough. In the next scene, the same guy is on a motorcycle with his girlfriend sitting behind him, and he’s challenging three other dudes with their girlfriends. When one of the girls jumps up and yells something, the race begins. The nauseating editing and sped-up footage imply that the race is very unpredictable and dangerous. The motorcycles ram each other and cut each other off, and one by one, the bad guys wipe out. For each wipe-out, the girlfriends are replaced by dummies, and camera holds on each crash long enough for you to see the dummies flopping around unnaturally as they fly off the motorcycles.

Satisfied, it’s now time for bed. We fly back to Bangkok tomorrow for an afternoon before catching our flight home later in the evening.

Taming of the Tuk-Tuk Driver and the Wats of Angkor

January 14, 2009 - 7:07 pm No Comments

After dinner, a drink, and light conversation with some Cambodian hookers, we waited for all the tuk-tuk drivers to gather around before announcing that we were going to pay exactly US$1 to get back to our guest house, since that is what we paid every night for the ride there. All of the drivers looked displeased and turned away, but due to the sheer number of them, we knew it was just a matter of time before someone would bite. About four seconds. We made sure that it was one of the certified drivers with a numbered vest and not some random guy looking to make a buck, and we had a deal.

Woke up this morning feeling lousy. My throat felt like I swallowed an angry puffer fish. But I wasn’t going to let it slow me down.

Voy took us back into Angkor. On the drive in, I was almost overcome by dust and the smell of burning plastic. There is definitely an air pollution problem here. At Angkor, many of the Asian tourists wear surgical masks to keep out the bad stuff. Looks silly, but perhaps it’s effective.

Continuing through Angkor, we explored a few of the other wats. Some have been partially restored, and others have been left to be overcome by the jungle. Rooms, corridors, and crumbled archways make each wat fun to hop around. I agree with Doug in that they would be absolutely perfect for a game of Paintball. We also revisited a few of the wats we saw yesterday. They certainly looked a bit different, with the sun hitting them at a different angle.

Bayon in the Morning

Preah Khan

Preah Khan

Preah Khan

Neak Pean

Woman at Neak Pean

Taking you back hundreds of years when they were first built, a mystical haze covers the grounds of each wat. Is it really the ghosts of a forgotten past? Or the carcinogenic fumes of burnt plastic?

Our Sweet Ride

Tourists on Bicycles

East Mebon

Boy at East Mebon


Of course, the souvenir kids were out in force again. When I told one of the girls that my name was Frank and I was from France, she gave me a bracelet for free in appreciation for what France has done for the people of Cambodia. I felt guilty for lying to her and told her she should take the bracelet back and try to sell it to someone else, but she refused. Quite mature for a young kid who was desperately trying to make a buck, I thought. Or was it just part of the game? In the end, I bought a Pepsi from her. Maybe that was her goal all along.

Devata at Banteay Kdei

Banteay Kdei

Ta Prohm

Ta Prohm

Ta Prohm

Ta Prohm

We’re taking it easy for the rest of the afternoon. Tomorrow will be an early start, leaving at 5am to catch a sunrise at Angkor Wat.

Cambodian BBQ

Sparkling Dessert

A Day at Angkor Wat

January 13, 2009 - 9:57 pm 3 Comments

Voy was ready for us at 7am. We wolfed down breakfast and then headed into Angkor. It was cool and hazy, perfect for exploring wats and better than the sweltering heat tourists have to put up with at other times during the year.

The three-day pass was US$40, very expensive by Cambodian standards. They must be making a crapload of money on this place. I hope it is going to the right people and being put to good use.

The dirt road to the wat was just being paved for the first time. The first sign of mass commercialism? The drive took us past monkeys, chickens, dogs with large nipples, male workers leaning over and cutting the grass with machetes, and female workers doing their best to sweep up the scraps with brooms and sticks.

As soon as the tuk-tuk stopped in the parking lot across from Angkor Wat, we were swarmed by kids selling guidebooks, postcards, bracelets, scarves, all the usual crap.

