A Travellerspoint blog

Laos Part 2

Hello again from SE Asia. I am safely back in Thailand after possibly the most dangerous and foolish thing I have ever done, but more on that in a second.

Laos was lovely, laid back, and calm. The people were friendly, the country isn’t overly touristed (even in Luang Prabang, which is THE tourist spot in the country), and up in the north, the weather was cool.

Luang Prabang is the culmination of 3000 years plus of history. Located up towards the golden triangle (that area made famous in later years by opium cultivation), and along the Mekong, the site was visited by Burmese, Indian, Chinese, Thai, Cambodian and just about every other nation in the area’s traders since people around here first loaded up a pack animal and set off. Because of its central location, Lunag Prabang flourished, and grew quite large. Over the years the mini-empires in the area came and went and the city was influenced by all of them, until finally the French arrived and left their mark. Then the US got involved in this part of the world, but Luang Prabang was too far off the beaten path to be relevant in any military conflict in the east, and so it just sat and waited to be rediscovered. It wasn’t abandoned by any means, but it did not really progress much since the fall of Indochina. Thus when I found it, the place was French colonial, but with Laos influences, a small hill-tribe village, but alpine French all at the same time. Plus they have the Mekong. Quaint doesn’t do it justice, nor does lovely, although it was both of those things as well. Unesco was correct to make it a international heritage site.

My first day, staggering bleary eyed from my hotel, had me walk past several saffron clad monks, an old Citroen, open air food stalls selling all manner of things that Laos people eat (some of which are quite good, while others would make you think at least twice), a bar and two internet cafes. As I got to the second bar, I ran into several people I had seen on the bus the day before from Vang Vieng, and I was invited over for a beerlao and breakfast.

After I was introduced to the various new people, I was invited to go with them (we were 8) on a tuk-tuk ride out 35Km or so to a huge waterfall that was supposed to be excellent. As I had little else planned for my day, I gladly accepted, and away we went.

Within 5 Km of our trip, we were in the middle of no place. The pavement ended, the jungle crept up to within a few feet on either side of us, and all signs of civilization vanished, with the exception of an odd hut here and there. We drove along, over a rutted and muddy road for almost an hour, with dust flying up behind us as we went, when suddenly I could smell the water. Living in NYC, one doesn’t get many chances to experience this. In the more arid places my trip has taken me, I am always struck by how far from the water I can be and yet still sense it was there.

The climb up the hill to the falls was eased dramatically by the availability of 750ml beerlaos at the bottom, and once we summitted, we agreed we were wise to have made it out there. The falls were big- maybe 250 feet high, multileveled, with two collecting pools- one at the mid point, one at the bottom- that one could wade in. Surrounded by the jungle, lined with wild flowers of a size and type I’d never seen before, the place was special. We spent several hours taking in the sights in the area, climbing near the mid point of the falls, and generally enjoying the fact that the sun was shining but it wasn’t 140 degrees, before filing back into the tuk-tuk and heading into town again. We got on so well as a group that we met up for dinner that night, and the following, before we scattered to the winds.

Some went north into the wilds of Laos, others back south to the party scene, but 4 of us, myself and 3 brits, decided we would meet in Chiang Mai, Thailand in two days. This was where I get back to the stupid, dangerous part. In order for me to get to Thailand in time, I could either fly (too mundane) or take the 7 hour "Fast" boat up the Mekong to Huay Xai, and then take the ferry across the river to Chang Khong, Thailand, before catching a bus south to Chiang Mai. Personally, I had preferred to take the "slow" boat, which takes two days, but my travel companion for this leg of my wander, Kath, had her heart set on getting there in a hurry, and its been my experience that given the choice, when crossing international borders in remote places of the world, its always good to go with someone else, if for no other reason then to allow for someone to report what happened to my body, should I vanish. Thus, "Fast" boat it was.

