Sunday, December 27, 2009

Capsizing On the Mekong, Luang Prabang, Dec 21-28, 2009

For those Laos purists who are scoffing at us for barely having left Luang Prabang, let us reassure you we did venture out into the stunning countryside for day trips. This included day treks, river cruising, kayaking and a disappointing elephant 'trek'. Tours in Asia rarely live up to their billing. Customer safety and satisfaction don't always seem as important as cranking out bodies.

With the elephants, we sensed they weren't especially well treated---it seemed like monotonous pony riding for them. But neither of us had done it before. We have few pictures of it because we tipped over in our kayak on the Mekong River, losing a minor fortune in clothing, stashed cash, sandals, misc. Our fault for not storing everything in the dry bag, but the river had been serene until an unforeseen series of eddys. Of course our guide was nowhere to be seen. Another kayak attempted a rescue but they too tanked. We learned that this is a common occurence among tourists. We were given no instruction, support, or heads up. The kayak would be fine if we were paddling in an oversized swimming pool.

The water pulled us apart as we watched our valueables float away. They weren't anything that couldn't be replaced and no one was hurt. Eventually we righted the kayak, and the guide pulled Trish who drifted off but, was super cool throughout, to shore.

Had we been anywhere less blissful, had we not had 2 superb weeks in a row, had we not been without a few short weeks home, we might've been more upset. Just another priceless memory. By the way, did we mention how much WE LOVED LUANG PRABANG?

Last shots of Luang Prabang:

Kuang Si waterfall:

Minority villages:

Elephant 'trek':

(elephant skin is like tough old leather, with thick prickly hairs)

Seaweed farming (the seaweed is dried, and sold to be fried as a snack):

Sunset on the Mekong River:

Kayaking the Nam Ou River:

Favorite Food:
It's 6:30a.m, I bypass Luang Prabang's main tourist drag to escape the legions of photographers, and await the silent procession of monks on a quiet street leading back to the temples. A women slops a thin white gruelly mix of rice paste onto a hot, round griddle over a wood fire. She then spoons in ground pork, chopped green onions and herbs, then flips it over and into itself, forming noodle rolls. The monks march by as she then tops the rice rolls with a peanut sauce, fried scallions, and a side of chilli. My grandmother made a plainer version of this more than 40yrs ago. Then as now, they melted in my mouth, and neither cook could keep up with repeated requests for more.

Next: Chiang Mai, Thailand

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Monk Watch 2009, Luang Prabang, Laos Dec 21-28, 2009

For backpacking adventure types, Laos is the holy grail. Within that you have Luang Prabang, the UNESCO-ed historic capital of Laos, Land of A Million Elephants (now down to 2000 in the wild). It all sounds remote, exotic and largely removed from western trappings. But to say Luang Prabang represents Laos is like saying New York is the US, or Toronto is Canada.

Then you realize you are in one of the most devastatingly beautiful settings and delicious places in Asia, if not the world. It's almost impossible to not be seduced by the allure and serenity of this tranquil setting.

But the monks could be no more pious and sanctimonious than their western brethren. They aren't Dali Lama wannabees by and large. I've seen them smoke, chew gum, yak away on cellphones and overload motorbikes. They enter and leave the community at will, sometimes after months, or years, preparing for life. Some stay forever. Some move on to day jobs if they're lucky to get one.

We used up our entire allotment of time in Laos here. We came to familiarize ourselves with the daily rhythms of the monks---morning temple drums, followed by the alms, the afternoon bells and chanting, chore times then free time.

Then the $5 massages and primo food and new friends (Mark from Germany, Kris and Ron from Portland) also got to us....we got very, very comfortable.

For Xmas, we participated in the dawn giving of alms. Locals and the odd traveller kneel as hundreds of monks silently walk along the road with containers which we fill with food, usually sticky rice. The locals see this as fire insurance should they not move on in their next stage of evolution. For us it was the perfect Xmas, removed from the trappings of the season, but still able to feel a sense of giving.