Since we got there pretty early, there weren’t a lot of people there yet, which was great for photos. They let you bring tripods in, which is nice. Business idea: At every major attraction around the world, rent tripods to tourists at the front entrance. Tripods a pain to lug around in your baggage and around town, and if people knew they could just rent them at the attractions where they needed them most, you’d save them a lot of aggravation.

The Walk to Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat

After walking through a gate, Angkor Wat revealed itself to us. Familiar with iconic photos of the structure, I was able to figure out exactly where people were standing when they got those shots. I begin snapping some of my own. I was disappointed to see scaffolding on top of Angkor Wat, but after taking another look and some older photos, it looks like that scaffolding has been there for years.

Angkor Wat has a certain beauty to it, for sure. The architecture is impressive, but it’s the intricate details like decorated columns and carved Buddha images that make you stop and look. The ruins reminded me a lot of Peru’s Machu Picchu, although these are a little bit older. The stonework is old, worn (especially on the spots where people frequently step), and covered with lichen.

Angkor Wat

Decaying Column

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat


Golden Grass

The Path from Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat

And it’s massive. It took us several hours to walk around the whole thing. Of course, much of that time was spent waiting for tourists to get out of the way so I could snap my photos.

The exit to the left of the wat took you past perhaps the most aggressive souvenir hawkers we’d seen the whole trip. More of the same crap.

“Hello, sir! Look, sir! Cold drink for you!” the mothers would call from their stands, while their cute but annoying kids ran over and danced around us, shoving t-shirts and bracelets and carved elephants and guide books in our faces.

“Sir, you buy now!”

“No, thanks.”

“OK, you buy from me.”

“No, thanks.”

“Good price for you, sir.”

“No, thanks.”

“Discount for you!”

“No, thanks.”

“Look, sir. Good book for you.”

“No, thanks.”

“Look, sir. Scarf for you. Get scarf for girlfriend.”

“No, thanks.”

If you keep walking, the kids fall off one by one, but they are replaced by new kids offering the exact same stuff and saying the exact same things as the kids before. It’s absurd.

Some of these kids are pretty smart. Some of pull your heartstrings by being cute and saying they have not had a sale all day. Others will ask for your name and then remember you minutes or hours later in an attempt to make the sale a bit more personal. Still others will ask you where you’re from and say that you must buy something from them if they can name your country’s capital. I thought I had one girl when I told her I was from Czechoslovakia, but she was quick with a response.

“If I tell you capital of Czech Republic or Slovakia, will you buy something from me?”

If you catch their interest and distract them from selling for just a moment, they are actually quite capable of conversation and humor. But they are not deterred for long.

The good thing is that I don’t think they’re allowed to come inside the wats. Some of them push it, but they stay out for the most part. It’s the walk to the wat and back to the tuk-tuk when you’re caught in the crossfire. Ignoring them is really the only way to deal with them, but pointing my camera at them is sometimes an effective repellent.

I was surprised to learn that Angkor is filled with many wats, each with similar stonework, repeated floor plans, and narrow steps that force you to go up or down slowly and with your feet sideways. In Voy’s tuk-tuk, we started knocking them off our list. He’d drop us off, and we’d get out, zip past the swarming souvenir kids, walk past the band of land mine victims playing music with their traditional Khmer instruments, hop around the wat, take some photos, walk past the band of land mine victims playing music with their traditional Khmer instruments, zip past the swarming souvenir kids, get back into the tuk-tuk, and go to the next one.

Doug: Hard-Ass

Asuras Hold the Na?ga

Along with the classic beauty of Angkor Wat, the architecture of Bayon and the twisted roots covering Ta Prohm were my favorites.

Faces of Bayon

The Face of Avalokites?vara


Ta Prohm

Ta Prohm

Ta Prohm

I am taking a veritable crapload of photos. When we stopped for lunch, I realized that my camera’s memory cards were almost full and both of my rechargeable camera batteries were dead. This required a trip out of Angkor and back to the guest house to empty my cards and charge up my batteries. Bit of an inconvenience, but a necessary one. I’m not going to look at all these beautiful wats if I can’t photograph them. And I don’t think I’m the only one who feels that way. Lots of guys are walking around with cameras and lenses that put mine to shame. My D300 is having feelings of inadequacy.