I am SO lucky I am alive. Everything I knew about the fast boat trip screamed danger- loads of accidents, lack of safety precautions, etc., but I was totally unprepared for the trip. 6 of us, plus the driver, loaded into a 25` long, 3` wide, long-tail boat, with all of our bags strapped to the front end. We were squeezed in pairs into spaces perhaps 2` by 3`, set directly on the floor of the boat, perhaps 4" above the waterline and bounded front and back with low planks which came to just the small of the back, making leaning backwards impossible. We were given crash helmets and life jackets and away we went. Rapidly. With a top speed of perhaps 40 mph, the boat rocketed up the river, being tossed about by the wake of other boats, the mild class 1 and 2 rapids in the river, and even a strong breeze. Since the boat drafted in perhaps 6 inches of water, there was little of the boat that would have held us upright had we lost control. It is no stretch to say that even the slightest wave would have tipped the boat had we hit it wrong. Several times, we managed to get the boat most of the way out of the water, at high speed, before crashing back down into the brown muddy water of the Mekong.

We stopped 3 times, twice for bathroom breaks and once for lunch. The final two stops were made at floating markets, basically large houseboats set in the river down the hill from a village. Needless to say, I was pleased to arrived in Thailand, and after falling into the nearest guesthouse and having a quick bite, I passed out.

It wasn’t really until morning that I was aware of the differences present being back in Thailand. First, the roads were paved. Even in the backwater berg of Chang Khong, all the streets were well paved. Street lights were common, as was lighting for stores. My tour book told me that there were even ATMs, something I hadn’t seen since flying out of Bangkok (Cambodia nor Laos has any). It was positively civilized.

After a slow start, we caught a bus for Chiang Mai, sat back and enjoyed the fact that I didn’t have to go near a boat for a while.

Now I am in Chiang Mai, having arrived on a long, but not unpleasant bus trip yesterday. Today is a chill out day (two days of traveling, even if I only went 500 miles, in this part of the world can be rough), and tomorrow I start to explore.

hope all is good at home....

Posted by Daver141 08:50 Comments (0)

China from the Wall

Happy New Year to all of you. I am safely back in sunny Bangkok after giving the Chinese government ample chance to lock me up. I figured I’d give them a sporting chance... At the time of my last message, I was in Guilin in southern China, having arrived in the dark from Thailand. After the warmth of all of the rest of SE Asia, the coolness of Guilin (it was in the 50s) was nice. Guilin was a relatively big town, maybe 5 million people, but is small by Chinese standards. I spent 3 days there, seeing the sights, getting my bearings on China, finding that my ATM card didn’t work here, etc., before heading down the Li river about 75km to Yangshuo. While in Guilin I did get to the red flute caves, a series of limestone caves that run for miles just outside the city. Used as bomb shelters during WWII, some of the caverns are huge, capable of holding hundreds of westerners (or thousands of Chinese). The government has turned the place into a kind of light show, casting some of the structures in rock concert style colored lighting. I hope some of my pictures do the place justice.

Once in Yangshuo, I found a hotel (it is low season and so beds were easy to find), and set out exploring. Like Guilin, Yangshuo is located on the banks of the Li river, and has odd but lovely limestone hills that randomly rise a few hundred meters out of the ground for no reason. Standing alone, steep, vertical sided, covered completely in green plants and bamboo, they resemble in some cases camel humps. Along the river they are much more common, appearing almost like a mountain range they are so close together.

Where Yangshuo differs from Guilin is in the size and nature of the place. Guilin is a city, albeit laid back. Yangshuo is a medium sized town, mainly a tourist destination for those who know of it. Most of the place is contained within a pizza slice of land with the river for a crust. Lined with shops and restaurants, one can easily pass an afternoon (or several) strolling to the river and back. Close in to the river is a place called (aptly enough) "Foreigner Street" lined with a few western bars and restaurants. Having found a website for the area before I arrived, I had heard of one of the bars, Buffalo Bar, and upon stumbling across it, found that I was there every day. Quite a den of the lowest kind it was, and so I naturally felt right at home.

I managed to get out on a bike for a time while there and took a river cruise, seeing the locals living mostly as they had for centuries- cormorant fisherman still working the rivers for fish, using the birds to do the hard work, terraced fields of rice being cleared by hand or by buffalo. It was really quite incredible. From there, I packed it up and headed back to Guilin and then on to Shanghai. I highly suggest those of you inclined to travel get there when you get a chance.

