Nov 11/12, 2015: Denver -> Bangkok
At the request of my friends here in the US, this travel log to Cambodia and Laos is in English instead of Dutch. The first one since I started doing these for our trips. So forgive me if I don’t always use the colorful language that is common in my previous logs. I’m sure most Dutch readers have no problem reading English.
Otf to the airport
It looked like the right time to leave Denver, with the six inches of snow we woke up to. Luckily it did not discourage our neighbor Carolyn who had kindly offered to take us to the airport today. We checked in our two bags, moved through security like pros, and went to Terminal A. Even though our flight leaves from Terminal B. Why? It’s sort of tradition for us to have a nice breakfast at one of the restaurants at the airport. For many years the place of choice was “Pour La France” in Terminal B. However, the quality of the food has just been consistently deteriorating. So last year we switched to The Denver Chophouse in Terminal A; they have not yet disappointed us.
After breakfast we boarded the train again to Terminal B from where our flight would leave from gate B32. We had some time to kill, and also had complimentary tickets for United’s Red Carpet Club. So we thankfully used these this time. Nice club, with comfortable seats, complimentary drinks, snacks. Much better Wi-Fi than the free Wi-Fi offered at the rest of DIA. Time flew by this way and it was time to board our flight before we knew it. It was to be our first flight in a Boeing 787 Dreamliner, and I had some high expectations. Unfortunately things did not start out too good.
The crew announced that the entertainment system was on the fritz. This meant no movies on our 12-hour stretch to Tokyo… At least we did have great seats in Economy Plus: more legroom and no one else decided to join us on the third seat. So we could stretch out even more. There was Wi-Fi offered on board; …well offered at a price. Nothing is free anymore on any airlines. They pretty much nickel and dime you to death. Wi-Fi on United was no exception: $16.99 for just the leg to Tokyo. I’m too wide-awake to sleep, so I will fork over the money and entertain myself with something other than movies.
Tokyo Narita airport hadn’t changed much since the last time we were there 10 years ago. We found our way through security again and made the gate for our next leg with plenty of time to spare. ANA is taking us to Bangkok on board a Boeing 777, along with about 300 small Asians. Most apparently have much less trouble than me to fit in the tiny seat pitch provided. I manage to shoehorn myself into my seat and cannot move an inch for the next 7+ hours. Just as well, because by now I am tired enough to sleep most of the time.
Arrival in Bangkok
Once landing in Bangkok, I can liberate myself from my cramped quarters and we head for immigrations. Many official looking uniformed people nudge us along to ensure we take the correct path into their country. It all goes much more smoothly than some others countries we’ve visited. Once through immigrations, Gepke and I split up to be as efficient as possible. She goes to find our luggage, I head for the ATM. By the time I return with a thick wad of cash, she is already waiting for me with our bags. We head from here straight to the “Meeting Point”. Here the ground transportation we arranged through the internet is waiting for us with a sign with Gepke’s name on it.
We go outside to a minivan that will take us to our hotel. Outside it’s still very balmy hot and humid, like a wet warm blanket engulfing us. So we are happy to jump into the air-conditioned van and head out onto the highway. It’s past midnight and relatively quiet on the road. We only stop twice for a tollbooth. Then again because a motorcycle cop had decided to stop traffic on the highway for no apparent reason. We see our hotel from the highway and luckily so did our driver. He takes the next exit and drops us off. Check in takes us to the lobby that is oddly enough on the twelfth floor. Our room however is on the ninth floor. We need to take an odd path up and down with different banks of elevators.
The room however is perfect, though with the typical granite hard mattresses which is apparently the norm in the orient. You become used to them surprisingly fast, especially after traveling for nearly 24 hours straight.
November 13, 2015: Bangkok
Late to bed, early to rise. That was today’s motto when Gepke asked me around 7 AM if I was awake. I woke up in shock, believing we overslept; not realizing it was only 4 hours since I turned in for the night. Oh well, might as well get up and see what kind of breakfast they offer in the hotel. Bangkok looked a lot different than yesterday judging by the view from our window. No sunshine, but still very hot and humid outside. We would attempt to brave that environment after we got some food in our tummies.
Breakfast consisted of a quite elaborate buffet. Not only the standard fruit, eggs, bacon and toast, but also items such as fried rice, hot wings and something that looked like sushi. Initially I stuck to eggs and toast, but later I expanded into fruit and fried rice: when in Rome…
After breakfast we started walking outside in the general direction of the Grand Palace. We decided to just take it easy today and not try to take in all the sites at once. Just walking through a city like Bangkok forces so many impressions upon you at a dizzying rate. You need to step back, sit down and rest a little now and then. But even at our leisurely pace we ended up walking nearly 10 kilometers. So much for taking it easy.
Along the way we even nearly got scammed. A odd guy told us the Grand Palace was closed and he could show us a better time. We managed to shake him by telling him we were meeting Thai friends. He pretty much stopped right then and vanished. We skipped the Palace and walked to the Golden Mount. Here the heavens just opened and rain poured down like a solid curtain of water. It was actually a welcome interruption, and we sat on a bench under a cover and stared at the rain until it let up.
Then we got tickets and started up the steps of Wat Seket (the Golden Mount) Little waterfalls were still coming down the steps as we ascended them. I hold up my trouser legs to prevent them from getting too wet. After a little more than 300 steps we reached the summit. Here we could walk around the Stupa and gaze at the stretched out views of the city. We tried to estimate where our hotel must be. But we soon are lost in the wriggling mess of roofs and streets below us.