Speeding Coconuts

Tired Kids

Carvings at the Terrace of the Leper King

Doug at Prasat Suor Prat

After a few more wats, we joined hordes of other tourists atop Phnom Bakheng for the sunset. Like the night before, the sun glowed red and then disappeared into the haze before touching the horizon. I am beginning to realize the haze is more like smog and that there’s actually a pretty bad air pollution problem here.

Sunset at Phnom Bakheng

Orb in the Smog

We called it a day and headed back to the guest house to clean up. Then, off to Pub Street for dinner and drinks. And that’s where we are now.

Doug and I are sitting at a restaurant called Le Tigre de Papier. It’s one of many on Pub Street here in Siem Reap that offer free wifi with a meal. Just ordered penne al salmone, and we are sipping (in a manly way) the best pina coladas we’ve had all trip. So surreal that I am sitting outside at a restaurant in Cambodia with my laptop and I am online.

Temple Club

I’m feeling a bit under the weather today. Some kind of throat/nose thing. Malaria? Dengue fever? Too much rice? Air pollution? Maybe a good night’s sleep will help.

Tuk-Tuk Drivers: Enough Already

January 12, 2009 - 11:13 pm No Comments

Just came back from Pub Street. Seems like a pretty nice little strip of bars. First a pretty good Khmer dinner and then a drink at “Angkor What?”, a popular bar on the strip.

Khmer Dancers

Pub Street

Cambodia is definitely the cheapest place we’ve been. The local currency, the riel, is so unstable and worthless that it’s hardly used. Instead, prices everywhere are quoted in US dollars. Meals cost about US$3 and a rum & coke costs US$1.50. Walking up and down the strip, Doug was offered boom-boom and yum-yum by a woman giving off the pimp vibe. He did not get a price for boom-boom, but yum-yum was US$30, and that included a massage.

The tuk-tuk drivers will swarm to you like flies to shit as soon as you get out of another tuk-tuk. They hover outside restaurants, asking you as soon as you step outside. They will ask you if you want one even if they just saw you turn another driver down. Relentless.

We picked a place to eat and people-watch. Like all the other restaurants in Southeast Asia, the menu was ridiculously huge and unorganized. Bigger is not better. We settled on some more Khmer food, and it was pretty tasty.

When it was time to go, we started talking to the drivers. Our ride form the guest house to Pub Street cost us US$1, so we were determined to pay the same to come home. The drivers wanted $2, then $1.50. Then they wanted to talk to us about how fair the price was, and then they started talking to us about how it was late and it cost more than $1 when it’s late. All BS. With 18 drivers behind them wanting our business, they had no ground to stand on.

Doug and I committed to finding a driver who wasn’t annoying and would take us for US$1. Finally, one of them reluctantly accepted. When we arrived at the guest house, I gave the driver an extra $1 tip as a kind of thank you for not being annoying. The expression on his face was priceless. Doug and I are determined to make the tuk-tuk experience a little better for future travelers to Southeast Asia.

Doug is now trying to get a gecko out of the room by smacking on the door with a remote control. Good night.

Siem Reap and Tonlé Sap

January 12, 2009 - 7:53 pm 2 Comments

In the morning, we settled the bill with Paul and talked photography before getting a list to the airport. After arriving at the airport, I was relieved to find that the Vietnam Airlines flight does in fact exist.

Doug Says Goodbye to Laos

Take-off on the Fokker 70 was quick and smooth. The stewardess announced that we would be flying at a cruising altitude of 70,000 feet. What is this, a U-2 spy plane?

In the air, we were given a “Refreshing Tissue,” a cold, wet napkin wrapped in single-serving plastic packaging that I guess you’re supposed to use to wipe your face and hands. We’ve had them on all of our Southeast Asian flights. For lunch, we were served a sandwich filled with what I found to be extremely sketchy meat. I don’t know what part of what animal it came from, but it was cut like salami, and each slice was perfectly edged with a ring of fat. I peeled the fat off each piece before eating the sandwich.