The train trip to Shanghai wasn’t bad, but wasn’t at all what I had bargained for. For starters, I thought that the trip was going to be 25 hours, and turned out to be closer to 30. Second, I figured I would splurge and get a soft sleeper (Chinese trains have 4 basic classes- Hard Seat (I was warned not to even consider this option for a ride of more than 3 hours), Soft Seat, Hard Sleeper, and Soft Sleeper), but when the train arrived I discovered it was a hard sleeper that I’d gotten. As usual in my wanderings, I rolled with it and found my way to my berth. Hard Sleepers aren’t bad (certainly by Indian standards)- a series of open compartments bisected at one end by a common hallway that runs the length of the car. Each compartment has 6 beds, 3 on either wall running across the car. I luckily had the bottom bunk, which afforded the most head room. Random aside- The Chinese, as most of us know, are not large people, but I was surprised to see that they were not nearly as small as I imagined they might be. True, the older generations (especially any person likely to have a picture of Mao hanging in their house, boat, etc.) are, but those of the modern generation are much bigger, and 6 foot tall people were not uncommon.

I shared my ride with 3 women, none of whom spoke more than 2 words of English, but we managed to communicate on the basics. I had brought food, as had they, and at meal times we had feasts. I couldn’t help but feel that I was back in college for a time as the major staple for all of us, despite the chips and fruit, was ramen noodles, cooked with hot water provided in every car. These were fancy compared to what I was used to (at least one cup I had contained 3 seasoning packets and a fold up fork), but cup-o-noodles are the same regardless. Needless to say, when I arrived in Shanghai and after my shower, a real meal was in order.

Along the way north, aside from my Suduko puzzles (I am officially an addict), I had lots of time to look out the window. There was building going on everywhere, and factories seemed to be the number one creation. I can report that all the things people say about the Chinese economy and its growth appear to be true. My advice is to learn Mandarin ASAP, cause they are coming, at it could be next week...

Shanghai marked the luxury portion of my travels, as I was scheduled to meet up with my folks for a 2 week tour of China and Hong Kong. Thus, the hotel where I stayed the first night, and where my folks were meeting me the next day, was much much much much much much much fancier then anyplace I’d been in quite some time. This wasn’t the Plaza or anything, but after $10 a night places and 30 hours of ramen noodles in a small train car, I felt like I’d found paradise.

Shanghai is a big place- our guide told us that there are 20 million people who live there, and while I didn’t explore it as much as I would have liked (tour groups, especially for the older set are like that) I can confirm that there are many, many, many Chinese people there. The city sits along the Huangpu river, a strip of muddy brown water that is somehow connected to the Yangtze. It looks much like Times Square, huge buildings of interesting shapes and sizes, garishly lit by tons of neon. Shanghai is a western city, full of as many western fashions and foods as one could want (I even walked past a Ferrari dealer). In many ways, despite the cultural revolution, shanghai must be -in spirit mainly- much as it was when the French, Brits, and international communities all had pieces of the place. It was quite a change from Guilin.

Once the tour started, I was ferried around by bus (stopping often for meals), and was taken to lots of shopping spots and a few cultural ones as well. We flew from Shanghai to Wuhan, took a bus to Sichuan, and boarded a boat which was to take us to ChungQuing past several hundred miles (and one big dam) up the Yangtze. The trip was like most of the cruises I have been on, although I did learn to play Ma-Jong. The Dam, the infamous 3 gorges dam, was quite a sight. They are still building the thing, which stretches more than a mile across the river. It is supposed to generate about 3% of the nation’s power when finished (it was supposed to be 15%, but Chinese power demands have grown so fast in the 10+ years of building, that its down to 3%- told you Shanghai had lots of neon...).