After descending to the street level again, we decided to stop somewhere for lunch. It was literally a hole in the wall place. We had two fulfilling meals for the amazing amount of three dollars and fifty cents; try that at McDonald’s…. Of course everyone will tell you not to eat at these local eateries. But I guess we’ll find out later if they are right or not. After this rather late lunch we slowly circled back to the hotel. There we pick up on our original plan to take it easy today.
By the time we finally got back, my legs were wondering what part of this walk was supposed to be easy. I don’t really walk 10 kilometers on a regular basis. After a few minutes rest on the hotel bed, blood flow returned. I think I’m ready for the next challenge.
That challenge turns out to be finding a place to eat. On vacation you tend to fall back to a hunter-gatherer mode. The hunting takes place on the Internet where you gather information on eateries. In this manner Gepke finds the 511 Café that offers what others describe as good food for a reasonable price; about $5 per person. With full bellies we hobble through the metro tunnel back to our hotel, thus avoiding the impossible street crossings outside.
November 14, 2015: Bangkok
For breakfast we decided to be a little more adventurous. Across the street at the train station there are several eateries nearby. We noticed a candidate here yesterday when we had dinner at a place called the 511 Café. We pick a breakfast based on the pictures on a menu. But what we’ll eventually end up with is still a mystery. I take a picture of the area where we are sitting and share it on Facebook. Most responses there either consider us very brave or very stupid; only time will tell. When I type this story the following day our tummies still feel quite good, so the naysayers loose this one.
After breakfast we walk through the Hua Lamphong Railway station and take in the site there. Imagine Grand Central station’s main hall filled with row after row of chairs, looking like the waiting room at the DMV and you’ll get the idea. We find a stairway that leads to some offices, amongst which one prominently displays the words “Tourist Information”. Hey! That’s us! We enter the freezing air-conditioned office to let ourselves be educated. We are however disappointed, as the lady there has no maps and hardly speaks English. That’s not her fault; after all we’re visiting and should have learned Thai before we came here. No matter, there was another tourist information outside. This woman apparently speaks more than enough English and sends us on our way. With a new map we have enough knowledge to get us through the day.
Outside we grab a TukTuk to the Grand Palace, which today we can visit. We are now both dressed appropriately: not too much skin or legs showing. It never hurts to adapt to local customs when it comes to visiting religious establishments. The Grand Palace is the former residence of the King. It was originally built together with the establishment of Bangkok by King Rama. Since then it has been expanded many times. It covers a wide range of architectural styles. From the pure Ayutthayan style of the temples to a blend of Thai and Western styles for later structures.
The Grand Palace is not just a palace, but also includes Wat Phra Kaew, the most sacred temple of Thailand. Visiting the Grand Palace with its surrounding temples proves to be quite a challenge in this humid heat. After a while sweat is pouring from the side of my head into my eyes and everything becomes a blur. We get some brief relief when we visit a cool museum along the way. The hot weather starts to get to me in a manner that nearly causes a panic attack. We handle this professionally by diving into a small establishment and purchase ice cream on a stick. Aaaah, much better.
We depart the area of the Grand Palace and the crowd. The exit more or less flows to a ferry dock, that takes us across the river to the Wat Arun temple. The cost of the ferry will require a budget adjustment for today. We pay a whopping 6 Baht for the two of us. The equivalent of … 20 US cents.
Wat Arun on this Saturday has apparently been reserved for a private party. When we arrive there are many people dressed up, some in full navy dress soooo white, it hurts the eyes. A marching band begins to play something that must be the national Thai anthem, since everyone is standing at attention. We dare not move either. They have set out a lot of food, but I assume it’s not for us. So we don’t touch any of it. Unfortunately due to the ceremony taking place, we can’t get very close to the temple, let alone enter it. It appears to be full of family, monks and military, but no one can explain to us what’s going on and they are definitely not allowing us entry.
Somewhat disappointed, we leave the premises and look for a place to have lunch. We find a hole in the wall restaurant that looks promising. Judging by what the other patrons are eating, it looks good enough for us to try. However when we are offered the menu it has absolutely no alphabet on it that makes any sense. We order by pointing at the food of other guests. Gepke ends up with something that looks and tastes like shrimp with noodles. I believe I ate a combinations of rice and pork, though it may have been cat or dog. Anyway it tasted good!
Long walk in Bangkok
Just like yesterday around this time, it started to rain. Not a dramatic downpour like yesterday, so we continue our trek back to the river. Just in case, we do stop by a store and buy an umbrella for $2. It probably won’t last long at that price but it’s better than nothing.
We take the ferry back to other side of the river. Then climb on board another TukTuk that takes us back to the hotel. We relax a little in the Zen garden on the 12th floor. We then head out for dinner at a restaurant Gepke found on the Internet. When we arrive there they’re booked solid till 9:30.
To pass time we walk a little further to another place that still has a free spot. Most places we eat are between $1 to $3, so we were shocked to see prices of $10 to $15 at this place. But at this point we are too tired to find another place. The food looked really good and probably worth it. It’s funny how you adjust your expectations in such a short time. In Denver we wouldn’t have hesitated at those prices. Here we were nearly upset by such high price for food…
November 15, 2015: Bangkok
We’ve taken in enough temple culture these few days. Especially considering we’ll be inundated with them in next few days. Most likely with a climax at Anchor Wat sometime this week. After breakfast in the hotel, we walk to Siam Square to do some old fashioned shopping at the MKB shopping mall. The walk there takes us through a shady neighborhood, underneath a highway overpass.
