Archive for the ‘Laos’ Category

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.

Roosters: Evil

January 10, 2009 - 7:55 am No Comments


At the crack of dawn this morning, a rooster started screaming. Once every ten seconds for about an hour.


Sounded like he was standing right outside our door. I wanted to kill it.


I rifled through my bags in the dark for about 20 minutes looking for my Air France earplugs. Just when I found them, the rooster stopped.

The sound of construction on the other side of our room picked up where the rooster left off. I open the window and see that it is not construction, but a kid banging on a metal spot with a spoon. I wanted to kill him.

For a few moments, the pot-banging would stop, replaced by a man having extreme difficulty clearing his throat. Then, through the front door, hammering. And then, through the window, the sound of somebody wretching. Maybe the same guy who was trying to clear his throat. Now, the rooster is at it again. I am too awake to use the earplugs.


Very chilly this morning. I can see my breath.

Today, we’ll explore Luang Prabang by bicycle, visiting some wats and hiking up the hill in the middle of town called Phu Si (POO-SEE). Add jokes here.

Welcome to Laos!

January 9, 2009 - 11:30 pm No Comments

Just before heading to the airport, Doug and I treated ourselves to another massage at a place recommended by Peter. He told us they were the best massages in Chiang Mai, but the place looked like it was set up in an abandoned dentist’s office on some random back road. The rooms were frigid and smelled like gym socks, and the massages were only mediocre. Doug and I vowed to get at least one more quality massage before we come home.

We got to the airport not having booked any accommodation in Luang Prabang. Since most immigration officials require an intended address while visiting a country, I was starting to get a bit nervous. We fired off a bunch of e-mails to any guest houses that we could find online with the dates we needed to stay and our flight information. One of the guest houses I found was run by a photographer named Paul Wager (take a look, he’s got quality stuff). Even though the positive review about it said that it was not officially open yet, I sent off an e-mail anyway. Just to put something, we picked a random guest house address for our immigration papers.

We boarded our flight and took off. Laos Airlines served us some kind of fried fish sandwich, which wasn’t half bad. In the air, I was a bit stressed about finding a place to stay for the night. Doug was care-free, fumbling with his Rubik’s Cube. After two weeks, he has one side done and almost a second.

Before we knew it, we descended through the clouds and haze, revealing Luang Prabang to be a comfortable town nestled within lush, green mountains. Didn’t really know what to expect. All I know that it was highly recommended by my cousin Eric and a bunch of people who had posted to online forums. Only an hour’s flight from Chiang Mai, we figured why not.

After landing, they let us walk around the tarmac a bit and take pictures. Very cool.

Luang Prabang Airport

Then off to immigration, where I got the shaft for being Canadian. For some reason, Laos visas for people from Canada are more expensive than for any other country in the world. Why?

We walked outside to search for a place with Internet so that I could find a guest house. Standing just outside the door, what do I see but the smiling face of Paul Wager and a big sign with my name on it in his hands. Sometimes it just happens.

Paul let us to his truck and introduced us to his Laotian wife, Joy. On the ride to the guest house, he told us a little about his five years in Laos. He came here, loved it, presumably met his wife, and never left. We started talking photography learned that he’s been published in National Geographic, Travel & Leisure, and other popular magazines. After reminding him that there are a lot of people who want to do what he’s doing, he offered to help me out in any way he can, starting with telling me where to go in Luang Prabang to get the best shots and then giving me advice about how to get established in the industry.

The guest house is in the middle of town. He showed us to our room, smallish but comfortable. He didn’t have any twin rooms left, so Doug and I get to share a rather cozy queen size bed. Doug was overjoyed to find yet another shower head without shower doors in our bathroom.

Paul also lent us a couple of bicycles to get around town. Mine offers no mechanical advantage, has no brakes, and has a pretty little basket on the front if it. We ran out to see the town before it got dark, getting down to the Mekong River just in time for sunset.

River Boats at Dusk

At a restaurant called Yongkhoune, we had some traditional Laos food for dinner (beef and chicken orlam), and neither of us really liked it. Doug, who has been a little under the weather for a few days now, has cramps. There seem to be enough backpackers here to sustain a nightlife, but we’re going to take it easy tonight. Pretty full day tomorrow in Luang Prabang.