For me, and many other liberal leaning peoples, the real story for the dam is the impact it is having. Aside from just about wiping out at least two species of animals- the Yangtze dolphin and Chinese Sturgeon, the Chinese have had to move more than 1 million people from their homes because when the dam is finished, it will raise water levels by more than 150 meters (think almost 175 yards). Everywhere along the upstream river are marks and signs of where the water will rise to. Under that line, aside from the the people, most of whom are poor farmers who have lived on their pieces of land for quite some time, are at least 100 major historical sites, all of which will drown. It was strange to take a boat past 500 year old pagodas and even older burial sites, some of which well over my head up the mountainside and think that in a few years, they will be gone. That’s progress... I guess.

At the end of the boat ride, we got off in ChungQing, a city of 30 million, and flew on to Xi`an, home to the Qin dynasty’s Terracotta warriors. It was here that I saw my first snow of this winter- a few flurries which didn’t stick, but still, it was snow, and here that the cold finally convinced me that it was winter someplace. The Warriors, built by the first Chinese emperor, are quite a sight. There are thousands of them, some in almost perfect condition, others in pieces, lined in military perfect ranks for at least 200 yards in 3 separate chambers. Each one is unique- no two faces are the same. That they were made in the first century BC is even more crazy.

The guy who ordered it done, the first emperor, is a guy who probably should be more famous then he is. He unified the 6 nations that had been China to that point, linking them in an empire that lasted longer (more than 1900 years) then any other. He unified the language, currency, and weights and measures. He created a civil service that lasted until the rise of the Commies, and linked the pieces of the Great Wall that had been built to that point, stretching them for 3000 miles. In other words, he was busy.

After Xi`an, it was on to Beijing for NYE, the Wall, and the Forbidden City. The last two were awesome places (the Wall for me especially- as it marked the 3rd of the existing Wonders of the ancient world (assuming one doesn’t count Bodkin) I have now seen (the Pyramids and Taj Mahal the other two)) but what I enjoyed most was walking through the old city near its center. Beijing, like the rest of China is modernizing in a hurry, Beijing especially because of the 08 Olympics. To the Chinese, this seems to mean that anything that is over 30 years old needs to be destroyed in place of something else. Considering the Chinese population size, and the fact that land is at a premium (most Chinese are cremated, but those of the old school who believe in reincarnation and insist on burial (they think a body must be intact to move on) rent plots from the government for a period of 4-5 years after death, just long enough to start a new life. Then the body is dug up and cremated and a new body in put in that space), one can understand how they are interested in using the space they have.

Still, there was a time when Beijing was an old world city, small buildings (there was a law for the longest time which said that no building could be as tall at the 30+ meter palace in the Forbidden City) and narrow streets. Most families lived in small houses on a common private square. With the rise of the communists, the squares were paved over and lived in, but still, the neighborhoods were quite a sight.

From Beijing, it was on to Hong Kong for 4 days before I sent my folks packing and I went back south where it was warm. After the repression of China- certain internet sites blocked and 0 porn just as two examples, Hong Kong was wild. I stayed on Kowloon, one of the two more popular areas, Hong Kong Island being the other, but mainly for business. Hong Kong is like Canal Street- Anything one wants, any time of day, can be had. The food was good (I was in the land of the Pork Bun after all) and the fast ferry rides to HK island and Macau were lovely.

Now I am back in Thailand for the final 2 weeks of my trip. I am headed down south to get some more Scuba Diving in, and then I will be back in the states on the 20th. Hope all of you have enjoyed my blog, I will try and upload some more pictures in a day or two, but if not, I will be happy to bore all of you with the whole lot once I get back stateside.

Posted by Daver141 08:56 Archived in China Comments (0)

Digging to China

So I made China. Guilin to be specific. It is pretty cold here (not NYC temps, but after 80 plus in Bangkok, 48 or 9 seems pretty cold). China is much like I imagined it, at least based upon the little piece of it I have seen thus far. The drive from the airport was about 35km, on a lovely, flat highway worthy of any interstate in the States. After Laos, Cambodia and India particularly, it was a nice change. I had a female cab driver (something I hadn’t seen anyplace else) who took the liberty of hauling ass (maybe 70 or 75 mph) down the road while chatting away on her cell phone.