Laos By the Numbers:

$2200............avg GDP per person
5......................number of countries that surround it
6,000,000.....population, smallest in SEA
1.......................dubious ranking of most bombed country in the world expectancy

Favourite Food:

Fresh fish stuffed with pork and herbs roasted in banana leaf...everything is cooked with fresh herbs

Friday, December 18, 2009

Angkor Wat, Siem Reap, Dec 15-21, 2009

We expect Siem Reap to be a bigger dump than Phnom Penh. Again Cambodia surpises us. It's buffed clean and built up with western money, largley because of the magnetic pull of Angkor Wat. It's compact and navigatable, loads of amenities (eg 2hr oil massage with mini facial for $16--sheer heaven) and is so easy that we extend our stay by 3 nights. Trish absoutely fell in love with this magical ancient city, with its tree lined streets and all the jungly crumbly ruins.

The many temples are the world's largest religious complex, twice the size of Manhattan --spread over miles and miles of flat plain and thick jungle. Construction started around the 11th century by King Suryavarman as an ode to Vishnu. Most tourists hire tuk tuk drivers for days to take them around. But it cannot be adequately described in pictures or words. It stokes the imagination, enthralling you with its grandeur yet also humbles your soul like no other natural or man made sight or place we have seen. The stone work is intricate and complex at times, other times it is simply and uniformly constructed. The water management system is centuries ahead of anything Europe conceived of.

In many cases the star is the jungle which ensnarls the ruins, as roots of massive trees gnarl their way into and around them, such as at Ta Prohm (think Indiana Jones or Tomb Raiders):

We also prefer the ones less frequented by the mass tour groups, such as the atmospheric Preah Khan Temple with its crumbly, wild feel:

Prasat Neak Prean:

And of course Bayon, with the 216 faces of King Jayarvarman VII:

The Cambodian/Khmer are likely the most heartwarming people we've met so far. We suspect their adherence to buddhism makes this possible. Sure scams and tourist plays exist, and only a few years ago people walked around armed. But the humbleness, and sincerity we've seen, set them apart from the entrepeneurial, wealth is heaven-ways of China and Vietnam. This is italicized by the many NGOs, and expats who came for visits or service work, who now call Cambodia home. We have ambivalent ideas about missionary and service approaches to aid, yet it's also inspiring at times. We went to several fundraisers spearheaded by expats and were brought to tears. But we wonder if the overly que sera que sera way of life disinhibits local leadership and self empowerment.

Someday, we'd like to return....who's up for it?

Favourite food:

Chicken satay (a joy to find tender,juicy chicken again) and fresh shrimp rolls (meatier, thicker paper than most) at the Blue Pumpkin, and the Masala Dosa (in your face flavour and spice) at the South Indian restaurant at Claremont Angkor Hotel

Cambodia by the numbers:

3.37......birth rate

55.........infant mortality rate per 1000

95.........per cent who are Theravada Buddhists

80.......percentage of people living off the land/water....averaging daily wages of $0.60

Next: Luang Prabang, Laos

Thursday, December 17, 2009

A Man For All Countries--Phnom Penh, Dec 12-15, 2009

Phnom Penh, Cambodia - Dec 12-15, 2009

First impressions of Phnom Penh aren't great. We arrive at night, our hotel pick up isn't there, the tuk tuk drivers swarm us like piranhas, putrid smelling garbage and litter dominate the streets like no other Asian city we've seen, and one of the hardest things to deal with appears---child beggars and street vendors. Wayne also hadn't told me Cambodia has the highest HIV rates in Asia, and the street scene can be particularly edgy.

But with no expectations, and me out of gas and already scraping rock bottom with travel fatigue, hidden gems appear. The people. They are warm, courteous and humble. After weeks of never feeling we were on solid ground dealing with some of the locals in Vietnam, our warning light suddenly shuts itself off.