Considering this colorful environment, Gepke decides it’s the perfect time for me to get a haircut. She points out the scariest looking barbershop ever. I am not the one to show fear under pressure so I follow her into the shop. The masked barber hardly takes notice of us. He nods in the general direction of a bench that takes the role of waiting area. As he finishes up his current customer, we take in the situation. A sign completely in Thai shows the different rates for the treatments. One line however near the bottom states in English: haircut 150 baht (approx. $4).
After the barber finishes with his customer, he motions me to take the vacated seat. As I sit down he drapes the dirty towel he just removed from the previous customer around my neck. He and Gepke discuss briefly, which of his torture implements he will use on my head. Afterwards she settles back on the waiting bench. With the skill of a gardener wielding a lawnmower, the barber slides the humming shaver across my head.
Luckily for him I couldn’t care less if he shaved me bald. It may provide some relief from the depressing heat outside. But in actuality he does a fine job. He even wields a very sharp razor to provide some finishing touches to the sides of my coupe. After a dash of talcum powder and a quick blow dry, to rid me of any lingering hairs, we pay. I am out on the street again looking like a million dollars.
After a long walk we arrive at the MKB mall, just in time to escape the downpour off rain that apparently starts at exactly this time every day. The mall is huge; with 7 floors of shops all more or less arranged the same way these shops would be arranged if they were in an outside market place. The only difference: air-conditioning, and it’s very appreciated. Most articles offered are worth a stare or otherwise interesting, but not worth buying. Gepke does end up purchasing a blue T-shirt with a drawing of Thai elephants on it.
The 7th floor of the mall is completely dedicated to all forms of entertainment. There is a movie theater offering all the latest that Hollywood imagined; either in English or Thai or subtitled in one of these languages. There are arcade establishments where we are very entertained just watching the local youths work their magic. Especially with Dance Craze, an arcade game where you attempt to mimic the moves of the dancers on the screen.
While we have been walking around in the mall, the rain has settled to a gentle drizzle. Now we feel brave enough to attempt our trip back to the hotel. Out tour group expects us to meet up with the members at six. We are briefly tempted to take a TukTuk back, but negotiations on the rate meet an impasse at 200 baht ($6). Instead we walk all the way back.
After freshening up in our room and recuperating a little, we take the elevator to the lobby. Here we start looking to see if we can recognize anyone that looks like they may be part of our group. It appears they are sitting at a long table in the breakfast area. We join them and fill out a bunch of forms to be used in the coming period.
After we complete the formalities and introductions, our tour leader leads us to the River Vibe restaurant. Here we can get to know each other better over a meal. It’s a varied group of people, both in age and countries of origin. Ages ranging from early 20’s to mid 60’s from Germany, Switzerland, Ireland, England and of course us from Colorado. Dinner conversations open up the first introductions into each other’s lives. For sure we’ll all know each other intimately after traveling together for a few weeks.
November 16, 2015: Departure for Cambodia
After breakfast this morning we all stuff ourselves and our luggage into two vans. The head out west towards the Cambodian border. Along the way Saroeun, our guide, talks extensively about Cambodia and about the government there. Apparently it is seen by most inhabitants as corrupt and uncaring. He also speaks of his family, his wife and his home in Siem Reap. After a while we all start to nod off; listening to the soothing sounds of Saroeun’s voice and the rhythm of the seams in the highway.
After about two and a half hours we stop at a gas station to relieve our bladders. All of us fill out paper work we’ll need at the Cambodia border crossing. Said border crossing at Aranyaprathet is reached two hours later. We exit the vans and cross on foot. First we go into a hall where we perform the Thai exit procedures. We then exit this building to enter what I can only describe as a chaotic no man’s land. The place is strewn with a variety of activities, some related to border and customs. But most appear to be commercial activities involving all kinds of products and produce.
We walk through this area to a small building with a long line of people. This is the entry point into Cambodia where we’ll exchange the paperwork we filled out. If all is well, we’ll be allowed entry into the country after they take a picture of each of us. Checking the paperwork apparently is a laborious activity. It involves many serious looking men and women in uniform. I assume it’s all very necessary, but it sure takes up a lot of time. Finally, nearly an hour later, we’re all driven as cattle towards a different bus. This will take us the remaining distance to Siem Reap.
When we arrive at Mekong Angkor Deluxe Hotel it’s starting to get dark. Saroeun stills insists on showing us the rice paddies surrounding the New Hope Organization facilities. New Hope is an Organization sponsored by G-Adventures, our travel organization. It attempts to help locals in the areas they travel, with training and other development skills. The rice paddies look scary in the dark. The noises around us of croaking frogs and flying insects only enforce the feeling of eeriness. Barely able to see where we are stepping, we make our way back to the main building where dinner is set. The food on the floor is surrounded by small pillows.
Saroeun shows us how we should sit based on our individual status. Cross legged for the fathers or head of the family. Sit on one leg and keep the other crouched upward somewhat if you are a woman or mother Finally children sit on one leg with the other somewhat to the side. To me it all looks like advanced acrobatics. I settle into a position that is somewhat between a laughing Buddha and a sick toad. Dinner was delicious, seating very uncomfortable. But that was more to blame on my very inflexible legs.
We return to hotel for an early night, so we’ll be fresh and rested for an early morning sunrise at Angkor Wat.