I arrived at my hotel ( I had booked ahead, I have made a habit of doing so for the first place in a new country) and found it to be big and well staffed. The desk staff and travel office people spoke little English, but I managed to get checked in and book my train ticket for Shanghai for the 21st (I hope). I found my room to be clean and nice, what one might get in a Hyatt or Marriott in the states, and I settled in with my book of Sodoku puzzles, and surfed the TV channels. Only 2 were in English, the "most" interesting being a news, general info station. I gained some insight to this place when the news spoke of a concert by one of the most popular singers in China, a man described as "for the ages"- Michael Bolton. I admit a laughed out loud.

I awoke this morning, and went down for the breakfast that came with my room. Done buffet style, it had some dishes to which I was familiar, and others that LOOKED like things I knew, but weren’t. It was like dim sum, kinda.

I went for a walk this morning, looking for an ATM, as I couldn’t buy Yuan in Bangkok, and the place at the airport only took the last $60 of my travelers checks, leaving me needing some $ to live on. Credit is not commonly used in China apparently, and while my hotel took visa, they didn’t like the AMEX. The walk from the hotel was greeted by what one might expect from china- lots of bikes being ridden to work (or wherever). The roads are wide, lined with tall neon lit buildings and ads. Traffic was orderly after the rest of SE Asia and India, and they drive on the right here, as they do at home (or so I recall). I managed to find an ATM, only to discover that my bank card doesn’t seem to work in China, and so I will be living off Cash advances from my credit cards for a while. Luckily for me, Chinese law allows foreigners to withdraw 2000 Yuan a day (about 350$)...

I had planned to wander a bit, and see more places, but I am going to extend my hotel stay here at least one more day, hole up and rest, and then decide how adventurous I feel when I am not sure where I am going, can’t ask anyone, and have little idea if and when I’ll be able to find any more $$. Just the same, I am in good spirits, the weather is lovely, there are sights to be seen here, and the hotel can get me a car and English speaking driver. Worse case, I stay here and then wander up to Shanghai to meet my folks on the 23rd.

Posted by Daver141 08:51 Archived in China Comments (0)

Laos Part 1

Howdy all, I am in Laos, just arrived in Luang Prabang. I haven’t really explored yet (the bus from Vang Vieng was 8 hours instead of the expect 4), so I will report in on that in a few days.

When last we left our inept hero, I was in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Originally, my plan had been to go back to Bangkok and then go into Vietnam before crossing the Chinese border in time to meet my folks in Shanghai just before Christmas. Instead, due mainly to the plain pain-in-the-assness of the Chinese, I had to change plans as I must be in China by Dec. 15 or my visa is invalid. Thus, rather than try and squeeze all of Vietnam into two weeks, and based upon the glowing reviews of Laos, I came here instead.

I thought for a time about crossing over the Cambodian-Laos border, but I decided against it. I didn’t have a Laos visa and wasn’t sure I could get one at the Cambodian border (it apparently isn’t an official International checkpoint, and while I liked the mental image of me taking the fast boat across the Mekong and paying the $1-$3 bribes to the border official, the image of me either being stuck forever in no-man’s land between the two, or Laos prison, seemed less rosy. Thus I decided to fly.

I flew from Siem Reap Intl Airport to Vientiane by way of Pakse Laos aboard a puddle jumper. One has not lived (or nearly died) until one has done something like this in Asia. On the positive side, Asian air services believe that an in-flight meal is standard for all flights, regardless of their duration, and so the stewardess hustled to get the 50 passengers a full meal in the 40 minutes of air time.

Some basic things about Laos.:

First, it is yet another SE Asia country that we felt we should carpet bomb during our military phase around here. Apparently, Laos served as the place where bombers who failed to drop a full payload in Vietnam shot their load (so to speak). In fact, and this I found surprising, Laos is (per capita) the most heavily bombed country of all time. We spend almost $2 mil a day on bombs we dropped here. They have a MAJOR UXO (unexploded ordinance) problem here.