The haze cleared as we descended, revealing the flat, brown, watery landscape of Cambodia below. After we landed, the captain come over the speakers.

“Laze and tulman, welcome to Cambodia.”

Doug prepared our tourist visas online, so immigration was a breeze. A tuk-tuk driver was sent from Bousavy, our reserved guest house, to pick us up. He was there holding a sign with my name on it (Doug loves that). His name was Voy, and he was all smiles.

We hopped into Voy’s luxury tuk-tuk and headed into town. The sun was warm and the air was fresh on the way to the guest house. Felt good to be done with the chilliness in Laos. As we left the airport, we passed some magnificently decorated hotels.

Orientation in this town is pretty easy. The airport is west side of town, and there’s a main road into the city center. Our guest house is on that just off that road. A road north from the city center runs to Angkor, and a road south takes you to Tonlé Sap (TAWN-lay SAP), a huge lake in the middle of Cambodia.

Bousavy Guest House

At the guest house, Voy checked us in, got us each a milkshake, gave us maps, and helped us lay out our itinerary for our stay in Siem Reap. Very helpful fellow.

The room at Bousavy is pretty good. Doug and I have separate beds (thank goodness). The shower is the same as all the others we’ve had, but the wooden bathroom door has buckled and split, giving the other guy a peep show if he sits in just the right spot (the left side of Doug’s bed).

Had quick traditional Khmer lunch. Despite the hair in my meal (and only the third hair I’ve found in my food on this trip), the green amok fish in a banana leaf was quite delicious.

On request, Voy drove us into town to visit the outdoor markets. The roads are noisy, dusty, just as chaotic as Bangkok. Scooters and tuk-tuks and cars and trucks and vans fight for lane space. Intersections are a free-for-all. I read that lots of people are injured or killed on the roads, but I’m surprised it’s not more. Craziness. Stray chickens and dogs everywhere.

Alley in Siem Reap

Busy Streets of Siem Reap

Buddhas for Sale

The market was filled with table after table of all the crap souvenirs you’d expect to find. All Cambodian men and most women wear long pants. Like Laos, the majority of tourists here are English and Australian. Mostly families and couples.

Then down to Tonlé Sap, where villages of families live in floating houses on the water. The drive through Siem Reap took us out of the city and through bright green rice fields.

Lonely Tree on Highway 63

Voy and Doug in the Tuk-Tuk

Our boat was one of many waiting to take tourists to the floating villages. Doug and I had a boat to ourselves.

Boatman on Tonle? Sap

The floating village was our first look at traditional life that seemed at least a little bit authentic. Photographically, it was fantastic. Kids waved and giggled as we cruised by, others in houses and boats looked at us in curiosity. The people who live in these villages must see a ton of tourists going through there, but they don’t seem jaded or bored with it. And they weren’t hawking souvenirs. There was a natural beauty to that place.

House on Tonle? Sap

Cigarette Guy

Boy at Tonle? Sap

House on Tonle? Sap

Happy Boy at Tonle? Sap

Fisherman at Tonle? Sap

Mouth Full of Food

After the village, we headed out to the open sea to watch the sun set on the water. The ghostly sun disappeared in the haze before it ever touched the horizon.

Boats at Sunset

Sunset Boat Ride

Golden Waters of Tonle? Sap

Glowing Sun Over Tonle? Sap

Boy on the Boat

Family at Tonle? Sap

The Boat Ride Home

Voy seems like a pretty stand-up guy, and his prices seem in line with what people have been paying for similar services on the Internet. He’s offered to be our personal driver for our stay in Siem Reap, and I think we’ll take him up on his offer.

We picked up the Cambodian basics today:

hello : soo is sidai
thank you very much : aw kuhn chih doan
very delicious : chingon na

Off to Pub Street, seemingly the center of nightlife in Siem Reap. Tomorrow, we’re up very early for a day in Angkor.