November 17, 2015: Angkor Wat
Very early in the morning we get up a 4:15 AM. This to be on time to see the sunrise at the Angkor Wat temple complex. Before we go there though, we stand in line in the dark to get the tickets for the Angkor Wat Archaeological Park. Another process that involves taking our picture. The tickets we receive in return do actually have our photograph on it. So I guess that means they’re non-transferable…
After obtaining our tickets we gather with several thousand other people. All are here to witness the sunrise over Angkor Wat in Cambodia. It’s an impressive and colorful display. Not just because of the colorful sky illuminated from below by the rising sun; but also because of the colorful mixture of people from different countries and cultures. All joined as one to experience a common activity, that breaks down all differences we believe we may otherwise have.
After the sun rises we return to have breakfast at the hotel. Then we formally enter the Angkor complex to visit three main temples: Bayon, Ta Prohm and the main temple of Angkor Wat. The main temple of Angkor Wat is dominated by five majestic, corncob towers. This masterpiece of Khmer architecture, consecrated in about 1150 to Vishnu, is thought to have taken around thirty years to complete. Stunning from a distance, but as you approach its intricacy becomes more apparent. Every surfaced covered in fine detail.
The Bayon state temple is in the walled city of Angkor Thom, and topped with dozens of towers carved with enigmatic faces of the bodhisattva Lokesvara. One of ancient Cambodia’s most iconic images. Despite the oppressive heat and suffocating humidity, we marvel at the complex architecture. The admire the stone carvings and the background stories our guide Chaek shares with us. It sometimes requires the very last ounce of energy to climb to the very top of some of the temples in this unforgiving climate.
However, we are rewarded with impressive views that make up for the gallons of sweat produced along the way. The temple area of Ta Prohm is well known as the filming location of Indiana Jones. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to conjure up the scenes of the movie. The temple ruins are interspersed with roots of large fig trees. This is how everything here must have looked when the area was rediscovered nearly 150 years ago by the French.
We spend several hours walking the area before exiting to gather at an outside eatery for lunch. At this establishment Saroeun offers us a dish to try, it tastes good. Spicy beef with a crunchy topping. After we all had a taste, he shares the ingredients with us. Yes, most are familiar with some extra Cambodian flavor, but the crunchy topping surprised us: red forest ants. Not sure I would have tried it had I known in advance…
The day is not over yet. We take a brief intermission at the hotel, followed by a quick bus ride to a quad bike rental place. We will be handling the quad ATV’s ourselves, though Gepke prefers to share one with me. After taking one look at me, the quad rental owner grabs the biggest quad he has in his stables. After a brief explanation of the workings of the bikes we are on our way. First a short ride on paved city roads, filled with the usual chaotic traffic. Then on to lesser gravel roads and soon no more than dirt road inundated with potholes and mud tracks.
When the environment becomes more rural, roads are apparently no longer required. We criss cross the grass fields between the rice paddies and cross small streams along our path. We stop in the middle of a field to take pictures and admire the sun gleaming low at the horizon. A helicopter flies low over us. Considering where I am, I can’t help but remember the song Goodnight Saigon by Billy Joel. It starts with the sounds of helicopter blades chopping through the air and the lyrics thinking back to Paris Island… We jump back onto our quads and ride back. In twilight and later darkness we ride to the rental place. Here we return our bikes and helmets to the proprietor. It was an amazing and cool experience, not something we thought we’d do on this trip.
Too tired to have dinner, we collapse on our beds at 8 pm. Both of us dream about the activities of the day
November 18, 2015: Ride to Phnom Penh
At 9:30 AM we depart in a bus we share with another group. It’s a very long drive to Phnom Penh, the Capital of Cambodia, with few activities planned along the way. Luckily the roads in this part of the country are of a reasonable quality. So we are not thrown around too much. We will experience much worse roads after we leave Phnom Penh tomorrow. One hi-light on this route is a stop in Skuon. A small town famous for the market offering many kinds of fried insect for human consumption.
The highlight on the menu here: deep fried tarantula. I limit myself to admiring the arachnids on the dishes from a distance. Some of my fellow group members actually try a leg or other small piece. Everyone avoids the bulging abdomen full of spider eggs…. There are also live tarantula to admire or, if you so like, to hold and let it crawl over you. I can just imagine what I’m going to dream about tonight.
We continue the drive to Phnom Penh and arrive at the Diamond Hotel in the late afternoon. After a brief rest in the room we enjoy a simple dinner in the food court of a local shopping mall. Tomorrow promises to be a heavy day, centered around the activities of Pol Pot and his cronies during the Khmer Rouge period of Cambodia.
November 19, 2015: Visit Phnom Penh
Travel broadens the mind, so they say, but there are some things you’d rather not learn about, but hideaway in some dark corner. So is the case with the atrocities performed by the Pol Pot regime of which we will learn more about in detail at the S21 Prison and the Killing Fields. S21 used to be a school and when the Khmer Rouge took charge of it, they made it into a “re-education center” for Cambodia. Residents here did not learn much, unless you count torture for extraction of information to be educational.
At the S21 prison this is all shown in so much gory detail, that some visitors are crying out loud. The torture cells have been kept the way they were during the Pol Pot period; including the blood spatter on the ceilings. The regime photographed every action and prisoner in detail. Those photographs are on display in some of the rooms of S21. Our guide speaks of the history and also how it has affected him personally, as he has lost 7 family members either directly to actions of the Khmer Rouge or to the resulting famine.