On the positive side, Laos has few people, and much of the places the GIs dropped bombs, nobody lived (lives, will live). Remote jungle and mountains mostly. Having now driven by bus halfway across this country, I can safely say (perhaps with the benefit of hindsight) that there was NO WAY we were ever going to win a war here. Aside from the area right around Vientiane and down the Mekong Valley, Laos is jungle and mountain, and usually both. Imagine West Virginia or Tennessee covered in swamp, heavy overgrowth, steep mountains, and no roads. Now add all manner of bugs and animals that will kill a man in a very unpleasant way on occasion, and otherwise make him wish he were someplace more hospitable (like Patterson, NJ). That is what much of Laos is like. I don’t mean to make it sound bad, it isn’t, but there is no way US or anybody else’s ground forces would be able to determine friend from foe (or even north from south) around here.

Second, it is the first country I have been to where they fly the hammer and sickle. Its kinda cool actually...

I spent 2 days in Vientiane, the capital, before deciding I’d seen enough. Its small. Very small. The bars close at 11pm. On the positive side, they have 0 street crime. I covered it all in one day, but decided I didn’t want to pack my bag back up so soon, so I stayed and wandered the streets some more. The Laos people are lovely. Friendly, laid back, quick to smile, not big into the hard sell, they really are a treat.

They were preparing for the 30th anniversary of the communist takeover as I was there and so the streets were lined with colorful lights. The stroll along the Mekong, past the night markets, with a view of Thailand across the water was a great pleasure. Just the same, I’d come to Laos mainly so I could see Luang Prabang, which is an Unesco world heritage site, and thus I had to be getting on up old highway 13 into the north.

The trip, about 300km, is a long one. Despite the fact that rte 13 is probably THE highway here (it connects the two biggest tourist points) the road is narrow, the mountains steep, the security situation a tad spotty at times and the buses as well. Thus, I was told to expect the trip from Vientiane to Luang Prabang to take at least 8 hours even though this was the dry season. In light of this, I decided (like many others making the trip) to stop off in Vang Vieng, almost the midpoint, for a day or two.

I took a minibus for the 4 hour trip, and arrived in the early afternoon. Vang Vieng has three claims to fame. First is the aforementioned natural break in the road trip one. Second is the fact that tubing on the Nam Song river has become the rage as the water is not too deep, and had some class 1 and weak class 2 rapids. Third, is the fact that it is perhaps the easiest place in accessible Asia to get opium. This last reason had no appeal to me, but I figured (rightly so) that such a place with a decent flow of western traffic, would be chill and laid back and not too wild west-y. I also thought I’d get on the river for a day.

When I arrived, I walked down one of the three main streets to the river and found myself a lovely (but basic) room with a balcony overlooking the river for $10, and a stern warning in almost every common area about bringing opium into the hotel.

After showering (try riding in a non-ac minibus with 25 of your closest strangers for 4 hours in 80+ degrees and constant road dust), I went to explore the town. Really there isn’t much. There are dozens of guesthouses, bars and restaurants along the main drags, and some on the river, but the biggest business (besides the drugs) is village treks in the outskirts and river activities. I found a lovely bar/restaurant on an island in the middle of the river (I had to cross a lovely but iffy bamboo foot bridge to get there), and settled down in a thatch and bamboo covered platform to have lunch and watch the world go by.

The view was unreal. The town is smack in the middle of a mountain range, the likes of which I’d never seen in person before. Rather than being a series of peaks connected by foothills, these mountains were freestanding. Made of limestone, they had been eroded away into all manner of different odd shapes, almost all of which was covered in dense vegetation. They ran off into the distance, some larger, others smaller, all seemingly part of some giant slumbering animal’s scales. In the foreground was the river, running right to left. It was narrow before me (perhaps 35 yards across) and quick moving, but just a few yards further upstream it widened and slowed. Downstream another bamboo bridge could be seen with some bars as a backdrop.
Every so often a tube or rubber kayak would go past, or a fan tailed motor boat. Locals forded the river back and forth, carrying goods or fishing in the river.

In keeping with my belief that the town would be laid back, the sign above the bar said "Should you want to smoke Marijuana, please ask bartender if it ok, as sometimes the police comes. He will tell you OK or not." Just next to it was written "Please no take picture of sign."