The Caves and Waterfalls of Luang Prabang

January 12, 2009 - 12:48 am No Comments

It’s amazing how quickly the temperature drops when the sun goes down and how quickly it warms up again in the morning. While it’s frigid at night, each day is perfect.

Tuk-Tuk Driving By

Woman on a Scooter

Monk and a Motorcycle

Zooming Tuk-Tuk

We started our day by making it down to the dock on the Mekong to catch our ride to the caves at Pak Ou. Wasn’t really a dock, though. More like a section of mud and rocks on the riverside where all the boats are tightly crammed next to each other.

The ride up the Mekong was frigid. It was early morning, and the light fog hadn’t quite burned off yet. The seats on the slowboat were covered, and a chilly breeze blew through. The hour-long ride was a little uncomfortable.

Slow Boat on the Mekong River

Slow Boat Captain

Boat on the Mekong River

Along the way, we stopped at Ban Xang Hai, better known as “Whisky Village.” Wouldn’t you know it, but walk through the “traditional” village was an exercise in souvenir hocking. Stands on both sides of the path sold scarves, bracelets, elephants, and assorted Cambodian trinkets.

Bottles at Whiskey Village

Tapestries for Sale

While they all wanted to sell you something, the village was filled with lots of very cute, very happy kids.

Boy from the Whiskey Village

Girl from the Whiskey Village

Girl from the Whiskey Village

I know why there are so many black and white photos of people in Southeast Asia. Many of the people in these villages wear Disney or other souvenir sweatshirts and t-shirts with the most awful colors splashed all over them. Black and white photos subtract the colors and make these people seem more traditional and timeless.

Back in the boat, we continued on to the caves. In the Mekong, water bottles and plastic jugs tied to ropes marked the spots on the river with shallow rocks.

Arriving at Pak Ou Caves

Slow Boats Docked at Pak Ou Caves

After parking the boat, we were led up a steep staircase and accosted by kids selling bracelets, cookies (I didn’t see my Oreos), and LIVE CHICKS chirping away in miniature teak cages. What tourist is going to buy one of those?

Kids with Chicks

The caves were underwhelming. They are very shallow and unlit and were filled with thousands of miniature Buddha figurines, but it wasn’t anything special.

Pak Ou Cave

Golden Buddhas in Pak Ou Cave

Golden Buddhas in Pak Ou Cave

My skinned knee has made some of these activities difficult. It has disgustingly scabbed over and become oozy, making my daily walks a little uncomfortable, especially when wearing jeans. Unfortunately, jeans are a necessity when it’s frigid in the mornings or when we need to go inside wats. I don’t have cool cargo Transformer pants like Doug. If I can get through 24 hours without having my oozing scab stick to the inside of my jeans and rip off, it’s a good day.

On the way back to the boat, the same kids badgered us again to buy chicks. Do they think that the cave somehow inspired me to buy a chicken? I wonder if it’s possible to go anywhere in Southeast Asia without being surrounded by young children and their mothers selling crappy souvenirs.

Slow Boat Captain

Hot Chili Squid Chips

The boat ride back was a lot more pleasant. The sun had burned of the fog and was now filling a perfectly clear sky.

We got back just in time for a quick crepe lunch and a ride to the Kuang Si waterfall just outside of town. We shared a minivan with seven other silent tourists.

The waterfall was the best we’ve seen so far in Southeast Asia. A path through the jungle took us to several different levels, each one photogenic.

Kuang Si Waterfall

Rooty Tree Trunk

Kuang Si Waterfall

Kuang Si Waterfall

Kuang Si Waterfall

Kid at Kuang Si Waterfall

At a picnic table next to the water, a group of Australian backpackers was feeding a dog chicken bones from their lunch. I didn’t want to butt in, but I couldn’t help myself.

“You shouldn’t feed the dog chicken bones.”

“Ya, we know, but he just looked so cute and so hungry. Look at him, he’s starving.”

“Better starving than dead, don’t you think?”

“Well, if he’s starving, he was going to die anyway.”

You can’t argue with idiots. Just before leaving, Doug climbed a tree and did a spectacular dive into one of the waterfall’s turquoise-blue lagoons. Well done!