Wayne blends in like a chameleon. In China he was mistaken for a local, often with mixed blessings. In Vietnam he was taken to be my guide. So he learned numbers, and how to say, 'how much' and 'too expensive', so he could get away with decent prices--sometimes. Even here in Cambodia where most locals are darker skinned, he has been mistaken as a local. It seems everybody wants to claim Wayne as their own. One foreigner even thought he was a vendor. With his few phrases of Khmer, he pulls of decent prices, though this isn't the land of the eternal hustle like Vietnam. Wayne offers me a, 'Get out of jail free' card in the form of an early return. My aunt Vee is dying, I know it's ripping my mom apart and I feel I should be there. But I suspect both mom and Vee would want me to continue, being great adventurers themselves. So we soldier on.

We hire a tuk tuk (100cc motorbike hauling 2 wheeled passenger carriage) driver named Tom, who is so humble and laid back we think it's a language and cultural barrier at first. But his English is solid. He doesn't push money, merely tells us to pay him afterwards what we think a day of his services is worth. This is a green light so we wind up hiring him for two days. During this time we get to know him. A high school grad with lost aspirations to be a doctor, he has to content himself hustling fares. A great day is $15. A very decent year might be $2000. He drops $750 a year on school fees for his girls Petra and Sopheary, ages 9 and 12.

Cambodia is a place with unfathomable human contrasts, and irony. We visit Tuol Sleng Museum, a former high school, and one of detention and torture chambers of the Khmer Rouge during their genocidal reign of terror--1975-1978. At the ticket booth, advertisements flogging an Indian restaurant greet us. This in a place where 100 people were brutally killed daily.

Group shackles:

Rules of the Tuol Sleng Prison (translated)

We move onto the primitive torture and interrogation rooms, and scan the grisly photo displays of the many victims.

Little songbirds playfully fly in and out of the former cells, in sharp contrast to the sobering legacy of the building.

A sharply divergent experience to this is the Royal Palace which still houses the King, a largely ceremonial position. Here we learn how venerated the cobra is as a protector, how layered roofs are designed to replicate the scales of cobras and their tails pointing to the sky.

We follow this with a trip to one of the killing fields, Choeung Ek. One of the most popular of destinations for tourists, it's set in a quiet, lush rural landscape of farms and green hues. A nearby school with the most innocent of sounds, children singing shadows, in fact adds a thick measure of sombreness to our movements.

An enormous stupa with 17 levels of clothing, skulls and bones greets all visitors. Despite the macabreness of piles of skulls, it is a tasteful and moving homage to the 20,000 souls who were, or are still buried in mass graves here.

A peaceful walk through the grounds takes us to these empty pits. Along the way we pass the tree used to crush the heads of baby skulls, the mass grave of scores of headless bodies, and the 'Magic Tree' used to hang speakers playing propaganda slogans so loud as to drown out the cries and moans of those dying. Almost everybody was killed by hand with simple farming tools, bamboo canes, knives....this wasn't the sophisticated, systemic killing machine of the Nazi, in fact I think this is even more grisly and it became friends killing friends, neighbour on neighbours, comrades on comrades.
It's a chilling, but necessary experience for us.
Magic Tree, where speaker blasted to hide cries of dying, with Stupa in background and empty mass graves throughout:

Phnom Penh is a dump, no doubt about it. But it offers respite in the form of decent, decent food as we tend to frequent restaurants that have taken in and trained street kids in the hospitality trade. These almost always cater to expats and tourist, but the food is great. And the people are either unfailing polite and courteous, or have a lost, aimless look, especially the children. Malnutrition, perhaps? Again, the contrasts and irony of Cambodia (so far).

We end three memorable days giving an English lesson to Tom's girls in their two-room concrete abode on the edge of town. The girls are adorable, and though they have some English vocabulary, they couldn't conjugate a verb any better than we could in Khmer. It was refreshing meeting decent people without a hustle up their sleeve.

Favourite meal:
Homemade yogurt with homemade granola with fresh mango and papaya at the Garden Centre Cafe. A close second was the fried noodle salad with tofu and sweet potato spring rolls at Romdeng.

Cambodia By the Numbers:

57.........years of life expectancy
67.........literacy rate
13 mill...population

For Wayne Ng's latest travel adventures and book "Finding the Way: A Novel of Lao Tzu", please go to his website and blog at: ...