At the end of the tour through S21 we get to personally meet two of the prisoners that survived S21 during the chaos that ensued when the Vietnamese liberated Phnom Penh. Bou Meng and Chu Mey the latter of which I received his business card showing him now to be the director of the Victims Association of Cambodia. They show a warm smile as they shake our hands, both men now in their 70’s but unsurprisingly looking much older due to their ordeals. Even I feel like hugging them to take away the pain of memories they must feel each time they walk through the grounds of S21…
In silence we sit in the bus as it takes us to the next site of Pol Pot’s display of total lack of human value: The Killings Fields. At first it looks more like a serene garden. Only the signs that indicate the number of victims in each grave, remind you that you are walking a path between mass graves. Dug to hide the evidence of genocide.
After the rain season some of the soil on the paths is washed away. This exposes human remains in the form of skeletal remains and teeth. We are asked not to step on the areas where the bones are starting to become visible. An eerie request we solemnly follow, as we look down on the path. We see white remains in the dirt that has washed away after the last shower.
Near the center of the Killing Fields is a Stupa. It contains the skulls of hundreds of the victims that were excavated from one of the mass graves. They have been placed here as a memorial to the victims of this Killing Field and the hundreds of others scattered across Cambodia. Millions of Cambodians killed by the Khmer Rouge lie in similar mass graves. All the result of Pol Pot’s attempt to eradicate all intellectuals, whom he feared may revolt against him.
Pol Pot died of old age and was never put to trial for his crimes. Five of his highest-ranking officials later end up as members of the government but ongoing trials against them are taking them out of power. They are the only ones that are currently held responsible. Many of the remaining Khmer Rouge currently “serve” in the government, al be it in a corrupt manner if you ask the locals. Still many say they will forgive, but no one should forget and all should learn from this. Even those responsible that have been tried and found guilty are not put to death. Instead they are imprisoned for life because Cambodia does not have the death penalty. Something that makes them a more civilized nation than the United States, who still think that the state has the right to execute its citizens.
After this very heavy morning we eat lunch near the river and afterwards walk in extreme heat back to the hotel, trying to keep up with Saroeun who appears unfazed by the heat and humidity. According to him it’s really pretty dry this time of year here; I’d hate to be here at a time when he does think it’s humid.
After a short rest we take a TukTuk, or rather Romoak as they are called here. We go to the river to take a short ride on a riverboat where we drink beer, eat Jack Fruit and listen to the stories about the Mekong River and its tributaries. Then disembark and get onto individual rickshaws that take us to our dinner restaurant.
Along the way we stop twice to admire statues of the Lady Penh who attributes her name to the city. The name means Mountain (Phnom) of the lady (Penh). A bit further is a statue of the King who died 3 years ago, where we also dismount to admire a photograph. We then arrive at the restaurant that is located two flights of stair up, and offers a great view of the river in the dark with the banks lit up.
After dinner four of us share a ride in a TukTuk back to the hotel. Tomorrow we’ll start early again as we head for the Cambodian/Laos border.
November 20, 2015: Travel to Kratié
Another early travel day. We check out of our hotel to settle into the bus for a long ride to Kratié that will be our overnight stop on our trip to the Laotian border crossing. It’s a less comfortable ride than the day before yesterday, as the quality of the roads is deteriorating. We bounce around in our seats and are grateful for every stop offered to stretch our legs and tend to our bruises. After many hours that seem like an eternity we arrive in Kratie and can check into the hotel and recover a little.
The Santepheap Hotel is definitely one of the less upscale hotels we use on our trip. There is air-conditioning, but it barely can keep the room below 30C and the hotel in general looks like it can use some minor renovation. Still, it appears like this may be one of the better stays for the next few days, as we will be staying at a guesthouse, followed by a home stay with a local family. The latter is unlikely to have air-conditioning and with the temperature at night seldom dropping below 30C that may prove to be a challenge, hopefully worth the experience, more about that tomorrow.
Today we end the day floating on small boats on the Mekong River near Kampi, approx 15 km north of Kratié, attempting to photograph the elusive Irrawaddy Dolphins that appear to make fun of us as they dive under water the minute we attempt to photograph them. There are only around 85 dolphins in the Mekong. As river dolphins, these animals don’t generally approach boats or show curiosity towards tourist boats like some marine dolphins do. Perhaps we’re not fast enough to photograph them, but we enjoy their company nonetheless as we silently float alongside them for a while. We return to the hotel to get some rest and recharge for the rest of the bumpy bus trip to Laos tomorrow.
November 21, 2015: Last miles to Laos
We start our day with a tiny breakfast at the hotel before we go on the road again with the bus to finish the last leg to Laos. About an hour out, the left front tire of the bus blows out and I experience the most terrifying 5 seconds of my life, until the driver regains control of the vehicle again. After he recovers he pulls to the side of the road and we all need to exit the bus so he can change the tire. However hard he tries, he cannot loosen the bolts that connect the wheel. I notice it looks to me he’s tightening instead of loosening, but as I find out later, this bus uses right hand thread instead of left hand. Must be an Asian thing…
Luckily there is a mechanic shop no more than 100 meters down the road. The driver gets back in and slowly drives there, as we follow on foot. The mechanic has pneumatic equipment and is quickly able to loosen the bolts and change the tire.
After our little mishap we’re on the road again to Laos. The border crossing again involves exiting procedures for one country, and entry procedures for the next. Both countries charge a “processing fee” which is nothing more than a blatant bride for the processing officer. The cost for visa for Laos depends on the country you’re from; it appears to be rather random chosen amounts: Germany $30, Britain and US $35, Sweden $31 and Nepal $40? Why not the same for all countries? Of course it’s the same here for all countries: do not attempt to understand the ways of the bureaucrat.