The parking lot for the waterfall is filled with souvenir stands and kitchens, all selling and serving the same crap. You’ll never here as many sabaidee’s as you do when you approach a row of souvenir stands.

Meat on Sticks

On way back from waterfalls, we stopped at a “traditional” Hmong village that was (surprise!) filled with chickens and souvenir stands and cute kids who want your money.

After returning to town, Doug and I skipped down (not literally) to the Mekong and witnessed a magnificent sunset with almost no one around. Screw you, Lonely Planet!

Sunset Over the Mekong

We grabbed a decent dinner at a restaurant cleverly named “The Pizza.” Then a Lao massage, slightly disappointing since all they do is push their fingers into you. Doug and I prefer rubbing.

We came home tonight to find our room smelling like rancid ass. After some sniffing around, I deduced that the rancid ass smell was coming from our bathroom/shower hybrid, and not our stuff. Which is good, since Doug and I are on the road together for another few days.

Luang Prabang has been hyped up by friends and travel guides alike for its undiscovered beauty, but I’m afraid it has been discovered. Seemingly skyrocketing prices along with tourist booking offices and souvenir stands ad nauseam are a testament to that. There is still a charm and beauty to it, but im afraid it’s well on it’s way to being spoiled by commercialism.

Off to Siem Reap in the morning on a Vietnam Airlines flight that I booked here through a travel agent but strangely cannot find on any travel web site, not even the Vietnam Airlines site.


January 11, 2009 - 12:16 am No Comments

After a much-needed full night’s sleep, Doug woke up feeling better and I woke up refreshed. Went to breakfast at a little café around the corner that has wifi.

Lao Breakfast at Cafe 56

While Doug was getting some Internet time, I took a walk down the street and up some steps, finding a wat with a couple of older monks chatting right at the top. I motioned with my camera as if to ask them if I could take pictures, and they gave me a friendly little nod.

Posing Monk

Standing Monk

Giggling Monk

Laughing Monk

The oldest monk seemed to enjoy getting his photo taken, rushing over me to see them on the little screen on my camera after every few shots. He held my arm to get a closer look and giggled as I scrolled through them.

We tried conversing, but he knew no English and I know no Lao. The only thing we truly understood is that we couldn’t understand each other. He seemed really interested in my watch, though, pointing to it and discussing with his friend what he thought all of the numbers and letter meant (I think).

Busy Monk

A few moments later, one of the younger monks came over to me and introduced himself. He spoke a bit of English. His name was Bhun Khung (a guess on the spelling). He was 16 and all smiles, beginning the conversation by asking me if I had a wife and then if I had a girlfriend.

One his friends, Douang Chan, came over to join the conversation. His English was superb. He asked me where I’m from, where I’ve been, and what I’ve seen around Luang Prabang. He’s never been on a plane before, and he’s never seen snow before (which I find hard to believe considering how cold it gets here at night). He studied computers for two years while in school and wants to be a tour guide when he grows up. The wat I was standing in, and their home, is called Wat That Noy.

Douang Chan

Douang Chan and Bhun Khung

I gave both of them a business card, and Douang Chan even wrote down his e-mail address for me. I promised to send him some of the photos I took when I get home. How weird is it that I’m going to send an e-mail to a Buddhist monk?

Bhun Khung Gives Me His Info

I decided to rush back to the café to grab Doug and introduce him to my new friends. I brought him back, introduced them, thanked them for their time, and then set off to explore Luang Prabang with Doug.

We made a quick trip to the Royal Palace Museum but didn’t go in since they charge admission and force you to check all of your bags and expensive camera equipment (no thanks). We visited a few random wats and continued walking through Luang Prabang.

Wat Haw Pha Bang

Inside Wat Haw Pha Bang

Sakkarin, Luang Prabang’s main street, has tourist activity booking and airline ticket offices everywhere. The gaps in between are filled with souvenir shops and mostly mediocre restaurants. Every doorway has the same stained wood signage with gold lettering. And just like in Thailand and Laos, there are stray dogs everywhere. The dogs here have outrageously large nipples.