I was being good and so I sat and drank my BeerLao (which is lovely should anyone ever stumble across some) but the two Japanese guys in the next hut weren’t. They must have smoked 4 bomber joints in the 2 hours they were there. Sitting in the sunshine and watching the river, they seemed pleased to be alive.

For whatever reason, after dinner I decided I’d head further up the road today and so booked an onward bus ticket. I had breakfast overlooking the river and listening to a Jack Johnson Cd (he is somewhat of a hot item in this part of the world) and then got on the bus. 8 hours and 2 tire changes later I arrived. The trip itself was amazing, despite the holdups. The road runs through the mountains, twisting and turning as it goes. It runs through many small villages, some of which looked like they might have for generations. Rice and red chilies were being dried in the sun on or near thatched houses. Naked babies chased chickens and ducks around the dusty lots. If I had a nickel for every amazing picture I’d missed taking as I sped by it in a car or bus during my various trips in Asia, I’d have quite a bit by now, but this piece of the world was particularly picturesque. Green and peaceful, with stately mountains and steep valleys, it was something to behold. I hope some of the pictures I have taken here do the place justice. I have another 10 days....

Posted by Daver141 08:47 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

Angkor Where?

Howdy all, happy belated turkey day to you all. I trust none of you were injured in the parade... I had dinner on the 24th with two Californians. We had Khmer food and watched Thai boxing.

I am in Siem Reap Cambodia, in the north west, home of the Angkor Wat temples. I have been here since the 21st, and I have been out exploring every day. I cannot speak for you guys, but I knew NOTHING about Angkor before I left (I hadn’t even seen Tomb Raider, which apparently is shot here). As such, I was completely amazed by this place. The temples, built from the end of the 8th to the middle of the 13th century sprawl over a 75Km area, but the most impressive are clustered within two walled compounds just a few minutes motorcycle ride out of Siem Reap. In fact, Angkor Wat itself (there is a picture I posted of it at sunrise) is the largest religious building ever built. Sadly, like every other site to be found in the 3rd world, the temples are slowly being wiped away by a lack of care and by too many people climbing over them.

The town itself is just the byproduct of the tourism to the temples, but is still remote enough to not be a total trap.

I am staying at a hotel run by Swedes which seems to attract eco-aware guests-people who have come over more to help at the local children’s hospital than see the temples. As a result, I have been steered to some of the more remote temple sites so that I might take in the Cambodian countryside in the process. Thus, after the first two days where I saw Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, and my personal favorite, "The Jungle Temple" -which has been reclaimed by the jungle to the point that trees, some 40 feet tall have grown from the tops of buildings and walls, I wandered out into the sticks.

Cambodia is still very rural, with the quality of roads depending largely on the rain the area gets during the wet season and the proximity of the area to tourist sites. Thus, even as I got further from the beaten track, going from smooth blacktop to hardpan to rutted dirt, I was told by my driver that there were many worse roads to be ridden. Given the choice, I think I’ll pass.

The trip out and back was a good way for me to see more of traditional Khmer living, past the houses on stilts, the rice paddies, the sugar palms. Nowhere did I see any signs of the upheaval that must have occurred when the Khmer Rouge ran the country, but I was told that several of the temples had either been damaged or destroyed during the purges. Combined with the fact that one is able to crawl over and around and through everything on the temples, touch intricate carvings and lettering, it is amazing that any of it survives at all.

Also on the trip back, I got to see the government at work. Bridges in Cambodia are a hit or miss thing, with the quality of them almost always poor. The two exceptions are the Japanese and Thai friendship bridges in Phnom Penh, which were built by foreigners. Otherwise, one is lucky to find paving, or even a solid roadbed, and collapses while not frequent, happen more often here. Thus, I was quite pleased to find on the way out a bridge made entirely of steel. It spanned a moderately fast, narrow river about 30km from Siem Reap. On the way back, we saw a traffic jam, and weaving our way forward, found the trouble was that a road crew was replacing the road plates. We had a half hour delay which I used to take some pictures of children playing in the river, as well as the idiot in the SUV who decided he couldn’t wait and tried to ford. Needless to say, he stalled and had to be pushed out....

Posted by Daver141 08:44 Archived in Cambodia Comments (1)

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