Once in Laos we stop at the Khone and Pha Pheng Falls waterfalls, a beautiful area in the Mekong River with some cascading falls. These falls are the largest in southeast Asia and they are the main reason that the Mekong is not fully navigable into China. The area is very well kept and we only walk short distance, being driven in oversized electric golf carts most of the way. Aside from admiring and photographing the falls, we have a drink here and some of us ice cream.
After that it is again up and onwards to our next hotel the Pon River in the village of Dong Không, right on the banks of the Mekong river. Again there will be no time to do laundry and we are running low on clean clothes in this heat. Tomorrow will be another challenge to hygiene when we do a bike ride in 37C heat.
November 22, 2015: Mekong island home stay
This morning starts with breakfast on the other side of the street, the same place we had dinner the night before. We need some carbs since we’ll be doing a 12km bike ride in the area to take in the surroundings more slowly. This bike ride sure takes everything I have to keep up with the others, and even then I arrive back 5 minutes after the others. It’s not that I’m tired, just drenched in sweat and feeling generally miserable. I decide not to try to keep up with the group any longer and at my own speed I can actually enjoy the ride and the scenery, instead of concentrating on competing in this cycle race.
Back at the hotel we can rinse the crust of dust and sweat off our bodies … for about 2 minutes, after which the water pressure drops to zero. Gepke has just fully lathered herself in soap, but there is no water to rinse. I had already undressed to take shower right after her, but I had to get back into my sweaty clothes to report the water outage to the hotel desk. Luckily the water pressure is restored a short while later, but is immediately followed by a power outage. Although there is still pressure, there is no more warm water… Worse: there is no more air-conditioning, and I was trying to cool down near the vents as I waited for Gepke to finish. Fortunately she is finished and I can use the cold shower now; well, not that cold since nothing is cold in this piping hot country.
Homestay in Donadaeng
After our showers we can check out and have lunch across the street again, having one final overlook of the Mekong, before we board the bus to go to Dondaeng where we will be spending the night at a Homestay on one of the over 4000 islands in the Mekong. Dondaeng is a typical Laotian village environment and doesn’t have all the creature comforts of home but it allows for insight into the local culture and connection to the people of the village. We get there by boarding a number of small boats, none of them large enough for my taste, but one of them consists of two large canoes tied together with a platform on with they have placed a number of Rotan chairs.
I immediately take possession of the chair closest to the center if the boat and hang on for dear life. “We”, meaning the others in the group, enjoy this ferry and make many photographs. I’m just glad to disembark and feel close to imitating the Pope and kissing the ground when I’m finally off the boat again.
On the island, our new local Lao guide we picked up this morning, gives us a tour. We admire the sunset from the beach and then head to the main house where we are given our room assignments. Two of the couples, one of which is us, are given a room in one house. The rest of the group divides into boys and girls and get the remaining 3 rooms. The rooms are very basic, and are representative of how Lao families live. For us spoiled westerners that means no air-conditioning, beds on the floor, hole in the ground toilets. Also many insects crawling around, despite the mosquito netting. We’ll find out tomorrow if we get any sleep tonight. In the evening we are served a typical Laos cuisine by our hosts.
November 23, 2015: Pakse and flight to Luang Prabang
As I expected I hardly slept in the small room at the homestay. The temperature never dropped below 35C and the humidity caused condense to form on the walls, and that didn’t help either. Being awake most of the night, I used the time to catch up on my travel log, as I had gotten a little behind. After the roosters had crowed on three different occasions, making me believe it was sunrise I could finally get up at a little before six, when the family with which we stayed started to stir.
We packed up our gear and headed back to the hut that served as our central meeting place for dinner, and now for breakfast. Breakfast again was a social affair that took place on the floor in a for me uncomfortable position. I limited myself to a small breakfast with some Lao tea, as my inners were starting to make disturbing noises and I felt it was best to pace myself.
Back to School
After breakfast we walked to the local elementary school and left them some pencils and writing pads we purchased yesterday. They were very grateful and happy with new supplies and we took pictures and videos of the children in class as they put up a show of song and dance for us. Then we said goodbye to our homestay families and took the small boats back from the island to the shore.
Our trusty bus was waiting for us and we head to the site of Wat Phu to the temple site there, currently being restored. Thanks to being named a Unesco World Heritage Site, sufficient funds are being made available by several different UN countries. While we were there India and France were active with restoration of two of the main buildings.
Wat Phu (or Phou, meaning mountain temple) dates back to the 5th century, but the ruins to be seen now are from the 10th and 11th century. The lower part with the ponds were easy to reach. To get to the upper temple we had to climb some steep stairs, in some places more likely stones than stairs. There is a fantastic view from the temple over the lower ruins, the ponds, known as barays (artificial body of water), and even the Mekong river. At the top there is a spring with healing water.
Flight to Luang Prabang
We continue our drive to the airport, only interrupted by a stop for lunch at a hotel not far from Vatu. At the Pakse airport we check in our luggage for the flight to Luang Prabang, after which we wait in the hot departure hall for our flight to leave. The flight is serviced by Laos Airlines aboard a relatively new ATR 72. We get a boxed meal on board and choice of either Coffee, Tea or Water; after that is served we never see the flight attendants again until we land, which is one hour and 20 minutes later.
We are met by our new driver here, who takes us to our hotel in a luxurious van with heavily tinted windows which makes it look like there is no electricity in the dark city. At the Treasure Hotel we check in and can finally shower again, for most of us the first time again in two days. It’s already past seven and we all walk to a nearby restaurant in Luang Prabang to enjoy a very good dinner.