Looking at the English transliterations of the Lao language on signs and menus, the Lao language looks like a weird mix of Thai, Chinese, Indian, and French. You can definitely see some of the French influence on the signage around town. Some of it has Lao and French but no English.

We stopped for lunch at a little crepe stand on Sakkarin. While the girl was squirting some sauce out of a plastic bottle and onto a crepe, it made a farting noise. Knowing I was watching her, she peered up and I gave her a look. She giggled. Fart humor is universal.

While eating our crepes, a very cute little girl came up to us to sell us bracelets out of the little box hanging from our chest. She asked 47 times, and as much as I wanted to help the little girl, I declined. A young boy, maybe her brother, joined us and realized I was not going to budge. Suddenly, they both started saying “Cookie! Cookie!” and pointing inside the store. I wanted to make the kids happy, so I went into the store. Of course, each of them pointed to the largest party-size box of Oreos they could find, and they each wanted their own box. I told them I would only get them a smaller package and that they would have to share. After some scowls, they accepted. I bought the cookies, they dropped the package into their box, and they skipped out without opening it. I’m thinking they went to sell it for a profit. Pretty smart, these kids.

Kids with Candy and Jewelry

Walking around Luang Prabang are two types of people. You have the younger hippie backpackers wearing the hippie uniform: loosely fitting, minimally patterned, frayed and tattered clothing, and “hey look at me I’m crunchy” dreadlocks. You also have a lot of older guys with big-ass cameras, many of which put mine to shame.

Made it to the tip of the Luang Prabang peninsula to cross the bridge over the Nam Khan River. The bridge was built by a local family and is privately owned, so they charge a small fee to cross. I don’t like contributing to the local economy by buying shitty souvenirs, but if someone has made an effort to improve things for tourists, I’m more than happy to. We crossed over for a quick look at the confluence of the Nam Khan and Mekong rivers.

Nam Khan River Wooden Bridge

Monks at the Bridge

Monk on the Hill

Nam Khan River Kids

Heading back into town, we stopped at Wat Xieng Thong, the oldest and largest in Luang Prabang. Kinda cool.

The Grounds of Wat Xieng Toung

Wat Xieng Toung

Praying Tourist

Then off to climb Phu Si, the hill in the center of town offering a 360 view of the city and the spot Lonely Planet suggested was the best place to watch the sunset. With all my camera gear and oozing knee, the climb up 300 or so steps was a bit grueling. Uncomfortably crammed onto the viewing platform at the top were about 200 other tourists who had the same idea. We had to wedge ourselves between people and hang off a rock to get a decent look at the setting sun.

Mountains of Laos

Buildings of Luang Prabang and the Mekong

Laos Sunset

Then a quick stroll through the Night Market.

T-Shirts at the Night Market

Had larb lao for dinner, which is amazing if you like onions and sprouts. I think I’ve given up on Lao food. We paid for our meal in Thai baht, getting our change in kip, the official currency here in Lao. The kip is more or less worthless. At the current rate of 8500 kip to US$1, meals cost about 30,000 kip (US$3.50), a rum and coke costs about the same. I have a 500 kip bill in my wallet that is worth 6 cents.

After dinner, we headed over to Hive Bar, which played cheesy trance music and was nearly empty. Cheap drinks and an attempt at coolness are worth something, though. By that time, it was very cold outside, so we huddled around the little clay pots with burning coals to heat up before braving the walk back to our guest house. Late at night, the roads of Luang Prabang are cold, quiet, and empty.

Overall, the Lao people seem very friendly and happy, especially the kids. Over the course of the day, we learned the customary Lao greetings, some of which sound a bit Thai:

sabaidee : hello
kop chai lalai : thank you very much
larcone : goodbye
num lai : very beautiful
sep lai : very delicious

Unfortunately, the innocence of the Lao people was slightly tarnished by the sketchy guy offering us weed and a “Lao lady” on our walk back to the guest house.

For tomorrow, we’ve booked a boat ride up the Mekong to see some caves and a half-day trip to waterfalls in the jungle.