For the first time on this trip I get a spicy meal, not too spicy but just right for me: Panang Curry. We’re all eating underneath the stars in a rather exotic environment, which gives the whole experience an extra dimension. As we return to the hotel we notice it’s much cooler here as the city is at a much higher altitude. We also notice this not long after we have gone to bed, and I have to get up to turn off the air-conditioning since it’s just too cold. Or maybe we finally adjusted to the climate? No, don’t think so…..
November 24, 2015: Stay in Luang Prabang
Finally! We get to do laundry again! Never been this excited about doing the laundry, but of course here someone else is doing it for us for the world shattering amount of $1 per kilo. We drop of the laundry around the corner and head to the breakfast room across the street of our hotel.
Our first activity this day is a visit to the Ethnology museum. Once there I am mostly focused on the rumblings in my lower intestines as opposed to the different cultures and peoples of Laos. As we return to the hotel again it becomes obvious I cannot stray too far from a toilet and I decide to take it easy the rest of the day and stay in my room.
Kuang Si Falls
Gepke went in an hour bus ride to the Kuang Si waterfalls without me. She walked around the waterfalls, while some others in the group went swimming there. On the way back to the village they visited a mini bear rescue. In the afternoon Gepke wandered through town with Mareike and Cathrin, two girls in our group, did some shopping and visited a couple of temples that Luang Prabang is well known for.
When she returns I feel brave enough to join the group again that evening for dinner. Dinner means a trip to the Night Market to try the Lao version of an “All-you-can-eat” experience. Along with the others I fill my bowl with as many different kinds of food for 15000 kip, about $2. As is the case with most all-you-can-eat places, this is a case of quantity over quality. Considering my current condition I only eat half of the contents of my bowl, a wise decision under the circumstances.
Lost in Luang Prabang
We walk back to the hotel on our own, attempting to follow the instructions given by Saroeun. Somehow we must have made a wrong turn and it becomes apparent to us that we are lost. After wandering around two or three streets we throw in the towel and hail a TukTuk. We show the driver the card of the hotel and he laughs; it’s just the next street over he says. We continue to look confused and he must have felt sorry for these two lost tourist puppies, so he tells us to get in and he’ll take us there for free. He drops us off in front on the hotel and speeds off before we can even offer a tip. People are so friendly here, we’ll need to pay that forward sometime in the future.
November 25, 2015: Second day in Luang Prabang
Today is a day on our own. We make plans on how to fill it over breakfast. First we walk from our hotel to the Mount Phousi area where we mount the many stairs to the top. The 100m high hill is in the center of the old town and lies in the heart of the old town peninsula and is on one side bordered by the Mekong River and on the other site by the Nam Khan River. The hill is a local religious site, and houses several Buddhist shrines.
It’s quite a challenge to the top of the stairway in 35C heat; we’re truly sweating like hogs before we can enjoy the beautiful views from the temple summit.
The descent is much easier and we end up at street level again on the other side of the mountain. Here we walk along a tributary of the Mekong River to a small bamboo bridge. For a small fee you can cross the bridge that is built every year by a local family. We cross the bridge to the village on the other side where we find a cozy place to rehydrate with a fruit shake and a BeerLao. There is not much to see in the village other than the usual tourist shops selling woodcarvings, so we return over the bamboo bridge to Luang Prabang.
On the other side we look for a place to have lunch as we zig zag through the streets. We find the Coconuts café here and have a light lunch before again meandering through the streets, checking out the many merchants along the way. We too are drawn into a sales pitch and end up buying a small wooden bowl made of the wood of a local fruit tree.
Gepke still wants to get a massage somewhere, so we split up as she goes to the massage place she saw yesterday, and I find my way back to the hotel. In the evening the 2 of us have dinner at Manda Laos, a very nice restaurant right across from our Hotel. The restaurant is build around a pond with lots of lotus flowers, surrounded by bamboo and palm trees. The service and food (authentically Lao) were excellent and prices were almost at US levels but still amazingly cheap for the quality.
November 26, 2015: Thanksgiving in Vang Vieng
Today is Thanksgiving, though you’ll not notice that here, I doubt they have even heard of it, so no Turkey this afternoon I guess. It’s time to leave Luang Prabang again and since it’s raining, it’s a great day for travel. Gepke gets up real early to see the local monks collecting alms. People give alms as a centuries old ceremony. Buddhist monks aren’t allowed to work and rely on locals giving them alms. This is a very important ceremony. Locals try to gain merit on the karmic ladder by getting up very early in the morning and prepare rice etc.
According to our current Lao guide Bai the trip to Vang Vieng will take 6 hours and 59 minutes; Bai is an optimist. The bus cannot travel fast on the steep and winding mountain roads. The driver also has to turn off the air-conditioning to prevent the engine from overheating. The views along the road are impressive, despite the rain or maybe because of it. We see clouds hugging the mountain ranges, giving everything a ghostly appearance. Most of the route is rough mountain terrain interspersed with the occasional village. Large parts of the road have no guardrails, and the winding curves look extra dangerous to us passengers. I hope the driver is experienced and not suicidal…
We arrive in Vang Vieng towards the end of the afternoon. Our hotel has the basic amenities we’ve become accustomed to: air-conditioning, free Wi-Fi, no bugs. Just after we arrived the heavens open to an impressive downpour that makes everything look clean and refreshed again. After a quick check-in we rush to the nearby caves before they close around 5 PM.
There is of course another steep stairway that leads to the cave entrance; it seems that every attraction in Laos is prefixed with a steep stairway counting at least 200 steps and this is no exception. Completely drenched with sweat we enter the cave, which luckily is relatively cool, allowing us to quickly recover. The caves are unimpressive; most of the stalactites and -mites have been worn down by excessive touching of human hands. The fact that this cave was used by soldiers as a bunkers along the Ho-Chi-Min trail during the 70s hasn’t improved its current state. Anyway thanks to the ascent and descent of the stairway, we get our daily workout after having sat in a bus for 6 hours and 59 minutes.
In the evening we have our Thanksgiving meal, consisting mostly of curries, fried rice and noodles; it’s a change from turkey.
November 27, 2015: Travel to Vientiane
Today it’s Gepke’s turn to be toilet bound, it happens to both of us at least once per trip. Since there is not too much to do in the small town of Vang Vieng anyway, today is a good day to hang out on the balcony and relax. We take our breakfast in the breakfast area of the hotel and return to the room to read, surf the web and Facebook, catch up on the travel log or in Gepke’s case enjoy the clean bathroom. The balcony is a comfortable place to hang out and the morning flies by as we recharge.
After we have lunch with the group we all load into the bus again and continue the trip to Vientiane. Early in the evening we arrive here. Vientiane is the busy capitol city of Laos and the extremes between the very poor and very wealthy is just as apparent in this communist country as it is in the surrounding capitalist countries of Cambodia and Thailand. We check into the Avalon Hotel and after a short time to refresh head out to have dinner in town.
As we have another long trip to look forward to tomorrow, we turn in early . We will be taking the night train back to Bangkok, which according to schedule will take 11 hours, but in practice may be up to 14 hours.
November 28, 2015: Visit Vientiane
In the morning the group hires two TukTuk that will take us to the must see spots of Vientiane to go sightseeing. Since officially Saroeun is not allowed to be our guide in Laos because of the strict communist regulations on tourism here, we go without him. As far as Laos goes, Saroeun is just one of the group and local guides need to accompany us whenever we use a guide. Our first stop is at the Patuxai, a mini Arc de Triomphe replica. It is built from concrete donated by France meant to be used for an airport runway; instead the Laotians used it to build this memorial to commemorate their independence from France.
Our next stop is the Cope Visitor Center. Cope is a locally run non-profit working with partners to provide rehabilitation service for Unexploded Ordnance (UXO) survivors and other people with disabilities across Laos. It was a very interesting museum. It was packed with history and real examples of cluster bombs and casings that you could touch. There were a lot of personal stories available for reading and a few multi-lingual videos to watch.
Next stop was the Great Sacred Stupa, Pha That Luang, considered the most important national cultural monument in Laos. The last stop was at the Sisaket Temple, but we decided to skip going in. We already saw enough temples for one day…
When we return to the hotel we take a shower and check out. Before heading for Thailand, we have lunch at a Japanese run restaurant next door. The lady that runs the restaurant hires students from the local college to give them an opportunity to get a good start after they leave school and start their careers.
Back to Thailand
After lunch, we load into the bus again that will take us to the border. The exit procedures are similar to what we are by now used to: departure from Laos, travel through no-man’s land, and entry into Thailand. The trip through no-man’s land this time we make using a local shuttle bus. Filled to the brim with people, it takes us across the Mekong River on the Friendship Bridge. By the time we board, there is standing room only. Two locals that are almost my size scoot together a little more and offer me a little edge on their seat, which I gracefully accept. There the three of us sit squished together like sardines in a can until we can disembark again in the Thai immigrations area. After filling out more forms, having our photo taken and receiving another bunch of stamps we’re allowed to enter Thailand.
Two TukTuks are chartered to take us and our baggage to the train station at Nong Khai for the night train to Bangkok. It’s pretty interesting to see how you load 14 people and all their baggage onto two TukTuks smaller than an average family car, but it all fits.
November 29, 2015: Train to Bangkok
It was a challenging train trip for me to Bangkok. I did not sleep a wink due to the noise, the lights and shaking of the train. To say nothing of the insects that I believe were mostly a medium sized cockroach. Shortly after our train left the station, the the staff converts the seats into beds. Luckily they were just long enough to accommodate my length. However, the unfamiliar surroundings were not conducive to a good night’s rest for me. Around 3 AM I completely threw in the towel. I started wandering the train to keep myself busy. Around 5 AM the train master wakes up the rest of the passengers and converts the beds back into seats.
When we arrive in Bangkok the train sits and waits outside the station for an hour before finally rolling in so we can get off. We gather our belongings and head straight for a breakfast place just outside the station. From here the group slowly starts to disintegrate, and we start to say our goodbyes. Some are staying elsewhere in Thailand like Phuket; others are either going home or on to other destinations. A few of us have booked an extra night in the hotel we also stayed in when we arrived in Bangkok two weeks ago. Fortunately for us, we are allowed an early check in, so we can freshen up and take a shower before heading out to the Chatuchak Weekend Market to see if we can find some souvenirs.
When we return we have a light dinner and go to bed early, as we will be leaving for the airport very early to catch our 7 AM flight back home.
November 30, 2015: Back to Denver
At 3 AM the taxi driver shows up and we head out. It appears Bangkok is also a city that never sleeps, since it appears there is a lot of traffic on the road for the time of day. At the airport we exchange the remaining baht we have back to dollars. At first we planned to buy some snacks with them, but the prices at the airport are outrages, even by western standards: $10 for a bag of M&Ms, really?
Loek & Gepke